OF JULIE AND BETTER MEN
My name is Julie and Iím 24 years old. Iíve 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. Iíve been going to college part-time and working for years as a waitress at a downtown diner. Thatís 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, Iíve been reading a lot of psychology books myself, trying to learn the right things to say to make them think Iím getting "better" so I can stop being driven crazy by these people who think theyíre 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 donít 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 Iím the one whoís crazy.
In a way I feel sorry for them. My psychiatrist has a diploma from some Ivy League school on his wall. When he doesnít know what to say during a session, he looks off in the direction of that wall like heís just looking into space collecting his thoughts. I donít think so. I think heís taking comfort from a glance at his diploma, reassuring himself that heís "okay" -- or rather, "better" than the rest of us.
In all fairness, though, I really donít think my therapistís all that bad. I think heís just confused. The problem is thatís 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 Iíve thought of going back, Iíve only been to church on one occasion in my life, and that was for a funeral, so itís 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 doesnít get it. We all know he spent his youth being shuttled back and forth to soccer practice at prep school in his momís custom shade of rich-bitch-suburban-blue-sky Land Rover.
Not that thatís his fault. I know he means well. And he really does think he tries. In his expensively ignorant, well-educated mind, he thinks heís giving back to society from the bounty of his "privileged" existence. Sounds so noble, doesnít 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 thereís nothing noble about repulsion. And thatís what dear old Brocktonís life is really all about. Heís 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 wonít even go into. Anyway, some of the guys in the group play tough with Brockton just for the fun of it. Itís not like a real challenge or anything. They all know heíd never be up to that. He thinks they just resent him or his position or the fact they realize heís somehow a "better" man. Maybe they do. I doubt it. Me, I just pity him. So much pressure to measure up when youíre born on a platinum pedestal running over with costly choices.
I come from a place so low, almost any step I takeís got to be in the right direction. And if itís not, well, itís not like anybodyís going to notice. Kind of liberating in a way -- a sick way, I suppose. But hey, thatís why Iím working with all these people to make me "better"...isnít it?
Of course, itís not really true that no one notices people like me. Josh does. He notices everything. I guess thatís 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 donít 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 doesnít know I know it, but thatís the reason heís 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 Iíd be working after school during the week.
Heíd 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 weíd end up talking for quite awhile after Iíd brought his order. And I guess he mustíve thought I looked starved or something because heíd 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 didnít 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 wasnít 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 Iíd have to be to really take him up on it. God, the worldís full of wackos. I just wish theyíd eat at McDonaldís.
Anyway, Josh was never like that. Heíd 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 heíd 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 Iíd go out with him after my shift. No fuss. No awkward pauses while he tried to think of what to say that wouldnít upset the psycho. He just stood there smiling that same "if you reject me Iíll understand" smile he always did and seemed as calm as if heíd seen me every day that Iíd been gone. Considering Iíd had to almost peel everyone else off the ceiling every time Iíd 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 isnít 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. Itís okay, I guess. But Iím 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 theyíve stuck as close as Scooby-Doo and Shaggy ever since.
Chris probably wouldíve gone with him to the showcase if his band hadnít already committed to playing "The Rock" tonight, but even Chris canít always get quite everything he wants.
Chris doesnít like me. Itís never been mentioned to my face, but Iím sure Josh has told him about my past. And present. I suppose he thinks Iím dangerous. I like to let him think maybe I am. Hey, if heís 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 thatís really silly, stereotypical psycho crap, but if it takes so little to give him what heís looking for, why disappoint him.
Anyway, he and Josh were sitting in the next room. Joshís 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 didnít look up again until Josh asked what was wrong, which made him stammer for a moment before mumbling heíd 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 didnít even glance in my direction.
God, that was fun.
