“It’s because you were late, you asshole! This is your fault. Go to the store and get some paper towels. You’re cleaning it up.”
I can say nothing to this. I got to Bill’s house at 6:55 this morning, twenty minutes past my permissible 6:30-6:35 window. As a result Bill’s 15-year old chow shepherd, Lucy, shat all over the front seat of my Jeep on our way to the park, which, from Bill’s house, is a six-minute drive. The dog rides on Bill’s lap, with her ass pointed in my direction, so the shit poured down into the center console, splattering all over my emergency brake, vanishing into the folds of my gear shift, and filling up both of my cup holders.
I was late because I spent the night at Maggie’s and I underestimated the drive time to Waltham from Jamaica Plain. Also because I didn’t want to get out of bed. I held onto HazelEyes83 for dear life, dopesickness setting in, the Suboxone in Bill’s padlocked medicine box howling to me like Dracula’s wolves.
“It’s okay, baby. It’s Danny’s fault,” Bill says, consoling his dog. We are stuck at the traffic light just before the park. Two asshole deejays quack at each other on the classic rock station. The dog’s usual sickly odor (due to a baseball-sized boil she’s had on her hindquarters for the last year) gives way to the ripe smell of diarrhea that permeates throughout the Jeep. The summer sun rises in front of us. The temperature ticks upward. I am trapped in a microwave oven with a diseased baby diaper.
Good morning, world.
I am at the park for one hour, most of it spent cleaning dog shit from my Jeep while Bill reads the newspaper and his dog limps around, feebly trying to chase squirrels. Complicating things is my bladder, which, after two large coffees, is about to burst. The park is humming at this hour with commuters walking to the train station, so urinating behind a tree is out of the question. I decide to relieve myself at Bill's mother's house, when I drop him and his dog off.
Then I decide against it when I pull into Bill's driveway and see Johnny, his younger brother, sitting on the back steps. Johnny has not spoken a single word in over twenty-five years. The youngest of eleven kids, Johnny was born four months premature and as a result now looks like the banjo player from Deliverance. I am frightened of Johnny. Whenever I see him he stares at me and hums to himself. He sleeps in the attic above Bill’s bedroom, collects disability and spends the better part of his life on the back steps, chain-smoking Newports and drinking Hawaiian Punch.
“Are you gonna come in and piss, or what?” Bill says to me as he picks his rickety dog up from my passenger seat. I look toward the back steps and see Johnny, staring at me, his face peeled back into a ghastly smile, revealing a set of teeth that looks like a decorative corn cob: alternating squares of yellow and brown.
Without saying a word I shift into reverse and back out of the driveway.
Twenty minutes later, as I get off the Mass Pike at the South Station exit, I pay the price. Dearly. I clutch my penis in the hopes of forming a manmade tourniquet, cutting off the blood flow and by proxy stemming the rising tide of piss that rushes the dam. I rock back and forth and stomp my foot on the floorboard. I imagine myself kayaking through a river of cranberry juice. I turn off the asshole deejays on the classic rock station. I pray to God.
I get lucky with a green light at the West Broadway Bridge, granting myself a brief psychological reprieve. The rapids calm. I’m gonna make it. Only one more light to go and I’m home. I don’t even need to make it all the way upstairs. I can piss next to my garbage cans, or even lean out the side of my Jeep, if necessary.
Up ahead is the final traffic light, and it is yellow. I floor the gas, swerving around an elderly man in a Buick LeSabre. He honks at me. Come on come on come on. There is a stretch of empty road between the traffic light and my Jeep: one hundred and fifty feet of bare asphalt. All that stands in my way is time. If I make this light there is a chance. A chance to preserve a small amount of integrity in a morning filled with shame, degradation and bodily fluid.
The light turns red and the cross traffic moves. I hit the brakes, clutching the steering wheel and rocking forward with the momentum. A few drops of urine trickle out of me. I am numb from the waist down. I know I will not make it, like the astronaut who slowly drifts toward the space station, his oxygen level depleting, watching as the bay doors close without him. I send a final message to ground control. Tell my wife and kids that I love them.
A sense of peace comes over me. I ease my grip on the steering wheel and take a breath. The Buick LeSabre pulls up next to me at the light. The old man sticks his head out the window. He is missing teeth and wears a baseball cap with the name of an aircraft carrier on it.
