Note to readers: due to events of a serious and tragic nature which have occurred, I’ve decided to start changing some of the names of the individuals depicted here. If you’ve been reading along, you should be able to figure out who’s who without too much difficulty.
I thought this wouldn’t hurt a lot
I guess not
Take only what you need from it
I sat silently, gazing at my knees.
“That woman is full of shit, you know what I mean?” Toni said. “He was her man, and he had some problem or whatever, starts saying he’s going to kill someone, she should have done something. You take off your clothes, rub your pussy up in his face, do what you need to do. Be a woman. You don’t let him do that shit, then stand there telling your tale without a drop of blood on you, saying there was nothing you could do.”
“What happened to the money for the motorcycle, is what I want to know,” Carl said. “If it was supposedly just some, you know, random thing, he just wanted to kill someone and like Joyce didn’t know anything about it, then why was that money gone?”
I glanced up as someone sat down next to me. It was Lucy. She smiled and offered me a Camel, and I grimaced and took it. It hadn’t been hard for me to quit drinking, but it was still hard for me to turn down a cigarette. “Thanks,” I said.
She handed me the lighter. “They talking about Marshall?”
“Yeah.” I lit the cigarette, blowing out smoke. “That’s really fucking shitty what happened.”
She nodded, frowning. “Phoenix is all torn up about it. They were good friends. Marshall lived with us for a while, super sweet guy. He was the sort of person that, when everyone was stealing my shit out of the house, he sat all day in my bedroom one time when I had to leave, just watching and making sure no one took anything. So I don’t believe that he was trying to break into their house when Tom shot him. Marshall wouldn’t even steal a lighter.” She flicked hers, lighting her cigarette.
“I heard that Tom was beating on his wife and Marshall tried to break it up or whatever, and that’s when Tom shot him.”
“Yeah, that was the story that came out later, when Ashley came out of hiding.”
I sighed and flicked an ash. “Yeah, Phoenix is pretty fucked up about it, all right.” I glanced sideways at Lucy. “I’m sorry I was so drama yesterday. I was just tired of getting yelled at by crazy dudes, I guess.”
Lucy shrugged. “I’m not worried about it.”
“I told him about my husband and me splitting up, and he flipped out about it being his fault and how I needed to work it out with Eric, and ran off.” After that, I’d texted Lucy a long tirade about how I wasn’t going to come over to see Phoenix anymore, or go to the park.
And yet, here I was.
Lucy smiled grimly. “Sounds like Phoenix. We went to Paso to his grandparents’ last night so he could go to the gym, and he just took off. I waited around forever, but he didn’t show. I guess he came back real late after I left, and then wouldn’t come out of the bathroom. He stayed in there yelling, ‘I’m wiping my ass, leave me alone,’ for like forty-five minutes.”
I laughed, then tried to stop myself. “It’s not funny,” I said.
“But it sorta is,” Lucy said.
“He’s a complicated dude.”
“And so simple he don’t know it.”
I snorted and stubbed out my cigarette, then sat there hugging my knees. I could feel Lucy looking at me.
“You gonna go over there and see him?” she asked.
I sighed and stood up. “Yeah.”
She flashed me a smile. “Good luck.”
I clutched my elbows, my eyes on the pavement as I walked. I wasn’t in the mood to get yelled at or snubbed again, but I guessed it didn’t really matter how I felt. Phoenix was hurting worse than I was. Even if he didn’t want me there, I wanted him to know I was there.
He didn’t answer my knock, but when I was halfway back to the gate I heard the door open and turned to see him standing in the doorway. He went back in the house, but didn’t shut the door, so I went in.
He was standing in the dark kitchen, scooping up tinned sardines with a Ritz cracker. Shiva stood beneath him, licking up the generous dollops of fish he slopped onto the floor. He silently finished the entire tin, then started in on a tray of microwaved fried rice.
“I’ve never seen you eat like this,” I said. “You’re never this hungry.”
He didn’t say anything, but he glanced over at me.
My stomach dropped when I saw his eyes. They were hazy, the pupils tiny pinpoints. “You’re fucking high,” I said. “You’re high on dope and shit. How the fuck did you manage that?”
He didn’t answer, but I figured I knew who gave it to him, to calm him down. My fists clenched at my sides.
“That’s fucking bullshit,” I said.
