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The ants had gotten in through the shattered bottom half of Leslie’s laptop screen. Now they crawled across her green-and-blue-tinted Word documents and websites one or two at a time, with no discernible pattern or destination. It must have been a hell of a place for an ant, all that glowing landscape to be negotiated, possibly forever. It wasn’t clear whether any ants ever escaped or if they all just died in there. If they were dying, they at least had the decency to do it over in the dark border area of the screen or down in the keyboard, rather than within her line of sight. She was trying to see how long she could go without buying a new computer. The sound of crackling glass every time she opened the screen suggested that the reckoning was nigh.
She was on her front porch, trying to make herself write an email to her ex-boyfriend Marcus, who was, she had just learned, due back in town in a week for an exhibition of his drawings at a local gallery. (Well, exhibition, gallery—his work was being featured in the basement of the camera store in downtown Missoula.) She wanted to tell him that he shouldn’t be worried about running into her, that she no longer had any loose feelings about the breakup, that she thought it would be nice to have a drink, even, if he found himself with some time on his hands. But these thoughts wouldn’t form themselves into coherent sentences on the screen, maybe because she wasn’t sure they were true. She hadn’t forgotten the ugly melodrama of their final months together and she hadn’t forgiven him for going off to Italy for a fellowship without her, like a punk-ass. The worst thing about studying art history was the artists.
Her newish man, a mannish boy, was named Cal, for the baseball player, he claimed, though Cal Ripken would have only been a rookie when he was born, so it was probably made up, like Hillary being named after the Everest climber. Anyway, he was from Baltimore originally. Like many of the men she knew in Missoula, he was a dog trainer, novelist, and organic grocery store employee. His sweaters had moth holes in them. He rolled his own cigarettes. His novels weren’t self-published, technically, but only because one of his friends in town printed and distributed the books for him. His friend’s service fee was mostly offset by the handful of sales Cal made at his readings, which were attended with shrugging obligation by his friends and the town’s mostly elderly patrons of the arts. There was, in fact, a reading that night at Marlowe’s Books for his latest opus, a four-hundred-page novel set in Butte on New Year’s Eve, 1899.
It wasn’t ideal to date a bad—or, okay, flagrantly mediocre—writer, but it wasn’t as terrible as she’d worried it might be. Cal had decent, if very male, taste in books (Bolaño, Roth, David Foster Wallace) and wasn’t aggressively dumb about most things. He also, blessedly, lacked ambition; he didn’t seem too stressed out during the composition of his books, and he didn’t seem to worry about the fact that no one outside of Montana, and few people within it, would ever read them. He was smart enough not to push it, and that counted for something. And, frankly, she wasn’t in a great position to judge his work or his choices, given her own life situation (this being a polite euphemism for depressed and barely employed), but she did know what was good and what wasn’t. This hadn’t blossomed into an ethical dilemma yet. Politeness and desire and taste did not all have to be mutually exclusive, did they? And maybe it was his lack of anxiety about his literary status that made him so good in bed. Leave it to somebody else to pierce the human heart with punctuation.
She gave up on her email to Marcus for now. She picked up the laptop—one hand supporting the bottom, the other cradling the fragile spine—and went back into her apartment through the propped-open front door. She laid the computer on the couch gingerly and got a beer from the refrigerator, then drank it in the kitchen, staring out the window at the parking lot, thinking about Marcus.
* * *
She was five minutes late for her copyediting gig at the Open Door, and Lyle called her out for smelling like booze. But what was the point of working for an alternative paper if you were supposed to show up sober? She was told to start with the fourteen-page “community calendar” as punishment. “Join BodyWorks from 3:00–4:00 p.m. for a free workshop on mindful living and stress reduction. Kids and pets welcome!” Sounded reasonable. There was a bluegrass band at one brewery, “crafts for charity” at another, and a scandalously cheap happy hour at the new distillery. Kids and pets were welcome. A rap-metal band last heard from in 1998 was playing the Wilma. And yes, on Friday, “Drawings from Life” by Marcus Cull was being displayed in the basement of the Compound Eye as part of First Friday, 5:00–7:00 p.m. She considered using her copyediting powers for evil—dogs and firstborns executed on sight?—but Lyle had a tendency to check her work, especially when she’d been drinking. She changed her ex’s name to “Markass Krill,” hoping this might be subtle enough to slip through the censor’s net.
She got a text from Cal—“Gonna read chapter 8 good choice yes/no?” Was chapter eight the mine cave-in? The dissolution of the affair between the former slave and the alcoholic homesteader? Cal’s books tended to be quite—one might even say gratuitously—violent, and she hoped he wouldn’t read one of the many sequences of mangling or disfigurement. He’d gotten the idea, from movies and Cormac McCarthy, presumably, that the best way to depict “the past” was through unrepentant brutality, because that’s how it was. Maybe, she thought, better not to depict it at all, then. She responded to his text with an equivocal “yeh?”
It was hard, sometimes, putting up with the town’s cheerful, half-assed shtick, but most days the alternatives seemed worse. New York was a nightmare of pointless ambition, people waiting in endless lines for nothing. In Boston they didn’t bother with lines—they just jammed as many white people as possible into anyplace showing the Pats. She’d spent her early years in Princeton, with its liberal old-money complacency, dominated by “good families” who produced “good kids,” most of them zapped awful by divorce and private school. They’d never get her back there alive, at least not for more than a long weekend. She’d spent her childhood wanting to be from somewhere else, anywhere that didn’t draw a wince. Of course, name recognition was the whole appeal for her mother—when people asked where she lived, she could just say, “Princeton,” and they’d know she was a person of wealth and taste, whereas when people asked Leslie, she said, “Jersey,” then, if pressed, “Hopewell Valley, in Mercer County? Near Princeton?” Which was true—one good thing about New Jersey was that there were so many townships and villages and what have you that you could always just claim the nearest one that appealed. In Montana, the categories were broader. You were from Back East, Around Here, or California. It was best to not be from California.
She moved on to copyediting the arts section, her favorite part of the job. She hoped that if she hung around the office making snappy comments for long enough, she might someday be allowed to write a film or concert review. The current movie critic, Amy Freitch, trashed almost everything she saw in a biting, faux-naïve voice, saving her praise, it seemed, only for films about martial arts and animals. Leslie had gone camping with her once, and they’d taken mushrooms and read tarot cards. Amy claimed to know how to do it, but seemed to be making things up as she went along, possibly because she was hallucinating too much to interpret what the cards portended, probably just because she thought it was funny. Nevertheless, she’d predicted a hard year for Leslie, which had proved accurate. But wasn’t every year a hard year? Even a good year took a lot out of you.
