Mushroom Cloud

Mushroom Cloud

He stood in the center of the room. The room was tacky, an attempt at recreating a Victorian or 1800s French hall, but comes across as being the result of someone seeing Moulin Rogue one too many times. He came in a suit because his friend told him that the dress code was “a suit and tie affair”. He never got it.

 

The hall was going to be used for a burlesque show. He never understood them, personally, but he tried after these past fifteen years. As he could gather, despite being somewhat erotic and enticing, a burlesque show includes a large amount of pageantry and focuses on both the performance and the idea of teasing, which is probably why it seems that women had less of an issue going to them than strip clubs. Hell, about half of the audience, based on a quick glance, seemed to be couples. They must think this is a good date night.

 

The lights begin to fade. He still had no idea why he came here. He received a call from an old high school friend that he should go there, but there was no explanation for that tidbit. He was just told to wear a suit and go to this tacky ballroom for a burlesque show.

 

The first girl came on-stage. She was made up in a thick layer of white powder on her face, as if she wanted to look like a ghost. Her dress looked like something straight out of a Tim Burton-themed masquerade, with a thick black coloring, frills making her look like a bird, a white corset squeezing tightly on her, red boots (this was odd, why boots with this faux-Victorian dress?), and hair dyed light blue on the top tied up to expose her hair as being a natural blonde. It was a striking, if kind of ugly, look.

 

He didn’t care, though. He recognized the girl as she came out on stage.

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Moving is never easy for a child. It’s harder when they’re a high school student, since high school is mostly sedentary and is more clique-based than other levels of schooling. Tom knew this all too well, as his parents moved him to Henderson, Nevada during his sophomore year of high school.

 

Tom was already considered a loner in his school because, by sophomore year, they all settled into their cliques and weren’t as welcoming to outsiders. Not helping, though, was his look. See, Tom was going through a Goth phase, which wouldn’t be so much a problem if not for the Columbine shooting a year prior, which made his look of dark clothing and duster jacket seem more terrifying than anything else. Tom didn’t make friends easily in this school.

 

Tom went, one night, to see American Psycho, since he thought it would be good and because he didn’t have much interest anything else out at the time. At this showing, he happened to notice a girl. She was at the movie with someone else, but Tom recognized her. She was Kylee, a cheerleader for his high school, going to the film with the school’s basketball star, Tyler.

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Tom sat in the ballroom, stunned. What was Kylee doing here? He wasn’t sure what happened in the past fifteen years, but he was sure that she couldn’t have been suffering. After all, this was this beauty queen of their school. How could she be here, performing at a kitschy gothic burlesque show?

_________________________________________________________________

 

At lunch, the following Monday, Kylee and Tyler joined Tom at lunch. Tom wasn’t expecting this, since these were two athletes and were the “popular kids”, according to pop culture’s understanding of high school. He wasn’t prepared for this, so he braced for the worst.

 

“Hey, Tom, was it,” Tyler asked. In contrast to the pasty white kid rearing heavy black clothing Tom was, Tyler was a tall Hispanic man, clean-cut hair and dressed in casual clothes. Height aside, you’d never guess that Tyler was a star basketball player. “We saw you at the theater Saturday. How’d you like the film?”

 

Tom was confused. He didn’t really know how to answer. “Well,” he began, “I liked it enough, but I wasn’t really sure where they were going with the film. Parts of it were goofier than others, so I’m not sure how serious we’re supposed to take the film.”

 

Kylee decided to step in. “Sorry about Tyler. He’s a bit of a closet cinephile, so he just likes to corner people to talk about films.”

 

Tyler was taken aback by this description. “I’m not a closet cinephile. I don’t hide it. I just don’t plaster it all over me.”

 

Tom was kind of amused. In this light, Tyler and Kylee seemed very normal.

 

Tom began to focus of Kylee, who began arguing with Tyler about his film habits. Contrary to Tyler’s casual attire, Kylee looked almost exactly like a character from Clueless. She had very beautiful blonde hair, a blouse that was clearly a credit card purchase, a plaid skirt, and these heels that called a lot of attention to her legs covered in pantyhose. While Tyler didn’t resemble the jock stereotype visually, Kylee definitely looked exactly like he’d imagine she’d look like.

 

Tom then had a question that he felt necessary to pose to them. “Wait. You went to see this as a date night? I’d never think this would be a film that you’d show your girlfriend.”

