Home > Emergency Contact(9)

Emergency Contact(9)
Author: Mary H.K. Choi

Instead he took a long pull from a glass of water and cleaned. He needed something to do with his hands while his thoughts churned. Sam fluffed pillows, bused tables, wiped down counters, recycled the papers, twisted the group handles from the espresso machine, dumped their filter baskets with a series of satisfying snaps, and rinsed everything out with scalding water. He was reassured by the way his knuckles felt tight and parched afterward.

Sam imagined his rough hands entwined with Lorraine’s. Liar Lorraine. His ex. She’d had beautiful hands. “Hand-model hands” her friends had called them. Long, articulate fingers with slender nail beds. But Sam worshipped her feet. Stubby-toed and flat, she hid them as a policy, refusing to wear sandals in the summer, which only served to make them more desirable. They were hilarious, full of personality. Clever feet that picked pens up from the floor when they thought no one was watching.

The rest of Lorraine had consistently been too cool for him. As aloof as a black-and-white photo of a French girl. Sam knew from the second they met that he had to ask her out. He had to.

He was seventeen to her nineteen. She was DJing at a tiny club with no sign called Bassment, wearing a white silky slip dress. Her hair was pale pink and shoulder-length, dyed ultramarine at the tips. Huge swoops of black encircled her shimmering hazel eyes. She was unmistakably sexy. Sexy. Sam hated that word the way other people hated “moist” or “panty,” but there was no other way to describe her. The Great Love of His Life was plain sexy. And terrifying.

Not that Sam was all the way innocent when they met. From the time he was eleven, he hung out with a ragtag assemblage of derelicts who thought it was hilarious that this little kid had no curfew and drank as much booze as they did. “Little Sam” had a smart mouth and the ladies loved him. He was selfie bait for older drunk chicks.

There wasn’t a bar that the kid couldn’t get into—he knew everyone, or at least his dad did and he was the spit-and-image of his old man—though precocious as he was, he’d never been in love. That was until he saw Lorraine up there on the dais, neon green headphones, ignoring him. Sam was a goner. Sucker-punched and clobbered.

He waited an hour to talk to her. Then another. Another two passed.

At three a.m., when the lights came on, he nodded and asked, “So, where we going?”

“Food,” she said, tossing her bag at him.

They drove to a diner, where she devoured a heaping plate of migas. Sam ordered coffee, and when they were finished and walking out into the street, without warning she hoisted herself into his arms, wrapped her legs around him, and kissed him. Sam was stoked—stoked that it was happening and stoked that he’d grown three inches over the summer and could lift her. Her breath tasted of green peppers and cigarettes and her confidence was mind-blowing. His mother used to say you shouldn’t marry anyone you wouldn’t want to divorce, and he understood that now. Lorraine was the emotional equivalent of a hollow-point round; the exit wound was a shit show.

Sam restocked the almond milk, consolidated the baked goods into a single cake stand, and switched out the bar mops. The new ones smelled good, bleach-clean. He held them under his nose. Sobriety meant a low-level boredom all the time. Taking pleasure in small, repetitive tasks was the big show of the whole day. Sure there weren’t dazzling, dizzying highs anymore, no careening around town with the most enigmatic and emotionally toxic woman he’d ever met. There would be no screwing each other’s brains out in a dazed, compulsive panic, but at least there were clean bar mops. He admired the neatly folded squares of cotton and rearranged one so the blue stripe lined up in the stack.

Right then, as if she begrudged him this tiny victory, Liar texted him.

Call me.

Shit.

Sam’s hands got clammy when his fight-or-flight response was triggered. Under the right light you could actually see the sheen of moisture appear on his palms. He’d made a time-lapse video of it once.

He felt equal parts sick and excited when he heard from her after an absence. The last time they spoke was twenty-seven days ago. Just one day more and he would’ve kicked the habit for good. At least that’s what the books on substance abuse told him. He thought he’d turned over a new leaf. In fact, he’d even begun jogging. Okay, so he’d hopped around the block twice in his busted shoes, but he’d cut back to three cigarettes a day, which for him was the same as completing a half marathon.

He thought about the pressure of her lips on his. The lemony scent of her hair. He closed his eyes and considered their last meeting and the bad ideas that followed. She’d stormed his newly small life and disappeared in a mushroom cloud of devastation. Again.

After that last run-in, he’d sent three unanswered texts before he’d been sufficiently humiliated. The first because he told himself he wasn’t the type of guy who slept with someone and ghosted. The next two because his stupid brain was gobsmacked and running on a flustered delay. Now boom: Liar on line one.

