“He was an oblivion seeker, a fucking lotus eater. I never wanted that. I was the kind of drug addict that just wanted to be comfortable in my skin.”
If I looked around my collection of friends after six weeks in Corpus Christi, I had to admit that the effort had been lacking on my part. I could possibly count Natalia, the specter of Elena, and the guy walking next to me on the sidewalk, whose name I still did not know.
As I debated whether to swallow my pride and ask, he opened the door for me and, together, we stepped into the lobby of the bank. Almost immediately, the woman at the desk just inside the door perked up and called out, “Welcome, Mr. Rodriguez! How can we help you today?”
Mr. Rodriguez, whose tattoos swirled above his collar and down past the ends of his sleeves, extended an ink-covered wrist to quickly shake the hand the woman offered as she walked around her desk to greet him. I glanced around the lobby, making sure Mr. Rodriguez noticed my get-a-load-of-this-guy facial commentary, and clocked a security guard with his back against the opposite wall.
“I need to move some money around for payroll,” Mr. Rodriguez was saying. “A few of the guys asked for advances on their paychecks. Valentine’s Day.” He shrugged.
The suit smiled, utterly charmed, and walked with Mr. Rodriguez to the teller line. “And what are you plans?” she asked, almost imperceptibly cutting her eyes at me.
“I’m not sure yet,” Mr. Rodriguez said casually, and she smiled before walking away.
“Mr. Rodriguez?” I teased almost the second she was out of earshot.
“Nick,” he said. “My name is Nick. Not that you asked.”
“You just made all that up on the fly, didn’t you? About moving money around?”
“You could’ve done the same.”
“Finance people freak me out.”
“Why, because they’re all a bunch of whores?” Before I could say anything, he moved up to the teller who had just become available, calling her by name (Bernice), making a big production out of not having filled out any forms as he pulled a stack of bills from his wallet. I took my cue to wander around, surreptitiously surveying the building’s interior.
There wasn’t much to see. I knew the building had been completely gutted in the seventies, which was one of the worst times for anyone to undergo a makeover. Still, Clara Driscoll had died here, twenty stories above my head in the penthouse, and I half-expected to find something. A plaque or a portrait or one of those commemorative stars for the State of Texas. It seemed strange to have stumbled across one in Austin, but here, where I had specifically came looking, there seemed to be no trace of Clara.
I was fidgeting with annoyance when I noticed the security guard checking me out. He wasn’t even very subtle about it, so I looked right back, which he seemed to like. I would guess he was in his forties, responsible enough to be allowed to carry a gun, but not much else going on between the ears.
I completed my revolution around the lobby and returned to the teller cages just as Mr. Rodriguez finished his banking business. As far as I could tell, he’d simply moved money in a big circle through a series of transactions, but both he and the teller appeared to have thoroughly enjoyed themselves.
“Did you want to speak to Bernice about opening an account here?” Nick leveled eyes with me, but I shook my head.
“Not today. I might come back another time, but we should get going if you’re going to change before dinner.”
“You almost had me with that one,” Nick said under his breath as we exited the lobby, waving goodbye to the suit at the desk.
“Well, why not?” I said. “It’s the least I could do after being accompanied to the bank by Mr. Rodriguez himself.”
“Man, it’s Valentine’s Day. Do you know how packed everything is going to be?”
“So let’s go to some hole in the wall, somewhere no one would think of for Valentine’s.”
“My cousins have a restaurant down the beach. Do you feel like going for a drive?”
“Sure, but we’re taking my car this time.”
We wound up sharing Valentine’s Dinner at a beachside cantina. He waited the obligatory three days before calling me at work on a Friday, and we made plans for Saturday. He wound up staying over at my place that night, after earning Buffy’s approval, and once more the following week. The next Friday, I had committed to seeing a friend in Austin for her birthday, though by then I preferred Corpus over Austin. I made arrangements for Natalia to feed Buffy and stopped by the tattoo shop on my way out of town that afternoon. He presented me with the most serious signpost of our fledgling relationship thus far: a mix tape.
