Mike Dell’Aquila

Posted on May 21, 2011



The smell of cigarette smoke is what made it feel like home. For years, I’d lived in a city with smoke-free mandates in all their bars and restaurants. At first, I clamored about the laws being impositions on personal liberties, and then I quit smoking and appreciated smoke-free establishments for helping me resist what my willpower alone could not. Three years, that’s how long I’d lasted, but I knew that I was about to backslide and I had no problem with it: I’d returned to a town I had no interest in returning to and so I felt a cigarette was somehow owed to me.

It was a college town, the place that I’m from, and there was more of a variety than what most Pennsylvanian towns offered in the way of a bar scene. That is to say, we weren’t limited to some backwoods watering hole or a biker’s hangout on the side of a highway, we had clubs and Irish pubs and even a gay bar that remained generally un-harassed by the locals. My personal favorite was a basement bar called O’Riley’s where you could go to hear the blues on a Friday night. It wasn’t the real thing, of course, just a white, Central Pennsylvanian version of it, but when my friends and I were all in school we grabbed onto anything that felt like real culture.

I was one of the lucky ones; I got out before it was too late. Since high school, I’d been plotting my escape and drawing up mental blueprints for the life I’d lead. Thinking back on it now, I realize that my current life in New York wasn’t very far from what I’d planned it to be after all, I just sometimes lost sight of what the dream had been or even the fact that there had been a dream. Maybe I thought I’d be happier in the scheme I devised as a teenager, but after I paid my cover and bought a draft beer, I realized I was happy, in my own way.

The stage was against the opposite wall. There was a few colored lights shining over the band, but they weren’t very effective at keeping the place well lit. And that was the point. Mostly, those lights simply illuminated the haze that hovered beneath the tiled ceiling, coloring it in different hues.

There was a group of kids sitting at the wooden tables that my friends and I used to lay claim to years ago. An entire generation grew up and slid into all of the places we once occupied. Of course, if I looked long and hard enough I’d be able to spot a few familiar faces somewhere in the bar, but I wasn’t interested in reminiscing with near-strangers or telling tall tales about life in the big city. I’d come back to Happy Valley because my friends needed me, or at least I felt like I might be needed by them.

The blues band played the same songs I remembered from what felt like a lifetime ago. For all I knew, they only had four or five set lists. There’s a certain type of person who finds comfort in a complete lack of change. I don’t believe I’ve ever been that type of person.

I was thankful when I saw Curt walk down the stairs. He looked the same as he had, as if time stood still in this valley. His hair was long, not as long as it had been, but definitely longer than most shag haircuts, which had come into vogue for the mainstream by that time. He still wore the same beat up plaids and worn-in jeans, creating an alt-country look that could have just as easily been the style of an actual farm boy. A thick hemp necklace still hung loosely around his collarbone, dangling beneath the ever-present five o’clock shadow.

He’d warned me ahead of time that he might be late and even if he hadn’t, I would have still expected it from him. For a little over a year, Curt worked as a dishwasher in the restaurant that sat directly above the bar. It was the longest job he’d ever held down in the history of our friendship, if you don’t count being a small time pot dealer as being a job, which the IRS probably does not. It depressed me that when Curt was finally able to grab onto something in life, it was the lowest rung on the ladder. Still, maintaining a job was something and it was a world of improvement from a steady and swift fall into nothingness.

Curt didn’t spot me right away and I made no effort to flag him down. He shook hands with a longhaired bartender and followed him as he delivered a tray full of drinks for the band. They talked for a while and I swiftly ordered a second beer from the bar. As I waited, I wasted time worrying about how I ought to act and how I ought to present myself. I didn’t come back to see Curt, specifically, but I know that his reaction would give me some indication of where I stood with the whole group, the somewhat randomly assembled group of friends who’d stuck together after some of us moved away and probably would until the bitter end.

“Hey man,” is what he said to me with an outstretched hand. Maybe the breezy greeting should have put me off, but really, I didn’t expect anything else. And I didn’t want anything else. The brevity meant that we were still close in the way that old friends were supposed to be close and at that moment, I hoped with a surprising sincerity that a shared past still meant something.

Curt ordered two Irish car bombs from the same bar tender he spoke with earlier. They were on the house. After closer inspection, I realized that I’d known the long haired guy, not well, but he was either a grade above or below us. For people who left, those sorts of distinctions still mattered, they were trails of bread crumbs that led back to the past. For people like Curt, those dividing lines had disappeared entirely.

