Tag Archives: friendship

A Relationship in Presents, Part Two: Italy, the country of lovers

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**

This series explores style in addition to memory and basic aesthetics. I encourage you, for your own fun, to compare this piece with the previous part and to define for yourself the differences and how they affect the writing and the reading, and to continue the experiment for the upcoming parts.

Remember to contribute to this week’s Themed Thursday. I’m really excited to see what other posts crop up! 🙂

**

Sarah and I walked through Europe hand in hand. Originally I had traveled with my sister, but she and I had been estranged for years, and isolating ourselves from our parents in Europe didn’t seem to help whether we got along or not. Beth and I split ways at first when she went to Amsterdam; I went to London to pick Sarah up. We met back up in Paris and tried to make things work, but we weren’t friends, weren’t friendly, and when we were preparing to leave Avignon, Beth split, leaving Sarah and I alone.

We had been friends all through college, one of those friendships where people ask, “So when are you two getting married?” They ask all the time, always with the same rising hysterical note where you can tell they know they’re being assholes but they ask it anyway, like it’s a joke, like either of us might find it funny. But really they’re just assholes, and no, we’re never getting married, thanks. We’re not even dating.

Most of my junior year, her freshman, she dated my friend Steve who had crashed on my couch, and I went pretty steady with this girl Christina. Nobody questioned why Sarah and Steve were together except when they saw how hard she’d hit him and how well Steve put up with it. Everyone questioned why Christina and I were together, ranging on topics from how much we fought to how much time we spent together. Sarah and Steve didn’t last the year; Christina and I did but eventually broke up December of my senior year.

Sarah, like a few others, asked, not in so many words, whether we could get together now that Christina and I had split. But I had loved her like a tree with ivy, like flesh holds onto a scab, and the sap or the blood still dripped fresh from the wound when they asked me, and I protected my open sore.

Unlike the others who asked whether we could finally get together, Sarah heard an invitation to Europe with me after I graduated. Can we date? she would ask, and I’d say no. Can we go to Europe together? I’d follow up with, and she’d ask me Can we date? Five months passed with a few other conversations to supplement this recurring one.

The three-day graduation party came and went. On the second night, I slept on a couch with Sarah because the other girl chasing me had fallen asleep already. It reminded me of the night two years before when I had thrown an end-of-year bash and fallen asleep on the floor with Holly rather than take my chances with Sydney. In resentment, Sydney had gone into the bathroom, claiming to snort coke. This one, however, simply went outside and drove home at four in the morning.

I packed up most of my stuff in the apartment and went back to Dallas for the month of May, spending time with my parents before I left for Europe. I spoke with Justin during the day about how he needed me to go back to Waco and get the rest of my shit out of the apartment and with Sarah nightly about how I’d like for her to come to Europe with me. Her refusal had changed from whether we could date or not to whether her parents would let her come or not, so I began to press a little harder those last few weeks, with no luck.

The last day before I left I spent packing my oversized duffle bag and backpack: clothes, toiletries, iPod, books, Woolite so I could wash my clothes on the go. I spoke with Sarah one last time. She had gone home to Houston for the summer, spending time with her old high school friends and, regretfully, with her parents. I listened to her complain for a while and asked her if she wouldn’t rather come to Europe with me rather than waste away her summer there. She answered that she would, agreeing finally and at the last minute to come. I laughed at her. I didn’t believe she would come.

We got off the phone soon thereafter. I flew into Paris with my sister, and on the second day received a note from my father that Sarah had called and said she would land in London after a week. Beth made her plans to go to Amsterdam, and I rode the train to Calais, took a ferry to Dover, and rode the train the rest of the way to save myself a little cash. I left my hostel that morning, met Sarah at the airport all smiles and surprised cheer, and took her to the bed and breakfast I had reserved for us.

I showed her London as best I could in the two days we had before we met up again with my sister in Paris; Sarah and I rode the train all the way, business class. Together, the three of us saw Chartres and then Tours and the surrounding cities; we rode the train to Avignon, and Sarah and I went to Marsellies while my sister wrote us a goodbye note; we went to Dijon where we had sex for the first time and then down to Florence. I bought Virgil’s opera in latin, the book itself bound together before America declared independence. I couldn’t afford the Boccaccio that I also wanted and left a little sad. Sarah turned me around on the street and bought that gilded Decameron, and the store sent them to my parents’ house in the same box.

We took a day trip from Florence to Milan, and at the Galleries Lafayette, she offered to buy another Mont Blanc pen since I liked my first one so much, an offer I felt guilty about almost accepting. Then we traveled to Rome and then Ravenna, where I bought her a brand new dress that was just a little too long for her, a beautiful blue arrangement with an ornate flower on the waist. The sex was already beginning to lose its charm, but I didn’t say anything. From there she talked me into spending a day in Venice, a place I refused to go not because I didn’t imagine it as beautiful but because I couldn’t afford it. She bought me a glass statuette of lovers dusted with gold flecks.

