Fiction

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This is the prequel to both a novelette and screenplay I wrote, in both of which the Joshua Gray (introduced here) deals with the aftermath of this story’s ending.

 

OF JULIE AND BETTER MEN

My name is Julie and I’m 24 years old. I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist here in L.A. since I took a bottle of pills after my best friend, Theresa, died of a drug overdose when we were both 18. I’ve been going to college part-time and working for years as a waitress at a downtown diner. That’s where I met my boyfriend, Josh. He sings and writes for a band he and a bunch of his friends started back in high school, and they play off and on at a club called The Rock Warehouse down the street from where I work.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of psychology books myself, trying to learn the right things to say to make them think I’m getting “better” so I can stop being driven crazy by these people who think they’re trying to make me sane.

Better. What the hell does that mean anyway? Better than what? Better than them? Better than my friend who died with a needle in her arm? What?

When I think of better I don’t think adjective or adverb like they pretend to. I think noun. A better is someone trying to beat the odds. Someone crazy enough to believe they can. Just like the psychiatrists. I mean, what do any of them do all day but play around with “odds”? Working to improve the “odds”. Make us “better”. Transform the “odds” into their success.

And they think I’m the one who’s crazy.

In a way I feel sorry for them. My psychiatrist has a diploma from some Ivy League school on his wall. When he doesn’t know what to say during a session, he looks off in the direction of that wall like he’s just looking into space collecting his thoughts. I don’t think so. I think he’s taking comfort from a glance at his diploma, reassuring himself that he’s “okay” — or rather, “better” than the rest of us.

Whatever.

In all fairness, though, I really don’t think my therapist’s all that bad. I think he’s just confused. The problem is that’s about the only thing anybody I know can relate to in him. To be more specific, my therapist is 42 years old and since he works with “troubled youths” he wears jeans and rock T-shirts and tells us not to call him Dr. Emerson, but simply Brockton, which he refers to as his “Christian name” — again, whatever that means. Although at times I’ve thought of going back, I’ve only been to church on one occasion in my life, and that was for a funeral, so it’s not like I pretend to be an expert on that kind of thing. It just sounds so funny when you think about it. I mean, does “Christian name” imply he saves his “other” name for ritual sacrifices at his Satanic-worship cult or what? And does he really think a name like Brockton is supposed to make him seem so much more familiar anyway?. He just doesn’t get it. We all know he spent his youth being shuttled back and forth to soccer practice at prep school in his mom’s custom shade of rich-bitch-suburban-blue-sky Land Rover.

Not that that’s his fault. I know he means well. And he really does think he tries. In his expensively ignorant, well-educated mind, he thinks he’s giving back to society from the bounty of his “privileged” existence. Sounds so noble, doesn’t it? Almost like a modern-day Robin Hood risking life and limb by stealing from himself to give to others. Maybe it is. But to me there’s nothing noble about repulsion. And that’s what dear old Brockton’s life is really all about. He’s just this great big ball of repulsion being tossed back and forth between desire and conscience behind those well-trained features he tells himself are so inscrutable. Self-repulsion born of guilt. Repulsion of his patients born of ignorance and fear.

Twice a month we have group sessions presided over by Brockton and Dr. Wilkins, a huge little woman in her fifties with a whole different set of problems I won’t even go into. Anyway, some of the guys in the group play tough with Brockton just for the fun of it. It’s not like a real challenge or anything. They all know he’d never be up to that. He thinks they just resent him or his position or the fact they realize he’s somehow a “better” man. Maybe they do. I doubt it. Me, I just pity him. So much pressure to measure up when you’re born on a platinum pedestal running over with costly choices.

I come from a place so low, almost any step I take’s got to be in the right direction. And if it’s not, well, it’s not like anybody’s going to notice. Kind of liberating in a way — a sick way, I suppose. But hey, that’s why I’m working with all these people to make me “better”…isn’t it?

Of course, it’s not really true that no one notices people like me. Josh does. He notices everything. I guess that’s what makes him so good at music. He has this way of sharing everything he notices so completely that, for a minute, other people notice too. But most of them don’t understand what they see or know what to do about it if they do or forget that they wanted to at all by the time they leave the club. Josh is different. He makes every experience his own and does whatever he can to make it not just “better”, but really right. Talk about a modern day hero.

