Everything was soon out of control. The dregs and miscreants of Southern California were infiltrating our house. Mitch stood atop a chair on the porch, scouting out potential customers on the boardwalk, directing them to the Drug Den. Mandy, meanwhile, was selling their inventory upstairs. I was impressed by their business model, all-the-while praying for my possessions, which were tucked in the closet of our unlocked bedroom. I then spotted Arnold at the other end of the room and waved at him, standing on my tip-toes to see over the swarm of strangers.
“Johnny! Come here!” his lips seemed to cry.
I was desperate to reunite with my pal, but the living room was too crowded to move through. The countertops were strewn with crushed cans, cracked red cups and broken bottles. The floor was slippery beneath a mélange of spilled drinks and accumulated dirt. I could scarcely breathe through the miasma of stale alcohol, fresh sweat and smoke. I couldn’t hear myself think through the numbing cacophony of humans shouting at the top of their lungs, sanctioned, it seemed, by the stereo’s relentless thump-thump. I squeezed my way into the stairwell to look for other friends in the Drug Den. Strangers with vacant faces stumbled down as I trudged my way up. I reminded myself of a foolhardy warrior, plunging into the thick of the battle for the sake of valor, and sure enough, the Drug Den was deathly in its apocalyptic energy. Mandy resembled an overworked street peddler, caught off-guard by rush hour. Sordid figures – the leachiest of leeches – lurked amidst the throng, frothing and seething like voracious wildebeests. Nostrils quivered impatiently, tongues licked lips eagerly, fingers jittered maniacally. The room’s personal speaker blasted dissonant, hypnotic electronic music. Zane Zinser sat cross-legged in his corner, wide-eyed and motionless, exuding serenity.
I clambered onto the roof-deck and found Boris smoking a cigarette, pontificating to a few leeches. When he saw me, he stood up rapidly and donned a wine grin.
“Broooooo! Get the fuck over here!” he screamed.
“I’m going to Sandbar, come with!” I yelled back.
“Fuck that man, the ocean’s gonna be FREEZING right now – ohh I see now, you’re joking aren’t ya? Ha! Isn’t that funny, boys?” He punched the leeches on their shoulders with ostensible playfulness, goading them to laugh along. “Now c’mon, Johnny,” he pressed on, “Why don’t you get the fuck over here and snort some Adderall with your boys?”
I didn’t recognize his leeches, but was well-acquainted with Adderall. He held out an orange medicine bottle and rattled it like a maraca, shooting me a daring grin with raised eyebrows: the universal face of peer pressure, and sure enough I felt myself gravitating towards him to crush up the little blue pills and roll up a dollar bill and huff it all up while waiting for the stereo’s thump-thump to become the thump-thump of my heart, at which point the world transforms into a place where humans are very special, with intricate personalities and rich histories that deserve attention and respect – and so, I almost obeyed, but then I sensed the somnambulant trance into which I would fall, not to mention the pressing imperative to get the hell out of that madhouse, if only to find myself another.
“Nah man, I’m good. Everyone’s at Sandbar – it’s a bar-bar,” I tried to clarify. “Now get your ass up, let’s go!”
Still standing, Boris compressed his mouth into a mordant, trembling smirk; cocked his head sideways and pointed at me vigorously; activity on the roof stood still; all attention pivoted to the authoritarian gestures of the gangly man with green-gray slits for eyes.
“I’ll meet you there, homie,” he finally said, effortlessly casual and devastatingly anticlimactic after his elongated, fear-inducing pause, that of a true showman. The leeches snickered nervously. I waved goodbye and nudged my way back through the Drug Den.
“Holy fucking shit man,” Sammy was bellowing on my way out. “I mean holy fucking shit! This molly is the sweetest drug. The sweetest drug of all fucking time,” I heard while gliding downstairs and resolving to walk to Sandbar alone, but I bumped into Arnold on the porch.
“Johnny! My man! Vodka, bro! Vodka!” he exclaimed gleefully. His red hair was drenched in sweat, and he offered me a bottle of Svedka, which I guzzled from until my throat burned. I tried to convince Arnold to hit Sandbar with me, but he refused to leave the porch. He was intent on sharing his Svedka with anyone and everyone, citing his desire to be “a good host,” so I went onto the boardwalk and found Sandbar myself. The bouncer glanced at my ID and I stepped into a tall-ceilinged, dimly lit room, whose thump-thumping music and neon green lights were hypnotizing in effect. My classmates were scattered about, intermingling with their fellow hedonists. Grace appeared out of nowhere. She gave me a hug and looked at me expectantly.
