A scene from the quarantine.
It’s been raining nonstop and the weather matches my mood. Forced to check into 435 again, I’m sipping hot tea with a splash of gin, sitting before an open window, boots propped like a western sheriff on the AC floor unit, trying in vain not to think of her—her with another man, a better man.
I’m fumbling with a book of matches. The last time I was at a gas station, a random, wild-eyed woman masked in a royal blue bandanna approached and placed nine packs into my cupped hands. “Here—take these—ya never know when ya might need ‘em.” She nodded at me as if I did know, as if I’d been entrusted with a pandemic esoteric knowledge. She looked over her shoulder for one more prolonged moment before disappearing into the women’s bathroom, making an unknown point. People are acting so strange these days. But she was right. I need these matches right now. I’ve been scratching through each one, allowing every cardboard stick to torture my fingertips. Presently, I’m flaming through the third book, each brief light representing another day, another chapter, one more relationship up in smoke, burning down to nothing. Poof. There goes another one—and not just anyone, this time.
A gray halo is circling above my head and the air smells like sulfur.
I exist only in the realm of her fading memories, our relationship having been decidedly boxed and covered with a dust sheet in some dark attic corner of her mind. Oh, she might sift through my old case file seasonally, whenever sentiment strikes, but that is all. She’s placed me among the forgotten things, remembered less and less, as another face, a different voice, a calmer love moves in and easily erases and replaces a passion that has thundered like a storm for years. I was too much for her. Or maybe she was too much for me. Our chemistry was undeniable, explosive, uncommon, a Scott and Zelda kind of legendary.
Which makes this mandatory quarantine unbearably silent. I’m trying to believe Bukowski’s statement that isolation is a gift. Last door at the end of a mile long hall, my writing room on rainy days, which the hotel staff kindly reserves for me. “Welcome back, Mr. Andrew,” they always say with an accented delight, “Your room, four turty five, is svaiting for you.” The manager is one of the happiest people I know; his laughter is infectious as he stuffs the front pouch of my canvas bag with black tea. “For your journey,” he says with a wink, referring to two things: my adventures in writing fueled by numerous hot gin toddy’s.
I don’t drink wine anymore because it reminds me of her. The pain of such a loss is growing inside of me like a cancer.
There’s a bottle of Gordon’s sitting on the desk, well on its way. I take a sip, not bothering to mix it with tea this time.
I crank out a set of push ups.
I brush my teeth for the third time.
I clip my toenails.
Pluck some nose hairs. Wash my hands.
Do a load of laundry.
Download a piece by F Scott Fitzgerald and remind myself with a sadistic certainty that I’m a lousy writer. I’ve given up everything for nothing. I know this now.
I finally shuffle over to the desk. Plop down with a sigh. Open my notebook. Chew nervously on a pen.
Waiting , waiting, waiting. For something. Anything.
I’m distracted. Suffering with a temporary Attention Deficit Disorder from a lack of exposure.
A single fly has been buzzing my head like a Russian jet and I’ve been shooting at him with a thick rubber band. His name is Jeff (or was) in honor of Jeff Goldblum who starred in the Hollywood remake of The Fly. About five minutes ago, Jeff landed on the lampshade across the room. I took the clear sniper shot and connected with a loud THWAP. All that remains is an illuminated black smear. I feel guilty. I miss him already.
My computer is busted, so I’m penning everything with a hooked left hand that unavoidably drags over wet ink and smudges every poorly written page. Not long ago, I would leave scratchy pencil and ink love notes all over her big house. One time, she (of the double thumbing text generation) teased me about it. “Who leaves handwritten notes anymore, I mean, really, who does that?”
Me. I do, darling girl.
What she doesn’t know is that there are still more to be found. I’ve hidden them everywhere like Easter eggs.
She lives several states away, chatting away on dating websites, trading snapshots and fantasies, never lonely anymore, her phone is blowing up without a single word from me. The sad part is that she doesn’t care that I am no longer there. She doesn’t miss me.
Ding. Text, text, text. Ding. Text, text, text. I see it, her busy fingers and searching eyes. She’s on the hunt and the hunted. If all goes well (and it will) another man will soon sit in my chair at the kitchen table, take my place on the back porch swing, warmed by a fire, crystal glasses of red wine, and her soft body pressed tightly to his. And, yes, he’ll ascend the carpeted stairs and walk the same long hall to the master bedroom, past the portraits of Paris and our imaginary wedding. He’ll sleep on my side of the bed and all that was marital and sacred between us for so many years will be obliterated, permanently, in a fucking instant, a pig’s blood desecrating the altar of our love, and she will moan with a blind and pathetic willingness.
