Local beer-buddy Doug Smiley of Baltimore Bistros and Beer is hosting the 85th iteration of The Session. The topic: Why do you drink? I got a bit experimental with the syntax, but screw it, it’s a party.
The party is stagnant. Four new roommates stand in a crude circle. Their friends stand in divided groups, like a middle school dance. Small talk, weather, work is all anyone can muster. There was a time, earlier in the week, when everyone thought this was a good idea. The bowl of pretzels seems to be the most lively member of the gathering.
Poppy lyrics drift in from a lonely backroom stereo. Quiet, but audible enough, a soundtrack to a mistake. Faces stare at screens instead of each other. Excuses form; doors are eyed. An awkward laugh trails off before the echo of a bad joke.
But above the social lullaby a cork schlunks free like a single shot fired from starter’s sidearm. The rest of the band joins in, hissing, and glugging, and clinking hellos. Door knocks and six packs find their way in, and suddenly regret seems hasty.
Each sip or chug finds a mate with a boisterous laugh, and together they dance through conversations. A board game bursts to life with rolling dice, doing its best to keep pace with the shuffling of several decks of cards. It’s hard to track rounds when everyone starts drinking at different times, but bottles begin to pile up on counter tops, the lacing and puddles left on and in glasses the only sign the drink had ever been there in the first place.
A woman shouts out the lyrics to her favorite song, now blasting from the stereo that was surreptitiously turned up, turning the din into a unified chorus, singing perfectly in time with You Give Love a Bad Name. Shot through the heart, her boyfriend retreats to his shot slamming friends, licking his wounds right after he licks some salt and sucks a lime. Everyone winces and agrees shots are a bad idea, but in a perfectly little golden row the boozy cylinders line up anyway, revving the engine of the party to red line: 8000 RPM.
Right about now, unwanted guests crash the party; a petty conversation about Karen (that bitch), an argument that doesn’t need to happen in public (or at all), a unsettled stomach that didn’t eat dinner (and probably should have). The alcohol has loosed the lips, sinking social ships, drinking guarded sips, thinking in vitreous hollow tips. But through the noisy fog of camaraderie these voices don’t stand a chance, squelched and squashed at the first reminder that this is a party, after all, so take it easy and have some fun.
Behind these guests come the uninvited but not unwelcome, the intellectual discussions made hilarious by the participants forgetting what they’re talking about or slurring their sesquipedalian attempts to weave in jargon, to stay on theme, to stay on topic, to appear, in their group, the wisest and most learned of the ones who’ve maybe had just one too many. After each takes turns debating, countering, after logic fails because of liquid luxury, after the flow hasn’t followed it’s original path, Hemingway and Joyce and Kerouac make appearances, if not in literal literary allusion, then as muses and features or reasons for drinking, focus of cheer, celebrations of those greats who maybe, at some point, stood just as they stand, in a little clump, throwing out interjections through the haze of bourbon and beer.
The buzz of energy is palpable but lost behind the buzz of everyone else, the singing and talking and woohooing in the kitchen like a train has pulled in for dinner, blasted it’s arrival through steam whistle, unloaded it’s already liquored-up guests for a nightcap. Some have already re-boarded their rail cars, making for spinning rooms and welcome beds, but others persist and drink despite the whimpers of “but…” or cries of “no!” from their stomachs, brains, significant others, livers.
In twilight’s long late shadow, it’s hard to tell which reality is tangible, who people are, or if they are, when sober or drunk, which world is the one you belong in, here, now, then, there. In those nights when time seems just as immovable as it does fluid, when your senses have all but turned to blur and dust, your hand may brush something only recognizable in the flashes of supersight that come in dream, and your soul may ever so briefly – like a blue flash of static on a winters day – touch the infinite, the universe beyond our electromagnetic spectrum, the ever pulsing afterlife that so many, for so long, have sought to find, define, and bound in books of canonized scripture, that you managed, somehow through the guise of good times and good company, to find in the carbonation that bubbles ever upward, angelically effervescent.
So why do I drink? I guess I’m just like the chicken, really. I want to, however briefly, see what’s on the other side.
(Author’s note: I recognize that romanticizing drinking can downplay many of the realities of alcoholism. It’s easy – or convenient – when you work and spend time in an alcohol-related field, to ignore the pink elephant in the room. Alcohol dependence and addiction can pose a serious risk to life, health, and happiness. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol, there are many options available, and absolutely no shame in asking for support.)