We were out for a Sunday drive, which was the kind of thing we used to make fun of in our heyday, before we were forced to start doing them ourselves. It wasn’t the aimless sort of drive—it was one with purpose, a destination that made my chest hitch in a funny way as the soft blur of horse pastures calcified into the brick corners of downtown.
“Gonna be late,” Rick said from the passenger seat, like saying it would make it not so. I shifted my grip on the wheel to 10 and 2. We’d been kissing the bumper of a beat-up Buick for several miles. I was sure that the bastard was doing it on purpose. His windows were down, his elbow crooked in the sun, the outline of a fedora atop his head.
“People take backroads for scenic drives,” I said. And it’d be faster if we didn’t have to take them everywhere. This part I didn’t say, then or ever. “I can still cut through Greg’s old neighborhood, and we’ll pop out by the intersection of—” Rick was already shaking his head. “Just pass him on the left. No one’s coming.” I revved and swerved across the double yellow lines, around the bulky body of the Buick. In my sideview mirror, the fedora man flipped us the bird, a string of rosary beads dangling from his rearview. We rolled up to the old church-turned-recreation center at 1:59, one minute before meeting start time. “Thanks,” Rick huffed, stepping out onto the walk. He studied his reflection in the car window, straightening the lapels of his blazer. I rolled down the window, eliminating his mirror. “You look great,” I said. In all honesty, the blazer was too big on him. He hadn’t worn it since Ben’s (or was it Keith’s? Rick’s own? Those months were all such a blur) 30th birthday bender. “Big day,” he breathed, licking his thumb and wiping the corners of his mouth. Yes, the blazer was definitely too big. The regular spin classes had done a number on the old familiar broadness of his shoulders. But he was standing there on the sidewalk, buttoning his jacket sleeves with cufflinks I’d snagged at Swap for Cash and gifted to him in a Zales box. It was important that he felt worthy. I am worthy of love and success. This was what Zooey, his sponsor, had told him on Day One. I watched as he started at the lapels again. “Hey,” I said, “I’m proud of you.” He bent down then, sticking his big head through the open window, and planted a kiss on my ear. Then he turned toward the old red doors, which kept swallowing other members whole. “I’ll pick you up in an hour,” I called after him, just as the doors gulped him down. Sundays at 2:15, after I dropped Rick off and took the highway home, was my me time. It was when I fell to my knees at our bedside, stuck an arm beneath it, and flailed it around like a kid looking for her fallen teddy bear. Desperate for her little trinket of comfort, her charm of relief. My fingers usually found the lip of the suitcase around 2:20. I dragged it out, unzipped it all the way around, and extracted the lump of winter sweaters. I unrolled wool sleeve after wool sleeve, my pulse fluttering in my throat, until the small bottle revealed itself to me. At 2:25, I was sipping a gin and tonic, letting its warmth bloom in my chest and wander to my fingertips until I felt completely released from what had become my life. It had happened so fast, the complete peripeteia of our existence. Just two summers earlier I was bartending at The Rail, a dive that was once the old Eastfield train station. It was far too close to the tracks to serve alcohol, but the kind of people who came in were not the kind of people who cared, and I admired that. It was a place of comings-and-goings, an in-between place for in-between people. Patrons of The Rail said whatever they wanted. They called me things like sugar tits and asked if I’d like to get railed, because in an hour or a day they’d be heading north or south and you’d never see them again, or at least never remember them. It was a place of impermanence, which is why when Rick actually texted the number I’d scrawled on a beer-soaked bar napkin, I took three days to answer. In those days, I was eating water pills for dinner and hangover pancakes for breakfast, in that order. My days started with my nights and everything felt real topsy-turvy. Then Rick came around and turned my existential spins into a carnival ride. “Jolene,” he said, the fat pinkness of his bottom lip protruding over a wiry beard. “Like the song?” “Mhmm.” I twisted the pourer onto a bottle of Evan Williams. He leaned further over the bar and it became apparent how big he was—broad-shouldered like a bear, with porky hands that made his whiskey glass look like a teacup. He had a sweaty glaze and a handsomeness that ebbed and flowed depending on the angle from which I studied him. “Well, you don’t have the flaming locks of auburn hair,” he jibed, “but I’ve never been into redheads anyway.” He drained his glass. I rolled my eyes. “What, don’t like the attention of a fat, drunk guy?” He let his mouth drop into a small O of shock.“I’ll tell you what your problem is, and there’s actually two.” He held up a finger, his nail bitten down to a stub. “One, you’re too pretty to be working in a place like this. And two, if you don’t want these bastards to ogle you, you gotta get ‘em something to ogle at. Some old Playboy posters or something. These walls are depressing.” He rocked back on the barstool, proud of his assessment. “They can’t tip a poster, but they can tip me,” I said. The man next to Rick hawked up a loogie into a napkin. “And do they?” Rick asked. I moved down the bar, turning my back so he wouldn’t see my cheeks burn. “Hey, c’mon, I’m kidding,” Rick whined. “Come back here for a minute. I didn’t bother you for no reason.” He reached into the front pocket of his jeans. On the bar he placed a quarter so oxidized it was impossible to tell heads from tails. “Heads you give me your number, tails you don’t.” “If I gave my number to every drunk that asked me, I’d have to throw my phone on the tracks.