August 27, 2005

Langston Unemployed

By BG © 2005

One of the few immutable truths that applies to nearly every lifelong resident of small town life in the Midwest is that we don't have any use for the big city. We're perfectly content to disappear into the fabric of our own communities, sharing the tight-knit feeling of solidarity with our neighbors of being a true neighborhood, even if we just leave each other to our own devices behind closed doors anyway. City life, or at least my perception of it, is that of a white-noise solitude. It's not small talk with the neighbors, it's keep your eyes on your shoelaces pal - if you know what's good for you. It's not giving a shit who the sirens are for that wake you at 3AM, and not feeling like a friendly hello is an appropriate way to greet the mailman. I'm not a city kid.

I've retreated far enough socially at this point of my life, that were I dropped into Lower Manhattan, I'd likely devolve my ability to converse into the point-and-grunt method of choosing a deli meat or pack of cigarettes, just to avoid calling further attention to myself as an outsider. Yeah, I'm saying I'd miss the small talk in the grocery store, or the less-than-lively banter with a high school girl pushing Chicken McNuggets.

I've got no need for the city. But here I am anyway, making the three hour drive down to Chicago for this meeting. I mean, I am unemployed, and I could probably use a job, but couldn't we have set this lunch up somewhere in-between? Hell, even Michigan City, Indiana would have been better than having to head all the way downtown just to have lunch. But, my mom did set this up... and I haven't seen Shelley in years anyway.

It was about two weeks ago when my mom called. That was about three days into my strenuous regimen of Dawson's Creek reruns on the SuperStation in the morning, followed by a light lunch, and then pouring myself back into the manuscript until I couldn't keep my eyes propped open another minute. The phone rang, and I tossed out a terse "Hello" when I saw my mom's name on the Caller ID. I figured the busier she thought I was at the moment, the more she would stay off my ass about the job search.

"Langston, how's the job hunt coming along?" She knew damn well I hadn't so much as cobbled together my resume since college. I had been with the agency for so long, it hadn't been necessary for a while.

"Fine, mom. I quit on Tuesday, it's only Friday, and I'm feeling pretty good about my situation right now."

"And what situation is that? What are you going to do with yourself now? That was a good job you left there, Langston. Advertising isn't big around here, and you know you don't want to start from the bottom again with an agency somewhere else, do you?" Fucking hell. I guarantee you I wouldn't have to start from the bottom, but it was also pretty obvious that I'd be lucky to find a spot anywhere reasonably local doing the copy for ads, no matter how high on the totem pole they wanted to put me.

"Mom, I'm fine. I've got enough money in the bank to last me a while, so it'll be months before you need to go into full panic mode for me. Jesus, it's been two-and-a-half days since I walk out the door. I need to decompress a little bit."

"Well, I talked to Shelley today, and she expressed her concern about your situation..." I missed the last half of that sentence when a flurry of f-bombs came charging through my head, miraculously not flying out of my mouth in recoiling horror. "You're going to meet her for lunch. She'll email you with details."

Shelley was my mom's contact at her publishing house, but more to the point, Shelley and I were paired up about twelve years ago in our sophomore year's Creative Writing class, which my mom taught. She and I had been paired in nearly every group project or circle of feedback/criticism across two semesters, and had been so at odds in debate that I can no longer remember having taken that class with anyone else. She had incredible taste, an ear for reading aloud like I've never heard, and as many opinions as she had brooding artsy boyfriends.

Like most of the female pseudo-alternative crowd of writers that signed up for my mom's class, there was absolutely a starfucker element to the adoration Shelley heaped on her. My mom's book really appealed to the not-quite-as-depressed-as-Plath, but not-quite-as-romantic-as-a-Bronte type, and like A Separate Peace, was nearly required reading in every twelfth grade English class across the country. I had developed a natural distrust for anyone who seemed more than a little impressed that my mom was who she was, and naturally Shelley figured out the connection right away. Mix that distrust in with a natural attraction I had to any woman who could call me out on my bullshit with a smile, and I really had no idea how the hell I felt about that girl.

Until later, that is. I spent too much energy early on discounting the girl, thinking she was just using me to get in good with my mom, or didn't really give a shit about me because of the rotating cast of bad poets and fingerpainting pretty boys she consistently trotted out. It was absolutely insane. Well, I was absolutely insane. She used to talk these guys into driving her to our group sessions and even just to meet me for coffee so we could tear each other's latest piece of shit to shreds, and every one was so "unique" and "alternative" and "artsy" that I couldn't stand it. They were all fucking troglodytes too. Not a one of them could keep up when the she'd lug them along, and the guys who stuck near her the longest figured out pretty quick they weren't going to be engaged in the conversation. They didn't feel the least bit bad about dropping her on my doorstep and peeling out, rather than face two straight hours of short story deconstruction at 110 decibels of animation.

Shelley invented the art of conversation for me, so far as I was concerned. I was so used to the hushed tones and urbane bullshit of my mom's cocktail parties that I thought adults only talked in half-whispers and backhanded compliments. Shelley changed that for me entirely. Our constructive banter could turn to ego-maniacal posturing or chest-thumping proclamations of grandeur at the flip of a phrase. She wouldn't ever let me get away with a jab without throwing a counter-combination, which I'd return with a flurry of punches that would leave us both swinging wildly and grabbing at each other's last dangled words to dip in our own deadly venom for the next volley. Where I had learned to throw darts sideways from the curled corners of my mouth, purposeful words behind innocent eyes, Shelley was a full-frontal Panzer assault. You always knew where you stood, how far your line of bullshit had taken you, and could always expect something in return, in kind, and amped up for everyone within earshot to hear.

Goddamn, I loved that girl.

She just didn't know it then. Neither, really, did I. I resented the maudlin artists' convention she tracked through her bedroom, but it didn't seem at the time to be because I felt I should be between the sheets with her myself. It was really because I felt she was shorting herself by not dating her equal (who I figured out - far too late - was probably me). We were only really one thing to each other at that point - sparring partners. She was my only excuse for conversational gymnastics or any sort of mental calisthenics that didn't involve throwing more of myself into the book. She and I were friends, but never lovers. Close, but never confidantes.

And I'm absolutely positive that that was my fault entirely. She and I had drifted badly after I chose the path of least resistance in the English department, and her ambition chased her into different circles. I think we really found it hard to cross paths again without any reason to break out the vitriolic aggression, and I never really knew how to manage dredging a real friendship out of the brand of passion we shared. Or worse, how to translate that passion into a more productive place. I always felt she couldn't possibly have had feelings for me. She always had a boyfriend, or in the rare moments where she was between men, she probably didn't see me like she saw the sullen and goateed Cure fans she kept running through.

At least that's what I had talked myself into.

BG is a writer from a small hamlet in Western Michigan.

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