The wrinkles that outlined Elder Selby’s face became more prominent after his divorce. A year ago, he would have told himself that the lines were part of the aging process, which wasn’t entirely inaccurate but didn’t explain the reason for acceleration. He was thirty-eight but looked much older. The shadowed lines on his face were the divorce, and everything in his life that was then and that came before. Stamped upon him were wrinkles like fault lines tracing back to his failed pursuit of happiness. The lines hinted at all of his losses, like bruises after blunt force trauma.
So how could he look at himself in the mirror two minutes before face-timing an ex from high school and see something to draw optimism from? He couldn’t. He was still too deep in the heavies.
Elder turned off the bathroom light to rid himself of his appearance and then cursed. The in-law unit he lived in was 800 sq. ft., a considerable downsize from the house he and his ex-wife shared back in Texas. What was worse was the unit was about the same price as the house in Texas. The Bay Area rent took half of every paycheck, and Elder spent what was left on gas, food, and his growing Wu-Tang memorabilia collection, which had taken on new meaning during the pandemic. He obsessed over expanding its scope. It kept his mind from dipping back into the well of depression that too often was his sustenance.
After the divorce, he relocated to the Bay for a job in tech. The plan was to start brand new, which was admirable, but in less than three months, the pandemic hit, the company’s office closed, and Elder was laid off. He moved further outside of the city to the in-law unit, where he had a chance at affording rent. He got a job he was overqualified for that paid twenty-five percent less than the job he was fired from. His was not an enviable position to be in, but he wasn’t at rock bottom; he hadn’t moved back home.
Elder’s thumb hovered over the green and white FaceTime icon on his iPhone. He waited until it was time and then tapped the button to get ahold of Mandy Giles, who also grew up in Texas. Elder hadn’t talked to her since high school, so the call was going to be painfully uncomfortable, but he had no other choice. He had to forge a new life through the misery of the pandemic or be overtaken by his darker thoughts, which were much easier to obey.
Mandy’s LinkedIn profile said she lived in the Bay Area, so Elder was trying to reconnect. ‘Reconnecting’ was the first suggestion in a blog he read titled, ‘How to make friends during the pandemic.’
Mandy’s short pink hair resembled soccer star Megan Rapinoe’s in the same way a portrait tattoo resembles the original photograph. Still, the sheer confidence to have that type of haircut, which was so voluminous that it took up half of Elder’s screen, radiated from Mandy. She carried herself like she’d won the World Cup. Elder was almost frightened to see her.
“Dude!” She said when the FaceTime connection stabilized, and they both saw each other.
Elder didn’t understand what was going on; Mandy looked nothing like the girl he’d kissed in high school.
“Heeeeeeeeeeeeeey.” He said, elongating the word to make it seem like he was actually saying something.
“Wow. You look so different.” She said with each syllable punctuated like she really meant it.
Elder caught sight of himself in the tiny FaceTime box. Immediately, he adjusted the angle to try to look better, but it was all so unnatural. Instead of bending his arm to change the position, he locked his elbow and swayed his arm around like an out-of-control crane.
“Dude. You look so old.” She started laughing like she was an audience member at an Eddy Murphy stand-up special.
By this point, Elder was holding the phone as far away from his face as possible, inadvertently exposing more of his room.
“We’re getting older.” He quipped and then tried to change the topic, “Where are you…”
Mandy interrupted, “You have a lot of Wu-Tang stuff, dude.”
Elder turned around to look as if he’d forgotten that he curated an entire wall of memorabilia. He gazed at the thousands of dollars worth of stuff. For the first time, he saw the wall through an outsider’s eyes, and he felt embarrassed by its shrine-like appearance.
As expected, the exchange that followed was painful, but Elder stayed resolute. His grit was earned from years of bluffing it on customer calls. Though he liked to think he and Mandy were having a conversation, it was much more like an interview. Sometimes they elicited answers from one another that summarized years of their lives; both of them wanted to cover enough ground to discourage follow-up questions.
Elder couldn’t help but feel like he was trying to pass a test, and just like in high school, he second-guessed every answer. This behavior became common after he turned thirty-five. It was like the insecurities from his youth re-birthed inside of him with double the power. He couldn’t put a day behind him where he didn’t curse himself for some perceived gaffe that made him look like a fool. He loathed himself for all the mistakes he thought he made and often felt unworthy of company. His neurosis gripped him for most of the conversation, which was a shame because Mandy was an interesting person from what he could gather. He pegged her as an incredibly happy and well-adjusted lesbian.
