A rat scampered behind a dumpster as I got out of the Corvette in downtown Tampa. There were lots of people walking up and down the sidewalk, even though it was almost two in the morning.
The sign in pink neon said Papaya. A muscular bouncer with a mop of red hair stood there, his flowery shirt open at the collar. He laughed at something with another man who had come out for a cigarette. He didn’t give us a second glance as we walked in.
“Are we dressed for this place?”
“No problem,” Michael said.
The interior was very dark, with music that throbbed its way right under my ribcage. A lot of people danced and moved in sync to the strobe lights. Michael led me along the whole length of the bar to the far side of the room without slowing. He pushed a door open and held it. “Right through here.”
“They have a dining room?”
With the door closed, the music morphed into a pulsating beat. He led me down a hall lit with one dim fixture at either end. Michael gave a knock at the third door on the right. An astonishing sight met my eyes as I stepped through the door.
A table was set with a white tablecloth, china plates, and silver. Candlelight, wine glasses, and red roses in a vase completed the picture. Strung up on the wall a banner proclaimed “Michael + Annie” with hundreds of little red hearts, like kisses. A bottle of iced champagne waited in a bucket to one side of the table.
“Private dining room,” Michael said. “The second party I organized for tonight. The food is coming, but first a glass of this.”
“Michael, you’re crazy.”
“Stop saying that.”
I pointed at the banner. “That’s exactly the kind of thing I was talking about. You’re just deluding yourself. Michael, you promised.”
“I know I promised. But let’s have dinner and talk about it, okay?”
“I want to go back.”
“I need food. Come on, Annie, one hour.”
“Are you going to drive me back?”
“Sure, after dinner.”
We were still standing in front of the table. The candles flickered in an unseen breath, and I stared as if they could foretell my future. Was I supposed to march out of here and take a taxi back? He would fight me the whole way.
“The party of the year, and you just take off and leave all your guests?”
“We were running out of stuff anyway,” he said. “It’s a good way to get people to leave, move on to another party. A lot of folks got here during the day. Come on, Annie. You always said my problem was I wasn’t willing to talk. Now you’re the one refusing to talk.”
“Fine, we can talk. There’s something I want to ask you.”
He held out my chair for me, then poured champagne. The light from the candles refracted through the carved crystal. Champagne bubbles burst above the edge of my glass like sparklers. Michael touched his glass to mine.
“To us.” He drank a sip.
“I’m not drinking to us, not in the way you mean.” I put my glass down. “I’m happy you’re back in my life, Michael. I really am. We can be friends, that is, if you can handle it. But that’s as far as it goes. I made that clear.”
“The problem is your words and your actions tell two different stories sometimes.”
A knock sounded at the door, and a waiter rolled a cart of food in.
“Well, well, what have we got here?” Michael said. As if he didn’t know. I was beginning to see how he ticked. He hadn’t had any doubt where he wanted to take me, having arranged all of this. The way he’d waffled when we talked about which restaurant to go to had been pure theatrics.
The waiter served our plates.
“Filet of corn-fed angus beef in peppercorn sauce. Gratin of potatoes dauphine, green beans. Green baby endive and rocket salad with chunks of fresh local crab, and a house raspberry vinaigrette.” He gave us each a salad. Then he indicated the lower shelf of the cart. “So that you will not be disturbed later, sir, a selection of cakes and surprises for dessert. You may serve yourselves. Here are the plates and the silver. Bon appétit.”
The waiter gave a little bow before leaving the room. Michael’s eyes stayed fixed on me, gauging my reaction.
“I was actually hoping for pizza,” I said.
“We can order pizza afterwards if you’re still hungry, I promise.”
I let him have the last word, because my stomach was making unfriendly noises. I sliced off a bite of meat. It was tender, cooked the right shade of pink, and dripping with delicious sauce.
We ate in silence. Michael probably hadn’t eaten much today either. The only thing I’d had since breakfast was that brownie at June’s bakery. When I finally looked up, my eye fell on that banner with all the little hearts. Michael + Annie. Where did he get the nerve to force his fantasies on me? We’d said after making love in the motel it was a one-time thing. The food gave me energy. Or maybe the bubbly gave me courage. I’d eaten half of my steak and some of the potatoes when I stood up without a word, went to the banner, and ripped it down from the wall.
