HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS by Aaron Burch

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS by Aaron Burch

I’m on my knees on the floor of my childhood bedroom, sifting through boxes of my stuff my parents never threw away, when my phone rings, cracking the shell of my nostalgia trip. Pulled back to earth, back to the town where I grew up, back into the house, the very room, of my youth. Crack. Just like that.

Sobered up, it all looks like I’m in the epicenter of a detonated bomb of growing up. Splayed out around me are treasured keepsakes and ephemera that should have been thrown away long ago and everything in between. Grade school report cards, photos of me in little kid sport uniforms made up to look like baseball cards, birthday cards from my long deceased grandparents, loose sheets of paper with clumsily beautiful drawings of penguins and dinosaurs and families standing outside square houses with triangle roofs and a sun always looming in the top right corner, journals and diaries with the first few pages full of my little kid writing and then pages and pages left blank after I gave up. 

I’m going through the closet of boxes because my parents are driving me crazy and I needed a break, a respite, anything to distract myself from being an asshole to people who are driving me crazy only because they’re my parents and I’ve been home for three days; and I’ve been home for three days because it’s the holidays and I didn’t have anywhere else to go, and, as much as spending my days off home alone sounded appealingly quiet, every time I thought about someone asking what I was going to door what I didfor the holidays, having to tell them I spent my holidays in my new apartment re-watching The Wire felt too depressing; and so, instead of dealing with that small moment of feeling pathetic, I confirmed with my parents that they weren’t going anywhere or doing anything, bought a ticket, and packed as much as I could into a backpack, pretending like I was setting off on the gap year backpacking trip to Europe I’d always fantasized would have helped me become the person I was actually supposed to be; and I have all this vacation time; and even though company policy is that we aren’t supposed to take our vacation time during the holidays because it’s such a busy time of year, when my boss reminded me of said company policy, I pulled the recency of divorce card, which felt gross even while doing it, but not gross enough to stop me from adding in a little flourish of a hitch in my voice, stuttering a little over my I know, I know, it’s just…

My parents’ excited surprise when opening their door the week of Christmas and seeing their only son standing there in front of them made the whole trip worth it. Or, at least, that has been what I keep telling myself every time I wish I was home alone, stoned on my couch, eating obnoxious amounts of takeout and bingeing old seasons of Survivor.

My phone’s ringing stops like the alarm everyone knew was a test, it was only a test, and the room re-fills with the dulled, flattened-out music from the condensed amplification of my phone nestled inside my parents’ Welcome to Las Vegas mug. Neither of my parents drinks coffee. Nor has either ever been to Vegas, that I know of.

It takes a moment, but then the song catches my attention. I don’t recognize it. This isn’t my “get stoned and sad” playlist. It must have played all the way through, and segued into algorithmically chosen songs that some AI decided I’d like after getting stoned and sad. That this is all happening in the room I grew up in, and also that I’m not even stoned, makes it all a couple of layers sadder. The phone rings again andfuck itthe shell is cracked, the trip brought back to reality, so I reach up and grab it and answer. 

“Hello?” 

I’m holding a birthday card my grandmother gave me when I turned eight, waiting for someone to tell me my car is out of warranty or pitching a lower interest rate for student loans I don’t have. There’s nothing special about the card—standard 1980s Hallmark, the only handwritten addition a signed “Grammy”—but I do the math, trying to map her funeral onto a calendar of memories. I could be wrong, but I think this was the last birthday card she gave me. How often are telemarketers caught off guard by the person on the other end of the line spontaneously breaking into tears? Probably not often; probably more than never.

“Biggest bar night of the year!” my phone yells at me.

I don’t know if it’s the voice itself or the cadence of the enthusiasm, but my brain connects that voice to face to name to person immediately, ignoring twenty years like connecting two ends of a line back into the flat circle of itself of time. Billy.

“Billy!” I say.

