Whose fault is it when you get wasted at a wine and cheese get-together with friends? You, for being an alcoholic? Or your almost-ex girlfriend for not telling you that this party was for adults: that a bottle of middle shelf vodka wasn’t appropriate, that you were making a fool of yourself, that you were ruining any slim chance that remained of the two of you staying together?
It’s something I’ve been mulling over for a while. I’ve had plenty of time to do it. Not twenty-four hours after that sedate get-together turned rotten I was on eBay, emptying my savings account on a ropy old van conversion I had to ride two buses to go pick up. Still hungover, still drunk; navigating through Seattle traffic and misty spring rain with a Gatorade between my thighs and the whole thing creaking and groaning around me, protesting being driven after so long getting comfortably rusty in some guy’s shed. I’ve been stewing in my embarrassment ever since.
It’s one thing to be a failed adult. It’s even borderline acceptable to have a drinking problem, which is a euphemism I love. But it’s another thing entirely to turn to your girlfriend of four years in a room of successful adults and say: “Just say you don’t love me anymore. Stop fucking around.”
My voice was patchy with unshed tears. Nade’s face turned white as a sheet. But once I started yelling at her, I found I wasn’t able to stop: the vodka in my empty belly was pushing up all my anger through my throat, like vomit. I don’t like to linger on the details of that night. But I just can’t help it.
“June,” she said, after I tired myself out. The room was thick with the smell of gross old cheese, warmed from being left out unattended. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
I went to the bathroom to vomit. Then I went home to cry, sleep, and impulse-buy a van with one-hundred and twenty thousand miles on the clock. With cigarette-stained net curtains. With a persistent mildew smell to it, one that followed me out of Seattle, out of Washington: through to Oregon, Idaho, and beyond.
Three weeks and four days into my odyssey, I buy two peyote buttons in Nevada; one for each eye. I don’t eat even a sliver of one until I hit Utah, at which point I watch the world dissolve from the warm, stuffy confines of my van. The roof is too low, the walls too close. My hair makes staticky connections with the felt that insulates the top of it, like I’m plugged into the thing at the mainframe. Like I am the van and the van is me, like I’m Keanu Reeves in the Matrix, a needle slid into my cerebellum but all it tells me is how many miles to the gallon, and how Wyoming potholes are worse than Washington potholes.
Sitting there with the peyote slinking through me I wonder, not for the first time, what the hell I’m doing.
I haven’t drank since the night of the wine and cheese and vodka. Instead I spend my evenings like this: attached to the van by the tips of my hair, listening to all its inner workings as everything warps and bulges before me. I taste diesel. The hot tarmac of the road. That faint, wispy taste of alcohol that tinges all my water bottles. I swallow. Get disappointed by my disappointment that the alcohol taste doesn’t get stronger.
Through the scratched, plastic windows of the van, the world looks soft and fangless. Faraway and grainy like the light gets around dusk, tinged with an orange cast from the previous owner smoking too many cigarettes inside. When my hangover lifted I began to have grand plans about getting to see the whole world for the cost of a few tanks of fuel, but so far all I’ve seen is a lot of empty parking lots. Shit, I could study the plants that grow up in the cracked concrete outside WalMart, fed by Cola and diesel. The little brown birds that seem to live off cigarette butts and crumbs dropped from empty cellophane bread bags. Those sorts of places are all the same. Just like gas stations, Laundromats, strip mall liquor stores. I’ve seen them all.
The peyote leaves a bad taste on the back of my tongue. Like I’ve eaten grass but worse. I guess I took a lot, but it doesn’t feel like that. I’m very aware of the shifting air: hot and thick like whipped butter, all made up from my breath and evaporated sweat. The weak breeze from the open window is prodding at it, making it undulate around my supine body. At my feet sits a rabbit. Twitchy-nosed, black-eyed. Me reflected in its eyeballs, which are reflected in my eyeballs, which are reflected in its own — on and on, an endless feedback loop of myself and itself.
It tells me that I need to pick up milk at the next gas station I stop at. Figures. Drugs are never quite as fun when there’s nobody around to watch you do them.
The peyote wasn’t always my thing. It barely is now. Normally I dabble in weed, or mushrooms when I can get my hands on them. Running away is my biggest vice, next to a freezer-cold frosty bottle of vodka. I’m trying to kick one for the other. I tried cigarettes, tried food. Settled on driving just because it felt like the closest thing to getting blackout.
