Note: To learn more about Penelope Przekop's novel, BOUNDARIES, and to start reading at the beginning, go here !
Chapter 9: Mark
The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored in him.
Luke from the Bible meanders through Cowboys, the club Becca and I are perched in like sitting ducks. His fingers rest in his pockets but his bony wrists stick out from the sides of his crotch. The stitches in his pants stretch to the snapping point. It’s perverse. Poison swishes inside him unbeknownst to the small groups of people he slithers around before reaching a clear path that leads to me. I fiddle with my hair, hoping my long arms will shield me from him. I feel sick.
I haven’t been out since my suicide attempt and seeing Luke makes me wonder if I've made a mistake; maybe I shouldn't be here. But Becca is finally home for the summer. And I moved into my own apartment the weekend before. I successfully gave Peter the cold shoulder, and I haven’t seen or spoken to Matt for nearly two months. I decide that I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.
Luke stops several feet away to speak with two greasy-haired guys. My stomach tightens. Becca tugs at my sleeve, forcing my right arm to drop. I lean toward her, but continue to hold my left arm up until it becomes awkward; I’m forced to let it fall. “You want another beer? We’re celebratin’, aren’t we?” She yells in my ear because the music is so loud. Instead of waiting for my answer, she waves her arms through the air in a dramatic attempt to attract the waitress.
Oh, great! I twist toward her hoping Luke will only see my back.
“Just think,” she says, “Nobody’s gonna tell you what to do or when to come home anymore.” She smiles but I don’t. I know Luke is behind me—just like that night. I can almost feel him slithering against me, up my arm, into my hair.
“Wanna dance?” His voice makes me shutter.
“No,” I say spinning my chair around to face him. My knees knock into his wrist, forcing his hand deeper into his pocket. He yanks it out and slaps both his hands down on my knees. I shove them away. He looks past me and slowly surveys our surroundings. When his eyes finally settle on me again, he smiles. It isn’t a normal smile. It’s an I’ve-seen-you-naked-and-don’t-you-forget-it smile. A look of sick pleasure washes over his face. Without another word, he meanders away, but stops briefly to turn and smile at me again.
“That was mean,” Becca says, watching him disappear through the smoke. “He was cute.”
“He’s a jerk.”
“You know him?”
She sighs impatiently. “Try to cheer up. You shouldn’t take your feelin’s out on strangers.” She touches my arm. “You know, I’m sorry about your parents divorcing.” She’s a true friend but she’s been gone for a long time. She doesn’t know about my stay in the hospital. “You should try to have fun.”
“I’m tryin’,” I say, taking another drink.
Her blond hair swings over the back of the chair as she turns to take the beer from the waitress. I tug at my own hair with the tips of my fingers.
There was a girl in junior high who swore that if we pulled our hair every night it would grow twice as fast. Although we all suspected that it wasn’t true, we still tried. For several weeks, I lay in bed each night grabbing bulky sections of my thick hair, pulling as I said my prayers. On some mornings, I found long dark hairs lying across my pillow; those were the nights I prayed the hardest. My hair didn’t grow any faster, but I kept trying because I knew that simply waiting was excruciating. I’d tried that already.
Becca and I sit quietly, drinking beer. We peel the labels, tiny piece by tiny piece, although it’s supposed to say something perverse about us. We scratch at the stickiest, most stubborn pieces—Becca with her long, red nails and me with my nubs. We sit next to the second story balcony that circles the dance floor. Below us, offset by several feet, a similar railing surrounds the dance floor. Deer heads dot the high walls above, their blank eyes staring into the huge mirrored ball that dangles from the ceiling.
People who love to sit, drink, and watch other people dance covet our seats. We’ve been watching for what seems hours. It almost makes me change my mind about dancing. The longer I stare, the more everyone seems awkward and silly. Becca tells me they’re having fun; the rest doesn’t matter. I know she’s right, but it still feels weird, as if I’m spying. I watch their awkward gestures, their private expressions—their guts.
