[ Chapter 5 ]
Thursday / December 20, 2007
In the time it took for me to return to my apartment from the police precinct, news of Boston’s now infamous “Santa Slugger” had slipped beyond the borders of Beantown, right into the national spotlight. Officer Dawson was apparently correct in his assessment that it was a slow news day, because the twenty-four-hour national media networks could hardly wait to run the story. Not only did they show the video of my impromptu interview in the back of the police car, they also added a very unflattering picture of me from Facebook, along with an illustration of Santa Claus (just in case people were unsure of who it was that I had so viciously assaulted).
Additionally, the Boston PD apparently had some “computer trouble” that rendered them incapable of sending out a follow-up press release to these news stations that “Santa” had, in fact, turned out to be a stoner with a record.
I discovered all of this by way of listening to the phone messages left by an assorted contingent of my concerned family members.
First, there was this recording from my grandfather, Judge:
“I can’t believe you are the first of my grandchildren to appear on Fox News! I’m real proud of you, Sugar, but I did hope you’d be on there talking about the good values of the Republican party instead of being the perpetrator of an assault. But I love you anyway. You know, I never did like that Santa character. In my experience, men who are that jolly and spend all their time hanging around kids always turn out to be perverts. And this world would be a better place with a few less perverts in it. Anyhow, don’t you worry about a thing. Judge is going take care of everything, starting with your legal team…I’m going to go make some phone calls right now.”
Next was a message from my half-brother, Robbie, who thinks he’s from the hard, urban side of the suburbs:
“Yo, Sis! I can’t believe you really dropped St. Nick like that in broad daylight! That is so dope, man. You gotta show me the moves you used! Is it true what they said on TV–did you really pistol whip him? That’s just badass. That’s straight Grand Theft Auto-style. You’re my hero.”
My maternal grandmother, Nana Jane, had a follow-up message that wasn’t full of so much praise:
“What am I supposed to tell my Sunday school class this week when they ask about my granddaughter, the ‘Santa Slugger’? Clearly you have decided to take after your father’s side of the family. I know one thing, your name is going straight to the top of the prayer list, young lady. And on top of all this, your mother told me you’re dating a minority! Maybe I can put your name on the list twice. You need to get right with Jesus, and you need to do it now.”
Next was my older stepbrother, Mark, who lives in Miami with his German, ex-bodybuilder boyfriend of roughly ten years, Aksel:
“An ice pick? They just said on the news that you assaulted Santa with an ice pick. I wouldn’t even know where to get an ice pick—I mean I know I live in Miami, but still. Aksel says the Nazis didn’t even use ice picks on people! What’s next? Taking out Elvis imposters with piano wire? Give me a call back if they let you out of jail anytime soon. I’ve just got to know where you found an ice pick.”
My older whole sister Becca, a physical therapist in Houston, was the next person to leave me a message:
“Jesus Christ, a grenade? You found a grenade somewhere and planted it on some poor guy in a Santa suit? I know you’ve got issues with Christmas after everything that happened, but a grenade Bailey? You’ve lost your mind. Do you still talk to that stain on your couch? God, you know, maybe you should ask Mom to buy you some clean furniture for Christmas. I’m starting to think that stain has some chemicals in it that are affecting your brain. I mean really…a grenade?” I glanced over at Fred after that message played, thankful that I didn’t have the phone on speaker. He would have been devastated.
The sixth and final message on my voicemail was from my dad:
“I just got off the phone with Judge. He said you’ve already been released from custody and that no charges are going to be filed. That’s great, honey. Great news. I was getting a little worried with some of the things they were saying on TV, but I just knew you weren’t capable of running over someone with a lawnmower. I mean, where would you even get a lawnmower in the middle of Boston? Anyway, I know you talked to your mother earlier and I’m sorry her famous guilt trips didn’t do their job. I’d really love to see you for Christmas…”
I’m not going to lie, that one put a lump in my throat.
