Parking Lots

Parking lot at night
Photo by Keagan Henman on Unsplash

The battered, old LSAT prep book is Brenda’s most treasured possession, a lucky charm that she never wants to be too far away from. She’d found it in the library at the last residential treatment she’d attended. Her eyes had lit up when her gaze landed on the purple textbook with white lettering, its corners worn and dog-eared, its paperback cover promising strategies for every section and three full-length practice tests. Brenda had immediately picked it up and started flipping through it. It was nice to have something to puzzle through, something besides triggers and coping skills and early maladaptive schemas. When one of the techs tapped her on the shoulder and told her it was dinner time, she was surprised to hear it. When she was discharged from treatment two weeks later, she hid the book in her suitcase and brought it with her.

Since then, Brenda has hauled the heavy textbook out of her canvas messenger bag whenever she has a spare moment—on break at her deadening call center job, at the coffee shop after work, while eating a hastily microwaved burrito in her little studio apartment. Now, with another ten minutes before the AA meeting starts, Brenda has the book out again, cover bent back behind it. Her head hurts, and her right contact lens is acting up. With one eye clenched shut, she has to read the same line a few times to get it to click.

Do not pick a response simply because it is a true statement. Although true, it may not answer the question posed.

She’s chewing her lip, fiddling with the plug in her right ear lobe.

Do not pick a response simply because it is a true statement.

There’s a stink of burnt coffee in the air. The rickety folding chair creaks under her as her ankles bounce with nervous energy. Through the scattered voices and laughter, she hears heavy footsteps advance toward her across the linoleum.

Although true, it may not answer the question posed.

The footsteps stop a few yards away from her. Slowly, Brenda looks up.

***

In the four months since he processed out of the Milwaukee County Adult Detention Center, Mickey has built an entire life around avoiding certain thoughts. He meditates twice daily. He preps six individual lunches every Sunday afternoon, lining the Tupperware up in ranks on the counter in the grubby, shared kitchen of his rooming house. He goes straight to the gym after work, and this is always the hour of his day he treasures most. Mickey wants to be able to see his newfound sense of discipline, wants to read it in the promising little bulge of his biceps.

And yet, no matter what scaffolding he constructs around the ruins of his life, the memories find him, and Mickey can only cringe. He’ll be washing the dishes or squeezing a still-too-fresh avocado at the grocery store and it’ll just hit him—a vision of himself with bloodshot eyes, the veins standing out on his forehead, mouth twisted into a disgusted sneer. And right then and there, he’ll feel his whole body tensing up, his jaw clamping down so hard it makes his neck hurt.

Mickey reckons about half of those jagged, searing images involve his conduct toward his former fiancé. So when he walks into the Wednesday night Back to Basics meeting for the first time, only to find Brenda slumped down in a metal chair and fiddling with her right ear gauge, he freezes. Then she looks up, sees him, and almost falls out of her chair.

“Oh, hell no,” she mutters. In an instant she’s up and moving, stuffing a purple textbook in her messenger bag as she pushes past him toward the door.

“Brenda.” Without thinking, he takes off after her, hitting the church parking lot two heartbeats behind her. “Brenda, wait.”

“Nope.” Her gait is swift, purposeful, and each click of her heels on cement is like a gavel coming down.

“Please,” he says, and he can hear the desperation in his own voice. “For God’s sake, just give me thirty seconds.”

Abruptly, she stops and turns. It’s dark in the parking lot, but for the jaundiced light of the streetlamps, and a bracing September wind blows Brenda’s hair across her face. She brushes it away and crosses her arms, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.

“Thirty seconds. Go.”

Mickey opens his mouth, stops, closes it again.

“Clock’s ticking, Mick.”

“Look, I was just here to catch an AA meeting. I don’t have a speech prepared or anything—”

“Twenty seconds.” Brenda is digging in her messenger bag, presumably for car keys.

“I’m just sorry.” The words feel small and useless, but he presses on. “Just… sorry for how it all turned out. And you’re not gonna have to see me again. You can have this meeting, I just checked it out on a whim. But I wanna say, while I have the chance, that I was wrong and you deserved better.”

