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Authors: Daniel Ehrenhaft

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Friend Is Not a Verb

Friend Is Not a Verb

A Novel by

Daniel Ehrenhaft

For Nathaniel Benjamin Ehrenhaft:
Welcome to the wacky human race!

The year was marked by ominous signs: fires blazed in the sky, there was a violent earthquake, and a cow talked. There was a rumor that a cow had talked the previous year, but nobody believed it. This year, they did.

—Roman historian Titus Livius (59
BCE
–17
CE
), The Early History of Rome

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

—Hunter S. Thompson

Contents

Opening Disclaimers

This is kind of a screwy story, so I’m not…

Part I

The Two Days Leading Up to the Conclusion That Becoming a Rock Star Would Solve All My Problems

Chapter One

Feelings

Chapter Two

A Big Favor

Chapter Three

Diary of My Life on the Lam, by Gabriel Stern

Chapter Four

Balinese Demons

Chapter Five

Getting My Foot in the Door

Chapter Six

$30,000 for a Grilled Cheese Sandwich on eBay

Chapter Seven

A Fist Bump from the Unseen Hand

Part II

The Gig That Didn’t Change Everything

Chapter Eight

My Glorious Future

Chapter Nine

“Oedipus Wrecks” and Other Hits

Chapter Ten

Bonzo and Ox

Chapter Eleven

Dog Run Therapy

Chapter Twelve

Beer Tasting

Chapter Thirteen

Underage Talent Night

Chapter Fourteen

The Aftermath

Chapter Fifteen

Rumpelstiltskins, All of Them

Chapter Sixteen

It’s a Joke of a Life

Part III

The Surprise Twist That I Probably Should Have Seen Coming

Chapter Seventeen

Perfect Timing

Chapter Eighteen

Steal Your Parents’ Money

Epilogue

Why the Band Journey Sucks, and What This Says About Life

This is kind of a screwy story, so I’m not sure where to begin. I mean, I could tell you my name, but I’ve decided to change it. Seriously. I don’t know what the new one will be yet, but as soon as I figure it out, I’m going to file the forms and petition the court and do whatever it takes to make it official—and if it costs money, then I’ll finally get a real job. Or at least I’ll play the Lotto.

Until I hit the jackpot, though, I’m stuck with Henry Birnbaum. Hen, for short.

Everyone has always called me Hen. All the major players in this screwy story have: my big sister, Sarah (who vanished under mysterious circumstances for an entire year); my girlfriend, Petra (who dumped me); my best friend, Emma (who also had that dream about going to school naked); my parents (who threatened to set fire to my dirty socks unless I “took
responsibility for [my] own hygiene and put them in the hamper!”); and, lastly, Gabriel Stern, my sister’s friend from college, the twenty-two-year-old fugitive who was supposed to be my bass teacher but ended up being something else entirely (a bizarro Obi-Wan to my Luke? I’m still trying to figure it out), partly because he is such a lousy bassist himself.

The problem is, Hen doesn’t fit me anymore. It’s too young sounding. True, I am only sixteen, but after all the insanity of the past year, sometimes I feel like I’m a hundred. Sometimes I feel like I’m a thousand. Or that I’ve moved beyond life and death, like I’m a mummy with ancient mystical wisdom locked up inside my sarcophagus, just waiting to be unleashed. Not that I look particularly wise or ancient or mystical. Frizzy brown mop top plus pale broomstick body doesn’t exactly add up to Father Time. I don’t know what it adds up to. Time to score a fake ID?

Anyway, my new name, whatever it is, will say something about me. Like “the guy who finally learned the freakish truth about
why
his sister disappeared.” Or “He may be going through that awkward teen phase now, but watch out soon, ladies!” Except it won’t be that long. It’ll be short and tasty, like a choice bass line (think funky, like Bootsy Collins)—maybe in one of those forgotten tribal languages Gabriel tried to learn while he and my sister were hiding out in the Caribbean. Those indigenous Caribbean tribes know how to do names right. (In Taino, the name “Yaya” means “the Great Spirit who Created Everything.” I would say that’s funky. At the very least, it’s funkier
than Henry Birnbaum, which means absolutely nothing.)

Most of all, my new name will show how I’ve become more superstitious. How I no longer believe that there’s any difference between what happens while you’re asleep and while you’re awake—aside from the obvious stuff, like snoring and drooling. Or how if you turn your dream life and real life inside out, you’ll wind up in the same place: the scary, buck-ass-naked place where everything is right in the open for you to see, even if you don’t want to.

