Vices

by Jael McHenry

art-vicesI am sweating beer. My hair has turned into thick braided ropes of smoke. It’s dark on the inside of my eyelids. Someone is kissing me. I hope it’s Greg.

It’s not Greg.

The guy looks kind of like him, though, tall and black-haired and he looks thin but he’s really not, you can tell if you’re touching his waist, which I am. He is almost Greg. Which explains why I’m dancing with him. And, I guess, why he’s kissing me.

And why I’m kissing him back.

If I squint he looks so much like Greg that I almost believe it’s him. Is it him? It’s not him. Right? It can’t be. If he were Greg he wouldn’t be kissing me, he’d be kissing Caitlin, right? Right.

Right. So it’s not Greg.

So who is it?

He steps back and looks at me with his eyes half-closed, which I think is supposed to be that sexy sleepy look. It makes him look very drunk. I think he is. I think I am too. I kiss him again to make him stop looking at me like that, because it makes him look stupid, so really it’s only for his own good that I stop him. Right? Right.

And it may just be that I like kissing him. I can’t really tell. But I know if I look at him through my lashes he looks like Greg and that is way more than enough of a reason to keep on doing exactly what I’m doing.

*

I am surprised to wake up in my own bed. I’m kind of surprised to wake up at all. How much did I drink? And what the hell was I thinking?

And who the hell was that?

And considering that I started out the evening having dinner with Greg and Caitlin in Bethesda, how did I end up at 18th and U? Maybe Greg can tell me.

I decide to call him. I sit up.

I lie back down.

I’m sober now, but there are clouds in my head. Cumulus? Big fat puffy ones. Like my brain stem is a cotton gin and someone is stuffing, stuffing, stuffing raw cotton in through the top.

I decide not to call him after all. Not until I can read the poster on the opposite wall. I’ve developed this test over the past few months. I never needed it before then. If I can’t read the poster, I can’t hold a decent conversation. I’m sober now, but there are clouds in my head. Cumulus? Big fat puffy ones. Like my brain stem is a cotton gin and someone is stuffing, stuffing, stuffing raw cotton in through the top. Thoughts come through, slow and weak. It does occur to me that I’m getting too old for this. People I know are getting married. I’m just getting drunk.

Phone rings. Machine.

“Psst. Hey Josie. You can do it. C’mon. Just lift your arm. There ya go.”

I shouldn’t pick up. I pick up.

“Hey,” I say, my voice growlingly low.

“The 1-900 voice?”

“Yeah.”

“Do me a favor. Say ‘only three ninety-nine each additional minute.’”

“Three ninety-nine each ‘ditional minute.”

“Oooooh, you know what that does to me,” says Greg. “You sexy thang.”

“Too early,” I say.

“No, it’s not. You’re just getting too old for this.”

“Leave me ‘lone.”

“Can’t do it. I called to invite you to lunch.”

“Ate with you yesterday. Two days in a row’s too much.”

“I’ll be over at noon. Be ready,” Greg says, and there’s the click.

I check the poster. It says Be^^*r O## @ea&. Not a good sign. I scout around for a second opinion. The numbers on my alarm clock are bigger, brighter, closer. It’s ten-something. Too early, I think. I roll over. I hug the pillow. The doorbell rings. I look at the clock and it’s twelve-something. The poster now says Better Off Dead. Much better. The bell rings again. And again.

The living parts of me drag the dead parts down the stairs.

Greg gives the best hugs. He is six two and the crown of my head fits just perfectly under his chin. My cheek lies neatly against his throat. His hugs are always very warm but even in the dead heat of summer that feels good.

It feels very good. Which is bad.

“Ready for lunch?” he asks.

“Yep.”

“You wanna get dressed first?”

“Yeah.” I look down. “Oh. Oh yeah. Wait here.”

“You sure you don’t want me to come upstairs and help?” He smiles his adorable crooked smile. He makes a move toward the staircase. His foot touches the bottom step. Then he stops.

