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Grand Kitsch

Jane Elliott lives in Eugene, Oregon. This is her first attempt at science fiction and her first professional publication.

***Editor's Note: Adult language, adult story***
I always knew that I wanted to try it at least once. It was one of those things everyone talked about like it was all spec and grand and kitsch, and I was at the GameHead with Maressa and Gen and Hole and Jex, and it all felt suddenly juvenile. Like, life was for doing things, maybe, and we were just running around this padded room chasing half wolf-people with chainsaws, and I was so completely bored of it all, you know?
We didn't go to school that day cause it was a Wednesday, and Wednesdays are optional, and the next day was the weekend, so we were just hanging around for hours. Maressa kept checking her zits in the plate she got on her arm because plates were pretty new just then, and Maressa's was massive, like, the whole sleeve. Usually people get that done a little at a time, you know, the wrist first, then up to the elbow, and etc., but Maressa went in and got the whole thing done in one sitting. And, after, everyone was knocking on the metal and talking about how grotesque it was, and I touched it once, but only because I wanted to see if it was hollow, and then I was kind of done with it, right?
Anyway, the boys kept disappearing around the toilets, and I was getting left alone with Maressa while she checked her reflection and scratched holes in her cheeks, and then the boys would come back with their eyes all wide and black, and I think Hole was crashing hard on something cause he was seriously on the floor laughing his ass off about the way some little holo girl was getting her face gnawed on, and it was sick, I guess, but in this awful, average kind of way. Like, they made her squirm too much and put her in this cutesy little sundress, so you could see her legs twitch, and I just hated watching it and hated how normal it all seemed.
Around the middle of the night when half the crowd was on the floor sleeping like babies, I saw Gen up at the door chatting with the skinny old hunchback who ran the booth, maybe getting another session or getting kicked out, I wasn't sure. But I liked the way he kind of held himself apart from everything, like, there was so much going on in his head that no one could ever know. And Gen and I went out sometimes, so I just grabbed his arm and pulled him outside, and the stars were doing that thing where they wink back and forth at each other, and it was all so, I don't know, kitsch, maybe?
I was like, "Let's get outta here," like in the old shows.
And he thought that was pretty funny, so we slipped into his car and stopped at the drug store on the corner, and then Gen drove me off into the night.
We drove for hours until we were out at the edge of Portland in that weird scattered land where it blends into Seattle. And there's a lot of stuff still, but it's all the kind of divey stuff, or the stuff that you go to when you don't want to spend so much, and you don't care that you have to walk around some dingy fluorescent showroom with static holos and fashions from, like, two months ago? And we were stopped in this no man's land cause Gen said he'd never go back to Seattle cause it was the asshole of America, or something like that, so we pulled over and took a couple Drops, and he turned the roof transparent, so we could kind of fall into the sky. We were holding hands over the console, and I was stroking where the hair on his thumb grew in long, and he let me into his RedFruit account, so we were streaming the same electro pastiche noise that always makes the air seem so foggy.
Then I felt myself falling back into my seat cause I dropped my dose thirty minutes before, and it was only supposed to last something like an hour. It was, like, a very brief walk, the guy had told us. I turned my head to ask for more, but Gen's eyes were all black and inky with his pupils opened up wide, and he looked kind of beautiful, and I saw the boutique across the street with its big green bells and stars, and I'd always wanted to try it, just to see what it was like, and the world was so boring, you know? And, anyway, everything seems sort of worth doing when you're cracked.
So I said, "What about that?"
I said.
And Gen turned around and pointed with his beef stick at the vid of the boy and the girl waltzing across the window, and he was like, "Yeah? Cause it might look good on us."
Then he squeezed my hand, and that felt right, and I got out of the car, and the streets were still wet from the sweeper in that way that makes the headlights look double. And it all just seemed so right. Like, exactly how everyone said it should be.
So, we got out of the car, and then, halfway across the street, he picked me up and put me over his shoulder. I screamed, but like laughing, in that way you only do when you feel like no one else is around? That's when I thought that I really did like Gen the best of most people, and that our life was sometimes just like shows. Which is what everyone is always looking for anyway. So I felt happy, and I screamed again and kicked against his legs until he put me down, and we stood together in front of the glowing door and the dancing vid and the home printed sign that said, "No Cards, No Cash." And that made everything feel so strange and old fashioned, which was just about perfect for me.
"Here goes."
That's what Gen said. I think he picked up that old fashioned feel, too.
"Here goes," he said.
And he winked at me with his huge black eyes, and he swung back the doors both at once, and he threw out his arm to gesture me inside, and I thought someone should, like, burst into song or something. Except Gen probably didn't even know that was how people used to do things. So I just smiled, and I waltzed inside like the girl in the window, and that's when everything started to turn around and get this very creep feeling, like, a giant rock in my stomach, and I didn't want to be there, anymore.
Almost right away I was talking myself down cause I knew that sometimes that heavy feeling just happens with Drops and inside spaces. But also, the floors were just too white, and the room was just too empty, and the girl at the big, white front desk stared too hard from beneath this spindly forest of fakes. I mean, she just had way too many glue-ons, and I thought, right then, that it was probably because she was a Rocker and had lost her last real ones from smoking her breaks away in the toilet stall. The shows had blips about that all the time.
