I saw Aaron at the bar a few months ago. He was about eleven deep and happy to run into me. I was trying to stay sober for all of August and it was going okay so I agreed to give him a ride home. We were under the shadow of the neon sign out front when he told me he was still staying at home and I could come over if I wanted to. I didn’t want to. But, I said that it was a possibility, and we talked out there for another good five minutes, going over the same old same old, asking the women smoking cigarettes if we could bum a couple. We lit them up silently and then walked to my car. I knew where his Dad’s house was but I forgot about the shortcut so I ended up driving down the main road of my old town. We got held up right before one of the lights. There was some sort of car trouble ahead.
“You know,” Aaron said, “when I was little, I never could figure out how the roads worked if a car broke down. Like, if a car just blows its engine out in traffic, how do the cars behind it keep going? They’d have to wait for a tow truck or something. You know?”
“You just drive around the car, what’s not to get about that?”
“Well no shit. I know that now. But I didn’t think you could just drive around someone who broke down. It’s not like I had a license back then. I figured you had to stay in the yellow lines.”
“You don’t have a license now,” I reminded him.
He looked out the window and told me I was right. We got around the stopped car and started moving again and drove past the ice cream shop and then our old middle school. It was closed for the Summer but I thought I saw a light on in one of the rooms and figured it was a janitor or something. There were a few cars in the parking lot. Then the radio said: Come down to Meyer’s Chevrolet for the annual Summer Blowout Sale. Nobody sells Chevy’s for less!
“Could you turn that off?” Aaron asked. So I did.
He cracked the window a bit and flicked his cigarette out. He looked at his feet and started shaking his head.
“What’s the matter?”
“Oh, nothing,” he said, “just fucked up.” But there was more to it than that.
“You still see Riley at all?” I asked.
“No. No. We broke up a few months ago. I figured my sister would have told you that.”
It must have slipped his mind. His younger sister and I were the same age, best friends and drinking buddies, and the same year down at the same college but we didn’t talk a whole lot about Aaron. What was there to say? He was stuck back home with the rest of the kids we grew up with but I just said, “It must have slipped her mind.”
We kept on down the main road, passing by the other dives, the ones our parents used to frequent, the strip mall with its vacant storefronts, and the McDonalds I worked at throughout high school. I hadn’t any need for those places anymore so I didn’t pay much attention.
“You still see Marie at all?” He asked.
“Nope. Kind of hard to maintain a relationship like that while being in school.”
“At least you have school.”
“Weren’t you going?” Aaron saved up a few bucks and had taken a class or two at the community college twenty minutes outside of town. He was studying business, same as me.
“Ah. Couldn’t fucking do it, man. It was just like high school. There were about ten kids I graduated high school with in every class. And getting there was a problem too.”
“Who took you?”
“Well,” he said, “Riley was taking me. But that didn’t work out. So I was driving my Dad’s car there for a while. But a few of us went out to get drinks after a group project and I got pulled over coming home. Third DUI. I’m a fucking idiot. Can we go to Waffle House?”
The waitress sat us and took our orders and poured us some coffee. Aaron drank three cups before the food came out and he started sobering up. He got to that spot. The one right between drunk and not drunk where everything seems hopeless and in focus. “You know,” he started off, stuffing hash browns in his mouth, “I always figured once you went off to school we’d never see each other again.” I had hoped the same.
“Yeah man, good to see you too.”
“We’re just two different types of people, you know? Honestly, I always thought you were sort of an asshole.”
“I am an asshole,” I told him.
“Yeah but it was hard to hate you for it. I mean, I’m a dumbass. So I always feel like people are talking down to me. And they probably should. But it was hard to hate you for it.”
“No dude, I can definitely be an asshole.” The waitress poured more coffee and I asked for a couple more packs of strawberry jam for my toast.
“You ever miss getting drunk with all of us?”
“Sure,” I said. I pushed the last bit of food around my plate and offered to pick up the check.
“Right there,” Aaron said. “Right there, that’s what I’m talking about.”
“I just sort of think that’s an asshole move. Offering to pick up my check.”
“What? I was just trying to be nice.”
“Dude, do you even have a job?” I didn’t. Being a full-time student was my excuse for not working. “I know you probably don’t think much of it, but everyone knows your parents give you all your money. I don’t need your parents paying for my drunk food.”
“Fuck you man, I was just trying to be nice.”
“I’m just saying. That makes you seem like an asshole. I’m not the only one who’s said it before.”
“Who else says so?”
He pulled out his wallet and set it on the table. “Pretty much anyone who you’ve ever came back and visited. Not that you do that anymore, or anything.”
“Is this some sort of guilt trip?”
“No, it’s not a guilt trip. I’m just saying. People have mentioned it before. Going to school doesn’t make you better than us. I mean, I’m a piece of shit. I know I’m a piece of shit. But at least I’ll admit it.”
“I literally just sat here and told you I was an asshole. What else do you want?”
“You can say you’re an asshole all you want, man. But don’t say it then try to act like you’re not.” He put his hand up and flagged down the waitress and she brought us our two checks. I wasn’t all that mad.
We walked back out to the car and I started it up and took a moment for myself. I thought about what he had just said and it wasn’t fear of it being accurate as much as it was surprise that someone like him could notice it in me, but I guess I was a bit mad, so I said: “You know what man? fuck you,” and started the car.
“Look, I’m sorry, I’m just saying -”
“No,” I told him, “you’re not really in a position to call someone an asshole. You’re a fucking loser.”
“And what the fuck are you?” He was now facing me, sitting in the passenger seat, clenching his teeth.
“I’m not stuck in my hometown forever. I’m not a drugged-out idiot. I’m not a complete failure.”
“I didn’t ask that. I asked you what the fuck are you.”
We pulled into the drive way and I sighed and unlocked the doors. We both sat there, staring ahead at the garage door in front of us, neither knowing what to say next. Then Aaron unbuckled his seatbelt and said “You know, I’m sorry that we didn’t all go to school like you did. I’m sorry that I wasn’t ever sophisticated enough for you to take seriously, because I’m pretty sure every time we ever hung out you were doing at is some fucked up experiment to see how the ‘other’ people live. But I would’ve figured by now that you’d seen enough movies to know that the guy who thinks the way you do always ends up finding out he’s the one with the real problems at the end of the day.”
“Oh, and you don’t have any problems yourself?”
“Did you not just listen to what I said? Yeah. Of course, I have problems.”
“Why don’t you try fixing them then? Then worry about me.”
Opening the car door, he stepped out and went to slam it shut, but stopped before doing so, leaned his head back in, swallowed, and tapped his hand a few times on the seat. “I do worry about you. And when you try to fix your shit, you’re going to end up feeling how I feel, and I don’t wish that on anyone, because it doesn’t really ever seem to end. Say hi to my sister for me when you see her.”
So, yeah. I saw Aaron at the bar a few months ago. Then I saw some old friends at his funeral.