“Let’s have another,” Matt says, trying to lighten the mood.
Jeremy wipes his eyes with his forearm and scanning the multitude of tap handles behind the bar—assorted bowling pins and stag’s heads and waterfowl—says, “Let’s do it. I think I’m going to try this peanut butter chocolate brownie porter. It’s nine percent. Wow.”
“Oh,” Matt says, “You keep drinking the sweet stuff like this, I may have to get your number. You seem like the kind of girl a guy could fall in love with. As for me, I will have another unambiguously masculine pint of IPA.”
Jeremy laughs and says, “Hey, at least I’m not going to be drinking cheap bottled Asian piss-water this time next week.”
“You’d be surprised,” Matt says. “Craft beer is exploding in Beijing. I’ve got three or four really good brew pubs within walking distance of my apartment, and they’ve got everything: IPAs, those weird hazy New England IPAs, stouts, shitty sours. Everything.”
Then, a pause. Both men stare uncomfortably into their glasses. “Seriously, though,” Jeremy says, “I’m sure it’s been rough for you two with you over there and her staying here for the chemo and radiation.”
“I’m just glad she’s had her parents here to take care of her and go with her to appointments,” Matt says. “And in some way I think she’s going to be grateful she had the better part of a year off in her 40s to spend time with her mom and dad while they’re still around. Even if she felt awful the whole time, she won’t have so many regrets about not seeing more of them.”
Matt’s sure that stings a little even if that wasn’t the intention. It’s been three years now since Jeremy’s dad passed, but it’s often still raw, especially after a few drinks.
Matt says, “You go through your whole life dodging bullets and watching terrible things happen to other people. You feel bad for them, but you also feel kind of removed from it like it’s not something that’s going to happen to you or your family. Like your luck will always hold. When you finally get hit, though, it shakes you. You know you’re not immune or special. You’re not escaping anything.”
“Yeah, that makes sense,” Jeremy says. “I get that.”
“You’ve finally been spotted. The universe is now staring directly at you,” Matt says.
Both men take a long silent drink from their pints and sit in contemplation.
“The worst moment,” Matt says, “was in March when they found a blood clot in her leg on its way to her lung. A pulmonary embolism. I guess it’s common from all the lying around that comes from feeling like shit all the time. She could have died, though, and I wouldn’t have known anything about it until the next morning. The 12-hour time difference has actually been worse than the physical separation.”
Jeremy nods and asks, “So, what did they do about that? About the blood clot?”
“It was brutal,” Matt says. “She had to jab a needle into her own stomach twice a day for six weeks. You should see her stomach even now. It’s discolored and covered with old bruises.”
“That’s terrible,” Jeremy says. “I’m sorry she had to go through that. I’m sorry for both of you.”
“For me, I just stayed really busy at work,” Matt says. “Professionally, it was probably the best school year of my career. I took on an extra class and chaired some curriculum review committee. I got my department involved in this big learning exhibition thing that made me look great to my principal and director. I went to professional development workshops in Singapore and Japan. Anything to keep from having too much downtime to worry.”
Jeremy grins and says, “Here I figured you just spent the whole time apart jerking off alone in your apartment.”
“Less than you’d think,” Matt says.
“Well, I know you didn’t have the luxury of coming home and losing your salary and insurance,” Jeremy says.
Matt empties his pint and begins scanning the taps for his next selection. “So, how is your strawberry unicorn cupcake ale or whatever?” he asks.
Jeremy finishes his beer and smiles. “Delicious. And your glassful of industrial solvent? Yummy?”
Like nearly all the friendships of men who came of age in the waning years of the 20th century, theirs was a bond forged on and maintained largely through the consumption of alcohol. They’d met in middle school as preteen skate-punks of an edgy, nonconformist bent, who even then spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get older kids to buy them beer.
Matt has a vivid memory of himself at age 13 or so vomiting loudly in an upstairs toilet as Jeremy assured his mother in the kitchen below that it must be the flu or something and no, Mom, we haven’t been drinking. Two of Jeremy’s neighbors had supplied Jeremy and Matt that day with bottles of Wild Irish Rose and OE on the condition these two goofy-ass white boys entertained them by doing ollies and kick-flips or dancing maniacally to “I Ain’t No Joke” by Eric B & Rakim and “Follow the Leader” by EPDM.
By high school, they were each adult-sized, over six feet tall and needed little assistance procuring cases of cheap Natty Light or Beast to binge on in basements and garages or around campfires in the acres of woods behind Matt’s parents’ house. Matt remembers riding a bicycle through the Mighty Mart drive-thru at age 15 and successfully scoring two cases of Beast and a few bottles of cheap Popov vodka and how much traction this epic conqueror’s tale of glory got through his remaining years of high school.
College was boozy, of course. Drunken sex, drunken fights, massive blocks of time erased by drunken blackouts. Matt had gone to study journalism at a university less than an hour north while Jeremy had stayed behind in their hometown to work for his father’s successful home inspection company. Although they did much of their drinking separately during those years, they made holiday breaks and long weekends count by getting thoroughly plastered on, at first, cheap beer, then later, so much Woodchuck hard apple cider they’d nearly given themselves ulcers or often just exotic imports and, finally, an array of potent and pricey craft brews.
