One of the main things I characterize my misspent youth by, is a knack for exploiting the trust my middle-class parents misplaced in me. At seventeen, I was too old to be dragged along with them on what seemed like monthly getaways, but too young to exercise any degree of responsibility or restraint. My folks had a mobile home near Ballymoney beach, which had hosted many a night of debauchery for my older brother and his cronies. He was away in Amsterdam, so I’d decided it was my turn. That bank holiday weekend, I had access to a car, three malleable mates and in the palm of my hand, an assortment of different colored pills.
My mother’s arty liberal ideals had long since crushed my father’s more traditional views into dust. You’d only ever get the faintest of grumbles from him, dampened behind a rumpling newspaper. This self-censorship wasn’t always prevalent or so he told me, over glasses of scotch, his tongue unbinding nostalgically in the wake of my recent nuptials. I am now a man it seems. After what they’d been through with my older brother, Dad found it best to defer parenting us to my mother, who for lack of a better term, had notions.
My father had been ‘too strict’ with my hyperactive brother who had some violent tendencies. The significant shift of power happened when his bright idea of sending my brother to boarding school backfired in a big way, offering more of a breeding ground for criminal activity than an educational utopia. Kenny’s expulsion from the school brought a great shame to my father. A gang of boys in the year ahead of him had caught wind of Kenny’s lucrative little drug trade and expected a sizeable cut in exchange for their silence. If their demands had been more diplomatic he’s always maintained, there wouldn’t have been a problem. They were too greedy, couldn’t be reasoned with, and Kenny refused. These boys were all “somebody’s son” and were bred to get their way.
Junior Cup team rugby players could use the pool and it was common knowledge that Kenny swam late at night. He was always the last to leave. So when three of them jumped in on top of him, he thought they were trying to drown him. One boy had a chunk of flesh ripped out of his cheek, and another suffered a fractured skull. But it was the ring leader who got his teeth knocked out, some of an ear bitten off, and lost the sight in one eye. So obvious was it a three-on-one attack, that no charges were pressed against my brother Kenny. However, his dealings were exposed, and he was turfed out.
My mother employed a more permissive style of parenting with me, indulged my every whim, never punished bad behavior and challenged my thought process in ways she must have thought Socratic. I got away with fucking murder. Although I did appreciate the level of freedom this afforded me, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for my father, subjected to the periodic “I told you so” moment, anytime my report card pleased her or I’d been involved in some minor sporting victory. It brought me no joy seeing him voiceless and defeated. I had this recurring dream, before I got medicated, where he manifested as a wounded fox, caught in a trap, bleeding from his soft eyes.
So my folks fecked-off somewhere abroad for the long weekend, as did my mate Dan’s parents, whose neighbors had no visibility of their driveway. No one to notice the missing car. Dan and I had gone to primary school together. We had not been friends, but gravitated toward each other in secondary school, given we were among the few token posh-lads at the community school. His Dad was self-made and didn’t believe in private education, but my mother gave me the option to choose where I thought would best meet my developmental goals. I’d love to say it was my selflessness that led me there, being aware of my father’s crumbling business. Private school fees would have been a strain. Then again, the boarding school my grandfather, father, and brother had attended did not have a football team and rugby was compulsory for all first years. That and it was full of wankers. I made the case that I would become a more well-rounded individual given the opportunity to carry on playing competitive football and also broaden my worldview immersed in an environment boasting a more diverse student population. A more prominent priority was my overdeveloped libido that had been cultivated, I believe, by early exposure to a wealth of magazines and conspicuously labeled VHS tapes in my brother’s bottom drawer. The community school was co-ed and I’d been assured, full of ‘damp yokes.’
Dan and I were placed in A1. The tiered class structure was supposedly based on an aptitude test we’d taken, but I’m positive that in seeing where we’d come from, the Year Head had employed mercy. A1 was no cake-walk, but it wasn’t exactly Dangerous Minds, like C2 for example. Woodwork and Metalwork were housed in the C-Area and despite me disregarding my brother’s advice to “batter someone on day one to let people know you’re not to be fucked with,” I did feel compelled to jump in and help Dan, who was himself on day one, getting “battered.” His expensive shoes, pressed shirt and an accent he couldn’t convincingly conceal, made him an easy target. I did manage to get one good dig in, bloodying the nose of Barry O’Neil, but ultimately was booted around with Dan until burly Mr. O’Brien came rushing out of his classroom to put a stop to the ‘madness.’ Dan was soft as shit and I didn’t feel like we’d anything in common, but sticking together seemed necessary.
