The Dogwood is just another bar in Jamaica Plain. Even at 4:00 on a Saturday it’s filled to capacity with artists, musicians, hipsters and vegans. An asshole symposium. And I’m just another asshole, sitting at the far end of the bar, dressed like a cabana boy in a white polo shirt that’s two sizes too small, feigning interest in a playoff hockey game on the TV and drinking 20-oz Bud drafts as fast as I can, whatever calms my nerves and occupies my mind as I wait for yet another online date to streak across the atmosphere of my pathetic love life and then fizzle and burn out just as quickly.
That’s dating in the modern world, baby. A shooting gallery. A billion meteorites the size of sand pebbles flying past each other, poking holes in the universe.
* * * *
Normally at this time I’m sitting in a Home Depot parking lot, counting the minutes until 4:00, when a registered sex offender named Bill clocks out from the customer service desk and I drive him back to his mother’s house to cop a $30 dose of something: Percocet, Suboxone, Xanax…whatever’s in season. I’ll ingest anything, so long as it blocks out reality’s hi-def signal. Today I planned ahead and met Bill before work, at 6:00 AM. But the buzz wore off two hours ago and the daylight has since flooded back into my mind. Cue the 20-oz Buds.
At 4:18 the door opens and in walks HazelEyes83. Fashionably late? Maybe, but her dirt-covered muumuu and orange clogs sap the fashion right out of that sentence. We shake hands and I notice grime underneath her fingernails. Immediately I go into detective mode, connecting dots, drawing conclusions. Was she held in some sort of captivity, trying to dig her way to freedom? If that’s the case, at least we have one thing in common.
She opens door number one. Her name. Maggie.
Maggie’s tall, almost at eye level with me. Her hair is long and wavy and red, but not the kind of dark crimson you find here in the northeast; hers is bright orange, untreated, unbrushed, a thin wisp of bangs curling down over a pale forehead. Like a schoolgirl on a playground, complete with the muddy knees. I look her up and down, trying to be subtle. She notices and giggles, acknowledging the smears of dirt on her arms. “I was gardening all day,” she says.
And drinking, I think, after catching a whiff of gin mixed with tooth decay. Not that I’m one to judge; it isn’t even 5:00 and I’ve already taken six extra-strength Vicodin, smoked two bowls, drank four beers and snorted half an Adderall. And I still feel sober.
We grab a two-top in the corner and order drinks: another Bud for me, a Long Island iced-tea for her. Food comes eventually, but it’s just a table ornament. She outpaces me two-to-one on the cocktails. I ask where she’s from, you know, the accent. Texas, she says. What’s she doing up here? Grad school. Public health. Boston University. Work-study. She talks about her two-year stint in Nairobi, teaching math and science to teenage girls. She talks about the African sex trade, about oppression, about human rights, about AIDS, about feminism in the face of political tyranny. I can tell by the look in her eyes that she wants to do some good in the world. And I can tell by the amount of alcohol she drinks that she’s seen her fair share of the bad, too.
She hands it over to me. “So what about you, Danny?” I shrug. Advertising, bowel disease, reruns of The Sopranos, a Siamese named Bootsie. What else am I gonna say? That most of my waking life is spent chasing down prescription medications? That a typical Saturday night consists of me getting high, putting on spandex biker shorts and lip-syncing "Paradise City" in my one-bedroom condo? The most exotic place I’ve ever traveled to is Daytona Beach, and the hallmark of my philanthropy is a twenty-dollar monthly donation to the ASPCA. My idea of a summer getaway is taking the top off my Jeep and doing seventy-five down the Mass Pike. Christ, I’ve got nothing to offer this girl except takeout dinners and Netflix.
After two hours and four more cocktails we hit a lull. She chews her lip and looks around the bar. I drumroll my fingers off the table and click my tongue. I’m ready to throw in the towel when she says, “My roommates are having some people over later tonight. Would you like to come by?”
It’s the first good idea of the night.
She smiles and excuses herself to go to the ladies room. As she gets up she touches the back of my hand, then drags her fingers along my forearm.
Maybe I’m not such an asshole, after all. Maybe this tall redhead feels the pull, the action, the spark, whatever the hell it is. Maybe our meteorites are on the same orbital path. I can’t take the credit, though. Shit, the Long Island iced-teas did all the heavy lifting.
I pay the check and walk her to her car, a tiny late-model Honda that’s covered in bumper stickers. “Come by around nine?” she half says-half asks, wobbling on her clogs, grabbing my shoulders for support. I tell her yes, I’ll be there. She makes a yay sound and breathes a hot gust of fermented tequila in my face. Then she leans in and kisses me. A long, clumsy one.
She gets in her car and backs out of her spot. She taps the bumper behind her and scrapes the rear panel of the car in front of her, but she makes it out with an abrupt lurch, almost hitting the cars parked on the other side of the narrow, one-way street. She swerves back into a straight line and drives off. I notice two of the bumper stickers on the rear of the Honda--Obama/Biden ’08 and the Grateful Dead dancing bears—and then the car is further down the road, moving cautiously slow, straight past a STOP sign and through an intersection without even tapping the brakes.
