Thanks to Matt Kirschenbaum’s English 668K at the University of Maryland, I have been alerted to the fact that searching for me on JSTOR brings up my very first publication, “Cheese.”
Honest to goodness, I’d completely forgotten about this. “Cheese” was a short story I wrote when I was 20 or 21, I think, in the first year of my MFA program. It’s old enough that the file on my computer is listed as being “Microsoft Word 1.x-5.x,” and I’m certain that it was converted at least once, when I made the transition from the MS-DOS machine that got me through the MFA to my first Mac PowerBook. It’s from several lifetimes ago, as far as my writing is concerned.
What’s on JSTOR is not the entirety of the piece, needless to say. (At least I hope it’s needless.) I shopped the story around to literary magazines for a while, the last of which was Mississippi Review. Fredrick Barthelme was still editing it then, and after a couple of months or so, I got a letter from him. An actual letter. He told me that he was planning on doing a special issue on first paragraphs — nothing more, just first paragraphs — and that he wanted to publish mine.
And thus it came to pass that my first real publication was composed of nine out of the 5825 words I’d written. The remaining 5816 never saw the light of day.
It’s not without reason. I’ve just re-read the story, and… let’s just say that it’s imperfect. A friend from the fiction workshop I originally wrote the story for gave me a great note about the first draft, saying that its quirky tone was a bit too unrelenting for the story to do the work it wanted to do. “It’s like if M*A*S*H was all Hawkeye and no Trapper John,” he said. “You couldn’t stand to watch it.” I wasn’t really able to hear what he was telling me at the time, but boy, do I get it now. Quirky isn’t the half of it. It’s painfully cute, the kind of cute that only comes from studied avoidance of the real thing the story actually needs to work out.
There was something in Barthelme wanting to publish those first nine words and pushing aside the rest that confirmed for me that something was wrong, but I wasn’t ready to deal with what exactly the wrong thing was. I more or less stopped writing fiction not long after that. My interests gravitated first toward playwriting, and then toward screenwriting. And then, bizarrely, while working in Hollywood, toward a kind of critical nonfiction, which sent me back to grad school — and the rest is history.
I’ve wondered periodically whether I could work my way back into writing fiction, but I’m not sure that I would be much better at it now than I was then. I certainly never had any intention of returning to the old stuff. So having the students of English 668K uncover the existence of this long-forgotten publication created a mini return-of-the-repressed style freakout for me. Not only is the repressed back, but evidence of it is on JSTOR. But I’m resigned, I suppose: with those nine words out there, I suppose the rest may as well be, too.
In any case, safely buried below the fold, and announced this far into the post in a way that might usefully prevent anyone but the most determined from actually finding it: the rest of the story.
* * *
I don’t have enough cheese in my life.
Or maybe it’s too much. I don’t know. At any rate I’ve narrowed the problem down to cheese and that’s a good step in the right direction.
Look, don’t ask for perfection because you’re not gonna get it. I have measured out my life in cheese balls and somehow come up short.
Take last night. I make an honest attempt at staying home and get nowhere for it. I try to eat and can’t and try to read and can’t and the tube is out of whack again (you can never have too much whack in your life, or too little for that matter; whack is not the problem). So instead I just sit and smoke and try to ignore the tremors in my legs.
This apartment is closing in on me, see? I’ve lived here for the last three months and in that time I’ve been able to stay home for a complete night by myself (on a night other than Sunday when all the bars are closed) twice. I thought this apartment would be better than the last one (or the one before that for that matter) but it isn’t. I’ve lived in three apartments since I left Sheila two years ago and none of them have been any different.
Sheila was closing in on me too. We’d spent the majority of our married life planning for the children that thankfully never arrived. She spent her evenings with whatever domestic craft she happened to be addicted to at the time and picking out baby names. I became a vegetable. Eggplant, I think. And married eggplant at that. Now I just sit and smoke and wait for the tremors to carry me out of the apartment.
These tremors entered my legs in the last year of my marriage. Five years of eggplanthood had finally gotten to me or at least to my legs. At any rate one night my knees started shaking after a particularly rattling conversation with Sheila and when I stood up my feet automatically led me to the door.
