Rejection Letters

Around the World

We were somewhere around Italy, almost halfway around the world, when the drinks began to kick in.

I’d actually felt it right away, the brain freeze and beginnings of drunkenness hitting together as soon as we’d started drinking frozen margaritas in Mexico. Because it was hot as shit—might set a record, the weatherman had said on the hotel TV before we’d left to catch our resort shuttle straight to Epcot—or because I wasn’t used to the humidity on top of the might set a record heat; or because I was getting old, couldn’t drink or hold my alcohol like I used to; or maybe just because we’d started with tequila.

I never drank tequila. Tequila tasted like college, tasted like closing my eyes and swallowing and trying not to taste anything, tasted like a too-crowded bar with sweaty and over-cologned people pushing against me from all directions, tasted like my hands on my knees in an alley somewhere, tasted like throwing up and crying. Johnsoning, Robby had called it in college. You aren’t gonna Johnson on us tonight, are you, Johnson? he’d say while we were shotgunning beers or doing shots of whatever alcohol we’d scrounged together, prefunking before going out to the bars or looking for a house party, somewhere we wouldn’t have to worry about invite lists, assholes like us crashing, getting rid of both invitees and rando assholes at the end of the night, cleaning up in the morning. If you gotta hurl, hurl, and if you gotta cry, just fucking cry, man, but don’t go full Johnson on us, and everyone would laugh, and I’d vow to try and keep my shit together.

But Mexico was first, and Mexico was margaritas, so we started with tequila. Jalapeno margaritas, specifically, was what was called for, but the line was so long, and we didn’t yet know it’d be our only real line of the day, so by the time it was finally our turn, all of us but Davey doubled-up, got both a jalapeno and regular marg’. The jalapeno, I wouldn’t recommend, but going back and forth, long heat-thirsty sucks from one straw then the other, gave our brain freezes a little kick that wasn’t entirely unenjoyable.

But I’d been repeating the line to myself since I’d thought of it, walking through the Orlando airport. We were somewhere around… on the edge of… almost halfway around… began to take hold… began to kick in. I’d repeated it, over and over, tweaking it slightly, trying to get it to feel just right.

Our couples therapist had pointed out that I did that. That I talked in clichés and quotes from movies and books instead of using my own words, and also that it seemed like I tried to rehearse spontaneity, that I put up this wall of nonchalance as a barrier. He had a word for it, or a couple different words for my different tendencies. Transference, maybe. Projection, disassociation. One of those. If I’d been paying more attention, maybe the therapy sessions would have felt like less of a waste of time. Then again, maybe Sarah and I wouldn’t have gotten back together, maybe we would have just gotten divorced instead of me moving back into the house like I had.

 

I don’t remember who first had the idea, where he’d heard it. Apparently, at some point since my grandparents had taken me decades ago as a kid, Epcot’s World Showcase had been turned into a kind of unofficial drinking game. Each of the eleven countries has its own restaurants, bars. Its own representative cocktail. One drink per country, every country. Around the world.

Our original idea was a big ol’ reunion of a hangout. We’d talked about it for years, had been talking about it since Tony had moved away, the first of us to do so, since long before any of us had kids. The way you talk about and daydream plans for things you know will probably never happen. Then kids, jobs, more moves, more kids. The improbable became impossible, years came and went like they’d been fast-forwarded through, until suddenly those kids became old enough to travel with and the idea of a big friends-and-wives get-together became, Why not all our families, everyone together?  No one lived in Florida, so it required travel for everyone, a destination weekend. Perfect for those of us with kids, and those who didn’t would enjoy the sun and the company. And who didn’t love Disney? Disney made everyone a kid again! Then Davey’s wife, Heidi, got a promotion and couldn’t take the time off, and then Chad and his wife separated and he moved out of the house, and the whole plan kinda exploded. Or imploded, or whatever. It blew up, got called off.

“What if WE still went?” Robby group-texted all us husbands and soon-to-be-ex-husbands.

