Enough to Drown a Man
It was New Year’s Eve, and the night belonged to Deacon. A bulb buried and lying dormant inside of him was finding its way to flower. He beamed at his girlfriend Clara, as if to say: Look at the world I can give you. Look at the men in tuxedos and women in sequined gowns. Look at the chandeliers and centerpieces lush with lavender and magnolia. Look at the way everything gleams. Clara responded with the serene, camera-ready smile she wore to please those around her. She had grown up here in Dallas, a debutante, so perhaps she was accustomed to attending such parties. Was he a fool for thinking he could impress her? The evening was just beginning, he reassured himself; he still had time to make it special somehow. He could even ask her to marry him if the perfect moment arrived. They’d only known each other for three months, but Deacon was confident he wanted her to be his wife. For the past week, his coat pocket had housed a slim jewelry box with his mother’s engagement ring secured within.
Deacon took a glass of champagne. Servers were offering crystal flutes from trays so well shined their sparkling contents seemed to multiply. He took another. And another. The ache that had amassed in the back of his throat was starting to dissolve. Soon he lost track of how much he’d consumed, giving himself over to the transcendent brightness that always reminded him of Phoenix and those mornings spent at the abandoned swimming pool. He was in high school then and living with his mother in Desert Song, an apartment complex at the edge of the city. In those early hours of pink light when his mother was fast asleep on the couch, a lipstick-stained martini glass on the floor by her side, Deacon would make his quiet exit, allowing time for a detour to the pool on his way to the bus stop. He had claimed that neglected space as his own: an oasis of algae-greened water, whitewashed brick walls, and overgrown tangerine trees. Sitting cross-legged on the diving board and hovering above the half-filled basin, he imagined fresh tiles and clean water. He likened this new pool to his mind and drifted into its shimmering depths, guided by the tinkling sounds of wind chimes that decorated the units’ small terraces. Such moments had made him feel expansive and connected, as if he could reach out and touch the very heart of the universe as easily as he could have dipped a toe into the water beneath him.
Deacon spotted Tim Larkin making his way toward him and Clara. Tim’s hair was combed back and defined in silver-gray waves, and he was dressed in solid black, which gave audience to his polished, rattlesnake boots. Deacon now wished he’d worn something more stylish than this ill-fitting tux, a cheap rental missing its cufflinks.
“Enjoying yourselves, I hope?”
Tim lifted Clara’s hand to his lips, stamping her fingers with a kiss.
“Immensely,” Clara said. “Thank you.”
He watched how Clara trapped Tim in her gaze—those gold-flecked brown eyes—and how she measured the seconds until looking away, at last releasing him back into what Deacon knew would feel like a colder atmosphere than before. Something caught and flashed in his chest. Had Clara grown tired of him? Was she casting about for someone new?
Tim looked pleased. “Clara, would you be so kind as to let me steal Deacon for a while?”
“Of course,” she said. “He’s all yours.”
Deacon followed Tim as he began to describe the cache of scotch he kept in his library—dozens of bottles he’d brought back from distilleries in Islay. Once there, Deacon took a seat in the deep armchair opposite Tim, who went about clearing his desk of its stacks of legal pads and folders bound with rubber bands. Tim fixed the stub of an old cigar in the corner of his mouth, and though it was unlit, Deacon could still smell the tobacco laced with licorice and cinnamon. Without dislodging the cigar, Tim congratulated him on completing his first six months at the firm with flying colors. In spite of himself, Deacon grinned at the compliment and released his breath in a brief fit of laughter.
“Well, I’ll be damned if that’s not the best thing I’ve heard all year.”
“Let’s have a pop to celebrate,” Tim said. “You’ve earned it.”
Tim pulled an unlabeled bottle from his desk and poured a glass for each of them. They toasted—to many more!—and Deacon took in the rare amber, set aglow by the lamplight. With that first glass, and another, he drained deserts of smoke and forests of decay that burned and numbed, flooding him in extraordinary, womb-like warmth. He felt giddy yet centered, and wanted to find Clara, her rosewater-scented neck.
When they rejoined the party, Deacon saw her standing at one of the cocktail tables, regaling Mrs. Larkin and others who seemed spellbound. Clara had a way of moving through space like a smooth stone across water, leaving a rippling trail of light as she went. He wanted to fill the room, to be the only surface against which she could traverse, but he would have to embody oceans to satisfy her. Pressing his hand to Clara’s back where her skin was exposed through a diamond-shaped keyhole, he kissed her cheek, her neck. He searched for the language to tell her about those sunrises balanced on the diving board, his lips stinging from peeling tangerines with his teeth: how he had felt contained and infinite at once. How one morning his mother—with her arm hanging off the couch at an unnatural angle and the pink light filtering her features—looked more like a forgotten doll. That was the day she never woke up. He heard the wind chimes tinkling on the terrace: suddenly a lonely and dissonant sound that gave voice to his terror. He heard glasses clinking around him.
