“So like”—Juliet ran her fingertips over the artificial but comforting woven fabric of her tights, and plucked at an errant red thread that’d made its way onto the black part—“when older guys at family gatherings say ‘where’s my hug’ and you’re eight and he smells like off-brand Fritos, you don’t have to hug them?”
“You don’t.” River, blessed with a mind that readily grasped everything except cruelty, often found themselves in this situation: the spark had connected for someone else for the first time, and whoever it was who’d found themselves questioning their world sought out River’s gentle guidance. It never got old; nor did it get easier. But in the short time since meeting Juliet, River felt themselves somewhat responsible for Juliet’s development—not enough to declare themselves a mentor; enough to help build up her resilience as a performing artist—and would’ve breached the topic of boundaries even if it hadn’t come up organically.
As for Juliet’s part, her challenge had become managing her emotions, plainly displayed and shifting so frequently the club’s flashing LEDs were what her mind must have looked like. The following happened while Juliet maintained unblinking eye contact with River and lasted under a second. She’d been opening her eyes and mouth both as far as they’d go, and upon being given permission to refuse the crusty uncle’s touch, pulled her lips even further into a smile that approached psychotic. Then right as she’d managed that, the implications kicked in and she deflated as readily as if a pin caused it. First of all, it struck her as cold that she should be so thrilled at her uncle’s expense; there was also the reality that she’d have to cause conflict, something she naturally had trouble with. “But isn’t it rude?”
“Isn’t it rude for him to not care what you want? But if you see standing up for yourself as selfish, I got you. Takes a second to unlearn. Think of it this way. Even though there’s something in it for you, being challenged on it sends the message that he’s less likely to get away with it the next time. So if you have a younger sibling or something—“
“—or if there are older relatives there that he’s creeped on in the past, it’ll cause some waves. And you have to pay attention to who doesn’t condemn your actions, because there’s a good chance they agree with you but won’t risk questioning social norms like you do.”
Juliet slapped both thighs with her open palms and sighed out her tension. “Ugh! I might actually be able to enjoy those things—family reunions—one day. Where have you been this whole time?”
“Pardon me. Ladies? Hello?”
The last voice was one unknown to both River and Juliet, and once they saw its source, though nothing had been said between them, they were both surprised a jacket as pink as this one had gotten so close without either of them commenting. The man wearing the pink jacket didn’t interest them as much: the energy he gave was like a failed salesman, an MLM knife guy almost, and so an item of clothing that may have delighted them had it been hanging off a clubgoer with a clear lumberjack’s statue or killer eyeliner—or both—came off as cartoonishly smarmy. If that were true, if he indeed were a failed salesman, it wasn’t because his numbers were off or his hygiene left something to be desired, nothing like that. More because his opening statement suggested he was prone to putting down whomever he was talking to after besting them by some metric only he knew or cared about.
“Hello?” He waved again now that the two on the couch were looking at him. “Ah, so you do have manners.”
As she turned to watch River’s response—no way she was handling this herself—Juliet’s pin-sized pupils hadn’t caught up to her widening eyes. And it seemed like River was turning back to Juliet, prepared to ignore the guy. So now it seemed as if, to Juliet, her presence was affecting the other sim’s behavior in a way she wouldn’t have chosen otherwise. But it made no difference. The younger woman looked toward River for what to do.
River nodded her chin toward the man. “No thank you. We’d rather talk amongst ourselves right now.”
“Then you shouldn’t have been talking in public then.”
“Go away.” Juliet’s tone was sharp and decisive. What River hadn’t been able to say, and which they’d failed to lead by example, was that after they’d stated the desire not to talk, the best way to lead up on that was to show rather than tell—to ignore the guy. That way he’d know they were serious. Now, what Juliet’s response taught him was if he tried hard enough, they’d let him back into the conversation. It wasn’t her fault. No one taught her, and she didn’t know what the options were. But it would feel like River was blaming her if they tried to do a post-mortem on the interaction later. It wasn’t something they wanted to think about, but the thought had invited itself anyway.
He continued. “All that poor man wanted was a little bit of affection from his niece, and you’re treating him like a monster. Why wouldn’t you do something so small if you knew it made him happy? It sounds like you hate him for no reason.”
By this point River had tuned out the guy’s monologuing because they already know where he was going. They watched Juliet. She was so close to breaking. River knew the situation was out of their control. They would have to step aside and let her speak.
And Juliet was ready.
“We know. We know what he wants. He’s allowed to tell us and we’re not allowed to say anything back. That’s the point. We both have the right to feel things about an interaction, to want it or not—but when I say something about it, random strangers come up to me to defend him. What else do you need to prove how one-sided that is?”