I drop the card back onto the pile of my childhood to focus on what it means to hear from an old friend again after so long. Are either of us anywhere near the same person as we were when we’d known each other a lifetime ago? Of course not. And also of course yes. And then, finally, my brain lets go of his voice and cadence and enthusiasm and translates what he actually said.

“Wait, what?” I ask.

“Biggest bar night!” he says again. “Let’s go out! Like old times!”

I wonder why he thinks going out to a bar might be like old times that had preexisted us being twenty-one and going to bars, and I wonder why he isn’t doing anything with his family, which I know he has from my parents telling me about him, his life, his wife and kids, his receding hairline, his shopping cart always having a “box” of beer, their words, after every time they run into him at the grocery store. It only happens a couple of times a year, give or take, which is surprisingly seldom for them living in the same small town with only a few grocery store options, but is often enough to feel like I’ve pretty well kept up with his life despite just how much of it has happened since we last saw each other, and I wonder how he even knew I was in town. One of those grocery store run-ins is the obvious answer, though my parents haven’t mentioned it, and I don’t think it’s possible for that to have happened and them to have not.

I wonder why he’s confused tonight, Christmas Eve, with the night before Thanksgiving. I wonder if anyone calls it Thanksgiving Eve. I wonder why, and when, and how that became universally accepted as the “biggest bar night of the year.”

I wonder why my parents have kept all this crap, and I wonder why I kept that specific birthday card. There is so little special about the card itself. My grandmother would pass away within the year, but I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t have any reason to believe this card would be the last. 

I’m not wondering what Sara is doing right now. Definitely not. Not at all. Hasn’t occurred to me once.

“Isn’t that the night before Thanksgiving?” I finally ask, wondering if the goof was purposeful or not. I wonder if mistaking Thanksgiving Eve with Christmas Eve was even more how I recognized it as Billy, even more than voice or cadence or enthusiasm or who-even-knows-what-else. Billy had always been like that. Whatever like that means.

“Isn’t what?”

“Biggest bar night of the year.”

“It is whatever we say it is!” Billy says. “Remember that? It is whatever we say it is!” he says again.

I hadn’t. But suddenly I do. It comes out of nowhere, all at once.

For a year, maybe two, in high school, that’s what we said about nearly everything. More often than not, it didn’t even really make sense. Which only made it that much funnier. I don’t remember who said it first or when or why, but once it was introduced into our lives, it became our inside joke, our catchphrase, our mantra. “That wasn’t really a kickflip.” It is whatever we say it is! “Damn, I failed that test in Mr. Garet’s Biology class.” It is whatever we say it is! “Do you think there’s any chance Ally would go to the dance with me if I asked?” It is whatever we say it is!

The wave of it all coming back crashes over me and I start laughing. A laugh that feels, and I only imagine sounds, like the laugh of teenagerdom. I can’t stop. I can’t even catch my breath. I am pulled under into the riptide of nostalgia. 

There he is!” Billy says. “I’ll come pick you up. Be there in twenty?”

“Sure,” I say.

The dial tone comes fast, like I was the one who’d been keeping him. 

I look around. I pick up my School Years book and flip through it, either the slowest or fastest stop-motion chronicling of grades Kindergarten through 6, depending on what you’re measuring against, how you want to look at it. I haven’t yet figured out how I want to look at it. Every year—first by my parents, and then by me—there’s a little less recordkeeping, which feels like it means…something. I haven’t figured that out yet either. 

The doorbell rings. Crack. Apparently this flip through my childhood took twenty minutes. 

My parents’ doorbell is maybe even more transportive than Billy’s voice, than a mantra from your youth, than an archive of your childhood spread out all around you. The doorbell rings and I’m immediately sixteen again. I’m sitting in this very room, Billy or Kevin or Kai or maybe all three at my door, talking to my parents, radiating teenager-in-front-of-one-of-your-best-friend’s-parents charm. 