I waited until I was truly on the road to pop the tape out of its case, which was duly decorated with Nick’s labyrinthine artwork. It began with the sound of a spinning radio dial, a familiar voice singing a song that faded into a male DJ speaking Spanish, a car struggling to start, then the song beginning in earnest with the count: “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro!”
I was discouraged that I couldn’t understand much beyond that, but Nick had explained to me that even the singer had to learn Spanish as an adult. “She trips up during interviews sometimes. Doesn’t stop her,” he told me not long after he found the CD in my apartment boombox. Our shared penchant for her music explained her outsized presence on the mix tape.
Friday night in Austin, I arrived at my friend’s apartment complex just in time to catch the group headed out for the night. I caught up with everyone and managed to be relatively responsible within the context. Teagan was a San Antonio acquaintance who had moved to Austin two years after me. We’d crossed paths on campus enough to keep in touch, though we spent more time together when we’d started dating bandmates. Her relationship had been much more serious than mine, but we saw each other frequently enough to have become friends in our own stead. We had similar tastes in men and music, after all. She assured me before I agreed to sleep on her couch that the person I most wanted to avoid would not be making appearance at her 21st birthday party.
And he didn’t. But when I chose to go out again the following night, I knew perfectly well I’d be running into him. The band of boyfriends had been the opening act for a local band gaining a following, and though I timed my arrival well after their set was through, I knew I could count on Alex to be skulking around the bar, picking girls off the edge of the crowd who recognized him from the stage. I told myself I wanted him to see how well I was doing, but really, I was a glutton for punishment. I watched him for a full minute before he felt my eyes on him, and I got a sliver of satisfaction from watching his double-take before I marched past him to the bathroom.
On cue, Alex was waiting for me when I came out. He cornered me in the dark hallway covered in posters, just drunk enough to be painfully honest. “At least let me buy you a drink,” he scrambled when all other attempts at conversation failed. “I owe you that much.”
I’d been avoiding his eyes, scanning the posters of upcoming gigs, when a familiar face peeked out from beneath a layer of SXSW listings. I walked away from him, midsentence in bullshit, and started excavating. There she was. She had played a show in Austin a week earlier. I kept digging until I had unearthed the whole poster, except for one missing corner, and pulled the whole thing off the wall.
“You a fan?” he said.
“You still here?” I replied, not taking my eyes off the poster as I skimmed the text one more time, making sure of the date, before rolling it up and sticking it down my pant leg, the short edge caught beneath my waistband as I started to walk away. Décor for my Corpus apartment, or maybe a gift for Nick.
“She’s playing Houston tomorrow night,” Alex said. I knew I shouldn’t, but I stopped to look over my shoulder. “The rodeo. My buddy works backstage every year.” He had me, and he knew it. I looked into his eyes for the first time in months, and we both smiled. “He could get us in.”
My “I’ll think about it” became taking him up on the drink, which became a few more drinks, which became leaving the bar with a group of his friends, which became doing lines of coke on a kitchen table belonging to one of the friends who was actually Alex’s dealer, which became a cab ride back to Teagan’s apartment to get my things for the 3 a.m. drive to Houston. Alex drove my car. He bared his soul to me on that drive, and if I had been in my right mind, I would have noticed that there was nothing to that soul. Laid bare, he had very little to offer, but when someone is that open and honest, you don’t leave the moment to take stock of what he is worth. You just appreciate the connection, the flattery of someone wanting to get in a car with you and drive three hours in the middle of the night, with nothing but your conversation and the entire envelope of drugs stuffed in his pocket for company.
He didn’t like the mix tape, and I hadn’t wanted the reminder of Nick, so I hid it in the console and tossed the concert poster into the backseat floorboard. Alex told me about moving his grandmother into a nursing home, how he was still in the house while the family decided whether or not to sell. I told him about my job at the mall, how I dug the beach life and had so many friends in Corpus. We talked a little about Clara—he’d been a history major, after all, once upon a time—but he didn’t know much of her story so the conversation was mostly one-sided, more like a lecture until he could jump in with facts about the Battle of the Alamo. I didn’t ask about his engagement.
