Atheist in your Foxhole
"Fuck Cancer," he shouts.
Says so right on her wrist, bold; stamp though, not ink, straight across those veins that feel so important when you brush your finger over them.
Fuck it to the devil's hell, she thinks. She thinks how did he know I was thinking that?
"Your wrist," he shouts, shouts again.
She squints and taps two fingers up to her ear, almost singeing her wild hair with her cigarette. "Wha?"
"Fuck Canc." the house music through the PA eats up the rest. He gestures his beer bottle towards the exit door. She nods.
She started smoking when her mom got cancer. What a shitty thing to have to go through alone, so she thought Fuck cancer, I'll get some too. She didn't, but it wasn't for lack of effort; at the time it was something she needed to do. Her father was so busy pushing the papers at her mom that they didn't even tell him about the diagnosis until the divorce went through and he moved in with his new girlfriend. Even then her mom didn't accept any of his help. She beat it on her own two years later, but it was tough. She was able to keep a breast, and her daughter-this nicotine habit. She could quit if she wanted to. But she hasn't yet.
Outside The Casbah they sit on the stoop of the building next door. The night air feels cool against the dingy club muck. Her face puffs red from booze and dance, his maroon t-shirt sweaty, the metallic necklace dangling down his chest burrows its outline through the faded cotton. A stray black cat moseys. Other girls pass him and drop inside jokes. He played in the opening band. He seems to know everyone, and is quick to introduce her around. He has an easy grin. They only met a few nights ago at a party, got high, but now it's the two of them hanging out, again.
"Fuck Cancer," he says, pointing to the FUCK CANCER stamp on the inside of her left wrist.
"Oh yeah, the door guy.I thought it was FUCKANEER, like a band name, or something."
He smiles. "Maybe heavy metal pirates, huh? The show's raising money for cancer research-half the door and half the bar revenue."
"I'll have to buy some more drinks," she says. She doesn't get into what she really thinks about cancer, because she doesn't want to freak him out.
He lights a smoke and hers for her, and gazes at an incoming plane low roaring over the parking garage across the street. She likes his eyes, but tries not to stare. Not so much their color, but the brightness; like he's got dreams burning behind them. She likes when they're on her. Reminds her she's got dreams burning behind her own.
He looks back at the club, notices something.
"Do you know that guy? He keeps grilling us."
"That guy over there, grilling us."
She knows whom he's talking about before he even points, and she feels an anxious quiver between her shoulder blades. She doesn't want this to get fucked up.
The guy, Paris Hilton, just inside the doorway throws off the heaviest of heavy vibes; doesn't look like fun at all. He has a bullish head, big shoulders, and a sour booze stare. When she looks over, he drops his head down and walks the other way around the corner. Moments later her phone beeps with a txt message: where you at?
"Oh, that's Paris . He's just a friend."
"It was a pretty dirty look, for a friend."
She shrugs. "We used to date."
"You dated a guy named Paris ?"
"Paris Hilton, actually."
He giggles, looks at her like she's shitting him.
"It's Alex.Hilton, but everyone started calling him Paris when she got famous."
"I think he likes the attention. My friends invited him. I mean, we're all friends, but.they're pretty stuck on this idea that we're going to get back together, or we're perfect for each other, or whatever."
She shakes her head.
"I don't know if they really get me." She has issues with perfect: she believes in it, despite everything she's ever come across proving her it doesn't exist. "We're supposed to go to his cousin's wedding tomorrow."
A plane roars somewhere in the distance, but they can't see it yet. This part of San Diego is distracting like that: planes cruising in between the buildings, large forces always engaging or departing.
"You can do better than Paris Hilton," he says. She won't agree, but deep down she knows it's true-if not do better , than do different . She thought Paris was close to perfect once, until he started saying things like, you've changed. Truth was, she grew, and he held onto someone who didn't exist anymore. She saw his ceiling so far as her romantic future was concerned. She didn't mean to. Wasn't looking for it, but bumped her head right up into it.
Paris in front of the Casbah again, dropping heavy vibes. They notice him and he disappears inside, huff and puff.
