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The Taste of the Himalayas

I thought Coors Light tasted like Nag Champa from the age of 13, when I took my first sip in my friend George’s room, suffocatingly thick with smoke from incense sticks he dangled from the drywall above his bed by poking the pointy end in just deep enough, to the age of 18 when I accidentally took a sip at a graduation party and discovered that it tasted just like regular cheap beer, not cheap beer that had been wrung from a dead hippie’s unfortunate dreads.

* * *

It’s 1993 and Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day” blares on repeat from a two-sided tape with the clean version on one side and the instrumental on the other. We’re passing the pilfered, lukewarm can around and I genuinely can’t believe how fucking weird and awful it tastes, my tongue as saturated with Nag Champa oil as George’s bed is blanketed with ash from the dangling incense sticks.

The third member of our crew, Joe is here too, as always. George and Joe live in the same neighborhood on the other side of town from me, so we always hang over here. As a trio our principle activities consist of failing to come up with any actually “bad shit” to do, and instead hanging out listening to rap music, fighting with each other about rap music, and talking shit on internet message boards about rap music.

* * *

One night George and Joe hang out without me and find a new message board, which they immediately sign up to with the usernames “Jza” and “Gza” in homage to the Wu-Tang Clan’s Rza and Gza, whose “Protect Ya Neck” cassingle recently replaced Ice Cube’s as our most played. George tells Joe that in Spanish, “Jza” would be pronounced “Hizza,” and he should say it that way so they aren’t both “Jizza.” The next day they encourage me to sign up as “Mza.” I do so, proudly.

The only badness we indulge in beyond sipping Nag Champa Flavored Coors (“The Taste of the Himalayas”) is coveting the Zippo lighters they sell at the Gold Coast Flea Market, a hodgepodge of vendors in a seven day a week indoor mall where you can buy everything from jewelry to coffee to airbrushed t-shirts. Our favorite stand sells our sacred and coveted lighters, but they obviously don’t sell them to kids, making them an even more unreachably cool symbol of toughness, recklessness, and general suburban desire for destruction.

* * *

In the hallway on a cold afternoon, Joe tells me a story about how George’s older cousin actually gave him a Zippo. I didn’t believe it, called bullshit, and asked where it was.

Joe tells me that as soon as George got it, he called to tell him, but not wanting to say the word “Zippo” in front of his dad, he said excitedly “I got an oppiZ!”

Supposedly George’s very strict father hears this, confuses Zippo backwards for the word “Uppers,” freaks out, tears George’s room apart, finds nothing but a bunch of holes in the wall and the lighter, and keeps the lighter for himself.

“Bullshit,” I say.

“Fuck you. What are uppers?” Joe asks.

We stop worrying about lighters because we don’t have anything good or “bad” to use them for besides lighting incense — I had recently dropped the habit of playing with fire after getting busted burning paper next to a shack on our Middle School’s grounds where they kept chemical supplies.

* * *

Years later, I walk barefoot at night through that same field, past the shack, with a girl who I try to impress by telling her that the word “lunatic” comes from the word “luna,” for moon. I know,” she says, and keeps walking.

* * *

Eventually our crew’s desire for fire is brutally quenched when Joe’s house burns down one afternoon while we are all hanging out in the basement watching TV. It feels like outrunning an avalanche of fire and debris as we all rush out of the house and watch it blaze relentlessly before the fire department shows up to drown it out, like an ocean slapping a mountain.

Maybe my parents come to pick me up or maybe I ride my bike home, but whatever happens next, Joe is back in school in a few days, toting his backpack that still stinks like smoke after being rescued from the fire. I see him in the hallway and hear people snickering. I wish I could light them and the entire world on fire for doing this to my friend. There is no Zippo large enough.

As they rebuild the house, Joe’s family lives in two trailers connected by a small walkway on the front lawn, right in front of where the construction is happening. The property still smells like smoke because of a dumpster full of debris that occupies the driveway. The inside of the trailers smells like smoke because of all the rescued stuff they have to keep using.

* * *

A few weeks after the fire I ride my bike over to visit and watch TV in one trailer with George, Joe and Joe’s older brother, who chainsmokes and taps his feet constantly. The adults do adult things in the other trailer. Appetites expand to delights beyond Coors Light. Things start to get dark.