Filed under: Chapter 19 | Tags: Cousin Ryland, Freddie Mercury, hot waffles, Kevin Wilder, KISS, kissing, lips, lollylackin', making out, mononucleosis, Nautica, Paul Williams, Peter Paul and Mary, physical fitness, Rancid, Some New Trend, SunTrust, True Love Waits, Umbro
KISS AND NO MAKEUP :: BY KEVIN WILDER
YOU HATE THIS, DON’T YOU.
Five words. One-syllable each. A single oversimplified sentence whispered to June over coffee before leaving the Food Court fountains.
If my life were a popular television series, a deep voiceover speaker could announce “Previously, on ‘Josh Bates’ Existence’…” Some important clips could then play from my recent past and prepare the patient audience for some closure the present day would reward. But life is rarely this straightforward. It’s one big difficult decision after another. People can only turn into themselves once, and the whole time secretly wonder if it’s the person they were meant to be.
I stand instead of sit, at a folding table rather than a drafting desk. I tack hard-tags on returned items to activate alarms, in case a potential shoplifter decides to run off with skinny jeans or a fedora hat. And until I’m able to map out blueprints for the next Falling Water, preventing financial loss at R.H. Macy and Co. is a must.
Perhaps I should be grateful. After all, I still have a job. As of yesterday six have been let go, including one of my kind old lady cohorts from Intimates. She’s probably been with the company since the mall parking lot accommodated for horse and buggy, yet no one is fazed by her dismissal. Why couldn’t it have been me instead of her? It isn’t like I’ve got great-grandchildren to feed.
You hate this, don’t you.
It was more of a statement than a question. If I could go back, I’d change the words that were said. I’ve always liked questions more. Questions require answers, whereas statements can only express the condition of a certain predicament. Protractors and t-squares can go to work in your mind all they want and sketch outlines for a perfect future, but since they can’t resurrect what’s already built, who’s to say what the edifice will look like when it’s finished? It never turns out how you think it will.
Early this morning, over more coffee, I had to deal with Stephanie’s public confrontations: “I can’t believe the way you’re leading June on,” she said. “You’re gonna destroy her!”
I just stood there, waiting for Dylan to back me up, her accusations pelting me like tiny bullets. Finally I said, “Wait. I thought you didn’t even like Bryanna.”
“I don’t. You’re missing the point.” My sister raised her voice. “Why would you be with someone who’s totally selfish and only hanging out with you because there’s no other option? Everybody knows this but you.”
I looked at my sister, on the verge of falling apart. Was this a result of the decisions I’d made? “Don’t be ridiculous. You don’t even know her. Try having a conversation with the girl sometime. You wanna know what she thinks about you? She told me your outfits are ‘cute.’ And that was after you were rude to her.” I realized I should probably stop, and left my retaliations at: “If you weren’t so jealous over June having a new best friend you might see she’s a lot nicer than you.”
It was only after I said this last part that I realized it might be true. It felt weird to stand up for Bry. We obviously would never speak again, but this still didn’t give Steph any reason to keep spitting out childish remarks. After almost pulling some chunks of hair from her head, she left the shop.
“You know,” Dylan warned me, “if the manager sees another one of these little episodes, he’s gonna ban you kids from here forever.”
“Not my fault,” I said, even though it was. I turned to see Rose McPheerson, sitting in the corner of the room with her boyfriend Freddie. They both smiled. I walked over, and said sheepishly, “Uh, how much of that did you hear?”
“Oh, all of it.” Rose’s voice sounded less like a police siren. Maybe she’d lost it at the party while yelling at Danny Quidmelle? Apparently, he vomited all over James’s supermodel girlfriend’s dress after we left, and Rose punched him for ruining yet another priceless commodity. This anger, in fact, might be the sole factor that kept me alive that night.
“Your sister looks pretty pissed,” Freddie added. Had this fact not made itself clear already?
“Yeah,” I said, scratching my head. “I’ve been having that effect on a lotta people lately. Both related to me and not. D’you guys have any idea what I should do?”
I’m brought back to consciousness by the halogen lamps glaring above me, and the echoes of Todd’s approaching footsteps. When my boss arrives at Formal Wear, his befitting suit has been replaced with non-befitting workout gear. He’s never looked more like a cartoon character before now, wearing striped tube socks and Umbros. His head is wrapped in a matching doo-rag.