"He's mad at you?"
"He thinks I'm a lesbian," she blurts.
She really wishes she didn't just say that out loud.
"No. You thought I was?"
"I just assume every girl's a lesbian."
"What's the point in that?"
"What's the point in assuming they're not?"
Hmm. This isn't exactly going the way she'd hoped. He sees some of the guys from his band and throws them a nod; one guy points at his watch. Then:
"Sleeping with friends is sticky," he says.
"Don't like sticky," she says.
"My mom always said make friends with the strangers you fuck ."
She laughs, snorts the cigarette exhale.
"She's.uh, kind of a free spirit."
"Fuck cancer," he says, blowing smoke towards her wrist.
Another txt from Paris : Shots?
"Look, is there some other place we can go?"
"I gotta help load the equipment, but some of it's still on the stage." He stands on the stoop, looking around like a sailor, looks at her nibbling her lip. "Wait, yeah, I know a spot we can kinda hang out in. Do you still have your Adderall on you from the other night?"
"Cool, lemme have it for a sec. Meet me at the black door by the bathrooms in 5 minutes."
He stubs out his cigarette on the railing, bounces down the steps, brushes the cat, and disappears inside--his energy nearly sweeps her along, but she stays.
She's at a crazy point in her life, but as far as she's concerned, it's always crazy-scenarios whirl around, dreams that she can almost feel on her skin: that she can almost step into like a new dress. Possibilities present themselves, boys get close, but they fizzle and fade, or she pushes them away, or shrugs them off. Stays alone, in her head, where it's at least safe, at least comfortable, if not a little lonely.
The headlining band starts up, and few hangabout kids outside drift in. She doesn't see Paris in the doorway anymore and plunges after them, but he comes around the corner.
"Don't answer your phone."
"Oh, it's in my purse."
"Wanna have a quick smoke?" Safe, but a little uncomfortable.
"Just did. Let's go check out the band."
He looks everywhere but at her.
"I'll meet up with you." He leaves it hanging for an extra second, Jager heavy on his breath, and she says cool and disappears inside.
On stage the band sings something about Your Friends Will Carry You Home , and the crowd nods heads to the beat. She sees her friends together dancing by the front, and darts to the bathrooms. He's not there, and a spider of anxiety crawls up her neck and scurries through her mind. Panic. She has medication for that too, but it doesn't really help. She's taken all the medication they've offered, all the help she could find. She wants to better herself. But. But still. She thought he would be different, but she let herself get suckered. She'll need a new prescription. She sees her mom drinking alone in the house her father left her in the divorce.
Then the black door opens and he grins, pulling her in, his eyes bright and on her. It's the first time they've touched, she wonders if he notices too.
The room is just as dingy as the club, but quiet, with band posters covering every inch of the wall except for a rectangular window propped open with a drumstick, and a security camera monitor showing the audience from somewhere up above the band on stage. A three or four hundred pound guy dwarfs a sofa, and flicks bottle caps into a fishbowl on a table covered in stickers.
"This is Jimmy."
"Hey" she says, a little nervously, but maybe just out of breath.
His smile disarms her, flashing a gold tooth on his incisor. She thinks he's a pirate, which she likes.
"What is this place?"
He takes the Adderall vile from his jeans and sits next to Jimmy on the couch, tapping a few pills onto the table.
"It's kind of like backstage for the employees." He looks at Jimmy, who nods while breaking up the pills with his driver's license. Half of ADHD is attention deficit, and half is getting your friends high. Maybe 40/60. 30/70? 84/9? She couldn't concentrate.
Jimmy cuts up two lines and snorts them with a rolled dollar bill. Fat man offers skinny kid, but skinny kid says you finish it. Jimmy bumps the last bit, clears his watery eyes, and stands up, nearly clipping his head in the shaky ceiling fan.
"We cool?" he asks.
"Cool cool," Jimmy replies. "You guys can hang here till the show's over."
He stands up too, and she watches them slip through some handshake code, impressed.
