851 words about Rock.
His mother named him Benjamin, but at the age of 17, he feels he's outgrown it. He despises equally all variations – Ben, Benny, Benji. His mother pouts at him for it, but he insists on being called Rock, a nickname he picked up on the playground years ago. His friend Alex still has a scar on his right temple from that day.
Rock is not a morning person. According to his mother, he's not an afternoon, evening, or night person either, but his mom just doesn't get him. Maybe no one does. He stays up late at night, listening to music that makes his parents quake. He studies liner notes the way he should be studying for school. He holes himself up in the room he has painted black and adorned with posters of musicians who wear more eyeliner than most drag queens. He has stacks of milk crates filled with CDs, most of which bear parental warnings that have apparently been sold to him despite his varying degrees of minority. At least, his mother hopes they've been sold to him. She doesn't know where he would have gotten the money for them, but she doesn't ask. She's afraid of the answer. She's afraid of her son.
On the mornings when Rock is successfully ripped from his bed, he ambles out of his room dressed like a pauper. His mother is horrified at his constant state of fray and unravel, at the greasiness he carefully applies to his hair, and the boots he bought used, already older than him. The clothes she has bought him from the plethora of catalogues for the upper-middle-class she receives hang in his closet, still tagged and unworn.
Rock doesn't eat breakfast, makes it a point to never eat any meal with his parents. Although it looks like he's just rolled out of bed when he heads out the door, he is already late for another day of algebra and gym socks. Rock has the most impressive collection of tardy slips his school has ever seen. The vice principal keeps giving him stern final warnings, and Rock keeps proving them to be useless empty threats.
Rock takes 2 buses to school; the #86 collects him a few blocks from his house in the suburbs and deposits him on the outskirts of the east end of town, where property values are a fraction of what they are in his own neighbourhood, and the people living there reflect it. This is where he feels most at home. From here he boards the #14 to the last public school that will still accept him. But since he's late anyway, and he's pretty sure there's a chemistry test he couldn't possibly be prepared for and doesn't give a shit about at any rate, he crosses the street and gets on the #34 instead.
Rock is barely conscious during his bus ride. He closes his eyes and listens to another multi-millionaire raging against the system. If other passengers are bothered by the noise seeping from his earbuds, Rock doesn't notice. The bus takes him past the college where he'll never be admitted because he'd never apply, and even if he did, his permanent file, now well over 3 inches thick, would mean an automatic rejection. It also eases through a series of towering office buildings where drones wearing 3-piece suits walk briskly in expensive Italian leather shoes, jostling each other with their briefcases, too hurried to apologize or care.
Rock stays on until the end of the line, where he disembarks in the section of town that time and progress have forgotten. Rock would like to be forgotten as well. If he thought no one would come looking for him, he would be tempted to stay away for good.
He sits on the sidewalk, his back against an old brick building that has windows of plywood instead of glass. The cement is cold beneath him, the sunshine is weak and intermittent. Over the course of the morning, many people have walked around or over his legs, which are stretched out on the sidewalk. Of these, there are people of two kinds: the first don't notice him at all, the second acknowledge him with a series of grunts and nods. This is the language of the street. Without words or much eye contact, a transaction is made. Money is exchanged for the tiny plastic bags of illegal flowers Rock has stuffed in his pockets. These are the people Rock considers friends. They do not know his name, or where he comes from, or that he should be in school. Nor do they care.
Occasionally, Rock will catch the impression of a gun or a knife in someone's pocket or waistband. Weapons tend to have a distinctive glint. It leaves him feeling largely apathetic.
Rock is angry, and he doesn't know why. He'd trade in his life in a second, all of it, he'd take poverty and crime and oppression if it gave him a reason to feel the way he does.
No one understands him. Not even himself.
873 words about Molly
She waits at the bus stop, unaware of her surroundings. She is absorbed in her shabby copy of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, reading it as if completely captivated, reading it as if she hadn't already done so 37 times. You might say the book is well-thumbed, except her thumbs rarely touch the pages. In fact, she drags her right index finger below each line as she reads, and then uses the same finger to hastily turn the page as she reaches the bottom. She treasures the sense of freedom, of escape, of exploration.
She has never been more than 50km outside of her home town.
When the #34 bus arrives, she climbs aboard and deposits her fare without so much as glancing up. She takes a seat close to the front, but not too close, and sighs a little to herself when she reads the part about living events "too fantastic not to tell." She wonders when her time will come.
