His friends, his father, even his wife, Lee Ann. He has to calm her down all the time. Her temper tantrums are epic. She’s cold and mean, eyeing every last one of us with suspicion. To her, everything is an imaginary slight, like when Brooks forgot to hold the pickles on her burger at the drive-thru. That one made us all miss the first half of the concert. She is the match held next to the fuse in our collective powder keg.
Brooks is much older than the rest of us. He’s been sober longer than most of us have been out of school. Most of the time, when you ask him a question, he just smiles. There’s no vague answer, no sidestepping the question, only the smile that lets you know you’ll never hear the answer. His eyes are a closed door.
Our relationship is one of mild flirtation, but only when Lee Ann is not around. Brooks is a whole different person away from her. The undercurrent of churning anxiety smooths away. He relaxes, drops his guard just a little. Brooks becomes the fun guy, charming and quick witted. This is the Brooks we wait for, the sunny day in the middle of a month of thunderstorms.
I run into him at random, at the county fair. He’s sitting on a bench watching one of his kids ride the flying elephants. The sun has baked everything brown. I’m wearing a blue tie-dyed half shirt, and short shorts. It’s the fair, I’m on the prowl. I stand in front of him, chatting about whatever. He interrupts me. “I’d chew the buttons off that shirt any day,” he says. We hold onto a look, but I can’t think of anything to say.
Just then Lee Ann’s brother, Sean, comes back with a cardboard tray full of drinks and chili dogs. He won’t tell Lee Ann that Brooks has been talking to me, but it feels awkward just the same. I smile at Brooks, his eyes are hungry and it thrills me.
After a while, Brooks drifts in and out of our lives. He’s moved kind of far away, too far for us to afford the gas money on a regular basis. We do visit them sometimes, but the visits get farther and farther apart until Brooks and scary Lee Ann are dropped from our rotation of friends.
About a year later, Brooks shows up one day, just out of the blue. We’re at Manny’s house, playing cards. The door opens. No one looks up at first, people come in and out of Manny’s place all the time. After a minute, someone finally looks up and says “Brooks!”
It takes another moment to realize that Brooks is drunk. Not a little buzzed, but shit faced. He stands there, swaying, a beer in each hand. Brooks doesn’t drink. Brooks never, ever drinks. We all stare, like he’s grown a second head or something.
The Brooks we knew always went to meetings. Our Brooks gently talked to each of us in private if he was worried we were taking something too far for our own good. This Brooks is loud, some weird parody of the guy we knew. Lee Ann has left him for someone else, he tells us as he reaches for another beer from Manny’s fridge. I can’t decide if he’s mourning or celebrating. His eyes are puffy and red.
Like the old days, Brooks is always around now, but it’s this new, not improved version. He’s moved back, renting a room from his dad. The drinking never seems to ease up. We start to hide the beer when he comes around because he’ll drink it all. He wears on us, we all know it, but no one says anything out loud. Not anymore.
“Hey dude, you might want to ease up,” Manny had said to him one night. Brooks slammed the can on the table, sloshing it all over the cards. “I’ll tell you when I’ve fucking had enough,” Brooks raged. His anger was terrible and terrifying, it went on for hours. We left him alone after that.
Some nameless blurry night, we’re at Manny’s house, like usual. Brooks is drunk, I’m well on my way. Brooks and I are hurling flirtatious insults, everyone is laughing. One more drink and I’ve crossed the line from buzzed to completely fucking wasted and I need to go lie down.
As I get up, Brooks staggers across the room, helps me up the steep stairs. We stumble to the bed together and I pull my shoes off. I lay back, the room spins. I remember that day at the fairgrounds, and how much I wanted him in that moment.
“Brooks,” I slur, grabbing the edge of his flannel shirt and pulling him toward me. “Come here an’ fuck me.”
We fall back on the bed together, I turn my head towards him and wait for him to kiss me. He puts his arm around me. I nuzzle up to him, my head in the crook of his elbow. Brooks is silent and still for a long time, his fingers resting in my hair. Finally, he reaches for me, but lightly kisses my forehead instead.
“C’mon, fuck me,” I whisper.
“No, honey, not like this,” he says quietly, pulling the blanket up to my chin. As he tucks me in, I look up at him. His guard is down and his eyes are so, so sad. He looks old and tired. On his way out, he switches off the light, leaving me alone in the dark, wondering what I did wrong.