Saturday, November 25, 2006

In media res

I woke up Thanksgiving morning hungover on a friend's couch.

His parents whispered when they put a turkey into the oven. They didn't want to wake me.

Under my film of cigarette stink, I was reminded that I liked New York's smoking ban. It isn't just the cigarette smell, it's the way the odor corrupts your pores and reminds you of terrible hangovers from the past. Post-ban, I still wake up in my apartment hungover and some mornings my throat is dry from last night's Marlboro Lights, but there isn't the blanket of bar stench, a smell that I associate with the ripest hangovers from college.

It was a little after 8 a.m. I heard the sounds of small kids upstairs. It was time to find my parents' car.

* * *

I take competition seriously, even when it's beer pong. Mike and I went 3-0 in beer pong at an afterbar, which played out in the basement of some guy who must have been 21 or 22. I hadn't played much beer pong since college, but Mike and I dominated. On game three everyone was running out of steam. It turned into one of those matches where you need 30 tries to finish off the final two cups, which we eventually did to close the night undefeated.

It was late. We were bombed in a basement full of strangers almost a decade younger than us, in a house in the redneck town where we grew up.

* * *

"I want you to go back to New York and carry a message to [Flop]," my friend Jeff said as we left this afterbar. "I want you to tell him that he could never cut it here."

"No way, dude," I said. "[Flop] sees weirder shit than this before lunch. If [Flop] were here, he'd be humping a fat girl in the corner of that basement."

Jeff and I have a running argument about whether, in a hypothetical fight between me and his younger brother, he would side with me. He insists that he would take his brother's side. I don't like this, so I tackled him. Catching him offguard, he landed in the front lawn before quickly regaining the upper hand.

"That's fine," I said. "You win."

I wanted breakfast. It was 4 a.m. We walked to a Coney Island place rumored to be open 24 hours. It was closed for Thanksgiving.

There were five of us. We were too drunk to drive. It was too far for any of us to walk home.

There's a girl in her mid-20s who grew up in this town and now lives in Williamsburg. She was with us. A few weeks earlier, some of us had met up for beers and dinner at Zum Schneider on Avenue C -- normal enough, but then I consider that growing up we perceived any town with a movie theater to be a major city, and Zum Schneider seems like a small victory.

"I'll call my dad," she said. "He'll take everybody home."

Waiting for her dad, we cajoled some of the restaurant's departing employees to give us cigarettes. I begged them to make me poached eggs. They politely declined.

The dad arrived. For a middle-aged man called at 4 a.m. to pick up his adult daughter and four strange, drunk guys, he was pretty nice about it.

My parents live far outside of town. It would have taken 20 minutes for them, round trip. Hence, I would crash at Jeff's parents' house.

* * *

As Mike observed, it used to be that when you came back to town and went to a bar, you couldn't walk 10 feet without running into someone who would buy you a drink. Wednesday was not one of those nights. There were three of us in the ballpark of 30 years old, in a bar full of 21- and 22-year-olds. There were no stray friends, and few younger siblings of friends. The generations had transitioned.

It was an ego blow that no one I spoke to had heard of me.

"Hi," said the beefcat. "I give great head. What do you do?"

The beefcat was 22 or 23. She was subtle, a little shy.

She directed her charms to several of us, not just me personally. After she established her bona fides (she graduated from a competitive private university in the mid-Atlantic, was a fan of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and was studying for a Ph.D) the situation seemed less dangerous. Certain girls -- hardcore rural girls, who live in the area their whole lives, coping with all kinds of meanness, worn out and begging for attention -- who show up on townie nights get drunk and get angry. They are a threat. This girl was being funny.

"Hell, I'll let all three of you fuck me," she said.

I moved a few feet to buy a round. When I came back, Mike had driven her away.

"What the hell did you do that for?"

"She was annoying as hell," Mike said.

"Dude, it was funny," I said. "She likes Sir Gawain. Besides, compared to everyone else here, you're fucking old. You should be flattered that she was even interested."

* * *

Earlier in the night, Mike, Jeff and I visited a girl we went to high school with. Wendy was one of the prettiest girls in our class -- she's still striking. Girls here look different than they do in New York. Most are worse for the wear, but the pretty ones seem cleaner and unaffected. Wendy's married now and lives near Detroit. She had her three-year-old son with her. We were at her parents' house. Her mom didn't recognize me at first.

I incited Wendy's kid. That's what I do. If a kid walks out with a ball, other people say to the little kid, "Wow! Where did you get that ball?" I say, "Cool ball, dude. Throw it at Grandma's head." Within 30 minutes the kid and I were throwing an inflated ball around the living room and knocking over candles.

Wendy talked about being a mom; her mom gave us cans of Labatt; her dad gave graphic descriptions of a recent check-up; Mike and I discussed buying investment property. Mike's real job involves the healthcare industry. He said something about how it seems like a lot of people in this town come down with cancer, and it's true, there seemed to be a lot of random death and illness here, more than I'm used to or hear about from other people. Growing up, there were too many fatal and near-fatal car accidents, and Mike's observation was right, there is a lot of cancer, although it's tough to guess whether it's something in the environment or just the side-effect of a region where there's not a lot of money and a low priority on healthy living.

People here get older faster. Most look older younger. They marry younger. They have young kids. They have a different kind of stress. It's stuff that shows up in peripheral vision, like the same game is playing out with different clocks, a dwindling number of us knocking around in prolonged adolescence while other people settled into premature maturity.

Wendy's dad talked about the burglary at a bar he used to own. Wendy talked about stealing liquor from that bar when she was 16.

It was getting late, and it seemed like her kid would have to go to sleep soon.

So we left that house at 11, with about five hours still to carry on.

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