By John G. Hartness © 2011
So I woke up hung over. Again. With no idea of where I was. Again. With a woman whose name I didn’t remember asleep on my arm. Again. This was getting to be a habit, one that wouldn’t be so bad if there was anything good to be said for it. So I slowly and gently slid my arm out from under my sleeping bedmate, trying like hell not to wake her, and started the search for my clothes.
As I scanned the bedroom for my clothes I began to take stock of the room and the woman who belonged there as obviously as I did not. She was stunning, a brunette goddess of the professional set rather than the emaciated, coke-strewn model set. She looked a little like the best bits of Sandra Bullock, Eva Longoria and Angelina Jolie all got tossed into a blender and poured out onto 800-thread count sheets of Egyptian cotton. One long, long leg was tangled outside the sheets, and the comforter was thrown halfway across the room to land partially atop the hardwood dresser. No Ikea for this lady’s boudoir, that was for sure. I wondered briefly where I had met her, and wished I could remember what line I used to score a night with a woman that beautiful. My best pickups are always vampires, they never last past daybreak.
It took a few minutes, but I found everything. Well, almost everything. Socks are the enemy to nameless, faceless trysts. They treat morning-after retreats like laundry day and always end up with at least one MIA. So I carried my shoes and crept out her front door with one sock on, and slipped into my shoes on the front stoop of her building. I thought I had gotten away clean when I heard a window open above me.
“You forgot something.” I heard from the third floor. I looked up, and she was leaning out of the window mostly wrapped in a sheet, her hair spilling down over her left eye like an over-eroticized Jessica Rabbit. One amazing breast was playing peek-a-boo as she reared her arm back and threw my sock at my head. I caught it, heard her mutter “asshole” under her breath and slam the window as I shoved the sock into the front pocket of my pants.
I found a couple of crumpled dollar bills in the pocket with the sock, and bought a cup of coffee from a cart on the corner. I stood there for a moment and squinted into the sunlight, trying to get my bearings. It looked like I’d ended up all the way over in Queens, a pretty good feat since I knew I didn’t start last night with enough cash on hand for that kind of cab fare. And that was not the kind of woman who spent much time on the subway. I checked my pockets and found my wallet (devoid of cash), cell phone (dead battery) and a claim check for valet parking on the Upper East Side.
Odd, seeing as how I don’t own a car. And can’t afford to eat anywhere on the Upper East Side. My sunglasses were still in my shirt pocket so I slid them on, slugged down the last of the coffee to get the cat-shit hangover taste out of my mouth, and dug my MetroCard out of the folds of my wallet. I started down the steps to the subway, peeking at the dates on the newspapers trying to figure out how many days I’d lost this time.
Looked like it really was Sunday, so just a few hours for a change. Maybe things were getting a little better, after all. Of course, as soon as I thought that, I slipped on the steps leading down to the platform and landed on my ass in a puddle of puke. So much for things getting better. Oh well, looking on the bright side, at least I didn’t have any coffee left to spill on my crotch.
A half hour on the subway later, and I was staggering up the steps to my oh-so-humble abode. The door was slightly ajar, which was not how I had left things, so it was with a certain level of caution that I entered my foyer. Foyer has always been a generous term for the eight feet of hallway between my front door and kitchen, but it’s the term we have, so there it is. My morning went from bad to worse when I turned the corner and saw, standing in the squalor that is my kitchen, my worst nightmare.
“Hi, Ma.” My mother, the matriarch of all my familial nightmares, stood in my kitchen wearing an expression that can only be described as utter, blinding, nauseated disgust. She was, as always, immaculately turned out in her Sunday best, this time a solemn black dress with a black hat and black patent leather shoes that had been polished to within an inch of their life. Under the veil of the too-small dress I could see the outline of a girdle that was stretched far beyond the laws of physics, and her plump feet were spilling up and out of the tops of pumps that hadn’t fit since before I’d had my first drink of whiskey. And I’m Irish, if that gives you an idea of how long ago that was.
“Jacob? You look like shit.”
“Good to see you, too, Ma. What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you, obviously. Or did you forget?”
I decided to avoid the slightly ridiculous “forget what?” and opted to go for fewer syllables. “Yes.”
The lines around my mother’s eyes tightened, and her mouth looked even more like she’d bitten into something sour, but she only said “I figured as much. Well, get cleaned up. There’s still time to make it if you don’t spend too much time on your hair.” Nice, Ma. Pure class.
“Alright, have a seat while I go take a shower and put on some cleaner clothes.”
“I’ll stand. There’s no telling what’s growing on your sofa.”
“Whatever. I’ll be out in a few minutes.”
I headed off to the bathroom, picking up random pieces of clothing along the way. Most of them passed the sniff test, so I felt pretty good about my ensemble as I warmed up the shower. Polo shirt, jeans without any obvious or identifiable stains, socks that matched and didn’t have any holes in them, and a blazer just in case whatever I had forgotten was particularly formal. I scrubbed furiously for a couple of minutes and then let the water run over me, loosening up tight shoulders and banishing the final remnants of last night. My hamstrings were tight, there were some scratches along my back, and it felt like I might have pulled something around my ribcage. I thought briefly that I had to start taking a video camera with me when I went drinking, just for the health insurance folks.
I shaved my face, then looked at the stubble on my head and took an extra minute to shave that, too. I started losing my hair in high school, and I’ve kept it shaved since then. Just makes it easier. But my hat budget is a little ridiculous. I took care of the rest of my morning business, including a bowel movement that would have made me really reconsider what I’d eaten for dinner, except that I couldn’t remember what that was, or if I’d had any non-liquid dinner at all. Anyway, it felt like wasabi. Probably chased sushi with Jagermeister again. I never learn.
