If The Shoe Fits... Ch. 4

“Well, I must say I was expecting a little more love for helping out a damsel in distress...” The bass of the guy’s voice had a way of reverberating under my skin.

I could feel my cheeks burning red again. “I’m not a damsel!” This guy clearly needed glasses. His stupid mop of dirty black hair was probably hiding a lobotomy scar.

“What!? I didn’t mean you!” He looked as outraged as I did. He pointed to Lara as he knelt down to pick up the rest of her books.


CHAPTER 4: HIS STORY, REPEATING PART 2

NOW

Wasting awa~y again in Margari~taville. Looking for my~ lost shaker of sa~lt. Some people sa~y that there’s a wo~man to bla~me...”

Yes, and her name is Lara Belle Bowen. Hah.

“~but I know, dah dah dah da~h, it’s my o~wn damn fault.”

Oh snap. You burned me, Buffet. You burned me good.

We sang these prophetic words in drunken glee. Dancing stupid together on, Bessie, Lara’s vintage leather couch, so named because of its splotchy black and white pattern that resembled that of a milk cow. I was wearing one of Lara’s oversized sleep shirts, the one with a giant pair of red pop art lips on it, using our Swiffer dust mop as a makeshift microphone. Really, who could I blame for this?

“To Caleb and his big gay Italian wedding!” Lara put her glass in the air, swaying back and forth on her heels. I bent down to retrieve my own, took up my glass and sucked it down like it was an antidote.

“To Caleb... wherever you are.” Our impromptu celebration of Caleb’s big news wasn’t the same without him here to drink us both under the table. I missed the big dork.

Lara, perhaps sensing that the fun had quieted down, jabbed me in the belly, “Why so se~rious!?”

On account of her subtle southern twang, which the years had proven her incapable of losing completely, her Joker became more Brokeback Mountain than The Dark Knight. I nearly did a spit take with my wine but caught it as it dribbled out of my mouth.

“Watch the furniture there, Shamu.” Our couch, like most of her things, was vintage, read: difficult to replace. I can only imagine how she felt when she awoke to find that blonde vomit fountain zonked out on it the morning of the photoshoot.

“I’m just amazed you found time to watch The Dark Knight in between viewings of Pierrot le fou,” I scoffed. Lara would have you believe her tastes ran towards arthouse fare like Goddard but the truth was she loved mainstream cinema like nobody’s business. I clambered down off the couch to get a refill and wipe my chin off. The Merlot gurgled out of the bottle until it gurgled no more. Another bottle bites the dust.

“Of course, dude.” She took another big mouthful. “Heath Ledger. Acting god... Rest in Peace, Sexy.”

Lara bowed her head and we shared a brief moment of silence.

“It’s hard to believe the same girl who’s watched Armageddon a hundred times, on purpose, would watch something classy like Batman.”

“If memory serves, your eyes were just as wet as mine when Bruce Willis died.” Lara started getting choked up even thinking about this historic moment in movie history.

“I was crying at how terrible that movie was.” I put on Lara’s glasses and did an impression of her crying. What really sold it was the way I snorted like my whole face was a snotty dripping mess that I could just suck back in.

“You know what?” Lara marched over to me, got up in my face and in one smooth motion swiped her glasses back. “I think you’re a movie snob.”

“Me?” I chuckled. “Me? Nice try. I’m not the one who told all our friends how much Ingmar Bergman shaped her childhood and then went home to watch Bethoven 2. That was you, bucky.” Afraid I would spill wine on her couch from laughing so hard, I set my glass on the table.

“Making fun of my teeth now? That’s playing dirty.”

“If the Charlie Chans fit... ” We were circling each other like lovers, or vipers do.

“You asked for this.” Lara put her glass down and tackled me into the couch, tickling my ribs and making me sing like they were piano keys.

“Give! I give!” The pleasure was about to explode from my eye sockets. “Think of poor, Bessie!”

“Fuck Bessie! Do you apologize for making fun of my teeth?” Lara had her knees up on my forearms and was pinning me down. From this angle and with the lamp lighting her from behind she was luminescent.

“I do. I do! They’re fine chompers!” The assault continued.

“Do you apologize for making fun of Armageddon?”

“I do! It’s a new classic!” Clearly I had touched on a sore spot. If Michael Bay ever needs a bodyguard, I got a number for him. Lara wasn’t done with me yet. “What do you want? I said yes!”

“Do you admit that the animal cracker scene made you swoon?” Lara was referring to the scene where Ben Affleck uses animal crackers to play with Liv Tyler’s naked flesh on a sun dappled hill to the tune of Aerosmith’s now classic “Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing.” In a movie I mostly found laughable it was a memorable heartfelt scene. Lara let up so I could catch my breath and answer her.

“Swoon?” I wouldn’t say swoon. That suggests that I fainted and had to be resuscitated by a greasy usher.

Swoon.” Lara was vehement on sticking to this word.

“I plead the fifth.”

“Coward.” Lara pinched my nipple.

“Ow. That was unduly harsh.” I nursed my sore nipple.

Lara was still astride me, the full weight of her body pressed against my upper body. Her face was wiped clean of definable emotions. Her eyes were pools that glittered on their surface, hiding the depths of their secrets below. Somewhere the Titanic theme was playing.

