LITTLE ACES
Paul Vega

I rap on the door, my knuckles leaving behind specks of blood. My hands are all torn up, little nicks, bruises, and blisters. I’m about to just ram the damn thing when Michelle answers.  

“Okay, okay,” she says, as she swings the door open, towel in hand. “I was just doing dishes.”

She smiles sweetly, hair in a high bun, wearing one of my threadbare baseball tees, and I immediately feel stupid. The door’s been jamming off and on for a week, and I’m just frustrated because of work. There’s no reason to be angry.  

I follow her in and scoop her up from behind going for a body slam.  

“Can you smell what the Rock is cooking?” I shout in my best wrestler voice as we tumble into the couch cushions.  

 She shrieks and elbows me in the gut. For a minute we play-fight and then Michelle pops up. “Yeah, Rocky, I smell you, bitch. Bleh.” She stands over me smiling, but we both know I really do smell.   

It’s the paint from work, a cheap all-weather blue I’ve been using to coat the pilothouse of my friend’s boat. I toss my jacket in the corner, but then there’s something else. I’m burnt. My chest is bright red down to the V of my t-shirt, and my chest hair (what little I’ve got) is gone. My arms are the same, which amounts to a killer farmer’s tan I didn’t have in the morning.
 
“Too much time in the tanning salon, Rock?” 

“Very funny.” I stick my arms out straight to inspect the damage. “I think it’s from all the welding today,” I say, and Michelle sucks her teeth, her eyes narrowing. “Really. No one told me to wear long sleeves.” 

A month ago my friend Tyler hired me and some other guys to get his dad’s commercial fishing boat, Charity, up and running. I’d been hard up for a while. A contract job at Amazon that lasted a couple months, a clerical position that was supposed to end up full time but instead ended in a lay off - nothing had worked out - so I jumped when Tyler offered. But the other guys on Charity took about five minutes before they figured out I was only there because of Tyler. Ever since they’ve been trying to “teach” me to use tools I’ve only ever heard about. Mostly they put something loud and dangerous in my hands and laugh while I struggle not to hurt myself. Welding is my newest trial by fire.  

We walk to the kitchen where Michelle’s laptop is open on the breakfast bar. She finishes toweling off a few plates, stands there with her full lips and pretty, round face and points me to the screen. “Ready to start looking?” she says, and she’s got the page open to apartments on Craigslist.
 
“You wanna give up all this?” I say, arms outstretched.
 
Our apartment is in an old brick building on Capitol Hill. Bottom floor, street-facing and alley-adjacent. Mice in the fall, ants in the summer, and an alley full of hobos who treat the area between the dumpsters like their personal outhouse. The living room is a mix of parent-bought Ikea furniture and Value Village re-treads, and there’s little on the walls aside from our degrees. Mine’s two years older while Michelle’s is brand new, and I like to remind her that I was the first person in our apartment to graduate college.
 
“C’mon on,” she says. “We could at least try, Alex.” And it’s then I realize just how bad I do smell, my epoxy injected body odor filling the kitchen like there’s a gas leak on the range. Light a match and the fumes might just burst into a ball of flame.    

Michelle’s degree is in biology and she’s applying to med school. Lately she’s begun thinking that means we need to start living better. Nothing fancy, she says, just more like “adults.” Which is fine. I get it. But I don’t have the money and she knows this, yet she keeps pecking away at me. It’s something I’ve been noticing more and more lately, subtle hints even when things are going well that tell me she thinks I need to push myself, strive for something better, or maybe, that she’s still pissed at me for overdosing.
 
I’ve told her the story a dozen times. It was cocaine. It was while she was home seeing family last winter break. It had more to do with my growing frustration with my career prospects, or rather, my total lack thereof, than it did with us. I hardly ever did the stuff and was with Tyler and other old friends – people I met freshman year in the dorms long before I ever knew Michelle - and one thing just led to another. When I told Michelle, she was more shaken than angry. She wanted to know if it was a regular thing, if there were other secrets she needed to know about. But it wasn’t and there weren’t. It was, in all actuality, just an incredibly shitty thing that happened. One that has cost me my health and isolated me from my friends, since now when Michelle imagines me hanging out with them, she conjures rolled up dollar bills and graffitied bathroom stalls in seedy bars.  