Becca leans over, her lips brushing against my ear. “You know they’re talkin’ about raisin’ the legal drinkin’ age to twenty-one soon.”
“Are you sure?” I ask.
“We should be grandfathered. I don’t think they’re allowed to take away rights we already have.”
“I guess we’ll be the youngest ones in bars for a few years,” I say, shrugging my shoulders.
“Less competition for guys,” she says as she throws her head back. I watch
“I never do,” I say, scanning the crowd. There’s no one around that I care to see. Half the people surrounding us are preppy college kids who wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a cowboy hat although they’re in a bar named Cowboys. The other half, most of whom are playing pool, are real cowboys and girls complete with wrangler jeans, boots, and huge silver buckles. A few wear hats.
The cowboys stand strategically around the pool tables lining the place. Liquor is served at several long wooden bars separating the pool tables from the rest of the bar, and from the rest of us. The dance floor is at the center of the building. Dancing doesn’t seem to interest the cowboys. It’s, at the same time, too sophisticated and too silly for them. They’re rednecks. They drive trucks with gun racks, chew tobacco, and curse a lot. But they make the rest of us feel better. They form an outer circle that we naturally fill. We crave boundaries, and the lines that separate us from them are solid. The DJ plays country music ten minutes out of every hour and during that time the preppies strategically take their break. We have an amazing ability to know when a song is country after only having heard the first few notes. The dance floor clears within seconds.
“They all disappeared. Probably got married,” says Becca.
“Our friends from high school.”
“Oh yeah, well, they’ll be divorced before we even think of buyin’ one of those wedding magazines much less sayin’ ‘I do.’” We shake our heads in unison. It’s true. We’re two of the few people from our graduating class who have gone to college. Several of our high school friends already have babies. I can’t fathom why they would want to repeat their parents’ lives. There has to be more to life than that, at least for me. “Or they might decide to put the divorce off for twenty-five years,” I say, thinking of my parents. “And I still may not be married.” She doesn’t think I see her frown, but I do. She’s clearly frowning. “What?” I ask.
“I bought one last month,” she blurts out. “True Bride Magazine ... or Big Bride. Big Bird or somethin’.” We look at each other and burst into the kind of laughter beer induces. “I’ll get us another drink,” she says and hops down from her chair. She effortlessly maneuvers her way into the churning crowd. While she’s gone, two guys ask me to dance, but I turn them down since I haven’t hung out with Becca in a long time. It’s supposed to be our night.
Our night wears on and on, and four or five beers later, the heavy wooden entrance doors flanked by two giant bouncers open and Peter rushes through. His head darts about as if to ensure all is safely in place for the arrival of the king.
I had watched those big doors open and close all night. Each time they opened, I strained to see. I watched who came and who went; I watched for Matt.
When he finally strolls in, I think it would be quite natural for the crowd to separate as he walks among them, perhaps even bow in adoration. They might kiss his feet. That’s what I would do if I could.
Becca’s on the dance floor with the guy she’s been dancing with for at least an hour so I decide to relinquish my seat. Hoards of familiar strangers stand in my way. I rudely push through several conversations. One girl drops her drink. I begin to feel desperate; nothing is going to stop me. I finally spot the nice-looking guy who asked me to dance moments earlier. When he tells me he’s a med student, I can’t believe my luck. That means Matt may know him.
I’m ready to dance but the preppies are leaving the dance floor. Their sweaty heads hang low as if they’re walking toward their graves. For a moment I feel sad too, but then realize they’ve no real reason to be sad. It isn’t their fault. The music they’re used to has simply disappeared; they didn’t kill it. What’s wrong with them? I watched them for hours. I know who they were. They’re awkward and mediocre. They are quitters.
“Come on. You wanna dance with me, don’t you?” I say, pulling his hands toward me. They wrap easily around my waist. My hips sway to the beat of the country music.
“I cain’t dance to this,” he says as his preppy face twitches.
