If you haven't read part 18, do so here. Or you can start from the beginning.I had expected to feel lighter as I walked away, unburdened, carefree, but instead it is as though the sun had dimmed. My heart hurts, my chest hurts, my head hurts, and my eyes are stinging.
My feet take me to Brandon's apartment. He's grinning from ear to ear when he opens the door, but his expression quickly turns to concern when he sees my face.
"What's wrong?" he asks, pulling me inside.
"I don't know," I say hollowly. I can tell he wants to say something, a lot of things, but he shuts his mouth.
"Come on," he says, "I’m watching Shark Week reruns. I'll get you some tea."
We sit on his couch watching documentaries on nurse sharks and hammerheads, my tea growing cold in my hands. I am empty, frigid and dark.
"What's wrong with me?" I murmur. I thought this was the right decision.
Brandon looks over at me. "Do you regret it?" he asks softly, carefully.
I shake my head. I didn't think so. Did I?
Brandon laughs quietly, saying, "Freedom isn't a habit yet. I suppose it'll take some time to get used to."
I know he's disappointed with me. I set my mug on the coffee table and rub my head. "I don't think that's the problem."
"Well, maybe it's a tough realization, you know," Brandon suggests. "All the people who made the wrong decision."
I know what he means, but I need him to say it for me. "Which people?"
"Well, Mr. Hale, for one," Brandon says as he settles further into the couch. "He and Pavlov would have been best friends."
"Behavioral theorist. The guy with the dogs and the bells."
I have no idea about what he's talking, but I nod. "Well, Mr. Hale is a given."
"You, too," Brandon says unpityingly, "for figuring it all out but staying until you thought he had ruined your life for good. Your overseas relatives, and your parents' friends for not trying harder to stay in touch."
"I don't see how they could have found a way."
"Anything is possible, Tucker. They gave up, the same as you did."
I close my eyes and lean my head against the back of the couch. "Anyone else I should blame?" I ask bitterly.
"Well," says Brandon thoughtfully, "I suppose the list could go on, but soon enough you'll realize that everything you've experience has shaped you into the man you are today."
I don't feel like a man at all.
"I don't know about you," Brandon says, nudging me a little, "but I think you're pretty awesome.
I smile a little at that, but the emptiness within still yawns and shifts itself like a great cat.
"Hey," Brandon says apologetically, "I need to run my last paper over to my prof's office, but I'll bring back pizza or something. Are you okay here for an hour, or do you want to come with me?"
Unwilling to be a burden, I shake my head. "I'll be fine," I say, my tone miserable.
Brandon grabs his coat as he gets off the couch. "I'll be back as soon as I can," he informs me. "See ya."
I mope on the couch for a while, then wander into the kitchen. Even as I take down a glass and pull the stopper out of a wine bottle I tell myself that this is the wrong way to handle the bleakness pulsating in my chest. Nevertheless, I take the bottle back to the living room with me, reasoning that a glass and a half will be more than enough to round the edges of near-unbearable pain.
When Brandon walks back in I'm searching for my pants. I took them all the way off to go to the bathroom because I keep stumbling over nothing, and did not want to risk making a mess. My taste buds feel dead—perhaps I killed them when I switched to beer after the wine was gone. I put the wine bottle and all the cans in the bins for recycling, so I think I've more than made up for my dead tongue. Stupid Mr. Hale.
"Got some house pizza, with everything except ham, Anchovies, mushrooms and pineapple 'cause those all suck," Brandon announces cheerily as he bustles through the door. "Pineapple should never be cooked."
Weaving as little as possible, I attempt to meet Brandon and take the pizza box from him, but only reach the couch before I have to lie down. "Anchovies are for felines and sea creatures," I inform him, "and I cannot find my pants."
I think Brandon's trying not to laugh at me, but it's hard to tell with four of him swimming in my vision. "Tucker, did you get drunk?" He sets the box on the coffee table and sits on the floor beside it. "All I got from that mumbling was something about pants, which you clearly aren't wearing."
I wave one hand dismissively as I fumble at the pizza with the other. "Ask me after I eat." My hand isn't paying attention to my brain, so when I shake a piece loose some of the toppings fly off and land on the table. "Sorry." I'm a terrible guest. "I drank your booze."
"Okay, I understood that part. I think that's pretty obvious," he replies, picking up the runaway sausage and peppers. "You definitely need a better way to deal with your problems. No alkies in this house."
I nod as vigorously as possible. "Noooo alkies." I shove pizza in my mouth.
After a round of silent pizza consumption Brandon retrieves my pants and helps me put them on. He looks up at me from the floor when he lies down near the couch, his head propped on his hand. I want to kiss him. "You're that upset, huh? Do you love Mr. Hale?"
"Fuck no," I slur, belching loudly.
Brandon laughs. "Well, you're certainly being honest," he comments.
It's hard to lift my head, but I do it. "He jus' messed with my head long n'ough that I thought I did. Motherfucker." I like being drunk, it makes me witty.
"Damn," Brandon shakes his head. "You are such a lightweight."
"You're a shithead," I respond. My comedic timing cracks me up. Brandon watches me, bemused, while I roll on the couch, laughing. "Shitfaced." That brings on another set of the giggles. How did I not know how hilarious I am?
"I'm just a lightweight because Mr. Hale don't let me drink, b'cause he says it ruins the sensations," I inform my friend, rolling the r haughtily. This makes me laugh even harder, because I'm so damn funny.
