I don’t post short stories here, but for completely stupid, Celebrity gossip reasons I’ve been thinking a little about love and violence and I was like, “hey, maybe people are tired of reading about the Oscars, and would prefer to read a much less controversial romantic melodrama about toxic masculinity that I wrote back in 2011 and which has nothing to do with the greater public discourse.” Admittedly unlikely as this may be, I put it up here, because, what the hell, probably not doing anything else with this one.
I have a notion that one of these days, I’ll have a different space to put stuff like this so it doesn’t bump up against essays and anecdotes or whatever else we’re calling what I put here these days. But until then, apologies.
Once again, this is fiction. Also, it is long.
The waiting room is an orchestra of ugly noises. Sniffs, snorts, smacks, coughs, the crackle of the intercom, the chirp of rubber shoes against the floor, the cries of the grateful and the grieving, the clicking of Juliet’s fingernails against the tabloid page.
I stare at the clock over the nurse’s station, having already picked the lint from my coat and bitten the skin away from my nails. I tried reading. It didn’t take.
Juliet jabs a talon at a snapshot of a bottle blonde posing on a red carpet. “Alison never had those tits when I knew her. As if that might salvage her dead career. What an unscrupulous whore.”
The old man two chairs down clucks and shakes his head. I’m not sure whether it’s the whore he finds objectionable or Juliet’s over-enthusiastic embrace of the word unscrupulous, which was perhaps introduced to her lexicon about a half hour ago by her Uncle Ducks’ Your brother is the most unscrupulous, most inappropriate, most inconvenient little fucker I’ve ever known—and which Juliet has used at least a dozen times since
She tosses the magazine into the chair beside her and gives a sigh worthy of its own dressing room.
“Where are the fucking doctors in this fucking place?”
Juliet smells like perfume bottle broken on a barroom floor and is high on at least three different kinds of semi-legal drugs, but she looks like a Botticelli Venus. She’s never invisible; when I’m with her, I cannot disappear. Nor can I keep myself from blushing and squirming and drowning in mute embarrassment at her volume.
“I could have a cigarette,” she says.
I don’t offer. She’ll refuse it and hope I’ll bully her into it. To do anything, Juliet requires hazing. It’s what happens when you’re a fragile fucking flower raised in a thicket of thugs. She might have been speaking of her family, or the city of Los Angeles, from whence she recently relocated, or the entertainment industry in general. I never asked. She did, however, repeat the phrase thicket of thugs three or four more times before she caught on that I was laughing. “Don’t get too giggly. You’re dating the biggest thug I know.”
Her brother, Gabriel. This was and is still true. I look at the clock.
“Did you hear what I said about the cigarette?”
I yank at the zipper on my bag and point to the open pack inside.
“Don’t you want someone to come with you?” she asks.
“I just smoked,” I say. “And technically I’ve quit.”
She sulks so hard her chair shudders petulantly. Juliet knows no emotion without physical manifestation. It’s a family trait, I guess, as evidenced by our presence here in the purgatory of a 3am ER, awaiting final word from the doctors trying to save the life of a loud-mouthed, half-time sommelier that earlier tonight provoked the biggest thug Juliet and I know to monstrous violence. Gabriel is getting a cat scan. Even the hospital believes he must be brain damaged. After all, how could anyone be so reckless as to commit murder over a sidelong comment, a slip of the tongue, a slight of such borderline offensiveness that even Victorian church ladies wouldn’t waste a blush, a stupid word, a single syllable, a slut. And why was it so offensive? Because of its snide delivery? Because it was kind of true? Because it was directed at a drunk, married woman draped all over the man that shares my bed?
I won’t be drawing attention to that part of the story. My dumb, reflexive loyalty to the possible murderer in Exam Room 2 overwhelms the insult of infidelity. I’m not outraged. I’m not even really hurt by it. I’m petty and superficial. I’m far more concerned about the possibility that I may be dating a killer than the fact of the killing itself.
“But it’s not the violence itself that bothers me. There’s something appealingly atavistic about it. It’s that what provokes the violence is so . . . so trivial.” This is what I said to Juliet, twelve weeks ago, the last time we found ourselves in a waiting room together.
