by Susie Potter
“You’ll never guess who I saw the other day,” my mother says.
“Oh really?” I am somewhat distracted. My mother likes to ramble. Before I left her and here, before I left her here, I don’t think I noticed it much. But, now that I’m away at college most of the time, whenever I come back, her chatter seems incessant.
“He was holding a sign, begging for money,” she continues.
As I pull her dusty-smelling Buick into a narrow parking space, something in my gut clenches.
“Kyle?” I ask.
She nods, painting a look of sorrow and remorse on her face. I want to smack it off of her.
She doesn’t know a thing about Kyle, about what he was to me. We weren’t true loves or anything like that, but he was a good friend, a good boyfriend, someone who rescued me from her all-encompassing, clinging need.
I don’t say anything as I help her unload her shopping bags. I’m silent still as we walk up the stairs to her apartment, the one she’d moved into after selling my childhood home, the home she’d always promised would be left to me.
I help her put away her groceries, the blouses she bought that look just like the blouses she already owns.
“Do you have to be getting back now?” she asks. There’s a look in her eyes like she expects me to say yes and like she’s already judging me for saying it.
I’m here less and less. I help her less and less. But it’s not my fault that my mom is seventy and needs help. She’s not forty or fifty like all of my friends’ parents. She’s old. She acts more feeble than she is. She still acts like she needs me. I don’t want her to need me. I never wanted her to need me the way she did.
“I don’t have to go quite yet,” I tell her.
“Oh,” she says,“good. I’ll make us some coffee.”
As she goes and bustles in her tiny kitchen, my mind wanders to Kyle.
We’d grown up together. We were best buddies in elementary school until, suddenly, all the girls had cooties.
Then, junior year of high school, I’d run into him at a kegger. He’d offered me a beer, smoked me up. We’d had a brief fling. We’d had fun, and God how I’d needed fun.
We’d lasted longer than anyone thought we would. He was too hot for me, too cool, everyone said. But we’d had a nice effect on each other. A calmness, a gentleness seemed to envelop us when we were together.
But still, a couple of months before graduation, things had petered out.
I had been kind of talking to Greg Olsen behind Kyle’s back. Greg was so nice and dependable, while Kyle smoked pot all day. He’d already dropped out of school, sacrificing a degree for delivering pizzas, at least when his gas money hadn’t gone to weed.
Before Kyle, Greg never would have looked at me. But dating Kyle, with his soft blonde hair and his Ryan Gosling features, had elevated me in the eyes of my peers. It had made Greg see me, and, the way I saw it then, there was nothing real ahead for Kyle and me. There were other options.
Kyle had called me one night.
“Listen” he’d said. “Are you into Greg Olsen? That’s what I’m hearing.”
“I don’t know,” I’d answered honestly. “Maybe?”
“So,” he’d said, “this thing between us, is it over?”
“I don’t know,” I’d told him, even though part of me did. “Do you want it to be?”
“No,” he’d answered, “not really.”
“Okay,” I’d said. Maybe we could drag this on for a few more months, at least until I left for college.
“I think it should be over,” he’d said, after a pause, “even if I don’t want it to.”
“I don’t know.” He’d sighed then, heavy. I could picture him raking his hand through his hair.“It’s just done, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” He’d paused for a moment. I’d known he was toking. “I’ll always care about you.”
“Me too,” I’d said, realizing that I meant it.
When we’d first gotten together, there had been those teenage girl dreams. Yes, I’d scribbled Mrs. Kyle Johnson on a notebook or two. But, there was something in Kyle that wouldn’t let me dream too big, that wouldn’t let me make up an entire future. I just knew he wasn’t the one, couldn’t be the one, couldn’t help make me into the person I wanted to be. It didn’t mean I cared about him any less.
“You know,” I tell my mother, coming out of my thoughts,“Kyle is the only nice breakup I ever had. We didn’t fight or throw things.”
I think about my most recent ex, Dylan, who cheated on me at a frat party and then had a bonfire with his buddies to burn all the bras and panties I’d left at his house.
“Hmm,” she mumbles. “Do you want cream?”
“Yes,” I tell her, “a lot.”
I remember Kyle making us coffee at his apartment.
“I’m going to make us a surprise,” he’d said.
He’d come back with two cups of coffee, a scoop of vanilla ice cream floating in each. He’d looked so proud of himself.
“Delicious,” I’d told him, beaming. He’d smiled and smoked his morning weed.
That was the thing with Kyle. Morning weed. Afternoon weed. Pre-date and after-date weed. It was all the time.
He’d taken me out to a restaurant once, early in our relationship.
Over chips and salsa, feeling romantically swayed by the lilting music, I’d asked him, “What are you thinking about?”
I’d hoped he’d say something like “being with you” or “holding in you in my arms later.”
Instead, he’d said, “I’m thinking about going to get some weed after this. I wish I had it now. This would taste even better.”
I’d just shook my head, laughed it off.
