Jake presses his lips on the joint’s tail and inhales deeply. If Lee were here, Jake would pass it to him. Lee would smoke with his pinky raised, as if to show respect. He’d take the hit then sit back, smile a little to himself and say something like ‘That’s what it’s all about, man. That’s the experience. The government doesn’t want us to know, but weed is a religion. They can’t keep us down for long, though. Revolution, man. I give it four or five years, tops, then the two of us will be on the front lines of the biggest…’ Jake would lean his head back on his futon and let Lee’s rants floss through his ears like a song in a foreign language, maybe smiling pleasantly.
But Lee is not here. Jake passes it to Kayla, who passes it to Zach, who passes it back to him again. Around and around until it’s roachefied.
The trailer is quiet. His bedroom window is cracked so the fumes have somewhere to escape. Jake doesn’t know why he’s thinking about Lee right now.
‘Go check on Cameron,’ Kayla mutters. Technically it’s her turn, but Kayla is letting the hem of her skirt rest just above her knee and smiling in a way that Jake doesn’t want to sabotage. He squeezes her bare knee and heads down the hall to Cameron’s room. The little guy is just fine, secure in the bars of his crib, blue blanket all the way to his chin. Jake goes back to his room and takes another hit. His high is really starting to creep up on him: he’s thinking about how safe Cameron is and how vulnerable Lee probably is, out there in the cruel world by himself. Zach has to repeat his question before Jake is really listening.
‘Oh yeah. Sure, I’ll help you,’ Jake says. He had that class five years ago. God, it’s been five years ago now. Even the currently damp, cloudy state of his brain did nothing to help him forget that soon he would turn 26. A few trailers down he can hear the glass-rattling bass-line of some party. He imagines plastic red cups and girls grinding against each other like they were never allowed to in high school. Jake didn’t get invited to parties like that anymore. Kayla recognizes the look in his eyes and gently traces a long fingernail up his forearm.
Zach says he has to go home and practice his audition and Jake tells him that he’ll help with his project later this week. Just call me. The front door closes and the smile on Kayla’s face is enough to make saints leave heaven. They finish the joint and Jake lays her down on top of the blankets.
Kayla checks on Cameron afterwards, but Jake stays in bed. He spins his still-gleaming wedding band around his finger. It’s a size too small, so when he takes it off there’s an irritated red circle where the gold used to be.
You’ve changed. That’s what she told him before they found out she was pregnant. He hadn’t argued. The Jake she had fallen in love with had been greeted with enthusiastic cheers at every party. His performance as Constantine in The Seagull had made the patrons leap out of their cushioned seats and applaud with tears moistening their cheeks.
Now… Now. Somewhere around hitting the quarter-of-a-century mark, Jake slowed down. Grew introspective. He remembers his oh-so-cliché dream of moving to Los Angeles and becoming a star, his professors encouraging this with proud slaps on the back. What was it Lee always said in between puffs? ‘You and me are gonna head to Hollywood and totally fuck shit up. You can bang Natalie Portman and I’ll take Jessica Alba.’ But Jake had somehow never got around to packing his bags. Lee still talks about one day banging Jessica Alba, himself a wildly successful novelist, but Jake is usually no longer included in the scenario.
Jake finds his boxers at the bottom of the bed and slips them on before heading into the kitchen. He tosses some leftover pasta into the microwave and notices he has a missed call from his dad. It’s barely midnight, which means mom is asleep but dad is still surfing the internet, eagerly reading articles he’ll forget about by next week. Thinking, perhaps it would be better to get this old routine over with while he’s still a little high, he calls back.
When Jake had said he wanted to be an actor, his dad had said Yeah, and I wanted to be a rock star, too. They still hug each other and pose for pictures together, but the tired exchange of, You know, there’s nothing wrong with making a good living and sigh, I know, Dad, is always pulsing between them. And so on.
‘Hey, dad. I saw you called.’
‘Your rent is overdue. The landlord called me Tuesday because you haven’t been calling him back. Aren’t you working?’
‘I paid it yesterday.’
‘You don’t want to get a bad reputation, Jake.’
‘Cameron needed diapers.’
‘Yeah, kids are expensive. If you ever need money-’
‘I don’t need money. But thanks anyway.’
They dance, the olive branch always extended, the continuous refusal. Repent of your sins. Life will be so much easier. The worst part is Jake’s increasingly throbbing certainty that his dad is right. The cubicle no longer resembles the ‘evil capitalist prison cell’, the way it did when he was in high school. No, now it looks more like a fortress. A reclining chair, your own computer, quirky little emails from coworkers to brighten the work day… Why not? Still, Jake plays his part. When he gets off the phone, he sits down with his food and picks up where he left off in The Seagull.
NINA: Constantine, that for us, whether we write or
act, it is not the honour and glory of which I have dreamt that
is important, it is the strength to endure. One must know how to
bear one’s cross, and one must have faith. I believe, and so do
not suffer so much, and when I think of my calling I do not fear
TREPLIEFF: [Sadly] You have found your way, you know where you are going, but I am still groping in a chaos of phantoms and
dreams, not knowing whom and what end I am serving by it all. I
do not believe in anything, and I do not know what my calling is.
