"Perfect Hunger" by Mark Miller
There is no good way to call up my old dealer and ask if he can get me some cocaine because I kind of burned that bridge when I called him a murderer and a Satanist on par with pedophiles and then threatened to tell the cops about him if he ever contacted me again. It’s especially awkward because he is my brother-in-law and I have to spend holidays with him. But receiving an email from old college friends instills in me a Pavlovian desire for the old ways, and I actually dial the number before I realize that I have to hang up. There is nothing suspicious about calling my sister’s house, but the phone might be tapped, and I am pretty rusty on the old code, which was something about clam bakes and new music. Richard keeps a pretty low profile as a database designer, but cops are clever, and it would be bad for mom and dad to find out their son in law was a dealer, but even worse to find out he was dealing to their son.
So thirty minutes later I am driving to their house in a way that suggests I am not trying to drive to their house. Since payphones are like dinosaurs that no longer roam the earth, the only evidence that man once communicated at all is a ragged chunk of plastic strung on a light pole at the edge of my neighborhood. The receiver has been ripped from the cord, and many of the buttons are missing, and all that remains of the sign that surely once read “Payphone” is a skeletal frame of rusted metal. So I drive to a shopping center, park at one end, and try to figure out the best way to contact this lucky prick who works at home and has a tax-free second income while I can’t get a job at a fucking Wendy’s. I go to a street where I know there are two gas stations, a Dunkin Donuts, and a Taco Bell. Surely one of them will be amenable to letting a guy whose car broke down call someone to pick him up and take him the rest of the way to the hospital. The Taco Bell proves to be staffed with exactly the kind of heartless bastards I assumed it would be, so I limp out the door, my terrible cough rattling the windows. It is a horrible malady that affects both lungs and legs.
The first gas station lets me use the phone, and I try to find a way to patch up a strained relationship and score some good shit while making it sound like I need a ride to the hospital. As the phone rings, my mind churns: Hey, Richard, it’s Dave. I am on my way to the hospital with this terrible leg and lung disease that you might have heard about on the news, and I thought it might be good to stop by your place on the way there and listen to some new music or bake some clams or whatever it was we used to say…
But then he answers the phone, and my mind blanks.
“Hey Richard, it’s Dave.”
“Rachel’s not in right now. Can I help you with something?”
The attendant turns his back to me to restock some chewing gum, and I see my opportunity. “I wonder if the clambake is still on for later.”
“Is there any new music to listen to?”
The attendant has turned from the gum and stares at me with sharp, diamond eyes. He knows I am a dope ninja.
Richard says, “Are you okay? Where are you?”
“I’m at a gas station on Bell.”
“Why don’t you come by.”
He hangs up and I say to the dial tone, “I have this terrible lung and leg disease. Come pick me up and take me to the hospital. Great, thanks.”
I hang up, thank the attendant, and limp out the door coughing.
Thirty minutes later we’re standing in the portable metal building behind Richard and Rachel’s upper-middle-class house, and I hate them both for the success that has eluded me, even though I have more letters after my name than both of them put together. We negotiate the trade of several bills for a tightly rolled baggie.
“Didn’t know this was your thing,” says Richard.
“It isn’t anymore. But I was feeling nostalgic.”
“This will get you there,” he says and smiles with what I perceive as a twinge of guilt. “It’s a shame we never hang out anymore. How’s your wife?”
“She’s okay,” I say, thinking that Gina is pretty much the opposite of okay. “She is kind of tired of being the sole wage earner, but eventually the economy has got to come back, right?”
“Eventually,” he says. “I can talk to a couple of people I know who might need some freelance copywriting. I’ll email you about them.”
Then he hands me back two of the bills and tells me to take Gina out to dinner. I hate him with all of my heart and say, “Thanks. We’ll all get together soon.”
There are plenty of rules, the first being only deal with people you know. Somewhere down the list, not prominent enough in anyone’s mind is, never go to The Container Store in the middle of a coke binge. Everything seems possible, and I’m not unemployed, I’m just taking a break between jobs and figuring out what I really want to do with my life. I wander from aisle to aisle thinking of the tremendous clutter enveloping my computer desk. I’ll buy shelves and file cabinets and hanging files. And fuck it, I’ll just buy this whole damn new desk with all the built-in stuff. I wander from aisle to aisle looking at all the things I can buy to increase my productivity, organize my job search and make me prepared like I have never been before. Some guy is going to give me a phone interview and ask me where the new three-hole punch is, and I will say, “On the shelf right in front of me next to the stapler.” Then he will ask who the Assyrians are and where in Chicago he can find them, and I will have my keyboard at my fingertips, ready to answer, and he will hire me to be the dude who knows everything. I replay the recent humiliating conversation I had with the manager of a Wendy’s. He would not hire me as a shift manager because I lacked pertinent experience and seemed “overqualified.”
“How can that possibly be a problem?” I asked. “If I have the wherewithal to get a Ph.D., don’t you think I will figure out how to work the shake machine?”
