I was still up before the alarm went off, of course way before Sid would ever drag his bones out of the bed, and I sat down in front of the laptop set up on a TV tray in front of the window, turned on the fan so the smoke would blow past the trees outside, and I swear, off in the distance, I could feel the horizon quiver, pulling me out of the cotton ball womb of sleep. I blew a filament of smoke into the dull green glow of the computer screen, pretending that I’m the daughter of a dragon, when in actuality it’s just that I’m home, with him, and I might as well be alone, and I’m watching the rippled sun rise and fall on hate, so I type out a line, think better of it, backspace over it until it’s gone again, and wonder about all the different ways there are to consider what if…
We were drinking the night before, who knows what, probably whisky shots and flat draft beer, and I forget why we were drinking except that it was Tuesday, and that seemed as good or bad a reason as any other. Sid was talking to everyone in the bar again, talking to some other drunk, talking about how he’d be the next president, and trying to convince the poor slob that he should give a shit about baseball, before he knocked another shot back and started trying to unravel all the mysteries of life, like the answers were going to be at the bottom of the shot glass, in the last drop of the piss-warm PBR draft, and I just decided to hang out at the end of the bar and work on peeling the label off the bottle, because he’s not in trouble, well, not yet, and he’s not starting it, either, and at least that’s something.
From my perch at the horseshoe end of the bar, I catch a whiff of the familiar smell of every shit bar in every town, in every state: it never changes, not even if you go from Belfast, Maine to Olympia, Washington and then back to Tallahassee, Florida. Stale beer, like the sour smell of a silo in the field, urinal cakes, someone’s sadness that they’re trying to drown in zymurgy, too much perfume and cologne to mask the unbathed or the sweaty pits from the end of a long workday, the regrets of taking that job that gives you workdays that feel like eternities and never pays out more that you need to make it from one payday to the next, there’s never anything extra, nothing worth much of anything to sock aside, so why not come down to the bar where it stinks and spend what you didn’t really have to begin with in the meantime, to try and forget it.
He’s talking like Bukowski again, he’s channeling Kerouac and Burroughs and Ginsberg and in everything he’s punctuating with his beer glass thumped on the bar, he’s saying, I’m getting old, this is getting old, when did I start getting old? He’s sloshing beer over the side of the glass, an amber wave of the fermented grains, yee-haw, the American-fuckin’-dream, boy! and I’m focusing on getting this label off in one honest peel, remembering all those hopes we had for the future, the things he was going to accomplish, the fact that he was gonna move, we were gonna fucking shake. We were gonna be famous, man! We were gonna have things goin’ for us! But the urgency in his voice isn’t for all those long-forgotten things, those dreams he drowned in the bottom of the empty glasses, those things he stamped out when he slammed the empty shot glasses back down—the urgency is When the hell is the bartender gonna get his ass back over with that pitcher, I mean really, last call’s only an hour and a half away. He’s thirsty in his soul and his spirit needs to be flushed as badly as his bladder, his heart needs food more than his belly can remember and all this is just a break from the soul-crushing sound of that alarm that’s gonna go off again in just a few hours, reminding us both that yeah, we’re still drunks, yeah, we’re still poor, yeah, all that shit we went to school for just made us smarter waiters and waitresses, and yeah, now we’re even worse off than if we’d never cracked the spine on a book, because now we understand what a raw deal we got and are just rubbing the skin back, layer by layer, to make the raw meat of our deal even more ragged. Seven a.m. hurts; it’s not nice or gentle, it just comes up like the sun and sandpaper, gliding over that raw spot of past due bills and part-time schedules, the crumpled dollar bill tips left under plates of soggy fries and congealing ketchup puddles, and the leftover food we bring home from work in Styrofoam containers, so we don’t have to spend the bar money on groceries. When the sun comes up, it doesn’t come up like the flutter of eyelashes, it comes up like the pounding of blood in my temples, it comes up as the nausea and cold sweats of a hangover.
But whatever, he’s not in any trouble, not the kind of flashing-blue-light trouble, not last night, anyway. I think he said, Fuck the cab, I know he said, Fuck the bus—so we walked, it’s just a couple blocks. All the while, he stopped by the side of the road to heave up the amber waves and golden mist of all that wasted money, all that wasted time, all the wasted years of us together, because really, when we get home, he’s just going to pass out and forget the thing he promises himself every morning when he wakes up hungover and sees I’m still there. It’s like I’m the ghost of someone who’s been dead forever, but hanging around haunting him for so long that on one hand, he’s used to me and on the other hand, he thinks every morning about how I’m not supposed to be there, how I’m supposed to be in the wind, how I’m supposed to say, Well, fuck you, too! and slam out the door and disappear back to wherever it is I came from. Except I’ve been here, haunting this house so long, I don’t even remember where that somewhere I came from actually is, and all there is left is this, this house, and Sid. When he’s brushing the whisky skin off his teeth and spitting blood and toothpaste down the sink, watching the foamy pink water swirling the drainpipe, he promises that Today’s going to be different, and it always is different, but never quite the way he meant it when he’s chewing down the bitter chalk of Excedrin to keep the migraine in check, or when he’s hoping to god he can wait to clock out before the shakes start and he can have a drink without anyone knowing that he’s slipped over that edge, because really it was just a cliff, nothing more, and he’s everything that he promised he’d never be. Tomorrow’s going to be different, Nance, promise, he coughs out, between splashes of vomit, and I just make a circle on his back with the flat of my palm and wonder if it’s going to start raining, or if he remembered his keys.
