by John Godfrey

    Thick rays of sunlight penetrated the room and highlighted the cigarette smoke. Nothing brings around the gross reality of the next morning like a dose of hot sunshine. It's very condescending stuff; a bright reminder that you should be outside taking advantage of it.

    The girl beside me was still asleep. She wasnt half bad. I had picked her up at a strip joint where she had entered the Friday night wet t-shirt contest. I remember only bits and pieces: buying rounds of shots and comparing tattoos.

    I dropped my cigarette in a beer can and grabbed my phone. I dialled my voice mail number and braced myself for some horrible message from one of the boys, filling me in on all the awful, embarrassing shit I don't remember doing. They do it because I hate it. I figure I blackout for such huge chunks of time because my brain recognizes that my drunken actions are far too harmful as memories. In my experience, anxiety of the unknown beats the shame of the known.

    First missed call: Hi Eric, it's Carolyn. I felt the blood drain from my face and flood my heart. It started hammering the inside of my chest. What a sweet, perfect voice. I hadn't heard it in months. My palms started to sweat and shake.

    I was hoping to drop by this afternoon and pick up my last box of stuff. You probably thought I forgot about it. I have a bit of shopping to do, then I was thinking I could come by around one? I still have my key, so if you're not home I was just going to pop in and slide the key under your door on the way out. Don't worry though, I'll still knock since you're probably just asleep right now. Okay then I'll maybe see you soon Bye.

     I checked the time on my phone: 12:37. Lot's of time to prepare but none to waste. The stripper stirred and made that wonderful purring sound that sleeping women make: almost a squeal, almost a moan. I grabbed a corner of her blanket and yanked it across the room. Get up! I yelled.

    She snapped awake and onto an elbow with a dumb, bewildered look on her face. What's wrong? she said.

    No time to explain! I said, It's about work. You have to go.

    Why, she said, Can't I just sleep in some more? I promise I won't steal anything.

    She was cute, but I had no time for her. Out of the question, I said. I might be gone for weeks. I grabbed her wrist and pulled her out of bed.

    I get it, she said, I know this routine.

    I bet you do, I said. That did the trick. She whined and bitched with increasing volume and intensity, nearly to the point of physical violence. Had I not offered her forty bucks for a cab and some raw toast for breakfast, she would have surely clawed my face to pieces. She took the money and threw the bread in my face.

    As soon as she was out the door I cracked a beer, but I gagged up the first sip. For all the excitement I had forgotten how hangover I was. I found half a bottle of vodka in the freezer and poured a glass with lots of orange juice. The sugar masked the awful stuff well enough, and I downed the entire glass. I took a breather, poured another one and finished it. My stomach gurgled in protest, but I felt no nausea, only a warm wave of confidence. I held out my hand: steady as a rock.

    I cleaned up the condoms and spills but left the empties. What a perfect time for her to show up, I thought. Nothing injects jealousy like empty glasses and the smell of sex. I took another shot at the beer, and with the vodka already gone to work my body gave no protest.

    I lit a cigarette and collapsed on the couch with my beer. I switched the TV on and found an old war movie on the history channel. Mortars were coming in hard, blowing mud and men to pieces. The soldiers yelled and screamed at their friends still intact and for the ones now in chunks. Then the music quit and the movement slowed. I didn't know one character from another, but it was clear enough that someone important was about to take one in the throat or the chest. A gruesome end was coming, but not before some final bonding between soldiers. The ultimate moment between men.

    Her knock was soft and polite. Come in! I shrieked, a little drunk and excited from the incoming fire.

    Hi Eric, she said, and she came around the corner. My heart didn't stop, the vodka made sure of that, but it kicked back into high gear. She had changed her hairstyle and makeup since I'd last seen her, and her beauty had a new sharpness. As long as I'd known her she'd never done herself up like the girls you see at the clubs on wild Friday nights. She always looked more sweet and cute than sexy. The kind of girl you want to kill spiders and open tough jar lids for. She still had that look, but with more fire.

    Hi! I said.

    Drinking a beer?

    It's after twelve, I said.

    She laughed. A wonderful thing. That rule isn't really the same when you don't wake up until one. There's still sleep in your eyes.

    You want one? I said, It would make me feel better if you did.

    She paused, and a tense moment later said, Sure. But only to make you feel better.