I ask, “Have you been tanning?” and “Is that new a tattoo?”
Todd tucks some chest hairs into his mesh tank top,” and says, “Time to shake off some of this pressure I’ve been under.” He says it while nibbling on the last of a protein bar. “On the treadmill, of course.”
I nod. The movement of my head directly coincides with the flexing of Todd’s left bicep. My boss is completely unaware that this new fitness lifestyle contradicts the three cups of coffee he’s guzzled in the past hour. “Hey,” I say, “don’t most gyms have locker rooms where you can change?”
“Of course,” Todd says. “But I was born with gymnophobia. Also known as the fear of naked bodies. Anyway, I’m sorry Dave and Ray asked off for the same night. Hopefully they ain’t plannin’ any more double dates before Back to School begins. Did I tell you I found out my cousin’s gonna be serving in prison for life?”
“Don’t think so,” I say. “Must suck. What’d he do?” I’m continually surprised by the topics that never seem out of line for Todd to discuss.
“He hijacked a private jet to Costa Rica, and kidnapped an ex-girlfriend on the way. They found him selling drugs at a fuel stop in El Paraíso. Yep. Cousin Ryland always had it coming.”
“Wow!” I say, getting a sudden adrenaline kick from the story. “I’ve got a friend that would find that fascinating.” I realize how insensitive my comment sounds and add, “Every family’s got problems, though, right?”
He wipes his eyes and nose with his terry cloth no-sweat towel, and tosses me a set of keys. “These are yours. Assuming you’ll feel safe locking up when nine o’clock rolls around.”
I jump, trying to catch the keys, but they land in a rolling rack of Nautica jackets. “Don’t worry ‘bout me, boss-man. By the way, those are some kickin’ Umbros. Um…bro.”
“Thanks playa-hata. Time to get sexy. The alarm code’s on the keychain. Call me if ya run into any trouble.” Little does he know the mess I’ve found myself in already. He pounds my fist with his free hand, and then lifts his oversized duffel bag with much complication.
Todd says, “Peace brother,” and heads toward the exit, stopping to refold a pair of khakis on the way.
I gather all the trash, sweep, mop, dust the counters, and afterwards decide to kill the final hour by tagging blazers. Before long this task becomes robotic. When I’m the only worker left in the shop, I go into the office to play a copy of …And Out Come the Wolves through the sound system. It’s refreshing.
I’m glad Dave and Ray picked a slow night to convince girls to go on dates with them. I hope their experiences turn out better than mine. To use their words, if they “seal the deal,” I’ll be curious to find out how strong these females’ collective visions are. Maybe Will was right when he suggested they must have reptilian skin and missing appendages. This line of thinking is cut short by a vibration in my jacket pocket:
Can u let me in?
i don’t wana go home but securitys about 2 kik me out
When I can’t wait any longer, I respond to this peculiar text message with:
Ok. Upstairs or down?
The normally automatic doors leading to the mall are solid and impenetrable. After knocking them around a while, I fail to comprehend their construction. Eventually, they slide open and in walks Bryanna, looking unsettled. “How much trouble am I gonna get you in?”
I yawn and try to project the aura of someone who feels laid-back, even though inside my heart and stomach are tied together like a monkey’s fist. “They turned off the cameras after our security guy got laid off. I know. Real intelligent.”
I notice that she’s wearing a tomato-colored t-shirt and a pair of ripped jeans, and that she doesn’t have any makeup on. The pedi- color on her toes has worn-off, and the sandals on her feet are the ones I helped her purchase, so long ago. “This is a first,” I say. “Did you raid my sister’s closet?”
She laughs. And then she wraps me in a tight embrace. And then, after several more seconds, she starts crying.
“Easy now,” I say, patting her back, like a baby I’m trying to burp.
“I didn’t really like Danny Quidmelle,” she says, in between sobs. “He’s a drunk moron. The whole thing felt terrible. I was trying to make you jealous.”
“Well it worked,” I say. “I mean…I did get jealous. Did I seem jealous to you? Because I was.”
“Yeah,” she says. “What a crappy party. You were right. Most parties are.”
I say, “It wasn’t so bad until the end,” then realize this doesn’t sound very encouraging. “It was…educating. Plus, it gave me an opportunity to find out the differences between ‘tipsy’ and ‘obliterated’. And ya know, that type of thing might come in handy for dorm life.”