“A guy’s trip?”

“Why not?!”

“Without families?”

“😀😀😀”

“I’m in,” Chad was the first to commit, no longer needing spousal ok.

“I think I could swing that.”

“I’ll work on it.”

We threw around different ideas—Vegas, Hawaii, a camping trip somewhere, river rafting. But it had started as Disney, and weirdly kept feeling like it should stay Disney. Even without kids, without wives. Five adult men waiting in line for the Haunted Mansion, ogling professional princesses. It would be like a joke! One of those true things you say, before saying you were just joking so you don’t have to confess to the full truth of it. Maybe we’d sneak flasks or a one-hitter for It’s a Small World. We’d Disney one day, we’d drink around the world the next!

We figured out logistics, made various deals with wives for tradeoff plans bartered for or to be named later. We made it happen. Or, most of us did.  Matt never quite said he couldn’t, only always answered, “Still working on it,” right up until we all got our tickets. One more “Still working on it” was waiting for us in our group chat when our planes landed in Orlando.

 

“Home sweet home,” Robby said. I looked around. I pulled out my card and looked at that like I needed the card to confirm, like just looking around me wasn’t convincing enough.

Chad had found a kind of official-unofficial How to Drink Around the World guide online. He’d printed out copies, made laminated cards, one for each of us.

“It’s a joke,” Chad had said to our confusion, passing one card out to each of us on the shuttle that morning, on our way to Epcot. “Like Owen Wilson in…you know, in that one movie? With the train.” None of us knew what movie he meant. Or, if we did, we hadn’t seen it. I’d looked around, wondered if anyone else on the shuttle was going to be drinking around the world. I didn’t think so. Everyone else looked like families. I’d thought about how excited my wife and kids would have been to be on that shuttle.

The cards were what told us Mexico was jalapeno margaritas, Norway was Viking coffee. I remembered doublefisting margaritas in Mexico, and I remembered all of us opting for the iced Viking coffee. All of us except Davey, Davey who’d argued that, counterintuitive as it may seem—I specifically remember him using that word, counterintuitive, it so caught me by surprise—hot coffee, in fact, was going to cool him down more than iced. Everyone else was dubious, none of us wanted a hot drink, so Davey got his own, despite his neck brace, despite doctor’s orders that he shouldn’t drink anything at all on top of the painkillers he was on, despite our group agreement that it would still count if he just took a sip of one of our drinks in each country, just a sip wouldn’t be so bad, what was the point of coming all this way and not being able to drink around the world? He’d have to spectate because of a stupid little car accident? That seemed unfair. Unfair on top of having to be in a neck brace because of a stupid little not-even-accident already seeming unfair.

I’d already forgotten China and Germany, but there they were on my card, Canto Loopys and shots of honey and bourbon, and then I remembered. Italy was frizzantes. I remembered Italy because it had just happened. I remembered the frizzantes because I’d thought I might hurl. I didn’t think your sixth drink of the day, in Orlando heat, already exhausted from a day of Disneying followed by a night in the hospital, was supposed to be sparkling wine. I didn’t think you’re supposed to toss back sparkling wine like a shot.

And then, my card confirmed: after frizzantes in Italy was America.

It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw,” I mumble-sang to myself under my breath, half-surprising myself I knew the words. “I’ve gone. To look forrr Amerrrrrricaa.

I remembered looking across the World Showcase Lagoon before we’d started, seeing The American Adventure directly across from us. America was going to mark the halfway point.

“Whiskey-spiked frozen lemonade!” Tony said. This was the pattern we’d fallen into. We’d all check our cards, like we each wanted to be the helpful one, or maybe like we each needed to see for ourselves. All of us except Davey, because it didn’t seem worth the pain, I’d presumed, and Robby, who had the same card as the rest of us but he never used it, he always just checked his phone. I didn’t know if he was that addicted to it or it was meant as a kind of fuck you to Chad or what, but it always took him a couple seconds longer than the rest of us. We all already knew the cocktail we would be looking for by the time he’d unlocked his phone and pulled up the list, but every time he’d smile at himself all proud, like how did anyone get anything done before the convenience of smart phones, and then Tony would call it out, big announcement, and we’d act like that was exactly what it was, announcement.

