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His name was Jerry, or maybe it was really Jeremy that was typed out in neat block letters on his birth certificate, but he liked to think his friends called him Jerry. Sometimes he questioned whether he actually had friends, when he had had eight-nine-ten shots of good strong scotch, (they eventually blurred together). His perception of the spider-web thin line between reality and fantasy was so completely screwed up. Were the boisterous college frat boys that knocked on his door, (every other night consistently, although their visits dwindled during the holidays), really his heart-and-soul compadres, or were they merely showing up because he had enough cash on him to pay for the next round of drinks? He could never remember come morning; the piercing pain in his skull would be too agonizing. Blasted hangovers. More often than not, he staggered out of the filthy bed sheets a little past ten, greeted his haggard expression in the mirror and then proceeded to pop a couple of Advil into his mouth, hoping sleep would be kind enough to take him into its arms again.
He celebrated Fridays gazing out at the blazing towers (bright lights, big city) of New York City, the Big Apple, badabing badaboom, inhaling the smog and chilly air out on his balcony while taxis whizzed by below his apartment in a blur of canary yellow. Sometimes he would stand out there in subzero temperatures wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and a holey bathrobe, and then stay out until his fingertips turned blue. He took the resulting hypothermia as a sign that he was still perfectly alive. How unfortunate.
Occasionally it occurred to him that the miniscule people swirling around on the sidewalk below would have a perfect view of him dressed in little more than his underwear, but the fact ceased to bother him after a while. What did it matter what they thought, in any case? He would be a flitting thought in their brains, and then they would go home to their families and have to go grocery shopping or do the laundry or fix the leaky roof. He was a blip on the radar.
He mused that it hadn’t always been this way. His parents had high hopes for him once. Heck, he had high hopes for himself once. Straight A’s came easily to him; little to no effort on his part was required all the way up through high school. He aced honors class after AP class, and gathered up a formidable stack of recommendation letters for college. He could have gone on to the Ivy League. His old buddy, whatshisname, (Brian, Buford, Brad? He couldn’t remember now, although the boy had been so important to him back then, a million light-years ago) enthusiastically declared that Jerry Walters (for that was his last name) could have gone on to become the president of the United States of America if he put his mind to it. Except Jerry had retorted that he was never going to get crooked enough to be a politician.
Which he didn’t. Go crooked, that is. In fact, his one true fault was that he was too honest about himself. Not too many would willingly do the bathrobe-and-underpants-on-the-open-balcony deal, for example. He also said exactly what he wanted, what he felt, what he thought about pepper jack cheese and his Uncle Tom (who thought it was hilarious to chase his nephew around all the time, because hey, Tom and Jerry!). That had been The Problem. He walked into those rooms of overly educated, overly competitive, college=job=money=success=happiness kids one day, practically mouth breathing over their Harvard prep workbooks and SAT prep manuals, and felt sick to his stomach. What was the point of it all, he wondered? Was he the exception to the formula for happiness? Could he not be satisfied with a major in business and living in a dorm with a possibly annoying roommate and getting fat off a college diet? So he had packed his bags and got a cheap place of his own with a view, and decided to wait it out there while he decided what the hell to do with his life.
On Tuesday, he was lounging back on the loveseat (made for two, used by one, how lonely) in the living room, starting off the evening easy with a bottle of light Budweiser clutched in his right hand. The only clock he owned was cracked down the middle but told time fine; it was hung over the TV in the living room and announced 7:05 P.M. That was when the knock on the door came.
He spent half a minute deliberating whether or not to open it. On one hand, the only people who ever rang his doorbell were the aforementioned drunken frat boys and the occasional salesman. He had no desire to see either of the above. On the other hand…the mystery person was knocking again now, more impatiently and more brutally. He sighed and heaved himself out of the cushions and onto his unsteady feet.
To his great surprise, the person who stood in his doorway was neither male nor intoxicated. She was a small-boned, slightly angry looking (although this could be due to the prolonged wait at the door) seventeen-year-old in raggedy green hi-tops and her hair (probably dyed, because that shade of gothic black belonged only to Wonder woman) pulled back in a ponytail shaped like a Kush-ball. She was strangling an official-looking clipboard between her fingers. “Good evening, sir,” she drawled in an excessively bored alto. “I’m doing a survey and petition on behalf of—” She suddenly cut herself off and gave him a double-take, staring at him with her eyeliner-ringed eyes. “You feeling alright, sir?” she asked with genuine concern in her voice.
Jerry blinked his bloodshot eyes in confusion. “Am I….feeling alright?” he echoed uncertainly. He noted on a side how odd but strangely satisfying it felt to be called “sir”.
Petition Girl made an impatient tut-tut sound with her tongue, accompanied by the telltale jingle of a tongue ring. “You live alone?”
Jerry blinked at her again.
Petition Girl sighed. “I’ll take that as a yes.” Without further ado, she swung open his screen door without invitation, marched past him into his house, and looked around inquiringly. “Where’s your kitchen? Let’s get you some coffee.”
