Quarter Life Crisis: Prologue

Derek opens Sean’s bedroom door and walks into a stench he can only describe as a mixture of weed, feet, and burnt toast. A look around the room reveals concentrated chaos: empty pizza box next to the bed, a pile of dirty clothes in the corner that is one sock away from tumbling to the carpet, dresser drawers open with clothes draped over them like hanging limbs, and a large crumpled bag of Cheetos lying next to an open shoebox holding a brand new pair of Jordan’s that are by far the cleanest thing in here.

Derek studies it all with thinly disguised revulsion. He doesn’t want to be in Sean’s room, but Sean’s already got a glimpse of him from where he’s sitting in his underwear—as usual—with his feet propped up on an open 24-pack of Bud Light while he plays Guitar Hero 2 on his Xbox 360. He motions Derek over, holding out a second fake-guitar video game controller, and Derek sighs, trudging to his roommate’s side.

“This is what you called me in here for?” Derek asks. “I’m supposed to be studying.”

“You’re always studying,” Sean says, his voice slurring as he puts a beer can to his lips and tips it back.

“It’s called law school,” Derek says. “That’s what people do in law school.” He pauses and Sean keeps staring at the TV. “They study,” Derek adds.

“Found this shit behind my bookcase earlier,” Sean says. “Haven’t played in forever.”

“That’s nice,” Derek says. “I really should be studying, Sean.”

“Come on,” Sean says. “Give you one practice round, then we’ll do ‘Free Bird’.”

Derek groans and turns to walk away, inadvertently glancing at the TV, at the video game menu which—he hates to admit—brings up a sudden nostalgic sentiment in him that he finds hard to ignore. He pauses, ponders it for a moment, then sighs.

“One round,” Derek says.

“One practice round,” Sean repeats, burping. “Then ‘Free Bird’.”

Derek reluctantly picks up the controller, scrolling through the song list and settling on Avenged Sevenfold’s “Beast and the Harlot,” which he then proceeds to completely destroy on Expert level. His fingers glide over the guitar buttons, a blur of movement that leaves his fingers cramped as music notes fly across the digital fret board.

Derek’s tongue hangs out of his mouth while he does it, like he thinks he’s the Cuban version of Michael Jordan or some shit. Sean watches him, studying his roommate’s dark features: heavy eyebrows and beard, which combine with the fedora, board shorts, and v-neck sweater he’s wearing to make him look like—an asshole. No other way to say it. It’s like eighty degrees in here and Derek’s walking around like some screwed-up genetic experiment between an ivy leaguer, a surfer, and Fidel Castro.

The screen flashes with a “You Rock” congratulations and Derek lowers the guitar, unable to hide the smirk on his face when he glances at Sean.

“Guess I kinda still remember how to play,” Derek says.

“Screw you,” Sean says.

“You asked.”

“You cheated.”

“I haven’t even played the thing since undergrad,” Derek says, sitting next to Sean on the bed. He sniffs the air and pokes a dirty sock with his toe, wrinkling his nose. “It smells like ass in here.”

“Yeah,” Sean says. “But you play your guitar like every day.”

“It’s a bass, first of all,” Derek says quickly, turning and pointing at Sean then lowering his hand and scowling. “And how many times do I have to tell you playing a real guitar and playing Guitar Hero are two different things?”

“How many times do I have to tell you being a douche and being a douche who can play a guitar are the same thing?” Sean says, distorting his voice to sound like a little kid, his words still slurring to create an effect that Derek can’t help laughing at.

“Just pick up the controller, asshole,” Derek says.

“Beer first,” he says, chugging the rest of the can. Derek stares at him while he does, a grim look settling on his face.

“You look like shit, Sean,” he says.

“Thanks,” Sean says, crushing and dropping the can in a small pile of them next to his right leg.

“I’m serious,” he says. “I’m worried about you.” Derek pauses, searching. “Kristina is too.”

“Really?” Sean says sarcastically, slowly turning to face his roommate. “Kristina?”

Derek scratches his chin, avoids Sean’s eyes, indicating what anybody else would already know: that Kristina is most definitely not worried about Sean. Kristina is Derek’s girlfriend, which would make her Sean’s ally if it wasn’t for the fact that Kristina’s best friend—Maria—just so happens to be Sean’s ex-fiancée, and Kristina was all “good for you” and “you’re doing the right thing” and “he’s a fucking bum” when Maria left him.

I’m worried, at least,” Derek says, then points at Sean’s bare chest and skinny legs. “Can you put some fucking clothes on?”

“I am wearing clothes,” Sean says, snapping the elastic waistband of his boxers with his thumb.

“Really?” Derek says.

“And I’m comfortable,” Sean grumbles, shrugging. “And it’s my fucking apartment.”

“It’s mine too,” Derek says.

“I was here first,” Sean says. “And you don’t see me yelling at you about walking around in your underwear.”

“Because I don’t.”

“Quit changing the subject,” Sean snaps. “Take your ass whooping like a man.”

Derek opens his mouth to tell Sean to quit the shit and talk to him, but Sean’s already selected the Lynrd Skynrd classic so Derek picks up his faux-guitar and for damn near seven minutes there’s nothing but lyrical riffs blasting from the television, the rhythmic tapping of the guys’ fingers on the controllers, the occasional grunt as one of them switches chords rapidly.

