In a Flash

My drink’s done so I stare at the tattoo on the bartender’s back as she walks to the other side of the bar. It starts near the top of her left shoulder and snakes down to below her tank top, near her ribs, an eagle with bloody talons and beak. Josh sits next to me but I almost forget he’s there until he shifts his weight, turning to face me.

“How’s work?” he asks.

I shrug without looking at him.

“Any new developments?” he asks.

I shrug again, still staring.

“Sounds fascinating,” Josh says. He turns to the pool tables in the back of the room where a few people are hitting balls, others watching the pre-game show. It’s Monday and the Dolphins are playing the Vikings on ESPN, everybody in the bar wearing shirts and jerseys with logos on them. Except me and Josh. Josh has on board shorts and sandals, the mound of hair on his head shivering every time he moves. I reach up to loosen my tie and undo the top few buttons on my shirt. My sleeves peel away from the counter as I move, leaving stains on the underside of my arms. I glance at them, then look at Josh.

“How’s post-grad life?” I ask.

“Don’t know,” he says as the bartender approaches with our drinks. “Only been a week. Still trying to get a handle on everything.”

“Yeah,” I say. “Must be so overwhelming.”

He nods, like he doesn’t know I’m being sarcastic. The bartender drops our drinks in front of us and leaves and I take a quick look at her again, this time at another tattoo peeking up from beneath the waistline of her pants. Josh sighs, his head hanging. When I glance at him, he sighs again and I roll my eyes.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“Nothing,” he says.

I close my eyes and squeeze the bridge of my nose. “What’s wrong, Josh?” I ask again.

“Nothing, man,” he says, then shrugs. “It’s just… I don’t know.”

“Just what?”

“What am I supposed to do now?” he asks.

“About what?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “Life?”

“Ah,” I say, nodding. “Glad to know where this is going.”

“Seriously,” he says. “It’s like, I know so clearly what I don’t want to do, you know? But…I don’t know.”

“I went through the same thing when I graduated,” I say, taking a sip of my drink. “Only I had to actually look for a job.”

“But I—” he starts, then stops, taps the side of his glass then rubs his face. “No disrespect man, but I don’t want your life.”

I let that sink in for a moment.

“Nobody’s telling you to have ‘my life,’ Josh,” I say, shuffling around in my seat to face him. “Find your own.”

“How?” he asks.

“I don’t know. Same way everybody else does.”

“Everybody else is following footsteps,” he says, bringing his shoulders back, cracking his neck. “I don’t wanna do that.”

“Alright,” I say. “Now I have absolutely no idea what the hell you’re talking about.” I think back to my brother calling me earlier this afternoon to confirm our plans. Josh never confirms anything. He usually just shows up when he feels like it, unless it’s got something to do with his computer stuff. I should’ve known then.

“I just can’t do it,” Josh says, taking a large swig of his beer and dropping the mug down on the counter, a splash slopping over the side and onto his fist. “There’s these rules, you know? They’ve got these rules, but I just want to be happy. I don’t want anything else, any of the stuff they’ve got. I just. Want. To be. Happy.”

I stare at my younger brother and he stares back, waiting for me to comment. I want to stay silent though, stubbornly silent because he’s forcing me into a conversation I don’t want to have, and I hate being forced to do things, especially by him. Can’t fucking stand it. But if I don’t say anything then neither will he, and he’ll sit there staring into the distance at all the smiling people in the bar until things sort of peter off and we’re left in these separated chambers of silence. Then the night will end and he’ll go back to his shitty apartment in Kendall and I’ll go back to my two acres in Coral Gables and in a few months when we go to our parents’ for Thanksgiving, I’ll have to hear my mother:

You know, your brother told me you guys don’t talk anymore. Shoving stuffing up a turkey’s ass, she’ll pause and give me that look. You’ve got nothing without family, Frank.

Josh leans against the bar, staring at me expectantly.

“What stuff do ‘they’ have?” I ask finally, then shake my head. “Better yet, who the hell is ‘they’?”

Josh scoffs.

