I have thought long and hard about how to start off our story and I’ve come to the conclusion that beginnings are stupid. Beginnings don’t promise an ending. When I ask people to choose between sunrises and sunsets, everyone chooses sunrises because they say sunsets signify an ending, and that endings are inherently sad. But I disagree. I disagree entirely.
Beginnings, sunrises, first days, they don’t promise that you’ll live to see the end of them. They last for just a moment. Like anarchy; pure anarchy exists for a fraction of a second, because it’s human nature for someone to take control, in whatever small way they can. Beginnings are the same way. Beginnings last for only a hairline of a moment and then they cease. Everything after that teeny, tiny, infinitesimal moment after something first starts is not the beginning, not really. Everything after that moment is story.
Sunsets, however, can’t happen without sunrises. Their very existence relies on there being an entire day to precede it. You can have a sunrise without a sunset; but you can’t have a sunset without first having a sunrise. So when you see a sunset, it’s really truly a miracle. You’ve lived another day. Maybe you won’t see tomorrow’s sunrise, but you saw today’s sunset and that’s not nothing.
So that’s why I hate beginnings. They don’t mean you’ll get to see the end. They are an empty shell, waiting to be filled. And maybe that’s beautiful in and of itself, but to me that is nerve-wracking. There is far too much pressure to fill that shell of a beginning, to make that one single moment of commencement stretch for a minute or an hour or an eternity or even a whole page.
I’m not going to start at the beginning, because that only lasted for a moment and I don’t even remember it. My mom told me I met Toby Franklin and Ocean Tinibu and Bass Burretano at some kid’s birthday party, and we’ve been inseparable ever since. We’ve spent practically every day of every year of our lives together in our small town of Bellfield, Georgia. Bellfield is the kind of place you pass through to get gas on the way to somewhere else, somewhere more interesting. My parents are from Connecticut originally, and my mom always jokes that they’re only here for the great gas prices. But when I was about fourteen, I realized the flaw there: why would you need gas if you’re never going to leave? I never mentioned this to my mother, because she and my father were psychologists and they would probably use my words to analyze me, and I hate that. It’s the reason I’m so quiet; I don’t say anything unless I think it’s worth saying. That’s why I started learning Sign Language. That and because Bass uses it to communicate with his parents and with Toby. Because Bass is partially Deaf. Because he was beaten by his mother’s first husband for being transgender. His father was later killed in a drunken bar fight, and nobody really cared.
This is the kind of town we’ve grown up in, but it’s really not all bad.
We’re in the Deep South, near the Florida panhandle, almost on the coast but not quite. The beach is about a half an hour away by car. The people here are nice, I guess. Front porch sitters, tobacco spitters, bar fighters and normal working people. It’s a small town, a quiet town but we love it, even though we don’t know why.
So how’s that for your beginning? It’s fleeting and sprawling and a little ugly, but I think it’ll do, don’t you? Can we get to the good stuff, now?
It was Toby’s 19th birthday, and the whole gang celebrated at her favorite restaurant, The Grind Cafe. Ocean worked there during the week as the main cook.
Ocean sat across from me at the table. She rubbed the back of her shaved black head absentmindedly, displaying one of her several arm tattoos as she talked to Toby about… I don’t know, girl stuff. A ring sat precariously in the left nostril of her squat nose, and her small, carefully pressed ears had been stabbed through several times with various piercings until only a small part of her earlobe– which she tugged on often– was visible beneath the jewelry. The piercings in her ears jingled when she walked hoppily about, like a dark, oversized owl.
Ocean wasn’t working that night and we’d all taken our antidepressants so everyone was in a grand mood.
Next to me, Toby sat, radiating as usual. Her bright grey eyes (I don’t think grey eyes should be bright, but Toby’s were, I swear) roved everywhere, never resting in any one place. I’d often asked her what she was searching for, but her answers were always laughed and vague. She wore her long black hair swept up into a bun, and liked to dress to hide her petite frame. Countless freckles formed a gorgeous constellation across her small nose, bridging the great space between her pale cheeks, cheeks that must have hurt from all that smiling.
We were waiting for the third part of our trio, Bass, to show up on his Harley and while we did that, we sat and talked with some of the regulars, like Old Man Robinson, an ancient remnant of the Old South, minus the racism. He said he remembered his grandfather buying slaves so he could free them. He’d spin tales about working on the Underground Railroad. He was a man so scared of the shadiness of his ancestry that he spent most of his time trying to convince people that he was not racist. We weren’t not sure of the accuracy of his stories considering he was about 104 years old and so stubbornly set on living, the tiny local hospital had to let him go back home because he was only taking up a bed and a room. So he practically lived in The Grind. At this point, we were so far into one of his stories about his best friend who was once a slave that we didn’t even hear Bass’s unmuffled motorcycle pull into the lot outside.
