Betsy Shebang - Column for 2/5
I expected Grace would lose her shit when Eugene told her he was leaving, but she took the denial approach, like we’d be back the next day with another load of crap for her to preserve. I also expected her to fill my car with rolls of toilet paper, as if to protect her shipment, or at least to chase us down the street hurling cans of soup. But in the end she just let us go.
Eugene asked if his backpack was one thing or if everything inside it counted separately. I didn’t know what to say. Arriving in Los Angeles with only one change of clothes would be stupid, but I knew I had to be firm about what he couldn’t bring or he’d the next spend six hours loading everything he owned into five boxes and then he’d suggest we wait and leave the next morning and a month later I’d be washing garbage in their bathtub and wishing I was dead. I didn’t want to negotiate.
“So why did I only get to bring five things?” he asked, wearing his full school backpack on his back and holding two paper bags stuffed with clothes.
“Anything we need, we can get where we're going. Plus…look at your Grandmother. What happened to her could happen to you.”
“Look at all the shit you brought!”
“Well, since I packed the car I've had a lot of time to meditate on the value of possessions.”
“So if you hadn’t become so enlightened, I could bring more stuff.”
“Look, just…think of it like we’re going swimming. You have to take off your clothes, or you’ll sink. So we have to leave a bunch of stuff behind and only take what we need.”
I think I tied up his brain for a while with that one. There are advantages to being unclear sometimes. I pushed his bags into the trunk area, dropped the bat in next to them and slammed the hatch twice. Eugene glanced in the side windows.
“Have you considered throwing out the trash in the back seat?”
“That’s my computer. We’ll need that.”
“I mean the fast food stuff on the floor.”
“We’ll do that later. I want to get moving.”
I sank into the driver’s seat and leaned over to unlock the passenger door, suddenly convinced I would never get where I was going with Eugene in the car. He won’t change. He’ll just be the same person, in a different place, with more to complain about. He opened the door and patiently settled in, like a ship’s anchor being loaded onto a canoe.
“What if my grandmother dies while we’re gone?” These were the first words he said. We were on the freeway and had almost left town.
“Your grandmother is in excellent health.” I said. He turned to stare out the window. I imagined every minute that he’d suddenly demand that I drive him back. I’d refuse. But with every mile south, I felt safer.
“I've wanted to do this since I was eight years old” I said. “Just drive. Just...abandon all that weight that had been holding me back, all that crap.”
Eugene turned away from the window. His eyes scanned the dashboard and the floor of the car.
“So what are you thinking about?” I asked.
“Have you ever used one of those car vacuums in here?”
“Is it below the standard to which you're accustomed?”
“I dunno. It’s not often I’m inspired to clean someone else’s car.”
“You live in your grandmother’s house and you’re complaining about my car?”
“My grandmother collects garbage. She doesn’t haul it around everywhere she goes.”
“Your grandmother never leaves the house.”
“Yeah she does.”
Eugene looked out the window again and continued. “So are we going right to Hollywood?.”
“Remember Zoe Levin?”
“She lives in Humboldt. I think we can stop by there.”
“You gonna kidnap her too?”
“She can come with us if she wants to.”
“How many things are you gonna let her bring?”
“I just think it'd be good to see her. You and I both really needed to leave the places we were. I don't know what her life will be like.”
“Is she married?”
“I don't think so.”
I hadn’t eaten and my vision was getting blurry, so we found a weirdly hip café near a good-size downtown some distance from the freeway. There were many attractive young women there, sitting at the tables and on the couches, all doing important-looking schoolwork. There was a community college or something next to the parking garage thing where we’d left the car. I guess they’d come from there. I tried to remember how we gotten here so I could come back. We bought sandwiches.
“I’ve been feeling like I’m still a kid.” I leaned across the table, trying to be discrete without actually seeming cautious. “And I really don’t want to be a kid, you know. I want to be a…’man’.”
Eugene snickered. It’s hard talking about this stuff. “I haven’t felt like a boy since I, you know, turned twenty-seven, and started to buy my own pornography. But I still don’t think of myself as a man.” I glanced around the room. Many attractive women. “I mean, when I hear someone talk about being a man, I used to think they were talking about some right-wing survivalist wifebeater image of what men are supposed to be. But now I’m thinking that what they were really talking about was just being more than a kid. Taking on responsibility. Accepting a role in society. That kinda thing.”
Eugene said “Could you maybe not check out the ass of every single woman who walks by?”
“Sorry. I thought I was being sly.”
“You weren't being sly. It's easily noticed.”
“Well, if somebody is offended at what I do, they're offended at me, not you.”
“No, they're offended at us. It's guilt by assholsiation. They'll think we're a couple of construction workers. You might as well be whistling and grabbing your crotch.”
I was kinda proud of Eugene, even in my disagreement. He was already coming out of his shell. “See, I would have agreed with you, like a week ago. The world looks different to me now. I'm noticing colors now. Look at the ceiling - I notice ceilings now. I never noticed them before. And women, I feel like, suddenly appeared on the Earth a week ago. It's...just a beautiful, beautiful planet.”
“And your plan is to intimidate it into submission one woman at a time?”
“That's not my plan.”
Eugene let up. He took a bite from his sandwich. I tried to change the subject, and failed. “So, are you…uh…would you say you're a leg man, a breast man, an ass man, what?”
“I've never given it much thought.”
“See, I never really thought about it until recently either. And I've never understood the ass thing anyway. I mean, I love a beautiful rear end, but at the same time it doesn't make sense to me that I'd be attracted to someone's rear end. I mean, breasts, that makes a certain amount of sense - there's the whole maternal thing. But the butt's just kinda there.”
