The Cost of Living
Fiction by A. L. Bishop
I just got a Visa bill for $894. I don’t remember spending $894, except on pants, because I have to buy my pants at a specialty store. Pants are something one can’t go without. Such is the genius behind the specialty store.
To calm myself, I’m listening to a new record by a new band that is already feuding with another new band because the other new band scratched them from a group tour. The musicians in the band I’m listening to say that their sound is very different from that of the band they’re feuding with, which isn’t quite true. I do like them better than the other band, the band they don’t want to admit to sounding like, but I liked them more when I was just watching their video online and hadn’t yet paid for their album. Now that I’ve bought this CD, my Visa account is somewhere up around $900.
There’s a great live act playing tonight. I wish I’d known before I bought the CD. The live act sounds like prairie spoken in guitar. The $900 band sounds like the sticky-floored nightclub where the coat check always smells vaguely of bleach, the place you always want to leave as soon as you arrive but always wind up going back to, because there’s nowhere else to go. Anyway, I hate seeing bands alone. I’m not sure my basic needs are being met.
I long for someone who shows no sign of longing for me. On nights like this, I feel that it won’t do, that I should take some drastic action—bellow a declaration out the window, or show him the sketch I did during his presentation on inventory management. Maybe a Casey Kasem long-distance request and dedication. But I always come to rest exactly here, thinking about how I should take some drastic action and wondering why all my favourite bands have broken up. Part of me aches to go out into the night and try to find him, the one I long for, to watch the skin on his face flush against his cheekbones, to touch his wrist to see if he would take my hand. But I think I’ll spend some time trying to like this new band better, treat it like an investment. One ought to commit.
He came to see me at my desk yesterday, the one I long for, the one for whom I long. One side of his shirt collar had flipped out over his sweater because he had forgotten to button it down. I caught myself reaching for it and then had to drop my arm awkwardly and pretend I’d meant to turn off my lamp. I am keenly aware that on his part, he only ever stops by for lack of having met anyone else remotely interesting in the past six to eight months. I can relate. It seems to me that there was a time when I met someone new every day, or every few days, and of those new people I always liked at least one or two of them enough to keep putting myself in their way. Now I’ve gone and met my favourite new person of the year, and all it means for him is chatting to someone in the evening before he heads out into this filthy city for a long night of whatever it is he spends his nights doing. Putting his arms around me is not one of the things.
I like the $900 band a little better now than I did before, but it may be because I’ve already started to forget what they sound like. Dustin, my downstairs neighbour, borrowed the CD to try to seduce one of the guys in his college improv troupe. Dustin thinks it’s “adorable” that I still buy CDs. He doesn’t buy anything. He heats his apartment by leaving the oven door open. His cat hates it.
I could have tried to get Dustin to come and see the live act the other night, but runners up always know that they’re runners up, somehow. I can’t keep giving myself away.
The last time the one for whom I long stopped by my desk, ink from a leftover club stamp spread out in tiny criss-crosses over the back of his hand, as telling as a bruise. I asked if he’d been to a show. He grinned and shook his head, rubbing at the smear with his thumb, and went back to talking about the mouth-breather on his conference call that day. I crawled home and cracked open a CD by one of my almost-favourite bands. It was released a few years ago and I bought it as an import for some obscene amount, but I hadn’t ever opened it in case the band broke up unexpectedly and it turned out to be their last record. Then I would regret having wasted it on any old emotional catastrophe. I was saving it for a big one.
I still have the last CD by my all-time favourite, now broken-up band. It sits on the shelf, sealed in shrink-wrap. Dustin calls it psychiatrist wrap and finds that funny, but it will take more than ridicule for me to make a move. When can you say with certainty that you are more in need at this one moment than you will ever be again, for all your livelong days? There will never be a new song by the band that isn’t somewhere on this record. Maybe I’ll never open it. I was in the hospital when they announced that they were breaking up. It was sort of touch and go. Dustin came to visit me. He sat in a plastic orange chair and rifled through the nurse’s cart while she stepped out to calm a patient in the hall, but he didn’t tell me about the band. Maybe he thought I would give up the good fight. Maybe I would have. I didn’t find out until three months later. How do you recover from a thing like that?
When I was in the hospital, when Dustin was protecting me from the news that my favourite band had broken up after having recorded together for my entire life, I longed for a different someone, a someone who lived too far away for me to catch on to him at first. He let me down, as people for whom you long are wont to do. I was sad to stop longing for him, or for the not-unreasonable version of who I was willing to bet he could be.
It’s different now. I long for a real person in real time. I can’t for the life of me figure out what colour his eyes are. Is it possible to have bluish-brown eyes? Could he be the only member of the entire human population with bluish-brown eyes? I can’t look at them for too long, because I’m sure he can tell that I’m scrutinizing his eyes and then I start blotching up and he has to look away.
I’ve been down that road before, too—falling for someone because of his eyes. ‘The treachery of irises’ would make a good album title.
He doesn’t know who Jeff Buckley is. He admitted that the last time we talked about music, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him. It’s too hard to find out about Jeff Buckley now, when you can only listen to his voice sneaking up into the sky knowing there won’t be any more to follow it. It’s a shame. A little Jeff Buckley might do him good.
Last night, I ate frozen meatballs with ketchup. I heated them up first, in a pan on the stove. I don’t think that’s what the manufacturers intended, but the manufacturers probably never intended to sell meatballs to people who can budget for meatballs or for tomato sauce but not both in the same week. The ketchup/meatball union is not so blissful as one might hope. Sometimes the weight of the night alone makes me lose my breath.
He didn’t show up at my desk today, even though I knew he was around. So, at the end of the day, I went to him. It was the first time ever I’ve done that.
He was wearing glasses. Ugly ones—the kind of glasses that costume designers used to put on heartthrobs and starlets in After-School Specials who were going to have ugly-duckling transformation moments when the glasses came off. They turned his eyes cold. He said he was really busy.
I have never been too busy to talk, not to him. I smiled and hurried away from him, as though I was relieved that he wasn’t going to hold me up because of all the other things in my world that needed carrying on with. Off I’d go, but I would see him another time and then, maybe, we could have a proper chat and I could even put some Jeff Buckley songs on a CD for him, to discuss later in murmurs and silences over fingers of rye whiskey in some grimy bar where I would secretly concern myself with hygiene until I noticed him stealing looks at me with bluish-brown eyes and then wouldn’t be able to think of anything else at all, for days.
But they aren’t that urgent, in the end, my things that need carrying on with—some laundry and arranging of things, the breaking of childproof seals and shrink-wrap, a few last feeble occupations to delay the plunging void once the record runs out.
© A. L. Bishop
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty. Read A. L.’s interview]