I hate this apartment. I hate the floor, and the walls, and the ceiling. I hate the drunken shouting two floors up, the moaning bedsprings, the neon signs advertising vacancy. No wonder. No one in their right mind would want to live here. The lights don’t work all that well either, but to be honest, I’m kind of grateful. A single bulb by the side of the bed illuminates just a sliver of floor, and still I can see mounds of bent and broken bottle caps, towers of ash and several black stains in the carpet. The scary part is that I cannot remember for which of these I am responsible.
I remind myself that this is not a permanent solution. It’s not all bad either. The people across the hall are smuggling a dog, a chocolate lab named Annie, who’s absolutely adorable. It’s warmer here than anywhere I’ve been before. It’s just hard sometimes, you know? Like, they build up college to be this incredible thing, like all you’re gonna do is stand in front of manicured lawns, smiling angelically, surrounded by a group of improbably diverse friends. I mean, we live in Arkansas. How stupid do they think we are?
Again, I tell myself that I’m going to find a job, that I’m going to get out of this place, that everything’s gonna be fine. I almost believe it too, sitting on my mattress, following the twisted cracks in the paint on the ceiling. I think that if one’s going to get hungover, it’s probably best to do it on a Saturday anyways.
I wake up some time later, the left side of my face sweaty from being pressed against the sheet. I’m still not used to the heat. My phone says it’s 4:45 p.m. It’s not late enough to try and fall asleep for the night, so I convince myself to get up and walk into the living room.
The place is essentially one large trash can. I count a total of five one-liter Mountain Dew bottles lying empty in various corners of the room. My clothes seem to have planned an elaborate escape from their regular positions on the floor of my bedroom, several have made it as far as the kitchen table. I need to call Mom. Instead, I grab a handful of trail mix and plop myself down on the couch.
I flip through soap operas and car commercials, but nothing grabs my attention. There’s a couple fighting upstairs. Someone’s blasting music down the hall, I can hear the bass pounding through the walls. The TV flashes different colors, pink and red and yellow, as I flip through channels, too fast to really see what’s playing. Suddenly, I need to get out of the apartment. Like, right now. It feels a little hard to breathe. I squeeze my eyes shut. Calm yourself down, you’re okay, just go the fuck outside. I manage a shallow, shaky gasp of a breath that only makes me more panicky. Feel your feet against the carpet. Can you feel the weight? I try, I actually do, but I’m not really in my living room anymore. One of the scary parts about it, is how fast it happens.
Some part of me knows that I’m still inside. I can feel the warmth of the sun on my back through the living room window. I can smell sweat on my skin. But I can smell other things too: tequila, and weed, and this one very specific musty smell Rebecca’s car always had. I can hear music turned up way too loud. I can feel the bass in my hands through the steering wheel.
“Eli, it’s you,” Rebecca says. There’s a lit joint in her hands. It’s dark. Through the haze of smoke I can see the green glow of the little clock on the dashboard reads 1:34 a.m.
I laugh. “Dude I’m driving.” She starts to turn to the backseat, ready to pass it on. “No, wait,” I say. “Will you hold it for me?” I laugh again, loud and drunk and fearless. And then Rebecca’s laughing too, her arm moving back toward me. Smoke twirls from the end of the joint as she glides it through the air. She puts it up to my lips and I breathe in. I can feel the damp paper on my mouth, the hot air entering my lungs, the warm hum of my whole body.
The stoplights are blinking red. There’s basically no one on the road. From the backseat, I hear Tyler say, “Oh my god. Eliot, is there an In-N-Out anywhere near here?”
Behind me, Max shouts over the music. “There totally is! Wait, Rebecca, can you see how far it is?”
She looks at me, I nod, and she takes out her phone. The music feels amazingly loud and warm and sparkling. I mouth the words, watching the thin white lines on the road blur together. Rebecca’s voice brings me back, for a moment. “It says it’s nineteen minutes.”
I’m studying the way our headlights bounce off road signs. Everything’s glowing. Far ahead, the city sprawls out between the hills, a million little lights twinkling in the distance.
“Eli, do you wanna go?” Rebecca asks.
“Uh, yeah.” My tongue feels heavy.
There’s much rejoicing in the backseat, but it’s buried under the music and several layers of mental fatigue. My arms feel really heavy now too. I shift in my seat. Occasionally a car will rush past on the other side of the barrier, making a swooshing sound. The streetlights slip by like shooting stars.
“Eli, slow down.” Rebecca’s voice is slow and soupy. The bass is still pounding. “Eliot.” It sounds like those videos on YouTube where people add effects to songs, so it’s like “‘The Night We Met,’ but You’re Under Water at a Pool Party” or whatever. I can hear the engine whirring. “Eliot! Jesus Christ Eliot!”
My whole body tenses up when we hit the median. I can feel it for weeks afterward, like none of my muscles can ever fully relax. It feels like I’m getting punched in the face in slow motion. I can’t breathe. I can’t see. For a second, I think the whole car has flipped and my face is being pressed against the floor. Am I still sitting in my seat? I reach my left arm up, trying to feel for a seatbelt and my shoulder explodes with pain. I scream, at which point it becomes clear that my face is being pressed into fabric. I can feel the rubbery thread against my tongue.
For a few beautiful moments, all I can feel is the pain in my face and my shoulder, and even though I know what just happened, it doesn’t really click yet. I hear Rebecca, her voice no longer distant, making a sort of choking sound; I feel the wheel still clenched between my fingers, and the thought balloons until it’s the only thing I think, until I can’t imagine being able to think anything else ever again: your fault, your fault.
I squeeze my eyes even harder, my mouth pulled back in a sort of grimace. My fists are balled up, pushing against my eyelids. Sweat pours down my back, my thighs slick against the fake leather of the couch. Your fault, your fault, your fault, your fault. The TV is still on, some stupid jingle bleeding into my consciousness from the edges. Your fault, your fault, your fault. My heart is beating really fast. I can still smell the tequila on my breath. Your fault, your fault, your fault, your fault.
“SHUT UP I KNOW!” I open my eyes, my scream still echoing around me in the empty living room. It’s late afternoon. A woman on TV is singing about her new electric toothbrush. I rest my head against the back of the couch, looking up at the low ceiling. “You’re okay,” I say, again out loud. “You’re a fucking idiot, but you’re okay.”
I’m still not ready to move. For a while I just sit there, waiting for my body to calm down, listening to someone fight with the trash chute down the hallway.
Eventually, I convince myself to get up. I strip off my sweat-soaked clothes, toss them onto the floor with their friends, and get in the shower. I let the hot water rush over my face, feel my feet against the smooth tiles, and for a moment, I really am okay. Standing there, making patterns in the condensation on the shower door, it feels ridiculous that I ever let myself get so overwhelmed. I make a list in my head of the chores I still need to do. How hard is it to clean my room? To apply for jobs? To call my mom?
It amazes me how quickly my mood can shift. Intellectually, I know that I’ve felt this way before, that my short bursts of self-confidence invariably collapse in on themselves the moment I’m confronted by the prospect of actually turning my plans into actions. But each time I get this way, it feels real. It feels sustainable. Each time I get this way, it feels like this time, I’ve found my way to a place of real stability.
The room is pretty hot now, steam pooling against the low ceiling. I take a deep breath, a real one, without the shake or tension. Who’s to say I’m wrong?
Asher Witkin is a singer-songwriter from Berkeley, California. While these are his first published pieces of writing, you can find his music wherever you listen to songs, or check out his website at asherwitkin.com.