The pounding wakes me up. Not that I was all that sound asleep. The sirens are constant and the drunks are boisterous, louder some nights than others, depending on the bar specials. They lurch into the alley outside my window and pee on the wall and yell nonsense at each other. And the el trains. Don't even get me started on the el trains.
I hear the pounding again and sit up in bed. My vision's a little blurred, but the bright blue digital characters of my alarm clock say 3:17 am. I swing my legs over the side and just sit there for a minute, rubbing my eyes. Boom boom boom.
When I open the door, it's her. I know it's her before my eyes fully focus because the motion of the door sends a tidal wave of perfume at me. The aroma weakens my knees. My first instinct is to be happy she's here, but then I remember I'm supposed to hate her and I hide my smile the best I can.
"What do you want?" I ask, feigning aggravation.
She steps forward, out of the darkness and into the porch light. Her cherry red lower lip is split and bleeding. When she pulls a rogue strand of blonde hair behind her ear, I see her cheekbone is bruised and changing color. Stalactites of runny mascara hang from her lower eyelids.
"Jesus," I say. She looks at me with those big blue eyes and a tear runs down her cheek. "He did this to you?" She walks past me, into my apartment without an invitation. She's wearing that navy blue
top with the frilly things that go around the low-cut neckline. She used to wear that top, coupled with a push-up bra, when she wanted to drive me wild. Tonight I guess the effort was for someone else.
"Hey-did he do this to you?" She doesn't answer, choosing instead to flop on the couch and bury her face in a pillow. "Hey. Talk to me." I walk over and nudge her shoulder. "Hey." She rolls over a little, but already she's fast asleep. I run a washcloth under some cold
water and clean the dried blood from her lip. She looks like an angel sleeping there. A bruised, battered angel.
I take a seat in the chair next to the couch and just kind of watch her sleep for a while. My heart redlines and I want to march out in the darkness, fists clenched in vengeance and rage. But I don't. I just sit in the chair all night. I don't want her to wake up alone.
The next morning I'm trying to remember how to operate this coffee maker thing she got me for Christmas a couple years ago. I hear percolation and see steam, so I must be making progress. A rustle of blankets makes me look up.
She's on the couch. Her eyes are open, but she's not looking at me. Her hand moves to her lip and shoots away in pain once it makes contact. Her lip quivers, her eyes filling with tears.
I walk over with a cup of coffee. Coffee always made her feel better. She takes a sip and nearly drops the mug on the carpet. A cup of steaming hot liquid to a girl with busted-up lip- God, I'm an idiot. I trade the cup of joe for a sandwich bag filled with ice cubes and that's much more welcome.
Again, I ask her about last night, what happened.
Again, she's less than forthcoming. She turns her head and looks out the window, mainly to avoid eye contact with me. I can tell she's trying not to cry so I back off. I tell her she can stay as long as she wants, trying not to make it obvious how much I mean it.
As she's in the shower, I'm doing pushups on the floor of my bedroom. I don't know why. This body hasn't completed a pushup in five years, yet today I was oddly compelled. I stand, my chest muscles flush with blood, and pose in the mirror. Nothing's changed. Still just bony ribs under scrawny skin. But I feel like a professional wrestler.
Digging through my closet, I reach as far back as I can, pulling out shirts. The red t-shirt? No, I still wear that sometimes. That shirt I got in Cancun? No, I wear that if someone has a beach party or something. I dig in the way, way back. The gray one? Perfect. I never, ever wear that one anymore. It's a little too big and there's a hole in the back. I venture my arms back into the closet, in search of a matching pair of jeans.
Later I peer so closely into the mirror my nose almost touches it. I scan every inch of my face, paying close attention to my eyes. My eyebrows will split on contact, most likely. There's nothing there but skin on rigid bone. I look at the fleshy skin under my eyes, where the bags form when I'm working through tax season and don't get enough sleep. This area will be eggplant purple tomorrow. It will fill with fluid and swell and distort, perhaps enough to block my vision. Maybe I should pick up a steak.
