A Poor Man's Purgatory
I’ve spent the last six months trying to tackle a question that won’t leave my mind, and I think I stumbled on my best answer yet around the eighth or ninth PBR I polished off at five o’clock in the morning. It’s still dark when I get in my car and head east on 501, completely drained, half from the beer, half from lack of sleep, and half from just not giving a shit anymore. The drive to the beach is like a dream. I almost never go there. I pass a few familiar sites but quite a few more unfamiliar ones before pulling into the parking lot.
I walk right past the meter instructing me to deposit two dollars for every hour and a sign that cautions those without a ticket will be towed. I stroll toward the beach and stop where the sidewalk meets the sand, staring out to see the sun peeking over the edge of the water. I find a spot to stretch my towel and slide my flip-flops off to anchor it at opposite ends, placing my copy of The Old Man and the Sea right in the middle, dog-eared to a crisp white page I haven’t even reached yet. I lay on the sand next to my towel for about an hour, looking up at the brightening sky. As I finally get up and reach to pull my shirt over my head, I realize I’ve forgotten something. I dart back to my car and open the glove compartment. The two clear bottles come rolling out of the overstuffed pocket, along with CDs I haven’t listened to in months, expired registration forms, and overdue bills in sealed white envelopes.
I jam the contents back into place and slam the door, chomping down on one pill from each bottle and letting the pieces slide down my throat, too stupid to have remembered to bring any water to wash them down. I’m no expert on toxicology, or anything else for that matter, but if I was actually going to do this, and I’m praying I have the guts to, I would hope that they’d find the appropriate amount of medicine in my system.
When I get back to my stuff, I take off my shirt and fold it on top of the towel, shaking the sand from it first and going through the makeshift checklist I imagined I would use in these circumstances. Took my Celexa and Klonopin, the pills I only popped when I was in the mood to take them? Check. Left my phone and wallet in the car? Check. Check. Have my towel, flip-flops, and book, marked to a page somewhere in the middle, all laid out neatly? Check. Check. Check. Shit. I forgot to put a parking ticket in the window. Fuck it. I’m not going back to the car again. Anyway, no matter. They’ll just think I forgot to get one. Everything else is taken care of down to the last detail. When they find me, they’ll have no choice but to rule it an unlucky mishap.
The unfortunate soul tasked with calling my mom will be forced to say, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but your son’s had an accident.”
I didn’t meet Kimberly at the beach. I never went to the beach when I lived on Long Island. The only water I saw was on the golf course where we both worked. We did spend the weekend at a hotel on the water the last time she came to visit me in Myrtle Beach. That was around a month ago. I remember because I thought it was an April Fool’s Joke, that when I went to pick her up from the airport she would call me, scream into the receiver, “April Fool’s, loser! You really thought I’d waste an entire weekend visiting your pathetic ass?”
But she would never say something like that. I knew the trip was begotten out of pity, not from a genuine interest to rekindle a flame or anything, but I appreciated her concern for my welfare, that she still cared enough to spend time with me even though I’d abandoned her in New York to attend graduate school in South Carolina. She was good like that, and come to think of it, maybe she visited me to return the favor. My moving away must have been the best thing that ever happened to her. She deserves better, and with me gone maybe she’ll find it. With me gone, maybe the wrinkles of her life will smooth out a little. Almost all of them have been caused by the invisible opponents I’m battling anyway.
We stayed at one of the seedy motels on Ocean Boulevard, a strip of tacky lights, decaying oceanfront hotels, and overpriced pay by the hour or day parking lots. A poor man’s amalgamation of Sin City, Miami Beach, and the Big Apple. My mom referred to it as a poor man’s purgatory instead. “Slivers of heaven tucked between chunks of hell,” she used to say when my dad would bring us south on vacation. But my siblings and I liked it just fine. Kimberly did as well, or at least seemed to, which is really all that mattered to me. I used to like it too, when I would visit with my family for a week in the summer. I started to hate it around the same time I started to miss my family and friends. For Kimberly’s sake, I tried to bear it while she was here, but it wasn’t easy. Walking along the boardwalk with her, I scrutinized each crack beneath my feet, barely listening to her telling me about all the things I was missing back home.
