Outside, the winter sky is cloudy and menacing, but I don't notice it. The first thing I notice is the vomit. Her vomit. There's a lot of it on the dirty snow-covered curbs off Stuart Street.
That's never a good sign.
"Oh my God, Eileen," I murmur in pity, my heart falling to the curb alongside her vomit. I push my bangs out of my eyes. The wind keeps blowing my hair into my face, and I keep fighting with it. "You okay, Love? You okay?" I repeat the phrase like maybe, if I believe it hard enough and if Eileen listens hard enough, it will be okay. Oh, who am I kidding? It won't be okay, not right now and not any time in the foreseeable future. Life sucks that way.
"No, Rosey," she stammers in reply, looking towards the ground and away from me. She looks like she's starting to sober up. Wow, I didn't even realize she was that drunk. Those Irish Catholic girls sure can hold their liquor. "I'm not. I'm not okay. I think I need -" She pauses, her eyes still gazing at the ground like she wishes she were dead. After a moment, her voice kicks back in, faltering and pitiful. "Home. I need to go home."
"Let me help you to the T."
"Yeah. That's a good idea." Shaking, she makes her way upright, hands on knees in the process. "I need to get home. I need to get home."
Winter in Boston is merciless. But I push through it anyway, through the powerful wind and the ice shards being pelted from the sky towards our faces, through the leftover dirt and snow that's melting and makes more of a mess than not. Because Eileen, my best friend, my partner in crime, needs my help. I'd do anything for her, even if it means paying the fare to get into the nearest T station only to make sure she gets on the T safely, not because I'm actually riding the train. Even if my wallet doesn't like the idea.
Abruptly, she stops. "I think I'm gonna throw up again," she informs me, less than a hundred feet away from where she last threw up on the curb.
"It's okay," I remind her again, steadying her as she bends over, folding herself in half and vomiting her stomach contents onto Stuart Street for the second time tonight. Come to think of it, Eileen didn't eat much at dinner. She drank a lot of beer instead, dark house beer with an 8.5% alcohol content from this chain brewhouse near my grad school. I guess that's what happens when your mother passes away. You can't eat, you just don't have it in you. Beer, on the other hand, numbs your mind to the point where you don't care anymore; that was the route Eileen took this evening. She drank away her pain. Not that I blame her, mind you. If it had been my mother who died, I would probably be so busy with my own alcohol-induced coma that I'd flunk out of school.
The Orange Line. Most people - and by most people I mean actual Boston residents, or at least residents of Massachusetts, not the four-year students like me - think the Orange Line is crap. Think it dangerous, especially if you're headed towards the Forest Hills terminal station. But Eileen's headed towards Malden, in the Oak Grove direction. That's better. It's safe, that direction. Not as dangerous. At least that's what we like to believe.
"Rosey." Eileen looks at me miserably, tears suddenly trailing down her face, wetness running out her nose. She's a mess. A broken, weeping, bloodied-heart mess. And again, I don't blame her. "Oh, Rosey, I can't do it. I can't go home."
"Why not?" I ask, the high pitch of alarm rising in my voice. Crap, that's something my mother always does. You can always tell when my mother is shocked or horrified or pissed off or all of the above when her voice starts climbing upwards. "You just told me you needed to go home."
"Because. Because I can't go back home to my mother's house when she's not there." She sniffles tragically, broken like the wineglasses at our favorite local dive bar on any given Friday night. "She's dead, Rosey. She's not there."
"Okay. It's okay." God, the grieving process sucks. So I attempt to comfort her as we plow through the wet, slushy sidewalk in our high heels to the T station. "It's gonna be okay, Eileen. I promise. It's gonna be okay, it's gonna get better."
"No. It's not. You're just saying that to be nice."
I swallow. "You're drunk, Eileen. Do you need me to help you back to your mother's house?" Problem is, I don't actually have enough time to escort her home. The T shuts down at 12:30 and then I won't be able to get back here. But again, I'd do it for Eileen. I'd do anything for Eileen, especially now. And if it means I have to hitch a ride home to Chinatown and give somebody a blow job in the process, well, I'll suck it up. Figuratively and literally speaking.
