Beautiful Messes

 

 

       “Hey, Tina?” I rub my palms on my second hand jeans. Darn these nerves, you’d think I was asking for a favor from the President of the United States.

 

       “Hey, Sophie.” If only the other kids surrounding her would go away. I don’t want them around when I pop the big question on my new friend. 

 

       I wait sheepishly in the back corner of the classroom, feeling like an idiot. I should just give this silly idea up, I say to myself, yet something within me keeps pushing me to go ahead with it. I’m not sure who I am trying to prove myself to. Could it be Tina, because she is one of the few kids in class that has ever been nice to me?

 

       The other kids glance at me with fleeting eyes that spawn the question, what am I doing here? They don’t want me here. Tina is their friend, too. To them, I am not worth her time. 

 

       “Hey?” Tina looks up at me. Short, blond, and freckled, she is just plain cute. I am tall and skinny with mousy brown hair, and hopelessly awkward. My knobby knees begin to jitter and I pray nobody can see them shaking through my jeans.

 

       “I don’t have any lunch money today.” I hate lying. It feels all wrong, like I should be washing my mouth out with bleach or something. “And I forgot my lunchbox at home.” The image of my Snow White and the Seven Dwarves metal lunch box flashes across the marquis of my mind. I kind of feel bad for it, stuffed away amidst the mess in my school desk like some shamed thing. My mother will question why I didn’t eat the bologna and cheese sandwich it contains, which means I will have to lie again when I get home later. Unless, of course, I just throw the sandwich out - which means I will be wasting perfectly good food when there are children in the world who are starving to death.

 

       “Sophie?”

 

       “Oh… yeah.” Either speak now or forever be known as the biggest dork in school. “Do you have any extra money I can borrow for hot lunch today?” I hold my breath while Tina digs around in her pants pocket. I shouldn’t have bothered with this. I will just make myself look like a fool.  Tina continues fumbling through her sweatshirt pocket and after a long few seconds, comes up with some change. 

 

       “Whew! There.” She plops each coin in my outstretched (and hopelessly damp) palm, counting out a dollar and thirty five cents. Just enough for another hot lunch in addition to her own.

 

        This is it. 

 

       This is my moment to shine. 

 

       I am going to be the best friend the universe could ever ask for when I return the whole amount to Tina tomorrow, with interest! I have enough allowance money at home to make good on my word - which will soon become known around school as something so valuable it will be called golden. No longer will I be ‘Sophie, the loser with the second-hand, plaid pants from the 1950’s’. People will be waiting in line to be my friend. Tina will tell all the popular kids about how cool I am, and they will listen to her because they all like her. 

 

       “I’ll pay you back tomorrow.” I breathe deeply and try to contain my exhilaration. “With interest. I promise!”

 

       “Uhm…. sure.” Tina doesn’t believe me. But that’s ok. Tomorrow I will surprise her - and all of her popular friends. Sophie the loser will become known as Sophie the good friend, the kind of friend that can be trusted, the kind of friend that not only keeps her promises, but who goes above and beyond the call of duty. I may have mousy hair and stand a head above the whole class (including the boys), but that won’t matter once everyone comes to know me as a real, faithful, true-blue kind of friend.

 

       I pay Tina back - not the next day, but two days later. I am late by my own design specifically so I can pay back the interest I promised. She loaned me $1.35, so I give her $1.65. My heart wells up with pride when I count the change into her outstretched hand.  

 

       A good friend is so hard to find! I know that I am that kind of good friend when Tina’s eyes grow bright with surprise. Is that the mist of a tear on the fringe of her pale lashes? Her blue eyes flash up at me briefly before she scampers away to be with her other friends, but the glance is long enough for me to see her gratitude.

 

       How tragic for us all that the human heart is such a fickle thing. It forgets so quickly, rewriting the lessons taught to it or just blotting them out altogether. Though my heart never forgets the lesson of true friendship that day, Tina’s eventually does. When all is said and done, I, Sophie, am still the weird kid with the plaid pants and mousy hair. In the weeks and months that follow, I am still last to be picked for the kickball teams in gym class. The boys still call me ‘bag lady’ because my clothes are too big for my hopelessly skinny (and much too tall) frame. The snowballs packed with ice still fly my way on my walk home from school, my butt still finds itself shoved into the mud by the bullies, and Tina once again becomes just another passing face in the halls of Hicktown Elementary.

 

 

Fifteen years later…

 

       When I first meet Chelsea, I am not quite sure what to make of her. She reminds me of my old roommate from college; tall, heavy set, a little thick in the head. Our conversations over the phone (before we meet face to face) are always interesting. I picture her as a fun loving, little blond chic with a cute button nose. Oh, she is blond alright, this new friend of mine, but not at all like I imagined her to be judging by the sound of her voice. Her hair is the color of wet sand, short and permed up on top for more fluff. She is definitely new to east coast suburbia, not unlike myself, but I like to think that I don’t look quite as country fresh and obvious as she does.

 

       Once I am able to get past Chelsea’s dumbed down way of speaking (probably not unlike the way she has to overcome my occasional bouts of overly philosophical, verbal diarrhea), we become fast friends. 

 

       Chelsea and I are both country girls recently transplanted to the suburbs of the big city. We both have big dreams. Though we don’t know it just yet, we are both escaping lives that have left us bored and uninspired - probably as much as we are running from ourselves. Having finally broken free of the limited social boundaries of our little hometowns, we are elated at the wide world standing before us. The wide world that we, together as friends, plan to experience and conquer without abandon. She starts requesting more weekends off so we can hang out more regularly. The first few times, we hit up the Jersey nightclubs. Eventually we become brave enough to venture into New York.

 

       Chelsea likes the rockers, I gravitate toward the bad boys. Over the course of our deepening friendship, these are the perfect ingredients for a cocktail that when sipped, renders us tipsy with fearlessness. She grows her hair out and dyes it bright red. I begin to experiment with steampunk, mixing it in with my 80’s rocker chic threads to create my own unique style. Our weekends become full of adventure that begin Friday afternoon and do not end until Sunday night. The infamous Scrap Bar becomes our favorite haunt after we stumble carelessly upon it one evening, and it’s now where we always end up regardless of where our nights started out.

