The Nothingness of Being
Text ©2003 Roger E. Moore (email@example.com)
Daria and associated characters are ©2003 MTV Networks
Feedback (good, bad, indifferent, just want to bother me, whatever) is appreciated. Please write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Synopsis: Joey arrives to take Quinn on a date—but she slams the door in his face. What happened after that moment in the fifth-season “Daria” episode, “One J at a Time”?
Author’s Notes: This story is rated PG. The events in this story take place one night during “Daria” episode #508, “One J at a Time.” Fans should be able to place the story in context without trouble. The title is taken from a dinner-table comment Daria makes in the episode, “Lane Miserables.” The story’s narrative style is a little unusual (a la Barry N. Malzberg), but I hope not terribly so. It is assumed that readers are familiar with the characters of the “Daria” show, so detailed explanations of who is who are not needed.
Acknowledgements: Special thanks to the Unknown Fan who sent me what I needed to know about “One J at a Time.” I am not worthy. Thanks to the various fans who pointed out that, in the original version of this story, the Mall of the Millennium was too far from Lawndale for it to be included in the story. And, hi to Brandon League, who beat me to the punch with his story about Jeffy and Quinn, “Contemplation (Jeffy’s Journey).”
For several seconds after the door slammed shut, he stood on the concrete porch slab like a statue in a park. The door was gray, like the trim of the two-story red-brick home, with an attractive glass window above it shaped like a hemisphere, the panes like rays of a sunrise. The slamming of the door stopped the words tumbling out of his mouth that begged her to wait before she shut the door. The sun vanished behind the roof of a house to the west at that moment, and the day was over.
For their date, he wore his best shirt, his second-best pants, his reasonably good shoes with black socks, a bright leather belt, his best coat, and his best cologne. She said once she had liked that cologne. He had even brought her flowers, a dozen long-stemmed red roses that cost thirty-six dollars at Plantamonium. She said once she had liked roses. She met him at the door in an exotic blouse and skirt, her bright red hair done up in two silly-looking pigtail nubs that looked like chipmunk ears. She took the flowers and demanded he take her to the Guys2Guys concert instead of the French restaurant he’d chosen for their candlelight dinner. Everyone else was going to the concert, why hadn’t he gotten tickets? She’d never mentioned the concert before then. He stammered that the concert was sold out, which everyone knew, and she snapped at him—he did not remember now what she had said—and slammed the door in his face. It almost caught his right hand, raised to beg her not to slam the door. He jerked his hand back just in time. She was there, and now the door was there, and she was not.
He stared at the door. She had his flowers. Surely she would open the door again and say it was just a joke. It was a lousy joke, but he would not argue. He was smitten with her, and she could do no wrong. When the door did not open, he realized no joke was being played, his plans for the evening were over, and any relationship he had hoped to have with her was gone as well. A slammed door meant it was over for good. This took six seconds from the time the door slammed shut. It happened that slowly.
It was over. He turned away, feeling nothing yet except numb, and he glanced up and down the street. Someone, somewhere along the street this evening, had seen him get a door slammed in his face and would remember it. He knew it in his bones. His face grew hot. He hoped no one who saw him knew him. He hoped no one would repeat what was seen. He knew, though, that someone would. Everyone would know. If nothing else, Quinn would tell anyone who listened what happened, and everyone would know—his teammates, the football coach, the cheerleaders, the teachers, his classmates, everyone. He hated himself for thinking this, but it was true, and he knew it. Tomorrow, everyone would know Quinn had dumped him before the date even started, and it was his fault.
He looked back at the door, but the door did not open. He had said the wrong thing. She could do no wrong, but he was just a guy, and he could do wrong every minute of the day. He always did. If Quinn didn’t say so, his coach or his mother did. He walked back to his car, staring at the cracks in the sidewalk and thinking that someone should fix them. He got in his car, put on his seat belt, put the key in the ignition, started the car, put it in gear, checked behind him, and drove away like a robot. He felt nothing and did not remember any of it later. He remembered only how worthless he felt in that moment when the door slammed shut—how, in that moment, all color fled the orange sunset, and there was nothing left but the darkness.