That night she’d given me the same vacant stare that managed to convey both pity and contempt “What you’re saying is that you’d prefer a caveman with principles,” she said.
“Is that fucked up?” I asked.
“It’s only fucked up to ask. But if you’re asking me, nothing ruins sex and violence like morality.”
It was a psychopath’s answer, but I didn’t say so. I was the one sleeping with a psychopath, after all. Even then, I thought I might wring a drop or two of righteousness from the spray of spit and blood staining last week’s sidewalk or tonight’s barroom floor. I might make a reasonable case for one of those leading man qualities Gabriel believes he possesses. Honor and chivalry and loyalty instead of cruelty and ugliness and waste.
But Gabriel leaves waste everywhere he goes. His waste is insidious, toxic and impervious to conventional clean up. He’s like a human Superfund site.
“It’s a good thing Gabriel has plenty of money.” The man affectionately called Uncle Ducks says and steps back the waiting room. He is red-eyed and trembling; his fingers chalky from the large-sized bottle of antacids he’s been pulling from his overcoat pocket since arrival. He has thrice been reprimanded by the nurse in charge for using his cell phone and twice come back inside cursing the winter and Gabriel for running afoul of the law at the darkest hour, on the coldest night of the darkest, coldest month of the year. He is not, to my knowledge, biologically related to either Juliet or her brother.
I groan, seasick with anxiety. Ducks notes and pours a couple of antacid tablets into my hand.
“Do these actually help?” I ask.
“I have better things,” says Juliet.
Uncle Ducks moves Juliet’s bag to another chair and pats her hand. “Why don’t we save those for a more private venue, sweetheart.”
“We’re in a goddamn hospital, Arthur. Everybody is on drugs.”
I hear the rustle of magazines and pray for a competing emergency.
“Juliet, why don’t you do us a favor and pick up another pack of cigarettes. Maybe have one yourself before you come back in.” Ducks wags a twenty-dollar bill at her.
“I don’t appreciate being ordered around,” she says, but stands and leaves anyway.
He sits down beside me. I draw my knees together. The edge of Uncle Ducks’ camel overcoat brushes my hand. I listen to the sound of two nurses chatting at the desk. I have a novel in my bag. I doubt I could make it through a page.
“You have somebody you can call?”
Uncle Ducks faces away from me. His voice is so distracted and soft, he has to repeat himself before I know he’s talking to me.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because Gabriel is going to get arrested regardless of whether or not that other kid pulls through. And I don’t know how much you know about Gabriel’s past—“
“This isn’t the first time I’ve been here.” I weight here so he’ll get that I mean more than this hospital. Though, in fact I have literally been to this emergency room not three months ago and sat in a different chair across the room alone and scowled and wrote epic imaginary break-up letters. But Gabriel came shuffling out, knuckles bandaged, the left hand side of his face a swollen muddle of the visible spectrum, he apologized. And I fell into his arms and forgave him because I love him and I’m incredibly stupid and very weak.
“I’m very sorry,” says Ducks.
“There’s still a chance it might come out okay, though,” I say. “I mean, you told Juliet—“
“It’s my impression that you’re a lot smarter than Juliet. “ He pats my hand. “Be a smart person.”
A doctor in scrubs enters the waiting room and nods at us.
“Gabriel’s in recovery,” he says. “You can see him if you want.”
Uncle Ducks sits up, fiddles with the cuff of his sweatshirt. “The other man that was brought in tonight. Justin Wallace?”
The doctor narrows his eyes. He’s attractive, I think, in a tidy, conscientious round-spectacled sort of way. A smart person would love a man like that instead of a man like Gabriel.
“We’ll let you know when we know.” The doctor points me to the door.