I deleted the messages and decided that I needed to do something quickly to perk myself up, otherwise it was going to be a very long night. Typically, my cure-alls for bad days involve one of the following: ice cream, a good book, a long, hot bath or alcohol. After the day I’d had, however, I felt that I was fully justified in combining all of the above for the ultimate pick-me-up.
So my space heater was returned to its perilous position in the corner of the bathroom while I ran the water and assembled the other necessary items. My one and only cooking pot became an ice chest next to the tub for my bottle of chardonnay and pint of ice cream. John Irving’s A Prayer For Owen Meany completed the puzzle and soon my cares were evaporating along with the steam from the bath water.
Eventually, I gave up on the book because it was hindering my progress with the ice cream and wine (for the record, mint chocolate chip ice cream and chardonnay do not blend well on your taste buds, but they do wonders for the soul).
It was closing in on midnight when I heard the loud buzz of the intercom by my door, which meant that someone downstairs was looking for me. I paused with a spoonful of ice cream halfway to my mouth and considered who might be trying to pay me a visit at such a late hour.
The mystery visitor (or visitors) could not have been any of my friends in the city. Most of them had gone out of town for the holidays and the few who hadn’t would not have come over so late unannounced. It could have been one of my neighbors who had accidentally been locked out of the building, but in that case he or she could just keep buzzing apartments until someone answered. It wasn’t worth interrupting my bath.
In my mind, I figured it was probably a ballsy reporter who had found my address and decided to try and get an exclusive interview with the Santa Slugger. I shook the thoughts from my head and let myself sink lower into the warm water.
Just as the last remaining part of me that was even remotely sober was voicing its concerns about what seemed like the imminent possibility of me drowning in my bathtub, I heard the unmistakable tremble of my front doorknob. I put the ice cream down (that’s how you know I was taking it seriously) and listened intently for more. When I heard the click of the first of my four locks turn back, I climbed out of the water and wrapped myself in a towel.
In a near panic, I started to search the bathroom for weaponry. The wine bottle was the first thing to jump out at me, so I scooped it up, gulped down the last bit of liquid courage, and raised it over my head with both hands on the neck, like a baseball bat. As I crept around my bed toward the living area, I found myself wishing that I had the ice pick my brother Mark had mentioned—or even the lawnmower.
I motioned to Fred to stay quiet as I positioned myself on the wall behind the front door. My plan was fairly simple. There were four deadbolts on my door, as well as a security chain (you can never be too safe). Once the intruder had mastered the locks, he would be temporarily held back by the chain. Of course, I knew as well as he would that a few swift kicks could easily break the old chain, at which point the door would swing wide, the intruder would enter, and I would jump out and whack him over the head with the wine bottle. If there were multiple perpetrators involved, I would use the remaining jagged edge of the bottle to fend them off like they do in the movies.
My intoxicated state of mind kept me close enough to the edge of insanity that I not only believed my plan would work, I failed to see its inherent weakness right up until the moment when the intruder did indeed break the chain with a few swift kicks. Only then, as the door swung back on its hinges at a high velocity, did it occur to me that I was standing directly in its path. By then, it was too late for a new plan.
I closed my eyes a half-second before the door slammed into me, knocking me back a few steps and shattering the wine bottle in the process. Shards of dark green glass rained down on my body, which was bare, save for the towel. A stinging sensation crept across the skin on my shoulders and up through my scalp.
“Don’t move!” The intruder said in a deep voice. “And don’t open your eyes.”
I tried to obey his orders, but my body was already starting to tremble from head to toe. When his hands brushed my arms, I instinctively recoiled.
“Get away from me!” I whimpered. His hands remained firm.
“Stay calm,” he said in a soothing voice. “We need to get you away from the rest of this glass.”
His shoes crunched as he suddenly swept me off my feet, carried me across my own living room, and deposited me on the couch. I reached for Fred.
“Hold still,” said the intruder. His voice had a slight Southern lilt to it that I found strangely familiar and comforting. With a gentle touch, he brushed away the shards of glass in my hair and on my shoulders.