In a Walmart parking lot somewhere west of Boise, I write a grocery list on the back of a postcard spelling out Idaho in ears of corn. Then underneath that I write, I keep buying oranges and only having the appetite to eat half. I might start saving what I waste so I can send them on to you where they belong. On the seat next to me is a steamy plastic box of sushi and a pack of smokes so crumpled it’s like someone has tried to throttle them. Tobacco has leaked out from one cigarette and now lies fragrant and rapidly-drying on the seat, ready for me to crush it into the fibres or sweep it onto the floor.
As an afterthought, I add, Do you still like oranges?
It’s not the alcoholism I’m running from as much as what the alcoholism made me do. They’re not the same thing. I’d still be an alcoholic if it was one of life’s perfect little inconsequential things. Like doing peyote alone in a sweltering hot van, parked on the side of a road so remote that only one car zooms by in four hours. But it’s not. So here I am. I smooth a stamp into the little box above a scrawled-out address I won’t ever forget and cast it onto the dashboard, where it’ll sunbleach and curl along with the rest of the unsent postcards there.
The sushi is warm by the time I get to it. I imagine it giving me parasites; microscopic eggs crunching between my molars, releasing worms to coil in my guts. A tiny weed is pushing its way out from a crevasse in the asphalt. I wonder, sleepily, if having a parasite can ever be good for you.
I’ve been passing through ghost towns for months. Boarded-up windows, the plywood pock-marked and smeared with graffiti. Roadside fast food spots; Airstreams streaked with rust, their awnings sagging and full of leaves, menus faded in the sun. The pictures of food; sandwiches, burgers, hotdogs; all turned Pepto pink by the sunlight. I pull the van into the parking lot of one, its picnic benches candy-striped and rotting, just to press my nose to the cloudy glass of the serving window. Inside lurks cobwebs and long-burnt-out machines. A hungry part of me wonders whether they took all the food away when they shut up shop. Must be my parasite.
Teenage summers revolved around spots like these. Blazing sun, so hot that you could smell it; like soft asphalt and warm paint and suntan oil. Burgers made of nothing good, and fries so salty they made your lips crack. It was all just set-dressing to the tiny traumas of being a teenager. Tearing up those cheap, scratchy napkins between badly-painted fingernails, eyes sore from rubbing fry-salt and recycled brown paper into them. I got dumped at so many of these places that they all blur into one: some ominous monolith pumping out greasy, savoury air from under a cheerful redyellow awning. Maybe that’s what’s drawn me to this one. Breath fogging the glass, fingernails picking at the crumbling rubber seal around the window. I’ve been going through a six month breakup after all. Maybe even longer. I think I’m sympathetic to my sushi parasite because I know exactly how it feels.
The summer I met Nade was the summer I tried my first beer. I don’t know if that really means something, but it’s a detail people like my mom would enjoy, so that’s how I tell it. First beer, first gay crush. We passed notes in class scribbled on lavender-coloured paper; her pen black, my pen blue and stolen from my mom’s purse, the ink fading fast. She had very sensible handwriting. I never knew what to do with my face when I was around her.
“We’ll live together when we’re older,” she said once. “We don’t need husbands. Best friends can live together just like married people.”
She said it with a sureness and a sincerity that meant I didn’t doubt her for a second. It soothed my stirrings of panic over my feelings towards her anyway. We were both fourteen and very close in that way girls can be: those intense, teenage relationships that burn out as fast as they’re lit up. I liked it when she shared her chapstick with me. When I slept over at her house and she rolled up against my back in her sleep. We smoked our first cigarette together, hiding out in the pool house at her dad’s place, our hair wet and hanging in heavy rat tails around our nervous, grinning faces. Trading kisses on the freckled brown butt of it. I pinched it from the plant pot she hid it in after it was done and kept it, then lost it, as you do with most important things.
One of the last times I saw her, a week or so before the dinner party, she was wearing a white tank; the fabric so thin that I could see the colour of her nipples. The two of us shared nips of vodka from my flask, so crummy and cheap that it tasted like we were drinking nail polish remover. She peeled back the band-aid on my knee. Touched the scab underneath. Asked me, “June, don’t you think we’re a little old for this?”
She normally called me Junebug, though I always thought of myself as more of a mayfly. I never did find out what ’this’ was.
I write another postcard when I’m back in the van, sweating from my hairline and chewing on my thumbnail as I do. Midori, Malibu, banana liqueur. Pineapple juice, sweet & sour. All the upholstery inside smells like cigarettes that aren’t my own, which makes it feel gross and airless. The skin around my thumbnail has a mushy, ragged texture to it, but I can’t stop working my teeth at it. On the face of the card is a cowgirl smiling and twirling a lasso coquettishly over her head. The rope is taking the shape of a heart, in which WYOMING IS FOR LOVERS! is caged. I write, if you want me to stay away, just reply to this letter.
