I woke up at midnight, still drunk. I wasn’t ready to be conscious yet, to hear what my brain had to say. So I blundered into the bathroom and downed five sleeping pills. When I woke up again at two, I took five more.
It was about four a.m. when I rose cautiously out of my fitful dreams, testing the murky waters of my physical condition before opening my eyes.
I’d expected to wake with a crushing hangover, to be awash with shame and a sense of impending doom, but instead I felt calm and good. It was strange.
I leaned on the kitchen counter as my coffee brewed, staring at the cake I’d baked for Mardi Gras and now would never eat, since I’d given up sugar for Lent. I was surrounded by the detritus of my failed life. I was too old to be fucking up like this. Where was the remorse? Where was the bleak self-loathing?
I poured myself a cup of coffee, deciding not to look a gift whore in the twat. I wanted to write, so I pulled up Justin’s book and lost myself in the story.
A couple hours later, my husband sat down next to me, and I was pulled out of my fantasy and back into the physical world. It annoyed me. I didn’t like it there.
I slapped my laptop closed and tugged my fingers through my unwashed hair. “I’ll leave during Spring Break, so I have time to get settled in a new situation before Juniper starts school again,” I said.
Eric stroked his beard compulsively. “Liz, I don’t want you to leave.”
“Then why did you tell me to? Why do you keep telling me to?”
“Because I get angry. You know better than anyone that people say things they don’t mean when they’re angry.”
“I don’t say things like that. I may tell people to fuck off and shit, but that’s not the same.”
“Ever since we moved here, it just seems like you’ve gotten more and more miserable, and I can’t do anything about it.”
“How many times do I need to tell you I’m not miserable? It hurts me that you insist on believing that, contrary to all evidence. No matter what I do, you just see me as this negative and mopey person. That’s not how I am at all. I get in bad moods sometimes, but everyone does.”
“You spend as much time away from the house as you can, and when you’re here, you’re staring at your laptop.”
“How does that mean I’m miserable? I’ve been going out more the past few weeks, but I’ve been home before you except for a couple of times. I spent sixteen months cooped up in the house writing, and I’m just blowing off steam. And what do you care that I’m sitting in front of my laptop? You and Juniper are watching TV or playing videogames. I have to stare at the same screen as you in order for it to be quality time?”
He just sat there twisting his bottom lip between his fingers. Then he got up, shouldering his satchel.
“What time will you be home?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I’m going to be super, super busy today.”
He left. I opened my laptop back up and gazed unseeingly at the screen. I didn’t feel anything. I was completely washed out.
After our kids were in school, Mari came to drag me out of the house.
“The worst part is, I think I really hurt Phoenix,” I said, wolfing down my hot night roll. “He has enough to deal with without me unloading my bullshit on him.”
“I don’t think you need to worry about that,” Mari said.
“But I do. He’s important to me. I know that’s weird, or it looks weird to people….” I put my chopsticks down and picked at the new polish on my fingernails. “Shit, I think it even looks weird to Phoenix. He can’t figure it out.”
Mari raised her eyebrows. “Just forget about Phoenix. Stay out of the park. Concentrate on your husband, and writing, and hanging out with me.”
“Yeah….” I stared down at my plate. “I want to apologize to Phoenix, though, at least. But I can’t go over there. His sister and mom will kick my ass. They all gonna run me out of Shandon with flaming torches.” I imagined the whole Shandon mob, the drunks and vatos and park rats, their souped-up quads kicking up dust as they revved down Center Street, pelting me with Bud Light cans and flaming diapers as I ran desperately for the bridge out of town.
Mari smirked. “I think you’re making too much of this. It’s Shandon. Everyone gets drunk and acts stupid almost every day. Stop worrying about it.”
I grimaced and started drawing designs in my eel sauce with my chopsticks. If she thought I could just stop worrying about anything, she didn’t know me very well yet.
When Juniper came home from school, she asked if I wanted to walk to the store with her.
I chewed my lip. “Sure.”
I couldn’t hide forever. If I was going to throw down with Phoenix’s mom and his sister (who was inaptly named Whisper), I might as well get it over with.
I kept my head held high as we walked past the park.
“And the other Raul only likes me because Raul G. likes me,” Juniper said, kicking the gravel. “God, I hate that school so much. Everyone is so stupid.”
“Uh huh,” I said, keeping my eyes fixed on a point in front of me. I wouldn’t look over. I didn’t want to know who was in the park.
“I miss Lily being there,” Juniper said. “She’s like my safe person, because people don’t talk to me when I’m with her…are you even listening, Mama?”
“I’m listening,” I muttered. “Something about you being drama bomb.”
She giggled. “You’re drama bomb.”
Over in the park, I could swear I heard Whisper’s wild laugh, but I still didn’t look.
We got sodas at the store, and I clutched my Styrofoam cup as we walked back, wondering how much advantage tossing thirty-two ounces of diet Pepsi in an attacker’s face would buy me.
“She wanted my swing, but there was another swing open,” Juniper said. “So she went to playground teacher. She’s just so….”
My back tensed, and I turned to see Whisper running up behind me.
“Juniper, go home,” I said. My daughter took one look at my face, and for once she didn’t argue. She ran towards our house without looking back.
I stood and waited. Whisper stopped about three feet from me, her porcelain brow furrowed. “You left your sunglasses at our house,” she said.
I opened my mouth, then closed it again. The tension drained out of my shoulders, and they slumped. I hid my face in my hands. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’m a total fucking bitch.”
