I have a memory of you and I when we were really young (16 and 14, I think, but maybe younger) that has been replaying in my head lately. It never really left, but it sort of resurfaced. I think it might have been your birthday (it was a significant day, at any rate), and we were outside tanning by the sprinkler. We started to dance around the sprinkler, making “woo woo woo” noises the way that little kids did back then. But we were too old for that, and we quickly stopped, kind of looked down at our feet, and there was that awkwardness before we started talking about something more “grown up”. I hope that you never feel like you have to do that again. We only have to be grown up when it comes to the important shit. If it’s important, you’ll know. – A comment by Aleah Currey Walker on my Facebook (Thanks, Aleah).
I came awake suddenly from a dead, anesthetic darkness. It was a couple of moments before memory began to kick at the rotten melon of my skull, and then I lay very still, wishing it wouldn’t, praying to close my eyes again and wake up as somebody else, in some other life.
I knew it was no use. I got up, waiting for the nausea and head-pounding dizziness, but they didn’t come.
I tried to remember how I’d gotten home the night before, but couldn’t. My brain had eventually given me up as a bad job and jumped ship. All I could conjure were confused images: getting kicked out of a party. Wandering the streets in the dark, not sure where I was.
I made coffee, and drank it, staring at my computer screen. I couldn’t write. I hated myself too much right now to write. Instead, I went online and checked Facebook, craving the distraction of the banal.
There were the usual assortment of uplifting and sanctimonious affirmations, photos of sunsets, ads; then a post from one of my favorite friends that sent a chill down my spine. “Still alive due to love.” I clicked on his page and saw post after post, friends telling him to get well soon. Scrolling through them, I found an announcement from his girlfriend that he had been found without a pulse, but had been brought back to life by the medics.
My throat closed up; I messaged him. He was awake, too, and he sent me his tale. He laid it out in his beautiful prose, blunt and rich with perfect turns of phrase that tugged delicately at your guts. He’d decided he’d had enough, put on one of his favorite records, and methodically downed eighty Vicodin.
I squeezed my eyes shut, tears escaping. It would be so easy, I thought. Then it wouldn’t hurt anymore. Then I couldn’t fuck up anymore.
I pushed back at these thoughts, but they wouldn’t go. This struggle with myself seemed so old, and I was tired of it down to my bones. But then there was Juniper; I sat trying to put together the puzzle of how I could escape and make it look like an accident, so she wouldn’t feel I’d abandoned her. But the calculus was too heavy for me this morning, and I finally shrugged it off, plugging my ears with earbuds and jumping on the elliptical instead.
I tried to sweat out the toxins, and my shame. I waited for the flood of endorphins to take me over in a rush, but they never did. I ran faster, asking myself over and over why the hell I drank. I didn’t even like it: it was a few moments of feeling like the world was a place I belonged, that things made sense, but after that shit just got more senseless than ever.
I’ll quit drinking, I told myself, and I knew that this time I meant it. It might not solve all my problems, but at least I’d have fewer mornings like this.
I stood under the shower. I put on a dress, and shuffled down to church. It scared me to be outside. I could feel eyes on me, people’s angry thoughts pressing around. But I made it there with no one throwing stones.
It lightened my heart to help one of the sweet old ladies out of her car, and to sit next to her in the pews, talking about nothing. She didn’t know what a waste of space I was. She still thought I was a human being. But how long before she found out I wasn’t? It was a very small town.
Then Van came down the aisle, and gave me a raised-eyebrow smirk. “How are you feeling?” he asked.
My heart filled back up with lead. “What did I do?”
“I found you out stumbling around the streets and offered you a ride, but you wouldn’t take it. We were worried about you all night.”
I stood up and gave him a hug, and he laughed and patted my back. “Glad you’re here,” he said.
I sat through the service, tugging at a button on my dress and glancing behind me every few moments. But Phoenix didn’t come. He’d been with me the night before, and then at some point he hadn’t been. We’d somehow tumbled down into the darkness together and gotten separated.
