His head hurt. Like…Like…he couldn’t think of an illustrative simile. That’s how he knew he was in deep shit. All he could think about was the ghastly image of his temples’ imploding. Well now, better be nice to ya Gulliva. He laughed at how his head referred to itself, with a clockwork accent. But his laughing intensified the pangs.
The room was darker than…dammit, he hated this metaphorical limbo. He couldn’t see. But he reached out and bumped a bony ankle in front of his face, and above him felt like the cork underside a cheap, aluminum table. He tried to speak, but breath rattled from his lungs, slipped right past his tarnished vocal chords, and came out a wheeze. His throat mounted a severe protest and nearly killed him when he tried to swallow. Maybe he had choked down a pin cushion. Then he remembered a line his Gulliva had faithfully mumbled over and over as he passed out hours earlier: In the wee hours of 2011, I had already lost my voice.
I can’t believe I’m losing my voice, Gene thought as he sipped a warm beer. Of all the nights it had to choose from, it slips out on me now. How…prophetic. I’m sure this year will go splendidly. He sat down at the kitchen table, bodies filing past and chatting all around. Some said: “Hey man! Wazzup?” He knew everyone there, but mostly out of the vague remembrances of middle school. No one had really changed all that much – they still loved video games or basketball or loitering around parks at odd hours or whatever else they did – except they had changed or were changing in the most significant way: innocence. Those who went to parties like this were struggling, between the liquor and weed and sex, to grasp that arduous concept. Those who didn’t attend such parties wondered desperately if they ought to. How much innocence do you hold on to? How much of it slips through your fingers without you ever even noticing? He was 17 and witness to his peers’ destruction. Only slowly, slowly, at a comfortable pace he was rather proud of, was he joining in the madness.
But he was a people-watcher first and fell in, de facto, with the pretentious artists snickering in the corner. He couldn’t help it; attending the specialty arts high school does that to you. All those other friends of his, and they are friends, I don’t mean to belittle (although he did anyway), hailed from the international baccalaureate college prep academy. The age-old middle school debate about which was better still waged at parties like these; in fact it was nauseatingly nostalgic to bring up the endless argument. But not with him - his voice had quickly degraded past Tom Waits into demonic territory, so he kept his trap shut and nodded voraciously in every drunken conversation. That’s all you have to do anyway.
“I’m just like, so happy you still play piano, Gene! I really wish I still played violin,” Julie said. He nodded. “And now you’re goin’ to college for it? Livin the dream!” She drank. He nodded. She handed him a bottle of something and they both took a shot before she went off to find her boyfriend and make out upstairs. There was a pin cushion in that bottle; he drank from it again.
In the garage, Gene saw an old friend from elementary school. He poignantly recalled finger-painting with him in 2nd grade. I wouldn’t mind finger-painting right now, Gene thought. But this friend dealt weed now, so he smoked a bowl with him and his shady friends. Gene coughed, tears filling his eyes, and his old friend, laughing, called him a little bitch. Gene asked if maybe he’d like to sell paint supplies instead, before leaving their cackling presence in the shadows.
He returned to the safety of his artist friends, listening to them talk shit about the local jazz musicians they adored. That’s how it works: you can only praise them for so long before you have to desecrate their shrines and move on to bigger and better heroes.
He saw a girl he had a crush on all through middle school; she was making out with another girl while her classmates cheered them on, throwing money at their feet. In the next room, two best friends wrestled in drunken reverie, before their masculine pride dictated they slam each other into walls – one of them, a kid named Andy, cut his forehead, blood streaming down his face. He was congratulated and handed a full bottle of rum.
Then Gene was lying on a carpeted floor, staring up at a ceiling cast in shadowy incandescence. A friend of his – one he didn’t see much any more – sat a few feet away, his back against the wall. This friend was a head taller than Gene remembered, and spoke with a new vocabulary of slang. How had Gene lost track of him so? The friend rambled on about all the deep talks they used to have about String Theory and Agnosticism. His friend missed him. His friend tried to ignite the philosophical fires by bringing up the history channel show Ancient Aliens. Apparently, it was mind-blowing, and Gene should check it out immediately. “Yeaaah, I know these so-called experts – that talk about how aliens jump-started human evolution – I know they’re completely crazy, but, like, what-if? You know?” A little while later he asked if Gene wanted to hoop. This friend always wanted to hoop then. Gene tried, whispering and wheezing, to tell him it was too cold out. “Pfft, maaan, there’s not even snow on the ground!” his friend retorted while getting up. He left to go hoop by himself in the flakeless chill.
The house lacked a TV on which to watch the countdown. People pulled out their phones, held them above their heads, yelled at each other to shut the fuck up. They attempted counting, but had to guess at when the minute would change. It was messy, staggered, and anticlimactic, but eventually they all kissed, slobbered all over each other, girls kissing girls, guys kissing other guys’ girlfriends and getting punched, everyone chugging the remains of bottles, much too much too much. A very drunk, rather unattractive girl even smooched Gene. That was my first kiss, he thought, feeling terribly cheated. One of his artist friends assured him that it didn’t count.
As he laid there in the dark, his Gulliva drudging up memories spitefully, Gene realized that nothing counted for anything. This doesn’t count. The new year doesn’t count. None of it counts. Or maybe it all counts… He rubbed his weary eyes. What am I doing here? He got up from under the table, stepping carefully around the bony ankle and its possessor, and tiptoed to the door. As his eyes adjusted, he looked back from the doorway to see bodies upon bodies passed out in one of the houses many rooms. Sleeping like children, peaceful, wretched, desperate. He heard someone puking in the nearby bathroom, saw blood stains in the hallway, felt the raw back of his throat beginning to heal. It was still the wee hours. He walked from the large, tortured house to the nearby park, where a few snow flakes fell and melted into dew. He knew the buses ran all night and as he sat at the bus stop, waited for anything to count for something.