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An Incredible Journey to the South - A Home away from Home
5:00 in the morning, it’s finally time for my mom and I to depart and embark on the grand expedition to Alabama. At long last—after knowing Andrew [Gilbert] for almost 2 years through the internet, Aaron [Bonner] through Andrew about six months, Molly [Green] and Tessa [Hawkins] through Andrew a year, and Jake [Clough, pronounced Cluff] through Andrew for just four months—I was finally going to be able to be face-to-face (although, perhaps not quite face-to-face, as he stood slightly taller than I at 5’11, whereas I stood at a somewhat short 5’8) with Andrew’s icy, almost deep-aquamarine blue eyes, look at his enigmatically puffy, almost gravity-defying and perfect dirty blond hair that had copious curls, perhaps even touch it to unravel the mystery of hair it managed to stay up without drooping in front of his face, and just be around him like most of his other friends were able to be, nearly every day; I’d dreamt of the time when our meeting (which now became with several others as time passed from meeting Andrew online) would finally transpire. The whole week before Thursday came, everything else paled in comparison to the thoughts, images, and feelings, of exiting the norms of Michigan life, and journeying through the states and the country, after not having been on vacation or even leaving the state in nearly five years. Our initial plan was to run our array of errands the whole day, sleep until about 2 A.M., Friday, get up and pack, and leave by around 3—as usual with my mom, that didn’t happen, as her proclivity to double-check every appliance, light, and room, took around fifteen minutes for each of the aforementioned. The car and our luggage were packed—brimming, almost; the dog was nestled on his special sleeping bag that was necessary to ensure he’d remain relatively calm during the voyage, traversing the concrete; and our not-so-trusty GPS that we’d been “borrowing” from my aunt was programmed with the hotel’s address. Eleven hours of driving, or so we thought, were ahead of us. Part of our plan, too, was to drive all those hours without staying anywhere for the night, eleven straight hours of driving, when neither of us was able to get much sleep, because of excitement and anticipation for myself—slight anxiety too, as I wanted to make the most of this illustrious birthday present, a raging migraine for my mom.
For most of the driving, I was rather calm externally, but worry and euphoria alike were vehemently colliding inside me as I routinely gazed out the passenger window—as I do during a car ride of any length and duration. As promised to Aaron, I took pictures of anything remotely scenic as we began to pass through the smoggy city of Detroit, where roads and bridges and highways were tortuously interwoven almost. This was our GPS’s first major trial, as we’d have certainly gotten lost in the Motor City if it weren’t for whom my came to name, “Lola.”
After about a good hour of cruising through highways and expressways, Ohio welcomed us; the transition was quite smooth… literally; the coarse and bumpy roads instantly became flatter and more refined. Having gone through Ohio a few times before to vacation at Cedar Point in Sandusky, I knew there was only one thing the people of Ohio must have considered to be an attraction and scenery to travelers: corn, acres of corn. There was little to document or take pictures of to share with Aaron as it was a good two to three hours until we were approaching Cincinnati, meaning we’d hit the bottom of Ohio, and were ready to cross over into Kentucky; this time things became rocky almost instantly, as stone walls and mountains suddenly circumscribed us. A third of our trip was about over.
Waffle House was a restaurant that was not commonplace—perhaps nonexistent—in Michigan, and as Molly and Jake and I had planned, we said we’d eat there, once I had arrived; with every exit sign I had seen that showed what restaurants were off those exits, there must have been a Waffle House on each of those signs we passed as we wound through Kentucky.
I’d tried to snap some shots of the stalactites that had formed off the edges of the rock walls, but texting other friends as I kept them up to date on my trip had swiftly drained my battery to critical status where the camera function was disabled. I grimaced a bit to myself as I was unable to update him with photos any longer; Andrew didn’t directly ask for pictures as we were driving, but I still stayed in touch with him, trying to discuss what we’d do first once I’d gotten there. While that didn’t get very far, it would have been for naught anyway, as a few things did not go quite according to plan.
My phone died and I was left with little to do other than to muse among myself. Of course, we had to make stops for gas and let the dog out for an amiable stroll and bathroom break; each time we’d stopped (for food, too), it felt there was too little going on, and my conscience was the most vulnerable to stealthy and insidious attacks.
The whole time, my mom procrastinated reserving the room we had our eyes on at the hotel in Huntsville—I’d brought my laptop with me, but neither of us thought about utilizing the free wifi at places like McDonald’s to make our reservation while we were out. And after nearly three more hours, we meandered our way into Tennessee.
Things were becoming rocky now in a metaphorical sense, as fatigue began affecting my mom and her mood; she’d already told me I wasn’t allowed to fall asleep at all on the way there, but her ways became somewhat arbitrary as she began to take her lack of sleep out on me. Both of us were growing tired of the mild monotonous driving handed to us. Just when it paradoxically seemed all was well and at the same time cacophonous, we’d realized there was one thing about our trip we hadn’t experienced yet that we were about to: traffic jams; ahead of us we saw a foreboding trail of brake lights as we both looked to each other which mutually said, “We’re not going to get there by the time they’re out of school.”
We crept along the expressway as the lights were alternating between off and on. Our slow-motion progress had gotten the dog restless—the squeaky whining of his that we’d always loathed ensued, only piling on to our woeful travel.
Forty-five minutes of slinking at six miles per hour instead of sixty miles per hour, and we were finally free; turned out that it was everybody’s inability to merge into another lane at the proper time caused traffic to essentially come to a hellish halt. At this point, we were only half way through Tennessee, too. Everyone was getting out of school at this point … and there was another two hours to go, according to our GPS. Again, another thing was soon not going to go as planned: neither of us had factored in the part where we had to venture into the Central time zone; but it turns out that “Lola” had.
It was starting to get dark [again], as we crossed over into the Central time zone at last. We thought we were beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel as we also thought we were nearing the bottom of Tennessee. But sadly our relief turned to dismay—when the clock in the car auto-adjusted the time, and it was getting close to our projected time of arrival, we hadn’t seen Alabama welcome us yet. I tried to placate my mom’s spiked rage when we finally realized that Lola factored in the time zone shift, whereas we did not, but to no avail, it was counterproductive, in fact.
It must have been almost six P.M. by now, and my phone had no way of charging in the car; everyone must have been wondering where I was and what happened; I imagined all the missed calls and texts I must have gotten and would receive, knowing there was at least a good hour ahead of us, now.
My mom’s lethargy was certainly getting to her – I say certainly because she was both verbally and nonverbally reminding me whenever the opportunity arose. It was just past 6:30 until we finally crossed over into Alabama—our trip was nearly over, already having taken two hours longer than anticipated. The miles we had to go until our next set of instructions never seemed to end, the same with the number of steps left until we reached our destination.
Alabama was not what I had expected, most of what we were able to see, due to the lack of lights, was back country and vacant, worn-looking land, adorned with raggedy, ran-down shops and gas stations whose names we’d never heard of. Finally, we saw a sign that read Huntsville, Alabama, yet that did not deter the impatience that was encumbering my mom. Now, surely I had grown quite impatient, too, but I was more concerned with the fact that the last time I’d talked to everyone, I said I was going to be there by five at the latest – it was nearly seven; we still hadn’t reserved our room, either.
The flag marking our endpoint was finally visible on the GPS screen. I clamored in jubilance, while my mom sighed deeply in relief. We kept a sharp eye out for the hotel, and at long last we found the towering sign that read, “Microtel.”
Right away, I rushed inside with my laptop to make a reservation online, since it was cheaper that way. My foot was fluttering furiously as I waited for it to start up and open the internet. I typed in all the information needed to yield the result I’d found before with dutiful dexterity, only to see that the room we had in mind read, “Not available,” in thin, red letters. I bolted outside to divulge the news to my mom, seeing her relief transition into thunderous fury; I grabbed the dog’s leash as she angrily stamped into the hotel lobby. She rang the bell for service and an average-heighted young woman whose name tag said, “Jennifer,” emerged from the room behind the counter—it was the same person who took my mom’s call when we inquired about the room the day before we left, but were told to call back about reserving it at a later time, which my mom never did. She might as well have had wings and a halo above her head, because when we told her about our conundrum, she told us that they had reserved the room for us anyway. I could hear a chorus of Hallelujah as the proverbial fog lifted; it wasn’t the lower online price, but Luck was certainly a lady tonight, nevertheless, seeing as we would have had to book a suite for more than twice the price.
We began transporting everything from the car to our room—not-so-conveniently on the third floor—but thankfully our room was straight ahead when we got off the elevator; the whole time one of us had to either watch or bring the dog with us, because as we feared, leaving him alone resulted in an incessant amount of not barks, but screeches. I was in a frenzied rush to find the power outlet in the room to plug in my phone and check my messages. Before my messages were even received, due to my phone being off while they were sent by everyone, I texted everyone, alerting them that we had finally arrived and that we were alright, thinking they were likely worried about us; everyone asked where I was and inquired about what had happened, I had also seen what everyone speculated about as to our whereabouts and what could have happened when I checked Twitter on my computer, rather humorous that turned out to be—Molly and Tessa both guessed that we stopped at a Cracker Barrel, it was held up, and subsequently we were shot. It sounded rather grim, but when I saw them tweet that, I chuckled to myself a bit in front of my screen. Jake scolded them for being negative Nancys, and Aaron said he inquired about us at the hotel, asking for our names.
