Not Like The Movies
I’m sitting at the kitchen table over a bowl of soggy oats, hives crawling up my neck, eyes watery and itching. It’s the cats; I’m deathly allergic. My mom brought home three last night.
“Cute, aren’t they?” she says, wrapped in a white bathrobe swiped from a recent staycation with Rick at the Comfort Suites.
The Siamese brushes against my leg. I blow my nose into a napkin.
“Hey, who pissed in your cereal?”
“You’re trying to kill me, aren’t you, Mom?” I say.
“What? You’ve been talking about moving out. No way was I going to pass up the opportunity when I found these little lovies on Craigslist.”
“I never said anything about moving out.”
My parents divorced when I was twelve; I stayed with Mom. Rick is her first real boyfriend since. Until he came along, she never wanted me to leave her side. She discouraged me from going away to college. “What are you going to learn at some university that I can’t teach you here?” But for the last eight months she’s been dropping not-so-subtle hints. “Don’t you want a steady girlfriend, Jeffrey? What girl is going to date a twenty-seven-year-old who still lives at home with his mom?”
The cats are circling me now, looking for handouts. “So where am I supposed to go?” I say. I sneeze on my cereal. “Where the hell am I supposed to go?”
I’m driving to work. My car’s wipers can’t keep up with the falling snow. The vents blow in cold air. This is my second tour with Blockbuster Video. My first was nearly a decade ago. I’d wanted to go into film, direct movies, be the next James Cameron. I spent a semester commuting to Columbia College before getting kicked out for bad grades. Too much Xbox, too much pot. So the video giant was my next best move. I got the job through my old high school buddy, Chang, but was subsequently fired from that first go-around when I skipped work to audition for Big Brother. I’ve been with them for sixteen months now. I started as a CSR making $8.25 an hour, got promoted to Shift Leader before long. My sights are on Manager.
I pass the Colonial Park Apartment Complex. Sounds regal, looks shoddy. I could probably afford a place there, a place to call home, a place to lay my head. Or I could get myself a posh crib downtown, be a real Swinging Dick Willy. Geez, I don’t even know how to cook. I won’t starve on my own, but there’s a fair chance I’ll die young from eating frozen pizzas and Hot Pockets every day.
I walk into the store. My shoes drag in snow, my glasses fog. Dusty, the manager, greets me by habit. “Welcome to Blockbuster.”
“What up, douche?” I say.
He pulls me aside. “Listen, I already told everyone else. The store’s closing in two weeks. We’re all going to be out of work.”
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“I wish I was. Lease is up. Company’s not extending it.”
“And they’re not transferring us?”
“Nope. Not even me. I’ll be right there next to you in the unemployment line.”
“Yeah, you’re still in high school though, man. I’m a grownup. I need a job.”
“Hey, I’m just the messenger, dude.”
I want to pop the giant zit on Dusty’s nose or give him a wedgie. I want to do something. My gaze shifts to the back wall, to “Jeff’s Picks,” and I breathe in deeply. Caddyshack, Risky Business, Death Wish. Classics. “Fuckin’ Redbox,” I mutter. “Fuckin’ Netflix.”
I’m packing what little I own. I can hear my mom and Rick giggling from the family room, watching some lame movie like The Devil Wears Prada. The cats keep meandering through my clutter, jumping on and off the bed, sticking their noses into boxes. I shoo them away, but they keep coming back. I want to rip my eyeballs out they itch so bad.
The cats have taken to me, especially the Siamese, maybe because I’m the only one who bothers to feed them. It’s like they think I’m their master or alpha male or pal, if cats even think like that. I’ve never been a cat fan. They’re cold, aloof. I’m a dog person. When I get my own place one day, that’s what I’m going to do — I’m going to get myself a dog. Maybe a Golden Retriever or a Shepherd.
