Ain’t Patty’s Day
The results were way off. The program was meant to calculate tension on a prosthetic arm, but according to the program, I was getting the tension of a stretched rubber band.
I’d spent all day on it, I hadn’t even shaved, and it had still been a waste of time. “Give me a break, already,” I said to the empty apartment.
This was the same project I’d failed last semester, thanks to a freak flu outbreak that kept me in bed for a week. It was the main reason I hadn’t graduated on time, along with the speech class my advisor had told me to take. I had passed it, but it had not, in fact, fulfilled my requirements for Humanities credits. I now found myself in a mind-numbing freshman philosophy class, discussing whether life had any purpose. “Who cares? I still need to get a job,” had been my sole contribution to the discussion thus far.
I had complained bitterly to the administration about my advisor’s numbskull advice but I still had to stick around for an extra year, to the tune of another twelve thousand in tuition. My family’s situation hadn’t helped any.
“Miguel, hijo, I didn’t want to tell you this, but your father’s had a pay cut recently,” my mother whispered on the phone. “We would like to help you out on the year’s tuition, but we didn’t foresee you needing to stay an extra year. We don’t have the money to cover the expenses. You’ll have to get a loan.”
“A pay cut? What happened?”
“Cariño, you know how bad the recession was. It’s finally caught up to his pay. I’m sure things will pick back up again, but for now, we’re pretty tight. We’ll co-sign for you and do what we can if you need us to help you out with some of your payments, but it’s best if you finish up your degree this year. I didn’t want to alarm you, but at least it gives you a little extra incentive to make sure you graduate this semester.”
As if I needed the added pressure. It was embarrassing enough to see my friends graduate and go on to get great jobs at tech companies and manufacturing plants. I wasn’t the only one from my freshman class graduating a year late, but most of the other fifth-year seniors had much better reasons, like paid internships and co-op work assignments. I’d often run into my hallmate from freshman year, Aaron, at the gym. He was planning on buying a house in another year. He’d done an internship in some company that made catheters and was able to live in a dirt-cheap place in the middle of nowhere and save the rest. He was pretty much set for life with his glowing recommendations, job experience, and the nest-egg he’d put aside. He also had a great scholarship so he wasn’t using any of that on tuition. Seeing him really made me want to pump some iron.
The program was due on Monday. It accounted for a full seventy percent of the grade for that class and with my lack of results today I had serious doubts I would make it.
Nevertheless, I had decided tonight would be a good night, the annual “Ain’t Patty’s Day” bar crawl, a Clemson tradition. The real St. Patrick’s Day fell during spring break, but there was no way students would pass up a chance to get wasted, and the bars were pleased to oblige. It was my last year, and I wasn’t going to miss it.
I checked my watch: quarter to seven. I had another hour to wait for Dave and I was definitely not going to be able to concentrate on this piece-of-crap program.
I heard a muffled “Mraww!” from the kitchen. Waffles stood next to her food bowl, pawing at it so that it scudded along the floor. She was my roommate’s cat, but Stephen was off somewhere with his girlfriend, as usual. “Mraww!” Waffles implored, eyes widening in desperation.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said, pouring kibble into her bowl. Stephen hadn’t fed her in days. That job had fallen to me. The last time he’d been home for more than a few minutes had been Wednesday, when he stuck around to watch the basketball game with me. Even then, he’d been checking his phone constantly, barely listening to anything I said.
This was new for Stephen. I’d rarely seen him talk to a girl, much less date one. Ever since he’d started seeing Julie, he had totally ghosted me. To my knowledge he only came home to grab fresh clothes every once in a while and maybe do some laundry.
At first it had been nice to have the TV to myself, be able to lounge out on the sofa. I’d gotten a head start on my classes this semester without him to distract me with his drinking games and drag me on middle-of-the-night trips to Dairy Queen. I’d probably lost some weight. But there was also no one to bounce ideas off of, and I was even starting to miss being woken up by the grating of the blender when he made his early-morning protein shakes and slammed the door as he went for a jog. At least it prompted me to wake up. Today I had accidentally slept until noon, giving me even less time to work on the program.
