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WINNER IN 2022 UNCONVENTIONAL LOVE STORY CONTEST™ JUDGED BY JON LINDSEY & ALLIE ROWBOTTOM  

Bring Down the Girls


    It was the easiest thing we had going: cheap dope. It was 2008 AD, and my arm was broken and my head was shaved, so it must’ve been early October. And you know what, to tell you the truth: we were running everything in front of us. The world was a pearly thing, on the bus right there with Poppy and Cameron, looking at a girl one of them knew from campus, from class. That girl: she looked good in these boho shorts that none of us could really understand, a big puff coat up top and her haired pulled back like an Olympian or lawyer. Poppy touched his eyes like he was dreaming. Then he was rubbing them red like the time he got too much chlorine in his eyes drifting the lazy river at KeyLime Cove. She smiled at us then waved our way, but our brains were so loaded up with heat that all we did was a lot of grinning, lot of blinking. We all wanted her to know we appreciated her, and yes, of course, if anything worked about us–our bodies, our minds, our johns–we’d have taken a run at her. If only one of us could’ve spoken up: we’d have let her know how good she looked. How good she’d look to us. How good she’d look rolling into The Mutiny with us. And we’d have told her that we knew the bouncer at The Mutiny because he lived with Eddie for a minute, and she should come with us, and that the night was still young, and also, so were we.

    Still young.

    But again: our voices were bunk, barely working like our hearts. Right then we were looking like highway trash or sunburned dirt or something. Things were pearly to us, but I imagine we were not so pearly to things that might be looking back our way. The stuff we’d picked up had come from one of the few second story balconies off Homan Boulevard. “Blows or Sniffs,” he’d shouted down to us, his apostles, miserably sweating in the cracked-up street. Cameron tapped his nose twice like he was showing the girl at Tatu House where he wanted his next piercing to be. The guy above nodded. “Bring down that girl,” he said to someone in the apartment behind him. Then this dude whose hair was breaking out of his braids and who prided himself on being the only Polish guy he knew that was dog enough to live west of the bridge, started walking down a black staircase holding his daughter–someone’s daughter– and pulling our stuff out of this kid’s diaper, smiling like he was clever for it. He held this smile in a way that told the three of us: he thought only a real dog, like himself, would know to hide his stash in a baby’s diaper. The baby started cooing and ahhing in a happy way; the dude with busted braids gave a pat to her foam butt as he gripped Poppy’s cash.

    That took our breath away for a moment.

    I ran my good hand over my shaved head.

    We stuffed the stuff into the top of my arm cast and headed out quick.

    I don’t think any one of us had really seen a baby since we’d moved to the city. And when you don’t see babies for a long time you forget the way they hang on people and the way they sound when they’re entertained with the shape of a face or the pinkness of a twilit sky. 

    I’d forgot, which you should excuse me for.

    I know: my bad, my bad, my bad.

    But that was hours before we were trekking across the North side, small-eyed. We’d recovered by then, from the baby. We hit a tiny bump to keep from sketching out, nothing major. Our shiny phones guided the way as we talked about The Butterfly Affect, Ashton Kutcher, and why some people just belong on TV and never in movies. Cameron took a real stand on Kutcher having some Brad Pitt potential, but we talked him off that quick; Blockbuster was running through our veins, a little bit of dope, and it was a Friday. We had to get to the bus to get to The Mutiny. The Mutiny was the spot. The Mutiny was: fast drinks, cheap music and dark corners, but best of all is that they had turn locks on all the bathroom stalls to keep people from being sketchy, which made life very easy for people who had their own stuff to stay sketchy– and with great privacy.

    I moved the stuff from the top of my cast and into my pocket.

    Cameron goofed on Poppy’s homeschool haircut as we waited for a walk sign.

    I smiled, feeling good. 

    The start of the night was always best: the weight of the dope in its bag, the weight of the bag in my pocket, the weight of my pocket against my body, and the weight of my body beneath the moon, out early and bright as we crossed towards Lawrence Street.

    On Lawrence we stopped in at Jersey Mike’s, went into the bathroom and got that shit started. It burned going in, and tasted like coffee and whatever chemicals they make magazines covers out of, so we knew it was absolute fire from the second it entered our noses.

    Then we were on the CTA, feeling it. That Trapeze high: upside down, heads bobbing in stupid circles and black dots drifting in and out of our vision as if we’d stared at a chrome bumper too long. I could feel the trees outside the bus bending back into the business of the night. I was on fire. Cameron’s eyes closed as the pretty girl waved at us again. It felt sad for a quick second: the three of us just sitting there, unable to get up and tell that girl a single nice thing. It was all we could do to listen for our own heartbeats, moving slow in our ears, and feel the blood in our necks running red and cautious like the taillights outside the bus’s windows.

    Again: we were running things.

    We had it going.

