Another to the Multitude
Lately, when I look in the mirror, I don’t know who I see. I know I’m looking at myself – I’m not crazy – but there’s something different that I can’t place. My girl, Marissa, she says it’s because I’m clean now, two weeks sober, and I think I look different because I’m really seeing myself for the first time, the way the world sees me, without all that shit coursing through my body. I don’t know how clean I am, to be honest. It’s just a different disease. I’m in that clinic every other day, dirty as hell, surrounded by junkies, animals I’d never be caught dead with, popping those pills, nauseous and shaking with fever when I’m jonesing, cold sweats, the whole nine. This too shall pass, they tell me. Admit that I’m powerless. One day at a time. It’s all part of the plan.
Marissa says she’s proud of me, that I’m finally going to know what it’s like to live for someone other than myself, that once I hold something that small in my arms and know I’m responsible for it I’ll feel like everything has been worth it, that I can be someone better than I’ve been.
But I don’t feel it. I keep asking myself what my old man would think if he saw me like this, trapped, because I think he’d be ashamed. A man can’t run from what he is, what he’s always been. That’s what he always told me. But he was full of shit. My old man ran his whole life – first from his father because he didn’t want to carry ice up apartment building stairs in ninety-degree heat, then from the Army, then from my mom and me when he couldn’t stand the life anymore. I was fifteen when he left.
“Your mom’s got me on the mat, Sammy,” he said to me one morning in the fall. We were on our way to Hunts Point in that Buick he drove back in the day, seafoam green with leather interior, those eighteen-inch whitewalls, big as a bus but sharper than a razor blade. It needed a new bumper, and my old man knew a guy who could get one on the cheap. No serial number. “I gotta get out of that house.”
“Does Ma know?”
“I haven’t told her, but she knows, Sammy. She’s always known.”
“How long you planning on going?” I asked.
“For a while. I don’t know.”
I didn’t say anything, but I knew once we got home and he pulled back out of the driveway I’d never see him again. My old man didn’t mess around. If he said he was leaving, he was leaving and that was it. “You’ll understand when you’re older, Sammy.”
Thinking about it now, I guess I do understand a little. It’s hard giving up your life and running straight when you’ve been going crooked for so long. I guess I’m lucky to have had him around for as long as I did. Some kids don’t get fifteen minutes with their fathers, let alone fifteen years. My dad, at least he was there when it mattered, when he could still teach me to be a man.
Marissa thinks he’s the problem, the reason I do the things I do, but I don’t know. She’s just worried I’m going to turn out like him and run out on her. I’ve tried doing it before but could never go through with it. When she asks me about it, I tell her she’s crazy, that she’s imaging things, paranoid. I tell her I’d never do that to her, but even when I’m saying it, I don’t know if I’m being honest, with her or with myself. I’ve been lying so long I can’t tell the difference anymore.
I told my first lie when I was seven or eight. I can’t remember. I came home from school and my mouth was covered with chocolate. I wasn’t supposed to eat candy or anything before dinner, but I was hungry so I lifted a Hundred Grand from the drug store on the corner and ate it on the walk home, skipping the entire way, fat and sweaty in the sunshine. I tried to get to the bathroom to wash my face before my mom saw me, but she never missed anything that went on in that house, even when her back was turned.
“Samuel,” she said as I crept past the kitchen. She was seasoning some raw chicken at the counter, and, to this day, I have no idea how she knew I was there; I had taken my shoes off outside and was tiptoeing on the carpet in my bare feet. “What is that on your face?”
I stopped cold, instinctively replied, “Nothing.”
“Nothing?” She turned around and stared me down, her arms crossed over her yellow apron, the one with the white lace trim that she always wore when she was making dinner. I was terrified of her then, but I remember thinking she looked like an angel, her hair, like hot tar, pulled into a tight bun, the light coming in from the window behind her, how it made her glow all around, still to that point the best woman I had ever seen. Every kid loves his mom. Especially a kid like me – an only child, a little prick who was always getting into trouble at school or with the old guys who owned the stores on Bloomfield Avenue, the guys I stole from on the regular. When I got a little older, the cops would bring me home after a fight or some party or something. My mom always had my back, though, no matter how big a son of a bitch I was.
