January, 2009. Denver.
I’m six months’ sober when I fly to Denver for the ELU Awards for Journalistic Excellence. Solomon and I collaborated on a story about a toxic dump in Jersey that’s been nominated for best investigative piece. We’ve both won before, and I’ve been to so many of these things by now that they all run together. Eight years my junior, Solomon is newer to the game than I am, but she’s been around the block enough to know the routine.
Even so, it’s not surprising when we hit check-in Friday night and she announces that she forgot to book a room. Solomon is a lot of things, but well organized is not one of them.
“I’m not that big – can’t you just find something?” she asks, in that big-eyed, winsome way she has. “A broom closet would be fine.” The woman at the desk isn’t amused.
“I’m sorry – we’ve been booked for weeks. It’s the height of ski season… With this conference, every hotel in the area is full to capacity.”
Solomon isn’t looking at me, and I can tell she’s starting to freak out. She wears a cute little ski hat over her red hair, her nose still pink from the cold. Her jeans are snug and her lips are chapped and I see half the guys in the room stop what they’re doing to watch her.
“Just stay in my room,” I tell her before she has to ask. “There are two beds – no big deal.”
She doesn’t look comfortable with the idea. She’s been married to Michael – a geriatric professor who must pop Viagra like it’s candy corn, based on the number of coeds he’s banged – for three years now. Solomon and I haven’t had one of our “slips” since the day after she got engaged, so I’m thinking we’re safe.
“Are you sure?” she asks.
I give her a look to convey how ridiculous she’s being, and we grab our luggage. Solomon has been tiptoeing around the subject of my sobriety for a while now; like it’s a disease I’ve been afflicted with and now she has to relearn how to interact with me. Good old Diggs apparently isn’t the same man without a high ball in his hand. I have no doubt that she wouldn’t have thought twice about bunking with the old Diggs, strangely enough.
We get the room situation straightened out, dump our stuff, and go to the hotel restaurant to grab a bite. It’s already nine o’clock; we’ve both been traveling most of the day, and we’re ravenous. As we walk into the dining room, I hear the clink of ice cubes in a glass. You can smell alcohol on the air, sweet and strong. I haven’t been to one of these conferences since rehab, and somehow in that time have forgotten that anything and everything happens in the bar… And if it’s not happening in the bar, it’s happening in some stranger’s suite while you’re doing lines off their coffee table. A waitress with dark hair and a ski bunny’s body leads us to a table, her eyes lingering on mine with a smile before she leaves us. My hands start to sweat.
Solomon’s never been much of a party girl. At all the conferences we’ve been to before, she would have a couple drinks, charm everybody at the table, and then head to bed early, while I invariably rolled in around dawn. I attended the Hunter S. Thompson School of Journalism; Solomon had a picture of Diane Sawyer tacked to her bulletin board in high school. The idea of missing out on all my old Hunter S. exploits doesn’t fill me with the same kind of dread it once did, but I’m not jumping up and down about it, either.
At dinner, Solomon and I run into Tom and Jerry – a couple of reporter buddies of mine that she’s met before. They join us at the table and order a round for everyone. I politely decline. An uncomfortable silence ensues before Solomon cracks a joke and things start rolling again.
I’m hyper-aware of everyone around us: the guy in his fifties and his much-younger wife in the corner booth; the college-aged snowboarders at the bar, half their gear lined up against the wall; the clusters of reporters getting comfortable before the conference gets going. A blonde woman in a clingy red dress with legs up to there and awe-inspiring cleavage nurses a drink at the bar, her back turned to the crowd. She catches me watching her and smiles before I look away.
Everything seems louder and more chaotic than I remember it being. Tom and Jerry are already on their fourth scotch and sodas, their attention focused on Solomon. They’re giving a largely-fictional account of the time they were embedded in Bosnia together when the blonde at the bar gets up and sashays over to our table. She touches my arm and leans in; I catch a whiff of jasmine-scented hair and whiskey-flavored breath.
“You’re Daniel Diggins, aren’t you?” she asks. Tom and Jerry shut up. Solomon watches from across the table, eyes narrowed.
I nod and extend my hand. “Everybody calls me Diggs, though.”
She smiles with perfect, pearly white teeth and plump red lips. Now that we’re closer I can see that her pupils are dilated to about three times their normal size; her hand curls around my arm a little too tightly, and I can feel her heart racing. She sniffs quickly, confirming my suspicion.
“I’m Jess. I read your piece in the Globe this fall and I just loved it. When I found out you’d be here, I knew I just had to meet you.”
Solomon is shooting daggers at the woman, but Jess is oblivious.
“Would you be free for a drink later? I’d love to talk to you about that article.”
The article I did this fall for the Globe was an investigative piece on drug smuggling in Panama – a story I researched by going deep undercover for almost a year. I already know all the questions Jess will ask, primarily about whether or not I really had to do all the shit I said I did for the story, whether I got reimbursed by the paper for all that blow, and if I still have any contacts in that world. I nod all the same.
“I could probably manage that,” I say. “We can meet up in an hour or so?”
She hands me her room key right there, in front of everyone. It isn’t the first time it’s happened, but I’m still not above the ego boost.
“I’ll see you in an hour, then.”
She sashays away.
Before she’s out of hearing range, Tom whistles – low and long, shaking his head. “God, you piss me off.”
Solomon doesn’t say a word, but the daggers that had been directed at Jess are now pointed my way.
“Every damn time,” Jerry agrees. “It’s just because you’re easy.”
