To Love and To Fall

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NINE

After the fiasco with Gary, I drive around in circles trying to regain my equilibrium and composure, debating whether I should stay here in Albany like the good lover I wasn’t and accompany Serena tomorrow to Rehab World, or go home to the only place that I could feel like myself. After about an hour of deliberation, my car seems to decide for me, heading away from Albany on I-90 instead of towards it. Away from Serena and Rehab World. Away from Denise and stark memories of the past that I would rather not remember. With much relief, I stumble into my home three hours later, barely recalling the drive. Sinking into my fifteen year old La-Z-Boy is a delight. I do not have to deal with amateur psychotherapists ready to poison the mind. I feel safe in my own space.

I fall asleep for a few hours, only to be wakened up by the sound of the phone. Not wanting to bother with anyone I let the machine pick up the call. It is Denise at her nagging best, laced with the honey-sweet touch; no let’s all modulate: “I know the issue of Serena going to rehab is difficult for you because things will change, and maybe she’s making you take a look at yourself. But Serena loves you and she needs you with her. So try to get back up here if you can tomorrow. It’ll be worth it.” A little rehab and all of the sudden Denise and Serena are best friends. Well, my sister always liked it when people thought the same way as she did, and right now that wasn’t me. I shouldn’t be surprised about this new love of Serena.

The sun reflects shadows in my apartment that I hadn’t remembered seeing earlier. The clock tells me it is five fifty, so I had managed to get about five and a half hours of sleep today. There is still time for me to get a good run in. I need to feel the rush of adrenaline that running gave me. It would also be nice to be somewhere where I couldn’t be reached.

The feeling of fresh air is exhilarating, especially after the emotional claustrophobia of the last few days. When I was in high school, I was on the wrestling and track teams. It always seemed to get out the aggression I that was my life, and I was better able to deal with people without wanting to go for their throats. Once I got to college, and paradoxically, once I met Serena, my interest in sports almost instantly dissipated. Serena was my new drug. Now that Serena is not here, I am returning to my old vice.

I return at eight o’clock. Night has already fallen; I must have lost the sense of light as I ran. I avoid the phone the rest of the night, though it rings several times. I make a pretense of working; my own ruse surprising me when I finish a chapter from my notes in less than three hours. After the third time of the phone ringing, I turn the radio loud enough so I cannot hear it.

My earlier nap makes me unable to sleep that evening. Considering that I only slept five hours in the last two days, I am wide awake. At midnight, my stomach reminds me that it has not been fed anything but beer and peanuts for the last thirty hours. After surveying my empty refrigerator, I decide to head down to the local diner and get a hamburger.

Though ordinarily I would have a lot to choose from, being this is a college town, the 24-hour diner, bar, and gas stations are the only things open at this hour. Even the fast food joints are sleeping. I drive to one of the gas stations to buy a magazine, so hungry that I almost buy one of the overheated cheeseburgers sitting in its incubator, but I manage to restrain myself with an appetizer of potato chips. I buy a TIME magazine and head for the diner across the street.

It is quiet at the diner. The overhead TV announces the final score of the football game, Colts over the Bears, 38-14. I think of what I’d been doing last Monday when the football scores came in. I dismiss the memory and sit at the counter. A server who I’d never seen before hands me a menu. There’s always a big turnover here. Nothing seems to stay the same.

“Hauser?” a familiar male voice calls behind me. “Hauser? That you, loser?”

I turn to see my friend Mark Graham sitting at a booth. He is my oldest friend, next to Serena. He and I were college roommates as freshmen. In our sophomore year, he decided that he wanted to go to Hollywood and become a famous actor. Three years later he came back with a pregnant girlfriend. They got married, and I was the best man. Now he was divorced and making at a canning plant. I haven’t seen him for weeks.

“Hey, Graham, how are you doing, buddy,” I greet him with a manly hug.

“Sit over here dude. Don’t be a stranger.” He indicates to the seat opposite him. I comply, much to the annoyance of my original server, who lost me to the other server. There is stiff competition for tips at this time of night. I am surprised they even have two of them there. The new server wastes no time in staking out her territory. I’ve never seen her before either.

