“I got a date.” I say as I take my hand off my pawn, slapping the clock. The park birds are running a zigzag to avoid the joggers chasing them past our table. Chet is focused only on the game, his fast breaths obscure the board in the cool air. He doesn’t notice the birds or the joggers. I’m not certain he’s even listening to me. He swats away a leaf as it floats dangerously close to our board.
“Oh, yeah, that’s good, man.” He responds dismissively. He advances his rook, hitting the clock to put the turn back to me. I immediately move my knight out to meet the new transgressor and pop the clock back.
“Yeah, I’m going to see her tonight. We’re gonna grab a coffee.”
I have his attention now. “You meet her in the program?”
It’s the right question, but it still hurts to hear it. “No, I kept bumping into her after therapy by the hospital. I finally got to talk to her.” He retreats with his rook keeping his hand on the piece.
“Is she going to want to turn coffee into a drink?”
“No, I told her I don’t drink. She seemed cool.” Chet advances the rook back to its starting position before sliding to the right to take my exposed queen. He punctuates it with a slap of the clock.
“Alright. Don’t fuck up.” He says, ending the conversation. He bundles tighter in his coat as he fixates on my king. “This coat has been awesome, man. Can’t believe you sprung for it. All the guys at the shelter have been asking about it. They think I got me a sugar momma.”
I can’t think about my next move as I’m still stuck wondering how I missed the queen. “Yeah, no problem.”
“I’ve been wearing it to interviews. Figure I look like I got my shit together with a coat like this.” I settle for moving a pawn forward. I reach for the timer wasting seconds to scan the board. Chet pushes my hand on the timer with one hand while moving his queen up with the other. “Checkmate.”
I lean back as Chet starts to reset the board on both sides. “I think you might have your shit together more than most of us.”
He laughs at that. “You’re the man with his own place and a date.” He’s set me up as white. I start the match.
It’s my turn to change the subject. “What’s new? What are you hearing?”
He lets out a guffaw. “ Oh man. This damn city‘s crazy. I got stopped by the secret police asking me where I’ve been, who I’ve been with, telling me if I see this or that to come talk to them at this place or that.”
“Yeah, I know the city badge. Wasn’t a city badge.”
“Like state police? FBI?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know, wasn’t worried about it at the time. I needed to get back in line at the shelter before they filled up.” He drops his focus on the game to lean across the table and whispers, “here’s the deal though. I started asking folks in the program. They’ve been stopping all of us here and there.”
I move closer and lower my own voice. “What are they looking for?”
He shrugs again. “They got some mad scientist doing clones in the city.” It’s my turn to guffaw. We both sit upright. Chet’s next words are yelled at me. “Well, that’s what Junya was saying. I don’t know, man. He’s always out of it, but he seemed spooked.”
“Junya’s always paranoid.”
“Yeah. They got a bunch of suicides. I guess the cops are all worked up ‘cause they keep finding people. No one wants to find that, you know?”
“Yeah. You doing okay?”
“Yeah, man. I’m grand. Need to go get in line, gonna be cold tonight. Don’t want to be outside.”
“I told you, you can always stay with me.”
He stiffens at that. “No, I’m not doing that. Need to get a job, pay my way. Not gonna take advantage of you. ” He checkmates me again. “Anyway, I got to get going.”
I know that the conversation is over.
“Bill.” I look up to see he’s looking me in the eyes for the first time today. I nod that I see it. I see him. “Don’t fuck up tonight.”
Some Folks Can’t
Some folks can have a drink. Some folks can have a few. Some folks can’t. That was the first lesson Chet taught me when I joined the program. I spent too long thinking that too much meant you couldn’t keep a job. I could do both. Then I spent a bit of time thinking getting better meant cutting back. Once I had to join the program I met Chet, and he taught me: some folks can’t.
The last bit of daylight slips away. As the curtains of shadow rise on towers around me I feel the darkness filling the void in the city. I feel what Chet calls ‘grown-man fears’. What if she doesn’t show? Can I handle that rejection sober? What if she does show up? First dates are all about hobbies, interests, circle of friends. Where are you in life? Where are you headed? Questions you try not to think about too long because they lead to dark thoughts.
Through the front glass I can see the coffee shop is crowded with people meeting people, people working, people playing games. I feel the warm air from the door opening as folks shuffle in and out. I spot her in the back centered on a loveseat, leaning forward staring at her hands clasped over her knees. She exhales, nodding at nothing. She’s having some ‘grown-person’ fears of her own. Best not to think too long.
As I enter the door and approach her I’m nervous about these first few minutes. It doesn’t look like she has a coffee yet. When you meet a girl at a bar you can order for her and have a drink waiting if you want to be assertive. Worst case is it becomes your drink as she orders something else. You can immediately start the conversation without worrying about interruption. You can calm your nerves; she calms her nerves. You are your best you. I used to think that. She notices me as I get closer.
“Hey, you made it.”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I say knowing how cheesy it sounds. “Do you want to get a coffee?”
“Yeah, we’ve got to pay rent on this couch somehow. Would you grab me a tall drip?” I nod and turn back to get in line.
As I wait in line I think about how inefficient the coffee queue is at most coffee shops. Bartenders can easily take care of twenty, even thirty, patrons at a time. They anticipate the need of another drink before you’re empty and don’t waste time running individual transactions. It seems the four baristas behind this counter can barely take care of the ten folks waiting in line in front of me as the minutes tick on.
‘This would be faster if we ran tabs,’ I think to myself.
The person just served takes their coffee and leaves. That is something that doesn’t happen at a bar. I suppose anywhere that serves booze has their patrons locked in until they finish their drink.
Finally, it’s my turn to order. “Can I get two tall drips?”
The barista behind the counter doesn’t look up as she speaks. “Name for the order.”
“Bill with a B.”
“For here or to go?”
“Great, that will be $5.28.”
“Can I start a tab?” She looks up at me with a bit of discomfort.
“Um, we don’t really do that here…”
“I just thought, it might be more efficient if people could order another and pay up at the end. You know,”
“Like a bar?” she interrupts. “Yeah, most people just get one coffee or a juice, and… that’s it,” she says with a whitened, toothy smile.
“Yeah, that makes sense.” I hand her the cash and add a buck to the tip jar.
“Thank you!” she says as she gestures for the next customer to step forward. I queue again waiting for my coffee to arrive.
I guess most folks don’t drink six coffees on a visit. A cup of coffee makes me chatty, two gives me focus. Beyond that I can’t think straight, I always need a drink to level out. I chuckle thinking that I don’t want to drink too much and make a bad impression.
The thing about drinking on a date: if you both are drinking it improves the intimacy of the moment. It’s easy to imagine the other person at their best. How witty they are, how beautiful. Everything in life is going their way. It doesn’t matter how drunk you get, as long as you stay even. But if one of you gets too far ahead the judgment starts to set in. The trouble is recognizing when you’re too far ahead cause everyone looks as far gone as you when you’re that far gone. If you stay even you can’t help but see the best of the other person. The theater of a date for drinks is like doing improv where your best jokes land. You and your date working in harmony until you hit the ultimate ‘yes, and.’ The coffee date is harder. You have to hope who you’re pretending to be is someone the other person thinks they can love.
“Two tall drips.”
