Did people really drink for pleasure, or just to get drunk? I couldn’t imagine they liked the taste of beer, or malt liquor, Bacardi, gin or whiskey; but adults had these drinks in their homes. My own parents had a big, wooden liquor cabinet-full. On the front, in carved mahogany, a scene of Don Quijote at an opulent table, Desdemona serving him, touching his arm, and Sancho Panza sitting at the far-end of the table, looking shnockered. On the lower cabinet, Don Quijote fell into a well.
The only drink that tickled my palette was Kahlua, mixed with two scoops of vanilla ice cream in a blender, along with milk, some Ovaltine and maybe an egg if I wanted to be really fancy, like Rocky. I loved that drink and would sometimes make a pitcher-full for my brother, Orion, and me. After trying a sip, Orion, then eight, would decline the rest, leaving the pitcher-full to me, alone. And I’d get good and drunk.
I learned to drink from the Palisades gang: Tad, Dave, Eric Duba, Clint. We’d gather sometimes at Eric’s house after school, and if no one had any pot, we’d drink whatever was available. Eric’s mom, Astrid, liked whiskey. One afternoon, when she wasn’t home, Eric prepared whiskey sours. I had never tasted whiskey before, but drank it down the way I had imbibed every other liquor I encountered: in a guzzle. I could inhale a sixteen ounce glass in a single series of gulps, a feat that impressed my friends. They had no idea I drank that way simply to avoid the taste. I can’t remember what happened that afternoon, just as I can’t remember any of the other countless afternoons we spent in pleasant stupor, numbed to our own adolescence by bottles upended. I only remember the shiver of revulsion that followed these guzzles, and the warmth in my gut that spread such sweet oblivion throughout my system. I may have lost my cookies once or twice, but I don’t remember that either.
By ninth grade, my parents had already pulled me from the public school system. Their A-straight son wasn’t being challenged, they concluded. Why else would he get stoned every day, and grow pot in the backyard? I had been banished to Harvard, an all-boys school in the Valley. This combination of “all-boys” and “the Valley” was about the worst thing a young Palisadian male could imagine; and I hated being at the school, hated the ride over the hill and the nerds I dismissed every day, standing alone in my Natural Progression surf shirt with a scowl, saying “Geek, geek, nerd, geek” as I silently appraised my classmates, desperately looking for someone cool.
I suppose I had internalized the superficial culture of my hometown, because I didn’t have to talk to those Harvard guys to know I didn’t like them. I could just look at them — the way they sat and dressed and obeyed all the rules. So when Tad told me one afternoon that they’d be celebrating their graduation from Paul Revere down at some big white condos at the end of Sunset, I got so excited. A whole year I had lived without the regular contact of girls; and though I had had sex only once a year earlier, that had been the first and last time. I was horny. I needed to get out, needed to be with girls and my friends, needed to get drunk.
In preparation for the evening, I put on some thin, white Calvin Klein pants. The night was warm and I wore my light blue denim shirt unbuttoned at the top, exposing more chest hair than 99% of my peers. With the confidence of past success, I walked into the liquor store across from the Village Green, and with a deep voice, ordered a half pint of Bacardi, shoved it into my pocket and headed off to meet Tad, who waited eagerly just outside the door.
We hitched down Sunset to the tall white condo building, ascended the elevators to the party, and heard it the moment the doors opened. Inside, a jumble of tanned bodies, blonde and light-brown hair. Old classmates turned and gripped my hand, saying, “Dude, where have you been?”
Monica Johansen, a girl who also used to ride Bus 18 with me to Revere, walked through the crowd in a turquoise halter, holding a platter of Bacardi and Cokes. She smiled as I took a tumbler and guzzled half the glass. “Yeah!” she said and laughed. Part of me liked Monica. She had always been kind to me, and I had always been mean to her. Not mean exactly, but I denied her. She was the only other person who had a nose as big as mine; and I guess I was afraid that if people saw us together, they’d notice our noses, and I’d become Ron with the big nose, rather than Ron with all the other cool features that no one else knew about — including me (though I suspected they existed).
I made my way to the balcony where I found Tad. The air was cooler out there. The breeze blew in from the ocean, just off beyond the 76 station. I reached into my pocket and withdrew the bottle. “Lemme see it,” Tad said, and took the Bacardi. “151?”
He looked at the label. “Nah, this stuff’s bunk!” He pretended to throw the bottle over the balcony, then smiling, handed it back to me. I unscrewed the cap, tearing the red and white paper seal that flapped over the golden plastic cap. It was 151 alright. I didn’t know what proof meant, but I knew this was strong stuff.
I raised the bottle to my mouth and began to guzzle. I guzzled and winced and guzzled some more. I stole a glance at Tad, who watched me, amazed. I knew I was making history. I kept going until, holding back an inelegant gag, I emptied the bottle, held it in my hand and threw it out, off the balcony into the darkness. It crashed in the parking lot, eight stories down.
