Chapter 16

Grog.

Noun.

Heavily watered-down rum rationed out to sailors in the Royal Navy. Good stuff, when you’re out at sea.


“I’m feeling judged,” said Bell, laughing again.

“That’s because I’m judging you,” I wanted to say. “Because you’re fucking a human jellyfish.”

But Tup was there, so she got The Doll. An elaborate bullshit persona, now flickering back into existence for the sole benefit of one-fourth of the room.

“It’s… surprising,” I had her say.

“Look,” Bell responded. “Some people get book smarts, some people get street smarts, some people get a great singing voice or magic violin hands. Presh got Bobby and a smile that won’t quit. That’s enough.”

“Again,” said Tup. “Nobody’s judging. Presh is… he’s an interesting dude.”

No introduction was needed with Tup and Bell, him having apparently ran into both Bell and Presh separately at earlier points in the day. Like a sane person, he made no connection between the two in his mind, and it was easy to hear the surprise in his voice when he saw the assumption challenged.

“But you’re curious, right? You’ve probably got to know. I’d have to know, if I were you. It’d drive me crazy.”

“…Know what?”

“Please, please. No need to beg. I’ll tell you how we met.”

She puckered her lips, taking a long, audible sip. It was her fourth glass of wine.

I took Led’s hand and pulled it into my lap, spelling out “S-H-E K-N-O-W-S” Anne Sullivan style, one letter at a time. Unlike the finger scratch system, it wasn’t something we’d ever talked about doing in advance, but Led wasn’t an idiot.

“So, this was… about two years ago. I’m dating this guy at the time, Easton, and we’ve been together eight months or so. Easton is the last third in a trio of terrible mistakes, and in all the ways that count, he’s the exact same as the last two. Has a different job and a different look, but inside, it’s the same guy. Three time Olympic medalist, silver and silver and gold, curling.”

“Curling?” asked Tup.

“It’s… god, just look it up sometime. It’s frozen shuffleboard. Stupidest sport ever conceived by man.”

He took my hand into his, responding. A-G-A-I-N.

I sighed, starting over.

“And we get along, to the extent that we can. He’s the kind of guy who enjoyed being able to say to himself that he was dating a classically trained professional opera singer, and I’m the kind of girl who liked to think the same about me in relation to his shiny pieces of metal and the Wheaties box he was on. And we had… it’s an incredible, incredible oversimplification to say that we had the same background growing up, but we both crawled out of the slime holes most people would call high society, and we ran away from it. So we both know the rules of engagement when talking with old money, we’re sophisticated young adults living on our own, and we’re both completely full of ourselves. We read the classics, have that priceless classical liberal education, you know. Philosophy, history, art, music, literature, learned and learning more, all the time. And we’re just fucking insufferable.”

S-O-R-R-Y. N-O-T. G-E-T-T-I-N-G. I-T.

“So every single conversation we have, it’s about telling each other about the newest book we read, about the latest digital lecture or piece of news we listened to, trying to prove how smart we are. We’re together constantly, always talking, never listening, each of us pouncing on whatever available minute fraction of silence exists so we can do it more. And whenever one of us goes on a little too long — an everyday occurrence, remember — we fight. After we started living together, same thing. We’re sleeping in bed together and we keep waking each other up right as we’re both about to drift off, needing to add in one more take, one more opinion, one more correction, each of us willing to die for that last word. This goes on for hours, some nights. I slept like shit.”

B-E-L-L K-N-O-W-S A-B-O-U-T M-E.

“One day, late October, two days before my twenty-second birthday and right after a big performance we traveled to another state for, we have a really nasty one. I made a little dig at the concert hall afterparty about curling, and surprise surprise, George doesn’t like that. Gets real indignant, starts with some real snarky insults on the way home. I say George, I love you, but relax. You got famous pushing polished stones around. That’s funny. I’m not insulting it, I’m not insulting you, but that’s funny. That can be acknowledged. But he doesn’t like that, and then he starts throwing shit back at me, making fun of what I do.”

T-H-I-S I-S A V-E-R-Y I-N-E-F-F-E-C-T-I-V-E M-E-T-H-O-D O-F C-O-M-M-U-N-I-C-A-T-I-O-N A-N-D I C-A-N-T U-N-D-E-R-S-T-A-N-D Y-O-U. C-A-N W-E T-A-L-K A-B-O-U-T T-H-I-S L-A-T-E-R.

“It’s a little dig, not in anyway unlike what I just said about him and his rocks. But I realize immediately that it actually bothered me, like, a fucking lot. So we get back to my house, and we say sorry and do our nightly trying to feel smart bullshit, and then we go to bed. And I’m lying there and I can’t stop thinking about it, that a little retaliatory joke bothered me in the same way that it bothered him. And it really hits me for the first time, oh my fucking god, I’m dating me, I’m dating guy me. And the two guys before that, I also figure out, they were me too.”