Screw that guy. Our whole apartment will be the standard for efficiency and neatness. All these containers will make cleaning easy. I’m looking forward to staying at home. Life will be so sweet Gina will realize I don’t even have to work because I have saved us so much time and money by buying all this stuff to simplify our lives. They’ll deliver our new life in a moving van, and she will wonder about the palpable buzz of excitement. I can see her smiling and shaking her head. What would she do without me?
Everything seems possible, and pretty soon I am looking for containers to put containers in and laughing as I try to explain to the attendant in each department about how limitation begets choice as choice begets limitation, and both dynamics erode possibility, which is the only truly infinite thing. And how do you regain possibility once you’ve made your decisions? I’m asking this to the guy in the closets department, as if he knows the choices of which I speak. He’s probably 16, so he has some time left to play with, but that little shit needs to be prepared. He needs to be aware. He needs to be—“Oh, do you guys have those wire basket things? That would be awesome!” And then there is something about the paradox of infinite smallness thrown in for good measure. In this manner universes are born, collide, and are destroyed for the next 20 minutes until I find myself in my car pounding the radio’s drumbeat on my steering wheel. The credit card in my hip pocket still seems warm, and I will presently realize that it is enshrouded in a receipt totaling $6000, which I will calculate to be most of the money I set aside in savings over the last decade of doing jobs I did not like but which supported me.
They’ll deliver everything on Monday, the morning after I return from the bachelor party, and everything will make sense because this weekend will be the last hurrah. I will have had one last blast of fun, will no longer be plagued by regrets and indecision, and will be ready at long last to get back to work. My marriage will be saved once Gina realizes I have finally grown up. My one resolve is to not cheat on her. And also to not worry about the future, which will fall effortlessly into place once I return.
It does not dawn on me until I am home that they sent me an invitation this late because they don’t actually want me to come. But Phil can’t still be mad about the bathroom incident. That was almost eight years ago. I think through the attendees I know will be there. It’s true I haven’t talked to most of them since college, but we didn’t part on terrible terms or anything. Besides, why would they even tell me at all if they didn’t want me to come? I decide that I’m being paranoid because I did the last bump outside in the car.
The place is a mess, and I know I felt like cleaning when I was in The Container Store, but now that I am confronted by my slovenliness, I am content to smile at it and think about how I will take care of it eventually. Nothing has a place of its own, and some day I will get right on that. I walk to the fridge and get a beer, convinced that spending my life’s savings on new containers was the right decision. Doesn’t chaos long to be contained in the same way that dogs are happier when they have had obedience training? I go to drop the bottle cap in the recycling and realize that the lid no longer opens when you step on the thing. Damnit. I should have gotten new trash cans.
At 6:00 Gina comes home. She is apparently still not talking to me. She walks in, drops her purse on the couch, puts her hat on the coffee table, and puts her keys on the kitchen counter. I stifle a giggle thinking how everything will have its own place starting Monday. She scoops up a dirty plate and glass from beside the couch and takes it to the kitchen sink. “This place is a mess!” she exclaims. I am not sure if I am expected to answer or not, so I say nothing. Then she calls out, “This goddamn trashcan is broken!”
I sneak back into the bedroom and call The Container Store. “Hi, I’m the guy who dropped six grand in there about three hours ago. Could you throw in a couple of those trashcans with the little things you step on to make the lid come up?....Medium-sized….Black….Sure, let me get my wallet….” She will love me again.
That night in bed the silence is crushing, so I finally say, “Are you still mad at me?”
“I’m not mad at you. I’m disappointed in you.”
“I’ll get another job. I even talked to Richard today about some people he knows looking for a freelance copywriter.”
“You talked to Richard?”
I know what is buried in the question. “Yeah, I called him today just to ask if he knew anyone. You know, people who have jobs know other people who have jobs.”
She doesn’t think that’s as amusing as I do, so she says nothing.
I ask, “Are you mad that I am going to the bachelor party?”
“You don’t even like those guys.”
“I’m curious,” I say.
“You’re not curious from the right place. It’s because you want to see if they’re still a bunch of losers or if they’re doing better than you are. Either way you lose. You’ll either get sucked down into the shitter with them or you’ll beat yourself up again for going to school instead of joining whatever idiotic internet venture they got in on early enough to make money off.”
“Or maybe I just want to rekindle old friendships.”
“And get sucked into the toilet with them.”
“I turned out okay. Maybe they did too.”
“Right. You turned out okay, then you relapsed, then you turned out okay, then you relapsed, and then you turned out okay.”
“I didn’t relapse. Relapsing means you are addicted and you have no control. I’m not addicted. Just every once in a while I like a good bender. What harm has that ever done either one of us? Besides, I doubt there will be anything there this weekend. The sense I get from corresponding with Henry is that everyone’s gotten clean.”
“Right,” she says and rolls over on her side to feign sleep.
“When I get back on Monday it will be a whole new day. You’ll see.”
The next morning I pack and dig up my old silver flask. I fill it with Irish whiskey and take a drink as part of my pre-flight ritual. The complex procedural has seen me safely through dozens of flights, and I am not sure what it would be like to de-board a plane sober. But I have no intention of finding out, as I do not want to tamper with the magic. I tidy the living room and the kitchen, and I leave a note on the counter telling Gina how much I love her and that I will be home on Sunday evening.