“Calm down. No one is forcing you to do anything.” Cocking his head to the side, he torqued his arms so his palms flew open to the sky, as if offering up information on a tray. With a little flower and a bill for his time. “Before you two gang up on me, I just want you to consider the facts here. I know you say you don’t want to give the poor man a hug. But why? Let’s talk about that. Have you considered that maybe it’s because you hate men? That you’re withholding affection to make him feel bad so you can get some perverse pleasure from his suffering? It’s not like he poses a danger, so if you think about the net benefits, it’s better for you to just suck it up, be a big girl and give him the hug.”
Juliet’s next word came out as a gasp that ended prematurely as she felt River’s hand on her shoulder. Confused, she relinquished her attention from the interloper, and saw River give a nod, a nod that indicated a plan. She sunk back into the plasticy bar cushions.
On River’s end, they’d put a hand on Juliet, gotten her to sit back and watch, and now had to deal with this situation that was going nowhere. No plan at all. Since Juliet had engaged the man, their options were now to get the heat off Juliet and onto them, or watch the situation play out. They understood the benefits and drawbacks of either. One option was to let Juliet see for herself the impact of continuing the conversation. Or they could assume she was already familiar and would benefit from exposure to an alternative method.
So it’s settled; the hard way it was.
Their decision having been made, River continued. “Just in case you didn’t notice, we are listening to what you think. We listened to what he thinks. You are telling us what we think. Hate prevents empathy. Who cannot empathize with whom? Who hates whom?”
The man rolled his eyes and slammed his hands on his green pants, the kind of green that was slightly maler than pastel. “Give me some credit. Of course I’m listening. I’m allowed to disagree with you, you know.”
It wasn’t the time, so River tried looking at Juliet in a way that said this is totally lost, so here’s my secret method of determining whether someone is arguing in good faith, hoping it didn’t read as check out my awesome method that is going to have everyone in this bar hooting and clapping. “Luckily, there’s an easy way to test that claim. Can you repeat our position back to us without strawmanning, dismissing, or belittling it?”
“Of course I can!” He did not elaborate.
River turned to Juliet. “Can you repeat his position without strawmanning, dismissing, or belittling it?”
“Yes, easily! I grew up with it! He wants me to hug him. He wants me to want to hug him. If I refused, he would feel unloved.” Juliet did jazz hands. No one understood why. “Done. Now it’s your turn.”
What the two bandmates witnessed next was an attempt to make an eyeroll sound loud. The man continued, “I don’t have to do anything. You failed. You don’t know how he’s feeling. So that’s a strawman.”
Juliet was about to open her mouth again to ask the man how he would have done it, when River stopped them again. With a lifted hand, palm toward Juliet, like how a traffic controller would.
“This is going nowhere. He’s not playing by the same rules we are. He won’t budge an inch.”
“Rules? What rules?”
“Come on, River, what about all the logic talk earlier? Surely there’s something you can do to make him see. Can’t you at least trap him in a corner or something?”
“Juliet. Listen.” River was leaning in and talking under the music. “At this point, he wants us to believe it’s possible, through conversation, to change his mind. But you have to see that’s a lie. He is willing to make up, ignore, and misinterpret what he has to in order to sustain the appearance of truth. Because that’s what manipulators do.”
The guy had caught enough words to get the message. “Are you accusing me of being evil? Of being illogical? That’s a little reductive, isn’t it?”
A grunt escaped from the back of River’s throat. It wasn’t clear, to them or anyone else, why they were leaning experimental today. But before they could reflect on why, they were monologuing. Like a fucking chump; like one of the mustache train tracks guys.
“There’s no need to take what I say as a personal attack. I care about two things. Arguments and the content of arguments. And I mean arguments in the academic sense, not as an ideological attack. Nothing else. If I identify a logical fallacy, a gap in information, I bring it to light on the off chance that you care about the same things I do. Because if someone pointed out a flaw in my reasoning? I would thank them.”
“Fallacies,” the man spat out. “You know, using fallacies doesn’t mean someone’s wrong, so you can’t dismiss what I’m saying just based on that. It’s called he fallacy fallacy.”
“Yes, of course I know the fallacy fallacy. That’s not what fallacies are used for. They’re not supposed to be attacks against an opponent.” River shut their eyes to focus. “If something can be truly inferred from the given information, it can be stated without using fallacies.”
“—If the position is false, unfalsifiable, or can’t be inferred from the provided information, it’s impossible to defend without using logical fallacies—“
“—but if you—“
“—That’s where the value of recognizing them comes in. Not to bruise someone’s ego.—“
“—Now because this discussion isn’t entirely based on formal logic, two people can come to opposite conclusions based on their priorities. In this case, what I think is happening is that you care about this uncle’s needs but not about hers at all—“
“—which I would like to call attention to.”
His interruptions having failed, the man channeled his objections into an outburst. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t realize you were some sort of philosopher. I guess my point of view isn’t worth anything because I was too busy working to survive to read your elitist books. Oh, I don’t know your magic little rules, so you don’t have to listen to me? I thought you understood fallacies.”
“Elitist?!” Juliet screamed, her arms flinging forward as if to slice with her words. “Because they took the time to educate themselves? There are books at the library for free! Read them!”
