The first time I tried absinthe was the summer of 2003.
I was attending a three-month military photojournalism course at the Defense Information School in Ft. Meade, MD, a suffocated learning environment not readily compatible with free thought but definitely the premiere academic proving ground for communication nerds of the nation’s Armed Forces seeking careers in journalism, broadcasting or photography. Our story begins at a bar on the base.
They called it a club, perhaps to lend the place an air of sophistication. In truth, it was the only establishment within miles where apple-cheeked kids fresh from basic training, various experiences in the field or their respective combat training schools could go for a drink if they lacked access to a car or the means to anywhere better.
The faux-modern tables boasted fliers advertising Jägerbomb specials and Miller Lite on draft, while Wing Night posters and Budweiser-sponsored sports schedules occupied every wall not already equipped with a TV screen. It was force-frequented by lowbrow ambassadors of hip-hop, country and Top 40 pop who gathered in this ugly circus tent under the watchful eye of base security. There seemed a frantic, palpable desire among the customers to avoid talking about boot camp, the day-to-day details of their jobs or the slew of jargon and acronyms so common to the military, but that’s all there really was. Intellectualism had few footholds here.
They were trapped like flies, vibrating an unseen spider’s web with the dwindling energy of their freshly circumcised personalities, desperate to make contact with another human being who displayed any similar interests, like an over friendly guest inviting themselves into your bed, readily agreeing to talk sports, politics or monster trucks but positively frantic for a conversation. The ratio of men to women was typically 10 to 1, or worse, and it was mandatory that all flirting be obvious and ham-handed
After a week’s worth of casually making nice with the bartender, a compact brunette named Lydia with a magnificent smile and long, flowing hair, my friend Mikey and I found ourselves being invited back to her house to hang out.
By way of character summary, Mikey is a friendly, chain-smoking, hard-drinking guy who lives every moment in anticipation of a party, a laugh, or a good time. If he can incorporate monkeys, beer or pirates into the conversation, so much the better. Absolutely nothing fazes him. Overhearing Lydia’s friendly offer, three other strangers seated at the bar perked up, including themselves in our plans. In the spirit of the moment, Lydia acquiesced.
Once the club was closed and the till counted, we crowded into Lydia’s giant pickup and away we went into the cool summer darkness of an eternal Friday night. One guy said nothing. He was already drunk, I think, tagging along for the ride and just hoping to keep the party going. I didn’t care to know the other two; basic greasy punks with cocked ball caps, thick gold chains and athletic jerseys who’d baptized themselves in a river of cheap cologne. They complained endlessly about her music as she drove and, grossly misreading Lydia’s invitation and the mood of the evening, began a campaign of subtle sexual serenades.
“Why ain’t you got no hip hop? Ay, ay, play some TuPac! You like TuPac, mommy? You like to party, mommy? You like Latino guys, mommy?” They interspersed their interrogatives with lightning fast quips in Spanish, cracking up laughing and fist-bumping one another like everything they said was the funniest thing they’d ever heard, doing their best to establish themselves as the alpha duo in a group of quiet introverts. I’d seen their type a hundred times before. I admit I felt a form of gentle revulsion for their methods, but after all they were just a different species of alien looking for something to do on a Friday night when presented with limited options.
After what seemed like forever, we pulled into the driveway of a one-bedroom home on the edge of the base and walked in, ushered by the cool air and the sounds of crickets. Looking at the framed pictures lining the hallway I could see that Lydia was married to a Marine. He was presently standing the mid-watch at the south gate and would be home in a few hours. There was no television set in the living room. In its place sat a large altar adorned with various objects, incense, dried flowers and candles. Three groaning bookshelves were crammed floor to ceiling with esoteric titles. Quietly impressed, I asked permission and made a beeline for their library, curious about their tastes in books, about their altar, about everything.
I wound up sitting on the floor, selecting volumes at random and jotting down titles and quotes in the battered journal I’d brought with me tucked in the waistband of my jeans. I never went anywhere without it. Writing has always been my personality’s stunt double in the movie of my social life.
Lydia sent the other two away after an hour of putting up with their bullshit. They’d gotten progressively drunker on the beer they’d brought with them, circling her like wolves and hinting openly at a threesome. Eventually they cornered her in the kitchen like a bad stereotype, sizing her up, lowering their voices and looking down at her even though they weren’t much taller than her to begin with. It was an awkward spectacle.
“What choo wan’…?” whispered the taller of the two, kissing his teeth and licking his lips as he leaned into her space. “Ay mommy, you wan’ somma this…? You wan’ fuck, mommy…?”
Two minutes later I watched them from the living room window, posturing and frustrated in the driveway, shouting insults at the front of the house. “Hey, bitch! You drove us out here, you gonna call me a cab?”
“Yeah,” she deadpanned. “You’re a cab,” slamming the door and turning off the porch light. They yelled and fumed and rang the doorbell for a few minutes before sulking off into the night. We were a few miles from the base, but we’d passed a convenience store with a payphone on the last corner.
