Betsy Shebang - Column for 4/16
"What are you going to do?"
Shauna waited, deciding whether to bother answering. "We're going to be alone."
"They only gave us one key."
"We'll stay here."
"Do you want to get food?"
"We'll order pizza."
I shrugged, or shook my head, or something. "Fine."
"Now, don't get all pissy about it."
"I'm just...hungry. Iím gonna go get some dinner." I pulled my things into my backpack, looked around and left Shauna in the room.
I took the car and noisily pulled out of the parking lot, not knowing how far Iíd finally go. Would they be better off if I just left them there and drove away? It wasnít a mean question. I really didnít know.
I found a Pokeyís restaurant a few blocks from the hotel. Didnít feel like far enough.
I left a lot of stuff in the room. I wanted to be productive - and I hoped it wasnít a habit I was picking up from Shauna - so at the restaurant I set out to write in my journal for two hours straight. Perhaps a delightful screenplay would evolve from my stinky little geyser of self-pity, or maybe Iíd look deep enough into my own frustrations to dredge up an explanation of why all this was still a good idea.
I wanted to be angrier than I was. Iíd brought Eugene here so he could live in the real world for however long he could stand it; now he and Shauna were acting out their own private little porno film script, complete with ludicrous plot, hotel room setting and loser co-star guaranteed to intrude at the height of the action. Implausible though the scenario was, it was clearly a big step up for my socially retarded colleague Eugene. None of it could have happened while he lived at in his grandmotherís house. I finally decided Eugene and Shaunaís liaison was evidence that the whole trip was a good idea and I would take no more shit from either of them.
I thought of driving around for another few hours before going back to the hotel, out of either bitterness or generosity, Iím not sure which. I wanted them to do whatever they were going to do with each other and to know the whole time that Iíd brought them together and I was in charge of the trip. I finally got back to the room three and a half hours after Iíd left, surveying the room in the dim light through the open door. For at least a minute I examined the sillohuette shadow I cast over the two of them, imagining what had happened while I was gone. Shauna was asleep in the inside bed. Eugene lay in a sleeping bag on the floor beside her.
Christ. I canít put him in charge of anything.
I crept in and closed the door behind me, forgetting the place would be pitch black with the curtains closed. I put my backpack down beside the door, lifted my arms into sleepwalking position and lumbered toward the bathroom, somehow hitting the TV with my elbow before Iíd found it with my fingers. I was glad I wasnít trying to steal anything.
I closed the bathroom door as quietly as I could and turned on the light, but the light was one of those hotel bathroom lights that automatically activates the fan when the switch is on, and the fan sounded like a jet taking off in the quiet of the hotel room, so after several seconds of wondering what to do I turned off the light, noisily locked the door and sat on top of the toilet seat in the dark, fumbling for toothpaste and a toothbrush from inside the overnight bag I was pretty sure was mine. At that moment I didnít care whose toothbrush I used, in fact, or even who found out about it. It felt good to be free of such concerns, as if the world were suddenly a little more my own and I could use any damn toothbrush I wanted. I should live the rest of my life that way, I immediately decided, as if the world would always be dark and silent and when I find something that suits my immediate needs I wouldnít waste time stressing about all the meaningless details. Excited about my new life, slowly remembering how tired I was, I removed my shoes and wondered how I might get out of my clothes and into the bed by the door without waking Shauna or stepping on Eugene.
I heard one of the hotel room doors close outside and wasnít sure if it had been ours or not. Sounded like it was. I rinsed my mouth out as fast as I could, picked up my shoes, opened the door again and stumbled toward the crease of light from under the front door. As I pulled it open I remembered that the sound might have been a maniac with an axe entering our room, but I tend to put off worrying about such things until after itís too late, as I then realized I just had. Looking back into the room with light falling through the open doorway, I could see Shauna still in place under her covers. Eugeneís sleeping bag was open and empty.
I grabbed into my pocket to make sure I still had the key, then slipped outside, closing the door behind me. I hobbled around the corner by the hotel office, trying to pull my shoes on as I did so. Eugene was moving up the sidewalk toward the row of fast-food places in the distance. I pulled on my second shoe and caught up with him. He kept walking and looking forward, like he was deaf, or expecting me.
He took a deep breath. "Hi."
"Iím gonna get something to eat."
"Did you guys ever order a pizza?"
"Did you eat anything?"
"Shauna had some crackers and stuff. Iím pretty hungry."
We kept walking in silence for a while. I was glad Eugene was at least going to eat. I was not looking forward to tomorrow morning. Shauna was hard enough to get along with when she was well fed.
"Shauna wants to go home," Eugene said.
"Shauna wants to go home?"
"Did she tell you to tell me she wants to go home?"
"She just told me she wants to go home."
"Is she going to tell me that herself?"
"I donít know," Eugene shrugged. "I guess so."
