— Skunked Beer
As we drove into the city, the streets once again surprised me. From atop the mountain, the city looked small; however, a few minutes of downhill travel and the apartments rose like dark shadows. Claire’s apartment must have been on the western side of the city as Sam pulled into an open spot after only a few blocks into the residential district.
There was a historical beauty in Peregin that Clearwater lacked. The aged brick lined the center of the city and stretched out in a Victorian landscape. Even here, far from the wharf and the downtown area, yet the buildings had an ancient beauty around them.
Oak trees, not much older than saplings, were lined across each block. Wires supported the trees growth. The streets sloped at a constant decline from the edges of the mountain to the waterways. It made for an interesting optical illusion to see the roads wind in front of themselves. The street was lined with apartment buildings and the occasional corner store. All a red and brown sea of brick walls, and cobblestone streets. The white lines zig-zagged chaotic borders across the sides. Each stain, chip, kick, or break could be shown. The city was well acclimated to the ravages of age.
Living here brought its own stains and chips. The woman walking beside us blended into the stained, bricked walls. We had met once before in a dream. A flicker of past thought brought back with present experience. I did not try to make conversation. She did not seem keen to acknowledge our dreamed meeting. Another mark I’ll dot off the list. A checkpoint not known existed had been reached. On my death will I see then, I had dreamt it all along. Within the imagined folds of my dreams, the secrets to everything I struggled and failed to find. A familiar face could be my angel. Our eyes made contact. Hers were weathered and strained. I decided this to be only chance. I quickened my pace to leave the woman in solitude.
My time at school had worked its way into my hands just as the city had to that lady. The uniform bleached my skin white. The world imprinted itself onto my body. The etches on my fingers, given at birth, dragged onto the side of the iron fence. If I were to look closely I believe I would find my own mark lined across iron and painted underfoot. I just wanted it to be known; I participated.
The city streets brought a strong breeze and pleasantly humid weather. The summer had changed drastically in a such a short drive. The wind blew the scent of fried foods and chocolateries down the thin, cobblestone streets. I saw now why Sam had parked so close. The streets were irregular and poorly constructed. In place of road there were bricks. The alleyways were lined in stone. A single lane with cars parked on both sides lay spread straight like a mid-drift. It led to the end of the city and the other side of the mountains, which looked like a bumpy finger, piercing the sea.
“Haven’t been here in a while, right?” Sam said looking into a vape shop before waving it off.
“Last time, I wasn’t legal, and I don’t remember it well.” I laughed.
“You are still welcome. Why is it that I am always the one dragging your sorry ass up here anyways?” Sam complained, “I need to see some initiative, Alex. We gotta be hungry.” Sam growled mockingly.
“You are the initiative.” I said, “You gave me my first beer and my first blunt.”
“Don’t be telling Ms. Kris that. I don’t want my chances ruined.”
“You are disgusting.”
“Disgusting for loving your mom?” Sam mocked injury, “How could you say that to your future step-father?”
“My parents are still married.”
“Just because there’s a goalie doesn’t mean you can’t score.”
I decided to ignore that. We cut through a side street and continued down the winding hills and various alleyways. Water dripped from the jumbled rises of towers that sprouted like the intersectionality of knotted vine limbs. Forever, they were climbing.
The lights were beautiful and intimidating. Large neon signs pointing out tattoo shops and piercing studios. Street lights spilled out luminous, yellow light. They appeared as a stream moving along with the winding roads. Most of the shops were still open. Soaked flyers of music shows and support groups blew astray across the sidewalk. Some hung undisturbed. Their tabs like feathers of invitations.
As the variety in flowers spread across the valley, so too were the people of this city varied and spectacular. Some of their hair were dyed in brilliant spectrums of colors. Others had piercings in places my mom would smack me for bringing home. A few people dressed in costumes walked by. A fairy and some soldiers. I didn’t know the reference. They were trying to fix the fairy’s broken wing, while hurrying along the street. A few would make eye contact with me and nod. One girl had smiled shyly. An old man eyed me suspiciously. Most did not notice me or at the very least pretended not to.
Anonymity existed exclusively in the dreariest depths of the wilderness, or anywhere on a city street. I was nothing more than another empty vessel hurrying to some indescribable objective. The city stood, defied against the onset of the sea and of the mountains. I felt his grip upon me. His hands shielding me from the wilderness.
