When I’m ready, I reach for the door.
The little brass knob is slick with wear. Branches of static shoot through my freezing fingertips as I fumble with it. I probably overreact, retracting my hand and hissing something my mother would have me go grab the soap over. Then, after cracking my neck (a nervous habit, I’m afraid), I try the knob again. This time, when I hear the tumblers click, I pull hard. The door at Cheerio’s has always been shy: in the summer, when the wood expands against the frame, it may as well be an ordinary stretch of the faded brick it’s set in.
As I cross the threshold, a warm wave of familiar sounds and smells washes over me. Spilt beer and discarded, tread-upon peanut shells abound. The din of conversation drowns out whatever classic rock anthem is leaking out of the jukebox. Laughter threads its way through the air, bouncing from group to group, never overstaying its welcome. There’s too much cologne, and not enough deodorant. I catch myself smiling like an idiot.
The woman in the oval-shaped bar at the center of the room sees me, winks, and rings a silver cowbell.
“NOOOORM!” I feel. Not hear, but feel, because half the bar is shouting at me like a well-trained platoon. The whole Cheers motif is a little corny, sure, but I figure the owner’s doing something right, because I’ve never seen this place below maximum capacity.
As the attention drifts away from me, I hear another shout, this one unaccompanied. “Dash!”
I turn toward the voice and find a tall, gangly thing I instantly know to be Tyler Blitsauer. “Blitz…” I say slowly, as if stunned. I look over his shoulder and see the third piece of our little trio, Kraft. “What the hell are you guys doing here?”
It’s true, I didn’t expect to find them here. But I did hope.
“How long has it been, man?” Blitz asks me. He surely remembers, but I guess it’s just one of those questions you ask. To me, small talk always feels like an exchange of tiny apologies.
“Almost two years,” I say, remembering flashes of a particularly debaucherous New Year’s Eve. “Damn.”
“Come sit,” he says, grabbing me by the shoulder and practically shoving me onto a stool next to Kraft. While my fingers thaw, the three of us trade some more tiny apologies. Most of it sounds scripted. I don’t learn much new, except that Kraft is planning to propose to his girlfriend by Christmas. It may even happen as early as tomorrow, he says, depending on the vibe at the Thanksgiving table (which will of course itself depend heavily on the performance of the Detroit Lions).
“Where’s the unlucky girl?” I ask him.
Kraft shrugs. “Around. Probably listening to her girlfriends talk trash about me, if we’re being honest. Oh, care to guess what Ash’s roommate told her the other day? Never mind, don’t guess, you’re not funny. She said that I have the eyes of a doll recovered from Chernobyl, and that I walk like a 19th-century lady-shanker.”
“Well…” Blitz mumbles.
“Well what?” Kraft asks, face statuesque.
“You have a lot of great qualities, bro.”
“You-have-a-lot-of-great-qualities,” Kraft mocks. “I know I do. Know how I can tell? I’m the only one that’s gonna get any tonight.”
“Speaking of,” Blitz says, turning to the bartender, “three of whatever I usually can’t afford. My friend here,” he continues, gesturing to me, “is both very rich and direly thirsty.”
I don’t have the heart to tell him I was already pretty drunk when I arrived.
Instead I exaggerate a sigh, shrug, and say “Giddyup.”
Some time has passed. Now that Kraft has downed a couple of negronis and Blitz has stopped giggling at Kraft saying the word negroni, I can finally feel myself relaxing. It’s strange: my friends from high school are real to me again. For so long now all I’ve had of them are fond memories and sporadic text chains. It seems to me the most one can make of that stuff is a hollow impression, something that crosses your mind every now and then to remind you how lonely you are. But hey, here I am, catching the twinkle in Blitz’ eye (and seeing the stifled rage behind Kraft’s). I am at home, for now.
Stories about the old days bring smiles to all of our faces. Well, most of them: some cause us to bury our heads in our hands and groan, like Blitz’ locker room tragedy, or Kraft’s promposal. It occurs to me during a piss break that our teenage selves would probably laugh at us the way we’re laughing at them.
Kraft used to be so reckless, and now he’s a legitimate accountant with an almost-wife. Blitz was in a relationship with the same girl from seventh grade through graduation, and now he’s single and can’t get a girl to save his life (partly because he’s out of practice, but mostly because he’s gay now). As for me, I never got past the phase where I’m desperate for prestige and intellectual validation, and so I rarely go on a first date that doesn’t involve me saying the words Yeah, I’m not really sure what management consulting is either, but I’ve got a nice apartment in the city and the pay isn’t half bad, so. I could puke just thinking of it, but I don’t want to ruin my fleece.
