Sometimes I feel like a piece of shit.
I wish I had cancer or something, so I could at least have the pity card in my favor when I croak, but it wouldn’t be too different to how I feel now. To be honest though, I’m decently put together. I got a friendly face, friendlier if I smiled more, and I’m not obese or nothing. Girls like me, I think. So I got that going for me.
“You could get a lot of girls, if you tried,” my buddy Joe tells me. I usually just wave off that remark with a scoff because I know he’s trying to cheer me up, but it makes me feel good about myself. Better, at least.
“Out of the whole class, you were one of the few who had themes in your writing. And I think whether you go to grad school or not, you should keep writing.” This was the last genuine thing anyone’s ever said to me, but I shouldn’t have taken Mr. Matthews so seriously. I mean he was published and don’t get me wrong, I even liked his stuff. He wrote a collection of short stories or essays or something and there were some funny bits, one liners I passed off as my own on Facebook. His stories took place in the real world, so obviously he wasn’t living off his book like those teen sci-fi peddlers.
I emailed him a few times after I graduated. “Hey, Matthews. Write anything new?” I’d write. “Busy with the semester, have you?” He’d snap back. I wish I had an excuse like he did, but I didn’t, so I never answered him back. I was too busy minding my nickel issues. Between loan and car payments, and food and gas, my paychecks were always left pretty bare when all was said and done, and that’s if the temp agency remembered I existed. Competition was fierce around the nation’s capital, which gave me a lot of time to waste. Grad school was starting to look like a good idea. I never wrote anymore though. It never went anywhere.
Today was a good day though.
Not for me, but for Joe. His kid was turning one, so they were making a big deal at his place. I grabbed one of the books I kept from a children’s lit class and wrapped it up in newspaper. They’d expect something like that from me. I arrived at his apartment a little late, fashionably of course. I walked in on them singing “Happy Birthday” with a million phones out, but I played it off by joining mid-song.
“… birthdaaaay, dear Eeeeeehhmmm, haaaappy birthdaaaaay toooo yoooouuuu.”
Everyone clapped, blew the little horns, and Em looked up at everybody like she didn’t know what the hell they expected from her. She just bounced up and down restlessly in her little pink dress. As people clapped, Joe walked up to greet me.
“Right on time,” Joe said as he punched me in the arm.
“I was wrapping this,” I said holding up the newspaper square.
“You shouldn’t have.”
“Only the best for Em.”
“What’s wrong with Em?”
“Ash doesn’t like it when you call her that.”
Ash was Joe’s wife, my nemesis. I could see her appeal though, she was hot in a demented way. Short, bobby hair dyed a different color every other month and a trim body except for her hips, which were quite expansive. She was a bit older than Joe and earned more than he did, so she kinda bossed him around. Getting pregnant with Em as soon as they were married was definitely Ash’s idea. Her face had a nice habit of scrunching up whenever she saw me, it made her look a lot older than she already was. She stopped greeting me a while ago and just accepted that I was going to be there on certain occasions like this. I think she doesn’t like me because I don’t act my age, but who the hell does? As Ash was organizing the stack of presents, I decided to make my presence known.
“Wish me luck,” I said as I walked over to the stack of gift wrapped boxes. Ash didn’t even look at me when I put my gift on top of the stack, she just reached for the first present. I walked back to my spot with my tail between my legs, then saw her take my present off the top and grab the huge box underneath it.
“Alright, this is from Gene,” Ash told Em, who was nibbling her fingers and doing her best to fall out of her chair. Ash opened it up and donned a face of delight as she took it out.
“Oh my God! Gene, this is sooo adorable.” People started crowding the table, so I craned my neck to see what the fuss was about. It looked like a big, white bunny. Well, that’s what I thought it was at first glance, but I saw curved wooden panels on the bottom of it. A rocker. The bunny’s ears were drooping over its fuzzy head, nearly covering its brown eyes and it had a little blue bow tie stamped right under its chin. Em would outgrow it quickly because it wasn’t that big. Didn’t make much sense to me, economically. Ash loved it though.
“Look, Emily. It’s a bunny rabbit!” Ash was so excited she ignored the other gifts and put Em on top of the rocking bunny. I saw a lanky guy crane his neck to see, but he didn’t have to. He towered over the crowd.
“Way to show off, Gene,” I said jokingly. Gene turned around real surprised and put his hands up as if he didn’t mean to offend anyone.
“I’m just messing with you, bud.” His shirt was tucked into his khakis and his gangly arms were bent at the elbow like he knew they were too long. He was one of those guys who always had a pen on him, side effect of being a finance consultant I guess.
