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In Passing

written by: Pete Able

 

It was my final year of school and I was at a coffee shop just off campus. I was reading at a table outside when I heard my name called. I could tell who it was by the way she said my name. She always pronounced my first and last names mashed together. By dropping a consonant, she turned it into a three-syllable, cutesy, pet name for me. The new name sounded like an adjective and she thought she was clever for discovering the wordplay. Needless to say, I found it annoying. I sighed inwardly and looked up to see her moving toward me in quick, confident strides. Sure enough, it was Vanessa.
In spite of her cocky attitude and the horribly fashionable way she was dressed, I had to admit Vanessa was attractive. She looked like a caricature of a pretty college co-ed in her tight black jeans, her bright white and fluorescent green sneakers and slim-fitting vintage shirt. I guess you could describe her style as urban-retro. At least I think that’s what people were calling it. As far as I was concerned, it took too much effort to keep up with it all. Metro, retro, urban-retro, punk, straight edge, gangsta, thug, indy, hipster, emo—it was all too confusing. I myself always dressed simple and neat. Perhaps it was partly her looks and fashion sense that put me on edge.
Vanessa took the unoccupied seat next to me with an easy assurance. There was just enough time for me to mark the page of the story I was reading before her own story, full of its petty dramas and superficial triumphs, was thrust upon me. She began with an old friend of mine that we had recently learned we had in common.
“Kevin calls me to hang out all the time,” she said. “It’s strange, he wants to come with me everywhere. Like when I run errands, or when I go to the gym. He’s acting kind of weird lately.”
Considering that Kevin had recently moved from Minnesota to New Jersey, and how she and I were the only people he knew in the state, I decided I didn’t think it exceptionally strange, especially in light of her general attractiveness. I figured he was just lonely, and perhaps a little horny, both of which, I thought, were perfectly understandable and certainly didn’t warrant him being described as, “weird.”
“Is that so?”  I said.
Vanessa’s heavily glossed lips moved over her straight, slightly discolored teeth as she proceeded to badmouth this old friend of mine. She had always spoken so fondly of him when he was a thousand miles away. He had seemed to be all we ever talked about. I guess it was just that Kevin was the only thing we really had in common.
Judging by the way she talked about him, she clearly took it for granted that he would be infatuated with her. She shrugged her shoulders, as if to say, “Of course he is. Why wouldn’t he be?” And with this, she carelessly dismissed him. I remember thinking of her as somewhat of a snob, though I guess I was a bit of a snob in my own right in those days.
Going on to discuss other areas of her life, she went for a long while without saying anything of interest. I imagined she was speaking in riddles or code, and tried to wrest some meaning out of her words. It was a game I played sometimes when talking to people I didn’t really want to talk to. Usually I failed to come up with anything cohesive. Certainly there was nothing profound to be found in Vanessa’s soliloquies. I was already aware of this so mostly I didn’t give her my full attention.
I caught a whiff of a foul, sour smell and traced it to a cluster of blue recycling cans in front of a bar up the street. There was a half-dozen or so, all filled to the brim with bottles and cans and red and blue plastic cups. It occurred to me that owning a bar in a college town would be a good business to have. The downside, though, is that you’d have to spend a lot of your time there, at a bar, in a college town, surrounded by twenty-one-year-olds with senioritis and a fresh sense of entitlement. It didn’t sound ideal.
Eventually, my acute sense of fundamental decency, which, for as long as I can remember I have always suffered from, required that I bring my attention back to Vanessa as she was still talking, though, to be perfectly honest, I focused the majority of my attention on her slender figure and long, shapely legs. Not that I didn’t appreciate the effect, but her jeans were so tight that they couldn’t have been comfortable. But I guess that was the new fashion. It was like she was at the opposite end of the spectrum from the wanna-be thugs you saw with their pants hanging down around their knees. I doubted whether either of them could run properly wearing their pants the way they did.