After I told Michelle about overdosing, I apologized like hell and even got her to move in with me as a way of showing her I was serious about straightening things out. I told her it wouldn’t happen again and it hasn’t. We tell each each other we love each other and we do. But there are times I can tell she still doesn’t fully trust me, an attitude that manifests in ways I would have never noticed before the overdose - pulling away a second too soon from a hug, asking a more pointed than necessary question when I’m later than I said I would be - moments that make me want to insulate her from all my weaknesses, all my little failures, so as not to plant more seeds of doubt. 

So I don’t talk to her much about my health. I don’t tell her about the skipped beats, the tachycardia, the quivering of the heart I’ve mentioned to my cardiologist that he swears is nothing to worry about. I don’t tell her that when I told the cardiologist the quivering makes me not trust my body anymore and I wanted more tests, he told me there wasn’t more he could do and suggested a therapist. I don’t tell her anymore that I’m sorry, or that I want better things too. I don’t tell her that next year I’ll make more money, or that we’ll be happier, or that I’ll be healthier, or that I’ll figure out what I’m doing with my life. I don’t tell Michelle, but I want to. And maybe someday, when things are better, when she fully trusts me again, I will.   

I lean over Michelle’s shoulder to look at her screen. Most of the Craigslist ads are for Capitol Hill, Queen Anne, Ballard, and like I already knew, none of them are within my price range. If I had money, I’d rent us one of those sky colored condos going up everywhere, one with an extra room just for Michelle to use as a study and a patio big enough for a charcoal grill.   

I squeeze her shoulder lightly as if this gesture could transport my thoughts to her. I pretend to scan the page a while longer before heading to the fridge for some orange juice.   

In the middle of a gulp, Michelle says, “Holy crap!” and I choke a bit. 

“What?” I croak.
 
“Greg’s engaged.”  

“Greg who?” I say, but I already know it’s her ex-boyfriend, and anyway she just ignores me.  

She’s switched from Craigslist to Facebook, and I look over her shoulder again and there’s Greg’s dumb, square face kissing some spray-tanned brunette girl in a staged photo like it’s senior prom.  

“How long’s it been since you talked to him?”  

“Not that long,” Michelle says.  “A few weeks. He hasn’t even been dating that girl for a year,” she adds. Left unsaid is that we’ve been dating for almost three.   

I’m pissed she knows this, that she stays in contact with Greg at all, but I say nothing. My lingering embarrassment keeps me from speaking up. These days I always feel the same: How can I tell Michelle I don’t like something she does when I almost killed myself? So I keep up an outward facade of calm that belies - like in any uncertain armistice - a certain degree of inner aggression.
  
And as much as it pains me to think it, Greg’s probably an okay guy deep down. He was her first boyfriend in high school and helped her through it when her father gambled away all the family money and left them. He was there, and that counts for something. Still, it’s my job as Michelle’s current boyfriend to hate her ex-boyfriend. If I’m okay hanging out with Greg, bullshitting over last night’s Mariners game or the best way to season a pork shoulder, I might as well just donate my balls to science already and be done with it already.
 
There’s a red notification marker that pops up on Michelle’s homepage, and before I know it we’ve got an invitation for drinks with Greg, his new fiancé Mindy, and a bunch of their dead-eyed dental school friends.
 
“C’mon, babe, tomorrow’s Saturday night,” I say.  

“Really? What do you want to do tomorrow night? Watch Breaking Bad and drink Rainier?”  
“That’s exactly what I want to do,” I say.  

Michelle rolls her eyes. “Well I want to go, and I want you to come too. There’s no reason for you and Greg to hate each other. He’s no threat now anyway. He’s getting married.” 

