Andrew’s mom’s Volkswagen ground over the loose gravel as we pulled into an unmarked space in the far corner of the lot. Before Andrew even switched the car off I produced the two 40s of Miller High Life from the plastic grocery bag stashed near my feet. We clapped the bottom ends together in cheers before unscrewing the aluminum caps and tossing them into the hopeless clutter of the backseat. We wouldn’t need them any longer.
Andrew downed his in record time. I tried to keep up at first but had to stop when I felt the fizz coming through my nose. It burned and brought tears to my eyes, so I sat the half-full bottle in my lap for a moment. Andrew didn’t skip a beat. As I watched, the amber beer swirled steadily out of the bottle until it was all empty, save for the white bubbles coating the glass sides. He belched and smiled big when he finished.
“What, you’re still here?” he said and laughed in his usual way—gums showing and eyes obscured by folds that would one day turn to wrinkles. I flipped him off and continued at my own pace while he started fiddling with the radio. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll catch up with me someday.”
“Practice makes perfect, right?”
He crossed himself and laughed again as I got to what remained in my bottle. My stomach felt heavy and the High Life tasted luxurious compared to what we were used to. We were usually forced to settle for the bottom shelf stuff because Andrew’s sister demanded a cut when she bought us beer. We had to sacrifice our dinner money most of the time just to get our hands on some of that vile piss called Keystone Light. Less food, at the very least, meant a quicker buzz.
Tonight, we were blessed with extra spending money because the act at the Chain Reaction was truly unknown, even in the world of local hardcore—a four-piece called Corpse Incorporated. To us, it meant lower ticket prices and higher-end alcohol.
I finished my 40 to the last drop. Andrew flung his door open and jumped out of the car with bottle in hand. He turned to the dry riverbed, a mess of cracked dirt and jagged brown weeds running alongside the parking lot. He drew his arm back.
“Think it’ll shatter?”
“I’d like to see you try,” I said as I fumbled out of the car.
He tossed the glass with all his might. It spiraled through the air, reaching its apex and coming down to earth. It landed among the weeds with a hollow thunk.
“We should’ve put money on it,” I said.
“I’ll bet you can’t do much better.”
I circled the car to his side, weighing the empty 40 in my open palm. I pulled my arm back and lifted one leg up to give the throw some real power. I chucked it and watched it spin in the air like Andrew’s. A sharp pain shot through my shoulder like a can-opener. The bottle shattered with a crash on impact and I clapped my hands together once in victory.
“I’ll be damned,” Andrew whistled. “You must have bought a breakaway bottle or some shit.”
“Right, because I knew we would do this,” I laughed. We started walking. I could feel my head going light and my gaze turning pleasantly fuzzy. We stomped toward the building, zig-zagging. The venue was a flat-roofed white stucco place wedged between the riverbed and an ugly strip mall with a dry cleaning shop and a family pizza joint. It was unimposing from the outside, but anarchic fury erupted within each Friday and Saturday night. Those nights, it turned from unused office space into the Chain Reaction, an all-ages venue for hardcore punk frequented by mean-looking townies and weirdo adolescent cliques from the surrounding neighborhoods. Andrew had introduced me to the cheap concerts, but I already felt I understood their meaning better than he ever would. For him, they were simply about chaotic fun, but I knew it to be something bigger. Two days a week, it was a place of unrepentant nihilism nestled discreetly in the hopeless domesticity that was our hometown. The Chain Reaction was a place where nothing meant anything and that meant freedom in a place otherwise bereft of such a foreign concept.
We came to the ticket counter and each wordlessly slid a ten dollar bill through the slot in the glass. The piercing-clad attendant slid flimsy ticket stubs back at us. We went to the door and the usual hefty bouncer ripped the stubs in half and waved us through the double doors.
We crossed the threshold and I felt it all leave me. My miserably unrequited love, my crushing issues of self-worth, my parents’ pending divorce—all of it gone like that. In here, I wasn’t a rational, thinking human, but a beast driven by raw emotion without reason.
