Joey Cruse - "My Nature's Plague"

 

Though I perchance am vicious in my guess,    

As I confess, it is my nature’s plague

To spy into abuses, and oft my jealousy

Shapes faults that are not…

Othello Act. III Sc. III ll. 145-8

 

Jake told me he tossed around the idea of shearing off his hair a month ago. I asked him why.

“Why would you ever consider shaving off those dark chocolate curls? Your mother’d be heartbroken.”

“I feel like shit. Doctor can only discover what’s wrong by checking what I don’t have off the list. Lacy’s antsy, I never feel like fucking.”

He let out a sigh and laughed and shrugged his shoulders.

“Fresh start.”

Lacy and Jake moved in and their relationship immediately came under a steady stream of pestilence and hardship. Jake shacked up and started having intestinal problems related to a combination of chocolate and beer or a rare form of gastrointestinal Lyme disease; followed by hives; followed by flu; and, for a moment there, a tiny bout with some Crohn’s caused by nasty shellfish. He was a hot mess, but feeling better due to mild changes in diet and a resurrecting libido. Lacy worked as a nurse at the hospital and was recently kicked out of the front woman position in her band: Rapist Wit and the Do-Gooders. She never let on her feelings were hurt – classy.

“Well, fuck right you dumb bastard. Fake it til’ you make it. When do you take the buzzers to your quaff?”

“I was thinking about throwing a party.”

“Why would people want to watch you cut your fucking hair?”

He shook his head.

“No, whoever comes can cut whatever they want off.”

“I like the way you think.”

Alexa sat in the car, stewing, and I love her annoyance. The process, the rise and fall of her frustration, possessed an adorableness requiring one to smirk as much allowed without inciting further wrath.

“I hate being late.”

“Why? We always are.”

The party started at 8. We we’re arriving at what the dashboard said was 9:38 and I felt I took the proper amount of time needed to comfortably drink into the impending social situation.

“Jake won’t notice. He’ll see us and think the party started over. No one will care. Except you, you always care.”

“Every time we go out, you drink so much beforehand you flirt with some woman by the end.”

I do usually drink before we go out.

“I don’t always end up flirting with other women.”

“Last time you and Lacy were talking in the kitchen for twenty minutes after everyone left.”

 “About the wine. You were dragging on Jake’s cigarette on the patio.”

Alexa turned to look out the window. She didn’t want to talk to me for a minute. That was fine. Her silence was long enough to not miss the turn onto Canedy.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that sometimes,” she said.

“What? Talk?”

“Be the way you are.”

We parked along the street next to Jake’s house. I grabbed the beer next to Alexa’s feet, got out of the car, and slipped, fell, desperately, clawingly, trying to save the bottles. A spider in the bush crawled, leg by leg, to wrap up a moth, thing could’ve killed Kennedy’s head on a fifty cent piece, and here I was thinking I wouldn’t get eaten.

The crowd inside sang Take on Me between the cracks in the siding and windows. Alexa rubbed my shoulders and put her head on my back. Her cheek felt warm through my coat and we waited for our knock to attract attention. It didn’t, but we weren’t bothered by that. I opened the door into what could only be described as an adult-pubescent gathering of Lacy’s friends, a collection of backwards hats and hoodies with former college insignia, screaming, off-key, to a thronging crowd of video-people. I grabbed a beer out of the grocery bag, twisted the top, and took a long swig.

Jake was standing in the door frame between a mason jar full of Fiskers and the fridge. My choices became difficult: sacrifice the pleasure of taking a snip out of the middle of his part or face the displeasure of these palest of pale ales heated to an undrinkable lukewarmness.

Always forge to the fridge.

Squirreling bottles, I stuffed glass behind steak sauces, underneath lettuce, horizontally beside eggs - hidden well enough to require looking for but easy enough to find when I forgot my stash. I did the same with Alexa’s.

“Jake how about some tequila my good man?”

I knew he kept the remnants of a bottle in his cupboards.

“You brought tequila?”

He thought I was offering him a drink.

“No, let’s drink what’s left of your shitty tequila and end all our misery.”

Mine was straight and burned. Jake drank with salt - lime didn’t agree with either of us.

“When do we start?”

I asked Jake and his head.

“We were waiting for you.”

I looked to Alexa. She glared, then smiled, and I really like her smile so I shut my mouth.

The party had two rules: Jake couldn’t touch scissors and you had to stay away from his ass. In preparation, he arrayed all the tools one could want to cut hair. Various sizes of scissors, for various sizes of hands, were strewn across the sewing table in the corner of the dining room. Looking to deal damage? The unsharpened garden sheers crooked on the window sill were a good option. Lacy had found a barber’s blade at goodwill and hid the murder weapon on the corner of the sewing table – destined to be found by the drunk during the most dangerous moment of the evening. Jake even hooked three sets of clippers to a power strip on extension cords so party goers could pounce. Alexa grabbed a pair of scissors off the table.