 

       Tonight is particularly humid. The City, Chelsea and I find out, can get a good eight or ten degrees warmer than the suburbs on a summer night, and it retains the day’s heat into the night a lot longer than suburban New Jersey does.

 

       “Let’s just head straight to the Scrap Bar tonight, shall we?” I’m wearing healed boots, so don’t want to walk around in the heat much if I can help it. Chelsea agrees, she loves the chance to increase her odds of bumping into bad boy rockers. 

 

       Though the night is hot and devoid of any breeze, that doesn’t dampen the electricity we feel as we trek southeast of Washington Square Park. What wondrous excitement awaits for us downtown tonight? Oh, the thrill… just walking down the sidewalk is invigorating! The streets are swarming with cars, their windows rolled down to reveal other party goers. The stench of bus fumes and stale subway dances with the aromas of nearby eateries, combining to bring to my nose the innocuous scent of The Village.

 

       Chelsea and I turn the corner onto Macdougal Street. My pulse quickens and I feel myself getting heady with excitement. To be out of this heat will be a blessing - not that the Scrap Bar will be any cooler inside - but at least the big fan they keep down there will be blowing once we get in and if we get lucky, we can park ourselves right in front of it. 

 

       “Hola!” I turn toward Chelsea’s booming voice, only to see that she has stopped keeping pace with me and is several steps behind. “Sophie! Dude!” Chelsea calls everyone dude; male or female, it doesn’t matter to her. 

 

       Somewhere in the span of the last two minutes, Chelsea ‘Dude’ Flanging had left my side to become thoroughly engaged in conversation with a rough looking rocker with wild hair. A night never went by where she didn’t commandeer some guy along the sidewalk as we made our way to the Scrap Bar. Though I should be used to this sidetracking of hers by now, tonight I find it exceptionally irritating. My feet are already swelling and I want to get to our destination, order a drink, and sit down.

 

       “Ask him if he’s going to the Scrap Bar.” I call back to her, not stopping to wait. “You can chat with him more in there.” 

 

       Chelsea doesn’t ask him, nor does she follow me. I roll my eyes and proceed down the steep stairs that will lead into the otherworld of rock and roll heaven. Chelsea may meet me inside at some point; then again, she maybe won’t. I have the keys to the car so I am not going to worry about it. She has done this to me before and she always turns up before the weekend is over.

 

       The crowd within the basement bar is tight. People cluster near the door by the fan offering me no hope of getting any relief from the heat. Turning sideways, I push through the bodies. If I wait long enough, someone will buy me a drink. A young girl alone in a bar needs someone to buy her a drink, right? Tonight that someone turns out to be another woman who introduces herself as Lara.

 

       Lara is not the kind of person I would have expected to see in here. She is short and cute; a manicured, thirty-something yuppie in stilettos and wannabe rockstar-groupie clothing. Even her hair screams upper class, but she doesn’t seem to mind sticking out as she confidently sips her beer.

 

       “It’s crazy in here tonight.” Lara scans the crowd with nonchalance.

 

       “Yeah.” I offer back with the same nonchalance. “I lost my friend on the sidewalk. She’ll never find me down here with all these people.” The place isn’t that big and if Chelsea ever makes it inside tonight she will probably have no trouble finding me; I just need something to say.

 

       “I can be your friend.” Ummm, ok? I don’t know Lara from the hole in the wall to my left, but that hole in the wall to my left has an unoccupied bench in it, so I invite her to come over to it and sit with me.

 

       Lara likes the rockers too, I learn. She left her wealthy husband in the suburbs to sow her wild oats with them. “Well,” she laughs, “Technically I didn’t leave my husband, I am still living in his house.” 

 

       In other words, I think, you basically kicked your perfectly good husband out. “There is no place like this place to escape every day life, huh?”

 

       Lara seems to like that idea, and she warms up to me even more. We talk about silly stuff; stuff like the people in the Scrap Bar and what they are wearing, how we are bummed that there seems to be less long haired rockers coming around these days, and how glad we are that it isn't raining tonight like it was supposed to. She talks about her husband and her two disabled children, going on further to elaborate on why she needs to cater to her naughty side while justifying her weekly (and very expensive) manicures. Though she doesn’t work or earn her own pay, her life is so stressful that she feels she owes it to herself to spend her husband’s money on her fingertips and cheat on him for a some ‘feel good’ sex. Another round of drinks into our conversation, she wants to know if I will join her at Henrietta Hudson’s.

 

       “Sure, why not?” Chelsea, by her own choice, is still MIA.

 

       Lara flags a cab. “Have you ever been to Henrietta Hudson’s?”

 

       “I can’t say that I have.” I’ve heard the name mentioned before on more than one occasion, however. As we get into the cab, I try to remember where I’ve heard the name before, but can’t seem to recall the details.

 

       The way Lara now looks at me has me questioning what I am doing in this cab with her. Somewhere far back in the rational reaches of my mind, I know I might have need to be concerned. I have just met the woman, after all. I scan her body out of my peripheral vision. From her sexy, windblown hair down to her little strappy shoes, there is no place on her scantily clad Playboy Bunny body where she can conceal a weapon. 

 

       The cab pulls up and lets us out not more than five minutes later. Throngs of men cluster outside the door of what I suspect to be Henrietta Hudson’s. Wow, lots of hot, very pretty men. Lara primps and makes some quick adjustments to the bra beneath her little piece of dress. I try to figure out just what kind of a place Henrietta’s is. 

 

       Once inside, it doesn’t take me too long to realize that this is no ordinary nightclub. Beautiful, exotic, and stunning women are making out with each other in every nook, cranny, and corner. The butch-like lesbian is the minority here, though they do possess a more authentic presence. Trendy music with a kinky vibe has me wanting to dance, or at least grind around a little. I check myself and follow Lara through the maze of bodies; she seems to know this place well.

 

       The drinks at Henrietta’s are stiff beneath their frilliness and I soon begin to feel right in place by Lara’s side. She is a shining star in this den of sexy ladies, making me feel like I belonged - not because I am a lesbian, because I’m not, in fact I’m not even bisexual - but tonight in this premier NYC homosexual nightclub, nobody knows that.

 

       “What do you think?” Lara looks up at me. She is growing beyond tipsy. Then again, so am I. 