“Here,” Curt said to me, handing over the glasses. “We might as well start this night off right.”

I didn’t put up much of a protest. The quicker I caught a buzz, the easier the reunion would be. Curt probably felt the same way. Neither of us was much in favor of bullshit conversations, not intentionally anyway. When we were still everyday friends, we’d run our mouths for hours pretending that we knew what we were talking about or making discoveries of remarkable depth. A lot of those talks were ridiculous, but we’d never intentionally wasted each other’s time with conversations we didn’t absolutely believe in at the time.

We grabbed a table along the wall. It was a small, round one designed to sit four people, but the place wasn’t that busy and no one protested that there were only two of us.

Curt and I tried not to look at each other. We knew what we’d discover, I think, and so we avoided the inevitable. I changed. He hadn’t. That was the essential crux upon which a very awkward and complicated situation was built.

I suddenly became conscious of how badly I stuck out in this bar. My outfit, which was perfectly on-trend and in line with the finicky tastes of the Lower East Side, featured a slim-fitting button-down beneath a gray cardigan and a pair of dark-washed skinny jeans. The piece de resistance was the skinny plaid tie hanging casually around my neck. It was the most damning of my affectations, and somehow I hadn’t considered how strange it might appear in my old town.

“Curt, I really don’t know what to say here and it’s a weird position for me to be in, so I’ll just come out and ask it. What the hell happened that night?”

There were many nights I could have been referring to, but he knew which one I meant. This was not because of some profound connection between old friends; it was because there was really only one night I could have been talking about. Four nights ago, our friend Tyler tried to take his own life by face planting off a three-story parking garage.

Curt pulled the ashtray closer toward his seat and deposited gray matter from the edge of his cigarette. Then he shrugged. It was a weird and perfect response. Without warning, our friend tried to kill himself, failed and was now facing possible paralysis. Any stronger reaction would have been melodramatic, anything less would have just been cruel.

“Was he depressed?”

It was a dumb and obvious question and we both knew it, but I wanted answers that he couldn’t give me, so there wasn’t anything rational to say.

“Yeah, probably. I mean, he never talked about it or anything, but who isn’t?”

Instantly, I thought of an old campaign I worked on:

Are you feeling down? Having trouble getting out of bed in the morning? Do you struggle with thoughts of hopelessness? If so, you might be suffering from depression. You’re not alone. 85% of Americans struggle with depression, but Abraxin is here to help…

You know the rest.

Commercials never make mention of jumping off of parking deck rooftop. Instead, you’ll see a sad brown bear finally coming out of his cave with a smile to greet the rising sun. Everything seemed so simple in those TV spots. Problems were solved daily, thirty seconds at a time.

I watched the spiraling smoke from Curt’s cigarette dance its way toward the ceiling, joining the collective haze beneath the tiles.

“I almost quit once, you know.”

“What happened,” I asked.

“I just didn’t care enough. It wasn’t a willpower thing, I just realized that I did not want to quit. When I really want to, I will. And I know that I’ll be able to do it, but for the time being and in the near-future, I don’t see it happening.”

There was a cocksure quality to his voice that was reassuring. I didn’t believe anything he said, but I believed that he did and it was a faith stronger than I could muster for just about anything.

I started to wonder how long we’d float around the issue, touching down for moments at a time and then skipping back to inconsequential chatter.

“Seriously, Curt, what happened?”

If needed, I could have lasted all night. We could have talked about what was new in indie rock or the films I saw that only played in select cities. In fact, we should have been talking about those things. Instead of picking at scabs and drawing blood, we could have been catching up in the way that most friends do at homecoming football games and high school reunions.

Curt blew out a cloud of smoke and shook his head. For a moment, I felt bad for boxing him into a corner and demanding answers. I considered the fact that grief affects everyone differently, but Tyler wasn’t dead, he was hospitalized. His condition was critical and he hadn’t been taken out of the ICU, but he was still alive—which meant that there was no time needed for mourning.

“It’s just one of those things,” he said at last.

“What things,” I asked quietly, before he could finish the thought.

“I don’t know, man. It was just one of those nights where you get so low that you just don’t care anymore. I think that’s what was going on with him.”

Curt never liked to use concrete or clinical terms. I don’t know if it was a conscious choice, another way he tricked himself into feeling free or somehow exempt for the oppression that most of us know as the real world or if he just lacked a certain precision of language.

