This Could Be Anywhere, I Could Be Anyone

I leave the store after a small, middle-aged domestic thrill: A good deal on bathroom rugs ($14.99 for two). As soon as I walk across the parking lot to my car, I know I’ll return them tomorrow. I don’t need them, but I need something. I weave through the lot and see a teenager and his girlfriend sitting in a car not talking. I hear the beep-beep of someone else unlocking their trunk. When I find my Honda squeezed between two minivans, I wonder what the hell has happened to me. I want to change something, but I need to get home in time to make dinner for my family. I feel tired just thinking about it. My small excitement about rugs is undone. Maybe it’s the heat rising from the sea of asphalt that does it, or the box stores with too much to sell me, the redundancy of it all. This place is so vast and ordinary, it makes me numb. This could be anywhere. I could be anyone.

I exit the parking lot and make a left onto Joppa Road. My mood is so changeable these days. My husband tells me I’m too sensitive but I disagree. I pass the Eudowood Towers, a place I’ve passed a million times, but it surprises me that I notice it today. I was there many years ago, I remember now. I get in the far lane to make a right, then turn on the radio. There’s a song playing that I rarely hear. I turn the sound all the way up. Thirty years have passed and I still know the words. “My world is your world,” I sing as if this time in my life has never left me. It’s 1987. I nod to the strum of the guitar. I feel it, then see it, a glimmer of my former self. Like that, the confluence of sound, place, and mood opens a space inside me, a memory that I’d forgotten.

I see myself sitting on the floor in some man’s apartment. I was nineteen years old and stoned. The room was filled with the heaviness of aftershave and tension. We were in the brick Eudowood apartment building with thin metal railings. I could see the pool three stories below through the sliding glass door.

I wasn’t alone. There were several of us. We were sitting on a shag rug around a glass coffee table: Me, Max, Brain Rot, and Danny Defredo—boys I knew from high school. There was also an effeminate man I didn’t know. This was his apartment. It was decorated with obelisks of jade. Carved jade. A jade collection. This jade man was on the edge of the sofa, leaning in. We were drinking his beers. The jade man drank something else in a crystal glass. He had dipped himself in aftershave and was purring.

He was talking about the jade, going on about the obelisks that the Ancient Egyptians, called “tekhenu.” He told us how valuable each piece was, how much they cost and where he got them. Brain Rot—whose real name was Brian Rotter, but he was dyslexic and the nickname stuck—made jokes about dropping a jade phallus and watching it shatter. Then he made a tent out of his shirt and pretended to smuggle a pyramid out of the apartment. He said this loud enough for the jade man to hear, and the jade man, with a gold bracelet dangling around his wrist, smiled and picked up his favorite pieces to show us, big polished rocks that were green and grey, some black, yellow, and orange. I asked questions even though I was stoned and couldn’t really follow the answer. The more he explained the density and toughness of jade, its energy of luck and protection, and its history as a weapon before it was a gem, the more I realized it didn’t matter.

I was hungry and I wanted to leave.

I thought that if I pretended to like jade or some of his Southwestern art hanging on the walls (he told us the worth of that, too), he would give me another beer or some food. But he didn’t look at me when I spoke and shifted on the sofa so his back was turned to me. I could tell he didn’t like me, this jade man, and I didn’t like him because of it. He was plying the boys with alcohol and annoyed that I was there at all. It was as if he was competing with me, though I had no interest in winning. His tone changed when he talked to Max, Danny or Brain Rot. There was something hopeful and proprietary in the jade man’s demeanor. He treated these boys as though they were exotic creatures that he was dying to pet.

These boys: To me, they were ordinary. Brain Rot, with his pocked face and heavy five o’clock shadow, was the guy who drove us there. He drove us everywhere. He drove like he was just happy to be along for the ride, even though he was steering. I knew him the longest because we had gone to elementary school together. After my mother ran off when I was in the fifth grade, his parents told him to be nice to me. It was a begrudging friendship if that’s what you want to call it. We never talked about it

In high school, I hung out with him and the other guys because I didn’t trust the girls who partied like I did. I tried to be tougher than I was, but I also developed an early habit of crushing on boys who ignored me. It was Pavlovian, how much I wanted attention from people least willing to give it. This was back when I was so desperate to be loved that I said yes when I really meant no. It got worse in my twenties and thirties. I’d go anywhere and do anything for alcohol. I blacked out with strangers with no way to leave and got into all kinds of trouble. I learned in retrospect that people don’t feel bad about using and discarding drunken women, then judging them for it. But before those years, I hung out with these boys. I went wherever Brain Rot was driving. We were aimless about grabbing burgers and cruising around all night, drunk and high. Brain Rot let me tag along, and maybe it was out of pity that he protected me. He’d make sure I’d get home, prop me against the door and ring the doorbell. Then he’d leave before my father found me folded in half on the front stoop.

