When my father said the word predisposed, I felt a twinge of nerves. We were having “the talk.” Not the one about birds or bees, but something bigger and scarier that my brother and I would have to inevitably face – alcohol.
I was stubborn from the get-go. I didn’t like anyone telling me what to do – my parents learned that early. I would argue with my mother on basic childhood rules. She’d say, “Be in the house by eight,” and I’d calmly reply in my little girl voice, “Why eight? Angie down the street doesn’t have to go in until eight-thirty.” We’d discuss the pros and cons of the extra half hour until we reached a consensus. I almost always won, and my mom, in all her humility, saw the futility of frustration and chose to see a smart young woman unafraid to negotiate. I think she was proud of me.
When my brother, far more serious and strict than I was, heard that word, predisposed, I think he imagined something along the lines of, “The second you take a drink, you’ll be an alcoholic just like me, and your grandfather, and your great grandfather too. It’s inevitable.” His mouth snapped shut. He was mathematical, statistical to a fault. For him, it was all or nothing.
“Other kids are going to want you to drink, and I know peer pressure can be tough, but I just want you guys to remember to be careful. It’s genetic. You might find it harder to stop once you start.” My dad cleared his throat, trying to stay calm. Trying not to say what I’m sure he was thinking. This is all my fault.
My nerves gave way to obstinate, righteous anger. I sighed and crossed my arms in front of my chest. Now, not only did drinking mess up my family, it messed up my genes, too. It was something I’d have to work around forever, an invisible threat lying dormant inside me. I was livid. I didn’t want to dance around some hereditary curse for the rest of my life. I wanted to beat it. I went back to the place where my dad helped us make sense of things when we were young. My big, picture-filled encyclopedia didn’t have an entry, so I flipped through my dictionary. I tried to find the real meaning behind the word’s heft and clinical ring.
To give an inclination or tendency beforehand.
The first time I took a drink, I was almost thirteen. It was New Year’s Eve, during my freshman year of high school. I had found some friends, a gaggle of girls just as agitated and clueless as I was. One of them, Anna, had a much older sister who worked for an airline. We had gotten permission to hold the party in the in-law suite attached to her parents’ apartment, where Anna’s sister stayed. “We’ll be right down the hall,” they said with total trust. “You girls have fun!”
The refrigerator was full of tiny bottles of liquor. Jack Daniels, Tanqueray Gin, Stoli Vodka, and something brown, with the viscosity and pungency of Robitussin – Kahlua. We each adopted a liquor of our own for the night. I palmed four or five little bottles of the thick, syrupy stuff, and started sipping away, not even bothering to mix anything in. All night, we sucked our little bottles like demented babies, and got into pedestrian trouble.
We called up a phone sex line, pretending to be a cheerleading squad, then passed the phone around while a man jerked off and moaned into the receiver. We went online to try out the newest fad, AOL chat rooms, and typed out flirty come-ons to older men – we didn’t even have to fudge the details on that one. Every guy in the room was dying to chat with a bunch of tipsy thirteen-year-olds having an unsupervised New Year’s shindig.
I don’t remember what I was thinking that night. It’s all blurry and blown out, like an overexposed photo. But I know that no one’s voice – not my anxious brother’s or my worried father’s – was in my head, warning me to be careful. I felt, for once, free of my need to keep everything together and calm and perfect. In this dark, wood-paneled apartment above a Polonia Bank branch, I could exist, if only for one brief night, in youthful chaos.
I woke up on a rollout cot next to five empty, sticky bottles, and a roomful of groaning, squinting teenage girls. The sun coming through the windows was so goddamn bright. Every sound was magnified, echoing through my head like one of those plastic play microphones. Even shuffling to the bathroom to pee felt like an Olympic triathlon. When my mother came to pick me up, I hobbled into the passenger seat, holding my hands over my eyes. “Didn’t get much sleep,” I mumbled. “Up all night.” The perfect excuse. Nobody sleeps on New Year’s.
To make susceptible, as to a disease.
She took me to a New Year’s blowout sale at Bradlee’s, our favorite department store. She pulled into the parking lot and I howled, “What are you doing? Let’s go home!” No, no. She insisted that she needed new pots and pans. Today. Right this minute. It simply could not wait. She smiled at me, saccharine, innocent. “Oh, honey, are you feeling okay? You aren’t sick, are you?” No, no, no. Not sick, just tired. Fake smile. Squint at sun. Walk in straight line.