F-U-C-K Y-O-U L-E-D.

“So I’m disgusted with myself, and I think about it for like five minutes, and I turn to Easton and tell him to grab his shit and leave, that we’re done. And he does, to his credit, without argument. And fifteen minutes later I’m in bed and he’s in his car with two cardboard boxes and we have each other’s numbers blocked. And I can’t fall asleep, and I need to talk to someone, so I’m like fuck it. And I go out for the night, back to the city to a club. It’s past midnight, and I’m exhausted. and with my background I’ve never been inside a club in my life. But I go, I figure, because I need it. I need something simple, I need something totally out of my wheelhouse, to make sure I don’t go for me again. And my ego’s bruised; I need a rebound guy.”

I-M S-O-R-R-Y B-U-T I R-E-A-L-L-Y D-O-N-T U-N-D-E-R-S-T-A-N-D. B-A-D A-T F-E-E-L-I-N-G L-E-T-T-E-R-S. L-A-T-E-R I P-R-O-M-I-S-E.

“Presh is literally the first guy I see sitting by himself. It’s the weekend before Halloween, and he’s covered in bandaged rags and fake blood, drinking and laughing and watching a Charlie Brown special playing in the farthest corner of the room. The music’s so loud, he can’t even hear it, and they don’t have subtitles, but he’s enjoying himself anyway. And it’s cute to me, the way he’s smiling. So I order two shots and walk up to him and put one in front of him and mouth to him if he’s there by himself. He nods. I put my arm around him, and after taking a few sniffs to make sure the blood is fake, drag him out, because I’m not used to the music and it’s bothering the fuck out of me.”

F-U-C-K Y-O-U.

“We get out, and he’s quiet as a mouse. First I’m like, is he shy, is he that drunk, what? But then he tries and it’s just raspy garbage. Sounds like the world’s worst case of sore throat. But I think, hey, that’s good, that means he definitely isn’t me, because me would be talking and talking, no matter how bad it hurt. So we just sort of smile and get wasted and find a nice hotel and have a great night together. Nobody talks, we just go right at it. And the fourth guy I’ve ever been with is the best, no pretentiousness needed, and I’m happy.”

L-O-V-E Y-O-U T-O-O.

“I wake up the next morning, and he can talk again. And he does, and for a short time I’m like, oh my god. Because… Hallie, I only told you about this, and Led and Tup, you saw it firsthand if you were together with him for five minutes, but he does what Presh does and talks Presh. And I couldn’t believe it. But I didn’t kick him out, and after listening to him go on about how Charlie Brown could’ve been an NFL superstar for twenty minutes, he asks me if I want to go to the aquarium. Again, we just woke up, we don’t know each other’s names, what we do for a living, anything. But he wants to look at the fishies with me. Out of nowhere.”

I gave him a light stabbing with my fork.

“And I’m sort of mesmerized by the whole package, seeing who Presh is. So I said yes. And we go, and with this total stranger I spend a day at the aquarium, and I just listen to him, not saying anything, looking at everything. He talks about anything and everything with a depth of a wet carrot and a smile, and I’m just like, wow, this is really, really nice for some reason. He’s holding my hand the whole time, and I’m fine with it. Says nothing about who he is, where he’s from, what he does. I think I spoke once without him prompting me, asking him what he thought of curling. He smiled and said that arm curls were great for biceps, and I’m like yeah, I bet they are.”

O-W.

“So time passes, and the place closes, and I’m in shock that a day could go by that fast. And he smiles and tells me where the blood came from, that he was volunteering at a big haunted house charity thing, wanting to know if I could come along for the night. Doesn’t know I’m a singer, but he leans in and says, hey, you could be the lady without legs sitting in bed, who screams really loudly whenever people walk by. You look like you could be loud. And we go, and I’m not supposed to be doing it — it’s pretty harsh on your vocal cords, long term — but I’m screaming at little kids and their parents next to him, covered in fake blood, and he’s chasing them out of the room with a chainsaw, and I’m feeling real, real good. And we go back to the hotel room again for the night, and we don’t and we can’t say anything, and we don’t even do anything physical, not like the first night, I’m too tired. But I wrap my arms around him and sleep like a baby. Best sleep I’ve ever gotten. Hey, pardon me, waiter, can I please get another glass… no, no CereSave, like before.”

“…And from there?”

