It was supposed to have been a night out with the warehouse guys. But it had toked into a night out with myself, stoned beyond my gourd’s capacity, and lost in the shadowy darkness of Hank’s Scripps Ranch condo complex. Befuddled there in the street, or the alley – or whatever they call those fake thoroughfares than run through these private complexes – I realized I was lost, and I could not even recall from which direction I’d come. Where had Hank gotten this outrageously potent herb? Had it really been that long since I’d had a toke or three? Why did I ever agree to this night in the first place? And why did my face feel like it wanted to fly away from my head? My heart was racing, my fingertips were stretching, skull pulsating, my thoughts were elevated electrically, all my senses were buzzing. Again, if only Karen could have seen this; she might have had no problem dumping my young and directionless corpus right then and there. I stood on the asphalt, as dark underfoot as the sky above, and I gawked around helplessly. It all looked the same: every building, every unit, in every direction seemed identical fingers on the same endless hand, and I had not the slightest inclination which way to move. And I certainly couldn’t remember the number on Hank’s building, I couldn’t remember my own phone number at that point. I stumbled ahead (not even knowing if it really were ahead), my eyes paranoid and darting around, up and down, and then…I caught sight of the tiger.

I’ve read reports that estimate there are more than ten thousand tigers being kept, essentially, as private pets in the U.S. Supposedly there are more tigers in private captivity in Texas than in all the wilds of the world. The loon star state. I’ll wager that most of those poor creatures are on one of those “hunting” ranches, where big-bellied oil executives and developmentally decapitated zillionaires pay top dollar to shoot a big cat while it’s cornered against chain-link fence.

Luckily the tiger I saw was only a face on a blacklight poster hung on the second floor wall of a teenager’s bedroom. But I stopped on it, stared at the pink and purple and yellow feline, our eyes locked in mortal fear. I couldn’t move. The moment seemed seminal, as only such inebriated moments can, a psychic connection between man and lithographed beast. Suddenly I jumped back, as one does when dozing off and quickly dreaming about a ball being tossed at them: the tiger was about to leap off the wall and chase me! I turned and ran away, only now noticing a couple out for a walk, who had apparently been watching me watch the tiger. Embarrassed by their entertained laughter, I kept running into the condominium night, their chuckles fading in my blazed wake.

Out of breath a minute later, I looked up and realized, wow, I was back at Hank’s condo. I’d managed to scramble away from the psychedelic tiger in narcotized fear along exactly the same route that I had staggered away from Hank’s. It seemed almost magical, as if I’d been beamed back there by a Star Trek technician. I had no memory of the return trip, of the run back at all, only that I was still gasping for air. I had no idea how long I’d been gone, or if my crew would still be there.

But they were. And they’d been very concerned about me. Hank was on the phone with his little brother in Bakersfield, but he interrupted his call when he saw me.

“Cool Daddy-O, where the f-ck have you been?” he asked me, relief in his voice. “I was worried I got you too stoned and you got hit by a car crossing the street or something. Damn, what happened?”

“I just had to walk,” I told him. “Then I got lost. And I got scared by some poster.”

He didn’t know what to make of the poster line, nor was I going to elaborate on being frightened by a teenage girl’s big kitty picture, and he returned to talking to his 13 year-old half brother on the phone. My little brother, the one from my mother and first stepfather, was the same age. He looked nothing like me either, the same way Hank’s bro looked nothing like him. Our little brothers were much darker complected, my brother’s father having been African-American. Hank was a pale and freckled redhead, but his brother was bronzed and Latin with jet black hair. Nobody in our families looked like each other, and our families had a long history of tumult and upheaval. This common tribal ground was another thing, on top of Barfly and books and writing, that endeared Hank and I to each other, made us sympathize more than we did with others at MG, or most others (Tommy always held a soft spot for us, tormented as he always was by Ray’s rewarded incompetence, by his salacious and seducing sister-in-law, by his easily agitated wife and new baby, by his need for more money, and every day after work he’d sit in his garage with his slobbering St. Bernard, Schlitz, busting out his bong and having a couple of silver and blues to hold down the darker blues for another night).

Hairy Hands Mike was on the couch with Carolina when I returned, trying to make some time, both with pregame cocktails in hand, but then she saw me and moved away from him.

“Peace-guy, there you are! We were so worried about you.”

Hairy Hands looked at me with half a scowl: thanks for the cock-block, dude.

Carolina was suddenly standing right in front of me, almost nose to nose, another magical time lapse in my fried state. If she’d walked over to me, she must have gone hyperspace, everything was happening in bits and splotches, but there she was, offering me a sip of her grapefruit juice and vodka. She had the glass practically in my mouth already, and I started to take a sip, but before I could absorb a drop, Gosh and his girlfriend bounded down the stairs, post orgasmic and a bit perspired, ready for their nights on the town.

“Let’s go Carolina,” said Gosh’s gal. “We’re gonna be late picking up Stacy.” She gave Gosh a goodbye kiss, then turned to the rest of us. “Maybe we’ll see you guys later.”

