Make Your Mess Your Memoir
⏲ 9 minute read
You always remember your first time.
I know this because I’ve sat in 12-step meetings with hundreds of strangers over the years and I’ve heard more of them than I can even count describe the first time they drank with more detail than they can describe what they did the day before.
My first time actually wasn’t that remarkable.
I was 12 years old and my friend Maria had made the plan: we would chug vodka from her mother’s liquor cabinet, fill the bottle back with water and then take the bus into the city to meet two boys from our eighth grade class.
My excitement over this plan diminished when it became a reality. The vodka burned going down and when we got to the city and sat on cloudy Baker Beach with Charlie and Ethan, drinking more, Charlie leaned over and casually vomited over his shoulder.
“Carrots,” he remarked, shrugging before taking another chug.
The jury was in: drinking was gross.
If only I’d left it there.
But no, a few months later, I was with a different group of friends one night in a park in Fairfax.
People were passing around beer.
This was different from vodka; it was oddly delicious. It felt so good going down my throat, like a peaceful river and not like the wild torrent vodka had been.
And what it did to me?
I was effervescent, without having to exert even the slightest bit of effort. It was like every voice that had ever stopped me from being my very best self was erased and every voice that told me I was amazing got put on high volume. I was funny and charming and attractive and the chatter that I didn’t even consciously realize was always in my head evaporated.
What did we talk about that night? No idea. All I remember is that someone there knew Alison, my favorite babysitter from when I was a kid.
I sat on that park bench, talking to that guy, buzzed, remembering how Alison had made me an R2D2 costume when I was eight. Even though Star Wars had been my brother’s thing and really the only reason I was R2D2 was that he had wanted to be C3P0 and I had to be something that fit with that, Alison made our costumes with so much love that I no longer cared about how I thought Star Wars was stupid and overrated and boring.
That’s how alcohol felt to me then—like a babysitter who loved me so much that she could make something stupid and overrated and boring feel amazing.
My love affair with alcohol moved to the next stage the night I went to my first high school party.
I was a freshman and this party was at a senior boy’s house so I was both deeply impressed with myself for finding out about it as well as anxious as could be. But after quickly downing two beers, that anxious girl drifted into the ether and Effervescent Anna began to shine.
Effervescent Anna didn’t let an opportunity slip her by. And so, when Mike Goldberg, the senior boy widely considered to be God’s Gift to Womankind, walked by, I touched his arm.
“I have ‘Anna + Mike’ and a heart circled around it on my binder,” I told him by way of introduction. Then I added, “I’m Anna.”
While Mike was obviously aware of his King of the School status, I had ignored Cool Rule #1: Cool people do not acknowledge the superior among us. Drawing “Anna + Mike” with a heart around it on my binder was one thing but telling him that I had?
Potential social suicide!
But that’s the thing about Effervescent Anna: she didn’t care. And Cool Rule #2 is Don’t care.
Or at least that’s what I concluded when Mike looked bemused—and charmed. “I have the same thing on my binder,” he finally said. And then he gave me that crinkly-eyed smile that had earned him his God-like status. “You’re cute,” he added, before a succession of fans descended upon him.
And that’s when I understood: alcohol could not only make me into whoever I wanted to be. It could also get me whatever I wanted to have.
“Anna, can you come out here, please?” My mom stood at my bedroom door, a strained look on her face.
I looked up from my French homework, panicked; what had I done? And then I realized: my dad was home and since he usually came home after I was asleep, something had to be amiss. I was definitely in trouble.
But for what?
Had they figured out that when I’d said Katy’s dad had taken us to a movie last Friday night, Katy, Tanya and I had actually been drinking in Katy’s older brother’s music studio?
Had Katy’s dad called?
I tried to remain calm as my mom led me to where my dad sat in a chair by the fireplace, a gin and tonic and can of Beer Nuts on the table next to him.
But this time my parents were presenting a united front. They weren’t laughing at me, though. What was going on?
“Something’s going to be in the paper tomorrow,” my dad finally said.
Relief shot through me. This couldn’t have to do with me. I nodded, slowly, still not entirely sure I was in the clear.
“Something…about you?” I asked.
My dad was quite well-known in the Bay Area. He owned an electronics store and a computer store and he’d started the electronics store, Matthews, with a $3000 loan from his mother. It was now a multi-million-dollar business that advertised on the radio and local TV non-stop.
