“ARE YOU HAVING A SNACK ATTACK!?” The huge sticker on the vending machine read. It wasn't the first time Min had seen this particular ad, it wasn't even the first time she had seen it in a hospital.
Last time was about a year ago. Her father had put a gun to his head at the wrong angle. The bullet blasted through his skull, but it didn't kill him right away. She had enough time to get the anguished phone call from her mother, enough time to pack a small bag, get on a train at Grand Central, and sit with her mother in the waiting area hatefully staring at that sign.
Two seats down sat the police officer who broke Alex's arm. He was easily 300 pounds, with a little salt and pepper mustache. He didn't seem worried that Alex was in with the doctor unsupervised. He knew Alex wasn't going anywhere.
She looked back at the vending machine. She was faintly reflected in the plastic display case. She looked tired, and tense, and with no makeup and her glasses on she looked a lot like that Min who talked to the doctors, filled out the paperwork, helped her sister and mother without crying, and returned to Columbia steely-eyed to take her final exams.
She couldn't stay that hard forever, though, and when the break came it was big. One quiet dinner in Brian's apartment a few nights before graduation she found herself drunk on gin and smashing the commemorative plates her father had picked up across the country throughout his lifetime. All of the discipline, the jogging, all of the studying, all of the tightly controlled, rational, even scientific, decisions, all seemed pointless, impotent against chaos.
She met Devon from Interstate Funk a few days later at Doc Holidays and the rest was sordid history.
But looking at her outline in the plastic, she could feel that terrible strength again. It had been bubbling up for a long time. When she finally sat down to look at her bills after Glory's massage, her brain switched on and she calculated the checks and leftover balances as naturally and easily as she had for her mother since she was eleven. After licking all the envelopes shut and neatly placing them in a pile, she smelled her hands—an odd mix of spearmint oil and sex.
She touched the Phoenix tattoo hidden beneath her jeans. It wasn't a hieroglyph, it was a time capsule; the Min of half a year ago—right in the middle of a blur of grief, drugs and hate—had placed it on her one bleary-eyed night with Glory on South Street. She was ready to open the time capsule now and read the message inside. She remembered what she was trying to tell some future Min: The phoenix doesn't rise from its ashes because it wants to, or because it is worthy or better, it rises because that's its nature.
“Two concussions, a cracked eye socket and a dislocated shoulder,” Morowitz said, handing her some Skittles. Min shook her head. She was most certainly not having a snack attack.
“The doctor told you?” she asked.
“Nah, that's just my guess,” he said and then sat down next to her.
She thought of Alex's legs kicking up in the air, his howl when his shoulder popped out. She knew that was going to happen as soon as that fucking cop grabbed him. But it wasn't like Alex could hear her yelling that, it was like he wasn't even there.
And she had felt so bad about how she treated him the last time she saw him. “So I've heard.” It was such a bitchy line—downright un-Min-like. But now…now that he turned a little confrontation with cokeheads into a massacre, now that her big near-lover was disappearing into romanticism and alcohol, now that he brought violence back into her life and forced her to sit here again and try to burn that stupid sticker off with her mind, thinking about how her father could do that to himself, to Mom, to her, to Ruthie, she felt contempt for Alex. She wanted to make sure he was okay and that those two other assholes were okay and never see any of them ever again.
Mo nudged her again. He was sure she wanted a Skittle. She looked over to him to explain that she really, really didn't want one, but wasn't able to get out the words. Mo had a most un-Mo-like expression on his face. He had gently forced a smile, with sides of his mouth awkwardly bunched up. It wasn't a fake smile of irony; it wasn't a joke. It was the intentionally, awkwardly hopeful smile people use sometimes to say “hey, cheer up?”
It worked. She smiled back so much she blushed. It was nice for a moment to forget she was in a hospital again.
Min and Mo were allowed in to see Alex. He was sitting on a hospital table, in a big blue sling that was linked to his trunk by Velcro.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hi,” Alex said. He was shaking slightly and glassy-eyed.
Mo was right. Two concussions and a cracked eye socket for Liam and Sunny and a dislocated shoulder for Alex. Liam also had a broken front tooth and Alex had a big hole in his hand from doing that. Worse, Liam and Sunny were pressing charges.
“Assholes,” Mo said. “You would think machismo would keep them from admitting they got their asses kicked by one dude.”
Min didn't want to hear this. Even Glory, whom she spoke with on Mo's cell on her way to the ER, seemed to take some satisfaction in Liam getting his come-uppance. She touched Mo's arm, and he quieted.
“Listen, Alex, we'll do whatever we can to help, okay?” she said.
Alex looked back her, his eyes wet with apologies. She tried to offer him the same smile Mo had offered her in the waiting room, but failed. She looked back at Mo. He understood she would not be hanging out, and she turned and headed out of the ER.
When the electronic doors opened in front of her, she felt like a flock of birds being released from a cage. It was sunny and clear, the newly blossoming trees glowed a cool light green. On Monday she was leaving her grubby hiding place. She had jumped up and down on her psyche with everything she had—drugs, artificial dramas, bad romantic choices—but her sanity never came loose. She had given herself a very tough exam, and she had passed.
