Permanent Jet Lag
A.N. Casey © 2017
All Rights Reserved
96 Days Before
On the last day of my freshman year of college, my parents—dressed head to toe in the obnoxious green and gold colors of my school—arrived on the threshold of my dorm room with five extra-large boxes for packing, a tin of mom-baked chocolate chip cookies to cure my assumed “home sick blues,” and two snippets of hometown gossip for my ears only. When you leave home for college, there’s a certain assumption that says you will learn to be independent. You do your own laundry, you buy your own meals, and your parents never come knocking on your door to ask if you’ve done your homework or to ground you for coming home past curfew. You’re alone—blissfully independent and free.
My mother had other ideas. Ideas that filled the voicemail on my cell phone until I could no longer receive friends’ missed calls. Ideas that left a pile of cookie tins in the corner of the room and a dozen more care packages under the bed. Even now, as I finished the bulk of my packing, a poorly knit mom-made sweater hung limp over the side of the latest care package, threads unraveling and fraying in every direction with a note pinned to its sleeve with words I could not remember—words I likely never read.
My roommate sat on the other side of the room upon his stripped-down bed, munching away at the first cookie handed to him. He wore a thick pair of headphones that flattened his usually unruly brown hair. Though the cord was not connected to anything, my mother seemed pleased with this sense of security and began her “top secret” gossip. As though my roommate would care at all about the small-town news of Franklin Creek, California.
“Rylie Graham is getting married!” she squealed. Despite her rising age, my mother’s face still lit up with all the excitement and energy of the young woman I could just barely remember from the photographs on the walls at home. Today, my mother was plump and nearly always flushed in her cheeks. The freckles on her nose were faded underneath a splotchy tan that extended only to the bottom of her neck, and her clothes, though neatly pressed, still appeared crumpled by her slouch and the endless movement of her limbs. She went on and on about the wedding, the beautiful invitations, and the color schemes she hoped they’d use, how she could still remember Rylie as a baby, crawling around at the neighborhood block parties.
I was already aware of this news, of course. The invitation had arrived in the mail two days ago, vividly pink with a handful of red hearts and almost a dozen purple and green flowers decorating the edges. Unless the groom was a botanist, there was no inkling of his presence in the design. To top it off, at the very bottom of the paper, beneath the RSVP notification, was a dried crimson lipstick mark. Nine months since I’d seen her, and I could still vividly imagine Rylie prepping her mouth with that darkened color she had so adored in high school and kissing each invitation one by one.
The invitation was now crumpled up in my suitcase with the rest of my belongings, but the image of it had not left my mind for a second.
“Isn’t it great, Lucas?” my mother asked, and I nodded. “She’ll look so beautiful as a bride.” Another nod. “Just wait until you meet the groom. What a charming young man.” At this, I fidgeted with the zipper on my luggage and forced a smile.
My father, lounging lazily upon my still-sheeted bed, gave me a knowing smile over the top of his third cookie. My mother promptly smacked it out of his hand.
“That’s enough, Tim. Didn’t you hear a word the doctors said? I think one heart attack is quite enough for one year, don’t you?”
“I thought two would make a more interesting story at this year’s Christmas party,” my father replied, grinning.
And so began an argument that lasted through the remainder of my packing, the long trek downstairs, and into the oversized van waiting for us in the parking lot. It continued as my father stabbed the key into the ignition, as my mother pulled on her seat belt, and as I peered through the window and watched San Francisco—all its big buildings and bustling bridges—disappear into the night.
By the time we pulled into the driveway of my childhood home, my parents were just progressing toward the makeup phase of their disagreement, or, as I’d dubbed it over the years, the honeymoon period. They sat, arms tangled in the front seat, kissing and whispering loving platitudes into each other’s mouths with such nauseating enthusiasm that sitting through it was quite like staring at the sun: tolerance came in small doses. I left the car and dragged my luggage up the porch steps alone.
