Page 12 of 13One night Claudia and Jack ended up at dinner alone. Glory was expected at a gala. I'm not looking forward to it, she'd said—and this seemed true enough, though she also seemed pleased to be leading a life whose not-looked-forward-to events were at least glamorous. Louisa was in the middle of a 24-hour yoga class. Paul hadn't shown up for weeks. He was either out-of-town or relapsing; no one was sure. Jack and Claudia sat alone at a booth meant for six.
In the booth across from theirs, a schizophrenic woman drank a bottomless cup of coffee. Her possessions were all over the vinyl, crumpled paper and bunched clothes, a stack of tattered library books that looked as if they'd been overdue since the seventies. She was making a lot of noise, gathering everything and stuffing it into plastic bags. Claudia noticed her socks, slouched down her ankles and hanging partway off her feet so the toes dangled loose. They were wet, and slapped the linoleum audibly. The woman stopped at their table and looked Jack straight in the eye: "You want me to cure your disease?" she said, quite loudly. "Then let me put it in my mouth!"
Diners glanced up from their sodas and French fries, quickly averting their eyes again. It struck Claudia that if this woman had been having an epileptic seizure, everyone would have been trying to help her, but she had this illness instead, and no one tried to help her at all. They just let her walk back onto the street, all of them, wherever her damp socks would take her, and were relieved to watch her go.
Claudia and Jack both looked down at the table. It felt awkward to make eye contact after witnessing something like that. You didn't want to be too casual about it, Claudia thought, or too serious either. "I checked myself into a psych ward once," Jack said. "It's weird to think about now."
"What did you have?"
"I didn't have anything," he said. "I was just totally out of my mind from booze. I couldn't—it was driving me crazy, every day, needing it and thinking about how to stop needing it, and I felt like I would reach this point where I wanted to crawl out of my skin, literally, like I couldn't stand to be inside my own life."
"How long did you stay?"
"Two nights. Long enough for them to decide I didn't need any kind of psych drugs. I just needed to quit."
"What did you do?"
"I quit," he said. "For about three months. My wife and I were still together then, and she really helped. I mean, she'd been sober for years already and she'd…"
"Gotten her life together," he said. "She was good to me. She really knew how it felt, you know? How hard. But I just couldn't do it."
"So you aren't—
"We're separated," he said. "She lives with our daughter in Connecticut."
"You have a daughter?"
"I haven't seen her in a while," he paused. "I'm not very good at talking about this."
"It's alright," she said. "We can talk about something else."
"Yeah," he said. "Maybe we should."
"Well," she said. "I've been meaning to ask about your tattoo."
"Ha," he glanced at his plate. "You think you changed the subject."
"It says Chloe," he said, and started rolling up his long blue sleeve. "Underneath the name there's a little rabbit head."
"It looks more like a snake," she said. "From a distance, anyway."
"The rabbit has antlers," he said, struggling to get the fabric over his elbow. "They curl."
"Like a Jackalope?"
"Chloe is my daughter," he said, as if he hadn't heard. "That's probably obvious." It hadn't been, to her. She'd thought it was the wife.
"She swears she saw a Jackalope once, when we were driving through the desert, and her mother tried to tell her once that it couldn't have been—that they didn't exist—but she refused to believe."
"You still see her when you can?"
He shook his head. "We're working on that."
Claudia kept quiet, waiting.
"Here's the thing," he said. "It was an accident.I opened the fridge fast and she was on the other side of it and I just didn't see her."
"You were drunk?"
He nodded. "I was opening the fridge for a beer."
"God," she said. "I'm sorry. Was she hurt?"
"She wasn't hurt. Just upset. She got upset because I got upset, and then her mother… there was a bruise—"
Claudia said firmly: "It doesn't make you a bad father."
"That's the thing," he said. "I think it does."
"It's just one —"
"My wife always said I needed to stop excusing my own mistakes," he said. "I'm starting to realize what she meant."
"I'm really sorry," said Claudia. "I wish I could—"
"Now really," he said, pulling his hand away. "Let's talk about something else."
Claudia thought about mentioning her abortion but didn't. She could feel it like money in her pocket, something she was ready to spend.
"What about you?" he said. "That night we got our white chips, was it your first time?"
"My first time getting a white chip?" she said. "Or my first time trying to quit?"
He shrugged. "Both, I guess."
"I've tried to quit a couple times," she said. "Not really quit, but just stop for a month or two and try to figure out what I was doing wrong. Learn to drink better."
He smiled. "How'd that go?"
"You can see for yourself."
"After my wife left," he said, "the other relapses weren't as bad."
She raised her eyebrows, as if to say, Why not?
He shrugged. "Not as much to lose."
They began to talk about their relapses the way other people might talk about their sexual histories, in order to gauge and stoke the other's desire. They asked the questions they wanted to be asked themselves: How did the first sip feel when you came back? What was the best buzz you ever had? They were pulling the stitches off their wounds, one by one, and digging back inside. Claudia wasn't sure if she was using alcohol to flirt with Jack, or using him to flirt with alcohol, the memory of its pleasure and the possibility of its return.
When he talked about his relapses, his tone was full of tenderness, as if each memory were a favorite child. There was one night in a hotel room in Seattle, going bleary on a bottle of rum and watching infomercials until he fell asleep. He remembered crying about kitchen knives. There was a bender in North Carolina, at an old wooden house on the Outer Banks—listening to wind rattle the eaves as two college friends got him wasted, left him to wake up the next morning on the beach with the cold tide lapping his boots.
"It was magical," he said. "It was like a dream."
"Do you regret it?" she asked.
"Nope," he said. "I know I should."
Claudia bit her lip. "Sometimes I think I should just go ahead and have one."
"Just so I could know for sure—I mean, really know—that I'd absolutely lost control. Then I'd really want to get better."
She caught his eye. It was like an electric circuit, their gazes seeking the tug and velocity of permission, saying what they couldn't say out loud: let's do this, we can do this. Maybe they would have sex, and maybe they wouldn't, but that part didn't really matter. They would drink together and it would just be the two of them fucking up, ducking into a shared and shameful insularity.
"Where?" she asked. She didn't need to say the word drink. There was only the question of how—the place, the booze, the plan. She glanced across the street. There were two bars across the street. She and Jack were both acutely aware of them, she was sure, the way a Mafioso man might be aware of all the entrances to a room. One bar had a red carpet flanked by two back-lit palm trees. The other was made of brick and had a single window crossed by bars, a Miller sign glowing behind them.
Jack followed her gaze. He said: "Oh."
She got a sick feeling in her stomach.
"I should go home," he said. "You probably should too."