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The other day I was driving down the road—Tandem Street, I guess the equivalent to anyone else’s Main Street, one I drive down at least once a week, if not five times—and I noticed that the I Ching Restaurant was gone.

Razed. Demolished. Destroyed.

I mean, just unthere. What had been its spot in the world was now an empty, expansive lot. And a valuable piece of real estate, I might add.

Now, it could have disappeared hours or a month ago. Progress consumes landmarks all the time around here. A new strip shopping center, a gas station, a furniture store replaced by a shoe store, a string of small businesses sacrificed to give us groceries—it’s rare that anything receives a simple facelift, but that happens, too. Our dingy dollar movie theater became a clubby super music store, flooded with neon. In other words, what once passed for a neighborhood is now a fitting metaphor for the techno age.

You stop noticing after a while.

My grandfather remembered Tandem Street when it was a dirt road. He used to say that all the time before he died, gripped in a nostalgia that had become a permanent state of mind rather than a fleeting occurrence, and incidentally, that was before things had really started to change. He would never recognize this road now. I think I have been robbed of those kinds of memories—it’s like, I remember when that skyscraper was a 7-11. Only it wasn’t “when I was a girl,” or “seems like yesterday”—it was yesterday.

I digress. Which seems fitting for a story set in a place that has become one tremendous digression—but all of that is beside the point. I'm trying to talk about the I Ching restaurant, because I’m sure one day soon I'll have forgotten it ever existed.

When I was seventeen, I was a vegetarian, and I was in love. In fact, I was a vegetarian because I was in love. Funny how that works.

Brandon and I were young, and thought of nothing but punk rock and each other. I dressed in black all the time, and had hair dyed to match, that unnatural blue-black that never occurs in nature; he was a “positive skin,” which of course meant that he was not a racist skinhead and would never beat up Geraldo for any but the most morally upright reasons. I wore the leather jacket he gave up in a fit of vegetarian guilt, but in which he still liked to fuck me. His uniform consisted of a black bomber jacket, T-shirts, suspenders, and jeans—oh yeah, the jeans. I still remember the way he looked in them, all about strong leg muscles and something that I wasn’t supposed to know yet.

We both wore Doc Martens before they were hip, as we ruled in the realm of anti-fashion. I was quiet, pale and withdrawn; he had intense blue eyes flecked with gold to speak for him, and because he was bald there was nothing to obscure them; those sparkling eyes could make you forget all fear, and maybe even everything else, too.

Heckled by passersby, threatened by jock assholes in school, called freaks and derided; we just didn’t care. A lot of the time, we just laughed at the sheer joy of it all. We went downtown to see hardcore shows and just to be slumming, just to see what we considered real. We rocked against Reagan every year on the Fourth of July; we were environmentally conscious and suitably terrified of nuclear war and capitalist oppression. We ripped the world out of its slumber—or so we thought—uncaring of the frayed edges, and unthinking any realities that might torture our ideals.

But we did believe, which in retrospect, really is saying something. And we were anti-conformist before its definition became style.

And back then, I didn’t drive, in fact, I didn’t start to drive until the ripe old age of twenty-one.

"I'm never going to drive," Brandon proclaimed. "Why the fuck would we need to contribute more to the greenhouse effect. We've already fucked up this planet enough."

"I'm never going to drive, either," I promised. Where we lived, these conversations always occurred against a backdrop of Volvos, Saabs, Mercedes, and Beamers. Driving became another symptom of being made captive by The Man.

So how did we get around? We had friends who drove their parents' cars, Hondas and Hyundais and other less offensive vehicles, and Brandon and I would get down to it in the backseats, because the only society that mattered was our own, there in the darkness with the flashes of streetlights, because we were all that mattered, and damn it, we were hungry.

Being a vegetarian makes you hungry.

"Maybe I shouldn't be wearing leather," I mentioned once, ruefully, touching the jacket. I loved its smell, that distinct blend of cowhide and long-gone cigarette smoke; I thought of my boots and how perfectly molded they were to my feet, how they made me feel strong.