I stuff as many of my clothes as I can into a gym bag and pile the rest into a laundry basket. Before Rick, before the cats, my mom collected dolls. Antique dolls. Wax dolls and China dolls, German Dolly-Faced Dolls. She spent thousands on them; now they’re all shoved into closets and under beds. The Siamese tugs one out by the arm from under my nightstand.
My mom comes to my room in that damn bathrobe and leans against the door frame. Her frosted blonde hair sits against a backdrop of dark roots and black eyebrows. Rick rolls up behind her, slurping down a carton of Neopolitan ice-cream. “So what’s the verdict?” Mom says. “Where’s my boy headed, all grown up and ready to face the world?”
“I’m moving in with Dad.”
Her jaw drops. “Oh, c’mon. No you’re not. Please tell me you are not.”
It’s clear she wants me to stay now, subconscious memories of legendary courtroom battles surfacing. “I have no place else to go,” I say. “He’s willing to let me crash there until I can get on my feet.”
My mom looks at Rick. He shrugs his shoulders. One of the cats is yanking at his dirty shoelace. I grab a stack of DVDs, toss them into the bag, and give it a zip.
My dad insists I call him Kevin now that I’m a grown man. So Kevin, like an idiot, leaves his computer on. I hop on to start doing some job hunting. He’s logged in to eHarmony and chatting with Tammy R. The Tammy whose profile I showed him. The Tammy who I told him I was sweet on. Two other browsers are opened to okCupid and Chicago Singles. Yeah, he’s been hitting on Yvette, Stephanie, and Laura G., too.
When Kevin let me move in a week ago, the agreement was that I would teach him the ropes of online dating. So I did. Now he’s cock-blocking me, trying to chat up all the girls he knows I’m pursuing.
Kevin walks through the door in a winter hat and tracksuit, a fruit punch Gatorade in one hand and a pack of Marlboro Lights in the other. “You fart?” he says. “Fuckin’ stinks in here.”
Ever since he and Mom split, he thinks he’s become a real player. He never once took us on a family vacation, not even to the Dells. Now he takes all his little hookers on Caribbean cruises and $500 a night ski excursions. He tans and takes kung fu lessons, thinks he can kick anyone’s ass. For years, he’s been harassing me about training with him. He says it’ll teach me discipline and trim off my man boobs.
Kevin, see, doesn’t really work. He inherited buildings and strip malls across the city owned by my grandfather. The buildings are paid off now. Kevin has people managing them and he collects the rent. He lives in a pimped-out unit of a condo complex he owns.
“Why are you trying to steal my chicks, Kevin?” I say, nodding to the computer.
“Snooze you lose, son. That’s life. You grab what you can when you can. I could’ve taught you that and more if you’d lived with me, but you had to stay with your mommy.”
I don’t say anything, not because I don’t want to. I don’t because if I tell him to go fuck himself and remind him how little he was there for me over the last fifteen years, he’s liable to send me packing. Which would be fine if I had anyplace else to go.
I’m driving around town looking for “Now Hiring” signs. I’m desperate. I’m willing to take a job anywhere at this point, to start saving up, to begin my life. Maybe I should start taking some online college courses, finally work towards that elusive degree.
My phone rings. It’s my buddy, Chang. We’ve lost touch lately, haven’t connected as often we’ve like since he moved to L.A. Chang and I used to be tight. We’d make home movies together as kids, horrors and war movies. We’d use fireworks and Halloween putty to construct fake fingers and severed limbs.
Chang fills me in on how things are going in La La Land. He’s dyed his hair platinum blonde. He’s now the Post-Production Coordinator — whatever that means exactly — for American’s Best Dance Crew. And before that he was working on The Sing-Off and some other TV shows I’ve never heard of but that impress me, nonetheless. The point is, Chang is making it. Chang is living the dream. My toes are freezing, my knuckles are dry, and I’m fantasizing about the California sun.
“Chang,” I say, “I know this sounds crazy, but what do you think about me coming out there?”
