Flash fiction: “Auld Lang Syne”

She was late again. She always was.

Eric lined up the bottles on the table and began picking at the soggy labels. Marianne had never been one for promptness. She often joked that she’d be lucky to make it to her own funeral before the burial. When had he stopped finding that charming?

The bar was their local, close enough to their apartment that they could walk there and then stagger back after a few too many. They’d met just over at the corner table, when she’d bumped into his elbow and spilled his beer all over the floor. She’d wanted to stop and apologize, of course, but she’d been on her way to the restroom and couldn’t afford the detour. By the time she’s emerged again, he already had a fresh pint and more than a few napkins. He’d just have to stay long enough for her to buy him another. It was the least she could do.

Five years didn’t make that much of a difference, but it felt terrifying to think of starting over. Eric knew that he had to say goodbye before it turned to six. Maybe the next time wouldn’t be a mistake. He was well into his thirties already. He couldn’t afford to waste time like this.

If only she showed up.

The crowd was already growing thick for New Year’s Eve. Reduced price cocktails and party favors had lured in people off the street when the bar was usually a hiding place for locals and regulars. Eric felt awkward occupying his booth alone, but at least he had the copy of his empty bottles, standing guard like glass soldiers over his broken heart.

When she walked in, she didn’t seem to notice him. The jukebox was her target, feeding a couple of dollars into the device to let the subdued sound of The Band battle with the din of the newly inebriated. “The Weight” had been their song since watching Easy Rider on their second date. The lyrics had always seemed so meaningful.

Suddenly he didn’t want to be there. The bathroom would provide shelter, or maybe the street. HE could avoid her entirely, say goodbye tomorrow. But the point of tonight would be for this year to end and the next to be free of her. He wanted to start again, and this was the only way.

She found his table easily. Of course she did. This was their table. This was the place they always sat, where they ate and drank and argued and sighed into one another. Each year they ended and began in this very spot, and he straightened his tie as he anticipated their annual tradition.

Maybe next year.

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Fanifesto: your end of year list sucks.

Listen up. I know you have an opinion. You’re really keen on expressing it, because you’re enthusiastic about music and movies and everything popular culture. There’s just one small thing that you need to keep in mind: nobody cares about your end of year list.*

It seems impossible, doesn’t it? You’ve spent the last twelve months submerging yourself in the scene, throwing every spare bit of bob toward the box office of your choice, devouring the arts because you are a loyal follower of the Greek muses, particularly Euterpe because she has that sweet retro Aulos. You’ve muttered, “Argo fuck yourself,” and laughed knowingly because you’re reciting this very clever phrase at people who haven’t possibly seen the Ben Affleck docudrama yet. You’ve got more special edition box sets of new releases than you do digital albums. Though you’ve enjoyed all that 2012 has to offer (and hate-watched or hate-listened to some of it, just to confirm your already existing biases), the greatest gift is telling everyone what’s good. Because you’d know, right?

My grandfather one gave me a very sage bit of advice. He said, “Opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one, and they all stink.” (He might’ve said buttholes to preserve my virgin ears, but we all know what he really meant.) I’m an ex-journalist stranded in the realm of freelance reviewing (emphasis on free), so I understand the compulsion to slap together a list of really awesome stuff I’ve heard, seen, or read this year. I really adore taking people’s interests and recommending something new to them based on what I already know. Half the time I am riffing on what I know about their tastes, but sometimes I Just like to throw in some dark horse that I genuinely love and want to see succeed.

Therein lies the problem with an end of year list: it’s only for your personal benefit. Most individuals realize that when they are just ranting off into the blogosphere or their social media outlet of choice, but what’s up with the media? The same albums, the same movies, the same books just appear consistently, and I’m sorry, but a bunch of middle class white people can’t possibly be as infatuated with the diverse list of releases that they claim because it’s just a little bit suspicious that there is only one R&B album that appears consistently with no other representation from the genre. Not to name names, but you probably get what I mean if you’ve read, well, any fucking end of year list from any magazine this year. If you’re not saying something about yourself or your audience with your list, then what’s the point of even putting it together? It should be about the love of music, not about whether anybody’s heard of a single artist on your list. (Caveat: don’t just be a hipster and name your friend’s bands because you know nobody’s heard of them and you think that in ten years, they might just sell a hundred records.) Spoiler alert, Nicki Minaj doesn’t really need you to encourage others to sell her records. Why not break the news that there are other people out there who are actually talented and working hard?