 

       I don’t know what to say. Don’t get me wrong, the place is nice, but it has thrown me for a loop. When I set out upon the town earlier tonight with Chelsea, the plan to meet a woman and end up in a lesbian nightclub was so far from my mind, it hadn’t even entered it. 

 

       Lara leads me with a catlike suavity to a seat in an alcove that is tucked in a wall far from the bar. It is quieter here and we can talk to one another better the way newly found friends tend to do. I will soon discover, much to my chagrin, that Lara is not interested in talking much anymore. Thankfully for me, it is not because she finds me boring or offensive, because the last thing I want to find out right now is that I am boring or offensive to anyone. Lara is definitely still interested in getting to know me better, just not in the way I am interested in getting to know her. 

 

       Once we are both comfortably sitting in our own little alcove of sorts, I am better able to look around. Some women are just sitting and gazing at each other; no big deal. A spattering of artsy-fartsy gay men sashay about simply to admire the scene. A straight couple looks on with amusement. Again, not a big deal. It’s when I spot at least three couples of women lip-locking, one pair already well into the groping phase, that I realize just what Lara is up to by bringing me back here.

 

       I feel the weight of Lara pressing against my bare arm. She is warm and soft and smells like Chanel #5. The swell of her breast beneath her expensive couture rubs against my skin. She doesn’t say anything and neither do I. She doesn’t need to say anything and, quite frankly, I am at a loss for words.

 

       I am drunk. 

 

       Not only am I drunk, I am also empty. I have been empty for a very long time. I’ve known it deep down but never wanted to come to terms with it. Weekends of going out on the town with Chelsea, though exciting, had become routine. The Scrap Bar had become predictable. Life before Chelsea had been riddled with broken promises, severed relationships, and shallow friendships. I begin to think about the people I left behind in my little midwestern town. Some had tried to reach out to me the way I longed for someone to reach out to me, but at the time I had pushed them all away. I see their saddened eyes in the replay of my mind, eyes looking at me with deep caring but also with a dark knowing. I imagine that would be the way someone would look at a cherished friend as they lost them to the fire. I never understood it then. I finally get it now as I sit in this NYC lesbian bar with a beautiful stranger hitting on me to the melodic drone of music dripping with sinful sex. 

 

       They knew I had become unreachable. 

 

       Well, I don’t need them now. After all, they are not here, are they? 

 

       Lara nibbles my ear, her breath cool and minty on my neck. Before I know what is happening, she turns my face toward hers with a strong hand and plants her lips on mine. The music pulsates in my head, it’s rhythm rocking me deeper into my drunken stupor. I don’t belong here, but nobody knows that. Lara doesn’t even know that. At the moment I don’t really care about any of it anyway, so I kiss her back. 

 

       Later, so much later that it can be better termed early, I am reunited with Chelsea. She is outside the garage where we had parked the car, standing there like some high class hooker with her short skirt and triple D boobs nearly falling out of her top. She isn’t at all upset that I had kept her waiting. To her it just meant that she got to have more uninterrupted time to catch the hardest of bad boys as they sauntered from the nightclubs to the after-hours bars. We trade stories over the George Washington Bridge and the lights of Manhattan pale in the tumescent dawn.

 

       Things will change between Chelsea and I after that night. As the friendship between Lara and I begins to flourish, the one between Chelsea and I grows insalubrious. In the spirit of being considerate by not leaving anyone out, I invite Lara to join Chelsea and I on our weekend downtown romps. Though I enjoy the company of both women, there seems to be an uncanny animosity developing between Chelsea and Lara that I don’t understand. They both like bad boys, they both seek the ultimate adventure, they both love attention and they both party so hard they are practically professionals at it, so it makes no sense to me why they can't just like each other. More often than not it is Chelsea moaning when I have plans already made with Lara for the weekend. 

 

       “Why does Lara have to come along? I have more fun when she is not with us.”

 

       “Lara isn’t ‘coming along’ this time, you would be the one coming along tonight, Chelsea. Lara called me days before you did to make plans with me this weekend.”

 

       “She always wants to go to these new places that I am not familiar with.” Chelsea snaps her gum, loud. I pull the receiver away from my ear but can still hear the sound of her chewing through the phone. “I don’t know any of the bands she wants to see.”

 

       “No, Chelsea, you don’t, and neither do I, but Lara does know the bands she wants to see. I am open to seeing a new band. Can’t we have a happy medium?” Truth be told, I really don’t care what band we go to see. As long as I can bang my head to some kind of metal and maintain a steady state of tipsy all night, I will be open to anything.

 

       “I was friends with you first!”

 

       Seriously? 

 

       I sigh into the phone, refraining from telling Chelsea how stupid I think she is acting. While trying to tune out her rant, I start to think about all the times she has gone out without me because she has other friends she wants to hang out with from time to time.  I have never been one to complain that she has other friends, it is perfectly understandable in my book. The problem I have is that the last few times she had done this, she made it such a big point to tell me how much fun she had with her other friends and how much fun I would have had with them, yet never had I been invited along. It is becoming clear to me (as I listen to her whine about how selfish I am being by not putting her before Lara) that it is ok for Chelsea to have other friends besides myself, but I am not supposed to have any other friends besides her.  It is also becoming clear to me that Chelsea is playing games with me, trying to make me jealous when it is she who apparently has the issue with jealousy. I decide that before I open my mouth to engage in this nonsense, it will be best for me to just get off the phone, after which I get up and walk toward the bathroom, only to have the phone ring again.

 

       “Did you just hang up on me? NOBODY HANGS UP ON ME!!!!!”

 

       Really? Well this will be a big night for Chelsea ‘Dude’ Flanging because I will hang up on her not once, but twice.

 

       Although I invite Chelsea to join Lara and I many times after our falling out, she always refuses to come, citing that she thinks Lara is ‘being too possessive of me’. I even offer to go downtown with her (just the two of us) thinking that by doing so, we can repair the rift in our friendship. Once again, and for the last time as far as I am concerned, she declines. 

 

       Lara has a grounding influence on me. In turn, I give her life some much needed spark. She is seeking to relive the crazy freedom of youth she never got to fully explore as a result of marrying so young. I am seeking stability without having to completely divulge myself of my wild ways. The shopping trips at the mall and our weekends spent doing kid-friendly stuff with Lara’s children balance well with the parties and rock bands on her kid-free nights. Over the next several months, Lara and I become so close that I almost begin to feel like a part of her family. In return, I introduce her to my new boyfriend, Lenny. 

