Arts & Culture » Books

Chapter 1 - Paul

by Curt Waugh

Lloyd stared at the wall, disinterested. Always disinterested. He tossed the ball, bounce, bounce, catch. Whatever. Turned it over in his hand. Gave it a look. Smelled it. Toss, bounce, blah, blah. It was his usual mode of operation. He had better things going on inside his greasy head anyway.

"Dammit! This sucks!" opined Paul for about the sixth time. "I look like shit." Relatively speaking, that wasn’t exactly true. Paul was doing reasonably well to spruce up what little raw material he was given. What’s the average guy supposed to do in a bathroom supplied with exactly: one bottle of shampoo (generic), one bar of soap (unknown origin), one comb (found), one toothbrush (painfully dilapidated), one tube of toothpaste (crushed), one very questionable towel and a cracked mirror? On an absolute scale, however, shit looked more like Paul. Weren’t broken mirrors supposed to wear off after seven years or something?

He turned to Lloyd. Why his opinion mattered to Paul was beyond his understanding. It pretty much confused the hell outta Lloyd, too – yet another thing upon which he didn’t spend too much precious concentration. But somehow it all worked for the two of them. Somehow, guy-ness just sort of took over and made it all OK. If Lloyd had stood up at that moment and punched Paul right in the nuts, that probably would have been OK, too.

"How does this look?" pleaded Paul. He had that wild-eyed look he got when he was at his most vulnerable. As usual, his pleading tone and that freaky, sweaty look Paul achieved at times of intense stress finally got Lloyd to look up from his ... well ... his nothingness.

"You trying to look like a dick?"

"No."

"Then, not so good."

Slam! Once again, Lloyd said exactly the right thing at the right time. Of course, Paul pretty much heard exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time. In a different place and time or a different universe where gender boundaries had long been laid to waste, they would have made the perfect couple. But here in Paul’s room, he’d just gotten that punch in the nuts. And yet, he instinctually loved this man with all of his underdeveloped, hormone-blocked and french-fry-laden heart.

"This sucks!"

"Look dude," exhaled Lloyd, "it’s one fucking date. Alright? You act like you’ve never done this before." Quiet snicker. Bingo! Lloyd 2, Paul 0. Today’s match was going to be an easy one. It was, after all, two against one. Paul’s fragile ego versus Lloyd and Paul’s fragile ego.

Of course Paul had never done this before. Oh sure, there was that whole prom fiasco, but no one would ever count that. He couldn’t possibly have known at the time, and still didn’t these few years later, the level of sophistication and depth of evil of an average 18-year-old woman. And she was indeed thoroughly average and fatally evil. Yep. She. She had all the basic accouterments and nothing to enhance. All the pain she was to bring and none of the guilt.

She had the foofy dress in an overly delicate pastel to drape on such a sturdy frame. She had gaudy jewelry scavenged from friends and family. She had bad blush and big hair. She had an unstable walk on tall shoes that hurt her feet that she was damn sure that Paul was going to know about – seventeen times to be exact. She finished herself with perfume of unknown drug store origin.

She barely spoke to him when she greeted him. She received her corsage with a premonitory coolness. She placed it on her own wrist, simultaneously avoiding even a quick comparative glance in the immense living room mirror. She couldn’t bother to smile next to Paul’s crooked, zitty grin when her parents took the obligatory pictures. She didn’t thank him in spite of the fact that he gallantly opened her door to let her into the looking-not-totally-like-shit-under-four-coats-of-wax Plymouth mini-van he borrowed from his mom and cleaned and polished all damn day. She grimaced at the painful creak the door made as Paul mightily slammed it shut to ensure his charge’s safety against the outside world (Paul’s own rare fanciful creation) and to secure the questionable door latch (reality).

She pretty much ignored him at dinner. She ordered medium well steak and extra sour cream on her baked potato to Paul’s manicotti and water. She flirted with Lloyd and the waiter and the guys at the next table and her napkin. She spilled her compulsory and completely unnecessary Diet Coke on her corsage and thought nothing of leaving it on her bread plate, sopping up olive oil. Paul stared at it as it left the room heaped on the busboy’s tray. He had known that sinking feeling before, but he couldn’t comprehend its source in the heat of battle.

Lloyd did. Lloyd saw everything. Understood everything. Always, dammit. Why did he always have to be so damn aware of this painful shit?

For maybe the twenty thousandth time in their long friendship, Lloyd’s heart went out silently to Paul. He even tried in vain to get Paul’s date to pay some attention to him. Somewhere through the vapor of his unconsciously induced protective haze, Paul heard Lloyd say his name and fell in love with him all over again. Lloyd searched his brain for any piece of trivia about Paul which she might find interesting. Paul was ... relatively strong. He could beat up his older brother (once). He liked cheese. He was kinda tall. Lloyd tried and repeatedly failed to get the mysteriously grinning Paul his much needed attention. She made Lloyd angry. She made him want to puke. As usual, this made him want to hit Paul very hard.

