by ABriana Jetté
Three days into my freshman year of college, Allie, my roommate, stumbled upon an unopened case of Budweiser outside of our dorm room, near the emergency exit. “I would have taken it,” she told me, “but it wasn’t light.” I looked at her bewildered. She had since been so willing to drink the hard stuff; she even packed two bottles of Jack Daniels in her suitcase—why would she suddenly pass up the chance to have a little fun? “Why do you insist on drinking light beer when we want to get drunk quickly?” I asked, my head deep into my armoire, my hands rummaging through blouses. Her left eyebrow raised, her face cocked sideways. “What,” she demanded, her brown hair gently falling past those slim shoulders, “are you talking about?”
Alcohol is everywhere: as common as water, as cheap as a bag of chips, even cheaper than a pack of cookies if you happen to be gluten free. My first sip was with Samantha, a childhood friend on whom I could write many pages. We were eleven, give or take a few years, and headed straight for the whiskey. But that’s the nothing sort of moment that most kids do. The first time I got drunk I was fifteen, off of a pint of 99 Bananas that I split with friends. A whole group of us zipped up our bubble jackets and gathered in the park, shooting down the first winter of adolescence. Unsurprisingly, I do not remember the first time drinking led to vomiting.
There was plenty of throwing up in college; I’m not talking just because of alcohol or eating disorders, but because of how horrible the food tasted, how processed it was. I learned quickly to avoid certain areas of the cafeteria, and within a month of being a college student I’d resorted to a diet of lettuce, tomato, and cucumbers, except for Sundays, when I would crave a bagel. Sandwich meat (or what we call cold cuts in Brooklyn) was never to be trusted. The freshman fifteen is a misconstrued myth; college students do not gain weight because of everything they eat, impossible! College students, or rather, my friends from college (and I), gained weight because of everything we drank.
Before I continue, allow me to explain that when I use the word “friends” in a paragraph dealing with college I mean Allie, Shannon, and Jenna. Allie, my room-mate and friend from high school; Shannon, a friend from Junior high and high school; and Jenna, a friend I believe I was destined to meet at freshman orientation, the Belle of Orange County, New York. If there was one, there was four, and the four of us got into more pickles in four years than most cucumber plants produce in a lifetime. There was the one night with the orange sunglasses, the two months with the twins, the one time Allie and I started our own cleaning/laundry business in which most of our “customers” cooked us dinner and bought us bottles of wine, the trip over the bridge to the private university Shannon’s boyfriend attended, endless walks of shame, broken heels, hair-holding, guy-chasing, even a mushroom trip that ended at happy hour. We watched our calories (i.e. Allie and the light beer), focused on our grades, and worked hard on our networking skills. We did not realize how beautiful we were. Of course, we recognized we were smart. We did not realize we how beautiful we were. We did not realize it was the time of our lives. We hiked through blizzards for vodka, batted our eyes at T.A.’s, one time we all even went out in Brooklyn, but none of us remember what happened.
Forgive me, I digress.
Back in the dorm room, Allie nonchalantly passing up the case of beer. “I used to give my dad light beer!” I exclaimed to Allie, as if confessing it, with a strong, vociferous breath. “So what?” she asked. “It’s better. You don’t feel as bloated.” But it was too late; I was drifting into memory, recalculating every conversation I ever had with my father, doubting it all. Isn’t that what he said?
Years ago, what seems like another life entirely, I would sit between my father’s legs as he watched television and picked on a late-night snack. Like a little puppy yearning to be coddled, I’d snuggle up to his calf and every now and again he would kiss my forehead, put his hand on top of my head, share a bite of his pizza or calzone or salami, and sometimes he’d ask, nicely, in a whisper, if I’d be kind enough and get him another beer. Mostly, I would.
It was always Daddy and Daughters’ time on Saturday mornings. Dad would make French Toast or hash and eggs, wake my sister and me up for breakfast, and let us play whatever we wanted until an hour before mom came home from work. Then it was a race to clean up our mess. He never asked us for the hard stuff, the screwdrivers or straight shots of vodka, but he knew I wouldn’t say no to grabbing him another beer. Maybe he asked my sister, too. I do not remember.
“Only if it’s light,” I’d bargain, every time. “I don’t want you to get to drunk.”
I remember him assuring me that the lighter the beer, the less alcohol. Why would he say this? And why did this truth decide to hit me then like a bad hangover, right before a ten a.m. workshop? Was everything he told me a lie?