I had come home exactly twice since leaving for college, once for spring break and once after my father’s heart attack, and I was greeted the same each time. Homecoming generally went like this: my oldest sister, now sixteen, would nod her head in my direction over the top of her cell phone, give me a hug if I came close enough, and then resume her texting. My brothers, identical in all but their clothing, would rush in for the tackle. And my youngest sister would wave from the couch—a simple twist of her hand—and then return to her TV show. Today it was an old rerun about a teenage spy, and because the theme song was particularly catchy, the wave was even shorter than normal, barely a twitch of her fingertips.
I disappeared into my room.
From the window of my dorm room in the mornings, I could see the wide expanse of the San Francisco landscape for miles, a hundred buildings huddled together against the fading fog, life bustling below. From the window of my hometown bedroom, I could see the neighbor’s pool. A thoroughly unexciting, lifeless pool. As summer had not technically begun, the water that would soon promise endless good times and relief from the heat was still currently abandoned. A heavy pile of leaves covered much of the surface, but through the spaces between, I could make out a glimpse of the water—a murky, untouched green.
Rylie called at half past eleven while I was cleaning the windowsill for the second time. Her voice was shrill and rushed as she screamed into my ear, “Why didn’t you tell me you were home? I had to hear it from my mom, who heard it from your mom, and I feel like I’m in a weird stupid sitcom, because I’m not supposed to be hearing gossip from your mother, Lucas. You’re supposed to tell your friends when you come home. Clay is pissed.”
As she spoke, I tucked the phone between my shoulder and ear. Downstairs, my mom was yelling at the twins, and Dad was swearing about the score of a baseball game. I retreated farther into my room and closed the door.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Sorry?” Rylie let out a long, exasperated sigh, and I thought I could hear her nails tapping against the back of her phone. “Will you meet me somewhere? I haven’t seen you in ages, and everyone misses you. Please?”
“Is this how this is going to be now? One-worded conversations?”
Rylie laughed, a deep, chest-rattling sort of sound that in no way matched the high, squeaky pitch of her voice. It was for reasons like this I’d stopped trying to understand her in the third grade.
“You’re an ass, Lucas. Meet me at the flower shop across from the grocery store, okay? Ten minutes, don’t be late. Oh, and Todney is going to be there. I can’t wait for you to meet him. Don’t be late.”
“We have a grocery store?”
The flower shop across from the grocery store was a hole in the wall sort of place, stuffed between a liquor store and a dress boutique. There was just one small sign above the cramped door in an almost illegible cursive.
Rylie stood inside, the picture-perfect image of everything I’d always remembered her to be. Rylie was the sort of girl who was unfairly in tune with her body, so whether she was standing, sitting, or falling—drunk—down a flight of stairs at high school graduation, she always managed to come across as prim and proper. She stood now, back straight and her head up with the sort of modelesque posture that looked just natural enough that you knew it was forced. She wore sweats, her hair was tied up in a messy bun, and apart from the crimson red lipstick that was her signature mark, she did not wear a drop of makeup.
Beside her stood a man I could only assume was her fiancé, as he held her hand with the sort of possessive tightness of a dog owner on his pet’s leash. He had dark brown skin and light brown eyes and wore a shirt so blue it seemed out of place next to all the pink flowers. Like Rylie, his back was straight as a pole, but less naturally so; every few seconds, he looked her over from head to toe and then readjusted his stance.
“You’re late,” Rylie said as I approached, but she was smiling. As I drew close, she threw her arms around my neck and hugged the breath right out of my lungs. “I missed you,” she whispered. She pressed a kiss to my temple and then pulled away.
“I’m Todney,” offered her fiancé. He thrust out his hand, and I was immediately introduced to the tightest and yet most enthusiastic handshake of my life. “Rylie has told me all about you. The big-city man. The one who got away.”
