Sunday, October 5, 2008

looking for the heart of Saturday night.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: While portions of this are a true story, on the whole, it's more of a "It's true that it's a story" thing. I'm gonna take a play from the book of Frederick Exley and ask that this be judged as a work of fiction, rather than the nonfiction upon which it is (kind of) based, as so much license has been taken regarding events, characters, dialogue, degree, chronology, and amount of alcohol actually consumed. Also, portions of this have appeared elsewhere, albeit in different forms.

And with that...enjoy.


Lucy falls asleep early on the pullout sofa bed that we’ve been so kindly offered during our stay. The traffic on San Francisco streets, even 11 PM, has a tranquility that accurately reflects the timbre of the city. It’s our last night here and I’m exhausted but can’t sleep. I look out the window and wish I smoked so that I could do that Quiet Man Watching the City Out of a Third Story Window thing. The car chase from Bullitt plays back in my mind and I wish I were Steve McQueen. Seems like he had it all figured out.

But more importantly: I'm all out of whiskey. I ignore my mild buzz and aching limbs and walk down to the liquor store around the corner and I head to the back to the whiskey section and I can't decide if it's worse that I can't write without drinking or that I'm drinking at all because I remember how Alice, my ex-fiancée, felt about it (before summarily coming to the same conclusion about our relationship) and I do it anyway because I'm an emotional cripple who does whatever he can to dull the intensity of what he feels because what does feeling ever give besides writing and no one's ever gonna read this because who the fuck am I and how the fuck would anyone ever know—

"Excuse me," the clerk asks, "Do you have your ID?" I fumble in my back pocket for my wallet and I show her my driver's license. She hesitates when she sees the picture. Fuck, I don't want to go into the story about how I lost my license the day before I moved away for college four years ago and how it was the same day I got my wisdom teeth taken out and they retook my picture that same day and it looks like I'm a goddamn chipmunk with an allergic reaction to acorns and—
"Thank you," she says, handing me back my license. I slip it back into my unfolded wallet on the counter, from which I pull out a $20 bill. She puts it in the till and gives me about $5 and change back. I don't bother counting it. She looks like she knows what she's doing. She slips the bottle into a brown paper bag and hands it to me.

"Thanks for coming," she says. I nod and give a tight-lipped smile, clutching my 375ml bottle of sour mash inspiration.

"Wait, you forgot your wallet!" I turn around and, sure enough, I have left it on the counter. I walk back and plan on snatching it as quickly and gracefully as possible, lest people see that I'm drunk enough to leave my wallet at the liquor store (which, regrettably, I am). I approach the counter and the clerk looks me up and down.

Oh, terrific. I'm being judged by this high school dropout whose $6.50-an-hour part-time job is just enough to keep her in wine coolers and nicotine gum and she's going to make some snarky comment about me being out of place, the San Franciscan equivalent of "You ain't from around here, are ya, boy?" and then I'm gonna feel like an asshole because all of these yokels buying $5 bottles of Night Train are gonna think I'm some elitist prick just because I think Southern Comfort tastes like warm ass and what am I doing here and why—

"Are you a writer?" she asks. I have nothing to say. I take my wallet and go.

I’m glad I will never have to visit this liquor store again.

I get back to Lucy and she’s still asleep. She’s snoring like Tony Soprano and I crawl beneath the patchwork quilt she brought. Without waking, she latches her arms around me and sighs right into my neck. Her nose bristles against my beard, and its texture makes her open her eyes and connect them to mine.

“Hi,” she says. “Did you go and get more whiskey?”

“You’ve been asleep for two hours. How’d you know I’ve been drinking?” I ask. She puts her hand on the back of my head and gives me a gentle kiss.

“Because your breath smells like St. Patrick’s Day,” she explains. She smiles and kisses me again. I take her hand and put it against the side of my face and I look back out the window. There’s a thin layer of fog settling over the cityscape, getting caught in the trees that dot the park across the street and I say a quick silent prayer that my car won’t start in the morning and we can lie here all day and keep pretending to be in love.

We get on the road early and drive past the beach. The waves pull the sand back and forth and while it’s beautiful, it brings back a sadness that I don’t want Lucy to see. I mask my melancholy disposition with apathy and suggest that we get on the highway. Nothing of much note happens for the next nine hours until Lyle Lovett comes on the radio and I stop our conversation about the differences between scotch, bourbon, and whiskey until Lyle has finished singing his sermon. I get shivers. I try to get the conversation back on track, but she detours.

"You're a passionate person, and that's a beautiful thing," she says, and after dismissing my initial doubts that naturally arise whenever anyone equates passion to quality, I believe her. "But even though I don't really know you that well, it seems like you have a lot of pain."
Her comment, in tandem with crossing the dread Nevada state border that puts us back in Utah, is too much for me and I burst into tears. The headlights in the other lane blur into a mishmashed aurora and I recorrect, thinking of the lines on the road like a coloring book.

"I'm sorry, are you okay?" she asks.

