Another Wednesday morning in Starbucks. Ellen, the Goth girl, works the register. Her attitude only slightly brighter than her pitch-black mascara as the line continues to grow. Some newbie customer can’t figure out how to order a latte. When I get to the front I have to peel my eyes away from Ellen’s over-sized nose ring. She already has my grande bold waiting for me. She grunts, “Hey, Martin, finish that book yet?”
For the tattooed and pierced, satan worshipper, that's polite. Though, I’m not sure if she’s asking a question or wondering if I’m ever going to finish writing this thing. Was it a thousand mornings ago I started? Feels like more. It’s not a book I’m writing, it's a life sentence.
I go to the back and sit in one of the brown leather chairs. It's the one I always sit in. I open up the Times.
I turn it straight to the sports section. I don't even know why, anymore. I used to be the biggest Yankee fan, back in the day. Me and my friends, Johnny, Pete and Mark, we’d cut school, whatever we needed to do to see them play. We used to memorize stats and test each other. The smell of cheap beer and hot dogs in summer seemed to change the world. And the field was so green. Perfect.
We’d walk to our seats up in center field, looking down at Rickey Henderson; do our “Man of Steal” chants, hoping he’d rack up more stolen bases for the record books. Number 24. That was his number. One year for my birthday, the guys gave me a #24 jersey and, from then on, I wore it to every game. Baseball mattered.
We’d take the subway in from Penn Station. It was second nature for us. The big city was our life. We would joke around. Mark always thought he was hilarious back then, making jokes that weren’t even funny. Things like, “Hey Johnny nice shirt, did your grandma pick it out for you?” And he’d laugh right after whatever he said, even when no one else did.
Whatever became of Mark? What’s his life like now? It’s been years since the last time I saw him. I wish things had turned out different. For all of us.
The summer after high school graduation was the last time I spent with the three of them. They all went off to college, and I didn't. I continued to live in my apartment with my dad in midtown Manhattan.
My dad said if I applied to college, I could take over his business, someday. He had high hopes for me back then. But I didn't know what I wanted. So, I took time off and worked as a waiter at Romano’s restaurant, a checked tablecloth place run by a family that never had a good word to say about each other.
I guess it was as good as any job. But at the end of the night, if we had open bottles of Chianti, or whatever, the shift manager let me take it home. Before I knew it, I was drinking about a bottle a night. It wasn't like I had a life or anything. I was just drifting, I guess. Drifting away from everyone. And then, drifting into oblivion.
The guys came home for holidays but they never really reached out to me. They’d moved on I guess. I didn't reach out to them either. I barely even thought about them. Life was just work and then back to my empty apartment where I knew a bottle would be waiting for me. I drank from boredom. I drank so I wouldn't feel worthless. I drank because I did feel worthless, if I thought about it. Maybe after another round it’d change.
No one and nothing else was there for me. Nothing but alcohol. Who needs college? And those guys weren’t really friends, were they? Not like Mr. Jack Daniels and Mr. Sam Adams. Those were my real friends.
I take another sip of my black coffee and turn the page of the Times. I read the headline “24 year old Leah McKenzie Killed in Car Crash”. It makes me think back to Johnny and Pete that summer so long ago.
After a DUI conviction, I ended up in rehab at The Phoenix House. I had to face up to the truth about me and alcohol, that maybe we weren’t exactly a match made in heaven.
One day, my dad came to visit. He had this look on his face that said it was serious. He couldn't even talk for a minute. We went outside into the courtyard. We just sat there awhile. Then he told me.
“So, Mark called yesterday.”
I stared at him blankly, taking a few moments for it to register. Why would Mark call my dad?
“He had some bad news,” my father continued, “Well... Johnny and Pete were on a road trip to California. Some sort of celebration for graduating college. They left two days ago. They were headed through Pennsylvania. It was on a back road. They had an accident. It was pretty bad.”
I kept staring at him, not knowing what I should be making of this. I had been in rehab for 3 months. The outside world seemed so far away. I hadn’t seen Johnny and Pete in 4 years.
“So what happened?” I asked.
My dad sighed, then, “They were going about 80. They hit a deer. And...” He took a deep breath; his voice got shaky, “They both died, son.”
I didn't go to the funerals. I still had to stay in rehab as part of my deal. But when I got out, I went to meet Mark. We went to Mustang Sally’s restaurant and bar. We sat in a corner table against the window. It was lightly snowing outside that day.
We talked briefly about his job at Chiat-Day ad agency. We didn't talk about my drinking or rehab. Mark probably felt it was wrong to bring it up. The thing that brought us together was Johnny and Pete. We talked about some memories. But it was clear that we had nothing in common anymore.
