Still Life: Waiting, 1998By Stephanie Austin
October 26, 2015
In the box where I keep this story, the woman in the doorway of the hotel room was tall and blonde. She had swept-back bangs in the process of growing out. At 2 a.m., the Flagstaff air was crispy outside. Jacket-weather already. Winter was on deck with its frost threat. Besides the front desk staff I passed on the way to the room and this blonde woman who was in my way, I hadn’t seen another person since I’d arrived. Most people were done for the night. I stood in front of room 234 of a Courtyard by Marriot waiting to be validated.
I was 20-years-old, and believed in terrible things. I thought Savage Garden made some pretty good music. Folgers made some pretty good coffee. And Drew loved me. Love, like lust-love, like he needed me in the middle of the night because the middle of the night is when you truly realize what you want, like it was crazy but understandable how he’d always burned or bit his tongue and that’s why he couldn’t ever kiss me.
“Drew is sick,” this woman said.
Not sick-sick. Drunk-sick. Curled in a ball while his body expressed poison. The metamorphosis. Toxic to non-toxic.
“He called me,” I said in the key of I don’t know who I am, my voice rising in pitch.
What I meant was about a half hour ago, a girl he knew called to tell me to meet him. Christ, finally. After everything I’d been through, after waiting all day and into the night, the call came to go to him and now my reward was a 20 minute drive away. I’d been out of my dorm room for the 10th time anxiously teaching myself to chain-smoke in the parking lot of Wilson Hall and when I’d returned, the flashing light of the answering machine urgently needed my attention. I thought fuck I missed his call. Heart pounding in anticipation for the sound of his voice, I pressed play. But it wasn’t his voice, it was a girl’s voice. I didn’t register that was kind of fucked up because I was too busy writing down the name of the hotel where she said he was staying. I took my cigarettes and car keys and left.
I drove and smoked and contemplated.
Now the day was worth it. Now what I’d done was ok. The smoking felt good. Hot in, then blow out. The nicotine switched on in my body. I felt good. I’d been an amateur smoker, casually bumming cigarettes at parties and letting them burn out between my fingers. Waiting for Drew that day, I decided to fully commit and bought a pack of Camel Special Lights and a lighter then coughed and repeated until I didn’t cough. I first sat out on the balcony of my dorm smoking under a no smoking sign until the RA scolded me and banished me 25 feet away from the building. I was not a person who was scolded for smoking in places I shouldn’t be smoking or a person who defied authority or a person who smoked at all. I was a person who was changing. I wanted to be that girl who walked around in a fuck off kind of way. I wanted to not give a shit about anything.
And now, this woman stared at me. I inched forward and she matched my movement like a guard in basketball.
“Sorry,” she said. Sorry, like she was not sorry.
I tried to look past her, but she continued to block the entryway, one leg out like she was holding back a dog with a hand on the outside of the door so she could hurry and close it.
“Tell him I hope he feels better,” I said, my voice rising higher to the pitch of I came here tonight to be acknowledged and touched and saved and without that, I am fucking lost.
Drew and I met in Lake Havasu on my first summer break home from college. I called us love. He called when he felt like it and preferred this on/off long-distance/fucking at night when I came home on the weekends thing. He did things like leave me on a beach to get on a boat to go get drugs. Things like park at the end of my driveway and say I was the kind of girl he’d been waiting for, the kind of girl that made him want to be a better man. The contradiction was intoxicating.
Uncharacteristically, he’d initiated contact and said he’d be coming to Flag for a wedding and he’d like to see me. Since I always called him, I went into my magical naive spin of bliss. What a lovely rush. Falling in love ignites the pleasure center of the brain. Dopamine, that gnarly beast, stampedes outward and fills you with feelings of euphoria. It is the chemical responsible for mood and reward. It is the chemical that blindfolds logic and rational thought and drops them in the desert. It will be years before they find their way back.
Drew said a wedding. A day event. His friends. This meant visibility. No ushering me in the house after his roommates went to sleep.
With this unexpected invitation to meet up, the usual cocktail of me calling to tell him that I was in town, him promising to call me later, him not calling me later, me crying, me going to bed, him calling after I was in bed, me going to him after all because I mistook weakness for desire, so perhaps this cycle was on its way off the menu.
Our last get together was a cluster. He’d promised to come over around dinner. He didn’t show up until midnight. He brought his friend, this guy Kevin, and the dog didn’t like Kevin and kept growling at him. I made them my dad’s vodka mixed with fruit punch. They were already drunk, but drank more. Drew left his drink on the ground. The dog drank it. Threw up. Drew threw up. Red splashes on the carpet and walls. I took Drew into my room and he lied back on the bed, eyes closed. The dog sat in the doorway. Kevin tried to come in the room. The dog barked and lunged. Kevin backed away.
“Your dog doesn’t like me,” Kevin said from the hall, laughing but also I could see he wasn’t completely convinced my door was closed.
“I’m sorry,” I said, because apologizing was my self-defense.
The next morning, they both left early.
In that fucked up way the universe sometimes goes about doing universe things, my best friend’s mother died a few days before Drew’s friend’s wedding. She’d only been sick a few weeks, but her illness had been long-standing and undetected, and no one could do anything and then she was gone.
I drove my best friend to our home town, Havasu, and called Drew first. Explained why I was in town. Sure I could come over because where else would I be after my best friend’s mother had died? He’d told me to come over around 10 or 11, so later in the night as usual. I came over at 10 p.m. to see that the garage door was open, and people were inside. But Drew took me in through the front door. No one acknowledged me. Drew lit his pipe. He wanted to know if I had any CDs. I went out to my car and brought Fiona Apple, the very beginning of my crossover to actual music, back. We listened to Tidal. I smoked with him. We didn’t talk much. He didn’t ask me any details about my best friend or her dead mother. I let him fuck me. When he was finished, I laid there, self-conscious and wounded knowing his attention would be gone again soon. The following morning, however, when I left his house, he said he’d see me Saturday. He said he’d see me Saturday. He never said he’d see me on specific days. Surely this meant that yes, the menu had changed. I left my CD and never got it back.
