At this hour there’s no traffic. The stoplights go from green to yellow to red, purposeless, like little league games without any parents in the stands. Even the convenient stores haven’t opened yet. The loneliness meter spikes.
A skeletal homeless guy appears out of nowhere and asks me for a cigarette. His skin is tighter than a snare drum and marked with scabs. I tell him I don’t smoke and he asks if I have a lighter. Again I tell him I don’t smoke, so he asks for exactly one dollar and eighty-five cents, bus fare to his mother’s house in Braintree. I’ve heard this rap a million times. Ten bus fares to Braintree can get you enough crystal meth for two days of jitter-filled tweaking. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe his face looks like that because he had an allergic reaction to some skin cream, or maybe he just treated himself to a chemical peel. I tell him sorry, nothing I can do. Help is a foreign concept.
The depression meter spikes.
It’s now been forty-five minutes. The Suboxone doesn’t work anymore. Hasn’t worked in months, but that doesn’t stop me from needing it. I reach into my pocket and pull out two yellow tablets: forty milligrams of Xanax, mementos from my date last night with HazelEyes83. Some guys get a good night kiss; I get a handful of benzodiazepines.
I could have gotten more. I could have done things to her unconscious body. But that’s the dark place talking, the woodshed in my mind where certain tools are kept, tools for harvesting savage things. I don’t use those tools, but they’re there. Usually they’re dull and covered in spider webs. But sometimes they gleam.
HazelEyes83 could be dead right now. The only sign of life when I left was the bubbles of spit popping in the corner of her mouth. Something could have happened between then and now. Asphyxiation. Heart failure. Alcohol poisoning. Maybe I should have splashed cold water on her face. Slapped her cheeks. Maybe I should have stayed with her, kept watch until morning when she finally got up to vomit or fumble through the medicine cabinet for the Tylenol. Instead I let her fade, like I have so many other times with so many other things. I emptied half her Xanax and Valium into my pocket, kissed her forehead and tiptoed out the front door.
Hm. The tools may be rusty, but the light in my woodshed is always on.
Now the guilt meter spikes. I pop the two yellow tablets in my mouth and wash them down with hot coffee. Fifteen minutes go by and the meters return to normal. Until I hear Bill’s voice:
“Look at this shit. Like this kid doesn’t have the best personal trainer, right?”
He approaches me, holding the NY Post open in front of him. He leans down and shows me a four-color picture on Page Six, a paparazzi shot of Ryan Gosling walking in SoHo, wearing a tank top and sipping a juice drink. The actor’s shoulders and biceps are sculpted and massive.
“Right?” Bill says again, angling the paper toward me. I nod quickly and look away. Then I look back at him. He stares at the picture. His mouth hangs open and his eyes glaze over. His sagging belly heaves in and out with each amorous breath.
The meters spike up again. I feel nauseas.
This is my world today. I once had a window into my former world—a world of friends, family, lovers, summer barbecues and winter vacations—but now it’s reduced to the size of an eyehole. Sometimes I try and look through it but the view is too small, too fisheye, and I give up, resigning back into the present moment: a world that spans the Waltham Commons, the Home Depot parking lot, and Bill—registered sex offender, drug dealer, key holder to all.
I watch him stare at the picture of Ryan Gosling. Then I notice a rock on the ground. The rock is the size of my fist, one of its edges flat and sharp. Not a single person is in view. Not a single car on the streets. It would only take one swing to the back of the neck.
The tools in my woodshed gleam.
I feel a vibration. A text message. I take out my phone, swipe and unlock the screen. (3) texts from Maggie, aka HazelEyes83.
Hey. Just woke up. Ugh.
I’m sorry about last night. I blew it, I know.
If you feel like it, would you maybe come by today? We can just talk or maybe go for a walk. I feel terrible about this. I really like you. I’m sorry. Hope I see you again.
I read the last text three times. I look back at Bill, who has wandered away with his dog, the NY Post folded up and tucked under his arm.
The nausea goes away. The bulb in the woodshed flickers out.
The happiness meter spikes.
I text her back.