I’m hoping he snores like a wild bore and that she is forced to sleep down the hall in my former writing room. The scent of my candled ghost is still in the air.
I’m guessing she’ll be engaged by Christmas. People start over so quickly these days, trusting the fairly accurate scientific data of a perfect match. But when the plastic bins of holiday decorations are retrieved from from the attic, another handwritten note or two (or three) will be discovered.
I’m hoping she’ll be the one who first finds them. She’ll be reminded afresh of my love and maybe, just maybe, she’ll have a change of heart. Maybe my unexpected words will pull her into a melancholy mood. Maybe, for once, she’ll feel the same deep loss. Maybe her new man, curious and jealous, will ask what the note says and who exactly is it from and a terrible argument will follow and ruin their romantic night. Maybe her rapid fire thumbs will finally grow weary of texting emptiness and a single scrap of discolored paper will be precious to her, a treasure, a secret to be guarded and hidden someplace new. My love, written down, never again to be tossed into the garbage.
If she found those words today, she’d scoff and throw them away. At the moment, she’s overly confident with a potential man in every computer port, when all she needs to do is say yes. She’s intoxicated by the newness of someone new, someone still on his best behavior. The age old trick. Once she makes a permanent choice, she’ll soon discover that all men are exactly the same except for the ones who aren’t. She could go through ten men before deciding on THE ONE and finally know with conviction that I am utterly unlike any of those respectable 9-5 fellows. Maybe she’ll turn and run from the wedding chapel, leaving her normal man with his mouth hanging open (and in a mere day or two he’ll be back on the computer looking for a replacement—no, no, he won’t—he’ll be just like me, feeling the same sharp stabs of anguish, because there’s no replacement for someone with no equal).
The us-ness of US will never happen again. That’s what I know. That’s what I hope she learns before it’s too late.
It’s already too late. Every new relationship is a further loss of innocence, an intrusion, a severe cut to the heart leaving a long scar of memories never meant to be.
Every fictional story I write, she is there. Right there. Every damn where. Last night, today, tomorrow, she’s my inescapable nonfiction, my painful reality, and I’m praying that real life blesses us with another chance at a happy ending.
Early in the afternoon, I stand, stretch, and toast my sixth toddy to the gray sky: May our incredible fairy tale begin again and never end.
Almost instantly my optimism fades. I reach for a straight shot of gin.
An hour later, I wake in the middle of the unmade king size bed, feeling unshakably morose. I shower, shave, and slip into a fresh shirt that still smells like her house. The stairwell leads me down to the empty lobby where a dinosaur computer waits to transcribe my scribble-scrabble pages into an edited, readable document, second draft of many more to come.
I wish I had the ability to edit my life.
The young girl from Pakistan is behind the counter tonight, virginal as the biblical Mary and sadly betrothed to an unloving, self-loving older man who’s demanding her obedient return, his frequent long distance phone calls seething with suspicion and hateful accusations.
A few nights ago, I sat at the lobby computer. Azra kept bringing me Chai tea with lots of cream and sugar, sweet as a polio vaccine. “You need to drink this, not that,” pointing to a plastic cup of alcohol.
The massive amounts of cream and sugar was my first and only nutrition of the day. I hadn’t eaten anything since noon the day before, my mind having been constantly terrorized by horrible imaginations of my lover writhing beneath another man. Needless to say, zero appetite has been the result.
I felt Azra’s dark eyes upon my back throughout that entire evening. She was sitting in the front office alcove, watching me through thin wooden slats, and kept the tea coming. The final cup arrived with an alarming flood of tears.
“I will always love him but I no longer want him.”
What Azra didn’t know is that my own lost love had recently said these very words to me. Hearing them fresh, even from someone else’s mouth, felt like a death sentence or maybe a life sentence without the possibility of parole from a prison of permanent loneliness.
Quirky and tiny as a sparrow, Azra has experienced her first taste of American freedom. Now she wants to fly. It’s only natural. That’s how it goes.
Expect it, I tell myself.
I ponder further Azra’s panicking, controlling, far away, insecure man. I force myself to think of the one I love in this new light of revelation (an unflattering mirror of myself) and determine to allow my beloved to fly into the world of men without any further harassment from me. After all, she’s tearfully and angrily reminded me over and over, “You’re the one who left me in pursuit of writing!” She was the one left standing there on the front lawn, her heart breaking to pieces in my rear view mirror as I drove away. One thing I’m really good at is turning beautiful dreams into nightmares and best friends into strangers.