A lot of really awesome, huge bands that I adore released albums this year. They don’t need my exposure, and they have publicity campaigns for this sort of thing. So in 2013, you should get off your ass and listen to (in alphabetical order) Bronagh Gallagher, Building Pictures, David Ford, Duke Special, Foy Vance, The Guggenheim Grotto, John Smith, Maria Doyle Kennedy, A Plastic Rose, Rosi Golan, and The Windsor Player. None’s a huge name, and not all of them have put out new music this year. But fuck it, it’s the end of the year, and I want to see them have a good 2013. Should you value my opinion? I don’t know. Why don’t you give things a listen and figure it out for yourself?

*Read with an open mind rather than getting automatically defensive about what I’m suggesting. Also realize that I do understand the irony of all of this. As you were.

Rules of the Road: How to Ride a Bus.

I’m taking a bus home for the holidays. The most efficient way to get from New York City to good old Wheeling, West Virginia is to fly, but since so many budget bus services have cropped up, it seems ridiculous to splash out four times as much when I can just lie to myself and pretend I’ll sleep through the night and wake up in my hometown. Also, I waited until November to ask for time off for Christmas. Also, I am an idiot.

So while you relish your schadenfreude and think you’re really clever to be the ONLY PERSON EVER to notice that country roads will be taking me home to West Virginia, mountain mama, I’m here to be useful. If you think that passing the time on a long bus ride is easy, then your definition of “long” must be around an hour. If that’s the case, you must be quite monied to afford plane tickets all the time. Please be in touch so I can give you my PayPal details for sponsorship. If you’re like me, or want to laugh at my existence, then please enjoy these tips for a smooth, pleasant journey.

DO: Wear something comfortable and arrive early to make sure that you get a good seat.
DO NOT: Mistake your seatmate for a pillow.

The last time I went home, I was stuck next to a Wall Street bro who was going back to Penn State for a party weekend. He struck up a conversation with me that revolved around his love for “A.C.,” and since it was July, it took me about an hour to realize that he was talking about Atlantic City. He and his hetebro life partner had smuggled a six-pack of Bud Lite (lite but never light!) onto the Megabus so they could party all the way. After two beers, the future of our fair economy decided I was a 5’5″ body pillow and fell asleep on me. As his stale beer breath struck me, I understood why I’m single.

DO: Prepare food and drinks that will get you through the trip. Know how many stops are planned.
DO NOT: Be a terrible human being.

When I was 18, I took a Greyhound to Florida because as the first paragraph says, I’m an idiot. Also, I was living on a college budget, so stop judging me. Anyway, I was somewhere around hour 25 that we picked up a man who decided to pull out a container of room temperature spaghetti. This was June or July. Sealed up tight in a bus, there was nowhere for the stench to go. I thought my torture was done, but no, my return trip home was worse. A man who was visibly intoxicated sneaked even more beer on the bus because, supposedly, he was a soldier celebrating that he was going home to his wife, who just had a baby. I could deal with him drinking all by his lonesome. I could not, however, deal with it when he stood next to me and began unzipping his pants so he could piss on me. My seatmate jumped up and forced the man into the bathroom at the back of the bus, where he promptly passed out until he was kicked off at the next stop. Pro-tip: pack moist towelettes for unexpected golden showers.

DO: Be prepared to entertain yourself a while.
DO NOT: Inconvenience everyone because your needs are most important.

I really do not need to spell this out to you. If you talk on your phone for four hours straight, you are an asshole. If you have to charge your phone because you’re spending so much time talking/playing games/watching movies at an obnoxious volume, you’re an asshole. If you don’t have a pair of headphones but won’t let that stop you because YOLO, you are doubly an asshole because you just made me type “YOLO.” May you rot in hell.

DO: Be flexible with your schedule.
DO NOT: Freak out.

Taking the bus can be awesome, especially when you get in early. However, you are at the mercy of the driver, other passengers, and the road. Accidents happen, but traffic’s even more frequent. I was on a bus to DC for a concert earlier this year when people were getting very testy about how we suffered an hour delay outside of town. Turns out it was a big, fiery car crash. How dare those jerks go and die ON THE ROAD rather than in a ditch, right? The fucking nerve. A notable exception to this “quit yer bitchin'” rule was when Megabus cancelled all of their buses out of DC during a “blizzard” that netted the city about half an inch of snow.

DO: Be friendly.
DO NOT: Be rude.

Don’t be overly friendly either. Creep.

Endings, beginnings, things, and ings.

I am the age now that my cousin was when he died.

