Once, back when I was still in college, I had started to get used to more things, had almost started to calm myself. There was a certain freedom I had come to crave, a kind of relaxing of anxieties that I had carried around with me for most of my cognizant life, roughly from my preteen years on up till now. I was trying to push back against that feeling of constant double-checking, that type of planning a day based on how stupid you would look, what you would do wrong, how people would screw you over, thinking ahead, so that if any or all of these things happened, you were prepared for it.
Granted, one would think these analyses would’ve led me to a kind of confidence in myself. If I was already prepared for all worst-case scenarios, I ought to’ve spent my evenings laying in bed, happy as a lark, because I’d made it through a day without any surprises.
The problem though, is that if you’ve been thinking this way for a while, it’s next to impossible to find the off-switch. There isn’t a curfew or bedtime for anxiety, and I just became more and more sure that if something went right one day, it was a fluke, and I’d pay for it later. If I could make it to sundown without the world crumbling around me, I was sure to get a call in the middle of the night that someone had died, my parents’ house had exploded, everybody had cancer.
What I had learned, though (thanks to repeated utilization of Pabst Blue Ribbon), was that I could stop caring, and nothing changed. Good things, bad things, they were just things that continued happening around me. And with a fuzzy buffer of alcohol, they never got too close. Everything was finally held at arm’s length. I felt the way guys in movies appeared. For the most part, I was untouchable. Yeah, school could’ve cracked down and kicked me out, but that made it more exciting. (They were extremely big on their “religious” facade.) But every day that I made it through class without falling asleep, every meeting I had with professors about term papers, every semester I slid through without even considering applying myself, it was not just a moment I’d made it through with my head above water, it was a success. It was a hilarious joke. It was a magic trick. A con. A game that I was winning.
I learned how to scoff at my situation by creating a much more complex one, and then attaining a simple goal each day. Get to the drinks. Get to the laughs. Because there is an end of the day that way. Each night, cracking open a beer I wasn’t supposed to have, trading stories with acquaintances, these marked the passage not just of time, but a successful chunk of it.
And, admittedly, my new, outgoing, happy personality certainly did nothing to hurt my standing with people.
One day, in the mailroom, while transferring flyers about indoor soccer leagues and class outings to the trash can, one of my closer acquaintances came in to check his box as well. I still struggled, would always struggle with the term “friend,” but I remembered something people used to say: “drinking buddies.” I shortened it to “buddy” and it seemed to be precisely the term I was looking for.
My Buddy, Dustin, was two years older than me. But, in the way that I was extremely young for my class, he was old for his, which left us only one year apart in the college yearbook. The summer before, I had finally reached the golden age of Legal Alcohol Purchase and was eager to make it up to people like Dustin who had nobly wandered into grocery and liquor stores across the county, buying cases of beer and handles of alcohol in what had to be a somewhat awkward trip. Part of me thought it was the tax for being in “The Group” (our amazingly creative, always sarcastic name for the constantly changing smattering of random people), part of me thought he was just a genuinely nice guy. Either way, he was one of the few buddies who had exclusive permission to show up whenever he felt like it, mostly because I knew he wouldn’t take advantage of it. He and I had even gone to the movies a couple times, which was something I hadn’t ever actually done with anyone since an eighth grade birthday party.
“No class?” I said, shredding a flyer in my hand and letting the pieces flutter down into the trash.
“Nope. My Tuesday/Thursdays are all over at eleven this semester. You?”
“Same,” I said. “I’m supposed to go to work later, but not till four.”
“Cool.” He closed his box, apparently fine with letting the flyers build up until the box was full. “You eat yet?”
“Nope,” I said. Then had a thought, “Actually, I should probably go to the grocery. You interested?”
It had become one of our little codes. There was and would always be a stigma to drinking at the school, and especially day-drinking, that I didn’t care for. The idea of it, though, the kind of laissez faire attitude toward the remaining hours, had an incredible appeal, especially after so many years of constant trembling at interaction. Plus, it removed me from actually having to reeeeeeally do anything else that day. A double-bonus.
He laughed a little and then shrugged, “Why not?”
We’d wandered back across campus, cutting through a few parking lots to get to my truck. I tossed my backpack in the rear seat and rolled the windows down. It was still warm out, summer sticking around beyond the beginning of school. It practically begged us to not commit to anything worthwhile.