Tilting my head back, I flare my nostrils big and small, looking inside. With my hand I start at the bridge and work down, finding the spot where the bone of my skull stops and the cartilage of my nose begins. Pressing against the bony part, I imagine how it will feel as it breaks. Or at least I think I imagine. I really have no idea.
Finally, I smile as big as I can, stretching out my lips so all my teeth are visible. I get close and examine each and every tooth. The molars will probably be fine; their long roots have them embedded pretty well. It will most likely be a canine. Actually, no, it will be one of the front ones-or several. Hockey players are always missing those.
That night for dinner I decide to make my favorite meal: a big old lasagna with Italian sausage and tons of ricotta cheese. She helps me out, making a salad and some cheesy garlic bread. We maneuver around each other in the kitchen as I reach for this and she reaches for that. It's a dance we've perfected over the years and we haven't lost a step. Occasionally we rub shoulders or my hand instinctively graces the small of her back and electricity shoots up my arm and through my body.
At the dinner table we don't say much. The lasagna is as delicious as I had hoped. I take special care to savor each bite and relish the up-and-down movement my jaw makes as I chew. She has to navigate every forkful of food around the cut in her lip and it makes for some awkward bites that I find endearing and heartbreaking at the same time. The salad is dry and the garlic bread is burnt but they're the best I've ever had.
She's on the couch watching TV when I walk by in my old gray t-shirt and torn pair of jeans and tell her I have to run some errands.
"It's nine at night," she says, furrowing her brow. "Yeah. I won't be long." She stands from the couch and marches into the kitchen. She knows me too well. "Where are you really going?"
Her blue eyes pierce me. We haven't had eye contact this intense and prolonged since months before she left.
"You don't have to," she says. "Don't." "I'm just stepping out for a while," I say. "Some things to take care of."
I hate Dino's Pub with a passion. It prides itself on being some kind pseudo-biker joint, but it's also right on campus so the crowd is an eclectic mix of tattooed pseudo-hard asses and obnoxiously drunk college kids. Somehow this amalgamation of social strata hasn't led to a major catastrophe.
As I walk in, I cringe. It's just as bad as I expected: wall to wall with people, everyone trying to talk over each other and the airspace is choked with cigarette smoke. I rub my eyes and hand my license to the bouncer.
"How's it going?" I ask. "How you doing?" he responds rhetorically. He's a hulk of a man, with a shaved head and both arms sleeved in tattoos. The most
noticeable is a skull screaming down his forearm with a contrail of flame running behind it. A jet-powered skull? Okay. I don't say anything because this guy wouldn't be out of place in one of those biker brawls you see in the movies. I very much would be.
"Good night so far?" I ask. He smiles a little. "Not bad. You know." "I heard there was a band here tonight." "Yeah should be coming on any minute now." "How are they?"
He looks around to make sure his boss or someone of authority isn't listening. "Fucking terrible." I like this guy already. Moving through the sea of leather jackets and popped-collar polo shirts, I make my way
to the stage. I end up about three rows back when the lights dim and a fog machine spews that synthetic smoke that smells so bad. Four guys who worked really hard to look disheveled take their places at their instruments and go into the opening chords of a cheesy rock ballad.
He comes out on stage and saddles up to the microphone with his head low and his hair hanging over his face. His lyrics are nasally and irritating and he keeps pulling his hair back oh- so slowly, like he's revealing a little bit of his soul with every damn swipe of his hand.
I hate to admit it, but I guess I can see it. I mean, he's a lot taller than me, six inches maybe, and he probably has fifty pounds of muscle on me. His face is angular and good looking, with almost-feminine eyes atop protruding cheek bones and a rigid jaw. Without a doubt, he's got that dark and mysterious thing going, no matter how manufactured it is. And right now, in a bar full of people, he's the center of attention. Chicks love that crap. I get it.