The first thing we were to do once I finally arrived, even though it was supposed to be around four, not seven, was to play a long-awaited game of Know Ya Boo with Molly, Tessa, and Andrew as my partner. Know Ya Boo is essentially a spinoff of the Newlywed Game, where the teams’ contestants are asked questions about their spouse, and try to answer them correctly to see how well they really know each other; the only difference is that it’s with friends, rather than with lovers. Although, Tessa, being the eloquent darling she is, did once say this to Molly in the form of a tweet, “I am extravagantly gay for you.” She may have been facetious, but nonetheless, the two are inseparable as friends, much like how it is between Andrew and myself—only that we express our affectionate sentiments to one another a bit differently, to point out one difference. However, Molly called me after I checked my messages to tell me that she had waited at the hotel, along with Tessa, for us for maybe a good hour, and left around six after not hearing from me; it was also too late for Andrew to join us for our scheduled game, so I suppose it wasn’t quite meant to be. She then asked if I wanted to do something with her that night, she said she could either show me around, or we could catch a movie, or both. It seemed there was a silver lining to the cloud that covered my sun that day, as I happily agreed to go with her. I had decided she’d just show me around Huntsville, as the only movie playing of interest to the both of us was Les Miserables, a movie a bit too long, especially when its showing time was at 10:10.
Within about fifteen minutes, she texted me telling me she’d be waiting in the lobby, so I reassured my mom multiple times that I’d be safe when driving with her, and that I’d be back by around 11:00 … about two hours from then.
I sauntered my way out of the room and into the elevator, continuing to saunter as I exited the elevator and walked toward Molly, who was reading the hotel’s Bible in one of the chairs. We both smiled at each other casually—not awkwardly, as I had thought it was going to be, seeing each other in person for the first time—as Molly pointed out the irony in reading the Bible when she wasn’t even religious. I’d only heard her voice two times before now; and it sounded different than it did on the phone, but it was one of the things I was looking forward to the most about meeting everyone, so hearing her just ask me if I was ready to go elated me and caused me to involuntarily beam. Molly said nothing. I think she realized why I was smiling and let me revel in the moment as we walked out to her car.
“Do you wanna get something to eat?” she asked in a rollercoaster-like fashion, shifting the pitch of her tone throughout her question.
Thinking about it for only a second, remembering the last thing I had was McDonald’s in Tennessee, “Sure!” I acquiesced.
Molly asked what I wanted to eat once we got in her car; I briefly recollected that there was a KFC nearby the hotel, and while she was planning on showing me around, I didn’t want her to have to make too many detours—so I told her KFC would work just fine.
I was somewhat nervous as she started up the car and was about to drive off – Molly turned 16 in May of 2012, so she’d somewhat recently gotten her license, my mom was quite unsure about letting me drive with her because of this, and after mostly only driving with my aunt besides my mom—who’s someone that tailgates, stops at the last second, and floors the gas the second the car in front of her starts moving—I usually held on for dear life when getting into the car with anyone other than my mom since then. Despite my paranoia, though, she did everything a good driver was supposed to do; she looked around everywhere before exiting the hotel parking lot; she kept a good car’s length between her and the car in front of her; and she applied the brakes at a consistent pace when it came time to slow down. I had to admit: I was rather impressed.
It was somewhat past 9:00, now, and we tried going in to eat once we arrived at KFC, but it was already closed, so we hopped back in the car and went through the drive-thru.
“What do you want?” she asked, giving me an inquisitive look.
“Oh! Yeah… um, I’ll have the chicken strip meal with potato wedges and a Pepsi,” I told her, completely aloof to the fact she didn’t know my usual order at KFC; I turned over to face the window and bonked my forehead lightly as Molly giggled. She placed the order, I gave her the money to hand to the person at the window, and I took my food and change from her.
“Damn,” I just said, expecting Molly to know what I meant by uttering that one word.
“What?” she beckoned for explanation.
“Oh, it’s just that you did all of that like such an adult… the way you handled that. I’d have been a bit of a stammering, misspoken mess, probably,” I complimented casually and somewhat humbly. I always gave unusual compliments others were not used to receiving, aside from me wording them in a verbose fashion, as well.
Molly looked unsure as to how she should respond, likely thinking of a way to reciprocate the fashion I’d spoken to her in, and simply said, “Well, thank you!” with an elated expression.
Despite how hot the box of food felt on my lap, my hunger took over and pried it open; the heavenly aroma of chicken and potatoes filled the air in the car.
“That smells so good,” Molly envied, taking a deep whiff. I offered her a potato wedge, but she respectfully declined. I began to indulge in my meal as the tour of Huntsville (hopefully some other, more lively parts of it), had begun.
“So, what do you want to see first?” she asked, looking to me.
“You mentioned something about a park earlier, can we go there?” I politely asked, likely being more formal than need be. This was true—Molly did mention a park whose name continues to escape me even now; she told us we could go walking around there, ambient strolls were something I’d never cease to find enjoyment in, no matter who they were with.
We crossed through an intricate structure of layered roads that could best be called an expressway… just a small one, though. Molly expressed her disdain for these because of how confusing they can be, as well as the fact they turn people into idiots on the road. While I wasn’t as familiar with them, they did give me a slight uneasiness riding through them; within several minutes, we were cruising through downtown Huntsville, a place planted with large buildings, strewn with bright lights, and filled with a serene sense of home – it was quite similar looking to downtown Mount Clemens. Having a touch of home among the contrasting atmosphere of home was another nice thing about visiting.
“Welcome to downtown Huntsville,” Molly announced to me. There was much to look at, from the buildings, to the people, to the other cars around the corner of each building.
“You seem to like the sights,” she noticed.
“Observing is one of my favorite things to do,” I said, “Especially when there’s so much to look at and take in.”
Without even noticing at first, we’d stopped, meaning we must have arrived at the park Molly spoke of.
“We’re here,” she notified me, breaking my transfixion with the city bustle. I hadn’t even eaten much of my food from being so preoccupied with looking around. We got out of the car as she locked it up and I felt the nighttime but soothing Alabama breeze hit my gray jacket. The temperature difference wasn’t as significant as I had expected—it was only ten degrees warmer than it was in Michigan, but it was enough to unfreeze my feet, after getting snow in my shoes before leaving from my house and never really recovering from it.
We began walking across the grass, making our way to the actual park area, which had fountains and bunches of benches, as well as a bridge that could be walked under.
“I had to tell my mom you were essentially gay, therefore harmless, to be able to hang out with you tonight,” Molly confessed. I contained myself from bursting out laughing as I tried to respond to that, already knowing what to say.
“You wouldn’t be the first or even second person who’s had to do that to make me seem innocuous enough to be around,” I rolled off in between my laughing.
“Yeah, but there’s not really any kind of story behind that—pretty self-explanatory,” I told her, somewhat faking a laugh.
“It’s funny,” Molly started, “because Tessa’s mom doesn’t allow us to hang out anymore because she thinks we’re gay for each other; and we may call each other ‘heterosexual life partners,’ but that’s the greatest extent to which we’ll profess our love for one another.” I gave her a somewhat incredulous look, but after I thought about it hard enough, I changed that look to one that said, “Sorry about that, but at least you’ve got someone you’re that good of friends with.”
Since we were on the subject of best friends, I brought up Andrew to her; her response to my conversation-starter was different than I had anticipated. She immediately began talking.
We reminisced upon how we both met Andrew and our first experiences and interactions with him—I’d met him on the popular “blogging” site called Tumblr. It was when I first started out on there. On a random whim, I checked out a new follower’s blog, looked at the list of people they were following, looked at all their icons, and I laid eyes upon his and thought to myself, “Gee, he looks like a cool guy; I’ll follow him.” After a quick glance at his blog, I enthusiastically clicked follow. (Reflecting upon this decision now, I realized my terrible taste in humor, and also, that if I were to have done the same a year later, and his blog still contained the same material, I certainly would not have clicked follow, my future would have diverted down a path unfathomably different; he was one of my first ever friends from the internet.)
Molly and Andrew’s friendship was somewhat complicated. They’d met through Tessa, essentially. To digress briefly, Tessa and Andrew had dated for about six months, and before they officially went through with it—after weeks of them being aware they had mutual feelings for each other—Molly had jeered him into asking her out eventually. While the iron was hot during that critical period, Molly used the choice phrase, “S***, or get off the pot.” Perhaps Molly felt somewhat obligated as Tessa’s best friend to have some liking to Andrew, especially when he became her boyfriend, but the two were alike in ways I saw that neither of them may have seen.
Then, we discussed the history and current status of our friendship with him; I expressed my guilt and regret for being too sentimental and mushy with him too often, as he didn’t reciprocate that often, not being in his character to do so. Molly told me she knew this about him just shortly after she met him, and therefore kept herself at a moderate emotional distance from him.
We passed by a pond populated with geese and speckled ducks.
“It’s nice to see a body of water that’s not completely frozen over,” I somewhat said to myself, rather than Molly; but I had said it loud enough for her to have heard it.
“Yeah,” she responded to my partially rhetorical statement, “this is about as cold as it gets around here.”
I sighed, gazing at the ducks and geese jumping into, flying into, and skimming the pond. They were so aloof and carefree—the same blissful ignorance that once governed and dictated my life without me knowing of it … as ignorance tends to go. Perhaps it was apples and oranges as I thought about this whilst watching animals, rather than children, but when I thought about it… our minds and mentality may have been as supple and malleable as that of a full-grown animal, even. The whole time I was lost in thought, looking into the rippling water, Molly had to wave her hand in front of my face just to snap me out of it. I apologized for the delay, and we continued on under the bridge. I spoke nothing of what I was thinking to her.
