Amnesia and ample complications follow what may or may not have been a one-night stand.
Ruben awoke to a soft swooshing sound in one ear and the lazy, irregular beating of his heart in the ear pressed to the pillow. On opening his eyes, he discovered the source of the swooshing: gauzy orange curtains breathing with the breeze and scratching against the surface of the sill. Faint light pushed into the room with each exhale. He felt warmth behind him and rolled over to see a woman coiled tightly in sheets and a blanket textured like Golden Grahams. It was no one he knew, certainly not well enough to be waking up beside her
When Ruben sat up to look around, his weight shifted the woman's body toward him. She felt very warm, he noticed. Suddenly conscious of his body, he realized he was nude and free of any covering; it suited his luck to pick up a blanket-thief for a one-night stand. Her back toward him, he knew her as a tangle of black hair erupting from the sheets. Figuring the night before had something to do with them being there, he thought of it, but gently. Memories of a beach and a bonfire featured prominently, but he only remembered the trip toward them. Significantly, and with throbbing regret, he also recalled a bottle of rot-gut rum bouncing into his knee in time with his stride.
After that, the night played out in a series of snapshot flashbacks: eager, excited faces sticky with sweat all blurred and about to slip out of frame. A hangover now snarling against the inside of his head, the images started to make him queasy. The magnitude of his pain convinced him sex either didn't happen or didn't go well. Still, here he was and there she was.
Throwing his legs over the side, Ruben decided getting dressed made as much sense as anything. He pinched his eyes to stop the throbbing and scanned the floor. He ran the numbers: shirt, check; one sock, one to go; pants, pants….pants? With his pants refusing to answer roll, he stood to grab his shirt, a ball of wadded cotton next to a table – and next to an empty fifth. Lips smacking to force down a gush of saline, he sat down and reached for the nearest sock with his foot.
“Hey,” he rasped. Goose-bumps rising on his arms, he grunted, “Hey, wake up…you.”
She stirred a little, but didn't say anything. He didn’t push the issue directly; he stood, thankful that his stomach stayed in place, and searched the room with deliberate, yet plausible, clumsiness. Hidden among the top-sheet wadded on the floor, he discovered his pants, but still couldn't find the other sock. The woman slept through it all, even an ironing board scraping down the side of a wall and thudding into the back of a chair.
He had a sense of the room by now. It was a motel room, and it looked and smelled like a bad one. He opened the curtains to let in the sun. Still no luck: an expanse of gray filled the window with the stillness of concrete. Ruben slapped his butt, partially to check for his wallet and partially to shake away the chill.
“Hey,” he said again, his voice rock-tumbler rough in the attempt to keep it quiet “I’m going to go out and get some food and coffee. You want anything?” The woman still didn't stir. “All right. Back in – hic! – damn!. Back in a jiffy. Don’t lock the door or anything, OK? I’ve still got a sock in here.”
Loathe as he was to wear shoes without socks, his inability to find it combined with the weather to make a real dilemma. The thought of pulling off clammy shoes finally won out: Ruben, deciding he would make the trip barefoot, pulled off his one sock. Savoring the springy carpet for as long as it lasted, he pulled open the front door and, which separated from the frame with a pop that sent the chipped paneling rattling.
Well-calloused as his feet were, it wasn't enough to keep off the cold as he padded along a walkway that extended the length of the hotel; it didn't help that cold air chilled the rest of him as it poured through his shirt like fishnets. He got hit with a wind-tunnel effect when he rounded the corner into the gap between the two buildings that made up the motel. Ruben cursed his luck at following her back to her place instead of dragging her back to his - assuming that's what happened. He built up his nerve by focusing on breakfast. And coffee; he'd be damned before he forgot coffee.
