I've given all I can
It's not enough
I've given all I can
But we're still on the payroll
This is what you'll get
This is what you'll get
This is what you'll get when you mess with us, "Karma Police," Radiohead
He'd gotten in late, much later than I'd been able to predict. At eleven, I'd fiddled around on the computer, browsing random online communities, skimming the headlines of various news sites, looking up shirts and dresses and shoes I knew I couldn't afford. Around midnight, I'd shut off my laptop and channel surfed, unable to focus on any one show, my fingers itching for the remote even before I'd set it down again.
At one, I made myself a cup of Earl Grey and then climbed up onto the fire escape, peering down into the swirl of city life, feeling incredibly disconnected and small, as though I were watching the world from behind a glass wall. Usually, the mosaic of noises crept into my veins like an age-old lullaby and the throb of the lights would illicit a smile. However, the spattering of sounds further triggered my loneliness and my thoughts threatened to turn macabre, my subconscious tempted to drop my mug and watch it smash on the ground below, as an inadequate preview for the possible meeting of my own body sprawled on the pavement. At two, I finally slid into bed, rolled onto my side, and squeezed my eyes until I saw stars.
I felt the bed shift with his weight around four. I hadn't been able to fall into a deep sleep and my fuzzy half-dreams had seemed more like hallucinations, familiar faces popping up and then disappearing, trains whistling out from the station, drowning out my pleas to come back. Although his presence would, without a doubt, instigate a new set of anxieties and questions, I was glad to have him home. I turned on my side and watched as he took off his shoes, his socks, his shirt. Shoulders bent and body hunched over, for the first time in a long time, I saw him as the man he really was and not the rebel demigod I'd always wanted him to be. He sighed and ruffled his hair, locks falling limp like waterlogged twigs.
"Rough night?" I whispered.
Frowning, Aubrey tugged off his pants. A small bag fell out of the front pocket and he immediately snatched it, stuffing it back.
"What're you doing up? Don't you have to work tomorrow?" he demanded.
"Couldn't sleep," I replied.
He eased his way in between the sheets like a bruised and battered boxer sliding into a tub of warm bath water. The feel of his weight pressing against the mattress, the feel of his skin against mine acted like the cutting of a wire, relaxing all of the taut nerves throughout my body.
"Up," I ordered, tapping his arm. Aubrey shifted around and then lifted his arm, so I could place my head on top of it. I snuggled up against his body and he put his arm around my waist, refusing to meet my gaze, his breath brushing against my face. He smelled like pot and whiskey.
"I made five-fifty in profit tonight."
"Really? How much do you owe now?" I asked, as though it had been five weeks and not five days.
"Two thousand," I repeated.
"It's not that bad, you know? The modeling business is just as drug-fueled as it always was."
I covered his hand with my own, stroking his knuckles.
"I just feel really unease….knowing that there's so much money stashed in the apartment and there's a whole bunch of drugs lying around," I confessed.
"Babe, this isn't exactly Kansas. It's New York. I'm pretty sure there's a crack head living on the sixth floor," Aubrey teased.
Aubrey paused to brush his lips against my palm.
"I've been careful, haven't I? The sooner I get all of this sold, the sooner it'll all be over and you won't have to worry anymore. Thatcher's split town and the dealer wants that money, one way or another. And seeing as how I've got a ridiculous amount of illegal substances lying around and one pissed off dealer breathing down my neck, selling for profit is the only way out of this mess."
"You make it sound so easy," I replied, my mouth stretching out into a yawn.
"I know what I'm doing," he assured.
"I know," I said. Because what else was I supposed to believe?
"And how are you feeling today, Myra?"
Another day and another visit to Dr. Paley's office. The ever-flowing bowl of peppermints had been exchanged for an overflowing abundance of Werther's Original Hard Candies and the room smelled like jasmine. Something about Dr. Paley's presence and the softness and the eagerness to display her smile surprisingly reminded me of my mother, long before the fights and the screaming, long before I had shed my adolescence and adopted the uncertainties and the rebellion of young adulthood. I had grown to trust Dr. Paley, although there were still some things I was hesitant to share. Dr. Paley watched my expression for even the slightest twitch, the slightest hint that I was guarding something I was reluctant to say. I knew that whatever I said, she wouldn't question, wouldn't pry unless absolutely necessary, yet the simultaneous maternal and authoritarian intent of her gaze made me feel horrible at even the prospect of lying.
"How're your eating habits?" she asked.
"Fine. I mean, I'm not throwing up anymore."