Tad raised his hand and we gripped in a soul shake. “That was the raddest thing I’ve ever seen!” he said.
I don’t remember the rest of the night so well. We were all heading to the beach, and I tripped and fell in the middle of the Pacific Coast Highway. Someone (I later learned it was Mark Adams) picked me up and scooted me along as I examined, with no concern, the bloody scrapes and pebbles embedded in my palms.
I may have spent some time on the lifeguard tower; I don’t remember. All I knew: I had to get home by eleven. My parents had given me permission to attend the party; but I had to be home by eleven. Around that time, or perhaps later, I found myself again in front of the white apartment towers, which will forever be known to me as The Graduation Towers.
Some of the more coddled kids were being picked up by parents; and I needed a ride home. Chautauqua was a long way from the end of Sunset. I needed to be home by eleven. I asked Mark Lamphear, who lived in Brentwood. I didn’t really know Mark, and even though he looked and acted a lot like the Harvard nerds with whom I went to school, and who I rejected — button-down shirt, short hair — Mark went to Revere, so I knew he couldn’t be a total geek. Mark’s mom pulled up in a brown Volvo wagon. Before Mark had a chance to ask his mom, I opened the back door and sat down. Inside, Mark explained the situation, and Mrs. Lamphear said, “Of course!” in a singsong voice, “Now Ron, where shall I drop you off?”
“I’ll tell you,” I slurred, bobbing my head back and forth in the back seat, like a debauched knockdown clown. We drove and drove, until Mrs. Lamphear, looking concerned in the rearview mirror, asked again. I looked around. “It’s back there,” I managed to say. We had passed Chautauqua a mile back, and were well on our way to Revere.
At the foot of the driveway, I thanked Mrs. Lamphear and Mark profusely. Mark said, “I’ll see you next year, at Pali;” but I knew this would not be the case. I didn’t explain. I just stammered, “Thank you!” and slammed the door.
Suddenly alone, I worried, “What if they find out I’m drunk?” I had successfully masked my pot smoking from my parents by eating an orange from the tree in the front yard before entering the house. I figured it could also work with alcohol. I reached and jumped and jumped again, and finally pulled down a large, almost ripe orange. For years I had peeled these thin-skinned oranges expertly as I walked up the driveway, peeling perfect spirals, before eating a section at a time. Now I split the fruit open with both hands and mashed it against my face and into my mouth. I scraped the orange flesh with teeth and swallowed, burping once.
I walked up the driveway, rang the doorbell. “Rony!” my mom said in her own singsong voice. “How was it?” I didn’t answer. “Come, sit down.” She led me into the long living room. My father hazed into view, sitting in his recliner at the far end. Next to him an empty white leather Nelson coconut chair, a modern triangle bowl toward which I headed as if to a nest. I stood above the white chair and barfed, long and loud into it, then without a thought, spun and sat in the middle of it.
I don’t remember the rest of the night. Apparently, Mom and Dad bathed me and put me to sleep. The next morning, I learned with indelible remorse, the definition of “hangover.” I also awoke with the greatest fear of what my big Bulgarian father would do to me. Eventually he entered my room, and in his deep, stern voice said, “Rony, I have just one question to ask you.” I looked out from the covers. “Yeah Dad?”
“Why don’t you wear underwear?”
I paused, smiling at his unexpected question, but he seemed serious. “I don’t know, Dad…sometimes it’s just more comfortable to go without it.” I was too ashamed to tell him the real reason: that I wanted easy access should I occasion to have sex at a Palisades party, a fantasy I continued to maintain, though it had never happened to me.
“Uncomfortable…you know, your mother and I took you into the bathroom, undressed you, and bathed you. Do you know that?” He seemed sickened by the memory of it.
At some level I did know this; but I didn’t have the empathic powers to appreciate how difficult it must have been for them to care for their teenage son this way.
“I want you to wear underwear!” he intoned emphatically. “Do you understand?”
“Yeah Dad,” I whispered, relieved to see there would be no more. Suddenly, he seemed the coolest Dad of all time.
Later that day, I reconnected with Tad.
“Dude, you were a wild man last night.”
“What do you mean?”
“You and Monica Johanssen going at it on the lifeguard tower.”
I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t remember. I wanted details.
“Totally Frenching, and feeling her up. Yeah Ron!”
I had scored and I didn’t even remember it. I thought of contacting Monica, but then the old fear about the noses returned. We’d see each other over the next few years, and smile and say “hi;” but we never mentioned what happened on the lifeguard tower. Still, it did happen — the guzzle, the frenching, the hitch and the barf, the sudden embarrassing moment of total exposure, the magnanimous moment of Dad — yes, all of it happened to an awkward kid with great ambition and no underwear, just graduating ninth grade with a store-bought bottle of 151.