By Dan Hoffman
My friend Michelle was in town visiting her family so I invited her over for a nice brunch to show her a good time before she left. She had called me up a few weeks ago and said she wanted to do something fun when she saw me and that she would need a break from her parents. Understandable, if you ask me. I was happy to have her around, especially since my ex-girlfriend just moved out and I knew some company could help stop me thinking about her.
Less than a year ago Michelle left here to get her career started in Washington D.C. We first met in rehab at the Behavioral Health Science Center; she was a young college students and I was about to hit 30. I had been living in North Carolina working odd temp jobs, drawing and painting a little on the side, and very occasionally selling artwork. I was taking a lot of pills, too. Pills in the morning to help my hang-over, pills in the afternoon to lighten the mood at work, pills in the evening when I went out. Eventually I ran out of money and had to move back to Pennsylvania and live with my mom, who said she wouldn’t have me if I didn’t clean myself up and go to rehab. I had no choice and checked myself in.
We met in a group session; the theme of this one was automatic thoughts, like when something upsetting pops into your head. You just let it glide on by with everything else going on up there and don’t give it any attention. Easier said than done, of course. Afterwards Michelle approached me outside during the break. Everyone went outside to smoke between sessions. “You can’t stop every addiction at once,” the social worker said. She had a point. She was out there lighting up sometimes, too.
“Can I bum a cigarette?” she had asked me. I handed her one. She was about ten years younger than I was and had long brown hair with bangs and pale skin with freckles. “Do you ever feel like they’re insulting our intelligence in there?” she said. “Like if we just fill out enough work-sheets and set enough ‘goals,’ it will all work out?”
Of course I appreciated her assumption that I was on the level. You can’t walk up to anyone in the psych ward and say something like that. You don’t want to undermine their faith in the social workers. We told each other our stories about how we’d got there. She was halfway through college when her boyfriend broke his arm. He got some painkillers out of the deal and shared them with her. But a little while after that he left. He told her he couldn’t be in a relationship anymore. “There’s usually a break-up involved,” I had to say. I spoke from my own experience. After that, Michelle got in with another guy who had more than pain pills to offer.
“You’ll be okay,” I told her. “Shit happens. But you’re young, and the fact of the matter is, if you’re smart, and you are, you’ll figure it out.” I started saying this offhandedly, it’s one of those things you say to young people in a bad spot, but I realized that I meant it. She was smart. She smiled at me. “You’ve been to college, you’ve been around, you’ll finish school. Just keep going.”
Then I told her my story. I’ve been around. This wasn’t my first time in rehab. It wouldn’t be my last, either. I’d lived in several states after I moved way from home, finding the most trouble when I was in Vegas. Big surprise.
Michelle was impressed by my stories, in the way youth admires people who’ve been through a lot. She could tell I’d been around the block. Smoking was prohibited on hospital grounds, so we had to move to the edge of the parking lot to avoid being noticed. It was summer, and the pavement was radiating an oppressive heat. God, it was ugly. Michelle had flattered me, in her own way, and that was meaningful coming from a young, pretty girl. You have to hold on to something when you’re in rehab, when you don’t feel very good about many things. “You’re too interesting for this town,” she said.
Well, I never left it after that. It wasn’t long after I finished rehab that my friend Rick and I moved in together, and then before I knew it he found his own place and my girlfriend moved in. I guess she kept me from leaving. Now that’s over.
Of course Michelle had met my girlfriend before she moved to D.C, so I had to explain why now I lived alone. But most of all I avoided the subject. I didn’t want to get into sentimental stuff.
In fact I was feeling good the few days of Michelle’s visit, mostly because one of her friends from D.C had given her a bottle of pain pills, and she agreed to give me half of them—as long as I promised I wouldn’t get more. After an initial period of quitting cold turkey, I still indulge now and then. Michelle’s not opposed to popping a few, either. Nobody said rehab works perfectly.
The day before the brunch I made elaborate preparations. I went to the liquor store and bought champagne and vodka. I went to Sim’s Market on Broad Street for their fresh-squeezed orange juice. I drove to the big supermarket in the township and bought bagels, lox, and cream cheese. I got everything I needed to make my own bloody mary mix. Normally I’m not one for all this shopping, but the painkillers made it enjoyable enough. In the end I spent over a hundred dollars, a lot of money for a guy like me to throw around.