Stu’s experience was ours in reverse. His mother had notions too, and identified in him a level of intelligence that had escaped his siblings. He traversed the gauntlet of his council estate covering up our primary school’s crest with his definitive black bomber jacket. He’d bate through that estate early each morning and came skidding into the yard on his orange BMX. He and I would kick a football around together. We were schemers, thieving whatever was in fashion, taking turns every few days at the small-break. Pogs, Premier League stickers or whatever was going. We had another little racket that proved more lucrative, both of us having somewhat of an entrepreneurial spirit instilled in us by our older brothers. We’d get to school early and pilfer the strawberry and chocolate milk left out on the school steps, which were very much in demand, most parents having opted for low-fat regular milk for their little darlings. We’d sell our spoils. Shamefully now, I must confess we did abuse the good nature of an elderly newsagent proprietor in our boldest of schemes. We’d drop a box of one bar or another from the shelf and kick it underneath the stall, only then to enquire about said missing bar. He’d potter into the store room to fetch another box. Stu’s hands were as fast as lightning and his bomber jacket’s pockets were deep. I’d keep sketch at the counter and stall the shopkeeper when necessary. Most of our classmates had money and no one dared rat on us given our brothers’ reputations. Our little enterprise drew us close together. His mother adored me, finding my little posh-lad witticisms funny. Mine found his salt-of-the-earth Dublin attitude a charm, often dropping Stu into conversation with other parents as though it were proof of her open-mindedness or some such shit. Stu didn’t think it was shrewd to associate ourselves with Dan in our rough secondary school, but ultimately shared my sympathies for our pretty and effeminate alumnus.
Katie came from the same estate as Stu and was in a similar boat. Her mother had intended to send her to the all-girl convent school, but when her parents split, Katie’s cunt of a Da was not forthcoming with chipping in on her tuition. She was into boxing and as a result, rumoured to be a lesbian. I can attest to the fact that she was not, after our ‘five minutes in heaven’ shared in Stu’s downstairs bathroom, during a game of Spin the Bottle, back in first year. She was also better at football than Stu and me put together. She’d definitely been a tomboy growing up, but had blossomed into an athletic goddess and never abandoned us. She did harbor though, a great deal of hatred for those girls that had ostracized her and the lads who only started paying her attention when her breasts filled out. We, her real mates, dared not taint our genuine friendship by trying it on with her. She wasn’t interested in us that way more like, and we knew it. One good thing her Da had done, was teach her to drive, and any chance we got, we’d borrow Dan’s parents’ Jeep and have adventures to which no one else in school was privy.
I’d been taking a pill, here and there, from my brother’s stock. He often tasked me with cutting up coke for him and for my trouble, I’d also taken a little sample of that. Stu was doing the same with his older brother’s weed. Dan’s folks had a never-ending supply of wine, and with Katie able to drive, we were sorted for our weekend by the sea.
I’d been involved in school debates since first year, much to the glee of my mother who’d heard about them in a parent teacher meeting and hadn’t ceased encouraging me not to waste my ‘gift,’ the ablity to talk my way out of essentially, anything. If I’m honest, I did enjoy the debates. The most recent one was about different types of civilizations, Eastern and Western philosophy. I’d been arguing publicly, that to our society’s detriment, foundations laid for us by the Greeks and Romans were being forgotten,. I argued that in a perfect society, like many of the great Greeks, everyone would be bisexual, citing the statistical odds being for more love in a world where marriages end in divorce and of those ‘successful’ marriages, only a fraction are purported to be happy. Privately, I’d made known to the lads my personal opinion, that there wasn’t one good way, and that we should be learning from all cultures, taking meditative practices from the East and hallucinatory journeys from the Native Americans. “Are you fuckin’ high, Man?” Stu asked in response to this. I said I wasn’t, but that I highly recommended ‘getting high’ together. With a smirk, Dan added “Theory AND Practice. ” I’d fuck all practical knowledge, but in theory, the lads agreed. Even Katie.
The plan was for all four of us to trip on something different, together. We would get out of our heads around a bonfire on the beach. We’d get to know each other, and ourselves, on a deeper level. We weren’t live-for-the-weekend piss-head, druggy wasters like lots of our classmates. Our trip was about enlightenment. That and our heads were fucking melted from Leaving Cert propaganda, to which we were not immune.
On the Saturday we’d gone swimming and had a BBQ. We drank copious amounts of red wine and even dusted off a holy grail type bottle of scotch. It’s absence would certainly be attributed to my brother. Our experience was to be had on the Sunday night, us having Monday off to recover. Stu and I gathered firewood, while Dan and Katie discussed our path to enlightenment, deciding who should do what drug, and why.
When darkness fell, we were all fairly buzzed on Dan’s fancy wine, and Katie revealed our missions, should we choose to accept them. She was highly strung, admittedly, and had never smoked a cigarette, let alone weed. She would get blazed and allow herself to relax and submit to the humour that was all around us. Stu was quiet, so he was to do some white, freeing himself from the shackles of self-consciousness and let his words flow. Dan was the consummate jester of the group, and we were often plagued by his seeming inability to share his true feelings, veiling everything in jokes. A yoke was to be had, whereby his heart would unfurl in waves of sincerity. I, being the depressive of the group, had issues sleeping and because of the meds, never remembered my dreams. We’d all been listening to a lot of Bowie, and were aware that if one were to take certain sleeping tablets, and force themselves to stay awake, they’d enter into this trippy dreamy state. Even if I couldn’t remember, the group would let me know what I could see and what I was saying. I was up for it, on the condition that they try their utmost not to let me drown in the sea.
