To Love and To Fall

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FOURTEEN

After what seems like a couple of hours, I wake up to the shrill ringing of my telephone. It pisses me off, especially when I see the clock- 10:05. Who was bothering me at this hour on a Tuesday? Some people have to work for a living. I have a splitting headache. I am ready to reach though the phone and kill whoever is calling me.

I reach for the phone, ready to pounce. I catch a glimpse of the outside through the closed blinds. It is light outside. I am in dazed confusion at the lost time when the machine speaks to me.

“Hauser, where the hell are you? The committee is waiting for you. You were supposed to be here a half hour ago.” Arbuckle. I freeze. I totally forgot about the meeting. “Hauser, I can only hold them off for another half hour. Then they’re putting you on probation. And I’ll let them. You’re making me look like a fool, buddy. If you don’t show up, you can forget about having me as your advisor. They didn’t teach me how to baby-sit drunks in graduate school.” And then the phone crashing into its cradle.

I am doomed. It will take me exactly a half hour on a good day with no traffic to get to the university, park my car, and get to the office. As it is, I smell like booze, and one look in the mirror tells me I look no better than a street bum. It would be more disastrous for my career if I showed up like this than if I didn’t show up at all. It would confirm Arbuckle’s accusation of my being a drunk. I didn’t want to do that.

I decide to call in sick. The great thing about having a brain like mine is that I could think of solutions in a second. I put a call through Arbuckle’s office, knowing that he won’t be there but Mel will be; she was always such a sweetie to me, I know she will cover for me. She doesn’t like Arbuckle any more than I do.

She picks up on the third ring. “Professor Arbuckle’s office,” she lulls.

“Mel?”

“Tom?” A small gasp. “Tom? Is that you? Scott’s been going crazy looking for you. Is everything all right?”

“I’m not feeling my best.”

“Really? Aw, poor baby. What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. I think it’s some kind of stomach bug. I was sick half the night.” I can’t believe I’m lying to sweet Mel. It’s not like I haven’s done it before, but I always feel bad when I do.

“Oh, sweetie. I know a couple of people who have the same thing.” Why do I feel like she is lying, too.

“Scott just called me. He woke me up.”

“You were supposed to be here at nine-thirty, right?”

Accuracy, a plus. “Yup.”

“Well let’s see. Scott went down at nine-twenty.” An interminable pause. “I’ll just tell him that you called at nine twenty-five.”

Which won’t explain why I didn’t pick up at nine fifty, but I can always say I was visiting the bathroom or some other ill-like activity. I feel relief already, though my head is still pounding. Nerves. It must be nerves. Arbuckle has that kind of effect on me. Jerk. “Thanks, Mel. I really owe you.”

“You sure do. Just be glad I can’t stand the bastard.”

“How about I take you to dinner this weekend? Your choice.”

“That sounds nice. My daughter is going to her father’s. Let me get back to you, okay honey?”

“Sure. And Mel?”

“Yes?”

“Thanks.”

“I gotta go. Scott’s here.”

“Okay, bye.” I am speaking to a dial tone.

I sit in a daze for a time, not knowing what to do with myself. I wonder if Arbuckle will call me. I escape to the library to get away from myself, try to work. Instead I find a Jonathan Kellerman novel that I read two years ago. I don’t remember a word. I take it home with me, paranoid that someone will relay to Arbuckle that they saw me goofing off in the public library. My home feels like a ghost town as I enter it, empty without my lover being there. Though she has been gone for some time, it is as though I am only feeling her loss now; like I am on some kind of time delay. Despondency eats at me, my heart becoming a weight under its power. I keep reading, hoping that the irrelevant words will magically take my pain away, but Serena steals my thoughts even more. I close my novel and surrender to the images she gives me, wallowing in morbid loneliness.

I miss her. I miss her laugh, with her pearly gems flashing a golden smile. I miss the hours we spent laughing and talking, hours well into the night, so much more than physical; though the more I thought of her, the more I feel the raw need for her. Two weeks; it had been two weeks without her, but a lifetime to me. I keep denying my need for her, but in the end, without her, there was only this darkness waiting for me. I had been drinking more since she’d left; usually I limited myself to weekends because I knew what damage drinking could do. I wondered if my accelerated drinking had anything to do with the emptiness I wanted to escape without her with me.

I have to stop drinking during the week. If today is any indication, drinking is catching up to me, and I didn’t want it to ruin my career. I had a lot of work to get done if I wanted to advance, and I couldn’t drink the way I was doing successfully complete it. I have to make a resolution and stick to it: no drinking until my date with Mel, three days from now, forever from now, it suddenly seemed. I feel the vastness of time stretch before me. I have to do something to fill the time; I don’t have classes until late tomorrow. Serena haunts me. Thirty hours of dead time; what to do with them, and how do I remain sober when it seems illogical to be that way; life seems more enjoyable in a fog. I am still thinking of Serena as I ponder my quandary. I have enough time to get there and see her. It is a crazy idea. But I am always crazy when it came to Serena. And, I have to be sober to show support for her. It wouldn’t be right otherwise.

I arrive at Albany at four-thirty-five, barely aware of the last six and a half hours except for getting a hamburger at a drive thru, even though I am evidently showered, shaved and prettied up for the occasion. But now that I am here in the rehab parking lot, I don’t know what the hell I should be doing. Suddenly this feels like the dumbest idea in the world, for me to be here. I should go home. What am I doing here? To sing the Twelve Steps of AA to the tune of Kumbaya? The stuffiness I felt when I last visited here returns, suffocating me. For crying out lout, I didn’t even know if they had visiting hours on Tuesday. I am just about ready to start the car when I see her.

