Author Archives

William Torrey

Down and Out in Habersham

silhouette of a man drinking whiskey
Illustration by Carolyn Wells

William Torrey | Longreads | May 2022 | 22 minutes (6,162 words)

For Matt McAuliffe

I

Sometime during what I hoped would be the end of the pandemic, I found myself hungover and alone in my front yard, sweating as I stared at the piles of crap I had to cram into our Subaru, piles that would somehow cohere into our temporary new life. “Fuck me,” I said. “And fuck this.” My family and I were leaving for the summer, but not by choice. I work at a boarding school. Which is a win mostly — free house, no commute — but sometimes not. Like when a virus wreaks havoc on a global scale and we’re forced to vacate so the school can fast-track renovations while the students are gone. 

“I hear the Torreys are moving,” a colleague said, a little too cheerfully, when he saw me on my walk. (In those early COVID days, as my wife and I struggled to work without childcare, I burned hours marching in circles with my kids in the stroller.)

“Not exactly,” I said through my mask. The man’s eyebrows arched.

“They’re installing central air,” I explained. “So we’re moving now, then coming home in August to move back in.”

“Well,” he shrugged, “at least you’ll have A/C.”

“But we also have to move. Twice. In three months. With two kids. All while the world is falling apart.”

“Strange times,” he said. “But you’ll survive.”

***

But complain though I did about the move, I knew deep down I needed a change. Late in 2019, my wife and I had become parents for the second time, and after a long paternity leave, during which I celebrated my younger son being much easier than his brother by blasting Marlboro Reds and pounding cheap pinot noir, I decided to see if I could stop drinking. Shockingly, I could. All through January, as the booze worked its way from my system, I felt reborn. I lost weight. My skin glowed. People kept saying there was light in my eyes. By February, I marveled at why I’d blown years getting wasted in the first place. Why had I been so keen to embarrass myself, to black out and barely remember the nights I’d been dying to enjoy? And what was this feeling I was feeling? Then I realized it was joy — or at least the absence of shame. When you’re not constantly hungover, it turns out, the world’s a kinder place. 

“I like this,” my wife told me as we sat up chatting in bed.

“Yeah,” I said, “me too.”

And so began the thinking of big thoughts. While I bathed my sons or stayed up late reading, I swallowed a sad truth I’d known for a very long time. I was an alcoholic. While my friends all had bad nights, for me it was different. I was always drinking almost normally, then abnormally, then insanely and then, after making a supreme ass of myself, I’d rein it in, only to begin the cycle again. The idea of saying goodbye was scary, but I already had two months under my belt. All I had to do was keep going. 


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But then I turned 35 and got smashed drunk. The night was unremarkable. My wife and I sipped drinks while watching the BBC’s Normal People. She quit after a few glasses of rosé, but I plowed through Negronis until I passed out. In the days after, as the liquor re-adhered to my psyche and I struggled to reckon with my choice to get fucked up, the news all at once became all about COVID. One day, Trump banned travel from Europe. On another, New York friends called to talk through plans of escape. Soon after, we were all in the middle of a Global Pandemic. 

Somewhere in all this, I found myself at Costco with a T-shirt on my face. My wife had sent me in search of diapers and wipes and, hopefully, a gigantic pallet of toilet paper, but there I was, as if by magic, alone in the liquor department, filling my huge shopping cart with alcohol, and not just the normal haul of tallboys and budget wine — multiple handles of whiskey and gin. What the fuck am I doing, I thought as a sad-looking lady rang me up. But then of course I knew: I was leaning into the worst of my instincts, telling myself without telling myself that if the world didn’t have to play by the rules, neither did I.

***

My days collapsed into a parade of hangovers so bad I wanted to die. Each morning, after waking in agony and bearing a barrage of anger from my wife, I did what I could to make breakfast for my kids and not suffer a total meltdown as they turned our kitchen into a shithouse of cereal and yogurt. And then, somehow, unshowered and in the middle of a five-alarm headache, I’d barricade myself in my bedroom, often with a baby on my lap, skim poems by Marie Howe and Adrienne Rich and do what I could to inspire my students to be anything more than what the pandemic had rendered them: depressed and shell-shocked little thumbnails, too naive to see how booze-whipped I was and too good-natured to do anything as reasonable as bitch, but kids who’d nonetheless devolved from pupils I adored into another obstacle between waking and drinking. 

“How was class?” my wife asked.

I gave her a dead-eyed stare as I put the boys in the stroller, thinking all the while: Must. Stop. Destroying. Self. 

***

When night fell and my kids were asleep, I’d practically vibrate at the notion of getting drunk. I knew how to mix a drink, of course, but I also knew I’d need six drinks to feel (or not feel) the way I wanted to. I also knew that my wife’s patience would never abide that many. But two — that could be done. So I made my first as strong as three.

Most often I drank in a plastic chair in my front yard. As another day faded, I marveled at life’s strangeness. In the span of a month, I’d burned down my nascent sobriety and watched the pendulum swing so hard that, as a 35-year-old father of two, I was drinking more than I had as a college frat boy. My community had vanished — either strictly sequestered or gone entirely — and campus felt like purgatory. 

Sometimes I’d FaceTime friends, making light of how drunk I was, the fucked-up state of the world. But mostly I gazed at the branches of a chestnut tree, watching as another evening fell to black, my brain all the while making sad calculations. How long would the pandemic last? Would I lose my job? Myself? Could all this drinking destroy my marriage? And you could just stop, I thought. Be a good husband and dad and teacher and resume your personhood. That option remained. But so did the other one, the one where I kept pushing, the one where I pretended this wouldn’t only get worse. Besides, my drink was empty. If I got up to make another quickly enough, my wife would never know about the first one.

***

By Easter, I was coming apart. After trying in vain to dye brown eggs and watching my older son lose it when he learned he couldn’t eat all the candy in his basket in one sitting, I put on my Mizunos, blasted Fiona Apple — “That’s where the pain comes in/like a second skeleton!” — and made for the school’s trails. Summer was coming, and as I jogged past groves of walnut trees, I made myself believe I’d be OK. Once we escaped to Habersham, South Carolina, the posh community where my wife’s parents and aunts and uncles had all retired, and our COVID destination, our problems would be solved. I’d be born again in the Southern heat, not sober, but sober-adjacent. My in-laws would help with the kids, I’d get some writing done, we’d spend afternoons by the pool, and the evenings would be a pleasant carousel of single malt scotch and peel-and-eat shrimp.

While my friends all had bad nights, for me it was different. I was always drinking almost normally, then abnormally, then insanely and then, after making a supreme ass of myself, I’d rein it in, only to begin the cycle again.

Rounding a bend in the trails, I made out a lone figure: the school’s French teacher, who I hadn’t seen in months. As I called her name, she turned and shrank. “Oh, Will,” she said, “you scared me.” She’d just come back from New York, where friends and family had contracted COVID. A few had even been put on ventilators. 

“Jesus,” I said. 

“Yeah. They might, like, actually die.” 

When she asked about my family, I wasted no time in lashing out at the school for making us move, at Trump for mishandling the plague, at the drudgery of teaching on Zoom. As I got more and more riled, I could see in her eyes a glimmer of alarm. Earlier in the fall, my wife and I had hosted her for duck à l’orange and too much wine, and we stayed up past midnight trading stories and cracking up. Now I was a bloated derelict shouting into the wind. 

“And my drinking,” I said. “Every day I tell myself to stop. But I can’t. I sit alone and drink myself into oblivion.”

“Oh,” she said.

“Sorry,” I said. “I just – ”

“No, no. It’s okay. I just think you’ve gotta get rid of the alcohol. Just get all the bottles and pour them down the drain.”

“Right,” I said.

Back home, I told my wife in my most solemn tone I was done drinking.

“For how long?” 

“Forever — or at least until the world goes back to normal.”

That night, as we set the table for lamb chops, I walked into the kitchen and uncorked a bottle of red.

***

And this was just the way life was. 

For a hundred days, as a murderous virus floated through the air, I drank myself into a hole. But the time to move finally arrived. The Subaru was packed. All that lay between now and a better life was 700 miles of I-95. 

As I locked the car, another colleague passed, this time the school’s biology teacher. 

“South Carolina tomorrow?” she asked.

“Come hell or COVID-19.”

She smiled and turned but stopped. “Say, did you hear about that woman down in Kiawah?”

“No. What happened?” 

The biology teacher shook her head. “Eaten by a gator.”

 

II

The heat. 

After 11 hours barreling down the interstate, past Capitol Harbor, past South of the Border, past two enormous Confederate flags, and stopping just once to piss in the parking lot of a Walmart in Bumfuck, North Carolina, driving on and on with two kids drunk on Benadryl and Sour Skittles, the noise of Raffi blaring all the while — after all that, what I remember is the heat. 

All-enveloping. Time-stopping. Like a blanket of ennui.

We’re here, I thought, and as soon as I got out, crunching the gravel behind our townhouse, I felt the sharp sense that nothing would change. 

***

On our first morning, after a night alone drinking rum in the bathtub, I loaded the boys and set out on an hours-long march. My older son marveled at the new terrain: oak trees draped in Spanish moss, camelia and foxtail ferns, the ground alive with lizards and crabs. 