The inside of the venue started with a narrow hallway opening into a sprawling square room, empty except for a black wooden stage jutting out of the wall, raised three feet off the ground. Save for that, everything was gray concrete, spotted and cracked and mean and hard. A crowd that matched the concrete was gathering in the center of the room, all yelling over each other. Andrew and I didn’t quite blend in—no piercings, tattoos, or jet black hair—but we did our best. He wore a black vest with ragged patches ironed on and his hair gelled up in points, and I wore a band shirt from another concert and a pair of old blue jeans cut into shorts with dull scissors I stole from school.
We joined the crowd at the edges and talked and called each other drunk and laughed about nothing. A few people recognized Andrew and he introduced me briefly. They talked and I stood idly by with nothing to offer, a familiar phenomenon. I didn’t mind being sidelined like I usually did though. I just stared off and enjoyed the beer buzzing pleasantly through my body. The bitter taste of it lingered on the back of my tongue, so I spit on the floor. No one noticed. I liked being drunk—really drunk—so I decided to take advantage of the ace up my sleeve before the show started.
“I need to go grab something from the car,” I said to Andrew, interrupting his conversation.
“Can I get the keys?”
“It’s unlocked,” he said.
“You leave the car unlocked?” I asked.
“You couldn’t pay someone to steal the piece of shit.”
I trudged out of the place, past the bouncer and through the parking lot to the car. I fished my tattered backpack out from amongst the fast food wrappers in the backseat. Unzipping it, I dug past a stack of notebooks and felt for the slick metal that had sunk to the bottom. I smiled at the thin flask I held between my thick fingers. I felt the heat from another car’s headlights on my back, so I got into the car and slammed the door behind me for the sake of discretion.
I popped off the flask’s cap and took my first pull from it. It tasted like gas and went down my throat like fire. I didn’t know what it was. I’d found it digging through my dad’s desk drawers in search of paperclips and felt the liquid sloshing around inside. I recognized what the dull metal canteen was for, so I stashed it until the right day came around. This wasn’t to share with Andrew, though—this was mine. I tilted it back again and coughed as it went down, some of it leaking through my lips and down my peach-fuzz chin. It even felt hot on my skin. I drank more still until it was all gone and slammed it down on the dashboard before stepping out of the car. I was disappointed at first that I didn’t feel much drunker than before. But walking back to the building, I felt my legs struggle to move straight and watched the world swirling into a soft focus. I laughed dumbly, knowing it had done the trick and then some.
The music had started. It came through the outside air, mostly the relentless thump-thump-thump of a harsh snare drum that shook the rocks on the ground. I imagined the sober, steady people sitting in the pizza place yards away, an adult contemporary song drifting through the speakers and sneered.
The bouncer’s scowl deepened as he smelled the rubbing alcohol stench coming off me. I dug through my pockets and produced the ticket stub. He waved me in.
The concert was in full-swing. The band played a song that plodded along with angry abandon. The drummer threw his long hair back and forth as he brought the sticks down hard. The bassist played the same three chords until it looked like his fingers might fall off. The guitarist moved one hands along the neck of his V-shaped guitar and tore his other hand up and down on the strings. The singer had the microphone cord wrapped around his bare chest, doubled over at the edge of the stage so he could scream into the faces of the crowd. The acoustics of the venue were horrible, but it only added to the industrial, raw clatter of it all. It felt good, feeling the music coursing through me and driving my heart rate up. People punched the air, all of them in a circle to allow a mosh pit in the center. It moved like a whirlpool of some two dozen people, all pushing and running and throwing fists. I found Andrew at the rim of the pit. We smiled at each other wordlessly before scowling again so we’d blend in. I joined him in shoving everyone that strayed close enough to us.
I pushed a skinhead with one hand as he stomped by. He turned back with fury in his flashing eyes, but I paid him no mind. He was tall and gangly, with shiny hairless skin, his shirt tucked into his jeans so his pink torso was on full display.
