Bad At Math

in story •  6 months ago 


At first it all felt very right, which should've been a sure sign that things were about to go wrong. The music was loud and truly awful, but it felt good to Eric and everyone around him looked like they agreed.

They were all at Jason Shoenberg's house. Jason, Eric, and a girl named Mandy were in a band called Hobgoblin Picinic. Perhaps it was more accurate to say they were just a bunch of kids who'd invited the entire sophomore class over to hear them murder some instruments.

Jason played drums and Eric busted up a bass guitar. Mandy played lead guitar and screeched the vocals. When she was in the mood, she took off some clothes. Jason had made sure to break into his mom's ample liquor supply to put Mandy in the mood.

They were all in the basement, where it was hellfire hot even in the winter, thanks to a massive iron coal furnace that had been converted to oil heat and still flamed at the bottom. A bunch of kids sat on the basement steps as if they were bleachers. The rest were getting smashed upstairs, where they could hear the Picnic just fine.

The band had just finished "Goody Two Cats" and Eric wanted to mingle a little. He found his friend Jamison and gave him the guitar. Jamison didn't know the songs, but it's not as though that really mattered. Eric pushed his way up the stairs and emerged in the kitchen. That's where he saw her and he took a turn into uncharted territory.

Lauren was the kind of girl who was beautiful because she never smiled, because a guy wanted to do something - anything - to make her laugh. Then he could feel like the only one capable of such a feat. One thing could lead to another that way.

Her hair was long and wavy and she wore a Red Sox cap and a blue denim jacket sewn full of band patches. The mug in her hands featured Christmas angels and was for some reason about twice the size of a regular mug. She dipped it into the bowl on the kitchen table and scooped up enough punch and rum to take a bath in.

There were a lot of guys there talking to her. While Eric thought up a line to drop, she beat him to it.

"Hey, you play bass, right?" she said.

This wasn't the first time someone had recognized him from the band, which always surprised him. The Hobgoblins, as they'd come to call themselves around school, had always made a point of crafting the worst possible music they could think of. Eric had never been a popular kid, but he had been noodling on the guitar since about the sixth grade when his grandmother, of all people, bought him an acoustic for his birthday.

When he got a job, he saved up for an electric bass because he was tall and took to wearing black trench coats and had this fantasy of rebranding himself the strong silent type who stayed at the back of the band. He spent a lot of time perfecting his technique, only to find it was better to just play hard and fast and loud - and most of all make sure your lyrics were funny.

It may have helped that no one recognized Eric before the band. He and the others were just a bunch of art class geeks who dreamed up the project one afternoon and went with it.

It's was Jason's idea first, of course. He'd started smoking weed that summer and Eric noticed how his friend sometimes walked with a strut he'd never had before. It wasn't long before Eric got a taste of it. You couldn't be embarrassed when you played. You had to act like you didn't care. Then, as if by magic, a lanky kid with few skills and fewer looks became a rock god within the confines of his little high school.

"Yeah," he said. "You like it?"

"I like the one you just played - goody two cats? How does that one go?"

Eric sang the first stanza.

"A naughty seagull nestled somewhere in time

"A sad smelly foot - no warnings, no signs

"Judgement day and Goody Two Cats arrive

"Sooner or later they'll all commit crimes."

Lauren snickered. Her smile was lined by perfect white teeth. She looked down as she laughed and then up, her eyes meeting his. The smile turned to a sheepish grin that was also more than a little drunk. Eric asked if she'd like get some fresh air and she agreed. They found themselves outside by the van he'd bought for a hundred bucks a junkyard. His dad had gotten it running for him and the band had painted "Hobgoblin Picnic" on it, complete with a rather poorly drawn landscape scene.

"What's that supposed to be?" said Lauren.

"Well those are mountains and this is a lake. Those down there are supposed to be the Hobgoblins."

"It's awful."

"It suits us." he said.

She laughed again. Eric leaned against the side of the van and took a long look at Lauren. He’d had a crush on her since about the time he'd noticed she had breasts. Then again, he'd had a crush on a lot of girls. There was something different about Lauren, however. She was more than just a pretty girl. The thought of being with her made him feel good about himself.

When you're just a regular teen you can think all you want about actresses and models - or for that matter the Channel 4 weather girl, who was hotter than anyone Eric had ever seen - but you'd never convince yourself it was more than just a fantasy. That was okay.

But Lauren was real and here. Eric saw the their reflection in the side mirror and thought they looked like a matching couple. Maybe he'd ask her to join the band, or hell, form a new one with him. If he could get a picture of the mirror and their reflection it would make a good album cover.

“You here with anyone?” Eric said.

“I'm here with everyone it seems.” She shrugged. “And no one. I almost didn't come. I don't like it after awhile, when boys start touching me.”

“Sorry about that.”

“Not you, silly.” She smiled again - wow it was happening a lot now - and gave him a gentle nudge with a fist. “I like you.”

“You want a ride in our Goblin Patrol car?”

She nodded and tried to climb into the passenger side, but slipped, smashing the handle off the Christmas mug and spilling most of its contents. Maybe she was more drunk than she looked. Eric helped her in and then he assumed the position behind the wheel. She lolled her head at him and regarded him with hooded eyes. Eric started the engine and blasted the heat.