The first time Anthony, my first boyfriend, came over for dinner my sister was tripping on ecstasy. My father had already finished half a bottle of Gordon’s, and was working as quickly as he could on the other half. My mother was still at work, then stopping by my aunt’s house to help paint her kitchen. It was the reason why my sister was tripping, my father was drunk, and Anthony was over at my house: because mom wouldn’t be home. We ordered Chinese; Anthony and I rented a movie. My sister convinced my father to eat wonton soup from his dinner plate, with a fork. Dinner consisted of eruptions of hysterics over the task’s impossibility. The whole time Anthony made small talk: Where was my sister going out? Who was she going with? How does my father like his lo-mein, with or without vegetables? Chantele’s pupils thinned like frayed strings, her jaw clicked with every pause. Dad gurgled broth as he let the words escape him. When they finally left us alone, Chantele out to club Limelight, Dad upstairs with his drink, I cried like a baby. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry, this is my home.” “Why are you crying?” he asked. “They’re wonderful.” It was like he never noticed.
It always comes down to the truth. Write it, say it, tell it. No matter the mode of communication, what one says should, to say the least, be trusted. Oh sure, we have all read narratives when the hero is indeed the villain, the writer fooling the reader, but the scenes, the setting, the facts, these are to be believed. Suspend your disbelief, theatre producers beg their audiences, trust my world.
I once went on a date with a man who revealed everything his psychiatrist told him during their first two sessions, which conveniently occurred the week before we met. Most women would walk away at the sign of such issues, but I was enchanted by his candor. “I view women in a very negative light because I believe they will always leave me,” he said, before our moules even arrived. Mom issues, but he was working on it. So what did I do? Did I sigh, put a smile on my face, and politely continue the date? Well, sort of. But mostly, I pursued the subject as if I was a miner and he a diamond stuck four feet in the dirt. “When did she first leave?” “What is your relationship like now?” “How has this effected other relationships in the past?” Freud would suggest that everything we do is fueled by our desire for sex, so our kiss at the end of the night did not come as a surprise. He and I had known one another for a while, and the date, the kiss, it was all a long time coming. Our act of departure was forced and dry-lipped. What I hold fondly, still, though, is my dinner companion’s honesty, so frank it was contagious.
One year, my father dressed up as the Tin Man for Halloween. It was a wonderful costume, literally made of tin. My sister, Chantele, was ten and too cool for costumes. I was six, and Kim, the pretty pink Power Ranger. At six, I did not fully comprehend that Daddy was drunk. Daddy was funny, a riot, those silly things he does: the way he falls on the floor, the way he slurs his words. I suppose, in matters of being honest, my father must have been drunk because before we could walk out of the door, Daddy was on the floor. His legs shot up. They could not bend, you see, he was in a costume made of tin. Chantele stood laughing in hysterics, mocking my tears with jeers of how Power Rangers were supposed to be able to save people. My father shouted at us to go next door and get Marie to help him up. Marie, our neighbor with whom we were going trick-or-treating with—her two girls close to my sister and me in age—came quickly, lent my father her hand, and helped him to his feet. It scared me, this image of Dad on the floor, legs and arms in the air like a dog mid back-scratch; the first time I saw him helpless. I used to believe there was nothing I could do to help him, but the truth is I never tried.
Maybe this is where I should divulge some honesty about myself. Lately, I’ve been grappling with the realization that I smoke a fairly large amount of marijuana. If I drank as much as I smoked, as my father did, I warn myself, I would be considered an alcoholic. If it were nicotine I was puffing on, well, surely I’d admit that I was addicted to cigarettes. I must very well be addicted to pot.
When I was a senior at New Paltz I lived above Tony and Kareem. Tony and Kareem sounds like a great name for a T.V. show, and when I was downstairs hanging out with them I always felt as if we were on a sitcom. Tony was the proud owner of a black miniature poodle named Sasha. I’d walk Sasha into town most Saturdays afternoons in Spring, and keep her in my purse at night. Kareem and Tony didn’t leave their apartment much, and I felt the girl needed fresh air. She was quite dark, like her daddy, and I was often drunk when I returned her. Kareem drove a midnight black Lexus, also named Sasha. The first time we met I was working, as I often was, at the university’s gym. Kareem, six foot something, massively tall, came over to where I sat and said, matter-of-factly, that he lived below me. Then, without a “How are you?” or “What’s your major?” he asked if I would ever kiss another girl. “Are you high?” I asked him, sort of sarcastically, sort of seriously. Three hours later Kareem stole me a push-pop from the town Mobile/Exxon. Orange Creamsicle—one of the tastiest push-pops of my life. Towards the end of the year, when we realized it was all coming to an end, Kareem would rise early and text me, wake and bake?
