EDITOR’S NOTE by Halimah Marcus
On the outside edge of Gen X and the beginning of the Millennial Generation dwells an undefined group in their twenties and thirties — the kind that have culture pieces written about our quarter-life crises, our late-blooming, our lack of motivation.
If Rebecca Schiff were in charge of naming this generational subset (which, to my mind, she should be), she’d name us for the things we tell ourselves, the rules we make up and repeat, over and over.
“It Doesn’t Have to Be a Big Deal” is both the title of this sharp, discerning story, and the narrator’s mantra — a phrase born out of equating disaffection with ease, inconsequence with fun. “Was it fun?” the narrator asks of her relationship with a broke pot grower. She has flown across the country to visit him and since arriving, has footed every bill. “But we had to do things,” she reasons. “Otherwise, it wasn’t an experience. It was just sitting in his house.”
Their relationship has all the trappings of fun — youth, impermanence, caprice. Yet the narrator finds herself dispirited by the grower’s attempts at affection. He props her with pillows, he packs her a fresh bowl, he asks her to be patient.
In part, “It Doesn’t Have to Be a Big Deal” is about dating. And what dating is about, as Rebecca reveals with her knockout wit and acerbic prose, is regulating intimacy. Let a little in, keep a little out. “This was what it was for, dating,” she writes. “Wet hugs. Jesus jokes. I needed this. I would get high and have this.” Small pleasures, such as those found on a day trip to the hot springs, are permissible. But the narrator’s ultimate goal is to avoid the Big Deals: relationships and choices of untold consequence, the kind of experiences that become unmanageable once set in motion.
Co-Editor, Electric Literature
It Doesn’t Have to Be a Big Deal
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The pot grower was broke. I paid for everything. We went to a restaurant that served only the kind of food you’d eat when you had the munchies — hamburgers wrapped in mango, zucchini pop tarts. It was hard to date a grower without money. Something had happened to his crop, something dumb. It had to do with his ex-girlfriend, an older woman who threw eggs at his car while we were eating in the munchie restaurant. When we came out, the car said “Faggot” in ChapStick and he was like, “I’m surprised she would write that. She has so many gay friends.”
The car also said “Douche bag.”
I had never really dated anyone. Sometimes I wondered if a pot grower was the place to start. A lot of his sentences began, “When I had money,” and ended with guitars I’d never heard of. We drove back to his grow house with egg dripping off the side of the car, then fucked in an Aeron chair he’d bought when he had money.
Afterwards he disappeared behind a duct-taped curtain to tend the plants that would make new guitars possible. I walked around his block, which looked like suburbia as imagined by stoners who had dropped out of college. It was. They had. The college was in the center of town and the dropouts thrived around it, growing richer than if they had finished. My dropout had become an exception to this rule. The growers grew vegetables, too — rhubarb, kale. I looked for the ex-girlfriend’s house. She could be anywhere, seething with misplaced homophobia, cradling intact eggs.
The whole town smelled like pot. Why was he broke? There was weed in his freezer. There was weed in ceramic frogs on his desk. When I tried to smoke a bowl with even a tiny bit of ash in it, he would refill the bowl immediately.
“I want you to smoke fresh,” he said.
He propped up my neck with pillows when my neck hurt. He propped up my crotch with pillows to enter me at pillow-propped angles. He seemed neither faggot nor douche bag, but more like a man with a lot of pillows.
The ChapStick wouldn’t come off the windshield. The grower scrubbed and scrubbed. We were taking a road trip to a naked hot spring, but he kept pulling over at gas stations and using the squeegee on “Faggot.” I blamed his Catholicism, the pope, his parents. Hippies always had parents.
“It’s off, for Christ’s sake,” I said. I hoped Christ would help. “How much is the gas?”