 

       Lenny’s an angry boy with attitude from inner city Jersey. I’m instantly wooed, and rarely am I bored when I’m with him. Our conversations revolve around science, aviation, social injustices, and sex. Though wild at heart and at times so horribly immature that he’s borderline annoying, I tolerate him mainly because he flies the jump planes at a local skydiving school in northwestern Jersey. Since skydiving has always been on my bucket list, how can I possibly resist getting with this guy? 

 

       Lenny and I don’t get together terribly often, once or maybe twice a week at best, but as time goes by our meetings become more hum-drum - aside from the sex, that is. The flights to impress grow less frequent. The dinner dates stop altogether. It doesn’t matter though, because by now I am hooked on the lie that I have it all. With one foot planted in the life of a rich, suburban female and the other foot stuck in a thrilling bad-boy relationship (with no shortage of parties in between), I become blind to the reality that something may go wrong with this arrangement.

 

       Lara and Lenny begin to hang out - without me. Just friends, she claims when she eventually tells me. “We just have so much to talk about,” she insists, “and it was his idea. He wanted to see some stuff I had at the house that he could use, stuff I don’t need.” I should put a stop to things right here, but I don’t want to lose Lara and I don’t want to lose Lenny. By this point, my whole life revolves around them. Chelsea has vanished off the radar of my world, and though her phantom appears in my dreams at night every so often, I can’t say that I miss her.

 

       Until now.

 

       It’s been quite a while since I’ve been to the Scrap Bar. As a matter of fact, I haven’t even been to downtown Manhattan since I’d last been to the Scrap Bar. In the time I’ve spent away from there, I haven’t even missed the place. Uniquely enough, however, the Scrap Bar is where I go after finding Lenny being much more than friendly with Lara under the luxury sheets of her king sized, four-poster bed. 

 

       This is one of those dangerous times when the loneliness and pain I feel drowns out any sense of fear. I’ve just lost my boyfriend and best friend in the same evening. I am not going to sit home and sulk, not past the first half hour anyway, because sulking is not something I do well. I just won’t think about the loss I’ve just suffered, and I simply won’t care about what I still have left to lose. 

 

       The long stretch of the Taconic State Parkway between Poughkeepsie and Yonkers gives me plenty of time to disengage from the cold, hard truth of my current affairs and enough time to get used to the idea of partying solo at a place in New York City I haven’t been to in years.

 

       Parking in the garage on the north side of the street from Washington Square Park without Chelsea is surreal. For the second time since our friendship dissolved, I miss her. I miss her amazon woman stature with her twenty five pounds of boobs always in somebody’s face. I miss her brazen red hair with the black streak, her Ozzy Osbourne stare, even her obnoxious, attention-getting antics. The truth is, I am not sure if it is Chelsea I miss more, or just the company, any company. I wouldn’t be all by myself right now if she was here. 

 

       As I walk down the west side of the park, I begin to think about all kinds of other things I miss. Playing chess with my friend Randy in the park had always been a delight, until he met a girl and moved away with her. I missed Lulu, the nanny from England, and the times we hung out by her boss’s pool in Jersey (while the kids were in school, of course) and how we talked about our favorite actors over rum spiked Hawaiian punch. I know that I will miss shopping with Lara. I will miss flying with Lenny, not that we did much flying of late, but I will miss it nonetheless. I will miss having people in my life because now, I vowed with each step closer to the Scrap Bar, I will never let anyone close to my heart again. 

 

       I reminisce about the midwestern countryside where I used to roam, unnoticed and free through farmer’s fields. I think of the many hours I spent under the big oak tree, daydreaming about things nobody else in my small town ever thought about while trying to escape my painful reality. Had I run away as a youngster, would I have just ended up like this in this blasted city anyway? All the pain of my youth suddenly sears through me, mingling with the smoke of my failed friendships. It seeps through the frayed edges of my tattered heart like some toxic mist, infiltrating my mind and destroying my reason. I feel like I am desperately clinging to a hope of something of which I know nothing about as my soul dangles above a ring of fire that I myself have stoked. I am so exhausted from trying to hang on to this ever elusive hope, so I finally give up and let go. As I fall into the fire, I can only hope its warmth protects me from the coldness of the world around me.

 

       The Scrap Bar is changed. Well, it isn’t really, it still looks the same. The crowd is thinner though, much thinner than I remembered it to be. The people inside its walls are more zombie-like than human, and there is no music playing. I feel like the last part of my carefree youth is dying, but I am not ready to grow up yet. At least not tonight. I want one last hurrah of the good ol’ days before I leave this crazy life behind.

 

       “Hey.” I feel a breath on the back of my neck. It smells like smoldering salt. “Hey, baby.”

 

       I turn around. The man who owns this sultry voice doesn’t match the man my mind conjured him up to be. For a brief moment I wonder if I have come face to face with Slash. “Mind lifting up your hair so I can see you?”

 

       The man shakes his head, flicking his mop of black curls to the side. His eyes, black as coal, glitter in the feeble light. With the confidence of a champion tempered by a serpent’s silent cunning, he cuts right to the chase. “Wanna do some blow?”

 

       “Blow?” I wrinkle my brow, half disgusted at the thought, half curious as to what would motivate a man to ask a woman such a thing so soon after meeting her.

 

       “Yah, blow. Wanna?”

 

       What I wanted to do was tell him to piss off. But if I did that, then I would lose the one and only opportunity to make something of this impromptu night. Looking around me reminds me of what my other options are. Burnouts, hookers, empty bar stools, and a bar tender who looks half baked and bored to death are all that occupy my once exciting hangout. There is always Macdougal Street waiting up there in the neon glow of New York, its pavement beginning to shimmer in the newly falling rain.

 

       “Yeah, sure.” I counter with feigned confidence. Friend or foe, I wasn’t going to let this guy see me sweat. “Let’s do some blow.”

 

       I can’t believe what just came out of my mouth. In the past I had experimented with pot and even with speed, but never anything as harsh as cocaine. I hear all the warnings going off in my head, I know I have too much to lose, yet I shrug my shoulders and follow the mystery man to the back of the bar anyway.

