Niles and Ollie knew instinctively what to wear to the party. Like it was a sense they’d been born with, the same way birds know to migrate south for the winter, they’d found the perfect thrift-store sweaters, which were thick, dark, and fashionably boxy. The sweaters looked like something their parents might have worn, but seemed fresh and new on Niles and Ollie, who were young and future-minded. I had raided my parents’ closet for the very purpose of emulating this same effortless style, but felt distinctly out of place in a thin, synthetic V-neck sweater my mom had pulled off a mall clearance rack fifteen years ago.
They were walking side by side, a little ways ahead of me, when we arrived at the party. Niles and Ollie always walked in stride with each other, speaking in low voices, having conversations I wasn’t privy to.
The moon was half obscured by clouds when we walked around the house and into the backyard, where various punks and art students were gathered in little clusters, smoking and speaking.
From his pocket, Niles procured a package of American Spirits, and handed one to Ollie. Ollie held the cigarette in his mouth as Niles lit it for him. Then Ollie took the lighter and, in the same fashion, lit Niles’ cigarette. They both leaned back against the back porch railing and smoked.
Ollie made sure that I was upwind, so as not to inhale the smoke. He always made sure of this, and on windy nights sometimes he would seem to dance around me trying to keep the smoke out of my face. He and Niles always assured me that it was better not to start smoking, that I should be confident in my decision not to start, that they were really trying to quit but they just needed something to do at parties.
I needed something to do at parties, too, but I couldn’t afford a cigarette habit.
Some people whose leather jacket patches seemed to signify an unmeasurable wisdom and worldliness approached Niles and Ollie, and struck up a conversation with them. Nobody bothered to introduce me. Since there was nothing I could add to their conversation—I was only cursorily familiar with the music they listened to, and couldn’t participate in their underground gossip—I turned away and left, feeling that somewhere inside my chest was a heel, crushing the remains of a smoldering cigarette bitterly against the pavement.
I went inside, where the conversation was louder and seemed to press in from all sides. I found myself in a small kitchen lit by an eerie red light.
“You look uncomfortable,” someone said. “Want a drink?” He wore cargo shorts and a T-shirt advertising a popular brand of hot sauce.
I said yes. He reached into a cardboard eighteen-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon and handed me a can, which I opened and gulped. It was lukewarm. There was something more evil than usual about the taste of the Pabst Blue Ribbon that night. It tasted ugly and yeasty, like wheat that had been left around to rot.
I exchanged pleasantries with the boy, who now looked like more of a man than a boy. It was difficult to tell in the dim light what age he might have been. He had a haircut that reminded me of the type of twelve year old boy who twirled his pencil in the back of math class, but his face kind of sagged. Subtly, but it was there, yes: his mouth drooped at the jowls. He asked me if I knew what Radiohead was and I said yes. We exchanged some more names of bands. We had very little musical common ground, though, and soon ran out of names we both knew.
He told me that this was his friend’s house, that he had permission to go into his friend’s bedroom, and invited me there, because “It’s kind of loud in here.” It really was too loud inside—all the ambient conversation echoed off the kitchen tiles, and we were shouting to hear each other—and so I agreed.
The walls of the bedroom muffled the noise from outside, and I felt, for a moment, clearer. My new companion’s friend’s bedroom had no bed frame. He sat on the mattress, on a rumpled blue duvet, and I sat cross-legged on the floor. He procured a bong with the Captain America symbol glass blown lopsidedly onto it, and began to pack the pipe with limp greenish-brown plant matter. “I like your sweater,” he said.
“Thanks,” I told him, pulling at it and looking down as if I’d forgotten what I was wearing. “I was trying to go for, like, the ugly-sweater vibe, but I feel like I’m not pulling it off.”
“You’re definitely pulling it off,” he said.
“You think so?” I realized all over again how tight and thin it was. I could see the wrinkles of my undershirt where the wool-synth blend clung to them.
The man in the hot sauce T-shirt took a hit from the bong and handed it to me. I’d used a bong before, but I wasn’t good at it yet, and he ended up having to help me with the lighter. He held the lighter to the bowl and lit it while I put my lips to the rim and inhaled.