“Sit down, Jake.”

The phrase wouldn’t have been imposing if she hadn’t been holding sharpened scissors in her left hand, tequila in her right, saying the words like Hannibal Lecter, but she did and it was and Jake sat down. She began trimming unruly locks down the back of Jake’s neck. He looked less like a stricken pop singer and more like Roger - the down-syndromed cousin of the Three Stooges. Upwards, into the mass, she thinned out thicker parts underneath so the length would lie flat against his skull. Lifting hair up, chopping, she cut across bangs forming a bulbous protrusion on his forehead, the clips piling on the floor. She spent fifteen minutes hacking and layering this rounded weave intended for the Charleston - wanting his hair to look good though it was a woman’s bob on hairy man - and was beautiful in her care.

“How do I look?” Jake asked.

He looked like an ugly flapper girl. If he was a woman during the period, they would still be fighting to vote. Alexa handed him a mirror.

“Better,” I said.

“Wonderful,” Alexa said.

I needed the kitchen, sacred, housing the fridge where everyone praises their drinks. All of us, gathered ‘round, feigning friendly, but really waiting for someone to ask if anyone wants another round (although I never ask if anyone wants another round). Lacy’s house was a throughway from the front door to the back and you could walk straight across. The problem with this construction being that Jake set the snacks in the dining room and to smoke you had to walk through the kitchen, outside, creating a bottleneck of nicotine addicts blocking the goddamn fridge. I shimmied the inside wall, doing my best to avoid the stampede between tobacco and fucking cheese doodles, waiting for my opportune moment. I dived headfirst and opened a church as good as any.

Empty.

Not empty in the sense there wasn’t the run-of-the-mill condiment to food ratio – 5 to 1 – but that there weren’t any bottles I put in the goddamn fridge.

“Who drank my fucking beer?”

I didn’t particularly yell at anyone as I yelled.

“You assholes. What kind of cunt takes someone else’s beer?”

No one in the crowd responded. The crowd never responds. They stare. Like cunts.

Caught between their loves and my disdain, I ran, an Alzheimer’s patient playing lost dog to its utmost potential, to discover abandonment by the only three people I wanted to see. I looked for any sign of Alexa or Jake or Lacy and panicked. Alone, some lumberjack was butchering Rocky Raccoon and there was nothing to drink, I sat down. Done.

••

I took Alexa to an art show the week previous. A co-op’s first collective collection being put on in a warehouse north of our apartment. I knew the painters from poetry readings and felt obligated to be reciprocal. The event included free wine and a string quartet. We ignored the food – she didn’t eat meat and I didn’t eat vegetables – and went straight for the alcohol. Artists were easy to deal with one on one, but, in a room full of them trying to explain their own greatness, one was required to match a certain level of social drunkenness.

“Whatever red you have.”

“We’re out of wine and cups. Someone’s picking up more. It’s gonna be a few.”

My soul was crushed. Our souls were crushed. Had it been any better, the art would’ve had the goddamn due diligence to cut through my bullshit, but it was contemporary and didn’t. In no way did I want to walk around the fucking room without wine. I feigned optimistic.

“Do you want to loop around and hope?”

She lovingly looked back as if I’d never read a book.

“No, I really don’t.”

Lord, love me them smart ones.

If there was a public space Alexa inhabited, then there was another citizen who had known her or shared some form of contact since high school. The best of social butterflies, she flew through any environment with an empathy that derailed anyone into obsession. Ten minutes in, Jackson walked up to introduce himself. A former friend and a menial skateboarder-loaf just returned from California, he couldn’t speak to Alexa without being inches from her body - angling towards her to speak whatever nonsense he spoke. Talking his smallest of talk, he would lean in to touch her shoulder, position himself step-by step away from the group so Alexa could, gradually, naturally, follow him. A lecherous, pecker-gnat.

He had managed to find wine and Alexa was looking.

“Take this.”

Fearless, gorgeous, she drank. There was no point in watching or, as per my usual speed, making a scene. I walked off.

I was jealous, but he was an asshole.

Delivery made, the wine flowed and I ordered a large red, as large of large that was allowed and surveyed the room. The host was a violent impressionist, beautiful vibrancy layered into the grotesque. He’d hung the king of clouds on a pile of skulls, the rudimentary dismembered woman in a flower full meadow, petals slathered over the arm of a dead negro in a field. These bright blues and hot pink reds perfectly stroked into the decomposing, obscuring the great, black depth beneath. The expected local artistry included such gems as diagramed birdhouses rearranged within the context of a doll house, the repetitive and dreadful Alice-in-Wonderland-y portraits of pale women, someone had painted a bowl of fruit, trapezoidal aesthetics in yellow and orange. Not any Seurats in the bunch, but some not without all talent. And I caught myself, knowing better, focused on scanning the people and not the work.

No Alexa.

