It was a 3rd of July celebration on Conesus Lake in Livonia, a small idyllic suburb just 30 minutes south of Rochester off Route 390. The wildest night of the year in that little town. Frank had pushed his girlfriend because he thought her and Trey were getting a little too cozy out on his boat under the stars. We could see him coming all the way up the dock, yelling “Dara! Dara! Where the fuck have you been?” He didn’t seem to notice everyone else in the boat with them. Or that we were all sitting there shooting the shit and enjoying the weather.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Frank asked from a few feet outside the boat. As Dara stood to answer him he grabbed her arm and jerked her with such force that he almost pulled her over, all the while throwing himself to the ground.
“Frank what’s wrong with you!? Let. go. of me.”
“Fine,” Frank said, pushing her over back into the boat.
“Whoa whoa, Frank,” Trey said. He and I stood up as Dara’s friends helped Dara to her feet.
“Frank, let’s go. What are you thinking?” His pupils were fully dilated and empty as the José bottle we’d been working throughout the day.
Trey and I spent the next hour or so lecturing Frank about how we couldn’t understand why he’d turned so violent. There was no reason for him to push his girlfriend, even if ten shots of tequila coursed through his veins and in his blackout stupor he had no comprehension of what was going on. It didn’t matter if he thought Trey was hitting on his girlfriend. “I’d never even think to resort to violence,” I told him self righteously. “Besides, I was out there. Mel was out there. You think they would just start hooking up in front of everyone, even if that’s what was going on?”
The rest of the night was spent sobering up and performing damage control for Frank and Dara’s relationship. A few months later, weeks after Frank and I had a sober talk and Frank apologized for his antics on July 3rd, it would be time for me to eat my own words and formulate an apology that would focus on what I had done to Frank.
* * *
Frank pulled into my driveway and said, “Zack, really. It’s okay. I’m not upset at all.”
I was hunched in the passenger seat, filled to the brim with drunken shame. His words registered but I didn’t respond.
“I’m gonna head home now. I’ll talk to you later,” Frank said. He paused for my response but I didn’t say anything, didn’t even glance at him. I couldn’t bear to look at the swollen purple bump forming on his cheekbone.
Realizing I wasn’t going to talk, Frank exited my Camry and walked to his black Lexus. I stayed in the passenger seat and listened to him pull out, my eyes sore from crying, my mind lost in confused thoughts. Why would I do that to such a close friend? He was just trying to do the right thing. I don’t deserve his friendship.
My phone was broken to pieces from being thrown at the ground and kicked into the ditch. After I had calmed down from my fit I picked up the pieces that were scattered in the road and now these pieces were collected on the floor next to my bare feet.
It could’ve gone on indefinitely at that point, my pointed thoughts of self loathing, but my parents would be waking up soon so I walked inside to avoid the questions that would ensue had they found me passed out in my car. “Where’s Frank?” “How’d you get home?” “Why are you sleeping in your car?”
I was having enough trouble answering my own questions; I didn’t need my parents to compound the problem.
Inside the questions resumed. To combat the questions of shame I used a technique I’d been taught in a mindfulness class a year earlier at the college I’d decided to drop out of. I tried my best not to indulge the questions while I laid in bed. Just listen to your breath. Feel your chest rise and fall. Notice what the air feels like in your lungs. These are just thoughts and thoughts do not necessarily need to be latched onto. They’re not YOU–they’re just thoughts. Minutes later my exhaustion and mindfulness allowed me to pass out. Soon enough consciousness would return and my thoughts would again be dictated by shame and regret. But, for now, I rested.
* * *
Frank rode with me from my house. One of our old hockey buddies was having a party in Rochester. The plan was to stop in Pittsford and pick up Rod from his cousin’s wedding reception. I hadn’t hung out with Rod in a while and he was adamant I meet his new girlfriend, Ashley, who was visiting for the week. On the way, Frank and I caught up with one another.
“So how was China, man?” Frank asked.
“It was a lot of fun, but I’m glad to be home. I don’t particularly like driving everywhere, but it’s nice to be able to see a blue sky everyday. The quietness is impressive too.”
“Yeah, I bet. Shanghai is a really busy place.”
“So I hear you’re not going back to school in the Fall?”
