Drinking Indian Summer
I got drunk for the first time on an Indian summer afternoon in 1992. I was walking home from the bus stop with Julie. We were excited. The teachers were talking strike, it was Thursday, and the contract deadline was the next day. Most kids were blowing off their homework. The weather was warming up again, and we could feel a vacation coming.
Back then we were real small, skinny, both of us pipe cleaner people. Julie had a face like a children's book illustration, the picture of the pristine heroine: skin smooth and pale as the finest Columbian snow, lips rosy and wide as the carpet at a premiere, and cheekbones high and defined as a Disney princess. She would have looked more natural outlined in black than as the real girl she was. As for me, I looked like a rich Oliver Twist.
I asked Julie how her play was going. Every year, the fourth graders at Lincoln Elementary put on The Wizard of Oz. She told me she was Dorothy. I reminisced about playing the Scarecrow, as if an era had passed since I was in fourth grade – a year was a tenth of my life. Julie said the play's delay would be the only bad thing about the strike, but, still, the time off was worth it.
"Got a lot of homework?' I asked. She said she had some, but it didn't really matter anymore. "Same for me," I said. She asked if I wanted to play on the beach. "K," I said, "Let's go to the Spot." We passed her house at the bend on Forest Lake Road, and followed Cherry Orchard Lane to its end.
My house is at the Cul-de-sac, set back on a few acres of woods and dunes. The shore of Lake Michigan runs along the west edge of my lot. The people who owned it before my family built a series of jetties to slow erosion. The stairs to my beach stretch over these seawalls. Halfway down, there's a twenty foot square landing with railings. Four walls of weathered white pine surround the sandy floor under this deck.
This was the Spot, the place we went where parents couldn't find us, where we were free to try out new swear words, tell dirty jokes and sometimes build little fires. Julie and I were on our way there, but I was thirsty, so we stopped at my place for a drink.
Julie and I had a strange relationship for a couple of school kids. We talked mostly about acting and alcohol. The first topic made sense – we took theater classes downtown and were always child extras in the musicals the Roosevelt Civic Players put on. The second topic was the weird one – most boys and girls don't swap recipes of the drinks they made for their parents, or report eagerly about a Thanksgiving glass of wine and a Christmas cup of eggnog.
My mother was the drinker in my family, and she favored gin and tonics. I started making them for her when I was seven and didn't complain. As chores went, bartending was easy enough to do, and Mom was a functioning drunk, so it wasn't that demanding. She had three tall, stiff ones every night to fall asleep, always let Dad drive, and never got belligerent. My father had exactly one beer, Saturday afternoon at seventeen-hundred hours Eastern Standard Time. The six-pack of Michelob he kept in the garage ran out like an hourglass, so I thought he'd notice if I took any.
"Let's take those beers, Roman," Julie said when I tried to hand her a Coke. I thought about the consequences, but I was too curious to care. Without hesitation, I put our cans back and took the four brown bottles. That beautiful girl gave me a look – her Paul Newman eyes gazed at me as if I were Robert Redford and we'd just stung someone. I felt invulnerable beside her. It was impossible for us to get caught, because our parents never came to the Spot.
They didn't even figure out where it was until we were teenagers. When it was time for one of us to go home my mom would call once from the top of stairs, and we'd sneak up to the woods through the maze of seawalls so our parents thought the Spot was much further away. When the folks were around, we would take the same route to get there, but that afternoon we knew nobody was home from work yet. Julie and I took the shortcut, sneaking underneath the landing from the stairs.
The sun slid through the deck like the shadows of a streetlight through blinds. We could hear the rough October wake, but there was no view of Lake Michigan. The scent of burnt driftwood and dune grass from our small fire pit mixed with the distant odor of the fetid water trapped between seawalls. The sand below was slipping into my shoes with every step, but the air was warm enough that I could strip off my Reebok Pumps and sink my feet into the cool grains of quartz.