“Here’s a thought-provoking question: now that we’ve spent some time together in person and everything, what do you really think of me?” I probed.
Molly hadn’t hesitated for a second before she responded.
“Well, it hasn’t really been that long, and I don’t draw too many opinions and/or conclusions right away; I don’t really believe much in first impressions, given many factors I’m sure you’re aware of,” Molly cohesively answered. Impressed and satisfied, I nodded my head, telling her I was the same way and that I liked that.
“In all truth, I was terrified of this long-awaited meeting with all of you. But, really, this has felt so natural and like you were just any friend from Michigan,” I energetically told her.
“I know!” Molly concurred. I was elated that she thought the same.
So involved in each other’s company and conversation, we’d gotten a bit far away from our point of disembarking, and had to find our way back before it got too late. Surprisingly, it was only somewhat after 10:00.
I gnawed on more of my food that had become a little cold as Molly drove off, seeming to know where she was going.
Although I’d already seen it, I still looked off into the city as we exited it and made our way back to the confusing arrangement of highway roads. Molly drove us to their high school, which had a bit of a resemblance to mine; it was somewhat out of the way, and by then it was about time to head back to the hotel. She talked about the rivalry between their school and another, called Hazel Green, making defamatory but joking remarks about their sports teams and students—she atoned for what she said, even though they were jokes as I could tell, by pointing out the flaws of their school sports teams and student body, haughtily putting herself up on a pedestal as superior to most of her fellow classmates. While some may have thought it utterly vain of her to do that, I found it rather humorous. I thought about the fact I’d only been in school for two days before being placed on homebound services, and then enrolled in online classes, how I hadn’t seen most of my friends that I mostly only see around school, how I didn’t observe the others I passed in the halls as I usually did, and how I didn’t even go to my school’s homecoming game like I routinely did, even though I’m not a fan of most sports, or football. I don’t think Molly had noticed how lost in thought I was, as for some reason I kept quiet; although I would have felt comfortable sharing these unusual and stimulating thoughts with her.
It was ten minutes after 11:00 by the time we made it back. I thanked Molly for the interesting tour of Huntsville, the good conversation, and I commended her on her superb driving skills for her age. She thanked me for my compliment, told me she had a nice time as well, and we wished each other goodnight as I got out of her car and happily strolled back into the hotel.
I let my jovial aura fill the lobby as I greeted the desk clerk without them saying hello to me. I got into the elevator, and my index finger danced in midair as it flew into the third floor button; I got out and walked almost straight ahead past the snack machine to knock gently on our hotel room door, my mom let me in and the first thing I told her was that Molly was an excellent driver and I came back in one, unscathed piece. It seemed she’d gotten out of bed to let me in, so I saved the rest of the regaling until the next day; but I didn’t go to sleep just yet—I spent some time on my laptop, making a tweet, telling everyone what a lovely first day I had in Alabama, thanks to Molly. Then, I spent some time on Tumblr, but held off really making any sort of post just yet, only making a post announcing it was technically my birthday by the time it was midnight.
Amazingly, after not sleeping in over 30 hours, seeing as I got no sleep prior to leaving for Alabama on Thursday, I only slept till about 10:00. I texted Andrew to ask him what time I could meet him up at Ole’ Hickory, the barbecue restaurant he’d told me about that he said we could go to. He said within the next hour, so I reached over and woke my mom up (the cheapest room only came with a single bed; seeing as we’re both bed hogs, the somewhat un-comfy sleep is what likely led to me waking up at a not-to-obscene time) and immediately changed clothes and brushed my teeth, somewhat rushing my mom. In the midst of getting ready to rendezvous with Andrew at long last, he texted me again, asking me to let him know when we were leaving, I replied, and resumed my procedure.
Within the hour, we’d somehow managed to both be ready to go by a little before 11:00. After I acquired the address from Andrew, we grabbed Lola, I grabbed my wallet and phone, and my mom grabbed the dog, then we were off!
Everything in this unfamiliar territory was much easier for us both to navigate, now that it was daytime. Our estimated time of arrival was about fifteen minutes, I texted Andrew to let him know we were on our way. My heart was pounding through my chest with excitement; my fear had dissipated; the grandest of meetings was about to become a reality, after weeks of planning, and months of knowing each other, dreaming of the day when we’d come face-to-face—it was finally going to happen.
It was the last turn we had to make according to Lola, and Andrew had just texted me saying he was waiting outside. We were approaching a bit of a shack-looking place that read, “Ole Hickory” on its broadside.
As we were about to pull in its parking lot, I saw someone sitting on one of its outdoor tables – besides using pure logic, without even noticing it, I said to myself aloud, “That’s him.” The whole time he was looking into the car and must have seen me; I had to program the GPS to take her back to the hotel, so I hit the “go home” button, and told her I’d call her later. (Little did I know, that wasn’t how to get her back to the hotel.)
I turned around and faced Andrew with an ecstatic grin, inexplicably happy to finally see him. We simultaneously said hi to each other as we both walked into Ole’ Hickory. His dad was there waiting for an order; his parents—especially his mom—weren’t really aware of or would be keen with the fact that Andrew had met me online, therefore didn’t know him in person the whole time—he wasn’t even supposed to have given me his phone number; I’d felt somewhat nervous in his presence, but Andrew had told me before that his dad is at least moderately cool. I stood adjacent to Andrew and diagonal from his dad as we waited for his order. My right leg was quaking somewhat, as I disliked standing still enough as it is, but I was both in Andrew’s and his dad’s presence—I didn’t know what to say or do; I just tried to avoid much eye contact for now and remained quiet, only planning on speaking once spoken to.
Within a couple of minutes, a lady emerged from the kitchen area with some food and called out with a mild Southern drawl, “Mr. Gilbert?” Andrew’s dad signaled to her and she handed him his doggy bag.
“Y’all have a nice day, now,” she said with a sincere smile. Andrew’s dad talked quietly to him for a moment and left, driving off in a forest green 1990’s Ford Taurus.
I took us a few moments to realize there was nobody ahead of us in line until the lady behind the counter beckoned us. Their menus were right there on the counter; they were plain, mostly just listing their options by the typical categories: appetizers, sandwiches, sides, main dishes; but they had a few cartoonish pictures of chickens and cows on them. The roast chicken on the main dishes caught my eye with its enticing description, paraphrased, of course: “Smoke-grilled chicken leg, seasoned with special herbs and spices, served with special sauce.” I could eat chicken in any form essentially, but this sounded quite different from anything I’d ever tried, and as my tendencies always went, I had to have French fries on the side.
We looked up almost at the same time as we were ready to order, we smiled softly, and Andrew ordered first; he ordered a pulled pork sandwich, with fries on the side, and sweet tea to drink. I never would have guessed him to be a tea person—I was not, sadly; nor did I like coffee. People have questioned—myself included—if I even have a soul or am human because of this. I got the usual Coke.
Andrew picked out a table by the window and we both sat down. At first, we didn’t say much, I guess it wasn’t a bad thing, seeing that we had our mouths full for the most part. We were both stuffing our faces with our food, I had to blot the gobs of grease that were on my chicken before I feasted on it, but once I’d taken the first bite, it had a tantalizing, spicy, almost sweet taste to it; if this were what most Southern cuisine was like, I was already heavily satisfied.
Dear Emerson had texted me while we were eating to ask if I was with Andrew, in all caps. I replied with a “YES I AM,” having my finger dance across each key on the screen—I might as well have been belting out a ballad and have small tweeting birds flying around me with how joyously I replied to her message; within seconds, she texted me again saying, “PICTURES PLS.” I shared what she said with Andrew and I showed him my camera, nonverbally asking him if he wanted to take a picture together when we were done eating.
“Sure,” he said in a garbled voice, his mouth brimming with pulled pork. I told Emerson she’d have her picture shortly.
A few minutes later, my phone rang quite loudly, but went unnoticed by others among the raucous chatter throughout the tables—it was my mom. I wasn’t sure what she could be calling for, I answered it with a speculative expression on my face as I said hello.
“Justin,” she forebodingly addressed.
“… Yes?” I responded, my eyes quickly scrolling side to side.
“The ‘go home’ button didn’t take me back to the hotel; I’m back in Tennessee, and I am not happy,” she said with an indignant tone.
My pupils essentially fell to the bottom of my eyes as the only thing I could gather to say was, “… Oops.”
“Yeah, oops is right, Just,” my mom prodded.
I apologized and told her the address to the hotel should and surely was under the “recently found” option on the GPS. I told her we were playing by ear on what we were going to do next until it was 5:00, the time Aaron said the party for me would begin; Jake was coming to the party too. Andrew must have been listening while he was eating, because after I got off the phone, he spoke up and said, “I was thinking we could go to Lowe Mill. It’s that one run down warehouse that got turned into a mall basically I think I told you about.” My memory was instantly jogged as an aha moment popped up in my eyes.
“Sounds good,” I happily obliged.
As usual when I went out to eat, my stomach tried fighting me the whole time, but I’d managed to eat all of my food and not take a year doing so, with the help of drinking an excessive amount of Coke. When we finished up, I called my mom and asked her to come pick us up in a placating tone, she sounded much calmer than she did earlier.