* * * *
She waits for me on her front porch, smiling pitifully, her head leaning to one side while her mouth reaches in the opposite direction. It’s as though she’s balancing her face and brain in an effort to smooth out her hangover. I walk up the steps. The smell of patchouli oil is gone. Today her house reeks of guilt. The closer I get to her, the heavier the stench.
She wears a silk, floral print shirt with rolled-up jeans and fur-lined Ugg boots. I’m no fashion expert but I’m guessing the boots don’t quite go with the 85-degree June heat. Then again I’m sure her point-three blood alcohol level is having its way with her internal thermostat. Her face is bloated, especially her mouth, which puffs out as though it were underwater, breathing through a snorkel. A film clip runs in my mind: her trapped at the bottom of the ocean, eyes peacefully shut, her wispy red hair swaying upright like strands of tropical kelp. I shake off the image. She opens her arms. We hold each other.
I’m sorry, she whispers, pulling me in tight. I tell her it’s okay. She sobs. A warm tear hits my neck. It’s not okay, Danny…it’s not okay…it’s NOT okay… I wait for a director to yell “cut”. HazelEyes83 lays it on Gone With the Wind style, complete with the swoon and the clutching and the deep breaths sucked in through her teeth. She pulls away from me and wipes her eyes. “You’re a good man,” she says. “A decent man. Thank you for not taking advantage of me.”
I don’t know about decent, dollface. I think about the two Xanax I downed at the park, and the other two that are currently waiting for me in my pocket. I think about the sex offender’s incontinent dog shitting foam all over my Jeep’s passenger seat. I think about sitting in the Home Depot parking lot, the engine idling, one eyeball on the digital clock, waiting to cop my evening dose—the only time I ever get butterflies in my stomach.
Until now, maybe.
“Let’s go inside,” HazelEyes83 says. And we do, hand-in-hand through the foyer and into her corner bedroom. The scene of the crime. I case the room quick: an area rug over hardwood floor. A white longhair cat curled up on a cushion below the window. A poster of some minimalist artwork promoting the opening night of a play or a wine tasting or a music festival or some bullshit. A pushpin board displaying a collage of faded color 4x5s. A twin-sized bed with a taut white comforter and goose down pillows. The room is dressed with innocence, not a trace of residual shame from the night before. I guess that’s why God invented daylight.
We lay down on the bed and I put my arms around her from behind. Spoon position. Her hair smells like shampoo, her skin like moisturizer, the comforter like detergent. Cleanliness all around. She holds my hand.
“Do you hate me?” she asks.
“No,” I say. What I don’t say is that I only hold a certain amount of hatred, and it’s all reserved for me. “Do you always drink that much?”
“Never,” she says, quietly, cinematically. Dress rehearsal time. “I don’t know what happened. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe I was dehydrated. Maybe I’m a little under the weather.”
“It could have been anything,” I say, and for a second I believe it. I want to believe it. Optimism comes easy when you’re laying in bed next to an attractive woman on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. But underneath the downy white comforters and the Polo shirts and the chivalry and the dehydration there’s a brutal, slithering truth. I know it because I’m chained to it myself. Because I recognize the lies. Hell, I spent years perfecting them.
“Why’d you come back?”
I take a moment. The answer is easy: because anywhere is better than the Waltham Commons at six on a Sunday morning. Because I’m lonely. Because I’m scared. The same reasons anyone comes back.
“I came back because I like you. I want to get to know you.”
“I’m a hot mess.”
I kiss the back of her neck. “Don’t ever change,” I whisper in her ear. Now I’m the one laying it on, full Hollywood.
“Can we just lie here for a while? I might doze off, but I want you to stay. I want your arms around me.”
“You got it.” I give her shoulders a squeeze and press up against her back, and for a quick beat I get that Good Feeling, the one that often comes when you hold something close and tight. I want to make a story out of this, and I want it to end well. HazelEyes83 may be a hot mess, she may be a devout alcoholic, but in a fucked up shooting gallery of meteoric sand pebbles, she may be exactly what I need. We don’t know how these things are supposed to go down in the celestial universe. It’s Love that calls the shots after all, not us.
“Danny…I like you, too. I really do.” This after spending a combined total of forty-five lucid minutes with me. Ah, hell with it. Let the moment happen. I’m just not used to a woman saying she likes me. It’s like contemporary rock music; I’m sure I’ll warm up to it eventually.
