In my experience, heartache is a lot like a brutal hangover the day after you get plastered drunk after you find out that the person you like is dating someone else; instead of the pain concentrated around your head though, like a hammer going to town against multiple ice picks sticking out of your head, it feels a lot like you’re being smothered by a boa constrictor, slowly wrapping itself around your torso, crushing your chest square inch by square inch.
That’s how my morning felt. I woke up blind, everything a hazy blur, listening to the rain tapping lightly against the roof of my house. Every bone in my body ached, and I felt as though I could drink the Arctic Sea and still feel dehydrated. I tried to sit up but winced from the sharp, searing pain; if I closed one eye and squinted with the other, I could see my pants and my socks thrown carelessly on top of my shoes at the foot of the staircase, and next to them, Jack’s maroon colored pants. I could feel my shirt and my underwear sticking to me uncomfortably, wet with sweat and hot with the trapped body heat under my blanket.
Apparently, we had set up the pull-out couch in the living room, though I have no memory of this at all; in fact, I barely remember much after running into Noah last night, besides the foggy, chaotic lighting at The Mine Cart, followed by a few more rounds of shots and dancing. I turned to my right and saw Jack, snoring lightly, drooling on my turquoise throw pillow, looking like a corrupted angel who had crashed down on earth for an eternal slumber to await Judgment Day. I casually reached for his thoughts, wondering if he had a better memory than me of last night, but it was no use; his thoughts were as choppy and erratic, a jumbled mess of clips as surreal as Un Chien Andalou; watching the windshield of our Uber ride home get peppered with rain drops, a brunette girl from Chicago that I vaguely recall named Sarah…flash of lightning, no thunder in the distance…the neon red and blue lighting of The Mine Cart, with a handlebar mustachio’d bartender who flashed bright green eyes and a warm smile…
We’re both having shitty days, I see Jack telling the bartender. We’re both single.
Laughter in the wind. Raphael in the stars, grinning wickedly again…
Jack stirred, as though he felt me probing his thoughts, before his eyes slowly crept open. He yawned and offered that same, blank, unfocused smile I imagine I must’ve had, and as his eyes search the room, he glances over at me and yawns again.
‘You’re awake,’ I say.
‘No, I’m dead,’ he slurs, sighing loudly. ‘This must be what hell feels like.’
I glance at him as he strips off the thick comforter and I can see he’s naked besides his boxers, his skin somehow paler than what I remember. ‘Didn’t we have a conversation the last time we shared a bed about clothing?’ I say, trying hard not to laugh out of pain.
‘So, what,’ he groans, closing his eyes as he rubs his head. ‘I’m dying, you asshole. Let me die in peace.’
Again, that sharp, searing pain, ripping through my mind. ‘I think I’m still drunk,’ I tell him, stretching. I hear my phone vibrate, somewhere, and instinctively I reach underneath my pillow. It’s there, and as I pull it out, I squint. Six missed calls. All from Noah.
I force myself up, stretching one last time, before standing up and dragging myself into the kitchen. If I am going to survive today, I’m going to need coffee.
It stopped raining by the time the coffee was ready, and as we sat on the dry garden bench in my patio, we smoked cigarettes and chewed on aspirin and listened to the neighborhood waking up, the sounds of wooden spoons banging on pots and pans, of faucets running, dogs barking, Galadriel furiously running around my backyard and yelping, hoping to join the morning orchestra. Kids laughed, mothers yelled, lawnmowers mooed to life, a flock of birds leave in their wake a scamper of feathers and the manic flapping of their wings, and the smell of the after-rain, of an earthy, fresh musk, of ozone and limestone, lingers on, coating everything in its sweetness.
By nine in the morning, everyone else was still asleep, then ten o’clock, and eleven. Finally, around noon I began to hear movement from within my house, the stirring of bodies with no clear agenda on Christmas Day.
‘Seems like everyone is awake now,’ says Jack, stubbing his cigarette and looking back. ‘I wonder if Abuelita will make breakfast. I’ve never had Nicaraguan food.’
