This is a new story. A very rough version, indeed. It’s reallllly long, so I’m breaking it into two posts. Part one, today. Part two, tomorrow. Alright?
During a Skype date with my friend Lem, I whined “Every time I write a story, everyone thinks it is about me.” He gave me a knowing look, “Well, it is somewhat, right?” Isn’t video chat grand? I dismissed him with a “meh” hand wave.
This story is fiction, I promise…with certain elements of myself, of course…peppered with bits of people I have known, things I have heard, and dreams I have had. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?
Here we go…”A Tragic Character….”
Carrot isn’t thrilled to hear that I have sold the car.
“But why? How will we get around?”
He is from LA, where cars are mandatory and even going out for breakfast requires a thirty minute drive.
“We’ll ride our bikes or take the subway or walk. Cabs occasionally, I guess.”
His pursed lips indicate that he is not convinced. I’m certain he is subtly shaking his head.
Never mind that it was MY car. I feel as if I must defend my decision. “Neither of us knows how to park the car properly and we’re racking up tickets. I don’t even want to tell you how much money I gave the Parking Authority last week. We don’t live in a fantasy forest city any more. Our lives are completely different. We have to make changes.”
He shakes his head. “But we drove all the way across the country in that car. It’s one of the few things we have left from the west coast. It has memories.”
I know that he is serious about this, but I can only laugh. The car has smelled like feet since the six-day coast-to-coast drive. After much quibbling about various records and clothing that would be allowed to accompany us, we loaded all of our most valued possessions into my station wagon. I was going to be starting a job. A real job. With a desk and meetings and a stapler of my own. Carrot was coming along, because…well, because I couldn’t leave him behind.
Our new home was allegedly only a few thousand miles away. Initially it seemed so easy. The road atlas made it appear so close. But the long days of driving made me feel as if I were transporting us to another planet. I felt a twinge of sadness as I saw familiar streets and signs fading into the distance. By the time we passed the “You are leaving Oregon. Come again!” sign, I felt only relief. I was escaping myself and all of my bad decisions.
Despite a moderate case of food poisoning at a northern California Olive Garden early in the trip, I did most of the driving. Carrot’s vision is poor, at best. He had crashed three cars in as many years. No, our survival depended on me. Time was important. I had to start my job on the first of the month. Bathroom stops and sleeping breaks were minimal. I tossed back canned espresso drinks and b-vitamins as I blearily sped us across the Southwest.
I drove through rain and snow. Dark moonless nights. Rush hour traffic. Carrot laughed at my unconscious habit of crossing myself when we passed an accident. “I learned it from my Grandma, okay?!” I began to develop an affection for the truck drivers of the world. I tried (unsuccessfully) to engage them in conversation at various truck stops. They were not interested in my cheery comments about the weather and fuel efficiency.
We passed through the misty mountains and into the desolate desert. I had always dreamed of oversized cacti and football fields of sand. Plateaus and mesas! It was so exotic in comparison to my childhood in the rolling hills of the mid-Atlantic states. And the absolute opposite of my rainy longtime home in the Great Northwest.
I pulled the car over to the side of road as the sun was setting over New Mexico. I slipped off my shoes and stepped into the sand. It was colder than I thought it would be. I crossed myself–a trinity of ”no scorpions, no rattlesnakes, and no broken glass”–before I took off running into the horizon. Carrot took photos of me, a black and blue blur colliding with the cadmium sky.
“This is it,” I told myself. “The new life starts as soon as you enter the Eastern Time Zone.”
“Remember when we met?”
Carrot asks this as I am carefully applying makeup before work. I am unaccustomed to seeing him this early in the morning, as he usually sleeps well past noon. He occasionally works at a clothing store, folding t-shirts and discussing obscure indie rock albums. Otherwise, he stays up all night, drinking and watching movies. Occasionally he dials up a west coast friend in the middle of the night. His calls are rarely answered. At some point, he ventures out to shoplift candy bars at the convenience store around the corner. He eats these until he falls asleep, tossing the wrappers under the bed. Of course, I am blissfully unconscious during all of this, thanks to over the counter sleeping pills (Simple Slumber) and silicone ear plugs. But I discovered his stash of candy wrappers while vacuuming the bedroom last week. I have seen the late night calls on our shared phone bill.
But here he is, sitting on the side of the bathtub, drinking a beer at 7:00 am. His eyes have the wild, glassy look of someone who hasn’t slept in days. He has probably run out of his anxiety medication again. I’m going to have to remind him to call his mother–handily enough, a psychiatrist–to request a new refill.
“Of course, I remember…how could I forget?” I close my eyes, envisioning the scene in crystal clarity and surround sound.
I had drunk a little too much at a gallery opening. Or maybe at the bar earlier. Regardless, I was tipsy. I was laughing so hard, tears were slipping from my eyes. I could barely stand. My friend Mike slung me over his shoulder and carried me out onto the sidewalk. We were meeting another friend outside. One of her high school buddies was visiting from L.A.
My dress was no longer covering my ass as Mike continued to lug me down to the corner. Our friend awaited. Her visitor was pale and blonde. His clothing was entirely black and far too tight. He giggled at my lace-covered rear.
I reached out my hand to him in greeting. “Hi, I’m Ella. And I’m a tragic character.”
He laughed. “Of course you are.”
“I’ve heard you’re thinking about moving here. I have to tell you, the black clothes and deep v-neck shirts are not going to fly here. You’re going to have to invest in some plaid shirts and cuffed jeans, like my faithful manservant here.”