I figured the obscene obelisks in the middle of the room blocked my vantage, and, yet, I still gnawed through bodies to each corner for some new position, the correct angle, the perfect lighting, to see she’d gone. I found her once in a Chicago, tight, crowd of 80,000 in Grant Park, and now I couldn’t see her out of 75 in a finitely spaced garage on the Northside. I turned, away from the yellow bird in black cage, to the sway of Alexa’s coat blended in the crowd. Fingers around waist, Jackson guided Alexa through the entrance/exit – they were the same. He whispered, they hugged, and split.

Alexa walked towards me wined-up and pleasant.

“See anything you like?”

“Not at all. Art is art is art. Find what you were looking for?”

The paintings were sarcastic the rest of the evening.

She walked up behind me, talking, and I ignored her enough to necessitate the slide of a hand across my back to bring me into the present.

“How many have you had?”

“How many have I had of what?”

“To drink. What have you had to drink?”

“I don’t count. Only fucking old women count.”

She laughed how a person who thinks something is funny without understanding laughs.

“You look lost.”

“I am.”

She sat down.

“Audrey.”

“Like the actress?”

“No. How do you know Jake?”

“He’s a friend of mine. We met through his brother and a mutual friend. How do you know Lacy?”

“I moved into the spare in October. Boyfriend problems.”

My foot landed on hers. She had purposely placed the top of her toe past the implicit half way mark beneath the table so there was no avoiding her feet short of standing up or moving.

“That’s my foot.”

She pressed her toe through leather and into my sole. I didn’t want to be rude, but I was going to be.

“Move your foot then.”

She didn’t.

“Why are you sitting all by your lonesome?”

“Because I don’t want to know anyone.”

“You know Jake.”

“Yes, but he’s gone.”

“Who’d you come with?”

“My ladyfriend.”

“Where is she?”

“Around. I assume around.”

Her teeth broke flash bulbs. Audrey put her hand on my thigh.

“You need a drink.”

I looked down at her hand.

“Yes. I do.”

Alexa, Jake, and Lacy entered, carrying bottles upon bottles upon bottles. I stood up, Audrey’s hand, clammy, slipping off my leg, and made a beeline for love and booze.

Alexa looked up and down in appropriate distaste.

“You thought I left again didn’t you?”

“You always leave long enough for me to think so.”

She handed me a bottle of wine. My love.

“Jake. Let’s cut some fucking hair.”

•••

The night was tired, drunk, our bedroom cold from windows made in the Midwest during the fucking 20’s, and we argued hours after the party. Alexa stared, pausing as she does before every sentence. I had eyebrow raised, rattling off answers in my head to all possible questions and statements about to be demanded.

“I’ve been telling the truth.”

“Never. You are a liar. You believe your lies so much you don’t know what truth is. You don’t. I saw you two in the dining room. I said, I told you, you drink too much and end up talking with some woman.”

“Audrey? I didn’t touch Audrey.”

Alexa grabbed my hardback of The Pill vs. The Springhill Mine Disaster and threw it at me, missed, and took a corner sized hunk out of the wall behind me.

“Her hand was in your fucking lap. If not hers, then someone else.”

I ducked, caught my shin on the corner of the bed and stood up, fast and hot, embarrassed, a fool, and copped an attitude.

“You let Jackson’s hand up and down your back at the art show.”

“Nothing happened at the art show, and you certainly didn’t stop her. Are you alright?”

“Fuck. No. I’m not. You’re right. I hadn’t moved her hand from my body. Passive. Wanting, seeing, where she would go. A handjob for certain, but, had you not walked in, who can imagine what I’d’ve done? Let her keep going? Hand across my jeans onto my dick making her all cock-crazy and ready to drag me off into her shitty bedroom to fuck.”

“But you’re allowed to fixate on one man putting his hand on my back? What did you two do while I was gone?”

“Nothing. Where did you walk off with him? I searched that art show. I walked those mediocre paintings. Bummed a joe, pretended I smoked, went outside to see. No you. No Jackson. No one.”

“What do you want from me?”

The only trust lacking was mine with myself and I realized my drunk delusions as delusions far too late. Exhaustion and shame sapped moisture off of my tongue, the bruise forming. We needed tomorrow. Everything is better the next morning.

“We should be in bed.”

Nothing in the open, nothing solved: these matters of loving another much too much. I doubt we ever really let anything go. Alexa crawled under the covers and turned onto her side. I saw beauty and pain, curved, sculpted into the sheets and heard her breathing from across the room. I flipped down the light switch, she exhaled, the room went black.

 

Joseph Cruse is a writer, an actor, a bad painter, and an even worse English student – he is, easily more, a lot of nothing and everything. When not getting into trouble, he explores New Orleans, sprays graffiti scenes of movies onto canvas, and works at a coffee shop. Other short story work has also been featured in Bareback and Phree Write Magazine. All these years, and he still thinks he's funny.