Words echoed and bounced in River’s head, each with the same loud, angry twinge. Each taking on different voices—the time they first heard it? The time that meant the most? Why were they staying? Was it to be a shield for Juliet, when they themself were still detangling the new voices from the old? What was the man even saying: annoying, arrogant, cold, elitist, over-emotional, over-logical, over-thinking, ridiculous, any of the other digs River could recite now in alphabetical order? Was it still him telling them there was something wrong with them, speaking in their mind?
Who said that? And when?
“You have to convince me, and you’re not doing a good enough job. Seems like all that ‘studying’ was for nothing.”
Tightness. No escape.
They stood up, the gesture starting ripples in the atmosphere after too much silence. “I need some air.”
Being close to the cataclysmic center, Juliet could hear River’s breathing. It was off. Forget the man. “Are you okay?” Though her words didn’t betray it, Juliet could feel her own heart starting to race with River’s as well.
“I’ll be fine.” They smiled. It didn’t reach their eyes. “I just need some air. Uh”—they looked around for whichever band member was closest—“will you be okay if I leave you with Gorman?”
“Of course, of course. Do whatever you need to.”
Gorman had already somehow inferred he was needed and was already on the scene. Which worked for River. Fine. They didn’t need to go into detail whether he’d developed some level of bearded telepathy or whatever. Everything in view had faded except the club’s back exit, situated behind the man when they’d been on the couch, but which was slowly drawing closer as every other presence fell away.
Beneath their boots, the floor turned to metal, and the footsteps began to echo, at each step ringing an alarm.
Juliet watched the door let in some of the promenade’s last moonlight. An interloper had locked onto River.
The rump end of the club wasn’t expected to be anything but stale. Someone, a club employee or maybe someone’s stimulus-averse friend dragged along to the noise hole, had put a heroic amount of upkeep into making this back porch into making hanging out here an okay experience, and though some methods were more effective than others, it felt to River like spraying Febreze on a turd. Having the smell of flowers cut through the stagnation was welcome; the planter decoration that made it look like someone’s toddler did it after they were brought to the club through a cladogram’s worth of planning mishaps, less so. And this nice floor, solid to stand on and not fighting for dominance of the senses, they appreciated; graffiti in places that were kinda bad for graffiti, like the corrugated metal stripped from an old shipping container that drew artists despite its uneven texture, and the paint on the dirt just off the balcony for some reason, foot traffic smudging it in flows to create a sort of urban rangoli, fuck it, that was welcome as well. River briefly considered the possibility that the club had been around long enough for the child who decorated the planter to grow up and buy some spray paint, so that what they were standing in was an impromptu exhibit to personal artistic growth. But there was no way to prove that.
There were palm trees. San Myshuno didn’t have those. Rather than falling victim to climate jealousy, River decided to just look at the thing and feel okay about it.
Chantel had held back long enough for River to get situated in this new place, touch whatever shiny metal or leaves begged to be touched, make whatever microadjustments were needed to feel solid on this unfamiliar ground. She guessed River was also relieved to have no one from the club coming out here to grill some tofu dogs as a midnight snack—yes, there was a grill here, and the back patio was accessible from both sides of the club, so those who hit yellow hunger and craved a good, home-cooked meal were pulled in from both sides.
They kept staring forward. Pensive. That’s what Chantel thought they would be like. Always looking forward. So much so they weren’t aware of the acquaintance standing behind them, taking in the scene they cut through in shadow. Was Chantel drowned out by the music? The woman inside sang about feeling the pain of everyone, then feeling nothing. How Aries’s taste managed to be so on the nose was beyond her.
A city girl born and raised, Chantel had to put effort into making her footsteps make sound. River turned, stopping short of eye contact before resetting themselves to the railing. The next moment, Chantel was leaning on the fence next to them.
“You wanna be alone, or you wanna tell me what’s up?”
“I can’t do those dumb-as-shit conversations. Pigeon-on-a-chessboard stuff, that.” It was not in River’s nature to assume ignorance on the part of those they spoke to. And so they declined to explain the metaphor, saying instead, “I’m not a police interrogator.”
“Not a police interrogator meaning, like, what?”
“Meaning I have nothing to gain from the exchange and no expectation their responses will change.”
Though she truly did want to support River and show her concern, Chantel’s bluntness had begun working against her, and it didn’t help that as soon as she’d gone outside, she started digging in her inventory for the swag she liberated from Neala. A passerby may assume she wanted an excuse to leave the club and play with her new toy. Especially given the nature of the toy: a bottle of bubble solution—Spice Fest style—that sims of all ages agreed was not an indoor thing. Despite having grown up in Spice Market right from when the festival started, the Spice Fest branding baffled Chantel. It wasn’t edible. It didn’t taste like anything, just disgusting cleanliness.
