To Love and To Fall

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SIXTEEN

We have dinner at the diner where Denise and I went just two weeks earlier. I hardly eat at all, wondering if Serena was going to come up as a topic, or a discussion of what Carla and I planned to do with each other would ensue. Neither issue comes up, of which I am glad. I want to be with Carla, hoping she will come home with me.

And she does, under extreme duress. Denise wants Carla to stay around and go to meetings with her. Carla is better off alone, she insists, like she has ever been a poster child for celibacy. Happily, Carla wants me. She’d go to meetings in my town, she promises Denise. She insists that she doesn’t want to lose the week of sobriety she has. Maybe she’d even drag me to one; she jokes to Denise. I don’t think it funny. Neither does Denise, apparently. She doesn’t laugh at all.

I easily forget about the confrontation, Carla’s previous abandonment, and my own infidelity as soon as she enters the car. Funny how I can so easily forgive her and not Serena. Carla was easier to love than Serena; she was softer, easier to touch both physically and psychically. I am fascinated by her. She is thirty-five, originally from a small town near Pittsburgh. He dad took off on her mom when she was three, and her mom moved her and her siblings to Albany where there were aunts and uncles to help out. Carla hated it all. She never could fit in with the small town life; her brain was too smart and dreams too big for their expectations for a little girl who was supposed to grow up, marry and have babies. She was verbally and physically tormented by her mother and older brother. There was no one to protect her. She found drawing, the doodles she made during school growing on her. Art became her refuge. There was no one else for her.

She met her husband when she was fifteen when he came to teach an oil painting class at her school. His name was Gerald Forsythe; at the time he was thirty-six, married, and a respected adjunct art professor at several colleges. I had heard of him. I had no idea he was into statutory rape as a hobby. At the time, he was the white knight that she was looking for. It didn’t matter that she had to throw away her education and her youth away to be with him. School meant nothing and she felt old anyway. So she lived in his shadow, living in an apartment that he paid for. He wouldn’t let her work, and she could only leave when he said so. He paid her so much attention he hardly seemed like he was abusive. He was better than what she had.

They married five years ago, when his first wife finally died. She thought once she was his wife and not the other woman, things would change and he would respect her. But it didn’t. She told me of his outbursts, how he would inflict pain upon her, of the last time it happened when the bruises that were upon her were given. He hit her the whole time, even before they were married. No one ever told her it was wrong. There hadn’t been anyone to care if she was prepared for life or not. Carla hadn’t spoke to her family in years. She didn’t know if they were dead or alive.

She still loved her husband. She kept thinking that he’d change. She loved his dynamism, his zany enthusiasm for life, his sense of fun. Carla said he was a nice guy when he didn’t use drugs. Unfortunately that did little to compensate for his shortcomings. He’d been to jail four times for cocaine possession and assault. For the last three years, he had been unemployed, this coinciding perfectly with Carla beginning to flap her wings; she’d gotten a diploma, started to show her work. He was envious; trying to sabotage her at every move, like he did with her last exhibit. A bird with broken wings couldn’t fly.

I listen to her with the detached rage of a secret lover who watches his beloved being consumed by flames as she insists that the fire is there just for warmth. I wonder if my whisking her away with me is my way of trying to save her from the flames, trying to compensate for what I have done to her broken soul already.

We make love in the bed that once belonged to the love of Serena and me. She falls asleep in my arms afterwards. I look about the room, reminding myself of the woman that once was mine. Reminders of Serena are everywhere; knickknacks that she had collected over the years like little glass bears, Victorian ladies with bashful expressions, ceramic horses of brown, black and silver are evidence that she is more than a memory. I bought many of them for her, mostly at the different flea markets the village had over the years. Sometimes we went to the glass factory together on the weekends, back when we were happier and life seemed simpler. I tried to think of the last time we had gone to a market or a factory together, and I realized it had been at least four years. I wonder where the time went.

But soon, all these will be part of memories. Serena would come for what was hers, and eleven years would disappear forever. Even as I surrender in rapture with Carla, a hollowness invades me. My life is leaving me, and nothing replaces it. Even though I had been the one to tell her to go, I still feel abandoned.

