“Okay, hold on to this, Kris,” Ben said, handing me the sacred lime-green fanny-pack on the way out of the booth tent. “And girls, don’t forget what I told you.”
I stuffed the fanny-pack under the table and picked up one of the cardboard 109 XRZ (Chicago’s Greatest Rock!) fans. Even in a plain tee-shirt and skirt, at 10 PM, the mugginess was starting to get to me. Nighttime is a time for cold, for crispness, for sheets and blankets and curling up into yourself. I’m from the area, Niles specifically, so the weather is the same but growing up there is more about urban sprawl and driving air-conditioned cars from strip mall Paneras to strip mall Starbucks and the Barnes & Noble. But in the late July of Chicago, summer is not a season so much as a state, a way of being, an indigenous environment for which cultures and customs are erected.
One of them is the street fest, with its choking walls of ash-smelling smoke pounding out from food tents like they were stamped out from a machine whole and oppressive, with its open spaces and sudden crowded corridors where beers are bumped out of blue cups with reckless abandon by passerby like pinballs, with its promoter and vendor booths and Wicker Park Fest is no exception.
“I don’t think any of them fit the bill,” Tara was saying. She watched the passers-by with a keen and overly earnest eye, the consummate professional. Her iPhone buzzed and she furrowed her large eyebrows together, tapping with one finger.
“Mark asking permission to use the bathroom again?” asked Cassidy from the back, where she was leaning against the boxes of XRZ gear they’d unpacked to set up the booth.
Tara didn’t get, or chose not to get, the implications, answered distractedly. “He wants to know if I can take the dog out when I get home because he’s got friends over. He should know the answer to that. He really should.”
“Sometimes you just have to train them over and over,” said Cassidy, checking her makeup in the mirror.
“Sure,” said Cassidy, “that’s what I meant.”
I looked over and grinned at Cassidy. She gave me a furtive, faux-frightened expression at Tara’s expense before returning to inspecting her makeup, which she did a lot. Cassidy was one of those really pretty girls – super long, waterfall-straight hair and clear-blue-pool-in-a-dark-cave eyes – who worried about being pretty, who you knew were especially insecure about their tiniest imperfections because the rest of them was so perfect. Hey, I knew the feeling – I can’t say I ignored reflective windows – but because she was so smart and fun to talk to, something about it made me sad.
Tara’s scanning was on account of Ben’s instructions. See, we were the gatekeepers – the kingmakers.
My internship with the station (in the city!) was as much about the adventure (as embarrassing as that sounds, oh my god) as the extra cash for bills that wearing a blue polo at Best Buy wouldn’t pay, and figuring out what to do after the recently acquired sans-skills college degree.
XRZ was doing a giveaway, which was standard fare for every fundraising and promo event we’d worked all summer. They were giving away tickets to one of these invitation-only shows, where popular bands played some super-small venue and only people with XRZ tickets could attend. In the past it had been names like MGMT and Ray LaMontagne and Mumford and Sons, so it was a big deal. The concert was sponsored by this downtown Audi dealer, and whoever won the magic fanny-pack had to take it there to pick up his tickets: kind of a marketing ploy, so Ben’s instructions were to off-the-record pick a winner who looked like he might buy an Audi. Someone with some money who looked like they drove a nice car.
Tara took this, as everything, pretty seriously. Tara controlled her boyfriend like a whipped husband of many decades despite not seeming to, well, like him all that much. She was one of those girls who earnestly re-posted misspelled signs on Facebook about how guys who said they “raped” a video game were propagating Rape Culture because they were making rapists feel like all guys were on their side and that was total bullshit because, it is a total asshole phrase don’t get me wrong, but in the analogous example here, is a guy saying he’s going to “kill” on a test making the murderer in our midst feel like society supports his brutal executions?