Brenda stands there for a moment, staring back at him. “Okay,” she says at last. “Thanks for that. Bye.” Then she walks off, the click of her heels fading into the howling autumn wind.

Two nights later, Mickey is at the gym, warming up for deadlift day, when he feels his phone vibrate. Pulling it from the pocket of his basketball shorts, he sees a number he recognizes, though his phone no longer attaches a name to it. Plugging one ear to block out the gym’s bouncy pop soundtrack, he hits the green button.

“Hey.” Brenda’s voice is an extended sigh.

“Hey.” Short and sharp, like he’s snapping to attention.

The next moment seems to stretch on indefinitely. Mickey isn’t sure what to say, and the other end of the line is silent. It goes on and on, for what feels like several millennia, and Mickey is beginning to wonder if he’s lost her. Then he hears Brenda clear her throat.

“Look,” she says. “I don’t want it to be weird between us.”

Mickey feels his jaw unclench. “I don’t want that, either,” is all he can think to say.

***

When Brenda arrives at the next meeting—Wednesday night, Back to Basics—Mickey is standing outside the entrance, smoking a menthol and receding into the upturned collar of his peacoat. She’s wearing sweatpants and an old hoodie, so as not to give the appearance of having dressed up for him.

“Hi.” Brenda eyes the cigarette. “I thought you quit?”

“I did,” he says, and shrugs. Then he jabs the cigarette out in a nearby coffee can, and they head inside.

Their relationship had been a strange tune, discordant and menacing, and it seemed to Brenda that most of its crescendos had come in parking lots—in the tense moments before entering a situation that required their best behavior, or in the electrifying catharsis of having just left one. It was in the lot outside their apartment building that their relationship had come to an end. They’d been served an order to vacate by a sheriff’s deputy and spent the following 24 hours drinking and trying to come up with a plan. Finally, the landlord had told them to get out, and gave them 30 additional minutes to arrange a ride. Instead, they’d torn into each other with unprecedented venom, their voices rising steadily from a cruel stage whisper to anguished screams. They were both shitfaced, and Mickey had done some coke, and it was only by the grace of God that they’d fallen into mutual, choked sobs without an intervening burst of violence.

As always, the meeting closes with the Serenity Prayer, and Brenda reaches out and takes Mickey’s hand. It is cool and dry, and the calluses feel familiar. In unison with their peers, they ask for the serenity to accept the things they can’t change, the courage to change what things they can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Mickey gives her hand a gentle squeeze before releasing it.

“I’m gonna get a cup of coffee,” he says, turning toward her. “You wanna join me?”

Brenda nods and follows him out.

The coffee shop is warm and bright, the walls covered in knickknacks and crude watercolors, and Brenda is relieved when Mickey doesn't offer to pay for her drink. For half an hour, they trade little updates on how their families are doing, what career moves they hope to make, how they’ve each been putting their lives back together. As Mickey takes another menthol out of his coat pocket and taps the filter against his wristwatch, Brenda hears him chuckle.

“What?”

“I dunno.” Mickey leans back in his chair, balancing on two precarious legs. “We’ve come a long way, huh? Since the last time we saw each other?”

“We saw each other last week.”

“Nah.” Mickey shakes his head. “The time before that.”

“Right.” Brenda chews on that one for a moment. “Not a good look.”

“For either of us.”

As she watches Mickey idly rolling his cigarette between thumb and forefinger, it occurs to Brenda that she kind of wants one. It also occurs to her that, as much pain as she’s been through with Mickey, he’s also the only person on Earth who shared those experiences with her.

“What?”

“I was just thinking,” Brenda says, “we should start our own support group.”

Mickey grins, wide and toothy. “Sure,” he says. “Survivors of Brenda and Mickey’s Relationship.”

Brenda laughs, deep and sincere. It feels good to laugh together, after all this time.