We drove away from campus, away from town, about ten miles over to the next county, a kind of pointless maneuver that killed time and kept us from crossing paths with people we knew. I wasn’t exactly ashamed of myself. Just the opposite really. I was blowing off a day and pretty proud of it, but I also didn’t want that to be my reputation. I preferred to be the quiet guy who seemed like he had secrets, and I played things so that I did, in which case I felt I appeared much more interesting. Even if my secret was as tame as drinking a beer on a Tuesday afternoon.
Being surrounded by people who were aggressively dedicating themselves to higher education, our get-togethers felt “rebellious” enough without really crossing any lines. And in all fairness, for whatever reason, somehow my tendency toward (or maybe more accurately, socially imposed) solitude during high school, had more than prepared me for “wild and crazy” college. Even at one like this, where, from what I understood, people actually thought it was hard. And I’m not trying to brag, but the fact is, I’d already read most of the books I was supposed to, had taken college credit classes during high school. The biggest part of everything was repeat.
Dustin, while not coming from any even slightly related background, was just one of those naturally intelligent guys, a kind of backyard engineer. His brain worked differently than mine, which I think was part of the appeal. While I would wax poetic about the “idea” of a problem, Dustin would be out behind the house, solving it MacGyver-style.
I’d grabbed a six-pack from the cooler in the store, and then, not because we wanted more, but because it was an interesting situation, discussed the validity of only having multiples of six as a purchasing option.
“I feel like it’s a scam,” he said, “because six is, in any other situation, a lot. Nobody is going to sit down and drink six cokes on purpose. But you aren’t going to invite over five other people, and everybody just gets one coke.”
“True,” I said. “And plus, then your options are weird. One is only one, and two is like starting and then immediately stopping. Three makes sense, at least in a situation like this, where there’s only two of us. But then, what if we watch a long movie? It’s early, we really shouldn’t be drinking three beers apiece and then coming out again.”
“Right. So, basically then, you’ve already told yourself, the smart thing is to buy a lot.”
“And plus it’s cheaper per ounce. Really, technically, a twelve-pack, or even a case, would be the wisest option. It’s a dang perpetual motion machine.”
“Well, whatever I mean.”
He laughed. “You know, there is that third option,” he opened the cooler door and hooked another six pack with his finger. “If we get two different things, we’re still buying the least amount possible, per person. Excepting of course a forty, but that’s not something I foresee myself ever buying.”
“I think forties can only be bought if you’re in a gas station, and you have to buy a bag of pork rinds with them. They should really be packaged together.”
“Yeah, that, or you should only pay in change. A forty is definitely the saddest form of purchase.”
(In all fairness, not too long after this, we began buying forties like it was our job.)
I agreed, and we walked up to the checkout, proud of our wisdom. I paid for his drinks, a lazy attempt at clearing a debt that, between us, was a never-ending back and forth. But also one I didn’t mind.
Back at the house, we mostly channel-surfed, sitting empties on the floor on either side of the couch and shooting the shit. Somehow I always felt like we were talking about really important things, even when we were just griping about the other people in our classes, our professors, having the exact same conversations we could’ve had (at lower volume) in the dining hall over lunch. Partly, I’m sure it was the alcohol, but partly it was Dustin. He was one of those guys who made you feel smart just because you were hanging around with him. There was an air to our conversations that felt much more like college than any other part of college did. Maybe it was just that we talked about class things outside of class. Maybe it was that we were sitting in a place that was, regardless of how flimsily, mine. I was making decisions in my life, by myself, without anyone really being too clear on what I did.
For the first time, I was out on my own. Not that mom and dad were ever overbearing, and Chris had always had his own thing going on. The girl was there, but most the time, that was about all you could say about it. But here, this way, I got to do things like call home once a week or so and just chat, instead of checking in over dinner and having the same talks about work and school that we’d had my whole life. I missed out on things, which, at first, bothered me, but then, over the course of the first couple years, I began to enjoy in a certain way.
While mom and dad and Chris were going up to visit grandma, I was at College, doing College things. People even said it about me, I’m sure. “Where’s Cole? Oh he’s at College. Yeah, he’s doing well. Calls once a week or so. Great kid. So proud.”