They are establishment,” he says, sweeping his arm around the room, and I wish I hadn’t asked. “They are society,” he adds, pointing at me.

“Whoa,” I say, holding up my hands and leaning back. “I didn’t do anything to you. Don’t put whatever the hell’s wrong with you on me.”

“Seriously, Frank,” he says. “They look at people like you and me, educated young men, and they see a way to use us, man. To control the population. They flash things into our head, like mind control. Ever since we were little just flash flash flash.” He holds up a closed fist and opens it quickly in my face as he repeats the word. I flinch a little and move my head to the side, raise an eyebrow. Josh drops his hands and shakes his head.

“It’s like—” He pauses again then snaps his fingers and looks at me, excited. “It’s like Men In Black, like those flashy-memory-eraser thingies?”

“Flashy memory eraser thingies,” I echo.

“Yeah,” Josh says. “Those things the agents shined in people’s eyes so they’d forget what they—”

“I know what you’re talking about, Josh,” I say. “I just have no idea why we’re talking about it.”

“That’s what they are trying to do to us.”

“So,” I say, looking up at the ceiling and trying not to laugh. “You’re saying society’s using flashy-memory-eraser-thingies on us?”

“No, Frank, come on. You’re being ridiculous.” He says this without irony and I marvel at my brother’s uncanny ability to be both dense and smart as shit at exactly the same time. “It’s theoretical,” he continues. “Like how Tommy Lee Jones uses the flashy-thing on somebody and then tells them what he thinks they should be remembering. That’s what they’re doing to us, man, with our lives. Telling us what we should think, how we should live.”

“And how the hell do you figure that?” I ask.

Josh takes a deep breath and my entire body involuntarily tenses up.

“When we’re kids,” he starts. “All they’re flashing into our brains is how we gotta get good grades so we can get into college and get a good job, you know? But they never really tell us”—he shrugs—“why? For what? And Mom and Dad, they fed us the same crap. The whole time, elementary, middle, high school. Get good grades. Flash. Play sports. Flash. Join clubs. Don’t do drugs. Go to college. Flash. Then—”

“They told us not to do drugs because they kill people,” I say. “And all that other stuff’s good for you.”

Josh pauses at that, mouth hanging open, eyes searching the wall behind my head.

“Says who?” he asks finally.

“Says people who know a lot more about that shit than us,” I say. “And you’re making it sound like Mom and Dad molested us or something,” I add, then take a long sip of my drink while Josh stares at me confused. “Something you been, uh, hiding from me Joshie Boy?” I ask, smiling.

Josh throws his hands up in the air.

“I’m being serious here, Frank!”

“Ok,” I say, holding up my hands. “Sorry.”

“It’s not just me, man,” he says, pointing at me. “They got you too.”

“Nobody got me with anything,” I say, looking away.

“Yes they did,” he says, whispering it and getting really close to me. Like, uncomfortably close. “You got to college and they told you to hurry up and graduate, right? I remember, I was still at home, I heard Mom and Dad saying it. Go to college, get your degree, finish it up already. Four years, three years even better. Two and you’d have been a fucking hero. Then you graduated, and by then you’d been flashed so many damn times that you relied on them, no free will, just turn around and ask, ‘what now?’ And they had an answer for everything, you know? They’ve all got it planned, Frank. They tell you, go get a job. Flash. You got a job and don’t even get a chance to ask, they just tell you to go find a girl, fall in love, get married, have kids.’ Flash flash flash. Next? Get old. Retire. Flash. And you know what’s next?”

He waits, and I rub my forehead, stare at him from the corner of my eye.

“What?” I ask.

“You die,” he says, and claps his hands together.

A thick silence arises between us, contrasting with the lively bar. The game’s started and everybody but me and Josh is focused on the HD projector on the other side of the room, giving us this sort of brothers-against-the-world look. Which would be nice if it were true. I glance at Josh, his shirt unbuttoned, a tank top beneath, clinging to his meager rib cage. He stares at the floor, his lips moving a little, and I realize he’s going over what he just said to me in his head, like he’s reading a paper to himself and mouthing the words.

