Mediocrity Is Not Transmittable
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Security"
Originally featured on 11-09-2009
As part of our series "The Words That Seem to Justify Anything"

-inhale-

I was tired but not sleepy so I bought a bottle of iced coffee from the corner store drank it while walking down Xena Avenue threw back my head to let the last drop ping off my throat then I was in the middle of an intersection—Twentieth Street—holding an empty bottle and I felt like a god synapses leaping heartbeats speeding like a yo-yo in freefall wrists pulsing thinking of the possibilities and I’m not tired anymore-

-breeeeeeeeeathe-

Stashed the empty bottle in the lower right pocket of my shorts the one with the horizontal zipper and the button flap but I didn’t like the way it flexed the fabric of my shorts especially stepping up onto the curb twisting my pockets’ center of balance a weight nagging at my thigh so I took it out and held it between two fingers as I walked and I didn’t want it in my hand anymore when a garbage can across the street caught my eye I started to turn my ankles toward the street instead shook my head because good people recycle and I’m a good person so I tossed it in a yellow plastic bin next to a row of beers cans in front of a yellow house then I felt a sting on the back of my hand looked up-

-stop-

The thought in my head when there is no better thought to enter my head is always could this be how it starts. Could this be the story to tell my unborn children around the fireplace while sparkly snow flurries gather outside the window and we can hear the whirl and swirl of icy dusk, wearing pajamas and sipping hot chocolate with smiles as I conclude, and that’s how I met your mom, and mom tickles the back of my neck and says well, now, that’s not exactly how it happened, but at least we can agree that it started with a rubber band because that was what I felt on the back of my hand, the sting upon releasing the iced coffee bottle into a stranger’s recycle bin.

A sting to trigger what followed: a face in the window. A pretty face in the window.

A pretty face narrowed to a sneer. Your eyes threatening to come outside, you stayed in the window. We looked at each other for what seemed like a day’s main event. You shut the window and I saw the little round tray of rubber bands on the sill. Your eyes followed mine as I noticed it and your mouth broke like a levee, a smile surfacing like a dead fish.

I yelled, “Want to get coffee?” I can always drink more coffee. The door opened. The door startled me when it opened. More than startled me, it scared me.

You; wearing jeans and a glittery black tank top with a gray skull and crossbones under a light brown jacket that looked to have the consistency of seal skin, your sun-baked auburn hair half tied back and half hanging by your chin in lazy curls that looked as though they were trying to point at something. Up close you looked seven years older than you did in the doorway, and you wore those seven years in the pinkish area around your eyes. I imagined kissing you and then opening our eyes in tandem like pulling our jangled bodies out of a car wreck.

Your knowledge of how the world was doomed would oxidize all the moisture in my mouth until I tasted the acid sting of intelligence and I would open my eyes wide to you like a newborn babe and you would whisper so I couldn’t hear only feel the swirl and whirl on my neck and you’d tell me we’re safe here. I wanted to touch you so badly, the feeling was everywhere above my waist, clenching my stomach and my shoulders and my thighs and my back, my muscles twisting around themselves to grab out at you with limbs they tried to invent of the air.

There would be time to talk. My knuckles still tingled from the sting of the rubber band. Conversation would be on me. I tried to think of a witty restatement of my invitation, and said, “You’ve got good aim, sniper.” You shifted your weight, wondering why you were outside. I said, “Beverage karma, that’s what this is, right?” You started to turn your body back toward the door. I held out my hand so fast it startled you, and introduced myself. You said your name as if it bored you. I said, “I’m glad you did that. I can only imagine lots of people try and dump their recyclables in your bin.”

“Nope. You’re the first.” You didn’t sound bored anymore. “What are we doing? Are we standing here, or are you buying me coffee?”

You explained to me how you knew that all human life on the planet would be extinct in seven years’ time because we only knew how to shirk responsibility onto someone else. Someone else’s recycle bin. Someone else’s war. Someone else’s energy crisis. You explained every detail of it and I tried not to listen. I said, “When I was a kid-”

You shook your head, looking like you wanted to leave. “I’m so sick of people’s when I was a kid stories, like childhood is the be-all and end-all of self reflection. My brother made me eat a mouse terd when I was five, and you’ll never hear me mention that again because it’s not relevant. Get over this I was a kid crap—you’re smarter than that.”

