I don’t really drink nowadays. Once I did.
Before I was old enough to vote I knew the bitter warmth of stolen 40’s behind the district park gym. I knew about waking in a friend’s bathtub with ice picks of pain in my head, my clothes stiff with Captain Morgan laced vomit. I knew the sour sting of topping off a night of drinking wine coolers with 750 mL of sickly-sweet Kahlua, fast and straight, as well as the inevitable result of such an evening- the cool compress of a toilet against my face as I rested my cheek against the porcelain between heaving bouts, wishing I could die.
No, I don’t really drink anymore.
But yesterday was one of those days. Work overwhelms me lately. Some of the blame lies on me- perfectionist, overachiever, constantly volunteering myself, driven and pressed by some great ruling inner compulsion. Much of my recent stress, though, stems from things outside of my control- new legislation at the Federal level, grant promises exchanged between the powers that be, pressures from our parent organization. With so many balls in the air, I’ve been suppressing a swelling panic that I might ruin everything I’ve been assigned. Yesterday, it broke free. By eight hours into a three day conference I was already fried, fighting a panic attack in the conference center parking lot.
Plus, it was my mentor who invited me. The one other member of my team reacting with me to the urgency of the current situation. The only other one desperately scribbling notes as we sat through presenter after presenter washing a wave of regulations and change over the crowd. The coworker I was closest to, who had taken me under her wing from the day I joined the program. She caught one glance at me standing next to my car, tears quivering in the corner of my eyes and suggested a drink in the hotel lobby.
What else was I going to do? Sit in my hotel room and worry? So I deposited my work-bag in my room and wandered down to join her.
She ordered a beer. I scanned the menu looking for something that sounded delicious, fun, and indulgent. A treat of a cocktail. Then I saw it.
Black Cherry Old Fashioned
Maker’s Mark Bourbon / demerara sugar / cherry bitters
1806 style old fashioned “No Muddied Fruit” crafted with Maker’s Mark bourbon, demarara syrup, finished with cherry bitters and a Bordeaux cherry
Yum! It sounded delicious- fruity enough that I wouldn’t taste the alcohol but not too sweet. I only blinked a few times at the price, “$10.76 please” and even tipped a couple bucks. The steep price tag of that drink on a teacher’s salary rankled a bit as I watched the bartender prepare it. First she grabbed a tiny glass tumbler, then filled it full of ice, sprinkling what must have been the bitters imperceptibly in the glass. Ten bucks for a measly 3 or 4 ounces of mixed drink! But then a new worry replaced my frugality as she poured one jigger, then two, of straight alcohol in the now nearly full glass. My eyes went to the label. Whiskey. Is Bourbon synonymous for whiskey? She added a cherry, topped it with a slice of orange, and as much as I hoped she would reach over and pour in something else (anything else!) to cut all that booze, she pivoted then and presented me with my order.
Retreating to our table I tried to make the best of it.
“Oooo…what did you get?”
“Not what I expected,” the aroma of whiskey overtook our table and transported me, lubricating my tongue. “Smells like my childhood.”
By eight years old, I was already skilled in the art of fetching my stepfather a drink. Not yet tall enough to reach the large glasses on the top shelf, or the liquor cabinet above the stove, I’d hoist myself onto the counter. Next I’d grab a plastic tumbler from the first cupboard, one of those ringed by four smart rows of penguins marching neatly round. A few steps of my bare feet across counter-top brought me to the highest cabinet where a bottle of Seagram’s 7 always fronted a handful of options. I’d set the bottle on the counter at my feet then nimbly hop down again, moving to the freezer for ice. Eight or nine cubes filled the glass. The whiskey I measured by penguins, drowning the first row of birds in a pungent amber pool, then the second, until the flood came to rest atop the heads of the third row. Moving over to the sink for water, I submerged the final penguin ring. Proudly I carried Mike’s drink to the living room where, with whiskey in hand, he smiled at me.
At least the cherry looked appetizing. I plucked it up by the stem and popped it in my mouth. Blech! That plump little orb may have looked delicious but any fruity flavor it once possessed was lost, overpowered by the potent alcohol.
“Did I meet him at your wedding?” queried my coworker.
“No. My real dad and my mom’s current husband came. Haven’t talked to Mike in years. He was the one who raised me…. or didn’t raise me, I guess. He and mom were together from my 7th birthday until a week before my 18th, 11 years.”
Mike was not a sloppy drunk, stumbling around with slurred speech. Rather his drinking seemed to fuel disgust for his stepchildren and their mother’s parenting abilities. Whiskey was the whetstone on which he honed the blade of his tongue, his preferred weapon in the war he waged against us.
“Nice one, Kate,” he jabbed, dripping with sarcasm, each time I, a graceless child, dropped, broke, or bumped into something.