“Alex, when did you know that you loved me?”

THEN

Our high school had three kinds of water fountains, none of which were conducive to actually drinking water and all of which came with their own peculiar hazards. There were the broken ones, which would sporadically pollute the air with ancient spores. There were the high pressure ones which would, on rare occasions, catch unsuspecting students in a localized water spout that normally resulted in their clothes being soaked or, in the case of females, their T-shirts being ...ahem... wet. Then finally, there were the low pressure ones, which would force us to bend in deep for a sip, inviting horny pervs to stake them out and wait for girls in lowcut tops to get a drink. It was this third variety which would set back my goal of not being a complete social failure until college.

Up until that fateful day, the guys had become accepting of me. I was still considered a brain and, on occasion, a nerd or geek, but I wore my hair short (like them!) and I was known to throw around the old pig skin (again, like them!) so my boyish looks and awkwardness were tolerated by those would-be bullies who needed only one reason to turn on me. In the second semester of my freshmen year when my reputation was at its most fragile, Lara delivered unto them this reason.

In the years since I had severed my ties to my former friend, she had blossomed disastrously into womanhood. First came the zits which had made a zodiac of her mother’s lovely pale skin, and then the train track braces, and by high school she had started taking on the trappings of the mall goth; from the raven black hair and smokey eyes to the corsets that were too sexy for her relatively underdeveloped body. I heard from a classmate that Lara had even started calling herself Lara Darkwish.

One day I was leaving my AP physics class, which happened to be near one of the low pressure fountains, when I heard a commotion. A crowd of rowdy boys had gathered around the fountain and were chanting, ‘Flat Bitch,’ over and over again. I could hear my grandmother’s voice in my head thinking back on the days when ‘a boy knew how to insult a lady’s honor properly’. I was finally able to squeeze my way to the front just in time to see Mike-O, as the local newspapers had dubbed him, the six foot two running-back for the Hambletonians, blocking poor five foot five Lara from leaving.

“Show us them mosquito bites, girl. Don’t be shy.” Mike-O looked to his audience for approval. The fuckers gave it to him. “Pretend I’m Dracula. Or Satan.” His comment was met with a round of chuckles. Even some girls had stopped to watch the show.

“How about I pretend you’re not a dickless asshole?” Lara gnashed her teeth at him.

“How about I introduce your mouth to my cock?” Mike-O knocked the books out of her hands with ease. Lara glowered at him.

“What the fuck, dude?”

“Well, aren’t you gonna pick them up?” He was getting his rocks off.

“What, are we third graders?” Lara gave a disapproving look to the crowd. She didn’t see me standing there. She turned her attention back to Mike-O. “Well? I can’t pick them up if you’re standing on them.”

“Beg your pardon, miss.” Mike-O took a half step back and innocently raised his hands in what might be a gesture of peace from anyone else.

It wasn’t. When Lara bent down to gather her things, Mike-O shoved her face into his crotch and pretended to receive oral pleasure from her. She struggled but she was caught, mostly, unaware. I wish she’d bitten his rotten pecker right off. He reached his pretend climax to the adulation of the crowd.

“Get the fuck off me, Magilla!” She pushed him away but she was already on the ground, and the damage was already done.

“What’d you call me?” Lara was a freshman like me. We were expected to put up with a certain amount of abuse. This was beyond the pale, but Mike-O was a god in these halls. A body or two left in his wake was considered collateral damage in sacrifice to the school’s glory on the field.

Lara began to cry. What a tear-soaked history we had together. It was time to do something very very very very very very stupid.

“That’s enough! Show’s over!” It was my voice but I couldn’t remember giving my lungs permission to make air for the sounds that were coming out of my mouth.

“Oh? And who are you supposed to be, girl scout?” The room snickered as they made the connection between my new (unwanted) nickname and the tan trousers and white shirt that inspired it. “I’ll take a box of Junior Mints.”Mike-O’s testosterone had fully awakened. You could almost see it surround him like heat waves that warped the scenery behind him. It was making me queasy.

I planted my feet firmly on the ground and steadied myself.

“Leave her alone.” Three small words, that in the history of man had probably lead to the downfall of many a noble sir. In my head these words sounded steadfast and masculine but in the air of reality, they were instead a tiny, ineffectual chirp. They were the pathetic battle cry of a little tweety bird facing down a goddamn cyborg grizzly bear -with a rocket launcher.

Mike-O put an arm around my trembling shoulder and spoke to me in the low menacing tones of a used car dealer. “Listen, kid. I want you to understand that what’s about to go down is nothing personal. I mean, I hate your faggot face but I would’ve let you go if you hadn’t opened your faggot mouth. You see, I’m on the football team and when I go out there, my teammates need to know that I’m going to break spines to get us to victory. If I let you go, it looks bad for my rep. Do you understand?”

Kablooey! Went the mighty grizzly’s rocket.

Thank god I had just gone to the bathroom before class or I would have pissed myself.

“Say. ‘Yessir, Mr. O’Shaughnessy, I understand’ like a good Freshmeat.” A popular nickname for freshmen.

“Y-Yessir, Mr. O’Sh...” I couldn’t go on. “Y-Yessir, Mr. O’Sh-Mr. O’Shaun.”

Mike shrugged. “Good enough.”

