Graduation Blues

by: Dylan Smith


“There is a terrible sameness to the euphoria of alcohol and the euphoria of metaphor.” - John Cheever


I drove away from Los Angeles in a delirious, desperate crawl, rising and sinking with the sprawling green hills of central California and moving slowly toward the snowcapped barricades of the Sierras. I felt the surreal oscillation between crippling gravity and euphoric weightlessness that had become common to my hangovers, with a lump on the back of my skull and the finality of my college career hanging over the vehicle like a dark rain cloud, sending thick, thunderous shocks of reality into my chest. I tried my best to focus on the road, to keep up with the Insight Magazine van that pushed forward as members of the Brushfire Journal staff slept in peaceful heaps around me. The song on the radio proclaimed, in an eerie synchronicity, “I drank ‘til I was sinking, sank ‘til I was thinking that I’m thankful for this view.”  It was then that I knew the Graduation Blues had finally caught up with me, that running was no longer a feasible option. I had officially hit rock bottom.

I thought back to before the trip, to the weeks of mental preparation and foreplay that led up to the Associated Collegiate Press Conference.  With employees of three different University of Nevada, Reno publications attending the event, including The Nevada SagebrushInsight Magazine, and Brushfire Literature and Arts Journal, my entire last year of academia had been leaning against this debaucherous pillar in anticipation. I had been, for quite some time, hyperbolically aware of my impending graduation, dreading the habitual shift in daily duty with overcompensated alcoholism and an irrational dependency on the success of this journalism conference, seeing it as my collegiate pinnacle, the final hurrah before the stream of my university routine was lost in the merciless rapids of the “real world.”  I should have known, well before leaving for the conference, that the Graduation Blues had been clouding my rationale, and that my world would eventually have to drown in the depths of reality.

It is with a blind trust that most students view the future; trust not only in the strength of their academic investment, but in the unguaranteed fruits of their labors afterward.   The term Graduation Blues is born out of this observation, as I have watched dozens of my peers flounder in the realization that nothing is ever promised, that the years spent in university could potentially reap no benefits whatsoever, that there could very easily be nothing but a sea of adversity waiting for them at the end of their last semester.  

Over the last two years, I have spent countless nights walking from one dark bar to another, listening to friends as they pronounce the helplessness of their situations, fearing a harshly civilian ending to their once provocative and unique future. Although the sickness can vary from person to person, every victim of the Graduation Blues will, at one point or another, exemplify a series of specific symptoms.  

They all begin in a state of denial at the beginning of their last semester, riding high on an irrational wave of optimism and mania, much like a mid-life crisis that comes much too late.  Inevitably, however, the wave crashes in a depressive, vice-ridden comedown, leaving the victims treading water, thrashing and lashing in the current as it leads them under burning bridges of lost friendships and missed opportunities.  I’ve seen plenty of people come out of the other side with relatively little scarring, maintaining enough mental stability to start anew.  But, I’ve also seen the glazed-over, oceanic eyes of the clean-shaven cubicle-dweller, still very much lost at sea.

Within this context, my delusions should have been apparent from the beginning, before even heading South for the conference: I encompassed every negative symptom of the Graduation Blues, like a character in an overly foreshadowed novel.  Instead of viewing the trip as an opportunity for future employment, as a chance to rid myself of the Graduation Blues altogether through finding a job in my prospective field, I viewed it as a final chance to revel in vindication amongst other college students, as an escape from the gripping realities of my future, as a time to bathe in the distilled blue lights of Californian diversion.  I expected a journalism convention to be full of Hunter S. Thompson-esque characters, pushing through crowds in violent narcotic fits.  I thought the hotel would be burnt down by the end of the weekend, forming a newly-knit community of writers who would go home waving flags of anarchic and revolutionary words.

           When I arrived to the hotel, however, I began to realize how far I had drifted from the shores of reality.  I stepped out of the car underneath a brown Californian sky to find floods of well-dressed, sober students of journalism talking in small circles and blockading the lobby with their Associated Press guidebooks and their promising futures and their combed hair.  A thick, spaceless itinerary was jammed into my hands, and I was led into an stifling auditorium where sagging, dispassionate old men pontificated quietly into microphones — and even the microphones drooped with boredom.

There was no free food, the bar didn’t open until 3pm, and David Carr was dead — it was then that I decided to ignore reality, to let myself be lost in the sea of my delusion, to run away from the mundanity of adulthood, because it was my last chance to do so.  I left the flaccidity of the auditorium and walked across the street to Universal Studios to look for a bar.