“How’s the job search going?” Gene asked me. I thought he meant this question as an insult, but because he always had a stupid, blank look on his face I was never sure.
“See the gift that was on top of yours?” I asked.
“I wrapped the gift with the wanted ads once I realized I wasn’t wanted.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Gene had a real talent for awkward pauses, but it wasn’t awkward to him.
“I was kidding, bud.” I assured him, but it was too late. He was already thinking of something nice to say to cheer me up. That was the worst.
“I like how you used newspaper to wrap your gift. It’s very…”
“Ironic?” I helped him out.
“Creative.” He said and forced out a smile, but it just looked like he was showing off his crooked teeth. He meant ironic, the dumb bastard. I didn’t want to hear his little pep talk that would soon follow, so I turned to walk away…
“What’s creative?” I turned back around to see Hanna swipe her bangs with a free hand and take a sip of water from a pink paper cup. My heart sank a little. Hanna was straight out of a Hitchcock movie with milky skin and blue eyes. Hanna was close to Joe because we went to the same school, but was also strangely chummy with Ash, who liked Hanna because she didn’t burst into flames when Ash looked into her eyes.
“Errrr… Who’s creative?” she asked. I froze for a moment, but managed out an answer before Gene had a chance to open his stupid mouth.
“Did you see the gift on top of mine?” Gene asked Hanna.
Gene turned his head toward me and gave me the finger gun. Hanna directed her eyes at me and lit up.
“Oh, cool. That is creative. Kinda funny. Wait, I mean like not in a bad way. Like it’s not weird, but it’s kind of funny like in a…” She always looked at you like she was interested in everything you had to say, then tilted her head upward and squinted like a kid trying to spit out the word on the tip of her tongue.
“Ha-ha funny?” I helped her out. She giggled like it was so obvious.
“Yeah, ha-ha. I don’t know why I always do that.”
“Do what?” I asked.
“I always try to think of a big word to describe something simple.”
“You’re all grown up now.” I said. Hanna shook her head as if it wasn’t true.
“There’s a thesaurus app you can download,” Gene interjected.
“Shoot, I was going to say something. What’d you say again?” Hanna looked at me, but before I could answer, Joe yelled.
“HEY! Who wants cake?” Em started to cough-sob like babies do before they really start going off into full out waterworks. God, I hated when they did that. Babies are so much uglier when they cry.
“Ah shi…” Joe started, but before he could finish Ash glared at him like a snake and that clammed him up. He picked up Em and tried to calm her down before she started going crazy. Ash put on her best mom smile and started cutting the cake. Hanna walked up to help plate it, leaving me and Gene alone again.
“I hope it’s ice cream cake,” I said.
“No cake for me.” Gene patted his stomach.
“You trying to lose weight?” I was tempted to poke him like the Pillsbury doughboy.
“I’m just trying to stay healthy.”
“Oh yeah?” I said as someone passed me a plate of cake. I started shoveling it in my mouth in front of Gene, who stared as I licked pink frosting off my thumb.
“We’re going to Miami in the summer,” Gene said, but I really could’ve gave a damn. I knew where this would go if I let it. He’d go on about plane ticket prices and how he was thinking about driving there instead and hotel costs and vacation hours and how work was draining. I’d sooner blow my brains out. I was close to leaving him mid-sentence, but then Joe ran up with Em crying in his arms.
“Hey, take Emily. I need to go help Ash in the kitchen.”
“What do you mean? Just take her.” He commanded. I stiffed him and held up the plate and fork in my hand like I couldn’t help him even if I wanted to. Joe gave me a dirty look and I kinda chuckled inside.
“I can take her,” Gene offered.
“Thanks, Gene.” Joe said giving me a death glare.
“Yeah, thanks.” I said licking cake crumbs around my mouth. Joe shoulder checked me as he rushed away then I heard Em screaming in my ear.
“Aaaaaahhhh, aaaaahhhhhhh, aaah, ahhh, aaaaaahhhhhhh,” Em was really going at it. Her face was all red and teary, her fat cheeks were scrunched against her beady eyes, I swear I was going to turn to stone if I looked into them. I tried to hide my disgust, but it must’ve shown anyway.
“You don’t like her when she’s like this do you?” Gene asked me.
“What are you going to do when you have a baby?”
“If I have a baby.”
