GIN AND TONIC
Like 95% of the drinks that respectable people consume, it is named for its ingredients: gin, which is essentially vodka with added flavors of juniper and other citrus botanicals, is mixed with tonic, carbonated water that is flavored with quinine (and corn syrup, if you like shitty tonic).
Gin and tonics are generally preferred by people who like the taste of alcohol, as the punch of a 40% liquor is pretty hard to mask, although Philistines worldwide inexplicably choose to. It’s usually garnished with a lime, which, when squeezed into the cocktail, adds a third flavor that compliments the quinine while smoothing out the juniper, which, in a London Dry gin, can be quite strong. Any properly made gin and tonic will burn at least a bit going down, but in that good way.
Gail is probably in her early 40s and is the kind of woman that reminds you of that aunt you always thought was secretly kind of hot but you kept it to yourself. She has wide eyes that open even wider when you say something she finds interesting--and she finds everything you say interesting--and she honestly seems like she wants to know you. Her hair is a deep chestnut brown with a red tint and as we sit at this bar, I notice that she keeps smelling her glass as if it's going to smell different 1/3 full as it did 2/3 full. Maybe it does, but I don't feel like asking.
Which is a shame, because she's a restaurant critic for a magazine in Minneapolis and she's about to become the manager of a soon-to-be-opened wine bar downtown. She was raised Mormon and attended BYU from 1983 to 1988 and talks about Provo's mid-80s "post-California skate punk scene" like your drunken grandpa talks about "fighting the gooks in Korea," a hybrid of survivor's pride and a "What were we thinking" sort of attitude. She's articulate without being pretentious and she says "fuck" like a semicolon, joining two otherwise complete sentences.
Gail's been married twice, and when she finds out I'm an Aquarian, she pauses; both of her former husbands were Aquarians. This, for some reason, inspires a probably-not-familiar-enough-to-be-funny "Well, I guess I won't marry you next!" and a series of almost pleasantly demonic chuckles. Her spurt of laughter shows a set of nice teeth--uncommon for a big wine aficionado--and she is perfectly aware of just how pretty she is.
Which is, I guess, above average, if I had to apply some crass definition for which I was not well-equipped. She seems warm but slightly clinical. It's clear that she's been burned by love but retained optimism. She talks about her first husband, a Mormon skate punk, with a little bit of bitterness, while she refers to her second husband, a speedboat racer from the Northwest, with a little bit of sadness. You see, she still lives with her second husband and they are still very close, Gail says, and marriage, well, just wasn't for her. She's bisexual and an atheist slash agnostic. Wine is her religion, she says, and nature and sex are for practice. Because I'm an arrogant shit, I interpret this last comment as an advance.
She's in Provo for a family reunion. Her brothers are going to pick her up from this bar pretty soon, and she imagines that they'll sigh audibly and say "Oh, good, Gail's drunk again." but she doesn't seem to mind. I remind her that family reunions are often just excuses to drink alcohol and that she's probably in good shape. She agrees, puts her hand on my arm, and asks if I have a girlfriend.
The physical contact isn't negative but it is jarring, and the combination of the shock of her touch, her earlier mention of sex, and the question's relevance to my last week catches me off guard. I share a peck with my gin and tonic.
"Funny you should ask," I say between sips. "I was supposed to get married last night."
Also named for its ingredients, the whiskey sour was the cocktail of choice for poet Dylan Thomas, and it has been immortalized in a whole lot of country songs. It’s a combination of whiskey, the most difficult of liquors to get right, and sour mix, which is essentially concentrated lemonade (although any self-respecting drinker of these concoctions makes their own sour mix at home from equal parts water, sugar, lemon juice, and lime juice).
It’s got a reputation for being slightly less than “manly,” as sour mix is so sweet that it takes the edge off of just about anything. Personally, I find a well-made whiskey sour to be perhaps the most enjoyable of cocktails, but the balance between the sweet/sour mix and the oft-brutal taste of the whiskey (not to mention the aroma) is greatly rewarding.
It’s often garnished with either an orange wedge or a maraschino cherry, two things that belong between innings at Little League games, not in an adult’s drink. But there’s no accounting for taste, I guess.
