Dave and I met at “The Lodge,” a big house out in the desert woods where a group of college seniors lived and threw parties that usually lasted all night. The cops showed up around two in the morning because of a noise complaint. There wasn’t another house around for miles but sound travels far in the flat and open desert. As the cars pulled up, people ran in every direction to hide in the dark behind trees and rocks. In all the chaos I saw Dave standing and swaying in front of the three cop cars. He was rolling hard on molly and transfixed by the spinning red and blue lights. I grabbed his arm and dragged him into a crawl space behind the house. We made out until the sun came up and then we talked until it went back down again.
Dave is from Alabama. His father was once a sort of celebrity in the city of Mobile where they lived. He was a fiery alcoholic preacher whom the newspapers had called “Mobile’s very own Jim Jones.” Now David Milton Senior sits day after day with an empty and faraway look in the same old armchair, his body wracked by years of alcohol abuse and self-medicating with pills. Dave once told me you could “see the swamp in his eyes.” When I asked him what he meant he said I wouldn’t understand. He said Mobile was a place that was always trying to keep the swamp out but no matter what the swamp would seep in. He said the whole South was trying to keep the swamp from seeping in.
Our relationship in college didn’t last long. He fucked like he was running a sprint and when he came to visit me in San Francisco in the summer he got so drunk he pissed his pants. When he drank he went to a different place and it frightened me. His eyes would change and he would stare at me like he was looking through my skin and seeing something beyond my body.
We remained sort of peripheral friends for the rest of his college years but lost touch once he graduated and moved to New Orleans and then to New York.
I heard stories through friends. How Dave had been robbed in New Orleans after blacking out and leaving his front door open. How he and his girlfriend had gotten into a physical fight that left him with claw marks all over his face. How he had been blacked out and robbed again, this time at an ATM in New York. I heard they beat him unconscious and left him bloodied on the sidewalk with a broken nose. I wondered if he was still afraid of falling into the same fate as his father or if he had forgotten and given up trying to avoid it.
Close to five years later when I was also living in New York a mutual friend put us back in touch. Dave was looking for a new job at a restaurant and this friend of ours knew I worked at a place that was hiring. Dave and I exchanged a few texts, I spoke with my bosses and the next week we were working our first shift together.
At the time I was drinking too much. I hated my boyfriend but didn’t have the heart to leave him, I was painfully in love with the bartender at work and I had nothing to do during the day besides sleep in, drag myself to yoga and go back to the restaurant. I was blacking out after my shift almost every night and Dave was right there on my level. We would sneak glass after glass of rosé and after doing a haphazard job of closing the restaurant we would head off to a late-night bar and drink until 4 a.m.
When I finally did break up with my boyfriend there was a short adjustment period during which the thought of going home to an empty bed was unbearably sad. After a particularly long night of working and drinking Dave came home with me to “be a good friend.” When we started to kiss I remembered the taste of his mouth from all those years before and as I pulled his shirt over his head I remembered the acne that had once covered his back. I remembered trying to maneuver around his tiny dorm bed and how I had to grab at his body to keep him from moving in and out of me so fast and I remembered how I had wanted to wash my hands when we were finished and how I had stayed there in bed next to him instead because I didn’t want him to know how repulsed I was. I remembered how his fingers felt rough on my skin because he’d bitten his nails into sharp ridges. It was different in my bed. He had more years of experience and it might actually have felt good if I’d been able to get out of my head and if I’d been able to feel my numb and alcohol-filled body.
The sun was almost up when he finally came. I was exhausted and had faked it over and over, hoping he would take the cue and finish but he only grabbed my face in his hands, turned my head towards his and said, “Look me in my eyes when you come.” But I wasn’t coming and I wasn’t going to and I didn’t want to look into his eyes because they were black and I couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d told me all those years before about his father sitting in that chair worn out from drinking and I knew that if I really looked I would see the swamp in his eyes and I couldn’t stand to think that he might be able to see the swamp in my eyes too.
Allison Tema Sloan is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York.