“Got a hot date, sonny? Christ almighty. Must be nice to be young and stupid. If I had half a mind I’d get out of this car and go kick the crap outta ya! Slow down, ya fuckin idiot!”
I turn and look at him and smile. Then I piss down my right leg.
* * * *
Ever since HazelEyes83 told me about her STDs I feel closer to her. Our relationship is comfortable, in a good way. The excitement is still there, but certain pretenses are gone, like when I worry about my breath or feel the need to tousle my hair perfectly or try and speak intelligently on things like AIDS awareness or Japanese horticulture. I can be myself with her and I can tell her anything (except that I steal her Xanax and that sometimes when we have sex I think of Queen Latifah). Her herpes have made her less intimidating and more approachable. The irony is not lost on me.
“Sometimes it’s easier when both people have it,” HazelEyes83 muses as we lie next to each other in bed. “I see it all the time in the clinic. A husband or wife has an STD, a lot of times the partner wants to get it from them as soon as possible. It saves a lot of stress and worrying. And in a way it unites them.”
“Right,” I say, staring at the ceiling, discreetly moving my hand under the bed sheet and down to my penis, feeling if it’s any warmer than it was twelve hours ago.
“That’s how I got it,” she says. “My college boyfriend, Clay Ryder. He was a bull-riding champion from Odessa. A real cowboy. I thought we would get married, but you know, we were young and stupid. Anyway I guess we figured it would just be easier if we both had it.”
This was the first time I’d heard of the convenience of having herpes, as though it were a membership to Amazon Prime. And who the fuck is this Clay Ryder? I picture HazelEyes83 line dancing with a slim, baby-faced dude in a Stetson and a pair of over-starched Wranglers. Next I imagine her bent over a pipe fence in some corral with her flowered dress pulled up while Clay Ryder is behind her, grunting as tobacco spit trickles down his chin, his Wranglers bunched down over his cowboy boots. The picture is so clear I can practically smell the horse manure.
I shake off the image. “Huh. So what’s he up to these days?” I say, hoping he’s either married and selling tractor equipment or perhaps skinned alive by a Mexican drug cartel.
“Oh, we’re still in touch. On Facebook, mostly. He’s engaged now, but he’s gonna break it off.”
“He told you this?” I say.
“Oh yeah, Clay and I are close. I still love him, you know, because we shared that thing. I’ll always love him.” She turns away from me and falls back in her pillow, closing her eyes. A wide grin blossoms on her face. “Mmmmmm, Clay fucking Ryder!” She giggles and rubs her feet back and forth, underneath the bed sheet. “Hot damn!” Another long, slow sigh. “Now I have to use the ladies room.” She pulls the sheet aside, gets out of bed and walks to the bathroom, picking her thong underwear out from her pasty white ass as she crosses in front of me.
Once the bathroom door closes I go to the silver tea tin, take out her Xanax bottle and pour five into my palm. I wash two down with my iced coffee and pocket the rest. Then I open her laptop. I delete every document and folder on her desktop and then drag most of her applications into the trash: Google Chrome, gone. Firefox, gone. Microsoft Word, gone. Spotify, gone. I close the laptop and flop back down on the bed, put my hands behind my head, and wait for the Xanax to kick in.
A moment later the toilet flushes and HazelEyes83 comes out, gets into bed and curls up next to me. “We should probably still use condoms, though. Don’t you think?”
“Definitely,” I say.
* * * *
There have been other instances throughout our brief romance that have warranted a head scratch, random roadside flares warning me of potential hazardous conditions up ahead. Last week we had dinner at some farm-to-table joint in Jamaica Plain, one of those all-natural, over-priced restaurants where the flatware is made of recycled sandals and the menu features personalized biographies of each grass-fed livestock. As we sat outside on a bench, waiting for our table to be ready, I rested my head against her shoulder. “I’m leaning on you for support,” I said in an attempt at cuteness.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” she said, deadpan.
I expected her response to be followed by a laugh or a wink or a coy smile, some sign that she understood my playful double entendre. Instead she stared straight ahead, her hands gripping the edge of the wooden bench, her face cold and blank. It was as though some supernatural entity had momentarily seized control of her. I waited for urine to stream out from between her legs, like the little girl in The Exorcist.
Another roadside flare occurred a couple weeks earlier. Late one night at her place she took me through a photo album dedicated to her two-year teaching stint in Nairobi. I nodded along as she pointed to elephants and tigers and exotic birds. Then she identified her co-workers, most of them young white women either hiking with backpacks or posing with natives at the local watering hole. The next section featured several images of a young, well-dressed Afrikaans man. HazelEyes83 dragged a finger along one picture in particular, the man sitting in a café, wearing a fedora and a linen suit—something straight out of Casablanca.
