Buzzing and spinning, he loses his balance again. His outstretched arms are rigid and straight above the brick surface of a raging fire pit and wobbling back and forth like the wings of a plane ready to crash. He circles the scorching flames—too close—round and round, drinking the bottle down, caught in the dangerous crosswind of a forbidden love and the final decision of whether to stay or to go.
Stay and fight or flee into the night?
Head back, feet together, arms out—cruciform—he questions the gawking sky with a momentary naivety that the universe might respond back.
No answer. No sign. No shooting stars. Only a sudden gust, chilling the sweat at the nape of his neck and burning his eyes with black smoke and tears. He tips the vodka straight up, takes three generous gulps, the third leaking from the corner of his mouth and agitating the fire with a single, sizzling drop—ssss—the serpent of Paradise offers the first and last word.
Love is hell disguised as heaven.
He plugs his ears. “Lies! Lies!”
Staring into the hypnotic respiration of orange embers, he quotes Dante, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
An unbearably hot forked tongue flicks and bites at the thighs of his jeans. He jumps off the brick wall, sets the bottle aside, and flops into a field of sweet grass. Back pressed against the ergonomic soil of the earth, he folds his arms behind his head, pushes long strands of hair out of his face, watches the moon rise.
His thoughts are the thoughts of the intoxicated, vivid and beautiful for the moment, mixing like several overpriced drinks, ultimately disintegrating into the disconnected, stumbling, embarrassing babble of a fool, completely forgotten by the morning light—which will be far too bright when it comes—with a headache full of blue starbursts and no revelations.
She loves him but accuses him of being a coward—which is one of the worst things you can call a man, other than a liar or a hypocrite. Maybe he’s all three. He’s running, she says. She’s lost all respect.
If he stays, he argues, he keeps her all for himself, yes, yes, but also knowingly keeps her in danger. BUT—if he goes, he’ll save her in this unexpected way and all charges will be dropped. Not even God will point the finger then.
Bullshit, she says to him, that’s just an excuse.
An excuse for what? Fear of commitment, she says. If you really love me, you will sacrifice.
Exactly, he says. Sacrifice…
If this were a harmless game of chess, at this point, they could never win unless he takes the opponent’s queen. In this strange case, he himself is the queen, the powerful bully on the board, the destructive one, moving in every direction, knocking over the weak and the strong with a damaging passion, unbridled and unchecked. He must off himself.
Love’s suicide. Everybody wins except for him.
Now, here they are, facing each other in the memory of his mind, teetering on that emotionally confusing line between selfish and selfless—between what both really want, pitted against what one really needs and only the other can provide. His ears are humming and the trees are whirling. The descent into drunkenness. Out loud, “If I take the road less traveled, Mr. Frost, will it really make any difference? The one paved with a blind and blissful loyalty to love or the one that demands personal atonement?”
Counterclockwise. Around and around he goes, quoting the beat poetry of Jack Kerouac (“On Starvation Ridge, little sticks are trying to grow”), and alternately preaching to himself as the minute hand of life moves backward in his mind. If only.
He quotes the Bible with a slur. “Greater love hass snowman than this, that a man lay down hiss slife for hiss friends.”
“Lay it down!” he commands himself, nodding and shivering in the night. He must. He has no other choice. She’s his best friend, his soulmate (he hates that term and blames such lack of creativity on the hazy, crippling effect of booze—but there’s no denying that if souls could copulate, theirs has, with an inward intimacy that should crown her alone, out of all the vast world of women, as his forever).
The night air is cold and getting colder.
He quotes Fitzgerald, “The fire blazing in her dark and injured heart…” but can’t remember the rest so he finishes the sentence in his own words. “The fire blazing in her dark and injured heart . . . hasss gone out.” He stands as shaky as a newborn calf, pokes and stirs the dying pit to life, then circles the brick once more.
He loves her. She doesn’t think so.
She loves him. He knows so.
He quotes Hemingway’s famous passage from, A Farewell to Arms:
“Maybe…you’ll fall in love with me all over again.”
“Hell, I love you enough now. What do you want to do? Ruin me?”
“Yes. I want to ruin you.”
“Good. That’s what I want too.”
This is it. The choice must be made. He will lose her forever. She won’t wait for his return. The only consolation in all of this: his loss will be her gain. She will finally be free. The ugly ogre under the bridge will have lost all power and control over her precious life. She will smile again.
“That’ss love.” He toasts the sky and falls forward to the ground, smacking the pavement with the palms of his hands, which later fold with pebbles into prayer.
The rest of the night he doesn’t remember. He wakes to the damning evidence of his vodka dreams—a trail of broken things—the shattered bottle, dishes, doors, promises, and her tender heart beyond repair. The stomach-churning aftermath of the storm. Another crime of passion.