Friday, January 11, 2013
Why I Drink
The other day I was scrolling back through tagged photos and videos of myself on Facebook -- I was looking for a particular odd and amusing webcam video I'd made while snowed-in and bored years ago, to re-share apropos of something else I'd posted -- when I noticed how many photos from the past two or three years are of me in some skanky, spangly dress at some nightclub, dancing and hugging fellow club-goers and, in many of them, looking quite obviously plastered (pupils dilated, cheeks flushed).
I explained to a new writer friend the other night (yes, we were at a club) that nightlife -- and a social life, for that matter -- is something new to me. For one thing, I didn't start drinking until I was nearly 28. My mom is a pretty old-school Christian and raised my siblings and me to believe that even cooking with wine was technically sinful. But it wasn't just that; I also disliked the notion of ever being out of control, or so I said for years. When I finally took my rite-of-passage first tentative sips of a friend's beer at a frat party in college, I remember feeling pleased and obscurely vindicated that it tasted bad. "Welp, that's it -- guess I'll never have a drinking problem! One less thing to worry about!" 18-year-old me thought, brushing her hands together smugly and making a mental check mark on a long list of vices that a person could have.
When I was 20 I decided that I was an atheist, so I no longer believed that drinking a margarita would be punished with eternal damnation. But there was still the fear and disdain I felt toward being out of control, the slight judgment and bafflement with which I regarded people who drank, and the reaffirming, visceral memory of that solitary swig of my friend's bitter dark beer. Part of me was satisfied with thinking of myself as simply a person who doesn't like alcohol, the way that someone might not like anchovies. Now I know that taste, for a wretched lot of us, has nothing to do with drinking.
Not drinking kept me away from most nightlife-type social activities. It meant not going to parties or clubs or bars, unless I was cool with being the DD (I often was, on the rare occasion that I was talked into going anywhere) and could be satisfied "just" drinking Coke, sitting there stoic and alert while my friends or co-workers dissolved into a primitive id-ruled state (I was fine with that, and even kind of fascinated with this process, in a writerly sort of way). As I parenthetically mentioned, I was OK with being "the sober one," so I guess that's not really what kept me in on Friday and Saturday nights for nearly three decades of my life, although it did keep me from actively seeking out specifically nightlife-type experiences. The real reason I had no social life was plain old shyness, or social anxiety, to use the term more likely to be found in a medical coder's handbook.
Also, from the time I was 18 until just before I turned 30, I was tethered to one and then another co-dependent boyfriend. The first one didn't like going out (at all; his restaurant choice, no matter the occasion, was almost always "Subway"), and the second boyfriend did like going out, mostly to live music shows, but -- partly because I didn't drink -- I always just stood with him, un-dancing, against the back wall, or stock-still on the dancefloor while a band performed up on the stage. We were perennial wallflowers; we were the people Lee Ann Womack was targeting in her country-music celebration-of-extraversion song "I Hope You Dance." (How I loathed that song in my pre-drinking and therefore pre-dancing days -- the way it seemed to equate "Carpe Diem" and appreciating the sunset over the ocean with the outgoing act of dancing in public, seemed to suggest that those of us who didn't or don't dance are somehow living repressed, myopic, and less enlightened lives.)
Then, shortly before I turned 28, I had a crazy week in New Orleans. You might be thinking, "Oh, please -- what tourist doesn't say that about their time in New Orleans?" No, really -- my story wins. Not only did I get drunk for the first time during that week -- I also had sex for the first time. With a 51-year-old English professor, novelist, haiku scholar and translator. (Uh, that's one guy who does all that. I did not have sex with four different literary dudes.) He is the father of my first-ever boyfriend, whom I'd dated when we were both in eighth and ninth grades. The father is divorced; my e-mail attempts to re-connect with the son were what led to my getting in touch with his dad, and went unanswered. As far as I know, the son doesn't know that I was briefly involved with his dad, unless he thought something of the "thank yous" I've gotten by name both on his dad's website and in Acknowledgments in his later books, for my help editing some of his chapters. (I've written short stories inspired by our relationship, here and here and here and here.) Oh, and I was cheating on my manic-depressive boyfriend back home, who thought I was in Atlanta for a business trip.
Mix together the conservative upbringing -- if cooking with wine was a sin, you better believe pre- or extra-marital anything-but-kissing was as well -- with the enormous guilt and shame I felt for blatantly cheating on my boyfriend (in fact, he was a virgin, too -- we had talked about waiting to have sex on our honeymoon one day... in New Orleans), and it's probably easy to see why I got drunk every night of that week. And had a couple of surprising mini-breakdowns shortly after I came back home, bursting into tears with first my mom (whom I didn't confide in, of course) and then my brother (whom I did).