“Yes,” said Carolina, her face still close to mine. “Maybe you’ll see me later.” She pinched my side playfully as she walked away rhyming. “Bye bye, Peace guy.”

She and her friend exited, Gosh letting out a satisfied groan. “Cool Daddy-O, that girl wants to get in your shorts bad,” he said, downing the last half of his tumbler full of liquor, then wiping his furry upper lip.

“I called first dibs on her,” Hairy Hands asserted to me.

“Please, do whatever you want,” I told him. “Seriously, I’m not blocking anything, she’s all yours.” All I could think about was Karen, that I was cheating on her again just by being there. But she’d wanted me to go, I was doing it for her, my brain was trying everything to rationalize, but my deeper brain, my subconscious, my paleo-mammallian mind, was trying to keep me from going out at all. My back was burning, and my nose, once again, started getting stuffy and runny, and my stomach, dear god my stomach, the one that had stabbed me with machetes when I was an abused and frightened and lonely boy, that first shot of Cuervo earlier was now burning a hole in what little stomach I had left for any of their manstravaganza of drunken bravado.

I was spinning as I stood there. The guys wanted to do another shot before we headed out. I objected to more Tequila on the grounds that it caused me to sprout a sombrero. Gosh punched me in the shoulder: “Drink up, be a man.” Jerkoff. I should’ve punched him back, but I had never punched anyone back. I was so weak. I whimpered, my peer pressure classes from high school having apparently worn off, and I downed another caramel colored shot of cheap cactus juice. I was lucky not to vomit on the spot, the taste alone made me wretch. Hank, HHM and Gosh were all laughing at my expression of disgust.

“Atta boy,” Hank patted me on the back. “Now let’s go, time to hit the town and get crazy.” Sanity sounded much better, but I was long out of luck.

“I’m gonna get a blowjob in the next two hours,” declared Gosh as we headed out. “Who wants to put fifty on it?”

No one took his bet, it was lost money. Gosh was a sex addict. He could find it, get it, procure it, wherever he was, whenever he needed it, which seemed to be about twenty-four times a day. His squeaky and annoying girlfriend, from all appearances, seemed either oblivious or else she was also a genital junkie. Who knew? Who wanted to? Not I.

                    *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The town we were hitting, in this case, was Scripps Ranch, perhaps postally still Mira Mesa, and we piled out of Hank’s old yellow RX-7 in the parking lot of the club, the name of which I’ve forgotten, but it was in the shopping center next to the Denny’s just east of the 15 at Mira Mesa Boulevard. If this were the town, I’d hate to see the city. The place was a suburban meat market, where a cover band was playing a Loverboy medley as we entered. It took me a moment, but I soon recognized the bass player in the band as my old college friend, Ben. Always kind of a wild man during our university daze, he seemed still in character onstage, wearing a gladiator helmet and, true to our classic theater department roots, a codpiece. My first thought upon seeing Ben, oddly so, was that, uh oh, my blue collar world and my college world (bleu collar?) were in danger of colliding. I liked to keep them separate. I needed to. I had to be all things to all people, I could not be exposed as an imposter anywhere, as I had always felt I was in my own disjointed and ever morphing family. It was another huge part of what made me such a reliable psychosomatic pain machine for three decades. And seeing Ben, of course, fired up the malady machine in my subcortex and, boom, everything felt that much worse.

Feeling achier, more allergic, exhaustion and sleepiness now starting to overcome me, I moved away from the stage with Hank and the guys, and we pushed through the crowd to the other end of the bar to set up shop. We ordered shots and drinks, and I was afraid of doing more of either. I was starting to feel like I had in San Francisco a year and-a-half earlier. J and I, just before he has started dating Quinn, had gone to visit some other college friends who were living in Haight-Ashbury. Karen and I had been dating for only a few weeks. The thought of screwing things up so soon with her was tormenting me on the flight north, consciously and, doubtlessly even more, unconsciously. I only know this now because, as I remember it, by the time we were at their place in the Haight that afternoon, I could feel the exhaustion overwhelming me, well beyond anything a normal and healthy 22 year-old man should feel from an hour long flight. When we went out that night, barhopping in the city, I could only make it for a few hours, before I was ready to fall asleep on my feet. Feeling like half a man, I told my friends I was going back to their apartment in the Haight, that I was too tired, that my allergy pill had ruined me, that I was just a mess, and I badly needed to go to sleep. They were somewhat confused, but having previous experience with me, they didn’t find it all that surprising, I could tell, which made me feel like a quarter of a man. Why did I even come in the first place? I just wanted to run home and see Karen. Just hold me like an infant all night, please. I was such a load. (Was?)

At that early point in our evening, the blare of Loverboy in my ears, pressed into by the bar throng, I just wanted to run home again and be with Karen.

“Cool Daddy-O, come on, one more shot!”

Depressed, I shot it. It tasted worse than the first one. Hank put his arm around me.

“Thanks for coming out with us, Cool Daddy-O. I never thought you would. You okay?”