I offer thanks as I gather the oversized mugs. I make my way through the scattered rings of comfy, leather chairs and too small tables to find Sarah still centered on the love seat in back. As I approach she reaches out and takes the mug with two hands, her hands not quite touching mine as she grasps it. She scoots over to make space implying I should sit close. I take my seat.
“Why’d you approach me?” she asks looking me dead in the eye. “Why’d you ask me out?”
I’d wasted all the time thinking about coffee shop inefficiencies that I should have spent thinking about the date. The actual date. She’s still looking at me waiting for an answer. “Well, you’re beautiful.”
“Do you stop every beautiful woman you meet?”
The way she fires it back makes me think she’s played this through in her head. “No, not most.” She raises her eyebrow. “Not ever.”
“So why me? Why now?”
“Well, I’ve been seeing you in the waiting room for a few months.”
“I’ve noticed you looking at me at the hospital. Does me being in therapy excite you?” I hear a hint of disgust in her voice.
“No, it doesn’t excite me. I know I need to be there, but I don’t want to be there.”
“But you like the idea of me being broken. Me needing that kind of support. That’s what distinguishes me from all the beautiful women you see everyday?”
I’ve got the truth at the tip of my tongue, but I’m terrified of her hating to hear it. “No, I like the idea that you keep going.” The aggression leaves her face. She’s listening now. “I look around that waiting room guessing at what everyone’s problems are. Most faces I see a couple of times. Maybe for a month. I don’t see faces almost fixed. It doesn’t look like the pain they’re thinking about is almost gone, but they stop coming anyway. You keep coming.”
Her stern look relaxes. She smiles. “So, I’m a little crazy, but I’m not a quitter. That’s alright with you?”
“Yeah, that’s just fine,” I grin back.
“So, why are you broken?”
“Oh, right to it?” She nods. I figured we would have to have this conversation sometime tonight. “I’m an alcoholic. Coin carrying, in remission, counting each day, alcoholic.” She stares into me without a hint of response. “I lost my fiance, my house, most of my friends because I realized what I was becoming. I went from being a fun guy who went a little too far sometimes to a day drinker at the office without anyone realizing it.” I stare into the mug as I recite the next part. “Nothing bad ever happened. There wasn’t an accident or an incident. I just told her I needed help, what I had been doing. She was so disgusted. She used that word to me. Disgusted. Left that day, told our friends she was afraid of me. That I was just a drunk. Called my boss and told him too.”
“I went in the next day no drunker than any other. My boss was waiting in my office, had all my bottles pulled out on top of my desk. Said we needed to talk. Asked if I had been drinking that day. I told him I had, asked if I was fired. He pulled out a coin and handed it to me.” I pull the coin out of my front pocket to handle it. I look back to her. “I started crying right there in my office. It was the first time I thought that everything could be okay. He explained that we had great corporate benefits to help me recover; that as long as I tried to get better he guaranteed I had a job.”
For the first time since I started she dropped her eye contact to look into her own mug. I don’t find the silence uncomfortable, for once. She brushes her hair back behind her ears revealing star studded dangles. They catch the light for just a moment before her hair falls back to shroud the stars once again.
“Have you relapsed?”
“I have. It’s been a while though. I haven’t since I really started trying. I don’t want to talk about that.”
“That’s fair. Do you want to hear mine?”
“You don’t have to if you don’t want.”
She looks at me with gratitude, but starts talking all the same. “I lost someone close to me.” She bobbles her head as she says the next words. “I tried to kill myself. I got a…” she seems to search for the word. “A diagnosis that I couldn’t handle for a while.”
“Is it terminal?”
She stifles a laugh with a grin instead. “No, it isn’t, but it’s been hard to handle all the same.”
“Do you still think that way?”
“Do I still think of ending it all?” I nod. She pauses as if she’s really considering the thought. “No, not really. I guess that means I’m getting better.”
We both sit in silence sipping our coffee for a bit. “Look, I’m going to get up and head to the restroom. If you don’t want to do this you can feel free to go before I get back. No hard feelings; I know this is a lot to take in.” Before I could protest she was up and walking away.
I blew it. She thinks I’m not interested. Maybe two folks like us can’t do this, or shouldn’t do this. Chet’s always talking about putting good people around you, but I know he doesn’t include himself in that. That therapist of yours, that boss of yours. Those are the good people. What a sad world if broken people can’t help each other along the way. But maybe he knows. Maybe some folks can’t.
I realize I haven’t been watching the door. Maybe she left, snuck out. I don’t remember seeing another exit, but a place like this has to have another exit into the alley. I wait. And I wait, but still no sign. A server approaches to pick up her mug as if to sign that it’s over, she’s gone. I stand and follow her to the next table as she grabs more mugs. She takes mine from her hand as I finally ask. “The girl that I was with. Did you see her go? Did she leave?”
She looks at me with some confusion. “The woman you were with on the couch, over there?” I nod. “No, I mean, over there,” as she gestures back the way I came. I turn to see Sarah looking down at the love seat, empty of mugs or any sign of me. She turns an embarrassed eye towards me as I return.
“Did you forget something?”
“Just you.” She grins at that. “I wasn’t going anywhere.”
The barista approaches from behind me gesturing with a thumb towards me. “He was worried you’d left him here.”
Sarah smiles. “Really?”
“Yeah, a bit.”
“Do you want to get out of here?” she asks as she hooks her arm into mine and begins pulling me towards the door.
She pulls me in close to her as we walk through the cold, night air. For the first time I smell her perfume, something flowery like lilac. A smell that makes me think of a blanket outdoors on a sunny day. We talk more freely about shared experiences, the kinds of things most people spend their time bonding over. I realize after a few blocks that I’ve been walking nowhere in particular.
“Do you have a good idea of where we’re headed?”
“Yeah, I’m taking you home,” she pulls my face down to hers and kisses me gently. “Unless you’re not interested.” I nod that I am. She nods back and turns us forward once more. “Good.” I realize that I haven’t thought about a drink in an hour or so, but turn the thought away.
I feel her grip my arm as she freezes in her tracks. She turns to look at me before turning to face the man with a gun in her back. “Hand it over,” is all he says as he steps back a pace. I’m simultaneously reaching in my wallet and stepping between them when I feel the sharp pain of her elbow taking me in the ribs.
I hear the shot as I smell the smoke on the air. I reach down to touch my ribs afraid the bullet had found me as the gunman turns and runs, forgetting our belongings. We turn to each other. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay.”
“We have to call the cops.”
“No, I want to go home.” She looks up, into my eyes. “Just take me home, please.”
“Okay.” We walk a few steps before she stumbles. As I reach to catch her I feel something wet and sticky at her side. “Were you shot!” She shakes her head vigorously as I begin looking for a cab or a car. Someone to help us. I suddenly feel a sharp pain that vibrates through my entire body. I’m aware that I’ve fallen to the concrete below, but no more.
There is a special kind of hangover that comes from a ‘skip drunk, straight to blackout’ kind of night. You know you’re hungover in your sleep; your body is fighting between staying asleep hiding from the pain and consequences and the need to drink something. Water to recover, booze to push off the inevitable hangover a little longer. It starts at the base of your skull. I don’t remember the night yet, but I know the feeling. I think I’ve passed out in the shower, but the shower bottom is too rough. I open my eyes enough to realize I’ve passed out on the sidewalk. No vomit. Not yet at least. I feel woozy, but not still drunk. I manage to stand before I remember what happened. The adrenaline spike snaps me awake as I stumble back to the ground. The cold rain pours around me. “Sarah? Sarah!” I yell in every direction. I walk back and forth along the street, but I don’t see anyone.
