This story was a tough one for me to write, for a couple reasons. The first is that, as you might have noticed from the title, it’s one of the central stories to my upcoming collection, Golden Days, Silver Nights. There was a bit more pressure than usual for me to get this one to fit together. The second reason was that I struggled with the theme of it, waffling between a straight nostalgia theme and a more personal one. Thanks to the advice of a man in my hometown, I went with the latter, even though I felt out of my comfort zone trying to write it. It is at his request that I post this story here.
Days like that were hard to come by. The September air was warm, but held just a hint of autumn’s crispness as it breezed through the multi-hued leaves on trees lining the street. Clouds dominated the sky, but enough sun broke through to illuminate the burnished reds and golds fluttering above.
Mark Yoren could not hold back a smile as he walked down the main road through campus. The weather was perfect, he thought, and did little except remind him of good times, both past and present. The future was all that troubled him, that day.
His senior year was upon him, the first test of the semester was looming, monstrous, scheduled for the next Monday. He and Andrew walked, side by side, and were silent despite the beneficent glow seeping through the husky greys and blooming whites of the cloud cover.
They were thinking about the same thing, Mark knew. Some of the best times they’d had since becoming friends happened on fall days like that. Days back in high school, five and six years ago, sneaking beers into their parents’ basements and drinking, or coming up with the most immature games they could think of. He missed the superficiality of it all.
Even here on campus, that shallowness was present. He glanced regretfully at a group of six freshmen chatting about finding a party that night. Mark remembered those first weeks of college, prowling up and down the streets of neighborhoods nearby with friends, searching for a house party they could get into. Those were the days, he thought. The only thing that mattered every weekend was finding a place to get drunk.
Now, of course, he had bigger matters to attend to. He was already in the throes of stress, concerned with papers and tests and finances and personal issues, and most of all finding a job.
It was Friday, though, as he reminded himself. He didn’t have to worry about all that, today. He and Andrew were done with classes for the day, and neither of them had any other demands for the rest of the afternoon. They were content with walking through campus, enjoying the weather, and privately reflecting on the beauty of it.
Unbidden, a song rose into Mark’s thoughts. Lyrics played through his head, and he remembered sitting in the front seat of his car one spring day in high school. He and Andrew had been listening to music, talking about the finer points of life (alcohol, romantic interests, and music), and packing pouches of chew.
Mark shook his head and laughed at himself. “Hey, Andrew. Remember when we used to chew?”
Andrew looked away from the nearby athletic fields and the games of soccer going on there, instead diverting his attention to Mark. “Back in high school? Man, what was that, junior year?” He laughed and rolled his eyes. “We were stupid back then, weren’t we.”
Mark nodded in agreement even though Andrew’s tone made it clear that that last wasn’t a question. “It did feel good though, just sitting there and talking with a solid buzz going. Not a care in the world.”
Andrew was silent for a time before turning and meeting Mark’s eyes. “You know what? It’s Friday. Let’s do that again. Let’s grab coffee and a can and a bottle, and just hang out. It’s been too damn long since I’ve done that, and I want nothing less than to ignore the paper due next week.”
He looked back into Andrew’s brown eyes, sparkling with newfound excitement and the reflection of sunrays from above. “Let’s do it.”
They turned around and walked back to Andrew’s car at a much faster pace. The group of freshmen glanced up at them as they passed, hopeful looks on their faces as if they thought a couple seniors were about to invite them to some Friday night frat kegger. Mark laughed to himself at the thought.
The weight of his backpack seemed less, now that they had decided to be carefree for the night. Mark busied himself with casting his worries into the back of his mind and concentrated on old memories from high school and early in college. They were good, each and every one.
It took them only a few minutes to make it back to Andrew’s car, and while they tossed their backpacks into the back seat, Andrew flashed a grin over at Mark and said, “You’ll like the music selection I’ve got in mind for the drive over to the coffee shop.”
Mark did like the selection, as he discovered when Andrew started his little blue compact. It was the very song he’d had stuck in his head earlier: a catchy tune called “The Willing.” He thought it was appropriate, since he and Andrew were so willing this evening to be irresponsible.
They sang along, enjoying themselves to a ridiculous extent, while Andrew drove to the nearest gas station.
“What are you thinking, mint?” Andrew asked as they climbed out of the car.
“Nah,” Mark replied. “Let’s go with citrus. That was the stuff we always got back in the day.”
They got citrus. Andrew tossed down a five and Mark handed him a couple ones to cover his portion. Walking back out to the car, Mark practiced snapping his hand in the now-unfamiliar motion to pack the can of tobacco. It felt odd, but strangely exciting at the same time. He felt a sense of freedom and—though he didn’t consciously admit it to himself—immaturity as he delved into his old high school persona.
It was only a short drive to the nearest coffee shop, and they settled into the front seats of Andrew’s car with blended drinks in hand, old music blasting from his speakers, and the prospect of a good buzz sitting between them in the form of pouches of chewing tobacco.
