She looked at him weird, she always looked at him weird. What the hell was her problem, anyways? She was arrogant to assume he didn’t deserve respect. Ben’s hair was matted, true, and these rags weren’t his Sunday best, but this store was an absolute shit-house and everyone who came here looked like a homeless junky or worse. He snatched the plastic bag from her hand and left before he got angry.
It was blisteringly bright that early morning. The sun pierced through scattered rainclouds and reflected cruelly off the wet blacktop. There was nowhere to look that didn’t sear. Ben mounted his longboard and kicked off forcefully. At the street corner he carved a swooping left towards home, but when the board leveled out Ben’s knee sent a sharp reminder up his spine.
He’d hurt it earlier that year — Was it six months ago? No, probably closer to nine now — It was hard to tell, time was fuzzy lately. The injury occurred under embarrassing conditions so Ben had taken to re-telling a cover story. He told it so often to friends, family, even the doctor, that it began to feel real. In the cover, Ben was at the skate park performing a particularly death-defying stunt when the front trucks of his trusty board snapped out from under him. In reality, the board was fine. Ben was indeed at the skate park, but he was showing off for the black-on-black skater girl with the arm tattoos and purple hair streaks who he thought (incorrectly, but who’s judging?) was watching him. He was trying to impress her when he toppled violently over a grinding rail (this time she was watching). When he awoke the next morning, the joint was swollen and he couldn’t bend his leg. The doctor had said there was no permanent damage, but he left with two prescriptions: Codeine 60mg, and six weeks rest.
The pain was finally cooling when Ben pointed his board down the gentle slope of Hyde St. He’d been suffering for hours until the store opened, but now that he was headed home his spirits started to lift. Sometimes things have a way of working out. Ben thought of the parable of the Maybe Monk: One day, a monk’s horse ran away and the villagers told him how awful his luck was. “Maybe,” said the monk. The next day, the horse returned with a wild horse and the villagers told him how great his luck was. “Maybe,” said the monk. The day after, the monk’s son was injured riding the wild horse, and the villagers told him how awful his luck was. “Maybe,” said the monk. Maybe. Ben found himself thinking of that monk often. He liked to think about how everything that happens can be both a blessing and a curse. If not for his bum knee, Ben mused, he’d have never met Sarah.
“I also just wanted an excuse to talk to you,” he had said to her. When friends asked how they met, this line usually made its way into the retelling.
He’d gone to the library for the first time in his adult life a few weeks after the injury. Ben had an active lifestyle before the fall, but an extended recovery demanded he find new ways to pass the time. He saw Sarah behind the help desk: purple eyeglasses, wavy brown hair, and elegant and graceful and beautiful and completely captivating. He knew immediately that he had to talk to her. And he knew from experience that if he planned what to say long enough that he’d chicken out. It helped that Ben felt great that day. His pain was dormant under a double dose of Codeine, which had the added benefit of numbing pains he didn’t know he had.
“Hi, could you please help me find a book?” Ben asked. “My friend told me to look for O. Henry.”
The pretty librarian was happy to help. She took pity at the sight of a tall, attractive Ben with his broad shoulders leaning into a crutch. He followed her to the ‘H’ aisle, savoring the chance to watch her movements, though he suspected that she felt him watching.
Ben was still lost in Sarah’s beauty when she ran her fingers over the spines of several books before drawing out a dirty brown specimen and handing it to him. He snapped out of his hypnosis when her eyes met his. Wait, did she just say something? A shot of panic set in and Ben heard himself speak.
“Wow, thank you, I was looking in the ‘O’s section, I thought it was O’Henry not O. Henry,” he explained, with exaggerated hand movements and runaway eyebrows, to differentiate the phonetically identical names. He felt he was boring her and his face warmed. The familiar pulse of self-consciousness grew in him, but Sarah laughed.
“No worries! I’m happy to help,” she said, and smiled at him warmly.
“If I’m honest,” Ben replied. “I also just wanted an excuse to talk to you.”
