— Bloodstained Sleeves
The air was heavy with cheap whiskey and stale beer. We burst through a busy street; the muffled sounds of partying exploded in a symphony of life as drunken talks spilled out from the bar’s open windows, where they were caught by the notes of a lone street musician trumpeting in the middle of the closed-off street. A chaos begotten from reckless celebration ensued before me.
My pulse beat to the pitch-changes of the street musician’s melody. Excitement touched my half-dead heart, and I clung onto it as one outlawed in a desert would for a drop of water.
I shook my shoulders loose and released my breath gazing stoned at the arrays of stringed lights, which lied interlaced across the rooftops of adjacent buildings.
In the middle of our walk back to the bar district a neon sign pointing toward a fortune teller caught my eye. A green-neon sign was alight amongst the yellows and reds of the street lamps and string-lights. Readings were five bucks. I reached into my pocket, to leaf through a couple of singles, and an encased condom I had forgotten about.
“Anyone have five bucks?” I asked.
Just then, a man in a white suit and white trilby hat exited the studio. In his hand, he held a tan suitcase. With great bravado, he flourished his hand to the brim of his hat at Claire, “Pardon me, Ma’am.” He said sidestepping between her and Sam. As his head turned to me I thought I saw disgust cross the edges of his cheeks. He rose his chin as cruel creatures do to diseased ones.
His face etched its shadow in my memories. I decided the drugs must have deceived me, but as I turned to see the man, he was in turn scowling back. His hat was the last I saw, blocked by the interwoven buildings and alleyways of Peregin.
Sam pointed out the sign and laughed, “Give me five dollars and I’ll read you a fortune; you’re bad with your money.” He belched.
“I think it’s cool, Alex.” Claire said, “Have you read your horoscope today?”
“No, I forgot to.” I admitted, still shaken by the previous encounter.
“No way, you look at your horoscope, Alex.” Jason said laughing, until Claire pointed out, she saw his account on the app too.
“It gives me something to read.” He defended himself.
“Just give in to the universe already.” I said.
“Yea, Jason. Let the stars shine up your butt.” Claire and I encircled him waving our arms drunkenly.
“Ok, Ok, I like looking at my horoscope. Go away.” Jason laughed, “I’m still not wasting five bucks on something I get for free.”
As we neared the bars, the chaos engulfed us. I was pulled into the stream of people enjoying the first true night of summer. Claire reigned me into a bubble with Jason and Sam. The heat of dozens of bodies each bound together in form toward obliteration. We followed the natural flow of the crowd, until a red, neon sign flashing Seasides, appeared ahead. Claire commanded the effort; one hand grabbed mine, while the other took Jason’s.
We burst from the crowd just as my ears begged for a quick death. Sam followed, grumbling about being left behind. I thought of the flask of Euphoria I kept in my pocket. No, that would not help me. Alcohol was tonight’s medicine.
Claire talked to the bouncer, who in turn waved our group through. Sam flipped off the crowd waiting to have their ids checked. Jason reprimanded him, while I followed closely behind.
“Thanks Tim.” Claire said following me into her work.
We were on the Juxtant River, the restaurant opened to a view of the eastern side of the city. This, I had thought, was a shame. The last hours of sunlight shimmered across the still water. Wealthier citizens lined the alley with their sailboats. Sam pointed out a group partying on the boat they docked beside another bar across the bridge.
Sailing décor was thrown in random places, bottled-ships sealed in glass domes, rope and ribbon stamped across wooden walls, black and white pictures of grizzled seafarers sat between a plethora of liquor bottles. Four bartenders wove between one another effortlessly as liquid was poured into cups and passed along to other kids. The lights bounced to the rhythm of a bass beat playing in the background.
I could see the outside area was in further disarray. For every person inside there were three clamoring along the edges of the outside bar. A thick red-line painted on the edge of the dock was the only separation between the drunkards and the frigid bay water.
Claire led our group to the far corner of the bar to another group of people. Three of them were still wearing the Seaside’s uniform. One girl, whom I later found out was named Maddie, yelled at the bartender.
“Jimmy six cherrybombs.” Maddie commanded.
Jimmy, one of the bartenders, put his hand to his ear and walked closer to the girl.