I want to tell Michelle I’m not threatened, that I just hate Greg because he’s a tool, but of course this will only start a fight. Instead, I put my arm around her, close my eyes, and breathe deep in her hair. I kiss her ear and she leans into my chest, the burnt place above my heart.  

“Okay, babe,” I say. “Okay.”  

She could be right. Meeting new people could be good. Hell, maybe they’ll inspire me to become a dentist. Who knows? But when I open my eyes, Greg’s fake smile is still there staring back at me, his eyes looking over our things, our lumpy, too small couch, my guitar amp turned TV stand, the bookshelf overflowing with used textbooks, and I let go of Michelle and head toward the shower to get rid of my smell.  


Instead, I put my arm around her, close my eyes, and breathe deep in her hair. I kiss her ear and she leans into my chest, the burnt place above my heart.

 The next night at eight we head out the door. I help Michelle into my old Ford Ranger and tell her she looks nice, and she really does. She’s wearing a simple blue lace dress that ends just above the knee and her hair is swept to the side in straight, black lines. It’s a dress I haven’t seen her wear since we first started dating.
 
“Thanks, hon,” she says as I start the truck, and without adding anything she turns on the radio and flips through stations. I wonder if she’s worried about what I’m wearing: black cut-off jean shorts, Vans, and a gray t-shirt that would put me right at home as a barista at some vegan coffee shop. I do not look “adult.” It’s a silent protest because we’re meeting Greg, Mindy and company at Amber, a ritzy bar in Belltown for young professionals that sounds like it was named after a debauched former cheerleader who murdered her older husband for his fortune. It’s what you’d expect, expensive and inviting to douchebags in linen suits and too tight t-shirts, not at all the kind of place we’d ever go with my friends. In fifteen minutes we’re parked out front of Amber with its bright purple lights and packs of rich, creatine-guzzling men who smoke and emit a musky cloud of cologne.
 
When we get in, Greg has an area reserved in the back around a trio of white couches and planted palm trees that create the effect of hanging out on a leftover set for Miami Vice. There’s a server walking around with free champagne, a bar nearby, and slightly too loud dance music. Everyone in our group, maybe thirty people total, are cheerful and welcoming, and I get a few perfunctory hellos accompanied by gleaming smiles. We grab champagne flutes from the server and start chatting with another couple who are on their way to do volunteer summer dental work in South America. But I can tell from how they talk about it that it’s just another bullet point on the resume. This is a couple who know exactly where they’re going, and if adulthood doesn’t bring a sailboat moored in Shilshole Marina and a home in Ballard, all will be lost.  

And suddenly Greg’s right there, all smiles, and he hugs Michelle. “Hey, pal,” he says slapping me on the back so my drink spills slightly onto the ground. We shake hands, mine disappearing in his.
 
“Let me introduce you to Mindy,” he says to us, and he yanks a stubby, dark-haired girl with too much make-up towards us. She smiles and asks our names, and before I know it, Greg asks Michelle to go to the bar with him so he can get more drinks for all of us that we don’t need, and I’m paired off with Mindy, her short legs gleaming in the weird purple lighting that suggests Amber doesn’t know if it wants to be a strip club or a bar. The cracks in Mindy’s face are caulked in with bronzer and blush, so much so that I hardly recognize her from the Facebook photo. Only her obscene tan is the same.
 
We stand in silence for a few moments and then I say, “So what do you do?”
 
“Dentistry school,” Mindy says. “I’m going to open up my own practice.”  

I like how matter of fact she makes it sound. Step 1: Go to dentistry school. Step 2: Own a dental practice.
  
“What do you do, Alex?” she says, and she’s not judging me, just in search of the fine, upright profession I’m pursuing.
  
“Welding,” I say, which is about as accurate as anything, and which makes me feel simultaneously proud - because of how it sounds, and ashamed - because of the truth.  

“Ooh,” she says. “It’s so cool to meet someone who actually works for a living. Guys who can fix things are awesome. They remind me of my dad.”   

