A couple of weeks ago I sent out some emails to a few random friends asking them to give me 4 things: a person, a place, an object, and a line of dialogue they made up themselves.
So as not to influence their responses, I didn’t tell them what it was for, only that it would act as a creative “kick start” for me. Taking a page from a writing circle I was in while in Chicago, I would then take the four suggestions and somehow work them into a short story.
The first person to respond was dear Adi and she gave me the following:
Place: A park
Person: A shrink
Thing: A paper bag
Line: “I wish I knew why this was happening.”
What follows is the story those items inspired. I’ll be taking the rest of the suggestions in the order I received them and will post the stories here. Some of them will be good, and I am sure some of them won’t. Hopefully you’ll enjoy reading them regardless.
And now, the first in a new series of stories (rated PG for language):
I sat on the cement wall that surrounded the fountain in the middle of the park and looked for Amy. I’d never seen her in person before but believed I would recognize her from the picture she emailed me.
Had I really agreed to meet someone I met online? On MySpace, no less? It was only a few years ago when I would laugh behind the backs of people who told me they were going to hook up with someone they met online. It always seemed a little sad and desperate to me. What had happened in the lives of these people that made them so — for lack of a better word — pathetic?
But fast-forward three years where the idea is a little more commonplace and it doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Funny how something like going through a divorce, partnered with not meeting any women, will change your perspective on things.
That’s not to say I was completely sold on the idea; I still had some reservations about it all. Not because I was apprehensive Amy wouldn’t look like her picture. Actually I was more afraid I wouldn’t look like mine.
I’d hate for Amy to be in the embarrassingly awkward position where she shows up, sees me, and thinks Eh. That’s him? If I knew he actually looked like that in person I’d have gone to Borders instead.
I’m not being hard on myself, just realistic. I see myself in the mirror every day and I know what I look like. There are a million guys out there better looking than me with cooler hair, nicer clothes, more money, and much better abs. And I’m totally fine with that. I just don’t want to be one of those guys who’s ugly and doesn’t even know it. Just for the record, I don’t think I’m ugly, but I’m also aware that most ugly people don’t think they’re ugly, either.
I tried to be fair to Amy when she asked if I had more pictures I could send her other than my generic MySpace icon. I tried to find the worst, most unflattering shot I had. No sense in trying to candy-coat anything. I attached the picture of me from the last 4th of July at the lake. My mouth is half-open and my eyes are half-closed. I figured if she still wanted to meet me after seeing a photo like that she’s either legally blind or a lot less shallow than I rarely admit to myself that I am.
I’m not sure why I neglected to tell my shrink about any of this in our session this morning. Actually that’s wrong. I do know why I didn’t say anything. Because Dr. Vanderwilt, Dr. Beth Vanderwilt, is herself quite attractive and I was a little embarrassed to say anything about it.
I still don’t know why I’m so influenced by what I think women whom I find appealing might think of me. I know there’s no hope of anything ever happening beyond doctor/patient relationship with Dr. Vanderwilt but just in case the temperature in hell dips below 32 degrees Fahrenheit I want to have my bases covered. And no, this isn’t the first time I’ve considered retaining a second shrink to discuss things I’m too intimidated to discuss with Dr. Vanderwilt.
Are all guys wired like this or am I just lucky?
As I pondered all of this, a cute blonde approached accompanied by one of those small dogs that are more suited for punting than they are for companionship. As she looked in my direction I tried to smile a smile that said I’m a nice guy, not some creepy loner hanging out in the park. It didn’t help my cause when at that moment a paper bag being blown about by the wind found its way to me and wrapped itself around my face.
It startled me and I gasped, sucking part of the bag directly into my mouth, nearly suffocating me in the process. It made such perfect sense that this is how I would bite the big one. Killed by a stray bag the wind blew in my face while I tried to impress a pretty girl. As my little cousin would say, that would be so me.
Today however would prove to not be the day I was murdered by garbage. After struggling longer than it probably should have taken I managed to untangle the bag from around my head. The girl and her dog had already passed and to no surprise she was no longer looking in my direction.
