You wake up in a cold sweat face down in a crumpled sweatshirt on your bedroom floor. Your throat is dry and hoarse and before you have time to get a drink of water you are seized by a dry-heaving cough that is debilitating and somehow cathartic.
After regaining control you slam down the button on top of your digital alarm clock that has been obnoxiously trying to rouse you since 9:30.
Your headache implausibly eases ever so slightly. Enough that completely opening your eyes becomes possible.
Your eyes adjust to the southerly glow of morning streaming through the half-drawn shades and you take in the orderly blankness of your room’s empty walls.
Your nose is running and it itches fiercely.
Last night’s shirt serves as a tissue and in addition to some unholy phlegm your nostrils are coated in dried blood that your memory seems to have excluded from its reportage.
The hardwood floor of the hellway causes you to momentarily recoil before skipping into the bathroom where the chilled tiles are even less welcoming to bare feet.
A look in the mirror gives little indication of the cause or injury. You look ghastly but unharmed. The dark rings around your eyes indicate the months of fitful sleep that has passed for rest. An uneven and prickly beard coming unbidden.
The digital clock underneath the mirror reads 9:43 and you are somewhat surprised to be up so early on day you deliberately try to sleep through every week.
Again you are seized up by a violent coughing fit. You collapse over the toilet and retch up nothing in particular in an attempt to expel whatever evil has your lungs and throat in its icy, poisonous grasp. Needles in your throat flare and the sense of lightheadedness dulls the seerign headache enough for you to fill a plastic cup up with tap water and gulp it greedily down without choking.
You sit down heavily against the bathtub on top of the small rectangular shag carpet that you inherited from your older brother’s first SOHO apartment. It is dirty and not particularly comfortable but compared to the tile it suits your modest needs, never more so than right now.
On the wall in the hallway is a black and white portrait of a scowling owl that you found in a thrift store in Southeast Ohio.
Its dark eyes burnished with anger and untold resentment, no matter where you stand the owl always seems to be staring directly at you in stark judgment. For a year it was above your small television in the living room but multiple complaints provoked the change of venue to a slightly less antagonistic location. The belligerence evinced by the owl’s severely furrowed brow and wide, all-seeing eyes had become a reasonable approximation of your own mood as of late so that when a young woman whose name you could not recall came out of the bathroom at 8 AM she was unsettled enough to leave that much quicker and sooner. Morning conversation became less feasible after this inevitable confrontation and you were satisfied to once more be alone, as if the previous evening was yet another eight hour block of time that neither didn’t occur or occur. Like a wisp of undependable, patchy text, if existed only in the corners of your eyes where its presence was felt without ever truly being seen. And anything unseen can remain comfortably unacknowledged.
In the living room a a few half-empty cans of inexpensive beer sit on the Ikea coffee table amid two empty whiskey bottles. The tv is on with the volume muted and the morning news drones inaudibly on.
You turn off the tv and sit down on the couch. A half-empty pack of Parliaments stares at you from the table next to an open jar of uneaten pickles. You look around the room for a lighter and find a matchbook from the dingy bar in the basement of your building.
The cigarettes tastes dry and your throat rebels as if to warn you of another imminent coughing fit but as you take long, deep drags your resolve holds and the coughs never materialize. You ash into a Diet Coke can that has been cut in half and when you are finished you douse the smoking butt with stale beer whose smell reminds you of college parties that you never quite enjoyed as much as everyone else.
Outside, on the fire escape, three pigeons are sleeping peacefully through what appears to be an unseasonably warm March morning.
The headache returns, in earnest, poised behind your left ear tickling your skull like a plastic knife. You close your eyes tightly, grab a pillow, lean back, and cover your face.
You come to when the hip-hop song clip ringtone is on its third circuit through the chorus.
The living room is dark and greying. Your eyes slowly adjust to the dim late-afternoon light and follow the sound. Across the room, on a bookshelf that houses your broken-spined Norton Anthologies, is your vibrating phone.