Somewhere along the way, a fat old man buzzed up in a golf cart.

“Y’all be careful now,” he said, nodding to one of the man-made ponds. “Momma gator up the way. Extra territorial.”

“What did he say?” my son asked. 

“Nothing. Everything’s fine.”

We strolled past the pool and along the marsh. We listened to egrets and professional power washers, readying rich people’s homes for the summer, stopping now and then simply to marvel at this place, our swampy little hideaway in the Low Country, half a nation away from the cold desolation that had been our lot. Where was COVID here, I wondered. Even the notion of it seemed like a myth. People down here didn’t even wear masks.

On our way back to the townhouse, we crossed a footbridge. I waved to two teens fishing, and their eyes went wide. Before I could think, my head swiveled to a patch of grass, where an enormous alligator basked and stared at my children. How long would it take, I wondered, for this beast to steal my kids? Ten seconds? Five?

“Careful,” one boy said.

“Yeah,” I told him, “thanks.”

***

Habersham was to be a happy place. It was not. 

My wife and I were on the edge of a meltdown, and the change in scenery we’d hoped would fix us had only made things worse. Within days, after we’d worked to turn the half-furnished home of a family friend into our short-term crash pad, I began to realize that, just as I’d fashioned a secret fantasy for the summer — one wherein I kept drinking without consequences — so, too, had my wife. Only her secret fantasy had been me getting my shit together.

Everything would’ve been better had we made time to talk, but instead we lashed out. My wife screamed at me for half-assing the assembly of our new bed. I shouted at her for always being on edge. My wife screamed at me for making too many big drinks. I shouted at her for always picking fights. 

At the end of our first week, after putting the kids to bed, she found me slouched at the granite island, drinking a Double Manhattan. 

“You fucking drunk!” she screamed, eyes bright. “Just sitting here getting smashed!” 

I thought of the neighbors — an old couple who, unsure of COVID etiquette, had welcomed me to the block with a fist bump. If she shouted any louder, they might call the cops.

“The only time we have to breathe,” she went on, “the only time we have to think, and you’re just down here knocking yourself out!”

I’d like to say I poured out my drink. I’d like to say I said sorry. But what I did instead was scream back. Instead we yelled until our faces burned and then sat in silence at a bistro table on the porch, pushing pesto salmon and orzo around in utter silence. What happened was my wife went to bed early, and I stayed up getting drunk. 

***

With the help of my wife’s parents, we resumed our lives. In the mornings, my in-laws braved the heat and took the boys on walks so I could write and my wife could work. In the afternoons, during naptime, I went for runs and ran errands while my wife sat on Zoom. In the hours before bed, we loaded the stroller with floaties and beers and walked to the pool, where rich retirees basked in the sun. My in-laws came over for dinner, and most nights, I held myself together, at least while they were there. 

***

One night, alone and drunk, my phone lit with news that a woman in Minneapolis had filmed a cop killing a Black man. I told myself not to watch, but in the stillness of the screened-in porch, I felt paralyzed to do much else. I clicked the link and sipped warm gin, the liquor humming through me as I watched this man’s whole being slacken from anger to fear to resignation and then death. 

I set down my phone and stared at the fan. Slowly spinning and spinning.

I watched the reel again.  

***

Days later, as we strolled to the pool, my wife’s brother called to say our sister-in-law was in labor with our second niece. As I lounged in the cold water, greased in sunscreen and sipping IPAs, I couldn’t stop seeing them in that delivery room, my sister-in-law doing what people had done for all eternity: pushing a living person out into an uncertain world. Only now the world was less certain than ever. When would I get to meet this baby? Would she be healthy? Would COVID ruin her entire childhood?

For a hundred days, as a murderous virus floated through the air, I drank myself into a hole. But the time to move finally arrived. The Subaru was packed. All that lay between now and a better life was 700 miles of I-95.

That evening we sat on my in-laws’ porch, sipping French chardonnay and doing our best to answer these questions, doing our best, I think, not to feel lucky that our own kids had been born before this started. 

As the sun fell into the trees by the marsh, we said good night and made for the stroller. But just as we turned, we heard a strange noise — a dull thud, a crashing. I cut my eyes in time to see what I was sure was a rolled-up rug landing after a toss down a porch staircase.

“Is that a person?” my mother-in-law asked.

“No,” I said, but then I saw that it was: an old lady moaning on the ground.   

*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.

As my mother-in-law and I ran over, I remembered who she was. Elaine,* a reclusive drinker, who — apart from lashing out at members of Habersham’s yard crew or leaving terse notes on illegally parked cars, as she’d once done to mine — was essentially a hermit. Just a lonesome old woman waiting things out.

She was an injured animal when we got to her, a little ball of pain in the grass. It was 90 degrees out, yet she wore slippers, sweatpants, and a thick cotton top.

She reached for my arm. “I was just putting out repellent!”

“Repellent?”

“For the deer!”

“We better call an ambulance,” my mother-in-law said.

“No, no. Just get me back inside.”

The light caught her face then, and when my gaze met hers, I watched a hematoma over her eyebrow balloon from a marble to a golf ball.

“You’re hurt,” I said. “Maybe badly.”

“I was just putting out the repellent!”

My mother-in-law looked at her neighbor. “Elaine, would it be all right if Will carried you in?”

I hoisted Elaine’s hundred pounds over my shoulder and climbed the stairs down which she’d just tumbled, the stairs that, had she fallen differently, might’ve killed her. Elaine’s clothes were stained and filthy. Her toenails gnarled and black. When I got her back in, I understood the warm clothes. The thermostat was so low that the sweat on my body became a sheet of ice, and as I laid her on the couch, I shivered.

While my mother-in-law sussed out whether it was safe to leave Elaine, I took in the room. White sofa and loveseat, high-end and pristine. A beautiful glass table spread thick with Southern Living and House Beautiful. And there at center stage, before the couch that served as the setting for most of her life, was a huge plastic cup brimming with white wine.

“Do you know what day it is?” I asked.

She did.

“Do you know who the president is?”

She did.

The hematoma grew bigger. Elaine thanked me again and again, but I knew deep down she was mortified. She just wanted us to leave so she could get back to drinking — to black out and forget all this happened. “You call me,” my mother-in-law told her. “If your head starts hurting, we’ll get you to the hospital.”  

As we marched home, my mother-in-law was silent.

“I just can’t believe it,” I said. “I mean, to give your life over to booze like that. It … it’s — ”

“A shame.”  

“Yes,” I said. 

Then I went home and got drunk.

***

We trudged through the days.

In the mornings, I wrote stories about alcoholic teachers and went for long runs. I read novels by Philip Roth and James Salter and Michael Chabon. In the evenings, we watched the boys swim and shot the shit with other young couples, all of whom, upon hearing the events that lead us from a shut-down boarding school to Habersham, never failed to say how lucky we were. And it was true. While Americans shuttered restaurants and struggled to file for unemployment, we lived in a half-million dollar townhouse and took meandering strolls to the luxury pool. While the death count ticked up and up, we barely thought of COVID — and when we did, it was in the abstract, some faraway tragedy like a famine in the Sahara, something that was sad but didn’t have much to do with us. Nonetheless, we felt trapped and exhausted. Nonetheless, every night was the same. Whether I drank rye or gin or red or white  — I drank too much. I drank to the point that I had to be careful getting up from my chair, to the point where watching a movie was pointless, because I’d never remember it. Every morning, I woke to the sting of another body-shaking hangover, and every morning I’d tell myself enough. But every evening, as I popped the cork on another bottle of Campuget, I smiled and thought, this time it’ll be different.

***

One morning, my older son startled me as I vacuumed. In his hands he held an old stethoscope, left behind by the previous tenant. I set down the Dyson and knelt beside him.

“What do you have, bubba?”

“Teth-a-scope.”

He stuck in the earpieces and put the bell to his chest.

“Do you hear it?” I asked. “Boom-boom, boom-boom.”

He moved the bell to my chest and looked right at me. 

“That’s you, daddy. That’s your heart.”

***

Another night, drunk and alone on the screened-in porch. 

My phone blinked with a flurry of texts. Old friends, all weighing in on another police killing. This time the Black man was Rayshard Brooks.

“Why did he run!?”

“What was he thinking!?!”

“He shouldn’t have been driving in the first place!”

“They should’ve shot him in the leg!”

I tossed my phone and swigged warm gin, feeling flaccid and angry. 

My phone lit again, this time with friends from the first chain making a new chain to talk shit.

“They’re so narrow-minded.”

“And offensive.”

“And racist.”

“Do you think they’ve even seen the video?”

I realized then I hadn’t seen it myself. I finished my gin and loaded the reel. And as I drunkenly watched an over-the-line guy getting arrested for passing out in a Wendy’s drive-thru, and then trying, drunkenly, to run, only to be shot to death, I felt completely unstuck from reality. While a virus that virtually no one in South Carolina could be bothered to take seriously was straining our nation’s hospitals, while the notion of ever going back to normal remained totally unclear, I was drunk on a porch, watching another Black guy get murdered.

She was an injured animal when we got to her, a little ball of pain in the grass.