I wasn’t from California, so a lot of this was new to me, the pot culture, the nudity without shame. I liked being stoned and naked with this man, but being sober and clothed was more challenging. We had met the previous summer, felt each other up during a sing-along, and decided through emoticon-heavy negotiations that I would fly across the country so we could spend a week together. I sent pictures of myself in a bikini, chaste for our era, but I had a thing about keeping my actual boobs a surprise. He sent pictures of himself playing mandolin in a new band, chubbier than I remembered, his hair in pigtail buns then braids, hair I willed myself to overlook in order to like him.
“It doesn’t have to be a big deal,” was my mantra, or what my friends gave me as a mantra, or what the culture gave us as a mantra, the culture of managing your mantras.
“You can just have fun.”
“It can just be for fun.”
“It will be really fun.”
Was it fun? I learned a lot about his recent struggles as a bluegrass musician. I learned that the bluegrass community was not as big as it was years ago, when that movie with the bluegrass soundtrack came out.
“It was pretty influential,” he said. “Now everything is computers.”
Former bandmates had turned to electronica, left the area, died.
“After Dano had the accident, Rob sold all his instruments and headed to Hawaii,” he said, reviving a conversation we’d already had several times back at his house. I thought of it as the “I’m mad at Dano for dying and breaking up the band but I can’t admit it so I’ll resent Rob instead” loop. I guess he thought we’d try the conversation in the car. I still had no idea how to respond, except to say it was a shame to lose someone so young. Then he said his new band had stronger musicians and put on their CD. The new band sounded just like the old band. All bluegrass sounded the same to me.
“None of us knew if the band would stay together, but for Rob to just go…” The grower looked at the road, baked out of his mind, trying to understand.
I could have probed the Dano anger, but I didn’t want to talk about Dano. For one thing, he had probably also been driving stoned. For another, I had enough of my own grief. I couldn’t make room for a twenty-four-year-old grower who had bashed his van into a traffic median. Dano had played “Sweet Child of Mine” at the sing-along. He had been cheating on his girlfriend, who was now his widow. Rob had gone to sleep early the night we all sang together, resting up before his big betrayal.
“What about Dave Tofu?” I said. “He still making music?”
“Tofu’s new stuff is crap. He’s so full of himself,” he said. “I’m not really friends with those guys who stuck around.”
“At least you have a fun job,” I said. “I just tutor dyslexic teens for standardized tests.”
“The way my business is, it’s not going to last,” he said, changing lanes. “We’re in a sweet spot right now with the medical permits.”
He said cigarette companies were already buying up the land we were speeding past for the day pot became legal. “To put the little guy out of business,” he said. “I guess I’m the little guy.”
He was a big guy, with a vengeful ex-girlfriend, in a hundred-fifty-dollars debt to me. The hot springs would cost twenty-five each for day use. But we had to do things. Otherwise, it wasn’t an experience. It was just sitting in his house.
“I understand why Gretchen’s mad,” he said, eyeing a vague smear on the windshield. “She’s not a bad person. She could be really sweet.”
“I haven’t had a chance to see that side of her,” I said. I hadn’t really dated anyone, but I had also not really dated everyone. Without a Gretchen of my own, I began to tell him about the other men. I made them seem like SAT words — this one had been impetuous, that one reclusive. My hope was to stir the pot grower to greater vocab scores.
“What a fool,” he offered. “That guy sounds like a jerk.”
“I don’t know why I’m telling you about him. He was nothing. He’s engaged.”
We pulled into a wooded lot and parked next a bulletin board that said, “We are a Clothing Optional Resort.” The springs steamed behind wet steps. Kiosk notices alerted us to internecine management conflicts, meditation workshops, the healing power of lithium. Women walked by with breasts that left you feeling conflicted. Testicles dangled. I had never even been to a hot spring with bathing suits. The grower went to the bathroom while I purchased day passes with my SAT earnings.
“It’s explained in the springs guidebook, but these are holy waters,” said the guy at the front desk. He had a half shaved head and a t-shirt that said, “Question Male Privilege.” He handed me a guidebook thick as a course packet. “So we prefer you not speak, eat, or engage in sexual congress. No passion in the pools. Please relay these guidelines to your friend.”
