| Nonfiction

Straight Up

Nonfiction Ed McCarthy

We’ll never sit down and talk. Chances are that the trajectory of our lives will push our paths further apart, not cause them to intersect. You will never come to know the way that I’ve wronged you…And in these moments, my conversation with you, Paula Abdul, goes something like this…

We’ll never sit down and talk. Chances are that the trajectory of our lives will push our paths further apart, not cause them to intersect. You will never come to know the way that I’ve wronged you. Though I know that we’ll never meet, my mind doesn’t always accept this fact. At times I think that maybe you will know me. We’ll sit down to a dinner, just the two of us, or we’ll be seated next to each other on a plane cross-country. It is when I imagine our meeting that I talk to you. And in these moments, my conversation with you, Paula Abdul, goes something like this:

When I was sixteen, my friends and I bought tickets for your “Under My Spell” tour, and we were beyond excited. I had your Spellbound CD, and I listened to “Rush, Rush” and danced to “Vibeology” in my bedroom constantly.

But I didn’t have Forever Your Girl and Shut Up and Dance. I had saved up money from working at Jim Dandy Cleaners to buy the concert tickets, so I didn’t want to put aside even more cash to get your first two CDs. But my friend Donna and I had a plan.

Across the street from the Sunrise Mall on Long Island was a Sears. I don’t know how we knew it, but stealing CDs from Sears was easy. We’d take an empty bag from the mall out of our backpacks, slip CDs into them, and walk out. Simple as that.

Paula, I know that you worked hard singing those songs on Forever Your Girl and someone else worked really hard at remixing them for the Shut Up and Dance album, and I casually dropped both CDs into a paper bag and walked away with them. I wronged you.


"Reservations" by Emily Stokes

You weren’t the only person that I wronged, Paula. I also stole Michael W. Smith’s Go West Young Man. He had that hit song “Place in this World,” which I really liked, so you had company in that paper bag, and in some ways I wronged Mr. Smith more than you, because he’s a Christian singer, which means he has God on his side. And I was stealing a CD because I liked a song called “Place in this World,” and surely that meant that I was picking my place: a thief.

But really, Paula, when I think about it, when I look at it logically, I wronged you more because I stole two of your CDs to one of Michael W. Smith’s. Just because he sings about God doesn’t mean my crime against him should hold more weight, but it does feel worse. I guess that’s one of those gray areas, because what you feel and what you think aren’t always the same.

I’d like to say that you were the first person that I’ve wronged, Paula, but you weren’t. I wronged many people who lived in my town, but I don’t remember their names.

A few years before I even knew you existed, when you were probably still a Laker Girl or choreographing videos for Janet Jackson, my brother and I stole money. I think I was in fifth or sixth grade and Danny was in sixth or seventh. We didn’t steal from people on our own street—that would be crazy—but we would travel a few blocks and knock on doors.

My brother would usually start by saying, “Hi, M’am, my name’s Danny and this is my brother Eddie, and we’re here to raise money for the National Heart and Lung Cancer Society.”

“Oh my, what fine young men you both are for raising money for such a needy cause,” a neighbor would reply as they handed over money. Some gave a few dollars, others may have turned over a ten, and then we felt rich.

“Do I get a receipt?” some would ask.

“No,” I’d reply. We didn’t really know what they meant by receipt. It was years before I realized it was an official document that stated that they’d done good.

Danny and I would take our money and walk to Genovese. I’d buy Transformers; he’d buy GI Joes; we’d share gum. Usually packs of watermelon- and strawberry-flavored Bubblicious. Danny and I would put our purchases and the receipt that exposed that we’d done bad in our backpacks and hide them in our bedroom.

A few people didn’t give money, but I only remember one person calling us out on our bluff. “Get out of here, stupid kids, there’s no such thing as heart cancer,” she yelled. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know what cancer was.

We only got caught because Danny came clean. He was going to be confirmed soon, so he had to go to confession, and he told the priest, and the priest told Danny that he had to tell our parents, which meant that we were totally screwed.

I was outside playing with my friends when my older brother Billy told me that our parents wanted to see me in the living room. “Danny ratted you out, and you’re dead,” Billy said to me.