"It's different," Brandon said.

"No, I don't think it is." I wanted to believe it was.

"Fuck it, I already bought the jacket, and do you have the money for new shoes? Besides, your feet'll get crushed at shows without the boots," he said. "You can't wear those damn black slippers in the pit like Anna does. I mean, eating meat every day, all you're doing is causing them to slaughter more animals so you can shit them back out again, and that's the whole point of not eating them anymore, eh?"

Our vegetarianism was in sympathy for the animals—rejecting the role of organic coffins for the dead, nausea greeting the sight of packaged meat in horrific bright-lit grocery stores, and so we scoffed at barbecues despite the fact that we were hellbent for leather.

The vegetarianism and animal rights rhetoric broke the hearts of my Italian great-aunts and my rural, dairy farmer grandparents (insulting culture on the one side and their livelihood on the other).

"Can't you eat one meatball?" my aunts would ask, wheedling, hovering, sometimes even shrieking, aprons splashed with meaty tomato sauce, wooden spoons brandished. "You'll die without meat! Manja!"

"People like you are going to put farmers out of business," my dad would grumble, on lunch break before more tending of the dairy cows. My every-other-weekend visits had turned into one weekend every other month when I hit my teenage years. Which was fine considering I missed Brandon when I was away from home, and Brandon did not belong in that world.

Brandon’s mother made us carefully prepared vegetarian meals, though. I’m not sure why. She disliked me even as she carefully assumed the fašade of tolerance; I would imagine she thought I was easy, especially after she caught us screwing. It seems to me now that we had no concept that anyone could think that anything we did was wrong, and that we expected nothing less than respect for all of our actions, all of our beliefs—including getting caught in a state of half-undress, eyes sparkling, reeking of pheromones, the condom still hanging on.

"You need some lessons on being a young lady! How very forthcoming you are!" she bellowed.

"It's not her fault," Brandon yelled. "I thought I told you never to come into my room without knocking! And you have no right to tell us what to do!"

"A girl like this will get you into trouble, Brandon!"

He returned fire. "You don't know what you're talking about! It's not your world anymore! There are no sluts, there are no sexual roles like that! Fuck off!"

He was so red in the face it looked like he wanted to explode, and some part of me wanted to laugh because his johnson was still hanging out of his pants. We pulled ourselves together as the screaming continued, stormed out (Brandon's father hid in a corner of the door, trying hard to fight laughter as we left; I could almost hear him thinking, "That's my boy!" and I liked that much better than the screaming.), and we walked our punk rock walk down the street to our friend Anna's house. She told her own parents to fuck off just to be in keeping with the day, and took us to Roy’s so that I could chainsmoke cigarettes and freak out. We also went to the drugstore so Brandon could buy a new pair of underwear. During the fray, he had grabbed the ones he had been wearing and stuffed them into his pocket, only to throw them out the car window later. I don’t know why he took them with him when we left the battle; somehow that had seemed an important gesture as we made our hasty retreat that, of course, could not be considered a surrender, only a strategy of live for now, and live to fight another day.

I was reasonably upset about the whole thing, although underwear flying into the windshield of some rich bitch’s Mercedes helped. I didn’t want his mom to hate me, but we consoled ourselves with the knowledge that we were special, and no one could rob us of that. I think—no, I’m sure—that eventually we laughed. Fuck them all.

I remember one time when it snowed.

I used to fall down a lot—whether the conditions were icy or dry. I was clumsy and not always sure-footed in the world of the material. Brandon and I stood kissing in my front yard, and then suddenly he grabbed my hands and started spinning me around and around. The cold world stung my face, it spun around me in monochrome shades of white and bleak, and I laughed and so did he.

Did I feel safe? Not really, not like now when I laugh about things and around things instead of while they are happening, because these things are usually rather horrifying, and tinged with fear … we always worry, I suppose, that the one we love is going to let go.

