My old college buddy James showed up with a grocery bag full of those little travel bottles of vodka. I was on a forced writing holiday – five days away from my thankless, low-paying day job to focus on the Greatsociety book I was foolishly going to flog for the tenth anniversary. I’d spent four of the five days up at all hours cooking everything from rhubarb pie to homemade English muffins to difficult Portuguese stews.
By the time Monday morning rolled around, I was a little out of my mind. At 7am, when James hammered on the door, I’d been up all night. I’d whipped up some Scottish oatcakes and had moved on to experimental sauces and exotic desserts that involved torches and fire extinguishers. My freezer was full, and I was quietly debating searching for a President’s Day sale on a deep freeze.
In a tattered, stained dress shirt and too-tight Magnum PI shorts, I whipped the door open after a solid minute of uninterrupted pounding. James stepped back, smiled, then shouted, “Okay, campers, rise and shine! And don’t forget your booties ’cause it’s cooooold out there.” He handed me a tiny bottle of vodka. I took it, rolled my eyes, and stomped back into the kitchen to stare at a pot of water.
James came in behind me, sniffing, “Nach. What the fuck?”
“Cooking.” I hissed.
He opened the fridge and jammed the bag onto the bottom shelf. Tiny bottles of vodka spilled out and skittered across the floor like mice. He ignored all except one that landed by his foot, which he picked up and drank in one swallow.
“Whew!” He said.
“Whew.” I replied.
“Goddamnit, James, what do you want?”
“Just a friend. Coming over to visit at the end of your five day hermitage.”
“At 7am in the morning?”
He pointed at the fridge, “I brought a bag of vodka!”
“Hermitage is more location than action.”
“My five day hermitage, you said.”
He picked up another fallen vodka and tossed it at me. I caught it and rolled the plastic bottle in my palm, then opened it and took a sip.
“You do that dictionary thing,” he said, “but you don’t ever really know, do you? Everytime someone uses a 25 cent word you say something like it’s wrong, or you mutter some sort of correction, then you refuse to elaborate or repeat yourself. Your whole purpose is to sow self doubt, right? To chip away at the psyche.”
“You’re sounding paranoid, James.”
He shrugged, “Well, I haven’t slept in two weeks.”
He looked at me sideways and frowned, “Been drunk.”
“Duh, indeed. You look like you haven’t slept in five days. Have you been standing there watching that pot boil all weekend?
“Probably would have boiled off by now, if so.”
“Maybe. If the gas were on.”
I bent and looked at the burner. “Oh. Fuck. Yeah, I’ve been up for five days.”
James gathered up the fallen vodka, clicked his tongue, then strode off towards the living room. I followed and sat opposite his perch on the couch as he divvied up the bottles. He shoved my half across the coffee table, then started to steadily drink his portion.
“Hiding from what?” he asked.
“Oh! The Greatsociety Book!”
I nodded, drank some vodka, grimaced, and stared out the window.
“What’s the title again?” He asked. “’Am I Nocturnal?’ by Nacho Sasha? ‘Who Are These Women and Why Are They Following Me?’ ‘I thought Sex Was Supposed to be Fun.’ ‘If I’d Known Shit Would be This Bad, I Wouldn’t Have Grown Up.’ ‘I’m Having Trouble Coping With the Idea That Babies are New People.’”
“None of those. Sorry. Though the last one strikes a note.”
“Yeah, I know. Babies. They’re weird.”
“I don’t think I was ever a baby.”
James narrowed his eyes, “Seriously?”
“I think I’ve always been in my 20’s and 30’s. In high school and when I was a kid, I was just fooling myself. I was trying to pretend I was young. Like everyone else. But when it comes to me as a baby – there’s no evidence. No pictures, no video. Nothing tangible that says I was ever younger than 12. There’re stories, right? People say they remember this, and that. But then you press them for details and they don’t have any. It’s just ‘you were a nice baby,’ or ‘you were a quiet baby.’ There’s nothing like, hey, I remember once when you were attacked by a bear and that’s how you got that scar. Or, like, once, when you were five, you set papa on fire. There’s nothing. There are no tales from my youth.”
“So…you were normal then?”
“Maybe. But, still, everybody has something, right? If not a visual record, then at least some story from before you were a teenager. Right?”
“I struggle daily, James, with the idea that I don’t exist.”
“Despite years of pain and all that shit?”
I finished a bottle of vodka and tossed it over my shoulder, “And that’s why I think I don’t exist! Because the only way half the shit I’ve been through could happen is if I’m some….figment. Some character. I don’t know.”
James held out his hands for me to stop, then leaned back into the couch. “Let’s see if I’ve got the picture. You’ve sat here behind a bolted door for five days, unwashed, probably naked most of the time, cooking extravagant dishes for nobody, and debating your existence?”
“And not writing this ‘Greatsociety Book’?”
“Nope.” I shrugged, “It’s mostly done, anyway”
“Right… So you blew the weekend?”
I glared back out the window. “Ah, well.”
James raised another little bottle of vodka. “Well, here’s to your hermitage. Whether it be a physical retreat or a little spiritual lagoon.”
“How drunk are you, James?”
“Oh. Beyond the pale. Thank god I’m not working on a book or else I’d turn to hard drugs!”
I toasted him with my own vodka. Then he looked at my laptop – open to a blank Word page, sniffed again at the cooking smells, watched me for a few heartbeats, and finally muttered, “We’re gonna need that whole bag out here.” He leapt up and ran into the kitchen. I had enough time to type ‘All work and no play…’ as he viciously tore the grocery bag out of the crowded fridge and spun back into the living room.
“Finish the book while I was away?”
“Good, cause it’s Drinkin’ Monday! You and me – we’re gonna prove that you exist. I need a pair of scissors and a blowtorch.”
“Fuck.” I replied. “I’d better drink up, then.”