The morning sun assaulted every nerve ending in my shattered brain and that same vicious sun illuminated the headline that hovered before my bleary eyes: Bigfoot’s Miraculous Aqua-Baby Discovered. I tried to focus, then I tried to blink it all away. Miserable failure was the result on both counts. I did not conjure clarity, nor did the strange bedroom disappear. I was forced to ask myself that most critical question. Where the fuck was I?
I was in a bed, of that much I was certain. The bedsheets were adorned with assorted superheroes accomplishing various superhero deeds. A lumpy shape lay beside me, hidden beneath bright images of the Hulk and Captain America. The lump appeared to be breathing.
The head of the bed was crammed against a cheap particle board shelving unit and above this was the window through which poured the merciless sun. The shelves were stacked with a wide assortment of supermarket tabloids. Banner headlines screamed out over grainy black-and-white photos, slamming into my brain from a very close range. Aliens consorted with celebrities and Saddam rode double on a camel with Hitler. All told there were hundreds of well-read copies of The National Enquirer, The Globe, and The Star. Each headline, each copy, brought another wave of pain, far more agony than that of a normal hangover. This was payback for debauchery of an extraterrestrial nature.
I had no recollection of this room and no idea as to the possible identity of the lump snoring beside me. Tearing myself away from the checkout stand rags, I craned my neck in the direction of the slumbering stranger. The result was a stabbing pang in my frontal lobes. The bed seemed to swing into an erratic orbit. I closed my eyes, sucked in a hard breath, and waited for it to pass.
When I managed to open my eyes, I found myself staring down at a familiar face and the recognition brought with it another brutal stab. I was in bed with the Wombat.
I tried to wrap my head around the very real possibility that I had slept with The Wombat, also known as Margo, also known as my best friend. From the state of the bed and the scattering of condom wrappers, it appeared we had done a great deal more than just slumber. I took another look just to be sure, then failed to wrap my addled brain around anything close to a glimmer of what might have happened.
The back of my head hit the pillow. I closed my eyes and gave it all up as a lost cause. This was bad, really bad. Then I felt the bed shift and the lump that was Margo moved. A hand groped over my chest and a warm face nuzzled into my neck. The breath that rose from that face was rank, possibly as rank as my own. In her exhalation were words that shattered the stillness of the late morning.
— Hey, Baby.
* * *
I first met Margo in a dive bar down by the docks. Back then there were lots of lowdown drinking holes and I knew them all. These days, a good seedy bar is rare as hen’s teeth and likely to be overrun by selfie-snapping culture vultures. If I’m sober enough to make it to my feet, I scream and rant at the bastards. Sometimes I manage to run them off, what with the smell and the slobber. Then one of the regulars usually buys me a drink.
Margo was crying when I met her, that much I remember. I wouldn’t have noticed her at all if not for the asshole she was with. This scraggly dude lurched up from the table next to mine and managed to knock over a chair. He yelled at her, called her a cow and a bitch, then he stormed off. She was just sitting there, black mascara running down her cheeks on a river of tears. Even under the raccoon face you could tell that she was pretty. And calling her a cow wasn’t fair. It’s true she wasn’t junkie skinny, but she wasn’t fat. Plump and pretty, that was Margo.
She caught me looking at her and our eyes met, then she was shaking her head and talking.
— One of these days I’ll figure out why I only hook up with losers. So not worth it.
Hey, you want a beer? There’s a fresh one here that dickhead didn’t touch.
I moved over to Margo’s table and that’s how we became best friends. The glue that bound us together was sharing the horror stories of our bad choices. It started that very first afternoon over many beers. The dead soldiers were stacked deep on that wobbly table. She told me all about mister scraggly dude, things that would have made him cringe and whimper if he had heard, and not just about his dick size.
