We were waiting for a table at the capacity crowd El Palomar, in the bar area where beer was a dollar a pint for the next two hours and the local modern rock station DJ was doing a very tepid live show. Despite the beer specials, I ordered a gin & tonic, and Tabitha ordered a white Russian. Cat sat across from us with her friend Ellie. They both drank margaritas. The DJ had ported in gigantic radio station speakers. There was a terrible din of chattering voices. Tabitha and I could make out perhaps every third or fourth word Cat screamed to Ellie. It was gossip.
“–the second time he said he wasn’t really in love with me.”
CRASH WOCKA WOCKA
“–you call her for?”
“–could be okay with it. I’m just so tired of–”
CRASH CRASH FEEDBACK. Fadeout.
“–said he’d call me in the morning, but I gave him my old number by mistake.”
“Oh, honey. You know what good men are.” What a charming thing for Cat to say. They talked as if we weren’t sitting right next to them.
I hadn’t eaten anything in six hours or so, and I was drunk. The glass buzzed at my lips. Creeping in at all the edges were sinister characters, the hollow people who fucked and ran, who spread herpes, who lied until they got tired of lying and then left. My eyes became hooded slits in defense. Gin & chips & salsa, get your licks in while you can. Cat was on her third margarita and Jamie was still nowhere to be seen. I’m glad I couldn’t hear more than a third of the things she said about him.
Jamie sat down and surprised me. Cat reacted to his arrival about the same way as a building would. He didn’t look like a local rock band. His T-shirt was only mildly ironic. His hair was buzzed short and he had the beady eyes of a bear. He looked stoically violent, inexpressive. He said, “Hey, babe. How are you? I’m sorry I’m late.” Cat finished a thought she was sharing with Ellie and paused for only a second.
“How was your golf game?” Her “s” had a razor edge.
“It was good. Mike and I left our cell phones in the car, though. He got stuck on the eighth hole. I was getting totally pissed.”
“I hope you realize how upset I am with you right now,” she said calmly, and turned back to Ellie. Nobody said anything as the next song started. Jamie’s eyes tried to focus on something that wasn’t Cat. I was still drunk.
By the time we got to our table I wasn’t so drunk. My head hurt, though. The building had terribly high ceilings, which were painted to resemble a mission or a cathedral. We sat in a corner booth. Jamie talked mostly to Ellie. Cat systematically asked us about everybody she could think of from home. We spread out the stories–car accidents, messy breakups, colleges and collapses. All the people we knew, everyone who had been connected, was scattered now.
I can remember when she started a band, some inarticulate debt to Tori Amos, and two of my good friends frantically learned to play instruments so they could join. This was the sort of devotion Cat could expect. We all wanted to be aligned with her. This was the tremendous discovery of intimacy. It shocked us, and we wanted to have secrets with her.
Because we were all so close I could watch as one of these friends awakened into lesbianism by playing guitar and singing with Cat. They had one song and two acoustic guitars and sang in lilting half-sobs of harmony. The boy bought an electric bass guitar so he could play with them too. He always spoke of practicing with them, though he never performed their only song with them. He was gradually excluded, his bass guitar lying neglected in the corner of his cluttered room. Neither of them would win her. The girl made a desperate, unseen plea, or a clumsy heartpounding move, and one day they were parted. The boy realized his failure time and time again. He was in love until Cat left, and when he had to move on he gave up all the trappings of sincerity and worked fiendishly towards being Big Man On Campus. The girl lives an outed life somewhere near Sacramento with a charming little dog. He still lives at home. High school is over.
We told all of our stories because Jamie was there. We were in plays, she directed plays. The productions were always farcical disasters with endearingly quirky characters. She reminded us how she cried and cried when actors were uncooperative or defiant. Those were dark times. Everybody cried. When we were all losing faith and hope, we saw that she had already lost it. There was a powerful emotional kinship in that, and even in the skeletal reminiscence we shared, I could feel the draw again. It was thrilling to be able to share anything with her.