He punched me in the gut just below my ribcage. All the air came whooshing out of my body and I fought to keep what little I had left. I doubled over as Lara watched on in horror. Before I knew it, the ground was parting ways with my feet and I was in the air upside down headed straight into the garbage can. If you’ve never been stuffed into a garbage can upside down and left there with all the blood rushing to your head, Oh, you really must try it. Not only do you get nauseous but you also lose feeling in your legs as they helplessly kick at the air. Speaking of which, there’s precious little of that, air I mean, at that the bottom of a garbage can when you’ve been so successfully wedged in there so you’re also wondering if you might suffocate. Just a pure joy.

From inside the can I heard a confrontation between Mike and someone else. Then the laughter stopped and something grabbed my leg, pulling me out with ease as if I were made of feathers. I was folded over his shoulder like a sack of laundry facing a crowd of cackling hyenas. I turned a deep shade of crimson, blushing like I hadn’t since I was a little boy. I tried to cover my face when I saw a row of cameras snapping my photo. It was far too late.

“Put me down, you asshole!” The tall, olive skinned guy in the leather jacket plopped me down onto my feet next to Lara, who immediately put her arms around me like we’d never fought at all. He put his hands up like he was surrendering.

“Well, I must say I was expecting a little more love for helping out a damsel in distress...” The bass of the guy’s voice had a way of reverberating under my skin.

I could feel my cheeks burning red again. “I’m not a damsel!” This guy clearly needed glasses. His stupid mop of dirty black hair was probably hiding a lobotomy scar.

“What!? I didn’t mean you!” He looked as outraged as I did. He pointed to Lara as he knelt down to pick up the rest of her books.

“What!?” I said as the bell for our next classes rang.

“He means me, squid for brains.” Lara looked up from my shoulder where she left a big puddle of drool and broke away. She dusted herself off, straightening her shirt and patting down her hair. Then she turned to me and fussed over my hair and clothing in much the same way while the guy finished gathering the books into a pile.

“What are you up to? Cut it out.” I swatted at her.

She did an about face toward her savior. “Thanks for helping me.” She rocked back on her heels in a coquettish way.

He offered her the pile of books and made a slight bow. It was uncommon to see anyone show anyone else a sign of respect in this school. Even though I was super mad at him for making me look like a ragdoll to my present and future classmates, this guy had an air of ineffable cool about him. When he smiled he looked like a South Seas Tom Cruise. “I’m Caleb.”

“I know who you are. My friend Jorma is on the track team with you.” Lara punched Caleb in the arm with a giggle unbecoming of a mistress of the night. “I’m Lara.”

“And your friend?” He asked with a nod towards me.

Lara punched me in the arm completing the circle.

“I’m Alex.” I said on cue with disinterest.

“We’re freshmen.” Lara added unnecessarily. I felt nostalgic hearing Lara refer to us as ‘we’ again after all these years.

“And I’m late for class.” Besides, the way the two of them were giving each other the googly eyes, I figured I’d already facilitated Lara and Caleb’s meet-cute. My role in their love story, in fact in this whole ridiculous drama, was done.

Not long after I’d turned the corner to hit up my locker to retrieve my books for the next class the ground began to rumble. Before I even had time to react I was ravaged by a Class 5 Lara’cane. Swept up in a sweatery embrace, that left me quite statically charged.

“Thank you so much, Alex,” she gushed as the tender kiss she planted on my cheek gave me a jolt. “You were amazing.” I felt like a champion...in a lightning storm.

“Any time.” Yeah, any time you need someone to get jammed into a rubbish bin, you know who to call.

“...I missed you, Alex.” Lara hugged me again but something was different this time. Even though they were meager, when her breasts pressed in to me I felt my heart speed up. I gave her a second stronger squeeze to acknowledge this wondering if maybe she felt it too but the moment passed. “Let’s never fight like that again.” And with those words, two years of rocky roads between us were paved over with a fresh layer of sticky, treacherous asphalt.

When we parted ways at my locker, I looked back several times to see if she were watching me go.

She never did look up from her dreaming.

NOW

“Oh, I love this song.” I lied. It was Jason Mraz whose name made me sound like a drowning cat every time I tried to pronounce it.

“Don’t change the subject.” Lara pounded at my chest with both fists.

“Oh I won’t hesi~tate no mo~re, no mo~re. This cannot wa~it. I’m yo~~urs. I’m yours.” I sang weakly losing the rhythm and the words the farther along I got.

“You hate this song.”

“Yeah, I do.” I saw an opening and flipped Lara onto her back. I assumed a position of dominance atop her. I hadn’t realized that my hands were around her wrists and I was holding her down.

Lara didn’t struggle underneath me but her head would turn to avoid my eyes.

“Your turn, Larabelle.”

“Nah. I hate this song too.”

“That’s not what I mean.” I felt her heaving between my legs in slow steady breaths.

“Well what do you mean?” She was upset. Her voice had cracked like she was holding back a flood and only a single thumb in a single hole was keeping the fjords from cracking entirely. “Maybe if you weren’t so obtuse all the time, things wouldn’t always be like this?”

“Fine. Are you now or have you ever been in love with me?” There it was. That which could not be unasked once asked. Ball’s in your court, LB.

...