Deacon leaned into the soft shell of Clara’s ear and whispered, “Has anyone ever told you, you’re astonishing.” She returned his embrace, her fingers drawing a gentle line down the length of his spine. A server paused at their cocktail table to offer another round in preparation for the midnight toast. They each took a glass.
Tim let out a sharp whistle from the staircase, and they looked up to find him wielding a bottle of champagne in one hand and an ornate, curved sword in the other. He announced that at midnight, which was only minutes away, he would saber the bottle. The guests clapped and cheered when he raised the blade to initiate the final, ten-second countdown. Deacon held Clara’s hand, squeezing it with each passing second, while the crowd sung out in unison. Even though his voice joined the others, he was starting to feel diminished and alone. He needed another scotch, but he couldn’t excuse himself now. At last, the countdown climaxed, Tim’s saber splitting open the bottle, which sprayed and foamed to everyone’s delight. Deacon kissed Clara but found his tongue sluggish and hers timid. He tightened his grip around her waist and pulled her toward him with such force she dropped her glass. Clara gasped as it shattered against the marble floor.
Within seconds, a server was tending to the mess, and Tim was at their side. “No use crying over spilled champagne,” he said. But Tim’s words of consolation and the amused expression on his face only made Deacon feel more ashamed. He knelt to help the server pick up the pieces. “Always such a gentleman,” he heard Tim say to Clara. “And the firm’s rising star! You’re one lucky lady.”
Deacon looked up from the floor to find Tim putting his hand to the brim of an imaginary hat and tipping it toward Clara. He watched her smile at Tim with heartbreaking abandon until her gaze shifted back to him, and she cried out, “Deacon! You’re bleeding!”
His hand was covered in blood. Deacon took the napkin the server offered and stood up in a rush.
“It’s nothing. I’m fine.”
“We’d better call it a night,” Clara said. “Tim, thank you for your hospitality, and please give our compliments to Mrs. Larkin as well.”
“The pleasure was all mine.” Tim said, then turned to Deacon and clasped his shoulder: “Happy New Year, bud. Take care of yourself.”
“Same to you, bud.” He said in an effort to match Tim’s warm tone.
As they made their way to the door, Deacon downed a final glass of champagne.
The Larkins’ lawn stretched out beneath a clear sky netted in stars. Deacon’s mind went to work connecting the studs of light. Rising star—he was the firm’s rising star! In his constellations, Tim’s library converged with the swimming pool. He wanted to drink scotch on the diving board until he expanded to hold the whole, burning universe inside of him: tangerines, smoke, and radiant green. He steadied himself against Clara, who was guiding him along the moon-washed sidewalk, the nighttime air licking his skin out of a love so absolute he no longer feared anything, not even death. God-given angel, Clara. Clarity. His mother’s ring.
Had you left the Larkins’ party shortly after midnight, you might have seen them in the yard, their figures silhouetted by streetlight. You might have seen him on his knees in the grass, his head against her thigh as she stood cradling him. You might have wondered if he had just asked her to marry him, and then on getting closer, you might have heard his muffled sobs. Had he fallen? He seemed like the victim of a terrible accident. Or was he merely intoxicated?
They’d almost reached the car when she asked for the keys. She moved to grab them from his back pocket. He jerked away from her reach, her presence a sudden prod.
“It’s just a cut, Clara. I can still drive.”
“You’re drunk, darling, and I think you need stitches.”
He heard the pleading break in her voice. She looked like a little girl with his blazer draped over her shoulders. Were her eyes welling with pity for him? Taking in her god-awful sadness, he was struck by how inadequate she’d made him feel: those intimate exchanges with Tim, the broken glass and blood, and finally her refusal to accept the ring by way of some vague explanation he couldn’t remember. Had she taken him for an idiot? Deacon turned and walked toward the car with imbalanced but determined swiftness. He got in and drove off, gravel shooting into the air as he spun out of the lot and left Clara standing there.
With the windows rolled down, he felt bolstered by the wind and his newfound mission; he would head downtown and check into a hotel, where there would be a bar and a pool—one with clean, shimmering water.
His finger was throbbing, and the steering wheel had turned sticky with blood. He could turn back, make amends with Clara, and go to the hospital for stitches. But turning back seemed impossible; the night had fallen away like scenery from the window of a train as he found himself inside a world of his own hurdling toward something he couldn’t yet name. Besides, she never knew. His mother. Clara. She didn’t understand that he was brimming with love for her—it was enough to drown a man. As the traffic light ahead turned red, Deacon accelerated. He could see the city skyline emerging in the distance, the tallest building outlined in neon green.