“Feels good.” she said, removing the denim jacket.

As she pulled it off her arms, she thrust her chest forward. Eric tried to watch from the corner of his eye, even tried to replay it in slow mo in his mind. The tire bumped the curb. Eric's grip on the wheel was a bit wobbly. Guess he was more drunk than he thought too. He kept repeating to himself that all he had to do was focus, focus, focus. He would be fine.

“How long have you been playing?” said Lauren.

“Ever since I realized I wasn't good at anything else.” He said. “You know, I remember the exact moment I knew I wasn't gonna be a regular kid, whatever that means…”

Eric took a long cold breath. He could feel his heart beating faster. Sure, he was excited just to be alone with Lauren, to say nothing of the real possibility he might actually get her pants off. But he'd also toked up before the concert and was still feeling it. He knew that once he started talking, the words would pulse from his mouth like gunfire. He didn't care much.

“My dad was giving me a hard time about my math homework.” he said. “Told me I wasn't going to be good at anything. And I said yeah, I won't, so why bother? I mean, I knew he wasn't gonna take that answer. He shamed me every chance he got and that's what used to make me do what he wanted. But then I thought - what's harder? Being ashamed or killing myself trying to be something I'm not? My dad's still on my case about that stuff and he doesn't get why it won't work anymore. I'm kind of okay with feeling bad sometimes that I'm so dumb. I'm just dumb. Gotta accept it. Move on and spend more time making music, do you know what I mean?”

“Jesus, that's really deep Eric.” she said. Then she leaned over and pressed her body against his. She bit his earlobe with her lips, which were a little dry but her breath was warm and damp. “I don't think you're dumb at all.”

Eric pulled into the parking lot of a Star Market grocery store. In the back the hills went up sharply behind the loading dock. If you wanted to be out of the way, it was no use to go to a mall. They had security at all hours. But grocery stores were abandoned after ten. Lauren straddled Eric, pushing her crotch against his.

“I feel the same way sometimes.” she said. “My mom always used to say I wore too much makeup and that I was sexy but not pretty. What do you think?”

She lifted her tee shirt off. The engine was running and fog on the windshield obscured the trees on the hill. Eric placed his hand on her hips and moved them to the zipper. He sensed her pull back a little. Her finger tips gripped his shoulder in a way that felt more like hesitation than excitement. Then she relaxed and stood. She brushed aside his trenchcoat and reached for his zipper.

She seemed to fumble a bit, but she got him out and then straddled again. She leaned on his shoulder and for a moment she slowed down. Lauren was almost resting her head.

“Are you okay?” said Eric.

Her reply was muffled and her voice sounded almost sleepy. Perhaps the alcohol was slowing her down. Then she said something strange.

“Do you think the Sox should've traded Jim Rice?”

Eric didn't know much about baseball. What was going on? She slipped her hands under his shirt and ran her cold fingertips up his chest, mumbling something else about the Red Sox. He tightened a little and and she sensed his hesitation. She pulled back and gave him an angry look.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” she said. “Don't get me started if you don't want to keep going.”

Of course he wanted to do this, but even in his altered mind he had doubts that he should. He thought maybe there was some part of her resisting the experience, something peeking through and shouting “no, no!”

“Yeah.” he said. “You're beautiful. Beautiful and sexy.”

She smiled again. But it was wrong. Eric knew that. She pushed herself against him again and slowed again. This time her breathing slowed down and when Eric saw her eyes, they were shifting back and forth and visible only through narrow slits. He gently pushed her off and positioned her on the passenger seat.

“What's happening?” she said. “Just figure out you were gay?” Then a moment later, as if nothing before had happened, she propped herself up and opened her eyes. She looked down at her half naked body. “Eric? Eric?”

“Yeah?” he said as he zipped his pants and started in reverse.

“What's going on? Did we have sex?”

Her entire tone changed. And the smile was gone. In an instant she'd become a different person. Eric was actually a little scared. He didn't know what to say. He pulled into the street and made a swerving path down the middle of it.

“Where do you live?”

“I want to go back to the party.” she said.

He thought maybe he should bring her back. Why not? Then a battery hit him in the head. She'd opened the glove box and was pulling stuff out and screaming and throwing things at him. At last she got to the manual and tossed the whole book. He leaned forward to avoid it, pressing the gas pedal and careening through a red light.

He hit another car. Everything shook. For a moment, there was only silence and the world seemed to hang upside down. Eric saw that there was only one person in that car. A middle aged man stumbled out. He was fine, probably. Just fine.

Eric didn't think. He put the van in reverse and gunned it. He got the hell out of their. Lauren recited her address in a low and simmering voice. She walked to her house from the curb and he watched her go as she swayed.

He saw her around after that. She had a splint on her hand for a bit. Guess she hurt it in the accident. She looked at Eric once and he knew she blamed him. He felt the deepest shame ever, like nothing his father could do to him. He wanted so desperately to yell at her, to tell her it was her fault. But was it? He let it go.

After all, the only reason he'd brought her in the van was because it seemed like a good fit for the way life was going. It made sense for his story. But what did that have to do with her? Deeper than the her blame was his guilt over that. As with math, he somehow felt it better to just swallow that he was a jerk and hope that in some small way that made him less of a jerk.

image courtesy of pixabay

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