Phil lived with his parents, and after smoking a bowl, we floated on deflating air mats in their leafy pool while they scoured the antique mall in Calcutta. A DiGiorno was in the oven, and my mom’s Xanax was softening the pot. Still, I felt anxious from my mono and wanted to go inside.
I caressed the hollow of my stomach, enjoying the feel of my own skin. His dog, Snickers, lunged at the screen door with explosive barks.
I had tried entertaining Phil by mocking a coworker’s idiosyncratic behavior with a really solid Seinfeld impression. In my hometown, I was outgoing and liked trash-talking people, but at college I spent whole days alone in my dorm. Phil never watched Seinfeld, so my joke bombed, and I ended up pulling on his swimsuit strings until he said “Stop.”
Phil lived in the past. He spent hours watching Jonny Quest cartoons. But I’d found out last week he liked ass play, which made him brave about his body, in my opinion.
A frenzied Snickers began chewing the screen. “Don’t you think you should feed the dog?” I asked.
“Mom’s got it.”
“Oh,” I said. “Want to go inside and have sex then?”
“Can you not talk for a while? My high.” Once Phil pinned me in a bathroom, so it wasn’t like we didn’t experiment with sadistic stuff.
“I guess so,” I said. “Yeah probably. Hey. Do you hate Tom? I mean, do you want to punch him until he shuts up?” Tom was our boss, and I knew this would start a conversation.
“Yeah. Me either.” I continued tracing the half moon jut of my hip bone, wondering how long I would feel this horny.
In the dampness, I finished a cigarette on the power plant’s catwalk, and gazed up several stories at the rolling clouds thinking of Phil, who hadn’t shown for work. A few minutes passed watching that flue gas fatten and drift away. I dropped the cherry, trying to hit the employee picnic table below, when he burst through the steel door looking like crap. “I got fired,” he said.
“They just fucking hired you full time.” I removed my hard hat to minimize any flattening of my hair. I still gave a shit, despite a large respirator around my neck, and a nose filled with soot.
“Yeah. I have no idea why.”
I knew why. Yesterday, Phil spent an afternoon rescuing a two-foot snapping turtle which had crawled to the parking lot. He failed out of Forestry school, and seemed conflicted about it. I hadn’t decided if I’d go back to college, so we had that in common. Phil spent each day incredibly high, and he wouldn’t learn any new skill beyond MIG welding, no matter what Tom asked. Yet, he bragged to his friends about this job.
“I can go back to cleaning.”
“Sacred Heart? No.”
“It paid good money.” He changed the subject. “Want to make out?”
“Of course,” I said. We had sex in his truck once, but never slutted it up inside the building, though we were once assigned to clean the supply room all day.
Phil suggested walking back separately, because he worried I’d get canned too, but I wouldn’t get canned. In two weeks, I welded and ground pipe fittings in half the time of the other temps. I reminded these guys of a spunky high school lay, or the girlfriend who put up with their pranks, like filling my hard hat with water. I drank vending machine coffee without complaint and nodded during Tom’s long-winded stories about his two passions: his college-age son and biplanes.
“You can see all Coshocton County,” Tom said. “You can even see the rubber plant dumping shit into the Walhonding.”
The guys outside our team were creeps. They frequently gave a thumbs up to my boobs. Once someone grabbed my ass when I bent down at the vending machine. One temp said, “I like college girls” ten times in a serial killer voice until Larry told him to grow up. Larry’s patronizing tone made me miss college, but the whole thing didn’t seem worth a written complaint.
My mom got me the job through her company We Temp!. I couldn’t burden her with a new assignment. She was having a meltdown over her second divorce, and the house had become a soundtrack of quietly opening and closing cabinet doors.
Overall, my team of senior journeymen were cool. They’d been shown diversity videos and had daughters.
Phil said, “That’s just on the surface. They’re really assholes about women.”
He said this because our co-worker, Larry, commented on the loose tie of my peasant shirt when Phil and I returned from his truck. Larry was hard to hate. Six foot five, and maybe one hundred forty, he brought everyone his wife’s peanut butter squares.