She had been talking about her father, who had died when she was a little girl, and sitting next to me telling me how she hadn’t felt this secure since before he died. I got really cold all of a sudden and said something horrible to her about how I couldn’t be her father much less the father to her kids apparently and she went off to the bedroom and my knees started shaking.
“I’ll be back later,” I hollered as I put on my coat and something pulled me down to my friend Rick’s bar. And I went out and I was back later and the tremors went away for about a week but then they came back more frequently and powerfully until I told Sheila one night as she bent over her pasta maker that I wasn’t going to be back later.
“Why?” She looked at me with the rounded eyes of a five-year-old who’s just been told that Daddy’s leaving. I grabbed onto the counter to keep my knees from shaking too violently. This was just the – the what? the look? the attitude? What ever it was, it was smothering me.
“I’m not sure. I’m missing something.”
“I’m trying to find out.”
She put down her spatula and used the corner of her apron to wipe the tears out from under her eyes.
“What about Kristina and John Junior?”
Those were the names of choice that week. The previous week and been Taylor and Elizabeth.
“They aren’t here yet. They won’t miss me.”
Then there was this really horribly tearful scene between us and the more she cried and told me that she didn’t know what she’d do without me the more my legs shook until I couldn’t take it anymore and I had to just walk out.
That was a little over two years ago. I’m sure you probably think I’m heartless and callous. I’ve never been what anybody wanted me to be. I’ve managed to disappoint everyone I’ve ever cared about even though some of them may not know about it yet. And now I’m trapped in the middle of this search here. I’ve been looking for two years and I still don’t know what for but I think I’m getting closer.
Again, take last night. The tremors in my legs finally pull me out the door like they do every night lately. I head down to Rick’s. Rick’s is my standard first stop on the nightly search for – for what? if I could put a name to it or even a number I’d feel better about the whole thing. As it is all I have to know it by is the sneaking suspicion that somewhere something is going on without me and then my legs start to shake. As if all that much could possibly be going on in a town half taken up by the university. I’ve lived here all my life and I still don’t know what there is about this place that makes it worth staying. But everyone does. Stay, that is.
I walk in the door to Rick’s and the usual crowd is there. I’ve seen them all before, people that I don’t know or rather only recognize and wouldn’t recognize at all out of context for that matter. I nod my hellos and scan the tables to see if it’s here.
Rick is behind the bar. He is your standard friend from high school and college with whom I had fallen out of touch until the end of my marriage. I had always known that we had a great deal in common. His marriage was ending at the same time. He hands me a Bass Ale and a pack of Marlboro Lights as I walk up.
“Little early tonight, John.”
“Yeah, well…hey – how’s the bar biz?”
“Standard. How’s Magruder and Son?”
We both shrug and smile. This has been a running joke between us for a while now only in light of my last income statement for the store it’s no longer particularly funny.
Rick and I were closest in college – back in those stupidly idealistic days before Sheila and the business when female spouse and children and gainful employment were all four-letter words. Neither of us has a wife or kids but we are both gainfully employed now (dare I use the word work?). He who had been voted most likely to own a bar in high school now does. I run what used to be my father’s automotive parts store. It’s all been downhill since the original Magruder is gone and buried and now the Son is Magruder and no one is the Son. Success has never been a part of my repertoire. If you don’t believe me, ask Sheila. I’m sure her version of the story will be out in paperback soon.
Andy, the resident philosopher/psychologist, is sitting on a stool near the end of the bar. I sit down on the stool next to him and light a cigarette.
“What’s up tonight, Andy?”
I look at him a little more closely and realize for the first time that he is almost twice my age, old enough to be my father. I also realize that I know nothing about Andy and he knows nothing about me despite the fact that we’ve talked almost every night for the last year or so and I have a strong desire to keep it that way. You can’t disappoint a first name like Andy.
“Beg your pardon?”
“We’re discussing loneliness,” he says.
“Any new developments?”
Rick wanders down to this end of the bar, drying a beer mug. He shrugs at me. Andy turns his barstool to face me and smiles enigmatically.
