“The doors of heaven and hell
are adjacent and identical.” – Nikos Kazantzakis
I woke up in her bed again this morning.
It’s not a matter of me swearing I’ll never do it again. I don’t say that out loud. I think it. I whisper it while I’m sitting on the toilet in her bathroom, rubbing the sleep and shame and hangover out of my eyes while I take a dump and stink up the place. I have to stop. She has to stop. This has to stop. It doesn’t. It never stops and it’s never nice or good or pleasant. I never wake up with the sound of music or the sight of Disney-esque birds chirping around my aching head. I wake up in stains and shame and regret. No guilt. What’s the need for guilt, she did and I did and there was no force. It’s not rape and yet, maybe it is. Rape. I rape her, she rapes me and then, we wallow in regret.
I come out of the bathroom and she’s sitting at the kitchen table, a robe pulled angrily around her, legs crossed, smoking a cigarette and she looks at me through the blue of the smoke. Just looks at me. She assesses her mistake. She blames me. I can see it. Feel it. I ask if there’s coffee and she points the cigarette toward the pot, inales, releases another cloud of smoke and watches me as I shuffle across the kitchen in my boxers and dirty T-shirt. I grab a coffee cup, put two spoons of sugar into it, open the fridge and get half and half. I know where everything is, I don’t have to ask, I know where the mugs are, the spoons are … I hate the fact that I know this. I can feel her, all the while, just watching me. Her eyes, bloodshot, rheumy, burning holes in my back. I sip my coffee, proclaim it’s goodness and sit at the table opposite her. She says nothing. Just looks. That face, her lips pulled tight, her eyes slits, like she’s washed her face with death. I ask if I can get a cigarette. She tosses the pack across the table, it slides to a stop right in front of me, right at the edge of the table. Right on the edge. Perfect shot. I remark on that. I like shit like that. Little daily miracles that aren’t really miracles but, just really fucking interesting.
“You like that,” she says and her voice is sour, bitter, corrosive, taunting, aggressive. Just what you want to hear first thing in the morning, hungover, shameful, sick. “That’s what you like. A fucking pack of smokes.”
“No,” I say, trying to ease her rage which, I have no idea where it comes from. “The way … you tossed it and it slid and look …” I point at it like a work of art or a growth on my ball sack. “Look where it stopped, on it’s own, just stopped right there. A perfect throw. That’s … interesting. I don’t know.”
“No,” She says, stubbing out her cigarette and leaning her elbows on the table. The robe opens slightly and I can see the tops of her tits. Brown, sun tanned, aged, freckled. “You don’t know. You don’t know shit,” she informs me and I brace.Then, I just go. My mind wanders off. I hear her, but, it’s distant, like a voice from another room as I lay in a hospital bed and I’m just coming out of anesthesia. She’s talking at me, about me, telling me I’m wrong. What I’m wrong about. I check back in, now and then, but mostly, I’m away, wondering what the sane people are doing. Thinking about how to get out but, wanting the coffee, needing the smoke. Frankly, I’m thinking about how to slip out and cause as little damage as possible. Not physical, I’m not and never have been a physically violent man. I don’t want to damage this too much. Despite my best intentions, my toilet top protestations, I know I’ll come back. Know I will see her in the bar, late, last call and we’ll joke around. A nasty kind of joking. She’ll call me loser and I’ll call her … something and we’ll argue, but playful. Playful like two jackals over a haunch of meat. We’ll walk out side, shuffle about a bit, hint at it, talk around it. She’ll say she has a bottle, I’ll say I have no place to be … and we’ll be here, kitchen table, cigarettes, bourbon and I’ll let her dress me down, expound on my faults and then, we’ll fuck. Mad, free, crazy, fucking. I don’t want to close the door on that completely. If I had any self worth, if I had even the prayer of having a relationship, I’d walk away. Never come back.
No, that’s a lie.
