The window is cold under my fingertips. I watch the bare trees in the wind far below and the Hudson River, halfway frozen, beyond. "You packed, Mahoney?" It's the deep baritone of Nelson, the bastard.
He stands in the doorway, filling it with his thick frame. I open my mouth and try to find words. I should beg him for another chance, but there's a snake in my throat. "I messed up," I mumble.
"What's that?" he says, a smirk on his face.
I bite my lower lip, shift my gaze to the washed-out teal wall beside me. "I'm sorry."
He nods, his eyes narrow. "Of course you're sorry, Mahoney. You're an addict. You get humble when you want something. You treated everyone around here like garbage. Now you need us, you're sorry -- so you say."
I bite my lip again, harder, and fight the urge to yell, curse, and snatch Nelson by the throat.
"Get packed, Mahoney."
I walk to the drawer, jerk it out of the plywood dresser, and dump the contents into my gym bag, which sits on the bed. "There, I'm packed."
Nelson shakes his head and clucks his tongue, as he walks away. I snatch the paper hospital slippers beside my bed and throw them out of the door. "And you can fucking keep these!"
"Yo, be cool," says Jose, sitting up in bed, rubbing his eyes. "You're just making things worse for yourself."
It couldn't get any worse. I thought my life was over when I got to rehab. I was working as a bike messenger when I laid out some lady who stepped in front of me. I blew a point one-five in the breathalyzer and that was it -- jail or rehab.
It wasn't even my fault. I was flying down Second Avenue when this kooky old lady in a violet cape stepped right in front of me to hail a cab. We both tumbled across the street, tangled in a jumble of purple velvet, cabs screeching to stops all around us. I probably got hurt worse than she did, road burn all over my left side. I hadn't even been drinking that morning -- the point-one-five was from the night before -- though I had smoked a bowl and snorted a few lines about five minutes before the smash up.
I came into this detox full of outrage. Not only did I feel wronged, but I was out of my mind, fiending for blow. The past few days, however, as my head started to clear, words and thoughts stringing together more naturally, I realized that I had better find a way to make this work, because I was rotting away out there: living like a leach off of other people, rarely eating or sleeping. Seeing my life clearly put me in a panic; I found myself waking each morning, hours before daybreak, my sheets soaked, my mind racing. I started to see the sickness of what I had become and realized I would be better off dead than living as an active addict.
"Shea." I look up and see Hannah Jasinski, my social worker, looks about twelve with her bangs and pink Reboks. "Can you come to my office? We have to go through your discharge papers."
I walk down the hall, keeping my gaze on the ratty institutional carpet as I pass Ezandra with no teeth and old Barry. I've hated this place since the time I arrived -- the crazy crack-heads and dope fiends who are worse than me, the preheated burgers, the clueless social workers -- but now I'm scrambling to find a way to stay, a panicky sensation rising up my spine.
I perch myself on the edge of a chair opposite Hannah, who sits at her desk, shuffling through papers. She lays several forms in front of me with purple X's where I'm supposed to sign. My throat is in knots, but I force myself to speak. "Hannah, I'm sorry. It won't happen again."
"It's too late, Shea. You struck a staff member."
"I know. I messed up. Just give me a chance."
"We can't after what happened," she says, curt and business-like, as if she's returning bad merchandise to a store, a shoe with a broken heel, a defective can opener, not dealing with a person.
"Well, what the hell? I made a mistake. That's why I'm here -- because I'm messed up and make bad choices. You can't just throw me out. It defeats the whole fucking purpose!"
"You're raising your voice and it's making me uncomfortable."
"Please!" I say, slamming my hands on the desk. She sits up, her posture rigid, and looks at the camera in the upper corner of the room. I get up and head for the door. "It's ridiculous!"
Technically, I hadn't struck anybody. Nelsen had hounded me from the first night I was there. "Mahoney, if you can't get honest, you might as well go cop a bag right now," and, "Mahoney, there's no maid service here. Pick your clothes up off the floor." He just messed with me one time too many. I stood up from breakfast and was leaving the day room when he blocked my way. "Got to clean that, bro."
"It was like that," I said, nodding toward the dirty plates and cups on the table.
He rolled his eyes. "Don't matter. It's got to be cleaned."
I was sick of being treated like a kid, like a damn farm animal. I stomped back in, reached out to grab a plate, but in a fit of frustration, shoved the flimsy table and knocked it over. Dirty plates, Styrofoam cups of coffee, and bottles of ketchup crashed to the floor. I stared at the mess scattered across the white linoleum, coffee splattered all the way to the other tables, my heart pounding at the sight of it, at the weight of the action. I didn't do it, didn't mean to at least, but couldn't back away once the deed was done. "There, it's clean!"