Paris took us in for a few days after Italy, and we saw several closed museums. We went back to London and then to Derbyshire to stay with Kiran, an old high school friend of mine. Rita, Kiran’s mom, asked me whether she were the one, and I answered I dunno. How am I supposed to know? No, she’s probably not. And Rita smiled at me, told me that youth was meant for fun and that I’d know with someone, that David had known with her and had been right. Not that she had known David was the one; she fought and resisted his advances until one day she gave in, but David had known that she was his one.

When we went back to Texas, Sarah told our friends we were dating. I said we weren’t. She didn’t talk to me for months, not until I invited her to Devin’s wedding, after which I would become jealous of her physicality and tell her that I couldn’t stand the idea of her being with anyone else. I’d ask her to dedicate herself to me, and she’d ask if that meant we were together, and I’d, resigned, say yes—finally, some would say; inevitably, others.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Filed under Creative nonfiction, Presents, Writing

A Societal Yearning: Masculine friendship and community

Your first reaction, depending on who you are, may be feminist outrage. I urge you to recognize your disagreement, put it away, and then take a deeper look. That said, Amos gets even the introductory exposition to this blog post. Take it away, Amos:

I’ve spent a good deal of time in the last four years considering the value of, and the fragility of, simple male friendship.

I say “simple” friendship because family and partners can maintain a separate and vital status in a person’s life. We’re stuck with the family we’re born into or bear; and divorce, while easy, is not as easy as it could be.

I say “male” friendship because it seems to me that women are, in ways, built more readily for deep bonding with their peers. My sense is that it’s more of an inherent thing, something genetic, but as always with the nature versus nurture question, the answer ends up being “well, some of both.” I haven’t lived as both a man and a woman though, so I can’t be sure. The general roles that evolution has put men and women into (which can be broken or tweaked just fine by a careful society, when needed) lean men at least slightly away from the deep bonding that women seem wired for through.

Male relationships often seem to drift toward (and prefer proximity to) superficiality, fun, and beer. Special people can be special exceptions, but beyond small grace periods, those precepts are broken at the masculine peril of expendability. And stray from the precepts knowing that, in order to call attention to your rule breaking and rescue the friendship, many men would have to become rule breakers too.

And that, rarely, are they willing to do.

Primal hunting and the life-or-death dependence of the military are some things that seem to break this tendency. They seem to tie men together on a deep and emotional level forbidden by our time-constrained lifestyles that offer a million fun replacements for things that displease. What more naturally binds women together seems to more readily remain in the lives we’ve all fallen into.

I always think of the scene in Moby Dick in which one attack of many is mounted on a pod of whales. The males flee individually while the females huddle together, standing by each other even though it may be the germ of their destruction.

I also think of the following passage from “Letters to a Young Poet,” a collection of correspondence doled out by the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

Women, in whom life lingers and dwells more immediately, more fruitfully, and more confidently, must surely have become riper and more human in their depths than light, easygoing man, who is not pulled down beneath the surface of life by the weight of any bodily fruit and who, arrogant and hasty, undervalues what he thinks he loves. This humanity of woman, carried in her womb through all her suffering and humiliation, will come to light when she has stripped off the conventions of mere femaleness in the transformations of her outward status, and those men who do not yet feel it approaching will be astonished by it.

In our everyday American world, bonds with other human beings seem less vital than they might have been at other times, or might be in other places. It’s not generally close bonds with other people that support us, not the fidelity of a tightly-knit community that bails us out when we face a difficult or even dangerous situation. Instead, the money we earn supports and bails. It gives us our food, our shelter, our health care, our transportation, and our entertainment.

In that way, the jobs we hold come to be our most vital companion in life. In that way, the jobs we hold become the important starter for almost any conversation with someone we’re just meeting: “So… what do you do?”

How can simple male friendship compete with this?

Recently, when using Facebook to ponder the significance of my name, a friend replied to me. I was considering how my first name means “Burdened” in Hebrew, and how my last name means “Gamekeeper of a Park” in English. The friend told me that I was wrong in my definitions. He said that Amos Parker actually means “He Who Overanalyzes.”

In pondering the nature of male friendships and overanalysis, I feel as I often do: underanalysis is overrated. Searching for the wellspring of existential loneliness is a worthwhile pastime.

**

“Hey Devon,” I said. “Good to see you.”

I shook his hand once he’d closed the door.

“Good day at work?” I asked.

“Busy,” Devon said.

“Yeah?”

“Cancer center’s a great place to work. Life causes cancer.  I don’t think I’ll be fired anytime soon.”

I nodded, smiling like a cynic.

“Care for a beer?”

Devon brightened. I already had mine open.

“Hell yeah. Choices?”

“Check the fridge,” I said.

Devon nodded, going to the mini-fridge in the basement where the beer could stay cold without taking up prime real estate.

“What do you feel like doing tonight?” I asked as Devon popped the top and took a swig. He swished it around in his mouth, wondering if he should’ve taken a seasonal brew. He swallowed.

