That was how I decided to start spying on my best friend. I sat on the whole idea for a day or three, turning the conversation with Janet over in my head. What was she looking to get out of the situation? What was I looking to get out of the situation?
I had to admit to myself that I was very attracted to Janet Dunkel. There were elements of our talk in the coffee shop that seemed very flirt-y to me. And that final hug before we parted definitely seemed like more than a friendly thank-you squeeze. Was she looking for an excuse to ditch Malcolm? If she did, did I have a shot? Or was I reading too much into the situation? That had happened before.
On the other hand, she certainly did seem concerned about Malcolm. I was too. But to be honest, other than being a little grouchier and more secretive than usual, there didn’t seem to be that much wrong with him. Neither of us had encountered him drunk or drugged up; he hadn’t turned up covered in blood. In fact, when I looked back on my last visit with him, the only time the conversation got tense was when we were talking about Janet.
Two nights later, I was home alone, bored, bummed, confused. In an unsurprising display of bad judgment, I decided to get drunk. I’m not a big drinker, and usually there’s nothing more than a few skunky bottles of Heineken in the fridge. I remembered that there was probably a few fingers of bourbon left in a bottle of Jack Daniels that I had gotten as a birthday present last May. I dug it out of the cupboard above the fridge. It actually had more booze in it than I had remembered – nearly 2/3rds full. I spun off the cap and took a healthy gulp.
It wasn’t that healthy: I started coughing and choking as the neat liquor seared down my gullet. I was not a big whiskey drinker, and I clearly wasn’t going to be able to take many more knocks straight out of the bottle. I was going to need a mixer. I shrugged on my coat and set out to the little bodega down the street.
When I got there, Hassan was behind the counter, as usual. He was a surly Jordanian of indeterminate age, and he was always behind the counter – which explained the surliness. He didn’t even look up as I came in, as he was too engrossed in the TV set bolted to the wall. It was just finishing up the local news: more violent protests downtown, another suspected Freddy murder in Oldtown, continuing rain through the weekend. You know, the typical uplifting content of modern local news. I bought a jug of Coke and a frozen burrito to soak up the alcohol. I grabbed a bag of chips on the way to pay Hassan, who conducted the entire transaction without taking his eyes from the TV screen.
Back home, I popped the burrito in the microwave and mixed a cocktail in the largest cup in the cupboard. I started binge-watching episodes of the long-running prime time cartoon Boscoville on Netflix and taking huge gulps of my drink. I was so engrossed in the show that I didn’t hear the microwave ding. When I remembered the burrito, it was nearly stone cold. I took two bites, threw it in the trash, and kept drinking.
By the middle of the third episode, I was good and drunk, and tired of Boscoville. The feeling of euphoria that had ramped up after the first several sips was retreating. Behind it was something dark and unpleasant. In an effort to stave it off, I picked up my phone.
I stared at it for a few moments, trying to decide who to call. I know who I wanted to call, but I still had enough good judgment left (for now) to push that thought aside. Instead, I called my Aunt Eunice, who lived across the river in Vancouver, Washington. She agreed to lend me her second car while mine was getting the window replaced. I told her I’d come by the following afternoon to pick it up.
I didn’t really need her car. In fact, I had just taped a garbage bag over my broken window and forgotten about it. I really wanted another car so I could follow Malcolm without being spotted.
This thought sent me into a spiral of guilt and resentment. Was I really doing this? And why was I doing this? Was I doing it because I was attracted to Janet, or because of my friend might be in trouble? Deep down, I knew that the answer was probably both. Janet aside, I knew Malcolm well enough to know that he wouldn’t reach out for help if he did get himself in a jam. He wasn’t what I’d call egotistical, but he was also rather proud of his intellect. It was perfectly reasonable to believe that he wouldn’t ask for help for fear of appearing foolish.
I got up and mixed another quart-sized cocktail. I ripped open the bag of chips and shoved a handful in my mouth, washed them down with the drink. I was starting to get really lit now. I put on some Nirvana, but the music just seemed irritating, so I turned it off. Then I just sat in silence and drank.