Each imperfection, set against her bedazzled white flip-flops and bright red toe nail polish, seemed to match a corresponding failure in my own life. Failing to make any sort of human connection in Myrtle Beach. Failing to let anyone besides Kimberly, my mom, and a shrink know about my problems. On the verge of failing out of grad school. Failing to have sex since I’d moved here. That wouldn’t change this weekend. Kimberly had walked in the room and slammed her designer suitcase on the first of two twin beds like she was spiking a football in celebration. The springs squeaked, and she jumped on top, laying spread eagle with her tanned arms and legs protecting the far corners. “I’ll take this bed,” she said. I looked at the lonely flower print of the adjoining bed’s comforter. She left me closer to the balcony with the better view, which was very considerate of her.
She also allowed me to walk on the inside of the boardwalk, closer to the ocean. “Should we get lunch?” she asked. We were passing the Landshark Bar and Grill around Tenth Avenue, right next to the Sky Wheel that allows you to take in all of Myrtle Beach for the affordable price of around ten dollars. If you only have ten or so dollars, that means you have to decide whether you want to park your car in one of the all-day lots or ride the Ferris wheel and admire all the fine infrastructure this town has to offer. Man, this place is just full of tough decisions.
“That’s fine with me,” I said.
She stopped and closed her eyes. Her nose inhaled, then exhaled sharply. “It’s so beautiful here,” she said. “I love the smell. You should come to the beach more often.”
I walk toward the water for the first time since I’ve lived here. For six months, I’ve avoided the beach, avoided the waves, avoided the crowds. Now, no one is around, it is peaceful and quiet, and the sun is creeping higher into the sky, each inch it climbs letting me know that time is running out, if I have any intention of doing what I came here for. People will be here soon, and then it will be too late. I’ll run the risk of getting rescued.
The water might as well be ice. The rising sun hasn’t done anything to warm the ocean yet, as if I really think it should, and every step feels like knives being jammed into my thighs, like the icicles someone shoved through my chest when I left Kimberly and came down here. I count to three and immerse my whole body under the water, shaking, my lips quivering when I reemerge, settling myself on my knees and turning to see that I’ve only made it about twenty feet from where the sand meets the water. I turn again to look at how far I still have to go, and I shake my head, saying under my breath, “You’re a fucking worthless piece of shit. Can’t even do this right, asshole.”
As I wade back to shore, head hung low, cursing myself, I accept the sad reality that there is a big leap between not wanting to live and willing to take your own life. I look around, not for my stuff, or for Kimberly, or for anyone to talk to. I want to see a fin, any type of fin.
Every once in a while, I’ll call Kimberly and tell her something like “I just wish you would stop giving a shit about me. I have.” She cries, I try to assure her I’m alright, and after she hangs up I down enough cheap whiskey and vodka to knock myself out. Last night, my mood was lighter, if not a little inattentive. I opened Google on my computer screen while she talked. She was going through a list of problems at the golf course where we both worked and she still does, little anecdotes about snooty members and nonsensical rule changes. “They’re having a meeting for all the members about proper golf etiquette,” she said. I said, “You should go there with a list of ideas, give them some feedback from an employee.” We both laughed. Her hearty chuckle provided the background music I needed to continue scrolling.
It shouldn’t have been hard to find an answer to my question, “How many shark attacks are there in Myrtle Beach every year?” I was having trouble though, and Kimberly kept talking as I clicked on a link that said “How likely are shark attacks in North Myrtle Beach?” The guy writing the article, some local journalist-wannabe, said twenty-three have happened in the last ten years in all of South Carolina, none of them fatal. Disappointed, I told Kimberly I had to go. I thought “Loving Son, Brother, Friend Killed in Freak Shark Accident” would read like a better headline than the ironic “Man Dies of Shark Attack While Trying to Kill Himself.” Either would be preferable to the one I’m starting to wonder whether I’ll ever have the balls to cause somebody to write.
