She hugged me, kissed me on both cheeks, and stuffed a Cellophane bag into my jeans pocket.
“Eat them a half hour before your shift ends,” she whispered into my ear. I felt like a spy that just received highly sensitive information. I scanned the bar furtively for anyone who looked out of place—someone who might blow a poisonous dart into Carol’s neck.
She pulled away from me and winked, and then nodded to the bar, where her two muscular, male companions sat waiting. One of them raised a martini to me and grinned, further reinforcing the espionage motif. “That’s Al,” she said. “And his boyfriend, Johnny. They’re coming out with us tonight.”
“Cool,” I said.
“I’ll be waiting for you at the bar.” She kept my hand in hers as she started toward the cocktail lounge, then finally released it. It fell limply against my thigh.
It was 10:30 and I had one table left—two young couples, the men engaged in conversation while the women sat looking tired and uninterested. On the table was the evidence of a meal: strewn-about linens, four empty highball glasses, a plate that was once a brownie sundae (now just a smear of chocolate sauce over white China) and the black vinyl check holder, resting off the edge of the table.
The kitchen closed at eleven. There was one other server still on the clock. Surely he could handle any stragglers that came in for desert or an appetizer.
I walked back toward the kitchen to the employee bathroom, where Carol and I had our first clandestine, cocaine-fueled kiss. I locked the door behind me, retrieved the balled-up Cellophane bag from my pocket and brought it to my face, smelling the faint odor of Carol on it, her hand lotion, or perfume, maybe. Inside the bag was half an eighth of dried, hallucinogenic mushrooms.
I ate them quickly, holding my nose while chewing each mouthful and then immediately washing it down with tap water. It was like eating Styrofoam while having fecal matter spread around my mouth, the pungent aftertaste of dogshit lingering on my upper lip. I managed to get them all down without gagging or vomiting, then splashed cold water on my face and walked out of the bathroom.
I walked to the service bar and poured myself a Coke. As I guzzled it down my manager, Jay, approached me holding two menus.
“Are you blind, Danny?” he said in his usual affectatious, gay tone. He pointed toward the host stand, where a young couple stood waiting, looking slightly lost and bewildered.
“Can’t Sean take them?” I said.
“He just punched out. I was trying to find you but you must have been taking one of your unexplained powders. Now go do your job. Go. Off you go, Daniel.” He shooed me away with his hand and giggled to himself.
I took the menus and walked to the host stand to seat the couple. It was 10:35. I had just swallowed a full dose of mushrooms. My hands started to sweat, greasing up the plastic sleeves of the menus.
Twenty minutes later, as I carried their entrees to the table (the risotto for him, the roast chicken and asparagus for her), my hands and wrists were light and it felt like I had spiders crawling on my shoulders. I focused on my breathing and quickly set the plates down on the table. I leaned in and asked the couple if there was anything else they needed and they said no, and as I returned to my upright posture I heard a swish sound pass by my head, followed by vague yet somehow precise visual trails.
Walking back to the kitchen I looked at the bar and saw Carol. Her head was tilted back and she was laughing with Al and Johnny. She slapped the bar with one hand while the other twirled the stem of a martini glass. Then she caught me from the corner of her eye, and her smile vanished and curled into a sneer. And then her eyes gleamed with fire, and I’m pretty sure I saw horns sprout from her head. And then, I swear to God, she mouthed these words to me:
IT’S. ALL. OVER. NOW. DEAD. LITTLE. WHORE.
I hurried back to the employee bathroom, where I locked the door behind me, moved directly to the corner, curled up into a ball, dropped my head into my folded arms and rocked back and forth.
Something wasn’t right. I needed to lie down immediately, so I spread out across the linoleum and lay flat on my back, my arms stretched out as though I were making a snow angel. I heard the sounds of the kitchen reverberate off the floor and into my brain—clinking pots and pans, high-pressure dishwasher hoses, Brazilian slang. I picked at my ear; worms can crawl in there, you know. Anything can get in there if you’re not careful. Fucking miniature Brazilians can get in there. It’s a pathway to--
The bathroom ceiling started to move. Slow, gentle waves of white plaster. The ripples were relaxed and friendly to start, but then they became obscene bulges, rodents trapped inside the gullet of some creamy monster--
“Jesus fucking Christ,” I said as a single, warm tear rolled down my cheek.
Soon a reprieve came. The keel of the surrounding world grew steady. The black and white checkered linoleum no longer jumped off the floor. I got up and looked at myself in the mirror. My eyes were two dark caves. My face was haunted. My only tangible thought was just how necessary it was that I hold a mandolin in an undisclosed, midwestern backyard. I saw a single, fluffy cloud in a blue sky, and an elderly woman in a gray, floral dress pulling white t-shirts from a clothesline.
“Okay, Danny...okay.” I splashed cold water onto my face, and went back out to check on my table.