 

       He ushers me into a bathroom. No one will care, he assures me as we both cram into the tiny, graffiti-laden space, shutting the door behind us. The tiny stall smells like urine and liquor-doused vomit, and it is cold. Thankfully, the smoldering-salt smell of cocaine radiates off the man in waves. It blends with his cologne, and the room soon stinks like metal and spice as he fishes through the inside pockets of his jacket.

 

       “I don’t know your name.” 

 

       “Mateo.”

 

       “Mateo.” The name doesn’t roll off my tongue quite as seductively as it does his. Everything about Mateo is seductive, now that I think about it. His voice, his dark skin, his Colombian accent, even the way he wears his rain parka.

 

       “Here.” Mateo hands me a dollar bill folded like the American flag.

 

       Thus begins my love triangle with Mateo and cocaine. I can’t say I ever loved Mateo, in fact our relationship is quite fleeting. Had it not been for cocaine it would have never survived past the first encounter. I use cocaine the way a lover uses another to meet her their needs, and Mateo is just a part of the package. Cocaine soothes my aching heart long enough to get me over the idea that I even need anyone, and when I am finally ready to kick it to the curb, I will be glad to give it, and Mateo, the boot. 

 

       The boot comes down some time later. Mateo’s disappointment in losing a customer is masked by a faux sadness over my ending our relationship. Its all a part of a drug dealer’s bag of manipulation tricks, of this I am sure, but it still feels empowering for me to not only ditch the habit, but to dump Mateo with the same kind of coldness that I, myself, have become all too familiar with on the relationship front.

 

       Cleaned up and hardened, I get my own little place to live and take a job as a waitress in a steakhouse chain. I don’t mind working, it takes my mind off the loneliness that keeps trying to creep up on me now that I am single, friendless, and dried up enough to realize that I am single and friendless. I work weekends, I work holidays, and I work all the hours that anyone else doesn’t want to work. Since the restaurant is never open past midnight, I still have whole nights ahead of me after the last shift finishes up. By whole nights, I mean the time between when the shiny, upper society of the day goes to bed and the dark, indecent world of the night comes out to play. The Scrap Bar has lost its allure, and Henrietta Hudson’s is an afterthought. Why go to such dull hangouts when there is now a new haunt in town called The Bank? The Bank’s sharp but pleasing contrast to the nightlife I have known previously introduces me to the superficial friendships of what will become a new (and very bizarre) era of my life. 

 

       The people of the goth culture resonate with me. They are dark and different, outcasted by nearly every other societal niche in the City, and much to my delight, most of them are highly intelligent and very deep thinkers. These misunderstood beings have a way of communicating with one another without words, forming unspoken bonds acknowledged by a sinister nod of the head in passing, and I couldn’t have been more relieved to be done with all the colorful glitz of what was popular (and all the incessant chatter that went along with it). A silent but dark power lurks here amidst the wanna-be vampires and office-by-day/goth-by-night types, and if I said I didn't want in on it, I’d be lying.

 

       It is in the haze of this underworld subculture that I casually bump into my new friend, Gianni.

 

       Gianni reminds me of Jarod in the movie Death and Cremation. He thinks of himself as a reincarnated cannibal and speaks of a demon living inside him named Viscera Diablo. I patiently listen to him talk about his demon, though I never take any of it seriously. As we walk along the beach on the north shore of Long Island one dark and misty night, he spins tales of ghosts he had encountered there in times past. Again, I listen to him only to humor him, glad only for the company we keep and the distraction it gives me from what is quickly becoming the sad state of my own inner turmoil. I listen to Gianni lament about his loneliness while never offering any details about my own, though the more I get to know him, the worse I feel. Gianni’s company is like the crippling crash that follows a crack high, yet somehow he has me convinced that I need him. We are, after all, kindred spirits. Rejects, used and thrown away, misunderstood, overlooked, not fitting in anywhere. Being around him electrifies me in a way unlike any other friendship has before. A part of me begins to wonder if it is the stronghold of Viscera Diablo within him, but I choose to label the thought as silly. 

 

       Weeks drone on into months. Gianni and I bum around at night after the rest of the world goes to bed; on the beach, in cemeteries, in parks, or in the back alleys of New York City. We never date and the lack of attraction is mutual. We’re merely loners hanging out when we don’t feel like being alone, feeding on each other’s life energy just enough to get us through those hellishly depressed times when we are alone. I take his energy with his express consent because he has me believing now more than ever that I need it, and he revels in the void I leave behind after I have taken it because the void is where he says he feels best.

 

       Tonight, before I even pick up the ringing phone, I intuitively know what I am going to hear on the other end of it. Gianni’s voice, monotone as usual, crackles in and out while he adjusts the phone between his ear and what I imagine to be a hoodie bunched up around his neck. I want to tell him to stop being a lazy prick and just hold the phone with his hand, my irritation spiking at the extensive lameness of our small talk. I don’t know what it is that I need from him tonight, but I will figure that out once he gets his butt over here if he will ever cut to the chase.

 

       Gianni never does cut to the chase. After about ten minutes of listening to him whine about how he hates his life, I politely interrupt. “Why don’t you just come by here tonight, we can go by the cemetery after it gets dark.” 

 

       Though his reply is just as suspected it would be, it makes me angry nonetheless.

 

       “I can’t help you tonight.” 

 

       Gianni’s words don’t stun me as much as the audacity in which he says them do. Never before has Gianni turned me down when I’ve needed him for something, so his bold confidence in doing so tonight comes across to me as disrespectful. Though this should come as no surprise to me since I could feel his anguish before I even spoke to him, I am not willing to take no for an answer. 

 

       “What am I supposed to do?”

 

       “I want to help you, but I just can’t. My heart is broken, I have no energy to give.”

 

       Ah, yes, the girl he has been chasing since I met him has given him the ol’ one two. I want to give her the ol’ one two since she has drained my friend when what I need right now is for him to recharge me. 

 

       “You sure you aren’t able to come by?”

 

       “No. I just want to sit here alone and sulk.”

 

       Well, that answers that.