 

Kylee snapped back immediately. “Well, he didn’t. We aren’t dating. And why wouldn’t you show this to your girlfriend? A woman directed the film!”

 

So began a long argument between Tom and Kylee about showing American Psycho to one’s girlfriend, and the beginning of a very significant chapter in Tom’s life.

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Kylee’s burlesque performance is effectively a dance, with slight teases that she might show “something more” during the routine. The crowd was impressed with the performance. Tom, however, was just thinking, “she’s still a phenomenal dancer”.

 

Tom took out his phone to text Tyler about this.

 

<Did you know that Kylee performs here? >

 

Tyler responded almost immediately.

 

<Yeah. That’s why I told you to go there. >

 

<We haven’t talked or seen each other since high school, though. >

 

<Yeah, I thought it’d be good closure for the two of you. >

 

Tom put away his phone, thinking, “goddammit, Tyler.” This was not the place Tom really wanted to be, and he could only imagine that Kylee wouldn’t want to see him there, either.

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­­­­

Tom, Tyler, and Kylee became friends after that. Tom began to learn more about the two of them, which helped him come to grips with the fact that the “pop culture high school image” he was rebelling against didn’t really exist.

 

Tyler, as Tom learned, was a complete dork, just a dork that can play basketball. Tom was apparently saving up to get a camera and make his own film. Tom discovered that Tyler really wanted to become a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith. Tyler has entire notebooks filled with screenplays he wrote, awaiting the day he could finally make his masterpiece. Tom was impressed, if slightly embarrassed for his ambitions.

 

He didn’t, though, really understand how Kylee was his friend, though. Unlike the nerdy Tyler, Kylee was almost exactly at her stereotype. She wasn’t dumb, her debate about Mary Heron proved that, but she wasn’t particularly smart, being prone to a few lapses in common sense. She liked fashion and would constantly be going around building up a wardrobe of what she considered “cool clothes”. She was a cheerleader, but seemed more interested in the performance aspect than by it’s fringe benefits that her teammates were interested in.

 

She was also completely captivating to Tom. Tom tried to believe he wouldn’t be the high school stereotype who drools over the cheerleader. Hell, his whole Goth image was mostly to avoid that, since he didn’t fully believe in it. But he couldn’t help it. From that first conversation between the three of them, she would not escape his mind. It was painfully obvious. Despite not having an interest in fashion, he always anticipated seeing her new outfits, how she would dress herself. He enjoyed going to the sporting events, but less for the sports and more to see Kylee perform. She invaded his dreams, his waking thoughts, his erotic dreams, his deepest secrets. She became everything to him.

 

And, as far as he could tell, these feelings were not mutual.

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Tom got up to head to the bar. He was having a rush of mixed emotions, having been effectively tricked into seeing his old flame perform. He needed to help dull them wit alcohol.

 

Tom’s arrival at the ballroom’s bar was greeted by the bartender immediately passing him a shot glass of Jack Daniels. Tom was unnerved by the immediate service. The bartender than handed him a note. The note read “This one’s on me. See me after my dance. –Kylee”.

 

Tom shot back the whiskey and headed back to the show. Kylee was approaching the climax of her performance, which brought back many uncomfortable memories for Tom.

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Tom never liked the guys Kylee dated. Now, that’s clearly another cliché, especially since he was convinced that he’d be better for her than them, but he couldn’t help it. Tom would constantly confide in Tyler about this. Tyler, while supportive, didn’t really get where Tom was coming from.

 

One day, Tom finally decided to ask Tyler about him and Kylee.

 

“Hey, Ty,” Tom asked. “How’d you and Kylee become friends?”

 

Tyler answered very bluntly. “She’s friends with my girlfriend.”

 

“You have a girlfriend? I don’t think I’ve ever met her.”

 

“You haven’t. She lives in Michigan, so I don’t see her that often. But, she had a pen pal who she introduced to me, and that was Kylee. We’ve been hanging out ever since.”

 

“Tyler, you’re such a dork.”

 

“Yeah, but we’ve been happy for three years and Kylee is a good friend, so I’m okay with it.”