What Larry said was, “You can do better than that numb nut”.
I liked being perceived as better than Phil, especially when he ignored me to play Magic or hunt deer. We went to high school together, and people liked him. Still, I felt I was slumming it, and the realization brought both a jolt of pity and sexual excitement.
Home on break, Craig let everyone smoke at his parents’, while he unloaded two kilos over the summer. Phil’s friends all attended Forestry school, played D&D all night, composted, designed bomb shelters, and survived a blizzard in the Appalachians with the “right gear.” In high school, they were known as smart, reclusive potheads. I knew them to cultivate misanthropy.
Attending college didn’t make them open-minded either. Everyone we knew scattered across Ohio. Colleges were as plentiful and diverse as bars. I went to a bible-thumping university and attended mandatory chapel, and my best friends went to a hippie college in southern Ohio where they did internships in goat herding and got edible condoms at mixers.
Forestry reinforced the guys’ hatred for Reagan, who opened oil leases on wilderness land while refusing to limit trade so that southern Ohio was a ghost town of steel plants and middle Ohio was a boom of strip mining. They also hated Clinton. Craig’s politics were the most fickle, and since he was the Dungeon Master with weed, no one pushed him. He was the king of dickish insults and he controlled the stereo with the Spin Doctors and The Grateful Dead.
His girlfriend Megan was a dick too, and together they bugged everyone. While the guys mostly rolled with Craig, Megan’s contrariness enraged them, and their toxic hatred turned to low blows about her skinniness. I hated being the only other woman. They didn’t totally want us around, but felt insecure without us.
“Try not stroking Phil’s ego all the time. It’s gross,” said Megan, as she gently closed the door to Craig’s kitchen. She smelled of patchouli and cigarettes, and carried a giant patched leather hobo purse, which she unzipped.
Not that I cared what anyone thought of my relationships, but I didn’t like being bossed. “Whatever, dude. Everyone knows you’re down on Craig every time you go for something in his van.”
“I don’t want to fight,” she said. She pulled out a copy of Atlas Shrugged and a tape by Ani DiFranco and held them out. “Here, both are enlightening.”
“Okay,” I said. “Everyone I know hates this book.”
“I’m sure they don’t get it.”
“Oh. Yeah. I’ll tell them that.”
“We should hang out sometime. I’m sure you’re starving for conversation.” She rolled her eyes Phil’s direction.
“Why me? You have other friends.”
“Why not? We got to watch our backs.” She slung her ugly bag over her shoulder and walked into the other room.
I resented the assumption we had to forge an inevitable friendship because we were women, so in Phil’s truck, I drew my feet up on his seat, remained silent, and watched as we floated by the Super 8, rusted oil derricks, and those outbuildings families used both for lawn equipment and parties.
Phil stewed over one of Craig’s gender critiques regarding his clothes, which I hadn’t heard because I was in the bathroom peeing and flipping through Playboy. Next thing I knew we were out in the truck, Phil breathing hard, in full panic attack, as he slapped the steering wheel.
“Chill out,” I said and lit a cigarette without rolling down the window.
“I need to drop you, I want to go to Rivercrest for a drink by myself.”
“You mean you want to break up?” At that moment, I needed reassurance because we were in a bad way.
“Yes.” But it came out tentative.
Back rigid, I pulled in my knees, my throat closing as tears started. He cranked the stereo to cover my crying. Maybe it was my mom or missing school, or maybe I was embarrassed at the prospect of him dumping me, but I curled into a fetal-position in the passenger’s seat.
“Oh for god’s sake stop acting like a four-year-old.” He turned down Nine Inch Nails.
“Oh nice. Fuck you.”
We drove another two miles to his house in silence.
“Well. Here’s your car,” he said.
I opened the door and half fell out, my legs numbed.
“Hey. I hadn’t meant to break up,” he yelled
I unlocked my car and threw my drunk-high body against the driver’s seat.
“Are you okay to drive?”
Like he cared. I tore off, spraying grass and hunks of dirt, forcing him to deal with his mom later.