“There,” he said a moment later. “You can open your eyes now.”
I took a deep breath and braced myself to face my attacker. I told myself to memorize every inch and detail of his appearance so that I could identify him in a line-up at a later date, and then again in court when he was finally brought to justice.
But when I opened my eyes, I discovered that I had already spent a lifetime memorizing the face of the man in front of me.
“Memphis.” His name brushed across my lips in a whisper before it was suffocated by the air between us. If I had any doubt that it was him, it vanished in the instant that his mouth turned up at the corners, perpetuating a ripple that went straight up into those eyes that were the color of the ocean on a perfect surfing day. For a moment—a really, really long moment—I couldn’t remember how to breathe.
Very few of my memories between my first steps and my first kiss do not involve the face of Memphis Merritt. He has always been as much of a permanent fixture in my life as any of my siblings, and in fact he was the leading source of competition between my twin brother Brandon and I during our younger years. Since the first time we met him in kindergarten all the way through our last days of high school, we were at war over who was Memphis’ best friend. And though we tried every method conceivable under the sun to make him choose between us, Memphis never strayed from his faithful neutrality.
His loyalty to my brother and I had made it that much harder for me to say goodbye to him when the time came. And that much harder for me to see him sitting on my coffee table four years later, his face just a few inches away from my own.
It broke my heart in a thousand places to look at him and see all the tell-tale signs of the Memphis I grew up with—a freckle on his left temple, a scar over his right eyebrow—as well as the signs of the new, grown-up Memphis I didn’t know at all. Last time we’d seen each other, he was in the habit of sweeping his dark bangs across his forehead to their jagged dead end at the top of his right ear. Now he had a close-cropped adult-do that took away the lackadaisical surfer feel I’d always associated with him.
In all my nostalgia, it took a while for me to swim to the surface and rejoin my childhood friend inside the confines of my dark apartment.
“Memphis,” I said again, with more confidence this time, “what the hell are you doing here?”
“I was wondering when you were going to ask me that,” he said with another one of his all-inclusive smiles.
“And how the hell did you get in my apartment?” I added, as the situation at hand returned to the forefront of my mind. I had to remind myself that I was speaking with an intruder who I’d been trying to knock out with a wine bottle moments earlier.
“Your super gave me the key,” he said. He slipped off the coffee table and joined me on the couch. “When you didn’t respond to my buzzing from downstairs, I got scared that maybe something was wrong. So I pestered him until he gave me the key.”
“Did it occur to you that I might have been sleeping?” I asked.
“It did,” he admitted. “But judging by your current wardrobe, I think my other assumptions were correct. You were in the bathtub with a good book, a tub of ice cream and—this is just a hunch—a bottle of wine.”
“Damn you,” I told him. There was no point in trying to bluff, my cheeks were already growing hot. “You know me too well.”
“I do,” he said. “Well, at least I thought I did. But then the Bailey I know would never have assaulted some old guy in a Santa suit with a hockey stick.”
“Okay, these exaggerations have got to stop. I decked him with my wallet, that was the one and only weapon involved. And for the last time, he was trying to MUG ME!” I barely got the last part out before we both burst into laughter. That whole bottle of wine had done wonders for changing my perspective on the day’s events.
“Well, in that case,” Memphis said, reading my mind, “maybe you deserve another bottle of wine.” Without being invited to, my former best friend rose from the couch and headed for my refrigerator. While he pulled out another bottle of Pinot, I slipped back into the bathroom and pulled on a pair of jeans and a faded Boston College sweatshirt.
By the time I returned, Memphis was back on the couch and two glasses of wine were glistening on the coffee table.
“I love your decorations,” he commented facetiously, with a crooked grin. His eyes were focused on the light-up, plastic pumpkin on top of the TV
“I guess I didn’t make it past Halloween,” I told him. “I have some multi-colored lights somewhere in a closet or something…”
“Your Peacemas spirit is pathetic,” he said. “Where’s your plastic palm tree covered in recycled ornaments? Or your Flames of Peace candelabra? Olivia would be very disappointed if she saw this.”
