I had to keep moving, so I danced my way across the makeshift dance floor and emerged onto the apartment’s spacious balcony. To my right, a big glass table with a dozen kids playing a drinking game; on my left, Viraj, leaning against the wall with tangible swagger.
Viraj was a worldly citizen from Quatar who oversaw his affairs with the tact of an imperial magistrate. As Freshman roommates, we’d been buddies since the first day of college, and I’m not kidding when I say that I never – not once – saw him stressed out. He wasn’t a Zane Zinser type with nothing to worry about. In fact, he was a Summa Cum Laude superstar involved in a number of highly respected student organizations, would be working full-time for Flat White Capital after graduating, etcetera etcetera. Viraj’s secret was time management. He partitioned every minute with purpose. The allure of immediate gratification never overshadowed his long-term goals. He even found ample time to drink, which, for better or worse, I found to be among his most admirable qualities. He greeted me with the oldboy affection of a former roommate and filled me up a red cup of beer from a keg.
“How you feeling, brother?” he asked, impeccably dressed as always: brown Tommy Bahama loafers, Miami white shorts that hug the legs above the kneecaps, a blue-and-white short-sleeve button-down with the top two buttons unbuttoned, exposing his hairy Arab chest. His whole ensemble felt too casual to not be premeditated. He was a picture of Middle Eastern excellence, an exemplar of Donald Trump’s ‘good foreigner.’
“Feel’s fucking great, bro!” I cried, punching his shoulders with affected oldboy affection.
“How’s that madhouse of yours?”
He eyed me intensely with his penetrating almond brown eyes as he prepared to analyze my response. Viraj was incredible at extracting meaning from language. In fact, because I was so uncomfortable with his powerful interpretive skills, I made a point of answering his questions in a vague, undecipherable way.
“Mad as fuck, man. Mad as fuck.”
“I can only imagine. But what about this drug racket you guys have?”
I sipped on the beer he had given me and saw his mouth move slightly ajar and his facial skin tighten in anticipation of my response; he wanted information, was eager for information, would disseminate information to all he deemed worthy of reception.
“Fuck man, I don’t know.”
“Mitch, Mindy, and Double-Z. Rumos has it them three are running a real operation in your duplex!”
Viraj, British-schooled wanker that he was, only minced grammar when he got real excited.
“Fuck if I know, man,” I said, avoiding his truth-seeking gaze.
As Viraj shrugged and leaned back against the wall, I could hear the raspy voice of my 6th grade English teacher applauding me for not gossiping. I don’t know why, but it seemed like a bad idea to tell people that I was living in house where thousands of dollars of illegal drugs were being sold. Viraj and I stood there in silence for what felt like ages, drinking beers and overseeing the boardwalk’s tireless hubbub, keeping watch over the descending sun atop the hazy marine horizon. I just got drunker and drunker. Viraj kept grabbing my empty red cup and filling it with more beer like the faithful roommate he was.
Eventually he left to rejoin his cultish Waco Crew. I was all alone, so I sat down at the big glass table to join my peers in this fantastic drinking game called Beer Hockey, in which everyone’s beer can is a ‘net’ to defend with your left hand, while the ‘puck’ is a spinning coin that you flick across the table with your right middle finger at other beer cans, in the same fashion that one flicks a paper football. If you get scored on, you chug your beer until the coin stops spinning, and nobody wants the coin to stop spinning, so they keep it going while you drink and drink until the beer’s all out.
I was excited to get in on the action, but as soon as I sat down their quarter hopped over the balcony and landed on the boardwalk below. No one else had a coin. We checked our wallets and everything. It was hilarious and sad. Here we were, a gaggle of private school brats on vacation. We were doing absolutely nothing other than spending money, yet none of us had coins, not even a stinking penny. There were only credit cards, but credit cards were useless for beer hockey, so we just sat there stupidly and chatted about nothing, periodically glancing at the rapidly disappearing sun.
At some point, Boris appeared and sat down on my left. I tried to chat but he was withdrawn and unresponsive. His mop of blonde hair was more disheveled than ever, and his green-gray slits teemed with unaccountable rage. He was paralyzed by disjointed thoughts, stuck inside his brooding emotions. The poor kid was coked out of his damn mind. As his friend, I knew how he and cocaine operated together: For the first 20 minutes, it was strictly happiness, chitter-chatter and positive energy. When the rush wore off, melancholy emerged from the fog.
I was watching the wavering sun when, suddenly, a sharp pain overtook my left ear. Boris had slapped me.
“Bro, c’mon!” I said heatedly, confused and hot-tempered, unsure how even cocaine could lead to unprovoked violence between friends.
