I watched her smoke, envy churning in my stomach. With each burning flake of ash that fell to the pavement, the jealousy grew. Nancy could smoke like that, cigarette after cigarette, without coughing or vomiting or otherwise abandoning the indulgent freedoms I was so lacking in. Of my various neuroses, this one in particular hit hardest when I was around Nancy, or at the very least, people like her. People who held their lives in a precarious balance between death and debauchery.
My headphones were around my neck, my Walkman at my hip. There was no reason to carry them tonight, given that Nancy didn’t really like to listen to music when it was, as she put, “contained.” But I couldn’t bear to leave them behind at my house. It was like being naked, going out without music. So they came with me anyway, despite Nancy telling me how the night was going to progress.
We were sitting on the hood of her car, the vehicle itself parked just a little on the curb in front of the downtown lofts that her ex-boyfriend—a painter named David—was holding a party in. He and Nancy were still friends, even though Nancy had repeatedly told me he was a scumbag and a user and a doper. But, on the other hand, he hosted killer parties.
Cars were passing by us, their headlights twinkling against the dim night interrupted by lampposts and lights pouring out from second story windows and twenty-four hour cafes. Nancy’s smoke tried to follow the momentum of the passing cars, but always gave up and dwindled toward the stars.
Not that Nancy was into drugs, necessarily. She’d been the one who introduced me to pot, but that was it. Marijuana was all you needed, she told me, to be closest to ever knowing what poets were always on about, in terms of romantic love or purpose or whatever the fuck.
“Any dope fiends up there?” I asked, pointing to the third story window where loud music was blaring out into the street.
“Other than David? Doubt it,” Nancy shrugged. “Straight edge is what’s hip now. Nobody wants AIDS. Best way to do that is avoid sharing needles, as it turns out.”
“Is that so?” I asked, already knowing that.
“You’re full of shit, Paul,” Nancy said, taking a drag. She tried and failed to blow smoke rings and cursed when it didn’t happen. “Oh, fuck me. I’ve been trying to get better at that.”
“So I paid attention in health class,” I replied, shrugging. “Don’t know why, though. Never had to bother with any of it.”
“You’ve smoked pot,” Nancy pointed out.
“That barely counts. I didn’t even get high.”
“You were breathing in wrong.”
“I did exactly what you told me,” I protested. “But I was talking about having sex. I mean, shit, you have to be intimate with another person. How is that possible?”
She tucked some of her hair behind an ear. It was blonde now, Nancy having previously been a brunette for a solid year and a half before getting sick of looking like a younger version of her mother.
“Maybe you have a chemical tolerance for THC,” Nancy shrugged. “I think I read about that something like that in a medical review journal.”
“I read articles,” Nancy said. “I don’t skim them, mind you. I actually read them.”
“For class, right?”
“Please. Reading for class is the same as smoking pot before a drug test,” Nancy rolled her eyes. “A goddamn waste of time if there ever was one.”
Nancy, like me, didn’t care for college, or school in general. But we both went on to higher education because of the job market. Or, because of the “crippling capitalistic notions of self-worth”, as Nancy liked to put it.
“Did you pass, by the way?” I asked; neither of us could afford school. Whereas I tried and failed to get internships, Nancy fudged her way into a basketball scholarship and later into the position of the team’s star point guard. All this despite hating anything remotely athletic.
“Wasn’t mine, so I don’t know if I would’ve,” Nancy said. “Probably not.”
“How much did you pay for someone else’s piss?”
“Too much, let me tell you. It’s a real racket, the piss market. It’s real bull right now.”
“I don’t think you’re using that terminology in a grammatically correct sense.”
“I don’t think you’re ever getting laid,” Nancy told me. “Am I right?’
“Well, I wouldn’t be me if that wasn’t the case,” I shrugged. Nancy equated my snobbish intellectualism with my continued virginal streak. To be perfectly honest I wasn’t the sort of guy who dated a lot, or ever, really, and to this end I figured I was exotic to her, in the sense that my straight white guy thing was so bland that I slingshotted across the spectrum and somehow my mundanity became profound.
“You sure you don’t want one?” Nancy offered me the package of cigarettes. I declined a smoke, and she shrugged. Again, I was being a nudnik. And again, I felt like that was more of an irritation than an endearing trait, like it was at the beginning of our friendship. As the years wore on, I began to feel like dead weight; I couldn’t explain exactly why she kept me around.
Nancy put away her cigarettes into her bomber jacket and slid off her car hood, walked into the apartment complex without me. There was a sort of unspoken assumption between us that where she went, I’d follow. Not because I was lovesick, but because what the hell else would I do? Play my records over and over again, try to synthesize a thesis on my life through the lyrics, probably. When I told Nancy about what I did most nights, she laughed and cupped my cheek, lamented the inherent philosophical inadequacies in ennui.
