HAPPY BEER DAYa short story by Brian Sloan Part 2
Hooter’s has good food. At least that’s what Vernie keeps insisting as we all get dressed down to go out for dinner at the infamous chain restaurant that we have all been able to avoid (except Vernie, that is) until now.
“The onion rings are amazing,” says Vernie, yelling from the bathroom as she preps her legs.
“Yeah right,” says Ty, very skeptically as he slips into a third pair of colorful underwear, unsure which day-glo shade goes best with his russet tan. “You just wanna go for some of that breast meat, right?”
“Ewww,” says Celia, who is squeamish when it comes to sex and body parts. Even the one’s she’s attracted to. “That’s just gross.”
It’s 7:45 p.m. as the four of us run around the room trying frantically to get ready before the shuttle bus leaves at 8. We are going to the Hooters in Matamoros, just across the Mexican border. This is so everyone can get equally wasted in public since the drinking age there is 18. Previously, we’ve kept ourselves busy (and drunk) by hitting other room-parties in the hotel. But tonight we’re going public.
We are supposed to meet up downstairs with our straight posse, Paul and Martine and Gayle and Sureesh. They missed my official birthday celebration due to a booze cruise commitment. Still, I’ve asked everyone that tonight not be a sequel because I can’t take more than one 21st birthday. Yet, even before we leave the room, my wishes are not being heeded.
“Birthday shots,” says Ty as he pulls out a bottle of Jack stashed in his suitcase.
Vernie, having heard the battle cry, runs out of the bathroom with shaving cream on her left leg. Celia is not nearly as eager as her girlfriend but gets up off the bed and joins in Ty’s celebratory mood anyway. I, however, do not.
“Oh no,” I say, protesting from my reclining position on The Queen’s Bed. “My birthday is over. I’m an old man now.”
“C’mon gramps,” says Ty, pleading with me, boring his dangerous black-hole eyes into me. Crap. I am always a sucker for Ty’s eyes.
“OK—but just one,” I say and there is a general rejoicing in the room.
We all down our shots utilizing the cap from Vernie’s shaving cream. I point out that the top of her Nivea canister seems to hold somewhat more than one shot (probably 2 1/2) but no one cares. As each of us down our “shot”, we all scream for no particular reason. Wooooooo! Actually, I don’t scream but no one notices.
In the shuttle, Ty grabs the front seat so he can ride shotgun and work the tunes. He always has to exert some control over the music. Ty turns the Beyonce way up, to the right, to the right, the noise of the song rattling the mini-van’s windows. There is a moan of “too loud!” from the back and he modulates the dial. Under cover of the music, Celia leans over to me and speaks into my ear.
“So,” she says, discreetly. “Did you call Ryan?”
“What?” I say, pretending not to hear or understand what she means by asking me if I have called Ryan to see if he’s okay. More lame lying. I’ve gotta work on that.
“Did you call Ryan and see how he is?” she says. “If he’s okay.”
I shake my head “no” in response.
“Don’t listen to Ty,” she continues. “I think you should call him.”
“Thanks Celia,” I say, feeling the effects of the Jack, which means I’m feeling a little bitchy. “And don’t forget that you can text your vote to IDOL582. Though a 50 cent surcharge does apply.”
Celia slaps me playfully on the shoulder.
“I’m sure he’s fine and I’m not gonna call,” I say flatly.
“Alright,” she asks. Then she gets mushy. “Do you still miss him?”
Of course, this is not a yes or no question. This is one of those questions where the answer displays itself in a news-crawl that scrolls across my newly wrinkled forehead and reads in big electronic capital letters--“DUH”.
“Then call,” she says with her best girlish sincerity.
It’s a nice idea. Problem is I’ve had this idea a few times before in the last 30 days. Alright, truth is I’ve had this idea every single day since we broke up. Often more than once a day. Especially, in the evenings. The urge to call Ryan always seems to hit me strongest after coming home from some illegal loft party in Bushwick, having had three too many beers and finding myself getting off at the wrong subway stop on purpose just so I can walk past Ryan’s on my long way home for no other reason than to see if the light is on and that he still exists.
