“A Look At Fantasy,” Scott Hardin
“I swear to God, Page. My boyfriend is such a freak. If it’s not one thing, it’s always another with him. He’s got a different idea every night.”
Alley pulled the wrapper off a pack of smokes they would be splitting during the night. They always had Mondays off. Staying up talking, smoking and drinking coffee had become a kind of ritual. J.J.’s was Coram’s best, cheapest and otherwise only all-night diner.
“Can we get a creamer?” Page asked the waiter absently before returning to her friend. “Whatever. His idea of different every night is about as deep as finding a new position every night.”
Alley blushed a little and lit her cigarette. She had been with Chad for three months, and his sexual appetites had formed a frequent talking point. Page had been growing more sarcastic about it lately.
“Did he get his fix for the night already?”
“I’m serious. He never stops thinking. It’s like there’s no off switch, you know?”
“Understandable, I suppose. He is a man after all. I mean, figuring out what position can be a big undertaking.”
“Shut up already.”
“Let’s see. First you have to find the right location, and that takes up some time.”
“When you think about it, there’s a maze of possibilities. The bedroom, the couch, or if the mood is more adventurous . . . .”
“Could you stop?”
“The ladies room at Vinny’s Pizza?”
They broke into laughter. That was last weekend, and Chad really was a freak.
“Could you stop breathing?”
Page gave a look of indignation. That was the worst insult the two ever exchanged. They worked at the same home for developmentally disabled adults, and there were so many rules and such strict enforcement on them that they had added this one as the ultimate administrative directive. They had decided that if one stopped breathing, there was no way she could have any subsequent policy violations.
“Okay. Jesus, Alley, what already?”
“Anyway, he asks me this question, right. You know, that’s just the thing with him. It’s like one of those open-ended philosophy problems. Like there’s no right answer or whatever?”
“Whatever, girl. He’s just trying to keep the mystery alive. Keep you guessing.”
“I don’t know, but it was weird.”
Page was talking through a mouthful of fries. “Weird-interesting? Weird-psycho? Or what?”
“Well, okay. So he asks me, ‘if somebody offered you a lifetime deal never to get mail again, would you take it?’”
“Well, there’s no mail. No postal mail. No deliveries. No nothing.”
“Hell, no. My parents send me a check like every single holiday. They’re crazy. I mean, Fourth of July? Who the hell sends a check for the Fourth of friggin’ July?”
“Alright. But how much do they send you?”
“Like what, in a year?”
“Sure. Why not?”
Page’s expression scrunched into a face of calculation as Alley sipped on her cappuccino.
“I don’t know. A couple thousand? Fifteen hundred maybe.”
“What are you talking about? It’s great. I could sure as hell use it, you know.”
“Yeah, I understand, but that’s not what I mean. It’s two thousand dollars, right? But what if you never got a bill? You know, like never for the rest of your life.”
Page’s face beamed a minor epiphany.
“Exactly. I mean, you could use your credit card and never get the bill. Anything that normally goes to you would get paid.”
“What about when it expires?”
Alley crossed her leg and finished off the coffee. The waiter brought another carafe.
“That’s what I asked him. And why would somebody keep paying off your credit cards? He hasn’t worked that part out yet, but just imagine if it did happen.”
“That would be pretty cool, in a way.”
Page brushed a wave of dark hair across her cheek. People often said she had a hard look, but she dropped all that whenever she was absorbed in something. If anything, the muscles in her face revealed slight curiosity.
“Wouldn’t it?” she continued. “No tickets, no notices, no statements. No more goddamn debts.”
“I know, but what a total inconvenience. Like, what if the credit card company only sends it to a valid address?”
“Screw that. You’d never get anything from your family, your friends . . . not even your grandchildren for crying out loud. No pictures.”
“What about email?”
Alley thought about it for a moment. “That’s mail, too. So no email forever.”
“That would suck.”
“So you’d have to physically go somewhere to get anything.”
“Even a Christmas card from your mom.”
The cheesy fries were gone, and Page was absently making abstractions with a toothpick in the remains. They ordered another plate.
“That’s a hard one. I honestly don’t know what I’d do. I’d have to think about it.”
“Well how about this one?”
Page rolled her eyes at her friend’s obvious infatuation.
“This is one he thought the networks would bite on.”
“The networks, Alley? Have you ever stopped just so you could listen to yourself?”
Alley took the opportunity to sip out the residues of the foam.
“Get this. You know, you take a big show, a sitcom or anything. Like Married With Children or Roseanne or whatever. Say the family members are in the kitchen, arguing or doing their dialogue. And the wife is doing the dishes, and just at the right time—bam!