Which I think is what Gabriel wanted me to believe. Not that he said it in those words. He said, “Hen, the way I see it, a person’s subconscious is like a port-o-john. It’s dark and nasty, right? If it could smell, it would smell like a thousand butts. But sometimes nature calls. Sometimes you gotta go in there. So here’s my advice to you: The next time you absolutely have to take care of business in a real port-o-john, like at an outdoor concert or something, first take a minute to stand inside it—even if there’s a line waiting. Just close your eyes and breathe in the stink. Because you know what’ll happen? Pretty soon you won’t even
notice
the stink anymore. I swear. And then when you’re all done and you step outside, the open air will be a brand-new thing. It’ll be the most beautiful thing you’ve ever smelled. You’ll want to hug all those impatient people in line. Get it?”

That’s a direct quote, by the way. I recorded it.

Right now, I just want to state for the record: I know that this preamble might not make a whole lot of sense. Or it may
just sound gross. Or worse, it may sound corny, like a preview for a pretentious big-budget movie—you know, with an opening camera shot that would pan over our house in Brooklyn and a thunderous voiceover,
“In a Troubled Time…in an Age of Upheaval…secrets will be revealed about Henry Birnbaum and his sister, Sarah, and her friend Gabriel…”
like there should be violins blasting as you read this. But it’s true. Everything I’m about to tell you actually did happen.

So enough with the opening disclaimers. If I’m going to throw open the symbolic port-o-john door, there really is only one place to start. That would be June 4, the first night of summer vacation. That was the night Petra decided she didn’t want to be my girlfriend anymore—back when my sister was still missing, back when I still hated Gabriel Stern’s guts…back when I blamed Gabriel and my sister for almost everything that had gone wrong in my life, even though I hardly knew him or why he and Sarah had disappeared in the first place.

PART I
The Two Days Leading Up to the Conclusion That Becoming a Rock Star Would Solve All My Problems
CHAPTER ONE
Feelings

“I’m sorry, Hen. I still have feelings for you. It’s just that my band needs a real bass player now. We’re not a joke band anymore. Okay, sweetie?”

That was how Petra Dostoyevsky fired me.

We were standing outside the Bimbo Lounge on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It was raining: heavy, pelting rain. Cars were honking; pedestrians were irritable; Petra’s hair dye was starting to run. The black drops on her cheeks were actually kind of attractive, which annoyed me. It was 9:05
P.M
. Her favorite band—aside from her own—was supposed to start at 9:00. (They’re called Shakes the Clown. Petra believes that they’re geniuses. According to her, they’re the “new Flaming Lips.”)

“We should still hang out,” Petra added, peeking at her watch.

I nodded. I couldn’t imagine any possible scenario where that might occur, but it was a nice thought.

She cast a furtive glance at the bouncer. He was bald and pale, about the size and shape of a rhinoceros. He wore a tight 2002 Britney Spears concert T-shirt under a soggy pin-striped blazer, with a Steal Your Parents’ Money pin on the lapel.

“Do you still want to see the show?” she asked.

“Um, no, I guess not. But—”

“Bye, Hen.” She pecked me on the cheek, then turned and scurried past the bouncer—who not only held the door, but also graciously neglected to card her.

 

I prefer the word “fired” to “dumped,” because going out with Petra was kind of like a job. Not that I’m ungrateful. Being with Petra—and being the bassist for her band, PETRA—was amazing for the month that it lasted. She was the first real girlfriend I’d ever had. But it was hard work. She’s pretty much a superstar—at Franklin High, anyway—so the playing field was never level. She’s tall (two inches taller than me), tasteful in regard to piercings (a lone silver stud in the left nostril); she’s got a mixed pedigree, like Barack Obama (though she looks more white than black); and she even manages to pull off hair dye unpretentiously (jet black, but somehow not in a scary way).

Plus, I’m fairly sure she’s smarter than I am.

So it was no surprise that she treated me the way a boss would. A nice boss, sure. “That’s not how the bass line goes, sweetie.” Or: “That T-shirt doesn’t look cute on you, Hen; you should wear this ironic one.” She even kissed me with bosslike detachment,
warmly and professionally. I don’t want to get into the specifics, but let’s just say that there were no spontaneous moments of wild passion. She operated on a reward system. If I nailed a bass line she wrote or wore the right T-shirt, I got lucky.

The funny thing is, I never would have gone out with her in the first place if I hadn’t responded to her ad in the school’s online paper,
The Franklin Sentinel
. It wasn’t a personal ad, either. It was an ad seeking a bassist for her band. And I guess that’s the point: It’s hard not to think of a relationship as a job when you have to be interviewed and pass an audition. On the other hand, that does sound ungrateful, and it’s probably not fair to her, because there are certain moments in your life when you fall in love with a semistranger, instantly and deliriously—without even an initial crush. For me, that moment was when I read that ad. It came at the end of Petra’s blog, “Please Kill Me.”

PLEASE KILL ME

By Petra Dostoyevsky

Day 5,882 of a life that never seems to end…

“It would be an unsound fancy and self-contradictory to expect that things which have never yet been done can be done except by means which have never yet been tried.”