"Yeah," I say. "I'm fine." Eyes on the road eyes on the road eyes on the road.

"And,” she begins, “it may not be my place or my business and this might sound ridiculous and presumptuous and arrogant to even say, all things considered, but I think you're a good person." She leans over and kisses me on the cheek and my eyes involuntarily flutter at the unexpected tenderness. Her decency overwhelms me.

Getting laid off from a job, evicted from a shed (after having been evicted from the adjoining house), and being dumped by a fiancée within a two week period doesn't do much for self-esteem, other than deplete it, and so the prior month had been, shall we say, rough. My demons and my baggage and my refusal to appropriately deal with any of my many problems put the validity of my life into question and here is someone going through an awful downpour of misery herself and she is willing to take a second out of our twelve-hour drive back from San Francisco to reassure me in the perfect way and she takes my hand and her warmth is unprecedented and terrifying and I’m not exactly sure what to do with it.

The goosebumps on my skin eventually go back to hiding beneath the surface as the Replacements move on to their next song and I feel a deep connection with this person on my right, this passenger-side angel who tells me just what I need to hear just when I need to hear it. I feel like a human being again, someone beyond base desires of flesh and instinct and my consciousness elevates and I pull the car over and we fuck in the backseat for half an hour before a Nevada Highway Patrolman raps on the window with a flashlight that he wields a little too phallically for my comfort.

We're let off with an official warning and an undocumented glare of disgust and we get back on the road. The landscape of western Utah is sparse and desolate, but has a beauty that exists only in places where no one ever lives. Even with the sun not due to rise for another six hours, the mountains attract the moonlight and together they waltz north and south, the only manmade sights being the occasional refinery on the horizon and the highway beneath our feet. A road sign reminds us that the sterility of suburbia is only 85 miles away, but we ignore our imminent return and focus on the natural beauty that has been forged by wind and history.

We get to the Salt Flats and it finally feels like desert. There are at least ten cars in my rearview mirror going to the same place we are, and I decide that this is the perfect place for a diner. We’d serve breakfast all day and use real eggs and I’d know the regulars by their first name so I could say things like “More coffee, Jim?” and refill the cream and sugar and I’d live in a room on the second floor and at night I’d play my guitar on the roof, accompanied by a choir of crickets that would somehow always be able to find the rhythm. It would be quiet and lonely and beautiful and just like a Bob Seger song.

But I keep driving. Lucy’s from Nebraska, so a flat, barren landscape doesn’t hold much aesthetic appeal or novelty to her and she curls into a ball and falls fast asleep. I nip at my Dr. Pepper, more for the distraction than for the caffeine, and try to decide whether the mountains keep drawing me back or if they keep me in. Or if there’s a difference.


I pull the car over and give it a rest in front of the shabby starter three bedroom home that Lucy shares with four other women. We see that all of the lights in her house are off and the dashboard clock reminds us that other people—lesser people—go to bed at reasonable hours. I grab her suitcase out of the backseat and walk her inside. I follow her downstairs past two of her roommates slumbering on mismatched couches to her bedroom and put her luggage against the wall. I kiss her goodnight and begin to walk up the stairs when I smell something rank and sharp.
“Oh my god,” she cries from the other room, not realizing how loud she is. One of her roommates stirs and mutters something unintelligible. I walk back in her room and the smell hits me in the nose like a right hook.

“There’s catshit on my pillow,” she says, and she’s right. I put a sandwich bag on my hand like a glove and pick up what appears to be a Cinnamon Roll From Hell and I decide to act as an agent of karma and I place it on the cat’s bed. See how it likes waking up with shit where it sleeps.

I grab Lucy’s suitcase with my left hand and her hand with my right and she stays with me that night.

But she can’t sleep. Bullshit upon bullshit has been stacked too high. Her life is a Jenga tower that keeps getting further and further out of her own reach, with no real signs of slowing down. She’s scared of just about everything and I don’t blame her: school, finances, relationships, family, life in general, etc. are pushing her and pushing her. But I’m taken aback by her grace. She cries in my arms for an entire Tom Waits album, but somehow avoids whimpering and she summons inspiration and willpower and deflects any pity or empathy and just hearing her sniff as quietly as she can every forty five seconds or so is enough to make me remember that, no matter what happens, no matter how broke we are or how our jobs get outsourced or how we are homeless or how we are cut so deeply by the only ones we allow in, that won’t really matter in about three hours when the sun rises over the mountains and the light reminds us that nothing but our own folly can ruin this microcosm of goodness that has made its way into my bed.

After she’s asleep, I read Superman comics for three hours, putting away the last one about two minutes before she wakes up stirring, asking if we can turn on the electric blanket.

It’s cold in here.

Sleeping naked next to her is like playing Whack-A-Mole. Seeing as how she’s 5’10”, she’s got poor circulation and one part of her body will end up always being cold, but it jumps around from her upper back to her left shoulder to her stomach to her calves and I have to continually re-place my hands to try and keep her comfortable. In a way, it’s kind of adorable and I consider whether or not to tell her, but I don’t want her to assume that I equate her to a bad carnival game. Because I don’t.