For the next two days, I call in sick. Carla does not go to the promised meetings; she is soon drinking as much as I am. Denise leaves accusing messages on my machine. Serena has called her in pain; Carla is vulnerable, and I am the monster that has wrecked their lives. Denise calls frequently, leaving angry messages on the machine; accusing me of taking advantage of indefensible women. She doesn’t believe that Carla is going to meetings even though she insists that she does. She is right. We spend time drinking and making love, and I am in heaven. Work doesn’t matter, family doesn’t matter, just Carla and me, our love for one another. I begin hearing from Mel Calhoun more and more. She is worried about me, each message she leaves on the machine incrementally increasing in anxiety, but I don’t pick up to allay her fears. She is still successfully staving off Arbuckle, and that’s good enough for me.

Perhaps that is what precipitates her surprise visit. She shows up at my house on Thursday. I have a party going, at least a semblance of one. Mark has come over, bearing six packs and rum. He approves of Carla; but he never liked Serena so who knows how deep his admiration goes. The evening starts off fine, but as the evening drags on, I am remember how easily Carla had been lured into my bed. Except this time, this night, she is with Mark. Carla laughs at everything Mark says, and one time when she cracks up at his jokes, she is all over him, hugging him, and drunkenly collapses on him. From that point on they constantly touch; a tap on a shoulder here, leaning in more to speak there. I am ready to lose my temper. I just fucked Carla before Mark came over, and now here she is all over my best friend. Who the hell does this bitch think she is? The doorbell interrupts my angry thoughts. I see a red Ford Escort outside, and I am not sure who it is. I wonder if it is a cop, and think I should hide. I almost leave when I hear Mel’s voice outside.

“Tom? Tom?” Her voice is almost frantic. “Are you in there?”

“Who the fuck is that?” Mark bellows from the living room. “Tell them to keep it the fuck down. We’re trying to have a party in here.”

Carla giggles. I wonder where her hands are. Mel calls to me again. I am tempted to lace into Carla. Something wins out over the violence in me and I open the door.

Melissa’s hand is half in motion as though ready to knock again. She sees me, and takes me into her arms, nearly crushing me to death. “There you are, you stupid fool. I was so worried about you.”

I laugh uncomfortably as she releases me. Even a twelve pack isn’t numbing out this confusion. “What are you doing here? I thought we were meeting tomorrow.”

“I had to come,” she brushes a pesky wisp of hair from her face. She gazes in my eyes, and I see the sadness in them. “Look at you,” she says, gently touching my cheek, “what are you doing to yourself?’

My heart is racing nervously, not knowing what to make of this. “Nothing. I’m just having a party.”

“I thought you were sick,” she counters. The radio is suddenly blasting from my living room, and I hear a loud whoop of laughter come from Mark. God knows what Carla is doing. Mel touches my arm. “Let’s go to my car and talk. It’ll probably be quieter in there.” I look back, uneasy to leave Mark and Carla together alone, but Mel is already heading to her car. I follow her, not wanting to hurt her feelings. She has never been anything but nice to me.

We sit in silence in her car for a moment. She reaches over and turns on the radio to some jazz station I hardly listen to. Mark pops his head out, ostensibly to see what is going on. I wave him back in. He disappears, and I am left here in a strange state of mind.

“I came here to warn you before you came to work tomorrow,” she begins. “Arbuckle has recommended you academic suspension to the committee. I overheard him talking with a couple of the history professors. He feels he has a good case against you, and he’ll probably get what he’s asking.”

I feel my heart sink, wondering if I have heard wrong. I look at Mel, hoping that I have misunderstood. Her grave expression tells me that I have not. I knew that Arbuckle was out to get me. I knew it all along. I think of my botched meeting with the committee this week. I wonder if that has anything to do with it. In the eleventh hour, I am being cut short. I cannot believe it. So much for working with the great Reincroft. I am unemployed.

“How long would it affect me?” I can barely find my voice.

“A semester. You’d be on probation until you got your degree, probably.”

I can’t believe this is happening to me. After working so hard-

“Come in tomorrow,” Mel is earnest with me. “You might have a chance if you speak with Scott. He’s really a nice guy underneath the gruff exterior. And I know he cares about you. He wants to help you.”