I didnít know what to say. I knew the trip wasnít going very well. "So, whatís going on with you two? Howíd it go?" The minute I said it I felt like an idiot.
"Howíd what go?"
"I just meant, like, your time together, tonight. You know. I mean, did you have a good time talking, or..."
"Yeah, it was...it was weird."
"How was it weird?"
"Iím still kinda thinking about it."
"Huh. Whatíd you do?"
"I hate to say it, but Iím not sure how much Shauna wants me to tell you."
We both stopped talking. I kept thinking about how Iíd said "yeah, okay" instead of trying to get him to tell me what theyíd done. It was like there were three people in the conversation, and I was two of them.
We finally got back to the hotel room, but I donít think Eugene slept very well. I was out like a dead rock.
The next morning we finally got breakfast back at Pokeyís and got on the road by eleven, which was surprisingly early. None of us had much to say to one another. That saved some time.
Shauna stared out her window in the passenger seat, the way I used to when I was a kid. By that morning she and I had moved beyond awkward silences and we were each treating the other like the foreign exchange student on a school field trip. Communication in English was possible, but too tedious to bother with. Strangely, this meant things were much more peaceful than they had been before. I thought about how animosity is dredged up not by our differences, but by the things we have in common. I get along fine with people who donít speak English, as long as theyíre not choosing the radio station.
"Eugene asleep?" I asked. His breathing sounded like he was comatose in the back seat. I glanced at him in the rear view mirror. He was slumped sideways over the sleeping bags piled on top of the computer.
"Yeah," Shauna said. "I donít think he got any sleep last night."
"Yeah, he was up pretty late."
"Are you okay? Sleep-wise?" she asked.
"Yeah, Iím fine."
"Let me know if you get tired or anything, okay?"
"Thanks. I will."
Shauna stared out the window again. I turned my eyes toward her for a moment. It was warm inside the car and she was wearing a sleeveless shirt. The skin on her arms was really smooth. I sortof wished I hadnít noticed.
"So, you and Eugene are getting along really well," I said.
"Yeah we are." She sounded like she wasnít sure she agreed with herself, but thatís what she said.
I gave what I hoped was a non-threatening smile. "So...I mean, would you say you had a crush on him, when you were a kid?"
"Yeah, I did"
"He was my sisterís friend. I mean, so were you. But I always thought Eugene was, just, from another planet. It was like he knew everything."
"Would you say you still see him like that? I mean, it seems to be working out really well, you two...getting along so well."
She turned to look at the floor of the car, probably deciding whether or not to say anything else. Finally she said "Itís made me feel safe to be with Eugene."
"Is this the kind of safe where once youíre done feeling safe for a while, youíll want to go find someone else whoís exciting and dangerous?"
She was irritated again. "Toby, thereís no answer for that question."
I probably shouldnít have said anything. I went back to just driving.
Finally she continued. "I donít feel safe with most people."
I turned toward her for a minute, then looked back at the road. I got the same weird feeling Iíd had speaking to Eugene the night before, as if someone besides me were having this conversation with Shauna. I was irritated that she felt safe with Eugene but didnít like me. What I said was "Itís good that you feel safe with him."
I kept facing forward and Shauna kept looking out the window. I figured sheíd probably resume her reading from Heart of Darkness so we wouldnít start arguing again. Maybe she was waiting for Eugene to wake up.
After a few minutes, she started speaking again, gradually. "So...Eugene and I were talking last night, and...he told me you saved his life."
"Yeah. He said he...tried to kill himself once, and you stopped him."
I think I snickered, or grimaced, or something. I tried not to. "What else did he tell you?"
"He said you were really important to him."
"Huh." I kept expecting Eugene to wake up.
"He actually didnít tell me much about what happened," Shauna said, turning to look at me.
I took a deep breath and did my best to sound respectful. "He tried to slash his wrists with a tape dispenser."
Shauna stared at me, with no expression on her face. I continued, trying to sound as truthful as I could without actually lying. "The serrated part at the end, where you cut the tape. He used that. I took it away from him."
"Are you making fun of him?" she asked. It was kindof a relief when she did.
"I know it sounds like Iím joking, but Iím not." I looked over my shoulder and signaled to change lanes. "It was hard to know whether to take it seriously. I figured it mighta been one of those things people do because they want attention. People get pretty desperate sometimes. You know."
Shauna kept staring at me, like she expected me to say something else that I wasnít going to say. Finally she turned back and looked out her window again. "Itís good that he had a friend like you," she said.
I took a deep breath and exhaled. "I moved to Idaho not long after that."
The conversation stopped again, but I felt like Shauna and I had stepped over an electric fence and could finally talk to each other. I had questions I wanted to ask her, at least. For several minutes I just kept driving without saying anything, wondering how I could start the conversation again without making her feel like she was on the witness stand. I tend to do that to people.