We undressed in the locker room. A man rocked a woman gently in the water. A sign reminded us to be silent at all times. Sexual activity was not permitted, but the attempts to hide it were worse.
The grower and I began communicating in hot springs sign language.
Over there. I’m going over there.
Okay. I’m staying here.
His hair was longer wet.
You look like Jesus, I signed, pointing to his hair and making the sign of the cross.
He got it, smiled, gave me a wet hug. This was what it was for, dating. Wet hugs. Jesus jokes. I needed this. I would get high and have this.
Smoke? I mimed. I lit an imaginary bubbler.
A woman put her finger to her lips, though we were not talking. Maybe the Original Mantra was “Shush.” I judged her breasts as revenge, but they weren’t bad by naked hot spring standards. In the southern part of the state, bodies were tanned and injected to perfection, but here in the north, where we bathed, bodies relaxed and gave into an idea of perfect acceptance. Signs advertised workshops to reclaim powers long forgotten. People banged drums in the parking lot, unlocked childhood trauma in sacral tissue, painted their penises with raspberries.
I checked out his penis — not hard. This was also what dating was for, to see the penis at rest. It rested out of politeness to the naked strangers, so as not to disturb their patented water massage techniques, or maybe it rested out of guilt. I didn’t understand the mechanism of control behind the penis, though I respected it. I didn’t understand the mechanism of control behind Catholicism either, or behind any of the Eastern religions mentioned in the hot springs course packet the guy had given us at the front desk.
We climbed out of a hot pool and into a cold one. We slid back into a hotter one. We lay on our backs on benches in a sauna and avoided looking at other couples’ genitals. I waved to him to follow me down a path of trees I couldn’t identify.
We found a clearing in the woods, known in our guidebook as the Garden of Peace. He produced a bubbler from its velveteen satchel. We smoked under a Navajo quote, “Thoughts are like arrows: once released, they strike their mark.”
“More like Garden of Cultural Appropriation,” I said. This was one of the phrases you got to keep if you had not dropped out of college. I wasn’t sure who was the mark for this thought — him or the springs.
“Cultural appropriation,” he said. He tasted it on his tongue, added it to his worldview. We were sitting on a rock naked. I felt like a tutor with a promising student at the beginning of time.
“A lot of those Native quotes are made up,” he said.
“Everything’s made up,” I said.
He edged closer to me on the rock. This was my favorite kind of sex, sex based on being impressed. We kissed like we’d been kissing for days, like it was important, like something bad would happen if we stopped.
I couldn’t believe money was our problem. Under it was another problem. I was high and lip-locked. Our lips locked out our problems. He lifted a condom out of the velveteen satchel. I checked the label to see if it was flavored. He’d bought a variety pack by accident and some of the condoms smelled like strawberries. Even high, I refused to accept a flavor in my vagina. A condom should be condom-flavored, not try to appropriate fruit. Things should be what they were. But what were they?
“That’s not okay.”
He looked for another one, then dumped out the whole satchel. Soon we were surrounded by condoms, the ones that stimulated, the ones that delayed stimulation. One, suspiciously, promised “a swirl.”
“I’ll just blow you,” I said.
I fell back on the blowjob when flummoxed. The guys I hadn’t really dated hadn’t really minded, but this guy, this grower, he wanted to connect. He wanted eye contact, he wanted smiles.
“This is nice,” I kept saying.
Like a hooker, eye contact and handholding had become a bigger deal to me than sex itself. Except I wasn’t paid to not have feelings. I had broken my own spirit for free.
“Look at me,” he said, while I was sucking him. Had Gretchen maintained eye contact throughout? Were two and half years of fellatio eye contact the reason he had left her in charge of his crop at a crucial moment during the weed harvest while he went on tour in central Oregon with his bluegrass duo?
