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Sugar Free

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"Perhaps if you left this apartment for a while, took in some fresh air, ideas might better come to you," she said. He shrugged, unlit cigarette hanging half out of his mouth as he fished around in his cluttered dresser drawers for a lighter.

"You're a real peach, Lalonde. Why didn't I ever think of that before? Breathing, man, revolutionary. If only I had been doing that all along." Usually, he kept more than one around, but he guessed it had joined in on the borderline legendary game of hide and seek he had been playing with the other lighters he had lost over the years. He heard a familiar click behind him and turned to see her holding open a sleek, silver zippo, one he'd had monogrammed for her nineteenth birthday three years before. She smoked three inch-long grandmother cigs that she rolled herself out of an actual cigarette holder that he swore she'd gone back in time to steal from some flapper in a shady speak-easy at the height of the 20's.

"You really are a peach," he said, walking over the dirty clothes but making sure to avoid stepping on his CD cases as he stopped in front of where she leaned against the door frame. She lit him up and then snapped the cap shut over the flame, slipping it back into the pocket of her jean vest with her plum-painted fingers.

"At least open a window and let some light in. You're beginning to bear an uncanny resemblance to an emaciated albino laboratory rat." Her violet eyes slipped past the low curve of his shoulders to scrutinize the disaster area that was his bedroom. Without having to say a word, he knew she was disdainfully eying the pizza box he'd left sitting on top of his DVD rack. It probably wouldn't have annoyed her so much if the box wasn't sporting a promotional advert which had expired two months before. He'd been torn between throwing it away and being too worried that picking it up would wake up a a nest of rats or roaches or something.

"Says Casper."

"Leave this apartment and rejoin the rest of society, or I'll redecorate while you're sleeping."

"It's kind of a sty, anyway. Could use a woman's touch."

"Using the grimoire as a reference guide."

"Jesus fuck and Mary- Agh, fine, okay, I'm going. Let yourself out while I get glamorous." She smiled at him, and he hated her a little for being so gorgeous, convinced she was the only person on the planet who could look good in a ratty old denim vest, black lipstick, and a floor-length skirt. Who even dressed like that after they saw their hideous eighth grade yearbook photos? He did everything he could to be a suave, untouchably cool gentleboy, and she just exuded this air of flawlessness even when it seemed like she did everything in her power to be as lame as possible. She stood up on her toes to kiss one cheek and pat the other, and he rolled his eyes.

"I'll call you later to make sure you get some lunch before the kids in Africa start sending you money."

"My phone will be dead."

"Make plans to resurrect it, or mother might call instead."

"Stay your forked tongue and leave my temple, she-devil," he said, waving her off, and she turned, leaving him to stew about how much he didn't want to leave his private sanctuary to go mingle with the perfect clusterfuck of humanity that was San Francisco. Usually when she bugged him about going out, he'd give her a standard excuse: My house is my office, I'm making a new video, I'm working on a new remix, I'm drawing a new comic, etc. But he hadn't done any of that in three weeks, and rent wasn't cheap enough for him to be unproductive for a month. Being a judgmental asshole on the internet was how he paid his bills. He couldn't help it, though, and he really had tried his hardest. The first day, he was fine. Some days were just blank days, and he could let it slide, but by the end of the first week, he'd been playing wall ball in the bathtub. By the end of the third week, he was lying naked, in the dark, on his living room floor, alternating chain smoking between a pack of Marlboro Reds and his last joint and keeping his music loud enough to piss off his neighbors. Inspiration was just there one day and gone the next, like hair on a middle-aged man.