I laugh at that. ‘Most likely she’ll just make omelets,’ I tell him, smiling. ‘She likes omelets. You should’ve been here during the Winter Solstice for Nicoya food.’
He sighs, draining the rest of his already cold coffee. ‘We were in such a different place a year ago. It’s strange to think of that as a memory now.’
He’s right, of course. He was still with May, I was breaking up with a girl named Sandra at the time. ‘We’re both still hungover though,’ I say. ‘So maybe not much has changed.’
I change the subject quickly, moving onto the details of his plans to live here, not wanting to rehash memories. ‘So, you said you were signing your lease today?’ I ask him. Now that I think about it, I realized how strange it is to be making deals on Christmas Day.
‘We’re both Jewish,’ he says quickly. ‘Today is just the twenty-fifth of December for the landlord and he had a mandatory day off today.’ He chuckles. ‘We’re the same everywhere.’
Once again, my phone vibrates loudly.
Jack groans. ‘Oh, God, him again? Luc, gimme your phone. I’ll answer for you.’ He sees me hesitate before stretching his hand out and motioning. ‘Give it, here! He’s an awful bastard, let me talk to this ‘Noah’ guy and sort him out for you.’
Another moment passes, and before his thoughts leap out at me, Jack lunges over and snatches the phone from my hand, putting it to his ear. ‘Luc’s phone, you piece of shit,’ he says, yawning; the casual, caustic words coming out of his mouth make me smile a bit. ‘What the hell do you want?’
And then, immediately, he bolts upright, with an expression of outright disbelief. His colors change, too, ranging from that warm orange to a smoky grey, shot with angry reds and dark blues. ‘I’m sorry, I thought – no, I’m Jack, his friend – let me pass him the phone…’ He turns to me, bewildered. ‘It’s not Noah.’
I take the phone and look at the caller ID, feeling nauseous as I read the name across the screen. I have it saved under one word: Him.
‘Merry Christmas, Lucas,’ says Roberto, his voice sounding hoarse over the phone.
Not today. ‘Hi,’ I say, forcing my voice to sound pleasant. ‘How are you doing?’
‘I’m doing well. I thought I would be a good father and call my son to wish him a Merry Christmas. It’s always me reaching out, you know.’
I can’t imagine why. Could it have anything to do with the fact that I’m not particularly fond of him? I don’t say anything.
He continues after surveying my silence. ‘Are you doing anything tonight?’
I turn to Jack, who is listening attentively, his green eyes alert and narrowed, like they’re ready to fire missiles when given the order. ‘I’m not sure, I have a few things that –’
‘Well, since you’re not sure, why not make plans with me? I was thinking we could grab dinner.’ Another pause. ‘What’s your favorite restaurant?’
Arco Café on 103rd and Amsterdam in the Upper West Side. The River Boat Café at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Mimi Chengs in New York’s East Village. My own damn kitchen. ‘I don’t have one here,’ I say, politely.
A third pause. ‘That’s okay. I’ll pick the spot. How does seven o’clock work?’
Jack shakes his head vigorously. No. Don’t go.
‘I really don’t – ’
‘You know, I never thought I would have to beg my son to hang out with his dad,’ he says, in a sad, low voice that makes me want to put my fist through a wall. He sniffs, sending chills down my spine, not out of fear, but out of anger. ‘I just figured that, y’know, we can catch up and – I just, I miss you a lot, and…It’s been a while since it was just us, y’know, man to man.’ And then, with a fierce quickness that nearly levelled me with whiplash, his tone changes. ‘If you’re man enough, that is.’
Bait, expertly laid, by a master hunter, a creature of emotional intelligence far superior than nearly anyone I’ve ever met in my life, capable of wonder and ruin. I close my eyes, momentarily losing myself in the thoughts reverberating around my head, before I respond. ‘I have to go,’ I say, quietly.