I sit back on the ground not sure what to do from here. She was shot; she could be dying. I think. I try to remember, but it all flows together. I can smell her perfume, then the gun smoke. There’s a police station a block back. I head that way.
I walk through the doors to find a front desk clerk looking at papers on a desk with folks sitting in the waiting space to talk to someone else.
“Hi, I need to report a crime.”
“Okay, take a seat.”
“Someone has been shot.”
“I would suggest a hospital then” She removes her reading glasses to look better at me. “Have you been shot?”
“Did you shoot someone, sir?”
“Do you have a gun on your person now?”
“Okay, have a seat then please.”
“SOMEONE HAS BEEN SHOT!” I yell past her into the precinct beyond. Everyone turns to look at me. I see a familiar face in a group of cops I’ve just interrupted. Recognition, then shame, appear on his face.
He knows me from the program. He comes over, leaning in as if to make the conversation private. Between friends. “Hey man, what’s going on?”
“I was on a date, but we got mugged. She got shot, then the guy ran off. I got knocked out. When I woke up she was gone.” He begins to pull me towards a room off to the side.
“So you got knocked out, but then you saw the guy run off?”
“Well, no. He ran off then I got knocked out.”
“Okay, and you said she was shot.”
“Yeah, she said she wasn’t but I touched under her shirt and there was blood.”
He stops walking me towards the room, stands up a bit straighter then leans his face into mine. As I ask “What?” he breaths in deeply. Smelling for booze.
A little piece of me snaps. I’m better. I’m better now, and he should know it. I shove him backwards in a rage. As I prepare for a second push I find myself pinned to a wall, an elbow smooshing my face against the glass of a window. I’m surrounded by multiple police officers. I feel my arm behind my back being pushed up my spine harder and harder.
“Guys, stop. Stop! I know this guy. He’s fine, just having a bad day. You’re going to be cool, right?” I nod agreement between the elbow and the wall. I feel a moment of hardened pressure as if my arm might snap in place before they release me. Another voice says “You know assaulting an officer is a felony, right?” Shit.
“We don’t need to go there right now. He and I are going to go in there and chat.” He grabs me roughly by the collar and shoves me through the door before following me in and closing it.
“Have a seat.” I do as commanded as he takes the chair across from me. “Look, you think you’re the first guy from the program to stumble in here?” I know he’s right. I know what this looks like. It looks like I went on a bender. Thought things were going my way with a girl at the bar then got pissed when I got rejected. Had I done that before? That isn’t me when I’m sober. I know what ‘no, not interested means’.
He snaps his fingers towards me. “Hey, you with me?” I nod confirmation. “Have you been drinking?” No. “Have you taken anything?” No. “Are you thinking about having a drink?”
“Alright. Tell me about your date.” I tell him some things about Sarah. At this point the subset of things that I know about her and feel comfortable sharing is her name and what she looks like. I tell him a bit about the coffee date and walking her home. The kiss, the mugger, and the gunshot.
“You think it could have been a setup?”
“Yeah, she takes you out, walks you home, her boyfriend shows up and holds you both up?”
“He shot her though.”
“Are you absolutely sure?” No.
“Come on, man. No last name, no number, no address. Maybe he got spooked by the gun going off. Decided to get out of there. She had to clock you herself to get out of there.”
“No. That isn’t what happened.”
“You said you got hit in the head. You sure you didn’t do something stupid like chase a man with a gun? Maybe he popped you?” I think about waking up on the sidewalk in the rain. Piecing together what happened like the morning after from the clues you left for yourself. I can imagine chasing him. Did I?
He nods and reaches for his radio. “Jane, come in here for a minute. He hands the paper he’s been scribbling on. “Call in to Mercy to see if any gunshot wounds came in. See if any match this description. Check if there have been any shots reported within 5 miles of our precinct. Get me a GSR and a breathalyzer for him.” She looks at the sheet then up at me before nodding at him.
I know he saw me wince at the word ‘breathalyzer’. He waits for Jane to leave before speaking. “This isn’t about trust or the program, buddy. You want me to write a report on a potential gunshot wound. I need to cover my bases. I’m on your side, I’m betting it comes back zeros.”
“What’s the GSR?”
“Gunshot residue. If a gun really went off that close to you your hands and sleeves should hit on the test. Otherwise, we’re going to have a different set of problems.” Before I can ask what different problems can look like Jane comes back in with a box of goodies. “Alright, first the swab.” He puts on gloves, swabs my coat and hands with the test cap, then caps the test and sets it to the side. He gives a weak smile as he holds up the breathalyzer. “Moment of truth. Take a deep breath then blow into this.” I do as I’m told as he stares at the digital output. After a few moments he exhales big into a real grin. “Great news. Never doubted you,” he says with a wink. He picks up the gunshot residue vial. “And it looks like someone really shot at you.” He calls back on the radio. “What’s the story on my gun shots and GSWs at Mercy?”
I hear the muffled response. “Three reports of gunshots about an hour ago. No GSWs at Mercy. Slow night so far.” He nods.
“You heard that?” Yes. “I think it’s good news for you no matter what.”
He puts a hand on my shoulder and leans closer. “It means either she wasn’t shot. Or she’s guilty of something and doesn’t want to show at the hospital with a hole in her side. Either she’s fine or you don’t want to get involved.”
We sit in silence for a bit before he breaks it. “Are you really thinking about that drink?”
I shrug in response. He sits fixing his focus on me. “I don’t think so,” I finally say. He still sits staring. “It felt like things were going right. I’ve worked for this. I thought maybe…”
“Maybe you deserved to be happy?” Yes. “You probably do. Then the world kicked you in the balls.Yeah, I know that feeling. I’m on day 186. Third time I’ve made it this far. I know that feeling. It gets harder each time, because you figure out just how easy it is to quit. It’s easier to stop drinking than to stop drinking again. You have anything at home?”
“Good. Let me get a car to take you home. I’ll call you in the morning to tell you if I hear anything.” And to see if you’re still sober.
I nod my head to agree. “Thanks.”
I ride home in silence, walk up the stairs to my apartment, key in the door, walk to my bed, then fall into it. All I can think about is the words he said. Was it a setup? She was eager to leave with me. People hook up on first dates all the time. Usually after a few drinks. Do they ever do it sober? Chet says there’s a name for things you’ll do drunk but not sober. He says they’re called bad ideas. Is it more likely that a woman would meet a drunk for coffee sober and decide to take him home than it is to believe she’d rob him?
She tried to let me leave.
Would a thief let their quarry escape? Imagine going back to her partner and telling him that I ran away.
The alternative is that she is innocent. And she was shot. And she’s alone.
The next few weeks bleed by. I go to work, to therapy, to meetings, to meet Chet for a game or a bite. She doesn’t show to therapy. The idea that it was a setup now seems silly; imagine the long con of showing to a weekly session to lure a drunk to ask you out so you could mug him. That she isn’t showing up makes me worry more for her. She never showed to the hospital. I haven’t taken a drink yet. My counselor told me that I’m obsessing too much over this. He didn’t say it like that. He told me he can’t look up her info. He won’t confirm if he is her patient or someone else’s, but I know he isn’t hers because we’ve been in session at the same time. He said it sounds like the danger has passed so he won’t violate her privacy. He said that it is okay to grieve for something we perceive as lost. He gave me some mental exercises to help me grieve and that he wants me to come this week ready to talk about something I’m looking forward to.
