Two hours before closing, and I could tell that at least one of them would end up in my emergency room. I knew things. In high school, I predicted that my sister’s boyfriend would dump her for his former babysitter. That he’d get the babysitter pregnant, and she’d keep it and give it an absurd, yuppie name like Satchel. But that was the least of it. I could tell by looking in a man’s eyes if he loved his mother. If he’d ever thought about killing himself. If he’d ever tried and how. These three men had the watery, pinpoint pupils of people who abused plant toxins. They were paying for their tequila shots with stolen prescription pads.
I came to Salvation tonight because I needed to meet someone new and know that I was better than them. I spent the first half of the night talking shit with Joann, a retired insurance agent whose stories all circled back to osteoarthritis and/or shelter dogs. You could tell from talking to her that she’d never masturbated, that she had wasted her whole life handing her genitals over to someone else. I swelled with tenderness for her, for all the people who didn’t feel entitled to pleasure.
After she left, I went to the bathroom and stared at myself for a long time. I picked at the spots below my eyes where my mascara had left tarry deposits. Somebody had etched bitch give it back into the grimy mirror, and I felt a kinship toward them, whoever they were. I imagined my sister scratching the phrase in with a nail file. The last time we were here together, we snorted Vicodin off the baby changing station.
It’s true that I was thinking about babies a lot. Also, how good it felt to get so shitfaced that I couldn’t remember the word for what my sister was, schizoaffective, and tried all kinds of other words like schismatic and affectative on for size. I hadn’t gotten like that in nearly six months, but I remembered how it felt to have an army of dopamine marching through the folds in my brain. The way my toes tingled with a warmth I could feel in my belly button, my clit.
I wore sobriety like a shirt that was too tight in the shoulders, and everyone around me knew it. People cringed when they saw me, like they could tell I was one humiliation away from drinking mouthwash. Worst of all were my eyes. “There’s no empathy there,” was how I described them to my therapist. Apparently that meant something in the medical community, because as soon as I said it, she wrote me a prescription for Lexapro.
“It’s gone generic,” she said. “So now it’s cheaper.”
“I know,” I said. “That’s why I stopped selling it.”
I took the first pill two weeks ago, and all it had given me was diarrhea. According to the package insert, I may have also lost the ability to orgasm, but I hadn’t tested that yet. Which brings me back to the men shooting tequila in the back of the bar. Two of them appeared to be brothers, and the other may have once sold me powdered Adderall disguised as cocaine. They were all in their mid-forties and fell into that gulf between attractive and unattractive. Yet something about their togetherness aroused me. There was a bleak intimacy in the way they regarded each other, as though they’d survived situations that had necessitated sticking their fingers down each other’s throats. I watched the three of them for twenty minutes before taking a seat next to the non-brother.
“Hey,” I said. “I used to do that.”
“Do what?” he said.
“Sell fake prescriptions. Except they were written by a real doctor.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I paid homeless men to take the prescriptions to pharmacies,” I told him. “I sold the pills here.”
He swirled the rim of a shot glass with his index finger and brought the glistening tip to his tongue. “Oh. You and that guy with the goatee, right?”
My inner thighs clenched.
“I remember you. Fuck, you look different.”
Different unambiguously meant worse.
“I stopped doing that,” I said. “Not for moral reasons or anything. I don’t talk to that guy anymore.” My ex-boyfriend Franklin was either married in New Mexico to his second cousin, or he was back in prison for some business involving staged car wrecks.
“Okay,” he said.
His boredom was overt and predictable. I had long suspected that my open-mindedness was the only thing that made me interesting. Now that I was saying no to things, I was like all the other pit-stained women in all the other bars. I considered slipping in somehow that I was into anal. I wasn’t, but it felt like the right thing to say.
“Do you want a shot?” he asked.
“I quit drinking,” I said. “Also not for moral reasons.”
He laughed, and I felt like I was sitting atop a washing machine. His friends—I could see now that they were twins—gave me a once-over, which doubled the sensation. I loved seeing twins when I wasn’t expecting to. It felt like a wink from God or whoever was up there with most of my friends. Both brothers had bitten their nails down to the meat. One of them had a black eye; the other, a bloody fist. It was too much. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to fuck all three of them one-by-one or all at once. If I wanted to fuck them at all or to call their girlfriends from my waiting room to say, “There’s been an accident,” as I had twice done earlier that day. The leaden way both women said, “Oh,” which is what significant others always say, energized me like a protein shake. I wanted someone to love me enough to take a 2 a.m. phone call from an unknown number, just in case I had fallen or jumped from a balcony. My ex-husband Ronnie loved me that way, but he had a yoga instructor girlfriend who said, “He’s out,” whenever I called.
“Hey,” the brother with the bloody fist said. “You work at that hospital down the street. We were there a few weeks ago. We, uh, had an accident.”
His brother smiled, revealing a wet gap where his front teeth should have been.
They had a couple years left together, tops. One of them would be too drunk to call 911 when the other vomited blood outside the bus depot. Or the other’s heart would coke out and his brother would CPR him to death.
