Spring is an uncertain time in Minnesota. The whole world seems to oscillate hourly between raw freezing cold, and the warm promise of summer. Walking the dogs tonight, the March sun was setting into a glowing orange pool on the horizon. Above it, a thin fingernail of moon was just starting to appear in the darkness. As I hustled along the quiet streets, the houses were shut up tight, shades still drawn against the night. The silhouette of geese passed overhead in the cobalt sky, their honking the only sound rising above the snapping wind.
One of the funny things about memory, is you never know what will trigger it. It can be a scent, a sight, a sound, or sometimes just a word said in passing by a stranger. Walking the dogs through the dark tree lined streets tonight I stumbled through such a portal, back into 1985. The springtime of my life, when unbeknown to me everything was about to change.
It was on a night similar to this one, when winter came clawing back in response to a warm spring afternoon, that my good friend Chris and I were headed to a dance at Batavia High. I was flying solo that night, having just broken up with my girlfriend, and lusting mightily after the girl next door. I was sixteen years old and the night seemed full of promise.
My parents were working Bingo at ND that night and had taken the car, and my big sister was out with friends, so it took a little creativity for us to get our hands on alcohol. Discussing our plans over the phone, we decided to each try to raid whatever we could get from out parents and meet at 7 pm, outside of Platten’s North Side Deli.
Surveying the options before me in the empty house, I decided to fill an empty 16 oz bottle of Sprite with some White Lake Niagara jug wine that my Mom kept in the fridge. It seemed to be the least likely stuff to be missed. Walking down Richmond Ave to meet Chris I wondered what he would be able to score. I don’t think I had ever seen his folks drink, but being Catholic, I’m sure they were required to keep booze somewhere in the house just in case of an emergency, like a death or an unannounced visit by a priest.
He did not disappoint. Meeting up on the street in front of the corner store, he informed me he had managed to fill half of an empty coke bottle with some rum. We surveyed our options for how and where to go about drinking our booty. The wind was blowing last years leaves down the gutters of Bank Street, and the sky was beginning to spit light rain at us. We decided to try the old stone picnic pavilions in MacArthur Park, out beyond the outfield fence of Dwyer Stadium. Still, the thought of trying to drink straight rum, wasn’t sounding too appealing to us, so we lit upon a plan to buy a bottle of Coke to mix it with.
After that, it was just a simple word problem to figure out how to get the Coke into the rum, and the rum into the Coke in even amounts. I think we decided the easiest thing to do was to drink the wine first, then use the empty bottle to mix the rum & Coke. It was that sort of quick thinking that helped us score high enough on our SAT’s to get into the colleges of our choice. Oddly enough though, the SAT never presented questions on the best way to mix Rum & Coke in a park at night.
Shivering in the cold rain, we walked to the stone pavilions, and warmed ourselves with the cloying cheap wine, and the tangy bite of the rum and Coke. Taking swigs from the bottles, and holding them inside our burning mouths just heightened the numbness of my cheekbones, and nose. Then, feeling sufficiently fortified to face the lovely young women of Batavia High School, we made our way across the parking lot to the school.
As any clandestine high school drinker will tell you, the key to getting through the chaperons at the door, is to keep from exhaling. There’s a real art to being able to say hello to teachers, and parents, without letting any air escape your mouth. I’m sure ventriloquists practice something similar.
Successfully making it past the bouncers, we hung up our jackets, and started down the long hallway to the gym. The alcohol was just beginning to make its way fully into our bloodstream. I could feel the color rising in my cheeks. Passing the brightly lit glass windows of the school cafeteria we ran into Jennifer and her friends, who immediately squealed “You guys have been drinking, haven’t you!?!”.
There is no more grown up feeling in the all the world, than being 16 years old, and drunk. If I’d have known that then, I probably would have been sorely disappointed. The lights in the gym swirled, and the DJ played all the greatest hits of 1985. We found the group of Junior girls we’d come looking for, and began doing the white guy shuffle to the music, in a big circle of kids. It wasn’t long before the alcohol was making the whole scene seem like a kaleidoscope of sound and light.
The girls seemed more beautiful in that dimly lit gym, than they ever did in the florescent hum of the classrooms. Taking turns dancing slow songs with them, I was able to revel in their scents, and the fuzzy warmth of their sweaters, clinging to their small of their backs. At that moment I was in love with each and every one of them, which is to say that I was mostly in love with myself.
It was all so new. We seemed like the first teenagers on the face of the earth to discover the warm sticky embraces of dancing together. I felt like the night could have lasted forever, but before I knew it the DJ was announcing the last song of the night. I managed to grab the girl next door, and hold her close as the last slow song played, my hands slowly inching down the scratchy wool of her sweater, over the tell tale clasp of that forbidden bra somewhere underneath it. I had no thought or plan for what if anything would happen, I was purely living in the moment.
The song ended, and before I knew it, our coats were on and she was hustling off in a crowd of friends to catch her ride. Chris and I stood outside on the sidewalk, saying goodbye as they left, then turned our collars up against the windy drizzle, and started the long sobering walk home. I thought there would be so many other nights, and so many other chances to experience such bliss. I had no idea how fleeting it would all prove to be. We were growing up so fast, and time was accelerating.
How quickly it would pass. That was over 25 years ago. Stumbling back into that evening tonight was like finding a rare coin whose true worth is not in its value, but the warm reassurance it gives, as you turn it over and over in your hand.