Lights glowed from what looked like a small coffee shop that sat on a corner light about 500 yards from the hotel. Shocked as he was to see 7 a.m. flashing in black, block LED, it comforted him to know he wouldn't have to deal with a crowd. He stepped inside the shop – making a decided effort to look away from the “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” sign - where he found the shop's small sitting area populated only by a fat man sporting flannel and a bulbous, gin-blossom nose. Behind the counter, he spotted a young, lanky man, who turned when the electric-eye triggered the “beep.” When he saw Ruben, he grinned widely and leaned forward onto the counter.
“Hi.” Ruben played dumb, generally. “Ah, how 'bout two cups of coffee?” His voice hadn't improved.
“Hey Ruben,” he replied. “I can’t believe you’re walking this early.” The clerk's long arms moved fluidly from the cups to the urn, where one cup after the other went under the spout without shutting it off. He palmed two lids sleight-of-hand style and slipped them on the cups eyeing Ruben any time a task didn't demand his full attention; the grin had yet to slip. Finally, he put the two coffees between them on the counter and said, “You don’t remember me, do you? It’s Chris. Do you remember the bonfire at least?”
“Yeah.” Ruben stalled as embarrassment prickled into his scalp. “OK, no, man, can’t say as I do.” A knot of gunk suddenly topped his throat, causing convulsive dry coughs. Recovering, he continued. “Um, fun night, huh?”
“It was all right,” Chris replied, as though unconcerned with the fit. His fingers darting to the keys on the register, he continued sotto voce, “I’m guessing the two cups means you got together with that chick. Look, you’re halfway to being a gent; bring it on home with some food, right?”
“Um.” Food hadn't crossed his mind since stepping inside and the selection - muffin, muffin, scone, muffin – sounded close to mouthfuls of dry flour. “Look, uh, Chris. You've been here, right? I'm tired and damn close to sick, let's just call it the coffee, I’ll get out of here and, god willing, back into bed.”
“Yeah, I usually go for grease, too, but that we don't have.” Chris turned away from Ruben and slouched against the counter to study the menu. “Don't know why the tourists like the morning pastry stuff so much. Or maybe it's us who think they like 'em.” With Ruben on the verge of throwing down money and walking away, Chris suddenly said, “Eh, you're right, man. Just take the coffee and take Chloe out to breakfast.”
“Great,” Ruben reached for his wallet. “What do I owe you? Wait, Chloe?” “$4 even,” Chris' expression advanced to a smirk. “And that's that girl's name.” Chris slipped Ruben's $10 bill in the drawer and slickly returned six ones. “You're lucky you didn't wake up next to a dude named Chuck after last night. What the hell did you get into?”
Heat prickling at his scalp again, Ruben shrugged dumbly and grinned even dumber. He organized everything quickly as he could and made for the door with Chris' smirk showing him the exit.
Walking across the street, he couldn't believe his luck. Just knowing her name gave him a boost: he might have faked his way through far trickier scenes, but he felt relieved that meeting Chris spared them both from playing the game of drawing out her name. Whether or not they had sex, even the attempt would have been something she would remember. Or might remember. What he remembered now, though, was his list of his minor offenses: a “rap sheet” of petty assaults (never against anyone unable/unwilling to fight back) and a few instances of being too helpful to the kids (“contributing to the delinquency of a minor” in legal parlance). He was no prize, he knew, but good things can come to anyone.
The door opened, to his relief, and the woman – Chloe, he repeated in his head, her name is Chloe – still lay wrapped in sheets. She looked like she hadn’t moved, which gave him more time to come online. Chris knew her, which made it unlikely she was a tourist. Ruben also assumed it wasn’t her hotel. And it wasn’t his, either. Looking at his bare feet again, he considered leaving the cup of coffee with a note and heading back to his hotel; providing, with a promise to return seemed like a nice move. That still left finding his sock, which would let him put hon his shoe, which would make for a warmer walk to his hotel. And the sock was still – or at least presumably – in the room.
It occurred to him, then, that he hadn’t checked the bathroom. He opened the door and finally lost control of his stomach.
