It’s my first thought, and I know whatever happened, it was bad, judging by the pain pulsing behind my closed eyelids. It’s the kind of pain you only get from a serious hangover and I delay moving, knowing from experience that stirring will only make it worse.
Déjà vu. I remember saying ‘not again’ to myself when we’d all sat down at the bar last night. I’d said it again after the second drink. And then the bartender asked if I’d wanted a third. I remember Becky’s hand on my arm. I remember her quiet warning, “Remember what happened last time, Jill.” I remember telling her not to worry.
That’s all I remember.
I hear the muffled sound of my phone alarm, blaring from inside my purse. If my purse is in the room, that’s a good sign, because that means I didn’t leave it somewhere like I did last time I blacked out. I only wish my purse was closer to the bed because now I have to get out of bed, and that requires opening my eyes.
The light hurts, turning the soft throb behind my eyes into a jackhammer of agony. I sit up and feel the contents of my stomach—which I’m sure is mostly alcohol—rise hot and acrid to burn the back of my throat. I want to lie back down, but if I don’t turn the alarm off, it’ll wake Becky. If she’s not already pissed at me for whatever happened last night, she’ll be pissed that my alarm woke her up early on a Sunday morning.
The room spins as I stand. Fuck. I’m still drunk. I lurch across the room to the chair, where my purse is sitting atop my neatly folded jacket. Becky must have helped me to bed. Double fuck. I can already hear the lecture she’ll give me.
I clumsily dig through the purse until I find my phone. Each beep is like a dagger in my skull, and the pounding continues unabated even after I disable the alarm. I’ve never felt this awful in my life, and that’s saying something.
There’s a packet of hangover relief powder in my bag, but I’m not going to bother. I’ve tried them all, and I can tell nothing will help this time. As I turn to go back to bed, a wave of nausea sends me staggering to the bathroom.
This is just great. Just great. Becky had wanted to go try out that new place, The Sunshine Café, for breakfast. Now just the thought of food brings on another dry heave so powerful it cramps my upper abs. I want to die, and I know the worst part of the day hasn’t even begun.
I literally crawl back to bed. That’s how bad it is. As I do, I notice my heels sitting by the chair and realize I’m still in the dress I wore the night before. As I climb back onto the mattress, I’m seized by a moment of panic. Did I have sex with someone last night before Becky got me home? I reach under my dress, but my panties are still there. Thank god for small favors.
Outside the birds are singing. “Please shut up,” I whisper, covering my eyes with my arm. Fall sunshine is worse when you’re hungover. It’s so damn bright. Don’t get me wrong; I love it when I’m sober. But when I’m drunk, I crave the dark. I crave ignorance. I don’t want to see anything. I don’t want to know what I may have done.
I fall back into a restless sleep. That’s another thing about blacking out. When you pass out, it’s not really sleeping. It’s like shutting down, and when you come to, you’re drained from all the work it took your body to combat the poison you dumped into your system. With my stomach emptied, I’m able to sleep, but it’s plagued with snippets of dreams that reflect my anxieties. Becky on a train turning away when I walk toward her. Going to work and finding that my office has been moved. Walking outside to a crowd of people who laugh at me. This goes on until Becky’s knock wakes me up two hours later.
“You alive in there?”
I open my eyes, wince, and clear my throat as I rise to my elbows. “Yeah…”
“I overslept,” she says. “Still want to go to that café?”
I’m buffeted by another wave of nausea, but also relieved. I was wrong. She’s not upset, so whatever happened must not have been so bad. But I still know I can’t make it to the café.
“I didn’t sleep very well,” I lie. “Maybe next time?”
“All right,” she says, obviously disappointed. “They serve until noon. I’m going to meet Meg there, so if you feel up to it and want to meet us, we’ll probably hang out there a while.”
“Okay,” I say, and flop back down onto the mattress. There’s no way I’m meeting them.
I hear her footsteps going down the stairs and sigh as I turn onto my side. As I do, my gaze moves back to the chair, to my carefully placed purse and jacket, and I feel confused. I’m kind of a slob. I throw my stuff everywhere. I never fold my jacket, even when I’m sober. If Becky is speaking to me, she didn’t put my things there. Maybe I just made it back on my own after all. They say being drunk lowers your inhibition and brings out who you really are. Maybe the Inner Jill is a neat freak.
My roommate’s absence gives me time to get myself together. A half hour after she leaves, I manage to make it to the shower. My body hurts all over. It’s as if my head can’t contain the pain, which has spilled over and trickled down to my feet. I sit on the shower floor as water sluices over me. I’ve turned the temperature up as hot as I can stand, hoping to steam some of the toxins out of my body.
