21-Year-Old Scotch: Chapter 6
published February 19, 2017
The hits just keep on coming in the wake of Scott’s breakup with Amanda.
If Scott had learned one important lesson from this trip into the past, it would be “Never eat a huge breakfast while outing yourself to your future wife while the dregs of a random mixture of various types of alcohol are still swirling like a cauldron in your belly.” He might have to get that needlepointed on a throw pillow. Scott felt like he had swallowed a bowling ball whole.
Weighed down by his breakfast which had turned out to be unexpectedly heavy in more ways than one, Scott had lost the energetic spring in his step. His feet scraped along the cement as he slogged his way back to Jared’s house, hoping to retrieve his wallet and apartment key. When he reached the front door, he first pressed the doorbell, but heard no accompanying sound. He knocked softly, but got no answer. A little harder; still nothing. Finally, he pounded on the door with enough force and volume that people three houses away were coming outside, thinking someone was knocking at THEIR door. Even if Jared was still dead to the world, that should have been enough to rouse him.
Just then, a terrifying thought popped into Scott’s mind. What if Jared WAS dead to the world? Sure, Jared had been snoring when Scott had snuck into his room this morning, but what if Jared had thrown up in his sleep after that? Certainly he’d heard of enough celebrities who croaked that way. Why couldn’t a celebrity die like that before they even became a celebrity? What if Scott’s behavior at the party last night had somehow changed history? What if, instead of going on to becoming a movie star, Jared Taylor died in obscurity in college because a couple of drunken idiots had dumped him face down in bed and left him alone to kick the bucket? What if Jared was in there choking to death on puke right this second? Scott knew his actions had already altered aspects of his own life, and now Amanda’s too, but what if his presence here was wreaking havoc on the fates of everyone else he came in contact with? The heaviness in the pit of his stomach now felt boulder-sized. He had to make sure Jared was okay.
Scott attempted to peek inside, but the shades were still pulled on all of the windows. He walked off the porch and around the side of the house, down the sloping lawn, until he figured out which windows matched up to Jared’s room. Unfortunately, those shades were closed too. He shouted “Jared!” several times, each one increasing in volume and hysteria, but got no response. He found a pebble on the ground and tossed it delicately toward the window, but its faint ping against the glass was barely audible. He grabbed a larger rock and lobbed it underhand, failing to factor in the power of his vital young arm. The stone zipped through the air and smashed through the lower pane of the window. The impact sent the shade whizzing upward to the ceiling. From the ground, Scott froze in position, grimacing, as dogs in nearby houses began to bark.
Scott’s instinct was to flee, but then he still wouldn’t know Jared’s status. He crept toward the house and stretched his arms toward the window frame, gripping the sill with his fingertips. His upper-body muscles pulled him higher with remarkable ease. He could see the headshots and happy-couple photos on the wall, so he knew he had the right room. Gripping his deck shoes against the wall, he boosted himself until his chin was resting on the sill. Through the fractured window, Scott could see that the bed was empty, and all the remaining jackets of the guests were gone. Shards of broken glass were dispersed across the floor and bedspread, and the rock had skidded to a halt among the clothes piled in the closet.
Relieved, Scott dropped himself nimbly to the ground, making a perfect three-point Spider-man landing. After a quick scan of the surroundings to make sure no neighbors or cops heading his way, he ducked around the house and strolled to the front sidewalk. Perhaps overdoing his effort to look nonchalant, he stuck his hands in his pockets and began whistling random notes that never neared anything resembling a tune. His heart doing paradiddles, he took a right at the next street corner and picked up his pace to a brisk walk.
Scott felt more conspicuous walking through campus in the daylight than he had the night before, and was particularly self-conscious of the embarrassing purple stain on his crotch, which had taken on the approximate shape of Australia. On previous visits to his alma mater, he had often had the sensation of being caught in a time warp, since the town looked largely the same as it did when he attended college and, year in and year out, the streets were full of fresh-faced students in their late teens and early twenties. But Scott had always been keenly aware that, even if the view from his eyes never seemed to change, those kids didn’t see a peer from their perspective. They saw some old guy who seemed dreadfully out of place. At best, they must assume he was the father of a student, or maybe one of the less popular professors. Even now when he found himself zapped back into an improved version of his 21-year-old self, he felt like his life experience and knowledge of the future still separated him from them. As much as he appeared to fit in, he wasn’t sure that he belonged here.