Now see, I remember the walking. When he’d coughed back up everything but the poison that was already in his blood, he started singing as we started up the hill, I don’t remember what, okay, liar liar, I do remember, but that’s mine to keep with me, because it was my song, and the streetlights were dim, and he couldn’t find his keys in his pocket, even though I could hear them jangling, so I opened the door with my key and he turned on the TV as soon as he flopped on the couch inside. I went into the bedroom, woozy from the beer and whisky that I’d drank myself, that I didn’t have the good sense to cough up like he did, and I come out to find him playing with his machete, almost slicing the taut meat of his thigh open. His clothes are on a heap on the floor and like a bad little kid with a dangerous toy, I take the machete away and he cries, then falls to his knees in front of me, pressing his forehead into the V of my cotton panties, kissing the soft flab of where my thighs touch at the top, starts kissing a damp spot onto the cloth as his hands roam up to grope under the t-shirt for my braless nipples. Fingertips and nipples: both so lonely, even though for a second, they’re together, but all the whisky makes him soft and sad and since he can’t get it up he slams into the bathroom to take a shower. With the door locked, he lies down face first in the tub instead, until I pound on the door and pick the shitty lock with the tip of a butterknife.
So he’s dragged the ironing board that we never use and even have for god knows what reason in front of the door to keep me out, and after throwing a couple half-assed swings at me, I know he’s all right, or he will be, so there’s nothing left to bother with. He crawls dripping wet into the bed and makes the sheets clammy as he pulls them around his skinny hips and winds then under his wiry arms, wet hair in damp clumps, like knots of seaweed, mumbling Sorry, don’t leave, Nance, don’t leave, and even though I’m sure that there’s nothing but empty air and acid and blood left in the sandy pit of his stomach, I put a bucket by the bed so he won’t knock his head on the side table crawling to the bathroom and leave me to find him bleeding in the morning again. Last night, once he was in bed, he was mostly safe, so I paced the rooms and traced every inch of the dirty carpet with my bare feet, turning up pot seeds and lost buds , all the lazy grandma ashes that fell from the tips of the cigarettes that I absently and carelessly chain smoke when I’m pacing, finding bits of glass from three fights back, something sticky that might have once been a wine spill, and the crusty stain that still smells like the iron from when he gashed his head. I paced and paced, until the alarm was about to go off, and so instead of pacing anymore, I lit another smoke and sat down in front of an empty screen, pretending to be a dragon, pretending to be more than what I am, pretending that I could go back and change something to make any of this end different, write a sentence down, delete it, backspace over every night and mistake until the only words left are what if…
The mornings are always a different story. Safe is hard for Sid, he doesn’t trust it, he doesn’t trust me, and that’s cool, because I don’t trust him, either. He’s got the blinding nausea and I’ve got the blistering jitters, and he’s laying there on his back wrapped up in clammy sheets sweating and stinking of last night’s beer and whisky bombs, hoping that if he lies still long enough, the nausea won’t notice he’s there, and it’s still dark outside but I’ve got the lamp on, and all of a sudden it’s bothering his eyes because they’re finally open and seeing everything around us, and he remembers. He remembers getting off shift, he remembers walking to my job and waiting for me to get off shift, he remembers priming himself for the night while he waited for me. He remembers that first whisky bomb, but nothing, not really, not after. Another pint. Then just spots, here and there, a line from a song he thinks he might have been singing, and then just being cold and sweaty at the same time. Naked in our clammy, sweaty bed, he moves the sheet to the side and his cock is standing up and ready to fuck, but there’s nothing but skin after sticky skin of hangover seeping out of his pores. After a couple of frantic tugs on it, looking me dead in the eyes, he’s drooping again, cradling his cock like a baby with one hand and reaching for a stale glass of water on the night stand with the other. I walk over to him, put two smokes in my mouth, light them both, and hand him one. He looks at the clock, sees that is says 6:53, asks me if it’s right. I nod, and he blows out all the smoke like a sigh and shuffles off to the bathroom. Behind the closed door, beneath the running water of the shower, I hear him dry heaving and I turn on the TV, rubbing my fists hard against the cotton crotch of my panties, feeling my heart pumping and blood flowing, trying to feel anything but desperate for just a moment, trying to remember what it was like when we still fucked and both of us remembered it the next day, trying to remember when it just became easier to not even bother trying anymore. I come cold and distracted, as a commercial for paper towels tells me how absorbent the name brand is, and how that absorbency will make me a better person and give my life some meaning.
When Sid comes back into the living room, he’s dressed for work and kisses my forehead before leaving to walk back to the bar where we left the car last night, and since I don’t go in till the afternoon shift, I stare into the glass eye of the TV and spend most of the day trying to get off and forget, and finally climb sleeplessly into the shower to watch all the grime and sweat and shame of this life pool around my toes with the scummy ring of shaving cream and shampoo bubbles. No need to turn back, no need to type out that sentence on the computer screen, it’s just one more dream that got caught in a web on the way from fifteen to twenty-two. There’s only forward left, who cares about what’s behind me, except what’s behind me is why I keep haunting this house, because I can’t remember anything but here, nothing but now, even though I know it existed. All the little moments of hope and courage between taste like shit and salty tears, burn like soap in my eyes, as I try to scrub the slashes of cheap mascara off my cheeks: the rejections, the demotions, the minimum wage waitress job with my useless college degree. All of it is just a bitter hope to be left alone with the slow music of his drunken voice, You’re the kind of girl who fits into my world, and the promise, Nance, I promise, that tomorrow’s gonna be different.
It’s already tomorrow—it’s happening, right now—and look at that! I’m invited to attend. Tomorrow is today and it’s dreams and it’s a penitential fuck-you to the rip-off of school and the drunk that I love, even if I can’t remember why. When I get out of the shower, I towel off and get dressed. Before I leave the house, I crack a beer, and see that Sid took one, too. I think I tried to forget.