Will you have whiskey with your water
Or sugar with your tea?
What are these crazy questions
That they're asking of me?
This is the wildest party that there ever could be
Oh, don't turn on the light 'cause I don't want to see
Mama told me not to come
Mama told me not to come
Mama said, "That ain't no way to have fun"
- Randy Newman, Mama Told Me Not to Come, from 12 Songs (1970).
“Are we there yet?”
“You know you’re not allowed to ask that.”
“It had to be asked,” Zoya said.
“Oh no it did not,” I answered, “besides, we’re only in Nyack. We’ve got another four hours. Minimum. It all depends on Connecticut. That place is always a clusterfuck.”
“I used to date someone from there.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?”
“What? You have a boyfriend in, like, every state. A home in every port, you little bugger.”
“Hey. Play nice.”
“Oh,” I said, waiving my hand defensively, “Sorry. Sorry.”
Up ahead of us, a sign indicated that we were approaching the Tappan Zee Bridge.
“Well, anyway, we’re safely out of New Jersey, at least.”
“No thanks to your driving,” Zoya deadpanned.
“I’m a spectacular driver. I am Evil-Goddamn-Knievel, thank you very much.”
“I had nightmares about your driving last night. I couldn’t sleep at all.”
“Well,” I replied, “that’s patently false.”
“Well,” I sighed, “You couldn’t have had nightmares unless you were sleeping. It’s a logical inconsistency. Therefore, you probably slept quite well last night, thanks to my driving. And, for proof, I can turn to your claim that you had many nightmares.”
“You are such a lawyer,” Zoya said, looking through her purse.
“And you could barely survive cross-examination,” I answered before pulling a cigarette from my jacket’s breast pocket. “Besides, I’m barely a lawyer. There’s such a tenuous grasp here it isn’t even funny.”
We drove through West Nyack in silence. As we made our way to the bridge, Zoya fiddled with the CD changer until Fountains of Wayne’s Valley Winter Song came on. We sang along, unashamed. Zoya had a wonderful voice, and I never minded singing with others. After the song ended, we returned to silence.
An hour later, Zoya broke the silence. “I hate when you do that.”
“Put yourself down. You always do that to yourself. Even my mother noticed.”
I shrugged. “It’s humor. That’s all.”
“But why?” Zoya asked, exasperated. “Why does it always have to be always at your expense?”
I paused and thought. “I don’t know, you know… it’s just….”
It was something I used to diffuse situations. People seemed more relaxed when I put myself down.
“It’s just my way, I guess,” I said slowly, “I use self-deprecating humor so that people don’t, you know….”
“Don’t what?” Zoya encouraged.
“Well…. I think people think I’m arrogant. If I mock myself, they calm down about that.”
“What do you care what people think about you?” Zoya asked.
“Well…” I said, looking for another cigarette. I repeated myself. “Well.”
“Hmm?” Zoya threw up her hands.
I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. That was what I thought. I just didn’t want to sound weak and admit it. I smiled slyly. “Well,” I quipped as I wedged a cigarette between my lips, “I need to think of my jury.”
I lit the cigarette. I don’t know if Zoya was annoyed with my answer, if my cocky defense backfired on me, or if she saw through it. I didn’t know if she would have found the more accurate answer – for, as I rationalized, what I had said to here was not completely inaccurate; it was just misleading – weak or cloying. The defensive answer seemed like a stronger position than the more forthright one. I decided to stick with it.
We continued to crack jokes all the way to Boston. As we made our way up the Mass Pike, I decided to detour off the highway and headed into Newton, rather than making a direct line to our hotel.
We were at Boston College by 8:30 PM on Friday. On the way there, Zoya asked what my campus was like, what going to college was like. She never went to college. While she claimed that going to college would have been a waste of money for her, I wondered if she regretted her decision.
“Ever see pics of Notre Dame? The one in Paris, that is.”
“Sure. I’ve taken some myself,” Zoya answered.
“Well,” I said as I turned onto Commonwealth Avenue, “That is my campus.” I steered the car past the main gate and smiled as Zoya gasped.