Blood, blood, blood: the word pounded in his ears as he bolted for the toilet. He knelt over the bowl with his face shoved an unpalatable depth inside and propped up on shaking forearms. Nauseous as the sick and swirling water made him, his horror at all the blood topped it. Finally, Ruben panted and spit and recovered enough to sit on his heels. Shivering from cold, shock, and the bout of vomiting he heard rain pouring down outside. He thought of nothing for a while and let the sound wash over his ears.
Finally composed, he looked around slowly. It wasn’t a large bathroom: a free-standing sink rose so close to the toilet he didn't know how he avoided it on his way to throwing up. Opposite the sink, a frosted glass door covered a stand-up shower recessed into the wall. Toward the top of the shower door he could see where bloody fingers started a long, heavy drag down the inside of the glass. Around where the water would hit the door, the smears faded into big, circular smears, signs perhaps of a half-assed clean-up.
When he turned toward the sink, Ruben saw what had first caught his eye: towels wadded and coiled like bloody brains on the rim of the sink. They dripped a watery brown-red that diluted the ends of large, sweeping stains that went toward and away from the base of the sink. An effort to maintain balance on a wet, slippery floor sent one big smear toward the door and another back toward the shower.
This detailed circuit of the room went a good distance toward calming Ruben's fear that he had spent the night a few feet from a murder scene. New knots wrenched into his stomach when it dawned on him that he still hadn't had a decent look at the girl – Chloe, he reminded himself. He had no clue of her state beyond knowing she was warm when he awoke beside her.
“Oh, Jesus,” he whispered as he stood and turned to the door.
He first jarred the door open, but he couldn't see her well with light from the window backlighting her. He slipped into the room slowly, his eyes studying Chloe for any sign of consciousness, until he leaned over the bed. Little caked trails of blood snaked over the surface of her pillow under the great, dark tangles of hair and a large spot spread at the bottom of the pillow and the bed beneath. He swallowed hard and maneuvered to the chairs beside the table. He sat down lightly on one of them and reviewed his options.
There was, of course, just walking away. With her asleep, it seemed the obvious choice, especially given that his car couldn't be far away. in a town this small. He straightened his leg to reach into his pockets for his key. He pulled it out gently and saw the name, “Our Place at the Beach,” with an address helpfully written below. His car keys, on the other hand, were nowhere lost, perhaps along with his sock – or probably back at his hotel.
He curled his fingers around his room key and looked at the girl again. He thought of leaving, then thought of how she looked, how bad she might be hurt, and, before long, Ruben found himself just looking at her. Like him, she wasn't small: her body curved high into the blankets, but with a sort of alluring solidity. Her cream-in-coffee agreed very well with her shiny, corkscrew hair, he thought, relaxing into the chair a little – and, suddenly, the ironing board behind him crashed to the floor.
She sucked in a deep breath at the sound and finally stirred. Ruben tensed, hovering just over the seat of the chair. His heart racing and consumed in the moment, panic erased any and all coherent thought.
“Hey,” he stammered hoarsely, his thoughts spinning in useless circles after a name he had known only seconds before. A dueling, monosyllabic Greek chorus shouted louder and louder in his head, with each “shit!” answered by “run!” He rediscovered speech before her name came back to him. “Hey...you?”
She responded by drawing a deep breath. Short, worried breaths followed, sounding as if she was trying to clear air – or clotted blood, more likely - from her nose. Her eyes flickered and pulled against tangled lashes until she finally pried her eyes open. Blinking, she looked dazedly around the room. She groaned and attempted to raise herself shifting from one elbow to the other. Ruben rose from his seat inching toward the bed, his hands reaching out in his best interpretation of a calming gesture.
“Oh,” she moaned. “Oh my god…”
“Hi, you probably don’t remem…”
“Oh my god...what happened?” Her breath shortened into panting. She didn't gather the sheets as she sat up topless. When she touched her hand to her cheek her mouth fell open in a deep lament. “Oh! Ow, ow, ow…oh my god, oh my fucking god, ow!”
“OK, OK,” Ruben pleaded now, sensing volcanic danger. “Hi...again. I'm Ruben and I think we met last night. This isn't my place. I mean, this isn't my hotel room and I don't know how you got here or who you are...don't yell, please, don't yell...”
