“Everyone does it,” he had time to think as a thick feeling rolled over in his stomach and he knew what was coming. The dim flash of a stainless steel sink illuminated briefly in the headlight of a passing car. The hard, warm acid taste as it forced its way out of his narrow throat. The retching echoed in the galley kitchen, the sink scooping up the sound and radiating it outward. A few more labored heaves until he hung over the sink in weakened drunk defeat.
He had come in with a girl who was pretty but not memorable. He couldn’t hear her, but he knew she was there behind him, balanced on the couch with her legs tucked up into her arms. A small brown sparrow, resolutely still. After vomiting he felt calmer. He remembered fighting with his best friend at the bar, a brief but violent exchange, but it was difficult to recall how he had landed on this small creature (Jane, Colette, Ann?).
Len had been snorting coke in the bathroom, a not uncommon habit now. In the wake of their childhood friend’s death, most of the group had been struggling in some way. He was angry at Len, though, for giving them all another reason to worry. The signs had been hard to read the first time; they wouldn’t miss them again. Swinging open the door of the grimy single-stall bathroom and coming upon Len’s sharp sniffing, he had been too drunk to articulate anything of value. He managed to spit out “you goddamn druggie ” in a low, accusing tone before turning back out the door.
He left Len after that and went off by himself. The street was lined with bars, and at this time of night people milled in staggered clumps between them. He emerged on the sidewalk and lit a cigarette and chose another bar. A small swell of people pushed up behind him, trying to enter. He put out the cigarette with deliberate care against the bar’s outer brick wall. It left a small black smudge. He swept away the jumble of ash and walked through the glass front doors. Upstairs a coven of girls stood clustered around a small table giggling. For a moment he allowed himself to imagine screwing one of them: the way her legs would reach and clench around his waist; a long mane of hair caught in her mouth; a faceless, beautiful arching creature. The daydream passed. He went to the bar and ordered a shot of whiskey and a beer.
Somewhere in the haze of smoke and liquor an hour later he noticed her. They were both walking down the stairs that led to the front door. He appraised her legs from behind and saw the soft down of hair on her thighs even in that low light. She had a long tangle of blonde hair. Outside he sidled up to her and offered her an unassuming smile and a cigarette. She was cute in her own way, though likely the kind of girl who wasn’t used to being hit on. She’d had the decency to wear a short dress. It wasn’t until two rounds of drinks and a second cigarette later that he invited her back to Len’s place.
They walked east toward the center of the city and passed under the blue and pink neon lights of an old movie theater. The colors of the lights reflected on her pale hair. He didn’t recognize any of the names of the movies listed on the marquee.
“Don’t you just love old movies?” she said.
“Yeah, they’re great.”
He looked at her and watched her lips move in response, shadowed and revealed again under the shifting pools of the streetlights. He was hungry enough to be nauseous, and the sensation curled into a dull, hard pit in his stomach. It was the same way he felt after sleeping with someone, a feeling that made him want to be alone in his own bed.
“Don’t you think?”
“What?” he said.
She looked a little hurt that he hadn’t been listening to her, but recovered quickly. “That old movies have such a beautiful quality? You know, more soul or something.”
“Oh. Yeah. Definitely. They were all real movie stars back then. Not just celebrities.” He smiled.
The girl grabbed his arm and asked if they could stop for a slice of pizza on the way. Her touch left a deep ache in the pit of his stomach right above his groin, an ache that pushed the nausea aside. Inside the small, grubby pizza shop the air smelled like grease. A layer of it coated the counter over which a thin man took her order. She paid in cash from a slim wallet and started eating the pizza before they walked out the door. The bell gave a weak tinkle behind them. Through the glass he caught a glimpse of the thin man’s lined face under the fluorescent lights.
Len always left a spare key hidden at his door under an old newspaper still in its blue plastic bag. He listened. Len wasn’t home yet. He felt stinking drunk and barely felt his hand twisting the key in the lock. Once inside, the sweet sparrow sat down on the nubbled fabric of the couch. In the kitchen, he opened the refrigerator and relished the cold that washed over him. He pulled two cans of beer from the back. Len’s fridge was no more than an assortment of condiments. The girl accepted the beer from him and popped it open and took a long pull.
“Can we listen to music?”
Her voice was throaty, rasped from smoking, deeper than expected.
There was a stereo system set up near the television. The station came in fuzzy, a blurred string of Top 40 hits thrumming an intermittent bass. When he turned and looked at the bird situated on her perch, the ghost of another woman knocked loose from its niche in his brain. Dara’s voice came back to him as if over a very great distance. Dara who used to count the moles on his arms and chest each night before bed, ticking them off one by one; who used to trace shapes between them with the tip of her finger, great complex mole constellations, each night tracing a different trail over his skin.
