Issue #26, Honorable Mention #1

Ben Leib spent twelve years as a waiter, a student (both undergraduate and graduate), and an alcoholic intravenous drug user. He now happily works at sea five weeks out of every ten. You can check out his publication history at benleib.com.

 

Tenderness

by Ben Leib

 

The old cardroom was closed and the windows looked onto a wall of darkness that made the city seem inside out: after midnight, the public world should have been dark and invisible and all dwellings should have been lit from within. The doorway was three glass walls cut into the storefront from the sidewalk.

Audrey slapped me in the face. “You fucking son of a bitch.” She was laughing.

I took hold of her wrist; she flailed to free herself and stumbled into me. She took advantage of that off-kilter momentum and jammed a shoulder into my chest, pressing me backwards so that I bumped the doorway window.

“Hey.” I smiled but my amusement was dwindling. “Careful now.”

I grabbed her around the shoulders. Audrey shrieked and wriggled away, but fell into another window as she did so. It boomed in its frame but did not break.

“Ouch,” Audrey said as her ass bounced on the pavement. “You motherfucker.”

The bouncer from the Asti was upon me before I knew that anything I’d done could have been interpreted as an act of violence. He had been perched upon his stool in the next doorway over, and we’d nodded to him moments earlier, when leaving the bar. The bouncer had been indifferent then, but now looked violent. Without asking any questions he grabbed me by the collar, twisting the fabric of my shirt into his fist. He had his right arm cocked.

Audrey jumped to her feet and took hold of the bouncer’s elbow. “No, wait.”

“What’s going on? Are you all right?”

“We’re just playing. He didn’t hurt me. He’s just playing.”

The bouncer looked me in the eyes, and I was made to understand that he would remember and hate me always.

*

Audrey smiled at me from behind the counter of Pergolesi. “Double espresso?”

“Triple. I don’t know how I’m moving.”

I looked around at the other baristas working there—tattooed guys with too much body hair, and handsomely curved women wearing high-assed jeans. Audrey had on a black blouse that showed off the two doves tattooed on either side of her chest. Her eyes squinted. Audrey had the most delicate blue eyes, lovely and melancholic and incapable of other emotions because of that crystalline blueness. But her bee-stung lips smiled in a way that I interpreted as genuine pleasure, and I was happy that she was happy to see me.

“You were drunk last night.” She passed my coffee across the counter to me.

“Just another one like all the others.” I didn’t even think to reach for my wallet anymore when Audrey served me.

“Where you gonna be?”

“Around. I’ll meet you when you get off work?”

*

“I had an accident last night,” Audrey said. I could tell from her voice that she was crying, though she would never admit to such a thing. I’d been lying on my futon, in my cube of a bedroom. The landline rested on a shelf mounted to the wall over my bed and the cord dangled down from above me. I sat up with the phone to my ear. She said, “I fell. I think I passed out.”

“You don’t remember?”

“I was blacked out.” Her voice cracked. “My face is pretty fucked up. I have to go to the dentist in a few days.” I didn’t say anything. “I knocked out the four teeth on the top. I’m not very pretty right now.”

“What can I do? Do you need anything?”

“I might need to stop drinking.”

*

Audrey and Bri were acting strange when they showed up. I was glad to see Bri, because I considered her one of the better influences Audrey had, but I couldn’t figure out what was going on with them. They were sitting beside each other, kind of sprawled out on the floor of my bedroom, sifting through my vinyl.

“Play something for us,” Audrey lisped.

“Yeah,” Bri said, staring over my shoulder at the wall behind me. “Be our DJ.”

I eyed them, one then the other. Bri wouldn’t meet my gaze, but Audrey stared at me with a mix of lovingness and apology and concern… There was too much I read in that stare—so much that it must have been more a reflection of my own gaze than anything Audrey was feeling.

Her top lip curled in, but it was so swollen you couldn’t quite tell she was missing her teeth until she spoke. The rest was a network of scabs that became densest along a fault line that bisected her face vertically—down her forehead, nose, mouth, and chin. I understood that she’d passed out on her feet and had fallen straight forward, straight down. “Play us something cheerful but still dark.”

I stood, riffled through my CDs, pulled out a Pixies album, and put it into my CD player.

“Fuck this. I want something that I’ve never heard before. Put some effort into this.”

I found a Stooges album, queued it up, and played Search and Destroy.

“A little better.”

We sat there for a moment and the girls talked amongst themselves in a coded speak that I could not decipher. I searched through my records and found Irma Thomas. I was hovering over them, queueing up the record, when Audrey jumped to her feet and ran to the bathroom. I stared down at Bri when I heard Audrey begin throwing up. “We split a quarter of mushrooms,” she said. “We didn’t drink anything.”

I shook my head.

“Audrey told me not to say.”

*

We closed out the bar. I was smiling because it was a good night. Both Audrey and I were drunk, but we were the right drunk. We were still laughing—her ceramics shimmering a few shades too pale. We were still using language in the ways that people expect language should be used. “I have to walk home,” Audrey said. We left the Avenue, nodding to the bouncer who sat on a stool in the doorway. “Are you going to walk me tonight?”

“Sure.”

We stumbled down Pacific Avenue and turned up Laurel away from the river. We walked a few blocks and then took a right on Center Street. Audrey shoved into me while we walked.

“Watch it now, little girl.” I took her hand in my hand

She held my hand for a few seconds and then shook free. “Don’t be such a bitch,” she said.

We walked up the hill, across the wooden railway bridge, and onto Westcliff Drive. I could hear the surf washing into the cliffs below us and could see moon and stars reflected chaotically against the pulsating surface of the Pacific.

“You’re a fucking pussy.” Audrey shoved me again.

“I’m gonna kick your ass.”

“In your wettest dreams you could kick my ass.”

She shoved me one more time. I grabbed onto her and we fell into the lawn of the small park that lined the pathway there. We wrestled, rolling over each other. Audrey was small but she was wily. Also, I was invested in drawing this out for as long as possible so I only did my half-best to subdue her.

“Ow,” she screamed.

We both stopped. I had her hands pinned over her head and was straddling her. She’d been trying to escape and putting up a good fight. Audrey wasn’t easily defeated. She always had her dukes up.

When I let go of her, she drew a hand to her mouth. She pulled it away and looked at it. “You made me bleed.” She sounded sad, and I understood that I’d been too rough, understood that Audrey would never have said, You’re playing too hard. She pulled her fingers from her lip and showed me the blood on them. Then she crammed the fingers against my mouth so that we were kind of tit for tat.

I could see where her top lip had split against the new teeth. She must have hit her face on my shoulder. I leaned over her, examining, and then I lowered my face to hers. She held my head there for a moment. I tasted a hint of the saltiness from the wound.

It didn’t last long—less than a minute. Then we stood and we kept walking. After a couple more blocks, we arrived at Manor Ave. We took a right and soon we were standing in front of the small house that Audrey shared with a few of her friends. She didn’t hesitate for a moment when we reached her driveway, just kept on walking straight up to her front door. “Well, good night.”

“Sorry for hurting you.”

“It didn’t hurt.” She was already at her doorstep and I remained standing at the edge of her yard. “See you tomorrow,” she hollered as she let herself into the house.

When the door closed behind her I turned around and began walking back towards town.

*

We’d been drinking together in an alley and then decided to head over to The Avenue. Audrey had her tip money from the day, and I had thirty dollars or so. We got ourselves drinks when we arrived. Audrey ordered a three-dollar well vodka and cranberry and tipped a dollar. I bought a Budweiser and a shot of Ancient Age. I’d sip that pint of beer all night, but I’d return for more shots.

We found a booth and took a seat. We stared at each other from across the table.

“Don’t look at me like that,” she said.

“I wasn’t.”

Within a few minutes she’d drained her glass. “I need another drink.” She sidled up to the bar beside a young-ish guy who was smiling. I watched as Audrey pressed against him ever so subtly. He said something to her. She was beaming up at him. He put a hand on her shoulder, and then she touched his shoulder. Another minute or two passed, and he pulled out his wallet and flagged down the bartender.