“What do you mean? To live?”
“I don’t know, at least try it for a while. Do you think I could crash at your place?”
“Dude, that would be awesome. Are you serious?”
“I think I am. I don’t even care where I land a job — Starbucks, In-N-Out Burger. I just want to get off the ground.” I’ve never lived outside of Chicago. Only been away from the great state of Illinois twice, for a family reunion in St. Louis and the 2002 Comic-Con Convention in Dallas. “You don’t have any cats, do you?”
“Cats? No cats, man. Thinking about getting a Chihuahua, though. Everyone out here has a Chihuahua.”
“I’m cool with Chihuahuas,” I say, “I love Chihuahuas.”
I’m packing. Again. My mom calls. She’s in Vegas with Rick.
“Jeffrey? Hey, it’s Mom. I have some great news. Ready? Rick and I got married last night. Jeff? Can you hear me?”
“Yes, I can hear you.”
“Rick and I got married last night!”
“What can I say, Mom? Congratulations.”
“Look, we’ll be home in a few days. Do me a favor, will you? Make sure to stop by and check on the cats.”
“You just left the cats alone. Nice. Because they really can take care of themselves.”
I raise my voice. “I said, ‘Nice. Because the cats can really take care of themselves.’”
Mom giggles. It sounds like Rick is tickling her. “Okay, gotta let you go. We’re about to go on a gondola ride at the Venetian.” I hang up on her.
Kevin walks into the living room with two Bud Lights. I’m watching Platoon on his big screen; he sits next to me on the black leather couch.
“Jeff, I’ve got some good news I want to share with you.” I don’t bother turning off the TV, so Kevin just shouts over the sound of grenades exploding. “I’m moving to Florida with Tammy.” My Tammy, apparently.
“And how is that good news?”
“I know we’ve only been dating for a few weeks, but I’m crazy about her. She’s a real firecracker. Good news for you is I’m leaving you this condo. This is all yours, free of charge. I’m not even taking any of the furniture with me. Tammy wants to buy all new stuff out there.”
“I’m putting this complex in your name, too. It’s yours. We’ll split the earnings fifty-fifty. You’ll be in charge now.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“We’re cut from the same thread, son. You’re lucky, you know? Most kids have to work for what they get. You’re lucky to have a successful dad who actually gives two shits about you.”
I stare at the screen, trying to take it all in. It’s the iconic Sergeant Elias death scene. Betrayed by his own comrade in arms. I look back at my dad, my flesh and blood, and take a swig of beer. “You know what? Go fuck yourself, Kevin.”
Before I leave town, I stop at my mom’s to check on the cats. The hallway of the apartment building reeks unmistakably of cat shit. It gets worse as I approach Mom’s door. I bury my nose into my coat. The neighbor, this old grizzly, hears me and pops her head out.
“What’s going on?” she says. “Someone die in there? It’s stunk since yesterday.”
The cats are clawing at the door as I’m jiggling the key. When I open it, they try to squeeze past my legs and out into the free world. The apartment is like a crime scene. Lamps and chairs are knocked over. My mom’s antique dolls are strewn across the floor, hair plugs torn from heads, legs and arms separated from sockets.
The old bat winces and covers her mouth. “Oh, Lord, you can’t leave those helpless little angels alone like that. Your mom think she’d come home and see that they’d raised themselves? We’re not talking about Garfield here or Tom and Jerry. Life’s not like the movies.”
“You got that right.”
“I have a good mind to call the Humane Society.”
“Go for it,” I say.
The litter box is overflowing, the water and food bowls flipped over. I can feel my face begin to swell and a rash developing on my neck. The Siamese is staring up at me with its blue eyes and a, frankly, cute nose that looks like it’s been dipped in black paint. He says “Meow,” but I hear “Please, save me.” I reach down to pet him and he doesn’t resist. “It’s okay, little buddy,” I say. “It’s going to be okay.”
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