Getting glamorous mostly meant pulling a clean jacket over his red pajama top and slapping on some shades. The last time he'd shaved was...he didn't know. There was some stubble there when he reached up to rub his thumb across his chin, but fuck the world; he was still one choice looking dude. When he went to the living room to slide his sneakers on, he had to hold himself back from messaging Lalonde something hateful. She'd pulled down the blanket he'd draped over the window, and now he could see how badly the whole room needed some cleaning. Little pieces of things he couldn't identify were stuck all over the carpet, the TV stand had a thick layer of dust on it, and there was a pair of (ironic) kitten patterned boxers flattened on the coffee table with his pipe and a dime bag settled on top. Now, he had to worry about cleaning this up when he got back and hoping his Bro didn't drop by while he was out. For whatever reason (and he suspected it had something to do with Rose telling him), Dirk seemed to know exactly when he was out and would drop by to leave things in his house to torment him later, like a medicine cabinet full of porn puppets or replacing all the food in his refrigerator with fireworks that exploded when he opened the door. He'd had to make an especially venomous anti-brother v-log that day with a burn mark under his eye.

She was right about one thing, though: Getting high and lounging around being frustrated with life wasn't really great for his physique. Normal people would promise themselves to hit the gym, but he knew better. He'd do a couple of push-ups and be self satisfied enough to continue on like he always did. Grabbing his keys, wallet, and phone from the plastic table by the door, he pulled it open and braced himself against the brightness. Even his sunglasses couldn't save him. It had been too long since he'd been outside. Fucking California, it was like living on the sun. Before he'd even made it to the bottom of the stairs, his phone jingled with his messenger alert, and he fished it back out of his pocket. He separated his friends from everyone else by making them to use pesterchum to contact him. Because his number leaked out so often, it was a pain in the ass to keep giving out a new phone number every month, so he used messenger rather than texts.

 

-- tentacleTherapist [TT] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] at 15:47 --

TT: When I said lunch, I meant healthy lunch, not a grease-laden quesadilla from Taco Cabana.

TT: Just so we're clear.

 

He didn't respond, just turned it off and shoved it back in his pants, deciding to ride the trolley until he was in the part of town where he was most likely to find a tiny, overpriced, hipster hole-in-the-wall where he could get something to eat that he hated enough to make her happy. She was worse than their mother when it came to making sure he took care of himself, even if he knew they were working together. She asked Rose to bother him, but even if she didn't, he'd get bothered because it was her lot in life. Living in Leztopia with her blank hippie girlfriend, braiding each other's hair, and listening to their random, foreign, operatic tribal music wasn't enough to keep her occupied, nope. She had to be in his business 24/7, too.

Being out wasn't as bad as he'd hyped himself up to expect. The trolley ride was pretty decent, just the comfortable rumble of the motor, the chatter of people around him, and the warm sun on his face through the windows as he watched the buildings go past. No one gave him a second glance, and when he got off about twenty minutes later, it was much the same. When he threw his hood up, fewer people recognized him, and no one hassled him. Being 'internet famous' wasn't like being actually famous. There were no paparazzi or anything. No one really cared about a twenty-something kid who sat around in his underwear making youtube videos and drudging up music reviews for cash, but he could pick out the people who subscribed to his videos by who would watch him and seem like they weren't trying to. Sometimes, he'd be approached by a hopeful or a fan, and he'd talk to them for a while without trying to seem like it was a big deal. Secretly, he loved it. Who doesn't love being showered with attention and compliments? 'Oh, I love your videos,' or, 'You're really funny,' and, 'My friend and I always watch your videos together. She thinks you're cute, but I do too. I mean, you are really cute.' He ate it up.

No one bothered him then as he strolled along, making his way through the people. Because of how long it'd been since his last update to anything, he guessed he looked a little different, less kept than he usually was. It was admittedly nice. Being gushed over was cool and everything, but sometimes he wanted to chill out and have some lunch without having to stop and give his attention to anyone. Deciding where he wanted to go was easy enough. As expected, there was a glass-faced little place across the road from him with the word 'natural' stenciled in flowy green script under an appealing doodle of a leaf on the front door. It was tucked in between an independent clothing store and a record shop, and there was a carefully positioned chalkboard menu with round letters written in different colors standing out front. It had quaint little tables on a fenced-in patio with families poring over frilly menus and everything. Perfect. He'd snap a picture of a salad, zap it to Lalonde, and get her off his back for a day or so. Maybe he could make rap about salad but make it a sexual thing, like, tossing salads, he wondered, and then abruptly hated himself because no.

