When Kalas asks you where you are, he only wants to know if you’re nearby, so he can invite you to drink with him. This is his miserable reputation: that he is always the first to get drunk and the last to leave. I hadn’t seen him in a while and had, not long ago, thought of him while I was out drinking with friends. When I got his text before noon, I thought it was an invitation for lunch. But when I arrived at the place, I realized that it was actually a bar. Unsurprisingly, he was the only one in it, sitting on a sofa by the window, nursing a small glass of golden liquid on ice. I asked him what he was drinking and he said, two shots of tequila. He told me that tequila was actually the kind of drink you were supposed to drink on the rocks, for both parties and funerals. He then offered me a sip. Nah man, I said. I thought we were just going to have lunch. Kalas called the bartender by name and asked for a menu. Food’s good here too, he said. It was strange seeing Kalas like this. The air around him was heavy, his face was sunken, and his eyes were drained of vitality. He was, despite his tequila, sober.
I met Kalas in a bar a few years ago. My friends invited me to a nice place where college kids hung out and sang Disney songs. I remember Kalas entering the bar greeting everyone there — either he knew everybody, or everybody knew him. He wasn’t remarkably handsome, but there was something about his eyes: Kalas seemed both kind and dangerous. While his light, animated demeanor put you at ease, his eyes could make you nervous, making you feel like he was scanning for your soul. That kind of attention was both terrifying and addictive. Kalas was so charismatic that when he approached our table to borrow a lighter, my friends immediately invited him to sit with us. His first question was unassuming and friendly: What are you celebrating tonight? Soon we were playing his drinking games and listening to his exciting stories. I got tipsier and tipsier; all I could remember the next day was that he was making out with two of my friends and we were all dancing.
Kalas is the kind of guy you feel compelled to follow anywhere, only because you’d be convinced that wherever he was was where you ought to be, that even though he’d introduce you to unfamiliar faces you’d feel safe when he was around, and that he never forced you to do anything you didn’t want to do. You could feel comfortable declining a shot or a kiss from him, but for some reason you wouldn’t want to. Of course I had a passing thought about sleeping with him — not because he was particularly attractive, but only because he was a calming yet energetic presence. But we have had such a deep, platonic relationship that I was genuinely comfortable just being his friend. When he told us that he was about to get a real job, we all laughed in disbelief. I was the only one to ask him why. He told me that he hadn’t been sober in two months and his gums were starting to bleed. Really? I asked. That’s messed up. I took a moment to think about it and realized that I had never seen him sober. He sighed. Also, he said, I broke up with my girlfriend.
My head spun. All this time he had a girlfriend. I had seen him make out with boys and girls and book cabs with them, and all this time he had a girlfriend. I’m fucked up, he said. I’ve got to make it up to the universe somehow: get some good karma, if that makes any sense. If he wasn’t such a character I would be furious, but there was something about his confession that made me empathize with him. Imagine that. Empathizing with an asshole.
A loud group of students entered the bar. They ordered a bucket of beer. Suddenly, it didn’t feel so strange to be day-drinking. So, I asked Kalas, what are you celebrating this afternoon? He laughed. I was just looking for some company, he said. I’ve actually been messaging old friends, and out of all of them you’re the only one who showed up. I said, Dude that’s because it’s lunchtime. On a Tuesday. He lowered his head and swirled his diluted tequila. I know, he said. I’ve just been lonely. Part of me wanted to say that he deserved it, but I wasn’t the kind of person to kick someone while they were down. My food arrived, and Kalas was right: it was good. I made a mental note to come back soon, maybe later in the week.
We sat in silence for a bit as I ate. You know, he said, breaking the silence, I’m so tired. Of what?, I asked. He answered: everything. But I’ve been trying to be nice, you know. It’s just that for some reason it’s so hard to make friends when you’re sober. Maybe I’m just not used to making friends whose names I’d have to actually remember. I’m so tired of trying to be polite to people I don’t really care about. But… Kalas paused and shook his head. They’re nice people. Sometimes I get angry that they keep declining my invitations to drink but maybe I need that. Maybe I could learn a thing or two from them about being nice. Maybe their niceness would rub off on me. I don’t know. I just know that I’ve been such a goddamn asshole, man. I’m trying to change. Really. I know it’s hard to believe, but — No, I believe you. — It’s just so difficult. Hey, I said. No asshole would even be aware that they’re being an asshole. You knowing the things you’ve done wrong is the first step to being better. He smiled weakly. Thanks, man. He pushed his glass away with his fingers. Do you think I’m a nice guy? Without thinking, I said yes. I liked Kalas. And, since I met him, I started seeing more guys like him, but none of them were as self-aware. I knew he deserved to be stuck in his misery, but I couldn’t help but feel bad seeing him like this. Maybe he wasn’t a good guy, but I knew he had the potential to be. I knew someone had to believe in him, because right now it seemed like even he didn’t. I placed my hand on his. He looked at me with an expression of desperation. I said, You’ve got to make things right and you’re on your way there. Feeling bad is a good thing. It means you’re human. It also means you know what the right thing is. He sighed. I know, he said. Thank you. And I’m sorry, if I’ve ever treated you badly.
He finished his glass in one gulp and admitted that, sometimes, he missed being an asshole. Back then, he said, I didn’t think about who would get hurt as long as I got what I wanted, and most of the time I did get what I wanted. But since I’ve always blamed myself for the good things, maybe now I have no one else to blame for the bad things. I get so jealous when I see the people around me make friends so easily. I get mad when they post photos online, and I find out that they went somewhere without me. I feel like I’m missing something. That real thing, you know? It’s like I can’t fit in anywhere, and believe me, man, I’ve tried. The Fun Drunk character is just not as attractive to people with stable jobs and nice friends. Ever since I stopped drinking, I’ve noticed how frustratingly low-key everyone is. It just bums me out. I just want to let loose sometimes, you know? Be messy and stop thinking. He closed his eyes, and I could tell that he might cry. I said to him, You’ve gone this far. You should be proud of yourself for trying to be good. — What if I’m just not a good person? What if I’m really just an asshole all the way? — You’re a good person, Kalas. You’re a good person who has done bad things.
Kalas and I hung out more times after that. He seemed different: calmer, clearer, and more patient. He was still an alcoholic, but that seemed like the only vice he had left. He claimed to have quit smoking and casual hook-ups. He told me that, this time, he was trying to make friends as they were, and not because he was interested in laying with them. I was convinced that he was actually trying to be better, even though I’d sometimes catch him looking wistfully into empty space. I have never seen a man so vulnerable, and so open about his vulnerability, that it seems almost pathetic. But I have also never seen a man so deeply, undeniably human.