As he approached his apartment, the knot in his gut tightened further. He hoped someone would be home to let him in, but he wasn’t sure he could handle another confrontation with Kevin right now. Scott’s current appearance was sure to launch his roommate onto another tirade even worse than the one last night. At least Scott had the presence of mind to pause a moment and turn his shirt inside out to hide the message reading “A HARD MAN IS GOOD TO FIND.” Things were likely to be tense enough without waving that red flag in the bully’s face.
Standing outside the door, he could hear a muffled conversation. One voice was unmistakably Kevin’s. It alternated with a feminine voice, most likely the latest woman who had inexplicably fallen under the spell of Kevin’s…let’s call it “charm”. Scott was tempted to leave and come back later, but he was tired and cranky and his back was killing him and, goddammit, this was his apartment too! He knocked, then tried the knob and discovered that the door was unlocked. He steeled his nerves and walked in.
Kevin was sprawled on the sofa as usual, clutching a mid-day brewski, wearing nothing but XXL Bermuda shorts with a repeating pattern of the Budweiser label. Across the room, reclining awkwardly in the Papasan chair, was Phillipe, desperately averting his eyes to avoid looking at the folds of flab and thatchy hair on Kevin’s exposed bone-white torso. Seeing Scott in the doorway, Phillipe attempted to extract himself from the padded concave chair but his spindly limbs lacked the strength to leverage his way free. Scott walked over, took Phillipe by the arm and hoisted all 96 pounds of him to his feet.
“What are you doing here?”, Scott asked.
“Thought you might be needing these,” Phillipe chirped in a sing-song manner, pulling Scott’s wallet and key from the back pocket of his red denims. “I found ’em after you left.”
“Oh. Thanks!”, Scott said, shooting a quick glance toward Kevin, who was grinning with satisfaction. “How’d you know where I lived?”
“Your I.D., silly,” Phillipe said, giving Scott’s chest a feeble backhanded swat.
Scott bopped his forehead with the heel of his hand. “Oh. Right, Duh.”
Kevin spoke up, prefacing his remark with a phlegmy throat-clearing. “Yeah, Philly here and I have just been chatting while he waited for you to show up. Sounds like you had quite the night.”
Scott focused a “What did you tell him?” glare at Phillipe, who responded with a guileless shrug and a slight shake of the head.
“Thought you were goin’ to see your GIRLfriend,” Kevin said in an insinuating tone, practicing his third-degree grilling technique.
“I did,” Scott said, defensively. “She wasn’t home.” Scott wasn’t sure why he lied about that, but he really didn’t feel compelled to explain anything to Kevin.
His mission completed, and eager to get clear of the blast radius of the escalating tension between the roommates, Phillipe scooted past Scott. “Well, I gotta be off. I’ll see you around, hon…uh, Scott.” In a flash, he was out of the apartment, closing the door behind him.
Scott started moving in the direction of his room, but Kevin demanded to know, “What the fuck are you wearing?”
Scott was in no mood for Kevin. “Clothes,” he said curtly, taking another step toward the hallway.
Kevin persisted. “Wait, hold up. Is that a fuckin’ earring? And what’s with the big purple cum stain on your pants? What the fuck did you do last night? Fuck Prince?”
“I don’t have to report in to you, Kevin. You’re not my mother.”
Scott trudged onward, but Kevin barked, “Where do you think you’re going?”
“My room,” Scott said wearily.
“Nuh-uh,” Kevin said, propping himself up. “Lee! Todd! Get out here!”
Scott stood in the middle of the living room, puzzled. Lee stumbled in, rubbing his sleepy eyes before putting on his glasses.
“Where’s Todd?”, Kevin asked.
Lee shrugged. “Think he took off.”
“Figures. The cowardly fuck.”
“What is going on?”, Scott asked, bewildered.
Kevin said. “We want you out.”
“Whaaaat?”, Scott said, his startled voice sounding nearly as theatrical and mannered as Phillipe’s, if considerably deeper. “Why?”
“Because we don’t want you and your queer-ass theater buddies like…” Kevin jerked a thumb toward the door where Phillipe had just exited. “…like your boyfriend Boy George there draggin’ your AIDS-ridden shit into our house.”
