Raccoon

A Massive Attack song played and Jonathan drove faster and faster down the freeway. It was two in the morning, he was slightly tipsy, and he knew this was a bad idea. But the freeway was empty, so at worst, he thought, he would careen into the concrete divide and kill himself or else he would run over a raccoon. And he had a beef with them anyway. They’d dug into his garbage can so often that he’d realized that the animal control department wasn’t heeding his phone calls. His date – Tanya? Or Tina? – had said that raccoon were adorable.
“Adorable my ass,” Jonathan muttered and hit the steering wheel hard with the palm of his hand. He jumped as a honk sounded. Then he giggled at his own surprise. Then he stifled the giggle and glanced sideways, just to make sure that no one was watching him make such a stupid face. And then he remembered that he was alone, tipsy and driving on the freeway and he quickly brought his eyes to face front again. He had to straighten the car, which was veering into the right-hand lane. When he managed, he felt very proud of himself.
Tanya or Tina had been pretty. They’d danced together for a couple hours but she hadn’t agreed to come over to his apartment. “You’re drunk,” she’d said, frowning. “And I am too. Let’s go to a cafe and sober up.” He’d ask her if she’d agree to come to his apartment after they did that and she laughed very suddenly and said that probably not. Then she’d punched him on the arm, lightly, in a brotherly guyish kind of way that turned him off. So he’d invented a dog that he remembered he had to walk – because it was good to keep a good impression and not to close any doors with rude remarks, and everyone knew that girls liked guys who liked animals.
Jonathan wondered if he should actually get a dog. Then he realized that it would mean two things. First, he would need to walk it, pay for its shots at the vet, and in general stand having it around. Second, it would mean he wouldn’t be able to bring home girls who were allergic to dogs. And what if the girl of his dreams would be allergic to dogs?
Not that he was a romantic. No, he had no false notions of love or tenderness. He knew what he wanted and how to get it. His older brother was married and claimed to be happy, but Jonathan was pretty sure that he was actually miserable.
He wasn’t a complete bastard. He had friends who were girls, and he knew that women were people, too. But he didn’t really think that he wanted to have one around all the time. He’d been in several relationships in his life, but he always got tired of the girls he’d been with and so he’d ended it. His big brother told him that he was an immature man-child. Jonathan took that as a compliment.
He got home without causing an accident. There was a raccoon digging around in the trash can again. He tried to kick it and fell, swearing. So he went inside and tried calling animal control again, forgetting that they weren’t open at three in the morning.

Julie’s Last Blind Date

Checkered shirt tucked into tan-colored pants, the man struck an image that wasn’t charming or heartwarming, but somehow caused those who saw him to feel sorry for him. He knew that he had this influence on people, and he didn’t mind at all. On the contrary, he worked to preserve the sympathy that was directed his way because he knew how quickly it disappeared.

The problem was that underneath the thinning hair, bushy mustache and rather bulldog-like cheeks lived a mind that was almost entirely fixated inwards. The man heard a child crying and thought about how he’d cried when he’d been taken out of his mother’s arms in his earliest memory; he saw a documentary on a village that a big volcano had destroyed and he thought about how awful it made him feel; he saw the death of a distant third cousin as a cause for self-pity and an excuse for not listening to what other people said.

On the first date, however, Julie didn’t know any of this. She simply walked into the restaurant where she’d made plans to meet him, and saw a slightly scruffy face, strangely hairless arms and a nervous, scared look in the man’s eyes. She knew immediately that here was the man who was waiting for her. After fifty-one blind dates in the past year, Julie was proud to say that she could recognize that deer-caught-in-the-headlights look that graced almost every man’s face as he waited awkwardly to meet his future wife.

Julie didn’t have any intention of marrying this man (Pete, she reminded herself sternly, this one’s name is Pete). She’d never had any idea of marrying any of the men she’d been hooking up with through 1-800-FOURTYS, a dating hotline, but they all seemed to be sure that she was going to be their next, or sometimes their first, love. It made her sad to think about this, so she tried not to. Instead, she enjoyed the meals out, and collected material for her book.

Special-novelty-concept books were in now, and she had bowed down to popular demand. Her weekly column in the paper was doing well, but her fans wanted something longer, something substantial to hold and to put on their bookshelves. Her agent told her she might as well try, so she’d come up with a name for her book: “The Year of Dates.” Her agent was skeptical about the name, but he liked the concept.

Now Julie was on her fifty-second date (although the first with this man) after which she could finally finish the book. She breathed a sigh of relief as she walked through the restaurant, a smile fixed rigidly on her face, and thought about how she could spend next Saturday evening alone for the first time in a year.

“Julie?” the man in the checkered shirt had gotten up abruptly as she approached his table. He had a bit of a stoop, and he looked uncomfortable in his own skin.

“Yes,” she continued smiling. “Pete, right?”

“Yes.” He sat down almost violently, as if punishing his chair for something. Julie fought the urge to raise her eyebrows and sat down as well.

“So…” she tried. She dropped the smile, felt her jaw muscles relax and leaned back in her chair. She had already decided that she had enough material for her book already, and that she was only going on this date so as to come full circle and finish the thing properly. Still, there was no reason to make much of an effort.

“I’m married,” Pete said abruptly. He gave a small, sniffling laugh at Julie’s expression. “Well, still married that is. I’m going to get a divorce, of course.” His accent was strange, not New York or Boston, but also definitely not California. Julie couldn’t place it.

“Oh,” she said politely. “Been separated long?”

“No, well, yes, of course. I don’t know. After twenty years of marriage is six months a long time?” The last half of the sentence was muttered and Julie had to concentrate rather harder than she wanted to in order to understand him.

