Stains From the Mint Julep I Never Tasted
I look down at the vomit on my shoe and wonder if we're even going to make it to Amsterdam.
Evie and the Australian are sitting in the car, shouting. I'm taking too long. I can't throw up any faster than this, but I don't bother to tell them that.
I get to the dry heave phase. The puking is done, so I head back to the car. Just before I get inside, I see it again. My shoe vomit. My inability to hold my liquor is there for everyone to see with every stumbling, staggering step. I take my shoe off and start wiping it in the grass. Already, I know it's going to leave a stain.
With one shoe on and the other in my hand, I get in the backseat next to the Australian. I haven't been able to remember his name since we picked him up. I tried to explain to Evie why two women traveling alone in a foreign country shouldn't pick up hitchhikers.
Now I don't quite recall what that explanation was. It became irrelevant when I made out with him somewhere around Brussels.
"Where are we?" I push my foot back into my shoe.
Evie doesn't turn around. She puts the car in gear and tells me, "We just went through Antwerp."
"What? We're still in Belgium?" I lean back in my seat and the Australian hands me a piece of gum. It squirts chemical mint goo when I bite down on it, overpowering the taste of boozy barf and bile. It's the best gum I've ever tasted.
"It should only be a couple more hours," he says. "But you guys can drop me off just after the border."
I close my eyes and decide I'll call home when we stop for the night. It's been three days since I turned my phone on. I'm afraid of the messages hiding inside it. I feel a hand on my thigh, but try to pretend I don't. I don't dare open my eyes, hoping when I open them again, the Australian will be gone.
When I open my eyes again, the car is parked and I'm alone. My wish has come true. The hand on my thigh is gone. The best gum I ever tasted is stuck to the front of my shirt.
I get out of the car and look around, searching for clues in the things surrounding me. A hotel parking lot, mostly vacant. Some empty tables, covered with big, blue umbrellas. I start picking the gum off my shirt and consider the possibility that I'm too old to be making out with Australian backpackers or puking on my shoe in the grass on the side of the road. I don't know what kinds of hedonistic or self-destructive activities are age appropriate for a thirty-four year old.
I decide I'm definitely too old to be peeling gum off my shirt. I think of what Garth might say if he could see me right now. My shame weighs me down like a block of ice in my gut. I know I deserve to have puke on my shoes and gum on my shirt. I deserve to walk among the normal and decent people with shame stuck to my clothes. I want to cry, but Evie comes out from the big glass doors at the front of the hotel and tells me we have a room.
"I thought Amsterdam would be more lively," I say. "I expected more tourists and college kids."
Evie looks at me like I've got bugs crawling on my face. "We're not in Amsterdam, retard. We're in Breda."
"Well, where the hell is that?"
"Holland." She hands me a key card to our hotel room.
"I know it's Holland. I mean… fuck it. It doesn't matter what I mean. What happened to the Australian?"
"He's in the room. He pitched in. The guy who checked us in said there's something going on downtown, but it looks pretty dead to me and I need to crash for a while."
"Okay, but we don't need to stay here. I can take a shift driving."
Evie looks me up and down, lingering on the minty glob of shame stuck to my shirt. She opens the back of the car and grabs her bag. "You're a wreck, Trina. Get your shit together."
In the grass in front of the car, two bunnies watch us, their noses and whiskers twitching. I think of what it might be like to see this with Garth, what it might be like to see a million things with Garth.
"Go in and crash then. I need to go for a walk."
I leave Evie there in the parking lot, her rusty curls boing-boinging as she stomps back into the hotel, back to the Australian backpacker named… whatever.
I'm going nowhere, passing houses and apartment complexes that could be anywhere, in any country. Their bland exteriors reflect nothing, aside from the painful sameness that people can only escape by taking vacations to faraway destinations.
All the banal buildings and flavorless window dressings make me think that my temporary escape is just more failure. More gum on my shirt.
When Evie suggested a road trip across Western Europe, I said "no." She nagged me for weeks, trying to make me change my mind, but couldn't.
Only Garth could convince me. Only Garth and his shiny diamond ring could launch me across the Atlantic. Now I'm pushing myself along a sidewalk in some forgotten vanilla corner of Holland, wondering how many of these people go to sleep at night with a ring on their finger and feel content. How many of them want nothing more? How many of them long to escape across the water to have some disappointing adventure in some American suburb?
This is exactly the kind of thing I would have mentioned to my best friend, if he'd been here. If he hadn't ruined everything with his stupid fucking ring.
