One time when I was 28, I woke up in a bathroom.
Maybe “came to” is the better term.
Blood was smeared down the outside of the tub. I was fully dressed, crumpled between the toilet at my back, the wall at my head, and the red smudge directly in front of my eyes.
I didn’t know how I got there. But, I also didn’t know where I was. So the one thing I knew for sure was, I needed to get the fuck out.
I stood up, woozy, head-achy, but more concerned with my immediate exit than my balance. I caught a glance of myself in the mirror, straightened my ball cap, and held my breath.
The apartment seemed to be empty as I caromed off the walls in the narrow hallway, a door waiting straight ahead of me. I almost absently touched my back pocket, checking for keys, and slipped out before anyone could realize I was there.
I raced down the building’s stairs, almost falling once, clutching and sliding down the handrail, bursting out the door to the parking lot. I jumped in the truck and headed south, a general idea of where I was, but no clear idea why. I didn’t know anyone that lived in this neighborhood. I was thirty minutes from home.
I’d been living in one of the more affluent suburbs of the state capital for a few months, the place where those ancient cookout subtitles were definitely, absolutely, beyond a doubt, going to happen. Surround yourself with success, all that. I’d found a dirt cheap apartment on the outskirts, but the burg was small enough I could walk from one end to another in an hour or so. Groceries, liquor stores, a book shop, and in the middle of town, a high-rise building with outlandishly priced apartments above high-end restaurants and coffee shops.
I’d dated a girl from there, albeit very briefly. Not so many people were buying my “tragic alcoholic artist” persona in my late twenties as had been at the beginning of that decade. I’d always jokingly told her we would buy an apartment up there someday, wander downstairs when we felt like swordfish fillets or the fancy coffee she loved but always felt guilty about buying.
I was going to write books, I told her. It seemed like the least amount of effort that could be put into a giant dream. I already owned a computer; I knew how to spell (mostly). All I had to do, according to the biographies, was drink a lot, feel a lot, and wait for the muse to tap me on the shoulder. I was sure that had happened before. Maybe.
I mean, I had ideas.
So many ideas.
After she got tired of waiting (in fairness, all I had was ideas; I hadn’t put word one on a page) I’d bounced around between a few places— new girls, old work acquaintances, girls I sort of knew, so they were in the middle. If nothing else, I’d become quite adept at wearing out my welcome before “gallantly” moving on to my next big adventure under the stars.
I don’t know what happened to her. She never spoke to me again.
About six months after my final promise that I would clean up and she would be proud of me, I found an apartment within two miles of her’s. We could walk to the coffee shop, I’d texted her. I’m at the bookstore, if you need anything, I’d let her know. I bought flowers to take to her place and leave outside the door, but she was just getting off work when I hit the lot, so I pulled a quick U-turn and headed out again.
The flowers smelled good, but they wouldn’t overpower the 50-50 vodka drink I’d made before driving over.
In the apartment, I arranged books. I walked to the library. I sorted through trash bags of clothes that I had every intention of unpacking at some point, but things always got in the way. There was a balcony I needed to sit on. There were movies at the library I hadn’t seen. There were slow walks to the liquor store, to the grocery store, to the other liquor store, because you don’t go to buy handles of liquor at the same place every couple days. When the clerks know who you are, that’s when you have a problem.
I listened constantly and only to the cds that had played during college. The bands I had never heard of until someone came to a cookout and explained to me what I was supposed to know. I sat in my one chair, a drink on my one end table, and I stared at my one tv. Sometimes I looked out the window, down to the grass below, watching the complex kids riding bikes and wandering around.
I’d snagged a job through a friend of an acquaintance who, surprisingly, for the first few months was okay with me missing a day or so a week, depending on how late I had stayed up the night before, “researching.”
I’m still not sure what I meant by that, but it had the ring of intellectualism that somehow still gave the faintest glimmer of excusability to my actions. People really want to believe they know a genius. Or so I told myself.
An asphalt bike path wound around the edge of the complex, leading to the north-south street in the suburb. North was shopping. South was everything else. The old, historic homes. The newer mansions. Directly south, butting up to the apartments was the old cemetery, dating back, as far as I could tell, to the first families to take up residence in the area, attempting to escape the busy-ness of the main city.
Sometimes I would wander the paths there, earphones in, one of those dark plastic water bottles tucked in my back pocket with a mixed drink inside.
Every time, I had brilliant ideas. The genius itself, the growing, edging, near-to-bursting, insight-laden brilliance wouldn’t leave me alone. Not when I was there. Not when I was stealing names, writing down ideas on a little spiral notebook that fit in my front pocket. I had lives in my mind. I had plans to set the city on its edge. I was going to suddenly, but humbly, break out in a miraculous come-from-behind victory that I not only wouldn’t rub in people’s faces (no one likes to hear an I Told You So), but that I would utilize, and build, and create ever more amazing, philanthropic goodness from.
All from a name on a grave marker. All from my solitude, which while I hated it, I was realizing I probably needed. Or at least I kind of deserved it.
But definitely not because it was forced on me from outside. The fact that no one answered when I incessantly called, that was because they were busy, or because I was being shown by some Fate that I needed to be thinking. I needed to be creating.
And in all fairness, I had no desire to drive anywhere after about 5:30 in the evening. My ever-delightful, always-welcoming selflessness hadn’t changed. I only asked that people call me, and then come to me. And perhaps leave when I asked. Or at least not mention that I was drinking too much. That was a tired conversation I’d had enough of. If I were drinking too much, I wouldn’t have a job. I wouldn’t live where I lived. I wouldn’t be sitting in a room surrounded by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Joyce and Wallace and even Dickens, Dumas, and King (a full study of writing, after all, requires breadth). If I drank too much, I would have sold these books long ago for a bottle. I wouldn’t have read them. I wouldn’t even have heard of them.