“I don’t know,” she said hesitantly. “I suppose that’s not very long at all. Not after twenty years.”

Pete stared at her intently before dropping his gaze and shifting positions in his chair. He seemed to have a breathing problem (was he asthmatic?) that made him sound like he was snorting with every intake of air. Julie didn’t find this attractive in the least.

The rest of the evening seemed to take its cue from the way the first minute of their conversation had gone. They spoke haltingly, uncomfortably, and of disconnected subjects. Pete’s eyes seemed to burn with fiery passion when he spoke of films of which Julie had never heard. He mumbled and became awkward when she tried to ask him about his personal life. All in all, Julie felt the evening was a failure.

“Can you believe I’ve been on twenty-five of these things?” Pete asked as they split the bill (Julie only let the men she’d enjoyed spending time with pay for her meals.)

“What things?” she asked distractedly, trying to calculate the tip. Math wasn’t her strong point and she was focusing quite intensely when Pete’s next sentence caught her off-guard.

“Twenty-five blind dates,” he said. He snorted and went on. “One a week since my cupcake moved out. Crazy, eh? My head’s not quite right these days.”

Julie looked at him and wondered if she could have heard right. So there was someone else as mad as she was wandering around? A date every week for months on end? With a different person every single time?! Nobody, she thought, in their right minds would do that.

“Do you want to go out again?” she asked abruptly, surprising herself. Pete looked surprised too, and Julie could tell that he’d never been asked that question in all those dates. She could sympathize with the other women – he wasn’t a very good conversationalist and seemed a bit odd – but for some reason, she suddenly couldn’t bear the thought of never seeing him again. It was as if his own brand of unique madness made her feel a little less crazy herself. “Not on Saturday, though,” she added quickly. “We can go out on Friday.”

“Alright,” he said. “Sure, yeah.”

They parted chastely in the parking lot, shaking hands rather than bumping cheeks. Pete walked to his car with an odd, off-balance gait, and Julie unlocked her own car and watched him go. She felt repulsed by him, but also fascinated. Maybe, and a bit of a grin began to form on her face as she thought this, maybe she’d just found the subject of her next book.

 

 

An Ache, Instead of a Heart

It was 5:47 in the afternoon. Not an ominous time, not even an interesting one. It was just an afternoon, almost evening sort of time. How could her heart turn from a solid presence in her chest to a throbbing mass, almost a tumor, in just a few short minutes?

It had started because of curiosity. Maybe that wasn’t right, though. Maybe it had started because she’d listened to their music the night before, and it made her think of them again. Her end-all-be-all of music. The men she fell in love with desperately at sixteen and tried feverishly to convince everyone else of their immense power and force. She’d gotten over that, though. She’d found her ken online, through forums and fan-sites – the usual place teenage girls congregate to fantasize, and avid fans come together to worship and respect. She was both – a teenage girl and an avid, serious, dedicated fan.

That was then. This was now. She’d continued adoring them, continued falling in love with the music over and over again. But eventually, her love of the men faded and became respect, admiration, adoration of a different kind. She didn’t want to kiss them anymore – now she wanted to have a conversation with them, be a friend. She’d gotten less and less involved in the online scene. She couldn’t help it that there were other things taking up her time – real friendships, real lovers, real life. So now, three years later, she still considered them the best, her favorites, the all-encompassing musicians for her, and she still listened to them.

In fact, she’d listened to them the night before. Maybe that was why, at 5:47, she’d found herself wondering about a silly detail – a cosmetic feature of one of the men that had disappeared – and through her curiosity, she stumbled back into the websites. She gaped, open-mouthed, at the changes made in her absence. She rejoiced that steps were being made, that there were new people around, that her beloved musicians were still respected.

But it turned her heart into an ache. A dull, stuttering, spluttering ache. It felt like something was pouring out of her heart, dripping on to the floor… Drip-drip-dropping, some essential liquid the heart needed. It felt like a lifetime since she’d fallen in love with stars in a vast sky, and now, rediscovering her fellow worshipers, she felt so lost.

The Jazz Bar

The jazz bar is situated off of the main pavilion where the common pubs are located. The pubs on the main drag are all basically the same – crowded, smoky, electronic music blasting too loudly from the speakers. The jazz bar, however, is different. It’s roomier, more spread out, with tables both inside and out. They’re all simple affairs, black plastic tops on stainless steel legs, the chairs matching them. The main difference, of course, is the music: live jazz. The musicians change, sometimes during the course of one evening, but they make up the same basic grouping: a drummer, a bassist, a pianist, sometimes a guitarist or a trumpeter, occasionally the odd harmonica-player. The atmosphere at the jazz bar is relaxed. Although the live music is loud, louder than you would expect, conversation is still an option.

Saturday night found the jazz bar full to bursting – yet still, the space outside didn’t feel cramped. Four young men and a young woman, none of them long out of adolescence, shared a table. Four of them sat and sipped their beers while the fifth slurped his strawberry-melon-smoothie moodily, wishing he hadn’t made himself the stupid promise of zero-alcohol-for-a-month. They sat and listened to the music, one of the youths, who was on his break from drumming, occasionally made snide comments about the trumpet player who was blasting his sounds into the air. The conversation went back and forth, encompassing everything from the latest party to the correct technique of asking a girl out to dietary tips to tattoos.

The group was clearly comfortable together. The solitary girl, who wasn’t a regular addition to the group as she was the girlfriend of the curly, black-haired young man, was welcomed among them and felt surprisingly at home with them. She talked easily and laughed readily, not fearing being ridiculed and not taking to heart the light teasing that is often a single girl’s lot among boys. It dawned on her that this, too, she would leave soon. Oh, she would be back, of course she would, but the experience was all the more precious because she knew it might not be repeated for a good long while.