Twenty-year-old Alec Duffy has felt the end of the world coming for some time now, but despite this, life continues on. After getting a flat tire with his distant childhood best friend Charlie one night, Charlie's struggle with substance abuse is revealed to Alec. The truths that grounded Alec's sheltered, mundane life are called into question. This destabilized new perspective leads our narrator to the crossroads we all must face at one point in our lives — is it worth it to get better, or is it easier to stay the same?
The Birthday Party
Maybe everyone is just being nice because it’s my birthday, but I didn’t think it’d be possible for us to get to this point again.
“Goodnight. Don’t forget to unplug the lights,” my dad says, closing the gate of the fence.
“Okay, I just want to lie here for a minute,” I say, flopping back on the couch.
On my back, I stare up at the wooden ceiling of our pavilion, fuzzy in the dim, golden lights. I sink into the cushions, wishing they would absorb me. The hum of crickets soundtracks this moment alone, the first moment by myself in a long while that I don’t hate. I wiggle my feet around as I lie there, waiting for something; I just don’t know what it is. Running my tongue over my teeth, I taste hints of the sweetness of that perfectly rich vanilla frosting. Callie better have saved some leftovers for me.
Bored of the ceiling, I sit up, blood rushing from my head making me only a little dizzy. The pool water is mostly still, but I observe it for micromovements, small waves and faint reflections glimmering on the surface of the blue water. A draft brings a hint of the fire’s propane tank to my nostrils, and so a soft smile forms at my lips. I consider dipping my feet in the water, but my phone’s ringing interrupts that thought. My heart races, even though I should have been expecting the call.
I answer right away.
“Hey, happy birthday,” Katherine says, a singsongy lift to her voice. “How does it feel to be twenty-one?”
I smile to myself at the sound of her voice, but I ignore her question. I don’t want to scare her away by opening up. “Hey, thanks. How was work?”
“Ugh, I don’t want to think about that place,” she says. “Are you going to a bar or something to celebrate?”
I rehearse my answer in my head. “No, I played trivia with my family and I’m going to bed early.”
She laughs this loud, vibrant laugh, the kind I don’t necessarily think I’m funny enough to earn. An invitation to go get ice cream together rests on the tip of my tongue, but I’m too scared of the possibility of rejection. I don’t want to misinterpret this friendship.
“How was your day?” I ask instead.
“Would’ve been better if I was there with you,” she sighs.
I picture her sitting on the edge of her bed that I’ve never seen, still in her work clothes, twirling her bright red hair around her finger like she seems to do when she’s nervous.
As she recounts her day to me, her sense of humor only becomes more apparent. I listen eagerly, hanging onto every word in the way that I do when I’m beginning to get to know someone and can’t get enough of what they say and what they do, a kind of devotion that I tend to abandon with time.
Thirty-something minutes into our call, rustling in the woods startles me.
“Hello?” I shout.
I shine my flashlight into the woods behind the pool shed, thankful that Katherine can’t see me now because of how I clench up in fear.
“Yeah, hi?” Katherine says, making a clicking sound with her tongue.
Her inflection sours to something judgmental, a little bit mean, and my heart skips a beat I think. I guess I like it when women are just a bit mean to me. Plus, I deserve it when it’s coming from her. I was so manipulative that morning when we first met—when she hit me with her car.
“I think there’s a coyote out here. That’s not you surprising me, right?” I ask, half-joking.
I feel my heart jump to my throat. “Can I call you back?”
I assume she says yes, and I think she wishes me a happy twenty-first birthday again, but I don’t really process her response, this weird mix of oxytocin and norepinephrine pumping through my body. I don’t even pay attention to who ends the call.
I stay still, feeling like a prey animal in the wild as I press my body against one of the pavilion’s supporting columns like it’ll make me invisible. I wish I didn’t voluntarily blast music in my ears through the years so I could focus better on the faint noise coming from the coyote. After a short moment that seems to stretch into infinity, I realize that that sound is heavy breathing from a human, and it’s not my own.
“Who’s there?” I ask, aware of how stupid I look on the outside.
I walk around with all these big self-absorbed feelings all the time, yet I don’t even know how to defend myself from the natural world. I shove the self-loathing away and focus on the person lurking in the shadows. There’s a real threat out there, and I can’t seem to wrap my head around how serious this could be.
I creep closer to the location of the panting, each step more frightening than the last. When I’m right along the edge of the fence, the rustling is sudden and fast. I jump backwards, dropping my phone flashlight.
“Jesus!” we say in unison.
We then say each other’s names like they are questions. “Charlie?” I ask.
