“Charles,” Liz whispered, waking him from half-sleep. He opened his eyes, couldn’t see anything but dark. “You awake?”
He hadn’t heard her arrive. She crawled under the blanket with him and sat on his chest, a curvy sculpture of warm flesh. She was half-dressed at best. “You broke your promise,” he said lightly, testing her mood.
“Sorry,” she said. Her hands were on his chest now, tap-tap-tapping. They were rough and soft, somehow both and neither at the same time. They were warm too. “But admit it, you knew I would.”
He smiled a little. “Yes.”
“You sound nervous. I like you like this, you know?” She wiggled a little; she wouldn’t do him unless he started it, but it was too much fun making him squirm to resist. “Under my control. Maybe a little afraid I’m going to want you to cheat on your fiancée again and you’ll be powerless to stop yourself?”
“Oh, shush, I know you’re virtuous. Let me have my fantasy at least. I promise not to fuck with your fidelity tonight, if you’ll let me sleep next to you. And talk to me for a little while.” She slid herself backward–taking the blanket with her as she did–until she was sitting across his hips.
He was acutely aware that there was only a double layer of cloth and whatever meager restraint she possessed separating them. “I think I can manage that. Just remember, I’m a much better listener with my pants on.”
He got a playful punch in the chest for that. “I would like very badly to have you inside me,” she said. “I’m in a rotten melancholy mood and I could use the contact.” She paused, grinding her hips into him yet again.
“Liz,” Charles whispered.
“You’re breaking your promise again.”
“Hai, I guess I am.” Pressing into him. “I do that a lot.” Her words were suddenly heavy, carrying more meaning than the rest of her teasing tone.
He mustered the last of his crumbling resolve, hoping to delay what was looking more and more inevitable. “What do you mean by that?”
“Later,” she said. She reached behind her and found the waistband of his shorts with questing fingers. Charles quickly found himself claimed by slippery slopes both real and figurative.
Afterward, Liz felt stabilized, her thoughts less fragmented and sketchy. Her body felt comfortably used, and something inside felt like herself again. The comfortable feeling she’d gotten from Andrew was completely gone, though, and she was aware but not thinking consciously about the fact that she really missed it. It wasn’t the same with Charles.
She stayed on top of him, expecting him to make an angry speech, but he just caressed her arm lightly and stared at the ceiling, a look of vague pleasure on his face. Something was missing from the moment, though. Liz felt herself trying to push two vague notions in her head together, and couldn’t do it.
“I’ve been doing a terrible job of quitting,” she said finally.
“Is alive and well. And I’m so so glad I had a friend who noticed, and had the guts to tell me. I’ve been lying to everyone, Charles. I’ve been going out at night, and drinking, and then putting on a false face and telling myself that because I was drinking less, I was doing great. I hadn’t lost my job yet, so things were going perfectly.”
“They say that a support network is vital for people like you.” He almost winced at the way that sounded; ‘people like you,’ indeed.
Liz didn’t take offense. “It was all bullshit. I realized that I used to be my friends’ support network, a big part of it. We used to take care of each other. And I liked that. I miss it. I want it to be that way again.” She moved her hands in little circles on his chest. “They say it’s like you’re outside yourself, watching what’s going on and unable to stop, but it’s not like that at all. I’m inside the whole time. I never go anywhere. I tell myself that I shouldn’t be doing it, and I do it anyway. I can’t even act like my mind is divided and one side is screaming at the other, more powerful one. It’s all one mind. There is no arguing. I say that I shouldn’t do it, and while I’m saying it, I do it. I even think about how I shouldn’t be doing it while it’s happening. I don’t rationalize. I don’t feel guilty, either. I don’t have a conscious sense of having made a decision for better or for worse, it just is. God, does that make any sense at all? I never feel like I’m out of control, even though I’m thinking one thing and doing another, because there’s never a voice inside saying, No. It says, This is not what you said you would do, but there’s nothing positive or negative in it, it’s just a cold statement of facts, and I can’t have any emotions about it until later. Do you understand? This…thing, this need, it exists in a place beyond emotions. I don’t feel good or bad or relieved or ashamed of myself, not while it’s happening. I don’t feel anything. I just am, and it’s a part of me, and I can’t stop doing it any more than I could stop breathing. It’s not till later that my conscience eats me up, and I realize that I could have stopped myself, it even occurred to me more than once that I could and ought to, but I didn’t actually do it. And the next time around…the emotions are gone again, and I’m just fucking doing it again. And I don’t know how to break that cycle. I think I might be afraid to try. This last time, I thought about stopping, I seriously did, and I was afraid of what would happen if I did. Would the craving just get worse? What if it got so bad I couldn’t function, couldn’t work? What if it got so bad that the next time, I wasn’t careful, and I got caught and made everything worse? Perhaps it was better to just do it while the desire was controllable, to keep it from getting so bad I’d be obsessive. And all the while I was thinking about this, I was going right on doing it, till finally it was too late to think about stopping because we were most of the way there anyway. When I sit back and watch this charade…I’ve never hated myself so much. I’m pathetic. It’s not that I can’t be helped, it’s that I’m not worth helping. I don’t want to waste my own effort helping myself–it’s better spent helping other people.”
Charles shifted his elbows so that his hands touched her knees. It was more comfortable than having them behind his head, and he hoped she didn’t misinterpret the move.
“So I’m quitting for real. You know, I told my dad that I was shaving my head as punishment, and that I wouldn’t have hair until I was clean. And I was kind of pulling it out of my ass, but I think I really will do that. I’m going to go home and shave it again, and every time I take a drink I’m going to shave it again, and ten years from now I’ll be able to know how well I’m doing by how long my hair is. I think I’d like that.”