My feet pass the murky divider between water and sand, and as tiny eddies swirl around my toes, I realize it’s over. It’s time to go home, or whatever it is you would call my apartment.
~ ~ ~
I handed the phone to Kimberly. We were standing at the entrance to a restaurant on the pier at 14th Avenue. The wind rose from the waves below and whipped at my whole body. It may as well have been February in New York; it definitely didn’t feel like April in Myrtle Beach. My feet shuffled on the wooden planks beneath me. Kimberly cradled the phone next to her ear with one hand and pulled my sweatshirt tighter around her bare shoulders with the other.
“Hey, Mrs. Senden!” she said. “How are you?”
I noticed a couple of teenagers leaning against the edge of the pier. They both stared at Kimberly’s lower half, each craning his neck to get a better view of her ass in the revealing shorts she was wearing. Then they whispered to each other, knocked their elbows into each other’s ribs as they giggled, probably about what they would do to her if they had the chance. Unlike Kimberly’s adorable chuckle, their laughs made me want to punch them in the face, though I’m not sure why I was so angry. I didn’t actually think she’d bring a guy back to the hotel and fuck him in the other bed while I pulled the covers over my head and turned up the volume of Sportscenter to drown out the moans of ecstasy beside me. She wasn’t that type of girl. But I didn’t think I was the type of a guy who would become suicidal and need his ex to make a pity trip on his behalf, yet here we were.
“Yes, he’s treating me great,” she said, sticking her tongue out at me and laughing a little. “Very gentlemanly. You raised him right.”
I wrapped my arms together and rubbed my hands up and down them. “It’s cold,” I mouthed through cracked lips, nodding toward the restaurant as I did.
“What was that?” she said. “Oh yes, the hotel is very nice. Yeah, we hung out at the beach yesterday, and today we went mini-golfing.”
She held her index finger up as she listened to whatever my mom was saying. “Ha! I don’t know about ‘let me win.’ He won’t play real golf with me, though. I think he’s afraid that I’ll beat him.”
I waved my hand in a circle like I was trying to make something appear out of thin air.
“OK,” she said. “I have to go. I’ll check in with you again later.” She walked toward the door and held it open for me. “I’ll do that, no problem.” Then she hung up. “She says to tell you ‘hi’,” she said to me. “And to make sure you’re eating good.”
An attractive blonde hostess who didn’t give me a second look led us to a table in the far corner of the restaurant. “Your waiter will be right with you,” she said, walking away with her gaze fixed on the front door. I knew my appearance was less than desirable, and the question “What the fuck are you doing with this loser?” must have crossed the hostess’ mind at least once. My beard hairs straggled off to the side like they were looking for the nearest exit from my face. My T-shirt exposed the farmer’s tan that served as a reminder of the hot summer days spent hauling golf bags around the country club. I could feel my hair pasted to the sides of my head and covering my ears, the grease acting as a sort of makeshift gel to keep it glued in place. I had been wearing a hat all day, but Kimberly yanked it off when we walked into the restaurant. My mom probably told her to. It rested on the empty seat between Kimberly and the window. If I was good, ate all my vegetables, I figured I would get it back at the end of the meal.
Kimberly ran her hands over the menu, sighing a couple of times when her little fingers crossed an item that sounded desirable. She really didn’t need a menu (she ordered the plainest chicken she could, everywhere we went), but it’s always good to have some reading material to break up an awkward silence. Conversation with me isn’t all that interesting, I don’t imagine. “You left the door unlocked last night,” she said. “You know that, right?”
I didn’t recall, but I was the last one to go outside. The ice machine was right around the corner from our room, and I had filled up our bucket around one in the morning. The fresh air wafting over the balcony connecting all the rooms on our floor felt like a release from prison. The metal bars, I’d built those around myself, caged myself in, but it still hurt to have to look through them and see a perfectly healthy woman lying in a separate bed a few feet over. Physically, the curvy outline of golden blonde locks, soft feminine skin, and sweet honeysuckle fragrance was everything I wanted so badly to press my hideous features against, and mentally, the vitality, optimism, and liveliness were everything I wanted to feel. Walking outside the room provided a brief respite from my insomnia-fueled reverie. I took her word for it that I left the door open upon my return.