“You know what this world needs now, John?”
“Love sweet love?” I answer and instantly regret it.
“Every man on this planet is looking for the same thing. This includes you even though you may not know it.”
“What am I looking for?” I put my beer down on the bar and stare intently at Andy. He’s a bizarre old guy but he usually knows what he’s talking about.
“Someone who can make cheese. Nothing fancy, mind you. No Camembert or Romano or even Swiss for that matter. Just something solid like Cheddar. Someone who can make a good solid Cheddar.”
“Cheese.” This guy’s gotta be kidding. He tells me he’s got the meaning of life and then he gives me cheese?
“Yes. Cheese.” Andy’s eyes glow. “It’s someone you can depend on, someone who makes cheese. Someone who won’t let you down.
“Yes. Cheddar cheese.”
“So that’s all there is?”
Andy stares at me this time.
“To life. To everything. It’s all cheese?”
“Life is nothing, John.” Andy puts a hand on my shoulder. “Life is nothing. It’s the living part that’s tough. Get the living part down and the rest is cream cheese.”
“And the living part?”
“Someone who can make cheese.”
We both sit back and face the bar. Andy glows, probably feeling rejuvenated for having spread the good news about cheese. For my part, I’m just convinced that this guy’s a nut.
“You’ve gotta be kidding.”
“But, come on, Andy…I mean…cheese for cryin’ out loud. Sheila used to do stuff like that, but…”
Andy looks at me for a moment and then sits back again.
“Ah…I understand now.”
“Cheese can’t help you. Cheese is your problem. Cheese is your past. Come to terms with your past.”
“What does my past have to do with this?”
“Trust me. A lot. Come to terms with your past and then perhaps you’ll understand.”
I stare at Andy for a second. Then down my beer.
“See you later.”
“Sure, John. See you later.”
I walk back down to the other end of the bar, where Rick is wiping off a section of the counter.
“Weirdness.” I reach for my wallet to pay my tab.
“Yeah, I’m kinda tired,” I lie. I give him the money and shake his hand.
“Before you go, let me ask your opinion.”
“I’m thinking of adding fried mozzarella to the hors
d’oeuvre menu. I’ve been taking a poll and some of the regulars seem to think I’m sliding too far to the fern bar side as it is and that the mozzarella would only make things worse. What do you think?”
“Mozzarella.” Coincidence, I think. Gotta be coincidence. “Well, sounds standard for the bar biz.”
“Yeah. Good luck with your parts.”
“Maybe someday I’ll be able to put them together.”
We both shrug and smile. Another running joke. Maybe
someday I’ll be able to come up with some new material.
Now perhaps you can begin to understand my problem. It was only nine-fifteen at this point and usually I don’t leave Rick’s until at least ten-thirty or so but then usually I don’t have people preaching the saving powers of cheese and picking on my past.
Why is it that everyone insists I haven’t ‘come to terms with my past’? The past isn’t my problem. The problem is the present. I can’t deal with the present. The past is over with. No sweat. You wanna know about my past? Here it is:
I grew up with the perfect father who expected me to be the perfect kid. I wasn’t. I married the perfect woman who expected me to be the perfect husband. I wasn’t.
That’s my past in a nutshell. I have no trouble dealing with that.
My father was perfect. He was a first-generation American, son of dirt-poor immigrants. He had started out by working on people’s cars and then began supplying parts to all the repair shops in the area. He became the leading auto parts dealer in the state. He had a beautiful wife and a son, a son who he expected to carry on his name and his tradition. What more could you ask for?
I was never quite enough to measure up to his standards. Or my own for that matter. I slid through college (the first Magruder to get a degree) by drinking beer and shooting pool. Nothing else seemed to matter – I knew I could never be perfect, so it seemed pointless even to try. Then there was Sheila who loved me and Dad who asked me to take over the business and suddenly there was the question of doing the Right Thing.
My father sat across the kitchen table from me while my mother washed the dishes after our weekly Sunday dinner on the Sunday before I graduated from college. My degree was in history and I wanted to go to grad school and had been accepted (marginally) but my father thought otherwise.