“Honestly?” Lara’s cavalier tone would have been more appropriate when answering what her favorite ice cream flavor was.

“No, lie to me. Of course, Honestly! What is wrong with you?”

“...I don’t think so?” It was stated as more of a question. If I had asked her ‘do you think this steak is too salty?’ I would have expected such a response.

“You don’t think so? Is that a question? How can you not know that?” I should never have had this conversation when the two of us were so drunk.

“I dunno.” This wasn’t a statement she fretted over. It just fell out of her mouth like a crate of bananas off a banana truck. Reminder: I’m drunk. Come back on Tuesday nights for the chef’s special metaphors —guaranteed to please like a kangaroo at a sock hop... yeah I got nothing.

“Then why did you ask me?” Was it wrong for me to have assumed that maybe, just maybe, she was asking because she was harboring secret unresolved feelings for me?

“Because... “ You love me too. No maybes about it.

“Because why?”

“Because... I ki~ssed a gi~rl and I liked i~t.” Lara joined the song on the radio with her husky off key voice. I collapsed on her in a broken heap.

She continued to sing sweetly into my ear, “the ta~ste of her che~rry chapsti~ck.”

THEN

“Hello, Hoth residence.” Why does the human voice automatically jump an octave when it answers the phone. “No, this is not Mandy. This is Alex. No, I’m... can I help you with something?” I was grateful that my voice had started changing. It couldn’t come fast enough for me. I was tired of being mistaken for my mother’s daughter. Even correcting the wannabe corporate assholes from her local redneck record company had gotten to be too much of a hassle. I’d given up.

One day my mom decided to make me her evening’s entertainment. She came home stoned and sat with me in the living room while I finished my math homework. She had one leg up on the armrest of my dad’s favorite chair and the other tucked under her. She let her hair loose and whipped it into a mad bird’s nest.

“Sometimes it feels good just to let it all go. Just get in touch with that raw feminine divine, you know?”

“That’s nice, mom.” I was a ten year plus veteran of her crazy talk. Nothing she said particularly surprised me.

“I would think my daughter would agree?” She said with an audible wink.

My pen stopped long enough for my mother to relish her discovery.

“So it is true. You’ve been telling people at the Rooster that you’re my daughter.” The Rooster was her record company, Rooster Records. “That’s kind of fucked up, Al”

“It’s just a misunderstanding. People think I’m you. My voice hasn’t changed yet.”

“Maybe it’s not going to?”

“What are you talking about?” The quiver in my voice betrayed my real concern. I’d never thought of this possibility.

“Well your brother’s voice is already deeper than yours and he’s still just a squirt.”

“Fuck off!”

“No. No. No. Listen. Listen. Maybe that gender bending shit you did with your little friend there, Tara,”

“Lara.” I corrected.

“Whatever. Maybe playing dress-up like that convinced your body that you’re really a girl. Have you checked your wiener lately? It might be shrinking.”

“Dad!” I ran out of the room and went to find my father who was locked in his study with an invisible Do Not Disturb sign hung on the outside. I knocked anyway. My bespectacled father answered the door in his slow and easy manner. He was a short man with a glaring bald spot about the size of a silver dollar pancake that his combover proved incapable of hiding.

“Alex, this better be an emergency.” The impatient look on his face told me I was interrupting something important. I knew better.

“Mom said my dick might be shrinking!” Rather than join me in concern, my father became annoyed by my dilemma.

“For godssake you are too old to be listening to the cosmic bullshit that your mother spews.” My father walked past me and turned my little visit into a flimsy excuse to yell at my mother. I went in his study that housed the family computer and closed all his porn sites so I could look up wiener shrinkage. Aside from cold water, there didn’t seem to be any credence to what my mother said. Still the thought of it gnawed at me.

“Way to go, bro. I can barely hear my Xbox now.” Seth, pushed me with strength far beyond his ten years before returning to his sports museum with a bed. My parent’s fighting lasted for another hour or two until the house went quiet. This was the calm before the sex storm. Even when I was Seth’s age and he was just a toddler, I knew what the creaking sounds and the musical moaning meant.

The next morning, my mother was back to her normal judgmental self. She apologized for not making me any breakfast or lunch claimed that she had some woman issues to deal with and then gave me three dollars to get something to eat. It was becoming blatantly apparent that now that I was no longer a child, I was on my own out there. No more carrot snack packs and organic tofu fritters for my lunch sack. My mom, who had been so careful to protect me from a world of processed foods and artificial flavors, was now content to toss me into the belly of the beast. I was forced to eat my way out.

With only three dollars, all I had been able to afford was a cucumber salad and a sad apple. I was seated all by myself at lunch, having recently disavowed all interest in the human race following the school-wide circulation of some embarrassing pictures of me in a trash can and another of me on Caleb’s shoulder blushing. I may have been a social pariah but I was glad for the silence. After two months of weathering the insults; including panties in my locker and I love Caleb graffiti, people had finally done as I asked them and fucked off. Or maybe they just got too busy to give a shit what with end of the year finals upon us.

That’s why I wasn’t happy when Mr. Heroman himself came over and sat across from me. He was wearing thick cologne that smelled like elk or cigar boxes. It was classic like something my grandfather might wear.

“What are you doing here? Get out of here before people see you!” I whisper shouted as I pushed his tray away nonchalantly trying not to acknowledge him.