One long, clear stretch of music burst through the low static, an eerie plaintive voice over a slow beat.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” he said.
Down the short hallway, he shut the door behind him and sank down on the dirty floor and pulled out his phone. A thin ringing sound, then Dara’s tinny voice, “Hello?”
It wasn’t until he emerged from the bathroom ten minutes later, slick with a layer of sweat from the close walls, that he remembered leaving the girl on the couch. He leaned against the wall facing into the living room and looked in on her. A few steps forward. Her face was hopeful, flushed, tired. It was then he chose to rush to the sink in dizzy agony.
When he had finished expelling his guts down the sink, the sparrow on the couch fluttered her feathered wings and made room beside her. She shifted her bare legs. It was warm, even for May. This close he could see the hair that grew at her neck and curled against her skin. She smelled nice. Clean, floral. It didn’t seem to bother her that a minute ago he had been heaving in the sink, or that just before his thunderous vomiting he had been slumped on the bathroom floor professing his love to Dara, his words surely audible through the thin walls.
A pretty face, but not a memorable one. He thought about kissing her. Her guarded eyes held his gaze, searching his own for something. With her glossy black bird eyes leveled at his, he leaned in to press his warm mouth to hers. It felt like the simplest, purest gesture he could make, and she didn’t seem to mind. The kiss was long enough; an even kiss that kept its pace throughout. When they were finished she pulled back.
“Do you mind if I lie down for a minute?” he asked.
He woke up in the watery light of dawn with the girl scrunched upright on the opposite end of the couch and his feet pressed against her legs. His neck ached from resting against the arm of the couch. When he rose from the cushions she stirred but stayed fast asleep. He went through the short hall into the back of the apartment where Len’s door hung open. He peeked his head in and saw Len prone on top of his tangled sheets. Watery light infused the room; a faint cool flow of air rippled against the tattered posters tacked to the wall. The sound echoed against the sparse furniture.
He lingered there in the doorway, hoping that Len would wake up. Before things had started to devolve, they used get up on mornings like this and meet for a greasy, hung-over breakfast. He thought of these mornings and their intangible beauty, molded like clay into one lump statue. The image of Len bent over the sink in the bar’s bathroom washed over him.
Black and gold spots crowded the edge of his vision. He sat down on the floor, but when his vision did not clear he unfolded on the carpet with his arms bent under his head. The window was open; he heard the cars as they drove by outside, and the faint hum and creak of the train. When he stood to leave he wondered if he could ever cross the insurmountable distance between himself and his sleeping friend.
Through the hall and into the living room, where Len had set up a window unit that chuffed out tepid air. The sparrow’s thin breathing fell in step with the AC buzz—it made him want to wake her up, to spread her lengthwise on the inside of the couch so that he could tuck himself around her for the last few hours of the early morning until they both woke up for good and the thin thread between them broke in a brighter, stronger light.
The humming broke off, and just like that it snapped. He saw how much the day had aged already. He left the two bodies floating on their own separate islands, adrift in the wash of white noise and sleep. He could have left his number, or a note, or any other sign of his existence, but he knew that this chance had fled hours ago.
Back on the street he brushed between soft balloons of cool air. He flipped the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and walked away in the half light. On the way home he stopped at a park, balancing on the top of a wooden picnic bench before lighting a crushed joint he found in his pocket. This early there were few people present, mostly people walking their dogs in sweats. A small family played on the opposite side of the park. The woman called to her sons that it was time to go. One of the boys lobbed a tennis ball into the air. The bat emitted a dull thunk as the other boy connected it with the ball. It rolled over on the grass.
“Vamanos,” the woman called, stooping to pick up the ball. The boys toddled behind her. One of them wore a paper mask printed with a cartoon lion face. He had it pushed up onto the crown of his head at a jaunty angle, like a hat. The mother wore her copper hair pulled back at the nape of her neck; it glowed in the sunlight.
The joint had burned almost all the way down and he mashed it out on the table surface. He let the roach drop from his hand so that the small twist of white paper was innocuous among the dirt and grass and litter. His eyes followed the boys and their mother as they left the park. Together they looked like a merry procession, marching out into the lifting morning mist.
Ann Holland currently works for an education focused non-profit, and tries to write productively, artfully, and truthfully in her spare time. She lives on the east coast, but sometimes still misses all the space inherent in the Midwest, where is originally from. She truly believes that Disney World is the most magical place on Earth. Or at least in the U.S.
© 2012, Ann Holland