Checking the oncoming traffic before he crossed the street, he beat the thought to death with a hot tire iron and jogged up to the glass door, pulling it back to the sound of an electronic chime and tugging his hood off his head. The air conditioner was going nice and strong, and the place smelled terrific in the misleading, airy way of vegan confectionery. Taking the opportunity, he took a picture with his phone and sent it to Rose, feeling awkward, a little too rough around the edges and noticeable to be casually hanging out somewhere that obviously put a lot of effort into being cute. Screw it, he was already there. The counter to his right was manned by a sweet-faced girl with glasses and long black hair tied into a ponytail, and he regretted not shaving before leaving the house. Approaching, he thought that if Harry Potter had been a cute chick, he'd have looked like her. Pleasantly, there was no one else in line, and everyone in the place seemed to already have their food. He wouldn't have to wait long to eat.

"Welcome! Can I take your order?" She smiled at him, hand poised over the cash register, and he scanned the menu behind her head with something like a cross between 'could give less of a shit' and 'this crap is really expensive.'

"Can you recommend anything that doesn't taste like the chalk you used to write the menu with?" he asked. "I'll take whatever, really." She raised an eyebrow.

"Yeah, everything here is really good. All of our baked goods are gluten free and made with all natural-"

"Oh, man, that's really something. But, seriously, it doesn't make a difference to me. Just anything is fine. I'll leave it to your better judgment." She shrugged then, seeming a little put off at being interrupted, and handed him a number plaque from a stack on the bar behind her. He dug his credit card out of his wallet, preparing to enter his pin as she punched numbers into the machine.

"Your total is thirty-four dollars and seventy-nine cents." He slid the card through the reader to the side of the register, entered the code, and held out his hand to take his receipt and number card from her. "We'll bring your order to you."

"Thanks," he said, deciding to pick a table against a wall. Having his back to something made him feel a little better. The thought that he'd go home and make a video about the discrimination of health food establishments against grown men was shot to death with lots of big lead bullets, and he heard his phone go off in his pocket. Rose had received his picture.

 

TT: I see you're partaking of a nutritious and wholesome lunch as I asked.

TG: yeah its dope

TG: im eating some of that namby pamby bullshit for herbivores you love so much

TG: i love this gunk its really delicious

TG: if i close my eyes its like im not eating dehydrated bricks of cat spunk

TG: im so glad i chose a 35 dollar plate of what will probably be moldy leaves instead of a burger

TG: a burger is what i definitely dont want right now

TT: Kanaya has offered to have you over for a barbeque if you're willing to come.

TT: We're having a get-together with some mutual friends.

TG: you guys barbequing is the most terrifying shit ive ever heard of

TG: even when we were kids you were into all this pretentious nature noise

TG: youve never even had a piece of meat in your mouth

TT: That's not entirely accurate. We all have our experimental college phases.

TG: im glad im not eating yet or i may have just blown chunks all over my 400 dollar iphone

TG: can you please contain your vulgar horror stories while im ranting from now on

TG: between you and bro scrambling my delicate shit all up its no wonder why i cant focus for five seconds to do some work

TT: I will henceforth make my most honest effort.

TT: Enjoy your meal.

TT: Also, speaking of Dirk, he is currently in your apartment.

 

Unsurprised, he closed the chat window and started dicking around on the internet to pass time until his food came, reading old comments on the last update to his comic: Sweet Bro & Hella Jeff. His various youtube, review critic, musician, and comic artist accounts were kept separate always. It was a fail-safe in the case that one started to become unpopular. That way, one venture wouldn't affect the success of another, but they all seemed to do pretty well so far. There were a few new comments since the last time he'd checked, mostly people bitching about not having a new page in forever. He turned it off, distractedly twirling the bottle of ketchup in the middle of the table while floundering for ideas that didn't suck. There was a squeak ten minutes later as the door behind the counter opened, and he looked up to see a guy holding the door open with his foot as he hopped out on one foot with a tray of plates. "Jade, a little help, here," he said. Jade hopped off her stool and held the door open for him, laughing as he finagled around to get the tray seated comfortably in his arms again, and Dave felt his mouth part open a little. People who didn't know him probably wouldn't have seen the change. He looked only a little less impassive, but he felt like he'd been hit over the head with a hammer. The air didn't rush out of the room, but he felt like it was all making a fast-moving tunnel around him, going too fast to breathe in, and he watched the guy, who looked flustered and a little frazzled as he exchanged banter with the girl. She pushed him in his shoulder, earning a laugh, and it was probably the most disagreeable feeling he'd ever had. Very pointedly uncool.

