by Cindy Sites-Wooley
Only candles on the coffee table and red Christmas lights along the walls lit the living room. Jordy had connected his iPod to the stereo and put on a vintage 4AD playlist for Petra. He always knew what helped.
Nick’s old roommate Steve was sloshed. He’d been drunk the last time Petra saw him, and all the other times that she could remember with the possible exception of the funeral. Everybody worried about Steve as much as they laughed at his antics. Usually he was a happy drunk who wanted everyone to join him in the bottom of a bottle, as long as they brought their own. Not this time.
“Forty isn’t the new thirty! No, forty is the new forty, you fuckers! Why can’t we get older without candy-coating it?”
Jordy rolled his eyes. “Steve, please stop shouting in my ear.”
Steve reached from his armchair to the couch, slung an arm around Jordy, and almost fell. Jordy’s wine glass narrowly avoided collision.
“Sorry, Jordy. I’m fucked up. Forty-one’s too young to die but it ain’t young. I’m sick of everybody acting like we’re not middle-aged. It’s just advertising. Like the fucking boner pill. What if I don’t want to fuck anymore when I’m sixty? Leave our dicks alone. I’ll have liver problems anyway.” He took another swig and looked at Petra. “I’m so sorry. Nick was my brother. I feel it right here.” Steve slapped his chest.
Petra tried on a facial expression, but it didn’t work. She concentrated on Jordy’s comforting warmth beside her. Good old Jordy, her puzzle piece. Her torso hadn’t stopped feeling hollow yet. She’d like to fill it with vodka, but alcohol gave her migraines and heartburn now. Steve was uncomfortably right about getting older.
Eddie sat on the love seat with his new boyfriend whose name Petra didn’t know. The boyfriend couldn’t have looked more ready to leave.
Angular little Winston watched the floor from his armchair. She’d rarely spoken to him without Nick around but inviting him had seemed like the right thing to do. Petra smelled pot smoke on him as thick as wool.
Sitting on Petra’s other side was Jane, her other best friend. “I’m so sorry, girl,” Jane said for the third time.
“I’m okay.” But what else could she say?
Petra and Nick met in tenth grade after Jane noticed Petra mooning over this quiet new boy who wore a black leather motorcycle jacket and cherry red Dr. Martens. She’d never seen anyone wear boots like that in person. He sketched skulls and punk band names on his book covers.
“You remember when you made me talk to Nick that first time?”
“How could I forget?” Jane started to smile. “I thought you could use a little push.”
“More like a shove. And you didn’t even know him.”
“You know Star Trek formed my life philosophy. ‘To boldly go where no one has gone before’ is the way to live. You needed to try or I’d never have heard the end of it.”
Petra really smiled for the first time in days. “One day when we were fifteen, this hussy dragged me to talk to a new guy I’d been crushing on for weeks,” she told the others. “I wanted to bolt.”
“But I had a hold on her so she wasn’t going anywhere without me.”
“After we introduced ourselves, you bailed with some lie about needing to be across campus.”
Jane laughed. “I got you talking to him. But damn, you guys took a long time to get it together.”
“He still had a girlfriend at West Charlotte. They fought a lot, so he bitched about her to me. I turned into a high school movie stereotype: the girl pining for her best guy friend. By the time they broke up I was dating somebody. We went to different colleges but I met him again at one of Jordy’s parties.”
Jordy pointed at Petra with his glass. “Oh right, I tried to introduce you.”
Petra chuckled. “Yeah. You both get credit. Nick and I wouldn’t have known each other without Jane but we wouldn’t have reunited without Jordy.”
Everybody went quiet. Maybe, like Petra, they were pondering the things that would be different if a friend didn’t make you be bold, or if you skipped a party. Maybe Nick would be alive if she hadn’t met him, but she wouldn’t have known the difference. Her smile drifted.
“Chaos theory,” Eddie said. “I mean it’s a grossly oversimplified example, like the butterfly effect. You’ve heard of that, right?”