Andrew grabbed his backpack and we threw our scraps away, heading outside and staking out on one of the picnic tables. We sat side by side and I fanned out my feet, the heels of my black Vans slip-ons still touching; at first we didn’t say much, even though we both knew it would be some time before my mom came to pick us up, seeing as she had to make her way back into Alabama.
“You’re probably used to this kind of weather, aren’t you?” Andrew guessed. It was in the low to mid 40’s and somewhat breezy, and I’d only brought my gray jacket that looked like a work jacket instead of my winter coat.
“Somewhat, I guess,” I told him. “The winter’s been pretty mild so far.”
“Yeah, this is usually as cold as it gets down here.” As soon as he said that, the wind intensified and a gust sent chills down our spines and I involuntarily quivered.
As usual, I was fidgeting the whole time, repositioning my feet and arms, folding them and placing them on my lap and laying them down across my legs. Remembering my camera was in my coat pocket and I sunk my hands in both of them, I pulled it out and asked Andrew if he wanted to take a picture now.
“Suuurrre,” he complied.
I wasn’t really sure how we should have positioned ourselves or how I should have held the camera so it didn’t look too awkward, plus my nerves had me shake the camera when I tried holding it with just one hand, but I feared it’d look too weird if I held it with both hands. After we’d situated ourselves, I struck my typical, goofy smile that I didn’t know how to avoid making, teeth showing and all; Andrew cracked a goofy smile himself, looking like the Joker almost, and like he was guilty or busting out a bad joke. The camera clicked and we looked at the photo—it was perfectly picturesque, it captured the true essence of our friendship, and it wasn’t too extravagant of a photo or too forgettable, but just right—the kind that would always be cherished.
The atmosphere after that felt so serene and tranquil, we watched cars pass by until Andrew said, “If you haven’t noticed there is an abundance, and I mean abundance, of trucks here;” just as Andrew pointed that out, a glistening red Ford truck came zooming by, we both glanced at each other and smiled.
Eventually, we’d grown tired of the escalated breeze, so we decided we’d wait inside; conveniently there was a vestibule at the restaurant where we could see all the cars. Andrew pulled out his laptop from his backpack that had all of the things he needed to stay the night at Aaron’s once the party started, it had a sticker that read, “This machine kills fascists”—a reference from the novel Paper Towns, by John Green, an author we’ve both read and adored. He opened Steam and started playing a game whose name escapes me, but he told me it revolved around killing monsters with tears, and it sounded like an interesting enough game, so stretched myself over the table (we were sitting on opposite sides) to look—we were sitting diagonally from each other, too, and I hadn’t thought about moving over a seat, so I didn’t quite reach and had to hold myself up in order to not fall on the table.
While part of my brain was focused on holding myself up and stretching across the table, I found myself quite intrigued with the game; however, as time went on—with us saying little, enthralled with the game—my arms started to tremor from supporting my weight for too long, so I had to slink back into my seat and recover. Andrew was getting quite into the game as he made all sorts of sounds, ranging from enthusiastic to devastated, “Oh god!”s, groans, and overly-dramatic sobs, [he must have picked up that talent in his Theater class, which he pronounced differently than I: thee-a-ter, instead of thee-ter]—it was uniquely different.
In time, my mom’s gold 1999 Ford Taurus pulled up in the parking lot. We walked out the door and prepared Andrew for the fact there would be a little, energetic, and shedding dog waiting for him in the back seat, as we couldn’t leave him alone at the hotel. We both got in the car as I introduced my mom to Andrew, who said hi to him, and he said hello back. I told him was my was pretty cool, so he needn’t be too nervous, but just then, when he seemed to have situated himself, the dog jumped on him, trying to say hello himself. He was always overly-affectionate, usually trying to lick people, but we had him refrain from doing that at least, he said it was alright if he sat on him, but said he drew the line when they try to lick his face.
After Andrew had texted Jake, asking for the address to Lowe Mill, he handed his phone to me, and I punched it in to the GPS; our projected time of arrival wasn’t for nearly a half hour. We shoved off as I prepared myself for sight-seeing. I presumed Andrew was texting whoever at the time, knowing where we were driving through was nothing new to him.
Again, we passed through the winding and essentially layered and latticed expressway roads—I felt the same uneasiness as I had felt yesterday, thinking about what Lowe Mill would be like.
The area we began passing through as we made it through the expressway was starting to resemble the city area of home … only it looked… unfinished, or slightly decayed. There were areas where I lived that were like this, but knowing there were more areas like this in Alabama already gave me a surreal feeling I wasn’t sure how to interpret.
The whole time Lola was instructing my mom on where to go and turn at, Andrew was also giving my mom directions, although he wasn’t quite as sure as Lola was; then again, Lola thought we got to the hotel earlier than we actually saw the sign and arrived, and hadn’t been updated since we “borrowed” it from my aunt. As we got closer, we turned Lola off and decided to follow Andrew’s directions, thinking his memory would be jogged – we were a bit wrong. Unsure when we were supposed to turn, Andrew said to keep going until the next possible turn, only to abruptly change his mind and say the previous turn was the right turn to make. We turned around and now made a left into a dirt road and were told to turn right shortly after, going back onto regular pavement. Soon enough, we were able to see a warehouse, surely so, but most of it was gated off and we couldn’t discern where the actual entrance was.
“You have to keep going left from here,” Andrew pointed.
Shortly, we found an opening in the gates, but Andrew signaled that it wasn’t the entrance, and only led to open land. As we passed it, surely enough he was right. The warehouse was getting farther away from us as we drove on, though, and we were approaching another main road.
As we got up to the stoplight at the road’s one intersection, Andrew suddenly burst out, “Wait, you had to go right from that one spot!” We sighed unnecessarily heavily but smiled after doing so. We pulled into the gas station and turned around and continued straightforward, noticing an opening in the late in the direction of the warehouse. We continued down the path until we reached what seemed to be Lowe Mill’s parking lot, which was just a gated-in, dirt square.
There was a slight dilemma we hadn’t realized earlier as we were about to get out of the car: the dog couldn’t go in with us, and if my mom were to drive back to the hotel with him, she’d likely have to turn around and come back to get us as soon as she got back, seeing as the party at Aaron’s was at 5:00, and it was about 3:30, meaning we had about an hour to look around; I suggested that she just venture around with him for some time so they could both get a little fresh air and exercise while we looked around. Andrew winced slightly and spoke up.
“I wouldn’t go too far, though. Some parts of this area are kind of shady,” he warned.
“Oh, great,” my mom said with exasperation. “You guys are gonna go shopping and I’m going to get mugged.” It was hard to tell if she was being facetious or not, but Andrew had told me stories about the shady parts of Alabama, which merited that he felt the need to have a pocket knife on him. (He also had a lighter with him that he bought around Christmas as his first 18+ activity; we planned on burning things for leisure since we both liked to do it, but that never ended up happening.)
My mom foraged around with the dog as we headed off in the other direction, with Andrew leading the way.
“The first place we’ll probably hit that I actually want to visit for something is Vertical House Records. I wanted to get Aaron a really crappy record of something he probably doesn’t like,” Andrew said, somewhat directing me to it with his tone. We practically swaggered up the stone stairs as we continued walking across a narrow stone footpath. Andrew stopped at the first door we came to that was on our right. He let me go in first, even though I had no idea where I was going or what to expect.
While I’d never really been to an actual record store, it looked like what I’d expect a record store to look like, I suppose – it was rectangular on the inside with an annex by the back wall, off to the right—up against the walls on tables were boxes of records, as well as in a rectangle in the middle of the store; there were even records hung above the boxes of records on the walls. I let Andrew lead the way again and go ahead of me as I nonchalantly browsed some of the records, although both Aaron and Andrew owned a record player and I did not.
I wasn’t really paying attention to how the records were organized or what genre they really were at first, I was mostly waiting for Andrew to find a record for himself and Aaron. As lost as I felt, I tried not to follow Andrew around and make him feel uncomfortable, and managed to do my own looking; though, again, I wasn’t able to really sensibly buy anything from there. After we’d both done some browsing and convened toward the center of the shop, Andrew asked who sang the song “Y.M.C.A.” I looked it up on my phone to find out it was [the] Village People. While I’d known of the song, this was news to me. We weren’t sure if it’d fall under the T or V records in the section where they were alphabetized, so I looked for them in the T’s, and Andrew rummaged through the V’s. As time went on we worked our way closer to one another, searching the boxes until I passed all the “The”s. Surely enough, in due time, Andrew had procured a record that read “Village People” (no “the,” apparently), that had all of its members on the cover case.
“This should be crappy enough for him,” Andrew said, satisfied with his choice. He continued to look around for himself as I followed, looking around with a more discerning eye than earlier.
Just a few minutes later, Andrew had picked out a record by The Black Keys, a band I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with, but had never really listened to. He did a little more looking, but only for a few seconds before he decided to head to the register. He put his records in his backpack and we left the record store and worked our way into the actual warehouse part of Lowe Mill.
The one entrance looked like it was formerly a fire exit, as there were stairs leading to the upper floors of it and there was a red door just ahead of us.
We were greeted by a white-walled corridor and slate floors, the walls were adorned with art as we rounded the corner and started seeing some shops whose entrances jutted into the walls of the building; at first we only window shopped; most of what was being sold were various and rather exquisite works of art and crafts: ranging from paintings, drawings, caricatures of customers and patrons, jewelry, vases, and even hand-made instruments. Andrew went in the store with instruments everywhere as I followed.