I must kick this. I have a presentation to give tomorrow morning. I need to be bright, alert. I don’t need the lingering nausea and fatigue of a multi-day hangover. I don’t need to show up with dark circles under my eyes. This presentation is too important, because without it, I can kiss my chances of advancement goodbye.
After my shower, I don a pair of sweatpants and my favorite pullover hoodie. By the time Becky comes home, I feel about a quarter of the way back to human. She’s apparently stopped at the corner market because her cloth shopping bag is brimming with purchases—fresh baked bread, a bottle of wine, and a bouquet of sunflowers with reddish brown centers.
“You should have gone with us,” she says. “That place was great. It was…” Then she stops and puts everything on the counter before walking over.
“You’re drunk,” she says, her tone accusatory.
I rub my temples. “I was drunk,” I say.
“So much for being honest, Jill. Instead of giving me some bullshit about insomnia, you could have just admitted you were too shit-faced to get out of bed.”
“Becky,” I begin weakly, but she lifts her hand, silencing me as she launches into the lecture.
“You know,” she says, pulling things angrily from the shopping bag. She slams the sunflowers down on the counter and turns to get a vase. “I give you too much credit.” She slams the cabinet shut, having found the vase, and I feel the sound like a spike in the skull. I clutch my temples against the throbbing.
“When you told me you were walking down to Serrano’s last night, you promised me—promised me!—that you wouldn’t do this,” she says. “How the hell did you even get home?”
That’s a good question. “Wait,” I say. My response, like my thought process, is delayed. “You didn’t bring me back?”
“No,” she says, disgusted. “I told you, remember? One more time…”
My face warms with shame. I remember that conversation. She’d leveled the threat after my last bender a month ago—making me sit down and listen to every embarrassing thing I’d said, how I’d tried to crawl in some strange man’s lap, how he was all for it until she and Megan pulled me away. How I’d babbled on and on about all the stuff I never talk about when I’m sober. Personal stuff. Private stuff. I’d ruined their evening. No wonder she hadn’t stopped me from leaving last night. But she hadn’t brought me back, either, and deep down, I know I didn’t put my things away. Someone else did, someone who folded my jacket and put my shoes by the chair. I’m not about to tell her that, though. If she flipped out when I climbed on some man’s lap, she’d throw me out if she knew someone came in the apartment when she wasn’t here.
“Look,” I begin. “I’m…”
“What? Sorry?” She shakes her head as she goes to the fridge and grabs a ginger ale. She walks over and puts it in front of me, then reaches for a banana from the counter. “You’re always sorry, Jill.” She nods at the banana. “Eat that. It’ll help.”
I don’t want to eat. I don’t want to drink. But I force myself to accept care from someone who’s close to running out of the capacity to give it to me. She’s right. She’s absolutely right, and I wonder now who I saw last night, what I said, and who brought me home. Was I such a wreck that someone took pity on me? I shudder to think of how easily it could have gone the other way, how I could have ended up dead in an alley instead of passed out in my bed.
I squint my eyes, grasping for recall, and am rewarded with the fragment of a memory. The doorway of Serrano’s, of slipping past a guy at the door who was screening people trying to get in. Then the memory drifts away like smoke.
“Are you listening?” Becky had continued to talk as I tried to jog my recollection. I look back at her.
“I got distracted,” I say.
“Well, you need to focus.” She crosses her arms over her chest, just as I’ve seen her do a hundred times since we shared a dorm room in college. Focus has always come easy to her, and I know my personal failings have made her rethink our relationship more than once.
After a moment, she sighs, uncrosses her arms, and sits down across from me. For a moment, she says nothing, just puts her face in her hands, which only makes me feel worse.
“Will you at least think about getting help?” she asks.
“I’m not an alcoholic,” I say defensively. “I only do this sometimes.”
“I’m not talking about that,” she says. “I know you’re not an alcoholic. But I think you’re heading in that direction. And when you start drinking… Jill… as soon as the liquor melts your guard, then you just become somebody…” She searches for the right word. “Weird.”
I don’t have to ask her what she means. I know. I know some of the things I’ve done when I was drunk, some of the things I’ve said. I should be grateful—am grateful—that Becky hasn’t brought it up.
“I could get you an appointment with my therapist,” she says.
“You know how I feel about therapy,” I say. “I don’t believe in it. They sent me to therapy in high school and it didn’t help.”