He parked the car on the left side of the driveway when he reached home. It was his mother’s old car, a rusty Pinto he had vacuumed out that afternoon after cleaning the seats and spraying the inside with air freshener. There was room in the garage for only one car, her new one, the Taurus. She bought the new one with the money from the divorce settlement. It was the last thing any of them got from his father, who might be in Alaska now, for all anyone knew. Joey got out of the Pinto, locked it up, feeling the darkness creep into him as he walked to the front door. A light was on in the living room. His little sister Katie would be at her best friend’s house for the night, and his mother would be on the sofa watching television with an empty beer can in her hand.
Why are you home early? she would ask. Quinn was sick, he would say. Came down with something at the last minute. We’ll try again next week. Huh, his mother would say, and she would go back to watching television. They had cable, thanks to the divorce money. Katie loved cable. She got cartoons all day and all night now, all the cartoons she’d ever wanted. It was the best thing that had happened to her since Daddy stopped calling or asking to see them, and he disappeared off the radar for good.
He tried the doorknob. It did not surprise him that the door was unlocked, though it angered him, and he went inside. He stopped, however, as he walked into the living room and shut the door behind him. Katie was on the sofa, wrapped in a blanket. Their mother was gone. Except for the kitchen light and the hallway leading to the kitchen, the rest of the house was dark. Joey, Katie yelled, and she jumped off the couch and ran over to grab him by the leg. She then got up on his polished shoes, in her bare feet, and hugged him around the waist. Walk with me, she said. Be a giant and walk with me.
Where’s Mom? he asked Katie, walking stiff legged around the living room while she stood on his polished shoes. He held her hands to make sure she did not fall off. He thought of Quinn and how he felt when the door slammed in his face. She went out, Katie said. A man called, and she went out. Was it Edgar? he asked. I dunno, she said. She went out. Why aren’t you at Lisa’s? Lisa’s brother got sick, and her mom brought me home. Mom was here when you got here? Yeah, but she went out after Lisa’s mom left, when the man called. Okay, he said. Have you eaten dinner? I had some Cheerios from the box, she said. Anything else? No. Okay, let’s go to the kitchen. He walked her into the kitchen, standing on the giant’s shoes.
The kitchen was as he expected it. Plates and glasses left over from breakfast and lunch sat at the table, covered with dried food. The box of Cheerios was open and on its side, nearly empty. A fly flew away from a plate as he carefully pried Katie from his waist and cleaned off the table, putting everything in the dishwasher. Such a simple thing, why couldn’t his mother do that? The milk was out, too, warm and spoiled. Luckily, only a small amount was left in the carton. He poured it down the sink and threw out the carton. The wastebasket was full of beer cans. The housekeeper would come Monday and fix the little things, the crumbs on the floor, the tomato stains on the frig handle, but he fixed the other things so the house looked a warmer each day, a little more like a home.
Can you get me something to eat? said Katie. Yeah, just a minute, he said. I gotta clean up. Did you go out? she asked. Yeah, he said. Was it fun? He wiped off the table and put down a small plate for her. Have a seat, he said. You want milk? Yes, please, she called. Are you going out again? No, he said, I’m home. (How could his mother just leave Katie alone like this? What was she thinking? Since when did she ever think about things like this, anyway?) Can you read to me? she asked. Sure, he said, but then he said, because he did not want to stay home and have time to think about that door shutting in his face, Want to go see a movie? Yeah, she cried, let’s go see Shrek. Mom said she took you to Shrek last night, he said. No she didn’t, she said. She went shopping and forgot, and we had to come home. Katie’s face fell when she said it, her voice raw. Her dark bangs hid her face. She promised me and broke it. Okay, he said, we’ll go see Shrek. You eat first, then get your shoes on, and we’ll go. Thanks, she cried, I love you Joey, and he made her a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich with the crust cut off and a glass of milk, and while he fixed her dinner she told him what the Powerpuff Girls did on Cartoon Network. I wanna be a Powerpuff Girl, too, she told him. Works for me, he said, giving her the plate, and he ate the crust from her sandwich and thought about Quinn.