Scott was shocked. “When was this decided?”
“We took a vote this morning,” Kevin told him. “It was two to one.”
Based on the way Lee was hanging his head, guiltily examining the nap of the carpet, Scott didn’t have to ask how the vote split. “Well, then,” Scott said assertively, “it’s a tie, two-to-two, because I vote no.”
“Defendant doesn’t get a vote,” Kevin said.
“‘Defendant’? What crime have I committed? I’m just being myself!” Scott was growing apoplectic.
“This wasn’t the ‘yourself’ we agreed to room with. You came to us under false pretenses. You never told us you were a fudge-packer.”
Scott fluttered his lips with an exasperated “pffft!”, his anger building. He decided to keep the focus on the injustice rather than directly confronting the blatant homophobia. He turned to Lee. “You’re seriously gonna let this asshole bully me out of here?”
“I…I…gotta go study,” Lee said, never looking up as he headed back to his room and shut the door.
Scott attempted to move toward the hallway, but Kevin had taken the rare step of rising from the couch and was now standing in front of Scott, arms crossed over his flabby pecs, using his considerable bulk to block Scott’s path. “I think you should just leave. You can come back and get your stuff sometime when the rest of us aren’t here,” Kevin declared.
Scott was furious, but he was too burnt out from the events of the past day to mount an effective fight right now. Instead, he glared at Kevin and spat out, in the fiercest tone he could summon, “You’re not gonna get away with this shit.” He spun on his heel and left, slamming the door behind him.
Scott staggered across the landing and tumbled to his knees in exhaustion and defeat, resting his forehead against the stucco wall. Scott was on the verge of crying when he was startled by the gentle touch of a hand on his shoulder. He turned his head and saw Phillipe standing over him with an expression of concern.
“Don’t worry,” Phillipe said, an edge of defiance in his soft voice, “we’ll fight that fucker.”
“You heard all that?”, Scott asked, reflexively straightening up, snuffling back his tears and sliding the back of his hand across his upper lip to wipe away a trickle of snot.
“Every fuckin’ word. Ya want I should go in there and kick his ass?”, Phillipe asked in a would-be tough-guy voice, smacking his right fist into his left palm, looking like the least intimidating boxer in the paperweight division.
Scott had to chuckle at the sight. “Much as I’d enjoy watching you wail the crap out of that three-hundred-pound ballsack, I’m not sure that’s the solution.”
“So then what do you want to do?”, Phillipe asked.
Scott gave it some serious thought. He looked down at his borrowed shirt and stained pants and sighed. “Right now, I just wanna get out of these goddamn clothes.”
Phillipe tilted his head toward the apartment door. “I can go in and grab something for you, if I can slip past Jabba the Hutt.”
“Nah, that’s okay. I’m afraid you’d just rile up Kevin.” Scott asked cautiously, “You want to go shopping with me?”
Phillipe clapped his hands wildly, so excited by the suggestion that you’d have thought Scott had offered to toss his salad. “What a fabulous idea! Ya know, whenever I start feeling like the world is feeding me a shit sandwich, a new outfit cheers me right the fuck up! Where do you wanna go?”
Scott tried to think of where he had shopped for clothes during his college days. “There’s Chess King at the mall.”
Phillipe’s dead-eyed stare spoke volumes. He grabbed Scott’s hand and helped him to his feet. “Follow me, grasshopper,” he commanded, shaking his head and muttering under his breath, “Chess King? Dear lord.”
Walking back through the campus shopping district with Phillipe chattering away, Scott noticed heads turning their direction. If he had felt conspicuous before by himself, having Phillipe by his side only compounded the attention. You might excuse one oddly dressed person as an eccentric, but two of them together became a couple of weirdos. Phillipe appeared oblivious to the stares, undoubtedly used to them, but it was a new phenomenon for Scott.
Scott noticed a group of jockish guys heading directly toward them and could see their sneers forming from fifty paces. Scott braced himself for a confrontation, but the bros kept their mouths shut and held their faces neutral until the moment they passed Scott and Phillipe, when one of the dudes muttered, “Get lost, faggots!”
Scott’s muscles tensed up and he began to turn around when he felt Phillipe’s bony fingertips digging into his forearm, pulling him onward. “Don’t bother,” Phillipe advised quietly.