She looked over to see River staring at her with an expression too neutral to place, and having had some experience with that look in this situation, Chantel said, “It’s after 5 P.M.” Then she replaced the wand, business end first, into the container, rubbing the flimsy and unpleasant soap remnants between her left fingers and thumb: one thing bubble solution was good for other than blowing bubbles was—because the packaging required the wand to be submerged entirely in fluid—reminding sims how crappy soap felt when it wasn’t used for hygiene. She extended the container toward River.
River paused in thought and then turned forward. “No thanks, man. I stay away from that stuff. Bubbles are too distracting.”
“Fair enough.” She took the wand out, but a thought interrupted her before she could load the loop end with tasty soap. “I don’t know why they let kids have it.”
Chantel stretched forward, putting the wand to her lips. She blew. A sim could get addicted to fluid dynamics made visible. No matter what chaotic topography the thin line of soap took on as her breath sculpted it, in the end, when the exhale was complete, they all ended up spheres. Spheres of all sizes, with all variety of nebulous rainbows traveling on the surface, deforming as they floated in the night’s currents, but mostly spheres nonetheless. The wind wasn’t strong enough to spread them far, so they stayed ner Chantel like so many children hugging her skirts. A big one floated down near the fence. Chantel watched the fence’s straight line distort around the bubble’s edge, the whole thing curling around the center, and right before the bubble popped, she noticed it had framed River’s and her own faces, watching the same thing.
She looked from River, to the bubble solution, a couple times so it was clear what she would say next. “Are you okay with the bubbles being next to you, or should I stop?”
“No, you’re fine, you’re fine.”
A couple detractors decided to float right, back toward the sims viewing them, rather than attempting to escape and threaten to give the tofu dogs that slightly nasty soap taste. One headed up, one down. Caught on opposing sides by the same force.
“Hey, River,” she said, pointing first to the bubble near the sky and then at the one near the ground. “Plato. Aristotle.”
River snorted but wouldn’t face Chantel.
Chantel could have done much worse than some River-targeted joke about the bubbles; of that she was aware. Hey River! We just met, and I’m supposed to be in a band with you, that was my stated motivation for being here, but could you solve all my problems, please? My boyfriend broke up with me because of a diagnosis, but the diagnosis itself wasn’t supposed to change anything. Did it? Can you go ahead and run the parameters through that famous brain of yours and identify a universe where we get back together, and we have the requisite 2.5 kids and yellow-haired dog? Or is there something wrong with me? Can you tell me what’s wrong with me and then how to fix it, ok? And then later we can talk about how to take that personal growth and put it toward the kids and dog, please and thank you?
To Chantel’s credit, she understood not to say any of that. So she said nothing.
River’s voice broke her concentration. It was everything she wanted. “You killed it with Juliet there.”
“Ah.” Was River’s earlier conversation something Chantel needed to bring up? Had that been damage control, and was River lying as a tact strategy? “I wondered if you found it too forceful. I know you prefer the academia stuff where people can take their emotions and egos out of it.”
“I’ve never thought my way is the only way. I wish I could do what you did.” They continued to look forward, head slightly lowered.
“That’s not what I expected, given your lyrics. They’re so confident and forceful.”
“Well, it’s easier to do on your own turf. People know what to expect and so they’re not going to shit on me for it.” With their hands pressed into the railing in front of them, River squinted and paused in a way Chantel was coming to recognize as them second-guessing. “Or at least they’re less likely to. Rhetoric and strategy aren’t just about knowledge. They’re about range. And I’m aware there are still some things I can’t do.”
Funny, River. I wanted to join the band to learn from you. Because I feel like I’m missing something vital that you handle without a word. “What’s it like to be a celebrity? To be liked by everyone?”
“By—fine, whatever. By the right people.”
“Define ‘right people.'”
“Not fascists. I guess. Or guys who want you to smile and nod and say ‘Yes, mister. Thank you for explaining, mister.'”
“Not guys almost ever. Being liked by everyone was an impossible goal from the beginning, for me. The way they look at me. I can’t do it.”
“You live for the ladies?”
Not for anyone but themself, but River could recognize a turn of phrase. “Yeah.”
“Oh, so this is a delegation thing, part of being a leader.” She blew another round of bubbles. “Send the dongs my way. You tell me, I’ll handle it. Pile ’em into a mountain. Dong Mountain. I pile ’em all up—explosions all across town. One detonator. Pew pew pew.”
River let themselves be amused by the empty gesture. That’s what Chantel wanted from them. Reassurance. Enough to keep rambling and get whatever she had to say out of her system.
“I don’t like girls—at least I think I don’t. I was in a threesome once, but my ex was doing most of it and if I understand how stamina works out, between the sexes and all, that is not how it’s supposed to work. The guy would have to be redundant at some point and just there, I guess.”
It wasn’t the first time a straight woman had told River this, but even with all the social flowcharts in their head of what the optimal conversational flow was, this wasn’t a statement for which River had a response. This was yet another one of River’s problems books fell short of addressing. The closest academia could come to this type of social interaction was watching undergrads bullshit their way through mathematical proofs, and even then very few opted to cover their own sexual history. “Uh, okay.”
