With Feet at the Edge of the Abyss, Part 2
The mall is one of the first places I think of when it comes to environments that reinvigorate my suicidal tendency—along with strip clubs at two in the afternoon on a weekday, classrooms with those florescent lights lining the ceiling that house masses of dead insects like state-run morgues, and the intake room in a county jail—so today of all days a particular and not unfamiliar kind of warm, prickling excitement pulses inside my chest as we pull up to the Jefferson Square Mall.
Rebecca grabs me by the arm and leads me towards the entrance as an obese couple holding overfilled tote bags lumber past us. They smell like grease, like they were standing over a deep fryer for an hour before walking out, letting their odor waft over and sting my nostrils. They are a perfect encapsulation of what I picture awaits us inside the mall, and the prickling warmth intensifies.
Rebecca says something about needing shoes and hangs a left once the doors open. The smell of heavy perfume assaults my nostrils, twisting around the lingering greasy odor of the couple we’d just passed. I don’t know what store I’m in but there are mannequins everywhere and they wear cashmere sweaters and high-waisted shorts and tank tops and I hate it here. Women are staring at me so I follow Rebecca into the aisles of women’s shoes. Hundreds of shoes. The aisles aren’t tall enough to hide between so I plop down onto the carpeted floor at Rebecca’s feet like a hound and light a cigarette.
I can see the wheels spinning in her head before she turns around to identify the smell, dropping a pair of boots onto the ground. “Henry, what the fuck are you doing?” she snaps, horrified. “Put that out.”
“It smells awful in here,” I tell her. “I’m clearing my palate.”
A single puff of gray-white smoke floats up over the aisles before Rebecca snatches the cigarette out of my mouth and smashes it into the carpet.
My eyes widen and my face lights up. “That’s destruction of property! Look what you did! Oooooo the mall cops are gonna arrest you!”
“Shut up. C’mon.” She pulls me onto my feet and hurries me away to another area of the store before the old women catch on. “Please just behave yourself for twenty minutes, can you do that?”
“I can certainly try, home-wrecker.”
“Stop calling me that.”
I follow along for a few minutes before growing bored and taking off towards the exit, where the mall proper opens up and my fear of open spaces takes hold. I wander along the storefronts, wearing my sunglasses as a protective shield to combat my social anxiety, until reaching a Starbucks. I order a tall black coffee (“Whatever the small one is.”) and mention to the barista something about how I’d stick my head underneath the espresso machine and flip it on if I had to work her job. I then say something about how the urge to end one’s life is totally normal, and follow that up by asking if they’re hiring. They aren’t.
I shuffle back through the aisles of perfume and lingerie before spotting Rebecca at the checkout desk. She’s talking to a pretty, young blonde who stands straight and looks like she’s never been dirty in her life. They’re talking about the details of returning old clothes and buying new ones, and how much can she get taken off from the price of the new ones for selling the old ones? It’s painfully unriveting so I jump up and sit down on the counter between them.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
She’s taken aback and can only respond with an uncomfortable chuckle and a tap on her nametag with a polished and manicured fingernail. I lean in and close one eye until the word Alicia comes into focus.
“Do you like your job, Alicia?” She shrugs and returns her attention to the transaction with Rebecca, but I continue speaking with the drunken belief that what I have to say is more important than their capitalistic endeavors. “You should quit. Quit right now. You don’t need this job. This job needs you. Empty that register, pocket the cash, and let’s get outta here. You and me, let’s go get drunk—what do you say, Alicia?”
Now that I’m unemployed and thoroughly intoxicated, I’ve decided that the American nine to five job is slavery of the masses, and it’s now my duty as a newly enlightened radical to set free the Great Unwashed, one young, attractive working-class woman at a time.