“So what if they do?” Caleb bit into an apple like it was the tastiest thing he’d ever put his lips to. It was nice to know that I wasn’t the only kid at school who had any interest in keeping the doctor away.

“Easy for you to say, I just got them to shut up about that little scene outside the lab.” I was trying to shoo him like he was a pigeon in the park.

“What’s that got to do with us here now?” I gave him a Lara look. I wanted him to know he was the stupidest man on the planet right now.

“Why are you here anyway? Don’t you have some popular kids to hang out with?”

“Sure, and if I wanted to talk about track, that’s where I’d be.” Caleb took a gulp from his milk and set it down. What kind of teenager drinks milk like that, shy of a Got Milk? Commercial.

“Um... you got a little something...” I tried to point it out his milk mustache to him but it was quicker just to wipe it myself. I returned my handkerchief to my pocket.

“Thanks.” Caleb looked embarrassed by my actions. Good. Now he knows how it feels to be treated like a baby.

I ate my cucumber salad silently while Caleb finished his All American Lunch special that also included a charred discus of a hamburger and greasy crinkle cut fries.

“So you don’t want to talk about track. What do you want to talk about?”

“How about you? Are you from around here?” I was tired of questioning why this guy wanted to be my friend. If this was some kind of setup to make me look stupid, I invited the relief. For now I was just going to play along.

“All my life.” I almost wanted to sigh. This was not the kind of town that deserved to be lived in for all of a person’s life. We didn’t even have a Walmart of our own. We had to share one with three other towns.

“What do your parents do?” He asked all too earnestly.

“My mother is a folk singer and my father is a daytrader. That means he plays the stock market professionally. Usually with other people’s money.”

“I know what a daytrader is.” Caleb seemed slightly insulted that I would assume he didn’t know what a Daytrader was. Most kids here probably thought it was a book from the Chronicles of Narnia. No, I’m giving them too much credit. They probably thought it was a Sylvester Stallone movie about subterranean mole people.

“What about you? What do your parents do?”

“My stepdad’s an investment banker and my real dad works for the prosecutor’s office. That’s how I got Mike to leave you guys alone. Threatened him with sexual harassment law, told him I could bring the hammer of justice down on his balls.”

“I just figured you pounded him into goo.” I pointed to the goo on Caleb’s plate which I think was a gob of “secret sauce”.

“Goo would only have been an improvement. That dude needs some facial reconstruction via someone’s fists but I’m cool with using my brain. That’s what it’s there for.” Caleb flashed his pearly whites and within a five foot radius of him the room seemed to light up.

“And your mom... or moms?” Getting us back on track with a joke.

“Just the one. She’s a mom. I have three siblings, so she’s got her hands full.”

“Wow. That’s a lot. I just have the one little brother and he’s more than I can handle. How do you deal?”

“Haha. My family are all very close to one another.” Caleb made his hands into a house of fingers and then brought them closer together to illustrate that it was shrinking, “emotionally but physically as well because our house is like a cottage for dwarves.” I cracked up.

“I can’t even imagine.”

“No? You’re not close to your family?” Who was this social worker in the guise of a kid?

“Not really. My mom is always stoned. My dad’s either working or pretending to work, and my brother is everything I am not.”

“You must be very lonely.” This was the first time anyone had ever suggested that.

“To be honest, sometimes I wish I was more lonely. My parents are just too fake.” I said with an uncomfortable chuckle.

“Maybe you should bring me over for dinner? So I can teach them how a family is supposed to act.”

“You want to come eat my mom’s veggie cuisine? That’s a first.”

“Well, life is about trying new things.”

The bell rang. When I stood up, Caleb fetched my bag for me before I had the chance to. He seemed to come from a different culture where people were decent to each other. Frankly, it was weird. All of it.

“So, were you serious about coming over to our house?” Things like this had been said by others in the past and then yanked away just when they seemed like they might be kindnesses.

“Of course. Let’s meet up at the front gate after classes...” Caleb seeing my disapproving look, “I mean, around the corner... on Dove St.... away from the prying eyes of all these lookie-loos.”

I smiled and I was excited like I hadn’t been since that day Lara had invited me over. Hopefully this would go smoother than that had. I would have to call my mother to tell her that I was bringing a friend home for dinner. Would she even believe me?

I was combing over the fine details when I was shaken from my stupor by a loud metallic clang. Lara had slammed a locker near my head for effect.

“Are you... and Caleb...” A terrifying notion spawned. “Are you flirting with him?” Lara’s eyes were dinner plates upon which she was serving heaping mounds of jealousy.

In the intervening months since the incident at the water fountain, Lara and I had only met a couple of times but every time we did. She would not shut up about Caleb. Did I think he was cute? Did I see the way he touched her hand when he handed over her books? Do you think he likes me? Do you think he has a girlfriend? It was endless and punishing. Somehow having Lara back in my life had gone from a happy celebration to a religious mass during which our lord Caleb must always be praised.

So in love was Lara that she ditched the Darkwish personality and the attendant friends that came with it and was slowly working her way back toward normalcy. Well, as normal as she got anyway. I would have been upset with her for changing to suit a guy, but the truth is, Lara was about as goth as the Queen of England. As soon as she heard Caleb make a disparaging offhand remark about the “club kids,” Lara had scaled back her look from Vampire Princess to Avril Lavigne faster than you can say ‘He was Sk8r Boi. She said See ya later boy.’