Perfect, I thought. I needed some lemonade, something frozen. Whiskey-spiked, all the better. I pulled up the bottom of my shirt while we stood in line, used it to wipe a layer of sweat off my forehead. The drinks or the heat or just something about Disney, I didn’t give a shit in the moment who saw my bare stomach, the gut hanging out over my belt that every year I swore was going to be the year I worked to lose.

We got our drinks, tossed them back. We were halfway done. More. Fuck, I’d forgotten my “somewhere around Barstow…” line. I thought about calling it out now, but the moment was wrong. And the guys were already halfway to Japan. “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know whyyyyyy,” I sang out, half-hoping someone might hear me, might recognize the song, might appreciate the moment, and walked a little faster to catch up.

 

What happened was, the day before, we’d driven to the Magic Kingdom instead of taking the shuttle. We weren’t going to be drinking like we would at Epcot, at least not as much; we could leave and come back whenever we wanted and not be tied to shuttle times. A super short drive, but it’d be like a tiny little road trip. Like the good ol’ days, we’d reasoned. Only, on our drive back to the resort, after a long day, all that Disney, I started thinking about our dogs. I don’t know why. I don’t know what combo of heat exhaustion and too many people and rides I hadn’t been on since I was a kid had created a nostalgia cocktail that got me thinking about pet burial.

My mind started replaying digging a four-foot hole in our backyard in the rain, while the kids played in their rooms and my wife made some steaks just for the dogs. I thought about how four feet is deeper than you think, how digging any deeper than your standard plant depth is harder than you think. I thought about the day after I dug that hole, the woman coming to our house, giving the first injection. I thought about holding my baby in my arms, feeling her play with me, slow down, kiss my hand, and finally go limp. That first shot was just sedation, knocking her out so she didn’t even feel the second, but feeling my baby go limp in my arms was the most and hardest I’d ever sobbed.

I got to thinking about all that and started crying anew, tears coming down my face so I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and then Tony yelled from the backseat, and I slammed on the brakes, and Davey, sitting shotgun, flew headfirst into the dashboard.

I’d apparently run a red light, then stopped at Tony’s yelling, leaving us parked in the middle of the intersection. Cars all around us started honking. I shook myself out of it—out of my dog reverie, out of the shock of Tony’s yell, the aftershock of Davey’s face hitting the rental car dashboard—and put my foot on the gas, drove us out of the intersection and everyone’s way.

Instead of dealing with Davey’s bruised and bleeding face, we kept going, back to the hotel. We ordered a bunch of drinks at the bar, snuck them with us into the closed-for-the-night pool. We drank until we’d drunk away any lingering worry over Davey.

Then Davey woke up Robby in the middle of the night. His neck still hurt. He couldn’t sleep. He was worried. Robby got the rest of us up, another tiny little road trip to the hospital. Less like the old days.

“Guess we’re gonna have to drink around the world for you,” Tony said on the drive home.

“Fuck that,” Davey said. Or maybe the painkillers said for him. “I didn’t spend weeks negotiating with the wife to be able to make this trip happen to watch you schmucks drink around the world without me.”

“Samuel Fuckin’ L. Jackson,” Chad said, all smiles.

 

In line for sake, Robby started yelling. “Go Cougars! Go Cougars!” I didn’t know what the fuck he was saying at first, and then when I figured out the words themselves, I didn’t understand why.

I finally figured out who Robby was yelling at, saw the guy was wearing a Washington State University t-shirt. We’d all gone to UW, but none of us seemed to especially hold any specific school spirit, and Robby maybe least among us, so it seemed surprising he was yelling “Go Cougars!” at this guy. We never really talked about it. We talked about college all the time—parties we’d thrown, parties we crashed, stories of me Johnsoning, Chad’s various exploits with the ladies—but none of it was specific to the university itself. Maybe Robby was fucking with the guy, maybe it was a mocking “Go Cougars!,” maybe being so far away from home stoked an otherwise dormant rivalry. Or maybe he was just excited for the Washington connection, here on the opposite corner of the country, college rivals be damned. I don’t know, I couldn’t quite read him.