“So, try again. You’re an adult now, Jill,” she says. “You have a place to live and a job you’re finally hanging on to. A good job. But if you don’t get a handle on what’s behind these drinking binges, I worry about what it could mean.” She pauses. “The last time you were out of work, I carried things for both of us. I did it because you’re my friend. But I won’t do it again.”
“I told you,” I say. “I’m not going to lose this job. And I don’t need therapy. I just need to…” Another memory flashes into my pounding head. I’m sitting in a room. There’s a pinpoint of bright light. I’m blinking and laughing. Go on, a male voice urges. Something about it is jarring. I stand up. “I need to take a walk.”
Becky doesn’t object, but she doesn’t offer to go with me, either. It’s a masochistic idea, going out. My stomach still feels achy and sour, my limbs weak and shaky, my head filled with tiny hammers that ping the inside of my skull. Still, I force myself out the door. I need to do something constructive today, even if it’s getting some exercise. I don’t need to wake up in the morning having done nothing but disappoint my roommate and sleep.
I’ve never remembered everything that happened in a blackout, only bits and pieces that made sense after Becky or Megan filled me in on the details. But they weren’t with me last night, and the two memories I have make little sense. I think I remember telling Becky I was going to Serrano’s. I must have gone, but why? It’s an expensive, exclusive club, and I prefer to spend my money on drinks, not on outrageous cover charges. I think I remember going. But the other bit of memory, with the light…?
What did you do?
I don’t know what I did. But I know that obsessing over it will only drive me crazy. I turn my mind to work, to the presentation I’m giving. We’re trying to snag our most lucrative advertising account to date—the Iver Group. I’m in charge of the whole project, and if I can sway CEO Max Iver with my pitch, I’ll secure myself professionally at Brinkman Advertising.
But tomorrow will mark more than my first solo presentation. It will mark my hard reset. It will mark the day that I get myself together, for real this time.
My headache feels a little less intense. I probably should have brought a jacket, though, because the late November air is brisk and bracing coming off the lake. The bite of it makes me feel more awake. Maybe the walk was a good idea after all.
I hear a giggle and see a little girl running my way. She’s pulling a wooden puppy on a string. She’s maybe three years old and is bundled up against the cold. Her father, a handsome young man in a scarf and a coat, is grinning as he walks after her in long-legged strides.
“Careful, Emily,” he calls. “Careful, sweetie.”
The little girl is running faster now. Her legs are clumsy in her boots. She’s tipping forward, her clunky footwear throwing her off balance. For a moment, I forget my hangover pain and consider rushing to catch her, but her daddy saves her before I can move, swooping in at the last moment to scoop her up from behind.
“Whoa there, speed demon,” he laughs. The little girl, though, is starting to whimper. When her father picked her up, she dropped the string to the little dog she was pulling. Now he kneels with her, retrieves the toy, and places it in her small hands.
“Thank you, Daddy,” the little girl says, and something about that moment triggers another snippet of memory from last night.
“What do I want?” I’m staring into a light—a bright light—as I answer. “To be taken care of.”
The memory T-bones my reality, and I just stand there, feeling dazed as another random piece of last night’s jigsaw puzzle floats past and disappears. What the hell?
The father and daughter walk past, and there’s an ache in my chest as I watch them go. He’s put her up on his shoulders, and she’s singing a song as she rests the little wooden toy on top of his head.
Just ahead of me, the ducks are paddling at the cold water’s edge. I’d thought to come sit on the bench for a bit and watch them, but suddenly I’m anxious again and want to leave.
I walk back home, where Becky has put a bottle of Gatorade on the counter with a label taped to it. ‘Drink Me,’ it says, and I smile. She’s right. I need to hydrate. For the rest of the evening, I sip the sugary drink, go over my notes, and pray that I’ll feel better for tomorrow, which is shaping up to be important in more ways than I thought possible.
“Well, hello, gorgeous.”
Normally, Patty is the epitome of professionalism, but this morning our receptionist has abandoned decorum as she stares from her desk through the conference room glass to where Max Iver has arrived early for the presentation. He’s talking to Mr. Brinkman, who’s expounding on the advantages of doing business with Brinkman Advertising.
“Don’t stare,” I say. “It’s not nice.”
“I caught you staring at him last week when he first came in,” Patty laughs, nudging me.
“Maybe I did, but I was subtle about it.” I glance through the glass and then back at Patty. “And I wasn’t the only one. Every woman in here was popping up to peek at him from over her cubicle wall.”
“It looked like a bunch of prairie dogs,” Patty replies, and leans in conspiratorially. “So, what do you think? Does he look like he’d go for a middle-aged receptionist?”
