Saturday, May 21, 2016

Storms

She sat in her favorite spot on the porch of the beach house, the salty air sticking to her skin, the oncoming storm blowing sand across her bare feet. The crisp envelope bent beneath her fingers as she laid it on her lap and reached for the pen in her dress pocket.

The air felt invigorated. She smiled. She thought of storms as, even more than hardships, common enemies that brought people together.

And that that enemy was, though very animated, inanimate, was the best part of it. She had met Daniel in a storm – both taking cover under the eaves of the general store-and-bait shop in South Beach. He’d offered her a towel that sat draped over his shoulder. She’d thanked him as she’d dried her face.

She loved storms even more than sunsets. She knew she wasn’t the only one. The couple in the neighboring house would always come out on their deck as the clouds massed. Nowadays, they brought out their baby, too. They were both blonde. She looked like a model for J. Crew or Abercrombie or whichever brand was currently most successfully advertising itself as white and wealthy. He looked like…he’d met her at that company at a new models’ introductory lunch.

She wondered what that life was like. She knew, of course, that it couldn’t be all plush carpet beneath freshly scrubbed white feet and lazily draped, tanned-and-toned white appendages, the fine golden hairs catching the sunlight just so – catching it and batting it around amongst themselves until finally tiring of it and letting it move on.

She knew it, if for no other reason than she’d seen them arguing – seen it through their large bay windows. Seen it as she’d lain on her couch in an unlit house, at that time of evening when the sky was still light but the shadows were dark. At a time she’d felt a shadow amongst shadows.

She’d just stared at the couple, their pain barely registering, if at all – she preferred to believe the former. What she saw – or, felt – was a merciful distraction from her thoughts. An animated, soundless scene in front of her that left her only enough mental energy to feel her cool, wet, heavy eyelashes as the vestiges of her catching sobs slowly died away.

The fights with Daniel had been epic – long, drawn-out battles that had had highs and lows, mini arcs, false resolutions, subtle thrusts and elegant parries. Exhausting campaigns – battles of attrition that depleted their reserves and were often more tests of endurance than reasoned debates or even trials of passion.

Days would feel like weeks. Every trip out of her room would become a stealth mission, every half-hour out of the house that her cell didn’t ring an emotional assurance that it never would.

Then the resolution, which was a celebration of relief. A shared purging of emotional toxins through the physical.

It was like an addiction, she thought. It’s not going to run its course. I’m not going to grow out of it. I need to quit cold turkey.

Before she could control it, a thought came to her of the Thanksgiving they’d spent in that same house, rather than at his mom’s or her parents’ – it had felt so young and careless and self-indulgent and free. They’d eaten turkey nuggets – wait, was there such a thing? Maybe it was chicken nuggets they’d simply called turkey nuggets.

The memory was blurry. Stronger was the one of her dousing the table cloth in red wine when he’d left the room after knocking down one of the candle sticks.

The other, he’d thrown across the room. The wax stain on the wall was now more a part of the house than the sad memento it had begun as.

Just like the chair-shaped dent in the wall.

And the glass-shard-fashioned scar on her forearm, now as much a part of her arm as the freckle it sat above.

Time heals all wounds, she thought.

But you’ve been abusing time. And, just like anything else, if you abuse it, it’ll run out on you. Or turn around and hurt you.

Time was no longer her friend. It felt as if it’d gone from being on her side to working against her almost overnight. What had been the demarcation? That third wrinkle below her left eye? The ache in her right knee? The last time she’d said, “I love you”?

No. I’m too old for any more storms.

She stood up and walked toward the beach. At the edge, she stopped and took in the scene. Tried to impress forever on her memory the sight of the dark clouds in the still-bright sky. The fresh, salty smell of the air, and the electrified feel of the wind. She reached down and grabbed a handful of sand and let it run through her fingers.

Like a human hourglass, she thought.

When it had run out, she placed the envelope on the railing, finally addressing it.

‘Daniel’

Inside were three pages, cut down over the three days from ten. But even one would be unnecessary. He’d know as soon as he saw the envelope.

She stuck it securely in the metalwork of the screen door.

