Matty’s boyfriend Devin was the only person I knew with an actual job. Granted, he stocked children’s rollerblades and cans of tennis balls in the sports department of some Walmart in the South Suburbs. Still, it was enough for him to be a swaggering minimum-wage retail sugar daddy—not just to Matty, who was easily placated with blowjobs and liquor—but to the whole miserable apartment.
When Matty was visiting his parents, Devin let James fuck him on a half-deflated air mattress stained with lube and menstrual blood from the latter’s sexual exploits, which the rest of the apartment followed with voyeuristic zest. Devin dyed my hair garbled shades of red and blonde and was there to hand me a cup of bitter, tarry coffee when I came out of the shower in my pink bathrobe in the morning, my bare feet burning cold against the kitchen floor.
Corey was staying with us most nights as well, but Devin didn’t do shit for him. I guess Corey was competition, because he had a part-time job as a barista at a Starbucks in Greektown. He’d return from his shift with a bag full of stale scones and bagels, dump them with a concrete thud on the coffee table. Whatever was left in the plastic jug of vodka in the freezer would be shared around in black enamel coffee mugs and we’d turn off the lights and watch a movie. The quiet bits of dialogue between explosions and fight scenes whispered with the grate of teeth against stale bread and empty stomachs roaring out of hibernation.
It was a funny place, this yellow subterranean two-bedroom apartment in a basement in Wicker Park, smelling of wet plaster and a busted boiler, with thin walls and warped wooden floorboards. And there was Matty, reclining sans-pants on the couch like some Dionysian prince because his parents were paying the rent on the apartment and had no idea what a den of iniquity—something between a Turkish bath and a squat house—this place had become. James was the rightful occupant of the drafty second bedroom, an art school dropout, exploding on us with his drunken rages, coming home from the Dairy Queen that was going out of business over on Paulina with his blue uniform reeking of stale dairy, still fucking girls to prove something to the world.
There was Corey in his sheepskin jacket and green apron at the stove, making biscuity pancakes out of a box for breakfast, unable to go home most nights because his roommate was entertaining older men to cover the rent. And I was crumpled in a corner of the couch, broke and dropping out of school, scattering drama like shrapnel against ex-girlfriends and ex-roommates, plotting the destruction of evil student loan corporations, crying into my bowl of Kraft mac-n-cheese. And Devin with his blue-eyed rabbit face, in his peacock blue Wal-Mart associates vest, a name tag with a big yellow smiley face sticker, keeping us all in food and booze.
Vodka it was that lubricated this lifestyle. Vodka kept us rubbing against each other in fricative explosions of warmth, powered the 2 a.m. basement light bulbs, beat back crashing waves of reality and adulthood. If we could drink we could escape, and if we could escape we could be whatever we wanted to be. We could mosh through Boystown in the crystal-balloon lights of January, find the bravery to rub bodies with strangers in punk clubs and gay bars, we could be the sort of people who exist in the in-between places with the glamour of a chosen transience rather than the despair of nowhere-to-go, nothing-to-do.
So Devin bought vodka, because he had to. Not decent, smooth vodka that came in graceful glass bottles that would catch bubbles of light like ice when the sun shone into the apartment the next morning. He would go to the rear end of the liquor store, where the floors were sticky with mystery substances and homeless people mumbled to themselves and shoplifted forties of malt liquor. He’d buy the cheap vodka, the brands with names like two-bit Russian pimps, that tasted like jet fuel and came in these hideous plastic bottles composed of non-Euclidian angles that would explode with the yellow stink of vomit-breath into the debris of the morning, chop your guts roughly. And still you’d want more.
All the same, nothing made us forget our troubles like vodka. It was my favorite liquor because it brought out a warmth in me that usually slumbered with its scaly tail curled up around itself, made me want to talk and laugh and kiss all night.
How I drank my vodka depended on whom I was with. With Asya I drank it straight. Asya was James’ friend, a big Polish girl, with bleached blonde hair and too much blush, all big hips and bellyfat beneath her tight print dresses. Her heterosexuality was divisible by the number of drinks she’d had, an arithmetic I counted out on my fingers against the warm dough of her thighs. She had wads of sweaty, perfumey cash and a fat designer purse. I’d stand outside a liquor store near whatever club we were headed to, while Asya bought a bottle of Grey Goose and stuffed it in her purse. At the bar, she’d get two plastic cups with ice in them. We’d duck into some corner and pour little mouthfuls of the vodka onto the ice. I liked the feeling of the ice melting on my lips, the vodka flavorless yet leaving a sweet stinging aftertaste on the back of my tongue. After a while the liquor just tasted like our lips and bubbled like our giggles. Asya would slip the bottle back into her purse, where it burped and sloshed with her movements, and we’d make out in the bathroom, tasting each others’ vodka and lipstick, smelling wet toilet paper around our feet.
If I was with James, he would buy a red bottle of Smirnoff and little lunchbox-sized bottles of Ocean Spray cranberry juice. We’d dump out half the juice in each bottle, fill it back up with vodka, hide them in my purse and inside his jacket so that we could drink as we bounced around the city. Drinking with James, there was always a million places to go, parties to crash, bands to see, old friends to hit up for more booze and a place to piss. Most of the night would be spent neither here nor there. We’d sip from our little ruby bottles to ward off the cold as we stood exposed to the wind on the Addison El platform, the neon of Wrigleyville swimming down below in the icy mud of the street, the brick backside of Wrigley Field giving the wind something to shatter against. Or we’d crouch in the back of the Division Street bus, the sleeves of our leather jackets squeaking out a secret message between us, our bottles the grape color of smeared lipstick in the sickly yellow lighting of the clattering bus, shouting into our scarves the gritty little truths we feared to uncover about our sexualities. We had the kind of sexual kinship that did not want or require anything physical from us, just an understanding of our confusions and lusts, of the reckless tyranny of youth that was swallowing us whole. Mittened hands would slap denim thighs in punctuation of some bathroom hookup, some new kink in the sexual fabric. Talking and drinking in the warm, vibrating womb of the bus was sufficient communion, good enough for a boy and a girl.
The night would wind down to where it began, at the apartment in Wicker Park – James masturbating himself to sleep in the little closet bedroom; Matty and Devin moaning behind a closed door in a “we’re having sex and you’re not” sort of way; Corey’s smelly-stockinged feet sticking off one end of the loveseat, his curly head and cupcake cheeks peeking out of blankets; and me, stretched out on the leather couch in the dark, musing on the truths and insights, the semi-mystical revelations that could only be produced drunk and in transit.