At this, Mike dropped me onto the sidewalk. I stood up, brushing imaginary dust off of my skirt, and then giving the blonde visitor an exaggerated wink. I was going to win.
Later, in the most notoriously “hipster” bar in the city, we drifted into a silly conversation about toast.
“Oh, yeah, I could eat toast three times a day if given the opportunity,” I said as I took a drag from the tenth cigarette of the evening.
He giggled out everything I said. GIGGLED! Of course, I was charmed. I was enamored with anyone that laughed at my foolishness.
Eventually I invited him back to my house for toast. He enthusiastically accepted.
I leaned across the table, hoping I didn’t smell too much like gin and smoke.
“I think you should know that every time I say ‘toast,’ I mean ‘you should fuck me.’”
And now we are thousands of miles away, in a pale blue bathroom.
He’s shaking his head. “You know, when you said that, I decided I would follow you to the ends of the earth. Girls just don’t act like that!”
I ignore him as I try to draw a straight line with a dull kohl pencil.
“You were different then. A socialite! Here you just go to work and stupid 12 step meetings. Who are your friends? I miss the old Ella!”
I pause my work to scowl at him.
I was a mess then. A socialite? Maybe. But I was drunk and sick and slutty and sad. I could barely bother to wash my laundry. I sometimes passed out on the living room floor because my bed was too far away. I slept with boys I secretly hated and I made mistakes I could never undo. I lost things! Not just possessions. But relationships, power, and sleep.
And of course he misses this.
I want to shout. “You should be glad to know me now! I make our lives work every single day, by going to my job and cooking nutritious meals. I iron our clothes and scrub the shower. I write the checks and pretend there is a budget.”
If the socialite returns, we will lose everything we have. Can’t he see this?
Instead I rummage for my “understanding and concerned” voice. It’s not difficult to find, because I use it more often than not. “Why are you drinking in the morning?”
He winks at me. “Your sobriety makes me dry. I’ve got to quench my thirst somehow.”
His name is not really Carrot.
But some time in his late teen years, in a quest to prove his hipness to his peers, he had the cover art from the quirkiest album he knew tattooed on his arm. Of course he won admiration from every misunderstood, bookish girl in the greater Los Angeles metro area. His name was scribbled in no less than 1000 speckled notebooks. Marginal poems about him were published in high school literary magazines. He was officially the coolest, most sensitive boy in Southern California.
Now it has assumed a vintage charm. Older artsy women blush with delight when they see it. Even tipsy fellows have approached our end of the bar to compliment his choice. “Nice ink, dude.” Naturally, I find it charming, too.
And so now I call him Carrot Flowers.
At first I referred him by his real name. A wholesome moniker, popular among parents producing sons in the late seventies and early eighties. There was nothing wrong with it. But lying in bed together, after delivering the promised toast, I said, “I can’t call you A____. I was in love with another boy with that name and he broke my heart.”
“That seems silly,” he replied. “It’s not my fault that some fool hurt you.”
“It’s not the name; it’s the connection in my mind. I have also dated four boys named M___. I didn’t love the first three, so it didn’t matter when I met the fourth. But he broke my heart within minutes, just reducing me to a mess. And so, I can never love another male named M___ either.”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“I’m just saying that I want to give you a fair chance, despite what your parents decided to call you decades ago.”
And so he became Carrot. The next day, he arranged to have his belongings moved from L.A. to my house hundreds of miles away.
On the other side of the continent, he remains Carrot.
Before I left for work this morning, I wrote the following note for him:
“Attn. Mr. C. Flowers:
Tonight is trash night. I will be at my meeting until very late, so please please please take it out for me.
Much love and thanks in advance,
But here I am, close to midnight, dragging blue bins overflowing with empty beer cans and gin bottles out to the curb. Bag after bag of takeout food containers and dirty dental floss. An errant bit of pizza crust escapes it’s plastic prison and smears my shoe with tomato sauce. I exhale the longest, loudest martyr’s sigh I can muster. No doubt he is off at a bar with his t-shirt clad co-workers. Or at the deli trying to purloin an egg salad sandwich. Yesterday he declared “From now on, I’m only eating food I have stolen.”
Meanwhile, I was at an NA meeting. Narcotics Anonymous. I’ve been going to meetings twice a week since I moved here. Occasionally, if I’m feeling particularly overwrought, I go every night. That has been happening a lot lately.
I’m serious about it. I have a sponsor, Evan. I met him at the first meeting. He spoke at length about his struggles with cocaine and finance. Lost accounts and fractured relationships. An ugly divorce, followed by a rock bottom in the first class cabin of a flight from the Dominican Republic. Standard issue at these types of gatherings.
He came up to me afterwards, while I drank muddy coffee from a styrofoam cup, wondering if I should try to make small talk with the other addicts.
“Oh, fuck,” I thought. “He’s going to hit on me. A dude is about to try to pick me up at a fucking NA meeting. And he’s wearing a fucking suit.”
But no. He was trying to help me. Did I need a sponsor? He was willing to assume that responsibility.
I squinted at him. Of course I was skeptical. “Well, first I have to ask you something. Are you aware of the complete and utter cliche of being a cokehead stockbroker?”
He smirked. “As long as you’re aware that being an overeducated hipster with a heroin problem isn’t the most creative concept, either. Did you read a lot of Burroughs and just get turned on?”
I laughed. “Okay, you’re hired.”
We shook hands.
“And by the way, it was the rock and roll music that turned me into a junkie.”