With punk rock washing over them, Mark reclined his seat, leaned his head back, and said, “This is just what we needed, huh?”
Andrew nodded, reaching for the can of pouches. His coffee cup sat between his legs, empty, waiting for use as a spitter. “Hell yeah, man. I’d rather not be thinking about papers or job hunting or any of that crap tonight—or this weekend at all, if I can get away with it.”
Mark laughed. “Cheers to that.” He downed the rest of his coffee and packed two pouches of tobacco under his bottom lip. The tingling bit into his gums and lip, and he felt a shiver run down his back as juice from the pouch mingled with the spit in his mouth. Fresh citrus poured onto his tongue, and after a moment he spit into the waiting plastic cup in his hand.
“This is the stuff,” Andrew murmured, closing his eyes. “You know, I’ve always thought that these things tasted like Sprite Remix. Remember that old soda?”
“Yeah, absolutely! I loved that stuff,” Mark replied, thinking back and trying to compare the flavor in his mouth to the memory of the soda. It was hard to do, especially with the relaxation spreading through his shoulders and arms. He felt a slight tightening around his head, and luxuriated in the oncoming buzz.
“So you got anything going with any girls lately?”
Mark was unsurprised that the conversation was turning in this direction; their talks back in high school invariably revolved around interests and prospects after a time. However, he didn’t have much to add to the conversation that particular evening. It raised issues that—like the upcoming paper and job search—he didn’t really want to think about that night. “Nah, not really.”
“Bummer, dude.” Andrew looked over at him and shrugged. “Though in a way I think you’re lucky. It’s been killer with Liz recently. Things have gotten kinda rocky.”
“Yeah. I mean I totally still like her and everything, but I think it’s starting to bug her that I won’t commit to being exclusive.”
Mark laughed, feeling a little sarcastic under the influence of the now fully-fledged buzz. He spit again before speaking. “Yeah, you’ve got the problem of having too many girls interested in you. Boo hoo.”
“Yeah, yeah, I shouldn’t complain. I know. I just feel bad about Liz, since we’ve been seeing each other for a while.”
Mark felt a little pang at those words, as he’d not had any sort of long-term relationship since high school. “Hey, we shouldn’t be talking about stuff that worries us, remember? It’s all about kicking back tonight. How about…” he paused. “Okay, remember junior year Homecoming, when both of our dates disappeared on us?”
Andrew smiled at the memory, easily dropping his previous train of thought. “Yup. That was so funny, the two of us just chilling all night in our suits while Nikki and Ashton flounced off to wherever.” He stopped to spit, as his words were getting thick toward the end of his sentence.
In the brief silence, Mark interjected. “I think they left for that big football party. I’m pretty sure everyone but us ended up there that night.”
Andrew snorted in amusement. “The one that got busted, and like two hundred people got MIC’s? I’m so glad we never partied in high school. Those kids were all idiots.”
“Seriously.” Mark spit again, and they just relaxed for a time, listening to the music. “This hits the spot.”
“Wanna get a bottle soon?” Andrew nodded toward the windshield and the sun setting to the west. “We could head back to my place and get an early start.”
“Seems like the thing to do, yeah.”
Andrew removed the pouches of chew from his mouth, and Mark did the same. His buzz was starting to fade, and he’d been considering taking them out anyway.
“What kind of booze do you want to get?” he asked.
Andrew glanced over at him while turning the keys in the ignition. The music cut out for a second while the engine started and then blared back in. “Well, we always drank vodka whenever we got stuff in high school. I think we should stick with the tradition.”
“Good call. Let’s get some 100 proof stuff. I think my alcohol tolerance is up a little bit from high school.” Mark considered for a moment, then laughed. “Like, a lot up.”
“Since high school? I think you mean since you turned twenty-one over the summer.”
Mark laughed again. “Good point.”
They bantered about experiences at the bars in recent months while Andrew drove to the liquor store near his apartment. Mark regaled him with the latest tale of going to the bars with their friend Josh, and his unsuccessful attempt to get a phone number—appropriately modified, as some of the information essential to the story didn’t need to be discussed. But again, Mark reminded himself, he didn’t want to think about that.
After a brief but frustrating foray of the crowded parking lot, they made their way into the store and perused the selection, finally settling on a bottle. Andrew was still grumbling about how packed the place was.
“Come on, it is a Friday in a college town,” Mark said, trying to be reasonable. “Just cuz that clown out there hijacked that spot doesn’t mean they’re all a bunch of assholes.”
Andrew muttered a few profanities about the other driver and the citizens of the town in general. Mark couldn’t help but chuckle a little bit, but still patted him on the back and suggested he calm down a little bit. After all, they never got stressed like that in high school.