But she was tough on me, too, and she was looking for an explanation. I had to say something. She was just staring at me, waiting, her eyes like graphite. No way she would let me out. So I made something up about how a kid at school gave me a candy bar because I helped him carry some boxes from the A/V room to the auditorium for an assembly. I don’t know what made me say it. It was a bullshit story. I had never helped anyone with anything, and she knew it. She knew me better than anyone.
“You helped a boy with boxes?” she asked. “For an assembly?”
“Yeah, Ma. They were heavy so he gave me candy to say thanks.”
“The boxes were heavy. So this boy, who you helped, gave you candy to say thank you? Is that right?”
“You got it, Ma.”
She walked from the counter to where I stood in the entranceway between the kitchen and the living room. She still hovered over me in those days. My growth spurt didn’t come till like eleventh grade. She stood there and I looked up at her, smiling this big, shit-eating grin, thinking I had her beat. But before I could blink she cracked me one, backhanded, hard. Caught me square in the jaw with her engagement ring, sent me upstairs holding my teeth in.
“Now go wash your face and wait for your father to get home.”
I think part of me knew she didn’t buy the story about the kid and the boxes, knew she knew I’d stolen the candy, but she was asking so I thought I had a chance. Might as well take a shot, make something up, and go down swinging.
But that was the first lie. The first of many. Usually I was lying to keep myself out of trouble, little shit to save my ass from a beating, or something worse – lockdown in my room on the weekend, no TV, no comic books, nothing. That was as bad as it got in those days, and I would say or do anything to avoid it. It never worked, though. Whenever I got caught, it always ended the same. A shot to the mouth and some yelling. “Wait till your father gets home,” and shit like that. But what could he do? He was worse than I was.
My mom would make me wait in my room for him, and when he got home I’d hear her downstairs telling him about whatever lie I’d told and insisting he go upstairs to talk to me. But when he’d come up and sit on the bed next to me, all he’d say is that it was better to go down swinging than to cop out like a bitch, that I’d done good by trying to keep out of trouble. That he was proud of me.
I learned everything from my old man. He was one of the world’s top conmen, and he knew he was good. When I was eleven, the S.O.B. was out of work for almost a year before my mom found out. He’d get up every day like always, dress the same way, eat the same breakfast, say the same shit at the table, pretend to get annoyed when I asked him a question, like he had a lot on his mind. But he’d really just go to the OTB and places bets all day. I guess he was pretty good with the horses, too, because I never remember him strapped or anything. He always had a stack in his pocket, always an inch thick, at least, held together with a gold clip, twenties on the outside. Real old school. He could talk the talk, no doubt. But I had him figured. My buddy Aldo’s dad busted him to me on day, told me all about my old man.
Aldo’s dad was a degenerate gambler, a classic loser who’d bet the rent money and then make Aldo’s mom pick up cleaning jobs to square the difference. My dad wasn’t like that, but I knew they ran together sometimes. My dad said he was looking out for him, keeping him out of trouble. “He needs me, the poor guy. He’s half obatzo,” my old man would say, throwing around the Bronx-Italian my mom hated. She said it made him sound like a gangster, that it reminded her of the card games she used to serve drinks at when she was a teenager. “I can smell the cigars and the sambuca when you talk like that. Makes me sick to my stomach.” Then my Pop would sing some old dago song about the moon and he’d dance over to her, grab her around the waist and pull her close, try to kiss at her neck. She’d push him away and smile a little. Then she’d return to her pots and pans and wooden spoons, and he’d wink at me as he walked out of kitchen into the living room. I liked seeing them like that.
But this one time I was at Aldo’s place after school, playing GI Joes or Legos or something, and his old man comes stumbling in, piss drunk. He almost fell over at the top of the stairs. He sees me down there in the basement and he comes down and looks at me with these big eyes, like glass, bulging, bloodshot, and he looks at me and he points his finger, starts mumbling some nonsense.
“You,” he said, his breath thick and hot with stale whiskey. “I know you. Your old man and me. I was just with him, betting horses. He had a good day, your old man. Hit the trifecta in the seventh. Walked out with a G.” He let out a breath, blew that Four Roses clear across the room. “Me? I hit nothing.” He turned to Aldo. “You got something to say? You think your old man’s a loser. I’ll give you a crack right here. Show you who’s a loser. You’re old enough.”