Sir Francis Bacon

Dearest Franklinites,

You’ll notice a quote above this week’s post. I have no idea
what the quote means. Is that why I got a D on my last philosophy quiz? Maybe. But perhaps it would be helpful for all of us if I told you what I know about the author himself.

Sir Francis Bacon was a 17th-century English nobleman who revolutionized science and philosophy, forever altering mankind’s attitudes toward these mysterious disciplines. He accomplished this amazing feat simply by asserting that he was a lot smarter than everyone else. (Bacon was not a humble man.) He also asserted that animal furs produce their own heat, like an electric wok. “This is why fur keeps us warm,” he once said. “You feel it? It’s like a sauna up in here.” (I’m paraphrasing.)

Out of supreme admiration for the wise assertions of Bacon, I decided to prove his theory of heat correct. I dug my grandma’s moth-eaten mink out of the closet and huddled naked over it on the sidewalk outside my mom’s apartment building, to see if I got warm. Regrettably, this experiment caused some consternation among my neighbors, and I spent last night shackled to a desk at the Eighty-first Precinct.

But what does this tell us of Bacon himself? Sadly, nothing. There isn’t much any of us can say about Bacon for certain, not even my philosophy teacher, other than that he did not smell very nice. People rarely bathed or washed their clothes in the 17th century. Stick deodorant would not be invented for at least another three hundred years. To his credit, however, Bacon does happen to share his name with a food product I feel has been unjustly
criticized in recent times. I don’t know about you, but I’m too young to care about greasy fat and cholesterol. Bacon also has protein and tastes darn good.

I digress. The point of this post: I won’t be allowed to blog for a while, owing to poor grades, lack of focus, and an “attitude problem.” So I’m starting a band. Why? Well I read somewhere once that “It would be unsound fancy and self-contradictory to think that things which have never yet been done can be done except by means which have never yet been tried.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. I am trying by means which have never been tried, friends! I already have a drummer lined up, the wildly talented Bartholomew Savage of the Spencer School, and I am the guitarist/front woman/vixen. (There, I said it.) Now I need a bassist. Do any of you play bass? If so, please hit me back at: [email protected]…Auditions start tomorrow at 3:30 at Sonic Rehearsal Studios! xoxo Petra

As far as the audition went:

I was the only one who showed up. Nobody else had bothered, probably because they assumed Petra was joking. Petra made a joke of everything, which was partly what made her such a superstar. The majority of beautiful girls at our school had no sense of humor at all. (Around me, anyway.) I remembered asking George Monroe, the guy who sat next to me in Civics, if he planned to audition. He plays bass for the jazz
band, and you can tell he shreds. He just laughed.

Sure enough, when I arrived at Sonic Rehearsal Studios after a perfunctory email exchange, I felt like the victim of a prank. The “Studios” consisted of a single room at the back of a bodega. It wasn’t much bigger than a broom closet. It
smelled
like a broom closet, dank and musty. The walls were draped with grimy yellow foam, the kind used to pack eggs—I imagine for soundproofing.

Petra stood alone amid the decrepit amplifiers and drums in a black sweater, miniskirt, leggings, and boots, all of which matched her hair dye. She smirked at me.

“Hi,” I said, nervously clutching my bass case.

“Thanks for coming. Hen, isn’t it?” Her dark eyes brightened. “Wait! I know you. You’re that guy whose sister disappeared, right?”

“Yup, that’s me,” I said. “The guy whose sister disappeared.”

“Oh, my God—” She clasped a hand over her mouth. “Sorry, that was so rude.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“But it was rude, wasn’t it?”

“Depends on how you look at it,” I said.

She stared down at her boots, then blinked shyly at me. “Well, let me make it up to you,” she said. “Play me a song. I promise I’ll be more objective than usual.”

I glanced around. “Shouldn’t we wait for your drummer? You know…” I couldn’t remember his name, only that it had a great ring.

“He’s not coming,” she said. “It’s just you and me. He was sort of bummed out. I mean, since you’re the only one who answered the ad.”

“Oh,” I said.

Looking back now, I realize that this conversation may have marked the high point of our relationship. I plugged in and plucked out four measures of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” (If I were a pianist, this would be like auditioning with “Chopsticks.”) Petra applauded wildly after my pathetic performance, then jumped forward and kissed me on the lips—quickly and naturally, as if we’d known each other for years. Her arms lingered on my shoulders. She told me I was in the band. She asked me if I wanted to come over to her mom’s apartment that weekend, to work on her “material.” I said yes.

I’d never felt as wonderful, not even when we made out in her bedroom two days later and officially became a couple for the next month. For better or worse, that’s the God’s honest truth. During that one moment, in that stuffy windowless cell with the foam egg packaging, I was in paradise.