***

Even nineteen months after their split, their apartments have a sort of complementarity, like they’d just broken the old place in half and gone their separate ways. Mickey’s living room walls are still bare, as he’s never filled the spaces once taken up by Brenda’s watercolors and family photos. Brenda’s bookshelves are still only half full, missing Mickey’s collection of military history and English comic fiction. It’s amazing to Brenda, when she allows herself to think about it, how completely their lives had once melded. There seemed to be something about them that fit together. Her bookshelves had always been empty; his walls had always been bare.

Brenda spends Sunday puttering around her studio apartment, trying to bring the future back into focus. It seems to be getting blurry, slipping away from her, like the split second before waking up from a dream. With an energy bordering on frantic, she dusts the apartment, circulates the laundry, reads the Wikipedia article for Individual Retirement Accounts, and tries to study her LSAT book. She finds herself reading the same line over and over again, but it’s like a credit card that won’t swipe. Where once there was an effect, now there is none, and Brenda doesn’t know how to get it back.

Across town, Mickey sits on his loveseat—it had come with Brenda’s couch—and stares down the barrel of an entire day off. He’s already gone to the gym, meditated, and failed to become absorbed in a third re-reading of Brideshead Revisited. There are still sixteen hours before he has to be back at the warehouse.

For lack of anything better to do, he puts Netflix on, but soon he’s rummaging through his memories. It’s a life-long habit, recently honed by serving his time in the county jail—if he can find a good memory, a really juicy one, he can suck on it like a jawbreaker and let everything else float away. He finds himself zeroing in on Brenda, on the physical experience of her. He tries to remember the exact pattern of marbled blue in her eyes, the roughness of fishnets under his palm.

Mickey slides deeper and deeper, until the images seem to dance across the bare, white walls of his living room. Soon the sun is sinking toward the horizon, and the TV is asking if he’s still there.

***

Throughout their time together, no matter how hungover or still-drunk they were, Brenda and Mickey would each call their parents on Sunday evenings. Brenda would sprawl across their bed, while Mickey would pace around the balcony smoking. This piece of their weekly rhythm has survived the breakup, and across town, in their separate apartments, they each pick up their phones and dial as the sun becomes little more than an orange glow in the western sky.

Mickey, as always, calls his mother. He offers a perfunctory report on how work is going, affirms that he’s still sober, and happens to mention that he’d run into Brenda.

“What? Really?”

“Ma, it’s okay. I talked to her, and we’re okay. We’re friends.”

“Right,” his mother says. “I always liked her. She seemed like such a nice girl.”

“Ma, we’re friends.”

“Sure, and maybe someday—”

“Ma, come on. Don’t.”

Brenda, in turn, calls her father, fully intending to talk about everything in her life besides Mickey. There is simply no need to mention him. And yet, in the moment, she just blurts it out.

“I had coffee with Mickey the other day.”

The only response is silence.

“Dad? Did you hear me?”

There comes a heavy sigh, long and weary.

“It’s okay. We’re friends. Dad, come on. Don’t.”

***

As midnight strikes, and Tuesday becomes Wednesday, Brenda finds herself in a moment out of time. She is lying on a bed that had once stood in the guest room of their shared home, but which now occupies one corner of her studio apartment. Mickey is lying next to her, tense but still. Brenda hears the thump of a moody slow jam oozing out of the Bluetooth speaker on the kitchenette counter. She tries to zero in on it, to feel it in her bones.

“It’s okay,” Mickey says. “Nothing needs to happen here.”

Brenda’s residential counselor had taught her that there was an orderly, cognitive-behavioral reasoning behind everything she did. Looking up at the darkened ceiling, watching the gathering haze from Mickey’s cigarette smoke, Brenda tries to imagine those little worksheets her counselor used to make her fill out.

She called Mickey, Brenda tells herself, because the emptiness and silence of the studio apartment had become unbearable.

She suggested he come over, rather than meet her somewhere, because the thought of being around people filled her with corrosive, burning thoughts about what they might think of her. Except Mickey. Mickey isn’t people.