“It’s just me and you, Waffles. The abandoned pet and the abandoned roommate. At least we have each other.” Even when we’d hung out together, sometimes I would get the feeling Stephen saw me as his puertorriqueño sidekick. I stuck out, in this school of eighty percent white kids, and by association, Stephen stuck out. My exoticness rubbed off on him by association. He loved to impress girls with his high-school Spanish, but could barely understand the menu at the Mexican restaurant down the street.
Waffles continued scarfing up her food, eyes fixated on the remaining mound. “I’ll give you a little extra,” I said, adding another handful. Sometimes she threw up if she ate too much, but she seemed unusually hungry tonight. I mused about putting Stephen’s room on Air BnB to make some extra cash. It would be helpful to have some stashed away for when I graduated and my loan payments came due.
Back in my room, I stripped off my workout shirt, replacing it with a gaudy green one that said “Beer Me, I’m Irish,” with a large cartoon Guinness mug under the lettering. Three bucks at WalMart, you can’t beat that, and my mocha-colored skin was the perfect punchline.
It was time to pre-game. I grabbed a Yuengling from the fridge, ignoring Stephen’s blackened, rotting salad. I’d guzzled half the beer when my phone pinged. I’m outside. It was Dave.
Sorry man, I didn’t realize what time it was, I replied. I placed the beer can on the desk and was out the door.
Dave had also picked up our buddy Eric. I suppose he was really more of Dave’s buddy; I could barely stand the guy.
“Hey, Miguel,” Eric said to me. “What do you think of the new Civilization game?” He wore a striped green shirt and, I kid you not, sweatpants. No girls were going to talk to us tonight, I could already tell.
The first bar we hit up was TD’s. We got a couple of Millers and sat at the bar to watch the giant flatscreen off to the right. Alabama was playing LSU and the scores were pretty close.
A gaggle of sorority girls came in and ordered a round of vodka cranberries. The girl to my left turned towards the door and let out a shriek.
“Oh my God, Tiffany!” she said, leaping up and bumping my arm. Beer sloshed down my shirt as she ran to embrace the mascara-coated girl who had just entered. They looked like twins, from their identical blonde, straight-ironed hair to their pastel lace sundresses.
“Hey,” I said, “Why don’t you watch out for the rest of us mere mortals next time,” but she was squealing so loudly she didn’t hear me; more likely, I wasn’t wearing frat letters so I was invisible to her.
“Oh my gosh, they have karaoke! Let’s do karaoke!” she screamed. “Yes! Let’s do it, girl!” Tiffany echoed in the same earsplitting pitch. They disappeared into the crowd surrounding the karaoke machine and I elbowed my way to the restroom.
It was already a disgusting mess. The smell of piss radiated from the floor, and my shoes quacked with the stickiness. I was glad for the drain in the floor; who knows how deep in urine it would be otherwise. I rinsed the shirt as best I could without actually taking it off and held it away from my body under the hand dryer.
When I got back, there was no sign of Eric or Dave. “They left,” said the bartender.
“Oh, thanks,” I told her, starting to walk away. They would probably be at Triple T’s by now.
“Hey, you still gotta pay for yours, buddy,” she called out. I threw down a five and went next door.
Triple T’s was packed. I maneuvered to the bar for a rum and coke. The bartenders flew in every direction, snatching up money and rolling out change. They slid a glass towards me on the counter and took the bills proffered. I motioned for them to keep the change.
As usual, the glass was piled to the brim with ice, the Coke and rum almost an afterthought. Always trying to rip people off. I’d ask for it without ice next time. I sipped at it slowly, squeezing between people to find my friends.
Near the pool table I noticed a cute girl from my speech class, her hair done up in a braid with a Kelly-green ribbon woven into it. Two other girls flanked her like guard dogs, and all three had drawn green shamrocks on their cheeks. Maybe I should be glad my friends had ditched me. I approached.
I caught her eye a few steps away and she gave a small wave. Her friends glanced my way to see who she was waving to. “Hey, Lindsey,” I said.
“Hey, Miguel,” she said, sipping her drink. “This is Leah and this is Kimber.” She motioned towards her friends.
We shook hands. “Hi, nice to meet you.”
“I need another drink,” said Leah. “Come with me, Kimber,” she said, locking arms with Kimber and pulling her along.
“How has your night been?” I asked Lindsey.
“It’s been really fun. I haven’t been out in forever. Leah and Kimber are really into it. They’re the ones that convinced me to come. I wasn’t going to, at first.”
“Oh, what had you planned on doing tonight?”