I told this to Cassidy’s latest boyfriend (this one’s about a dozen years older) earlier in the day when he’d stopped by and it made him laugh. Cassidy was one of those girls who guys are getting obsessed with all the time, something I can’t tell if she sincerely doesn’t understand or is just the kind of person who would never admit she understands it, but for all her otherwise generally optimal intelligence she still hasn’t figured out that she’s always solving relationship hangups and personal epiphanies about relationship hangups with more relationships.
They creep up on her, maybe, because there’s always a circle of guys revolving in her social periphery, waiting for the coast to clear consciously or subconsciously, like quarters spinning around one of those big inverted-cone donation wells in the mall that you’re supposed to race coins on. (“What,” my friend Samantha said once with an upturned mouth, “do her tits lactate chocolate?”)
Not that I didn’t get hit on this weekend. Actually, there was a cool one at Best Buy last week: this guy I’ve never seen before, a smart-eyed, dark-haired guy came in looking at tablets. He seemed a little surprised when I asked him if there was anything I could help him find – or, unprepared, rather. He kind of hesitated and then said he didn’t know if he should pretend he needed help because it seemed weirder not to, but he had just driven like half an hour because this was the only store that had the waterproof Sony in stock and wasn’t the sound on it pretty cool. He typed the new Barenaked Ladies song into YouTube: a lyrics video, cause there’s no actual music video.
“I love this song,” he says.
It takes off like a brainless racehorse, like the soundtrack for a montage where strangers pick up litter to restore the fallen colliseum and the hero slowly trains on the comeback trail from his defeat, running ever faster to the cheers of his hometown crowd, and at first we just stood there in the tablet display aisle awkwardly but then he started to move, kind of.
This guy was no good dancer; I mean, at best he could pull of being a dorky dad at a wedding (not that he was anywhere near old enough to have a kid getting married, I’m just saying), which is better than some, but still. But I guess it was premium-dorky-dad-at a-wedding music because I was like, what the hell, the customer is always right, right, and he knew exactly how dorky he was looking, clearly, in fact deliberately, and he was just going to go with it so I tried to make him feel a little better.
So we’re in the Mobile Connectivity section of Best Buy – which by the way, is right in the middle and open where everyone can see – dancing, or something that could vaguely be approximated by alien anthropologists as dancing, if they were not too discerning, basically just arms and hands and silly faces because the song is built to cheer up cancer patients, IV drip carts swinging out wide in spins and limbo-ing with wide leg stomps through the MRI machine to the drum beats at the bridge and what’s the worst that’s gonna happen.
Then he takes my arms and is kind of inefficiently pushing the see-saw railroad-track car down the station with them, also swinging side to side, and we’re both laughing and I can basically see the ironic caption under the picture when someone snaps a cell pic that goes viral: “Yolo.” But seriously.
Then the line comes where Ed Robertson sings about the chances you’re going to fall in love by the end of the song. My ears are red from jamming in the Best Buy and smart-eyes acts appropriately awkward but here’s the thing: it doesn’t feel authentic. I don’t mean him, who is authentically awkward, or the dancing, which is authentically bad, and even the situation was authentically fun, but the inauthentic implication, or the inauthentic moment, or maybe my inauthentic life right now.
It’s like the difference between what you think driving will be like when you’re 15, because you see the movies or commercials, all scene cuts and soundtrack, or maybe what you think being a grown-up will be like when you’re 22, the way you imagine and describe it when you’re 12, but then: it’s just this really tired feeling, turning the wheel and dealing with stupid traffic and getting up early to put on a blue polo. You’re doing it but you’re not feeling it.
I ring smart-eyes up at the Mobile Connectivity register.
“What’s Kris short for?” he asked, pointing kind of vaguely at my name-tag.
“Nothing,” I responded honestly.
“Kristen?” he laughed nervously. “Kristina?”
“No,” I said. “Trust me, I’ve done this a million times. It’s not a coy game. It is my life. My name is Kris.”
“Okay,” he said. “So if I have trouble with the tablet, Kris, can I call you?”