“Help me? Who the fuck is he that he says I need help?” She jumps back, startled. I am at first sorry, then pissed. Did this bitch think I was going to hit her? What the hell had I said to scare her?

She has regained her composure. I have not. “Maybe I’d better talk to you when you’re sober—“ she turns on the engine. I am furious.

“No, we’ll talk now!” I grab her hand. She vehemently flings me away.

“Don’t touch me like that! Get out of my car, now!”

“Well, fuck you. You’re the one who came here and gave me news that wrecks my life—“

“Tom, I’m sorry,” Mel is quiet now. “I’m just worried about you. You’ve shown up drunk to work so many times or not at all that everyone talks about you. You’ve been warned by Scott and the committee many times, and Scott can’t cover for you anymore. He’s risking his career doing so. And he doesn’t believe you’ve been sick this week. He thinks you’ve been drunk. So do I.”

I feel my eyes flare anger, but I am frozen. Everyone knows what I have been doing. I feel like there is some conspiracy against me bigger than the X-Files. Why is everyone so hung up on what I do? I’m just trying to enjoy myself.

“Tom, please stop drinking. It’s hurting me to see you wrecking your life. If you can’t stop on your own, maybe you should get help.”

I am floored by her words. They sober even someone as drunk as me. She reaches over and kisses my cheek.

“My little brother was just like you. He was brilliant, funny, good looking. He was a few months away from getting married and just made partner in the law firm he worked for. He had the whole world in the palm of his hand. But he’s dead, Tom. Dead. From alcohol only. He never did drugs. He was thirty-two years old. He passed out one night and choked on his own vomit.” He voice was shaking. In the moonlight, I could see tears forming at the edge of her eyes. “I don’t want the same to happen to you.” She is looking down at the steering wheel. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Please come. And please think about what I have said.”

I move numbly from her car and watch as she disappears, feeling empty when she is gone. I think of Christopher Hawkins. I had met him once. He was a charismatic person, able to garner the attention of everyone in his presence and make them laugh. A tall, broad shouldered man that made every woman’s head turn. I knew he’d passed away last year, but Mel would never say why. I thought it was some kind of accident. I can’t imagine the man I met lying dead in his own vomit. It sounded like a bad joke.

I look at my house. I can’t deal with Carla and Mark now; I don’t care if they screw till next year. I don’t know why I am suddenly so affected by the death of a man I met only once. But I can’t get his face out of my head.

I aimlessly walk down the street, unable to shake my dark mood. The thought comes to me to head over to the bar, so I could get drunk and be lost in my thoughts without the distraction of Carla and Mark. It occurs to me that I was in that state where no matter how much I drank I wouldn’t get drunk. I don’t care. The bar was the only place I could think to go to.

I spend what seems like hours at the bar, thinking, drinking, thinking; talking to no one. Nothing is happening to me, as I had predicted, so I am debate the possibility of leaving with myself. I check the clock— ten-thirty, only a little more than an hour since Mel left. The bar is at least two miles from my house, so that shaved off a half an hour. By the look of how much money Jack the bartender had taken from my twenty, I had six beers since I got here. Six beers in half an hour. Eighteen beers total in five hours. I barely feel a buzz from it all. When I needed alcohol the most, it wasn’t there for me. Kind of like Serena, and most of the people in my life. I order a shot of rum before I leave, hoping it will give me good luck. But it doesn’t; I walk out of the bar straight as my sexuality, and Christopher Hawkins still haunts me.

Speaking of sexuality, I wonder what Mark and Carla doing, a welcome diversion from thoughts of the dead. I stumble my way in the direction of home, green monsters of jealousy consuming me. The air is oppressively hot; more so than before I went into the bar; feeding my anger even more. I think of Arbuckle, wondering what the hell was his beef with me that he was screwing me over. I should have known from his attitude when I first met him that he was out to get me. The thought came to me that Christopher Hawkins might have thought like this in his last drunken moments; maybe an angry tirade against his boss cost him his life with one bad binge. The thought came through clearly, like a channel from God. I was too tired to care if the Divine was trying to reach me. Fuck God, fuck Carla, fuck Arbuckle, fuck Hawkins, fuck them all. I didn’t care about anything anymore.