‘Wait, wait, wait! Hang on,’ he says, his voice changing again, like a chameleon wandering through the forest. His voice is softer, calmer; I feel a wave wash over me, as though quelling my rising anger. ‘I promise I’ll make it worth your while.’
Thoughts stir inside me, fighting for dominance, fighting for survival. Feed into a promise? It’s a false promise, though. But what if it isn’t? People change all the time, don’t they? Do they really? Do they?
‘Lucas…’ He’s resorted to pleading, knowing he’s on the cusp of losing.
I sigh. ‘You said seven?’ I can see Jack pinching the bridge of his nose.
‘Okay. Seven it is.’
He hangs up and I stare at the ground, still a bit stunned.
‘Let me know where it is,’ says Jack, sighing. ‘In case something happens and you need backup. I’ll be there for you.’
‘I know,’ I say, looking at him. ‘I know you’ll be there.’
You always are.
The rest of the day went well on paper. On cue, after that phone call, Abuelita whipped up omelets for everyone in the house, and when she asked Jack what he was planning on doing here and why, he told her what he had told me: that he was getting over a nasty breakup, that he needed a fresh change of pace, that he figured he would follow me to Playa de Oro, that his job at Boeing would start January 2nd, and that he would sign the lease for his tiny, overpriced apartment a few blocks away from a rundown park in the center of Cambodia Town later that afternoon.
He helped wash dishes before heading out, prompting Mother and Abuelita to turn to me and smile.
‘I really like him,’ said Mother. ‘He’s so nice. I’m so glad he’s your friend.
‘He has a lot of…energy,’ began Abuelita, her eyes shining. ‘A different kind of energy. It’s the good kind. You’ll need it.’
‘Are you planning on hanging out with him tonight?’ asked Percy, still poking around at her omelet. I knew the reason; she’s been trying to stay away from bacon and other pork items, not out of any religious belief, but more out of the fact that she aims to be vegetarian, though whether it’s for the good of the planet and for animal rights as opposed to one of those far liberal, hipster phrases she’s easily susceptible to joining.
‘I don’t think so,’ I said, shrugging. ‘Maybe after dinner. Roberto is taking me out.’
Every head immediately snapped over to me, and I felt eight eyes staring.
‘Yes, Dee is right, why only you?’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Abuelita, harshly.
‘I’m sorry?’ I wasn’t sure what she meant.
She shrugged, putting a finger to the side of her chin as she pursed her lips. ‘You know what’s going to come of this. And when he hurts you, because he will, you’ll have nobody to blame but yourself. People don’t change.’
‘Abuelita!’ cried out Dee, dumbfounded and on the verge of tears. ‘How could you say something like that? He would never hurt anyone!’
We were quiet after that, with Mother and Abuelita exchanging shifting expressions with me, before we dropped the subject completely. Dee sulked around the living room for a while before locking herself in her room for the rest of the night, and Percy left around four in the afternoon to go to a friend’s Christmas Dinner, leaving me lounging around in the living room watching tv and Mother and Abuelita to play chess.
Around half past seven, I was still anxious, pacing around the living room and staring at my phone, when I suddenly heard a loud honk outside. I peer out the window and see a black Chrysler, before turning back to Mother and Abuelita.
‘That’s my cue,’ I say, before grabbing my coat.
‘Wait, Lucas,’ says Abuelita, rushing over to me. And then, she produces a card from her pocket. ‘I pulled this earlier, when you said you were going to dinner.’
I take it and stare at the picture. Five of Pentacles, two people struggling to walk through the thick, heavy snow, looking miserable as they walk past a stained-glass church window. The sky is black, the dark night of the soul approaches. Winter is here.
‘Be careful,’ she says, her eyes wide. ‘You know that I’m right.’
‘I’m always careful,’ I tell her, before stepping out and closing the door behind me.
I hop inside the Chrysler, blown away by that classic new car smell, and Roberto, clean-shaved and full of a certain unfamiliar warmth, smiles at my expression.
‘She’s new,’ he says, with pride as he revs the engine. ‘You like her?’
‘She’s nice,’ I concede, feeling strange as I smile.