"Thanks," says Jimmy as he towers past her, and the sound from the club soaks back in.
Then door closes and it's just the two of them.
"Chill spot, huh?" Gives her back the vile of pills. "They used to stick me in here last year after we'd play 'cause I wasn't 21. Plus you can smoke in here.if you want." She had no idea how young he is, and hopes he doesn't ask her age. Instead he: "This couch is one of those get-lost-in-it couches."
They sit down, but he's not too close to her. Not too far either.
"How do you know that guy?"
"Jimmy? We used to take ballet together."
He breaks up laughing before the image of them pirouetting across Swan Lake has a chance to crystallize. She opens her purse to put the pills back, and her phone beeps again. Another txt. You still here?
Her forehead creases, and she glances at the security monitor.
"Man, Count Paris really doesn't quit, huh?"
"He gets a little strange when he drinks, but.you know, he's my friend. He's a good person. It's just a little strange now." Count Paris? Is she Juliet? She's known hints, and coincidences, and she's known just nothings as well.
He smokes American Spirits and offers her one.
"I thought only hippies smoke these," she says.
"I like hippies."
She kind of did too. She didn't know why she just said that.
"My Grandpa used to smoke these. He wasn't a hippy."
"They taste like burnt oatmeal, but I just like the name," he says, and lights hers.
She takes a big pull, strong, and it reminds her of the first drag she ever took, which reminds her of her mother, which reminds her of being alone, which makes her think that any moment he's going to get bored of hiding out alone and go find some other girl who isn't such a drag. Of cigarette? Of cancer.
And her phone beeps again. Fuck! Are WE in trble?? Pls find me im drunk
He stands and she's sure he's going to leave, but he only adjusts his jeans, sits again.
"You're a good friend. Tolerant. Paris Hilton should realize what he has."
A long silence, but it seems to galvanize into a tangible energy between them, and they trace its shape with their eyes. And he doesn't blink.
The club noise penetrates into the room in muffled screams. On the monitor the lead singer is writhing around on the stage, and the crowd is going wild.
"I really liked your band. You looked cool up there.er, I mean, everyone was into you guys."
He grins off the compliment. "Yeah, thanks. I'm really glad you and your friends made it out."
"So, are you going to make an album? Or get a record deal? I don't really know anything about how that works?"
"Me neither. I mean, we have this homemade recording we did. I gave one to your friend Annie. I don't know. We all grew up together, and like music, and it's just fun to have a band."
"But you don't want to do it when you." she stops, embarrassed.
"When I grow up?"
Bingo. Blush. Nod.
"No, I'm gonna be an eclipse chaser."
She can't help but giggle--he says it so honestly.
"An eclipse chaser?"
"Yeah," his eyes light up and he shifts to face her. "When I was a kid my dad had this crazy friend who stayed with us for a few weeks, and he was an eclipse chaser. He and this small band of friends would chart out full solar eclipses-it only happens once every year and a half or so-and go to the spot where they would be in the exact shadow of the moon."
"What happens there?"
"Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The moon covers up the sun-they look exactly the same size."
"But the sun's so much bigger."
"But it's also so much further away. Everything is fucked up by the darkness, disrupted. The animals stop moving, and the birds stop chirping and flying-time stops. Everything stops and is, like, frozen with fear or something."
"Or maybe just in awe."
"Right, yeah, exactly. And these eclipses only last a little while-like less than an hour. But when this guy came to stay with us they'd just gotten back from Nigeria and it only lasted three minutes. They went all the way to fucking Africa for three minutes of.nothing." He takes another drag off his American Spirit and leaves it in the ashtray.
"Anyway, I've just always wanted to know what that feels like."
She doesn't exactly follow, but his enthusiasm captures her imagination, or maybe it's just the term Eclipse Chaser that triggers her spirit to sketch in the holes she can't comprehend. It feels like something she'd dream about.
"We should see this band some other time though," he says. "I bet you'd dig them. The lead singer's a madman-a real lightning rod."
"It sounds like he might not even make it through the song he's playing, like it'll all fall apart on him."