And did he? Of course he did. And you know, it was a shock, but I was okay.

Well, anyway, as I said before, we were vegetarians. That might not seem very important, but it is in a story about connections. The fact that the I Ching is gone now made me think of Brandon, because that restaurant had some very good vegetarian food—for example, black mushrooms that tasted just like beef. We went there a lot, and we went there for prom, which was when things were winding down; we were seniors in high school and after the coming summer, everything would change. Which we knew, but we really didn’t know how much everything would change. I was so in love with him that I suppose I would have followed him to the ends of the world, which seemed possible because he was from New Zealand.

"Will you love me forever?" I asked him.

"I will love you till the world ends," he replied.

What I did not realize then was that the world as we know it, ends a little bit at a time, every single day.

But as age and reality and the future began creeping up … we discussed how we would be logical, how we would be fair. I was staying in the area, going to a college that was only two hours away; he was going ten hours away, to Boston. We were very firm that we would have to do the right thing and break up (love is not flowers and hearts and the dreams of your parents and the suburban metaphor and the sculptured shrubbery … the two-car garage, the minivan—we didn't even have those then—love is not). We would date other people, we would explore the wild frontier of the future. Deep down, I know I thought that somehow it would all work out, that he would realize how much he loved me when I was gone, that we would start a life together, yes, somehow.

Being vegetarians, as I said before, somehow made us hungrier than most people. I suppose it’s something about deliberate denial … one appetite becomes another. I don’t think many people can understand that there is something very dangerous and dark about denial, not in this world where everyone feels they should take what they want.

Everything was about stripping each other down and devouring each other in passionate, sweaty lovemaking, replacing all the things we voluntarily refused ourselves. Screwing, screwing, screwing … since we were straightedge, we were screwing for lack of meat, for lack of booze, for lack of drugs, for lack of freedom. I could remember the smell of him long after he was gone, registered sensory flashes of the way his strong body felt and the way he looked when he came, that crazy look in his eyes that I liked to watch straight on—we never turned off the lights.

I think for a long time, once I had gone off to college, I searched for someone to take his place in my life. But no one ever felt the same, and the lights were off a great deal, as if there was a shame about it all, and maybe there was. I fell in love, a great big love, after Brandon, but the love was not the same, full of deceit and games and a plunging sense of self. Brandon and I had done many things, many kinky, unspeakable things, but game playing was not one of them.

Brandon and I called it fucking, but I didn’t learn what fucking really was until after he was gone.

But while he was there… it was somehow all about clean, and honest…

Under and on top of the pool table, on the stairs, in the woods, on the backseat, in a back room of somebody else’s house, in the backyard, on the playground, tied up, tied down, everywhere, everywhere, anywhere with Brandon, no fear. It was worshipful, it was innocent even as it defiled, even as it paved the way for later days when these would become the ways you use and are used.

So hungry, so pale and white, the blood that we missed from the absence of red meat, the blood pounding within our veins only, the consumption of the flesh that can only come from some great natural deed that made eating seem mundane, the need, the breathing, and the pounding.

Right before we left for college, he wrote me notes in his left-handed, sloping handwriting, in his blood, proclaiming his love for me. I hung them on my dorm room wall, then later pressed them in a book, opening it only sometimes; I would unfold them and notice how brown that blood had become, how old the paper, how these things were different than they used to be. Their originator, so far away, was now between someone else’s legs, doing and dealing drugs, and probably eating meat.

Things had become less special, and less important, I suppose, and I wonder if I ever thought that that was all right, that it was all just part of collecting the years.

The last I ever heard about him was that he had finally left college without his degree and moved back to his country. Here in the States, Brandon had become immersed in the business of drugs—there is no doubt in my mind that there is a clear delineation between using drugs as a recreation and as a livelihood. Hard and cold, he was not above selling to kids too young to know any better, young enough to grow up into very good customers indeed—he was someone who had gone from innocent, pure and straightedge to a young man wearing a costume, a mask, growing up into a man who had lost his ethics.