ERIC AND JORDAN
The young men on my right, Eric and Jordan, went to high school with me and were three or four grades behind me. Good kids. When I walk in, they're pounding tequila shots. When asked why, they indicated that they're celebrating Eric's recent unemployment, but that seems like a mixed blessing, at best.
As a chaser, Jordan orders an AMF ("Adios Motherfucker," apparently) , a neon blue cocktail whose appearance is about as radioactive as its ingredients list. When asked why any self-respecting 22-year old man would order something that looks more like toilet bowl cleaner than something even remotely drinkable, Jordan says "Because it tastes good, bro!" Gail and I laugh and Eric joins in when he realizes that's what the adults are doing.
"Blue drinks are for sorority girls and prison inmates," I tell them. "You want to have any self-worth, you drink a real drink, generally something with no more than two words in the name."
Gail nods in agreement and takes a deep draw from her white wine and exhales in that strange mixture of self-loathing and deep satisfaction that comes only from consuming a copious amount of cheap alcohol because either nothing else is available or nothing else will do.
Maybe I'm only one like this, but sometimes I feel like I don't deserve better liquor. The only thing I can compare it to, while arguably blasphemous, are Born-Again Christians that weep when they think about their impending salvation. Faith like that must make you feel a lot better about yourself. Thinking that someone out there with the power to do anything has taken it upon Himself (or Herself) to dedicate those powers to saving your immortal soul sounds like a real confidence booster. But sometimes I'm pretty happy to dismiss speculative theology in favor of a single malt scotch, so what the fuck do I know.
Gail, despite knowing me for about a half an hour at this point, already has a higher opinion of me than I do. She tells me that I need to take Eric and Jordan, these newcomers to the game of adult life, under my proverbial wing. She believes that my difficultly-acquired wisdom beyond my years needs to be imparted on minds as impressionable as these.
"Just look at Andy," she tells them. "He's wearing nice jeans, a t-shirt, a button-down shirt over that, and a leather jacket to top it all off. He's like..." she pauses.
"He's like a model."
I immediately get about four times as bashful as a comment like that should really inspire, but I can't help it. The only compliment better than a deserved one is an undeserved one, and her praise nuzzles itself in the crink of my neck and kisses my bare shoulder. I'm taken aback.
"Why are you wearing a leather jacket, anyway?" she asks. "It's mid-August."
"I was in Park City. Elvis Costello played outdoors tonight and I froze my ass off," I explain.
I think about launching into my usual Elvis Costello tirade. My well-documented fascination and adoration of the man and his music. I briefly consider gushing about the concert, about Elvis' passion and howling and banter and wordplay and virtuosity and musicianship and pain and joy and dynamic and then I realize something.
Everyone has an Elvis Costello. Mine just happens to be named Elvis Costello.
Speaking of individual Elvis Costellos, Gail orders another glass of wine. She pays in single dollar bills, and leaves an extra one on the bar. 33% tip is pretty generous in this place, and I'm impressed. She takes her time with this glass, doing all of those stereotypical wine snob things; swirling it in her glass, dipping her nose right into its aroma, making a comment about its nose, its body, its hue, etc., but somehow, these things don't annoy me like they usually do. They're endearing me to this singular woman. She closes her eyes whenever she puts the glass to her lips and when you watch her drink it in, it's both clear and a little frightening that she's sharing a moment as intense as that with stemware. Then I think of the people that were surely silently berating me for giggling like a first-time pot smoker when Elvis came out for an encore and I feel judgmental and conceited. Not wrong, though; just judgmental and conceited.
"So," Gail says. "Almost married? What happened?"
I motion to the bartender that I'd like a second G&T.
"It's a long story," I begin. I squeeze the lime and drop the rind into my drink, swirling it with my finger, hygiene be damned.
I lick my finger clean and cannot think of many things more refreshing.
SCOTCH AND SODA
If you’re going with straight liquor, it’s hard to beat a good scotch. A single malt, made from a single crop of malted barley, is generally better than a blend, which is made from several different crops. Single malt is generally drastically more expensive, but it’s well worth it; Johnnie Walker Red, the cheapest “popular” scotch, tastes more like barbecue sauce than liquor.