I exit the residential nothing and find myself standing in front of a low brick building claiming to be a coffee shop. It's painted blue with a mural of a cat smoking a joint between two palm trees. No one is sitting at the tables outside. It's all darkness beyond the door, dark enough that a woman wearing disgusting shame on her clothes might not attract a lot of attention.
I can't tell if the woman behind the counter is bored or just finds me annoying. I don't know what to order because it's dark in here and the menu chart is exactly like a menu in any other coffee shop, but it's all pot plants. Some of them I know. Others I've never heard of. What I want is the one that can melt the block of ice in my gut. I don't know if they have anything that strong.
The menu descriptions aren't helpful. None of them say which one of these will make me feel the indifference I long for.
I point at one of the pictures. I order a soda and some rolling papers. I'm talking in slow motion so that I'll be understood. The woman behind the counter gives me the total in perfect English. I remember that most Dutch people can do that. I also remember that I'm an asshole wearing puke and gum and probably smelling like the floor of a dive bar.
The woman hands me my drink, weed and papers. She points at my chest. "You have something on your shirt." I thank her while trying to act surprised, then seat myself at a little table. I roll a joint and, after I light it, I take a look around the place. A few people sit on a couch at the other end of the room, drinking tea and talking in voices so low that I can't hear the language they're speaking. At another table, a man with blond fuzz all over his face sits alone smoking a joint while he watches TV and chats with the waitress. At the table next to me, a couple of guys are engaged in a game of chess. Nobody sees me. If they do, they don't want me to know.
I take out my phone and turn it on. The soda tastes like syrupy sugar bubbles and I feel a small regret about not getting water instead. The screen lights up on the phone. I look through my messages and see Garth's name over and over again.
I don't read through any of the texts. I can't listen to the voicemail. All I can do is stare at the list showing how much he's worried, how many times he's tried to say something to me while I play the scene over in my head.
Then I rewind. I play it again.
Him with his stupid ring. Me, telling him "no." Me, asking what the hell he was thinking. Me, in a panic. Him with tears in his eyes as I slam the door of his apartment on my way out.
This is the worst way to lose your best friend.
I turn my phone off and put it back in my pocket. I take another hit off the joint and a chunk of ash falls on my pant leg. I rub it with my hand. It leaves a black smudge and a tiny burn in the fabric. One of the chess players turns his head toward me. He sees me trying to wipe my new stain away. I can't stay in here anymore.
The streets are quiet. It's the middle of the afternoon and I see more bicycles than cars, more people going this way and that on bicycles than I've ever seen before. They roll by in their perfect painted lanes. Then I realize how clean everything is around me. The air is missing the stench and sounds of the everyday. The lawns and pavement are lacking the bits and pieces of discarded waste and wrappers left behind by people who have stopped giving a shit about what they see around them.
The only foul element here is me.
I try to remember the last time I ate anything. I had an enormous cone of frites somewhere in Belgium last night, but most of that ended up on the side of the road and on my shoe. I don't know where anything is except for the coffee shop and the hotel, so I follow the signs indicating the city center and hope that something is open, that there is something more to this fucking town than cleanliness and bicycles.
I wonder how far this place is from Amsterdam. It can't be far. But maybe I don't want to go there anymore. I'm just going to find some food and then go back to the hotel. I'll sleep. I'll clean myself up. Once I'm clean and human again, I'll call Garth. I'll ask him to forgive me. I'll admit my mistake. Mea culpa.
I'll tell him I'm going to catch an early flight from somewhere. From where, I don't know, but I'll be home early. I'll come back. I'll be clean again.
Downtown Breda is all closed shops and windows filled with quaint and weird things. I stop to look inside one of them where a taxidermied squirrel is holding up a broken clock. Next to that is a piece of driftwood with stuffed rodents of some kind fastened to it in various whimsical positions. I don't want to stop examining it, but I remember losing my frites and my need to replace them.
I turn the corner. A wave of dirty, growling jazz surrounds me. Everywhere I look, bodies bounce, twirl and jiggle. Voices sing, whoop, and whee. A small stage has been set up among the shops. On the stage, a big woman soaked in sweat purrs into her microphone. She's grinding and writhing like nothing I've ever seen before.
When I'm able to look at something else again, I realize I'm standing right in front of a sandwich shop. I approach the counter and ask the kid who's working, "What's the story with all the merriment outside?"
