I once wrote a story about a man named Tristan who can’t get over his first love. He’s turning thirty, wasting away at a dead end job, eating every feeling he can find, and playing World of Warcraft instead of making friends. One day, he takes a long, hard look in the mirror and realizes that he can’t take it anymore. The not knowing. Not seeing her one more time.
He stalks her on Facebook (because that’s what it’s for, let’s be honest with ourselves here), and he writes down everything he’d learns about her without being her ‘friend’.
- Place of residence: Chicago
- Occupation: School Teacher
- Relationship Status: Married
- Hobbies: Thursday night poetry slams at The Dive In
Of course it’s poetry. Of course she’s married. Of course she’s a teacher. Of course she lives in a city a thousand miles away. But it doesn’t matter. None of it matters because what he’s thinking and feeling has nothing to do with her. She’s just an avatar for the regrets he’s been hording, keeping them well-polished and gleaming.
He plots his course. He packs his bags. He calls out sick from work, pinching his nose and clearing his throat, saying, “I’ll come in if you want, but I just don’t know how contagious I am. But if you want…” He’s told to stay away, and this feels like permission to follow through. He gets in his car as the sun is setting, and he drives off into the night.
As the story goes, his car brakes down about six hours into the journey. It’s the dead of night, so he naps there on the side of the road. After being awoken by a cop, fighting a numb leg, and forking over all of his cash ($75) for a tow and lift, he finds himself in the skeeviest of motel rooms thinking he should probably just give up and go home. But then he meets an old man sitting poolside (the pool hasn’t seen water in a decade or more). “Don’t end up like me,” the old man says when Tristan tells him his plight. “You just go ahead and turn around. Don’t you end up like me.”
This convinces Tristan to keep going.
The next day, Tristan’s out trying to buy himself some lunch, but his debit card gets declined. He calls the bank, and they say someone stole his card. They’re halfway across the country now, and isn’t he just so happy that the bank’s there looking out for him? He tells them what’s up, and they say, “Oh. Sorry about that, but you should really tell us when you’re going somewhere. We’ll send you a new card in 7-10 business days. Aren’t you glad we’re so quick about these things?”
Now he can’t afford the room for another night. Or the work being done to his car. No gas. No food. No nothing. He shares his woes with another person, a quirky early 20-something named Shawn who just happens to be hanging out in the parking lot of this fast food establishment. Shawn is fascinated by Tristan’s story. Thinks it’ll make a great story, and wouldn’t you know it, Shawn fancies themself the next Jack Kerouac. “I’ll take you!” They’ll pay for everything, too, as long as Tristan promises to Venmo some reimbursement when he gets his affairs in order.
They just have to make one small pit stop first.
Shawn’s sibling lives in Kentucky, the land of coal and caves. And bourbon. Shawn’s sibling, a brother, is a hillbilly drug lord. A meth lab in the woods. Shawn was apparently out on a delivery when they picked Tristan up. A big duffel of cash. An angry kingpin at having this intruder come into his space. Bossman thinks Tristan’s a cop. A Fed. A DEA agent preying on Shawn the screw-up androgyny who’s too trusting in people. Tristan finds himself their prisoner.
Tristan attempts to prove that he’s just a pitiful sort on a quest to… to what? To see a woman he has no business seeing? He’s a stalker. He’s pathetic. He’s… Different than anyone else in this little trailer park, and BobbySue thinks he’s cute. She brings him food and listens to his story, and damn if she ain’t just the most insightful person in the world. She knocks down every single straw man Tristan erects in his defense of being a worthless stalker and only half a man. She just doesn’t see it.
It’s been a long time since anyone’s even sort of believed in him. He starts to begin to consider that maybe he’s not so bad after all. But he’s still stuck in his bullshit, so this only serves to rekindle his determination to see his old flame again. Maybe if this stranger finds him attractive in any sense, then Whatsherface will realize what she’s been missing all this time, and he’ll get a happily ever after out of the deal.
