Great Escape

Love, Loss, and What I Drank

From escaping with alcohol—to escaping from it

Illustrations: Teddy Kang

The Toddler Years

Southern Comfort, 1971

While your parents watch 60 Minutes, you sit on the floor and page through Time magazine, stubbing your finger on any page with a bourbon ad: Daddy drink! Your parents find it funny but hide the magazines when your no-dancing, no-drinking Southern Baptist grandparents babysit. Your grandfather still snoops, and one day he confronts your parents by flinging open a kitchen cabinet. What do you call this? he demands. I call it cereal, your father says, because in his indignation, your grandfather opened the door next to the one with the liquor.

The Teen Years

Hi-C, 1974–1985

You maintain sobriety through 11 years of book reports, choir practices, family fights, and humid Floridian Christmases.

Bartles & Jaymes, 1985

The boy looks like a surf bum version of Paul Westerberg from the Replacements. It is much easier to talk to him when you’re slightly numb from the waist down, an off-label effect of strawberry wine coolers. Rolling around with him on the sand at midnight, you realize you’re actually pretty good at this: the drinking, the rolling, the ocean peeing.

Long Island iced tea, 1986

Your prep school ID is your ticket into the gay bar where you can dance in your skimpy dresses without feeling hunted. The bartender says, Try a Long Island iced tea, honey. It has everything in it but doesn’t taste like any of it. The place is a carnival of coke and amyl nitrite and synth pop. Erasure is playing tonight, but you spend the whole concert kissing your friend Michael on the balcony. The music’s boring and kissing isn’t, you tell him. True and true, he says. Later he’ll push you into the pool with your clothes on.

Arak, 1987

The liquor cabinet is stuffed with untouched bottles of arak and raki, anise-flavored Christmas gifts from your dad’s Middle Eastern grad students. Untouched until you realize they are there. Then you sneak arak to parties in jam jars, holding your nose to disguise the taste and nearly gagging anyway. You see nothing strange about going to such lengths to consume something that repulses you. And neither does anyone else.

Screwdriver, 1988

There’s a Ministry show at the Lake Worth Junior High auditorium; the promoter convinced the school they’re a Christian band. You get a ride with Gary, a 30-year-old bookstore clerk who feeds you screwdrivers all night thinking he’ll have sex with you later. But it’s your lucky night. At 2 a.m., he sees the line between skeevy and criminal and stays on the right side of it. It’s a line you’ll learn well this last summer at home: where it lives, where it blurs, and who decides.

The Co-ed Years

Keg Beer, 1988

First night of college. A boy named Raven said you should come to this party. Now you stand at the closed door, unsure what to do — knock, just walk in, turn and run? A white guy with brown dreadlocks opens the door. Hi, he says. Do you drink? His name is John, and at his smile a tuning fork thrums inside you, drowning out any other words you might have wanted to say to him for the rest of the night. So you drink your beer and watch him.

You order a rye Manhattan, because you are maybe starting to grasp at straws to pretend your drinking is about ingredients and flavors.

Jug wine, 1988

A student band is playing Replacements covers at a bar near campus. You are half watching them and half watching John shoot pool. You’ve learned things about him from mutual friends. He’s a painter. He used to be a born-again Christian and spoke in tongues. He got stabbed last year with his own knife and almost died. He’s writing his thesis on surrealism and phenomenology. While this last is confusing to you, the rest makes sense. He also has a girlfriend, and even if he didn’t, he’s clearly out of your league. It’s okay. You can’t speak around him anyway. So you watch him.

Popov Vodka with Hi-C, 1988

There’s a big difference between sex with guys your own age and sex with the campus-wandering, megaphone-wielding 26 year ­old in your poetry class who is rumored to be AWOL from the Army. Fucking someone who is aware of the existence of the clitoris is a wonderful thing. So is vodka with Hi-C, which quickly and cleanly quiets the part of you that is also kind of terrified to be with someone who has heard of the clitoris.