“You heard right. It’s kind-of hard to explain but I just wasn’t happy with the direction I was heading.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, I’m not sure I want to be a teacher. And I don’t wanna keep paying all this money for a degree that I’m not even sure I need, you know?”
“Yeah, I think so. College is definitely an investment but maybe this is right for you?”
“What’s right for me? School?”
“No–the break. Maybe you just need some time to do things, figure some stuff out?”
“Sorry. I’m not trying to assert what’s right or wrong for you. Just saying I guess.”
“Yeah, maybe. I don’t really know,” I said, pausing. “Whatever. I don’t really wanna talk about school. It’s boring.”
I pulled up to a three-way stop and reached down to change my Ipod.
“Have you heard Drake’s latest album?” I asked.
“No, not really. Is it good?”
“I like it,” I said, pulling through the intersection.
“DUDE,” Frank said. “You know that was a red light, right?”
“OH SHIT. For some reason I thought it was a three-way stop. Good thing we didn’t get hit.”
“Yeah… maybe you should pay more attention to the road instead of trying to play me the new Drake.”
“Alright, alright. Just listen to this. Jay-Z’s verse is nasty.”
* * *
The party wasn’t anything special. It’s not that I didn’t have fun, there was just nothing over-the-top exciting. To compensate for the mundanity I drank more and this made Rod proud because it allowed his girlfriend to see my “fun” side.
I’m not entirely sure where it came from, but I have a tendency to start shenanigans when none are happening, especially when I’m drinking. It could’ve been all the years watching my dad and his friends morph social gatherings into odd, drunken circus acts, that often involved oversized bonfires. For some people, playing with the lighter fluid is part of starting a fire; at my house, improvised flamethrowers were the norm.
My dad’s a mechanic with a full garage of tools and supplies to work on vehicles. Brake jobs are of the most common repairs for cars and this meant he always had a steady supply of brake cleaner. Sometimes, when a party needed some extra excitement, he would tap his supply of brake cleaner. Can at arm’s length, he’d spray the can at a flame and then turn to see how long he could hold the trigger before the fire trailed back to the nozzle and ignited the whole container. He never held the trigger too long. It seemed like he always had it under control. He played with fire while displaying the confidence of a trained professional. Maybe that’s what gave him the confidence to play with other dangerous flammables.
I remember one night when my dad and some co-workers brought out these oversized mortars from our basement. Another parent at the party, Tim, stood by my friend Eric and me while we watched in awe of the other adults and their intriguing, drunken stupidity.
“Guys,” Tim said, “Don’t get too close to them while they’re playing with those fireworks. It could tip over and explode in their faces at anytime. They never should’ve brought them out.”
I shook my head in agreement, secretly admiring my dad and his antics.
The next day my mom woke up to a messy house with grass trailed across the floors, cans and bottles strewn across the yard, and a few plastic lawn chairs short of the full set.
“Phil, where’re the lawn chairs?” my mom asked, shaking my dad awake.
“What?” he’d say, half asleep.
“Why are we missing lawn chairs?”
“Oh, uhm, a couple of them broke so I burned them.”
“You can’t keep burning our lawn chairs. We don’t have the money to buy new ones every month.”
“What do you want me to tell you? They broke. What good is a broken lawn chair?”
Sure enough, buried in the ashy fire pit were the plastic remains of our chairs appearing more like a failed abstract sculpture than the chairs they used to be. Buried along with the chairs was my dad’s oil pan from the garage and empty brake cleaner cans. It appeared as though I had missed the real fun where the drunks danced with danger and probably laughed at one another when a can shot out at someone. Only after a good laugh would they check if the person was okay.
It’d probably be fair to say that these parties set the stage for how I envisioned all parties would be when I was older. I’d started to emulate my dad’s facade of confidence, continuing with his disregard for the potential repercussions of playing with fire. If the parties lacked that flame headed toward igniting a can in the hand, then they weren’t fun and it was my duty to make them fun. And if I couldn’t make it fun, I could always drink enough to at least make it tolerable. This was the sort of projection my night catching up with Frank took.
Between the time we walked to Mark’s Texas Hots, ate our garbage plates, and walked back to the car to go home I’d downed maybe another six Bud Lights. Unfortunately we’d run out of alcohol by this time so my drinking would have to be put on hold. This allotted me an extra amount of attention to put toward critiquing Rod’s driving. Even so, it took me awhile before I realized he was driving to his house.