"Holy god!" Brandon exclaims, shaking his head. "What is so damn funny?"
"I am." I wipe tears from my eyes. "I'm fuckin' giddy."
"That's for sure. I've never heard you cuss so much."
"Fuck fuck fuck." I prop myself against the couch. When I close my eyes the room spins in several different directions. "Ask me more fucking questions," I instruct Mr. Shithead. "I am prepared to answer your inquishies."
Mr. Shithead cocks an eyebrow. "My inquishies? Does that have anything to do with an inquiry?"
"Fug," I say. "Fuck." My tongue won't move right.
"Alright, I've got one for you," he says.
"Shit. Shut." What's the damn word I'm looking for? "I mean, shoot."
"Okay," Brandon pauses. I muster my wit around me. "Are you in love with me?"
"Hell yeah," I drawl, very suave.
Brandon's smile grows huge, and I think about what I had just said.
"Oh my fucking Mary shitpants," I say, covering my face.
"I take it back," I say.
He laughs harder. Shithead.
"I'm not saying we're going to rip off our clothes right now and make passionate love," he grins as my face turns bright red. "You need some recovery time. You probably couldn't get it up, anyway, not in your state."
Well, that is simply salt upon open wounds. "Umon my ponor," I declare. I concentrate and try again. "Upon my honor, asswipe. I could get it up if I tried." At his skeptical look I unbutton my pants. "I'll prove it, fucker."
"Whoa," Brandon says, laughing so hard he can barely speak. "Whoa. I believe you."
"You do not," I argue, fumbling with my belt. "I'll prove it." He clearly does not believe me. I will get it up. "We can fuck anytime you want."
"No, I get it," Brandon chuckles as he moves over to me. He knocks my hands away and buttons up my pants. "You're a virile young man and have never struggled with whisky dick, even when highly intoxicated."
"Thank you," I nod magnanimously. I don't know what the fuck a whisky dick is.
Brandon sits against the couch beside me and asks, "How much have you had to drink, anyways?"
"Not much," I squint my eyes and count. "I had two beers and some wine before you got home." Is that all? I'm a good drinker.
Brandon cocks an eyebrow. "How much is 'some,' Tuck?"
I shrug, which causes my head to loll a bit. It is heavier than usual. "Just what was left in the bottle, and then the other bottle. And then I drunked the beers." I have a heavy head. "And maybe I had the stuff in the freezer." Maybe I definitely had it.
"Oh my god!" Brandon exclaims, leaping to his feet. "That's almost two whole bottles! And like a liter of tequila! You could have alcohol poisoning or something. I've got to get you to a hospital. I can't believe you haven't vomited yet. Drink some water."
"No. No," I wave him off, "no no no no no. I am feeling very fine. Very, very okay, is me." What a worrywart he is. Why does my brain way five million pounds? Heavy.
Brandon crosses his arms. I wonder if he knows that makes him look like he has Mr. Clean muscle arms. "Is that code for 'think I'm going to puke?'"
I don't think so. I shake my head, which I decide is the weightiest part of my body, and answer, "No, but I might pass out."
As far as I can tell, pass out is exactly what I did, because when I awake the next morning I am lying on the couch in my underwear, a university fleece blanket thrown over me. There is a terrible taste in my mouth and my head feels as though it will implode.
"I'm going to die," I mutter to no one in particular.
"What was that?" Brandon's chipper tone cuts through the fog in my head.
"Please cease shouting," I plead.
Brandon laughs raucously. "I'm not shouting, Tucker. You just have a hangover."
Hangover or no, my brain is going to burst any moment if he continues to stomp around as though determined to enrage the neighbors.
"You're going to kill me," I grumble. The lights are unusually bright, piercing, even, and even though I didn't vomit last night, I might this morning. I will never imbibe again.
A glass clanks onto the coffee table in front of me.
"You need some water," Brandon says loudly. "I know you're dehydrated. I've taken Alcohol Awareness. You also need food."
The thought of eating anything turns my stomach, but I take the water with gratitude—my tongue feels like a cotton ball. Perhaps my taste buds are swollen, or are growing mold.
"And you need to shower," my friend continues noisily. "You smell like ass."
I flip him off, the first time I've ever done that to anyone, but Brandon bursts into laughter, which only hurts my head more. Nevertheless he is absolutely correct. I smell terrible, I feel terrible, and I'm sure I look worse. The throes of death and decay have laid an early and undiscriminating hold on my battered youth.
"Seriously, Tuck, I did not invite you into my home so you could get loaded and mope on the couch. Let's go."
I allowed him to shove me into the shower, cursing him under my breath for his good sense and intentions.
"This is an example of how you should not be coddling me," I inform him through the shower curtain and cacophony of falling water.
"I'm not coddling you," he protests. It sounds like he has a mouth full of toothpaste. "Friends take care of each other."
"I—" love you, almost escapes; it feels like the most natural follow-up. "—really appreciate this," I say, a little sheepish. I didn't come to Brandon's place to be cared for. Additionally, everything that I told him last night was under the influence of alcohol. When I tell him sober, I want to be facing him, at least.
Brandond spits, then says, "Don't worry about it. Let me know when you're ready for breakfast. I'm making pancakes, eggs and bacon, because I'm awesome."I may not be hungry, I may feel like death embodied, but I think I'm going to like living here.