Chantel snorted, the force tilting her head back. Her hair fell to her chest softly as the bubbles she gave life to earlier. “You’re lucky. I wish I were a lesbian. Men are trash.”
River’s memory lit up with faces. Faces of people looking back at them, disdainfully, for the last time. Faces they wouldn’t see again if they were lucky. “People want what they can’t have. It comes with other problems.”
“Oh yeah? Anything to do with chores? Money?”
More faces flashing. People River couldn’t talk to anymore. People who, despite what they said, wouldn’t give River a chance to stand with them as their equal. “It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t lived it.”
“As he-who-must-not-be-named used to say, shoot.” Another drag of bubbles. Fluid-dynamics pun intended but botched. “Just because I’m a walking fucking demon factory doesn’t mean I don’t know it.”
“You know what’s wrong but you can’t fix it?”
“Blonde, skinny, big boobs, shit family.” She lowered the wand. “Tried to replace them with someone else, someone I thought cared about me. Doesn’t work like that.”
“Honey,” River threw away, “you don’t need to tell anyone you had a shit family.” It was emblazoned on her forehead, would be visible had the hat and bangs not been hiding it, and it’d be burning like a Voldemort detector every time a person with a dishonest smile stared long enough. “But don’t worry about me getting fooled by appearances. People can be more than one thing. No one knows that like I do.”
Chantel arched herself to take in breath, gripping the bar in front of her. Lord, but that woman could backbend. Great curve traveling up the ribcage. “People can be more than one thing!” she yelled, an echo.
“You heard the word ‘privilege’ thrown around?” Yes. Yes, of course. Big societal game of catch around that one. “I don’t know how to feel about it. The way I see it is, privilege is the absence of a problem. But instead people hear it and think they’re being shamed for something they have no control over. There has to be a way to bring the focus back where it needs to be.”
“The actual problems they don’t know about. And then there’s people trying to turn it into a contest. It’s not a contest.”
“It’s not a contest!” More arched yelling on Chantel’s part.
“Seriously! Like, it’s about listening to someone else and being able to understand. It’s not about you.”
“It’s not about you!” Her palms left the banister. Yelling as over for now. “You wanna know my damage, or did you already guess?”
River nodded. “Go ahead.”
“There’s this one poem my in-laws love. I think it’s by Shel Silverstein? It goes like:”
“She had blue skin, And so did he. He kept it hid And so did she. They searched for blue Their whole life through, Then passed right by- And never knew.”
Chantel tapped the palm of her hand. “Anyway, to the point. I see what it’s getting at, but the Blue Fugates of Kentucky kinda ruined it for me.”
“Let me guess: rare genetic condition.”
“And inbreeding. A recessive gene causes it. Plus it’s a heart thing so yeah, not ideal.”
“‘Not ideal’ is a way to put it.”
“Anyway, you know what I think? I think”—Chantel began counting on her fingers, inexplicably—“my ‘blue,’ my personal version of ‘blue,’ is a wall that’ll always stand between me and others. No. Not a wall. A blank space, one I can’t scale. A distance I can’t cross.” Her arms folded across her torso. “Like when the yoga lady says to close your eyes and lay on the floor, and feel connected to everyone else. And your body lies there, still, on the mat, heavy with your own breathing, and all you feel is the empty space in between. A gulf that separates you and the person who lies next to you every night. A gulf and no bridge, and no way to build one.” She waited to ask her question, as if she already knew the answer. “Does that make sense at all?”
“You know, I get what you’re saying, but I object to either the focus or the premise of this poem. Let’s start with the focus. Why shame people for not wanting to show their differences, rather than break down the reasons why they’re hiding? That is, if we take as implied that blue skin is highly stigmatized in the universe the characters inhabit, them choosing to hide it most likely has to do with external reception than any sort of internalized want for connection.”
River looked toward Chantel, whose eyes pleaded through the gulf between them, before continuing.
“And then the ‘blue’ itself—what shade? What’s the cause? Would they have settled for someone green or purple, and if not, why?”
She repositioned herself above the railing, watching the sidewalk get framed in a vignette of blonde. “Man, I thought you’d simplify things. Not poke new holes.”
“Sometimes that’s what you gotta do to find the problem. You wanna fix a bucket, you put water in it. Now it’s leaking when it was a perfectly good bucket before. You want to find holes in a sweater, you put it through the wash. Make the holes bigger so they’re easier to spot.” If Chantel had to guess, River was probably looking at their sweatshirt for that one. “Maybe that’s a bad example. I never learned to knit.”
“What if the holes get so big it’s impossible to fix?” said Chantel, who knew at some level she was not a sweater.
“I’m not a prophet. I’m just a celebrity. I don’t have the answers. All I want is to empower people to find their own.” They looked at their jacket hem. There was a hole forming. They should have been more careful. “That’s their job. I got my own crap to deal with.”