I called one of my friends from the chain. We talked a long time about how terrible it was — and how terrible we’d been as a couple of LSU frat boys, how we’d never done a thing but chase girls and get blasted, how we’d never so much as thought to wonder what it might be like to be anyone other than us.

“We both did and said things we shouldn’t have,” I said.

My friend sighed. “When I look back on the guy I was, I don’t feel proud.”

By the time our call ended, the booze in my blood had become self-righteous. “You know,” I typed on the original chain, “if the police found my drunk ass passed out in a car, and I tried to run or do anything even halfway threatening, no cop in America would ever shoot me.”

I hit send and geared up for an argument, but before long I passed out. When I came to, hours later, sweaty and confused and still on the porch, no one had replied. I made my way to the door, which was somehow locked. My wife had been asleep for hours, a reasonable human being, getting rest before another day of work without childcare. I pictured her wrapped in the sheets, snoring softly, and my whole self filled with rage. Sleeping outside struck me as the ultimate indignity. I pounded the windows until I thought the glass might shatter.  

“Goddamnit,” I screamed into the night. “You’re so fucking … annoying!”

When my wife got up to let me in, she spoke only one sentence. “You know you locked yourself out, right?”

***

On the Fourth of July, we made our way to my wife’s aunt’s place, just a short walk from the townhouse. After scrambled egg casserole and fruit salad, we gathered on the porch to watch the parade. As we sipped mimosas, James Habersham Street came alive in a chain of tipsy white people in golf carts done up in patriotic crepe paper and Uncle Sam balloons. Families along either side of the oak-lined road shouted and waved, and as my older son hopped from one foot to the other, unable to contain his thrill about another holiday that, to him, meant nothing, I refilled my mimosa and looked at my phone. It hadn’t occurred to me until then to wonder who James Habersham was, but a quick Google yielded that he was not only a slave owner, but a slave owner against American independence.

As the parade rolled and the champagne settled, I thought of making a comment, or at least a joke, something to acknowledge the absurdity. Here we were, Americans celebrating America by watching rich Americans cruise along a road named for a person who not only loved slavery but hated America. Not a single reveler wore a mask. Not a single placard bore any slogan reminding us to KEEP OUR DISTANCE or REMEMBER GEORGE FLOYD or RAYSHARD BROOKS. And where are their families? I wanted to ask. What are they up to this Independence Day? And everyone on ventilators, what about them and the people they love?

But then the parade ended and the bar shut down. I packed the boys into the stroller for the eighty-billionth time and began to dread the hours ahead. It was barely 11 a.m., and I was drunk and dehydrated and deeply tired — with hours to go before naptime. I sighed a long sigh, unlocked the brake, and slowly pushed my children home.

***

If you hang around the pool long enough, you’re bound to make friends, and as July drew to a close, we did just that. Jason and Jenna were our age and had a set of twin boys right between our sons. After a handful of afternoons swimming and chatting, Jenna invited us to join them for a twilight boat ride.

“To be clear,” Jenna said, “this is a booze cruise.”

The day of, I kept catching myself feeling nervous; it’d been so long since we’d hung out with a new couple I might not know how to act. My solution was drinking. That afternoon, on our walk to the pool, I guzzled a huge rosé then tore through IPAs with total abandon. By the time we got to Jenna and Jason’s, it was already too late. 

The night itself was gorgeous. Jason zoomed us out past the marsh and into the open water, where we bobbed together, eating fancy cheese and pounding red wine. We motored about in the blue-gray night, my wife leaning into me the whole time, a smile on her face, enjoying a perfect evening with her husband in such a pretty place. But the deal of my blackout was already sealed. I kept up the banter as long as I could, trading stories about my years in New Orleans, about writing and teaching, but by the time we got back to dry land, I could no longer be counted on to get my thoughts from my head to my mouth. I could be counted on only for the insane sense that, no matter what, I needed to keep drinking. 

As the night ended and we made our way back to Jason and Jenna’s, I invited myself in for a nightcap, a drink I’ll never recall. In my wife’s telling, we didn’t stay long, and though I didn’t make a fool of myself, I did go completely silent, staring up at the night sky and slugging back beer. Once we’d gotten home, I assumed I’d made a beeline to pass out, but instead I hunched like an animal at the kitchen island, gorging myself on whatever I pulled from the fridge. I woke the next dawn with the scum of chips and pork chops on my tongue and no recall of how the night ended. My brain made a million scenarios: I’d made some lewd comment to Jesse; I’d pissed my pants or exposed myself. Like always, none of these things had happened. But, like always, the shame in my chest could not have felt heavier. 

“Everywhere you go, you embarrass yourself,” I whispered in bed before my wife came in. “Every time you meet someone, you show them you’re a fool.”

 

III

Somehow it got worse.

I started cracking bottles of rosé at 3 p.m., then 2:30. I could no longer have just a beer on the way to the pool. I couldn’t be counted on to form a sentence after sundown. I began to avoid my wife in favor of sweating alone on the porch, pounding wine and FaceTiming friends, friends who stopped answering. At some point, my wife started to film me, her sad subject in his sad little TV chair, eyes glazed, face slack, grunting and swatting at her phone when I realized what she was doing.

***

On the last day of July, after my in-laws and I took my wife out for her 38th birthday — our first time in a restaurant since the pandemic began — my wife and I put the boys to bed. Earlier that afternoon, we’d gone to the liquor store and carefully selected four bottles of nice wine, and as my wife yawned and began to wind down, she asked me, nicely, not to drink it.

“It’s good stuff,” she said. 

I agreed.

“We should save it for having people over.”

I agreed.

And then she went to sleep.

There are no memories. Only flashes. I stand from my sad little TV chair and go to the island to get more wine. I call a friend who does not answer. I stand from my sad little TV chair and go to the island to get more wine. I call another friend who does not answer. I stand from my sad little TV chair and go to the island to get more wine. I switch on a movie I’m too drunk to watch. I stand from my sad little TV chair and go to the island to get more wine. I hit FaceTime on my college text chain and somehow connect with all of them at once, on video, and watch as their faces crumble from looks of excitement to looks of fret. I stand from my sad little TV chair and go to the island to get more wine.

Once we’d gotten home, I assumed I’d made a beeline to pass out, but instead I hunched like an animal at the kitchen island, gorging myself on whatever I pulled from the fridge.

Time is gone, I feel no feelings, a man hiding from himself.

I get more wine.

I get more wine.

I am a man, failing. 

***

The next morning, light streamed through the shutters and bathed the wreck of me in a soft, warm glow. When my wife came in, she did not speak — did not have to, so clear was the pain in her eyes.

“I’m finished,” I said.

The words came without thought.

My wife looked out the windows.

“I’m finished,” I said again.

I’ll never quite know why it happened then. Why not the day prior or 10 years back? Why not never? All I know is, if you’re a person surrounded by love, you’re lucky. All I know is, if you’re a drunk, you either stop drinking or you die a drunk. 

I stood, poured coffee, and rubbed the heads of my two children. I kissed their fat cheeks and made for the porch. 

I phoned my brother- and sister-in-law, then my in-laws.

“I’m sorry,” I said, and they said they loved me.

“I lost myself,” I said, and they said that I had.

I held my wife and said, over and over, how ashamed I was.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

***

Later that morning, we drove the boys to Port Royal, where there was a grubby beach but a beach nonetheless. They called it the Redneck Riviera. Once the kids lost themselves stomping in tide pools and chasing tiny crabs, I drifted to the parking lot and pulled out my phone. I hammered out a text to all my close friends: 

After a bad few months, I’ve made the decision to quit drinking. I’m not going to AA. I am just tired of being this version of myself. I cannot be a drunk while raising these boys. I know I have your support.

The replies came fast, and though every person said it differently, every message was the same.

This is good. This is right. We love you.

“You will never regret this,” one friend said. 

“Yeah,” I said, “but what about – ”

“You will never regret this,” he said again.

***

The sun moved, shadows lengthened. There was a breeze and seafoam and the crashing of waves. My wife watched the children, and I watched my wife. The wine burned in my veins, and my head throbbed, but once it was done, I told myself, it’d be done for good. I’d endured nearly six months of self-destruction. I saw then I had no plan for where to go from here, but in my heart, scared and bruised though it was, I knew it didn’t matter. All that mattered was I was here. All that mattered was I was having this moment. 

“We’ve been talking about coming here all summer,” my wife said as we strapped the boys back in their car seats.

“Well I’m glad we finally made it.” 

“Yeah,” she said. “Me, too.”

***

Days later, sober as a judge before my laptop in the townhouse’s dining room, a room where few meals had been eaten but where I’d written through hangovers all summer long, I logged in for my first session with a therapist. My counselor — a hardy and whip-smart Harley-Davidson enthusiast, comically named Dr. Bliss — told me all the ways she could help me, and as she neared the end of her spiel, she paused.

“So how old are you?” she asked.

“Thirty-five.”

“And who will you be at 50?”

My mind did the math. 

“My son,” I said. “My older son will be a senior in high school.”

She smiled.

“But who will you be?”

The right answers were obvious: Sober. A better husband and dad and writer. 

But what I said was, “I just want to be a person who loves himself. A person who gives love. I want to know why I’ve hurt myself for so many years.”

She nodded and laughed.

“What’s funny?” 