Content with my enlistment speech, I lean back and pull out another cigarette. A look washes over Rebecca’s face like she’s watching a man gouge his own eyes out with a spoon. Nobody speaks. I try again to elicit a response after recognizing that the silence will go on indefinitely until I fill the uncomfortable space I’ve created. “So,” I continue as I light my cigarette, “you mull that over, Alicia. Decisions like this are a hard choice to make, I get it.” I drag the harsh smoke and cough up phlegm into the back of my throat. “But look at me! This is a free man you’re looking at! You’re looking at pure happiness right now, Alicia. Let’s break those shackles!”
Rebecca grabs me by the shirt, pushes me off the counter, and whispers, “Get the fuck out of here and wait for me outside. You’re gonna get us arrested!”
“Good!” I shout, walking backwards towards the exit, the cigarette hanging limp between my lips and the middle finger on my good hand pointing to the ceiling. “Let ‘em! I’ll become an icon for the free man! I’m Nelson fuckin’ Mandela, Rebecca! See these wrists? No shackles, baby, no shackles!”
With that, I walk outside and crumple over onto the sidewalk to sit underneath the dull white sunshine and wait for Rebecca. With no audience left to witness my antics, the humor drains away, and I’m left again with nothing but the desperate reality of my situation. The thoughts and memories I’m trying to suppress begin to bubble up and spin in circles like a merry-go-round behind my eyes, and the overpowering urge to drink returns. I recognize, as I sit here on the hot cement in front of a Macy’s department store in the middle of the afternoon on a Monday in the summer of 2018, that there is nothing short of suicide that will free me from this bear trap of a life I’ve stepped on.
I tell Rebecca that I’m not getting back into the car unless she drives me to a liquor store, so she does and I pick up a pint of Jim Beam. Typically I’d go for Old Crow to ensure that I’m going to be punishing my body as much as possible, but today I’m still trying to hold onto the vague notion that I’m celebrating. The image of my arm outstretched through the open car window fades in and out behind the formative stages of a blackout. The coffee splatters across the passenger door and wicks off in the wind.
“What did you just do?” Rebecca says.
“Nothing,” I mumble, refilling the half-empty coffee cup with whiskey.
I continue to sip at the bitter drink as we move at a glacial pace through rush hour traffic down the highway. Rebecca tells me a story about how she thinks a guy she’s been seeing is ghosting her because the last time they hooked up she let him fuck her in the ass and when he pulled out she accidentally shit on his dick, but I’m tuning in and out because I’ve found a bump on the inside of my lip and I’ve realized that it must be cancer. My tongue runs back and forth against the unsettling protuberance as I catch some of her monologue:
“It was everywhere. It was all over him, all over the sheets. I’d heard about that kind of thing happening but that has never happened to me before.”
I indulge her: “So, then what happened?”
“I mean—he was cool about it. He was like, ‘It’s totally fine I can change the sheets,’ and then he jumped in the shower.”
I laugh. “And then what did you do?”
“I waited until he got out and he said I could still stay but I was like, ‘I think I’m gonna go home now.’”
“And then you did?”
“Of course I did. I couldn’t even look at him after that.” She grimaces and moans, “Ohhhh my GOD, Henry! That’s so fucking embarrassing, of course he ghosted me.”
“No, see, that’s where you fucked up,” I say. “You have to stand by that shit. Literally.”
“That’s not funny.”
“No, listen to me. You should have owned that shit. Owned it. Said, ‘Yes, I shit on your dick. That’s my shit right there on your dick. You defiled my ass with that thing and this is an all too typical consequence. Now embrace this situation and accept me.’” Rebecca keeps her eyes forward and remains silent. I pull down on my bottom lip and lean over to study the bump in the rear view mirror. “Hey, Rebecca,” I say, eyes trained on my reflection. “What’s the survival rate for oral cancer?”
“Not low enough. Where do you wanna go?”
I forgo the liquor mixture in my cup and pull straight from the bottle. “Bar.”