She launched into her average, villainous plan at the dance. She ditched Paul at every turn. He innocently, stupidly enjoyed the game of hide and seek. She spoke only to her friends. She allowed him only one quick slow dance after he cajoled her for half the damn song. Half the damn last song of the damn night. Half the time to get close. Half a hope. Half a joy. Half bliss. Half a song more than Paul had ever danced in his entire life. And oh, how he loved the feeling of her baby-fat-laden, chubby breasts unwillingly and unintentionally pressed against him for even half a chorus of Always and Forever. Hah! How about For the Next Minute and a Half ... Monkey Boy. To Paul, it just didn’t matter. As far as he was concerned, this was his whole life.

She gained him admission to an average, cool parents after-party at one of her friend’s houses. And just when he thought he was on top of the world (he really thought this – for this was pretty much the best damn night he had ever had, he actually touched a woman in public), she slipped out the back with a guy who got stuck taking the girl he had already bagged and lost interest in the week before. She eagerly signed up to be next week’s ditched date. He was, after all, 20 years old, living with his parents and driving a tricked out five-point-O. Dreamy.

If Lloyd had been there, he actually would have hit Paul.

Finally, as with most great disasters, the helpless villagers who were Paul’s hopes and dreams were slowly sucked under a mud slide and crushed to their turd-colored deaths.

"Bus plunge kills 27 in Uzbekistan. Film at ... oh screw the film. Paul, go fuck yourself." The newsreel in Paul’s head never could quite conjure up this horrible scene ever again. Not that Lloyd had that problem. Oh no. Lloyd – the young man who seemed to have a hard time remembering to be nice once every year or so – had not one problem recalling every fucking detail ... OUT LOUD. Dickhead. You just have to love that kind of loyalty.

"No seriously, what am I supposed to do? I look like shit. I DO look like a dick. A dickface. An asshole."

"Hey man, I’m really digging the witty repartee and all, but can you shut the fuck up for one second? Because, quite frankly, you sound far worse right now than you look. At this rate, even if she doesn’t take you for a lady killer and child molester at first sight, she’ll probably throw herself from the speeding car when you start talking to her. So, you know, shut the fuck up." Leave it to Lloyd to get right to the point.

Paul looked to Lloyd for help, ignoring what he had just said. He long ago had stopped really listening to the actual words that Lloyd said. They were pretty much meaningless to Paul anyway. He only heard Lloyd in tones and inflections. He knew the sarcastic tone and the angry tone. He knew the nice tone and the death tone. He knew the bursting to express himself tone and he knew the intellectual tone that really blew his mind. He would stupidly listen to Lloyd drone on for hours sometimes, not understanding a word. At times, it seemed like Paul was a complete idiot, just another dog. In fact, he was brilliant.

Lloyd began to rail at this look. This lost puppy. Poor little Paul. "Look, who gives a shit what you look like! I mean where are you going, to a fucking movie?" He stared right into Paul’s brain, once again searching for something he didn’t understand.

"You’re going to sit in the dark and neither look at nor talk to each other for two hours, asshole."

Think about it. I mean, not that you don’t already, but you could look like Frankenfuckwad and she wouldn’t care. Little Miss Lonely just wants a date.

"Christ! And it’s not like she gets to be that picky. Do you even look at this chick when you’re renting a movie or are you just so overwhelmed by the whole concept of magnetic media that you can’t see straight? She probably works at VideoMountain so she can have quick and easy access to their fine selection of skin flicks. I bet she gets a volume discount on batteries."

"Hey, come on. She’s pretty good looking. And she’s really nice. And she’s really cool to everybody at the video store. And I don’t see you with a date tonight!"

"Fuck you."

Somehow, this was all very comforting to Paul. And somehow, Lloyd knew it would be. They really were the perfect couple.

Lloyd bodily escorted Paul to the door. No use in being subtle or making this pretty. It was a foregone conclusion in his mind that he was going to make this poor boy get the hell out of their apartment and pick up this unsuspecting girl. Might as well get right to it. As always, Paul easily could have turned around and beat the crap out of Lloyd. He was always bigger and stronger. But such a confrontation was unthinkable to either of them.

Lloyd watched as Paul got into his car, closed the door and began to fumble with his hair, his shirt, his keys, his wallet – hell, probably even his socks, the procrastinator. Once again, Paul completely shocked himself. Even though Lloyd couldn’t hear it with the door closed, he could easily make out Paul bobbing his head and issuing forth a self-flagellating "shit, shit, shit!"

Paul got out of the car and ran back up to the house. Lloyd was already holding a crisp twenty in his hand that he had fished out of his own wallet. He, of course, had to tease poor Paul a couple of times when he reached for it. Lloyd, perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not, wanted Paul to know where one of them stopped and the next began. Sort of a loan fee. Lesson learned, he gladly handed the bill to Paul – never expecting and not really caring to see a dime of it ever again.

"Dumb ass," he said with the paternal, loving tone. They both smiled.

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