“What’s up?” I said.
“Let’s get drinks,” she helpfully suggested. I was up for anything. She took my hand and led me through the crowd. It was a familiar routine. Whenever we reunited at a party, she took my hand and led me through the crowd, as if taking me to a special destination, but there was never anywhere to go. She simply liked to hold hands and lead people through crowds. She did it with men and women alike. It was a gesture grounded in practicality, not romanticism, but I also sensed that utility and tenderness were interwoven in her mind – a condition that I was not subject to, for as we approached the throngs of hopeful customers at the bar, I pushed and shoved and negotiated some space for us against the countertop. Carl was on our right, whispering sweet nothings into the ear of a sweet little thing who I’d never seen before. He gave me a wink and started kissing the girl’s neck. I waved at the bartenders frantically, hoping to get their attention. It was impossible; everyone wanted drinks. The poor bartenders were running back and forth at a million miles an hour, pouring shots and printing receipts and attempting to keep their customers pacified. People like me watched their every move; when they finished with one customer, the rest of us would scream and wave to get their attention. We were all desperate for overpriced poison.
Nellie and Shelly soon appeared, drunk as everyone else.
“Johnny! Could you order us drinks too?” They screamed over the music.
“Definitely!” I furrowed my brows and put on a manly expression. I felt very cool with these three beautiful women. When I got a bartender’s attention, I screamed at him: “Four Vodka-Sprites,” while foisting four fingers in his face. The young Hispanic man scurried away and I looked at the girls happily, seeing myself as a Mormon patriarch providing for his wives. Nellie was gesticulating wildly, recounting some tale when a classmate of ours, Brianna, materialized. Brianna had never been so fucked up. One by one, she gave Nellie, Shelly, and Grace big hugs and kisses on their cheeks, grabbing their shoulders and looking at them with teary affection. She then grabbed me around the waist and whispered scandalous words in my ear. I felt even cooler than a few moments beforehand. The Vodka-Sprites arrived and I handed them out. Brianna grabbed my straw and slurped up my entire drink in one big sip. She then grabbed my face and planted a slobbery kiss on my lips before walking away, leaving bright red lipstick all over my mouth.
Meanwhile, the folks behind us – eager for their overpriced poison – were breathing down our necks, yelling at us to move on. The problem was that my credit card was still with my server. The receipt-printing machine wasn’t working. I watched my bartender swipe my card, again and again. My addled, racist, right-wing paranoia was informing me that this Hispanic man was draining my bank account with each swipe.
“What the fuck is going on,” I roared, slamming down my fists on the countertop, barbaric and wrathful. The man looked at me – skittish, fearful, apologetic – and explained the situation. Everyone at the bar was staring at me, disturbed by my belligerence. The girls scrambled away. I watched them go, sad to be alone, but soon escaped onto the outdoor patio for a cigarette and some fresh air. The little space was brimming with smokers and sleek wooden tables. Like inside, it burst with movement, pounded with electronic music; sweaty claustrophobia was replaced by an invasive cloud of secondhand smoke. I sat down at a table occupied by a group of Indians, including Ojas. They had all attended fancy British secondary schools and ended up in California on a whim.
“John-nee-mother-fucking-boy!” slurred Ojas, jumping from his seat for a hug, nearly toppling the table over with his knees. “Sit your ass down you crazy-monkey-alcohol-fiend-mother-fucker, come come come! I was just telling the lads about Amir – remember that story, the lying mother fucker Coachella guy who said he’d gone to jail? Un-fucking-real, so I’m plotting my vengeance as we speak with the gadgets and cogs and circuitry spinning at top gear plotting and scheming as to how to get that mother fucker back so good he won’t be able to walk the next day if you know what I mean, ey? Ey?? Ha! Hahaha!” He prattled so quickly, with spit flying from his mouth. The conversation then turned to European soccer. I was too drunk to take anything seriously, so I guffawed and pounded on the table, screeching inanities like an angry Russian.
“What the fuck is Mission Beach, man! What the fuck is this shit! Can you believe we’re fucking graduates!”
“Yes Johnny-boy! Feel that mother fucking rage you crazy monkey fiend! Take this beer and pound your anger down you wild mother fucker!”
When everyone got up to leave, Ojas lagged behind and scooted his chair close to mine.
“What’s up, bro?”
Ojas glanced around warily; nobody was paying us any attention. He took out a familiar-looking plastic baggie and held it beneath the table on his lap, then whispered in my ear.