Julie took off her rainbow-laced Converse All-Stars and peeled off her mismatched socks. Her feet felt like vibrating toys when I tickled them, small as my oversized palm. I handed her a Michelob and took one for myself. We twisted off the paper-covered caps with a tear – me, then her. She drank with both hands on the bottle, but my fingers were long enough to sling it back like a real man. It was far from the first sip of beer for either of us – we'd even had whole drinks before. Julie tipped hers steep to gulp as much as possible as fast as possible, brown glass hiding half of her face.
Our conversation flowed like wine. Julie gossiped about a girl she'd caught crying after she didn't get a part. She and I considered ourselves above the other child actors in Roosevelt, because we'd never come away from an audition without a role. We were too young to realize that this had more to do with the size of the Roosevelt County talent pool than our talent as performers. We were always around grown ups, actors and parents, and they always told us how great we were over dinner and drinks after rehearsal or after work. We were stars in each others' eyes.
By the time I'd finished my second drink, I felt as if I'd just surfaced and gasped after counting to a hundred under the deep water between the shore and the sandbar. Then Julie got sick. She was tipsy halfway through her first beer. But only a few sips into her second she said, "Fuck! my tummy," and doubled over as if she'd taken a jab. Julie threw up everything in her with one heave, her fragile limbs tightening as the storybook face went horror show. Then did something hard to forget – she took another drink and swallowed to rinse the taste back into her stomach.
Next Julie talked about how she'd been drunk before. "Daddy gives me special milk when I can't sleep. Last couple times, I was like, 'I still can't sleep,' so he gave me more. Never hurled before, though," she said, and smiled with frightening pride. "You should try it. It's fun." I dropped my empty Michelob onto the sand. Julie handed me what was left of hers, but I shook my head. "Don't be a pussy, Roman" she said. My big hand took I took the beer from her two small hands, and after a long drink, almost dropped the glass slippery from condensation.
My mother drank almost a pint of gin a day with few consequences for herself. Her parents split a fifth of vodka every night and held down demanding jobs well into their sixties. That's not why I got drunk at ten, but it does explain how I finished Julie's beer without even getting queasy. I've only thrown up from drinking once, when I drank a bottle and a half of cooking wine because Mom was out of gin and out of town. More times than I can remember, however, I've seen her purge so she can keep on binging.
In her nine years, Julie hadn't yet learned how to throw up so she could drink more. But she weighed two-thirds what I did, so she was already right where she needed to be. She swayed in place like a budding blade of dune grass. When I finished the last of the Michelob, she hugged me, as if we'd completed a magical quest and this was the happy ending. She felt so small, delicate, as if the page she was printed on might break apart in my hands if I licked the corner. The scents of baby shampoo, beer, and vomit filled my nose when she kissed my cheek.
I don't remember much after that. I know we wasted the rest of the afternoon, wasted, in the Spot. I recall walking past the dining room, telling my parents I had diarrhea, and going to bed early. The next day I was fine, somehow. At recess, Julie told me she took a shower and her parents didn't notice a thing. My teacher showed the class movies all day, then struck for a month. Julie's play got cancelled, but she starred in Annie a month later and forgot all about Oz. Dad drolly blamed the missing beer on Mom, and her evening memories were sketchy enough that she conceded to the accusation with a laugh, as if her brownouts were a joke.
Julie and I grew into lovers and it all felt as natural as puberty. We'd drink in the spot and try to figure out what to do with these bodies, real clumsy so it felt innocent. I waited till she had breasts to cup her bra, and I swear some days I could feel them growing. I came for the first time in her hand and it freaked both of us out; we thought I might be sick and could figure out what to do with all that stuff. By then she'd hit her growth spurt and I hadn't, so she was taller than me by a couple inches. When I hit mine I got all long and could wrap my arms around her whole body if she curled up into a ball. She could feel me growing, too. I've never lived in a big city or anything, but I think it must be something like that, exploring a place that makes you happy and makes you happy because it's always changing, always getting better, or at least different. That was Julie, always a new neighborhood in my neighborhood.
