I’d been out of rehab for about two weeks. Everybody knew. It was one of those things. Usually only actors and football players go to rehab but I was lucky enough to be admitted into the club. James sent me lots of emails when I was there and I didn’t reply to any of them. Too busy watching DVDs and going to group therapy and smoking cigarettes in the garden. Cigarettes are all you have in those places. When I got out James called me. I didn’t know it was him so I answered the call. He was really excited and didn’t even mention the emails. I arranged to meet him at a cafe across from my office for a coffee, just a coffee but he asked if I could reserve several hours for him.
I like James or liked James but he’s one of those socially awkward introverts who latch onto you and use you to generate some fun and excitement in their lives. Being a reformed alcoholic all I could offer him was coffee, maybe some lively conversation once the caffeine kicked in. When I was drunk we used to talk for hours about every subject imaginable. I spent a lot of time with James, a lot of time drinking myself to death. During the group sessions in rehab James became a symbol of my downfall. I know this is unfair but I began projecting much of my guilt onto him because he was there and never once said anything about my behaviour and when I did finally fall he didn’t notice. When I left rehab I regarded myself as cured not only of alcohol, but of James.
From across the road I could see him sitting at one of the pavement tables, outside the cafe. Upright, stiff, like an eagle that’s afraid of heights, he had a glass of water in front of him and his old black brolly leaning against the side of the table. Upon seeing him I almost turned around and ran back to my office. He reminded me of a time when I was out of control and did that bad thing that cost me a lot of friends and eventually landed me in that place. But I owed him at least one coffee, a parting gift to Mr Hyde.
When I sat down opposite him his huge mouth opened to reveal those twisted canines, spiralling onto the underside of his top lip. I managed a nod of the head and extended my right arm for a shake. He grabbed my right hand in both his hands and then motioned for the waiter to take our orders.
– What will you have? He asked, I checked this place online last night and I already know what I want.
– It’s good to see you James.
– I’m going to have the strawberry cheesecake.
The waiter stood over our table as James’ canines slowly slipped back into his mouth, accompanied by a slight gurgle of saliva.
– I’ll have the cheesecake.
– And yourself? Asked the waiter of me.
– Strong latte please mate.
– It’s a lovely day, he replied, sure you gents don’t want a beer? Bottle of white?
– Nah, I said.
– Come on? Live a little, replied the waiter.
– I’m a recovering alcoholic and I just want a latte so I don’t get drunk and start thumping customers and sexually harassing your female staff members. Ok?
– Sure thing champ. Just askin’.
When you give up the drink the hardest thing is dealing with other people’s attitudes to drinking. By saying no to a drink on a sunny afternoon you might as well throw your hands up in the air and announce to everyone you’ve given up on life because it’s just plain wrong to settle for coffee when the sky’s blue. The waiter went off to place our order. Through the window I could see him motion to our table with his head and exchange some words with the blonde woman behind the counter. She smiled and patted him on the shoulder.
James immediately launched into a long winded theory he had about something I can’t even remember now. No, ‘how are you?’ or ‘how was it?’ or ‘how do you feel?’ Straight back to where we left off two months ago. There was one night we were in a back alley bar having one of those racy arguments about another of James’ social theories concerning Gen Y when a man from another table interjected because he believed he was an expert on the subject of binge drinking. He put forward a well-informed argument defending the youth of today, telling us that binge drinking had always been a problem and the current Government were using it as a smokescreen to distract us from their imperialist foreign policy. I had to agree. Not James though. James went to the toilet for fifteen minutes. I had to end up knocking on the cubicle door to see if he was ok. When he came out he’d obviously been crying, so we went to another bar and talked about stationery.
Now James was hammering on about some other issue. He has a permanent drip that hangs from his nose, which he wipes occasionally with a blue handkerchief he keeps in his trouser pocket. He can wipe that drip without missing a beat. Sometimes the drip gets so big you can almost see your reflection in it.
After two months the only things that were different about him were his short haircut and a lime green Hawaiian shirt that actually suited him. James is a tall man. I am not a tall man but I don’t get angry about it. Tall people are always surprised at how calm I am for a short man. I once met a tall man who was terrified of dwarves; he had what is technically referred to as Nanosophobia. James is afraid of dogs (Cynophobia) but obsessed with cats. If he passes a cat he’ll stop for at least fifteen to pat the cat, and cats love James. Generally speaking people do not love James, he’s not loveable. Normal people detest him.
I leaned forward over the table and put my hand on his shoulder.
– Are you going to ask me how I am James?
– You look like you’ve just been for a cruise on the Med.
