Going to California

Making Magic — 4

“What kind of shit?”

I breathed deeply. When I’d moved to Austin to continue school, my family had moved to Madison, Wisconsin — a very similar city, in terms of being college towns and capitals of large, largely rural states of America, but they could not be further apart in terms of climate or in simple geographic location. It was about as far from Austin as you could get while still staying in an urban area of the United States, and it was unreasonably cold. The first time I went up to spend a holiday with the family, I got a sinus infection that lingered nearly a week. I always hated the cold. The deep heat was where I was born, in the middle of the summer, and that’s where I reckoned I’d live my life through.

And somehow, maybe because I started seeing them less and less as I approached the end of high school, the family that remained in Texas had begun to grow very distant in my mind: my grandparents, both couples on both sides alive and well against all odds, and an uncle, my mom’s younger brother and his family. I’d grown apart from them, though their very existence was a major underpinning of my firmament. I came to realize that I’d built a lot of myself on that stability when something bad happened to one of them.

“My granddad had a stroke,” I said. “They say he’ll be okay, probably — it was a small one, but he was such a big, strong guy, it’s hard to imagine him being weak.”

“I bet. I know what you mean.”

It seemed childish to bring up work at that point, though the truth was that my work was more important to me than my family, at that point.

“Work sucks,” I said.

He winced. “Gotta get that book out, huh?”

I tried not to wince myself. I’d been working on a book for nearly a year, the one that Mentor had set me up to write before Steve had let him go, a game that we’d acquired from one of our foreign licensors. Jeff had been given authorship of a licensed property, which he cranked out over a chunk of long weekends and ended up making a good chunk of change off of royalties, selling something like 10,000 copies. I was a little envious of Jeff — so many things seemed to come so easily to him, though he seemed perpetually stuck at plateaus with most of his skills. They were decently high plateaus, but plateaus. A lot of what he thought he did was good enough, though, and it was only more infuriating that he was often quite right. So part of the reason I was working on the book was to feel as though I’d shown that working hard to develop your skills would result in something much better than simply “good enough.”

There were a couple of enormous differences between our two writing gigs, though.

For example, his was the simple adaptation of an existing role-playing game into our company’s universal gaming system. The property in question was a fantastically popular game of gothic horror, produced by a competitor whose fortunes had started out small and then gone through the roof. Mentor had arranged a license as they were on their growth curve, so all we needed to do was write up our version and print it and the money would flow. It was a good deal for us, and a great deal for Jeff.

My gig was a foreign game, so we first had to get it translated. My French sucked, so I got a friend from design school to help. He got enough translated that I could present it to Steve, who’d rejected it outright. He’d been expecting to see a slightly different approach to the gothic horror genre that was so popular at the time, only with angels and demons instead of vampires and werewolves. Unfortunately, instead of being slightly different, it was totally different, enough so that he disliked it.

“Do you think you could make this into something good?” he asked me, by which he meant, “Do you think you could make this into something more like the gothic horror game I thought I’d bought?” I said I could.

In addition to the setting, he didn’t like the game itself very much, either, so he asked me to rework the whole thing. Because it was turning into a larger job, Steve offered to let me bill the company for the hours, though I’d be doing so at a lower royalty rate than most of our regular writers. I’d also be designing and laying out the book, spec’ing the cover, working with our best house artist to come up with the aesthetic of the book, promoting it within the pages of Pyramid, designing the posters, and the like. So it would basically be a large part of my job that year.

And it had been. I simply hadn’t been doing it very well.

“Are you okay?” Andy asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah. It’s just that the book’s not going great.”

Steve wasn’t liking what I’d come up with. And to be honest, I wasn’t wild about a lot of it myself. There were big parts that I thought could be good enough, though very little of it was good enough for me.

“It’ll be fine,” Andy said, which was what everyone else had been telling me. It was the kind of thing that everyone had told me in the dorms, back when I was getting kicked out of the university, so it didn’t bring me much comfort.

“I’m just worried,” I said. “I’m actually really worried.”

“Channel that. Use it. Get it done. It’s basically finished, right?”

It wasn’t. It was mid-June by this point. In order for the book to make it to press on time, for an August ship-date — for the enormous, once-a-year game convention at which it was slated to be introduced — it would have to be done in three weeks.

“Even if Steve liked it,” I said, “I don’t see how I can make the date without throwing myself into it completely. Like, completely.”

“So do it, man. You’ve done it before.”

I had, and I would again, but not that time.

Texas heats up by the time June comes around. That summer, life was painfully, unreasonably hot. Even though I spent most of my time in the air-conditioning, as most people did and still do, I couldn’t escape a kind of heat I held inside.

I remember being home one afternoon, maybe a week later — why I was around in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, I have no idea — when the phone rang.

