Paul Lask is a writer, musician and kayak instructor living in San Francisco. Feel free to contact him here.

The Northerners

posted Dec 10, 2013

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

It's become clear in the six months we've been in Lakeland that Jean doesn't love it. She is a city girl. She grew up playing in the gangway of her parent's building. She went to Lane Tech High and saw shows at places like the Ambition Mission Loft and drank beer with cool kids in alleys. I spent a chunk of my twenties aping around on stages across the city--we were one of those hardcore bands who opened for bigger hardcore bands. It was a good way to make friends, which Jean and I were before dating. Actually, just last week she suggested I get in touch with some old musician friends in Milwaukee, which is about an hour east of Lakeland.

It struck me, leaving Menards and heading to the mall to tell a buddy about the camera, that her suggesting I get in touch with old friends an hour away might be her way of trying to get me out of the house. As I said, I want to be out of the house, to give her her space, but I want to do it on my own terms. I don't like feeling like I'm being swindled. I followed the thought train a little further.

By the end of it I had what seemed an important insight: not only might my girlfriend be leaving me for her grief, but that I'm actually jealous of this adultery. I realized I had wanted to tell my dad this: that seeing Jean depressed has made me nostalgic for my own sadness after Katie died; that, Katie dying, was the realest thing that has happened to me. There was this bubble of attention around our family, which I remember despite its being over twenty years ago. Truth is, it was exciting, like opening for a big band, or like the time I was late for a flight and they were calling my name over the airport loudspeaker. But I hadn't told dad this because I hadn't thought of it until after I left. I am one of those people who think of things they want to say minutes afterwards. Imagine how different your life would be if you could say the smartest thing at the necessary moment; that's probably what makes the difference between successful people and the others.

While waiting at a red I took the camera out of the glove box. Sometimes digital things come alive after you thought they were dead. It could be atmospheric. But sure enough the camera didn't respond when I pushed the on button, and I put it back before the light changed.

The strange idea that my girlfriend was cheating on me with her grief inspired me to get us both out of the house that night. Of course I wouldn't call it a date. Our intimacy sunk right into the ground with the casket. For one, everywhere we go her daughter comes--she won't let my mom babysit and be the step-grandma she wants to be, which has definitely cooled my mom to my girlfriend. For two, she doesn't reject me. I don't like this. She told me Claire's father was a pushover in bed, which when we met three years ago was something of a challenge. I had to be a man and take her when and where I wanted, and for a while we had a thing for doing it in public, including a few nighttime romps in city parks. But that's all stopped. Since I don't want to turn to S&M fantasies, I have for now stopped sleeping with Jean altogether, generally watching lesbians in outdoor settings online, which I fear I'm getting a little too used to.

"What's good to do on a weeknight?" I asked my buddy Seth, who manages a café on the mall's second level.

He was passing my table with a tray of cappuccino saucers and wrinkled napkins. I tried not to look at the new barista, a raven-haired girl I'd ordered a drip coffee from. Now and then I like a cappuccino, but this was our first encounter, and I didn't want to overwork her. I know Seth does the hiring. Whenever I accuse him of handpicking pretty girls he gets mad and says he doesn't hire based on looks. See, Seth also teaches American history courses at Lakeland Community College. We haven't been friends long enough for him to get real, and so for now I have to play the bro role, while he maintains his innocence. Since all my art school credits from a decade ago--I had studied music management, but my junior year finally found it unethical--got washed away, or were never valid except for other art schools anyway, I've had to start over, a night course at a time. The maintenance work is just a holdover until I get into law school. I haven't narrowed in on the school yet, though I know I'll be one of the good-guy public defender lawyers, not some corporate pawn.

"A restaurant? A movie? I don't know what people do," he said. "I'll be right back," he said, walking over to drop off the tray.

There were a couple late middle-age ladies with big shopping bags at their feet, drinking tropical colored smoothies out of plastic cups. I could see the pulp already drying near the lid. I didn't want to see another blockbuster over in East Troy with its deafening surround-sound and throne-like chairs. I remembered once borrowing dad's truck and showing Jean the skeleton of the drive-in, the Belford Theater. We had looked at constellations framed by the metal where the screen used to be. We had apocalyptic conversations about being the last two on earth, then made love on the blanket I'd spread in the truck bed.

They bulldozed the land shortly after, making way for a subdivision of drywall castles. After the recession some of the castles had boarded up doors and windows, though a large property management company snatched up most of them and are renting them out now. Capitalism won, as it does. It's something I'm coming to terms with.

Read the last installment