He doesn’t know I know it, but that’s the reason he’s with me. I used to work the overnight shift at the diner on weekends. Back when Josh first got his band booked at the club down the street — a place we call “The Rock” for short — they started coming in for coffee and food and to relax after their gigs. Pretty soon Josh started coming in alone when I’d be working after school during the week.

He’d always sit at this table over in the corner and watch all the people who came in, jotting down notes in a book like he still carries with him everywhere he goes. Business is usually pretty slow that time of day, so most times we’d end up talking for quite awhile after I’d brought his order. And I guess he must’ve thought I looked starved or something because he’d always try to share with me whatever he was eating.

Not that any of that was really all that unusual for me. Lots of guys who came in regularly talked to me, but the thing that made Josh different was he didn’t gripe about how his boss was screwing him on overtime or why the “stupid bitch” he used to live with should be shot for siccing the police on him just because he wasn’t paying his child support — all the while giving me this obvious invitation to become his next “stupid bitch” without realizing I knew just how stupid I’d have to be to really take him up on it. God, the world’s full of wackos. I just wish they’d eat at McDonald’s.

Anyway, Josh was never like that. He’d ask about my day and my family and stuff that was going on like he really cared. One day I told him about my friend Theresa, who was in the midst of her battle with drugs. After that he’d always ask how she was doing and when I told him not very good he asked if there was some way he could help.

Not long after that Theresa died, and they kept me in the kindler, gentler version of the “big house” for a month after my “incident” with the pills. Josh came in my first day back at work and asked if I’d go out with him after my shift. No fuss. No awkward pauses while he tried to think of what to say that wouldn’t upset the psycho. He just stood there smiling that same “if you reject me I’ll understand” smile he always did and seemed as calm as if he’d seen me every day that I’d been gone. Considering I’d had to almost peel everyone else off the ceiling every time I’d picked up silverware that day, you can imagine how incredibly great that felt.

Needless to say, I went out with him that night. Three months later I moved in with him and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

Josh isn’t here tonight. He and his band went up to San Francisco for a special showcase with some record producer bigwig or something to that effect. His friend Chris stopped by today to wish him luck before he left.

Chris has his own band, too, but they play really different stuff than Josh. It’s okay, I guess. But I’m not the person to ask anything about Chris. He and Josh met a couple of years ago when they were billed together at a music festival in Seattle, and they’ve stuck as close as Scooby-Doo and Shaggy ever since.

Chris probably would’ve gone with him to the showcase if his band hadn’t already committed to playing “The Rock” tonight, but even Chris can’t always get quite everything he wants.

Chris doesn’t like me. It’s never been mentioned to my face, but I’m sure Josh has told him about my past. And present. I suppose he thinks I’m dangerous. I like to let him think maybe I am. Hey, if he’s going to look at me with unflinching contempt every time we meet, I figure the least I can do is match his investment.

Today while he was here I took out every sharp knife I could find and pretended to polish them at the kitchen table. Yeah, I know that’s really silly, stereotypical psycho crap, but if it takes so little to give him what he’s looking for, why disappoint him.

Anyway, he and Josh were sitting in the next room. Josh’s back was to me, but from where Chris was sitting, he had a perfect view. And you can be sure he was watching every single move I made. I had him so rattled I doubt if he heard anything Josh said. At one point our eyes met and I slowly licked the flat side of a knife just to really freak him out, then smiled as sweetly as if nothing at all unusual had happened and went back to my careful polishing.

Chris looked down and didn’t look up again until Josh asked what was wrong, which made him stammer for a moment before mumbling he’d gotten home late from a gig and never gone to sleep. I laughed so hard to myself I felt like I was in one of those cheesy old black-and-white horror flicks, alongside some mad scientist exulting over one of those glorious discoveries that usually later ends up getting him killed.

Finally, I could tell the conversation was winding down so I put everything away and stood there innocently warming a cup of coffee in the microwave when Josh came by to walk Chris to the door. Chris didn’t even glance in my direction.

God, that was fun.

I don’t really have much fun these days. Not that my life has ever been a barrel of laughs. But I remember being happy at times as a kid — playing games with my big brother, hanging out with Theresa, stuff like that.