“Literally,” Rylie said. “He got out of the prison that is this beautiful, beautiful town.” With each word, she picked out a different flower from around the shop and then gathered them all together like a bouquet. “What do you think?” she asked, holding them close to her chest.
I tried to imagine her walking down the aisle with the flowers in hand, maybe in some elaborate, flowing dress, but all I could see was a red carpet at her feet. “They’re great.”
Todney nodded his agreement. “Perfect.” His small eyes widened in puppylike excitement, and he kissed Rylie with all the vigor and desperation of a soldier leaving for war. She returned the gesture immediately, her surprisingly large hands rushing to grasp at his chest and dig her fingertips into his T-shirt.
I had just enough time to wonder, briefly, what sort of chemical malfunction occurred in the minds of lovers that made them exchange spit quite so eagerly, before the door to the back room flew open and the most beautiful man I’d ever seen staggered out.
Now, I was in no habit of calling men beautiful, and in fact, the word was hardly part of my vocabulary at all. But there was no other way to describe him. Deep brown eyes, a jaw better than Superman, and a T-shirt on just the right side of too-small; he was completely, pant-tightening-ly beautiful. So I did what any warm-blooded American man of perfectly normal masculinity and charm would do—I stared.
Clothes wrinkled and ripped, his dark brown hair sticking up in every direction, he was probably three inches, at least, shorter than I was, and yet he stood with a heightened presence that left me dwarfed in comparison. Like he owned the shop or the town or the whole damn world for that matter.
“So the florist says no tulips, and there are none in the back. I checked myself,” he said, each word tumbling over the last in quick succession, his hands fluttering around as though to conduct an orchestra with each syllable. He gestured in my direction, treating me to the show.
“This the jailbird?” he asked. “Landon? Lillipher? What? It could be the masculine version of Lilly.” Our eyes locked, and he smiled a great toothy smile.
Because I’m no romantic and not nearly pathetic enough to care, I did not imagine the look to mean anything. I told myself that strangers always smiled at strangers like that, and it was absurd to think otherwise. As would be thinking he was actually talking to me. I quickly closed my mouth, two syllables toward a reply, when he turned to Rylie instead.
“Lucas. And yes, that’s him.” Rylie rolled her eyes. Somewhere in my distraction, she’d swept up a new bouquet and was walking in long strips down the store aisle. Her fiancé stood before her, a grin on his face, like it was everything he’d ever dreamed of. Like standing in a crowded shop that smelled too strongly of perfume with a girl only a year out of high school was the end all to end all.
“Lucas, meet Christopher, Todney’s best man. Christopher, meet Lucas, one of my friends from high school.” Rylie gestured between the strange new man and myself twice before returning to her far more important duties of sorting pink lilies from white ones.
“Chris,” the man corrected. “I see she’s had time to mark you.” He reached out a callused, long-fingered hand and wiped what must have been a lipstick kiss off my cheek. “Didn’t your mom ever teach you that it’s rude to stare? Unless it’s because I’m pretty. Then stare. Stare away. Todney always stares because I’m pretty.” He winked in Todney’s direction.
Todney squeezed the bridge of his nose. “He thinks he’s funny. He’s not.”
“Don’t mind him. Us freaks of the Midwest are easily distressed,” Chris said. “Your strange, diverse California mindset is revolutionizing our worlds. The gays and the people of color all out in the open! We don’t have to hide anymore! What has this world come to?” Chris smiled. “So what are you staring at, the beautiful face or my lovely walking habits? And I thought I was hiding it so well.” He thrust out his left foot and tapped his fingers against his kneecap. “All metal. Just call me Bionic Man because I’m at least a hundredth of the way to being a robot. Tough part is you can’t see it. I mean, I wanted a prosthetic just to look a little cooler. Todney here thought I should bedazzle it, wouldn’t have to hide it that way. Board shorts every day. But I was thinking graffiti. Skull and crossbones all the way down. Or, and hear me out here, high school cast style: everyone can sign ‘HAGS’ on it.”