"I know. I like that. Isn't it exciting?"
"It makes me kind of nervous."
"Isn't that exciting?"
Petrifying, actually. She's on lots of medications to tame exactly that kind of excitement. She doesn't go into it with him.
"I'm sorry, we don't have to hide out here.I mean, if you want to go watch them.it's just."
"No, I don't mind. I like hiding out with you. We'll catch them some other time."
She shoots him a look, possibilities engulfing, whirling away, or engulfing.
"Really," he says. "There's no rush."
"I'd like that."
They hold each others' gaze and there's that magnetic gravity moment just before you kiss someone for the very first time, like air is disappearing and a vacuum sucks you into each other and.
A loud crash bangs against the wall of the room, and they pull away as if electrically shocked. On the monitor a space opens in the crowd around two guys slugging each other. Jimmy and another bouncer his size rush to break it up, pulling apart kids scrapping like rabid dogs. It's Paris , she thinks. And even if it's not, it is.
"Uh oh, I think we may get run out of here pretty soon."
Her phone beeps, another txt, this time from Annie. They're gonna wanna leave; the wedding tomorrow.
She doesn't want to go back into the club at all. An intense needling in the back of her head, a drilling, doubts, mocking her, daring her. She sees the rest of the night laid out in front of her like a chess game. Burritos and her friends back at their shitty apartment, Paris passing in and out of consciousness on their couch, saying mean drunk things that he'll take back in the morning, and time wasting away as infomercials begin to play over and over until everyone fades out. And she is Bobby Fischer. And she is over chess.
"I don't want to go out there. Can't we just barricade this thing for the night?"
Another txt: Annie--three exclamation points.
"Have you ever been to the woods back up behind the club?" he asks.
"No. I mean, I knew they were there, but"
"Well, let's go."
A small ray of light penetrates through the clusterfuck of nagging fears in her head. A small ray of light, trembling, barely alive, but still strong enough to clear some space, inches maybe. She focuses on it, breathing with it. Galaxies maybe.
"Are you scared?"
She doesn't say no. She prays the txts stop, understand, leave her be.
"What about your band?" she asks.
"I'll meet up with them in the morning. They'll understand."
"But it's midnight."
"It'll be an adventure. It'll be good practice for eclipse chasing."
More bangs on the door; that whole world, that whole old world threatening to pull her back at any moment. She stands there, wondering why she is freaking out on the inside, feeling her dormant heart leaping hard against her sternum with every bang on the door. This is ridiculous to get this worked up, but she is. It's not the end of the world if she goes back, right? She'll probably see him again, around town. But there is something about right now. This is her moment, her tiny revolution taking shape, but threatening to slip away; her mother, cancer, cheating husband survivor, mother cancer survivor telling her to live and not look back, to make friends with the fears you sleep with.
He reaches out for her hand, she takes it and the open window breeze is on her face, and he smells amazing close to her and.but.and.but.
"Maybe I should go back?"
"Do you trust me?"
"Do you trust you?"
.and on the stage chaos. The band still plays and singer downs the last of a bottle of wine before shattering it against the side-wall mirror of the club, TSSSHHHH. The fight continues, but gets swept up in the mosh pit, shifting bodies and space, clashing, locking, heaving with raw energy. Someone hucks a barstool at the guitar player, who dodges, and it crashes the drummers cymbals to the floor. Sirens outside, and maybe an ambulance, and the bartender leaps over the bar and into the riot which moves with a wild rhythm as the band plays on. The singer expunges some death cry and lunges into the crowd, writhing on the floor repeating and they will march into war and they will die and they will march into war and they will FUCKING DIIIIEEEE!!!!! while some fend off others trying to kill him.
The house lights come on, and an alarm shrieks through the room. Jimmy, sweaty, bursts through the back security room door with the weight of people panic pushing against his giant back.
"You gotta go."
But the room is empty, breathless, except for the shaky ceiling fan pushing a breeze towards the open window. A cell phone on the coffee table beeps softly with unchecked txt messages.
And a tiny, tiny, tiny revolution begins.