Drinking Triptych

One

Save a few coveted sips of my dad’s beer and the occasional glass of wine doled out on Thanksgiving or Christmas, I did not consume much alcohol as a teenager. I didn’t exactly hang out with a drinking crowd at school; in fact, I sincerely believed getting drunk led to nothing but getting sick. At 17, I witnessed one whole side of my extended family get plastered at a relative’s 50th birthday party held at a local tavern. I was fascinated and more than a little amused by this mass-inebriation—at one point, my much older cousin Denise (she babysat me often in my youth) stood before me next to the bar, sloshed and repeatedly uttering, “I love you Christopher” in a zonked but still empathetic voice—but I had little desire to participate in it.

Still, my first act of alcohol transgression occurred not long thereafter. One afternoon, out of immense frustration at my parents for some injustice I can no longer recall, I stormed down to our basement where we kept an old fridge almost exclusively packed with beverages. Beyond twelve ounce cans of caffeine-free Diet Pepsi and assorted fruity flavors of Jolly Good and Graf’s soda (both regional generic brands) sat tall amber glass bottles of my dad’s beloved Michelob. I reached for one before realizing I had nothing nearby to open it with. I then spotted two lonely aluminum cans of Miller Lite sitting at the back of the shelf, which my parents must have purchased for guests (or perhaps a guest had brought them to us.) I hastily grabbed one, locked myself in an adjacent junk room, sat down amongst mildewy cardboard boxes packed with elementary school homework and art projects and, yearning to rebel and defy, began to chug.

As I mentioned, it wasn’t my first taste of the stuff, but I could sense my face twisting into shock at the relative sourness of so much beer at once. I kept swallowing it down, convincing myself it tasted great! I was practically an adult, after all! Of course, it was actually pathetic—I couldn’t even finish the whole can. I didn’t know where to dispose of it: my mom was too close by, just up the stairs, in the kitchen on the other side of the hallway door. My dad, meanwhile, was out mowing the lawn, so I couldn’t walk right past him back to the alley to drop the can into the big blue recycling bin near the garage. Besides, where would I dump the remaining brew I could not bear to finish?

I ended up just leaving it in the junk room, hidden behind the dust-coated, lower partitioned shelf of a round wooden table that once sat in our living room. Neither of my parents ever frequented the aptly-named junk room, which primarily housed my childhood detritus. This plan worked—later that week, when no one else was home, I poured the now-warm liquid left in the can down the kitchen sink, crushed the can by stomping on it and discarded it in that recycling bin, strategically placing it underneath an empty container of Grape Hi-C. I had pushed the desire to clandestinely drink a beer entirely out of my system (at least until I was legally old enough to do so.)

Two

Six months before turning 21, I got no-holds-barred, shitfaced drunk for the first time. I had come back from a late summer road trip from Milwaukee to Minneapolis with two friends, John and Joe. We had driven up there to visit Sara, another high school friend who was attending the University of Minnesota. It had been a somewhat contentious few days, getting caught in a violent rainstorm on the way up, having difficulty finding Sara’s apartment (mixing up the city’s numbered streets and avenues) and just generally getting sick of each other’s company after having spent so much time together in close quarters.

The trip’s best part was when Sara got into a fight with her boyfriend, giving the three of us, along with Sara’s laid-back, Beatles-loving roommate Dea (we quickly bonded over a mutual affection for Abbey Road) an excuse to get out of their shoebox apartment. None of us were of legal drinking age or possessed fake IDs, so we walked over to Joe’s tan Nissan, parked blocks away in a public lot and drank equal parts Captain Morgan’s Rum and Coca-Cola out of a Thermos. After roughly the equivalent of two cocktails, we all felt much, much better. Collectively sucking the Thermos dry, we stayed up late into the night, stumbling all over the massive and seemingly never ending U of M campus.