Eight-dollar Chianti, 1989

Things did not work out with the older, crazy, rumored-to-be-AWOL poet. You have chosen a new boy your own age to fall in love with, a boy with short hair and a running car and parents. He feeds you pasta and Chianti in his downtown apartment and then fucks you in a standardized, flow-chart kind of way, where all the ifs lead to the same disappointing then. You make him mixtapes he hates. What is this? he says one day. The Replacements, you tell him. They sound scraggly, he says.

Old-Fashioned, 1990

You and your boyfriend drive across the state from the apartment you now share to his parents’ beach house. Passing a rack of swimsuit calendars in a gas station, your boyfriend tells you which supermodels look good in their bikinis and which don’t, and why. At the beach, you let him fuck you in the ocean, even though that’s basically a terrible idea. Later, cooking dinner, you play what will turn out to be the last Replacements album. Him again, your boyfriend says. If he showed up here, you’d leave with him. You half smile. And I’d never look back, you say.

Six-dollar Chianti, 1990

You move to Florence for a year to study Renaissance poetry and drink red wine, leaving your boyfriend in the States to start grad school and further develop his philosophy of supermodels. Florence is a refined, introspective city, except for the hordes of young Italian men putting their uninvited hands on girls. Basta! you learn to shout — Enough! Twenty years later, a man passing you on a side street in Paris will grab your breast and you will yell Basta! without even thinking. In Florence, you make a copy of the first Stone Roses album and mail it to your boyfriend. This is one of the worst things I have ever heard, he writes back.

Gin and tonic, 1990

You take a train to Salzburg and go on the Sound of Music tour. You are the only single person on the bus. Henrik, the young tour guide, works you into his patter: Perhaps our beautiful American friend will marry in the cathedral where Maria married the Captain! Everyone smiles at you and you wish to vanish from the earth. In Mondsee, there is a lunch break, and you and Henrik end up in the same bar, mixing your own gin and tonics out of little silver pitchers. You are delighted by the doll-sized bar kit, and Henrik is delighted by your delight. Everyone is delighted and everyone wants to die: you because your boyfriend has breezily admitted to cheating on you with various women at grad school; Henrik because his American girlfriend has become distant and hard to reach. Henrik shakes his head and pours himself another drink. Life is not like the movies, he says dolefully. Except it is a little, you think.

Gewürztraminer, 1990

You leave Salzburg for Bern, where you spend an entire weekend reading music magazines in cafés. From one, you learn that Paul Wes­terberg has quit drinking and feels great. You know you should be happy for him. Instead, you think, We’re not the same kind of person anymore, as you drink another glass of wine and are lonely, lonely, lonely.

Yugoslavian red, 1991

You come home from Italy and see John shooting pool in the townie bar again. His hair is shorn almost to the scalp now. I like this, you say, as you reach right out and buzz your hand over it. I like that you like it, he replies. And then you both freeze up and walk away in opposite directions. You spend most of your time that semester hanging out with his old roommate Richard, watching movies, drinking cheap red wine, and reading Robert Hass. Longing, we say, because desire is full/of endless distances.

Some kind of punch, 1991

You run into John at a party a few weeks later and panic at the sight of him. Still, you talk for hours, riding the wave of fear and desire and boozy fruit punch all the way into his bed, where you stay for a very long time. Nothing good can come from this, you think. You assume he won’t call, but it’s okay; you know things now you didn’t know two days ago, things about yourself, about the world, things you can keep with you for the rest of your life. But he calls the next day, identifying himself by first and last name just in case you forgot, and asks if he can make you dinner. You sit in his tiny kitchen as he chops onions for risotto with a carbon-steel knife. You are completely at sea.

Diet Coke, 1992

You and John drive Alligator Alley, the two-lane highway connecting Florida’s west and east coasts, to Miami to visit his parents. You’re driving and it’s daytime, so Diet Coke is the drink of choice. Brush fires blaze on the sides of the road, but as native Floridians, you both find this perfectly normal. John tilts his head at the car stereo. Who is this? he asks. The Replacements, you tell him. He listens for another minute and says, This is fucking amazing, and you glow like the saw grass around you.

Sangiovese, 1992

John is chopping garlic in your kitchen the night Nirvana smash their instruments on Saturday Night Live. You are standing close to him, uncorking the wine. Too close, as it happens. Love of my life? he says. You’re in my light.