“Why do you do that?” I ask.

“Do what?” he asks. I hold his eye for a moment then look away.

“Never mind,” I say.

“Do you get what I’m saying?” he asks.

“What’s your point, Josh?”

“My point?” He shakes his head. “My point is I’m sick of this shit, man. I need some freedom in my life, to get away from things for a while so I can really live, you know?” He shakes his fist on that one then lets it drop and hangs his head. “It’s just like—knowing what’s coming next makes life so damn…ordinary.”

I burst out laughing and Josh looks so hurt that it makes me feel a little bad, but I can’t help it. It’s like something out of a movie, this entire conversation, my brother and I, this room of people who are so far removed from our conversation it’s like we’re in a bubble. Me, with my MBA hanging above my desk in my office at a high-end consulting firm, my wife probably at this moment walking out of her corporate law office and heading home to our upper-middle-class neighborhood. My brother, with eight years of college under his belt for a four year Computer Science Bachelor’s degree, turned quasi-philosopher and living in a crappy studio apartment in an area full of crappy studio apartments.

Yet it’s all such a fucking illusion it makes me sick. I’m still paying off student loans, probably will be for the rest of my life. My house has a mortgage I can barely afford, even with my wife’s legal career that pays her more than I’ll ever make on even an impossibly high commission. And I’ll be working for the rest of my life like that, if I’m lucky, if the divorce rate doesn’t eat us alive and my 401K doesn’t go south. My 30th birthday was last month.

My brother, on the other hand, has just sold the computer program he designed for his undergraduate thesis—the program it took him three years to develop, some breakthrough virus detection software—to a subsidiary of Microsoft for seven boner-inducing figures. On top of that, they want Josh to be the chief of staff on the project, which is going public in less than a year.

He could own the building his shitty studio apartment is in if he wanted to.

“You sound like a teenager,” I say finally, my laughter subsiding. I try to sound serious and playful at the same time, but most of all I just try to hide my annoyance. “Grow the fuck up.” I don’t try very hard, I admit.

“Fuck you,” he says. He sips his beer then sits forward against the bar with his arms crossed. “You don’t have to say it like that.”

“Oh, I’m sorry” I say, sticking out my bottom lip. “Did I hurt the little rebel’s feelings?”

“Fuck you, Frank,” he says again. “Really. I was being serious.”

I laugh and pat him on his back and he brushes me away.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “You were just so into it.”

Josh pouts and turns his attention to the Dolphins’ game. Josh hates sports though. I rub my temples then turn to face him.

“Come on Josh,” I say. “I was just playing. Go ahead, finish.”

He keeps watching the TV and I roll my eyes, grab my drink and knock the rest of it back. I can’t stand it when he gets this little bratty streak going. I don’t know if it’s because he’s the youngest or if he’s just this damn needy by nature, but it irks the shit out of me.

Suddenly he turns and pinches me hard on my arm.

“Ow,” I say, pulling away. “What the hell?”

“I’m not playing with you, Frank,” he says. “I have to do something. I think you should do something about it too, man.” He pauses. “You should move with me.”

I look up at him, surprised for the first time all evening.

“Move with you,” I say, and he nods. “Move with you where?”

“Thailand,” he says, then sips his beer. As if he didn’t just say he’s moving to Thailand.

I turn back to my drink, brooding over this little detail. I want to laugh, believe he’s joking. But I know Josh. He’s horrible at telling jokes, which has made him a characteristically serious person. I turn back to him.

“Thailand?”

“Thailand,” he repeats.

“Why the—” I pause, hold a hand up. “Are you serious?”

“As a heart attack,” he says curtly.

I sputter for a moment, scratching my head.

“Does mom know?” I ask.

“Told her last week,” he says.

“You told her last—”

I grab my drink again and shove the lip of the glass to my mouth, forgetting that I finished it already.

“You should move with me,” he repeats.