I hesitate, the tile weaving beneath my feet. I’m sure I should have had more coffee, or perhaps more liquor. I feel my knees buckle. A sense of airlessness. I wonder if Uncle Duck’s candy pills have been dosed with something antagonistic to gravity
Once upon a time when it was almost Christmas and wouldn’t stop snowing and I was new to the city, young, enfeebled by underemployment and the accompanying debt and depression. I spent my days in bed staring at the pigeon feather winter sky through a tenement window and my nights smoking cigarettes on the icy rooftop, considering the twinkling, distant fantasy of Manhattan from across the East River. Wrapped in blankets, I imagined myself heir to whatever consumptive immigrant had once inhabited my apartment in the era of robber barons, bowler-hatted Bowery toughs, and unhappily betrothed heiresses in bustles and picture hats. I set aside unpaid bills and unfinished cover letters in favor of imagining myself into a Gilded Age tableau, wherein my imminent poverty was picturesque and tragic, not at all like the expanding dull ache of the thing that kicked me awake in the early dawn and kept me as shivery and insecure as the cute, but woefully insufficient winter coat I bought on discount before I understood what cold actually felt like when you have to live in it.
When I went out, it was mostly through the largesse of my roommate and her cadre of rich art school friends or the professionally employed friends of classmates from my far less glamorous southern state university. We met at dive bars, where they came to nurse cheap beers and muse about their own imaginary New Yorks of the 1950s, the 1970s, the 1990s. Everyone arrived, up from the south, from the Midwest, from somewhere else, knowing that if we’d just been here five decades, five years, five minutes ago, it would have been perfect. We’d always just missed the apogee, whenever it was, and the disappointment of now was on us for being too late. But if were lucky, on the right night, in the right light, we might still catch a whiff of the good, bad old days and soak up the afterglow.
On a dirty slush of a winter weekend, three days before Christmas, I told my mother I wouldn’t be coming home for the holidays because I’d slept through my free ride south. This wasn’t entirely true. I didn’t want Florida suburbs to prove more comfortable than my squalid existence, and I was pretty sure they would. I didn’t want to explain my failure to my sisters. I worried if I left I would not be able to justify coming back, because not coming back would be reasonable. I still far too in thrall to romance to surrender to reason, which is probably why I wore my grandmother’s green satin dress into the city that afternoon. It was the color of moss with cinched waist and a gathered skirt, made for a garden party on a spring evening, not traversing Lower Manhattan in salt-ruined winter boots. I was taller than Nana, and the dress was almost too small, but I’d grown hungry enough to close the zipper, and felt perversely pleased with myself. I might be too broke to buy food but at least I was wasting into beauty.
I wandered alone through crowded sidewalks observing Christmas shoppers, people with purpose and income, as if they were a whole other species. I lingered long in the fading slant light of the Lower East Sider. At nightfall, it turned too cold to ramble and I didn’t want to go home, so I stood shivering under fire escapes of a tenement on Orchard Street texting friends with numb fingers, begging for an excuse to stay out and a tacit promise that they’d pick up the tab. But they were too busy or I was too desperate and I found myself alone at a bar on that trafficked in a seedy past, but smelled like fresh paint and served sixteen dollar pints to day traders dressed like dockworkers in cashmere beanies.
When Gabriel blew in, flushed from fight, he parted the crowd with his staggering and bled all over my dress when he leaned over the bar to order a round of whiskeys. I didn’t know where the blood came from, his busted lip or his torn knuckles, but it dripped in an arc over the shining pleats of my skirt. He reached across me for his glass and met my look of horror with a crooked smile.
He pointed the stains on my dress. “Is that mine?”
A trail of blood streaked the arm of his sweater. In his half-sneering, thin nosed, boyishness, he resembled all the rich rednecks at my hometown high school and reeked of cologne and entitlement.
He motioned to the bartender and my glass. “Improve the quality of whatever she’s drinking.” He dropped a sheaf of twenties on the bar. “That should take care of the dress. Get it cleaned or –“ He raised his eyebrows and added a hundred dollar bill to the top. “What the hell. Get yourself something nice. Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah.” He emptied his glass and signaled the bartender for a refill
I touched the bills, eyes stinging. “This dress belonged to my grandmother. She bought it in New York in 1947 for her trousseau. She gave it to me when I moved up here. This dress is an heirloom. It’s irreplaceable.”
He stared at me for long enough that I was both attracted and repelled by the milky blue of his eyes, when he finally spoke, it was softer, and without the tough swagger of his introduction. “Huh. You know, my grandpa gave me his overcoat. Bought it from a tailor before he left the city for California. Also in 1947. He hardly needed it there, so I brought it back. I still wear it sometimes.”