A group of blonde college girls in the front row eats it up. He comes to the front of the stage and reaches his hand out to touch them and they go into an ear-shattering screaming fit like they're six years old all of the sudden. I imagine if that was her once upon a time. I can almost see her staring up at him and falling for his act. That makes me incredibly sad because I look at that group of college girls creaming themselves right now and I just feel sorry for them.
He lets loose an ungodly shriek as his guitarist strums a power chord. I notice now that his shirt has "accidentally" come unbuttoned, revealing washboard abs. Wailing the chorus into the microphone, he drops to his knees for dramatic effect and I can't believe those leather pants don't split. They're painted on, for Christ's sake.
I've been sitting on a fence across the street from Dino's for over an hour now. I couldn't take any more of that band. The bar lights have just come on but it's still packed. That's the funny thing about drunks: they never want to go home.
Through the windows I can see the tattooed bouncer weaving his way through the crowd, telling his customers to get the hell out. Amazingly, some of the privileged college kids refuse to go, giving him a hard time. Are they not looking at this guy? He'd pop any one of their heads off like a dandelion. That's another funny thing about drunks.
My watch tells me it's 2:13 a.m. I cross my arms over my chest to keep warm and realize I should've worn a jacket in addition to this gray t-shirt that hangs off my body. It will be a little while before they get the bar cleared and the band disassembles their equipment and hauls it out. I sit and wait.
After about half an hour of waiting, I cross the street and walk into the alleyway that runs behind Dino's. There's a rusted-out old van parked under a solitary streetlight. My feet tread lightly over the cobblestones toward the back door of the bar.
As I get closer I hear whispering. I almost don't see him in the shadows. He and one of those blonde college girls are whispering and giggling. Her back is against the wall. He's leaning in close, almost hiding her face behind the curtain of long hair that hangs from his head. She giggles again. Normally, this would seem a sweet moment.
I square myself ten feet behind him. Once he turns around, he'll recognize me right away and know exactly why I'm here. There will be no turning back. I try to calm myself with a few silent breaths. My hands are shaking.
Nothing. Maybe he didn't hear me. I clear my throat again, louder. He slowly turns and looks at me. "I'm not signing autographs right now." He continues doting on the blonde college girl and I just kind of stand there like an idiot. "Careful," I announce loudly, to the college girl, "he likes it rough."
The words spill from my mouth. He turns around, annoyed, and I smile. "You gonna beat her up, too?" "Who the hell are you?" "Her ex." "Her ex, huh?" he says with a smirk. "What are you, here to kick my ass?" "Something like that." He chuckles, building to a full-out laugh as he looks down on me, sizing me up. The
college girl laughs, too. "What are you, a hundred fifty pounds?" I look him straight in the eye. "One forty," I say without a smile.
His smile drops. He knows I'm serious.
"Tell you what, hero, you can have her," he says. "Be sure and give her a smooch for me when you fuck off back home."
Before I even realize it, it's happening. A Rube Goldberg apparatus is set in motion within my body. The experience is similar to vomiting: the necessary muscles contract or release in perfect sequence, involuntarily, reaching the point where it is completely unavoidable.
My fingers curl into a fist. My quadriceps tighten, making my legs push me across the distance. My arm cocks back. I am on autopilot. I couldn't stop this if I tried. My shoulder muscles stretch and contract, sending my fist sailing forward out into space.
As if in slow motion, I watch his face register shock and fear. Then confusion, realization and relieved amusement as my fist flutters past his face and harmlessly over his shoulder.
He looks at me with a smile, unable to believe I just missed. I kind of smile back for a second, embarrassed, and I wouldn't be surprised if we both just busted up laughing.
But instead, his hands wrap around my throat and slam the back of my head into the brick wall of Dino's effing Pub. My vision flashes white and for a few moments I can't hear anything. My brain splashes around inside my cranium, bumping the sides.