“Why would your attraction need to make sense to you? Why can't you just like what you like?”
“Well…yeah,” I said, hoping I’d made my point.
“I like someone with a nice face. I'm a face guy.” Eugene turned back to his sandwich.
I looked around the room. Most of the women were bohemian students with skin that had had no time to roughen and beautiful bodies and colorful, ridiculous clothes and cool, brave, alien haircuts that had parts shaved and dyed and braided, yet somehow also looked like the hair hadn’t been touched in weeks, which was strangely flattering. I always wanted to get my hair cut like that, but I was too scared of rejection to take a prominent role on the hair stage. I didn’t want my haircut to limit my career options. I looked around the room, trying to think of all my career options and feeling like my whole life had missed the bus.
Behind the counter was a young woman with a shaved head, heavy eyeliner and a loose tan dress that revealed the edge of a tattoo between her shoulder blades. I pointed her out to Eugene. “Now, see, I love that look.”
“The girl behind the counter?”
“Yeah. I think she’s beautiful.”
“Is not. She’s…I dunno.”
“She’s a kid.”
“I can still look. Now, see I look at someone like her and I think, where were all the beautiful women with shaved heads and renaissance dresses when I was in high school?”
“They were in kindergarten.”
“Mm-hmm. So, do you want to do some driving? You can drive a stick, right?”
“I don't like to drive.”
“Well, does that mean you can't drive? Maybe we can find an open road that we can stay on for a while. I'm sorry, I just haven't really slept.”
“We could just not go anywhere for a while.”
“Well, the longer we're on the road, the more money it's gonna cost us. Unless you know someone we can stay with. I figure we'll get to Zoe's place soon enough.”
“Have you called her?”
“I have her address, but I can't find her number anywhere. It's unlisted.”
“Well, maybe she wouldn't want us just dropping in like this.”
“I think we'll be okay. So, can you drive?”
“I can try.”
Eugene left to find the bathroom and I looked over the racks of free newspapers by the door and tried to get another look at the woman behind the counter. She stared at the tray of pastries the whole time. I felt like a creep.
I let us in the car and Eugene got in the passenger’s seat. I started the car on the ramp to the first floor of the garage and pulled over to switch places with him.
He climbed into the driver’s seat and we put on our seatbelts. He released the hand brake and placed both hands on the steering wheel – ten o’clock, two o’clock, just like driving school. I’m not sure if I felt relieved at that or not.
The engine was running. The car was in neutral. He took his right hand off the steering wheel. He moved it down toward the stick shift, then reached up to touch the top of the steering wheel. Then he touched the bottom of the steering wheel. Then he put his hand back on the steering wheel where he’d started. The car was still in neutral. I assumed he knew.
He lifted his right hand and did it again – touched the top, then the bottom, then put his hand back. Then he did it again. He looked in the rear view mirror. He checked the handbrake to make sure it was really off. He jerked his head back to look in the rear view mirror again. Then he checked the hand brake again. His head jerked back and forth – rear view mirror, side mirror, steering wheel, side mirror, hand brake, rear view mirror.
“I just get kinda nervous when I drive.”
“Do you want me to get to the freeway?”
He raised his right hand again and adjusted the rear-view mirror. Then he reached over to adjust the side mirror. Then he reached up with his left hand to touch the rear-view mirror. Then he touched the side mirror with his right hand. Rear view mirror, side mirror. Left, right. Rear, side. His head followed his hands. I was getting seasick.
We switched places again. Neither of us said anything until we were back on the freeway.
“Sorry about that.” Eugene stared down at the map as he spoke.
“‘T’sokay. I didn't know it would give you so much anxiety.” I tried to give a tasteful pause. “So is it when you get nervous that you do the, uh...tic thing? With your head?”
“Eh. Sometimes. When I'm pressured. It bugs people when they keep thinking I'm turning to speak to them.”
“Yeah. I'm surprised I haven't seen you do that before.”
“I don’t drive too often.”
“So you do have your license, right? I mean, I shouldn't have assumed –“
“I got it in high school.”
“Huh.” Another tasteful pause. I had to be careful not to say the wrong thing. It was starting to feel like a hostage negotiation. I changed the subject again. “You had a girlfriend in high school, right?”
“I remember you telling me about your girlfriend, you met her on vacation?”
“Yeah, Beth. What about her?”
“Well...” He stared out the window for a while before he continued. “…I kinda made her up.”
“Yeah. You know, in high school, you want your story to parallel everybody else's.”
“Yeah. So...have you ever had a girlfriend?”
Eugene didn’t say anything. I continued. “Hey, you know...it's okay. Thing is, I just figure we need to be honest with one another. You know, whatever we say is fine. I mean, if we're gonna be together, we'll have to...know we can trust one another.”
“Yeah, that'd be cool.”
“You're straight, right? I mean, it's okay either way, but I don't want to alienate you.”
“I like girls, if that's what you mean.”
“Okay, sorry.” I found myself picturing hostages with guns pressed against their throats. “So, have you ever had a car?”
“You do have your license, right? I mean, you weren't lying when you said –“
“Yes, I've got my license.”
“Oh, okay. 'Cause my theory is, sex won’t happen until you own a car.”
“Why won't sex happen until I have a car?”
“It's a personal control thing. It’s like acupuncture… you don't have to understand how it works. It just works.”
“You know, it's not your job to solve my problems.”
That was about it for the conversation.
Copyright 2002 Betsy Shebang
Columns by Betsy Shebang