A full moon hung low in the night sky as Matt drove his tired old Buick. The car rattled and groaned as he pulled into a crowded parking lot near the pier. Directly across from the parking lot, a steady crowd of pedestrians filtered through palm tree-lined sidewalks; up the narrow street that ran alongside the ocean, onto the pier, and then back down. An endless procession of boisterous children and their parents, giggling packs of teenagers, and couples walking hand-in-hand. The chatter of the crowd floated in the air and mingled with the orange glow of street lights, creating a feeling of warmth despite the chill of the ocean breeze.
Matt shut the Buick off and surveyed the scene through the dirty windshield. He glared at the crowd with simultaneous feelings of longing and contempt. What he was doing there, he wasn’t sure. He’d gotten in his car after his shift was over and driven mindlessly, as if some invisible force had taken the wheel and the pedals, until he arrived at the ocean for reasons he didn’t quite understand. He reached under his seat for a pack of cigarettes, then pulled the key out of the ignition and pushed open the heavy door. Fresh ocean air washed over him, and a sudden feeling of emptiness numbed his senses. Vague memories of sunshine and laughter came over him, taunting him, jeering at him from some unknown location within the foggy depths of his brain. Matt stared out the windshield with a vacant expression on his face for a few seconds, then with a start regained his composure. He stepped out, shut the door, and walked across the street.
He walked past the pier onto the dark shore of the ocean, where the orange glow of the street lights gave way to silver splashes of moonlight. He lit a cigarette and began to walk. Each step carried him away from the crowded parking lot, the busy pier, the chatter of the crowd on the sidewalks. Away from his job and his empty apartment. Away from it all.
* * *
The next morning, Matt awoke bleary-eyed and stumbled out of bed. The floor of his bedroom was littered with dirty clothing; a collection site for the unwashed garments of the preceding week at work. He stumbled through the mess and made his way to the bathroom. As he entered, the stench of dried vomit invaded his nostrils and the pounding inside his head became unbearable. His vision swam and he struggled to maintain his balance as he reached over to flush the toilet.
What had happened the night before? Matt’s brain struggled to put the pieces together. Driving. A walk on the beach. More driving.
Matt stepped out of the bathroom and into the kitchen. A cheap bottle of vodka and a two-liter container of soda lay empty on the kitchen counter, surrounded by the remains of an empty wrapper from a frozen pizza. Fragments of memories started surfacing: Arriving home after the long drive. Empty apartment. Drinking alone. Walls spinning. More drinking. Ceiling spinning. More drinking. A standard Sunday night, really, for Matt. It certainly wasn’t unprecedented for him to drink himself into oblivion after a long weekend at work. He opened the refrigerator, saw that it was empty, and decided to smoke a cigarette instead. He walked through a sliding door onto the scrawny balcony behind his apartment and lit his cigarette.
All things considered, it hadn’t been the worst weekend at work. The restaurant hadn’t been as busy as it would have been if it had been a holiday weekend. He’d stood behind the kitchen line and kept pace with the orders. Lots of steak this weekend, and lots of salmon. That had kept the sales high, which in turn had kept the managers happy. The waiters had been impatient assholes as usual, but hey – that’s waitstaff for you. At least he’d managed to avoid Kate.
As the name ran through his mind, his heart gave a jolt and the pounding in his head thickened. Matt took a long drag from his cigarette and exhaled slowly. He held the cigarette between his fingers, examined it for a few seconds, then tossed it over the side of the balcony. No matter how much he tried to convince himself otherwise, smoking always made his hangovers worse.
* * *
Matt went back to work on Wednesday. He hated his job, but it was better than sitting alone in his apartment. Better than driving around aimlessly for hours, listening to sad songs, wasting gas. As he turned the old Buick off the road and onto the parking lot of the restaurant, he saw a long line out the front door and groaned. It was busy — far busier than he had expected it to be.
“Great,” he muttered to himself.
He parked the car and walked into the restaurant’s kitchen through the back door. Inside, empty boxes and overfilled trash bags lay strewn on the floor. The humidity from the dish pit and the heat from the stoves were worse than usual, and the roar of the ventilation system flooded his brain. “Thank God you’re here,” a manager called out from across the kitchen. “We’re slammed. I need you on appetizers right away.” With an air of resignation, Matt pulled an apron over his clothes and took his place behind the line.
“Look who decided to show up!” yelled Brian from the entree station.
“I had a feeling you pieces of shit couldn’t handle this without my help,” said Matt.