“What will you have honey,” she coos with chocolate silk.

“I’ll start with the chowder and some Coke.”

“My name is Marcy if you need anything,” she says with a wink. She makes her way to the kitchen, swinging her hips as she goes. Anything for a tip, I suppose.

“How come you’re not having anything?” I ask Mark, seeing only the coffee cup before him.

“Ate already. I’m here on lunch break.”

“Lunch break? Since when do you work the graveyard shift?”

“Since I took a second job,” he states, motioning to the counter server with his coffee cup for a refill.

“Wait for Marcy,” she says sarcastically. Mark shrugs and returns his attention to me.

“What’s this about a second job?” I ask. One thing Mark Graham isn’t is a workaholic.

“Michelle’s in kindergarten,” Mark said. “She’s more expensive now. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” He gives a slight shrug of his head. Marcy reappears with his refill and looks at me questioningly. I shake my head to inform her that I am not ready to order dinner yet.

“So what kind of work are you doing?” I ask when she leaves.

“Security guard. I still work the afternoon shift at the factory, then I come here for dinner, and then I work from one to seven at the dorms, six days a week.”

“Wow. How long has this been going on?”

“Since June. That’s why you haven’t seen much of me. Too busy earning a living.” Mark downed his coffee before continuing. “I’ll tell you, Tom, you have it made. Don’t get married. Just live with the girl. Maybe if I didn’t have to settle down, I’d really be somewhere today. Like you.” I think of my undone dissertation and grimace. Mark does not seem to take notice. “I go by the dorms where we used to live. Remember the parties there? I remember when you and Serena got together then. You guys were blown out of your minds. You’d just met each other that day, remember? She was so shy of you in the beginning, but by the end of the night–” He let out a low whistle. I find myself giving a small smile at the memory. “How is the mistress, anyway? I didn’t know she let you out at this hour of the night by your lonesome.”

I am about to answer when Marcy reappears with my soup and soda. Mark got more coffee and began flirting with her. As the two bantered back and forth, I fix my attention on Marcy. She was very young, nineteen at the most. This was true of most of the girls who were here. If Marcy was lucky, she was a college student trying to make ends meet, but if she was like some of the young women here, she wasn’t; she’d married too young, had children too young, had too many children, and maybe was working now just so the electric wasn’t cut off, or she was working so she could achieve some sense of financial stability so she could leave her husband, or because she was the only one around to provide any support. Serena was one of the lucky ones. Her intelligence helped her escape this road to hell; she’d gotten a scholarship to attend university, God knows her family would have rather kept her down. But now, at thirty, instead of being the best she could be, she was stuck in a psycho ward. I am envious of Marcy whether she is a student or a wife, for her man would hold her tonight when she came home. Suddenly a hand waves in front of me. I snap out of my musings to find myself gawking at Marcy. She gives me a quizzical look, and I apologize. I quickly change the subject by ordering a cheeseburger and fries. I watch as she goes back to the kitchen.

“Little young for you, isn’t she?” Mark asks. I am disorientated. It takes me a moment to refocus. Mark gives me a look like I was from outer space. “Jeez, what’s the matter with you tonight? You’re acting like somebody hijacked your brain.”

“Not enough sleep,” I inform him.

“You and Serena fighting again?”

“Not really. We’re just having a difference of opinion.”

He looks at me like I am an idiot. “Isn’t that what fighting is?”

I shake my head, not in disagreement, but resignation. “Let’s put it this way. Serena put herself in a rehab, and I don’t think she should be there.”

“A what? A rehab? You mean like a wino rehab?” I nod. “Oh, man. She doesn’t belong in one of those. Hell, if she does then you and I should be permanently locked away in a nuthouse.”

“She was in one of those.”

“Excuse me?” Mark exclaims in either sheer confusion, disbelief or both. I empathize with his bafflement.

“That’s where she was. In a nuthouse. She went to a detox first, and they didn’t have a separate facility in Belmont U.”

“Where the hell is that?”

“Albany. Near my sister.”

I am being regarded like a lunatic. “How’d she get up there?”

“She called my sister while I was away on business.”

