Voyage of the Rust Bucket
Choking Hazard

Why did I agree to this?

It's Saturday night so this place is packed. You can't move even an inch without rubbing up against someone. My head is pounding from the god-awful music. Who hired this DJ? If I hear one more 90s-inspired remix of a modern pop song that is 80s influenced, on god I will hit someone. Alcohol and I don't mix, but as soon as we got here Ted shoved two shots of tequila in front of me. I lost him a few minutes ago in this sea of sweat, alcohol, and overpriced perfume. All I can think about is how much homework I'm going to have tomorrow and how sick I'm going to feel at work.

Parked near the sticky, disgusting bar at the back of the club with music blaring, I'm thinking of smashing a glass against my head so I can leave. Some guy has been offering to buy me a drink for the past five minutes, and regardless of how politely I turn him down, he seems to take it as flirting. I can't casually step away because it's too damn crowded, and god help him if I move toward the dance area and he tries to grind up against me. Once again, I am reminded of why I avoid these places. Maybe I'm not looking for a hook up?

"Back off, man. She only fucks dudes under six-foot," I hear Ted's voice. He managed to step halfway between me and the pesky man. When it's clear the man hasn't heard him over the music, he leans in and shouts, "You're too tall, buddy!"

The guy seems to get it; he mouths "oh" and then smiles and nods at us before moving away. Why is it some men only listen to other men?

"You want another round?" Ted asks, shouting into my ear to be heard over the music.

"If you buy. Hey, what did you say to that guy?" I say into his. I'm not sure I heard him properly over the noise, but it seemed to involve me.

"You only bang short dudes," he answers. I must make a strange face because he laughs and says, "Isn't that why you turned me down when we first met? I dodged a bullet anyway; your ass is flat." He grabs the top of my head, makes a weird noise, and ruffles my hair before laughing.

No, I turned you down because I wasn't looking for sex at the time. But now, yeah, he's too tall. He's got to be three or four inches over six foot, and it's honestly intimidating at times having to crane my neck to look at him. Besides, we make better platonic friends than anything else. His height, my flat ass – those are just convenient excuses when people ask about us.

A bartender approaches and all he has to do is show two fingers and make a drinking motion for her to understand. Within seconds two shots of alcohol are in front of him. Grabbing one, he motions to the other for me to take. He waits until the shot is in my hands before he clinks his glass against mine and expertly throws it back. I'm a tick slower.

"Can I get – "

I choke. That voice startles me, and it hits me right as I'm about to guzzle a shot of vodka. Somehow, I cover up the fact I feel like I'm dying well enough no one notices. A quick peak around Ted's tall, lanky frame reveals the owner of that voice is exactly who I was afraid it was. Sure, his hair is a little shorter than the last time I saw him – honestly, what is that? it looks like he wanted a mohawk but chickened out halfway through – and he's gained some weight – it looks good on him – but I know that face too well. What is he doing here? He doesn't even like clubs!

I duck back behind Ted and grab the front of his shirt. "What?" he asks. I don't say anything. Silently I stare at his shirt, hoping avoiding eye contact means avoiding him. "What?!" he asks again, this time a little more urgently. "What is it? Do we have to go?" Like a guard dog he's getting ready to protect.

"I'm going to the bathroom," I rush out and detach myself. I maneuver with relative ease to one of the women's restrooms, only bumping into three or four people as I zigzag as far away from the bar as possible.

Once inside the safety of the woman's restroom I let out a breath I hadn't realized I was holding. My chest is vibrating as the speed of my heart rushes. Just as I'm about to relax the door swings open violently. Standing at the threshold is Ted.

"Jesus! Ted!" I yelp, surprised. "You can't be in the women's restroom!"

He gives me a look that wordlessly tells me I'm stupid. No one seems to mind him. Women maneuver around his lanky frame without complaint. In fact, some even apologize for getting in his way. Once the rush of patrons slows a bit he steps in, just enough for the door to close but not enough for him to be completely intrusive.

"What is it?" he says in a normal tone. He doesn't have to yell in here; the music is still loud, but it's muffled by the walls. The drunk woman heaving her dinner in a stall is more distracting than the shitty DJ at this point. I'm more amazed he isn't slurring his words because he's drank twice as much as me and I can tell he's about two more away from losing his balance.

When I don't answer, he guesses, "It was Roy."

I cringe. "You saw him?"

"He was practically breathing on my neck, yeah I saw him. Obviously you did, too. So what? You got a problem with him?"

I don't talk about these things. I steady myself. Ted's not judgmental. It's okay. "We had sex," I tell him.

He snorts. "Yeah, I heard. And? Isn't he your type? Short sports bro with the IQ of a hamster?"

"I ghosted him after that."

I hate that I have to explain this. It should be obvious since he disappeared from our lives. Royal – who hates his name and only goes by "Roy" – had been a regular visitor to our apartment, being one of the few people I'd been able to meet in this city that was as into sports as me and actually respected me for it. Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to have a man explain every nuance of a sport you played? Roy asked me the questions.

Ted sighs, tsks, and says, "Well that explains why I haven't seen him since. Communicating is part of being an adult, Jess. Stop acting like a rookie. A one-night stand with him isn't going to end your friendship. He's not that kind of guy. Besides, it's the twenty-first century. Women are allowed to be horny."