“No, Pop,” Aldo said, barely loud enough to hear. “I don’t think that. Honest.”
“What do you know? You don’t know anything. Where’s your mother?”
Aldo didn’t say anything. His dad turned around and clawed his way up the stairs, real slow so he wouldn’t fall, and started yelling about dinner, how Aldo’s mom never cooked anything worth eating. Aldo was crying.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Fuck off, will ya,” Aldo said, wiping his eyes. “Get outta here, okay. I don’t wanna play anymore.”
When I got home, I waited for my Pop in my room so I could ask him what he was doing with Aldo’s dad at the OTB when he was supposed to be pouring concrete for the new mall going up on Franklin Parkway. I heard the door open downstairs and his heavy boots plod up the stairs and down the hall for his bedroom. He always changed his clothes as soon as he got in from work, or wherever he’d been. Looking back he was probably trying to get rid of the smell of the booze or the women or whatever else he’d been into during the day. I called for him when he passed my room, and when he came in I asked him straight out. I don’t know why, but he told me the truth. He told me how he’d been let go from the crew because he wasn’t a union guy, how that lying, sack-of-shit foreman had promised this and that, how he needed the horses to keep food on the table.
“Does Ma know?”
“What does your mother need to know for, Sammy? Do the bills get paid? Do you and her eat all your meals on that table I paid for, in this house I pay the mortgage on?”
“Yeah, Pop, but –”
“But nothing,” he said. He sat down on the edge of my bed and inched himself forward so he could get a good look at me. “Look, son. You know what a snitch is, right?”
“Yeah, Pop. I know.”
“You don’t wanna be one of them, right? You wanna be a big boy, a man, someone a guy can count on, don’t you?”
“Yeah, Pop. Of course.”
“Then show me. Don’t go saying nothing to your mother. It’ll upset her. Things got tough at work. What could I do? I got a couple jobs lined up anyway, so don’t worry about it.” He patted my on the knee. “We square?”
“Yeah, Pop,” I said. “We’re square.”
Like every liar, though, my old man slipped up after a while. He left some receipts in his shirt pocket one night, rookie mistake, fucking amateur hour. Mom found them when she was doing the laundry and blew up at him, made a big stink of things, woke me up, the whole neighborhood probably. My door was closed so I couldn’t hear exactly what she was saying, but she laid into him good. Usually he’d shout back, try to lie his way out of it, just like he taught me. If he was really hot or if she started swinging or throwing stuff at him, he’d smack her around a little. Back then I hated him for it, but I guess he had no choice. What was he supposed to do? My mom could be pretty tough.
But that night he didn’t say a word. He just took it. That’s another thing he taught me. That sometimes it’s better to sit and take it.
That’s how it was in those days. Every couple weeks they’d fight and every couple weeks they’d make up. I never thought much of it until that afternoon driving with my dad in Hunts Point. I guess it wore on him after a while and he just couldn’t take it anymore. “You don’t understand because you’re still young, Sammy, and you love her like you do, which is good, don’t get me wrong, but your mother takes a lot out of me,” he said once the new bumper was attached and we were on our way home. “You don’t know how hard it is being the kind of guy she expects me to be.”
I nodded, played with my hands.
“I’m the kind of guy I am, the kind of guy I’ve always been, and the kind of guy I’m gonna be till the day I drop dead. I’m no prince, Sammy, but I’m no criminal either. I like the track. I like a drink every now and then. Does that make me a bad guy?”
“No, Pop,” I said, my voice quiet beneath the roar of the four-barrel V8. “It doesn’t.”
“You’re damn right it doesn’t. But your mother, God love her, she digs and she digs. A man can’t go on unless he’s free to do as he pleases, without having to answer to someone. You understand?”
“I don’t know.”
“You will, Sammy. Believe me. You’ll grow up and find yourself staring down the same road and you’ll know.”
He turned off Bloomfield Avenue and drove down our street, pulled the car into the driveway, jammed it into park, kept the motor running. I unbuckled my seatbelt. “You coming?”
“What did we just talk about?”
“Oh,” I said. “I just thought you meant later or something.”
“Why wait, right?”
I looked at him and wanted to shout, but I had nothing to say. I wanted to cry, too, but my old man would’ve belted me one if he saw me start to tear up. The last time I’d cried in front of him I was on training wheels. That’s not what men do, he always told me, so I held myself together the best I could.