By the time we hit the beltway, we were both crashing, despite the key bumps we’d been taking along the way, plus whatever pills he was on. He parked in a driveway and we slipped into the house without turning on the lights, first light rising high enough in the east to light our way. Dry-mouthed and fried, we each took two downers, and Alex tried to find something resembling sheets.
When I woke up, alone on the floor mattress, it was dark outside. I fumbled through a door or two before finding the bathroom, and immediately regretted turning on the light. The face in the mirror was not adventurous or passionate; it was scared shitless. I tiptoed into the kitchen, still not knowing if I was alone in the house, and found a clock on the stove. 9:23. And because it was dark outside, that meant PM. I’d slept through the concert, and I didn’t have a clue where I was. I looked through the panes on the door outside, but my car was nowhere to be seen. I shouldn’t have been surprised. He’d had my keys since Austin.
I walked around the house like a ghost in a t-shirt and underwear. As it became clear that I was completely alone, the eeriness set in. Old lady tchotchkes lined every nook and cranny, with family photos full of people I had never met lining the walls. I retreated back to the room with the mattress on the floor, which was definitely his room, though it appeared to have once been a sewing nook. His stuff was everywhere, and as I grew angrier, I felt more and more justified in rifling through every square inch. I found his stash, fairly quickly: an entire shoebox in the top of the closet. And, under some t-shirts in a drawer, a framed photo of a girl.
I considered the girl first. Easily prettier than me, no contest, but he had claimed to not be about that. I cried for a few moments, then I got angry. I opened the shoebox and poured a generous amount of blow on to the picture frame, right on the girl’s smiling face. He and I had seen a movie together where a woman mistook heroin for cocaine, overdosing and getting stabbed with a shot of adrenaline in the heart, right above her bustier. I wasn’t that stupid. I knew which of the baggies was cocaine, and which was heroin. It was the nugget of black, tar-looking stuff. This I palmed, then found a credit card and a bill in my pocket to start racking up lines.
I had worked myself into a pretty powerful frenzy by the time it occurred to me to use the phone. Just after 10 p.m., I called the one Houston number I had memorized, dialing with my pinky, the one finger I hadn’t chewed down to the quick. “Hi, Mr. Wheaton,” I spoke quickly, too quickly, and much too brightly for this late on a Sunday night. “It’s Jessica’s old roommate. I’m trying to get ahold of her. I’m here in Houston and don’t have her new number on me.”
“It’s awfully late,” Jessica’s dad said, though he had no issue accepting that I would be calling for Jessica like this.
“I know, and I’m really sorry. We’re supposed to get together tomorrow, and I don’t want to flake out on her.” There. That did it. Completely in-character and believable. He forked over the number as I thanked him profusely.
The next call was more difficult, and I took another bump off the picture frame I’d started carrying around the old-lady house, sneering at the girl’s smiling face. The line rang three times, and when it picked up, the voice on the other end was the absolute worst outcome.
I signed. “Josh, it’s me. Please don’t hang up.”
“Oh, God. How did you get this number?”
“I called Jessica’s parents. Is she there?”
I heard a mumbled conversation on the other end that confirmed Jessica was there, but that was no guarantee I would be allowed to speak to her. The mumbled voices grew louder, then completely silent, and a few seconds later, Jessica’s voice came over the line. “You called my parents?”
“Jessica, hi, please don’t hang up. I’m in some trouble.”
“When are you not in trouble?”
“That’s a valid point, and I’ll explain everything, I just—I need you to come get me.”
“What does that even mean? I’m not coming to Austin.”
“No, I’m in Houston. I—I came here with Alex, and now I’m stuck in this creepy old house and I don’t know where he is and he took my car…”
“You have got to be kidding me. Where are you?”
“I don’t really know…somewhere on the northside of Houston.”
“You’re going to need to be a little more specific. Is there a street sign you can look at?”
“I’m scared to go outside, Jessica!” I screamed into the phone.
