Wrote this Spring of 2011, ended up picking through it back then for scenes to use in other non-fiction pieces I’d written. Still like how all these sections come together though, so posting it here to get it out of my head.
Pick up Quarter Life Crisis: A Novel at GetOverCollege.com, available now.
In the past four hours, I’ve had somewhere around six shots of tequila, a quarter gallon of vodka, and at least a six pack of beer. In other words, I’m drunk as shit. Totally guilty of WUI: Writing Under Intoxication. Pretty universally a bad idea (see: drunk texting)
By time this gets to you though, weeks or months or even years from now, sitting in your living room, or at your office desk, or right next to me as I stare at you eagerly awaiting your critique, or in a doctor’s office waiting room somewhere maybe—if I’m lucky, doctor’s office waiting rooms are like the mecca of publishing; get there and you have officially arrived—I’ll have soberly revised it at least a dozen times.
Depending on how far along in the process you see it, I’ll have spent hours—months even—obsessing over sentence structure, placement of passages, contextual references that give a sense of place, time, tone, cultural makeup, and–most importantly–completely edited out all signs of the drunkenness that inspired this shit.
I will have tried to make sense of what I wrote when I was senseless. And it will have been a fucking process, an ongoing one.
So, essentially, you’re reading a sober man’s version of a drunk man’s recollections. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Syndrome, my friends like to call it. Story of my life.
* * *
The first purely romantic film I remember watching was Grease.
I’d gone to live with my aunt in Jamaica at the time while my parent’s tried to salvage our lives in Miami after Hurricane Andrew came through and turned the city into a junkyard. One day I was bored, alone in the house with nobody but the housekeeper. I decided to raid the VHS tapes my aunt had stockpiled in her bedroom, and I came across Grease, one of the few I had never seen. So I stuck it in the VCR, standing on my toes to reach the volume button on the TV my aunt had set up on top of her enormous dresser. Two hours later, I rewound it and watched it again. And again. And again.
I didn’t know what it was about the film that made it different each time I saw it. I still don’t. All I know is that I thought Olivia Newton John was pretty, and she gave me an unfamiliar but pleasant rushing sensation in my chest and stomach every time she walked up to John Travolta in her cheerleading uniform, smile wide and gleaming as she screamed “Danny!” when they meet again after their Summer of Love. And that final scene got me every time: Danny and Sandy hugging inside the Grease Lightning as it floats off into the sunset. I wanted that—whatever that was—so bad. So bad that, after one of the many viewings, I cried during the credits, wishing I could know what happened next. I was eight years old.
I haven’t seen Grease in years. I doubt it would have the same effect on me now. I’d have to be drunk to pick it up in the first place, and I’d analyze the shit out of it the whole way through, find all the plot holes and stale dialogue and rail on the unrealistic quality of musicals in general and, ultimately—just to make sure my point was loud and clear—I’d point out the fact that all happy endings are just stories that got cut short, before everybody got divorced, or just grew old and died.
Somewhere along the way, I’d recognize that the little boy who first watched Grease dozens of times in his aunt’s bedroom, recognize that he didn’t give a damn about any of that, that he’s still inside me awestruck. And I would do my best to ignore him.
* * *
John takes a sip of his drink and starts laughing. I start laughing along with him, and soon we’re both hysterical. Of course, we’re laughing about nothing, about the fact that we’re both eighteen and drinking malt liquor and eating bags of chips and loads of other junk food that I stole from my job at Eckerd’s. Just grabbed a couple of plastic bags from behind the counter, went around the store putting stuff in them, then walked out like I’d paid for it all: two six packs of Smirnoff Ice, two bags of Doritos, a bag of Cheetos, couple of Hot Pockets, DiGiorno Pizza, deodorant, body wash, some condoms for when I see Veronica tomorrow.
“I can’t believe you stole all this shit,” John says. He’s nodding his head to Eminem’s “Superman”, playing on his computer.
I clink my Smirnoff glass against his. John laughs again and we finish our drinks and grab more.