    We were like cartoon dogs doing a dance number, it’s just no one could see our moves.

    Despite the sadness of leaving that girl hanging, I still felt in my chest like I was killing it.

    I closed my eyes just for a moment and because the dope was good I could see my childhood: A blue Adopt-a-Highway sign/the dog’s legs kicking while he slept/the running board on the Land Rover that I cracked on my way to Jake’s cabin/ Toga/ Buffy Morgan at Toga/ Buffy Morgan’s hair and ass at Toga/ the dog again, licking his joints and seeming happy/ the sound of dad slapping his toolbox in excitement/ that Arch Oboler poster in his garage/  the sun setting on my face in the open garage/ the sun setting/ the garage door / the door closing/ to the night/ the night/ the-            

    The bus stopped, its airbrakes all snake pit. I looked to Poppy and Cameron, but they were still out of it. That first good hit of the night can do that to you: it can drop you like a newborn. The girl who waved stood up and either her backpack zipper or something on her puff coat had her sounding like a flagpole, its halyard snapping in the wind.  

    She walked over to us because we were parked by the back exit doors.

    I could smell her.

    She had this smell like my mom’s friend, Linda Forsythe, which was a smell like earth–a more beautiful earth: all grass, Reiki certified, energy moving, the purple light of the Eternal Flame and all that stuff. It was a nice smell mixed with all the dope caked into my nose.

    She looked at me then and I looked at her and thought about telling her I loved her, just to say something, but then I would have had to tell her that we’d need to meet up some other time and when and if that time came, she’d have to be the one to do all the work if she liked me, because I was a fiend.

    I thought about telling her I loved my junk ass life, and friends.

    “This isn’t our drop,” I somehow said.

    “You should get off with me,” she said. “I’ll get you home, somehow.”

    “We’re not done,” I said back, feigning a smile. 

    She looked in a way that said, You’re already done, buddy. Then she pulled the stop cord on Ashland. Poppy fell out his chair as the bus came to a halt and I leaned over to pick him up, ashamed a little, bent in servile defeat as the bus doors closed with the girl on other side looking back at me.

    “We send them back to their boyfriends with our taste,” slurred Cameron, his eyes had opened just a crack as he helped me load Poppy back into his seat. “She’s gone,” he amended, looking out the window at the girl either him or Poppy knew from campus, who smelled like wetlands and herbs, and I almost fell in love with right there on the #21 bus.    



    Funk Lubricator played The Mutiny and sucked, except for their last song.

    We kept that good shit in our front pockets and enjoyed ourselves, wholly.

    Me and Cameron and Poppy: winning at a game of our own invention.

    My arm was Broken.

    My head was shaved.

    A Friday.

    The snowstorm started that night, and we walked back to the bus under the muted sound of our feet against the snowcapped street. The traffic was dim, almost none. The city had turned itself towards morning. The sirens blaring some blocks away were the only thing disrupting the strange quietness of the ceasefire. It was a pleasant way to finish out a good night: the three of us walking together–all clattering bones and chattering teeth– and becoming increasingly invisible amongst the snowdrift. 

    Maybe it was November.

    December.


Eventually my parents and still-alive grandparents and my friends who were not Cameron and Poppy were waiting for me in my apartment with a serious looking dude. The dude was serious looking not because it looked like he could do damage–no, he had glasses and a notebook and his legs crossed. He looked serious in this way that the second I opened the door to my apartment I knew that the dude was there to keep me from doing more damage.

He looked at my family and friends to start talking.

And there was quiet for a time.

Then.

“I won’t burry you,” my dad said, drinking a coffee he’d brought with him, almost crying while he held grandma’s hand. “You’re my boy.”

“I can’t be that bad,” I said, hanging up my coat. “You know I met a girl last month.” 



    I had a lot of time in Hazelden.

    And with all that time, instead of thinking of what I should’ve been thinking about, I started thinking about the girl from the bus with the tight hair and jingling backpack. It occurred to me that if I would’ve gotten off with her that night, there’s a chance that I wouldn’t have been stuck in that room with no locks and nothing sharp to hurt myself with. I’m saying: there’s a chance she could’ve saved me from that place.  

    I did not sleep a lot in there.

    No.

    Rehab is noisy. Nobody tells you that.

    And while there: I did not think of the baby with dope in his diaper.

    I did not think of my family.

    Or my health: the blooming fire in my hands and feet that pinned me against my cot.  