Knowing this, I had to run away, so I went to my usual skipping-town spot: behind the bush in the front yard. The bush was against the house, and I could lean on the wooden shingles as I sat on the ground. On the other side of the wall was the living room, so I was only inches away.

I could hear my parents yelling at Danny, and I felt bad, but then I remembered that he invited me into his crime circle, so wasn’t it fair that he was getting yelled at? He was the older brother, and I was following his lead. At least that’s what I told myself.

After a few minutes, my father and Danny walked out of the house and to my father’s car. Danny was crying. They drove off, and, unsure of what else to do, I stayed where I was. I sat on the parts of the bush that had fallen to the ground, the corners poking my thighs, but I wouldn’t readjust myself. I wanted to feel the pain.

My father took Danny back to every person we wronged. Danny had to knock on each door. He’d apologize, and my father took out his wallet and handed over money. Finding out that my father did that made me feel horrible. At that time, I had very little knowledge of the outside world, but I knew this: my family had very little money. If it weren’t for football, my family would not have been able to live on Long Island.

After work on Mondays, during football season, my father would pick up the “football tickets.” They were rectangular slips of white paper that had the names of cities and random numbers—all the games for the upcoming weekend. Dad spent the rest of Monday night and all of Tuesday night dropping off the tickets and money at bars throughout Long Island and Queens. On Friday nights, he’d go back to the bars to pick up filled out tickets and money. Sundays, the kitchen table turned into his office. There was obviously a system, but I didn’t understand it. Football tickets that had the names of people and the bars they came from written on them were in piles next to singles, fives and tens secured in rubberbands.

As the scores came in, Dad would rearrange the piles. Eventually things would be finalized. Money was put into smaller piles to be brought to patrons of bars and a larger one that Dad would give to my mother.

My father wronged—well, I’m not exactly sure who he wronged or why it was bad, but the fact that my parents told my brothers and me not to tell anyone of his actions meant that what he did was wrong. Paula, I wish I could have been like you in your “Straight Up” video. With that cute mole on your cheek, you were in front of a black and white backdrop, demanding a boy to be honest by saying, “Straight up now tell me.” While I wasn’t brave enough to listen to you and ask anyone to be straight up with me, no one freely offered an explanation as to why things were wrong. But Dad’s actions were the reason why I had a word processor to write my reports, why I didn’t always have to wear my brothers’ old clothes, and when I overheard him tell my mother it was “a good football season,” I knew that my Christmas was going to be like that of my friends and neighbors. It was when I learned that what they say is sometimes true: what’s wrong can feel so right.

My father did almost pay for being a bookie. On one Monday in the fall of ’91, my father came home and the phone started to ring constantly. His bookie friends were arrested. Each showed up to “the place” to pick up that week’s football tickets, and as each bookie left and walked to his car, the cops took him away. All except my father. I remember eavesdropping on my parents’ conversation.

My mother asked, “Why not you?”

“I don’t know, but this could have ruined us,” my father replied.

They sat in silence for a moment, and then my mother asked, “Did you wear that coat today?”

“Yeah, why?”

My mom was talking about Jimmy’s coat. Jimmy, my eldest brother, was in the Navy and stationed on the USS John F. Kennedy, an aircraft carrier that was deployed during the Persian Gulf War. After the war, Jimmy was given a button-up coat. It was similar to the high school track coat that my parents got me for Christmas one year, which I assumed was paid for with football money. On the back of Jimmy’s coat was a picture of the carrier, its emblem, and a declaration that the person wearing it served his country proudly during the war. I don’t know why, but my father had been wearing the coat on the day his bookie buddies were arrested.

My mother asked, “Do you think they didn’t arrest you because they thought you served in the war?”

And that’s the conclusion they came to: the cops didn’t arrest my father because months before he was halfway around the world fighting for his country, so his indiscretion was to be overlooked. My brother’s good outweighed my father’s bad.

My father did eventually get arrested, though. Twice. It was a few years later, and it wasn’t for football tickets but for drinking and driving. He had lost his job at the airport because of downsizing, and he got a job managing a bar he used to frequent during the football season, and that meant his drinking got worse. After the second arrest, his license was suspended for two years, the judge forced him to go to AA meetings, and he had to take an alcohol awareness course at the local community college. There was no gray area. My father wronged and he had to pay for it. We all did. My brothers and I drove him where he needed to go, and since he only had a GED, it seemed that any job within reach was unobtainable because it required him to have a valid driver’s license. My parents had to pack up the home where I grew up; they moved twice in two years, downsizing to a smaller apartment each time.

