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The Fortress of the Purple Bull

A story of friendship and false hope.

By Caitlin Jill AndersPublished 3 years ago 8 min read
The Fortress of the Purple Bull
Photo by Nastya Dulhiier on Unsplash

The chapter started with a ceramic bull. Tommy almost stepped on it when they arrived to tour the apartment. It was lying in front of the little sliver of wall between the heavy metal door and the steel grate pulled down in front of the store next door. “See, I knew this place was gonna be bullshit,” Tommy said as he picked it up. It fit in the palm of his hand. The bull had little purple swirls painted on it, and it was missing a horn. He seemed a little grimy, but Tommy pocketed it anyway. He did things like that. He smiled as it clinked down into his tie-dyed drawstring bag. “This bull isn’t bullshit, but this apartment will be. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.”

It wasn’t though, or at least, Lexi didn’t think so. Tommy thought it would be because he didn’t want to move. They were paying too much money to split a one bedroom in the West Village, and while Tommy said their living situation made them scrappy and interesting, Lexi couldn’t do it anymore.

“I need my own door with a lock,” Lexi said as she tested the blinds in the sunny-enough living room. “I don’t need you coming in at 2:30 am anymore and sitting on me while you’re drunk off your ass.”

“But that’s why you love me, Lexisaurous Rex!”

“It’s really not,” Lexi said, as Tommy grabbed her and started waltzing her around the empty Washington Heights apartment as the building manager watched impatiently from the front doorway.

“We’ll always be best friends, Lexi?” He asked as he threw her onto his back and shook her around.

“Yes Tommy,” Lexi said, then spent 20 minutes convincing him to fill out an application for the apartment. This is how it was, this is how it had always been. Tommy was chaotic and Lexi made sense. To many people, their friendship was weird, but they’d been like paper and glue since they met too many years ago. Tommy brought Lexi out of her shell, though, and during certain moments, like looking for a new apartment, Lexi grounded Tommy.

* * *

They got the keys a week later, and the first thing Tommy did was place the bull on the weird shelf thing above the fireplace that didn’t actually work. “May Henry bless this home, and all of its impending bullshit.” He pulled a mini champagne bottle out of his zebra striped shoulder bag and popped the cork all in one fluid motion.

“When did you even buy that,” Lexi asked incredulously as she measured the countertops.

“I’m magic baby, what can I say?” Champagne dripped down from the bottle and made a trail as Tommy skipped over to the living room window and pushed it open. Lexi threw some paper towels down on the floor under her feet, cleaning the mess and shuffling towards him at the same time. Tommy was already on the fire escape, shouting about something. Lexi quickly identified the noise as the soundtrack from In The Heights. She climbed out the window too and he immediately handed her the bottle. She took a tiny swig and he finished it off, then dug around in his bag and pulled out two alcohol nips.

“Shots for good luck!” Tommy cracked his open then looked at Lexi expectantly.

“Tommy, it’s 10 am.”

“So?”

“So,” Lexi sighed and took the tiny bottle from him.

“I officially christen this home, The Fortress of the Purple Bull!” He hoisted his tiny bottle into the air, so Lexi did the same. “To our new life,” Tommy yelled out over the city, and Lexi reflected on how nothing really felt new about it.

* * *

Lexi thought having their own rooms would limit Tommy’s messiness to his space a little more, but it didn’t. One evening she came home from work to find a trail of broken glass leading from the kitchen to the fire escape. She had no idea how he’d even managed to make a trail of glass. It glistened even in the limited light, and it reminded Lexi of sea glass on a beach. She’d always loved finding and collecting sea glass as a kid. As she cleaned up the mess, she imagined sand sliding through her fingers and getting stuck under her nails as she collected her treasures, glimmering in the summer sun. That’s what she wanted. Sun and sand and colorful light. Not glass that smelled like beer and wood stained with tiny drops of blood.

When Tommy got home, she asked him about it. He laughed and explained that he’d dropped a beer bottle and it shattered in a cool pattern, so he’d tried to make art out of it but he cut himself so he stopped and decided he’d clean it up later because he was running late for drag brunch, which he’d been pregaming for. He apologized over and over again, cupped Lexi’s face in his hands, and kissed it. His breath assaulted her with so many smells.

“We’ll always be best friends, Lexi?”

“Yes Tommy,” and then she made him a frozen pizza and persuaded him to drink water as he told her about his fabulous day.

* * *

Tommy loved having friends over, which Lexi never minded, except that it was never a calm affair. Tommy never had friends over for wine and a movie. Tommy had friends over for six tequila shots and the new Beyoncé album. They were always there to pregame for something. An opening, a closing, a night on the town. It didn’t matter; there was always some kind of alcohol involved. It seemed like every few days Tommy and five of his closest friends were in the living room dancing on the coffee table or hanging off the fire escape, drinking something from the bottle. It was never the same five friends, or the same bottle.

