by Leah Odze Epstein
I waited a long time for my first drink. I’d had a few sips, swigs, and nips–Manischewitz, at Passover; a wine cooler on a camping trip with friends; whiskey, at an eighth grade sleepover. Still–I never had a proper drink until graduation night, senior year.
Why was I immune to peer pressure–a paragon of willpower who tagged along with her friends while they drank, got drunk, and let loose? In high school, I mostly avoided parties and I stopped kissing boys, since kissing boys was something you usually did at social gatherings, with the help of alcohol. Did I enjoy standing in the corner at parties, observing the other humans at play? I was shy to start with. I could have used a boost.
But I was petrified I’d end up an alcoholic–like my mother. Or that my parents would send me to drug rehab–like my older sister. As soon as my mother stopped drinking, my parents didn’t let one drop of alcohol cross the threshold of our house. My mother felt that being around alcohol would cause a relapse. She told me about the dangers, for an alcoholic, of having vanilla extract in the kitchen cabinet.
How did I know I wasn’t a potential alcoholic? What if I had too much, and lost control? Alcohol might make a person go Helter Skelter, like Charles Manson; or it could kill a whole family, like the pair of murderers in Capote’s ”In Cold Blood.” I did not want to fall prey to that serial killer, like my wild-child sister, who pretty much failed high school; or my mother, who spent years trying to get her life back on track. No–I would not veer off the path, a happy idiot, tempted by alcohol’s crooked, beckoning finger. All I had to do was lay low, get good grades, and get into an Ivy League school. Then, I’d be safe.
At my “sibling interview” for the rehab where my sister ended up, they asked me if I drank. I confessed that I’d had a “sip of beer.” They told my sister, who expressed her deep concern. I remember thinking: I might as well have been drinking, all those years. They still suspected me. I knew if I didn’t watch myself, I’d end up in Florida, too–seventeen hours by car from our house in the suburbs of D.C.
Graduation Night, Senior Year: That morning, I’d cut my waist-length hair off, up to my ears. My mother cried, but I was ready to start fresh. The week before, I’d gotten my braces off. At one of the graduation after-parties, I finally allowed myself my first full drink: a bottle of beer. Hadn’t I sailed through high school near the top of my class, gotten into the Ivy League, and escaped the drug rehab? For all that, I deserved a reward.
One beer. Just one.
The first sip tasted bitter but cool, refreshing on a humid June night. In the center of the room stood the boy I loved. I’d always loved him, but he’d never loved me back. I was tame. He was wild. He had a sexy blonde girlfriend who drank and smoked.
I eyed the boy I loved and took one sip of the beer, then another and another, until I tilted my head back to catch the last drops. The beer gave me a pleasant, floating-above-it-all feeling. My body tingled–alive–as if one beer had fertilized all the seeds inside me, and I could finally flower. My secret thoughts gave way to impulses that could finally be acted upon. I walked up to the boy I loved and smiled: Courage in a bottle.
I must have spoken the ancient language of “beer,” because somehow, he and I ended up on the front lawn, my face tilted toward his, poised for a kiss–
Just as he leaned forward to kiss me– his eyes fusing; his face, a dizzying blur–his girlfriend drove up in her car and honked the horn, startling us. “Come on, K!” she called out.
He shrugged his shoulders and off he went. I stood there, alone on the lawn as the car pulled away, my beer buzz crashing down. Later, at our diner hangout, I sobbed to my friends. I thought I was crying about the boy, but now I know I was probably crying about the beer. I didn’t know then the merits of two beers, or that three beers might have erased the disappointment, the humiliation. Blotted it out.
That I learned with my second, third and fourth drinks, only three months later, as a Freshman in college, Night One. I went room to room–greedy–drinking everything I could get my hands on: gin & vodka & rum & beer–until I blacked out.
As the daughter of an alcoholic, I had no concept of moderation. It was either none, or ten. But that’s another story…
Leah Odze Epstein is the co-editor of DRINKING DIARIES.