She didn’t even go inside. She’d already locked everything.

She took one last look at the ocean, then turned and exited the porch from the landside.


But she didn’t feel regret. In fact, as she went, those familiar slabs of the boardwalk under her feet for the last time, she began to feel something she hadn’t in a long time – anticipation.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Addiction

Summary: When a formerly by-the-book doctor finds himself in over his head after a romantic entanglement leads him into fraudulent prescriptions and, eventually, a life of crime, he tries to use a version of the same formula that got him in to get himself out.

Addiction

As Vikram Ramakrishnan lay in the corner of the kitchen of the Section 8 apartment, he heard a rat scurry by on the other side of the thin wall.

“How appropriate,” he thought - he’d never felt closer to such a creature. The scurrying occurred between incidences of door-kickings that seemed to be generally approaching the one that opened to the apartment in which he currently hid.

“Dr. Vic”, as he’d become known, ran his hand over his shaved head - still a novel phenomenon for him, as was the weighty chain he wore around his neck. He was still apt, after a shower, to given an extra glance or three to the neck muscles on which the chain sat - they, too, acquisitions as new as the smooth pate and the bejeweled neck.

Joe had told him that, if he was going to be the Yellow Dragons doc, he should look like a Yellow Dragon. He’d had him in his living-room workout station four days a week for the past three months. Vic had never had such a good trainer as Joe, physically or otherwise.

If Joe had been born anywhere but here, Vik had thought, he’d be a captain of industry.

Then, he thought that maybe he was anyway.

He had expected Joe to keep his feelings and business separate, like any good executive. That’s how this most recent incident had transpired.

It had all begun innocently enough. Vik had been in love with Tanya, if feelings that develop between a doctor and a patient can qualify as that. And Vik knew that they could, because that had been precisely what had happened.

And if anything should remain free from judgement, it was true love, thought Vik. And, if true love can be judged, then so can everything, and everything would also be found wanting.

Though she’d been his patient for several years, Vik had only gotten to know Tanya well since her leg surgery; each check-up had found her a bit more contrite, in a bit more pain, and a bit more desperate.

Finally, the point had come that he’d decided he had no choice but to deny her latest plea for Vicodin.

“Pain at this stage may indicate a problem that requires further surgical intervention.”

He’d examined her leg, which she’d admitted perhaps didn’t really hurt all that much. “But,” she’d said, as she stayed his palpitating hands with hers, “I certainly feel better when I’m on the meds.”

He had not considered himself an especially emotional man. Nor especially libidinous. Truth be told, he hadn’t even considered Tanya all that much. If he’d thought about her, he would have admitted she was an attractive woman. But she was far from the only one of those, even among the subgroup that constituted his patients. And he hadn’t ever felt an especially strong connection with her, neither physically nor psychologically.

But something about her brazenness unleashed fantasies within him that could not be contained. 

He’d been emboldened, put in a position of power - maybe just made aware of his position as such for the first time.

When he didn’t pull his hands away, she began to urge them proximally.

Looking then only into her eyes, he didn’t resist.

As had been the case at the beginning, thenceforth, she initiated each step.

Until, five minutes later, he was straightening his clothes and exiting the examination room.

That had been a year ago.

Nine months ago, a referral from Tanya had shown up in his office. Quiana. An unbiased man may have considered her even more attractive than her referrer.

And she was unquestionably bolder.

As if it were expected, as soon as the door closed, she began do disrobe for the doctor.

“Oh, no, you don’t need to-”

“This isn’t for me,” she’d winked. “It’s for you.”

“Well,” she reconsidered, “it’s for both of us…”

At first, he’d rejected it - he did this for Tanya and Tanya alone. Because he loved her.

“Tanya?” Quiana had asked. He had nodded. She had laughed. “Tanya…isn’t a one-doctor woman, Doc…”

He’d given her the prescription just to get some time to think.

That night, after a conversation with Tanya full of veiled insinuations and a lot of long pauses, he decided - after all, what else could a reasonable person conclude? - that Quiana had been anything but wrong.

And so, he’d contacted Quiana himself and asked her to meet him again the next day.