“Lower your voice. Jesus, someone might hear that crazy talk and think you’re serious.”
I pulled Lara aside into an empty classroom.

“I am serious. It sounded like, he was...” she took a deep breath. “...asking you out, like, on a date.”

I remember all my internal organs dropping down to my socks when she suggested this. “No, he’s just coming over for dinner,” on her worried look I added, “as a friend.”

“You don’t think he’s... like that, do you?” Gasp.

“How should I know?” I threw my hands in the air.

She bit her lower lip and gave a frustrated sigh. “You’re not... like that, are you?”

“Lara, how can you even ask me that? Should we be having this conversation? We just mended a two year gap in our friendship.”

“I know. I know. I just really like this guy and... “

“Chill, Lara. He’s just coming over for dinner cause he wants to observe first hand what a real live dysfunctional suburban family looks like.” Lara still seemed worried so I foolishly kept talking, “You can come too if you like?”

“Really? You’re serious? Dinner with Caleb?” Lara let her arms drop to her side as she shuffled back and forth circling a desk like a vulture.

“Well, I’ll be there too.” It being, you know, my house and family.

“Oh of course you will.” Lara slid her hand down my cheek. “I didn’t mean to suggest that... wow, this will be my first time over at your house.”

The deeper meaning of that fact sunk in.

After that night way back when we were kids, Lara’s dad had forbidden her from coming over and I had only been allowed to visit Lara when her mother was around. The first day I went over to Lara’s house to play following the dress-up incident, Lara’s mother took me aside privately to make things “clear.” She said that she didn’t blame me, which was nice, but she also said that what I had done went against nature (she meant God) and therefore couldn’t be abided. She told me that if I ever had any “urge” to “play princess” again then I would not be welcome in their house. I promised I wouldn’t and despite Lara’s attempts, I never even touched her clothes, her jewelry or her makeup again.

My mother was not ecstatic about having one guest over let alone two but she was in a good mood, thanks to booking a local radio show with her band, and she incredibly agreed to my terms. I should have known something was fishy when she said ‘why don’t I just invite the whole neighborhood over, it’ll be a regular block party’.

Though she didn’t invite the whole neighborhood over, when Caleb, Lara and I turned up my street I saw two unfamiliar cars parked in front of our house. Caleb, whose coolness factor increased more when I saw that he drove a Volkswagon van, pulled up behind them.

“Looks like we’re not the only dinner guests.” Lara gripped my hand tightly. We were late thanks to her having to go home and change into what she had told me, and me alone, were her ‘Come Git Some’ clothes -which turned out to be a little back dress and skull marked ballet flats. Even her makeup had changed subtly, losing some of the softness of her school look for something a little bolder and more playful.

I got caught staring at her wet lips and had to look away.

NOW

There was an unspoken intensity like a magnetic force building between us. Before I knew it, my lips were drawn to hers and, as if by instinct, our tongue were seeking each other out. Two serpents locked in battle.

“Mffm Fmmeh Mfff.” My tongue was in her mouth but Lara was speaking to me as if unaware of that fact.

“Something wrong?”

“Yes.” Lara softly pushed me off of her and together we both sat up, leaning against the couch. “This. This is wrong.”

“I don’t know it feels pretty alright.”

“I want more than pretty alright.” Lara stuck out her hand and twirled it like she was trying to conjure something from thin air.

“Well, if you gave it a chance maybe you’d be surprised.”

“OK. Fine. I’ll give you a chance. Wow me.” Lara puckered her lips ready to be kissed. It was like Tetris when the missing piece is clearly a squiggly S. All that remains is fitting the piece in.

“Woah. No pressure or anything.” I came within millimeters of laying my lips upon hers again, but pulled away at the last second. I regrouped and then I kissed her again. She was receptive but, I might say, unenthused.

“It’s just not doing it.” I felt like this was a challenge to my manhood so I tried again but Lara broke off the kiss mid-face sucking. “I have an idea.”

Lara stood up and walked over to her purse. She rifled through it dropping various crushed bits of paper and dust onto the floor as she did. When she at last found what she was looking for, she returned to me and knelt up next to me. Her fingers slipped around my jaw and she angled me toward the light.

“What are you doing?”

“We’re going to try something, because I have a hunch, and as my disastrous love life has proven time and time again, my hunches are seldom wrong.” She removed the cap from something and gave it a twist. These movements could only mean one thing.

“Is that lipstick?”

“Yep.” It was in a wine colored red which nearly leapt from the smooth tip of the tube to my chapped lips.

“And you want to put that on me?” I squirmed away from her to the far corner of the couch.

“I do.” Lara sidled closer to me and pressed the tube closer to my lips. They subconsciously parted ready to receive.

“May I ask why?” I managed to ask before first contact was made.

“Because Alex is a terrible kisser.” The lipstick spread, filling in all the secret nooks that still housed the last color these lips had worn. This painted desert, with its myriad layers, was developing a deep and mysterious history all its own.