I’m not sure how I like being compared to her handyman dad, and I wonder if she thinks I like NASCAR, chewing tobacco, and the way a 9 mm in the nightstand can make you feel simultaneously safer and freer.   

The truth is that after I graduated college I made a half-hearted attempt to get into law school with Michelle’s encouragement. She kept saying, “Alex, you’re too smart not to get in, too talented. They have to let you in, Alex.” She believed in me more than I did. Around the time the fourth rejection letter arrived, I stopped opening them and told Michelle I’d decided to put it off a couple years. I settled into the uneasy notion that my English degree wasn’t worth shit to the rest of the world and that I’d just have to be resourceful, find an alternative career path. Lots of people my age take time off to figure things out, I thought. Why rush into killing myself as some law firm intern, spending twenty hour days studying corporate tax law and fetching coffee?
 
Thankfully, before I can explain any of this to Mindy - or that my welding career includes one afternoon of experience - Greg and Michelle return from the bar with our drinks.   

Greg sidles up next to me and claps me on the back again, and I scoot towards Michelle who hands me a beer while Mindy leans against Greg like the big, fine tackling dummy he is. “How’s it going, pal?” Greg says to me again, and blood shoots to my temples.  

“Really good, man,” I say, handing my champagne flute to a passing server. “Congrats.” 

“Thanks,” he says and nuzzles into Mindy. “I’m just lucky,” he says. “We both are.”  

I grimace. He’s a few inches taller than me, muscles rippling under a solid red polo, and for a split second I think of smashing my beer bottle into his smooth, defined jawline the next time he calls me “pal,” but then quickly squash the idea. Greg’s handsome in a classic way, and I’m handsome as well, I guess, except my handsomeness comes from the Javier Bardem school of attraction: Girls say I have “unique” features.  

“You’re looking good,” he says, catching me totally off guard. “Looks like you caught some rays.”
 
My welder’s tan is so dark in the club lighting my arms look blue. I relax. Maybe this is his idea of making peace.
 
Greg sucks down half his drink, the kind of transparent, lime-topped cocktail favored by the taste-averse carb-weary crowd. “You must be fully recovered,” he says. 

Recovered from what though? The flu? Cancer? The death of my trusty childhood beagle, Uncle Pete? Greg says it so offhandedly he could mean anything, but then he flashes me a nasty little smirk, and it’s obvious he’s heard something.  

 My heart starts pumping fast, the blood pressure surges, and like it’s been ever since the overdose, stress causes my head to get hot and feel tight.  

“We’re great,” Michelle says, squeezing my hand. “I’m at Harborview. My application for med school is due in October. Alex is still looking at law schools.” 

“Yeah, we’re great,” I interrupt, face pulsing with shame and anger. The blood pounds in my carotid artery up into my eardrums, so I can hardly hear myself speak. “Just super busy with this kids' soccer team I’m coaching.”  

It’s a lie so big it almost feels right, and Michelle digs her short, slender fingers into my burned forearm. She tries to start a conversation with Mindy, but I cut her off, driven by some newfound confidence. A skipped beat, another, but the pounding lessens, and I can hear myself, hear the pulsing bassline, the clinking of glasses.
 
“The Little Aces,” I continue, practically shouting over the subwoofers. “Team full of speed demons.”  

“Cool, man. I played in high school,” Greg says. “I could even come out for a day if you guys like.  Show your kids some techniques.” He juggles an imaginary ball in front of us, and I go hot again. It’s ridiculous, but the thought of Greg showing my imaginary youth soccer team (whose name I suddenly realize may or may not support illicit gambling) how to become better players, pisses me off.  

 “We’ve got great coaches already,” I say. “One of the kid’s dads was a national team alternate. ’84 Olympics.” I have no idea where any of this is coming from, and Michelle’s hands wrap tighter around my forearm, working on giving me the mother of all Indian burns. It is either an act of anger on her part, or of love: one meant to save me from my self.  

