I noticed a broken clock sitting beside my friend’s fire place the other day. “You know that was Walter’s? I can’t seem to get rid of it. It doesn’t even work anymore and I just keep it.” She lost her brother a little over a year ago and was the one responsible for doling out his personal items. “I know it’s stupid to keep a broken clock, but I can’t throw it away.” Funny, I do things like that too. And I told her about Beth’s jeans.
I met Beth my first semester in art school. She was seventeen, and had moved from Texas to be with my boyfriend’s twenty four year old roommate. She didn’t have anything in common with the group of us that hung around the apartment. We were frantically investing in our futures, tapping away at computer keyboards and brushing away at paintings at night. But Beth was simply waiting until she turned eighteen so she could dance at the Cheetah and hung around the apartment chain smoking and baking frozen pizzas in the oven. It didn’t bother me. I liked her. She was an interesting addition to the mix and I started hanging out with her. She brought her cat from Texas and colored him pink with a marker. We ate lollipops and I listened to her talk about cocks. We pierced her navel with a safety pin when I got home from my Human Resources job. None of it made sense, but we lived in the moment and many things we both did awkwardly traced back and forth over the line from childhood to adulthood.
Since we crashed at the same apartment, we’d both slip out of our boyfriends’ beds at night and talk while huddled in plastic chairs on the porch. In a deep, low voice between puffs from her cigarette and over the sounds of frogs and crickets from the nearby bayou, she’d tell me about her life in Texas. About the girl they beat until she lost her baby. She said that’s the way they took care of things in Texas. About running away from home and her miscarriage at night at age fourteen in an anchorage up north. About how it felt to swallow blood at night down a swollen throat from being beat. About being so drunk that she’d walk along the roadside with a milk jug full of vodka yelling at passer-by’s. She smoked pot. She’d done harder drugs. She was on lithium for some mental problems. All signs should have pointed me away from her, and yet I fell in love with her.
I helped her pick out her first stripper outfits when she turned eighteen. I drove her to her audition and watched her slide her dress down over her boots and dance under the lights for three songs and felt like a proud mother. Weeks later, I saw her come home with wads of money bulging in her back pockets. We drank together. Slept in the same apartment. Hung out on lazy afternoons when the boys were at class. We went to the park and smoked my first joint. And sometimes I’d wander to the fridge at night and hear her whimper through the closed door to her bedroom–the only vulnerable sounds I ever heard come from her. No doubt, I admired her. She was everything I never would or could be. She’d lived three lifetimes by the time I’d met her. She had freckles and a tomboy sexuality. She seemed to be able to network to get her hands on anything she wanted. When I hesitated in climbing the roof to smoke with her, she told me not to worry, and I implicitly trusted her. Forget school for her. She just made things happen somehow. She survived in an unconventional way.
Things weren’t great between her and her boyfriend. One night someone I didn’t know called the phone in my art studio. It turned out to be a good Samaritan neighbor of hers calling me from the hospital. They said they were returning her to the apartment, that her boyfriend was in jail, and that she could really use a girlfriend right now. I remember sitting on my boyfriend’s air mattress next to her, her forehead at least an inch thicker than it should have been from repeated head butts, and her upper body coming to rest on me. The first tears I’d ever seen from her poured out. She’d never needed me before. Perhaps I’d secretly wanted her to. The bad-ass vodka drinking bitch became a broken hero to me, and she went from irresistible to legendary in that moment. She could barely talk because her throat was so swollen from him choking her. I coddled her, and my crush became complete.
In subsequent months, we survived a potentially fatal drunk driving episode together, another unwanted pregnancy which found her throwing up in front of me beside the road. I’d pick her up from the back of the Peek-A-Boo Lounge, her second strip adventure after being fired from the Cheetah. I’d come to the back door and ask for her by “Viv.” She’d come out with her dance bag, smelling of smoke and perfume and hug me really hard. The fact that she was thrilled to see me melted my heart. I remained fascinated. And then one night, my boyfriend and best friend at the time called me from the car on the way to the airport. They were dropping Beth off. Her boyfriend had threatened to kill her, and had just gotten out of the hospital after being Baker Acted (mandatory incarceration in a mental ward of a hospital, a police action that can be called upon if you think the person is an immediate danger to themselves.)
I said goodbye on the phone. I’d made my last memory with her and hadn’t known it was over. I never saw her again. It took me a long time to get over her.
But I had a pair of jeans from her that I’d borrowed for a night of watching shooting stars at the beach with the whole crew of us. And you know what? I kept them for years, folded up in the top shelf of my closet. They moved with me wherever I went. I couldn’t let them go. I could never get a hold of her or find her again, although I’ve tried. Because of the direction in which she was headed, I wonder if she is even alive today. Maybe she is in jail. Maybe she’s a crappy mother. If she’s alive, I hope she is okay. I wasn’t a good judge of character back then, but it allowed me the experience of being deeply in love with a fallen star. To this day, I still do a double-take when I see someone like her. The jeans were very much my memorial to her when I had them and every time I took them down I was always very gentle when I folded and unfolded them afraid to hurt the spirit of someone who I knew couldn’t use any more pain.
I’m seriously over her now. I’ve grown up. I threw away the jeans when I moved up here a couple of years ago, but it’s funny how much I used those pants to hang on to her. I’ve held on to pieces of other people like gum wrappers and undershirts the way my friend hangs on to that clock. When I called her to ask if it was okay to mention her story of Walter’s clock, she told me she felt it honored him, and added, “Oh, and I still have my dad’s old raggedy bathrobe! Can you believe that?”
These aren’t so much admissions of guilt. Or the revelation that we have quirks. They’re admissions of love. Of a deeply personal and private commitment to the past. Of the fact that sometimes our raw feelings need a memorial object to help blot the wound a missing person leaves. It’s perfectly noble.
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