It was bitter cold. Every breath poured out as steam. Smokers huddled together in front of the bar next to her place, shoulders pulled up to their ears, shivering and feeding their habit. I parked and knocked on her door.
We hadn’t been dating long. I was supposed to meet some friends next door, but I had time to kill. I shrank inside my jacket, bare hands shoved in my pockets, eyes adjusting to the neon. She was already in comfy clothes when she answered the door.
I wrapped my hands around her waist and kissed her. My nose was red with cold. I rubbed it against hers lightly and she recoiled, shaking her head like a ferret stifling a sneeze.
I didn’t stay long. It felt like a rotten thing to do. Like I was blowing her off.
I met Willy Pete at his apartment and we headed for the bar. We were on speaking terms again. Barely. Mr. Big was waiting for us, along with a mutual friend from high school. I hadn’t seen Gitch in years. He was already hammered when we got there. Liquor drunk. Squirrely and mean.
The Big man was drinking Coors Light. It would take a dozen of them to even give him a buzz.
I was only on my first drink when Gitch began hurling himself around the bar. He struck up conversations with strange girls. His voice was just a bit too loud for the room. The Big man and I made eye contact, knit our brows and shook our heads. We headed for the door.
Gitch only wore a t-shirt. He pretended not to notice the cold. I decided to go somewhere less crowded. I took us to the opposite end of the street, hoping the walk and the cold air might calm Gitch down. I was wrong. By the time we reached the corner he was reeling. He sprinted ahead and staggered into traffic, weaving his way between cars and shouting to himself in the street.
We stopped in front of the grungiest dive on the block. The kind of joint where even Gitch couldn’t fuck up, short of burning the place down. The bouncer stood outside smoking a cigarette. His girlfriend had just finished a shift across the street. She was bartending the night I met Vixen. Willy Pete knew them both, and bummed a light. We made idle chatter. I glanced through the neon-lit windows into the bar.
I was already tired of the whole scene.
Gitch stammered stupidly. Big and I tried to calm him down. I feared Gitch would say something cross and Willy Pete would snap. Gitch started in on me. I ground my teeth together, trying to swallow my temper. The bouncer just laughed.
“Forty cents, I’ll let anybody punch me in the face . . . “
I stared at him and shook my head.
“Forty cents! I’ll let any of you . . . can punch me in the face for forty cents.”
I reached into my pocket for change and started to take off my jacket.
It was Willy Pete who talked me out of it. Willy Pete, the voice of reason.
What bad moon was I standing under? We never even made it inside the bar. Gitch was still absorbing alcohol into his bloodstream. We headed back down the block, toward the corner.
Gitch started in on Willy Pete.
Moments earlier it had been Willy Pete trying to stop a fight. The tables turned. I threw myself between the two and the Big man grabbed Gitch, raising his voice ever so slightly and urging Gitch back toward the corner.
“If he doesn’t shut his mouth I’m gonna punch him in the fuckin’ face,” Willy Pete said, pointing over my shoulder.
“Chill the fuck out,” I barked. “You can punch him but I can’t? How the fuck is that fair?”
The Big man and I walked the other two slowly down the block. Gitch refused to shut his mouth, and Willy Pete lost it. He shoved past me and clocked Gitch with an overhand right. I smashed my way between the two. The Big man pushed Willy Pete back. I backed Gitch off, walking slowly toward him. I made one last attempt to reason with him.
Cars shushed past the scene, but there was no foot traffic on that part of the street. I grabbed Gitch by the shoulder and side-stepped him, burying him in a rear naked choke and pressing my weight down on his shoulders. He collapsed, and I pulled him down onto the frozen sidewalk, locking him deeper into the hold.
Willy Pete ran toward us, pepper spray in hand, aiming it at Gitch’s face. I looked up, making fierce eye contact. Willy Pete hesitated, but eventually lowered the can. Gitch choked and gasped. Blood bubbled from his face, pouring down my sleeve. The thickness of my coat made it difficult to sink the choke in. I balled my left hand into a fist behind Gitch’s head.
His body went slack.
I immediately let go. I pushed him off and rose to my feet. He lay flat on his back on the cold ground and began to seizure. I had seen this before. Gitch coughed and sputtered, dribbling snot and blood down his chin. I slapped him on the cheek and he came to, rising unsteadily to his feet. He thrashed his shoulders from side to side, swinging his arms and shaking his head.
As soon as he was conscious enough to speak he started shouting, threatening anyone within earshot.
I had rarely seen the Big Man lose his temper, but I could see in his face that he was ready to knock Gitch flat on his ass. He told Gitch it was time to go, but the fool refused to budge. We decided to take more direct action. I told Willy Pete to head back to the bar. The Big man and I grabbed Gitch by the arms and dragged him, kicking and screaming, back to his truck.
We passed Vixen’s place on the way.
“Rape!” Gitch shouted. “These guys are trying to fucking rape me! Somebody stop them! Fucking rape!”
The crowd of smokers in front of the bar looked at the three of us, confused and mortified. Gitch’s face was bloody, and so was my jacket.
“Shut the fuck up, asshole!” shouted the Big man.
Mr. Big opened the passenger door of Gitch’s pick-up. He continued to resist. I grabbed him by the arm and the back of the head and stuffed him unceremoniously onto the floor, beneath his dashboard. He tried unsuccessfully to kick me, and eventually relented. I let go of him and he peeled himself off the floor, climbing into the passenger seat.
Big had only had two light beers. He agreed to drive Gitch home and make sure he was alright. We both apologized and shook hands. I watched them pull away and headed back to the bar.
I took a short cut through the park. I rounded the corner onto the Avenue and made it a few car lengths before I heard footsteps behind me.
“Excuse me . . . ” came a voice.
I spun, standing beneath a streetlamp. The aging panhandler took one look at me and saw the blood.
“Oohhh shit,” he said. “Looks like you been havin’ a bad night . . . You have you’self a good one . . . “
He picked up his step and hurried past me. I stuffed my hands back in my pockets and strolled into the bar.
Two gnarly looking drunks were sitting at the near end of the counter. On closer inspection I saw that both of them were passed out. Willy Pete stood at the far end, making conversation with someone I’d never seen before. He introduced us, and I promptly forgot the name. I pulled my hat off and leaned on the bar.
“Jack. Double.” I said, over the music.
Val set a rocks glass in front of me and filled it near to the top. I paid, tipped, and put the drink back in one.
What the fuck am I doing? I wondered.
I could barely see inside the bar, except for the signs in the front windows and the glow of the jukebox. I glanced around the room at the other patrons and felt a sudden, profound disconnect from reality. I decided to leave.
I made the lonely walk back to Vixen’s apartment, hoping she was still awake. It was 2:00 AM. My vision blurred in the neon twilight. I walked slowly, head hung low. She opened the door and saw the blood on my jacket.
“Are you ok!?” she asked.
“Yeah . . . “
She lead me into the kitchen. She didn’t bother turning the lights on. She poured me a drink from the vodka in the freezer and asked me what happened. I slouched onto a metal stool and skimmed the details.
I felt guilty.
Part of me knew all along that I was headed for trouble. That feeling compelled me. Not excitement, but rather its inverse. Morbid curiosity. Desperate to know what I was missing. Hungry for something I couldn’t express.
Sitting there with her I realized that I was right where I wanted to be. Safe harbor.
She touched my hair. I dropped my guard.