* * * *
Back at my place I take a quick shower, brush my teeth, smoke a bowl, douse my genitals in baby powder and then I’m back on the road. I stop at Al’s Liquors and grab a twelve-dollar bottle of red. If the movies have taught me anything, it’s never show up empty handed.
I cruise down Columbus Ave., through Roxbury, back to Jamaica Plain. Even with the warm spring air and the classic rock blasting from my car stereo my palms still sweat and my stomach rumbles. Only bad things lie ahead, I think. I can’t help it. In the past, J.P. has meant only two things to me: Dominican drug dealers and second-hand music stores. And I haven’t bought a record since ’98.
If there’s any place to turn over a new leaf, this ain’t it.
I turn onto Centre St. and check the directions on my phone. I’m close. I don’t need the map to tell me that; I can feel it in my colon.
I park my Jeep and run up some steps. And then: ding-dong.
“You came,” Maggie says, swaying by the front door. She sounds surprised even though we’d been texting for the last twenty-five minutes.
She takes my hand and leads me through the first floor of her house, an old Victorian she rents from two middle-aged lesbians. The place reeks of patchouli oil, like a white boy’s dreadlocks. I could smell it all the way from the sidewalk.
“Everyone’s out back,” she says, squeezing my hand.
We move through the kitchen and out through a screened door to a back patio, where three people sit around a table. I case the area, one sweep: Teva sandals and bare toes. A bag of Drum tobacco and an acoustic guitar. Love beads and a Guatemalan tunic. A ponytail and wire-rimmed eyeglasses. A girl with blonde hair and sleepy eyes, wrapped in an afghan, curled up in a lawn chair. It’s like I just went backstage at a Mamas & Papas concert. I hide the bottle of wine behind my back, wishing I hadn’t brought it.
“Did you bring us something?” Maggie asks, nodding toward my hidden arm. I pooh-pooh the Yellowtail Pinot Noir and hand it over to her. She gives me the grand thank you, clutching the bottle to her a chest like it’s a goddamned Academy Award, and sets it on the table, next to a liter of Ruble vodka, some store-brand cranberry juice, three candles melted down to nubs and a half dozen red Solo cups, some with cigarette butts floating in them. The bottle of wine stands among these things like a tailored suit at an inner city bus stop.
I get the introductions. Ponytail and the sleeping blonde are a couple; the other chick is Sarah, Maggie’s roommate. Sarah picks up her patio chair and moves it closer to me, making an awful screeching sound as the cast-iron legs drag along the brick surface. “So Danny,” she says, closing her eyes and carefully taking the final drag of a cigarette. Her hand trembles. A long plank of ash falls down on her lap. She doesn’t notice. Her head lolls around in its socket and she painstakingly swallows some air. “Um, so Danny, can I ask you something…personal?”
This girl is so hammered it’s revolting. She reminds me of a dying horse. I feel a sudden pity for her. I want to put a bullet in her temple and end her misery.
“Sure,” I say, looking around at the group.
“Well,” she says, leaning over the side of her chair toward me. I pull back, afraid she might puke. “I read your OK Cupid profile. I read it. And, well, just to be sure, you’re thirty-seven, right?”
“I am.” I don’t know where this is going, but in preparation I get a visual on the vodka and an empty Solo cup, just so they’re within arm’s reach.
“Then how come, in your profile, which I read, it says you’re looking for women ages twenty-five to thirty-five? Hmm? I mean, why not thirty to forty? Or, I don’t know, thirty-five to forty?”
I reach over to the table and pour myself a cup of warm vodka and drink half of it straight down, getting a quick taste of homelessness. The vodka burns my throat and chest.
“Good question,” I say, stalling. I look to Maggie for help and find her, squatting in the bushes behind the patio, peeing. She smiles and waves to me like I’m a parent, watching her get on the bus for her first day of kindergarten. I turn back to Sarah. “You know, I never gave that much thought, actually. I guess I just figured since women are so much more emotionally mature than men, that maybe I should go down a few years, try and be on the same level.”
The awkwardness hovers around us like a rotten stench. The candles on the table die out, sending thin plumes of smoke spiraling into the air.
Fast forward twenty minutes and ponytail is knee deep into Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote”, strumming and tapping his Yamaha acoustic, eyes closed, quivering his lips over each word, his face and neck twitching with each inflection, his shoulders rolling every time he holds a note. He looks like Gordon Lightfoot with a mild case of turrets. You just picked up a hitcher…a prisoner of the white lines on the freeeeeeewayyyyyyy…
At least he pulled us out of the awkwardness. I look at Sarah, who’s resting her cheek on her fist and slowly stretching her mouth all the way up to her ear. I look at the blonde, still asleep, hasn’t moved since I got here. Maggie sits upright, her hands in the air, snapping the fingers on her right hand while the left twirls a plastic Solo cup around and sends small waves of vodka splashing over the rim.