When I get to the airport, I take the second swig of the ritual, and then I wander from airline to airline until I can find a cheap standby flight to Dallas. I find out I won’t be able to leave until 3:30, and I take the time to familiarize myself with the new carry-on rules. They shake their heads and tell me that I will not be allowed to take my flask on carry-on, and that I will have to check it. I think better of telling them that if I can’t complete the ritual we will all die in a plane crash.
I have 6 hours to kill before my flight, so I frequent the bathroom and take slugs of whiskey. I read the books I brought until I realize that I am too drunk to concentrate. I call Henry to let him know that I am coming. He seems surprised and not unhappy. He tells me where to meet them that night, which is some place I have never heard of in a newly hip neighborhood. I hang up and eat a vegetarian hotdog for 6 bucks. I drink a bottle of water for 4 bucks. I walk around and look at things. I eat a pretzel for $4.50. I sleep on a bench until a security guard makes me move. I am in hell. A vast, never-ending hell the likes of which not even Lucifer has seen. By the time I board my flight, I have a hangover.
It is too expensive to order enough drinks to keep up the ritual, so I put my life in God’s hands and buckle my seatbelt. A few minutes into the flight the woman next to me tries to start a conversation about her faith and salvation, to which I am non-committal. Since I can’t do the ritual, I wonder if I should hedge my bets. She tries a couple more times before I realize that passive resistance is the best approach. When she asks me if I know Jesus, I tell her that I don’t really follow politics and apologize. She looks confused and tells me that he is the son of God and that he died for my sins, so I tell her that I appreciate how nice that was of him. I lament that no one is ever that nice anymore. She looks baffled so I ask her if he has a blog or anything. Then I take a cue from my wife and roll over and pretend to sleep. Eventually, I do fall asleep and am startled to realize that I have been awakened. We are there, and we are still alive. I want a drink.
My first call is to Angie, an old college friend of Gina’sand mine, who still lives in Dallas. I am in the middle of an incoherent but—I hope—charming voice mail to her about how apocalyptic it would be to see her when my phone dies. “Fuck!” I yell when I realize that not only did I not charge my phone, I didn’t bring my charger. I look up from my backpack and catch the scornful glance of the woman who had sat next to me on the plane. I am so going to hell.
The sun has set, and I catch a cab and tell him to take me to the place I have never heard of. He nods and starts the meter. About twelve bucks into the ride I start to feel like we are going in circles, but I am so far removed from this town that I have no way of proving it, so I bite my tongue and wait. And wait. I wait for 26 bucks worth of talk radio before he finally lets me out on a street thronged with college-aged foot traffic. I walk into the restaurant, find them, and am struck by how we all look pretty much like we did except thicker and hairier. I am still not sure if I am supposed to be here or not, so I sneak over to the table and sit down without alerting them of my presence. They are drunk and lost in conversation, so that’s pretty easy. Raoul is the first person to notice me. His eyes widen for a liminal second before he smiles and yells, “Holy shit!” All of them turn, and holy shit, they are glad to see me. I think.
We meet well, and I can’t tell that they didn’t want me here, if indeed they did not want me here. I am handed a beer, and I toast with Raoul, Greg, Phil, Henry, and finally with Steve, the groom-to-be. We compare notes on weight gain and hair-growth and loss, how much or how little we have changed, and what we’ve been up to. I seem to be one of the success stories of the table, having procured a fine assortment of letters after my name. When they ask what I am doing for a living, I tell them I am an efficiency expert at a small company.
Nothing takes hold of the conversation, and I can tell that we are all waiting for that spark that will ignite the conversation like it did in the old days. We were all crazy and thrilled by the endless possibilities of our lives and how we would grow together and make things happen with each other, as if our potential energy would cycle through each of us and turn kinetic in a giant explosion of mutual lust for life. We were college kids, and everything fell apart on its own. I moved away; Phil got married and divorced; Greg went all Zen-Buddhist for a while until some chick dumped him in Colorado and then nobody heard anything about him for a few years; Henry and Steve started a website, made a bunch of money, sued one another, slept with each others’ girlfriends, became friends again, and apparently decided that they should be one another’s best men; and Raoul was a complete mystery to me. Raoul had changed his name in college because women were attracted to mysterious men. Now all they want is some schlub who’s going to be there to carry groceries when they get home from the grocery store, but back then they wanted turmoil. So one day Raoul showed up in the dorm cafeteria and said that his name was Raoul. None of us questioned it, and pretty soon that was his name. Tales of his efficacy with mystery-seeking women were often of a dubious nature. I could not say what he had been up to since we had parted because I hadn’t known what he’d been up to when we were friends.
I have no idea what I am doing here.
Eventually Henry sidles over to my end of the table. “Refreshments?” he whispers. Before I can answer he slips a pill in my palm and I feign a cough and toss it back.
“What was that?” I whisper.
“Low dose of v,” he says. “It will be like drinking a couple of beers.”
“Any time. Glad you could make it on such short notice.”
