My new friends and I live in garages like our parents think we’re cars. Their parents needed space in the house for another generation of siblings. And I parked myself here because my soon-to-be ex-wife is in our soon-to-be sold house and my childhood bedroom is now an office.
My married friends like to spend time with other couples. So since I was uncoupled, my new peers are their younger siblings, the ones we used to kick and abuse when they were annoying. They’re always in my garage, because it’s a two-car, where we play video games and drink beer.
They invite other Generation Z members to my place, which is how I met Sylvia. Nerdy, but in the hot-nerdy sort of way. I felt that click I have always needed to feel right away.
We talk for hours on the phone. She calls late one night, her voice stammering, while she stares through a hole in her car window at broken glass and an old CD I gave her of The Cure on the seat. I say things that begin with: listen. And: focus. Her breathing becomes a whisper. I call the red and blue light people and then call her back and pretend she’s safe while I drive to meet her. Later, while I try to sleep, engine still revving, I think about how she hugged me, her cold face flickering red and blue in the dark chill.
The next day, I painted the garage. Clean coats over the spill-stained floor, moody blue walls. I discarded beer cans and bought what IKEA calls a table and a couch. I called her but she didn’t pick up, so I drank beer alone in my new atmosphere.
Sylvia begins dating one of the other guys her age. So I start dating a Gen-Zer who likes me and doesn’t remind me at all of my ex-waif. Maria is exotic and curvy as opposed to Euro-Vogue. Shy instead of strident. She knows how to stand in leggings. Knows but doesn’t know she knows. You know? It’s like moving from a red state to a blue state.
The first few times after our lips locked, she looked shyly down at her Adidas afterward and thanked me. We went shopping in the mall where I held other girls’ hands ten years ago and attacked each other in dressing rooms. I bought her things. She only wore black or sometimes white, seldom any colors. We don’t talk a lot but everything else is good.
Months pass. Sylvia and her boyfriend break up and I still live in a garage. Maria tags along on my pool-cleaning route, watching me drip drops of various colors into tubes of water. She says I look like a chemist. I shake the testing kit, her face a blur through the undecided hues. She asks if I want to go hear a band with her friends tonight. I shrug.
Later, we arrive at a defunct strip mall where a band plays to a Gen-Z crowd sitting all over the floor like it’s a carpet picnic. Everyone here knows all the words to their original material. I stand in the back near the red exit sign. Now the band is playing a punk version of “You’re Nobody ‘Till Somebody Loves You.” I look up when the song says “as sure as the stars shine above,” but there are no stars. The popcorn ceiling has these little shiny flecks that look like fake little stars. We break up a few days later.
It’s New Year’s Eve at a party with the usual group and Sylvia and her ex are there. But he soon declares he’s going to another party. She sprints outside. Fifteen minutes later, she returns alone, biting her lip, like she’s trying to re-taste something. Or maybe it’s self-harm for nerds. She doesn’t strike me as an actress; I’ve been married to one. I put my arm around her.
I watch from the couch as people pass out, while others carry red or blue cups around like there are teams. Sylvia’s head is on my shoulder and we keep talking. Hazy blue eyes look up at me. Booze and a botanical garden waft into my nose as her red lips say, “Why didn’t he want me?” Then she lays down sideways, face nested between pillow and couch. I lean over her, hoping to see what her red lips would feel like against mine. But she is already gone and I can barely reach to put my tongue in her ear.
A year later, the sunset sky looks like a litmus test on my walk to the local dive bar. The pub is an old ship that has endured decades of seething foam and unsteady minnows. A band of leathery vampires are on a cramped stage, menacing their instruments. I swim through dancing people clinging to glasses, to each other.
I find the faces I knew or know. Sylvia is with a nerdy looking guy who is her fiance. I tell her he seems nice and how has she been? She says, “Well, no one stuck their tongue in my ear, so I guess this year was a bust.” I look down at my shoes and say, “Thank you.”
After the last couple leaves me alone in this crowded place, I walk to the restroom in the back and feel the ship sway. At the urinal, I’m critical of my aim. There is a red lipstick stain on my shirt from when we hugged. Mocking me, the way that stains do. Like it’s something that can’t be undone, or ever return to the useful thing it was prior. So I look up instead at the off-white popcorn ceiling of this dive bar like I’m staring into heaven for answers. But it’s only Dive Heaven, not the real one. So there are no answers.