“That’s K’ontiki,” she said, closing her eyes for a moment that felt a little too long. “He was my lover. We were going to move back to the states and get married after my contract was up.”
“What happened?” I said.
“I found out he was married, with two small children,” she said.
“Ooh. Sorry to hear that.”
“It’s okay. The culture is different out there. He loved me very much, and I love him, still, to this day.”
I chewed on my lip. My left hand unconsciously formed into a fist. “Have you heard from him lately?”
“Yes,” she said, dragging her fingers across a different image, this one of K’ontiki standing with his chest pushed out and one foot rested up on a boulder, as though posing for a Captain Morgan ad. She brought the photo album up to her face and gently kissed the image. “Oh K’ontiki, sweet K’ontiki.”
A few pages later we came to her students, young African women with shaved heads and smock dresses, all with brilliant white smiles, some photographed outside carrying baskets over their heads and some inside adobe huts, hunched over wooden desks, enrapt in lessons of math or science. The pictures were moving, hopeful and optimistic, temporarily relieving me of my desire to blow K’ontiki’s head off with a large caliber rifle.
“These are your students? Aw, that’s wonderful,” I said. HazelEyes83 said nothing. Her head hung down above the photo album, her stringy, orange hair covering the side of her face. “Maggie?” I said. I thought maybe she had fallen asleep.
And then came a long groan that became a painful wail that became a desperate gasp for air. Teardrops hit the photo album. “Maggie?” I said again, frightened. “Jesus, what is it?”
She clutched the photo album to her chest and violently shook her head. “No, no, no, no NO, NO, NO!”
I reached out and touched her shoulder and she twisted away from me. “Get away from me!” She stood up and moved to the corner of her bedroom, her back against the wall, and then slid down to the floor, still holding the photo album to her chest as though it was an algebra textbook. She sobbed spastically, taking in high-pitched breaths and letting them out in choppy moans.
“Maggie, what’s wrong? What did I do?” But she didn’t answer, just buried her head in her arms and cried. “Look at me, Maggie. Please.” Then the heaving stopped, and her shoulders slowly rose up as she took in a long, steady breath. And then:
“GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME. NOW.” Not Maggie’s voice; something else. I backed up a couple steps, afraid that she’d lift her head from her folded arms and her face would be different, her eyes glowing white, her mouth pulled back in an evil clown smile, revealing rows of yellow fangs.
“Okay, okay,” I said. I backpedaled out of her bedroom and exited the house. From the front porch I peeked into Maggie’s bedroom window. She was still in the corner, sitting on the floor, her face still hidden by her folded arms. And next to her, on top of the bookcase, was her silver tea tin, stronghold to her Xanax prescription. I hadn’t had the opportunity to steal any that night.
The following day she called and apologized for what she called “a transient psychosomatic relapse”. She said it happened sometimes whenever she looked at her Africa pictures while sitting next to a white male. I told her I understood, thinking that she might benefit from a fifteen-minute phone call with Dionne Warwick’s Psychic Friends Network. “Are we okay?” she asked. I thought about the Xanax and said of course.
* * * *
After thirteen months I have finally extricated myself from Bill. No more early morning Suboxone, no more Page Six gossip about Prince Harry naked in a hotel room, no more screaming over late arrivals, no more gridlocked traffic on the Mass Pike, no more foamy dog shit in my cup holders. I am a free man, thanks to Hector, the El Salvadorian drug dealer whose number I got through a former colleague. Hector delivers a package of five thirty-milligram Percocet directly to my house every morning, and sometimes a gram of cocaine to my office in the afternoons. This new regiment is slightly more expensive—nearly two hundred dollars per day compared to fifteen bucks for the Suboxone—but, when you think about it, you really can’t put a price on freedom.
The new regiment also enables me to spend longer mornings with HazelEyes83, who, since mid-July, is officially my girlfriend. I think. We haven’t had any explicit conversations on the subject, but she did inform me that we had a “planetary connection” and that, in astral terms, we spend most of our respective energies in both the fourth and fifth Vedic houses, which is apparently a good thing, except when Jupiter is on the descent, during which time all communication between us is forbidden. She also told me that no one has physically adored her as much as I do, at least not since her therapist, Dr. Shepler, back in 2008.