I toss it onto the dashboard. I keep telling myself that as soon as I hit a mailbox, I’ll send them. A tide of old postcards from states I passed through without glancing back. Sometimes at night I imagine it: Nade at the kitchen table slowly shelling a hard-boiled egg onto a plate. Cup of coffee going cold at her elbow, the radio playing quietly in the sunny room. And then: an explosion. Postcard after postcard spilling through her mail slot, an endless torrent spewing dusty and faded and nicotine-tinged onto her nice clean floors. Full of nonsense lists and stupid musings and lovelorn wishes and fears. It’d horrify her. It’d pique her interest. It’d signal my coming home.
I started drinking the same year my mom remarried: some guy with too much facial hair, clogging both our sinks and my personal space. I was also seventeen, and miserably in love with my best friend, which didn’t help much.
It began with stealing the final beer in his six pack on Friday nights, the guy already snoring on the sofa and unlikely to miss it in the morning. I would tuck the can under my bed sheets to pop the tab, muffling the snap and the hiss of it. When I pulled it back up to the surface, the smell of warm, bready alcohol would bloom in the air. I got into candles, incense, perfume. A clear plastic tub under my bed that once held old shoes became my hiding spot for all the empties, collected over six months of Friday nights. Every so often I’d bag them up and take myself to a grocery store parking lot a mile from home; would stand there and feed them one after another into the mouth of a trash can there.
I liked the buzz. I liked the secrecy of it. I liked how the beer made me feel sleepy and happy; how it made me forget about the snoring interloper downstairs, my failing grades, the crush on my best friend that was growing so big I knew I couldn’t ignore it much longer. After a beer, all those things faded to a comfortable background hum. Imagine the silence that a good measure of vodka brought with it. I lived three or four years in that pocket of nothingness. But the thing about silence is that by the time you realise everything has fallen down around your ears, the dust has settled. There’s no going back.
The leaves are turning. I lie on the narrow strip of floor in the belly of my van and watch it happen through the nicotine-stained windows. Feet up on the sofa, blood pooling in my head. I’ve made it to Oregon, which is Washington-but-not-quite. I hadn’t intended to. But one afternoon I got behind the wheel and drove west instead of south, and now here I am. Pulled in for the night on a narrow strip of overgrown scrubland that I think might actually be private property, judging by the old white Fiat I’m crowded in next to. Some relic of the eighties, streaked in brown rust and half submerged in the boiling mess of ivy and ferns and trailing weeds. I guess it’s the human herding instinct that had me hone in on it; I feel comforted by its presence despite its emptiness.
I’m not stoned, but the rabbit is sitting on my belly anyway; a heavywarm weight. Its nose twitches. I say, “What, do I need more milk?”
I think it’s that herding instinct that has me back here, right on the cusp of Washington, possibly-trespassing on a stranger’s land. A herd can be an estranged mother and an almost-ex. It has to be. Why else would I be here?
The rabbit, it blinks. Then it says: “You are stoned, dumbass.”
I blink too, and swallow. Grassy, bitter taste. Like I’ve been licking the floor, or tearing that old car out of its leafy cage with my teeth. A glass of water sits high above me, making rings on the little table that slides out from the wall. I imagine that the peyote inside it gives it an oily sheen. Blueyellowgreenpurple, the colour of gutter water.
“Oh,” I say.
The rabbit says, “You’re getting worse.” And then, “It’s time to go back.”
My hands make sweaty streaks down my face. I can see myself in the rabbit’s black button eyes, my reflection upside down and bulbous; pale and wide-eyed. Well, I think, wildly, it was right about the milk last time.
I spend a lot of time driving on autopilot. Arriving at gas stations and strip malls and side-of-the-road motels in a daze, hypnotised by the highway and my tiredness and my preoccupation with what lies ahead. Every time I round a corner all the curled up old postcards shift from one side of the dash to the other. Cards collected in Nevada and Montana and Utah and way down in red Arizona. Pictures of Sego lilies and handsome cowboys and Saguaro cactuses, sun-bleached into shades of pastel that remind me of public toilets. Hi, I miss yous and Wish You Were Heres. Do you still like oranges? Do you still drink PBR? Do you love me, still?
