This is not a romanticization of past events, it is a recollection of firsts, though firsts may often lean romantic. This is the account of how one small-town kid found themselves in possession of experiences that they never considered they’d have. It starts on a cold night in December, after rehearsal at the community theatre. A gaggle of ne’er-do-well teens hanging back in a dimly lit dressing room. Surrounded by seventeen-year-olds much more accomplished in their early careers than me, I took my first sip of alcohol. The parking lot outside the small theatre burned a quiet tungsten. We donned tutus from the wardrobe closet, huddled around a pot of poker chips. We chased shots with strongly mixed vodka-cokes. We drank like we were trying to break records. I laughed with abandon at the silly performances they gave, funnier than anything I’d ever seen before. They would blush at the recordings the next day when we woke hungover and in a hurry to leave before the janitors came to empty the trash. That morning I would walk across the street to the café where I worked, do a seven-hour shift, then walk back across the street for another rehearsal. I sat and painted sets in the lobby, the same lobby I had slid across in my bare socks the night before holding a paintbrush like a microphone à la Risky Business. That evening we would do it all again. This was how I spent my weekends during my last year of high school, but it wasn’t all cocktails and belly-laughs. There was a deep-seated shame that accompanied any enjoyment I felt, as well as an inclination for escapism that was rearing its sweaty head.
The day after my first weekend bender, I called the president of the Christian high school sorority that I had recently joined and dropped out. They had strict no-drinking policies that they were famous for enforcing. The grotesqueness of a sorority that hazes its young members and then imposes religious values onto them is not lost on me, but that’s how things go in a two-horse town. You let a stranger pour cake batter on your head on your 18th birthday so that you can belong to something. I probably didn’t have to drop. The drinking parties that caught their ear were the ones with atrocities occurring in the coat closets, red and blue lights spazzing outside on the lawn covered in empty solo cups. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a house filled with teenagers that I didn’t trust while we were sober in math class, much less while my consciousness teetered on a thin line pulled taught over a ravine of regrets. I had friends who had been brutalized in the master bedrooms of Southfield Plantation. If I was going to be brutalized, they would have to track me down. Find me in the rafters singing “OOM PAH PAH” to the delight of my friends below. My friends, with the keys to our haunted haven.
We chased each other around the stage, with eyes half shut, screaming like madmen. I’m pretty sure I clogged the toilet in the lobby, but we all blamed it on the musical director. When we slept, we slept on air mattresses pushed together into a creature nest. A few times I woke up buzzed and had to drive home while slapping myself in the face. At least twice we chased our friend through the streets of downtown and pulled him out of his car. I steered while they pushed the jeep, in neutral, back to the parking lot. We cared for each other in the way that drinking buddies do. No one gets hurt on my watch, but leave your issues at the door. The night belongs to revelry, party tricks, and stiff competition. I don’t call them now, but if I was home for Christmas and the theatre was open after a showing of Miracle on 34th Street, I would entertain the thought.
Let us, here, chronicle another first, which occurred one breezy April afternoon. I was in the car with someone I rarely see anymore, when I looked over and asked, “Can we buy some weed?” There were circles that did and circles that didn’t. I had never belonged to one that partook, but that day I was feeling like I needed something to make life worth living. We smoked two grams between us in the middle of my room with the windows open and incense burning. I didn’t know better than to let the smell seep into the carpet, and my friend was oddly possessive of my innocence. I ate the best apple I’d ever had, and then projectile lost it to a little floral trash can. She “greened me out” on purpose, then left me alone in my room to spread out and hallucinate on the rug. I can’t explain why they felt the need to put a bad taste in my mouth, but it worked. I was a nervous wreck every time I smoked around a bonfire that summer. Hyper-aware of every twitch and giggle, I stared at my feet and tried not to be too off-putting. My alcohol tolerance was through the roof, but I felt like if I so much as took a puff of a joint I’d slam down horizontal and my lungs and veins would merge and I’d never be able to breathe out the smoke from my fingertips.
It got better when I came back from my cross-country trip, just before I went off to college. I bought a gram from a neighbor. We met behind the Wendy’s where he asked if I was interested in pleasuring him orally. I said thanks for the herb, but you can go fuck yourself, and never saw him again. I brought a blanket and some snacks up to my roof with me that night and performed major surgery on a cigarillo. The stars wiggled their dance in front of my eyes, and my head rolled back into a circle that kept going and going. I sat there bundled up, imagining worlds no one had ever traveled to. Street lamps growing out of the ground like stalks of asparagus, monkeys swinging from neon vines. I had a grand ole time up there by myself and was happy. Happy during a year that lacked the happiness required to truly live. Every year since has been like that, but I smoked J’s in off-campus studio apartments while I folded the laundry and things were almost bearable. Why would I judge myself for that? It’s because I had become a person who was only happy when they were hiding a part of themselves from the people whose opinions had once been of the utmost importance.
I had my first cigarette that June, in the back of a truck parked at the elementary school under gnat-swarmed floodlights. The gravity is what got me hooked. As the Earth spun ‘round the sun, it pulled me closer than it ever had before. Oh, there’s nothing better than a low-commitment drug. I smoked with the window down while I drove around town because it was the only place I could exist as myself. That summer I drove 8,000 miles. When I moved away, I was delighted by the concept of walking into a Kroger without seeing a single person I knew. I smoked cigarettes in broad daylight as I walked through the park. It took exactly one to get from my place to my favorite coffee shop, and on Saturdays, I could cut through the farmers market. Not a single person there would tell my parents. Now I only indulge occasionally, when someone else offers. Or, I might go through a whole pack for the right party. A party with friends who feel like family.
I’ve shed a lot of fear in the past six years. It still lingers, but perhaps this is but a voice reminding me to take it slow. I look back on my days as a child being introduced to potions and remedies, and I’m proud of myself for exploring, for living. It’s an intimate decision that navigates deeply carved trenches of past and future. Some vices are to be avoided at all cost. For me, if the night is alive, if the company is good, if you are the person you want to be, raise your glass. Live, and be lifted.