The bus has picked her up fairly close to the dingy complex where she shares a tiny 2 bedroom apartment with a roommate who drinks her pineapple juice on the sly and wears little other than the track marks on his arms. She has learned not to ask questions. He is often behind in the rent, not to mention the utilities, and since the lease is in her name, Molly J. Reynolds, this responsibility is a source of more problems than pride.
Dressed in jeans and a hoodie, a backpack propped in the seat beside her, and her interest completely fixated on the paperback in front of her, she looks like all the other students headed to an early morning class, but she isn't. Isn't on her way to class, isn't a student.
Too poor, too dumb: this is what she tells herself. She doesn't give herself nearly enough credit.
She's actually on her way to work, a copy centre not far from a buzzing college campus. She spends her days copying students' homework, collating theses, and if she's lucky, she'll get to handle a blueprint. She loves the feel, she loves the smell. She wishes she knew more about them, anything really, other than how to carefully roll them up when they're done.
Molly makes minimum wage. Her chequing account is nearly always overdrawn. She still carries a pink nylon wallet although it rarely contains more than a few quarters and a picture of the parents she hasn't seen since she left home. She is always eager to pick up extra shifts, but the copy business just isn't that demanding. She economizes by eating only every second day. She has long ago forgotten whether that feeling in the pit of her stomach is hunger or unhappiness.
She could probably find another job if she tried. If she worked at the mall, she might earn an extra fifty cents per hour. She might even make it to assistant manager one day, if she really applied herself. She knows the copy place is a dead end.
But she doesn't try; she doesn't want to leave. She doesn't want to get any further away from the college life.
Molly is a pretty girl, but doesn't know it. She's also very lonely, but she doesn't know that, either. Not quite. She saves herself from loneliness by being aloof. She believes her isolation is a choice, almost. And who is there to make friends with, anyway? Her coworkers are fat and forty. Her roommate is too paranoid to be social. And the students, the smug, superior students, are the recipients of her contempt. She scorns anyone who has caught better breaks in life than she.
So when a young man routinely uses his laundry money to make copies he doesn't need, Molly doesn't notice. She meets his warm smile with only a cursory one of her own. She gives him the minimum customer service required by company policy, and spends more time looking at his accounting text book than at him. Fifty-six unnecessary copies later, he still hasn't worked up the courage to ask her out.
She washes the smudges off her hands before she leaves for the day. The cheap soap in the dispenser smells funny, but it's free. Her hands are rough and chapped; her right index finger alone, the one she uses for reading and page turning, has 4 paper cuts. One of them looks infected. She has 3 quarters in her wallet, enough for a snack out of the vending machine, but it's not her day to eat. She knows she'll need those quarters even more tomorrow, and so she saves them. She gulps greedily from the water fountain instead - a vain attempt to subdue the grumbles in her stomach.
And with only water sloshing around in her belly, she crosses the street to her favourite place in the world - the library. No one questions her right to be there, and she doesn't try to check out books. The library is warmer than her apartment, and far more comfortable. She curls up in an over-stuffed chair and devours one book after the other. This is how she spends her free time. This is how she spends her life.
769 words about Neal
Neal is 36 this year but says he's 35. It's not vanity; Neal is forgetful. He works in an office, the kind with cubicles and posters of kittens on the wall. He has a fern on his desk. It's plastic.
He is tall. His legs are long, very long, and his torso disproportionately short. He's never had a good haircut in his life. The whiskers of a thin mustache more strawberry than blond tickle his thin upper lip.
He always wears a button-down shirt two sizes too big for him. The shoulders droop off his frame. He rolls up his sleeves nearly to the elbow. He tucks the shirt in, showing off a worn brown belt that doesn't match his black loafers. He wears a cheap watch and always has pens in his shirt pocket, always blue ink, usually Bic.
He keeps a jar of hard candy on his desk to offer to coworkers should they stop by. They never do. He eats lunch from a brown bag every day; tuna on rye for nearly eleven years. It has never occurred to him that he might be boring. He eats slowly, chewing thoughtfully as he flips through a magazine about model airplanes. He doesn't build them, but he's a faithful subscriber. He likes to think that he might build a model plane one day. One day.
He takes the #34 bus home at night, his knees knocking the seat in front of him. He stares out the window with a mild, almost pleasant smile on his face. He never fails to wish the driver a good night.
He waves to his neighbours but doesn't stop to talk. They think he is a nice man, a quiet man. And he is.