Scott stumbled slightly before falling into step with Phillipe’s forward motion. “Why not? I’d have thought you’d have been the first person to tell those guys to fuck off.”
Phillipe stood still, dragging Scott to a halt. “I can see you’re pretty new to all of this. Yeah, I used to tell morons like that where they could shove their tiny dicks. Felt pretty good for a second, but you know what it got me?” He brushed the long swooping hair away from his forehead. In the sunlight, Scott noticed a layer of pancake makeup that hadn’t been as obvious at night. “Take a close look,” Phillipe advised. Scott leaned in and saw a long vertical indentation in the skin which would usually be hidden by his bangs. “Eighteen stitches, plus three hours of my life that are a total blank. Now I do my best to avoid jerks like that. Nothing’s ever gonna change them.”
Scott felt like reassuring Phillipe that things would eventually become better, that over the next thirty years, the public would become much more accepting. He wanted to tell him about Ellen and “Will and Grace” and Doogie Howser and marriage equality. But he also realized that even if “the public” might have changed, individual people could still be awful. Even in a world that was supposedly “better”, there were still hate crimes and discriminatory laws and narrow-minded bigots with “God Hates Fags” picket signs. Somewhere in the future, on Scott’s fiftieth birthday, those douchebags’ sons were probably telling some 21st-century faggots to get lost. Or worse.
Scott had newfound admiration for Phillipe’s boldness, even bravery, in being out in this far less tolerant era. Scott wasn’t sure he had the strength of character to withstand the difficulties that being openly gay would present. Hell, fear of rejection and revulsion was a big part of what had kept him closeted for so long in the first place. Somehow he’d been given this amazing chance for a do-over, to see what his life might have been if he had made different choices when he was younger, but now he was starting to wonder if he could have a do-over of his do-over. Living in a closet may be dark and lonely and suffocating, but maybe it was safer.
When they reached Phillipe’s favorite boutique, Scott definitely recognized the place. He knew he would have walked past it countless times in college, but like the Rusty Nail, he had never gone in. Yet once they stepped through the door, Scott could swear he had been here before. Much like his own closet, the front of the store displayed fairly conventional men’s clothes, but the merchandise became more adventurous and risque the further toward the back you went. Naturally, Phillipe made a beeline for the rear, where an impeccably dressed older gentleman with graying slicked-back hair and a pencil-thin mustache greeted Phillipe warmly. “Phillip, my dear, how are you today?”
“I am excellent, as always. I was hoping you could help out my good friend here, who desperately needs some new clothes.” He gestured toward Scott, who was lagging behind nervously among the racks of half-price velour shirts.
The clerk turned, brightening when he spotted Scott. “Oh, I know you. Scotty, isn’t it?” The clerk turned to Phillipe and explained, “He’s been here many times.”
“I have?”, Scott asked. That would explain why he had such deja vu when he entered, and the unfamiliar items he’d noticed in his closet could definitely have been purchased here.
“You hafta forgive Scotty,” Phillipe said, picking up on the name the clerk had used. “He seems to have selective amnesia.”
“Well, I don’t,” said the clerk, walking toward Scott. “Don’t you remember, I helped you pick out that orange crop top and those white stretch shorts that so nicely showed off your…attributes?”
That solved the mystery of where Scott had gotten those revealing shorts he had been wearing when he showed up in the past. It was becoming obvious that Scott’s younger self had been behaving quite out of character long before his sudden arrival at the Rusty Nail.
“So, Scotty,” the clerk asked, “what are you in the market for today?”
Scott said, “I dunno, probably just some new Levis, maybe a couple of polos.”
“Bo-ring!”, said Phillipe, his voice chiming like a grandfather clock. He grabbed the clerk by the elbow and taking command of this operation. “Do you have any of those collarless striped shirts? And I’m thinking maybe a black Bundeswehr tank top.”
The clerk led Phillipe toward the items he mentioned, and the two of them fed on each other’s energy to come up with more ideas. Scott felt like an innocent bystander at his own makeover. He did notice a cherry-red sleeveless shirt identical to the one he had lost at the Rusty Nail. He took it from its hanger and carried it toward a three-way mirror. He pulled off the tee he had borrowed from Jared and tossed it aside, then paused to bask in his shirtless reflection, still blown away whenever he caught sight of his slim, muscular figure. It took a few moments before he registered that Phillipe was trying to ask him something.