“She pulls out dish soap. You know, Palm Olive or Cascade or whatever. And, like, they stop the show for thirty seconds. And Roseanne gets a close-up and reads whatever the commercial tag is.
“’Who would you trust to keep that sparkling shine and a clean plate every time? For less than two dollars, there’s nothing quite as reassuring as Dish Soap X. For your loved ones. For your friends. For yourself. Dish Soap X. When second best just won’t do.’”
“That’s not half bad,” Page decided. “Just do like a close-up of the lady smiling at the end.”
“Exactly. Then she can put it back on the shelf or wherever, and the dialogue goes on like there was no commercial at all.”
Alley smiled wickedly and took a satisfied, affected sip from her cup.
“He calls it Seamless Marketing,” she continued with a laugh. “And he’s pretty sure someone would buy the idea.”
“He thinks a lot of people would be interested. I don’t know, like maybe the Chairman of NBC. You know people like that.”
“Oh,” Page mocked, “the Chairman of NBC.”
Alley rolled her eyes.
“The Chair Man. And, yes, thank you so much. It’s all due to my new and amazing boyfriend, Chad. He’s so impressive and brilliant, and yet he always finds the time to tell me just how important I am. And my ideas, too.”
Despite her attempt at maintaining a reserved gravity, Alley let slip just a tiny curve from her lips.
“He’s already bucking for a new position every night. He wants me to bend over backwards and not to blow it all at once.”
That tiny curve transformed slowly into a grin, and when she was unable to hold it any longer, a watershed of tears emerged. An inevitable gush of laughter broke free from its buckling restraints.
“You’re so stupid, Page. Oh, my god, dumb as hell.”
By then, both had well advanced into an inconsolable state of silliness that made them look much younger than they already were.
The waiter, who found them both attractive, was about to offer to refill their drinks, but they laughed him off. It was Alley who managed to regain her composure first.
“Yeah, well, just you remember that I had to watch eight hours of Star Wars with him last weekend. And I think to myself, it’s just another right of passage, you know?”
Page’s look went sour again.
“You really think he gives a rat’s ass what you think about that movie?”
“Movies,” Alley corrected. “Three movies. He basically made me watch at the beginning. He was all sad and pathetic, so I had to. But I really did start to like them after a while. He would have been fine if I stopped after the first one.”
“He would have been fine?”
Alley looked around for the waiter.
“He would have been fine if you would have gone down on him no matter what was on the stupid T.V.”
“Oh, come on. It really was pretty decent.”
“Yeah, I bet he thought so.”
Page grew intense. The waiter was nowhere to be seen, and her coffee was cold. She drew herself up into a stare.
“How about this? Here’s an idea for Chad. Tell him when he meets the next media exec, it’s okay with you if he does the lightsaber thing.”
“What the hell’s the lightsaber thing?”
“He’ll know. Believe me, they all do.”
“They all do what?”
Page became conspiratorial.
“You know what they do. They just don’t let anyone else see it.”
“Their lightsaber battles. When Chad gets in there with Mister Chair Man, they’ll do what all men do when no one is watching them.”
“And what pray tell is that, exactly?” Alley was incredulous, but entirely willing to hear her friend out. Moments like this were strictly vintage.
“First, they’ll turn out the lights. You know, use The Force to get a feel for each other. Strengths and weaknesses type thing. And then they’ll take out their wrappers. Mind you, they try to be quiet about it, listening with their masterly skills to detect who might have the bigger one.
“Then they’ll roll it over themselves and whip ‘em out! That’s right, glow in the dark condoms. Smash and strike! Red and green will streak through the night in a duel to see who is the real master.
“And when they’ve both satisfied themselves that they are invincible, they’ll cut their marketing deal and pat each other on the back for a job well done.”
Page’s eyes had glazed over in the creation of this imagery, and Alley could not help but see the humor in this demonstration of the supreme will of the mighty male.
The waiter sensed his opportunity and refilled their drinks, trying to make eye contact with either. They noticed him and ignored it.
“Oh, Poor Page. We need to get you some help. You’re still so young. I know you can pull through.”
“Whatever. You know and I know that it’s true. That’s what they do. Boys are boys.”
The waiter smiled to himself as he finished his task.
“Well this one comes up with weird ideas all the time. That’s what he does. He makes you think.”
“I guess.” Page sighed a resignation. “And that’s why you’re in love with him?”
“Not really.” Alley answered before she had a chance to think about it. It was one of her habits. “I don’t know, maybe it is,” she added.