"Really? And why the sudden change? I mean, most people don't stop something like that, cold turkey."
I shrugged, studying the portrait of her husband.
"I guess I feel like I don't need it anymore."
"How so?" Dr. Paley wondered, scribbling down a few notes.
"It was my comfort blanket. I was never at the point where I was throwing up every day, but it was definitely a problem. I used it to control my emotions. Instead of dealing with things head-on, I just threw up to make myself feel better. It was like….when I purged….I felt…."
"A sense of relief?" she finished.
I nodded, shifting on the couch.
"Exactly. It was like…I couldn't deal with not being able to control things. But I could control what I was eating. I didn't know any other way to combat my stress, so I needed something physical to feel in control again. Does that make any sense?" I wondered, biting the corner of my lip.
Dr. Paley nodded, her hand spitting out another set of observations.
"Of course. It may not be a healthy method of coping with stress and pressure, but it's not abnormal to want to have a sense of control over your life. The problem is not that you want to control things, Myra, but the fact that you feel you need to control everything. Do you see the difference?"
"Now I do," I replied.
"And has Aubrey noticed this change? You said before that you didn't tell him about your tendency to purge."
"Um, not really."
"Does he still not know?" Dr. Paley questioned.
"I don't think so."
"You're not planning on telling him?"
"I don't think I really need to at this point," I confessed.
"You don't think you need to…or you just don't want to?" Dr. Paley prodded, a playful smile adorning her mouth.
I laughed, sitting on my hands.
"Maybe both. I just…I don't want to….freak him out, you know?"
"No, what do you mean?"
"I just….how do I explain this? Aubrey is the first guy I feel like I can trust. The first guy I've really fallen in love with. And I'm so not used to this sort of thing. I've always wanted to be in a relationship, but I guess I've never been the sort of girl that attracts guys. And then he came along and it's like…part of me is ridiculously, stupidly happy. And then the other part of me is thinking that this is too good to last."
Dr. Paley frowned, tiny lines creating deep groves around the corners of her mouth.
"Why wouldn't it last? Has he given any indication that he's unhappy?"
"So…I guess it's just my default settings," I sheepishly finished.
"From what you've told me, it seems like you have a healthy, solid relationship. Love can't always be about the happy moments. It's normal to have a fight every once in awhile, to not always look at your partner and feel a rush of butterflies. Do you think that part of your anxieties about Aubrey may be just a projection of your own insecurities?" she pondered, her tone laced with both professional assurance and the utmost maternal affection.
I picked at a cuticle, recalling the early stages of our relationship, the way I was positively certain that a guy like Aubrey could ever fall for someone like me, let alone want to live together. And now here we were, quickly approaching a year later, and I was still searching for any sign of disintegration, any hint of the non-existent cracks in our bond. Why was I so programmed to destroy?
"Probably. I mean. Yeah. I really don't have any legitimate reasons why I should doubt him. We've had our bad patches, but I love him. And he's never given me any reason to second guess his feelings for me."
"So, don't you think it's time you start taking one day at a time? It's good to plan and be prepared, but rarely do things always go exactly the way we want. You never planned to have a relationship with Aubrey-and that's a good thing. Just like your parents never planned to get a divorce. No one gets married with the intention of divorce. Things happen all the time that we can't control, weren't even meant to control. I'm not asking you to change your whole personality overnight. But it's part of the reason why you came to see me, isn't it? To change your view on the world around you?" She leaned forward, as if challenging me to disagree.
I thought about the evolution of my relationship with Aubrey, from our first meeting, to our first kiss, to the first time we made love. I thought about my parents and their shared animosity, which clashed with the past photographs of the exuberant couple on their wedding day, the bride in creamy white, the groom at attention, his arm around his wife's tiny waist. Looking Dr. Paley straight in the eye, I knew what I had to do. I knew what I had to ask Aubrey.
If there was one thing I would never get tired of, it would be climbing onto the roof of the apartment building in the dead of the night, when the city roared with the flare of neon lights. By the end of the week, Aubrey had managed to make another four hundred in profit and was certain that he could gather the rest of the money in another two weeks. Admittedly, I was impressed by his considerable hustling skills, though unable to block out the possibility of getting caught. Nevertheless, Aubrey decided that his luck called for a private celebration. He bought a bottle of champagne and we made our way to the roof, him barefoot and in well-worn jeans and a T-shirt, me in flip-flops, ratty jean shorts, and one of his Oxford button-ups, the sleeves stopping at my knuckles.