We don’t have a doorbell back home. Don’t? Didn’t? I’m unsure the proper tense for the house I’ve moved out of, and I guess, isn’t really any longer my home. And, anyway, there is a doorbell, it just doesn’t work. Hasn’t since almost immediately after we moved in. I was supposed to look into fixing it, never did. Everyone just texts before coming over and then again upon arrival anyway. When was the last time someone who you might actually want to open the door for showed up unexpected? I cross “fix doorbell” off my long mental to-do list—fix doorbell—and feel one-on-top-of-another waves of relief and grief. An odd cocktail that blends together surprisingly well. 

“Billy’s here!” my mom yells through the house. I wonder if it has the same time machine effect on her as all this is having on me. Is she transported back to me being fifteen? To the age she was then?

“One minute!” I do a quick calculation, the nostalgia math. She must have been about the age then I am now. That can’t be right. 

I stand up. I look around again, do a little overhead survey. What do you do with a time capsule once discovered and unpacked—keep it? put it on some kind of display? make an archive of it? discard it all, the whole point having been the unearthing and re-discovery itself? pack it all back up, re-capsule, bury again, recycle itself into Time Capsule 2.0, return another however-many years later? It would take too much time to pack everything up with any kind of order, and it seems wrong to stack everything back into boxes without being organized about it, at least. I’m just going to have to leave it all as-is.

I grab my Midwest winter coat that feels like overkill back here in the climate I grew up in. I close behind me the door to my childhood bedroom turned mom’s sewing room slash guest room turned archeological dig. 

“Don’t go in my room,” I tell my mom, walking past her on my way toward the front door.

“I’m still wrapping presents,” I tag on, probably more for my benefit than hers, feeling awkward about being in my 40s and telling my mom not to go in my room.

She wouldn’t have anyway—why would she?—and I worry that telling her not to will make her want to. Do moms have that same impulse? Does everyone? My brain flashes to her peeking in while I’m gone, and a chill races through me more embarrassing than if she’d found a Playboy or Victoria’s Secret under a stack of Beckett Baseball Card Monthlys when it actually had been my room. 

There he is!” Billy says, as I turn the corner. And, holy shit, there he is, standing just inside my parents’ front door, like we’re all roleplaying some kind of nostalgia war-reenactment.

He’s heavier, balder, more worn down by life,  all while also looking exactly like the Billy I’ve known since almost as long as I can remember having known anyone.

Sure, I think. Let’s do this, and I smile big, open my arms wide.

*

“I know exactly where we need to go!” Billy says, backing out of my parents’ driveway. I haven’t seen him in ten years, and we haven’t been close for over twenty, not since graduating high school and taking separate paths, and yet what could feel more familiar? How many times have I sat shotgun while Billy backed us out of this driveway? A hundred? A thousand? 

Something else I daydream about as I get older—having some kind of log of everything I’ve done in life, being able to access the tallies for how many times I’ve done this or that. A back-of-the-baseball-card stat sheet of my life.

“You been to El Borracho?” Billy asks.

“Remember,” I remind him. “Cops love this neighborhood.” He isn’t speeding, per se, but he’s over the limit and this neighborhood is the strictest I’ve ever seen. They’re relentless. At least half of my friends got their first speeding ticket picking me up or dropping me off. 

“No, probably no, right?” Billy doesn’t slow down and I restrain myself from nagging. If he gets a ticket, I won’t even say ‘I told you so,’ I vow.

“It’s new. I think they’ve only been there a couple years. It’s great, man. Have you ever been to Mexico?”

What?”

“You were down in California for a while, right? Mexico is right there. You ever go?”

I shake my head but Billy isn’t looking at me. His eyes keep cycling through the road out in front of us, his speedometer, rearview mirror, back to the road. He hasn’t slowed down but his awareness has spiked. 

“No,” I say.

“What?”

“I’ve never been. To Mexico. I wanted to. But…you know how it goes. You never actually get around to—” 

“Oh man, these are going to be the best tacos you’ve ever had! Fucking amazing. Tacos, a beer and a shot combo. It’s perfect, man. And there’s this waitress who works there.” Billy looks over at me conspiratorially, one of those characters in a movie I always want to yell at to look at the road. “I hope she’s working tonight!”