“Oh my God. It is.”
To our left was St. Mary’s Hall, the Jesuit residence. At our right were the Burns Rare Book Library and the Bapst Art Library. Ahead of us was Gasson Hall, where the Honors Program met. Where I spent four years of my life. All of the buildings were granite, with thin, blade-like Gothic spires rising up from them. Gasson Hall was the most impressive, an H-shaped building that had a five story tall clock tower rising up from its center like a hand seeking God.
“It’s like coming home. For me, I mean, you know, going here is more like coming home than returning to Jersey,” I whispered before negotiating a parking space.
We grabbed our camera bags and quietly walked toward Gasson Hall.
“I used to spend hours upon hours in here,” I said, “I didn’t have to take regular classes… it was a sort of great books program, you know, and, uh, well, I took classes here, instead. Western Culture and Tradition seminars, they were called.”
Zoya nodded and smiled a quiet, weird sort of smile. I suppose she understood why I wanted to be there, that I really needed to see the campus, and that I wasn’t merely showing her around. It was my anchor, my reminder that there was a time when I did things that seemed to be of value to me. Things that weren’t destructive.
Zoya and I crossed one of the hallways into the small library where most of my Honors seminars took place. I pulled out my camera and fired off a few shots. Here was where I fought with my professor over Nietzsche, over whether such coldness and cruelty was just. Ironically, I tended to agree with Nietzsche’s cold view of humanity, at least lately, rather than my old view that melded Augustine’s and Montaigne’s sense of sorrow and tolerance. Human kindness. It didn’t seem terribly sensible lately.
Zoya looked up at the stained glass windows, each a replica of a Jesuit school’s crest. I wandered over to the couches where I spent many an afternoon talking of Don Quixote and the Brothers Karamazov. Of heroic fools and embittered skeptics. I rested my hand on the baby grand piano that sat behind the couch I used to use for naps. Once, in college, a girlfriend took me in here late at night. She played Chopin and Rachmaninoff, intensely, until I pulled her from the piano stool and kissed her. I smiled.
“Yeah, Zoya,” I said, “This was home for me.”
We walked out to the central atrium where there were marble statutes of the Archangel Michael defeating the Devil, of St. Ignatius Loyola, and of Seneca, the Roman Philosopher. Above them were frescos of religious phrases and other important figures of Jesuit history.
“Who is that?” Zoya asked, “And why is he with Indians?”
I looked up at the fresco she was identifying, over Seneca’s head.
“That’s Marquette. He converted the Chippewa. They named a school out west for him.”
The priest in the fresco stood solemnly at the bow of a dugout canoe. At the other end of the hall a fresco asked the question Quis Ut Deus? “Who is like unto God?” Ah, how I loved the Jesuits sense of goals. It wasn’t enough to merely be good. They had to be theological mirrors to the divine. And, in striving for that, the excellence of God, they became some of the most insidious skeptics the Roman Catholic Church had known. Their motto, Ad Majorum Dei Gloriam (“For the Greater Glory of God”), which was inscribed everywhere on campus (and sometimes, where it would not fit, a simple “AMDG” was stamped on an archway’s keystone or on a stairwell). Thus came their glory: critical thought. Inspiration. The great questions.
“Let’s go,” I said, “I have the bladder of an infant.”
We met up with Adam, my old friend from high school, and Jaydub, my friend from California. It was nearly 10:00 PM, and yet I felt wide awake. We went to Big City, a pool hall and bar in Brookline, a few miles east of Boston College. Over appetizers of fried food, we reconnected.
“So what the hell are you doing up here? You didn’t really want to see BC whip Ball State’s asses, did you?” Adam asked. He scratched his beard as he spoke.
“Well, first of all, you also shall see this ass-whipping. We have tickets for everyone,” I said, “But really, though, I’m here for my brother’s birthday. Flounder turned twenty-one this week.”
“Oh God,” Jaydub deadpanned, “the bars will be ruined.”
“No shit.,” I smiled, “this is going to be fun.” I chortled, then regained my composure. “Ah, college. It’s like oblivion, but with booze.”