When the check came, Tabitha and I reached for our wallets, but Cat shook her head and gave us the beneficent smile she always used when surprising people. We got up to leave.
“So, do you guys have to be home at a certain time? Do you want to go do something else?” she asked.
I looked at Tabitha, who shot me a look of ambivalence laced with something. It was hot and I was entirely too close to a bunch of inquisitive faces. I felt sick as I answered her.
“No, we don’t have to be home at any set time. What did you have in mind?”
She took us to Fast Eddy’s, the local pool hall. We went in Ellie’s car and listened to bad rap music by some fat shouting man from North Carolina. Something about taking your shirt off and twirling it around above your head. She and Ellie sang along in the front seat. Ellie smoked, and everything reeked of cigarettes. Jamie was to meet us there in his truck. When we got out, Ellie suddenly shuddered.
“Oh, shit. That guy is here.”
“You mean the one who–”
“Yeah.” Ellie looked at me. “He has to be my boyfriend for the next two hours.”
She took my arm and I felt the momentary flush of embarrassed pride that comes when a strange girl seeks your protection. A pair of stocky bouncers stood outside, warily watching a bunch of scruffy skater kids who stood around smoking and cursing. Guns ‘n’ Roses clanked away inside. As far as I could tell, every guy in there, bedroom hair, gel spiked or buzz cut, was looking hungrily at Ellie. I just walked straight ahead. Cat ordered a Red Tail Ale, looked at us for a moment so she could see us decline. We walked upstairs to the second tier of pool tables. The hall was not packed, for it was a Thursday night. Only the occasional lumpy couple or clump of adolescent 24-year-olds clacked the old balls around.
Cat came up with her ale and our set of billiard balls. She set them down on the table and thus began the laggy odyssey of bad angles and wood slipping on felt. Tabitha and I went up against Cat and Ellie. The game took close to an hour, as we sank nothing after nothing. It was the first time I had ever shot pool, and I was self-consciously bad. Cat sucked down that ale, and several others. When it was our turn, she and Ellie sat on the mahogany benches and quietly gossiped.
I remembered hushed talks about prescription antidepressants, about the oppressive agony of love, and about the mystical terror of an encounter with a UFO. It was always fall, and it was always night. It was always breathlessly urgent. Her words and pauses are tangled up with phrases and fragments of rhythm from Smashing Pumpkins songs, Billy’s nasal whine and Cat’s smooth, matter-of-fact confessions. She kissed me once, when I was lying on the drama stage, staring up at the ceiling. I shuddered with delight.
Back on earth I had finally got all the solids in the pockets. With Cat silently watching me I sank the eight ball.
“Nice shot,” she said, chuckling. “You just lost.”
“This was my first time playing pool. I didn’t know.”
“And now you do.”
Back at the beach house Tabitha and I were on bunk beds, on the top bunks of two bunk beds. The cone-lamp gave us big shadows. We looked sinister and ponderous on the stucco. It was late, after midnight, and I was reading. Tabitha was lying down, staring up at the ceiling.
“Do you know what she said to me when you went to the bathroom?” she said.
“She said, ‘I’m glad that you were the one who took my place when I left.’ I told her that it wasn’t me at all, that it was Allie who came in and captivated all the guys. I was offended by the insinuation.”
I chuckled. “I guess you’re looking pretty good, then.”
“That she could think that I would knowingly manipulate and string men along like she did. It’s repulsive. I can’t believe the way she had you guys wrapped around her little finger. What did you see in her? What made you want to be with her?”
“I don’t really know what to tell you,” I replied. It was not proper or necessary to try to justify how I felt. “I was a very different person back then. We all were. We didn’t know shit about love or women. Cat was very emotional, very dark. And it drew us to her. She gave us drama, and that was all we could gauge our own feelings with. I guess we saw something in her intensity that made us want to be as alive as her. What did we know about manipulation?”
“She made fools of you, and you kept coming back for more, over and over again.”