I stumble forward, dazed, and am immediately greeted by a giant fist smashing into my face, just under my left eye. The blow sends me reeling backward and the back of my head crashes again into the brick. A metallic taste fills my mouth and specks of white light dance before my eyes. You really do see stars.
I collapse to the ground and, for a moment, it feels good to lie down. It's only when I feel my hair being ripped out of the top of my head do I realize he's lifting me up by it. I can almost feel every follicle being forcibly torn from my scalp, but it's nothing compared to the dull ache that throbs in my brain.
He bends my neck so that my face is looking up and my chin is pointing forward and uses his height advantage to pile-drive a big right hand down onto me. A jet of blood sprays from the bridge of my nose and a spider web of pain radiates from the impact. I feel the bone behind my face crack like windshield glass. Now I know what a broken nose feels like.
Collapsing to my knees, I don't know if I'm screaming or crying. I cup my hands over my nose and feel a torrent of warm liquid run over my fingers and down my body, ruining my t- shirt and jeans. It's hard to breath: my nose and mouth are both filled with blood.
I don't even see the next fist. It lands just under my left eye. The skin rips across my cheekbone and I feel every cell separate, like slowly tearing fabric. The impact sends me back to the ground and I'm almost grateful. My body has become a furnace and the cobblestones feel cool against my back.
Again, I lose more hair. He whips me across the alley, like when a wrestler slings another wrestler against the ropes. Only there are no ropes welcoming me, just master crafted masonry. I'm too weak to raise my arms and brace the impact so I just crash face first into the brick. I'm fully aware of my lower jaw separating from my upper jaw, the muscle and tendons snapping like twine. A whole new layer of pain is added to my already impressive collection.
I hit the cobblestones like a sack of potatoes. Looking up at the sky, it's filled with stars and oddly beautiful. My vision is off, though, slightly askew, and I realize that the skin around my left eye has swollen enough to completely cut off my sight and ruin my depth perception. Something hard rattles around in my mouth. I figure I must've bit off a chunk of brick but when I spit, I see a frightening amount of blood and a tooth. A molar, to be exact.
The pain subsides and soothing calm washes over me. Blackness creeps in from the perimeter of my vision and I realize I'm about to fade out into unconsciousness. Nothing has ever felt better. I can let it take me away and slip into a painless dream and this will all be over. It's like a ship to a marooned sailor. But I can't embrace it yet. Not yet. I stare at that tooth because that's the only thing keeping me conscious.
I catch a glimpse of him standing over me. He's saying something, but everything echoes in my ears and sounds ethereal. I think he might've spit on me. In my muted ears I hear him laugh and can tell he's walking away.
It takes all I have, but I roll over on my stomach. My leaden arms press against the cobblestone at my sides and I push with all my might. I don't move, but I keep trying. My head is close to exploding. I push and push until finally I'm up on my knees. Maybe those pushups did help after all. I bring my right leg forward and plant my foot in front of me. There's an elephant on my shoulders but I strain and push, my quadriceps about to pop, until I'm on my feet.
I stumble forward like a drunkard. The alley is spinning. There's still a constellation three feet in front of me. I panic-if I go down now, there's no way I'm getting back up. Ahead of me, I see him with his arm around the blonde college girl, walking away.
"Hey," I say. Or at least I try to say it. It's probably more like "Heurhghg." The sound rises from my throat and lights my jaw on fire as it moves through my mouth.
I realize that to him I must look like a zombie: mangled, covered in blood, lurching forward through the darkness amid guttural moans.
"Goddammit," he says and marches at me, fists clenched, ready to finish the job.
I want to give up and just let him. I want to lie back down on those cool cobblestones and welcome sweet unconsciousness with open arms. But a couple miles across town the most amazing girl in the world is nursing a black eye and split lip. He made her bleed. He made her cry. He beat up an angel.