 

       I set out to soothe my incensed psyche at a karaoke bar in the City. I walk in and sit down in a corner, observing everyone from the dark storm of my sulk. I don’t talk to anyone and I don’t care that they think I’m a misplaced goth girl in this flashy midtown club. Maybe the shiny energy of the place will help me feel better, or at least that is my hope. I’m not the psi kind of Carmilla, or at least I hadn’t thought as much until this short, hispanic man saunters over and sits down right next to me in true seeker fashion.

 

       “Hi.” He grins from ear to ear like a buffoon.

 

       “Greetings.” I am nothing but stoical in reply.

 

       “What brings you here?”

 

       “Probably the same thing that brings you.”

 

       “Looking for a good time?”

 

       “Yes, though I can bet we came looking for a good time for very different reasons.” 

 

       “Do you sing?” He leans in and his breath smells like whiskey.

 

       “Yes.” My stoicism is not making him go away.

 

       “Will you sing something for me?” 

 

       If it makes you stop grinning at me like a retard, I will sing anything for you.

 

       It's a good thing that karaoke has never intimidated me because if I get up there and sing tonight, my song choice will most likely not be popular with this crowd. I’m feeling rebellious enough to make some dark waves in this glitzy joint, so I go up there and take the mic, all dressed in black with my long ebony hair. The whole place falls silent as I tell the DJ what I want him to play. He searches, he searches some more, and after another minute of even more searching to the point it becomes uncomfortable, he finds my request. There is no instrumental intro to my piece, hence no time for anyone to judge my song choice before I even begin to sing it. They just wonder what I’m singing and they wonder what I am doing here once they figure it out. 

 

       Lithium, by Evanescence. 

 

     I forget that there is a crowd as I lose myself in the driving melody. Suddenly, I am singing about something I am all too familiar with. I want to tell Amy Lee personally how thankful I am that she created a song that I can pour myself into so well. Here in the darkness I know myself… and though I know that I can’t break free until I let it go, I finish the song having no idea how to go about letting it go.

 

       I’m not sure what shocked the patrons of this joint more; the lyrics, or how I was able to belt them out. Satisfied by the jarring rift I have caused in the steady stream of happy, I casually hand the mic back to the DJ and sit back down.

 

       My friend is applauding so fervently that I am convinced he wants everyone to think that we are together. “That was incredible!” His grin is incredible too, so much so that I can’t help but laugh.

 

       For the next hour I tolerate this man’s chatter. He tells me his name, Carlos I think it is. Though I am still hot over Gianni’s refusal to get together with me tonight, I am beginning to feel that I may not need him the way I thought I did earlier. I really don't need anybody, now that I think of it. It becomes apparent to me that my obvious and uncanny presence in this place caused enough of a stir for me to be able to successfully feed off the energy, and now I am ready to go home.

 

       I don’t hear much from Gianni after that night, nor do I attempt to reach out to him. Though I should be grateful for him, I could care less if he takes a long walk off a short pier. Maybe it is the presence of Viscera Diablo within him destroying anything good that could come from our friendship. Despite the dark but deep bond we share, I still view Gianni as a dangerous man, a dormant volcano, a ticking time bomb, and I decide that I want nothing more to do with him. Even if I possess the so-called dark power, I am still not convinced that I am invincible, and though I hate my life, I instinctively keep trying to protect it.

 

       The funny thing is, even through all the evil shenanigans that I find myself messing around in, I still talk to God. I talk to Him tonight as I stand in the driveway of my Long Island rental. I don’t say much to Him this time, I more or less tell Him that if He didn’t want me to be like this, then He shouldn’t have made me this way. The loneliness creeps up on me almost immediately, but this time I don’t try to run from it. I just sit down on the pavement, light up another cigarette, and sigh into the night.

 

       All my life I have been running or I have been fighting. I really don’t know anything else. As a child my home was more often in a state of turmoil than it wasn’t, and if it wasn’t, there was just an icy layer over some new turmoil brewing beneath. My father was abusive and my mother was cold. Somewhere between the fear and the somberness of my childhood, I knew that if I wanted to survive, I had to find a sense of peace. I tried to find it time and time again by being the good friend, yet any semblance of peace that did come, came to me best when I was alone.  

 

       The peace had never been a true peace; just the lack of potential for new hurts that come along with the reality of relationships. This pseudo peace comes to me now as I sit alone under the city-lit night sky, puffing my hand rolled cigarette and wondering how my life had become so misdirected. I know I need friends though I don’t want to admit it, because admitting it means that I am a failure since I really don’t have any friends. Of course I can be my own friend, but on the heels of this great idea the realization hits me that you can’t possibly be a friend to someone you hate. I think about just ending it all but don’t because, with my luck, I’ll run right into Viscera Diablo on the other side. 

 

       I give up the late nights and get a job in an office. My hope is that a diurnal schedule will help me figure out what I am supposed to do with my life. I move to a better apartment and ditch the annoying possibility that Gianni can still come around at any time since he will no longer know where I live. After three very frustrated attempts, I am down from a pack a day to non-smoker status. I cut off all my hair and dye it strawberry blond, thinking that sporting a new pixie look will somehow purge the goth out of me, and the ankh that I have been wearing around my neck for the last several months gets tossed out the window somewhere between Centerport and Holbrook.

 

       I grapple a whole lot with hatred and anger in the years that follow. After seeing no light at the end of the loneliness tunnel, I decide that I don’t need friends, ever - period. The truth is that I do need them, but since I don’t have them, convincing myself that I don’t need them makes me feel better about not having them. 

 

       I prefer the solitude. Well, I don’t really prefer it, what I long for is to have a network of real friends. What I long for and what is real don’t match up, however, so I am more accurate in saying that I prefer the solitude over the drama and pain that inevitably comes with friendship. I still have myself, however, and I decide that if I want a friend at all, I am going to have to be the only friend I will ever have.

 

       The only way I can tolerate myself enough to be friends with myself is to redirect the hatred I feel toward myself outward toward everyone else. Like I mentioned before, its kind of hard to be friends with someone you hate. 

 

       Day after day drones on. The days become weeks, the weeks become months, the months years. I hate Long Island, I hate people, I hate working with people, and I hate anyone who has anything I ever wanted but never seemed to be good enough to get. I hate myself whenever I get anything I want because I either feel I don’t deserve it, or I resent the fact that I will have to enjoy what I finally get to have all alone. The hatred becomes bitterness and I begin finding fault with everyone I come into contact with.