"Shouldn't we be saving this celebration for some other time? Like say, when this whole thing is over and done with?" I suggested, sitting down and leaning against his back.
"No. Think of this as….a way of boosting troop morale," he offered, taking a swig from the open bottle.
"Are you only using your modeling connections to sell to people?" I wondered, intercepting the champagne for a drink.
"Mainly. Word kind of spreads fast. I've been trying to avoid using old contacts-you know, people that Thatcher and I used to hang around with. Too much shady baggage is attached to that scene."
"I wonder what my Dad would say now, if I he met you. Hi Dad, this is my boyfriend Aubrey and he's a model and part-time drug dealer," I teased.
He groaned and squeezed my side.
"Oh, right, like that would go over well. Your Dad would probably call the cops before I could shake his hand."
"Whenever I talk to him, he always asks about you."
"And do you tell him how charming I am?"
"Of course. I told him if it weren't for your powers of seduction, I would never have allowed you to take me up to the roof on New Year's Eve."
"What can I say? I believe in customer satisfaction," he laughed, playfully nipping at my ear.
"Really? Then I demand a refund. This morning's shower session certainly didn't live up to my expectations."
"Why you little-" He leaned down and lightly bit my neck, securely wrapping his arms around my waist so I wouldn't move. I laughed and squirmed, knowing that in a moment, the thought pressing on my mind would dramatically shift the mood.
"You sure fooled me this morning. What did you say? Oh, right." He paused, ceremoniously cleared his throat, and then adopted a satirical falsetto.
"Oh God Aubrey, please don't stop!"
"Shut up smartass and drink your champagne," I scolded.
He chuckled, brushed his lips against my neck, and then reclaimed the bottle. The alcohol was far from twisting and rearranging my senses, but the prospect of my change in topic fueled an adrenaline that tipped the world on its head. I shut my eyes and ever so slowly, Embry's face began to materialize, fuzzy and grainy, like a picture drawn on a broken Etch-A-Sketch. I could see him while feeling Aubrey's fingers on my waist, the measured rise and fall of his chest. I don't think I could ever forgive Embry for what he did and I know I couldn't forget. But I wanted to stop feeling like it was my burden alone to bear, my scarlet letter nailed to my back with the strongest of nails. I wanted to stop feeling dirty, used, as though this incident had been threaded into my fate all along.
I leaned closer into Aubrey, wishing I could confess without it seeming like I'd been placed on trial. Somewhere, a car alarm howled. Somewhere, in the thickets of this concrete jungle, someone gained their hearts desire and someone lost theirs forever. New York was a city that waited for no one, a cunning temptress that managed to salvage enough innocence to retain her loyal subjects. She was weathered but not weary and it seemed only appropriate, I thought, that all of the recent events and changes in my life could only happen in such an environment.
"Are you ok?" Aubrey asked.
"You got awful quiet all of a sudden. You know you can tell me anything, right?"
"So you sure you're ok?"
"Well what?" he prompted.
"It's just….I was thinking about Embry. And I wanted to make sure of something," I began.
"Yeah?" he wondered, the volume of his voice having noticeably dropped.
"I just…I was wondering how you felt about it. That you don't…look at me differently now. Because of what happened. I don't think I'll ever be able to forget it, but I'm not stuck in that particular moment anymore. I don't wake up everyday and relive it over and over again."
Gently, Aubrey twisted my torso to face him, worry and concern carved into his face, his mouth a straight line.
"Why in the world would I ever look at you differently?"
I tried not to look directly into his eyes for too long.
"Because I feel different. And because ever since I told you, you've never really brought it up."
"Myra, I didn't bring it up because I didn't want to force you to talk about it if you didn't want to."
I swallowed and with the tip of my index finger, traced his jawline.
"I guess I just wanted to make sure. My recent sessions with Dr. Paley have all been about opening up….breaking out of my habit of cynicism…and sometimes I find myself just looking for a reason, any reason at all that what we have is going to slip away. Stupid but…you know I haven't had much experience with relationships."
"I'd say that we've been through a lot more in the first year together than the average couple."
I couldn't help but smile at that. The man did have a point.
"What? You're saying that most couples don't come home to find ex-junkie friends slumming on their doorstep?"
"I'm gonna go with a no," he replied.
"You know how some couples are comfortable with each other? Like so comfortable it almost becomes a routine?" I wondered.
Aubrey nodded, his fingers traveling from my waist and to my shoulders, which he began to tenderly massage.
"I hope that never happens to us. I feel comfortable with you. I trust you. But I don't ever want this to feel like it's routine. Like we're just carrying out our roles."