Dustin’s family lived three or four hours away, mine was around seven or eight. I didn’t really know anything about his side, but I had to assume they said the same things. He didn’t seem quite so excited about the distance, or at least he wasn’t exactly thrilled. But for me that was becoming a feeling that I had to constantly keep in check after a couple drinks.
But things felt good, for the first time I could remember. And I was so very ready to keep that feeling going.
We’d ended up having four beers apiece, not enough to get even close to sloppy, but just enough to prove our points and feel somewhat cocky when we stuck the other four beers on the fridge shelf.
He wandered off about half an hour before I needed to go to work, half-jokingly asking if I was going to call in.
“Nah,” I laughed. “I’ll probably do a better job this way.”
“All right man. Well, maybe I’ll see you in the mailroom again Thursday.”
I laughed again, knowing we were just joking, but also one hundred percent sure I would be timing my mailroom visits from there on out.
* * *
A few weeks later, I was out with a group of people at a honky-tonk bar on the far side of town. The girl I was dating had friends in from out of town, a trio of girls who had taken over the couch and extra beds in the townhouse on a rotating basis for the following week.
I was never exactly sure how they were able to swing it. It wasn’t Fall Break, at least not for us. I mostly spent my time before they arrived being irritated they were coming at all, or attempting to come up with reasonable excuses as to why they shouldn’t stay with us, or shouldn’t stay so long, or, later, when I was defeated and merely continuing to mentally argue with myself, reasons they might *have* to leave early, or reasons I might possibly have to leave myself.
Except it was my house, so I didn’t really care for that last option.
And that was also the problem. I’d spent the better part of a year getting everything in order, arranged, down to a T. Not necessarily the furniture or which things were in which drawers in the kitchen; that stuff I couldn’t care less about. What I didn’t like was people messing with my schedule. Unexpected events. Variations.
Not that daily plans were exactly hard and fast either. But I had figured out the ways to shave minutes off of any commitment, finding the quickest ways to and from work, actually analyzing my syllabi in a way I had never done, solely to know ahead of time what I could blow off, what I would have to sit down and possibly review. I could write a fully-cited, proofread, A-grade ten-page paper in an hour, max. Everything was honed. If it were possible, my mental schedule would shine with the amount of polishing it had taken. As bright as the dull aluminum on a beer can, perhaps, but shine is shine.
Somehow, when they’d arrived, (my reputation had preceded me, I liked to think) the girls had been almost immediately on the prowl for a bar. It wasn’t that I surrounded myself with drinkers, but I’d begun to be genuinely excited about the variety of reasons people came up with to drink. Reunions with friends from high school was one of these reasons. Even if they weren’t my friends from high school.
In honor of being a good host, I’d invited Dustin, another buddy named Lucas, and Greg, who at that point, and for much of the remainder of my college time, would never quite make it out of the limbo between acquaintance-friend and acquaintance-other. It wasn’t supposed to be a quadruple date in any way, but I also needed some people to surround myself with who were like me, who I understood, who I didn’t have to attempt to carry on conversation with, should things begin to lag.
The eight of us (in a very gender-specific four-on-four) had only slightly bickered about postponing the bar idea in order to search out real food, something I was becoming less and less adept at. Nobody liked fast food, but any sit-down American type restaurant would almost assuredly have beer on the menu. And I “really wasn’t” going for the beer. It was more that it had replaced water as the drink I drank when I ate. Which meant it didn’t count as drinking, because it was just a part of the meal. Like the fries.
It was a Thursday night, another odd detail of their arrival, but also The Night to find drink specials almost anywhere. We’d split up into two cars, me carting the girls, all three packed in the backseat, and the guys trailing behind us to a place across town.
We’d scooted a few tables together, ordered drinks and a little food, and soon I felt the glow taking over. In fact, I loved these girls. They didn’t just laugh with me, they made me funnier. I could sit back and let Greg or Dustin tell a story, interjecting only the wittiest comments. I could add in details to spice things up in a way they had neglected. I could listen to the girls talk about their college in some other state and toss in intelligent, well-read, off-the-cuff insights that could not have been more precise and glamorous.
