For a minute, he forgot about last night, which is good because even in his own self-concept he would have become more of a pathetic loser than a tragic hero. I am not implying, however, that Jake is going to do something heroic. He tried to get up and fell over before he remembered his ankle. He was so tired of waking up to surprises and a hangover. He was an hour late for work already. He decided not to go, which was a monumental occurrence.
When he sat down in front of the computer and shook the mouse, he saw the conversation from last night on his screen. He stared at it for a moment, then quickly got up and turned off the monitor. Instead of thinking about it, he turned on the TV.
The TV had plenty to say about the state of the world. America was maybe invading somebody else again. A black man killed some white folk, but for some reason nobody white committed any crimes. An old lady needs air conditioning or she’ll die. Bees! Killer bees! They were the kinds of things that Scooter would talk about, the things that are Wrong. America is going to die foaming at the mouth with a bullet in its head. Jake wrote that down because he didn’t have anyone to say it out loud to.
He turned off the TV and went hopping over to his stereo. Taped to it was a note with drops of dried, rusty brown blood on it.
There’s a tape in the stereo I thought might help.
PS – I didn’t shit on you
The phone rang and Jake ignored it. He bent over and turned on the tape. It was a song he’d heard a hundred times. I didn’t write it—it’s a real song by a real band. The songs I wrote were never any good. It’s called “Scream Until You’re Coughing Up Blood” by Against Me! The exclamation point is theirs, not mine. Here are a few lines:
Everything you’ve got to hold on to,
Everything you relied on to be there for you is completely fucked.
There’s a skeleton of loyalty hanging in the gallows of your heart
(no one wins this one)
The phone rang its usual death rattle. Jake ignored it. The song is about friendship, I guess, and about not being complacent. Here’s another line:
Are we just drinking buddies playing with each other’s dearest vulnerability?
Jake pulled out a blank tape and started pulling CDs down. This was the song. It was the ending he had been looking for forever, and he had never heard it like this before. It was beauty all in and of itself. It was his mission statement.
Really, it could have been almost any song. In fact, it probably wasn’t this one. What mattered most was Jake realizing that the songs were just a start, that there was more to him than guts and atoms and music. He could play the tape for Alex and then say that this kept him alive for a time, but she could keep him alive now. And it would be okay again. He felt like it was destiny, and as misguided as it may be he was trying a new survival scheme. Every story Jake had ever read was about a girl.
The phone rang. Here’s another line:
I don’t feel anything unless we are living and dying for each other every second of our lives.
Jake knew exactly what he had to do. Suddenly his miniscule world could no longer contain him. It felt like a coffin. Or a falling elevator. Here’s another line:
If we don’t get out of here right now we’re just gonna end up
Drunk fucking, fighting, and working machines.
It was done. Jake pulled it out and wrote his name on it with a marker, knowing it was finally as good as he would ever make it. It was as good a reason to live as any. It was as good a reason to leave as any.
. . .
Jake finally answered the phone as he pushed stop and pulled out the mix tape. It was Kimmy.
“Jake, shit, where have you been?”
“Here. Why?” He was nonchalant, indifferent. None of this mattered any more.
Kimmy’s concern was motherly and almost visible. “Meyer’s been calling you all day. He is so pissed off.”
“Let him be.” He meant it.
“Are you serious?”
“Look, I hate the phone. If you want to talk come over.” He invited her to his shit-hole life. He had done it because he wasn’t ashamed of it, and it was all crumbling anyway.
“I just feel like a talking head on the phone. If you’re coming over come over.”
. . .
“I’m sorry, I’m leaving.” Jake said it with a straight face the way he often did when he quoted something no one in the room had heard of because he couldn’t think of anything better.
“What?” Kimmy’s eyes were as empty as ever, but Jake knew now that it was an illusion. She wasn’t stupid, she wasn’t empty. He had been empty and he wasn’t telling. That’s why she never got it.
“I’m sorry I cut you out. I’m sorry I didn’t touch you back that night when you hung all over me.” Kimmy’s eyes were getting shimmery like stars or saran wrap, Jake couldn’t decide which. “And I’m sorry I can’t like you. I’m broken. You don’t know the half of it, and I’m sorry about that too.”
Kimmy just looked up at him. He didn’t know what to do.
“Here, I made these.” He handed her his box of tapes. She looked inside it and put it down by her feet.
“For me?” she asked plaintively.
“No, they’re not really for anybody.” Jake was truly sorry about all of it, but he didn’t know how to do this.
“What are they?”
“It’s me. At least, it’s parts of me. The parts I’m leaving behind.”
“I don’t understand.”
Jake was looking down at his shoes with his arms crossed. After a long pause he said, “It’s all just a bunch of bullshit and I’m tired of it. I’m sorry you knew me now and not before, or maybe later.”
He didn’t say I’m sorry you don’t really know me at all.
“I’m not.” Kimmy looked up at him with hope that maybe all her persistence and happiness had maybe, just maybe, made him want to come back here some day.
“You know,” Jake said, breaking into a sort-of laugh, “You’re the only nice person in this town. Don’t forget it.”
He turned away and started pulling the music off the wall. He needed some boxes if he was going to store it somewhere.
“I’ll miss you,” she said, staring down at the box, not knowing what else there was to say.
“I know you will,” he said, not turning around. He worked with a purpose—he had to go as soon as possible. It all had to be dismantled and put away for safekeeping. Just the music. He heard her pick up the box of tapes and open the door. When he turned around again she was gone.
It would be okay. She was still whole. She would get over it, and she would be smiling again. That’s why she didn’t get it. That’s why he couldn’t save this.