I remember sitting with the professor, whose name is David, on stools at a high table inside an open-air tavern on Bourbon Street. A rock band was playing. This was post-Katrina; patrons were sparse, and we felt it was our duty to fill in some of the seats not filled by the tourists, to tip well and put plenty of dollars in musicians' guitar cases. We had just had sex in my hotel room, my first time, Room 325 of of the Ambassador Hotel, a room number I will probably never forget. I was feeling shy and nervous, worried about boring or disappointing him. He lives in New Orleans, teaches at a university there, and for months we'd been sending each other sexy, soulful e-mails; we'd become playful, flirtatious confidantes and sharers of each other's fiction until it all exploded into something substantial and life-changing.
This week was our first time together in person, and I am so much more confident, articulate, witty, and deep with a keyboard in front of me than I am out in the world. I sat there as he caressed my hand and smiled up at the musicians, and I thought of the tropical-colored slushie turbines I'd seen going at some of the places on Bourbon Street. Those drinks seemed benign, like maybe they were just sweet, fruity Slurpees that made you a little more loose and laid-back, a little more extraverted. I timidly told him that I would like a drink; I think I asked about getting something "girly and sweet." He said, "I know just the place." And he took me to a gay bar.
I remember the bar being a little bit out of the way, and conspicuously "seedy" in the way that thrills the soul of the type of person who visits New Orleans from out of town. It was the kind of joint that makes you think, "The real deal!" I mean, a drunken brawl broke out during the ten minutes we were there and everything; the tense, longsuffering bartender had to ask a guy to leave, and for just a moment the place felt unsafe, as if we'd left touristy la-la land and entered the real world that I only read about in crime articles. David told the bartender what my request had been. The bartender peered at me, as if taking my psychic temperature, and made me a "vodka and cranberry" that I now know is basically a screwdriver, pretty much the most common cocktail ever, usually made with orange juice, the starter drink for college girls everywhere. But at the time I didn't know all that, and it felt like my special drink. It's still my go-to whenever I'm at an unfamiliar bar.
I drank the hot-pink cocktail. I drank another. I might have had another, or half of another, there or someplace else. In my twenties I weighed perilously close to double digits; it probably only took two small cocktails to get me officially drunk. What I remember most about the night was a sense of liberation. I was suddenly, magically, free from all the self-doubts that hold me back, that freeze me in social situations, that had made me stiff and awkward on the two or three wedding-reception dancefloors I had ever braved. I felt free from myself.
Out on the street, I pranced down the sidewalk and complimented strangers. I twirled around street signs as if they were stripper poles. I jumped up onto and off of benches like a little kid. I craned my head way back, my neck newly loose, and looked at the stars. The world felt suddenly warmer to me, every stranger a friend, my thoughts tumbling out of my mouth. We wandered into Harrah's casino, and David sat down to play something that looked like a video game. I remember the Gwen Stefani song "Hollaback Girl" was playing in the casino, a song I had heard on the radio or through ceiling speakers in department stores countless times before but never cared for, dismissing it as mainstream dance-y pop, not at home with the more "serious" alternative-rock singer-songwriter-storytellers among my CD collection.
But sitting there on that low stool next to David, spinning around on it a bit, mindful only of the security guards whom he had told me to "behave" around lest we get thrown out for being drunk -- I felt myself moving to the rhythm, something I honestly don't really think I had done before, except for maybe very early in my life before I learned how to feel embarrassed. I felt a heretofore unknown sexiness emanating from my hips. And that was it. I wanted to dance -- I felt that now, with this magic elixir in me, I could dance, that I deserved to be out on a dancefloor just as much as anyone else.
I felt sexy. I felt that I knew how to flirt with men. I felt that I now knew some secret to the universe, maybe the secret to the universe.
So there you go -- there is how and why I started to drink.
Yesterday I wrote a long Facebook post about my most recent going-out-and-drinking night, and I realized while writing it that many of the moments I mentioned were emblematic of why -- to go back to why there are so many photos of me at clubs, drinking and dancing and wearing skanky things and hugging people -- I go out, drink, dance, allow myself a little freedom from myself. I like nights that feel like some downtown version of Alice in Wonderland, nights when I meet colorful new characters and have quirky, perception-altering experiences (not via drugs, though; I still have never used those). I'm pasting the post below. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is an alternative-'80s night at a bar/club in DC called Little Miss Whiskey's.