“You think you’re miserable because the universe doesn’t give a shit about you,” she said. “But, really, you’re miserable because you care too much about the universe.”
Inside the apartment lobby, I stepped into the freight elevator and closed the gate behind me. I noted it was rusted and in need of repair, which was how I more or less saw myself.
The third floor was full of people partying in the corridors, spilling out of this apartment and that apartment. Most were drunk, holding and basically pouring out amber liquids onto the carpet. I went inside the loft that was the actual host’s place, and saw Nancy already enveloped in a dancing mass of bodies near the center. Abstract paintings lined the walls, bright hues of red and yellow and blue splattered on top of each other in the artistic equivalent taking a shit and wiping your ass with the canvas.
At the opposite end of the loft was a card table set up with alcohol, and I downed a shot of vodka, followed by a shot of tequila, followed by a glass of rum and Coke I’d nurse for an hour before taking more shots.
At the risk of sounding like an alcoholic, I needed booze to function. Socially, that is. I couldn’t talk to people when I was sober, unless given an explicit purpose to do so. But parties are just excuses to mingle, for some reason I can never figure out. I guess it’s to, I don’t know, enjoy yourself in the company of other people, but who the fuck in their right mind does that without getting blasted?
Of course, you need to find the right balance. Too drunk, and you risk becoming a nuisance. Too sober, and you’re just as exciting as you are without anything in you. For me, I’ve found about three shots of vodka is pretty much my equivalent of a normal person’s ability to make small talk. So I suppose, if you want to get technical, I’m a social drunk. But I’m also fucked in the head, so take that as you will.
Throughout the night I stood by the walls, staring out the window at the flashing police lights that sped down the avenue, and tried to psyche myself up to go up and talk to somebody. As the hours passed, however, I realized that even with all the booze in my system this far, I wasn’t any closer to actually interacting with anyone.
Nancy sidled up to me, a guy on her arm and a cigarette hanging lazily from her lips. An empty cup threatened to fall out of his grip. The guy she picked up looked almost scared of her; his eyes kept darting back toward the dance floor. She nearly threw the poor guy at me, and the bottles on the table shook violently, forcing me to scramble to steady them.
“Paul, meet Brandon,” she said, any evidence of intoxication absent from her voice. No slurring, no sudden shifts in pitch. Nancy could hold her liquor better than anyone I knew, which always shamed me, the borderline drunk. Brandon’s looks suggested that he was the average young guy from Minnesota. Strong jaw, long in the face, dark caramel Ivy League cut, thick eyebrows, and confused, almost vacant eyes. The occipital vacancy was almost endearing; my own eyes shot out visages of irritation and boredom.
“Tonight’s hot ticket?” I asked her; Nancy liked to steal boys away from their other potential suitors.
“Oh, they were fawning over him in between the grinding and the dry humping,” Nancy replied. She grabbed her paramour and forced his attention onto me. “Brandon, this is Paul.”
“How do— how do you two know each other?” Brandon asked.
“An increasingly unlikely series of events,” I told him. Which was true. My friendship with Nancy was, even to this day, a weird enigma whose codex I’ve ever been able to solve.
“I’m going with Brandon to his apartment,” Nancy told me. “Much quieter there.”
She tossed me the keys to her ’89 Civic and swaggered off with Brandon, who I think mouthed “nice to meet you” before disappearing into the sweltering mass of human beings. I pocketed the keys and poured myself another drink. With Nancy gone, my lifeline, my IV drip into the world of socializing was ripped out of me. So I got myself as drunk as I could, decided to give this thing another shot, and fed myself into the dancing mob. After nearly splintering my shins from the effort of keeping up appearances, I wandered off to the sides to see if I couldn’t talk up someone. Only, when you’re under the impression that you are unimportant and small and cosmically insignificant, talking to people becomes an exercise in futility.
Needless to say, being full of drunken angst doesn’t go over very well when you’re trying to flirt with people. So I downed one last shot of vodka and walked back into the elevator; a cute blonde girl stepped in after me.
“You, uh, you walking home by yourself?” I asked, trying my best to phrase the question as a concerned party and not as a total fucking creep. “That safe?”
“Oh, I have a friend waiting for me downstairs,” she said, briefly glancing over at me, and seeing the drunken mess leaning against the corner before her, gave me a tentative smile and began observing the gate with aplomb.
“Sorry, I just, you know. Guys in the alleyways and everything,” I sputtered.
“No, it’s okay,” she said.
“Good planning and everything on your part.”
The elevator clinked to a stop and she shoved the gate out of the way, and I was probably projecting, but I swear to God she nearly bolted away. Not that I can blame her for that. I stepped out into the empty lobby and leaned against the front desk.
