My first beer was Coors Light, the brew of watered-down malt concentrate. My first wine was Espuela Del Gaucho, an Argentinean Malbec of exceeding smoothness (for the cost). But my first liquor was Wild Turkey 101, which my father used to fill my ice-filled glass to the top before filling his own. With those two pours the fifth was half gone. This was the first holiday season after the divorce.
“Nowhere to go tonight. I do advise you drink slowly, though,” he told me as we brought our glasses together.
I was fourteen and filled with so much electric expectation that I took a swig of the stuff without even, at first, tasting it.
When my father lowered his drink, his mustache shimmered in the dim flicker of fire and people come in through the French doors into my aunt’s spacious dining room. I could hear Jaime, my melancholy cousin, strumming his guitar and singing “You can’t buy beer, you just rent it,” and the rise and fall of voices and laughter supporting the song in a way that was not musical but was nonetheless right. I ached from digging the pit for the turkeys and hams, and I really needed a drink, which my father recognized in the moment more clearly than I.
“It’s good,” I said.
My father’s eyes twinkled like some of those of the all-knowing narrators of old stories, from back before post-modern, cynical omnipotence. I wonder if it is because he is my father or if it just arises naturally, from time to time, out of people of his generation; he becomes the angel Clarence for brief moments, gifted with preter-sense of all sensuous time, as well as insight into me or my sister that neither of us have ever been granted into another person in our lives.
And then the burn of bourbon rises up the back of my throat, like the stiff bristles of a living creature that has given up on life but still seeks to inflict agonizing fucking pain on the predator that did it in. I was yet to learn that part of the point of bourbon is the hurt of drinking it. All bourbon tastes like lesser Wild Turkey to me; Even Wild Turkey doesn’t taste quite like it used to, and I know I’m not the only one saying it. Not that the recipe has changed–bourbon is a painful nostalgia.
I look and see that I’ve taken three fingers of the stuff into myself, and my forehead breaks out into an instant sweat.
My father says to me, “Take it easy now,” and I nod but really I don’t hear him. I’m concentrating on not vomiting right there in front of him. “It’s bourbon, son.”
“Uh huh. That’s strong stuff,” I say.
“You don’t have to finish it,” he offers.
“It’s not a problem.”
“Still, don’t go crazy.”
“I know how to fucking drink, old man.”
“I could drink you under a Japanese table, boy.”
I steel myself and take another sip, never breaking eye contact with my father. That night, I decide that it is as important to me that I finish the entire drink as it is that I don’t throw up. When my father pours himself another glass, I down what’s left of mine and extend the glass for more pain.