We taught each other to make love in the spot, afternoon after afternoon, further, closer, and finally there. By High School, I was real comfortable in her skin. We would hang out, drink cocktails, fool around, and after I came she'd leave me and go write plays. She liked to write right after sex, when her head was clear, like the Lake on one of those days without waves. I never felt alone when I'd lay back in the sand and smoke and finish my drink, even though she was up at her house typing dialogue. Part of me felt like I was always inside her, like I was writing, too. I never stayed too long in the spot, just long enough to finish my gin and tonic and a smoke or two. I'd go up and finish homework or read plays until Julie had done her three hours. Then she'd come over and read her pages aloud to me. I think it helped her revise, just hearing how her characters were really talking. Julie never did homework; she wrote instead, and only went to school so she could be in plays and debate and performance stuff like that.
We never wanted to be kids. We wanted to be like my Mom, all sophisticated and artsy. That meant drinking like Mom, who drank more and more all the time. Weekends we didn't go to parties; we had dinner with our parents: cocktail hour and wine with food and brandy with dessert. They even had us at dinner parties, a couple like all the other couples. I guess we looked old enough by then, but everyone knew we were barely teenagers. Some of them must have that it was a little weird, but our parents weren't among that crowd. They wanted to be our friends and the only one who ever got drunk drunk was Mom. She had the problem, but we were all having way to much fun to notice.
My mother died of cirrhosis on an Indian Summer afternoon in 1997. I was biking home from high school with Julie. We were excited. The teachers thought we were debating, but we'd ditched the van to the tournament in Grand Rapids. Now we were almost there, almost to the Spot, where we smoked and drank what we hid in underwear drawers. The weather was warming up again, and it was balmy enough to lie comfortably in the dark, cool sand under the stairs.
I asked Julie how her play was coming along. Every day she would report to me on new scenes she'd written in her family drama, an adaptation of A Doll's House with a teenage runaway as its heroine. Julie was paying her dues in the high school drama program so that one day she could put on her play, when it was finished. She spent too much time on theater and debate and got mediocre grades. But Julie insisted that it didn't matter – drama schools care about portfolios and performance, not cumulative GPAs.
By that time, I'd given up on acting in favor of technical theater. I was paying my dues so I could direct Julie's play – stage managing, designing sets and lighting and sound. We were a good pair. "You're my common law wife, Roman," she told me – sometimes when we were alone and sometimes in front of all our artsy friends. Either way, I'd chuckle.
Julie looked down at the bike lane and laughed. "I'm working on the dinner scene," she says, gazing up at the two parallel edges of foliage lining the road. "The dad drinks, like, two bottles of wine," she continued, "and tells his daughter that he and her mom aren't married – in front of the mom, like she's not there. Uses the mom's first name and shit like that. Real funny stuff."
I laughed, then rode into the street and slalomed through the dashed yellow down the center. The lines doubled and turned solid as we headed up the paved dune near the west end of Forest Dunes Road. A beige Land Rover pulled over the hill and I swerved right. The boomer driving honked twice, at length. "You so crazy," Julie yelled. I flashed a wide eyed glare and bared my teeth. We were laughing as I pulled back into the bike lane. At the top of the hill, the horizon had risen enough for us to see the Lake, but it disappeared as soon as we descended.
The street ended and bent south, into Forest Lake Road, then ended and bent west again, into Cherry Orchard Lane. The further west we went, the longer the driveways got. In Roosevelt County, then as now, following the money and following the shore are one and the same. Lake Michigan Estates lies on the westernmost point in the county. Back in the fifties, the subdivision's developer called this headland Cape Dough. I didn't know the name for my home until I got to junior high, where kids talked the kind of shit people once said only behind my back.
Julie and I lived in a fantasy world, the only place in our hometown rich enough for people to feel guilty for their wealth, to be liberal. Our parents were opened-minded enough to encourage theater as a career, not just a hobby. Sure, Dad made jokes about my baby-smooth hands and showed me the scars on his – from working his way through the University of Michigan building fences one year, hanging door frames the next. When he was a kid Dad saw a Michelangelo and decided to be a sculptor, but he met his wife at college, got competitive, and decided to earn his own fortune. He has two business degrees, a construction and real estate empire, and the dream that maybe his son will be an artist.