When I come back down, in a V-neck top and shorts, he is dangling his shoe in front of the cat. Opium paws at the hanging laces. I kneel down to pat Opium’s fuzzy belly, and Greg stands to put his shoes back on. I feel air on my lower back, where my shirt has slid up and left a gap above my shorts. Then I feel Greg’s hand softly sliding over the knobs of my backbone, as if he is counting them. Nobody says anything.

I stand up and we go to lunch.

I feel air on my lower back, where my shirt has slid up and left a gap above my shorts. Then I feel Greg’s hand softly sliding over the knobs of my backbone, as if he is counting them. Nobody says anything.

At Capra’s, Greg orders the pasta special. I ask for a Greek salad and a white wine.

The waiter nods, but Greg holds up a finger and says, “Don’t do that.”

“Greg,” I say, “don’t mother me.”

He brushes his palms together as if washing them.

“You look good,” he says.

“Greg, I look like crap.”

“You fall off the wagon?”

“The wagon ran me over.”

“I wish you’d stop.”

“Can’t we talk about something else?” I tug at my napkin.

Greg lets it go. He wanders into monologue. He talks about how much he hates his job and I silently wish I had one. He talks about how his mom keeps bugging him to get married and I wish my mom were speaking to me. He talks about a fight he had with Caitlin and I try to keep myself from wishing anything at all. It doesn’t work. It never works.

When the glass arrives, and I reach for it, Greg says again, “Don’t.”

“Hair of the dog,” I reply. And drink it.

“I worry about you.”

“Don’t.”

“Josie,” he says. “I feel like I have to watch you all the time. To make sure you don’t hurt yourself.”

“I won’t.”

“You might.”

“I won’t,” I say, and finish off the glass. When I order another, Greg glares at me disapprovingly. But then he gets one, too.

“Just keeping you company,” he replies when I ask.

We’re done with lunch by two, and the alcohol of today has beaten the alcohol of last night out of my system. And I feel great. More or less.

“What are you doing today?” asks Greg.

I shrug.

“We’ll do something.”

“Nah. I’m gonna head home.”

“And do what?”

Dryly, I say, “Oh, I don’t know, maybe drink myself silly.”

“Josie, stop that.”

I quickly add, “Kidding. Kidding! Please, get over it already. I’m fine.”

“We’re going out tonight,” he says.

“You and me and Caitlin?”

“Sure. Why not?”

I shrug, but not because I don’t know what to say. I know exactly what I want to say. I just know enough not to say it. My inhibitions are firmly in place, for a change, and the cotton gin in my brain is working at top capacity. I even understand the irony of Greg offering to spend more time with me to keep me from drinking, when, really.

But anyway.

I shrug, but not because I don’t know what to say. I know exactly what I want to say. I just know enough not to say it.

I wonder for a moment if I should just stay home tonight, or hang out with Tina, or do something that doesn’t involve Greg, That’d be wise. I’m enjoying my rare moment of logic when Greg says, “C’mon, babe, I want you where I can see you,” and touches my hand.

And all the logic, all the clarity, takes a backseat and I say, “Okay, then.”

He makes me promise not to drink anything before I see him tonight, and I intend to keep the promise. I am allocated six hours to fill.

The mall is, well, the mall. The scrape of metal hangers on metal racks pierces my brain. At home, I reach to pet Opium, but he turns under my hand and sinks his claws into the skin. I know how he feels. Brittle. Edgy. I let him out. I check the clock. My cable has cut out again, and I quickly tire of surfing the channel. I check the clock. In my backyard, I stretch out on a towel to soak up the sun. A cool breeze awakens me sometime after sunset. Opium sleeps next to me, his face tucked into the curve of my ribcage, and he is dreaming so violently I can feel his eyes twitching under his closed lids. When I check the clock I am short on time.

I’m late to Greg’s but he doesn’t even notice. Time is not one of his favorite things. His hug is welcome, as always, but Caitlin stands in the archway between the living room and the kitchen, smiling a smile that I don’t trust. I am probably paranoid. I am almost certainly paranoid. I need to relax.

The beer I left here last week is still in the back of the fridge, waiting for me. When Greg comes in, the first bottle is half gone.

“I promised I wouldn’t `til I saw you. I just saw you.”

