Instead of a tip of the week, we have a listener question: Should I start a podcast? Listen to the show for my thoughts on this idea.
And now, this week’s critique of The Problematic Virtue –
Alex found himself teetering on the threshold of unconsciousness, sprawled like a starfish on someone’s couch, at someone’s party on the Hill. He had no idea how he got here, or even how long he had been here. Time and place meant little in his current state.
The professor had cancelled his afternoon English Comp class, and when he and a few of his classmates found the note on the door, they drove out to the mostly-deserted Boulder Reservoir. They smoked some sticky green and drank a few beers to celebrate this newfound freedom. One of them gave Alex his first Xanax pill, and the rest of the day lapsed into a whopping blur.
Now, sitting on the couch, he had trouble keeping his eyes open. His lids were garage doors and he lacked the strength to keep them raised. The Xanax made his head feel full of jelly, and his thoughts were spider webs blowing in the wind. He had a funny sense that he had some appointment to keep this evening, but it must not have been important, because, for the life of him, he could not recall it. Even though he did not actually know where the sofa he rode resided (somewhere on the Hill), and he did not know the people in his world (a bunch of blurry shapes he did not recognize), his Xanax-heavy brain was at peace… the most wondrous feeling of complete and total relaxation.
The conversations around him ebbed and flowed like tides upon the beach. He hummed to add his own voice to theirs, and his humming turned into a giggle since he now had a joke that no one else understood.
A framed Bob Marley poster on the wall struck him as eerily familiar, so maybe he had been here before. Or maybe he had just seen the poster before. He laughed, and a hand touched his shoulder and he craned his neck to the visage of Heather standing above him, grinning so big that her face seemed to fold into that smile. At least, he thought the girl looked like Heather. His eyes refused to cooperate, fluttering themselves open and closed, which turned the world into a stop-motion movie.
“Oh, shit,” he said, his mouth barely opening to let the words escape, “what’s happening? What are you…” His mouth could not seem to keep up with his brain, and he trailed off.
“Hey Brian, what up, gangsta?” Heather said.
Heather laughed as she plopped down next to him. “Oh crap, I mean Alex. My bad. What’s up Alex? You’re just so cute.” She ruffled his hair with a playful hand and laid her head on his shoulder. This did not seem right to Alex. She should not be doing this.
“I’m sorry, I’m a little drunk,” she said. “I didn’t know you were coming too. I was supposed to be here like, two hours ago, but I had this stupid Trig problem that just would not cooperate. Do you know April?”
“Yeah. I mean no. I don’t know, dude, who’s April?” Alex emitted a leisurely chuckle and Heather joined him in the merriment.
“This is April’s apartment, silly, but I don’t see her around anywhere. Actually, Is Brian here? I thought he was going to be here but I haven’t seen him yet.”
Alex scanned the blur of people in the apartment because he had no idea. “I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve seen him. He’s not here with you?”
“This is so like him to bail on plans. Here I get all dressed up to see him tonight and he doesn’t even show up to a party he said he was going to show up at. Isn’t that just like him?”
“Sure,” Alex said, having no idea what Heather was talking about.
Heather’s eyes twisted through the fog and drew Alex out of his stupor. “Nope. Just you and me rocking this shit tonight, looks like. Do you want to go smoke with me? I have some good shit. I don’t know if you drove, or what, but we can walk to my place from here.”
“Oh, hells yeah,” Alex said. The idea of smoking a bowl or two woke him enough to run a few thoughts together. “I’d love to get out of here. I think you might have to help me stand up, though.”
“Your mother and I hired a private investigator.”
“He’ll come back, Dad.”
A long pause. Brian shifted his weight and repositioned the dorm room landline against his ear. He ran his fingers along the looped cord, tracing the spiral. Odd that his father had now committed a full 180 and wanted to discuss Jimmy. Perhaps a signal of their desperation.
“I don’t know, son. Your mother and I…”
“Can you afford a private investigator?” Brian said.
Another long pause. “Have you heard anything from his friends?”
“No, Dad. I’ve talked to everybody I can think of. Nobody knows anything.”
“We just don’t know what to do.”
“I don’t either.” Brian had so far refrained from mentioning Utah. Seemed pointless because, obviously, Jimmy was not ready. “I think we’re doing all that we can. Maybe we just need to wait it out. He’ll come home. Or sooner or later, he’ll call you. Or he’ll call me, and I’ll tell you about it as soon as he does.”
“He didn’t say anything to you? Before he left, I mean.”
“No, he didn’t. He was just gone. He didn’t give me any clues or anything like that. He was just gone.”
