I couldn’t help but grin at the firm crunch of the icy crystals beneath my feet, feeling a private satisfaction in old parental warnings disregarded on this quiet winter night. I’d returned home on military leave a few days before Christmas to a place I hadn’t been in years because I needed a change of scenery. My ex-wife had left our home in El Paso with my children and I had handled it… poorly. I hadn’t been able to think of any particularly good place to go, but I couldn’t stay in that empty house any longer–drinking all day and being haunted by the ghosts of my displaced children. So I took a break from my liquor sabbatical and came home.
Without any purpose or direction, I continued walking along the frozen sidewalk in this small, two street town. Crushing thin ice beneath my leather steel-toed boots was one of two distractions from the harsh, biting wind. The other: a small tattooed Asian woman with prismatic hair walking beside me who smelled too much like strawberry vodka and sickly sweet nicotine. Who was she? A best friend or failed lover, depending on your perspective. Either way, her scent was the only relief from the brittle winter air assaulting my nose hair.
“I’m really glad you were able to make it home for Christmas,” she said in an almost child-like voice reserved only for her closest. I chuckled, tasting more than a little Smirnoff on my breath. She stopped and looked me over, presumably deciding whether I was laughing in agreement or making some vain attempt to sidestep the subject.
“I’m serious. I know you don’t care about anything since you lost your kids, and you think no one cares about you anymore, but that’s not true. Why do you think I’m here?”
She held a severe expression for someone with so delicate a face. An unfitting frown coupled with a drunken scowl decorated her soft features. The more I examined her, the more I wondered if her countenance had hardened over the years. She didn’t seem as young and naïve as we both once were. Still, memory permitted me to see what I expected to see–a lost little girl trying to help her friend find his way. A heavy sigh escaped my lips.
“I try not to think much at all lately. Just makes things worse.”
The vexing glare she had introduced me to when I had once forgotten to invite her to a party was again staring back at me. I shrugged. What else could I do?
“You’re funny. You know I’m worried about you.”
“I know, I know. I’m tryin’. I just… I don’t know.”
Her words, while seemingly earnest, penetrated little more than the chilly snow falling apathetically around us. Standing before her, I kept my gaze fixed on hers, keeping any thoughts I might have to myself. I wanted to care like she wanted me to care, but wanting wasn’t enough. My world tilted and turned, forcing me to adjust my footing. I was always a bit of a lightweight, and we had not been drinking lightly.
I stared into her dark cinnamon eyes. They brimmed with inviting warmth, even when taking pity on things so undeserving. A fruity burp forced its way out of her mouth.
“Excuse me!” she muttered playfully, bringing her palm to cover her mouth.
“Eh, I give it a three, maybe a four. You can do better. Just sayin’.”
We laughed, any remaining tension evaporated with the citrus belch. She wrapped her arms around my waist burying her head in my chest. The smell of Marlboro 27’s and dye-burnt hair began to comfort me, placing me beyond the reach of the freezing wind or impending alcohol nausea.
I held her for a moment before she released herself and wrapped her arm around mine. Although smaller, she was the stronger of the two of us at the moment, and led the arduous trudge back to my mother’s rustic duplex—a “house” that could pass for little more than a glorified shack.
We wandered slowly to the snow-covered porch, taking our time on the dilapidated steps as we got up to the house. With the snow hazard now behind us there was little excuse for my stumbling around the dimly-lit kitchen. Still, I needed help to make it through the clutter, which my good friend was willing to provide. She set me down on the narrow dumpster dived couch, taking off her wool jacket and making a small space for herself. The most I could accomplish was to keep from falling off the couch by resting my head on an ornate bargain pillow. She, on the other hand, sat almost regally (without the pretentious posture) in a yellow polo and black skirt with winter leggings. She was more versed, and hence more capable, while binge drinking.
“So, you’re too wasted to walk a couple blocks home. Feel any better?”
I rolled my eyes, managing instead to raise my head enough to see her draw a cigarette from her purse. She held it between her lips, lit it, and then placed the red lip gloss-stained filter into my mouth. The slow intoxicating burn tasted of cherry as it ventured down my throat exploring my lungs, carrying my mind along on its brief but vigorous journey. The sweet saccharine alleviated any guilt American television insisted I should feel.
“What are we gonna do with you…”
Shifting my focus from the blurry neon clock that had to be lying about how late (or early) it was, I could see her shaking her head. I knew I was in a bad place, both physically and emotionally; that I should be trying to get out of it or at least do a little something to tidy up while I was there, but there was simply nothing. Nothing but a friend who was willing to sit and wait it out with me. But even patience doesn’t last forever, and seeing the disappointment in her eyes made that clear.
“I’m sorry. I’m tryin’ to try. I really am. I just don’t know how to fix this mess.”
“I don’t either. Wish I did, but it’s not like my life’s any better. All I can tell you is to not give up. I’ll be here to help you as long as you let me. Honestly, I don’t know if you’ll get better or not. But I know you won’t if you don’t try.”
I nodded with inebriated lethargy. It became clear that I had someone in my life I could count on, so long as I was willing to be someone worth waiting for. As long as I was willing to try, I had someone who was willing to assist. Most importantly, however, I realized that no one was going to save me. She was there to help, but if I didn’t want to lose my last friend, then I couldn’t continue on like this. If I was to be the father my children would need me to be again someday, then I had to start by saving myself.
Seems like there should be more to the story, and of course there always is, but sometimes now is all we get. This is a lesson I learned from an old friend who stayed up all night drinking with me watching old movies in spite of her own problems. This is lesson I learned from a good friend who was willing to drop everything to get lost with me, and didn’t care if we found our way home so long as we found a way to get by. This is a lesson I learned from my best friend on a regular old night just before Christmas.