“Josie,” he says, but that’s all he says. He watches me drink. In a few minutes the edge slips off my paranoia. To blunt it further, I drink one more. Greg’s still silent. He’s looking at me like he wants to start something. What is he thinking?

Not that I ever really know.

I hope he doesn’t ask me what I’m thinking. I’m thinking I’m better-looking than Caitlin. I’m thinking I’m lucky all this beer doesn’t show on my hips. I’m thinking I should mention this to Greg because then he’ll touch my hip to check.

We stand in the kitchen until Caitlin’s reedy voice calls out, “Greg, where are you?”

He shouts back, “Isn’t that a personal question?” Talking to her, but looking at me. And grinning. As if the joke’s on her.

“That is not a personal question,” she says. “Where are your hands is a personal question. Where are you is not a personal question.”

She tries to stomp, but she’s petite, and barefoot. She stops in the doorway again. She likes doorways. Maybe she’s afraid of earthquakes.

Stiff silence. Suddenly it’s cold. Cold and quiet. She lights a cigarette off the right front burner of the stove.

She tries to stomp, but she’s petite, and barefoot. She stops in the doorway again. She likes doorways. Maybe she’s afraid of earthquakes.

“Bad habit,” I venture.

“Well, we all have our own little vices, don’t we?”

More silence.

Greg says, “Would you smoke that outside, hon?” He’s allergic.

“Only if Josie comes out to keep me company,” says Caitlin.

“I’ll call Clark, see if he wants to come out with us,” he says.

On the back porch, there are two chairs. Caitlin takes the rocker.

After a while, the silence grows comfortable. She smokes. I drink.

“Sorry if I was snippy just now,” she says.

“That’s okay.”

“No, no. I’m really sorry.”

She’s sincere. It makes me smile. It makes me like her. And I don’t want to.

“How was lunch?” she asks.

“Fine.”

“Greg probably ate something horribly fattening, didn’t he?”

“Of course.”

“Hmph. Men and their metabolism. Not fair, is it?”

“Nope.”

We talk about nothing and it’s fine.

When the cigarette is gone she leads the way back into the house.

The three of us spend an hour discussing where the rest of the evening should be spent. A bottle of white Zinfandel splits itself unevenly among us. At ten-thirty we give up on Clark. Caitlin offers to bring down a movie from Greg’s room, and that sounds fine. Up she goes.

I want to say something. I’m alone with Greg. I’m relaxed and he’s relaxed and he should be able to deal with the fact that he is driving me slowly insane, and maybe he’ll stop if I ask him. Or maybe he won’t stop. Maybe he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. Maybe mentioning it will make it all worse. Or maybe all the trouble will all fall away and everything will be fine, fine, fine.

Maybe he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. Maybe mentioning it will make it all worse. Or maybe all the trouble will all fall away and everything will be fine, fine, fine.

Why should I complain about it now when it’s always been like this? It’s ridiculous. I can’t keep hoping that maybe, for once, things might actually be different.

What would happen if I said something?

Should I?

Will I?

Greg is talking.

“What?”

“You’re kinda shiny.”

“Maybe it’s the wine.”

“No, it’s your skin. It’s shining.”

I hold up an arm and admire it at a distance. I twist the wrist, watch the palm turn away from me and hide.

“I don’t see it.”

“You’re pink. Were you in the sun?”

“Yeah. Oh, yeah. I’m prob’ly sunburnt.”

“Probably,” says Greg.

“I’ll check.”

My top button resists, but I force it through the hole. Against my browned shoulder the white stripe of a strap mark glows.

He reaches to touch.

Caitlin slaps the DVD case onto the TV and it makes a plastic crack. Greg takes his finger away but doesn’t look very sheepish to me.

“Cozy,” says Caitlin.

“Nothing happened,” I blurt… Nothing did. Nothing ever has.

Nothing ever will?

Caitlin says, “Okay.”

“Nothing, I swear.”

“I said, Okay.”

“Cait. Enough.”

“I’m not–”

“Enough, I said. Don’t be silly. You know I love you.”

“Yes, I know.”

