CRASH AND BURN
The surface of the bar is smooth mahogany, highly varnished, I can see a vague shadow of myself reflected there, my hands rest on top of the image, holding tight to my cigarette pack, it's an anchor to hang on to, if I let go I might slide backwards off the barstool and crash onto the floor.
…crash and burn… crash and burn… crash and burn…
Christ, my head hurts. I've got to get out of here, no matter how rude it is to walk away without a word of thanks to Deb for dinner, without a word of congratulations to Vic, without a goodbye to Michael or Lindsay or that God-damned teenager who thinks the sun rises and sets in my pants. The few people in the world who give a shit about me. But even if I walk out right now, my rudeness will be excused, if not excused, shrugged off. "That's just Brian," they'll say; they'll look at each other and shake their heads. Everybody thinks I’m ridiculously over-reacting, like some aging star of the silver screen, just because I'm turning thirty. But youth is all I've got, youth and beauty are all I've ever had.
Michael is the only person in the world who's ever loved me for myself, for the me that lives somewhere inside. Was I selfish to hang onto him? Damn right. Damn right. And now I've let him go, and he's going. I just heard him tell David that he's going, three thousand fucking miles away, a world away, a life away, he's leaving me. I told him to go, and he's going.
….crash and burn… crash and burn…
It would have been all right if I'd got the New York job. Then it would have been my own idea to leave here, to go away, to start over someplace where no one knows me, someplace I can ride on my good looks for a few more years. That's all I wanted. A chance to start over, a challenge, a new beginning. But New York doesn’t want me. New York thinks I'm washed up. They want a fucking twenty-five year old hot-shot, not me.
Too much to drink. How much? Scotch at home, I was drinking for hours before I even got to the restaurant. How much wine since I got here? I don't know. I'm close to passing out, that's how much. And I want to pass out. But first I need to get home. I need to stand up and walk out the door. Yet if I let go of the bar, if I stand up, will I fall on my face like a common drunk? Like Pop used to do. He was a big man, every time he fell to the floor in a drunken stupor, he made a loud crash.
…crash and burn…
Maudlin, I'm getting maudlin. Nothing worse than a maudlin drunk. Just let me get out of here before I fall down, that's all I ask. Swinging my head to the left, I blink my eyes and notice that Michael and David have left the bar. Good. Good. I put my hands flat on the varnished surface and push up, untangle my legs from the barstool and make them stretch upwards, make myself stand tall, one hand grasping the bar till I'm sure I won't fall down. Keeping my back to the dining room, I follow the bar to the end, then let go, holding my breath as I navigate the space of floor toward the bar’s back door. Swinging through the exit, the cold air hits me in the face and I stagger backwards to lean against the wall of the building. The cold clears my head slightly, clears it enough to make me remember that I left my jacket inside. My favorite Hugo Boss leather jacket. But I can't go back in. Fuck the cold, I can ignore it, I can make it to the jeep, I parked it close by. Where? Somewhere close by.
Shaking my head to clear it, breathing deep of the cold night air, I'm trying to remember where I left the jeep, when suddenly the door beside me flies open, and the kid is standing there, silhouetted against the bright lights of the bar. He's holding something. My jacket. "Thanks," I manage to mutter, reaching out for it, but the kid's image blurs and instead of my jacket, I grab a handful of air, throwing me slightly off balance. I see him move forward and feel him grab my arm and I'm able to steady myself. He pushes the jacket into my hands and I struggle to put it on, I can't seem to find the left sleeve but he helps me. Wordlessly, thank God.
"Brian, give me your keys," the kid says.
"Huh?" But I heard him.
"Give me your keys."
No fucking way, I say, except I don't say it. He doesn't wait for an answer, but sticks his hand in the pocket where I always keep my keys, fishes them out, and slides his arm around my waist.
"I can see your car, it's right over there," he is telling me. "Can you make it?" I nod, which is a mistake, because my head keeps nodding and nodding like a bobble-head doll, but I somehow manage to stiffen my spine and stand up straight. Okay, I'll let him help me to the jeep, he's always putting his arm around me anyway, it probably doesn’t look like I'm a fucking helpless drunk. Even if I am a fucking helpless drunk.