“You have known that I wanted you to take over the store for years now, Jonathan. I’ve been counting on you.”
Counting on me. Counting on me. What sane, well-adjusted individual in the world would bother counting on me? My father. And Sheila. My mother just stood in the background and smiled wistfully at me. She never contradicted my father but she never gave me any opinions on anything for that matter so I really don’t have the foggiest idea what she thought about the subject. My father just stared at me with disapproval in his eyes until I had to say yes. And he and Sheila were both happy with me. At least for the moment.
I thought I wanted more than anything to do the Right Thing. I took over the store and got married and both institutions are bankrupt now. I suppose it’s just not in me. My mother died three weeks after I told her that my marriage wasn’t working out. My father died two months later of a broken heart. Okay, literally he had a massive coronary. I’m still convinced that it was losing my mother and watching his auto parts empire go down the toilet that did him in.
In other words, don’t get to know me too well, okay? I’ll disappoint you for sure. The Right Thing is utterly beyond me. The last time I tried, two people died for it. I should have a sign hung around my neck: This Guy Is Dangerous. His Failures Are Registered As Lethal Weapons.
And the thing that really gets to me is that even though I missed my mother and father and regretted not being able to please them the things I really seemed to miss were beer and pool. I stood around at my father’s funeral and had visions of eight-balls dancing in my head. Sheila said that it was a perfectly normal reaction, to think of things that don’t cause pain at a time like that, but I know the truth. I can’t even feel guilty right.
But this is all past and that’s not the problem. Last night is the problem.
Last night: I leave Rick’s and walk out to my car, trying to decide where I want to go next. I get in the car and drive as carefully as possible (considering that the tremors have taken over my right leg completely and the gas pedal is jerking uncontrollably) to the Ocean View. Never mind that there isn’t a body of water within fifty miles of here. The Ocean View is a quieter place – a piano bar – that serves the middle-aged failure set. Usually my last stop of the night but somehow I have this need to be on familiar territory.
I open the door and walk in and all the first names are in their proper places. That’s all I know anyone on my nightly runs by – first name. Steve is behind the bar. Laura is waiting on a table. Chris is sitting at the piano. My life is a long series of first names without lasts. There is no more formality in this world. Or originality for that matter. Anybody could be a Rick or a Steve or a Chris or a John. Not just anyone could be a Vladimir Magruder, world renowned auto parts king of Russo-Irish descent.
Steve pulls out a Bass for me as I approach the bar and reaches out to shake my hand.
“Little early tonight, John.”
“No kidding. Weird night out there.”
“They’re over there.”
Steve motions to a table in the corner of the bar where the lighting is especially dim. Four of my compatriots, fortyish men who smoke too much and spend too much time in bars, sit around the table arguing heatedly.
Steve pours a glass of Zinfandel for someone at the bar and I turn and head toward the Oblong Table.
I sit down at the table without saying hello or paying much attention to what these four are arguing about. My efforts are too concentrated on keeping my legs still and my mind is stuck on the disapproving look that stayed on my father’s face even into the casket. My right knee continues twitching, almost imperceptibly. Perhaps the past is causing me some trouble, I think.
“I still don’t understand what all the goddamned fuss is about.” Henry the accountant leans back in his chair glaring at Ed the doctor across the table. Ed tilts his head toward me.
“Ask John then. Maybe he’s got an impartial opinion.”
Henry smiles at me and I await this entry into a philosophical debate like I await a molar extraction.
“John, these aging yuppies and I are disagreeing on a point of taste.” He leans back in his chair and waits while I light my cigarette. “What do you think? Personally, I think Brie is an utterly useless cheese. It has no flavor.”
I was wrong, I think. It’s the present after all. The past is easy compared to this.
Sam the teacher puts his glass down on the table and points at Henry.
“But you admitted yourself that you’d never had baked Brie. And that makes all the difference in the world.”
“I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between baked Brie and the box it came in.” Henry looks at me, as though some subtextual understanding has passed between us. “Now give me a good Bleu. That’s real cheese.”