Rebecca exhales like she’s blowing out a cloud of cigarette smoke. “Henry…”
“Look,” I snap, “either you can come with me or you can drop me off and I’ll go somewhere by myself.” I can hear the anger coming through in the words slogging off my tongue but can’t stop it, my mind too muddled by the mist growing thicker as the alcohol’s effects begin to take over.
“Alright, Henry,” she sighs. “I’ll come with you to a bar.”
“Okay then,” I say. I sit back and drain the contents of the little white cup. “Thank you.”
The bar’s walls are an unattractive shade of white tinged yellow after past decades of cigarette smoke stains. The booths are a deep forest green with black splotches in the leather where past patrons spilled their drinks or bodily fluids. The floors are carpeted. This was a terrible choice by the owners. One should take the same consideration into the choice of flooring in a neighborhood bar that a pet owner would before bringing home a dog that hasn’t yet been housebroken. If I owned a bar I would forgo carpeting entirely, and line the linoleum floors with layers of newspaper. This would cut down on the cost of custodial work and present the ambiance of a hamster cage, but the trade-off would be worth it.
These are the only details that I can differentiate at this level of drunkenness—obtuse and abstract details, the kind of indistinct shapes and visuals that make up the world through the eyes of an infant. I don’t recognize this place.
To cut down on the cost of a heavy drinking habit I order a tall glass of soda water, situate myself in the last booth at the end of the bar, pour out half the glass underneath the table when no one is looking, and fill up the remaining space with the whiskey from the pint hiding underneath my shirt like an unregistered firearm. I must be dancing between levels of consciousness because I know my eyes have stayed open, but when I turn to the right Rebecca is there looking at me.
“How long have you been there?” I ask. I can feel my tongue swelling and struggling to form the necessary consonants to articulate the sentence.
“I’ve always been here.” Her answer is ominous and I begin to feel uncomfortable.
Her lips are moving again. She starts to say something else but I blink and an abrupt fog overtakes me, and when my eyes settle back into my environment I’m at the bar with a drink in my hand. I’ve forgotten about the whiskey concealed in my clothing, or perhaps I’ve drank it all because when my hand slides down next to my balls I feel nothing in the space where a plastic bottle should be. My back is to the bartender, and as I scan through the sparse crowd for Rebecca, my line of sight is drawn back to a pair of eyes watching me from across the room. The eyes are piercing and appear yellow in the dirty glow of what little lighting this bar could afford. They belong to a large man. He stands hunched over with a hand leaning against the pool table, and he is staring. These are the facts I know. After another moment of discernment I recognize the shadowed form of another man standing beside him. His eyes must not have been trained on mine when I first scanned the room because I didn’t notice him, but now the large man is talking to the other man, and has directed his attention towards me as well. Now there are two shadowed figures, large male figures, staring at me from across the bar.
I’m not unfamiliar with these kinds of looks, whether they’re for good reason or just a false assumption funneled through my skewed, paranoid perspective. In either case, though, this moment demands action, and I vow to fulfill that demand. But whatever my response will be it, it will require a deft and diplomatic approach:
“What the fuck are you looking at?” I shout.
A few heads turn. I’m not being clear enough. I point at the shadowed pair, who’ve still refused to break eye contact. “You! And you! What the fuck do you want?”
The larger of the two is the first to speak: “Just checking out the view.”
What kind of threat is this? Are these mind games? I can’t think of anything clever or threatening enough to say so I settle on, “Well, stop it. It’s creepy.”
I look away. Where is Rebecca? Rebecca will be able to make sense of this. My feet make contact with the sticky carpeting and I set off across the room, on a mission to leave this place for calmer waters. But as I search, all the faces begin to look the same. They meld together into one swirling soup of eyes and mouths and eyebrows and ears. The people become as inanimate as the walls and the carpeting that reminds me of walking through a shallow bog. I’ll never find her at this rate—she’s become furniture now.
Before I can communicate this realization to the man with the handlebar mustache and cowboy hat standing beside me, I feel the firm grip of a hand upon my shoulder.