I look at the bedside clock again. It’s 2:37 AM. Still can’t sleep. The half-full bottle of whiskey on my desk five steps away is looking at me funny. I don’t appreciate its snide taunts and I decide that it needs to be punished. It needs to be humiliated.

The wave of drunken dejection that accompanies any whiskey-drinking comes over me like sandy saltwater within fifteen minutes and I stand four steps away from the bed, thinking of how good Lucy’s hair smells and how soft her neck is and the way that her collarbone protrudes just a little more than the collarbones of others and I smile before I realize that I really, really miss you, Alice. I do. I miss your collarbones. I miss how you’d hide your eyes behind your hair and I’d have to brush it aside so I could see what was really behind them. I miss your radiance and your quiet dignity and everything else that made it so natural to crawl into your arms. I wish that the sex and the Seagrams and the road trips and everything else I’ve tried to apply like a topical cream over these fresh wounds were enough to mask it, but it isn’t.

It would've officially been a year today. A year since our second first date, since we saw Little Women and ate mint chocolate chip and we talked for five hours on that disgusting couch and I thought about kissing you but figured it was too much and we shared our mistakes and our demons and you wore my leather jacket on the way home because you were cold and I didn't tell you this but after it smelled like you for two days so I wore it even though it was eighty degrees outside because it was like being surrounded by you.

You weren't just a breath of fresh air. You were a breath of air. You were a revelation and a reminder that there was decency and beauty and hope in this godawful world and you were so damned beautiful that night. Every night since, for that matter, even when you got your wisdom teeth out and you were miserable but we watched Veronica Mars and you drank the Vitamin Water that I brought you and your mouth hurt for days and I took you to get a haircut and you threw out all of those clothes that he had bought you to try and get forgiveness for whatever awful thing he had said or done.

I wish I could say that I didn't miss you. That it didn't bother me to go to bed without an "I love you" goodnight or a "drive home safe" goodbye or a "You're the best thing that's ever happened to me."

Did you mean them? Did you make them up to keep me around? Because I'd be lying if I said I didn't think of that. If I was the best thing that ever happened to you, I'd be there right now, sitting on that couch, my fingers in your hair and my eyes on our future, just waiting for you to be ready to take a chance on a life with me.

When I would see you, I saw an exhausting wedding reception and a tiny apartment in Brooklyn and me watching you walk with your Ph.D. in forensic psychology and beaming and saying to everyone in front, behind, to the left, and to the right of me "Her? The beautiful girl with the diploma and the smile bright enough to frighten the sun to hide behind the moon? That is my wife." And they'd all be jealous, and rightly so, because we were going to be happier than any two people who had ever lived because nothing else would really matter, and that would give us strength.

And things would be hard, of course. We'd have money troubles--after all, the comic book industry doesn't pay very well, and neither does being an expert witness--but we'd try. Even though you'd protest, I'd sell my comics (except for anything by Frank Miller, of course, because that would be barbaric) to make your tuition and I'd get a part time job as a night manager at McDonald's and every morning I'd get home as you were just getting out of bed for your daily run with our Yorkie, Martha (since you don't like the name for a child, you'd let me have it for a dog) and I'd smell like cheeseburgers and defeat and you'd hold me anyway because you'd know it was all for you.

And one day, I'd get that call. "Your book is getting published." I wouldn't believe it at first, but after some hard evidence (a check big enough to actually pay off that damn credit card), you'd make me dinner (grilled cheese, omelettes, Dr. Pepper) and we'd watch some Psych and fall asleep on the couch and you'd tell me how proud of me you were and when we get the box of ten promotional copies of the book, you'd open it to see the dedication to you. You'd ask me why I never told you about it, and I'd explain that the almost blinding light in your eyes was exactly why, that ability that I still somehow had, the thing that I was more grateful for than anything: the ability to surprise you enough to keep you around.

But eventually things would calm down. We'd establish a routine, and while some might find that boring or lifeless, I would love nothing more because it would mean that I would always have coming home to you to look forward to.

But that's all a fantasy, I guess. Didn't need to be, but it is. I'm guessing that the next year will not have you in it. And that makes me sad, because I love you with a purity reserved for scripture. I knew about fifteen minutes into our over-priced Thai that I could be satisfied. I could be happy. That may have been fast. In fact, I know it was fast. Suspiciously fast. But yours is a passion and a love in which there are no flaws, no imperfections, just purity.
I wish I knew what to do to make you come back. My world's not round without you.
We were supposed to get married.

I finally manage to fall asleep for about two hours. The sun peeks through the window pane and knocks softly on my eyelids, and I open them and let it in. I recall the last three days and am hit with the adamant realization that I’m back in this shithole with no money and no prospects, short on long-term goals and I look around and feel Lucy’s arms around my head and her breath against my neck and I decide that today will be what I make of it.

I get up and make us blueberry pancakes. She says that they’re good and eats five. I’m impressed with her appetite.

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