“At least when the sex dies out, you’ll have something to fall back on.”
Page’s voice suddenly sharpened. Alley averted her gaze to the ice cubes in her water glass. Her friend’s breakup had been messy and formed the main topic of their more recent late-night sessions.
“So you’re saying Rob was too boring.”
“No. I don’t know what I’m saying anymore. He was smart, you know? But it just wasn’t there. I mean how am I supposed to explain that to him? I tried.”
“Has he been calling?”
“Once in a while, but, hello, he doesn’t even say anything. It’s like he’s stuck.”
“I know! What does he expect? It’s over. I told him to get over it already. Not happening. Done. Finis. Piss off.”
She stirred the sugar into her coffee with an embellished flourish, jingling the insides of her cup with the fork.
“He wants to know why I don’t love him anymore.”
“I thought you guys talked about that already. You’re not in love with him.”
“Yeah, well whatever. He doesn’t get the difference. He keeps saying we’re meant for each other. He’s totally creeping me out.”
“I wonder why. It’s been like what, three or four weeks?”
“I don’t know what to do.” Page glanced out the window and sighed. “I mean, should I change my number?”
“It’ll fade over time,” Alley reassured. “You know, what other choice does he really have? You moved out or moved on or whatever.”
“Yeah, right. He’s been obsessed with me since high school. I liked him and everything, but I just don’t want anything big like that. It’s all this pressure. I thought living together would be enough, but he wouldn’t stop talking about . . . well, you know. All this relationship crap. Love. The future.”
“Maybe when he ran into you, he thought it was fate or destiny or something.”
Page coughed down her coffee.
“How messed up is that? I’m supposed to be The One? I hope he doesn’t turn out to be a stalker. Christ, I never thought I’d have to go through all this for some stupid schoolboy fantasy.”
The two friends talked until the dawn began to stretch out and take hold of its day. They laughed a lot, made fun of each other and the world, gossiped about work people and wondered about love.
It was Page’s turn to buy, and Alley waited outside while she was at the register. She was hopping a little to keep warm. Page came out in a rush.
“Damn, it’s cold out here. Hey, hey . . . guess what?”
Alley watched as she brought the receipt from her coat pocket.
“You got his number. You’re such a tart. We agreed we’d never hook up with a guy on our night. Liar!”
Alley snatched the paper and held it up menacingly.
“Give it back, sea-donkey!”
Page reached out and caught Alley’s arm. The paper fell flat into a puddle.
“Oh my god, Page, I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry? You’re sorry? Oh yeah?” She stomped on the puddle, clothing Alley’s pants in wet. “Now you’re sorry.”
Alley kicked up a spray high, and Page let out a noise somewhere between a scream and a giggle. They pushed each other, denounced each other with escalating harshness and ran haphazardly back to the car, shoving and laughing the whole way.
It was cold and raining lightly all over Long Island. It was one of those mornings that’s fresh and clean, that tingles the senses and awakens playfulness in the young of mind.
* * * * * *
It was cold and raining lightly all over Long Island. It was one of those mornings that covers a city in a blanket of glacial grays, that swells with the kind of air that bares the spirit and guides it relentless to the tomb.
The room was already getting dark, but he could still see her face emerge sometimes in the patterns he kept swirling on the desk. Rain came in freely from the open window. The computer had shorted out all the fuses in the apartment. The curtains were soaked, and the rug reflected light from a streetlamp. All the papers on the desk stuck together like strangers who cling to one another against the horror of night. They all said the same thing. They all bore the markings of an impotent ink.
The words had long since turned into a blurry dye, and Rob focused his mind on the residues. As he moved his finger in absent motions around the surface of the desk, her face would sometimes appear for a moment. If he tried to hold onto it very long, the skies unleashed an army of droplets to wash it away. He kept retracing her features to make the mirage come back. He expected a losing battle, in the way that all struggles with nature must be losing. The needle beside him had bled dry, its contents now one with flesh.
He recognized the frigid air indifferently and could no longer feel it. His face forgot to sting. The icy grip of the storm no longer felt like an invader. He was letting it carry him home, to a place where the impossible did not matter, to a world where a man can finally shed every garment of loss and every stitch of failure.
Rob disrobed these fabrics of hurt, and they began to fray into threads of fantasy. Her face kept appearing through the streaks and little puddles, and he followed a drop that seemed to fall from her eye. He thought that if he could touch it and hold onto it, he might be able to stay. The hope was already distant, and when he stroked the apparition with his finger, the drop blended into the mass of its fellows and was lost. The last thought Rob ever had was trying to find again which one it was.