My only silent comfort is a selfish psychological exercise where I imagine every one of her dates as lousy, awkward, gross, and with bleached white teeth boring personalities. I try my damnedest to keep on believing with the faith of Abraham in the unseen, and that our “once upon a time” love affair will make all others pale in comparison.
True love always prevails. Ours was true—right? Fresh doubts creeping in.
Tonight, Azra is staring at me again, this time sitting to my left, offering me Pakistani candy. It’s almost 10:30 and time to close out the cash registers as she prepares for the oncoming shift relief.
There’s something different in her deportment. A liquid calmness.
“I’ve decided not to divorce him.”
I look up from my notebook. “Oh? Why the sudden change of heart?”
“I love him!” she erupts. Excited, breathless, leaning close with a religious conviction and pride, “And—AND—Muslim women, we are loyal to the end! Even if our men are sometimes unlovely”
I smile. “Well, that’s refreshing to hear.”
“You need a Pakistani woman,” she says with a musical giggle. “Here, I’ve chosen one for you. She’s very pretty.”
Azra scrolls on her smart phone and a beautiful woman eventually appears.
“She’s almost as old as you and will do anything to come to America. What you think?”
(Besides that fact that she’s desperate enough to marry anyone, including me?)
A fresh pain in my heart when think of the one I love and how I’ve sinned against her. I’ve put her in a bad place. Desperation leads to reckless behavior.
She’s been good to me. Now she’s going to be bad to herself.
Before I can answer, Azra interrupts her own question. “I was watching you the other night and wishing you are in your turties.” Pausing, blushing, “I will be the happy one to marry you always.”
Feeling every bit my age, I’m rescued from an honest reply by a naked man who enters unannounced through the carport doors. He is high or drunk or both. Drool is stringing from his beard and he’s wrapping a yellow flag around his shrunken member.
It’s another Twilight Zone night at the Quality Inn, locked inside with stinky misfits, the lost and lonely, and limping zombies smoking crack and grass.
Azra ducks out of sight while I offer to escort the not-so-attractive man to his room.
He turns a lopsided head to me, “Whottthhuhellrrryou?”
Giggles from the unseen Azra behind the counter.
Somehow, he’s convinced and I take him by the arm. We trip into the elevator together, which, like the confused nudist trying to regain his footing next to me, is about six inches short of the mark.
Naked boy’s room is on the second floor, full of garbage, drug paraphernalia, and pornography.
“Comm’on man, get high with me.”
I’m overwhelmed with nausea and a desperate need to cry. Not for him. For me. For my lost girl. In this quarantined purgatory, this crushing abandonment of love that aches in the lower back of my soul.
Gerald, a construction worker, is blubbering about something concerning his mother. I’m not listening. Instead I’m experiencing a high-definition flashback of my beautiful best friend, the one that I love the most in this world, willing with all of my broken might that she’ll find a fresh note. Soon. Right now. Before it too late, before she forgets, before her heart drifts irreversibly out to sea toward another.
I pull the remainder of the gin from my bag and hand it to Gerald. He unscrews the cap, slurping and sloppy with saliva, shaking, shivering, and stabs the bottle back toward me. I tell him he can keep it, making a private commitment to never take another drink again.
Gerald’s manic behavior is amusing one minute, scary the next. His face is purple and pinched with rage, “I’m gonna hit you!”
Dangerously close to suicidal, I don’t care. I nod my encouragement. He takes the swing—which is wild and wide—loses his balance, and falls on his face. His fig leaf flag has loosened again and his slimy crotch fumes of fishy trichomonas. Now he’s a thirty-something, red-bearded fetus, rocking and crying behind trembling hands, “Don’t hurt me! Don’t hurt me! DON”T HURT ME!”
Time to go. The door slams behind me, muffling Gerald’s insanity.
Once I’m safe and sound back inside of four turty five, I brew a cup of coffee, light the half remnant of a Black and Mild.
Leaning out of the fourth floor window, I add a wine-flavored cloud to the moonless night. And I tell her again.
I tell her, “I love you,” and the words of my declarative sentence are written in the elegant cursive penmanship of steaming breath. One more note, floating on cold air.
I turn and stare back at the empty room. Not quite sure what to do next.