In the light of day, visiting the Mall of America and slumming around student ghetto Dinkytown didn’t carry the same otherworldly appeal, so the three of us headed back to Milwaukee a little early. Upon our arrival that night, John proposed we stay over at his house, as his parents and younger sister were all out of town and we’d have the place to ourselves. Furthermore, he claimed we could partake of *all* the alcohol in the house, as his parents had supposedly “stopped drinking” and certainly weren’t going to ever touch all this leftover booze. Why, it’d just go to waste! Obviously, it sounded too good to be true but as a naive young adult, I thought, “Well, if John says it’s okay to drink his parent’s stash, then it must be all right!” It’s also likely the rarity of FREE BOOZE clouded my judgement a bit.

We kicked off the evening sipping Captain’s and Cokes while watching Pump Up The Volume, the first of three videos we had rented from the neighborhood Blockbuster. After running out of rum, we switched to Jack Daniels for a bit before downing shots of a sickeningly sweet, strawberry-flavored malt beverage called Tequila Rose. Popping Killing Zoe into the VCR, I could barely follow along with this grim, violent thriller, but it didn’t matter because the three of us were so pleasantly bombed. We’d take frequent breaks from the movie, standing around the kitchen table, John incessantly pouring the thick, pink, mucus-like liquid into three shot glasses. We’d raise them up and toast to ourselves, to our friendship, and to liquor itself!

Killing Zoe having ended, John brought out a half-chilled champagne bottle he had secretly stuck in the back of the fridge earlier. We were about to pop the cork right there in the kitchen until Joe raised his hand and, in a brief moment of clarity, suggested we’d better do it outside in the backyard so that it wouldn’t hit anything important (including ourselves.) We happily shambled outside and, with a faded yellow dishtowel in hand, John aimed the bottle towards the neighbor’s yard. On the count of a three, a large POP! and our drunken cheers filled the 2:00 AM air, the cork flying off over a chain-linked fence into oblivion, never to be seen again.

We began our third movie, the surreal, hyperactive comic book adaptation Tank Girl, which was entirely fitting ’cause by then, we were all pretty tanked. The three of us sat next to each other on the living room floor, Lori Petty and a pre-fame Naomi Watts in front of us, an overstuffed couch at our backs, and passed the champagne bottle back and forth rather than pouring it into glasses. We came up with a game we thought to be ingenuous: each time a character in the movie drank something, we’d each have to take a swig out of the bottle ourselves. After four or five swigs a piece, this rapidly devolved into “Each time any character does anything, we all have to take a drink.” I don’t remember if we finished the bottle, but I do believe that all three of us passed out before the closing credits.

The next morning, we all had severe hangovers, but amazingly, no one had gotten physically sick. John never mentioned if he ever got into trouble for raiding his parents’ liquor cabinet, and I never thought to ask him about it. However, later that day, still considerably hungover, my mom and I were in the car on the way to the supermarket when we passed a ginormous billboard for Tequila Rose, of all things. “What’s wrong with you?,” mom asked as I audibly groaned at sight of the ad. I couldn’t tell if she knew what I had been up to the night before; I just glumly replied, “Nothing; I have a headache.”

Three

That I was able to feel so (temporarily) good without puking my brains out held a certain appeal; also, I could easily handle a headache. Throughout my remaining college years, I drank like this only a handful of times. I never really set out to get bombed; it’d usually happen whenever booze was available, like the house party my roommates had the weekend before the start of senior year—they insisted on purchasing a keg of Busch Light, and since I was paying for 25% of it, I figured why not partake. It was putrid stuff, only a fraction better than Milwaukee’s Best (aka “The Beast”) but as with most alcohol (particularly the cheapest stuff), it really wasn’t all that bad after the sixth or seventh plastic cup of it.