But this week, the whole point was that I was supposed to not think about Ryan. Spring break was going to be a break from not only my second semester of junior year but all my random thoughts of Ryan. The idea was that it would be an uninterrupted seven-day period where I wouldn’t see anything that reminded me of him, or hear his name in overheard conversations, or be in a one-mile radius of his apartment building, or i-stalk him on Facebook or any of that crap. I would be far far away and, literally, on an island. And this break would be a relief, not having these thoughts of him obsess me anymore. At least, that was the plan…
Vernie orders a large plate of onion rings. They are surprisingly as delicious as she has promised but, then again, we are on our third pitcher of Corona and second round of Petron shots. And we are having fun. Even I’m having fun. All is good as we talk about how gorgeous the weather is, how hot the guys from UT-Austin are and who Martine has hooked up with on the beach that afternoon. Then the shooting comes up again. This time, it’s courtesy of Sureesh who got a call from one of his housemates.
“One of the cops that got killed was an NYU student,” says Sureesh.
Everyone at the table is instantly confused and dumbfounded. Sureesh explains how one of the guys was an auxiliary cop who volunteers and wears a uniform but doesn’t have a gun.
“Oh I get it,” says Ty. “The dude was a fuckin’ narc.”
The girls are deeply upset by Ty’s remark. But Ty won’t retract his statement or even amend it.
“The way I see it,” he continues, like an ass. “If some guy wants to dress up like a cop for fun and get himself shot, serves him right.”
Sureesh then adds a chilling detail. This NYU guy was pre-law and a junior as well. His name was Eugene and he was 20. And suddenly this all sounds sorta familiar.
“You know what?” I say. “I think that guy was in my Political Systems survey last semester.”
“Ohmygod,” says Celia. “Really?”
“Yeah,” I say, recalling him because of his name. There’s not a lot of Eugene’s at NYU.
But before I can get into more details, there is a burst of tinny music on the Hooters loudspeakers. It’s the all-too-familiar Happy Birthday song. As if on cue, everyone starts screaming excitably. Except me. My stomach sinks as our table is surrounded by a squadron of perky, booby Mexican babes singing to me in awkward, phonetic English.
“Hoppy Burr-Day, toooo yewwww!!!”
A sizzling chocolate cake lands in front of me with sparklers instead of candles. On the cake, purple icing spells out “Happy Beer Day” in handwriting that seems oddly familiar. I glance over at Ty, equally annoyed and charmed as I realize this is all his doing. He winks at me from the far end of the table and, for some reason, it makes me feel like crying. I appreciate Ty’s goofy, heartfelt effort but I want Ryan there winking at me instead of him. I’m sorry but that’s the truth.
After the bad birthday singing has ended and the huge cake is cut and eaten, the topic turns away from murder and death to the usual Spring Break subjects, like tans and tits. Quietly, I excuse myself from the table saying I have to pee. But really I need to get away from all of this celebration and chit-chat. I need to call Ryan. Immediately.
In the “Cabelleros” room, I go into one of the stalls and sit down on the toilet with my pants on. I feel weird and stupid, like I’m back in high school hiding out from bullies. But I’m actually hiding out from my friends, embarrassed to be calling Ryan even with the alleviating circumstances of the shooting. Celia, of course, would understand what I’m doing. Vernie…no way. Ty…forget about it.
I take out my cell and start dialing but nothing happens. I think I’m wasted and have forgotten how to work my phone. I try again. Silence. Then I actually look at the screen and see there are absolutely no bars. I’m in Mexico. Even though I’m barely 10 miles from the Texas border, it doesn’t negate the fact that Mexico is still another country.
I flush the toilet for effect and go to the mirror. Uh-oh. I start the old-age stare-down and ask myself the question of the week—21 or 31? The lighting is slightly better in Hooters than it was in our Best Western bathroom, dimmer and not as florescent. The answer, though, remains the same. 31, easily. I look so goddamn old it’s scary. I wonder if maybe I’ve put on all this age in my lonely post-Ryan month. And then I hear my true age in my head and even that sounds pretty old. 21. Twenty. One. Twenty full years plus one whole additional year of 365 long days, not to mention the somewhat tortuous 20 hours and 47 minutes of this particular day after my 21st birthday. And thinking about all these numbers I realize something so obvious and profound and simply alarming; the clock is ticking.
“Darren broke the bed.”
This is what Ty says when Vernie and Celia enter the room to discover both of us on the floor next to the collapsed corner of The Queens Bed. I would defend myself from this accusation but I can’t stop laughing.
“You guys are gonna have to pay for that shit,” says Vernie, smoking and gesticulating wildly. “That is fucked up.”
“It’s all Darren’s fault,” says Ty. “He tackled me.”