Amy was sexy in a way that Leslie envied—boyish in her carelessness about clothes and posture but still long-haired and vulnerable. She also drank too much, like most of the people Leslie admired. She hoped that Amy would get a job writing for a real newspaper so that Leslie could take her place at the Door. She wouldn’t be as good as Amy right away, but she’d find her voice. “A voice like a girl with ants in her laptop,” they’d say, “marching in dissolved and scattered ranks toward some obscure but essential truth.” Most people she talked to disliked Amy’s pieces, so maybe she’d get fired. Leslie couldn’t in good conscience hope for that, but, well, it was out of her hands, wasn’t it?
Amy’s piece was pretty clean, but the week’s book review, of an eco-memoir about the grasslands of Eastern Montana, was a mess. It was by a recent graduate of the MFA program, an eco-poet who couldn’t, or chose not to, organize his sentences in the traditional manner. Nature careth not about such frivolities, but even an alternative weekly required the occasional comma. She spent a solid hour rewriting the piece, knowing she’d catch shit for being overzealous. But she didn’t want to contribute to the prevailing idea that everyone born after 1984 operated in a vacuum of good intentions without recourse to actual knowledge.
Despite her rejection of its trappings, Leslie had been thoroughly and expensively educated, and some of the content had stuck, even as she’d worked hard to smother her recollection of it under a scratchy blanket of booze and “other.” Oh, she was an expert on “encountering the other,” and she wasn’t talking about UM’s shit show of a diversity fair. She missed cocaine, but there wasn’t much of it in town, and the couple of times she had run across it, it was awful. The grungy kids did heroin—it was back! again!—but she’d always been afraid of that. She wanted to kill time but not, you know, kill it. Like, permanently.
* * *
She arrived at the bookstore a half hour before Cal’s reading so she could look at books and help set up. There was a local itinerant man sprawled on the sidewalk next to the door. He was moaning and slowly kicking his legs like he was swimming.
“Are you all right?” Leslie said loudly.
The man moaned louder and kicked with more purpose, in her direction. She went into the bookstore. Kim was behind the desk staring intently at the store’s computer screen.
“Have you seen that guy out front?” Leslie said.
“I don’t want to call the cops on him,” Kim said, eyes still on the screen. “But if Max gets here and he’s still out there, he’s not going to be happy. Mostly I don’t want to deal with it.”
“He doesn’t seem to be in a position to be reasoned with.”
Leslie wandered among the new-books tables, browsing through the poetry and the stuff from the independent presses. How the store stayed in business selling such strange and unpopular books remained its enduring mystery. There must have been enough people buying them to sustain the small shop, but Leslie never seemed to meet them. Secret intellectuals, speak up! Reveal yourselves!
The big problem that Leslie had, as far as she could tell, was that she was still, at twenty-seven, a person without well-established and verifiable thoughts or opinions about things. Other people were moving through the world and analyzing what they saw with some kind of consistency, a set of values that was sustainable and based on … something. What they grew up with, what they had developed later in opposition to what their parents had told them. Of course, she knew that there was no such thing as a balanced consciousness, or, if there was, it existed primarily in idiots and self-satisfied creeps, men mostly, who chose not to question their lives for fear of realizing they were terrible failures. But still. Everyone else always seemed to be doing better at it than she was.
“You want to help me with the chairs and stuff?” Kim said, finally turning to her.
Kim was one of the good ones, a seriously noncomplacent person. She struggled openly with the borders of her life. She was writing a memoir about her peripatetic childhood, much of which involved traveling the country in a van with her family, moving between cultish New Age communities in dire poverty. Kim’s rejection of her family was partial and unhappy. She loved them and forgave them in principle but also had to stay away from them and have almost no contact with them whatsoever because most of their interactions triggered major depressive episodes.
Leslie had been at the Rose with Kim one night when Kim got a call from an unknown number. Usually she screened such calls, but she was drunk and expecting to hear from a man she’d recently slept with, so she answered it. Leslie watched as Kim listened in silence for a minute to someone speaking on the other end, and then held down the power button until the phone turned off.
“So that was my father?” she said. “I’m going to need you to hang with me for the rest of the night. Sorry.”
Then they’d gotten ugly drunk—drink-spilling, falling-off-of-barstools, shouting-at-the-TV drunk. Jamie had been there, blessedly, to drive them home, and they’d lain on the hardwood floor of Kim’s apartment, curled up against each other, Kim’s hair in Leslie’s face.
“I really hope I don’t puke in your hair,” Leslie said.
“If there’s any chance of that, you should not stay there,” Kim said.
“I’m sorry your family’s so fucked up,” Leslie said.
“It’s okay. I deserve it.”
“You were bad in a past life.”
“Past, present, future. There is no temporal zone in which I have not been, or will not be, a terrible person.”
“What did you ever do to anybody?”
“Nothing,” Kim said. “Not appreciated the gifts God gave me.”
“Well, what are you supposed to do?”
“Help people. Do something besides be selfish and wasteful.”
“You will,” Leslie said. “We’re still just little babies.”
“Drunk-ass babies,” Kim said. “Look out, America: the babies found the liquor cabinet.”
“This week’s episode: Babies get their stomachs pumped. Bad, bad babies.”
And more like that. They’d both thrown up eventually, Leslie in the middle of the night, Kim in the morning, though they’d made it to a trash can and the toilet, respectively. Respectably.
“Do you know this other girl who’s reading tonight?” Kim said.
“I didn’t know there was anybody else,” Leslie said.
“Megan D’Onofrio?” Kim said. “Lyric essayist?”
“Weren’t essays bad enough before they got lyrical?”
“Maybe she’s cool. Let’s try really, really hard to be open-minded. That might be interesting.”
“Do you have weed?” Leslie said.
“My mind is open to smoking your weed.”
They went out to the alley behind the store, Kim carrying a box full of unsold literary magazines with the front covers ripped off for recycling. Leslie stood in the spot closer to the street as a lookout while Kim leaned against the wall and loaded the one-hitter painted to look like a cigarette. Their furtiveness was mostly for fun—they were aware of exactly no one who’d had any trouble getting stoned in Missoula. Still, Leslie found it hard to strike the surreptitious East Coast habits she’d developed as a teen during the late, feeble years of the war on drugs, even as, she’d been told, you could now smoke a joint on the street in Manhattan without fear of anything more than a ticket, at least if you were white.
“Yo, hit this,” Kim said, and Leslie did.
“We sold, like, three books today,” Kim said. “And they were, like, the gluten-free cookbook. All of them.”
Leslie passed the piece back.
“Is Max, what, selling organs on the side?” Leslie said.
“I wish he’d cut me in if he was,” said Kim, exhaling smoke. “I think he might just be rich somehow.”
Leslie took another hit.
“How’s the book coming?” she said.
“What are you, my agent?” Kim said.
“Sorry for being curious about your stupid life ambitions,” Leslie said.
“It’s going slow, man.” She looked down the barrel of the one-hitter and then tapped the ash out against the wall. “You think, like, Oh, it’s my life, I can write that, I went to graduate school. But you have to not hate what you write, you know? Which is hard if you hate yourself to begin with.”
