There they are. Everywhere. But mostly in your personal space. Because of the noise. They will yell things that are regrettable and mildly offensive and then they will eat overly-salted fast food and make more loud noises and think of themselves in ways that no one else might ever think. They will drink things they perhaps should not, at least not in these quantities, and then they will make more noises in public places. It always comes down to noise with them, filling the air with whatever comes into their heads, and for that they can’t be blamed, not really, they are just channeling something, some kind energy, this relentlessly deep and eternal well of energy that makes them so damned loud. Damn, they’re loud.
Alison wakes up. Her pug Frank stares at her expectantly from the floor. Frank is in a constant state of wanting, of needing, and there is love in that need, a self-preservation that creates the ultimate kind of endearment. She hears Frank breathing. “Aw fuck, Frank,” Alison says for no reason but she says it and Frank responds with more wheezing. Alison puts a foot on the floor and Frank gives her ankle a little lick and Alison wants to smile almost. “Fuck, Frank,” she says.
Alison opens her bedroom door. Frank goes waddling out and down the stairs and toward the kitchen. Alison hears her mother greet Frank and knows the dog is fine now. A human will feed him. If she’s lucky, a human will take Frank outside so she won’t have to. Right now, this is the sum of everything she could possibly desire. “Honey!” her mother calls from the kitchen. “I’m running late. Please take Frank outside.” And with this Alison wonders whether or not she’s going to get back into bed. She checks her phone for messages and stares into the screen as she wanders off to the bathroom.
Billy is in a ferocious mood. “My mood is ferocious,” he tells the girl at the café in response to her innocent “how are we today?” Billy is not always in this kind of mood. He generally considers himself a happy person. Balanced somehow. Sunshine, like his mother used to say. His parents are loving. He does well in school. He likes to think he is well-adjusted. Except when he’s not. Like now. But even when he’s angry he considers the full tapestry of his life, the arc of it, and his anger dissipates. Normally. It has been known to happen. He is on the cusp of adulthood and has navigated the traffic of adolescence with something approaching skill. But today Billy feels as if he wants to set off bombs and hurt innocent people. He knows why he’s in this mood and that just makes him moodier. He’s smart enough to hate himself for the mood he’s in. “That’s too bad,” the girl at the café says. She gives him a bigger coffee than he’s ordered. “Just because,” she says.
Billy takes his coffee and tries to thank her but he can’t bring himself to it. He feels there is nothing to be thankful for. He manages a nod. She smiles. If he weren’t feeling this way, he would need to admit that the girl serving him coffee is cute.
Billy leaves the café and checks his phone. Nothing. There is nothing in the phone to diffuse the ferocity of his mood. There are no messages that matter to him. There is the banality of good morning texts, updates about breakfasts eaten, morning dumps, the reliving of activities that sound to him like the death of civilization.
He could kill civilization right now. If only he knew where to find it.
This is Alison’s mother. A woman older than she looks and quite proud that her age always surprises people. That she has a teenage daughter. And that she supports her daughter in a manner that borders on extravagance. She’s proud that she’s never taken or needed money from her ex-husband because she hates him too much. She works hard. She’s proud that she’s made it to junior vice president of marketing for the kind of faceless company with a generic sounding name and corporate park HQ that we all pass by on our way to some place else. She loves her job. She has a good parking spot.
This is Alison’s mother. She hasn’t had what one might call a boyfriend since the divorce and she’s not upset by this. She says this to anyone who will believe her. Alison’s mother doesn’t like dating and she doesn’ t like visiting bars and she will not turn to the internet as salvation and she doesn’t care because she doesn’t want to the be kind who brings home a parade of men in front of the unsympathetic eyes of a teenage daughter. She misses sex and she will admit it and once in a while she gets herself involved with someone at work or a man she might meet at the supermarket or the liquor store just to touch someone again but she doesn’t miss intimacy. That’s what she tells all her friends.
This is Alison’s mother on a Friday night: Watching tv, going out to the backyard to smoke a joint, drinking vodka. Falling asleep in a reverie of the half lived life, in a cloud of her own sense of accomplishment, a woman who has set her priorities and will never allow herself to regret them for even one second.
This is Alison’s mother.
Billy says, “Sangria is like this fuckin plot by women to make everything douchy.”
There are murmers of agreement. And then Billy says, “Because fuck off, fruit and wine.”
And the murmers grow louder.