“I don’t think I have to worry about that—unless you’re just testing the waters before the whole family bursts in the door to ‘surprise’ me.” Memphis just smiled at me and I felt my stomach fall through the floor. “Tell me you’re joking.”
He laughed. “That look on your face was priceless, but yes. I came alone.”
Relieved, I flopped onto the couch beside him and swiped my glass off the table. As much as I wanted to resist falling right back into an easy cadence with him, another part of me felt warmer by the minute as we reclaimed a tiny corner of the relationship we’d once shared.
“So, Boston is a lot colder than I expected it to be,” Memphis was clearly trying to keep our conversation on a casual, friendly level to avoid the proverbial elephant squished into my studio apartment.
“I was wearing flip-flops when I got off the plane,” he continued. “I had to stop and dig my sneakers out of my bag right there at the gate.”
“Memphis…” I said again. He took a sip of wine before he replied.
“Why are you here?”
“Don’t lie to me. Respect me enough to just tell me what I already know.”
There it was. I knew it. My mother was really packing a whole new line of tricks up her sleeve this year. She had not only upped the ante on the guilt trip, now she had gone so far as to bribe my best friend (aside from Fred) to fly all the way up to Boston in an attempt to drag me back to St. Augustine. I had to give it to her, she was really going all out this time. I felt a little flattered.
“I’m really sorry you got roped into this,” I told him. “You know I’ve been going around in circles with my family since…well…you know, since the last Christmas I was home. But I’m just not ready to go back there. You understand that, don’t you?” Memphis put his glass back on the table. His kept his gaze down, but I could still see the corner of his mouth twitch from his profile. I knew from experience that could only mean he was about to tell me something that I didn’t want to hear.
“To be honest,” he began, “no, I really don’t understand. You’ve shut them out for long enough, Bailey. I volunteered to come up here and talk to you because I think it’s time for you to stop blaming them for things that were out of their control. They miss you. They love you.”
I leaned back and draped my arm over the arm of the couch, gently stroking the top of Fred’s head with my thumb. He would never have betrayed me like this. He would never have switched to the dark side and come all the way up to Boston just to pick up a knife and use it to re-open a thousand old wounds.
My response was formed in the somewhat sober section of my mind, though it wasn’t without its intoxicated influences. I stood up without saying a word, took my glass to the kitchen sink, then went to fetch a blanket and pillow from the top of my closet. Memphis jumped to his feet and started rifling through the duffel bag he‘d left by the front door.
“Here.” I threw the blanket and pillow onto the couch.
“Bailey, hold on.” He pulled a long envelope out of the pocket of his bag and turned to face me. “They sent a plane ticket. A window seat on the one-thirty flight from Logan to JIA tomorrow. Right next to me.”
He held the ticket out, I crossed my arms.
“It gets cold in here at night,” I responded. “I recommend socks.”
“Fine.” He put the ticket on my kitchen counter. “Sleep on it and we’ll talk it over in the morning.”
“Feel free to make yourself a cup of coffee before you leave for the airport tomorrow,” I snapped. “Goodnight.”
With that, I turned on my heels and realized that studio apartments are not conducive to dramatic exits. I had no choice but to stomp into the bathroom and slam the door behind me. It wasn’t until I curled up in the corner by my space heater that my whole body started to shake and the tears began to fall.
More emotions than I was capable of feeling raced through my veins as I sat in the dark with my knees drawn to my chest. Not all of the emotions were bad and not all were good, but every one of them was a reason for why I had not been home in four years.
Outside the door, I heard Memphis shuffle around before he settled on the sofa and turned out the light. Beyond the thin walls of my apartment, cars slid by beneath the gentle curtain of snow that had started to fall just after dusk. I was thankful for their noises as well as those of my neighbors, otherwise I might have been just crazy enough to sit there, holding my breath, and hoping to hear the low hum of Memphis’ light snore. I missed that snore.