“I’s jist about ter tell ol’ man Jenkins not ter turn m’friend Langston intuh thuh ‘thorities when I turnt around’ ’n Langston was gone!” Old Man Robinson cried, his hands waving around to show where his old friend Langston ( yes, of the Hughes) had been. We all tried not to laugh at this ridiculous story, and just as Robinson finished with “and that was my buddy, Langston Hughes, tha’s right,” Bass banged the door open and strutted in like he’s on a runway. The rain slicked down his usually spiked brown hair, the ends reaching out for his bushy eyebrows set above melting brown eyes. His long, thin nose came to a point like an arrow toward his often laughing mouth. He was in full leather– black leather jacket, leather gloves and too-tight leather pants that revealed a little too much of himself.
Finally, we all snapped. Ocean, Toby and I took one look at Bass’s leather pants and suddenly, we all practically fell over each other, spittle from our snorts absorbing the grease on the floor, turning a rather odd brown.
“What?” said Bass, spreading his legs into a defensive stance and we all lost it again.
“T-take tho-HO!-se things off, Bass,” Ocean gasped, pointing limply before dissolving again into her laughter. Bass probably couldn’t hear over the crowd in the cafe, so he signed to Toby. I translated quietly to myself, still learning.
What? What’s wrong? Why are you crying?
We’re laughing…Your pants. Toby’s shaking laughter broke up her signs. They’re revealing. Bass looked down at himself and cracked a smile.
“What’s he saying?” Ocean sighed after regaining herself.
“He was confused, he thought we were crying,” Toby said, still signing so Bass would fully comprehend. We found a quiet booth at the back so Bass could hear a little better. We ordered a round of cokes and a huge plate of fries, our usual.
“I didn’t bring anything to change into,” he said, still signing. A thick Deaf accent pervaded his speech and he said, “You’ll just have to control yourselves. I know I’m too hot to resist, but you’ll have to try.” He struck what is, in his mind, a model’s pose and Ocean snorted, sending Coke flying all over the grease-stained table. We flagged down a waiter– his name was William, and he was in the grade below us in high school– and got some napkins. Finally, the hullabaloo subsided and we could talk like normal people, with Toby and Bass still signing to make sure nothing got lost in translation.
“I seriously hope you guys didn’t plan anything for my birthday,” Toby said sincerely. She was not the kind to passively suggest anything for herself. “Y’all know I hate surprises.”
“Then you’ll hate pretty much everything that’s going to happen after 8:00 pm,” Bass said, grinning madly.
“Oh, no,” Toby groaned, and we laughed. We all knew she was serious about surprises but we couldn’t help picking on her once in a while.
“At least tell me it’ll be better than last year,” she said, sipping her Coke. We all sobered up immediately, remembering the disaster of a party we’d thrown her last year. It’d been at the bowling alley, after hours, and we’d thought it’d be cool to put a petting zoo in the alley as both a prank on the owner, Jim, whom we all hated, and a surprise for Toby, who hated surprises but loved goats.
Needless to say, the bright lights and loud bangs of the bowling balls scared the everliving crap out of the goats and miniature ponies and whatever else was in the petting zoo. One particularly nasty goat named Peter led a revolt against the trainers, broke his comrades out of the petting zoo and invaded the bowling alley, careening wildly into everyone in their path. Dander flew everywhere, people ran screaming into the streets… As pranksters, it was some of our best work.
As people, we knew we’d reached our limit. So that year, we were back to conventional parties– perhaps with a bit of fireworks, because who could resist some of Mary Joe’s homemade firecrackers? Nobody, that’s who. Nobody in these parts, anyways.
“Oh, my God,” Toby said, stuffing some of The Grind’s classic grease-laden fries into her mouth. “God, these are the most delicious heart attack sticks in the Deep South.”
Ocean grabbed a handful and put them on a separate plate, slathering them with mustard. That’s right, mustard. The woman was strange, and I told her so many times.
“Get that crap outta here, Ocean,” Bass complained, waving a hand in front of his nose. Bass couldn’t stand the smell of mustard, so Ocean made as if to move away and then attacked him with the mustard-encrusted french fry.
“Hey wha–AAARRGH!” Bass roared and flailed wildly, mustard splattering across his face and pristine black leather. “What the hell Ocean, this stuff was expensive!” he cried, grabbing for napkins.
“You actually paid money for that thing?” Ocean asked, calmly slurping more Coke. “I thought you’d lost a bet.”
“Hey, shut up, okay.” Toby turned to me, her grey eyes laughing but one hand covering her mouth.
“Even Teddy thinks they’re stupid,” said Ocean, as if my fashion expertise is proof of the ridiculousness of Bass’s clothes. “Don’t you, Teddy?”
And now I’ve just realized I’ve forgotten to introduce myself.
I’m Theodore Jackson. But you can call me Teddy.