Steve groaned. “You were talking about it last time. There was that movie, too.”
Eddie cut his eyes at Steve with a little tilt of his head. “Okay, queen, no need to be that way.”
“I’m just giving you shit, Eddie.” Steve leaned back in his seat. “Go ahead and talk. I’m drunk, don’t listen to me.”
“That’s always the answer, isn’t it. Get drunk and talk shit and none of it means anything. Aren’t we all ready to move past that?”
Steve lifted his head like a giant surprised otter.
“Guys, why fight now, of all times?” Jordy said.
Eddie sulked. Steve dropped back in his seat.
“Whatever you want,” Eddie said finally.
“Do you need to talk about things, Eddie?” Jane asked, ever the therapist. “I’m not saying to fight it out, but it’s bad to keep shit bottled up.”
“Who’s fighting what out?” Steve now looked more like a confused bear than a startled otter.
“We aren’t going to fight at the wake for our dead friend in my house,” Jordy said.
Eddie rolled his eyes. “I’m a drama queen, not a fighter. All I want is to be taken seriously.”
“Who’s not taking you seriously?” Steve asked. “Eddie, I swear I meant nothing by it. Don’t you know I only give people shit if I like them?”
Petra saw Eddie’s point. People generally regarded him as a flaky flamer who peppered his hilariously rambling monologues with impersonations of obscure ex-celebrities and bursts of song. It was like he had a pop culture-fixated case of ADHD. She wondered how many people never saw his intelligence, and it reminded Petra of the way people had treated her when they could only see how she dressed. Everybody here should understand.
“Just forget it,” Eddie said.
Petra looked around as if she might find a new topic. Everybody was studying their drinks or the floor.
“Y’know, not to be a downer, but I think this is what it’s going to be like for our generation from here on out,” Steve said.
“What, arguing at wakes?” Jordy asked.
Steve waved his hand. “Burying people too soon. Things have changed. We aren’t the kids now and it hurts, but that’s just the way it is.”
“Oh, thanks for the Hallmark card, Steve. I’ll throw it in the trash with the others,” Petra said.
“I’m sorry, Petra. I say so much depressing shit. Why do you people keep me around?”
“Normally you’re very entertaining,” Jordy said. “We’ve just never seen you under these circumstances.”
With each sip of red wine Eddie grew increasingly morose. “Really, he’s right. I should put my name on the list for the first mission to Mars, take the first flight off this fucking rock for good.” He took another drink and turned to his boyfriend. “Don’t worry, baby, you’re my plus one. Maybe Nick will meet us there. Maybe it’s not another plane where spirits go, but another planet. ‘Is there Life on Maaahaaahaaaarrrs?’” he sang. “Oh, Jordy, do you have Hunky Dory?”
Eddie’s boyfriend gave Eddie a sidelong, brow-furrowed glance. Petra imagined that it was too early in a relationship to be plunging into the deep end this way. This guy should learn to swim fast if he wanted to be with Eddie. She loved Eddie, but he had chased off dozens of guys through sheer weirdness and breathtaking mood swings. Petra still wasn’t sure of Eddie’s boyfriend’s name, but she didn’t expect him to be around long enough to have need of learning it.
Jordy stood. “Of course I have Hunky Dory.” He looked at Petra. “Is that okay with you?”
“I’d never deny the people their Bowie.”
“I hope it’s not mp3, girl,” Eddie said.
“What kind of Bowie fan do you take me for? I’ve had it on vinyl since I was sixteen.” Jordy pulled the record from the crate and held it up.
Eddie grinned and raised his glass. “To Bowie.”
Most of the party raised their drinks while Jordy lifted the record high. Then he eased the vinyl out of its sleeve onto the turntable, and flipped his receiver to the record player channel. The needle landed softly on the vinyl with that wonderful hiss.
Eddie sighed. “At the risk of sounding like an asshole, nothing sounds warmer and fuller than vinyl.”