Of course, this is not true. I could not tackle Ty any more than I could fly. Ty is huge. What happened was what usually happens when Ty gets drunk: he starts wrestling with me whether I like it or not. Actually, I have to say, this was the rare occasion where I almost sorta liked it. It took my mind off Ryan and Eugene and how old I had become. Wrestling with Ty made me feel almost young again. It made me feel like I was 10.
“Get off the floor and get cleaned up,” says Vernie. “We’ll deal with the bed later. There’s a kegger in 1203.”
On hearing of another opportunity to party, Ty jumps up from the floor and screams. Woooooo! He offers me his hand and I get up too. But I do not scream because I really don’t want to go to a kegger. Really.
“Have fun,” I say, kicking off my shoes and throwing my jean jacket on the dresser.
“You’re not coming?” says Celia, confused. “But you’ve gotta come.”
“Yeah man,” says Ty, punching me in the arm. “No wimping out on your birthday.”
I appreciate their offer but remind them both, for the 40th time that day, that it is no longer my birthday. In fact, it hasn’t been my birthday for more than 20 hours. But they don’t care.
“You’re coming,” says Vernie, yelling from the bathroom as she repositions her hair and gives herself a quick facial touch-up.
Ignoring this, I take my socks off to indicate my true unwillingness to leave the room. I then plop down on the girls’ bed and look for the remote.
“I’m beat,” I say. “And wasted.”
I glance at Celia who stands by the dresser checking her hair in the mirror. We glance at each other and I give her the third, unstated reason with my eyes. Ryan. She gets it and ducks her chin with a very subtle nod. Then, stepping into the bathroom, she relays this quietly to Vernie so that a) Ty won’t hear and b) Vernie won’t press the issue anymore. It works. Ty is fortunately so pumped for the next party that he doesn’t really care that much if I coming along or not. And soon enough, they all head noisily out the door.
“Let’s do this!” says Ty and they are gone.
Even though I’m back in America with bars on my phone and sitting on the bed all by myself, I’m not so sure I’m actually going to call Ryan. My Hooter’s buzz has worn off slightly and I’m not feeling as emotionally motivated as I was when my cake arrived. Besides, I realize that I have no idea what I might say if I did call him. The last contact Ryan and I had was a very final email in which I said to him that I was “moving on”. I also used the unfortunate phrase “end of the road” to describe the situation between us. I hesitated when I first wrote it and then deleted it and re-inserted it about 10 times before finally sending it with an ominous sinking feeling in my stomach. So after all that, what can I possibly say to him now? That it wasn’t the end of the road after all? That there was some hidden alleyway I discovered recently? Or that I merely had made a wrong turn and got lost on a side street?
Suddenly, I’m angry. I am thinking about Ryan and (HELLO!) that’s not supposed to be the point of Spring Break. So, not wanting to think about him anymore, I turn on the TV for distraction. I watch MTV and then VH-1. “I Love New York” is on and it is stupidly entertaining and even makes me laugh. Love on TV always looks like so much goofy fun. It makes me wonder why the reality is so wildly different. Is it me? Or maybe TV just lies about everything.
Skipping through channels, I stop on CNN and there is a new report on the shooting at NYU. More awful details emerge: the gunman had 100 rounds of ammo on him. Some stray bullets flew by a woman nearly two blocks away. The whole neighborhood was barricaded by police overnight. Both cops were shot execution style. Then, they show some pictures of the two auxiliary policemen. The picture of Eugene is fuzzy but I recognize him instantly. Front right corner of the classroom in Main, 2nd desk from the window, always dressed respectably in button-down shirts and pants that were not dirty or torn or overly labeled like most student apparel. He was smart too, one of those students Professor Blackwell called “bright”. He was 20. And now, he’s nothing.
Thinking about Eugene and how he didn’t even make it to 21 makes me start to cry. A lot. Two parallel streams cascade down my cheeks and my shoulders shake a bit. I try not to breath too heavy or make crying sounds in case someone comes back to the room. But it doesn’t work. I am basically sobbing and it’s not good. Jumping up from the bed, I race into the bathroom so that no one can hear me and I cry into the sink. I think that maybe I’m going nuts since I don’t know Eugene that well. Actually, I don’t know him at all.