“Okay, now, you gotta hold the smoke in your lungs,” he said, and I saw how eager he was to coach me in something, to teach me something I didn’t know. I did know, already, how to smoke weed, but I was too busy trying not to choke to tell him that. I held the smoke in my lungs and then exhaled.
“Thanks,” I said, but I didn’t like him thinking he had to teach me. I wanted to prove I could do it myself. I remembered Ollie and Niles lighting each other’s cigarettes. Were I a smoker, I would’ve let either of them light my cigarette. To hold an object between my lips while someone leaned in close and lit it on fire—that seemed so intimate.
I didn’t like the hot sauce guy’s hands so close to my lap. I scooted away from him while I handed the bong back.
“I remember when I first started smoking weed,” he said. “About ten years ago. In high school. I coughed so hard I nearly puked.”
“Mhm,” I said, doing the math in my head. He had to be between twenty-four and twenty-eight. I wondered why he was going to college parties if he was that old. I imagined going to high school parties as a college student. Everyone would be asking me if I could get them alcohol. It wouldn’t do any good—I was still only nineteen. Maybe he liked feeling useful, I thought. I could understand that. It was good to feel wanted.
He handed the bong back to me, and didn’t ask if I wanted to light it myself—he put the lighter to the bowl while I inhaled again.
“Yeah, you’re getting the hang of it,” he said. “You’re a natural.”
Did he really think this was my first time smoking weed? I’d done it a few times before. Not a lot, but enough. As he pulled away, taking the bong with him, he pressed his hand to my thigh, like he was steadying himself.
I didn’t like that. I knew what he was trying to do. But I didn’t say anything. I told myself I would just make an excuse to leave soon.
The bedroom door opened. I looked up at the interloper and smiled goofily. “Hi,” I said.
“Hey, Eddie,” said the man in the hot-sauce shirt. “You need the room?”
“Yeah,” said Eddie. “Get out.” A girl lurked behind him, peering into the room. The girl wore short bangs, mom-jeans, and a crop top. She didn’t look at me.
The boy in the hot-sauce shirt stood up. He took the bong in one hand and my wrist in the other. “We gotta go now,” he told me, as if I hadn’t caught on to this.
I followed him out of the room limply. I could feel the Pabst Blue Ribbon from earlier sloshing in my stomach.
“Let’s find somewhere else to smoke,” he said. Down the hall was a bathroom, with people lined up outside of it. Some of them glared at us. I couldn’t figure out why.
“I think I’m done for the night, actually,” I said. “Thanks for the weed and stuff, but. I’m… I think I’m done.”
“No,” said the hot sauce man, and he made his eyes real big like a puppy. I thought he was a little old to be doing puppy dog eyes. “We’re just getting started, baby. The night is still young.”
I shrugged and followed him limply around the party. He dragged me behind him--ye, I realized dimly, I was being dragged--while he approached people and loudly asked them if there was somewhere we could smoke. His hand was too tight on my wrist, and I could feel his palm sweating.
Finally he found a room, and led me in. All I remember about this room was that it was totally pink, and dotted with Christmas lights--I think the Christmas lights were pink; they must have been. A few girls were sitting on the bed, which had a real bed frame. They were smoking from a small glass pipe.
One of the girls had pink hair in a halo around her head. She glared at the hot sauce man, too, but her face softened when she saw me. “Hey,” she said. Her voice was loopy. Clearly she was high too. “What’s your name? I haven’t seen you around here before.”
I told her my name. “That’s such a nice name,” she said. “Are you doing okay?”
“I’m okay,” I told her. “I’m just here smoking. Doing hits. Doing bong hits.”
I was standing in the middle of the room and felt like I was ruining the feng shui, or breaking some unspoken rule, so I sat down. The hot sauce man was already on the floor. He handed me the bong.
“Here,” he said. “You can do a hit now.” One of the girls on the bed glared at the hot sauce man.