“SIX CHERRYBOMBS!” She screamed in his ear.
He recoiled, but nodded affirmatively.
The six others recognized our group approaching. Claire hugged a few of them, while Jason and Sam dapped the rest up. I stood awkwardly aside. My fingers dug into the sides of my jeans. The anxiety I had for meeting new people contested the longing I felt for friendship.
“Hey I’m Ronnie.” One of the guys dressed in the Seaside’s uniform spoke to me holding his hand out.
I misplaced my hand in an attempt to return his shake and grabbed the edges of his fingers. Panic scorched through my veins as I looked to his face to see if I had just ruined the first interaction I had. “Hi” I said, “I’m…”
“This is Alex.” Claire told the group as she pointed me out in a similar fashion to Dana White. I smiled and waved to the remainder of the group. They introduced their names in rapid succession. I smiled politely, but there was a mutual understanding. We were nothing more than drinking friends until I do something worthy or continue to come out. There was no memory for one-offs.
“Jimmy!” Maddie drunkenly screamed, her hoops dancing with the movement of her head, “Nine!” She yelled holding up nine fingers. Jimmy nodded and poured four more shots. One, I correctly guessed, was for him.
She passed the shots out to each person, saying their names as she did so.
“…And Alex.” She said. Claire whooped as we raised our shots, “To Jimmy!” She slurred.
Cherrybombs were just alcoholic cough medicine. The insidious sweetness did little to mask to the flavor of cheap liquor. I shuttered, but only a fool complained about free booze.
We stayed inside for the ease of bartender access. I found out Ronnie and the girl, Dakota, were dating. Everyone worked for Seaside’s save for Jason, Sam and I.
Sam and Jason walked up to the bar and grabbed two barstools. Claire and I grabbed the two beside them. A large, big-bellied man stood leaning against the counter. Seeing us in the mirror he put his vape back in his apron pocket and walked over to us. “Hello, gorgeous.” He said.
“Hey Jean.” Claire said puckering her lips. The two touched cheeks and kissed the air, “How are you?”
Jean spread his arms out in dejection, “Living the dream.” He smiled, “What can I get you?”
“Grayson’s” Jason and Sam echoed at once. Grayson’s was the name of a local brewery. It tasted worse than normal beer, but I wouldn’t be the one to ask. Claire ordered a screwdriver.
“And who is this unfortunate compatriot? How’d you get stuck with this motley crew?”
“Ever poetic, Jean.”
“Have you visited my website?”
“Yes. Your poetry is as beautiful as ever. The one about the bird, you buried in a shoebox as a child broke my heart.”
“Birdy Blues, yea,” The man affirmed, “I originally wrote it as a haiku, but the words really spoke to me.”
“This is Alex,” Claire said, “He’s an old friend of ours. Just graduated college.”
“Oh, nice.” Jean said, “I remember college. Got a job as a bartender to pay off the loans and well, here I am.” He chuckled. “Well, Mr. Alex, what can I do for you?”
That was more normal than the salesman and the dress lady. “Vodka Redbull?” I asked
“Coming right up.”
“Beautiful people don’t pay.” Jean said blocking his mouth with the palm of his hand so the other guests don’t hear.
“Thanks, Jean.” We said in unison like school children who had just received some candy.
We passed some time in the corner of the bar, watching crowds of people rush in to grab the bartender as soon as they made eye contact.
“It’s all in the eyes.” Claire said confidently, “When I bartended, they told me, ‘The moment you make eye contact with someone is the moment you lose.’ Look.” She said, pointing to Jean, who kept his eyes to the liquor cabinet, while a dozen people stood awkwardly behind the counter, waiting their turn to yell their demands.
Jean passed a glass of draft to a kid, while making eye contact with the man beside him.
“So, Alex, right?” Ronnie said through the incoherent rabble of background conversation, “What do you do, man?” This brought a dozen eyes onto me as I hesitantly took a sip of my drink.
“Nothing, yet.” I said, “I just graduated from college, so I guess still figuring things out.”
“That’s the hardest part.” Ronnie said taking a sip from a neat pour of bourbon, “At least from what I’ve heard. Claire and I are still living the serving life.” He attempted to ruffle Claire’s hair, but she was predatory about her personal space.
