Part One. "10..."
People, Places, Things
One time when I was twenty, there was a cookout at my house. It wasn’t necessarily my idea, but I wasn’t going to be the one against it either. We had a townhouse just off campus, me and this girl I was dating at the time. It was one of those things where we both thought we were more mature than we were, so we draped the whole horrible idea in responsible terms like “half-rent,” “half-utilities,” and “practice run.”
The first floor was long, open, and high-ceilinged, the only break being a kind of window/bar between the kitchen and the combined living/dining area. Bedrooms upstairs for those that couldn’t or didn’t or didn’t feel like making it home. A porch out back, complete with a grill, various camping and lawn chairs, and an unobstructed view of nothing in particular, composed of an empty field and a scrappy woods, about a hundred yards back.
It wasn’t the first time I drank, but it was reasonably close. It was in that period of time where I still kept bottle caps and pop tabs in my pockets in order to keep track of my pace. And then, obviously, also to laugh and be proud of my growing achievements the next day, as those still lingering on spilled our piles onto the patio table during late-morning cigarettes and hair-of-the-dog beers.
The weather was warm still, fall holding on long enough for football games to be watched without having to remember to start the car towards the end of the fourth quarter.
The group wasn’t motley, per se, but it was haphazard. More so than I preferred. A core group of friends had always been my comfortable spot, and even more transparently, my “core” had for the most part become the girl. I wasn’t a big talker. But I did want to be. A perplexing situation to find oneself in. I called my acquaintances “friends,” because otherwise it seemed rather stand-offish and, basically, odd. I called my actual acquaintances “the people whom I did not like.” Not entirely without reason, though. You can never really trust a lot of people. Especially when only a few of us were old enough to actually buy alcohol. Not that it was a big worry. But as far as worrying went, I was a champ.
Outside, the grill was hot, cooking. A pair of friends dutifully manned it every weekend, which was fine, as I could cook very little. I also found myself believing that providing a place for the gathering more than counted as my contribution to the group.
Inside, eight or ten people wandered around the rooms, draping themselves across the love seat, the arms of chairs, perching on the counter by the inside window, or by the sink. The fridge, never overstocked to begin with, was now sagging under the weight of everyone’s favorite drink. BYOB. And then also, BY-enough-to-go-round. It was a communal group, if nothing else. Under the sink were half a dozen bottles of liquor: scotch, gin, whiskey, vodka. More vodka and whiskey in the freezer. Mixers. Beers. Wine coolers. We brought to share, and share we did. Leftovers (usually) being stored out of sight till the following Sunday. The screen door banged constantly, people walking in and out, drifting cigarette smoke inside, blowing it back out on the rushed exit to not miss something in both places at once.
Trash cans on both sides of the backdoor, always emptied before people began showing up, then slowly filled with the cardboard boxes of cases and six packs of beer. Empty glass clinked on empty glass, cans crumpled and fell about, repeatedly shoved back into the bag, stubbornly falling down again. At various spots on the concrete patio, empty beer bottles sat, theoretically cigarette butt repositories, though the backyard constantly attested to their lack of use.
Once, and only once, a girl had grabbed a half-filled beer bottle off the patio table and, despite loud and desperate protest, began drinking what was a mixture of water and cigarette butts.
I had a beer bottle in my hand, another tucked into the back pocket of my shorts. Cigarettes. Lighter. This was pre-cell-phone in my life by about a year, so those accounted for my necessities. I would rarely sit. I would lean. I would wander. I would linger. And eventually, I would talk.
The feeling, the mood of the group of people would slowly build on itself, taking each person’s contribution and multiplying it by every other person’s, multiplying it again by the hours spent in the townhouse that day. It factored in what everyone had or had not eaten. It accounted for two friends who invariably donated plasma Sunday mornings (a double bonus, as their thinned blood sped along intoxication, and the twenty dollar payout from the clinic covered their beer.)
When the sun would start to go down, sometimes I would notice this. These were the moments you wanted to be just a little tipsy by. This was when everything began to seem significant. You weren’t just a bunch of kids doing the exact same thing thousands of other groups of kids were doing at the exact same time. You were special. You were all going to go somewhere. You could almost read the subtitles, like at the end of college movies. “Jim became the CEO of a marketing firm.” “Jane went on to cure cancer.” “Jack won the Nobel Prize in literature.” We were special, and in those slightly intoxicated sundown moments, there was no doubt. We were currently living through the experiences that would make our later accomplishments both intriguing and almost laughable, in that admirable “from such humble beginnings” type way.
We never listened to music. We rarely watched the game. We were busy having important, deep conversations.
But mostly we were laughing.
Because the whole thing was a joke.
I rarely talked to the girl during these get-togethers, but she was there every day, and these were the good times, the days that didn’t matter. I worked part-time, and our college of choice was small enough to not require Monday classes. Sunday was our extra day, maybe the only time it was really a day of rest for anyone, though the need to make it spectacular left little room for relaxing.
Inside, I would watch the people laugh. I would anticipate the aftermath, judging the success of the experience by the messiness of others. The longer it took to clean up, the more fun people had had, hence, the better a thing I had done by giving them a spot to do such things.
Books were stacked on tables and shoved against walls. A guitar or two would appear from somewhere but only very rarely be picked up. Cups, glasses, bottles, shot glasses, these were our tools.
Every fifteen minutes or so someone would convince someone to take a shot, have another glass of wine, try a new beer, attempt to mix a drink. Somehow a martini shaker had entered the home, though no one claimed ownership. The lid was loose, but who actually likes martinis? Nevertheless, it was ever present, a challenge to your ability to hold your liquor. All “real” drinks were mixed (we claimed), creating late night mixtures of Yoo-Hoo-like white russians, whisky and cokes the overcast color of a brewing storm, always mis-mixed gin and lime juices, or, most frequently, just deep red cherry Kool-Aid-and-somethings.
By the time it was dark, I was a person. I realized I had funny things to say. I realized I was interesting. In the rare moment, I would feel attractive. I would see that these people really were my friends, that it was only my own incompetence and hesitancy that was holding me back, that the only one who felt alone was me. I was the only one standing in my way. I would look around the room, my back leaning against the wall from my seat by the dining table, and I would know that, now, yes, now, finally, I would be allowing myself a chance.
At some point that particular evening, I found myself sitting at the table with a friend of a friend, a whisper of a girl who, despite her size, had the loudest, most authentic, encouraging laugh I had ever heard. I was, at that moment, trying to remember the shuffling order of a self-working card trick. And she was laughing. The playing cards felt as thick as credit cards in my fingers, and I began to randomly hold up cards, attempting, with very little true effort, to convince her that the real trick was being able to read it in her eyes when she saw her own card.
She laughed and the screen door banged. People moved in and out and around. The crowd cheered from the tv. Something cooked on the grill, splicing its scent with the cigarette smoke from outside. Someone was raking beer bottles across the shelves in the fridge, and she was laughing.
“I know this isn’t your card...”
“And you might want me to believe that this is your card...”
A briefly held poker face, almost immediately cracking.
“And an amateur would probably assume that this one here is your card...”
Someone hollered at me; I waved them off. “You’ll have to wait! I’m engaged in wizardry!”
Laughter. “Cole!” the girl across the table said. “You have to stop!” She laughed again. “But I absolutely love you when you act like this. Like, from the bottom of my heart! Why can’t you be like this all the time?!”
I laughed along, only a slight misguided hurt hidden behind the fog. But the amazing thing was, I realized, I absolutely could be.