Treplieff’s name is washed in yellow highlighter, and Jake remembers reciting these lines. Nina’s shoulders were frail in his grip. He’d confessed this with a thin film of tears tickling his irises. His eyes sparkled in the lights. All of his director’s coaching was echoing in his head: This is a tough play, Jake. The ending will come off as abrupt and undeserved if you don’t make your last exit count. As you leave Stage Right, every breathless soul in this theater has to know with a poisonous, sickened certainly that you are planning to kill yourself. Otherwise the whole ending is shot. When the gun finally went off, multiple people in the audience cried out (No!) every time.
‘You better get to bed,’ Kayla says, making him jump. Her slender hand glides across his back. ‘Don’t you open tomorrow?’
He does. Turn on the lights. Fire up the grill. A whole day of smiling so many times that your body begs for a groan. Jake leaves his plate in the sink and follows Kayla to bed. In the dark he thinks about Lee again, and wonders where he was tonight.
The next evening, Jake finds the door to Lee’s house unlocked. He lets himself in, sporting a grin and a dime-bag, which he lightly shakes in front of him like a dog treat. The smell of feces makes him retreat a little. Lee’s basset hound is moping behind the couch, looking ashamed. Jake frowns and goes further inside anyway. He finds Lee in the bedroom, half of him hanging off his bed, the other half a crusty red mess. Six bullet holes in the wall behind him. Lee’s hands are curled into fists, except for a single pinky standing high in the air.
Jake loosens his tie and collapses on the couch. He didn’t go to the graveside service. He wants to watch TV. He turns it on, but the images in his mind won’t match the ones on the screen. Still, Jake leans forward, as though the reality show were a particularly ambiguous indie film. He watches plastic people grind against each other and half expects a squeaking sound. They flash their crotches to the camera. These people are in mansions. Jake is in a trailer. Lee is in the ground.
The best part of the funeral had been Lee’s parents, asking Jake if he could finish Lee’s often boasted about novel. Any time you’d ask him, the novel was one good sitting away from being done. Then it was going to ‘rock their shit.’ Jake hadn’t the heart to tell them Lee had never even started, except for maybe a few title ideas scribbled in the margins of his class notes. No, Jake needs to watch TV.
A few hours slowly pass. Jake turns off the TV. Paces the whole length of the trailer until his feet hurt. Re-reads The Seagull. What is it Nina’s always saying? But a man sees her who chances to come that way, and he destroys her out of idleness. Nobody has caught who destroyed Lee. All his money is gone, so it was probably drugs. His dealer is missing.
The casket had been closed, but Jake could still see inside. He fantasized that he was in there instead of Lee. The gathering of people in black hanging their heads, talking about how much potential he’d had. How he could have changed the world if he wanted to. Everyone would always believe this, because there was no way to prove it wrong anymore. Could’ve been the next Kurt Vonnegut, somebody had said of Lee sadly. Jake envied the bastard.
Zach comes by while Jake is halfway through The Dark Side of the Moon, most of the dime-bag he was going to share with Lee now playfully saturating his brain. It’s always easy to tell when somebody is experiencing death for the first time. Jake takes in the poor kid’s pink cheeks and mismatched socks, mutely offers him some weed. Zach shakes his head. ‘I quit,’ he says. Jake wants to say don’t be stupid. Lee didn’t die because he smoked weed. He died because he had no vision. Because he was a dumb asshole who never would have left this town anyway.
‘You doing okay?’ Jake says.
‘Hanging in there,’ Zach mumbles. He sits down next to Jake so close that their shoulders are touching. Soon he will be crying. It’s why he came over here, Jake realizes.
‘It’s just so fucked up,’ Zach says.
‘Yeah. This stuff happens sometimes. It’s never easy.’
‘You ever lose somebody? Before this, I mean.’
The tears come. Jake just lets him go for it, saying ‘Uh huh’ whenever he’s supposed to, wrapping him in a one-armed hug. It doesn’t take too long. When the worst of it is out, Jake puts the weed away and allows Zach to trample him in a game of Madden. ‘I heard you got cast in Noises Off,’ Jake says. The cast list went up yesterday and he knows through Kayla, who hadn’t gotten anything.
Zach flushes with pride. ‘Yeah. It’ll be good to have a comedy to get my mind off all this.’
‘I miss that stuff. You’re gonna have a blast.’
‘You gonna come see it?’
‘Yeah, I guess I’ll be there.’
Once the game is finished, Zach gets his stuff together to leave. He thanks Jake, who of course waves it off as nothing. We’re gonna take New York by storm, he says, right before goodbye. Jake says sure. He watches Zach walk back to his truck, watches the truck disappear around the curve.
More weed? Nah. Wait for Kayla to get home.