In London business men smoke joints in the middle of the day on their walk back from the pub. And forget about Germany! Marijuana is as common as a hooker in Berlin. I’ve heard heard about Amsterdam; however, I am actually scared to join the Dutch and have purposefully never traveled to the place, which would indeed be my idea of the Magic Kingdom. Truth is, I do not trust the world enough to truly let go of myself. It’s another thing I really like: being in control.
This is when marijuana really helps me, who wants to be in control of everything. There was a day during the summer of my senior year of high school when an ex-boyfriend decided to step up to the plate, be romantic, and baked me some cookies. We had been fighting more than usual, college, distance, and (dare I say it) love, rose my emotions but lowered his. I was sitting cross legged on his bed watching ESPN when he came in with the plate. “Baby, here. You say I can do more for you and I know it. I baked you some cookies,” he said, lowering the plate right up to my nose, his smile widening. The first bite was awful and the second worse. But he knew I couldn’t turn down a fresh baked cookie—that devil!—and so I ate the entire thing. Afterwards, I kissed him, said thank you. Perhaps I even apologized. Twenty minutes later it hit me: the warm chill, that tingle of the nerves from shoulders to toes. Chocolate chip weed cookies. He laughed when he told me. “Let’s just see where this takes us.” We broke up a few weeks after.
The first time I went to Anthony’s house his mother’s tiny body spread wide like a deflated balloon on the couch. Anthony walked right passed her, pulling my arm so I couldn’t stop to say hello. We were heading straight to the basement to make out on his orange leather futon. I stopped him half way down the stairs to ask about her, but he refused to talk, he had no interest in acknowledging her presence. An hour or so later I forgot about his comatose mother and went upstairs to pee. She remained in the same position, her head tilted back, her palms facing upwards, twitching her fingers every so often.
When his father came home, after making gnocchi and meatballs, he asked me if I wouldn’t mind staying at the table for a moment. He told Anthony to take out the garbage. His mother was upstairs. “My wife has a problem,” he told me. “But she does not represent my son.” There I was, sitting at the kitchen table with my new boyfriend’s father, listening to him explain to me that his wife was an addict. When he spoke, I stared at random objects on the pink Formica kitchen counter, or looked at the gaudy black and white linoleum that seemed to have been haphazardly placed on the floor. I wanted to be home, dealing with the only addiction I knew how to handle: my father’s. I did not need Jenny’s burden. I was fourteen.
Anthony and I stayed together for many, many years, and in that sense, he was the only one of my boyfriends to have known my father. Years after Dad passed away, Anthony and I sat in his basement, caved into one another on that orange leather futon, just sitting until time ran out. Curfew. A few minutes more. Then a half hour passed after the time I should have walked through my front door. Finally, one of us began. We spoke the truth we kept silent for years. It was either my dad or his mom, and it was my dad, and he’d been kind to me, and we loved one another, but who were we kidding? Nothing lasts forever, and we weren’t the same, either. In a matter of minutes we put us behind us. And that was that.
The first love story I was ever told was of my grandmother and grandfather. Poland, 1946. They’d both still suffered from malnutrition, but the kwashiorkor had yet to set in. My grandmother was twenty two and stepping into the world, out of labor camps, for the first time in five years. I imagine she was not scared or burdened, that she did not allow herself to mourn. I think the sun must have still burnt my grandfather’s eyes. Abraham and Anna. They met moments before the first bite of winter; he, stitching sweaters on the corner; she, frying latkes on a nearby street. He was hungry; she, cold. They snuck on a train out of Germany and wound up in Brooklyn. The rest, as they say, is history.
Children of addicts are masters at keeping appearances. They give second chances, clean up messes. How many nights I listened to my father tell me he was dying, that I might as well stick a knife in his chest and twist it because I was killing him, killing him, it was me. Sure he may have been drunk, but the fact remains: he’s dead. These days it is difficult for me to see what I did to prevent this. Ideas of how much better I could have been consume me. This is the only truth that matters. This is the truth I try not to see.
Abriana Jetté’s work has been supported by the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, The Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Hermeneutic Chaos, PLUME Poetry Journal, and The Seneca Review. “On the Rocks” is an excerpt from her current manuscript, The Lost Keys.