The next morning I awoke in the Brushfire staff’s hotel room with a strong hangover and my shoes still on my feet, untied.  The room was thick with humidity and heat, and I was disoriented for the first few minutes of consciousness.  It wasn’t until I stumbled out to the balcony, the sun pressing down against my head in disapproval, that I finally figured out where I was.  As I turned the torn and alcohol-soaked pages of my memory, I was relieved that the only inappropriate images I could find were of me screaming “FRESH POTS!” into a crowded restaurant and running through a few of Universal Studios’ fountains.  Nothing permanent, nothing important.  

I felt an anxiety-ridden urge to leave the confines of the hotel.  The night’s decisions haunted me in thumping aches to the head, weighing down on my eyes and drying out my mouth in reprehension, my body’s physical manifestation of regret.  Below, groups of bathed and refreshed student journalists started gathering in circles again, their dry and abstemious conversations making me physically ill with its volume.  For a moment, vomit reared its acidic head and I thought, with pleasure, about letting it go over the balcony and watching as it washed over the groups’ weightless and dry minds.  

 I decided to go for a drive and wait until the strength of the hangover could dissipate to a manageable level.  Poking my head into the stagnant, hot air of the hotel room, I told my editor that I was going to take the car out to get water and coffee, holding back the urge to vomit again.  She responded with an approving, sleepful grunt, and soon I was driving away from scene, pulling onto the onramp of a Los Angeles highway and letting the hot breaths of fresh air poor into the ASUN vehicle’s windows like waves of relief. Fifteen miles later I was starting to feel better, so I pulled into a gas station to pick up the water and coffee, deciding to buy a six pack to take to the pool; a reward for making it through the toughest part of the day.

Having dropped off the water and coffee, I walked into the pool area with the six-pack under my arm. The pool was locked away behind a thick, key- necessitated gate made of iron. I didn't have a room key, so I climbed over the gate with beer in hand, taking a seat under the shade of a large cabana.  The water was a nice green color, and I imagined that I was living in the ‘50s;, a famous writer taking a vacation, enjoying one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sat around the pool saying “I drank too much last night.” But there was no one by the pool except an old man who cooked on a chair, sprawled out and welting in the California heat.  From my cabana I could see through tinted ballroom windows, behind which the lectures were taking place.  I pulled out the itinerary to see if anything interesting was going on.  It read that, at 2:30, there were small personal meetings with professionals in the writing field in Ballroom C.  I sat under the cabana, had four beers over the hour’s wait, and then wandered into Ballroom C to find my professional.

I ended up being paired with a freelance writer who had written for several major magazines. He was a small, quiet guy, but you could find an adventurous glint in his eyes, like he was, at any moment, ready to get up and flee to the airport to chase another story. The small group asked him very simple, basic questions about his process, if he had ever won any awards, where he went to school, the kinds of stories he normally writes, all things they could've found out by reading his bio online. He answered them with patient intelligence, and I was enjoying what he said, despite the impotency of the questions.  I could soon see that he was getting antsy, though, his patience waning, his eyes glazing more and more with each question, taking peeks out the window and at his wristwatch.

After about fifteen minutes of discussion - the session was supposed to last an hour - he pulled out his phone in a theatrical, contrived panic.  He apologized in a staged desperation, saying that he forgot that he had to pick up his children in Santa Monica.  He gave out his business card, grabbed his bag, and was gone before my four-beer-brain even realized what had happened.  One of the students made an offhand comment in regards to the man's integrity, and another said, in a quiet voice, "We paid five dollars for that?"  The comment put me into an hysteric fit. "Wait tilo you figure out what the term ''student loan' means, pal," I said between laughs. The group looked at me like I was crazy and slowly dissipated in disappointment. I decided to go upstairs to the bar.

When I got there, the professional freelance writer was huddled over a whiskey and water, looking solemn and depressed, his once sharp eyes heavy with gloss and the gravity of a new generation's incompetence. I thought about starting conversation, about asking him a real question, about prying into his experience, finding out if I had what it takes to survive as a writer after graduation. But I didn't. I sat next to him, I asked for a whiskey and water, and looked into it, solemn and depressed.

The next morning, I started the same post-maudlin routine: disorientation, relief on the balcony, heavy-headed recollections, and a desperate run for moving air through a drive. The night before had been of a mellow disposition, with staff members of the different publications lounging around different rooms drinking wine and talking of Reno life through a pleasant, detached lens. I overheard some people talking about graduation, viewing it from points of excitement and hope. I managed, against some opposition, to consume an excess amount of gin, enough to create a compound-hangover that ruined my psyche the next day.  Where I was able to manage a healthy psychology after the first drive, the second drive left me feeling empty and hopeless, with no recovery in sight. I picked up a six-pack of beer again, no water, and tried to find comfort in clothe-caved cabana. The green hue of the pool had become an escape within my escape, my emotional rehydration.