He reached into his pocket again. I held up my hand to object another round of bills. Even though I needed the money, it wasn’t about the money. But instead he produced a receipt, a pen and turned to write on the bar. The back of his hand was covered in scars, knuckles still bloody and raw. And I thought I’d never seen hands like that in my life. Hands like that could kill a person. Hands like that maybe already had.
He handed me the paper. There was a number. A name. Gabriel.
“Call me if you get hungry,” he said.
“Is that a metaphor?”
He shrugged. A friend of his tugged at his arm, said something about police, and he slipped off into the crowd, out into the street.
When I got home that night, I copied the number on an index card and pinned it to my stained dress, which I hung from the window sash. I studied it from my bed, I wondered what the constellation of bloodstains might augur. I considered my grandmother, clucking at me from the afterlife, you should have never worn that dress to a bar. I napped away a hangover and I woke from a dream about him late in the afternoon and found my cupboards bare, prospects grim and recalled that his eyes were the color of Nana’s hydrangeas back home.
The number was for a restaurant. Not a metaphor. I felt foolish, almost hung up before I managed to ask for him. He answered the phone brusquely, over a clatter. I swallowed a desire to apologize and told him who I was.
“That was fast,” he said and rattled off an address. “Come at ten.”
“Tonight?’ I asked.
“They’ll probably seat you at the bar, but that won’t be a problem. You’ll be dining alone.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll be cooking. Are you a vegetarian?”
“No,” I said.
“Anything else I should know?”
I swallowed and pulled he blanket over my empty stomach. “If I’m honest, I haven’t had a decent meal in days. I’m fucking starving.”
“Glorious,” he said. “Wear the dress.”
I spent the night before the night before Christmas in Nana’s blood stained dress, drinking wines out of my price range, at a restaurant I could not possible afford, watching dishes appear before me, each a delight, ending with a confection involving chocolate, thick and black as river silt. I was saddened because I could neither consume it all nor make it last. The restaurant was empty, by then, the tables stripped and the chairs empty, save waiters dawdling for a shift drink. The bartender poured me a glass of cognac and offered to call me a cab. “If it makes any difference,” he said. “The taxi is already paid for.”
“I’d like to give my compliments to the chef,” I said.
The bartender looked up from his books. “I’ll be sure he gets the message.”
I sat back, disappointed. Somewhere between courses I’d surrendered to the idea of the meal being some sort of extravagant foreplay. The salt and fat, the tang of sour and cloying sweet on my lips and tongue, the warm, heady wooze of alcohol, my full belly straining against the satin of a ruined dress had left me flushed at the idea of being further undone by Gabriel’s ruined hands. I was stung by his seeming rejection. So I emptied my glass and departed before the bartender could call the car. I heard the restaurant door lock behind me.
Outside, a fine white snow sugared sidewalks only half melted from the last storm. I knotted my scarf once again round my neck and dug in my pocket for cigarettes and gloves, as a I rounded the corner, looking for respite from the wind. I closed my eyes for dangerous second and heard steps.
When I opened them, I saw Gabriel on the sidewalk, a long dark overcoat over kitchen whites.
“I thought you’d left,” I said.
He pinched the lapel of the coat. “I wanted to show you the coat.”
“It’s nice,” I said.
“Not as nice as your dress,” he said.
“But probably warmer,” I said.
He grinned. “Probably.”
“I’ve never had a meal like that before.”
“Least I could do. Considering.” A noisy crowd pushed between us on the sidewalk. I watched them clear the block.
He drew closer. I was aware, for the first time, that he dwarfed me. With one hand, he pushed back my coat to touch the spots on my skirt.
“Any chance you’re still hungry?” he asked, so close I could smell the wet wool of his coat.
I reached out to touch his cheek, but before I really had time to contemplate, he answered for me.
Twenty-eight stitches from cheek to hairline. Right fist bound in the white gauze and plaster of an invalid’s boxing glove. He’s red-eyed and woozy from the drugs, the concussion. He flashes me the glassy-eyed broken kid smile of the willfully ignorant.
“Hello there, beautiful,” he says.