"Like Jack," I mumble, then I'm horrified to realize I've spoken out loud, but he ignores me, he's concentrating on getting me down one curb and across the street and up another curb. It's hard to lift my feet off the ground, but after a minute he gets me up and over the curb.
“Wrong side,” I mutter, as he pushes me against the side of the jeep and keeps a hand on me for balance while he sticks a key in the door. Jesus, I’m the one who’s drunk here, and I know we’re on the wrong side of the jeep.
“Get in the passenger side, Brian, I’m driving you home.”
“The fuck!” I lunge forward, try to grab the keys from him but he holds his arm away from me.
“Then let me go get Michael.”
“You can’t drive, Brian, you can’t even walk.”
“Can drive in my sleep,” I insist. I’m concentrating on enunciating clearly.
“You can’t drive unconscious. You’re going to be unconscious any minute.”
I start to deny it, but then I realize it’s true. “Hurry,” I say, “Sit down.” He keeps an arm leaning on me so I don’t slip to the ground, gets the door open, and somehow together we get me inside, or most of me, my right leg insists on staying outside. It’s in the gutter, it does not want to come home with us. I watch with detached interest as he struggles to lift the leg, bend it, and get the foot on the floor of the jeep. “Good-bye,” I say, but I’m not talking to the foot. It’s gotten suddenly dark, dark, I feel my head tilt sideways and I’m gone.
…crash and burn…
Somebody calling me.
“Brian, wake up!”
Must be morning. Late for work. Try to get my eyes open as I stretch out on the bed. Except I’m not in bed, I’m in a chair. My eyes finally open. Not a chair, a car seat. I’m sitting in the jeep in my garage.
“What?” He’s talking to me, I can’t hear him. “What?”
“Brian, you have to help me, I can’t carry you, do you think you can stand up?”
I’m starting to wake up, and I remember that Justin drove me home in my jeep. He’s not allowed to drive my jeep, I’m going to give him hell. Later. Right now I have to think about moving my legs, but they aren’t paying attention.
“Can sleep here,” I decide, and nod my head. Fuck, I forgot not to nod my head, my eyes cross and the garage swirls around me in a kaleidoscope of silvery chrome and orange bricks and suddenly I’m gonna puke. “Not in the car,” I tell me, and manage to lean over the side and throw up onto the cement floor. I’m leaning over the side at a dangerous angle, but the kid is holding on to me, preventing me from falling face-first into my own puddle of puke.
Somehow Justin pulls me out of the jeep, and even though my feet are not connected to my brain, we manage to sidestep the vomit and he gets his arm around my waist again. Like some freakshow slow-motion three-legged race, we tipple and topple through the garage and finally arrive at the elevator. He pushes me against the wall and holds me there till the elevator arrives, and push-pulls me inside. I want to slide to the floor, I really need to sit down, but he says, “No, I’ll never get you up again!” and he leans on me to keep me upright in the corner.
Unlocking the door and sliding it open, Justin maneuvers me through it and across an expanse of polished floor, and somehow gets me up the three steps to my bedroom. I can see the bed now and I’m tilting toward it, but “Do you need to puke again?” he asks, and that sounds like a good idea. He gets me pretty close to the toilet before I let go, at least we’re in the bathroom, tile is easy to clean, then he heads me back to the bedroom and helps me fall onto the bed. “Goodbye again,” I say politely, and immediately the lights go out, I’m blessedly unconscious.
‘Blessedly’ being an accurate word, because consciousness next day is anything but blessed. Morning sun, like a deadly laser light show, streams through the tall living room windows to find me and stab me in the eyes. My head is lying across a chopping block and Daffy Duck, or maybe it’s Bugs Bunny, keeps hitting it with an enormous cartoon-size hammer. Blam-blam-blam-blam. Blam-blam-blam-blam.
It’s the door, it’s somebody blamming on my door. Fuck. I try to ignore it, but they won’t go away. If I can’t stop them blamming, the noise is going to kill me. I slide out of bed and wobble to the door, holding my incredibly painful head. I slide back the door before I realize that I’m naked. Luckily it’s Lindsay. Well, it had to be somebody with the outside security code, anybody who has my security code has seen me naked, and anyway, who cares.
“Oh Gus, don’t look at Da-da,” Lindsay cheerfully instructs the wriggling bundle in her arms.