I walked back into the den and sat down on a pizza box on the sofa to put my shoes on. The one guarantee in my place: there’s no pizza in the pizza boxes, so you can sit on one without getting anchovies on your ass. It’s good to have a few constants.
“Alright, Ma. I’m ready. Now where are we going?” I stood in the doorway, holding it open for her.
“You really don’t remember?” She seemed shocked by this, and a little more upset than normal. She came to me in the doorway and put a hand on my chest.
“No, Ma. I really don’t remember. So where are we going?” My head was starting to hurt, and I couldn’t blame it all on the Jager. My mother always brought out the migraine in me.
“We’re going to the church. It’s your cousin Samuel’s funeral today.”
Sammy? Fuck. I guess I hadn’t been drunk nearly long enough. I staggered back a little as the memories hit me like a freight train. Or like a city bus, which is what happened to Sammy. Little shit was listening to his iPod and not looking where he was going like always, but this time I wasn’t around to grab his arm and pull him back onto the curb like I’d done so many times before. Oh, I was there alright, I just wasn’t paying any more attention than Sammy was, my gaze having flickered to the tight navy slacks on a meter maid in the half-second it took for my cousin to make the transition from pedestrian to statistic.
“Oh.” I said in a small voice. I looked at my mother’s damp eyes and realized I was going to have to fortify myself for the day ahead. I lurched into what passes for a kitchen in the city these days, grabbed a bottle of Stoli out of the freezer and knocked back a couple of deep swallows before I came up for air. Then I grabbed a sports bottle out of the cabinet, poured the rest of the Stoli into it and dumped a couple of packets of orange Crystal Light powder into it.
“What in holy hell do you think you’re doing?” My mother asked from the threshold of the kitchen. She looked like she couldn’t decide what was more disgusting - me, my concoction or the counters. Probably a close contest at that.
“It’s a new invention, Ma. I call it Tang. All the astronauts love it.” I reached into the pocket of my jacket, put on my sunglasses and headed toward the door. “Come along, mother, let’s go face the family.”
The funeral was a hazy, weepy affair, conducted in the surreal sunshine of the ridiculously lovely and expensive Woodlawn Cemetery. My family has had a vault there since sometime in the Dickensian past of my great-grandfather’s Industrial Revolution fortune. I stood near the back of the gathered mourners and ticked off the categories as I noted their inhabitants. There was the family nearest the casket, my aunts, uncles and Grandmother, sitting stoic in her best imitation of grief. Cousins of various degrees filled the rest of the seats, along with some childhood friends of my Aunt Elizabeth, Sammy’s mother. Clumped around under the awning were the co-workers, college buddies and an ex-girlfriend or two. The people who didn’t really want to be there, but felt obligated by either old ties or fiduciary interests.
There were a couple of folks like me, the fringe-hangers orbiting solo around the solar system of grief and regrets. If Sammy’s coffin was the sun, with his parents and my mother Mercury and Venus, then I was a moon of Uranus, just barely tangential enough to be part of the gathering. The priest was finishing up his last tired homage to Sammy’s now-immortal goodness when I spotted Janet, floating even further from the asteroid belt of cousins than me, Pluto to my Umbriel. I drifted over to her as the assemblage broke up, forgoing my chance to throw a fistful of dirt on my best friend’s eternal box.
“Hey.” I said as I walked up to her, not sure how to begin a conversation at a funeral with my ex-girlfriend who left me to marry my now-lead-shrouded cousin and then left him to be an Upper East Side stiletto heel-wearing lesbian fashionista.
“Hey.” She wore sunglasses that gave a vague impression of ski slopes, but her mouth was pinched and her posture tired.
“You okay?” I asked, surprised to find myself actually caring about the answer.
“No.” She said. When she looked at me again, she took off her glasses and I could see tears in her eyes. I thought she’d had her tear ducts removed at puberty, so inured was she to the heartaches she left in her wake like the Typhoid Mary of Craigslist’s Missed Connections.
I did something totally out of character then, something so unlike me that it seemed for a minute like I’d stepped out of my skin, and was just an observer as someone who more closely resembled a normal human being set his sport bottle full of firewater down on a nearby headstone and took Janet in my arms and held her while she fell apart under a flowing dogwood tree with workmen lowering my cousin’s coffin into the ground behind us. We stood there for a few long moments, just holding each other and crying like we’d lost something precious, which we had, and let the rest of the world flow around us back to their town cars and limos.
After we’d cried ourselves dry, we pulled back and assessed the damage to her makeup and my detached reputation, and broke up laughing and crying again at the ridiculousness of it all.
“Of all the people...” she started.
“Yeah, I never thought...” I continued.
“That it would be you that set me off.” she finished.
“I have that effect on women.” I responded with a sideways smirk.
“I remember.” She said, not smiling, but not angry either. “You gonna offer a lady a drink?” She asked, reaching for my bottle.
“This shit? Not on your life. Besides, I’m quitting.” I said, holding the bottle out of her reach.
“Yeah, as of when?” She laughed as she reached for the bottle.
“As of now,” I said. With that, I turned and chucked the sports bottle in a perfect spiral to land with a hollow thud on Sammy’s casket just before the workmen started dumping backhoes full of dirt onto it. I looked down at Janet, who was nestled in the crook of my right arm like she’d never left, then looked back at the hole in the ground and the confused groundskeepers, and turned to walk up the hill to my ride.
“Cheers, Sammy. Cheers.”
John Hartness is a writer from Charlotte, NC. He's the author of Hard Day's Knight.