He paused for a moment.
"I think that only happens with people who fall out of love. You can still love someone without being in love with them. It sounds really stupid when you say it out loud, but deep down, I think it's true. And it just shows that no one really knows what they're doing, you know?"
"That's the scary thing. People start a relationship and they think that they're going to stay together forever. They think, oh no, it's not going to happen to me. This is meant to be. And then a few months later, you wake up and you look at the other person in your bed, and you feel like it's too much work to even have a conversation with them."
"That's a pretty…jaded outlook," Aubrey observed, cocking an eyebrow.
"Is that bad?"
"I don't think it's a question if it's bad or good….just kind of surprising for someone that's only twenty-three."
"I'm changing, you know. Really, I am," suddenly adopting the tone of a young student eager to please the teacher.
"Me too," he admitted, with a roguish grin.
We kissed and I never wanted to come up for air.
It was a Sunday when it happened. I only remember that it was a Sunday because my mother had called and shockingly enough, we'd been able to hold a decent conversation until she pestered me about not ending morning mass. After repeatedly insisting that no, I was not an atheist, I had hung up the phone, unfortunately remembering the many reasons why we barely got along. I never worked on Sundays and had decided to spend the day lounging around the apartment, eating ice-cream from the carton, playing records and reading. (I had a huge stack of books I'd recently bought from The Strand that were practically begging to be opened.)
Aubrey had gotten up early to take care of "business," which was an unnecessary euphemism for another drug deal. The city looked stunning in the watery sunlight and I stretched out on the couch, book in hand, cup of coffee by my side, absentmindedly rubbing at the blossoming hickey on the right side of my neck. I'd have to remember to cover that up for work. Amy had called shortly after Aubrey left, insisting that the two of us go out for drinks around ten that night. Until then, I decided to remain in my pajamas, getting lost in the ethereal mixture of Regina Spektor and Richard Yates. I'd just finished another chapter when there was a pounding on the door. Head still foggy with the cocktail of music and literature, I rose and opened the door without bothering to look into the peep hole.
"Where is he?" the gruff voice demanded.
I jumped, the book falling out of my hands. The man who stood in front of me couldn't have been any older than twenty-four or twenty-five, but his face was lined with thick grooves, as though someone had taken pencil to paper and ripped clean through it. His dark, thick eyebrows added to the menacing, bottomless pit of his charcoal-colored eyes. The left one was pierced with a small, gold hoop. His black hair had recently undergone a buzz cut, revealing a perfectly rounded skull. His wiry frame was dressed in black, skinny jeans, a red plaid shirt, and slip-on Vans. He could've been any other New York twenty-something, someone I'd passed on the street, walking around The Village or St. Mark's Place. Yet the naked display of his hunger for a solution and the controlled fury in his voice hinted that he'd crawled from the underground, the world of drugs and insomnia and cutthroat business transactions that a naive girl from Vermont could never fathom. Instantly, I wished Aubrey were home.
"Are you….looking for Aubrey?" I wondered, frozen in place.
The man peered past my shoulder, taking in the furniture, the stack of records, the framed paintings, Aubrey's MacBook on the kitchen counter.
"Yeah, where is the little shit?"
"Um. I don't really know. He went out this morning. I haven't talked to him since."
The man sneered and my stomach caved in on itself.
"That figures. Listen sweetheart, you tell that son of a bitch boyfriend of yours that I don't appreciate getting scammed. When I pay good money for something, I expect quality. I don't care if he's on the in and in with Thatcher. He thinks he can overcharge me for shit that ain't even that good in the first place? Well, he had another thing coming. You tell him that, you hear?"
He punctuated his last sentence with a finger shoved straight in the center of my chest, sharp like the pointed tip of an arrow. I nodded, mouth dry, sluggishly reaching for the doorknob.
"Yes. I'll tell him."
I began to shut the door but the man jammed his foot in the way, his hand leeching onto my wrist. I tried to look past him, out into the hallway, but I found that I could only look straight into his eyes.
"He's not playing in the little leagues anymore. I'm not one of those NYU punks looking for a quick high. You tell your boyfriend that Quentin stopped by and he wants his money back. Or else."
I nodded, swallowing my fear, hoping my expression remained neutral.
Quentin's snarl split into a carnivorous smile, like a lion playing with its food. Releasing my wrist, he kissed my cheek and then patted the spot where his lips had been.
"That's a good girl. I knew you'd understand."
And without another word, he walked down the hall and disappeared.