Poisoned Parlance

I just came back from a vacation, which I’ll be blogging about in the near future. But in the meantime, to assuage all of my fans, or my only fan (HI MOM!!!), here’s another flash fiction.

The theme was facing fear. I wanted to go with a more mundane fear, so I went with public speaking. Then I threw in the stammer, cause they never specified whether it needed to be an irrational fear.

The judges said they wanted more backstory of the main character and his friend. How/why he was invited to be the Best Man/Toast Giver. They might have a point. I certainly made it up as I was going along, and by the time I was done, I could really only edit for errors, not add a shit-ton of content and context.

So now you, intrepid explorer, get…

Poison Parlance

My adversary stands before me as I rise from security. Legs tremble, ready to pounce, fight or flight instinct fully engaged. Except there’s no place to go but forward. Into the face of evil.

It rises in front of me. Solid, erect, pockmarked visage eyeing me warily. ​A soft, guttural hiss emanates from its mouth.

“Snakes. Why did it have to be s-s-snakes?”

It’s not a snake. But I hoped an Indiana Jones line might calm me down. It didn’t.

I wish it was a snake. I could throw a fucking brick at a snake. Not that I have a brick. But at least a snake is a mortal being that can be killed.

I inch toward it. Dragging every ounce of my body, every ounce of time, in an effort to put off the inevitable as long as I can, despite knowing this goes against the priority of getting it all over with as quickly as possible.

Bright silver in the blinding spotlight, hissing and spitting and crackling, stands a microphone. Why did it have to be a microphone? Why the hell did it have to involve me, standing in front of a group of people who I barely now, who I can’t really see, and delivering a canned speech?

Thanks a lot, Ron.

My great aversion to public speaking came during adolescence. All the great social phobias do, right? Kids will take the stage at all-ages karaoke, belting out that song from Frozen at the top of their lungs, completely oblivious to the faces in the audience cocking to one side like a dog, one eye pinched in the universal sign for “you’re a half-note flat.” The kids just keep singing like they’re Idina fucking Menzel.

Hey, remember that time John Travolta butchered Idina Menzel’s name at the Oscars? He called her Adell Dazeem, or some shit like that. That should make me feel better, knowing that even people who do this type of thing for a living can make a faux pas in front of a microphone. But all I can think is that if John fucking Travolta can’t deliver a prepared speech without fucking up, what the hell chance do I have?

“Thuh” I say into the microphone. “Thanks.”

The reverberating echo of my voice sounds tinny, unnatural as it comes back to my ear. I hate recordings of my voice on phone recordings, too. But at least an answering machine doesn’t come with threat of feedback.

“Ron asked me to…”

My tongue tastes desert. Arid, dry, probing for moisture that should exist somewhere in its environ. But all it finds is the jarring back of teeth and a palate as dusty as the cratered surface of the moon. Or the soundstage where Martin Scorsese directed Neil Armstrong to bounce around a bunch. Whatever. Right about now, I’m thinking if scientists haven’t figured out a very basic hydration formula for the inside of a mouth that is trying to speak into a microphone there’s no way in hell they actually made it to the moon.

Or maybe it’s the alcohol’s fault. I have a friend who is afraid of flying. She drinks before a flight. Suggested I do the same here. Plenty of free booze at this place. Except that she can pass out on a flight. If I pass out right here, in front of this microphone, as I desperately want to do, it would probably put a damper on the mood of the crowd. My mood be damned.

“Ron asked me to…”

I did some reading in preparation for this. Don’t make eye contact, the website said. Look above their heads. Except I had a teacher in junior college who did that. And it’s pretty fucking obvious when someone’s looking at the top of your head. Maybe someone in the front row might think you’re making eye contact with someone in the back row. But if you’re sitting near the back, where the people who are most likely going to mock you are sitting, it’s obvious that you’re just staring at the back wall. Hell, sometimes my professor’s eyes rolled up in her head like the goddamned Exorcist, staring straight at the ceiling. Half of us could have snuck out of the room without her noticing. She’d probably just respond by spinning her head around and projectile vomiting.

And trust me, noticing all the miscues of other public speakers does wonders for somebody with public speaking foibles himself.

“Ron wanted me to s-s-say… ssssome things about how him. And, um, J-J-Jake.”

The presentations in middle school were bad. I think that’s where it started. Who the hell decided that middle school students should have to do class presentations? Hey, you’re going through puberty! Acne up the wazoo! No control over your body odor, not to mention all of those other bodily functions! How about you stand in front of a group of your peers, who will continue reminding you of your failures and foibles every day for the next six years?

I didn’t pee my pants that time, at least. I saved that particular reaction for high school. Romeo and Juliet can go fuck itself. Because, again, freshman year doesn’t have enough shit to weigh a fourteen year-old down. Let’s add a mortifying incident that will consign him to the hallway shadows for every passing period in the next three years.

No, in middle school, it was only a profuse sweating. Just enough to make me never want to do this shit again. Yet here I am, a decade later.