Jake can’t watch movies anymore because the actors make him sick. Why isn’t that me? Parading on their red carpet Olympus while the mortals can only dream. Even the foul-mouthed, sex-crazed teenagers in B-movie horror films are doing better than he is. They’re noticed. They’ve made a footprint that millions have experienced, good or bad.
Washed up. Cleaned out. Follow the dream. Really going somewhere. Limitless potential. Not the honor and glory. Strength to endure. Grit your teeth, pack your bags. Do it. Certain obligations. It’s a boy. Manic music. People everywhere. Witnesses. Solemnly swear to give ’em hell. ‘Fuck shit up.’ City of Angels without wings. Do your best. Bang Natalie Portman.
Jake lets the bottom of the bottle kiss the sky.
‘How much have you had?’
The number 2626 is hanging from his ceiling, a birthday decoration. Five Coors Lights ago it had said 26. I’ve aged 2,600 years in about five minutes. Jake giggles.
Kayla keeps swatting his hands away. They’re in his room, alone as far as he can tell. The party is starting to wind down outside, but the music is still on in the living room. A clear green crust remains on the corner of his lip from vomiting a few minutes ago. It’s still in the trashcan at his feet, patiently waiting for another explosion. Three tiny wrinkles always appear between her eyebrows when Kayla is upset. He sees them now.
‘It’s my birthday,’ Jake explains. He doesn’t try again though. They watch each other in silence. Two wolves circling, shoulders tensed. Something glass, probably a bottle, bursts apart outside. They glance toward the noise but don’t flinch. Never before has it been more obvious that Kayla is tired of trying, that she wants to leave him. Even with Cameron, their unshakable glue, it’s too much. He offers her his hand and she takes it.
‘You’re not a failure, Jake.’
‘Never said I was.’
‘You’re saying it right now.’
Jake tries to let go of her hand, but she holds firm. He wants to be anywhere but here. His cell phone is in his pocket. He can fish it out with his other hand and finish the unspoken conversation with his dad once and for all. Got a real job yet? Sure, sign me up, Pops. Kayla’s going to cry soon. His eyes wander to the framed picture on his nightstand. Jake, Kayla, Cameron. The Kentucky sunset behind them, torching the trees with oranges and pinks.
He was wrong about Kayla crying. Her voice is ancient steel, dull but unyielding. Maybe after he leaves the room she will, but not now. ‘Cameron and I are going to California this summer. I hope you come with us.’
‘We can’t afford to move,’ Jake says quickly.
‘I can’t afford to stay.’
‘It’s easier for you to go.’
‘How is it easier-’
‘You know where you’re going with you’re life. I’m just…’
‘I don’t know where I’m going.’
‘But you have faith.’
‘See, that’s the difference.’
She lets go of him and lies down, facing the wall. He wants to be next to her, let her body sink into the crevices of his. Outside the room, the music has stopped. Jake stands up, pats Kayla’s foot in a drunken gesture of…something, and goes out the door to examine the aftermath of his party. A whole city of bottles takes up all the table space. One of his armchairs has somehow tipped over. Three freshman girls are left, listening to Travis talk about life in New York.
Travis had graduated with Jake and disappeared into the professional world years ago. Every few months they would hear about some play he was starring in or a big movie role he’d almost landed. Some East Coast tour had brought him near his alma matter, so he’d decided to make an appearance at the party. Jake remembers making fun of him: the way Travis’s arms used to stiffen into two swinging oars whenever he was onstage. Can’t believe you’re still around! is the first thing Travis had greeted him with, his usual smile taking up his whole face.
‘Your hair,’ Jake says, slurring a little. He plops down beside Travis. ‘Your hair always has some kinda gel shit in it.’ Travis laughs and proclaims I love this guy! He takes another drink. Jake has a feeling that Travis won’t leave this couch tonight, and neither will one of these girls.
‘Heard about Lee, man,’ Travis says. ‘Messed up. He had potential.’
‘The guy failed English 101 five times,’ Jake mutters. Travis laughs, kicking his legs in obvious good cheer. Jake smiles, too, though he doesn’t know why.
‘I remember that!’ Travis howls. ‘We always used to get on him! Just finish the damn paper, we’d tell him. He never listened! I tell ya, a guy like Lee doesn’t come around every day. I was always a little jealous, him being so content to just stay put and dream. Not me. If I had stayed here, I don’t know what I would’ve done. It’s like I have this… this… wildfire in my gut and every time I try to slow down it flares up, telling me to keep going forward. It’s like if I stop for even a second I’m suffocated by this… this… what’s the word?’
‘Sort of. I was thinking more like self-loathing. Isn’t that fucked up?’
‘Yeah,’ Jake says, standing with the help of the table. ‘Yeah, it sure is.’ Lee is waiting for him outside. He stumbles away, crosses the living room and exits out the door Stage Right. Jake remembers his captivated audiences, all of them knowing from his walk alone that Constantine was leaving to kill himself.