Margo had a brutal tongue on her, that’s sure, but she was funny as hell. We started spending more time together, comparing notes on the travails of our bedroom adventures. We’d drink ourselves to closing time, laugh ourselves stupid over our mistakes, maybe shed a tear or two. Then it would be time to wander off to Pete’s Broiler or Beth’s for some three AM breakfast. After that, we would stagger back to one or the other of our shithole apartments and pass out together on the couch or the floor. Together, but never in the bedroom and never on the bed.
That’s about the time I started calling Margo the Wombat. She thought it was cute until she looked up wombats at the local library. I remember her cursing me pretty roundly after that, but then we had a few drinks and she resumed thinking it was a cute moniker.
Things went on like that for the better part of two years. We quickly got to the stage of our friendship where we could and did tell each other anything and everything. I learned what a blessing it was to have another human being with whom one can share without fear the deepest and darkest. Sort of like the tradition of the catholic confession with the addition of strong drink.
I’ve learned a great deal in the intervening years, not much of it good. None of what I have learned, for instance, has made me into what you could call a productive member of society. I’m a drunk and a doper, pure and simple. Leopards and spots as the saying goes. The lesson that still bites the sharpest, however, is that I can’t see a good thing even when it’s staring me in the mug. Not that good things come my way very often these days. They don’t. But Margo was a good thing, a very good thing, and I went and threw that obvious blessing away.
* * *
There I was under the unwavering scrutiny of that vicious morning sun, my best friend naked beside me, cuddled up and cooing into my neck. Bigfoot’s Miraculous Aqua-Baby and the Mysterious Bat Boy hovered just behind my aching head. This is where I should have run but didn’t.
I knew this scene and I knew how to play it. You get out of the bed as quickly and quietly as possible. Find your jeans, pile the rest of your shit on top, roll the bundle up and get the hell out of the bedroom. Make sure you have your shoes and your wallet. Get dressed in the living room, hallway, whatever. Then get gone.
Sure, things might be uncomfortable for a day or two, dodging her phone calls, avoiding our regular taverns. But eventually, you have the conversation. Sorry, I was really hammered, didn’t mean to cross that line. Yeah, I know, me too. Right, exactly, we go back to being friends and we never speak of it again.
I could lie about what happened next, blame it on my hangover, on the Aqua-Baby. I could claim it was the sun in my eyes. There were probably a dozen excuses for what I did, but none of them would hold water. The honorable thing to do was slide out from under Margo’s arm, get up, and disappear. But I wasn’t an honorable man back then, and I never grew into one. So I did the selfish thing instead.
Margo said Hey Baby, her warm hand trickling across my chest, her breath tickling my neck. I answered her hungover siren’s call like the drowning man I surely was. I rolled into her touch, wrapped myself around her, and stayed right there in her sun-drenched bed.
That was the first day of the fifty-eight that would follow. The headline for that brief blur of ecstasy and despair should have been: My Girlfriend Was a Beautiful Wombat.
If Margo and I had been in one of those cute chick-flicks, this would have been the awkward post-sex scene in act two. The two protagonists, sworn to be just friends, have done the deed and now have no idea what to do next. Of course, the end of act three finds them married and more in love than ever. That’s all great for Hollywood, but I can tell you as sure as I’m sitting here on this shitty barstool, real life ain’t no movie.
I fell for the Wombat right then and there, amongst the stacks of tabloids and under that piercing morning sun. I fell long and hard, like there was no bottom, and I thought it was the same for her. In those beginning days as girlfriend and boyfriend, we laughed about how everything had changed. We made jokes about how much time we’d wasted, all those beers and tears we spilled over would-be lovers and dead-end loves.
Margo was no centerfold, but I didn’t care about that. She was sweet and funny and easy to be with. When I looked at her, I saw the person who could fill the emptiness in my life. I was a drowning man and I knew it. She was my life ring and I grabbed onto her with both hands.
Those first few weeks we were in a cloud of bliss, a beautiful fog of sex and smiles and staring into each other’s eyes. It was like we were holding our breath, not wanting to break the magic spell that surrounded us. Then the magic time ran out and we had to come up for air.
