My first drink is an accident, one-note purple, too sweet to be dangerous. Cloying enough to make adults wince and draw children like hummingbirds to nectar. A tiny bitterness, the barest hint that something’s off, when my mother presents me with the sippy cup accidentally filled with Manischewitz in the midst of the carefully-controlled chaos that is our Passover seder. In half an hour I am face-down in my matzoh ball soup and all the relatives are laughing gently at me, the drunken three-year-old.
Until I am eleven I drink only out of other people’s glasses. I taste the tang of lime and mint in my father’s mojitos and the antique sweetness in my grandfather’s gin and tonics. I sip white wine from my mother’s cup when we visit her friend, my “aunt,” outside Philadelphia. She wanted three girls like my mother has but got three sons instead, and her house is missing a heart, a marrow, an essence. Her kitchen is beautiful and too clean. Her food is beautiful and too bland. Even the delicate acid of her wine is muted.
My bat mitzvah is held in our conservative synagogue, which smells like mothballs and stale cough drops. At the end of the service there is a Kiddush cup and a challah loaf to bless before we can get to the real party. Manischewitz again. I take the obligatory gulp of too-sweetness after my voice rises and falls with one more ancient melody. I feel grown up until the bartender at the reception will only serve me virgin daiquiris.
After I turn thirteen, I drink with family. On a Friday night in late spring my mother lights the candles and my father pours me a glass of a dark, sanguine red, the first glass that is entirely my own. The bitterness flows over my tongue and catches in my throat, stirring my secret taste for my own blood.
I am never cool or angry enough to opt out of certain traditions. We drive west to the farms and pluck the sunlight turned sugar turned cells turned fruits that swing pendulously in the October breeze. Under our feet are apples that have smashed sweetly into the ground, drawing wasps and flies to the bursting bruising ferment of their flesh. We drink hard cider from bottles emblazoned with an old man’s face in an apple tree. It tastes like a fairy tale you tell when the air chills and the leaves turn and the nights darken.
Before I leave home a doctor tells me alcohol will agitate the tiny time bombs embedded in my skin, will make my cells divide with about as much control and coordination as sloppy drunks. I nod with blank eyes because my brain is spilling over with anxieties and there is simply no room for another pour.
I am introduced to Jell-O shots during freshman orientation. I am with people I hope to eventually call my friends in the basement of the old church that has been converted into our dorm. The stained-glass windows gleam in the dim light and guard our sins from the outside world. I like curling my tongue into the tiny plastic cups, scooping out the glistening masses that taste vaguely like strawberries. They go down smooth and easy, like nothing. They make me feel like my body can contain all this newness. I swallow again and again and again until I stop remembering.
During my first semester I learn that beer bloats and distends, that chugging vodka is a bad idea, that my girlfriend’s tongue tastes better when it’s moistened with tequila.
I love the feeling of wandering these streets at night, of being slowly absorbed by the city until I am a part of the graystones and graffiti and the cigarette smoke curling in the early autumn wind. It is someone’s birthday and we spill off the sidewalk and into a bar, ordering beer and sangria pitchers because we can, because 18 is legal here. The beer is sour and yeasty and tastes like soggy bread, and the sangria is murky and oddly savory, like V8. But we love it because we buy and drink this as adults, basking in the tipsy glow of our freedom.