 

Tom came to recognize the types of guys that Kylee tended to date. First, they seem to be smart, like really smart. Despite being of average intelligence, she seemed to constantly go after the boys who clogged up the honor roll and AP classes. Secondly, they all tended to like Rocky Horror Picture Show. This made less sense to him, but he recognized most of them as regulars at the midnight showings at the local theater. Third, they all seemed to be tall, yet not particularly handsome. They tended to lack any muscle tone whatsoever and a few were actually fat. Tom was really confused by that. It wasn’t that they didn’t take care of themselves, they were clean and possibly healthy, they just looked dumpy. Lastly, they all tended to meet her at the local bookstore.

 

The bookstore was what confused Tom the most. Did she just go there to pick up guys? Does the staff recognize her, by this point? Has she ever dated the staff?

 

Tom wished that he could’ve been able to become the focus of her affections, even if only for a moment. Alas, he figured it wouldn’t happen. After all, he’s a C student at best and he’s short, not to mention that he’s never stepped foot in that bookstore. Tom wondered why that bookstore was where she met each of her boyfriends.

 

Tom decided to ask Tyler about it. “Tyler, do you know that bookstore nearby?”

 

“Yeah. Haven’t you ever been? It’s great.”

 

“Well, you know how Kylee meets everyone she dates there?”

 

Tyler got a serious look on his face. “No, Tom, no. I’m you friend, so I’m gonna try to stop you right there. Give up on her. It won’t end well.”

 

“So, what’s up with the bookstore?”

 

“Tom, please, just stop. It’s not a hole you want to travel down.”

 

Tom would soon learn why Tyler gave him that warning.

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Kylee ended her routine. The crowd was politely applauding her performance. As Tom would later learn, the ballroom has a policy that disallows any excessive applause, so this was meant as genuine praise, as opposed to being sarcastic. She disappeared behind the stage curtain, which Tom took as his cue to meet up with her.

 

As he walked to the door that lead backstage, a bouncer tried to stop him. “I’m sorry, but the audience isn’t allowed backstage.”

 

Tom took out the note and showed it to the bouncer. “I was invited backstage by one of the performers.”

 

The bouncer moved aside. “Very well.”

 

Tom was nervous as he headed backstage. Contrary to the gaudy ballroom, the backstage area was very grey and industrial, almost as if the designer didn’t care about making the aesthetic match all throughout. Tom wandered through the hall, attracting various looks of confusion and hostility from the other performers. He wished he drank more at the bar.

 

Tom finally approached Kylee’s dressing room. Tom nervously knocked, hoping that he wouldn’t get a response.

 

Instead, he received an instant response. “Come in, Tom.”

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Ignoring Tyler’s advice, Tom went down to the bookstore. He figured the timing would be great, since she had recently broken up with her latest boyfriend, so her next one should be right around the corner.

 

The bookstore was a Barnes And Noble, nothing special. Tom wasn’t sure why it was here that she tended to meet her various flings. He decided to grab a book to make it look like he wasn’t waiting for her. He went and grabbed Foucault’s Pendulum, the first book that grabbed his interest.

 

Tom pretended to read as he noticed Kylee walk in. He decided that he just wanted to see how this happened, so he tried to be as discreet as a duster-jacket-wearing Goth teen in Nevada can look.

 

Kylee headed to the back, where she was greeted by several people. They then disappeared into a back room. Tom tried to find another way in, but couldn’t. So, he decided that he’d try the next best thing.

 

The door was behind a man, so Tom approached him and asked if he could go in. The man said yes and let Tom inside.

 

The door led to a storage room, but one separate from where they keep the books. This was obviously an artifact of whatever the building was before Barnes And Noble bought it. He heard lots of shouting and catcalls from the back, so he figured that whatever’s going on was in that direction.

 

Tom found a table with a pole coming from the center. He recognized the guys, and a few of the girls, there, as they were classmates of his. Everyone besides the girl dancing on the table went silent as they noticed him.

 

Tom, noticing this awkward silence, asked the only thing plausible. “Um, what’s going on here?”

 

The dancer stopped. It turns out that Kylee was the dancer, as anyone would imagine as this scenario is described to them. As Tom learned, the room was used for teaching Go-Go and pole dancing. Kylee was teaching several people, and she felt that an audience would help them get the self-esteem to perform better. The guys she had dated through here were actually students of hers (yeah, she taught guys to dance, they were interested). As it turns out, Kylee never actually dated most of them. Oh, and Tyler met both his girlfriend and Kylee through this.