“I always feared,” Adam said as he motioned to the stairway. He wanted me to join him for a cigarette break. “I feared that someday he would call me, asking me to buy him beer, and I’d have to figure out whether you’d go apeshit on me for buying it for him or for not buying it for him.”
“Well, did you buy beer for him?” I asked as I put on my synthetic fleece anorak. I hated that Boston had outlawed smoking in the bars.
“Then I won’t go apeshit.”
Adam and I made our way downstairs for our cigarettes. I watched, as we walked down the curved staircase, how Zoya interacted with Jaydub and his new girlfriend. The couple huddled together. He smiled, somewhat innocently. A smile of simple pleasure, not a calculated smile. Jaydub had met her during the weekend of my five-year college reunion. I had gotten bored with the school festivities and had gone with him to the Harpoon Brewery’s beer unveiling. Betty, a pretty Irish redhead, ran into us there. She was a friend of Linda, who I had taken to Aruba. Linda was alone now, a med student in Philadelphia. I was alone. A lawyer somehow in Boston. Jaydub and Betty were happy. I didn’t see any of the traps I had learned of in family law when I looked at their relationship. That was a rare thing. A small good thing.
Saturday was game day. After finding our way to sobriety and consciousness, Zoya and I showered and made our way to Boston College. There, on campus, people were everywhere. We found my family under a tent next to the parking deck for the stadium. My mother chatted with some parents at one side of the tent while my father, in his old federal agent stance, interrogated a few of my brother’s classmates from behind aviator sunglasses.
“Agent Foster Grant,” I said as I gave him a hug.
“I was wondering if you two were going to make it,” my father said.
“We were tired from the drive,” I explained. I didn’t mention that we were also tired from four hours of drinking.
“He snores like a banshee,” Zoya said.
“She whines like a Stradivarius.”
My father watched this with no expression on his face. He sucked in a breath and released it slowly.
“I think P. has the grill going over there,” he said after a pause. “Perhaps you could get some sausage. Antipasto. Zoya, is there anything I could get you?”
“And the beer?” I asked.
“Cooler by the grill.”
“Cool. Thanks dad.”
When you’re older, I was learning, there was little need for pretense. I didn’t need to feign a lack of interest in the beer. My father knew I was a child of the drink. He just claimed to not know from where on the family tree this came.
I walked over to the grill where my brother was cooking. He was telling my mother of his birthday celebration. I kissed her on the top of her head.
“Maternal unit,” I said by way of greeting.
“Glad you made it,” my mother said before kissing me on my cheek. “Beer’s in the cooler.” She knew how the family tree worked. My mother greeted Zoya warmly, and gave her a hug and a kiss.
“How was his driving?” She asked.
“Frightening. He hit 105 miles per hour in Connecticut.”
I shrugged, blasé, and turned to my brother.
“Flounder,” I said as I rubbed the stubble on his shaved head.
He sighed. “I am broken. I am so goddamned hung over.”
“That is the first lesson,” I said, “of legal drinking.”
My mother turned to me. “Don’t tell your father.”
I looked at my father. He was wagging his finger at someone, apparently for smoking. He still didn’t know I smoked.
“He’d have a stroke,” I said.
“That doesn’t give you any reason to tell him,” my mother said, dryly.
“Oh no, I don’t want to give him a stroke. I told you guys. The first chance I get, you’re both going into a state-run, Medicaid-funded home.”
“You’re not funny,” my mother said. Zoya gasped.
“You know I am.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Nonetheless,” I said, “Once I get power of attorney, it’s only soft foods for the likes of you.”
“You know, Zoya,” my mother said, “we once had a tailgate for T. His friends were there. They said to him, afterwards, ‘Your parents are so nice. What happened to you?’”
Zoya laughed. I smiled. I remembered when my friends asked that question.
“We wonder the same thing everyday,” My mother continued.
We all laughed. I was good at playing the asshole.