The morning of the brunch I woke up and helped myself to a few pills. Michelle came over at around 10:30 to help me prepare. I offered her a pill. “So it’s gonna be that kind of day?” she said. Her hair was short now, but she knew how to wear it that way. She’d aged in the few years since I’d met her, but so had I.
“So how’d it go last night?” I asked. I knew she’d been to dinner with her parents.
“Well—you know parents,” she said.
I sympathized. I imagined her sitting at the Apollo, where the lighting is dim and lawyers sit and drink fancy cocktails. The place puts me off. I’m sure if puts off Michelle, too, with its trendy, youthful pretense. It must have seemed like a joke to her, coming from a city with a population more than ten times ours. But it’s the hip place to eat in this town.
“So who else is coming?” she asked.
“Well, my friend Lana from work and my old pal Rick, who you met the other night when we had drinks at Ripper’s.”
“Ah, yeah I like him.”
“How about a mimosa?”
“Why not?” Michelle said. She was sitting in an armchair next to my fireplace, which was blocked up by the landlord and doesn’t’ work, with a blanket on her lap. Funny that a guy like me has an fireplace, I thought for the first time. “Wasn’t Lana there that time when I was around for new years, my senior year?” she said.
She had been there, I recalled. It was about two years after we met when she called me out of the blue and asked me what my plans were for New Years. Hers had fallen through and she was stuck in the Valley, home from college over winter break. I invited her over to Tiqua’s, an old bar that was across from Lana’s apartment on Main Street—our watering hole, you could say. I could tell Michelle was on something, but I wasn’t worried about her because I knew she had more or less cleaned up her act a while before that. It was New Years, after all. I’m sure I was on something too. We went hard that night and stayed up smoking cigarettes in Lana’s apartment until early in the morning.
In the kitchen I fixed a mimosa. I took another pill. I figured I might as well use them while they were around. When I came back she had let Lana in. “Hey Steve!” she greeted me.
Lana’s about my age. She lives alone and dates an older guy who has some white collar job around here. At the restaurant where I wait tables she’s usually scheduled the same time as me. She’s got a mouth on her. She’s always reminding me how much I like the hostess’s breasts. “I’ll bet you want to titty fuck Mary-Fran, don’t you?” she’ll say to get me going. Well, Mary-Fran does have nice breasts.
“Do you remember Michelle?” I asked. It felt like the fun had started. We just had to wait for Rick, and then things would really take off.
“Of course – you were a real riot that time. There’s some pretty good photos on Facebook of the night, if I remember correctly. You were hitting on that poor guy. He didn’t know what to do. You can be really dirty, your looks are deceiving.”
“Well I was living erratically then, you could say. Supposedly, now I’m an adult,” she said with a grin.
“Yeah, sure,” Lana said. “How’ve you been? What’s it been, two or three years, something like that?”
I handed Michelle her mimosa, wondering how she would reply. “You want anything?” I said to Lana.
“How about we go make some bloody marys?”
“I think it’s a few years since that night. I’ve been okay. I have my ups and downs. You know how it is,” Michelle said.
“Yeah I know. Steve tells me you’re a real yuppie, making it big over in the capital. Well you’re looking good. You’re looking smart,” Lana said.
In the kitchen we got out the ingredients for the bloody marys. We each took a shot of vodka too. The last few pills I took were starting to kick in. There was a warm feeling in my head. I lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply.
“Are you alright Steve? You look a little weird in the eyes,” Lana said. The pills must have been dilating my pupils. I didn’t want Lana to know I’d been popping–she’d get pissed and kill the mood. I insisted I was fine but when I got to the living room I set my drink down and headed to the bathroom to look in the mirror. I couldn’t see anything amiss. I just had to make sure I behaved. I looked in my medicine cabinet for something that would even me out and found a bottle of Adderol. Those would do.
When I got downstairs Lana and Michelle were smoking cigarettes and talking. It sounded like girl talk. None of my business. Michelle looked good with a cigarette in her hand. It seemed like she was getting more talkative. Had she taken a few of her pain pills? All the better. I sat down on my couch next to Lana. I was getting anxious for us to start eating. I lit up another cigarette. It seemed like there was a lull in conversation, and I was starting to feel tired.