Once I left for college, he quickly faded from a boyfriend-turned friend to a guy from my past, a harmless but sweet pothead. He’d be okay. There were plenty of guys like him, mucking their way through life at minimum wage jobs, smoking pot, partying. They’d stop at forty and get real lives, usually after finding the right girl. Or, they wouldn’t and they’d be slightly-sad, later-creepy dudes who partied with high schoolers à la Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused.
“Mom,” I say, as she brings in our coffees. Mine doesn’t have enough cream. Definitely no ice cream. “Did it seem like he was on drugs? When you saw him, I mean.”
“Oh, Hannah,” she says. “You know I don’t know anything about that stuff.”
“I know,” I tell her, “but he always had a thing for pot. It can’t be that. I mean, it’s just pot.”
My mother pauses for a moment, giving her coffee a blow-sip. “I’ve heard,” she says finally, a trace of a sensationalist thrill in her voice, “that we have a major meth epidemic in this town.”
I sigh. I hate the thrill in her voice as much as the smug look on her face.
“How did he look?” I ask finally, as if the answer can tell me something concrete.
“He looked like Kyle,” she says, “only his hair was all long, and he looked kind of dirty.”
I nod. I remember the time he didn’t have any toilet paper, any soap, any of the essentials in his house. He’d had weed and Ramen, but nothing else. So, I’d taken a few items from my mom’s couponing hoard.
She’d noticed. It was just a tiny dent in her stash that she housed in the shower, a shower we didn’t use, couldn’t use anymore because of her “bargains,” but she’d noticed.
“Why would you give that boy my stuff?” she’d raged, irrational tears streaking her eyes.
“It was just a few-”
“Hannah, you had no right,” she’d cut me off, angry that I’d taken from her. More angry that I’d wanted to give something to someone other than her.
“You never liked him, did you?” I say now, sipping my coffee.
“He was okay,” she says.
Without meaning to, I make a noise with my throat, a noise that sounds like scoffing.
“Where did you see him?”
“By the mall,” she says. “I think he’s staying in the woods behind it.”
I put my coffee down. I feign a look at my phone.
“Mom,” I tell her, “I do have to get back. I forgot about this project, and . . . ”
“I see how it is,” she says, “you’ve got more important things to do than hang out with me.”
I don’t answer her as I gather my bag, rush out the door, because, for once, she’s right.
I don’t really have a plan as I settle into my car, crank the engine. I just want to see if I can catch a glimpse of him.
I drive the few blocks from her place to the decrepit mall. Not many people go there anymore, haven’t for awhile. The small town is changing, dying even, but people like my mom don’t seem to realize it. And there are lots of people like her here.
I circle the parking lot, scanning for people, scanning for him.
After two times around, he’s nowhere to be found. I sigh. Why am I doing this anyway? I have a life now, a life that’s only two hours from here, but that seems like a world away. I wouldn’t even come back here if it wasn’t for her, and sometimes I think about abandoning this place and her as well. He doesn’t matter to me anymore. He shouldn’t matter to me anymore.
I’m telling myself all these things as I leave the mall lot, get in the line to turn onto the highway. And then, I see him.
At first, I don’t register that it’s him. It’s just a guy, and like my mom says, he does look dirty. Dirty and hard and old, much older than he is, which isn’t that much older than me.
He’s holding a sign that says “Homeless Veteran. Anything Helps.”
It’s a lie.
He walks up to the car in front of me, collects a dollar.
I will him not to look my way.
I wanted to see him, but suddenly, I don’t want him to see me. I can’t.
I look down, fiddle with my phone, the radio buttons, anything to keep him from seeing me.
The car in front of me goes, and I speed after it, too fast.
My hands are shaking. I shouldn’t care this much. It shouldn’t bother me so much to see him like this, but it does.
I pull into the McDonald’s, the one just before you leave town. I need a minute to collect myself, to get my hands and my brain to stop rattling.
Instead, I’m assaulted by a memory. Kyle and I went to this McDonald’s many times, but one particular time is jabbing at my brain, begging me to really see it.
It was a Friday night.
I was playing a free trial of this game I’d downloaded. It was called Fishbowl Frenzy, and it was awesome. You managed this fishbowl. You fed the little goldfish. They pooped gold coins that you collected. As the levels progressed, you had to buy a carnivore to eat the goldfish. The carnivore pooped diamonds.
I don’t know what happened next in the game because that was as far as I’d gotten. I’d only signed up for a one-hour free trial. And, while I loved the game, it hadn’t been worth spending money on, not when I had college to save up for.
I didn’t think Kyle had been paying much attention. He was high, watching television, zoned out. This was how our Fridays went. I was getting tired of coming over just to sit and do my own thing while he got high, ignored me. What was the point? I hadn’t yet said any of this to him.
But, when I’d closed the computer, he’d reached out a hand to stop me.
“What are you doing?”
“What do you mean?”
“I was waiting for my turn,” he said.
“Oh,” I told him, “you can’t. I mean, it was just a one hour free trial.”
“Oh man,” he said. “I really wanted to play.”
