The Conformity Conspiracy

Imagine the house is on fire and I reach to save one thing—what is it? Do you know? Imagine that I am drowning and I reach within myself to save that one memory which is me—what is it? Do you know? What things would either of us reach for? Neither of us know. After all these years we just wouldn't know.

Douglas Coupland


I lay back against Henrietta's bed, as she passed me what was left of the joint we were sharing. The school days felt longer now that I actually sat through classes and it was good to retreat here afterwards. It was one more grade I had to pass until I was done. In terms of Park County Public School requirements that just meant just showing up. Not that I think graduating really matters, but Ethan said it did when I offered to drop-out so I could work full-time. He graduated last year and moved into an apartment at the edge of town. Meanwhile, my bedroom feels smaller every time I go back to it, and I have to break up the nights by going for frozen-faced walks through my neighborhood to maintain a baseline of sanity.

It's no secret that Ethan is sticking around South Park for the band. Because our band is going to be successful. We've already played at two of the biggest venues in Denver. A promoter had told us it was just a matter of getting our demo out there. Which is hard without money to record more than two tracks professionally. That was why I'd taken a job at Harbucks, an endless source of amusement for Henrietta, whose favorite term for me; 'coffee whore', seemed less playful the fiftieth time she said it than the first. At least the uniform was all black.

Ethan worked at a record store outside of Denver, meaning that between the drive and the way our shifts conflicted, we didn't see much of one another outside of band practice. Which was OK, if it meant that in the end we'd all get to stay together and not be separated by the colander of adulthood. Anyway he'd bring obscure records home with him sometimes, playing the same track over and over again on Henrietta's CD player. The song would cycle through my head at I sat in classes, guessing at the lyrics I'd misheard or forgotten as the day wore on.

I took a final hit before stubbing the blunt out in the dragon ashtray Ethan made fun of Henrietta for owning. She maintained that her mom had bought it for her. But I had watched her buy the thing at the Renaissance Faire two years ago while Georgie and Ethan were in line for coffee. Still, it was one of those things where it was funnier to listen to the bickering than to set the record straight.

"I miss Georgie," Henrietta said, breaking the silence. She looked like a mermaid who had washed ashore, her black dress bunched around her legs as she lay on the floor of her room.

"He'll be at band rehearsal tomorrow," I mumbled into her comforter. Band practice felt more like a prayer for togetherness sometimes than a scheduled date on a calendar.

"With his little nerd boyfriend," she said. "Conformists."

"Total conformists," I echoed quietly, bouncing my leg against the bed.

We'd found Georgie and Ike Broflovski making out after a show two weeks ago. Georgie had seemed relieved when Ethan had rolled his eyes and said nothing. Henrietta and I shrugged and Georgie seemed to take their silence on the issue as an excused absence from our typical hang-outs at Benny's. I liked to think that it didn't matter. But it was just another reminder of the way time could slash the relationship the four of us had. If it wasn't school, or jobs, it was relationships tugging us apart. I tried not to think about it now. Now was supposed to be the time I didn't think at all. I wish I hadn't stubbed out the joint so soon; I probably could have sucked another hit out of it.

The door to Henrietta's room opened, making us both turn our heads to face whatever persecution Henrietta's mom had in mind. We knew she could smell the pot; it was just a matter of deciding if it was worth the lecture. But it wasn't her mom; it was Ethan standing in the doorway, his curls filled with melting snow, making him much less intimidating than I imagined he wanted to appear.

"Jesus Christ—again?" he asked dully, waving his hand through the gray smoke. And he was suddenly intimidating again, probably the way his eyes went directly from the open baggie on the floor to my prone form on the bed. I focused on his ankles, blocking out the light from the hallway and tried to will them to walk back out. I'd rather not see him than have him checking my pupils every five minutes to see if they'd shrunk yet and I was worth talking to again.

"Shut the fucking door, do you want my mom to smell it?"

"Did you get out of work early?" I asked, trying to defuse whatever argument was about to begin.