“I should move with you,” I say, laughing contemptuously, a drop of ice water dribbling down my chin. I wipe it with the back of my hand and stare into the glass, then slam it down, an ice cube hopping over the rim. “Are you fucking insane? I mean, really, have you lost your fucking mind?”

“No,” he answers, looking at me with confusion. “I’m not insane.”

“What about your job?”

“Don’t need it.”

“Wow,” I say.

“Why are you getting so upset?” he asks, chuckling.

“Why am I—” I scoff, then think about it and don’t really know why I’m so upset. “You don’t even know how to speak Thai.”

“I can learn.”

“You can learn,” I say and laugh again. “You can fucking learn. Right.”

There’s a moment of silence and Josh picks at his fingernails.

“I can,” he grumbles, pouting.

“That’s not the point, Josh,” I yell, and a few people glance over at us then back at the game. “You can’t just up and move to fucking Thailand.”

“Why not?” he asks.

“Why not?” I repeat. “Because—it’s irresponsible.

“To who?” he asks, and he actually wants an answer, he looks that sincere. But I don’t have one, so I turn and grab my drink and shove an ice cube in my mouth.

“You know,” he says. “You’re a very unhappy person.”

I shoot him a jagged stare, grinding the ice between my teeth.

“Don’t start, Josh,” I growl. “Don’t fucking start.”

“No, really,” he says. “You are. Not just right now, but all the time. Why are you even mad, Frank? Because I didn’t tell you I’m moving? I’m telling you right now.”

“That’s not the point.”

“Then what is?”

“You can’t just—move to Thailand!”

“Why not?”

Because you can’t,” I shout and Josh looks away and I feel the vein in my forehead pulsing. I close my eyes, take a deep breath.

“You’re unstable, man,” he says.

“You’re immature,” I shoot back.

He chuckles and I grind my teeth some more and pretend to watch the Dolphins game. Unlike my nerdy ass brother though, I actually am into sports. The Dolphins punt the ball and the Vikings recover it on a fair catch. I try to concentrate on the score but I can barely see the TV.

“You’re only upset right now because you’re jealous,” he says, and I want to punch him. “Which is understandable,” he continues. “I would be too, if there wasn’t something I could do about it. But you can. You can come with me.” He pauses. “You should.”

“I am not moving to Thailand with you Josh. I have a job and a wife and a home here”—I squint at him—“in the United States.” I turn back to my drink and poke ice cubes around with the straw, then mutter, “And I’m not jealous.”

“You sure about that?” he asks.

“Absolutely.”

“Ok,” he says.

“Ok,” I say.

The Dolphins’ defense intercepts the ball and runs it back for a touchdown and the bar erupts with cheers, slowly fading to laughter and the occasional whistle. Josh and I watch the people all jumping up and down and the tattooed bartender glances at us, pointing at our drinks. Josh nods, pointing at his then mine. She nods back and turns away.

“I don’t want anymore,” I say. “I’ve got to go.”

“What?” Josh says, looking at me quickly, eyes wide. “C’mon Frank. We just got here. I was just kidding. It was a joke.”

“It’s getting late,” I say, grabbing my coat. “Carol’s going to be pissed if I’m not home soon.”

“Oh bullshit,” he says. “Carol’s probably not even home yet.”

“How would you know?” I ask.

“Because it’s Carol,” he mutters, then sighs. “Can you just relax?”

Seething now, I consider his request then stand up from the bar stool anyways and shrug my suit jacket on. Josh watches me and shakes his head.

“Frank, can you look at yourself?” he asks. “I told you I’m moving. I’m moving. You’re acting like I just crashed your car or something.” He pats the seat next to him. “Come on, sit down. Drink with me. We’ll talk about it.”

Right then the bartender approaches with a new beer for Josh and another whiskey and soda for me. There’s a cherry on top of mine this time and I stare at it for a moment before looking up at her, wondering for a second if the cherry is a flirtatious gesture. Then I glance around the bar and see cherries in a few other people’s glasses. When I glance back at her, she’s staring at Josh with this look in her eyes and I take a large swallow of my drink, the liquid burning the whole way down.