The couple sat with their elbows on the table and their half-eaten entrees pushed over to the side. They held hands and looked into each other’s eyes intently. I wanted to sit with them, to go home with them and recover on their couch while they made love in the bedroom. I wanted them to adopt me.
Dread spiked up inside me as I realized they might never leave, ever. They could conceivably stay at their table, locked in true love, until 1:00 AM, when the place closed. “Breathe, Danny. We’re here. We’re all here,” I whispered to myself. Push it away. Push it away! The world began to tilt to the right again. I continued toward my table, holding the seatbacks of the booths on the way for support.
I picked the plates off the table. “How was everything?” I said, grinding my teeth.
“Great, thanks. We’ll just take the check.”
“Alright, then. I’ll be right back.”
Mercifully, the couple paid the check promptly and left, and I was free to complete my sidework of setting all the tables and stocking all the sugar caddies and marrying all the ketchup bottles in the safety of an empty dining room.
Before I could do that, however, I ran to the employee bathroom once again, where I vomited twice and broke into a cold sweat-inducing muscle spasm. It was brief, and when it released me from its grip I felt a peaceful stability, like an airplane leveling off at 35,000 feet. I started laughing, lying flat on the floor, and I checked my watch.
It had been forty minutes. The demon had settled nicely into its lair. I was tripping.
It was time to give Jay my paperwork, punch out, and then go to the coyote.
I sat down at the bar next to Carol. She leaned in and kissed me on the lips, holding the back of my neck as she did so. She kept her hand there, scratching my hair with her long fingernails, staring into my dilated eyes.
“Let’s go,” she said. Her voice was deep and slow, like maple syrup dripping off the edge of a plate.
I looked around the bar at the crowd of metropolitan professionals. I couldn’t stop grinning. “We could stay here if you want.”
She shook her head and got up, saying nothing. She reached into her bag and withdrew a lipstick applier, twisted the bottom and touched up her lips with a shade of dark red. Then she puckered once, dropped the lipstick back into her bag and looked at me, the tip of her tongue gliding across her teeth.
“I don’t want to stay here.”
Our convoy walked down Mass Ave., Al and Johnny in the lead, Carol and I trailing behind. The October night air was chilly, maybe mid-forties, but I was comfortable in short sleeves, opting to carry my leather jacket by my side. I put my arm around Carol’s shoulders. “Should I throw my jacket in that dumpster?” I said as we passed an alleyway. Carol shook her head and laughed. I leaned closer and kissed her cheek. “I want to take off my shoes. I don’t want to wear them anymore. I don’t think I’ll ever need to wear them again.”
At the intersection of Boylston and Tremont, just a few blocks from Machine, I stopped and pointed at the traffic light, which had just changed from yellow to red. “Watch...soon there will be a red man, and then that red man will turn into numbers. The numbers will count down. It’s basically...it’s basically the same principle as the universe.”
Carol wrapped her arms around my neck and pulled me toward her. We made out in the middle of the sidewalk as Al and Johnny left us behind. Pedestrians walked past us on both sides. Had I not been tripping my balls off I would have found our display tacky and disgusting.
She pulled at the collar of my shirt and slurped on my neck. “I think about you every fucking second of the day, Danny. All week I’ve been waiting for this. It’s just you and me tonight, and I’m gonna fucking destroy you. My God am I going to tear you apart.”
Then we both broke out into laughter.
Al and Johnny were waiting for us at the back door of Machine, where they were talking to a large black man in a cowboy hat and leather vest. The black man saw Carol and shrieked and gave her a massive hug and a kiss on both cheeks. She introduced him to me as Levon. I waved to Levon with that dumb grin still plastered on my face.
The inside of Machine was dark and indiscernible. The four of us walked down a hallway, constantly pulling aside thick, velvet curtains. All I could see were red EXIT signs and the vague shapes of Al and Johnny ahead of me. The further we walked the louder the throb of bass became, its vibrations sinking into my pores and drawing me in like a gravitational field. Finally we tore through one final curtain and emerged into a small dance floor packed with maniacally dancing, shirtless men.
Strobe lights flickered and flashed across the crowd. The house music assaulted me. Carol yelled something directly into my ear but I couldn’t hear her, so I just nodded in reply. Al turned to us and made a drinking motion with his hand; Carol shook her head; the two guys left for the bar and quickly disappeared into the crowd. I stood there enrapt, my head making lazy circles as I took in the scene: a pool of bare-chested men dancing under the staccato light show. At first it was chaos, but after a moment they formed a circle, slowly rotating without an axis. It was a theatrical galaxy.
I nodded my head slowly and then raised my hand in front of my face and studied it, fanning my fingers out, bringing them together. It didn’t matter. I accepted my fingers without judgment. I read the lines of my palm in the dim and violent light. They made sense. Finally, after twenty-two years on this planet, things made sense.
“We’re safe here, Carol. Yes. I think we are going to be okay.”
And then I felt her hand go down the front of my pants.