I donít 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 wasnít 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 heíd used to have she took with her. I donít 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 wasnít enough left to bother dragging what little there was around any longer. Maybe he looked in the mirror one day and couldnít 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 donít know why she took us in at all, to tell you the truth. I guess it was to satisfy some martyr syndrome sheíd developed. I mean, her name is Joan so maybe it has something to do with living up to oneís "label", as the psychology books put it. All I know is that it certainly wasnít 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 donít know how many times for picking fights, and the oldest one finally got arrested for stealing a car. Of course, from my auntís 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 Timmyís defense, itís 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, Iím 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 couldnít make him nearly as perfect as my auntís 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 didnít care how my aunt felt. Actually, I was kind of glad for his sake that my brotherís 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, Iíd 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 didnít have access to friends like Timmyís and the "tools of their trade". And frankly I wasnít so sure that that kind of solution would have improved my life anyway. So instead, even though I wasnít 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 Iíd asked or if it was just that wicked stepmother gene seizing the chance to add to Cinderellaís 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 couldnít remember how long it had been since Iíd gotten that much rest.
I never told my brother about that. I just couldnít bear to see how it would hurt him. Besides, what good would it have done? Yeah, maybe we couldíve got the guy arrested or whatever, but then we wouldíve 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 heís been living with a girl he met up there for the past two years. He called today after Josh left to tell me his girlfriendís going to have a baby. He said theyíre getting married in June and wanted to ask if Josh would be in the wedding. He sounded really happy. I hope he is.
Itís always said thereís somebody for everybody, that for each of us thereís another person out there who youíll just know when you meet them is "the one". Like my brother and his girlfriend. Sure, you might say heís just marrying her because sheís pregnant, that he might not really love her, but if you ever saw them together youíd know that isnít true. Even from the sidelines you can tell that theyíre really each otherís "one".
And thatís 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 whoís never going to really love you back? Iím not talking about infatuations like Scarlett OíHara 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", donít you think. Because both of those drugs are about equally destructive to the people who get involved with them.
But like I said, thatís not what I mean. What Iím 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 canít win". Obviously, itís not a new dilemma or anything, but since nobodyís ever won a Nobel Prize for solving it as yet, you canít 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 thatís 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 Cupidís aim, or is his only arrow for them used up so theyíre just destined from that moment to be alone? How does that work?
But you know whatís even harder to figure out? Why is it that a person who hasnít found their "one", whoís maybe even one of those who doesnít have a "one", canít love the wrong one no matter how willing they are to try -- no matter how much they really seem to actually want to? Whatís 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 canít love.
And the reason I know this is because Josh is one of those.
Itís not like he intentionally deceived me. I know he started off fully expecting things to work out fine between us. And not because heís a "better" man like those psychiatrists Iíve told you about. He didnít 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. Itís a big heart, and itís strong, and it loves a lot of people. The problem is his heart didnít put a call through to his soul before he got involved with me. And itís the soul that Cupid really puts his mark on. The "one" isnít known as a "heart-mate" now, is it? Pretty simple to understand, really. I mean, basically itís summed up in the concept of Occamís Razor -- you know, donít look beyond the obvious because odds are there lies the truth.
Still, whatís easy to understand isnít 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 thatís 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 itís overflowing. Because I know this is his time. I know this record deal theyíre playing for -- and praying for -- will happen. Because Josh deserves it. So does his band. Cliched as it may sound, theyíve just worked so damn hard. And although some might call them "betters" considering how few artists really make it, thatís not what they are. Theyíre just good men. And when this night is over, theyíll all share in the reward of this wonderful moment. Together. And tomorrow theyíll start a new chapter in their lives. Together.
Iím glad. Because like what my brother and his girlfriend have, this too is a beautiful thing.
I donít pretend to know if Josh has a "one" out there. To tell you the truth, I guess Iíd really rather not find out. I just know it isnít me. And to tell you an even bigger truth, I really think that sucks.
Anyway, itís often said we ought to live every day like itís 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 isnít in the millions by any means, but itíll pay a couple of months rent. I put it inside Joshís spare guitar case in the bedroom. I donít know how long it takes between signing a record deal and "making it" financially, but just in case he needs it, itíll be there.
I canít wait around for Josh to leave. And I canít keep watching his desire not to hurt me kill us both. You could say Iíve had a hard life. You could say Iíve had a great one. Itís all about whether you see the glass as half-empty or half-full. I choose to see it as my cup runneth over.