THEN

“I’m home... and I’m not alone.” I turned back to Caleb and Lara to make a face like the kid in the movie, the one that resembled Edvard Munch’s classic painting, Scream. Caleb nodded approval but Lara was too busy being a girl of rapt attention to her beloved to notice. My best shit is wasted on her.

“We’re in the kitchen.” Sang my mother in a voice eerily similar to Maria from Sesame Street.

We passed through the narrow hall and into the kitchen where seated around our dining room table were two young men who I recognized from my mother’s benefit concert as well as my brother Seth and my father. Seth was flipping through a magazine on dirt bike racing and my father was “reading” the latest issue of TIME.

“Al, get in here, I don’t think you’ve ever been formally introduced.” She pointed a wooden spoon at the two guys at our table. About the man on the right who was wearing a fedora and was sporting a well cared for soulpatch she said, “This is Jacob, he’s the genius who just booked me on Up All Night.” The man tipped his hat like a goon. About the man on the left she said, “And his partner Fred, who he married just last, what was it June?”

“July.” Proudly said the younger man with the short blonde hair.

“Of course. Just after the Fourth parade. Silly me.” My mom whacked the spoon across her temple. “I should know, I was the guest of honor. At the parade not the wedding.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Al...” Jacob was waiting for the rest of my name to be filled in.

“...exa?” My mother finished. “Is that what you’ve been calling yourself on the phone when you pretend to be my daughter?” I turned from pink to red to purple like a mood ring.

“As his mother, I would think you would know it’s just Alex.” Caleb spoke up with a confidence few people could muster when faced down by mother.

“And you must be Caleb.” My mother extended her flour covered hand to the tall boy, but when he went to shake it she pulled him into a big hug. “I suppose I should thank you
for coming to Al’s rescue. Pulling my baby doll out of the trash can like that. You’re like his own personal Superman.”

My father and brother dove deeper into their reading material. Lest they become targets of mother’s game. I think Seth may have even had his iPod on.

“And what a surprise this is? Little Lara Bowen. I haven’t seen you since... well since you were dressing my son up like a flower girl at a hillbilly wedding...”

“How’s her new record selling?” Caleb asked Jacob out of the blue.
“Pardon?” Jacob nearly spat out his celery creamcheese hors d'oeuvre.

“You know. Mandy Maitlin, heaven forbid she use her married name, right? How’re the sales of her latest CD?” I dropped my bag to the floor with a crash but it didn’t distract any one from the spectacle in center ring.

Was it Christmas?

My mother’s look of utter speechless shock was a gift that I, Seth, and my father would receive every day for the next 5 years whenever any of us got angry at her. Somehow Caleb had cut right through her lackadaisical bullshit and struck a killing blow at the core.

“I can’t discuss...that’s confidential.” Jacob mumbled.

“Is it possible to love that boy more?” Lara whispered to me in amazement. I don’t know how I felt about him before, but Caleb had just earned a hundred years of my love.

“Dinner will be in 5 minutes, why doesn’t everyone take a seat now. Before a circus sideshow decides to join us as well.” It was already here, mother. My mother flung mashed potatoes to the floor, unaware that she was still stirring them when she gestured.

The first five minutes of dinner was dead silent. How do you follow up a performance like that? That was Frank Sinatra at the Copa. My mother was the first to break the silence.

“How’re your mother and father, Lara?” My mother didn’t care. She just wanted control back.

“Still republican. They say hello.” Lara’s parents most definitely did not say ‘hello’.

“So you guys are married? What’s that like?” Caleb wouldn’t let go of power so easily. He looked like he was having fun. Was this what he meant by teaching my family ‘how a family is supposed to operate?’ Would my brother and father be next on the chopping block.

“Oh. It’s fantastic. You wake up everyday with your best friend and know that no matter what happens you’ll still have each other come tomorrow.” Beamed Fred.

My father chortled.

“Something humorous, Richard? Do share with the class.” My mother wasn’t amused.

“No Amanda, just these conservative idiots.” He pointed at his copy of TIME. She eyed him suspiciously.

“It’s not all roses. There’s tough times too but you make compromises and you work through them.”

“I think it’s beautiful.” Caleb said.

“Oh, me too. Even the homosexy stuff.” Lara was quick to add and quicker to regret.

“You’re married too, Mr. & Mrs. Hoth. Feel free to add your perspective to the discussion.” Caleb took a smug bite of my mother’s veggie casserole. He had them right where he wanted them.

“Well...” began my father who looked like he had a whopper of a tale to tell.

“Marriage is lovely, Caleb. Maybe someday when you make an honest woman of my Alex, you’ll know that.”

“Mom! What the fuck?” I stood suddenly shaking the table and spilling fruit juice everywhere.

“Oh stop playing pretend and wipe that surprised look off your face Lara. Time to stop living in a Disney movie. I can smell the gay on this one and Alex is just a pretty dress away from having a vagina. Richard, back me up here!” My mother was calmly destroying my imprinted love for her with each word that came out of her mouth.

“Alex is just a late bloomer like his old man.” My father finally put down his magazine and gave me a look of pity that I could wipe my ass with.

“Oh, you’re useless.” She gave him a dismissive pass of the hand.

“Mandy, is this why you invited us here?” Jacob was as offended as the rest of the table and was wiping his mouth as if he were ready to gather his loverboy and abandon ship as well.