“Hey! You called me, remember?”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I mumbled. I heard more muffled conversation on the other end of the line.
“Whose house is it? Can you find a bill or some mail somewhere?”
“OK, yeah, great idea, let me look.”
“It was Josh’s idea.”
“Well, thank him for me,” I said as I dug around the desk where I had found the phone.
“She says thank you,” I heard her say on the other end of the phone, then louder into the receiver: “He says you can go fuck yourself.”
“OK! I found something.” I read the address to her, including the name of a town that wasn’t Houston. “Wait, that can’t be right.”
She scoffed, a patent Jessica sound. “You really have no idea how big Houston is, do you? Hold on a second, we’re looking at the map.”
“I really appreciate this, Jess.”
“Don’t thank me yet. I should just let you suffer, then maybe you’ll finally learn.”
“Thanks, Jess.” We waited a moment, listening to each other breathe while Josh did his dorky thing with the map. I tried to soften my shoulders, which had crawled up into my ears. “Buffy misses you.”
There was silence on the other line, then Jessica exhaled: “You…bitch.”
“I miss you, too.”
“Fuck, fine, I’ll come get you. I’ll be there in 45 minutes.”
“Forty-five?” I yelped.
“Yes, you’re halfway across town.”
“OK, just, please hurry. Jessica?”
“Please don’t bring Josh.”
There was another argument on the other end of the phone, though this time Jessica didn’t bother to muffle the receiver, so I could hear every single thing Josh said about me, and then a door slam. Jessica sighed into the phone: “You better be out the door the second I pull up.”
She hung up on me.
Forty-four minutes later, I saw the headlights pulling along the curb and was out the door before she had come to a complete stop. I’d showered and cleaned up all evidence of my presence in the house, leaving all the lights off and the door unlocked. I pulled on the door handle of Jessica’s car, also a graduation present but much more practical than mine, then banged on the window when I found the passenger side locked.
“OK, OK,” Jessica yelled at me as she automatically unlocked. Before I had even buckled the seatbelt, she started. “So, where’s Alex? What the hell is going on?”
“Can we please just go get some food? I’ll tell you everything, but I haven’t eaten in two days.”
“Hmm, I thought cokeheads didn’t need to eat.”
“Jessica, will you just lay off? Do you know how hard it was for me to call you?”
“Fine. Pancakes ok?”
We negotiated the late-night diner in silence, orders placed and a pot of coffee between us before we spoke in earnest. I told her everything, starting with Teagan’s birthday and ending with my wandering aimlessly around Alex’s grandma’s house, crying about his pretty fiancée and pilfering his stash.
“Why didn’t you let me bring Josh?” she asked. “If I’d known I was picking you up from a bonafide crack house, I would have brought some muscle.”
“Do you really think that would’ve gone well? Josh hates me.”
“He doesn’t hate you. He does hate Alex. You have to admit, you have been a complete train wreck when it comes to him.”
“Josh saw all that. I didn’t want to pick between the two of you, but you didn’t make it easy. I mean, you fuck up everything you touch.”
“Why are you like this?”
“I don’t know,” I hung my head as the waitress placed plates in front of us: pancakes to absorb all the poison in my body, an omelet and fruit cup for Jessica.
“I’ve been doing really well,” I told her between bites. “I moved to Corpus Christi. I’m going to apply to grad school again.”
“Yeah, I heard,” Jessica nodded. “How did you get caught up with all this again?”
“Alex told me he could get us into this concert tonight at the rodeo.”
“He has this friend who works the music gigs at the rodeo who was going to…”
“The Astrodome? He told you he would get you into the show at the Astrodome tonight?”
“Yeah, are you a fan of hers too?”
“No, but the closing show is a huge deal. Josh and I were watching the news when you called. Tonight was the biggest crowd the Astrodome has ever seen. There was no way Alex’s dumb ass was getting you into that show. Sorry.”
“But this guy, this friend of his, runs the hydraulics for the stage.”