I wadded the Burger King bag into a ball and tossed it into the trash can standing not five feet away. Or, more accurately, I threw it at the trash can. It bounced off the rim and fell to the ground. Not in any mood to be fined for littering (and I knew that’s exactly what would happen if I did nothing) I rose from the park bench, walked over, picked up the bag, and prepared to drop it in the receptacle.
It was then that the bill caught my eye. There in the trash can was a crisp new twenty-dollar bill. Wow. Twenty bucks. Twenty free bucks. Just sitting there for the taking. All I had to do was take it.
I looked around. I scanned every face in the vicinity twice to make sure Amy wasn’t one of them. Even worse than having a hot girl see you attacked by refuse is having your internet date see you digging through trash. I don’t claim to know much about the opposite sex, but I do know that that would not make a favorable first impression.
But what about the others enjoying the park that day? What would they think if they saw me picking through the trash? And what would they think of Amy when they saw her meeting me? Would they feel sorry for her? Would they want to let her know that she’s on a date with a guy who dumpster dives in broad daylight? Would my actions reflect poorly upon her? After considering these questions (and about thirty more) I came to the conclusion that I definitely wasn’t going to tell Dr. Vanderwilt about this little inner monologue.
Once again I peeked into the trash can. The twenty was there, mocking me, daring me to pick it up. It was pinned between a newspaper and a coffee cup and there were no visible “garbage stains” on it.
And then I had a plan. If I had something I could throw away it would be easier to pull a little slight-of-hand and grab the money in the process. Or at least, it wouldn’t be as blatantly obvious.
I looked around. How was it even possible that the park was this clean today? Surely the BK bag wasn’t the last piece of stray refuse in the park but it seemed that was the case. I took a step and a leaf crunched beneath my foot.
A leaf! Would that work?
If I did it fast enough, maybe no one would see I was throwing away a leaf. Would someone perhaps think it was a piece of paper or some kind of fruit? But if they did indeed notice what it actually was, I would be The Guy Who Throws Away Individual Leaves. I wanted to be that guy about as much as I wanted to be The Guy Who Sweeps The Beach or The Guy Who Sprays Febreze On The Sidewalk.
The leaf idea was out and I decided to forego second guessing myself and just take a leap of faith. I walked directly beside the trash can, took a look to my left and then one to my right, and without looking shot my hand into the bin, grabbed the bill, and walked away.
After taking a few steps I looked down to see I was holding a Papa John’s coupon.
I chuckled to myself. Although the mission itself was a failure, I now knew I could execute the actions. I was impressed with my speed, it was just my aim that needed work. But now I had something to throw away. It all comes around full circle, doesn’t it?
I spun on my heels and returned to the trash can. As I prepared for my second attempt a man on a bicycle whizzed past like he was hot on Lance Armstrong’s tail. He tossed a half-empty (or is it half-full) bottle of Gatorade into the garbage can. As it made contact, the cap on the bottle popped off and blue juice (fortified with electrolytes) shot out of the container and drenched the contents of the bin. And my pants.
I looked up at the cyclist and he was already long gone. I had lifted my hands out to my side as if to display the insanity of what had just happened for an audience of none. At least I was spared that small embarrassment of having anyone see what had just occurred.
And then I wished someone had witnessed it so they could testify that the growing wetness on my jeans was indeed a fruit drink, and not a more repulsive liquid. I rubbed the front of my pants with my hand as if that would make the stain disappear and was immediately crushed to feel how wet I had actually gotten. This wasn’t going to dry any time soon, let alone by the time Amy and I met.
Perfect. “Hi, Amy, I’m Dan, and this is my awesome wet spot on my pants. Should we just end the date right now?”
But something told me that’s not how it would go down. I had more faith in Amy than that. From our numerous conversations online I knew her to have a great sense of humor and this was a story she would get a kick out of. Probably even help me laugh at it as well.
Or at least I hoped that’s how it would go down. In the back of my mind I knew there was always the possibility that she would meet me and immediately request a restraining order.
I looked at my watch and was glad I had shown up at the park early. I still had about 5 minutes before our actual meeting time. If I could make it to a nearby restroom and see about drying this off there might still be a chance I could come off as a regular non-mentally challenged person.
There was a Starbucks just up the block and I hurried over. I asked one of the employees where the restrooms were and was told they were outside, around the corner. She then asked if I had change on me, as it was a pay toilet and I would need a quarter to get in. I thanked her for the heads up and made my way outside.
I fished a quarter from my pocket and slipped it into the coin slot on the door. I opened it and immediately saw a homeless man inside, taking a nap. He heard the door open and scrambled to his feet.
“Oh, excuse me,” he said, and hurriedly gathered the thin ratty blanket he was sleeping upon.
“No, excuse me,” I replied, not meaning to intrude, “I won’t be long.”
“No problem, brother,” he answered. There was a genuine likability about him and I truly felt for him.
He scurried out of the bathroom. I grabbed some paper towels from the dispenser and began to soak up the Gatorade as best I could. In my head I tried to picture the vagrant’s life before today. Perhaps he had been in the stock market or used to be the CEO of a large company. He probably had a good life and did good things with his profits. He gave to charity. He loaned money to friends and family without asking for it back. He was a giver. But as we all know happens from time to time, bad things happen to good people (he was a good person, I could see that in his eyes) and he had a run of bad luck.
And now the only shelter he had was a pay toilet across the street from the park. I tried to put myself in his shoes, but can we honestly ever do that? Without actually going through what he went through is that even possible?
These were my thoughts as I finished drying myself off and made my way outside. I looked at the expansive park in front of me as I closed the door behind me. This is the first thing he sees when he goes out every day. I guess it could be worse.
I heard it before I saw where it was coming from. Surprised, I turned and saw the homeless man waiting by the bathroom door. He obviously wanted to get back to his nap and I had obviously locked him out of his house.
“Oh…sorry about that, I wasn’t even thinking,” I said.
“I was standing right here, you son of a bitch. What did you think I was waiting for?”
I dug my hands in my pockets to retrieve another quarter and already knew I wouldn’t find one. It was just that kind of day.
“I’m really sorry. My mind was honestly somewhere else and didn’t even realize–”
“Do you realize you’re an asshole, you asshole?”
I came to the realization this guy probably wasn’t really much of a giver before and the picture I had painted in my mind probably wasn’t 100% dead-on.
“Look, I have a dollar if you want to get some change–”
“I don’t want your money, you shitsuck, I want to get back in my damn house,” he growled at me.
And then I said it before I even knew I was going to say it.
“What’s a shitsuck?”
I wasn’t being sarcastic, it was just an automatic response and a genuine query. I really didn’t know what a shitsuck was; I’d never heard it before, and I’m always eager to learn something new.
That’s not how this guy took it.
Instead, he punched me in the eye. Really hard. I didn’t even see it coming. Not because he was that fast, but because I was looking around at the crowd that had started to gather to see the homeless man yelling at the shitsuck.
When he hit me, bright shapes shot in front of my eyes and I heard myself say “Gaaaa.” I brought my left hand up to my eye as the Punching Hobo grabbed his blanket and stormed away. Did I really just get hit by a homeless man?
As he made his way around the corner the only thing I could think of to shout at him was, “I’m never giving to Comic Relief again!” I don’t know why I said that as I had never given to Comic Relief previously.
The crowd began to disperse, except for one person. She hung around and watched me through her cool glasses that reminded me of Tina Fey. And I knew who it would be.
“Dan?” she asked.
I looked into her eyes and the pain immediately melted away. “Amy.” I said. It wasn’t a guess. I recognized her immediately.
“Did you just get into a fight with a bum?”
“I think I did. That was weird. I wish I knew why this was happening.”
She took a step forward and lightly touched the bottom of my chin with her hand. “Oooh,” she said looking at my face, “That’s going to turn some really cool colors before the end of the week.”
I was still a little dazed by the events. “I just evicted a homeless guy and he hit me. How random is that?”
“Was he eating a sandwich?” Amy asked.
“Now that’s random,” I replied, “No, he wasn’t. Why do you ask?”
“You have mustard on your face.”
I paused, thought for a second, and said, “I got hit in the face by a Burger King bag.”
“Are your pants wet?”
“A biker hit me with Gatorade.”
Amy tilted her head upward and laughed. As she did so I felt myself falling for her.
She reached out and placed her hand in mine, still smiling.
“Want to get something to eat?” I asked.
That day I was hit four times. Once by a paper bag. Once by a Gatorade bottle. Once by a bum. And once by a smile.
It was the best day ever.