I can’t give him what he wants in the session. I spent the week thinking of things I want, but thinking about the future mostly brings me to a dark place. If the best I can hope for is to feel like this everyday then what’s the point. I am Sisyphus, patron to the damned. His eyes show appreciation of my prose. I’m quite certain he wrote that down. He gives me exercises to help me think of the future with optimism. They won’t work.
I leave the session and make note of the doomed faces each rolling their individually wrapped burdens up hill. New faces that will likely give in soon. Some faces I’ve seen, just a little bit more broken than last time.
I see the one face I’ve been looking for. She smiles when she sees that I see her. I find myself walking towards her.
“I looked for you,” I whisper.
She whispers back “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to do.”
“Did you hit me?” I ask, feeling my heart throb with each word. She looks around at the faces surrounding us in the waiting room before responding.
“No, of course not.” She reaches out and tucks her arm under mine, and begins leading us out of the door. “Can we go somewhere?”
I let myself be led out of the clinic.
“I looked for you,” I repeat.
“I know,” she whispers more to herself than me as she stares at her own feet. After a moment her eyes dart to lock onto mine. “You chased after him. I was alone, and scared, and I didn’t know what to do. So I ran home.”
I find myself doing what I’ve had to do so many times. Searching back through the fog to find the piece of the night where I was blacked out. I can imagine the gun going off. The man fleeing, me chasing. Her all alone. Bleeding.
“You were bleeding!” Some folks walking by look our way while others seem more committed to not seeing us. She shakes her head insisting it isn’t true. I put my hand under her blouse to find the wound myself. She takes my hand and guides it across her unblemished skin.
“I’m okay,” she says, pulling my hand from under her shirt to hold it tightly between hers. “You’re okay, too.”
A voice cuts through. “You okay, miss?” I look up to realize quite a few folks were now watching us.
She laughs. “Yeah, we’re okay.” She turns her genuine smile to each person in turn insisting to each that she was safe. She grips my hand tighter and begins to move us away. When I ask where we are going she says the words again.
“I’m taking you home.”
At her house she served me a late lunch of a sandwich and a salad of julienned veggies. After we had both finished she took me by the hand and pulled me into her bedroom. We spent the evening there before I drifted off to sleep to the scent of lilac. I woke to her face, half asleep, but smiling. “You awake?” I mouth, not making a sound. She bites her lip, nodding and then scoots closer for me. I wrap my arms around her. “What did you do when you came home?” She stiffens and turns her body so she can stare at the ceiling.
“I was so scared,” she starts. “I was cold and wet. I felt so alone. I crawled into my bed, it felt like I crawled forever to finally get comfortable. I was so cold, and I couldn’t get warm.” She turns to look at me. “Have you ever felt like you’d never be warm again? Certain that no fire, no blanket would ever cut through the cold you feel? Then a moment later, it’s funny, you don’t notice the cold at all. Then I drifted off to sleep. And I woke up here in my bed.” I pull her in closer, not wanting her to ever feel cold again. We drifted off again, but our reverie was interrupted as sunlight began to peer through the window.
“I have to go. I have to be in the office today,” I say pulling my jeans on at the side of the bed.
“I get it.”
I don’t know how to ask if I can see her again. I look at our clothes scattered around the room as evidence that she likely wants to see me again, and yet the question is so hard to ask. Do I schedule a night soon? Can I come back tonight? I have to have an answer before I leave. I can’t just walk out of the room without promising to see her again. Without hearing that she wants to see me too.
“Will you bring dinner when you come back tonight?” she asks.
“Yeah, I was just thinking that.”
“I bet you were. Can I make you breakfast before you go?”
“No,” I say. “I’ve got to check on someone for breakfast.” Really, I needed to let Chet check on me. “It’s an accountability thing.”
“What does that mean?”
“For the program.”
She mouths “Oh” before saying aloud. “Want coffee to go?”
“Can I have two?” She nods, slipping on a shirt to lead me back to the kitchen. She slides a bottle of coffee liqueur away from her coffee maker and turns the label away before kicking off the grinder in her machine. She turns to face me stretching her arms to hide the space behind her. One arm hides the coffee accouterments, the other hides a small, packed wine rack. She blushes, looking to the ground.
“What do you have going on today?” I ask to cut the tension.
“I’ve got to do some shopping, I have some work to do around here.” From there the conversation drifts to favorite breakfast, to favorite foods, to favorite local restaurants. I’m pleasantly surprised that we’re gastronomically compatible, and I have tonight’s dinner planned by the time she hands me two disposable coffee cups, kisses me, and shoves me out her front door.
I make my way back to familiar streets and navigate my way to my breakfast sandwich shop in front of my walkup. I see a man sitting by the door braced for the cold wind cutting through. “Hey, Chet.” He perks up. “How you doin, man?”
“Rough fucking night man. Couldn’t get into shelter over on Beauregard.” He stands to walk with me as I reach out with the coffee. “Good man,” he says sipping a bit before removing the paper insulating sleeve to hold the cup directly in both gloved hands. He tucks the paper sleeve into his coat. “You been good?”
“Yeah. I’m good.” I can see how the years that a night out in the cold adds to his face. “I need you to do me a favor.”
“Yeah. I found Sarah.”
“I stayed at her place last night. I’m going to stay there again tonight. Can you watch my place for me tonight?” I hold out my key hoping he’ll just take it to stay warm and safe for a night.
“What needs watching? You got locks. Says so right there,” he says the last bit pointing at the key.
“Yeah, but I don’t like leaving it like that for so many days. People see you’re not home and start getting ideas.” He thinks it over, before taking the key. “Alright, but just the one night. You got to figure something else out if you’re going to keep this up.”
We walk in the shop together to grab a breakfast sandwich and receive our usual, weekly greeting. “My boss says you can’t be in here old man!” the bodega man hollers half heartedly.
“He’s allowed in if either of us are going to buy breakfast this morning.” With call and response of the bodega blues breakfast handled we grab our sandwiches and hand them to the man to heat for us.
Monday breakfast used to be everyday breakfast with Chet. I used to grab a couple of nips every morning to kick off the day. It was a convenient way to start the day. A bit more expensive than pouring my own liquor at home, but so convenient to not waste time in my morning routine hiding my drinking. When I first started recovery I would walk past the store everyday, missing the mini bottles calling to me through the shop window. The first time I relapsed it was because I gave in first thing in the morning. I hadn’t told Chet that part of my routine. When I told him he hit me in the face, knocking me to the ground. He squatted over me to get low to my face as I tried to sit up.
“How stupid are you? You think you can walk by temptation everyday and stand up to her.” He helped me to my feet before bringing me into the store. “Buy yourself a sandwich.” I did as I was told. When the warm sandwich was handed back to me I could see Chet wipe a bit of spittle from the side of his mouth. It was the first time that I wondered when the last time he ate was. I had started to learn a lot about empathy from him. We sometimes know at the surface the pain that people are feeling, but we never really reflect on the deep down driving them to go on. I knew then that if I offered a sandwich his response would probably be “Fuck you,” but he was obviously so hungry. The shop man was asking for me to pay, but I held on. Finally, Chet made his own choice.