“I was going to make these really cute cookies I saw on Pinterest. They’re shaped like dinosaurs and I just know my nephew would love them.”
“Nice. You seem like you’d be really good at baking.”
“Oh, why’s that?”
“I don’t know, you just seem like you have the patience for it.”
She smiled. “Yeah, I guess it can be pretty frustrating sometimes,” she said. “Especially when it doesn’t turn out like you think it will. Last week I failed pretty badly at making these bunny-shaped bread rolls – they came out of the oven looking like demonic trolls.”
I laughed. “Yeah, if that happened to me it might take a while before I got my confidence back.” Talking about Pinterest at a St. Patrick’s bar crawl might have been the whitest thing I’d ever done in my life.
“I guess I’ve had enough successes that I don’t get too discouraged by the projects that fail. Plus they still tasted pretty good. Kimber really liked them, anyways.”
So far she seemed interested. She was still smiling, and making eye contact. I saw that her drink was almost finished. “Can I get you another drink?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s really nice of you,” she said. “Yes, please.”
“What would you like?”
“I think I’ll stick with another one of these – it’s a vodka cranberry.”
“I’ll be right back.” She held out her empty glass and I plucked it from her light grasp. I turned back towards the bar, shuffling through the mass of people which had grown even denser in the five minutes since I’d last gone through them.
I fought my way to the front and caught the bartender’s attention after a line of beribboned bachelorettes filled their orders. I had no small bills left so I paid with a twenty. The bar tender placed the change in front of me along with the drink. I picked up the drink but before I could get the change, the crew-cut guy next to me swiped it and crumpled it into his pocket.
“Hey,” I said, “That was mine.”
“I don’t think so. I just bought a drink.” His eyes pointed vaguely in my direction but did not establish contact with mine.
I called the bar tender over. “Hey, Miss,” I called, “Didn’t you just put my change on the counter? I paid with a twenty? This guy took it.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie, I’m really not responsible for what happens once it goes on the counter. This is a busy night and I can’t stop just because you can’t keep control of your cash. I’ve got a lot of other customers to tend to.”
“Thanks for nothing,” I said under my breath. Then I turned to the thief. “Hey, man,” I said. “Why don’t you just give it back and we’ll go our separate ways?”
“Even the bartender doesn’t remember. Why should I listen to you, Beaner?”
“The hell did you just call me? Give me my fucking money.”
“Yeah? And what if I don’t?” he crossed his arms over his chest. “Do you want to take it outside?”
I didn’t want to take it outside; I just wanted to get this drink back to Lindsey and continue our conversation, along with my fifteen dollars in change, but next thing I knew, the bouncer was standing right next to me. “Are you the one causing trouble over here?”
“I’m not causing any trouble. This guy stole my change.” I pointed at the guy with the crew-cut.
“Did you steal his change?”
“I don’t know what he’s talking about. He said he wanted to take it outside.”
“Oh, blame the brown person, as usual!”
“That’s enough. You’re coming with me. And leave that drink on the counter. No alcohol outside.”
“Dude, it’s fine, he can have the money, relax.” I was willing to cut my losses, at this point.
“Too late for that. It’s too crowded for anyone starting trouble in here. Could get dangerous.”
Back on the sidewalk. Forlornly, I tried to catch Lindsey’s eye through the window, but she wasn’t paying attention. Another guy approached her - Dave, that rat bastard. I was so pissed at him and Eric; if they had just waited for me to come back from the bathroom, none of this would have happened.
Thanks to the drunken asshole, I didn’t have much money, so I headed to Nick’s, the cheapest bar, known as the hipster bar. They had cans of Old Milwaukee for a buck fifty.
I had a few of them and stewed in my own juices for a while, long enough to build up a sizable stack of empty cans when I saw Lindsey and her friends walk in.
“Hey!” I called out to them. I could tell Lindsey had seen me by the way she didn’t turn her head in my direction, not even a smidgen.
I ambled over to them. “I’m sorry, Lindsey,” I said. “I was going to get you a drink but then this racist guy, he stole my change, and I just wanted it back, but then, they kicked me out and said I was starting trouble, and I just wanted to talk to you some more…” I knew I was sounding desperate and drunk, but I was past the point of inhibition, the beer had done its job, it had lubricated my throat and my brain was trying to pull the brakes but there wasn’t enough friction.