Gene started tapping Em’s back and shuffling back and forth across the living room. I finished up the last of my cake and made my way to the kitchen and threw away the plate. When I got back to where Gene was, Em was looking around the room like she didn’t know where she was, but she wasn’t crying anymore. Hanna was standing where I was, smiling and grabbing Em’s little fingers.
“Wow, you got skills.” I said.
“I think she likes me,” Gene said grinning like he just got a promotion. Hanna cozied up to Gene just to get close to Em. That was worse than Em crying.
“Hey, let me hold her.” I said.
“I thought you didn’t like babies.” Gene said.
“What? Here, let me hold her. She’s not crying, so…” Gene transferred her carefully to me and I put her against my shoulder. As soon as she was secure, I bounced her up and down and waited for her to laugh and giggle. Just like her mother. Nothing. I spun around and pretended like I was dancing with her, but Em wasn’t having it. I saw her brow furrow and I knew I made a mistake.
“Aaahh, aah, aaahh,” she started.
“No, no, it’s ok.” I said, but it was no use.
“Aaaaaaaahhhhh, aaaaaaaaahhhhhh!” Gene offered to take her off my hands, but I motioned him back like I had it under control.
“It’s alright, Em.”
“Maybe you should give her back to Gene,” Hanna said. I bounced her in my arms again and stroked her back, but she just screamed louder like I wasn’t good enough to hold her, blaring like a siren.
“Give. Her. To me,” I heard a cold voice command me. Ash stood right behind me with the same furrow in her brow, and held her arms out. I swallowed a lump and handed Em over to her rightful owner.
“Ssshhh, it’s ok. Shhh. Mommy’s here.” Ash walked back to the table where the rest of the presents were. Hanna patted me on the back, then her and Gene headed towards the table as Em started calming down. Ash wiped the snot off of Em with her free hand and motioned people to come watch her open the rest of the presents. I stayed put.
“And lastly, we have this… ”
Ash let the silence hang as she held my newspaper wrapped square between her thumb and index finger. Some people laughed and I heard a few positive quips about the wrapping. Ash ripped it open like she wanted to get it over with. I saw the familiar tattered yellow cover, the author’s name overshadowing the title of the book.
“Charlie… and… the Chocolate Factory,” Ash said confusedly like I didn’t know Em was turning one.
“Yeah, I know what you’re thinking,” I said. “But I wasn’t being lazy. That’s a great book and I’m gonna teach her how to read it too… Eventually.” Ash raised an eyebrow as if she would ever let me teach Em anything. People laughed even louder this time, and that got me red in the face. I saw Hanna smile, so that was some consolation.
“It’s a good book,” Hanna told Ash, who rolled her eyes.
“Ok, everyone thank you so much for coming. Me and Joe really appreciate it and we would appreciate even more if you hung around… and helped clean up.” Ash said. She had natural authority this one. People started moving around, throwing plates, plastic utensils, and leftover food into a garbage bag. I stood there like a statue in the middle of the living room, thinking about sneaking out early to avoid any more human contact.
Suddenly, I felt someone poke my shoulder and my knees buckled. I turned to see Hanna holding a big garbage bag.
“Trash?” She was smiling. I looked into the garbage bag, all black, like a hole that didn’t have a bottom. I lifted my leg and started to step inside the bag and I would’ve gone all in if Hanna hadn’t started giggling. I stepped out of the bag like I was really just messing around.
“You’re funny,” she said.
“Ha-ha funny?” I asked. Hanna lightly punched me in the arm and I grinned like an idiot.
“No, weird funny. Don’t assume.” She stuck her tongue out at me playfully. Then she got this sober look on her face.
“How come we never talked in college?” she asked.
“I don’t know. You were too cool for me.” Hanna punched me again.
“We should’ve hung out more. I didn’t know you were so funny.”
“Yeah, me neither.” She fiddled with the garbage bag a bit and tilted her head up and squinted.
“Oh. I remembered what I was going to say earlier.”
“Oh yeah? What?”
“I remember back in school, you had a poem in Edges, the school literary magazine.”
“Oh yeah… yeah. That was a while ago.” I started looking down at the floor.
“I always wanted to tell you what I thought about it.”
“Yeah? I didn’t know you read… stuff.” That got a big laugh out of her.
“What? I’m insulted.” She pushed me lightly and scrunched her face in disgust, then burst into a smile and shook her head.
“Anyway, I thought it was really good. I mean it’s still really good.” Her eyes got a little bit bigger when she said still.
“Oh. Thanks. I appreciate that. I really do.”
“Yeah, who was it about?” She asked me. I froze.
“Uh, I think… you know poems mean different things to people, right? So…”
“Uh-huh. What was her name?” She poked me on my shoulder.