Boris glanced at me with a vacant expression; the moment passed without confrontation. A few seconds later, my ear was clomped again, this time harder. I turned to Boris and gave him a proper smack upside his face. I felt his cheek ripple as I followed through, firmly and with fleeting fury. I felt justified in my aggression.
Seconds after delivering this hit, I realized something was wrong. Boris’ expression was despondent, betrayed, livid. I became conscious of shrieking, high-pitched giggles emanating from behind me. It was Ojas, the drunk-as-fuck chatter-box from Mumbai. Ojas was the real culprit. He had loomed behind us and covertly delivered those two slaps on my left ear with the sole purpose of engendering confusion and chaos.
But in those moments, Boris’ animalistic rage was unreceptive to reason. He backhand slapped me across my face so Goddamn hard that my nice prescription sunglasses still haven’t recovered. His face was a gleeful snarl of flared nostrils, palpitating dimples, and a curled upper lip. His eyes radiated with terrible sublimity, with the triumph of vengeance. His green-gray slits seemed to say “I’d kill you if I could, but this will do for now.”
“That’s what you get,” he said softly, his gleeful snarl still pinned on his face, though it was fading by the second as he continued emerging from the fog.
“You hit me first!”
“Whaaaaat!? I didn’t hit you, man.”
“Fuck, it was–” I stammered, glancing back at the wildly cackling Ojas– “it was him! Ojas! That fuckface!”
“Either way you slapped the shit out of me, man.”
“Ahh, what the fuck man!” I cried, helpless, bewildered, penitent, smashed.
“What the fuck!” the world seemed to be crying in unison.
Everyone on the balcony was roaring with laughter, extraordinarily amused by the unexpected developments. After all, conflict is far more entertaining than drinking games and sunsets. Ojas was still cackling in the background like a Machiavellian puppeteer.
“Some men just want to watch the world burn,” said someone at the table.
Suddenly, Boris sprung from his chair and charged Ojas like a rhino, grabbing his collar and muttering sinister threats. Ojas, aware that further words or deeds could provoke serious violence, ignored his new nemesis and walked inside. Boris was still frothing with rage. He stamped around the balcony, howling like a wounded animal in need of redress. He had identified a new enemy.
“We’ll get him back, we’ll plan something good,” I said.
“I’m gonna hit him where it hurts,” cried Boris. “That piece of third-world shit is going to feel my fucking power,” he exclaimed with spit flying from his mouth. The folks sitting around the table watched on with amused horror.
“What does that even mean?” I asked, hopeless.
“Look here, sometimes you need to show people who’s in charge. People need to know they don’t have real power.” He slapped the backside of his right hand into the palm of his left, demonstrating the indisputability of his power.
Was it the drugs talking? Maybe. In any case, I didn’t say a word. There was no changing Boris’s mind, not when he was in this state. Besides, I was drunk as hell and no longer gave a shit about the world. I went inside for hard alcohol, but moments later Boris was confronting Ojas again, grabbing his collar and muttering sinister threats, this time smack dab in the middle of the dance floor. Ojas was unamused. He gave his assailant a hard shove. Boris stumbled backwards, landing atop the foot of Jacklyn, a member of the Waco Crew’s female cadre.
“What the hell!” Jacklyn yelled in pain. “Oh my God, I think it’s broken!”
Only Boris and I noticed Jacklyn amidst the heaving throngs and electronic thump-thumping. Boris rolled his eyes and walked to the kitchen for a swig of vodka with an look of disgust. Everyone was too drunk to notice or care, and everything was spinning. I felt as if I had stepped into one of Dante’s layers.
Arnold then appeared and caught wind of the commotion through pure intuition. He approached Boris in appeasement, which prompted me to do the same.
“Watch and learn,” said Boris gleefully, fighting back his giggles without so much as looking at us, all-the-while knowing we were there, hanging over his shoulders and watching his thumbs open up Venmo and pay Jacklyn $100 for “whatever’s broken [smiling purple devil emoji].” He cackled wickedly, shrugged his callous shrug and walked out of the party without a care in the world.
I hung around a bit longer but the scene got stale. Dusk was setting in and the music grew repetitive. Feeling queasy, I downed another beer and sat back on the couch with Jacklyn, who was icing her toe. The Waco Crew was dancing in a big circle; their jiggling spineless forms swayed in perfect synchronization, as if a marionettist had bound their bodies with invisible strings.
Back at the duplex I ran into Arnold again. We realized, almost immediately, that we needed food. We went south on the boardwalk a few blocks and then turned left onto a commercial street with touristy beach shops and cheesy beach-themed restaurants. Giant Dipper, the creaky old wooden roller coaster, loomed across the street. Its white wooden lattices glowed incandescently, behind the tall street lamps. Gleeful passengers shrieked as the structure’s ghostly frame shuddered ominously. We stopped at a Mexican place for burritos and sat outside, scarfing down our meals in silence.
