A short story about a boy that is shocked by the “real world” after growing up isolated from “normal” social conduct.
I think the first odd thing I ever heard came from my uncle’s mouth. He’d said, “God, everyone should be like you, Jacques.” For the first time, it dawned on me that diversity also meant the diversity of conduct. My mind took a dark turn very quickly.
If I’m a person of morals, then there must be amoral people.
But that sounded so ridiculous. And yet… If the line of thought “you can do anything you want” were to extend itself into the negative spectrum of things, then a lack of morality was entirely possible. The thought made me queasy.
Now, I wouldn’t consider that I grew up in a bubble, but I guess that’s something a person in a bubble would say. As a kid, my only friends were my cousins, who were practically my siblings. I wouldn’t consider that as something sad, though. We would make up games and laugh, like most kids. We stuck together, whether it was at a funeral or a wedding. We were the Three Musketeers (of course, being children, that ‘all for one, one for all’ business didn’t really sit well).
Here’s the thing about growing up with my family: you grow up thinking that everyone is good-natured and honest. And I mean honest; we could ask about anything, and they answered and treated us like adults. I knew about the horrible things that happened throughout history and I thought that we—society—had learned from those mistakes. Because that’s what history is for—be it personal or global—for us to try to learn from our mistakes as best we can, right? That’s what I thought, anyway.
And it’s not like my uncle censored the movies we saw. I remember seeing Hollow Man at a very tender age. But those were stories… fiction or science fiction or even fantasy. Yet something about them felt very real, very human.
I guess I just got lucky. Extremely lucky. Hell, blessed even, because I still can’t wrap my head around the idea of a fake friend. Like, what-what the hell does that even mean?
I guess that’s what my face was saying the moment I heard the term.
“You know…” this girl, Anna, was saying, “people that don’t stick around when it gets tough, or manipulative people, or people that use you for their own benefit? Jacques?”
“Like, um, mean girls in those terrible teen dramas?”
“So, Julie is a fake friend?”
“Yes, please keep up,” she said, handing the head chef the next order. Uncle made me, or heavily suggested, I get a job before starting college. I love the man to death, but a heads up would’ve been nice. Something like “Oh, hey. You know all those horrible situations and people in books and movies? That’s what everyday life is, but without all the hyperbole, but not the hyperbole you think are hyperboles.”
“Okay, just- okay…”
“What, you think she isn’t?”
“I just didn’t think that was real.” That made her laugh.
“Oh, Jacques! What rock do you live under?”
“Saturn Road,” I said blankly as I left to attend the new customers that were just taking their seats. I know she wasn’t actually asking where I lived, but the name of the street is so ridiculous she probably wouldn’t believe me anyway.
Surely enough when I turned, her face read of bewilderment.
I felt myself involuntarily sigh. My shifts were usually with some other guy, Devon, I think. We didn’t talk all that much, which at first struck me as odd, but now I missed him. Anna was uberly friendly, but now I feel like a misplaced jigsaw puzzle. And honestly? I mostly felt like a naive child, which is to say I felt small and idiotic.
“Wanna get a cup of coffee?” Anna asked.
“What?” I said, mindlessly hanging up my apron.
“You know what coffee is, right?”
“Of course I do! You know, sometimes people order coffee here,” I said a bit annoyed.
She laughed a little at that. “Right.” She held her arms up as if in defeat. “So, do you?”
“Uh, sure. Just let me tell my uncle.” I held the door open for her.
“He likes to know where I am, you know how parents are.”
Anna gave me a strange look, but didn’t say anything. I wondered what I had said.
We started making our way towards our bikes when Charles approached us.
Charles was a man that appeared to be homeless, though I have never asked him so I wouldn’t know for sure. He said good morning to me as I got into work and good afternoon as I left. It had become our little routine and I was fond of it, but Charles had never approached me before– I always found him near the bus stop on my way home. Only later I wondered how he knew where to find me, but in the moment, I suddenly had a bad feeling.
Mostly, I was confused because I’d considered Charles a friendly face, but something in his walk was off. The way he couldn’t quite make eye contact, much less smile.
“Hey, Charles. You alright?” Charles didn’t seem to hear me. I looked over at Anna and she seemed more than a little uncomfortable, grasping her keys quite tightly. The air felt tense, and I didn’t like that.
Charles took another step and I noticed he was holding a half empty bottle, probably some cheap beer.
“Ya got cas’kid?” his words slurred together.
“How much do you need?” I asked reaching for my wallet, a little relieved. Charles had asked this before, just not drunk.
“Jacques!” Anna’s voice sounded small and tight and filled with warning.
The bottle dropped and shattered, then I realized he smashed it. He carelessly picked up the neck, scratching the back of his hand. Anna knew what was happening before I did. She sprang in front of me and maced Charles before he could lunge with his new weapon.
He screamed so terribly that I almost rushed to his side. Charles almost gouged his eye out as his hands rushed to his face, only to rub the mace deeper into his eyes. Anna turned to me.
“You either get on your bike or call the cops,” she said moving past me. I was still in shock, watching as Charles backed away from us.
Anna removed the chains off her bike while eyeing Charles, making sure he was retreating. I backed up and felt for my bike until my hand touched the seat. My legs were shaking. I… couldn’t believe what’d just happened.
Anna took a breath and exhaled slowly. “You alright?” she asked.
“Uh, yeah… Yeah. Thank you,” I managed.
“Sure thing,” she said, offering me a kind smile. “Still wanna go for that coffee?”
“Yes, definitely,” I smiled back tentatively.
“Okay, walk me through it,” I said trying to wrap my head around the intricate story Anna was telling me.
“Devon, the guy you do you shifts with-”
“Was with Julie-”
“Right, we don’t like Julie.”
Anna laughed. “No, we don’t. So, she broke up with Devon, so she could hook up with his brother, Peter-”
“And she cheated on Peter with my cousin-”
“Right, okay.” I said “How is it that you all know each other?”
“We grew up in the same neighborhood,” she shrugged. “Honestly, I’m surprised I’m meeting you now.”
“Saturn Road? Samuel lives there, I still bike over to his house.”
“Yes! I swear you’re like a hermit,” she said a little exasperated and a little amazed.
“I guess so,” I said, not having realized it before.
“How’s your knee?”
“The knee, man,” she pointed. “You fell?”
“Right- oh, right… I’m fine, it was just the scare. I didn’t realize how bad my legs were shaking before I started pedaling.”
“And you knew the guy?”
“Just his name,” I shrugged. “He would ask for cash sometimes and he seemed to need it more than me so I didn’t mind. He was nice enough.”
“Not a lot of people do that, you know,” she said, shaking her head.
“Maybe more people should. Maybe he wants to get a job, but can’t even find a place to shower. Or maybe he just wants to eat, but every place kicks him out,” I said. “I don’t know him, but if I can help him, why shouldn’t I?”
“I find it incredible you can still say that,” she smiled.
I found it incredible she didn’t share the sentiment, but I kept that to myself. I took another sip of coffee.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“I did?” She nodded, giving me a strange look. “I didn’t notice. Honest.”
I found Anna to be very nice and a good conversationalist for sure. But some of her gestures and questions made me question things I hadn’t really given much thought.
I had to talk with Uncle…
But that’s a story for another time.