Tom stood outside smoking a cigarette and thinking about her. She had been on his mind a lot lately. He hadn’t gotten any sleep all week. He would go to bed and his hand would feel the cold of the left side of the bed. He’d stand for awhile still and look at the floor, then pace and settle on the couch as the back of the couch was comforting. She’d left in such a way that he wondered about what he had done. He couldn’t believe that it was her fault. Such a thought would be too much to bear. Tom decided it was his fault because he had had a past.
He laid his head against the apartment door and thought about what he had done. He had said things he couldn’t take back. He did things. A gecko crawled out from the dry rotted door frame and peeked at him. He looked at it and wondered if it was thinking about him. Perhaps it wondered what he was doing out there at 1:35 in the morning as he was. He threw his cigarette down after a final puff and opened the door. The blackness of the apartment met him and he curled up again at the back of the couch. Tomorrow would be another day.
Tom wandered into the front door of his office at 9:18 a.m. The clock looked down and laughed ‘late again’. He moved slowly to his desk and put his cigarettes and lighter in his top drawer and then grabbed the necessary paperwork out of his inbox. He felt another day of long meaningless toil stretch before him. At least Carolyn was there to lift his spirits. She came by with his coffee about five minutes after he arrived. Everyday she used the excuse that she was getting herself a cup anyway so might as well. Tom gave her his morning wink and grunt as she slid the cup in front of him.
This morning as he awoke he heard a noise at his closet door. He opened the door and saw a black hole. It sucked all that lived into it’s midst. He threw something in.
Tom worked hard all day long he made sure that nothing was left to question about his job. He wanted to do a good job as he always did. Yet something was missing in him as his coworkers had always suspected. He tried hard to make up for that something. Today Carolyn looked at him longingly as the elevator doors closed. He made his way to his car fumbling for keys as a drunken man.
Today was just another day, wasn’t it? He bought the ticket online last night. He needed to get away from it this time. He’d hurt before, but this time he was wise enough to know the most effective way to deal with pain. He would run away from it. Years ago he would dwell on pain until it took him down like the sinking ship that pain becomes.
“Nothing will do.”
“I’ll make you love me. I really will, Tom.”
“I’m sorry, Sarah. Love isn’t the problem.”
“It’ll be enough for us. You’ll see”, she sobbed.
“No.” Tom took the glass of bourbon on the nightstand and placed it on his forehead cool to the touch.
“No, Tom! No!!”
The stars exploded in Tom’s mind and all was released as sentience joined the swirling universe. One ray among many leapt from the earth to rejoin friends. Still, he was separated from the light again and reborn to the world to search for purpose, the meaning that eluded him time and again. Tom was a microscopic seed in his mother’s womb and in nine months he grew and overtook death.
He leaned over to his nightstand and saw the ticket setting there next to the alarm clock. It had finally arrived, and he would escape. Four more hours now needed to pass before he could shower and shave and make his way to work. A half pack of cigarettes was still left. He lit one, and leaned back on his pillow.
Carolyn greeted Tom this morning with a cup of coffee, but things were different. He took the coffee from her hand and brushed her fingers with his. He smiled, rather than gave a grunt.
Hours later Carolyn lay naked in Tom’s bed where Sarah had been the night before and wondered about the events that had brought her there. Eight months she had tried for his attention and now today she won. Tom’s back was toward her, and he slept soundly for the first time in nights. He dreamt of being a boy and his first flight on an airplane.
He was eight, and he held his mother’s hand as they boarded a plane to see his father. She was so beautiful. Her brown hair flowed like silk from underneath her toboggan cap. She smiled at him as he pulled back from the entrance door to the plane and the numerous chairs that sat like deathtraps.
“Mommy, I don’t want to go.”
“It’s okay, sweetheart.”
He walked to the designated seat next to his mother and sat down. She comforted him with a storybook to hold, the one about the family of tigers who saved a human boy from a tiger trap. He loved that one when he was little and always pictured himself as the little boy when he read it.
“You’re okay, sweetie. You want to see Daddy?”
“Yes”, he sniffled.
“Okay. Do you want to sit by the window?”
A young woman displayed the safety devices to the passengers at the front of the plane and then the fasten seatbelt light flashed. Tom’s mother made sure his seatbelt was secure. The plane took off like a rocket.
“C’mon, baby. We’ll switch seats so you can see out the window.”
Tom took his mother’s seat and then looked out. He saw blue sky and mist. He didn’t feel scared anymore, then he looked down and all turned to blackness. He screamed.
“It’s okay, baby.”
Tom sat up in his bed and screamed. “Get out.”
“What?” Carolyn whimpered.
“I mean it. Just leave.”
Carolyn grabbed her things in a huff and ran to the restroom. Moments later she was gone.
Tom thought about her. He tasted the salt of her skin in his mouth. He felt the gaze of her eye before… His trip would make him forget.
Carolyn called in sick.
Tom pushed his body up against his desk. His stomach was filled with acid and his temples pulsed with heat. His head lay against the cool surface of his desk. He heard the tick of the clock loudly, and soon it brought a memory.
She stood in their bedroom. Her arms, neck, and legs burned. The redness on her nose and cheeks highlighted her freckles. She let her dress lay open, unbuttoned.
“Come here,” she had always said.
Tom looked again at the clock.
The long drive home cleared his head. The ticket lay on his nightstand, and today would be his last day to think of her in that way.
The plane shot out of LAX like a rocket. Tom felt the swell of his stomach like he did on the first flight many years ago with his mother.