It was sitting at the pool, after struggling to climb the fence again, that the first premonitions of doom began to surface. My hangover was strong enough to allow a swift drinking of all six beers within a single hour, watching lectures take place from behind the thick window tint. I had depended on the conference as a release, and all I had found was a double-hangover's shake and a surreal buzz that fed on my bones like a disconnected family of termites. Rain clouds formed beneath the noon sun, drops of water sending ripples through the pool. A haiku repeated in my head like a haunted record:


— Heavy rain driving

into the sea."

I attended a few lectures, retreating to the bar every so often to have cups of merciless gin, and before I knew it I was sitting by the pool again with a handle of the piney poison, watching the rainfall from the dark night sky. I watched as fervent students celebrated the last night of the conference, coming and going in swirls of flesh like a poorly taken double exposure — a blur of excitement that couldn't penetrate my retreat beneath the cabana. There was shouting, laughter, flirtation and love spread across the water, bobbing in passing minutes, and I saw it all at once, like I was outside of time.  I came to L.A. looking to escape adulthood, to escape the passing of time, and I found it in the severed, saturated perception of a gin bottle.   

The climax of my trepidation, of my denial of being lost at sea, came gradually and then suddenly. I was sitting alone on the side of the pool with the gin, temporarily pouring it into a red cup, letting my feet soak in the pool as my clothes soaked in the rain. The party was all over. At one point, probably around 2am, I walked out of the protected confines of the pool to piss in the lobby's bathroom, letting the iron gate shut in a belligerent, thunderous clang behind me. When I returned, I realized what I had done — I was locked out of the pool area, and was being pressed against the iron bars by storm wind. My shoes, wallet, glasses, hat, and notebook were all held captive under the cabana, and the bottle of gin was struggling against the wind at the edge of the pool, daring to plunge to the bottom. God, I said, keep the shoes, the wallet, the glasses, the hat, the notebook, but don't send that bottle over the edge. Whatever you do God, don't let that bottle jump.

It was then that I gave up, on God, on manhood, on myself, and on the possibility of climbing that iron fence. I needed a goddamn room key to get into the pool, but soon realized, as I slumped against the wall of the elevator, that I couldn't remember the Brushfire's hotel room number. I acted on primitive drunken instinct, pressing the button reading "6". Once there, I began knocking on doors, starting with room 601, figuring that I would find the room eventually, like breaking down a wall with a fist.

Each door that opened gave way to flashes of different worlds, of different faces and temperaments, and different reactions to what I was doing. I saw anger, indifference, shock, and pity pour out of the silhouetted faces. I pounded on the doors loudly and with unfounded confidence, like I imagined an officer of the law would knock, and found a sick relief in seeing the peepholes turn from black to yellow. With each disgruntled student's opening of the door, I would peer into the room and search for any recognition of my lost world, for any glimpse of sanity.  With each failed search, I looked into the disheveled students' eyes and whispered, in a menacing, manic tone, "Useless, Useless — Heavy rain, diving into the sea." Everyone shut the door in my face, frightened and unwilling.  

After maybe an hour of this deranged poetry reading, I took the elevator back down to the vacant lobby and walked into the rain again to try, one last time, to climb the iron fence, with the rain coming down stronger now, moving sideways across the courtyard with violence. After some careful time spent allowing my barefeet to adjust the flooding concrete, I made my first attempts at accessing my once accessible escape. The bars were slick with rainwater and I was too drunk to maintain proper balance, failing over and over again in anticlimactic slides down the iron bars. I remember finally getting myself to the top, with one foot on either side, when the wind and rain and desperation took me over, and sent me plunging poolside. I landed on my back, with my head breaking the fall.

When I regained consciousness, my clothes were completely soaked and my body was in a pre-hypothermic shake, a large and painful bump pushing out of my hair. The disorientation was astronomical, of a different world, as if I had plunged into the cold and leaky basement of a psychotic nightmare. I remember rolling in puddles of water, attempting several times to become vertical, but consistently failing, hitting the concrete over and over as the rain plunged into the pool.  The only light I could see was the green ripples of the pool water.  

I began to crawl towards the pool's edge, dragging my broken and limp body with long pulls of forearm and fingertip. When I got the edge, I looked down to the bottom. The bottle of gin laid there, six feet under water, staring up at me with a menacing and inviting grin. Before I was able to weep, to release the sobs in cold dying contortions, I pulled myself into the pool, head first, letting out all the air I had and taking in manic gulps of acceptance and finality. The last thing I remember is curling up to the bottle of gin, succumbing to the warmth of the water. It felt less like a grave and more like a womb.

© 2016 Insight Magazine