"And then what? She'll praise your experimental open-mindedness?" Ethan said to Henrietta, ignoring me.

Henrietta rolled her eyes as he shut the door anyway. "Yeah because you know everything, Ethan," she said.

I could feel the bed dip down when he sat on the edge of it. His hair was longer than it was the last time I saw him, hanging in wavy clusters over his ears.

"We were just talking about what a little conformist Georgie has turned out to be," Henrietta said, lighting a cigarette with the nearest Zippo.

"Do you really think you're the best judge of that?" Ethan replied. Sometimes I wondered if he pissed her off on purpose.

"What is that supposed to mean dickface?"

"Teenagers—smoking pot? It just seems like a lazy stereotype." Ethan said, tugging on his earring seemingly out of boredom.

I stared at my bangs splayed out in front of me on the comforter. It was a lot like being at my house when my mom and step-dad were arguing. Maybe Ethan would marry Henrietta, isn't that how this sort of thing worked? I put covered my mouth to stifle my laughter at the idea, but from Henrietta's glaring, I wasn't doing that good of a job.

"Pot is illegal ass-face," she said after a long exhale.

"About as illegal as jay-walking," Ethan said.

"You just need a hit," I mumbled poking Ethan with the tip of my creeper. He turned his head and gave me a look that made me feel startlingly less high and I felt bad for touching him at all. I curled my legs up closer to myself and pretended like it hadn't happened.

Henrietta put out her cigarette and reached for the rest of the pack.

"You guys are like any other conformist twats in South Park when you're stoned," he sighed.

"Then take your pseudo-moral objections and fuck off," Henrietta said.

I noticed Ethan hadn't unbuttoned his coat at all, and wondered if he'd been expecting this scenario. I wished I wasn't stoned. But it wasn't something that wishing could undo. Anyway, I thought he worked. I tried to remember if I had explained that to him. But I could only stare at where the red met the black in my bangs until I heard the door to Henrietta's room open and shut again. And Ethan was gone.

Henrietta lit her next cigarette and opened the window of her room a bit more, pacing as she did so. "He's such a fucking dick!" she said, stomping with unnecessary force.

"Mmm," I agreed, wishing I could block out the shrill indignant tone her voice was taking.

"I'm sick of it," she said, sucking at the end of her cigarette holder. "Ethan…acting like he's above it all, like he's more of a goth than us."

I thought about it for a few minutes, and I decided it was probably true though. Maybe he was above it all. Maybe he was more goth than us. I worked at a corporate coffee chain and he worked at an independent record store. That's just one example. "He is really goth," I said out loud, not because I thought it was what she wanted to hear, but because I couldn't deny it.

"We're really goth," she paused, licking the corner of her mouth where her purple lipstick was running into the edge of her white cover-up, "I'm really goth."

"But Ethan always knows the most unconformist thing to do—like that time he joined Stan Marsh's Dance Team." I hadn't seen him for the week he was on the team. It was so completely miserable that I hadn't been able to read the poetry I'd written about it aloud.

Henrietta watched the ash collect on the end of her cigarette. "You're just saying that because he's a man," she said.

"I'm a man," I said, pushing my bangs behind his ear. They were immediately back in my face. It wasn't my fault that Ethan was taller than me. Maybe there was some puberty sign-up sheet I'd missed where I had to select not wanting to look like an effeminate art student who looked best in skinny jeans and eyeliner.

"Please," she said, waving her cigarette holder at me dismissively. I tried not to feel like it was unjust. She pursed her lips and stared at the door, like it was betraying her by being the last thing Ethan touched in her room. "Given the opportunity—Ethan would do the most conformist thing of any of us."

"He turned down the pot," I replied, wondering where this particular mood was going to take her.

"Not that. I'm talking the ultimate goth sin. Isn't that what he said about Georgie and Ike?"

I dead-panned, "he's not going to date Ike," and raised my eyebrows in the international symbol for a joke.

Henrietta didn't get it. She sighed with annoyance before beginning again slowly. "I mean fall in love at all. And proving it in some grand gesture."