I used to think it was magic, getting people to act in the ways you’d like them to by simply arranging the right words in a certain order, but the real wizards are the people who don’t live in a world constructed from conventional syntax. Maybe people like Curt and Tyler really thought they could fly if they jumped off a building or that it was at least worth a shot to break free of a world that constantly made you feel like you were falling.

“It’s not like we saw any of this coming,” he said in a defensive tone, as if he could sense the accusations that were coming next.

There are only a handful of ways to construct a sentence and not one of them looked like they’d get me anywhere. So I just nodded my head and bummed a cigarette, feeling like it was as appropriate an act as any.

“It could have just as easily been me,” he added. “If I was up there by myself on some other night and felt the way he must have, I would have done the same thing.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.

I’d forgotten what it was like to stand on top of the highest structures in our valley and to see hills like walls in all directions.

“Where are you staying tonight?”

I looked down at my empty glass. “I got a hotel room.”

It seemed like the right thing to do when I first found out about Tyler. The look on Curt’s face made me realize that I’d made the wrong choice. He didn’t look insulted, the disappointment on his face wordlessly confirmed that there were more than 240 miles, a chain of old mountains and a river dividing us.

“My parents don’t live here anymore, so I just figured I wouldn’t be a burden to anyone,” I offered in the way of an explanation.

“Makes sense,” he answered absently.

He didn’t offer his parents’ basement and I was thankful for that. I wasn’t back in town for a high school sleepover where we’d bring Olde English forties and watch horrible B-movies from the 80s. The truth was, at that moment, I couldn’t really decide why I had come back. Tyler was still unconscious and even if he came to, there was no telling whether or not he’d care if I came.

The band took a set break after thanking the crowd. I looked around and discovered that the place had filled up respectably, but the term packed was a word whose meaning is completely relative.

Curt’s glass was already empty, and I was nearing that point too but at a slower rate. It wasn’t like me to nurse a beer, but I could feel us running out of things to say to each other.

A moment of silence passed and then recorded music came out of the speakers and conversations resumed.

“It was good that you got out,” Curt said to me.

I felt guilty in a way, which was strange because all I’d wanted since I’d left was to have Curt and Tyler acknowledge my success, but I no longer felt like it was as important as it’d seemed. In New York, I’d been trying to live as if I came from nowhere and had no history.

“Why don’t you come to New York,” I asked, trying to look ahead rather than staring down the past. I sort of meant it, too.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m kind of cool with life right now. For a while I was thinking of getting out, but I guess I’m just sort of content with what I have.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he could and should be doing something better with his life, something more meaningful.

Curt leaned forward and lowered his voice so that it was barely audible over the music. “After the whole thing with Tyler, I went home and sort of freaked out. I just threw out everything from the past. I didn’t want anything to do with myself, you know?”

“You threw everything out,” I asked, surprised because even I hadn’t been able to part with everything from the past.

“The one thing I kept was that Scud Thorton rookie card we took from Bryan Fitzgerald’s house in sophomore year.”

There was a story about that baseball card, a long and hilarious one from when Curt, Tyler and I were all good friends. I didn’t tell him that I’d forgotten it. Curt had clung to the story’s significance for some reason, even when all of the other memories came up short, and I didn’t want to deprive that of its meaning. Whatever part of my brain used to house that story was now filled with slogans and taglines and countless words to make people money.

I laughed along with Curt when he repeated the name Bryan Fitzgerald, not because I remembered why the story was funny but because I desperately wanted to. I sensed that Curt finally recognized his old friend because he believed that I could still find the humor in a Scud Thorton rookie card despite the way I looked and the way I ran my mouth.

Curt and I ordered another round and waited for the band’s second set. We didn’t want to give up our seats, but we let a group of college kids take on of the two empty chairs from our table when some unexpected friends of theirs showed up. I thought that maybe if I looked at that group long enough I might start to see myself in one of them, the younger version, I mean. That person I’d been was nowhere to be found in their group. After some excavating, Curt thought he’d finally found him hiding beneath a yuppie façade, but that wasn’t the old me, either. I wasn’t anywhere; I had taller buildings to throw myself from and to make my separation complete.


Mike Dell’Aquila received a BA in English from Penn State University and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. His writing has appeared in a variety of print and online publications including Paterson Literary Review, Voices in Italian Americana, Florida English Literary Journal, Italian Americana, CommonLine Magazine and Kalliope: A Penn State Literary Journal. He also maintains a blog at http://mikedellaquila.blogspot.com.

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