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Better Than Not Desired At All

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“Running into you today made me think of what I was like in high school and…” Nancy trails off and stares up in melancholy, toying with the blanket. “I just wish I’d spent more time around better people growing up.”

“Mm?” Phil sluggishly turns his head to her.

“Well. I was kind of frumpy when I was a little kid. I didn’t feel pretty like the other girls or like anyone really noticed me, or cared. And then, well, puberty came along and changed that,” she says, adding a bitter laugh. “I got boobs and hips and learned how to dress and do my makeup, and suddenly I was worth people’s time. Um… I thought at the time it was really cool and liberating that me and the cheerleaders were smoking and going to clubs and that older guys were into us. And, you know, it pissed off my mom, so that was a bonus.”

He cracks a small smirk. “Huh. Yeah, I know about that.”

“It took me so long to realize how much it was messing me up. It was like, uh… I wanted to believe I was more mature and owning my body than I really was, and I did stupid stuff. Actually, a big one was with one of my mom’s boyfriends.”

“Oh shit.”

“Yeah. I was sixteen and he would make these...comments about me when she wasn’t there. It made me really uncomfortable because, I mean, obviously. But I told my friends about it and they were like, ‘oh, go for it! Suck his dick!’”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Like it was some empowering thing, right? I didn’t actually suck his dick, thank God. But he kissed me and I kissed him back and we made out for a bit. Nothing really happened, other than him reaching under my shirt. But then my mom caught us and she came in and screamed her head off at me, so.”

“Wow.” Phil is taken aback and is unsure what of value he has to say. He’s learned that getting to know his conquests as people on a deeper level tends to be kind of a downer. But hey, it’s a usage of his time at least.

That and, well. Maybe he sees a bit of himself in Nancy Taylor.

“What you were saying about some of… It reminded me of something that happened to me when I was a kid.” Nancy’s expression softens. Phil folds his arms over his chest and doesn’t look at her. “Back then, I was kinda, well. I was a spaz. I tried to be cool and fit in with the other kids, but no one ever really bought it. And things were a drag at home with my parents, so…I was alone a lot. I had this Spanish teacher in the 9th grade. She was young and pretty and she was nice to me. It felt good to have that kind of attention. Then one day, I bombed a test pretty bad and I went to her office asking if there was anything I could do about it, and she said she would help me out if I did her a favor.”

His jaw locks tight and he inhales through his nose, trying to get himself through this part without thinking too much about it. “So…she took me to the back of the room, away from the cameras. And uh...yeah. That is how I lost my virginity.”

When he finally turns to glance back at her, he sees Nancy’s face gives a horrified sadness. “Oh. God, I’m so sorry.” It’s more than he can deal with.

He backpedals shakily. “I mean, it’s not... You know, it wasn’t… I could’ve just left. And I didn’t, so it couldn’t have been that bad.”

“You froze up.”

“It’s not like- I could’ve just pushed her away if I really didn’t want it. And- what teenage boy doesn’t dream about sleeping with his teacher? How could I not… You know, it’s better to be wanted.”

“I get it. But it doesn’t make what she did okay. Did anything ever happen to her?”

“What?”

“You know, did she ever get arrested for statutory ra-”

“I’m gonna stop you. I- Don’t throw that word around, alright?”

She leans back, confused. “Well...that’s what happened.”

“It- It doesn’t apply though- I mean, legally, okay, whatever, but it’s not the same kind of thing.”

“Why wouldn’t it be?”, she asks slowly.

“Because-” Finally exasperated enough, he says bluntly, “because a woman can’t rape a guy.”

She looks at him as if trying to peel him open. “You don’t really believe that.”

“Look, you don’t know anything about me. And honestly, I don’t even know why I started talking about this, none of this matters, what’s the point-”

“I want to know you. We had this chance to reconnect.”

“I’m not what you-”

“You don’t have to be ashamed about anything with me.”

He blurts out, “we didn’t go to high school together!”

Nancy’s face falls and she goes silent, trying to process. “What?”

Phil sighs. He really never wanted to have this conversation. “I’m from Cleveland. And I’m at least a good ten years older than you.”

Her eyes widen and she exhales in disbelief. “I don’t understand. How did you know about-”

“I don’t know, I asked a friend? Looked you up on the internet? It really doesn’t… The point is that this is nothing more than a distraction for me. None of this is real.” Truthfully, he doesn’t understand why he’s being so cruel to her.

She bites her lip to control her emotions as the sting sets in. “Of course.” She laughs at herself and brings her legs to her bare chest. With a cold, simmering anger in her voice, she says, “What I just don’t understand is...why? Why lie to me?” He doesn’t answer her. “Is it really that amusing that I’m just so stupid you can get me to do anything? Or is it only fun for you if girls don’t know what they’re getting into? Why do you need to trick people into getting in bed with you?”

He shrugs, deflated. “It’s just what I know. It’s easy and I get what I need. I can never get close enough for the real thing, so.” She leaves the bed and starts picking up her clothes. “I know it’s pathetic. I’m really not proud of myself.”

“Hm. Well, wallowing around isn’t really gonna fix anything if you’re still treating people like shit.”

“I’m sorry, I just- I don’t know how to change. Even when I try to be someone else, it never makes any difference.”

She snaps, “for fuck’s sake, Phil!” Her voice breaks and her eyes are wet and hot. “You know what it’s like to be used, I know you do. To be seen as not even a real person. And you still do this!” She’s given so much of herself to guys like him who have never cared, and she’s sick of it. How is she supposed to have anything left?