Mom didn't want me to be artist; she demanded it – painting lessons, piano lessons, acting lessons. Mom was, for practical purposes, old money, so for her, status wasn't measured in symbols – it was measured in appreciation of the sublime. Mom detested the Roosevelt Country Club – "Those supposed ladies are so provincial," she would complain, "They vote Republican and call Charles Dobson and Steven Covey philosophers." Mom spent her time writing impossibly long doctoral theses on Philosophy and Art History for local state universities, organizing charities too liberal to be popular in West Michigan, drinking, and, occasionally, raising me. "When you're an artist," she used to say, "you won't just understand the sublime. You'll create it."
Mom loved Julie so much it made me jealous. Even when I was fifteen, I knew I couldn't write. My talent was always making other actors better. "What I really want to do is direct," I told my mother once, and she smiled and shook her head, as if she'd always wanted me to be a doctor and I'd just applied to nursing school. Julie, though, Julie had talent. She acted well and wrote even better. "I want to be a girl Sam Shepard," she told my mother once, and Mom smiled and nodded, with a happiness matched only by her rosy glow after a tall glass of gin, knowing who gave my girlfriend a copy of Curse of the Starving Class.
Julie even looked like my mother. Both were five-eight, with chestnut hair, smoky eyes, and milky skin. Both wore the same perfume and preferred the same booze, so their scents were all but indistinguishable. Dad used to mock me about their resemblance, telling me about Oedipus as if my girlfriend hadn't already made me read that play. He would smile, pleased with himself, as if he'd invented psychoanalysis.
There was truth in his joke, of course, but, till the end, there was a huge difference in the way I perceived them, thankfully. The qualities that embarrassed me about Mom were qualities that I loved Julie for – arrogance, beauty, and alcoholism. What really got me, though, was the same reason my mother loved my girlfriend almost as much as my mother loved herself: Julie was an artist; Mom was only a critic.
Still, I wouldn't even concede their similarities till my mother was no longer available for comparison. Julie and I were young enough not to compare each other to our parents. We would never be them, as cool as they were with drinking, as often as they were willing to look the other way while we screwed.
It was understood that Julie and I would race down Cherry Orchard Lane. We were eager to work up a sweat. When I stopped my bike by the garage, she was still a distant figure at the vanishing point of my wooded driveway. When Julie finally caught up she was panting. "Too much smoking," she joked, then lit a cigarette. Her lips around a white shaft, the blasé blows of exhalations, offered such promise that I got hard just watching her burn one.
I ran inside and emerged a moment later with a blue bottle of gin and a carton of orange juice. Rattling between Julie's elegant finger and thumb, a brown bottle promised high times. The alcohol I saved a little at a time, from my mother, in an old Bombay Sapphire fifth. The drugs were prescribed to Julie a few months before, but she only abused them.
Her parents were certain that the only way someone as smart as their daughter could get such average grades was if she had a learning disability. They took her to a shrink who talked to them for an hour and to her for five minutes. The family walked away with a Adderall script and smiles all around. Of course the drugs didn't work – Julie could pay attention like an air traffic controller when she wanted to – but she kept playing the ADD role because she heard she could drink more if she snorted the stimulants. Plus the uppers worked with her smokes to keep her looking her waifish best.
Julie didn't keep me around because of the way I looked. Don't get me wrong, I'm cute, in a way, but I've got a hooking wasp nose with asymmetrical nostrils, and Dad called me his little chimp because of my long arms and horrible posture. I was tall but as thin as a starvation casualty. I've got my father's fine, sandy hair, but it was cut as if someone had stuck a bowl on my head and gone at it. My eyes and lashes are huge, but my coke bottle lenses halved their size. Those might sound like nitpicky complaints of a narcissist, but they were flaws I could point out in a few seconds.
