“Cheers,” she says as she lowers her glass toward hell. “Cheers to an Honest Abe.”
I shift my eyes in her direction as I watch her lift the tiny glass a few inches from the floor up to her pale lips. Bailey has been this way ever since the truth came out twelve season changes ago on this very day. The bags under her brown eyes and the black rats nest on top of her head is normal now. She always has a cigarette tucked behind her ear, if not in between her lips, and a pint of “whatever is on sale” stashed away in her purse for “emergency purposes”. The only bathing she does anymore is submerging herself in helplessness and hopelessness, but her whisky perfume covers up the stench. Her family doesn’t even question it; they are in denial too.
“Another one please,” she shouts across the bar. “And make this one a double”.
It would be an understatement to say the tragedy of her father’s suicide put her through a spiraling grief cycle. Too see the girl I grew up with and love like a sister go from an independent woman to an alcohol dependent wreck overflows my heart with sadness. She had her whole life laid out on the table and now that same table is cluttered with grief. She lost her scholarship to her first choice school, Yale, when her GPA dropped from a 4.0 to a 2.1 and her friends won’t even speak to her because they say, “She is a negative influence on our lives”. Alcohol won her over. Alcohol got the best of her.
We come to this small “hole in the wall” bar every year because she refuses to go anywhere else. “This is where I belong,” she says. The bartender is an old man named Cowboy who wears his hat and listens to sob stories all night. He says he must have heard her story a thousand times. The regulars, the biker gang, old men who have never been married in their lives and an overly enthusiastic jock who drinks his Miller Lite and stares at the TV screen all night long alternate taking her home to “get some”.
“Do you know what bothers me the most?” she asks. Cowboy slides her double across the table and she asks to add it to her tab.
“Cheers to abandonment”, she says.
I watch her choke it down. She reaches across the table and chases the taste away with my half-empty cup of Coca-Cola. She lets out a sarcastic “ah” as if the drink refreshed her and satisfied her needs; the needs she has lacked for three years.
“What bothers me is he didn’t even leave me a good-bye letter. What do you make of that?”
Her father was the one she turned to for advise on financial issues, car troubles, doing her taxes, etc…He always said that, “I fell in love with you before I fell in love with your mom” and “you are my no neck, no arms baby girl”. They had a close relationship, or so she thought.
I hesitantly answer, “Maybe yours got lost. Your father loved you very much, you know?”
The letter didn’t get lost. Unfortunately there was no letter left for anyone besides a statement at the top of his planner on the day he jumped. “You don’t know her like I do”. The planner was left open to that page at the bottom of the mountain that he jumped off of in South Carolina where she lived.
“No. He loved his mistress,” she shouts with tears streaming down her face. She makes sure the few people in the bar hear her. “‘You don’t know her like I do?’. There wasn’t any other letter, Kelly. She was the last thing on his mind before he jumped.”
I grab a napkin off the table behind us and reach over to dabble her cheeks where the mascara smudged. I scoot my chair closer to her and place my arms around her neck and press my lips up to her forehead. I grab her head and look her straight in her teary eyes and tell her, “You can’t blame yourself. His mind was already made up. There was nothing you could have done”.
And there wasn’t anything she could have done. He spontaneously left her mother the year before the accident and said, “I’m not leaving you. I’m leaving your mother”, but she didn’t feel that way. He didn’t keep a close relationship with her, in fact the only time he saw her was for a short dinner at his rundown apartment in Springfield on Sunday nights.
She glares back at me and shakes her head loose from my grip. Without saying a word, she excuses herself from our conversation and stumbles her way to the other end of the bar.
A man with shaggy blonde hair wearing a leather jacket with the words “Harley Davidson” embroidered into it turns his chair to Bailey and puts his lips up to her ear. She pulls away from him and smoothing the tattoos that creep up his arm. She gives him a smile. He strokes his beard, hands her a napkin with black ink printed on it and turns away.
“Do you know what he promised me?” She sets down two more shots of suppression and rolls her arm sleeves up, revealing the reddish-brown scars that lay horizontal across her wrist. No amount of beads she wears can hide her imperfection
My chest tightens and I hold my breath and interrupt her.
“Wait. You didn’t agree to do anything with that guy over there, did you?”
She crumples up the napkin and tucks it into one of the five shot glasses that sit empty on our table. “Hell no. He bought me these shots and gave me his number. I’m not going to call him, Kelly. I’m not stupid.”
