I’d wake up feeling sticky. The inside of my mouth, my hair, my skin. I would lurch out of the twin bed and stumble over to the sink in my dorm room to survey the damage. It was all a smudge. My eyeliner down my face. My memories of the night before.
I always knew if I had smoked because my chest hurt and my fingers tasted salty. I knew what I had eaten because it was smeared on my sheets. I knew what I was wearing because it would be crumpled on the floor. I had clues, and with those I could piece together what I could not remember.
This past summer I studied abroad in Oxford, England, for five weeks. I stayed at Magdalen College, one of the 38 colleges that make up the university — which can get confusing. Founded in 1458, Magdalen has its own living quarters, classrooms, chapel, graveyard, library and lecture halls. It even has its own bar.
I adored that bar for being so peculiar and un-American. There’s nothing like it at the University of Michigan, where I would be continuing my senior year that fall. I can only imagine the wealth of furious emails the Office of Student Life would receive if the Michigan Union started serving happy hour for undergrads. But here it was commonplace, part of the tradition with which I would dive in head-first to engage. The bar was situated near the stairs to the dining hall, and after dinner I would wait until its doors opened at 7 p.m. Charmed as I am by young men in black T-shirts pouring me drinks, I spent a great deal of my time and money at the Old Kitchen Bar. I was unaware, however, that I toasted each hard cider and single malt scotch to my departed grandfather.
Grandpa John, with his funny quirk of getting drunk and belting his children, was the nightmare that haunted my youth and young adult life. He was an anecdote, a punchline, a warning and a promise. But more than that, he was a folk story, dusted off by my aunt and occasionally my mother every time I went out to a party or, when I became of age, a bar with my friends.
It was in England when I first began to think seriously about my grandfather John, a man I had never met nor had anything in common with besides one-quarter of my genes. John had been a soldier during WWII, when he met my grandmother while stationed in her tiny Italian village. He survived a Russian labor camp, and left his entire family behind to start a new life in Canada and then eventually America. He died in the 1980s of prostate cancer and it was one of those deaths that wasn’t sad for everyone. Because John was an asshole.
My grandmother — my Nona, as they say in Italy — wears a hearing aid. It used to malfunction constantly. It’s probably the most irritating part of my childhood, listening to it whistle and chirp at me. “What? What? What did she say?”
He broke that ear, John did. More specifically, the eardrum, by throwing her up against the wall time after time, day after day. It ripped or shattered or whatever eardrums do when they stop working. Thirty years after his death, technological advancement replaced what he took from her. But my grandmother’s whistling ear was a reminder growing up, that somewhere in the mess of spirals and double-helixes was the capacity to lose myself to an addiction and use it against the ones I love.
Our last evening at Magdalen was my worst. I will never forget what I can remember about that night. During our final formal dinner we had, as usual, a champagne reception on the gorgeous green lawns of the Harry Potter-esque quadrangle. One glass per student was the rule. But for a special bon voyage, they’d “top up” our glasses, the posh British way of saying bottomless bubbly. The server, an Italian whose name sounded like a cleaning product, was particularly generous.
Throughout the program, they would serve us wine just once a week during Monday night dinners. For the first course we’d always have a white wine that tasted like vinegar. Tonight, it was sweet. But the red wine with the entree was seductive, wet and deep. I had three of those. My speech began to slur. Speaking to my tutor — who had yet to finalize my grade — across the dining table was a struggle. My dress felt tight and my face grew increasingly hotter. I couldn’t hear her over the sound of my drunkenness, as if the wine was sloshing around in my ears. I couldn’t even hear me. I must have known to slow down because I only had two glasses of port, a heavily saccharine wine, when it was served with chocolate and strawberries. Delicious.
I ran wild that last night in Oxford. Only flashes remain. We ended up, as one does, at the Half Moon, because it was a townie bar that opened late. It was the definition of quaint, with low ceilings with wooden beams and a jukebox in the corner. It was where the old English drunks would wash in like debris from the tide. We washed in, too, with bodies full of wine that clouded our vision and judgement.
That night was a hazy kaleidoscope of semi-familiar faces. Someone thought it was a good idea to buy me a shot of vodka. I remember finding this hilarious, and then very little after that. I shouted instead of speaking. I tripped as I was walking. I left when I should have stayed.
One of the bartenders at the Half Moon — I told you, I have a thing for bartenders — was called Tobias. He had studied philosophy, pulled his hair back into a bun and could roll a perfect joint. We went out for a cigarette and he took me around the bar, pressing me up against the wall. He kissed me sloppily, or I could have been the sloppy one, his hands gripping my arms to keep them against the bricks. One of his hands shifted to stabilize my shoulder while the other slipped down my pants.
I retained enough sense, enough self, to shove Tobias off, my own back still against the bricks of the Half Moon. He was grinning, having gotten more than he’d expected. He asked if I wanted to come back to his place. I mostly wanted to throw up.
It was late. We stumbled back to the front of the bar where my friends stood waiting. They wanted to go home. His hand was still around my waist.
I found out later from a friend that he had a girlfriend. I found out later that he asked that same friend if she was interested in having a threesome. I found out later the plan was to include me.
I was swaying lightly in the shadows in front of the bar while my friends looked on with pained expressions. I said things no rational person would. I leaned against him heavily. I deliberated when I should have been deliberate. I lingered, but I should have left.
The hangover lasted until the plane cleared Greenland. For every minute of the eight-hour flight, I felt that I deserved it. I felt like a dried-up starfish without a sand dollar to my name. Mostly because I had run out of money. I had worked and saved all summer, and now I didn’t have enough cash left for the bus ticket to the airport, or even a cup of coffee. My friends paid my way. My friends held my hand. My friends got me home.
After Oxford, I had scared the living shit out of myself. I felt guilty for what I had put my friends through, for forcing his weaknesses on them. Mine or his? Who was driving that night: John, or me? I resolved to abstain from alcohol.
This plan backfired quickly. By not drinking, I didn’t feel a return to self. I felt that I was depriving myself. “You’re not drinking?” they’d say, like they didn’t know what else to do with me if I was sober. “Is something wrong?”
Yes, I would argue to myself. Something is wrong. It’s my damn Grandpa John. I let him win.
I started drinking again about two weeks after I got back from Oxford. I was sitting on my couch in my old apartment next to a friend. I had a long conversation with the man behind the counter at the liquor store. He hadn’t seen me in a while. Wanted to know where I’d been.
I got drunk that night, but was focused on not losing myself. I sent my friend home at a respectable hour and went to bed. It was a test, and by my standards, I had passed.
I’m certainly not the first student to overindulge while abroad. Many of my friends have described similar experiences where nights bled into days and afternoons trying to study or travel through hangovers. But without the threat of John, I wouldn’t have taken it so seriously. Or so personally.
I haven’t given up drinking. I may never. I don’t think I have a problem. Regardless, it’s not in my nature to quit. It’s not in my genes.