“A guy like that?” I shake my head. “He probably spends his weekend fighting off beautiful women.” I realize how that sounds and start to apologize. “God, Patty… I didn’t mean it like that.” But she laughs and holds up her hands.
“It’s okay, hon. Believe me. Even if I wasn’t past my sell-by date, I wouldn’t have anything he’d want. That one is way above my pay grade.”
I like Patty. She’s always in good humor, and always honest. I was encouraged this morning when I walked in and she simply said ‘hello.’ Usually, if I look like I haven’t slept well, she’ll point it out. But I passed muster, and maybe it’s the adrenaline of the day but I feel pretty good, too.
“So, what did you do this weekend?” she asks.
“Nothing. Just went out for drinks.”
“Where?” she presses, and I inwardly cringe.
“Becky wanted to try that new place downtown, The Avenue? We didn’t stay long.”
I end the conversation before she can ask where we went next. Patty prides herself on knowing more about her coworkers’ personal lives than she probably should. And she likes to gossip, so I’m careful what I say around her. What can I say, anyway? Even if I wanted to tell her more, I don’t remember.
I retreat to the safety of my cubicle, where I finalize the details of my PowerPoint presentation. I’ve worked my ass off on this one, and I’m determined to be professional. I even maxed out the rest of my credit card buying a blue suit with a white silk blouse, navy heels, and sophisticated-looking pearl earrings. My hair is pulled back into a neat bun. I feel… adult.
A knock gets my attention. It’s Casey, our art director. “Ten minutes,” she says. “You ready?”
I give her a thumbs up.
“I swear, the hardest part of this is going to be not staring at Mr. Iver,” she says.
“You, too?” I accompany the question with an eye roll. “That man has put every woman in this office in heat. Remember, we must be professional, so stare at the wall if you have to.”
“He’s huge,” she says, ignoring me. “Have you seen his hands? You know what they say about big hands…”
“Down, girl,” I warn.
“Bossy,” she grumbles.
“Well, when it’s your ass on the line, you can lecture me,” I say with a grin.
I’m starting to get annoyed by my coworkers, not because they’re being so unprofessional, but because they’re right. Casey isn’t exaggerating. Max Iver is gorgeous. And at 6′4″, he’s big. Despite his pro football career ending due to an injury, he still works out daily according to one interview. I’m a big believer in research, and so far the most frustrating part of this project is finding out much about the man I’m about to make my pitch to. Max Iver may believe in the power of advertising, but when it comes to his personal life, he keeps it quiet.
It’s time. I shut my laptop and head to the conference room, nervous but confident. I’m the last one in, and Mr. Brinkman and Max Iver both stand when I enter.
“Ah, she’s here.” Mr. Brinkman turns to the man I’m here to impress. “Max, you remember Jill Stafford.”
He extends his hand and smiles, his teeth straight and pearly white in his tanned face. He has dimples, and hazel eyes that are a shade darker than his thick, wavy hair. “How could I forget?” He offers his hand and I take it. His grip is strong, but careful. “She made quite an impression on me when we last saw each other.”
The comment gives me some hope. If he still remembers me from our cursory ‘hello’ in the hallway a week ago, then that bodes well.
Casey helps me set up the computer so we can project the presentation on the large flat screen at the front of the room. The butterflies I felt when I walked in are gone. Now I’m just excited.
I start with the PowerPoint. This is the setup for the ad I’ve designed. The Iver Group is a financial management firm. I recap what we know, that the company wants to target young professionals looking to invest. That’s a hard sell, and we’ve been hired to make investment seem hip and desirable. I throw in abysmal statistics about millennial investing, and market research on what appeals to our target customers. I point out that investing is often associated with old people, and millennials don’t want to think about being old. I explain that the ad will appeal to the younger set’s desire for independence while making aging something they can look forward to with the right planning.
All the while, Mr. Iver is leaning back in his chair, but each time I glance at him, he’s studying me, not the presentation, and I look away, unnerved. His bold gaze is rattling me. I don’t want to get unnerved, so I focus on the screen as the real pitch begins.
I start the ad. A young man in a wetsuit is polishing his surfboard when someone puts a larger, more expensive board in the sand next to him. It’s an older man, fit, with a white beard. He nods to the young man. A moment later, they are heading to the surf and catch the same wave, but the old man out-surfs the younger man, who falls before he reaches the shore.
Afterwards, the young man runs up to the older man and asks, “Just one question. How?”
“Planning,” the old man says. “I had to have something to do after early retirement.”
The old man walks off. The young man looks down at his cheaper board, picks it up, and runs after him. “Hey, hey,” he says. “Tell me how you did it!”