When I do pass through the city limits, Seattle is as rainy and breathless as it always has been. Slick with grey rain, clouds clumping up moodily on the horizon. I’m almost out of gas, and unsure of where to go once I hit downtown and realise that I don’t really live here anymore. That I don’t live anywhere, apart from the thin mattress that folds out from the sofa in the back. Can you call a place home when its bed isn’t even a bed for most of the day? When I was a child I shared a bed with my mom. Home is someone’s breath on the crown of my head.
I drive to the parking lot of the nearest coffee shop; order a flat white and drink it crouched on the curb, smoking a cigarette. The light rain dusts over me, soft as a kiss. My flat white is beaded in little eggs of water. I drink it down. Roll that burned-coffee taste around my teeth and wonder at what exactly I want to do here.
Return to her, of course, for all the wrong reasons. As if just by disappearing into the blue for a few months I can erase all those things I said to her that night. Sometimes I wish we could go back ten years: find ourselves fifteen, sixteen; clueless. Best friends. Wish we could both give ourselves the chance for a do-over. See how we’d get on without my drinking and her drinking and all those tiny horrible moments that keep alcoholism from being one of those perfect inconsequential things. If the peyote rabbit was here, it’d probably tell me I have a hard time letting go. And I’d probably tell it that it’s completely right.
When I go to toss my coffee cup in the trash, I find the corpse of something that might’ve once been a raccoon, or a cat, maybe a rabbit. Now it’s just greasy brown fur and red meaty insides, a sweet funk of death surrounding it. I skirt it to toss my cup, and then double back. I don’t know why I do: dead animals make me sad. Whenever I see some huddled run-over lump on the side of the road I think, I see you, and, I’m sorry.
The rain has misted it, made its fur dark and slick. I hold my breath and crouch down next to it, struck suddenly by the urge to stand as witness to its premature death and current decomposition. Were you loved? I wonder, my hair hanging in stringy clumps around my face from the rain. Does anyone know you’re here?
A white wiggling thread breaches the surface of all that minced-up dark red flesh, undulating in that sick, maggoty way that seems designed to make skin crawl. As I watch, the corpse blooms with white dots, seems alive again with their horrible, searching movements. My mouth fills with spit. Salivating like a hungry dog. I can’t tell whether I’m going to throw up or whether I’m just starving beyond belief.
The first thing she says when she sees me is: “Jesus.”
I’m sitting on her stoop, hugging my knees to my chest. In the time I’ve been gone she’s planted pansies in a window box. They watch us both silently. Me sitting there unsure whether I should stand up or not. Nade standing at the bottom of the steps, a net of oranges swinging from her fingers, their skins shiny and pebbled as if cold.
I say, “Hi.”
She says, “You’ve got a lot of nerve.”
Then she marches past me and unlocks the front door; beckons me in as if it hasn’t been months of silence and unsent postcards. She looks exactly the same. I find my sushi parasite yearning towards her as I slip past her, holding the door open for me with her eyes cast skyward. I guess since it’s feeding off me it wants what I want. It’s nice to have company.
Her kitchen smells the same. Looks the same from all my fantasies of interrupting it with dirty old postcards. She says, “Does your mom know you’re home?”
I don’t try and tell her what home is to me. Sometimes I wish we were still communicating on pale purple stationary. Things are easier written down.
I say, “Got back yesterday,” and let her figure it out from there.
Silently, we regard each other from across the kitchen. Nade is still holding the oranges. A slant of shifting sunlight lays in a strip over her face. “And you came right here,” she murmurs, eyes holding steady on my own. It’s not a question, but I nod anyway.
She laughs, but it’s humourless. “Never change, Junebug,” she mutters, and I smile, hesitantly.
On her palm is a bunch of writing; all smudged and bleeding into her life line, her love line, etcetera. Sweated into illegibility by her walk home, and maybe the sight of me on her stoop too. I linger there in the doorway to the kitchen, watch her set the oranges on the counter. When she presses her palm to her forehead a moment later, a black smudge stays behind on the skin like a bruise.
Four summers ago she’d laid her knuckles against my knee, unfurled her hand like a flower, and asked me to read her palm. My mom reads Tarot on Skype for strangers. I was the fortune teller of our friendship group by association. I remember dancing my fingertips across her palm, all flushed over with her proximity to me. Her suntanned legs tangled up in mine, heads bowed together over her hand like it held the secrets to the universe. I made it up. Told her she was gonna fall in love soon, because I wanted her to fall in love with me.
Right now I can make out: grapefruit, flour, cereal. The rest is indecipherable, blurred out like an old tattoo. I guess if she’d asked me now, I’d tell her she was hungry.