“Speak for yourself,” Claire slapped his hand away, “There is good money to be had on Dock Street.”
“Being a cute serving girl only lasts as long as you stay cute. No one likes the forty-year old server…” Claire rose her hand to protest, but Ronnie interjected, “I don’t mean it like that, and you know it.”
“First, I am cute,” Claire said ignoring Ronnie’s explanation “More importantly, don’t insult Mo, she’s a gem.”
“Mo is retired, Claire.” Ronnie laughed, “She just likes doing this.”
“Well, unlike you I will not be here until I’m forty.” Claire laughed.
“You say now.” Ronnie said, “Like you said, ‘There’s money to be had’”
“There is.” Claire said, “But my coworkers could use some work.”
“Shut up, you love us!” Maddie said passing another round of cherry-bombs to us.
“Beauty is a mindset, Ronnie. We are perfect.” Maddie said as we clinked our shots together.
“Salut” Claire said.
“Merci.” Sam replied.
It was worse the second time, but liquor was efficient. The night had barely kindled, and already the lights shook in my vision and my blood warmed within my veins. My arm had stopped its incessant itching, which I had blocked out with the Euphoria, but otherwise mostly endured.
A coin slipped loose from my jean pocket and landed upon the floor. I heard the bounce of metal upon wood and weighed whether it was worth the effort. My self-trust was wavering at this point as to whether I would find my way back upon the stool.
Claire grabbed my shoulder, “One more shot and we’re going upstairs. Jean is setting up the dance floor early for us.”
The coin was weighed; my vision slurred as I revolved from one person to the next. Logic had lost all bearing. The darkness edged its pincers into the chords surrounding my heart. They plucked each jarring note one after the other. My throat swelled as emotions I was too drunk to think through poured out of a leak in my subconscious. I did not know why I wanted to die, but I would give anything to any lord, god, or man to slay me now. This suffering did nothing to strengthen my character. This needlessness was driving me insane. My fingers clawed into my skin beneath the club’s lights. I could not tell if it was sweat or blood that graced my fingers.
I thought if I could dance and drink then I could uncover freedom. The clothes I wore constricted my body. The needles that cut through my face scratched my neck as I turned to the beat of some hip-hop song. My friends were nowhere to be found. The silhouettes of sweaty bodies blurred as one enclosing entity. The air hung like a noose around my neck. The humidity poured pushed my sobs back into the confines of my chest.
My arms rose as the beast’s mirror. An energy surged from the dark floorboards into my chest. Time slowed to a crawl as I felt my heart fight against her oppressors. If I were to stop dancing, if only for a moment, I feared the weight of my loneliness would catch up and leave me crippled upon the club floor, whereupon the beast of this land can give me my promised desserts.
“Kill me. Kill me. Kill me. Kill me.” I said to no one in particular. The darkness hid my lips. The music drowned out my words.
I made one last look to my surroundings, but I was alone in a room of strangers. There was nothing here for me. I stumbled my way out onto the city streets.
The summer air felt cool on my saturated skin. The street had roared into a moshpit of other groups of people running from one bar to the next. Club lights poured out through open windows. Hip-hop followed country, which had started after a rapturous bout of edm. Logic had lost weight as the music and noise collided into a furious symphony that did nothing but jar my senses.
A local Dj, Bennie-G, was getting a crowd going at a nearby club. His voice blared from the speakers, “Yes, yes, turn it up!” He said, “Again.” The music blared alive and then subsided, “Again, yes!” He shouted as the bass roared around me.
Tiny bodies with dozens of hairy legs crawled atop my body. I began scratching the invisible parasites, while the beast surrounded me. Its roars jarred my brain back into place. I pushed my way into the stream of kids. They, in turn, pushed me forward until the scene fizzled out at the end of the street.
I popped through the last remnants of people. Now I was with the others who had to bail from the night. One girl laid in the alley puking red, chunky liquid onto the sidewalk. Her friend berated her for ruining the night, while she held her friend’s hair up. A guy sat on the corner. He was sobbing silently into his hoody.