The game was a blowout. BC beat Ball State by over twenty points. We – Adam, Zoya, Jaydub, Betty, and I – snuck into the reserved student section with my brother. There, I promptly whipped out my telephoto lens and fired off some end zone shots of the game. My brother and I leaned against each other as the game wore on. Eventually, Zoya, still hungover, rested against my other shoulder. We all earned mild sunburns for the afternoon of shouting and applauding. It was Elysium for me. I was there, enjoying myself with those near and dear to me. It was far too fleeting.
I stood in the corner of my brother’s kitchen that evening, eating chicken and pasta that my parents had ordered from a caterer for my brother’s birthday. I didn’t celebrate my birthday. I had no such events in my past. Flounder was in the other room, singing to his guests – mostly his classmates and their parents – with bizarre, comic versions of show tunes. I sipped on my beer and watched him. My father walked into the kitchen, smoothed his hand over his salt-and-pepper hair, and looked back at my brother.
“Fat, drunk, and stupid, you once said,” he said to me.
“Yep,” I nodded.
“It’s not nice,” he said, “but it’s funny.”
After a few hours of genteel entertaining, we sent the parents home. I turned to my brother, who had challenged Adam and me to a drinking game.
“So what is this game?”
Beirut, it’s called,” he said.
Like the city?”
Yeah. You try to sink ping pong balls into the other team’s cups. When you do, they have to drink.”
Oh,” I said, “I think I’ve heard of this.” Behind me, Adam snorted. Actually, I thought, I remembered playing this game for money. Founder led us down to his basement where he had set up his Beirut table. Flounder picked a cute blonde girl for his partner. Brianna was her name. She claimed to have never played the game before. I figured her for a ringer. We set up two sets of six cups in pyramid formation on both sides of the table. We filled each cup up with beer, and then filled two additional cups – the so-called social cups – that we placed to the side of the pyramids.
Okay,” Flounder said, “You each get one shot at the cups per round. No leaning on the table, no blowing on the ball, and no swatting the ball.”
All I have to do is get it in the cup?” I asked.
Yep. And,” Flounder continued, “To the right of your pyramid is a social cup. A shot goes in there, and you need to drink that and then chug a beer.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Oh,” Adam said, as though a light had dawned within his mind “You know, I think I might have played this once.”
We began. Brianna, Flounder’s ringer, sank the first shot, as expected. Adam sank the next one. She sank the next two. Flounder missed wide of the pyramid on each of his turns. I feigned stupidity and missed my first two shots, but then sank the next one. We were tied.
I noticed that my mother had slipped back into Flounder’s house.
“What’s going on?” She asked.
“Flounder and T. are having a grudge match of Beirut,” Zoya explained as I chugged one of beers sunk by Brianna.
“It’s a drinking game,” I said, turning to my mother. I might as well be brazenly honest.
As Zoya and I talked to my mother, I saw Flounder sink our next-to-last cup. Adam and I were one shot from losing. Flounder and Brianna had two cups left, along with their social cup.
“Okay,” Flounder explained, “when one side has one cup left, they shoot until they miss.”
Adam handed me the ping pong balls and I smiled.
“Until we miss?” I asked.
Without another word, I sank the first ball into one of the pyramid cups. I sank the second ball into Flounder’s social cup.
“Spare another ball, Ace?” I asked my brother.
He rolled a ball across the table. I picked it up and sank it into the last cup in his pyramid.
“You know,” I said, “Adam, I think you’re right. I think we might have played this game before.”
“What a surprise,” my mother said. “Just make sure my youngest survives the night.”
Flounder came over to my side of the table, and Adam went off to find music for the stereo. Eventually, he gravitated toward a group of coeds and my brother took up the game on the same side. We played a few rounds against some of Flounder’s classmates. By the last one, I was drunk and sloppy. We lost to a couple of the girls that lived in Flounder’s house. They kissed both of us, prompting Flounder and I to blush, and to cause Zoya to mutter something, with a smirk, about college girls.
We went to Citysides after that. It was a local bar and café on Cleveland Circle. After a few rounds of gin, I sat back and watched my brother joking with and teasing a few of the locals. It was good to see him as an adult finally. I had someone to take along with me when I went out. A compatriot. A fellow idiot. It only took seven years for me to find that man.