“Here.” He handed me a wad of money held together by a filthy rubber band. “You’re old enough now. Take care of your mother. You hear?”
“Why don’t you take care of her,” I muttered, stared down at my Converse, swallowed hard.
“Whoa. What did you say?”
“Yeah, I bet it’s nothing. It better be. You want a crack?”
“I said it was nothing, Pop. Okay?”
His shoulders slunk a little. I could see him soften in the leather seat. “Look, Sammy. I told you. I gotta do this. I’ll swing by on your birthday and at Christmas,” he said. “We’ll drive over to Shea in the spring, watch the Mets get their brains beat in. It’s only temporary.” The silence lingered between us. “You’re only fifteen. You’ve never been in something like what I’ve got with your mother. You’ll look back and realize it’s for the best. Okay?” He put his hand on my shoulder. I could feel the calluses dig at my skin through my T-shirt.
“Now go on. Go inside. Tell your mother I said to eat without me.”
He took his hand from my shoulder and patted my cheek. I got out of the car and stepped onto the stoop, watched the Buick roll slowly out of the driveway, the sun catching the new bumper’s polished chrome, the glare blinding me as he straightened the car and took off down the street. He hooked a left at the corner and that was it.
“Where’s your father, Samuel?” my mom asked when I went inside. She was cooking dinner, steaks or something, I can’t remember.
“He’s not coming,” I said. “He told me to tell you to eat without him.”
She dropped her head. My old man had been right. She knew. “Go upstairs and wash your face. Dinner’s in twenty minutes.”
I climbed the stairs, heard the sound of a pot crash against the linoleum, then another one, then a glass against the wall and a scream, like there was a demon inside my mom and it was trying to break out through the bones in her chest. I locked myself in my room and went to bed without eating.
Once he left, I stopped lying so much and started telling stories instead. Telling a story and telling a lie are different. A lie is a lie. There’s nothing true about it. But a story has some part of it that’s true and some part that’s full of shit. They’re exaggerations of stuff that actually happened, embellishments. I didn’t kiss Julie Tinsley down by the football field; I fingered her. I didn’t just crack a case of beer and smoke some dope in high school; I blew lines, too. Little things like that. It was all to get by, to seem cool without taking the risk, to make things a little easier depending on the crowd I was with at the time. Everyone does it, I figured, so how bad could it be? It’s like when I was little. I used to wear baseball hats and lame clothes my mom picked out. What did I care how I looked? I was just going to go out and get it all dirty anyway. But when I got to high school, all of a sudden I needed new stuff – the right T-shirts, jeans, good shoes, the right kind of haircut. We used to worry about it, my friends and me, spend too much time at the mirror. But I was still the same kid. I didn’t care about any of it if you asked me straight, but it mattered. Look at me now. Same thing. I wear a tie to work and drink cappuccinos. It’s all bullshit, but what can you do? Better to play the game and look like a schmuck every now and again than to pretend there’s no game going on. The important thing is I know it. What good is to pretending?
The girl I was with before Marissa, she used to tell me that kind of outlook would kill me, but I thought she was the one who’d end up dead. She was the happy type, always smiling, glass half full, donated money to charity. She had a dime-a-day habit, though. The tie that binds. The last time I tried to kick my habit, she got tired of me being all moody and moved out. She made it through the vomiting and the cold sweats soaking up the bed and the sickness that’s worse than cancer. But she couldn’t deal with my personality when I was clean. Gone a week later. Packed up her stuff. Wrote a note and left it on the kitchen table. She couldn’t last seven days. If she had, maybe I’d be doing something different now. But she was too weak to deal with it. Or maybe she was too strong. I don’t know. Regardless, I was back shooting that night.
Marissa’s different, though. She’s tough, smart. She worked in my office for a couple months answering phones, a temp job, and I knew as soon as I saw her that she was down for a party. I spent the whole morning eyeing her, from the moment Mr. Stokes carted her in through the cubes like a prize. She had that look about her, high-class but worn through in all the right places. Definitely a college degree, a nice family too, private schools out in the suburbs and all that. Girls like that don’t come my way often. When she got up for a smoke break I couldn’t resist. I had to make a move.
“Need a light?” I asked her, cornered her really against the heavy fire door outside.