“Maybe you should try not writing about yourself,” Leslie said.
“Who’d want to read that?” Kim said.
They went back into the bookstore, which was dim following the late-afternoon glare. Leslie was surprised by the sharp vertigo of despair—stoned in the company of her favorite friend, surrounded by good books. She had to admit that she was dreading Cal’s arrival and subsequent reading. She knew this was unkind, but lying to herself wasn’t going very well. Her attempt at self-deception involved rehearsing dramatic internal monologues of uncertainty. Well, I don’t know I’m unhappy. Thinking that Cal depresses me doesn’t mean he actually depresses me. But she knew, underneath these contortions, that if one had these thoughts for long enough, self-obfuscated or otherwise, one would eventually need to act on them.
“You okay?” Kim said.
Leslie looked up and realized she’d been standing at the poetry table unconsciously holding a waifish new Anne Carson hardcover.
“Can I use the computer for a minute?” she said.
“Let me just close out for the day,” Kim said. “Unless you’re buying that.”
“Right, like I’m going to just buy a book,” Leslie said. “Oh, look at me, I’m contributing to the local economy by purchasing important literature.”
“It does sound pretty dumb when you say it in that voice. Computer’s yours.”
Leslie fell into the padded swivel chair and opened her email. It seemed important to write this on a computer instead of her phone. In two blurry minutes—the pot helped, if that was really the right verb—she typed out a truncated version of the gracious, medium-true email to Marcus she’d been drafting in her head for days. She hoped all was well, was glad he was coming to town, hoped they could interact without issue. She signed it “With love, Les,” deleted that, retyped it, deleted it again, retyped it again, and hit send. Then she hurriedly logged out of her email, closed the Internet browser, and shut down the computer.
“Whoosh!” she yelled, and held her arms outstretched.
“Um,” Kim said. “Does that mean you’re ready to help me move the tables?”
* * *
They were unfolding the last of the chairs when Cal arrived with the beer, thirty-six jumbo cans from the brewery down the street, purchased at a bulk discount because they’d been badly dented during the production process.
“That guy out front’s in rough shape,” Cal said. “I tried to talk to him but he wasn’t having it.”
“You could call the police,” Kim said.
“That’s fucked up,” Cal said.
“Right, well, that’s as far as we got, too.”
“Nervous?” Leslie said.
“What, me worry?” Cal said. “I have faith in my material.”
Kim rolled her eyes behind his back.
Over the next fifteen minutes, the usual suspects wandered into the store, stepping around the drunken man. Max, the owner, was one of the last to arrive.
“How long has that guy been out there?” he said to Kim.
“Oh, him?” Kim said. “I guess he just showed up.”
“Come on, Kimberly,” Max said. He sat down behind the desk and put his head in his hands.
“Leslie, come help me,” Kim said. She hooked Leslie’s arm through hers and went outside. The man was sprawled to the left of the door, his head resting on his outstretched arm, which extended into the entranceway.
“Sir,” Kim yelled. “I’m really sorry but you need to move now, okay?”
He grunted and shifted slightly, revealing a puddle of urine.
“Sir, we don’t want to call the police, but you have to move now.”
“No cops,” he muttered. He opened his eyes and fixed them unfocusedly on Leslie. She told herself that she understood this, sympathized with it. She knew what it was like to have done too much, to be out of control. She also knew, or suspected, at least, that this really wasn’t like that, and that whatever sympathy she had for him was just pity, which she was trying to keep ahead of disgust in her emotional calculus.
“No cops,” the man said again, and began dragging himself down the sidewalk, leaving a trail of piss and garbage in his wake. They watched as he re-settled a few storefronts down, curling himself up in the doorway of the closed secondhand clothing store.
“Maybe we should call the cops?” Leslie said. “I mean, fuck, jail is better than that.”
“No, it’s not,” Kim said.
They went back into the store, where a few people had begun drifting in and picking up cans of Cal’s deformed beer.
“Hey, Les, this is Megan,” Cal said. “She’s my opening act. Or rather, I’m the, uh, cool-down mix to her energizing jams.”
Megan acknowledged this with a stifled laugh and shook Leslie’s hand. Megan was unusually tall and long-limbed and delicate. Leslie thought Megan was raising her eyebrows ironically but it turned out that was just how they were all the time.
“I’m looking forward to hearing your stuff,” Leslie said.
“I think it’s good, at least,” she said.
“That’s a start,” said Leslie. “What are you reading?”
“It’s kind of a reflection on … I don’t know.” She let out a heavy sigh. “The body? I don’t really know what I’m doing anymore. It’s just … it’s really hard, you know?” She stared down at the floor.
“I’m sure you’re going to be great,” Leslie said. “This is a very forgiving audience.”
“Oh God,” she said, “I hope I don’t have to be forgiven for anything.”
* * *
Once the reading was under way, Leslie found it impossible to stay focused on what Megan was saying. The essay was as amorphous as advertised. It seemed to be about her body, and … icebergs? And her father, who was … also an iceberg? Leslie checked her phone and was disconcerted to see that she already had a response from Marcus. She had imagined—hoped was too strong a word—that he wouldn’t reply at all, that her email would simply be registered in her karmic ledger without any need for it to be acknowledged in actual reality. But here was Marcus, alive in her in-box. She looked up and saw that she was attracting a glare from her seatmate, an older woman with a long braid of white hair whom she’d seen at past readings. The woman pointed at Leslie, then at the reader at the lectern. Leslie pointed at her phone.
“I’m texting!” she said in a stage whisper. “Sorry, I’m too busy texting!”
This drew smirks from her friends sitting in the row in front of them, but she did put her phone in her bag. She wasn’t as rude as she pretended to be.
“If the heart is located outside the body, is it still of the body?” Megan read. “If ice is no longer solid, will it cease to be my heart? When I melt, who will drink what is left behind? Thank you.”
Amid the applause, Leslie returned to her phone. Marcus’s email was short. “Les,” it said. “Very glad you sent this. I think of you often. Can’t wait to catch up. Till soon, M.”
She was torn between hating her past self—the very recently past self who had sent that email—and enjoying the surge of gratitude she felt for Marcus’s response. She was skeptical of gratitude. Like humility, it was what people told you to feel after you’d been fucked over. Marcus had been awful, drugged-out and petty and selfish in the most unjustifiable ways. But the sheer reminder of his existence broadened her outlook. The world was not Missoula.
She felt something cold against the back of her neck and turned around.
“Cold Smoke?” Cal said, holding a beer. “There’s a couple IPAs left, too.”
“This is great,” she said. “Thanks.”
“Thought she was pretty good,” Cal said. “Really poetic language.”
“Definitely,” Leslie said. She sipped her beer, which was not as cold as it had felt against her neck.
“Hey!” Cal said to a retired UM professor. “So glad you could make it, Jim.”