I watched them talk for a while, not really listening. My eyes fuzzed over. It was a bit like watching a movie I’d seen before on TV, but on mute. Then I realized the woman this WSU guy was with kind of looked like Chad’s wife. Ex-wife? I didn’t fully understand their current situation, where they were in the process. If there was in fact going to be a process, if maybe there’d already been. Wife-but-they-were-separated? I realized I hadn’t really asked, didn’t know what I should call her.

Julie. This woman with WSU looked like Julie.

I remembered how, in college, Chad would get high and try and tell us about the multiverse. He’d stack a bunch of Led Zeppelin albums on his record player, tell us that was the only real way to listen to Zeppelin. He’d time the burble of his bong to the song playing and nod at himself, then he’d start positing how maybe we were just one of an infinite number of realities. The gist was that, with infinite universes existing over an expanse of infinite time, anything was possible. Infinity was something I’d always struggled with though. It seemed too much, too impossible.

I remembered that and swerved into the fuzz of that whiskey lemonade floating on top of frizzante and Bailey’s and coffee liquor and iced coffee and tequila and a couple countries’ worth of drinks I’d forgotten about, and went with it. I wondered what if, like, Cougars’ woman was Chad’s wife? What if we’d accidented our way through some tear between our old universe and this, now, our new one, and instead of marrying Chad—and now being ready to divorce, or maybe they had already gotten a divorce, was it ok to ask? I should probably ask—she’d married this guy?  She was Julie in all other ways, only this guy’s wife instead of Chad’s.

As I thought this, I realized how attractive this not-but-maybe-Julie was. Was she more attractive than Julie? Did I suddenly, now, think this woman was more attractive than I’d found her to be mere seconds ago because I was thinking of her not just as like Julie but as Julie? Had I, in fact, always been attracted to Julie, and only denied it because she was Chad’s wife? It was a lot to process.

“You guys drinking around the world?” she asked.

“Nooooo,” Robby answered, super drunk.

“What makes you say that?” Robby asked back.

“Around and around and around,” Robby added, and twirled his pointer finger in circles in the space between himself and not-but-maybe-Julie.

“Ha ha,” Robby cackled, all of these responses one after the other, but each seeming like it was supposed to stand alone, like he’d accidentally answered four times instead of once, like he kept editing his answer to something better, like there’d been some kind of Max Headroom-like glitch in the multiverse.

And then, suddenly, we were all doing shots of hot sake—me and Chad; Robby and Tony, who had returned from I-didn’t-know-where wearing Japanese headbands that they must have bought at some gift shop; Davey, who’d maybe asked for just a tiny little pour, or had maybe given up on doctor’s orders altogether, fuck it, I didn’t know; Cougars dude and his wife or girlfriend, not-but-maybe-Julie. It was gross, and I was sure one of us was finally going to throw up, I just prayed not me, but no one did, and next thing I remember, we were sitting at a table in a restaurant beer garden in Morocco and I didn’t know what had happened to the Cougars couple.

Instead, Tony was retelling us the story of how they didn’t want to let us sit at a table and he asked what if we ordered pitchers and they said we had to order food so he asked if appetizers counted—“What if we ordered pitchers and appetizers? Would that count?”—and they seemed unsure but said they supposed it did, and that was how he’d procured us the table. Except we’d all been standing right there next to him when it had happened, so I wasn’t sure the need for retelling, other than that I didn’t actually remember it having happened until said retelling.

It felt good to sit. Get out of the heat, share a few pitchers of cold sangria, eat a little. We relaxed, didn’t talk. We caught our breaths and our composure, regrouped and replenished. We checked our phones, laughed to ourselves and held our phones up to one another. “Still working on it!” Matt had group-texted us.