A middle-aged cop leans his chair against the wall to the side of the bed and fingermarks a page of Us Weekly. Gabriel hasn’t been arrested yet, but he will be. The delay is only a formality. The cop’s gaze lingers too long over my midsection and I feel self-conscious at my fleshy belly. I eat when I’m worried. I eat when I’m in love. I worry over a lover who brings home things to eat. Gabriel pats the side of his bed. I take about three steps into the room and the cop sighs.
“You’re close enough,” says the cop.
“What happened?” I ask.
“A crazy person attacked me and Quinn.”
I sigh. I don’t know if this is the version edited for the cop or just the way Gabriel sees it. I don’t know the rules for this. Two years we’ve been together, but I still don’t know how to have these conversations. I don’t come from people that have them. I don’t know whether the fact that may have killed a man with his bare hands will make him despair or swell with pride. I worry he doesn’t know either.
He flexes his fingers. “Good thing I’m a southpaw,” he says, voice cracking.
I shake away sympathy pains in my own hand and see his eyes go glassy. He would be warm beneath hospital blankets and I would fit right into him. I could rest my head against his chest and hear the familiar rhythm of his heartbeat. He would kiss me with his monster’s tenderness and I would be furious that I liked it. Because I need to hate him a little, because I need to believe I’m not weak, I clear my throat and ask:
“So, how long have you been sleeping with Quinn?”
I get no answer save wide-eyed, wordless guilt before a second cop emerges from around the corner of the hall.
He doesn’t have to ask. I’ve already left the room, because I don’t want to hear him arrested.
When Gabriel tells of how we met, there are choirs of angels and stars glittering. The air crackles with electricity. There are tears to accompany his blood and sweat, quite possibly a swell of violins. Gabriel takes the poetic read on pretty much any situation. It’s hard not to get caught up in it. I was, after all already emptying the sidewalks of littered oily slush and other people, and even now I edit the unsightly and inconvenient out of our origin story.
That night, though, he draped me in his grandfather’s overcoat and walked me through a city transformed, the edges rounded by snow and the peculiar dark magic of very early Christmas Eve. We wandered into the East Village in the glimmer of traffic. I swore I heard churchbells when I gave in to his restless fingers. I figured it nothing more than a one-night stand, another chapter from my unwritten romance novel. In which our impoverished heroine accompanies the bruiser home to his tenement.
But the tenement turned out to be the nicest apartment I’d seen in New York, and the roughnecked chef the dissolute son of a famed studio executive and a failed actress. Maybe if I’d been older, if it had not been a holiday, if I had not been alone and broke and hungry and bored and so stubbornly far from home, maybe if he’d been a worse lover, maybe he hadn’t been the only person I’d met in New York more committed to the fantasy than I, maybe I would have gone home.
As it was, I didn’t return to my apartment until New Year’s Day. Three weeks later, I moved in with him. By that time, I was very sure that ours was a hopeless, desperate, bound-for-misery love affair. I’d always thought I was too smart for that sort of thing, which probably made me more susceptible.
Youth might explain such folly, but I wasn’t that young. And Gabriel was thirty-odd years old with a teenager’s understanding of both love and physics. He never realized how things tended to slide toward entropy whenever he entered a room. I’m ashamed to admit I once found this appealing. He seemed the perfect antidote to a life lived split equally between stiff upper lips and affected disinterest. Gabriel could be a tyrant, a needling shit, and a one-man barbarian horde, but he bruised at a sidelong glance and loved like he’d lose me tomorrow.
I wash my hands in a restroom otherwise occupied by a sobbing woman. She’s about my age. I want to comfort her, but for all I know she might be here with Gabriel’s victim. So I offer a half-assed smile and concentrate on the shine of the porcelain sink until she shuffles out the door.
Juliet enters, all voluminous scarves and skeletal fingers. She narrows her eyes and turns off the tap water.
“You’ve got to stop washing your hands, Lady Macbeth’ she says.
Her blue eyes are quartersized and nearly inked over by pupil.
I glance at her bag.
“Ready for something real?” she asks.
Nothing tonight feels real. Everything feels too real. But she’s talking about drugs.
“What do you have?”
She extracts a gold cosmetic bag full of pill bottles but stops shy of handing it off. “Maybe you should wait. Uncle Ducks thinks the lawyer might want to talk to you.”
“I’m not sure what I’d say. I wasn’t there when it happened.”