The other clients stared. I heard someone call me stupid under his breath. Nelson grinned, his eyes evil slits: "Thanks, Mahoney. You just freed up a bed for someone who actually deserves it." He turned and strutted away, his rooster walk showing how pleased he was. I snatched a bagel and hurled it at him, thumping him hard on the back of his head.
He turned around and was a different man, fierce and enraged. I knew I had gone too far, I always do. He lunged at me, but a couple of clients jumped in front of him. Then he stepped back, lifting his hands in the air in surrender, his face calm again. He turned and walked away laughing.
I sit in a booth at a pizza parlor, picking at the yellow foam breaking through the dry vinyl seating. I had caught the A train to the F, back to the old neighborhood, Alphabet City, out of habit, I guess, seeking the familiar. Where else could I go? Maybe I would see someone I knew who might help me. I could cop around here, too, but I was trying to fight that urge.
I had finished the slice of sausage pizza an hour ago; I wanted something heavy to stick to my ribs, as meals might be scarce now. By my third or fourth coke, one worker, a pear-shaped guy with a bulbous head, starts giving me nasty stares like I'm a derelict or I might slip out. I think to ask him what the hell he's looking at, but clamp down on that impulse. I force my gaze away from him, but picture myself smacking him upside the head with one of the orange trays stacked on the garbage bin.
I gulp down a swallow of coke, chomp on the crushed ice, and try to figure out where I can go for the night. Maybe my mom would help me, though she swore she never would again. And even if she does, which is a giant if, the best she could do is get me a plane ticket to Cali or wire me some money tomorrow. But what will I do tonight? I picture half a dozen "friends" in the neighborhood and think how they'd react if I showed up at their door. I owe too much money to Miguel -- he told me to stay away. Jenna hates me. J.P. moved I don't know where. Last time I saw Benny I punched him in the mouth. I could sleep in the park, but I don't have gear. I'd probably be dead by morning from the cold, or frostbitten. I had heard about homeless dudes losing fingers and toes lately. I could sleep on the subway, but last time someone stole the shoes off my feet as I slept. And I ain't going back to that halfway house. No, I won't live like that, with a bunch of goons that are still getting high and have a prison mentality. Last time I was there I got scabies and some freak tried to molest me.
I sip more coke, crunch ice, my mind racing, revisiting all the same doomed ideas. There's always the third rail, I think, and my mind quiets by a single decibel. I dump more crushed ice into my mouth, the coke all gone. Bulbous head glares at me.
I'm about to say something to him, when the front door flies open, the bell above it jangling, a blast of cold smacking me. A red-headed lady struts to the counter. "Hey, Serge, where's my pizza?" she says to fat head. That voice. It's so familiar -- the sharp pitch, the throaty sound. I try to place it. I study her, the red ponytail, erect shoulders, slim waist. Vicky Baron. Holy shit.
"What pizza?" he says, grinning and slicing up a pizza. "This is for that guy."
She glances back at me and I lower my head.
"Ball buster," she says. "Some garlic knots, too. Are they fresh?"
"Made them fresh for you three days ago."
I watch their banter, trying to shrink into the booth, keeping my head turned toward the wall. I was living with Vicky when the cocaine wrapped its tentacles around my throat and pulled me far from her and everything else that ever meant anything to me: friends, family, music. My usage had tormented Vicky, twisted her with angst and rage. I remember coming home once around dawn with some guys I had just met at the park, one a vagrant and the other a Wall Street guy in a suit; I was trying to scrounge a few bucks to keep the party going. Vicky came out of the bedroom red-eyed and hysterical: raging, screaming, hurling books and dishes.
I couldn't deal with her anymore, couldn't use the way I wanted to while living with her, so I started staying away. Then she missed her period. She made me promise to get clean, get a real job, get the place ready for the baby. It lasted five days and then I was out again, in an after-hours club in Greenpoint with enough coke in my blood to keep me up for a week. I couldn't face her anymore -- couldn't be woken from my Cocaine death-sleeps by her histrionics. So that morning when I was sure she would be at work, coming down fast and brutal from the high, I went home, threw the few belongings I owned into her duffle bag, and never returned.
I speak to God in my mind, praying she doesn't notice me, pressing my body against the back of the booth and trying to disappear. Seeing her would be too much, those rageful eyes drilling into me, having to explain; I would need to run, to use, to numb.
She tips her head back and cackles at something big head says, then hands him some bills. "Bye, Serge," she says as she walks to the door, her heels clacking.