God knows why Phil’s bedroom was dark for three days, only their family room was lit when I drove past, but it stressed me out. I finally caught him at the Citgo. He’d parked by the propane tanks where high school students paid scrubs to buy beer.
Phil started when he saw me, but walked to my window. “I don’t know why you keep calling me.”
His self-congratulatory tone irritated me. “I hear you are dating that girl who sells coke. As your friend, I just want you to know you can do better.”
“I appreciate that,” he said. “I do.”
“My mom can get you a job, and not as a janitor.”
“I do hate my job,” he said. “Father Ferren is a ballbuster.”
Phil never realized how unintentionally problematic his comments were. “Yeah. Well. I think you could do better,” I said.
“Sure. Let me know what she says.” he leaned down into the window. “Listen, you better not fuck with Vi. Her family can put the hurt on.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means, they take their name and revenge seriously. I’m a guy and she scares me.” He looked around the gas station, as if this secret knowledge thrilled him. Leaned close, I smelled the mouth he’d decided to stop brushing.
I rolled my eyes, but couldn’t resist asking, “Want to hang out?”
He stood and stretched. “No can do. Got plans with my girlfriend. Maybe some other time though.”
“Like later this week,” I said.
“Sure. Later this week. Let me know about your Mom. Gotta get going.”
“Okay. See you.” I said it to his back.
Several guys at work invited me shooting in the strip pits, but when I arrived it was just Larry and Tom and some dudes I didn’t know. They pulled gun bags and coolers from their vans.
We set up beside a yellowish creek littered with spent cans. A graffitied boulder read, Jim Morrison is Alive— as if anyone gave a shit. I hadn’t known what to wear, so I threw on my college sweatshirt and homemade jean shorts.
Tom pointed to my flip flops. “Watch out for snakes,” he said.
“Har har.” I smiled.
Tom’s friends ignored us, so for an hour we set Budweiser cans on the Morrison boulder and shot them with a .22, Tom helping me line the sites. One of Tom’s friends had an SKS, and he probably thought it would be funny to see me shoot it.
“Is this for deer?” I asked.
“Only if you are mad as hell at that deer.” They laughed.
One guy said, “Hit that can square.”
I hefted the gun to my shoulder, uncomfortable with its unwieldiness.
“You can keep pulling.”
As I shot, my throat tightened with anxiety. Bullets ricocheted off the rock, and exploded small clouds of dust. I envisioned bloody injuries, glassy eyes, and paramedics. I couldn’t imagine this did much more than cathect some pent rage. It seemed stupid. They laughed until Tom gave them a look.
“Here, I’ll take that off your hands,” said one guy.
Humiliated, I handed it back, and adjusted my jean shorts, which had ridden up my crotch.
As the sun disappeared, they shot less and drank more, pulling old nylon camp chairs out of one guy’s van. I downed three Rolling Rocks and listened to them shit talk the world. I smiled so much my face ached, but I didn’t like them.
After six beers, they got around to talking about Phil. Larry said, “He’s fucked up. He was a bad hire. He was a loser.” They said he was trashy, but what did that mean? I didn’t mention Phil wore the same Meat Puppets shirt every time we met up, and his teeth often bled when we kissed.
“He was just unemployment waiting to happen.” Sunken into his camp chair, Larry was all belly.
“It’s sad how lazy he is,” said Tom.
“And, weird. He probably jerked off in the bathroom,” said Larry. Tom’s friends laugh, but not Tom.
“I got to go,” I said.
At my car, Tom leaned to the window, so I rolled it down. “Don’t take any of these guys seriously.”
“At this point, that’s my motto.”
“You’re a good girl, Charlie Brown.”
In some ways, I didn’t mind him talking to me like I was nine. There was zero sexuality in his stance, though his hairy hands remained on my car door. Unlike other men at the plant he wasn’t acting gross. And, the guys at college just tried to load me up with drinks.
“Don’t go finding Phil tonight.”
“I won’t,” I said.
