I don’t know how to stand when I am watching people play beer pong, so I lean against a file cabinet and cross my arms, trying to appear like I’m taking it all in. I am in a basement room with a ceiling low enough to high five and a tapestry hanging on one wall. The girl whose party it is has constructed a makeshift game table out of an old door laid on its side atop two sawhorses. It is currently sopping with beer. “My mom helped me build it,” she says laughing, yelling over music that blares from somewhere I can’t see. She must be ten years younger than me. I must be 31.
My boyfriend Patrick writes his name on a white board to reserve a spot in line for the game. Patrick is slightly younger — what I like to call an old twenty-five — and only three years removed from a world where beer pong is a rite of passage, so his participation seems somewhat appropriate. I think he wants me to play, but I have never played beer pong. I have never even seen anyone play beer pong, which is why I’m trying to figure out how to stand. Lately I’ve been trying to push myself to do new things, the kinds of things that would normally make me cower or scowl or both, because I think doing these things will make me a better person. Beer pong, however, might push me over the edge, and I think he understands this without me having to explain, so he finds some guy wearing his hair in a ponytail and a pair of khaki shorts in January to be his partner instead.
Ponytail is psyched. He is also, by a stretch, the oldest person in the room. I am the second. The youngest is a petite swath of a girl leaning against the opposite wall, sporting a bare midriff and a feather in her hair. She might not have had her first period yet. Patrick and I both stare at her through soaring pong balls. “She’s making me slightly uncomfortable,” he says, turning toward my ear. I agree, but for different reasons; I believe she is looking at us and thinking what I am thinking about Ponytail, which is: look at that old weirdo trying to relive some lost glory.
Beer pong is rumored to have started at Dartmouth College in the 1950s, back when it was played with paddles. It is also sometimes called Beirut, which technically refers to the more recent and common paddle-less version of the game, although most people would call any version beer pong unless you are the editors at beirutguide.com, who claim a great deal of confusion could be avoided if everyone called the two games by their proper designations. The game has its roots in the hot and horny halls of fraternities, but has evolved into a pastime enjoyed by anyone with a flat surface, a ball, and, of course, a bunch of cheap beer. Although at Utah State University root beer is often substituted in compliance with their abstinence regulations.
The game is simple: on each side of the table, set up an equilateral triangle of Solo plastic cups pointed toward the opposite team and filled, to your discretion, with beer. Each round is typically played by teams of two, and the general objective is to land your ball in one of the opposite team’s beer cups. When you score, they drink, the cup is eliminated, and vice versa. Whichever team eliminates the last cup wins. There are more complicated versions, such as a hybrid game that pairs with Milton Bradley’s Battleship, which involves water and coins and many confusing directions. There are also beer pong leagues, national tournaments, official rulebooks, regulation tables, custom balls, ball-throwing techniques, and video game versions, although I can’t imagine the virtual experience is nearly as satisfying as the more traditional exercise in Beirut, since the key ingredient is virtually absent.
With its touching mix of carelessness and ingenuity, beer pong elicits the unabashed spirit of youth. In order to play you must be both mindless and focused, cool and methodological. It knows no class or social boundaries and seems to appear only at the fringes of adulthood, where we are inclined to linger just before growing up or long after, perpetually searching for our way back to a forgotten sense of abandon. This was the kind of game played at parties I wasn’t invited to in high school, parties I was too artsy to attend in college, and apparently parties I end up at as a pseudo-adult. Somehow I managed to bypass it until this moment.
Patrick and Ponytail go up against two guys wearing girls’ T-shirts and skinny jeans. I naturally abhor the competition, and a suppressed cheerleader inside me tries to break the surface of my cynicism as a thought struggles its way out: My boyfriend’s team must win. But there is no way they will win, not because they aren’t good but because the universe is obligated to offer this triumph to the younger side of twenty-five. Past that point beer pong transcends from a drinking game into a folk tale. The only consolation prize Patrick and Ponytail will receive is the bittersweet sting of humility.
In their defense, the game is close. I’m surprisingly nervous watching them play, but my anxiety is overwhelmed by the thought that: one, everyone’s fingers must be really sticky and two, I am old. You only think about things like sticky fingers if you are old. I suddenly feel so old I might start decomposing, and just when I am about to give up trying to identify with any aspect of this experience I notice the one kink in beer pong’s youthful façade: the water cup. Each team keeps a cup of water on the sidelines into which players courtesy-dunk the ball in between throws in a meager but thoughtful effort to rid its surface of germs and dirt. The water cup is ineffective, of course, but it is this subtle nod toward hygiene that truly illuminates the game’s poignant strain toward a disappearing innocence.
Patrick and Ponytail lose by one sticky Solo cup. The boys in skinny jeans chest bump as Patrick finishes the remaining beer and collects the cups into a neat stack. My heart falls a millimeter at his loss, and I want to comfort him, but I need him to wash his hands first.