The first person I ever got drunk with was my friend Jenny. We were 11, spending the night at my father’s house, hanging out in the basement, and talking about boys. Both products of working-class families with the usual struggles and drama, we found solidarity in each other’s company.
It was 1986, and everything was ugly. My dad’s basement was dark, with flickering fluorescent lights, a popcorn ceiling, and shag carpeting. There was an after-market stereo system in the closet with speakers connected by a maze of wires snaking along the walls. And to the side of the room near the stairs was a makeshift, wood-paneled bar with rough, unfinished barstools.
I wasn’t curious about what was tucked away in the unlocked shelves with dust bunnies and dead bugs. But Jenny went behind the counter, pulled out a bottle of gin, and emerged with a huge grin. “Let’s drink this,” she said.
I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it probably tasted terrible. So, I did what I’ve always done my entire life—solved problems—and said, “Hold on, I think there’s some lemonade Crystal Light in the fridge. I’ll be right back.” In typical fashion, I took charge. That night, we got drunk while holding “E.T. Phone Home” cups from Pizza Hut and repeatedly listening to “Raspberry Beret” by Prince.
We gossiped and vented, confiding in each other about our parents and their struggles, and wondered aloud if any of the boys in our class might kiss us. At one point, I laughed so hard I farted on myself.
Again, I set the tone for a lifetime.
The following day, Jenny expertly told me to fill the gin bottle with water. It wasn’t her first rodeo.
How did Jenny and I end up in the basement getting drunk at such a young age? Like many young women in my neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago, our personal lives were volatile. I met Jenny after my parents divorced when I enrolled in a new elementary school. She was my first friend and maybe the first person who spotted bruises on my body from my mother and her new husband and said, like a wise soul, “This is not your fault.”
Jenny took on the role of my honorary big sister, ensuring I never felt like an outcast. We fell out of touch when we went to different high schools. I moved in full-time with my father, who drank too much and was saddled with a dissatisfying job and financial problems, but at least he didn’t hit me. I also found a boyfriend and wound up pregnant. I chose not to be a mother.
While I navigated my own life, Jenny faced a different path. Around the same time, she was also pregnant but chose to give birth to beautiful twin girls. Teenage mothers often have few resources, people who overpromised and underdelivered support, and people around who love to talk about the blessings of motherhood but rarely deliver on the commitment to ensure that mothers and children live healthy and safe lives.
I planned to meet her brand-new daughters on a Saturday afternoon but didn’t show up. Why? Well, that morning, I had an anxiety attack but didn’t call to say that I wasn’t coming.
Even in the early 1990s, ghosting was rude. Jenny waited. She called my dad’s house repeatedly when I didn’t arrive. Finally, she got mad and left an angry message on my dad’s old answering machine, saying, “I know you think you’re better than me, but at least I didn’t kill my babies.”
Teenage girls are feral animals.
We didn’t speak for over twenty years. When Jenny finally messaged me on Facebook, I was living and working under my married name and had forgotten about that chapter in my life. She wrote: I’ve been looking for you for years. I’m so glad I finally found you.
Just like that, she was back in my life. We forgave one another. The word forgiveness might be too glib. We understood exactly what happened and why and offered one another compassion.
Unfortunately, just a short time later, Jenny was diagnosed with cancer. It wasn’t long before things took a turn. She died at 41. We ran out of time and never even had a chance to hang out as adults.
I went to the funeral in February 2016 and was lucky to see friends and colleagues who loved Jenny and could fill in the details of what she was like in high school and early adulthood. The words they used were passionate, fiery, fierce, and loyal. The same girl from the 1980s.
Underage drinking is unhealthy and illegal, and I would never glorify two kids drinking Beefeater Gin. More importantly, I don’t condone Crystal Light. But when I think back on that experience of getting drunk in my father’s basement—listening to Prince and talking about boys we might marry—there is adoration in my heart for those two young girls.
Life is hard. Adults let you down. But if you’re lucky, you can snatch opportunities to experience love and joy even when the world is on fire. That was my first drunken experience with Jenny: connection, authenticity, and fun. It’s no wonder that I spent the next 30+ years associating profound personal relationships with alcohol.
I’m not going to lie: what I wouldn’t do for one more chance to drink gin and artificial lemonade from Pizza Hut collector cups. But more importantly, what I wouldn’t do to spend time with my friend and hear about life, work, hobbies, daughters, and now, all these years later, her beautiful grandchildren.
Jenny was a phenomenal force, and her memory is a blessing.