Chapter 21

(2007)

Amy and I arrived at Sears Fine Foods before Kyra and ordered a basket of calamari.

“So this is like octopus?” she said when it arrived.

“No, squid.”

She grimaced and said, “Are they like…tentacles?”

“Yes, but taste one. It’s delicious. Here,” I said, squeezing lemon juice over the calamari and grabbing one. It was crisp and steaming hot. “Dip it in the marinara sauce like this,” I said, dipping and stuffing it hungrily into my mouth. “Oh my God, that is really good.”

She made a yucky face but picked out a small piece, dipped it, looked at it for a moment, then nibbled it. Her face changed into a hopeful raise of the eyebrows, and she popped the rest into her mouth. “That shit’s pretty good,” she said after swallowing and grabbing for another.

“Trust your Uncle James,” I said.

Just then, Kyra arrived. I took her in for a moment. She was wearing a purple velvet dress to match her violet hair and a black ribbon around her neck. There was something about the ribbon that made me take a closer look at her. She smiled and made a gesture for me to scooch over in the booth. As she sat down in the booth, Amy gave me a very sullen look and grabbed another bit of calamari, but she didn’t eat it right away; she played with it and pulled it apart.

“Mmmmm Calamari,” said Kyra grabbing a piece for herself.”

“How was work?” I asked.

“Oh, you don’t want to know. There was this asshole who’d had a little too much to drink, and—I don’t even want to get into it. Just glad my shift is over. Glad you asked me to dinner.” She crinkled her nose and reached her hand across the table toward Amy stopping short of touching her and said, “And how are you? How was your day?”

“No assholes at work, at least,” she said, giving me a hard look.

“Oh, that’s good,” said Kyra, politely, “Do you like the work?”

“Bringing people coffee?” she said, “Oh, it’s soooo very meaningful. I love getting stiffed and having aching feet at the end of the day.”

“Ok,” said Kyra, her smile breaking into a look of puzzlement. “Anyway, we’re all here, and I’m really hungry, so…have you guys ordered?”

“Nope,” I said. “We wanted to wait for you.”

“Oh, well that’s sweet,” she said, smiling again.

“Good luck getting James not to order for you,” said Amy.

“Well, it’s not exactly like that,” I said, “It’s just that I already happen to know what the best thing on the menu is.”

“Oh?” said Kyra, “Well, then I’ll have whatever that is!”

The waiter approached us holding three menus and said, “Hello! Welcome to Sears. Have you dined here with us?”

“Yes, and we’ll have three filet mignons cooked medium rare.”

“Hold on there, ace,” said Amy. “Maybe I want something else.”

“Ok, do you want to look at a menu?” I asked, and the waiter began to hand her one.

“No, dammit,” she said, shaking her head, “I’ve been craving one of these suckers for a month.” Then she turned to the waiter and said, “Extra butter, please.”

“Very good, ma’am. And what would everyone like to drink?”

“Oh, a dirty martini,” said Kyra, but then looking at me she said, “Actually—”

“No, no,” I said, “you get whatever you want.”

“Are you sure?” she whispered.

“Yes, it’s not a problem. I promise.”

“Ok then,” she said. “Martini.”

“And I’ll have a club soda with lime,” I said, feeling a little bit the martyr.

He turned to Amy, who said, “I’ll have the martini, as well.”

The waiter looked at me, and I shook my head.

“Perhaps, something non-alcoholic?” he said.

She scoffed and said, “Whatever, just bring me a Coke.”

“Very good, ma’am.”

After the waiter left, Kyra said, “Did you go to a meeting today?”

I said, “Oh, yeah. I went to one at lunch.”

“How is that going?” she asked.

“Oh, you know. It’s going ok. Honestly, I’m not sure I really even need it. I’m doing ok on my own. I don’t think I’m as bad off as those guys.” But my mind went straight to the pills in the cabinet above the refrigerator.

“Oh,” said Kyra, pausing. “Ok.” She made a small circle in the air with her face. “It’s up to you, babe. I’ll support you.”

There was that word again: babe.

“Yeah, babe,” said Amy, mockingly, giving Kyra a smile.

“So,” I said, hoping to steer the conversation away, “We should eat this calamari before they get cold.”

“Not hungry,” said Amy, staring right at Kyra.

“Just a second ago you were stuffing your face with this stuff,” I said.

“Yeah, well, things change, don’t they, Uncle James.”

