“Well I’ll just share with someone then.”
She hesitated for a moment and without looking at my best friend I knew that something about this statement had caused her to wriggle her nose in the way she does when something someone else has done embarrasses her.
“People don’t really like to share their alcohol, because then they can’t get as drunk. You should probably try to get your own.”
For the rest of my career in drinking these are the words that continually echo in my head. Later on that day, I would creep down the stairs from my room for dinner, preparing to ask my father for a favor which I felt sure he would never deliver. Out of desperation; because I was seventeen and I have never been drunk before, because I felt like I was missing out on something important, because I wanted to go to the party I knew he would be at; I was going to ask my dad to buy me some booze.
Trying not to look away from his face, I told him there was going to be a party tonight. I told him her mother would be driving us there. I told him her mother knew what it was that we were attending. I told him I wanted to drink.
My father owned bars. I had grown up helping the head waitress to distribute the ashtrays amongst the wobbly tables in a hole-in-the-wall student bar that never failed to pay to mortgage. I had sipped champagne at family dinners since I was seven years old. I was no stranger to alcohol. Yet I had never been drunk. I guess because I had already been so exposed to it, its mystery held no allure for me. Until now.
It felt like a huge betrayal to be asking my father to buy me a run. I’m not sure why, I just remember feeling incredibly guilty. He knew that, in a way, I was being manipulative. Either he would buy for me or I would find another way of getting it. And who knows where I would get it from or what it would be. He examined me for a moment, before sighing and saying;
“I’m putting a lot of trust in you. I hope you’ll respect this trust. Be smart.”
With that, he grabbed his keys, threw on his leather jacket and climbed into the driver’s seat of his Chevy Tahoe, only to return a few minutes later with a six pack of Smirnoff Ice. And so began my descent into the belly of the beast.
That night, I sipped on my coolers and even gave two to a friend who had come unprepared; silently scoffing at my best friend’s earlier declaration of sharing. I got buzzed. I felt liquid confidence. I watched as my best friend finished off a pint of vodka by herself and collapsed into a corner of the kitchen while our friends tried to shove peanut butter into her mouth; claiming it would sober her up.
I would get picked up by my father at the respectable hour of midnight and my best friend would later be peeled off the bathroom floor by her mother, who subsequently called my house to blame me for her daughter’s intoxication. From that point on, I knew it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing to share your alcohol.
I learned how to drink in the best way possible. My father allowed me to go to parties, would do liquor store runs for me, would even allow me to have small gatherings at my own house – all under the condition that I wasn’t drinking hard liquor.
My introduction to intoxication was slow and progressive. I hated beer so I drank coolers. I learned what it was to be buzzed and how many drinks it took me to get there.
As I got better at drinking, I upgraded to Schnapps. Again, I trained myself and was cautious. I knew where my limit was and I knew when I should have a glass of water. When I mastered the 15%, I moved up again. Jager, vodka, beer and rum ruled my university years. Yet I can count on one hand the nights I can’t remember.
Meanwhile, all my friends were getting their fix from their older siblings. Or from strangers they bribed while standing outside the liquor store; the epitome of inconspicuous. And when they got the cheapest vodka or the most vile rum, they downed that shit as fast as possible. And the hammering came fast and hard.
What would’ve been a stumble was a hard fall. A bump and subsequent apology was a full-blown bar brawl. A little nausea was a storm of bile and a crush turned into a regrettable one-night stand. The debriefs in the morning were reenactments of who was the drunkest and trying to fill in the blanks. It was a blast, it was terrifying, it was thrilling, and it was stupid.
I knew how to get to the sweet spot. That level of drunk where you can’t stop smiling and your confidence could blow the roof the bar. You feel like you’re flying and you’re the best dancer in the room. It’s like looking over the edge of a bottomless canyon and feeling the wind rush over your face and run through your hair, but you won’t fall. You’re just standing with your toes over the edge feeling the thrill of what it might be like to jump.
The problem with drinking isn’t that we go overboard. It’s that most don’t know how to just stand on the edge. Some never learned. For my friends, it wasn’t about slowly easing yourself to look into the abyss. It was about running headlong off the cliff and falling into the dark without a parachute and seeing what happens. It was about rebelling. Maybe it was about being cool. Maybe it was about forgetting.
So when I look back on that day when my father bought me my first pack of Smirnoff Ice, I still feel that tinge of guilt. That I was asking him to betray what he thought was safe – knowing that if he didn’t get me the coolers, I’d probably find another way to get drunk; a more reckless way. And so by controlling what I drank, he could keep me as safe as was possible.
By doing this, he created an open dialogue about alcohol. I could tell him where I was going and what I was drinking. I could talk to him about the mistakes I had made and he would tell me that I had drank too much and to go slower next time. My partying was never a mystery to him and I was never afraid to ask questions or to ask for help. It was the safest way I can think of to introduce his teenage daughter to a controversial pastime.
I think about my first night drinking and I see two very different scenarios. I got my alcohol from a parent. We set a time at which I would be picked up. I shared my coolers with a friend. I got buzzed. I kissed my crush. I went home safe and sound. My best friend got her alcohol from her boyfriend’s brother. She wrapped the bottle in paper towel to limit the clinking in the car. She flooded her 120 lb. body with a pint of vodka. She suffered a wicked hangover and an indefinite grounding to boot.
I didn’t start drinking when I was seventeen. I started learning how to drink when I was seventeen. And this learning was supplemented by my parents’ unconventional way of teaching. I didn’t jump into the deep end; I climbed in the shallow end and walked out from there. I learned how to swim instead of drowning. Each night ended with my head above water.
And it’s not my best friend’s words that echo in my head anymore, rather it’s the words of my father: