I felt like death warmed over the next day. Even worse than the hangover was the thought that I had said something weird or unseemly to Janet. Had I really told her that I was in love with her, or had I just thought it? I couldn’t be sure. I checked my phone for messages from her, but there was nothing. I knew I was going to have to call her soon. But not just yet.
I spent the morning nursing my hangover with cold water and dry toast. I bounced back relatively quickly, but I still felt like crap. When I was in my 20s, I would have shrugged off that drunk like it was a mosquito bite. Even into my 30s I was able to tie one on without completely killing myself. However, at 42 years of age, I couldn’t keep up that pace. Fortunately, last night had been an anomaly – I just wasn’t that interested in getting hammered. Thank God.
The big effort for the day was going to be getting over to Vancouver to pick up Auntie Eunice’s car. It would have been easy enough to call someone to give me a ride, but I really didn’t want any of my friends to know what I was up to. I didn’t actually need to borrow the car; mine was fine with the trash bag taped over the window. I just wanted a different car so I could follow Malcolm without being spotted.
I started to feel guilty about the whole endeavor. I was going behind my buddy’s back, with his girlfriend. It wasn’t like cheating. Not exactly, not yet. It still just sat wrong.
I pushed those thoughts out of my head – I was already feeling bad enough without examining the metaphysical implications of my behavior. Instead, I focused on figuring out how to bus it to Vantucky to pick up the car. As I expected, it would be a pain in the ass: I had to catch a bus to downtown, then take the express that crossed the Columbia River, and then take another bus to get to Eunice and Rolf’s. It took damn near two hours. By the time I got there, my stomach had settled but my head was pounding. I just wanted to grab the car and go, but I was obligated to do some family visiting. I begged off the invitation to stay to dinner, got the keys to the Mercedes and headed back to the Beaver State.
The car was a tank: a four-door 1983 300SD, with a gross mustard-yellow paint job. It had a diesel engine, which prompted a lecture from Uncle Rolf on all of the things I had to do to start it running properly – up to but not excluding sacrificing a chicken to the gods of Teutonic automotive design. I got it back to the apartment, but decided to park it a couple of blocks away, to avoid anyone’s notice. I was really going Secret Squirrel on this. I was a little hesitant about leaving it parked on the street, but figured that since I could barely get the thing started with the key in the ignition, the odds of someone stealing it were pretty slim.
When I got back to the apartment, I noticed that Janet had called but she hadn’t left a message. My heart sped up a little, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to talk to her. What, exactly, had I said to her? I seemed to recall telling her that I was in love with her, or something very close to that. Also, I had just left her hanging when I went to puke and then passed out. I couldn’t image that she would be that happy with me today.
On the other hand, she hadn’t been so unhappy that she wasn’t willing to give me a call, so I took that as a good sign. I got a large glass of water – using the same monster cup I had been drinking from the night before – and sat down to try and drown the remnants of the hangover. The physical symptoms were gone; now I just felt like a shit sandwich without the bread, as the saying goes. What I really needed now was a good ten hours’ sleep.
And I knew that I would have a hell of a lot of trouble sleeping if I didn’t talk with Janet. I chugged the rest of the water, took a leak, and called her number. It rang a bunch of times, and I was about to relax when she picked up.
“Hi, it’s Carlos,” I said. “Look, about last night . . .”
“Was a horrible movie,” she said with a laugh.
I relaxed a little. If she was going to make fun of crappy Rob Lowe movies, she couldn’t be too pissed at me.
“Are you okay?” she asked. “You sounded pretty rough last night.”
“I’m okay,” I said. “And yeah, I was pretty hammered last night. Not my finest moment. I may have said some stuff that I didn’t really mean.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it too much, Carlos. To be honest, I didn’t understand half the stuff you said anyway. But you did sort of trail off there and you stopped talking.”
“Ugh,” I said. “I kinda passed out. Like I said, not my finest moment. Sorry.”
“You must have been pretty drunk. That’s not like you, is it? I can’t remember you ever getting really drunk at any of the meetups or parties.”
“Yeah, and now I remember why,” I said. “Today has been pretty awful.” I was surprised that she had ever noticed my behavior at any of the social events we had attended together. Surprised and rather pleased.
“So why were you so drunk last night?” she asked. “You definitely don’t seem like the solitary drinker type to me.”
“I’m not, I’m not. I hadn’t planned on doing much of anything last night. But I got to thinking about this situation with Malcolm, and some of the things you told me. And some of the things I’ve experienced myself. The more I thought, the more agitated I got, and I ended up thinking a drink would, y’know, help settle my nerves. I hadn’t really had anything to eat, and the booze just got on top of me. I was trying to get up a little Dutch courage to call Malcolm. When he didn’t pick up, I decided to call you.”