This is painful to remember, though I can’t stop it. It’s as if this memory wants me to unravel it. I’m still singing the song—“When you’re down, it’s a long way up; when you’re up, it’s a long way down,”—but what I sense now as I drive on the beltway is that something wasn’t right that night.

There was a reason we walked up three flights of concrete steps and rang the bell, a reason we filed into this middle-aged man’s apartment. Max told us that the jade man swam at the Eudowood Towers pool where Max was the lifeguard. He said the jade man was cool and had invited Max to stop by anytime. Cool meant he would let us drink. But Max was anxious. His knee shook, springy with energy, while the jade man talked. Max knew something. He was waiting. I realize now that it was for a transaction, an exchange of some sort or certain words to be spoken.

The jade man moved past his interest in gem stones to talk about people at the pool whom Max knew. Max nodded. The jade man scooted closer trying to keep his attention. Max didn’t mind, or maybe he was used to people wanting to be near him. He was sun-bleached and golden, the kind of guy that girls followed, a lacrosse boy with a baby face. He was also the first boy I ever kissed, really sucked face with, back when that was a thing people said. I remember I was in the ninth grade and we’d been listening to side one of a Journey album in the dark with other couples who were also making out. “So you said you’re lonely; well my friend, I’m lonely, too.” It was the sole reason for the party in Laurie McAllister’s basement. Now, as a forty-nine year old woman, it strikes me as odd that Laurie’s parents were home at the time, that they turned off the lights at the top of the stairs so five sets of teenagers could be together in the dark. My date with Max resulted only in a soggy chin and tired mouth. I’d had to take the rubber bands out of my braces so our tongues wouldn’t get caught. Nothing remarkable happened that night beyond mild embarrassment. Any lingering attraction or awkwardness was eventually replaced by the fact that we liked to get high. Which is how we wound up in the jade man’s apartment listening to him laugh in a mean way about a leathery woman named Carol who drank Bloody Mary’s out of a plastic thermos.

Danny Defredo sat next to me on the floor. His head drooped. He was possibly more stoned than I was. He’d been away for a while because he’d gotten into trouble with heroin, but that night he was back. Danny didn’t say much and no one asked him where he’d been: rehab or jail. Still, I felt an old tingle of energy between us, an understanding, even though he was wasted. He scooped peanuts out of a cut glass bowl on the coffee table while we waited for the jade man to stop talking. Danny used to be my boyfriend at some point in high school for maybe a couple of weeks. I’d had my first orgasm while he and I were dry humping on somebody’s basement sofa. At one point, he’d told me he loved me. It scared me.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a shadow move. There was someone in the kitchen. Another man in his forties moved partially into view and stood at the sink. He was making himself known now. He coughed. Then he ran the water. He opened a cabinet and closed it with a small slam. He did it again. He banged a knife on the counter. I wondered if he’d been in the kitchen the whole time and why he didn’t join the rest of us in the living room. Finally he called the jade man’s name. The jade man paused. He’d been telling us the story of how Bloody Mary Carol had fallen into the pool, but he turned and said, “What.” It wasn’t a question.

The kitchen man made a ‘come here’ movement with his head. Whatever he wanted to convey with cabinet slams, he was unwilling to say out loud.

Finally, the jade man got up and went into the kitchen. There were some low whispers. I couldn’t make out what was happening. “It will be fine,” the jade man said to the kitchen man. “Trust me.”

“It’s not right,” I thought I heard the kitchen man say. “Make it fast.” No one else seemed to notice.

