By Roof Alexander
The first time I met Luke was in the St. Michaels emergency room. He was trying to convince his girlfriend that he didn’t need any treatment.
“They won’t be able to do anything away,” he said. She went to fill out the paperwork at the desk and he sat down beside me. I looked down at his hands to see that one of them seemed tangled, broken all over.
“Does that not hurt?” I asked him.
“You ought to see the other rhino,” he said and smiled. We could hear his gal arguing with the front desk nurse.
“She okay?” I asked. He shrugged.
“The only reason we’re here is because I thought we were coming for her.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
He gestured his eyes up to her and smiled again. He had to be one of the best looking men that I’d ever seen. That smile was self-destructive, sarcastic, and humble all at the same time.
“Well at least she’s pretty,” I said.
“Pretty? Who cares about pretty? Pretty girls ain’t got no soul. They’re about as interesting as a pretty painting.”
“Well at least pretty gets you to the hospital when you need it.”
“What you in for?” he asked.
“Nothing really. Therapy. I sometimes come here with a pint of tequila and just watch. It makes me feel better about my life,” I said.
“Hey can I have a swig of that?”
I screwed off the top for him. He took a third of the bottle.
“Does it hurt?” I asked him again.
“I guess just about as much as it hurts you.”
His pretty gal came back and dragged him down the hall with a nurse in lead. The nurse was also pretty, and she seemed to know Luke like the way one knows who a thief in a crowd is.
I saw the girlfriend leaving a few minutes later. She shot me a look of pity.
“Don’t worry, he’ll like you a whole bunch. If there’s one goddamn thing he likes, it’s ugly, especially ugly women.”
I thought she was just trying to be mean, but it turns out she was being honest. After a gunshot victim, a girl with a broken ankle, and a couple that seemed to be dealing with a sexually perverse medical problem, Luke came out with his hand bandaged up.
“You want to get something to eat?” he asked. “I’m starving.”
We walked to the only open diner in town. “If you had three days to live, what would you do with it?” I asked and then answered, “I would just walk, just walk for three days without eating, just walk until I fell dead.”
“Yeah, I would. What about you?”
“I always have three days to live.”
Luke was an only child. His father ran off when he was younger because he was tired of being the pawn in his wife’s family business. His mother committed suicide not too long after that. I guess his father was a heartbreaker like Luke. So Luke inherited a bunch of money.
“Sometimes I win just because I’m trying to lose. That’s how gambling works I guess. I see all the other saps with their life savings dwindling in front of their fingers. Sad as hell, but so goes life.”
He seemed to rebel against all the advantages that were given to him. He had a fortune that he tried to gamble away. He had a brilliant mind that he tried to dull with drugs and booze. He had a beautiful face that he tried to get bashed in bar fights.
“This is going to put me under for awhile,” Luke said about his broken hand. I was eating fries and a banana split. He was drinking a beer and a strawberry milkshake. It was a ninety-degree night out. And he had charm and looks that could strip the clothes off a supermodel, yet he sat in a diner with the likes of a broken down woman that drank tequila in hospital emergency rooms.
Later on, after his hand had healed, after we had become friends, and after he had fucked me several dozen times, I tried to understand why he would be with someone like me. I very possibly could have been the ugliest woman under 30 in Nevada. I had acne scars, misshaped small breasts, an un-proportionate lower body, flat curves, and plain brown hair and eyes, yet he looked at me like I was some kind of beauty queen.
He told me to drop the subject. He told me, “I like the way you forget to use coffee filters. Isn’t that enough?” Luke was sober and peaceful, so I dropped it. There wouldn’t be many moments like that, moments when he was sober and peaceful, and moments when I was secure about my worth.
One of these rare moments came on a brilliantly sunny morning at the end of summer.
“If you could do anything today, what would it be?” he asked me.
“Take a drive in a convertible. Go to a restaurant on the ocean or lake, and get a room with a balcony overlooking the water.” This wasn’t a wish that I just made up. It had always been a thought in the back of my perfect daydream. My dreams fell short of imagination, but it was what I wanted, like if I did this then I could go on peacefully drinking in emergency rooms the rest of my life.
“Okay,” is all Luke said. He finished smoking his cigarette and left without explaining.
Two hours later he showed up in a convertible Volkswagen Beetle.
“Where did you get this?”
“Bought it off this man in the street.”