Some people were playing some of the instruments—mostly guitar—and who appeared to be the shop owner attentively watched and listened to his customers play, having a look of gratification and enjoyment about him. I think we’d both heard better, but they weren’t too bad. It turned out that this store also sold records, so Andrew pulled his out to show he was interested, likely asking for suggestions based on what he already had. Then, the shop owner asked him if he played anything. Thinking for a quick second, Andrew replied by saying, “Uh, I play the dulcimer, but it’s been forever.”
“Well, that’s alright,” the shop owner said with a warm smile. He went delved into a corner and brought out a board-like instrument, lined with strings. “I’ve got a board dulcimer, here.” Andrew nervously smiled and took it from him, planting himself down on a roomy chair in the shop—he took a deep breath as he tried to play “Amazing Grace;” everyone else in the store stopped what they were doing to pay attention to him, likely adding to the pressure placed on him, but he was meticulously looking and playing the strings; in the end, until what he mentioned he tried to play, I didn’t recognize it, but I gave him a quiet hand of applause as the shop owner extolled him. Andrew gave it back and we looked around some more and left.
After window-shopping through a few more stores, Andrew said he noticed his backpack felt a little lighter, he looked inside and realized his records were gone; suddenly, I pictured two records being placed up on one of the shelves as Andrew was handed the dulcimer and forgot to put them back in his backpack—I told him to wait where he was and I rushed back to the store we’d came from, found the records exactly where I had envisioned them, grabbed them, and extraneously ran, couriering them back to Andrew.
We eventually advanced our way up to the second floor to discover what looked like an indoor street market, again strewn with crafts and art—this time there were books and posters and products of yarn-work, too. It was mostly one strip of a central aisle that had stores branching into the main aisle’s walls. As we proceeded through the right side of the aisle from where we emerged from the red door, there was a woman performing with hula hoops, managing multiple ones with ease, whilst even doing some mildly impressive and entertaining tricks with them. She stood on one foot with several hoops around one of her arms and another around her leg that was off the ground, able to keep them all going around her. We stopped to watch her for a few moments until she finished – her spectators and we all gave her a short round of applause. We continued down the aisle, poking into a few shops until we noticed there was something of a hullabaloo/hoedown happening ahead of us; people were playing music and others were dancing right in the middle of the procession. We cautiously approached it as a banjo player greeted us and told us this: “If you wanna pass, you gotta dance your way through, folks.” Andrew and I looked at each other than incredulously looked at him, but we shrugged our shoulders and improvised—Andrew cracked the same awkward but sincere enough smile as he somewhat robotically danced his way through the crowd; I did a very poor rendition of the Irish jig, as it was the first thing that came to mind to do. The instrument players all gave us a hand as we each broke out beaming at each other, realizing that was a thing we actually had to do and just did. (In this moment, things had felt like they were at their zenith—for once in what felt like forever since depression swallowed my happiness with worries and despair, I felt vindicated all of the burdens and fears that ailed me; I felt like the me I had dreamed about being ever since I realized what I thought was happiness before was just blissful ignorance throughout my youth and until my mid adolescence: a me that knew how the world worked, but knew he couldn’t work the world, and had come to terms with that, moving on with his life.)
We browsed a poster shop past the all the raucous commotion that were of various video games: Legend of Zelda, Mario, Metroid, Pokemon, and many more. They had a striking resemblance to their original artwork, and were very impressive in their detail and quality. Andrew looked over and grabbed a flyer from a little table among the posters; I decided to grab one, too. There was no one actually tending to the shop, which was a shame—we’d have had some nice things to converse about.
We were nearing the end of the right side of the aisle, so I was about to turn around, but Andrew kept going toward the right-hand corner of the floor – I followed. Turns out that there was another vacant room filled with what appeared to be stored artwork, ranging from the same things sold on the first floor. It was quiet and drafty in there, Andrew seemed like he knew what he was looking for—it was exceedingly quiet yet creaky with each step we took. Our eyes seemed sharper than earlier when looking around, perhaps because there was no one else around us looking at the same things we were. After a few minutes we left and decided to visit the other end of the aisle; but not without having to boogie our way through the musical impasse we faced once again. There was nothing special or out of the ordinary on the left side of the aisle, until we came to what looked like a little library, filled with older women who appeared to be spinning yarn. Andrew gave me an uneasy look that I wasn’t sure how to interpret as we decided to not go in and investigate. We meandered our way past another corner to reveal what appeared to be an outdated elevator and another red door that surely led to another flight of stairs, both going up and down. We made our ascent to the third floor and opened another big red door.
A fair few parts of the third floor were either vacant or occupied by random clutter and debris, and there wasn’t much of significance to see, either. I checked the time to see that it was going on a quarter after 4:00, so we decided we’d best make our way back down to the car.
Thankfully we didn’t have to dance our way down Lowe Mill as we took one last ephemeral look at everything, taking a slightly different route, passing a club/lounge called The Flying Monkey. Sadly, neither of us got a chance to sing there, seeing as we already got to dance; in fact, we’re so hilarious we could have even done standup.
Andrew had finally realized that he and my mom both had the same kind of car essentially—hers being a few years newer, but nameless. He had named his car “Maureen,” after the author Maureen Johnson, somebody we both followed on Twitter.
I’d called my mom when we were on the third floor before we made our way back down, so she was already waiting in the car … the dog too.
I already had the address to Aaron’s house on my phone, so I wasted no time in plugging it into the GPS, and away we went. Andrew had his own way of getting there from here, but we all decided that after our few detours, we’d rely solely on Lola this time. Turns out, his house was only about fifteen minutes from here, rather fortuitous after both our misadventure to Lowe Mill and thirteen hours of driving the day before. We had to traverse through a bit more the back country of Alabama, but it was somewhat peaceful to drive through, mostly open land. The whole time, Aaron was texting me, giving me directions of his own; by the time he texted me saying that it was the house with the basketball hoop, I’d just laid eyes upon the very house that must have been his. We pulled in the driveway—he had a nice house, a garage unit jutting out on the side of his house, and a slightly greater than average main unit to his house. I grabbed my blue reusable Meijer bag I’d put most of my things in for staying the night along with my Mario-themed chess set that wouldn’t fit in the bag, told my mom I’d call her and that I loved her, and got out of the car.
The door was already opening as we both made our way up the steps – it was Aaron who greeted us and graciously ushered us in his home. Jake didn’t call Aaron “Firebeard” for nothing; I might have called his majestic assemblage of facial hair the same thing, based on its orangish-brown color. We both had glowing expressions on our faces that said hello to each other as I walked in the door, glancing at the rather spacious living room he had, following Andrew to his room. It, too, was rather spacious for not being the master bedroom—probably more than twice the size of my room. I put my things in one of the chairs, and while not the most etiquette action I could have performed next, but I hopped onto his bed that looked like it belonged in the 1950’s almost, it also had a somewhat feminine look to it, like it was bequeathed to him by a grandma or aunt. It was a comfortable enough bed, though. Andrew put his backpack in the same chair I put my belongings on and sat down on the floor, with his back up against his rather tall dresser. His bed was up against the wall opposite to the wall with the dresser, but to the adjacent wall left of the dresser was another, larger one with a mirror—the wall opposite of that one had racks and shelves, mostly occupied by his extensive collection of video games that I had to admit I envied.
Jake had said he wouldn’t be there until about 6:00, so we decided to mostly dawdle to kill some time before starting too much without him; Aaron offered us each something to drink, and took us into the kitchen. There, I met his mom who introduced herself to me as Dianne; she too had a fair Southern accent, but it was rather pleasing to the ears with how softly and genially she spoke to me – I felt graciously welcomed by the Bonners.
Aaron and his mom showed us what they all had to drink—I decided to go with Mountain Dew since it was available, but it wasn’t refrigerated, so his mom asked if I wanted cubed or crushed ice—I’d never really been asked that question before, but I decided to go with crushed, explaining to her I like to crunch on ice. Andrew went with water and crushed ice, too.
We took our drinks back to Aaron’s room and contemplated how to waste a little time. First, Andrew pulled out his records and showed the Village People one to Aaron—his reaction was a bit different than we’d both expected: he was rather elated to add it to his starting collection and give it a play. Andrew and I could only bear to listen for a few seconds before we were about to play skeet with the record. Apparently there was a bonus CD in with Andrew’s Black Keys record; he decided he didn’t want it and suggested we burn it, pulling out his lighter and showing it to me with a devious expression, but silently gestured for me to be quiet too and not let Aaron know or see, for whatever reason … Aaron turned around to look at Andrew, who deftly put it back in his pocket, breaking out in a simultaneously guilty and innocent smile.
Next, we discussed a little about what we were going to do once Jake did get here—that didn’t get us very far as it did with Andrew the day before, as we defaulted to playing it all by ear. Andrew and I both pulled out our laptops as Aaron started up his computer, which was connected to his TV, opened Skype, only to immediately call his friend Hayden, whom I had interacted with before when Aaron included me in group calls. He just shouted obscenities at him and jokingly called him inappropriate names – the usual, and subsequently hung up on him. This was nothing new in their friendship, as he was always the punching bag in the conversations they had; he put up with a lot, but they still seemed like good friends; tomorrow, we were going out to eat with him and see Django Unchained, so I’d finally get a chance to meet him and get to know him better. Every time Hayden tried to speak, Aaron only cut him off with random gibberish that came out of his mouth in the spur of the moment.