“Glad to be here,” I say.
“Who else is coming?” asks Steve.
“Mike said he would try to make it a little later,” say several people. Oh yeah, Mike. How could I forget Mike. How does everyone but me know who everyone is?
Dinner is a variety of meats, all of which I feel obligated to decline because Gina is a vegetarian and I love her enough to go along with it. Pretty soon I am feeling a decent buzz, and everything comes easier. Henry and Steve are recounting the story of some other bachelor party they attended. Their telling is oddly rhythmic, and the refrain seems to be, At the same time! I gather that the evening held much synchronicity and a variety of unconventional fluid swapping. Someone is talking about Jim. Who is Jim? I am finding it difficult to focus on any of the tales flying around the table. The table is thick, dark wood. The decorations on the wall suggest a rustic, Italian farm brimming with dried sausages and grandmothers. I am meant to feel certain things. Greg is talking to Phil about chakras, and I want to punch him. Phil seems as disengaged as I am. He smiles. I smile. We make eye contact and nod, as if savoring the mutual secret that this is all pretty stupid. I decide that he is the only one I will talk to for the rest of the night. Or is he still mad at me? I think I saw something of jealousy in his eyes. Jesus Christ, I am bored. Who gave me valium and why? Everything is still kind of happening around me, and my mouth is filled with mud. I have no idea what I would say if I wanted to say something. Jim again. We hung out with that Jim guy a lot, but I have no idea who he was. Was Jim that one guy with the weird teeth? Jim? I must not have known Jim. Why was I never invited to Jim’s parties?
Dinner is over and we walk to a bar down the street. Spirits are high, and I am confused. About halfway there we stop in the middle of the sidewalk and huddle up. Some powder is shoved between my nose, and I inhale.
“What was that?” I ask. “Coke?”
“Coke,” says Henry.
“Any time. We came to party! This is Steve’s last night as a free man!” We all whoop it up accordingly. It seems empty.
They break into pairs and talk, and I watch them. Greg says, “Jim, whatever happened to Jenny?”
Raoul says, “Punk-rock Jenny?”
“No,” say Greg. “Blue h—“
“Oh, Jenny Ramolich.”
A light flickers in my head. I turn and point to Raoul. “Jim!” I exclaim.
He stumbles, eyes wide. “Dave?” he says.
“Your name is Raoul!” I say.
“He changed it back,” says Greg.
“Why am I the last to know these things?” I ask. “Can I still call you Raoul?”
The bar is loud and bright. This room is full of my best friends. They are dancing, drinking, and making out with one another. It takes me a moment to understand. There’s a level of understanding, and then there is a level of understanding beneath that level. The level beneath is the one to which I aspire. Those are not my friends. These are my friends. There is a beer in my hand, and we are laughing. Why are we laughing? There’s that second level trying to be formed. Then a new conversation starts to happen. It spins somehow from the old one, which was about something important.
“Where is Greg?” I shout.
“Where is Greg?” It is very important that I find Greg.
“Right here,” says Greg. He’s standing next to Phil.
“Good,” I say.
“Like I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted,” says Steve, “Greg’s most likely gay.” Greg rolls
“Greg’s gay?” I ask. The music is too loud. “Greg’s not gay.” I look at Greg. “Greg, are you gay?”
“I’m not gay,” says Greg, calm and cool as a mountain lake.
“He’s gay,” says Henry. “The gayest.”
“Why are you gay?” I ask. “Wait. That isn’t what I meant to say. When did you realize--”
“I’m not gay,” says Greg. “I’m celibate.”
“No, no, you should totally celebrate who you are,” I say. “I’m proud of you for coming out.” I raise my beer to toast him and all the gay people of the world.
“No! I’m celibate!”
“Oh,” I say. “When did you realize--”
“So long ago he doesn’t even miss it,” says Steve.
“It wasn’t by choice,” says Henry.
“About two years ago,” says Greg. “I realized that sex is too sacred for me to practice it while I am a fractured being.”
“I can understand that,” I say. “Good for you.”
“Practicing it is all he does,” says Steve.
Phil rolls his eyes.
We settle in with drinks at a corner table, and though we still have nothing to say, conversation is easier. There is discussion of old professors and women in our dorm we wanted to screw. I shine briefly by telling the tale of the night I ended up with Andrea, whom all of them wanted, when Gina and I were temporarily broken up. It was a beautiful thing, and never before or after had a woman known so well what to do. Except for my wife, of course. I realize my lack of credibility, since my girlfriend became my wife a couple of years thereafter, but the moment seems to fly under the radar. Then we tell Steve that sex will only get better after he is married because his wife will trust him more and really open up. Then there is discussion of cars and websites and business ideas, and going green, and living off the grid, and plans, and plans, and plans. There are so many plans with cocaine.
Of course, the evening is far from over. Henry has set us up with a club in South Dallas where anything goes if the price is right, and he has made sure that they know in advance that we are ready to party. I think: this is what it is like to be rich. You pay people to indulge you. I hope he paid in advance.