Margo believed we had a real shot at making something work. I knew she believed that because she told me so one bright sober morning over coffee and breakfast. She said she was happy, that we were good together, that we could be more, be better. I thought Margo could make me better. We were both wrong.
Back when Margo and I were best friends, I kept up a steady string of short-term girlfriends. There were always women looking for a project boyfriend, especially women who hung out in bars. Daddy was a drunk and these bereft daughters of drunken fathers were trying to set the scales right. Their eyes would light on me, the poster child for bad boys who need redeeming, and their search would be over.
These mini projects would last a few weeks, a month at the longest. My eager new woman would push that rock up the hill, only to see me roll back down with a bang. They would keep trying until they saw the final hopelessness of their efforts. Then they would kick my ass to the curb and go looking for someone with less rolling power and more potential.
I was used to the curb, so it didn’t bother me much. I’d go find Margo and then we would get roaring drunk and have a good laugh about it.
Margo’s love life tragedies were a different story altogether. She wasn’t looking for a project boyfriend. All she wanted was to find a decent guy who would treat her right. She was looking in the wrong places, sure, but she kept trying. It would end in tears and then there she would be, her head on my shoulder and a table full of drinks in front of us.
When Margo laid her hand on my naked chest, she already knew every dry bone in my closet of skeletons. When I rolled her plump body against mine, I knew exactly who and what she was looking for. Over the course of our friendship, we had dished up all our mutual dirt. The secrets were already disinterred. That’s not always a good thing.
When your best friend becomes your one and only, who do you turn to when things go wrong? It’s not like you can travel back in time and have a reassuring talk with your lost friend, then step back into the fray. I was crazy in love with the new Margo, but I needed my old friend to show me the way. Lacking that, I was a child lost in the woods, and no one likes a whimpering kid.
Margo came out of the fog of love quicker than I did. I don’t think she liked what she saw on our horizon. She told me she loved me, but that didn’t mean she was in the rock rolling business. Her words were a lot sweeter than that, but I got the gist of it. For my part, I couldn’t understand why she didn’t just lay her hands on me and heal me. When she failed to offer up any saintly redemption, my drinking spiraled out of control and me with it.
It was day fifty-seven when Margo broke it off. She had to wait until I was sober to do it, which probably added a few days to our tally. She took the soft road at first. She told me she still loved me. Then she told me that this was never going to work. My ears heard the words she was saying, but my addled brain translated those words into something else. I just had to try harder.
The second time Margo broke it off between us was day fifty-eight, after I had climbed the fire-escape to her bedroom. This time she found the hard road. I clambered back down the fire escape while she was on the phone to the cops. I lost a string of days after that, a whole piece of time that is gone forever.
* * *
I saw Margo just the other day. It’s probably been every bit of five years. First time I’d laid eyes on her since I fell off the last rung of her fire escape.
There’s a good bench down where the promenade goes along the river. It’s a quiet place to hang out when I don’t feel like being cooped up in a bar. I can drink down there as long as I keep the bottle wrapped in brown paper. It must have been a Saturday because there were a lot of parents messing about with their kids.
I was sitting on my bench minding my own business when Margo just appears from nowhere. It was like she’d popped out of the ground. She was pushing a baby stroller and some guy was walking next to her with his arm draped over her shoulder. I had to shake my head and blink away the fog, but when I looked again, it was still Margo. She was thinner than I remember, and prettier too.
There were cooing noises coming out of the stroller and Margo leaned down to coo back at the kid. It was about then I came to my senses. They were going to pass right in front of my bench. I ducked my chin to my chest and pulled my hat down over my eyes, pretended I was settling in for a nod.
I saw the wheels of that damn stroller pass in front of my downturned eyes. There was one horrible moment when those wheels slowed and I heard the kid burbling away, making noises like it was the Aqua-Baby. I felt something pulling at me, trying to force me into looking up, but I held my breath and kept my eyes on the ground. Then the stroller swept past me and two sets of footsteps followed.