Originally posted on October 16, 2017, “Free to Wear Sunscreen” is Andrew Brown’s last night in Italy where he must confront a past he’s avoided for too long, a past that might break him apart from his best friend Pete Goodman.
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I staggered into the single, unisex bathroom ready to float away on the Arno in my drunken mirth. It was our last dinner on our last night. And I was finally content – finally – with Ant, Pete, with myself, with all of it. For once, I smiled in the mirror, I felt like I was ahead of the curve. Before I heard a stirring whimper behind me.
I turned to the craned back heaving over the edge of the toilet seat, spindly arms shaking, her whole frail frame shaking, meek face in between. It was Becky. I didn’t even notice her when I walked in.
And I stood stuck like a stroke in a place I knew existed but could never fathom, the difference between knowing about and experiencing, the difference between staying young and growing up. So lost in her own sickness, in not eating, in sticking her finger down her throat, she looked like an exhibit in the Museum of Natural History.
Old me would’ve beat out of there, for sure, pretended like nothing happened. And I wouldn’t have even thought twice about the girl I used to copy homework from and then complain to Pete when I got stuck talking to her at parties.
Things certainly have changed, I thought as I lifted her up on the sink. She hadn’t said anything yet, only looked back at me with those bug eyes like an emaciated Ethiopian child. She might as well have been one.
There were no words. I simply wiped the gelatinous bile off her face and perked up her blouse that didn’t fit properly because it wasn’t a junior size and she was shaking so hard I did the only thing I could think of: I hugged her.
And then she spoke.
“When we’re back,” a soft, resigned whisper in my ear said, “I’ll be in the hospital. That’s why,” she paused, “that’s why I’m out of school sometimes. But I’m sure you already knew that.” She leaned back and smiled a faint, morose smile.
I swallowed grimly in acknowledgment. But I didn’t know. As much as I thought I knew about her, about all of them, I didn’t. I didn’t know anything at all. And I wanted to scream out and curse humanity then, take up to a hillside and flog myself like I was John in a Brave New World. I guess I was, seeing firsthand how superficial, how secondary most of our struggles were in comparison to hers. I tried to choke away the tears, but, long saved, their surplus was bursting. I started to cry.
“It’s,” I sobbed, “it’s just not fair sometimes.”
“Nothing is” – she wiped my face off as I had hers, her feet reaching for the floor – “nothing ever is.”
How could I be so mean to people whose only transgression was living? To her especially, the one who sang to me, the only one who cared, the one…
“Hey, Andrew! Hey!” – those bulbous eyes, immovable, compassionate, on me; I looked into them – “There you are, that person I always knew you were. It’ll be all right, I promise it will, okay? You ready? Before Ms. Benevo comes looking for us.”
I sniffled out a laugh. “Yeah, I think so.”
She took my hand like a child takes a parent’s, and we went back to the table, back to the stares of our peers who had never cared enough to understand the problem – just enough to make fun of it. Mo and the cheer squad flashed their eyes and crouched their heads. Candace played with her nose ring. Tommy leaned over to Lilly, said something that made her slap his arm in reproach. And they knew like Ant knew when she looked at me. They all did.
Ms. Benevo was sitting there too, as far away from Pete as the table would allow. She was probably the only one who didn’t acknowledge us, too busy talking up Fr. Bagnani and this no name sophomore from his UNO game. And her head was back and her wine was swirling and she was touching her chest and laughing and laughing like it’s just them and no one else, but it wasn’t. It was me too, and I saw – in the flit of her eye, in the curve of her mouth – what she wanted me to see, that ameliorated sneer like she was reminding, even after everything I did to her, that she wasn’t beat, not yet.
And I didn’t get it until now, back in our hotel amid the cacophony of Lilly’s parceling out advice – “Pete, It’ll be all right, trust me. I’ve had my fair share of bad break ups” and I’m sure she has – and Candace assenting to everything Lilly says – “Like, it will, it so will” – that that’s how it starts. Off Pete, she’s on to the next.
“Good, then that’s settled.” The top girl in the school dances over to the kitchen table and comes back with the shot glasses she bought all of us on the street today and a bottle of Grey Goose that’s been sitting out for days. “To Italy.”
“To Italy,” we declare in unison.