There were these three hard plastic chairs in front of the desk. They were white, too. I guess it was supposed to be, like, a waiting room? But they were the kind of chairs you sit in when you're at the place to sell your blood. Which I didn't like because it reminded me of how they messed me up that one time and took more than they were supposed to. And I tried to tell the people in the lab jackets whenever they walked by, but they just kept checking the machines and saying it was fine, not fixing anything. And, then, when they finally took the tubes out, I stood up, and the whole room turned into these giant black spots, and I passed out so hard I cracked my skull on the table edge. When I woke up, I was laying back in the donation chair with a bag of juice next to me and some lady asking if I felt all right to drive or if they should call a hospital van. I said I felt fine, but they didn't even pay me any extra in the end, so I guess that was really a lie.
Anyway, there were three of those chairs in the waiting room, and I didn't like that either. It just felt so crooked that there were three. Not two or six or twelve or any number that made sense, but three. And, for a minute, I almost couldn't take how dingy the whole thing seemed. Or, not dingy, but sterile? Phony? Like a set up. Like one of those phony sets from the new shows when the host is like, "Look at this beautiful new apartment we gave this bum. Look at these fantastic drapes and this totally wonderful GM cooking set," but you can tell that all the walls are on rollers and the backstage guys are waiting to wheel the whole thing away as soon as the cameras turn off.
I pulled on Gen's sleeve for a while until he broke out of his trance, or whatever he was in, and looked down at me. Then I gave him these big quivering eyes, and I think he got how I was feeling because he lifted my chin with his hand and laid another drop under my tongue and squeezed my hand until I cooled off and got all fascinated by the way the long bare bulbs glared up at me in the floor tiles. Then I forgot for a little while that the place where we were standing was scary and not quite real.
Sometime, I don't really know when, the lady with the forest eyes gave this fake little cough, like, "hu-huhm."
And I remembered we should at least tell her our names.
I was still back by the door, so I kind of lurched forward and walked up like a robot. That's how it feels, sometimes. And I saw her nails for the first time. They were, like, three inches long and acid green and just clack-clacking on her pure white tablet top, waiting to call up the screen and punch in whatever our names were and whatever we wanted to get, and, for a second, the whole thing made the sick come up in my mouth, but then I swallowed it and remembered that the Drops do that sometimes, too.
"Kadence Cross and Genesis Lopez," I said.
Except I said it all pushed together, so she couldn't understand, and I had to try two more times and finally just tap it in on the screen myself. Tap, tap, with my naked finger, all bitten down so the skin hangs ragged and gets red and infected sometimes. Tap, tap, I got our names in the screen, and they looked right, I thought, but she was still staring at me with her lips tight like a mom does? I could hear the light buzzing behind me in that flickering way, and the whole room was glaring at me again, and I was all alone because Gen got lost in some blank wall like a baby.
And that's when I started to wonder if I really wanted my first time to be with him and not, I don't know, maybe Hole or Jex? He was just so, I don't know, not there? But, like, all the time. I mean, sometimes we got cracked together, but even days that I didn't feel like flying, he'd still drop and be gone for hours while I just sat around watching the shows or sucking flavor pills because I was bored, and there was nothing else to do.
"What package?"
The lady blinked so hard about it that I thought she'd break her fakes. And when she asked, I shook my head a bit and knew it was really too late to turn back. You know that feeling when you think you should do something, but then you think you shouldn't, but then you feel bad because you think you, like, led someone on, or something? Like, you shouldn't go back on your word?
So I tried to forget about Gen for a minute, and I just thought about the lady and the white door behind the desk and how exciting it felt to be like a grownup and making these big decisions.
Because getting married isn't something you should do lightly, right? It's this big, serious thing.
So I kind of forgot about Gen and how he was just back there staring at the wall, and I looked through all the themes and hmmed at the different tattoos and crinkled my eyebrows together really hard while I flipped between my two top choices, like, coi? Or Greek? Because fish were really spectacle just then, and Maressa got one dripping out her ear and down her neck a few days before. But Greek was just so real. And you could write anything in it, and it just seemed so much better if you had to explain it. Besides, the letters were pretty grand.
"What do you think?" I asked the lady.
I was pursing my lips and feeling all adult about it because adults always make chit-chat and ask for second opinions, but she just shrugged at me and started playing the latest episode of Vicious Thin in the corner of her tablet top, which was a pretty awful show.
But I got distracted for a little while anyway because Craze was puking, even though his gums were all pulled back from his teeth because of stomach acid or something? And his best friend Freeze said she'd kill herself if she ever caught him doing it ever again, and it was hard not to get caught up in the drama.
Then a blip came up for flavor pills, and I kind of blinked away from the screen and pointed to the fish cause they were the first thing I saw, and I thought they'd look nice floating around our wrists, and, plus, I didn't know what I would want to say in Greek anyway.