And so apparently he just got tired and gave up on the New World for good. Maybe he decided that America, a land that he hated for its capitalist dream, had seduced him after all, and when he explored the future, he discovered the root of all evil, and he found it burning holes in him.

When he moved back to his country, Anna told me he got back together with his childhood girlfriend—the one before me, the only one before me—and they moved in together. It probably ended up a forever thing. The future had gone dirty on him; perhaps he realized that he had lost control of it and so swallowed its bitterness and ran away to his past. I had never known him to be cowardly, but then again, I had never known him when life was very real.

I had always wondered if he loved me the same as he loved that other girl, his first. A mutual friend told me that, other than the first one, I was the only girl who hadn’t hurt him.

So what does my own future hold? Somehow, my loves have always really belonged to someone else. Maybe it all comes down to finding someone else who is so tired of it all, that the only comfort left to them is to forget all about the passion that 'in love' means. Maybe they have to believe that their first love is dead, or somehow that it wasn’t real at all, which is an easy conviction if you are not too romantic and consider that person lost. That's when you set up house, make a nice life together and produce a few children with a good dose of practical, comfortable lovemaking of the flannel variety. No leather, no latex—nice, soft warm flannel and fuzzy bedroom shoes for pacing away the sleepless nights, knowing that nothing is wrong but not feeling quite right either.

I wanted to hold out for whatever it was that was real, and look ahead instead of behind.

You know the memories you have of the first time you did something, something that you would do for the rest of your life, something that is a habit, an addiction? And once in a while are you haunted by a sudden remembrance of what that first fateful time was like?

Once in a while, on a summer’s day, when the wind is just right and the world is a certain amount of green, not hot and humid but just that luscious springtime warm, I will take a drag off my cigarette and suddenly the rush of the first time I ever smoked will be upon me, and suddenly I know why I do it, and suddenly it is again much more than a habit, rather something more meaningful. That summer breeze will blow through my hair, and caress my skin, and it is like being young again, with everything so green being seen with new eyes, and the taste …

And the taste. I eventually found someone else who made me suddenly recall the first time I ever truly made love and really meant it. He made me remember what it was like to arch myself into the convergence, although I did not understand that it would not always be that way, not then; he made me remember how to be such a pure animal as to drag my long fingers along his back in an effort to bring him closer and not to leave me alone, leaving the long savage marks, and find the skin under my nails afterwards. And although I adored Brandon I suppose I had no way of knowing that it would not always be that way, and I had already subscribed to the point of view that I would never need a man for anything; and I am not sure that Brandon ever really knew that I needed him at all, even when I held him as if I would never let him go, and maybe that was always my fatal flaw, the absolute, stubborn, terrified refusal to ever show need, because it felt too much like weakness, and I could never be that.

Ten years after Brandon, this other great love made me realize why sex is powerful and why it is terrifying in a way that I never could have understood when I was young; it is powerful not because I can take it and force it to mean nothing, but because it is a force to reckon with, because when love is real it is the closest thing we can come to God, because it holds the most terrifying secret of all—the screaming in your genes when you look at someone and feel that they whisper in your soul, and you understand why you would want to create some image of yourselves, and immortalize who you are together for all time; if only to sustain yourself through the terror of loss, and the fears of mortality, and the sneaking suspicion that what they say is true—that all things end.

Did he leave? Of course he did.

Even though he knew I was strong, and he knew I was brave, and he knew I was beautiful, and he knew I was smart, and that I didn't need him, that I wanted him, and not for who he could be but for who he was. And still, he didn't stay.

To lose feels like being lost; to lose feels like being a gambler without the skill, without the luck, without the looks, and, well, just without.

Brandon and I engaged in quite a bit of oneupsmanship when we shared that phone call. When we both told the other that we had slept with other people; there was more than a little fuck you between the lines in the conversation.