John turns on his Sega Dreamcast and starts playing NFL 2K2. I turn to his computer and check my email. My mother’s sent me another one, begging me to come back home. I read the first line, then the last, then delete it. My stomach hurt for hours after the first email she sent me a few weeks ago, the bottomless feeling building steadily as I read each line. So now I just skim. I want to go back home, to stop the tears I know are plaguing her. But I can’t. I don’t know why I can’t, something just snapped after that last argument between my dad and me, the one that reached nuclear proportions and brought us within inches of bloodshed. Ever since, I’ve been living here, on a mattress on the floor of my best friend’s bedroom. Stubbornly refusing to go back to my parent’s house, where rent is free but expectations are high. It’s not their fault, I know. They’re both great. I haven’t been the easiest person to deal with the past year or so, not since I embarked on the vessel of instability that is me and Veronica’s relationship.
“Vero would kick my ass if she knew about this,” I say, looking at the bags of stolen merchandise strewn around the tiny bedroom.
“Definitely,” John says, nodding as he jiggles the Dreamcast controller around.
“Fuck it,” I say, shrugging.
John pauses the game and gives me a look and I give him an exaggerated one back.
“I don’t give a shit,” I mutter.
“Sure,” he says. “You don’t give a shit. Unless she walked through that door right now.”
I smile, my eyes shifting to his bedroom door before I let the smile drop. I think about my parents, probably arguing about me right now.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Hey,” he says.
I look at him and he’s holding his bottle out towards me.
“Good times, bro.”
The sound of clinking glass, and I nod.
* * *
Driving home from Wall Street in Downtown Orlando at 2 AM. Puddle of Mudd’s “Blurry” playing on my car stereo, the thumping bass from the two 12 inch subwoofers in my trunk making it so the music is all I can think about right now. It’s also doing wonders to mask the sound of me crying.
“Blurry” is the most successful single of Puddle of Mudd’s career so far, a career that’s spanned almost twenty years now. It was released in December of 2001, during my senior year in high school. That was a decade ago, and I remember things now when I hear this song that make me feel old, memories of a time when things were so much easier. A time when I didn’t have all these goddamn memories. None of this is why I’m crying right now though.
I reach over and turn up the volume until the little digital panel reads VOL MAX. I wipe my eyes but it’s still hard to see the road. I glance at the fingers of my left hand, the Black and Mild clasped between them, thin wisps of smoke curling up slowly, tethered to the burning cherry until they hit the open car window and escape into the cool night air. I take a drag and sniff.
There are many things wrong with me right now, not the least of which is embedded in the fact that I knew I was going to cry when I put this song on, and yet I put it on anyways. I’m not crying because of anything that actually exists within my life either. This song isn’t connected to some specific memory in me that is, in itself, conjuring up the tears.
I’m crying because of what’s not there, the things I never had to begin with. Which is what makes it so much more pathetic. I’m crying because this song is Wes Scantlin–the lead singer of Puddle of Mudd–mourning a break up between him and the mother of his son. Mourning the fact that he doesn’t get to see his son as much as he wants to. I’m crying because I miss my son, even though I don’t have one. I’m crying because I haven’t wanted something this bad in what seems like ever, and it sucks because what I want is simply to know what I want.
I’m crying because I’m drunk.
* * *
I wake up suddenly. Somebody just smacked me in my stomach.
“You’ve been snoring all night,” an unfamiliar voice says from next to me.
Things happen like this nowadays. Life of a recently single twenty-six year old grad student. It’s not too frequent, and not always under these exact circumstances, but the general vibe of this situation feels familiar. There’s a piercing pain in the left side of my head, my mouth tastes like ash and stale bread and I have no idea where I am. Check, check, and check.
I look over and stare into the face of beauty, exotic, half naked and athletic, covered in intricate tattoos, piercings on her hips, her lips, her eyebrows, ears filled with metal studs. I don’t normally go for girls like this, but it works on her. I only wish I knew her name, and that she wasn’t staring at me like I’d long ago overstayed my welcome. I recognize her, at least, though I admit the chemistry was a lot different last night when she was standing behind the bar, making drinks and laughing at my attempts to make fun of the karaoke singers in the background.
“You’ve got to go,” she says, then pauses. “I mean, I’ve got to go. Run errands. So you’ve got to go.”