“You’re so introspective. And hard on yourself. I guess I’m just wondering why it took you so long to start therapy.”

I answered without thinking, “Because I knew they’d tell me to quit drinking.”

 

IV

At summer’s end, my family, my wife’s family, and all the kids and grandkids made the trip north for a week in Cape May, New Jersey. In our days there, wrangling toddlers beside the Atlantic, wandering from one rental to the next in an endless loop of family lunches, happy hours and dinners, I never once brought up my choice to quit. I chased my sons on the beach, made chitchat over dinner without wine by my plate, and brimmed glass after glass with fizzy water and lime.

One morning, while everyone else loaded carts with sunscreen and plastic pails for another day on the shore, I drove two hours back to our campus home to supervise while movers got all our belongings back into place. The new A/C outpaced the August heat with ease, and as I watched a crew of burly, tattooed dudes lug sofas and cribs around corners and up stairs, I had the sense that all that’d happened here — the pandemic, the beginning of my bad days — had been erased. 

“Must be weird,” the crew boss said. “Moving back into your old place.”

“My man,” I told him, “you have no idea.”

***

Our final morning in Cape May was nothing special — just harried people scrambling to pack. Everyone was hungover and grumpy. Everyone except for me.

Down in the garage, we said goodbye to my mother- and father-in-law, my brother- and sister-in-law, and their two little girls. We did one final sweep and made for the Subaru. 

I started the engine and looked at my wife.

“Are we ready?” 

“I think so,” she said. 

And we were. The boys were strapped in, we had plenty of masks, and Raffi shouted from the speakers, “Now’s the time to rise and shine!” 

We’re going home, I thought, and for that I was thankful.

Now all I had to do was live the rest of my life. 

 

***

William Torrey is Writer-in-Residence at St. Andrew’s school. His work has appeared widely in national literary magazines and has recently received support from the Delaware Division of the Arts and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. This July he will be a Resident in Fiction at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

Editor: Carolyn Wells

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Me and You

Illustration by Mariah Quintanilla

William Torrey| Longreads | October 2021 | 30 minutes (9,100 words)

I: My Protector

Our brotherhood begins with me in a blindfold, one that’s been on for what feels like forever. I’m 18 and pledging a fraternity, and to be a pledge, I’ve learned, means you’re a constant disappointment. You have not properly mopped the bathroom after chapter dinner. You have not properly memorized the Greek alphabet. You have not attracted sufficient pussy to the Gameday tailgate. 

On this night, a hot one in late September, we’ve been summoned to the house for a meeting, one that at first seems promising, in that it involves Natural Light, but soon enough begins to get weird. The Actives line us up and tie rags around our faces, then shove us into rooms with music blaring. “NONE OF Y’ALL BITCHES SAY A MOTHERFUCKING WORD!” someone with beer breath shouts at my face. Then he slams the door so hard I’m sure it’s broken. We sit and wait for God knows what. 

In time — Twenty minutes? An hour? — they lead us out back, where we’re stripped of cigarettes, cell phones, watches, and wallets. A very drunk Active screams that we are, in essence, complete losers, unworthy, a bunch of faggot-ass pieces of shit who ought to be thrown into the Mississippi River. “That’s a great idea!” another Active yells, and before I know it, I’m in a car, still blindfolded, lying in the backseat, “so the cops don’t see,” and we’re zooming to the levee. “Torrey?” someone keeps asking. “Does your bitch ass know how to swim?” My heart pounds so hard I worry I’ll faint. I’ve been in college a month now, and until this moment, I’d fooled myself into believing fraternities weren’t that tough. But now I’m facing danger. I’ll be sodomized with a broomstick or forced to eat shit. I’ll sink to the bottom of the Mighty Mississippi. I picture my mom, asleep in Texas, getting the call in the deep dark night: Pick up your boy at the Baton Rouge morgue. 

The car stops and they line us up again, somewhere that could be anywhere but sure seems like the levee. The whirr of cicada song, the stink of refineries. Wet grass sogging our Sperrys. More yelling. Who’ll go in first? Who’ll sink and who’ll swim? I shift my weight, try not to shake. 

“Repeat after me!” a drunk Active calls. “I love my big brother!” (We repeat.) “My big brother’s better than me!” (We repeat.) “My big brother’s gotta bigger dick than me!” (We repeat.) “My big brother can fuck my date!” (We repeat.) It goes on like this, this litany, the fear inside me cooling to confusion and finally relief.

Then off comes the blindfold, and he’s there, beaming at me in the shadows by the river, my big brother: Mike from Chalmette. I blink as he hugs me. Pressed tight there against his chest, I am, for the first time in hours, not afraid. I am cared for. I am safe.  

“Come on, baby bro,” he grins, “let’s get fucked up!” 

*** 

Hours later, after we’ve won a game called Beer-a-Minute, Mike somehow drives us back to campus. Sitting in his old green Chevy, watching the first bands of dawn push through the black, he tells me he could’ve had any pledge as his little brother, but the only one he wanted was me. 

“There’s just something about you.” 

“What do you mean?” I ask, feeling special.

“I don’t know.” He shakes his head. “But I do know we’re gonna be more than just fraternity brothers. Me and you, we’re gonna be real brothers. Me and you, we’re gonna be great friends.” 

“Okay,” I say, and that’s what happens.

***

In many ways, we are brothers. “Fraternal twins,” we joke, separated by a state line and precisely 13 months. We’re both silly and sensitive dreamers. The kind of guys who can’t help but push the bit, who once they’re going, can’t stop until everyone’s doubled over. The kind of guys who egg each other on until they can’t even breathe. Whenever we run into somebody Mike knows but I don’t — at Reggie’s in Tigerland, smoking Camels in the LSU quad — he never fails to introduce me as his real little brother, and more often than not, never mind that we look nothing alike — he’s short and tubby; I’m tall with a sharp-lined face — people believe him. He’s that charming.    

Like all brothers, though, we’re not the same. I make Dean’s List grades every term while Mike eeks by with C’s. I’ve dined at fancy restaurants, been to the MoMa and the Smithsonian, but when it comes to street smarts, Mike’s got me beat. He can fix a flat no problem, has a job on top of school, pays his own rent. He’s also got more self-control. As time goes by, it becomes clear that, while we both love to party — or, as we’ll call it, “rage” — I’ll always be the lightweight: snoring in the bar, blacking out, and stealing Kit Kats from the Brightside Circle K. But Mike’s always there to save me. When my eyes go glassy, he puts me to bed. When I pass out at a fraternity formal, he lays my tuxedoed carcass in someone’s car and dances with my date. He’s my protector, there for me so steadily that, by the time I’m midway through college, if I go out and Mike’s not there, I don’t feel quite safe. 


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And then there’s where we’re from. I grew up in a fancy San Antonio neighborhood called Alamo Heights, where everybody’s dad is in oil and gas and lots of moms live in yoga pants. My grandfather was the president of a bank, and my dad, who divorced my mom when I was 2, is a lawyer. My mom and I weren’t rich, at least not compared to the kids in my grade who got BMWs at 16, but I drive a new Mitsubishi, and college is covered.

Ask Mike where he’s from, and he’ll tell you, New Orleans. But that’s not true; Mike is from Chalmette, in St. Bernard Parish — a place just east of the Industrial Canal that real New Orleanians call “Da Parish.” Early on in college, I get that Da Parish isn’t exactly the place you want to be from. These are your blue collars, your Y’ats, people who say axe instead of ask. My fraternity brothers from well-to-do families on the North Shore and Lafayette give Mike constant shit about it, but he takes it in stride. Chalmatians, as they’re called, are used to such jokes.

I like to think I always knew Mike was coming from less than me, but in truth, it wasn’t a subject I gave much thought. Back then we were just two guys eating frat house jambalaya, drinking cheap beer and Ten High. His cash came from waiting tables at a Mexican restaurant off I-10; while mine showed up like magic in a bank account set up by my dad. And anyway Mike never said much about Chalmette. I knew only that he was the first in his family to go to college. His dad’s some kind of mechanic and his mom’s some kind of secretary, and his little sister, who’s my age and not going to college, is expecting a baby. During freshman year winter break, just a few months into our friendship, Mike drove 500 miles to visit me in San Antonio, but it took a whole other year before I saw where he grew up, never mind that it was an hour from campus. In those days, it never occurred to me that maybe Mike didn’t want me to see where he was from, that maybe he was hiding something. But even if he was, and even if he’d told me so, I wouldn’t have understood. Of course, in those days I didn’t understand anything. 

 II: Bourbon Street Knockout

Every Mardi Gras, our fraternity fills a U-Haul with busted couches and kegs and claims a spot beneath the Pontchartrain Expressway. For days we sit in the false dark and watch parades and drink and drink and drink. Sometime on the Monday before Fat Tuesday, both of us blind with hangovers, Mike tells me he’s got to go by his parents’, and if I ride with him, I’ll get a free meal, a shower, and a clean bathroom. I’m caked in street mud and very tired of holding my breath in the St. Charles port-a-potties, so I hop in his truck without thinking. I didn’t know New Orleans well then, but as we whizzed past the Superdome and the city seemed to vanish, I knew we weren’t headed Uptown where our other friends lived.