“That fucking hair doesn’t hurt,” Tom says, eying the mess of blonde curls I haven’t gotten around to cutting for too long now. He runs a hand over his bald pate and stares disconsolately at his scotch.
They let the subject drop, though I know it will come up again over the next few days. Repeatedly. They launch back into their Bosnia story until Solomon calls bullshit and they grudgingly acknowledge that some of their facts might be slightly skewed. At just after eleven o’clock, recognizing that despite their best efforts Solomon’s not going home with either of them, Tom and Jerry settle their tabs and head to bed. Solomon stands.
“I guess I’ll see you later, then,” she says. Her mouth is pinched and her forehead furrowed, which invariably means she’s pissed.
“Is there a problem?”
I’m still sitting, but I’m at the edge of my chair. Things are getting wilder around us, the noise level increasing in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol consumed. I’ve never felt more sober in my life.
“No,” she lies. “Have a great time. Don’t forget your key.”
“I’ve got it covered, thanks.”
“I’d hope so, Diggs.” She turns on me with hard green eyes and a mean little smile. “I’m guessing you’re not the first hotshot reporter Jess has knocked boots with.” Her voice goes breathy with the name, mocking me and the long-legged blonde who hit on me and all long-legged blondes in the tri-state area. “I’d definitely bring a raincoat.”
She nods toward the exit before I can figure out how to respond. “I’m just gonna get some sleep.”
I watch her go, more pissed than I can remember being in a long while. It’s not unusual for Solomon and me to fight, of course – we’ve been doing it for years now. I just can’t remember the last time it’s hit me on quite the cellular level she’s managed tonight. I fight an overwhelming urge to throw something. Hit someone. Do something. She’s across the lobby waiting for the elevator before I finally get up and follow.
“What the hell’s your problem?” I demand when I reach her. I spin her toward me and almost take a step back when I see the murder in her eyes. The elevator doors open. A cluster of drunken frat boys opt for the stairs as soon as we get on, leaving us alone.
“I don’t have a problem.”
“That’s good – because the last time I checked, that ring on your finger meant you’d given up the right to be jealous.”
“Oh, please,” she sneers. “Of her? So she’s got legs a mile long and tits men write poems about – you won’t remember her name by the time the weekend’s out. If anything, I feel sorry for her.”
I try to find the lie in that, but I can’t.
“So, what the fuck’s the problem? You’re obviously pissed about something.”
“I’m pissed because you’ve been clean six months now and you’re about to flush that down the toilet over some peroxide blonde with a nice rack and a purse full of coke.”
She shouts the words, her body coiled so tight I think she might hit me. Her fury serves to diffuse a lot of mine; I take a step back, studying her for a second before I speak.
“I thought you felt sorry for her,” I say. I don’t try to hide my smile.
“Not that sorry,” she mutters.
She crosses her arms over her chest and stands there, staring at the elevator doors. We’ve gone past our floor twice by now. I think of Jess, with the legs and the coke and the poetic tits. The inside of my nose itches and my fingers tingle and I can already feel the magic burn of white powder firing through my veins. I touch the key she left with me. Solomon has said her piece – I know she won’t beg me not to go. She’s better than that.
When we reach our floor for the third time, I step off the elevator. Solomon follows. We stand in the dimly lit hallway alone, my eyes fixed on a snowscape mounted on the wall to our left. It’s my move.
“So, what do you do at these things if you’re not snorting powder and screwing strangers ’til dawn?” I ask.
Solomon smiles a mile wide before she remembers herself and tones it back down. She loops her arm through mine.
“We’ll figure something out.”
We play Monopoly until two a.m. in our room. I’ve almost taken over the board by one, when Solomon comes across a Behind the Music on Keith Urban while she’s flipping channels. She doesn’t change it.
“Why are we watching this?”
“I love this guy.”
“Seriously… Country? Solomon, have I taught you nothing?”
“It’s good country,” she says. She turns up the volume. I pass go and she grudgingly hands me $200. She has two houses left in the ghetto, but I know she won’t forfeit until the last bell’s rung.
“Good country is Johnny Cash,” I counter. “Willie Nelson. Slim Pickens.”
“Spare me your snobbery.” She shakes the dice and lands on Park Place, where I have a kingdom of tiny red hotels set up. “Trust me – his stuff is good.” She pauses. Her eyes go dreamy. “And just look at him.”
I see a little, wiry guy with floppy hair, an earring, and tats. The folks Behind the Music play one of Urban’s latest hits, showing the musician in a throng of semi-orgasmic women while he sings about how good his ex-girlfriend looks in his t-shirt. Solomon informs me that this is one of her favorites. I respond by cleaning out the last of her Monopoly money and forcing her to change the channel.
That night, we sleep in separate beds. I’m sober as a judge and horny as hell, but strangely triumphant. One day at a time has been my mantra for the past six months; I’ve just survived another one.
In the morning, Solomon claims the shower first. I can hear her singing, unabashedly off-key, through the door. When she comes out a few minutes later, she’s wearing the white dress shirt I left on the bathroom floor the night before. Nothing else. Her hair is wet and her skin glistens. Solomon is small – the shirt falls about mid-thigh, and I can see beads of water still dripping down her calves to her slender ankles.
She blushes when she realizes I’m awake.
“Sorry – I just need to grab my clothes.”
I nod, suddenly very glad I’m safely concealed beneath the blankets. “No problem. You look good in my shirt.”
Solomon just rolls her eyes.