At which point it became apparent that her appreciation still stood.

And so his practice had expanded.

Both Tanya and Quiana had sent more referrals. Mostly women. Some men. They often offered money after he declined a less fungible offer. He would take it due to a combination of compassion and fear they’d report him.

Then Joe (Joichi) Nakagawa had come in. In search of some oxycodone. He had seemed more well put-together than the average patient Vik was seeing at that time. More intimidating, too.

Joe noticed the obligation in the way Vik wrote his prescription.

“You don’t have to write it if you don’t want to,” Joe had said.

“I don’t?” Vik asked, as if his right to self-determination had long ago been voided.

“No,” said Joe. “I can go somewhere else. I came here because Marcus told me you were a good source.”

“I guess I am.”

“Yeah, but if you don’t want to be, you don’t have to be.”

“But if I don’t stop, someone might turn me in.”

“If you’re scared of such situations, I can provide some protection.”

“You?”

“Me. Some of my friends…”

“For a fee?”

“For some additional favors.”

“So, then, that’s more of the same…”

“You could stop dealing with these half-cocked winos and junkies and get some back-end profit.”

And thus had Vikram Ramakrishnan become the personal supplier of the Yellow Dragons of the San Fernando Valley.

A short six months later, and here he was, hiding from the Yellow Dragons of the San Fernando Valley in a housing project in the San Fernando Valley. It occurred to him that he should have, perhaps, chosen an earlier time to exit the San Fernando Valley, but he supposed this was one of those things you only realized after the fact. You always think you have more time until the Yellow Dragons are cornering you in a rat-infested kitchen at 8 p.m. on a Friday.

He felt himself tiring. He shouldn’t be thinking himself in circles like this. If he were in top form, he’d be alert, planning one or two moves ahead, and in possession of the kind of optimism he, at the moment, couldn’t even fathom.

That was when his father would have recommended some tea.

In med. school, he’d found his own crutch in Coke.

Coke, that was what he needed.

He risked opening the fridge.

Nothing there but some old butter, some wilted celery, and root beer that proudly advertised itself as “caffeine free”. 

He had forgotten.

He was angry at it. If it didn’t declare that so obviously, I could have drunk some and at least enjoyed a placebo effect. I need some good, old-fashioned Coke.

He didn’t have that, but he did, he realized, have some methylphenidate, some buspirone, and some levothyroxine. Ritalin, an anti-anxiety, and synthetic thyroid hormone.

By the light of the refrigerator, he opened the backpack he carried. It was full of pill bottles. He found one of each and downed a handful of pills from each bottle. He washed it down with root beer.

The only thing you’re good for, he thought at the can, then decided to finish it anyway.

As he searched for cover and waited for the pills to take effect, he scolded himself.

He’d known Abir was Joichi’s woman when she’d come to see him. It hadn’t been stated outright, but to have thought anything else would have been ambitiously naive.

By that point, he had no longer been in the habit of trading sex for drugs. He had been employed by the Dragons and through association with them had had a more active romanic life than at any time prior.

Still, when she’d walked into the office, he’d felt something, and her eyes had told him that she had, too.

The old Vic - Vik. Vikram - he wouldn’t have acted on it.

But Dr. Vic - Dr. Vic was a man living in the moment. A creation of ephemerality who would cease to even exist under the burden of too much self-reflection or aforethought.

Hadn’t it been Joichi himself who always said that to the victor go the spoils? Of course, he hadn’t originated the phrase, but nowadays, he used it more than whoever had.

Well, apparently, to the Vikram went the spoils.

And now Joe was trying to use his unsanctioned army to track Vik down and bring him to “justice” - whatever that meant to Joe. Vik expected it would begin with a very unpleasant meeting with the man, on his turf, surrounded by his larger friends.

Vick pushed the couch around, trying to turn it into decent cover.

His muscles felt as if they were roiling under his skin. He felt them admiringly as he stretched. He was feeling good. It was time for action.

The thugs outside were narrowing down the rooms that remained. They were next door.

He moved into the bedroom.

Now they were at his door.