“Hey, this isn’t the way to my house,” I said like a detective uncovering an important piece of evidence.
“Yeah, no shit Bassage.”
“Dude, I have to work in the morning. That’s why we were supposed to go back to Zack’s,” Frank said.
“You guys can drive back in the morning. No big deal.”
“Nah I’ll just drive back when we get to your house,” Frank said.
“You sure you’re okay?” Rod asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I haven’t had a drink in a little while.”
“That’s fine but I’m skinny-dipping before we leave,” I said. “Ashley, I’ll teach you how to do handstands. It’ll be sweet.”
* * *
“C’mon Ashley,” I said, stripping off my clothes. I jumped into the pool and caught a glimpse of my reflection before crashing into it and shattering the glassy surface of the cool water. When I emerged I wrung the water out of my hair with my hands and looked back at Rod and Ashley who sat in the cushioned deck chairs near the fire pit at the side of the pool. They laughed at my naked, wet body, illuminated by the pool light.
“Shield your eyes, Ashley. Bassage’s reflection is blinding,” Rod said, adding a bassy chuckle.
“Hey Rod, why don’t you do something useful and get me a beer,” I said. “Or at least come up with some better jokes.”
“Sounds like someone doesn’t want a towel…”
“It’s okay, I know where they are,” I said. “So Ashley you gonna come learn some handstands or what?”
It was an old trick Rod and I did in high school. We’d go swimming and challenge our guests to a contest–whoever could do the best handstand won. We’d always let our challenger go first so that while they were performing I’d strip down naked. Then, when it was my turn, I’d flip into a perfect handstand and surprise them with a dose of shriveled cock-and-balls.
Unfortunately on this night I didn’t get to initiate Rod’s new girlfriend.
“No thanks, Zack,” Ashley said. “It’s kind-of chilly, I’m tired, and you’re naked. None of those seem like they’d make a good combination.”
“Alright, suit yourself,” I said with indifference. I felt satisfied with my swim but had begun to feel thirsty so I exited the pool to venture inside for a towel and some drinks. Before entering, I realized the leverage being naked provides and said, “Hey Rod, you should probably go grab me a towel. I don’t think Steve would appreciate me running through his house naked.”
“Psh, why would he care? It’s nothing he’s never seen before.”
“Alright, I warned…”
“Just put your damn shorts on! They’re right back there.”
“But I feel so free like this,” I said, continuing toward the house.
“Alright, alright. I’ll get your damn towel.”
I flashed an endearing smile as I walked into the basement and headed for the same beer fridge we’d been stealing from since we were kids. Opening the door, the light escaped gradually like a rising sun and I marveled at the variety of brands to choose from. I weighed my preferences against which beers Steve wouldn’t mind were missing in the morning and grabbed three Saranacs from a sampler pack–one for now and two for the road. In a quick moment of reflection I appreciated having better beer after a night of Bud Lights and then headed outside, back to Frank to let him know I was ready for the trip home.
“I’m driving, you didn’t have to get one for me,” Frank said.
“Yeah it’s for me,” I answered.
Rod came out with my towel. I reached for it and said, “Thanks. You’re so kind.”
“Yeah whatever Bassage. You guys heading out?”
“Yup. I’ve gotta try to get some sleep for tomorrow,” Frank said.
“Makes sense. Don’t let his foolishness distract you,” Rod said, pointing to me.
Frank laughed politely. “I’ve got it under control. No worries.”
“Alright good,” Rod said.
“Nice meeting you guys,” Ashley chimed in. “Drive safe.”
We said goodbye, got in the car and were on our way. Except our ride, which should’ve taken fifteen, maybe twenty, minutes turned into a few hours and a near disaster.
By the time we reached the end of Rod’s road I had finished one of three beers and had already begun to nag Frank to let me drive. This is also when the night began to get hazy. Here’s a rough timeline–to the best of my recollections with some input from Frank–of what happened:
2:00 AM: I’m working on my second beer. Frank is driving down routes 5 & 20 and I’m still nagging him to let me drive. Coming to the realization that he’s not going to let me take the wheel, I decide it’s a good opportunity to start the cleaning I’ve been putting off. I open the door and drop out old paper towels, Wegmans water bottles, old PBR cans, a wegmans pizza slice box. A stream of trash trails behind the Camry like mist behind a jet.