My mom ran off with some other guy just after I was born and my dad never did get over that. He wasn’t a very strong guy to begin with. Well, at least not in the ways that seem to count. He worked three jobs to put himself through college and then took one as a maintenance worker in a shopping mall to avoid the stress and competition of “better” employment. When my mom left, my brother says he started to drink a lot. He still went to work every day and he took care of both us kids as best he could, but it seems whatever strength he’d used to have she took with her. I don’t remember much about that time, but my brother says that even as young as he was he could see Dad wearing down. I guess finally he decided there just wasn’t enough left to bother dragging what little there was around any longer. Maybe he looked in the mirror one day and couldn’t find any more reflection. Or maybe he looked inside and saw too much. Whatever the reason, that day he stopped looking in the mirror and found a rope in the basement instead.

My brother and I went to live with my aunt.

I don’t know why she took us in at all, to tell you the truth. I guess it was to satisfy some martyr syndrome she’d developed. I mean, her name is Joan so maybe it has something to do with living up to one’s “label”, as the psychology books put it. All I know is that it certainly wasn’t out of any deep abiding love for either of us.

My aunt already had four kids of her own, all boys. The youngest was really nice but the other three were complete jerks who got into trouble all the time. Two of them were suspended from school I don’t know how many times for picking fights, and the oldest one finally got arrested for stealing a car. Of course, from my aunt’s perspective none of that was ever any of their fault. The fighting was explained as strictly unavoidable self-defense and the car theft was supposedly the result of “getting mixed up with the wrong crowd”. You know, little Timmy was just too innocent to recognize how much trouble trying to improve the lives of the less fortunate members of the community by selling them handguns could possibly get him into. I call that kind of self-deception a way of re-defining “stupid”. Of course, in Timmy’s defense, it’s also confirmation that he came by his dishonesty honestly by virtue of his gene pool.

Anyway, Aunt Joan never missed an opportunity to make it very clear my brother and I should thank our lucky stars we had a roof over our heads — or rather that we could expect to until such time as Timmy and his pals could find a way to burn it down. Of course, I’m sure that would have been an accident, too, or maybe somehow my fault. After all, every one of her children was indisputably “better” than me. And, thankfully for his sake, so was my brother, solely by virtue of having been born a boy. Although that alone couldn’t make him nearly as perfect as my aunt’s boys, he was at least guaranteed to be — marginally — “better” than myself.

But that was never true in his eyes, of course, so I really didn’t care how my aunt felt. Actually, I was kind of glad for his sake that my brother’s sex worked to his advantage. Because I knew why it did. Even so, I knew if I were to keep a roof over our heads, I’d better make sure he never found out.

It seems Uncle Stan was about as fond of Aunt Joan as the rest of us were, a problem none of the boys had ever been able to help him out with. Unfortunately, at some point that meant he decided I was going to. And since Aunt Joan worked weekend nights at the diner — which is how I ended up getting a job there — Uncle Stan had plenty of opportunities to seek a perversion from his less than happy life.

Again, I remind you of my thoughts on the word “better” as a noun. If ever an “odd” needed to be improved it was my uncle. And believe me I would have loved to help him out with that if I could have. Unfortunately I didn’t have access to friends like Timmy’s and the “tools of their trade”. And frankly I wasn’t so sure that that kind of solution would have improved my life anyway. So instead, even though I wasn’t old enough to work the night shift at the time, I asked my aunt to try getting me a job with her at the diner.

I don’t know if she had any idea why I’d asked or if it was just that wicked stepmother gene seizing the chance to add to Cinderella’s labors, but she lied about my age and got me the job anyway. And even though it seemed like I was tired all the time, I couldn’t remember how long it had been since I’d gotten that much rest.

I never told my brother about that. I just couldn’t bear to see how it would hurt him. Besides, what good would it have done? Yeah, maybe we could’ve got the guy arrested or whatever, but then we would’ve been moved to a foster home — or worse yet separated into two foster homes. Or, knowing my brother, he would have dropped out of school so he could work full-time and try to keep the authorities out of it by getting an apartment for us to live in without anybody being told just what was going on.

It was better to deal with it my way.

As it is, my brother was able to finish high school and go on to college to get a degree in computer science. He got a job in the northern part of the state where he’s been living with a girl he met up there for the past two years. He called today after Josh left to tell me his girlfriend’s going to have a baby. He said they’re getting married in June and wanted to ask if Josh would be in the wedding. He sounded really happy. I hope he is.

It’s always said there’s somebody for everybody, that for each of us there’s another person out there who you’ll just know when you meet them is “the one”. Like my brother and his girlfriend. Sure, you might say he’s just marrying her because she’s pregnant, that he might not really love her, but if you ever saw them together you’d know that isn’t true. Even from the sidelines you can tell that they’re really each other’s “one”.