“Annie, no!” Michael’s face changed to hurt feelings and surprise as I bunched it up in my hands like a load of dirty sheets and threw it on the floor.
“A long time ago, somewhat taught me that actions speak louder than words,” I said. I sawed off another piece of steak. “That’s why we use guns in the army.”
“You just don’t want to admit the truth,” Michael said.
I was glad I hadn’t walked out. This was a problem I couldn’t run away from. I had to face it. I had to convince Michael to respect my wishes.
“What truth are you talking about?”
“As if there were different ones to choose from, Annie?”
“Just because you set up this pseudo-romantic dinner at two in the morning in some club, you think I’m going to fall under your spell again? Just because you write a song with my name in it?”
“You act like this is all some kind of show or something. It’s real.”
“Where were you nine months ago when I first got back?”
“I got back two weeks after you,” he said.
“Where were you? I could’ve used a…little company. I hadn’t met Salvatore yet. I was alone. I missed you like crazy. But I’m over that now.” I took a bigger swig of champagne than I intended.
“I was here with Husker.”
“If you became so obsessed with me, why only one week ago? Why not nine months ago? And, by the way, do you realize how much I suffered when I realized my ring was missing? You had it in your pocket the whole time, didn’t you?”
“I’m sorry, all right?”
“Sorry’s not good enough, Michael. I want an explanation. How can you say you love me and be capable of hurting me so much, like you did with my ring?”
For once, Michael looked serious. “Husker’s brother gave us both a job in his car dealership. I was selling used cars off one of his lots. Husker was in the office doing some training and manager shit.”
“Are you going to answer my question?”
“This is the answer, Annie.”
“Didn’t sound like it.”
“It’s not a simple thing.” He waited to see if I was satisfied. I decided to let him speak, and see where it went. “So he put us to work selling cars.”
“You don’t need any training when it comes to cars.”
He smiled at the compliment. “Husker’s brother has the Lexus dealership, the Chevy dealership, and he also imports Maseratis and Bentleys. Whatever the guy touches, it turns to gold. This was easy work. He let us use a condo downtown, right near this club. So we worked all day and then we partied at night. We partied for three or four months straight. I don’t know about you, but I was happy just to be alive after what we went through over there. We were making money, we were having fun, and we were alive. Reason enough to party.”
“You were going to tell me why you hurt me,” I said. “Even though you claim to care about me.”
He winced, as if I’d hit him. “You turned into a bit of a nag, you know?”
“You changed too, Michael. You think it’s nice, what you put me through with this ring? I still don’t get it.”
“We were smoking a lot of weed and drinking a lot, you know. But there was something in that weed that pepped it up a bit. We both got kind of hooked on it.”
“They call it meth. It’s real evil stuff, real addictive.”
“I’ve read about it.”
Somewhere on the Internet I’d run across before-and-after pictures of meth addicts. Their flesh looked like it was falling off. Their teeth were brown and rotted. Their hair fell out. The idea of Michael doing that to his body hurt me inside. I felt my eyes watering and looked away.
“Well I’m gonna give you the short version, Annie. We went from smoking a smidgen with our weed to snorting it pure. Husker’s brother got royally pissed when he found out. He basically flipped out and became a different person. Like a Jekyll and Hyde kind of thing, you know? One weekend we were so out of it, they thought we were goners. I was completely out of it. Not asleep, you know, just hallucinating and shit. You can’t sleep when you’ve got that stuff in your system. It reams out your whole brain and nervous system. Well, when we came down off of it that last time we found ourselves in this detox center in Jacksonville, all the way across the state. We were locked up. Husker’s brother had us committed.”
“Sounds like he saved your life.”
“He probably did. But it got worse. I’m skipping a lot of details, here. Husker found out his brother was actually involved in the whole meth operation. That’s how come his brother got so upset when we became users. He felt like he was responsible for corrupting his own brother, you see?”