“Buy me a sandwich too.” We sat outside eating our sandwiches that day. When we were finished we sat in silence for a bit. I thought I could see some relief in Chet’s eyes as he held the balled up paper wrapper. “What’s this place to you?” he said gesturing at the bodega wall we were leaning on. ‘Quick. What is it?”
I answered honestly. “It’s where I fix myself every morning.”
He nodded at that. “Not no more,” he poked me in the arm to emphasize each word. “This is where you get breakfast everyday. You go in. Buy a sandwich instead of the booze. First victory, every day. Eventually it’ll be your breakfast sandwich shop.” At first Chet showed up and waited for me every morning to make sure I made the right choice. To my relief most days he let me buy him something too. When he saw I got the routine it turned to spot checking until finally it became just our Monday morning ritual. He’d check in on my weekend; I’d get to see he was doing good. We could be on our way.
“You think it’s a good thing this girl is back?” he asked.
“I think so. I’m not thinking about it when I’m with her.” He knows what ‘it’ is.
“Yeah, that’s good. What if she disappears again? Are you going to be thinking about ‘it’?” He spits the last word out.
“I would be.”
“You going to go through with it anyway?” I nod that I am. “Alright, well. Let me know if you fuck up.” I confirm that I will, and with that we break from breakfast.
My day at the office is uneventful. I pick up flowers and dinner, and begin to make my way back. I walk past the coffee shop where we had our first date, past the police station where I reported the mugging, and finally to where it happened. As I pass the alley I stop dead in my tracks. I notice a handprint on the wall. I lay down my burden in the alley and look closer. It looks like mud. Or dried blood. As I pick at it it flakes off the wall. As I look more closely I see more smears of… something on the wall. They get lower and lower until there is nothing but the barren mud with tufts of weed on the ground. I look ahead to see a drainage culvert. The mesh cover is peeled back. I peer through the mesh to see more blood smeared on the side. I look around to check that no one is watching before I push the cover out of the way and crawl in. There is standing water from the recent rain. As I crawl I feel the cold, filthy water splashing, being pulled into my clothes. I’m quickly chilled to the bone. I’m so deep that I can’t see any farther. I pull out my lighter to light up the path in front of me. My shadow dances on either side of my periphery playing tricks on me. I hear the shadows whispering that I shouldn’t be here. My heart tells me that it is crazy to crawl into a sewage drain chasing something that never happened. My disease tells me I’m not strong enough for any answers I find anyway. Might as well quit. And I can’t go to her like this. Might as well go home. It’ll break her heart, but you’re no good for her anyway. Might as well have a drink. It’s where you’re headed anyway. It’s always where you’re headed. Resolved to be paralyzed with fear I fail to move forward.
My eyes adjust to the dim lighting. As I search for a sign of what to do next I find another bloody handprint. Not an ambiguous smear of something. A person was here. Even if it wasn’t her they might need help. I can help them. And so I keep crawling. I see a junction in the tunnel further up. Water pours over into my little stream like it’s being dammed. I crawl forward. I see the hand first, hanging into my own tunnel. The smell of death hits me. I pull my soaked shirt up around my mouth and nose. I crawl forward taking hot, wet breaths of water through my makeshift mask. I’m afraid to call out. I’m afraid to see that hand move. I round the corner.
I see the face I expected to find. It was her, pale as she is. I move the light around to try to find a view that isn’t her. Star studded dangles dance the light back to me. I reach to her side and find the matted, congealed wound. Something has been pecking at her, tearing the shirt and the wound. She’s here, and she died cold and alone. But she’s also waiting at her apartment for me to bring dinner. Someone needs to recover her body from here. I banish the thought of trying to drag her out myself right now.
I pull the earrings and grab her wristlet to take with me. I let the light go out as I crawl back to the entrance. My mind races to whether I am going to jail, have I been drinking, did I kill her, who was I with last night, who did I just find? I pick up the flowers and takeout and begin to walk. I can bring what I have to the police station, evidence of real crime with blood and valuables. What would they say about the drunk who found his bloodied girlfriend in a drainage culvert? All the while my mind races my feet led me straight to her door. I had knocked before truly realized where I was.
She opens the door, her eyes are drawn first to the flowers. She reaches for the flowers, but recoils when she feels how wet my sleeve is.
“Did it rain? You’re soaked! Get in here.” I shake my head no. I realize I’ve been crying when I see the shock in her face to see mine. Ignoring the wet and cold she hugs me and pulls me close before shutting the door. We stand like this for a small eternity.
“What happened?” she asks.
“I found something,” she leans away from me, a look of concern.
“What did you find?” I push her away gently to have space between us. I pull out the wristlet and her earrings and hold them out to her.
Her mouth opens as her hand reaches to cover her own shock. Her body quivers with panic. Another small eternity. “Why did you go in there?”
“I saw a bloody handprint on the wall. You said you weren’t bleeding.”
“I lied,” she says with exasperation as if that had been obvious. “Are you scared?”
“You’re safe here. We’re both safe, you understand that?”
I shake my head. “You died. I found your body.”
“I died, and I came back. Woke up here the next day. Happens all the time. Well,” she started, “Not all the time. It’s pretty easy to not die, most people do it their whole lives. Dumb luck running into a trigger happy mugger on our first date.”
I laugh at that. “Yeah, dumb luck.” She laughed too. Then sat back onto her couch. I pull a stool across from her to sit staring at one another.
She broke the silence first. “I can’t die. That’s my diagnosis.”
“Is that a medical opinion?” I ask.
‘It’s a self diagnosis. I was in a car accident. I got pinned in with the car on fire. I remember the heat, and the pain.” She wiped a tear away, paused, reliving the experience again. I resist the urge to go sit next to her, to hold her through her pain. “I woke up in my apartment the next day thinking it was some sick dream. I called my friend I was with. His mom told me he had died in a car accident the night before. Wondered if I knew who he was with, they couldn’t identify the second body at the scene. I knew it was me, but I couldn’t believe it was me.”
“I’m not done,” she interjected. “I obsessed with figuring out who it might have been in the car without giving up that it could be me. I obsessed that if it was me, then who am I now. I became hopeless believing that I’m not a real person. That I lost part of me, and I can’t even remember what that part was, who I was. I tried to end it. I did end it. And I woke up again, even more hopeless. There’s no escape for me from this place.”
“Is that why you go to therapy?” She nods. “That’s a pretty good reason to go to therapy. Does the doc try to figure out what is happening with you?”
She laughs again, “Do you think I tell her the whole truth? She’d have me committed. Or worse, they’d put it together and find me. I’ve left myself places. I know they’ve found me before. They’re looking for me.”
“I don’t know. Whoever deals with this,” she says gesturing at the earrings and purse I had returned. “Will you stay?”
I already know that I will. I nod without hesitation. “I’m staying. I want to ask you a question though.”
“I’ve already told you everything I know about ‘it’.”
“No, something different. Why’d you want to take me home so quickly the other night? Seems like you’ve got secrets to protect, why let me in?”
She thinks for a moment before reaching out to take my hand. “It was what you said at the coffee shop, about how I kept coming to therapy. You saw hope. The way you talked about it I felt like I could see it too. That was the first time I felt hope in a long time.”
Hope. That’s the feeling I’m having too. The reason I’m not leaving. The reason this absolutely crazy story scares me less than relapsing.