 

       Why, you may ask, do I hate so much? It’s a question I begin to ask myself on a regular basis. The answer comes to me one evening while I am sitting on the floor of my living room, sipping wine to the aroma of Arabian incense as classical music plays softly from the TV. 

 

       I long for friendships because I know deep down inside that everyone needs friendships. Yes, even I need friendships, but I don’t believe that I am qualified to have them. I am different, and despite all of my efforts to matter somewhere and make a difference to someone, I am incessantly overlooked. I begin to realize that if I keep on the path that I am currently on, I am going to self destruct. The sad news is, I have no clue how to get off the path I am on without getting lost altogether. I have to find another path, but I can’t see anything else for me in this life. The staleness of hopelessness grips me more and more each day, yet somehow I keep getting up, going to work, paying the bills, all while searching for some light at the end of the tunnel of life. Swearing off friends has not worked, yet I don’t know if I have it in me to trust anyone again enough to call them ‘friend’. I have doomed myself to loneliness, or maybe it is the work of Viscera Diablo trying to destroy me for dumping Gianni off on a similar, hopeless path.

 

       Sunday morning finds me on the front steps of a church. As I debate going in, a woman brushes past me to talk to the woman next to me. Great, no respite even at church. It is when I start to walk through the door and the woman in front of me lets the weight of the door slam into me that I decide that this church is full of heathens. I turn around and walk right back out.

 

       I don’t need church. I have a TV with a DVR. I can easily record sermons. I can read my Bible. Who needs church when I have everything I need right at home? Once I get home I dig out my old, tattered Bible and begin to read. All is well until I get to the passages that talk about friends and fellowship and love and sacrifice. 

 

       Friends? 

 

       Fellowship and love? 

 

       Sacrifice? 

 

       Bah! 

 

       So on my life goes, not much different than it had gone on before. I know I am just existing, but it is better than the alternative; or worse, spending an eternity with Viscera Diablo.

 

       Then, suddenly, it dawns on me.

 

       If there is an eternity, I am not sure that I will be spending it in the right place. For the first time in what feels like an eternity, I feel fear. A real and jarring fear so strong that it causes me to fall onto my knees in my living room and begin to pray. If God is truly my friend like the Bible says He is, and if He really can forgive me for all the nonsense I have done, then I have to find Him. The fog is dense and the darkness blinding, but I have to try. If I don’t, I fear that Viscera Diablo will come for me and take me straight to hell.

 

       In the days that follow, I choose to believe that God is my friend. I don’t know for sure if He is or not, but I choose to believe it anyway, especially whenever doubt starts creeping up on me. I start reading my Bible again, and when it talks about friends, I think of myself and God. I can’t see God, I can’t just sit and have coffee with God, but whatever I have with Him is better than what I had without Him. 

 

       I start liking God enough that I want to do what the Bible tells me to do more and more, just so He will not be upset with me and leave me to my loneliness again. Going out into the world proves to be difficult because there are so many people out there, so I come to the realization that maybe what I should do is make things a little easier on myself and move to a place without so many people. “I just don’t have it in me to love the people around here,” I tell God one winter afternoon while I walk Robert Moses beach during a fast, “I am not that strong. I’m too broken. I just can’t do it.”

 

       I am broken. 

 

       I ask God for friends. If He knows everything, then He will know who to send my way. I ask Him every day for friends, the kind of friends that will I enjoy being around and who enjoy being around me. It isn’t outside of His will to ask for friends. However, there aren’t very many Christians in Long Island. There are a lot of church goers, but not many Christians. After all, sitting in a hangar won’t make you an airplane any more than sitting in a church will make you a Christian. 

 

       Six months later I leave Long Island and move to rural Illinois.

 

       I miss the ocean. It is the only thing I miss. I have no friends to miss, and the hustle bustle, rush-rush mentality of the New York City metropolis is certainly not worth missing, either. I am glad to be rid of traffic jams, tolls, and rude people pushing me through the checkout line. The cost of living is a lot lower here, the pace of life a lot slower, and the air is fresh enough to feel good about inhaling it nice and deep and slow. 

 

       After I settle into my new home in rural Illinois, I find a church - not for making friends, though that is an afterthought. I want to hear the Word of God spoken to me from a real, live pulpit. I want to sing worship songs along with a congregation of other voices. Most of all though, I want to finally be a part of something good.

 

       The people in the church are friendly enough, so I keep going back. It isn’t until I join a class through the church that God answers my prayers at last, bringing some real Christian friends into my life. It doesn’t come easy, as God is not in the genie-in-a-bottle business, and I have to really work at it, but in all honesty, I am really just sick and tired of being angry. I want to know why I am so full of loathing and I want to learn how to let it go. My move to Illinois, my going to church, my joining this class - it’s my last ditch effort to resolve my pain and strive to have a life filled with something that resembles hope. 

 

       What I get is far more that I ever asked for, or even remotely expected.

 

       My class is comprised of a group of six women, including myself. The first night we all sit around a table in a warm, fuzzy sort of way, which instantly has me on high alert. I am going into this with the intention of following it through, however, and I am going to get to the bottom of why I am so miserable. I don’t have the first clue of how this is going to happen, but somehow I am going to make sure it happens.

 

       God help me, You have to help me, because You are the only one who can help me now.

 

       On the table in front of us is an assortment of various rocks. There are big rocks and little rocks, smooth rocks and scraggly rocks. They range in color from chalky white to smooth ebony with all kinds of shades in between.

 

       After the introductions accompanied by our reasons for being here are completed, one of our two facilitators commands our attention with a clear and feminine voice. “Ladies, as you can see, we have some rocks in front of us on the table. I want each of you to pick a rock that you think best describes how you see yourself.”

 

       In an attempt to not come across as rude or selfish, I let everyone else go first. I’ll just pick from what is left. I haven’t determined yet if anyone will even care what I have to say about whatever rock I end up with.

 

       The rock I end up with is dull, dirty, and rather obscure. What intrigues me about it is the little sparkle I can see emanating from its underside. I pick it up and turn it over. To my delight its a geode, but not like the kinds of geodes that are sold in stores. There is no flat polished side with the fully exposed wonder of gemstone crystals on display for all to see. What there is instead is a fissure, but its enough for me to know that there is indeed a geode inside. Interestingly, I have always had a fondness for geodes. They remind me of deep caves with all their unexplored beauty, and the mesmerizing but treacherous journey involved in revealing that hidden but precious beauty. 