Three sheets to the wind, drunk. Kraft is struggling to control the volume of his voice. Blitz is listening intently to everything Kraft is saying and repeating it into my ear at a whisper. As for me, well, you know, I’m twice as drunk as they think I am, so I’m mostly focused on staying in my body.
I’m trying to decide whether my pants are wet or just hot when Kraft’s girl, Ash, suddenly appears. She sways ever so slightly, tucks her brown hair behind her (rather large) ear, and appears to tell Kraft a secret.
“Oh shit,” he says, grinning.
“Oh behave…” Blitz sings.
I kiss my teeth. “About that time, eh?”
“I have good news and bad news,” says Kraft.
“What’s the bad news?” I ask.
“The good news,” he says, “is that we’re having fun. The bad news is that our designated driver couldn’t even say the alphabet forwards right now.”
“Whoopsie,” Ash says, punctuating the remark with a hiccup. “Y’all should probably come crash at ours. I insziszt.”
Three sheets to the wind, adrift. As adults we’re like sails roped tight to the mast. We ache for a chance to let loose, to feel the wind because deep down we know the same air won’t hit us in the same way twice. We ache, every once in a while, to get away from where we think we should be and see where the world wants us to be.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m wasted.
“What?” Ash asks me.
“Did I say all of that out loud?”
“Yeah. The sheets on the bed.”
It is late fall in a small Midwestern town. There’s really no better way to say it. It is also technically Thanksgiving, if you’re the type of person to make a stale witching-hour remark about it already being the next day. Well-fed people in well-insulated houses on wide roads allow themselves to stay up a little later in anticipation of their nap tomorrow afternoon. The town bursts with life, and yet when our little band veers off of Main Street, we are met with silence.
I ought to be cold. I thought I was going to get frostbite on my way to the bar, and it’s colder now than it was then. But at the moment, it’s hard to feel anything but awe.
The stars above don’t shine. They burn. Silvery wisps of cloud tear their way across our view of eternity. The old road rises to meet our heavy feet. We are where we were born, where some of us will die, and where all of us wish to die. This corner of the world is small and unknown to many, but to us, it is forever. Everything that lies beyond its reach is ephemeral.
I wonder if Kraft and Blitz see what I see. I hope they feel what I feel. I think a night like this makes it hard to miss, but I also think we are young, and drunk, and—.
“We’re here!” Ash shouts.
So we are. A small house stands before us, ordinary as all get out, but a home if I ever saw one.
“Home sweet home.”
Suddenly, a small person squeezes me tight. “This is from Kraft and Blitz,” Ash says. Then she moves to Blitz, and squeezes him too. “This is from Kraft and Dash.” Then to Kraft. “This is from your best friends, honey.”
“What’s your deal?” Kraft asks her, smiling.
Ash shrugs. “I just figured you guys probably aren’t going to say you love each other or hug because it’s gay or whatever. No offense, Blitz.”
Kraft’s smile relaxes, but his eyes are wild. He looks at Ash like I’ve never seen anyone look at anyone, like she’s about to explode and he’s savoring every last second. “Alright,” he says. “Let’s head inside.”
“I’ll be in in a minute,” I say. “Gonna have a smoke. And hey, guys...”
"We know," Blitz says. "Back at you."
The three of them smile and wave at me before heading inside. When the door shuts, the silence returns.
I pull a Marlboro from my coat and a lighter from my pocket. I place the cigarette between my lips, cup the tip against the wind, click on the lighter, and wait for the first tendrils of smoke to tickle my throat. All the while, I’m hoping the tears on my cheeks won’t freeze.
One of the windows in the front of the house begins to glow with soft orange light. There are people inside, continuing to live their lives without me, just as I’m living mine. They’re real, even if I can’t see them right now. When the lights go out, that will still be true. When I turn around, that will still be true. When I’m hundreds of miles away from everything I truly care about, that will still be true.
I love these people, and I hope to have at least a few more nights like this before it’s all said and done. Yet, for all my gratitude, I can’t ignore the fact that our friendship will never be how it was when it was first happening.
So much of life is that way. You write a book by the fire and try to read it in the afterglow. You squint at the drying ink until your head starts to ache. You think if you sit long enough with the fading light you'll be able to discern a meaningful thing, and maybe you can. But by the time you begin to truly grasp what it means to you, the time to turn the page has come.
One of the windows fades to black. I can’t live in the past any more than I can unburn a cigarette. Still, I’m lying if I say that, at this moment, with the world shimmering and vibrating around me, I'm not fantasizing about calling my boss and telling him to shove it.
So what’s it going to be? I ask of the world, expecting nothing. The slight gust of wind at my back is probably a coincidence, but somehow it feels like the answer to all questions, big and small.
When I’m ready, I reach for the door.