He spoke too fast and too much, a tornado of words, and I was caught up in the endless swirl of it all.
“Sorry,” I said.
“He only speaks in one-word sentences,” Rylie said to Chris. She had roses in her hands now. “It’s his way of expressing his locked-up hatred for us all.”
Chris frowned. “You hate us all?”
Before I could even think to reply, Rylie had answered again. “Not you. Me. His friends. All of us who stayed here when he went off to college. What did you call it, Lucas? ‘A life-sucking world of no opportunity’?” She looked back at Chris, exchanging a red rose for a white one while a wry smile played at the corners of her mouth. “He yelled that at me on the phone when I asked why he wouldn’t come home for Christmas. Longest sentence he’s said to me in months.”
I stared down at the floor. From my peripheral vision, I could see Chris staring at me with what I assumed was a look of judgment. It was only after I’d raised my head and dared to meet his gaze that I realized it was actually curiosity. Despite all Rylie had said—all of it the truth—he was still waiting to hear my side.
I shrugged. “I don’t like to waste words.”
Chris cocked an eyebrow. “You can’t waste words. Their only purpose is to be used. I, for one, love words.”
“We know,” Rylie and Todney said in unison. Chris threw his head back and laughed. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, and so, naturally, I felt nothing but jealousy.
Judging by Rylie’s reactions, you’d think choosing wedding flowers was as difficult as choosing a pet. Every flower had a “pro”—beauty, color, the sweet smell under her nose as she held the bouquet to her chest. But nothing was too beautiful not to have thorns or to attract bees or to clash with the table settings. One by one, the cons added up until it was quite clear we’d be getting nothing done today. Todney never flinched, never snapped, never gave in to the inevitable annoyance, but stood, soldier straight by her side, rubbing her back about these damned flowers.
This went on for an unbelievably long time until Rylie squeaked, suddenly, and ran to the window to stare out at another man.
“What is he doing here? Lucas, did you invite him?”
I glanced out the window. “No.” I moved to stand next to her. “I thought you were still friends.”
“We are. But I don’t want him anywhere near the wedding planning.”
“Well, he’s coming this way.”
“You are so helpful. Go get him out of here.”
Chris pushed his way between us and pressed his nose against the glass. “Who are we staring at? Brother? Cousin? Cute ex-boyfriend?” Beside us, Rylie tensed.
Chris made a sound like a siren and knocked my shoulder with his own. “I was right, wasn’t I?”
“Yes, you were right. Now, Lucas, go get rid of him,” Rylie answered.
“I believe I was asking Lucas,” Chris said, and though he spoke to Rylie, his eyes were all on me—two heavy searchlights that were impossible to turn away from.
So I gave up trying. I narrowed my eyes and stared back, squinting against the light in hopes that I had my own, that maybe I could blind him before he could blind me. I sort of doubted it.
It was Rylie’s hand on my shoulder that inevitably pulled me away, that pulled me back to the flower shop with the wilting roses in the doorway and the morning dew on the window, pulled me back to the boy outside the window playing dress up as a man.
Well-pressed pants and an ironed dress shirt sauntered up to the shop. With heavy bags under his eyes, Clayton Ortiz caught my gaze through the wet and worn shop window and smiled. It was a smile so well crafted, so constructed, it could rival the natural world around me down to the very stem, down to the cell.
I was outside, crossing the distance between us, before I knew quite what I was doing.
Clayton threw his hands up into the air, his smile faltering slightly—but only for a second. In an instant, the corners of his mouth flickered upward where they had begun to droop, and he produced a pair of sunglasses from his jacket pocket to cover up the darkness in his eyes.
“Lucas Burke, in the flesh,” he said and grasped my shoulders with his well-manicured fingers. “He lives. So you didn’t fall off a cliff somewhere. If you answered my calls once in a while, I might have known that.”
I didn’t say anything, but I did hug him, and it made him relax some, I think. The tension drained from his shoulders anyway as he sort of slumped against me, more warm noodle and less rigid telephone pole.