I was riding Phil in the passenger’s seat of his truck outside the bar, Cat Ballou’s, bracing myself with my elbow against the window, when I realized I could proposition someone without feeling like a slut. Inside, I’d been chatting with the bartender, when I saw Phil walk in and try to sell his seedy dime bags to a sunken-faced guy by the door. I walked past him, stopped, whispered “Wanna screw?”
“Sure,” he said.
I felt really fucking strong.
Phil leaned over and kissed me hard. A fleck of blood dotted his lip. He whispered. “My girlfriend is showing up later.”
“Are you telling me to clear out?”
“I’m saying I’m going back in there alone,” he said. “For your own safety.”
“Give me a break.” I lit a cigarette without rolling down the window.
“Seriously, I’m going in,” he said.
The walk to my car, I felt washed-out and sore, unsnapped bodysuit scraping my thigh. Through the windshield, I watched a couple girls cross the street from Red Head, their hair huge, their jeans tight and shiny.
Maybe that was her. I told myself it was better I’d had sex with him first. But, that didn’t help, since he’d seemed a mess–selling her dime bags, throwing his life away. Completely still, I watched them walk the entire way into Cat Balou’s.
Rivercrest Lounge was a hangout for the oldest locals and a supper club for fish fries, but in high school it was known as the “drug bar”. Two seventeen-year-old punk girls with safety pins in their noses had made a rep for drinking Schnapps in a back booth after letting an old man feel them up, and the place became a symbol for what you should and shouldn’t do in the town. But I’d been in here my first week home from school, and it just felt like a dive where you ate fried food and talked about work.
Parked beside Phil’s truck, Megan leaned too close offering me a one hitter, and I wondered if I invited people to disregard my comfort.
“Supposedly, his girlfriend cuts people, you know.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t go in.”
“Do whatever makes you feel good, but I don’t think he’s worth it.”
She rolled her eyes, and zipped the hobo bag. “I’m going across the street to the Dollar Store. You let me know how this turns out.”
“Maybe I’m stupid.”
“Hey, I’m not judging. Just come get me if you need me.” Megan loved to flex her open-minded muscles. When she was really high, she once explained the difference between sympathy and empathy. I let her go on because I was lonely.
Rivercrest wasn’t like Cat Ballou’s. Windowless, it smelled of bleach and the eight foot ceiling made it feel like a basement. The jukebox pumped out Genesis. I tried to project a don’t-fuck-with-me vibe, but everywhere I looked, men stared.
His boots propped on the chair across from him, Phil stretched the width of a corner table laughing with guys I’d never met. I saw him first and walked to his table. “How’s it going?” I said.
“You should not be here,” he said.
“Why?” Maybe he wouldn’t be in the frame of mind to hear my take on what people were saying. But, I could save him from his lazy fear of change. He could pick another college, stop wearing the damn oil-stained jean jacket, and quit eating the same frozen pizzas and watching the same cartoon marathons on his parents’ TV.
“I’m just going to have a drink.” I eased into the ripped vinyl booth.
“That seat’s taken,” he said.
Around the table, the guys stopped talking, yet pretended not to notice me. One laughed.
“Seriously?” I asked. My eyes burned.
“Yeah. This is the only time her old man isn’t around. Scoot.”
“Jesus. She’s married?”
“She’s talking about me again, isn’t she?” Beside me, Vi stood in the dim red glow, thin and sinewy in a white tank and blue leather jacket, hair wild. She sent a tingle through me. “What’s your problem, anyway?”
“Nothing. Sorry. I just came here to see Phil.”
“Well. You’ve seen him.”
We had something in common, and she needed to understand that. “Yeah. I wanted to tell him about the job my mom lined up.”
“I thought you guys were just friends.”
“Well,” I said.
Vi’s friend or sister with a faux hawk and pink swaths of eyeshadow over lid, slid up behind her. She looked far less reasonable, and I could see where they were coming from. I didn’t belong, and I had been talking shit. I felt a mono headache starting. Why did acting in my own self-interest have to end badly? In college, I walked home alone, passed out in male friends’ beds, drank to obvious excess, isolated myself from well-meaning friends, ate horribly. Despite these displays of indifference, I never completely felt at ease. Maybe there wasn’t a convenient time to assert myself. Clearly, Vi fed off challenge. I bet she never whined.
I felt the flat-palm slap, a bright stinging spreading from my cheek, bone to my teeth.
“Hey man, that was totally unnecessary.” I knew better than to fully stand and considered how I might walk to my car safely with my head down. Phil was laughing.
I wanted to say we should cut each other slack. He was nothing to get upset over.
Armed with Red Head coffee and chocolate donuts, I drove to work and used my car mirror to load L’Oréal foundation over the small circles of blue fingerprints darkening on my cheek.
Tom was quiet the entire time I shadowed him to the tool check. We were replacing spent grinding wheels, when he said, “What happened to you?”
“It was my fault.”
“The hell you say? Did she get the best of you?”
“I was in the wrong place.”
He wouldn’t resume working until I spilled everything. I unloaded and cried. Tom never liked Phil and he listened intently to a description of Vi selling cocaine. He told me to use vinegar on the bruises, though I’d smell like a “goddamn salad”. When we hugged, I pressed my face into his shoulder and felt safe.
“I haven’t fought since I was nineteen,” he said.
“I’m not nineteen.”
“I’m not busting your balls. It’s just not becoming.”
“I really hate that word,” I said.
My last week, I worked less, and Tom said nothing. The forest rangers had gone back to Hocking Tech, so I stayed home reading novels assigned in my single literature class.
I drove by Phil’s once to see him watering his parents’ lawn. He might have looked up.
I returned Megan’s book before a show at the Night Owl in Columbus where her friends’ punk band Squeal Like You Mean It opened for Rebar. Sweaty and elated, she and Craig and I danced to New Wave ‘til we had sore, whiplashed necks. We planned a hiking trip to Utah. We trash-talked Phil–his taste in partners, his intelligence, his looks.
Craig said, “You look better without him, less sick.”
“Mono is gone.” But, I struggled with headaches, so maybe it wasn’t. Elastica played and the Night Owl screened Supervixens so the flash of peach skin, lips, and straining leather seared into my brain. I soaked in each detail, exhaling slow breaths.
“Hey. Phil’s girlfriend is on her way to prison, by the way,” said Craig.
They told me Vi got picked up at the traffic light in front of Giant Eagle carrying an ounce of coke and her kid riding without a carseat. “It was only a matter of time because there was always a cop driving by her house,” said Craig. “She got three years. What a piece of shit.”
I already knew. Tom had called his cop brother. I guess he thought of himself as a kind of father figure, and that disturbed me. I wasn’t a coworker, an equal, but a daughter to guide and instruct. Gross.
“Pretty shitty if you have a kid,” said Megan.
“Yeah.” Saying it didn’t feel right. I suddenly hoped Craig and Megan would break up. They could be such assholes. Eventually, they would find work as rangers in a national park. Their Facebook pic would show five khaki-clad hikers with arms slung over each other like it was a camping supply ad.
“What’s wrong with you?” said Megan.
“I’m not feeling good,” I said.
They didn’t believe me, but at the time I thought I sold it. My lack of introspection made me tone deaf to social cues, so maybe they even knew I was involved in Vi’s arrest, however indirectly. It seemed best to leave. “Actually, I’m feeling like an asshole.” I pulled my bag over my shoulder.
“Why should you feel bad?” said Megan. “She’s the drug addict”
I pushed my way toward the door.
“Well, whatever. Give me a call,” she yelled.
In the street, five drunk dudes rocked a car to their football chants. I took a side alley, wanting to prove I could take care of myself, become something more complete, whatever that meant. I didn’t know. Maybe I should have looked over my shoulder to see if they followed. But if I wasn’t self-sufficient then, when would I be?
Amanda Marbais’ fiction has appeared in The Collagist, Moon City, Joyland, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Apalachee Review, and many other journals. She has written reviews and cultural essays for Your Impossible Voice and Paste Magazine.