"It's not going to happen," I said through a yawn. "You're too stoned to realize that Ethan couldn't fall in love. I don't think he's capable." Only after I said it out loud did I realize that it was a hurtful thing to say about someone. But still, I couldn't help but think that it was a little true, or maybe even that it was mostly true.

"I'm serious Dylan, I'm fucking sick of it," she said, studying me with a frown. "Anyway," she began again. "It'll be good for him, know you? He needs to realize that he doesn't have to be some living idol to us."

I considered the idea while I scrapped the black nail polish off my thumbnail with my teeth. Did Ethan think had had to be a living idol, was that really what this was all about? I guess I had always looked up to him in some ways when we were growing up. But hadn't that leveled out over the years? Or had I forced him into this position? Henrietta was still staring at me, and I realized she was waiting for me to accept this idea as some sort of stroke of genius on her part. "Who are we going to get him to fall in love with?" I asked because it seemed like an insurmountable obstacle to her plan.

Henrietta stared at me blankly in a way that seemed like she was waiting for me to laugh. "What?" I asked, feeling uncomfortable.

She raised her eyebrows and turned away from me. "One of us obviously," she said simply.

"Which one?"

"It doesn't matter, we'll try both," she said.

"How do we know he'll pick one of us?" I wondered if I was entertaining the idea because I was high or because Henrietta seemed so sure of it. But mostly it felt like the B plot to a very tacky movie.

"Because…because he's so desperately lonely," she said, flicking her extensions over her shoulder. "Or whatever—don't worry about that."

I shrugged, "and then what?"

"Then have him date one of us until he falls in love. We'll figure the rest out later," she said, waving her hand at me like I'd just asked twenty frivolous questions instead of one or two practical ones.

"It might be good for him to be taken down a peg," I said, sort of believing it. Ethan did tend to let his own self-image get in the way of him enjoying himself. Normally I would consider it a good thing, but lately it seemed he preferred slipping out of our band practices while I was still packing up my guitar. I stared at the glossy tape holding Henrietta's Skinny Puppy poster to the wall and picked at the edge of it, remembering walking home with my guitar strapped to my back last rehearsal after Ethan had driven away.

"So you're in," Henrietta said, and I felt like we'd just formed some conspiracy to commit murder. "This is going to be sick."

"So wait, what's going on?" I asked, realizing I wasn't listening. I wondered if I missed the part where she suggested we cut open our palms and seal the plan in blood or something.

"First we have to have him pick between us so we know who will be the bait," she continued.

"How?" I imagined a scenario where both of them showed up at Ethan's apartment with a bouquet of roses and forcing him to choose like some bad reality show.

Henrietta leaned back against the bed, sucking thoughtfully at her cigarette holder. "I'll call him back over to watch a movie later," she said. "About an hour into it, you text him to come get coffee with you. If he stays with me—then I'll be the bait-if he leaves to hang out with you-then you're the bait."

"Alright," I said, agreeing mostly to keep her from shrilly persuading me further. I didn't like the way she was throwing around the word 'bait.' I closed my eyes and imagined myself hanging from a hook, squirming through the air as Ethan decided if I was tempting enough.


I stared down at the text I'd just sent to Ethan: bennys? now?

It felt like an obvious trap Ethan would immediately see through somehow. Maybe it was the excessive question mark. Henrietta had called an hour ago to say that Ethan was on his way over to her house to watch a movie and to send the text in 45 minutes.

I waited a painful minute for a reply, wondering if it really would mean anything if he left Henrietta to come here to be with me. I put the phone down on the table, and then picked it up again to make sure it wasn't on silent. It felt like Ethan's lack of response was slowing down the rest of the world. Across the diner, I watched an old man who was filling out a newspaper crossword. His pen hadn't moved in ten seconds, and I wondered frantically if the world had actually frozen.

Then the phone vibrated, shaking the creamer bowl next to it and breaking my focus. 10 minutes, was all the text from Ethan said.