We start getting onto the freeway and I guess I should have known this would happen but I realize we’re heading into the city. There isn’t that much in this little suburb where my parents live, but there’s more than when we were growing up here, and the city isn’t that far away, but it adds a complication. Either we’re not going to drink that much, which seems unlikely, or he’s going to be driving me back drunk, which I’d rather he not; or I’m not going to be making it back to my parents’ tonight, which invites another whole set of questions that I dislike the answers to enough that I avoid asking anything and just postpone dealing with all of this until later. We’ll cross that freeway when we get there. 

“You need anything?”

“What?”

“You need anything?” Billy asks again. “While we’re out. Before we get tacos and start drinking?”

“What would I need?” I ask without meaning to.

“I don’t know, man. Groceries? Toiletries? Last-minute gift? I don’t know if you have a car here or anything. Maybe you wanted to grab something while we’re out?”

The car rattles some on the freeway, both physically and audibly. Billy doesn’t turn on the radio. He just lives with it like this, I guess. I stare out the window and the view from my youth washes by.

I’m not sure the word for what I feel. For watching this landscape that is both incredibly familiar and also not. One part homesick, one part nostalgia. A squeeze of surreality, a few dashes of voyeurism. Something else I can’t quite discern. Shake it all together.

This is where I grew up, but I’ve been gone now as many years as I lived here in the first place. I’ve come back to visit, of course, though right now, this visit, this moment is the first time it has felt less like returning home and more like a return visit to somewhere I frequently vacation. 

That’s it. The city I grew up in has come to feel more like a destination than a hometown. The idea that people live here, work here, make a life here rather than just the coming and going of my experiences since I left feels weird. 

There’s the Taco Bell and Arby’s and Jack in the Box, the movie theater I went to every week as a teenager, the Mexican restaurant we always went to for family birthdays, the Home Depot that was built a few years after I moved away on the spot where the pre-Home Depot, non-chain hardware store I went to with my dad all the time growing up whenever he was in the middle of a home project, which was almost always. A sadness spikes through me, a kind of grief for this old store I never liked in the first place.

We’re slowing and I snap out of my daydreams of what was and what isn’t anymore, and realize we’ve pulled over to the shoulder of the freeway exit. Did we run out of gas? Get a flat tire? Billy’s door is open and he’s out and running away from the car before I can even ask him what the fuck?

I turn around and watch out the back window and Billy is in the middle of the road, crouching down and picking something up. He’s moving slow and careful like whatever he is picking up is delicate and not at all like he’s in the middle of an offramp, and should probably be moving much quicker, and with more care for his own safety before a car comes whipping off the freeway and flattens him into nothing. No cars come though.

Like a parting of the Freeway Sea for whatever miracle Billy-Moses thinks he’s performing.

Billy waddles himself off the road, carrying whatever he’s carrying out in front of him with both hands like a box carried to or from a moving van. He bends over and places it down among the weeds and overgrowth beyond the dirt shoulder, then he’s standing up and staring at whatever he’s done. Cars start driving by him, miracle over, Freeway Sea re-un-parted.

“Turtle!” Billy yells, plopping into his driver seat and buckling back up. 

“What?”

“You didn’t see him? Cute little guy. Another driver might have driven right over him!”

I can’t help it or stop myself: I picture a car taking the exit at freeway speed, driving over the turtle, exploding it into a splatter of shell and bones and guts and blood. 

“I didn’t even know we had turtles here?” I say like a question, though I’m not sure if it is or not.

“Sure! I mean, I guess? We must! If not, I might have just had the craziest hallucination!” Billy starts laughing and laughing and for a moment I wonder if he’s high, if maybe he was hallucinating, but then I remember I watched it just happen.

“Hopefully he doesn’t try to cross again and get smashed next time,” I say.