I caught myself staring at Robby and Tony, their headbands. They reminded me of when I’d gone as the Karate Kid for Halloween one year as a kid, the Miyagi headband my mom had made me. Now, they seemed culturally inappropriate or something, something you weren’t supposed to do anymore. But no one seemed to say anything about it, and I remembered seeing a group of guys trying on rice hats in China and no one seemed surprised by that either, so maybe it didn’t matter, I didn’t know. Yesterday, at the Magic Kingdom, there’d been more families and couples wearing matching homemade shirts than I ever would have believed had I not seen it with my own eyes. That wasn’t the same thing, but still. Disney seemed to have different rules than everywhere else, I supposed.

 

I wanted to tell the guys my “We were somewhere around Italy/Barstow” line. It seemed as good a time as any, but I wondered if any of them would get it, would know what the fuck I was talking about. I wanted to tell them how I’d reread Fear and Loathing on my flight, or part of it anyway, really only the first few pages before I fell asleep for the rest of flight, dreamt of driving through the desert and bats and buffalo. The little I’d read had seemed less exciting and romantic than when I’d read it in my twenties. I wondered if any of them had read it. I couldn’t remember any of us talking about it, but I could’ve just as easily forgotten. I wanted to tell them how, reading it, I’d felt almost maternal toward Hunter. Not even paternal. I’d just wanted him to be ok. I wanted to ask them if that made sense, if they knew what I was talking about.

I wanted to ask Chad his current marital status. I should have asked how he was doing. But no one else was asking, or mentioning it at all, either. I wondered if they knew something I didn’t, if they all knew not to ask, or if we were just all waiting for someone else to be first.

I wanted to ask how everyone’s kids were. I wanted to ask about everyone else’s kids because I really wanted to talk about my own. I wanted to brag about them, and complain about them, too, how they could be total little shits but also, God, I missed them so much. I wanted to talk about them because I missed them. Lisa was going into third grade, Kenny was going to start Kindergarten. Kindergarten! But maybe we weren’t supposed to ask about our families. I wasn’t sure. No one else had. Maybe we were supposed to leave talk of families with our families themselves. Make this a total guys trip. Like we used to do. Before we had families to talk about, kids to leave at home and worry ourselves over. Before Chad dated Robby’s sister just after college and then they broke up and Chad and Robby didn’t talk for years and trying to keep up talking to and hanging out with both became complicated and not always worth it. Before Matt’s wife had two miscarriages and the rest of us hung out a few times without him, talking about how it was awful, we knew, but no one knew what to say, how to act around him, asking about it felt too sad, but not asking seemed worse. Before Tony missed my wedding, claiming work responsibilities he couldn’t get out of, and I didn’t have any proof or really even know why I thought so, but I was pretty sure he was having an affair, and I wondered if he didn’t even use my wedding as an excuse to his wife to hole up in some hotel with some girl, and I didn’t not talk to him thereafter, but had always kept it curt, hadn’t initiated a conversation since, hadn’t in fact seen him until this very trip.

I wanted to ask if anyone else had had any doubts about making it all the way around the world. I hadn’t shown or mentioned any, but I’d had my share. I’d worried if maybe I was getting too old for this shit, and I’d wondered if any of the other guys thought the same, none of us wanting to be the one to say it aloud, perhaps all of us scared of unknown shared confession.

I wanted to ask if we were all just always waiting for someone else to ask first.

But then, suddenly, Chad was crying. Big, wet eyes. Sniffling that grew into head jerking that metastasized throughout his whole body. I wondered if not-but-maybe-Julie had reminded him of actual-Julie. Of getting divorced. If seeing her had unlocked some sadness he’d been holding in. I wondered if he’d ever dug a hole in which he’d had to bury a pet. Wondered if any of the guys had. I didn’t think so. I bet I didn’t know anyone else in my life who had, I thought, and felt proud of myself. I wondered how many people in Epcot right at that moment had buried pieces of their own heart in their backyards.