And that’s a beautiful thing.

What I want to know is can somebody be your “one” without you being theirs. Can there really be some cosmic joke of fate that makes your heart bleed over a guy who’s never going to really love you back? I’m not talking about infatuations like Scarlett O’Hara had for Ashley or Cathy had for Edgar Linton and his money. They each had a “one” and were just too dumb to know it. Makes you understand why such characters are called “heroines”, don’t you think. Because both of those drugs are about equally destructive to the people who get involved with them.

But like I said, that’s not what I mean. What I’m talking about is what happens in that old J. Geils song, the one that goes “you love her, but she loves him, and he loves somebody else; you just can’t win”. Obviously, it’s not a new dilemma or anything, but since nobody’s ever won a Nobel Prize for solving it as yet, you can’t blame a girl for wondering, now can you?

The thing is, what does it really mean? Does Cupid aim at one person who moves unexpectedly and someone else gets hit? Maybe someone who already got hit so hard once that this arrow has no effect? And if that’s the case, is it over for that person on whose behalf Cupid was aiming? Is there no second chance for them? Has their “one” moved beyond Cupid’s aim, or is his only arrow for them used up so they’re just destined from that moment to be alone? How does that work?

But you know what’s even harder to figure out? Why is it that a person who hasn’t found their “one”, who’s maybe even one of those who doesn’t have a “one”, can’t love the wrong one no matter how willing they are to try — no matter how much they really seem to actually want to? What’s up with that? Because that person is just as unhappy in his own way as the person (whose “one” he happens to be) who he can’t love.

And the reason I know this is because Josh is one of those.

It’s not like he intentionally deceived me. I know he started off fully expecting things to work out fine between us. And not because he’s a “better” man like those psychiatrists I’ve told you about. He didn’t see me as an “odd” he could improve. He saw me as a person he could love. His heart was in the right place, doing its job, acting like it always did. It’s a big heart, and it’s strong, and it loves a lot of people. The problem is his heart didn’t put a call through to his soul before he got involved with me. And it’s the soul that Cupid really puts his mark on. The “one” isn’t known as a “heart-mate” now, is it? Pretty simple to understand, really. I mean, basically it’s summed up in the concept of Occam’s Razor — you know, don’t look beyond the obvious because odds are there lies the truth.

Still, what’s easy to understand isn’t always easy to make sense of. Not for me. Not for Josh.

I know he wants things to be different. He wants to love me “truly, madly, deeply” — with a passion as inescapable as the one he has for music. And, God, I know he tries. His is just too honest of a soul to let him get away with that, though it kills him to admit it — even to himself.

I mentioned Wuthering Heights before. I swear I must have read that book a least a hundred times. I just relate to it so much. Not to Cathy — spoiled brat — but to Heathcliff. Especially to the line he says to her as she lies dying of her own will. “I love my murderer — but yours…” Because that’s how Josh makes me feel. I watch him smile at me and feel pain. When he holds me I know inside he feels so hollow that his emptiness fills my heart.

Tonight it’s overflowing. Because I know this is his time. I know this record deal they’re playing for — and praying for — will happen. Because Josh deserves it. So does his band. Cliched as it may sound, they’ve just worked so damn hard. And although some might call them “betters” considering how few artists really make it, that’s not what they are. They’re just good men. And when this night is over, they’ll all share in the reward of this wonderful moment. Together. And tomorrow they’ll start a new chapter in their lives. Together.

I’m glad. Because like what my brother and his girlfriend have, this too is a beautiful thing.

I don’t pretend to know if Josh has a “one” out there. To tell you the truth, I guess I’d really rather not find out. I just know it isn’t me. And to tell you an even bigger truth, I really think that sucks.

Anyway, it’s often said we ought to live every day like it’s our last because it could be. Well, I woke up and kissed my “one” this morning. And I made love to him from the bottom of my soul. After he left for San Francisco, I went to the bank and took out all of my savings. It isn’t in the millions by any means, but it’ll pay a couple of months rent. I put it inside Josh’s spare guitar case in the bedroom. I don’t know how long it takes between signing a record deal and “making it” financially, but just in case he needs it, it’ll be there.

I can’t wait around for Josh to leave. And I can’t keep watching his desire not to hurt me kill us both. You could say I’ve had a hard life. You could say I’ve had a great one. It’s all about whether you see the glass as half-empty or half-full. I choose to see it as my cup runneth over.

And out.