I nod thoughtfully which just makes my head hurt even more. I get up from the bed and realize I’m completely naked. I glimpse my underwear in a corner, grab them, search for my pants, grab them, and am in the process of finding my shirt when she says:
“There’s food in the kitchen. If you want something before you go.”
I open my mouth to respond but nothing comes out. I just shake my head.
“Ok,” she says, then disappears into the bathroom.
I find my shirt as she steps back out fully dressed in half a minute, like some sort of superhero.
“Did we,” I croak. Cough. “Did we…” I glance at the bed.
“Fuck?” she asks, tiredly.
“Yeah,” I answer.
“Yeah,” she answers back, walking up to me and giving me a small peck on the lips. “I had fun.” She walks back to the bathroom door and pauses, obviously waiting for me to leave. “I’ll give you a call later.”
I leave, hop in my car—which is parked crookedly in the driveway—and use the GPS on my iPhone to figure out where I am. Soon I’ve got my bearings and I’m headed east on 408, towards my apartment near UCF.
My phone rings and it’s my roommate, Tina, one of the many people I left my apartment with last night on the way to the bar I never made it home from. I sigh before I answer.
“Hello?” I say.
“Hey,” she says. There’s a voice in the background, music, the sound of a dog barking. “Where are you?” she asks.
“Driving,” I say.
“I need a ride back to my car,” she says. “Jen does too. Can you drop us off?”
I put down the visor in front of me, but the sun is too low for it to block so I scoot up in my chair and crane my neck to shade my eyes.
“I guess,” I say. There’s a moment of silence and I can almost hear the wheels spinning in her head as she tries to pinpoint exactly what’s odd about this exchange. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m awake and driving around at 10 am, when normally I’d be laid out in my bed until at least noon. Maybe it’s the fact that there’s so much background noise from the wind rushing in through my open car window, indicating that I am driving at high speed and, therefore, am either on a highway or about to get a speeding ticket. Maybe it’s the fact that I sound like a frog crawled into my mouth and died with its hands wrapped around my vocal cords.
“Are you just now getting home?” she asks.
I say nothing.
“The bartender?” she asks.
I grunt and there’s groaning and laughter in the background. I don’t join them, instead taking deep breaths as my gag reflex kicks in and everything I consumed last night attempts to exit my body the fastest way possible. I move the phone away from my ear and squint, unable to keep up the neck craning to utilize the visor. I spot my shades by the center console and snatch them up, putting them on and blocking out the sun which, along with the laughing on the other end of the phone line and the nausea and the encounter I just had at what’s-her-name’s house a few minutes ago, is really making me want to go back to sleep until tomorrow. Or the next millennium.
Drunken sex is not like normal sex. Sex with a stranger is not like sex with somebody you know. So it’s only fitting that drunken sex with a stranger is not like anything else on this planet, not anything good at least. It is also highly glorified throughout television and movies and literature and all other types of media when it really shouldn’t be.
I’m not saying this on some sort of moral agenda. I’ve never really given a crap about morals. My sentiments are more selfish actually. The fact is that, nine times out of ten, drunken sex with a stranger is just plain not good. And even if it is, it rarely turns into a lasting memory.
It also happens to be dangerous. Not the good type of dangerous either, but the really bad one with the potential for a slow death, shunned by friends and family alike.
I know this when I’m sober, as do most people. The problem with drunken sex, though, is that the parties involved are drunk. Which kind of makes everything else a moot point.
“What was her name again?” Tina asks.
“I don’t know,” I say, which elicits another round of groans.
“That’s horrible,” Tina says. Jen says something in the background and Tina laughs. “Did you wear a rubber?”
“I don’t know,” I say again.
“I’m not drinking anymore,” I say.
“Pat,” Tina says, chuckling. “That’s exactly what you said yesterday.”
* * *
I grew up heavily influenced by music, movies, television, and books. My favorite band at the height of MTV’s music video popularity back in the nineties was Nirvana, the lead singer of which was a known alcoholic and drug addict who allegedly shot himself in the head with a shotgun.
High school was all about Eminem, bootlegging his albums off of Napster because my parents wouldn’t give me money to buy CD’s deemed too offensive, due to misogynistic lyrics and drug and alcohol references.