She made dinner because it was cheaper than eating out, and healthier, and it’s important to build good self-care habits.

And then Brenda kissed him, there in the kitchenette, before he’d even had a chance to towel the dishwater from his hands. Because she wanted to. Wasn’t that enough?

“Hey,” Mickey says in the gloom. “Look, I can go. You want me to go?”

Sometimes, Brenda just loses sight of herself. The movie ends, the lights come on, and the intractability of her life returns. In those moments, the only thing she can do to drown out the static is to lose herself in a sensory experience—the smoky chill of cold bourbon, or the tangy smell of sweat, or the grip of a strong hand on her thigh.

Sitting up a little, Brenda reaches over and takes the cigarette from Mickey’s lips. She hits it once, feeling that perfect, even burn spread down her throat and into her lungs. Then she drops the butt in a long-neglected teacup on the bedside table, where it winks out with a little sizzle.

“No,” she says. “Stay.”

The threshold crossed, she moves with greater confidence, throwing one leg over him at the waist. Mickey has one hand on her thigh, and then the other is in her hair, pulling her down, and she’s gone, gone, gone.

***

“We can’t keep doing this.”

That’s what Brenda had said to him all those months ago, in the rain-slick parking lot where they’d finally parted ways. They’d run out of steam, their voices hoarse, and Mickey had plopped down on a cardboard box labeled BOOKS and buried his face in his hands. After a moment’s hesitation, Brenda had sat down on another cardboard box, also labeled BOOKS, and put up the hood of her ratty, gray sweater. Mickey felt the first pinpricks of drizzle on the back of his neck. In the distance, he thought he could hear the menacing whoop of approaching sirens.

“We can’t keep doing this,” Brenda said again, wiping at her raccoon eyes with the balls of her hands.

Of course they could, Mickey thought to himself. They’d been down this road a dozen times, knew the lyrics word for word. Soon even this blowup, this public spectacle, would fade into the past, and they’d tell themselves whatever they needed to hear to keep going.

They really could keep doing this, Mickey realized. Maybe forever.

Maybe there were only so many moments of clarity, so many chances to get off the ride.

Maybe this was one of them.

***

Wednesday night. Back to Basics. Although the meeting started five minutes ago, Mickey is still slouched down in the driver’s seat of his aging Subaru. Brenda, he reminds himself, is probably already inside.

“One more cigarette,” he mutters aloud, and in the silence of the car he can hear the shakiness in his voice.

A flick, a spark, and then he feels the burn in his lungs. It brings him out of his head, back to the present moment. Brenda is inside, he tells himself again. I need to get in there. I want to get in there. I want—

“Shit,” Mickey hisses. The cigarette has burned halfway down to the filter, and the sagging column of ash has fallen into his lap. He brushes at his black jeans, but only succeeds in smudging the ash into them. The newscaster’s voice is coming through the radio garbled, slipping in and out of a sea of static.

Then, as he looks around the parking lot, Mickey’s gaze settles on a particular station wagon, perhaps a hundred feet away. Brenda is behind the wheel, and he can see that she’s smoking, too, occasionally tapping her ash out of the driver’s side window. And then, before Mickey can do anything else, her gaze meets his.

For a moment, he is back in the lot outside their old apartment building, sitting on that sagging cardboard box. His tears mingle with the cold autumn drizzle, his sobs slowly overpowered by the dopplering menace of approaching sirens.

Then he’s in their new apartment, their next apartment, sitting on their couch with his arm around her. The bookshelves are full, the walls nearly covered.

He’s staring into the white speckles in the blue of her eyes, trying to memorize each one.

He’s grabbing hold of one fishnetted thigh, hanging on for dear life.

They really could keep doing this. Maybe forever.

But then the secondhand ticks forward, the universe resumes, and Mickey sees the old station wagon’s headlights come on. With a low rumble, it lurches into motion, drawing a wide curve around his own parking space and rolling out into the street. And in the depths of Mickey’s mind, in the part that always knew better, a little voice says thank you.

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