He pats her hand. I want to roll my eyes.

To me, Caitlin says, “You’re so funny. Getting ahead of yourself so fast.”

“It’s the wine,” I say, by way of defense.

She smiles at me, nods, and turns to Greg, dropping her voice to a whisper. I can still hear her. I don’t know if that’s on purpose.

“You better keep your goddamn hands to your goddamn self,” she says.

I excuse myself. I say I’m going to the bathroom, but that’s a lie. I fish the bottle of Stoli from the freezer and shoot three quick, one, two, three. I grip the counter while the kitchen picks itself up, spins around, and slams back into place, like Dorothy’s house in Kansas. From the cyclone. Cyclone Caitlin. Do they name cyclones the way they name hurricanes? Do they name earthquakes?

I grip the counter while the kitchen picks itself up, spins around, and slams back into place, like Dorothy’s house in Kansas. From the cyclone. Cyclone Caitlin.

I hear the murmuring, the soft ripples of words as they talk in the other room. I don’t know what they’re saying. I hear Caitlin try to stomp up the carpeted stairs with her tiny little naked feet. She can’t stomp. But she sure can slam a door.

At least I think that’s what I think I hear.

The kitchen lurches gently.

Greg fills a glass of water at the sink. He gulps some, shoves the glass at me. I shove it back and pour another shot instead. He lets me.

Is he trying to keep me from drinking? He’s doing a hell of a job.

Is he really trying?

Is he ever?

“You okay?” he asks.

I nod and parrot the question.

“Fine,” he says. “Peachy. Thrilled. Great.”

I think he’s being sarcastic.

When the Stoli hits, it hits.

“You okay?” he asks again. I would shrug if I knew where my shoulders were.

“Let’s get you put to bed,” he says.

I am in his arms.

I am in the air.

I am on the couch.

He is hovering over me. He is talking.

“What?”

“I mean it, Josie,” says Greg. “I wish there were two of me.”

From where I am, there are two of him, but I might keep this to myself. Should I? I guess I will.

“You’re wonderful. She’s wonderful. It’s just not fair.”

No, it’s not. Not to me.

“I’ve always thought that, if things were different,” he says, purring, “you and I could – you know – be something.”

He doesn’t mean it. He’s just playing. Right?

He casts the sheet over me. It cools me as it falls. Greg kneels by the side of the couch and lays his forehead on my stomach. Black hair on white cotton. I put my fingers across the back of his neck and run them upward, through his hair. It’s soft. So soft. He turns and looks up into my face. And so.

And so?

And so he straightens up and my hand falls to the couch and he says, “Sleep tight,” and I say “You too,” and he goes upstairs to Caitlin.

I sleep surprisingly well. In the morning I wake up, feel around for my shoes, and fold the sheet in a sloppy rectangle. I hear two sets of footsteps crossing and echoing each other upstairs. And I go home.

*

Smoky green light. Grimy wood. My beer sloshes on the felt.

“Thirteen, corner pocket,” he says.

The cue snickers against the ball. Balls tap each other, stop in place. The denim of his jeans, it’s worn soft, his waist is higher than mine, he’s tall, when I lean my back to his front I feel the buckle against my spine. I’m a shield against the others. I’m his trophy.

I sip. My cup is full again.

I catch a glance, a smile, the edge of a pitcher maybe, but none of it connects.

Something hums beside me. Around me. Inside my head.

Happiness?

I think I’m smoking. Someone is.

The balls clatter and thud. Something drops. Someone wins. I know it’s not me.

Nothing changes.

A mouth tastes my neck, my ear. Palms press my stomach, thumbs moving up my ribs. I don’t bother to look. I’m not even sure he’s the same not-Greg.

It doesn’t matter who he is. It matters who he’s not.

My eyes stay closed. Inside my eyelids it is dark, dark, dark.

Photo credit 

About Jael McHenry

Jael McHenry is the author of The Kitchen Daughter (S&S/Gallery, 2011) and a monthly contributor to Writer Unboxed. Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. Learn more about Jael's work at jaelmchenry.com or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry. She lives in New York City.

Jael McHenry

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