“It looks like Steve got a lot of stuff for us. He never does this kind of thing. It’s rare,” Lana said to Michelle. “Why don’t you class it up every once in a while, huh Stevo? You’re living here all alone in this bachelor pad, selling weed to your neighbors. You gotta spruce it up a little.”
“Yeah Steve, make an effort,” Michelle said, grinning.
“Now wait a minute, up until recently I had a live-in girlfriend here. It’s been hard since then. I gotta lot on my mind,” I said, half defensively, half joking.
“You’re a modern man, adrift in the world,” Michelle remarked.
“Damn right. You hear that Lana?” I felt good. Perhaps things were flowing again. I took a sip of my bloody mary and puffed my cigarette.
“You seem alright considering it wasn’t so long ago that Caitlin left,” Lana said.
“Laughter’s the cure, as I always say,” I said.
“Well, keep it up.”
Someone knocked on the door and and opened it. I saw that it was Rick. Behind him was a young woman with a girl would couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. I did a double take and realized who they were. It was Rick’s on-and-off girlfriend Amber and her daughter.
“Hi Rick. Hi Amber,” I said. I could barely contain my disappointment at the sight of these two tagging along. I had never liked Amber, and how she brought Rick down. I tried to give him a mean look but he wasn’t paying attention.
“And what’s your name?” Lana was saying to the girl. I looked around. I had a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. So did Michelle and Lana. I was starting to feel a little sped up from the Adderol. And here was an eight-year-old girl in my living room.
“This is Ariel,” Amber said. “Say hello Ariel.” I caught Lana’s eye and shrugged my shoulders. She gave me a knowing look. What was I supposed to do?
“Hi,” the girl said.
“Hey Rick, how about you and I go into the kitchen and get things ready?” I said. He followed me in there and handed me a bottle of Gordon’s gin. “What’s this?” I said.
“It’s for today, to go with brunch.”
“What am I supposed to make with gin, Rick?”
“I dunno, it was Amber’s idea.”
I closed the door behind me and lit another cigarette. Usually I’m not so confrontational, but the pain pills were boosting my confidence. I went into the cabinet where I’d stashed the them and discreetly swallowed a few. “What’s that?” Rick said.
“Damn it Rick, you know I don’t get along with Amber. And the kid! What were you thinking? Of course it was Amber’s idea for you to bring Gordon’s gin. Damn it!” I wasn’t yelling, but my voice was raised. I wondered if they could hear me in the other room.
“She’s my girlfriend, Steve, what do you want me to do?” I thought of some things I wanted him to do, but before I could say anything Amber walked into the kitchen.
“Can I talk to you?” she said to me.
“How can I help you, Amber?” I said as pleasantly as possible. I took a big drag of my cigarette and finished off my bloody mary while the two of them whispered to each other. If I had listened closer I might have heard what they said but I was paying attention to the warm feeling in my head. There was an open bottle of champagne and I poured some into a glass. There wasn’t enough room for orange juice so I drank that down and started over again. I got it right the second time.
“Are you paying attention Steve?” Rick said.
“Yeah yeah what is it?”
“Look, I hate to hit you up but I know you usually have pills around and it’s been really hard for me to get a hold of anything lately. Could you help me out?” Amber said.
I couldn’t believe it. As far as she knew, I had nothing. I looked over at Rick and he shrugged his shoulders. “Sorry, I have nothing other than a few sleeping pills.” I looked at Rick and said smugly, “Will you see to it that your guests behave themselves?”
“Come on, Steve,” Rick said.
I ignored him and began putting out the lox and cream cheese with the bagels. I opened the door and called out for everyone to come serve themselves. “Lets start with bagels and if we’re hungry I’ll cook up some more stuff.” As she spread cream cheese on her bagel, Amber gave me a look. I returned it.
“Come on,” she said. “You know what it’s like.”
“Hey everyone,” I said, ignoring her and feeling in high spirits, despite the unwanted guests. “How about a toast for my friend Michelle here? We met almost five years ago when she was still in college, and now she’s made it over at the capital. Here’s to her and the great success she’s had.” I lifted my glass and toasted, looking over at Michelle. I hoped she appreciated the gesture, but I couldn’t tell.