“Sorry,” I mumbled. I used to be neurotic about making sure both locks were done before I went to bed, but I had gotten pretty careless about that over time, thinking maybe I’d be lucky enough that some psycho would break in during the night and put me out of my fucking misery.
“Do you have beer?” I ask. Most of the mini-marts attached to hotels on Ocean Boulevard don’t carry any type of alcohol, but even after dragging my ass from the water I can’t go home yet. I came to the beach to do a job. At the golf course, my only form of employment ever, I received ubiquitous praise for my ability to complete tasks efficiently.
That hasn’t translated as well to South Carolina. Drinking myself to death might be more attainable. I read somewhere, probably on Google, that you reach a comatose state when your blood alcohol pushes .35. Twenty or thirty beers ought to do the trick.
The clerk only stares at me. A few fingers grasp at his molester-stache. His skin is kind of dark so I consider the possibility that he’s Hispanic and doesn’t understand what I’m saying.
“Tienes Bud Light?” I ask. My fist forms an invisible can that I bring toward my mouth. My phone vibrates in my pocket.
“I speak English, asshole,” he says. He points at a sign behind him.
My eyes squint trying to make out the letters. In my haste to leave my apartment, I forgot to put in my contacts. “We I.D.?” I say. “I’m over twenty-one, I swear.” My license is still in my glove compartment. My phone vibrates again.
He shakes his head. His arms are folded across his faded orange polo. He picks at some of the loose threads with his right thumb and index finger. “The other one, idiot.” He takes a step back and points to each word as he says, “NOT. Serving. Alcohol. Temporarily.”
What the fuck does that mean? I look at my wrist, though I’m not wearing a watch. “OK, so should I come back in about an hour or so?” I say. My phone vibrates one more time. I pull it from my pocket to see my mom’s name on the screen.
“Why don’t you answer that outside and stop tracking sand all over my store?” He rubs a finger over his mustache and turns away from me. “Fucking loser,” he says.
The waiter took my order first. He actually asked Kimberly before me—“ladies first”—but she claimed she wasn’t ready and said I should just go ahead if I knew what I wanted. He scribbled my order on his pad so fast that I couldn’t read what it said; no doubt he would get it wrong. It didn’t bother me, though. None of the food at that place was very good.
“Did you decide on something, beautiful?” he asked Kimberly, swaying back and forth like a circus monkey balancing on a trapeze.
“Yeah, I guess I’ll just take the chicken, without the sauce.” She reached her finger toward the waiter. “And no mushrooms either, please.”
The waiter scribbled furiously, beads of sweat appearing on his brow as if life itself depended on getting her order right.
“Mashed potatoes alright?”
“Can I do a baked potato instead?”
“Sure thing,” he said with a wink.
He said “no problem” when she apologized for being high-maintenance.
“One more thing,” I said, my voice cracking as it rose in volume. Kimberly glared at me from across the table. “Do you think she could come back there and make it herself?”
Kimberly laughed, so I laughed, and it’s possible that the waiter also laughed as he walked away.
“So,” she said, buttering the bottom half of a dinner roll, “it feel good to be out of your apartment for a few days?”
I smiled and folded my hands in front of me. “Everything I ever dreamed it would be.”
She rolled her eyes.
“But, seriously,” I said, “thanks for coming.”
I excused myself to use the restroom. When I got out, I saw the waiter leaning over our table. His hand slid down Kimberly’s back until he reached the exposed skin between her shirt and shorts. It looked like a small piece of paper passed from his grip to the checkered table top. My stomach dropped. Kimberly turned for a second and made eye contact with me.