“Fuck you, ‘master chef,’” Brian retorted, grinning, as he turned back to the four plates he had propped up between the burners of the industrial kitchen stove.
Kitchen banter, Matt mused, as a brief grin flashed across his face. How else were cooks supposed to make it through their shifts? But the grin quickly turned into a frown as he started cooking. Matt assembled one plate of food after another, trying desperately to keep up with the relentless barrage of orders. It wasn’t long before he fell behind and the waiters started yelling.
“This went out looking like shit and I need it replated on the fly!” screamed a waiter standing directly across the line from Matt. “Don’t give me that look; I wouldn’t be here bothering you about it if you had made it right in the first place!”
Another waiter walked up. “Where the fuck is my calamari?! You said it would be ready five minutes ago!”
Matt did what he could to pacify the waiters and keep up. The brutal rhythm of the kitchen became a blur, and amid the chaos he felt a strange sort of peace. Just keep cooking, he told himself. Just keep cooking.
* * *
Several hours later, Matt sat in the Buick, alone. It was his lunch break, and he’d done what he usually did: walked to the car, climbed inside, shut the door, and sunk as low into the driver’s seat as he could. He sighed and stared out the windshield with a vacant expression on his face. His shift was halfway over. In a few hours, he would be free.
And then what?
He sank lower into the seat and looked up at the sagging ceiling. His shift would be over, and then what? A sudden knock at the window startled him. He looked over, and his heart dropped into his stomach. It was Kate.
“Long time no see, stranger!” she said excitedly.
Matt sat up and rolled down the window. He reached for a cigarette and placed it between his lips, attempting to give off an air of nonchalance. Be cool, he thought to himself. Be cool.
“I really wish you wouldn’t smoke those,” she said.
“Are you trying to tell me how to live my life?”
“I gave up on that a long time ago.”
Matt looked her in the eye deliberately as he lit his cigarette. Loose locks of golden brown hair framed her delicate face and flowed down the front of her blouse. Her eyes glimmered in the afternoon light.
“I’ve got big news” she exclaimed, beaming, as Matt took his first drag from the cigarette.
“Did you finally figure out how to be a half-decent waitress?”
“Asshole.” She held her left hand up, where a diamond ring shone brightly on her fourth finger. “Robert finally proposed! Can you believe it?!”
Matt’s insides froze over, as if ice water had started gushing from his heart. His cigarette quivered between his lips. He’d known this day was coming for a long time now, but he hadn’t expected to feel so shocked. He struggled to maintain his composure as Kate began to ramble excitedly. In his daze, he heard only fragments of what she was saying.
“We went downtown … dinner … on his knee … totally caught me off guard … recorded it, it’s on Facebook if you want to watch … wedding in June … summer wedding … parents are so happy … you’re totally invited.”
Matt blinked slowly as she finished speaking. He forced his lips into a smile and tried to look her in the eye. “That’s great news,” he said, as convincingly as he could.
“Isn’t it?!” she exclaimed, oblivious to the sadness in Matt’s eyes. “I’m going to run inside and tell everyone. Are you working tonight?”
“No, my—” Matt’s voice trailed off and he glanced over at the restaurant. “My shift is over. I was actually on my way out.”
“Okay!” Kate replied cheerily. “Have a good night!”
Matt watched as she walked away and entered the restaurant. He pulled his phone out of his pocket, shut it off, and locked it in the glovebox. Then he started the car, calmly maneuvered it out of the parking lot, and drove away as fast as he could.
* * *
A few hours later, Matt found himself staring out the windshield at the ocean. He’d driven aimlessly until, inexplicably, he found himself in the parking lot by the pier again. Zombielike, he shut the car off and pushed its heavy door open. Ocean air washed over him, and he froze.
This time, the vague memories of sunshine and laughter didn’t taunt him from a distance. They strangled him, squeezed the air out of his lungs, made it impossible for him to step out of the car. He shut the door and let out a quiet whimper. He turned the key in the ignition, started the engine again, and drove home.
An hour later, Matt stood outside his apartment door. He put the key in the lock, hesitated, then turned it slowly and pushed the door open with a look of resignation on his face. The apartment was dark and empty, just as he had known it would be. He flipped a switch and a lone lamp came on, casting dingy yellow light over the cramped kitchen and living room. Matt shut the door behind him, opened a cabinet, and pulled out a bottle of vodka.
It was going to be a long night of spinning walls.