“Earth to Narcissus!”, Phillipe was saying. “What’s your pants size?”
When Scott shrugged, the clerk hustled over with a tape measure which he deftly wrapped around Scott’s hips, shouting out “29!” like the caller at a bingo game. Scott knew this body was trim, but it still impressed him that he now possessed a 29-inch waist. He flinched as the clerk held one end of the tape against the base of Scott’s crotch and stretched it down the inside of his leg. “And 34!” The clerk rose to his feet, gave Scott a lingering look and asked, “Have you ever considered modeling?” Scott snorted a dismissive laugh, even as he glanced admiringly at the guy glancing back at him from the mirror. Hell, why couldn’t he be a model?
In a matter of minutes, Phillipe had amassed an armload of items which he handed Scott to try on. Overwhelmed, Scott stepped into the “dressing room”, which was merely a curtain on a semicircular rod, facing a full-length mirror mounted on a brick wall. He unzipped his stained white cutoffs and wriggled them to the floor, leaving him completely naked, save for his deck shoes and the purple condom which still encased his semi-engorged cock. He grabbed the base of the rubber and peeled it away with a telltale snapping sound, dropping the stretched-out but not technically “used” condom on top of his discarded shorts. He could practically hear his dick gasping with relief, finally getting some fresh air again after all these hours. For the first time, Scott noticed the purple bruise on his neck reflected in the mirror and called through the curtain, “Hey, Phillipe, did you give me this hickey last night?”
“May-be,” Phillipe admitted coyly.
“I thought you said I wasn’t your type.”
“Well, beef stroganoff isn’t my favorite food, but that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes take a little nibble.”
Scott chuckled. After the day he’d had, this little shopping spree was indeed lifting his mood. Now and then over the years, Scott had dared to sneak some less pedestrian clothes into the fitting room, camouflaged among the Dockers and the Van Heusen shirts so Amanda wouldn’t notice, but he always felt he looked laughable in anything remotely stylish. Then again, he’d never had a body like this to hang them on.
He first slipped into a collarless dress shirt with narrow cyan and white stripes and a pair of form-fitting off-white linen slacks, and had to admit that he looked pretty great in them. He parted the curtain and was met with applause from Phillipe and the clerk. Embarrassed, Scott slid the curtain closed and changed into some pale acid-washed jeans in combination with the Bundeswehr tank that Phillipe had specifically requested. Pushing a hand through his gelled hair and flexing his biceps, he thought he looked like an extra on “Saved By The Bell”, but an undeniably hot one. This combo also met with Phillipe’s approval, so Scott tried on a mint-green Oxford shirt with white collar and cuffs, paired with pink chinos rolled up to expose his bare ankles. Nothing he would have chosen for himself, and definitely a look that deserved to remain stuck in this era, but he had to concede that even that didn’t look half-bad.
When Scott stepped out to model this latest outfit, Phillipe groaned. “You disgust me. You look good in everything.” He pressed two more items into Scott’s hands.
Seeing what Phillipe had given him, Scott balked: a black fishnet muscle shirt and black-leather short-shorts. “I don’t think so,” Scott said with a grimace, trying to hand them back.
“Humor me. I just wanna see how nauseatingly awesome you look in them.” Phillipe shoved Scott back behind the curtain, and Scott realized he was intensely curious to see how he would look in them too. The mesh shirt draped beautifully, emphasizing the breadth of his chest and casting flattering shadows that seemed to deepen the cut of his abs. His unrestrained hard-on posed a challenge as he struggled to wedge himself into the leather shorts. When he finally managed to zip up the fly, his erection was obscenely obvious.
“C’mon, let me see,” Phillipe pleaded.
“I don’t think this is really me,” Scott said, even though he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the mirror. Never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined looking this sexy. His hand was irresistibly drawn downward, cupping the bulge in the shorts and stroking slowly down its full length. His body seemed totally on board with this new look, even if his mind was dragging its feet.
