Excerpt from "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side"
(Forgive typos - I have yet to revise)
I didn’t know any better. I thought it tasted good. Sure, it was bitter and smacked the back of my throat the way Ike smacked Tina but that’s what it was supposed to do, right? I pretended that it was a smooth pull, one that wasn’t about to make me vomit. I needed to look like a real man in front of my friends. My nine year old friends. After all we were all men by that point. We had thrown rocks through windows and TP’d houses of teachers and even stolen a bag of candy last Halloween. But this was different. This was the validation we needed for ourselves and the proof we needed to show all the others, whoever they may have been. This was the manliest thing any of us had ever done. It involved subterfuge and a can with an intentional misspelling. It involved actively suppressing our collective gag reflexes. Only minutes before we were just boys. We were neighborhood hoodlums of the lowest order. But no more. Now we were men. Now we knew how to drink.
Obviously that isn’t as true as I’m recollecting now that I reflect with a clearer mind. The beer was Miller Lite and we had argued over how best to sneak the can away from the party and open it without making a sound. The Keystone Kops made arrests faster and with more gentility than we used in our operation. The most amazing part of the entire event is how we failed to give ourselves away before we even located the contraband. Nine year olds do very little quietly and when they think they’re being sneaky things get downright clamorous.
But we did it and we drank it, each taking a stinging swig before passing it on to the next guy like it was a really good joint, which we had yet to experiment with but was soon to join our fractured self discoveries. Those discoveries would eventually, like so many before us, take us all in different directions as they tend to do. I don’t speak to any of them anymore, not even on social media. But we were together in that moment and that was important. We all would have found booze at some point but finding it together brought us closer for that formative time. For them it was a drink and an introduction to adulthood that only alcohol could bring. But for me, it was much, much more.
I could go on for the length of this book and likely several others about how I felt when I drank. The euphoria (before the hangover), the clarity (before the fog), the witty remarks made (before the slurring) - all of it a glorious haze of…lies. It was none of those things. It was none of those things and less. But I didn’t know that at the time. Maybe it was the sheer amount of alcohol advertising kids of the 80s were subject to or maybe it was my genes but damnit if I wasn’t convinced that what I was doing and feeling was not only right but somehow ordained by a higher power. It was the 80s so Capitalism was certainly a higher power.
My parents were both saddled with drinking issues, my father shouldering the burden more so than my mother. When he passed he had twenty seven years of sobriety - something I was sure to note in his eulogy. My mom however never stopped drinking, having had convinced herself that since she had never wrapped a car around a light post that she must not have a problem. My dad did that. I never did but still I had a problem. So while I can easily trace my issue back to my parents the chromosomes they combined to make me I can equally trace back my drinking career to that basement in December of 1988 and a can of beer and the unblinking adoration of my peers.
Soon enough that adoration was redirected to other friends in the circle who could drink socially and not straight to blackout. And very soon after that I recall thinking that I was to blame for not knowing what I did the night before, not my parents or my genes - just my decisions. So it stood to reason that if I just made better decisions that should solve all my problems. Surely elicit drugs would help cool off the steady drinking! Cocaine was the answer! How did it take me until the age of thirteen to think of that? If I was already high I wouldn’t want to drink as much. My train of good ideas had a monstrous engine, many, many cars and one humongous caboose.
For the sake of backstory I’ll say it wasn’t long before I was addicted as much to the coke as I was to the booze. My pre-school routine was drink whatever alcohol I could find, eat two tablespoons of peanut butter to mask the smell, snort if I had enough or just rub my gums with the residue if I didn’t and then go off to learn and become a future leader of America. Now that I think of it, had I been born a decade sooner I would have come of age just at the right time for this to be almost acceptable. Funny and ironic, if it wasn’t so sad.
By the time high school rolled around I was drinking everyday, coke had led to my dabbling in heroine (it was easier to obtain) and I had discovered that weed would help me relax when the coke had me just a little too wound up. I had few friends and those I did keep didn’t know about my issues. I still don’t understand how I hid it from them. I know I’m not that good a liar and I know they weren’t that obtuse. I suspect it was just that we were all teens and had our own drama going on so we didn’t pay attention to anyone outside of the mirror. It was probably best that way. I’m still very thankful that I didn’t keep those friends I began drinking with. I can only assume I would have just dragged them down with me.
At this point I should probably absolve my parents of any wrongdoing or malfeasance. They were amazing. Always loving, attentive and caring they would do anything for anyone. That said, I was not only the youngest but also the only boy. My dad finally got the son he wanted and my mom finally got something other than a girl. My dad loved me but as soon as I didn’t reciprocate on his love of baseball we had little to bond over. My mom however doted on me. I was her son - all dirt, sweat and skinned knees. But I was also a budding lover of musical theatre and folk music. I was a perfect combination of tumble and reserve and she saw it. And she nurtured it. She was my biggest fan.
It was probably this admiration that led her to turn a blind eye to the bottle of Skol vodka I kept in the mini fridge in my bedroom. She knew it was there. She knew the level was always a little lower each time she saw it. She probably even knew why I kept the jar of peanut butter in there too. But she never said a word about it. She let me make my own choices while taking a few surreptitious glances at my progress to protect me from danger. But since I had become so adept at not letting on that I had a problem she never knew to speak up. Every teenager had a shot of booze now and again, after all, so she had no need to worry. I never gave her a good night kiss with vodka or gin on my breath so she had no need to ask if I was alright. She just kept tabs on my schoolwork and progress in theatre and choir and I kept tabs on my drinking.