“I remember buying this at the Record Exchange when it was on Wendover,” Jordy said, taking his seat. “This one guy who worked there was so gorgeous and cool. I made sure to go to the cash register while he was up there so he would see me buy this album.” Jordy grinned. “He said I had excellent taste and asked if I had any Bowie videos. I didn’t, so he told me to come back the next Saturday evening and he’d give me a VHS of his Bowie video collection. I came back and he gave me a lot more than a tape. He wanted me to meet him after closing. It turned out he was twenty-one, his roommate was out of town, and he was into twinks, so we smoked a joint at his apartment and fucked while listening to ‘Heroes’. I can’t think of a better way to lose your virginity.”
“So romantic,” Petra cooed.
“Bowie’s an aphrodisiac. I put him on every mix tape for my crushes and it usually turned out well. Praise Bowie.”Jordy raised a gospel hand. “Do you think today’s lovesick adolescents create a playlist for the object of their affection instead of a mix tape?” Most of the room laughed.
“Some hipsters are into tapes, I heard,” Steve said. “I guess they like fast forwarding to the good songs and keeping a pencil handy in case they have to fix the tape. I get the vinyl revival, but not that. We like a lot of bad shit just because it’s old.”
Jane narrowed her eyes as if peering at something out of focus. “I wonder how many people our age had their sexual awakening to Bowie.” Several people chuckled. “I was all about Jareth from Labyrinth, because hey, that bulge.”
“You were thirteen when that came out!” Petra said.
A subject like this never failed to pique Steve’s interest. “You had sex for the first time when you were thirteen?”
“No, I said sexual awakening. The first time you felt stirrings in the loin. Guess I saved myself for Bowie.”
Grinning, Jordy pointed to the framed Thin White Duke-era Bowie photo on the wall. Bowie looked like he was drawing back an invisible bowstring while holding a microphone at arm’s length. It was a stunning black and white image. “I have unabashed, enduring love for this man. I was ten when I saw the ‘China Girl’ video. He was beautiful anyway, but then! Then there was that bare-assed scene on the beach. I totally ignored the woman. That’s how I knew I was gay. But have you seen The Man Who Fell to Earth? Whew.” Jordy fanned himself. “Years ago there was this website called David Bowie’s Area. Yes, it was about his bulge and it was great. I miss it.”
“It wasn’t only Bowie for me,” Eddie said. “There was Billy Idol. ‘Flesh for Fantasy’ was so sexy. ‘Eyes Without a Face,’ too. Blonds really do it for me.” He winked at his boyfriend, whose hair was platinum. “Bowie’s the best, though.”
Jane nodded. “That’s what I’m saying. I wasn’t lucky enough to see ‘China Girl’ before they censored it, but that’s why the goddess made YouTube. That’s some fine Bowie ass.” She turned to Petra. “How about you?”
Petra’s cheeks flushed. She had hoped they’d take pity on the widow and not make her spill. “I never even told Nick.”
“Come on, we’ve said ours.” Jordy nudged her.
“Et tu, Jor-day?” Petra laughed nervously. “Really, you want to know?”
“Well, duh,” Jane drawled.
Looking down, Petra rubbed her hand around her glass of tea to collect the condensation. “Prince. ‘When Doves Cry’ was my first sighting of a man in a bathtub. The music just sounded like sex, and then he sang about her touching his trembling stomach. I felt kinda fluttery myself.”
Jane nodded sagely. “That and the crawling. I feel you, girl. Times like that, you know what Sheila E and Vanity saw in him.”
“And speaking of songs that make you perv out when you’re too young to understand, ‘Self Control’ by Laura Branigan was another pivotal song that year,” Petra said. Everybody but Winston fell out laughing.
“I’ll bet nobody has said that sentence in the history of the world,” Jordy said.
“Well, I know it’s cheesy when you look at the video now, but I was into that guy in the mask. I wanted him to take my self control.” She cringed against Jordy, who couldn’t stop giggling. “What a year, 1984.”
