Floating the Yacht

By Brett Riley

Heather thrust an empty whiskey bottle in my face, nearly bopping me on the nose. She and Kelly—my on-and-off girlfriend and Heather’s best friend—had just knocked on my front door after midnight, their fists booming like staccato artillery fire in the quiet house. Somehow, my parents did not awaken. I stepped onto our carport and closed the door behind me, shushing the girls as they giggled and stumbled around my Mom’s car, Heather still wielding the bottle like a cudgel. I expected her to knock off a side mirror.

The three of us grew up west of Crossett, a small southeast Arkansas town. For kids with cars, you could choose from one of three activities—driving from Sonic to McDonald’s and back, over and over and over and over; hanging out in a grocery-store parking lot and, if you were feeling really dangerous, playing with the electric doors; or prowling the rural roads near town, looking for a place to park (read: have sex, or drink, or drink and have sex). Some of us didn’t wait for a car, though. I lived in a subdivision called Rolling Acres. From 1982 to 1988, with wheels or without them, my friends and I spent our days playing video games and backyard sports. At night, we climbed out our windows and came of age. We formed and dissolved romances, pranked neighbors, and drank enough liquor to float a yacht. We knew where the local backroads bootleggers conducted business and probably paid their mortgage more than once. Sitting on our ATVs in their front yards—or, having been elected, stepping into those ramshackle houses—you could feel danger crackling in the air like electricity before a storm. Who knew when the state police or county sheriff might raid the place? Or when some drunk would decide he had been overcharged? Backwoods businesspeople always packed guns, sometimes in plain sight, and the destructive potential of this .38 revolver or that shotgun weighed heavy in those rooms. Your blood raced through your veins like wild horses, and, as adrenaline dumped into your system, you felt alive, grown up, ready for anything.

Earlier that day, Heather and Kelly (not their real names) had bought the whiskey and promised to drink it with me after our parents fell asleep. We had planned to meet outside around one or two a.m. They were early. Worse, they had polished off the whole bottle.

“Are you crazy?” I said. “You can’t come over at midnight. My parents will kill you. Worse, they’ll kill me.”

“Pssssshhhhh,” they said, still giggling.

“And you said you’d save some for me,” I said, crossing my arms and scowling.

“Sorry,” Heather said. She wasn’t.

“It was gone before we knew it,” Kelly said.

“Yeah, right,” I said, pouting. “So what would you have done if my Dad had answered the door?”

“Run like a motherfucker,” Kelly said, slurring her words. She swayed like a tree in a high wind. Heather leaned against the car, her eyes glazed. Neither girl could have run anywhere if her life had depended on it. Two steps, maybe three, and they would have faceplanted or veered so far off course that they smacked into a tree. I was pissed. We were supposed to get drunk together, a repudiation of sensible behavior and responsibility. Collectively, we modeled ourselves after the Bacchantes, reveling in spring fields of high grass and winter’s brown, frost-covered backyards, talking openly of living fast and dying young like Jim Morrison and Hendrix and Bonham and a hundred other famous, gorgeous, dead muses of teenage angst.

But that night, Heather and Kelly had left me stranded in sobriety, fated to help them get home safely. How boring. Worse, we were in my yard, and if my parents woke up, there was no way in hell I could convince them that I was just an innocent bystander.

The bottle started to slip from Heather’s grasp. Our carport was made of concrete. I could picture the crash, the broken glass, the light-sleeping neighbor who would pull back his curtain and see three teenagers stumbling around the Riley house. Then would come the Great Grounding—no television, no video games, no visitors except those I could sneak into my room in the wee hours before dawn, just me and my radio and four walls and a bed. Not jail, not death, but a stifling, miserable stasis that seemed nearly as bad.

I took the bottle from Heather. I don’t think she noticed.

Heather wanted to walk around and talk, maybe tap on our friends’ windows so they could join us. That sounded fine—more people to help me corral the drunks—but I needed to go inside and come back out through my bedroom window. That way, if my parents woke up, the front door would be locked, and they would think I was asleep.

I set the bottle down. “Hang on a minute,” I said, turning.

Before I could get inside, something thudded on the ground behind me. I turned back.

Kelly lay unconscious, her mouth open, one leg straight, the other bent at the knee.

“Oh, shit,” I said. Heather sputtered, then burst into maniacal laughter. “Shhh,” I said. It sounded like begging.

This was not the first time one of us had drunk ourselves unconscious, nor would it be the last. We didn’t drink every night, but when we did, we drank to excess. At thirteen or fourteen years old, we were already veterans of the Deep Snooze, The Puke, The Blackout. You haven’t lived until you’ve awakened, still half-drunk, on the floor of somebody else’s room and realized you have maybe twenty minutes to slip home before your Dad leaves for work, the hangover already starting its jackhammer assault with every heartbeat. We spent a lot of time describing alcohol-clouded events to each other, recounting the excitement and the fear of figuring out how not to get caught while hauling around a hundred-plus pounds of a friend’s dead weight. Most of these times, we were all plastered, so nothing was ever certain until we had all reached our rooms again—the bumbling hauling the limp.