“He knows. But they’re going to talk about what happens next. You know, jail, bail, trial, that sort of things. And you might want to be . . .”
“Sober? I don’t think so.” I reach for the bag.
She pulls back. “Are you going to leave him?”
I do not know the answer to this question.
“Because it would make sense. I mean, this is a lot to handle. I’m not even sure if I can handle it. I’m sure you have thought about it.”
I hadn’t yet the focus to imagine leaving though it had an appealing, cowardly simplicity to it. Just leave. I could make neither heads nor tails of Juliet’s tone. It could have been a suggestion or an accusation. “Do you think I should?”
I look at us the mirror. We both look like people dressed from the panic closet. I’m not sure what to say to her or to anybody. I’m well out of my depth here. I say as much.
Juliet’s not much of an actress, so I know her sad face is genuine.
I touch her arm. “I’m sorry.”
“I figured you’d have a plan,” she said. “You seem like the type.”
I shake my head. I haven’t made a plan in years. Improvise long enough and improvisation itself becomes the plan. I exit the bathroom and walk past Uncle Ducks trying to negotiate with the policemen.
I try not to look at Gabriel, but I’m sure he sees me, so I give this sort of lame half-smile. He raises a hand, but he’s handcuffed to the bed, which strikes me as both pathetic and kind of hilarious. For a second, I consider telling him so. I even know his response. It would be an anecdote about Big Sur that always makes embarrasses me, and we’d start planning that trip to Northern California we’ve been planning since we met. You’ll never take the time off, I’d say. And he’d demur and I’d accuse him of making excuses to avoid California. Maybe because our whole deal is based on the fiction that we are New Yorkers and fictive New Yorkers at that. Then he would remind me that I’ve only taken him to Florida once, because my family embarrasses me and you would make my family uncomfortable. And we’d make promises and joke and tease our way back into what passes for normalcy.
Because nothing about this is normal.
Ducks groans following a policeman’s cautionary “Sir,” and steps out behind me.
I slow until he catches up.
“This is a damn farce,” he says, loudly enough to be overheard. “You have a cigarette?”
“Brave the cold with me?”
“Should we leave?”
He rubs the bridge of his nose. I see his wedding ring. In all our late night meetings, it had never once occurred to me that he was leaving a spouse in the bed. Of course, Gabriel had never mentioned that Ducks had a wife, had a life at all outside of fixing his mistakes. “Nothing critical will happen in the next ten minutes unless your boyfriend attempts some sort of ill-conceived jailbreak, which I hope to Christ he’s not dumb enough to try.” We step past an extended family hustling through the Emergency Room doors. I think I see Juliet reflected in the glass, but I do not turn to wave.
It’s bitterly cold outside. The wind blows a steady gust. Ducks struggles with my matches, but once lit, he turns. I follow. We clear four blocks before he says anything. My hands are frozen. We’re not far from Gabriel’s restaurant that I wonder whether that’s the destination, if Ducks hopes to find a couple of tipsy waiters still dawdling at the bar this time of night, happy to add a couple to the chef’s tab. It’s not unappealing. I could drink to remove the edge. Might take vats, but I feel up to the challenge.
I light another cigarette from a lit tip and inhale. “I should tell you that I don’t have a plan. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“That’s fair. This is not the kind of thing a person really plans for. However . . .” He shrugs. “You’ve been with Gabriel for, what, three years?
“Two and some change” I said
“Long enough know enough about him to know his weaknesses, his family, his past. “
“You’re saying I should have expected this.”
Ducks stubs his cigarette out and tosses the butt into a subway grate. “One always hopes for the best and prepares for the worst.”
I shove my free hand deep in my pocket, trying to bring my fingers back to life. “What’s going to happen now?”
“Probably Gabriel will go to prison. For how long, I couldn’t say. It’ll be a slog, and Gabriel’s used up a lot of goodwill over the years. I’m not optimistic.”
I blink. There are ice crystals in the air. I try to remember that they are beautiful.
Ducks coughs. “When Gabriel’s father died, I swore I’d be there for the kids. I remember years ago when Gabriel was failing out of college and already familiar to the local police, I was the one that flew out to California and I told him if college wasn’t working out, he didn’t have to finish. And he told me he hadn’t dropped out yet because he wanted to be a lawyer like me. A lawyer like me, for Chrissakes. He couldn’t even figure out why that was a bad idea.