“Dude, awesome,” Greg says, and I can’t tell if he believes me or not. “Hey, have you ever done a triathlon with Michelle?”
 
“What?” I say. A triathlon is apropos of nothing, but Michelle’s grip suddenly goes slack and a terrible knot forms in my throat.
 
“Michelle and I did them in high school. Your girl could swim with the best of them,” Greg goes on. 

“You could too,” Michelle says just loud enough so that only I can hear.  

 “Actually, we’ve got one coming up if you guys are interested,” Greg says, pulling Mindy in for another round of puppy cuddling.

“Cancer fundraiser back home in Olympia. It’d be awesome if you guys can make it. I’m sure your Mom would love to see you compete again, Michelle.”  

There’s some extra meaning here but before I can catch it, Michelle turns and faces me. “What do you think, babe? Could we?” She says it so brightly it’s more challenge than question.   

I grin idiotically and nod, knowing full well I’ve fucked this up.  
 


It’s ridiculous, but the thought of Greg showing my imaginary youth soccer team (whose name I suddenly realize may or may not support illicit gambling) how to become better players, pisses me off.

After that Michelle doesn’t talk to me much. I look for a moment just between us to explain what I said, but there’s no opening. We shift from group to group, and she’s in her element now. Recommendation this, internship that. It reminds me when I first met her at the campus writing center. She was a freshman and I was assigned to tutor her. I assumed she’d show up with some English 101 essay like all the rest, and I’d work her through claims, sub-claims, tighten a lame thesis. But instead this tiny girl burst into my office like a force of nature. She talked for a full five minutes before I could say anything. She wanted a summer internship at the medical center doing cancer research and all she had left to do was write a personal statement. We started to brainstorm ideas, but she told me never mind and pulled out a notebook full of drafts. She was smart and motivated, but she was not a gifted writer. As is often the case with young, intelligent, left-brained people such as Michelle, her prose was prone to bouts of arrogance and hilarious naivete, and also, a genericness exemplified by rigid and repetitive language. I helped her just enough each time to keep her coming back with more drafts, refusing to give her the simple prescriptive edits she wanted. Instead I asked personal questions - questions about her family, where she came from, the nature of her desire to work in the sciences - and with each revision her personal statement became more chiseled, personalized, and unique. She returned throughout the next couple months with odds and ends from her classes, until finally, near the end of the term, an acceptance letter arrived for her internship. At which point I congratulated her and told her to ask for a new tutor, because I had done all I could do, and anyway, she owed me a date as a thank you.  

As Michelle continues to make the rounds amongst the groups of dentists, I drink and try to look interested, try to parse her words from the din of the bassline and the clatter of voices, but even when I do catch something, I have nothing to add. I feel myself receding. I am not me. I am merely the boyfriend. I drift farther and farther to the periphery until finally I give up the pretense of listening and excuse myself for the bar.  


I feel myself receding. I am not me. I am merely the boyfriend.

“Two shots of well whiskey,” I tell the bartender.  

The bartender pours, and I look back at Michelle as she chatters on. Why would she tell Greg? Or did she? Maybe it was an accident. But then why push the triathlon? Does she want me to look like an idiot? Weak? I can only guess she’s still mad at me about the overdose, and this is her passive-aggressive way of showing it. My growing silence on the matter, and my conjuring of the Little Aces, has certainly not helped. If only I knew how to fix things. If only I could take it all back.  

“$18.00,” the bartender says, the squat little shots between us on the bar like shotgun shells. 

“What?” I shout.  

“It’s $18.00,” he repeats and shrugs, his thick linebacker’s neck bursting from a black, collared shirt.
 
Of course it is, I think. I pull out my card, imagining myself crossing the finish line of a long race, all red-faced and gasping, collapsing to the ground while the winners stand to the side sipping water. Fuck this place, I think. I put my card away. Fuck these people.  

“It’s on the tab for Greg Hansen,” I say, and then pour back the shots in succession.  


