I was standing outside the church, smoking a cigarette, and once again, George showed up in his sweatshirt and jeans. I felt a surge of gratitude for him. Knowing I could call him had kept me sober for these few days. As he shook my hand, he looked me steadily in the eye with his grey-blue eyes as if he had nothing to hide. I had to look away.
“How are you coming along?” he said.
“Actually, I feel pretty good. Staying sober.”
“That’s great, James. A lot of guys feel good right off the bat…for a little while at least. This is not the time to let your guard down. This is a devil of a disease, something you must take one day at a time.”
“To be honest, I’m not even sure I have a problem. I feel like this should be harder.”
“You’re really the only one who can answer that, but can I ask you something? What made you come to the meeting yesterday?”
When I arrived at home, Amy was cooking dinner. She did not seem to notice me coming in, so I went into the kitchen to say hello. She did not look up.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Nothing much. I just told someone that I was in love with them, and they stomped all over my heart. No big deal.”
I went to the cabinet out of habit to pour a drink and found it empty. It occurred to me that this could be harder than I expected. I needed some relief.
“You don’t want to be in a relationship with me, Amy.”
“I’m already in a relationship with you, James.”
“You know what I mean.”
She went quiet and stirred the chili on the stove.
“Look, I need to make a call,” I said.
I grabbed a pack of cigarettes and my lighter, went outside, and started looking for my phone contacts for George. I found it, but I hesitated. It was around dinner time; I didn’t want to disturb him. Instead, I lit a cigarette and took a few drags, hoping for some sort of relief. I hadn’t smoked all day, and the buzz came on strong, but it didn’t last. It wasn’t the same. I thought of the pills and realized that I hadn’t thrown them away with the booze. My arm had pretty much healed, and I was no longer in any pain from the accident, but it was medicine. How could medicine be bad? I thought, but even in my thinking, I could see the flaw. These were the same pills that got me into the hospital just days before. I finished up my cigarette and stamped it out on the sidewalk, then walked inside. Amy was not in the kitchen. I found the bottle of pills, and there were only a few left. Not enough to do any significant damage. I thought hard for a moment about what it would feel to take them. It would take the edge off my discomfort; give me some relief.
“So she just kissed you? Out of the blue?” said Zach as we found our seats on the bus.
“Yeah, it caught me off guard.”
“But she hasn’t said a word to you since,” he said.
“Right. I don’t really know what this means. I mean, does this mean she wants to get back together?”
“It’s gonna happen, James. She’s just testing the waters. Think about it. We had just sung one of the best performances any of us had ever sung, and she wanted to share that with you. That definitely means something. Like she said, you’re her person.”
“Do you think I should go try to talk to her?” I said.
“Naw, let her come to you. She’s taking her time. She asked for space, remember?”
We were quiet most of the rest of the way back to Norman. I watched the flat landscape of north-central Oklahoma roll by and began to feel a melancholy that I often felt at the end of momentous trips. I laid my head against the window. It was cool, and it calmed me, and I began to think about the kiss. I had not kissed her since the summer before my junior year.
The Librium was supposed to prevent me from experiencing some of the side effects of alcohol detox, but I was still having terrible shakes, sweating, and nausea. Amy had not left my side. She said little but tended to me. She brought me chocolate malt milkshakes to ease the discomfort from the lack of sugar in my body, which the alcohol had caused me, and slow my weight loss. She wiped my hot forehead with cool, damp rags. She read to me about AA.
The next morning, a knock came. Amy met Kyra at the door and let her in.
“Hey,” said Kyra, tilting her head and giving me a sincere look of sympathy. “How’s the patient?”
“Amy,” I said, “Can you give us a moment?”
I wasn’t sure how she would respond to this, given her declaration of love to me. I worried she might be jealous of Kyra, but instead, she gave Kyra a tight hug, said, “Thank you,” and left closing the door behind her.
I knew that there was no point in trying to go after her. If Amy didn’t want to be found, I wouldn’t be able to find her. I poured a tall drink of blended scotch. My single malt was too expensive to do what I intended to do.
I paced the living room for a few minutes, drinking, and fretting. I was debating whether I should have told her about her dad, but I always came to the same conclusion: it was not my information to withhold. Besides, she was probably right: he would go after her, and I could not stand the idea of that man abusing her. I would fight for her.