Chantel didn’t know how to acknowledge that.
“You’ll be disappointed if you were counting on me to be a guru. Fuck. I’m just still figuring things out for myself. I can’t also do that for a whole other person.”
“Weak.” She drew out the word longer than she needed to, playfully to show she got the point.
There was a specific type of snort-laugh River had that Chantel was beginning to crave. Already she’d only heard it a few times, and Chantel would have done any sort of shit afterschool specials warned about to get them to make that noise again. And that joke? It landed. She reveled in the sound.
“Fine,” River said. “You want me to take a shot at it?”
“Give me your dumbest-shit, candles-and-oil-level band-aid solution.”
“If you believe that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you tell yourself you’re broken, you’ll put less effort into finding a solution.”
In this instance, Chantel felt she needed to talk back. “So you want me to buy into a lie.”
“More like I’m warning you to not rely on information you may never get. All this whether the damage is permanent, or what that means for us, and whether the ‘right person,’ however you take it, is out there, isn’t something we can predict. Ergo, we can act assuming there’s hope and either waste time or get a happy ending, without the ending part, or give up and know the outcome. No naivety or lies required.” They paused. “But that’s not a message you can communicate to someone else via normal talking-type talking. That’s why kids have 80 movies saying the same thing.”
A hazy memory in Chantel’s mind, something a boy she knew told her in childhood that had the same flavor to it. “Did I ever tell you about my ex?”
“Damn, Chantel.” River’s hands didn’t reach the bars, slapping their pants instead, but Chantel still felt the loudness of the gesture. “This is the longest conversation we’ve had completely un-tainted by ex talk.”
“Sorry.” How long had it been? How many times? “Sorry. I didn’t even know I was doing this.”
“It’s fine.” And it was. This time.
“God, I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m like this, I just—“
As Chantel reached for the words, another voice found her from inside the club. A voice that, while gentle and melodic, was ready to cut through the distance.
The outburst that late Summer night at at Patton’s, starting with the two words Chantel and River heard, was not a product of the events tonight. Not solely. Rather, the roots of this monologue began to form about fifteen years ago.
A three-year old girl, lips dyed Otter-Pop grape, a corner of her mother’s sundress squeezed in a spherical fist as it shielded her from the pseudo-strangers she was informed did have known connections to her on the family tree. Before her, other children have been given squirt guns and set loose in Myshuno Meadows’s singular meadow. All boys. From the silent presence of other maternal dress shields, she can infer there are other children there, those who aren’t using tools to hit each other with water. All girls. A baby in a car seat someone took out and is resting on the picnic table next to a cooler of Daddy’s special juice. It’s understood that the parent is not intending the baby for consumption. Only the girl’s brown eyes are visible trough the shade and the fabric of her mother’s clothing, following her cousins with awe, jealousy almost. She strategizes to herself on how to get their approval. She understands the importance of taking risks, even then. She gets herself a drink, artificial orange, and dunks a whole piece of cake. A bizarre choice, even she can admit that, but eye-catching in a way she hopes is endearing. Mother slaps her hand.
Another cousin does the same thing with his own cake. A boy. Everyone laughs.
Some adult male relation the girl couldn’t name, even now. A hug someone else wanted. An odor that makes her crave corn chips. A line forming. No alternatives.
The same girl. Elementary school. Way early. Way early. Pre-multiplication, if you’re the type to classify life stages according to what math an individual’s learning. The boy next to her kicking her chair leg, asking to borrow a pencil. She gives it to him. This does not stop the jiggling. He continues the assault on her seat, hard enough to reverberate, looking her directly in the eye while shaking, shaking. No one does anything.
Mom says stop the tears and it’s because he likes her.
Kicking continues. Whose fault is it? Juliet’s. Who has the power to stop it? Juliet. If only she just gave the boy a chance. How she was supposed to do that, people weren’t clear on. What she did that counted as rejection, she wasn’t clear on. She’s nice. Smiles at him. Adults around her joke that she’s too easy. She’s not. She tries being nicer, maybe that would help. Maybe that will convince him to stop. Nicer. Nicer. Nice, nice, nice.
She needs to listen to her friends; her friends understand what’s going on. Her friends are there; have direct knowledge of the event. Have the exact kind of prerequisite knowledge and grasp of context that means they’ll believe Juliet when she tells them what’s bothering her and why. If she just listens to them first. If she hears them out. If she takes in their emotions, opening herself to her spongy interior, and takes in all their venting. And venting. And venting. If she keeps listening, they will stop. They’ll run out. Juliet understands. She has a lot to talk about, too. If she had a friend like Juliet, that’s what she’d be doing. And it makes sense that they wouldn’t be up to hearing her out, sometimes. They weren’t there for everything.
They weren’t there, ever.
A convenience store where all she wanted to do is buy some ketchup from the closest place within walking distance and an old man asked her if she was having a “ketchup emergency.” Okay. Just one thing. What the fuck is a “ketchup emergency.” But she giggled anyway. Not because she found it funny but because she didn’t know what would happen if she didn’t. Then she walked off before he could realize she was gone.