I shook Gen until he looked away from the wall, and the lady shot our order back with one of her acid green fingertips. Then the white door opened in the shiny white wall, and we walked into the back room with this greased, skeezy old punker who hadn't changed his clothes since, like, the 20's, and after that the rest was all just weird and clinical.
We sat in black plastic chairs in a tiny tile room, and the longest part ended up being the tattoo, even though I hear it used to take a lot longer before they had the stamps. Then the admin sliced under the nails of our fourth fingers and slid these little chips into the skin. It hurt a lot, and I didn't like looking at the blood that kind of welled up in a bubble. And that was that.
Now, everywhere we went, the scanners would read our fingers and know that we were legal. Gen would get blips about my favorite food and my dream vacation spot and which new pants I tagged for my wish list next Christmas. We'd get updates on each other's diets and heart rates and cholesterol levels and GPS coordinates so we could always find each other, I guess.
"It's romantic, isn't it?" I asked the skeezer before we left, but he didn't answer
And then Gen was staring at the door and all like, "Come on."
He was still holding that beef stick and pointing around with it, this time to the exit that opened out back and into the alleyway. I followed him, and the door clicked shut behind us, and there were a couple of trash bins and a roll of toilet paper that someone had
pushed, so it made a trail into the street.
Genesis pulled out the dropper again, and I looked up into his black eyes and hollow cheeks and made myself think, We're married. Isn't it just so real? This is so grand and real and romantic, over and over again.
"What a show, right?" he said.
His eyes kind of opened a little wider, and he grabbed my hand in his. But my finger was still sore, so I pulled away from him because he wasn't paying too much attention, and he squeezed it a little too hard. Then he was walking down the alley back toward his car.
"What a fucking show. Let's go to the party, so people can see."
I remembered that there was a party at Maressa's, and I thought that I used to want her to see how the fish curled around the bones of my wrist, but somehow that didn't feel right anymore. Like, maybe fish weren't the right choice. Maybe they weren't as spec as I thought they would be.
"Come on," he was yelling cause he was already at the car.
But I was falling pretty hard just then, and the yelling grated in my head, I hated him a little bit anyway, I think, because I was already tired of his face and that stupid beef stick and his shiny black eyes that were always staring out at nothing. And I'd never liked the way he drove or kept himself apart from everything, like a kid trying to get everyone's attention.
"Kadence, so, let's go," he said.
And I thought, Who is this guy?
So I said, "It's not a fucking show, right? We're married. What
does that mean to you?"
And he was like, "Are you crazy? Do you need another drop or what?"
And I said, "What does it mean to you?"
And he was like, "Crash, real, why am I even listening to this?"
And I said, "I can go back inside right now and pull this shit out of my finger, if that's what you want."
And he was like, "I. Want. To. Go. To. The. Party."
All slow, like I was slow. So I turned around to storm back inside cause I thought that might make him sorry and change his mind, but, when I got to the door, there was no handle, just the smooth metal surface and the brick wall. I started clawing at it anyway, you know, for effect. I really wanted him to know how much I wanted to get back inside. Then maybe he would get it, and I wouldn't have to hate everything so much.
And I was screaming, "You're such a fucking juvenile. You're just a fucking child."
Anyway, I gave up after a minute and turned around, and I was shaking, and my stomach was dropping, and I could feel myself making my face all tragic for him, but I still really felt it too, you know? Like, we were supposed to do something, and this was a big night, but it all ended up so fake and boring like the girl in the sundress. Which I guess made Gen just another Hole, laying around, laughing, so gone he never noticed how everything is exactly the same as everything else.
And I think I might have been crying, and I let myself do it, but it wasn't a show either, you know? I really meant it, but it didn't matter either way cause Gen was gone. I thought for a minute whether this was just jitters or whether it was really over, but then I knew that I didn't have to wonder. I already knew the answer, and, even with as big as everyone said it should be? even this wouldn't matter tomorrow.
After that I stood alone for a while in the dead zone, and I kind of wished it could go on forever. If it could just go on, I thought, and I could go back into the olden times where things were less ordinary and something more like what's true then, I don't know, I think I had some answer then for what would happen that night, but I don't remember it now.
That was when I started walking down this empty road, and it was wet so the lights were doubled, and I walked past the big green bells and the buzzing streams, and I walked even further. I walked out and further, and I think I was waiting for someone to come from behind the scenes and push back all these rolling walls that kept pressing in at me and flashing their window displays. If I could just find a way to roll them back, I thought, I could get the rock out of my stomach, and maybe I would understand why it was more real to cry when I'm alone and why everything I know is sometimes nothing. And why the whole world seems the least awful if I can just stare up and up and fall into the far off winking stars.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 7th, 2014

Author Comments

A year ago now, a good friend of mine told me, "I'd marry anyone once." It was meant as a joke, but I never quite let it go. It expressed so succinctly the many ways in which I saw our culture, our very human connections, becoming disposable.

When this story finally came, it was like one of my eavesdropping sessions at the mall. A teenage girl sat across the table from me and told me all about her life a half a century in the future. The bleakness of her landscape disturbed me--but particularly in the ways that her world seemed such a natural progression of our own.

- Jane Elliott
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