Vanessa’s long, yellow hair was up in a ponytail that hung down in back. I watched it brush her shoulders as she looked around at the people sitting nearby. No doubt she was looking around for people more interesting than me. Maybe if my pants had been tighter she would have been more attentive, I thought. I remember seeing her eyes linger on a boy with spiky disheveled hair and a popped collar. The arrogance of this particular combination fooled many girls in those college days. It hurt my pride somewhat that she would look at that type of guy in any sort of way while actively ignoring me.
I listened only vaguely to what she was saying, which is perhaps one reason why this is not so interesting a story, but I admired her ability to change topics seamlessly without a moment’s pause in between. There was no doubt in my mind that, if given the proper forum, she could talk forever. Staging a filibuster in the Senate would have suited her. What I tried to determine was how long I could stand to listen. I don’t know exactly how tolerant I was feeling that day, but my guess is that my estimate wasn’t very long.
“Joey and I are going to be models in a fashion show for Pop Trash, that little store that opened up on Easton,” she said.
“Oh yeah?” I said, thinking how appropriate the name of the store was. But part of me was also impressed, if not downright envious. My meek nature kept me from finding and securing such unique opportunities. Maybe I was more jealous than I was able to admit. Anyway, I was disliking her more and more by the minute.
“It’s later this week. You’ll probably see flyers. Mica is going too. You know Mica, don’t you? You know what he said the other day?” Normally, I would have ventured some random, bizarre guess in an attempt to get a laugh, but she gave me no time to reply. (It is one of the great tragedies of my life that I am always too slow when these chances arrive.) “He said that homosexuality should be illegal just like heroin because he said that just because someone likes heroin it doesn’t make it right. Isn’t that ridiculous? If some kid wants to be gay, let them do whatever they want, ya know?”
“Sure. But it’s a compelling argument,” I said. I was being sarcastic but Vanessa just stared at me blankly for a second. I could see that she had a slight sense that I was making a joke, but also she wasn’t one hundred percent sure of what side of the argument I was on. Perhaps she was worried that thinking about it would give her wrinkles because she moved on rather quickly. Evidently, she was finished with her discourse on gay rights.
She said something like: “you know what that makes me think of the other day in my psychology class we were talking about how if you have two female dogs together a long time one will become like the alpha male or something and start humping the other one isn’t that weird” (She didn’t use punctuation in her sentences either.)
“Yeah, that’s pretty weird.” I said. It was pretty weird, I had to admit.
Having arrived on a fresh topic, seemingly without a clue of how she got there, she told me that her Chihuahua was a boy. “He does the cutest thing when he’s sleeping—.”  I sort of stopped listening again. I was probably thinking about an assignment, or the library, or the cafeteria, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or some such college-related thing.
For a time, I heard only an occasional stray word or phrase that slipped through the breaks in my tired inner-monologue. Of course I thought she was an idiot, and a trend-obsessed, shallow, self-absorbed ditz, but whether I was thinking that at the time or not I can’t be sure. What I am sure of is that it was those reasons that made me disappointed in myself for finding her attractive.
She talked about her dog’s pink studded collar and I cringed on the inside and imagined telling her what I thought of her. Of course, what I actually did was smile at her, as if to say, “You’re too cute!” Who wants to hear about her stupid, yippy little dog that she dressed up in drag, undoubtedly against its will? It was my firm belief that no one should make fashion choices for their pets. I still feel that way.
I seem to recall she went as far as to bring up the stupid little rat-like thing’s pooper-scooper and that was probably when I started checking my watch. That horrible monologue of hers seemed to go on forever. Listening to her became increasingly painful. It was like cleaning my ears with a Q-tip made of sand paper—I was actually afraid my ears would begin to bleed. It must have become necessary for me to remind myself of the reasons I was feigning interest, because I remember getting caught glancing down at her perky, insistent B-cups.