And I did. I did a bong rip, which is what they call it when the bong hit goes on for a long time. I inhaled so much smoke I thought I would burst, and then I held it for as long as I could.
The smoke seemed to have done something evil to my lungs. My chest felt tight. No matter how hard I exhaled, I felt like remnants of smoke still stuck to the insides of my lungs.
“I need to leave,” I said.
“Don’t leave,” said the hot sauce man. “Don’t leave. You can stay here—we still have weed! And I still have PBRs you can drink.”
“I need some air,” I said, and I nearly tripped over him getting to the door, but I righted myself and opened the door and, after what seemed like infinity, but couldn’t have been more than a minute, which I spent wandering frantically around the party, trying to find the door to outside but only running into more people in fashionably ugly sweaters and crop tops, I found the front door and escaped outside.
Niles and Ollie were on the back porch, sitting on chairs with a circle of people who all looked like they knew how to play guitar. “I mean, like I dunno if I experienced ego death,” someone was saying. “But I felt, like, this awareness.”
“Hey,” said Ollie as soon as he saw me, and then he turned his eyes back to the speaker. I ran off the back porch and around the house.
Then I found a quiet place in the middle of the front yard, where the grass was dewy and wet, and I sat down there, feeling cold water soak into the seat of my jeans. I grabbed fistfuls of grass like I was afraid I would fall out of the ground and down into the sky.
A moment later I heard footsteps squishing in the wet grass, and Ollie sat down beside me. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” I said morosely. I felt a small surge of joy that Ollie had followed me, that he hadn’t stayed to hear the rest of the story about ego death. I realized I was rocking forward and backward. The motion calmed me. “I did a bad hit. A bad bong hit. Everything sucks now.”
“It’s okay,” said Ollie. “We can go home. I’ll get us a rideshare.”
“No,” I said, and to prove I meant it I took out my own phone, which was so bright that it made my eyes water. “Don’t come with me. You’re having fun. Stay at the party.” I opened the rideshare app and tried to remember how to use it.
“I’m serious,” said Ollie. “Niles and I will come with you. You don’t have to go alone.”
“No, really,” I said. “It’s okay.” I didn’t mean it. I didn’t want to go home alone.
Someone else came up behind me and touched my shoulder. It felt overwhelming, like he was smothering me. “Where did you go?” said the hot sauce man.
“Sorry,” I said. “I needed some air.”
“Come back in,” he said. “You got your air. I have more weed. You gotta smoke it.”
“Hey,” said Ollie, and he stood up. I watched him and the hot sauce man size each other up, high above me in the sky, like two giants. “She’s not feeling well,” Ollie said. “I’m taking her home.”
The hot sauce man made puppy dog eyes. “Can I at least have your phone number?” he asked, but he seemed to be asking Ollie’s permission rather than mine.
Ollie said something, but I wasn’t paying attention. If I put my head very close to the ground I could feel the coolness emanating off of it. Tall blades of grass licked my face. It tickled. I heard the hot sauce man whine. I heard Ollie talking calmly, steadily. Then nothing at all.
Ollie sat back down next to me. “He’s gone,” he said.
I wondered how he could have known I didn’t want to talk to the hot sauce man. Could Ollie read my mind? He probably could. Ollie knew everything about me, although there wasn’t much to know. “You don’t have to come with me,” I said. “You were having a good time. I don’t want to ruin your night.”
“Eh,” said Ollie. “We would’ve left soon anyway. You didn’t ruin anything.”
I gave up pretending. “Thank you,” I said.
“I’ve already gotten us a rideshare,” said Ollie. “I’m gonna go get Niles, and we’ll all go home together.”
He got up and I heard him walking back towards the porch, and I touched the grass, waiting for Niles and Ollie to come back. When they came back, they stood on either side of me, tall, like bodyguards, finishing the stubs of their cigarettes. They wanted to finish smoking before our ride came.
Caroline Galdi is an MFA candidate at Western Kentucky University. Before moving to Kentucky, she lived and played saxophone in Apex, North Carolina. You can find her as @cyclostome on Twitter.