“I really don’t know what I can say. I can’t account for my feelings back then. I knew how I felt, and that was what led me along. I just wanted to feel intensely.”
Tabitha was sobbing suddenly, quietly, straining to hold it in. Her gasps for breath and sniffles were the only audible sounds. And I climbed gingerly across the gap to her bed and pulled myself up to her and put my arms around her.
“Tabitha, heyTabby. Shhhhhhh. Don’t cry.”
She shook her head violently, repeating, “no, no, no,” quietly between breaths. She cried openly now, raggedly, for the first time in ages. I held her there and was bitterly sorry, but there were no words.
* * *
Edward slunk into the restaurant and sat down next to his father without looking at any of us. He had been gone for twenty or thirty minutes.
“I told him that if I had to hear one more word of complaint that I would sell his Playstation as soon as we got home,” his father had said to us as we waited for the table. There were an awful lot of people in Denny’s on a Saturday morning–lots of women in their mid-twenties, their educations arrested by pregnancy, lugging their offspring in for the $2.99 Grand Slam breakfasts, still trying to be wild and spontaneous (circa 1995) with home-painted Chevy Cavaliers with Barbie Doll hood ornaments–postmodern balls of sizzling energy with bad perms and overstretched t-shirts. They were love-starved, hyperkinetic fuckers with pug-nosed hyperkinetic fucker children, and there sure were a lot of them. “He says he’s sick,” Edward’s father had continued, rolling his eyes.
“I checked the bathroom,” said Edward’s father under his breath to Edward’s mother. They acted exactly like he was not sitting right next to them, except that he was. Edward was fighting with the scaly tail-end of a crying fit. His eyes were red-rimmed, and he was still sniffling, though he was now making a meager show of masking all that in front of everyone. But the world was still a very broken place, prescribed so for several hours. “I checked the bathroom,” said Edward’s father. “Evidently he was sick. All over the place.”
I wondered that more of us weren’t sick. Tabitha and I had been choking down steaks every night for a week. Edward and Mayson had been devouring bear claws and crullers by the supermarket dozen and consuming on average about seven BBQ ribs apiece per day. The six of us bought and completely ate a deluxe supermarket cake every night. By the second day, Edward and Mayson had eaten all of the candy bars that were supposed to last everybody the whole trip. Surprisingly enough it was Edward, burgeoning lump of ravenous boyflesh, who suffered the illest effects.
Mayson, it seemed, was trying to ignore his friend’s childish condition.
“Hey, what–what if the world just ended and you were stuck inside here? What would you do? I’d eat nothing but milkshakes every day.” His lips were around the straw as soon as he finished his thought, but he was looking up at us again.
“You know,” said Edward’s father, “that there were hailstones in France the size of pool balls? It was a storm of pool balls. Think about what that would do to a person who was out on the street. It would mash them into jelly.”
“Hey, wouldn’t this be, like, a really great place to stay if something bad happened?” asked Mayson. “It’s got like these high pointed roofs and stuff.” I was looking over at the next table, at a couple of reptilian sixteen-year-olds in bikini tops, sitting with their parents. Nobody answered Mayson.
“I’d be a little worried about all the glass,” Tabitha broke in with extreme reluctance. The restaurant was all huge plate glass windows. “All that glass would cut you to pieces.”
“Yeah, but I’d stay away from the windows. I’d sit under this table here so the lights couldn’t fall on me, either.”
“You couldn’t live on milkshakes, Mayson,” I sighed. “All the ingredients would require refrigeration. Where would you get the power?”
“Well it wouldn’t take much power. I would only use one lamp. I’d take the bulbs out of every other lamp, and when one bulb burnt out, I’d just replace it.” We all started to laugh at this. Mayson began to chuckle, too. “What–what’s so funny? Did I say something funny?” he said blankly. He looked up at all of us as we laughed. “All I said was–” and we kept on laughing. He was smiling at us, too.
I wondered what Mayson, the pimply singer of Cat Stevens songs, would do when the lightbulbs ran out.