The ironic ceremony began with Dan raising up our offerings to the drug gods, and I blessed them with the sign of an upside down cross. Stu gave us his iteration of something resembling a Gregorian chant and drummed away in rhapsodic gesture on a Jacob’s biscuit tin. Our sage Katie danced around us, puffing plumes of weed smoke to protect us on our journey.
Wine-red tongues told the stories of our lives up to that symbolic juncture and proclaimed what the future would bring. That sacred fire erupted between each speaker, fueled by my bottle of lighter fluid, with a well-timed squeeze. A handful of sand was sprinkled, let to trail in to the sparking flames, as a gesture to mark what had passed. This, before we acknowledged the infinity of what lay ahead, with a nod to each end of the pale grey beach. Faces were warmed with the memories of our shared experiences and an assurance that from what we had been born in to, we would indeed escape. Then we sat in silent reflection. Only the moon moved, slipping down the back of a starlit sky until the horizon bore an orange hue.
As the sun was coming up, Dan and I had wandered from our camp, walking at the water’s edge. The cold ends of each wave rushed over our pale freckled feet. Dan’s drug-sticky palm was on the back of my neck. He was expressing some sense of loss for not having taken part in the debate, but said that he shared my sentiments. Stu was burning the ears off Katie, who lay euphoric in the sand, her muscles rippling in the morning light, her face awash serene, unperturbed by Stu’s rapid hand movements, wild eyes and practically unhinged jaw.
We had always joked about Dan’s sexuality, in good humour. His overtly heteroerotic jokes and signature pelvic thrusts accompanied by animal noises were a daily occurrence when discussing girls ‘we’ fancied., He’d had girlfriends, so none of us were really sure, but we wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d come out to us. It might even have made his life easier.
The other two weren’t moving, Katie unable to peel herself from the sand and Stu entranced by her beauty. Dan and I walked, arms around each other’s shoulders, through the endings of rushing waves.
He kept banging on about ancient Greece and then he stopped me. Looking into my eyes and cupping the back of my head, he leaned in and kissed me. Drunk would have been an understatement, but I was not so drunk that I lacked the capability to immediately push him away, had I wished. I allowed him his moment, before sensitively withdrawing. I explained to him that there was no problem at all, but that he’d gotten it wrong. It was just an argument that I’d been making in the debate, an ideal that I believed in, but sorely lacked the capacity for, because, I was straight. I said, “Sorry.” He was unperturbed to say the least, smiling and gripping the prominent erection pitched in my shorts.
I’d nicked the wrong blue pills from my brother and had not enjoyed the hoped for dreamy state. They weren’t Ambien, they were feckin’ Viagra. Watching the sun rising, my dick became hard out of nowhere, and my error became painfully clear. If Dan had been high like Katie, he might have gotten paranoid, but in his euphoria all he did was stroke my face and sympathize with my obviously hilarious situation. How did I know if I never tried? I never tried, that’s how I knew, I told him. This did not convince him. He brought up something we’d spoken about more than once. We had both been pining away for Katie for years. Lust only distorted the truth that it was primarily a physical attraction and that he and I shared more in common and were better suited as partners, ‘if only’ we were gay. He walked ahead and declared the beach his stage. A compelling speech ensued, arguing that in the spirit of our exploratory weekend, we should have a real kiss, purely to decipher whether there was something there or not. If I felt nothing, he’d forever go in peace.
My inebriation coupled with comfort in my own sexuality allowed me to humour this proposal. I can’t say that it was a wholly unpleasant experience. He took me in his arms, embraced me and kissed me with tenderness, withholding any predilection he may have had for groping. When he released me, dough eyed, I couldn’t help but make a joke that the absence of any ‘magic’ had defied the boundaries of biological science, and actually eradicated my erection. I expressed my love for him, and offered our relationship as an example of how a platonic love might be the purest form. I could love him more than anyone on earth, my feelings unsullied by lust. He echoed my sentiment that we’d be friends forever, and we hugged before he started walking back to the others. I maintained I was going to hang back to let my lad fully go down, but really, I just needed a moment.
I had achieved my dreamy state, but this was due to sleep deprivation and being full of Shiraz. Blood dripped out of the sun.
Turning to face my friends, now nestled around the still smoldering fire-pit, I took note of Dan’s long wide footprints in the sand. I walked in his same path, placing my small feet inside the impressions he’d made, knowing that the following days he’d shroud his embarrassment in jokes, though there was no need. I wished I could get inside my friend to take away his pain, and carry him through the undoubted hurt to come.