The funeral was Friday morning. The wedding was Saturday evening back in Flagstaff. In a frenzy, I planned out how I could do both because I needed to be at that wedding. Drew-love was an infected wound, and it was spreading, and I couldn’t stop it because I didn’t want to. I needed that high as much as I needed the low. I thrived on the brutality of my own feelings, set everything else aside to get it, then I swallowed it and felt it rip its way through my body because the pain is what felt good. Nothing could keep me from it. Not distance. Not my best friend’s grief. I crept off alone to buy wedding clothes.
Since Havasu was not a thriving mecca of fashion, I walked into JC Penney. I settled on a sweater set, a navy blue, fleece-like, with polka-dotted black flowers covering and a black, faux-suede skirt. A best friend helps you choose clothes. She might have told me I looked like I was on my way to My First Business Meeting. She might have crossed her arms and gently told me, not for the first time, that Drew was an ass and she didn’t like who I was when I was involved with him. I didn’t want to hear that from her anymore, so I went shopping for clothes solo.
Right before her mother’s service, I pulled my best friend aside to tell her something that would later prove I was an ass.
“That wedding I was telling you about with Drew is happening, so I need to drive back early,” I said to her. Because abandoning your grieving best friend is totally okay.
“Oh,” she said.
“If you don’t want me to go…” I said.
“It’s fine,” she said.
“It’s important, like, this is possibly a next step here between me and Drew,” I said.
“Go. Go, go. You can go.”
“Ok thank you,” I said. “Thank you so much. And you’ll be fine. Your sister will drive you back. That’s great for the two of you to spend more time together.”
“I know,” she said. “It will be fine. Very fine.”
Always believe someone who tells you she’s fine after her mother dies. Always make other plans that don’t involve your recently mother-less friend. Believe you are still a good friend, nay, a good person, for asking permission and for helping arrange other travel plans and for believing in fairytales. Know you’ve turned the corner to true addiction when you push off other people’s real needs to meet your own imagined ones.
Friday night I couldn’t sleep because that’s how I was before I’d see him: awake and vibrating with anticipation. The following morning, I shook off the Unisom I felt I needed and drove back up to Flag. When I arrived to my dorm, my roommate had straightened up because I told her a boy was coming. She was excited for me because she did not know about this boy, this tragedy, this horrendous dark mark I carried with me. Boys were not allowed overnight in the dorm, but no one followed this rule, and you kind of got to be a badass when you brought one in.
I took a shower. Got dressed. I put on make-up. Blow dried my hair. I waited. The phone did not ring. I paced. The phone did not ring. It was happening again. No menu change. I took off my shoes. Looked at the clock. He told me the wedding was at 3. It was 4, then 5. Then I couldn’t stand being in the room. I left the room. Smoked. Came back to the room. Left the room. Smoked. Came back in and the phone rang. It wasn’t Drew but my best friend who had by then arrived back to town with her sister. She offered to pick me up for dinner. They were going to the Olive Garden.
“Oh, you’re still there. I just called to say I was back. I thought I’d leave a message. Do you want to go to dinner?”
“Can’t. I’m waiting.”
“You’re still waiting? Well, forget him and just come to dinner with us.”
“No,” I said. “No thank you. You know, in case he calls.”
“You wait for him all the time,” she said.
“I know, but—”
“Ok,” she said. “Ok.”
Everything was fine. Very fine.
I waited until I was finally tired of waiting. He’d told me where the wedding was being held, so I called the venue. I said I was looking for one of the guests, then listened to hold music and believed I was making good choices. The voice came back and said he’d found a friend of Drew’s but not Drew.
When the boy doesn’t call and you know where the boy is, the best plan is to show up unannounced and make a complete asshole out of yourself and watch him remain unfazed. But you go, because this was the wedding. This was the chance to hold hands during the day. I would have chewed off my own foot to be there. But what I didn’t yet realize was that Drew didn’t invite me to the wedding. He invited himself into my bed after the wedding was over. He did what he always did, which was give me enough to hold me until the next round.
When I arrived at the wedding reception, I saw Drew outside. Lucky, I thought. His pants were wrinkled because why give a shit about your pants? He saw me and rushed over.
“What are you doing here?” He asked.
“I thought I was supposed to be here,” I said, “with you.”
“Uh,” he took my arm and led me away, “I meant I’d see you after. I’d come over after. I drove up with my friend and his wife. They want some privacy tonight so they can, you know—”
And then he made a gesture where he thrust his hips forward.
“I meant I’d just stay with you,” he finished and directed me back to my car.
He was always sending me away.
I was always coming back.
The blonde woman closed the hotel room door, and I stood there a moment longer like that’s what I’d meant all along, like someone who trips and then runs a little to make it look intentional. For the second time that day, I walked to my car alone. Lit another cigarette. Inhaled. Exhaled. Traded one addiction for another. Sadness crept in. Loneliness. The night changing back to its previous fuck-you, like when a bird craps on your car in just the right spot to block your vision and you know it is not a coincidence. I didn’t want to kill myself, but I didn’t want to exist either, so I smoked more, and liked how it felt to not give a shit. Anxiety sloughed off. Bad choices are medicine when there are no more fucks to give.
I really enjoyed this story. Only wish it had been longer.