In their twenties as Matt struggled to make ends meet as a freelance journalist in a post-internet workforce and Jeremy began to take charge of Fogle Home Inspections, their emails and text messages consisted increasingly of one-word exchanges: Drinks? Sure. Pub? OK. 7:30? Yep. Of course, they did more than just sit in bars and drink. Often, they drank cans of cheap, lukewarm swill on golf carts as they played 18 holes on the public course or cycled through the city park system to the Trailhead Inn for pints before wobbling and weaving the eight miles along the path back to their cars.
They slurred embarrassingly through their best man toasts at each other’s weddings. They saluted Jeremy’s first house with kegs on the backyard deck. They emptied a bottle of Guatemalan rum together in Jeremy’s garage to celebrate Matt’s master’s degree in education and first teaching job. They eulogized Jeremy’s dad after his death with 7&7s in Jeremy’s sunroom he’d remodeled to look like a Hawaiian tiki bar for his first wife, Liz.
They clinked mugs as a not goodbye but see you soon when Matt and Angela left for their first overseas job in Cairo, Egypt, and then caught up over drinks on all their holiday break trips home over the next 15 years, reviewing each time everything they’d missed in those previous months: Jeremy’s and Liz’s divorce, Angela’s cancer and recovery, Jeremy and Kelly’s marriage, Lucas’s birth, etc.
By their mid-40s, they were settled, even respectable. Jeremy successfully ran the family business and had recently purchased a brand new fleet of white company S-10s, tablet computers for each of the inspectors on his payroll and high-tech remote control drones with cameras to survey roofs and chimneys for potential problems. Matt was the head of high school English at a top-tier international school in China and a regular contributor to a handful of education websites and magazines. They’d grown older and filled out from the years of drinking, but their most reckless drunken adventures were now mostly behind them.
Perched now on their barstools at the favorite old haunt Pour Richard’s, Jeremy and Matt struggle to think of what to talk about next. Certainly, not the world-fuck of Liz’s diagnosis again, which had made Jeremy tear up—actual tears—when Matt said, “I just kept thinking that my life is halfway over, and I don’t want to have to live the second half without her.”
And not politics, which has become an unspoken source of tension, the elephant in…whatever. The two friends had grown up mostly apolitical. They’d rebelled against the mainstream values of their 1980s childhoods, had become liberals by virtue of the punk rock songs they liked and the counterculture novels Matt read as a rite of passage.
Now, politics represented one of the many ways in which their lives had diverged. Jeremy had stayed in their hometown, ran his own business, paid taxes and insurance premiums, went to church every Sunday and had become both provincial and deeply conservative in his thinking. Matt had gone abroad and could no longer relate to the touchstones of American cultural discourse. He cared about social justice and progressive issues but had been away too long even to think of himself as a liberal Democrat.
A few years ago, Matt sat at the airport in Bangkok scrolling through social media on his phone. He saw an article from his hometown newspaper about a young black man who’d been arrested for robbery and assault. In the comments below, he found the expected thinly veiled racism and medieval peasantlike desire for brutal justice. He was surprised, however, to find a comment written by Jeremy 30 minutes before that said, “Give him his state issued supply of Astroglide and send him off to prison.” The comment had been validated by multiple likes and assorted laughing faces. Someone else had replied, “LOL. I was waiting for it. You post that every time.”
Matt stared at his phone puzzled. Every time? Curious, he looked back through a few previous articles on the newspaper’s page. Sure enough, whenever the article dealt with a crime or an arrest, Jeremy’s comment appeared below, “Give him his state issued supply of Astroglide and send him off to prison.” It was apparently a thing Jeremy was known for. This was his schtick.
Matt was surprised by how angry this made him. Sure, there was the homophobia of it not to mention the fact that he was making jokes about rape. It bothered Matt more, though, that Jeremy thought this was an appropriate thing for a grown man and a well-known business owner in their hometown to do. And that no one else felt the need to call him out. Isn’t that what Jeremy always said, “You can’t say anything anymore without somebody getting offended.” Here he was publicly saying what he wanted without reproach.
Matt returned to the most recent post, located Jeremy’s comment again and typed a reply. He wrote, “Honestly, man, it seems like you have a preoccupation with homosexual sodomy. What’s up with that?” He checked while he waited to catch his flight, but no one responded. He checked again periodically over the next few days. Still nothing. Matt supposed that was a good thing. And when he checked the newspaper’s social media posts over the weeks that followed, there was a notable absence of prison rape posts from Jeremy. When Matt returned a few months later and the two went out for drinks, the topic never came up. Like so much that had become divisive and ideological in their country, it remained unaddressed.
“So, I went to this beer festival in November in Hong Kong, which was pretty cool,” Matt says. “A few friends and I flew down for the weekend and stayed in some tiny apartment in the Central District.”
Jeremy responds probably too eagerly, “That sounds awesome. What did you drink?”
Matt laughs and says, “Yeah, there were a lot of cool breweries from the States but also a lot of stuff I had tried from China and Southeast Asia. It was down by the piers and there was a big lawn where you could go sleep it off for a little while, which I definitely did. There was a DJ booth and a bunch of Chinese raver kids dancing around on the grass, but I had a good power nap through the whole set.”
Jeremy laughs and raises his hand to get the bartender’s attention and order another round. Matt checks the time on his phone before remembering he doesn’t actually have anywhere to be. And, with that, the two old friends settle in for a lengthy drinking session, happy to partake in this time-honored tradition.