Still muttering, but doing it in an undertone and no longer spiced with obscenities, Andrew got in line at the register and fished out his ID and money for the vodka. He finally trailed off and was silent, but did not remain so for long. “Should we invite Josh? I bet he’d tell that bar story great.”
“No,” Mark said without hesitation. “I mean, I think he said that he’s got a date this evening, so I don’t want to bug him.”
Andrew gave him a sharp look at his immediate negative, but seemed to accept his subsequent lie and was mollified. “Oh, yeah, you’re probably right. It’ll just be the two of us and some screwdrivers tonight, I guess.” He hefted the bottle of vodka before moving forward in line and paying for it.
“You’ve got orange juice at your place, right?” Mark asked. “Cuz otherwise we’ll need to swing by the market and get some. I’m not doing shots of straight 100 proof.”
Andrew laughed. “We’re good, don’t worry. I won’t make you take off that dress you’re wearing, Alice.”
Mark forced a chuckle, but felt a little uncomfortable with how easily Andrew made a comparison between him and a theoretical woman. He was mostly quiet while they drove back to Andrew’s apartment, trying to just enjoy the music and put all of his worries in the back of his mind. Sinking into nostalgia was proving to be a bit harder than he’d anticipated.
“Drive faster,” he said. “I want to start drinking.”
Andrew looked at him out of the corner of his eye and sped up. “No complaints here, buddy. Why the sudden urge to start early?”
Mark was silent for a moment before answering, mulling the thoughts in his mind. He couldn’t say outright what he wanted to say, though. “Stuff on my mind that I don’t want to think about,” he said instead.
Andrew grunted as he turned onto his street. “I hear ya. I’m in the same boat.”
Mark didn’t respond out loud. No, you’re not, he thought. He remained silent until Andrew parked on the curb in front of the little two bedroom house that he currently had to himself.
“Come on, let’s get drinking,” Mark said, and grabbed the handle of vodka from the floor between his legs. He led the way up to Andrew’s door, but had to wait while his friend found the right key and unlocked the deadbolt.
It was not long before he found himself with a plastic cup in hand and a potent mixture of vodka and orange juice settling therein. He took a long swig, and it tasted like memories and goodness and barely disguised alcohol.
“That’s more fucking like it,” he said almost thirty minutes after Andrew opened the door to his house. “Rings the best kind of bell.”
“Damn right it does,” Andrew responded, tossing back the last bit of his third cup. “I haven’t tanked up like this in way too long.”
“Since high school.”
They were silent for a bit, letting the alcohol generate a pleasant buzzing in their heads, and Mark felt his own thoughts mirroring the effects of his drink. Memories of parties and girls and crazy stunts they pulled six years earlier were piling up, blissfully burying the problems he’d been consumed with only an hour before.
They amused themselves by talking about their senior keg party, the weekend after graduating high school; Mark was having a great time until he remembered that that party was when he changed his mind about everything.
Suddenly frustrated, Mark knocked over his empty glass and stormed to the bathroom. He was much more drunk than he’d thought.
“Whoa. Dude, you all right?” Andrew called from behind him, just as he slammed to door shut and locked himself in the bathroom. “Mark? Hey, I’m just gonna get us refills.”
Mark leaned over the counter with his face in his hands and didn’t respond. He thought vaguely that another drink would be a bad idea, but it didn’t penetrate the shell of bitterness suddenly around him. He turned the faucet on and splashed water on his face, reveling in the cold, sharp spray of reality. He filled up a Dixie cup with the crisp water and drank. After the bite of vodka-infused drinks, the water was refreshingly straightforward, sliding down his throat with no hesitation. If only he knew what it was really like, having no hesitation in his life.
He settled himself down with a few more cups of water, and emerged from the bathroom ready for another attempt at nostalgia—or, barring that, at least another drink. A grinning and obviously hammered Andrew was waiting for him with two cups of alcohol in his hands.
“Here, this will be better,” Andrew said. “I spiked them a little more this round.”
Judging by the powerful smell, Mark thought that he certainly wasn’t kidding. “The stuff I fill my car up with doesn’t smell this strong,” he responded, deadpan.
Andrew laughed and took a hearty swig of his drink. “Dude, I’m gonna be a wreck tomorrow morning.” He laughed even harder, as if being blindingly hung over was going to be a good thing. It was just like the old times, years ago, when they had no idea how bad a hangover could get.
Mark just shook his head and took a more moderated sip of his own drink. He coughed and spluttered a bit at the strength of it.
“Be careful there, Alice,” Andrew said, teasing. “Don’t want to drink something that’s too strong for you, right?”
This second time that he called Mark “Alice” was the final straw. Mark stormed out of the room, chugging down the entire glass of alcohol; he wanted to forget it all, he wanted to forget Mark calling him “Alice,” he wanted to forget having the stupid idea of trying to bury himself in the past, and he wanted to forget his own inescapable reality. Most of all, he wanted to forget how he really felt about Andrew.
And he knew that sooner or later, he would need to finally confront that.