"So...Eugene said you wanted to go home."
"He told you that?"
"Was he not supposed to?"
"Itís not important."
"Do you think youíre going to want us to drop you off at a bus stop or something?"
"Donít worry about it."
"Well, Shauna...if you want to go home, I want you to be able to get home." I shrugged and made that grumbly sound I make when I want to say something and I donít know what. "Do you have enough money to get yourself back home?"
Shauna didnít say anything. "Do you have a credit card or something?" I asked.
She smirked. "My credit cards arenít going to be much help."
"Do you have them with you?"
She took a deep breath before speaking. "My ex-boyfriend maxed them out. Iím just starting to pay them off."
"The guy whoís the reason you moved to Humboldt?"
"Is that why you broke up with him?"
For a few seconds, she didnít move. Then she turned to face me and said "I broke up with him because he put a knife against my throat and made me promise to marry him."
Nobody said anything for several minutes after that. I just felt stupid. Something awful had happened to her and I wanted to offer some sympathy or something, but I didnít even know what I was sympathizing with. Anything I said would be either intrusive or off-topic. Iíd probably asked too many questions already. I really wanted Eugene to be awake.
I figured I should say something. "So...whatíd you guys talk about last night?" I finally asked, already expecting her to bristle at my question.
"You know what we talked about last night."
"I was just being nosy. Sorry." She didnít say anything. I decided to shut up again. I didnít want to somehow mess things up for Eugene.
Finally Shauna took another breath, like she was about to say something. Then she exhaled again, like sheíd decided not to speak. Then she said "Do you think Eugeneís ever going to get his comics published?"
"Uh...I donít know." I shrugged.
"I just think his life would be a lot better if he did that."
"Well, thatís why I wanted to get him out of his grandmotherís house." I checked in the mirror to make sure Eugene was still sleeping. It bothered me that we were talking like this right in front of him, like he was a corpse.
"I thought you kidnapped him so you could write screenplays."
"I kidnapped him for a lot of reasons." I figured I would start listing the reasons at some point, but I didnít.
"Toby, Iím going to ask you a personal question, okay?"
Shauna pursed her lips like she was about to say something, but no words happened. Finally, she asked "If you feel more comfortable with someone than they feel with you, are you just missing something?"
I shuffled her words around in my head trying to figure out what her question was, and what it had to do with anything weíd been talking about. Iíd figured she was at least going to ask about men and virginity or something where an answer exists somewhere in the universe. I started to say something and gurgled out a sound I didnít mean to make. I swallowed and said "So, if you feel comfortable with Eugene, and he doesnít feel comfortable with you, you mean?"
She sighed. "Sure."
I shrugged. "Well...you know, Eugeneís really a good guy, but heís...really awkward around women." I still wasnít sure what her question was.
We went back to not saying anything again. This was getting stupid. I said "So, I mean, how do you really feel about Eugene? Would you say you like him? I mean, are you attracted to him? Because he really likes you."
"I donít know," she said.
"Well, what do you mean you donít know? Do you mean you like him and donít want to deal with liking anybody, or do you mean youíre attracted to him but you think heís a loser, or what?"
"Toby, I donít know." Her voice got angrily quiet, as if she would have shouted if Eugene hadnít been asleep right behind us.
I shuffled in my seat. "Iím sorry. It just seems like you like Eugene so much because you want to flirt with somebody whoís not going to hurt you."
"Is there something wrong with flirting with someone because theyíre not going to hurt you?"
"Whatís wrong with that is, he deserves to be taken seriously."
"Toby, Iím taking him seriously," she spat back.
Now Shauna turned toward the back seat. It was hard to believe Eugene was still asleep. Maybe he was faking. Shauna kept looking back at him, then turned back to me. "You know what happened last night in the hotel room? I asked Eugene to get in bed with me. And he wouldnít do it." I didnít know how long sheíd been crying, but thatís when I noticed. "I wasnít going to fuck him, so stop thinking about it. I just wanted to be there with him. And yes, part of that was because I believed he wasnít going to hurt me. But I also just liked him. And itís been a long time since I liked someone so much that I thought more about what did happen with him than what might happen with him. It was really nice not to be distracted by how he might be a homocidal maniac. And I donít need to hear your naÔve analysis about it."
I didnít know what to say. I was really angry, but I wanted her to keep talking. She shuffled in her seat and continued. "What Eugene needs is to start making his own decisions. And I agree, heís never going to do that while heís living at his grandmotherís house. But I really donít think youíve been setting a very good example either, frankly. But I canít just come in and start making his decisions. And I so much wish I could help him. And I know you wish you could help him, too. But we canít."
I wanted to just shake my head, but I didnít. I felt like I was driving a car full of explosives. I just wanted to pull over and let myself out. If I could have done it, I would have.
Copyright 2002 Betsy Shebang
Columns by Betsy Shebang