Billy takes a sip of his coffee. And then he says, “I’m fucking off if I see sangria. Forever, ok? Write it down. I’m sangria-free. Mark it. And another thing. I won’t drink fuckin herbal tea either. Maybe mint. And that tea in Chinese restaurants? Isn’t herbal, I asked. I like that shit. And like, since when did fuckin book stores become stores for chicks? It’s like they don’t want me to go in. Like don’t fuckin complain about guys not reading and then make the fuckin bookstore if I go into a store at all, don’t make it all herbal tea and soaps. Don’t sell soap at the bookstore. Don’t sell, like, pitchers for your fuckin sangria. I fuckin hate sangria.”
And then Billy laughs. And then Billy says, “Do women get more or less interesting the older they get?” And suddenly he sounds older and wiser and not like a teenager anymore.
Pit says, “This depends.” Billy calls Pit “Apu” because Pit is first generation and has an accent. Billy would do anything for Pit.
Billy says, “Fuck you and you.”
Jag says, “Sexually.”
Billy says, “Maybe.”
And Jag pulls at the bit of goatie he’s managed to grow.
Pit says, “Talking wise no.” He says, “I’m assuming older women are more interesting than my mom and more interesting than my aunties and more interesting than my teachers.”
Billy says, “Aunties in panties” and laughs.
Jag says, “Older women on TV suck. They’re made up bad on purpose just to look like, I don’t know, not fuckable. They get emotional and make bad decisions.”
Pit says, “Guys get emotional and beat people up and make explosions.”
Billy says, “Sexually.”
And there is silence. And Jag says, “That would be pretty cool.”
Alison takes Frank on his walk. What she does really, is take him out to the backyard. She sits in a lawnchair and throws a ball toward the fence and Frank waddles over and retrieves the ball and plays with it some and then brings it back and drops the ball and waits for Alison to throw it again. And she does. And this is repeated until Frank decided to shit and Alison gets up and pulls a plastic bag out of her back pocket and bends down and picks up the still hot shit and thinks, This must be love. And she laughs at this because she imagines a world where marriage ceremonies are concluded with the newlyweds squatting on the floor and their partners picking up their shit before being pronounced husband and wife.
She puts the bag into the garbage bin and sits down again on the lawn chair and throws the ball and Frank retrieves it. And in this way, Frank remains steadfast and loyal.
Alison is pretty sure she is pregnant.
Alison’s mother enjoys meetings. She is rare in this sense and she is aware of this; it is in the meeting room that she can be fully in charge, run a show, affect change. She can say things like, “Stan, study that” or “Jane, noodle over that with Curt and see what you come up with” or “Ali, I like the blue one.” And everyone listens to her. They wait on her decisions. They stab each other’s backs and plot and scheme so that they can be in the right place as she makes her decisions. So that they can be led. There is an ecosystem underneath her that exists solely based on the direction of her decisions. She enjoys this too much and she knows she does and she knows this means something about her life in general but she doesn’t care. She’s paid well so that she can mask the feeling with vodka and nice clothes and a certain amount of tangible power and it’s a deal she’s willing to make.
Alison’s mother has a special talent and it has nothing to do with what she can do. Her talent is to hire smart but insecure people. She likes to promote these people to the point just beyond their comfort zone so that they will need her. And these people are grateful. They are grateful to her because she has given them a “chance,” because she has taken a “risk.” She never promotes the obvious ones. She promotes the ones that she knows will be most grateful. She has surrounded herself with gratitude. She once read a business book about the office being a battlefield and how you should only hire people willing to die for you. And that’s what she does. That’s her special talent. She is surrounded by a kind of desperate love. By puppies.
Alison’s mother loves the idea of marketing. She loves the idea of creating the systems that will bend the will of the public. Or implementing ways of manipulation. She gets a kick out of that. She loves planting her product in the media. She loves reading stories in the paper that she knows her team has planted somehow. She loves being cynical about the media. She loves how worldly being cynical makes her feel. She loves the cosmopolitanism of cynicism. She loves being weary and knowing and drinking vodka at night and sneaking off to smoke some weed and having sex when she needs it but not being tied down to anyone and raising a daughter who doesn’t seem like a disaster and that she’s a mother with a daughter who owns a pug.
They will dance around like monkeys and they will revel in their monkeydom because they are at that age. It is what they do. They will take over any physical space they choose to take over until they have passed some kind of norm that necessitates the appearance of the apparatus of security.