“Oh,” she said. “I was wondering about that. I didn’t know what to think when you just sorta stopped talking. I thought you’d hung up on me or something.”
“Not a chance!” I said. “It was just . . . well, I kinda passed out.”
“Oh! That’s a relief! I thought you were mad at me. To tell the truth, I was pretty mad at you for a while. Then I figured that you were too nice of a guy to do something like that.”
A warning buzzer went off in my head: she’d called me a “nice guy,” and we all know that nice guys finish last. If she said I was like a brother, I was sunk.
“You’re half right,” I said. “I wouldn’t do that, true. But I’m not a nice guy.” Nice guys don’t spy on their best friends and try to snake their girlfriends.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “You’re a very nice guy. And sweet, too.”
I felt like that “brother” comparison was coming, and wanted to change the subject. “Have you talked to Malcolm?” I asked.
She sighed. “Yes, I finally got hold off him this morning. He said he was really sorry about not showing up on Friday, but he had some sort of family crisis. I think his father is sick or something. He wasn’t very clear about it, and I didn’t feel comfortable pushing him on it.”
“Because I didn’t believe him,” she said. “I . . . I think he was lying to me.” Her voice hitched a little on that. “I think he was out . . . doing whatever he’s been doing. Whatever that is.”
“How did he sound?”
“Like he was happy, but was trying to sound sad. He really didn’t sound like he was worried about his father.”
That was a near-certainty. I was pretty sure that Malcolm had at one point told me that his father had died shortly before Ronald Reagan left office. He had definitely told me that he was not close to his family, and that they hardly ever talked. It wasn’t impossible that he’d blown off Janet because of a family emergency, but it didn’t seem likely. I told Janet all of this.
“What are we going to do?” she asked.
“Well, I guess we’re going to do what we discussed in the coffee shop,” I said. “I guess I’m going to spy on him.”
“When you say it that way, it sounds so, I dunno, sleazy.”
“It kind of is,” I said. “Hate to say it, but we might as well be honest about it.”
“Yes,” she said. “If Malcolm were honest with me, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I need my man to be honest.”
Another ambiguous statement. Or maybe I was reading too much into it. Wishful thinking can cloud the mind powerfully. I said, “Let me ask you something, Janet: what do you want to get out of this whole song and dance? What is the optimal outcome for you?”
There was a long pause. “I . . . I don’t really know anymore,” she said. “Last week, at the coffee shop, I would have told you that I just wanted things to go back to how they were. Like when Malcolm and I first, y’know, got serious. Now, I just don’t think it’s possible. Still, I’m worried. I still care about him, and think he’s gotten himself into some sort of trouble, and we need to help him.”
It wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to hear, but it was good enough for right now.
“I’m worried about him, too,” I said. “I’m just not sure how much help our little, um, scheme is actually going to be.”
“What do you mean?” she asked. “You’re not thinking of backing out, are you?”
“No, not at all,” I replied. “But there’s only so much, ah, surveillance that I’m going to be able to do. First, I’ve got a nine-to-five job, so I’m not going to be able to do anything then. Second, Malcolm’s primary mode of transportation is his bike. It’s going to be hard to follow him around unnoticed in a car. I’ve actually gotten hold of another car, so he won’t recognize it. Still, it’s not going to be easy. Also, I still feel pretty crummy about the whole thing.”
“Oh, Carlos, you have to do this. I don’t know what else to do!”
“Have you thought about just asking him?” I asked, then mentally added, After all, you are sleeping with him.
“I’ve tried!” she cried. “I really have! But whenever I bring up questions about where he’s been or why he’s skipped out on our plans, he gets angry. Like, really angry.”
“Okay, look, I’ll do as I said” I said. “However, the only time I’m going to be able to ‘keep an eye’ on Malcolm is when he leaves his shift at the shelter. He works from one to six on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I get off work at five, and I pretty much have to drive past Oldtown on my way home, anyway. So I can scope him when he’s coming off his shift. Beyond that, however, I don’t know what to do.” I certainly had no intention of spending my weekends parked outside his apartment, waiting for him to emerge, and holding a newspaper up to conceal my face.
“I think that’s a good place to start, Carlos,” she said. “I’m pretty sure that whatever he’s up to, it has something to do with his work at the shelter. He didn’t show for our date Friday night; he was supposed to come right over from there.”
“Okay, okay, I’m not saying I’m not going to do it. Just – don’t get your hopes up is all I’m saying. I’ll start tomorrow night.”
“Oh, thank you!” she said. “You’re a good friend, Carlos – and a good man.”
“I aims to please,” I said. “If anything happens, I’ll let you know.”
I resisted the urge to chat some more. It felt like the hangover was boomeranging back on me, and I really just wanted to drink some more water and go to bed. I said my goodbyes and did just that.