It was a few years before he was able to pick himself up, but when Dad finally had his license back and landed a job, he moved beyond his wrong: he was a better man. He always tried to provide for his family, but when he stopped drinking, when he focused on improving his own life, he became an even better husband and father. He no longer drank, and he got along with my mother in a way I never witnessed as a kid. They even went on a short, romantic getaway to Maine! Though it may sound simple, what I am trying to say is that my father atoned for the right wrong. Being an alcoholic is bad, but drinking and driving is horrible. Almost unforgivable. But being a bookie for football games, is that so horrible? While the football player is getting millions throughout his career, is it really so bad that my dad made enough money to make sure his sons had memorable Christmases?

I’m not saying it’s innocent and legal, but is it really that wrong? Maybe the good that my brother added to the world by being in the Navy did outweigh my father’s wrong by being a bookie. But when I start thinking like that, my mind goes to other things. Like how my brother Danny faced his wrong for making people think that they were donating money for cancer research but I never did, and years later my father died of cancer. If I accept that Jimmy’s right offset Dad’s wrong, the karmic part of me thinks that Dad got cancer because of what I did. That thought destroyed me, so twice in the two years after my father’s death—my last two years of teaching—I organized American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life at my school. Along with hundreds of my students, I helped to raise over $40,000. So I think I’m okay with cancer now.

But my parents wouldn’t be okay with how rude I’m currently being to you, Paula.  All this time I’ve been talking all about me. Over the last few years, I know there’s been a lot of uncertainty for you, since you left American Idol and your show Live to Dance was cancelled. But I knew you’d be just fine, because you’re such a positive, caring and giving person.  And I was right! Now that you’re a judge for The X-Factor, you’ll continue to add to the world.

I was so happy when American Idol started and you were one of its judges. I missed the way you clapped without allowing your fingers to touch. I loved that you were so upbeat and encouraging with the singers. I admit that at times I had no idea what you were talking about, but you were always so positive, and there’s just too much negative in the world.

However, while I was genuinely happy that you were brought back into the spotlight, I must be honest: when American Idol started, I liked Simon Cowell more than you. I was attracted to his rudeness, and I liked to see the singers crumble from his comments, and this meant that I thought he was hot and I wanted to give Simon a blowjob. I wanted him to sit in his judge’s chair and to have me on my knees. While my mouth was at work, I imagined Simon becoming disgusted and pushing me away and saying in his British accent, “You call yourself a cocksucker?” He’d stand and walk away, his cock only semi-hard, and I’d shout, “Please, Simon, give me one more try.”

I realized that imagining Simon belittling me in his sexy British accent meant that I was really demeaning myself, and if I don’t think we should demean others then certainly we shouldn’t do it to ourselves. After that, I still imagined sucking his cock, but I added a hidden camera to my thoughts. As Simon began walking away—this time, satisfied—I’d pull the camera out and zoom in on his hairy ass. “Simon,” I’d say. He’d turn around and his mouth would drop. He’d be the one on his knees, begging me to destroy the tape. And I would do just that, after he paid off my student loans, bought me a nice New York City apartment, and gave me a gift of ten million dollars. But blackmail is wrong, and I was using the world’s fear of homosexuality to my advantage when I should be working toward changing that perception. I asked myself: if I live in an immoral fantasy world, will I be able to differentiate between moral and immoral in the real world? Would I live in a world of gray? I was scared to find out the answer, so I stopped thinking about sucking Simon Cowell’s cock.

But when it’s hard to make sense of what’s going on in our heads how can we make sense of the world? Our heads make everything feel so overwhelming and I wonder if there’s a way to get back to how I felt when I used to dance and it was just about getting my body to experience the song. Everything felt simple when I moved to music. It didn’t matter if I was a good dancer; it was about feeling the music, and the only gray to be found was provided by the fog machine on the dance floor. The world made sense in song. And everyone on the dance floor felt the same. In a song that lasted just a few beautiful minutes, we loved and wanted the best for one another.