This sort of thing would happen maybe twice a year, and I was proud of being fully able to hold my booze. I kept this (no matter how dubious) streak going until after I moved to Boston for grad school. My first year there on the last weekend in March, temperatures suddenly spiked into the low ’80s—surreal for sure, made even more so since apparently there had been a freak April Fool’s Day blizzard the year before. One of my classmates threw a party at her place, a sprawling complex near Brookline Village. Until that point, Winter had stubbornly lingered as it tends to do in New England. I’d spent far too much time holed up in either my Allston bedroom or BU’s Mugar Library and I was ready to let off some steam, wanting to embrace this sudden good fortune of Summer-like weather without a care of any potential consequences.

My fatal flaw was not necessarily in how much I drank, but in what I all consumed. In the song “Tubthumping” an unlikely hit that previous fall by the Anarchist Britpop collective Chumbawumba, there’s a part where a chipper male vocalist tauntingly half sings/half raps,

“He drinks a Whiskey drink, he drinks a Vodka drink
He drinks a Lager drink, he drinks a Cider drink!”

This is more or less what I did that night, perhaps substituting rum for the whiskey. Also, you know that old saying, “Liquor before beer, never fear; beer before liquor, never sicker”? Well, at that point, tragically, I had not. I may have begun with a Woodchuck hard cider as we all hung out in the courtyard, taking advantage of the comfortable temperatures. After some neighbors complained about the noise, we moved inside where I may have moved on to my beloved Captain’s and Coke, or maybe a Cape Codder (vodka with cranberry juice to you non New-Englanders) or even a glass of cheap red wine.

I can’t remember the exact sequence of events, but somewhere deep into the night, in the middle of a crowded living room surrounded by fellow partygoers, I suddenly began vomiting all over myself onto the floor, hopefully not onto other people (although the odds were likely not in my favor.) Some shadowy figures quickly guided me into the bathroom, where for what felt like hours, I continued unceremoniously emitting everything I had consumed over the past few hours into the toilet, occasionally pausing to rest my head against the cool, white ceramic tank.

The next thing I knew, I was sitting in the passenger seat of a film production student’s big black minivan, holding a large black trash bag in front of me, giving the driver directions on how to get back to my apartment. Pulling up to my place, I thanked him profusely and stumbled into the building, waking up my roommate Miles (who used the living room as his bedroom, turning a two-bedroom unit into three) and flopping down on my mattress, which, further disorienting me, was right on my bedroom’s floor—I had disassembled my bed frame earlier in the week to make room for some classmates to come over and watch a movie. I passed out almost instantly, my gas permeable hard contact lenses still in my eyes.

I woke up the next afternoon with a hangover worse than the one at John’s house three years before. My left contact was still in my eye; the right one had fallen out and seemingly vanished into thin air. I eventually pulled myself together and in the still unseasonably warm weather, rode my bike down to the Esplanade. I sat on a bench overlooking the Charles River for an hour or so, feeling disheveled and ashamed. Turns out, my actions from the night before did have consequences, and I’d have to face them. I’d later call up the party’s host, leaving a message on her answering machine, sheepishly apologizing for puking all over her apartment. That Monday at school, when I passed a classmate in the hall who had also attended the party, he immediately shunned his face from mine rather than return my friendly greeting, as if he could no longer associate with me, the Drunken, Vomiting Pariah in public.

However, I’d come to learn that what I did wasn’t so unusual or especially shameful. Within a few days, the shunning classmate returned my hello again as if nothing ever happened. I’d see others get shitfaced drunk in public all the time and chuckle to myself but also understand this is simply a Thing That Happens—obviously not good if it happens all the time, mind you, but I no longer needed to fear it: I literally partied ’til I puked, and I had survived. Of course, that wasn’t my last time ever getting shitfaced drunk; admittedly, it wasn’t even the last time I ever puked in public. Still, these days, like most responsible, non-alcoholic adults, I prefer the drowsy buzz of a well-crafted cocktail or two over drinking just to get drunk. Although I wince a little whenever I think back to that time I was the life (and death) of a party, I’m mostly thankful I had that experience. It was a foolish act, for sure, but also strangely liberating, all at once throwing caution to the wind, even if I ended up also being gloriously three sheets to it.

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