“We hired a private investigator. I already told you that, sorry.” The despair and vacancy in his father’s voice punctuated every word like sharp fingernails digging into tender skin. Brian wanted to cry.
“Maybe that will help. I have to let you go, Dad, I need to get back to studying.”
“Okay, son. You take care of yourself.”
“You too, Dad.” Brian slid his dorm phone into its cradle. He glanced at the photos laid around him on the bed. He had dipped into the Sentimental Drawer in his desk, which he perused on evenings made for reminiscing. Pictures of Brian with his parents, Brian with Jimmy, a few of Heather, and other random high school pictures. His favorites were those from a family trip to the Grand Canyon, from five years ago. Everyone had a good time and seemed to enjoy the others’ company. Or at least, the photographs suggested that story.
Brian was supposed to meet up with Heather at April’s but now lacked the desire to go. He considered calling one of them but decided against it. He had given Alex directions, and trusted Heather to entertain his young friend. Brian wanted only solitude this evening.
When Miguel arrived home from work, Maria’s car was still parked in the driveway. She should have left for her night shift at the hospital, but her purse sat on the kitchen counter and he found her bedroom door shut. Miguel went to his bathroom to wash some of the stink of the restaurant from his skin before returning to the kitchen. He brewed a cup of tea and then approached Maria’s room, and waited a few seconds before tapping on her door.
“Maria? I got off work a little early, I thought you’d be gone already. Are you okay? I made you tea.”
No response at first, then she told him to enter. His sister, lying in bed, turned her head to reveal a face saturated with tears, with bloodshot eyes and wet tangled hair. Despite Miguel’s enormity, his sister was quite petite. Miguel hoarded the big genes in the family.
Miguel had witnessed this same scene too many times. Her meds had presumably been under control for a couple of years, but even so, she still had bad days. Miguel sat next to her and offered her the cup of chamomile, but she shook her head. He set the tea on the nightstand, next to Ray’s watch, which still lay on top of her alarm clock. Three months later, the watch was still here. Maria moaned and placed her head in his ample lap, and Miguel instantly felt the wetness of her face through his khakis.
He wiped matted hair from her eyes. “I’m sorry, sis. I didn’t know you were having a hard time today. I could have come home earlier if I knew.”
“I was okay before,” she said. “I just can’t go to work now.”
Miguel knew that nothing he could do would erase her sadness, although he had trouble accepting that fact. He stroked her hair and dabbed a tissue under her leaking eyes. If anything, encouraging her to talk sometimes helped to bring her back to even. “What’s it like? I want to understand.”
Miguel gave her a tissue and she blew her nose before answering. Her words came slowly to start. “When I’m down,” she said, “it’s like the world is too tall for me. It’s like I’m an ant trying to cross a desert. I can put on my clothes, brush my teeth, go to work, and it’s like I’m watching a movie of it happening to someone else. All I want to do is sleep and make the day go away; I just want today to turn into tomorrow and tomorrow to turn into the day after that.”
While she was distracted, he snatched Ray’s watch and slid it into his pocket.
“Sometimes I can’t sleep, then all I can do is stare at the wall and pray that somehow it will get better. When I’m up, it’s like one of those… the people who work at that big machine with all the blinking lights, like in old movies? Something to do with telephones. What do you call it?”
“Do you mean a switchboard operator?”
“Yeah,” she said, “one of those. The switchboard is my thoughts, and I’m the operator. The lights come on, a few at first, and then dozens or hundreds of them, and I’m trying to press all the right buttons, but they blink too fast and I get too confused. I can’t keep up with it all.”
“Which one are you feeling tonight?”
“I’m not depressed, Miguel. I’m just sad.”
“You can tell me what’s wrong, if you want. It doesn’t matter what it is.”
She sniffled, and Miguel placed box of tissues in her hands. That was something he could do, at least. “I broke up with Ray today,” she said. “We had a big fight, and I ended it.”
Miguel assumed that Ray hadn’t told her about the bottle Miguel laid across his skull. She would have mentioned it by now. He continued to stroke her hair, and tried to look empathetic. Maybe he didn’t like Ray, but nothing hurt him more than a family member in pain.
Maria pushed herself upright and looked Miguel in the eyes. She ran her hands over her hair, flattening it. “All I wanted was a man who would be nice to me. He couldn’t even do that.”
“Whatever he did, sis, it doesn’t matter anymore. We’ll figure out how to make it better.”
She sat back against the headboard, and cleared her throat several times, trying to regain her composure. When she opened her mouth to speak, the tears returned. “You can’t fix it this time, Miguelito.”