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“Chalmette.”

I roll my eyes and think, Da Parish.

“Well, how far’s that?” 

He shrugs again. “Fifteen minutes.”

The little house on Rose Street is just that: little. It seems too small for Mike, let alone for Mike, his mom and dad, his sister, and her new baby. His mom greets us from the cramped front porch. She’s got a tattoo and wears a Rolling Stones shirt that’s been washed a thousand times. All I can think is how young she seems.

In my memory, we don’t stay long. There’s tension, the source of which I don’t get, and everything starts to feel rushed. We don’t eat. I don’t see his dad or sister. Mike gets what he needs, we shower and go. 

“How old are your parents?” I ask.

We’re crossing the bridge back to Orleans Parish. Mike tells me.

“Jesus,” I say, “so your dad was like … 16 when you were born?”

“Yep.” He stares straight ahead. “How old was yours?”

“I don’t know, man, like 38.” A year older than Mike’s dad is now. 

***

That night, sipping a Bourbon Street Knockout in a camp chair under the overpass, my mind won’t stop spinning. How is that where Mike grew up? How was that his mom? How did she have babies in high school? How could our lives be so … different? Da Parish, I think, what had I expected? I brood there until I’m pass-out drunk, waking with a start when my cigarette burns me. 

His cash came from waiting tables at a Mexican restaurant off I-10; while mine showed up like magic in a bank account set up by my dad.

Days later, I call my mom and tell her about Mike’s. She listens while I ramble on about the tiny house in the neighborhood filled with other tiny houses, about his mom’s tattoo, the old shirt, but after a few minutes, she breaks in. 

“Honey, don’t you get it? 

“Get what?”

“Mike,” she says, “he’s poor.”

“Oh,” I say. 

My eyes go wide. I see it now. She’s just ripped off the blindfold. 

“Well, I don’t know …” I trail off.

I knew it already — I had to — but couldn’t or wouldn’t accept it. Mike was from a place where poor people lived, and yet he wasn’t poor. Not my big brother. Was he leery that day, to show me his house? Was his mom flustered to host me? Will whose dad’s a lawyer? Will in his short shorts and his Brooks Brothers shirt? 

“Now don’t get me wrong,” my mom breaks in, “Mike’s got a heart of gold. It doesn’t matter.” 

“Right.” I snap out of it. “Of course. It makes no difference.”

“Right.” 

Six months later a storm hits, and I see that it does.

III: A State of Emergency

Katrina won’t stop changing her mind. She’s coming right at us, then she’s not, then she’s bouncing back from Florida, en route to kill us all. In my two years in Louisiana, every hurricane that was ever supposed to destroy New Orleans has petered out into a thunderstorm, and I’m sure this one will do the same. But not Mike. Mike is freaking out. 

The morning before landfall, he gets me up early to help him raid the fraternity’s ice machine. I’m annoyed. Fifteen minutes ago, I was in bed with a naked Theta. Now I’m hungover and sweating while we lug a huge cooler. 

“Why are we even doing this? Even if the storm hits New Orleans, won’t we be fine in Baton Rouge?”

Mike says we might lose power, then he tells me his parents have to come to stay with us.

“In our apartment? Can’t they just get a hotel?”

As soon as I ask this, Mike gives me The Look. It’s the one he uses when I brag about backpacking Europe. Or when my dad, out of nowhere, mails me an envelope containing not one, not three, but five hundred dollar bills. Or when I pressure him into giving up his Friday double so he can get smashed with me and be my protector. It’s a look thick with envy and contempt, one that asks the big question without saying a word: Why does your life get to be so easy?    

“I didn’t mean it like that,” I backtrack. “I just meant, like, wouldn’t they be more comfortable?”

“It’s a mandatory evacuation,” Mike tells me. “There won’t be a hotel from Baton Rouge to Houston.” What he doesn’t tell me: Even if there was, his parents couldn’t afford it.

*** 

Late that night, Mike and I drink Bud Selects in the bed of his Chevy. Upstairs, in the apartment, his parents sleep in his bed. The storm’s just hours away. The sky above us: a grey-black swirl. 

“This is gonna be fucked,” Mike says.

“I still think it’ll be okay.” 

This is the lie I’ve told myself all afternoon, one born of a nagging question: If the storm does destroy Mike’s parents’ house, will they move in with us permanently? And, if so, how might this impact my liquor, cigarette, and TV intake? After showing up this morning in a tiny black Civic, Mike’s mom spent the entire day cleaning our shithole apartment. His dad, after arriving in a truck packed to the hilt, immediately went out and bought a generator and has otherwise barely spoken. Mike’s parents are quiet generally, but when I’m around they’re practically silent. I don’t see then what’s so plain to me now: On top of worrying they might lose everything, they don’t want to be in my hair.

“I mean, it could still turn and hit Texas,” I say, lighting a Camel. 

“No,” Mike says. “It’s coming right at us. This whole thing’s just gonna be…”

“…Fucked?” 

“Yeah,” he says. “It is.”

***

And he’s right. 

The next morning, I wake to find Mike and his parents in front of the TV. The national news is on — Special Report — and they’ve been watching for hours. Apparently, while I snoozed like a beer-drunk baby, one of the worst hurricanes in history made landfall and destroyed the Gulf Coast. The Mr. GO canal has flooded Lake Pontchartrain; the wind has shoved the water onto land. Much of New Orleans is underwater. Canals and levees continue to breach. We are, I learn, in a State of Emergency. 

Not knowing really what any of this means, I ask what they’ve heard about their house. Mike stares empty-eyed and mutters something that sounds like OK.

“It’s OK!?!?” I ask.

“No.” Mike sighs. “It’s underwater.” 

I’m standing in our apartment. The power’s on. Outside it’s barely raining. 

“Underwater?” 

The little house on Rose Street. Chalmette high. His dad’s shop. Da Parish. Thirteen feet.  

“Underwater,” Mike says again, the word already too familiar on his lips. 

***

As the day drags on and the big ugly picture gets bigger and uglier, I start to feel strange. On the one hand, I’m thankful I’ve escaped disaster. A devastating storm has struck within an hour of where I live, but I’m totally fine. On the other hand, I can’t help but notice my being totally fine is all I can think of. I’m surrounded by people who are newly homeless, people who happen to be my best friend’s parents, a man and a woman who cleaned my house and bought me groceries, and a generator we never had to use. I’m staring into the face of human suffering, yet all I can think of is me. 

Not that they’re complaining, these refugees. Life’s hard, but they can take it. That tired old phrase: It is what it is. I don’t like to imagine how I’d react, at 20, to the news I’d lost all my earthly possessions. The tantrum. My God. Even picturing it makes me sick.  

***

LSU shuts down and the Whole Foods where I’ve started to work, just part-time, operates on a come-in-if-you-can basis. I call my boss and say that, while I’d love to get ten bucks an hour to make free-range turkey and aioli wraps, I’ve got my roommate’s parents with me. They’re from Chalmette, so I need to help out. “Just focus on your family,” he tells me. I should correct him but don’t.  

Apparently, while I snoozed like a beer-drunk baby, one of the worst hurricanes in history made landfall and destroyed the Gulf Coast.

For the next week, instead of helping, instead of telling Mike’s parents they’re welcome to stay, I ghost and pretend Katrina didn’t happen. While poor blacks are herded like cattle into the Superdome, I fart around my fraternity house, playing MarioKart and shooting Jim Beam. While people too sick to move die horrible deaths in a hospital without power, I apathetically text the sorority girls I’m constantly leading on, until one of them tells me to come over for sex. While my big brother has to process that not simply his home but everything he’s ever associated with home — his childhood, his community — has been destroyed, I grow impatient waiting for everything to go back to normal.

After a few days, Mike gives me a call.

“Are you gonna sleep at the fraternity again?” 

“There’s a bunch of people here,” I tell him. “I’ll crash on the couch.”

“Who’s there?”

I say the names, all New Orleans guys, but not from Da Parish, so their houses are fine. We both pause to inhale smokes.

“My parents are gonna go soon,” he says. “In case you’re worried.”

“Worried? Why would I be worried?”  

***

And then they do go, just as fast as they came, only leaving behind a cleaner apartment.

As to where they went, I have no idea. It has to be someplace, but the details didn’t matter. I’d had my fill of tragedy and victims. Once they were gone, they were gone. At last, Mike and I can get back to being drunken goofballs, a couple of flat-footed dreamers. We can resume our fraternal twinhood, keep pretending we’re precisely the same. 

And we can, so long as my blindfold’s on. And for the next few years, it is, tied tight. Because, for me, the storm’s over. But for Mike, it’s only just begun. 

***

Mike and I live together another year-and-a-half, a time during which he declares a theatre major, hardly attends class, declares a general studies major, basically fails out, and then decides to “take a break.” A time during which I declare a creative writing major, get a girlfriend, study in Spain, and finish college on time. A time during which Katrina’s barely mentioned.

My last summer in Baton Rouge is a bacchanal of self-congratulation, one fueled by graduation checks and the insane presumption that I’m on my way to fame. Over the past few semesters, my fiction professors have given my stories way too much praise. Praise I rolled in like a pig in shit. Praise I’ve turned into a smug certainty that I’m destined to be some literary darling. And while I’ve spent hardly any time actually writing, the universe has nonetheless rewarded me with a full-ride fellowship to an MFA program. I’ll have the next three years to read, dream up stories, and surely win the Pulitzer.