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “So I’m a drunk, huh?” He rolled the quarter between his forefinger and thumb. “C’mon, take a chance, Jo.” Maybe it was because no one had ever called me Jo before, or maybe it was because I’d had more than a few fingers of whiskey myself. The quarter hung in the air for an eternity, black against the dim light, and landed soundlessly in his palm. He smacked it down on the bar and let me call it. What happened next was a spin cycle of intoxication: in the bar, in the cab, in his bed, repeat. It went on for weeks, for months, until we could get more drunk off each other than the liquor. Of course, that didn’t mean we discarded the liquor. We drank, broke bones, had sex, puked in Ubers. Bailey’s in our morning coffees. Sauv Blanc with lunch. Bulleit for dinner. I never craved alcohol the way Rick did, but I craved him, and back then, it was hard to tell when he was Johnnie or Jack or Jameo, or just Rick. At 2:30 in the kitchen’s quiet I poured myself a second drink. I almost never did this. But there was the matter of the cake in the fridge, fully cooled and naked, waiting to be frosted. And then there was the matter of the occasion. I spooned a can of Betty Crocker buttercream into a Ziploc, then snipped the corner and began piping along the golden-brown edges. I smoothed and swirled until it looked store-bought. Then I iced it with a big red number one. A child’s first birthday party, it could have been. I gulped the gin and told myself that’s what it was for, to save myself from hurling the whole thing against the wall. When the deed was done, I placed it back in the fridge and sat staring at the spot on the kitchen wall that it would have met, had I thrown it. A big mess of red and white debris, the way they said Rick’s brain would have been, had he not been so lucky. I stared at that spot until my eyes crossed. Hanging on the wall above it were the black and white fuzzy dice, the only thing that survived the accident other than Rick. Before the dice, a portrait of Jesus hung there, a gift from my God-fearing mother on the day that Rick and I moved in. To watch over us when she couldn’t, she’d said. When Rick came home from the hospital, there was a box of his belongings from the wreckage on the kitchen table. The obsolete Honda owner’s manual, Icebreakers Sours, and those goddamn dice, the ones that had once adorned his rearview mirror. “What’re you doing?” I asked him as he hobbled across the room, dice in hand. He reached up to the Jesus portrait with a groan and yanked it from the wall, then hung them on the tiny nail head that remained. “Rick,” I started, but he held up a bandaged hand. “I don’t need any reminder of Jesus,” he said. “Only what He did for me.”
In the weeks following the accident, we barely spoke. Friends came to visit with wilted drugstore flowers. They called him a miracle, and he believed it. When he asked me for things—an extra pillow under his elbow, a phone charger—he never called me Jo anymore. Only Jolene. Clinical, sterile, like I was a mass he’d had removed. That’s a Jolene, I imagined his brain telling him. Caught it just in time.
We’d been fighting day in and day out leading up to the accident. They were our usual blowouts about who couldn’t hold their liquor and what stupid thing one of us had drunkenly said. I loved these fights. I loved when he slammed doors and slurred his words. I loved the fire, the passion, the thrill of almost being able to kill each other, if it weren’t for the fact that we needed each other. But the night of the accident, it’d been different. I’d had too much. I’d slapped him, Cher in Moonstruck-style, for chatting up a slender woman with sticky red lips. None of it felt right. Not the slap, not the curses he spewed, not the public spectacle. He stormed out, climbed into his Civic, and rocketed into the night, until a flat-bed truck brought him to a halt. If the truck had come from the driver’s side instead of the passenger’s, the spectacled resident at Eastfield Medical told me, he would’ve been dead on impact. I blinked at the wall, sucking icing from under my fingernails. It was 2:45, but I still had time to get back and pick Rick up because I’d take the highway. I’d sail right through the intersection where it happened, where Rick and his car had gotten crunched by the truck, after he blew a red light with a 0.4 BAC. This was why we took backroads to AA meetings on Sunday afternoons—because he was afraid of highways, and I was the only one with a license. At 2:50, I thought about a third drink. I felt like an alcoholic, but really, I knew I was sadder than an alcoholic. I was an imposter. I didn’t drink to get drunk, to feel dead or alive. I drank to feel my youth again, to take the edge off, to cut loose. I drank for every normal reason non-alcoholics drank, but for me and me alone, it was a crime. Rick hadn’t asked me to stop drinking, but when I indulged, I could feel his judgement like tiny pinpricks down my spine. The accident had made him wiser, he told me. He knew things now. He had this grand idea that our everyday decisions added and multiplied upon each other, sometimes for days or months or years, until they totaled up to something so incredulous that we had to call it fate. But really, we were writing the math with our little everyday decisions. An apple instead of a Twinkie. Slowing for a yellow instead of speeding up. And alcohol, he said, just wasn’t part of his equation anymore.