“Are you going to dye it green again?”
“I dunno. Probably not. My mom will be happy. I had my hair green since high school, you know?”
“I suppose she will be surprised.”
Liz gave a short sigh, like a laugh. “I want to be a new Elizabeth Bahti. I have to get rid of the bad stuff and keep the good stuff. I don’t think…” She took a deep breath. “It took me till today to realize that my short-term memory is probably a mess because of the alcohol. I can’t remember more than three things at a time any more. I can’t remember recipes. If I go out to do four things, I have to write them down, like an old lady, and I only just realized, my God, that’s brain damage. Real brain damage, and I’m only twenty-five. I don’t think I was always such a waste of life, Charles. I really don’t. That means I don’t have to keep being one, right?”
“No, you don’t,” he said. He squeezed her knees, and thought of Nikki.
“I wanted to tell you about something I keep thinking about, a memory or a dream, I’m not sure which,” she added, answering her own question. “Do you want me to move?” Her fingers drummed on his chest again.
Charles tried to convince himself that she wasn’t taunting him and was paying his helplessly reawakened erection–which she couldn’t have failed to notice since she was all but sitting on it–no mind. He was deeply upset with himself for wanting her as much as he did. He didn’t love Andrea any less, but the desire to roll around with Liz for another night was a sudden, physical need. Interesting sensation, in light of what Liz had just been saying. He finally shook his head. “No, no, it’s okay. It’s just that Andrea–“
“Oh, fuck your wife-to-be, the hell with her, I’m not trying to steal you from her Charles, you should know that. So screw her. I know what you did makes you uncomfortable and confused, but you’re human and it’s done, so deal with it. Right now I don’t care much.” Liz leaned forward, crossing her forearms on Charles’s chest, putting even more of herself in contact with him. “Never mind, I take that back,” she said. She was so soft…he resisted the urge to reach up to her. “I’m being completely selfish, you know. I’m sorry…that what we did upsets you. But only partly. Part of me thinks you needed to be a little upset. It’s good to know what you’re capable of.” She snorted laughter. “I think an ex named Valentine told me that. I won’t do it again if you don’t want to. I mean it. I want to be your friend, if you’ll have me.”
“All I was ever after,” he said.
“I could be insulted by that, but I won’t. Do you want to hear about what’s been recurring in my head for the past couple of hours?”
“No, not the lawyer voice. I want to tell Charles, my friend, not Charles the lawyer.”
He tried to cross his arms behind his head again, but his hands brushed her bare hips instead and he dropped them instead, hoping she didn’t think he’d touched her on purpose. “Okay. No shop-talk.”
“After I got Ondrew home, I started thinking. About Valentine, and all the shit we did in LA. I think it might have something to do with the money. And a thing kept popping into my mind. It’s like a scene from a movie, more than a memory. But it’s me. I remember myself laughing, laughing so hard I can’t even move, and I’m laughing because Valentine has just flung a brand-new Mercedes off a cliff. It’s stolen, of course. I don’t know from where. He points it at the edge, puts it in gear and lets it go, and I’m laughing my ass off, either because of the way the headlights look when they flash on the trees as it goes over, or because of the noise it makes when it hits. It reminds me of the sound an empty milk jug makes when you stomp on it. Only a lot louder.”
“Either way, it’s desperately funny to me to have thrown a hundred thousand dollars worth of car off of a cliff. I can’t be sure but I think my friend Pogo is there, too, and if he is I think he’s holding that briefcase. And tied to that is another fragment, of me and Valentine and Pogo sitting on a concrete ledge somewhere, on some building that overlooks a forest. It’s nighttime both of these times, but I don’t know if it’s the same night or not. And I can’t remember a briefcase for sure, but I know Pogo was carrying something both times. If he was there both times. Shit. I just can’t remember. Valentine’s standing on the ledge…” She stopped. “I can’t remember, Charles. I don’t even know if it’s real.”
“Are you afraid of incriminating yourself?”
“Fuck off, lawyer. I wasn’t talking to you. I’m just telling you what’s on my mind. You want to hear another one? I remember one night we were on the roof of someplace, a Something Administrative Building somewhere, Valentine and I, just the two of us, watching the stars. He had his head in my lap, and he said ‘Liz?’ and I answered him ‘Yes?’ and he didn’t say anything. I waited for him to respond, and after about thirty seconds he said it again, and I answered him again, the same way, and he was quiet for even longer, and then he said my name again, in that same scared little voice. He went on like that for like forty minutes, calling my name in that little voice and me answering ‘yes’ every time, over and over, like he just wanted to know that I was listening.”
“Do you have any idea what was wrong with him?”
“I have an idea. He just needed to be felt. Does that make sense? He needed some kind of soul-to-soul contact.”
“What do you mean?”
“Someone…a friend. Not a customer. Not a cashier, or a passerby. Those people are just objects to your soul. You need someone who knows your name, knows what makes you laugh, and cares. Someone who wants to know. Otherwise…” She fell silent.
Liz sighed. “Otherwise you dry up and die and blow away in the wind.”
He reached up and put his hands on her knees again, lightly. “You feel the same way, don’t you?”
She didn’t answer for a while. “The world is chewing lots of people to bits, Charles. And dealing with it hurts, but I’m not going to crawl back into a bottle to hide any more. I mean it this time.” She lay down again, turning her ear to his chest. “I never asked you if you had a house in San Francisco. What’s it like?”