“Ruben?” Chloe bellowed over his last word. “Did you do this to me?”
“What?” The air flushed abruptly away from his brain. “Wait! No!” His panic tumbled out in a torrent of gibberish. “OK, no, I don't know...wait, please calm down, I'm really fucking freaked out! I mean, I don't remem...calm down!” Ruben rose from the seat and, with hands extended toward her, he started inching toward the door. “Shh-shh-shh. Please, just for a second be quiet, please!”
A fist pounded into the wall somewhere around them, reverberating against whatever it hit; it could have been up, down, or either side. They froze. Each studied the other in the dead-air that followed. His heart bursting against his chest and his head throbbing, Ruben shot toward the door and yanked it without turning the handle, sending splinters of wood paneling flying. His feet clapped painfully against the pavement outside, but her deep, mad voice roared over it, chasing him the length of the walkway. He ran and gasped surrounded by what felt like loud sounds collapsing around him.
When Chloe knocked on the office door, Ruben leaned around the corner for a better view. From behind his wing of the motel, he saw a large man, likely in his 50s, but still bull-strong, casually open the door. A shock of alarm and anger flushed his face the second he noticed Chloe's bruises. He gently grabbed her shoulders and pleaded to see her face and studied it anxiously. Suddenly, his head jerked up and he shot glances side-to-side, scaring Ruben flat against the wall. Ruben heard only pieces of the conversation over his panicked rasp, catching words like “who” and “where.” The wind snatched away what sounded something like Chloe saying “forget it.” With that, Ruben dared another peek around the corner only to see him staring hard into her eyes and swearing he would “fix the son of a bitch” who did that to her.
What started as a fast walk burst into another dead sprint three doors down; Ruben only slowed down when the slapping of his feet seemed to echo too loudly. Downgrading to a fast walk, he winced through two blocks until he spat out his breath and huddled small on the far side of a building. Panting as he kicked out his legs, Ruben decided finally that general wisdom pointed to just walking away. Squeezing his hand into his pinched blue jeans pocket, he pulled out his room key and checked the address written under “Our Place at the Beach” again. Now that he was outside and with the adrenaline having chased away the fog, he had enough bearings to know where to go.
It took only five blocks to reach his hotel, but his feet ached from the cold and the hard gravelly sidewalk. Shaking from exhaustion and chill, he pushed aside the “Do Not Disturb” sign, forced in the key, and kicked open the door. His room barely improved on hers. Or the old man's; he still wasn't sure exactly where he stayed. Wherever he was, the welcome provided by a mostly-eaten burrito sitting like a festering park between a city-scape of empties didn't improve his mood or pride. The best news came when he noticed his clothes hadn't erupted far from his duffel. His supply of clean clothes had run out, on the other hand, which made a shower seem pointless.
Alternately throwing and stuffing, he packed quickly. Ruben rounded off dressing by crunching into a pair of stiff socks. He took a look at the room and felt compelled to clean up, starting with the empties. On the way to throwing away the burrito box, he glimpsed the back of his hand. It was the absence of any fresh scratches, bruises – any sign of damage – to his hands or knuckles that caught his attention: for the first time, he thought of the girl – Chloe, he reminded himself – and how she got hurt. Seeing only old scratches on his knuckles somehow failed to reassure him; he couldn't remember hitting her, but he couldn't remember anything else either. He glanced at his arms then, looking for any fresh damage, and his mind wandered to the night before.
When he stepped into the bathroom the present came rushing back in a hurry. With sinking panic, he realized that he could have told just about anyone where he was staying and, for the second time, he felt the smallness of the town. He understood too clearly that the present could start before his next breath in the form of loud, angry knocks pounded into the door by a thick-necked 50-year-old with menacing intentions to “fix him.” Hissing about his stupidity, Ruben quickly checked the hotel room, grabbed the room key from the table, and made for the door and checkout.