A few rounds into Citysides, I asked my brother where he wanted to go next.
“Oh no. Absolutely not,” I answered. Adam groaned. Mary Ann’s was a dive bar. A shithole. It was the sort of bar where, once I turned twenty-one, I stopped going there. Flounder wanted to go there now that he didn’t need to suffer so. I looked at him again. He hadn’t changed his answer.
“Well,” I said, “It’s your night.”
Mary Ann’s had rubberized walls and floors so that the staff could hose the bar down at the end of the night. Walking into the dingy bar, I could feel the soles of my shoes sticking to the floor. I grimaced. Behind me, Zoya took a whiff of the stale bar air, a mixture of scents that gravitated strongly toward vomit, and gagged.
“I can’t do this,” she whispered.
“I don’t blame you.”
“No, really. I can’t do this. I’m going to be sick,” she said.
I turned to Zoya. “You don’t need to. Go back to the hotel. Rest. This is going to get ugly.” I handed her the room key and walked out with her. After hailing a cab for her, which Betty and Jaydub ended up sharing (they also didn’t want to be there), I had a cigarette. As with the other bars, there was no smoking in Mary Ann’s. I think it would have improved the smell of the bar.
I walked back in. Flounder was playing a video golf game – Golden Tee – in a corner. Adam was at the bar. The bartenders were fixated with the televisions mounted above the racks of cheap booze. On the televisions, an interviewer was discussing the chances of the Red Sox going to the World Series.
I sidled up to the bar next to Adam and some beefy guy in a flannel shirt and greasy tee shirt.
“What’s safe here,” I asked.
“The exit, I think,” Adam replied. “This place is such a shithole.”
“No kidding. Underage bars tend to be.”
Adam motion to the bartender, trying to get a beer. The bartender, without looking away from the television, waived him away dismissively. I snorted.
“Ah… the Red Sox. The fans do understand the whole ‘Curse of the Bambino’ thing, yes?” I asked.
“They hope against hope,” Adam said.
“Nice. Christians before the lions.”
“Hey… hey, bartender,” Adam called out.
The bartender waived him away again.
“Nice. You made a friend,” I said.
Adam scowled. The bar was full of ignored patrons seeking something – booze, women, drugs (perhaps) – to distract themselves. I walked over to Flounder and looked in on his game. He spun a trackball, firing off a shot.
“Fun time?” I asked.
“Oh yeah. I love Golden Tee.”
“We came here so you could play video golf?”
“Would you have rather I asked to go to a strip club?”
“Not particularly,” I answered.
“Well,” Flounder said, “I didn’t really want to go to one either.”
We paused. I looked over at Adam. He was still trying to flag down the bartender. I could see him wave his arm again at the bartender. The bartender wasn’t even looking back at him anymore. I could see the back of Adam’s head shake in irritation.
“Granted, you picked what is quite possibly the next worst thing to a strip club,” I said.
Adam was turning to say something to the patron next to him. The patron looked at him, shook his head, and slid his barstool a few inches away from him.
“We can go somewhere after this round,” Flounder said.
Adam said something to the bartender again. This time the bartender whirled around. I put my hand on my brother’s shoulder.
“Let’s see if we actually get through this round,” I said to Flounder. “Come on, he’s going to hurt someone.”
In high school, Adam had wrestled constantly. He was in decent shape. Still, the fights in Mary Ann’s could get rough. During junior year, a student in my dorm put his thumb into a patron’s eye, tearing his retina. By graduation, the legend had spread so that an eye ended up in someone’s beer.
The bartender had his hands on Adam’s sweater by the time we got to them. Adam grabbed onto the bartender’s forearms and slowly began to drag him from behind the bar. The guy next to Adam, who had originally backed away from him, was coming in to grab him. I stepped in between.
“Hey, hey, hey,” I said to the guy, grabbing his arms, “it’s cool, you don’t need to. We’ll get him.” He moved his arms back from me, and I turned to tell Adam to cool it. As I turned, it felt as though a bat had hit me in the eye.