 

Tom, confused, just decided to leave. After leaving the room, he grabbed the book he was pretending to read and decided to purchase it. It seemed interesting to him.

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Tom entered the dressing room. In another instance of what he considered poor design, the dressing room featured a wooden floor with walls painted bright pink. The furnishings of this dressing room felt very worn, with some of the furniture appearing to have different areas of origin. The walls were covered with various posters for films and stage plays and concerts, some clearly older than others and some sporting some serious damage from being grabbed at.

 

Kylee was at a very stereotypical dressing room mirror, using make-up remover to clean the white make-up from her face. Tom was entranced watching her reveal her face. Despite the fifteen years since they last saw each other, she still looked like she did back in high school, at least to him.

 

She began to speak without looking away from the mirror. “Well, Tom. Tyler said you’d be here tonight.”

 

Tom looked nervously at the mirror. “Yeah. He didn’t tell me that this was your gig, just to show up.”

 

“Would you have come if you knew this was my show?”

 

Tom stopped to think. After everything that happened, he wasn’t sure if he actually would.

_________________________________________________________________

 

Several weeks before the bookstore debacle, Tom decided that he finally wanted to confess to Kylee. He decided that the best place would be at a concert, since music is just an outpouring of emotion and ideas. He heard about a new band from the area whose demo got a lot of buzz and decided to check them out with her.

 

Despite the debacle, the night of the show still came and she showed up. However, she was wearing an angry expression.

 

Tom tried to play oblivious to her anger. “Well, thank you for coming.”

 

Kylee punched his shoulder. “What the fuck, Tom? Even after showing up at my class, you still have the nerve to do this?”

 

“I don’t see what the big deal is. So you were teaching Go-Go dancing. So what?”

 

“I was teaching self-confidence. I built my lessons to be a safe space and you just barged in unannounced.”

 

“I’m not disapproving or angry, so why are you angry about this?”

 

“Because it destroyed the trust they had in me.”

 

“The trust in you? Like how you kept it a secret from me, and everyone? Why is it a secret? What’s the point?”

 

“The point is that I really only wanted to create a safe environment for them to grow in and I wasn’t sure if you’d fit in there.”

 

“So was this, like, some double-life shit? Huh? Keep a normal life, and then you escape into a secret society you made and play stripper?”

 

Kylee punched Tom again, this time in the face. Tom’s face got visibly bruised from the impact, but he still acted as if he wasn’t hit.

 

Kylee began to tear up. “What is your problem? If it’s because I never told you about this, even though I had no reason to, than fine. I’m sorry.”

 

Tom grabbed her shoulders, resembling a horror villain going in for the kill. “That’s not it.”

 

“Why are you so focused on this? Why did you even show up, that day?”

 

“Because I wanted to know how you met the guys you dated. I went there because I noticed that most of the guys you date were guy you met there.”

 

“Why? Why did that concern you? Wait, why did you even notice the types of guys I date?”

 

Before answering her, Tom forcibly kissed her. Despite it being an act he’s been longing for since meeting Kylee, however, the moment didn’t have the magical spark he hoped for. Instead, it felt like him standing above an exploding land mine: volatile, deadly, and a sudden shock. He removed his lips from hers, trying to hide a disgusted look from the ugly kiss.

 

“It’s because I love you and have since we met,” Tom answered.

 

While Tom tried to hide a disgusted response from his poorly conceived and unwanted act, Kylee made no such attempt. Instead, she kneed him in the groin.

 

Tom collapsed, his face in excruciating pain, though less from the knee and more from what he could tell from that act.

 

“Tom,” Kylee said angrily, “you are a jackass. I can’t believe you would try that. And why would you think that would justify anything?”

 

Kylee turned around and began to walk. Tom knew what this meant, but desperately didn’t want to believe it.

 

Kylee, then turned back at him, briefly. “Tom, just stay the fuck away from me.”

 

Kylee then turned back around to continue her trek away from Tom. Tom just stayed on the ground, feeling the intense pain of his mistakes. The band came on stage, launching right into their first song with an eight-note guitar riff that only hurt Tom more to here.

 

Tom spent the rest of high school trying to avoid Kylee. Well, trying was the wrong word. Kylee tried to avoid him, he just gave up trying to pursue her. Tyler remained his friend and the two worked to make Tyler’s dream of making a film a reality, but Tom lacked the spark of joy he had while friends with Kylee.