“Died” feels like the wrong word to use to describe what happened to him. “Killed” sounds too much like murder, like something personal, though it was. He was an American and a soldier. Any other fact about his life was irrelevant. He was part of a team that dismantled bombs. A man sat down next to him and detonated explosives that killed more than twenty people.

This was December 21, 2004. I had just finished my first semester of college and was exhausted from the long drive from Cleveland back to Wheeling. All I wanted to do was goof around on the Internet, but these were the wonder days of dial-up. My cousin Scott had left a voicemail on our Internet Answering Machine (remember those?) asking my mother to call him back. She did on her cell phone, sitting in my room looking shocked. She waited until she hung up to let loose the tears and say, “Cory’s dead.”

There’s no going back to the moment before holding such knowledge, when your only concern is how slowly things are loading. You only get to look forward to the next moment when the things that draw the most attention are frivolous again.

I’ve lost other relatives since 2004, people I have loved very much, but the thought of Cory still hits me hard. He’d coveted the chance to join the Army and then one day get a job at the Pentagon. He struggled for years to slim down and tone up enough to enlist. But I don’t really give that much thought. When I think of him, I think of the guy who had stacks of VHS recordings in his room, Monty Python and the Holy Grail  being the most influential in my young life. I think of him watching an early airing of “Jeopardy!” so he could watch the show again in the living room at my grandparents’ house, impressing everyone with his intelligence. I think of one of our last conversations in person when we argued over who sang the song “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” (It was Deep Blue Something, like I said. Sorry, Cory. Your refrain of “You’re wrong” didn’t change the facts.)

Cory was the first one who was part of “my” generation in my family to go to college. He liked history and mysteries, and we called him Mr. A+ Man because he seemed so smart. He made it okay to be a bit nerdy and to have aspirations. We were all going to grow up and have these incredible, far-flung careers, as college and our modest upbringings had assured us since we worked so hard. I’ve still never left the country. He came back in a box, and we were only ever allowed to see his mangled dogtags. The rest was far too grim, even for his parents. You can study, but there will still be guns. You can make the grade, but wars will claim victims who never committed an act of violence. How do you deal with the darkness out in the world without making that grief a daily part of you?

You live. There’s really no other rational choice, and better yet, it comes naturally. It may take weeks or longer, but you cannot live in isolation because we simply aren’t made that way. Something will break through. It could be a pet, a joke, a favorite dish. For me, it was a song. I don’t care how many times it’s been played or covered, I will be forever grateful for Snow Patrol’s “Run” being released when it was. The pairing of “light up, light up” with “as if you have a choice” that jarred me from lingering on the past. I fell for the song, the album, and the band, and I suddenly had so much to look forward to.

So even though this time of year gets me down, I’m going to use it as fuel. I’ll watch Monty Python, but I won’t forget to laugh. I’ll listen to Final Straw but not any less or more than usual. I’ll look back on the six times I heard “Run” live this year and be grateful for all the friends who have come into my life during these concerts who I didn’t know eight years ago. I’m looking forward because 26 is a fraction of a life, and I won’t know how much of my own existence it will add up to be until it no longer matters.

Dear commuter, you are an asshole.

Hey, you. Yeah, you. You with your hideous trash bag resting on the seat next to you. (But it’s Marc by Marc Jacobs! you argue shrilly.) You leaning your entire body against the doors. You having a party on the platform because it’s Friday night, bitches!!!!!! Yeah, you’re an asshole.

I’ve never traveled abroad, so I’m not sure how other subway systems around the world compare. However, I can say without question that the New York City harbors an intense concentration of assholes. Perhaps they are oblivious, or maybe they just feel entitled. Regardless of the cause, residents and tourists alike seem to revel in making the uncomfortable experience of taking the subway even more intense. So, without further adieu, and because I get to look forward to taking the subway to work tomorrow morning, here are my top ten unsolicited tips on how to ride the subway in such a manner that you might actually be polite. Nobody will return the favor, but at least I get to vent.

1. Do not cross your legs during rush hour. When you’re packed to the gills on the subway, someone having his or her legs crossed means their legs jut out into open floor space. People can either straddle your legs and give you a free lap dance, or they can twist around you and get kicked in the shins but your thoughtlessness for the next hour. Just don’t do it.

2. Your balls are not that big. Every. Single. Day. I see a guy who has his legs spread apart like his knees both contain magnets that repel one another. Of course you’re the biggest man to ever man, but there’s no reason to deny another person a chance to sit down for the airy comfort of your nether regions. Likewise, if you have a bag between your feet, you don’t have to give it a foot of space on either side so your shins serve as bumpers.

