I am sitting across from Beth, half listening to her go on about her job canvassing for Green Peace and how it is so rewarding. We are out on the patio of her favorite hang-out, the Jarvis café. The place is filled to the rim with poser hippies and wanna-be- deadheads. The café sits right under the El tracks, and every fifteen minutes a train thunders over head, moving up the red line. The place is not quaint, in fact it reflects its occupants perfectly—grungy and greasy. If I did not feel obligated to meet up with Beth, I’d never be caught dead in this place on a hot summer humid day where I can already feel the sweat trickling down my back. And it doesn’t help my cankerous mood that a pressing headache is forming behind my eyes from the foul smell that is coming off the lake front. It only contributes to the nauseating odor that is already whirling around me as I try to stomach a veggie burger.
“If you need a summer job,” she says, “I’ll put in a good word for you.”
“No thanks.” I say pushing away my half eaten burger.
“Why do you have to be that way, Gwen?” Beth whines.
“Because I have no desire to save the world,” I admit as I glance around the café hoping to see at least one cute guy in this dump of a place.
Beth continues muttering about how I have changed. How I am so removed, less enthusiastic about things.
Two guys with dread locks strum softly on their guitars. A dude still lost somewhere in the sixties recites poetry to an uninterested crowd. I get a whiff of clove smoke coming from behind me. Before I can say something rude to her save the world bullshit, she shushes me, because HE, the boyfriend, has just walked in. My back is to the door, so I have to turn myself around to get a look at this boy, who Beth is so in love with.
“For god’s sakes Gwen, don’t do that,” Beth hisses at me.
I accidentally knock into the chair behind me, and the occupant, a big dark Rasta with long dreads chimes “No worry.” As I scoot back to the table I resist the urge to say “how fucking original”—‘be happy,” but I know it’s sarcastic and mean. So, I keep my obnoxious comment to myself and turn back around to stare at Beth.
Technically, they are not dating, and Beth even admitted to me that they have not really even kissed. Beth has had a crush on Mark since the eighth grade, a blast from the past she told me, in her weekly letters to me after his reappearance in her life while I was still away at college, “he always had a girl-friend….” They were close friends all through high-school, they only lived two blocks apart, and would hang out after school in the same group of mis-fits; the types that are not quite punk rock, not quite nerds but a combination of the two, posers really. Beth felt that she and Mark shared a strong friendship even if it was mostly based on him confiding to her about his sexual experiences with his girl-friend or gossiping about the morons that they had to deal with at New Trier High School. Beth had always been a good listener and felt that Mark finally needed her, after his break- up with his last girlfriend.
The story I got was that Mark and Jill just needed to move on from each other. They still liked each other, but both needed to branch out. The relationship had stalled, and Mark needed a girl to just hang with for awhile.
“A peck on the cheek, sometimes on the lips, never any tongue. Nothing too passionate,” she complained in her last letter.
Her tone in this letter really bugged me. It wasn’t what she said but the way she said it. It was too cutie, too bouncy for my personal tastes, and not like how I remembered her being. Oh, I know her choice of words was just an indication of her newly rekindled crush on Mark. How great he looks, and how, “I was really going to like him.” She wrote this out in big red letters to make sure I got it. She also put in big capital letters in the same red maker –“HEAD OVER HEELS.”
This was not my friend from last summer. Beth never said things like “cutie pie” and “totally incredible.” That was not her at all. She is more reserved, more stoic about her emotions. And now as I stare at her across the restaurant table, I can’t believe her transformation: her brown curly hair is brushed back in a pony tail. She is wearing a colorful prairie skirt with Birkenstock sandals, and a bright blue halter top that is very revealing. Last summer, she only wore faded blue jeans and some old worn tee-shirt she had inherited from me, or her older sister.
Before sitting down for lunch, as we gingerly gave each other a hug she informs me that she no longer eats meat, and no longer shaves her legs, or arm-pits. To prove it, she pulls up her skirt revealing pasty white legs with little black hairs all over them causing me to abruptly loose my appetite.
I hadn’t even noticed he was beside me, until I felt his finger on my cheek “Hey, you got mustard on your cheek,” he says as he causally wipes it off for me with the tip of his index finger. I flinched, involuntarily. It was too informal, like we had known each other for years, like it was just another day in the neighborhood, and all of us were getting together for a friendly bite to eat after hanging out at Wrigley field.