My heart springs back to life, pumping blood through my veins, feeding and rejuvenating malnourished muscles. My fingers squeeze together into a fist and it is a wrecking ball at the end of my arm. My left leg moves forward, my foot planting itself. It propels my body forward as my fist moves back behind my head. The muscles and tendons in my forearm, bicep and shoulder feel like the rubber band of a slingshot, taut and filled with latent energy. Just waiting for someone to let go.
His eyes go wide.
The energy releases and my fist catapults past my ear. It hurtles through the air and crashes into his left eye. His forward momentum meeting mine makes it devastating. I feel every one of the 27 bones in my hand break, snapping individually like twigs. Pain races up my arm and through my body, but right now I'm just happy I landed the punch.
He reels backwards but stays on his feet. His eyes meet mine, shocked. A line of blood falls from his eyebrow and runs down his cheek. He wipes it and looks at the crimson smear in his hand.
I smile. The pain is crippling but worth every screaming nerve.
He spears me around the waist like a linebacker and lands thunderous blow after blow into my face. I don't feel anything after the first one. That wave of calm rushes over me and I know that unconsciousness has come to take me away. My ship has come in and this time I won't deny it.
The last thing I see is a jet-propelled skull wrap around his throat and pull him off of me. After that, everything's black.
I see enormous breasts. They're pressed against my face and for a moment I wonder if I'm being smothered. There are worse ways to go. The nurse finishes checking some sort of monitor and straightens up, letting me see the rest of her. She's an overweight redhead who's wearing way too much makeup. She flashes a toothy grin when she sees I'm awake.
"Hey there, sleepyhead." I attempt to respond and a paralyzing wave of pain rushes from my jaw to my toes. "I wouldn't try chattin' me up just yet," the nurse says. "Got the old pie hole wired shut." She presses a button on my bed and the back rises so I'm now reclined. I notice a white cast on my hand and forearm. The nurse wraps a band around my upper left arm and squeezes a pump so that it inflates. "Let me guess: I should see the other guy," she says with a smile. I wonder how long I've been here. Hell, I wonder where I am. All hospitals look the same. But top of my mind is what happened to her. Hopefully she's still at my apartment, safe and sound.
"Bet you got some questions," the nurse says, reading my mind. "Here ya go." She sets a dry erase board and marker on my lap. "I'll let ya catch up." The nurse walks away and I see another female figure sitting in the chair. She stands up and approaches the bed, cutting into me with those baby blues. "Hey," she says. For my own sake, I try not to smile. She puts her left hand on top of mine and it's the first positive feeling I've had in my
body in what seems like an eternity. I reach for the marker and pop the cap off with one hand. I struggle to write lefty on the
dry erase board.
how long here?
She reads and says, "About 36 hours."
here whole time?
She looks at me and smiles a smile I've only been seeing in my dreams. "I didn't want you to wake up alone."
She tells me dinner's ready and I hobble over to the kitchen table. I haven't walked right since they let me out of the hospital a week ago, but the doctor says it will pass. She puts my shake down in front of me, complete with the bendy straw. It's a protein shake, but she puts some ice cream and extra chocolate syrup in there just to make it a little more enjoyable. I carefully place the tip of the straw between my lips and suck just hard enough so it doesn't hurt. I've lost ten pounds already.
She pours herself a bowl of tomato soup-a meal she eats so I'm not teased with whole food, and lovingly calls "sympathy soup"-and sits across from me. We don't say much, just smile across the table, me sucking that straw and her blowing on her spoon.
Later, I walk out onto the front stoop and see her sitting there, her hair blowing gently in the wind. I watch her a bit before sitting next to her. The only sounds are the wind rustling through the trees and the leaves scattering across the cement. I catch a scent of her and close my eyes to savor it. She rests her head against my shoulder and electricity shoots through my body.
About the Author
Adam Henkel is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He is currently working on an action/thriller feature, and though tempted several times, he has never actually punched anyone.