“For real, man, don’t forget it.”
“To us,” Ant whispers in my ear. She squeezes my hand.
“Forever.” I squeeze hers back. Three times.
Down, up, and back down again, they’re drained begrudgingly and followed by another and another after that until we’re all drunk and gay again, having the time of our lives, couldn’t be happier – Pete couldn’t be happier. And he looks it too, a crooning Mick Jagger to Tommy’s air-guitaring Keith Richards:
I’ll tell you you can put me out on the street
Put me out with no shoes on my feet
But, put me out, put me out of misery
Pete holds the air microphone to my face. The performer, he’s got that classic bravado he had in jazz band back in the day, when he’d solo way past Ms. Merritt’s cut-off because he heard something she couldn’t. It’s a memory as distant as our punk rock days, one I’ve longed to return to.
All your sickness, I can suck it up
Throw it all at me I can shrug it off
There’s one thing baby I don’t understand
You keep on telling me I ain’t your kinda man
Me and Ms. Benevo.
Pete was right then. I had wanted to change it, erase it, but no matter how much I took from her, it didn’t give me what I could never have again – my childhood.
If he only knew, I think. He will, I answer. I’m going to tell him everything – maybe not tonight, but I’m going to tell him. And then I’m going to do what I should’ve done from the beginning – talk to Fr. Bagnani, not just about Pete and her, but about me and her too. Because this can’t keep happening, to another one like that no name sophomore like I was – the nightmares I tried to forget, rationalizing them, blaming myself for the stories I never told. And I can’t avoid the ones already written. Anymore.
That I miss you needy look from Ant again. I flop down next to her on the loveseat. She slinks into the crook between my shoulder and chest. I kiss her forehead. She points at Pete who’s just about finished his set.
“Looks like he’s back to normal.”
“He’s getting there,” I say, looking past his grin to his grim eyes where the truth lies. I’ve gotten by all these years behind a smile that’s hidden how I really felt because no one thought to look into mine. He’s hurting, all alone without her, without anyone to understand him, like I was. Except now he does have someone.
Ant lays her legs across mine. It reminds me of how we used to sit watching Love Actually in her living room when her brothers weren’t home. Those are the memories I can get lost in like the hours that have a tendency to go unaccounted for when you’re drinking straight vodka.
How much time’s passed, I’m not sure on the balcony now feeling so miniscule under this tremendous sky. My cigarette flickers like fireflies mimicking the constellations.
Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97, wear sunscreen…
“Lilly, oh my God, oh my God! Do remember how many times we played this?”
“We broke the cassette we listened to it so much!”
Draped in a sheet to stave off the chill she can never shake, Becky, practically an apparition, takes her closest friend’s hand and they start reenacting their childish dance number – children all over again.
“Like, what is this Lilly? I love this song!”
“Seriously? The songinRomeoandJuliet?”
Lilly’s lips can’t grab another cigarette quick enough. “It’s Baz Luhrmann. ‘Everybody’s Free’ it’s called.”
Becky rolls her eyes. “The famous playwright, Tommy. You know, the guy who did Moulin Rouge.”
Typically, he’s not paying attention, having lost his focus, too taken by Marie’s thong that’s resting above her backside’s crack. She catches him and slaps his face playfully. He tries to wrap his arms around her waist and bring her to him, but she pulls back. Candace’s rueful glare is palpable although she pretends not to notice. They’ve all played this game before.
Don’t worry about the future, or worry
But know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum
Lilly and Becky are still turning their impressionistic, bawdy turns, and Ant’s giggling and I’m giggling because they look completely ridiculous dancing around and not caring who’s watching them, in their own worlds.
Not Tommy, though. His face is getting longer and longer as Marie slogs on about where she’s going to college and how it’s going to be the best time of her life, of our lives.
“What’stheBIGDEAL, Tommy? YoustillhavePLENTY’a time.”
His usually tranquil tone can’t hide the hostility that betrays it with an emotional crack, “Man! It makes a big deal if you don’t know what you wanna do with your life.”
Marie stops laughing at the sobering realization that while attending college isn’t a question for her, it is for someone like Tommy whose grades barely ensure he can walk at graduation let alone get into college. It isn’t necessarily a guarantee. Nothing is
Copyright (C) 2018 Andrew Chapin