We’ve got thirty more minutes to kill before it is time to go to the next place, so we all take turns going to the bathroom for another bump or two. We are all pretty careful, but no one here seems to care. And then I find myself walking out the front door and wandering down the street. I don’t know where I am going, but I need to find a payphone and call Angie. There can be no record of this call. I feel light and springy, despite everything. I look at the lights and the people and realize that I am only a few years removed from these beautiful kids who are in college or just out of college. Hell, I feel as good as I have felt in years. I am unencumbered, and I could be—Oh shit! Where’s my backpack? Which way did we come from? I think this way? I run, but all these stupid, fucking kids are in my way. And then I hear a voice cut across the parking lot, “Dave!” It takes me a few steps to register the noise, and then I slow and hear it distinctively again. “Dave!”
A man stands in the parking lot wearing only a pair of cut-off jeans.
“Haven’t seen you in forever,” he says. “What’s up?”
“Looking for my backpack. Hey, do you know of an Italian place with sausages and grandmothers?”
“In this neighborhood?”
“Does it seem sort of old-world, and like there’s a meadow of tall grass?”
“I’ll take you there.”
Some women drive by in a convertible and stop in the street. One of the women is drunk, and she hangs out of the car and digs through her purse. She holds a dollar bill out and screams, “Take it all off!” The driver giggles. He starts dancing and works his way over to the car. He pulls the front of his shorts down to reveal his tumescence. The women squeal, and he snatches the dollar bill as they drive away.
He walks back to me and says, “I am a horny motherfucker tonight. I got this party to go to, but I’ve got this crazy bitch in Pittsburgh I’m going to have phone sex with later.”
“Are you going to Steve’s bachelor party?”
“Yeah! I didn’t want to say anything about it in case you didn’t know about it, but that’s it.”
“Just checking. Hey, why wouldn’t I have known about it?”
“In case everyone was still mad at you.”
“Why would everyone be mad at me?”
“I don’t know if I should talk about it.”
“Talk about what? For fuck’s sake, obviously there are no hard feelings, or I wouldn’t be here.”
“Well, there was that thing at Phil’s place, and then, you know, everyone always thought that you thought that you were better than everyone else.”
We have walked a couple of blocks, and Mike says, “Is this the place?”
I look up and hurry inside. They have my backpack at the front desk. Miracles never cease.
I say to Mike, “I have a safe house lined up tonight, but my phone is dead. Can I use your phone?”
“I have to save my batteries.”
“Come on man, I will be sleeping on the street tonight if you don’t let me use it. It’ll take ten seconds.”
A fierce struggle happens in Mike’s brain, and he finally assents. “But only for a minute!”
I dial Angie’s number and when she picks up I say, “My phone died.”
“I know. I tried to call you. How are you?”
“Where are you?”
“I am somewhere. Hey, I don’t have a place to crash tonight. Have you got a couch?”
“Is Gina with you?”
“No, she’s back home.”
“Sure. How are you going to get here?”
“We’re going to be at strip club called Eve’s. Can you come get me?”
“I love strip clubs,” she says. I can’t tell if she’s joking.
When we hang up Mike says, “I can’t wait. I’m gonna use this parking lot.”
“Wait. What?” I follow him to the back of the building. “Dude, are you high? I’m high. Now is not a good time to get arrested.”
He lies down, using a parking block as a pillow. He dials the number, and I say, “We have to go to this strip club. I don’t even know where it is. We have to get back to the bar. Hey, what bar did they tell you to meet us at?”
“It’s cool. I know where we’re going.”
I say, “And I’m sure they have a dress code, and you have to at least wear shoes and a shirt.”
He says, “Hey, you there? … Yeah, babe. I got it.” He reaches down his shorts, and I am trying to apprehend the fact that I am about to watch some guy I apparently knew in college jack off in a bank parking lot. I think I am supposed to turn away, but I can’t stop watching. I am drawn to whatever chemical is running amok in Mike’s head and making this moment seem reasonable to him. I wonder then if the people we surround ourselves with bind us to our fates or the other way around. I suspect we are about to be arrested. Then I hear Mike shout, “Fuck! Motherfucking fuckfuck!” He stands up and stomps around the lot swearing.
“Did she cock block you?”
“No, the fucking battery died!”
“Well, we have to get going anyway.”
“Fuck!” he yells. “Hey, do you have any clothes in your backpack?”
“I don’t have any shoes, but I have a shirt and a pair of jeans.”
“Cool.” He changes into my clothes and leaves his shorts in the parking lot. “Let’s go.”
True to his word, Mike knows where we are going, and we rejoin the party at the bar, where they apparently
had not missed me.
When we walk up, Greg is saying to Phil that meditation is not so much about clearing your mind as it is letting your mind clear itself. “You focus on where the breath enters and leaves your body. You want to feel yourself existing in the world, if you follow me. I mean, your breathing is never going to be perfect, but that’s where spirit touches ground. And your head will take care of itself. Dig?”
Phil says, “Yeah. I tried meditation, but I just couldn’t get it right.”
“It ain’t about getting it right. You are never going to be perfect in a world of imperfection.”
Phil considers it.