 

       Inwardly satisfied with my little treasure, I sit back silently with my rock in hand.

 

       One by one we go around the table, talking about our rocks and why we picked them. We get to a woman named Maggie who plops her choice down on the table with a matter-of-fact thunk. 

 

       Maggie lowers her chin and begins to fidget. When she does speak, her voice is nervous despite her efforts to come across as nonchalant. The rock sits there before her, a white and innocent thing, though I sense its presence silently mocking her psyche. 

 

       “I-I chose this rock - because this rock is plain and not interesting at all. It is just blank. Like me.. just blank.”

 

       Suddenly, and quite surprisingly, I’m feeling sad. Really, deeply sad.

 

       It seems tragic to me that anyone could overlook a human being like Maggie. For a reason whose source I cannot explain, (though I believe it has everything to do with Maggie’s next words), I feel an unspoken connection with her.

 

       “I don’t belong anywhere.” Really? Funny, neither do I. “Everywhere I go, I never fit in.” Ditto! “I am, somehow, always ‘different’ from everyone else.” Ditto, ditto, and DITTO! “I came here looking for friends.” Yeah, me too. Though I am probably more different than you are, so I hope you find your friends because I doubt I will find mine.

 

       I look down at my own rock. The crystals glitter humbly from where they’re tucked away safety beneath the geode’s hard, protective walls. It occurs to me in this moment that my sadness springs from the realization that Maggie is a geode, too. The surprising lamentation in all of this is; somehow I have made it this far in life and I am still able to see my potential, whereas Maggie’s pain has completely blinded her to her own. The thought of another person suffering greater pain than I have suffered is like a cosmic two-by-four to the side of my noumenal head. How could I have been so self-absorbed?

 

       I haven't allowed myself to feel compassion for someone in so long that this whole phenomenon throws me for a loop. I think I like the fact that I am experiencing real human feelings again, but to be quite honest, real human feelings scare the hell out of me. 

 

       Still rattled by the new concept that I am a human being like all other human beings and not some weird sort of flub in the creation process, I roll my rock around in my hand. The fissure comes and goes in and out of my sight, but each time it passes by I can’t help but notice how beautifully the geode reflects even the cold light of the fluorescents over my head. 

 

       I come to realize that all this time I have been stroking up that very prolific ring of fire around my soul.  I haven’t a clue at this point how far out from its center it burns because I never gave that part of it any thought until now. For all I know, my whole world out there has been consumed by the flames, leaving me with nothing but ashes should I ever venture outside the warmth of the fire. I do know that the only way out of the fiery ring is to go through it, and walking through fire hurts - a lot. I could just sit within it and let it keep burning while staying safely out of reach of its flames, but it’s lonely here inside my protective fire and I am beginning to suffocate from the smoke. 

 

       It dawns on me that the thing that I have been hiding my heart behind in hopes of protecting it - will be the very thing that kills me. I know without a doubt that if don’t walk through the fire this time, I will most certainly burn.

 

       It's my turn now to talk about my rock. 

 

       My rock is a simple geode; born through the painful heat of explosion, perfected by the silent tears shed within its empty heart, then left among the wreckage to be forgotten. Being found again and being held is not enough. Unless the hard exterior is broken and light is allowed to shine inside, the beauty within it can never be realized. 

 

       I sit in silence after speaking, staring at the glistening geode while answering my own dilemma. Admitting my brokenness is the first step closer to moving through the fire that entraps me. Accepting what I have to do about my brokenness is sticking my toe into the coals.

 

       The classes meet for twenty four weeks, during which we are assigned to trace a body outline of ourselves on paper. Each time we meet, we hang our outlines on the walls, facing them as we go over some really emotionally grueling material. After each lesson we get to express our feelings about ourselves on our own outlines, and as time goes on, mine receives some pretty blaring marks with written assaults scribbled across. 

 

       Despite this, I learn to fight through my shame. I wrestle with the belief that I am of no value as I dive headlong into the self examination of who I am meant to be and how I have become who I am today.  The things I believed about myself for so long begin to be exposed for the lies that they are. As I start to feel safe with the women in my class and as I begin to trust them, I see more and more how they are mirrors put into my life by God meant to reflect to me how He sees me, not how I see myself. My body outline transforms from one of red dripping lacerations and dark clouds to one of healed scars and reaffirming words. The tape over my mouth gets replaced with a pink smile. The vicious dark slashes over my private parts are gently covered by a skirt made from calming green satin. The dullness of my eyes gets filled in with amber glitter and on my head I paint a dazzling crown.

 

       I am not fixed. In fact, I will never be ‘fixed’. But with the help of five budding and very promising friendships, I am finally beginning to heal.

 

       The women in my class make a pact to continue to meet every month once our twenty four week journey is over. I anticipate learning more about them and I aspire to grow alongside them, realizing now that I am a beautiful work in progress. In order for my new friends to accept that I still struggle with my human frailties and residual pain, I have to also accept that they still struggle with theirs. Each of our friendships flourish, but not without the growing pains so customary in relationships. Sometimes I still feel like giving up, but then there are those other times when I am so glad I didn’t. The long tunnel of my incessant despair eventually crumbles away around me. I am not sure yet what I will see when the dust settles, but for the first time in my life I am not afraid of finding out.

 

       True friendships are our mirrors to one other where regrets become lessons and lessons become testimonies. Our own stories speak into the stories of our friends, carving and polishing the geodes of our hearts so we can best reflect the light of the love that grows between us. As I stand on the outside of my fire at last, freshly stripped of all the layers of anger and guilt and shame, I can see that my friends are waiting patiently there to meet me. They offer salve and wrap my wounds with kind words and gentle hands. Viscera Diablo still tries to taunt me from the flames, accusing me and lying to me and enticing me to return to their heat. “No,” I simply whisper, turning away from the familiar glow. 

 

 

       As I accept the kindness of my friends with a renewed and trusting heart, the ring of fire behind me burns down to embers. When I courageously give back the kindness out of my own heart, the fire that once held me prisoner sputters and winks out.

 

 

 

© 2016 Christy Boston

 

 

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