 

After their graduation, they wouldn’t see each other until that night at the burlesque show.

_________________________________________________________________

 

“You’re still fantastic at dancing,” Tom said. After the silence he created, he needed some way to finally break the ice. The two of them weren’t trying to lead the conversation after Kylee’s question, so the atmosphere turned awkward.

 

“Stay for the rest of the show. My students are phenomenal, so I think you’d love them.”

 

“Still teaching dance?”

 

“Professionally, now. I’ve got the license and everything. I teach children ballet during the day and adults burlesque at night. It’s quite busy.”

 

Tom chuckled. This must’ve been the result of time, since a similar statement from her years earlier would’ve turned disastrous.

 

“What have you done since school,” she asked.

 

“Oh, well, I became a writer. After we began avoiding each other, I threw myself into writing Tyler’s film with him and then I just kept writing in college.”

 

“Any books published?”

 

“Not a full book yet. I’ve written for a couple of indie films, got a few short stories published in magazines, but I mostly do film criticism.”

 

“Nice. I’ve gotta check it out, when I got the time.”

 

“Most of it’s online, so I can send you the links, if you’re interested.”

 

“That’d be nice.”

 

The room became silent again. Kylee got to work reapplying makeup, this time more natural looking. Tom began to pace around the corner of the room.

 

“Is Tyler still trying to be a filmmaker,” Kylee asked. Tom was unsure why she asked, since the two of them still talked.

 

“Yep. He’s got a day job as a pencil pusher, but he still tries to make films, hoping each one is finally his big break.”

 

Kylee giggled. “Maybe he needs a better script.”

 

“I give him masterpieces. It’s everyone else that always screws it up,” Tom replied, somewhat jokingly. Tyler and Tom have been partners in writing the screenplays, but Tyler always tries too hard to chase the hip and weird angle that it always makes the films seem awkward and uninteresting.

 

“In retrospect, maybe he should try to make Singin’ In The Rain and stop trying for Big Trouble In Little China. He can’t pull of weird too well.” Kylee was laughing while saying this. The tension present in the room has almost completely dissipated by this point, so they were able to smile and joke.

 

Kylee got up and began to approach Tom. “So,” she began. “Has the years been able to cool your head, at all?”

 

Tom sighed. He was not ready to try and answer this. “I’m not sure. You’ve been in my mind since high school, but I have no real interest in trying to repeat that night.”

 

Kylee chuckled. “That night was a mistake by both of us. It’s been a night that has stayed with me, haunted me. I know I was wrong, I shouldn’t have tried keep my lessons a secret and I shouldn’t have reacted like I did when you found out about them. But I think what we both need is closure.”

 

Tom lowered his head. “I’d like that. I’d like that very much.”

 

Tom and Kylee came together to give a big, long hug. All of the mixed emotions between the two over the past fifteen years were not resolved, but it felt as if they could begin to work towards moving on.

 

As they came apart, Tom asked a question. “Why did you do the lessons at a Barnes And Noble? Why not, like, in your basement or someplace like that?”

 

Kylee burst out laughing, with Tom joining in.

 

“Well, I’ve gotta go help out with the show. My girls need direction.”

 

“Well, break a leg out there.”

 

“Do you wanna go out for a drink afterwards? You know, to catch up and stuff?”

 

“Yes. I’d like that a lot.”

 

Kylee walked towards the door, but then suddenly stopped. “Any of my girls catch your eye? I can introduce you.”

 

Tom chuckled. “I haven’t seen them, but I’ll probably decline.”

 

The two left the dressing room. Kylee ran towards the other dancers, while Tom walked towards the door back to the ballroom.

 

At the door, Tom stopped upon hearing Kylee shout out to him. “Are you still carrying a torch from then?”

 

Tom gave one last chuckle. “I’m sure that groin shot put out that flame.” He opened the door and told her “See you after the show.”

 

Kylee began leading the dancers backstage, while Tom re-entered the ballroom. The lights dimmed as their performance was about to begin. Tom would’ve been angrier at the song choice for the first number, but any animosity and bad memories associated with the song has just been faced beforehand. The curtains raised to the same eight-note song from that night, just now overplayed and pre-recorded. Upon hearing the song, Tom just thought, “This riff isn’t half bad.”

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