I’ve made it home, and I’m coming to. In my bed. Fully clothed. On top of the covers.
Someone’s coming up the stairs. Slowly. Deliberately trying to be quiet. But the old staircase is creaking and popping, giving them away, mapping their ascent to my room.
I try sitting up, but I’m hung-over and still a little drunk, so the ceiling spins and the walls go whirling. I settle my head back into the pillow, and as I’m about to close my eyes, a dark figure enters the room. I try to swallow, to speak, but my mouth’s so dry it feels sewn shut.
This could be it, I think. An intruder. A killer. The shadow of death. My doom.
But when the figure meets the moonlight and she is revealed to me, the spinning stops and I am comforted.
It is Hannah. My waitress from the bar.
“Are you okay?” she asks, as she hands me an icy glass of water.
I gulp and drink until my eyes are teary and my head aches with cold.
“Better now,” I say.
She takes the empty glass. Sets it on the bedside table. Then she stretches out alongside me. As if we’ve been doing this for years. And yet, we hardly know each other.
Hannah’s my waitress on the weeknights at Sammy’s Bar. She brings powerful vodka tonics and I drink them as I go over the day’s work. Pages of writing in need of attention from a much more distant and relaxed editorial eye. We’ve always been friendly. I’m one of her priority customers, she says. It’s because I drink a lot and end up tipping very well.
I take a long, deep breath of her. She smells clean and familiar. Like my soap and my shampoo.
“I showered. I hope you don’t mind.”
She snuggles up to me. Puts her hand over my heart.
“Still ticking?” I ask.
“For now,” she says, patting her fingers against my chest, keeping time with the beat.
“But if you keep drinking like this it’s gonna give out one day.”
A big white moth flies up to the window, flutters and beats against the screen.
Somewhere beyond us coyotes yip and howl. Their sounds grow and rise into high-pitched cries.
“Why do they do that?” she asks.
“The moths or coyotes?”
“Maybe they’re trailing a deer.”
“They sound so sad.”
“What’s sad is that you had to drive me home.”
“I had to,” she says. “It was partly my fault.”
“You drinking so much. I should have cut you off.”
“I wouldn’t have let you.”
“I know. I tried once, but you insisted on more.”
“I always want more. That’s the way it is with me.”
“Still, I should know better. Letting you drink so much could get me fired.” She stops her fingers and quiets her hand. “Or get you killed.”
The coyotes have gone silent. They’ve caught the deer, or lost the scent, or moved out of earshot.
The moth beats against the screen, convinced it can get inside.
I know I shouldn’t do it, but I slide my arm around her and pull her closer to me.
“It won’t kill me, but you might lose your job.”
“I might,” she answers.
“You don’t want to wait tables your whole life anyway, do you?”
It’s a rotten thing to say, but I’ve said it, and now it’s out there. Here. Sinking into us. Making up the night.
A sparrow sails past the window then circles back and snatches the moth from the window screen.
“Waiting tables pays the bills,” she says.
“And then some,” I add, because I remember her car. Black and sporty. Smooth lines. Fancy wheels. A dashboard full of glowing lights. Stereo. Navigational system. Climate control. A car so immaculate and fresh with new leather scent that even in my drunken stupor, I was aware enough to knock the dirt from my shoes before getting inside.
She lifts her head and looks at me.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Means you must be doing okay. You have a nice car.”
“What does a car have to do with anything?”
“It’s an all-American measure of success.”
She pulls away from me.
“It was a gift.”
“From an admirer?”
She sits up. Flings long blonde hair from her face over her shoulder.
“Proud grandparents, I’ll have you know. They gave it to me when I got my master’s degree.”
“Yes. In art history. And it just so happens that a master’s degree is exactly what a girl needs to wait tables these days.”
“Why don’t you teach?”
She moves close again. Puts her face into my chest. Breathes a deep breath of me.
“I don’t want to,” she says, sliding her hand down my chest, to my belly, then to my zipper. She pulls it down very slowly, stops midway. “Sounds dumb, doesn’t it?”
“You love art?” I ask.
She straddles me.
“I love painting and taking pictures.”
“Then paint and take pictures.”
“Could I take pictures of you?”
She pauses as if searching for a reason that’s more pleasing to me.
“And for your book covers. People should know what you look like.”
“It will help sales. Readers want to know what their writers look like. I would have bought your books if I’d known what you looked like.”
“I don’t want sales.”
“Then why do you write?”
“Why do you paint?”
Hannah moves her face toward mine.
“But you have such a nice face. Why hide it?”
Gently, I push her away.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“I have to use the bathroom.”
She sighs. Rolls onto her back. Puts her hands behind her head and yawns.
I stand, and I wobble, and I make my way through the room. A slanting shadow on the wall. Another dark figure in the moonlight.
“Don’t fall down the stairs,” she says.
I imagine falling and cracking my head open. Being on my back with the ceiling and walls spinning all around me, hearing Hannah run down the steps. Seeing her over me, watching her fade to black as she reaches to check my pulse.
“Leave me if I do.”
“That’s awful,” I hear her say, and I walk down the stairs.
The bathroom’s all moist air, Ivory soap, and Pantene. The mirror of the medicine cabinet is fogged over. Except for the place she has drawn a smiley face and written GOOD MORNING!!
I open the shower curtain, and she is everywhere. On the damp towel hanging over the side of the tub. In the foamy bubbles on the shampoo bottle. In the long hairs across the drain. She is the water. Droplets beaded up and glistening, making chrome sparkle and ceramic shine.
I turn away from it, then stand at the toilet, pissing, aiming as steadily as I can, looking out the steamy bathroom window at deer that are nibbling away at the garden I’ve let go. Four mature does. Three fawns from this spring. They’re eating breakfast. Working on what drives them. Energy. Sustenance. Survival. But some of them will not make it. Not through deer season. Not through winter. Maybe not through the end of the day.
When I turn to leave the bathroom, I notice Hannah’s bra hanging from the towel hook on the door. I know I shouldn’t, but I touch it anyway. I lift and hold it. Move the slippery fabric between my fingers, and imagine it always being there. Always here. Hanging on hooks. Draped over doorknobs. Slung over the backs of chairs. It’s something I want so much that I know it’s something I cannot have.
I put the bra back where it doesn’t belong. Wipe the smiley face from the mirror. Take one last look outside to see a fawn venturing off on its own. Walking away from the garden through the field with its nose to the ground. Ears up. Tail twitching back and forth. Moving through the ditch and onto the road.
I start upstairs, knowing that she’s naked. That she’s pulled back the covers, and is on top of the sheets. That she’s tired from watching night give way to morning and that she’s listening for my movement—the noise a body makes when ascending a staircase.