The waiter was gone by the time I got back to the table, but he returned a few minutes later with our food. As he put her naked chicken on the table, he placed his hand somewhere near her back again, which made me cringe. But I wanted her to be happy, more than anything, and to clearly see that I wanted her to be happy. If this asshole could brighten her day a little, something I didn’t think I could do anymore, I wasn’t going to say anything.
“I could’ve made that,” I said when he left. The chicken looked like the cook marinated it in dehydrated piss, but I decided to hold off on telling crude jokes until after she ate.
The muscles of her mouth rearranged themselves, but she didn’t laugh or show her teeth, just kind of flashed a quick, toothless grin.
“Of course, it wouldn’t have been very good,” I continued. “If I made it, I mean.”
She pushed the chicken around the plate the way a four-year-old might try to convince a parent he had eaten more than one or two bites. Except I don’t think she took any.
“Not plain enough for you?” I said. She rested her chin in her palm. “Everything alright?”
“I’m gonna wait outside,” she said, pushing up from the table with both hands. “Can you just get the check?”
“Yeah, of course.”
I met her outside. Her upper half leaned over the railing of the pier.
“Hey, he didn’t charge me for the chicken,” I said. “I think he likes you.” She turned, and I could see dried tears on her red face. “What’s up? You not feeling good or something?”
She pushed off the railing. I followed her down to the beach, where she walked toward the water with her sandals in her hand. She let my sweatshirt fall to the ground. I reached to pick it up, fanning the sleeves out to shake the wet grains of sand loose from the fabric.
She reached down and picked up a shell. Her fingers traced the egg-white ridges. She mumbled something.
“What was that?” I said.
“You’ve got no fight,” she said. The shell slid through her hand like her fingers had suddenly been smothered in oil. It bounced off the sand and came to rest next to its initial landing spot.
“That’s not true,” I said. “This is about the waiter? Kim, we’re not together anymore.” She shook her head in a “you wonder why” fashion. “What, you wanted me to hit him or something?”
“Your mom was right,” she said. Not to me though. They, Kimberly and my mom, talked to each other, often I guess, about my mental state. With my mom absent, Kim spoke to the waves breaking toward us and away from the sunset. The horizon smothered all but the very top of the sun. With every inch it fell, something like fight sank further into the fiery depths of my mind. I thought about saying, “I’m not done yet,” until Kimberly stopped picking up shells and letting them go, until the sun disappeared completely, until I let the words vanish too.
“Let’s just go back to the hotel,” I said.
I drove her to the airport in the morning, where I looked away as she brushed her lips against my cheek.
I played hockey in a summer rec league when I lived in New York. My last game was a day before I left for South Carolina. Kimberly attended, as always. It was the championship, and we took it pretty seriously, like we were the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup finals or something. The bass of some kind of rap music thumped against the walls of our locker room, and our captain gave a riveting speech right before the opening faceoff with all of us gathered in front of our bench.
By the middle of the third period, the other team was kicking our asses, and our captain dug a puck from the boards. When he turned to skate toward the other end of the ice, a big goon plowed into him, and his whole body crumpled. The piece of plywood bearing the information of a local attorney shook back and forth as our friend lay in pain.
On the next faceoff, I lined up across from the offender and tapped him a few times on the shin guards, just hard enough to let him know that I intended to drop the gloves. Our sticks and helmets also hit the ice with the drop of the puck. I took a quick glance at Kimberly’s spot in the stands. She was on her feet, as were the other dozen or so “fans” in attendance. The goon and I danced around as we sized each other up. I figured he had about four inches and at least thirty pounds on me. He had to have been in better shape than my wheezing, needed-a-break-every-two-minute-ass. I finally reached in and took a hold of the collar of his mesh jersey with my left hand. The purple material was thin and cold. I tightened my grip, keeping enough distance to be safe. All I wanted was to hang on for a little bit before I almost assuredly got my ass kicked. A flash flickered into my peripheral vision, and I looked away long enough to see Kimberly taking a picture of the “before.”