Could he have gotten tickets at the gate for that Guys2Guys concert, tickets from scalpers? Probably. He could have done it, if he had thought to say that to her before she slammed the door, and he could have taken her out, and Katie would have been asleep on the couch, alone with the lights and TV on, when he got back. When his mother went out with a guy, she never came back until noon the next day. Joey knew why she stayed out and he had argued with her about it once, then never again. It was too much to face. He pushed it aside and went on with his life, but it ate at him, that she could leave like that, leaving Katie alone in the house just because some guy had called her and asked her to go out with him. He didn’t even know who the guy was. Edgar was from two weeks ago. It had to be someone else now. No guy ever lasted, though sometimes a guy came back for a second or third time before he disappeared for good.
Maybe it was for the best that Quinn had said no. Maybe there was a cosmic thing about it, a sort of rightness. Quinn was not really rude; she was just filling out her cosmic role in sending him home to Katie, who needed him. It had to happen that way. It was for the best. He thought about that, but inside the darkness had already filled his stomach and he could not eat anything but the bread crust. Quinn did not love him. He turned away from the knowledge, but it came back. It was all an accident, him coming home to find Katie. Quinn did not love him. That was the truth. She loved Jamie or Jeffy or someone else, maybe that was why she broke the date, maybe she was out with that other special person right now, but whoever she loved and was out with right now, it was not him.
When’s the movie? Katie asked. Oh, he said. He felt he had awakened from a bad dream. We’d better check the show times, he said. He looked for the newspaper but couldn’t find it. He gave up and called the Lawndale Multimovieplex. It took four minutes to go through all the times before the theater recording got to Shrek. He checked the clock. If they left soon, they would catch the show at eight. Hurry with your dinner, he said, and we should make the next show. When? she said. Eight, he said, and we can get popcorn if you want. All right, she cried, and tried to stuff the rest of the sandwich in her mouth. Don’t choke, he said, Katie, be careful. She finished the sandwich and ran off to get her shoes, leaving her glass half full of milk. He put it in the frig with a piece of plastic wrap over it, then realized he still had his good suit on. If he changed, they would miss the show. He swallowed and decided to leave his suit on. Katie had wanted to see Shrek for weeks. He did not want to break his word to her after his mom had. He found her jacket in the closet, she ran out of her bedroom with one red shoe and one black shoe on, and they left for the Megamultiplex. She put her jacket on in the Pinto, buckled in the middle of the back seat.
Traffic was light on the highway to the outskirts of Lawndale, near the Interstate, and they made good time to the Multimovieplex. Joey usually loved it—the vast hall, the bright lights, the popcorn and snacks, the bustle, and all his friends hanging around the videogame machines. Tonight he pulled into the parking lot of the Multimovieplex and he thought it looked like a gigantic prison. It was strange how that was, but it was true. It was like something in a Batman movie, a prison in Gotham City, gray and surreal and big as life all at once. He parked, aware that Katie was telling him about the Powerpuff Girls, and he made sure her jacket was on before they got out into the breezy night air, the cool air that crept into his clothing and into his heart. They were fifteen long, dark rows away from the glass doors of the entrance.
Are we in time? Katie said as they got out. He checked his watch. We’ve got ten minutes, he said. We have to get to the theaters quick. Carry me, Joey, said Katie. Katie, you’re a big kid, you’re too big to carry. Joey, carry me, please? Be a giant and carry me. Joey looked angry for a moment but what was the point in being angry? It was just Katie. He was all she had. He got down on his knees, knowing everyone would see him, and she climbed on his back. He put his arms behind him, locking them together under her butt, and he set off for the cinemas. He didn’t run, but he walked with big strides, the way she liked it, and she laughed and called him her noble steed. Lisa had seen Shrek and told her what the donkey in it was called, a noble steed, and she called Joey that all the time now. He carried her, shifting her weight on his back at times, and they made it across the parking lot in a couple of minutes.
Did the movie start yet? Katie said as he put her down in front of the ticket window outside. Not yet, he said, there are trailers, and we can see those, too. We won’t miss the movie. I want to see the trailers, Katie said. Two tickets for Shrek, one adult and one child, he told the ticket lady. Twelve dollars, she said. He paid her, got the tickets and took Katie’s hand. Stay with me, he told her. I don’t want you to get lost. Okay, she said, and they went through the glass doors and the warm air and bright lights and loud crowd chatter and popcorn smells washed over them like the sea.