My favorite beach/smoking music? Sublime. Lead singer? Bradley Nowell. Cause of death? Heroine overdose.
Lil Wayne and his Drank (codeine cough syrup) were on my radar for a while.
Jonathan Davis, lead singer of Korn, the band I related to most as a teenager, was a heavy drinker until he went on a three week alcohol binge in ’98, which led to him swearing the stuff off forever.
A few of my favorite actors/actresses: Johnny Depp, Samuel L. Jackson, Drew Barrymore, Robert Downey Jr., Mel Gibson, Michael Douglas, Angelina Jolie, Charlie Sheen, Martin Lawrence, Ben Affleck, Colin Farrell. The rehab conglomerate.
My favorite author was and still is Stephen King, the first person to get me interested in the written word. In King’s autobiography/writing manifesto On Writing, he admits he was an alcoholic and drug addict during most of the early years of his career and claims that there is an entire novel—Cujo, a bestseller that was subsequently made into a movie in 1983, the year I was born—that he doesn’t remember writing.
Many of these celebrities (the ones that survived at least) have changed their ways, most of them crediting family, friends, wives and husbands.
Today, the four TV shows I watch regularly are the Showtime series’ Dexter, Californication, and Weeds, and the HBO series Entourage. Dexter is about a cop (named Dexter) who also happens to be a serial killer, addicted to murder and the related gruesome shit. Californication is about Hank Moody, a famous author who also happens to be a sex addict and alcoholic. Weeds is about (among other things) Nancy Botwin, a suburban housewife turned drug dealer after her husband dies from a heart attack. Entourage is about a group of friends making it in Hollywood amidst a never-ending supply of drugs, alcohol, sex, and cynicism. I empathize with all of them, mostly because all of these characters’ storylines are laced with this underlying paradox: an inability to be alone and, concurrently, ever really be emotionally connected to anybody. I tell people I love the shows because the writers and actors are amazing, and they are. But that’s not all of it.
I’m not saying all this shit’s influenced me, or made me do anything I wouldn’t have done otherwise. I’m not one of these people who think the entertainment industry should be bleached until it’s nothing more than sugarcoated bullshit. I’m responsible for my own actions, as is everybody else. Reality is reality, and I like to see things portrayed as close to real as possible. And I’m not saying that any of these people are bad. We all make decisions based on personal needs and–regardless of outside influences–our lives are ours to do with what we please.
I don’t know what I’m saying, actually. I’m drunk.
* * *
I’m in a Starbucks with my computer open, trying to get some work done on my graduate thesis and failing. I can’t stop myself from repeatedly glancing at the girl sitting across from me. She’s beautiful, engrossed in a textbook with a picture of Shakespeare on the cover and chewing the cap of her pen in that way women do that makes it seem calculated, even though she probably has no idea she’s even doing it.
I want to concentrate on my work, but I can’t as long as she’s sitting across from me.
I want to say something to her, but I can’t because I’m sober.
So I sit here and pretend I’m working even though I’m not doing anything but waiting. For something. Anything.
My friends say I should just say hi in these situations, introduce myself, let things go from there. Occasionally it’ll blossom into something more, something meaningful, something that I’ve heard so much about and which has eluded me for far too long. The very least that can happen is I’d get shot down and end up right back where I started, albeit with a slightly bruised ego. I used to be able to do just that, back in high school when the simple fact that you went to the same school as a girl was enough to spark a conversation.
Every time I imagine approaching somebody in places like these now though—the Starbucks’ or the Publix’s or the Wal-Mart’s or the Barnes and Nobles’—it’s like something locks up inside of me. All my senses shut off and send me into a black hole, so deep inside my own mind that it’s like I’m watching the world on a TV screen, unable to control anything but the volume.
Unless I’m drunk. Things are different when I’m drunk. I’m never drunk when I’m at Starbucks though. It would be a problem if I was. The thought still has its appeal.
