Friday, June 30, 2006
Biloxi, MS: 11:47 AM, July 1, 2006
Stepping out of an air-conditioned environment in Biloxi in July is like being thrown out a space ship's airlock: for a few seconds, you can't breathe at all. Then you die. Okay, so you don't actually die, but you want to. Besides, the Redneck Riviera is a halfway house for the afterlife -- so many decrepit geezers come down here to spend their Social Security checks at the casinos moored in the Gulf that where most restaurants would have coat racks, ours have walker storage. I'm pretty sure that the Grim Reaper gets a volume discount for all the work he does around here.

On that day, the air-conditioned environment I was leaving was my car. I'd navigated around all of the Mercury Marquis and Lincoln Town Cars (starter coffins, where all you can see sticking above the dash is blue hair and knuckles) doing 25 miles an hour on Highway 90 to get to the Olive Garden just outside Gulfport. Olive Gardens everywhere have a frightening sameness, as though they're all extruded from some creepy organic matrix, right down to the perky, blandly cute waitresses and the archly gay hosts.

I walked in the front door, and sure enough, Archly Gay Host #3C251/A was waiting at the podium, asking me how many were in my party. I told him I was meeting somebody and turned for the lounge area.

She was sitting so that she was half-facing the entrance, and I knew that Stacy was consciously showing the best side of her profile. When we were together, it was something that would have quietly irritated me, but now, two years later, it only made me smile wryly.

"You cut your hair," I told her as I sat down across from her. "Dyed it, too."

"I actually cut it almost completely off after we broke up," she said, and I think there was a hint of embarassment to her voice, "because I knew how much you liked my hair." It was true. Stacy had these wonderful blonde curls; I've never been a "gentlemen prefer blondes" type, but her hair was so gorgeous that even the honey-gold color had appealed to me.

It hurt, and it must have been written all over my face that it hurt, because she said, "I didn't ask you to meet me to be mean to you, Jay."

"Okay," I sighed, "why did you call me? It's been nearly two years, and I don't know if I want to open up old wounds." Before she could answer, the waitress came to our table and asked me if I wanted a drink. I ordered a Coke, because my days of drinking at noon were pretty much over after I graduated from Ole Miss. Stacy asked for a refill of her ginger ale, and I told the waitress that we'd need a little more time before deciding on any food orders. She departed, and Stacy fixed her emerald eyes on mine. She always had a captivating stare, and she was using it now to full effect.

"You know about my mother." I nodded; her mother had died during Katrina when her parents' house collapsed. Her father had survived, but spent several months in a back brace while his broken vertebrae healed. "When I saw your parents at Mom's funeral," -- her parents and mine had always been close -- "I thought about you for the first time in a long time, and I wondered if you still hate me."

"Stacy, I never hated you. I wanted to strangle you sometimes, but I never hated you."

"But you hated what I did to you."

"I hated what you did to yourself. That's why I left." Stacy was the quintessential party-girl, which was why we started dating. I was looking for fun and excitement, and I found it. Things had been a laugh a minute, right up to the moment where I found her in the sack with our friendly neighborhood coke dealer. Then things started to add up for me: her constant energy, the way she never seemed to have much disposable income even though she worked two jobs, the nosebleed she'd gotten when we were at Fort Walton Beach. I told her that I would help her get cleaned up, that I'd even pay for rehab if necessary, but she told me that she didn't need it because she was stronger than I was and that she had a handle on what she was doing.

I told her that she had to choose between having me in her life and having coke in her system, and she chose the drug. I walked away and didn't look back.

"You were right, Jay. About a lot of things, but mainly about the fact that I needed to get off the drugs." Tears were starting to well in her eyes, and she looked away as the waitress returned with our drinks. After the server bounced away, Stacy turned back to me and said, "It took an OD to convince me, and even then, the court had to send me into rehab. I've been clean for eight months now. I just wanted to tell you that you were right, and to try to make some amends. I don't know what else I can do except tell you how sorry I am for the way I treated you."

Tears were streaming quietly down her cheeks, and I took her hand across the table. If that wasn't enough, it was a good start.
Posted by rightshu at 6/30/2006 10:39:00 PM ::

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