By the time we were done tinkering on our computers and started to sit around and just huff, wouldn’t you know it, at the door knocked Jake Clough. Aaron went to go let him in, Andrew and I waited in his room.
Jake greeted everyone and held the record as everyone else did and jocundly welcomed me. Aaron put his things close to his closet, next to his dresser, and got him a Mountain Dew. After that, the first thing Jake said was: “This is the first time I’ve not had a Diet Mountain Dew in forever, man.” As someone who detested diet pop—(anyone who knows basic colloquialisms and cultural differences in our country, knows that Midwestern Americans called carbonated beverages “pop,” whereas those in most parts of the South call it either soda or all forms of it coke; I was determined to say pop whenever possible, just to make them all laugh, which it almost never failed to do, especially for Andrew)—my jaw almost dropped to the ground—a bit of an overreaction, no need to tell me.
Jake then proceeded to switch subjects by wishing me a happy birthday – Aaron and Andrew followed with their own birthday wishes for me. Aaron pulled out something from within his small entertainment center that his TV was nestled on and handed it to me, I hadn’t even looked at what it was until he placed it in my hands—it was a game case: Tales of the Abyss 3D. He knew of my affinity for the “Tales of” game series, so it was a wisely and thoughtfully chosen gift that I accepted with a sincere “thank you.” Jake then proceeded to hand me a CD case, on it, it read, “Sinews of Swag;” it was an official copy of the song that the four of us all collectively collaborated on, all of us contributing to the lyrics, and Jake creating the beat. At first I didn’t know what to say, so stunned by its quality and the meaning it held.
“Th-thank you, Jake,” I managed to finally spit out after gazing upon the case for several seconds, and then put it in my bag.
While we were all surely thinking of cake and ice cream next, Aaron decided to order a pizza from Domino’s on his iPhone that he’d just gotten for Christmas—what an ordeal that would turn out to be.
I was normally a simple pepperoni pizza person, but was willing to eat other toppings as long as they weren’t vegetables; but even with my pliability, simply ordering a pizza became cacophony. Nobody could decide what they wanted or could settle on anything before someone didn’t like what the other ordered; finally, after much arduous deliberation, we decided we’d get a supreme pizza and yolo it up by randomly picking out what came to be a Philly steak pizza, which sounded interesting enough for me to try, since there was no way I was going to touch the supreme pizza. We fiddled around on our computers and played video games for some time until we grew impatient and realized the pizza was running a bit late – it was maybe almost an hour before it finally arrived. Aaron grabbed both of the boxes and went to the kitchen and laid them out on the counter, getting plates for everyone and letting us take our slices first. We took everything back to Aaron’s room and indulged.
Really, the Philly steak pizza exceeded my expectations; there was little sauce on it, and despite it being my favorite part of the pizza, the juicy and savory steak on it made up for it all. Nothing enriched the taste more than bubbling Mountain Dew on the rocks, as well.
Then, we’d decided to play Mario Party 2 that I brought in hopes we could put our friendships to the test while having a bit of cooperative fun—Andrew decided to opt out due to a lack of interest and exhaustion of appeal the series had to him. The tension filled the air and was stirring already as the Nintendo 64 had started up and we all claimed our controllers. Aaron already exuded signs that he was bored with the game as the preface of it had only just begun. By the first minigame—which was a team minigame, the greatest possible commotion-causer—voices were already raised and buttons mashed with malice as Jake and I emerged victorious from the first minigame. In a fit of playful rage, Aaron shut off the system and threw his controller up, only to catch it because he feared he’d damage it. We resumed with dawdling for a little bit as Andrew and Jake talked and shared words about their music on iTunes, Aaron trying to find another game to play for himself, while I was on my laptop, performing a little esoteric research.
In time, Aaron’s mom beckoned us with a, “Do y’all want cake, now?” With my stomach raring for dessert despite satiating myself with two slices of Philly steak pizza earlier, I would have been the first one out of the room and into the kitchen, had I not been farthest from the door. The cake was there on the dining table in the kitchen, still with its case around it, I’d only seen it from the side until I got closer; Aaron struggled to get it off as I watched with amusement; I gave it a try for myself and was able to remove it with ease; I’d somewhat gave him a taunting but facetious enough look. Aaron’s mom was going to get a lighter to light the candles, as she announced, and Andrew slowly pulled out and revealed his lighter with the same unscrupulous look about his face—he put it back as Dianne came back and proceeded to light the candles.
… It was then that I looked upon the cake from above and saw it read, “Happy Birthday Justin,” all in a random variation of primary colors. Suddenly, I felt overcome with a surge of emotions—what I determined to be a mix of euphoria and appreciation – this was all for me, because of me, it was more than just for my birthday, but they were honoring my very presence among them all, took the time out to all be here for me and my stay—not to mention on a weekend they’d just gotten back from break, and likely had homework to focus on over the whole duration, too. I remembered how blessed I was to have such wonderful friends who appreciated me and saw past my mountains of faults I’d inadvertently acquired. Tears of joy were almost welling up inside my eyes as I experienced another moment where all felt it was at its pinnacle; the whole time I felt and thought these things, they were singing happy birthday to me, and I snapped out of my state of Zen just in time to blow out the candles, which I had done with great exuberance in my bellowing breath to blow all of them out in one fell swoop.
Aaron’s mom let me have the first slice, and I’d chosen a piece with most of the J in it, for no particular reason. Everyone else followed to cut their own slices off, and just like that, between a 1/3 and ½ of the cake was gone.
As I had feared, my stomach wasted no time in fighting me as I slowly shoveled down the vanilla cake with chocolate frosting, my favorite kind of cake, as I had told Aaron. This time, though, the tempest in my tum was so vehement that I nearly felt my cake come back up – I had to turn around and cover my mouth as I was sure I was going to vomit. Thankfully, I hadn’t. But that was enough cake for me. I passed up the ice cream Aaron’s mom had offered politely; and after we were done eating, we adjourned to Aaron’s room.
This time he’d closed to door behind him after he got in and sat in his lavish chair in front of his TV.
“You guys,” he started, “now we can say the F-word.” He carefully spoke, almost like he thought his mom was eavesdropping. We all looked at one another, but nobody said anything at all, let alone anything profane or vulgar.
It was time to pick from another among Aaron’s array of games which would again became an arduous process, only to play it for a matter of a half hour before giving up on it since we all couldn’t stay interested—yet, it was fun enough just to be around everyone, so I didn’t care; the games were certainly fun for the short durations they lasted.
After this had went on for a couple of hours, we’d all be taking a journey into the realm of what Andrew had called “Weird Twitter:” a place where tweets made no sense, were hilarious, or were so nonsensical or stupid, they just had to be funny; Aaron and Andrew read off so many tweets from random Weird Twitter profiles that they became jumbled and I can’t really remember any of them, but there was a profuse amount of laughter that night in Aaron’s room.
When that was all over and done with, Jake and Andrew resumed with their music talk, as Aaron picked out a game he wanted me to try – it was Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. I’d heard of the game and the series, but had never actually played any of them; my interest was piqued. I created my own character and started off in what appeared to be a royal tomb—apparently I was a prisoner there and had to free myself, only to essentially become a fugitive according to the guards there. Aaron tentatively watched me play as Andrew and Jake were off in their own musical little world on Andrew’s laptop and Jake’s iPhone. I played the game for maybe close to an hour only before I decided I wanted to play or do something else; Aaron then pulled out two DJ Hero disc jockey boards and the game’s CD. I’d played DJ Hero only once before, and I was miserably bad at it, heavily lacking the eye to hand coordination and dexterity. But this time, however, on my first match against Jake who was just as inexperienced as I, I was much more focused and deft in my button pushing and disc scratching. … In the end I still lost most of my matches against Jake, and all of them against Andrew and Aaron, but I had thoroughly enjoyed myself as the time passed, nonetheless.
Finally looking at the time, it was probably about 1:00 in the morning after reveling in our merriments. We were all still wide awake, but that would soon change within the next half hour, as Jake was the first one to drop … right in Aaron’s closet instead of the guest bedroom, almost. His snoring was on par with that of a bear’s as Aaron was the next one to drop in his bed; Andrew was getting tired as well, but continued to fiddle on his laptop, adjusting his iTunes library, I believe. He was laying on his side while I had my face essentially buried in the floor, getting a bit tired myself, but too lazy to work my way into the guest bedroom; I picked my head, now laying on my side, too, and asked Andrew where he wanted to sleep, since it hadn’t actually been decided where the three of us were going to sleep, even though it seemed like Jake was quite content partly in Aaron’s closet. He asked if Aaron was asleep; I told him yes; he decided to take his phone and blast the alarm right in his ear; Aaron woke up in a panicked frenzy; his expression was drowsy but livid.
“What’d you do that for, dick?” Aaron basically yawned.
“Where’s everybody gonna sleep?” Andrew asked like the whole household wasn’t sleeping. Aaron rubbed his head and sat up.
“There’s a bed in the guest bedroom and a mattress pad on the floor for someone to sleep on; and then someone will have to take the couch.”
