I’m Not a Sandbagger, I Just Have Baggage

 By Dora Bell

 My bike didn’t cost me an arm and a leg like my parents said it would. I think I left my brain on the counter of the shop when I bought it, though. This city has sucked every grey cell out of my noggin, like a little kid munchin’ on those candy-filled straws their parents buy them to coerce them to shut up.

The shiny handle bars berated my senseless daydream as the sun joined in. I could hear them, both tag-teaming with malicious remarks about how my driving- pedaling- was causing people to judge me strangely. I shrugged on instinct, which forced the tires to jut to the left, unexpectedly. I used this impromptu pause as a reason to look at the writing on my hand for the third time. Sweat assured the ink made my handwriting worse than it usually was, but my comprehension served well; grey cells or not.

Air filled and incinerated the balloons called lungs every time I tried to read the address, as proof that I didn’t just imagine the words 7192 Rothbart Ave.

7183 Rothbart Ave. wasn’t difficult to find, after the five miss-stops I made at the doors of several businesses I had no need of. Heck, I don’t even need the business I’m going to.

A dog, digging in the lawn of a home, caught my attention as I leaned my bike against the nearby silver pole. The handle bars slipped out of my hands and I soon felt a hard knock through my green shoes. The pain of the drop and the hilarity of my bike’s bell ringing urged me to make some hideous cross breed between a laugh and a yelp. Luckily, the noise only seemed to attract the dog’s razor sharp attention, which wavered in favor of a rogue squirrel daring to tread Fido’s moat.

I made an angled turn onto the facade of Wentz’s Get-Well Therapy, while the boards creaked under the pressure of my sore right foot. Promising.

The white shiplap front was decorated with fall-friendly flowers and squash, but not a single pumpkin in sight.

Before the turn of the door knob, I wondered if I was too early. I’m new to these things, first time. Suppose I get in there and I hear the patient before me sobbing, how would I recover from that exchange?

Wow, that’s an impressively shrill sob ya got there. Now, scoot. It’s my turn to ‘get well’.

Imagine if I booted a distressed woman out of the way just so I could wrap my session up? I would never. How inconsiderate someone must be to even think they could. But, just imagine it. They might kick me out for indecency. I’d be out of there in a wink.

Well, it’s always a fall back plan.

 The door opened with great reluctance, and was greeted with the same attitude. A woman with neat hair perked her eyebrows at me.

“Do you have an appointment?” Her voice matched her cat-eye glasses perfectly. I hope they’re happy together, as they seemed like they would be even more miserable apart from each other.

I easily approached with my hands in my yellow striped pockets, concealing the way I clenched my fists in my pockets when the door shut closed with the help of the autumn wind. I couldn’t think of what to say to the simple yes or no question, so I simply gave a non-verbal affirmation in exchange for directions on what to do now.

A clip board with an attached pen composed itself of the table, while the faint instructions of the woman echoed what the exposition of the paper held. Another nod, I was ushered to the nearby chairs with a simple hand flip.

The chairs were comfortable enough, and they matched the dreary purple walls and carpet that clumped itself on the floor, practically begging someone to lift it and chuck the stringy mess into the back alley dumpster. Besides the sturdy front desk and the evident weekly-subscription to a generally revered magazine, the rest of the decor could be purchased from a local consignment shop.

I guess I shouldn’t judge, that’s where I left my brain.

The paper before me asked for a name. I penned Cosmo Dracul and contemplated whether I should add a certain vowel to the caboose. After all, I wouldn’t be travelling back to this place. I don’t need the help.

Let’s see, “describe current mood”. Well, slightly befuddled and a tad cynical.

Annoyed.

Other practical questions secured themselves onto the page, followed by several practical answers with impractical internal commentary.

The clipboard was returned, and in a swift moment of courage, I decided to snag a mint. It wasn’t like one of those seasonal ones, it was one of those pillow mints that taste like melted marshmallows and, to be honest; a little like regret when you nervously sink seven of them with champagne at a crowded wedding.