“Yeah,” the death knell of every minor flirtation. Of every bullshit instance of small talk. “Yeah,” the universal English indication to bail before it gets any more awkward. If I’m wrong about the universe, and there is indeed a hell, I’d like to petition for a circle solely dedicated for silence between strangers interrupted by the ruinous attempt at jump-starting the conversation again. The modern Prometheus I was not; no amount of divine fire could spark any decent conversation between me and a pretty girl. Well anybody, really.
By the time I got to Nancy’s car, sat down, and buckled my seat belt, I realized I shouldn’t be driving. So I rifled through her glove compartment and found an unopened package of cigarettes and an extra lighter. Being drunk, I felt invincible, the way most young people inherently do, and so my usual reservations about smoking disappeared with my rational thinking skills. I lit up and took a long drag, then wheezed and hacked and coughed for a solid minute. Unrolling the window with the hand crank, I spat out the tobacco juices that accumulated in my mouth and flicked the cigarette onto the street.
Above me the party raged on. And there I was, alone in a car wasting my youth and vitality and fertile years too afraid of the health risks to smoke a single cigarette. I was pathetic and I knew it. I knew it profoundly, deeply, without any rationalization. Twenty-one years I’d lived, all of them varying between shit and more shit. My life, I should say, was fine. I was getting by—my mother sent me fifty bucks a month to help cover living expenses, and for what it was worth, I was in possession of a Bachelor’s degree. No, it was me who was the problem. My lack of friends, my five-year dry spell, my lack of any serious girlfriends, that was on me. So much worrying about my place in the universe, and at the end of it all, I was still alone and too afraid to finish a single cigarette. I didn’t matter to the universe, and there I was anyway, hung up on her like a bad ex.
After that, I recall little of that particular evening. It was one of the few times I’ve ever been blackout drunk, and thus one of the few times I’ve ever gotten a hangover. All I do remember, really, is waking up still in the car, parked behind a Presbyterian church. Groggy, but still relatively intact, I started up the engine and drove to Nancy’s apartment; I had a vehicle to return.
Surprisingly, Nancy was already awake, and sitting on her building’s front steps. Her roommate Patty was there with her, and when I pulled up, her eyes shot daggers at me. I parked and got out, and Nancy strode by me on her way to the passenger seat. Confused, I looked to Patty.
“Go get her breakfast,” Patty said. “And you better not fucking try anything with her, either.”
“I don’t understand.”
“No, of course you fucking don’t,” she rolled her eyes and went back inside. Perhaps even more perplexed now, I got back in the car and turned to Nancy.
“Where do you wanna go?” I asked.
“Any place that serves pancakes,” Nancy said.
It was at the half-empty diner that she told me what happened. Brandon was, in the end, a raging asshole. That he tried to get with her, but she denied him that, and so he threw her out on her ass. She had to walk back to her apartment, alone and scared and exhausted. After recounting her evening, she dug into her food and left me to contemplate in silence. All the while I wondered if she categorized me in with guys like Brandon. If I was just another wicked man in a world filled to bursting with them. I refrained from asking her that.
Some time later, in the warm light in the parking lot, we sat on Nancy’s car hood and listened to my Counting Crows album on my Walkman, sharing my headphones. During the album’s midpoint Nancy had us remove them and offered me something of a smile.
“Why’s the world such a shit place?” she asked me.
“I couldn’t tell you.”
“The universe doesn’t care,” I offered. “When you’re alone and scared and hopeless, the stars and the planets and that big God-sized hole in everything couldn’t possibly give less of a shit.”
“So what do you do?” Nancy wondered, the headphones hanging limply in her hands.
“Whatever you can,” I told her. “Music usually helps.”
“That’s shitty advice,” she said.
“You’re the one who asked,” I shrugged.
“How can you do this every day? Worry all the time, I mean.”
I felt the warmth of the sun of my face, let it seep into me, and breathed in. It was during the day I felt most human, as though I could do something with the misery in my soul. It was the night that was cruel; when the moon rose, the demons came to devour me.
“I honestly don’t know,” I admitted. “I don’t think there’s an answer to that.”
“Well then how the fuck are we supposed to find peace?”
“Maybe we don’t. Maybe we can’t.”
Nancy didn’t say anything then, just slipped the entire headset over her ears and laid on her back, soaking up the sunshine. I slid off the hood and rummaged through her glove compartment for cigarettes, plucked one out of the package, and lit it. Then I hopped back up next to Nancy and slipped the cigarette into her outstretched hand. Without glancing at me, she pressed it to her lips and took a drag. I watched the smoke billow up, my hands clasped together in between my knees.
I think it was about as close to peace as I’ve ever gotten.
J.T. Cunningham is an undergraduate student and English major at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. His play The Five Thousand was performed at the 2014 Minnesota Fringe Festival and was the recipient of the Theater Arts Scholars of Distinction award in 2015. He can be found on Twitter (@JTCunninghamm).