When I’m done losing it, I splash some water on my face and go back to the room feeling utterly hopeless yet oddly refreshed. Must be a post-crying thing, I think. On the TV, CNN has moved on to the latest “War on Terror” news and I mute the sound. I pick up my cell and dial Ryan’s number from memory as he is no longer in my phone. He answers after three rings.
“Hi Darren,” he says plainly, like we talked yesterday.
“Hi,” I say baffled.
I thought we weren’t talking and now…we are. This is weird. This doesn’t make sense. I try to pretend, though, that it does make sense. I go conversational.
“So,” I say. “How’s it going?”
“I’m alive,” he says in his flat, sardonic tone. And it hits me that he knows exactly why I’m calling. The shooting.
“I guess you’ve gotten a lot of calls,” I say, realizing that’s the reason for his familiar tone. He knew I was gonna call. Like he was waiting for it almost. Damn him.
“Oh yeah,” he says in an odd sing-songy voice. “Just my entire family and half of the student body of NYU.”
He laughs, barely. His laugh is so slight, so different than Ty’s. I had almost forgotten that and how much I loved it. I want to say something funny to hear it again but nothing comes to mind. In fact, nothing at all comes to mind.
“Hellooo,” he says. “You there?”
“Yeah,” I say, trying to cover my nervousness. “Bad connection.”
It isn’t. At least not technically. I continue…
“But…uh, you’re okay?”
“Oh yeah,” he says. “I was at the library during the whole thing, working in the Reference section on my Pysch project. The worst was that when I got to Houston Street, there was a wall of police and cars. The cops wouldn’t let me go to my apartment so I had to sleep on Keith’s couch.”
Who is Keith, I wonder. But I don’t ask, realizing that maybe it doesn’t matter that much since Keith didn’t let Ryan sleep in his bed.
“That sucks,” I say.
And then, silence. I know what he’s doing though. He’s nodding. This is what Ryan does when he’s not talking on his phone and just listening to the other end. He nods and waits. But I don’t know what to say to him. Fortunately, he picks up my slack.
“So,” he says, fake cheerily. “What’s up with you?”
I explain to him about Spring Break, which he thinks is pretty funny. Spring Break is so not me. Fortunately, though, this means I get his laugh again. Wow. Then I tell him about my birthdays, both of them, and about Ty’s cake, something that is also very not Ty. He laughs about that too and my ear gets a little tingly.
“I was gonna call you yesterday,” he says. “On your birthday and all. But I didn’t know if you wanted to hear from me.”
“Yeah?” I say, trying to be jokey about it. “What gave you that impression?”
Ryan doesn’t laugh at this. I have hit on a serious topic and there is no way he’s gonna let me get away with a joke about something like this.
“Well, uh…I thought we weren’t talking,” he says matter of fact-ly.
“We weren’t, “ I say, equally matter-of-fact-ly.
“And now,” he says, not finishing the thought. Leaving that up to me. Great.
“I guess…we are talking,” I say. Obviously.
And then, I try to explain. I tell him that I was so mad last month that I couldn’t talk to him. I tell him that things have changed recently. I tell him that I’ve thought about him every day since February 14th. I tell him that I’ve wanted to call him every single day for the last month. I tell him that suddenly I’m old and tired and I really really really miss him a lot. And when I’m done saying all this I hear something I’ve never heard before.
“Are…are you crying?” I ask.
“Yeah, “ he says.
I am astounded. Dumbfounded. This can’t be happening. Ryan doesn’t cry. That’s my thing. Jesus. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do. I have absolutely no idea where to go from here.
“So,” he says, his voice marginally solid again. “I guess this isn’t the end of the road then?”
I ruin the emotional moment by laughing. The reason it’s so funny is that it’s so Ryan to throw my words back at me like this. He used to do this all the time, quoting me and even imitating my voice solely to annoy the living crap out of me. But, in this context, I don’t have that much of a problem with it.
“I guess not,” I say.
“Well…maybe we should talk some more when you’re back,” he says in a voice that is calm but clearly emotional. “Talking on the phone like this kinda sucks.”
“Actually, Spring Break is what really sucks,” I say.
Ryan laughs at this in his usual, understated way. Then, signing off, he tells me to tell Vernie and Celia he said “hi” and not to tell Ty anything because Ty will never let him or me live it down. That’s for sure.
Then, just before he hangs up, Ryan wishes me a Happy Beer Day in his wry, Ryan-sorta way. Even though it’s now actually March 16th, a full two days after the big event, I don’t point this out or correct him or anything. I just say…