“You were just stewing in your hormones,” said Jane.
“I was totally at the mercy of MTV, waiting to be seduced.”
“And to think you didn’t want to tell us, your closest friends, any of this about yourself,” Steve said.
“We’ve all learned about you today, and we’ve learned about ourselves…” Jane intoned, voiceover style. Giggles overtook them all but Winston.
Steve took a swig of Maker’s Mark. “I remember getting my first boners to Buck Rogers because of Erin Gray, and Charlie’s Angels. Even Kate Jackson. People said she wasn’t the sexy one, but I dug her.” Petra always forgot that Steve was a little older than the rest of them. “That goes for me and the rest of the straight guys my age, probably.”
“Well, I’m sure a lot of this is lost on Adam,” Eddie said, grinning at his boyfriend. So that was his name.
“I’m not that young. I know who Charlie’s Angels are.”
“I don’t think you’ve told me your first crush,” Eddie said.
“You guys will laugh.”
Eddie rubbed Adam’s arm. “As your boyfriend I swear I won’t laugh at you.”
“Mm-hmm, I’ll take it out of your ass later if you do.”
Eddie leaned closer. “Promise?”
“Oh guys, I’d say get a room but I don’t want you getting ideas about what you can do in my house,” Jordy said.
Adam interlaced his fingers. “Okay. When I was ten, I had a thing for Trent Reznor because of the video for ‘Closer.’ No shirt, blindfold.” He raised his shoulders.
“Why would we laugh?” Jane asked. “I thought he was hot too.”
“Yeah, I can’t laugh at that, but I don’t know whether to be proud or horrified for robbing the cradle,” Eddie said. “I was twenty-one when that came out.”
“Be proud,” Jordy said. He gazed around the room. “What about you, Winston?”
Winston frowned and didn’t look up. “You people act like nobody died. I can’t believe you’re talking about who you first wanted to jack off to. You’re not taking this seriously.”
“Wait a minute.” Petra sat up. “Most of us knew Nick a hell of a lot longer than you did. You were just his fucking drug buddy. Where do you get off telling people how to mourn? For all I know you were there when he overdosed.” He winced. “Oh shit, were you?” Petra shot to her feet.
“No, no,” Winston stammered, “but he’d done a speedball before and he handled it. It wasn’t much, so he shouldn’t have OD’ed. I was working that night.”
Petra advanced on him. “Pot or acid, fine, whatever. If I’d known he ever mixed coke and smack I would’ve dumped his ass off with the cops myself.”
Winston cringed. “I know you’re mad, but I wasn’t … I didn’t …”
“I’m the one who found him already dead. You sat here judging us after I was nice enough to invite you even though we barely know you. You’re lucky you weren’t with him that night. Get the fuck out before I punch you. I never want to see you again.”
Winston slouched and looked at Jordy, who stood behind Petra.
“Don’t look at me. Petra’s right.”
The entire room seemed to hold its breath as Winston scrambled for the door. Petra needed to walk away, so she followed wherever her legs took her. She ended up in the kitchen. On the picture-plastered refrigerator there was a photo from a party two years ago. She and Nick and their friends grinned and laughed back at her. Nick was the handsome, sweet guy she loved so happily back then, pre-coke and healthy. Petra was laughing so hard her eyes were closed and her head was thrown back, abandoned to the joy of the moment. Jordy stood mid-tackle with his arms around her waist. Next to Jordy, Jane was pulling a face. On the left Steve towered over Nick, stony-faced but making bunny ears behind his head. Eddie was crouching in front of Petra and Jordy, ironically striking the stereotypical elbow-to-knee, hand-to-chin catalogue model pose. Off to the left you could see Winston in the background, accidentally captured on camera.
That’s when Petra felt Jordy embrace her from behind, melting some of her tension. “You okay?”
Petra shrugged. “I will be.”
“I should really cut him out of that photo.”
“Give me the scissors and let me do it,” Petra said.