We wandered the aisles forever. She’d pick up a pot, hold it out in front of her, and pantomime making pasta or soup to get a feel for it. She’d remove the lid, peer inside, remark on the lovely Teflon finish, and then clang – drop the lid back on with aplomb. Then the next, and the next. The sauté pan clambered as it landed on the soup pot. The Pyrex baking dish sounded a racket rivaling Hiroshima when it bounced against the saucepan. The checkout line was one hundred million mothers long, perhaps all similarly torturing their hung over teenage daughters. The beeps of the register cut through my brain like laser beams.
After we got home, I slept the whole day through, and then, it was back to life as usual. The part of me that felt guilty for covering up something so heinous, to hereditarily haunted, quickly took a backseat to the part that felt immense relief. I had not only gotten away with it, but I had come away unscathed – un-addicted. I checked in with myself daily all through that January. Did I want a drink? Did I miss the brown sticky taste of Kahlua? February and March passed, and still the answer was no.
I had done it. I had looked the monster in the face and said, You’re not so bad. I would not be made susceptible to a curse I had no hand in casting. I felt all the things you should feel as a thirteen-year-old who’s come away from disaster unscathed. Naughty. Clever. At the center of the universe.
To put into a certain frame of mind.
One night, months later, my mom and I were snuggled together in my room, watching television. My room was our safe place when Dad had a bad night. He had free reign of the basement and the living room, and it was always a crapshoot whether he’d make it to their bedroom before falling asleep, but for some reason, he’d never come to my room. When we didn’t want to be found or bothered, that’s where we went. When the sitcom credits started to roll, she flipped off the thirteen-inch Zenith, looked at me, and whispered, “I know.”
“Know what?” I asked, totally oblivious. She smirked at me, raised her eyebrows, and repeated herself.
“Rachel, honey. It’s okay. I know.” I scanned my brain for secrets I had kept from her. At that point, there weren’t too many, so after only a second, I slapped my hand to my mouth and cried, “Mommy, I’m so sorry!” Oh my god, she knew. She knew the whole damn time and just let me suffer, let me get away with it. “Did you tell Daddy?” I asked.
“What? God, no.” She laughed. There were lines of trust in the house we didn’t cross. She and I could talk to each other about him, and neither of us could talk to him. About anything.
“Are you gonna punish me?” We had never been big on punishments, usually because I argued for anything I wanted, and generally had good results. I was not in the habit of doing forbidden things, mostly because once I pled my case to her, forbidden things became acceptable. But this, I knew, would be different. I hadn’t made a solid, informed argument for getting drunk. It was a cosmic dare, a haunted thing that kept my brother awake at night.
She’d kill me for this. She could finally pull the mommy card and ground me, like I was any other misbehaving teenage girl. “No,” she mused, “I don’t think so. Something tells me New Year’s Day was punishment enough.” Her face broke into this wicked grin, and she started giggling uncontrollably. The shopping trip to Bradlee’s. The pots and pans clanging and banging. The woman was an evil genius.
And just like that, we were good. Years later, when I was starting college, she gave me tips, taught me what to drink and how to pace myself so I wouldn’t get sick. Taught me the warning signs, told me to steer clear of the murky Jungle Juice they threw together at the end of the night, and warned me to always take a friend I trusted to parties. Gave me pepper spray and money for cabs. Told me lurid cautionary tales about getting way too drunk and waking up to find a slobbering boy pawing her all over.
With a lot of knowledge and a good dose of fear, she helped me win my biggest, scariest argument, to open my lips and laugh in the face of that word. I might have been predisposed, more at risk of, leaned towards for all my life, but I was not destined. It was not inevitable, so much as possible, and I pushed that possibility to the outer orbit of my life, a distant threat that now I can almost ignore.
Like the obstinate girl I have always been, I have tested the limits of that distance. I have argued against my own curse and worked past the cloying amber Kahlua, the bitter effervescence of beer, the diabetic headache of vodka, and swallowed sweet, burning mouthfuls of whisky with a righteous snub to that line in the dictionary, where I ran my finger over the word so many years ago. I have taken my fear apart by giving it a name, by thumbing through the pages until I start to make sense.
Rae Pagliarulo received her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her poems and essays have been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, Scary Mommy, New South, and Philadelphia Stories. By day, she works in resource development at a nonprofit, and by night, serves on the editorial staff of Literary Mama. Rae is also the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a Pushcart nominee. She lives in Port Richmond with her cat and yes, they can both help you find the best pierogies in the city. Visit her online at raepagliarulo.wordpress.com or follow her onTwitter: @noshingshiksa.