“Amy,” I said softly, “Can we not do this? Let’s just have a good dinner and enjoy ourselves. Hey,” I said, looking around, “maybe we could do a little people watching. What about that couple over there? Look at the way that guy cuts his food. I’ll bet he spent two weeks in France and thinks he’s continental. Probably puts milk in his coffee and calls it Café au Lait.”

Kyra laughed, but Amy looked at me stonily.

“Ok,” I said, losing my temper. “What is your deal? You are being very rude.”

“It’s nothing,” she said, looking away.

“No, it’s not nothing. Do you have a problem with me?” I said.

She leaned in over the basket of calamari and said, “No. I have a problem with her.” Then she sat back in her side of the booth and crossed her arms.

“Look,” said Kyra. “I don’t want to be the source of any kind of problem.”

“Well,” said Amy, “Tough shit. You know? You come in with this dress and your precious neck thingy and you’re like..oh! look at me; I have tits and hips.’”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said. “Look, can we not do this? Besides, Kyra and I are just friends.”

Then Kyra said, “You know what? I don’t need this shit. I don’t really feel like being a part of whatever this,” she said, gesturing at Amy and me, “is.” And she slid out of the booth and stood up.

“Kyra,” I said, “Come on, she’s just a kid. Just sit down and let’s just drop it, ok?”

“And what are you? Just a friend? Well whose friend do you want to be? I’m tired of being second class to you.”

I started to interrupt, but she said, “No! Yeah, you’ve got problems. She’s got problems. But you know what? We all have problems, James. But it doesn’t mean we get to treat people like shit.”

“But—” I began.

“Amy, listen to me. James is a nice guy. He is doing a nice thing for you, but he is an adult, and you are still a child. Nothing is ever going to happen. I can see very clearly that you are jealous. But you know what? I guess I’m a little jealous, too. You get to come home every night to this man and take care of him. You know what I’m doing when I’m not serving beer to assholes who grope me? I’m sitting up on Russian Hill hoping to get a text or anything from him, but maybe it’s not worth it. Maybe he’s not worth it at all!”

Then she turned around and walked out, nearly shoving the waiter as he brought us our steaks.

“Three filet mignon, medium rare, extra butter for the lady,” he said, setting the plates in front of us and Kyra’s at her empty space.

“Good riddance,” said Amy.

“You have got to let this go, Amy. I get to see whomever I want. I don’t owe you a goddamned thing.”

But she didn’t speak, she cut into her steak and began eating quietly and voraciously. We ate in silence for the rest of the meal.

Afterward, we stepped outside, and Amy lit up a cigarette.

“You shouldn’t smoke,” I said.

“Why do you care if I smoke?” she said, letting out a long stream of smoke.

“Never mind,” I said, pulling a pack out of my coat pocket and lighting up.

“You know, you look like an idiot when you smoke,” she said.

“Yeah, I know,” I said, “Picked it up late in life. Never gave a shit how I looked.”

“Are you going to call her later?” asked Amy as we turned to walk up the hill to Chinatown.

“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t think she’ll stay mad at me. You, on the other hand—”

“Dude, she’s not mad at me. She wants to be, like, your girlfriend.”

“Yeah, I know. I don’t want a girlfriend.”

“No shit.”

She surprised me by taking my hand, and we walked like that way up the next block as if I were a father holding his little girl’s hand, but not. I knew that this meant something, although I wasn’t sure what. I thought about the times I had reached out for her hand, and she had pulled it away, chastising me. But maybe she trusted me now. Maybe this had nothing to do with crushes or girlfriends. We were a pair of sorts, although what sort, I was not sure. An idea began to form out of my uncertainty, a certainty in and of itself: I loved this girl;. I thought of the man, the father who was supposed to love her, who had beaten her, and I felt something else with great certainty and ferocity: I would do anything to protect her.

“I didn’t mean what I said before—about not owing you anything,” I said. “ I actually owe you a lot. I’m not sure what would have happened to me if you hadn’t of showed up at my window.”

“Maybe I should have just kept on walking.”

“Why me?” I said.

“You were all alone like me. A runaway like me.”

“And you knew that just by bumming a cigarette from me?”

“Just a hunch.”

I squeezed her hand and let it go. “What are you going to do? You’re truant for one. Eventually, isn’t someone going to track you down? Make you go to school? Find a suitable place for you to live? Don’t you think your dad is going to find you eventually?”

“My dad doesn’t give a shit about me.”

“Maybe not.”

We walked a couple of blocks uphill in silence.

“James,” she said, stopping.

I stopped and turned to her.