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Going to California

Making Magic — 3

Since I’d learned to focus on classes, and work, most everything else in my life had taken a backseat. Still, I had other things going on when I wasn’t working or on the ’net — or driving; good lord, I spent countless hours just driving — other threads being sewn into my life that I haven’t talked a lot about yet.

Some of these other threads, a lot of them, need to find a home in a different place, in a different story, but it’s safe to say that girls were involved.

Late in the Spring, talking about girls with Andy over Mexican food, was probably the last possible moment I had to avoid the big crash.

“How’re things with Cookie?” he asked.

“Fine,” I said. “Great.” I thought about it. “Not good,” I added.

“What’s up?”

I sighed. “She thinks I’m crazy,” I said. “And I don’t trust her.”

“Why does she think you’re crazy?”

I breathed in tightly through my teeth.

I’m kind of a weird guy, I know that, always have been. Some people have accused me of trying to be weird on purpose, but I don’t think I have been. I’d be fairly happy relating to people the way everybody else does, but I don’t, and I know that.

So many things were clearer when I was younger — like my sense of numbers, which stretched far beyond their base values. To me, for example, the number 1 was white, of course, pure and voiceless, like the sun in the sky. The number 2 was blue, but a light blue, simple and curious as a child. All even numbers have a little bit of 2 in them, which was why they play together so easily. The 3 is a desaturated yellow, round and soft, just a little smarter than 2. The 4 is a blue darker than 2 and also the first distinctly girly-girl among the numbers — she wears her hair in a bob — while 5 is a boy, a richer yellow than 3, a brave young daredevil who doesn’t mind tumbling a bit. And on and on.

The characters and colors in numbers seemed self-evident as far back as I could remember — for the first 10 digits, at least. Larger numbers are simply the combinations of these characters in myriad different ways. My memorization of the multiplication tables became the charting of interactions — marriages, divorces, unhappy children, and mysteries — of these main characters. It’s like I was wired, nearly from the start, to tell stories.

In third grade, I failed math because I didn’t do the homework. I didn’t think I had to. I already knew all the stories; I knew how things played out. I’d drift away in class, hyperventilating with joy over the truly infinite complexity of the stories I saw unfolding in the dancing numbers before me. How beautiful it was that 6, a mistake-prone young man who couldn’t wear his baseball cap straight, and 7, who was 6’s older sister, both come together to make 42 — which, seen as two numbers, the more innocent characters of 4 and 2, make something like a youthful reflection of the more mature and troubled 6 and 7, as if by sticking together they’d preserve each other’s innocence.

A few times, as a child, I’d insist that some number was obviously a specific color, or some combination of colors. I was always surprised when other people didn’t immediately intuit which colors the numbers were supposed to be, though I learned early on not to bring it up.

I rambled on in this vein for a bit before stopping, looking at Andy for some sign.

He shrugged: Yes, guys like us are always going to come off as at least a little crazy.

“No,” I said. “I mean, I think she thinks I’m actually crazy.”

He raised his eyebrows: For example?

For example, I’ve always loved license plates, and an immature little boy inside of me loves it when a license plate spells out something that sounds funny. Hackers were well known for swapping numbers for letters — 4 looks like an A, 5 looks like an S — so it wasn’t hard for me to find pronounceable plates here and there. Sometimes I’d read them out loud: PZB-84C was “pizz-bak,” or MMP-501 was “imp-sol,” or GOU-108 was “goo-lob.”

After we’d been dating for nearly two years, she and I had been driving back from dinner, winding up a tree-lined road. I loved driving, more than nearly anything else, and I must’ve been doing it that night, reading license plates out loud to myself.

“Oh my God,” Cookie said, a dainty hand covering her mouth. “License plates.”

“What?”

She pointed at the car in front of us. “You were reading the license plate,” she said. Her voice wavered.

“Yes,” I said.

“This whole time,” she said, “you’ve been reading license plates?!”

“What do you — wait: so, this whole time, did you think I was just making weird noises because I was crazy?”

She checked the rear-view mirror on her side, brushing a stray lock of reddish hair back behind one ear. We didn’t talk about it any further.

“That’s not cool,” he said, scratching his goatee. “What was it like with previous girlfriends?”

“Well, there was Suzanne — there were others, but she was the main one. But when we broke up, it was because she was dating somebody else, and I think I had a hard time trusting girls after that.”

Andy stared at me. “Wait,” he said. “This is Suzanne — crazy hot receptionist at work, Suzanne,” he said.

I nodded; it was. We’d needed a receptionist, and she’d been working a crappy job at the time, so there you go.

Andy looked for a moment like he had a lot of questions, then he said, “But things were good at first, with Cookie?” he asked.