She snickers, and dries her tears with my shirttail. “You always make me laugh,” she says, patting my cheek.
Bryanna lowers her head. “Rose told me you stuck up for me today. Even though you shouldn’t have.” She turns away. “I should let you get back to work.” Before she makes it to the door I say, “That’s not necessary,” and jiggle my new keys before her. “Wanna see somethin’ cool?”
Together, we walk past familiar landmarks: Intimates, Women’s Shoes, and then up the escalator to Stuntin’ & Hustlin’ and Men’s Formal Wear. “We’re almost there,” I whisper, slightly worried that someone has found a way to listen in.
We pass Panini presses and coffee grinders, fake flower pots and candles, then come to a halt behind Bedding.
The fact that my keys grant access to the roof, and the fact that I’m completely aware of this, are two miracles nothing short of phenomenal…
Several months back, Todd came down with mononucleosis, and was forced to spend an entire week in a state of near-death. He couldn’t leave the office (or so he claimed). One morning, clenching a framed photo of his mother, he handed me another set of keys. He instructed me, “Now if I fall asleep…and understand I will most likely be falling asleep several times today…don’t forget to show the roof guys where the hatch is.”
“Ay-ay, Cap’n,” I said, saluting him. “What hatch?”
“This ain’t a joke, Josh, so quit yer shilly-shallyin’.” He sneezed on the unfinished employee schedule. “I’m putting you in charge to let ‘em up through the hatch door.” Eventually, he found the energy to stand up and lead me to it. “They’ll need to change out the screens and foam inserts on the gutters so no more shit can clog up the pipes.” Back then, he’d converse with me as if I were an unlikable second grader, except for the swear words he’d add in to sound cool. I told him I was wholly aware of how rain spouts worked, and that I’d even drawn a few in my Honor’s English notebook. I looked forward to seeing the city from atop a large retail building, and hoped another day might come to do it again…
One of Bryanna’s sandals slips off. Her foot struggles to grip on the next ladder step. “I’m scared,” she says.
“Don’t be. If you fall, I’ll catch you.” I boost her up toward the hatch, and unintentionally grab her butt in the process.
She says my name with provocative bewilderment—“Josh!”—and tries the lock with a few of my keys. This takes longer than expected. When the door opens, a breeze slams it against the shingles.
Together we find a place to sit, side by side, overlooking the streetlamps and skyline. “It’s so beautiful,” Bryanna says.
When I was a child, I always pictured heaven resembling a cloudy place where hot waffles loaded with butter and syrup were served, accompanied by Mason jars filled to the brim with chocolate milk. But I’ve grown up a lot since then, and now I think it might be like sitting on a roof with a girl. Especially one who wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.
The fact that we live in the country’s flattest state makes it both easier and harder to see the land around us. Beneath tonight’s sky the view is spectacular. There’s an Art Deco theater a few blocks over. To the right of us is my old middle school. There’s a park with swings and monkey bars that the thugs have taken over, and next to it, the city’s most iconic building. The SunTrust Bank Tower ascends twelve stories. It’s ultra-modern, antagonistic to the territory, and was developed by some French guy that currently lives in Ocala. Running parallel beside it is a Domino’s Pizza,next to a looping sidewalk. It’s where Will spent the bulk of his time before Driver’s Ed. Here, he fractured his collarbone and broke his skateboard in half, left only with a cool hitchhiking story he could overembellish for weeks. It’s impossible to see the water up here, but there’s still a little summer left for that. From our spot, even the strip malls (which there are more than enough of—some renovated, some not) look lovely tonight.
And then there’s Bryanna.
She rests her head on my arm. Her face feels smoother than ever. Bryanna’s hair, brushed by what I once imagined to be at least 100 strokes per night, reflects in the subdued light, radiating to create a warm, halo-like glow. To me she resembles someone in one of those old child-of-God paintings, except blonder.
If I were a different type of guy, I might look for ways that this scenario could lead to sex. But three summers ago I signed a True Love Waits oath, and promised to abstain from intercourse until marriage or death. Besides, I’ve come to realize there are substitutions for sex. Like playing with a girl’s hair, for instance, while she tickles your arm. Even holding hands feels more exciting now than all the other times we’ve done it. And plus, who needs sex? I hear it can really complicate things.