Mark shakes his head. “I can’t believe you let Serena go to a nuthouse.”

I feel a pang of guilt. I still feel as though I could have talked Serena out of this rehab bullshit somehow. I don’t need Mark to rub it in. “What control did I have? She’s an adult. Besides, I told you, she did all this when I was away on business for an interview. By the time I found out, she’d been in the rehab for two days.”

“What are you interviewing for?” Mark seems relieved to find an out to change the subject.

“Research. It’s at SUNY Albany. It’s mine if I want it.”

“Oh.” I saw the despondency in his face. Mark was smart, smarter than me, even, but his whole life had come to a halt when he fathered Michelle. I felt strange talking of my success to a man who was on a midnight lunch break between two jobs. “Is Serena moving with you?”

“That was the plan. Now I don’t know.”

He shakes his head. “Women wreak havoc in a man’s life. Just be glad you’re not married. Imagine if she pulled this rehab scheme on you if she was married? What a bill you’d have. You’re not paying for it, are you?” he belatedly inquired.

I thought of Serena’s cobra bills and chronic unemployment. I was suddenly glad that I was single. “No, I’m not.”

“Be grateful for that. Hey look. I have to get going. Are you free Saturday night? I have this weekend off. We should get together since you’re lady’s gone. It’s been awhile.”

I hesitate. Visiting hours at the rehab were on the weekend. Denise made sure I knew that. But I really don’t want to be bothered. “Sure, I’m free,” the words came out. My true subconscious had spoken.

“Great. Why don’t you meet me at McKay’s?”

“Sure.” I am suddenly looking forward to a bachelor’s night out. “How about ten?”

“Sounds good.” Mark stands and shakes my hand. Marcy arrives with my burger.

“Here you go, sweetie pie,” she says, putting a hand on my shoulder. Mark gives me a wink as he walks out the door.

That Friday, I begin work at my regular job as Arbuckle’s TA. He still wasn’t talking to me after our little incident in Albany. I didn’t care. I was glad to have somewhere to come to so as not to think of my problems at home. I was relieved that I would be getting regular money. Ever since my summer teaching session ended in early August I’ve been bankrupt.

But once work finishes, my head begins to spin. I still hadn’t heard from Serena. It was beginning to bother me. Even though I didn’t want to talk to her, I still was mad that she hadn’t at least tried to call me. I felt like she was messing with my head. Even when we’d broken up and she was with other men she stayed in touch with me. So why wasn’t she calling me now? Shouldn’t be the one trying to call me? But I had left her. Maybe I was the one who should be calling her. I sit in my couch, flipping aimlessly through bad TV, going back and forth in my mind, blaming her, blaming me, wondering if I should sacrifice my Saturday so I could hear the joys of hey, man, recovery. I can’t stand to be in my own head. If someone offered to trade his or her brain for mine at that moment, I would have jumped at the chance.

I was driving myself crazy. I wind up going to McKay’s, staying until three in the morning, trying to drive Serena from my mind. It doesn’t even work. I can’t get drunk, no matter how many screwdrivers I down. This happens to me, usually when I need to get drunk the most. My feelings don’t let me squelch them no matter how much I want them to die.

I can’t get to sleep that night, despite my exhaustion. I am in a state of bleary-eyed obsessiveness over Serena’s desertion. When I needed her most, she wasn’t there. I still can’t believe she hadn’t called to tell me how she was. She knew how I needed her. We always could sense what the other one needed before all this. But maybe she didn’t care anymore. This newest realization sticks in my head like a knife in my gut that I couldn’t extract. I cursed, taking my cordless phone and smashing it against the wall, thinking of Serena. I watched as the phone splatters against the wall, dismembered plastic everywhere, the phone’s battery dangling in a dismembered fashion, lifeblood shattered on the ground. I feel a deep satisfaction in its destruction. Something got to pay for my misery.

Later on, in the midst of Saturday morning cartoons, the phone rings from my bedroom. The machine informed me it was Serena. She tells me that she is looking forward to seeing me later on that day. I smile, knowing that vengeance is mine. For I am not going.

I raised the volume on the TV to drown out her voice.

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