I had to ask, knowing her reputation for these men. “I’m just looking out for you.”
She rolls her eyes at me in disbelief. The left side of her lip raises and she takes her seat.
“Anyways,” she says sarcastically. “He looked me dead in the eye and promised me on our living room floor he would never attempt it again.”
I can see the guilt in her eyes. Even though she won’t admit it, it is there waiting to be shared with me. When attending his wake she refused to stand in the line and receive hugs and support from the people she was once close to. At his funeral she didn’t shed one tear until everyone left and she was left alone with him. She placed a note in the pocket by his heart that said, “You promised”, and left the funeral home without any notice.
She picks up one of her shots and throws it back.
“Cheers to broken promises.”
Her droopy brown eyes lay fixated on that empty glass searching for unattainable answers to the fictitious queries her mind created about her dad. Three years later and I’m listening to the same speech and watching the same act in the same bar with the same stranger I once knew. Her dad was a liar I will give her that. It’s a tragedy that but her life is her choice and these behavior were not acceptable.
“Did you know he told me he had cancer?”
She hunches over to the edge of the table and rests her chin in the palm of her right hand. With her left, she reaches over and pulls my Coca-Cola close to her chest and sips on it like there is no bottom. She pierces her lips and rolls her eyes once then hints at me to empathize with her reply.
“Found out that wasn’t true. His weight loss was from all the coke he was snorting. What a two-timing, double-crossing, lying bastard.”
On a Sunday night at his raggedy apartment he held her hand and told her he had cancer. He said it was stage 4 and that he didn’t know how much time he had left. He went on a “all organic” diet and snorted coke daily to lose the weight to accompany his lie. He was hiding the truth of his real intensions of suicide with something natural.
I take her by the hand that was supporting the weight of her head and grasp it, like I’m never going to let it go. A short silence passes then I open my mouth trying not to stutter over my words and hoping that what comes out won’t guide her back to Jack. “You know that you have people that care for you. I will always be here.” I squeeze her hand even tighter. I can see the black dripping down her face leaving tread marks where the blush used to lie. She frees her hand that was circling the ice in my cup and reaches for the lonely shooter.
“Cheers to keeping secrets,” she cries as the empty glass slides through her fingers and falls to the table. The pupils in her eyes disappear and all that is left is pure white. She begins to nod off and in seconds the weight of her head is resting half on the table, half on top of my hand. I wrap the loose pieces of her hair behind her ears and lift her head upright.
Cowboy makes his way to our side of the bar eager to take our drink order. I motion my hand horizontally across my neck and put my pointer finger up to my lips, pointing at my dear friend with the other. I mouth the words,” Water, please. Thank you.” He gives me the O.K signal and walks off.
“Do you remember the time when your dad coached our basketball team?” I whisper quietly into her ear, holding the weight of her body into my chest. I run my fingers through my hair while she cries quietly to herself. “When we went to Hilton Head Island and our games were canceled due to the hurricane?”
She looks up at me with her pain-filled eyes and gives me a partial smile. She takes a second to regulate her speech then shows me a smile I haven’t seen in years. “Yeah. Remember when all of us girls were on our periods at the same time?”
Cowboy makes his way back to our table and places a cup of water in front of each of us. “It’s the last call,” he says. “We will be closing in fifteen.” I nod and ask him for her tab and return my focus onto Bailey.
“We were all so moody.” I said. I hold the cup of water up to her mouth and tilt the straw towards her. “Your dad ran to the nearest grocery store in the pouring rain just to get us tampons and Reese’s peanut butter cups.”
We laugh simShe takes a large mouthful of the refreshing remedy and chuckles, “We went through ten bags in four days.”
I hand the cup over to her and tell her, “Drink it slowly. You don’t want to throw up this good memory.” She laughs at my pun and sips on her water.
“Here is your bill sweetie,” The waitress hands it over to my friend but I grab it out of her hands before she can grab it. I give her a $50 and tell her to keep the change. She says thank you and right before she is about to leave Bailey stops her.
“Wait! Bring us two shot glasses please,” she says. “Empty ones.”
I squint my eyes at her.
“What are you doing?” I ask confused.
“You’ll see. It’s a surprise.”
Two empty shooters are handed to us. Bailey takes each of them and pours them up with water. She holds hers up toward heaven and hands me one, telling me to do the same.
“Cheers,” she says. She hits the side of my glass with hers. “Cheers to new beginnings.”