    Good! I said, and grabbed two more beers from the fridge. I handed her one and she perched herself on the armrest of the couch. She used to sit there when she was trying to get something done, not wanting to commit to the cushion next to mine and it's endless hours of talk and play.

    It smells like strippers in here, she said, eyeing a wine glass on the coffee table.

    My new hobby, I said, and she giggled. So much for jealousy. We made small talk for awhile, dancing around the emotions that bubbled closer to the surface with every beer. The short pauses in conversation grew heavy.

    I went to The Cedar House last night, she said.

    A good bar, I said.

    Yeah Do you remember the last time we went there?

    I laughed. This was the breaking point of the conversation, and she had brought it on by mentioning a fine point in our relationship. The Cedar House was a popular bar with a tacky quirkiness that she loved, and we had been drinking specialty beer for a few hours on a hot Saturday night. We left, I hailed a cab and turned to kiss her, but her face was twisted with disgust. What's wrong? I said.

    Nothing, she said, and we got into the cab where I pressed her further.

    Finally she said, Some guy grabbed my ass while you were paying the bill.

    Pull over! I yelled at the cab driver. What guy?

    She refused to tell me at first, but I pushed it and she finally described him. I remembered the bastard: he was tall, lanky and loud, and his group of rowdy friends had been hard not to notice.

    Stay here, I said, and got out of the cab. I walked back into the bar and found him at his table with six other goons. There was only one way to handle this prick. I walked quickly towards him, keeping my eyes behind him. Two paces away I wound up, and he turned to face me as my fist cracked him in the eye. It was a good hit. He went limp and the force knocked him off his chair, and I turned and walked quickly out of the bar, carefully weaving through the thick group of customers. I heard frantic hollering and crashing behind me. They were too blood thirsty to efficiently move through a packed crowd. The bouncers focused on the drunken charge behind me and I slipped through the door and took off running.

    Let's go, I told the cabbie and slammed the door shut. Carolyn looked worried and upset.

    What did you do? She said. Her eyes were big and threatened tears.

    Nothing, I said. She looked out the back window. The bouncers had caught three of them and were demanding an explanation for the chaos. The other two were scanning the street, screaming at cabs and innocent pedestrians.

    You hit him, didn't you? She said, I didn't ask you to do that, Eric, you're not some thug. What if they had gotten a hold of you? She started getting angry, and then she noticed my hand. Two of the knuckles had started to swell, and it was throbbing and turning purple.

    Oh my God, she said, and the anger melted. Baby She gently took my hand and examined it and slowly turned it over. She slid over to the middle seat, nudged her head under my left arm, nestled into my chest and took my hand carefully into her lap.

    It was a good memory, and I was glad she brought it up. That was some top notch romance, I said.

    It sure was, she said, and she stood up from the arm rest. Do you want another beer?

    Absolutely, I said, and when she came back she sat next to me on the couch. We talked and laughed for awhile, and while she drank a third beer and I a fifth, I decided I wanted her back.

    Are you seeing anyone? I said. It had been in the back of my mind since she walked into the apartment, but I didn't mean to blurt it out so unexpectedly. She turned away and I was gripped in terror, trying to act as if her answer made no difference.

    No, she said.

    I think you are, I said, I can tell. I know you too well.

    Well I guess I am, but it's nothing serious, she said.

    Who is he?

    She seemed offended by the question. It doesn't matter, she said, And maybe it's none of your business. I didn't ask you whose wine glass that is.

    I know him, don't I?

    It doesn't matter.

    Yes it does! I screamed. Her face twisted into a look I knew well. She rose from the couch and made her way to the door.

    I don't know why I stayed, she said, I should have just taken my things and left.

    Goddamn right you should've, I said, trying hard to sound heartless. I felt a strong desire to grab her and kiss her. I stood up and walked after her.

    It's Brandon, she said, and I froze.

    FUCK! I screamed. I threw my bottle at the wall. It exploded in foam and glass shards and left a dent.

    Oh my god, Eric, she said. She was down the front hall where I couldn't see her. I heard the front door open and I thought she had made her escape, but then she whimpered, barely loud enough for me to hear. She was standing in the doorway, out of view, waiting for the last word; a final nail to be brutally hammered into the lid our coffin. I leaned against the bookshelf, paralyzed, and the door slammed shut.

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