I pull her to her feet to hold her. “I’m hungry, want to eat?” I feel her nodding into my chest. As we make our way into the kitchen I notice the changes she made today. The cream liqueur is gone. The wine rack has been replaced with a decorative butter and breadbox. I finish preparing meals to serve her this time. Again at the end of the meal she takes my hand and leads me to her room. Sometime later, we both drifted off to sleep.
The next morning we repeat the same pattern as before with a bit more comfort. When she kisses me goodbye this time she wishes me good luck out there. I walk down the stairs in a dream state. happy in love, but worried about what I’ve stepped into. In my daze I bump shoulders with a man walking up.
I swing by my place for a change of clothes. I enter to find the smell of coffee in the air. The chilled air of the morning is coming in through the window in my living room. I see Chet sitting on the fire escape having a smoke. He’s staring down the street as he takes a drag, the cherry of the cigarette burning bright in the dim morning light as he draws in. I let him be to get showered and dressed for work. As I go to leave I stop to see him in the same position sipping coffee.
Chet speaks, still staring into the distance. “Are you gonna say good morning?”
I walk over to the window as I say that I hadn’t planned on it. He nods at that.
“I slept all the night through.” He turned to look at me. “I can’t remember the last time I slept like that without drinking. When I woke up this morning I felt…,” he dragged on the last word trying to find the next one. “good.”
“I’m going back to her place tonight.”
He nods at that, and fishes out another smoke. “I could do one more night.”
“I would appreciate it.” The deal made, he lights his smoke and resumes his watch. I take the queue to leave for the day.
My boss is waiting for me in my desk chair when I arrive. “Everything okay?” he asks me.
I feel like a child wondering which story I’m meant to tell him right now. “Yeah, things are good. I started seeing someone,” in a voice questioning if that is what he knows about.
“That’s great!” I sense sincere celebration in his voice before he switches to what he came here for. “Look, we got a call asking for you from an Officer Miller. Just said he was trying to reach you over some trouble you had recently. What kind of trouble was that?”
I tell him all of it, minus the bits about the past twenty four hours. When I finish he stares at his feet tapping his finger on my chair for a time. He finally leans forward with his hands folded pointing to me. “I think it’s great you’re adding someone to your life. Just know that only one relationship ends when you die, if you’re lucky. The rest you’re going to have to live through.”
“That feels like a pretty dark way to look at the world.”
“It’s a dark world. All I’m saying is you have to keep working on you. Your sobriety can’t depend on her. That’s all I’m saying” He leans back into the chair having spoken his peace. “I dated a lot after my first wife left me. Had girlfriends who understood, at first. They wanted me to skip meetings here and there so we could go out. They hadn’t ever seen me have a drink, so surely I could go into a bar for a friend’s birthday and be fine. A glass of champagne wouldn’t ruin me. I’m an adult, right? I’m in control. I can have a drink or two.”
“Some folks can’t,” I interrupt. He laughs at that.
“Yeah. I never could. You know what my wife does now when I go to meetings? She gets a massage. We go to the gym together, then after she gets a massage. She jokes that we’re both working on ourselves. Build those kinds of habits in the relationship, because you’re part of it too. Those are your needs.” He looks around the empty office, rolling his eyes at his own words. “Alright, I have to get going. Papers aren’t going to shuffle themselves. Call this cop back, keep things pointing in the right direction.” He taps his pointer finger on a sticky note centered on my desk then leaves. I take my own seat and stare down at the number. I reach for my phone and slowly dial, hoping for a missed connection.
No such luck. “Officer Miller,” he offers as the opening of a man who would prefer if we all just hung up the phone and went about our day.
“It’s Bill, you left a message at my office.”
His next words are cheerful, that transition from thinking it’s a telemarketer to realizing it’s a long lost friend. “Oh, hey Bill, I wanted to check up. See if you were doing okay, I know the other night was rough for you.”
“Yeah, I’m doing okay.” He doesn’t respond to this. I realize what he needs to hear. “I haven’t had a drink.”
“Man, that’s amazing. If you need anything, support on this. I’m here for you when I can be.” He lowers his voice to a whisper. “Hey, while I have you on the phone have you seen that girl again? The one you were with that night.”
I should think of the consequences. Is lying to a police officer a crime? Is lying to someone that considers you a friend wrong? Will I have to maintain the lie? I don’t think about it. I lie. “No.”
I hear a sigh of relief on the other side. “Alright, that’s great, man.” He lowers his voice as if he’s telling me a secret. “Hey, while I’ve got you on the phone. I put out the APB to be looking for a GSV that matches your woman’s description with a date from a couple months ago.” “The goddamned FBI rolled in here showing me pictures of a body to see if I thought it matched your description. It’s like, I don’t know, man. He gave me eight words to describe her, but it was pretty heavily implied she was alive.” I laugh at that. “I’ve got this picture on my desk still, do you think you could swing by and take a look at it.”
“I don’t think I can. I don’t think I want to see a dead body. Besides, like you said. The woman in the picture has been dead for months.”
“Yeah, but maybe she had a twin or something. Older sister.”
“I’m not sure, we never talked siblings.”
“I get that, but if it looks like her then maybe this helps us find her.”
“I really don’t want to.”
“I hear that, but these suits might not take that answer. They were headed out to where you said this thing happened. I’ll let them know your preference.”
I almost drop the phone as he says it. Instantly my skin goes cold and clammy. I’m afraid to respond for fear he senses the terror in my voice at that. It was a mistake to go to the police even if I was trying to help. I quickly excuse myself from the call and the office. I scramble to the street and make a beeline to the place where I found her body.
Before I arrive it becomes apparent that they’re already here. The sidewalk is roped off and a traffic cop is routing folks through, stopping each car to look in the window. Maybe looking for folks who might know something. Maybe looking for folks who started a bit too early this morning to turn this crime scene into a two for one opportunity. Maintaining a safe habit must be pretty difficult without living in a walkable city. I welcomed the convenience of not needing to think whether I’d be needing to drive later when I first moved to the city. I could walk to work, to the bar, walk to my local shop, walk home all without ever needing to think about getting behind the wheel. The traffic cop stops traffic and waves me across. Best to follow instructions. As I cross the street I see the ambulance doors partially blocking a black body bag. I see some suits talking to other suits, some making calls, all doing their best to look important. Once I cross the street I promptly turn away from all of this and begin walking away. I make the block around and follow my feet once again to her place. The reality sets in; she’s wanted. Not for being a criminal, although perhaps there is a crime here. Murder? Improper disposal? These might be procedural excuses for holding her for as long as they need to get their questions answered. Truly, they want her because she’s a living miracle. I knock at her door.
As soon as the door cracks I push it open to enter, then slam it behind me, lock it, and sink with my back to it. “They’ve found you.”
“And so..?” she asks. “They’ve found me before.”
“They know me. And they know I was looking for you.”
She squats down with her face to my face. “What do you mean they know you?”
“The night you were shot. I went to the police. I was worried you were dying somewhere.” I look into her eyes. “You were dying.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t think it mattered. I didn’t think-”
“That feels pretty obvious,” she snaps.
“Would you expect me to just go home?”
“No, but I would have expected you to tell me that you went to the police once you understood.” She stands and moves to the window to peer through the curtains, biting her lip. “I can’t stay here.”
I choke on the question. The one I’m afraid to ask, because I don’t know what I’ll do if she says yes. But I have to face it all the same. “Is this it then? Will you go and this is it? For us?”
