I felt it grow like ink blossoming in water. My very first drink curled inside me with a delicate, black promise. I was fifteen, sitting on my closet floor in the dark, carefully tracing the thin, stolen bottle of Zima with my fingers. The cold glass was lined with ridges and still beaded with sweat. There was a second bottle sitting next to me. I’d only taken a few swallows, but they were all I needed.
Stop drilling, something told me. We’ve hit oil. I was sold. The Zima made my thoughts gauzy and pleasant. More than that, it suddenly explained all the easy energy I sensed at family parties, like the one that was going on downstairs. All the kinetic thrust of my aunts and uncles, who seemed so fun and so alive and so full of quick jokes, made complete sense. It locked into place. I could hear them getting louder downstairs as glasses were refilled, empty cans were crumpled, bottle caps twisted off. It awakened something distant inside me—a rustling of molecules and music and memories. I felt generations of wit, comebacks, conversations, and joke-telling talent rising up out of the mirth.
You will be a better person, Zima informed me.
As a high school junior, I was the editor of a school newspaper most kids used to carry slices of pizza around on. It was less a prestige job than it was a sign that I was good with words. I tried everything I could to turn that mimeographed rag into Entertainment Weekly or Rolling Stone. I ran starred album reviews that I wrote about albums no one else in high school would ever listen to. Instead of focusing on my fellow students and their stories and awards and accomplishments, I did two-page spreads on famous historical disasters like the Hindenburg and not-so-well researched features about UFOs. No one really said anything because I was pretty good at it. I considered, clutching the Zima, that I could be better. Alcohol could be the passport I needed to get into another world. Truth be told, I knew it wouldn’t—I was just a deeply insecure, overweight kid who vaguely resembled a swollen Fred Savage and repeatedly got told I smelled like my parents’ cigarette smoke.
No one was missing me downstairs. The music and laughter came in muffled swells, like ocean surf. All the while, I could feel the black bloom of alien confidence, the foreign feeling of being centered and in charge. I’d heard my aunt yammering on about Zima and how “it was better than sex.” She was my cool aunt, after all. She routinely used “fuck” like a comma around me. She was a good singer and always knew contemporary music. She insisted we watch Jaws together. She was fifteen years older and a bartender, so I officially considered her an expert on booze, bloody movies, and sex. Up to then, the heaviest sexual experience in my life was the time I furiously made out with my pillow, imagining it was Sherilyn Fenn from Twin Peaks.
The rush of alcohol through my veins tempered how I felt about myself. It made me feel like I was halfway to something real. Whatever that something was, I didn’t know. But I felt like some deep-space pioneer—that brave first pilot who had no family and not a goddamn thing to lose. He could afford to be shot into the cosmos. With a quarter-bottle left of Zima, I could feel myself drifting out on a long-distance mission with no clear destination. Maybe I was the sole survivor of some massive planetary disaster, Kal-El style. I don’t know. But with that bottle, maybe I was special. It was the key to unlocking a personality that had been hidden away from me.
In the muted light of my closet—my childhood Clue, Mouse Trap, and Life board games staring back at me—I weighed the bottle, considered how heavy and adult it felt in my hands, then finished it. The electric tang of the Zima was bright on my teeth. It flowed through me like diesel and velvet, making my veins glow. I swallowed back sour guilt.
And it clicked with me right then and there. This was how I wanted to feel all the time. I’d hear this phrase decades later in AA rooms: This is how I wanted to feel the rest of my life. Yes, I wanted to have the buzz at every second of every day—like Bob Ross was personally accenting my feelings with brushstrokes of happiness here, pretty little dabs of wonder there.
But there was more to it than that.
I wanted to feel as though there was always one more sweaty, full bottle of Zima next to me. Even at fifteen, I could do the math. This was simply how it was going to have to be. A second bottle, always. I wasn’t going to drink regularly—yet. I knew that. That wasn’t in the cards. For one thing, get-togethers aside, my parents didn’t have beer in the fridge, let alone a stocked liquor cabinet. I feel like alcoholism skipped over their generation like how tornadoes sometimes skip over one house but completely flatten the one next door. I wasn’t going to let it take root immediately and derail the grand parade of B-’s and C+’s I was pulling down in high school. I was a professional at doing just enough to get by, punctuated with show choir, the newspaper, and being clever enough in class to make the teacher laugh. But I knew that if I ever drank for real, there’d need to be a second drink right behind it. That was going to be the strategy. That’s the comfort I had—the security blanket that tempered whatever anxiety I had about stealing two Zimas.
I stood up in the closet, dizzy like I’d been standing on my head for too long, and stuffed two empty Zima bottles into the front of my pants. Everything seemed more dramatic. More weight. I stared at those board games and my scattered action figures. I actually said goodbye to them, out loud. I said goodbye to childhood. I stiffly walked downstairs without anyone noticing, my legs a half-pace ahead of the rest of me, and chucked the bottles into the trash.
I quietly, temporarily belonged somewhere new.
This is an excerpt from Bottleneck: A Drinking Memoir, published by East Shoreway Recovery Services. All rights reserved.