I grit my teeth and lean forward, towards the girl, thinking of an opening line. Maybe something about Shakespeare, about Romeo and Juliet’s untimely demise, dead before they had the chance to realize they were just being hormonal. Or an inquiry about her major, hopefully a connection on the English Literature front. Maybe just use my friends’ approach: say hi and give her my name. I open my mouth and the girl looks up at me. Her eyes are piercing, like green marbles embedded beneath her carefully plucked eyebrows. I close my mouth, stand up and walk over to the barista, order a cup of coffee. They hand it to me and I return to my chair, to staring at my computer. The girl leaves half an hour later, after I’ve finished my second cup of Pike’s Place roast. Part of me is glad to see her leave, so I can stop thinking about what I’m not doing and actually get some work done.
Part of me.
* * *
Cass calls me almost every weekend, from her parent’s house in Palm Coast about a hundred miles away from the apartment we used to share in Orlando. She’s usually drunk when she does. Usually I am too, either out at a bar Downtown or here, in the apartment, watching movies and occasionally strumming my guitar. She used to call to try and remind me that we were in love at some point, convince me that we could be again. Now she just calls to yell at me.
I sit in front of the television with a cup. There’s vodka in the cup, a splash of Red Bull. I’m thinking about the frequency of these phone calls and staring at the rolling credits on my TV screen, the remainder of the movie I just finished watching. It was a generic romantic comedy, nothing special. Just another on a long list of romantic comedies I’ve found myself drawn to these past few months. I feel something whenever I watch them, even as I’m methodically lambasting them. Something I can’t describe to myself, or to my friends because they’ll think I’m sappy. Something I can’t describe to Cass because she’ll think I’ve learned how to stop being an asshole, which–unfortunately–I haven’t. Something I can’t describe to my parents because they’ll think I need help.
I wish I could love Cass the way I used to. Probably on some level–beneath all this anger and alcohol–I still do. I didn’t drink this much while we were together, did it in moderation like so many other functioning members of society. The only time I feel what I think is the potential for romantic love now, though, is when I see it portrayed on TV or in movies or novels. And even then, the feeling’s gone the moment I flip to that last white page, or the screen turns black and the list of cast members appears, that surge of emotion in my chest replaced by the ever-present emptiness.
This seems to be the essence of it all: I’m in love with the idea of love. The idea of everything. Whenever I get like this, William Carlos Williams’ quote pops into my mind: “No ideas but in things,” and I can’t help but wonder if he’d still have the same quick summation of life if he’d lived right now, in the 21st century.
Things just seem different these days. No ideas but in ideas, the way I see it. I sip my drink.
* * *
I shouldn’t be driving right now, but handing Raquel my car keys would have been both an admission that I’m full of shit and more reason for her to believe I give a shit what she says. Which I do, of course. I just act like I don’t. I have no clue why.
I take a swig of my beer and turn onto US-1.
I don’t know why I’m so pissed at my girlfriend. She didn’t do anything but try to help. Yet here I am, seething. My eyes are wild, jiggling in my head like chunks of ice in a shaken glass, distorting everything on the road. I don’t know how this is possible. Xanax is a depressant. I took two. Alcohol is too, and this is my sixth beer. Or seventh. Or fourth. I feel like I’m on crack right now though.
She had her keys and purse in her hand. That’s what pissed me off, actually. She had them out and ready, like I didn’t even have a choice. Like I was coming home with her no matter what. Which is bullshit. You can’t force somebody to come with you. You can’t force somebody to do anything, especially not to love you. You can’t force yourself to love.
I glance at myself in the rearview mirror and see a stranger with bloodshot eyes.
I pull my eyes away from my reflection and focus on the sky, the haze of streetlights reflecting off each other and blocking out everything but the moon. Driving down US-1 towards my parent’s house, the moon is a giant yellow eye staring down at me. As if the heavens themselves are observing my every move. Watching. Judging. I think of death again, of the people I’ve lost, a recurring thought process in situations like this one, which have been way too prevalent the past few months. I think of all the people with dead friends and family members and lovers. So young, so tragic. We’re all too young to die in my opinion. Unless you actually want to. Make it your decision.
But why would someone want to do that? Control, maybe? Maybe if they felt their life was purposeless? Maybe if they felt they were hurting others and themselves more than they were helping?
What have I done today that left a positive impression on anybody?
This week? This month? This year?