"Oh my God, I'm so pathetic, I can't even go home." Eileen raises her bloodshot eyes towards the sky. "You know what? Forget it. Forget how pathetic I am. Let's just find the Chinatown station and get me on the T. I think Chinatown's closer than New England Medical Center."
I nod, secretly relieved. "You got it."
Chinatown, much like the aforementioned Orange Line, supposedly isn't safe. The first night I spent at the dorm as an incoming student, there was a murder on the corner of Stuart and Harrison near the ATM. A stabbing, police reports later said. You should have heard the pitch in my mother's voice when she found that one out. But I didn't pay too much attention to it, to the news or to her whining. I was starting my first year of graduate school, so I had bigger things to worry about than being murdered. In all honesty, I might be better off being murdered. My parents would get the insurance money and I'd never have to study for another exam. Not a bad exchange, if you ask me.
We wander through the outskirts of Chinatown, treading the border of the Theatre District, until we get to the T station. I stare into Eileen's miserable, tear-heavy eyes at the entrance.
"Do you need me to go with you?" I ask her again, gently. I'm treading some seriously tricky waters here.
She shakes her head. She's no longer as drunk as she was before, but she's still waist-deep in the grieving process. I feel so miserable for her. I would do anything to take her pain away, to help speed up her grieving process. "No. I have to do this on my own."
I nod. "Make sure you call me once you get home."
"I'll try to, but don't get upset if I just pass out as soon as I walk through the door."
I hug her tightly. I watch her as she passes through the gates to the T station by herself, Charlie card in hand, following her with my eyes as she descends down the steps. Her red hair, highlighted with gold, bobs around in pursuit of her like a halo of flames around her head. It's the last thing I see as she wanders down the steps towards the train. God, I hope she makes it back home in one piece. Then I set myself in the direction of the dorm. It's past 11:45. Almost midnight. I'm like a walking cliché, all dressed up and no place to go. Except back to the dorm. I sense a 7-Eleven run in the near future. A pint of Ben & Jerry usually sees me through on nights like these.
Back in my dorm room, I enjoy my ice cream and solitude in equal amounts. I hate that 7-Eleven, the one at the corner of Stuart and Tremont; the unofficial corner of Chinatown and the Theatre District. The panhandlers of the city hang out in front of the storefront, their seedy eyes staring down passersby, scaring them away or guilting them into handing over their spare change. But they can't scare me - I'm a grad student and I need the money just as much as they do. I should probably be out there with them right now, begging for spare change as the midnight sky spits ice into our faces. The cashier, a pimply-faced high school kid with more life in his eyes than I've got, handed me my pint in a brown paper bag with a single white plastic spoon. He must have known it was that kind of a night.
I eat my pint of ice cream, one creamy, sugary spoonful at a time, watching whatever's on TV. Infomercials, home shopping networks, bad made-for-TV movies. There's not much on, but what is on is crap. Between spoonfuls, I worry about Eileen. I hope she made it home okay. I hope she remembers to call me once she gets back to her mother's house. But most likely she won't, even if she does sober up completely. She's tired. She's grieving. Sleep is her only relief, her only escape. Every morning, she wakes up and for a brief second doesn't remember that her mother died. Doesn't remember she was cremated, the urn buried beside her father's grave marker in the Wellesley cemetery. Her father who died of brain cancer when she was only four years old. Then she remembers everything, and life becomes unbearable again; an endless cycle of grief and sadness, simultaneously heart-crushing and brain-numbing. No wonder it's not okay. How could she possibly be okay? Both of her parents are gone, and she's only twenty-five.
I'm watching Ron Popeil's infomercial, the one where he's screaming "Set it and forget it!" to an audience full of middle-aged women in a seemingly post-orgasmic trance, when I hear the knock at the door. It's soft at first, but grows increasingly agitated the longer it takes me to get off the bed and unlock the door.
Oh, you've got to be kidding me. The other kids in the dorm are sleeping. Well, maybe not. It is Saturday night, after all. They're all probably out getting tanked right now. But if they're not out getting tanked, if they're at home in the dorm, then they're sleeping. I've got to shut him up.