I sense motion behind me, turning just in time to see a car pulling up alongside me on the wrong side of the road, radio blasting. I jump back startled, ready for a fight. It is Mark and Carla in his red sports car. The fight drains from me, but I am wary for any hint of sexual play between them as Mark rolls down his window.

“Hey buddy, where the fuck you’ve been? Your girlfriend here was worried about you.” Mark is barely speaking coherent English. His face is so red it looked like he was going to have a stroke. Carla is lolling around in the front passenger seat. There is no seatbelt on her, and her eyes keep rolling to the back of her head like she is in a zombie state straddling the world of the dead and of the living, unsure of which holds more appeal to her. A half-drunk case of beer sits between them, cans everywhere, the stench of alcohol worse than a bottle of cough syrup. I am nauseous; the heat almost prompts me to vomit.

“Buddy, get in the back. I’d let you get in the front, but someone’s had a little too much to drink.” Mark reaches over and shakes Carla’s shoulder.

Carla titters.

I look at them. A sensation like a black cloud passes over them. I try to pinpoint where the feeling is coming from, wondering if my suspicions of indiscretions were right. Try as I might, I cannot detect anything but innocent flirtation between them. The more I think, the more the whole thing drains me, and I am tired of thinking. I am tired, period. The interior of the car feels cool and refreshing, unlike the heat that I am standing in. Sick of the heat, walking and thinking, I get in. I can’t wait to go home and get some sleep. Home seemed so far from here.

“How long have you guys been looking for me?” I yell over the radio.

“Say wah?” Mark tries to look at me in the rear-view mirror, nearly veering off the road as he does so. I brace myself, and put my seatbelt on in paranoia as he resumes his course.

“Buddy, watch the road. You almost killed me,” I sputter.

“Ah,” Mark dismisses me with a wave of his hand, almost losing the car again. “You such a wimp. I tell ya, spending all that time with those books, you have a coronary when there’s a little excitement. Maybe I am better off then you.”

“Fuck you,” I say, inexplicably nervous.

“Yeah, yeah. Fuck you too. You know what? I like this gal you picked up here. Good choice. Better than that Serena broad. Hey, you know, she called when you left.”

“Oh?” I am sunk before I even hear what transpired.

“Yeah. It was fucked up. Carla answers, ‘hello’, you know, all sweet like. I don’t think she knows she’s talking to the bitch from hell yet. Then she gets all high-pitched and bitchy like. ‘who the hell are you don’t call here anymore bitch’ whatever. So then I get on the phone and save your ass like usual. I tell Serena that Carla is my girlfriend. But Serena’s too high a bitch to believe an asshole like me. She starts cursing and yelling at me. She called me a fucking lowlife scumbag. You believe that shit? The bitch is in a rehab and she’s calling me a lowlife scumbag. So I tell her to suck a cock and take a bottle of Prozac and call me in the morning. Then I hang up on her. Can you believe that bitch? You know, I can’t fucking stand angry women. Think they’re so macho. What the hell can she do? Sic a shrink on me?” He chortles so hard he coughs up phlegm. The car veers as he opens the window to spit it out, and most of it lands on the window anyway as he rolls it back up again. I stare at the splotch like it is a bullet hole. I want to get out, and I yell to Mark, but he only turns the radio louder. Carla howls to the music. Mark is conversing through the rear view mirror, but I barely see his mouth, only his reddened eyes, eyes of the possessed. They make me shudder. We enter the main road before my house, and I breathe relief. Soon I could go to sleep in my own b—

I hear a screech. Mark had shifted to high gear and floored the gas. The g-force shoves me deep into the back seat. I see the speedometer creeping past seventy, eighty. I scream at Mark. Carla yowls. Kashmir by Led Zeppelin is on the radio, and I wonder if whatever demon that infested John Bonham is present with us now. No one seems cognizant of what is happening but me, and I was screaming with no voice. A traffic light looms, the last traffic light before home. It is green, and I thank the God that I didn’t believe in for strange miracles. But suddenly it is yellow, a ball growing larger and larger and we go faster and faster, eight-five, ninety. A luminous red glows before me. But we are not stopping. I silently scream as a thud subverts me completely.

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