After that they were talking, and it was easy. Their first date was Friday and both of them were excited. Ben, in particular, felt like the luckiest man in the world. “Maybe,” said the monk.
The longboard wheels clunked rhythmically with each sidewalk line. When the clunks became sparse Ben pushed forward again. He peaked into the plastic bag: a pack of drinking straws and a box of tin foil, everything he’d need.
The wheels jumped loudly over a deep crack and the familiar pain tugged on Ben again. So unfair. This fucking city never fixes anything with all that tax money he’s paid. Thank God they didn’t get anything from him these days, those incompetent, corrupt, evil politicians. His anger swelled. The face of the sneering cashier came to mind and his heart beat hotter. He was gaining ground on a man running for exercise (what a joke) and felt an overwhelming urge to give him a speedy wake-up call. But his legs didn’t always listen to his mind, so Ben glided past without incident. He recognized his thoughts were cycling and took a few deep, slow breaths, just like his therapist had told him. A moment of peace brought the rhythmic clunking back into focus and his thoughts again returned to his girlfriend.
The first few times Ben and Sarah went out were exciting. They found common interests in campy horror movies and stand-up comedy, and their conversational chemistry was something they both verbally acknowledged. They enjoyed getting lost in long, meandering discussions, then tracing the path they had taken. “Wait, how did we get to dinosaurs?” Sarah had asked. Ben replied, “You were talking about your cousin’s tattoo and I brought up the Galapagos turtles, then —“. They continued like this for hours, from restaurant to bar to restaurant again, past closing times and curfews and sunsets and sunrises. The world faded out around them.
On their fifth or sixth date he took her to see fireworks from a secluded hillside overlooking the city. They’d had sex for the first time on the previous date and Ben wanted to show her his serious intentions. He dressed well and planned the date himself. But his knee was an unwelcome third wheel that 4th of July, and his romantic plans were quickly replaced by their first fight.
He had the blanket and champagne in one hand and her hand in the other. She’d brought two wine glasses but when they realized she’d left the bottle opener at home, things escalated. They argued, but it was when Ben accused Sarah of habitual forgetfulness that she fell silent. It took him weeks of gestures to earn forgiveness and regain her trust. He apologized repeatedly and blamed his behavior on the pain in his leg. She recommended physical therapy, and he lied that he would go (he wasn’t really going to waste his time with more idiot doctors). And by then he already knew how to avoid this in the future. He’d simply take an extra dose Codeine before their dates, especially if they would be walking. It was the safest way to not risk hurting her again. She was perfect and deserved someone perfect. He knew he wasn’t good enough but wanted to be as good as he could for her. The medicine helped him be himself.
Ben’s reached the apartment stairs and popped the longboard up under his arm. It was difficult, but he took time going up. Relief was finally on its way and his heart pounded with excitement. Inside, the living room was cluttered with clothes and fast food bags. The whole place smelled like a wet cave, but that was fine. Who cares, anyways? Ben had the rest of the day to himself and he wasn’t going to waste it worrying.
Of course, Ben knew he had to quit. He’d never intended it to escalate even this far, and his greatest fear since he started was Sarah finding out. He had just a little bit left anyways, and it didn’t make sense to waste it. He would quit tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow he’d get back on track with his physical therapy and job search, and he’d take Sarah somewhere nice and maybe bring her stargazer lilies, her favorite.
Ben emptied the plastic bag onto the table. He shaped a sheet of foil into a palm-sized bowl and placed a straw between his teeth. There was only a brief moment of panic, a faint dissenting voice that was ignored. But he didn’t deserve to be in pain, and the doctors wouldn’t give him anything strong enough since his prescription ran out last month. He took out a small baggy with a chunked brown powder and tipped a stamp carefully onto the foil. The reluctant puttering of the lighter sparked anxiety again — should he have bought one? did he forget again? — but the flame was born and melted the powder into a bubbling tar, and when Ben inhaled greedily the pain of his knee and the world left him.