Now it’s Lydia and me sitting cross-legged on the pristine white rug. The third guy, passed out on the couch, was snoring occasionally. Mikey sat in an overstuffed leather chair, swirling the ice in a glass of whiskey and telling the story of how Robert Plant supposedly wrote the lyrics to “Stairway to Heaven” in a sort of fugue state — alone, drunk and fumbling with a pencil, his hand had begun spitting out the words.
The mood had calmed again. Candles flickered and incense burned and we’d talked quietly but earnestly for some time about Aleister Crowley, the existence of aliens, the roads to consciousness expansion, the occult, and the supernatural when Lydia stood suddenly and moved to the hall closet. From where I was sitting, I watched her push aside a few things to reveal a hidden hatch in the floor from which she hauled out a squat wooden crate of what would prove to be her husband’s absinthe stash.
“He smuggled this back from a recent deployment to Greece. Some guy in his unit marked it as personal cargo on the manifest,” she called over her shoulder, removing a bottle, replacing the crate and closing the door. At the kitchen counter, I watched her lay a slotted spoon over the top of an ornamental chalice and carefully dissolve a sugar cube into the contents below, the colors swirling like gentle fire before offering it to me with a smile. I felt like I’d won a prize for Best Conversationalist. Maybe I had. But here it was.
Vincent van Gogh’s scholars tend to agree that the troubled and brilliant painter displayed, not only in his work but also in his letters, all the signs of a full-blown absinthe alcoholic. The great Oscar Wilde is quoted as saying “After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”
Widely credited for glorious visions, generally attributed to bursts of madness and generously prescribed for stubborn creative blocks, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Green Faerie. It felt like unlocking a video game achievement. You have proven worthy.
As a fledgling writer and a lifelong fan of the supernatural, I’d heard the stories. I’d heard the hype. And at that frozen moment I stood mentally ready with my notebook and pen, wholly prepared to weather a serious freak out, poised to draft an entire space opera in one epileptic sitting, determined to deal with the psychological consequences later. I didn’t really care if I went just a teensy bit mad. After all, one doesn’t back down from doing shots with the Devil. But as ever, I was ready to maintain.
Presently we slid back into the depths of the conversation and I sipped slowly from the glass, waiting for the red velvet curtains to rise on what was sure to be a Pink Floyd laser concert in my brain. I wanted it. I needed it. I was a burgeoning science-fiction writer who’d studiously followed the cold-case trails of his literary idols like a detective seeking fresh leads, paying attention to every detail and questing after the hinted promise of a neighboring dimension or at least a story angle no one else had considered.
Because of course I was meant to have an epic drug-fueled writing experience while attending a military journalism course in my 30s. (That shit would look so tight in a printed interview when, in the publications of my fertile W. Mitty-imagination, they’d start calling me the Bad Boy of Science Fiction…) The editor of the arts and entertainment magazine I was writing for in reality had indeed called me, quote, the love child of Fox Mulder and Hunter S. Thompson, end quote, which was probably the nicest things anyone’s ever said about me.
But in the hour immediately following my first sip to the point when I’d drained my glass, and sensing no seconds from my host, I found no grand visions at the bottom. No fireworks display. No psychic upheaval. No flashing neon sign proclaiming THIS WAY TO THE OTHER SIDE. It turns out that absinthe was just this okay tasting black licorice stuff served in a fancy goblet with a nice touch of ceremony. It contained no thunderstorm of wild ideas, and no shortcuts to the literary godhead. Certainly not after one glass.
It was at this point that the third man woke from his slumber with a violent snort, falling forward across the room toward the open bottle of absinthe on the counter exclaiming, “I CAN HANDLE ANYTHING!” and chugged down a third of the contents before anyone could stop him. He slammed the bottle on the counter, staggered for a moment like a building in high wind and promptly yawned a thick stream of hot stomach contents across the marble counter, splashing the pristine white carpet below with the wet stink of his dubious achievement. He smirked contentedly albeit cartoonishly to himself, staggered backwards toward the couch, missed a step, stumbled over the arm and fell hard across the glass coffee table, smashing it. He groaned once and passed out again.
The house was silent. The record had well and truly skipped. I was wide-eyed and mortified. All of this had happened in maybe ten seconds. I was thinking suddenly about the armed Marine who would be returning home from mid-watch in less than fifteen minutes to find his stash violated, his wife propositioned, his rug soaked with green vomit, and his smoked glass coffee table re-imagined as a fucking fractal pattern. I turned to Lydia, desperate to offer an apology but before I could open my mouth she interrupted.
“Uh, yeah. I think you guys should go…”
We tried to wake up the guy on the floor but he’d resumed snoring, covered in the stink of stomach acid. Mikey shrugged and we left him there to face the music, heading to the convenience store on the corner for coffee and a cab just as the sun was coming up.
I’ve had absinthe again a few times in lounges in New Orleans but it’s just not for me. I’ll stick to scotch.