At first, I think I've confused him, that perhaps I spoke too quickly, or that he doesn't speak English. But then he answers me. "It's the Jazz Festival. It happens every year."
"Nice," I say. "How far is Amsterdam from here?"
"Not far. One, maybe two hours. You don't know where you are?"
"Nothing. Never mind." I get a sandwich, some chips, and a beer, and then I hurry to an outdoor table so I can watch the singer some more. I'm not really paying attention to eating. I'm just shoveling food and beer into the place where I think my mouth is. I don't want to look at my food. I need to keep watching the dancing bodies all around, their smiling faces and the sweat soaking through their shirts.
I know that if Garth were here with me, I wouldn't be sitting. I'd be one of them, out there, living a moment instead of watching one in silence with a mouth full of stale potato chips and beer.
A few blocks away from the sandwich shop, I stop on a bench in the middle of a small plaza to smoke a cigarette and listen to the music going on all around. I reach into my pocket for my lighter and notice the mustard smear on my forearm. My nostrils prickle like maybe I'm about to cry, but the light of the day is starting to fade into a hazy glowing gray. I'd like the night to come quickly, to hide me, to give Evie and the Australian time to pass out before I sneak into the room.
Then I think of Garth and an early flight home. I think of how running off on this stupid trip was the worst thing I could have done. I try to rub the mustard off my arm. It's dried there. It comes off. I stand up to leave and the doors of a restaurant a few yards away fly open. The doors puke out about thirty people. Some singing, some dancing, and more than half of them playing instruments.
The crowd swallows me up. A man in a white top hat sings into a megaphone while women dance around him, twirling parasols. There's a man with a trombone and others playing drums. Trumpets, banjos, and saxophones. Every musical note that lands on my ears is filled with riverboats, Mark Twain, and mint juleps. All this joy spinning around makes me want to fall down on my knees with gratitude. I want to bawl and blubber; I want to clap and dance with these people, but I can't.
The prickle in my nose is back and I ask myself why I've never tasted a mint julep. I decide that as soon as I get back home I'll tell Garth about all of this. We'll find out what they are and drink them together. I start working my way out of the crowd, taking one last glance at the musicians and the singer with the big sash and bright, clean top hat.
On the way back to the hotel, I go through a big grassy park. It's almost dark. There's a bench near a streetlight. When I see it, I remember the chunk of pot from the coffee shop, tucked away in my pocket. I sit down and roll another joint.
After I smoke this, I'll be ready to deal with Evie and the Australian again. After I smoke this, I'll take my time walking the rest of the way to the hotel. I'll take a shower, get clean, and call Garth. "I'm coming home," I'll say. "Mea culpa," I'll tell him. I'll tell him about the bunnies and the mint juleps. It'll be okay.
"It'll be okay," I tell myself, sitting alone in a park, and a world away from home.
I wake up on the bench and I have no idea what time it is. I take my phone out of my pocket and switch it on. Another message from Garth. Three texts from Evie wanting to know if I've gotten lost somewhere. It's just after four in the morning. My ass and my back are pinching and protesting, punishing me for making them sit on a bench for so long. I light a cigarette and wish I wasn't so fucking thirsty. I leave my phone on, stuff it back in my pocket, and start walking back to the hotel.
"Where have you been?" Evie wants to know. "You look worse."
"I was, you know… out. Around." I wave my hands about to demonstrate where I've been.
"We thought you got murdered or something."
"No. I'm alive. I just went for a walk. And a sandwich."
"A fucking sandwich?" Evie shakes her head. "All right. Whatever, dude." Behind her, the Australian snores.
"Hey," I say, "Did you guys…?"
"Yeah. So? Did you want some of that or what? You should've stayed."
"Crissakes, Evie." I look past her at the bed. His shirt is off. For the first time, I see the muscles in his back. "No, I don't want some of that. I want sleep." I flop down on the empty bed.
"Cool. We'll head to Amsterdam right after breakfast." She climbs back into bed with the Australian. "You still wanna go, right?"
I reach into my pocket and take out my phone. I switch it off. Mea maxima culpa.
About the Author
Rasmenia Massoud is the author of the short story collection Human Detritus. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Every Day Fiction, Metazen, Big Pulp, The Legendary, Lowestoft Chronicle, and Eclectic Flash: Best of 2010anthology. She is from Colorado but now lives in France, where she speaks French poorly and writes about what fascinates, confuses, and infuriates her the most: human beings. You can visit her at: http://www.rasmenia.com/