Josh smiles and thanks her. She looks from him to me then back to him.

“You guys alright over here?” she asks.

“We’re fine,” I say, cracking my neck. “My brother here’s just having an existential crisis he thinks Asia can cure.”

“Sounds fun,” the bartender says, smiling at Josh. He’s staring at me though, annoyed.

“Don’t listen to him,” Josh says to her. “He’s just pissed that his life blows.”

“My life doesn’t blow,” I say.

“I don’t know why you’re acting like this,” he shoots back at me. “Deal with your shit, don’t project it onto me.”

I sit there staring at him, running over possible retorts in my head and coming up with nothing. Nothing I want to say in front of the bartender at least.

“Alright, well,” she says, backing up and smiling nervously. “Let me know if you guys need anything else.”

She turns and walks away and I stand there wearing my coat and feeling like I should leave but also like I shouldn’t, like if I do I’d be giving Josh the last word. And I really don’t want him to have that. Not today.

Instead, I mumble “be right back” then head to the back of the bar, towards the bathrooms.

Inside, an ad for College Football Saturdays sits on the wall above the urinal. 2-4-1 shots, $3 domestic pitchers, $5 U-Call-It. I notice the words are a little fuzzy and try to remember how many drinks I’ve had, but I can’t. I shake off, zip, wash my hands and exit the bathroom as the bartender leans over the bar in front of Josh, her small, perky breasts pressed against the counter beneath her tank top and bra. Her shirt rides up a little and I can see the bottom of the tattoo that I noticed earlier, stretching up her lower back. There are two dimples on either side of it, near her waist, slight glimpse of a thong beneath her pants. Josh is talking rapidly to her, his face lit up with excitement. I make my way back over and sit down next to him, sip my drink, glance at the TV, eavesdrop on their conversation. It only takes a second before I realize he’s repeating to the bartender exactly what he told me earlier, about society and Men In Black and all that crap. I suck my teeth and he looks over at me.

“I’ve been trying to tell him,” he says to the bartender, pointing at me. “But all he wants to do is get pissed, like it’s my fault. I’m only saying it because I love him though, you know?” He pauses, gives me a pleading look. “I know him. He’s my brother. We’ve been around each other our whole lives. He doesn’t like this shit. I know he doesn’t like this shit. Frank wants to go to the moon or the Himalayas or backpacking through Europe.” He leans in towards the bartender, who seems completely intrigued for some fucking reason. “That’s the type of shit Frank’s into. Life, you know? But look at him,” he says. The bartender follows his eyes and looks me up and down, from my $200 dress shoes to my $80 haircut. Like I’m an exhibit at the zoo.

Josh looks back at her.

“Doesn’t he just look—out of place?”

“I’m wearing a suit in a sports bar on a Monday night,” I say. “Of course I look out of place. You called me out here.”

“You know what I mean,” Josh says.

“What’s your point with this, Josh?” I ask, trying to keep my voice even for the bartender’s sake. “You have a problem with stability or something?”

“No, I don’t have a problem with stability,” he says, in a snarky tone, shaking his head from side to side and squinting at me like I’m stupid. I’m reminded of when we were kids and he used to do the same thing and I used to respond by getting him in a headlock and pulling his hair. “But what the hell does stability even mean?” he says, looking at the bartender. “Sitting on your ass bored as hell?” He points at me, then repeats, “Frank’s my brother.”

“I’m over here,” I say, waving my hand. Josh looks at me like I’m a snail that just appeared on his bedroom window.

“I’d like to think he and I are at least a little bit alike,” he says.

“Yeah, well,” I say, grabbing my drink.

The bartender turns away suddenly, holding up a finger and walking over to another guest. Josh sips his beer and there’s a moment of blissful silence.

“You really could come with me, Frank,” Josh says, and I grimace. “I was only kind of joking about that. I could arrange it. You wouldn’t have to work at that stupid job anymore. I know you’re not happy with Carol right now. You guys barely talk. You haven’t gotten laid in weeks. You’re married to a corporate lawyer for Christ sakes, what’d you expect? You guys have been together—what, two years? What’ll happen at ten?” He shakes his head. “After you have kids?”

