We Burned Out

by Daniel Johnson

Whenever Helen and I spent our nights drinking fifths of rum at the marina down the street from campus, I called her Helen of Troy. She was Greek, and there were all those ships, and in that naked moonlight her olive body looked as if some hunchbacked old Athenian sculptor had spent his lifetime casting its mold. Sailboats rocked against the pier and the warped wood of the docks would cry out. I told her they were made restless by her beauty, the boats. She knew it was just the ocean and that I was drunk. She would tell me to stop it, but in that way that meant she wasn’t really sure whether or not she wanted me to.

Helen wore nautical outfits a lot: anchor belt-buckles, lighthouse earrings, navy and white striped blouses. Her family was rich and we went to school on an island. She carried a miniature ceramic Tragic mask on her car keys that dangled out the back pocket of her brass-buttoned sailor shorts. When I was with her, I usually wore an undershirt and an unwashed pair of Levis with one of those mini pockets-within-a-pocket, where I stored two Ativan in case I had an episode during the day.

Most of those nights, we finished our fifths and tossed the empties into the Atlantic. They’d bob there and reflect coins of moonlight on the waves and sails and sometimes on our faces until they sank to the shallows. We would walk back up the hill towards campus and I’d rest one hand against the almost unnoticeable impression of the pills in the denim. I made it look like I was being smooth: just a thumb hooked in a beltloop. In my other hand, I’d hold Helen’s. The streetlights above us were orange and globular, like old diver’s helmets atop stakes of black iron.

She always did this thing where she would walk slightly in front of me and not look back. I didn’t mind. I’d watch the backs of her legs and think about how all I wanted was to feel them against my body every night, the way I could feel the pills. About halfway up the hill, I would know I needed to take them because the walk was steep and the rum made my heart roll.  

Part of me thought the reason Helen never came home with me after the marina was because, by the time we reached campus and I asked her to come to bed, my breath smelled rotten and synthetic from the Ativan. Sometimes they scraped against the roof of my mouth for the rest of the walk home before they’d swallow down. I imagined they left trails of residue, like long white cuts, along the back of my throat.

It was always the absence of something that triggered my anxiety. It was the silence that came when my roommate would go home for the weekend and leave me alone in our fluorescent dorm room without the box fan he used for white noise. It was the nights when I wasn’t surrounded by bar lights that blinked arrythmically, or by crowds of people in rave outfits with drinks the color of glow-sticks. It was whenever I wasn’t with Helen, or knew I wasn’t going to be with Helen, which was quite a lot. Helen didn’t like to stay the night.

We almost only saw each other after dark and, other than the nights at the marina, strictly behind the closed doors of my bedroom, which I found sort of sad. In daylight, the single-hung windows of my dorm would catch the sun from all its angles. The few times we spent afternoons together, Helen would wear her thinnest, whitest dresses and dance in the swaths of sunshine about my floor. She would stand over my knee as I sat on the edge of my bed and lift the hems up and hold them with her teeth. She’d have me touch her. Often, she reminded me that her name, in Greek, meant bright light, or flash, or something.

Otherwise, she’d come over after her evening classes and we’d watch Baz Luhrmann films and make love on my twin bed in the underwater lighting, the swimming blue shadows from the tube TV on my hutch. After we were done, I’d roll over into the crook of the wall and listen to my heart palpitate while she checked her phone. I’d fear that I had just voided some essential part of myself. Sometimes I’d be okay. There were others when I’d trip into a regiment of deep breathing exercises I’d learned from a Youtube video of a poorly animated blue butterfly that fluttered its wings in time with my deep breaths against a backdrop of green hills and silvery rays from an invisible sun.

When that happened, Helen would do this other thing where she’d hover her open mouth over mine. It looked like she was trying to kiss me really hard, or swallow me whole and hide me inside her belly. But she always left a space between our lips where the hot air would flatten out and cool. I’d hear these soft clicks against her teeth, like there were little crystals in my breath that sparked cold along the faces of her molars, which were perfectly aligned because she kept them in her retainers whenever she was alone. The breathing exercises only worked, really, when she did that other thing.

Each night, before she got dressed and went home, we’d watch the rusted reflections of the city below us shimmer on the ocean from the concrete slab of my windowsill.

“We could be good together,” I’d tell her. 

The sill was cold against our bare thighs, so most times Helen would climb atop my lap and lounge into me. She’d let the back of her hand fall against the glass. It would leave blurred knuckleprints there, streaked along the pane. I’d wipe them clean whenever she didn’t text me back.

“It looks like it’s on fire,” she’d say. “The water—isn’t it something?”