“I’ve, um, I’ve  known Ron since middle school. But we didn’t really hang out till high school.”

I seriously thought of telling Ron no. It wouldn’t be the first time. I’ve had a chance to be a groomsman before. I’ve always said no. They act like being a groomsman is such an honor. Stand up there and make me look good. Tell some carefully-sculpted anecdote that Aunt Gertrude, whom I haven’t spoken to since I was eight, can go home and tell her knitting circle that her nephew’s living a full life. 

Not that anyone with half a brain would want my sorry ass standing up for them. Best Man? More like worst. Nothing brings a party to a screeching halt like a minute of dead silence, broken by an occasional stammer. Stammer is sexy. Just ask all of the zero girlfriends I had before alcohol became involved.

But Ron was one of the few people who didn’t hold it all against me. High school as much hell for him as it was for me, just for different reasons. He hadn’t come out yet. Maybe he didn’t know himself yet. But he knew he didn’t fit the mold. Neither of us did. Me, because I couldn’t talk about Romeo and Juliet. Ron, because he liked Romeo and Juliet way more than any ninth grader should.

“Ssssso. I know Ron doesn’t have a l-l-lot of friends from high school. Neither do I. High school kinda suh-sucked. For both of us.”

Way to go, asshole. That’ll slay the crowd. Aunt Gertrude’s gonna have her girders in a bunch after this shitshow.

Imagine all the people in the audience naked, they say. Except, looking around, I really don’t know that I want to see any of these people naked. Except for maybe the bridesmaid, but that’s clearly never going to happen.

I guess she’s not a bridesmaid. There’s no bride. Best maid? Does that make me the Man of Honor? Semantics are stupid. Maybe I should just say that into the microphone.

I never understood how the whole “imagine them naked” thing is supposed to work. Am I supposed to be clothed? Like that episode of “Westworld,” where they’re having perfectly normal conversations in front of an orgy?  I imagine if I was the only clothed person in a room with a hundred naked people, that would be weird. That would not calm me down. I would assume I got the invitation wrong, and if I’m already self-conscious about standing in front of them, then being the only one that didn’t get the memo isn’t going to make me feel more comfortable.

You know what? Probably not the best time to be thinking about “Westworld” and orgy scenes.

Or maybe the “everybody naked” thing is supposed to have me naked, too. Like, we’re all in this together. They’re just as humiliated as I am. Except they’re sitting down, legs crossed, privates underneath a wedding program, and I’m standing in front of them, behind this crackling, feedback-prone microphone, and now I’ve got my shwantz out for the whole world to see. One more thing to be self-conscious about.

“S-s-sorry. I, um, this isn’t about, um, ssschool. It’s about, um, Ron and… um, Ron and Jake.”

I’m off script. Good thing, too, because I can’t read the fucking script., because it’s crumpled in my hand. I’m shaking like a Parkinson’s patient. That eighth-grade, puberty sweat is coming back. Sure, I know about deodorant now, but I didn’t have to wear a tuxedo in middle school. It’s a wash, at best, but thinking of a wash just makes me perspire more.

Off script. What made me think I would be able to read pre-written remarks, anyway? Do I even know my own cadence, or lack thereof?

Like in theater. My dad made me do the school play in tenth grade. He was one of those “make the kid smoke a carton to get over his interest in cigarettes” kind of guys. Figured if I was gonna be a pansy-ass when it came to speaking, he’d get it out of me by humiliating me. I stammer because I can, right, dad? If I’m put on a stage and forced to sing along with the chorus, I’ll spit it out, right?

Or I’ll just knock my fucking knees and faint on stage. Right at the front, near the orchestra pit. Thank God for the gong player. That cushioned mallet raised above his head for the big strike really helped break my fall. The gong player definitely wasn’t thanking God for me though, that’s for sure.

Ron’s father isn’t here, either. He’s probably still back at home, praying the gay away. Maybe that’s what drew the two of us together. A couple of ripe old assholes taking care of us in our formative years.

“Ron met J-j-jake at one of those… after the G-g-giants won.”

Oh shit, they might not know what I mean.

“Not the football. B-b-baseball. The Wuh. The Wwworld Suh, suh.”

No shit, dumbass. We’re in Northern California. Who the hell would think we were all out celebrating Eli Manning. And maybe I shouldn’t add in how Ron had spent the whole game gushing over the abs and thighs Buster Posey must have to be able to squat behind the plate for three hours and still leg out an infield single. Or maybe I should add that anecdote in. That’s real life. Shows his mindset. How the only two gay guys in a sports bar of toxic masculinity can find each other when they’re least looking.

Except that’s not how it would come out. Yeah, I can come up with wonderful lines about toxic masculinity inside my own head. People assume I’m dumb because I can’t enunciate my thoughts. Or just because I’ve now been standing in front of this microphone, radio silence, for what has probably been ten minutes now.