For all Hank’s barfly Bukowski nature, he was and is a good-hearted and sympathetic guy, and he knew this really wasn’t my scene, and I could tell he was satisfied he’d gotten me this far, and that he’d be cool if I bolted a little early. But I didn’t want to let him down. I never wanted to let anyone down. Because if I did, they’d leave, or discard me, or disappear in some fashion. I could never escape that little boy, he was always there, on the surface and buried deep. He was everywhere. He was me. Still is. I hate it. And I love it. And as I get older, I only hope the former prevails. (Although some days, you’d be hard pressed to convince my wife and son of this.)

So I drank some more beer with Hank, and tried to avoid being seen by Ben. Once, during a break, Ben removed his gladiator helmet, thought not his codpiece, and went to the bar to get a drink. I quickly fled to the bathroom to avoid his sight. When I did, however, I was stopped by Hairy Hands Mike at the door to one of the tiny restrooms

“Gosh is getting his BJ, you gotta wait.”

The thought of some girl on her knees in a filthy bar bathroom, working away on Gary Gosh, I could hardly keep my Coors down. I walked away and simply tried to hide away in the crowd until the band started playing again. When they did, I knew I could go back to Hank and not risk being seen by Ben. But then I felt my ass get pinched and I turned, startled.

“Peace-guy!” exclaimed a drunk Carolina, throwing her arms around me. “Dance with me!” And she grinded into me.

I turned and saw Gosh’s girlfriend looking around for him, then I saw he and Hairy Hands emerge from the bathroom hallway, Gosh looking sweaty and temporarily satisfied, parting ways with the blonde girl of the hour, who seemed happy to service him and move along. Only then, after every incriminating thing had ended, did Gosh’s girlfriend catch sight of him. How was this guy so lucky? Daddy’s company to inherit; three DUI’s and nothing happens; now he gets a BJ in the bathroom and, as if on perfect cue, he emerges safely to meet his girlfriend. He was like a carnal clairvoyant. Geraldo moustache and all.

“Peace guy!” Carolina turned my face to hers, shouting above the din of people and music, which had just started again. “I’m here! For you! Let’s party! I know you like me!” Then she kissed me. My allergies were working overtime, and I was a sniffling mess when she pressed her lips to mine. Then in went her tongue.

And then, as freakishly as ever, I sneezed.

Violently, uncontrollably, and we pushed away from each other.

“Excuse me,” I told her. “Allergies.” She started to tell me not to worry about it, but just then we both noticed that my sneeze had deposited something foul on her jeans.

“Oh my god, that is so disgusting!”

“Please, let me wipe it off, I’m so sorry.”

“Get away from me! You are so gross!”

She bolted toward the restrooms to clean it off. And I doubted she was ever coming back. Hmm. That was a problem fairly easily solved. My psychosomatic symptoms weren’t, ahem, always such a bad thing. But I was done, I couldn’t do it anymore, this was not the life I wanted, Karen could rest assured, and so I called her from a payphone. I screamed over the noise: I’m miserable, I just want to be with you, please come pick me up. She was happy, I could hear it in her voice. I told her where I was, and she said she’d be there in a half hour. When I hung up and started to forearm my way through the crush of bodies, I realized all of my symptoms had cleared. My back felt fine, my nose had cleared up, and I wasn’t sleepy at all. Amazing.

When I returned the Hank, HHM was there with Gosh and his girlfriend, who was sitting on his lap, the same one where another girl’s face had been not ten minutes earlier. HHM was blotto and talking about Joleen from work, how she was leaving in a week, and he wanted her so badly. He said he had a plan to bed her before she was gone, that it was going to work. Hank didn’t want to hear it.

“You are a sick man with this sh-t, you gotta forget about her. She's not like that, I’m telling you. She’s a nice girl, leave her alone.”

HHM waved him off and guzzled the last of his latest beer.

“Anyway,” I told Hairy Hands, “I think you’re back in the game with Carolina. I blew snot all over her by accident. I make her sick now.”

“You what?” squeaked Gosh’s gal from his still smoldering lap.

I saw Carolina approaching across the bar, and I said she’d fill them in on all the disturbing details, that I had to go. I told Hank that I’d wimped out and called Karen, who was picking me up in a few minutes. I lied that I was too drunk, ready to hurl, that I had to get out of there.

“You don’t have to say that,” Hank replied. “I know you love your lady. It’s all good. I’m just glad I got you out with us.”

Carolina was closing in, and I had to close it out. I shook hands with Hank, said goodbye to everyone else, then scurried away before Carolina could slap me.

As I exited, Ben and I accidentally made eye contact as he fingered the bass line for a ZZ Top song. He waved at me and smiled, then did a Tom Jones and threw his codpiece to an adoring girl in the crowd.

Outside, sweating in the cool night air, I waited in the parking lot for Karen, relived and anxious to be next to her. I started to shiver a bit. When she pulled up in her mom’s old Honda Accord, she got out of the driver’s side to give me a standing hug and kiss. We drove back to her place and were in bed together minutes after that. Inside her, I could breathe again. But even then, as I did, I could feel a twinge of pain in my back. This love was only temporary. I always knew it. But at that moment, I didn’t care. I ignored the pain and focused on the familiar and lovely and comforting landscape of Karen’s body.

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