“I’m still alive, aren’t I?” Jim said. He cuffed Leslie on the shoulder, harder than was necessary. “Got a cigarette for an old man?”
“I don’t think you’re supposed to have any, Jim,” she said.
“I’m eighty-two goddamn years old,” he said. “Nobody gives a fuck what I do.”
They’d been through this routine a few times. She guessed that Jim didn’t know her name, but he consistently recognized her as a reliable touch for nicotine. She was only a social and emergency smoker, but she socialized and encountered emergencies with such frequency, and cigarettes in this state were so cheap, that it made sense to keep a pack on hand, if only to distinguish herself from the parasites who bummed shamelessly the minute they’d had a sip of beer. Jim was exempted from this opprobrium, of course.
“I’ll come out with you,” she said.
On the sidewalk, he waved her away as she tried to light his cigarette, and lit hers first with a trembling hand.
“I said I wouldn’t go to any more readings,” he said. “But, what the hell, it’s something to do.”
“Do you like Cal’s writing?” she said.
“He’s a good kid,” he said. “Doesn’t mess around too much.”
This was interesting as a praiseworthy characteristic—all that most of the people Leslie knew did was mess around too much. She had, not quite consciously, enshrined it as something to be sought out in people, though she knew it was juvenile. Living here had brought out the hedonist in her. She’d never not had a tendency to drink too much, at least since she turned sixteen, but it wasn’t until she got to Montana that she really began to appreciate inebriation in its various forms as an art rather than an obligation. Cal, like a decent person, considered it neither.
“Yeah, I like him,” Leslie said.
“Not much of a writer,” Jim said. “Nobody’s perfect.”
Leslie offered him a big smile in thanks for this assessment, cruel as it was. Older men loved it when she smiled at them. Jim’s face, however, remained set in a scowl.
“Not that I know what the hell I’m talking about,” he said hurriedly. “You write? You want to write?”
“Wish that I did, I guess,” she said. “I’m one of those people with lots of ideas, you know?”
“Just fucking write something,” he said. “Worst-case it’s a piece of shit and you never show it to anybody. That’s what I told my students, at least.”
“Did they find that comforting?”
“A few of them wrote books. Probably no thanks to me. Nobody really cares if you write anything. I’ll be dead, at least. I don’t even know you.”
Leslie craned her neck around Jim to see if the homeless man was still on the sidewalk. She didn’t see him. Maybe he’d made it to the parking lot of Flipper’s, the bar-casino at the end of the block, which would have a legal obligation to call the police. Maybe, somehow, he’d found the energy to carry himself with something like dignity to a place that would take him in. It was hard to be entirely hopeless.
“It’s always good getting your perspective, Jim,” she said.
“No, it’s not,” he said. He tossed his lit cigarette into the street underhanded and shuffled back into the store. Leslie saw through the front window that people were sitting back down for Cal’s reading. She could slip away to a bar now and be truly blitzed by the time anyone could do anything about it. Kim would come find her eventually. She’d understand, even if Leslie was unable to explain herself. The goal was to be unable to explain herself. Goddamn Marcus. As if he were the problem. She went back into the store. She still had three-quarters of a beer to finish.
Marcus—no, Cal, Cal—knocked the pages of his story against the lectern like a professor on TV. He was wearing the “vintage” corduroy jacket with elbow patches that Leslie had tried to convince him to throw away due to its penchant for attracting mold. Cal blamed the closet it was stored in but kept storing it there, and kept wearing it to all events that could loosely be deemed “intellectual” in nature. And, well, maybe the authentic disgustingness of the thing made it a more authentic article of clothing for him, and maybe that was what gave him the confidence he needed to read his work in front of people.
Chapter eight, the section Cal had threatened to read, turned out to be a long scene of dialogue about the nature of political corruption between the Copper King William A. Clark and his nephew Terry over cigars and brandy. “I never bought anyone who wasn’t for sale,” was Clark’s well-worn contribution to posterity, and sure enough, Cal had him saying it within his first five lines of dialogue. It drew knowing snorts of recognition from the audience. The rest was exposition-heavy tragical-historical melodrama—“But Uncle, less than a decade ago, you promised Mother you would liquidate one-tenth of the holdings you accrued during your time in the banking industry and use that money to pay for Alexander’s passage west, to start a new and better life for himself!”—and Leslie could feel the energy in the room flag with every “swirl of potent amber liquid.” He did know, at least, not to read too long.
“‘Father,’” Cal read with finality in his voice, “‘it is half of an hour until midnight.’ His daughter led him by the hand into the grand ballroom, where he would join his guests in preparing for the long-heralded new century’s beginning. Thank you.”
Leslie clapped hard. She really was proud of the way that he read, the poise he showed in front of a group, and the casual seriousness with which he carried himself. Jim was right—he didn’t mess around. But to what end?
“Great job,” she said to him when he’d made his way over to her. She gave him a quick kiss.
“Was it okay?” he said.
“But not like in a fascist way, right?”
“Only the tiniest bit,” she said. “A little touch of fascism in the night.”
“Huh,” he said. “Well, I’m glad you liked it.”
She squeezed his shoulder once and moved past him so that he could greet his other admirers, and then went back behind the sales desk where she knew Kim kept a bottle of Jim Beam in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet. She took a pull from the half-full (or was it half-empty?) handle, then, before she could register the effect, took one more, holding the whiskey in her mouth for an extra unpleasant second before swallowing it. The immediate consequence was nausea, but then she felt the old pleasant warming in her brain and felt justified in her choice. All of these things that masqueraded as decisions, she knew, were really just inevitabilities.
“You, uh, drop something, Les?” Kim loomed over her.
“Yeah, I think my contact lens is in this bottle of Jim Beam,” she said.
“Could you get out of there before Max sees you?” Kim said. “Come on, man.”
“Feeling a little sad,” Leslie said. She stood up and rested her weight on the low science-fiction shelf. “But I was feeling so good just a few minutes ago!”
“This is a good night,” Kim said. “Whatever it is, you’re overthinking it.”
“I wish I wasn’t such a jerk,” Leslie said.
“Yeah, well,” Kim said.
They followed the exodus out of the store and across the Higgins Bridge. The group walked past the Wilma and the camera store where Marcus’s exhibition was going to be, turned left at the creepy western expansion mural, skirted the creepy Christian coffee shop, skipped the creepy casino, and entered the Rose. The bar was dark and nearly empty, a combination of the early hour and the summer exodus of college kids.
“Shots?” Cal asked the group in general.
“Let me get this round,” Leslie said. “Or at least ours. You want the special?”
“You know it,” he said. Then, because he couldn’t help it, “Thanks, honey.”
There was a panic building in her as she ordered three sets of Jack Daniel’s and Olympias, not because of the booze—though she was on her way toward being in not ideal shape on that front—but because of how little she wanted to see Cal just now. She didn’t want him to know about the unprovoked sea changes in her feelings for him, but she also wasn’t sure she could, in good faith, continue interacting normally. Everyone always told her that she was “moody,” which she usually dismissed as, well, another way to dismiss her. But she felt the force of her mood now, the physical demands that it was making on the people around her. She was mostly mood, and only a little bit person.
