One night, when I was in grade school, my parents hosted a party. Other families came, co-workers. There were drinks. A man in a yellow tie had a margarita and then another and another. He said his ex-wife was a tramp. He stumbled as he passed from the living room into the den, where we kids were playing, entered the room looking unsure of why he walked into it.
“A bitch,” he said. “Total bitch.”
That night, I swore to my mom I’d never drink. She laughed, asked me why. I said I hated that man, that there was no need to drink, that I was happy without it. I was seven or maybe eight. She said I’d understand when I was older. I lay in bed, unable to sleep, knowing I’d prove my mom wrong.
The first time I got drunk was at Vlad’s, the summer after my freshman year of high school. We bought a handle of vodka so cheap, we thought, that the homeless man we’d given a twenty to buy it had given us seventeen dollars change. We passed the bottle with a shot glass and a chaser of store-brand cola. Around my fourth shot, everything started spinning. It felt good, wholesome, the ritual. Later, trying to sleep on Vlad’s floor, head resting on my bunched-up hoodie, I thought about what I swore to my mom, her laughter, and I felt an unmooring. Who knew what I’d believe in ten years? Twenty? Who would I be?
I was friends with Vlad because he and I rode the city bus together after school. By that point, my mom and dad had divorced, and on days at my dad’s house I’d ride one bus out from the suburbs into the core of downtown Seattle, where I’d walk up Stewart to wait by a garbage can on the backside of the convention center for the number 18, which then took me to school, just a stone’s throw from my mom’s. Vlad and I took advantage of our afternoons downtown, hitting the market for donuts or piroshkies or hum bao, drinking dollar tallboys of Arizona Iced Tea from minimarts where homeless people moved around in parallel to our thin reality, buying hot dogs or imitation crab sold on Styrofoam trays wrapped in cellophane.
Vlad had a knack for finding free food. At GameWorks we strolled the arcade, swiping a chicken leg off an abandoned plate, a slice of pizza at the bar. In the shampoo-scented hallways of downtown hotels, we found room service carts with scraps of porterhouse and baked potato, or the browned edges of a salmon frittata, the last bits of flesh out of the carcass of a Dungeness crab. We’d walk to the ballpark and talk down a scalper, or head up to the Starbucks on the forty-fourth floor of the Columbia Center to take in the view. Eventually, we’d split. I’d catch the 511 out way north, the ride quiet, still with the sodden air of evening commuters.
Vlad dropped out before the end of the school year. It made me wish I could drive. I’d sit alone in the back of the number 18, my biology textbook open on my lap, my gaze elsewhere, following the sequence of teriyaki joints and coffee shops, rain puddling at the curb.
My senior year, I saw Vlad in the parking lot at Leilani Lanes. I heard he’d been stealing cars. I’d tried to avoid him, but he caught up to me, put his hand on my shoulder. He asked if I wanted to buy some greeting cards and produced from under his jacket a small binder of samples. He told me I could make a good buck in the greeting-card game and invited me over to see how it was done.
His house, his parents’ house, smelled like chicken and mildew. None of his family was home but his friend was there, a guy with a gentle, fragile smile that made me anxious. He was seated in the parlor, where they’d spread a table with patterned cardstock, scissors, bottles of glue. Vlad asked if I was hungry and retrieved a roast chicken from the fridge, submerged in its own congealed juice. We ate it cold, with our hands, our fingers glistening.
We smoked a joint in the woods. His friend talked about how it easy it was to crib a Toyota. I got the sense he was trying to impress me. Vlad asked if I wanted to steal a car with them.
“Nah,” I said, and wondered why I hadn’t just said no.
We wandered the neighborhood in the wash of streetlight, going nowhere in particular. I kept smelling my hand, thinking about if my mom would smell the weed.
When I’d come home the morning after getting drunk for the first time, I’d been worried she would smell alcohol on my breath. I could feel booze in my mouth and lungs, in my pores, in my sweat. I stood in the entryway telling her we mostly played Xbox.
“Are you okay?” she said. I felt like I’d been emptied out and then filled with vapor. But from her tone and expression I knew that she knew what I’d done and also that she didn’t mind. It was like I’d crashed through some invisible barrier from one reality into another more like hers. She had known my whole life this feeling that felt so new, this hollowness and also the night’s strange spinning joy.
My hand didn’t smell like weed, but it did smell like chicken cartilage. Those days I thought a lot about the smell of food because I was working part-time washing dishes at a burger joint. I was terrible at it. Each day I’d come home soaked, my shirt thick with grease, ketchup, tartar.
“You going to college?” Vlad asked.
“Where?” his friend said.
“California,” I said. “Got a scholarship.”
Vlad said, “What are you gonna study?”
I’d been telling people business with a minor in art history but that was a lie. My mom had a fantasy of my future where I ran a restaurant and painted on the side, but all I knew was the certainty of a looming void stretching out before me. I still felt like a child, no direction, no idea what was next. And here was Vlad. Whatever next was, he was already living it.
We turned a corner and another, began to run out of small talk. I didn’t know it would be the last time I saw Vlad, but I didn’t not know it either. There was a damp gust, and I zipped my baggy raincoat shut. It was cold but not too cold, wet but not really raining.