I wasn’t a very good friend to him. I wondered if he’d run off and climb a tree when I went to see him next, or lock himself in the bathroom and scream at me to leave. It’d be no more than I deserved.
I went home. Eric wasn’t cruel, but he was a practical man. “I’d understand if no one ever spoke to you again, acting like that. What do you expect?”
“I won’t drink anymore,” I said, then winced at his look. “I mean it this time. I don’t even drink that often. It won’t be hard to quit.”
He tugged at his beard, avoiding my eyes. “I’m going to Paso to look at bikes,” he said.
My shoulders slumped. I texted Mari, then Juniper and I went to meet her at the park.
Mari’s kids played on the toys, but Juniper, who had a sixth sense for when gossip was going to happen, plonked herself down next to us on the grass. Mari and I stared at her.
“Go play,” I said. “Go be a kid. You don’t want to sit with us boring adults.”
“I don’t want to go play,” she said. “You can’t make me. This park is public property.”
Mari and I both raised our eyebrows. Then Mari gave me a wry smile. “Pues, dime, que pasó?”
“I know Spanish,” Juniper cut in. “That won’t work.”
We ignored her. “I don’t know words bad enough for what happened,” I said in Spanish. “I took Phoenix to a party. It was a really bad idea because he was drunk already and…well, he gets pretty schizo, but I was drunk, too, and I get uber stupid. They kicked us out for being crazy lunatics, and then I don’t remember. I don’t remember how I got home.”
“I knew you were talking about Phoenix,” Juniper said. “I told you I know Spanish.”
Mari smirked at me. “You don’t remember anything? So, anything could have happened, right?”
I threw a handful of grass at her and hid my head in my hands. She snickered.
We switched to English and talked about her in-laws until Juniper finally lost interest. “I’m going to Taylor’s house,” she said.
“Have fun,” I said. When she was gone, I hugged my knees and stared off at nothing. “I’m gonna have to go over there, to see if he’s okay.”
“You really still want to go over there?” I winced, and she gave me a consoling look. “I’m sure he’s fine. This is Shandon, we’d have heard by now if something had happened.”
“Probably. But it’d be shitty for me not to go. Tracy may have me up against the wall by my throat, and Phoenix may call me a Nazi Satanist, but I still have to go. He’s my friend.”
She chewed her lip. “You’re right,” she conceded.
So I got up. I kept my eyes on my feet as I walked. The gate creaked and scraped the bare dirt when I opened it. The dogs barked, but no one answered my knock, and I wandered back out again, hugging myself.
I was halfway back to the park when I heard my name, and turned. Phoenix was standing in the middle of the street, shirtless, wearing slacks and slippers. He gave me a jerky wave.
I smiled and ran back towards him, my backpack jouncing. “Hey,” I said.
He gave me his little smile. “What happened last night?”
I let out a breath. “I don’t even know.”
“I think someone carried me home. I think it was my friend Narlo, because I gave him a feather to put in his hat one time, and when I woke up the feather was on my pillow.”
“Maybe,” I said, and grimaced. “I’m never drinking again.”
He shuffled his feet. “Yeah, I should quit drinking too.”
“You should. It’s poison.”
We stared at each other in silence for a moment. Then he smiled. “Hey, you wanna get a ride into town with my mom, and then walk back?”
I started doing calculations. It was two in the afternoon, it was eighteen miles from Paso to Shandon…then I remembered that I was talking to the King of Attention Deficit Disorder, and grinned. “Sure,” I said. “Let’s go to town.”
I jogged back down to the park to tell Mari, then came back to find Tracy gathering up her purse, Travis waiting on the porch. Tracy grinned wryly at me. “What happened last night?”
“Shit, I don’t know.”
“Phoenix was passed out in his puke on the porch when I got home.”
I pressed my chin to my chest. “God, I’m so sorry…I shouldn’t have left him like that, but I don’t even remember….”
She just shrugged. Then she yelled over her shoulder. “Phoenix! We’re going. Now.”
Phoenix’s voice came from the bathroom, saying something I couldn’t hear.