She carried the three tallboys over to the table and went back for the shots. As she arrived at the bar, she saw a haggard regular dump one of her whiskeys into his own drink, then set the empty shot glass back next to the two full ones.
“What the fuck, man?” she said.
“Excuse me?” he said. He was accessorizing his patchy gray goatee and blotchy nose with an oversized black T-shirt.
“I saw what you did,” she said. “Not cool.”
“Drinks on the bar,” he said, as if citing a house rule. “I see a drink on the bar, I don’t know whose drink that is. Could be my drink, could be somebody else’s. I see a drink on the bar, I figure it must be my drink. I think, Oh, somebody bought me a drink, guess it’s my lucky day. You bought that drink? Okay. Thank you.”
“You’re lucky I feel guilty about a couple of other things right now,” Leslie said. She collected the other two shots and brought them back to Cal and Kim.
“To a new century,” Kim said.
Leslie nodded and sipped her beer. That was Kim—toasting the new century, not the last one. Kim was a wreck, too, but at least she was an optimist. She kept moving forward, maybe because she was trying to get past her family, even as she was spending all of her spare time trying to write about them. She was doing it, she would probably say, in the interest of resolving her feelings toward the past, and that was a worthy goal. Leslie worried that, for her, writing might simply be a further excuse to retreat deeper into herself, to interact with the world on the prearranged terms of her own choosing rather than the world’s actual terms, whatever those turned out to be. She didn’t believe that she would be able to both exist in the world of realistic expectations and fulfill the expectations she had for herself, expectations she had barely allowed herself to admit that she possessed. She knew, from talking to other losers, that imagining you were talented was the first step to a life of self-pity and disappointment.
“Well, so what are you going to write next?” Kim asked, interrupting some banter that Cal was having with a punk couple about an upcoming house show by a band called Fat History Month.
“I’ve started a couple of things,” Cal said. “I kind of need to decide between the early twentieth century and, like, way before that. I mean, okay, I know the Revolutionary War’s been done to death but it still hasn’t been done, like … sexy, you know?”
“You’re going to do Rev War for the ladies?” Leslie said.
“Well, for at least some of them,” Cal said. “Not in a feminist way. Just, like, hey, people had lots of interesting sex back then, too. Men and women.”
“I really can’t tell if you’re joking,” Leslie said.
“Okay, Leslie,” Kim said.
“I’m just talking,” Leslie said. “At least I’m not bothering you about your shit.”
“We’re all admiring your restraint,” Kim said.
Cal put his hand on hers from across the table.
“Les is just being the smart one,” he said. “It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.”
“What does that mean?” Leslie said.
“I just mean you always think everything through,” Cal said. “That’s what I love about you. That’s why we need you.”
Cal’s face glowed pink in the neon light of the bar’s window sign, giving his affability a demonic cast. The “we” in this speech was embarrassing, worse even than the “I” and the “you.”
“I think you’re overestimating me,” Leslie said.
She would get down to writing for real when she got home—no more putting it off. If Cal could write three lame historical novels and Marcus could become an artist, nascent or otherwise, and Kim could get on the radio, as she had last week, talking about her memoir in progress, surely she could produce something of proportionate value, or at least something not embarrassing. And if she couldn’t, well, then maybe she didn’t deserve to be so goddamn opinionated.
“Oh shit,” Kim said, looking past Leslie. James the bartender now had the drink-stealer in a headlock from behind the bar. The haggard guy flailed his arms listlessly and kicked over a stool.
“I told you to cut it the fuck out,” James said. The other guy seemed to be giving up, or passing out.
“That seems really unnecessary,” Cal said.
He was probably right. And yet, she didn’t feel that bad about it. How’s this for identification: she wasn’t sure whether she’d rather be the guy getting choked or the guy doing the choking.
“I’m going to see if I can help,” Cal said. He moved toward the crowd of people who were standing around the bar not helping.
“Would you be nicer?” Kim said.
Leslie turned and gave her a slow-dawning, shrunken-head smile.
They focused their attention on the growing melee just as Cal took a kick to the nose from the flailing drunk guy. He put his hands over his face and dropped to his knees.
“Okay, now call the police,” Kim said.
Leslie started to say, “Why me?” out of pure instinct, but caught herself. Why not her? She pressed the emergency button in her contact list for the first time ever as Kim moved across the room to help Cal. She tried to commit the details of the tableau to memory—the drunk’s sweatpants held up, barely, by a piece of weathered rope, the usually gentle-mannered James grinning sadistically as he shouted obscenities at the man in his grip. Cal, helped to his feet by Kim, and Kim pressing a pile of cocktail napkins to his bleeding nose. When the dispatcher picked up, Leslie was pretty sure she wasn’t witnessing an emergency. But since she was already on the line, she explained, as clearly as she could, what she saw. It was a first draft.
With the Christopher Kids
On christmas eve i wandered around my mother’s house looking for things to wrap. For the last three days I’d been slamming doors and doing cocaine and forgetting that it was the season of giving, nominally because my girlfriend Melanie had left me hours before our trip north to visit our respective families. If I was being fair—which I wasn’t—Melanie’s decision made sense: Why wait until after the holiday disasters to sever ties? It was one less thing to hold against each other forever. Downstairs, my sister Patricia hollered for scissors.
I opened the game closet and tried to find something without too many pieces missing. First Down! NFL Challenge was unopened, but twenty years old. Warren Moon was an Oiler. The Oilers existed. Was it nostalgic kitsch yet? It went in the “maybe” pile. I heard Patricia pound up the back steps with Yoshi’s little dog claws clicking behind her.
“You’re wrapping, yeah?” she said. “I need paper, tape, and scissors.”
“Everyone’s got problems,” I said.
She looked over at my gift pile: A VHS copy of Con Air, a dusty martini shaker, a ceramic pig.
“Maybe some of your presents can be from both of us,” I said.
“Somehow that doesn’t seem fair,” Patricia said. My sister was in recovery and therefore disapproved of my selfish, histrionic drug binge.
“I’m doing my best,” I said. Yoshi nuzzled my leg because she loved me and wanted me to be happy.
“Give me the wrapping stuff and I won’t call you out on how full of shit you are,” Patricia said.
When I finally came back with the things she’d asked for, Patricia was examining the underside of a massive pink conch shell that I’d found in my closet.
“‘Souvenir of a lifetime, St. Kitts ’96,’” she read. “Do you remember that trip?”
“No,” I said.
“Me neither,” she said. “Those vacations all blur together. I guess we were probably fucked up.”
“We were, like, children in 1996,” I said.
“I bet it was nice. Oh well.”