The song died with a final snare kick. I managed to get a word in to Andrew. “Why aren’t you in the pit?”
“I was in the fucking pit,” he yelled, gesturing to his face, red and blotched with sweat that threatened to ruin his meticulously unkempt hair. I punched his arm in good humor, appreciating the sonuvabitch in the rare way you only do when you’re full of poison. The guitarist hit a hard chord and the next song started like a stick of dynamite.
“Your turn!” Andrew shoved me into the mosh pit, and I didn’t bother to resist. I embraced it all and felt the beat of the new song, which sounded exactly like the last. I bent over so I was facing the ground and moved along to the rhythm, kicking my feet and fists into the air, feeling my sneakers slide on the smooth concrete ground. I kept moving with the current of people. My mouth filled with foul tasting spit and the throbbing in my eardrums spread to my whole head.
I stayed and sweated out some of the beer in the pit for a few songs before I suffered a shove from behind that knocked me onto the floor. My stomach hit first, and then my chin. The bone went numb and the air rushed out of me. Lifting my head, I made out the skinhead stomping away at a steady pace. The adrenaline numbed any pain the alcohol didn’t take care of, and I felt a surge of sweet hatred rising in my stomach. But hatred isn’t what came up my throat and out my lips. I felt the foul stuff coming and clapped my hand across my mouth. Some of it overflowed and spilt between my fingers so a splatter of vomit landed inches from my face on the concrete.
I stood and ran to the bathroom in the corner of the venue. I found my way into one of the stalls, tossing the thin door shut behind me and letting it all flow out of me and into the toilet bowl. I felt better afterwards, except for a clogged feeling in my throat like heartburn. I stood up and leaned into the concrete partition to keep my balance. I tried to hold the toilet bowl in focus, but it wouldn’t keep still. I hit the bar to flush it with my sneaker. The brown liquid, tinged red with blood, swirled and went away.
When I went to leave the stall, I noticed a man hunched over the counter beside the only sink in the room. I stayed in the stall, silent and watching him through a crack in the door, half-fascinated and half-disdainful of his getup. He wore a pair of beat-up Nike sneakers beneath a businessman’s outfit, complete with dark creased slacks and a starched shirt, the ends of it untucked and wrinkled. The man moved a little as he brought in a sharp breath through his nose—snorting something off the counter. He stood straight and sighed with a hoo-ah sound, throwing his arms back and forth. When he left, I saw his face in profile.
That was enough though. I recognized him as my father. His face was more hollow than usual and his normally well-kempt hair was falling over his eyes, but it was him.
I stepped up to the sink in a trance and watched myself swaying in the muddy mirror. I tried to focus on my reflection, my ruddy-spotted face and bruised chin, for what seemed like a long time, trying to divine if I’d really seen what I thought I had. The flecks of white dust left on the counter seemed to confirm it. My face screwed up in confusion. The music broke through the bathroom’s relative quiet as a song outside grew in intensity and volume. I remembered where I was and splashed water on my face and bared my teeth.
I went back into the large room with my hands in fists, letting the hate surge through me once more. I cursed my father for daring to invade and tarnish this sacred domain. I felt tight and strong and a little sick. I kept my eyes peeled for him as I went back toward the front of the crowd. I saw him in the mosh pit, stomping and dancing like I had done moments before. He was an odd sight—a forty-something man wearing formal clothes in the midst of a hardcore punk show crowded with kids in their late teens. No one but me seemed to mind. Some even spurred him on with enthusiasm.
Without thinking, I stepped into the current of the pit again and stayed upright, following with a heavy gait. He didn’t see me behind him. As I felt the song fading, I turned around to go against the current. He came around, eyes on the ground. I bent low and drove my fist straight up through the air and into his face. It hit hard, and he fell backwards onto his ass.