When I was a kid, I figured out how to economize desires. I was riding a school bus and this one kid had a bag of Zingy Firebombs—you probably don’t remember those, it was this candy bar that was like a Skittle on the inside and this caramel muscle around it, then a hard shell that was all spicy—he had it tucked in his backpack when he opened it up, popped one in his mouth like it was a prescription pill for something he was keeping secret. Within seconds, the entire bus was whooping and yelling and diving across seats, and when he knew there was no hope of protecting the manna of nine-year-old school bus heaven, he made a sacrificial gesture; stood up in his seat, yelled something unintelligible—his war cry—then tore the bag open and tossed it up in the air. The bus nearly swerved into a ditch; it was like a pack of wolves, wrestling and punching each other and scrambling into corners to search out any stray Firebombs. But not me.

I remember telling you this out loud, and I also know that I did not say any of it. My memory makes such allowances for you. I also remember four empty coffee cups in front of us, and I do not remember drinking them. I wish I could remember why I stopped in front of your yellow house instead of crossing the street. It’s a lot easier to remember that school bus, staying quietly in my seat and guarding my face with my elbows. I craved Zingy Firebombs too, I wasn’t above it, but made no effort to get one.

I tried to rationalize my disinterest; there were no brownie points to gain from being in the well-behaved minority. The only authority figure aboard that bus was the driver, who was senile and half deaf and never interfered. It might have been fear of being trampled and elbowed in the ribs. It might have been fear of failure. What I was witnessing was something that happened among ants in the Amazonian rainforest, among termites on a splint of wood. Somewhere a collective decision had been made that Zingy Firebombs were desirable and worth competing for. In truth a stalk of broccoli probably tasted better, and if these boys used more than five brain cells, they’d realize that in a month Zingy Firebombs would disappear from the market and be trumped by something else.

I was scared, not for myself, but scared for the lot of them, and all the while on that bus my mouth watered. What if carrots or seaweed crackers were the candy that football stars took smiling bites of on television while cruising on speedboats; would they then be fighting over carrots or seaweed crackers, and would I be salivating any less? With my head in my arms, that was when I made a decision having consequences beyond the bus.

I imagined the glorious colors I would see if I made the resolution to like what nobody else did. I could choose unpopular items and make myself like them. Apple slices, leftover clumps of rice, leaves of lettuce could be Zingy Firebombs and I could eat them in peace. An unexpected thing happened.

The commotion had died down, the Fireballs were all accounted for and everyone had returned to their seats. Sitting alone, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Beside me was the boy who had brought the Pandora’s Box concealed in his backpack and started it all. He extended his hand to me, and in his hand was a Zingy Fireball. I looked at him, unwrapped it and put it in my mouth. I sucked on it all the way to school, letting it melt and swirl to the side of my mouth. I did not thank him.

Conscious taste was a form of wealth, like building a mansion out of fermented gutter debris. A couple years later, Zingy Fireballs were replaced by porno mags. Tits were god. Naturally, of those who were inclined to objectify the female figure, I’m sure some boys had butt fetishes or ear fetishes, or no particular fixation at all, but it was all about that which we could only see in the pages of a forbidden magazine that could only be obtained by trading with someone who stole one from someone’s older brother’s dresser. What if kneecaps were the most beautiful part of the body, and we would never know? More years went by and everyone wanted the big houses and the sports cars and the careers. I still wake up some mornings with my elbows held firmly in front of my face.

Not knowing if you think the same, and not knowing if you enjoyed your coffee, but knowing what I want, and with certainty that nobody else could possibly want you the way I do, I gave my landlord three weeks’ notice and moved into the yellow house.

 

The questionnaire always was in the guise of a different subject spoken with different words. The questionnaire always got stuck just like my mind gets stuck whenever I tell a story to myself and try and get the important part perfect. None of the questions were avoidable. Lying in bed on rainy nights between waking and holding each other, there was a silence that rose in voltage like a distress signal not meant for us. I would glide my hands around your hips and kill the silence with warmth, or you would beat me to it.