I followed her downstairs but took a detour to the back deck to smoke a cigarette. There was some new snow out there that crunched under my feet in a not-hostile way. Someone had put cows in the field behind the woods, and I could hear them moaning. This was New Jersey, Princeton, for Christ’s sake. The cows knew they were far from home.
The last night I’d spent with Melanie had been in her little house outside Durham. It rained so hard I thought the roof was going to come down on us, and when we had sex, Melanie wouldn’t make a sound no matter what I did. In the morning, over pancakes, she told me she was unhappy, that she needed time to think. Then, half an hour later, while I sat drinking coffee in a diner down the street, she called and told me that, actually, she’d thought about it enough. The rain turned to snow near the fourth tollbooth in Delaware, and kept at it for the next two days.
My mother opened the porch door.
“I don’t care that you’re smoking,” she said. “As long as it’s just for now.”
It was true, she didn’t care. If I caught my kid smoking, I’d make him smoke a whole pack, or hang a burning cigarette around his neck for twenty-four hours like a dog that’s killed a chicken.
“It’s just for now,” I said.
“You know, if you don’t go to bed, Santa won’t come.”
“Ma, it’s only nine-thirty.”
“Not in the North Pole it isn’t,” she said. “How does Patricia seem to you?”
“A little on edge,” I said. “But straight.”
“And you?” my mother said.
I tossed my cigarette toward the trees. It landed, still lit despite the snow, in the middle of the yard. “Similar.”
When I went inside, Patricia was wrapping presents at the kitchen table.
“I hate to see you like this,” she said.
“Would you drive me to the train?” I said. “I want to go to New York.”
“No,” she said.
“Would you shoot me in the head?”
“Help me wrap this,” she said. I sat down across the table from her and put Yoshi in my lap. She squirmed and whined but I held her tight.
“This is what I got Mom,” Patricia said. It was a jagged chunk of shiny blue rock. “It’s from Brazil. I always get her books, so I thought, This year, make it a rock.”
“The heart’s love is priceless,” she said.
Patricia was twenty-six, three years younger than me. She’d been in and out of rehab since college but seemed to have pulled it together in the last couple of years. I’d never been to rehab myself, but until recently we’d taken turns being the one with a substance problem. Now it was all up to me. She lived in New York and wrote lyrics for off-Broadway musicals; I was a freelance radio producer, which lately meant recording pieces about the Research Triangle’s homeless population and then being told to send something less depressing. Tricia has always been much more talented than me, and I was proud when I wasn’t furious about it. She and her writing partner were hard at work on a musical about Helen Gurley Brown, the already-overexposed editor of Cosmopolitan. It was a mercenary project—Tricia wasn’t really into that shit—but it seemed destined for success. Sex in the City plus Mad Men plus singing till your eyes fall out.
“Can we at least go to a bar?” I said.
“Steven, it’s Christmas Eve.”
“Tucker’s will be open,” I said. A couple of Christmases ago I’d passed out at a table in the bar and woken up on the bartender’s couch, naked, but, I concluded, inviolate.
“You should think of this as an opportunity to pull yourself together,” Patricia said. “You still have a choice.”
“If I stay in this house one more hour I’m going to lose my fucking mind,” I said. “I did a lot for you when you were in bad shape.”
“When I was an alcoholic,” Patricia said. “You are begging an alcoholic to take you to a bar.”
“Right, but you’re okay now,” I said. “I’m not.”
“It’s called enabling,” she said. “Didn’t you listen on visitor’s day? You’ve been to enough of them.”
I really didn’t want to go alone. I’d been having waking nightmares about Melanie, thinking she was behind me, hearing her voice in the room. And the idea of driving, after the ten-hour tear from Durham, gave me the shakes. I fled to my room and put on a Beatles record. “It won’t be long, yeah. Yeah. Yeah.” I cut out a line on my desk with my debit card. This was the decent stuff I’d gotten from a friend in the South, which I’d been trying to make last by alternating it with the bad stuff I’d picked up from a kid in town. I should probably mention here that I don’t know anything about cocaine.
I heard a soft knock at the door and opened it a crack.
“Look, you don’t need to be secretive about what you’re doing in there,” Patricia said.
“Sure I do.”
“Well,” she said. “Is it any good?”
“It’s fine,” I said.
“Okay, look, could I … could I have some?” She held out her hands like Oliver Twist.
“You shouldn’t,” I said.
“I know, I know,” she said. “But I’d love to have just a little. It’s Christmas, you know?”
She was so sweet about it, her voice gravelly and poignant. This wasn’t the old junkie sis, chugging vodka out of a water bottle before dinner; this was Tricia when we were kids, asking if she could come up into the tree house. No, it was not my finest moment.
“Will you drive me to the bar?” I said.
I let her in, cut the line in half, handed over the loosely rolled ten-dollar bill. She tightened it up like a pro and bent down over the desk. “Oh man, it’s been a while,” she said.
“Savor it,” I said. “Because you aren’t getting any more.”
She sprawled back onto the bed. “This is all’s I need.”
I did mine—one more hit of cool damp cave—and put my hands on her shoulders.
“To Tucker’s,” I said.
“Can I have just a little tiny bit more?” she said. “Since I can’t drink?”
Well, we’d gone this far. I cut her a line from the bad stuff.
“That one burned,” she said. “Yuck.”
* * *
When I was fourteen, I was sent off to the boarding school my father went to and found myself scared and lonely twenty-four hours a day. I was a good student but my friends were the bad kids, the ones who were smart enough not to get expelled but still spent most of their time stoned. At a school like that, where everyone was training to die of a heart attack on a yacht in the Bahamas, there was something noble about the opt-outers. I cried at night from homesickness even in my third year. I was the favorite of my first housemaster and a scourge upon my second for the same reason: I wouldn’t leave him and his family alone. I could never fall asleep.
One weekend in the fall of my senior year, Tricia came up north to see me. It was against the rules, of course, but we stayed in a Marriott on Route 1 paid for by our parents, who called and told the school that they were staying with us. Tricia was sixteen and had gotten a bottle of vodka somewhere. We sat in the hotel room drinking screwdrivers and watching HBO for two days straight, eating delivery pizza and Chinese food because we were afraid of being seen by someone from school if we left the room. We came up with movie ideas and argued about the merits of Bright Eyes and drank until we threw up and then drank more. Tricia seemed to understand what my problem was even though I couldn’t explain it. She made me feel better. When we said goodbye at the train station on Sunday afternoon, the thought of going back to school alone made me cry.
“You’ll be home soon,” Tricia said, and rubbed my back.
“I don’t want to go home,” I said. “I don’t want anything.”
“Don’t be dramatic,” she said.
Back at the dorm that night I finished the handle of vodka by myself and passed out on the communal bathroom floor. By some miracle my friend Landon, and not an adult or a snitch, was the one who found me, and he managed to get me back to my room. I woke up with puke in my bed and scared myself into not drinking until I went home for Thanksgiving.
