The first time I got drunk was with my stepfather. I was ten years old. I can’t quite remember specific instances of the sexual abuse I experienced at his hands before that night of drinking, but I know it had begun.
I knew what to expect. The drink was Jack Daniels. I remember the shape of the bottle, square, offering a perfect handhold. The slight slick of condensation. The bottle wasn’t cold, exactly, but we were in the cellar and the night was hot. The way the label’s edge felt under my fingers, ever so slightly upraised, just enough to offer a curl as my fingers worked at it. The slight bulb in the neck just below the glass spiral from which the cheap screw cap had come off.
I remember the label itself, black against the brown liquor, becoming more defined as the bottle emptied. There were words, Tennessee Whiskey and Sour Mash in block white letters, proudly proclaimed in lettering styled to denote an earlier age. I remember how it smelled: sour, just as the label promised.
My stepfather and I argued often. Tall for my age, lazy, and still growing, I had already met puberty. Yet I wet my bed every other night, reminding myself that I was still a child. A flawed child at that. I couldn’t be bothered by my studies, let alone the nightly chores, a Cinderella-esque regimen of washing dishes, wiping down the kitchen with disinfectant, sweeping the floors and taking out the trash. I shirked often, never without consequence.
Our arguments began as conversations, almost always in the kitchen, almost always well after dark.
“Why didn’t you take out the trash?” my stepfather would ask.
“I forgot” I would answer.
“How could you forget?”
“I don’t know.”
From there the conversation would circle and circle in ever-greater concentricity around the same recurring topics.
“Why do you treat me this way?” he would ask.
“I don’t know” I’d respond.
“Why don’t you talk to me?” he’d ask.
“I don’t know” I’d respond.
“Why don’t you trust me?” he’d ask.
“I don’t know” I’d say again, avoiding the ever-present, ever-hurtful answer to all the questions:
Because you’re not my Dad.
These question and answer sessions stretched late into the night, well after my mother succumbed to exhaustion. At some point, inevitably, my stepfather would become euphoric, perceiving some breakthrough, generally the result of my own careful manipulation. Eventually I’d allow him beyond my stoic “I don’t know” responses, not quite giving in, but giving just enough. Perhaps there would be some crying, followed by some manly backslapping. The result was always the same. The tone would shift, becoming less an argument and more a discussion between equals. From “What’s wrong with you?” to “How are you and how are we going to figure this out? What are we going to do to fix this?”
This particular night, the catalyst between argument and discussion was Jack Daniels. My stepfather pulled out the bottle during the more heated part of our argument. We ended up in the cellar study, stretched out before the cold fireplace. He smoked Marlboros, but hated the filters. I remember him ripping the filters off his cigarettes twice an hour all day long, more frequently when we argued.
He poured my first shot of Jack Daniels. Then I poured for myself, becoming intimate with that square, squat bottle. I asked for cigarettes. He obliged my every wish. I ripped the filters off, thinking that’s just what you did. I remember strands of loose tobacco catching on my lips, and spitting them into the ashtray. I became drunk on whiskey, heady with the adultness of puffing on cigarettes. I felt invincible. I could fix anything.
I lost a fair amount of time to the whiskey, but later I remember the bathtub. I was naked, vomiting uncontrollably. The window lightened as dawn came. I vomited, over and over again. The smell of my own vomit – sour and sweet and simply awful. My stepfather’s hands on my back and in my hair, and his voice murmuring to me, all recalled through the muddy haze of drunkenness.
My mother came downstairs in the morning.
“He’s sick” my stepfather said.
My mother said “I can see that.”
She helped me from the tub and put me to bed, forcing me to drink glass after glass of water. So much water. I didn’t want it, but I drank because she asked me to. I remember the complete, utter safety I felt during that moment. My mother, caring for me, putting me to bed. I stayed in bed for the next two days. I had no interaction with my stepfather, and I remember, as I began to feel better, how good it felt to be in bed, how good it felt to be cared for by my mother. How safe it was.
The night before I went back to school, my stepfather came to my room. I often wonder if it was my newfound experience with drunkenness, with the muddiness that goes along with it, that lends such clarity to that utterly sober night. After being cared for by my mother, I felt so safe.
I was not.
My stepfather came into my room, deliberately, silently closing the door behind him. He sat on the bed. He reached out for my hand, which I limply gave him. He told me he was sorry. He told me he loved me. He was only searching for ways to be closer to me. He spoke about how much he regretted the distance that lay between us. He lay down on the bed, next to me.
He continued talking, but I don’t remember the words. I do remember him reaching under the covers, stroking my legs, eventually taking my penis in his hands. I was embarrassingly hard. I remember how much it hurt when his wrapped fingers pulled at the wisps of my first pubic hairs.
I was silent and perfectly still.
He began working my penis with his hand. Eventually he slipped under the covers and took me in his mouth. He worked furiously. I remember his moustache, rough against my most sensitive skin. I remember how horribly good it felt when I came in his mouth, how difficult it was to hold my silent stillness. The sounds he made as he swallowed. The complete, crushing shame of how I enjoyed it, knowing that this was so – completely – wrong. It was my first orgasm, and I wanted to scream my denial.
He left me to my silence.
To this day, I cannot abide the smell of Jack Daniels Sour Mash Tennessee Whiskey. I have never tried the stuff since I was ten years old, yet I have perfect, awful recall of it.
It tastes of sour shame.