“Alec?” he says.
There’s a boost to his inflection when he says my name, but I don’t know if I believe that he’s genuinely happy to see me. I don’t know what I believe any more.
I can’t see him without my flashlight; the sound of his voice is disembodied in my perception. As I bend over to pick it up, I briefly entertain the possibility that I’m hallucinating. I pick it up and shine it in his direction.
He winces, putting his hands up defensively. He shields his face from the light. “Chill! Please, man. You’re going to make me go blind.”
Through the chain-link fence, he looks worse than ever. His eyes are haggard in a way that’s unmistakable, but I attempt to convince myself that it’s just the lighting playing tricks on me.
“Sorry,” I say. “Sorry, I just wasn’t expecting anybody.” I run a hand over the length of my face.
I sound small, and I make myself small in my posture, too, pulling my shoulders close to my ears, hunching forward.
I imagined reuniting so many times before, in all those moments of hopelessness, these waves of grief that still seem like they’ll never stop washing me away, they seem to stretch on into forever when I’m in them. Before this moment, I planned out what I wished I could say to him, my angry confrontations, reminders of his failures, my begging and reminiscing, my questions that I foolishly hoped would break through past the disease in his brain and reach him, him in his essence. In a way, I wanted this for so long. Now that it’s here, I can think of a hundred other situations I’d rather be in.
Ever since the night we met John, I knew somewhere within that all I could really do for Charlie is love him, but I don’t think I wanted to acknowledge that truth. Even before that night, I suspected it. I wanted to believe that there was more that I could do.
I know support and love is the answer, but being in his presence makes me want to blurt out the story—my story—of what a bad person I’ve become ever since I’ve started carrying around all this guilt that he left me with. I don’t think it would be helpful to either of us.
“What are you doing here?” I ask. I fold my arms over my chest, my body temperature suddenly going cold.
He presses a hand to his forehead, stammering a little before he says, “I need to get some things from my grandma’s.”
I don’t believe him, but I don’t have the courage to say that. I nod, pressing my lips into a flat line.
He yawns. The fist I didn’t realize I was making starts to hurt. I shake out my hand as this deluge of resentment inundates me. I battle it out with my inner wisdom. Everything I’ve read and learned about addiction through living in the twenty-first century indicates that I should be mad at the disease, not the person. In my wise mind, I know I could never hate him; he was like a brother to me growing up. Yet my chest feels tight, my breathing sounds so loud, and my body temperature skyrockets, and somewhere in all those changes, I glimpse over the edge to hatred. But I don’t hate him.
I hate that we’re not close anymore, after everything I gave him and everything my family gave him. I hate his decisions—the people he surrounds himself with, the stupid risks he takes, the new patterns of speech he’s picked up, or how he drove his car into a tree. One day he’ll look back at these choices and regret them, hating himself more than I ever could. I hate that he deceived me into giving him a fuckton of money; I hate us both for that one. I’ll earn it back eventually, when I’m out of college in a few years and have a real job. I hate to think about his lifestyle and the harm he’s willing to do to himself to keep living in utter misery. That’s not his fault, though. I hate that there’s so much about him and his illness that I’ll probably never know, and even if I were lucky enough to know, I still might never understand. It’s like that with everyone, though; I’ll never know what it’s like to be in his shoes. What I hate most of all, though, is how I can’t let him go. I’m learning new ways to let these things go; I’ll get there some day.
I hate that thinking about all this makes me want to hit him, and I’m not a violent person. I hate that I’m holding in angry tears, pressing my tongue against my cheek to contain it; I hate myself for hating so much of him.
I wish I could ask myself where this ugliness is coming from, but I know where. I wish I could console myself by saying that that’s not me, but it is.
“I’m getting some things to pack for rehab,” he says, angling his body away from me.
It sounds like he’s on the verge of tears, too.
I’m inclined to not believe him again, but his voice trembles on the last word so much that I decide to. He’s not lying this time.
In spite of how much I hate him and how little I trust him and how I’ve grieved him so much that it started to feel like he already died—in spite of all of that, I care.
“Do you need any help, man?” I ask.
Charlie gulps. He won’t look at me.
It hits me that this isn’t some movie I’m watching to kill the time dragging on. This is my life.
He nods, swiping at his face. “Yeah, if you don’t mind.” He sniffles.
I scratch at my jaw, reaching for some part of my body to make sure this is real, this is really happening to me, to us. It is.
The last time I saw him cry was when he fell a few feet off the tree in my front yard and landed on a rock, ripping open skin on his calf. He was nine.