by Trisha Kostis
I had my first drink at 12 years old, which turned out to be my first drunk of many. We were celebrating Mom and Dad’s 25th anniversary with a party in the newly renovated basement of our mod 1970s family home. My aunts and uncles, along with neighbors and friends, danced to Sinatra with highballs in their hands. I watched from the half-opened doorway that led to the laundry room, pressed up against the dark wood paneled wall. I remained awkward and uncomfortable in all social settings, despite my familiarity with everyone present.
My sister, Kay, who had just turned 17, planned to tell our parents the following day that she and her “old man” were moving to a small town in Arizona 3,000 miles away. This unwanted information was imparted to me earlier in the day after she had smoked an obscenely pudgy joint in the bathroom with the window cracked open while I kept watch. This news, once revealed, would result in a China Syndrome level meltdown as our unyielding Catholic parents would refuse to accept the premarital sexual implications of such a decision. I would be left behind to field unanswerable questions about specifics that no ten-year-old should have to imagine. An unwelcome sense of responsibility laced with dread chewed at me as I watched my folks sway elegantly to “Strangers in the Night.” In the following days, the triumph of this evening would vanish like a shadow in the shade.
I found the sweet, neon colored punch in a globe-sized glass bowl. It tasted like Hi-C and felt like sunburn on my chest. In my head, little sparks flared and burst and my scalp tingled. The room receded into a murky haze but I remained in focus. I was suddenly on, like the moment batteries are snapped into a new toy. I would careen destructively through the next 35 years desperately trying to recapture this feeling that never before or after would feel the same.
The starchy, prim high-necked dress mom had sewn for me suddenly scratched against my skin. I headed up to the bedroom Kay and I shared. She had the wardrobe of a San Francisco flower child. In her drawer was a halter top I had coveted for months – a little paisley slip of cloth, shaped like a triangle that tied teasingly at the neck and the waist. It was the most provocative and erotic piece of clothing I’d ever seen and looked like something Peggy Lipton would wear on the Mod Squad. I grabbed it from behind a mess of gauzy blouses, quickly stripping off my shapeless dress and sized 28A bra and fastened it to my front like a fragile vintage handkerchief. I pulled on a pair of white “hot” pants and looked at my reflection in the mirror. I was a Rolling Stone cover. And I was high.
Descending the stairs, a buzzing at my temples, I watched the guests look up, captivated. Blurred lines and edges made the individuals look like a giant multi-colored mass, writhing in time to the beat of “The Twist.” I snaked around the revelers, flirty and euphoric until my mother’s withering stare cut a swath through the crowd and rendered me motionless.
She sneered into my neck, “Go right back upstairs young lady. Have you been drinking? You look like a tramp! Shower and get to bed!”
Her words, along with an arc of spittle, landed like a glass of ice water thrown against my face. It would not be the last time a perfectly lovely state of inebriation was obliterated by a torrent of humiliation.
I made my way back up the steps, balancing with as much panache as I could muster, desperate to avoid attracting attention. Upstairs, I showered carelessly and donned my quilted blue and white flowered bathrobe. My head was still humming, despite the sobering realization that I was going to be punished with gusto for my lascivious behavior. Opening the bathroom door, I collided into my parent’s best friend, Mr. Davis. He was swaying, like a liquid wave machine, dark and bulky in the black space of the narrow hallway. We could have almost been mirror images of each other, both rocking like brown-bag-wielding winos. Mumbling, I tried to push past him but he shoved me into my room, slamming me against the closet doors and pinning my arms to my sides. Slobbering like an old rabid hound, he pushed his loose wet mouth against mine and shoved his pulpy hand into my pre-pubescent vulva.
I wasn’t shocked. He had been watching me for months. I was young but it wasn’t my first time.
I pushed him away, with a strength fueled by some newly awakened moral outrage. Pulling the soft cloth of my robe shut, I watched him stumble backwards, shades of confusion and awareness spreading across his face like drops of blood in water. Slurring something indecipherable, he lurched out my door and I closed it quickly, and faced the mirror.
In that moment I felt shame. I watched my reflection fade in and out, distorted like bad TV reception. I didn’t look at my eyes. I focused on the space around my body, my bedroom, where I had always felt safe.
When some time had passed, and I was sure he was gone, I slipped out and down the hall. I thought about the punch, and wished my sister had left a pitcher in the kitchen. I could see Kay, seated on the edge of the couch, the phone at her ear. I listened, hoping she was telling her boyfriend that she changed her mind. I wanted to tell her about Mr. Davis but I did not want her to take my story to Arizona. I needed it to stay in that house.
Nearly sober and exhausted, I crept back to my room, closed the door tightly and tumbled into my bed, lying back and pulling the covers over me.
“Nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened,” I repeated calmly until sleep forced shut my tired eyes.
I was just a few months sober and in my 40s when my mother, days before she passed, revealed how amazed she was that I remembered her anniversary every year.
Image by rovenimages.com via Pexels.
Trisha – this packed such a punch, pun intended. So many wows: “I would careen destructively through the next 35 years desperately trying to recapture this feeling that never before or after would feel the same.” And “I was young but it wasn’t my first time.” And the last line – biggest wow. This is the kind of essay that stays with me for days. Thanks for sharing.
There are so many lines that evoke empathy, compassion and understanding, it would be impossible to quote all of them. This essay grabs the reader’s attention immediately and beautifully and powerfully captures the innocence and naivete of a pre-teen, forced to deal with sexual and emotional abuse, made tolerable with alcohol. One of the few essays I’ve read that had such emotional impact.
Telling the truth for so many women. A young girl who is simply trying something new on, and is punished by the vileness of men and unfortunately, this is a very relatable story. I feel a part of this when I read it.
Such an amazing and powerful piece that when I read it I felt the emotion and shame that was portrayed. I read it to my husband and had to fight back tears. He was quite impressed with this piece. Very talented writer!!