“I have a question for you.”
It’s the large man from before. His eyes are no longer yellow but a light brown. He isn’t blurred like the rest of the bar. He’s larger up close and the intimidating energy he exudes demands my attention.
“What do you want?” I say. I try to appear formidable despite our six-inch size difference and my inability to keep my center of balance.
His face softens. I can make out the shape of a strong jawline beneath his beard. “Well, more like a proposition.” His voice is light and bounces across the syllables almost like he’s singing a song.
“Where’s your friend?” I ask, ignoring his subtle invitation for me to inquire further.
“He’s waiting.” He points to a corner of the bar and waves, but all I see is a small gathering of similar-looking people all crowded together like livestock. “Brandon likes me to interact with our potential business partners; he stays behind the scenes. I’m—”
“Creepy,” I interrupt.
“The star.” He smiles at me—a subtle, crooked smile. This fucking guy is flirting with me. “Have you ever been on camera?” he asks.
“Well, I heard the government watches you jerk off through your webcam.”
“Sure, that counts.”
“What’s your price?” he asks.
“Do you like blowjobs?”
I hesitate and squint at the large man. “…Is this a test?”
“Do you like getting blowjobs and getting paid for it?”
“That’s a loaded question. Who’s doing the blowing?”
“Let me clear this up: We’ll pay you a thousand dollars to let”—he points back over to the corner and one of the faceless livestock waves at me—“that guy Brandon over there film you getting head. That’s it. One grand to get a blowjob.”
“Tyler. Pleased to meet you.”
“Tyler, who is doing the blowing? Who’s doing the blowing, Tyler?” I don’t know why I’m repeating myself. I already know the answer.
“I am,” he winks. “The star.”
“Right.” I look back over my shoulder: Rebecca, where the fuck are you?
Tyler takes my arm and pulls me back to focus. “Is that something you’d be open to? You’d be in and out in thirty minutes tops, dude.”
“That may be a conservative estimate.”
“You’d wear a mask; nobody would know it’s you.”
I study the man’s physique and try to gauge how difficult it would be to imagine I’m getting my dick sucked by Scarlett Johansson if I focused hard enough. Shit, I’ve always told people I’m about six percent gay anyway—thirteen if I’m drunk. I’d make out with Frank Ocean. And there was that bartender at the Blue Dolphin with the choker and that ass in those capris that elicited a certain unanticipated reaction out of me. A thousand bucks is a thousand bucks. A hole is a hole, right? “Are you gonna shave that small mammal off your face?” I ask. “I feel any stubble and I’m out, man.”
Tyler laughs and rubs his chin, and before he can answer I feel a small hand touch my waist. Rebecca’s voice twirls over the Motley Crüe song blasting across the bar: “Hey, Henry! Where the fuck have you been?”
I whip around. “Oh, hey. I’m talking to my friend Tyler. He wants to blow me on camera for a thousand dollars.”
“That’s nice,” she says. “I think we should go now.”
“Well, hang on, we’re negotiating.” I turn back around and finish the liquor in my glass, misjudge where the nearest table is and drop the glass on the floor. It hits the carpeting and remains intact. So that’s why it’s there. “Fifteen hundred plus thirty-three percent of the sales revenue…thirty-three and a third. You, me and Gomer over there.” I wave to one of the cattle. It doesn’t wave back. I must have waved at the wrong one.
Now that a fourth party has entered the equation Tyler becomes more reserved. “You know what? I don’t think this is gonna work out. You have a good night, man.”
Before I can reevaluate and renege on my counter-proposition, Rebecca’s hand pulls me across the bar towards the exit. She’s saying something but I can’t make out what she’s trying to tell me. I’m fading again. It occurs to me that I can’t recall how we got here or where we were before this.
The last thing I remember is tearing away from her and yelling, “I’m buying a shot for the road!”