One of the things I mean when I say I could be wrong is that it was my mother, most likely, who told me to shit or get off the pot. This would have been at the dinner table. I was probably withdrawing chips of cereal from the box and eating them one by one with my fingers.
My family: here they come for the last time if I can help it. Mother, father, sister--all of them big-boned, robustly depressed, full of soft spots and unavailing clarities when it came to me.
It was for their privacy that I took a job passing out perfume samples on the main floor at Brach's. It was a woman's fragrance. I splurged it onto my forearms and pressed the sample cards, matchbook-sized with a tiny capsule slotted inside, on men and women alike. I would watch them descend the slope of the escalator. When they stepped within the radius of my arms, the doubts would start: hadn't I already urged a sample on this person or that one? Everybody started looking suspiciously unfamiliar. Now and then the supervisor would surprise me from behind and pat some more posture onto my shoulders or splay a hand into the gutter of my lower spine.
When the summer was through, I set out for the cinder-block acropolis of the state-university system. My roommate's cousin lived a couple of floors down from us in the dorm and had his own refrigerator. He came from the coal region and called pens "link pens." By the end of the first week, I made up my mind to spend money on him. In the gloom of a movie house, I slid my hand onto his and forked our fingers together. At the sink in the restroom afterward, I gave him the deciding kiss. I kept expecting to get smacked silly. In bed, everything was up to me and happened in the order I wanted it.
We read my roommate's fat, possessive diary every afternoon without ever once finding ourselves anywhere in the wrap-ups. One day we slipped out of our housing contracts, took an efficiency apartment off campus. We started disinvolving ourselves from our classes more ambitiously. Once or twice a week we rode a bus to the closest city, a low-rise hub with a couple of perishing business streets. We ate at a department-store coffee shop, strode up and down escalators, tried things on each other in fitting rooms. Sometimes I could get him to piss delicately onto the more expensive clothes. I liked the shreesb that abruptly parted hangers made when I returned everything to the racks.
There were nights I could not keep him away from overdue homework--accounting, mostly: ledger sheets, a plug-in calculator with squarish raspberry digits, knife-sharpened pencils. On the floor, with an open textbook of my own ramped up onto my knees, I'd slick flesh-colored polish onto my fingernails and study a chapter--the look, the shape, of it: the sometimes stepwise progression down the page that chocks of white space made wherever paragraphs came to a halt.
One afternoon in the Old Main concourse I saw him sitting on one of the long itchy sofas. There was a girl beside him, a tall leg-crosser with a haphazardry of oranged hair. They had notebooks open on their laps and were contentedly, curricularly, sifting through stacks of index cards. I started going to the city on my own. In a bar a businessman chuffed commandingly to my side, led me to a table, bought me a big late lunch. He drove me to an office trailer at a construction site, unlocked the door.
It was through this man that I soon fell in with some damselly boys, maidens, a few years older than I. There were too many of us for the one bed, so some of us slept on the floor, on throw rugs, or with the rugs as blankets. We flavored our bath water with things from the kitchen--fruit syrups, sometimes just soda. The one whose apartment it was, my host, got a summons for Jury duty in a special mailer he had to tear open by grasping the thing at both ends and then pulling, the way you do with certain disappointing party explosives. We took turns going over the letter he wrote to get out of going. That day, he looked baffled for his age, indifferently shaved. He had gone after his hair with a blue plastic kiddie scissors, mincing it up in employment-defying ways. He was the most befucked of us, the first to start filling out. I was the one who finally mailed the letter.
He made us all go to his parents' anniversary party. His older brother was there, under a tarp, with his leg in a cast, and I was expected to write something on it. A pen, a porous-point marker, was volunteered into my hand. I had no problem getting down on the patio floor. The front part of the cast was so oversubscribed, there were regions along the slight curve above the knee that were already palimpsestic. I read from the bottom up. None of the names were ones I could put faces to. There were lots of looping longhand endorsements from women who had old names with fresh spellings: Lynnda is one I remember.
I looked at the line of downcurved toes in their cut-out wiggle room. There was a tuft of black hairs on each of the toe-knuckles. The nails were dull ovals.
"Bashful?" the brother's brother--my protector--said.
I finally signed "SMTWTFS," like on the calendar, which is what I usually did when a name got called for on a petition or guest register. The general principle, I guess, was that days were yet to come, big fat days flying in your face. The one girl I danced with turned out to be the sister. She had swimmy eyes and flat hair and a raisinlike mole on her left cheek. Her arms were long, thin, string-colored. She kept wheeling the conversation around to her parents and brothers. "You picked the wrong one of us to rub off on you," she said.
In her room upstairs, she had to finish most of my sentences for me. She said it was obvious I had not had my heart bounced around nearly enough. There was a pitcher of colored liquid on her nightstand, and I watched her tilt out cupful after cupful. She drank tediously, dragging it out.
When the time came, she was good at taking the light away from everything it was intended to get thrown on.
The only one who could give me a lift into town afterward was a friend of the family's I had not been introduced to. He was Just barely in the age range, but he had the physique. I agreed with everything he said--that too much happens when people do not get shot and killed, that there were bound to be more at home like me, that things happening over and above did not necessarily ever make it down to the street, and that it was a wonder more people didn't do what he did, which was to recite the dinner order into the drive-though microphone, drive around the building to the pick-up window, hand over the exact amount, reach for the bag, then park the car, carry the food into the restaurant, and eat it at a booth, where you had secrecy.
"That way, nobody sees you asking for it," he said.
We were stuck behind a truck with a sign on the back that read: "THIS VEHICLE STOPS OFTEN."
"Turn here?" he said, motioning toward the windshield.
My hand was already on his upper arm. It was one more thing in the world my hand could fit around without ever once actually having to hold.
copyright 1995 by Gary Lutz; appeared originally in The Quarterly