By Seth Kushner

TRIP CITY asked readers to send their schmuckiest, most happless, awkward, embarrassing and/or clumsy personal stories. After reading through all the entries, Seth Kushner (Schmuck) picked the top three which were then read by a jury comprised of Emmy Award winning cartoonist, Dean Haspiel (Bored To Death, Billy Dogma), Eisner award winning cartoonist Nick Abadzis (Laika, Hugo Tate), poet/author Sandra Beasley (Don’t Kill The Birthday Girl, I was The Juke Box), and the tie-breaking judge, cartoonist Jennifer Hayden (Underwire), who picked the first, second, and third place winners.

Presented here is Kevin Fong’s second  place winning essay, “Why You Should Turn Off Your Cell Phone During A Movie

I was lying in bed watching Iron Man – the scene at the beginning where Tony Stark test launches the Jericho missile to impress the military elite – with my roommates, James and Darryl, when my phone rang and interrupted the movie.

“Sorry, guys. I have to take this.”

“Come on, it’s Iron Man!” said Darryl, with his meaty arms up in the air.

“You always do this,” said James, as he shoved his hand into a bag of chips. His orange-crusted lips looked normal compared to the orange debris on his shirt.

They sat on the other side of the room, waiting for me to hang up. “It’s Stacy, isn’t it?” said Darryl. It’s uncanny how easily my friends can read me.

Stacy is my ex-girlfriend. Whenever she’d call or send me an email or a text, I’d get the same look of dread on my face. Not that she was annoying, but because I hated lying to her each time about how I felt. I sugarcoated everything because I was trying not to hurt her feelings, and accidentally turned myself into her emotional crutch. It was my fault she kept calling. I was a passive aggressive fool who should’ve done the right thing and ended the relationship with a period, rather than an ellipsis. She deserved better.

Darryl and James grew impatient and surrounded me. “Put her on speaker,” Darryl said, followed by an echoing chorus from James. I shook my head, but they persisted. They moved in closer and were kneeling at bedside, next to my head. “Do it,” they whispered in unison, like two little devils on my shoulder. I knew I wouldn’t have been able to make it through the conversation with them hovering over me, so I gave in. All this time I’d been pretending to listen to Stacy, but a familiar phrase demanded a conditioned response that I had to consciously override.

“I miss you,” she said. “Do you still think about me?”

Darryl and James started giggling. They couldn’t believe what they were listening to, and I couldn’t believe I let them. But their laughter was infectious. We had to shove pillows over our mouths so we wouldn’t blow our cover, like kids who didn’t want their parents to know that they had stayed up past bed time.

“Yeah, I think about you every so often,” I said, before hiding behind the pillow again.

“I’ve met someone new,” she said. “He reminds me of you so much. He’s just like you, you know.”

As she continued to describe her new man, I slipped back to passive listening. James and Darryl were now acting out my conversation. James played the part of Stacy, while Darryl played me. With his hands clasped in a pleading prayer, James said, “Do you miss me, Kevin?” in a shrill, cracked tone like a boy going through puberty. Darryl, with his arms crossed and head turned away, uttered, “Nah, bitch, I don’t.” My cheeks were sore from guilty smiling and the pressure in my throat was building to a climax as I suppressed my laughter. But I wasn’t the only one who had a lump in my throat.
Stacy started crying. Darryl and James stopped their charade. I finally listened.

“I want to be with him, but I can’t. I’m stuck on you. It’s so frustrating. How did you do it? How could you just…end it and move on so easily?”

The truth was, I wanted nothing more to do with her. She had caused me so much anxiety and it took so much energy to escape that unhealthy relationship. I didn’t care who she dated. I didn’t want to know about her life. I should have told her that.

“It wasn’t easy for me. I just don’t express myself as outwardly. You know how I am.”

She blew her nose. After sniffling a few times, followed by a deep sigh, Stacy regained composure. “I don’t know why I called you, but thanks for listening. Is it okay if I call you from time to time, just to talk?”

This was my last chance to do the right thing, to rip the bandage off in one shot instead of peel away at it and prolong the pain.

“Sure thing, no problem,” I said. “I’ll always be there to listen.”

After the call ended, I looked over at Darryl and James.
“I didn’t think you would actually put her on speaker. You’re such an asshole,” said Darryl.

“You’ve ruined Iron Man,” said James. Darryl shook his head in disappointment.

I snatched the bag of chips.

-Kevin Fong

illustration from artwork by Kevin Colden

Read SCHMUCK, Seth Kushner’s “comix neurotica” and prose at TRIP CITY.

Read the third place entry and look for the first place winning essay in August.