I looked at him. But there was someone coming up behind him. The guy from the front desk ducked under a dream catcher and grabbed my grower’s shoulder. I pulled my mouth off the grower’s penis like I had tasted something lychee-flavored. I couldn’t stop being naked, so I laid one arm across my breasts and fanned my other hand over my crotch.
“The guidelines were clearly stated at the front desk,” he said. “I’m sorry, man, but you and your lady are going to have to leave the Garden of Peace.”
“We’re very sorry,” I said. “Would you mind if we still used the tubs?”
I made eye contact with the guy from the front desk. Suddenly I was good at eye contact. Something was bubbling up in me, my upbringing. We had paid for day use. I had never been kicked out of anything. The guy from the front desk had only the authority of being the lone clothed person here.
After Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden, could they still use the tubs? Biblical scholars were divided.
“We’ll be good,” I said, trying to stick out my tits while keeping them covered.
“I can’t know that,” said God. He had seen a lot of tits.
“We paid for day use, sir,” I said. “I paid.”
I was trying a new Biblical approach — Eve with earning power, Eve without shame. Now Adam (formerly Jesus) stood, newly flaccid, walked away from the rock, and began flipping over Tibetan prayer flags on a string at the edge of the garden. He was either too stoned to be embarrassed, or was so embarrassed that he was pretending to be too stoned to talk.
“Alright, I have to get back to the front desk.” He ran his fingers through the side of his head that still had hair. “The tubs are open for another half hour, so please be mindful of the other bathers.”
God left us in the Garden of Cultural Appropriation.
“We get to stay!” I said. “In general!”
“I’m going to pay you back,” said the grower. He was putting the pipe away. He was gathering Trojans.
I waved my hand as though money was no object. I wanted to stay in general.
“As soon as Rob gets back from Hawaii,” he said. “I’ll be able to get it to you then.”
“What does this have to do with Rob?”
“He owes me three thousand dollars,” he said.
“Maybe when Rob gets back, he can tell us whether tropical-fruit-flavored condoms are big in Hawaii.”
The grower muttered something about the variety pack being on sale.
Now I had a new equation in my head, the amount owed me as a percentage of what Rob owed. It could be an SAT question. The thought stayed in my head as we dipped back into a pool with wrinkle-tanned old people in excellent health. Be us, their bodies seemed to say. Our penises only work intermittently, but our hearts are full.
My tits were going to fall. My eggs would dry up, or run out. I didn’t know what really happened to eggs. I wondered if Gretchen had run out. I wondered if Gretchen had had an abortion, and as soon as I wondered, I knew that she’d had an abortion. That’s what couples went through together in order to hate each other later for the right reasons. That’s why he didn’t know about the plain condoms. They were a secret for people who used birth control consistently.
The floor between the tubs was slimy wet under bare feet. We still had three days left together after we left the hot spring. I thought of asking him to drive me straight to the airport. I’d leave enough money to get him home and ship the clothes I’d left at his house. The airport was four hours away, and changing my plane ticket would be another fee. But going back to his town had costs, too — dinner, gas, condoms, lube. Maybe we’d get egged again.
How much did a ukulele cost? I wanted to be someone’s girlfriend, not their creditor. What would Jesus do? Would Jesus lend a friend three thousand dollars? Of course he would. Would Jesus’s girlfriend ask for two hundred dollars back? This wasn’t my culture.
He wrapped his leg around mine underwater, opened his mouth to speak illegally.
“Just be a little patient with me,” he said.
That wasn’t my culture, either. I could try to cultivate patience, lean against his chest in a tub of hot volcano water, silently workshop my anger, learn more about Rob’s craftsmanship. Or I could go. I couldn’t decide which would be a bigger deal.
About the Author
Rebecca Schiff’s work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Connu, Fence, Guernica, n+1, and in the anthology Lost and Found: Stories from New York. She is completing a collection of short stories, tentatively titled Rate Your Life. She lives in Brooklyn.
“It Doesn’t Have to Be a Big Deal” © Copyright 2013 Rebecca Schiff. All rights reserved by the author.