He said, almost breathless against my ear, “I’ve missed you, man.”
I nodded and tried to say “I missed you too,” but all that came out of my mouth was a mumbled “yeah.” I thrust a thumb behind me instead and gestured at the flower shop. “Rylie doesn’t want you around. She’s freaking out.”
Behind us, Chris pressed his face against the glass and stuck out his tongue, making one vulgar expression after another. Rylie stood beside him, cringing and trying to hide behind a bouquet of daffodils.
“He in there?” Clay asked, smile still in place. “Chris is here. That bastard Todney’s got to be in there too, right?”
“Yeah. He didn’t seem like a bastard,” I said.
“He is. He’s a stuck-up, rich bastard.”
“Whatever you say.”
“He is,” Clay said.
“He definitely is.”
“You’re a stuck-up, rich bastard too, you know,” I said.
Clay laughed. “I definitely am. Want to get a drink?”
We both waved in unison toward the flower shop window; Chris waved back, Rylie blushed, and then Clay and I headed next door into the small-town liquor shop. Clay pulled out a fake I.D. that was not even remotely close to the real thing and grabbed a bottle of scotch. Up at the counter, the shopkeeper stared at the fake, then at Clay’s face, and then checked us out without a word.
“You have superpowers,” I said. “I’ll never take you for granted.”
Clay’s smile did that drooping thing again, like someone was pulling it down at the edges and he had to fight tooth and nail to hold it back up. “You already have.”
If I was a better friend, I might have felt bad about that or at least found a way to lift that smile, a sort of pulley system or something to step in when the gravity of life took its toll. I could have at least apologized, I supposed. I could have said something to make up for it all—what, I don’t know, but there’s an awful lot of words out there, and one of them might have fit if I’d only tried.
But Clay had already started smiling again and was now rattling on about something else—something light, something easy—so we dropped it. As we walked to the parking lot of our old high school, Clay told me in great detail all about his plans, his inventions, and the colors he’d have on his business cards when he got his own company. Green because it promised a future of money with highlights of red to symbolize the blood he might literally have to sacrifice to ever get his ideas off the ground.
He was laughing—nearly hysterically—about some computer system he was working on when we finally reached the parking lot and settled down along the curb. It was late afternoon by then, and an unimpressive sunset of orange and pink hung low in the sky. This meant that cute suburban moms and cute suburban dads were sitting around on their porches, pointing out the cute colors and gushing about their cute, perfect lives. It meant that cute children were being called inside for cute around-the-table dinners. But mostly it meant that school was long over and the parking lot was abandoned. So when Clay pulled out the scotch and popped off the lid, no one questioned it. No cops came jumping out of the bushes, and, frankly, no one cared.
Clay took the first swig of scotch, gave a huge whole-body shake, and then handed the bottle over. I took it and did the same but with less theatrics; I sipped, I gulped, and I passed it back. This went on for a while—drink, pass, drink, repeat—and for several minutes, neither of us spoke but waited instead for that warm buzz that made loose lips pleasurable and social interaction easy.
It came to me like a punch in the gut, my crisp, dark world growing fuzzy and shining brighter, and that pressure around my jaw that always felt like a cage suddenly loosened, screws falling out at once.
Soon I was the one rattling on about nothing; I was the one babbling and apologizing, falling back flat on the pavement and yelling to the sky, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” until I was sure God could hear me.
Clay clapped a hand over my mouth. Through my hazy scotch-soaked vision, I could see him smiling—a different smile this time, all loose and so damn frustrating that I almost punched it right off.
“No, you’re not,” he whispered through the darkness. “You’re not sorry. And you don’t have to pretend you are.”
I sat up and rubbed my knuckles into my eyes. It did nothing but make my vision even blurrier. “That’s not what everyone else says. Everyone looks at me like I abandoned them. Like… Like…” I paused and reached again for the bottle of scotch, but Clay tugged it away. I pouted and tried to grab it back, but soon forgot about whatever it was I wanted the scotch for in the first place.