“I’m sorry for being such a bitch tonight. I just have all of these feelings right now, and I don’t know what to do with them. Kyra is fine. I shouldn’t have been so rude. I mean, she saved your life.”

“I wouldn’t be any good to her, Amy. I’m not sure I’m really good for anybody right now.”

We turned back uphill and walked some more. The closer we got to my apartment, the more I thought about the pills and what they would be like with a drink of scotch. I felt a buzz just thinking about it. I wondered how long I could keep going this way. I thought about George and about Jess and what they had shared with me about powerlessness, but then I thought about how I’d never really tried to be sober. I thought that maybe if I just kept on walking, the craving would subside. Perhaps, I thought, all of this alcohol stuff would fade over time. Maybe I could even have a drink once and a while and it not be a problem.

“Text her.”

“Kyra?”

“Yeah, tell her I’m sorry. And tell her that you care about her. I know that you do.”

“I don’t know.”

“Come on. I’m not going to take another step until you do.”

I took a deep breath and pulled out my phone and texted, “Hey. About tonight. I’m really sorry, and so is Amy. I really care about you. I want you in my life; I’m just not sure what that looks like right now. Can you understand?”

But there was no reply. We’d reached Li’s, and I was thinking about my favorite scotch or anything–cheap bourbon–didn’t matter, and Amy said, “Twinkies?”

The steak had settled in my stomach, and a Twinkie sounded good enough.

“I thought you hated that shit.”

“It’s growing on me. I’ve eaten like a dozen of them since then.”

The bell rang as we walked into the convenience store. Li was stocking cans of ravioli and Vienna sausages. He stopped and said, “Ah, Mr. Roberts. Good evening.” He put down the cans and walked behind the counter. “What can I get you? I just stocked your favorite. Laphroaig, is it?”

I grabbed a couple of packets of Twinkies and dropped them on the counter. “No, thanks, just these are fine.”

“Late night cravings,” said Li to Amy.

“I love these little fuckers,” she said.

Li chuckled to himself as we left.

Outside, we unwrapped our treats and took our time with them, licking filling off our fingers as we did.

When we got back to the apartment, Amy said, “I think I’m just going to go to bed. Maybe you should sleep in a bed tonight instead of that piece of shit chair. You need some decent sleep.”

“Ok, goodnight,” I said, sinking into my chair.

When she was in her room and quiet, I went to the kitchen and poured a glass of water, and then without any conscious thought, I opened up the cabinet over the fridge and pulled out the pills. I opened them up and laid them out on the counter and counted them once more.

At that moment, my phone buzzed. I put the pills back up and pulled up the text. It was from Kyra.

“I care about you, too, James. More than you know. I want you to be happy, and if having me in your life makes you happy, then I’ll be in your life, but if having a relationship with me is going to be a problem, then I wish you would just say so, and I won’t bother you anymore.”

I studied the text for a few minutes, rereading it several times before constructing a reply.

“I’m not sure I’ll ever be happy,” I wrote and sent it, but I continued to write. “I’ve got shit in my past that can never be fixed. For now…can we just be friends and see where that takes us?”

“Yes,” she replied. “But just so you know, this friendship will always come with benefits if you want them.”

“Ok,” I wrote. “That’s good to know.”

She sent a smiley face, and I sat back down in my chair and fell asleep almost immediately.

I was five-years-old. It was a familiar scene. I was riding Uncle Ray’s tractor with my brother, Mike. It was October, and Ray was bringing in the soybeans. The tractor hit a pothole in the otherwise smooth field. I was thrown behind the left rear wheel. At the moment when the threshers should have mangled and sliced my small body, I felt arms wrap around me. I was held tightly, surrounded by a warm, shimmering light. I could see nothing but the light, so bright that it should have blinded me, but it didn’t. Instead, it filled me. I felt the light penetrate my skin and muscle and bone until every cell of my body was shimmering, vibrating, melting into the light. And then I felt a warm breath behind my left ear, someone or something was close, holding me so close that we were almost one body. Then I heard it. I heard the voice. That voice. It was both foreign and as familiar as my own voice. It was not a man’s voice, not fully human. “James,” it said, “Do not be afraid. I am with you.”

The next thing I felt was the spearmint gum in my mouth and Uncle Ray’s strong hands lifting me up in his arms, his face wet with tears.

The next morning I awoke to feelings of sadness, remorse, and deep resentment I could not explain other than the idea that I had survived. On the TV set was the angel Kyra had given me for Christmas. I thought back to the dream. I picked it up and smashed it on the floor. It was broken into three pieces.

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