“Do you want that? For this to be it?”
I shake my head no, holding back my tears. “I don’t. I don’t know what we would do, but this can’t be over yet.”
She takes my hand. “Okay, I know what to do. Do you trust me?” I nod that I do. “I need you to go home now then. I’ll meet you there, just wait for me. Believe in me. I’ll come.” She moves me to the door and pulls me in for a kiss that tastes too much like goodbye. I draw in the scent of lilac as she holds me close for a moment, her tears hot on my cheek. Then she moves me to the door, unlocks and opens it, and shoves me out.
When I get outside I see “Officer Armlock” looking nonchalant leaning over the hood of a black SUV. I look around and spot a few more black SUVs parallel parked with nonchalant drivers themselves. I take the cue to play it cool myself, hands in pockets, lips pursed to a whistle as I make my way down the sidewalk. I pick up the pace to quickly pass one of the FBImobiles watching it without staring as I pass. I catch the motion in my reflection too slowly as simultaneously the door swings open to my right and someone’s weight slams into me from the left. Hands grab me and pull me into the vehicle.
I’m forced onto the floorboard between the two seats with agents on either side of me. After some time I’m the first to speak. “Look guys, I’m going to need some badges. You can’t just pull me off the street.” No one moves to meet my demand. Before I can protest again the front passenger door opens and another man enters immediately turning to look at me.
“Bill, so glad to meet you.”
“I want to see a badge. You can’t hold me like this.”
The newcomer reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a wallet with a badge inside. He reveals it to me letting it hover well within my reading distance. FBI. Adam Chatfield. A very long ID number I’d never remember. “Satisfied?” he asks. I nod that I am. “Good. Now, I wouldn’t say we are holding you. We’re protecting you during an ongoing investigation. You’ve just left a very dangerous place.” He sees the disbelief in my face.
“Is the lab in there?”
He ignores the question. “How many of the women have you met?”
“What floor are they on?”
“I asked you what floor they’re on. Are you going to answer?”
I shake my head. Suddenly I feel blinding pain at my chest as if a jar of hornets were tearing through my flesh.
“I’ll give you a moment to think about whether you would like to be tazed again.” I catch my breath as the pain dulls to a roar. I can feel the blood rushing through my temples, echoing in my skull like a drum. He pauses to punctuate each word. “What. Floor. Are. They. On?”
“No.” I brace for the shock with held breath. A brief eternity later I exhale. He shocks me again.
Agent Chatfield turns to face the front of the SUV, peering out the windshield at her building. “He’s not going to give us anything. Move in.” As if to punctuate the discontent with my cooperation he tases me again.
I writhe in pain on the floorboard as I see men in tactical gear rushing towards her building. I can’t see the door to her building from my vantage point drooling on the floorboard. I’m relieved as the man with the taser and the linebacker that squeezed me into the vehicle open their doors and leave. Chatfield leaves the radio channel open. I hear the repeated chorus response of “Door”, the repeated banging of a ram breaking down a door, “Check”, “Negative”, “Clear”. Every four iterations I hear boots slapping against concrete steps as they ascend to the next level. First floor cleared. Second floor cleared. They’re climbing to the third floor.
“Door”. Bang. Bang. “Check.” BANG.
I feel the final bang. I sit up to see fire growing, churning up the side of the building. Cars, parked along the street, ring their alarms in protest.
“They blew it,” I hear over the radio.
My captor responds. “Did you find the lab?”
“No sign of a lab. Just an apartment.”
“Get that fire out. Pull any documents, bags, electronics until the fire is out.” He turns to look at me with fury in his eyes. “Did you know about this?”
I shake my head. No.
He exits the SUV, slams the door, and leans against the hood barking orders to the radio. I lay back down nestling in to wallow in my own despair.
The difference between folks who can have a drink and folks who can’t isn’t the big days. It’s the everyday. On the big days we all have one too many. We chase the euphoria and try to ride that high as long into the evening as we can manage. Too much past and the world tilts attempting to toss us off. “Good try. Better luck next time.” Too little feels a bit like lighting a damp firework. When you can straddle the line for a night… that’s why we drink. Very few master riding that line of euphoria. Those that do look for big nights a bit more often. The barrier for celebration lowers and people love you for it. The threshold for a disastrous day decreases, and the booze washes those worries away.
She’s gone. She was a miracle in her own right. A miracle for me as well. And she’s gone. Her home burning and in their hands. And I led them straight to her. They wouldn’t have found her body if I hadn’t interfered. Wouldn’t have known I know her. Wouldn’t have followed me to her.
An hour passes, maybe more. One by one the cars have all relaxed back into their slumber. The flames have been sated. All is quiet. Having stopped barking orders long ago Chatfield resumes leaning on the hood of the SUV. A few men approach, one by one, exchanging words and comforting each other with exchanged pats on the shoulder. Officer Armlock approaches. I can’t quite make out the conversation but there are thumbs and pointers aimed my way before he approaches the driver side door and enters.
Once the door is closed he turns back to look at me. He pulls a flask out of his pocket, takes a pull. His words are breathy carrying the scent of bourbon through the space between us. “She died. Took two agents with her.” He offers his flask back to me.
I shake my head. No.
“There was only one of her in there. They’ll still be looking for…” another pull. “I don’t know, wherever they’re growing them. Have you ever seen two at the same time?”
He offers me the flask again.
“I just want this to be over.” Another pull. “You can only look at the same dead girl so many times in so many weeks before she begins to haunt you.”
I see her again in the dark, slowly rotting away to nothing. How many times could I see her like that before it would break me? How many times did she try to escape? Never by fire again, surely. Until tonight. I hope he doesn’t offer the flask again.
“I need you to tell me what you know.”
I won’t. I’ve done enough damage by talking. They wouldn’t believe me anyways. “I don’t know anything, man. All I know is you just blew up my girlfriend’s apartment.”
I can see what had been worry turn to fury in his eyes. He takes another pull, longer, more intentional, as he stares into mine. “She blew it. All we wanted was to talk to one of her. Understand what they’re doing. Why they’re doing this. I can’t understand this fanaticism. Why was she so quick to die to protect the others? What’s so big that you’d die for it?”
Do you trust me?
I did, but what now? Her home is gone, still smoldering. They’ll be watching it, hoping to catch her. What will they do when she appears there in the morning? Or worse… what if she doesn’t?
Officer Armbar takes another pull. He spits it at me; a mist of bourbon settles over my face. My repulsion quickly wears off as the scent carries itself through my nose into the deepest part of my brain. I instinctively part my lips and lick at them. I taste relief. I snatch the flask from his hand and tip it up. I feel the familiar burn setting through my throat. Before I finish it the flask is wrestled back away from me. The door opens and I’m muscled onto the sidewalk. The door slams, the vehicle cranks started, and peels away.
A soft rain begins to fall. It thickens the rancid smoke scent of the burnt homes. I sit against the brick wall behind me letting it fall over me until the smell of smoke washes away. Now I only taste the bourbon and feel the shame of having given in. The fear of loss and tomorrow. Would my life just become meaningless again? My fight was allegedly so noble, and yet, I’d never felt so alone. All these people I’d met along the way fighting the same struggle were alone the same away. Were we always so lonely, was that what the alcohol hid away? Was it the universal solvent that melted away the space between people? It wasn’t a bad thing. There were never people more together than a group gathered in revelry having a drink. Or a few. But some folks can’t, and so we’re damned to be alone.