You shuffle across the floor to pick it up. You step in something wet and look down to notice that you are wearing one sock and standing in beer. On the phone is your mother, whom you haven’t spoken to in several weeks. Not since you asked her for the check that promptly arrived a few days later. Your shame prevents you from answering. So instead you stand there staring at the screen until the voicemail icon pops up. You touch the icon and your mother’s familiar voice begins, “Hi Reed, Its your mother…I’m just checking in since I haven’t heard from you…Call me. Mom.”
You put the phone down as nausea surges up from your stomach through your ravaged esophagus and dry throat to occupy your nostrils, eyes and sinuses. You stumble back the couch and have just barely laid down when more violent shutters seize your shoulders, back and abdomen. You involuntarily shake like a doll for a handful of long seconds that are as interminable as they are painful. You become dimly aware of a high-pitched shrieking that may or may not be coming from your throat and as quickly as it begun it ends.
You breathe deep, haggard breathes and stare up at the ceiling as if its going to collapse on you. Long moments pass in silence and the thin slivers of daylight evaporate into the ether and, finally, you are enveloped by heavy, unapologetic darkness.
Your thoughts return to last night’s half-memories.
Stefan spilling bourbon on the couch and then burning a hole in the fabric with a dangling cigarette.
Wes doing sixty pushups and then throwing up on the living room floor and laughing at his reflection in the mirror as he flexed like a body builder.
The journey down to Grandpa’s Tavern. Splitting cigarettes as you walked. The whistle of the wind between buildings and the echo of car horns and voices between letterless glass and steel crossword puzzles that rise up like mountains around you. How the emptiness and silence opened up as the four of you trudged across the park and the vastness of everything felt imminent and real and tangible and you were, in a way, frightened at your own yawning insignificance among so much gross and unfathomable largesse. So much experience that it cannot, reasonably, be comprehended or contained.
The moment of philosophical thought escaped into the brisk night and disappeared among spindly, naked trees that seem ghoulish and sinister, if a bit malnourished. They lord over parks and streets everywhere in winter like silent guardians.
Cassidy puts her hand through yours and pushes against your arm and shoulder as you walk.
“I love you,” she whispers through the knit scarf wrapped around her face.
You’re heart lurches and it takes an act of heroic willpower not to shudder physically in surprise and embarrassment at your own predictability.
“I love you too,” you croak after what feels like too long.
She leans on your shoulder reassuringly and you relax because you know she believed you and for now you won’t have to lie to yourself again because the truth is that you do lover her and that you always have and that you have waited years for this moment and even after years of waiting it caught you offguard and now you are afraid because you feel unprepared for how significant this moment has now become and you fear you may ruin it or permanently scar your relationship with someone whom you have adored since you laid eyes on her and now you have her but fear you will lose her and the thought of losing her floods you with horror and anxiety and sadness and that sadness washes over the happiness you felt ever so briefly and now you are grim and angry and hate her for the power she wields even while you love her for her brilliance and frankness and freckles and lips and the way her hands smell like ink and peaches at the same time while her breath reminds you of almonds except when she drinks whiskey or smokes a cigarette and then you feel nostalgic for when you first met her and she was dating other guys and you were just friends and she would confide in you things that seemed so meaningful and now that you have her and she loves you you wonder how it could get better and worry it can only get worse and if so what is the point of any of this if it all just eventually goes away?
This rushes through your mind in a matter of seconds as three or four memories and images compressed like individual frames of a film that altogether create only three seconds of a movie but your thoughts are deep and pregnant and wide and when Cassidy kisses your cheek you come back to the park and smell Stefan’s Marlboro and here Wes laugh and Caroline is skipping and you laugh for no reason and Cassidy laughs because you laughed and you snuggle into her and put your arm around her and you can see the bar down the block and you are glad to almost be there with your friends and Cassidy and glad you have her right now in your arms and glad that you’ll have tonight and if you are lucky tomorrow and the day after and you resolve to stop worrying and become happier and work harder to smile more and give Cassidy the love she deserves and has never had and to tell her every day that you adore her and remind her that you have loved her for years without wavering and that this was meant to be the way it is until it isn’t but you can’t worry about that yet and so you don’t.