“Well,” I told him. “You could do it on your laptop. I think they track it by device.”
“Oh yeah.” He smacked his head. He ran into his messy kitchen, retrieved his laptop from the table, plunked it on his lap as he sunk into the couch.
I helped him download the trial and, for the next hour, he didn’t stop playing. He couldn’t take his eyes from the screen. He clicked. He made it way further in the game than I had, but I was bored, watching television. All I know was there was something about a “Queen Fish” who saved all your money so you wouldn’t go bankrupt. Going bankrupt meant your whole tank died.
I knew when his trial ended because he let out a loud, “God damnit.”
“What?” I asked him anyway.
“I can’t play anymore,” he said.
“Oh,” I said, “too bad.”
“Maybe they track it by email,” he said. “I had to put my email in to play.”
“Maybe.” I was thinking about leaving. Kyle didn’t know it, but I was texting Greg.
“Nope,” Kyle said, after a moment
“Sorry.” I was completely distracted now.
“Did you download the game here?” he asked
“No,” I said, “at school.”
Greg had texted a funny picture of himself at a bar, holding up his fake ID with a wry grin.
“I googled it,” Kyle said, after a minute.
“Googled what?” I was busy telling Greg that maybe I’d come out, if he thought he could get me in without a fake.
“How the free trials work,” Kyle said exasperatedly.
What I wanted to say was, really, you care that much about this, but I bit my tongue.
“They work based on connection, not device,” Kyle explained. “So, if I get on a new connection, I can download another free trial. I can get further. I can win.”
“That’s cool,” I said, “but I was thinking about heading home.”
“No,” he said. “You can’t. Please. I have to play.”
I sighed. He had that look in his eyes, that desperate want that you could never say no to.
“Drive me to the McDonald’s,” he said. “They have free Wi-Fi.”
“Kyle,” I told him. “I don’t feel like it. I had a beer . . .”
“Just one,” he said. “You can drive. Please.”
“Okay, but after that, I’m dropping you off and heading home.” Greg had already promised he could get me in, no problem. He’d done it before, he’d said.
So, I drove Kyle to the stupid McDonald’s. It was closed, at least the inside part was. So, we’d parked, getting as close to the building as we could for maximum WiFi exposure.
He’d started the download and then, a few minutes later, before it could complete, his computer had died.
“Shit,” he’d screamed, suddenly irrationally angry.
“I just need to charge it,” he mumbled. “Let me see if they’ll let me in.”
“Kyle,” I put a restraining hand on his arm, “you can’t. They’re closed.”
“They might let me in,” he said, and there was a fierceness in his eyes, a determination like I’d never seen before.
I hunkered down in my car, as low as possible, not wanting anyone to see me. Kyle had marched right up to that door, knocked. When no one came, he’d yelled out a loud, “Hey.”
Finally, a bored looking girl came to the door, didn’t open it. She just mouthed, “We’re closed.”
I could hear Kyle, loud, trying desperately to explain what he needed, but she was already walking away, shaking her head, ponytail swishing.
He came back to the car.
“Fuck,” he said, slamming my door.
“It’s no big deal,” I told him. “It’s just a game.”
“Not to me,” he’d said, “not to me.”
I’d driven him home, and that night had marked the decline of us. Our connection, once so real and vibrant, had faded away, bit by bit, after that night.
And now . . . he was this guy I didn’t really know, who I heard about from my mom. This guy begging on street corners in our hometown.
I look at the phone in my hand. I think how, now, just a couple of years later, you can download a game in an instant . . . if you have the cash. You don’t even need WiFi. You have data . . . if you have the cash. The world, I think, is different, but Kyle is not.
I think for a minute about what I could do for him. Brief thoughts of bringing blankets, food, all the things he might need, out there, swimming alone in the world, not eating enough to poop gold.
I decide against it. I hate to admit it, but a part of me is scared, doesn’t trust him. Sure, he’s Kyle to me, but he’s also a homeless guy, and homeless people steal. They hurt you.
I hate myself for thinking it, but I think it nonetheless.
Ultimately, I just pull out of the McDonald’s, head back toward the safety of my college campus, the friends who laugh and who only smoke pot recreationally.
When I get there, collapsing in the warm safety of my room, my soft bedspread, the familiar pictures tacked up on college-chic corkboard, I feel weirdly panicked for a moment, like I’m gasping for breath, flopping around and confused. I don’t know where the feeling comes from, but it’s terrifying, like a weight pressing down on me, telling me I’m going to die. And, then, just like that, it passes. I take in a deep breath. I take in the non-threatening room. I’m not dying. I’m fine.
It’s then that I decide, firmly and immediately, that I won’t be going home again for awhile, maybe not ever.
Susie Potter is a writer with works in The Colton Review, Broken Plate Magazine, Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley, the Chaffey Reveiw, NOD, Existere, and Grasslimb. When she’s not busy writing, she enjoys spending time with her family and pets and volunteering in her community. She wrote this story to open a discussion on the drug epidemic affecting her hometown.