“Holy shit, man,” said Arnold about halfway through, “this is even better than Chipotle.”
On our way back to the duplex, we bumped into Ojas and a few other lunatics. They looked as hungry as Arnold and I had been. Ojas wore a hangdog expression.
“Dudes, you won’t fucking believe it. Remember Amir, the friend I was telling you about? The one who got arrested? It turns out that fucker was lying. Fucking lying! He’s just been partying a few houses down this entire fucking time!”
Everyone laughed and we went our respective ways. The duplex was heating up again. A crowd was yelling and drinking on the porch; smokers were on the second-floor balcony; God knows what was happening up in the Drug Den. We bumped into some old pals from Freshman year and did a round of shots in our nostalgic joy. Arnold disappeared and I bumped into Eddy, who offered me a cigarette.
I should’ve been content with a cigarette but I knew how Eddy treated this sort of occasion, so I gestured to my nose and mouthed: “You got any?”
He was generous with his pals, so he took me to a bedroom and told me to wait while he peed. It grew immensely quiet in that little room with lonely old me waiting to get high like the shriveled-up leech I was. The noise from downstairs was muffled: a gentle, almost imperceptible thump-thumping.
After an eternity of scatter-brained musings and pacing to and fro, Eddy returned and removed from his shirt pocket a miniature square Ziploc bag. He emptied its contents onto a tiny wooden table, whose practical purpose I couldn’t fathom. It was such a little table, and with such a lovely glass surface. It seemed designed for the express purpose of sniffing drugs, which strangely reassured me. I gave him my student ID for him to divvy up the powder.
“You got a dollar?”
I gave him the only dollar in my wallet. He rolled it into a little cylindrical tube with practiced dexterity. He crouched over, snorted up one of the lines, handed me the dollar, I bent over, and then – BOOM! OFF WE WENT! – and I left my dollar and those little white morsels scattered atop the useless table, only for Eddy to lick the inside of his right index finger and suction up the little drug grains and suck them off his finger like some kind of savage. We excitedly grabbed more beer and went on the second-floor balcony to smoke our cigarettes and discuss philosophy and truth and God and the great chasms between human beings and how weird it was that we all had ended up in this duplex, right here and now, after lives had been lived all across the globe, and how everyone was animated by their own dreams and fears and experiences and wisdom.
It struck me that Eddy was a practical man who would make a career for himself in academia, but at his essence he was someone who lived for knowledge and respected the pedagogical process, it was simple as that and people loved him for it. We watched our classmates mill in circles on the porch below, perched atop our balcony like kings, sitting in these classic old rocking chairs just rocking back and forth like a pair of restless pioneers plotting our next train robbery. The night was fascinating. Everything felt alive with its own pulsating purpose and set of reasons for existing. Like Arnold! Sweet Arnold, the dawdler of all dawdlers!
We smoked cigarette after cigarette, rocking back and forth in our rocking chairs, merrily chatting about everything under the sun – or should I say MOON, for the glowing silver glob was suspended in the black abyss with perfect circularity and unquestionable serenity.
“Theez is unfathomable!” cried Eddy. “How can it be such a perfect circle! It must be God, it must!”
I wanted to stay there forever, but I felt myself emerging from the fog, so I bid adieu to Ojas and stumbled to my room. I donned PJs, declined to brush my teeth, and thanked God for a place to rest my pounding head. I plugged in my phone and was ready to pass out, but the door opened and lo and behold, Nellie was materializing in the dimness. She asked for a place to sleep; Arnold, Justin and Boris were still out partying. I couldn’t say no, not with the tumult of the duplex – not with her lilting voice and glowing auburn hair. She had even brought a pillow, blanket, and little stuffed bear.
“Bear?” I asked stupidly, rather starstruck by her unexpected presence.
“This is Pierre, my best friend since childhood,” she said proudly, clutching the stuffed creature to her chest.
I told her she could sleep in the other bed. The idea of inviting her into my bed felt blasphemous. Anyways, I figured Boris might drink all night and pass out on the floor somewhere.
Nellie crawled into bed, and all of a sudden the situation felt strange, with just the two of us in that drab room staring at the ceiling in silence from our individual beds. We made a little small talk and at some point I asked, “So how are you?” because we had known each another forever and before long we’d all be going separate ways.
To my surprise, she burst into convulsive, bed-shaking sobs. Her dog had died. I was full of pity for the girl in the bed next to me. She sobbed and clutched her little stuffed bear. I offered sweet words and she chippered up a little. Yes, death was inevitable. There was no escaping it. It would always come quickly, always unexpectedly. I thought of my own dog, and of my parents. Nellie’s pain was everyone’s pain. It was the universal pain that loomed around corners, waiting to clomp you on the ear when its time came.