Jerry was not yet drunk enough to take to strangers immediately. He carefully shut his door behind him and opened his mouth intending to give the girl a piece of his mind. He ended up falling over onto his knees as his body gave a few feeble spasms and he vomited up all the greasy Chinese takeout he had been eating for dinner the past week. When he was done, he rolled over to press his sweating forehead against the cool wood floor, moaning like a child. Petition Girl was suddenly bending over him, close enough so he could count the lopsided freckles on her nose. “God, you’re a mess,” she muttered to herself, shaking her head in pity at him. The fluorescent lighting was making her glow softly around the edges. Like a crazy radioactive ghoul. Like an angel. He giggled a little, sounding hysterical.
For some reason, that made the girl smirk. “I’m Alice, by the way,” she informed him, chuckling to herself. He could see nothing comical about the situation. “Just Alice for now. I’ll get you cleaned up.”
She was true to her word. In fifteen minutes she somehow managed to hoist his flailing body onto the couch and mop up the vomit on the floor without so much as batting an eyelash. Then she threw a slightly scratchy fleece blanket over him and propped his head up on a cushion.When she was done, she sat down cross-legged on the floor so that her face was easily in his line of sight. “How old are you?” she asked matter-of-factly.
Jerry was feeling a little ridiculous at that point. He wondered if this was one of his drinking dreams. Here was a total stranger who had just cleaned up his vomit, and was now sitting on his floor trying to hold a conversation without so much as a hint of utter repulsion. That was what his parents had reacted with, when they had seen him in one of his states. That had been a night full of pot-banging furniture-throwing madness.
“I’m twenty-three,” he said finally. He realized that he was behaving with all the life-weariness of a much older man.
Alice didn’t pass judgment. She nodded in perfect understanding. “You want to talk about it?” was her next question. Jerry was taken by ambush by that one. He was so flabbergasted that he had to lie there in silence for a moment searching for an honest answer.
“Not especially, actually,” he finally decided. “I’d probably bore you. I haven’t had human company in a long time. Sober company, that is.”
Alice gave him a pitying expression again. “Well that really sucks, mate,” she expressed her verdict. “Sober company is usually the better brand.” She considered his sweaty white face. “I’m getting you a washcloth,” she decided, and got up to fetch one. He wondered when she had figured out where his bathroom was.
When she got back, Alice pushed back his mop of unruly brown hair and laid the cloth carefully across his forehead. “There,” she said in satisfaction. Jerry smiled in spite of himself.
“Why are you playing nursemaid for me? I don’t even know you,” he said.
“I’m Alice,” she corrected him stubbornly. “We’ve established that.”
He sighed and gave in to the possibility that random acts of kindness from strangers did, in fact, exist. “Alice in Wonderland,” he muttered.
She scowled. “I hate it when people make references to that.”
“Why? It’s a perfectly good story.”
“Yeah, sure, but I think I’ve outgrown Wonderland,” she insisted. “I mean, obviously reality is much more important. Carpe diem, my friend.”
Jerry weighed this point of view. “But don’t you have dreams? You know, flying bunny rabbits and hookah-smoking caterpillars aside, we’ve all got goals.”
“There’s no flying rabbit in that story, first of all.” She smiled slightly. “But goals are goals, and Wonderland is something else entirely. I think maybe you should take a leaf out of my book, and get your head out of the clouds. Drinking’s fine occasionally, but really, what’s the use sulking in your apartment all day? There’s things to do, people to see out there. I’m sure your family misses the real you.”
“What’s the point in the end? S*** happens and then we die. Ever heard of that philosophy?”
Alice arched her darkened eyebrows, one of which was interrupted by a silver piercing. “Yeah, but you can’t spend all your time in the bathroom. There’s other rooms in the house too.”
She shook her head. “Never mind.”
They sat around like that in his living room for at least an hour, occasionally exchanging a few meaningless words (they did discuss a new indie album which had fascinated both of them, and he found out she was a dropout of sorts) and more often just listening to the awkward sound of their own breathing. The clock progressed past 9:46 P.M. Jerry could feel his head lolling on his neck; he wanted very badly to pass into sleep but found it extremely disconcerting with Alice sitting two feet from his head.
“You never told me your name,” she mused into the silence. “I probably should have asked that first. Or whether you were a rapist. That would have been an important question to ask too.”
Jerry laughed but the sound was more like a gurgle from all the mucus clogging his throat. “It’s Jerry.”
Alice quirked her lip. “Jerry like Tom and Jerry?” she teased.
Jerry scowled this time. “Now it’s my turn to hate the reference.”
Alice hopped abruptly onto her feet and tapped her toes with a hollow sound on the floor. Jerry was seized by a sudden, inexplicable panic that she was going to fly out of his apartment as suddenly as she had flown in, and he was never going to see the girl again. He had to restrain himself from sitting up, knowing that it would have probably made him vomit again.
“I should probably get going,” she yawned, stretching out her hands and picking up her forgotten survey clipboard off the coffee table. “You going to be okay now?”
Jerry forced himself to nod against the pillow. “I….don’t really know what to say now,” he admitted. “Does ‘thanks’ cut it?”
Alice nibbled on her pinky nail. “Actually, I think this is the part where I ask you to lunch tomorrow and you say ‘definitely’.”
Jerry could feel his alcohol-filled blood whooshing through his veins, and suddenly realized with absolute amazement that he was enjoying himself. He was really, truly enjoying himself, there in the company of that strange girl named Alice. So he held out his hand for her to shake, and said, “Definitely.”