The Wife Years

Perrier-Jouët, 1995

You and John live in Ann Arbor with a snow shovel, a real bed with box springs, and cable TV. The day he proposes, you call your parents and say, I have some good news, and your mother says, You’re having a baby! Well, no. Soon after, you visit his parents, who write your engagement date on a champagne cork and then press a penny into it. It’s an old family tradition! says his mother. It is? your new fiancé says.

Perrier-Jouët, 1998

You buy your first house and mark the closing with champagne, pressing a penny into the cork. It’s an old family tradition, you tell your real estate agent.

Chardonnay, 2000

You have jobs and insurance. You have a sofa that no one owned before you. You have a yard. You have a dog, a weird dog with emotional problems, but still. Y2K did not bring on the apocalypse. This is pretty much how life will be forever now, you think.

Chardonnay, 2001

Since September 11, you have been enjoying some chardonnay almost every night, experimenting with different years and regions and developing a sense for great versus good. Though from the internet you come to understand that chardonnay is considered the insipid wannabe of wines, maybe because women like it.

Chardonnay, 2003

Aging it in steel makes it more respectable.

Chardonnay, 2004

If only they could age it in gunmetal, maybe it would seem hip.

Chardonnay, 2005

Preferably gunmetal a bullet has passed through.

Red stripe, 2006

It’s time to leave the Midwest. Really, it was time two years ago, when Bush was reelected. You idly apply for a job in Seattle and fly there in midwinter for an interview. After the interview, you walk down brick-paved Post Alley in a misty rain, drinking black coffee, surrounded by green. A day later, you and John fly to a fishing village in southern Jamaica, where an eerie-eyed massage therapist named Shirley says, I get the sense you are going somewhere new. New in every way. You open your eyes and say, Yes, I think I am. Back in the cottage, you drink a Red Stripe in the outdoor shower and pose for your first topless photograph. When the offer comes, let’s take it, you say to John.

Keeping the wheels on means your head hurts every morning but your makeup is perfect and when you speak in meetings, people feel reassured and good about themselves.

The Urbanite Years

Pine martinis, 2007

You are drunk on city life. And on booze. You see every band you ever loved, 10 minutes from home, while drinking pine martinis served in a frosted glass. Not the Replacements —they no longer exist — and not Paul Westerberg, who is quiet these days and rumored to be drinking again. But everyone else. Restaurants in your neighborhood show up in Bon Appétit and Gourmet. All the movies come to town. It isn’t all good; you feel crushed and terrified at your new job but hope it will pass. Outside work, though, it’s a beret-tossing, martini-sipping, chef’s-table frenzy.

Tempranillo, 2008

Your Replacements-hating ex is in town on business and looks you up. Yeah, OK, you think. You, your husband, and the ex eat organ meats and tongue and drink tempranillo in a tiny Spanish restaurant. Later, you walk your ex to his car. Maybe our story isn’t over, he says. I guess that depends on your definition of a story, you say.

Sazerac, 2008

Barack Obama is elected president. Your neighborhood pub goes off the rails with joy and disbelief and the chance to hug strangers. The next morning, wincing with a hangover but smiling, you tell John you’ve resolved to drink less. If America can change, then so can I, you say, and then you do! You change for two days.

Rye Manhattan, 2009

Your income has quintupled in three years. Some people would live exactly the same way as they had with one-fifth the money, and good for them. You upgrade everything, including what you drink. We make the falernum right here, the waiter says when taking your Manhattan order — a rye Manhattan, because you are maybe starting to grasp at straws to pretend your drinking is about ingredients and flavors. You make impressed-­sounding noises. When he’s gone, you ask your tablemates, What the fuck is falernum? No one knows. Even now, no one knows.

Various alcohols of Europe and Asia, 2010

You visit five countries for work, having meetings that will mostly come to nothing. At night, your colleagues take you out for drinks. There is a sense of fried esprit de corps. After a few rounds, your hosts open up about their seven-day workweeks and strained marriages. In Beijing, it’s all this plus a side of chronic coughing. You return to Seattle exhausted, sour-stomached, and resolved to drink only every other day for the rest of your life. You make it one day.

