October 31st, 2013 - Elizabeth Austin
The bar was called Black Horse. It branded itself as a piano and cocktail lounge until 10pm, when it would transform into a small-town’s version of a nightclub. A local DJ would set up in the back room and the bartenders would fit slabs of styrofoam into the windows to keep the noise in. We’d all pregame at a local beer bar and walk the block over around 11, when the party really got started. By the end of the night the floor would be sticky with spilled drinks, wasted patrons stumbling through the doors and onto the street. Fights broke out between drunk men who hit on other drunk men’s dates, and police cars routinely lined up outside when it got close to closing time.
Black Horse Halloween parties were everything you could hope for as a late-20’s small-town alcoholic. Everyone dressed up, everyone partied, and no one cared how much you drank as long as you didn’t puke on their shoes. I went for the fun, for the freedom, but mostly I went for him.
He’d park his Jeep by the side entrance to the bar. It was white and lifted and outfitted, and I liked that people looked at us on the nights I left with him in it. When I saw the Jeep, I’d walk in scanning the room hoping I’d see him, hoping he’d be alone. We avoided eye contact until we were both drunk enough to skip over the fact that we’d been pretending not to see each other all night.
I’d taken my young kids out Trick or Treating early and then left them at my mother’s, still in their costumes. Mama wants a Halloween, too! I joked, thinking only of my Saturday night and who might already be out, how many drinks I could squeeze in before last call, whether I’d spend the night with one eye on the door.
The Jeep was there, and as I left the bar for some fresh air I saw him climb out. He was dressed like Rick James, wearing a white shirt opened to his navel and a ridiculous wig. The curls swung in shiny plastic-y clumps each time he turned his head. I remember laughing, caught off-guard. He seemed so loose, so free. I could see the kid he used to be swimming just under the surface of his adulthood.
What are you supposed to be? He eyed my black minidress and red lipstick. I’m hot, I quipped, feeling cute and funny, bolstered by a half-dozen vodka sodas. You coming or going? he asked. I held his gaze. I wanted to go back in, but I wanted him to come in too. I was hoping for the eventual 2am drive back to his house when I’d get to imagine that this time he’d wake me in the morning with a cup of coffee, buy me breakfast, ask me to stay.
Five hours and a dozen cocktails later I scrubbed at my feathered lipstick with wads of toilet paper over his upstairs bathroom sink. I knew his house, this bathroom, the needle-nose pliers that served as a makeshift-shower knob. I’d read books by the fire in the basement and slept late in the familiar smell of his sheets. I stared at my face. I looked like a clown, lipstick smeared around my mouth in a Ruby Woo cloud. My eyes were bloodshot from the booze and from the crying I was trying not to do.
In three hours I’d open the door to my mom’s house and sneak myself into her basement where I was staying while I worked my way through the broke-single-parent-in-school years. I’d wake up at 9, swear I felt fine, pretend I hadn’t been out all night. A part of me loved the idea that he might get me out of there even though I could feel that I wasn’t what he wanted, that I was a placeholder, good for when nothing else came along. I so badly wanted him to change. I wanted him to wake up with me in his bed one morning and flip like a light switch and say, you’re it.
I dated other people on and off but always, in the background, he was there, laying over my heart like a wool blanket in summer. It felt suffocating, and a decade of uncertainty and of being yanked back and forth eventually wore me down. I began to notice a tightening in me when he was around- I watched myself, measuring my responses, wanting to be the kind of person he’d want while a voice in the back of my mind nudged- you’re better than this. You’re worth so much more.
By the end, each time I saw him I wondered if it would be the last time. We spoke less and less; I started to ignore the midnight messages and random virtual prods. You still around? they asked me. Am I? I’d think. On a trip to Italy last March I got another message- enjoy yourself! have fun! I stared at the message and thought, use your eyes, I’m in Florence- what ELSE would I be doing? But the message wasn’t wishing me well. It was gauging my interest, prodding me again, asking, always, are you still there? I was glad to be in Rome, glad for the cute Italians, the wine and gelato and day trip to Tuscany that kept him almost entirely out of my mind.
The last time he was in my house he made a dig at my overfull freezer- What a mess. Nothing’s changed here!- which was true, and not true. I’m not any more organized in my food storage now, but I’m different in dozens of other ways that are more significant. In that moment I could feel myself shrinking, feeling sorry for my freezer, for the waffle crumbs at the bottom of my ice bin and the bag of rice that fell out when he opened it. I felt that familiar pull towards the irrational desire to be something or someone else. And just as quickly, I realized I don’t want that.
Ten Halloweens later, the bars are all memory and I can’t stand the smell of them. I’ve cut the long thread to a life I don’t live anymore- and a person I don’t want anymore. It was a clean break: a goodbye text and a block, a quick and quiet end to a decade of wanting, and I know someday I’ll have an October when I’ll never think of him.
Black Horse is long-closed, reopened as an upscale chophouse that serves parmesan-truffle fries and shuts off its lights by 10 on weekends. The Jeep was two trade-ins ago, maybe scrapped, maybe some teenager’s starter car. Sometimes I remember the handles that hung from the passenger side door, how I’d grab them and play-shriek when the tires slipped in the snow, and I wonder who’s holding on to them now.
Tonight I’ll stay in, sober in my own home, watching The Addams Family and waiting for my kids to return with their half-filled pillowcases swung over their shoulders. We’ve had a routine for the past few years- I send them out early with their friends, bribing my son to keep an eye on my daughter. I enjoy time alone in my home, listening to groups of kids pass on the street and snacking on Reese’s pumpkins until I get a stomachache. After an hour my kids turn up on our doorstep and tell me they had fun, but it isn’t Halloween without Mom! Then we all go out, them in costumes and me in sparkly Betsey Johnson combat boots, the three of us around town. We hit up the block party on Liberty and stop by the firehouse, catching parents from school in passing. I’m asleep at 11pm, at 2am, at 5. Tomorrow I’ll wake up late in my own bed with no headache and make myself coffee and buy my kids breakfast. I’ll promise them, in a thousand ways each day, that I’ll stay.
It took me a decade to learn that learning to love myself meant learning to unlove someone else. Ten years ago I got home from another night of a life I wanted more than anything to climb out of and wrote in my journal, I want someone who knows what they have when they have me. That hasn’t changed. I have my whole heart back in my chest now, all mine to give away again someday to someone who won't care that I have a bag of rice that falls out of my freezer every time I open it.
I have so much affection for the girl who used to keep one eye trained on the door of a small-town bar, waiting for someone who would not, could not follow her into her future. She saw the best in someone and held on to hope. I love her for her earnest belief, but I love me now for my ruthless pursuit of what is best for myself. I carried desperate hope and wanting through the years until I finally let it all go with relief, watching it fall from my palms like petals into a river.
Elizabeth Austin' s writing has appeared on Tor.com, PANK, Driftwood Press, and Sybil, among others. She holds an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her works-in-progress include a memoir about her daughter’s three years of leukemia treatment and a fiction novel about a ghost. She lives in Bucks County with her two children, their Newfoundland Numa, their black cat Zoro, and a hamster named Wednesday. Find her on Instagram: @writingelizabeth.
She encourages you to check out The Little Hero Foundation and to join the Gold Pumpkins for the Cure each Halloween to raise awareness and funding for pediatric cancer research.