Billy looks at me like, why would you say that? “Fuck,” he says. “I hope not too.” He starts the car and there’s that rattle again. “Well,” Billy says. He looks in both mirrors and then his blind spot and I turn around and look out the back window again and I don’t see the turtle so maybe it is still off in the weeds. Hopefully he won’t try again. There aren’t any cars coming. “I tried,” he says, and I’d forgotten what we were talking about, but then I remind myself. “That’s all you can do sometimes, you know?” Billy starts pulling back onto the road. “I tried,” he says again, and I’m not sure if to me or himself, but it’s true. What happens now is out of his control, but he tried. He did something. 

*

As soon as we walk in, I see her.

The bartender is wearing a crop top, skintight, showing off these amazingly large breasts. I wonder how often Billy comes here. I wonder if he thinks he has a chance with her or just likes gawking or what. I wonder how much of all of this his wife knows or cares about.

“Hey Will,” she says, looking right at me. I wonder if she thinks I’m someone else. If I look like some Will she knows. I don’t think I look like a Will. 

“Hey Vick,” Billy says, and I look at him, then her, then back at him, suddenly turned into some kind of dumbass cartoon. I’m embarrassed for myself. Of course. Billy is Will. Will is Billy. Whichever.

“Who’ve you got with you?” Vick asks.

“This is my buddy, Adam. We grew up here together.”

“Hi, Adam,” Vick says. “I’m Vicki.” She wipes her hand on a bar towel hanging from her hip and reaches out for me to take her hand. Shaking feels weird; I almost want to kiss it, that feels like something the charming stranger might do in a movie, but that feels even weirder. I just kind of awkwardly hold it, which ends up being maybe weirdest of all. “Haven’t seen you in here before. Big night out?”

“Biggest night of the year!” Will-Billy says. “That’s what I told him!”

The place is almost empty—there’s a couple in their 20s together over by the window; a guy by himself, maybe in his 50s, across from us at the bar. I wonder if it is the young couple’s first Christmas together. First Christmas Eve. I wonder if the older guy came to gawk, same as Will-Billy. Same as us? Is he here as an escape from his life or is this his life? Do we look forward to the holidays as a break from our normal lives, or are our normal lives a respite from the stress, and heartache, and grief, and chaos of the holidays?

The idea is equal parts freeing and depressing.

“We grew up together,” Will-Billy is telling her. “Now he’s in…” Billy turns to me. “Shit, man. Where are you now again?”

“Wisconsin.”

“Oh yeah?” Vicki says. “My sister lives in Wisconsin!”

I’m surprised at how much I perk up. How much I care, how much pride swells up through and out of me for this state where I’ve made a life for myself while back here, in this state where’d I’d made an entire life before this one.

Wisconsin is huge, two people living in the same state doesn’t make them any more bonded than two people living across the country from one another, but I feel an immediate connection to Vicki’s sister and then, by extension, Vicki herself.

“Where in?” 

“Oh, I’m not sure,” Vicki says. “ We don’t really talk. She’s married, has a couple kids. Three?” She looks up, thinks about that. “I don’t remember, actually. We don’t really have much of a relationship.” I slouch in defeat.

“You both want a regular?” Vicki asks, like we hadn’t just been talking about family, beginning to share with each other these complications of life. 

“I thought you’d never ask!” Will-Billy says, and then Vicki is setting a shot of tequila down in front of each of us, a Pacifico behind each shot. It’s like she’d already had them ready, the question only a formality.

Billy picks up his shot and I follow; we cheers, shoot them back. My whole body shivers. I can’t remember the last time I had tequila. College? Maybe. It tastes nothing like the soft pleasure of my preferred brown liquor.  Tequila tastes hard, it tastes like college, like house parties. 

I take a sip of my beer, set it down, and look at Billy, watch as he chugs his, sets it down empty, raises his arm, half-mast with two fingers up. Another round. Fuck. It’s going to be that kind of night. OK, I steel myself. Let’s do this.

Vicki brings over two more Pacificos, two more shots of tequila. Do I need to chug this first beer to catch up, or can I use it to slow down? And when did she pour these shots, grab these bottles? She was never out of eyeshot, though I’ve been trying not to watch. Not to stare. Had she had them at the ready the whole time? Is Will-Billy one of those guys? Are we?