The song ends and Ponytail segues into spoken word, strumming slowly between a G chord and an A minor while reciting a poem about a lonely Venezuelan coffee bean farmer. “I call this ‘Calloused Soul’”, he tells us. Maggie tilts her cup back and finishes her vodka, though most of it trickles down her chin and neck. She laughs so hard she falls out of her chair. Lying on the ground, she informs us that some pee just squirted down her leg. An image of her in a white medical coat inoculating small African children flashes in my mind.
A neighbor walks onto a back deck behind us and politely asks us to keep the noise down.
Ponytail puts the acoustic down and pulls a bag of weed from his fanny pack. He rolls a joint the size of a bobby pin, lights it and passes it around. The blonde wakes up, takes a hit, and goes back to sleep. Maggie holds onto the jay for ten minutes while she tells us a story about her high school boyfriend, describing the curvature of his penis in detail. Everyone nods along, except me, because I’m staring at the joint, watching it burn down in Maggie’s hand. Finally I reach out for it and she hands it over. I get half a hit before it burns my fingers. It doesn’t even taste like weed. It’s probably kale.
“Are you okay, man?” Ponytail says. It takes a moment before I realize he’s talking to me. I haven’t said much this whole night, and it occurs to me I have that pissy, disgruntled look on my face, the same face I wear when something doesn’t go my way.
Before I can answer Maggie is sitting on my lap, all five foot ten inches, one hundred and fifty pounds of her. “Vat’s a matta, dah-ling?” she says in a German accent, the point of which is beyond me. She erupts in more laughter and then drops her voice and presses her neck into my face. “Do you like this?” I smell sweat and vodka. Her body odor is so toxic it's probably keeping the mosquitos away. I try and wiggle free but she pushes harder. From the corner of my eye I see Ponytail pack up his acoustic. Maggie leans into my diaphragm and wraps her arms around my neck. I can’t breathe. The edges of my vision blur. Then I hear that scraping sound and one of the chair legs buckles and we collapse onto the brick. I black out for an instant and when I come to Maggie is laughing crazily into my face, blowing her hot poison wind into my mouth, transmitting the bile and vodka and rot into my body like it’s a demonic possession.
“WILL YOU PLEASE KEEP IT DOWN OUT THERE!”
Another plea from the neighbor. “Uh-oh,” Maggie says. She gets up, then reaches down to help me.
“I got it,” I say, waving her off. I get up and walk around the patio a couple times, limping, holding my left hip. “You broke the fucking chair.”
Maggie holds a finger over her lips. “Shhhhhhhh.”
Ponytail wakes up his girlfriend and leaves. Sarah, the roommate, remains seated, staring at us, pulling on her face. She looks like an alien in a bad human disguise, something out of Men In Black.
I want to go home. I can think of nothing better than going to bed, waking up early tomorrow morning and driving to the Home Depot parking lot to cop something, maybe a benzo so I can relax and read the Sunday paper, then nap the afternoon away. I’m about to say my goodbyes when Maggie grabs my wrist.
“I’m not done with you yet,” she says. She leads me back into the house. Before I walk through the screened door I turn and catch a glimpse of Sarah, staring at me, her lips curling downward into a sneer.
I follow Maggie as she zigzags down a dimly lit hallway, using the wall both as support and as a directional aide. I ask where her third roommate is—small talk—and she responds with a belch that drifts back and clings to me. She pushes a door open and we’re in her bedroom. Before I can close the door Maggie pulls her muumuu up over her head and throws it across the room, where it lands on a lampshade. She wears white cotton panties and nothing else. She drops on the bed, looks up at me, and beckons.
We make out for a couple minutes. She groans and tugs at my hair until I hear a ripping sound. “Ouch. Jesus,” I say, grabbing her wrist and pulling her hand away.
She laughs again and palms my face, squeezing my cheeks together. “You ah zee boy. I vill have my way with you.” Again with the German accent. I pull her hand away and hold her down by her shoulders. I tell her to please relax. She does. Her head sinks into a pillow and she mutters something low and inaudible. I move down and sprinkle her stomach and back with small kisses. When I come back up she is facedown, her eyes closed, her mouth open, a small circle of drool on her pillowcase.
“Maggie?” I shake her shoulder. Nothing. “Maggie?” I shake harder. I hold her wrist in the air and let it fall back down, watching it smack the side of her buttocks. I grab her wrist again and feel for a pulse. Nothing, but then again, I've never checked for a pulse before. “Jesus Christ,” I say, scratching my head. I place my fingers in front of her nose. I can’t feel anything—at least I don’t think I feel anything. Should I get Sarah? The alien roommate who hates me because of my OK Cupid age preference? I look around the room, and that’s when something catches my eye. Something on the night table next to the bed.
Three prescription pill bottles. Everything goes on hold. I feel that adrenaline shoot up from my bowels to my chest. I’m light-headed. I straddle over Maggie’s dormant body and reach for the pill bottles, checking each label. The first is unfamiliar. No value to me. The second is Valium. The third is Xanax. I pick up the Xanax and give it a little shake. It’s robust and full, music to my fiending ears.
I look down at the half naked body on the bed.
I look at the bottle of Xanax in my hand.
Only bad things lie ahead.
TO BE CONTINUED…
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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