– I haven’t.
– I know but that’s what you look like.
– I’m not embarrassed about it.
The waiter came over with the cheesecake and the latte so I sat back in my chair and stretched out my legs to release some tension. He placed each down quietly and went back inside. James grabbed his fork and plunged straight in. I watched him scoop up the first bite and hold it in front of his mouth and nose for a few seconds before delivering the package onto his tongue. He closed his eyes, sat very still and then began to chew, gently at first, then slowly increasing movement in his jaw muscles. I hunched over and pinched the bridge of my nose between thumb and index. I’d been getting sporadic headaches since I’d given up the drink and pinching the bridge of my nose helped. The waiter was back up at the counter motioning towards us again. The girl was laughing. He was young, with long dark, curly hair, wearing sprayed on skinny jeans, worn half way down his miniscule arse and a tight black t-shirt. James was oblivious.
– So what have you been up to while I’ve been away? I asked.
James brought up his hand to silence me while he enjoyed the final taste of his first bite. It was the kind of wave you’d have expected from Marie Antoinette.
– Sorry, he said at last, I’ve been thinking about this moment for at least twelve hours. Best strawberry cheesecake I’ve ever had. May the Epicurean gods be blessed. So what have I been up to?
– Reading mostly.
– Got a job yet?
– No. Don’t want one. I can live off five dollars a day if I put my mind to it.
– I remember you telling me. Do you want to talk about that thing?
– No. Not yet. Later.
– Why not? I’d really like to get it out of the way. Get the elephant out of the room so to speak.
– I want to enjoy my cheesecake.
– Ok. Up to you. But I haven’t got long.
– I thought I asked you to put aside several hours.
– I can’t. I’m really busy, got loads to catch up on.
– But I asked. I specified several hours. In fact I used those very words.
– I know you did but I really can’t. I’m snowed under. Lucky to get my job back if you ask me.
I’m not completely sure how we became friends. I was so drunk for such a long time; much of my recent history was a blur of bars and toilets. The addicted end up spending many more hours in toilets than normal people, they’re safe havens, places to dispose and consume. Ironically enough being sober for the first few weeks was like being drunk and waking up in a strange toilet and not remembering how you got there. Suddenly you’re surrounded by all these people you don’t really know. Mostly other fuck ups but some of them are the dispossessed, only capable of being with people drunk enough not to notice how odd they are. It’s that strange feeling you get when you’ve been at a club all night dancing, drinking, on pills, mixing with beautiful people, then at 6am it all begins to wear off a bit and by 7am they turn on the lights and all you can see are half finished drinks everywhere, sticky carpet and tired, drawn faces.
I genuinely don’t know what I had in common with James. He irritated me. When I watched him eat that piece of cheesecake I wanted to reach over and break his nose. Smug wanker with his green shirt and that glass eye of his that he always dropped into people’s drinks for fun. A young woman slapped him in the face one night for doing it to her and then there was the time I was in bed with this woman and he was perched on the end of the bed, half in the shadows, watching, smiling, rolling that eye in the palm of his hand, his crooked canines moving in and out of his mouth.
All I wanted was to be back in my office working. The councillor told me not to throw myself into my work but that’s all I had. All you do is swap one addiction for another. He took another bite of the strawberry cheesecake. Same routine. It was unnerving me. I got up to leave. James stopped chewing, stared directly at my untouched Latte.
– Sorry mate, I said, I’m really under the guns. Got a five o’clock deadline.
He did that thing with his hand again and continued savouring the cheesecake. The waiter came back out to clear a table, his little blonde friend trailing behind him. She stifled a giggle when she saw James with his cheesecake. I didn’t blame her, it was a hilarious image. A green-clad beanpole and his cheesecake, shaking on a fork, centimetres from his nose and mouth. Plus that drip under his nose was gaining momentum. The clouds shifted and I was hit with the full force of the sun. I squinted, protected my eyes with my hand. James whipped out his hankie and caught the drop in mid air.
– Enjoy your cheesecake, I said, laying twenty dollars on the table. And good luck.
I crossed the road and stopped on the pavement. I turned to see if James had watched me leave. He hadn’t. He was holding a fork-full of cheesecake in front of his nose and mouth again. The waiter and the blonde were nowhere in sight. James was the only patron sitting outside. People walked by him on the pavement looking quizzically at this wingless eagle as he enjoyed the moment. I turned to walk away and stopped again. When I turned around he was gone. I saw the waiter run out of the cafe looking up and down the pavement. He called out to the blonde woman. They both stood on the pavement looking up and down.