Billy picks up this shot same as he had his first, holds it in front of my face until I pick up mine and we cheers again, toss them back.

Shivers. College, house parties, so innocently young, a world exploding with possibility. Regrets. Big, small, the whole vast gulf of everything in between. Where to begin? I bet we could find some I hadn’t even thought of before if we tried to look at all. 

“Guess who I saw the other day?” Billy says.

I look at him. Shake my head. I have no idea how I’m supposed to make a guess.

“Erick!”

Kirkfield?”

“Yeah! His kids go to the same school as mine.”

“Wow. How’s he doing?”

I reach out in front of me, grab both of my Pacificos, one in each hand. I fidget.

I make them dance, I make them kiss. I Charlie Chaplin, I Bong Joon-ho

“I don’t know. He was just standing there and I was in my car. I don’t think he saw me. I wanted to holler at him, but Mags had a dentist appointment we had to hurry off to and I didn’t want to get in a long conversation and be late. I was late one time and when we got there, they said they didn’t have time for us anymore and made me reschedule. It was a whole thing. Total doghouse shit.”

“Didn’t he…” I’m not sure if I stop myself because I second-guess the story I’d heard and don’t want to get the rumor wrong or if I just can’t make myself say it.

“Yeah,” Billy says. We both sit quiet for a moment.

“Didn’t he what?” Vicki says, making us address it, just as it was starting to feel like we were going to leave it as-is.

“He hit a pedestrian driving home drunk a bunch of years back,” Billy says. “Vehicular manslaughter. Went to jail for a few years.”

“Shit,” Vicki says. “He has a kid, you guys said?”

“Yeah, a daughter. A couple years younger than Maggie.”

“She born before or after?”

“After,” Billy says. “He got out, married his high school sweetheart—”

Ani!” I yell. I’d had such a crush on her in high school. Never really got how Erick had ended up with her. I certainly never figured they’d last.

Billy laughs. “Yep! Can you believe it? I don’t know if they broke up and got back together after he got out or what, but I heard he got sober, they got married. Had a kid. Grown-up shit.”

I’m unsure which piece of info I’m most surprised by. All of it?

“And, get this…” Billy pauses, making me wait in anticipation. Making me wait to get his this. “Now he’s a bartender. Bar manager? Owns a bar? Something like that.”

“Wait,” Vicki interrupts, reminding me she’s here. I’d forgotten. “Are you guys talking about Sam Malone Erick?”

Billy and I stare at each other, big-eyed. “Sam Malone Erick??” we say in unison.

“Yeah, you know.” Vicki says. “Like from Cheers? Cause he’s sober. But works in a bar.”

“We know who Sam Malone is.” / “We know Cheers.” We say at the same time.

“How do you know him?” Billy says.

“How do you know Cheers?” I say.

“Small town,” Vicki says. “Small world. Pretty much everyone who works in a bar knows each other. And my parents used to make my brother and I watch reruns when we were little. They loved that show.”

Oof. What tears your heart out faster and more violently than an attractive woman not pointing out how much older you are but saying something in passing that makes you point it out to yourself?

“Remember how he used to X up?” Billy says, pulling me out of Temple of Doom nightmares and back into the bar.

“Ho. Lee. Shit,” I say. “Fuck, I’d totally forgotten about that.”

“What’s that?” Vicki says.

“Another round?” Billy asks, though I’m unsure if directed at me or Vicki. Another round materializes. 

“We all went to a bunch of punk and hardcore shows together in high school. A bunch of these shows were straightedge—”

“You guys went to high school with Sam Malone Erick?” Vicki says.

“Do you know what that is?” I ask. 

“What? Of course. Do you guys think you invented straightedge?”

Kind of, I had, I guess. This girl knew exactly how to grab and squeeze my heart while I watched. I wished she’d squeeze harder.

“I don’t know. I didn’t know if it was still a thing or whatever?”