“Oh, I’m ok with anything.”

“You sure?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“We can do anything. We can play a videogame, a long board game, a short board game, sit and chat, watch a movie….”

“Anything’s fine, really, just so I can relax. We’re friends. It’s all good.”

“You really don’t care?” I asked.

“No,” Devon said. “It’s up to you.”

“Ok. Well… how about War of the Ring?”

“Oh… yeah…” Devon replied, his facial features twitching like an old building in a strong wind. “I guess. We… might have time, and… I think I remember the rules.”

“Let’s go then,” I said. “Women like to talk about things and men like to do things.”

Devon managed a smile and raised his beer to me. I made a show of ignoring him and clanking mine up against the toaster.

“What are we going to do?”

The man stood outside the house, shivering. His wife’s teeth had chattered as she’d spoken. The man looked at the boards that covered the walls. He didn’t know when he might get another job. Winter was coming, and he worried there’d be no money to keep his family warm.

“I’m looking every day,” the man said. “I’ll find something. I’ll find work.”

His wife shivered. The man put his arm around her.

“We have… enough food in the basement… from the garden…” she said. “But we can’t burn the food. How are we going to keep from freezing this winter?”

The man blew hot breath on his free hand. His wife took the hand from him and tried to warm it herself.

“I’ll think of something,” he replied. “Don’t worry your pretty little head.”

“Hey Devon,” I said. “Can you do me a favor?”

“Sure buddy. What’s up?”

“Great,” I replied, relieved. “You know I’ve got too many board games, right?”

He nodded, half smiling.

“You’ve got a lot of space at your place, right?”

He nodded.

“Can you help me store some of them?”

“Sure!” he said. “I love board games. You know that.”

I smiled and continued. I felt like justifying myself: “I’ve told you why I have so many, right? It’s all I can do to tread water with my job. I don’t feel like I’m gonna mean anything to anyone with work. Sometimes I’m worried I’m gonna die a mediocre failure.”

I trailed off, smiling like I was joking. Devon was silent, waiting.

“Someday I wanna be able to use them to give something back. They bring people together, or they can. You’ve seen that with the guys, right? They’re nothing like what everyone thinks about when they hear the term board games.”

Devon nodded.

“Someday I want to create a big program, maybe with the library. It’ll be something fun, something that gets people out of the house, away from the TV so they can do something together. It could be a major town thing. I just don’t know how to do it yet, how to pull it off.”

“Sounds great,” Devon replied. “You’ll make it happen.”

“My girlfriend may not be comfortable with the money I’ve spent on them,” I continued. “That’s one of the problems. I have to keep trying though, somehow.

I have to feel like I’m working for something, to have some kind of life raft. And, with the cancer she’s been through, it’s even harder to justify the cost.”

Devon nodded, his expression cooling.

“I feel bad hiding it, but I have to feel like I’m at least trying to do something for people, to give something back. Michele can be so intolerant with things she doesn’t agree with. I have to feel like I’m trying hard, trying my best. Part of that is having a real collection. I’ll come up with something. This’ll buy me time.”

“I’d love to help,” Devon replied. “That’d be sweet to have all that stuff at my place. Mi casa es su casa. Can I paw through it whenever I feel like it?”

“It wouldn’t be a problem?” I asked, tentative in the way I raised my pitch at the end of the question.

“No no no. That’d be awesome. My pleasure.”

“Great!” I said, knocking him playfully on the shoulder.

He jumped a little.

“You’re a good friend,” I added. “If it’s ever a problem, let me know. I don’t want to be a bother, and it’s hard to come by good friends out here in the middle of nowhere. Sure, Saint Johnsbury is a town, but it isn’t much of one, right? All this cold. Everyone hides away, and the one’s who wouldn’t have already run away.”

“You’ve got that right,” Devon replied.

“You feel that too, don’t you?” I was glad to hear that he agreed with me. “I really don’t want to be a problem. I can’t afford to lose any friends.”

“Problem?” Devon replied, laughing just a little too loudly. “Why would you ever be a problem?”

“I’m cold, Dad.”

“Me too, Dad. I can’t stop shivering.”

Both the boy and the girl were doing their best. They tried to be tough. They wore the extra clothes that their parents had found, but layers weren’t enough.

“Let me bring you some food,” their mother said. “It’ll give you some energy, and it’ll warm you up too.”

Their father knew it had to be cooked to really warm them up.

He went outside and looked at all the other houses where they lived. Snow had fallen all over. Icicles were dangling from the homes of some of their neighbors. They were the neighbors who were lucky enough to have the wood to burn, and the heat their fires made escaped up through the roofs and melted the snow there, making the icicles possible.

The man didn’t have any icicles on his house.

Here and there, because he had to, the man began taking boards from the outside of his home. It was only a few, and the house could handle it. The man even convinced himself that it made the house look tougher, more lean and mean.

He took the armloads of boards inside and kept his family warm.