I calculate how hard I would have to hit my head against the tiled wall to kill myself. The force isn't worth the effort. I'd probably just end up with a concussion and a hospital bill I could never afford. The other option is to shove my head into a toilet and drown myself, but that sounds like it would take too long. There's no choice. "You're right. Let's go," I say, determined to just pretend like I didn't see him and blackout instead. I push past Ted and exit the bathroom, ready to drink and dance.

Leaning against the wall, his eyes set on his phone, is Roy. He looks up as soon as I exit, and I can't avoid him now. He doesn't seem upset at me, instead he looks concerned as stands up and puts his phone away.

"Are you okay? You sounded like you were choking and then you ran off," he says, his voice barely rising above the chaos around us.

"What?" I shout back.

His hand grabs my shoulder as he leans in and suggests, "Let's go outside and talk?"

I agree. Ted's right; I'm not a rookie. I've had this conversation before, the "thanks for the good time but let's pretend that never happened" talk. This is just the first time it's been with someone I respected; someone whose opinion of me actually mattered. I didn't want him to think less of me because of a hasty decision. I didn't want him to look down on me.

Before I realize it, we're outside, a block down from the club, nestled at the entrance of an alleyway that reeks of week-old trash, rotten food, and piss. He leans against the stained brick wall, looking vulnerable but sober.

"I didn't hurt you, did I?" he asks, wasting no time.

"No! Oh, god, no. No, no, no, no," I repeat countless times. I can't stop the word from spewing out of my mouth.

I see him heave a sigh and give a relieved smile. "Thank god. I was worried when you stopped texting back. I know we'd had some beers before and I just thought, god, what if I did something – "

"Oh, no, I was sober. Definitely. I was more worried about you."

He laughs. "About me?"

I realize that sounds ridiculous. I had more to drink than him, but I was sober. And maybe there's some sort of self-esteem issue present in the back of my mind, convincing myself the only way he would have ever agreed to having sex with me was if he were drunk. Who knows? That's why I hate when I complicate these kinds of friendships.

"We're good, right?" he asks. "Because I need someone to watch the Nets with."

I nod. I mean, it's going to be awkward for a bit, but I'm willing to work through it. This is the first time I've felt the need to do that.

In order to return to normal, we have to talk like normal, so I ask, "What are you doing here, by the way? You hate clubs."

"You, too," he points out, but he knows I'm here to babysit Ted. "I'm here with my girlfriend. She's into this. We just started dating so I want to make a good impression."

Hearing he has a girlfriend somehow feels like a relief. Maybe it's because it puts up a permanent roadblock in front of us. We can only be friends from here on out.

He shifts, getting more comfortable. "She's pretty cool. She only likes football, though. But she's into outdoors-type stuff, camping, fishing. Trucks..."

"Does she vote republican?"

"What?"

"Nevermind," I quickly say, realizing that's a joke between me and someone else, not him.

"Hey, there you two naughty shitheads are!" Ted's voice screeches from a few feet away. He stops to finish off a cigarette he's been smoking – well, he takes one, long drag and then throws what's left onto the street – and then continues the trek to us.

"I thought you quit smoking?" I ask once he's close enough that I can talk at a normal volume.

"I only smoke when I'm too drunk to drive. Some chick outside gave me one. Otherwise, yeah, I don't need that lung cancer shit. And, you know, it's just not attractive. It's not! No one finds it attractive! That chick was hot, though, damn," he rambles.

Ted's plastered. I hate how he goes from zero to a hundred in drunkenness within a blink. He can't even stand up. He has to lean against the same brick building as Roy. Practically resting on the shorter man, he even closes his eyes, ready to fall asleep right there in the alleyway. This is why Justin and I never let him go out alone. Even if he leaves us alone to scurrying off with some hookup, at least we're always sober enough to find our way back home. If he doesn't land a woman, he ends up passed out on benches or 7/11 parking lots.

Suddenly he's shaking Roy with one arm and asking, "What've you been doing?! I missed you!"

"Oh? Just working. I have to get back to my girlfriend. So..."

"Girlfriend? Pfft. No!" Ted sounds disgusted by the idea. "Leave her! Right now! Listen. I need – okay, I need – a wingman. A copilot. Co-prowler. We can hit up e'ry club in this fuckin' shitty city. Shithole. Then – then! We branch out! Outward! To the next city!"

"You are so wasted right now, Ted," Roy says with a wry smile. He's being polite; he looks uncomfortable.

"We really should leave, though," I say without thought. Ted looks for a high-five. I don't give it to him. His hand stays mid-air as I justify myself. "We all hate it here. Haven't you ever thought about shoving all your shit into a car and driving until you run of gas?"

Ted's eyes are suddenly opened as wide as they can. The failed high-five turns into a finger that he's shaking at me. "That's a great idea! I could write an article! About us! About a bunch of fuck ups who left the city to find the real American dream or some horseshit! We could... we could do that!"

Roy's phone vibrates in his back pocket and the sound of it clattering against the brick catches his attention. It takes less than five seconds for him to check the message and shove it back into his pocket. He pushes himself off of the wall and steps around us, back onto the sidewalk and headed towards the club. "I gotta go. But we'll talk soon?" he offers with a half-wave. I don't even get a chance to respond.