I imagined it was what celebrities felt like, except I knew that these people weren’t pandering to me. The majority were my people already. These new ones, this triptych of females from somewhere I’d never been, they were simply happy, and I couldn’t help but think I was becoming a pleasant surprise for them. Something to talk about when they got back to wherever they came from. “Yeah, it was great. Cole is hiLARious. And so smart.”
In a group that size, the waiter was on an almost constant rotation, trying to keep up with the staggered finishing of drinks. The female half drank nearly exclusively mixed drinks; we males stuck to tall, cold, perfect beers, glasses shaped almost like the girls surrounding us.
I leaned back in my chair somewhere toward the end, experiencing an odd feeling. These people, none of them had any reason to be together, none of them had any reason to be laughing with each other. They were all enjoying a wonderful night that none of them had expected. And I was the linchpin. It could have easily been a group of girls out, reuniting. Or us four guys could have been crashed in someone’s living room, tossing back beers and watching a movie, but because of me, they were all here together. I didn’t know if it was right or not, but for the first time, I felt proud of myself.
After a few post-dinner drinks, I made the mature decision and suggested we hit up a liquor store or grocery and head back to the townhouse. The party didn’t need to end, but there was no reason to keep taking up so much space, paying two or three times as much for drinks we could make better at home anyway.
(And plus, being underage, Greg was starting to get in a bit of a huff. Which obviously meant the only logical thing he could do was grab an empty wine glass from somewhere, say, “Guys! Let’s get outta here!” and smash it on the edge of our table. And he was the sober one. Thankfully we’d already cashed out and were winding up anyway. So, as the security guy tried to worm his way through the crowd, the rest of us slammed our drinks, threw some extra cash on the table, and high-tailed it for the cars outside.)
We’d split up again, one of the girls volunteering to ride with the guys, and cut back through downtown. We made our pitstop, laughing through the grocery in a mass of youth and happiness and complete lack of care for anything but the next few hours, though even that seemed like a stretch. We cared about nothing except the moment. Being in the grocery together. Struggling to find the right aisles. Throwing one-hour-old catch-phrases back and forth and completely oblivious to the world around us.
Outside, we threw the alcohol in the trunks and I led the way back to the outskirts of town, making it within about seven miles of campus before the lights started flashing in the rearview. I was confused. Not because I was being pulled over. I’d had my two required speeding tickets in the last five years. But weren’t the guys supposed to be behind me? How had the cop even snuck in? I wasn’t a reckless driver, but I also had the good sense to be exemplary in my driving when I was leaving a place where I’d had….what? Five talls? Which was….eight beers?
The girls immediately began to lose their shit in a gasping, yet still giggling type way.
I pulled into a gas station, somehow relieved to see Dustin’s car turn in behind the cop. He drove over to the far side of the gas pumps and parked. I could see their faces, their attempt at nonchalant glances our way through the car windows. Behind me, the lights flashed. A hand shot through the space between the two front seats.
“Here! Eat these!”
I caught a handful of mints and began chewing.
“Why’d he pull you over? What did you do?” This from the front seat.
I chewed my mints and tried to suppress a grin. This really wasn’t funny, but it was just like that girl to immediately look for the flaw in what I’d done. Like I’d been swerving all over, waving a forty out the window.
“I don’t know,” I said. “You were sitting right there. Didn’t I seem all right to you?”
“I knew I should’ve driven.”
I started to respond, started to point out that she, and everyone else in the car, had been drinking liquor all night, whereas I’d only had beer. And plus, out of all of us, unless I severely misjudged the visiting gals, I certainly had the tolerance for this trek. I had just opened my mouth when the cop stepped up to the car.
I was handed my registration from the glovebox, to which I added my license and held them out the window.
“Where you headed to tonight?”
“Just back home,” I said.
“Not out to a party or anything?”
I laughed, genuinely, and would have regretted it if I didn’t realize I was about to tell the truth. “No, not at all.”
“Where are you coming from?”
I started to say “the grocery” and then realized such an errand in no way required four people. “We just had dinner across town. These two are visiting from out of state for a few days.”
He glanced into the back seat, and I swear, smiled.
My mint fairy, a ridiculously attractive blonde, was sitting there. I immediately decided she was my new good-luck charm.
“Okay,” he said. “Give me a second. I have to run these.”