“But he always liked cooking, even when he was a kid. So, I talked to him about culinary school, suggested he look into the restaurant business. I set up him with his first job. Kitchens aren’t so picky about their cooks, so long as they work hard and I thought the hard work might take some of the fight out of him.” He chuckled. “I should have set him up as a boxer or a bodyguard. Maybe sent him to the military. You can’t deny that he has a gift for violence.”
“It’s not all he’s good at,” I say.
“No,” says Ducks, “but it does tend to overwhelm his better qualities. And you’ll pardon me for saying , but I’m no longer sure that prison is the worst possible outcome here.”
That wasn’t the answer I was looking for.
“Not the answer you’re looking for?” He shrugs. “Sorry.”
I take a drag and a glance upward. New York is mostly terrible for perspective. Even the most scenic views are mostly comprised of hubris and trash.
“What would you do? If you were me?”
“I don’t see you making prison visits,” he says
“Juliet said the same thing, more or less.”
“Take it as a compliment.”
I feel my pace slacken as we approach the hospital. The creeping ache of anxiety has settled into my system. There are cabs outside the ER doors. I could take one of them, though it’s a luxury I probably can’t afford without Gabriel’s contribution to my quality of life. That’s a whole other problem. Ducks unsheathes his wallet and offers me money.
“For a car,” he says.
“I couldn’t,” I say.
“Honey, it’s Gabriel’s money.”
“It’s not just that,” I say. “I wouldn’t know where to go.”
Ducks gives a shrug with an audible component and we cross the street.
I could have expanded. I could have told this man, whose largest single occupation seems to be keeping my boyfriend and his family out of harm’s way, that Gabriel has spent the last two years providing the same service to me. Since that first January, when I gave my key to my inscrutable roommate and took three boxes and two suitcases to Gabriel’s apartment, I had not paid rent. I’d stopped looking for the kind of work that would pay a living wage. I’d grown accustomed to finding hundred dollar bills left in my coat pockets, in my cosmetic drawers, in the bottom of my bag. I’d never believed myself equipped to be a kept woman. But I’m no good at struggle and it’s awfully easy to take what you’re given.
I blink and glance up briefly at the lights in the hospital.
“What if I’m stuck?” I say.
.You’re not. When you want to move on, you will.” He pats my hand. “My guess is that it won’t to take you too long to work that out.”
I sit alone in a plastic chair at a small round table in the hospital cafeteria. In front of me is a napkin divided down the middle for a pro/con list I have not yet, nor will make. I imagine the tables around me all occupied by people drowning in grief, but in reality, the only person crying here is me, and not for my monstrous boyfriend or his victim or his victim’s family or the senseless tragedy of it all, though in my choking, sodden, shameful misery I can certainly conjure a pang on their behalf. Mostly, though, I’m crying for myself, becauseI’m stupid and I should have never been here in the first place. I’m crying because I don’t want to deal with this. It’s not fair. I’m crying because I feel guilty and sorry for myself and bonus guilty that sorry for myself is mostly what I feel.
The cute doctor from the waiting room fills a coffee mug and walks past my table. He nods. I bury my face further in my hands to muffle the sounds.
“We have somebody you can talk to,” he says. “A grief counselor.”
I look at him through my fingers. I’m sure he doesn’t remember who I am. “I’m not the bereaved. I’m the girlfriend of the . . .the bereaver?”
He frowns. “Is that a word?”
It’s not, but I’m pretty sure I can’t say murderer yet. “I’ll be fine. It’s on me for dating him. It’s not like I didn’t know he was a psychopath.
The doctor glances at the wall.
“Jesus, I sound like a mob wife or something.” I thumb my cup against the table. “I’m not this kind of person. I’m not supposed to end up stuck in this situation. I mean, he’s a bully. And I don’t do anything. I didn’t do anything. And, I don’t even feel bad, I just accept it and pretend like it doesn’t affect me.”
The cute doctor swirled his coffee around and peers into his cup. I worry he might have read my fate in the grounds. “You know, if he’s ever hurt you, we have people that deal specifically with domestic violence . . .”