“And the senator? You’re telling me the nephew of Senator Manning Mathers runs a meth ring? That’s outrageous.”
“Nobody knows about it. Russ completely walls himself off from it. He’s got this business empire in Tampa, his family, all kinds of shit.”
“How did Husker find out?”
“I don’t actually know. They’re brothers. But he did find out, and it hasn’t been the same ever since.”
“Why, what happened?”
“Well, he paid for the detox and all. But then he fired us both from the car gig, and he kicked us out of the condo. He basically set us adrift. We found that little house over in the seaport area. We’ve both been looking for work for the last four months and living on savings.”
“What has all this got to do with you and me, Michael? I don’t mean to be insensitive. I’m sorry you almost died and everything. That would’ve been pretty stupid, after all the dangerous situations we survived in Iraq, and then you come home and overdose. But still, you told me you had an explanation for stealing my ring, and I want to hear it.”
He nodded. “I really hope I never do that shit again. We were in such a bad way when he brought our asses in. That’s when I decided, Annie. I decided I want to live. I didn’t want to die. You’re right about what you said.”
“Was the detox hard?”
“I started thinking about what gave my life meaning. We had to do these exercises, you know? We had to write stuff down. That’s when I started writing poems. Everywhere I looked, all I saw was you. You and me. I knew then what a big mistake I made, back in Iraq.”
“Letting you go. Letting you get away.”
“So let me get this straight. You want me back now because you see me as a way of saving your life.”
“Not at all. Just listen. They made us look deep into ourselves. I had to figure out what gave my life meaning. You had to put down everything. Jobs, family, health, hobbies, skills, the army. I wrote down everything I could think of. Then I had to get it in some kind of order. We had to give each thing we put down a grade, like one for least important, ten for most important. So you were one of the things on my list. I had a lot of ones and twos, you know, like the army, or some jobs I used to have. Weed made it up to a five, I think. My mother made it up to seven, same as Husker.”
“I can guess what you’re going to say.”
“You were one of the ones, Annie.”
“What?” I waited for him to tell me he was joking. I thought he would have made me a ten, or at least a nine.
“No, really. You were a one. You were like, there, but you were not a part of my life. You were crossed off. Just like I was crossed off for you. I seem to recall you told everyone I was dead.” I studied a spot on my napkin, avoiding his gaze. Michael went on speaking. “I was talking to Husker about my list, we were still over there in Jacksonville, and you know what he said?”
“First he called me some truly foul names. Then he said if I was going to put you down as a one, our friendship was over. He said he was going to have to ask you out himself. He actually sounded serious. I don’t think he would’ve done it, but that got me thinking.”
No matter how I tried, I could not imagine the conversation between them. I was amazed to learn I’d been rated with the ones, probably along with vegetables he hated, cleaning toilets, and going to the dentist.
“In detox, I had plenty of time to go back over everything you and I said, back when we broke up. I was clean, too. That made a difference. My brain was working properly for the first time in a long time. The only substances they let you have were coffee and cigarettes. I swear, my brain was like a new car, everything running perfectly. I saw how easy it was to just stick a zero next to the one, and suddenly you were a ten. That’s when I decided I had to look you up again.”
There he made a fatal error. One plus zero is still one. But I didn’t want to distract him and get off track. I reached across the table and covered his hand with mine, smiling. I think I reached out like that because Michael had been a meth addict and gone into detox. It hurt me to think about it.
“So that’s how when I started trying to find you.”
“You found out I wasn’t single.”
“And you hatched this plan to have a party and present me with your poems and steal my ring.”
“Not all of it was planned, Annie. Sometimes I improvise. But you keep saying I’m crazy, and I’m not crazy. I just wanted to turn back the hands of time. We all get to do that once in our life, don’t you think? I want to start up again where we left off. I want to go back to that exact point in time where you refused to decide, because we were in a war zone, and I refused to talk any more. Right there, right there is where we need to go back to, that moment in time. Then we’ll be good as gold.”