Mike is waiting tables. 

But we’re still raging, still cracking everyone up, still staying up late on the porch drinking Franzia and smoking Camels. Still brothers. And yet, in these waning weeks, as I pack my room, things feel out of sync. I’m off to a cool new life. Mike’s staying right where he is. He’s the big brother, but he’s fallen behind.

***

On my last night in town, in August of 2007, after boudin balls and Jack and Cokes at The Chimes, a group of us heads to a friend’s for one last whatever. Once we’ve rid the fridge of Natural Lights, once we’ve told our stories — the time Mike motorboated a friend’s big sister, the Halloween I evaded arrest while dressed as a Twinkie — once we’ve stretched the night as long as we can, my girlfriend yawns and looks at her phone. 

“Time to get moving,” she tells me. 

“Guess so,” I say.

Mike and I light Camels in the courtyard while she gets the car. It’s a moment. We both know it. Not goodbye forever, but goodbye to this. We hug and cry. Mike tells me he loves me, says I’m gonna write some beautiful book. For graduation, he gave me a Royal Deluxe typewriter with a page in the spool. A two-word message: Good luck. I tell Mike I love him, too, and as we sway there beneath a flickering floodlight, I feel a pang of guilt. For the first time, I have the urge to say sorry. Sorry the storm fucked up your house. Sorry the last few years have been so tough. Sorry I never asked if you were hurting. But the moment passes. Our hug ends when my girlfriend honks the horn. 

“You’re my brother,” he says, and I tell him he’s mine. 

“Wow,” my girlfriend says as we drive off. “Mike’s really broken up.”

I tighten my blindfold and say, “He’s fine.” 

IV: Trapped in Fantasyland 

Years pass.

“I feel like I just gotta move to France,” Mike tells me. 

We’re on the phone, on a summer night when I’m home from grad school. I’m smoking on my mom’s front porch, drunk on cheap vodka. 

“And do what, exactly?” 

“I don’t know, man. Work at a cafe. Learn cuisine.”

Mike’s obsessed with cooking. He watches the Food Network religiously, loves Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman, wants to work for Thomas Keller. 

I sigh. “You don’t speak French. You don’t have a visa. You don’t have the money to get to France, let alone rent an apartment.” But at this point, I’m barely listening to myself. 

I’m starting to see that Mike might be terminally stuck, starting to worry he’ll burn his entire 20s fantasizing over dream lives. Last we spoke, he was moving to Austin to be an indie rock drummer. Before that, it was Second City in Chicago. Now it’s the CIA. And while everyone’s allowed to dream big, what’s all the more crazy-making is that Mike can actually do the things he dreams of doing. He’s a wonderful actor, has performed Shakespeare with LSU Theatre. He’s a talented chef, has a knack for flavor, can pull loose ends from the fridge and whip them up into something fancy in no time. He’s a good drummer, too, and has been in a Baton Rouge band that makes cool music. And yet, when the chips are down, he never commits to any of these dreams; he commits instead to dreaming up new ones. 

I’m off to a cool new life. Mike’s staying right where he is. He’s the big brother, but he’s fallen behind.

In the years since I’ve left Louisiana, Mike’s kept waiting tables and now has a side gig as our fraternity’s House Dad. He lives in a little apartment in the back, a five-second walk from the restaurant. When he told me his plan to move in, it seemed less than ideal, but House Dads get free room and board, and he’s got debt, so I figured he could pay it down. He’s back in school, too, part-time. So maybe this will end up good. Maybe he’ll snag a girlfriend, graduate, and get back on track. Maybe. But, of course, that doesn’t happen. What does happen is Mike finds himself, at 24 and 25, surrounded by out-of-control college kids, at the restaurant, at the fraternity, all over campus. What does happen is he drinks away his tips at the bar, gains weight, keeps ungodly hours, saves no money, never goes to class, and while the rest of his buddies get advanced degrees, buy houses, and get married, he lives in the bowels of our fraternity house, hiding. 

“Just finish school,” I tell him, incredulous. Me, the little brother who’s never been out of school. Me, whose harrowing experience with Hurricane Katrina is fodder for stories at cocktail parties.

“Easy for you,” he could’ve said but never did. Mike never called me out on a single thing. 

***

Whenever I come to Baton Rouge, I stay with Mike, and by the end of each visit, booze-whipped and bloated, I’m amazed that my deeply indulgent nostalgia trip is to some degree his normal life. But when I show up at his apartment just before the start of my last year of grad school, in August of 2009, I’m no longer amazed; I’m alarmed. 

A plumbing disaster has occurred — and, by the looks of it, not recently — destroying the room where he used to sleep. The place is a wreck. Half the ceiling is gone. Mold and mildew all over. 

“What the fuck happened?” I ask.

“Oh,” he waves it off. “Some shit with the pipes.”

“Well right. But is it getting repaired?”

Mike tells a story that can be boiled down to: He owes a guy money but won’t pay the guy until he fixes the leak, but the guy who’s owed won’t fix the leak until Mike pays.

“So it’s a war of attrition?” 

“Basically.”

“But you have to live here,” I say. “So … you lose.”

“Yeah, well. I’m not livin’ here much longer.”

“What are you gonna do?”

He shrugs. “Cooking school.”

“How? With what money?”

“I don’t know, man.”

The rest of the trip is unpleasant. We hole up in the dank apartment, drink oceans of Early Times and watch Top Chef. We play beer pong with college kids we don’t know and don’t really like, guys who get blackout drunk, take Percocets, and fight. We take Percocets ourselves one night and wake up the next morning on the deck. 

What’s going on, I wonder. The last time I saw Mike, at summer’s start, we had a blast. We went Tiki Tubing down the Amite River, played putt-putt, ate crawfish. We got stoned and drank Abitas with his bandmates and laughed until our sides hurt. Why does this trip feel so different? 

Back then, Mike kept a LiveJournal, one that’s still online. In an entry made after my first visit in May, he writes on his “dilemma.” His bandmates — the friends who replaced our crew when we graduated — have just graduated themselves and will soon move to Austin. Mike wants to go but feels like he can’t. The entry, posted at 4 a.m., is titled “What is and What Should Be.” Here’s how it ends: 

 As I’ve come closer to the day my bandmates leave, I find myself staring at nothing and thinking of everything.   

…[E]very day I spend not … doing the things I know in my heart I need to do, I die a little. I’ve known for some time now the path I need to take and yet, I’m afraid to take that leap. I do nothing to help myself.

I want to go. I need to go. Why can’t I?  

I want to cut my losses and start fresh. I want to be happy.  

The opening line of Twelfth Night reads, “If music be the food of love, play on …” 

I want to play. I want to cook. I want to eat. I want to go.

I want, I want, I want. But he never did. And over the summer, while his bandmates settled into new lives and I finished my thesis, he stared at nothing and thought of everything. He died a little. He began to fall apart. 

***

As I pack to go back to school, it dawns on me that, ever since I’ve left Baton Rouge, it’s become my Fantasyland, a place where I can pretend I’m still the crazy drunk I was in college. A guy who’s yet to dream of becoming a writer, to feel the pressure of expectation. A guy who doesn’t fret constantly about what comes next. Usually, when a visit ends, I’m sad. But this time, I’m thrilled. There’s a danger in idling. You’re not supposed to be in college forever. Mike had a similar realization back in May, but he’s still here, trapped in Fantasyland. Since Katrina, he’s survived on the idea of starting over, the idea of escape. Now he’s come to the end of the line. He’s got to do something, but he doesn’t want to disappoint anyone, so he locks up and disappoints everyone, most of all himself.

Like the leak in the roof, it’s a war of attrition. 

***

Before I leave, I tell him I’m worried. 

“You need to get out of here, Mike. This is no way to live.” 

What I don’t say: This is the home of a depressed person. 

“I know,” he says.

We hug in the grim fluorescence, and I head off to school. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder how Mike felt as he watched me drive away. Was he happy to get back to hiding? Or did he feel more lost than ever? I remember precisely how I felt: equal parts guilty and relieved. And as my Honda hummed east along the Gulf Coast, and the endless green swathes of Alabama became the slow sweeping hills of Georgia, as I got farther and farther away, I relied hard on the bad brother’s mantra: He’s at rock bottom. Things can only go up from here.

V: The Very Worst Thing

Another year. Another call from Mike. Only this time, I don’t answer.

I’m hammering away at a fresh story in my new apartment in New Orleans, where after a summer of living with my mom in Texas, of writing, manual labor, and endless nights of abject drunkenness, certain I’ve fucked up my life — I’ve somehow landed a job as an adjunct at a commuter college on Lake Pontchartrain. My students are mostly poor — black and Vietnamese kids from Gretna and Kenner, white kids from Destrehan and Da Parish. Compared to my fellow MFA grads who work as shopgirls and movers, I’m lucky to have this low-paying gig. I’m starting to see that a so-so writer with delusions of grandeur, and a penchant for blackout drinking, can end up in an unglamorous place. I’m starting to get why people study medicine or law. Starting to see that life takes money, and the more you’ve got, the better it is. Through all of grad school, I’d presumed my degree from an unheard of regional program would automatically yield a slam dunk job at a liberal arts college in the Berkshires: But lo and behold, here I am, desperately thankful to escape my mother’s, to net $20,000 a year “teaching” freshman comp in sad classrooms with overflowing trash cans on a campus so ghostly it seems like Katrina’s surge hit last month, not five years back. This is not where you’re supposed to be, I tell myself while I freak out about barely making rent and grade essays with mistakes so basic I don’t know what to say. You’ve got to live up to your potential. You’ve got to write yourself out of this mess! 