“Who says we have to do the two-step? Do I look like I know how to dance like that?”
“Not really.” He looks around nervously and I think he may try to run.
“We can dance however we want. I’m a good dancer.” I smile sweetly as my hips wiggle beneath his sweaty palms. “I’ll help you.”
Once on the barren dance floor, I have him help me onto the giant speaker at its center. It stands like a throne beneath the churning mirrored ball that reflects the dead deer stares. Bathed in the light of those sparkling mirrors, I burn like a star while my partner fades into the shadows. The crowd begins to cheer. I’m the life they thought they lost. I’ve emerged, their resurrected champion at center ring. Even the cowboys walk a few steps from their pool games to catch a glimpse. I dance uninhibited in my conservative, cotton dress, and shiny penny loafers. The dress has a wide circular collar and a dropped waist. It isn’t particularly sexy except that the light from all four sides filters through the cotton. I knew exactly what is showing above my peach bobby socks and the sparkling copper pennies I’d squeezed into the slits on top of my shoes.
Peter and Matt stand several feet away. I stare into Matt’s eyes. We both know I’m his champion. The others are just the crowd, the audience, people who merely fill the gaping space between us. He coaches me with his eyes. The longer he stares, the wilder and stronger and braver I become. The dancing medical student thinks I’m wild and strong and brave. He gasps for breath. His shirt sticks to his smooth, sweaty chest. I don’t want to look so I pretend to dance alone and, instead, focus on the dead animals, their stuffed heads looming. But then the medical student smashes into my personal space and kisses me awkwardly. I kiss back, figuring he deserves to share my victory. He beams and I knew he’s never had such an experience. I feel nauseous. He thinks I like him. Peter knows I don’t.
The crowd suddenly loses control. Grabbing one another, they run toward me. Even Peter pushes his way into the mass of charging bodies. He fights to make his way to the center ring with a chubby, bouncing girl in tow. Someone grabs my leg. I continue to dance as the hands snatch at my ankles. “Peyton!” Becca yells, squeezing until it hurts. “The guy I’ve been dancin’ with is takin’ me home.”
I squat as low as I can without falling. “But Becca, I need you.”
“What for? You’ve got him,” she says, grabbing the student’s leg. Then she vanishes as the last of the preppy dancers fill the dance floor. They swarm beneath me like ants, making me dizzy. I struggle to focus and soon realize that everything is as it had been. The cowboys have returned to their pool playing and the preppies bounce joyfully in tight interlocking vines around me.
Peter dances beneath my feet. Matt continues to stare from outside the ring. I want to jump down and run to him. I want to put my arms around him and have something normal—something real. My heart aches. I know that if I go to his door, he’ll let me in.
His eyes beg me to come.
I glance down and notice Peter shaking his head like a disapproving parent. He takes his partner’s hand and leaves the dance floor. He is not my keeper. I swear that if he comes back I’ll kick one of my legs out over the edge of the speaker, right into his head. But he never comes back. He and Matt leave before the song is over. It’s all over. The same awkward people flail about. Nothing has changed.
The heat in Louisiana floods the senses. It has a taste, a smell, a feel, and especially after a few drinks, you can see it. It clings to the flat land and common places long after the sun is gone. Sometimes it’s shocking, as is stepping from the dark, pulsating world of Cowboys into the real world. The cars and light poles, streets, stars, life, move out before me like an expanding balloon. I stand, watching as it all grows large and distorted. I hear and smell it; I feel it. I’m drunk. As I move, it all whirls around me in sections, like giant playing cards. Peter and Matt stand next to the old El Camino at the far end of the parking lot. They’re about to get in the car, but something causes them to hesitate.
“Where’d you park?” The medical student looks around as if he can find my car, although he doesn’t have a clue what it looks like.
It strikes me as funny and I giggle. “I don't know. We came early so I could get a good spot.” I can’t stop giggling.
Peter begins the long walk toward us.
“What kind of car do you have?”