“Bleu? Oh, for chrissakes, you’ll kill your tastebuds with that stuff. The only decent cheese around here is Edam. And that’s only if you can find a decent imported.” Ed reaches for my pack of cigarettes and takes one out.
Paul the lawyer, who hasn’t said anything to this point, suddenly pushes his chair back.
“Oh, what would you know from cheese, Ed?” Paul stands and turns to me. “Don’t pay any attention to him. The guy eats Velveeta. I have proof.” He walks off toward the bar with his empty glass in hand.
“You guys are getting off the subject. The point,” says Henry, “is whether or not the success of Brie is solely attributable to the exaggerated self-importance and general pretentiousness of our generation. Which I think it is. John?”
I realize my mouth is hanging open and I try to force
something intelligible to come out of it.
“I don’t know. I’ll have to give this some thought.” I drain the last of my beer and stand up.
“You can’t leave yet. You haven’t given us your opinion.” Sam looks at me half-desperately, still clinging to the worthiness of Brie.
“I don’t eat much cheese.”
The three men still sitting at the table stare at me silently for five seconds too long, then turn and resume the argument. I walk to the bar, passing Paul on his way back. He smiles at me and rejoins the table.
I walk up to the bar. Steve smiles at me.
“Need anything else, Jonathan?”
My left knee jumps slightly.
“Nope. Have a good one, okay?”
I stand there and wait for a second to make sure he doesn’t have any cheese comments to make. Then I turn around and leave the bar.
See, I’d started expecting cheese. It’s the Purple Car Syndrome. You never see a purple Gremlin anywhere until the day you buy one. Then you see four on the way home. See? No one ever talks about cheese in bars. It’s all the power of suggestion. It’s all I heard.
And the more I thought about cheese, the more I thought about Sheila and her damned domestic crafts. She would make some of the most amazing things using everyday kitchen staples and I’d sit at the table and stare at her in awe. But more and more the longer we were married, she would talk about babies and things and what a great father I’d be. I loved that woman more than anything I’ve ever loved any other time in my life but she wanted me to be a father. How could I possibly be a father when I couldn’t even be a son?
Which leaves me with the question – What can I do? In college I used to think it was pool. But then I gave it up when I married Sheila and started running the store. And then as my knees started twitching and I started smoking more and more, I started seeing pool tables in my sleep. I wound up leaving Sheila the day after I had shot my first game in over five years. I lost the game but I had the bug back. So I’ve been shooting pool regularly again for the last two years and getting worse and worse at it for all my trouble.
Knowing as I do now that cheese (or the lack thereof) is my problem only makes the situation worse. There’s something incongruous about pool and cheese. No matter how you try you just can’t find a way to put them together into some sort of coherent whole. Trust me. I’ve been trying all morning.
But last night. I leave the Ocean View and walk out to my car knowing full well that the car will wind up perhaps of its own volition at a little pool hall about a mile off campus. This is where Rick and I wasted many a Friday afternoon and evening wasting ourselves. I’ve been back contributing my quarters to the relief fund of this particular place since I’ve been on my own again. Measuring out your life in quarters is somehow less disconcerting than profit and loss statements. Not to mention cheese balls.
So I get in the car and start the engine and the car does this momentary godawful convulsion thing and then calms down. I’ve been meaning to check that for a while now but there’s something about cars that still paralyzes me. I mean, for all the parts that I’ve got access to and despite the fact that I know how to put them together I couldn’t build an engine that would run to save my life. There’s some magical element that’s missing – some sort of dust or potion that can turn a pile of interconnected metal and PVC into a functioning machine.
If I could wish for one thing in this world right now, I’d like to find out what that is – what that one key to congruency that I’m missing is.
On second thought, perhaps I don’t want to know. They’d probably tell me it’s Cheez Whiz.
So I look up and to my utter lack of shock and surprise, the car and I are sitting in the parking lot of the Hurricane. Exactly where I knew I’d be. It’s like I hit some sort of automatic pilot once I leave the apartment.