“I’m sure he does. And I’m sure he brags about that to a lot of people, and I’m sure Alex truly believed it when he promised you backstage access to a sold-out show at the Astrodome. But it didn’t happen, did it?”
“I’ll never know,” I shrugged.
“Because he drugged you and let you sleep through it.” Jessica sat back in the booth, the prosecution resting her case.
“He didn’t drug me. I drugged myself,” I said, swirling soggy pancake through the syrup on my plate until it lost all structural integrity.
“Oh, well that’s much better.”
After I paid for our food, Jessica talked me through it as she drove. “You are leaving Houston tonight. Right now. That’s the only way I’ll be able to live with myself.”
When we got back to the house, just past midnight, I was relieved to see Cherry in the driveway. I looked at Jessica. “Five minutes,” she said. “If you are not out of the house and in that car in five minutes, I’m calling the cops on both of you.”
I buried my face in my hands and took a deep breath. “Right,” I said, then got out the car, slammed the door, and crossed the street before she could say anything else.
I checked the car window on the off chance that the keys were in the ignition, but the whole thing was locked up tight. Glancing back at Jessica’s idling car, I could hear music from inside the house. I forced myself up the porch steps and turned the knob. Luckily, the door opened, and I stepped into a small gathering.
“Where have you been?” Alex called from the couch. “The door was unlocked and I didn’t know where the hell you were.” He didn’t sound angry, but it was a definite show of dominance just to say the words.
I nodded. “Yeah, I could say the same.”
One of his friends started laughing, and Alex said something low enough to where I couldn’t hear, which made his friend start laughing more.
“Can I talk to you for a second?” I said, almost wishing I had taken Jessica up on her offer of mace.
Alex put down the bong and made a big show of dragging his feet, the slightest smirk dancing across his lips. He came around the couch and finally stood facing me.
“It’s been fun,” I said quietly, though his friends were pretending not to listen. “But I’ve got to go.”
I stepped forward and hooked my hands into his front pockets. I gave him a little peck on the cheek as I fished around in his jeans, then smiled when I found what I wanted. I pulled out my keys and quietly walked out the door, letting out a huge sigh of relief when I heard him crack a joke at my expense. I ran to the car, frantically clicking the unlock button on the key fob, and reversed out of the driveway and all the way down the street until I was parallel to Jessica.
“Follow me,” she mouthed, and I made a head-slapping “duh” motion in return. I trailed her out through increasing larger tributaries until we were flying down the highway in a two-car caravan. Eventually, she stuck her hand out the window and pointed up to one of the numerous overhead signs that read CORPUS CHRISTI. I flashed my bright lights at her in recognition of her condescending attack on my intelligence, and her pointed finger became one flipping me the bird. She drifted into the right-hand lane, and a mile or two later, exited the freeway. I blew her a kiss, though I knew she couldn’t see.
I fished around in my pocket, lifting my pelvis to the steering wheel to get my hand all the way in, and pulled out the plastic baggie of black tar heroin. I figured it had been the most expensive item, gram-for-gram, in Alex’s whole stash, the one that would cost him the most with the least amount of effort on my part. I placed the smuggled drugs in Cherry’s ashtray and snapped it shut. I fished the mix tape out of the console and popped it in, setting the cruise control to remind myself not to speed.
I don’t know how, but I dragged myself to work the next morning and made it through an entire day without passing out. Mondays were for markdowns, which were meditative if monotonous, and the only trouble I had was not falling asleep. I got home around four and fought to stay awake as I tried to win back Buffy’s trust. We were both lying on the bed, listening to the radio, when I became conscious of an increasingly audible set of footsteps. I could recognize that sound anywhere. I hoped against hope that the heavy footfalls weren’t coming for me, that somehow they would pass by and continue on to Natalia’s door instead. But no, here they were, stopped outside my apartment. The pound of a fist meeting door sent Buffy scurrying into her covered litterbox. I sat up, took a deep breath, and rose to cross the room. I paused at the threshold, know that the thing I feared most in this world was waiting on the other side. I turned the handle, swinging open the door.