When Life Hands You Lemons

Despite growing up in an alcohol-friendly first generation American household, I joined a SBC church and avoided alcohol like the plague through high school. In fact, I left a theater cast party once because they decided to bring liquor into it. Nope! I was living the sober life and nothing was going to change that.

I went to Illinois State, a college known for its drinking habits and still managed to avoid all alcohol freshman year. I simply wasn’t interested. I was still plugged into SBC life and I never quite understood what all the fuss was about drinking.

And then I met Jim, my college sweetheart. He introduced me to all my vices.

Thanksgiving 2001 was my undoing.

My parents were renovating their kitchen, so they weren’t celebrating Thanksgiving. My sister had gone off with her boyfriend to his family’s Thanksgiving; I decided to do the same with Jim’s family.

Friday, however, things took a turn. Jim decided to host a party with his close friends who were in town at his Dad’s house – alcohol would be present – Jim drank now and again. He knew I had never experienced it before and asked if I was comfortable with it. “Sure,” I said as I was slowly coming into new experiences. “I’ll try it.”

What changed? I don’t know. Perhaps it was my shifting perspectives as a sophomore: I was ready for new experiences and thinking outside of the box I had previously found as my boundaries.

Jim left with the guys to get the alcohol – all of us were under 21 at the time, so we had to rely on the over 21 brothers of friends. I had no idea what to ask for, but Jim knew what to order. “Trust me,” he said. “I got you, sweetie.” I had no expectations of the night, except maybe to catch a buzz.

Not too long after, the boys arrived back to the house with the goods. While they were gone, I bonded with Jim’s friend Deborah and we became fast friends. Such good friends, we even got an apartment together a few years later.

“Gonna start you off easy,” Jim said, as he handed me a bottle of Mike’s Hard Lemonade. It tasted like lemonade with a bit of an aftertaste. Half way through that – I was just sipping on it – the group decided to do lemon drops. That’s where you take a shot of vodka and then immediately bite into a lemon covered in granulated sugar.

The cheap vodka stung. Whew! That was some strong stuff! I never thought of biting into a lemon as a relief, but that’s exactly what it was. I did two of those in a row.

And then, I felt it.

The song “Where Is My Mind?” by The Pixies was playing in the background and I have forever linked that song to this moment. Every time I hear that song, I am immediately transported to Jim’s Dad’s basement in Decatur, Illinois. He’s giving me that goofy smile of his and handing me another Mike’s.

A couple of drinks in, I was flying pretty high. Everything was funny. Everything sounded like a good idea. Jim’s friend was hilarious and I couldn’t stop laughing at his jokes. I’m am by nature very protective of my personal space, yet I found myself leaning against my newest friend Deborah, who was also fairly intoxicated.

Jim suggested I drink some water and I did, but I had another Mike’s. Or maybe it was left over from my one before. I wasn’t sure.

The lemon drop went down easier now.

Jim was drunk, but his other friend was drunker. This friend decided the best spot to pass out was at the bottom of the staircase. I managed somehow to get his arm over my shoulders and upstairs to the couch; in that action, I cemented my status as the den mother of drinking parties, which I still am to this day. (I would spend the rest of my college days assisting this friend after he passed out).

Jim and I fell asleep on the basement futon sometime after 1am. Or was it 2? Closer to 3? Mike and his Russian friend with the lemons had me losing all track of time.

I woke up the next morning feeling quite sick. Oh no. “Jim? I think I have the flu.” I was nauseated, my head was pounding, I felt like a train hit me. And everything – especially eating – felt like a bad idea.

“It’s not the flu, you’re hungover.”

“I’m not hungover,” I protested. “I have the flu.”

“You don’t have the flu, Simonne. You drank a lot last night.”

“I did?”

Jim sat next to me on the futon. “You did. Do you remember?”

I nodded. “I remember everything, but I didn’t think I had too much. I was definitely drunk though.”

Jim smiled. “You’re not used to this. Here, have more water. It’ll make you feel better.”

I spent the morning drinking water and could finally choke down some McDonald’s mid-day. I still felt like I had the flu.

And that’s how Vice #1 began.

I became a bottom shelf vodka drinker – screwdrivers – (cheap vodka and orange juice) defined my college experience. I certainly didn’t tell anyone I was drinking at church, although one of my church friends was an avid beer drinker and we used to go to bars together.

Even now, any time I drink too much, I am hungover the entire next day and nothing helps it.

Tonight, I find myself drinking alone at a brewery, as I write, sipping local brews, not much stronger than the Mike’s Hard Lemonade of that Thanksgiving break so many years ago.

Over the years, my personal relationship with alcohol hasn’t changed much: I enjoy it and have never passed out, blacked out, or done anything I regret under the influence. My tastes are refined now: I prefer Deep Eddy Lemon Vodka on the rocks instead of a Mike’s Hard Lemonade any day. Sometimes I indulge, but not often. Some of my favorite people in my life are alcoholics – both in recovery and denial – so, it’s a very fine line to walk.

While Jim and I are no longer in contact, I hope for a day where I see him in a bar and I’ll send over a lemon drop and pay for his tab and sneak away without a word.

He’d know it was me.

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