Andrew didn’t hesitate to take the couch while I’d decided to sleep on the mattress pad, Jake taking the bed. We all told each other goodnight, and drifted off into the supposed peace of sleep at variant rates. I never really slept well over anyone’s house, so I was always up the earliest, usually—I tossed and turned a fair bit as expected; there was no fan going to provide me with sound I needed to help me sleep, but Jake’s consistent snoring was of use at the time. The last thing I thought before I finally dozed off was, when I wake up… it’ll be my last day with everyone here, in Alabama.
As often as I had been dreaming lately, I slept calm and peacefully, but the fact it wasn’t my own bed I was sleeping in led me to wake around 9:30—Jake was still asleep, Aaron too, I looked into the living room and check on Andrew, and surely enough he was awake, tinkering on his iPod. I let him be and plopped back down on the mattress pad, but sat up instead of laying down; I pondered what my last day was going to be like, even though most of it was already planned ahead of time—but then, I’d remembered: our game of Know Ya Boo was rescheduled to today after the complications and misfortunes of Friday. Now, I was too excited to go back to sleep even if I had wanted to.
I decided to call my mom just to check in and ask how everything was – she said she missed me but enjoyed having the bed to herself—couldn’t blame her there.
In due time, Jake had woken up maybe a half hour after I did, realizing he didn’t have much time left at Aaron’s, as his dad had let him know he was on his way to pick him up. We decided to leave Aaron be and went into the living room to join Andrew. It wasn’t long before Aaron’s mom woke up and wished us all good morning, and then got Aaron up. Just after that, Jake got a text and said his dad was here and he had to go; he grabbed all of his things and was about to leave before I called his name to stop him.
“… You’re not leaving without a hug if I’m not going to see you again, man,” I told him, trying to look stern and serious about it, but subtly smiling underneath the façade.
We approached each other and opened our arms and patted each other on the back; I told him I had a lot of fun and it was great seeing him, and he said the same. Everybody else told him goodbye, and he walked out the door.
Dianne asked us what we wanted for breakfast, then proceeded to ask how a breakfast casserole sounded to us all—all of us nodded in agreement that it sounded like it would more than suffice. She got started on that and we returned to Aaron’s room to decide what we should do until Andrew was going to be picked up by around noon—a couple of hours from now.
Instead of trying to find another game to play, we scoured through Aaron’s movie collection for something to watch, something hopefully we could pay attention to longer than we had most of the games we tried to actively play last night.
“Let’s try to find something really bad, in hopes it’ll have the opposite effect and keep us entertained,” Aaron theorized. Eventually, he pulled out “Be Kind, Rewind,” a movie I’d heard of, but never got around to watching, so I figured, why not? We were all sort of expecting it to be a terrible (probably somewhat racist or employing some other kind of offensive humor) comedy.
Shortly after popping it into Aaron’s computer, his mom told us the casserole was ready, so we paused the movie and ventured into the kitchen, and divvyed up the rather savory and aromatic breakfast casserole, brimming from the sides with cheese, egg, and bits of bacon. She then poured as each a glass of orange juice that I watched cascade into each glass, remembering that I hadn’t had orange juice in quite some time. And there was nothing like orange juice with breakfast! We took everything back to Aaron’s room and stuffed ourselves with what turned out to be simply scrumptious casserole and tangy, tongue-tantalizing orange juice.
The movie ended up being better than expected, with a nice little ending—it still wasn’t the good of a movie, but we were expecting to be as bad as the parody movies with all-star casts that never fail to be box office flops.
Almost the whole time I was watching the movie, though, I started to feel that sense of uselessness and being unwanted again as I did last night… like everything they’d all done because of me for me was for naught. It was an arbitrary and foolish enough feeling, but as much as I recognized that, I couldn’t shake it. I’d also remembered but this time felt grimmer about the fact this was my last day with everyone, and it wouldn’t be as late of a night, being a school night for them. To only add on to my pathetic, extraneous distress, Molly had told me she was being punished for her grades, therefore wasn’t allowed to play Know Ya Boo today—being one of the things I was looked forward to most and the first thing we’d planned to do once I visited, I couldn’t deny that I confessed myself a bit despondent.
Aaron went to go take a shower, and then I broke the news to Andrew, who seemed like he had somewhat expected our adjusted plans to go awry.
Shortly after Aaron had cleaned himself up to go out to eat then see Django Unchained later, Andrew was picked up; we told him goodbye and that we’d see him later—around 3:00.
Aaron decided he should do some of his math homework while in limbo, and invited me into the living room with him, where he then turned on Community. We basked in a fair bit of laughter, watching a few episodes with his mom, too; in between watching and working, Aaron was texting Hayden about later, likely slinging the usual insults at him—most of which he told his mom had to do with parts of the male genitalia, to put it as euphemistically as possible.
Between a half hour and forty-five minutes later, Aaron had finished his work, and I proposed that we play chess with the special Mario-themed set I’d brought. (Although he’d never played chess before or knew the rules and roles of the pieces, he acquiesced.)
He was probably the easiest of all people I tried to teach chess to. (Ironically enough, I knew how to play chess, but still do not understand how to play checkers completely.) The first match I still easily beat him, but our follow-up match was rather rigorous for his second time playing and for not playing chess in a while myself; things were worked down to the wire until I eliminated all of his pieces besides his king, meaning I won by default. The whole time Aaron’s mom was spectating our game, and she seemed rather impressed with the both of us—she was also happy that I had taught him something that day.
Eventually we went back to Aaron’s room – he played games while I watched him and was pushed into the raging rapids of my own thoughts by the malevolent side of me that sought my self-destruction. It turned out that was merely a tributary that dumped me into an ocean of empty feelings, and there was no land of sanity or solace in sight; just what I had feared the most: a violent mood swing so violent it would burst forth and take control of me, ruining everything for everyone.
I must not have realized how lost and sad I looked while lost in my own thoughts, as I had just noticed I had my head planted into Aaron’s bed with a blank expression, causing him to ask if I was okay. With him, I was able to tell him the truth, but not show him the truth (I wasn’t able to with anyone, or so I had thought); so I said no and he said he was sorry to hear that – nothing I hadn’t heard before really, but I knew he was someone who meant well more than most others, with their pity I didn’t want.
Again I was immersed in this tempestuous sea of dark, depressing thinking that endured until Andrew had come back. While he didn’t say anything to me, I’m sure he knew what I was feeling at the time, but didn’t know what to say, as all the wise ones did; as much as I understood that, though, that didn’t mean I hadn’t gotten partially indignant about it whenever I thought about it.
I decided to excuse myself from the room and went into the bathroom—I stood in the corner closest to the door and slowly sank into it as my back skid against the wall, making sure I didn’t lower myself too fast where I’d make a thud and draw attention to myself from anyone. My dark thoughts and feelings of worthlessness continued and intensified as I stared off into space within the corner, noticing my stomach began to feel weak, and my body achy. I felt too empty to cry, yet I was experiencing such dejection and anxiety, the inability to caused me even more suffering—suffering that I forced myself to face alone… every time.
Every time I thought about going back into Aaron’s room and pretending like I was fine then, my body felt like it disabled every motor function necessary to get myself off the floor and out of the corner; I felt like a fish flopping on dry land, arduously attempting to make its way back to water. I was thinking maybe one of them would ask if I was okay [although they likely already knew the answer to that], or check on me as I tried gathering my strength, but no – that only disheartened me further, even though I knew it was me making an unnecessarily big deal out of something that should be inconsequential.
After almost a half hour of probably drowning in a pool of my despair, I heard Aaron tell me it was almost time to go – this meant nothing to my limp limbs, that still refused to function properly; eventually I was able to move, but still not able to pick myself off the floor, and likely took me almost another ten minutes just to finally get off the floor and adjust my expression to look more suitable for going out.
Still then nobody asked why I was in there for so long, perhaps not wanting to be too nosy if it were for “reasons.” Aaron then used the bathroom as Andrew and I grabbed all of our things we needed to take back; Aaron himself seemed to have taken a little time in the bathroom—his mom told me I could rush him like she thought he did me if I wanted to, but I declined by breaking an utterly fake smile, then looked away from here, down to the floor beneath the crimson couch I sat on.
Looking as void of emotion on the outside ever, we walked out to the car, and Andrew and I hopped in the back seat; the car ride was rather bustling … but no thanks to me; between Aaron and his mom, a radio station couldn’t be settled on, and the whole time, Aaron and Andrew were undergoing the mental trial that was “Spaceteam”—an app for the iPod where two people had to cooperatively fix their broken spaceship by relaying instructions displayed on one screen, but not the others, having different possible commands on each screen—all while being timed. It was only a matter of time before the two were screaming commands at each other – Aaron’s mom saying nothing the whole time – along with me being totally silent, shifting between looking at the back of the passenger’s seat straight ahead of me, or out the window, absentmindedly staring at the empty land … and eventually downtown Huntsville again, which looked slightly different during the ensuing twilight.
I realized we turned into a plaza and pulled up to a restaurant called “Newk’s.” We found a place to park and Aaron got a text from Hayden saying he and his family were already there.
The atmosphere to it was rather amicable. It was perfectly lit; and as soon as you walked in, there was a counter with someone to take your order – their menu to the left of that, covering almost the entire wall. We got our drinks first and sat down once we found Hayden and his family. I said hi to him and met his mom, a young-looking brunette woman who seemed like she tried to stay with the times, guessing by the way she dressed. We went back and placed our orders—the menu was so versatile I don’t recollect what the others ordered, but I’d ordered the chicken club—just with chicken and bacon and cheese—Doritos on the side.
