Chapter 2 (Jason)
April 20, 2017
I took a seat in my usual black chair and called Noel an hour after he got out of his Thursday night class. “Hey, you packed up?”
“Almost,” he said. “What’s the point of this trip again?”
“I want to see my hot go-go dancer cousin, and I had the perfect photo shoot planned for the two of you together.” Noel couldn't know my underlying motive. I wanted a boyfriend, and he was going to be it.
“I'd rather stay and do it in San Diego. Why? It's more economical. You're paying me ten percent of Tribal's profits, and right now, that's about $30 a week. That's not even enough to spend on a hotel room.”
“Your share's $30 a week. We're really making about $300.” I rested my head back against the leather cushion and closed my eyes. “A tease sells, doesn't it?”
“Fine, only since he's your cousin, and we're lucky enough to even have a profit to begin with. What's he look like? Is he a runt like you?”
“Tyler looks a lot like me,” I said, “only bigger.” We wore the same brownish hairstyle and had the same Gelardi-an green eyes, only his were darker in both aspects. Where we differed was in muscle definitions. Tyler's pecs bulged out no matter what size shirt he wore, which for every time I saw him, was always that same black tee with a blue star in the chest I gave him for Christmas two years ago. His arms showed the occasional popping vein. Mine did too, but not as much as his.
“Cool, I guess. I'll see you tomorrow.” Noel hung up. The appointed time drew near, and a sleepless night was the only road block in my destiny.
April 21, 2017
We left San Diego just before dawn on Friday morning to beat the rush hour traffic. Noel rested his head on the passenger door of my hand-me-down purple sedan, catching a few Z’s. I let him sleep while it was dark with only the street and building lights of Escondido and Temecula to guide the way. It wasn’t long afterwards before the sun made a presence in the eastern California sky. Its light shone straight through, making my eyes water and squint like I had no control over them. I swerved a few times, including one ill-planned maneuver just shy of sideswiping a big rig carrying the stinkiest horses I had ever smelled in my life. I had to stop the sun, preferably without waking up pretty-boy lazybones. When I got a free moment, I extended my arm over him, unhooked the shade from the car’s ceiling, and swung it towards the window. It was a perfect shot, but it didn’t matter. He was awake.
“Uh, Jason, are we there yet?” he said in a groggy tone, almost with a lisp twice as deep as a normal guy.
“Oh! Sorry to wake you. We’re in Riverside.”
“Can we stop for some coffee?” Noel took out his phone from his pocket and started playing with it. The faint bells and buzzes invaded my ears, drilling the pleasant sounds of the bubblegum radio out of them.
“I’d rather not stop in the city. Maybe in Barstow.”
“Barstow…” I could hear Noel tapping on his phone. The buzzing game sounds ceased, but were replaced with the clicks of a fake keyboard grating my nerves with road rage. I raised the car radio’s volume to compensate. “That’s too far away. Why don’t you stop at Cajon Pass?”
Noel leaned over and showed me his phone’s map, almost bumping into my shoulder. Cajon was only 45 minutes away. I was surprised he was willing to wait that long for a cup of coffee. However, he was not willing to say anything else until he got his caffeine fix. He reclined his seat and began his infernal snoring as I drove further down the 215.
I got off the freeway at the top of Cajon Pass. I found a gas station where I could fuel up while sleepyhead got his joe. I parked in an empty spot next to a pump and stopped the car. Noel stepped out of the car and went inside the store while I fueled up. It was much colder here than I expected. My dinky frame shivered despite me pacing around the pump. Noel returned with two drinks, which was odd since I don’t remember asking for one. He handed me the smaller one, saying it was hot chocolate. We got back into the car and I turned on the heater before hitting the road again.
Noel’s coffee was pungent; the crushed beans wafted through my car curdling the usual mint scent. I didn’t know why he liked drinking this stuff. It made me want to puke. But for him, it worked. Noel was a little more talkative as we drove further north into the Mojave Desert. It was mostly chitchat, but as we approached Barstow, he began to ask me some burning questions. “Why’d you become a photographer?” he asked.
I didn’t have a straight answer. Well I did, but I wasn’t sure I could tell him the truth. I hired him thinking he’d be the perfect boyfriend, but he couldn’t know that, at least not yet. “I wanted to do something that made me free. Photography keeps me away from the mill and grind of corporate labor. Plus, it’s an easy way to make money.”
I didn’t think he was impressed with my answer. Nevertheless, he continued. “Jason, photography’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. You just lucked out with breaking even. But you could have studied it in college. Why did you drop out?”
“Too structured, and with professors who could never speak English. Hell, the English teachers couldn’t speak English.”
“That’s not very nice.” Noel took a sip of his coffee. “Are you sure they didn’t just have an accent?”
I drank a bit of my hot chocolate. I felt like I scarred my entire mouth when the scalding liquid touched my tongue. I took a few deep breaths while clutching the steering wheel. When I regained composure after swallowing, I replied to Noel’s question. “I couldn’t understand them. How the hell was I supposed to understand the civil rights environment if I had no idea what they were saying?”
Noel slapped his face repeatedly, probably from me saying something stupid. “Honestly, you shouldn’t have dropped out. What major were you?”
“I didn’t have one. My friend Drake wanted me to go into sports medicine so I could be with him, but fuck that. I hated biology.”
“That doesn’t seem like you.” Noel took out his cell phone again and showed me a picture I took of him at Mission Beach near the roller coaster. “I know I just gave you a lot of flak over photography, but this is you. If you weren’t decent with a camera, I would have quit on day one. You’ve got the eye, but we’ll work on getting better equipment.”
“Thanks, man.” I gave him a little smile.
Noel put his phone in his lap. “But seriously, you should’ve stayed in school. You could have learned a lot. It was a bastion of knowledge you already paid for, and you threw it all away.”
I shrugged his comment off and continued driving. He had nothing more to say at the moment, so I lost myself in the refreshing desert scenery. I imagined the Joshua Trees as being tentacles from an ancient sand beast, slain by the Native Americans long before our time. They were littered everywhere, but far enough from the freeway so I wouldn’t have to worry about being grabbed by one, provided the beast was still alive. At least they were far more interesting than anything I had seen in the city.
As we approached Nevada, the traffic clogged up. A parade of big rigs refused to drive in the designated truck lane, making it difficult to pass. I was drained with fatigue and frustration, so I lugged behind the procession and pulled over to the nearest rest stop to calm down. I shut the car off, and handed the keys to Noel while both of us were still seated. “You want to drive?”
“It’s your car. You should drive.” Noel handed the keys back to me.
“I drove all damn day.” I spoke with my arms as well as my lips. “I’m tired, I want some rest from the road, and all you’ve done is play games on your phone.”
Noel opened the car door on his side and rested his feet on the asphalt. “It’s not even afternoon, so stop your bitching. We’ve got an hour until Vegas. You can make it all the way.”
“Okay,” I said, “but I need to stretch.” Both of us got out of the car and stretched our aching muscles for a few minutes. I doubted it would come from a guy as toned as Noel, but his pretty face defined the word lazy. I’m his boss, so he should really be the one driving, but he entered the car first, in the passenger seat just like I thought he would. I took my seat and began the last leg of our journey.