Harry didn’t know a lot of people. He didn’t like a lot of people, either, or so he told himself. He spent his time in his basement room growing up and fat. Upstairs, everything moved on. His mother boiled crab on the stove. His brother handed his Little League plaques to his dad up on the ladder for hanging. His mom put groceries away, his brother did push-ups, his dad fixed a chair. His mom lay on the bed in a cheap mink coat to seduce her husband. Everything happened above him, a so-called functioning family. The uncanny valley, a pretend life. Harry just did nothing, practicing the art of waiting too long. He sat in the dark of his room watching reruns on cable, all alone, eating junk food until he fell asleep.
He only had one friend. His name was Dave, and he liked to listen to Bob Dylan and wear his favorite red fedora when he and Harry went to work at the local strip mall movie theater. Dave was better at being a person than Harry, but their love of Call of Duty and sweet and sour chicken kept them as equals. After six-hour shifts scooping handfuls from the popcorn machine and ripping tickets with buttery fingers, they enjoyed each other’s company leaning against Dave’s car parked outside of Harry’s parents’ house, smoking cigarettes and talking about music. Dave made Harry get in the car one night and he drove him to a punk house in a part of the city Harry had never been before.
Harry didn’t like the feel of fresh air on his skin. A strange sensation; a waft of familiar smells and sounds from his childhood came over him—lilac in the front yard and faint mothballs from the open door of his neighbor’s house, the sound of grasshoppers clicking like live fences under a purple sky. He didn’t want to be here nor anywhere in the world other than downstairs. He was stubborn; he was someone who would hammer a puzzle together. But he allowed Dave to lead him to the show. The smoke, beer, and damp air inside the punk house felt good. He eased into himself like a pacifier in an upset baby’s mouth.
Harry walked in the house, noticeable in size compared to a thin chalk outline spray-painted on the door behind him. It was the coolest place he’d ever been to in his dull life. He wasn’t in a band like everyone else and he wasn’t good looking. His certain aura exuded that of a poor soul, a school-shooter type that most people shied away from because they weren’t sure what he’d do to them. It came out from his eyes, beady and small, with little irises and pinpoint pupils.
He was young and then he was old, forever downstairs. He was seven and he didn’t know how babies were made, and then he was twenty-two and he had never even tried. He listened to his parents playing in their room and then having sex. He watched Family Feud alone down below, lying to himself about the comfort of solitude. His parents asked him what he was doing with his life, when he would clean himself up, shave, leave his bedroom in the basement, find his own place, and find a nice girl.
They closed the dirty front door behind them, where one half of a happy birthday banner was pinned to the chipped molding. A group of people was sitting on a little couch, some leaning over one another to talk while others sunk quietly into the cushions, eyes glazed over, sucking on a dying joint or carving holes into empty beer cans with pocket knives. String lights dipped above their heads from little hooks on the graffitied walls next to miscellaneous pieces of art—collages of street stickers, amateur paint jobs of half-naked, bug-eyed women, and scribblings of pentagrams and 666s on lime green poster board. Hand-beaded necklaces with broken doll legs and torsos hung from the smoke detector above the large TV that was playing anime on mute, or so it seemed; loud music blasted through door to the basement steps where the words “If I ever never, I’ll never after all” were spray painted.
He was innocent compared to other dudes that were hiding something deep down, something violent. He just wanted to find a friend and he did so with his cigarette sharing, breeching the wall that was put up by his creepy stare. Over the night, the walls came down. He got drunker and felt that overwhelming special feeling that came over everyone when they walked through the front door. It was mostly from the cheap malt-liquor bought from a DIY guy in the backyard. He was transported into a pseudo-welcoming environment that claimed to accept all types of people—punks, quiets, roaming nobodies. He accepted everything that was offered to him. He said thank you every time.
Harry saw the girl with blond, pixie-cut hair with purple tips standing alone, or looking lonely, in the kitchen. He watched her walk to the back yard and he didn’t stop watching or imagining her. She was kind of perfect. She stood in all black against a brick wall with a pink and yellow spray-painted mural.
In the backyard under a dark muted sky, he talked to tall boys with shaved heads and jeans rolled to their ankles. Some of them wore beanies, others faded baseball caps. He smoked cigarettes with other long-haired guys. Harry noticed how dirty they all were, like a trend, and thought could be that. He had been that. He liked the way the grease in their hair reflected the colorful lights in the hallway as they walked inside. He watched as one of them lay his cigarette flat on the back of his hand, flung it in the air as he hit his forearm, and caught the butt between his teeth. Everyone cheered until someone, a freight-train folk-punk bandit, pulled out his acoustic guitar covered in writing that etched around various sized holes in the body. Harry sat on the mattress in the middle of a bedroom at the end of the hall and watched Dave listen to the music because he knew his friend liked folk.
The guy sang a song about a girl. An elaborate love epic that took place around a dinner table full of warm platters and two emptying plates. She had long hair and blue eyes, but Harry pictured it differently as the bandit sang and as the girl walked through the back door, through the room, and down the hall.
He loved some little honey with eyes that looked so blue. She drank his whiskey from a bottle that was meant to be for two. But he loved her just the same. It wasn’t meant to be that way. A good fella with a bad girl, at the end of the day.
Leaning back and looking down the narrow hallway from the mattress, he noticed how small she was from a distance. Pulled from the song echoing in the tiny back room, he watched her squeezing past people of all sizes, most of them tall thin men with 24-ounce Coronas in their hands. He watched them watch her from above, pressing themselves into the wall while stretching their pelvises ever so slightly forward to get a nice graze. She stood at the fridge, leaning with her back to him. He wanted to share a table for two with her always, or a whole room. He was nervous for himself. He wasn’t sure how he’d fit through the kitchen.