I see her face now, ruddy and strong. A blaze of clarity smacks me between the eyebrows -- she might be the only chance I have to get through the night. I need her. "Vicky?" I say in a choked voice, as she opens the door to leave.
She spins around. Her eyes widen at the sight of me, and I see the blood drain from her face. "Shea?" she says like a little girl.
I swallow. "Hi."
Her face tightens and I start to dread my decision. "I should fucking kill you."
I have no response to that. I just watch her, my head light.
She comes back in, lays her pizza on my table. She stares at me, her eyes wide and fragile. Her hands touch my shoulders, her arms wrap around my back, and she pulls me tight to her chest. My body becomes rigid, like I'm on the edge of a chasm. I fight the chaos swirling inside my mind and edge away from her.
She releases me and takes a step back. "I thought maybe you were dead. I knew you were staying at Miguel's and then..."
"Are you okay? Now?"
I purse my lips, trying to keep them from trembling, and lower my eyes. "Never been better."
Walking to her apartment, she grills me about all that has happened in the last year or so. I answer mostly in vague clipped sentences, an irrational angst that talking of it will take me back there, that the emotions will swallow me up, incapacitate me. I do tell her of my last debacle, though, at the rehab.
I feel relief at having a place to go, grateful, but I'm also engulfed in shame at finding myself in such a pathetic situation, feeling like a parasite, turning for help to the person I already owe the most. "I'm sorry," I grumble, my throat tight, "about everything."
"Uh! Uh! Uh!" she says, shoving her palm straight out as if to push off an attacker. "I can't go there." She continues walking up the quiet street, her heels clacking. I want to say it was the drugs, not her, but instead clench my jaw and try to keep up with her quick step.
She stops at an old refurbished apartment, the facade, with its gargoyles and ornately designed window frames, looks freshly power-washed. We step into the lobby, which is shiny and polished, and she waves to the doorman as we pass. I think of our old place in Bushwick, the piss-smell in the lobby and the crumbling plaster. "When'd you move here?" I ask, wondering how she can afford it.
"Back in August. Thomas wanted to be in the city," she says, clacking up the stairs ahead of me.
"Yeah, my fiancÚ."
I freeze a moment, then run and catch her on the second flight of steps. "Wait."
"Come on, the pizza's getting cold."
I grab her arm. "Wait," I say, out of breath. I didn't think she'd take me back, but I'm not ready to face a fucking fiancÚ. I just need a warm place to lay my head. "I didn't know you had a fiancÚ. I'm not going in there."
"I told you, at the pizza place, didn't I?"
"It doesn't matter. You have to. I'm not leaving you on the street."
"No, no, he won't want me there and then if he gets in my face, you know I'm not going put up with it and -- "
"Don't worry. Thomas is a sweetheart. He won't mind much. Don't get all stupid on me," she says, plowing ahead. On the fifth floor she takes out a set of keys and opens a door.
"Thomas, we have company. Put your knickers on." I step in behind her, and from another room comes a tall black man in gray slacks and an un-tucked button up, his hair cropped short and graying at the temples. Guess she finally found Daddy. Vicky's dad was an alcoholic who had cut out when she was a kid. I think back on her bungled attempts to reconnect with him. I remember her lying on the old brown couch, practically catatonic, for a week after the last time her dad didn't show.
"Thomas, this is an old friend."
He looks at me, then back to her. "All these old friends," he says weakly.
"This is Shea. You've heard about him." He looks like cold water has been chucked in his face.
I stick out my hand, flexing my arm muscles to quiet the tremble. He squeezes my hand in his, which is big and soft, and looks me up and down. I don't want to be around this guy, Vicky's "dad," all bourgeois and proper. I feel like ants are crawling up my back. "We bumped into each other at the pizza place," I say, "and she wanted to show me your apartment. It's really great, lovely." And it is -- golden hardwood floors, Mexican tiling in the kitchen, Soho art wherever your eyes might rest. The guy must shit money. But somehow the heat and elegance makes me feel claustrophobic. "Swell place, but I should be going."
"That's a crock. He needs a place to crash tonight," says Vicky.
Thomas's eyebrows lift practically up to his hairline. He looks back and forth between us a few times, finally resting his eyes on me. He forces a smile that looks painful. "Make yourself at home, Shea."
"Come on, let's eat," says Vicky.
"No, I'm fine," I say. "I already ate."
"Come on, there's plenty. Thomas will only eat one slice. He's watching his cholesterol."
"I might have a few slices," says Thomas, pulling a salad from the fridge.
"Get some wine, baby," says Vicky.
