The following is from Tara Jepsen’s novel, Like a Dog. Like a Dog is a skateboarder's story of underground worlds and fringe existences, confusing family relationships and the struggle for intimacy. Tara Jepsen is a writer and actor living in Los Angeles, California. She's appeared in Emmy-winning series Transparent. Jepsen has been published by The Believer, xojane.com, and SF Weekly. She has toured and performed with the seminal queer cabaret Sister Spit
We’re in Oscar’s car, which is an old Chevy Cavalier. Greyish blue. There is dog hair everywhere. I sit in the back and stare out the window, watching lights fly by and then just deep, country darkness. Stars. My feet are planted in a footwell sea of empty paper cups and plastic soda bottles.
We drive for what must be at least half an hour. I check in to the conversation in the front seat when I hear Peter say, “Where are you going?” and I realize that being in the country doesn’t make sense with going to a bar. There are no lights, or stores, or houses.
“Going to get gas at that cheap place out here.”
“Really?” Peter asks.
“Yeah, it’s a dollar less per gallon than the places in town,” he says and chuckles to himself. I want to say something that makes everything normal but I’m scared. I can’t figure out a logical reaction because the feeling of drunkness keeps washing over me.
We come up to a gas station and Oscar pulls off the road. There is a low cement wall that is painted with an ocean scene, a big dolphin at the center. Oscar rolls up to a gas pump and does not turn off the car. He looks straight ahead and says, “How much money do you have?”
“I don’t know,” Peter says and meets Oscar’s gaze.
“Give me your fucking wallet. And your phone.” Oscar is utterly impassive.
Pete doesn’t do anything but stare at Oscar.
“Don’t make this fucking ugly, dude. Don’t make me do something that’s going to suck in front of your sister. Give me your goddamn wallet and phone.”
Peter pulls out the beat-up leather wallet my dad gave him for Christmas years ago and throws it into Oscar’s lap. Oscar opens it up and looks at the bills. Peter reluctantly hands over his phone too.
“Forty-three dollars, huh? You’re rich. Here, go get me a Twix.” Oscar throws two dollars at my brother. Peter opens his door and gets out of the car so I do too. I walk next to him and we go into the mini mart and sure enough, we hear Oscar drive away.
“Dude,” Peter says, with deep seriousness. I don’t say anything because I’m experiencing an internal refusal to connect with reality. “We’re screwed,” he says and a long smile stretches across his face. “That’s a fucking long walk. Do you have your phone?”
I check and find that I left my phone at the motel. We both start laughing and then we can’t stop. Everything seems hilarious. Being abandoned, the bright lights, the rows of candy, the beef jerky. The lighters and the antifreeze. The half-obscured issues of Jugs. By the time we pay, we both have tears rolling down our cheeks from laughter.
We buy a lot of candy with my money. My pockets are lumpy and misshapen with crappy chocolate and when we step out into the night it is just us and a walk to town.
“Why exactly did we get ditched?”
“Well, guess he chose the anger option over the getting-our-business-back option.”
We walk along the road, two lanes of asphalt and no lights. The shadows are dark and wet off to the side, surrounded by trees, and light from a half moon falls on the road in front of us. I link arms with Peter and we walk that way for a long time, taking in the darkness and merging with the silence.
“Should I be worried that you’re not, like, sober anymore?”
He’s quiet for a moment. “I got this. Don’t worry about me.”
“Okay,” I say, even though I strongly suspect it is not.
We walk for an hour and a half I’m guessing and we see a bright sign ahead. It says “LIQUOR.” I have exactly fourteen dollars left so we have to make this count. We pick out a couple of Pabst tall boys and I pay the dude at the counter.
“How far are we from town?” Peter asks.
“Which one?” the guy asks.
“Oh, about sixteen miles.”
“Fuck,” I burp involuntarily. I kinda hope it will make the guy smile but he is impervious to my body’s jokes.
A guy behind us in line, maybe twenty-five years old with a backwards baseball hat, asks, “You having car trouble?”
“We’re walking and it is way further than we thought,” I say.
“I can take you to town if you want. Promise I won’t kill you!” Fortunately, he has the right audience for this dark joke.
We ride with this guy, whose name is Terrence, into town. It is such a relief to have the help I could cry, but instead I drink my tall boy in the back seat and watch the darkness pulse outside.