But when I look up at him, I get a strange feeling, like I am going to do something, something I am going to regret. It was instantaneous.
He is very good-looking with his intense green eyes, and his sandy blonde hair, but it isn’t just his looks that attract me to him; it is his energy. He has a playful smile, sensitive lips to match and when he looks over at me, I feel comfortable enough to grin back.
‘Beth, you didn’t tell me that Gwen is Goth,” he said, taking a seat between us.
I shifted in my chair, to stop his knee from touching mine. I feel Beth staring at me.
“Oh, I didn’t tell you that she only wears black?”
I am wearing a short sleeved black tank top with no bra, and a pair of black faded Levis with flip- flops, I had let my brown hair fall loosely down my back.
“You should have seen her last year; her look now is very tame compared to last year.”
‘Really, were you all vamped out last year?” Mark asks staring straight at me.
His finger tips brush against the side of my wrist letting them linger just long enough to make me feel a bit uncomfortable. I know he felt it, but, I didn’t give him a chance to say anything else because I pull my arm away and tell him with a smile to keep his hands to himself. He smiles back and leans over and gives Beth a sloppy kiss on the lips; a first, Beth later reveals to me.
The kiss makes me jealous. Here I am back in Chicago for my summer vacation for less than a week, and I am already restless and annoyed. I wasn’t even supposed to be back in Chicago. I had had plans to be in New York City, hanging out with some college friends, living in a loft in SoHo. But, the plans had fallen through at the last minute. One friend hadn’t gotten enough money saved in order to pay her share of the rent on the loft. And I was needed back home, despite my wishful thinking that I could just hang out in New York doing nothing for a summer. My mother was sick, dying in fact, but it’s something I don’t like talking about. New York was supposed to be my escape, not my best-friend’s boyfriend.
Smoking my fifth cigarette, I feel a little abandoned as she chats away with Mark about how she and I met. He eyes me, all over, up and down, as Beth rattles on about how we didn’t go to the same school or know the same people. We rode horses at a barn outside the city and saw each other on weekends, or during holidays, and how we were envied by all the rest of the girls for being able to ride the rank horses in the barn. I listen, not really encouraging her to continue. In fact, I want her to stop talking about our past—that past no longer means anything to me.
I have changed, Beth is right about that, but so what, we both have. Ever since my mother got sick, I no longer look upon events as leading to any future. There is no chain, no thread, and no continuity, only isolated moments and trying to feel something other than pain. The kind of pain that sneaks up on you when you think you got a handle on it. The kind that kicks the breath out of you, when you least expect it and makes you wonder if you might be going insane. That’s how I felt today, like I was a little bit crazy. As if the world was turning in slow motion, and I was trying to reach out and crank it up a bit.
Sitting next to Mark is making me anxious. I want to get up and leave, to excuse myself, to be anywhere but where I am. Two white girls with dread locks and big fluffy shirts float by our table; the hippy dude is still strumming away on his guitar with his eyes closed. A couple of Rasta’s sit along the bar, but for the most part the place is littered with rich kids who came down to the city from the North Shore, who think that if they buy a tie-dye shirt and hang out in a grungy café instead of a country club it means that they really do care about the world.
Our waitress comes by our table and takes away our plates, as she reaches across me to clear the table I get a flash of her unshaved arm-pit.
“Hey, Gwen, were did you go to?” Mark asks tapping my arm with his fingers. I feel the rush of energy between us.
I smile up to him. He has a thoughtful way about him. I can see the attraction that Beth has for him. I envy it.
Mark asks me what I am studying at school. I sarcastically remark that I am an environmental study major, and I am joining forces with Beth to save Chicago from paper waste.
He laughs showing off straight white teeth.
“Your friend here has quite a sense of humor.”
“You think?” Beth takes Mark’s hand and moves over into his lap, “I find it exasperating, and you better watch out, Gwen’s clever little quips have a bite to them.” She says this with a smile, kissing Mark gently on the cheek while looking over at me.
I feel a little dizzy and close my eyes wishing I wasn’t back in Chicago, wishing I didn’t have to deal with my family and the insane confrontations that occur when someone you love is dying, and there is nothing you can do to stop the inevitable..