My mind swirled: Malcolm, Janet; Janet, Malcolm. Spying on Malcolm. Falling in love with Janet. That last thought seemed hyperbolic and ridiculous, but I couldn’t push it away. The whole situation was ridiculous. Would I really sacrifice my relationship with my best friend – a man I had known nearly twenty years – for the sake of a woman? My immediate reaction was no, but was that a truthful response?
I continued to drink and started to get angry. Why had I been put in this position? I had nothing to do with any of this. It was those two who were manufacturing all the drama, and dragging me into it. It was bullshit.
Fuck it, I thought and reached for the phone again. All of this drama was about maneuvering around Malcolm and his behavior and his damn secrecy. Too much trouble. Time to just have it out with him, man-to-man.
I tried dialing his number, but the screen was getting fuzzy. I mis-dialed and got a pizza joint. I actually thought about ordering, as the burrito thing hadn’t worked out, but then my stomach took a little lurch and I hung up. I redialed and got the right number, but it rang a bunch of times and went to voice mail. I cursed and tried again. This time, it went immediately to voice mail. The bastard was screening my call.
Well, fuck you, too, pal, I thought. Goddammit, if he was going to act like a dick, then I didn’t care if he was up to his neck in hock to some Sinaloan drug cartel. I was trying to help the sumbitch, and he was screening my calls.
That sly voice in the back of my head, now louder due to the amplifying effects of the booze, said, Are you trying to help him, or are you just trying to get into Janet’s pants?
But was I really acting the hound here? Hell, she was the one who reached out to me. I didn’t ask her to come to the show. I didn’t even want any of my friends to know about it. Malcolm had been the one to tell her. It was kind of his fault.
I picked the phone up again, scrolled to Janet’s number and dialed. I figured that the odds of her being home or otherwise unengaged on a Saturday night were pretty slim. However, she picked up on the second ring.
“Carlos!” she said. “Thank God! I was thinking about calling you. I’ve been so worried!”
This was gratifying. “You can call me any time,” I said, trying hard not to slur my words. “What’s going on?”
“It’s Malcolm,” she said.
Of course, I thought. It’s always Malcolm.
“What about Malcolm?” I said. I was starting to lose track of what was going on. The room wobbled a little bit.
“We were supposed to get together last night,” she said. “Y’know, Netflix and chill, at my place. I waited and waited, but he never showed up. I tried calling. I’ve been calling ever since, but he doesn’t pick up.”
“Yeah, I know. I just tried calling him. The fucker screened my call. Fuck him. If he doesn’t want our help, just fuck him.” My vision had narrowed down to an angry purple spot, currently focused on the blank TV screen.
“Carlos, are you okay?” she asked. “You sound really weird.”
“Well, no, not really,” I said. “I’m not okay at all. My best friend is up to something he won’t tell me about, and it may be trouble, and I also think that I’m in love with his girlfriend.”
Whoops, did I really say that?
There was a long pause on the line. “Carlos, have you been drinking?” asked Janet.
“Yesh,” I said. “I may have taken a wee nip, to help with the thought processes.”
“I can tell. You’re not making any sense!”
“Wrong, baby, wrong!” I said loudly. “I’m making perfect sense. I’ve never felt more sensible in my life! In fact . . .”
My stomach took a tremendous lurch, and I knew I had about four seconds. “Hold on, shweetheart,” I said. I tossed my phone on the couch, staggered to my feet and lurched down to the bathroom, just making it before a huge glurt of cocktail and junk food came bolting out the hatch. It seemed to go on forever. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see my shoelaces come up.
I must have passed out, because the next thing I remember I was sort of coming to with my head against the cool porcelain of the toilet bowl. I pushed myself shakily to my feet and staggered back to the couch. The phone line was dead. No idea how long I’d been out. I tried squinting at the screen, but I couldn’t read the numerals on the time display. I flopped back to the couch and was immediately dead to the world.