Peter and I finally arrive at our motel. The parking lot in front of my room is dark, and the pavement is wet. When I reach into my pocket for my key it’s just not there, which is no surprise. I walk over to the office to see if I can get another. The glass door is propped open and when I walk in there’s an old guy with white hair and beard and mustache pacing the room and smoking. He wears glasses with thin metal frames. A serial killer vibe, like so many white guys. From the smell of things, I gather he’s been lighting one cigarette off the other for hours, maybe his whole life. The lobby is various shades of taupe. There is a dusty basket of fake flowers on the counter next to a bell. A large painting of a little girl walking a Schnauzer down a cobblestone street is on the wall. I like imagining them picking it out at a flea market.
“Hey, I lost the key to my room, can I get another?” Without a word he hands another key over. I grab it and run out like I robbed him. I pretend he’s chasing me, all the way back to my room. Peter stands waiting for me.
“Weirdo,” he says.
When we’re inside Peter cracks open two beers for each of us. I start pulling my pants down on the way to the bathroom and walk in with my jeans around my ankles, underwear sagging on my butt, and leave the door open while I pee for what seems like ten minutes.
“Hold my calls!” I yell then sip my beer. In at the top, out at the bottom. I lay my head on my knees and wait. I look at the little tiles on the floor. I see the shape of a lion’s head. I see a dumb daisy. A UFO. A cake stand.
When I walk out, Peter hands me another beer even though the two I have aren’t finished. “Let’s go swim in that pool,” he says.
The pool fence is locked with a big chain, so we start climbing over it, each of us holding three beers. I’m really proud of our gusto. I tuck two of my cans in the back of my jeans, one in each pocket. Good thing I’m wearing the hugest pair of crappy corduroys known to man. As I climb the open beer sloshes onto the butt of my jeans and soaks all the way through to my skin. The cool air grazes my warm face softly, like a liquid. A liquid, soft, lady hand. A long lady model hand slathered in Jean Naté or Love’s Baby Soft. The night sky is full of stars, visible even over the bright light of the motel sign.
By the side of the pool Peter and I strip down to our underwear. We enter the water carefully, using the stairs, so we can swim with our beer. I drift around the pool blissfully. I use one hand to paw at the warm water and I hold the other in the air to keep my drink aloft, a sloppy sidestroke. I love the bluish light on my brother’s face. His is such a complicated heartache. I love the quiet. If I don’t concentrate or clamp down on my brain for any reason I can feel like right now is beautiful and perfect.
One thing that I do but don’t want to do is heavily psychoanalyze about how Peter ended up this sad (angry?) donkey drug addict. There were plenty of betrayals from our young parents and there was violence in the house and all that stuff you hear people pointing to when they are trying to describe why they are a certain way. Picking someone apart is a stupid distraction and I’m not sure Freudian psychology has all the answers. Why does the effort to understand each other somehow preclude an acceptance of complexity? How can you be shitty and great at one time? How can you love me and still steal my money? Alright, I’m done, I already feel gross trying to articulate this stuff.
After two beers I start to feel faint and weird. My mind goes fuzzy and I let myself drop down to the bottom of the pool, sinking and sinking while water fills my mouth. I feel so weightless that I become disoriented and I can’t get to the surface. I keep reaching and trying to maneuver but nothing feels right. The noiselessness of water swaddles me. I dated a girl, very crazy, who said she always wished she was a shark because it’s so peaceful under water. What was the mental soundtrack to her waking life? I imagine non-stop subway brakes in her ears. As I sink everywhere I look I see the same shade of blue. A jet. Air sky wall chlorine California dream down to sleep at night. I let go and wait for the bottom to catch me. There is a tunnel of relief, feeling the bottom catch you.
Suddenly l am pulled up by my shirt and Peter drags me to the side of the pool. I grab on to the concrete edge and gasp while I wait for my head to clear. Peter watches me wordlessly and drinks his beer. My face hurts from coughing. Big repulsive veins in my face are all I feel, with a tree trunk of snake belly throat.
“Don’t do that,” Peter says. “Don’t drown.”
Eventually our teeth chatter and we go back to our respective rooms for hot showers. It takes superhuman strength to remove my clothes and get in the shower. My body. I feel like a pair of nylons filled with old shoes.
I try not to look at myself in the mirror usually. Which is probably sad or not self-loving somehow. If I look I’ll start picking myself apart and finding things to feel bad about so it’s easier not to start.
When I climb into my bed with my hot skin I run my feet all over the cool, coarse cotton and it feels so good. My head spins. I turn on the TV where there are more Forensic Files. I guess as long as women are being murdered by their boyfriends they will keep making shows. I watch for a few minutes, then roll over on my face and drop out. I sleep deep drunk sleep until five in the morning when I wake up and can’t fall back in. I try but can’t because the booze has worn off and nausea and shame churn in my guts. I’m naked.
From Like a Dog. Used with permission of City Lights books. Copyright © 2017 by Tara Jepsen.