Why would she tell Greg? Or did she? Maybe it was an accident. But then why push the triathlon? Does she want me to look like an idiot? Weak?

In the bathroom, I weave through a mustard gas cloud of cologne and a pack of guys staring at themselves in the mirror, finding an empty stall on the end. I sit on the toilet and lean my forehead against the steel door, the coolness a relief from the onset of spins. There’s shouting out by the urinals. Snippets of drunk guy stuff: Fuck. Pussy. Shots. Suck. I close my eyes, focus on steady heartbeats, deep breaths, good thoughts.  

The Little Aces are on the field. A freshly mowed pitch of lush green grass on a sparkling summer day. Our forward Derek steals the ball at midfield and races up the right sideline. He pauses, jukes a defender thirty yards from goal and centers the ball with a pass. A deft catch by our midfielder Travis who dribbles, fakes, and sends a beautiful chip into the box. Derek dives headlong into the ball and hits a rocket into the far upper corner of the goal just beyond the goalkeeper’s reach. 1-0, Little Aces. Just like we drew it up.  

I open my eyes to the smooth steel bathroom door. Pathetic.
 
I’m 25, and if I was going to do something, if I had shown even a kernel of do-somethingness, I would have done it by now. There’s a room full of people out there who know what they want. I am not jealous of what they want, but of their wanting, their means to do it. I’m angry because I don’t have it.  
 
I take a straight path from the bathroom back to the bar, blowing through another group of polo’d gym bores waiting in line. One of them says something, but I don’t care.
 
“Four more well whiskeys,” I shout at the bartender. One for each of us, I think.
 
I pull out my wallet. I’m still drunk but it’s the good kind now, focused, the point where anything is possible.
 
 I’ll take the other drinks off of Greg’s tab. I’ll apologize to Michelle. I’ll open up a new credit account, look over apartments with her next week, take extra shifts at work, find a second job.  

Tomorrow is Sunday and no one will be on Charity. Tomorrow is a good day to go the boat, practice welding on the drum, add a layer of paint to the pilothouse, see how the fiberglass has set. Tyler will appreciate it. I can already see myself at the end of a long day. I’ll take a jog around Fisherman’s Terminal, strip to my underwear and dive into the dark blue water. With the salmon beginning to run, already jumping far out in the sound, I’ll lift my head and kick my legs, prove that my heart is still strong enough for a swim.
 
The shots come and I pay for them and the ones I charged to Greg. Just as I pick up the glasses, there’s a sharp tap on my shoulder and I whirl around.  

“Hey!” It’s Michelle. “Where the hell have you been?”
 
“Nowhere,” I say. “I bought drinks for everyone. I want to toast Greg and Mindy.” I slur a bit, my breath a blue flame of liquor. 

“Are you drunk?” she says.
 
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m really really sorry.” I hold the glasses out in front of me. “These are apology shots.”
 
“Not funny,” she says. “That retarded story and now you’re hammered.”
 
“I’m not hammer--”  

One of the gym bores elbows me in the ribs and the shots splash all over me. “No cuts, dick!” he says, the liquor soaking into my t-shirt and down my arms, searing my burnt skin.  

Michelle rolls her eyes and turns to go. I toss the glasses on the bar and snatch at her elbow from behind.  

She yells at me to get off and now everyone is looking, a rift forming so we’re halfway between the gym bores and the future dentists.   

Greg separates out from the dentists and comes to us. “Are you okay?” he says to Michelle. He puts his hand on her shoulder, rubs her gently. His hands, those giant, smooth things touching my girlfriend.  

I step toward them and push his arm off Michelle. “She’s fine,” I say. “We’re fine. We just need a minute.”
 
“Don’t touch me again,” he says.  

“Don’t touch her again,” I yell at him. My heart is pounding, and the skipped beats come like water trying to work its way through a kinked garden hose.  
 
“Take your ass home,” he says, looking at my stained shirt. “I can take Michelle home.”
 