“Thanks,” she said, held her cigarette between her lips, inhaled as I held the flame to it.
“So what’s your story?” I asked.
“My story? What kind of question is that?”
“I’m just asking that’s all. Don’t worry about it. I don’t want to know anymore.”
I turned away from her and paced the sidewalk, back and forth, smoking in silence, waiting her out. I smoked that shit to the nub, right down to my fingertips, just waiting for her to ask. I could tell right away – and the more time I spent with her the more I learned it was true – that Marissa’s the kind of girl who thinks every guy owes her something, a dinner, a drink, a bag. And she’s used to getting it. You’ve got to make those ones wait and come to you or you’ll be in to them for the rest of your life. I’ve seen it happen. Marissa’s that type to a T, so I knew I had to be patient. I never smoke my cigarettes as low as I did that day, but I needed the time. I knew she’d break first. She knew what was going on. She could tell I was into her. She was just figuring her angle, trying to get her hand back. When her cigarette was almost as low as mine she walked up to me, real slow, looked all around then back up at me.
“My name’s Marissa,” she said, finally busted.
“Yeah,” I said. I flicked my cigarette into the flowerbed. “I’m Sam.”
I took a couple steps for the door. I was playing it tight and it was killing her. She stepped in front of me, blocked my way in, took the last drag of her cigarette and dropped it to the ground at my feet.
“You party, right?” she asked.
That was it. That quick. We met up later that night, had a good time, got hooked from there I guess. It’s like I went to bed with her that night and woke up two years later and she was still next to me. It was all a blur at the start, always a party to go to or a ride to take, up until five and awake again at seven, ready to go to work like it was just another day. We definitely hit the spike a lot in the beginning. It took the edge off, made everything a little more comfortable. It’s not like it is in the movies where you lay around in your own filth all day, out of it, comatose, eyes glazed and rolling into your head. There are people like that, but I’ve never met any of them. It’s easier than that, more mellow, just a little something to slow things down, like you’re living underwater or something.
I don’t want it to seem like all we did was party, though. I took her out a lot, too, to real nice places and we’d just sit and talk for hours. Not like strangers either, but really talk, even without the junk. I told her about my old man, about the time he lost his job and spent his days betting horses; about all the fighting between him and my mom, the times he hit her, the thousand times she threatened to leave and the thousand times she’d wake up the next morning still next to him, sometimes bruised, sometimes not, and pretend like nothing had happened; how I’d listen to it all in the still darkness of my bedroom then watch them go on like normal at breakfast, no one talking; how my mom shut herself in her room for three days when he left, not eating, just sleeping and crying; how I moved out when I was eighteen and never went back. “You poor thing,” was all Marissa would say.
After a while, we fell in love. It’s easy when it’s new, but it’s hard now. The party’s over, that’s for sure. She’s been clean for seven or eight months – kicked it cold, hardly broke a sweat. But I’m still struggling and she knows it. When we got the news from the doctor a couple months back, I promised her I’d go straight, but until these last two weeks I haven’t been able to string together more than two good days. It wears me out, always having to prove myself to her. I can tell by the way she looks at me that she thinks I lie to her, thinks I take money from her purse when she’s in the shower and hide my works in the back of the pantry, behind the food she doesn’t eat. I always pay her back, though, and the last time I told her I was off smack for good, I ran out of the house and dropped my kit down the sewer. Then I tore the place up, pulled everything out of the cabinets, unpacked the closets and every drawer, just to show her there was nothing left. I’m pretty sure she loves me, all things considered.
I just don’t think I can handle someone like that around me all the time, always looking at me. And no one looks at me like she does. She’s got these big, brown eyes. I tease her all the time about them, tell her they take up half her face. They’re almost black, deeper than a swimming pool when you’re nine, looking down from the high dive. But instead of your friends all staring up at you, pressuring you take that fall, it’s her doing it, because she’s right there, everything all at once. I don’t know why, but I can’t look back at her anymore. I guess that doesn’t make sense, but it’s how I feel.
It’s too hard being this guy for her that I know I’m not. She’d be better off without me, too. She deserves someone who’ll take care of her, someone who’s happy just being a regular person. I’ve wanted to end it so many times, but I don’t know what happens when I’m around her. I just can’t do it. Honestly, I thought she would’ve let me off the hook and done it herself by now. I guess I’m still banking on that happening. That’s why I make it so obvious when I jack a ten or a twenty. I don’t try to hide anything anymore. But she’s so into the game she’ll never get out. She says she is afraid of what’ll happen to me if I’m by myself. She thinks I’m a coward or something maybe.