They will eat food of dubious provenance and they will create rude noises and then they will laugh and you will wonder don’t they know there are other people here and you will only wonder that because you have forgotten what it is like to be them. Of course they know there are other people around them. Of course they know they are in the public sphere. But they don’t care. About it or anything else that extends beyond their world. So stop worrying about the commotion. Get used to it. This is the sound of the future. They are using the language of the not yet spoken. They are creating tomorrow’s words today. Tomorrow’s advertising. Tomorrow’s music. They are creating tomorrow. This kind of creativity requires a lack of rules. Of decorum. It requires noise apparently. So what if they’re loud?
Alison told him and he said are you sure and she said no I haven’t tested yet and he said test and she said ok. I’ll get the test. This was four days ago and she has yet to get the test but now it’s all she thinks about.
She looks at Frank she thinks of the test. She eats dinner she thinks of the test. When she’s with her friends, she thinks of the test. When she sees her mother snuggle into the couch in the den, vodka in hand, she thinks of the test. When she’s listening to music she thinks of the test. She thinks of it before bed. She dreams of it. If it weren’t summer vacation, she would think of it at school.
She’s so happy this is not happening during school.
She gets up to leave and Frank jogs over and Alison says no Frank, no baby, not now, and Frank knows this tone and deflates visibly, if a pug can deflate, and walks back to his pillow near the TV and sits himself down and Alison knows he’s upset because the patterns of his wheezing change, they become less consistent. Sometimes when he’s upset, Alison thinks he’s about to stop breathing but he never does, not Frank. Sorry, she says and Frank doesn’t hear her, he’s already lost in his own desolation.
Alison rides her Vespa to the pharmacy. She thinks about being pregnant the whole time and she wonders how her mother will handle this. What will the reaction be, and how will that reaction evolve, and how will the stages of her eventual acceptance manifest themselves? Because she will eventually accept the news. Because her mother is a lot of things but she’s also a good mother. Alison believes this.
And then she suddenly realizes that she has not even thought about the idea of being pregnant, of possibly keeping this baby, or not, or what the hell is she going to do? She has yet to make the leap to the logical conclusion of the thing that is occupying her.
First things first.
She reaches the pharmacy. She parks the Vespa. She checks her phone for messages. She has almost twenty. But there is no one inside her phone right now that she wants to communicate with. She has not told anyone. Except him.
She also now realizes, no, she does not know what a pregnancy test entails. She knows she has to pee. But then what? Where does she pee? She knows there’s a stick involved. Some plastic thing that changes color. She’s seen that on TV, in movies. She’s had friends who have taken the test. She couldn’t bring herself to look it up online. She’s unsure about the mechanics. And she is not asking anyone at the pharmacy. Forget it.
But she goes in and she realizes she knows people here. Some of the kids who work here, she knows them. She goes to school with them. These are the kids whose parents expect them to work. She panics a little and she tries calling him and he doesn’t answer. She hates that he almost never answers his phone even if he’s holding it. She gets back on her scooter and rides home.
And then she thinks of a pharmacy far enough away, in a neighborhood her friends wouldn’t go to, and she figures she can go tonight. She’ll take the car and go tonight and get the test and later, when her mother’s asleep, when she’s drifted off, stoned or drunk or both, she’ll take the test and confirm her suspicions.
Billy is distracted. He hears very little or nothing at all. Jag finishes talking about something and then he yells “BILLY FUCK!!!” and Billy looks at him and says, “What?”
“Where the fuck are you?” Jag asks and Pit laughs and Jag shakes his head and says “I’m not repeating all that.”
And Billy asks, “Where do you think the whole MILF thing comes from?”
Alison sits on the toilet reading the literature and making faces and Frank sits there wheezing, expecting something, attention perhaps, a cookie maybe, and Alison reads the thing and shrugs and pulls the stick out of the pack and places it where it’s supposed to go and makes another kind of face and soon enough she produces some pee and she’s done, she pulls the stick and she says, I peed on my hand, and she thinks for a second of offering her hand to Frank but then she thinks that would really change the dynamics of their relationship and she doesn’t. And she stands up and flushes. And she puts the stick down and washes her hands. Soon Frank, she says. The house is quiet, her mother’s asleep on the couch in the den. And she washes her hands some more. And the stick doesn’t change. And she stares and stares and then the stick changes and she reads negative. And she picks Frank up and gives him a kiss. And then she thinks about crying. And then she puts Frank down and looks at him. And he looks at her and cocks his head and she says, OK, let’s go. And she takes him outside.