I did not stand out. My jeans were blue. My shoes were held together by a few stalwart stiches. Still, these eyes would not leave me be. My jacket shielded my waning tolerance for being in public. I had always held close to the belief in escape. I figured if I really needed to I could disappear one day. I would take a backpack with only the essentials. My hair had already begun to weigh itself down on its own. It hung in curls beneath my ears. A few more months and I thought I would be unrecognizable to most people. A new place, a new name, and a better me. Then I recalled the weight of my wallet. As horrible as it felt to say ‘escape’, it was in truth, a salvation for those, whose affections I had falsely stolen. Renewal through reincarnation had always been a warm thought. I could settle for an isolated purgatory. I had given this performance an average amount of effort. I would rather be lost than be pitied or shamed. Such a little struggle was mine, yet the cuts always seemed to add up.
I recalled the fear I had of these thoughts, when they first began their cyclical torture. I was shocked. As if it were beyond me to harbor such volatile self-hatred. Overnight my brain did not like me anymore. I still don’t know if I was a monster because of my brain or because of my body.
I hated my body, but was that my fault, or my flesh?
It was exhausting. Hating myself was the most exhausting thing I had ever done. There was a willful execution. It was more than character development. I strived for my infliction to hurt me. The pain that came from numbness was akin to ecstatic touch. The first strike of flint rarely works, yet every flip of my wrist burned my flame a little longer. This path had become rather tiresome. I chose now to sit in apathetic patience for the end.
Shame clung to me like a foul stench. There was a knottiness within the feeling. It was self-inflicted. That was to say, I could cease this feeling at any moment, so I had read. There were pills available one could take too, though never considered. After a certain amount of liquid, the shame dissipated; however, I was trying to be better. I had tasted destructive remedies. They go further than intended.
At times it would hibernate to progress the time. I did not feel a shift until I left my room. It was there, once I stepped foot into this world of mine that I felt it within me. A pulsating spike that inched ever-nearer to my heart. Questions and uncertainties rose like tides slopping against the sides of a concrete tidal barrier. I held on securely most times. The storm wrenching me from the edges of sanity terrified me deeply. More terrifying was how much I missed it at times. There was a weightlessness within the eye of the storm. I could wrap myself in my blankets of misery and mutilation and sleep until the passing of my days. This was as easy as closing one’s eyes and ignoring the hunger that snarls within the belly, and the urine that overflows through the bladder, most importantly in the moments of ecstatic stillness the breath stops.
Dreams of death replaced my sleeping thoughts. Thoughts of death replaced my wakeful dreams. To one who had never experienced this tragic peace would surely look upon this scene of decay in horror. In my own way a little voice in the back of my mind would squeak out in protest, “Please clean your room. Please shower. Please call mom.” A bigger voice will silence those thoughts and the dreams continued.
We mounted an iron staircase that led to a brick townhouse. It was surprisingly pleasant to look upon. The bricks were stained in brilliant shades of red compared to their greyer neighbors. The yard had a flower garden in the front as well as an improvised pile of cigarette butts from passing walkers.
Claire’s studio defied their exterior aesthetic. The inside was dimly lit of string lights. Posters of bands I had never heard were plastered across the walls. A large tv sat upright in the middle of the room. It sat atop a plywood stage as a throne might sit in some European castles. Two remote club-light projectors were screwed into 2×4’s overhead. Thankfully, they were unplugged. I did not trust Jason or Sam’s electrical capabilities.
I tugged awkwardly at the ends of my hoodie. The city had been warmer than expected and I detected a lingering scent of fried chicken had trapped itself within the folds of fabric. I gripped the bottom seam of my hoodie and pulled it over my face. “Hello, beautiful.” A familiar voice soothed in front of me. I reached my arm down to feel the absence of a shirt. I hastily drew the rest of the sweatshirt over my face and clutched my shirt down. In my heat-stricken state I had overlooked Claire lying on their sofa. Our eyes met and she gave me a look I had come to know recently. Confusion dotted her eyes, but it was brief and fleeting. A smile swept it away. She jumped from the couch and danced over to me. “Alex. My love, it has been so long.” She said wrapping her arms around me. “I’m sorry you were stuck with Dickbutt for the drive.” Her hair cascaded aside in voluminous curls as brown as dark mahogany.
“Sorry.” I said, “I didn’t see you.”
“Sorry for what?” She laughed.
Sam slammed the door and closed the three latches that were screwed in various, uneven places. Clack… Clack… Clack… Sam walked behind Claire as I took a seat on the arm of the sofa. He threw his backpack beside his drum kit and walked expectantly to Claire. “Where’s my hug?” Sam waved his arms out to the side.
“Up your butt.”
“Original.” Sam feigned laughter and mockingly slapped his knee in dramatic bravado. “She thinks she’s funny.” He said in a sarcastic tone. “Want a beer, Comedian? Alex?”
“Sure.” Within the past few months, I had come to a stark realization. I hated beer. Which I was afraid will be a more difficult conversation to have with my friends.