It's Jared at the door. It has to be. He's the only person I know who calls me by my full name, except for my mom when she's angry with me, that pitch in her voice climbing higher and higher until it's akin to the sound of nails across a chalkboard. Jared's a year older than me but a year behind me in school. He used to be in the National Guard until they gave him a scholarship to go to grad school, and he dumped them so fast it reminds me of how my college boyfriend dumped me when he found out I was moving to Boston for four years. I've been single for over two years now, a fact everybody in my family likes to remind me of because I'm twenty-five and all my female cousins were married right out of college, if they even went to college.
"Shut up," I hiss as I swing the door open.
The eye-burning scent of cheap vodka hits me before I even see him. He's buzzed on shots. That's the beauty of living in the dorm; there's no need to drunk dial when the girl you want to have sex with lives right down the hall. Jared and I hook up more often than I care to admit, always when at least one of us has been drinking and always late at night when people don't notice or, if they do, don't give a damn. It's not that I dislike our situation, it's just that he's a sloppy lover when he's drunk. He's shirtless, standing in the hall, his trim but muscular frame enhanced by the overhead lighting. I think he might be the only person in the world who looks good under fluorescent lights.
He looks at me skeptically, then over my shoulder to the half-empty ice cream carton by the TV. "You shouldn't be eating that," he admonishes, all arrogance, walking right by me and picking up the container. I close the door behind him, annoyed. "You're gonna get fat."
He smiles at me, mischief thick behind his drunken eyes. "That's exactly what I was hoping you would say."
Morning comes too fast. I look over and see my clothes and underwear on the floor, so I obviously slept naked. Again. Yawning, I roll over on the mattress. Jared's gone; he did the walk of shame back to his dorm room in the dark hours of the early morning after we did what we always do. I felt so guilty the entire time, thinking I should be on the phone with Eileen, checking up on her and making sure she's okay, and instead I was having meaningless sex with a guy I don't even care about. I am a horrible friend.
Unable to fall back to sleep, I push myself up, propping myself up on my elbows. I'm alone in my bed, nothing unusual after sex with Jared. He always falls asleep in my bed afterwards, and I reluctantly fall asleep next to him, only for him to wake after an hour or two and quietly slip out of the room before I realize he's gone. Which doesn't bother me exactly, but it does make me feel like a common Chinatown whore. But it's okay. And really, isn't that the goal in life? To be okay?
Speaking of okay, I hope to God or the devil that Eileen made it home safe.
I sit up on the bed, rubbing my face with both hands. The sun is beginning to break and Saturday night is fast disappearing. Sunday morning. Would Eileen be annoyed if I call her now? I want to make sure she's okay, that she made it home okay last night. She probably did, and right now she's probably sleeping. I'll wait a while, maybe call her after breakfast. I don't want to interrupt what little relief she has in life.
After picking the clothes up off the floor, I drape my robe around my body, then head to the bathroom for a shower. Living in the dorm is like having a studio apartment in the city, except you have to share the kitchen and the bathroom with the rest of the floor. And you have to wear flip-flops in the shower. What can I say, I live with a bunch of filthy animals. I turn the water on in the shower stall and wait for it to heat up before disrobing and stepping in.
The hot water falls over me, cleansing me of my guilt and last night's sexual encounter. My toenails are polished red and happy, and I look down at them, encased in the shower shoes, one foot on each side of the drain with the water swirling around. All of the feelings I don't want to feel are swirling around with the water. Every last shred of those feelings swirling, swirling, going down the drain. The goal - my goal - in life is to be okay. It would be nice if Eileen ends up okay too. And she will, I think; it will just take a while.
I shut the water off and towel myself dry. I return to my dorm room, dripping down the hallway like I usually do, my hair slicked back messily from the towel. As I dress, I decide I need to walk up Stuart Street once more to hit the T station. Forget the phone call. I'm taking the T to see my friend. Because if my goal in life is to be okay, Eileen has to be okay too. Because I can't be okay if she's not.