“When’s the last time you were with a woman, Josh?” I ask.

There’s another moment of silence.

“That doesn’t change anything,” he says.

“Ok,” I say, nodding forcefully. “Yes, fine. Life sucks, Josh. There, you happy?” I turn to him. “Thailand?”

“What’s your problem with Thailand?” he bursts out, surprising. “You have some huge problem with Asian people or something?”

“No,” I say. “I’m just trying to figure out where the hell the logic is in it.”

“It doesn’t have to make sense to you,” he says. “It has nothing to do with you.”

“You just asked me like three times to come with you,” I say.

“As a courtesy. I could care less.” He downs half his beer. “You want to be miserable the rest of your fucking life, be my guest.”

“I’d really appreciate it if you stopped saying that shit,” I say, grinding my teeth again, clenching my glass tightly.

“Fuck you,” he says.

I feel something snap in my neck then, like a tendon or something, but it doesn’t hurt. It’s almost like a spring that starts a chain reaction of snapping springs all over my body, and suddenly I’m flying off the bar stool and crashing into Josh. He falls to the floor, his beer mug on top of him, beer splashing everywhere, on my clothes, on his, on the floor. My hands reach for his neck and though it’s dark in the bar and everything should be shadowy and black, all I can see is just bright, blood fucking red. I grip Josh’s neck between my palms and squeeze, feeling my anger flow through my hands, different stages and types of anger rushing out one after the other as if gravity’s pulling them out, like an open drain in a sink filled with water creating that little whirlwind as the water swirls down the hole which is my arm, my hands, squeezing and squeezing my brother’s neck until his face is nothing but a red bubble, a huge cyst getting ready to burst, and I swear I’m about to pop his skull when rough hands suddenly grab me from behind and yank me off, throw me to the ground, and there’s one swift blow to my face, an explosion of white light then a moment of pitch black before I come to, sitting on the ground in a puddle of beer.

I reach up and touch my nose, wincing, pulling my hand away and staring at the spots of blood on my fingertips. Josh sits a few feet away from me, gasping, rubbing his neck which is outlined with a red ring. A really tall, broad-shouldered guy wearing a Dolphins jersey stands between us, clenching and unclenching his fists, glaring. Above me, at the bar, the bartender stares down at us with her arms crossed.

“Both of you need to get the hell out of here before I call the cops,” she says, then looks up at the guy in the Dolphins jersey. “They have an open tab Larry, then get ‘em out of here.” As if to emphasize her words, she steps over to the phone next to the cash register and puts a hand on the receiver.

Sitting in spilled beer, my clothes drenched, I stare at my brother, who’s finally caught his breath enough to throw his own glare at me. I stand up numbly and approach the bar, take out my wallet and there’s no cash so I pull out a credit card and hand it to the bartender. Josh stands up, heads towards the front door and then he’s gone. The Dolphins jersey guy—Larry—stands behind me while I sign the credit card receipt, his arms crossed too. When I put the pen down he says, “alright, buddy. Let’s go.”

Larry follows me to the front and takes a seat on a stool situated behind the door as I open it and two women walk in past me, chatting and laughing. They stop at Larry and he checks their ID’s, keeping an eye on me. I look back at the bar, remember that my jacket is still on the bar stool next to the one I was sitting on, and I consider trying to finagle my way back over to get it. I even imagine a comic scene, some Three Stooges or Abbott and Costello type stuff where I’m dodging Larry’s grip as he reaches out to grab me, the whole bar erupting in cheers as I twist and bend and run and grab my jacket then wave to everybody and high-step out the back door.

And suddenly the last thing I want is for this thought—this random glimpse of a single moment in a life unlived—to flutter away into the recesses of my mind. I smile then, a wide toothy smile as I loosen my tie, then pull it off altogether, ball it in my fist then unbutton a couple more of the buttons on my shirt, nod at Larry, crack my neck, and take off running.

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