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Diet Coke and Cocktails

Jack Solomon

       She has an excellent sense of people, I have none at all. After a few moments with a new person, she can move into their psyche as effortlessly as a well-oiled machine. I get lost in my own mind; I have to ask myself questions directly to understand where my thoughts are headed. 

      She loves to talk and I will engage if I am forced to but with an unpleasant sense of effort and duty. She loves deep talks about the world and I hate them. All the same, I follow her through these many talks. I follow her through sadness, anger, happiness, unrest, injustice. I even follow her into my own mind, where I am blinded. 

      She loves our hometown, her bed, time spent time with the family dog. I would like to see the world, try the foods of every culture, and never have to sit still. 

     “There’s so much beauty out there to be discovered” I remind her amidst one of our many debates. She doesn’t budge on her stance: traveling is a waste of resources and causes unnecessary stress. I know that my words are useless. She knows it too because this is not the first time this conversation has taken place. Likely, it will happen again. 

     She likes ice coffee, cream cheese–whipped–spread on everything bagels, soup, and penne. I prefer espresso, buttered toast, sushi, and fettuccine. 

      Some time ago, there was a rare sighting. She and I sat across from each other at the table I claimed (mentally) in my favorite sushi restaurant. She scanned the menu–searching hard for something suited to her taste–as silence crashed down even harder between us. I watched her, my order already developed years ago. She looked up suddenly. I could feel the shift in her piercing gaze as it was directed towards me. “It’s amazing you were raised in my home”. I gave a slight smile and responded by raising my cocktail–a mix of raspberry, lychee, and vodka–while she lowered her can of diet coke brought specially from home. It isn’t impolite, she reminded me. Quickly, our conversation began to slow like a stalling engine powering a flying jet. Sensing the rapid decline in altitude, we each pull out our life jackets and navigate to safety with a discussion of the dog, my schooling, and recent political events. As the meal goes on I can tell she does not care for the preparation of food, dim lighting, or ambiance. That much is clear from the apathetic look across her face. I am not offended by this. I appreciated her effort in coming out. 

       I never remember band’s names, and as I am not good at recognizing voices it is often difficult for me to remember even the most favorite of her groups. On the drive home I flip on the radio. It’s AM and playing the indicative twang of a country song. She switches it moments later. We both like background music but not that kind. She flips through stations until a voice familiar and comforting plays through the speakers. In a moment of nostalgia, she covers the display screen playing a game she often did throughout my childhood. “I’ll give you a dollar–no five–if you can name whose singing.” It sounded familiar. I paused, racking my brain, before surrendering with a defeated shake of my head. She moves her hand: A Horse With No Name by the band America. We fall into silence listening to the lyrics; she remembers old memories while I’m making new ones.

       The band’s frontrunner, Dan Peek, whose name I learned that night sings these words near the end of the song: 

       “After nine days I let the horse run free 

       'Cause the desert had turned to sea” 

       Upon hearing this, we look into each other’s eyes by way of the rear view mirror. For the rest of the song we don’t say anything because there really is not much to add. If only for a moment, I am her horse and I think that she is letting me know it is okay to run free. 

        After the song she begins to tell me the story from the time that she saw that band in concert. It is one I’ve heard at least ten times–maybe even fifteen–but I don't say anything. She grew up in the suburbs of New York (Westchester to be exact) and thus this concert took place at perhaps the most iconic venue for musicians in the West: Madison Square Garden. Of course, experiencing her favorite musicians while seated front row was an event story-worthy in and of itself, that’s a given. Thus I always find it interesting the part she lingers on is when it came time to actually leave the venue–but I think that night I finally understood why. At two in the morning, the boyfriend of her sister who she never got along with braved post-concert New York City traffic to ensure her safe return home–something anyone in her direct family was unwilling to do. However, now she has left out the time frame in which he ventured in to retrieve her friend group. I decide to interject at this point. “Before, you said it was well past midnight, right?” She doesn’t look over and I can’t see into the dark but I sense her mouth turn upwards and a bit more light reflecting off of her eyes. “Yes. It was at least an hour or two later.” She does not seem offended by my interruption. I think that she appreciates my effort in listening to her stories. 

       I think that memories have a funny way of attaching themselves to experiences and the senses like that. Everytime she hears that music, the story–being such a positive memory–seems to emanate from her as if it’s a compulsory part of what makes the listening experience so special. I am reminded of the blue-tinted bottle sitting atop my dresser back home. Its scent is reminiscent of walking through a sea of blooming lemon trees with a hint of spice from sipping on a cup of tea full of cinnamon; as well as high school, hospitals, and uncertainty. I almost bring this up but stop myself. Maybe I will in a few years. But first I think I need a few years to run free first. 

       Years ago this essay would have looked quite different. For once our interests were quite similar. I grew up engrossed by all of her favorites: Seinfeld, Cat Stevens, green olives. I think one day I realized they were just that. Her favorites. Don’t get me wrong, I will still listen to Oh Very Young if it comes on and George Costanza never fails to make me laugh but my taste lies far from there; far from hers. She doesn’t like change. When our go-to Chinese restaurant changed management she vowed for us to never return. I still do not know the impact this had on the food; and I often wonder whether it could have improved the food. Therefore the beginning of my independence was a difficult time full of change; and, coincidentally, a point of less cohesion between she and I. We both realized it and wished that it weren’t the case but whereas I willed it away through silence she seemed to point it out at every opportunity. And so–more than ever before–we each felt we were doing everything inadequately or mistakenly.

         Her rages were unpredictable, bubbling up like the coke I poured too fast that one time. My rages were unpredictable too, sometimes I yelled, directing my frustration unnecessarily and unfairly towards her. But I think it was my reactions to her rage which were worse. I never cry. Not when I am upset, unhappy, or sad. But sometimes, in the midst of her rage I start to. I think this unsettled her–or maybe it was satisfaction from such a visceral reaction–because the tone seemed to shift instantly. 

         Throughout this entire time, no matter if the skies were turbulent or calm, she managed to fulfill my every need, considering that to be her top priority. Even during the most chaotic times in school, when I surely was more likely to lash out she looked past it in moments I needed her to. After any dance performance in high school–in which I always thought I did nowhere near my best–her proud smile and congratulatory words made up for all the stress I endured during rehearsal seasons. 

         Likewise, when she was tasked with family issues and subsequently forced to face one of humanity’s greatest challenges, any tone, comments or questions that may normally have triggered a conflict flew over my head. I made myself as strong as possible, knowing in those moments that was what she needed. Oftentimes, I remind myself that at one point she was young; anxious, uncertain, and developing into her own. I used to think that we were entirely different–and in many ways we are–but looking beneath I realized that there lies but a small gap between.

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