2:10 AM: Having run out of trash to throw out the door, I re-focus my energy on getting Frank to let me drive. He tells me I can drive when we get to Smith Road, just a block away from my house. Satisfied, I do my best sober act and wait in excitement to take the wheel.
2:15 AM: Frank pulls over and we switch spots. Only one street from my house, Frank seems comfortable with the confidence in my stride and in my ability to get us home safe.
I’m ready to test my control, like a test of performance under pressure. Why wouldn’t I? It’s in my blood and blood is a predisposition. You can be at odds with yourself, your lineage, or you can accept it and face the consequences as they arise, if at all.
It’s my turn to see how long I can hold the trigger and let the flame trail back toward the point of exploding. If it all works out like I’ve seen before I’ll feign the safety and control of a professional. Or, worse, I’ll believe I really had the control and safety of a trained professional.
Frank: Zack Where are you going?
Zack: We’re gonna hit 90 MPH. We’ve gotta do it.
Frank: Quit being an idiot. Take us to your house. I have to work in the morning.
Zack: Alright. As soon as we hit 90.
2:50 AM: I’m navigating unfamiliar roads with an adrenaline enhanced focus rarely associated with drunk driving. Or perhaps it’s a feeling derived from foolish pathos and bravado. Either way, I don’t take my eyes off the road or let myself become distracted by the scenery streaking by in a blur.
In between moments of speeding I look over at Frank and we talk. He seems to be enjoying himself and our discussions.
Frank: Hey Zack I’m really glad…
I cut Frank off with an abrupt acceleration. He grabs the “Oh Shit Strap” above the window and releases a nervous laugh. I push the 6 cylinders of my ‘94 Camry, ~250,000 miles to its name, to their upper limits. Unfamiliar with the roads on which I drive, I hit a large dip and the Camry lands with a violent slam.
3:30 AM: Frank and I are pulled over near a cornfield, looking out my sunroof and listening to Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief.
Zack: Why is my car making that terrible noise? It was fine today.
Frank: You don’t remember hitting that bump going almost ninety?
Zack: Oh. Oh yeahh…
Frank: Zack, you should probably start heading home. I’ve gotta work soon, you’re almost out of gas, and my phone is gonna die. If we get lost we’re fucked.
Zack: Dude, just call in. And don’t worry; I know where I’m going.
Frank: Just please start heading home. I’m not calling in for no reason.
Frank: You’re not even going in the right direction.
I notice from the sternness of his tone that Frank’s becoming frustrated.
Zack: I know where I’m going. We’re headed back towards 5 & 20. We’ll catch it near Geneva.
Frank: That’s not even right. We’re going the opposite direction of Geneva. Just pull over real quick. I’ll show you on my phone. We’re headed south on Seneca lake.
I pull over and as soon as we come to a complete stop Frank reaches over and takes the keys out of the ignition. Acting on impulse, I put Frank in a headlock and tell him to give me the keys. Frank refuses my demand and asks me to let go of him.
Zack: Not until you give me back the keys.
Frank: No way, dude. I’m driving back. I need to go to work and you’re just being a drunk asshole. Now let go of me.
Zack: No. I’m driving.
Frank punches me in the face.
Zack: YOU FUCKER!
I take hold of Frank’s prickly hair. He is an inch or two taller than me but we have similar body types. Doesn’t matter though because I now have all the leverage. In a moment of drunken, power-hungry rage I punch Frank’s tired face.
Zack: You want some more Frank?
I hit him again, disregarding our friendship and possible consequences. All I want is that key and my freedom to drive. I am desperate for control as if it will maintain and protect the sanctum of denial I’ve constructed over the past three months.
Don’t ever hit me.
Frank’s holding his hands up in a defensive position but I swing a few more times, connecting one strike under his left eye.
My flailing arms are the final desperate attempt for control and protection from a realization that I’ve built a false sense of contentment on a shaky foundation that’s about to collapse. They’re like the toddler pounding her fists on the floor in a tantrum or a swimmer panicking and caught in the undertow. My flailing arms are a deep biological expression of my frustration with life.