“Kinda,” Vicki says. “Not really. But I know what it is.”

“And we were basically all straightedge?” I say.

“Were we?” Bill says.

“I said ‘basically’!” I look at Vicki. “None of us drank or did drugs or anything. But probably at least as much because we didn’t have access, and weren’t really cool enough?”

Billy laughs at that, which makes me smile. I thought we might get derailed into an argument about whether we were or weren’t, and why, what we believed in. Did we believe in anything? Not really. That’s why we went to shows.

We believed in going to shows. 

“Sure,” Will-Billy confirms. “We were all basically straightedge. But Erick—”

“Sam Malone Erick!” Vicki adds, and we’re all working in tandem now.

“Wait,” Will-Billy says. “Don’t tell him we told you all this.”

“All what?” Vicki says, and winks at Will-Billy, and he winks back, and I wonder, Have they? No, right? That’d be crazy. But maybe?

“So we were all basically straightedge,” I keep going. “But none of us claimed it or anything. Actually, get this. I remember thinking—I don’t remember if I ever even told anyone this—but I remember thinking I didn’t want to claim straightedge because everyone who did was always all, ‘straightedge for life!’ ‘straightedge til death!’” I did scare quotes with my fingers, and then made my hands into fists and crossed my arms into an X in front of my chest.

“Yes, yes!” Will-Billy said. “Nailed to the X!”

We both start laughing, and there it is. We’re eighteen again. This whole time has felt a little like we were, but more like we’re a couple of forty-somethings trying to recapture being eighteen again but now, in this moment, that extra layer has faded, I’ve forgotten any kind of pretense, and let go of whatever hold my subconscious had on tethering me to the present.

I pick up my beer, chug, set it down and pick up the next one waiting for me and take a normal-sized pull, chasing my chaser.

“Anyway,” I say. “I remember thinking about that when I heard about the accident. How crazy it was that the one of us who had most claimed being straightedge was the one who got in a drunk driving accident. Who went to jail for it. Vehicular manslaughter. Fuck.”

“You guys have never worked in a bar,” Vick says.

“What?”

“Old straightedge kids are always the biggest drinkers. You hold that shit in and deny yourself, you’re gonna end up exploding. Ask any bartender.”

“I guess that makes sense, I say.”

“Meanwhile, he’s probably home with his wife and kid and we’re all here.”

What can you say to that? I raise my beer and cheers him.

*

Outside, the streets are empty. The whole city feels quiet, asleep. Not a creature was stirring. I wonder if this is always the case or just tonight. Does this city have no real night life, or were we just the only assholes closing down bars on Christmas Eve? 

I’d wondered how I was going to get home as soon as Billy picked me up, and at least a part of me had assumed I wouldn’t, but for the first time I realize what that means: I’m going to be waking up on Christmas morning with Billy. My parents had been driving me crazy, and the idea of waking up alone in my childhood home instead of in my home-home with Sara was so depressing I’d mostly made myself not think about it, but it was better than this.

“This way!” Billy calls, and I wonder if any part of him is sober enough to have noticed what the 2 am darkness has pulled over me.

“Wait,” I say. “I thought we parked over there?” I point in the opposite direction than Billy is walking, and then I close my eyes and hold completely steady, the swinging up and pointing with my arm having replaced the wave of depression with nausea. 

“No, no,” Billy says. “I mean, yeah, over therebut we can walk. Neither of us should drive, obviously, and it’s right up here, around the corner.” 

Billy starts walking, and I watch for a while, wondering where we’re going next, what’s right up around the corner, before finally hustling to catch up.

“You live this close to downtown?” 

“What? No. I’m in University Place. You know that.”

Did I? Why would I?

Billy keeps walking, never stopping for a red light, barely even looking both ways before crossing a street. It’s a ghost town, it’s just me and Billy at the end of the world.

“Here we are!” Billy finally says, after walking and walking and walking and walking. Were we just “up around the corner”?