We were all broken. His coin flipped wrong too, and yet it was so unfair. How was it just us three, Becky, jacket-boy, and me? Those odds were bullshit. I wanted to grab him and say it was ok; we can wail at the gods together, but that would be a strange thing to say. I continued to walk past his sobs. He’d get through it, or he won’t; I’d never know.
I was worthless; my life was worthless. This climb had damaged my mind beyond repair and I had nothing to show for it with everything to help me. It was pathetic; I was pathetic.
The streets were barely illuminated as a nightly fog ascended from the sewers, obscuring the street lamps. I thought it was safe to cry, and all at once a guttural sob escaped my lips. I would have been embarrassed if my mind was not immediately overcome by the sensation of tears flooding down my cheeks only to be shook away with forceful, guttural sobs.
The distant lights of financial towers and boats drifting across the dark horizon were obscured with water as I brushed the tears from my face. I was a grown… Man. The word hurt more than anything else, and yet maybe I could force it.
I was a man. I was a man. I was a man.
No… No, please stop. I dug my nails into my head. That would not help. I just wanted to die, that was my only relief. All others would drag me through the streets to be tarred, mocked, and treated as less than all others. Death was the only equalizer in life, and I dreamt of my hasty departure as much as did of a future lover.
I shuffled across the harbor in slow, zombielike movements. The streets were lined with weather-stained bricks; under the dim lights of streetlamps, their red hues shone through. It was mostly quiet, save for a few other drunken travelers or merchant sailors wandering off the piers. No one bothered me. It was ill-luck to intervene in another’s personal business. There were few enough hours in the day to wallow over their own woes, how could I expect anyone to spare a minute for mine?
I made my way to a decrepit wooden walking-bridge, which connected the two sides of the harbor. I stood for a while letting my tears fall onto the wooden railings. The ships were stoically still. The water did nothing to move the enormous, steel heels. Their lights shone like Christmas ornaments; a few men patrolling walked past shining flashlights in the darkened nooks and crannies.
I wondered if anyone had tried sneaking on before. I wondered if they were strapped. Death by Merchant Sailor, made for a unique headline.
I never wanted to hurt anyone, though. Even if that pain was the trauma of unloading a mag onto some random trans… that wandered aboard his vessel.
I laughed at the thought of being trans. The word was frightening enough on its own. I didn’t have to call myself a girl afterwards.
The night was peaceful and I was alone. Had the bridge only been built with my intent in mind; instead, I was compelled to do what I could with what I had.
“Excuse me, Miss.” A soft voice whispered behind me.
I gasped, taking a step back against wooden railing. She stood at my level; however, I was taken back by the appearance of the strangely-dressed woman before me. At first, I had thought she was a part of the cosplay convention, I had seen earlier, but her voice had fallen eerily in line with the shrouds of dark cloth draped around her figure.
I felt goosebumps ripple across my shoulders as a cold breath escaped my lips, “Yes? Sorry.” I spoke dryly wiping away the escaping tears.
“The water is far too warm this season. If you wish; the bar down this street is relatively quiet. They won’t bother you.” The woman walked away as if her duty lied fulfilled.
I watched her walk away for a moment before turning my attention toward the wharf. A single light emanated from the distant alleyway close to where the cargo ships dock. I supposed fate had a way of turning every once-in-a-while.
Within my wallet, I retrieved a razor blade from the front pocket. This was my right. This was my contract with society and with the world. I had the right to take myself out of the game whenever I wanted, and I wanted to. I didn’t owe anyone anything.
I pushed open the spray-painted, metal doors of the bar to find a desolate scene before me. The bar lights flickered inconsistently above an absentminded bartender, who was vaping in the corner, where their phone laid charging. A salty, old man had fallen asleep within a bowl of nuts.
The woman spoke truthfully; the bartender had not noticed the crying drunkard enter. I turned to the restrooms, which were tucked beneath an obstructive staircase that spilled in the middle of the room. This also conveniently hid my entrance through the restroom.
I locked brushed the metal spring lock into place. It felt as if someone smothered it in butter. I turned to the disgusting scene before me. What a perfect ornament, I would make locked rotting within this pit of waste.
