[This is a bit of creative short fiction, based on a photo I took and embedded below. It's called...]
TO SWERVE WITH LOVE
When Nathan’s phone lit up, he thought of the missing Radnor girls. He leaned back with hope and dread, fingers tracing his temples, churning both feelings into froth. This whole hand-on-forehead pose was a relatively new look for him, but he’s getting really good at it. It was the opposite of a power-pose; it signaled the end of his practically pathological, life-long sanguinity.
("How can anyone be so stupidly chill all the time?" Nathan’s short-tempered dorm mate once huffed as they took down wall-hangings at the end of freshman year.
"Have a Brentwood art therapist for a mom whose closest thing to a vice is loving socialism, ayahuasca, and vegan treats; stir into the heart; serve daily," he thought. That’s not what he said, though. Instead Nathan shrugged, grinned, and administered a hug before taking off for the summer. He hadn’t spoken much with his dorm mate that year. After that maneuver they never spoke again.)
These days Nathan’s" stupidly chill"-ness was at an all-time low. His doctoral thesis was nearly due and completely unwritten, beyond the deceptively promising title to which he’d become fatally attached. ("Brainfeeder & The Beats: The Bridge From Kamasi To Kerouac.") (Don’t get excited; it ain’t happening.) His financial prospects for life without timely graduation were hairy at best. And then there was the matter of his belongings, which technically couldn’t even be called that anymore.
One week ago, Nathan came home to an emptied-out apartment and an alert that his Chase bank account had been drained. Along with his life savings ($6,843) and his collection of signed Raymond Carver shorts (priceless), the Radnor girls stole his focus. In fairness, his friends had been telling him this for months, but it took lust begetting larceny for him to see it, too.
Now he was Stuck.
So when Sarita asked him to cover a shift at the bookstore this morning, Nathan jumped. Anything to flip the script on yet another day of busy getting nowhere on this Contemporary Culture Crit thesis. But also, Nathan would do anything for Sarita. Because even now, he would basically do anything for anyone. Even now, Nathan was easy with a favor and a smile.
That’s how the Radnor girls went from guests in his bed, to unexpected cohabitants, to whatever weird version of Thelma & Louise they were now shaping up to be.
* * *
"Maybe I ought to rethink this whole 'reflexive amicability' thing," Nathan said to his father. "I feel like I’m always letting people down, even though I can never say 'No' to anyone. Is that normal?"
“Look, you wouldn't even be here if I knew how to be an asshole,” Dad said in his Philosopher King courtroom voice, scraping caramelized onions from the pan onto his son’s dinner plate. “Your mom and I met at a recreational etiquette club in Cambridge, for Christ’s sake. You're cursed with kindness and conscience. Mea culpa, Nat. Want my legal advice?" He took a beat for dramatic effect: "Run with it. Do good! Just make sure you keep your skin thick and swerve to avoid the pricks." He leaned in for the kill with a wet whisper: "And when the pricks make you swerve… just make it part of the dance."
Nat learned something that day: A dad with onion breath dispensing advice is as tough to bear as it is unforgettable.
* * *
The Radnor girls were the saucy sort of trouble that announces itself on first glance, and becomes irresistible when coupled with social grace and good taste. Then again, they didn’t have much competition. At the time, Nathan had been spending way too many nights at The Spud in some sadomasochistic pursuit of a beathead to bed. It was summer, so things were slow at the campus bars. After a few weeks of hard knocks, he’d been reduced to becoming "Perpetually Three Drinks In And Ready To Propose If This Girl Picks Anything From The Jukebox That Is Electronic And Also Not By Someone Who’s Ever Done A Vegas Residency" guy. His doctoral desperation was taking on nocturnal dimension. It was the beginning of The Stuck.
So on that night when these two new faces came in and bee-lined for the glowing screen near the DJ booth, tapped the screen, then smiled their way over to the bar to the lurching synth-bass of Boards Of Canada’s "ROYGBIV," the world got slow and Nathan started seeing colors.