I land another small kiss on the back of her neck. Silence for a while. Her breathing gets long and steady as she slips into sleep. I rest my chin on her shoulder and let myself rise and fall with each breath. I could sleep right now, too. Maybe it’s time I start letting go.
“Mm…really like you,” she says, but only a soft moan. I lean over and kiss her cheek and my eyes freeze on her nightstand. The bottle of Xanax, its label turned squarely in my direction, as if to say I call the shots around here, not Love. Go fuck yourself.
“I really like you too,” I say. Just a whisper of the truth, but it’s something.
* * * *
Today is a good day. My big sis hooked me up with second row seats to the Sox-Devil Rays game, right behind the on-deck circle, and I’m taking Maggie, the girl formerly known as HazelEyes83. Tonight, under the lights of Fenway, in between eight-dollar cups of Bud Light, we will declare our love for each other. We will commit. We will have The Talk.
It’s been twenty-four days since our disastrous first date and twenty-three days since our providential recovery. We took it slow at first but have now slept together together twice, both times at my place, both times with her spending the night. And both times with me making up an excuse for why I had to leave at quarter of six in the morning and return at eight. The first was driving my mother to the airport for an early flight. The second was helping a friend install a new water heater, a perfectly legit errand to run at dawn on a Sunday. I’ve only a couple valid lies left in my arsenal, a precarious place for a master of deceit.
I have decided to come clean with Maggie and tell her an abridged version of the truth. That since last summer, when I had most of my colon removed due to a fierce Crohn’s Disease flare-up, I have been addicted to opiates. (Truth: I have been addicted since my first root canal in 2003.) That in an effort to mitigate the withdrawal of coming off the Percocet I started taking Suboxone, an opioid antagonist designed to keep addicts like myself “clean”. (Truth: the perks stopped working so I switched to something cheaper and longer lasting, though far less euphoric.) That rather than confess to my doctors about my addiction (and risk them blaming themselves for over prescribing) I found an illegal source who only allots me one per day. (The second part is true; my illegal source will sell me one whenever I drive him and his dying chow shepherd to the park for an hour.) That I am weaning myself off according to a timetable I gleaned from WebMD. (Truth: I have tripled the daily dose over the last year.) That I plan to be completely free from the drug in one month. (Truth: I’ll deal with one month when it comes; let’s just get through today, for Christ’s sake.)
I will omit the part about stealing two of her Xanax every time I visit her house, how I whittled the prescription so low that I just took the entire bottle a week ago and then planted the idea that it was Sarah, the bitter bitch of a roommate, who probably stole them out of spite. Like the calculating dope fiend that I am, I cautioned Maggie about confronting her, suggesting instead that she let it lie and just call in another refill. I then thoughtfully found a new hiding place for the prescription—inside the silver tea tin next to her candles.
It’s like a weight has been lifted from my chest. Ah, sweet, virtuous freedom.
It’s the bottom of the fourth, the Sox are up by two, and I’m ready for my admission. Maggie has her fifth beer in one hand; in the other is a game ball that David Ortiz flipped to me during warm-ups. Well, he either flipped it to me or the nine year-old kid standing next to me, but I had the reach. Maggie is buzzed and happy. Now is the time to tell her. Pedroia flies out to end the inning. I put on the hangdog mask and spill the beans, just as I had practiced. Except I forgot the part about falling in love with her. Shit, that was the lynchpin.
Maggie places her hand over mine and kisses my cheek. “I’m so glad you told me that,” she says. Then she takes a deep breath and sighs it out. Her smile vanishes as she looks out at left field. She bites her lip. “Actually, there’s something I need to tell you, too.”
Curveball. I stare at her, imagining the worst. Husband? Pregnant? Convicted felon? I already know she’s a drunk. What else is there?
“You can tell me anything,” I say. My bowels loosen.
“I have genital herpes,” she says. “And hepatitis C.”
My hand slides off her leg. I look up at the American flag. It waves valiantly in the summer breeze.
Sweet, virtuous freedom.
TUNE IN NEXT TIME FOR THE TERRIFYING CONCLUSION…