“What the fuck?” I said, stumbling. I shook my head. Flounder was pushing the beefy guy back, who had obviously taken a swing at me. “Piece of shit,” I said, and then swung at the guy’s face, just above my brother’s arm. I connected with his mouth, and could feel his lip split. I pointed my finger at him and was about to chastise him for hitting me when my back was to him when someone tackled me from the side. I slammed against the bar, the lip of it sliding under my armpit as my legs gave way. I gasped. The bar had hit me in the ribs, knocking the wind out of me. I tried to reach around and grab whoever it was that tackled me, but I couldn’t keep myself above the horizontal plane of the bar unless I kept my left arm wrapped securely around the counter. I can hear bottles – probably bottles that I knocked over – breaking as they rolled off the counter and onto the floor by where the bartender used to stand. Currently, the bartender didn’t stand anywhere. Adam had him upside down and was kidney punching him. On the other side of me, I could see that Flounder had stopped grappling with the guy that had sucker-punched me and had simply landed on top of the fellow, restraining in him in the process. Meanwhile, the guy that had tackled me wasn’t doing much of anything. He was just trying to hold me to the spot.
I shifted my weight onto my left leg and braced against the brass rail that ran around the bar. With my right leg, I kicked out at the tackler’s feet. I caught his legs, knocking them out from under him. It broke the tackle, and I spun around. My mouth crashed against the bar, dazing me, but I knew enough to keep moving. I lunged forward, pushing into the barstool ahead of me. The guy that tackled me was getting up on his hands and knees by the time I spun around to face him. There was no debate about what to do. I swung my leg back and kicked him as hard as I could in his gut. I reached over and grabbed Adam’s shoulder.
I turned to go to the door. My head was throbbing. Adam yelled to me that we needed to get out before the cops showed up. Flounder was still pounding on the guy he had pinned to the floor.
“Flounder, let’s go!”
Flounder ignored me. Adam and I ended up picking him up by his arms and dragging him off the guy. We circled around the bar, pushing people out of our way as we headed to the door.
We sat quietly in O’Leary’s. It was an Irish pub that I used to frequent with one of my philosophy professors, Father Jack. I sipped on a small gin and tonic, letting the citrus juices sting my lip. Flounder sat between Adam and me, hunched over a pint of Guinness.
“I don’t understand how you like this,” he said to me.
“It’s Guinness, P.”
“Yeah, but it tastes like soy sauce.”
“That’s only because your mouth is bleeding.”
“Just drink the beer.”
I looked over at Adam. “I don’t understand. What happened?”
“I got into a little fight with the bartender,” he said.
“Yeah, but why? Because he wouldn’t get you a beer?”
“No, not because he wouldn’t get me a beer.”
“Well, what then?”
Adam didn’t answer. I shrugged. I reached into my shirt pocket and found a pack of cigarettes. I pulled one out and was about to light it when the bartender reminded me that it was illegal to smoke in bars in Boston.
“Fine, fine,” I grumbled, I’ll go outside.
I smoked the cigarette, alone, in the cool late evening air. It was nearly closing time. Flounder’s birthday had come and gone, and so, it seemed, had the summer. While Boston’s summer ended slightly earlier than mine in New Jersey, I knew I could count on it as a harbinger of the weather to come for me. I took a long drag on the cigarette, coughed slightly, and then flicked the last of the butt into the street. I turned and walked back into the bar.
“So honestly,” I asked Adam again as I sat down, “What caused all that?”
He grimaced. “Well, you know how the bartenders were all watching the highlights on the Red Sox on the television?”
“Well, I asked him for a beer, and he waived me away.”
“And then I asked him again, and he waived me away,” Adam continued.
“Yeah. Yeah, I was there for that part.”
“Yeah, so I ask him for a beer again, and he’s like ‘hold on there Skippy.’”
“’Skippy,’” I snorted.
“Yeah. So I was like, ‘I’m sorry, what’s that? I couldn’t hear you with the Red Sox’s dicks in your mouth.’”
I nearly choked on my drink. Flounder, who seemed the most annoyed by the fight, finally broke out laughing.
“Oh shit. That’s good,” Flounder said.