One of the suggestions the blog had about making new friends was around being forward-thinking. The article read, “Did you ever notice that people with friends always have plans? They do, right? You know why? Because friends make plans.” It encouraged the reader to end conversations with prospective friends by making plans (it was a whole section).
“So, do you think you want to get a coffee sometime?” Elder pitifully riffed at the end of their call. Mandy stayed silent. He thought the connection might have dropped, but then he saw her blink and realized she just didn’t want to respond. He felt the need to explain himself.
“Sorry, I’m not…I mean… I’m not trying to date you or anything. I meant like as friends.” He said.
Mandy scrunched her eyebrows, and her head titled far to the right like she was trying to get water out of her ear. It was a look of confusion.
“Dude, I’m gay. Plus, we have nothing in common. We literally just established that. It’s good catching up, and I’m glad your safe, but…”
“No, that’s cool.” Elder said, “I get it. Seriously, it’s all good.”
When they got off the phone, the last thing Elder saw was his disappointed expression in that tiny FaceTime box. The blog had screwed him. He’d come in too hot and been burned.
The experience created even more anxiety that followed him around for several days until, for a reason that he wished he knew, he was okay again. He woke up, and the heavies were gone. He picked up a book written by Rza, a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, and read a line that he’d highlighted, “The first person you have to resurrect is yourself.” He loved the Wu. He decided to try once more.
The second blog suggestion was to turn other connections, like work connections, into friendships. Elder signed up for his company’s wine club, which was just a group of twelve people, a mix from product and sales teams, that had their own Slack channel and held monthly wine tastings via Zoom. He’d avoided all Zoom hangouts up until then because not only did he hate Zoom, he hated himself. Even when the heavies weren’t active, a resentment of self lingered in the corners of his mind waiting for an opportunity to take over. Elder felt relief after the initial exchange with the group’s organizer was over. All that was left for Elder to do was to Venmo Paresh forty dollars and wait for a wine box to show up at his front door.
Styrofoam hugged the three wines that arrived in a heavily insulated box. He followed the instructions posted in the Slack channel and opened each bottle an hour before the event to let the wine breathe. As the meeting approached, Elder started to sense that something terrible was going to happen. This unpleasantness was a sign of the heavies. He tried to read his Wu-Tang book, but the words could no longer carry him forward. He needed something more substantial; he needed a drink. There was a bottle of wine that Mr. Seagert, the patriarch whom he was renting the in-law from, had gifted him when he first moved into the unit. He uncorked it using the wine opener provided for the tasting and drank straight from the bottle. There was no time to let this one breathe.
When he joined the Zoom meeting, the bottle was a quarter empty, and his teeth were stained purple. Elder was buzzed, yet the adrenaline he had from being in front of the group was stronger than his drunkenness during the first two tastings, and he mostly thought he was acting normal. The only thing he kept fumbling was the mute button. He found himself talking when he was muted and tapping his wine glass or clearing his throat when he wasn’t. He’d apologized, of course.
Halfway through the third tasting, the adrenaline had worn off, and Elder’s world was spinning. Also, he had hiccups. In a Zoom window, he watched his body violently rise and fall as the hiccups burst out of him.
Paresh and the others noticed it too, and they thought it was funny. “You got the hiccups, Elder?” Paresh chuckled.
“Ya. It’s just the hiccups.” Elder said.
“You’re on mute.” Paresh said.
Elder’s motor skills were impaired. He moved his cursor to the mute button and instead turned off his camera.
“Where’d you go?” Paresh asked.
Elder moved the cursor to turn his camera back on, but this time he unmuted himself.
“There ya go.” Paresh said, “Wait, we still can’t see you.”
Elder hiccuped again. This time stomach acid splattered the back of his throat. He gagged.
“You okay?” Paresh asked.
And then he and the other attendees heard Elder vomit over and over again.
The heavies that hit Elder the following day were debilitating. He called in sick to work and laid in bed on his side in the fetal position with the covers pulled over his head. It took five nights for him to wake up to a morning without immediately feeling remorseful and two more nights after that to go back to the blog and see what the third suggestion was. With a clear break from the heavies, he convinced himself of a new mantra: third times the charm.
The blog suggested that readers focused on online communities of people who have similar interests. After a few Google searches, Elder found a weekly hip-hop pub quiz that was held over Zoom. He signed up.
The pub quiz separated the participants into groups that would introduce themselves in Zoom breakout rooms and choose a team name before joining the rest of the attendees. In Elder’s breakout room, a woman with sleeve tattoos and black cat-eye glasses suggested a getting to know you game as an ice-breaker. As part of the game, the members had to guess each other’s age.