He opened the door to the office struggling to keep composed. Between an actual human beng behind the counter and the way news, shocking news especially, traveled in small towns quickly piled into a mass of anxiety. The dottily friendly, middle-aged woman behind the counter – who tied an apron under a fanny-pack, he noticed – seemed both delighted to have anyone to talk to and completely uninterested in ending the conversation. Ruben kept his eyes on the phone throughout the conversation: though still, he felt vibrations in it, as if it were poised like an alarm clock in the lost minute before it sounds.
Ruben stepped outside and into a circular state of paranoia. Conscious of the need to remain alert, he tried to keep tabs on his surroundings; he also knew that he looked deeply suspicious walking quickly with his head jerking in all directions: when striking a balance seemed impossible, he all but ran for his car. Once inside, he glimpsed at the rear-view mirror, locked the doors so he could sit for a while, try to calm the hell down. He spied his knuckles on the wheel again and tried to reconstruct the previous night – or, failing that, the day that lead to it.
He had arrived in the early afternoon, later than he wanted because he had spent all morning trying and failing to convince someone to go with him. He had settled into his room, waiting for the day to warm up with a six-pack of cheap beer and some Bruce Willis movie for company. Warmer weather hadn't arrived by three or four, so he pulled on his ratty baja sweater, stuffed one beer in a paper bag and another in his pocket, and headed for the beach. A couple families gutted out the gray day; a couple dipshit kids screamed and splashed in the foamy, gray-green surf, which made Ruben even colder as he watched them.
Draining his last beer, he decided to head to some Mexican joint he knew – El Compadre or something like that – hoping a big, electric-green margarita would taste enough like summer...
…and there was Chloe! He had met her at the restaurant!
Seeing him alone, she was flirty-friendly, but he didn't think anything of it, not even after she invited him to a party/bonfire on the beach that night. “You should come out,” he remembered her saying now. “It's just a bunch of people and a lot more alcohol.” It was cute the way she paused for effect. Having nothing else to do, playing coy didn't occur to him, which only left the question of whether they would meet at the bonfire or at the restaurant when she got off work. She replied with some crack about not dating strangers, so they agreed to meet at the bonfire.
Back in the present, he turned the ignition and idled to give his Ford a couple minutes to warm it up. Reviewing the whole thing, he never got the sense that she seemed wary or weird or psycho; a combination of innocent and lucky better described the encounter and the mood. He had left the restaurant after tipping her appropriately – which is to say heavily. He had walked away feeling a little flattered: he felt “dumpy” described him kindly and he hadn't shaved and he wore the natty baja sweater that was almost certainly stained with old food and god knows what else. Still, expectations for the evening didn't go beyond a little howling at the moon in fresh company.
A liquor-store pit-stop intervened on his way back to the hotel and he also picked up a forty from the strip-mall mini-mart a couple establishments from his hotel. Three idling hours had passed with a second Bruce Willis movie – must have been a marathon, an homage – and ended with some unmemorably random TV, an empty forty, plus a couple unmeasured belts of rum. Or perhaps more belts of rum: not surprisingly, he noticed the haze creeping in at this point in his memory. He sighed as the recollection of half-drank rum bouncing on his knee came back along with that blur of faces, all of them looking greasier now that he looked back at them from sober daylight.
His stomach growled a little then. Popping the car into reverse, he pulled out of the parking space and idled his car toward the exit. On reaching the street, he looked first to his right, where he saw a car, and then turned to check his left. There, immediately in his line of sight, he saw Chris, the guy from the coffee shop. Chris' eyes widened in recognition, but an expression Ruben recognized as starkly different replaced the morning's easy-going smirk; he didn't know what and, the familiar jitters returning, he didn't want to know.
“Hey!” Ruben heard Chris yell through the glass. “Hey!”