“It progressed about as naturally as it could, for two people like us. I had a week before I had to go to another city for a series of shows, and a lot farther from my house, and I just asked if he wanted to drop everything and come. I had more than enough money for it, and he’d just gotten fired from a construction job, so it just sort of fit together perfectly. And we were together consistently after that. A few times early on, I was like, Bell, what are you doing. But I never told him to leave, and he stayed, and we starting saying that we were in a relationship. And that was a good choice. Presh is a handful, you know… sometimes being with him, you have the times when he gets his finger eaten off or suddenly has a series of painful anal contusions, but it’s worth it. He keeps me grounded. It’s good. Smart egotistical assholes like me should stay away from other smart egotistical assholes.”

“Sounds like you just jumped from one extreme to the other,” I said, not remembering to keep The Doll as polite as she should’ve been. “There’s a balance. Could’ve tried to find that, if you had to.”

“Oh, that middle-ground definitely exists,” she replied. “And I probably would’ve been just as happy if I’d found it first. But I didn’t, and I’m infected at this point, so Presh and I are stuck with each other. I love it, personally. He’s great. I just look elsewhere for most of my hardcore intellectual stimulation, is all. For all my other bases, he’s got me covered.”

Tup spoke, ordering another glass of wine for himself as the waiter delivered Bell’s fifth.

“Pardon me if this is a rude question, but is he…”

“Disabled? Nah, not at all; got him tested and everything. Presh is just… dense. His mind wanders, but he’ll gladly focus and learn about something without trouble, if you really encourage him. When it comes to your music, for example, or Bobby…”

“Sorry,” said Led. “He told me about him, but I didn’t really understand what…”

“Speak of the devil,” said Bell.

Footsteps from afar, not the waiter’s, not as controlled. The sound of someone pulling a seat up, Bell and the others greeting him.

“Sorry about that,” said Presh. “I’m, um…”

“A fan,” said The Doll. “Bell told me. Relax, please. It would make me feel bad if I made you uncomfortable.”

An immediate stabbing pain in my whole back, bad, much, much worse than the night before. I made a pained sound, reaching for behind my shoulders, squirming in my seat. Led stood up and went behind me, putting his hands on my back, asking if I was fine. After a few seconds, Tup and Bell called for help, and waiters came running, promising to call the ship’s doctors.

Led tried to stand me up, but I wasn’t moving, wanting to stay still, every little twitch amplifying the pain. Clutching the sides of the seat and ordering him to stop touching me, I took deep breaths, waiting for it to go away.

It did, after what felt like ten minutes and was actually two, disappearing all at once in the span of three seconds, leaving behind no trace. After huffing out to them that I thought it had stopped, I took a few experimental breaths, twisting and pulling myself from side to side, making sure it was gone for real. I stood up and bent at the knees and hips just as the medical team came, asking if I needed assistance, preparing to drag me onto a stretcher.

But I kept breathing, shaking my head, telling them that I was fine, that it stopped quick, that it was probably just another muscle cramp. I expected a fight from them about making me go and get checked up, but they were quick to leave, Led being much more insistent on it than they were.

A hospice ship, I remembered. Not the place where the medical personnel were going to force anyone to get unwanted treatment.

We sat down, after another minute and some encouragement from The Doll, putting things back on track. Just a cramp from too much sitting, guys. Let’s enjoy ourselves.

“Really, let’s not worry about it,” I said. “We’ve all spent enough time at the hospital today, between the five of us.”

Bell was the first to accept my call for a return to normalcy, starting up the conversation again after going for her sixth glass. “Not a regular thing for me,” her earlier justification. “It’s been a long day.”

“Well… how did you two meet, then? I bet that’s a fun story.”

“Not really,” I said. “We were enrolled in the same online high school, and we had a group project together in a language class. I mentioned my speakers being busted, and he mentioned knowing a lot about audio tech, and after looking it up, we only lived about fifteen minutes away, so I paid him to come and fix it.”

“…And then?”

“He did. And a few weeks later, I asked him if he could help me set up a place to record music in my house, and he did. For money. And then he helped me record some videos and edit them right, also for money. Then, hey, we spoke a lot while he was working, and he didn’t ann… I liked talking to him, so when he asked, I agreed to see a movie.”

“It was, um, the live action Goofy Movie remake,” he said. “With Weird Al. Back when, you know, he wasn’t a war criminal. My idea.”

One percent on Rotten Tomatoes. One.

Not that I was drunk enough to open up with them about it, but that was the appeal, and as stupid as it was, it was the thing that made me start tolerating Led. Because I had a great time. I was the type of person that would rather see a terrible movie than a good one, preferring to enjoy the experience of shitting on it. And Led picked up on that, which I appreciated. So at fourteen, we sat alone at the theater and laughed at Yankovic’s disgusting CGI dog-snout, and I found myself not completely hating someone who wasn’t Clem or Mom, for the first time in my life.

“That’s so romantic,” said Presh.

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