Amelia was a charm. Like the gold charm you see on someone’s wrist or on a chain around their neck. She was bright, pretty, sweet. She and I were not a pair, not a possible and yet, we were. We were introduced at some function, I have no idea what the function of this function was or really, why I was there, but, I was and she was and so, we were introduced. I wasn’t even pretending to be … anything that I am not. I was drinking heavily, I was moody, I was backed against the wall gazing over the serengeti of social like I was sizing up a kill. I barely noticed her when we were introduced. My hand went out and shook hers merely on reflex. She and the introducer made small chat at me, in my direction, I cowered, pushed against the wall and then, they walked away. I didn’t give it another thought until she was back, Amelia, standing right next to me, her back against the wall, holding out a full glass to me.
“You looked like you’d want another,” she said, I took the glass and looked at her, really looked at her.
“You look like Sunday morning in the south,” I said and she smiled. That was the moment, right there, when I became fully aware of myself. It was like her smile was a huge, wall sized mirror and I was seeing myself in fun house mirror horror. I was unkempt, drunk, misery in a rented tux. I so wanted to be different. Something else, someone else. I told her that. Not sure why, just did. “Jesus, Christ,” I sighed and drank off half the glass, “I so wish I was someone else, something else right now.” I certainly wasn’t going for a laugh with the thought but, I also wasn’t expecting to evoke sadness. Her face got soft and her eyes got moist and she put a hand on my shoulder.
“Don’t say that,” she said, “why would you say that?”
“Because,” I said and made some vague gesture with my hand, like I was painting her entire body.
“I don’t know what that means,” she said. I did but, I didn’t know if I had the guts to say it.
“Because next to you I feel like a turd salad in a poncho,” I guess I did have the guts to say it.
“That certainly doesn’t sound appealing,” she told me and I laughed. Then, she laughed. “Don’t do that to yourself, believe me, you’re more interesting, more real than most of the people here. None of us want to be here at least you’re honest about it.”
“I never said I didn’t want to be here.”
“You don’t have to say it,” she told me, “your demeanor is screaming out, I’d rather be anywhere else.” She had me and I knew she was right.
“I’m not good at pretending,” I told her and she smiled.
“Good, neither am I.” She said and grabbed my arm, pulled me away from the wall and into the mouth of the wolf.
She moved me through the room, pushing me into clots of people, Introducing me as her friend, engaging in conversation, forcing me to be social and then, she’d pull me away and move me to another group. All the while keeping me supplied with a full glass of bourbon. After an hour of this, I pulled away and retreated to the corner of the room.
“I can’t,” I said to her, “I can’t be social any longer, I feel sick and it’s not because of the drink.” She leaned against the wall next to me, took my glass and downed it in one gulp. She winced, shook her head and coughed.
“My goodness, have you been drinking that all night,” she was surprised.
“You’ve been supplying it.”
“I know and now I feel guilty,” she laughed. “Let’s go then,” she said and took my arm and pulled me out the door.
I remembered a time, long ago, I was in Italy, writing a piece about Carnevale for some, now defunct, travel rag. I was in Venice, the streets were packed and full of sound and life. Not my usual happy place and yet, I was happy, quite happy. I was full of wine, good food, had the story written and I had stepped onto the streets and allowed myself to be caught up in the rush of the crowd. I was moving through the tight streets, surrounded by cheer, people in costumes, bottles of wine being passed around and sound. Noise, voices, instruments. Like a Phil Spector dream was this wall of sound and then, we came to a street and a small stone bridge passing over one of the side canals. I still, to this day, don’t understand the science of it but, maybe because of the water, the walls, the configuration of the buildings across the canal, I don’t know but, it was suddenly … silent. People’s mouths were still moving, arms were waving, bottles being passed and yet, there was no sound. I was sort of stunned and mystified by the moment and I stopped moving. I stood still. The crowd tried to push me but, they became like water and found the path of least resistance around me and moved on. Soon, I was alone. I was standing at the foot of the bridge, the crowd was gone and I was alone. I slowly walked onto the bridge, stopped in the middle and looked to my right. In the canal, an older woman was rowing a flat bottom boat along. She was singing softly to herself and I could hear it. I just watched her. As she got closer to the bridge she looked up, smiled and waved to me as if we were long lost lovers.