I pull my stick out of the trunk and walk in. The Hurricane is this sleazy place just far enough away from campus to attract the die-hard pool types but close enough to have its own supply of burgeoning hormones and hairspray.
The tables in this place are notoriously the worst in the state but since I’ve been shooting on them on and off and then on again for the last twenty – well, for quite a while now – I’ve basically figured out how the tables run. Which ones have cracked slates. Which ones are slightly tilted. Which ones have warped felts. Not that I can compensate for any of this, mind you.
The only bartender working last night is a guy probably half my age that’s only been here for about a month. I don’t know his name yet, but apparently he knows mine and he says “hi, John” and automatically pulls out a Bass for me. I still can’t decide if that puts me at ease like I’m at home here or something or if it’s too damn comfortable and I should start going some place where I’m a little less visible.
People are milling around and I put a couple of quarters up on a table and wait for one of the guys that’s shooting right now to lose. Rick taught me to shoot pool when we were in high school and we would run around on weekends trying to find places that would let us in without carding us. The only thing that’s changed in this place since then is the new army of video games lining one wall. I can’t stand the stupid things.
My beer is gone and I light another cigarette (I think I’ve been chain-smoking; I can’t remember) and go get another beer. The bartender looks at me and as he gives me my change (turns out his name is Frank) he asks me if he can ask me a question. Great, I think. Now I’m giving advice to bartenders.
“You ever eaten a muffaletta?”
“Yeah.” I think I know what’s coming.
“What kind of cheese goes into one of those things?”
Yep. I knew it.
“I beg your pardon?” Stalling, you see.
“I’ve been trying to think about it for hours and it just isn’t coming to me. What kind of cheese is that?”
I stare at him blankly for a second and try to figure out if he has some deeper meaning in this question. If the world is trying to tell me something tonight. No, the guy just wants to know what kind of cheese goes into a muffaletta.
“That’s it!” He looks positively ecstatic. He turns to some friend of his sitting down at the end of the bar and yells, “Hey, Joe! It’s Provolone!”
Joe brings a palm down onto the bar.
“That’s it!” He turns to me. “Thanks, man. That’s been making us nuts all night.”
I glance quickly from one to the other and listen for a second as they discuss this newest revelation. Someone taps me on the shoulder and I turn around and it’s the guy from the pool table telling me my quarters are up. I start to walk over to the table and the bartender yells “Hey, John!”
I turn around and raise my eyebrows.
“One more – lasagna?”
“What kind of cheese goes in lasagna?”
I drop my cigarette on the floor and step on it and head over to the pool table before I get too embroiled in this conversation. As I’m racking the balls, this guy I’m shooting against – he’s about seven feet tall and as big around as a pool cue (the word beanpole comes to mind) – introduces himself as David. Another first name to go with Frank and Joe in my collection. I never heard anyone call my father by his first name. Perhaps when you’re perfect you earn a little more formality.
David breaks and sinks the eightball before I even manage to get my stick out of the case. I zip the case shut again and shake his hand.
“It’s just not my night.”
He looks somehow sheepish.
“I’ve had nights like that.”
Yeah. This kid’s all of twenty and he’s had nights like that?
I stand and watch him as one by one he strips the table clean of balls. Two girls pass behind me and my radar goes off instantly. I turn to look at them and one is the spitting image of Sheila when I first met her, the Sheila that I loved, the Sheila that didn’t need a father. She had been in my French class and she had some sort of fire about her – some potential that I’d been missing in my own life. Little did I suspect that this was a pure baby-making force that would wind up being frustrated by my own insufficiencies and rechannelled into things like herbs and yogurt cultures.
I catch a word of French from the mouth of the Sheila-child and tune in to her conversation.
“Neufchatel? I suppose that would be fine,” her friend responds.
“I know we already have the Port and the Gouda, but I think the Neufchatel would be a nice touch.”
“Besides, I have it on good authority that Frank’s coming to the party,” the Sheila-child says, eyeing my new friend the bartender, “and I hear he likes Neufchatel.”
I watch them for a second as they collectively drool over Frank of the Neufchatel desire.
“Thought about Brie?”