Tommy always invited Lexi to join them on whatever adventure they were embarking on, but she usually preferred to just chat with them in the apartment and then send them on their way. She liked catching everyone before they got too drunk and couldn’t carry a conversation anymore. His friends were fun when they weren’t accidentally breaking her light fixtures or throwing Cheetos at the cat. They all loved her, and some of them had taken to calling her Queen Lexi. One of them even brought her a crown once. She put it on to humor them all, and Tommy just beamed. “That’s my girl!” He grabbed Lexi and kissed her hair, then accidentally tripped over one of the white claw cans he’d left littered around the living room from the day before. “Oh shit,” Tommy yelled, and then he giggled. “We’ll always be best friends, Lexi?”

“Yes Tommy,” and she breathed a sigh of relief when the door shut behind them and Lexi was alone again; just her, the cat, and Tommy’s mess.

* * *

Lexi knew things were getting bad. The cans and bottles were everywhere. She started to find other things, too. He was mixing and matching. Tommy loved to accessorize, and Lexi desperately wished he’d stick to bags. She tried to talk to him about it. She’d always tried. Somehow though, the conversation always ended with a kiss on the top of Lexi’s head and Tommy yelling, “I love you best friend,” as he skipped on to the next adventure. It’ll be ok, Lexi told herself. Tommy was always ok.

Until he wasn’t. The night it happened, Lexi wasn’t there. She’d met a girl a few weeks before, and they were on their third date, wine and cheese and bad reality TV. The call came from one of Tommy’s friends. Lexi had no idea which one. It wouldn’t have mattered. The information came out in pieces. Tommy. The fire escape. A fall. Too many tequila shots. Some other stuff too. She had to stop home first to get his ID and insurance card and anything else he might need. Lexi was too numb to even cry on the way to the hospital. She kept her eyes fixed forward, and her hand clasped around Henry, who she’d grabbed instinctively on her way out the door.

The doctor told her all that he could about Tommy’s condition. He broke so many things that night, in his body and in Lexi’s too. The doctor said he’d be ok, but Lexi wasn’t so sure.

* * *

Two months later, Lexi visited Tommy in rehab. His room was more organized than any other space he’d ever been in charge of. The only way she knew for sure it was Tommy’s room was Henry the bull, sitting peacefully on the nightstand.

“So is this place The Fortress of the Purple Bull too, by extension?” Lexi ran her finger along the top of Henry, a show of love and faith that he could heal.

"It is now that you're here," Tommy said, and finally, after months, Lexi started to cry. Tommy gently pulled her in and held her. "We'll always be best friends, Lexi?" Tommy whispered his mantra into her hair, almost as if he was afraid to say it.

"Yes Tommy," Lexi said, as she gripped Henry in her hand a little too tightly.

* * *

When Tommy came home again, things seemed better. Lexi was hesitant and wanted him to stay in sober living longer, but Tommy insisted on coming home to The Fortress of the Purple Bull. He said it wouldn't spark bad memories. He said he had healed. He said he'd never go out on the fire escape ever again.

He started carrying Henry around with him everywhere he went. "He's my little guardian, for whenever you can't be with me, Lex." Lexi would smile nervously. She wanted to believe things would be better. She'd take Henry from Tommy, give him a squeeze, and then gently pass him back. Maybe this could work.

A few months went by, and Lexi was smiling a lot more. Tommy seemed good. Tommy seemed happy. Tommy wasn't bringing tons of friends to the apartment anymore, or leaving bottles lying around, or hurting himself from all the chaos. For the first time since they moved in, Lexi felt at peace in The Fortress of the Purple Bull.

Then one week, all at once, Lexi felt a shift. Tommy would leave the house angry and come home 24 hours later feeling fine again. It didn't happen every day, but it happened enough. One night she followed him. She had to. Partly because she had a feeling she already knew. Partly because he'd forgotten Henry.

She found him in the back of a club, lying across the lap of some guy she'd never met. Even though his eyes couldn't focus, he still saw her, smiled, then promptly threw up on her shoes.

"We'll always be best friends, Lexi?" Tommy rolled onto his back, eyes on the ceiling, as vomit dribbled from his mouth.

"Yes Tommy," Lexi said, and she grabbed some paper towels, cleaned up her shoes, and went home.

* * *

The next day when he came home, her bags were already packed, because she'd lied that night. There was no more yes Tommy. She couldn't do it anymore. Instead, she sang a tune he'd never heard before.

No Tommy, she said as he cried in her arms.

No Tommy, she said as she explained to him her plan of paying for the next month or so until she could find him a subletter.

No Tommy, she said as she loaded her bags into the taxi.

There was no more yes Tommy. There couldn't be. Maybe someday, but not now. She couldn't keep saying yes to watching someone slowly drift away.

The chapter ended with Lexi leaving that day. But on the weird shelf thing above the fireplace that didn't work, she left him Henry.

Short Story

About the Creator

Caitlin Jill Anders

Full-time writer with anxiety just figuring it out.

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    Caitlin Jill AndersWritten by Caitlin Jill Anders

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