“Hey,” Claire called out as she retook her seat, “We have a whole night. How about we don’t blackout at eight this time?”
“It’s one drink. Why don’t you yell at Jason, is he still asleep?” Sam tossed me a beer and plopped down on the couch between Claire and I.
I flicked the tab open and brought the questionably-aged beer to my nose. At the first whiff, I recoiled. “Skunked.” I declared.
“Jason doesn’t shop for groceries, and I don’t drink beer.” Claire said absentminded, “I got some claws if you want, though?”
“Please.” I said.
“No.” Sam said, “Mama taught me not to waste. Give me my hospitality back, Alex.” Sam grabbed the beer from the table.
“Fine with me.” I laughed as Sam took a courageous gulp.
Claire passed me a seltzer as Sam finished his beer. With a gasping sigh of relief, he crumpled the empty can and tossed it next to an ash-stained bong.
Sam turned to us for a reaction. The returning blank stares prompted him to stare idly at Jason’s guitar. “You guys think we should make an album?”
“Sam, none of us can play music. Not even Jason, he thought it would get him laid.”
“It did though; didn’t it?” Sam smirked.
Claire responded with a gentle flick of her middle finger. Her eyes bounced from Sam to me to her lavender-colored iPhone that would gently light up occasionally with notifications and text messages. Her eyes were as dark as her hair and it was difficult to see exactly what held her attention at any-given time.
Claire was partially ready, it seemed, for a performance. Brown jeans, with strategically-placed rips exposing her knees, were tightly held up by a dark blue belt that appeared to spiral around Claire’s hips. A pair of red boots were thrown near the couch. Even without them I was confident she was taller than me. I turned to Sam and wondered if she had him beat as well. I could not tell with everyone sitting.
“Anyway,” Claire sighed grabbing the bong while flicking the lighter with her other hand. As she breathed in the smoke she flicked the bowl piece into the air. The bong gurgled the smoke through the opening. Claire blew a quick stream of smoke in Sam’s face. “What do we want to do?”
“Same thing we always do, probably.” Sam said flicking on the tv and grabbing an x-box remote from their center table. He dusted off some ash from the bong and started up a zombie’s game.
“Yea, but where?” Claire asked, “Alex, graduated. We need to celebrate.” She commanded. Claire took out the bowl piece again and tapped it against the rim of a pot containing nothing more than the withered remains of a flower. The burnt ash fell onto the barren soil.
“As long as it’s not Swasher’s.” Sam said.
“I still think I was drugged.” Claire said.
“You had at least five cherrybombs on top of whatever other shit you packed in your purse. If you were drugged you’d be dead.” He laughed as he tea-bagged a fallen zombie.
“What happened at Swasher’s?” I asked.
“Nothing.” Claire said.
“Jason and I had to drag Claire out of the hotel fountains. She thought we were near the wharf and wanted to go swimming.” Sam laughed as he painted the walls in front of him with a zombie’s brain.
Claire began to open her mouth to retort something but fell silent obviously not wanting to push the subject. Instead she turned towards me. “So, Alex, when’s the next cult meeting?” Claire stroked her hand through my hair.
“I don’t want to cut it.” I said a little more defiantly than intended.
“That’s cool, man. Lots of girls love the rock aesthetic.” She giggled.
Sam crushed his second beer as I poked Claire for another seltzer. “I don’t think I have ever heard Alex listen to anything harder than Hozier.” Sam said tossing the trash next to his first victim.
“Sam, I’ve only heard you listen to Country. That is already a huge red flag.” Claire said.
“So which bars are we going to?” I interjected before we got distracted.
“Probably Seaside’s.” Sam said.
“Yea, probably.” Claire agreed, “Cheap drinks are hard to turn down.”
“For us.” Sam laughed.
“Don’t abuse it.” Claire scolded, “Jean likes you, so don’t mess it up.”
“How would I mess it up?” Sam retorted.
“I don’t know, Sam. I’m just telling you.” Claire checked her phone and connected it to her speaker and began playing music. It was not long before Jason stumbled out shirtless and possibly drunk. He walked over to the sink and squeezed a dab of toothpaste onto a brush held in a pink cup above the sink. It had a girl’s name on it with hearts around the letters. Emily or Emilia. I could not tell.
I looked down at my phone to see it was four. Claire looked over and seemed satisfied by the results. She lowered the volume. The room ceased shaking and I could not figure out how they did not get complaints from their neighbors.
“Morning, Stinky” Claire sneered, “You ready to get crunked?”
Jason audibly spat in the sink and laughed, “Can’t I get a moment? I didn’t sleep well.”
“No.” Claire retorted, “This is my last day off before my shifts start coming in. I am trying to enjoy it.”