Her pocket vibrated. She forgot she still had Mo's phone; she took it out, saw Glory's name flashing and answered.
“Min? Hey…so, fuck it; I am still having the party,” Glory announced.
“Come on. I'm not really feeling up to it,” Min replied.
“Exactly! It was your goddamned birthday on Wednesday and you are leaving and we are celebrating it even it if it makes us miserable!” Glory giggled, and hung up.
Yes, Glory was right. No more letting bullshit ruin her fun. She balanced on the curb as if she was successfully crossing a tightrope.
Min made her lips into an “O” and applied some of Glory's brightest, reddest, sparkliest lipstick.
“Hot!” Glory cried, as she curled her eyelashes, right next to her in the big antique mirror. “Ooo, let me help.” Glory grabbed a brush and touched up the light, pale powder on Min's cheek. As she was doing it, she pulled up Min's knee sock that was slipping. The door creaked open. Min was half dressed, with Glory's hand on her leg.
Dane had stopped in the doorway, hardly breathing.
“If you guys, you know, need some…quality time…don't mind me,” he said.
They both laughed, and Glory dinged him on the forehead with a bobby pin. Dane was so nervous around her just a few days ago, when he was introduced as the new beau. Dane had spent too many days at Vostok's giving her long longing looks to not feel a bit awkward being around Min with his new girl. Min did her best to put him at ease.
Min looked at the two of them in the mirror—short skirts and sparkles. They looked spectacular, and it didn't scare her one little bit.
This is what twenty-three looks like.
“Hey baby?” Glory said melodically.
“Yes, baby?” Min answered.
“You know I hate you for leaving, right?” Glory sung.
“Yes, honey,” Min answered.
The door buzzed. Glory ran to get it. It had to be Mo. He was compulsively punctual. Min went to her backpack and got out the manuscript. When Mo appeared in the doorway, she thrust it into his chest.
“Finish it goddammit!” She commanded.
Mo was speechless for a moment, looking through the papers to make sure it was really the script. “You can't possibly…I can't!” Mo protested.
“You are the only one who can finish it! I am so done with it, and the damn thing is not finished,” she said. Mo thought and said the second thing that day that surprised her.
“So be it! Jessica Troy shall live!” he said without irony.
Glory came back with a gin and tonic for Mo and a glass of wine for Min.
“Should I ask?” Glory asked.
“Our friend Alex is in the pokey until Monday morning, and then he is arraigned,” he said.
“Does he need bail?” Min asked, calculating how much money she had left over after all those checks cashed. It was not a lot but it was more than she expected.
“I called my Dad…” Mo nodded, gravely.
“But he's an asshole!” Glory shouted what Min was thinking.
“True,” Mo giggled.
“…but he's our asshole.” Min raised her glass, and with that toast they silently agreed not to talk about the traumatic day for the rest of the night.
In a few hours, the rim of Min's glass was painted with red sparkly lip prints. Devon put on Purple Rain, and son Gary, Min, Bell, Andy and his new girlfriend Connie, were jumping around to “Let's go Crazy.”
As “Computer Blue” came to an end, Min decided Mo needed to be there for “Darling Nikki.” She ran towards Glory's room, where she had last seen him.
Mo was sitting on Glory's bed with Dane and Jackie passing the bowl around. Dane was doubled over with laughter from something Mo had just said. Min pounced on the bed, Pavlov-like, Mo laughed and stuffed the pipe in her mouth, Jackie plugged her nose, and Dane lit it. She sucked in deep and turned over on the bed laughing out smoke.
“It's good for you!” Mo said. Min howled with laughter and said she was going totally clean when she got back to New York and they all laughed some more.
“Baby steps, Min. Baby steps,” he said.
Next thing they knew, “Darling Nikki” had started downstairs and Jackie was out the door to the dance floor.
“Crap, we're missing it!” Min warned.
“I'm on it,” Dane said, getting up, and leaving Min and Mo on the bed together.
“Trust me, you don't want to see me grind. Remember my motto: Dignity, always, dignity,” he said laughing and lying back on his elbows next to her.
It was the funniest thing. Mo had the most beautiful eyelashes. She noticed it many times and even wondered if he brushed them, but one stoned, guilty peep into his medicine cabinet revealed no such implement. He caught her examining them and looked back at her—straight at her. He never looked her in the eyes; his gaze always shifted quickly away. He wasn't just stoned. Something was different. The force field was down.
They didn't say anything. They just looked at each other. She was in that moment she loved so terrifically, when time itself seems to quiver the moment before a kiss. She felt her head moving ever so slightly towards his.
But he didn't move. He gave her a long peaceful look like he was trying to make sure he precisely remembered her when she was gone.
He was right, too, and smart as always. It was a bad idea to complicate things now, not right before she left.
She squeezed his arm and savored the first perfectly comfortable silence of their friendship.
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The novel's heroine, Min's, finale. Cleaning up the mess, moving on.
You can't miss the next section (the final vignette of the whole novel): http://fictionaut.com/stories/benjamin-matvey/x-final-vignette-patricia-cecilia-demarco-gromov