He frantically pulled his hand away when he heard the sliding of rings on the curtain rod and discovered Phillipe standing beside him in the dressing area. “Oh, my fucking fuck,” Phillipe gasped, growing short of breath as he took in Scott’s appearance, taking particular note of the unmissable zucchini-sized protuberance in the leather shorts. Casting his eyes further downward, he declared, “If I had legs like yours, I would never wear pants.”
“I dunno, don’t you think this makes me look, like, really, really, REALLY gay?”
Phillipe said, “Honey, you’ve already opened the closet this far. Why not kick the door off the fuckin’ hinges?”
Scott remained ambivalent, figuring the only thing that would make him look even gayer would be a rainbow tramp stamp. Given how many surprises he had already experienced in the past day, he nervously turned around and checked over his shoulder, just to make sure, and was pleased to discover that no tattoo of any sort marred his lower back. He couldn’t help but admire how spectacular his buns looked in these shorts, with the smooth leather reflecting the store’s lights and the lower hem perfectly conforming to the curve at the base of his glutes.
Phillipe gathered up all of the clothes Scott had tried on, as well as the initial clothes he had taken off. “So, which ones do you want?” When Scott dithered, biting his lip, Phillipe unilaterally decided for him, sliding open the curtain and informing the clerk, “We’ll take everything.”
“Hold it,” Scott said, “I don’t think if I’ve got the money for all of that.” In fact, now that he thought about it, he was positive his wallet still only contained the thirteen bucks and two condoms that had been there last night. He was still operating with the mindset of a fifty-year-old with a healthy bank account, but as a 21-year-old undergrad, he barely had enough cash to buy a t-shirt.
“Sweetie, it’s my treat. Consider it a late birthday present.”
“I can’t let you pay for all this.”
Phillipe pinched Scott’s cheek. “Scotty, my folks are a couple of greedy Reagan-supporting assholes. It’s my patriotic duty to trickle down as much of their money as possible to make America more fabulous.”
Scott followed Phillipe over to the counter, where the clerk began to ring up the purchases. “That’s very sweet, Phillipe, but it’s totally unnecessary. I promise I’ll pay you back.”
“Nonsense. Stop trying to ruin my fun. Listen, where are you staying tonight?”
Scott’s brow furrowed. He hadn’t thought that far ahead. He couldn’t go back to the apartment. Amanda’s sorority house wouldn’t have been an option even if he hadn’t broken up with her. He certainly didn’t have enough money for a motel room, and he had no idea who else he even knew in this altered reality.
Phillipe grabbed a pen from the counter, took hold of Scott’s left arm and inked an address and phone number on Scott’s palm. “You come and stay at my place, ’kay? That is, unless you get any better offers, of course. I’ll understand.”
Scott was awestruck by such generosity from an almost total stranger, although he honestly had no idea how long he and Phillipe had been friends. “Thanks, man.”
“Don’t mention it. Seriously, don’t, or every queen in town will be begging to crash at my pad and have me buy them clothes.” He giggled as the clerk handed Phillipe the credit card receipt. “This includes what he’s got on, right?”, Phillipe asked. The clerk nodded. Phillipe signed the slip with a flourish, grabbed the bag which contained Scott’s clothes and headed toward the door.
“Wait, give me something to change into,” Scott begged.
Phillipe flapped a hand toward Scott’s mesh and leather ensemble and declared, “Oh, no, sweetie, you’re wearing that out of here.” Phillipe spotted something outside which made him quicken his pace. He waved bye-bye as he stepped out of the store. Reluctantly, Scott followed him onto the sidewalk.
A crosstown express was just arriving at a nearby bus stop, and Phillipe had joined the queue to get onboard. Scott chased after him, certain that every eye in the street and on the bus was fixed on him. Whispering loudly, Scott told Phillipe, “I can’t go out in public like this!”
Phillipe informed him with a grin, “Hate to break it to you, but you ARE out in public like this.” The bus doors opened and Phillipe stepped inside, but paused on the steps when something occurred to him. He fished in the bag, and Scott momentarily hoped that Phillipe was taking pity on him and findng him something more concealing to wear. Instead, Phillipe pulled out Scott’s wallet which had been left in the pocket of his cutoffs. “You gotta do a better job of hanging onto this.”