When his fist hit the table on the word there, I was already weeping. I buried my face in my napkin and my shoulders shook. Michael sighed, but he didn’t come over and put his arms around me. I didn’t want him to, and he was reading my mind. Why the hell couldn’t this have happened nine months ago? Maybe he could turn back the hands of time, but I certainly could not.
I could not betray Salvatore. He made me happy. I had his ring. Salvatore wasn’t a drug addict, either, and Michael was. It wasn’t my responsibility to keep Michael Garcia off drugs. He couldn’t put that burden on me.
I stood up from my chair.
“I want to go back to the party. Take me back.”
“Annie, why were you crying?”
“Take me back to the party right now.”
“As soon as you tell me what made you react like that. Sit down.” Sometimes I am so weak it drives me crazy. When I took my seat again he added, “We haven’t even had dessert.”
“And you haven’t told me why hurting me comes so easily to you.”
“Annie, look at the chemistry between us. Why were you crying? How can you deny it?”
He was making me feel miserable. I didn’t want to answer. I didn’t dare. The worst part—and the best—was knowing there was some truth in it.
“I don’t exactly know the rules for situations like this,” I said, starting carefully. “But I want you to know there’s chemistry between Salvatore and me too. Don’t think you’ve got a lock on my chemistry.”
“I’m sure he’s a good guy.”
“He’s more than a good guy. He’s a great guy. I fell in love with him. He’s totally hooked on me. I’m not leaving him.”
“So if you had to rate the chemistry with him and me, on a scale of one to ten? Come on, Annie, I want to know.”
I was shaking my head. I wasn’t going to do this.
“You owe me an answer,” Michael said.
“I don’t owe you anything. Tell me why you hurt me so badly. You claim to love me, and then you hurt me.”
“How did I hurt you?”
“You attack me, you lie to me, you steal from me.”
“You’re afraid of the truth.”
“I’m here, aren’t I? When did you become so arrogant? How do you know what I’m afraid of?”
“Well, what are you afraid of?”
“You want to know what I’m afraid of?”
“Are you really listening now?”
“I’m listening, Annie. Spit it out.”
“I’m afraid of people leaving me.”
“Leaving?” Michael smiled. “Well, that’s perfect. I’ll never leave you. That’s easy. I’ve thought about it so long. That’s an easy one.”
“That includes abandoning me, like my brother-in-law abandoned my sister. But it also includes things like dying, Michael. You take too many damn risks. A few days ago, you almost got hit by a bus. Now do you see why it was so hard for me to say yes in Iraq?”
He looked down. “I saw a long time ago.”
“It includes escaping reality through drugs or alcohol. I’m not hooking up with someone who’s just going to blur their vision so they can tune me out when I get bitchy.”
“You don’t even know how to be bitchy.” That impish smile again. “You’re going to have to take lessons from your sister for that.”
“You don’t know me anymore. I changed.”
“I love the way you’re changing. Keep right on changing. You are so much more than hot, Annie, I want to change right alongside you, every step of the way.”
It was hard arguing with a poet. Every time I came out with a rational argument, he came back with something that jerked on my heartstrings. He wasn’t making me feel guilty. He was making me love him. June had asked if he hurt people intentionally. I saw it perfectly. I’d been right. Michael never meant to hurt anybody. He had rough edges, he had poor judgment, and he was vulnerable to substance abuse, but the person he hurt most all through his life was himself.
Aside from me, of course.
“You always have the answer. Tell me the answer now.”
“I don’t know the answer, Annie. I just know I’ll do anything to win you back. That’s all I know.”
I met his eyes. “I want to go back to the party. Either that or take me straight to my motel. I’m tired.”
Michael stared at his phone. All evening he hadn’t checked it, but he’d glanced at it now. Worry creased his face. His eyes met mine, an expression like I’d never seen before. Here I thought I’d seen every face he was capable of. He looked truly afraid. He was hyperventilating, his voice breathy.
“You’ve got to look at this. Do you think he could be joking? I don’t think so. It’s from your brother-in-law.”
Michael held up his phone and showed me a picture of multiple police cars, red and blue lights lighting up the night. For a second I wondered if this was another of Michael’s staged events.
“What’s going on? What happened?”
“He says Husker is dead.”