I carefully unwrapped the twisted plastic, as I didn’t want to disturb the peace of a one-man waiting room. It tasted just as I remembered: soft, buttery, and faintly like champagne. Nah, I probably just Pavlov’d myself.

I removed a string from my yellow-and-green spotted suit jacket, which was making my green tie clump uncomfortably. My outfit will look so cool underneath the bowling lights tonight.

The beers at the bowling alley aren’t too bad, though the fries are too greasy for my liking. Maybe I’ll try the pretzel when I go tonight, like every Friday. As soon as this session ends at five, I’m heading out! The pins are probably waiting for me at this very moment, ready for me to narrowly miss them each time. I’m probably their favorite player.

“Mr. Dracul?” A man’s voice paraded in front of the lane. I stood on instinct, crinkling the wrapper in the palm of my hand and accidentally gulping the not-so-pillow-soft mint whole. My foot throbbed.

“Mr. Wentz?” I parroted. I have a theory that if you use the words that the person you’re talking to uses, they won’t immediately hate you for what you say.

Wentz grinned and motioned for me to follow him into the sliding wooden door’s threshold. It seemed heavy- or broken- because he threw all of his weight into it when opening and closing the door.

On the inside, a forest green sofa and two leather, maroon chairs created a trifecta. Neat. I motioned towards the seat that was closest to the yellow-shielded windows and clock.

“I’m going to sit here. I like to remain more,” I stared at the bed-looking furniture piece, “Vertical. During first meetings.” After I received a welcoming gesture and slight chuckle from my conversation opponent, I slumped into the puffy-feeling seat cushion and waited for the professional to start prodding my mind.

“So, how are you, Mr. Dracul?” Mr. Wentz asked, tucking his plain blue tie back into his plain tan sweater. I nodded.

“Cosmo, please. I am fine. How are you?” The testing of my theory is being put to use…right…now.

Another one of those reassuring grins adorned my therapist’s face. A small silence shrunk the room, making each of us more aware of the other’s breathing and nervous twitching. Well, at least my nervous twitching. A sudden rise of interest appeared over the visage of Wentz.

“How did you get that black eye, Mr. Dracul?”

“How did I get this shiner?” My finger pointed to myself to designate the assurance that he was, in fact, speaking to me. I was the only one in the room, of course he was talking to me.

I had to think of something besides what really happened. I can’t let this man think that I am an absolute loser and got this black eye with a struggle while opening a can of soup. On the other hand, I cannot let this man think I am some unhinged maniac that fights for sport. I went with the next plausible origin:

“I rode into a pole on my bike.” I nodded to get him to agree with the validity of the fabricated story. “I was distracted by a dog.”

That last part wasn’t a complete lie, I was preoccupied with a dog’s tunneling system before coming in today.

 I heard a small, tired sounding, “okay”, then he stared at his clipboard for a certain while.

The room was rearranged to a slight right angle.

“Do you always dress like this? Not quite matched, I mean?” His voice breathed past his own boring blue-and-tan ensemble, unaware of his own dramatic irony and personal tragedy. My hands clasped, as I felt the wrapper’s edge prod my finger. Unfortunately, it found a paper cut. I internally grimaced, as I didn’t want him to think that I felt ashamed of how I dressed.

“I do it on Fridays.” When that sparked a new questioning look, I sunk lower into my seat. He is going to make me talk about something that I am interested in so I open up during our session. There’s nothing to open up about.

“For bowling. I bowl on Fridays. I like the way my clothes look in the black lights they turn on.” I tried to look disinterested in prattling on about my main hobby.

Mr. Wentz asked if I liked to bowl.

“Love it,” I simply said, immediately regretting that I gave him a foothold on the rock wall named ‘Cosmo’. I squeezed the plastic in my hand, intentionally scratching the surface of my broken epidermis.

“I was involved in highschool, played ever since.” I stopped there. There was no need to tell this complete stranger (that my parents urged me to see) my life story. He didn’t need to know I was accused of sandbagging after I made it on the team.

