Over the course of a month, I’m posting a short novella titled We Almost Had It which traces the friendships and romances of a group of thirty-something social media managers in Seattle as they try to figure out what a fulfilling life looks like in the digital age. The story was inspired by Shopping Is a Feeling, an album released by former Gastbys American Dream guitarist Bobby Darling under the moniker What What What. Click here to go back to the sixth chapter, “Jean-Ralphio”, or here to start the story over at the beginning.
“Another,” said Alex. The waitress disappeared down the bar, returning a moment later with a freshly filled pint glass.
“Pace yourself, bud. We’ve got time.” Randy sat across from Alex, still nursing the bottom half of his first beer as Alex drove on into his third of the night.
“Time for what?”
“You tell me, man. You’re the one freaking out like you’ve seen Pennywise in a drain or something. The new boss seems like an asshole but it’ll be alright. I mean, one or both of us might get fired. But outside of that, it’ll be alright.”
Alex took another drink. The truth was that he wasn’t even all that concerned about their new boss. He new he should be, he knew that he should care that his cushy job might be taken away from him as early as Monday and yet he didn’t really care. Somehow jobs of any kind seemed like a completely inconsequential pursuit. All he could seem to focus on was Kelli. Since she had returned, his whole world had been knocked out of alignment.
“My dear brother and his wayward friend,” said Paul as he sat down next to Randy.
“Who says I’m wayward?”
“Well, first of all, you fraternize with this layabout,” he gestured at Alex, “and secondly,” he craned his neck to look around the room, surveying the waitstaff and the bartenders, all of whom were young, attractive women, “you have terrible taste in drinking establishments.”
Randy chuckled. “We go to your hipster bars with their well-manicured dudes and their ornate mustaches all the damn time. It’s time to see how the other side lives.”
As Paul fired off a charming retort, Alex backed off his stool and stepped away from the bar. A feeling of panic was overwhelming him. He had read a story once where torture was committed by chaining the victim in the sun and having wet leather straps tied tightly around their forearms. As the leather dried it grew tighter and tighter, squeezing their arms until the pressure was so great that it snapped the radius and ulna. It felt to Alex like leather straps had been tied around his heart and his lungs for years and now that the sun was finally coming out he was learning the meaning of pressure, the feeling of pain. It was only a matter time until he burst.
He rushed into the bathroom and closed a stall door behind him. His eyes swam as he leaned against the door, his chest heaving against his will. Why didn’t he ever talk to anyone about his anxiety? Why didn’t he ever get any help? He knew why: because the only thing more uncomfortable than the thought of asking for help would have been actually doing it. For so long Alex had lived his life by avoiding the uncomfortable things that he despised and now, because of that avoidance, he found himself rudderless and floating, lost in space, watching as his anxiety expanded even as his self confidence collapsed, the two circling each other like twin stars locked in orbit, spiraling around and around until at last they would pass a critical point and crash into one another in a cataclysmic wreck that would destroy, well, everything.
That didn’t sound so bad, actually. If everything blew up, maybe he could start over. Maybe then he could get it right.
“I don’t know why you put up with it, honestly,” said Rachel. Kelli shook her head and exhaled loudly. The street was busy and the city was humming with the excitement of a weekend just beginning. Someone whistled at them as they passed—without pause and without turning her head, Rachel raised a single-finger salute in the offender’s direction. “I love you like a sister but I still don’t understand why you stayed with him when-”
“Okay, stop right there,” said Kelli. “We’re not re-litigating this. He was a royal asshole, okay? And I forgave him and that’s that. It’s over.”
Over the last few days, since her return to Seattle, Kelli had started to wonder whether or not she actually had forgiven Chad or whether she had instead buried all the pain that he had caused her only to find that now—back in the geographical heart of her life, in the place where she felt strongest—she was intentionally uncovering it. At the same time, she knew that she alone had picked Chad and that she trusted her judgment. There was something in him that she valued, or at least there had been.
The other matter that troubled Kelli was that, for all their long friendship, Kelli wasn’t about to let Rachel dictate her life, either. She wondered what it was about her that made other people think that she constantly needed their advice. She didn’t. What she needed, what she desperately wanted, was for others to recognize her ability to control her own fate.
“Anyway,” she said. “I’m having fun tonight, regardless.”
“You’re goddamn right, you are.”
Sunlight burst between the high-rises that loomed up on their left, splashing a wide band of orange light across the sidewalk. Kelli held up a hand to ward off the light, casting a shadow so that she could find her way. But soon the sun would disappear behind the forested hills on the far side of the Sound, the orange light fading to red and then simmering down into the black of night.
“No, no, no. I totally disagree. If they wanted Arya to seem like a candidate for the throne, they wouldn’t have sent her with the Hound,” said Paul.
“Dude, you are so wrong about that! Sending her with the Hound is exactly what they would do to show that she-”
Alex climbed atop the seat next to Paul and, without a word, reached over, took up his brother’s cocktail and threw it back in one swallow. Randy’s mouth hung open mid-sentence as he watched this unexpected development. When he eventually could speak, all he could think to say was, “Dude.”
“No, it’s fine,” said Paul sarcastically. “I definitely didn’t want to drink that $15 cocktail anyway. Another then?”