“He’s seen me naked,” I tell her scornfully, but she’s got an answer.
“Who cares about naked, I don’t want him to see what a disgusting drunk looks like, the morning after.”
“Hunh,” I say, but she’s got a point. I can smell myself, I smell like sweat and puke and whiskey, God knows what I look like. “If you’re staying a while, let me grab a shower, I feel like death.”
“Go ahead, Brian, I’ll make coffee.”
”Thanks, Lindz.” I mean it. She’s a woman in a million. She’s the only woman, besides Deb, that I can even tolerate. Well, Cynthia’s not so bad. But that’s about it. So I’m a misogynist, tant pis.
The shower helps, as usual I turn it up as hot as possible, I can’t do that when Justin’s with me, it burns his skin. Justin. Justin brought me home last night. I glance toward the toilet and realize that he’s cleaned up my vomit, I remember missing the toilet by a wide margin. Jesus, he must love me, after all. I towel off, brush my teeth, and grab my silk robe from the closet, pad barefoot to the kitchen, gratefully sniffing fresh-brewed coffee.
“Are you okay?” Lindsay asks as she hands me a cup. I take a sip, she’s remembered to put in a couple spoonfuls of sugar.
“I don’t know,” I answer, “What day is it?”
“Thank God, I don’t have to work.”
Lindsay laughs. “You’d be about three hours late, it’s noon.”
So that’s where Justin is, he has the Saturday morning shift at the diner.
She goes on, “You were very rude at Vic’s party.”
Taking a deep drink of hot coffee and enjoying the burn going down my throat, I nod at her over the rim of the cup. “Sorry.” She’s right. I need to go see Vic sometime this weekend. And thank Deb for the dinner.
“Brian. . .” Lindsay hesitates, throws a glance at Gus sitting in his porta-playpen in the living room. He’s happily chewing the ear of a teddy bear and watching cartoons with the sound turned down low.
“Brian. . . are you okay? What’s up with you lately? Are you just upset because Michael’s leaving, or is it more than that?”
“I told Michael to go,” I say truthfully, without answering her question. “He should be with David. He’s happy with David.”
“So it IS more than that.” She’s not letting me off the hook; not much gets by Lindz.
“Are you having second thoughts about moving to New York?” she guesses.
“I’m fine,” I say, cutting her off, getting up to pour another cup. “More?” She shakes her head no so I put the pot back, reach for the sugar bowl and pour a stream into my cup and return to perch on the stool.
“Brian,” she tries again, “I know this is none of my business, but – “
“You’re right,” I tell her. I’m not sure what she’s going to say, but I’m positive I don’t want to hear it.
“But!” she goes on, leaning across the counter to lay a hand on my arm. “But I have to speak up anyway. It’s about Justin – “
“Fuck!” I pull my arm away, stand up and walk around the counter, and stand glaring at her, daring her to continue.
Lindz is not intimidated by my annoyance; never has been. “Can’t you take Justin to New York with you?” she asks, then ignores my angry exclamation and goes on, “There are several good art schools there, and – “
“Jesus Christ, Lindz!”
I shake my head in amazement. She knows me so well, how can she even suggest that shit? “How can you even suggest that shit?” I demand, walking close to glare into her eyes. “Don’t you fucking know he’s one of the reasons I want to leave?”
It’s true. I didn’t realize it until I heard myself saying it, but it’s true, all right.
Smiling, Lindsay answers quietly, “Of course I know that. You’re so terrified of being in love with him, you’d move to Bora-Bora to get away.”
Now I’m calm. Now I can be calm. “You know I don’t believe in that love shit. You’ve know me for ten years, Lindsay, you know better.”
She nods. “Yes. But ‘believing in love,' and ‘falling in love,’ are two different things, Bri.”
Well, she’s wrong. She’s fucking wrong. All I can do is walk away from her. I join Gus in the living room. He turns and catches sight of me, and his face lights up in a huge smile of welcome. My heart lurches in my chest. “Da-da!” he screeches, and despite the pain of my splitting headache, I smile back at him, bend over and pick him up. His tiny arms go around my neck and the feel of his wriggling soft babyness in my arms is almost too much to bear. He smells like baby powder and graham crackers.