This is where the Iver Group logo fades over the scene. The lights, which had been turned down, come back on. Max Iver is still sitting back in his chair, one long leg crossed over the other, a long forefinger pressed against his cheek. I hold my breath, ready to exhale in relief. He sits up, leans forward, and puts his forearms on the desk.
“I hate it,” he says.
The room is silent, save for Casey’s soft gasp. I make no sound. My breath is still caught in my throat.
“Excuse me?” I finally find my voice and look back at the frozen screen, at the older and younger man walking off into the sunset. “Mr. Iver… it… it’s based on market research. The appeal is targeted…”
“I said I hated it,” he repeats quietly, and points at the screen. “That’s not going to appeal to the people I want to reach.”
I’m hurt and offended, but I try to keep my cool. “With all due respect,” I say. “What do you know of what young people think?”
“Jill…” There’s a warning to Mr. Brinkman’s voice, but I ignore it as I stare at Max Iver. At that moment, we could be the only two people in the room.
“That’s a young, lost person seeking out a daddy to help him,” he says, gesturing to the screen. He eyes me, and I get the strangest feeling, almost panicky, and I don’t know why. “I’m targeting young people who’ve gotten past that point.” He pauses. “At least on a professional level.”
So, you’re saying you want a daddy…
The words jump to the front of my mind from where they’re buried deep in my subconscious. I see the bright light again. The voice is deep, familiar. I look back at Mr. Iver. I feel sick and shaky. The rejection combined with another fragmented memory is just too much.
My hands are shaking as I rip the cords from the laptop, snatch it from the table, and bolt from the room. I don’t know why I’m running, or what I’m running from. All I know is that I’m a fuck-up who got blackout drunk on Saturday night and has now blown the best professional chance she’s ever had. And what’s worse? I’m starting to feel that whatever I did on Saturday night has somehow come back to haunt me.
I hear heavy footsteps. Mr. Brinkman is coming down the hall, calling my name. He’s angry. I’ve never heard him angry. I want to head for the exit, but instead I retreat to my cubicle. I feel another sense of déjà vu. Every time I’ve lost a job—and I’ve lost two since leaving college—it’s been because of some emotional outburst, either at a coworker or a boss. This had been my longest employment, but when I see my boss’ red face, I know it’s over.
“There was no excuse for your behavior in there, Miss Stafford,” says the usually easygoing boss who until this point called me Jill. “I’m sorry, but what you did was inexcusable.” He runs a hand through his white hair. “Clean out your desk. Security will be here momentarily to escort you out.”
“You don’t have to fire her.” We both turn at the sound of Max Iver’s voice. “She made a mistake, but it can be corrected.”
“With all due respect, Mr. Iver, this is an internal matter,” Mr. Brinkman says.
“Yeah,” I say. “It’s not really your concern, is it?” He’s trying to help, but I’m still stung, still wounded over his rejection of my vision for his ad. It was a good ad, and this is his fucking fault. I pull a box from under my desk and start throwing things into it. My hands are shaking so much that I drop my stapler, then I realize it belongs to the company and leave it on the floor. Mr. Brinkman is off to the side, talking to Max Iver, and whatever his client is saying has no effect, because my boss—my former boss—is shaking his head.
“You called?” Rex, our kindly security guard has reached us. He looks in, sees me collecting my things, and his expression is somewhere between shock and sadness.
“If you could kindly see Miss Stafford out of the building,” Mr. Brinkman says, and without so much of a goodbye to me, he turns away. I lower my eyes, not wanting to meet the gazes of my coworkers who have now solemnly appeared to gawk. As I start to head down the hall, however, I feel someone take my arm. It’s Max Iver.
“When you get outside,” he says, his voice low, “check your phone.”
I stare up at him for a moment, not comprehending what he means, and walk away without responding. I don’t want to talk to him. I don’t want his lame sympathy after the fact. I have other things to focus on, like breaking the news to Becky, and finding a way to talk her out of evicting me.
So this is what rock bottom feels like? I’m so numb, I can’t even cry as I walk to the parking deck. My car, a sporty little Subaru with a payment I can barely afford, sits waiting in my personal space, one of the perks I’ll no longer enjoy. I open the back door and am tossing the box in the seat when I hear my text tone. I’m not surprised to see a number I don’t recognize. It must be Mr. Iver. I start to click off, but then stop. The text he’s sent me has an attachment. A video.
“Call me after you watch this,” the words below it read, and I feel my heart begin to hammer, because I think I know now. I think I know what that light was. My fingers shake as I tap the download and watch the video.
Oh, my god… no…