“Ah Steve you’re such a sentimental guy,” Lana said.
“At times, at times,” I said.
“I might as well make a toast, too,” Michelle said. “Steve and I have really been through the shit. He can tell you that. When we met we were really in the shit. We understand each other. Here’s to a man who’s on the level. And what’s more, here’s to being in the shit!” Michelle tends to get verbose when she’s on opiates; I’d seen this before. We all lifted our glasses and toasted while I gave her a knowing look. I couldn’t have said it better myself. I was feeling damn good. I hugged her and told her that everything was going to be okay.
“What’s gonna be okay?” she said.
“Ah—everything, you know.”
“You’re a crazy guy Steve,” she said.
We all went back to my living room with our plates of food. The kid was sitting listlessly on the couch looking at her iPhone. What the hell does a little kid like that need an iPhone for? I’d even forgotten she was there. Rick and Amber sat down next to her and Amber patted her head, handing her a plate with some food on it. On principle I resolved not to talk to the child, to drive it home that I was not pleased with her presence. Besides, I wouldn’t know how to talk to a kid.
“How about we all take a shot to kick things off?” I suggested. I wanted things to get messy. It’s more fun that way.
“Damn, Stevo, it’s one in the afternoon.” I looked at my watch. She was right, it was only one. I wondered again about the little girl being there, but she seemed distracted by her phone. Had anyone that young ever been in my apartment? “But you know I’m always down to party. Let’s just try and behave ourselves since we got a kid here,” Lana said.
“What’s a shot, mommy?” the girl said. I was surprised to hear her talk even that much. But what do I know about kids?
“It’s when you drink a really small glass of something in one gulp,” Amber said. By then I’d already poured out five shots of the Gordon’s.
“Can I have one?” the girl said. That got a laugh out of me.
“Uh, honey… it’s not really something kids do. Maybe when you’re a few years older,” she said.
“Ah let the kid take one, just pour out some OJ instead,” Rick said. This was all very entertaining to me. I went into my kitchen, got another shot glass and filled it with orange juice.
“Here we go,” I said, handing it to the girl. “Drink up.” We all clinked our glasses and drank.
“I really like your boots,” the kid said to Michelle, pointing at her feet. They were some kind of designer thing and they probably cost a lot, knowing Michelle. “Mom, I want boots like that. Will you get me them?” the little girl implored. Michelle looked at me. I didn’t know what to think, other than that she was a brat.
“Looks like you’re getting a little confident now that you’ve had a drink,” Rick said to her, tickling her side so she giggled. It was strange seeing Rick playing with a kid, especially considering all the other things I’d seen him do.
“Thanks, Ariel. You’ve got good fashion sense for a young girl.” She turned to Amber.
“It looks like your daughter has expensive tastes. You better watch out,” she joked. Michelle seemed to know how to talk the little girl. Where did that come from? I wondered. Must be the maternal instinct.
“Yeah, mom doesn’t make enough money for stuff like that,” Amber said.
“If I may, I think mom doesn’t make any money,” I said. I felt satisfied with that. It was petty, but I felt justified. And besides, I said it lightly enough. Amber looked at me with a hurt expression .
“So tell me Rick, how did you and Steve meet?” Michelle said abruptly. I could see my remark had made her uncomfortable. Perhaps I was speaking my mind too freely. I was probably more lit than the rest of them. I resolved to be more discreet.
“Well Steve and I met in rehab—”
“A bond that seems to tie a number of us together,” Michelle put in.
“And after we were discharged we became good friends. One night I remember we got ourselves a few ounces of cocaine and stayed up two days straight at Bally’s. Damn we lived hard,” Rick said.
“Hey there’s a kid here!” Amber said, almost as if she had just noticed for the first time.
“Well hey we were doing even harder stuff before rehab, you’re lucky she didn’t ask about that. And besides, we just took a shot in front of her,” Rick said.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have brought it up. I’m sorry. I actually think Steve already told me about you,” Michelle said. “I’m sorry, Amber.”
Well, perhaps things had devolved. I still felt good but I had to admit that to myself. I looked at Michelle. I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. It was rare that I got to see her. The little girl wasn’t even really paying attention. Her iPhone was keeping her occupied. Who’s an 8-year-old girl texting? Rick and Amber were arguing about something and Lana had gone upstairs to use the bathroom.