What’s more, HazelEyes83 turns thirty today. To start, I’m celebrating with breakfast in bed. I have just returned to her place with Challah French Toast, a Portuguese omelet, turkey bacon, fresh-squeezed orange juice and two iced-coffees, all from Sorello’s, her favorite breakfast joint. I stop in her kitchen and divvy the food onto plates, laying everything out nicely onto her roommate’s antique tray. Then I pour half of her OJ into the sink and replace it with Absolut vodka, stir it up, even garnish it with an orange slice. I pop a Percocet in my mouth and then carry the tray into her bedroom, nudging the door open with my foot—a gesture I have dreamt about for my entire adult life.
HazelEyes83 is still asleep, snoring like a foghorn, burning off last night’s liquor. I set the tray down on the bedside table and kiss her cheek. She comes to, smiles, then yawns into my face, breathing a gust of wind at me that smells like my kitchen trashcan when I change the liner. I hand her the orange juice and vodka. She takes a sip and her eyes light up.
“Happy birthday, sweetheart,” I say.
She arches her eyebrows at me.
I correct myself. “I mean, happy celestial birthday.” According to the Wiccan calendar, HazelEyes83’s birthday is in early February. This winter she’ll turn three hundred and four in witch years.
HazelEyes83 takes another sip of her vodka/OJ. “You’re so wonderful to me.” She sets her morning cocktail on the table and touches the side of my face, studies me for a moment. “Are we in love?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Come here.” She holds open the bed sheet for me. I disrobe as she wraps the sheet around me and pulls me in. I reach for the condoms we keep in the top drawer. HazelEyes83 grabs my arm.
“No,” she says. “It’s time for our blood to become one.”
We have sex without protection. The ritual has begun.
Ten minutes later we are done. She flops onto her side and resumes her snoring. The breakfast gets cold and coagulates. As an incidental bonus, the Percocet kicks in.
I spend the afternoon shopping for HazelEyes83. I stop at the florist in South Boston and pick up a dozen long-stemmed red roses, since blood is apparently the theme of the day. Then I drive to a boutique in Newton Upper Falls called Moon and Sixpence, where one can buy handmade jewelry, dried herbs, ancient spell books or, if one is so inclined, candles that ward off evil spirits. I am immediately overwhelmed and paranoid by the macabre trinkets that adorn the tiny shop: the faces in the half-moon clocks leer at me as I pass them, the bead curtains sway on their own, the ceramic cherub statuettes shake their heads pitifully at me. I begin to hyperventilate, so I ask the kind old store clerk if I can use her restroom, to which she says of course. Once inside I splash cold water on my face and do four bumps of coke, just to straighten out.
I leave the shop with an antique ukulele, a quarter ounce of sage, forty dollars’ worth of candles and one vintage ring, silver with a line design etched onto its crest. The store clerk explained the ring’s meaning to me but I was so preoccupied trying to control my heart rate that I couldn’t pay attention.
I return to HazelEyes83’s house later that night bearing gifts. Sarah, the roommate, has organized a party, and there are twenty or so people there by the time I arrive. Most are outside on the back patio. I walk through the party holding the flowers in one hand, the candles and ukulele in a paper tote bag and the silver ring in my pocket. People look at me as though I’m lost; a time traveler from an era of chivalry, transported to a college dorm room.
I ask a few guests where Maggie is but nobody’s seen her recently. After a half hour I get tired of holding the gifts so I leave them in her bedroom. While I’m there I snort two more lines. I walk back out to the patio, pour myself a beer and sit at a table, where I attempt to engage in a conversation about rock climbing. Finally, after another thirty minutes, HazelEyes83 enters the backyard with a strange man. My face gets hot and my heartbeat drumrolls. She gives the man a peck on the cheek and rubs his back. She has not seen me. I get up from the table and approach them.
“Hello,” she says, singsong, almost a self-parody. She puts her hands on my face and kisses both of my cheeks, Mafioso-style.
She introduces her friend. Rob. I shake his hand without looking him in the eye. HazelEyes83 makes some qualifying statement about him—how they know each other, where he lives, some bullshit—but all I can think of is where they just came from and what they were doing.
“Can I talk to you for a second?” I ask her. HazelEyes83 says okay, giving me a look of total bewilderment. We walk to the side of the house.
“Who is that guy?”