I was so close to ending it last week, too. I was standing outside the door of the apartment, and I was psyching myself up for it, thinking about what I was going to say, the way I was going to say it. I was ready, stone cold there in the hallway. I kept asking myself, “You ready? You ready?” But the more I asked the more I started to think I wasn’t. “Don’t cop out. Don’t be a bitch. Go down swinging.” I was telling myself that over and over again, like my old man used to tell me. It was like he was right there next to me. I could feel him in the hallway, watching me. I was pacing hard, really into it, when the door opened.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Marissa asked, standing there in her pajamas, looking like the girl I had always wanted her to be, right out of the shower, soft and pink, her dark hair pulled back tight. And those eyes. They just shattered me.
“What are you talking about?” I asked. “Nothing.”
“You’re out here running around, talking to yourself. That’s nothing?”
“What’re you hassling me for?” I asked. She was wide open. I could have taken her down so easy, started a fight and been done, at my dealer’s place in twenty minutes, high in thirty. But I got soft, thought up another story, the same as always. “I was just thinking about something that happened at work, that’s all. I didn’t wanna bother you with it, so I was trying to blow off some steam before I came in. I do this shit for you. You know that right? Drive myself crazy.”
She stepped into the hallway, walked right up to me, rested her chin against my chest, pressed herself against me. She was still small and felt warm in my arms. I took her around the waist, inhaled the vanilla of her skin. We kissed. “Well come inside,” she said, licking me off her lips. “I have dinner on the stove.”
“You trying to impress someone?”
“Funny. But do you really want to break balls when I’m getting ready to feed you?”
I went inside and loosened my tie. She walked into the kitchen.
“You want a beer or something?” she asked.
“No thanks,” I said. “I’m good.”
She was wearing a pair of my sweatpants rolled down just below her waist. I loved the way they slunk down on her hips, the way she moved in them and one of those little T-shirts you get from the drugstore in packs of three, the kind that sneak up a little and let you see that inch of skin that drives me crazy, the part between the small of her back and the top of her ass.
“You look good, baby.” I said.
“Now who’s trying to impress who?”
I sat on the couch and turned on the TV, flipped the channels for a bit but nothing was on. I watched Marissa instead, the way she stood over the cutting board, cooking for me. I kept thinking: Where did this girl come from?
“Do want garlic bread tonight or just the regular seeded Italian?” she asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Whatever you –”
I felt a pinch in my stomach. I thought it was nothing, but I started to feel sick, nauseous, like someone had kicked me in the gut. Sweat collected at the top of my head, under my arms, at the small of my back and the folds of my knees. “Did you turn the heat on?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I didn’t touch it. You’re hot?”
“I’m fucking dying.”
“It’s probably the oven.”
I took off my tie, unbuttoned my shirt and untucked it from my pants. It helped a little, but I still felt like I was having a heart attack or a stroke or something.
“Here,” she said, walking into the living room. She handed me a glass. “Drink this. It’ll cool you down. Look at you. You’re all clammy.” She pressed her hand to my forehead. “You feel fine. This is normal, baby. It’s been two weeks. I’m proud of you.”
“I felt better before all this shit. I’m fucking sick of it.”
“That poison is why you’re always feeling like hell. It’s not the medicine, baby, I promise. Trust me. Your body is learning how to function again. You’re not dying yet, but you will soon if you keep going back and forth.”
“You’re gonna lecture me about my habits?”
“What does that mean? I have self-control, Samuel. I did this already. Remember? I haven’t touched anything stronger than an aspirin in almost a year. So don’t worry about me. Concentrate on yourself.” She shoved the glass in my face. Water spilled out, dripped down the side, onto the carpet. “Just drink the water.”
“Why do you have to call me Samuel? Everyone else says Sam or Sammy. You know I hate that shit.”
“Will you please shut up about your name and drink this, please. You’re having a heart attack over here and you’re giving me ageda about what I call you? Here. Take it.”