Alison’s mother fired someone today. An employee disappointed her too deeply on too many occasions in front of too many people and the endlessness of these disappointments, and the potential for them to continue, on and on, beyond the horizon, without any hope of improvement, or, more importantly, without any hope of an erasure of these disappointments, forced Alison’s mother to walk to HR and tell them to fire this person. And when it was done, Alison’s mother decided she needed a drink and went to the bar in the lobby of her building and she had a vodka, neat, alone, and she watched some TV and overheard a dull conversation with four men in white shirts and blue ties and then she left. She wanted to beat the traffic. And that didn’t happen. She hit traffic with the perfect force of a perfect martini. She turned on the radio and there it was, the traffic problem, some stalled something causing a chain reaction accident and she was stuck.
Traffic annoys her more than anything else except employees that she has handpicked to be part of her team who end up annoying her. That annoys her most of all.
She calls home and she leaves her daughter a message.
And then she checks her text messages and suddenly her cheeks flush. If you were sitting right next to her when this happened you would think she had just caught a most awful contagion. You would have heard her cheeks flush.
And then Alison’s mother puts her hand through her hair. And then she rolls down her window and has a cigarette. And she smiles.
Billy walks home and goes into his room and buries his face in his pillow.
Alison would like to speak to him. She doesn’t want to leave this message on voice mail, or restrict it to 140 characters. Though it would be cool if she could just text “no” and he would understand and that would be that. Frank needs a walk or a run or something and she takes him out back and throws the ball for him and Frank is so happy he pees on the fence and then runs up to Alison and licks her ankles.
Alison keeps checking on her phone. She needs to speak to him finally to tell him that life is not over and that she would really like it if their lives were just beginning. Something like that. She keeps thinking she handled this whole thing really well and she’s proud of herself.
She throws Frank’s ball and he races to retrieve it.
She’s proud of herself because this whole episode has shown her she can be an adult about the most potentially life altering things.
Frank licks Alison’s ankle again. And she bends down and picks him up and she says, Tell him to answer me, baby. And she kisses her dog.
Billy says, “This is fucking me up.” He says, “I don’t know anymore.” He says, “I’m not this kind of person.” And she says, “Shut up” and she kisses him some more and goes for his belt buckle and Billy pulls away and says “I’m all guilt, fuck.” He says, “This is the hottest thing ever but it’s wrong and it’s killing me.” He says, “I don’t like who I am anymore.” And he stands up and says, “Sorry, dude” and he walks away from Alison’s mother once and for all.
Alison hears her mother enter the house and open the freezer and take out her vodka. She hears her sit on the couch in the den. She hears her turn on the tv. She listens as she flicks the channels. She must be going through all of them, Alison thinks. Frank gets up and does his cat circle thing and lies back down on her legs and falls back asleep.
Alison hears her mother turn the tv off and get up and come up the stairs. She hears her mother take a loud sip of her vodka. She hears her walk slowly into her room and close the door harder than usual. She hears her turn on her little tv. She hears her flip off her shoes. She hears her turn on the shower.
Billy tries to forget. He knows he’s fucked up. He knows this. His face aglow from the DS, the only visible thing in the room, Billy is overcome with a guilt that makes his body ache. It aches. What started as a silly flirtation became something both sick and the kind of thing he wished he could tell all his friends because they would think him too cool for achieving this. Mother and daughter. It’s like internet porn come to life. The best kind of internet porn and he was living it. And knowing he was cool might have alleviated some guilt. But nothing could ever alleviate all of it. The knowledge of this is too real.
He allows himself one last smile about the facts of this.
When Billy read the text from Alison, he knew he loved her. At that moment everything that he was doing became even more wrong. At that moment he felt something he had never felt before and he knew it was love. And now he does not know if he can look the girl he loves in the face. If he can stand to look at her ever again.
Billy plays his DS in the darkness of his room.
They will not let you enjoy your tepid pizza. Your chow mein with four times the daily recommended allowance of sodium. Your plastic burger. They will not. Because they will be loud. Their noise will get inside your bones and will affect your heart rate. They will throw French fries at each other and flirt with an enviable casualness. All the while, their noise will eat your stomachs. And no matter what you say, or what you do, or who you call to make them stop, they will make more noise. It will never end. Just chew your food and take it.
(c) 2011 Arjun Basu