When the jade man came back into the room, he had a wad of something in his hand that he pulled from his pocket. He sat on the sofa and moved his hand toward Max’s pocket, tucking it in. Max didn’t flinch. The jade man took a swig from his crystal glass. He moved his leg so that it briefly brushed Max’s leg and then he said, “Sorry,” even though it didn’t seem accidental. The jade man had a deep, thick tan and a tight chest that I could see from his low-buttoned shirt. I’d say now that he’d shaved his chest, but at the time, I knew nothing about the way men kept themselves.

I also realize that the jade man must’ve had a crush on Max. I doubt any one of us realized it. It was the 1980’s and we didn’t know much. Brain Rot, Max, Danny and I had gone to a rural high school where everything seemed foreign and unreachable. An evening in suburbia at Eudowood Towers was a night on the town, practically. We were nineteen and just beginning our lives. AIDS had exploded and people were scared witless of gay men. There was a lot of discussion in the news about saliva. It strikes me how little we knew.

The real reason we were at the Euodowood Apartments, of course, was because of coke. Max was either buying it or selling it. This, too, I realize in retrospect. The guys used to leave me out of conversations, to protect me—or themselves—from my drunken lack of discretion. Maybe there were other reasons we were there. Maybe Max liked the jade man more than he let on.

Danny and Brain Rot finished their beers and asked for more. The jade man said he didn’t think he had any more. He called into the kitchen and the kitchen man opened the refrigerator, then closed it. He didn’t answer. I eyed the glass cart that had liquor bottles arranged on top. I wanted something. Any one of those liquids would’ve been fine with me. But the jade man didn’t offer.

That, I think, was the catalyst for our departure. Or maybe there was no more reason for us to be there. Business was done and we didn’t have to pretend anymore.  I don’t remember anything else from that night. I wonder, now, as a woman old enough to have children the age of my nineteen year-old self, how often Max visited the jade man and if he ever went there by himself.

*

This, all of this, comes back to me in an instant. I’m still driving on the beltway and the song is still playing, and then I remember the first time I heard it.

I was sitting in Danny Defredo’s car in the mall parking lot getting baked. The car was filled with smoke and Danny was playing a cassette of Love and Rockets. I loved it. I used to love Danny. Our problem was, we never loved each other at the same time. We sat there in the car, me and Danny, and stared out the window at the other cars in the parking lot. I still know where we were parked, though I remember hardly anything else from those days. We didn’t say much. We hadn’t seen each other in a while because he’d been away again. But when we bumped into each other at the mall, it seemed inevitable that we’d get stoned. “I only have a few minutes,” Danny said. But we got really, really high and listened to the music and watched people walk to and from their cars, groups of friends headed to the food court or arcade, and moms carrying bags from Sears or JC Penneys. It was a hot afternoon but we had the windows rolled up. We sweated. The sun was deep golden, the color of late August. Eventually Danny said, “I should go to work now.” I said, “O.K.,” but neither one of us moved. Maybe five or ten more minutes passed and Danny said, “No, I should really go to work,” as though I’d offered him an alternative. It was like we were waiting for something to happen, something between us to emerge or something to reveal itself through all the smoke. Something.

I let him go. I got out of the car and walked to my own car. The music still played in my head. “It’s all the same thing. No new tale to tell,” the chorus repeated. This seemed so profound to me at the time. I’d never heard it before and I wanted to own it, to hold it inside me while everything around me, even the summer, passed by.

I got out of my car. I walked back into the mall. I was still massively stoned. Everything and everyone was a haze. It was as if my eyes were slightly crossed and everyone else was part of universe I was just visiting. I floated down the corridor toward the music store. I remember I bought the Love and Rockets cassette and also asked about The Cramps but they didn’t have it in stock. I walked back to my car and clumsily unwrapped the plastic. I stuck the cassette in my car stereo and turned it up. I smoked a cigarette. I waited. I wanted the same feeling that I’d had in the car with Danny, the feeling of being on the verge. I wanted to be on the verge of something big. I wanted the music to find me, to transport me to some plane of possibility. I smoked another cigarette.

It wasn’t the same.

My high was evening out to a dullness. I felt empty inside. I didn’t know where to go to get what I wanted. I couldn’t even name what it was. I played with a turquoise ring on my finger that I’d gotten at the beach that summer. I’d paid $10 for it, which seemed like a lot at the time, though it was worth nothing. I stared at it with the music playing and got lost trying to follow the bumpy lines and crags in the stone. The lines were like paths on a tiny blue island. Some of the lines dead-ended, but one of them went all the way around. I was afraid it would crack in half.