“Saw the car, so I made him an offer. It took awhile to convince him I was serious. He kept gibbering on about paperwork and such, and I just kept handing him money. All I need is the keys, I told him, and he finally handed them to me.”
Luke didn’t even have a license. He had three DUIs and wasn’t supposed to drive for another twelve years. But it didn’t matter, he was trying to make my dream come true.
We hit the road, making our way through the desert and the Sierra Mountains until getting to Lake Tahoe. We found a restaurant right on the south shore and had the best meal I’d ever had. Luke told the waiter to just bring out everything the chef recommended. He ordered the most expensive wine and then every dessert on the menu.
After the restaurant we took a suite with a balcony overlooking the crystal blue Tahoe water. I stood against the railing with a glass of champagne.
“I’ll be right back,” Luke told me as if he was asking permission. He didn’t have to ask me for anything. He had my heart in his pocket.
The sun slowly disappeared, the moon slowly appeared as a reflection on the water, and then the bottle of champagne slowly disappeared. Luke was still gone. I went to the bathroom where I thought he went, and there he was lying on the white tile floor. He had wide animated eyes and a needle stuck in his arm. I pulled the syringe out and a stream of blood shot across my face. Luke laughed hysterically. I pulled him in the bathtub and turned cold water on him. He kept laughing the whole time as if I wasn’t there, and as if it wasn’t his blood over my face.
Almost nothing could have ruined that day, almost nothing… The next morning, after I had slept off all the wine, something felt missing. It was Luke. He was gone. I looked around the South Tahoe casinos, bars, and streets, but he had disappeared with the reflection of the moon. I drove the car back home and tried to forget him. A couple weeks later he showed up at my door. It was after midnight and he had grown a beard. I let him in despite these things, despite all things. He basically moved in after that. I had a suspicion that he couldn’t go to his own home for some horrible reason, but I never asked.
Life went on and everything was great except for that constant lingering of my insecurities.
“Give me something,” I told him one night after a few shots of tequila. “Why don’t you just go find that beautiful woman that you’re eventually going to be with?”
“Most so-called beautiful women don’t have anything interesting in their minds and in their face. The face is such a weird piece of flesh, a receptor for all our senses, yet all we do is look at the colors, shades, shapes, textures, symmetry, and size of these organs that are so much more important than what they look like.”
“I guess it’s all we have to go by. I’m sure if a certain shape of a nose represented a higher sense of smell then it could mean something of attraction also,” I told him. “We just don’t know that shape so we maybe go with symmetry instead.”
“I think they do have a particular shape. You know how the blind have a higher sense of smell and hearing? I think the uglier a person’s face may be the more perceptive they are, that is if they don’t fall into the beauty trap. If they ever wish for a makeover or if they’ve ever stared too long at a magazine cover then they have fallen. Whoever said that we need to look like them!”
“Easy for you to say, someone born with good looks.”
Then he took out his pocketknife and slit off the very tip of his nose. Blood went everywhere while he laughed. He always laughed at blood. “Is that better? Do you still think I’m a prince?”
There we were again in the emergency room with the same pretty nurse at the reception desk. But this time roles had changed, and I was the ridiculous girlfriend. I felt her send me a look of warning, telling me that my pockets were being picked. There was my pint of tequila in one pocket, and there was definitely something missing in the other. I didn’t have the easiness of not caring about any of the passing tragedies. I was in love for the first time in my 29 years. My heart hurt so bad I couldn’t drink it away. I didn’t want this. I couldn’t go through this. I knew what was going to happen, and at the very bottom of my miserable life before Luke, at least my heart was mine, at least that couldn’t be taken from me. Then just like the last time when his ex-gal walked out of the emergency room, so did I.
I left town soon after that, taking a temporary job transfer to New Mexico.
When I came back to town several months later I couldn’t help but go back to the emergency room. I sat in the back corner with my tequila, half-tanked, half-wishing he would stumble through the door with a broken leg, with a slash across his face, but he didn’t. The same pretty nurse was there. She kept looking up from her clipboard toward me. Then as if she felt it was her duty, she came over to me. I hid my pint away under my leg and tried to think up a good excuse for being there.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Sorry for what?”
“For Luke. I guess we all should have expected it, but… it’s never easy.”
She didn’t have to say anything else. She walked back to her post. I reached into my pockets to find the tequila, forgetting where I had put it. They were all empty.