“You want a little bump, brother?”
I fixated on the white powder in the plastic baggie on Ojas’ lap beneath the patio table of Sandbar in Mission Beach, San Diego – gateway to the everlasting Pacific, home of Giant Dipper and gnarled men with snakes for pets, the chosen destination for graduating seniors at my liberal arts college, and here was Ojas – fucked up as hell with an expression of frantic nervousness; a guy from Mumbai putting himself at risk for felony charges, extradition, the revocation of his newly minted college degree, just so he could offer his buddy a bump of coke.
Coke coke coke! Gimme all that fucking coke, Ojas, and not just a bump but the whole fucking bag, and when that’s gone I’ll storm the Drug Den, murder Mitch and Mandy and steal all their coke, all the damn coke in the world – ohhh yes! Yes yes yes! – I’ll snort it on the beach and swim out to sea until the world finally feels alive.
I nodded. He dipped a silver key – his room key, incidentally – into the plastic baggie, scooping out a small mound of white powder, which came to rest on the key’s flat edge; I lowered my head, pressed down my right nostril, inhaled through my left, and I was off to the races. Ojas bid me adieu with a beaming face, displaying the satisfaction of a man who’s done his friend a favor. I then smoked a cigarette in two minutes flat before running back inside and ordering a round of tequila shots for everyone at the bar before throwing myself into the tumult of the dance floor where I stomped my feet, oozed sweat, and kissed Brianna for what felt like two hours but must’ve only been ten minutes. When she left I returned outside to my patio table to smoke another cigarette where Eddy and Carl sat down with me. I asked Carl if he’d just finished boning the shit out of that sweet little thing.
“No sir, just gave her some smooches g’night. Don’t need me any unexpected problems ‘fore graduation,” he said in his hillbilly Bill Clinton cadence which struck me in the moment as disingenuous, like he was putting on a simpleton ruse to ingratiate himself with men and women alike in his own perverted power quest, so I told him that THIS wasn’t fucking Louisiana – not no more, boy – THIS was Southern mother-fucking California, and out here you don’t give smooches g’night, you bone bone bone – and then you bone some more – and I pounded my fists on the table guffawing because I was half kidding – right? – and Carl chuckled at my behest but Eddy, that French piece of shit, he was staring at me with a stone-cold countenance that reeked of judgment and I wanted to smack the Goddamn shit out of him for being so composed and sober and steady instead of up in the world’s face, instead of being as pissed off as me, so I asked what was up his French ass.
“Well, John-nee,” he said slowly, “In truth, thees is all a bit much for me. Thee drugs, thee blackout drinking, thee… thee mindlessness… it has been fun, but I am tired now, simply tired,” he said softly while looking at the table to avert my accusatory gaze because he was consciously speaking with a self-assured tone that sure as hell sounded like arrogance to me so I grew infuriated and told him that if he’s having such a shitty time then he can get the fuck out of our country and go eat baguettes and fuck dudes back in France, which I suppose explains why he and Carl stood up and left, which made me sad because I was about to offer them cigarettes so we could have some good conversation while puffing on tobacco like we had done the day before, but instead I was alone and inhaled another solo cigarette in two minutes flat, and in this manner I persisted as friends, acquaintances and randos sat down at my patio table to shoot the shit and get more fucked up while I stayed put, motionless, hunched over in my chair, rambling to anyone who pretended to listen. I didn’t care who sat down with me, as long as I didn’t have to move. They kept bringing me drinks. I drank them all. I was a great thinker sought out by soul-seekers on their pilgrimages. I was a miserly old man addicted to alcohol and tobacco. I was a twenty-two-year-old at a bar in Mission Beach, San Diego. Everything was crazy and I didn’t care, as long as I could sit, as long as I could stay in that chair, as long as things were steady. I was happy to finish the woe-begotten remnants of stale beers and watered-down mixed-drinks, left by my effervescent companions. At 2 o’clock in the morning, my eye-lids were collapsing in on themselves. I was about to fall asleep, slumped over on the table with a group of Chinese kids from UC Santa Barbra when the bouncers kicked everyone out. I found my way to the duplex where the party continued unabated, but I was too exhausted and sad to continue, so I found my way to our room and crashed into bed without touching the covers. My world was spinning; everything was topsy-turvy. The last thing I recall was a pair of leeches stumbling into the room.
“What the hell do you want,” I yelled.
“Can we do coke in your room?”
I was finished with the party but the party was not finished with me. What would I do tomorrow? What would I do in a year? Where the hell was Grace?