“…I was just really looking forward to tonight, you know, and I wanted to talk to you. I haven’t had a very good semester. I was supposed to graduate last year but I flunked my Design class, and my advisor told me to take the wrong class, and then my mom told me the other day that my dad got a demotion, which is like a promotion but the opposite, they give you less pay instead of more, and now I feel, like, so selfish for having to stay an extra year, I mean my family is worried about money and here I am, a fifth-year senior, and I’m still not doing well in my design class, and here I am trying to enjoy myself and I get kicked out because of some drunk guy who steals my money and now I’m embarrassing myself in front of you.“
Kimber snarled. “Yeah, you are. Why don’t you just leave her alone? No one wants to hear your sob story.”
Lindsey glanced at me, as if afraid to make eye contact, the way I looked at homeless people when I knew they were going to ask me for money that I wasn’t going to give them but I didn’t want to treat them like outright pariahs. “Listen, Miguel, it sounds like a lot is going on in your life right now. I don’t really know you so I don’t want to tell you what to do but I think maybe you could spend your time figuring some of that out instead of dumping it all on me when I’m trying to have a nice time with my girlfriends.”
I felt like I had been slapped in the face. “Oh, yeah, totally. I don’t know why I’m even talking to you. Enjoy your night.” I turned and walked out.
I still had no idea where Dave and Eric were. They hadn’t answered any of my texts. Knowing them, they’d probably gone to Eric’s place to play Call of Duty or something.
I didn’t want to wait around for an Uber. I was too embarrassed, so I walked to the Little Caesar’s and ordered a five-dollar pizza. There was a long wait, but I was drunk enough that time wasn’t plodding along at its usual pace. I probably waited thirty minutes but it felt like five or ten. At least I would have a meal for tomorrow out of this mess of a night. I ate a slice as soon as they handed me the box, letting the molten cheese burn the roof of my mouth. I was at the perfect stage of drunkenness, where everything you eat tastes like manna.
A homeless man crept out of the shadows. “Hey man, could you spare a slice for someone down on their luck this evening?”
“Sorry, man. I gotta save money. This is gonna be my food for tomorrow and I gotta really penny-pinch right now.”
“Oh yeah, college boy, gotta pench those pennies! You must really be hurting! Ha! If you don’t feel like giving me anything then don’t, but don’t you tell me about money problems!”
I felt like a petty idiot, but at this point I didn’t want to admit it so I just scrambled down the street away from him.
I’d never taken the bus before but I figured it was a good time to try it out. There was a small group at the bus stop, all staring at their phones. The bus pulled up.
“Hey,” said the driver, “you can’t bring that in here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Can’t have pizza boxes in the bus. Might make a mess. You’re gonna have to get rid of it or find another way home.”
“When’s the next bus?”
“Should be along in another forty-five minutes.”
There was no way I would finish this whole pizza before then and I didn’t want to wait another forty-five minutes. Where was that homeless dude when I needed him? I ran down the street to find him, but he had disappeared. I left the pizza box next to a trash can, hoping he would find it.
The bus smelled of artificial lemon disinfectant, not quite succeeding in hiding the hideous odor underneath. “Does it always smell like this?” I asked.
“Not all the time. Tonight’s a bad one,” said the driver. “Had to stop and clean it after the last trip. Got a lot of pukers.”
I tried to look out the window, but it was so dark I quickly lost track of where we were when we turned off the main road. Everything seemed to be swirling around.
“Is this Ridgecrest Heights?” I asked the other riders. The boy singing country songs in the back didn’t pause. A girl with a familiar shamrock on her cheek held a plastic bag in front of her which she had already vomited into several times. It was Kimber, her eyes watery and bloodshot. Vacant-eyed, she looked past me and seemed about to answer me but all that came bubbling out was more puke, hurled straight into the plastic bag.
“Hey, can I help you?” I asked her. Her eyes met mine but seemed to look through me.
“You don’t want to help me. You just want to feel better about yourself, you selfish prick. You’re just as drunk as me.”
“Fine, be that way. I just thought I could hold your hair back, or something.”