“Sera,” she said and blew me a kiss. I made an elaborate show of catching it and pressing it to my heart. She laughed and it echoed against the walls and rolled down the canal. She passed under me, I moved to the other side and watched her until she had gone around a corner. No one witnessed it and yet, it happened. Suddenly, from behind me, where I had just come from, the street was filled and pulsing again and a new crowd enveloped me and moved me along. For the rest of the night, I thought about that silence and that woman.
When Amelia pushed me out of the function, onto the street, I experienced that phenomenon again. The cars were going by, people were walking the sidewalk and yet, it was silent. I pointed it out to her.
“Listen,” I said and she stopped, looked at me and then looked around.
“What am I listening to,” she asked.
“What do you hear,” I countered. She tilted her head, closed her eyes and listened. After a moment, her eyes popped open and she looked around.
“Nothing,” she said coming close to me, whispering, “it’s oddly silent.” I smiled, nodded and we stood for some minutes just listening to the silence. “I’m hungry,” she broke the silence, “let’s eat, you probably could use some food.” I didn’t like the implication, drunk guy needs to sober up however, she was speaking truth, I needed food or I would move into that falling down state of drunk I tried very hard to avoid. She started toward the street and held her hand out to me. “Hold my hand,” she said and I chuckled.
“Aren’t you old enough to cross the street on your own little girl,” I joked it off but, she didn’t. She stepped close and looked in my eyes.
“Please hold my hand,” she said and it was sweet. Immediately I felt uneasy, felt like we were getting close and that feeling usually makes me want to run.
“Why,” I asked, in all sincerity.
“Because I don’t want to let you get away,” was her answer. So, I held her hand, we crossed the street and walked a few blocks until we found a pub, I tried to let go of her hand as we started into the place, but, she wouldn’t allow it. Inside, we found a booth, sat down and a waiter came with menus. “Water for me,” she said, “he’ll have a good bourbon, rocks.” The waiter nodded and went off. She still had hold of my hand.
“You don’t need me to stop drinking,” I asked and she scrunched her face, which made me laugh.
“I don’t need you to do anything,” she said. I nodded.
“Okay then,” I let go of her hand. She shrugged. Then before she could pull her hand away completely, before she could let it slip under the table, I grabbed it again. The drinks came, We ordered food and still held hands.
We ate with one hand each. Fish and chips. I had more drinks and did everything one handed. When we had eaten, we leaned on the table and put our heads close to each other.
“Tell me something,” she said.
“What?” I asked.
“Anything.” She coaxed.
“I spent my summers in the family cottage in a small town on the south shore. I was on the beach every single day. Rain or shine. I love the ocean. I love it still but then, I loved it for different reasons. There was a section of the beach that had huge, seaweed covered stones, the tips of them jutting out of the water when the tide was high. As the day went on and the tide receded, revealing the full size of these rocks and tide pools, Hundreds of tide pools stretching for about a mile. This was my playground. I could spend hours and hours moving through the pools, spotting small stranded fish, collecting crabs and mussels. Picking up pails full of periwinkles. There were treasures, fishing lures and jewelry. I wandered the pools alone for hours, keeping my eye on the incoming tide. I didn’t like the area when the tide was up. I didn’t trust it. It felt like a nightmare place from a Grimm’s fairy tale. But, when the tide was low …” I sipped my drink, she squeezed my hand. “It was like the ocean was an animal and when the tide was low, I could see inside its belly. I loved that. I would bring the crabs and mussels and periwinkles home and my mother would cook them.”
“Aren’t periwinkles snails,” she asked.
“Yup, mom would saute them in their shells in butter and garlic and we’d sit, she and I, with pins and pull the snails out and eat them. So good, sweet, buttery …” I sipped again, looked down at my drink. She waited. “we shared that, mom and I.” Silence. She waited. Polite.
