Editors’ note: Names have been changed.
I was having lunch with a co-worker when she asked a question I hadn’t heard in years:
“Why don’t you drink?”
She and I were friends, and I felt I’d known her long enough to be honest:
- My dad drank until it became a need, and he wound up in AA. Since then, he’s been sober for nearly 20 years.
- My brother’s drug addiction had him living on the streets, and at one it point landed him in jail. Thankfully, he’s been clean for the last few years, and has a family and his own business.
- Higher up on the family tree are alcoholic grandfathers and uncles and even (I think) a great-grandmother who was hooked on morphine.
All very good reasons not to introduce chemicals into my bloodstream. But here’s the thing: My family history might be the most clear-cut reason I can’t (or at least shouldn’t) drink — but I knew I’d never be a drinker before I even knew that history, and I can pinpoint the moment I knew.
Summer, 1993. My friend Josh and I are camping with a third friend, Calvin, at a campground where Calvin’s parents have a trailer.
Calvin’s gotten an older kid/sketchy adult to score him a bottle of vodka. Calvin’s hid the bottle in some brush, and we retrieve it at dusk. He and Josh are excited.
Photo by Flickr user Chris StaleyDrinking is the unofficial sport at our high school. Yuengling is brewed in Pottsville, 20 minutes from where we live — down a windy, badly-lit, two-lane highway that almost seems made for reckless teenage drunk drivers.
In the hallways and less supervised classrooms, I can hear them talk about it rapturously and incessantly. “Lager.” “LAH-ger.” It seems like it’s a deity to them.
(If that’s the case, I’ll skip church. )
Beer to me is sticky, sweaty, sour odor. It’s the teenagers and forever-teenangers drinking in the woods where me and my brother played. It’s finding brown broke bottle shards everywhere … just fucking everywhere … in our town. It’s why kids can’t go to church block parties after dark.
Beer is adult — but not adult in the way that jobs or sex or money are adult. Beer is an angry, aggressive kind of adult.
I’m 16 and I like movies and comic books and Stephen King novels and Pearl Jam and Nirvana and movies. I’m more than a year away from hearing the word “alcoholic” connected to my dad. (Who, it should be said, was not an angry, aggressive drinker.) But I know at this point that beer has no place in the shaky identity I’ve built for myself.
I also know that this is the first point in my life where popular kids are letting me tag along, so if Josh and Calvin are going to drink vodka, I’m with them.
Luckily for me, it’s dark by the time we’re ready to start drinking. Calvin mixes some of the vodka with some Turkey Hill iced tea. We wander the campground taking swigs from a plastic jug.
Every time I sip, I let them walk ahead of me, and then spit into grass. Swig, step, step, spit. Swig, step, step, spit. This little tap dance, until the iced tea is gone.
But there’s still plenty of vodka, so Calvin concocts a new cocktail: Vodka and grape Gatorade. The taste is a nightmare. That’s another reason I don’t drink: To my tongue, all alcohol tastes like cough syrup.
Josh and Calvin get more and more wasted, and never seem to notice that I’m my normal sober self. They buzz through the Gatorvodka until they’re left with straight vodka.
My memory of that night is probably better than theirs, but still, it’s been 20 years. All I can really remember is Calvin making out with some girl and Josh throwing up maybe 17 times and then he and I sleeping in his car, him up front, me in the back.
Two summers later I’d start college. By the time freshman year ended, I’d have collected a circle of friends who’d become the best I’ll ever have. All of them drink. They don’t care that I don’t.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t rough going at first. In the early days of that year, I find myself in the dorm room across the hall where a fellow freshman had just hung a map with the slogan “A Nation of Beers.”
Pottsville is there, with a red star pointing to Yuengling. I skulk back to my room when the conversation turns, again, to Lager.
The deity’s prophets had been busy.