His home is modest, his yard is neat. The lawn is newly mown.
The key to his front door is on a Mickey Mouse key chain in his pocket, a souvenir from someone else's vacation, awarded to him for cat-sitting. He doesn't need to unlock the front door; someone is already home.
It's his wife, Martha, who is home. She is at the stove, stirring a pot of something that smells good. Her cheeks are rosy from the heat of the kitchen. She hears him come in but doesn't turn.
"Hello, Martha" he greets her, as he has greeted her every weekday evening since they were married 12 years ago. "Another day, another dollar" he adds, out of habit, as he grabs his beer out of the fridge. Home from work, one can of beer is his allotted reward for surviving 'another day in the jungle,' as he would put it. He savours it from his favourite green armchair, worn almost bald in some spots but still the site of all his best sitting.
He watches his wife prepare dinner. He watches her scurry from the chopping board with a diced onion, to the pot on the stove where she dumps it, then over to the sink where she washes some tomatoes, and to the fridge where she retrieves the milk. She is shapeless even beneath the apron and the flower print dress, but Neal doesn't mind; he watches with fondness.
They eat in silence, mostly. Even after a dozen years in this this country, Martha's English isn't good, and it's Neal's only language. But they don't have to speak; when Neal cleans his plate with a last slice of bread, Martha knows he is sated, that the meal was a success.
In front of the glow of the television, they watch game shows while Martha works on some embroidery and Neal does some crosswords. He fills in the tiny squares with the blue ink pens from his shirt pocket. His printing is small and precise. He is particularly good with the history clues, and weak on the pop culture. He feels immense satisfaction when he completes a puzzle. He sighs audibly so his wife can congratulate him. When she does, he smiles, pleased with himself, and grunts.
Before Neal goes to bed at 9:30, he gives his cheque book a nice, leisurely perusal. He figures out his earnings for the day and adds it to the tally. He goes to bed dreaming of his savings account, of the exotic places he'll visit (Sudbury first, he thinks, he's always wanted to see the big nickel in person), of the lavish gifts he'll buy his little wife (a new toaster, possibly, the kind with wide slots for bagels), of the model planes he'll build and be much admired for by faceless new friends.
Happily Ever After
Pick up the phone.
Pick up the phone.
Pick up the phone.
I told you to leave, to never come back. I threw the vase I love, the violet one, and we watched it shatter against the wall. I screamed my insecurities at you, all of them, and you turned around, stormed up the stairs, and slammed the door as you left.
I crumpled and I cried.
I didn't mean it. I didn't mean any of it. Come back.
I tell you to leave because I want you to stay. I want you to stay and not hurt me anymore, but I want to hurt you back a little first. I want you to crumple; I want you to cry. But you didn't – you just left. I told you to leave, and you did. You left. You left me.
I picked up the purple pieces of the vase, and imagined that they were the jagged pieces of my heart. I let a shard pierce my thumb to see the blood, but I didn't feel it. I don't feel when you're not here.
I layed in bed, our bed, the bed that we have shared, that still smells like you. The sheets are still rumpled with our last embraces. They don't know that you are gone. I feel tears welling up again, but then I tell myself you don't deserve them, and will myself tobe angry instead.
My anger is familiar. It boils up inside of me and I know how to let off the steam: I rip photos out of frames, I tear your clothes from their hangers and I am violent with a pair of scissors. It feels good.
I collapse on the couch, wrapped in a blanket that doesn't remind me of better times. When I am too tired for tears and tragedy, I sleep. But not peacefully.
When I awake, it is dark in the house, and outside of it. I know that I am alone, but still I check for you. You aren't there.
I tell myself you'll be back soon. It's just a fight, just another fight. You'll come back. I give it an hour, and then two. I pick up the phone to call you, and before I can even dial I slam it down again. You should be calling me, not the other way around. But you don't call. I pace and pace in front of the phone, but you never do call.
A day goes by, and then two. My eyes are rimmed in red; tissues overwhelm the room. I told you to leave, but I didn't mean it. Not forever. Why aren't you here? Why haven't you come to apologize? I call your cell, and leave another message, and another, and another, until your voice mail is full.
By the third day without a word from you, I imagine you lying in a ditch somewhere. I imagine car wrecks and muggings. I imagine that the worst has happened to you, because it's easier than believing that you stay away by choice. I wonder if I should call the hospitals.
Instead, I reach for the phone and call you again.
Pick up the phone.
Pick up the phone.
Pick up the phone.