“Ma-ma!” he greets Lindsay with another screech in my ear as she carries her coffee cup into the living room and joins us. Lindz is Ma-ma. Mel is Me-me. Justin is Jus-jus. Gus loves Jus-jus. Lindz loves Jus-jus. Everybody loves Jus-jus. Everybody but me.
I do not fucking love him. I do not fucking believe in love. Period. And even if I did. . .even if I did. . .
The loft door slides open suddenly with a loud bang, we all jump and turn to stare at the new arrival: Justin.
"Sorry," he says, looking embarrassed, "The door got away from me." His arms are full: Backpack, sketchpad, take-out bags, and a tall paper cup from my expresso kiosk.
"Justin!" Lindsay greets him with a smile, "Jus-jus!" the baby cries, he's trying to climb over my shoulder like a monkey, reaching out one eager arm.
Lindsay hurries over to unburden Justin, he drops his backpack and sketchpad on the floor and smiles uncertainly at me. "You're up."
"You noticed." Sarcasm erupts from me automatically, and his face flushes. Sometimes even I can't believe my own meanness. I'm sorry, but I can't say it. Instead I say, "Here, I'll trade you a baby for that latte."
"I guess you don't need it," he's glancing at the coffee pot in the kitchen and the cup in Lindsay's hand.
"I desperately need it," I assure him. I don't, I'm already feeling sick from the regular brew. He gives me the cup and takes Gus in both hands, raising the baby over his head and jiggling him, both of them grinning ear to ear. Gus laughs and Justin kisses his fat little cheek and crooks his arm for the baby to sit against him.
"Have you had breakfast?" he asks, raising his eyebrows.
"God, no." The smell of cooked food emanating from the bags is almost enough to send me over the edge. "I really can't eat now, Justin."
"Okay." He puts the bags in the refrigerator. "Would you like some Tylenol?"
I shake my head no. "When I'm sure I can keep coffee down, Tylenol is next."
"Well boys," Lindsay interrupts in her cheeriest voice, "Gus and I have errands to run this afternoon, we'll be on our way." Justin hands her Gus, and she comes over to give me a kiss, and tells Gus to kiss Da-da, which he does, a big wet one. Justin helps her put Gus' jacket on while she shrugs on her own, and in a moment they are gone.
"Do you want me to stay or go?" Justin asks.
I'm standing in the middle of the kitchen, sipping latte I don't want, feeling sicker by the moment. "Go."
I can tell he's disappointed, but the last thing I want when I'm feeling this bad is a nursemaid hovering around me. He nods okay and bends down to pick up his bag. I sigh and set the cup on the counter and walk over to him, take the bag from his hand and drop it on the floor. Then I slip my arms around his waist and pull him tight against me. He looks up at me, those beautiful blue eyes searching my face for something. What?
"Thanks," I force myself to say. Why is it so hard to say thank you, I wonder?
He smiles at me then and nods, says, "Any time," and nods again, as if taking care of a drunken asshole is no big deal.
I hesitate, then ask, "You going to Babylon tonight?"
"Good," I say. "See you then."
Shit, that sounds like a date. I want to tell him it's not a date. I want to tell him, it's no guarantee he's coming home with me afterwards. And yet. . .and yet. . .I want him to come home with me afterwards. Or anyway, I think so. But only because he's one hell of a great fuck. No deeper reason than that.
He's smiling, and I can tell he wants to kiss me, but he doesn't, he pulls away and zips up his jacket, reaches for his bag and sketchbook and heads for the door. I follow him there and pull it open for him, and he heads down the stairs. By the time he reaches the third step, I say, "Justin, wait." He stops and looks up at me. "Come here a minute."
He looks at me questioningly, comes back up the steps, and I reach out my hand to grasp the back of his neck, pull his face toward me, and we kiss. I'm feeling too sick to make it a good one, but the smile on his face when I let go of his neck says he enjoyed it anyway.
"Later," I say, and his smile widens.
"Later," he agrees, and then he heads back down the stairs, and once he's out of sight I can hear him singing some off-key song that sounds like, "Be-boom be-boom be-boom be-boom." It makes me smile, but only briefly, because here comes the coffee, and the latte, and I don't even have time to shut the door, I have to run for the bathroom as fast as I can.