Audrey returned to the table with a full vodka cranberry.

She was smiling. I was not.

*

We walked together from the coffee shop to the bar. Audrey had finished her shift an hour earlier, but we’d killed time on the employee porch of Pergolessi Café, sipping bourbon and malt liquor while Audrey smoked endless weed. Though no stranger to other drugs, I did just fine with booze. I didn’t smoke weed before going out—it was a rule for me. We all had our rules. They helped us survive, I figured.

It was still early and we found an empty booth towards the front of the bar. “So, we’re hanging out then?” I said.

“Uh, yeah. That’s what we’re doing, right?”

“I mean you’re not going to bail on me?” It was a mistake, for I was planting a little seed in Audrey’s mind that leeched nourishment from vodka cranberries.

*

“I’m going to say hi to my friend,” Audrey told me. There were several tumblers littering the table top, each with different levels of ice melted in them. There were several empty shot glasses as well. Audrey had the familiar lilt to her voice. Her pretty eyes drifted through squinted lids. “Watch my purse.”

I nodded, but I was already beginning to feel like a very small man, like a man whose love could only be harvested for pennies.

*

Strangers joined me at the booth. At first it was a couple who asked if they could share the seat, seeing that I was sitting alone. I told them I was holding the place for a friend, but they were welcome to sit. In time, their friends joined us, squeezing me further against the wall, and I held Audrey’s things in my lap to make space.

I knew where she was because I’d been scanning the room all night. I kept hoping that she’d move on. She hadn’t. She was squeezed into a booth with five men. She sat between two of them. A lech with tattooed forearms had an arm around Audrey’s shoulders. I could tell by the look on her face that she was drunk to the point of delirium, which also meant that she’d become irrational and potentially hostile.

Three strangers had to stand up to let me out of the table. I grabbed Audrey’s purse and her sweater.

“You coming back?”

“No, the table’s all yours.” I was embarrassed that I’d sat there for so long. I walked to the bar. “Hey Danielle.”

“What do you need, hon?”

“Jim Beam double, Bud back.”

I downed the drink as soon as it was poured, and followed it up with the little glass of beer. I let it settle, experiencing an unpleasant wave of heat in the already crowded barroom. Audrey’s purse dangled by its strap from my elbow. I had the sweater in my fist.

I walked over to the table where Audrey sat. “Here’s your shit.” I held her stuff over the middle of the table and dropped it.

Audrey said nothing, just gave me an icy blue stare of drunken hate. I couldn’t meet that gaze. Instead, I eyeballed the tattooed guy until he blinked, and then I walked out of the bar wishing I’d punched him in the face.

*

My phone rang. I picked up my alarm clock. It was 7 a.m. The phone rang again. “Fuck.” It was Audrey’s voice. “I need your help.”

“Again?”

“Fuck.”

“Where are you?”

“I don’t know the address.”

“Go into the living room,” I said. “Find a piece of mail.”

“I’ll call you back,” she whispered.

*

It wasn’t a long bike ride, less than ten minutes door to door, but I’d ridden hard. Audrey was sitting on the front porch. She was in the same clothes she’d worn the night before. She spotted me, stood from the porch, and made her way to the curb. Her hoodie was the warmest thing she had on, and it was a chilly morning. Her cheeks and chin were pink. I should have ridden with an extra jacket but as it stood I only wore my thermal and a t-shirt. My fingers hurt to the point of numbness, and my knuckles were stiff.

“I want to go in there and say something to him,” I said.

“Just walk me home.”

“Audrey, I want to say something to that man right now.”

“C’mon.” She took me by the elbow. As much as I wanted to hurt this stranger, I recognized my weaknesses and capitulated. I stared at Audrey and she nodded. “I’ll be fine.”

I let her hold my arm for a bit while I pushed my bike, and then we just walked side by side as we made our way back to her place. I resisted the temptation to scold her, though my heart was breaking and rage seemed a symptom of that. Then Audrey said, “Thank you for coming,” and all my resentment melted to self-loathing, because in this, of all moments, Audrey felt I was the one who needed tenderness.

 

Copyright 2015 by Ben Lieb