We have been on the outskirts of the conversation and are about to enter, when Raoul begins to take his pants off. Steve and Henry collapse into each other in laughter, and Phil and Greg rush to his side and pull his pants back up for him. Greg holds Raul up and looks for someone to share the load. I walk over and help support him.
“What did you give him,” asks Phil.
“Just some coke,” says Steve.
“I don’t do coke,” says Greg. “This guy I teach yoga to did a lot of coke back in the 80s and had a massive stroke. We’re still working on rehabbing him. Dangerous stuff."
Everyone ignores him and welcomes Mike.
Mike says to Steve, “Are we in the Hummer tonight?”
“Of course,” he replies.
“Sweet. Are my shoes still in the back?”
“Sweet,” says Mike.
The world spins, and I am climbing into the most hated vehicle on the planet to go to a strip club. The city floats by outside and I recognize none of it.
In the Eve’s parking lot Henry sticks a pocket knife into a baggie and scoops some up.
“What’s that?” I ask. “Coke? Great.”
He sticks it beneath my nose. “Hit it,” he says.
I inhale and have to sneeze. “What is that? It burned.”
I hear him say: “It’s Di-something-trypta-something-mine.”
“What the fuck did you just say?”
“It’s a designer. Your mind is going to feel like a tug of war between meth, ecstasy, LSD, and a roofie.”
“Oh. Thanks. That’s exactly what I want to feel.”
“Just roll with it.”
“I don’t have much fucking choice now, do I!”
“You’ll be fine.”
“What the fuck, man? You need to warn me about this shit!”
“Oooh,” says Steve. “Someone can’t handle his fun.”
We are in the VIP lounge on the second floor, and women are coming and going. They take turns simulating fellatio on Steve, and presently Henry takes one into the back room. It dawns on me that I might be in danger of cheating on my wife. It is a nagging, annoying apprehension, and I order a whiskey to chase it away. We drink and admire breasts and vaginas. There is talk, but I am not focusing right. I am sort of lost. Phil is staring at me. Greg is watching the ceiling, breathing slowly. Steve may or may not be being fellated. I look over at Raoul and see that he is in the same boat I am. He stares slack-jawed at the lights and flash. Mike is dancing with one of the strippers and trying his best to come out of my clothes. She keeps telling him that he cannot be naked, but he is obstinate. My mind is buzzing, and my legs are going numb.
Then Greg stands over me and whispers in my ear. “Are you okay?”
“Fine, I think. A little weird and slow,” I say.
“I don’t know what Steve gave you.”
“No, it’s okay. It’s an upper, a downer, and a psychotropic all rolled into one.”
“What could possibly go wrong,” he says. “Do me a favor and don’t order any more drinks.”
I stare out across the tableau of available women and don’t want to cheat. No, that isn’t exactly it. The level
beneath that is that I want to be offered the opportunity to cheat, and then I want to decline the offer and skip off on my morally superior way. Then there is a stripper in my lap. She rubs her g-stringed buttocks between my wide-spread legs. Jesus, she is acrobatic! She grinds on me for a couple of minutes and then turns around and kisses my neck, apparently mistaken in her belief that I have money to spend. She nuzzles her warm, soft cheek against my neck. I have money to spend, but I shouldn’t. She slides down my body between my legs and rugs her face in my lap. That money is as good as spent. She takes me by the hand and begins to pull me toward the back room, where we will have more privacy, and where things will be accomplished in the dark. I don’t want to cheat on my wife, even though I suspect she doesn’t love me. No, definitely, I am not going to cheat. But I am being dragged to the back room. I could possibly love this woman. Her skin is vibrant and warm. I just want to touch her a little bit. I shouldn’t. I won’t. My God, her tits are like cupcakes. They’re going to be delicious. “I do not believe in the objectification of women!” I explain to the room. Behind me someone spits his drink out and laughs. The battle rages.
Attractive women are very strong. They can pull you places, like into back rooms. But something is wrong beyond the drugs, beyond the situation. I am digging for the level beneath the level. There is something down there, a point beyond which art cannot illuminate and where philosophy is pure pedantry. I am looking for that place, and I know I can find it. It will be easier to get there with all my synapses firing non-stop and edgy. There is a ceiling to how high I can feel, and I know I neither want to live with the consequences of my actions nor live without reason to incur them. She is dragging me to the back room, and I cannot resist her steel-soft grip. I look over and see that Mike has his shirt off, Phil is glaring at me, and Raoul is slumped over the table. We are all trapped on the same earth, flying through space at the same speed, and all of us are imperfect beings bound together by our one longing for something more than ourselves. I look back at the stripper, whose thonged ass is a perfect specimen of disaster. But then, before my eyes, she swells to twice her size then shrinks back to normal. She does it again! Holy shit! She is expanding and contracting like an accordion! I don’t want to be here, so I fall to the ground and begin to weep.
She turns at once. “What’s wrong, baby?”
“You are expanding and contracting like an accordion, and that freaks me the fuck out! I do not want to be here!” I am a ragged pair of claws scuttling across the strip club floor back to my table, where everyone stares at me. I climb back into my chair and smile, teary-eyed at the room. A new thought occurs to me: victory is mine! If I could live in perfection I would just get bored with that too. I am tired and weak, and I collapse on the floor and curl up in a fetal position.