“That’s a bunch of horse shit,” Kimber spoke up, her voice gravely, eyes flashing maliciously. “You’re just a spoiled male who thinks the world owes him something. Lindsey was just trying to be nice to you, but you were obviously making her uncomfortable. And yeah, you’re being selfish; you had to stay a whole fucking year, wasting your family’s money, because you flunked some classes? You probably went out drinking like you’re doing now and failed on purpose, so that you’d get one more year of partying and pretending you’re the center of the universe, because you know that once you get out of here, once you’re in the real world, you’re nothing but another shitty college graduate who doesn’t know jack. You think I’m some kind of damsel in distress and that if you’re nice enough to me you’ll finally get laid. You can go to hell.”
I saw my hand reach up and slap her across the face. An ugly red mark rose up in the shape of my palm. The shamrock stood out in stark contrast.
A toothy grin settled on her face. “I knew you were an asshole.”
I was stunned. I had just hit a girl, in public. Were there cameras on this bus? The driver didn’t seem to be paying any attention. Kimber stared at me with her nasty smirk. “What are you going to do now?”
I hit the button for the next stop. A short, thin kid, probably some freshman who’d spent his night at the library, gawked at me. The other riders were too far gone to notice anything had happened. As the bus screeched to a stop I fled from the bus’s fluorescent lights, into the darkness of an empty field.
I had no idea where I had landed. I sloshed through the detritus-coated undergrowth by the side of the road. There were no street lights, only some light from the moon, dissipated by rainclouds.
I cursed myself for choosing to take the bus tonight. Just my luck, to end up talking to a crazy bitch and now find myself here, my shoes squishing with every step.
In short order, my shoes were covered in mud, my pants were wet at the bottom and clung to my calves like an extra skin, and I hurled my guts out onto the side of the road. My stomach still roiled, but I wasn’t sure if it was because of what I’d drunk or because of what I’d done. Could I be charged with assault? It would be easy to pick me out from the few Hispanic students. My drunkenness muddled everything. If it had been dry I might have laid down in one of the fields I was passing through and slept it off for a few hours until I was sober enough to think clearly.
An owl hooted, the lazy “coo-coo, coo-coo” seemingly coming from all directions at once. I had stepped on something soft. I looked down to see a flash of color, pink and orange. It was a bouquet of flowers, the kind you get your girlfriend when you’re trying to cover for forgetting to buy her a birthday present. A few feet away, I saw another bouquet. I went to pick that one up as well, and saw that it was laying next to a stone set into the ground with an inscription. In the dim moonlight, I saw slabs coming up from the ground in ordered rows.
With a shudder, it dawned on me: I was in a cemetery.
I started running, away from the tombstones, away from the rotting flowers and the fog. I began to think Kimber had cursed me. I felt covered in some invisible ectoplasm that might call out to the spirits here, a special signal for them to come out and torment me. I ran, but all of a sudden I hit a barrier, landing on my side with a thud.
Thunder sounded in the distance. The wind had been knocked out of me. As I lay, gasping for breath, I had a thought about my program. The tension in the prosthetic arm. I was using the wrong formula - I’d confused the metal alloy with nylon wire. How could I be so stupid? I knew exactly how to fix it.
I scrambled up, filled with a new energy. I had tripped on a low wire fence. I scrambled to my feet and continued running, now completely covered in mud. Eventually I came to a road sign and I realized where I was – on the road behind the supermarket. I slowed down and let the rain soak me, in the hopes of cleaning my clothes a little.
Despite the horrible night, I felt lighter than I had before I’d left. I actually skipped through the puddles on the sidewalk of the apartment complex and grinned at my reflection in the windshields of the parked cars. “I’m going to make it,” I told myself. “Class of 2015, here I am.” I couldn’t wait to get back to the project, to input the changes and see it come together.
The key slid into the cheap lock. I was home. Shedding my soaked pants, my stinking shirt, I dumped them directly into the washer. I noticed the door to my room was slightly ajar.
“Waffles must have gotten in,” I said aloud to the apartment. After the night I’d had, I looked forward to the little fuzzball, even with her tendency to carve up my arms with her claws.
I walked in, instantly greeted with a foul stench. I almost retched again. Then I saw, on the desk, the beer can I’d only half-finished, tipped on its side next to my laptop, lying in a mud-colored puddle of beer and cat puke. My computer, ruined, had a note stuck to the screen:
“Wanted to chat, bro, but you were out. Julie said she’d move in with me. Bad news, she’s allergic to cats. Can you take Waffles when you move out?”