Thomas frowns. "Maybe we'll skip the wine tonight."
"Thomas, I'd like a glass of wine. I had a rough day."
He takes out a corkscrew that looks like an elegant power drill and opens a bottle, then takes out three glasses. I think about the zesty taste of red wine washing over my tongue, the warmth I'll feel in my cheeks and fingers, the calm in my shoulders. Saliva pools in my mouth. But I can't. I'll drink as many bottles as they'll open, then run to Rivington Street to my dealer. "No, thank you."
"Come on, Shea, just a glass," says Vicky. Is she kidding? Short fucking memory. A glass for me ends up being twenty and a trip to the coke man.
I swallow. "No, I'm good, please," I say, the words getting caught in the back of my throat.
We sit in the kitchen and eat. I run my fingers along beveled patterns on the edge of the mahogany table and force the stretchy clumps of mozzarella down my throat.
Dinner staggers along, Vicky blurting questions at Thomas, then me, but a barrier between us guys. The ants keep scratching at my neck -- I want to jump up and leave, but just can't face the brutal outside.
Vicky goes to the bathroom and Thomas and I sit in silence. He takes another swallow of wine and places it down. I watch his manicured fingernails, think about the taste of wine again, how it would warm me, relax me, take away the shame of being a beggar in their house, enable me to talk to Thomas and Vicky instead of being mute and robotic. Thomas shifts in his chair and faces me, his eyes unflinching. "Vicky mentioned you were a musician. Guitar, if I'm not mistaken."
"Oh, yeah." I think about my beautiful Gibson that I sold for a hundred and forty bucks, which was gone in a day. "I haven't played in a while. But I'm going to start again."
"Well, I hope you do," says Thomas, apparently determined now to have a civil discussion. "If you have talent for something, a passion, you don't want to let that go."
"Yeah. I kind of lost my focus once I came to New York. But I was pretty serious for a while, had a few gigs back home."
"And where is home?"
"Bay Area, a small town next to Berkeley."
"Berkeley? I went to school there."
"No shit, you lived in Berkeley?"
And the floodgates opened. "Where'd you live?"
"Did you go to Brennen's Pub?"
"Did you know Mitch Kenderick?"
"I step away for a minute and you two are practically making out," Vicky announces upon her return.
"Don't mind her," says Thomas. "Vick, he's from Berkeley!"
We sit around over dinner -- they sip wine, I nibble cold crust and crunch ice cubes. We talk about California, and then about the old East Village crew Vicky and I used to hang out with. After a time the conversation hits a lull, and Vicky stands. "I'll get your bed set up," she says, then disappears into another room. Thomas starts on the dishes and Vicky comes back with a big down comforter and crisp blue sheets that she spreads on the sofa. I feel a peacefulness -- no, a hopefulness, just a thimbleful. I'm set for the night. I'll call my mom tomorrow and see what comes.
"Listen, it's really decent of you to put me up," I say to Thomas, then Vicky. "I'm..." My throat gets tight, I cough. "I'm grateful."
"I admit I was apprehensive about all this an hour ago. But maybe there's a reason you two ran into each other. Maybe it's for the best," says Thomas.
"I knew you'd come around. I told you, Shea. He's a good one," says Vicky, staring at Thomas, her eyes aglow. I see the love, or at least admiration, in that look, and in some quiet way I'm glad for her. The guilt about Vicky had chewed at me during the few times I was clean enough to feel anything. But there is just a glimmer of relief from it now. She's clearly so much better off without me. I feel a lightness, a desire to right this thing. This is my chance to make amends -- bizarre to do so with her fiancÚ here, but I feel comfortable with him. "Vicky, I really need to apologize, too, about how I left you."
Thomas turns from the sink, his eyes alarmed, and shakes his head.
Her face gets tight. "What do you mean how you left me?"
Thomas grimaces. I look at him, then Vicky, my tongue in my throat: "Pregnant."
Her eyes dart around the room, like she is seeking a way to escape, her bottom lip trembles -- she grabs it in her fingers.
"It's getting late, Vick," Thomas says. "You ready for -- "
"You were gone, just fucking gone. I was alone in that hole. What could I do?" she says, her voice deep in her chest, her face fierce.
I think to say I know, it was all my fault, but my throat feels blocked.
"That was the blackest time in my life. For months I was in black hell. I went to the Williamsburg Bridge to jump off. Walked along the top looking down at the gray water."
"Vick, don't go there," says Thomas, stepping away from the kitchen. "You've been doing so well. Let's -- "
"You have some fucking nerve," she hisses, her teeth barred, her face morphing to a devil's, "showing up here."