“Things’re always good at first.” I thought about it. “Exciting, at least, with her.”

“Exciting how?”

“I had a bad crush on her for, like, a year and a half before she asked me out.” I looked at my hands. “It was messy.”

“Messy can be good.”

“She was engaged, and I was living with someone else at the time, so it was pretty messy.”

“Huh,” he said. “I can’t believe I thought you were gay when we first met.”

“I just thought she really understood me, as a designer — she’s a great designer, world-class. But….”

“Now I think you’re gay again.”

“I feel like I let her down at some point, like I let myself down.”

“How?”

“Oh, well — you know I tried to leave SJ Games a couple of times?”

“Sure,” he said. Hardly anybody worked there very long. Next to our shipping manager, who was living in an old wooden house on the back lot, Mentor had been there the longest. He’d hired most of us. Even before he left, people often talked about what their next step might be. He was generally starting the conversation. “What happened?” Andy asked.

I smiled.

“She’s always been concerned about me wasting my talent at a game company, versus doing real design in the real world. It comes up a lot — how much more money I would make in the real world. I’d be making real numbers.”

“Understood,” said Andy. “So?”

Twice in two years, I’d had good interviews with real design studios in town. Both times, Cookie had also heard, or was told, about the opening. Both times she’d interviewed as well, and gotten the job, and both times they made her tell me the news. It had never occurred to me to mention it to my friends.

“Holy shit, man,” Andy said, shaking his head, hands on tabletop. “How did you feel about that?”

“Not good,” I said, “but what are you supposed to do about it? You can see, though, how she could think I should be doing real design work—”

“Dude,” he laughed, smacking one palm flat on the table. “You are doing real design work, man! I mean: You started a magazine. You did—” He waved at the air. “—all this stuff.”

“But it’s not anything I can turn in to a design contest, you know? The American Institute of Graphic Arts doesn’t give a shit what I’m up to. It’s nothing I can be proud of.”

Andy shook his head. “I don’t know, man.”

I went on. “It’s like, there’s nothing worse than a mediocre relationship. If it’s good, if it’s bad — you know what to do. But mediocre is the worst.”

“How’s the….” Sex. He meant, How’s the sex.

“Not great. Since she got herpes last year in a way that has yet to be adequately explained, I haven’t really been up for it very much.”

Andy — who at that point in my life had told me some of the most viscerally horrible stories about women that I’ve ever heard in my life — nearly flushed his sinuses with spicy ground beef. “And you don’t have—”

“I don’t have it,” I said.

“No shit,” he said.

I nodded. No shit. “For about a year, now, it’s been unsatisfying for both of us. I feel like I’m being a jerk about it on purpose, at this point.”

“So, where do things sit between you and Cookie now?”

“They’re not good,” I said. “I feel like we’ve been together for, like, two years, and either she doesn’t have much of an interior life —”

Andy laughed. “I guarantee you, a squeaky clean little girl like that has a rich interior life in this dirty, dirty world.”

“— or she just doesn’t want to let me in.”

“Break up with her.”

I slumped into my hands. “I probably should,” I said, “but….”

“But she’s hot,” he finished for me. I nodded. “Of course she’s hot! I mean, don’t get me wrong, she is really, really, really cute. Really cute. I mean, I’d fuck her.” He looked away into the near distance. “She’s the kind of cute and smart and pretty that you just wanna, like, drop her in the mud and roll her around a bit.” He held his hands up. “And believe me, I know that girls like that are not innocent, almost never.”

“She’s not. And not like ‘No one’s innocent,’ but seriously not innocent.”

“Are we talking ‘blood on her hands’?”

I laughed. There’s a whole story there, just perfect for a sidebar.

“She’s perfectly adorable,” I said. “She’s sweet, and vulnerable—”

“This is what I’m saying,” Andy said. “She’s the perfect mix of everything you seem to find attractive in a girl.” I had to swallow hard because he was right, and I’d never before thought of it as being a problem. “She’s the cookie-cutter girl of your dreams,” he said. “She’s a Derek-shaped trap.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, but I knew, I knew what he meant. I’d always felt so strongly about me and Cookie being together, that this was how the story of my life was supposed to go, that I couldn’t see how broken we were together. I knew she wanted to get married, but if didn’t trust her. I had no perspective on how I’d forced my moral algebra to arrive not at the correct answer, but at the most alluring one. The fix was in, the numbers were wrong, and I’d been living the wrong story.

For a moment, I realized it. It cast a light shadow over me from high, high above — then before it could make too great of an impression on my conscious mind, I pushed it out of my head. I had bigger problems, I thought, and I did.

Andy was quiet. “I don’t think I care about her any more,” I eventually said.

“So break up.”

I stared at the table. Quietly, I said, “I have other shit going on.”

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