More hugs. More corn-chip hugs the friend wasn’t there for. But the friend did conveniently explain, later, that it wasn’t a big deal and he was family, and, by the way, the friend was going through some stuff too and it doesn’t even occur to them to ask if Juliet will listen, if Juliet wants to, because it’s a foregone conclusion that she will.
Back and now we’re getting to the point where she’s younger, not too young to understand linear time but bear with her, and she doesn’t notice at first but the man on the subway is standing too close, far too close, his leg is touching hers, and she doesn’t know if the subway is too crowded or he wants to be doing this. But she gets off and has the question answered for her when he also does. Following behind her. A few yards back. Or maybe, she hears her friend’s voice, her mother’s voice, maybe it’s an innocent coincidence and he wants to go in the same direction for a normal reason. She requires more data. She stops in the middle of the sidewalk. The man walks a few paces ahead of her and then stops, looking back. Watching her. Waiting for her to move.
She turns around, away from the man. Away from her home. Taking an alternate route. She is unable to lose him, and learns at home that it is because she did the wrong thing, she should have gone into a bodega and told them a man was following her—and it is taken at face value here that whoever’s behind the counter will believe her that yes, a man is following her and no, she is not making up stories for attention—and then sat there like a perfect angel for someone who can handle the situation to come in, and it is because she mis-handled the situation that she is having all these feelings right now.
A different age, a different time, a different place, but this time the old man was walking toward her, eyes wide, staring right at her, and she tried to hang her head and walk by fast.
She could have crossed the street. She didn’t want to get within ten feet of him if she didn’t want to.
She could have done that the whole time.
She was allowed to have opinions on that. The whole time. And she’d been sitting here, stewing, doing nothing about it.
What a waste.
There’s yet another element to the story that culminated in River and Chantel hearing a naughty word from outside the club, and it’s that Juliet can do a pull-up like a Greek goddess. Several in a row, even. Without slowing. It didn’t come up often; it was a good icebreaker when she was in middle school, and now, it wasn’t being used socially but rather meant she didn’t need an accomplice to make it onstage. She placed her hands shoulder-width apart on the stage’s floor and pure emotion drove the rest.
Before she could think, she found herself with the mic in her hand.
“Attention, fucks!” Mid-adrenaline-high now, she couldn’t slow herself down enough to consider what she was saying. “Attention, men and people!”
“You learn so fast!” Aries yelled from the mosh pit.
She clasped the mic. In her abdomen, a vague dread masked by the sensation of doing a dope pull-up into a hard stage while wearing a metal belt. They don’t train you in gym class to do feats wearing club outfits or fake nails, and the buckle alone had knocked some wind out of her when she managed to get one leg onstage. Her lungs were heaving now, trying to regain that wind.
“I spent my entire life being quiet. Hoping I could fly under the radar. But you know what I’ve realized?”
“What?” Stage etiquette dictates that if you are the guitarist in a band and a young woman does a seriously impressive pull-up onstage and snatches the mic and screams her existence in an incendiary manner, you are not supposed to stand in front of the security guy and encourage her, but the guitarist didn’t feel like sticking to this social convention for whatever reason. Not that Juliet heard. She was planning on answering the question either way.
“I’m a target when I’m quiet. I’m a target when I’m loud. I’m a target when I’m right, when I’m wrong, when I succeed, when I fail, when I behave, when I don’t, when I let others control me, when I won’t. So from now on I’m going to be loud!”
And the crowd let her know that it would be loud in return. No sociologists were present, nor would Juliet have the benefit of hindsight for another two days at least, so it was difficult to tell what percentage was cheering and what was booing, and Juliet herself couldn’t separate the two.
If Juliet had to guess the source of the response from the crowd, she would have thought ‘man wearing hat and dazzling eyeball ring.’ She wasn’t wrong. Confirming her suspicions, however, gave him an opening to expand on this idea.
“Shut up, bitch! You’re ruining my night! Just shut up!”
“Bitch!” another man screamed, to the right of the red man. “Stop punishing men! Stop yelling at us for something we didn’t even do!”
“Get off the stage!” said the first man. But the voices started piling up, too quick and varied for Juliet to recognize.
“Feminists should be round up and shot!”
“No one cares!”
“We care about you!”
“Someone needs to teach you a lesson!”
“Get down here, then we’ll see if you’re still so tough!”
“Not so high and mighty now, are you?”
As Juliet’s eyes lost focus, gazing over the noise, she felt the two exits telescoping away from her. To reach either the front or the back, she’d have to not only get offstage, giving the audience a shot at her, she’d have to get past them, somehow, and the security guy who probably had tasers for this sort of situation, and then up the stairs—Rhiannon’s warning echoing through her mind—to the dusky, stale exterior that, if not safe, was at least less vulnerable. It struck her that she was alone. Her bandmates were in the audience and strewn across the club, but she’d acted alone. The plan depended on her alone. The consequences were hers alone.