This is what she did. It was as if she knew the moment he was able to wake up without wanting to die and couldn’t abide by it.

Sam stared at the text.

Call me.

Three more hours of work to go before he could stew in the dark in his room.

What the hell was “Call me”?

Only sadists left that message.

Sadists and bullies. She might as well have written:

“Gnaw off your hand.”

Sam knew he was on the right side of history. Let the record show that she was the cheater. He was the spurned lover, the cuckold, the humiliated, the victim.

GTFO with your Call Me’s!

Not that he wasn’t tempted.

Sam sighed. Maybe if he called she’d tell him where she’d buried his balls and his heart.

People cheated on people every second of every day all over the world. It’s just that Sam couldn’t believe it had happened to him. By Lorraine no less. His Lorraine.

Jesus.

He’d entombed the event of their actual breakup so deep it’d been effectively redacted from memory. Sam leaned on the counter and retrieved the original file from 103 days ago.

That fateful morning she’d told him she wanted to go to the breakfast taco spot before work. The not-that-good spot on Manor that charged extra for pico de gallo.

Sam wondered if ordering a michelada with his eggs would be distasteful. He needed something to take the edge off after the night they’d had. They’d doubled-down on martinis after a week of fighting about money and Lorraine’s crazy work schedule. And while they both knew going out was a doomed enterprise, compounded by Sam’s desire to swing by his mom’s, they didn’t care.

That morning Lorraine’s hair was pulled into a bun. She appeared admirably refreshed, and Sam was grateful that no matter how much dysfunction there was at home, he could rely on his girlfriend to be there for him. He reached under the table to touch her knee when the chips arrived. He’d shoved a few in his mouth before she told him about some guy named Paul from her work.

It hadn’t meant anything.

Though it had been building up for some time.

It had happened more than once.

Sam reacted by yelling loud enough that parents eating nearby with their young children gave him the stink-eye.

Lorraine sat there stone-faced.

“Do you love him?”

“Do you love me?”

“Is it something I did?”

“What the hell’s the matter with you?”

“Did it feel good?”

“Better than me?!!!”

She wouldn’t tell him his last name. Or where he lived.

“I don’t love him,” she said.

“Why, then?” Sam implored. He was sobbing. Inconsolable. Lorraine, on the other hand, rarely ever cried, and turned cold whenever he did. Her expression hardened, as if his outpouring of emotion slaked any desire for her to feel anything.

In hindsight he was glad it wasn’t the good taco spot because it would have been ruined forever. Anyplace that charged seventy-five cents for condiments could burn in hell. On principle.

“This,” she whispered through clenched teeth. “This is the problem. Why does it have to be this way with us? Someone having a meltdown. Paul was . . . He was a distraction. I needed to get out of this. Us.”

“No,” he said. As if that would make the moment less real. Sam shook his head, mind stalled out at the denial stage of grief. “No. We love each other. We’ll always love each other. You’re a part of me.” He searched her face, uncomprehending. It felt crazy to him that she was even another person. Her arm may as well have been his arm. That his arm had the power to turn against the rest of his body and walk away made no sense. Sam felt something in his chest crack.

“We’re addicted to each other,” she said. “It’s not healthy. Paul’s boring—don’t get me wrong—but he has stability.”

Stability. Sam knew what that meant. Stability meant rich. Paul must have been rich. Rich in the same way she was. Rich like he’d never been and never would be. Sam reached for her just as she stood up, hesitated, and then walked out.

After that morning, he’d moved into House and they’d gone months without speaking or running into each other. Sam had made sure of it. He avoided their old haunts, telling no one where he lived, and he worked as many hours as Al had for him. It was while on a toothpaste run at Walgreens that she called his name from down the aisle. Sam couldn’t believe how companionable they still felt as they hung back in the parking lot. They made small talk, and no one brought up Paul. When she suggested they run to Polvo’s for a margarita, it seemed like a great idea. A pitcher of House Ritas later, it seemed an even better idea to take their trip down memory lane all the way back to her apartment. He hadn’t drunk a drop since. Twenty-seven days. Each one a feat.

When she disappeared again she became “LIAR” in his phone, and he tried to forget.

But with a text, a single directive, he felt the pinprick of the tiniest portal open in his heart. She had such beautiful skin. Especially her clavicles. Christ, and her elbows. He loved tracing his fingertips across the crest of bone on any part of her body.

   
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