“Hey Devon,” I said.

I stepped in through his door and closed it. I was uncomfortable. I felt out of place, like it was one of those days. My sensitivity was acting up, my low-level autistic fragility. I couldn’t control the feeling. I knew it’d poison things if I couldn’t at least hide it. I tried to figure out where it would stash.

“Amos!” Devon replied. “Now the party can start. Flames of War is on the table. Beer?”

“Sorry I’m late,” I said.

He handed me an ale from the fridge, the top already off. I took a long swallow and hoped for magic.

“Ken’s been working on his bike,” Devon said. “He got some extra oomph for the engine. And there’s a new gun he’s been eyeing. You want a gun for Christmas?”

He jabbed me playfully in the ribs. I almost dropped my beer.

“No thanks. I don’t feel like one.”

“Oh. Well come play with us then.”

“I’ll just watch…” I said.

I was starting to sweat. I felt like I was between a rock and a hard place.

“Thanks though,” I continued. “I don’t really like that game. It’s… painful. It’s like having salt rubbed in my eyes.”

“Oh,” Devon replied. “Ok.”

“Actually, I don’t feel well. I need to go home and write too. I can’t make sure Michele’s taken care of if I don’t make a career of it. I get panic attacks if I have to go more than a day without writing some, and… my windows of time are tiny.”

I wiped at my brow and finished my beer, knowing it wasn’t enough to harm my driving. But I wanted at least that much in me when I thought about having bailed.

“Oh. Ok. Say hi to Michele for me.”

I felt bad about bailing, but it could’ve been worse.

The winter wore on, and it was a cold one.

The food ran low ahead of schedule. The man was more and more worried about his wife and kids. He scoured town up and down for both jobs and wood to keep them warm, but there was nothing to be found that other men hadn’t found already.

Lying in bed one night, holding his wife close, she tried to comfort him.

“You’ll find something honey. Keep your chin up.”

“I can’t,” the man replied. “I can’t keep my chin up. It takes dignity to do that.”

“You have dignity. You have us.”

The man held his wife tightly, trying to keep warm with what she’d said. He could feel the cold all around, and he was worried about the children in the next room. He looked out the window and saw snow falling in the moonlight.

“I’ll be back,” he told her, getting up.

He went out the bedroom door, down the stairs, and outside. There were already holes showing here and there in certain less important walls. One of them kept a closet protected from the winter. Another kept the living room insulated, and they stayed mostly in the bedrooms anyway.

Working quietly with the crowbar, he took off some more boards. By the time he was done, he could see into the kitchen.

He went inside and lit a fire in the stove. He stood by it, warming his hands. He went upstairs, feeling the heat follow him toward the bedrooms. He left the doors to the bedrooms open a little, so that the heat could follow.

“I just can’t deal with it anymore,” Devon emailed me, as part of a long, hard email. “I don’t think we can be friends. I didn’t know what to say when you called me. I really was busy. I think it started during Michele’s treatment. I can’t believe you kept all these board games when the money could have been used to help Michele. She had cancer, man. It’s been making me angry for almost two years now.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I wrote back in desperate reply. “Why’d you send me emails every once in a while saying you’d just been busy when just ignoring me would finally have given me the cowardly hint? Couldn’t you man up instead?”

“I helped you and Michele through her cancer,” Devon wrote, “bringing food and everything. You owe us so much. How selfish are you? When Ali and I moved into the new house a year ago, you didn’t move the games out quickly. I asked you twice. I even had to take your punching bag back to you myself. That was a really hard time for me. I just threw up my hands.”

“You’ve made almost no effort to communicate with me for almost two years,” I wrote back. “And I thought I had the games out by the deadline you gave me. I didn’t even know there were problems between us. How was I supposed to? Do you think I’m psychic? How can I just know that someone has totally changed his mind? Why didn’t anyone tell me? Don’t I deserve at least that respect?”

“I’m sure we both did the best we could,” Devon emailed me. “Have a nice life.”

“The best we could? The best we fucking could? If that was the best you could do,” I emailed back, “you need to polish your best. And the best I could? How could I give my best when I didn’t even know what the work was?”

There was almost nothing left of the house. It couldn’t even hold the heat from the fire long enough to be worth it.

The man, his wife, their daughter, and their son were all near to freezing. There was no work, and there was no wood. Everyone else in the neighborhood was either in the same trouble or unwilling to make their lives harder still by helping.

“Dad?” the daughter said one day. “I hear the house creaking.”

Wind blew in from every wall. The man had tried to ignore it, but he could tell that the house was giving way. He started to cry, even in front of them all. He couldn’t help it. He wasn’t even a man. He knew he had no choice.

“Dad?” the son said. “Where are you going?”

“Are we going somewhere, dear?” his wife asked.

“Take… what you can,” the man said. “We’re going to live with my parents.”

They left the house just in time. Turning around in the snow, the four of them watched as the house collapsed. It happened in a great cracking rumble. Some neighbors poked their heads out of their windows to see what had happened. They wondered if the wood might be available to them.