And then at Thanksgiving … actually, that’s enough.
* * *
Now, Tricia’s car reeked of old cigarettes and french fries. We lit new cigarettes to cover it up. The radio was playing “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
“I wish they’d play the Italian Christmas donkey,” Patricia said. “You remember the Italian Christmas donkey song?”
“It might be too racist now,” I said.
“America can suck my dick,” said Patricia. “This is the Wacky Races, Dick Dastardly, and Muttley. No room for moral hypocrisy here.”
There was joy in me for the first time since I got dumped. We, the Christopher kids, were single and high and going to see the sad people in the bar on Christmas. We would tell them, like that angel What’s-His-Name, to rejoice and be glad.
“Yo, we should pick up some candy canes,” I said. “To distribute unto the drunks.”
“Eh, I’ve got a bag of Hershey’s Kisses from Halloween in the trunk,” Tricia said. “No trick-or-treaters this year. As usual.”
“Did you know candy canes are supposed to be shaped like shepherd’s sticks?” I said. “Crooks, rather? And the red stripes are the blood of Jesus? I guess everyone knows that.”
Patricia rubbed at her cheek. “My face is itchy,” she said. “Does my face look weird?”
I turned on the light in the front seat and, yikes, her face did look a little weird. There was a fiery blotch spreading from her nose up across the side of her face.
“It’s a little red,” I said.
“It itches,” she said. “I’m not allergic to coke. I used to do it all the time.”
“Maybe you’re allergic to the other stuff in it. You’re not really allergic to things, are you?”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
I’d done plenty of that lousy batch and I felt fine.
“It’ll probably go away.”
I turned off the light and hoped for the best.
“Bad things always happen to me in cars,” Patricia said. “Tom broke up with me when we were driving home from Cape Cod. Then I crashed my car and had to go to rehab. Cars are a real problem area for me.”
“Trains are good,” I said. “I’d live on a train if I could.”
We were at the parking lot of the bar, which looked dark but open, with a few beat-up cars out front.
“Okay, my face is officially fucking on fire,” Patricia said. She turned on the light and flipped down the driver’s-side mirror. Her face was a mess. The right side was so swollen that her eye was almost closed.
“Oh shit, Stevie,” she said. “I think I need to go to the hospital.”
“Maybe the bar will have some antihistamines or something,” I said. “Don’t worry. If something really bad was going to happen it would’ve happened already.”
I patted her on the shoulder and she jerked away. I hustled into the bar and immediately felt better in the bleach-smelling dimness. The front area was a liquor store, half lit and empty, and a couple of guys were slumped at the bar in the back of the room. Maud the bartender was looking up at a TV playing It’s a Wonderful Life. It was the scene where Jimmy Stewart abandons his new wife to calm the run on the bank. The blonde whose name I could never remember was standing behind Maud wearing an apron. As if they needed a waitress tonight. Maybe she had a bad family life and wanted to be my new girlfriend?
“Maud, I came to celebrate the birth of Christ with you, but I wonder if you have any antihistamines?”
“What a nice tradition this is!” she said.
“My sister’s having an allergic reaction,” I said. “She’s feeling anxious about it.”
“Aw, the little drunk?” she said. “That’s a shame. I think I have some Advil.”
“Let’s give it a chance,” I said. “And some ice in a cup and some water?” And. “And a couple shots of vodka?”
As she got the stuff an old guy at the bar turned to me. “Crap Christmas,” he said.
“I’ve got some candy in the car,” I said. “You like Hershey’s Kisses?”
He worked his grizzled jaws like he already had that chocolate in his mouth.
“Don’t you have a family to bother?” he said.
I took down my shots and gathered the supplies from Maud. “Couch is free, kid,” she said.
“Did you expect me to pay for it?” I said.
“The drinks aren’t.”
“On my tab,” I said. “And tip yourself extra holiday bucks!” I didn’t have a tab.
In the car, Tricia was leaning back in her seat with her eyes closed. She was mutating before my eyes. “Steven?” she croaked. “You need to drive me to the hospital.”
“Take this Advil,” I said. “You’ll feel better.”
Going to the hospital would be the worst bad thing. It would be bright-lit and filled with terrible Christmas decorations and one sad paper menorah. It would be another unhappy installment of the Christopher kids story: the time they spent Christmas in the hospital from bad drugs. It would take its place next to the time Patricia passed out backstage at one of our father’s speeches, the time we missed our aunt’s funeral because we were too stoned to drive, the time Patricia broke the first-floor windows of our father’s girlfriend’s house, which was also the time she found out that our father had a girlfriend. Couldn’t this be the time that Patricia’s immune system saved the day?
“My throat is swelling,” she said, and she sounded awfully convincing. I raised an Advil up to her lips but she shook her head and closed her eyes, laid her head back against her headrest in defeat. Fine.
“Didn’t they move the hospital?” I said.
“It’s a new one,” Tricia said. “It’s off 95 by the West Trenton exit.”
“Well, I guess it’d be good to know what the new scene is like,” I said. “The more you know, right?”
I got out and guided her around to the passenger seat. I clanged the driver’s seat back and jammed out of the lot. She started wheezing in a spooky way so I gunned it to eighty on the highway and rolled down my window to let the cold winter air fill the car and drive out the bad spirits. I thought about calling our father but what was he going to say? Go to the hospital. Then he’d show up there and I’d have to deal with him.
“Okay, Trish?” I said.
No answer. I looked over and her eyes were closed, but I could hear her rasping.
I slowed down to follow the signs guiding the way to the hospital and parked in an emergency parking zone, then dragged Patricia out of the car and shuffle-stepped her to the door. Her face looked like a half-deflated basketball and her breaths had gotten shallow.
The lady at the front desk—mountainous, sleepy—told me to have a seat.
“Shit’s on the verge here,” I said. “Look at her.”
“Sir,” she said. “Everything is on the verge of something.”
The whole gang of waiting-room people was there— a wild-eyed white guy with a mustache and a chest wound, a half-asleep black man who seemed to be wearing a floral bedsheet, an Asian woman exhaustedly clutching a comatose child. I declined feeling like a part of the cosmic web that contained them. If they were anything like me, they had brought this on themselves. But I was wrong about the Christmas decorations: there weren’t any. Tricia took slow, labored breaths until a nurse came and put her in a wheelchair.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said.
She wheezed something that sounded like “blood traffic.”
I sat there and looked at pictures of Melanie on my phone—Melanie holding a pumpkin, Melanie next to a stranger’s miniature husky—until I’d scrolled back to the beginning of our relationship, represented by the dim interior shots of my apartment in Durham before I rented it. Then I turned my phone off, in case my mother woke up and tried to call me.
* * *
“Christopher?” the nurse said, an hour later. “Brother? Would you come back with me, please?”
I followed her through the swinging doors. Patricia was in a bed with railings, hooked up to an IV, eyes closed. A gawky young guy in a white coat was standing next to the bed. A doctor, I guess.