I removed the flask of Euphoria from my back pocket before briefly considering a sip, but I remembered the feeling. If I gave in to Euphoria, I would not have the courage to finish my dessert.
I took a seat on the grimy toilet-lid, ignoring the vomit that had dried around the base of the toilet. My fingers shook, but I did my best in keeping my fingers still as I fiddled with the carboard cover, which loosely hung over the blade.
It was only two slices , I thought, That could not be that hard. I had gotten close before, but those were practice; This was it. What were all the scars for, if not for this?
As the cold steel hovered above my skin, I recalled why I had loved the feeling so much. The pain brought me relief in the same twisted way a man dying of thirst would drown in liquor if there were nothing else to drink.
We’re all friends… Claire’s voiced whispered in the back of my head.
“Not now… Just let me do this.” I said to the empty bathroom.
we are all home… you graduated… be happy.
“I can’t; I tried; I can’t.” I spat bitterly, knowing that was another string of lies. I never gave anything more effort than I believed it worth, and nothing in live was ever worth it. I didn’t know what the ‘it’ was in life to find worth in.
I hung my head and played with the razor’s edge. I shaved across the hairs that grew on my forearm. I blew the hairs away as I wagered what I could do.
“Fine.” I said, “We’ll see what you can do for me.” Alcohol had betrayed me; I would see what Euphoria could do for me.
I returned the razor to my wallet and removed the flask from the depths of my jacket. As I opened the cap, floral notes of honey and lavender wafted through the air. It brought a sense of peace. I breathed a clear breath unburdened from sorrow.
“To Jimmy.” I slurred bringing the canteen to my lips. I drank heavy gulps of the liquid draining half the bottle before stopping to gasp for breath.
The foundation in which my reality rested upon was the same cardboard holding the edge of a razor from the vein of a stupid kid. Everything looked false; a kiss would have shown me love; a plastic knife would have just as easily split me open. Still, in spite of this, I continued to throw my body at every injurious obstacle my half-rotted brain had time to register. I wondered if I suffered because I knew no other way to live, but if no one tells what that way is, then how the fuck am I supposed to live it?
I shook my head clear of redundant voices escalating their volume in the depths of the abyss within my skull. I forced my fingers to soften their iron grasp upon the flask before pushing the opening to my lip. Euphoria pushed the sorrow from my mind. I felt them, the sharpened-claws upon a fiend’s hand that had traced my body as theirs to torment; however, I was thankful for the warmth, and I was thankful for the release something gave when everything else was empty.
At once, the line disappeared completely. Sobriety hit my body. I gasped for air. Jarringly brought back into reality as a rollercoaster stopped at the top of the tracks. The bathroom stood still. The doubles returned to their original forms. The line was out of sight. The alcohol dissipated from my physical state as the drain in energy I felt earlier surged.
My reality burst as the weight of gravity pulled my body down the ride. Each individual hair follicle on my arms sent shivers through my veins. My heart began to pace, and my vision blurred in the quick change of internal stasis. My body burst through frigid waters, which did not cease.
I turned to the mirror, and saw her eyes glowing in return. Blackened eyes contrasted against the shimmer of gold that dripped from her iris. This was no momentary lapse in vision. She was there, before me. A high-priestess in jeans; a goddess whose eyes held power. Her arms were clean. The scars disappeared entirely as if she had never committed savagery against her own flesh. She was pure, and that was all that mattered. Pink painted nails gingerly touched one another as my body fought the loss of its emotional weight. I just wanted to know. I guess I knew.
If tears were possible I would have released them. If I had control I would have lied on the bathroom floor and forced myself to sleep- or, Uber to the hospital. I laughed at the thought of spending my last moments in a hospital room. No, I would die in the darkness of a club to the entity of dark silhouetted dancers. I would step off from this world onto the dancing lights as my ancestors did to the stars.
I pushed open the bathroom and made for the exit, while the bartender continued scrolling through his phone. The man’s snores resonated within the bowl of nuts. He exclaimed his farewells through a sharp, gargled snort that sent a peanut shooting across the floor.
The city’s lights shone ahead. An ever-persisting sign of growth. An invitation begging for a second chance. To decline was to continue hurting myself.
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