Category Archives: This Drunken Life

Short Fiction: “Five Drinks, Five Moments”

October 3rd, 2001

It’s early October in Rochester, and already snow threatens. If we’re lucky it will hold off until November, but sometimes freezing rain is even worse. I’m in a dumpy frat room, back against a shoddy wooden dresser and the smell of unwashed sheets permeating my senses so fully that I can’t be sure if I even notice it anymore, chatting with my former roommate Adam.

He hands me a Smirnoff Ice, while mentioning something about the World Trade Center. It was destroyed just weeks ago and I’d worked in one of the towers all summer long.

But I’m 19 and in that moment I’m more concerned with the drink in my hand, barely listening to what Adam’s saying. Despite having lived with me during our Freshman Year, he has no idea that unless you count Communion wine at Church, I’ve never had a drink before. I turn the bottle around in my hand, condensation slicking my fingers, and then twist the cap, metal points pressing against the soft skin of my palm.

He keeps speaking, alternating angry rants with overly self-aware jokes, wholly unaware what that first taste of sugary, artificial lemon means to me. In a few years I’ll be able to make an honest claim about how disgusting it is, but not yet. I’m still guzzling down soda and candy and chips and all sorts of other tooth-rot on a daily basis, easily forty or fifty pounds overweight and doing nothing to slow the collapse. It still tastes damn fine.

April 24th, 2004

I rush into the bathroom and plow through a stall door, falling onto my knees a moment before 16oz of Baileys Irish Cream rolls up my esophagus and into the bowl below. Today is “Dandelion Day”, the University of Rochester’s unofficial ode to all forms of drunken stupidity. I began my celebration with a handful of friends just before noon, and within twenty minutes I had chugged two beers, had two Irish Car Bombs and then, thinking I was having a third Car Bomb, drank an entire pint of Baileys Irish Cream.

Really, it’s amazing it took this long for it to come back up.

Someone comes in, asks if I’m alright. I’m so out of it that I don’t know if they’re male or female, but I manage to moan something in the affirmative and they leave me be, likely thankful for the escape. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it will be three years until I can smell Baileys again without getting nauseous and another four before I can drink it without flinching.

But as I kneel there with my knees rubbing hard against the tile floor, all I want is for the vomiting to stop so I can get some sleep.

And so I wait and wait and wait and wait.

When I’m ready, I’ll scarf down two Oreo cookies and throw up again before crawling off to bed for five hours. Then my savior will be two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a diet coke, while I walk around the dorm having my humble pie for dessert.

July 25th, 2005

It’s night but it feels like day, my body simultaneously craving sleep and brunch. Seated at the Sky Bar on top of the Keio Plaza Hotel, I watch the gleam of red lights from the Tokyo building tops and swallow hard. There’s no turning back now; in the morning I will be getting on a train to the northern coast of Hyogo Prefecture, in a town with a population smaller than my high school’s.

I should feel homesick but I’m still falling, way way too high above the ground to even imagine the impact. For the first time in my life, I’ve set foot in a city that is bigger and more gnarled than New York, its tight mesh of multi-level shopping centers and circulatory train lines and never-resting lightshows beckoning me out for just one more look. Even more unsettling is the way the city just continues to expand, all the way to the horizon and beyond, like it might circle back on itself if you dared to exhaust those urban limits.

My drink arrives while I’m still marveling at the 500 yen coin in my hand, turning its heft over and over again between my fingers. I’ve never had a Mai-Tai before, but it was the only item on the menu I recognized and so it was an easy choice. But what’s before me is beyond expectation and assumption, a massive glass chalice filled to the brim with tropical liquid and adorned with discs of melon and pineapple, a bouquet of mint blooming off to the side.

It costs 2500 yen, but I won’t know that until the bill arrives. And sure, I’ll wince and let out a sigh of relief that I only ordered one, but it’ll take years for me to figure out that what I really paid for was the moment, the view and the subtle satisfaction that I finally had the guts to do something that completely and utterly scared the shit out of me.