Ruben's foot punched down as if activated by the sound: he cranked the wheel to his right and punched the accelerator. He bolted into the far lane forcing the oncoming car to brake and weave out of his wild trajectory, but Ruben's attention remained on Chris, whose yells still sounded through the glass. Glancing at his mirror, he saw Chris standing behind, his arms raised in a grand, questioning gesture. The main thing Ruben felt was relief Chris wasn't chasing his car, or writing down his plates.
Physically, it was a short drive home – just over just over three hours of actual driving, but pit stops for pacing and pissing added another full hour to the trip. Time unfolded on two separate planes during the drive: the night before churned in his memory until it felt like he relived it virtually minute for minute, but, in the real world, he kept snapping out of his revelry when he passed through every town, all of them seeming to pop up one right after the other.
Time, in all senses, only stood still once and that was before he really started driving. He had stopped in the next town down the road, pulling into one of those ubiquitous family diners that somehow all serve the same food at the same inflated prices and with the same strengths and weaknesses. Even with nausea filling the empty hollow of his stomach, steak and eggs wasn't the right thing to order, not with the blood trickling from under the steak. Ruben filled up on as much toast as he could wash down with orange juice and coffee and picked at hashbrowns dipped in egg yolk. He sat for a full hour drinking cup after cup of bitter, watery coffee. Marveling at the way the steam dried out his eyes was his only thought of the present.
Somewhere in that hour, desperation to know what happened with Chloe took over. All the greasy faces, most of them smiling sloppily and all of them yelling in slurs, paraded back in his mind. Though able to compile a dozen faces – he even discovered Chris' in there – Chloe's face never came to him. Or when it did, it was the one he saw in the morning: her swollen lip and crooked nose; black, crusted blood sticking to her hair and flaked all over the left side of her face; those odd blood stains, dark red-brown around the edges and faded toward a washed-out brown-pink toward the middle, all over the pillow she slept on.
After paying his bill, he walked out to his car. He got in and, after backing his car away from the restaurant, he reached a point of perfect neutrality. He could turn the steering wheel right, head back to town, and talk to Chloe, to argue his case face-to-face and see what happens; turn the wheel left, and he's going to his home, his routine, and safe anonymity. After staring to the right a while, Ruben shoved the car back into drive – actually, back to the first gear he'd never used before – and drifted back into the parking space he had just left. He opened the door, got out of the car, and stared up the road for a while with his foot tapping rapidly on the sill of the door.
It was here time stopped.
It felt better, more proper in that moment, to walk the road back to the town; it was a sensation he felt, a kind of nervous energy jerking at his legs. Ruben never made the walk, let alone the drive, though he did go in and out of the spot at least one more time. Once he had started driving, he didn't turn back, but worked out the nerves by pacing at mini-marts and any rest areas he noticed on the rare occasions he was fully cognizant of the present.
He arrived home around dinner, and still not hungry, to an empty house. His roommate was probably staying with his girlfriend, a blessing given everything. After the longest shower in memory, he slumped into his room to unpack – which really amounted to dumping his suitcase over the pile of dirty laundry. It was already dark outside, but even with the clock reading only 9:30, he proceeded to undress for bed. In the process of emptying his pockets, he checked his back left one, which he rarely used, where he discovered a slip of paper. He knew it was Chloe's phone number the second his hand touched it. He unfolded it still and found a simple note, only a name and a number, both written in the quick, legible scrawl of a professional waitress.
Ruben laid down then, not so much to sleep as to stare at the ceiling. Sleep must have come at some point, though any clear distinction between waking and sleeping eluded him. Somewhere in there, whether alseep or awake, Chloe's face finally surfaced. He remembered a ramble of small-talk, most of it centered on their friends and what felt like a funny argument about whose were more fucked up. She smiled a lot, at least as he recalled, and laughed. A pretty girl, he thought – or maybe remembered – with smooth, cream-in-coffee skin that matched so nicely with that wild thicket of hair. Overall, she recalled something exotic, Egyptian maybe, her small eyes made distinct and impressive by thick lashes and her lips full. The some lips felt strong, even as they yielded, gracefully he recalled, in the way they parted when, finally, he leaned in to kiss her.