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When you’re staring deep into Justine’s cornflower-blue eyes, apologizing, admitting what a total asshole you are, and that first big wave of really profound and authentic self-pity hits, that’s when you know you’ve got it.

You can’t deny anything she says. You knew that she was already waiting for you in her skeezy neighborhood bar when you left the house. But you stopped by to see Joe bartending down at Dusty’s anyway, because he’s always good for a freebie and a freebie’s always good; in this shitty economy, Joe’s practically your best friend.

Hey, Den, the Fuck Cats ever getting back together? he asked as usual, sliding you a glass.

We keep talking about a reunion show, you answered, and tossed the shot back, exhaling the sting of rail whiskey, then ordered a beer (you had to buy something) and hit the pinball machine. Barbarella’s your favorite, you got a couple replays because you know how to get that bitch off, and you couldn’t bail then, could you?

Besides, you tell Justine’s stiffened profile, you thought she could take care of herself. She’s usually so cool, so tough, so independent. Anyway, didn’t you drop everything, on short notice, the second she called wanting to talk? No, you didn’t have plans exactly, not firm plans, but —

Ice cubes swirl gently in your lowball, ride the whiskey to your mouth and back. Going unspoken is that you can guess why she’s dragged you down here. But she made a mistake: she gave you warning, that tense voicemail asking you to this bar that she hates, the nervous catch of breath at the end. There’s a reservoir of psychic pain you draw upon at these moments, a deep self-hatred that you trace back to your distant father, your desperately-dating mother and the time you got lice in middle school. Every minute she sat waiting and drinking, every minute you’ve been explaining, has been one minute further from her purpose, closer to drunken tears.

Christ, I’m such a fuck-up, you say, waving the bartender towards your empty glasses.

It’s true, your despair is absolutely real and that’s some infectious shit right there — she’s got tears in her eyes now. The next round of drinks arrives while she digs in her purse for a kleenex, before she can decline. Faced with your obvious worthlessness and suffering, she leans in, tries to console: You just gotta try harder, you know?

I mean, what am I doing with my life? I don’t have a band, my job is shit — all I’ve got is you and god knows I’m fucking that up, too —

Oh Den, no, she says, but you’re on a roll now.

— I’m thirty years old, I’ve got nothing, just operating under this delusion like anyone could ever — oh fuck.

You have to stop before you go too far, before you remind her of the reasons why she wanted to dump you tonight. You pass a rough hand across your eyes, clasp it over your mouth, staring at your glass with the intensity of a man pulling himself together, and wait. Maybe three minutes go by. Justine’s silent.

You smack your palm flat on the bar, give your head a brusk shake and say, Look, I’m sorry I fucked everything up. I’m going, okay, I’m just gonna go.

When you stand, though, you sway. She touches your arm and asks, Wait, are you sure you can —

I’m fine, I just wanna go.

But you are drunk, you are a sad drunk sack of shit for sure, and she won’t let you drive like that. She’ll pay the tab, walk you the three blocks back to her place with her arm around your waist; she’ll allow kisses and tears on her shoulder, some fondling, more if you’re able. And you’ll fall asleep smiling drool into her pillow, remembering the pinball machine’s knock of victory, knowing that somehow, despite the incontrovertible fact that you are a complete and incurable jerk, you have managed to win yourself another round.


Lia Mitchell is a PhD candidate in French literature at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. She writes fiction in moments of furtive, joyful procrastination.


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