“Fuck,” he said. The song ended abruptly. He looked up at me and our eyes met. Deep red blood started seeping out from both his nostrils. It coated his lips and chin. I couldn’t take looking at him, so I turned and sprinted through the crowd and out the door. I didn’t stop until I reached Andrew’s mom’s car. I felt the sting of tears in my eyes and fought to keep them from spilling out onto my cheeks, hating myself like I hated my father. I looked toward the riverbed, black in the moonless night and sucked in deep, labored breaths, feeling too much all at once. Shame, fear, confusion, loneliness, sorrow, anger—all of it rising inside me like ice water until it just turned to numbness. I wretched and I wished I could vomit more, so it would all come out of me, but I was empty.
Gravel crunched behind me, signaling someone’s approach. I knew who it was, so I crossed to the far side of the vehicle. The crunching got closer and finally stopped a few feet behind me. I tried to keep my eyes dry and defiant for the relentless scolding I knew was coming. He could punish me as much as he wanted, but if I stayed resolute and angry, it wouldn’t matter—I would win. I heard him sigh and then I heard his voice, which only inflamed all my emotions again.
“Listen,” he began in a soft tone that surprised me. “Don’t… Please don’t tell your mother about this. If she knew she would use this. She’d call me an unfit parent—and I might not get to see you or your sister anymore. Please, I can forget this—if you just… don’t tell your mother.”
His words were like white noise but the meaning sunk in. His voice sounded humble, ashamed, and almost pleading, even scared. My father—scared. I realized I had actual power over him, but didn’t know how to use it. I sniffed and said with a mean edge to keep my voice from shaking:
“I saw you in the bathroom.”
“Christ,” he hissed, more at himself than me. He kicked at the rocks on the ground and groaned desperately.
“What were you doing?” I asked.
“I was… reverting. Or trying to—revert to a younger age I mean. Like your age,” he dodged. I didn’t press him—I knew what he was doing. I just wondered why in the hell anyone would ever want to be my age after they’d passed it for good. “Just—please. Don’t tell your mother.”
I felt him hovering behind me but still didn’t turn to look at him. My father sniffed behind me.
“You don’t have a napkin, do you? I’ve just got a lot of, uh…”
I went into the car and fished out a crumpled fast food napkin. I handed it to him, looking into his face for the first time since our eyes had met inside. He brought the napkin to his upper lip. The blood looked black in the dark as it soaked through the brown paper until that was all black too. He twisted one end and wedged it into his right nostril.
“You really shouldn’t punch your father,” he said, and looked down with uncertain eyes. He said it with his usual authoritative tone, but it didn’t sound right anymore. “You reek of alcohol,” he said.
“Vomit too,” I muttered. I wanted to be angry at him again, and I tried, but it wouldn’t come. I went to the inside of the car and came back with the flask. I put it in his hand. I noticed the circles under his eyes, wet and shiny in the ambient light, as he accepted the flask and shook it to hear that it was empty.
I went back and leaned on the hood of the car. He gradually sidled up to my side and discreetly leaned on the hood of the car too. It sunk a little closer to the ground beneath our weight.
I wondered, for the first time, why he’d come here if he hadn’t anticipated seeing me, which he plainly hadn’t. I didn’t bother asking because I knew he wouldn’t answer. I would never know that about him. I would never know much about him at all, like I hadn’t known he could be humbled or ashamed or scared before that night. He likely wondered the same about me—all he would never know and never understand about me. He, too, didn’t ask.
We stood in silence. I watched the streetlights in the distance through bleary eyes, and they stood still for a moment. I felt some sort of peace coming through my throbbing head and hot cheeks and dry lips as I looked past the riverbed to the town and listened to the crickets’ chirping blended with the whooshing of the cars going home. After a while, he stood up. The car lifted higher off the ground without his weight so my feet weren’t touching the ground anymore.
“I’ll see you Sunday morning,” he said and pocketed the flask.
“Sunday morning,” I echoed, and he left, tucking in his shirt tails.