“I never used to cry,” Chad told us. “Never, ever. My therapist made me practice. He said I had to try to let myself cry every day. It seemed dumb, but it felt good. Now, though… now I’ll just start crying sometimes. I’m sorry, guys. I can’t help it. I guess I practiced and got too good at it.”

Chad laughed at himself, but none of us said anything. What was there to say? If he was so good at it, wouldn’t he be able to control it?

 

Looking around, Canada looked like how Canada looked, I guessed. Our cards said Canada. I couldn’t remember what we drank in the UK, couldn’t remember the UK at all. Add it to my life’s growing list of things forgotten. But it was there on the laminated cards—France, and then the UK, and now Canada—and we’d done it all, so we must have done the UK, must have had Welsh Dragons at the Rose & Crown.

In France, we’d watched a short movie about France. A tourism-style, Isn’t France Great? kind of movie, which reminded me we’d watched one in China, too. I’d already forgotten that, too, until watching the one in France, though I’d loved it at the time. We’d watched it solely for a respite from the sun, but I’d become engrossed. It had made me want to go to China almost more than I’d ever wanted to visit anywhere ever before, but then we’d drank that want away. France made me want to go to France, too, but I’d already been to France once. It was fine. Baguettes, Eiffel Tower, cheese. I got it.

We were so close, almost done. I wondered when the last time was that I’d had an idea, set out to complete it, and done so. I couldn’t remember that either.

Our cards said Canada was Torontopolitans. We couldn’t find Torontopolitans anywhere. We looked everywhere. Asked a few people who didn’t understand what we were asking. Finally, Chad asked someone and she said, yeah, people had been asking about them all day. She seemed surprised, but that seemed weird. If people had been asking all day, hadn’t others likely asked all day yesterday, too? And the day before? It seemed possible it was her first day, or that it was the very first day Torontopolitans were no longer available, but also weirdly impossible. Today? Of all days? The world seemed impossible sometimes, though. In a world of impossibility, was a world of infinite alternate universes more impossible than anything else?

I thought of a universe where we were all drinking Torontopolitans, cheersing our journey to the savage heart of having drank around the world.

I thought of a universe where we hadn’t gotten into an accident the day before, where Davey wasn’t in that ridiculous neck brace, where his only ails were the same as the rest of us—sore knees, bad backs, loss of hair, marriages falling apart, children who wouldn’t talk to us, teeth that needed root canals, jobs we hated, jobs we liked but that kept us in cities we hated, mysterious aches that we couldn’t quite describe and that seemed to move throughout our bodies without rhyme or reason.

Maybe, in that universe, we hadn’t gotten into the accident because I hadn’t started weeping while driving us back to our resort because I hadn’t started thinking about having to bury our dogs, because our dogs hadn’t died, hadn’t had months of sickness and vet visits, recommended surgeries, hadn’t gone blind, didn’t suffer from separation anxiety, and arthritis, incontinence, you name it.

I thought about a universe where grief seemed as impossible as infinity, as impossible as it currently seemed possible in this one. A universe where you didn’t have to practice crying in order to remind yourself how; or, if you did start crying, while driving through the impossibilities of Florida, you let yourself, you didn’t try to hide it. You opened yourself up to the world, invited it in, accepted whatever housewarming gifts the world brought with it when it showed up on your doorstep, welcoming you to the neighborhood, thanking you for the invite. We hope you like it here as much as we do, the world says. Thank you, we’d answer. Thank you, come on in, thank you.

***

Aaron Burch is the author of the memoir/literary analysis Stephen King’s The Body, the short story collection Backswing, and the novella How to Predict the Weather. He is working on a collection of essays, THIS WAS ALL BEFORE THE INTERNET, about growing up and music and religion, essays from which, about Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, and Alice in Chains, have appeared in Salon, Catapult, and The Smart Set. He is the Founding Editor of HOBART.

Burch

 

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