“Steve,” Michelle said. “How about a cigarette outside? I need some fresh air.” That was just what I needed. The pack I’d opened this morning was half empty. I was going through them quickly. On my porch we lit up. Across the street from my house were the athletic fields for my old high school. Michelle’s old school, too, though she was there years after me. It was chilly outside but the air felt good. “It feels weird being back here. It feels like I’m coming home from college again,” she said.
“Well, we’re making quite the scene for you,” I said.
“It’s okay. It’s not your fault. But you’ve gotta cool it with Amber a little. It’s obvious you didn’t plan on having her, but here she is, and you’re really making her feel uncomfortable. And I can see why you’re angry, too. It was inappropriate to bring her daughter, and just now when you were in the other room, the girl asked if she could have my purse, which was clearly out of line, and Amber didn’t seem bothered very much. But all the same, making her feel uncomfortable won’t help anything.”
I clenched my first. “God damn it! The nerve. This is all screwed up. I have to say something!”
“Don’t be rash Steve, you’re all bleary-eyed. You took too many painkillers. You’re probably double what I’m on. Say something tomorrow. I just wanted to let you know, but you need to lay off.”
“Do you know she asked me for pills?” I said.
“No, I didn’t. And, well…” Here she paused. It was something for her to think about. “I don’t think you should give her any. I don’t mind giving you them because I know you won’t over do it. But I don’t want to be responsible for her having drugs. But go easy on her! You used to be an addict,” she said.
“Of course I won’t give her any,” I said. I wondered if Michelle was right about me. A car drove by. Otherwise the road was empty. The leaves were beginning to turn color. At the far end of the fields I could see a few people running around. I wondered how long I could go on living in this place. “OK, lets finish these and go inside,” I said. As Michelle had spoken so reasonably and sensibly, I was feeling like perhaps I was behaving a little out of line. When we came in Rick and Amber were looking at me. Lana was still upstairs.
“Stevo,” Amber said. I hate it when people I don’t like call me Stevo. That’s Steve to you, I wanted to say. But I restrained myself out of consideration for Michelle. “You’re holding out on us.”
I didn’t know what she expected. Maybe I had mentioned having pills to Rick? I couldn’t remember. I looked towards Michelle to see how she was reacting to all of this. She had a defeated look on her face, and when she caught my eye, she just shrugged her shoulders.
“Look, you’re really pushin’ it now,” I said to Amber. “I didn’t even think you could go that low. To shut you up, I’m going to go up to my room and see what I have, but I’m pretty sure all I’ve got is a few sleeping pills that I need. Is that good enough for you?”
“Yes,” she said. Rick was rubbing her shoulder. I couldn’t believe it. I would have to have a talk with him the next time we were alone. The little girl started whining about wanting nicer clothing. I wanted to take her iPhone and flush it down the toilet. Up in my room I searched through my stash of pills. Most of them indeed were normal medications, and there were a couple of Ambien. I discovered an old bottle of Xanax with a couple left and took them to to help me calm down.
“Look, I’ve got nothing,” I said as I walked down the stairs. “So I think you should finish your food, gather your things, and go.” I looked at Lana. She was sitting smoking a cigarette. I didn’t want her to see me like this, all riled up and talking about my pills. But at least she knew my antics; I felt worse about Michelle. Even though we’d partied together before, she’d never seen me like this, in a state. I went on anyway. “You’ve spoiled this brunch. I wanted to show my friend a good time and introduce her to my friends.” I looked at Rick. “But then you had to drag in all this shit with you and bring us down.”
“Hey, Amber’s my girlfriend. You don’t have to like her, but don’t insult her.”
“We can talk about that later.” I went outside again for fresh air. I couldn’t keep looking at them. They would just have to leave. That was the only way to salvage the day. I was beginning to feel calm from the Xanax and I knew I would have to lie down soon.
When I got back inside Michelle and Lana had gone into the kitchen to clean up. I poked my head in and told them I had to lie down because I wasn’t feeling well. “When I get back down, I expect you to be gone,” I said to Rick and Amber. When I got to my bed I lay down and passed out.