So all I really needed was someone to do exactly what I asked, and nothing more or less. Which never seemed that hard. Everybody likes direction in life.
If you still buy groceries every week, you are an adult.
If you throw them away, but you replace them with fresh salads and milk and fruit juice, it shows that you are planning ahead, and serious about things this time.
Especially the juice, because sometimes your blood sugar goes loopy, but that happens to people.
And plus, you shouldn’t drive when you’ve been blacking out randomly from this.
Responsibility is the same as maturity.
The apartment stank. Not of trash, but of the never ending open bottles. I wouldn’t realize this until later though. What I knew then was, I had been gypped. But I was also doing the adult thing and not complaining about it. In all my life, I wasn’t a complainer. I went with the punches. I handled my situations, and the only thing that really irked me, was when people tried to handle them for me. It carried a nuance of distrust, of pity, and I deserved neither of those things. I had fought my way through a mountain of shit that no one deserved, but I had kept going. I had earned my solitude. My reward for twenty-eight years of grief was to be left alone.
When I wanted it.
In the truck, I drove south. The city was familiar, I’d been there often enough, passing through to one place or another. I knew where I was going.
I couldn’t exactly place the name of the girl I was borrowing a room off of, but it would come to me. I glanced up at the rearview mirror, ever cautious, ever defensive, ever on the lookout for tailgaters or cops. Blood had dried across my chin. I licked my hand and did my best to wipe it away, needing to at least look together enough to make whatever story I came up with sound plausible once I got back.
I checked my speed. I made full stops at stop signs and gentle, easing stops at yellow lights. I was just another guy driving back from somewhere. Nothing to see here.
In these instances, more than any other, I wanted to be nothing special. I wanted to be completely invisible.
I tried to piece together the night. The day? I looked at the clock on the dash. Quarter after six. I glanced at the sun. PM? At the next stoplight I pulled my phone from my pocket (everything seemed to be where it belonged; I could feel my wallet beneath me). Six-fifteen pm, check. Monday. Okay. Not a lot of help there.
I listed places in my brain. Pucks did pitchers on Sundays. As did Marty’s. Free apps at Marty’s, too. Same at The Cues though, and they had half-price pool. That seemed like something I would do.
Still though, in the eighteen or twenty-four or however many hours between something and now, what did I do? All three of those places were over twenty minutes from where I was. Not an outlandish amount of driving, especially if I hadn’t done it.
I kicked myself for not checking for familiar cars while bolting out of there.
Then again, the place looked entirely unfamiliar, so who would I have been hanging out with anyway?
That *is* something that someone who drinks too much does. You talk too much. You get caught up in a group. The next thing you know you’re who-knows-where, stuck in someone’s shit-hole apartment, not wanting to drive home, but not wanting to fall asleep somewhere strange. Anything can happen in those places. It was yet another reason people were supposed to come to me. I was home already. I had the advantage. I knew where I was and I didn’t have to *go* anywhere else later that night. Or the next day.
I made a right turn, then a quick left, moving myself over one block and onto the last street I needed. Six blocks and I’d be back. What to say then, though.
On the plus side, we weren’t dating, so it shouldn’t really matter. If I got all the blood off I could likely come up with a reasonable story. Somebody from work. She wouldn’t know any of them. I had even mentioned names. I knew a precise list of people she wouldn’t know, but she would know of.
I went out and played pool last night. With Somebody. From work.
No. She might have done that. Maybe try and get her talking first.
Okay. Maybe I went straight there after work. Movies? Sure. What movie? I scrambled. What was the last movie I watched? Who cares. “Mighty Ducks.” That’s funny enough. Everyone’s seen it so I wouldn’t have to explain it. And people our age, it’s dumb enough to believe that we’d watched it.
I checked my phone again.
Okay. No. She hadn’t called. I swiped to the texts. No one had texted. That’s good.
Wait. No one?
Maybe I had made plans verbally. It wasn’t really my style, but Occam’s razor and all.
I parked the car out front, sitting for a moment at the curb, watching the cars go by, slowing my breathing and running through my story, telling myself that really, it wouldn’t likely be needed anyway. I put my hand on the door latch, and stopped.
I looked at my phone again. It was August.
I had moved out of this place in June.
I looked up at my face in the mirror again, the blood faded but covering the perfect sweet spot on a guy with a glass jaw.
I checked the traffic and pulled back out onto the street, going down to the end of the block and working my way back to the direction I had come from.
I hadn’t gone to The Cues last night. I hadn’t gone to work like I was supposed to yesterday either.
I’d turned off the alarm, and somewhere in the middle of the shower, realized I didn’t have the heart to go in. I’d learned the habit of making a full drink the night before, and leaning it in the corner of the walls in the bedroom, within easy reach from my mattress on the floor. It helped with hangovers. It postponed them. Then again, I couldn’t remember giving myself a chance to have one in years.
I’d climbed out of the shower, finished my drink, brushed my teeth, texted myself in sick, and then moved to the chair. I’d watched tv, sipping another drink and planning my day.
And then, well, best guess:
I’d drank more. I remember being very happy, but that was a lot of days and didn’t count for much except as a balance to the raging depression that always accompanied too much of the wrong drink. I used to avoid dark liquor because of this, but eventually realized it wasn’t the liquor’s fault and it went back into the shuffle.
Because only people with drinking problems buy gallons of the exact same thing.
I sat at a stoplight, considering the twenty-minute drive I had ahead of me.
It wasn’t a stranger’s apartment I’d come to in. It was mine.
Blows to the head will do that to a guy, I thought.
And also, I needed a drink.