“I know,” I said. “You’re right. Thanks.” I took the glass. She remembered to fill it to the top with ice, too, the way I like it. I drank the water down in one shot. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. She was right. It did cool me down, made me feel a little better. But she stood there watching me the whole time, and it was driving me crazy. “What? What’re you looking at me like that?”
“Like what? I’m just waiting for you to finish so I can take the glass to the sink.”
“All right,” I said. “Whatever. Here’s your glass. Thanks.”
I handed her the empty cup, turned back to the TV. She went into the kitchen to finish dinner. And hour later we sat on the floor around the coffee table with our shoes off, like they do in China or Japan or wherever. The food was good – ravioli and her mom’s tomato recipe, a little salad on the side, ice cream for desert. We didn’t say much, just watched a movie on cable, something terrible from like twenty years ago. She fell asleep on my shoulder, and when I woke her she kissed my forearm and pulled me to my feet, held my hand as we closed the lights in the living room and locked the door. We went to bed without doing the dishes.
That night when I fucked her, I couldn’t help thinking about my old man, the way he and my mom fought that time about the OTB recipes. I had a dream about him, too – him and me in the Buick. I don’t know where we were going, but I was sitting in the back and he was driving, staring straight ahead the whole time. I was leaning over the passenger seat, trying to get his attention, hoping he would turn around. I started yelling at him, slapping myself in the face, over and over again till I started crying. I kept asking, “What do you think of me now, Pop? What do you think of me now?” But the more I cried, the redder my face became, the more snot I sucked, the more his eyes stayed locked on the road, not a sound from him, both hands on the wheel. I don’t know what the hell it meant, but it was clear as anything. I woke up early the next morning and dressed for work without taking a shower.
My buddy Leo, this kid from the neighborhood who calls all the guys in our old crew every couple weeks, just to check in, he called me on my cell later that day and asked what I was up to. I was thinking about Marissa, though, about the night before, the way she smelled in the hallway, the way she cooked for me, felt my forehead to check my temperature, called me on my bullshit. “You there or what?” Leo asked. “I said, ‘What’s new?’”
“Sorry,” I said. “Nothing.” I thought up a story. “I’m moving to Camden.”
“Camden? What the hell for?” he asked, surprised. “Camden’s a shit hole.”
“Marissa moved out last night,” I said. “I walked in on her blowing some guy in the living room. Beat the hell out of him then kicked her ass out.”
“Jesus,” he said. “I thought you guys were going good. You just got the news, too, didn’t you? What the hell happened?”
“No, man. False alarm.”
“Christ. I guess that’s a good thing, considering the circumstances. You okay?”
“A little pissed off, but I’m fine. I was done with her anyway. On my way out.”
“So you see the game last night,” he asked after a moment of silence. “That kicker cost me a grand. I totally laid the favorite.”
“I just tell you my girl blew some guy in my house and moved out and you’re talking to me about a game?” I asked, all angry-sounding. “What kinda friend are you?”
“You’re right,” he said. “Sorry, bro. Well if you need anything, let me know. You have my number. Good luck in Camden. Remember to lock your doors.”
I hung up the phone and tossed it onto my desk, next to the bottle of aspirin and the picture of Marissa and me at the water park, the one from last summer, her arms around my neck, both of us wearing big smiles and matching Aviators. I leaned back in my chair and tried to get some work done, make some calls, but I was too distracted. I was still thinking about Marissa when my cell shot off again.
It was JT, my hookup from downtown, calling to see if I wanted back in the game, the same as he did every two or three days. The last time we spoke he told me he could hear in my voice the sound of my sobriety crumbling, and he wanted to be there when the walls came down. Guys like me kept guys like him in business. “I know that sound, brother. You gimme a call when you decide to come back. I’ll be in touch, though. You know me. Never more than a phone call away.” He was a grimy son of a bitch, but he was persistent as hell.
I watched the front screen of my phone light up, JT’s name flash on the caller ID, listened to the plastic case vibrate against my desk, the sound like one of those siren songs I read about it high school, in the Odyssey or in one of those Greek myths where the crew hears the song and goes crazy, crashes the ship into the cliffs, like during the Trojan War or something.
I watched the phone for what seemed like an hour, took deep breaths, told myself not to cop out, to go down swinging, to be a man like my Pop taught me.
I picked the phone off the desk and sent the call to voicemail.
Then I dialed Marissa.