“I don’t remember,” I continue to laugh, but slowly lose my sense of humor as I became aware of two converging smells. The smell of McDonald’s mingles with the smell of gasoline from a nearby Texaco station. It’s odd, the way I can smell both, together but separate, as if their boundaries have merged, creating an odd but interesting new reality.
Peter’s pace quickens as I try to decide if I like the new smell.
The medical student crosses his arms and stares at me. I take several deep breaths. “You seem like a nice guy,” I say suddenly, feeling sad.
“I’m a nice guy and you’re a nice girl.” His breaths are so shallow that I wonder if he’s really alive. I smile weakly, knowing that I’ll end up lying in his bed like an old, abandoned dog. It will be horrible, like being put to sleep—terrified that death is near while enjoying the warm, flooding sensation of final rest. There will be no point in struggling. It will be painful and lonely no matter how nice he is.
Peter begins to jog as the smell of McDonald’s overpowers me. It’s warm and crusty; I can almost taste it. God, I’m hungry. My deep breaths seem to suck Peter closer and closer until we’re nearly touching.
Matt stands far in the distance.
The medical student grabs my arm. He moves me in circles, bombarding me with questions. “What color is your car? Is it big or little? Old or new? How can you forget your own car?”
I barely hear him, only aware of moving in circles and the smell of McDonald’s and the smell of gas, and the odd blend. Playing cards flip wildly through the air. I desperately want to catch them and stack them, nice and neat, into something controllable.
“We’re never gonna get out of here if we don’t find your car.”
I yelp as Peter grabs my other arm, jerking me in his direction. The circling motion stops and the playing cards blur. I struggle to keep my balance, but Peter holds me steady. “What are you doin’?” he asks.
“What do you think I’m doin’?” I try to step toward the medical student.
Peter says, “Don’t do it.”
I struggle to posture myself, fully facing Matt. From where I stand, he appears to be standing in the McDonald’s parking lot, surrounded by its crusty smell. “I can do whatever I want.”
The student steps toward Peter, and says, “Hey, man, let her go.” But Peter’s grip tighten.
“But it’s me,” he says as gently as he can while maintaining his uncharacteristic burst of aggression, “your best friend.”
“You’re his,” I say, waving my free arm toward Matt, “best friend tonight.”
“Why are you doin’ this?” he asks, staring at the medical student. “He doesn’t care about you.”
“She can make up her own mind.” The student jerks me back toward him. Peter’s grip loosens and my arm pops free. The medical student struggles to hold on as I shoot away from Peter and even farther away from Matt.
I can only smell gas.
My eyes burn. “I’m doin’ it because I feel like it,” I yell, hoping Matt can hear. Several people have stopped on their way through the parking lot. They stare at me, shaking their awkward, silly heads. The demon in my head laughs. I run for my car, suddenly remembering where it was. The medical student follows although I wish he would disappear. As the hot night air rushes past me, it seems to burn. It brands me. I know then that I’d said yes to Luke after all. He’s running after me in a nice guy’s clothing.
He’s a fuckin’ liar. Eventually, he’ll find a pleasant, attractive girl, date her for a couple of years and then marry. It won’t be me. I’m the kind of girl nice guys meet just before they decide to settle down with someone else. They find girls like me on mountains they dare to climb when they’ve had a little too much to drink. We’re the ones flailing about on giant speakers and in parking lots; it’s there that we find our power. We can seduce the most gentle and most vicious of animals and then lie like one, begging to be put out of our half-dead, half-alive misery. We’re shocking.
More of Chapter 9 coming this week.
To find out what BOUNDARIES is about and start reading at the beginning. go here .
BOUNDARIES is Penelope Przekop's first novel. It's a work of fiction based on true events. Since writing BOUNDARIES, she has completed two other novels. ABERRATIONS was published by Greenleaf Book Group in 2008. CENTERPIECES is currently being considered by several publishers. Penelope is working on her fourth novel, DUST.