November 30th, 2008

It’s the first really chilly evening of the season, where a jacket, gloves and scarf just don’t cut it. Normally, I’d never agree to head out on a Sunday (much less this Sunday), but there’s something about the girl I’ve been chatting with online that has me optimistic. She’s different, that’s for sure, but she also seems free from the corporate monotony that I’ve so easily fallen into since returning to the States just a year and a half ago.

We meet at the corner of 14th and 3rd. She’s got a luggage bag with her and an insufficient coat. There’s a look on her face that I can’t quite make out. Happiness to see me but something else, too. Disappointment? Total exhaustion?

We walk down the avenue, looking for a place to pop into, her arm interlinked with mine. Before online dating, I overanalyzed these little trills of physical contacte; not so much anymore. She begins to tell me a story about visiting her friend over the weekend, getting worked up without ever mentioning why she stormed home a night early.

“What happened?” I ask.

“It’s weird. Really weird. I need a drink.”

Eventually we come to Telephone Bar, and in an unintentional fuck you to the cultural decor, we have a seat at the bar and order bourbon. American spirits in a London-themed bar in the middle of America. Inception Booze, come two years too early.

She begins to tell me the truth: how she visited her friend upstate, how she was shocked to find her friend’s boyfriend there as well, how she totally flipped out at not getting any personal attention. Her agitation tells me what she’s not willing to speak aloud, and I keep prodding her for more details.

Then, as we finish our second bourbon and move onto the third, she finally says it.

“I thought I was in love with her.”

I nod, not daring to say anything. I know the weight of my next words will be blown completely out of proportion and so I wait. And she talks. When feeling like it’s safe to give my say, I go with empathy and honesty. It’s alright to feel how she feels, completely fine to feel slighted. The way we perceive those around us conflicts with — but cannot change — the way others perceive themselves. Differences are bound to happen.

At some point, on bourbon three or four, she grabs my tie and kisses me. In the back of my had a voice buzzes “No PDA!” but the ethanol lulls it to sleep. The next things I remember are a long cab ride, an uncomfortably warm bed and a surprising amount of snow on the ground.

It takes me a moment to realize I’m in Whitestone and I need to be at work in thirty-five minutes.

September 20th, 2011

The first drink we make is called “The Medicinal Compound”. It’s got an ounce of rye whiskey, a half-ounce of something called amaro and is garnished with an orange twist. I clumsily fill my glass with ice cubes and struggle to stir with the twisted bar spoon; it sort of feels like I’m trying to write while drunk and underwater. With a shaky hand, I strain the drink out into a coupe glass while I listen to our instructor talk about Prohibition. “The Medicinal Compound” is strong and packs a hefty punch, but it’s also good in a way I’ve never known before.

I finish it in little more than a long moment and jot down the recipe on a piece of paper.

Over the next hour and a half, we also make a Scofflaw and a Daiquiri, the latter requiring both a metal mixing tin and a pint glass. Shaking the sealed contraption feels like my body’s been converted into some sort of organic steam locomotive, the roar of the ice rattling back and forth paining my ear. I’ve made highballs and drinks in a three-piece shaker before, but nothing like this. There’s something wholly different about this process and these ratios, something both improvised and meticulous.

I could get used to this, I think to myself.

Later that week, I go out and pick up a whole host of gear from Chelsea Market: mixing tins, pint glasses, measuring jiggers of all sizes. I buy these things even though I’ve got substitutes at home, for a reason I later identify as ritual: starting something new, in some ways starting over. Or maybe that’s just blatant dramatization because, really, all I care about in the moment is having fun and trying something new. The fact that this activity also produces delicious alcoholic drinks is only a small benefit, like the quiet that comes with waking up early in the morning after a full night of rest.

I stuff my bag with my new-found goodies, with no idea that in a year I’ll be working at classes like the one I attended, with a personal bar of my own stocked to the brim (literally) with dozens of bottles, more than willing to experiment with drinks and toss out the failures. Fancy me.

For now, though, all I’m thinking about is the sound of the clinking glassware as I walk down to the subway station and head home.

This Drunken Life: The Face of Madness

This Drunken Life is a weekly series of stories that chronicle the strange and wonderful things that can happen while out drinking. Names and faces may be changed to protect the inebriated.

What expression does the face of madness wear? Is it anger? Rage? Hatred? Cold, distant, unflinching stoicism?