I look up and am staring at a hotel that wasn’t here when Billy and I were growing up. It probably wasn’t here five years ago. But I have this sense of déjà vu. I feel like I’ve seen this hotel before. In a dream? A previous life? A different timeline in a different universe?

Another wave crashes through me. Not depression, not nostalgia, not nausea. Well, yes, nausea. But worse than before. I’m going to throw up. 

I run around to the side of the building before I can think about whether I care or not if Billy sees me or that there isn’t anyone else around or awake or alive, pure drunk instinct to get away and throw up by myself in peace.

Standing on the side of the hotel, vomit splattered out around me, a little on my Midwest winter coat that has me sweating here in this barely-even-cold Washington night, the taste of bile still in my mouth, a headache like I can’t even remember the last time I had, another flash of déjà vu hits me. Only, I place it. I know where I am. Where we are. When I’ve been here before. I run back to the front of the building and Billy.

“This was the Paradox!” I yell. “The Paradox! Remember? We saw shows here all the time!”

“I don’t think so, man. I don’t think I ever saw a show here.”

I look around me again. Did I make it up? Am I misremembering? I close my eyes, hold back another wave. No. This is definitely it. I went to plenty of shows without Billy. Maybe Erick came with me to shows here. I wonder if he’d remember. I wonder if he ever stood more or less right where we’re standing now and drew big Xs on the backs of his hands with a Sharpie. 

“What’s that lyric?” I ask, more for myself than Billy.

“What? A lyric from one of the shows we went to?”

“No, no, no. Fleetwood Mac. ‘They paved paradise, put up a parking lot.’”

“Joni Mitchell,” Billy says.

“Really?”

Billy nods. 

“They paved over my hardcore paradise, put up a hotel!”

“Progress,” Billy says, laughing a little at himself. Then he perks up and I think he’s remembering going to shows here with me after all. “Remember when we had that Kingdome party?!”

Of course I do.

We were twenty-one, twenty-two when they imploded the baseball stadium of our youth. By that time, Billy and I weren’t really hanging out anymore. I was in college, had a bunch of roommates; Billy had stayed in our hometown, was working for his dad’s furniture business. But we’d gone to so many Mariners games together when we were little, years before all those hardcore shows. So I’d reached out and told him we were throwing a party, he should come. He drove up for the day and we all tailgated, got college afternoon drunk, took the bus downtown and watched the explosion. We cheered and drank and high-fived and cried and hugged and celebrated the demolition of our childhood. It was exciting and sad and over too fast and underwhelming and amazing, all at the same. It was all of it. It was beautiful.

For a long time, it was one of my favorite stories to tell. I’d moved on, tried to not hold on too tight to these stories of nostalgia. Why? Because others had told me I needed to? Because I felt like I should? Because holding onto them made it harder to grab hold of anything new? Because everyone got tired of me retelling the story and I stopped meeting new people to tell it to? I don’t know why. 

I look at Billy and see everything I am feeling projected there on his face, too. 

“How are you?” I ask, looking him right in the eyes, meaning it more than I maybe ever have before.

“I’m okay,” Billy says. “I mean…I’m not. I’m a fucking mess. But I’m okay. I will be. You know?”

And the thing is, I do. I do know.

“Life, man,” Billy says. “It’s so hard.”

I laugh, the simplicity of it catching me off guard. 

“But it’s so fucking beautiful, too, isn’t it?”

I laugh at that too.

“I know,” I tell him. “It is. It really is.”


Aaron Burch is the author of the essay collection, A Kind of In-Between, and the editor of the craft anthology, How to Write a Novel: 20 Craft Essays About Writing, None of Which Ever Mention Writing, both out THIS WEEK from Autofocus Books. He is also the author ofYear of the Buffalo, Stephen King's The Body, and Backswing. He started the literary journal Hobart, which he edited for twenty years, and is currently the co-editor of WAS (Words & Sports), HAD, and Short Story, Long (on Substack). He lives in Michigan and is online: on Twitter and Instagram at @aaron__burch, and the world wide web at aaronburch.net.

Art by Aaron Burch

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