‘I thought you’d say that.’
We drive for about fifteen minutes until we get to the parking lot at The Pike, and as we exit the car and head to one of the many restaurants along the waterfront, we’re both bathed under the neon glow of the lights; it’s cold, and the wind is fiercer than it has been in a while, but it feels a lot like the end of December, like things are slowly coming back to normal. Normal. Whatever that word means. As if I’ve ever had a normal time.
The restaurant is called Cantina Joe’s, squatting along the edge of the boardwalk, a too-large-for-comfort kind of place, swaddled with moon shaped yellow lights, tables that look more like park benches, and a large outdoor seating area, unsurprisingly empty, that faces the waterfront. Roberto leads me through the busy restaurant over to the bar, where we sit down unprompted, and are immediately given menus by the smiling bartender.
‘I’ll give you a few minutes,’ says the bartender, a tall, older man with stark grey eyes and a shaved head. His face is thin and pale, and though pleasant, twisted into that permanent I’m-getting-too-old-for-this look common among veterans of the hospitality industry.
‘Can we have two margaritas?’ asks Roberto, before the bartender looks away. ‘While we decide what to eat. Is that okay, Lucas?’
I nod slowly. ‘Sure.’
The bartender nods and Roberto turns to me and smiles.
‘I’m glad we’re doing this,’ he says.
I nod again. ‘So, how have you been?’
‘I’ve been fine,’ he says, sighing as he sits back. I can see the outline of his ribcage beneath his thick flannel, and I feel a pang of sadness for him; chemotherapy has really started to take its toll on him, regardless of how much he tries to hide it. ‘I’m doing a lot better, now that I get to take my son out.’
The way he says seems foreign, forced. I’ve never been ‘his son’, but maybe the way sickness and the threat of the looming Angel of Death causes some people to change; they become softer, start reevaluating their decisions, become conscious of their own frail mortality. We make amends, offer olive branches, become suddenly aware of the beauty and power that three simple words, I love you, can inflect upon even the weariest of souls. Some look for God. Others settle with the comfort of the unknowable, and make their trade in laughter and kindness.
The drinks came soon enough, smelling of fresh mint muddled with lime juice, rock salt crystals lining the rim, and two black straws, which are promptly discarded by Roberto as soon as the glasses are placed in front of us.
‘Men don’t drink out of straws,’ he says, smiling, before holding up his glass. ‘Merry Christmas, Lucas.’
‘Merry Christmas,’ I say, and our glasses clink; the ritual begins.
I felt less tense after the first margarita. Even more so when he heavily encouraged me to get another one since he repeatedly stated that he was buying. We ordered nachos with black beans and carne asada, heaping spoonful’s of guacamole and sour cream and pico de gallo, about half a pound of shredded mozzarella and cheddar, and topped off with pickled jalapenos, along with a tower of ale-battered onion rings and a plate of panko-breaded chicken tenders, both served with creamy ranch and a tomato-basil marinara.
‘Let’s have another round,’ says Roberto, smiling, his cheeks growing steadily redder, his eyes glazing over a bit, before turning to me once the bartender nods. ‘You know, I know that we weren’t really close when you were younger…’
Understatement of the year. Of the near quarter of a century that I’ve been alive, really.
‘But…I want to apologize. For everything,’ he sighs, scratching his nearly bald head before replacing his Dodgers baseball cap. ‘I was a terrible person, back then. I was awful. I know I hurt you and your mom in ways that…I mean, I don’t deserve your forgiveness…’
I know that he is trying. I know that it must be hard for him to apologize; he was never a man of apologies. Always firm, resistant to change, never open to anything besides his own rigid views of the world around him; apologies were not an option, he could do no wrong. And yet, after all these years, the only things that seem to come out of his mouth right now are apologies. It’s so foreign to me it makes me feel uncomfortable.
‘I’m trying to change,’ he says, as the drinks arrive. He grabs his glass and swallows a good third of it, smacking his lips and letting out a hoarse sigh. ‘I really am.’