“It was… someone I didn’t really know.”
“Really? It sounded like you knew her. Or like you really wanted to know her.”
“Yeah, I guess that was the point.” I looked up at her real quick before darting my eyes back to the ground.
“Oh. That’s… so sad.” She paused, her eyes scanned the floor. She patted my shoulder, consoling me. I looked into her eyes and I knew this was my chance.
“Hey, Hanna. Uh, you… you seeing anyone?”
“Um…” she scrunched the garbage bag shut and looked up at me, but before she could answer, Gene poked his head in and tried to dump some trash in the bag. He missed and it slid off the bag to the ground.
“Oh, sorry.” Gene started picking up the trash.
“It’s ok.” Hanna opened up the trash bag for Gene.
“Are you going to stay and hang out?” he asked as if he really cared whether I was staying or goi…
“I don’t know. Do you want to stay?” Hanna answered.
“It doesn’t matter to me. We can leave whenever you want.”
“Ok, hmm… I’m just going to finish cleaning up and we can go.”
“Great.” Gene said as he showed me his teeth. As he walked away, my heart sank into my stomach. I didn’t want to hear Hanna say it. She didn’t have to. All she did was point in Gene’s direction with her head and shrugged her shoulders as if to say “I guess so.” I returned her shrug with a half smirk and a nod before turning to leave.
“Are you leaving?” Hanna asked.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“You’re not going to say bye?”
“Oh, right. Bye.”
“Not to me, silly.” Hanna directed her eyes to Joe and Ash who were talking with some of the other guests. Gene was on his knees, putting Em on the rocker. His teeth were on ear to ear display like he was solely responsible for Em’s happiness. She was on the bunny, rocking back and forth, having the time of her short life.
“Ohhh, that’s so cute.” Hanna said. She carried the trash bag and put it down next to the dining table and joined Gene and Em on the ground. A real Kodak moment. Then I felt a vibration in my pocket. I took out my phone, thankful for the interruption.
It was an email from Mr. Matthews. It said, “Wrote something new.” and there was a link right below the text. I clicked on the link and it took me to an Amazon page of some book titled Alcohol, Sex, and Workshops: Themes in College Creative Writing Courses. I stared at my phone for a little while, then I went back to the email where a chunk of text lied underneath the link along with an attached document.
“Wrote a little book about students’ themes and wanted to use one of your stories as an example if that’s alright by you (fingers crossed). The story about the ambidextrous porn addict. Please sign the attached document and PDF it back to me asap. I promise you fame and fortune, although very little or none of either, but you’ll get some exposure if you’re still writing. Thanks.”
I squinted at the screen for a second like I couldn’t make out the words. I looked up and saw Hanna lean her head against Gene’s narrow shoulder and sigh. People were taking photos of Em rocking back and forth. I felt more vibrations from my phone as people were uploading current moments. They watched Em continue rocking, but the tide was turning. She was rocking faster now, like she wanted to go places. Gene tried to slow her down and Hanna stroked her back, but Em’s face started to twist into displeasure.
“Ahh, ahhh, aaaaahhhhhh,” She tried harder to rock back and forth and almost fell off the bunny, but Gene finally took her off. Hanna tried consoling her by making funny faces, but it was no use, she just cried louder and louder until everyone was staring at her. They stopped taking photos.
Ash had to come and take her, but she just kept crying. Joe grabbed Em, took her to her room, and laid her down in the crib, but you couldn’t just hear the muffled cries of that baby, you could feel it.
Finally, Ash and Joe kicked everybody out, Em’s cries echoing in the background. While everybody said their prolonged farewells, I saw Hanna grab Gene’s hand as they walked out. She looked at me and raised a hand to wave, but I pretended I didn’t see her and just got in my car without a word and stuck the key in the ignition.
I took out my phone, the email was still open. I typed up a quick response to Mr. Matthews:
I sent the response and tossed my phone in the passenger seat. I flicked the key chain with my middle finger and watched it dangle back and forth. All I could see was Em’s monstrous face see-sawing on that bunny.
No matter how hard she tried, she was going nowhere.
Ryan Kim is a graduate of the highly esteemed Virginia Tech creative writing program, so esteemed that Harvard and Yale are trying to recruit more people with esteem, but are now awaiting Supreme Court judgment because of allegations that everyone in their schools are using esteem-enhancing drugs. For more serious thoughts in Ryan's life please go to www.loveiswhatdrivesme.blogspot.com or www.callmelyan.tumblr.com