I blinked at her. “Would it work if I talked to him like that? Because I get tired of waiting three hours for him to eat toothpaste and wash his hands before we go anywhere.”
She rolled her eyes. “Nothing works with him. Nothing.”
But he came out before long, wearing a shirt and real shoes. We climbed into the Jag, Travis driving. As we passed the park, Phoenix sat up, looking out the windows like an excited dog. He stared glassy-eyed at a group of park rats sitting at one of the benches. “Or we could go hang out with those people. Do you want to go hang out with those people?”
“It’s up to you,” I said, “but I’d rather do the walk.”
Travis ignored us and kept driving. Phoenix scrabbled at the glass. “Aw, I want to hang out with them.” But then the park was behind us, and he forgot all about it, staring intently at the back of Travis’ head and whispering to himself.
I picked at my cuticles. I hated it when he was distracted like this. It made me feel hollow and lonely. A wave of dizziness passed over me. What was I doing, heading off to wander aimlessly with some schizophrenic kid who barely even knew I was there?
Most people couldn’t understand why I was friends with Phoenix, and every so often I could see their point.
We dumped Travis at work, then Tracy took us to the Paso Park while she ran some errands. She gave me a look as I got out of the car. “You ever walked eighteen miles?” she asked.
“Yeah. It’s not too bad, but your feet hurt.”
She smirked. “Well, call me if you head out. Otherwise, I’ll be back to pick you up.”
She drove off. Phoenix had skipped over to stare at the movie marquees on the theater, and I went to join him.
“What are these movies about?” he asked.
I stared at them, my brow furrowing. “I can’t even tell. Something about Kevin Costner?”
He straightened suddenly, his head swiveling. “Goodwill!” he said, spotting it. “Let’s go to Goodwill.” He ran towards it, and I sighed and followed.
He dove into the store and started smelling the shirts and rattling the pinochle sets. People were looking at us, and I felt a now-familiar wave of righteous anger. He wasn’t doing anything wrong and, if we stayed here long enough, I’d end up buying something. We were legitimate customers. But I bit my tongue and tugged on his sleeve. “Phoenix, let’s go. Aren’t we going to start walking?”
He stared at me blankly. I tugged on his sleeve again. Reluctantly, he put down the grubby stuffed animals he’d been playing with and followed me out of the store.
“We should get some water if we’re going to start walking,” he said.
“I have some water,” I said. Since I started hanging out with him, I always carried a liter of water and some trail mix with me everywhere I went. I considered that I should start carrying an emergency blanket, flares, and first aid kit, too. You just had to be prepared.
As we walked past the park again, he spotted something that distracted him. He jumped over to one of the plantings and crouched down, staring at the dirt.
I sat next to him. “What are you looking at?”
He pointed, mumbling, and I saw. It was a butterfly hiding in the lower branches of a bush, folding and unfolding its wings. The right one had indigo spots rimmed in bronze, but the left one was bent and tattered.
Phoenix fidgeted with the bark mulch, a crease forming between his brows. “I feel like that butterfly,” he said.
I looked at him, and he met my eyes; he was seeing me again. “Why do you feel like that butterfly?”
“My left wing is broken.”
“But your right one is okay?”
He flexed his right arm experimentally.
I sat down hugging my knees, staring at the insect. “I’ve really fucked up my life,” I said. “I think I’ve lost a bunch of friends by acting like an idiot.”
He gave me a confused look. “Why, what, what do you mean?”
I shook my head. “I have to quit drinking. I just….” I tugged my fingers through my hair. “I miss Seattle. Maybe I should go back there. I don’t fit in here, and I feel like no one wants me around. I feel like there’s nothing left for me.”
He smiled faintly. “At least you have the butterfly to hang out with.”
I smiled back. Then he started giggling. He laughed for a while. “You’re always asking me what I’m laughing about,” he said, “but what’s not to laugh about?”
I laughed, too. “There are so many things that are funny, sometimes I just want to know which one you’re laughing about.”
We giggled for a while. Then we sat in silence, side by side, staring at the poor butterfly until his mom came to pick us up.