I open my eyes and Mark is staring right at me, I gave him a quick smile and he smirks back. Sometimes, I wonder if chance encounters really do happen for a reason. I wonder if fate does have a role to play in life. What am I doing here back from college sitting in restaurant on the North-side of Chicago wondering how my best-friend’s boyfriend kisses?
Despite my lustful thoughts about Mark, I was not going to act on them; this isn’t how it was supposed to work. Well, that’s what I kept telling myself as I drove home.
Three weeks is all it took. Three weeks of hanging out with Mark and Beth almost every night at the Jarvis Café. Beth and her Green Peace friends all gathered there to talk about politics and how they were going to save the world.
Three weeks of watching Mark play with my emotions: trying to make me jealous, by fondling Beth at the table—kissing her, taking her hand, and holding it; always looking at me, right before he gives her a long drawn out kiss. I play along laughing at them—telling them to get a room. I flirt with the Rasta’s letting them buy me drinks and watching Mark’s reaction; feeling his eyes on me. I feel them watching as I walk across to the bar and chat –up the bartender. I feel them on me as I walk to the bathroom.
Beth tells me that only since I got back in town has Mark become affectionate toward her in public. I know it is all a charade because the affection ends the moment we all walk out together.
Because Beth complains to me that when she drives Mark home, he just gives her a quick kiss on the cheek, saying he will see her again tomorrow. No invite to come in, no long drawn out kissing in her car-- Nothing. It always makes me smile to myself when we all sit together, and he plays it up in front of me, because I know Beth’s complaints, I know that he is just playing a game, and I play along too; waiting until Mark grows bored with the whole routine of hanging out with a bunch of people that neither one of us would ever have talked to had it not been for our association with Beth.
The only thing that the Jarvis café has going for it, is that it does not card. If they did even my prurient thoughts for Mark would not have kept me there. The place is really not my scene, but then again, I really don’t have a scene anymore. I don’t really like leaving my apartment. I don’t like hanging out anymore. I feel as if I am biding my time, only existing, not really having a purpose.
I don’t have summer job, and I don’t want to get one. My father whines to me telling me that I need to do something with my summer. I ignore him. My days are spent contemplating my wanton feeling for my best-friend’s boyfriend, and quelling those feelings by reading any smut I can find. In between my self-absorbed universe, I visit my mother in the hospital wondering what happened to my beautiful mother, who is now resembles a withered flower from all the radiation and chemotherapy that was suppose to save her, but has only sped up her pending death.
I haven’t called any of my high-school friends to get together. I haven’t done anything, I just continue to meet Mark and Beth over at the Jarvis Café, and pretend that it doesn’t really matter that my summer is going by with out doing anything worthwhile. I feel nonexistent to the world, to my family, to myself. I keep on telling myself that I am not going to act on my lustful thoughts about Mark. I keep praying that my conscious will kick in, and get the better of me, and I’ll walk away with no regrets.
A part of me knows it is wrong to lust after him. I feel as if I am betraying my friendship with Beth. Yet Mark is obviously asking for it. He tries to be so discreet, asking me if I have a boyfriend, hinting if I want to be hooked- up with any of his friends. I ignore him which only makes him lean in closer. I jokingly say I am not interested in men. He laughs saying he can change that for me. We banter back and forth. I flirt, but not enough to let him be sure where he stands. I touch him ever so lightly with my hand, as I ask him to light my cigarette, letting my finger tips brush gently across his arm.
I know it is wrong, especially when Beth confesses all of her insecurities to me that she has when she is with Mark. How she feels fat, and how she wonders what he is thinking when they kiss. How she feels that she might just be a rebound for him after breaking up with his girlfriend. I console her, telling her not to worry about it. But, secretly, I know that she is just a rebound girl. I know she is just a passing thing for Mark.
I continue to lie to her telling her that from an outsider’s point of view, I think Mark really likes her. I even stress that the only reason he is going slow is out of respect for her still being a virgin. She confesses to me that she wants to loose her virginity with him. I only smile not revealing my true intentions. And I think maybe there is something really wrong with me that I could so easily misguide her. I believe I am a bad friend... But, I continue to hang out at the café. I continue my bantering and flirting with Mark. I know he feels the sexual tension between us. I know he can sense it coming from me. And all I can think about is how I want him to taste it. **