When I felt certain the coast was clear, I slipped out of the bathroom and beneath the sheets of my bed. Just as I was almost across the horizon into the haze of sleep, a faint buzzing noise caught my attention. On my nightstand, my cell phone was ablaze and dangerously close to throwing itself off the edge with its jarring vibrations. I snatched it up, and, still half-asleep, pressed the receiver to my ear.
“Bailey,” the familiar voice called to me from several oceans, deserts, and war zones away, “can you hear me?”
“Brandon!” I shot up in bed so fast I felt dizzy. “Brandon! Oh my God, how are you?” I could hear his weak smile through the phone line. I climbed out of bed and crept back into the bathroom for some privacy.
“I’m alright,” he said. “Maybe a little homesick.”
“Oh, Brandon,” I whispered, “I wish you were here.”
“Not half as much as I do,” he told me. “Did I wake you? What time is it there?”
“Oh it’s—” I glanced at the clock, it was almost three in the morning. “It’s not that late. I wasn’t asleep.”
“Good,” he said. “So…what’s new?”
Ha, I thought. Well our best friend is sleeping on the couch in my living room right now because our family sent him all the way up here to drag me back home because I might be losing my mind…
“Not much,” I told him. “Just, you know, work and stuff. Nothing exciting.”
“Are you at home? Is it hot? I hope it’s not hot. I bet you’re probably missing some fantastic snow in Boston.”
“Uh, I’m actually in Boston and it is snowing.” I crept over to the tiny bathroom window and peeked out. “It’s pretty heavy, we’ll probably get a few inches. Maybe a foot.”
“Oh man, I’m so jealous,” he said. “Will that affect you flying home then? I assume you’re leaving tomorrow.”
“Well…no. I was actually thinking of staying here for Christmas.”
“What? That’s crazy!”
“Not you, too! Please Brandon.” I slid down the wall into a heap on the floor. “You know what it’s like! I’m not ready to face their insanity again. I still have a twitch in my eye from the last time I was home for the holidays.” Brandon’s laugh may have been a million miles away, but it still made me feel warm inside.
“I do know what it’s like,” he said. “But I’ve got to tell you, Bailey, being here has made me appreciate a lot of things I took for granted before. They may be a few collective french fries short of a Happy Meal, but they are our family. I would give anything to be with them right now.”
“Clearly, you’ve become delusional,” I replied. “Should I send some home videos to refresh your memory of the people we’re talking about here?”
“Hey, I need just as much therapy as you do, don’t get me wrong. But it’s just one event. One holiday. One time to be with them and just be thankful that you have a family to love you and hug you and share in the joy of the holiday season.”
“Did you get that off a greeting card?”
“Bailey! I’m being serious here. I know it’s corny, but it’s still true. You belong at home for Christmas.”
“Brandon, if you want to be serious, let’s be serious,” I told my twin brother. “I’m not going home. Period. Now you only get fifteen minutes on the phone, so let’s not waste any more time on this subject, please.”
“Actually, I get ten minutes at the holidays, so my time is almost up,” he said. My heart sank.
“Dammit,” I muttered. “It’s never enough.”
“Listen to me, okay? If you won’t go home for yourself, to heal your own wounds, then go home to heal mine.”
“Bailey, I have to go. I want to be there so badly and I want you to go in my place. Be my eyes and ears, Sis. I need you! Just say you’ll do it.”
“Say yes! I’m hanging up!”
The phone went dark in my hand. I punished it by sending it on a return trip to the same pile of dirty clothes that I’d tossed it into earlier that morning.
I could ignore a lot of people. I could stand up for myself and stick to my guns and hold my own in a lot of situations. I could tell myself that Fred and I were happy together and that my life in Boston was exactly as I wanted it to be. I could get up every morning and force myself not to think about the loose ends that I left behind four years ago—even the one who was sleeping on my couch at that very moment.
But I spent that entire night wondering if I could possibly ignore my brother, Brandon.
My bag was packed by daybreak.
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