“So, Steven?” he said. “Your sister’s had a serious allergic reaction, probably to something in the cocaine she was using.”
“Right,” I said. “How is she?”
“She’s stable,” the doctor said. “We’ll see how things look in the morning.”
“Can’t we go sooner?” I said. “Like, now? It’s Christmas.”
“Are you a drug user, Steven?” the doctor said.
“On occasion. Recreationally, I mean.”
“Well, you might want to think about that. If your sister hadn’t come to see us, she could have ended up in a very bad place.”
“Let’s just say it wouldn’t have been good.”
“No, seriously,” I said. “I’d like to know the full fucking extent of my negligence.”
The doctor kept a patient smirk on his face.
“Sure, she could have died,” the doctor said. “Lucky for her she has such a responsible brother.”
Well, that triggered my despair, which I have a real problem with.
“I’m sorry,” I said, to Patricia who couldn’t hear me, and to the doctor, who didn’t care. I thought of our mother, asleep at home, soon to be confronted with this. She’d try, with good reason, to get Patricia to quit her show and go back into treatment, which she wouldn’t do. I sat in the padded chair next to her bed and watched her breathe, each breath like an accusation. I fell asleep sitting there.
At seven she woke up.
“Oh fuck,” she said.
“How do you feel?” I said.
“Terrible. I feel terrible.”
“God, I’m so glad you’re all right.”
“Well, I’m a junkie,” she said. “Have you talked to Mom?”
“I thought that could be your job,” I said.
“Jesus, she’s probably out of her mind. Give me my bag.”
She pulled her phone out and dialed.
“Hi, Mom? I’m okay. Yes, I’m okay, I promise…”
I walked to the waiting room and chugged a Diet Coke from the vending machine. Christmas morning.
My mother arrived a half hour later. She had dark circles under her eyes and she was wearing a bright red sweater with an enormous green bow on the front, a joke Christmas present from last year that had apparently been appropriated into unironic holiday wear. The doctors told us they wanted Tricia to stay in the hospital for a few more hours. I got my mother some coffee from a machine and sat down next to her.
“Do you ever think about how I’m going to feel when you finally kill yourselves?” she said.
“It was just bad luck,” I said. “This is the last time for this. We’re done now.”
“Why do you even come home?” she said.
“For you?” I said.
“Well, thanks, Steven. Really.”
“I’ll be gone soon enough,” I said. I was trying for ominous but I didn’t make it past petulant.
At noon I told my mother I was going home and instead drove into town blasting Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers with my windows down, drawing glances of pitying forbearance from the strolling families of Princeton. I did this until the album started over for the third time, at which point my hands were so numb that it was a struggle just to turn the music off. I pulled into the empty parking lot by the bad sushi place.
There were so many choices: I could ask my father for money, drive west, change my life. Stick to weed. Send cards on birthdays and holidays. Learn to love myself and, eventually, someone nice and low-pressure. Raise chickens. Forgo procreation. Show up secretly to the premiere of Tricia’s first Broadway show and sit in the back, waiting until after the standing ovation to reveal myself. Be forgiven.
* * *
An hour later I sat in the living room with Patricia and my mother, unwrapping presents. I gave my mother the shell I’d found in the house.
“I remember this trip,” my mother said. “This is a weird present, Steven.”
“Patricia and I can’t remember it,” I said. “We wanted you to remind us.”
I tried to catch my sister’s eye but she was looking at her lap.
“You didn’t go,” my mother said. “Your father and I went for our anniversary. It was nice. Pretty sunsets. You know, a Caribbean island.”
Well, it was better to have never been there, maybe, than to have forgotten it.
Patricia handed my mother her next present and she unwrapped it.
“A rock,” she said. “How thoughtful.”
An hour later, I knocked on the door of what used to be Tricia’s bedroom. She was sitting on her bed, cross-legged, reading a Jerry Lee Lewis biography.
“I’m heading out,” I said. “Gonna stay with Sam in D.C. for a while.”
“Now, there’s a good influence,” she said.
“Is there somewhere you’d rather I fuck off to and die?”
She went back to looking at her book.
“You’re not going to die.”
Tricia’s walls had once been covered in ugly magazine ads, drunken Polaroids, Clash posters. Not even the ceiling had been spared her chaos. My mother had turned it into a guest room years ago, so now bland flower prints were our only witnesses.
“I guess we’ll see,” I said.
She put the book facedown on the bed and hugged her legs to her chest.
“Don’t die, though,” she said. “Really.”
* * *
And I didn’t. After getting kicked out of Sam’s house, I sublet a dirty furnished apartment across the street from the University for the Deaf. I got a nearly full-time job working on a janky local-politics show, splicing together sound bites from city council members into unconvincing denials of corruption. Funny: it made me feel better about my life, and gave me less time to drink. I even handled a few objectively harrowing OkCupid dates without spiraling into the void.
One night, while I was having some whiskey—out of a glass, okay, with ice—and watching an incomprehensible late-night talk show, there was a knock on my door. I knew it was Patricia before I opened it. She was skeletal and green, her eyes unfocused and deep in her skull. She wore a huge camping backpack that hulked around the edges of her torso.
“Okay, I’m here,” she said.
“What happened?” I said.
She stepped into the apartment. Her eyes lingered on the ratty plaid-upholstered armchairs and the wood-paneled entertainment system.
“This place is pretty sweet,” she said.
“There’s a little bit of a mold thing,” I said modestly.
I gave her a hug, felt how frail her limbs and shoulders were.
“I know I look like shit,” she said. “But it’s because I’m actually not drinking now and my body’s, like, really not reacting well to that.”
“Are you sure?” I said.
“About which part?”
“Any of it,” I said. “You look like you should be in a fucking hospital.”
“Can I put my bag down?” she said.
“What am I going to do, kick you out?” I said it like I was furious with her, though I wasn’t. I was trying to wake her up, maybe, or keep myself from falling back into the old dream. She sloughed off her bag and sat down gently in one of the chairs, crossing her legs like she was waiting to be served tea. She stared at the sweating glass of whiskey on the coffee table.
“I’m working on a lot of things,” she said. “I think, maybe, we need to exercise some collective willpower.”
“What’s going on with your show?” I said. “What are you doing with yourself?”
“Everything,” she said evenly. “Is on. Hold.”
She was still fixated on the whiskey. I carried it into the bathroom, drank down half of it, and poured the rest in the sink. The ice bunched around the drain and I knew, obviously, that it was just a symbolic gesture. But so was a peace treaty, right? So was a funeral.
I set the empty glass on the coffee table and sat down in the wooden chair across from my sister.
“How about something to eat?” I said.
She rolled her eyes, a slow, glitchy process, and shuddered.
“Give me a second,” she said.
I leaned back in my chair. There was no rush. I mean, it wasn’t like I had any food.
Copyright © 2020 by Andrew Martin