A voice echoed in Juliet’s skull so faintly she couldn’t tell if it was hers or someone else’s. As she felt her vision falling away, she became vaguely aware of Neala and Rhiannon shouting something at her. Soon Thora joined in.
The voice echoing in her skull unstuck her from the floor. The voice was fear. The source was danger. She forgot where she was, but remembered what she had to do.
Juliet thrust the microphone up in a victory gesture. “I’d rather be a live bitch than dead and polite!” Then she dropped the mic and ran.
Plucking ourselves from the impolite stridency being sowed indoors, and focusing instead on the peaceful discussion happening on the club’s hotdog-grill balcony before it was interrupted by the indoors stuff, Chantel and River had all but abandoned their previous thread to speculate on what the matter might be. So they fell into this pattern of glancing at each other, especially if a word or two was clear. Occasionally they’d repeat the word just to be sure. Near the beginning they’d looked at each other: a look that meant, is that Juliet? It had the qualities Juliet’s voice was known for having. But then she’d been drowned out, the timbre and quality of voices meant it was no longer just one person; and then the faint outlines of speech turned into something that threatened to burst through the corrugated walls.
Then a ten-word phrase; reverberation. A thin column of light appearing parallel to where they stood.
Before River could lift an eyebrow at the familiarity of that phrase’s rhythm, the back door blasted open in a fit of noise, and Juliet’s figure charged through the exit’s path. Braids slapped her back as she charged through the exit, seeing only forward. No thought given to whether anyone was watching.
She had cleared the stairs before three other musicians followed, bursting through all at once like Funyun bags in a poorly calibrated vending machine.
“Run!” Thora told the outside bandmates.
Aries followed her, echoing her sentiment. “Let’s get out of here!”
“Stairs!” yelled Rhiannon, who was close behind them. “Stairs!”
“Stairs, indeed.” Without having any further information to go on, River tiptoed down each step with deliberate caution.
And leave it to Chantel to wait until the last second and book it cartoonishly, leaving a stylized puff of dirt in her wake. “Hey, so,” she projected using her stage voice, “what the fuck is it we’re running from?”
What the fuck it was had made it to the outside door and was wearing a single hat. There may have been others behind him, but he was the fastest, carried by rage. And he was a mere six feet away from Chantel, who regretted wearing her long, pullable blonde hair loose.
“Get back here, you bitch!” he yelled.
Chantel lunged forward, ready to feel the disturbance of air as she dodged an inevitable grab, when a sudden sound forced her eyes open. A porcine squeal. Then thud. Thud. Thud. Thud.
“Hey Rhiannon,” Chantel said, “guess what?”
Stairs indeed. The man was still screaming insults at either them or the situation, and while he was rolling around on the floor, he didn’t appear gravely injured, just predisposed with the stairs situation long enough for them to get away. Chantel’s eyes were already adjusted to the darkness outside. She squinted. Past the top of the stairs where the man had fallen, there was a dark figure. A small one. Something had startled the man, or he’d tripped on something, and their savior was—
“Fuck yeah, Andrej!”
Thora screamed to mimic a crow’s call. “Andrej, we’ll come back with so many shiny things! So many!”
“I will propose, I will fucking propose!” This was one way for Chantel to get over her ex. She thought this idea was so important, she was screaming it while she caught up to the rest of the group. “I will have your terrifying error-of-genetics babies!”
“Sounds pretty cute, actually,” Rhiannon said.
Juliet felt something flutter by in her mind’s periphery, but it didn’t matter. It could not drown out her heartbeat, now racing, now in phase, in harmony, with every step she took. Every connection her shoe made with the ground, it jolted her. Sending her up into the air, where she already felt she was. Where her future was. From here, everything else fell away.
There was a time when making music had been her biggest problem—was it yesterday? She had been so young then. Everything she thought she understood about why she did the things she did. Everything came out wrong and could never be fixed.
Another contact with the pavement. Another leap upwards. Another crash. Another soar.
She was a target.
But she was free.
4 thoughts on “Unacknowledged Legislators, Remixed (Pt. V)”
You know that I am screaming at you about this in other places, but I wanted to state it here for the record: this chapter is absolutely stunning. I am still vibrating from the last sentence and I think Juliet’s monologue will live in my head for a long time. You are one of my favorite simlit writers for a reason: you strip things back to the bones and then you set scaffolding on it that doesn’t reveal itself to be meat, skin, clothes, and sequins until the very end. And by that point, I’m marveling and saying to myself, “how did I not see it immediately?” BRAVO.
Oh my God, this is so scary and so sad. How lonely for River. The last line really makes it, and helps me see how they’ll all be able to move through this rough night to tomorrow. I hope they have really good coffee the next morning! Brilliant writing.
Hi Cathy! I’m mostly through the depression haze and will be around more!
Oh, good! And lots of love for you during hard times… and good ones, too!