“Lazy. You do such a half-ass job. How are you ever gonna hold a job?”
“And that’s why you don’t have a waist,” he’d sneer after watching me pick an item up off the floor with my toes instead of bending over to grab it up.
He regularly slashed at my mother, “Too soft on them”, “Your fault”, “They’ll never learn”, “If you would only…”, “Lazy, no-good kids.”
Mustering my courage, I tentatively sipped the old fashioned. I couldn’t detect even a hint of black cherry. I may as well have ordered Seagram’s 7 on the rocks.
“I think he’s part of the reason I’m such a workaholic.”
Years after the divorce, I orchestrated an opportunity to prove him wrong. The fervent drive I brought to every job translated quickly into promotions and raises. By twenty-three I had reached one pinnacle of a culinary career, opening a restaurant of my own design. Picking up the phone, I dialed the familiar number.
“Good afternoon. You’ve reached Alert Alarm.”
“Mike, please”…..”Hey Mike, Kate here. Look, I’ve opened a restaurant and I need a quote…”
A few days later he arrived and I steered him through the restaurant, a monument to my success. My back office. The menus of my own design. The few dozen employees who carried out my requests. The 60 year old owner who deferred to my judgement.
As Mike pitched his proposal, I nodded. He offered no apology. No admission that he had been wrong. No pride in my accomplishment. Not even a “congrats”. Only a quote and a handshake.
“You know what? I don’t think we need an alarm after all.”
The only hope for my drink was the orange wedge perched at the edge of the tumbler. I wrung the wedge dry over the glass and gave it a stir.
Nope, it simply wasn’t enough orange juice to dilute all that whiskey to a palatable state. Maybe I should order a soda to cut it?
“I don’t think there’s any saving this drink.”
“Why don’t you order something else,” my companion urged, “I’ll pay.”
“Nah…I only saw Mike one time after that. It was when my sister and her boyfriend came to town. It didn’t go well. He was kind of a womanizer.”
Brandi was insisting; I wavered with indecision. “Why don’t you guys just go? He’s your dad.”
“Kate, he raised you. You can’t really blame him anyway. He was only following his heart, trying to find happiness. Just come.”
In the end I did go, my fiance on my arm. At the restaurant, they seated us at a long table, Mike at the head, a daughter and her man flanking him on each side. He held court, guiding our conversation even as he ate and drank and I was glad I had come after all. Mike had never lacked charm. Charisma so winning, few outsiders ever guessed at the battleground in our home.
His neutral conversation faltered a few drinks in when we asked where his girlfriend was.
“O, Theresa… I’m seeing someone else nowadays. Traded her in for a newer model. Out with the old, eh guys?” he leered, shooting a cocky smile at Brandi’s boyfriend then my own fiance. Our strained laughter settled over the table like a cloud, bringing a hasty close to the evening.
In the lull, the busy bartender, the single person working the bar and floor of the restaurant that evening, found a moment to check on us. “Everything all right?” she asked, eyeing the glass tumbler, still full, that I had slid off to the edge of the table.
“Oh, it wasn’t what I expected. My fault. I didn’t realize it was such a strong drink.”
“Let me grab you something else.”
The hard cider she brought back was delicious. Crisp and fresh.
“Not much of a fan of cider,” confessed my coworker. “Where I’m from, it’s everywhere.”
“Huh. Well, it’s exotic to me. Apple cider isn’t much of a thing in Hawai’i where I grew up. It tastes like fall.”
And it did. Each cool swallow hit my mouth like autumn; the rich mellow sweetness of the old passing away in a burst of final brilliance.
“Mike tried to friend me on Facebook a few years ago. I didn’t accept. It was freeing, you know? Like I forgive you but I don’t have to let you hurt me anymore.”
Last I heard he had finally retired. Retired, moved to the mainland with the most recent wife, a Korean bar maid, and bought a liquor store. It was Brandi who told me of course. She had even surprised them with a visit, walked right up to the counter at the store, and said hello. “Didn’t even recognize me at first,” she laughed, “so out of context.” Honestly, I wasn’t shocked. When had he ever known any of us?
It seemed so very fitting- Mike living out his final years alone, far from any friends or family, with just a store full of whiskey and a younger wife.
Everything he’d ever wanted.
I realized all of a sudden, probing the old wound, that it no longer ached. I could sincerely hope that he was happy. And that was enough.
As I finished the last dregs of cider, my mentor yawned. “I think I’d better head to my room. Today’s been a whole lot of socializing for me.”
We laughed and rose, exchanging a hug before wandering off to our respective rooms.
Striding away, I abandoned the old fashioned there, in a puddle of its own condensation, amid the evidence of our meal: empty plates, soiled napkins, and a couple of drained bottles.