Again, there was a pugilistic match going on between my stomach and the food inside me, as I’d already felt queasy by the second bite.
I paid more attention to Andrew and Aaron practically sobbing over the undue amount of stress they were facing from playing “Spaceteam.” I even snapped some pictures of them with distraught expressions—too priceless to pass up.
After I’d told Aaron’s mom my stomach was in a bit of distress, she asked the waitress for a carryout box, which had lifted some of the guilt off my shoulders, as she paid for my food while I intended to at least do that much for myself.
Everybody hustled out to their cars as I tried to keep up; it was but a five minute drive to the movie theater that extravagantly looked like a cross between post 1950’s movie theater and a casino. Again I tried my utmost to not fall behind in my sorrowful state.
Aaron’s mom let me go before everyone—I flashed my coupon I’d gotten from General Mills cereal boxes, and just like that, I got my movie ticket for free. I went only just a little further ahead as I waited for everyone else.
We wasted no time in trying to find the right theater, taking seats rather close to the screen; we’d gotten there nearly a half hour before the show was actually supposed to start, which was 7:30. Deciding it wasn’t the place nor the time to outright ask either Aaron or Andrew why they hadn’t even wondered why I spent so much time in the bathroom, I texted Aaron, asking him why so—while I was sitting right next to him; he asked if I was dying or something; in my exact words to him in reply, although part of it was exaggerating the truth, I said, “I was sitting in the corner crying my eyes out like a b****.”
“What why,” Aaron replied.
I’d told him I wasn’t sure but that I was simply feeling like I had no purpose and would be better off dead and that I was in distress noticing these were the last moments I’d be spending with them, and just as I had feared, that I was going to end up ruining it; instead of replying to what I said through text, he looked over to me and said, “We’re right here for you, though; like we’re literally right here for you.”
“But there’s nothing anyone—even you guys—can do … not anymore,” I whimpered, trying to cover the weakness in my voice. Aaron gave me a sad, sympathetic look, as Andrew looked over at me, and gave me a stare I wasn’t sure how to interpret; he always tried lightening the mood by threatening to hit me or beat me up whenever I talked about [doing] bad things, in a futile effort to snap me out of those states where I spoke of such things—it was likely a look telling me something along those lines, nonverbally. All I said to him was, “What?” From thereon I decided to keep quiet and try not to drag the mood down any further. Even today, I’m not sure if that was a detrimental error in judgment as things only proceeded to race downhill. I began to feel short of breath as the movie started; things started to become a blur at the time, unable to focus on the movie even; I started feeling all choked up, tears welling in my eyes and my face trying to cringe from the pain and anxiety. I wasted no time in trying to cover the ugly expression that was a product of deep internal suffering, turning away and everything. Nobody seemed to have noticed anything, or they did, but again didn’t know what to do and likely only pitied my pathetic soul; for no less than a half hour I contemplated storming off into the bathroom to exert the pent up pain I was experiencing for reasons that eluded me – was it because I felt unwanted by them? And if so, was I even right to feel that way? The malevolence in my mind obviously led me to believe I could never be in the right or have a proper reason to suffer—or was it because my time with them was almost up, and they’d made me feel so at home—so welcome, like I belonged there? Even if that were the reason and justified why I’d felt this way, I could still hear the demons in my head telling me, Pathetic, mushy, weak little marshmallow baby, who can never deal with reality, even though he claims to know so much about how everything works and how the reality of everyone’s situations are but his own; nobody wants or needs anyone like you – they just won’t concede to that because they’re afraid they’ll hurt your poor, delicate feelings, and push you over the edge; you’re only hurting everyone you love, and now you’re going to screw up your last moments with your precious friends that you only hurt with your sadness.
Finally I had enough and I abruptly rose from my seat and calmly walked to the bathroom on the outside, but felt like I was fleeing for my life on the inside, trying to find safe haven in my own head, that had become subjugated yet again by the demons that had tormented me so.
Right across the entrance’s doors there was a bathroom that I made my way into; there were other people there, so I tried to act as relaxed and sane as possible before I got in one of the stalls. The same dark and horrible thoughts reverberated in my head so much I was almost started to chant them myself. It took no time for those tears that had been welled up in my eyes to come streaming down my face and onto the tiled floor. I had the proclivity to sniffle and sob heavily once I’d gotten to these points, but I had to try restraining it so nobody else would hear me until I was truly as alone as I’d felt.
I’ll go back as soon as I can stop crying, I thought to and told myself over and over again. But to no avail—I was so vulnerable at the time that everything that had ever hurt me or I’d worried about rained down upon me like a myriad of arrows fired by a battalion of demonic versions of myself, chortling at my lament.
You’re ruining it, you fool, you’re ruining it. They’re going to come looking for you, and then they’ll see you at your pathetic nadir; then, they’ll never look at you the same; nor will you ever be able to forgive yourself for making these your last moments with your friends that you care about oh too much, my mind couldn’t stop telling me, and there was no fighting that thought, either; it had only caused the lacrimation to last, the lament to linger. It had been maybe twenty minutes that I remained in the stall, alone, painting the floor with tears that had no right to roll off my cheeks. I know I had no right to be, but then, the fact that nobody had even come looking for me only let my anguish continue, realizing how unduly selfish I was being.
Maybe another ten minutes later, I heard Aaron call for me – I only sniffled.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, genuinely concerned.
“I just—I just can’t handle it right now. I can’t do this. I can’t keep doing this,” I told him in between my sobbing breaths. The whole time I kept the door closed and he didn’t try to open it—next I heard him kick the door open and bellowed “F***!” so loud everyone in the corridor probably heard him.
It was but only a minute later that I heard Andrew call out my name, now.
“I thought I was doing so good,” I wailed. He tried to look at me through the part of the door I’d opened, but I swiftly closed it again.
“God damn it!” I shrieked, pounding my fist into the door.
“It’s going to be like this before it gets better, Justin,” Andrew reiterated to me—it wasn’t the first time I’d heard that from him; and I knew he was right, but I’d still grown so tired of not being allowed to live life the way I’d wanted to for what felt like so long without any respites or reprieves. There were so many things I wanted to lash out and say in my frustration and guilt, but I knew I’d feel guilt from saying those things—especially to Andrew—that I wouldn’t be able to live with once this was all over, even though the suffering had felt so lengthy and ubiquitous. I said nothing—hardly able to through my gasping breaths from crying so much and so hard – I simply stood next to him, a foot away.
“Look, I really don’t know what to do for you, but I’m always here if you need me,” Andrew consoled, the look was not one of sympathy, but of empathy and understanding.
“Andrew…” I looked to him.
“You—you’ve taught me the meaning of a true friend, more than once, too. You’ve always been building on it ever since we met. You may not know what to do for me or say to me anymore, but I know that’s just how it is with the nature of my condition, and I don’t blame you for that; you’re always there for me. Hell, there wouldn’t even be a situation where you didn’t know what to do or say if you weren’t there for me all the time.” The whole time I had poured my heart out to him yet again I noticed the tears and the sobbing was starting to subside. Andrew said nothing, but talked with his radiant blue eyes, instead. He softly smiled, gesturing toward the door.
“And, one more thing…” I humbly motioned. “This is gonna sound and be really dumb of me to ask… but can I… have a hug?” I felt I was asking too much of him for that—like he hadn’t already done enough for me, in just those few minutes and throughout our whole friendship. Without saying anything, he opened his arms and embraced me; I hugged him with just enough affection and gratitude.
“Thank you, Andrew,” I sighed into his coat.
We left the bathroom, and I saw Aaron waiting at a table right outside; he said nothing to me at first, only giving me a look of true fear and concern as he rose. Before we got back into the theater, he hugged me tight and said, “I love you, man.”
“I love you, too,” I sobbed to him. I was starting to cry and choke up again, but not sure why, still. I had the best friends I could ever ask for, and I got to be with them, that’s for sure.
“My mom can take you home,” Aaron informed me. While I wanted to try toughing it out since it seemed like I got through the worst of everything, yet had pretty much tarnished the movie experience for them, I decided it was for the best to leave before things could have possibly gotten worse, likely from the guilt I’d feel being in their presence after the events that had just transpired; Aaron’s mom managed to get rain check tickets so to speak, and Andrew saw us out. Before he left I wanted one last picture—it was nearly as picturesque as the first, but this time more gangsta. Andrew awkwardly hurried off back into the theater as we said bye to each other – and that was the last I got to see of him.
The ride back to the hotel was somber and silent; the only thing I could think of to say was that I was sorry to both Aaron and his mom over and over again. Of the two or three times I said it to them, Dianne’s response was the same, “Now, it is quite alright.”
Aaron helped me lug everything back up to my room, but I had more-so asked for his help to spend just a few more minutes with him, and to not leave him just like that. I briefly introduced my mom to him, and asked her to take a picture of us together, since I had two with Andrew, and none with him—unfortunately it came out quite blurry because of my mom’s bad nerves shaking the camera; but I didn’t want to hold him up any longer, so I let him go and gave him one last hug goodbye.
I wanted to forget about most parts of today and try to minimize the inevitable guilt I was going to be crushed by, but first, in a lengthy and admittedly sappy text message, I apologized to Andrew for putting him in such a hard position a friend would never have to even think about fearing to be in. I’d forgotten he was still seeing the movie, so I simply went to bed after pressing send with much hesitance. As it could have been surmised, it was a very rough night’s sleep.