Nope, not even close. Madness, my friends, wears a big drunken grin that’s perpetually on the edge of an infantile giggle. And not long ago, madness was grinning right at me.

I was working a private event for a high class venue and a supposedly high class client. Going in, I’d imagined a room of be-suited salt-and-peppers, the kind of men and women who discuss last weekend’s traffic out to the Hamptons and the ramifications of removing tax shelters from major capitalist players. Infuriating, sure, but established. Mature. Not born during George Bush Sr.’s administration.

Such a crowd seemed fitting for the goal of the evening: to learn the difference between Old World and New World wine, followed by a blind tasting where guests would have to identify a mystery wine.

“A noble venture,” I thought before the client arrived, swirling my glass. “I should suggest this event for my own organization.” I swirled my glass again, nearly spilling it everywhere.

And then the masses descended upon us. Some 150 junior analysts filling the tiny tasting space, all aged somewhere in between “college super senior” and “hey, Jurassic Park came out the year I was born!”. The executives and national directors I’d expected were nowhere to be found, instead replaced with children dressed up in suits that Mommy and Daddy had gotten them as gifts for being such precious, priceless little blue-bloods.

Not that I’m biased, no no, not at all.

Within the first 10 minutes, I’d gone through three bottles of wine as I scrambled to keep up with the swarm of thirsty, thirsty bankers. It was oenophile whack-a-mole, every glass I filled replaced by another one or two or three. For awhile I tried to slip in the tasting notes as I poured, but met with varying success.

Some people listened, genuinely interested and some pretended to listen. Some just walked away mid sentence and others didn’t even look at me, simply thrusting their glass in my face and demanding a pour.

Oh and saying “thank you”? As vestigial and optional as a withered appendix.

Catching my breath at one point, I looked out at the throng of guests as they laughed with one another. At one another. At their surroundings, at their good fortune. They all wore the same look of triumphant entitlement, victors enjoying their spoils.

As I picked up discarded glassware and went to empty out my station’s overflowing spittoon, I thought about those psychology experiments where participants are separated into prisoners and guards, then given tasks to illustrate the power of authority and the imprinting effect of a prescribed role.

“Are we only what others tell us we are?” I asked myself as wine splashed onto my pants. “If the roles were reversed, would I act any differently?”

In the back kitchen, the venue organizer told me that the client had asked we stop serving and put out water instead. During this brief dry time, one frantic guest came up to my table and begged: “Is there any wine or anything you can serve us? Anything at all?”

“Sorry, you’ll have to wait until the blind tasting.”

“When is that?” he demanded with frenzied eyes.

“Soon,” I offered in consolation. He turned away in anger, off to try another station.

By the grace of some patron god of wine, the blind tasting round went quickly and the guests departed immediately after, seemingly unaware that we were open to serve for another fifteen minutes.

Clean-up was smooth, with other staff sharing their exhaustion but, amazingly, not giving in to total despair. They treated the experience like a war wound, a challenge overcome. With tired smiles they sorted recycling, packed up tables, racked glassware and stacked up chairs. They had every reason in the world to be infuriated with the client’s behavior and yet they weren’t, not in the least.

Walking home in the thick humidity of a mid-summer’s night, my throat sore, head pounding and back aching, I returned to that question I’d asked myself earlier: If I were the one wearing the suit, surrounded by those enabling me to drink myself silly in high-class dismissive fashion, would I behave any differently?

I wanted to say “No”, but really, who would want to say “Yes”? The truth is, we become acclimated to the way others treat us and everything becomes relative, making it nearly impossible to tell when we’re being unkind to those outside of our group. In this case, the group divide was clear: the served and servers, and witnessing that wide gulf between the two made me desperate not to wind up on the wrong side of it.

It makes you ask yourself: How far would I go to avoid that fate?

Sure, some steps are clear: hard work, clever planning, identifying what you will and won’t put up with. But what about the slippery, slimey realm of the political and the nepotistic, all those tiny little capitulations you agree to because the cost-benefit analysis says it’s worth more to hold your tongue than to anger a powerful, albeit awful, human being?

And then come the ramifications. If *you* won’t take a stand and sacrifice the comfort of complacency, why should anyone else?