Either intentionally or from lack of coordination, Phillipe flung the wallet far over Scott’s head. It eventually landed on the sidewalk twenty feet behind Scott and took several bounces, ending on the curb, teetering dangerously close to a sewer grate. While Scott rushed over to retrieve it, Phillipe got onto the bus and took a window seat. As the bus pulled away, Scott chased along beside it, yelling through the open window to Phillipe, “Where are you going?”
“Home,” Phillipe said, mischievously. “Some of us have studying to do. Call me later, sweetie!”
The bus accelerated, and even Scott’s legs weren’t fast enough to keep up. He stood on the sidewalk, watching the bus hang a right at the next intersection as his chest rose and fell with each heavy breath.
Studying! Scott hadn’t even considered that. If he was permanently stuck at this age, he would have to start going to classes, writing essays, taking exams, all the bullshit he had gladly left behind post-graduation. His recurring stress dream about being back in school was becoming real. At least he’d gotten the part about being naked in front of a roomful of strangers out of the way, and honestly, that hadn’t been as terrifying as he would have expected. In fact, he kind of enjoyed it.
Scott attempted to slip his wallet into his shorts, only to discover that they had no pockets, nothing to distract from the natural curves of his body. With no agenda, no particular place to go, and no home to go to, Scott decided to indulge in a nostalgic stroll around the campus. Past the hundred-year-old administration building and its sculpture of the school’s stoic founder, his outstretched arms festooned with toilet paper by pranksters. Past the lecture hall where he first set eyes on Amanda during a literature class in freshman year, when she asked if she could borrow his notes on Somerset Maugham. Past the gymnasium where he and the swim team practiced, and where he had developed a huge infatuation with the team captain, Derek Andreesen. Derek was the first person Scott had ever known to shave his entire body, even his eyebrows, to reduce resistance in the water. Even as bald as a Sphynx cat, Derek still heated up the pool in his tiny red Speedo.
Scott smiled fondly as he remembered Derek, only to sober up in an instant when it hit him that he had never been on the swim team…at least not the first time he went to college. Yet this memory was so vivid and specific, right down to the full name of the object of his fixation, that he knew that this do-over version of himself must be on the team. Were the details of this new life finally starting to fill in? What else might he learn about himself as more such fragments bubbled to the surface?
Scott decided he had to check out the theater building, which he had rarely entered except to attend a few plays. He wondered if, back in the day, he had seen anything Jared was in, never realizing at the time who Jared would go on to be. When he entered the lobby, Scott noticed a display case featuring black-and-white photos of recent productions. Sure enough, there he was shirtless and barefoot in jeans and a stylized horse-head mask, with a wild-eyed and naked Jared astride his back. Even in a still picture, their different levels of commitment were plainly visible. Scott was a guy standing on a stage. Jared was ACTING!
Seeing tangible proof of his performance jarred something loose in Scott’s mind, and fleeting impressions of the production trickled into his consciousness. Not enough to qualify as full-blown memories, just snapshots of putting on makeup in the dressing room or kidding around with Phillipe as he helped Scott put on his costume. Stray moments from a life that was growing increasingly familiar.
He closely examined pictures from other plays and was able to find himself shirtless in a white Gilligan hat as part of the cast of “South Pacific” and shirtless in gold lame shorts in the title role of “The Rocky Horror Show”. He was sensing a common thread in the types of roles in which he was cast. Jared was much more prominent, and just as shirtless, in photos from “Picnic”, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, and “The Elephant Man”. It occurred to Scott that the theater department didn’t need much of a budget for costumes.
Scott took a seat on a bench to collect his thoughts. The pictures made it clear that “Equus” hadn’t been a one-off testing of the waters. This iteration of himself had been shifting his focus toward theater for quite a while. It was becoming harder to reconcile the past that he remembered, in which he was a reserved business major who mostly kept to himself, with the one for which there was growing circumstantial evidence, in which he was a more outgoing, athletic and apparently somewhat popular drama student with a penchant for exhibitionism. As he sat quietly in the lobby, a pretty young ponytailed redhead in a dance leotard breezed past him, saying, “Hi, Scotty! Love your outfit.”
The words, “Hey, Grace,” flew from his mouth without a moment’s thought. A tingle percolated up his spine as he felt his grip on reality wobbling further. Two simultaneous, contradictory yet equally true thoughts were battling it out: that he had never seen the girl before in his life, and that he recognized her instantly and knew her by name. He leapt up from the bench and fled the lobby, desperate for some fresh air, leaving Grace wondering what had suddenly gotten into Scotty.
