Her brother-in-law can’t really keep control of himself when there’s liquor around, so I fill up a flask for myself and tuck it into my jacket pocket before taking off.
The drive out to her house is a little long, and very peaceful. The treeline is a black, ebbing hillside in the dark, and the October wind cools me as it wicks away cigarette smoke. The only light I see beyond my headlamps comes from gas stations and the occasional church.
For an hour we all sit in the living room, drinking light beer. I take drinks from my flask every now and again. Her brother-in-law looks to the liquor but doesn’t say anything. I’m clearly pounding through it too fast to share it.
“Can you pick up some cigarettes?” her sister asks him, while he rifles through bills in his wallet.
“Yeah, I can do that.” He turns to me and thumps me in the chest. He’s a good head taller and about a person heavier than I am. He didn’t thump me hard but I catch myself wondering how much I’d waver if he did.
“You wanna ride with, fam?”
By “ride with,” he apparently means “drive.” I’m not drunk despite the brandy, so we head to my car.
“Are you sure you’re good to drive?” she asks me after he’s already outside, and I shrug.
“We’ll find out,” I tease, and in a second he and I are backing out.
“Dude, whacha been drinkin’ on all night?” he says, lighting up a cigarette.
“Whatever was cheapest.”
“You got a sip or two left?”
“I left it behind.”
“Damn. Well we can hit up a liquor store or somethin’ if you wanna restock.”
“Nah, I’m good.” We roll into the gas station. Inside he grabs a case of Bud Light and a few packs of smokes, then offers to grab me something.
“Dude, anything you want!” he sweeps his arm magnanimously, but I honestly don’t want anything.
“Anything you want!” he repeats. By keeping quiet I somehow compel him to buy two bags of pork rinds and two bags of Cheetos. More than anything I just want to get back in the car.
Finally we’re back out on the street, and he thumps my shoulder. “Hey, man, you still wanna hit up a liquor store, right?”
“Dude, come on! You can’t be done drinkin’! You CAN’T BE.”
I don’t say anything, just light a cigarette.
“Man, don’t feel like you’re obligated to go straigth home just ’cause I’m here!” He thumps my shoulder again. “Come on, man! Do what you want!”
I feel like I’m starting to figure out his code.
“Dude, tell me you’re not still obsessed with her!” He laughs. “TELL ME you’re not still obsessed with her!”
“I’m not still obsessed with her.”
“Oh, man, I’m so glad to hear that. I remember you always following her around and it was, just fucking unfair, man! I remember just wondering why she wouldn’t let you hang out with the rest of us.”
I keep to myself that whenever I swung by, it was her I was there to chill with.
“Oh man, you really dodged a bullet there, though, man. Just…dude, I love her, she’s my sister-in-law, but man, I don’t think she’d appreciate you enough, man. Like, when I first met her, she was ALL ABOUT me, man. ALL ABOUT me.”
Obsession seems to be the unintended theme of this drive.
“I mean, I was interested, but then I met her sister and it was just OFF. Dude, her sister in her prime? 10, easy. Fuckin’ 10.”
“Well, there ya go. Perfect score already. You win.” I light up another cigarette.
“Ahhh! That’s why I like you, man! You’re always just quietly sayin’ wild shit!” He shakes his head. “Man, I wish you’d brought that flask with you. Hey, man, seriously, I don’t mind a trip to the liquor store.”
I keep driving. I think of the text she sent earlier: “Hey, could you maybe bring beer instead? Or, like, just enough liquor for you?”
“I mean, she’s cool and all, but it gets awkward, all of us in the same house together. I always have to make excuses to stay outside if it’s her and me alone there. I LOVE my wife, man. I gotta make sure I don’t fuck that up, you know?”
I smoke my cigarette. “You got a good thing going, man.”
“I don’t get what it is about you she’s not digging. You’re a solid guy.”
I shrug. It’s getting harder to feign interest in the conversation.
“Hey man, I thought we were headed to the liquor store. It’s only a block or two away.”
I was raised by alcoholics. His hints are falling on uncaring ears. He’s not pulling any strings I haven’t already had fine-tuned.
We pull onto her street. I can see her smoking on the front porch. I get that butterfly feeling in my gut. It’s nice to know I can still get grade-school crushes at 30. It’s also nice to know that, at 30, I can keep them in check. I enjoy the friendship too much to ruin it with any kind of awkward, unappreciated fumbling in the dark.
His phone rings. “Uh huh. Yeah, man, sounds good. Here, can you guys pick me up? Aww, yeah boo! Alright brother, see you in five.”
He thumps me on the shoulder again. “Hey, man. You wanna head over to Boo-Boo’s? They got plenty of shit over there you can have.”
“Nah,” I tell him. I light another smoke. I smoke too damn much. My throat feels scratchy, and I cough. “Nah, I got work in the morning.”
“Aww, come on, boo!” I feel like he’s gauging whether I’m telling the truth or not. I am, but I don’t care if he believes me or not. “Duuuude! Come on! Don’t let her fuck up your good time.”
I shrug through the cloud of smoke. The temperature’s dropped. I wonder where the smoke ends and the mist of my breath begins. The air smells like pine needles, both fresh and burning.
“I came here to hang with her, man. I haven’t seen her all week.”
“Duuuude. Goddamn, you got it bad.” He thumps my shoulder again, enthusiastic to show there’s no hard feelings, and I get an inkling as to what’d it be like if he decided to hit me. Luckily, if a blackout’s imminent, it won’t be happening around me. Tonight, anyway.
“You enjoy yourself brother.” He climbs out just as his friends pull up. He calls his wife real quick to let her know he’ll be back in a few hours. He listens, tells her he’s sorry, then hangs up with a disgusted sigh. Then he turns back to me. “I just don’t want you to get hurt, brother. You seem like such a good dude.”
“You have a good night, man.” I stub out my smoke. I’ll probably light another one in a second. Too goddamn much.
“Alright, brother. Hey, text me sometime! We can hang without her bogarting you all night.”
The car that picks him up shakes from heavy bass, and this late, in this small town, there’s a solid chance someone will call the cops. I wonder if they’ll get pulled over. Boo-Boo’s not shy about lighting a blunt in the backseat.
I light another smoke and join her on the porch. She tells me her sister already went to bed, so I just set the smokes and beer on the ground and sit down next to her. It’s after midnight. We were going to watch a movie but I doubt either of us can stay up much longer. Another time, then.
Tree frogs sound off through the breeze that rustles the pine trees. At some point she leaves to check on her kid. While she’s gone I light one more cigarette. Staring through the smoke that billows around me, I can see the world the way I want to see it.