As a kid, I had loved it. I would get on the school bus or be in a store and his commercials would be playing on the radio; no matter where I was, I could hear my dad’s voice talking about the deals they offered at “the top of the hill, Daly City.” I was proud of what he had accomplished and how everyone seemed to know who he was.
Even when people called him “The Crazy Eddie of the West Coast,” I was proud. Better to be somebody than nobody, I figured.
But this level of pseudo-fame, he was explaining, came at a price.
“I did something that any smart businessman would do,” he explained. He paused, grabbed some nuts, threw them in his mouth. “They’ve decided to make an example out of me because they knew it would make news. It was really just a misunderstanding.”
I nodded, waiting for more.
I didn’t ask who “they” were or what he had done.
“Just so you know,” he said. My mom looked down.
It was clear that the conversation was over. I just had no idea what it meant.
I learned more the next day, when The San Francisco Chronicle’s story came out and wrote about what he’d done.
I didn’t really understand the details of the Chronicle story, or what my dad had done; I believed him when he said it was a misunderstanding and hoped no one would care about the incident at all. I reminded myself that Michelle Dawson’s dad had been caught up in a big embezzlement scandal the year before and she hadn’t become any sort of a social pariah.
I did wish my brother wasn’t away at boarding school. Michelle Dawson had a sister and brother who all went to our school. At least they hadn’t had to walk down the long stairway from the parking lot to the main campus all alone.
But the entire morning passed without anyone saying a word to me about the story, so I just told myself that no one had read it.
But then it happened.
I remember exactly where I was standing when Taylor Parsons came up to me—near the pay phone outside of French class.
“Hi Anna!” she said. She wore a sickly sweet smile as she walked toward me. Then she reached an arm out and patted my shoulder. “I want you to know I’m here if you need anything.”
I nodded, shame shooting through me. Effervescent Anna was gone. I picked at my cuticles.
I hated Taylor in that moment, hated her pity and the fact that she was doing “the right thing.” I hated that I was someone for whom anyone had to do the right thing.
Although we weren’t friends, our friend groups were adjacent. She was in the “good girl” group—the group between cool and nerdy—while I was desperately clinging to the cool group. Taylor and her friends were sweet. They were friends with all the same boys my friends were friends with, but they didn’t date them. They went to the same parties but they didn’t drink.
Still, I knew that Taylor had been put up to this conversation by her mom.
Everyone knew Taylor’s mom.
She was the quintessential Marin do-everything-right-but-talk-so-much-shit-behind-your-back mom. She was on all the boards, always donating things to the school and showboating her generosity. To look at this woman’s face was to know that she reveled in the misfortunes of others; the woman feasted on pity.
“Do you know what’s going to happen?” Taylor asked, and I realized she hadn’t just been sent on this task to show me how good she and her family were; she was there to dig for dirt.
“It’s all fine,” I finally said.
We both knew she couldn’t help. What was she going to do? Take my dad’s actions back? Make me not feel like I was waiting for some pronouncement that I was no longer accepted?
Why, I asked myself as I continued walking to French class, couldn’t she have had the decency to ignore this whole mess like everyone else?
After that, things changed. I went from being a part of things to being on the outskirts. Even though my dad didn’t end up going to jail, most people seemed to think that he did.
I would still sometimes be invited to the right parties, but only as an afterthought. The main events that my so-called friends were putting together excluded me.
There were several actions I could have taken. I could have transferred to a less snobby and far larger school where no one cared that your dad was on the front page of the paper over a misunderstanding.
Or, even simpler, I could have befriended the uncool girls—the heavier ones who loved history class and didn’t kiss boys or go to parties. Taylor’s group was out of the question: sanctimonious do-good-ing was never my vibe.
I chose, instead, to cling to my crowd.
I chose, in other words, to put myself in situation after situation where I was either barely invited or not invited.
At the end of junior year, thumbing through my friend Diana’s yearbook, I read an inscription from the cruelest of these “friends.” We had so many great times this year, Cory Carlson wrote in that curly cursive so popular among adolescents. Then below that, as a parenthetical: (except when you-know-who invited herself along).
Reading something like that and knowing that you’re the you-know-who is an experience I wouldn’t wish on any teenage girl.
It’s no wonder my relationship with alcohol grew. It’s also no wonder that you-know-who couldn’t wait to get to college.
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