A lot of scotch is incredibly “peaty,” with a sort of mossy flavor added to the grain and the alcohol, and it’s easy to get wrong. Too much peat can overwhelm a fragile scotch, at which point it’s not particularly good for anything but powering a riding lawnmower. But just a hint of peat, achieving a perfect equilibrium that adds just enough aroma and a subtle shade of forest to whatever other flavors are there can make the world go ‘round.
Take one part scotch and add it to two parts club soda (or other sparkling water). Mix gently, serve with lime. A good one will take your breath away. Then again, so will a bad one.
"Shit," she says. She stares at her wine glass and tries to process my tale of woe. "Shit."
I don't really know how to reply, so I don't.
"Are you sad?"
"I don't know," I say. "Depends on how you mean, I guess."
"Do you want her back?" she asks.
"I bet he doesn't even want her front!" Eric retorts, holding his hand up for a high-five. I may not agree with his sentiment, but I'll be damned if drunken wit doesn't go unrewarded.
"It's probably best," I say, "for us to be apart. All of that shit with her parents, the religion difference, the communication problems, everything just feels insurmountable." I chew on a piece of ice. "I don't think we can get past those things."
"So it's over," Gail states. I nod.
"Look," she says, her half-glazed eyes peering from behind a curtain of chardonnay, "I have a hotel room just around the block. I can tell my brothers that I've got food poisoning or that I drank too much or something. Trust me," she says as her hand drifts to my knee, "they'll believe it."
I am immediately suspicious. This is something that doesn't happen in real life. This is something that happens in overwritten indie movies that star Zooey Deschanel and I'm not prepared for the sort of brazen spontaneity that people like Gail live with. No, fuck that--live for. People who have been through the very same ringer that I am only beginning to approach, who have realized that life is solely what you make of it and not what any bishop or abusive ex or stalker or psychotic near mother-in-law or overdramatic roommate says it is.
Our perceptions are all we have, I tell myself, and your instincts may be the only thing that get you back on your feet. Do what you want, I think. Live for the moment. There's nothing more in life than what you take for yourself, and no one is gonna live for you.
I look over and see Eric and Jordan eating some french fries that look like they were cooked in motor oil and moth balls and I try to think of what life is like for these young men. These two children, really. They're clearly incapable of making appropriate decisions, and what decisions they do make aren't very well thought out (neither is in the position to drive home, for example).
I remember what I was like when I was their age. The fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants nihilism that only comes from youth and drunkenness. It's only four years' difference, really, and a part of me is nostalgic for the time when my age was an excuse to do something as stupid and reckless as going with to a hotel room with a beautiful older woman under a haze of hedonism and heartbreak. But nobody does anything drunk that they wouldn't do sober if no one was watching, and I'm in no shape to do anything even half as emotionally exerting as sex (assuming I haven't drank too much to be able to get it up).
It wouldn't be fair to Gail, either, really. I'm convinced that the first thing that God will do as the pearly gates open is to scold anyone passing through that ever thought about someone else during sex. This, as far as I'm concerned, is a cardinal sin of poor taste that cannot be excused. And I don't think I have the wherewithal to turn Gail into an accomplice, be she willing or otherwise.
Because if I went back to her hotel room, I will regret it. Sure it'll be nice, and it'll be a good story, and I'll probably sleep well for the first time in two months, when this whole fucked up debacle started, but I won't be better for it. And neither will Gail. There's nothing that either of us can get out of me at this point.
And to be fair to her, I don’t think that she’s offering an intimate rendezvous out of anything more than what I can only think of as a variation of maternal care. I was not solicited because of my rugged handsomeness or my delightful charm or my disarming wit. This woman seems gracious and warm enough to simply want to help someone that’s clearly in a bad way, and maybe that altruism takes its form in the way that she would want a cry of help answered. She did tell me, after all, that sex was her religion. Maybe she’s just being evangelical.
I smile as kindly as I can and put my hand on hers.
"I don't think that would be a very good idea. I don't have much to give right now, " I tell her. She nods and smiles back, although she doesn't look nearly as wounded as my ego kinda sorta hoped she would.
"Besides," I tell her as I signal for the bartender to bring me my third and final, "I'm kind of waiting for someone."
Which is true enough, I guess.