“Rob? I just told you. He’s a friend. We were talking.”
“Talking, huh? About what? Fucking?” I sniff and rub my nose. My eyes blink, my teeth grind, my face contorts, all on their own will.
“I work with him. His girlfriend of four months just left him and he’s devastated. He needs me right now.”
“Needs you? To what, blow him? Is that what he needs?” Sniff, grind.
“I care about him, you self-centered asshole. The hell is wrong with you?”
“I know, I know. You care about him, and you care about your students in Nairobi, and the fucking cowboy who gave you herpes, and the fucking African guy, who you probably gave the herpes to, and your roommate, and all your drinking buddies, and that chick from that ridiculous fucking show you watch on Netflix, and the spotted owl, and the humpback whale, and the starving kids in China, and everything in the world except me. Yes, I know. You care. What an amazingly fucking selfless human being you are.
HazelEyes83 takes a deep breath, then calmly says: “You are out of control. Please leave, and don’t ever call me again.”
She turns and walks back to the patio.
Breathe, Danny. Breathe. I just need to take a walk and calm down, boil off some of these substances. Maybe I overreacted. Maybe I should cut her some slack. Maybe she deserves a second chance.
I can fix this.
Halfway through my loop around the block and I’m feeling better. Not calmer, but at least clearer. My paranoia is replaced with anxiety, a compulsion to rectify the situation with HazelEyes83, to submit, to apologize, whatever it takes. I walk faster, driven by the urge to atone for all my sins, to let go of pride and ego and cleanse myself. I imagine the reconciliation: HazelEyes83 sitting alone at her 30th birthday party, suffering, heartbroken, hopeless. She can’t take it any longer and goes to her bedroom to cry, and there I am, sitting at the foot of her bed, holding the flowers in my hand. I tell her I’m sorry and that I never want to lose her, that she is the best thing that ever happened to me and all I want is to make her happy. She comes to me, tells me she loves me. I take out the ring with the weird Pagan design on it and slip it on her finger. We live happily ever after. The end.
Coming up on her house my heartbeat pulsates in my neck. I can hear the music and the laughter from her backyard. To confirm my prophecy, I cut through her neighbor’s front yard and sneak up to the shrubs that separate the two properties. I expect to see HazelEyes83 forlorn and distraught, possibly being comforted by friends. The image will move me to full compassion. I will save her from the pain, and in doing so I will become the man I have always wanted to be.
I squat behind the shrubs and spy on the party. The image is not as I expected. HazelEyes83 is dancing to a Jimmy Cliff song with a group of people on the patio. She throws her arms in the air and yells “Happy birthday to ME!” Then she pulls her dress up and jiggles her pasty white ass back and forth. The rest of the party cheers her on. Someone comes up behind her and grinds against her. That someone is Rob.
* * * *
The inside of the house is empty, so I don’t have to worry about making any noise. I can take my time and do this right. First I open the silver tea tin and take the Xanax bottle and the Valium bottle. I toss them into the tote bag, along with the flowers, the ukulele, the candles and the sage. Then I put her laptop in the bag. Her Africa photo album goes in there, too. Then I spit on her pillow. And then I leave, tote bag in hand. But I forget one last thing. I walk back into her bedroom, take the silver ring out of my pocket, and place it gently on her bedside table.
Good night, Goddess of Stars.
“Mr. Pellegrini? You can come with me.” The nurse leads me into an exam room and hands me a questionnaire attached to a clipboard. “Is this your first time being tested for STDs?”
I shake my head.
“Alright, then. Just fill out this form as completely as you can. I’m going to run your insurance card and I’ll be right back.”
The room smells like bleach and fresh linen. I stare at a poster advocating mammograms. Another poster offers a toll-free number to help quit smoking. I look at the adjacent wall, where a third poster asks if anyone I know struggles with prescription drug abuse.
My cell phone vibrates in my pocket. It’s not HazelEyes83. It will never be her again. And that’s fine.
The text is from Bill. We haven’t seen or spoken to each other in six weeks. I read the text.
My dog died. Today is the worst day of my life. You around?
I write him back immediately:
Sorry to hear that. Yes I’m around. At the doctor’s. Will come by right after.
As the nurse returns to the exam room with a syringe and a cotton swab, I think about something: love is a highly flammable thing. It may explode. You may get burned. If it does, hopefully you have a friend like Bill, someone you can turn to, someone with a prescription to numb the pain.
I am a lucky man.
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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