“Tom, you’ll be okay. You want to see Dad, don’t you? I know he loves you and wants to see you.” Mary Cassie took a facial tissue from her bulky purse and wiped Tom’s eyes and runny nose. “Baby?”
“I’m okay, Mommy.”
He walked down the aisle clutching Mary’s hand. Tom got that feeling in the pit of his stomach, the feeling he always got before the blackness.
The black hole was inside him then.
The city was New Orleans.
The hotel was as seedy as it could be. A snake squirrel crawled past his foot outside the room door. Tom entered the room and peeked out the window. Tomorrow would be a new beginning.
The pillow was good. It was crisp and cold against his forehead. His naked body stretched and moved against the smoothness of the sheets. He felt her next to him. In the darkness, he heard her whisper his name in his ear. “Tom”, she’d say. “Want me.” He felt how her hair was against his cheek when they made love.
In night, he sat up. He was awake as before, as if he were back in L.A. No one was there. The room was black, and he was aware of himself as he sat up in blackness. The city wouldn’t wait for tomorrow. He heard New Orleans call him. Tom pulled up his pants. He would go to her.
A bum shuffled through refuse, lights loomed, and the music played psychedelic strums and African beats. He walked. Signs flashed, and people looked strangely at him. A cop rubbed the rim of his cap with a beer.
“I’d like a beer.”
Tom chose an empty bar except for two men. One man nodded at him; the other scowled. “You don’t look like you belong in here, boy”, said the man who nodded.
The bartender lay a beer on the bar top. Suds moved down along the side of the glass. The glass was moist as Tom took hold of it.
No, he don’t”, said the other man.
The lights outside amazed him from within the bar as they flashed through the front windows. Tom thought of the warning he received as a child. Flashing lights will hurt you. Stay away from flashing lights. They’re too exciting to your system. A white coat always ruined his fun; it was white coats that ruined his childhood. But they prevented the blackness.
I don’t think any of us belong here, you old cuss”, Tom said, and then raised his glass. The three men drank.
He walked again, drunk with the lights. He felt his legs follow the taunting crack in the sidewalk. He walked until he came upon a black man. The man lay on his back. He looked up at Tom and said, “You don’t know where you’re going, do you, boy?”
“Just walking the city.” Tom didn’t look him in the eye. He didn’t want to.
The man moved back the brim of his cap, and pointed his long pointy finger at Tom. The man said, “I see it in your eyes. You don’t know where you heading, boy. Maybe you shouldn’t go yet.”
Tom stepped away and turned his back toward the man.
“But that’s okay, boy, you’ll find out soon enough where you headed. We do it that way.”
Tom turned and ran through the night. He saw lights from taverns and strip bars streak by. Voices echoed between the drums and horns. Voices that continued through the events of the night.
In the morning, Tom awoke; his head throbbed. The smell of the city filled his nostrils and he grabbed the cigarettes that lay on the nightstand. The first puff was sweet. Black smoke rose above him and along the ceiling. Swirls of black smoke circled above the bed.
The black filled the room.
Tom raised his head from his pillow and screamed. He saw the pack of smokes that still lay on the nightstand. The pillow next to him showed an indentation where someone must have lain. He pushed himself up. He shook his head to clear the fogginess.
“What the…” he muttered.
The curtains lay open, and his clothes were strewn around the room. He saw his boxers draped over the TV. Tom felt someone move against him. The image made him sweat. Then, a blur of headlights and the black man’s face appeared in his mind.
“I warned you,” the black man said. “You daddy ain’t here for you, and there’s a whole lot of hurt in this New Orleans.”
Tom went to the sink, and threw up. He looked around until he found his Marlboro’s. People change but not places. They bring you right back to where you were when you left, don’t they? New Orleans.
The rain fell, but it was not hard. Tom found him.
The black man was on First and Lafayette. “You don’t look right,” he said. He smiled a wide yellowed grin.
A flash came to Tom of himself fumbling for the hotel key last night. A woman danced in his arms. She rubbed against his thigh; she squeezed him with her hand.
“Open the door,” she said.
Tom opened the door and Carolyn sat naked at the edge of the bed. Tom had confronted her before he left.
“You’re going to leave,” she whimpered. She couldn’t understand because she loved him. She was kind and good. He remembered how her lip trembled when she called him a coward.
Tom continued down Lafayette until he came to a green door in front of him. He opened it. An old man was there who had a hat tilted too far to one side setting at the corner. His jacket was dirty. A young boy and girl argued at the bar.
“You’re just afraid,” she said.
The bartender leaned in to look at Tom as he walked up. A dizzy feeling of drunkenness hit Tom. He looked at the bartender.
The bartender wiped at the bar with a dish rag. “You again. You back for more.” Tom didn’t like being here.
Mary Cassie came to the phone. The son of a cuss answered. “It’s your son,” he said. Tom leaned on the glass of the phone booth outside the bar. He had hoped to start again, but now it was returning. He knew he’d been here last night. No one could understand, except her.
“Where are you?”
“I had to get away, Mom. I’m in Louisiana. I thought I’d stay here for a few days, but I had an attack last night.”
Mary Cassie switched the phone to her other ear. “Are you there for your father?”
“I don’t know,” Tom whimpered into the phone. “But it’s getting worse. The attacks are coming back.”
“The cuss walked by Mary to the kitchen and shook his head at her. He murmured, “Your son.”
“Baby, get on a plane and come back. Mommy will take care of you.”
“I don’t want to be taken care of anymore,” Tom screamed into the phone. He sunk to the bottom of the phone booth. “I just want to rest, and I want to stop thinking of that son of a…”