They’re neck to neck in points most of the way, the color coded notes flying across the screen way too fast to even notice what the other person is doing. Midway through, the two of them stand up, the intensity rising to a level not conducive to sitting. Then they get to the final riff—a finger mashing combo that uses every single button on the controller in quick succession—and Sean murders it. Absolutely kills, perfect score.

The game lets out a tremble of bass—the words “You Rock” popping up on Sean’s side of the screen—and he lets out a whoop.

“In your face,” he says, making a masturbatory motion near Derek’s head. Derek backs up, looking disgusted and sucking his teeth in mock anger before tossing the guitar controller on the ground.

Which, apparently, is the wrong thing to do.

“What the fuck?!” Sean yells, spinning on his roommate. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Derek turns his head up slowly toward Sean with a smile that disappears when he sees Sean’s face, nostrils flared and lips curled into a snarl. Derek glances at the guitar, then back up at Sean.

“What?” he asks.

“Don’t throw my fucking guitar!” Sean says, taking a step toward Derek. “You know how much those fucking things cost?!”

“Sean,” Derek says quietly, chuckling. “Calm down.”

“Don’t tell me to calm down!” Sean yells. “Respect my fucking property!” And before Derek can respond, Sean’s flying across the room at him with his hands raised. Derek, however, is actually in shape—we’re talking Krav-Maga-classes-four-days-a-week type of shape—as opposed to Sean, who’s been on an alternating-between-drunk-and-high binge for a year now (pretty much since the day Maria left him—on his birthday, mind you—which was also about six days before the third member of their former trio—Leon—smashed through the front windshield of his car. Talk about a bad week? It’s the only reason Derek doesn’t plant his fist in Sean’s face and shove his nose into the back of his fucking head).

Sean’s almost on top of him when Derek does this twisting thing where he moves to the side quick as hell and suddenly Sean’s behind him and Derek’s got his hand on the back of Sean’s head, using his momentum to push him into the wall next to the closet. Sean’s face slams into the plaster and he feels his teeth sink into his lip. There’s a bang from upstairs, someone stomping on the floor above with a muffled shout. Sean lets out a yelp, rolling onto his back and putting a hand to his mouth, tasting blood.

“What the fuck is your problem, Sean?” Derek yells.

Derek’s expression is the definition of rage—his ears turning an even deeper shade of tan than they already are—as Sean turns to face him, pulling his hand away from his mouth with spots of red on his fingers. His shoulders drop and he looks up at Derek like a wounded dog. Derek’s too pissed to give a shit though.

“It’s a fucking video game,” Derek says. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Sean stands slowly, his fingers still on his lip. When he’s on his feet he wobbles for a moment, his head hanging as he looks at Derek from the corner of his eye and walks past him, Derek still tense, ready for another attack. Sean plops down on the bed, glancing at the pulsing letters on the TV telling him “You Rock.”

Both of them breathing heavily, the smell of Sean’s existence seems to deepen around Derek. He surveys the room again, takes in the condition again, then goes back to glaring at Sean.

“Sorry,” Sean says, quietly, so quietly the word doesn’t register in Derek’s brain until a few seconds after Sean speaks.

Derek doesn’t say anything at first, standing there with his fists clenched, wishing like hell that he’d just stayed in his room and ignored Sean when he started bellowing Derek’s name through the damn apartment twenty minutes ago.

“Seriously, man,” Sean says, finally meeting Derek’s eyes. “I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’ve just been—you know.”

“Yeah, I know,” Derek spits. “You’ve just been.”

Sean continues to sit there like a reprimanded child so Derek sits down slowly, looking again at his roommate’s bare legs. “Sean, you’re driving yourself crazy in here.”

Sean immediately tenses up, the tendons in his neck standing out. The bleeding in his mouth’s slowed and he uses his tongue to poke at the two shallow cuts his front teeth made on the inside of his top lip.

“What are you talking about?” he asks.

“This shit isn’t healthy.”

Sean looks around the room, his face registering some sort of recognition before he waves it off.

“Whatever,” Sean says, turning away and scratching his ass. “Just a little stressed. I’m fine.”

Derek opens his mouth to say something then closes it, choosing instead to stand again and head to the door. He pauses in the opening, looking back.

“Put on some clothes, Sean,” Derek says. “And get yourself together. You can’t live like this forever.”

Sean opens his mouth and Derek waits for him to say something slick, but Sean seems to think better of it and forces his mouth closed instead. Derek takes one last look around the room, pausing for a good couple of seconds to study the frame hanging crookedly on the wall above his roommate’s bed—Sean’s Psychology degree from Florida State, their alma mater—before turning and slamming the door closed, leaving Sean staring at the outdated Hooters calendar hanging from a nail on the back.

After a moment, Sean reaches over and turns the Xbox 360 off, putting the channel back on TNT in the hopes of returning to his original plan for the night: to watch the Heat game and get shitfaced. But the Heat game’s been over, so he catches the final seconds of the Spurs/Lakers game then switches to Sportscenter to watch highlights. When he looks down at the carpet an hour later, the 24-pack of Bud Light’s got two left in it, cans tossed around the room like expended bullet cartridges. Sean blinks a few times and feels that familiar haze, like everything around him is a couple of seconds away from becoming reality. So he sighs, reaches down, and grabs another.

Click to Read Step One