*

I was almost home now. A new song was playing while I waited for a light to change. I stopped drinking when I was forty, but not before much humiliation: Some DUIs and time in handcuffs, the judge in court lecturing about “people like you,” the whispers of my co-workers when I lost a good job. I felt worthless. And yet, I still looked young and very suburban. People who look at me now can’t tell the difference.

One man I dated said, “You were a train wreck,” after I told him part of my story. (A man who showed me his plastic margarita glass collection on our first date to impress me, no less. Who is the bigger train wreck here? I wondered. There were other people who asked, “Why? Why did you always have to drink so much?” as if knowing the answer would’ve stopped me.)

This life, these memories are a knot I’m still unraveling. Other women I know have different stories, maybe not even drunken ones. But they were still beaten down in other ways. It started for all of us when we were young.

I got married to a man with children in my forties because I wanted to be safe and maybe have some value to someone. None of them understand me, though. I’ve turned into a middle-aged woman buying bathroom rugs and driving my Honda across town in rush-hour traffic. I’ve become someone who looks like I would never know what it means to be completely baked. They probably don’t even call it that anymore, that’s how suburban I’ve become. I play tennis, for Christ’s sake. I am that woman walking across the parking lot that my younger self was watching through the hazy windshield of Danny’s car, someone I would’ve barely noticed.

Danny Defredo and I never saw each other after that, though a girlfriend of his, a tall girl named Collette with curly hair, told me later that he’d always been in love with me. I don’t know if this was true, or if it was something twenty year olds say to each other to pass time. When you are that age, you think you will remember it all perfectly, that what is happening, the nuances are so important. You don’t realize that you will forget things like Colette’s last name or how you even knew her, or when you dated Danny and why you broke up, or how he became the guy with track marks on his arm that everyone avoided unless there was no one else. At that age, you don’t know that memory is malleable and that certain things lose their sway. You don’t know that you will forget.

I’m told Danny died with a needle in his arm in a shooting gallery somewhere on North Avenue. I don’t even know if they call them shooting galleries anymore. I don’t know the names of things that used to be my former life. Danny Defredo died and I don’t know how old he was—maybe twenty-four? I don’t remember when I found out, except that he was already dead for a few years and it occurred to me that I had missed it.

As for Max (the golden Adonis, which is what the jade man had called him), the last time I saw him was at a wedding more than a decade ago when I was trying to stop drinking. His face was red, ruddy, he was puffy and had a beer gut. Spit formed at the corner of his mouth. He drank a lot and laughed at his own jokes. His wife was there. She said, “Show her a picture of our daughter!” This was before cell phones. Max pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. He opened it up and flipped to a picture of his dog. “My daughter is ok, but this is who I really love,” he said. His wife hit him in the arm. “You shouldn’t say things like that. Why do you say things like that?” They fought like that the whole evening. Max showed me a picture of a yellow lab, then he flipped to a picture of a young girl with a bow in her hair. I said something like, “What a cute kid!” but what I was thinking was, “My god, you look terrible.” A few years later I read about him in the paper. He’d gotten in trouble with another guy for embezzling and writing false receipts for a construction outfit. He owed a lot of money.

I have no idea what happened to Brain Rot. Our friendship does not span distances or time.

I know now that if I had not gone back to college that fall, if I’d kept riding with them and had gone back to the jade man’s house, if Danny Defredo and I had stayed together in his car that afternoon, I might not be here. I had a several more years of it, of course. My life morphed into a middle-class drunkenness, like Bloody Mary Carol at the pool. Back then, I thought the hell of all hells was to be a housewife in suburbia. But here I am. Somehow I didn’t die, but I didn’t learn the easy way, either.

I turn the music up as loud as my car stereo will go. I sing. I sing as loud as I can. I haven’t forgotten. Now and then I yearn for more. Most days it’s not so bad.

Jen Grow's debut collection, My Life as a Mermaid, was the winner of the 2012 Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Competition. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Writer's Chronicle, Other Voices, The Sun Magazine, Hunger Mountain, GSU Review, Indiana Review, and many others. She was also awarded the 2016 Mary Sawyers Baker Prize for her work, as well as a Ruby Award and two Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council. She lives in Baltimore and can be reached at www.jengrow.com.