Bryanna looks at my face. I look back at hers. We gaze at each other for a while, and somehow this doesn’t become awkward. Then finally, without using words, we come to a simultaneous agreement. It’s time to kiss.
And so we do.
What’s the experience like? It’d be difficult to illustrate. I mean, how would one start in describing a thing like how Bryanna Summerson’s lips taste?
Less like cherries, and more like a normal person’s breath, except far less pervasive. Bryanna seems quite experienced at the exercise. She starts with tiny pecks, which strangely reminds me of Pete Townshend’s ability to construct the perfect chord: the mathematical interval of time between osculations is nearly as important as the osculations themselves.
It doesn’t compare to my previous kissing experiences—much sweeter than my participation in Sissy Jackson’s immoral contest, and more celestial than hiding beneath the bleachers with Maureen McClearly before she went Goth. The pecks lead to more slippery activity (something I can only describe as “lip-calisthenics”). Our mouths open, and my tongue carefully advances past the portal of her own. I want it all to seem graceful and easy. Instead, it feels like two baby seals struggling to slither up the beach while avoiding a deadly-fanged walrus.
What else can this equate with? Not a damn thing! Except maybe how it would feel to see one of my favorite buildings—bold and uncompromising, with the slightest of imperfections. But even this must feel more perfect than standing face-to-face with the Los Angeles Airport Theme Building (architect: Paul Williams) or the Vitra Design Museum (architect: Frank Gehry).
If I compared a rock and roll album to kissing Bryanna, it wouldn’t sound so much like anything from the band KISS, but maybe Side A of A Night at the Opera, which might be ironic since the singer of Queen didn’t like girls at all.
Bryanna pulls her mouth away from mine and asks, “Wait a sec. What about June?”
I return to her mouth, scared that the next smooch will be our last. It’s tough to keep your lips working while talking, but I say, “What about her? (kiss) My friend’s in love with her. (kiss) June’s practically the only (kiss) person he doesn’t imagine to be a walking corpse.”
Bryanna moves away and stretches her body out again. “I guess that’s what true love must feel like. Imagining a person to be something other than a corpse.”
“Funny,” I say, unable to steal another one from her. “And probably accurate.”
A million questions pop into my mind. The first being, what if this very moment was supposed to be shared with June? What if she happened to be “the one?” June Marley could’ve been the twisty straw in my Banana Chocolate Vanilla Werewolf Sunrise. I could’ve been the Peter to her Paul and Mary.
Or, what if Bryanna and June were both meant for me? And seriously, should anyone at seventeen be deciding who should hold that position? Furthermore, if there’s an unwritten monogamous law that states only one girl can hold that title, does it mean forever, or just until the end of summer? It’s tough to be bothered with complications like these while you’re trying to extend the duration of making out.
“Hey Josh,” Bryanna asks. The fact that she’s wearing no makeup and no fancy dress doesn’t make her look like a corpse at all. It actually does quite the opposite.
Could this lack of corpse-ness mean I’m falling in love? Who knows. Perhaps when Cupid’s arrow hits, it’ll be obvious. Maybe like Will says, it will also be painful. And until the love flu’s symptoms leave me diseased and helpless, this will be the Bryanna I like best: a real person, in a real t-shirt and jeans, with real feelings. Someone who’s able to maintain real-life under-the-surface friendships with real people. Really.
All of us at one time or another have believed some particular thing will help us rise above bum-status. Whether this object be a job, money, or a girl, we all have notions of what holds the key (no pun intended) to help our existence transcend into something far greater. At times Will thinks this is June. And me? Well, I used to be convinced that Bryanna would solve all my problems. I heard a recording once where one of my dad’s favorite pastors talked about this, and I’ve always believed this homebro might have been on to something. I can only keep doing what I do, and hope that things will pan out in this life or the next. This is the gospel truth. What else is there to do?
Bryanna hops up. The wind is blowing her hair in every direction. She asks, “Wanna go steal some ingredients at Kujo’s? We can invent a new smoothie.”
I signal for her to duck, to hide from the security cop making laps on his Segway, and then stand up along with her. “I got a better idea. If we can find a flashlight, wanna try to sneak into the arcade?”
She laughs. “Sounds enticing. But before we continue breaking rules, don’t you need to close up shop?”
“Maybe so,” I say. But then I decide not to. There will be plenty of time for that later.
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