I just wanted to protect my face for the “after,” make sure he didn’t break my nose or jaw or knock some of my teeth out. If I could see out of both eyes and avoid a trip to the hospital I’d consider it a victory. It was my last night in town, and despite our mutual decision to part, Kimberly and I still planned on spending it together. She had never been keen on violence, but I heard her yelling and banging on the glass like everybody else. My opponent threw a right hand that landed across my cheek. My legs staggered. The blade of my skate caught in the ice. He hit me in the eye. The blow almost sent me to the ground. But with each punch he threw, Kimberly grew louder, and it suddenly turned from my teammates, our opponents, the fans, the refs, the rink manager, and anybody else who was watching to Kimberly and I, my opponent the only thing standing in between us.
I wanted to pick this guy up and let him slide through my fingers to the floor of the rink. My left hand still clutched at the neck of his jersey. I jabbed a couple of times like a bee buzzing in front of his face, my right fist working in synchronicity to brush his cheek and connect squarely with his nose. He fell faster than the blood squirted from his crooked nasal passages. A loud roar erupted from Kimberly’s seat. I pounced on my vanquished prey, straddling his chest like a middle school bully looking to shake the last bit of lunch money from the pants of a helpless sixth-grader. From my perch, I just kept swinging. Rights to the jaw, lefts to the nose and eyes, an uppercut that landed squarely on his chin. The refs finally dragged me off and out of the rink, my teammates lining up to smack me on the ass while Kimberly planted a kiss on my cheek.
We celebrated like champs that night. The beer and shots flowed into the morning hours, Kimberly draped all over me the entire time. There was no need for the words “don’t leave” to come from her mouth. For that moment, I wasn’t going anywhere.
In the afternoon, I did leave for Myrtle Beach. The exhaust from my car trailed behind me, covering Kimberly in a cloud of dust until she disappeared in the hazy August air.
I walk out of the mini-mart. The mustached motherfucker’s eyes are trained on my back, I think, maybe. I can definitely still feel the heat from his cotton polo, the sting of his words.
The restaurant Kimberly and I went to is right across the street. I wait at the corner for the light to change. An olive green hatchback brakes too late and almost hits me as I jog through the intersection.
The boards of the pier bend to my gait. A flock of seagulls picks at a few pieces of bread in front of the restaurant entrance. My phone buzzes in my pocket with each step. I have the ringer off, like usual, thinking maybe by some sort of telepathic osmosis the person on the other end will realize I’m not even worth the standard ringtone most phones employ.
I have my hand on the door. I’ve already reached to roll up my invisible sleeves. “Where’s that asshole waiter who was hitting on my girl?” is what I plan on saying. It’s not very poetic, but it is straightforward and to the point, which has never been my style.
The phone vibrates twice in quick succession. I reach into my pocket and pull it out to see that my mom has left me a voicemail. The door has opened a little, cutting against the prevailing wind. I close it and walk toward the railing of the pier. I put my phone to my ear. My mom’s voice crackles on the other end. “Hey honey,” she says. “Kimberly had a little accident. She’s OK, but you should come home. I think she needs you. Call me back when you get a chance.”
I walk away from the restaurant. I listen to the voicemail on repeat. The grainy sand cuts at my toes on the way back to where I left my towel. My mom’s message plays for what feels like the fiftieth time. Her voice is fading. The words feel more distant with each listen, and my mind starts to rearrange them. When I’m back at my towel, the phone still pressed to my ear, the message I’m getting is, “Kimberly needs you to have a little accident.” That can’t be right, but it’s what I want to hear.
I walk back toward the water. What did my mom say? Something about “Kimberly,” me, and an “accident.” Then, “Call me back when you get a chance.”
The crashing waves tell me I have run out of chances, opportunities, mistakes, accidents. You only have one choice left, the sea breeze whistles. Just do it, the seagulls squawk overhead. OK, OK, I think.
The water rises to my waist, ready to engulf my whole body.
Finish with some kind of purpose, I say to myself, and get Kimberly an ambulance, I feel like saying to my mom. She’s taken the worst of the blows.