He turns his head as she gets dressed and slams the door behind her. He grips the edge of the bed, digging into the sheets.

-

If he remembers correctly, his teacher actually did get busted. Not too long after the incident, it turned out she had gone after another student a while ago and he had reported it. Despite attempts to keep his privacy, word got around school who the kid was. His name was Peter. Phil generally doesn’t remember just about anyone from his past, but he can’t forget him.

He tried to avoid the conversations his parents had about it. His mom said that, if any adult authority figure had done that to either of her kids, she would rip their throat out. On the other hand, his dad believed the whole thing had been blown out of proportion. He’d say that she was hardly a crone, and the kid knew what he was doing and it’s just a part of becoming a man, and at least she was a woman. Phil didn’t stick around to hear the ensuing fight.

His mom knew he had been in that woman’s class. She practically begged him to tell her, that everything would be okay if he could just trust her. He insisted that there was nothing to talk about.

Peter went into therapy and kept to himself. He had to be pulled out of school after being on the receiving end of a lot of harassment from his fellow students. They’d ask him what his problem was, tell him that he was just doing this for attention and that he liked it, and if he didn’t that he was a queer.

Peter killed himself three months later with his dad’s shotgun.

So Phil had to keep it down. He had to tell himself that he was fine, it was nothing, it didn’t matter. He threw himself into work, he bought every shiny new gadget that caught his eye, he went to every party he could, got wasted, slept around. Anything to occupy his time, to help him forget, to keep him from ending up the one pointing a gun at his own head, or slashing his arms open, or hanging by a rope.

-

There’s so much time here in Punxsutawney. There’s no need to set deadlines or make commitments or earn money. In the absence of anything to work for, he has absolute freedom for entertainment. Except there can only be so much to do and so long that it brings him any joy to do it, especially considering that there is almost nothing to do in this miserable town. In the absence of pleasure, he seeks connection with others. But it’s not a linear stretch of eternity. It’s one day on loop. A nightmarish carnival ride he can’t get off of. Any relationship he creates is gone as soon as it’s established. Every second brings him closer to the moment it starts all over again. He keeps trying, grasping for something to hold onto. But every day ends before it begins and he lives in a world of shadows. He is the only thing that is real and solid. In the absence of anything to connect to, the only thing he can do is look inside himself.

So what does he see?

Nothing. He is nothing.

Maybe it was gradual. Maybe he was born like this. He seems to be missing some basic functional component that is required of a human person. Something that would give him the ability to be content with his life even when things are crummy, to be present in a given moment, to find things that he values and appreciates, to understand anyone at all ever, to feel emotions the way he’s supposed to feel them, to be someone who could be loved.

He wishes he could start over, rewind to a time long before February 2nd, and be someone entirely new. Really, he could even do without being male.

He wishes he could be someone like Rita.

She’s always so happy, so enraptured with everything around her. It could almost be annoying, but there’s just something about her that makes him want to see the world through her eyes. Everything is beautiful and exciting and new to her, and she’s so confident and put-together and smart and fun. She’s the perfect person, everything that he’s ever wanted and wanted to be.

And she will always hate him.

He knows he’s an insensitive, selfish, manipulative asshole. For as long as he can remember, he’d expected people to just accept that. But she’s the first person that made him want to be better. If she could love him, really love him, it would prove something. That he’s not broken.

Or would his feelings die as soon as she became another name on the list? Would it leave him as empty as everything else?

There is too much time to think. Some days he can tune out and just go through the routine, but he can’t maintain it. Too many repetitions and he starts to panic. So he tries to be a conscious observer. But there’s nothing to observe, so he turns inward. And God, is he sick of hearing his stream of thought. Mostly it ends up being how everyone thinks he’s an annoying jerk and he’ll never really belong here and there’s no future and no point to even getting out of bed and the reason the only intimacy he can get is meaningless sex is because his body is the only thing of value he has, but also he’s ugly and old and fat and worthless and he can’t look in the mirror anymore and he doesn’t want to talk to or be seen by anyone and he just wants it all to stop and there’s this pounding sound in the back of his head asking why he doesn’t just get it over with, finish the equation and remove himself.

He’s just so tired of trying to find reasons to live.

He’ll never get to start over. He’ll never get his childhood back. He’ll never be any better than this.

He’s still sitting in his room at the Bed & Breakfast. Hours have passed and he hasn’t moved. Morning is coming fast. As he turns off the light and puts himself to bed, he thinks of Nancy.

He knows that they’re the same kind of person. They both had their innocence taken from them, and they will play a role forever, chasing after something they know they can never have. At the same time, he’s also got enough decency to admit that he’s the exact type of creepy older man who would have treated her like she was just an object here for him to have fun with, stripped of her deeper humanity. He has done just that, many times with more women than he can count. It doesn’t matter that he knows it’s wrong because he knows he will do it again and again and again.

If he had to be honest with himself, he’s not sure he’s a much better person than his 9th grade Spanish teacher.

He closes his eyes tight and begins to weep into his pillow, clutching it. The dread of having to get through another cycle tears through him in deep shuddering sobs. As he finally drifts to sleep, he thinks that he is ready for the void of nothingness to take him.

-

“WHO IS THAT WHO IS THAT EMERGING FROM HIS BU-”

Without a moment of hesitation, he picks up the alarm clock and smashes it hard on the table. He continues to beat it after it’s gone silent just to see it all come apart. When he’s done, he’s breathing heavily and the catharsis ripples through the air. The violent burst subsides and becomes replaced with hollowness. As he stares at the broken pieces in his hands, a shroud of finality settles over him. This is it. The last gray morning. He is going to die today.