I studied Julie's appearance for years, and could write quite a list of defects. Alone I had trouble coming up with anything, but she could rattle off her imperfections like machine gun bullets into a reflecting pool. Her right eyetooth was crooked, about ten degrees clockwise – but it looked fine in the context of her otherwise impeccable dentistry. Her left ear was an eighth of an inch higher than her right – but I only noticed this one when she wore sunglasses that sat on her nose just barely crooked. Her right breast was a quarter cup size smaller – whatever that means. When Julie really got into it, she would go off about the size of a pore on her right nostril, or the differing lengths of her ring fingers. It sounds vain and absurd, but this shit kept her up nights, till she would slip into kitchen for a very special milk.
The pain of narcissism is like listening to a parent rattle off a list of valid, cutting reasons for deep disappointment. Every reflection is another lecture. I knew what to say to her to make that voice as irrelevant as a talk about the birds and bees with a ten-year-old. I'd heard Dad's self-effacing solace of Mom's self-immolation so often I could recite the common ones like litanies. Sometimes I had to do just that. Julie kept me because of the way I helped her look at herself.
Julie followed me down the stairs, and we slid under the landing. Years before, we'd given up the pretext of wandering through mazes of jetties and trees to lose the parents. The boards above cut the sunlight into white lines along the sand below. Julie took out her script, dropped a couple pills on her compact mirror, mashed them withtthe side of a Bic lighter, cut them with her student ID, and railed them with a rolled bill. She coughed, and waved at me for a chaser. I handed her OJ but she took gin by mistake, took a swig, and gagged, dropping her script, scattering pills across the sand. In the distance, I thought I heard someone call, "Roman," but it was hard to tell with the roar of autumn water breaking.
Taking the juice from my hand, Julie swished it, to rinse her mouth. She took a huge gulp of gin and gagged again, this time spitting something after. I took her bottle, put its lid back on, and set it in sand. I heard my name again – I was sure this time. Kneeling, I started collecting pills, but she knelt next to me.
I closed my eyes and her mouth moved in mine. Bile had never been so delicious. One hand found a chill beneath her white ribbed tank, beneath her black cotton bra; another hand found the warmth beneath her short denim skirt, beneath her black cotton drawers. Opening her felt as comfortable and pleasant as the first sip of a cocktail after a long day at school. Her shirt coming off still felt like a sunrise over the playground. Pop-snap of the top. Her unnoticeably larger left breast brushed my thigh as her mouth took what had grown and strengthened it.
Eyes rolled back and through the slats I saw an alligator on my father's chest. Dad bent down to look back at me, through the opening between the landing and the walls. His gaze shot from the bobbing head in my lap to the brightly spangled drugs dotting the sand to the gin bottle planted in the grains. No sooner had he seen it than he blushed, ashamed, and rose to address us without leering into our private world. "Roman, Julie – there's something I need to tell you."
Oh great, Mom's dead, I remember thinking. She'd been dying for weeks. Like someone smoking through a trach, Mom kept getting caught with alcohol. I suspected Julie was smuggling it in for her, that there was some conspiracy involving stashed pints and purses. Going to visit my mother felt like watching wrists slit in slow motion – half the time there was booze on her breath. My father only left the hospital at nineteen-hundred hours, to bring me to see her, and exactly sixty minutes later, to bring me home. I knew what it meant to see him early.
Dad didn't have a clue that Julie and I were supposed to be debating in Grand Rapids. When we crawled out of the spot, he had the look of an actor trying to cry while angry at the director for unfair casting. "Your mother just passed," he recited. Julie's steel eyes twitched, hollowed by Sapphire and Adderall. Her thick lips hung open, still marked by a few flecks of vomit. I figured my father came expecting a performance, and Julie was in no state to give him one – so I broke, eyes flowing like a willow in a hurricane. A week later the actress was wailing at the funeral, but when Dad needed melodrama, she wasn't ready for her cue. I'm ashamed to admit that my tears came out of disappointment with my lover as much as over the death of my mother.
After my father said "Buck up, little chimp," and patted me on the back, after he put an arm around me, after I knocked it away and kept on crying, Julie moved. She wiped the green globs from her lips and hugged me. The scents of Chanel No. 5, gin and vomit filled my nose when she kissed my cheek.
- Dylan James Brock, October 2002