We killed the silence and killed it and killed it until it piled up around us like corpses making the air thick to breathe and we grew angry at each other and all we had with which to forgive each other were conversations in the form of questions that had nothing to do with the real questions, the simple questions, and the closest we ever got to asking each other the real questions, the simple questions was in those moments of silence in the dark before it was morning when it was comfortable to touch each other and lie still.

It is also quite possible that the real questionnaire did take place on an unremarkable day, or more than once, perhaps it was repeated on many unremarkable occasions and I just don’t remember it being spoken. If that is the case, you would have asked me, out of the blue, Did you feel like you were on the top of the world when you were walking down my street, before we met? Drinking your cold coffee?

I would have stopped, laughed and said, What are you talking about?

You would have said with impatience burning at your voice’s edge, I’m not interested in what the reason was for it, I’m just curious if you felt like you were on the top of the world, all charged up, your dick bubbling over with machismo I’m-fucking-king, I’ll throw my trash where I want to and then go for the girl sentiments.

I would have thought about it’although not so much thought about it as thought about why you were trying to start a fight and how I might defuse it’and said, You know my weakness for coffee.

If we were holding hands, at that point you would have pulled away. Do you still feel like you’re on the top of the world?, you would then have said.

What would have followed that question is the reason why the questionnaire was never voiced directly, and if it was, why I did not retain any memory of it.

 

-inhale-

I was tired but not sleepy and I didn’t want to make love and I didn’t want to argue because I knew you’d be right even if you were wrong because you’d talk without pausing or retracting and I just wanted to scream get dressed and sprint down the sidewalk away from the streetlamps because you’re so successful and proud and righteous about the fact that you’re so successful and proud and always take charge and you kept digging your nails into my pale skin I couldn’t take it any more but I wouldn’t scream because we never shout it never comes to that-

-opened my throat and yelled so hard something rattled beneath my heel, all came out-

I bellowed an arbitrary demand. The volume of air displaced by my words was trapped in my stomach, trying to beat its way out through my chest.

I couldn’t look at you. When I looked at you, you were complying with my arbitrary demand, performing the task like a robot.

My demand was that you take out the recycling to the curb, because the bottles and cans had been piling up for three weeks and it was your turn to take out the recycling, and it aggravated me that you neglected such things because you’re always telling me how responsible you are and how I’m such a child and you’re always picking up the slack for me, and then you get lazy and forget the fucking recycling. It was arbitrary just like my feeling of being on top of the world when I walked by the yellow house with the empty bottle of cold coffee was arbitrary. New questionnaires lit up my mind like tiny firecrackers so fast I could not hear any of them. If something arbitrary could make me so mad I feel the floorboards flutter and don’t know what I might do to you, then what does it matter if I decide the things I crave am I really more evolved or maybe I’ve been a coward all my life a coward on a school bus trembling behind raised elbows denying a lack of courage to dive into the fray and risk a bruise or two to seize a Zingy Fireball and who the hell was I to say that Zingy Fireballs weren’t worth fighting for what the fuck did I know and are we really any different than animals and are we on top of the world and what does it really feel like to be on top of the world and is it just a matter of coffee and what is it I love about you because I know I love you I could lay with you forever and not say anything just love you love your warmth love the way you breathe when you’re wrestling with monsters of thought not yet conscious and your body relaxes in mine and I know I’ll hate you for a minute or two when you gain the consciousness to start asking me questions about what I think is the morally righteous way the world should operate and what kind of man am I and why do I want to shield myself in a corner and scrunch my face behind my elbows and how smart are you and why was I frightened when I saw the door of the yellow house open for the first time and and and and and

There was no sadness or surrender or sarcasm or indignation or trepidation. It was so odd what you were doing, so contrary to the way I’ve seen you do everything else I’ve seen you do, that I wondered for a split second if you’d actually turned into a robot.

Obedience as an animal instinct. I took note of this and hoped to never witness it again.

I laughed and you laughed, but you only laughed because you found it funny that I was laughing. I wondered if this sort of thing would occur again, and if it did, how many times before I began to take pleasure in it. I wanted to kiss you and suck the pained intelligence out of the pink skin around your eyes with a straw until I could become as smart as you.

You still kept the tray of rubber bands on the window sill, and every time you got out to the sidewalk, I thought about starting an elastic war.

When you came in, I said, “No, not on top of the world. But I do feel pretty damned good.”

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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