Knock Knock.

Silence.

Bam!

The door flew open, some of the doorframe shooting halfway across the room.

Two of them came in.

He squatted in the dark behind the door to the bedroom. One approached. He was right there. No, he turned right. Examined the bathroom.

“Not in the bathroom.”

Then he came into the bedroom.

He was crossing the threshold.

Bam!

“You find him?” came a call from across the apartment.

Somehow performing perfectly the motion he had envisioned, Vic had fallen on his lower back and shot his heels out into the bottom of the door, sending it smashing into the front, and the face, of the nearby intruder.

Vic jumped up, somehow feeling to have the advantage despite lack of a weapon. Perhaps because he knew the layout of the room. That and the evening darkness lent the situation a kind of unreal air.

He tossed his bag onto the man who lay on the floor. As the man wrestled it, Vic used the opportunity to shove his heel into the man’s rear end, propelling the man’s head directly into the corner of the wall.

The man fell flat and still. In the darkness, Vik thought he might have seen some blood, but he wasn’t sure, and didn’t waste time investigating.

Accidentally kicking the man’s dropped gun as he moved toward the bathroom, he decided to grab it before diving into the tub. The fallen man’s partner approached.

“You wanna live, tell me where you are!” the man shouted as he entered the bedroom.

Maybe it was the drugs kicking in, but, to Vik, this was all starting to seem…kind of fun.

He aimed the gun at the edge of the doorway, as he would at the top of the grass on the TV screen when he used to play Duck Hunt.

He waited for the light there to be blotted out by the head of Man #2.

When it was, he squeezed the trigger.

Nothing.

He squeezed more.

Pow!

Then there was a thud.

He held the gun on the man as he got out of the tub. He didn’t see the man move, but he had seen enough movies where that was a fatal mistake. So he aimed at the dark mound on the floor and fired again.

Still no movement.

Only then did he dare to flip on the light switch.

The man had likely fatal ballistic trauma to the cranium, and a probable post-mortem abdominal ballistic wound.

“I’m calling it,” he chuckled. Then he looked at himself in the mirror - who was he?

He shook his head, grabbed his backpack from the floor, and headed for the main door.

Down the hallway, he heard some noise. Must be their comrades. Vik decided that fewer complications overall lay in trying to escape the situation altogether.

He fled down the nearby stairs.

He heard a shot behind him and the result right in front of him.

He ducked behind the concrete wall that had just taken the bullet meant for him.

“You run, you’re dead, Vic!”

“Give up and you can live!”

The way they were chasing him, he had a feeling they didn’t know he was armed.

As had worked pretty well for him earlier, he took a position with a clear view of where they would appear once they reached the top of the stairs.

Just as before, he pulled the trigger when the light there was blotted out.

Just as before, the view changed back as he heard a thud!

This time, however, he heard the second man drop down and scramble for cover.

Vik immediately took off for the parking lot.

His parking spot was directly outside the entrance the exit. This was the first time he’d ever cursed it. This guy would have a clear shot at him before he even passed through the buildings into the lot.

But this guy didn’t know which car he drove.

He steadied his arms on the hood of his car, pointing at the spot where he expected the guy to appear.

He was right - but a foot too high! The guy came in low.

This type of thing wasn't as easy, he realized, when people knew you were expecting them.

He heard a shot hit his car.

He fell down in shock. All the way to the ground. His chin hitting the asphalt.

Which gave him a view under the car.

Whence he spied a leg sticking out from behind a trash can.

He waited.

So did the leg.

So, he took careful aim and fired. Twice.

One of those did the job, because next thing he saw was the whole body of the fellow, down on the ground.

Maybe the meds were wearing off, but killing him seemed like an unnecessary step, especially with his car so near, so he got in the passenger side, slide over the center console to the driver’s seat, and, staying low, took off.

Waiting for the gate to open was a bit tense, but he stayed low and stared back at the last-known location of the fallen assailant. And nothing appeared out of there before the gate was relievingly high and he was able to pull out onto the road.


As Vik drove, he took in the Valley for what he expected to be the last time. And he was none too sorry to see it go.
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