3. Hold the pole with your hand, not your buttocks. Seriously? Yes, seriously. I have all too often seen people decide that the pole is the perfect size to wedge deftly into a certain bodily crevice. It’s not right. It’s probably not sanitary. And if you’re that comfortable with things going up your ass, maybe you should practice that hobby elsewhere. Additionally, do not hug the pole. You’re depriving other people a chance to hold on, and they really don’t want to hug you. Unless you ask, and then it’s okay.

4. Be aware of your stuff. I’ve never seen someone robbed on the train because they were oblivious. I have, however, seen and experienced being beaten by oversized bags, backpacks, umbrellas, musical instruments, breakdancers…you name it. I’m fragile, and so is my Kindle. I know because I just broke one last week.

5. The subway is not your stage. I’m cool with buskers in the subways, on the streets, you name it, but it seems that only the least talented are the sort who move from car to car, begging for money from a captive audience. If I’ve just been at work for nine hours, I really don’t want to listen to dreary accordion music while your sad wife walks behind you, carrying your child on her chest while her freshly bleached hair indicates that maybe you’re not that desperate for cash. Once again, breakdancers, you’re totally talented for being able to do what you do, let alone in motion, but STOP KICKING NEAR MY FACE. Children, you probably aren’t selling candy to fundraise for your school in July, and I really don’t want any overpriced fruit chews, so stop.

6. You do know other people can smell you, right? Never is this a more prevalent problem than in summer, when sweaty commuters raise their arms high to hold on. I’m unfortunately armpit height for many a natural, devil may care hipster, but natural body odors are not the only issue. People of all ages decide that they’d like nothing more than to smell like a giant ball of cotton, a poisonous flower, or a dress that’s been in an attic long enough to collect five generations of moths.  The bad smells on the subway come naturally enough, so there’s no reason to add to it with your chemical intervention. Bonus round! Never ever ever paint your nails on the subway.

7. I am not your pillow. I don’t understand how people can fall asleep on the subway. Yes, I’ve nodded off a few times, but it’s always been very late while under the influence of alcohol. It has never gone well. If you’re that sleepy, then maybe try to get more rest before you leave for work. I understand that some people are working two jobs or going to school at the same time. Whatever. The justified few do not excuse everyone.

8. Do your makeup at home. I do admire the women who are able to line their eyes without looking while in motion since I can barely manage while I’m sitting still and holding my breath. Still, what they do is obnoxious. They become distracted and don’t care what angle their elbows have to accomplish because that cat’s eye flick has to be just so. Also, how do they know that they’ll get a seat so they can actually do their makeup? God knows how many bodies have been stuffed into trashcans for the luxury. No wonder the MTA wants to get rid of the trash in the stations.

9. Get your iPhone out of my face. Most stations do not have WiFi yet. This hasn’t stopped many young professionals (and old professionals, and general lazy people) from having their iPhones/Blackberries/whatevers out on the subway, writing emails. Your email will not send. Why is communicating with the outside world so urgent? Would you be writing emails in your car during your commute home? No wonder so many people get into car crashes. Also, I don’t need to hear what you’re listening to as much as you do. If I can make out every word, how can you? Every time someone flips one headphone so the rest of the train can hear their music, a unicorn is disemboweled in hell.

10. Just be kind. Is that so hard? Apparently. When the conductor asks you to move to the center of the car, they mean everyone. Just because you’re getting off the train in five stops doesn’t mean that you deserve to be by the door, blocking everyone’s path. Stop standing up when you’re getting off at the next stop. You will still be able to stand up and exit the train when it stops, promise, and then you won’t be engaging in frottage. If you see someone elderly, stop applying your mascara and offer your seat. Ditto if you see someone pregnant, struggling with crutches, or even with really small children. If there’s a delay, maybe roll your eyes and grumble with a neighbor. Do not prepare for the impending revolution to overthrow the MTA, those assholes, why is the L train always fucked, I won’t have time to get my latte, the world is ending, etc. Don’t throw people on the tracks or shoot or stab them. Why do I even have to say this? We’re just people trying to get from point A to point B as cheaply as possible. Stop throwing elbows. It’s not a competition.

I’m sure all of this sounds completely obvious, but you’d be surprised. Unless you’ve taken the train in New York, in which case you’re either nodding along or brandishing your weapon because getting to and fro is tough shit, man. Feel free to share your subway pet peeves!