The ice in my glass adjusted itself to make room for more gin, and I thought about the quarter on the bar that night at The Rail. What tiny decisions had let to that moment? Had someone asked me to cover a shift? What manager had made the schedule that week, who had plugged in the numbers that added up to me and Rick? The quarter blurred and expanded, a black splotch in my vision threatening to bloom and multiply. Broken up by the sound of the key turning in the door. My hands took on a sober mind of their own. They stuffed the gin bottle in the cabinet beneath the sink, they rinsed the glass and let the water explode from the faucet like a firehose.
“Jolene?” Rick’s voice floated over the sloshing water.
“One minute!” I yelped. My hands placed the glass in the dishwasher for good measure. The kitchen tilted as I turned, head buzzing from the gin. “I was just about to come and—” It hit me that he had somehow gotten home. “How did you—?”
“The meeting ended early. We’re going out for lunch to celebrate,” he said. “Zooey drove me, so I asked if we could pick you up to come.”
“Ah,” I said. I felt strangely calm, but my hands shook beneath the dishtowel. “Well, you almost ruined your surprise.”
“Surprise?” he grabbed my waist, pulling me close. “You know I don’t like surprises anymore.” Yes, this I knew. It was another one of the fun things his sobriety had brought upon us: a strict dedication to routine.
“Well, I have one you’ll like.”
“Just tell me. I don’t want to be surprised.”
“You know why. Spontaneity is a slippery slope.”
I cringed at the mantra. “I’ll get my bag and we can go.” I waltzed into the bedroom, kicked the suitcase under the bed, and wiped black flecks of mascara from under my eyes. When I returned to the kitchen, Rick was staring at the table.
“Why’s the tonic out?” he asked.
My eyes fell to the silhouette of the plastic bottle, illuminated by the sunshine streaming in through the bay window.
“The tonic water,” he said. “Why’s it out?”
Why had I left the tonic out? The gin told me there were a thousand reasons. The main one, though, was that making that stupid cake had brought on a sudden and crippling grief for a life that was no longer. I’d liked Rick a lot better as an alcoholic, but there I was, frosting a new future onto a baked good. One year sober, then two, then five, each cake erasing a little bit more of that past, that troubled past, the one that led him to me.
“Were you drinking?” he asked. “Alone, in the middle of the day? In the middle of today?”
My eyes fell to the dice on the wall. Those stupid fucking dice. Where could I cash them in for our old life? The shots and syrupy drinks that led to never-finished nightcaps and clothes strewn on the floor, the blissful transience of it all. I wanted to skate on the edge of night with him, buzzing somewhere in a mental twilight, light and frothy as champagne.
But our problems were different now, no longer the kind that I had loved, the kind you could screw away. Our problems purpled and bled like a red wine stain, and no matter how hard you scrubbed, the lavender ghost of it remained. I remained. The silence between us ground my face into the proverbial pavement. Look, it said. You weren’t in the car that night, and he still is.
Rick drew a coin from the front pocket of his jeans and flipped it into the air. “I got this today,” he placed it down on the table. The one-year medallion glared back at me, its golden outline burning a hole in the tabletop. To thine own self be true, it mocked.
“It’s just a coin,” I said. What I meant was: is it worth more than me?
Somewhere, in some other timeline or lifetime or equation, that quarter is still turning in the air above the bar at The Rail. That truck is still barreling toward the intersection. My hand is still cocked back, waiting to crack Rick across the face.
We like to call these things fate. But I’ll tell you this—I have no idea how that quarter landed. I couldn’t see it, so I lied. But the time for lies had come and gone, pummeled out of us with a little horsepower. The quarter was still twirling, but Rick was walking out the front door, in the fast lane to somewhere that I couldn’t follow.