Which is what I try to do — write — unless of course, I’m busy carousing the Marigny or the Quarter, resuming my college persona, undoing the maturing I did in grad school, getting kicked out of Cooter Brown’s and Tipitina’s, and Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club … and maybe moving to America’s booziest city wasn’t my best move. And look now: Mike’s calling again, and I’ve put in a solid 20 minutes today, so I may as well power down the old laptop and see what he needs.

“Yello?” I say. 

“Will!” he says like he’s fucking choking.

“Mike? What’s wrong?” 

“My father” — again that choking sound — “My father’s. Killed. Himself.”

I stand and spin in a circle. That’s what I remember: saying “Oh my God!” then standing and spinning in a circle. Like I had to confirm I was still in my room. That I was still Will Torrey, still 25, still a man alive in the world. “Where do you need me?” I ask, and Mike tells me: his parents’, right away. Then I hang up and call my mom. 

“Why does this keep … happening to Mike?” I ask.

“I don’t know, sweetie,” she says through tears.

But, of course, we both know that’s a lie.

***

The hours and days and weeks that follow are a whirlwind of strangeness. 

I’m in Mike’s parents’ yard, in Lacombe, surrounded by his buddies from Da Parish. We pinch our lips and nod as this or that uncle or cousin goes in to be with Mike and his family, all of us just waiting there, simply existing as we try to grasp that, just after dawn this morning, Mike’s dad — a month shy of 44 — drove out to some bayou and put a bullet in his heart. That is all Mike can say when I get there, all he can cry into my ear as he hugs me so hard my back cracks: “He shot himself in the heart.” My mind goes to the morning after Katrina. “He shot himself in the heart” — the delivery, so matter of fact. It may as well be, “Our house is underwater.” 

Days later, I’m up at 3 a.m., on the phone with Mike, whose mom has just shown him the shirt his dad wore when it happened. “The hole,” he says, breathless and sad, “I saw it.” 

Later still, I’m beside Mike at a funeral home in St. Tammany Parish, staring down at the body that used to be his dad’s, a body that now seems small, his coat and tie almost juvenile, like he’s a kid getting dragged to a Sears family portrait. Mike lays a hand on his dad, and I lay a hand on Mike. I try to recall the last time I saw Mike’s dad, I’m sure it was Katrina, the day he and his now widow left our apartment. 

***

What follows is a lost time. Mike is okay but not. Sometimes, cracking jokes over hurricanes at Lafitte’s, he seems like himself. Other times, calling me from Bourbon Street, drunk off his ass with friends from Da Parish, crying and screaming, he does not. He tells me he’s worried his mom’s losing it, that maybe there’s money from a will that may or may not exist, money that he and his sister and her son should get, and could I maybe call my lawyer dad? I tell Mike to go to therapy, and he says he can’t afford it, but even if he could, I know he wouldn’t go. He shaves his head, gains weight, lets his beard puff out until he looks like Zack Galafinakis in The Hangover

I write. I publish. I teach. I take pretty girls out to bars in New Orleans.

I drink and drink and drink and wonder why I never feel good about anything.  

That is all Mike can say when I get there, all he can cry into my ear as he hugs me so hard my back cracks: ‘He shot himself in the heart.’

At some point, the restaurant where Mike’s waited tables for what feels like an eon opens a new place on the North Shore, and they pick him to run the kitchen. When he tells me the news I’m so excited I can hardly contain myself. This is it! I think. An actual dream come true! Get out of Baton Rouge, make money, grow up! 

Which he does, sort of. Mike scores a great place in Covington, starts his new job. But then he calls and says he can’t afford where he’s living. I ask him his new salary and his new rent and then tell him he absolutely can. “I dunno,” he says and sighs a long sigh.

I visit soon after and the place is half boxed.

“Please tell me you’re not moving out.”

He cuts his eyes to the floor. Standing with him there in this gorgeous apartment, with skylights, new appliances, exposed brick — a place that’s the precise opposite of the ruined House Dad Suite — I lose my patience.

“Why the fuck would you do that?”

He throws up his hands. “I can’t afford it!”

“Yes, you can!” My cheeks are hot. I want to grab him and shake him. “And you can’t just walk away from an apartment, Mike! Where the fuck are you gonna live?”

Mike tells me some story about how he never signed a lease, that he’ll eat the deposit, load his shit into his new pickup, the one that belonged to his dad, and drive off into the night. He says he’ll move in with a buddy from Da Parish, a guy who needs a roommate because his crazy wife just left him. What he doesn’t say is that the buddy’s mom will live there too. And what he doesn’t know is that having been shuffled around after Katrina, she’s grown bitter. That she’ll treat Mike like an unwelcome guest. He won’t be allowed to cook and “smell up the kitchen,” won’t be allowed to play drums. What he doesn’t see is, after just a taste of life as a grownup, he’s trading it all to live on the margins of a house that’s not his, to live by the rules of a mom that’s not his. He doesn’t see it — or he pretends not to — but that’s what happens, and in the months that follow, when he vents about it over the phone, I have no sympathy. What did you think was gonna happen. What the fuck did you think?  

I don’t recall what we did that day in Covington, but whatever it was, it was ruined by my annoyance at Mike. Why can’t you just live in an apartment like a normal person? I wonder. You’re making progress. Why sabotage yourself? What I don’t see then: Mike’s terrified of being by himself, alone with his thoughts, his ghosts. What I don’t see, too, is how tight I’m still wearing my blindfold. I’m angry at my friend because he won’t accomplish what I’ve accomplished without the touch of my privilege. I’m angry at my friend because his life’s so hard.

Why can’t you just be like me? I wonder, sitting up at night, getting drunk by myself.

Why can’t you just be like me? Lazy, but bitter that I’m not rich or famous.

VI: Off the Grid

More years. 

I keep teaching, publish stories and essays, and get a better job at LSU, where I go out for beers at the Chimes with the same professors who, years back, told me I had what it took. I live in a funky yellow house in Capitol Heights with the woman who’s now my wife. We take jogs through the neighborhood, walk to Calandro’s to buy wine, go to Radiobar with the editor of The Southern Review, have lively dinner parties with all our lively, literary friends. Life’s perfect, but that doesn’t stop my complaining — about making bullshit money, about never getting an interview for a tenure-track job, about always getting the runaround from agents, about my failure to finish the novel I’ve wallowed in for the last three years. I’m doing most of the stuff I set out to do, but all I can think of is how little I’ve done. I’m making it, I guess, in a failing kind of way.

Mike in the meantime has gone “off the grid.” He’s still running the kitchen at the restaurant, still doing mostly fine, but he’s bought a house way out in the sticks. He builds a chicken coop and talks about farming. I don’t see him much, and when we do talk, he pinballs from one new dream to another: He’ll open a vegetable stand or his own barbeque joint or a food truck or he’ll move to Colorado to grow weed. By now, this stuff washes over me, yet I can’t help but worry that, in getting this house, he’s found a new way to hide: a little compound in the middle of nowhere, a permanent home where the world can’t find him. And why don’t you want to be found? I wonder. Who do you think’s coming to get you? 

Over the summer of 2014, two of our best friends get married, and Mike skips both weddings, each time coming up with a half-cocked excuse. Can’t get off work. Can’t afford gas. 

I’m engaged now myself, and after the second missed wedding I send Mike a text.

If you pull this shit when I get married, I’ll kill you.

You know I won’t, he writes.

We need to hang. Been too long.

How would you feel, he writes, about doing some yard work?

***

I head up the Causeway the next afternoon, Lake Pontchartrain spreading out alongside me like a giant, brackish bathtub. I remember the day Mike’s father died, zooming up this bridge from my old place in New Orleans, trying to understand the pain he’s in, trying to imagine what it’d be like if my dad had done what his just did. My dad calls himself “the absent father” — and I don’t know him well — but he’s always had a knack for being there when I need him. When I finished grad school and couldn’t find a job, when I was sure I was a failure, moving back in with my mom, I called him. “You’re a white man with an education,” he said, almost laughing. “The world was made for you.” Then he mailed me a Treasury bond for $10,000.

What I don’t see then: Mike’s terrified of being by himself, alone with his thoughts, his ghosts.

The next morning, after a night of grilling pork chops, getting drunk and high, and watching “No Reservations,” Mike and I rise early, eat Adderall, buy mulch and shovels and rakes, and embark on a monumental day of work: mowing, trimming, pruning, weeding, pulling jasmine from his fence. At lunch, we break for Budweisers, and Mike gases up a chainsaw. It growls to life as he yanks the cord. He hoists it overhead, revs it with a laugh.