“You’re a fucking douchebag,” I shout.
 
He steps toward me and leans down so only I can hear. “At least I’m not a fucking junkie.”
 
I head butt him in the chin. Metallic taste of blood in my mouth and then punches to my head, kidneys, shouting from everywhere. A call for security. I wrap my arms around Greg’s midsection to shield myself from the blows, and then we’re rushing headlong over a couch onto the floor and a crack of pain lights all down my spine. Punches from his fists like sacks filled with rocks rain down on me while the world shrinks to a pocket of white pain and then blackness.  


‘Are you okay?’ he says to Michelle. He puts his hand on her shoulder, rubs her gently. His hands, those giant, smooth things touching my girlfriend.

I piece it all together later that night while on the couch, holding a bag of frozen vegetables to my temple. At first it’s just flashes, and I sip a beer, not feeling ashamed. I’m still drunk, indignant. Greg’s a dick. Greg’s a dick. Greg’s a dick. My new mantra.  

But slowly it comes back. Someone holding my arm behind me escorting me out and then chasing Michelle down the street begging her to listen. Police lights, but then we’re in the car and Michelle’s driving.
 
What’s wrong with you? 

Why the fuck did you tell Greg? 

Why can’t you just grow up?  
 

A look of pity on Michelle’s face as blood and spit bubbles in the corners of my mouth and I repeat I love you, I love you, I’m gonna make it better. A terrible moment that recalls our relationship’s worst moment: me sitting in a hospital bed the morning after I overdosed, trying to explain to her the terrifying alternating spikes and crashes in my pulse, the searing flash of white light behind my eyes, the crushing feeling in my chest that made me certain I would die. 
 
I lay awake on the couch in our apartment with the TV on low. The Breaking Bad DVD I rented from the library cycles through an episode I’ve seen before. My vision steadies on a scene where this drug dealer guy smashes up some meth and snorts it off a bowie knife.  My heart’s still going fast, and now the quivering is back. From what I’ve read it’s called atrial fibrillation - though my cardiologist doesn’t think that’s what I’ve got - but whatever it is, it’s what I fear most. Just the sight of someone railing fake TV speed makes it worse. I take pills to make it better, practice breathing techniques, eat the right foods, but nothing outside alcohol puts me at ease. I sit up and drink from the tall can of Rainier on the table. The meth-snorting dealer on screen beats his drug dealing buddy to death, and their shadows dance across our scuffed wooden floor. 

The episode ends. The menu displays. Eventually the screen turns to an unblinking blue, and I’m left with this: I have a girlfriend in the other room, but will she still love me in the morning? Does she still love me now? And even if she does, how long before she realizes she can’t spend her whole life waiting for me to get better? 

 I finish my Rainier, grab my jacket and stash another beer in the pocket. I put on my shoes and leave the apartment. I walk all the way to Elliot Bay and then I walk north. I walk to Queen Anne, Interbay, Shilshole. I walk so far my knees stiffen and my heels blister. I walk until the sun rises, my head throbs, my phone dies. I walk until I’m so far from home I don’t know the way back. And then I stop - my heart pounding, threatening to shake apart in my chest. 


Author's Commentary: I wrote this story originally for a reading. The curator gave us 3 constrictions, totally arbitrary things that I can't even recall, but essentially something like, "You must have a salt shaker somewhere on the first page." Don't think those constrictions made it to the final edit, but somehow they also sparked this really voicey, funny, tryna-to-be-a-stand-up-dude-and-failing vibe. This guy just can't deal with life's big, emotionally stressful events (WHAT A COINCIDENCE NOR CAN I). He loves his girlfriend, but they are not the right match, and his fall, his decision to leave - to whatever future is out there - is both a sadness and a saving grace."


Paul Vega is a managing editor for Pacifica Literary Review and received his MFA from the University of Washington. His work appears in Witness, The Rumpus, DIAGRAM, The Pinch, CutBank, The Collagist, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @paultvega.