‘What about the other day?’ I ask him, the words leaving my mouth before I realized.
He nods his head, knowingly, closing his eyes before sighing again. ‘I know. That was my mistake. I was nervous. I still…I still love Paulina. I know that I’ve lost her and I was an awful husband…but I still love your mom. She’s the love of my life…and I didn’t know how to talk to her so I thought a beer would do the trick but it didn’t work, and, y’know, another beer and another beer and…’ His voice trails off, and then he lets out a small sob. ‘I’m really trying.’
The day after the Winter Solstice celebration, I went for a walk as soon as I heard him wake up. I didn’t want to see him. Apparently, Dee and Percy helped him sober up in the morning, feeding him blue Gatorade and scrambled eggs with scallions and smoked turkey sausage, before sending him off in his car. They didn’t talk to me for the whole day. I was the asshole. I was the one who was in the wrong. Naturally. I usually am.
‘I want to change,’ he tries again, his voice steadier. ‘I want to change for the better.’
Change. There goes that finnicky word, the one that the winds bring to level kingdoms, stagger regimes, transform the daylight into the night sky, bringing with it all the seasons of the year. If life is just chaos, isn’t it human nature to change? It only makes sense…
We get through about halfway of the nachos (in total, I think it may have been over three pounds worth of them), finish most of the onion ring tower, and pick at the chicken tenders, before we realize we’re so full we can barely breathe, and we shift in our chairs uncomfortably as we laugh. Maybe it’s the alcohol, maybe it’s just the mood I’m in, or maybe it’s because this just feels real, but I can’t help but feel good about this. It feels…so natural. Normal.
He stretches, lets out a burp, before yawning and straightening himself up. ‘I’m going to the bathroom, okay? I’ll be back.’
‘Okay,’ I say, watching him as he walks down the aisle and disappears around the corner. I sigh, looking around. The restaurant is nearly empty, with only two tables left, with the waitress, a short, mousy-haired girl with fat cheeks and a tight smile, picking up the checks that she dropped earlier, mouthing a thank you over the ambient noise.
‘Whenever you’re ready,’ says the bartender, calling my attention, as he places the black checkbook in front of me.
I nod, take the book, and open it. I wince. We’ve run up the tab to just short of two hundred bucks. ‘My stepdad’s in the bathroom,’ I say, smiling.
‘He seems like a nice guy,’ says the bartender, polishing a glass.
‘Yeah,’ I mumble, more to myself. ‘He wasn’t always like this.’
The bartender doesn’t say anything, but his eyes are full of understanding.
A few minutes go by, and I start to fidget on the barstool. I’m not impatient, but I’m not the fondest of waiting for people. Jack is always late but I accept it because I love the guy, and instead of waiting on him, I now just tell him to show up an hour before I actually want him to, so that he shows up on time.
The two other tables have filed out of the restaurant by now, and the lights are turned up all the way. I wonder if he’s sick in the bathroom; Dee and Percy are always telling me that he doesn’t watch his diet well enough, that he doesn’t take care of himself. Cancer patients can’t stomach food the way they used to, especially the spicy kind. That includes jalapenos, no matter how pickled they are, apparently. I begin drumming my fingers along the countertop when I feel my phone vibrate. It’s Jack.
-How did it go?
‘Did you guys come here in a Chrysler 300?’ asks the bartender, startling me.
I look up from my phone, then turn around to look out the window. I see the headlights of that black Chrysler flash brightly before doing a U-Turn in the parking lot and speeding out onto the street.
I close my eyes, sighing. I don’t say anything for a few moments.
The bartender understands. ‘Take your time. We still have a lot to do to close.’
I shouldn’t be surprised. It was in the cards, after all.
I pay in cash, leaving the bartender a hefty tip, thanking him, before pulling my coat on and stepping out into the cold, winter night. Jack stands in the middle of the parking lot, wearing a black beanie and a heavy bomber jacket, hands in his pockets.
I shouldn’t be surprised about this, either.