When they reached his parents’ house, the man knocked on the door.

“Can we… stay with you… mom?”

The man’s mother gave him a big hug. He was much larger than her, but he seemed much smaller.

“Of course you can, dear. Let me fix you all something hot to eat.”

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Author: Amos Parker

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Filed under Creative nonfiction, Features, Fiction, Guest author, Writing

Starbucks: The third place

Dear readers, commentators, and friends,

I cannot begin to express my surprise and gratitude at the readership surge in this blog. I passed several important new-blog milestones Friday night, a claim followed by boring stats that you can skip past if not inerested: having more than a hundred visitors in one day and breaking a thousand views to the site total. Further, breaking one hundred in a day was itself a caveat: the highest day before had only seen ninety-seven viewers, and the day afterwards [sic] had seen just over sixty. Friday, though, I have one-hundred and sixteen views, followed by a Saturday of exactly one-hundred and sixteen views. Even on Sunday, with no new post for days and very little advertising from me, I reached what only a week ago would’ve been stupendous. Thank you, seriously, for supporting the effort.

I have spent so much more time developing this site than I thought I would, and I have so many plans now for the future, long before I ever thought that I would need them. Soon, though, you’ll see the first item on my to-do list, a Featured Fan story about Kate Barkhurst, an old friend from highschool and faithful Facebook friend. Thank you, everyone, and look forward to more stories from me, more guest posts, featured fans articles, and more… you know… as I get around to doing it.

My best,
Greg

**

They don’t understand, they haven’t listened to me. They called me arrogant. They’ve had all semester to see who I am, to see how I resent that label, and yet they called me arrogant. Not only said it, but spit it in my face, an accusation that seemed to say, “You can never succeed as a writer.” They read it, and they missed the point. All of them.

No, not all. There was Jenny. Jenny understood the torment of miscommunication; of course she knew what it was like to speak and yet not be heard. So sweet and so deep, she writes about moving from China to Boston as an experience of change, a flowing river of time and philosophy that soaks and bathes her mind. But writers as audience largely gloss over grammatical mistakes (as they should), and ink-on-paper doesn’t communicate in accents.

I think, and the other students notice it, too, that her writing is permeated by beauty over frustration. She writes so well, one might assume because of passion and integrity. But I have passion and integrity, too, and where does that get me? Labeled as arrogant is all, and alone. I suppose it’s about as lonely and isolating as not speaking the language of the land you’re in, but you hope in that other circumstance there remains the mysticism of discovery, or at least the obvious route of escape. For me there’s only years of letdowns, my adolescence into my waking life, of conversational successes mired by literary failures.

The cold wind of Boston winters blows through the Public Gardens and against my wool coat. I can feel its malevolence despite scientific objectivity having drowned out the world; the wind wants to bite my skin, wants to punish me for protecting myself from its harshness. Nature wants, like all life, love, to receive love as it exists, to receive without bending. My coat speaks for me my refusal of the unspoken request. My hands hide inside my pockets’ cashmere lining, helping the buttons to hold the coat in place. I had felt so sexy the day I bought this coat, had looked at myself in mirrors to memorize the way it weight and thickness complemented my girth rather than hid it, the day I thought there might be something to expensive designer labels after all. I remember the deflation upon coming home, of Sarah meh-ing her apathetic approval.

The wind cuts through my khakis instead since they’re exposed underneath the three-quarters coat. I’ve worn my Starbucks uniform to class for the last few weeks, thin-material long-sleeved block polo with dark khaki pants. Since money from Fidelity finally ran out and Sarah started asking me to pay her back for mostly legitimate expenses—to which I did not contributing but neither, really, did she—I had to get the job, and now I’m at class and at work, never at home. Sarah misses me, comes to Starbucks sometimes to sit with me, but I’ve had years to resent her attention, loath her presence. The absence of both in preference to her laptop drove me into romantic despair. World of Warcraft didn’t help on that topic, though it did relieve some of the years’ boredom.

The reading of my colleagues has broken my heart. I take criticism well—I write and people talk about the writing, and I love them for pointing out errors and paths I haven’t noticed—but like lay readers, my fellows decided to psychoanalyze me. They had done it before, when I wrote about my relationship with Sarah, talking about how sad I must be instead of the impact of the piece on the abstract reader and how that impact could be improved. The saying goes that these days everyone’s a critic, but that’s not quite the case in my experience; everyone is a psychologist, everyone thinks that they understand you by slapping their archetypes onto you, especially the ones who tell you (not ask you) not to judge. Not “Please don’t judge me until I’ve told you the whole story, or perhaps until you’ve researched it yourself,” but, “Don’t judge me, you don’t know me!” Of course, the latter ones are right; I don’t know them and never will.

I walk under the monument to ether, the world’s first anesthetic, used first at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846. “We have conquered pain,” it reads. If only the words spoke truth. The wind blows again, cuts again at my shins savagely like a rusted and knocked razor.