My car rumbles over some reflectors in the middle of the street and I swerve back into my lane. Almost went into oncoming. Almost. There’s an SUV approaching, separated from me only by the grassy median. I see him, or her. Doesn’t really matter, guy or girl. It’s an SUV, the gender of the driver is extraneous detail. So tempting all of a sudden. So simple. One and done, blaze of glory, easy way out, etcetera etcetera. I mean, from what I can tell, that’s a Lincoln Navigator. A big ass Lincoln Navigator versus my shitbox Toyota Corolla. And I’m not wearing my seatbelt. The driver will barely feel a thing. I’ll feel even less. Two weeks, tops, and they’ll be back on the road. And I’ll be done, finally. All I have to do is let go of the steering wheel. Just. Let. Go.
The sudden blast of the horn is loud and blatant. The SUV’s headlights are intense, staring at me through my windshield. The horn sounds monstrous, like a bright white, wide eyed demon in my head dashing around, roaring and destroying everything. The driver yells something but I can’t make out what he or she is saying because of that horn, that goddamn horn. Endlessly alarming. Endless because I hear it even after I jerk the steering wheel back to the right, feel the wind of the other car’s side view mirror skirting past my head through my window, pull to a jerking stop on the median and sit there for a few minutes. The Falls Shopping Center is to my right, Bennigans to my left, and all I see is the shiny afterglow of headlights in my eyes. But none of this matches the intensity of that horn, jolting me from my thoughts, from myself. I hear it even now, with my eyes wide, breathing labored.
I stare at nothing, then the street, the few cars passing by to my left, drivers craning their necks. I wait, for sirens maybe, or just an angry face popping in front of my eyes, mouth open in a yell. Nothing happens though, and soon I realize nothing probably will. Maybe ever. This is all I’ve got. I laugh, then I cry. Then I finish my drink.
* * *
In Miami—in any major city—people don’t get to see the stars very much. The more street lights and building lights, the less visibility, the lights themselves casting a yellow fog over the sky that blocks out what’s above them. In Orlando the sky’s a little clearer, especially around my apartment where there are a lot of trees to block the beams out. Still nowhere near as clear as it is out here though, in the sand by the ocean on Cocoa Beach.
Behind me there’s a group of people, some of them friends, some of them not. They’re attempting to light a blunt in the face of the wind rolling off the water, across the sand and forcefully into our bodies. The air smells of salt and sand, the sound of wave on top of wave crashing into one another and drowning out the drunken laughter coming from behind me. I try to stare at the sky without breaking eye contact, but I keep stumbling whenever I do it for too long. I sip my drink and take a few more steps, stumble again. Finally I just sit down in the sand and finish my beer, gazing into the distance, towards the perfectly gleaming diamonds in the sky.
As I stare at the stars and the deep blackness housing them, a feeling envelops me, starting at my feet and traveling to the top of my head. It breaks through the intoxication and momentarily allows me to forget my surroundings, the past and the future, everything but the sights and sounds in front of me. My chest seizes and, for just a second, I want to die. Not like I’ve wanted to before either, this is different. I want to die so that this will be the last thing I ever did, ever heard, ever saw.
“What the hell are you doing over here?”
I jump, turn and see one of my friends standing a few feet away from me. I turn away quickly, wiping at my tear-streaked face. It’s dark out here though, and he’s too drunk to notice.
“Just watching the ocean,” I say. I take a deep breath. “I love it out here.”
There’s a moment of silence and I turn back to see him staring out at the ocean too.
“So creepy,” he says.
“Creepy?” I say.
“Yeah,” he says. “Like, if you just started swimming right now—jumped in and just took off, you’d die.” He pauses. “You’d never reach land, and if you swam too far you wouldn’t be able to get back.”
I don’t know what to say to that, so I just stay quiet. We stare out at the ocean in silence together for a moment.
“I still fucking love Florida,” he says finally.
I nod, then realize he can’t see me nodding.
“Me too,” I say.
“You coming?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I say, though I keep staring at the sky, willing the feeling to come back, the feeling of being in this moment and this moment alone.
I wait, and wait, and wait, but the feeling’s gone. I’m drunk again. Just drunk.
So I sigh and walk back to the party.