They both turn to me, wide-eyed.
“Beg your pardon?” She is close enough for me to touch, to put my fingers over her eyes and gently shut them. That father-figure look is dancing in her pupils.
“Brie. Thought about Brie?”
“Not really,” her friend says, looking nervously at the Sheila-child who just stares at me.
“Make sure it’s baked, though. Brie’s nothing if it’s not baked,” I tell her as though cheese isn’t actually the farthest thing from my mind and as though she can tell what I’m really thinking. My right knee twitches silently.
“Thanks. We’ll remember that,” her friend mumbles as she drags her off by the elbow. I watch them as they move to the other side of the bar, the Sheila-child staring straight ahead and her friend shaking her head and looking nervously over her shoulder.
I reach into my pocket and pull out my change. I only have one quarter left so I decide to break my code of ethics and give one of the video games a shot. I walk down the row against the wall, inspecting the troops. I spot one on the end that looks like Pac-Man, something tame enough for me to handle, but as I get closer I see that the little thing running through the maze is a mouse and that it’s being chased by cats all over the screen as it attempts to get to the little pieces of – you guessed it ¬ cheese. I’m momentarily paralyzed by the screen and David is behind me getting ready to break for a new game and for just a second I’m convinced I hear him say Gorgonzola. I drain my beer and grab my stick and leave.
I sit in the car for a second, lighting a new cigarette and attempting to control the twitching in my legs. My hands are shaking so badly that I drop the cigarette between my legs after I get it lit and then I hit my head on the roof of the car when I stand up to keep from burning myself. I pick the cigarette up off the seat and sit back down slowly, concentrating on evening out my breathing. Stupid damn habit, smoking. It’ll kill me one of these days.
I started smoking when I was fifteen and I had first met Rick. We’d sit in his bedroom and smoke what seemed like cigarette after cigarette (but now I know it wasn’t because now I know what cigarette after cigarette really is) and talk about how we were never getting married and were never going to be tied into any job to the point where we got boring like our parents. Then one day my mother found a half-smoked cigarette in my jacket pocket. She never said a word about it to me. She just told my father.
I came home from Rick’s house that evening for dinner and Dad was sitting in his chair reading the paper. He let me get past him before he started – I suppose so that he wouldn’t have to look at me.
“I thought you had more sense than to smoke, Jonathan. I suppose I was wrong.” His newspaper didn’t so much as rattle and his head didn’t so much as raise. That was all that was ever said about the subject but I relive that moment every time I light a cigarette. My father sitting placidly in his chair with his feet on the stool in front of him and my mother in the kitchen quietly grating Parmesan cheese for the spaghetti and the disappointment hanging heavy in the air between us. The first in a long series of full first name disappointments. He only called me Jonathan when he was disappointed and I rarely remember being called anything but Jonathan from that point on.
But that’s the past and it’s over and not really what’s bothering me. I inhale deeply off the cigarette and try to burn my father out of my lungs. Once my eyes have cleared I start the car and drive to the friendly neighborhood Circle K, where I buy my very own personal six-pack of Bass Ale and a new pack of cigarettes.
Last night ends with me driving in circles around town and drinking that six-pack of beer. I suppose I drank the whole thing. I’m not really sure. All I know is I wake up this morning with a splitting headache and the vague recollection of standing in Sheila’s front yard at four a.m. crying.
The most solid memory I have left of her is her hair brushing my face as she bends over me at my father’s funeral only six months before we separated trying to convince me that it really isn’t my fault like I keep saying over and over again that it is but I know better. She tells me that it’s just the shock talking and that it really isn’t true and offers me a cigarette as I dissolve into tears and she whispers “Jonathan. Jonathan, listen to me” softly in my ear.
Sheila remarried not long ago. She found the father she was looking for, apparently. Last time I saw her she looked radiant and domestic and all of the things that used to make me nervous back in the days of double boilers and cheese presses. Me, I’ve still got twitchy legs and a failing auto parts store and no concept of cheese whatsoever.
Perhaps this hasn’t been at all what you hoped to hear. No matter. I’m used to disappointing people.