I woke to someone jostling my arm. “Mommy won’t wake up!” It was the damned kid. I looked at my clock. It had been about an hour. My head felt heavy and I wanted to stay in bed. “Help!” she screamed. There were tears coming out of her eyes. I wanted to smack her for waking me up. I felt sorry for her, too.
“God damn it,” I said. “Okay, okay, I’m getting up.” When I stood I could barely keep my balance. My head was pounding. I would have to take another pain pill. The kid ran down the stairs and I followed her. Amber was stretched out on the couch with her eyes closed and Rick was trying to wake her up. The others were gone, I don’t know where. “What the hell’s going on?” I yelled. The color of Amber’s skin didn’t look too good. I wondered if she was even alive and started thinking about all the explaining I would have to do if she wasn’t. If it hadn’t been for the Xanax, I would’ve freaked.
“All the sudden she started acting really funny and slurring her speech. I asked her what was wrong and finally she admitted she’d gone into the bathroom and taken some pills she’d found.”
I closed my eyes and put my hand on my forehead. There was an assortment of pills in there from when I was seeing a psychiatrist—none of them fun—and I had no idea what they could do, taken in large doses. “Do you realize how powerful those are?” I said. I was livid. I went up to Amber, pushed Rick out of the way, and started shaking her shoulders. I wanted to clock her in the mouth to wake her up, but I couldn’t with Rick there and the little girl crying her head off.
“You’re just going to hurt her that way.”
“Well what should we do? And where the hell is Michelle?” I said. Now that I was close to Amber I could tell that, at the very least, she was still breathing.
“She left as soon as you went upstairs. She said this was too much for her. I don’t fucking know what to do. I’m not even sure which pills she took. She could die, Steve. What the fuck are we going to do then?”
My head was still pounding and I just wanted to lie down. I couldn’t stay angry; I was too tired. I just wanted it to be over with it. “Look, we gotta call 911. There’s no way around it.”
“Are you serious? We could all get in trouble, Steve. You’re high off your ass.”
He was right, but I didn’t care.
The little girl cried out, “Rick, help!” Tears were streaming from her face and it was starting to get to me, even if she was a brat.
“Look, I’m going out to the porch to have a cigarette and I’m going to call. Straighten yourself up and figure out what you’re going to say. And besides, if anyone’s going to get in trouble, it won’t be you anyway,” I said.
I stepped out and made the call. “Without my knowing it,” I explained carefully, trying my best to sound lucid, “she took some of my pills and now she’s unconscious on my couch and her color doesn’t look so good.”
I smoked while I waited, looking out at the fields again and behind them the ugly-looking building from the ’70s where I used to take English and social studies classes. The cigarette was making me feel woozy, and I still felt out of it from all the pills. A few kids walked by across the street. “Hey you skipping school?” I yelled. They gave me a confused look and kept walking. Then I remembered it was a weekend.
I’d had enough of this view from my porch. I remembered drinking coffee and smoking out there with Caitlin after eating breakfast in the mornings. I enjoyed the view then. The little kid stepped out, still crying but more softly now. “Did you call?” she said.
“Yeah, they’ll be here soon.”
“Is mom gonna be okay?” she said. I almost lost it, hearing her say that. I was all out of sorts.
“Yeah, she’ll be okay. They just have to pump her stomach. It’s happened to me before, and I was fine.” I didn’t know if an 8-year-old would understand all of this, or if I was right, but I said it anyway.
“Are you sure?” she said.
“Yeah, everything’s going to be fine,” I said. I don’t know what it was, but suddenly I had the urge to pat the kid on the shoulder, or even just give her a big hug. I put my hand on her head and ruffled her hair, just like my aunts and uncles used to do to me when I was a kid. A few blocks away I could see what looked like an ambulance headed our way. Pretty soon a cruiser would come too and I’d have to start answering questions. “Look, they’re on their way now to help out your mom. It’ll be any minute now,” I said, patting her shoulder this time.
Dan Hoffman is originally from Eastern Pennsylvania and attended college in Western Massachusetts. Formerly a writer and editor for Thought Catalog, he has work featured or forthcoming in The Bygone Bureau, The Lifted Brow, i09, and New Frarktur Arts Journal.