Then we are being led out of the club by the bouncers and the manager. I once was happy, but now a terrible thought is churning around in my head. It is independent of the bachelor party miasma: no one is going to hire me just because I have a clever home office. There are no job postings for newly organized dudes who know random stuff. I have neither a job nor much left in my anemic life savings. I look up and realize that everyone is mad at me, and I have further alienated an entire subset of friends. We wait outside for Steve and Henry, who were in the back room at the time. Steve is buttoning his shirt and says, “That’s cool. I probably shouldn’t be doing that shit the night before my wedding anyway.”
Henry says,” Yeah, but I should be. What the hell is this all about?”
Everyone sort of shrugs and nods my way. I have no explanation for anything, so I say, “My life is a fraud. I am not doing well.”
Greg puts a comforting hand on my shoulder. “You’re doing fine, man.”
“No, man! I am definitely not doing fine. I got turned down by a Wendy’s, my wife doesn’t love me, and I don’t want to find Jesus. I spent my life savings at a Container Store in the middle of a coke binge. I am very, very fucked!”
“Maybe they’ll take it back,” says Steve.
“That is not the point!” I say. “Even if they would, my mind would still be stunted, and I would still be choked with all this goddamn need!”
Phil shakes his head, mutters something, and starts to walk off.
“Where are you going?” shouts Henry. There are plenty of other clubs. The night’s still young. This is Steve’s last night, as a free man!”
But no one whoops it up. Phil keeps walking.
“Hey, get back here!” yells Steve.
Phil turns and shakes his head. “I don’t even like you people.”
For some reason it hurts me, even though I don’t like us either. “Fuck you,” I say.
“You know what, Dave?” he bellows. “I was hoping you were going to be here because I wanted to apologize to you, but I’m not even sorry.”
“Oh,” I say. I’d wondered if the past would come up. “You want to apologize for throwing me out of your apartment when I kicked your ass for trying to sleep with Gina? Is that what you want to apologize for?”
He shakes his head. “You don’t know? Gina and I had an affair for most of our senior year. But she wouldn’t leave you, even though she wasn’t happy. Anyway, I’m sorry. I hope you all have a great fucking night.” He turns and walks away.
Greg, who is holding up Raoul’s dead weight, lets him slip. Raoul crashes down on the ground. Everyone turns and looks at me, then back at Phil, as he leaves the parking lot and tries to hail a cab. Then they look back at me, and Mike tries to pick Raoul up.
“Go kick his ass!” says Steve.
“Fuck that asshole!” says Henry.
“I probably deserved that,” I say.
“You’re not gonna let him get away with that, are you?” implores Henry.
“Yeah, I think I am.” My head swims and I look around the parking lot for a place to lie down. Merciful God, I see Angie sitting in her car, and I don’t even care that she has seen me in my lowest moment.
“I gotta go,” I say. “Congratulations, Steve.”
“Wedding’s tomorrow at noon,” says Henry.
“Sure thing,” I say. “Mike, you can keep my clothes.”
I walk over to Angie’s car. “Hey, how are you?” I ask.
“I’m okay,” she says. “What was that all about?”
“I’ll tell you on the road.”
Angie pulls out of the parking lot, and after a moment she says, “What all have you done tonight?”
“I don’t know. It’s been a menagerie.”
“You were always the stupidest asshole on earth about mixing drugs. I wish you wouldn’t.”
“I don’t do it on purpose.”
“Right…” She turns onto the road.
“How far is it?”
“Twenty minutes, maybe. You gonna make it?”
“Yeah, I’ll make it. Just some weird visual distortion. It’s making me carsick.”
“You don’t know what you took?”
“I think Henry was trying to kill me,” I say and sigh.
“That was an ugly scene in the parking lot. Do you want to talk about it?”
I bury my eyes in my palms and rub them. “What’s to say? I know we were all fucked up, and I know I was more fucked up than usual, and I’m pretty sure that I knew he was sleeping with Gina, so I seem to recall pissing all over his bathroom and giving him a good slug or three. I guess he deserved it, didn’t he?”
“He deserved it. But it wasn’t like he said,” she says. “They slept with each other a few times when you two were having problems.”
“Christ, did everyone know about it except me or something?”
“No, it wasn’t like that.”
“Fuck all of you,” I say.
“It wasn’t like that.”
I can’t tell if she is concerned for my feelings or just feels sorry for me. “To be honest it doesn’t even matter. That was years ago. I don’t even care.”
“It’s okay if you do. I mean, I know it hurts.”
“It doesn’t hurt.” I’m not sure how to make her understand that I am not talking through false bravado. I actually feel nothing. Whether I will still feel nothing when I crash will be another story. “I’m still piecing everything together, but I think this was important for me.”
Dallas again means nothing as it rolls by the window, and our words have become tentative. She reaches out and pats my hand. “I’m glad you’re here,” she says.