Elder was the last person whose age needed to be guessed, so by the time they got to him, he’d already learned that he was the oldest person in his group. The knowledge of this struck him as slightly pathetic, and the enthusiasm he’d manufactured up until that point had all but left his demeanor. The group guessed he was forty-five. He was mortified that they’d thought he looked seven years older than he actually was, and hesitated before responding.
“Close.” He finally said. “I’m forty-two.”
The lying immediately brought on the heavies, and for the remainder of the Zoom event, Elder could only think about his pitiful loneliness. The pub quiz had questions about Biggie, Pac, Hieroglyphics, the Living Legends, and more artists that Elder knew about, but he didn’t participate. Instead, he remained silent, only occasionally popping something into the chat. He was glad when the event finally came to an end and didn’t try to make plans with anyone. All Elder wanted to do was disappear.
The heavies stayed with him for a week. Some days it felt like a thick fog covered his life. Other days it felt like there was a weight pressing him down to the bottom. The people who knew him from Texas didn’t call, and he didn’t reach out to them either, so outside of work, he spoke to no one. It got to the point where he questioned what he was doing in the Bay in the first place. He couldn’t meet anyone - what was the point? Maybe it was time to go home.
At the grocery store, a mask covered everyone’s face. Still, Elder thought they looked happier than him. He walked through the aisles with his head down and headphones in his ears. He listened to ‘Can it be all so simple,' one of the sadder songs in Wu-Tang’s catalog. It was playing on repeat.
While Elders' eyes were locked on the linoleum floor at the checkout stand, he felt someone looking at him. He wasn’t sure if this sense was paranoia or not until he looked up and saw a guy talking to him. Startled, Elder removed his headphones.
“Sorry, what was that?” Elder asked, looking at the guy.
“I love the Wu.” The guy said, “That’s what you’re listening to, right?”
“Yea.” Elder said.
“What song was it?”
“Can it be all so simple.”
“That’s a good one. I’ve been listening to Tearz a lot off 36 Chambers.”
Elder would have bet money that the store’s lights brightened at that moment.
“I’m Rodney.” The guy said.
“I’m Elder.” He said with a head nod.
Rodney unloaded his few items onto the conveyer belt and then put a divider down so Elder could do the same.
“Thanks.” Elder said.
He wanted to keep talking to Rodney but was tongue-tied. He told himself that Rodney probably didn’t want to keep talking and combatted his awkwardness by looking at the different gum brands in front of him. He looked at a pack of Orbit Winter Mint for so long that when he closed his eyes, he still saw the package perfectly. In the back of his mind, he thought of things he could say to Rodney. He thought of asking a question about Wu-Tang, but after a couple of minutes passed, it didn’t feel natural. Then, he thought of asking if Rodney lived around here but worried it would give off the wrong impression.
Rodney finished paying and turned to Elder, “See ya, man.”
“Later.” Elder said.
With Rodney gone, so was the anxiety that came with possibly talking to him. The heavies came creeping back as Elder bagged his groceries and avoided conversation with the checkout clerk. It was all of the same old stuff again. He hated himself. He wasn’t good enough. He should have done it all differently. He was getting so tired of the pattern.
“Thanks.” He muttered through his mask as the clerk handed him his receipt.
When Elder exited the store, he saw Rodney pushing his empty shopping cart into the parking lot's cart return area. Rodney glanced in Elder’s direction. Elder nodded at him, and Rodney returned the gesture, then turned and walked towards his car.
Elder had a thought to pick up his pace so he could catch up to Rodney. Of course, as soon as it popped into his head, it was stricken down by the heavies. The predictability of this had become too familiar since Elder’s new life in the pandemic. He knew if he didn’t persist, the heavies would win.
Elder walked faster. He caught up to Rodney and from about ten feet away shouted, “Hey, Rodney!”
Rodney looked over his shoulder, “Hey, man.”
At six feet away, Elder stopped. He had his groceries in his hands and felt the spotlight on him. For a split second, he thought of bailing, but he didn’t let that thought win.
“Man, I know this gonna sound kinda weird, but I’m new to the Bay and haven’t met anyone else who’s a fan of the Wu. Do you ever want to hang out sometime and talk about music?”
“I mean…ya, man. Why not?” Rodney said.
Elder smiled under his mask. Finally, he thought.
The two exchanged numbers, and Elder said he’d hit him up sometime. Though the plans were vague, Elder felt like he’d had a breakthrough. Maybe making friends in a pandemic didn’t need to be so hard.
The heavies were gone again, for a while.