[click play if you like these w music]
I was sick. We went to the mall and the reaction was to buy shoes. It made me feel pathetic. Who could care about wearing shoes at a time like this? I felt like I needed to be barefoot as a trudged through the next few months. Only I could be blaming myself and getting angry at a pair of skate shoes. I almost lose it trying on a pair of socks. I feel too human for words. I’m not going to die or anything, but my 21st birthday was setting up to be more of a graduation than a celebration.
Hours later we’re at a chain restaurant downtown. I am avoiding my phone at all costs. There is a big party on 28th Street tonight and everyone I have ever met will be there. They will block off the street on both ends, the fraternities will open their doors and a flood of drunken humanity will water every lawn with jungle juice. The thought of going sickens me.
I order an alcoholic beverage at dinner in front of my father despite being underage. It was that kind of night following that kind of day. Even the damn waitress seems to understand. I’ve never been a bad kid. Maybe I’m bad by certain standards and there are certainly many, many things I haven’t told a soul save the ones who saw things firsthand, but I never really crossed the line. I always loved balancing on it and staring at the impending freefall on either side. For me, it is the fascination of peering over the edge of a tall cliff realizing you are a stone’s throw from utter chaos. I didn’t need to swim in such turbulent water, but I sure loved sitting on the shore. And metaphors.
That was the first drink I’d had in some time. I had imposed a rule of sobriety and utter silence. I didn’t need anyone knowing anything about me. This was not to say I didn’t want to talk about the little hurdle life had thrown me. I just didn’t want to be let down by all the people in my life I felt might be unequipped to deal with this kind of thing. I suspected part of growing up would be learning to trust people and then learning to wipe away the ones who wouldn’t piss on you if you were set ablaze. For some awful reason, they are the hardest to sweep away.
My father urges me to go to the party. I want to tear my face off from not smoking cigarettes and like the moment of a song when the drummer starts tapping the kick drum, I feel the drink getting in my veins. That familiar feeling is starting to come back. My eyes well up and I can’t explain it, but everything feels like a movie again. I am on stage and the skyscrapers are the stage lights. I bite my lip and look at my father and realize it is always, always going to be like this. It’s just another scene. I should have known. I guess they don’t teach you that kind of thing in film school.
My father drops me off at my apartment just down the street. My cousin is there on the couch. He’s got plans and I decide to spare him the details of what has started going on inside of me right now. I just take to a bottle of tequila and my balcony. It is my favorite place in the world. I can hear my music from my bedroom and I can’t stop staring into the neighboring skyscrapers. I decide today is not the day to quit smoking. The sensory pleasure of being young and feeling important with a cigarette is intoxicating to my vanity. A warm rush of chemicals. I look down and realize that I absolutely love these new shoes. They are all I have ever wanted in footwear.
I feel zero stress figuring out the eight freeway changes in the two mile drive to Adams. I am going to pregame at a particular apartment near to campus. When I get there, no one is ready and I am left to figure it out by myself. I smoke cigarettes out front in the ugliest, shadiest alley that ever felt so much like home. I lean against a fence and get my shirt dirty. I feel long and lean. I can see my friend through her window and she appears to be dressed so I decide to go inside.
We have a strange friendship, the kind where you are close but don’t talk so much. I have a habit of playing around on her computer and playing rap songs off her playlist. We are making small talk. I am dating her friend. I am probably an inconvenience. I drink all their diet coke and come and go at the strangest of hours. Such a strange experiment is college. You have friends for a lifetime and then you make all new ones. They will have to be enough. They will have to care enough because you cannot go back. When I left my hometown I left. I left because I thought there was no way I could do it. And I did, trusting that anyone who really loved me would be there someday when I landed. But life throws you a curve ball and you simply must squeeze the last drops of juice from the rind. You have to make due when you don’t know who cares and who doesn’t. You never know if you are alone in a room of friends or too familiar in a room of strangers.
We are getting drunk now and the city seems to be waking up. Our little college town wedged into a bad neighborhood of the crown jewel of the West Coast is flickering on. People are making their way to one street in particular and soon I will be going there too. I wonder who I will see because I have not picked up my phone in days.
She is talking to me and I had checked out of the room and into some strange place in my mind. She can see me go to autopilot and she flips me the tequila and she simply asks, “How are things going?”
“Ok,” I tell her, assuming base conversation is what she ordered. I wouldn’t want to serve lobster thermidor if she wanted a quesadilla. But she didn’t…
“No, I mean things. I have been waiting for the moment to ask.” Suddenly the tequila burns off in a losing battle with reality. We are actually talking. I pause and make this face. It’s a face so few people have actually seen. It’s how I probably really look. For someone who talks and talks and talks, I do not know what to say.
“I don’t know. Can I just thank you for asking?” She sees it in my eyes. She’s not used to this face I am making. I feel excessively vulnerable and I wonder if I will be impaled right now.
“You know I love you, right?”
I smile. I can’t help it. This is the first time a friend of mine from the post high school era has told me that I mattered to them. This is the moment I know this drunken spin cycle of a city is my home and the roots have begun to take hold. Someone out there doesn’t want me to die and that is enough. It is a warm feeling. I feel like a cat that has fallen asleep in a sunbeam across the floor. I need the conversation to stop so I don’t ruin it. Whenever I get a little faith in humanity, I run with it. I give her a hug and thank her as much as possible. I head out to the row.
It is like what I imagine Tokyo is like. Everyone has put every colored light they own out on display. The place glows like the end of the world. Stereos and turntables and amps blast different songs into the cool night air. They all seem to blend together. It is a parade of human faces. I swear I recognize some of them, but it makes no sense. A girl from Dallas. A boy from New Jersey. My life is literally flashing before my eyes. I am hallucinating from memory.
Stepping onto the lawn of my fraternity feels like pulling off a crowded freeway. My muscles expand. My jeans fit better. I can’t explain how much more comfortable I am now. I see familiar faces. Miner is upstairs with a cigarette. We make eye contact and do our proverbial mental download. He now knows what I am thinking and we no longer will need to talk. I get sucked into the party and find myself in the courtyard. Dave is there. It is a nice surprise. I feel like I haven’t seen him in a long time. I just give him a hug. Deep down he’s probably not sure how to be, but as usual he finds a posture that works. I am not sure what we talk about, but we are as we were as middle school students. We are two friends staring around a room filled with monsters marveling at their teeth and tails and scales and smirks.
I have never felt so happy to turn my head off. All the lights are forming a celestial freeway leading my mind to wander. I will wake up and it will be a foul tasting dose of reality. So many times in life like that. You are going to fade into sleep and awake no better than you did the day before. All you have is another memory in the tank and some more fodder for waxing existential.
And for tonight, that is more than good enough.