He kept his head down, hoping not to step on anyone’s toes, especially hers, as he passed. He built himself up to say hello but passed her without a word. He just stared at her blond hair now pink under the string lights. He heard a loud banging sound and an even louder cheer from everyone in the living room when he emerged in to the kitchen. He snapped his head up to see a young, thin guy walk in with a cigarette in his mouth, holding two black plastic bags and a notebook tucked under his arm. He was greeted with hugs and low hand slaps from friends on the couch. The last Harry saw before slouching down the stairs was the guy pulling from his denim jacket pocket a very small bag with what Harry assumed to be, for his first time seeing it, coke. Harry continued walking to wherever he was led to by whoever was leading.
It was humid in the basement. The room was diffused with sweat, body heat, and the overwhelming smell of beer belches that radiated off the walls. The loud music and low ceilings oppressed the little oxygen in the long and narrow room. With every step down the stairs, Harry submerged in what he imagined an airplane would feel like rising into the sky without a pressurized cabin. But no one else seemed to notice. Everyone went on to the crowd, adding a peak to the mountains of shadow in front of the tiny stage, launching themselves into any crevice they could to get in the sweet spot where the soundwaves from the two amplifiers converged.
He found himself sitting on the washing machine in the quietest back corner of the basement having a real conversation with a girl, some punk girl with a half-shaven head, for the first time in his life, plus two other guys dressed in jumpsuits doing coke on a copy of an ancient AP Lit textbook. He watched as they split the lines with a debit card, memorizing the sixteen digits and security code without intention. He saw Dave in the corner, making flirtatious small talk with a girl in a hoodie over the sound of the band. Dave was a better human, Harry thought. Fuck it. He tapped one of the jumpsuit guys on the shoulder.
It was dark, but his eyes adjusted fine. He answered the girl’s questions about his part-time job and listened to her stories about her own band and her college friend who lives upstairs, watching her tongue piercing appear at every vowel. It was black, shiny, and covered in her spit. He imagined it washing around in his mouth. He looked at this girl’s lips, never noticing the pixie-cut girl walking down the stairs.
Harry remembered seeing a girl getting off on top of a washing machine from a TV show. She was sitting on it next to him, bending over the textbook and dirty thoughts flew through his mind. Her pierced face, her cropped black hair, her presumably punk look was like an award, something he wanted to show off, to have when the night was over. He forgot about the other girl and remembered a mink coat, a noise in the room above, a stained search history, a fuck. A punk became a research project until Dave whispered in his ear that she looked like she was in high school. Harry claimed he wasn’t even thinking about that.
He and the girl moved into the crowd. A few wall huggers like Harry watched as everyone clung to the music; they ate up the song. It was a kind of cigarette-smoking, Joan-Jett-Bad-Rep-feel-good song. He saw her with the short purple hair standing in the middle of the room, hesitating against the thrashing crowd. He saw how the crowd felt special listening to it like it was their own and it made them beautiful. He couldn’t stop smiling. He looked down to see his shoes and found his belly in the way and then a hand with painted fingernails holding up a textbook under his nose with a thin line for him. He took too much.
Harry looked up, found her eyes, and decided he should offer her a cigarette after the set. He was beaming on high and didn’t register the flush in his cheeks when she gave him a small crooked smile and turned away to focus on the band again. The tips of her hair looked black in the dark basement. He clung to the wall, sticky and wet. He wiped his nose, gulped down the bitter numbness and absorbed the moisture from the air.
The comfort disappeared a little.
The set wasn’t over. The band was launched into an overwhelming instrumental rampage, but the timing was better than ever. He held out a pack of cigarettes to her, mouthing a question over the sound. She smiled, shook her head and looked forward again.
He watched the people in the crowd, some dancing short side-to-sides, others pumping themselves up for a growing mosh in the center. The girl from the washing machine left his side to push through the crowd, knocking against the other girl with pink tips. She stumbled but fixed herself upright. She whispered something to her friend, looking upset, turned around, and left the basement.
He joined the mosh pit. His size gave him a great advantage; most people weren’t afraid to slam into him, and he didn’t feel any pain. The punk girl jumped next to him, pushed him a little with a flirtatious smile on her face. She looked small, her black hair and clothes dissolving into the dark. He felt tall. He’d never been here before but somehow everything was where it had always been. A foggy, angsty room filled with noise, sludge, and darkness.
He shared the last two cigarettes with the punk girl back on the washing machine after the set. She talked and didn’t stop until she said she was tired and jumped off. She said goodnight, gave him a wink and walked up the stairs, revealing a sliver of the back of her upper thigh from under her skirt as she went higher.
The basement fell quiet, besides her clonking boots and a beer can falling from an overflowing trash can. It bounced on the wet cement, landing below his feet. He looked at it, wanting it to keep moving. He reached his leg down from the washing machine to kick it, pointing his toes, but it couldn’t reach. No matter how much he stretched, he couldn’t get there, and the silence approached him. His head swam as the room grew bigger and the floor moved far away, taking the aluminum can with it. He felt too tall. He remembered standing at home at the bathroom sink and realizing he was farther from it than he used to be. It was quiet in the rest of the house. His mom was at the store. His brother was playing a baseball game. His dad was in the crowd.
Procrastination is the art of keeping up with everything you hate about yourself. He felt himself slipping, reaching, falling away from everything that had ever been important. He chose wrong, he chose hard. He failed at it again, getting her, getting lost, and finding a way back to lilac and mothballs. He wanted to go home, to a valley, to make it less strange again.