    No, I thought almost solely of the girl from the bus and the possibilities of a life with her. Every day, as I looked out the windows above the portico, down at the smokers and the joggers circling far around the tree line at the edge of the facility–I couldn’t help it–I allowed myself to find her, still in her cold blue seat, the bus shaking beneath us both. From there I let my mind go further: I end up marrying her. The beautiful girl from the bus becomes a beautiful woman and then becomes my beautiful wife. We marry on a beach and curl our toes into the earth where the sand meets the water; a picture is taken of us where a caterer is setting up in the background, eyes animal red. Then we are upstate, in a nice town where you can see the mountains above the prison. It’s eight years down the line, after I’ve dried out and found a job with insurance. They fix my teeth and send me to a doctor who has me run on a treadmill and gives me pills to keep everything flowing the way it should. I keep my head screwed on tight, my nose clean. We play the Name Game when we’re driving back from visiting my sister’s new baby. We vacation enough; life is cheap and easy when you’re sober. I would say we’re very happy with our lives. The way that our lives are, the way they’re going. It’s all good.

    It is.

    Of course: we have a little deal.      

    I do not snoop on her cellphone when she leaves it unattended in the living room and I do not launch into some sick line of questioning when the phone lights up at 4AM. I do not drive by her work and observe her body language when the other girls at the store are bringing by their new boyfriends and maybe their new boyfriend’s friends so everybody can meet everybody and finally put faces to names. I do not do these things. I don’t. I trust completely, love totally.

    And for her part: she asks no questions of my once-a-year weekends in the city, when I drive back and see Cameron, who now works in an all glass building that overlooks the lake. Poppy is gone; Poppy is dead in this version of things. But Cameron and I, we still get after it. We take out money from the ATM in his building’s lobby and ride the bus to the places we used to. We go to The Mutiny which is no longer called The Mutiny and pinky promise to call an ambulance if either one of stops breathing.

    And we never make it too far, our tolerance now weak. 

    But we try once a year–sometimes twice.

    We try.

    And my wife trusts me to do this.

    She trusts me to come home.   



    After my sixty days are up and my time in the dry house had passed, I returned to the world.

    My apartment was as I’d left it: coat hanging silent on the rack.

    My computer turned on with the same bell sound and green light.



    I find a girl on a dating app who I’m certain is the girl from the bus.

    On our second date we get bad food in a nice neighborhood.

    The Gold Coast was all open-shirted dog walkers and meter maids.

    The bistro was on a corner without a streetlight: Golan House, written in green neon above the door, because the city’s young restaurateurs had forgotten their Holy Wars. I sat facing the window, the street, the pretty girl from the bus whose name was Cynthia. She smiled when our waiter wearing a shirt with a print of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, spilled virgin Bellini onto my gabardine slacks.

    “I don’t always know where I am,” said the waiter in a not joking way, his ankle tattoo exposed as he wiped orange slush with a towel from the back legs of my bamboo chair.  

    I smiled because it was funny to be alive and irritated and on a second date.

    The waiter proceeded to clean the floor around us where the stickiness might still be. While we scrubbed, he explained to Cynthia and me that the nation’s coin shortage was manufactured and then perpetrated by agents working for the CIA and Federal Reserve.

    “A joint agency operation,” he said.

    “That’s crazy,” I said.

    “I know,” he said, rising to his feet.

    He walked off.

    Then it was just me and Cynthia.

    Running it.

    I asked her what she did at the college, and she explained to me how a zone defense worked.

    “I coach under her at Watkins,” she said. “My mom and me; coach and assistant coach.”

    “That’s sick, sick, sick,” I said.

    Her nose wrinkled, then her eyes.

    Her salad came. And before she could really get into her cucumber kimchi and sunflower seeds, I asked if she remembered seeing me on the bus that night, way back whenever.

    Again, her face did the wrinkle thing. And her shoulders followed her face, rolling in these slow circles that seemed like nerve damage. She put her fork down and looked at me like it was a trick question. “I think the first time I saw you was on the app,” she said.

    I leaned forward, poking the table into my chest.

    “Yeah?” I furthered.

    “Yeah,” she said.

    “You’re sure?”

    “I’m positive I don’t remember you, if that’s what you’re asking.”

    “That’s what I’m asking… because I remember you and I was pretty gone that night.”

    The waiter got close to our table but then turned on dime like he’d forgotten something. 

    “Well,” said Cynthia, placing her forehead into her hands and rubbing the tips of her fingers against the tight part of her hairline. Her eyes fixed on her greens. “It’s fucking hard.”

    “It is,” I said, backing off it.

    “It is,” she repeated quietly, looking up from her plate. Then she stared at me for a good long moment like what I’d asked had ruined whatever it was we had going. It was stupid to bring up, but in that moment it felt romantic or something. I shook my head like it was wet. And when I did that, she just looked at me in this soft, merciful way. “I took the bus so much back then.”

    That got me smiling.

    And she caught my smile.

    Then something in the back kitchen shattered: a plate or a bowl.

    But it was so loud. So completely important. It broke in this way: like it was the only thing holding that part of the world upright.

    Maybe.

    Or.

    Or maybe it was one of those elegant, hourglass shaped things that holds all the drinking water and sits beside the candles in the middle of the table.



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