My first reaction is stunned silence, followed by laughter. It’s funny. It is really is. I only swallow the laugh when I notice the woman actually crying at the next table over. I look down at my hands—the chipped pink painted nails, the crescent moon shaped scar from a sixth grade curling iron accident, the blue shadow of yesterday’s ink spot on my middle finger, the complete lack of fighting wounds. My hands could not look more different than Gabriel’s. “Do I look like a victim?”
“Sorry. Don’t answer that,” I follow his eyes and figure he’s staring at a fading bruise on my forearm. It came from trying to negotiate a revolving door after too much wine at one of Juliet’s stupid readings. Gabriel hadn’t even been here, but there’s no way I could frame it without it sounding like an excuse.
“I’m not judging you,” he says.
I cough again and drink. The doctor has kind brown eyes and a sweet sober look about him. He wears flattering glasses and speaks in measured, England-inflected English. I wonder if he’s ever punched anyone in his life. I’m betting no.
“Gabriel never touched me. I mean, of course he touched me, but how I wanted.”
“I meant no offense,” said the doctor
I look at him, so clever and kind. He saves people’s lives, but something about the judgy set of his mouth makes me want to hit him. The doctor looks at his watch. I nod and watch him scurry away.
The long hallway flickers, a momentary surge in the florescent light. I smile at the policeman when I pass the door.
They have Gabriel dressed and standing up, head still bandaged, presumably to take him to the station, to jail.
“Rikers?” I ask the policeman.
Gabriel’s eyes are as puffy as mine. His expression would appear childish on a nine year-old. And I kind of think that’s what he is, under all the swagger, and it makes me feel sorry for him and deeply frustrated and sort of like his mother.
“I’m sorry,” he says, as I pass. “I’m so sorry. I wish I could kiss you.”
I wish I could kiss him too, because I’m not sure I will again. And it would be nice to have one for the road. The cop to the right, sensing this, shakes his head.
I bite my lip and try not to feel. “I’m going to go now ,” I say. “I’ve got to take care of some things.”
He nods. “I don’t know what’s going on with all this, but I’ll see you tomorrow, maybe, hopefully, after they set bail.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I say.
One of the cops clears his throat. “Ma’am?”
Gabriel looks desolate in the light. I think he knows and worry for a moment that he might cry or call or and I step back, woozy.
“I love you, Caroline,” he says.
I swallow. I love him too.
“Goodnight, Gabriel,” I say.
I think, I’m sorry. I’m leaving.
On his roof, in the snow, in the pre-dawn of Christmas Eve on that first night, warmed by coffee cups of whiskey and the blinding infatuation, I knotted my cold, mittened hands into fists and followed his amused directions as I swung at him. He bounced back and forth, like a boxer in a silent film and stepped back surprised when my fist made contact with his cheek. I couldn’t have hit very hard, but he was still tender from the night he ruined my dress. He rubbed his jaw and for a moment I worried he might swing back. That he might hit me. That he might hurt me. But he grinned and told me I had a good right hook. And it was the strangest thing, because I’d never felt so vulnerable before as I did in that moment. Any reasonable person would have been afraid. And yet, I wasn’t.
He refilled my teacup with whiskey and took my hand.
“You think I have a future in the ring?” I asked.
“Totally,” he says. “You’ll knock them dead.”
I leaned into him and stared uptown at the scalloped hem of the Chrysler’s Building’s fancy dress.
“Piece of advice,” he said, stroking my hair. “ If anyone or anything ever comes at you that’s too big for you to handle, something that you know might fuck you up? Don’t stay there and try to fight it off. Just get the hell out. Run away.”
“You won’t think I’m a coward?”
“Self-preservation isn’t weakness.” He stood behind and wrapped his arms around me. “Promise me you won’t let yourself get hurt.”
I leaned back into him, under the rosy winter sky and banished all thoughts of fear and strangeness and insecurity.
“Even if its you that hurts me? I ask.
“Especially if it’s me.”
And even though, we barely knew each other. I told myself I loved him. I told myself I belonged. I told myself I had nothing to fear.
“I promise,” I said.
And at the time, it didn’t even feel like a lie.
© Alison Fields, 2022