“What are we doing with that?” I ask.

Mike smiles, teeth bright against his dirt-caked face. 

“We’re gonna cut down a fuckin’ tree.”

***

The most important thing we know about the tree we’re cutting down is that if it falls the wrong way, it’ll destroy Mike’s house. The most important thing we don’t know about trees is how to dictate the direction in which they fall. Either way, we know that when it falls, it’ll fall fast. Either way, we know that this, like everything, is an act of faith.

Mike saws until the tree’s about to tip, and then — employing some silent brotherly language and a panicky series of moves that are at once like dancing and not — Mike pivots one way and I the other, and then, gasping for air, we push, step back, and … womp! Just womp! A sound like I’ve never heard before. A thud, a sucking, the inverse of sound. 

We are alive. The tree is felled. The house stands undestroyed. 

Mike and I blink there in the yard and share a look of wonder. Then we race over to one another and holler as we hug.

***

Late that night, drunk as skunks, sitting in the pale glow of his porchlight, Mike looks up at the moon and says, “almost four years.”

“I know,” I tell him. “Hard to believe.”  

I start to form a thought — how proud I am of him, how sorry I am, for all this shit, for always being so hard on him — only I’m too drunk, so what I say, instead, out of nowhere, is, “I’ll never forget, Mike. That day. The sound of your voice when you called.” And then I double over in a sob. It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever cried without warning. 

Mike gets me up and holds me. “Don’t worry, baby bro,” he says. “It’ll all be OK.”

***

Hungover the next morning, I remember Mike’s dad’s viewing. A gang of us went out after and got wasted. At some point, those of us from New Orleans figured we’d better head back, but Mike asked me to stay. “I’ve got all these people crashing at my house,” I told him. He said he got it, but as I left and he lingered with friends from the Da Parish, I could tell he was sad. 

“Wish you coulda hung the other night,” he told me days later on the phone.

“What’d y’all do?” 

“We cut down a tree.”

***

The next summer I get married, and on my wedding day, as I sip scotch in my tux and gaze upon the scores of guests, all gathered to celebrate the love I share with my wife in a beautiful library on King Street, in Charleston, South Carolina, I feel a pang of fear. I’m 30, make no money, have nothing close to a book deal or an agent, and will never get a tenure-track job. I’m a faker, a fuckup, a whiner, a bitch. 

“I’ve got to figure out my life,” I mutter to myself, paranoid, and realize I’m drunk. “I’ve got to figure out my life.”

Two weeks later, thanks to the magic of cronyism, my wife and I are both hired at a prestigious boarding school. Campus like a country club. Huge raises. Free housing. Smartest kids.

When I call Mike to tell him we’re moving, he’s genuinely thrilled.

“Damn, Will,” he says, “You’ve got the best life.” 

VII: Helpless, Happy, Confused, Content

I see Mike next in New Orleans, and he meets my son. In the fancy condo owned by my friend’s parents, where we’ve stayed for free while savoring long strolls through the Lower Garden District and eating ourselves sick at Clancy’s and Cochon and Bacchanal, Mike holds up my boy and kisses his belly until he squeals that perfect laugh that belongs only to infants: helpless, happy, confused, content.  

Chatting after, smoking cigarettes on Coliseum Square, Mike asks what it’s like to be a dad.

“Pretty great,” I say. “Intense, but you get the hang.”

What I don’t say is how terrifying it is, how, when the midwife pulled my son out and I locked eyes with his swollen purple face, I felt not love but pressure. How night after night, as he screws his lips into the shape of a lemon and screams like a pterodactyl, I feel the stinging sense that I’m not cut out for this. How throughout my wife’s pregnancy, I made myself believe that being a dad would cure me of all my bullshit — the drinking, the depression, the anxiety — but none of that’s happened, and now that it’s too late, I get that kids aren’t some panacea; they’re a spotlight for your flaws. They’re needy little puzzles that can fucking break you. How, in my first weeks as a father, as my wife sank into postpartum as she struggled to breastfeed, I hid in the shed behind our house, inhaling Marlboro Reds in the bitter cold, certain I’d squandered my life’s easy years, that the person I was — a writer, an artist — was gone forever, that I may as well fucking vanish.

“You’re gonna be a great dad,” Mike tells me. 

“We’ll see,” I say, and we both light new ones. 

“You think you’ll have kids?” 

Smoke creeps from Mike’s nostrils as he smiles. “No,” he says, “I don’t.”

***

That night, we meet two friends at Patois. We drink martinis and eat steak frites. We remember college, how our fraternity rented whole floors of a Holiday Inn on Dauphine Island, where we’d smoke blunts and finger girls in the hot tub, how I once broke a girl’s nose during sex and then she wet my bed — and I see then that the whole of New Orleans is my new Fantasyland. The place where I can pretend I don’t have to work to be a good teacher at a great school, where I don’t have to fret about never writing enough, where I can get crazy drunk and not have to get up at 5 a.m., hating myself for being angry at my child. Where I can eat dinner with people who don’t read books and feel like the serious intellectual. In a few days, when my family and I fly back to reality, and I’m too fat to fit in my pants with a throat scorched from a hundred cigarettes, I’ll feel ready to run away from the old me, but for now nothing is real.   

And then I double over in a sob. It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever cried without warning.

After we pay our tab, drunk on gin and nostalgia, we plot our next move. We decide on Avenue Pub, but just as we get moving, Mike gets wishy-washy. He needs to drive home, he says, needs to head back to the North Shore. The rest of us are up in arms. 

“What!?! We never get to see each other! You can crash with us!” 

“I don’t know,” Mike squirms, “I gotta work.”

“When?”

“I gotta be there for noon.”

All of us laugh. “We have babies! We’ll have you out the door by dawn.”

Mike says he’ll think about it while he drives us to the bar, but he’s quiet all the way down Magazine, and I know he won’t stay. This, I see, has been his plan all along: to check in from his hideaway, then hurry back off the grid. When we get to the bar, Mike asks me to stay while the others go in. I stand beside him in his idling truck. It’s a moment. We both know it.

“I gotta go,” he says. There’s fear in his voice, like the world will end if he doesn’t. 

“Why? We’re all here. Why are you so obsessed with leaving?” 

He stares out the windshield and starts to cry. 

“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s just everything. Just stuff with my dad.” So rare, this mention of his father. So often I wonder, but I always fail to ask. 

“What is it?”

“I’m just so … angry.”

“I know,” I say, even though I don’t. He looks right at me. 

“Why did all this have to happen, Will?” 

A streetcar rattles by. Cars whisper along the Pontchartrain Expressway.

“It was the storm,” I tell him. “And depression. And …”

He nods.

“All of this happened to you,” I say. “It wasn’t your fault.”

After the suicide, Mike told me he wished he could knock his dead dad to the ground, to pin him there and ask him flatly if he was satisfied with what he’d done. “What do you think he’d say?” I asked. “That killing himself,” Mike said, “was the worst mistake of his life.” 

Whenever I think of Mike’s dad, I don’t see him in that casket, his face all stunned and made-up. I see him alive, stock still on our ugly couch in the Baton Rouge apartment, watching the news, saying nothing, but knowing for certain he’d never be the same. I see the storm surge. I see the waterline and the mold. I see a day years after his death when on a drive through Da Parish, Mike and I turned down his grandparent’s street and happened upon his dad’s dad just sitting there, drinking Budweisers alone in a camp chair, broken. And when you shot yourself in the heart, I wonder, in that final beat before it all went black, did you get one last second to know what you’d done? Did you see the hurt you’d cause? Could you see your son the way he is now, afraid of a world that’s been so cruel? And what if Katrina had missed? What if all this belonged to someone else? 

“I just feel like y’all have all made it,” Mike says. The engine’s running. He’s still in the truck. “You’ve got houses and kids —”

“We haven’t had to deal with anything,” I say, and the truth of this feels good. 

I tell Mike he’s gotta get help, gotta talk to somebody, and then I see that’s what he’s doing right now.

“I’ll get better,” he says. “I promise.”

“I know,” I tell him, thinking so will I.

Mike gets out and hugs me. We don’t worry about food trucks or book deals or fathers or sons. We just sway there, two brothers, connected forever. I think of that night by the levee, that litany: I love my big brother. My big brother is better than me. What did you see in me all those years back? What made me so special? Who would I be if I’d had your life? What would you say if you wrote about me?  

“You’ve still got the best life,” Mike says and gets in his truck. 

I shake my head. “I’m just lucky.” 

“Maybe so, baby bro,” he says. “Maybe so.”

And then he pulls away. 

I stand alone there on Polymnia Street and watch Mike’s tail lights disappear down St. Charles. The night air is hot. The moon a faint ghost. In a few minutes, I’ll go into the bar to get drunk. But in this moment, I feel a whirl of emotions that leaves me unmoored, like I’m hovering over my shoulders. I’m outside of myself, I think, and then I say to no one, “This is it. This is the end of an essay I’ll write.” 

 

William Torrey’s writing has appeared in Salamander, Boulevard, River Teeth, Colorado Review, and The Florida Review, among many others. He is Writer-in-Residence at St.Andrew’s School, where he lives on campus with his wife and sons.

* * *

Editor: Carolyn Wells