A minute later Henrietta called me. "He's yours," she said, I could hear her exhale over the line. "We were watching a movie and as soon as you texted he made up some excuse about needing to leave."

"Maybe he just thought the movie was shit," I said, glancing nervously up at the door as if talking about him was going to make him arrive instantly.

"No Dylan, he likes you more—you have to be the bait," she said. I wondered if she'd known it'd work out like this all along.

"What movie was it?" I asked, dragging a pink sugar packet across the table with my pointer finger.

"Just accept it. Anyway, act normal, all we needed to do today was find out who he preferred. We'll meet tomorrow afterschool to plan our first course of action," she said.

"Whatever," I said, hanging up. I tried not to think about what those actions might be, knowing how persuasive Henrietta could be.

For a minute I felt like an actor who'd forgotten my lines, staring blankly across the diner, waiting for Ethan to arrive and realize that this was all some sort of set up. The new implications of Ethan preferring my company put a strange pressure on an otherwise typical hang out. But my messenger bag hit my leg when I moved, and I remembered I'd brought along my English homework. I tried to focus on the book in front of me, but little details seemed to vie for my attention like the fraying striped cardigan I was wearing. I tugged where it had gotten bunched up and wished I'd worn my solid black one instead.

When Ethan finally arrived, I way halfway through the fifth chapter of Brave New World. He slid into the booth across from me, his cheeks pink from the cold. His car probably didn't have time to warm up on the drive from Henrietta's house to here.

"Hey," he said, unraveling the scarf he had wrapped up to his chin.

"Hey," I said, looking back at my book. I felt like I was doing a really bad impersonation of myself, and wondered if that's why Ethan was still staring at me.

"I'm sorry about earlier," he said, "it's just—I can't talk to you when you're like that."

I took a sip of the coffee the waitress had finally decided to refill now that Ethan was present. There was something commanding about his presence that there wasn't about mine. It was something I'd observed over time and gotten used to.

"No, you were right. It's stupid. But it does make things seem better for a little. I guess that's why people do it," I said, watching Ethan's fingers tap against an open notebook page.

"I miss when you used to write poetry for that same reason," Ethan said.

"Yeah," I laughed like I thought it was a joke, but knew it wasn't. He wouldn't joke about poetry, or drugs, or me. I took a sip of my too hot coffee and let it burn its way down my throat. Maybe if the caffeine didn't work, the pain would be enough to jar me out of laughing like a moron.

"The reason I came to Henrietta's was because I have new lyrics for that music you recorded," he said, sliding his notebook across the table. It'd been the easiest way to get new songs lately; I would record myself playing the music I'd written and send him the mp3.

"It'll be good to hear this come together tomorrow at practice," I said, flipping my bangs away from my eyes. I'd stopped trying to interpret Ethan's lyrics years ago.

"I thought you could add a bridge here," Ethan said, pointing at the messy sheet music I had hand written during a study hall. I used the pencil he handed me to make a note.

"Yeah, that'll work," I said.

Ethan nodded, "Do you think Henrietta is still pissed at me from earlier?"

I looked back at my coffee and thought about lying. But it felt wasteful to lie about something so small when I might be lying about bigger things soon, so I said, "maybe—why?"

"I don't know—she invited me over to watch Spirited Away with her. I got this weird ass vibe off of her the whole time. Like she'd won something."

I laughed nervously, "Weird."

Ethan rolled his eyes, "Yeah."

I shrugged and turned back to my homework. I tried to focus as Ethan scribbled something out with his pen. I wondered how Henrietta expected any of this to work—making Ethan fall in love with me. We'd always been friends, or at the very least—people who could stand one another's company. Ethan was good at booking gigs at shady venues in Denver and I was good at kicking Mike Makowski and the other vamp kids out of the cemetery after school. Maybe Henrietta really was a witch, I considered, biting the insides of my cheeks. Maybe she had a love potion she was brewing now. If not, then it probably would be easier to convince Ethan to smoke pot, I thought, glancing up at him, than to have him feel any emotion-especially love, especially for me.