I want to speak with someone about the disappointment. No one thought the writing was poor; the professor spoke its praises in that regard. The students merely wanted to ask me who the fuck I thought I was, in the nicest phrasing possible. But on that ground, I thought the piece stated rather clearly exactly who I claim to be.

I can’t talk to Sarah about this. She’d listen, but she’s cold, lacking in empathy. Or she has empathy and doesn’t show it. In four years, or in six if I count our friendship, I haven’t figured out which is the case.

I could go to Starbucks. It’s almost on the way home, less than a block from Sarah’s Back Bay condo, but I opened this morning and sat at a table once I got off shift until I had to leave for school at five. I literally sat there all day, and now I’d go back to do what, to stew? After all, who would I talk to? I’ve been there three months, but I’m not really friends with anyone. I go to work, I do homework, I play World of Warcraft; that’s me condensed. And when I got home, what? Sarah will already have gone to bed, not that I’ve joined her in months, and I’d stay up all night—til four, maybe five, maybe six—playing World of Warcraft, trying not to talk on the microphone so that I can relish in secret human contact in my home.

The churches at Berkeley Street, the Lutheran one with the homeless person (gender unidentifiable; I default to male) in the wool coat that I pass every night as I sing along to my iPod, so separate from his condition and just as vague a character to him as he is to me—but I’m not listening to music tonight, fuming instead; tonight, for the first time, he watches me, but I don’t mind—and the other one with the largely ignored cement hole. Clarendon, the rundown yard with the painted-black metal staircase and the door to the garden. The Newbury Street sidewalks, bricks that speak of old money, the townhomes broken into condos that lament the money’s loss. The plasma screens, shining vibrant blues and greens off beige walls, reflected off faux crystal chandeliers except that one home with the library, the dusty old tomes and the ladder on the right side; their crystal shines legit, reflecting white light off white walls.

But I have a friend at Starbucks, Ashley. But not quite a friend. She’s attracted to me, she told me so. Why would I call her? For an ego fest, so I can gain some pride off of how attractive she finds me? I don’t think so. I told her that rainy day that she walked me to Emerson that I wouldn’t turn her into a ’50s cliché, some girl hanging onto a man who says he’ll leave his wife (girlfriend) but never will, and I won’t. We had sat on the steps outside the piano shop, and she had told me that she couldn’t play the piano—not well, anyway. She had looked at me and told me she liked me, confessionally. She waited, seeing what I would do with it. I watched the automatic piano play a tune, and then I rubbed my hand down her cheek and told her that I wouldn’t abuse her. There she is; she is there.

She won’t be, though: she told me that the schedule marked her off at eight and it’s almost ten. She’ll have gone home, have left for the day, and I’ll be just as alone and just as forlorn as I feel now.

Call Mani instead. Call Steve. Call Justin and Mom and Dad. Consider calling Allison, and really feel like an asshole. Resent the way Murphy’s law applies to people answering their phones when you actually need human connection.

“Hello?” she asks.

“Hi, Ashley. I’ve got a strange question for you.”

“Yes?”

“You wouldn’t happen to still be at Starbucks, would you? I mean, I know you’ve probably left for the day.”

“No, actually. I’m here.” A thrill hits my spine between the shoulders and shivers its way down, the thrill of success; necessity or fortune falling into place I can’t tell, but it doesn’t matter and this is what I wanted, what I needed, to cut short the onslaught of despair. “Someone didn’t show up for their shift, and I stayed late to cover.”

Pause. Blink. Consider.

“I need—” But do I really want to do this to her, to rely on her when I don’t know how things are going to go with Sarah, when I can’t even pin down my feelings for a girl I just met at work, not to mention the girl I’ve loved for four years? Do I really want to be that asshole?

“I need someone to talk to.”

“I’m here.” She laughs, and weight falls away.

“Do you have anywhere you need to be? Do you need to go home?”

“No, I’m here, and I can stay. You should come. I want to listen.”

I turned left and walked down Dartmouth to Boylston, along the broad brick pathway of the private school, across the tree-lined Commonwealth Mall, and passed they dying Newbury Street. If I had gone to Exeter, Sarah might have seen me and asked where I was going. No, I turned left, kicking a pebble in the process.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Brody: A moment in anarchy

“I feel guilty,” I said. We laid in her bed on those soft gray jersey-knit sheets, and I nestled my chin against my chest as I ran my right pinky through her straight dark-brown hair. It rested on her face, so soft and silky that it fell back in her face even when she habitually pulled it behind her ear. My finger brushed against her cheek, soft and glowing even in the artificial twilight of her room. “We got him together, but we leave him at my apartment all day. I’m here, and he’s locked in my room. You know Justin and Gabe aren’t letting him out.”

Her voice held a note of concern that didn’t match the gravity in my chest: “What do you want me to do? I’m allergic to him.” Her hand rested on her pillow. Christina looked at me, but I didn’t meet her eyes. Instead I watched my hand retrace the dark strands.