“Y’know, I was accused of sandbagging after I got a really good score during tryouts.” Why did my tongue betray me this way? There is no need to tell this man anything.

As he decided that I wasn’t a lost cause, I decided that it might be fun to tell someone- a total stranger- a little bit of myself. Besides, it would be good practice for when I finally gain a social life. People are always so interested in talking to each other all the time. There’s no need to cram the air with so many opinions and meaningless experiences. However, this could be good practice for building my facade during those corny conversations.

“Sandbagging means purposefully being worse at bowling than you really are. It can get you a better handicap.” I briefly explained it, I figured there was nothing wrong with condensed exposition. My carbon footprint wouldn’t suffer too badly.

“Oh, are you good at bowling?”

“Not in the slightest.” A chuckle escaped my lips. One of my usual self-deprecating laughs. But it was true; my personal best was ninety-six. He allowed his face to crack into two, squeezing his eyes into a strained contentedness.

“Being self-aware is something you should pride yourself on. Not everyone has the range to be humble,” His pause made it acceptable for me to agree non-verbally.

The mint’s carcass stabbed at my fingers. I wanted to throw it away, but I couldn’t spy a trash can anywhere near me.

He started to speak again, which caused my face to feign interest as the trashcan came to my radar. All the way across the stretched room, near the doors. Now, was the hard part. I had to wait until this guy was finished talking so I could excuse myself to throw the wrapper away.

He kept speaking for quite a while.

I guessed I could wait until after the session was finished and just throw it away then. My head encouraged my efforts with a nod and my hand sunk the bit of plastic into the cushion of my yellow striped pocket.

“Oh, so there is a girl?” Mr. Wentz didn’t pay attention to my wide look. My eyebrows may as well have been on the second floor. What did I just nod to?

“I thought there was someone. Tell me about her. Or him.” His expression was unchanged, he seemed sincerely interested in my love life. He is a spy for my mother, a darn good one, too.

Heck, why not. I’ll give him something to illegally spill the beans about to my overbearing parents.

“Cassandra.” My statement was simple and seemed to be enough. His pen nudged gently into the paper, scraping the lined papyrus with squiggly lines.

“And that relationship didn’t work out?” The dreaded follow-up question. Of course, her name wasn’t enough, he wanted to undrape my confession onto that pad of paper like some fixated lunatic.

“She moved to Iceland. We agreed to visit each other if we were ever in town.” My response was being determined on the scale of austerity. After detecting no trace of a guffaw or smirk, his scanner gave him the go ahead to react accordingly. More notes. I felt like a fish at the zoo, surrounded by so many animals, yet the visitors kept prodding away at my glass. Let me gulp-gulp in peace, dammit.

“Tickets to Iceland are pretty pricey…” I offered weakly, earning a dull nod in response.

“Did your parents approve of the relationship?” Thud. The glass is shaking.

“Yeah, sure. My mom was ecstatic. Finally, her son had someone.” Memories of my family scrapbook formed before my hands, pictures of that family Christmas with Cassandra. I still remember that odd green and red sweater she wore; the buttons were too big, but too small for the button holes, so the sweater kept looking bunched and poked her in the chin. It was the best Christmas.

“Are you close to your parents?” That’s the zinger. That one question I was afraid of hearing. I looked him directly in the eyes. I made sure of it. Each pupil lined up with the other set.

“They’re forcing me to be here if I want to keep my part in their will. I’m nearly twenty-seven. I’d say that’s a little too close, wouldn’t you?” My stare was met, but not for long. A vague nod replaced his words, as my spite changed towards reluctance.

Maybe it was nice to talk to someone about…anything and everything.

“Well, our time together is getting narrower and narrower. Would you like to set a time for next week?” Wentz concluded the meeting and the statement by turning his chair towards his computer, his schedule at the ready. The clock read that it’s been forty-eight minutes, but that’s close enough to an hour for me. I mutter a response, happy to get this over with.