I did give him my number, ballpoint pen on the receipt, but like I said, there was just something fake about it. Not fake like he had done it on purpose – clearly, he was no kind of suave. There was another layer to it. Unreal, maybe, not fake. Like it was something we both had seen in a movie, even though we hadn’t. It didn’t feel like it was supposed to feel if we were in the movie of the thing, and not reading out the screenplay.
He texted me the next day about when I had lunch but I didn’t text him back. I could see the stage directions and I didn’t want to block out the motions. There’s plausible deniability in texts. I didn’t get them: the verb is homonymous.
I was talking to Samantha one time, walking on the rocks between Lake Shore Drive and the water at Oak Street Beach when I had been wandering downtown by myself, listening to music and wandered towards the lake and she called, about not dating. We talked about Tara, in fact – she doesn’t know Tara, and maybe I don’t know Tara either, but we both know that kind of situation and I asked why, you know, why with neither of them really all that into the whole thing they keep putting in that time, that effort, that daily effort that’s worth it with someone you love but with someone you don’t is just adding interest on top of the debt when it’s time to cash out and she said, it’s better than being alone. How many people must believe that.
And I’m thinking now how afraid everyone is to be alone – afraid – and how much of a powerful animal incentive fear is for the way we live, and how for women the way we live is supposed to be about men and emotions and linking, as much as for men it’s supposed to be about women and hunting and money, and how sharp-knife wrong all of those things can go when driven by fear rather than the other thing, and watching Cassidy watch a pimple on her neck in her compact, her face, and Tara punch touch-screen keys on her iPhone at her live-in, her face, and how their faces then, when they think no one is looking, for some reason make me want to start to cry – that’s what I’m thinking when he comes up.
The world’s most ineligible bachelor. In a dirty tee shirt (and not the trying-to-not-be-trying kind of dirty tee shirt, but the don’t-notice-mustard-stains kind of dirty tee shirt) and too-short hair, annoyingly old glasses and a pair of worn old sneakers. He looks late 20s although his weight and a little bit of receding hair line could pass him for a little older.
“Hello,” I tell him brightly. “Do you listen to XRZ?”
“Yeah,” he mumbles, picking up a fan.
“We have this giveaway – why don’t you fill out a form.” Tara and Cassidy are ignoring, so I may as well, and as he does fill out his name and address and all of that, I ask, “Are you a fan of the station?”
“Yeah,” he mentions as he writes, “I listen to the morning show host, Tim Dawson. He’s a smart guy.”
And here’s the thing: Tim Dawson is a smart guy. He’s this middle-aged veteran who’s been through like a half-dozen format changes and while everyone else has this “wacky morning zoo” thing going, Tim Dawson is just him and the woman who does the weather, all morning, and he knows all the bands and all the news and makes all these clever references to like a dozen movies and songs in every sentence that nobody gets except his fans.
“What is that thing,” Ineligible Bachelor asks, “where he answers e-mail questions?”
“Tim’s Bin,” I say.
“Yeah, that must take a lot of work. The guy is wicked smart.”
“It takes him like hours,” I agree. “Splicing quotes and everything. I got to work on it with him a few weeks back.”
“Yeah, Tim’s Bin is brilliant. I sent one in, a question about the voting primaries,” and he goes on in this annoying voice about some political corruption conspiracy he has, with this wink-wink condescension and lots of useless information and I tune him out until he finishes the card with his name on it and hands it in. There’s not a person in Wicker Park right now I wouldn’t rather spend time with, but the man, he is a fan. He loves the station.
“Congratulations,” I tell him, putting the fanny pack into his hands. “You’ve just won.”
I can’t cut the grin afterwards, as he walks away, and then Cassidy yells out, “Hey, buddy, what do you drive?”
“I ride a Segway,” he says.
“That’s so cool.”
“What the fuck,” says Tara, now staring gaping open-jawed.
Cassidy snorts beneath her palm.