Suddenly, I recognized one of the twins as an old friend of my mother’s. Only, they looked so similar I couldn’t be sure which one of them was him. He and my mother had met on an involuntary psychiatric hold a decade earlier, when I was in high school and my parents were still married. A night nurse caught them in the hospital supply room; my sister and I mutely listened on the line as a hospital staffer informed my father. I vaguely remembered him coming around a few times after my parents split. I moved in with Ronnie shortly after and avoided my mother’s apartment except to refill her medications and steal from her condom drawer. I hadn’t thought about him in years. The sudden recall seemed to foretell a brewing storm of repressed memories waiting to grab me by the throat.
Neither of the twins seemed to know who I was. If they did, they were hiding it for reasons I was sure were nefarious. The thought of fucking them now made me feel like a Styrofoam cup someone was pouring ice water into. But it was possible we’d fucked already, and I’d forgotten. At Salvation, men I had never seen before would kiss the top of my head and ask why I hadn’t returned their calls. Women pushed me into bathroom stalls, sticking their cool hands down the front of my jeans and calling me a cunt when I asked who they were. Sometimes I mistook someone I had sold pills to for a friend. I had trouble distinguishing if I had drunk too much or not enough.
I wondered if they had ever switched places on my mother, taking turns with her and comparing. I felt confident that they had. I felt I might throw up. Everything in the bar was obscuring its intentions. The prescription pads reminded me of the medication that was, at this moment, corralling serotonin into my brain like sheep. The man who’d sold me Adderall reminded me of the darkest gas station in the city and what had happened to me there. Salvation had become a metaphor for all the things that wanted me dead. And both brothers were looking at me like they had seen me naked. Or maybe that’s how people always looked at each other. I had thought that getting clean would be like scrubbing the inside of my head with antiseptic, but I felt more lost and isolated than ever, including the time my sister walked out on me in the emergency room because the white coats were fucking with her high.
“I’m going home,” I said. No one protested.
“See you soon.” The twin with the black eye winked.
I walked the two blocks back to my apartment, taking the stairs to the third floor. Inside, the air was dry and lifeless and smelled of wet paper towels no matter how many candles I lit. I could hear my hamster’s nails clicking against his wheel. Paul ran with a work ethic I couldn’t relate to, dropping little shit pellets and not caring whether the wheel shot them back in his face. He was my role model and best friend. If I felt like smoking peyote behind the cement factory and disappearing for two days, I had to want it more than I wanted him to live. I had to be willing to wrap his corpse in tissues and leave him in a dumpster, knowing that the antisocial eleven-year-old who lived next door would smear his guts across the stairwell.
I was sad and my breasts hurt. I unhooked my bra and pulled it out through my sleeve. I called my ex-husband. The last time we’d spoken, I’d pretended I was pregnant with his child, which was ridiculous because we hadn’t fooled around in over a year. Ronnie played along. We argued over what to name it. Her. I wanted something boring like Elizabeth, a name that no one would hear and think, She’ll know how to remove the Freon.
“Elizabeth’s nice,” he said, after pausing long enough for me to circle my kitchen four times. “I could raise an Elizabeth.”
That was months ago, and his girlfriend had answered the phone every time since. Her voice reminded me of spun sugar, the kind that requires surgical-grade dental instruments to unstick from your teeth.
“Hey,” Ronnie said after the third ring. “It’s you.”
“You picked up,” I said. “Where’s Callie?”
“She’s out.” It was one in the morning.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Making a sandwich.”
I heard the unmistakable shouts of Jeopardy! contestants in the background, the insistent hum of his overhead kitchen light. It was so familiar, it made my gums hurt. “What kind of sandwich?”
“A turkey sandwich.”
“Tell me about it.”
He was silent for so long I counted my pulse. One hundred and fifty beats per minute. The resting heart rate of a fetus.
He cleared his throat. “Well, first, I put a little mayo on the bread.”
“I spread it really thin, covering the entire surface.”
“What does it look like?” I opened my refrigerator, pulling out mayo and a loaf of bread.
He paused a moment. “An ice skating rink.”
“I folded three slices of turkey onto the bread. A couple pieces of Swiss cheese. Then, I laid a sheet of lettuce over them. Like I’m tucking them in.”
“Go on.” I folded three slices of turkey. I laid down the cheese, the lettuce.
“Now, I’m slicing a tomato into thick wheels. There’s juice all over my fingers.”
“Are you licking them?”
“What do they taste like?” I put two fingers in my mouth.
I laughed. “And what does sunlight taste like?”
“You tell me,” he said. “Or did your clairvoyance go away when you got clean?”
“It wasn’t real clairvoyance. I put things in my body and hallucinated.”
“You read minds. You see people’s futures.”
“I’m a judgmental bitch. That’s all it is.”
The line went quiet. Someone thousands of miles away yelled, “What is Giant Squid?”
“You calling,” Ronnie said, “It gives me hope.”
“You wouldn’t waste your time on me unless you knew we’d end up together. That’s why you keep calling, isn’t it?”
The word “hope” and I rarely appeared in the same sentence. Occasionally, people told me, “I hope you make it home” or, “I hope that wasn’t too rough.” When it came to forecasting my own future, I knew nothing. I woke up most days unable to predict whether I’d stop by Petco for cage liner or raid the nurse’s station trashcans for opiates I knew weren’t there. I half-expected each birthday to be my last, yet I was always making it to the next one for ridiculous reasons.
“Sure,” I said. “Something like that.”
Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.