by David Shames
Narrated by Bob Eccles
The part of James’ character I hated the most was his awful trend of duplicity. It was not the talking behind peoples’ backs which got to me (because everybody does that), it was the fact that the people whom he would pillory were the same people that twenty minutes earlier he had insisted were his best friends. I have a memory of James at a party, speaking with one group of people, lampooning another, finishing his beer, walking over to the group he had just finished shit-talking, criticizing his former audience. Everybody laughed at the jokes. I laughed at James. You might call me a cynic for sitting at a party and analyzing peoples’ behavior. I guess the main reason I didn’t drop him as a friend was that I was too weak to face the solitude of my thoughts. So without failure, I called him up every Friday night.
It was one particular Friday at the end of June, a day in which right as the sun was setting the temperature dropped about twenty degrees, so it was almost chilly out, but the air wasn’t biting like the same temperature in the spring, dense with the remnants of winter. The air was clean and crisp and the street lights glared unnecessarily. The grass flaunted its bold green coat as if it knew that it only had a month or less before the summer sun would scorch the earth into a lifeless plain. As I stepped out of my house to drive to the park on such a Friday to meet James and imbibe piss-warm, week-old Bud Lights, I absorbed my favorite portrait of the world using all possible senses. I knew it was going to be a bad night.
The crispness of the air at the park was sharply contrasted by the flavor of the beer we were forcing ourselves to drink, but with a chaser of the Charles River winking at me in the twilight, the beer was not so bad. I knew it was going to give me that (parallel to the taste) stale drunk feeling. That was my favorite feeling of drunk. We sat on our bench, swilling the scenery.
“So, how’ve the ladies been, Ben?”
“Ask your mother.”
The sun, failing to conquer the day, drowned in oblivion on the horizon. It was finally dark. James spoke again. “The reason I brought it up was because Julia is coming into town tonight.” I didn’t respond. “She’s coming here, bro, to hang out with me. And you too. She says she knows about some party.”
I forgot to mention that I live perpetually imbalanced on the edge of a cliff. All I require is a slight push to fall into the turbulent waters below. It’s a lot like sitting in a car with the engine running and a tube inside the exhaust snaking deliciously into a cracked rear window. It’s carbon monoxide poisoning. You can’t taste it, smell it, feel it, but you know it’s there, suffocating you. It fills you up from the inside and storms through your body, silent, emotionless. It has no pain or remorse as it drowns you in your pain and remorse. It kills you but you’re not blessed with death.
And then, of course, there is Julia. I despise everything associated with her life. And at the same time, of course, I could not get rid of Julia, as she was someone who could show you with a few darting words that her potential to love was equally as untapped as her never-ending geyser of bullshit. For kindness’ sake, let’s also add that her capacity to love was, well, diverse.
I had been sitting on the bench, mute for about ten minutes, before I staggered out from the depths. Julia and James were embracing in the park twenty yards away. I shut my eyes and thought about my months with Julia, months free from plunging into the whirlpool. No, I was not drowning when I was with her. She was just securing my feet in cement. She came over.
“You haven’t changed, Ben. You’re alone.”
“There are only two guys here.” She gave me a look that rivaled the gorgon sisters.
“Don’t worry, we’re headed to a party. Plenty of men.”
“You want a ride?”
“I’ll get one from James.”
Upon first glance the party seemed predictable. Women looking for attention, men reciprocating with gestures of kindness that reeked of a distinct agenda, all facilitated by a certain type of courage measured in blood-alcohol-concentration. When we arrived I went up to the host and asked him for his oldest triple malt scotch, neat. Puzzled, he divulged apologetically that there was only wine and beer. I hate wine and I was sick of beer so I went out to my car and extracted a mostly full bottle of anonymous Irish whisky from my glove compartment. I passed Julia falling over a different anonymous figure on my way out.
I went back in and sat on a couch. I took a swig with the conviction of a fireman dueling an immortal blaze, and then passed the bottle to whomever was on my right. With each orbit the bottle made, my esophagus was simultaneously warmed and chilled, striking a sort of harrowing balance between fulfillment and abyss. I joked to myself that the chilliness was just my soul. Then Julia interrupted my fun.
“I want to go.” She was crying.
“Why? I’m sure you haven’t fucked everyone yet.”
“Ben . . .” She trailed off.
I grabbed my keys and Julia and walked over to the host and I told him that the Bordeaux was excellent, but I suggested that pairing it with a Camembert cheese next time might complement it nicely. Julia’s tears broke like a fever into faint suggestions of a smirk. We got into my car and I sped off to her house, driving masterfully considering my condition. We stopped in front of her house. I climbed out of the driver’s seat and walked around the car to get into the backseat next to her. I was spinning in a disconnected reality, intoxicated with a cocktail of waning and waxing desire. Neither of us said anything for a long while. Then she shattered the silence.
“I wish I hadn’t gotten so drunk tonight. I do silly things when I get so—”
“Oh, shut up.” We were silent again. I was sinking. I rolled down the window slightly. “Julia.” I left the word lingering like a sheepish offering.
“I love you.” Silence.
Suddenly sober, she asked, “Do you mean that, Benjamin?”
I sat pensively for a moment. “No.”
“Then why did you say it?”
“I don’t know.” I could tell she was looking for more. I was drowning. I rolled the window all the way down.
“Benjamin, tell me something true. You owe it to me to tell me something that’s real.” Silence. Drowning. I thought. I was hot and claustrophobic. After a moment, I removed my gaze from hers and looked out the open window.
“Julia, I’m sorry about everything. Being with you was a gift, and I know you’re never supposed to look a gift-whore in the mouth.” An overwhelming crescendo of nausea.
“You’re drunk!” She sounded genuinely surprised. “You’re slurring your words and you’re being sick. I thought what you spoke was true and real and lovely but you are a lying drunk, Benjamin! And you should have let me drive.”
“No,” I said defensively. Then, more calmly, “I only tell the truth when I’m drunk.”
“Did you mean what you said?”
“Yeah.” Sweat. Cracked leather. Messy. Good.
I left her on the walkway. I could feel her dark eyes caressing the back of my car as I drove towards the park. I invented a parking spot on the sidewalk, walked out onto the field and lay down. The grass was alive and wet with dew. No longer was I vomiting, but I guess I was still sick. I decided I should go home and began to walk back to my car. The pink sun began to peek out from the riverbed’s shelter. I felt warm and I could breathe. Happiness is a condition of the soul and an elusive plague of the mind, I reminded myself. I left my car behind and walked home with the sun illuminating my path.
BIO: David Shames is a recent graduate of UVM. His writing has appeared in venues such as Vantage Point, Fender Stitch and The Vermont Cynic. Currently he writes a column for Hampton Sheet Magazine and lives in NYC.