He walked back to his car and I glanced over to Dustin’s side of the station lot. All four faces visible, not a one moving. The silence in my car merely reflected them.
By the time the cop walked back up, no one had said a word yet. The windows had been cracked or opened, half an attempt at reducing the fog of the deep-breathing, half an attempt to air out any tell-tale alcohol fumes. If anything, the car reeked of girl. All three had begun clandestinely spritzing themselves, the seats, the air, me, as soon as his back was turned.
“All right,” he said, “Lemme tell you why I pulled you over.”
“We were freakin the fuck out!” Back at the townhouse, Lucas was pacing, retelling everything we had missed from their automobile. “Like, when he had you get out of the car...what the hell was that?”
I laughed. Two of the three girls from our car did the same, tears rolling.
“That was so fucking stupid.” The third girl, the one that was supposedly on my side.
I smiled, tipping back a bottle of beer. “If I’d’ve really thought I was in trouble I wouldn’t have done it.”
“What was it though?” Lucas.
I sat the bottle down, trying my best to sound relaxed, like I wasn’t completely jazzed, high on adrenaline and myself from the ten minute experience. “Tag light.”
“It’s the light above the license plate, I guess,” I said. “Or at least that’s what he told me.”
“Why’d you look though? What’d he say? We were seriously freaking the fuck out.”
“So you said,” I laughed and ran through the story again. “To be fair, we were too. This one,” I gestured across the table, ″ was feeding me enough mints to choke a giraffe, and the whole car must’ve had a cloud of body spray around it. But he walks up and wants my driver’s license, registration. Asks where we’re going, where we came from. By the time he walked back to the car, I was pretty sure I was okay. I mean, I knew nothing would turn up when he ran my stuff anyway, unless like, there was some glitch in their program. In which case, I guess I could’ve been totally screwed.”
“I don’t know. I guess I just always think stuff like that could happen, so…” I took another drink. “Anyway, he comes back and he says everything is fine, but do I know what a tag light is? And I’m like, Nope. And he says it’s the light above the license plate, like I was saying, but that apparently people will unplug it sometimes if they are transporting something they shouldn’t be, since at night it makes it pretty much impossible to read the plate numbers after a certain distance.
“And so I’m like, no kidding? That’s interesting. And he goes, yeah, but I don’t really get the criminal vibe off you. And he actually laughs. So I say, I don’t know if I’m supposed to say this or not, but you’re welcome to check us out if you want. We’re pretty boring though. And he laughs again, and says no that won’t be necessary, but that I needed to get it fixed ASAP.
“So at this point, we’re pretty much done talking—”
“Should’ve been,” I hear and promptly ignore.
“And so I think,” I continue, “y’know, I can see you guys, and I know everything is fine, so I couldn’t really resist.” I took another drink, draining the bottle to add just a bit more cool, uncaring, unphased ambience to the whole thing. “And so I asked him to show me what he meant.”
“You asked to get out?”
“So fucking stupid,” is muttered off to my side.
“I just thought it would be funny,” I said. “Like from your guys’ side, that had to be about the worst thing you could expect to see.”
Dustin laughed, “Yeah, pretty much.”
“But it was fine,” I said, wrapping it up quickly, hoping to leave them wanting a little more. “Like I said, he wasn’t all that interested in us. Other than I’m pretty sure he had the hots for ole Blondie here,” she actually blushed, “I just thought it would be a funny way to end it.”
And in my defense, everyone else seemed to think so, too Or at least almost everyone else.
We’d done shots almost immediately afterwards. Shots to not being arrested. Shots to tag lights. Shots to me being an ass. Shots to never going anywhere again. Shots to shots.
I’d ended the night out on the back porch, Dustin and I in lawn chairs, the remaining six sprawled out in various states and postures of disarray throughout the house’s two floors. Beers were sweating onto the concrete, forming dark circles of water in the dark autumn night.
“This was pretty fun,” he said, reaching down and then holding his beer bottle neck over toward me. “I’m glad you invited us.”
“My pleasure, man,” I clinked bottles with him and watched the stars. It really was almost perfect. I had created a night crammed with happiness. Maybe I wasn’t solely responsible for it, but I’d carried my weight. I had been a part of something. I was happy, and so were they. Even if it was just for an evening.