That night, though, I was alone, without any liquid courage. Heather would be little help. She could barely stand.

The good news: Kelly lived directly across the street. Her window faced the road, and I could see her detached screen poking out of the bushes. Her curtains fluttered in and out with the breeze.

“We’re gonna have to get her over there somehow,” I said

While I worked out the logistics in my head, Heather slurred, “You know what you should do?”

“What?” I said, half-listening, searching the neighborhood for porch lights and oncoming headlamps.

“You should fuck her.”

My train of thought stopped so quickly that you could almost hear the squealing brakes. I laughed and shook my head, unsure of how else to respond. “Uh huh. Right. Sure.”

“Fuck her, Brett,” said Heather, her eyes full of mischief. “You’ve always wanted to. Do it. Just pull her pants down and fuck her.”

I searched Heather’s face for signs that she was joking—or, worse, that she meant it. It was hardly a secret that I wanted to fuck Kelly. We had a romantic history, and I was a teenage boy, meaning I thought about sex approximately every fourteen seconds. But could Heather really be suggesting that I rape her best friend? Did she believe that I would? Had I said or done something to imply that I would be capable of it? For a while, the thrill of resisting the adult world’s edicts soured and withered as, despite my youth and immaturity, I realized that this moment might be one of the hinges on which three lives swung.

Heather smiled, her eyes bright. Jesus, I thought.

But then I recognized that brightness for what it truly was—the glazed, watery look of the blackout. Heather was one of the sweetest, gentlest people I knew. She loved Kelly and would never knowingly do or say anything to harm her, but that was the problem; Heather didn’t know what she was saying. She was running on autopilot, every inhibition smashed, every logical thought obliterated, leaving only the naked desire to go Further. That desire explained much of alcohol’s appeal—not just the thrill of breaking a taboo but the power, the ecstasy of achieving a state where “taboo” had no meaning. How many times had we all found that magical place? How many great stories had we already lived, how many experiences that most kids our age would never have the guts to attempt? We had already done so much, and we would do so much more in our futures, but that night, sober and worried, I also saw the other side of that life—the blurred line between Further and Too Far, the potential for emotional wreckage. That glimpse would not stop me from pushing boundaries and living hard, but it was perhaps the first of many steps toward one day finding a moderation that I could live with.

“I’m not gonna fuck her while she’s passed out,” I said. Heather laughed but looked a bit confused. I’m pretty sure she had already forgotten her own suggestion. That’s how blackouts work.

I ran to the woods behind our house and threw the bottle deep into the brush. Then I trotted back to Kelly and scooped her off the ground. The bride/groom imagery was not lost on me. Yes, we were teenagers, and yes, we have both experienced much deeper and profound romantic love in the many years since, but back then, to me, what we felt was as real and powerful as anything in the world. And so, as Heather staggered along behind me, I carried Kelly across the street, through her front yard, and to her window, where she would be safe. Then I shifted her in my arms and lifted her up, sticking her legs through the opening, her head lolling against the frame.

“Thanks,” Heather said.

“We didn’t think this through,” I grunted, straining to balance Kelly on the windowsill. “I’m gonna have to pull her out and let you go in first so you can catch her.”

“She’ll be fine,” said Heather as she shoved Kelly in the back. Kelly slipped from my grasp and disappeared.

Have you ever seen those old Tom and Jerry cartoons where the characters chase each other off-screen, and then the whole frame shakes with impact as broken furniture flies around? That’s what it sounded like. A crash, the tinkle of glass breaking, a meaty thud.

I stared at the empty space where Kelly had been. I turned to Heather, who teetered dangerously sideways. “Jesus Christ,” I said.

Then lights came on inside Kelly’s house. Her father’s voice, incoherent but gruff, thundered from just beyond her door. Before I could say anything, Heather dove through the window head-first with a grace and precision that I would not have thought possible. For all I know, she landed on Kelly. But I was not about to stick around and find out, with Kelly’s father demanding to know what the hell that noise had been. I yanked the window screen out of the bushes, shoved it onto the frame, and sprinted for my house. I reached my front door just as Kelly’s light turned on. I ducked inside before I could see or hear what happened next.

Perhaps there is some truth to that old saying about how God looks out for drunks. I don’t know what Heather told Kelly’s parents that night or why they didn’t notice the whiskey stink, Heather’s slurred speech, Kelly’s unresponsiveness—perhaps because they were still half-asleep. When I saw the girls the next day, their eyes were bloodshot, their heads pounding, but they had avoided trouble, though they didn’t remember how. We laughed about it, like we always did. And what did we learn? Not much—we drank again, and then again, beer and liquor flowing like an amber river, carrying us into our futures under the southern moon, mosquitoes buzzing like alarms that we refused to heed. Our truths, our lessons, had to be learned piecemeal, one barely averted disaster at a time.