Marsanne, 2011

Marsanne is the rye Manhattan of wines. It means you like things that are floral and round and feminine, not just drunkifying. You have a deep interest in marsanne, in tasting it and also in drinking as much of it as possible while still keeping the wheels on. Wheels on means your head hurts every morning but your makeup is perfect and when you speak in meetings, people feel reassured and good about themselves. You suspect by now that you are no longer a real person, just a machine that drinks and lies to itself. But they don’t know any better.

Marsanne, 2012

A long boozy dinner in the East Village with people you need to impress. After dinner, more drinks down the street. After those drinks, more drinks at your hotel’s rooftop bar. After that, hours on the sofa in your room staring at CNN, shaking, afraid to go to sleep because it will lead to waking up.

Marsanne, 2013

A long dinner in Notting Hill with people you need to impress. After dinner, drinks down the street. After those drinks, more drinks at your hotel’s rooftop bar. After that, hours on the bed staring out at the street, shaking, thinking about how you are slowly decaying and there is nothing you can do to stop it. And it happened so fast, out of nowhere. Everything was fine, and now everything is over.

Black coffee, 2013

The next day, it rains. Nauseated and lightheaded, you walk along the Thames, crossing every bridge you come to. You zigzag the Hungerford and Blackfriars and Waterloo Bridges this way, listening to Paul Westerberg so you don’t have to listen to your own void. Just add water, someone’s done for, he sings. Fuck you, you say back. By the time you reach St. Paul’s, you’re drenched. You sit in a back pew, non-saint Paul in your ears, and though it will be months before you get there, in the next hour, a tiny idea of the future takes shape.

The Teetotaler Years

Sleep, 2013

Sleep like sky-blue water. Cascades of it.

Juniper syrup and soda, 2013

Juniper berry syrup tastes just like gin. Sage syrup and Meyer lemon tastes Brooklynish and smart, like a cocktail from an apothecary. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the world that tastes like a Manhattan but itself.

Lemon custard ice cream, 2013

When ice cream melts, you can drink it. It’s good.

Ginger-cayenne shot, 2013

Lunch at the raw vegan place with your best friend, on your hundredth day sober. Oh, we have to try this ginger-cayenne thing! you say. Do we have to? Mindy responds, but she’s game. And after the raw vegan lunch, there’s ice cream.

Rosé, 2014

The sight of rosé in the summer sun may always hurt your eyes.

Marsanne, 2014

The word on a drinks menu is like seeing an old, bad boyfriend on Facebook. Wow, he still looks great. He was terrible for you. Yeah, but he was fun. You thought your life was over. I know, but remember that thing he used to do? You know what I’m talking about. Thirty-­second dopamine explosions followed by days of gloom. OK, OK. But can we at least acknowledge that those explosions meant something? That there was some joy in feeling overwhelmed by them, even as they started to crush us? Yes, okay. There was joy. Whole-body joy. Now can we close this page? Yes. Now we can close.

Sweat, 2015

You are 15 feet from Paul Westerberg, trying to stay upright in the roiling concert crowd. If you stuck your tongue out, it could be anyone’s sweat you’d taste. You are watching Paul as closely as you’ve ever watched any man. Watching to see if he’s sober like you in the midst of this cyclone that he made. You think maybe yes, maybe no, and the uncertainty deflates you. Odds are 60–­40 that he’s at least a little drunk, you decide. Okay, 70–30. And that’s as close to knowing as you’ll get while you stand there braced and lonely, jostled and dazed by the ecstasy of strangers. The song ends, and Paul asks the crowd for requests. People start yelling names of songs, which seems to surprise him. He furrows his brow, comes to the edge of the stage, crouches down trying to hear the people in front. You are now a body’s length away. Not yelling or asking for anything. Just watching. And in this moment, you can say three true things about him: He looks kind. He looks drunk. And he looks scared to death.

From Nothing Good Can Come From This: Essays by Kristi Coulter. Copyright © 2018 by Kristi Coulter. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers.

Author of “Enjoli,” NOTHING GOOD CAN COME FROM THIS, and the forthcoming EXIT INTERVIEW, a memoir of ambition, work, and Amazon.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store