“So, why do you love the ocean now,” she asked. “I assume you don’t go wading through tide pools now.”
“I do,” I said, “When I have the chance, I do.” She ordered me another drink. “One time, I was in Japan, doing a story and I had a day free. I was walking the beach, pulling on a bottle of Suntory, wading through the pools. I was drunk, feeling … I don’t know, probably miserable as that’s my default and I saw this beautiful little octopus with blue circles all over it. Amazing color. In my drunken state, I decided it would be best for me to bring this guy home so, I took off my shoe, filled it with water, put my bottle down and grabbed the little guy. Thankfully, there was a family very close by scavenging the pools for shellfish.”
“Well, it turns out that the blue ringed octopus is recognized as one of the world’s most venomous sea creatures. They can kill you and, if they don’t, the sting is so painful that you wish you died. I screamed when it stung me and the family came over, when they saw the octopus, looked at my swelling hand, they were chattering and pulling me, put me in their car and took me to the hospital. They jacked me full of morphine and still it was the most painful thing I have ever experienced. And I’ve been in love.” She laughed at that but, it was short laugh, almost a yip or a bark. She laughed while looking down at her napkin, playing with it, tossing it a bit. She laughed on impulse, not to me or for me, she laughed in spite of herself, in the throws of some memory. “Well, that was interesting,” I said, commenting on the laugh. She didn’t pretend, she didn’t act coy, she looked at me and her expression admitted it. She didn’t ask what or brush it off or ask me to explain, cajole it out of her. She was shoot from the hip and … I fell in love instantly.
“I thought I was at the time, though it was different,” she told me and went back to her napkin, “turns out it was just the same, just the predictable, ust the run of the mill, girl falls for guy, guy turns out to be a suit of lies, girl wears the suit, tries to ignore her gut, girl can’t ignore her gut any longer because it’s splayed out on the bathroom floor.” She stopped playing, smoothed the napkin out, folded it carefully and then rested her chin in her hands in a very ironic, pin up girl sort of way and smiled at me. “That’s all folks,” she said.
That’s all folks.
I don’t care. I don’t care about people, about life, about the way you’re supposed to react, behave. I don’t care about children starving on commercials with some star in their midst weeping prayers of help. I don’t care. It’s not that have I no capacity to care, I do, I’ve just been very successful at burying it. I have turned my gaze from the worries of others to the indulgences of myself. Food, drink, pussy, dope …the next, whatever. I’ve become immune to the goodness, to the needs, to the hearts of others. Not proud, just stating the facts, just the facts, ma’am. Amelia, that moment, was courageous in her attempt to cover some serious soul scarring pain. That’s all folks. My heart grew, faltered, hurt and then … cared.
See, right there, right at that moment. If I could go back, I would go back and I would take my back then self and I would grab me by my back then collar and drag my back then ass away from that table, that girl, out of that bar on to the street and I would heave my back then stupid, shit head, body in front of a speeding cab. That’s fucking all folks. That’s what I would do but, I can’t and I didn’t and I stayed right there at that table with her, holding her hand and not wanting to let it go, ever. I mean … ever.
Folks, that’s all.
“Are you fuckng listening to me,” she asks and I plunked into the present. She’s staring at me, her head jutting toward me, an unlit cigarette hanging from her lip, a lighter waiting to be employed, waiting patiently in her hand. “Are you?”
“Of course, I am, dear,” I tell her in my best Leave It To Beaver.
“Fuck you,” she says and employs the lighter. She inhales, looks me over and then employs the lighter again, this time as a missile toward my head. I’m slow due to hangover and , oh fuck it, I’m slow anyway, my reflexes kick in only after the light clanks off my forehead and wings off the wall. I touch my head and pull back fingers coated in blood. “Head wounds bleed the most,” she informs me and just watches me bleed. “I’m going to take a shower, don’t be here when I get done.” She hangs out for a moment, awaiting my response, maybe I should beg her not to say that, maybe I should ask her if I could join her in the shower.
“I’ll just finish my coffee,” I say and she storms off.