Why the hell did Ron even want me here? Sure, I’m one of his best friends. Yeah, I was there when he met Jake, but is that really a vital piece of information? I already fucked up the delivery of it once. So now all I can do is fumble over part two of their relationship. The bridesmaid is here for a reason, too. Can’t she add anything to the “how wonderful you guys are together” story?

Or Ron could come up here. Or Jake. Aunt Gertrude will talk about how strong of a public speaker he is after that debacle of a cavalier.

I know what I want to say. I want to talk about the change that has come over Ron since he met Jake. The sparkle in his eye, the new way he sees the world. The subtle, little optimisms where there would’ve been sarcasm. His propensity to talk about plans in weeks and months instead of minutes and hours. How the true Ron, the one who I always knew was there because I’m the only one who doesn’t interrupt him or talk over him, is finally out for the whole world to see.

Instead, I just stumble over his damned husband’s name.

Screw it. I’m not talking to all of these judgmental fucks in the audience. I’m here as a best man for  Ron. And for Jake, his real-life best man. I’ll just turn around and talk to the two of them. Ignore Aunt Gertrude and the bridesmaid and the bartender. Okay, maybe not the bartender. But the bartender can wait. But I definitely can’t look at the bridesmaid.

For now, it’s just me and the two grooms.

“Hu-Hey Ron. Juh, juh… You know what? I’m nnnnot gonna say your name. I love what you d-d-done for my guy, but I fucking hate your name.”

There’s a smattering of laughs in the audience behind me. Fuck. Are they laughing at me? Mocking me because I can’t stand looking at them? Turned my back? Fuck you, Aunt Gertrude.

Or do they think I just made a joke? Did I just make a joke? Timing’s never been my strong suit.

Ron and Jake are both smiling at me. Jake is nodding. I’ve told him I hate his fucking name before. He usually thinks I’m joking. I guess I am. I mean, it would be a hell of a lot easier if his name was Aaron or something, but I don’t begrudge a dude his name. And Ron had enough trouble finding someone he could be happy with. It’s not worth throwing a fish back into the pond for his name.

Maybe I should say something along those lines.

“Yeah. J-j-jake. You’ve been the best thing that’s ever happened to m-m-my boy, Ron. I wuh. I wish you had a du-, a different name, but Ron won’t let me, let me call you Aaron.”

More laughter from behind me. That one was intentional. I think for a brief moment about turning around and mugging for the crowd. A wink to let them know I got this. But that would be a really, really bad idea. Like, pee my pants, pass out kind of bad.

“At least your nnname isn’t B-b-buster P-p-posey.”

Less laughter that time. I need to leave the stand-up to Kevin Hart. Just speak from the heart.

“Anyway, I’ve never. Never s-s-seen Ron s-s-so happy. It’s like. It’s like he always had s-s-so much to give and it p-p-pissed me off that he c-c-couldn’t find anyone. Probably mmmy fault. I kuh, I kept taking him to sports bars. Not a lot of gay dudes there. Not a lot of straight girls, either. Hey Ron, I thu, I think I… fffigured out my problem.”

Ron smiles, chuckles a little, gives me a thumbs up. I think this is what he was looking for from me. Time to finish before I fuck it up.

“Anyway. Juh, uh, Jake. You’ve made Ron happy. He acts like himself when he’s with you, which is… sssomething he hasn’t always done with boyfriends in the past. You guh. You guys are guh, great together. I’m sssso guh-glad you found each other. Even if you’re an A’s fan.”

A few more laughs. A thumbs up from Jake. Better pass this snake off before it bites me.

“Okay, I nnneed to get rid of this m-m-microphone before I fuck things up worse.”

The DJ takes the microphone from me. I sit back down and breathe for the first time in a half-hour. I stare down at the table, trying to find my composure. According to my Fitbit, my heartrate is only 110, but that can’t be. It must be at least double that.

The table looks very interesting. The table is my one solace as the DJ introduces the Maid of Honor. Not sure how I couldn’t come up with that moniker myself.

After she gives her speech, a much more eloquent recounting of her life with Jake, filled with beautiful anecdotes from grade school through high school placed naturally throughout, I finally look up. Nobody’s looking at me. My flush slowly recedes. After five minutes, my Fitbit finally drops below ninety, and I take that as a sign that I can have another drink.

I slink off to the bar for my deserved  free drink. Then another one. I’m perfectly content to stay on this stool the rest of the night. I’ve already signed the marriage certificate, so they don’t need me upright for anything.

“That was a nice speech you gave.”

I’m about to haul off and tell the person where they can shove their sarcasm, when I look up and see the Maid of Honor. She’s smiling. I think she’s serious. Or, at the very least, sincere.

“Th-Thank you.”

“Mind if I sit? I could use a drink, too. These things are daunting.”

“I cuh. I couldn’t have said it b-b-better myself.”

I wave to the barstool next to me.

“I’m Rick,” I say, extending my hand for a shake.

She smiles and takes my hand.

“You can call me Erin.”

 

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