“Remember that old drunk guy that came to every single game and sat right by us in the bleachers?” Mark asked, “He’d always be trying to start chants that didn't even make sense.” I laughed awkwardly at the memory. Then I thought how it was me who became that drunk guy a few years later.
That was the last time I ever saw Mark. Now it’s been years and neither of us has contacted the other once. It’s kind of what I expected though. The only thing that really brought us together that day was a tragedy, and now we’ve moved on.
I flip the pages, occasionally sipping my coffee. I look into my cup and think how it looks like a black hole of emptiness. I look up as I hear the door of the Starbucks open. A woman walks in trying to calm a crying baby in her arms. My eyes follow her as she strides to the counter. She reminds me of my wife.
Her name was Sarah. She was beautiful. We were in rehab together, though we never officially met there. We weren’t allowed to speak with patients of the opposite sex during the program. Especially not with patients that were in other groups. Sarah was not in my group because she had more severe problems than I did. She was a heroin addict.
All I really remember about her when we were in the program was that she was always eating chocolate bars. She would sit in the cafeteria and peel off the foil then tuck it away in her pocket. I would stare at her while she did this every day and think that she was some sort of freak. But then again, who was I to judge?
I don't know why she kept the foil but I later found out why she ate chocolate like a 5 year old in a candy store every day. Basically all drug addicts are after serotonin, a chemical that the body produces from food sources and makes them feel happy. Addicts have a problem producing serotonin. The chocolate would temporarily kick her addiction but she would never really be cured, not even if she lived in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
I never thought about her after I was released. Not until that day I saw her on the subway, anyway. I was on my way to work at the Acura dealership. I used to be a salesman there, but now I moved up to the sales manager position. I used to like it, but now I just go through the motions, especially since I don't have her anymore.
She sat down next to me on the subway that morning. I didn't even look up from the Times until I heard her voice, “Hi, Martin, right?” I turned to her, taken off guard. She didn't look familiar at all. I nodded then began to scan her for clues.
“I don't know if you remember me. I’m Sarah Beller.”
But right as she said it, I noticed the purple scars on her left arm. In the bend of her elbow. I looked back at her. “Yes. Yes, of course” I finally said, “How are you?”
“I’m great now. I’ve been out of Phoenix House and clean for over 3 years now.”
I was still stunned that she was the chocolate eating, heroin addict.
“That's good to hear. You look wonderful,” I said in a tone of surprise, wishing I could take it back. She just laughed though.
“Yeah, well things are finally working out now. I’m actually on my way to work. I’m an assistant buyer at Macy’s.”
It was pretty obvious she had traded in her Hershey’s for boots and handbags. I wonder if she ever wanted to work in fashion before she started using.
“Wow, great” I respond after realizing that I’ve been looking at her accessories and clothes and pretty much anything other than her eyes. “Yeah I’m on my way to work too, been a salesman at Acura pretty much since I left Phoenix.”
“I’m so glad things have been working out for you too. You know maybe we could get together sometime for coffee or lunch or something?”
It was hard to contain my excitement. Nothing this great had happened to me since I caught that fly ball hit by Ken Griffey when I was 16.
“I would love that.”
“Great. Well let me give you my card,” she said as she rummaged through the fuchsia purse I’d been staring at all along. “And you just give me a call and we can set something up.”
She handed me the card, and stood up. “This is my stop. It was great to see you, Martin.”
“Pleasure was all mine,” I told her as she walked through the double doors. And I meant it.
We started dating right after I made that first call. We did everything together. We went to movies and dinners. Took vacations together. Saw shows off Broadway. We even went ice-skating in Central Park one time. I was finally happy, and it wasn't because of scotch on the rocks or vodka tonic.
I look back to the counter where the woman is calming the baby. She looks just like Sarah did. She has shiny, chestnut hair and pale, freckly skin. She’s very skinny, but not too skinny. She’s tall, and even taller with the black boots she has on. They look like a pair of boots I got Sarah for her birthday one year. Too bad they were the hiding place she used for the heroin she started using again.
We were married less than a year after that day on the subway. But it wasn't long until it all fell apart. I never knew Sarah started using again until it got bad. But once I did, I thought back to a conversation we had one night.
“Martin have you ever drank since you were released from Phoenix House?” She asked.
“I was just wondering.”
She sat in silence for a few minutes after she asked. I was reading a book so I didn't really notice. I had almost forgotten what she even asked when she kept talking.
“Because you know how they used to tell us it would be a life-long recovery? And even though we might be done in rehab it could likely be a struggle forever?” She sounded like she was expecting an answer that I wasn't giving her. Did she want me to tell her that I drank? That didn’t make sense. I closed my book.
“I remember. But I haven’t felt the need to. Things are so much better now. Don't you think?” I asked hoping that she would give me reassurance that she was okay.