I'm reminded of the dozens of times she was enraged at me, often after drink. I soften my voice to try to calm her: "I didn't even know you lived here. You invited me up."
"You made me do it!"
"Vicky, enough!" says Thomas.
"You made me kill him!" She screams, then runs at me and rips into my face with her nails. I pop up out of the chair, knocking it over, my fist pulled back in a knot. Thomas rushes forward and pulls her away, then wraps her tight in his thick arms. She crumples into him, sobbing.
I stand, my heart pounding. Thomas leads her away into the bedroom. I feel dazed, a light sensation in my limbs. I notice the heat where her nails gouged my cheek and a trickling sensation. My fists tighten and I picture myself punching a hole in one of their fancy paintings. I have to get the hell out of here. I grab my bag and snatch my coat from the closet. I step to the door -- where the fuck will I go? If I go out there I'm using. How did it happen? What was in her? I want to see what she did. I step into the bathroom and look in the mirror; red stripes, one of them dripping blood, are on my cheek and nose.
I quickly rinse my face, then dry it, mucking up a soft lavender towel. I put on my jacket, snatch my bag, and hustle to the front door. I hear Thomas calling me in a hushed voice. I think to run out, but instead turn. His face is pale, his eyes weary. He shakes his head. "You okay?" he whispers.
"It's nothing," I say, my knees jumpy, my mind a whirlwind.
"I'm sorry about all this."
"It was dumb of me to come up here."
"It's still pretty raw for her. She's gotten better. I just think seeing you, the wine."
"I better go. She might come out with a butcher knife."
"No, no, she didn't mean it. She's in bed. I gave her an Ambien."
I nod, my hand on the front door knob. "Yeah, but it's not a good idea for me to stay here."
"God, no, you can't stay here. She's calmer now, but if she sees you in the morning, I'm worried it could set her off again."
He has a lost look on his face, like he can't quite handle putting me out on the street, not in his repertoire. "Here, why don't you take the rest of that pizza. We're just going to toss it," he says, moving toward the kitchen table where the leftover pizza sits.
"No, no, I'm good," I say, opening the door and stepping out.
He follows me. "Wait. Do you need money?"
I stop, look at him, then away.
He takes his wallet from his back pocket, pulls out a few bills, and hands them to me. I don't take them, but he stands there, holding them out, a softness in his face. "Go on, you'll need it."
I take the bills and jam them into my front pocket. "Thank you," I mumble, heading back down the steps. Halfway down the first flight, I hear him behind me again. "Shea, Shea," he whispers. I stop. "Just wondering," he says, glancing around, then licking his lips, "did Vicky used to get agitated a lot like this when she'd drink?"
I study the guy, his silhouette lit up by the bright hall light, a surreal feeling inside me, like there's not enough gravity. He said it casual, but I can see the fear in him. "Sometimes, not so much," I say, trying to give him a reassuring smile. He nods and I turn back down the stairs, thinking about my response, which was kind of bullshit, but was the best I could do at the moment.
When I hear the upstairs door close, I stop and pull the bills out of my pocket. Two twenties. I think to tear them up and leave them on the steps. Or sneak back up and slip them under their door. But I don't. I continue down the stairs, knowing pride is a luxury for people better off than me.
As I get to the lobby, I consider trying to sleep somewhere in the building, but the doorman, a middle-aged Irish looking guy, eyes me like he knows my thoughts. I open the front door and step into the cold dark.
I wander along the empty street, jonsing for coke or even a beer, anything to numb the feelings, the shame of showing up there, the disgust in myself for fucking things up again. I want to make the vision of her rage and the burn on my cheek go away. The money in my pocket makes me taste cocaine in my nostrils, my throat. I could go down to Rivington Street right now, just hook a left and be there in ten minutes. But then what? More drugs, homeless, fifteen degrees out.
I keep walking, heading straight into the hard wind. I could get some coffee and walk till the morning, just walk, avoid the dope neighborhoods, walk. But my nose is already icing up, my toes stiff from the cold in my worn out Converse sneakers.
I could go to the subway, sit in the station and sip on a coffee, catch a train when the cold gets too raw, stay up till morning, and then call my mom.
I get a coffee at a Korean deli and dump cream and five sugars in it. I keep walking, taking slurps of sweet coffee through the opening in the plastic top, the heat on my lips and tongue surreal in the midst of the arctic blast.
I get to an intersection and have to decide, turn down to Rivington Street or go to the subway. I stand, shifting from one direction to the next, steam blowing off my coffee, the wind cutting into my bones.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Dylan Gilbert. All rights reserved.