He concentrated on wolfing down huge spoonsful of rice, not looking at me. “You don’t even care, don’t pretend you care,” he said, his mouth full.
“I do fucking care.”
His mouth tightened. He tossed the tray of rice on the counter and stalked off towards his room.
“Goddammit, Phoenix, don’t fucking run off on me.”
He shut himself in anyhow.
I huffed and went out, slamming the door. Before I was down the steps, he came out and blocked my path, staring down at me. Shiva sat at his heels, looking up at him worriedly.
“I don’t like people telling me what to do,” he said.
“I’m not telling you what to do. You’re the one that tells me not to smoke cigarettes or drink energy drinks.”
Shiva glanced back and forth between us, twitching in agitation.
“That’s because that stuff’s my fault,” he said. “You wouldn’t do those things if it weren’t for me.”
“Bullshit. I was doing all that way before I even met you.”
“Why are you even here?” he asked. “You have a husband and kid. What, are you trying to help me? I don’t need your help.”
“I’m not trying to fucking help you. I just want to hang out. I like hanging out with you. You’re making this way too complicated, Phoenix.”
“I feel like I can’t even do the things I like to do because of you. I just hung out with you for a second because you were there in the park, and now you’re all up in my shit. You make me feel bad, and I don’t even know why. You’re smothering me. You creep me out.”
My throat closed up, and his pale face blurred as tears came to my eyes. “Okay. Fine then. I won’t come over anymore,” I said.
“Why do you even make me say that? Why do you even make me feel bad for you? I’m just speaking my mind.”
“You don’t have to feel bad for me, Phoenix. Don’t worry about it. It’s not your fault my feelings are hurt. It just is.” I tried to get past him, but he stepped in front of me again.
“Don’t you want to work this out?” he asked.
I scowled. “Work what out? If you don’t want me around, I won’t come around. I’m sorry I make you feel bad and that I creep you out. I was just trying to hang out with you, that’s all, but if you don’t want me around, I’ll go.”
“I’m not trying to say that.”
I stomped my foot on the uneven brick path. Shiva began running circles around us, sniffing at our knees. “Then what are you trying to say? I’ve been asking you forever if you want me to stay away, and you either mumble so I can’t hear your answer, or say a bunch of contradictory shit, or walk off and end the conversation. But since you’ve told me once and for all to leave, I’ll leave.”
He glared at me a couple seconds longer, then spun around and stalked back into his house. Shiva followed him halfway, then stopped and came back to me.
I stood there a moment, patting the poor dog’s head and getting myself under control. She ran between me and the door a couple of times, then sat on her haunches and watched me as I went out the gate.
I didn’t cry on the walk home, though part of me wanted to. Ours had been a very strange friendship, complicated and emotional and time-consuming, and I felt like Phoenix had just broken up with me. But I held my chin high and let go of my sadness. You have enough to worry about without him in the picture, anyhow, I told myself.
Back at the house, I threw myself into painting walls and rearranging closets. I’d ordered myself a new mattress and bedframe, and was moving into the back spare bedroom, turning the front spare room into an office in the process. “We need to concentrate on just being friends,” I’d told my husband. “I’ll pay my way, as if I were your roommate.” My millionth attempt to work shit out with him had ended in a bitter fight, Eric burying me in another heap of insults.
“Liz, I don’t want you to do this,” he’d said. “Just sleep in our bed, with me.”
“I’m not going to pretend nothing’s wrong between us. Something has to change.”
I placed my new coconut palm in the corner, and hung my pink elephant clock, which ticked loudly. The sound of the prayer bells in the backyard drifted through the open windows, and the doves cooed in the cypress trees. I liked my new room. It was peaceful. It was my personal place. Even if I wasn’t welcome anywhere else, I was happy enough here.
When I finished painting the office, I changed into clean clothes and walked down to Mari’s house, taking the venus flytrap I’d bought her: a lame attempt at a birthday gift after my first idea had fallen through.
She giggled and tickled its leaves. “Thank you! I love it.” When I didn’t respond, she squinted at me. “What’s wrong with you?”
I blinked, coming back to myself. “Sorry, I’m sorta distracted. I just got into a big fight with Phoenix.”
I told her what had happened, although I left out the part about him calling me creepy. That hurt too bad, and I couldn’t repeat it.
“I’m sorry, friend,” she said.