I picked up the blanket she had been sleeping with and took a deep whiff of it. Her scent was still on it. I ached. For a month, she’d been ever-present in my life. I had even begun to hope that we might have a good Christmas together. Christmas had been my favorite holiday since I was a child, but the thought of Christmas without Laura had been haunting me, and Amy had eased that a little.
The BART took me within a fifteen-minute cab ride to Heath’s apartment in Fremont, where there was a large Indian community. His apartment complex was modest but by no means a dump. As I climbed the stairs to his third-level apartment, I was overwhelmed by the fragrance of cumin, turmeric, ginger, onions, and garlic. The hour-long train ride had not done much for my appetite.
I was greeted at the door by a young, pudgy Indian woman in a sari. She was not unattractive, perhaps well-matched to Heath’s appearance.
“Welcome,” she said warmly, “I am Padma. You must be James. My husband has told me so much about you. Come in,” she said very formerly.
“Thank you; it’s lovely to finally meet you. Dinner smells delicious.”
“You like it? Do you eat Indian food often?” she asked as I handed her my jacket.
“Of course. Who in San Francisco doesn’t like Indian food?” I said, perhaps a little over-enthusiastically. I was feeling very anxious about the evening.
“Please have a seat wherever you like. Can I bring you some tea? You must be tired from the train.”
Her hospitality touched me in small-part. I did not generally drink tea, but it sounded like something that could settle my stomach. “If it’s not too much trouble.”
Laura and I decided to break up the spring of our senior year of high school. She had chosen to go to a small private college in St. Louis, and I would be staying in Oklahoma to study computer science. We wouldn’t write or call. That was the deal. But we would reconnect in the summers–no questions asked. Summer became my favorite season.
It was the week after our junior year in college, 1995. I had totaled my Ford Festiva out in front of my bank a week before. Bijan said he would get his dad to cut me a deal at the dealership where he worked. My dad and I drove up to the city to look around the lot. Much to my father’s disapproval, I intended to by a pickup truck. I felt that I would be moving around a lot in my twenties and might benefit from it. He had never owned a pickup truck and didn’t like unknowns when it came to a large purchase like a vehicle.
We had fallen into a routine of morning coffee and newspaper. I no longer questioned her presence in my apartment and my life. She was a part of my existence now. She was filling a piece of a large hole in my life. What piece, I did not know.
I heard her shuffling to the bathroom as I sipped my coffee and opened the paper to the Arts and Entertainment section. Something I saw gave me an idea.
“Amy?” I called out. There was no answer. I walked toward the hallway and called again, “Amy?”
“Please don’t,” she said softly and sullenly from behind the door.
“Talk to me while I’m taking a shit.”
“Oh. Sorry. There’s just something–”
“And yet you’re still talking.”
I supposed that my idea could wait a few minutes. I sat down again and studied the paper. I pulled out my phone to see what my evening was like. Nothing planned–as if I ever had anything planned.
As a child, people called me Lucky. I had an uncanny knack for finding money everywhere I went–quarters, dollar bills, fives, and, on three separate occasions, twenties–which drove my older brother Mike absolutely crazy.
One time, at the county fair, I had found two twenty-dollar bills, one under a flattened popcorn box in front of the ring toss and one on the floor of a port-a-potty. 40 bucks! Mike never had in his life found anything higher than the fifty-cent piece he had found waiting in line to ride the elephants at the circus two years before.
“One of those twenties is mine!” Mike had shouted at me on the way home, sobbing, superman t-shirt stained with vomit. “I was going to use that port-a-potty, and you went first!”
I woke up with a throbbing arm and a head that felt as if a brick had smacked it. I rang for the nurse. I examined my arm. It was braced in a sling and resting on my stomach. I touched my head with my free hand and found a bandage covering a rather large bump.
“Mr. Roberts, has anyone talked to you?” asked the nurse as she swept into the room. She had wide hips and droopy brown eyes. She checked my IV and had me sit up while she fluffed my pillow.
“Uh. No, I just woke up.”
“Ok. Mr. Roberts, you’ve been in a car accident, ok?”
“Yeah,” I moaned, “I figured.”
“You’ve been unconscious for just a few hours, ok? We’ve already set your arm, so you don’t need to worry about that. And you’ve suffered a concussion. We’ll be keeping you overnight, ok? I’ll be back with your meds, and I’ll let your daughter know that you’re awake.”