I think this world is most beautiful when we have a pro me/pro you attitude. That’s why I like the idea of marriage: two people making a commitment to each other to make their lives better, richer, more fulfilling. And this is why I was so happy for you when you married Emilio Estevez. You were so cute together. I was sad when you two got divorced, and a part of me did wonder what happened, but it wasn’t my right to know what went wrong. Though you’re a public figure, Paula, what happened was really a private matter and I had to respect that.

It’s just sad when people think that in order to push themselves forward they need to push others back. I’m not saying that’s what happened in your marriage, Paula, but many marriages do end in divorce, and I wonder if some of them end because one person became more pro-them and less pro-their-spouse. Maybe it’s because we seem to live in a world where if you’re pro something that means you’re against something else. I once heard someone on the news say that he had nothing against gays and lesbians, but he was for a pro-marriage amendment. Being gay, I didn’t understand how he thought being pro the marriage amendment wasn’t anti-me. Sometimes it seems that the world is like that line in your song “Opposites Attract”: “I take two steps forward, I take two steps back.”

I’m not trying to take any moral high ground here. You know that I haven’t been an angel. In addition to what I did to you and the people who lived a few blocks away from me, I have dismantled relationships. At times I have been anti everybody. I have been purposefully unavailable and I even cheated on a boyfriend. Tom was twenty-nine, ten years older than I, and he was my first boyfriend. Before me, he had only dated one guy, the rest women. He was totally into me. Tom took me on a vacation to Myrtle Beach, meant it when he said things like “I love you,” and talked about our lives together five and ten years down the road. He was even willing to come out to his family and introduce them to me. But I was nineteen, which meant that I was naïve, emotionally immature, and found looking more than a few weeks into my future downright terrifying. I also thought it best to ruin anything that felt right.

Tom and I were together when the Internet craze was just starting, and AOL charged by the minute. My mother was the only one in the house who had a screenname, and one night I guess I was really lonely or something so I went into an AOL chat room called Long Island M4M. I typed in my stats: “6’1, 175lbs, brown hair, blue eyes, clean shaven, 19, live in Wantagh.”

Instant messages started to flood me. This was well before the time when pictures could be taken and easily exchanged through the Web, so I had to create a picture through subjective details. After a while, I was left talking to one guy who said he was in his early forties and “rugged looking.” He invited me over, and when I asked where he lived, he replied with “West Hempstead.” My heart dropped, because Tom lived in West Hempstead. AOL Man lived just a block and a half away from my boyfriend’s apartment. “Come over,” he wrote, and I knew that I shouldn’t because it was wrong, but I didn’t listen to myself.

At that time, I had been fucked a handful of times, and only by Tom, so when AOL Man put his cock inside me, it hurt, and I let it be known.

“Stop being a baby,” he told me.

His words hurt me more than his cock. There were many adjectives that I thought could be used to describe me at that moment: cheater, insensitive, immoral. All the words that came to my mind were adult and of consequence, but AOL Man reduced me to an infant. So I stopped being a baby. I had lain on his bed, legs in the air, and his cock in my ass. I swallowed the pain.

And when I got in my car, I told myself not to drive down my boyfriend’s block, but for the second time that night I did not listen. As I turned and made my way down the road filled with two-story houses, I prayed that when I got to the house in the middle of the block, the one that had the apartment on the second floor that Tom called home, it would be dark, he would be asleep. But that wasn’t the case. As I pulled in front of the house there was a sign of life, for a single light was coming from the home, and it was illuminating my boyfriend’s bedroom window. I drove faster and began to cry.

I know that I have no right being sad when I was the one who did wrong, but I was devastated. And if you want to make me sad today, the kind of sad that goes beyond self-pity to a place of actual physical pain, don’t use words. Just point to a house in the night that has a lone light shining from a second floor window.

I guess that’s because there are some wrongs that I don’t know how to right. I can’t raise money for some Cheating Boyfriend Foundation and go to bed saying that I’ve karmically balanced the world. I could pretend to take Tom out and talk to him like I am with you, but I don’t think he would want to see me. I haven’t talked to him in more than ten years, and he was engaged to a girl then, so I don’t think he’d want to revisit his gay relationship, or he may not even care about my wrong. Do you need to right a wrong when the person you’ve wronged doesn’t even know about it or doesn’t care?