“Is it the summer already?” Jason complained through bits of toothpaste froth he spat in the sink. He washed his toothbrush under the sink and left it lying on the vinyl table-cover.
“Some people have to actually work.” Claire, remarked.
“You try law school? Seriously though, Claire. Claire you listening?”
“Yes, Jason. What?”
“Don’t worry about money, babygirl when I’m a lawyer you’ll be living like you should.”
“what’s up boys?” Jason said dapping Sam, “Sorry, I mean good afternoon college graduate.” Jason said exchanging a crisp salute with me.
“Fuck. Off. You haven’t even started.”
“I’m just kidding, Sam, chill. You got a sweet gig going on anyways.”
“The tree business is not sweet, but its good money.”
“Money grows on trees.” Jason said to a silent audience. He grabbed the bong off the table and thumbed about for any leftover bits of weed that may have been previously scattered.
“You’re lucky it does for you.” Claire said laughing.
“Yea and so are you, so shush.” By some miracle Jason managed to scrape enough weed, Dorito crumbs, and hair into the communal bowl. With a flick of the lighter, the insidious smoke swirled down the stem and entered the beaker as a dancer would an illuminated stage. Jason set the glass down as he released a torrent of adulterated smoke in the room.
“So, what are doing?” Sam said as he fell victim to a horde of flesh eating, monsters.
Claire tapped on a seltzer she had. “Let’s play a game or something. Alex what’s a game you played at school?”
“Drunk Driving.” I said- quickly adding, “On Mario Kart, Claire. Don’t give me that look.”
“Just making sure.” She replied releasing the judgmental glare she forced upon me, “Sam plug in the Wii.”
“Please?” He retorted.
“Go fuck yourself.” Jason replied.
“I will.” Sam said bending over to connect the cables.
Time passed as we sat, and drank, and smoke, and played video games; I had forgotten all the reasons why I abandoned my friends. I cursed my past-self for allowing themselves to wallow for so long. Not everything had to be hard. I felt my breathe ease as the race ended with Jason screaming in Sam’s face for cheating. Claire was happy she wasn’t last, and I was content to not be alone.
“Boys… Sorry, Children; eyes here.” Claire said waving her middle and pointer finger to her face and back at us, “Sam, no fighting; Jason, don’t be a pretentious dick…”
“Whoa, pretentious?” Jason said defensively.
“You are pretentious sometimes, dude.” Sam said.
“And you get into random fights, asshole. Who is worse?”
“I’m not comparing.” Sam said raising his hands up, “I got no qualms with the lady’s wishes.”
“Thanks—dick.” She said, “Sorry had to throw it in.” Claire cleared her throat, “As I was saying; Alex, don’t wallow. We’re all friends and we are all home and you graduated, so be happy.” She said.
“Yea, get drunk and smile, turd.” Sam said throwing another skunked beer toward me.
“Can we leave before I have to drink one of these.” I said to Claire’s bemusement.
“It’s so early though. Just smoke a little weed.” Claire begged, “I don’t want my coworkers seeing me at our bar in the afternoon.”
“Why not?” Jason said, “They don’t give a shit; they love us.”
“It leaves a bad impression.” Claire said.
“Fuck their impressions. I’m trying to dance.” Sam said finishing with a proud belch.
“The earlier we leave, the more liable this one is to getting lost.” Claire said nodding to me.
“I have grown quite a bit since you last saw me.” I replied.
“Doesn’t seem like it.” Sam said to Jason’s amusement.
Now it was my turn to flip Sam off. “I’m educated.” I laughed, “I’m sure I’ll be confident in getting lost.” I had recalled the smell of the streets and the street vendors; although, I was not too certain, I would be able to navigate back if I strayed from the group.
“Just don’t leave me and we won’t have to go searching the alleys.” She said.
“I won’t; I promise.” I felt my face contort in unusually in a natural smile. I hated to admit how nice it felt to feel cared for- even if delivered condescendingly.
“I still think it’s too early.” Claire groaned.
The crushed cans on the table began to pile, “Too early for the bar? Insanity.” Sam exclaimed.
“It is a Saturday.” Jason contributed, “It might be poppin now.”
“It has already been scoped.” Claire said, “We go there every night.”
“We should take a look at the vibe.” Jason concurred, “Get a good spot when they change the place over to a dance floor.”
“What happened to you crying about your head?” Claire said.
“I started drinking.” Jason said.
“I would bet Jason’s trust fund that Maddie is already screaming at Jean for cherry bombs.” Sam said finishing the last of the fridge-beers.
Claire relented and swooshed her hands at them. “Fine, after I pack the bowl again.”
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