Frank: Zack! Please stop. I don’t want to fight you.
With this final plea I realize what I’m doing. Even though we haven’t moved in a few minutes, it feels as if the momentum from driving so fast has just now dissipated, along with any harmless fun our trip initially started off with. Now I’m just an asshole lost somewhere on Seneca Lake who just finished assaulting his close friend.
Zack: Oh my god. I am so sorry.
Frank: Zack, why were you doing that? You just completely freaked out.
Zack: I don’t even know… I felt threatened. You hit me first.
Frank: But you had me in a headlock. I just wanted to do the right thing.
Crying, I get out of the car.
Zack: Why would I do that?
I say it out loud, but to myself.
Before Frank can answer I start walking down the street. The sun has begun to rise and I can see the silhouettes of large barns and two silos maybe half a mile down the road. I throw my phone at the road and then stomp on it.
My tantrum continues, allowing me to ignore why I’ve ended up lost in the Finger Lakes. Instead of considering possible causes I continue shedding my belongings.
I throw my shoes in the ditch and sit down on the shoulder. “Why would I do that?” I ask aloud.
I’m asking the right question, but I don’t realize it’s misdirected. The better question is, “Why am I throwing such a tantrum?” What purpose does it serve? Do I feel better acting like a baby?
These are the sort of questions I should have asked myself. Of course, if I was unable to figure that out while sober, I definitely wasn’t going to be making much progress amidst a nihilistic rage in the unfamiliar boonies of Yates County.
Zack: Just take my car and leave.
Frank: Zack, it’s okay. You were just really drunk. Let’s go home and we can figure shit out another day.
Zack: I just don’t know why I would do that. To one of my best friends.
For the rest of the ride Frank does his best to console me, his friend who only a few minutes before made life’s frustrations a physical reality to Frank’s face. I try to listen but my self-questioning drowns out most of what he says.
* * *
I woke up late the next afternoon wishing I hadn’t. The events from last night re-occupied my mind, but it felt like a nightmare. I felt confused returning to that moment when I realized I’d been punching Frank because I almost didn’t remember it. It seemed like a distant memory from when I was younger, but I felt awful; the feelings were real as ever.
This was before I realized that a lot of the emotions I experience while hungover are amplified from my body feeling so tired. It doesn’t help that alcohol is a depressant and that I’ve usually drank enough to have some terrible withdrawal symptoms the following day, but this is all besides the point.
That night the way I felt about myself finally emerged. I realized that I viewed myself as a failure. And by shattering my phone I destroyed my connection to the world which I’ve blamed for making me feel like a failure.
In fact, it seems I already knew, deep down, that I felt this way, but I was in denial. Up until then I’d never actually failed at anything and now I was a college dropout. I’d dropped out of school and I couldn’t handle the opinions of all the people who told me I was too smart for that. Or all the people in my class who looked down on me. But it was all bullshit. I was depending on all these expectations and status indicators to define who I was, when the only person I really needed to look to was myself. It’s a cliche of self reliance and self definition, but it’s a cliche because it’s true.
After sitting on the couch and reflecting on my actions from the night before I wrote Frank an apologetic email:
I don’t know what to do or say or how to express how terrible I feel right now. I’m really sorry–and I hate to use that word because it’s so cliche and only seems to mean something but really ends up being a cop-out for people when they intellectually know what they’ve done is wrong but don’t actually regret or feel bad for doing it.
But that’s definitely not how I feel and I really hope you believe me.
I feel like I’m chasing a ghost that I’ve caught glimpses of but still don’t believe it’s real. Except ghosts cannot be captured. And I know I have a problem and every once in a while I start to believe it’s gone but then it re-appears. I know I should get help, but somehow that seems to be the hardest part.
What happened last night should never have happened.
The flame had trailed back to the can for the first time in my life and I glimpsed how foolish my sense of control was. I vowed to myself that I’d relax for the rest of the summer and I looked forward to getting away to Binghamton in a couple months. It wouldn’t be far from home, and it wouldn’t be luxurious, but it would grant me a break, some freedom. What the fuck did I want out of life? Was I happy with what I’d done and been so far? What changes did I want to make?
I’d finally have some space to formulate some sort of answers about my life up until then.