Scott walked around the campus in a daze, a cacophony of thoughts crowding his mind. From moment to moment, he felt his mood shift from frightened to liberated, unsettled to empowered. He couldn’t tell if he should panic that he was losing his identity or celebrate that he was gaining a better one. He did know that the longer he wore the ensemble Phillipe had forced on him, the more comfortable and confident he felt in it.
When he reached the quad, buzzing with students relaxing or studying on a lovely Sunday afternoon, he found an open spot far enough away from the Frisbee players and hacky-sackers that he wouldn’t be disturbed. He sat down crosslegged, stripping off his mesh shirt so he could fully bask in the sun without getting tan lines that would look like he’d been branded with a chain-link fence. He lay down, hands clasped behind his head, feeling the sun’s warmth beating down on his skin and the cool tickle of grass blades against his back. Exhausted, he closed his eyes to relax for a moment, desperate for a respite from the roller-coaster of the past day.
When he opened his eyes again, feeling refreshed and focused, only a few students remained. The air had turned chilly and the sun had dipped to the horizon. Scott hopped to his feet with energy to burn and stretched his legs out of habit, instinctively prepping for a run. His fishnet shirt wouldn’t offer much protection against the cool evening breeze, so he bunched it up and wadded one end into his waistband. Leather shorts with no underwear and Topsiders with no socks weren’t the most practical running gear either, but they would have to do. He made his way quickly toward a bike and jogging trail through the college’s arboretum, where he picked up the pace and did a full circuit of five miles in roughly half an hour, watching as the sky shifted from blue to pink to black. A nice run turned out to be just what he needed to clear his head and recharge his batteries. Toward the end, he heard his stomach begin to grumble, and his feet led him back toward Galaga’s as if he were on autopilot.
A sheen of perspiration on his skin, Scott stepped inside the pizza place and walked to the counter, shouting out, “One slice of sausage, my good man.”
Mr. Galaga turned around and instantly grew exasperated. “Look who’s back! Mister No-Shirt! What I tell you? You try to give me heart attack?”
“Sorry, Mr. G,” Scott said, pulling the fishnet shirt from his waistband and slipping it on.
Mr. Galaga was unimpressed. “You call that a shirt? Half of it is holes!”
“Okay, then just give me half a slice,” Scott shot back. “And half a Pepsi.”
“No Pepsi, Coke,” Galaga chastized him, begrudgingly sliding a full slice into the oven to warm it. Despite his ornery attitude, Galaga was rarely short-sighted enough to turn away a paying customer, especially one as loyal as Scott.
“Fine. Half a Coke. But no ice!” Scott grinned and swung his leg over a chair, straddling it backwards. The only other customer was a chunky guy, sweating even more profusely than Scott, playing the Galaga video game with furious intensity, his beltless blue jeans sagging to reveal his plumber’s crack. Scott removed a fistful of paper napkins from the dispenser on a nearby table and patted himself dry, wadding each one into a ball after it became saturated and tossing them into a trash can ten feet away with unerring finesse.
Opening his wallet to get the cash to pay for his meal, Scott riffled through the rest of its contents, curious if he would find any other clues about his reconfigured life. Other than the two unopened condoms he’d seen before and a card granting him all-hours access to the swim-team pool, he found nothing unusual. Driver’s license. Student I.D. Campus library card. Twenty-two-cent postage stamps featuring a picture of William Faulkner. A coupon torn from a newspaper giving him fifty cents off his next purchase of Fruit Roll-Ups. A photo-booth shot of him and Amanda, laughing despite both sporting sunburns after a long wonderful day at the beach. He remembered the picture well, having carried it in his wallet for many years, although he didn’t remember looking so buff in it. A lump came to Scott’s throat, as the charming photo now felt surprisingly poignant.
He realized that his thirteen dollars would have to last him for a while, at least until he could retrieve his checkbook from the apartment. He had no credit cards and, although he did have an ATM card, he hadn’t the faintest clue what its PIN might be. In fact, there was only one number from thirty years ago that he could still recall by heart, one that he hadn’t thought of in over a decade.
Scott glanced toward the phone booth in the corner of the restaurant, feeling an urgent need to dial that number.