“Yeah, you’re right. It’s just something I think about sometimes I guess.” She flashed a weak smile after she said it. I just chose to believe that she was fine. Though she clearly wasn't herself anymore.
I tried everything I could. I knew she didn't need heroin. And I still can’t figure out why she thought that she did. Once it started, it was impossible for her to stop. I stayed with her every night, trying to get her better. Through the cold sweats, the ballistic screaming, the shaking and the crying. I bought enough chocolate bars to feed a small country. But nothing worked.
Then, one day, when I got home from work, I found a note. It was sitting on the kitchen counter. It was written on a piece of foil from a Hershey’s bar. All it said was “I’m sorry. I tried.” I never saw her again.
We’re still married. I never tried to find her. I was embarrassed and disappointed. The pieces of my life were falling apart again. How could I face it? So, I didn't.
I told people that we got divorced. But I couldn't bring myself to do it. I’m not even sure if she’s alive. I think about her every single day. It never gets easier.
I look up again and see that the Sarah look alike’s baby is calm now. I wonder if it would be different if we had had a baby. But I don't think that would solve anything. I guess I’ll never know...
I take another sip from my black hole of a cup, and I watch her walk through the door. I wonder what she’s like, if she has any problems in her life. I look back down to the Times. Flipping the pages, not knowing what I was looking for.
Then, there it is. The crossword puzzle. I sit up straight, ready to solve it. I always finish the puzzle. Sometimes I feel like I should be on some sort of game show. Maybe “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” That one’s definitely the best test of random knowledge.
I pick up the pencil on the table beside me. I look at #1 down. “Rugged Cliff.” I know the answer is “Crag” and it reminds me of a chapter in my book: “Chapter 12: Drive an Acura and then please drive me off a cliff”. The title pretty much sums up my mood at work after Sarah left. And now it may as well sum up my thoughts on this book. I can’t seem to finish the thing.
I haven’t typed a word in over two years. The only thing left to write is the end. And how can I end a book about my life when I don't have an ending?
I’m nearly finished with the crossword puzzle when I see Ellen out of the corner of my eye. She’s walking to the back with a broom and dustpan. “Do you have a son, Martin?” she asks as she makes her way toward me. I shake my head.
“Well, I swear, this guy comes in here sometimes. He looks just like you.” She starts to sweep the floor, her black combat boots getting in the way. I just shrug, “I don't have any kids.”
“You’re married though right?”
I shake my head again. I’m not about to explain my saga.
“Hmm, that's strange. You always looked like you would have a family to me.”
She walks to the opposite corner. I fixate my eyes on the freaky, Blair Witch Project tattoo on her neck. Was she asking me a question or trying to tell me something again?
I finish the last sips of my coffee and fold up the newspaper. I take out my cell phone and walk through the door. I dial information.
I need an ending to this book.
The operator’s voice tests me. She dares me to say a city and state.
“New York, New York,” I tell her. My tone is harsh.
“Say a listing.”
The operator taunts me. She goes through Sarah Beller after Sarah Beller.
Refusing to give me the right one. Until, finally, I find myself writing down an address and telephone number on the corner of the Times. My hand shakes. This is the right one. She’s right near here.
I begin to walk in the direction of her apartment. I contemplate my decision the whole way there. Then, somehow, I’m in front of apartment #6667. It’s like I’ve forgotten how to blink and there’s glue between my feet and the sidewalk.
I exhale. Now, I’m moving forward. I approach the steps and my heart’s beating so hard, I swear everyone around can hear it. The closer I get to the door, the more concerned I start to feel. “What the hell am I doing?” I freeze.
I can’t do this today. Maybe I can’t do this ever. I need to get out of here. I turn and walk down the steps quickly.
As I go to cross the street, I look back one more time at #6667. Then, I hear a loud voice from in front of me, “WATCH OUT!” Someone pushes me out of the way of a speeding cab. I lay on the ground. I don't know what just happened. I look up, blinded by the light, and I see a young man.
“Are you ok?” he asks me, out of breath. He offers me a hand.
“I think so; I must not have been paying attention.” I take his hand. He helps me to my feet.
“Well, it's a good thing you didn't take one more step in that direction.”
I study his strangely familiar face. I feel like I know him somehow.
“Can I invite you inside to wind down for a moment? Maybe have a cup of
I hesitate. Then I nod. “Thank you, that's very kind.”
“Great. This is my apartment right here.”
I look at him, confused. The apartment he gestures toward is Sarah’s. “I’m sorry.
Is this apartment #6667? I thought Sarah Beller lived here.”
“Oh. Do you know Sarah? I’m her son, Martin.”
I can’t believe it. There’s no way. A son. A son named Martin. “Would you like to see her?” he asks, oblivious to my shock. Then, without any more hesitation, I say the only thing I can say. “Yes. Yes, I would.”