“Mmmm, this is good,” I said (unconvincingly) to the rest of the girls. It was 1998. I was at a slumber party, taking my first sip of alcohol while Limp Bizkit played on the stereo. It was Mudslide mix, probably stolen from my friend’s parents’ liquor cabinet. I still remember the bottle – tall and slender, filled to the neck with a light brown liquid that I just assumed would taste like Hershey’s chocolate milk. It did not. It was more like chocolate powder mix combined with tepid bath water and rubbing alcohol. I took the shot like I had seen in the movies – a violent chug before dramatically slamming the cup back down on the table. Definitely edgy, I thought. Like the Tarantino films I would pretend to know a lot about later that night.
We filled our cups again and again, still commenting on how good it was. As our heads started to spin, we did what only felt right. We stuffed our faces with chips and cheese puffs while doing Austin Powers impressions before falling asleep on the floor. The next morning when my dad picked me up, I felt worse than I had ever felt before. I explained that I had eaten “too many Doritos” the night before, and that’s why I felt sick. “Ah, the old Doritos hangover,” he replied. “Ha! He bought it!” I thought, congratulating myself for being so sly as I threw up and vowed never to drink again. In reality, he had probably not bought that story, but was kind enough to let it (mud)slide. And of course I drank again, punctuating each incident with the same hollow vow of abstinence.
My high school years were in America’s Post-Zima/Pre-Cider period, so my friends and I drank Smirnoff Ice for the whole of the early 2000s. Smirnoff Ice was basically alcoholic Fresca, almost exclusively procured by the older brothers of my friends. I talk about Smirnoff Ice in the past tense because once I grow out of something, it no longer exists – like MTV or Bath and Body Works. Every once in a while, my friends would have this great idea that I should be the one to try to buy it because I “totally look old enough.” If you’re the friend with the biggest boobs and a blazer from The Limited, you will be nominated to do this at least once. I was the McLovin of my time. I failed on nearly every attempt, but was never arrested. Because, boobs.
By college, my taste had become more discerning. My palette learned to navigate only the most sophisticated libations, such as amaretto sours, Michelob Ultra, and bottles contained in brown paper bags. I also started to fancy myself quite the mixologist. Once, at a Pakistani restaurant, I curated a new cocktail made up of Hypnotiq and red wine, with notes of hookah smoke and baba ghanoush. It did not end well for me or for Jacksonville Beach. You haven’t lived until you’ve coasted down A1A in a Pontiac Sunfire with your head pathetically dangling out the passenger window like a bulldog with heat stroke.
I often look back on those days and marvel at my ingenuity. I had a calendar that reflected all the special nights during the week: Nickel Beer Night, Flip Cup Night, Objectify Ladies Night, Two-for-One Night, Reggae for Privileged White Kids Night. My mantra: never pay full price for a drink in a plastic cup. And they say college kids are irresponsible!
Incidentally, I went on to marry a bartender who specializes in Prohibition-era cocktails, like Rusty Nails, Stingers, and Harvey Wallbangers. If you’re looking for a drink that sounds like a dirty joke in a Judd Apatow movie, then he’s your guy. When we go out, he likes to order obscure geriatric drinks, just for sport. No one, not even the bartenders at the nicest restaurants, ever knows what the hell a Negroni is. “Is it a Mexican beer?” Simon, a grad student and aspiring sommelier will ask. “It’s an apertif,” my husband will respond with a glint in his eye, as Simon turns to insecurely fumble through the dusty apertif selection not appreciated since Al Capone’s grandma.
I think my husband is just one of those people who is hardwired to genuinely enjoy fine spirits. Conversely, even though I’m now 31, I still consume liquor for the same shallow reason as with the Mudslide incident – to simply bring cinematic drama to the evening. When you want to regale your girlfriends with sordid tales diaper blowouts and kindergarten registration, it’s much more theatrical to wave around a vodka than a Diet Pepsi. I learned this from Goldie Hawn’s character in First Wives Club. Power suit, pouty lips, and a rocks glass – the glamour trifecta. Bonus points for ordering a round of Bushmills on your corporate card. That’s when you know you’ve made it.
And isn’t that alcohol really is? A symbol. Of success. Of failure. Of confidence that you didn’t have an hour ago, but definitely do now, so by all means, confide in your Japanese CFO at the holiday party about how you’ve always had a thing for “oriental” gentleman.
Of empowerment, as you scarf a dozen spiked Jell-O jigglers at your first college party because Jell-O is a delicious dessert from your childhood…oh man, you really miss your mom and dad and dog now, so you will just need some time alone in your dorm room to cry while you flip through old photos and listen to Sophie B. Hawkins.
Of overextension, after you spend all Friday afternoon telling your co-workers how much you’re looking forward to a TGIF wine binge, but then you spill your first glass all over yourself because you fell asleep mid-sip while watching a King of Queens re-run.
Of self-worth, as you post a montage of over-filtered mimosa close-ups on Instagram, because, in the words of Carrie Bradshaw, “the most significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself.” #brunchingbymyself
Yes, alcohol is ever the chameleon, shifting and shaping to enhance the first 90 minutes of so many diverse experiences. It is that old friend who’s fun on the drive to the party, rapping Biggie with the windows down, but a total nightmare on the drive home, yell-singing Sam Smith between hiccups. But as sure as the sun rises over that too-familiar Waffle House off of I-95, we all know loud mouth soup will be on speed dial for the next exciting fete on the calendar. So, whether you’re throwing back a Mudslide, Negroni, or a Diet Pepsi, be sure to always raise your glass to all of life’s adventures, for better or for worse.
Just take it from me – skip the Doritos.
Illustrations by Kelly Riker