Once inside, Katie pulled on his arm. Let’s get popcorn, please? she said. He checked the cash in his wallet. He had cashed in his last paycheck from his weekend job at the pretzel shop downtown, all for Quinn. Sure, he said, popcorn. Want a soda? Yeah, she said. Nothing with caffeine, he said, and we have to hurry so we get good seats. He gave the teenager with acne his tickets, got his stubs back, and led Katie to the long lines at the concession stand.
Their line moved quickly, but he checked his watch and was afraid they would miss the start of the show. Are you sure you want popcorn? he said. Yes, a big one with butter, she said. The movie’s going to start soon, he said, and just then he looked ahead in line and Daria looked back at him. The very next person ahead of him in line was Daria, Quinn’s older sister. He’d never noticed her. Daria was looking at him. Daria had seen him earlier from where she sat on the couch in the living room, looking past Quinn as she had shut the door in his face. He looked down instantly, his face burning again. She knew. Can I have a big soda? Katie said. He didn’t answer. Daria was looking at him. He was still in his best suit, the suit he wore when Quinn shut the door on him. Everyone would know. Daria was just the first. Jane Lane, who stood next to Daria with her arms folded, looking up at a TV screen showing a preview of a coming movie, would be the second one to know. Unless she already did know. She was Daria’s pal. She had to know.
Can I have a big soda? Katie asked again. He swallowed, angry, but fought it down. Yeah, okay, he said, and he thought someone should sweep the floor, it was covered with old soft-drink spills and flat popcorn and a red jellybean someone had stepped on. Is Shrek on yet? she said. I don’t know, he said. They stepped forward as the line moved. When will Mom be back from seeing that guy? Katie asked, and he wished then that he was home and had not said anything about a movie. Will she be home tomorrow? Katie asked. Sssh, he told her. Is it time for Shrek? she asked, and she was afraid now, because she did not want to miss a second of Shrek, and he knew it and was angry and couldn’t help himself.
Damn Shrek, he thought, damn Mom, damn Quinn, damn everyone. I screwed it all up. Damn everyone. He stepped forward as the line moved and tugged Katie. Ouch, said Katie, that hurt my arm. He took a breath. I’m sorry, he said, afraid of what he’d done. She looked up at him, rubbing her arm. You hurt my arm. I’m sorry, he said. I didn’t mean to do it. He knelt down and kissed her arm, but she was still mad. He looked up and saw that Daria and Jane were second back from the counter, and he and Katie were third, and there was no way that Daria and Jane could have missed a word of anything that happened. He was more ashamed in that moment than he had been in his life. I’m sorry, he told Katie, and he stood up. It was no wonder now why Quinn had shut the door on him. She must have known what a jerk he was.
Daria was not looking at him now, though. Daria was looking straight ahead when she poked Jane in the side and said, Come with me. What? said Jane. We’re almost there. Just come with me, said Daria. Uh, sure, Jane said, staring at Daria, and Daria stepped out of line, and Jane followed her, and the person in front of them left, and just like that, he and Katie were at the counter. He got a big bucket of popcorn and two large soft drinks, no caffeine in Katie’s root beer. As they walked to the theater showing Shrek, he looked back and saw Daria and Jane in another line, having gone nowhere at all, and they were talking, and he knew it was about him because Daria glanced at him once, for a tenth of a second, then looked away. He and Katie made it to a pair of empty seats halfway back in the stadium theater just ten seconds before the movie started.
Halfway through the movie and completely through her drink and all the popcorn, Katie tugged at his sleeve. I got to go, she whispered. What? he said. I got to go, she said. Can you take me to the potty? He groaned. He liked the movie, and he had heard about the Robin Hood part coming up, and if he took Katie to the potty, he would miss it. Please, she said, I gotta go bad. Okay, he said, and he led her out of the dark theater and across the bright corridor to the restrooms. He led her to the women’s room. Hurry up, okay? he said. Okay, Katie said, and she was gone and did not come out for a long while. He leaned against the wall by the women’s room and looked at his shoes. He had stepped in some chewing gum in the theater without knowing it, and it was all over his good right shoe now. He did not know what would take chewing gum off a shoe. He was missing the Robin Hood part, and he had really wanted to see that, even if it was just a kids’ movie. Katie would miss it, too, but she would never know until the video came out. He would just have to wait for the video to come out, too.