Full of reposado courage and its correlative cloudy character judgment, he made his way over. Somewhere along the walk, he decided one of them would be the solvent to his Stuck.
Three months later, he was enmeshed in a codependent love-triangle with two beatheads from Radnor.
Something was always off, though.
There was the secretive glint in their eyes that Nathan pretended not to see and chalked up to their long personal history when he did.There were moments when their laughter curdled into a conspiratorial cackle, leaving Nathan either to join in blindly or exit the room. (What is anyone supposed to do when confronted with runaway giggling, anyway?) There was the hurried closing of browser windows when he'd return early from a shift at the book store. (Not enough RAM?) And there was the social media preoccupation with the Kardashians and the Hadids, delivered in surgical punchlines which belied deep fixation.
"Wouldn’t it be easier just to think about something else than to sneer?" Nathan once chided. The girls looked at him, then each other, then cackled. Nathan started feeling his mom’s art therapy techniques bubbling up in him. He turned away and found his fingers rubbing his temples.
The persistent and uneasy reality that he knew next to nothing about these girls who were squatting in his bed never left him. But he couldn’t help himself. They were good to him in that bed. They knew who Oneohtrix Point Never was. He had the nagging sense that they wouldn’t pass Dad’s prick-test, but surely even a retired lawyer could recognize how rare it is to find girls who were interested in threesomes and also Burial? And sure, he hadn’t written a thing in forever, but at least something was happening.
It went like that for awhile. And then last week, they were gone.
* * *
“IT’S THEM.” Sarita’s text lit up Nathan’s phone. He stared at it, her words sinking in his heart, turning to gas in his gut.
"What do you mean," Nathan thumbed back. Brow furrowed. Hand to head. Churn.
"Turn on the news. TV guys are talking about it now."
He looked up at the screen over the door in the bookstore. His back started sweating.
There were those faces, just like that first night; two takes on the same trouble, rendered in static split-screen.
Then he looked down at the lower-third beneath their avatars.
"RADNOR GIRLS TWEETS FROM FYRE FESTIVAL GO VIRAL, REVEALING VIP OUTRAGE."
This was the day that the rapper Ja Rule’s ill-conceived Instagram tastemaker flyaway festival Fyre had collapsed under the weight of its outsized exclusivity and pretension. It was an event that promoted itself with bikini-clad videos starring the Kardashians and the Hadids. It was the "all-inclusive" festival that demanded $3,000 a ticket, then couldn’t even deliver smooth bus rides from the overburdened Bahamian airport to the substandard "VIP cabanas."
It was the festival fail that launched a million memes, with social media maelstrom spurred on by tweets from the very girls who robbed him to buy their way.
The world got slow again. "ROYGBIV" started looping in his head as the newscast cut to an image of Ja Rule, flustered and fallen. Nathan never had reason to simultaneously consider the existence of Boards Of Canada and Ja Rule before that moment, and the way these worlds collided now was absurd.
For the first time in so long, he was the one with the giggles.
Yes, his money was gone. But so was the perma-clench in his gut. Even his anger over being duped into thinking these girls might actually like him melted away, replaced with a flood of words.
His feelings about mindless materialism suddenly had language. He began scribbling the first bits of concrete prose he’d laid in an age, tiny surfaces on which he reconstructed the silly edifice of modern consumerist preoccupations. The festival which he’d ignored from afar was now a part of his personal experience, and this immediacy brought with it an urgent perspective on hashtag culture.
He now had some skin in the game. Just like the Radnor girls. They gave it to him.
He moved to the top of his notebook page and wrote a phrase.
"Fyre Talk With Me: How I Unknowingly Funded The Nadir Of Conspicuous Consumption."
It took him many months and thousands of dollars, but he finally felt it. His writer’s block was crumbling, but this was something bigger: He was Unstuck.
Nathan let go of his temples. His shoulders relaxed. He thought of the Radnor girls’ laugh, and he laughed, too. He wasn’t mad.
He was swerving.
Dad was right. Thank onions.
* * *