"Fuck me gently, Captain Crunch," he thought, watching the guy smile at her with this kind of bucktoothed, glasses wearing, wild haired charm that blindsided him, and felt his heart flutter as he rounded the counter and headed toward him with the tray. Maybe it was because of how unexpected it was to see someone who didn't fit the standard, surgically perfect mold of every other bleached, plucked, and muscle-bound Summer Babe who stalked down the street, maybe it was because it came out of nowhere, but whatever it was electrocuted all the jumbled crap he'd been mulling over and left his brain shorted and sparking, trying with great difficulty to start again. Dave slowly put the ketchup back in the center of the table and fixed his face, grabbing his phone and putting it in his lap. The guy stopped at the edge of the table and, with that same wide smile, started setting down plates.

"Hey, I'm John. I'm your waiter, obviously, hah, if you need anything else just tell me, alright?" Dave nodded, looking at the plate of goopy orange shit and what looked like a wheat tortilla wrapped around about a pound of spinach, the plate of colorless bricks that he guessed were cookies, and the bottle of green kombucha beside the two and managed an impassive thanks. John nodded, and Dave noticed his eyes were the kind of blue that he hated because they were so pretty, even if he could barely seem them behind the thick-rimmed glasses he wore. Now, he was definitely regretting not shaving or changing or doing something to make himself look remotely attractive, and made a mental note to check the date and time before he left, planning to come back later when he looked more presentable. "Alright, then. Enjoy," John said. He grabbed the number plaque from the table and sauntered off back to the kitchen, Dave watching his ass waggle all the way back. When he felt eyes on him, he looked up to see that Jade was watching him now, and he realized she was waiting for him to eat something. Suddenly in the mood to please, he unrolled a spoon from the napkin beside the plate, and took a hesitant spoonful of the slop, pleased to discover it was made of sweet potatoes. He gave her an expressionless thumbs up, and she smiled at him, looking out the window again. Using his phone, he set an alarm to get him out of bed at least two hours before five o'clock on Wednesdays. John had work at least then, he reasoned, since it was currently five o'clock on a Wednesday. But he felt like a huge, stupid, stalkery penis, and he fucking hated kombucha.

He left a substantial tip, and John came back to the table twice in the hour that he lingered around the place, but they didn't have any real interaction. Whenever Dave tried to be cool, he found himself defaulting to 'Stoic Asshole,' and didn't think he made a good impression if he even made one. It was more than a little discouraging.

That night, after dodging the cascade of puppets that tumbled out of his closet, cleaning his living room, and doing some laundry, he made a ten minute video about the value of natural beauty, how whack the Hollywood hypebeast was, and how useless he found kombucha, feeling equally pleased at the return of inspiration and lame because of how it'd come to him. There was a futile point in the evening where he tried to convince himself that he wouldn't go back. Because why should he? Random hot guys were everywhere, right? They grew on coconut-covered, glitter-painted palm trees in Cali, but ultimately he decided that the answer was a negative, nope, no, not like that. Not guys who could suck the air out of a room by just making an entrance, even a kind of crappy, endearing, awkward entrance bouncing on one foot. He nervously sucked down no less than ten cigarettes in a two-hour span.

Before he went to bed, he knew he was going to go back, and hadn't really resigned himself to it as much as he tried convincing himself he had. It wasn't an unwanted thing. He was eager to go back, if not for the food, and was already thinking of excuses because he needed one. There was no real justification in his mind of 'Yeah, ah, there's just this guy. He's not really hot, like how you'd imagine, but there's something magnetic about him anyway,' so he made up something and squeezed in under his comforter, sending Dirk a particularly rude message before he nodded off.