"He's really good looking. And good in bed. We did it in a barber chair," I found myself saying, all bravado, a dark part of me hoping to God I'd hurt him and make him realize something.

"Ginger used to date the lead singer of the Forbidden Zone," Brandon responded. There was more than just the distance to Boston between us. He won; my attempt at showing him how well I was moving on fell far short of that. What's more, Anna told me later that he was totally in love with his conquest.

"Ginger," Anna told me later, "was pregnant with somebody else's kid when she started having sex with Brandon."

I sat silent on the phone until Anna cleared her throat. "You're shitting me," I said, finally.

"No, it's true, she got rid of it, though. She gave him crabs, too."

"Christ. Anna, I've got to go."

Later, I wrote him a letter with my heart in my mouth, a bitter thing, and asked him, what was it like having sex with her like that? Did it bite? Not to mention the wildlife factor. Those bite, too.

I don’t remember how he answered that letter, or if he even did at all, and I got to work forgetting. In the process, I found a new boyfriend. I do remember that I saw Brandon during winter break, and that things were already ice cold between us.

I saw him years later, when one of my best high school friends moved to Boston. On a visit, on a lark, we looked him up in the phone book. In the way that the earthshattering easily becomes the mundane, he answered the phone and said we could visit, and we did; he lived in a pretty bad part of town. He looked the same except for a terrible coldness around his eyes that had never been there when I was the one making love to him. He was covered in tattoos and gainfully employed dealing drugs and working as a bouncer in a bar on the side.

I hovered on the outskirts of the conversation, staring—for too long to feel comfortable—at the stars embedded deep in the black summer night, thinking about other places and other people who cared about me. They were seeing the same night sky, and were probably out drinking and laughing and maybe even wondering how I was doing and missing me, and I wished for them instead of this horrible pain. I only made the attempt to talk to him a few times. I ended up so insulted that I finally wandered away, far enough away to make the symbolic break. I received nothing but some definition of distance that had nothing to do with space, and the realization that forgetfulness is one of the major highways to change, and it’s probably the easiest route, too.

The world is changing. I found out years later that the I Ching restaurant was run by a bunch of aging hippies, and not by anyone even close to being Chinese, but the food was good, which now seems to me to be the important part. I can turn away from the old habits that turned out to be other people’s masquerade balls, signifying nothing.

Some things have ceased to matter, while other things took their place. I work every day, I am tired, and the world of men has come to disappoint me. I still wear Doc Martens, which are now mainstream fashion. I’ve never gotten past discomfort at wearing any of the primary colors, and I count the coming gray hairs which, though premature in their arrival, certainly signify some coming of age. It’s hard to tell what to give up, though a lot of things become given up by default; those are the easiest things to justify, the ones you hardly notice as they leave.

I eat meat now. I eat it bloody and rare. It's another prepackaged symbol of survival. I don’t pity the animals anymore, not since I’ve realized that they don’t have the capacity to feel sorry for me. They have no concept of what we all stand to lose. Maybe somehow they are lucky that way, so dig in. But I know now that there are many shades of loss and destruction.

Brandon is somewhere, changed, a faded photograph of another time, another memory snipped to pieces, swept under the rug. In so many ways, he was the first real memory I ever had of what it was to love and what it was to lose. But do you believe in happy endings? Should you, and should I? I just met someone who I swear to God I thought I knew the first time I saw him. Then I realized I had never seen him before in my life, not in this one. Maybe I'll never really know him, and maybe I can't have him. But then again—and stories are all about what happens at the end—maybe all of this happened for a reason, maybe this happenes so that I could see the light of recognition in someone's eyes. Perhaps this time, he'll be the one who was not meant to leave. Maybe.


 
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Alyce LomaxAlyce Lomax has been writing since she could scribble, and has considered that her vocation ever since. Publication credits include articles for The Motley Fool, and short fiction in Vol. 3, Issue 4 of Scrivener's Pen. A native of the Washington, D.C. area, she attended St. Mary's College of Maryland.

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