I lifted my chin so I could meet her gaze before replying, “Let me bring him over from time to time. Let him play in the back yard. That would help a lot.”

She sighed, having heard this request before. “I can’t do that. My roommates don’t want him in the house—”

“Just from one door to the other.”

“—and I don’t want his fur in my home. I itch and I can’t breathe.” Her eyes rolled away from mine.

I deflated. “If only Justin and Gabe would help me out like they promised they would before I agreed to take him.” I let out a frustrated breath, anger at the whole situation filling me up, tying knots in my back. “I’m trying to balance his discomfort and yours. You asked me to get him, remember?”

“That’s because they were going to take him to the shelter!” Her exclamation came out soft but firm; I could almost hear a groan behind it. “I didn’t know that I was allergic to him, and I still don’t want him put to sleep.” Her hand moved from the pillow to my unshaven cheek, warm and light against the week-growth of down.

“Well, I can’t keep him like this. I can’t keep him locked in my room while I spend my time here. He’d be better off at a shelter than locked in my cell of a bedroom.”

“You don’t believe that, do you?” she asked quickly. “They’d kill him!”

I closed my eyes, inhaled, and exhaled, confused about how to proceed. Brody, my five-month old German Shepherd, had come from Christina’s upstairs neighbors when his owner, some sorority girl, had graduated in December and decided she didn’t want to take him home. I had Brody for a month before we found out that he triggered Christina’s allergies, and I left him alone in my bedroom when I went to class or to her place. In his boredom, he had started to chew up my book collection. Since I was a liberal arts student, I treasured my books more than for their usefulness in class and resented that he saw them as toys.

These thoughts went through my head when I considered giving him up: fully grown and energetic, it seemed unlikely that he would get adopted, but I was ignorant of Waco’s demographic for dog adoption and could only picture some young family seeing him and thinking that he wasn’t right to have around children. I feared that nobody would take him, that he would die there. Also, I enjoyed his company when we were together; he would curl up next to me with his head on one of my thighs and sleep peacefully or jump his upper body into my lap to show me his puppy smile. Brody’s playful personality inspired me to leave the house when I would’ve otherwise played computer games or read for leisure, and I wanted to work out a way to spend more time with him rather than sacrifice his love for Christina’s.

“Well, I need to go to him now,” I sighed. “He’s been alone almost fourteen hours today. I’m tired of leaving him alone all the time; it makes me like a dick.”

“Alright, but I’ll miss you,” she answered. Christina reached out and took my hand, pressing it softly against the soft cotton between her breasts.

“Stay with me just a little longer, won’t you?”

A small smile bent my lips. I rolled my eyes. I agreed.

**

Four hours later, near three in the morning, I stumbled into my loft apartment. I had fallen asleep in Christina’s arms and had to drag myself out of her warmth, her soft bed, to come home to Brody. He’s lucky that necessity trumps preference in my book: I would’ve preferred to stay.

I thought I knew the layout of my apartment by heart even in the dark, but I knocked my right leg into the loveseat on my way to my room. The couch scraped across the polished concrete, making a racket that seemed ungodly loud in the early morning silence. As I cursed under my breath, I heard Brody put his front paws against the wood door of my bedroom, waiting for me.

After I opened the door, he pranced for my attention. Brody jumped on the bed and turned in circles, smiling. A white bookshelf that held my uncared for books stood behind him against the brick wall, inlaid with one square glass window; Brody’s reflection danced there.

A carcass of a book lay on my floor. Purple paper like skin tossed aside littered the floor, marking the carrion feast at the foot of the dark wood bookshelf that held my personal favorites. Brody had learned how to get under the sliding glass shelf doors.

Get him over here, I told myself. Smack him once so that he knows not to do it, but don’t make it a big deal. He’s chewed books before.

I put a stern expression on my face and snapped my right middle finger and thumb, pointing at the book afterwards. Brody stopped prancing. His ears dropped, his butt hit the bed. He looked away from me ashamed.

I snapped my fingers again, waiting for him to obey. He moved away from me on the bed, curling up in a far corner. He knew that what he had done would anger me and he had done it anyway. My shoulders tensed, and I felt an angry heat on my cheeks.

Get him over here, I thought, and smack him once. Don’t draw this out.

I sighed, closing my eyes and turning my head to the right, forcibly relaxing my shoulder. I could still feel tension in them as I looked over a Brody and grudgingly made my way over to him.

He cowered, sinking his head down as if he were a turtle and my pillow his shell. I grabbed his collar with my index and middle fingers on my right hand. I made to pull, and he bolted.

The collar twisted on my fingers, and the joints at their base popped. I instinctively yanked my hand back, which pulled him by his throat off the bed. Urine, in a shifting arc, left him and landed on my bed, on my pillow and comforter.

Surprised, I yanked him by his collar off the bed, and he fell on the concrete with a yelp as one of his legs slid out from under him. He tried to run, but he didn’t have his footing; he only managed to pop my fingers again as the collar twisted.

