Chad stood outside the door, six-pack in hand, every neuron in his brain firing red warning signals in time with the thumping music coming from the other side. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and knocked.
“You came!” Jason said. “I wasn’t sure if I should expect you or not.”
“I brought beer,” Chad said, holding the craft brews out. “Something decent instead of that swill you usually have.” He smiled, trying to assure Jason it was okay to laugh at his joke.
Jason either didn’t notice or ignored the assurance. “Oh, cool. I thought you…”
“I did. It’s not for me.”
“Right. Okay. Come on in.”
Chad knew parties would be different for him since he had quit drinking six months prior. Before, no matter how he felt about the people there or how he felt about himself, he could trust his good friend Coors Light to pump him up, tell him everything would be cool, that he was handsome and deserving of attention, and that he should just relax. Standing in the open doorway, he realized that six months was just long enough to feel like one drink wouldn’t hurt, which was a slippery slope back to shit-faced-ville.
Now, all of his anxieties clung to him like a frightened kitten. Aside from his self-consciousness, there were anxieties that came with new people, old friends he hadn’t seen in a while, and worrying for the first time in a long time that he would make an ass of himself. He remembered why he had drank so much at these things.
He was late, so the party was already in full swing. Like most of their parties, the alcohol flowed freely. A beer pong table was set up in the kitchen, where spills would be easy to clean up. The fridge was full of cheap beer and wine. A spirited game of King’s Cup was in progress at the dining room.
A small, irritated part of Chad thought, Maybe at 27 most of us should be past these games, and then he realized that voice was coming from jealousy that he could no longer partake. Not after what happened last time.
“Chad!” a short, brunette girl called out. It took him a second, but he remembered her as Ashley. They had only ever met at parties, so he was surprised that he could recall that information.
“Hey Ashley,” he said, shuffling away from the door and over to her.
“How are you?” she asked, throwing her arms around him. He could smell the beer on her. See it in the flush of her cheeks and the unsteadiness of her walk. His stomach sank.
“I’m good. How are you?”
She made her eyes as wide as they would go. “I’m drunk.”
“I can see that.”
“Come here, come here. I want you to meet my boyfriend.”
She grabbed his hand and pulled him to the beer pong table where a man his age, obvious dad-bod already in progress, even beneath the loose button up shirt he wore, lined up a shot. Ashley, ever the professional, waited until his throw spun around the rim of a cup and launched itself onto the floor. “Oh shit. Tough luck, babe. Tod, this is Chad. I’ve known him for, God, how long now?”
“A few years, I guess,” Chad said, unsure himself. All the parties they had attended together blended into a single long night. No beginning and, for Ashley at least, no end.
“At least. We go way back. Anyway, Chad’s a cool dude. You guys should be like, best friends.”
Tod shook Chad’s hand. “Nice to meet you, bro. You just get here?”
“Yeah. I’m a little late.”
“No worries. I just couldn’t help but notice you’re empty handed.” He turned to the rest of the party, as if making an important announcement. “We need to get this man a drink!”
A sudden panic rose in Chad. He shook his head quickly, averting his eyes from anyone else’s, finally settling on his feet as a good place to stare. “No, that’s okay. I’m good.”
Tod seemed taken aback. “You’re good? You sick or something? C’mon man, I’ll get you settled. Yo, Jason, throw me a beer!”
Jason grabbed a can of Coors from the already open fridge and tossed it to Tod. Tod held it out to Chad.
It wasn’t true—how could it be?—but Chad felt like the entire party had stopped and were watching him. I could just nurse that, Chad thought. Drink it slow, let everyone else think I’m one of them.
Possessed by something that wasn’t Chad’s rational mind, his hand reached for the cold can.
“No,” Chad said, and his hand stopped halfway to the beer, then closed into a fist and fell to his side. “I don’t drink.”
Tod smiled, like Chad had made a clever joke. “Yeah bro, I don’t drink either. Only when I’m awake, ya know?” He laughed, but Chad stayed stoic, wanting him to see how serious he was about his statement. “C’mon, man. Don’t be a fucking herb. Loosen up, have some fun. I’ll let you get next game.”
Chad shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said, though he didn’t want to apologize for anything. “I quit drinking.”
Tod glanced at Ashley, whose face read just as perplexed as his. He chuckled to himself, doing his best to keep the mood light despite his confusion over being spurned. “Why? You get drunk and kill someone?”
Chad maintained eye contact. That wasn’t the reason, but it wasn’t far from the reason, either. Chad knew he didn’t owe anyone an explanation. Knew that one shouldn’t be needed for as simple a request as asking for a non-alcoholic drink. But, in this situation, at this time, he would give one.
“I drove onto my neighbor’s front lawn and took out part of their porch.”
Tod laughed. “Damn, dude! That’s hardcore. You’ll be paying that off for a while.”
Chad ignored him and kept going. “Their kid’s bike was under my tires. If I had decided to drive home a few hours earlier, or even another couple of hours later, maybe the kid would’ve been on the bike. Or maybe it doesn’t have to be a kid. Maybe I could have hit someone walking home from work. It doesn’t matter. It was a wake-up for me.”
Tod nodded as if he understood. “There’s your mistake, man. You drove home. Just gotta call an Uber or something.” He held out the beer again.
Ashley put her hand on his arm, lowering it away from Chad. “Stop. He doesn’t want it.”
Tod shrugged, still not getting it. “Alright man. You do you.” He turned back to the people at the other end of the beer pong table. “Am I up?”
Chad didn’t stay at the party much longer. Too many temptations, and too may explanations. It would be a long time before he could go to another party where there was a lot of alcohol. But he never missed it, and he never had another drink.