 

Back to the night she fired me:

“On second thought, I
do
want to see the show,”
I imagined telling her, seconds into my brand-new role as her ex-boyfriend. What if I’d pretended to be cheerfully clueless?
“You said we should still hang out, right? Let’s go!”
That would have been funny. On the other hand, she probably wouldn’t have appreciated the joke.
“Hen, let’s not make this one of those awkward
moments,”
she would have told me earnestly.

So, all right, one thing that did bug me about Petra: She was funnier in writing than she was in person. A lot of times, even in normal conversation, she sounded as if she were pitching a TV commercial to a bunch of ad execs. She insisted that every recent pop-culture phenomenon was nothing more than a recycled bit of something brilliant in the past.

I wasn’t so sure. What about MySpace when it first came out? That was new. Or how about the Steal Your Parents’ Money sticker campaign? In case you’re not from New York City or you don’t remember: The previous summer, hundreds of plain button-sized stickers made headlines when they mysteriously appeared in subway cars all over the city. Nobody knew who posted them or why, and nobody credible ever claimed responsibility, although they were attributed variously to college pranksters, aging hippies, and the MTV marketing department.

Petra wouldn’t hear it. She actually knew who was behind it, or said she did—apparently some bored psychologist, a friend of a friend of her hipster dad, who’d ripped off the concept from the “S*** Happens” sloganeers. She went so far as to decide on her senior quote in the middle of our argument: “There are no original ideas”—Anonymous. I made the dumb mistake of pointing out that this wasn’t really a quote; it was a cliché. “That’s the whole point, Hen,” she groaned, pitying my naïveté. “It’s meta.” Needless to say, I didn’t get lucky that day.

Maybe that’s why I wasn’t all that upset about being fired by
Petra outside the Bimbo Lounge. But
that
was upsetting, the fact that nothing could upset me—not even this beautiful girl who had ditched me in the rain. At the time, I chalked it up to the old bully’s rule of the playground: Punch an arm long enough, eventually that arm goes numb. Lord knows that my proverbial arm had been beaten senseless. Try to see it from my perspective. Or better yet, try to see it from
your
perspective: Here’s this loser, and his sister has been missing for a year; his parents are slowly losing their minds; his grades have long since circled the drain; last night he forgot yet again to put his socks in the hamper…and now his girlfriend has abandoned him, too.

Does that sound self-pitying?

Good. I think I’m entitled to a little self-pity now and then.

There was an upside, though. Standing on that grim sidewalk—dripping wet, fired, and alone—I had six simultaneous epiphanies:

  1. Petra is very shallow and self-obsessed. I’m better off without her.
  2. Okay, that’s a big lie. Petra is hot and smart and funny (in writing), and even if she’s annoying sometimes, nobody is better off without a girl like that.
  3. But the deed is done, so it’s time to face facts: The only reason Petra went out with me was because she needed a bass player for PETRA.
  4. PETRA was never a joke band, and I’m a terrible bass player…and, wait, there goes George Monroe into
    the club. Hmm. As discussed, George shreds on bass, and he’s also better looking than I am, and he’s actually a really nice guy—I mean, we’re not supertight or anything, but he’s always been cool to me—and now I bet he’s stealing my job and my girlfriend.
  5. I want to be angry with George for this if it’s true, but I’m not, and I’m not sure why (though it probably comes back to the old rule of the playground).
  6. In spite of her shallow self-obsession, Petra is honest. She fired me because she needs a replacement, and I’m sure it’s George—I mean, come on; what are the chances that he just showed up here?—and he can actually get into a Lower East Side club like the Bimbo Lounge, whereas I probably can’t.

I glanced at the bouncer again. He was attempting to open an umbrella without much luck. I wondered about the pin on his lapel. Maybe
he
was the psychologist friend of a friend of Petra’s dad. Maybe he’d once imagined himself to be a genius by ripping off the “S*** Happens” people and then came to the sad realization that he was nothing more than a plagiarist and was now forced to moonlight as a bouncer for the extra cash. Maybe, like me, he was a cautionary tale.

From inside, I heard the faint strains of Shakes the Clown’s opener, a modified cover of the seventies soft-rock classic: “Feelings…nothing more than feelings…”

“Feelings…Barnyard hoedown feelings…

“Feelings…Prison hose-down feelings…”

There wasn’t much point in hanging around. It was a ten-minute walk to the subway and a half-hour ride after that. Plus, I needed to make the Emma call.

 

Whenever I suffer, whenever I rejoice, whenever those occasions arise when I think I might be close to slipping closer to the abyss of insanity, I make a point to talk it all through with my next-door neighbor Emma Wood. Skinny, neurotic, ratty haired, reclusive Emma Wood—she is and always has been the only person who can convince me that I am, in fact, still sane. Or at least sane in comparison to her.

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