I lie on her couch and stare at the ceiling, which whirls above me. I place a foot on the ground, but the world will not stop, will not slow down. Angie is in her bedroom, just beyond the door, and I remember her hand on mine. She’s glad I am here, so I stand and stare at her door. It seems to be breathing, though the level beneath the level says my visuals should have stopped by now. I know that door is not acting like it should, and the only way to make it stop is to walk through it, which I do. “Are you still awake?”
“Can I come in.”
Pause. “Yes. Come here.”
I lie in bed with her, and we stare at the ceiling together. Our hands are touching, and then we roll into each other. There is touching and stroking, and somehow in my mind I have still decided that I do not want to cheat on my wife, even given the truth of the world. So we play a game from high school. It isn’t cheating if no part of my body enters any part of her body and no part of her body encircles any part of mine. We are giggling children, feeling out the construct. We press the boundaries pretty good until she says, “Isn’t Gina great?”
I’m not sure if she is invoking my wife because she wants to remind us that we should stop, or if she believes that bringing our connection into focus through the lens of a mutual loved one will somehow make us feel even more connected.
“Well, I guess the jury is still out. I thought she was, but I don’t know. Sometimes love is too heavy to be great. Sometimes love is the deepest, most terrifying obligation you have ever had.”
“But wasn’t it great when we were all friends, all of us just, you know, hanging around together and laughing?”
“Yeah. It was.”
She smiles. “We were all so brilliantly on fire.”
Then we are young again, and our bodies are moving beyond the game, and I am drawn to the new appreciation of the old world, and our mouths meet one another. We pause in half kiss and start to pull away, but then plunge in. It goes like this for some time.
Then she says between kisses, “She was so in love with you. She wouldn’t shut up about you.”
“I couldn’t shut up about her,” I say.
“It’s a shame we have to live in half-states,” she says.
I sit up, and she sits up, and we stare at the walls. I can hardly remember what it was like to be in love, though I know perfectly well what it is to love. I think of more things than I can count, as one memory peels away to show another. There is no straight line in a relationship, and no one moment can be discrete. I am full with all of them, and when my stomach rumbles, I begin to laugh.
I say, “I haven’t eaten since Chicago.”
We eat an early breakfast and say not much at all. I am thinking about the secret parts of my life that I haven’t been able to share, how I should shine a light on them, and how I should blow off the wedding and fly home early. I shoulder my backpack when the time is right and call a cab. I’m old enough to close the door without giving it too much thought, but I find myself wanting to leave it open just a crack to preserve possibility. I say something ambiguous and hope it is not too much. “I remember once you ate an apple.”
Angie tilts her head and scrunches her eyebrows.
“We were in your dorm room, me, you and Gina, you know, before we had paired up, and…” I think she is seeing me just right, and I don’t have to tell her the rest.
She will go on with her life, and I will go on with mine, but we will both sometimes linger and think about the unknowable because sex is always best on a mattress stuffed with questions.
“You’re a slow learner,” she says.
“I know,” I say. “But if I feel it shouldn’t I say it?” Then my cab pulls up.
She nods and gives me a hug. “Tell Gina I love her.”
I slump in the back of the cab and remember the most decadent, luxurious apple ever eaten. Angie’s tiny, animal teeth tore through its skin and into the crisp flesh, and when she chewed, I imagined the flavor suffusing over her tongue, and then it was I who was in her mouth, being ground down by her molars. My eyes widened and my face flashed hot. Gina had no idea what was happening. There on Angie’s lip I saw light glint off a drop of apple juice. It was glorious and visceral. Barely had my mind processed the significance of the spectacle when the image was replaced by an even more striking sight: her tiny, pink tongue darted out, pointed like an arrowhead, stabbed its prey, and dragged it back into its cave. I wanted to follow that taste inside of her as it spread, and then all the way inside her to be consumed. All I want is to be strapped down to a planet hurtling madly through space toward oblivion, afraid at any second I will fly off, amazingly alive with wide-awakened senses. I imagine the life I might have had with Angie. And yet. And yet, I also felt those things with Gina, when I could imagine nothing but pulling her close to me and feeling her tactile sensations. I pay the cabbie and look through my backpack for my flask. I can’t find it and figure that if the plane goes down, I will at least know the world’s final truth: that we are all we are, shaped by the chemicals in our heads and limited to the very earth we want to escape. Gina and I have a lot to talk about when I land, and my head spins with how she may react. I will tell her I know about the cheating, but also about apples. It won’t make sense, but we have to forgive everything and start over each day. I am building this conversation in my head and organizing all the scraps of paper floating around in my past. Then I remember that right in the middle of it we will get a truckload of stuff I can’t even begin to afford. I will try to explain it as best I can, and put it together with whatever tools I have at my disposal. Maybe if I do it right everything will hold together.
Mark Miller is a librarian of fortune, living on the ragged edges of society and providing information for those in need. His first novel, The Librarian at the End of the World was described by one critic as "Freakishly odd. Like Lovecraft turns Beat and drops acid." Miller is currently seeking a publisher for his follow-up, The Two-Headed Lady at the End of the World, because there are not enough romance novels about conjoined twins and thermonuclear destruction.