She is walking with another woman when both stop short. I feel Serena’s eyes upon mine though she is yards away. She says something to her companion, who nods and leaves. I am alone with Serena.

My heart pounds as I go to her; it stops as it reaches her. Serena regards me coolly. I run cold. For years, she was the one who needed me. I sense that things have reversed. In the last couple of weeks she has changed. I do not know how to need this new woman, though I need her desperately to feel whole again.

“What are you doing here?” I feel she is looking at me like I am a bad joke from the past. I can hear the anger simmering under a veneer of serenity. “I mean, considering that you haven’t been around for the last couple of weeks, I’m just curious.”

I take a deep breath. “Because I missed you. I wanted to see you.”

“You wanted to see me. So where have you been for the last two weeks? My boyfriend’s sister visits me, her husband comes to visit me, but where the hell is he? It’s embarrassing. I get all excited to see you, tell my friends all about you, then you don’t show up. I feel like an asshole. I thought you loved me.” I see the tears shimmering in her eyes. She is trying to fight them off. I cannot look her in the eyes.

“I do love you. I’m sorry. I’m the asshole, not you.”

“So where the hell have you been? Out drinking?”

My head shoots up, all compassion instantly dissipating, a sharp anger replacing it. “What the hell do they teach you in this place? How to stick your nose in everyone else’s business? I thought you were the drunk.”

“I am a drunk. But I’m not drinking. I’m doing something about it. What are you doing with yourself?”

I am ready to flare. Serena heads me off. “Look. I’m sorry. I just didn’t expect to see you. Let’s start over. Walk with me.”

I do not want to start over. She started it, calling me a drunk. I just wanted to finish it. But Serena had already started to walk away. I may as well go along with it. So now I was a drunk who wasn’t doing anything about it. Nice to know. Well, I knew how to be civil even though other people didn’t. “What are you doing out? I thought they keep you here under lock and key.”

“It isn’t jail,” I victoriously see that I have gotten under her skin. I then wonder what is wrong with me that I have driven a hundred and fifty miles just to watch someone squirm. “After you’ve been here for two weeks they give you passes to go out in the daytime. I might be getting one this weekend. Should I bother to come home or not?’

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means, can you hold off the partying for one weekend. I need a safe place to rest.”

Safe place? Since when was our apartment dangerous? “I can stop drinking for two days. I’m not out of control,” I said. “Do you want me to pick you up on Saturday?”

“Yeah, that would be nice.” I feel like was offering a new co-worker a lift to the office. God, things had changed.

“So you think this place has helped you?” I ask, anything to help keep a lagging conversation alive.

“I needed to get away. I wasn’t able to get sober any other way at home.”

I do not like the underlying message she is handing me, that I am a bad influence. Poor little victim, her boyfriend made her drink. I am struggling to maintain my composure. “It doesn’t seem like you tried awfully hard.”

She stops in her tracks, forcing me to halt and looke directly at her, wrath enveloping her delicate features. “What the hell does that mean?” she yells. A couple of passerby give us strange looks. They can screw themselves. What could they do? Throw an AA meeting list at me?

“It means that you only went to AA for two weeks before you signed yourself into this psychobabble hole. Maybe you didn’t give that program enough of a chance. You’re looking for the easy way out, and running to this shithole and blaming me for your drinking is a great way to make yourself the little victim.”

“What the hell do you know about my trying to stop? Obviously all these years you’ve been so busy worrying about yourself that you haven’t even taken the time to notice what’s been going on with me, as long as I look worse than you do. It’s been hell for me to stop. Sitting on my hands at work, snapping off at people just because five o’clock happy hour hasn’t rolled around yet. Hating being nice to people who expect it just so they don’t think I’m a drunk, but willing to kill people just so I can be left alone to drink. Going to your snobbish academic parties and having to stop after two because oh my lord,” she raises her voice to a high pitch-“ what will all the professors’ wives think?’ I put my arms out to restrain her speech, but she pushes me away. Her voice drops an octave. Luckily it drops in decibels as well. I hate when she screams. “Then you shove drinks down my throat so you can run my life. Do you know what I think?” she shoves her finger under my nose, and I have the deep urge to slap it away, a domestic charge the only thing that was stopping me from going berserk, “do you know what I think? I think you don’t like me sober. Because you can’t run my life anymore. You liked me better drunk. You certainly paid me more attention when I was.”

I am filled with disgust, at her and my violent urges. This whole thing was one fucking mistake. I feel like the last eleven years have been as well. “You know Serena, you’re right. I did like you better when you were drinking. You were nicer. And if this is your idea of the new sober you, don’t bother coming back home. You’re not welcome there.” Her defiant smirk is gone, and tears were welling up instead. They had no effect on me. I was sick of the sassy little missy act. “I always loved you and cared for you. And to hear you throw it back at me, saying I forced you to drink,” I raise my hands in frustrated surrender. Serena cowers, and her fear only disgusts me further. I never raised a hand to her in my life. “This shit that I’m a drunk you can just shove. I’m not the one who can’t get a job, who never has money because I spent it on booze. I’m not the one who smokes, snorts, and pinches because it’s around. I’m not the one who constantly sleeps around because I’m too drunk to know what I’m doing.” Carla barely registered as I sense the kill; Serena crumples into a little ball at the insinuations of her promiscuity. Miss High and Mighty. I guess if she drank tonight, she’d say I made her. Nothing like taking responsibility for her own life.

I leave her that way, ignoring the shocked stares of those who had witnessed the fight. I feel, as I walk away, a great weight lifting from me. I am free, free to live my own life now.

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