Alex blew out a long breath through pursed lips.
“Another it is,” said Paul. He flagged down the bartender and called for a round of shots.
“You okay, man?” asked Randy.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” said Alex. “Great. I don’t even—it’s like,” Alex could feel the words sputtering on his lips and knew that they were nonsense. His words, thoughts and emotions felt unregulated, like someone else was manipulating them, someone who didn’t know him or care about him in any way. “I don’t know,” he said. “Sometimes I get so stressed, so wound up. And then it has to come undone, right? It has to come undone or I’d explode. And I think it’s coming undone. I think maybe I’m coming undone.”
Paul reached out and put a hand on his shoulder.
“You’re not coming undone,” he said. The bartender laid out three shots and Paul nodded in appreciative thanks. He took up a glass and handed one to Alex and the other to Randy. “Whatever it is you’re going through, little brother, you’re not going through it alone.” He raised his glass and Alex and Randy added theirs to the toast. In one smooth motion they lowered their glasses down off the counter and then up to their lips. The liquor burned on the way down and when he exhaled, Alex breathed fire. Then he laughed. The tension he had been feeling started to recede. “Thanks, guys,” he said.
“For real, though. You okay?” asked Randy.
“Yeah, I’m alright,” said Alex. Somehow he knew it was true even though moments ago it would have been a lie.
“Of course he’s alright,” said Paul. “The more important issue at hand is what we’re drinking next. Because the night’s just getting started and I’m buying the next round. What’s it going to be, gentlemen?”
The taps were situated at the far end of the bar and as Alex squinted in their direction, trying to gauge what poison he wanted next, he saw something he had not expected to see.
“No fucking way,” he said.
Everyone was excited to see Kelli. There were roughly thirty of them, all told, friends from high school and college, old boyfriends and their new significant others, classmates who had fallen out of touch, old friends who had once been like sisters. They were all there to welcome her back to Seattle. Rachel, naturally, had set the whole thing up. By the time she and Kelli arrived, the small talk was in full swing and career milestones were being compared, photos of children were being shared and everyone was a drink or two deep. Kelli worked through the group, giving hugs to some and kissing the cheeks of others. Someone handed her a glass of wine which she continued to carry as a prop. After half an hour she sliced her way to the bar, sneaking past Rachel’s old make-out buddy Billy, who had developed a considerable paunch. She set the wine down and slid it an arms’ length away.
“Manhattan, extra bitters,” she said when the bartender approached.
“Some party, huh?” Rachel said as she came up beside Kelli and leaned against the bar.
“It’s great. Really great. Thank you for doing this.”
Rachel nodded knowingly. “I know. I thought it would be more fun, too.”
Kelli put an arm around her best friend. “You really are the best. You know that, right?”
“You’re goddamn right, I know that.”
The bartender delivered her drink and Rachel gestured for one herself.
“Why is this kind of shit always so disappointing?” Kelli asked.
“Did you learn nothing in California? The internet makes everyone seem so much cooler than they actually are. I hate to break it to you, love, but everyone we know—present company excluded—is middle-aged and lame now.”
The bartender brought Rachel’s drink and she put down cash for both cocktails. “Let’s pound these fuckers and get out of here, yeah?”
“Isn’t this is my party, though?”
“Who gives a fuck? They didn’t care when you weren’t here at first, they won’t care when you’re gone in a minute. We never hung out with any of these assholes anyway. It was usually just us. And maybe…”
Kelli couldn’t help but smile. “And maybe Alex and Paul,” she said. “I know.”
“Of course you do. Shall we?”
Kelli peered over her shoulder at the mass of former friends and acquaintances, none of whom had anything to do with her current life.
“Why the fuck not?” she said.
“That’s my girl!”
They raised their glasses to one another and, in one smooth motion, clinked them down off the bar and up to their mouths. Both glasses were emptied in one pull.
“God that is fucking terrible,” said Rachel, grimacing from the taste. “I threw you a shitty party but making me drink that was cruel.”
“Love you too.”
Following a hallway that ran past the restrooms and along the back of the bar, they came out a service exit with no further destination in mind. They zigzagged across the city, stopping at random bars for a single cocktail or appetizer or, once, for Rachel to have a cigarette with a cute guy. They talked about Kelli’s return to Seattle and how she had come to feel powerless in California, about how she felt that she’d let her younger self down by giving up on her writing so easily and about the seemingly inevitable disintegration of her marriage—when had they, like everyone at the party, gotten so old?—and yet it all felt funny and carefree. Nothing fazed Rachel and that impervious nature was contagious. For the first time in a long time, and despite the alcohol coursing through her system, Kelli felt in control. And that was what she wanted, in the end: meaningful control.
“How about this place?” she said outside of a dive bar that neither of them knew.
“Why the fuck not?”
It was crowded inside, the tables filled with guys in trucker hats and polos, the waitstaff all the definition of PYT. Rachel leaned against the far end of the bar and raised her arm to flag down the bartender. Standing behind her friend, Kelli let her eyes wander along the bar until suddenly they were caught.
There, at the far end of the bar, Paul was smiling at her. Sitting beside him, eyes wide, was Alex.
Click here for the eighth and final chapter of We Almost Had It, “Three Square Meals.”