Phoenix sat beside me with a look of deliberate innocence.
“What’s up, Phoenix?” Manny asked, glancing up from his laptop.
“All sorts of things that exist in the light behind your thoughts, like angels and aliens and Sasquatch,” he replied, tipping back his Coors.
Annalise was still staring at me. I popped my own can of beer, downing it almost as fast as Phoenix did his.
“What are you watching?” Phoenix asked Manny. “Is that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?”
“Yeah, it’s my TURTLES,” Manny declared.
“No way, kickass,” Phoenix said. “What one is it?”
“The movie, the new one. It just started.” Manny pulled out his bong and started stuffing the bowl with bright green buds. He glanced at me nervously. “You smoke?”
“Naw, that shit makes me hear voices,” I said. “I don’t have a problem with other people smoking it, though.”
Manny snickered, his eyes darting between Phoenix and me curiously. “Makes you hear voices?”
“Seriously,” I said. “My ex once made me these brownies and I spent eighteen hours thinking I was dead and in the Bardo.”
Manny laughed. Annalise got up from the table and started stomping vigorously on a fallen sycamore branch to break it up, her eyes darting to me. I wondered if she was going to club me over the head, but instead she loaded up the barbecue.
Phoenix fished in his deep pockets and pulled out another beer. He opened it, took a drink and handed it to me. I gulped it, feeling my shoulders begin to loosen up.
“You’re sorta new here, right?” Manny asked, pulling on the bong. “What brings you to Shandon?”
“My husband,” I said. “He got a job at Cal Poly.”
He raised his eyebrows and blew out a cloud of smoke, coughing. “No shit. Doing what?”
Manny grinned. “Chemistry. What do you do?”
“I’m a writer,” I said, feeling my cheeks go hot.
“Really? What do you write?”
“Fiction novels. Some fantasy stuff, but the stuff that seems to really sell is the novels with the dirty sex, so I write those, too.”
“Sex sells,” Annalise said, jiggling her tits at Manny as she cracked a branch over her knee.
“Not for very much at my age,” I said.
Annalise did a double-take, an unwilling grin spreading across her face. Then she laughed. “Shit,” she said.
Phoenix gazed at me, and I handed him back the beer, inwardly heaving a sigh of relief. I don’t know what Annalise’s problem with me had been, but my ass-kicking didn’t seem imminent tonight.
I sat drinking and watching Ninja Turtles as the sun slanted down behind the sycamore branches with their new leaves unfurling. It sank behind the Coast Range and the stars came out in the green twilight sky. Then my phone dinged.
I pulled it out. A text from my husband. Where are you?
“Shit,” I said. “I’ve got to go home.” I killed the rest of my beer.
“You’re leaving?” Phoenix said. “Why are you leaving?”
“I’ve gotta go home sometime,” I said.
Phoenix’s dark eyes shone in the flickering light from the barbecue. “Bye, Liz.”
I trudged home, realizing how little I wanted to go.
That night, as we laid in bed, my husband started in on me. I was being selfish, and immature, and irresponsible.
“Jesus, I came home at six,” I said. “And it was just one night. Can’t I have friends? I recall asking you if it bothered you if I hung out with Phoenix, and you said no.”
“You ditched us for half the day on Valentine’s Day, too.”
“You were working,” I insisted. “I’m supposed to sit staring at you while you grade papers and Juniper plays Super Mario?”
“Whatever. I don’t have a problem with you having friends, Liz. It’s the fact that your friends are complete losers.”
My hands clenched into fists. Had he just called Phoenix a loser?
The conversation quickly degenerated from there. He berated me for writing so much, accused me of using him for money. The argument culminated in him saying he didn’t need me anymore, that he’d lost all respect for me, that he was done with me. I began to wish he’d just hit me, because it would hurt less.
“I’ll leave then,” I murmured hoarsely.
“Sure you will,” he said. “Sure you will, Liz.”
I slept on the floor that night under a thin blanket, wondering what I’d do now.
The next day was Fat Tuesday. I’m a strangely strict observer of Lent, so I always throw a little Mardi Gras party. I’d bought a bottle of Crown Royal and another of Champagne, and had baked a four-layer cake. I had planned on having a couple of drinks with Mari, but I didn’t have much party in me after that night.
After Juniper went to school, I rode my bike down to the park with my blanket and was asleep in the grass like a hobo when Mari found me there.
I didn’t want to tell her what had happened, but after I pulled out the Crown and took a shot, I ended up unloading the whole story on her. When Phoenix showed up half an hour later, I was pouring my second shot.
“Wait, what, you left your husband?” he asked.
“I don’t know yet,” I said. “Maybe he’ll take me back.” I looked at him, hesitating. “You want a shot?”
“Yes,” he said.
I poured him one. Before I took mine, I tipped a few drops into the grass.
“What’s that, why are you doing that?” Phoenix asked.
“For my first husband. He’s dead. He liked Crown.”
Phoenix smiled. “You’re getting his ghost drunk.”
I grinned. “He was a mean drunk, too. His ghost is probably sneaking up behind me with a length of PVC pipe.”
I took my shot, wondering if marrying me was just bad luck.
After my third drink, I felt okay. My kid came to the playground after school, but she had a stomachache, and Mari drove her home. I watched them drive off, trying to fit the puzzle of my family life together.
Phoenix sat looking at me. “Are you going home?”
I hugged myself. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
We stared at each other. “I’m going home,” he said.
“Oh,” I said.
“Are you going to be here?”
“I’ll be back, then.”
I stared at my lap as he walked off. Then I gathered up my booze and went over to share it with Annalise, Manny, and their other friends.
I kept drinking, ignoring the voice in my head that told me to stop. I’ve never been a good drinker, and I’d gotten even worse at it, out of practice, since I quit playing in bands. Pretty soon the world was unsteady and I was feeling morose again.
“I’m going to go get Phoenix,” I said. It hurt that he wasn’t back. If I’d been more sober, I’d have remembered that he doesn’t function in the same social universe as I do, but I wasn’t sober at all.
I got on my bike, sticking my tongue out at Annalise when she laughed at me for almost falling over. I managed to ride the two blocks to Phoenix’s house without crashing, and knocked on his door.
I could hear music blasting inside. He opened the door and stepped aside to let me in.
He was the only one there. I frankly don’t remember who said what or what happened. The only thing I remember clearly is that he asked me, “Did your husband really kick you out?” I said yes, and then somehow I was in his arms, my cheek against his chest, his fingers running through my hair.
I don’t know how long we sat there like that, just holding each other. The knowledge that this was truly a bad idea flickered somewhere in my brain, but it didn’t feel like a bad idea at the moment. It felt peaceful. All those years of living in a constant state of agitation, of getting up at two and three in the morning and searching for something that made sense, never finding it, restlessly moving on to the next thing; it all melted away now into the darkness, leaving me drowsy and calm.
Then Shiva started to bark, and I glanced up, blinking.
“I think my family’s home, actually,” Phoenix said.
The door opened, and I sprang up just as his mom and sister came in with Travis.
“Oh no, nuh uh,” Phoenix’s sister said. “You’re not kissing on my brother, when you’ve got a husband and kid.”
I felt suddenly ill, and dodged blindly out of the house. When I was at the gate, I heard the door open behind me and turned, blearily wondering if I was about to get beaten down.
But it was Phoenix, with my backpack. He handed it to me silently.
“Thank you,” I said, and he smiled.
I turned and left, climbing on my bike. I rode back to the park, where my husband found me a short time later and talked me into coming home.