It was impossible to measure time, but at some point Carol took my hand and led me out into the middle of the dance floor. A remix of Madonna’s “Ray of Light” had just exploded over the PA. She turned around and grinded up against me, pulling on my neck, tearing at my shirt, wedging her hands down the back of my pants and clawing at my upper butt cheeks. We devoured each other’s mouths, drool trickling down our chins and glistening in the yellow and purple strobe light. Whenever I looked over her shoulder at the crowd I saw a carousel of bloodthirsty Indians, circling us, preying on us, worshipping us, Carol and I, the raging bonfire, the sacrificial lamb, the altar of hedonism, the nucleus of forbidden desire.
Carol yanked up my t-shirt and hugged me tight. I felt her warm, smooth skin, and realized that she had pulled up her shirt as well and removed her bra. Our naked torsos pressed against each other. Her nipples tickled my skin. The heat of our meshed bodies numbed me, like running frostbitten hands under hot water. I was short of breath and dizzy. Carol grabbed my chin and turned me toward her.
“I’m givin ya some tit!” she yelled, her voice slipping into a heavy South Shore accent, her breath suddenly rancid, smelling faintly of the dried mushrooms we ate hours ago.
I looked down. Carol held her right breast up. “Suck it!” she screamed, and in that instant I feared her. The exotic, sophisticated deejay with the high cheekbones was gone, replaced by a salty, wasted, table-dancing townie chick.
I held onto her shoulder and lowered myself down to her breast.
The Indians roared their approval. The lights bled. The music hammered away.
Somewhere near 3:00 AM Carol and I staggered out of Machine, depleted and disoriented. The rest of the crowd filed out among us. Al and Johnny were gone, had been gone since they went to the bar when we first arrived. All that remained were shells of everything.
The Boston night was cold and somber. The air smelled of cigarette smoke, grilled sausages and mustard. Groups of people poured out of bars and stumbled over streets, fighting over taxis, yelling the occasional “FUCK YOU”. Carol and I walked next to each other but far apart. We both looked down at the ground. Finally she broke the silence in a meek voice: “I have a joint. Wanna take a walk through the park?”
We sat on a park bench in the Commons and passed a skinny joint between us. It netted us four hits apiece. Neither of us spoke a single word. Carol flicked the roach away and lit a cigarette. We got up and walked down one of the paths.
“My feet hurt,” Carol said. I looked down and saw redness creeping out from the inside of her high heels and onto the tops of her feet. She looked uncomfortable, taking tepid half steps, her toes pointed inward, the way a small girl might walk when playing dress up in her mother’s shoes. Her face was rigid and constrained, as though she was trying with all her might to endure something. Her makeup had run from all the sweating and her face looked mask-like. Her lips trembled. She ground them against her teeth. She sucked on her cigarette with an unsteady hand and exhaled the smoke in chops and gusts.
“What should we do now?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied immediately.
“We could get a hotel room,” I said.
“No, Danny. No. I have to go home. I have to go...back. I need a...I need a...a Pepsi.”
I could hear the cottonmouth in her voice as she spit out the word Pepsi. Her lips were cracked, and dried pockets of white spittle had collected in the corners of her mouth. Her breathing was uneven. She looked like she was having difficulty swallowing. She walked with even less stability—her arms were folded against her chest and her knees buckled; the heels of her shoes made a squeamish sound as they ground against the concrete path. In spite of all this, though, she trudged on, determined, stampeding forward in her uncomfortable shoes, staring straight ahead, trembling in the cold night, moistening her chapped lips with what little saliva she could muster.
“I have to go home, Danny. I have to go home to my...”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll get you a cab.”
I flagged down a cab on Arlington Street and walked her to it. I opened the back door for her and she got in, without looking at me or even saying goodbye. I handed the driver two twenties. “Put this toward the fare,” I said. I looked into the backseat to see if Carol saw me paying but it was too dark—all I saw was my own reflection in the Plexiglas divider. My haggard, cavernous face.
The cab pulled away from the curb and drove down Arlington toward Storrow Drive. For a moment I saw the shape of Carol’s head in the backseat, a quick glimpse of her short, spiky hair in silhouette, and then she was gone.
I walked into the empty street and stood with my hands in my pocket. The drive to Braintree, at that hour of the night, would take no more than thirty minutes, which meant Carol would get home at around 4:15 or 4:30. Her husband would be asleep, maybe on the couch, if they had one. Her son, Jake, would be asleep, too. But he would be waking up in a few hours to watch cartoons. He would ask his mommy to make pancakes.
I turned and walked in the direction of my car, when it occurred to me that I may have parked in a tow zone. Anxiety swelled inside me. In all likelihood my car was already gone, and I’d have to deal with the rigmarole of retrieving it from the tow lot in South Boston. I contemplated taking a cab home, back to Newton, and dealing with my car tomorrow. I wasn’t in the mood for reality. Some stones don’t need to be turned over, I thought to myself, as I raised my hand at an oncoming taxi.
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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