Boy Meets Boy

Page 22


Of course, this time Chuck comes along. He doesn't offer me the front seat. He takes it as if it's rightfully his.
Joni doesn't seem to notice.
So I sit in the backseat amidst the empty Fresh Samantha bottles (hers) and smashed Pepsi cans (his). I wonder when Joni stopped recycling in a prompt manner, and start to regret my voluntary passengerdom. The anger I feel towards Joni for sharing my thoughts with Chuck begins to reach the boiling point again. I vow to talk to her at the first moment I can catch her without him.
That moment never comes. They don't even take bathroom breaks from each other.
My testiness is a little offset once Tony jumps into the backseat with me; now I have someone to share glances with. The first glance—me wide-eyed, Tony's eyebrow raised—comes when Chuck hijacks the radio and blasts some Testosterone Rock, the kind of music best suited for “professional” wrestling compilations. The second glance—me squinting in disbelief, Tony looking to heaven—is prompted when Chuck starts to sing along and chastises us for not joining in. As if I know the lyrics to a song called “She's All Mouth.”
Joni doesn't sing along, either, but she makes a lame attempt at drumming on the steering wheel. At one point, she accidentally hits the horn, which cracks Chuck up.
“Nice toots,” he chuckles.
Third glance—me and Tony each pleading, Get us out of this car now.
We head to the local diner, the kind of place where you need a mob connection in order to get your song on the jukebox. The waitresses are perfectly lacquered, the waiters freshly slicked. The menu is the size of a wood plank and takes as long to read as the morning paper. Breakfast is always served, most of the time as dinner.
As we sit down in a booth, I see Joni's eyes briefly flash worry. It's the first non—Chuck-related reaction she's had since I got into her car. Or at least that's what I think at first. Soon I realize that all her reactions are Chuck-related in some way.
I turn and follow her gaze. I see Ted sitting three tables away with Jasmine Gupta. His back is to me, but when Jasmine sees me looking, she winks.
Kyle could take lessons from Jasmine—she'll fall for anybody, guy or girl. The hitch is that the person has to be on the rebound from a serious break-up. Something about this fragile-yet-vindictive state entrances her.
The old Joni comes back to us for a brief moment.
“I see Ted's finally gone the predictable route,” she snarks. (In all his other break-ups with Joni, he had chosen not to flee in Jasmine's direction.)
“He's scum,” Chuck mutters, perhaps because he thinks it's his duty to do so.
“No, he's not,” I say pleasantly.
“What's everybody getting to eat?” Tony interjects. One of the weaknesses of being mellow is an inability to deal with non-mellow moments.
“I bet Joni'll get the grilled swiss,” Chuck says with a smile.
“He knows me so welll” Joni replies. I wonder whether that's really what she'd planned to order.
What have you done with the old Joni, you imposter?I
“That sounds good,” Tony says. Our waitress arrives and we are freed from one another's conversation for a minute or two. After she leaves, we stick to non-controversial topics like school and homework. It is all terribly boring, which is not something our diner excursions used to be.
Of course, I blame Chuck. And Joni, for being with Chuck.
I can see her trying to watch Ted without appearing to watch Ted. I know she can read the back of his head like the rest of us can read a facial expression.
We make it through the meal. Tony becomes voluble about a church retreat his parents are threatening to send him on.
“That's just plain wrong,” Chuck declares, spearing a french fry.
After we finish eating, we head to the pinball machines at the back of the diner. Let me tell you—nothing can compare to putting the entirety of your fate in a small metal sphere that bounces across light, sound, and plastic. The machines still only cost a quarter, and each of us has our superstitions. I always play best when I use a Georgia or Rhode Island quarter. Tony is partial to Pennsylvania and Maryland. Ted, I know, has a stack of Connecticuts in a drawer at home; sometimes we swap in the cafeteria to build our own caches.
Tony and I always take turns off the same machine, decked out in gold lights and Elvis. It plays “Love Me Tender” if you break 10,000. “Can't Help Falling in Love” greets you at 25,000. A losing shot ends with “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Chuck commandeers his own machine—sometimes he splits flippers with Joni, sometimes he chooses to go it alone, with her cheering him on.
About fifteen minutes after we start playing, Ted and Jasmine come over.
“What are you g*y boys doing?” he asks me and Tony.
“Who are you calling a g*y boy, loser?” Chuck shouts out.
“Uh, Chuck?” I say. “He was talking to me. And Tony.”
But Ted isn't going to let it pass. He slaps a Connecticut quarter onto Chuck's machine.
“I got next game,” he says. “You better make this one good.”
Since it's Tony's turn on Elvis, I fade back a little. As Ted hawk-eyes Chuck's game, Jasmine steps beside me.
“What are you up to?” I ask her.
She smiles flirtatiously. “Who says I'm up to anything?”
Jasmine has always been a little bit after me, if only because she knows I'll never go for her.
“Are you and Ted a thing now?”
“Hardly. He just needs someone to talk to. He doesn't need anyone to talk about—he's already got that.”
We both look over and see him glaring at Chuck and Joni. Chuck is clearly uncomfortable with this, but he doesn't know how to handle it without looking like a brute (which clearly won't go over well with this crowd). He plays a tense game of pinball. And as anybody knows, a tense game of pinball is a doomed game of pinball. He barely hits 8,000 before guttering out his last shot. He looks a little stunned at the score, then moves to the side of the machine so Ted can get his play.
I already know Ted is going to win. He's damn good at pinball. And he wants it bad.
Joni looks like she's waiting for someone to pull an alarm. She knows what's going to happen, too. She puts her hand on Chuck's shoulder, already near the comforting zone.
Ted sees this and plays harder. Tony's game ends at a respectable 16,749. It's my turn, but I don't move. We're all watching Ted now.