I drug him across the bedroom floor to the ruined book, Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy. I smacked Brody once on his right hind quarter. I expected that to be the end of it.

I yanked my hand back as if to strike him again. I tightened my body, knowing I didn’t want to. I turned to my bed and saw the small yellow pool sinking into the bedsheets. I thought of how frustrated I was with my roommates. I pictured Christina at her apartment, in her bed without me. With these supports knocked away, the weight of school and ownership collapsed.

My hand fell hard on Brody’s pelvis, and he howled. More urine escaped him, hitting the floor and scattering, smattering my khakis. I lifted my arm again and hit him solidly in the ribs. He yelped. He kicked against the ground, but his feet slipped in the puddle of urine and he fell to his stomach, pulling my left arm down with his collar. I struck his pelvis again. And again, and again. Brody didn’t howl anymore; he cried.

I heard Justin on the stairs, clunking heavily, metallic echoes. He opened the door to my room and grabbed my arm midthrust. How long had I been hitting Brody? Two minutes? Five, maybe, before Justin woke up and stopped me, screaming at me that I’d kill him, and a question, what the fuck I was doing.

“I can’t do this!” I shouted at him through tears as he forced me away from Brody. “I need help! You promised you would help!”

In a flat tone that showed him truly unimpressed, he said simply, “It’s your dog,” and walked out of the room.

**

I collected myself and wiped my face of tears. I threw a towel on the floor, changed my pants, and leashed Brody. In my shaken mind, I still wanted to take him outside, even if the purpose was no longer clear.

On the way out I grabbed my backpack, thinking maybe I would drive to Dallas. I radiated heat, even more than usual, and my mind fumed. Rather than to my car, I walked Brody to the apartment pool.

When I sat down on some steps outside the pool gate, Brody seemed genuinely unfazed by the incident. He nuzzled against my hand with his nose and sat down in the grass next to me. Maybe he could tell the crazy had left me. Maybe the isolation had driven him as crazy as me.

I wrote about betrayal. I wrote about how I had beaten Brody for things that were mostly my fault. I wrote about how I had never lost control of my emotions like that.

I wrote about expectations, about black and white morality how it applies to dogs: good, bad, no gray. He shouldn’t touch my books; he shouldn’t dig through the trash; he shouldn’t piss when I beat him. That is the amoral judgment.

I wrote about how I did it to him, how I had locked him in my bedroom without toys. I wrote about how Justin had been right. I wrote about betrayal through broken promises on his part, on our other roommates part. I wrote about responsibility, about our broken promises, mine and theirs.

I wrote, “As I see it, I have two choices: give him up (not preferred) or work out a deal with the roomies. I will talk with them before I surrender the dog. I am coming to love him.”

A few days later, I cried after handing him over to the SPCA. I lied to them, told them I had found him on the streets less than a week ago so that I could get out of owning him without having to pay a fee.

I remember feeling like a bastard. I remember the guilt.

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Author: Greg Freed

Pre-comments:

This is a conversation I had with @wattsnan_poetry about the piece via Twitter. I hope it’s easy enough to follow!

wattsnan_poetry OMG how horrible you were to that dog. I hope it wasn’t true. 😦
greg_freed it was true. i totally lost control. but its a story we need to reckon w/; to me this piece is connected to Garden and Controlling Passion.
wattsnan_poetry What kind of responses do you think you will get?
greg_freed i want people to talk about how much control they have over their emotions, pet ownership frustrations, etc.
wattsnan_poetry not with a dog 😦 actually, never…I think it’s the mom in me
wattsnan_poetry I have a dog..Joey/boarder collie-spitz. He chewed a $2000 Natuzi Chair when he was a puppy…
greg_freed the post may be dark but i still expect that it’s universal. it’s relies on whether readers will want to admit that they’ve been there, too.
wattsnan_poetry Mom’s may think it…but we also understand that children, and pets are reactive to the situations we put them in…
greg_freed one of the best stories i’ve heard at a public reading was from a mom talking about almost but not hitting her kid, similar to this post.
wattsnan_poetry I get the loosing your temper…I remember sleep deprivation when the kids were babies…
greg_freed i tried to imply that he had chewed books before but not bothered me, that it was a collision of factors, not just the book, that snapped me
wattsnan_poetry I don’t think you get that you treated the dog badly from the beginning…Couped up in your room for 18 hours?
wattsnan_poetry I can’t believe he didn’t pee all over the place…
greg_freed i opened the piece arguing with christina about treating him poorly, and i argued with myself about how to discipline him ‘cuz i knew
wattsnan_poetry you shouldn’t have disciplined him…you should have disciplined yourself…that’s what you don’t get…
wattsnan_poetry As long as you know the poor dog did nothing wrong at any point…Don’t have kids any time soon
greg_freed i get it. that’s why a statement of guilt opens and closes the piece. in the moment i got it, too, but i was confused. guess it didn’t work.

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