The door to the women’s room opened and Daria came out. She looked at him and he looked at her before he looked down and pretended he did not know her, that it was all an accident.
Your sister? said Daria. He could not pretend he did not know her now. He looked up and nodded and looked down. He knew Daria. Daria hated everyone. She was a brain, the biggest brain Lawndale High School had ever seen, and he already knew Daria thought anyone who liked her sister Quinn was an idiot. And, at this moment, he knew she was right. He loved Quinn, who could do no wrong, and he was worse than a fool for doing so. All this passed through his mind in an instant, the instant he nodded yes, that was his little sister in the women’s room, taking her time while they both missed Shrek.
Daria looked back at the women’s room door. She’s singing in there, Daria said.
He shrugged and nodded. Of course Katie was singing, he thought. She always sang when she sat on the potty. She could sit in there and sing the contents of a boxed set of CDs covering Elvis’s entire life story, nonstop. They might catch the ending credits when she was done.
He knew Daria was looking at him, at his good suit, the chewing gum on his shoe, the popcorn butter stains on his pants, and he was ashamed and wished she would hurry up and tell him he was an idiot and go away. His face burned like he had a fever. He was worthless and knew it and wanted to be left alone.
Daria looked at him and turned away, heading back for her movie.
Quinn doesn’t deserve you, she said as she left.
Katie came out ten minutes later. They went back to the movie and Katie laughed and laughed. He sat and watched the screen and thought about what Daria had said. That couldn’t be right, he thought. I don’t deserve Quinn. Maybe that’s what she really meant. He knew in his heart that Quinn was a good person, a beautiful and wonderful person, and he was not. He had lost her because he was stupid, and there was nothing left in his life to look forward to.
He did not remember the drive home. Katie fell asleep on the way, and he had to carry her out of the car into the house, her head resting on his shoulder, dead to the world. Their mother was not home, but he knew she wouldn’t be until noon the next day. He took Katie to her room, got her shoes off, got her jacket off, and just covered her up with her clothes still on. Then he went down the hall to his bedroom and turned on the light and shut the door and locked it.
He was tired but could not sleep. He sat down at his desk and looked at the submarine model kit he was building. It was a Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarine. He wanted to join the Navy more than anything. If he could just get through high school and keep his grades at a C average, he could join the Navy, and he would never come back to Lawndale or his mother or their ranch home or anyone who knew Quinn had shut the door in his face, which by now was everyone. He had dreamed about the Navy for years. His grandfather had been in the Navy in the Second World War, but he never spoke of it. Joey had heard that his grandfather’s ship was torpedoed and sank, and all his friends were killed, and he had always wanted to ask his grandfather about it but he never got the courage to do it, and now his grandfather was dead and gone. He would never know what had happened, only that it was bad, but he still wanted to join the Navy. It would get him out of here like nothing else could, and he would never have to see Quinn sitting near him in class again.
But he looked at the submarine and knew if he left, he would not see Katie again, either, and Katie would be left with their mother, who did not care if Katie was home when a man called and asked his mother out. He stared at the submarine for five minutes, then reached over and picked it up and crushed it in his fist, squeezed and cracked the plastic until it cut his hand and he had to let go of it and get up to wash out the cut and find a bandage for it. It hurt, but everything else in his life hurt more, and the cut, though it was two inches long and bled a lot, was nothing.
Quinn doesn’t deserve you.
He shook his head, knowing Daria’s words for the lie they were.
He did not deserve Quinn. He lay in bed with the lights out for two hours, looking at the darkness on the ceiling, before he fell asleep.
Their mother came back drunk at four o’clock in the morning, but it didn’t matter. Everything was okay again. He drove Katie to school and his hand hurt and everyone stared at the bandage, but he saw Quinn at school that day, and though she never looked at him, and everyone, even his football coach, knew she had dumped him and slammed the door in his face, everything was still okay. There was always tomorrow, and she might love him then.