“I invited you here to celebrate our success. I didn’t expect to find my future son-in-law sitting across from me. There’s no such thing as coincidence.”

Jacob put his napkin down and reached for more wine. We could all have used more wine.

“Is it true?” Lara who had been sitting quietly this whole time finally spoke with the timid, trembling voice of a rabbit.

“No!” I yelled before realizing that it wasn’t me being addressed.

“Yes. I’m gay.” I could tell by the way Caleb said this that he was already out of the closet with someone —probably that family who loved him so much. The words were not difficult for him and there was no sense that after he’d said it, he was suddenly soaring the pink triangle skies on Pegasus wings. This was just a fact about him that he wasn’t always forthcoming with, like secret Christians ashamed of the boneheads in their faith.

“Excuse me... I have to...” Lara let her chair fall back to the floor with a clatter, and ran out the door. I went to catch her and when I did, I was so distracted by her humiliated rage that I didn't see her left hook coming. POW. Her fist connected with my jaw. "Skank!" She ran down the street without looking back.

Caleb joined me outside and upon seeing me nursing my jaw, he tried to help me up. I shooed him away. I could stand on my own.

“I’m sorry if I wasn’t upfront with you.” So much for someone just liking me as a friend with no strings attached. “I thought maybe, deep down, you kind of knew.”

“Well, I didn’t and that was a really shitty way to find out.” I suppose it was better than suddenly being kissed at a party in front of the whole school?

“Is she going to be OK?”

“She might have a set of sore knuckles but, yeah, I think she'll be fine.”

“Don’t hate me, OK?” Caleb had never seemed this unsure of himself. The vulnerability would have been intoxicating if I were a girl.

“I don’t hate you, Caleb.”

“Well, that’s a start anyway.”

He gave me a condescending pat on the shoulder, which would normally infuriate me, but instead of getting mad I spun the boy around and kissed him... full on the lips... just to try it. It was a manly sort of kiss. I was grabbing the collar of his leather jacket in both fists even if I was kissing from below him with my head tilted back like a girl. I pushed him away after I did and he stood there, under the streetlights, as I walked back into the house without another word.

It was a nice kiss. My first real one.

Didn’t I deserve love? In whatever form it might arrive in?

NOW

Lara and I met in the middle. Our lips wet with delight, slipping over and under each other in equal parts. Our lipstick made a brief seal that when pulled apart left traces of my color all over her and hers all over me.

This time Lara was slow to separate and had run out of breath entirely.

“It’s not that I’m into chicks, you know.” Lara said as she wiggled her finger like a worm on a hook to lure my mouth closer to her. “Ally’s just more fun.” She kissed me slowly and deeply again. She still tasted like bad coffee.

“There is no Ally. Just me.”

“I know, dude. But maybe you need to explore this a little? Clearly something’s different when you’re... pretty like.”

“I guess it wouldn’t hurt?”

“You’re, like, halfway there. Let’s see where this twisty path goes. You know, together. Like we used to.”

“Do you love me? I mean, do you love me like this?”

“Like a sister. Always like a sister since that day under the tree.”

“I don’t understand. If you didn’t love me... then why did you kiss me at the winter formal?”

“I wanted to make Caleb jealous. I still thought I could change him.”

“You couldn’t.”

“Yeah, just my luck. Remember when you told me you kissed him?”

“I’m still nursing the bruised ribs from that encounter. Remind why we're friends again?”

“You deserved what you got. You knew how I felt about him.”

“That was my first and last kiss with a dude. I prefer the ladies.”

“Famous last words.”

“You think he ran out on us because of me?”

“Probably. Who knows? He still loves you.”

“I’m sleepy.”

“Me too.” Lara yawned. You could have driven cattle into her gaping maw. “Maybe we should catch some shuteye. This weekend is your last one as a free man.”

“What do you mean?” I said echoing her yawn.

“We have a little under a month to get you ready. Don’t think I’m gonna take it easy on you. Remember? You agreed to this, now. We’re in this together.”

I had no more strength to argue and most of my energy, sexual and otherwise, had been tapped. Lara was first to lights out, but I followed soon after. There we lay two lifelong friends dozing off in each other’s arms. I felt closer to Lara then, than I had my own brother. If I gave just a little bit of myself over to this experience, maybe we could be like the real sisters we had been for one magical day back in the summer of our childhood.

...

Then through the murky night air I heard my answering machine pickup.

“Al, it’s Seth. Heads up. I’m out. I can’t put up with her crap anymore. So, uh, I’m staying with a friend in Slatesville till tomorrow. Be gnarly if you could come pick me up, lemme crash at your place. Beep.”

“Whozat?” Lara said with a sexy sleepy slur.

“Trouble.”

author's note: Obviously there's a lot more to the high school drama between these three but the history repeating thread is done. The alternate title of this chapter was "Bullies" for obvious reasons. I didn't set out to make his mother such a villain but, as they say, if the shoe fits... It was probably a surprise that she ambushed Alex at dinner with two homosexual men from her "redneck" record company but remember, that was just Alex's view of things. His mother has never earned his respect for her art. Don't worry, the wicked witch isn't done yet.

I'm eager to write the next part because I'll finally get to have Alex interact with the guys. Or will it be Ally they meet? (mean feline smile)



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