“It’s alright. He’s always said he was conflicted about us hanging out, but on good days he asked me to come over, so I never really knew what he wanted. Now I know, and so I’ll just stay away.”
“Yeah, but he’s going to change his mind, you know that, right?”
I sighed. “I doubt it.”
She smirked. “He will. Just give him time.”
Although he’d hurt me pretty badly, I still hoped Mari was right. I didn’t want the things he’d said to be true. And, if they weren’t, Phoenix could get a pass from me for being conflicted and a poor communicator. He was schizophrenic, and he was a really good person otherwise.
Also, it worried me that someone was giving him heroin. Would I have to watch from a distance as his life disintegrated, knowing I couldn’t do anything, because he didn’t want my help, and because I creeped him out?
On the walk home, I put in my earbuds and filled my head with Beirut. I saw Lucy and Ricky coming out of the store with a sack of beer, but they didn’t see me, and when they crossed into the park I kept my eyes on the ground.
As I walked past the high school, someone touched my elbow and I jumped.
Phoenix laughed. “Sorry.”
I stopped and took out my earbuds. I couldn’t keep myself from smiling. “It’s alright.”
He fidgeted with the cuffs of his hoodie. “I’m sorry about what I said. I really hurt your feelings.”
My gaze fell to my feet. “Don’t worry about it, Phoenix. You were just speaking your mind.”
“I didn’t mean any of it. I think I was just hungry or something. I was having a bad day.”
I glanced up at him uncertainly, and he gave me a hesitant smile.
“Will you come sit in the grass with me?” he asked.
We went and sat in the shade of an ornamental cherry in front of the high school. He was carrying an unlit cigarette, which he planted upright in the grass. He looked at me. His eyes were much clearer now, but he had an odd expression. He jerked his chin towards the corner, where a group of kids were playing.
“That boy told me that we made out,” he said.
My brow furrowed. “Wait, what?” Then it sank in. “You mean us? You and me?”
“That night. When we were drunk. You don’t remember? Yes you do.”
“No, I don’t.” I hid my face in my hands for a moment, then looked back up at him, my shoulders hunched. He had a faint grin. “What kid told you that?”
“My neighbor. He said he saw us. In front of my house.”
I cringed, the air going out of me. “Shit. I’m so sorry. Is that why I creep you out? Because that kid told you that?”
He rolled his eyes sheepishly. “You don’t creep me out.” He picked a dandelion and held it out to me tentatively. I took it. I put it behind my ear.
“What are your favorite things to do?” he asked. “What are the things that make you feel good? Writing and music, right?”
“Yeah. And going on walks, I guess.”
“What do you think I would do right now if I could? What would be my best thing to do?”
“Um….” I cocked an eyebrow, grinning uncertainly. “Be a teacher? A kung fu teacher or something?”
He stared at me like I’d just started speaking Yiddish. “Why would I…that’s weird. No, I think I’d drink a soda.”
I giggled. “That’s much easier.”
“What do you think we did that night?”
We stared at each other for a long moment. “It couldn’t have been that much,” I said. “We were too drunk.”
“But you said you walked six miles.”
“That’s what my fitness app said. I think I was just trying to find my way home.”
He plucked at the grass, piling it on top of his cigarette.
I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. Phoenix arranged a ring of dandelions around the cigarette, and I helped him. I realized I wasn’t uncomfortable, because he wasn’t. It didn’t matter. I’d quit drinking, so it wouldn’t happen again.
A BMW convertible pulled up in the gravel in front of the high school, and Sara ran over, embracing the driver as he climbed out. They hugged for a long time, and I figured they must be commiserating over Marshall’s death.
“They so gangsta,” Phoenix said, glancing over at them and doing jazz hands. “They the Shandon O.G.s.”
I laughed. “Props to the dead homies.” We exchanged a wry look and kept on with our flower arranging.
After a while, I checked the time on my phone and grimaced. “I have to go home and make dinner.”
“What are you making? Vegan steak? Jew stew?”
I stuck my tongue out at him. “Tacos. Do you…do you want me to come over tomorrow?”
“Yes,” he said. Then his brow furrowed. “I mean, do what you want.” He winced. “I say that, and then I say all sorts of other bullshit. I’m sorry. I hurt your feelings.”
I smiled and stood up. “It’s okay, Phoenix. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He got up and crossed over into the park, and I turned the other way, heading back up to The Heights, stepping much more lightly than I had on the way into town.