Next Vanessa talked about her Acting class, and then about a girl who was dating her on-again-off-again boyfriend. She told me how much of a slut the other girl was. No real feedback is expected of you in these situations so I just nodded my head. Sometimes it was smart to just keep nodding your head, to stay in a sort of perpetual agreement with everything she said. Yes, I’m sure she is a slut. Yes, she probably does have crabs. Yes, I’m sure he will regret it. Yes, he is an asshole. Yes, he will be sorry he left. Not to be facetious, but who wouldn’t have been?
I seem to remember a lull in the conversation that seemed the opportune moment to light a cigarette. I think she had stopped talking briefly to send off a text message or something. Anyway I held the pack out to her but she shook her head vigorously.
“I quit,” she said, her eyes and glossy smile spilling over with pride.
“Good for you,” I said. I hated her more than ever. I pictured her patting herself on the back, miming her self-praise up on a stage in front of her Acting class. I took a good, long drag off the cigarette and inhaled it slowly and deeply, making a conscious effort to make it look as appetizing as possible. Vanessa looked away with disdain. She really is a snob, I thought.
“Anyway, like I was saying,” and I’m paraphrasing here, “I, me, like, yada yada yada,” she said. My mind drifted off again. I thought how well cigarettes and cynicism complemented one another. I thought that if I quit smoking it would probably make me a more optimistic person. I took in another lungful of smoke as I contemplated this. But then I wondered which would shorten your life more, being a smoker or being optimistic?
Vanessa was like a telemarketer determined to get through her spiel. She talked a long, breathless while. I kept myself busy. I checked the sky—it was a clear spring day. I silently reminisced about my last sexual experience—it had been mediocre. I listened to car stereos trapped at the traffic light—most of the music was bad. For some reason, even if it's a song that I like, music from another person’s car stereo always sounds offensive and awful to me.
Vanessa shifted topics yet again. She told me how, the weekend before, she had taken Ecstasy for the first time. She was proud of the fact. I thought it was strange that she could be proud of both quitting smoking and using a potentially hazardous, illegal drug like Ecstasy at the same time. It seemed contradictory, like a doctor that smoked, or like a prostitute that didn’t.
“It’s fantastic! It’s like you can really feel when people touch you,” she said. I had a quick flashback to one of the rehabs I’d been to. It was exclusively for people under twenty-one and all the kids there were proud of their drug use and liked to brag about how much and which ones they’d done. For instance it had been cool that I’d sold pot and that ultimately had almost died of a heroin overdose. That kind of stuff was a badge of honor to them, like the frat boys with their running beer tallies at keg parties.
When I told Vanessa that I had done Ecstasy before, she put two of her slender fingers on my forearm and pressed them down gently.
“So you know then, how good even just this would feel. And it’s like that every time someone touches you, isn’t it?”
“Sure,” I replied, “everyone that touches you is like a certified massage therapist.”
“No, I’m serious!” Then, “I, me, like, blah blah blah.” she said. (Once again, paraphrasing.) I continued to smoke my cigarette as she prattled on.
At some point I remember being overtaken by what I knew was an absurd thought, that Vanessa was a robot. It wasn’t that I really believed it, but, at the time, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see her head pop off to reveal a tangle of wires and circuits. I imagined she would overheat any second, all of a sudden going limp in her chair mid sentence. And I’d just pick my book back up and go on reading as if nothing happened. She was only a robot, after all. I had to stifle a smile at the thought of her breaking down.
Suddenly, Vanessa was getting up to go and kissing me on the cheek. “That’s my bus,” she said. “Call me.”
“Yeah, sure. Will do,” I said.
Of course, I had no intention of calling her, and she probably wouldn’t have been too thrilled if I actually did. It was just something to say—a polite, convenient way to say goodbye. As I watched the bus pull away I stubbed my cigarette out in the ashtray on the table. And when the bus turned out of view I thanked my lucky stars I had only one semester left to go. I felt I had just about all the education I could stand.

Pete Able

Pete Able

Pete Able’s work has been published in Literally Stories, Philadelphia Stories, Wilderness House Literary Review and others. He lives in New Jersey.
Pete Able

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