But here I am trying to right the wrong I did to you, Paula. At times it feels so far in the past that I ask whether it needs to come up at all. But it does come up, in my thoughts, here and there, and it’s to the point where I don’t know how to look toward tomorrow when I’m glancing at yesterday.

I thought about buying all the albums that I stole so many years ago, but I recently bought Michael W. Smith’s “Place in this World” on iTunes. It didn’t make me feel better about wronging him, so I don’t think that’s the answer.

But the other day I was in the supermarket and I had a revelation. As usual, I went to the fruit section and had the same conversation I’ve had with myself since I started buying my own groceries almost fifteen years ago: Do you really need these apples? Are you really going to eat them all? These kiwis are going to spoil quickly, so what’s the point?

Without fail, after every conversation, I end up putting fruit in my shopping cart. It has almost become instinct that I grab oranges or grapes or pears. Sure, over the years my routine has changed slightly. I focus more on buying fruit that’s in season and grown locally. I don’t want my blueberry to have a larger carbon footprint than me!

The other day I was in the supermarket and I was neither in a horrible nor wonderful mood—blah, I guess. I looked at my shopping cart while in the checkout line. I’m not saying that I am über healthy, but when I looked at my cart it seemed as if I was making an investment in myself. Fruit, not cookies. Juice, not soda. Low fat milk, yogurt and vegetables; not creamer, ice cream and chips.

Life always seems so large, but in that moment things made sense. It was as if the whole world was in my shopping cart. The supermarket suddenly felt like a do-over. While going up and down aisles, you only think about tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. If that’s true for food, then why not the rest of life? Maybe the wrongs from my past don’t have to dampen my future? I looked at the world in my shopping cart and there was no room for gray area. I could hold the world in my hands; I could take care of it like I want it to take care of me.

And then I imagined that everyone I’d ever known was standing in various lines at the grocery store. I saw the neighbors whom I had wronged. They waved and indicated that there were no hard feelings. And there was my first boyfriend, Tom. He was with his wife and they had a small child sitting in the baby seat of the shopping cart that held their world. He didn’t see me, but that’s okay. I didn’t try to get his attention. And my father was in another line. He was alive, for a moment, and the world in his shopping cart looked beautiful. Clear skies.

I felt wonderful, but when I got to the front of the line I had to hand my world to the cashier. It was going to be scanned and given back to me, and I would have to carry it outside. I didn’t know if I could protect it. I got scared.

Suddenly I heard the music. It was you, Paula. “The Promise of a New Day” was playing from the speakers straight above me: “What will change the world? No one knows.” Hearing your song, things started to feel so right. I realized that like with “Straight Up,” you were trying to teach me something, but now I felt brave enough to listen: “See the wisdom from the mistakes in our past.”

When the cashier put my world in a bag, I thought of being a kid and watching blizzards with my brothers through the living room window. We’d watch the snow take over the earth; we were amazed by the flakes falling to the ground, taken by the beauty of the world. My brothers and I would wait until our parents allowed us to go outside where we’d get lost in the snow.

But the fresh snow had to deal with cars, people, dogs and shovels, and a few days later it would turn into a messy gray. The gray snow would linger while the rest quickly melted.

But my brothers and I learned to take the snow with us. After a storm, we’d take some plastic baggies that our mother used to pack our lunches and stuff them with fresh snow. We’d store them in the freezer. And days later when the outside snow was gray or months later when the ice cream man was driving down the street, we would take out those bags and look at the snow, still awed by it. It was proof that the world provided beauty; while we had the power to taint this beauty and turn it gray, we also had the power to protect and nourish it.

The cashier handed me a receipt and the bag holding my world, and with you singing in the background, Paula, I took long, confident strides forward.

Ed McCarthy earned his MFA in Creative Writing from American University in Washington, D.C.  A finalist in River Styx’s 2011 Schlafly Beer Micro-Brew Micro-Fiction Contest, his work has also appeared in Velvet Mafia. He is currently working on teleplays and a novel.

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