So he proposes to the kingpin brotherman that he be given a mission. He’s not going to murder anyone, but he’ll sell some drugs if he has to. If that’s what it takes to prove he’s not with the cops. If they’ll let him go. They’re not dumb enough to let a potential Fed know when and where they’re doing bid’nuss. But they do have a rival. Kingpin brotherman says, “You blow up their lab, and you can go on to whatever bullshit you think you need to do.”
Hijinks ensue. Shawn and some goons go with him. Explosions are had. Adrenaline is pumped. Shots are fired, but no one’s hurt.
They let him go. They even give him the keys to the old jalopy in the backyard. Brakes are near shot, and he’ll have to stop and dump water in the radiator every half hour or so, but it’ll get him there. It should, anyway. He still owes Shawn for the ride this far. Now he owes for the car, too. And the food he’s eaten since he’s been here. They know where he lives, so he better pay up as soon as he can.
BobbySue’s sad to see him go. It’s strange to have someone care that he’s leaving.
It’s Saturday morning by the time he makes it to Chitown. The radiator wasn’t as bad as they said it would be, but the radio didn’t work worth a damn, so he’s had too many hours to sit and think about what he’s doing. He stumbles across a branch of his bank, goes in and gets a temporary debit card. Bank manager almost throws him out cause he’s looking so rough. Tristan has to explain that it’s been a hard week without any money. Imagine his face without stubble. The signatures match. The pin number matches. “Just give me my fucking money. Please.”
Lookit him sticking up for himself like he’s worth something.
He finds a hotel room fit for a really poor, down and out king. He showers and changes clothes. He catches a glance of himself in the mirror and doesn’t recognize this guy. This younger version of himself, and he thinks maybe a beard is worth trying on for a while. It’s too late to catch Whatsherface at poetry night, but he made it all the way to Chicago, he might as well see the sights. Enjoy his impromptu vacation.
He might as well go at least see The Dive In, too. Complete the journey just so he can say he followed through with something for once.
The place is a shrine to hipsterdom. It reminds him of Whatsherface’s old apartment in a remodeled factory looking out over a dammed river. He orders a drink. He orders another. He starts to forget himself a little and remembers a version of himself that was once pretty good at making small talk with strangers. He tells a joke or three, and people laugh. They may not stay and make him their new best friend, but they’re nice enough. They don’t seem to mind the fact that he’s taking up space. He’s earned it with his positive attitude.
And then she walks in. He’s flabbergasted. He hides. He doesn’t come out of the shadow till she’s found her booth with her husband and friends. He spies on them from across the bar. A potential bar buddy, yet another to whom Tristan’s told his tale (this time leaving out some bits and putting a light little spin on things, self-deprecating and ironic), this new pal says something like, “Go get her!” not understanding that she’s married and Tristan’s a crazy person stalker man. This encouragement has him standing and facing her before he realizes what he’s doing. He’s taking a step toward her. Another. Getting dizzier/giddier by the second.
And then his phone rings. It’s Shawn. They’re excited (probably tweaking), and Tristan catches them in mid sentence “…in Chicago! I totally forgot!” Shawn apparently wasn’t kidding about being the literary sort. Has friends in the writing community as far away as Chicago. Filmmakers, even. Shawn told them about his story, says they’d love to meet him! Any friend of Shawn’s is a friend of theirs, they say. How cool is that?
While Tristan’s on the phone, while he’s trying to keep up with this tweaker friend’s rantings, he catch’s Whatsherface’s eye. He’s still standing in the middle of the bar. He’s right there facing her. Her joviality disappears. He thinks she might be freaked out (it is pretty freaky). He thinks maybe her husband and friends are turning to see what freaked her out. But then Shawn mentions a restaurant just down the street from where he’s standing. Tristan suddenly has a destination. He has people to see who are expecting him. Whatsherface has been beholden, and Tristan realizes he doesn’t really need anything more than that. He doesn’t want to talk to her. Doesn’t want anything from her at all.
He gives her a small wave before turning for the door and stepping into a new story.