I continued babbling instead. “The world is so much better out there, Clay. It’s so much bigger. There’s so much life. And there’s nothing here. Nothing.”
“There’s people,” Clay said.
I laughed. “People who don’t care about anything. People who don’t do anything.” Flopping back onto the pavement, I raised my hands above my head and watched the stars twinkling through the spaces between my fingers. The stars were big and glowing and so shockingly clear that it was nothing at all like the city. In the city, the sky was dark and bright all at the same time—dark from the lack of natural lights and the lack of stars, bright from the streetlights and the building windows and the satellites.
“The people here aren’t people,” I said. “The people here are just empty shells.” Empty shells that remembered everything I’d done in high school; empty shells that looked on with judgment in their squinty, little suburban eyes.
Clay lay down on the pavement beside me and turned his head so we were face-to-face. “And you’re all filled up then, huh?”
“Yeah.” I think I nodded, or maybe I just thought about nodding; my head was heavy and my brain was full even if the rest of me wasn’t. “Yeah, at least I have a plan. Do you have a plan?”
Of course he had a plan. I knew he had a plan. He’d just told me all about it minutes ago—green and red and blood on business cards—and I was a terrible friend, and I just didn’t care.
Clay nodded. “I have a lot of plans.” He sat up and fumbled through his jacket pocket for a moment before pulling out a bottle of pills.
Full of that slitty-eyed confusion we call intoxication, I couldn’t quite make out the name on the prescription, but it sure as hell didn’t look like a “Clay” or anything resembling a C-name for that matter. Martha maybe. Or Mary.
Clay popped several pills into his mouth and then took another swig of scotch before he replied. “I’m going to prove my dad wrong, for one. I’m going to be a success. I’ll be even bigger than he is. And then—” He twirled the bottle in his hands. “—I’m going to win Rylie back.”
Todney’s face popped into the back of my mind, full of a puppy-dog love and nauseating admiration that did nothing to settle my already churning stomach. “The wedding’s only in a couple months,” I said.
Clay shrugged. “She’s not really going to marry him. We’re just kids, Lucas. She’s nineteen.”
“Which is an adult,” I said.
Clay shook his head. “Yeah, sure, but it’s still a kid too. She’s not going to settle down and have her happily ever after right now. That’s just not how it works.”
“Then why are you even going to bother? If she’s too young to live happily ever after with him, how could she live happily ever after with you?”
“Because I’m not looking for happily ever after,” Clay said. “I’m looking for a chance. You grow up and you find your way, and then you have that choice forever. We’re still kids. Kids have a chance. That’s what older people are always saying, you know: I missed my chance. When you’re young, all you’ve got are chances. It’s like you’re standing in a room with a thousand doors, and you’ve got to pick the right one.
“That’s why we’re all crazy. We don’t know which one to pick, and the pressure eats you alive. But then you finally pick one—because you have to, because society is screaming at you ‘Pick one! Pick one! You’re twenty-five; you’re too old not to pick one! You’re thirty; you’re no good if you haven’t picked a door by now’—and then you do, and it closes behind you, and you’re stuck with that one choice forever. Rylie’s not ready to close that door. I know her. And maybe she likes this guy. Hell, maybe he’s even ‘the one.’” Clay made quotation marks with his fingers. “But she’s not ready to close that door. And I just want to open one.”
I didn’t answer, nor did it seem Clay wanted me to as, the second he finished, he lay back and stared up at the stars in silence. Between us, the bottle of scotch tumbled over, and the sounds of the glass rolling down the street and Clay’s heavy breathing filled the air.
I closed my eyes and imagined myself in a room full of endless doors, each a different color, a different shape—different locks and different handles everywhere I turned. They were all open, all waiting, and then, all at once, every door slammed shut.