With my reply, he selected the date and time for next week, which he printed and handed a copy to me, along with my bill for the session.

I started to curl and roll the edges of the paper as he directed me towards the door. As he grunts to widen the portal, I slip my fingers into my pocket and toss the remaining synthetic cocoon into the bin. With a hand shake, a polite parting gesture from the assistant, and a near-trip out the door, I am free.

I slipped the curled and folded paper into the mauve flower pot. Get well soon, aster. This sure was a pain in mine.

With that, I headed towards the bowling alley, my bike wobbling from the limp I acquired from it earlier.

The bowling alley’s parking lot barely had room for another car, but my cycle jammed itself to the wire fence that sat on the side of the brick building. This was a larger turnout than usual Fridays.

The whole inside was dark, lit with spontaneous neons and cool blues only. I, of course, came prepared and glowed with dots and stripes. I slunk to the front desk after telling myself that there would be a long wait period before I could bowl, just so my hopes weren’t up.

The man at the front desk looked so tired.

“Any lanes open, by chance?” My question didn’t seem to thrill him, as his answer didn’t elate me.

“Nah, man. ‘Bout a two hour wait period.”

I sighed in response, nodding my thanks, and stepped to the bar area.

The colorful drinks looked much cooler in the electrified lights of the cosmic kind. I’m not much of a drinker, as I don’t like biking while buzzed, but I do have a reverence for the appearance; in a moth to lamps, sortaway.

 Sadly, the root beer was not as colorful and remained as a pale brown as I managed to sneak to the last open table, away from the bustling noises and aggressive drunks at the overflowing bar. On a good note, I was right near a fluorescent lamp, which made it easier to capture my outfit’s essence. Another swig of the rootbeer.

“Excuse me,” the voice startled me, but thankfully, I didn’t let a drip of my soda touch my jacket. It was some short guy with an orange drink.

“Oh, I didn’t mean to scare you. I thought you could see me since you’re right near the light.” His outline was visible, but barely, and I could tell he wore glasses based on the glimpses of reflection his eyes caught. I waved politely, don’t worry about it, and hoped he would leave.

But he didn’t.

“Do you mind if I sit here for a bit? My legs are getting tired from standing all day. You’re the only table with an extra chair.” His voice was wavering like mine was usually.

“Not anymore, take a seat.” I waved to the chair across from me. A grateful chuckle escaped the man’s lips and I kept waiting to feel the usual punch of regretted generosity.

But I didn’t.

“My name’s Bernard, by the way.” He seemed like a Bernard. I could tell he was wearing a green turtleneck sweater that covered his hands and assumed he was wearing brown loafers with matching socks.

“Cosmo.”

After a long silence and a couple of sips, Bernard offered a tidbit.

“People say I look like a Bruce.” His nod was so casual, I couldn’t help but laugh. An actual, genuine laugh.

“Definitely not Bruce!” My smile beamed onto his, which made his hatch allow for a slight chuckle.

“No?”

“No!” I felt my ribs against my balloons, heaving for air as we recovered together. When I picture a classic ‘Bruce’, I would never imagine this guy.

After a while of admiring the neon orange soda, he offered a defense for his choice of beverage.

“I just think it looks cool underneath the light…” He stared at my decision of clothes and added: “You came prepared. Practically glowing.”

I nodded, not fully wanting to elaborate.

Bernard asked me where I got the bruised eye.

“Soup can incident.” There’s the immediate punch of regret. He thinks I’m an oddball, now.

But, instead of cringing, he laughed, his sweater-sleeve-covered hands sloshed the orange liquid in the glass jug.

“Looks like the soup can won,” he replied softly.

I watched Bernard chuckle in the swirling lights, his dark curly hair was only visible in the blue and green neon strobes. I waited for something to change. I waited for something bad to happen. But we simply sat together on those two stools, laughing about a stupid joke about a stupid can of soup.

There’s no need to visit Iceland.

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