“No,” she said. “I was wrong. Phoenix told me about you having problems with your husband, and what happened. I just, you know, walked in and saw that, and I’m real protective of him. But it’s none of my business.”
“It is,” I said. “You have every right to be protective of him. He’s your brother, and I wasn’t acting right.”
She squinted at me with her golden-hazel eyes. “He really likes you, you know. Most girls treat him real bad, they like yell at him and stuff, but you take him on hikes and bike rides and running…and I mean, if you and your husband are splitting up or whatever….”
My stomach sank to my feet as I followed that train of thought to its final station, dully wondering if Whisper’s mom had meant her name to be a constant admonishment. “Where is he?” I asked. “I want to apologize to him.”
She jerked her chin towards the park. “Over here.”
We crossed over into the park. Whisper was chattering about her inability to make her car payment, but I wasn’t really listening. I’d spotted Phoenix over at a table with his mom and a few other drunk and boisterous people. He had his shirt off, which was completely unlike him, and he was staring at the basketball in his hands with a lost look that made a lump rise in my throat.
He didn’t look at me as I sat down next to him. “You left your sunglasses,” he muttered.
“Phoenix, I’m so sorry….”
“Sorry, you’re sorry, I’m the one who should be sorry. You didn’t do anything.” He spun the basketball around and around, caressing the ridges with his long and dexterous fingers.
“I acted like an idiot.”
“No, no, not at all.”
“Will you walk with me to your house to get my sunglasses?”
“No, I think you should wait here, and I’ll go.”
But he didn’t get up. He just sat, staring at the ball. I could feel his sadness coming off of him in waves, because it was my sadness, too. Around us, people laughed and smoked cigarettes and taunted each other with drunken jibes, but Phoenix and I existed in a different universe apart from them.
Then he stood up, finally meeting my eyes. He smiled faintly. “Okay, let’s go,” he said.
We were completely silent on the walk to his house. I didn’t want to talk. It was enough that he was here with me right now, even though my heart twisted thinking it might be the last time. I’d fucked up. I’d ruined one of my favorite friendships ever. I felt like I’d been hollowed out with a carving knife.
He went into his room. I waited on the porch, leaning against the gingerbread railing and absentmindedly petting Shiva’s head. After a few minutes, he came out with my sunglasses and a book I’d loaned him on Eastern Philosophy. When he handed them back, I saw he wasn’t wearing the bracelet I’d given him, but at least he wasn’t giving it back. In the complex symbolism of Phoenix’s communication, this meant something. Maybe I had a chance. Either that, or he’d destroyed the bracelet, burned it or angrily chewed the beads off one by one.
We gazed at each other for a few moments, then his eyes fell back to the basketball as he spun it slowly in his hands.
“My husband came looking for me last night, in the park,” I said.
“You’re not kicked out anymore? Are you done fighting?”
“We’re not done fighting. He says he wants me to stay, but…I don’t know. I think he just doesn’t like the person that I am. He says so many mean things, and it hurts. It hurts, and he’s just going to do it again and again and again. He says he doesn’t need me anymore.” I hugged myself, staring at my feet. I could hear Phoenix’s fingers tapping lightly on the basketball.
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re so smart, and you don’t know what you’re going to do?”
I looked up at him. He was staring at me with his lips pressed together and a look in his eyes I’d never seen before, hard and hurt and bitter. “I’m not that smart,” I muttered, but his expression didn’t change. I let my gaze drop to the floor so he wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes. “I could leave,” I said.
“Where would you go?”
“I have places I could go.”
“Who would go with you?”
“Juniper,” I said.
He leaned back against the wall. “How drunk were you last night?”
I wiped my eyes and glanced back up at him. He had that lost look again, and I realized what he’d probably meant. Who would go with you? I squeezed my eyes shut, letting that thought play out in my mind. No matter how fun it was to daydream about wandering off with Phoenix forever, it didn’t work out once you ran the simulation within realistic parameters. “I don’t want to leave,” I said. “I have it too good here. I have to try to make it work. I’m too old to just…just run away again.” He wouldn’t meet my eyes, and I clutched my elbows. “Will you still be my friend, Phoenix?”
He scowled. “Why would you even want to hang out with me? You have friends and write and play music. You have a husband and a kid and a life.”
“I really like hanging out with you. I’m…comfortable around you.”
I wanted to tell him how I really felt. I wanted to tell him he was the only person I’d ever met that made me feel completely open, like he valued me not for who I could pretend to be, or what I could do for him, or what I could accomplish, but just because of the simple fact that I was alive. He made me feel like I was a good person even when I wasn’t at my best, when I was sad or nervous or angry. And he made me feel like each moment was whole and beautiful, not because I had hope the march of time might lead to something better, but because everything was perfect right now.
But I couldn’t tell him that. It was too much.
“It’s okay for us to be friends,” I said. “Can you do that? Will you be friends with me?”
His eyes darted to mine, then away again. “Yeah, I think. I think I can do that.”
“I’m going to come see you on Friday, and ask you if you want to go on a walk or something. You don’t have to go, but I’m going to come anyway.”
He stared at me a few moments. “Do you want an incent?” he asked.
He went into his room and came out with a stick of incense. “Maybe your husband will like you better if you have an incent.”
I smiled, carefully pressing the stick between the pages of the Eastern Philosophy book. “You think that’s all it will take? Do I just smell or something?”
He didn’t answer, and my smile faded. “I’ll be back on Friday,” I said.
And then I turned and left, leaving him there on the porch.