I stand and begin walking back towards my place. I need a drink.
By the time I reach the bodega I’ve pushed the shame back to conviction. I’m a grown man. I never hurt anyone. I never gave moderation a try, maybe if I had my life wouldn’t be ruined. I’d be married, maybe a kid on the way. This entire sobriety thing was really just a misunderstanding that got out of hand too quickly. As I place the bottle on the counter the door chime goes off.
“You can’t be in here, old man!” The owner calls from behind the counter.
The shame returns. I know it’s Chet before I hear his voice.
“What in the hell do you think you’re doing!?!”
“It’s too late, Chet. I already started.”
“What the hell’s that got to do with it? You already started… Stop again!”
The bodega man yells over both of us as he wrings up the bottle. “I’m not going to tell you again, get out of my store!” He’ll likely tell him again. I put the payment through.
“That don’t look like stopping. That looks like a long night and a hangover in the morning. Unless of course you just buy another bottle and let it ride.”
The bodega man jumps to my defense. “He ain’t hurtin’ no one. He ain’t breakin’ no laws. Why are you in here giving this man attitude? Why are you in here at all? I told you to leave.”
Chet’s hands go to his hips. He leans back in his stance addressing the bodega man. “Ain’t hurtin’ no one?” He points a finger at me. “This man is in ree-cove-err-reey.” He stretches the word out like a French pastry, emphasizing each syllable with another point of the finger. “He’s lost a lot to the drink already. Lost most his friends. Did you know about that?”
Bodega man hesitates a bit. “No, I don’t know nothing about that.”
“Lost his fiance, too. You know he had one of them?” Bodega man shakes his head. ”Pretty one too, to hear him moan about it.” Chet pauses, one eye closes leaving the other to a squint of frustrated concentration. “Bill, what else did you lose?”
“I think that about sums it up, Chet.”
His eyes open wide. “Oh, that’s not too bad then.” I feel shame at this. I did get off easy. No one had to die. No one was abused in a fit of drunken rage. Never had a workplace accident for all the time I spent there drunk. I just realized Chet’s never been able to completely get off the streets. Everytime he gets into housing he gets back into booze.
Falling of the wagon feels like something real alcoholics do. “Look. I’ve had one hell of a day. The cops that were illegally detaining me fed me liquor while they blew up my girlfriend’s house.” At this their jaws drop. “If I’ve got to start the counter over I might as well enjoy it, right?”
The Bodega man begins to slowly pull the bottle back across the counter.
“That’s the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.”
“It’s up there,” Chet retorts. “Think of the pride you can feel in the morning knowing you could have kept going, but didn’t.”
“I don’t want to feel pride in the morning. I don’t want to feel anything.” I reach for the bottle to shake it in demonstration of the cure I seek. Before I can the bodega man snatches the bottle out of my reach. “Hey, I paid for that.”
“I don’t think I can let you have this, friend.”
“The hell you can’t. I paid for it. We had a deal!” At this he shakes his head. “I ain’t hurtin’ no one. I ain’t breaking no laws,” I say mocking him. He shakes his head again, and points to the door. I instead walk back to the bourbon shelves. I pick up the same bottle, and begin making my way back to the door. The chime goes off again.
“Thank god you are here, officer!” bodega man exclaims. “This man is being homeless in my store, and that one there is stealing liquor.” I round the corner to see Officer Miller staring down Chet. “Chet, you can’t loiter. You’re going to have to leave the property. It’s not too late, you might be able to get into one of the shelters for the night.”
“I’m trying to prevent dumbass here from ruining his life,” Chet says, wagging a thumb towards me. “Again.”
Miller turns, seeing me for the first time. He wears his disappointment well. His voice is a long sigh. “Are you going to pay for that?”
“I already did,” I say, holding up my receipt. “He took my bottle ‘cause Chet told on me.”
Now confused he turns back to Bodega Man. “Did he pay for it?”
“Well, yeah. But then I told him no.”
“You can’t really deny him service after you’ve serviced him.”
“That’s what I told him. We had a deal.”
“But recognize that he has the right to refuse you service in the future.” Miller turns to Chet. “Chet, out! Now, or I’ll arrest you for loitering. I suggest you check on 8th Street.” He leans closer to Chet. “I’ll take care of Bill.”
Chet walks to the door and opens it, ringing the chime as he turns back to me. “You’ve heard it’s never too late, right?” I nod, yes. “That’s bullshit. Sometimes it is too late. You ain’t serving fifteen years for killing some innocent person on a joy ride. You haven’t got the news from the doctor that your liver won’t make it another year. Sorry, no transplants for men like you. Sometimes it’s too fuckin’ late. But it’s not too late for you. Not yet. You think about that with your bottle tonight, will ya?”
“I’ll try, Chet.”
He scoffs at that and leaves.
“Let’s go, Bill.” We leave through the door, my treasure in hand. I turn towards my apartment, and Miller follows beside me. “Look, I know there was a lot of bad today. I can’t get a clear answer of what’s going on. I know people died. You saw it. Doesn’t mean you have to drink.”
“I already had a drink.”
“Maybe you have just one this time.”
“Some folks can. I can’t.” We walk in silence for a while until I stop in front of the door to my building.
“Maybe, tonight, you can.” He looks down at the bottle clutched in my hand. “It’s yours. You’ve got to make a decision. I’d offer to take it, but I’m afraid of it. Hardest thing is to stop again. Maybe you screwed up and had one. But you stopped. I suggest you go upstairs and dump it down the drain.”
“I’ll think about it.” He nods at that and lets me enter the building. What little buzz I had has been gone for a while though I’m really just coming to terms with that. I don’t have the excuse of a buzzed decision to keep going. I toss my keys on the counter, reach into the cabinet for a rocks glass, peel the plastic from the bottle top, and set them both on the coffee table. I sit on my couch as if I’m going to pour a glass and watch the game, or read a book, or drink the bottle. I don’t. Not yet.
I’m not buzzed. Just lonely, alone, and ashamed. I learned to distinguish between lonely and alone when I stopped drinking. I realized I had been lonely for so long because no one really knew me. They knew life of the party, always up for a good time, sharp witted, confident, drunk me. People didn’t like sober me, especially when the other guy stopped showing up altogether. They called the real me buzzkill me. I’d been alone ever since. That’s the disease. Maybe the booze really breaks down the wall between people, let’s them shed their loneliness for a time. When I drink I was still lonely, but never alone. Now I’m just learning to be alone.
And then I had hope. I held hope for days and it was the strongest feeling I can ever remember. Hope that I wouldn’t feel lonely or alone. That I could feel more than ambivalence towards every day, that all the suffering was worth it for this one thing. I’m back where I started in despair. But I don’t have to feel that. All I have to do is pour the glass.
I pull the cork and realize I’m weeping. I pour the glass then smash it against the wall hearing sobbing echo back to me. I continue to weep as I fetch a fresh glass from the cabinet and resume my vigil. And I weep. When my tears fade I cork the bottle. I don’t have to decide tonight. I can sleep, and in the morning see what it will be.
I crawl into bed and pass into a dreamless sleep. As the night passes, the morning sun pours fresh sunshine onto my face. I tumble out of dreamless sleep to wide awake as I feel movement on the mattress next to me. I feel breath on the back of my neck as an arm reaches over me and I draw in the soft scent of lilac.