The following piece was presented at Jersey City Writers’ literary event – Blackout! A Night of Memoirs. Please enjoy.
It’s been years since I gave up alcohol for health reasons and while on occasion I reminisce about the decadent, chocolaty sweetness known as a Mudslide – and might yet be persuaded upon to write a sonnet in its honor – I am at peace with my abstinence. I had never been a heavy-weight drinker, but I wasn’t exactly a virgin either.
I believe I had a normal, gradual exposure to spirits. As a child and into my teens, I reeled at the taste of my father’s beer and willingly drank Manischewitz wine on special occassions. In my twenties, I overcame my earlier disgust and learned to enjoy the bright and slightly bitter coolness of a Corona. I also started keeping a bottle of white zinfandel in the fridge.
I quickly discovered I had a strong dislike of sour, citris drinks. I also had very disappointing experiences with martinis: they tasted like the smell of perfume. Meanwhile, my love for coconut enflamed me to consume countless pina coladas and ultimately replace the white zin in my fridge with a bottle of coconut rum, to drink straight or mixed in almost anything.
Yet nothing in my experience, before or since, could have ever prepared me for Anisette.
I was in my teens when one day, my sister came home to visit. She had brought something special with her. My mother and father rarely drank, yet were very excited about the bottle my sister presented them with. I didn’t see the label (and if I ever do in future, I will be sure to add my own personal warning to it) but they called it Anís (pronounced ah-NIECE), or “Anisette.”
Special glasses were brought out. They were like champagne flutes, except for being only 3” tall, not counting the tiny stem and base. The clear liquid was poured then passed around until everyone at the table had a glass in front of them, including me.
Anís… I had always hated that numbing, licorice-like flavor. My family, however, loved it and used it often in tea or baked goods. They even had it planted in the garden.
I could smell it in the air and, for a while, refused to taste it. My parents and sister all sipped and savored the Anisette, gushing over how wonderful it was. I was wheedled to give it a try… just a little taste.
‘Maybe the anís flavor wasn’t that strong…’ I thought. ‘Maybe it was actually rather sweet?’ I didn’t want to be considered a wuss… and for god’s sake, my mother was drinking it! She wouldn’t even drink beer! How bad could it be?!
Against my primal urges to get away from this mystery liquid, I decided to try it. The vapors of anís stung my nose as I drew the glass near. Now, convinced that all the smiling eyes were looking at me, I couldn’t turn back. I head my breathe, tipped the glass, and wet my lips. That’s all it took.
Burning agony slid quickly to my throat and knocked the wind right out of me! Despite the minuscule amount, this superheated, mercurial poison had instantly made my throat dry and raw; my lungs felt paralyzed! I wasn’t choking; I was being strangled from the inside by some liquor demon from the depths of hell! My face twisted into knots: I couldn’t breathe – let alone cough – but I felt I desperately needed to do one or the other! I thought I was going to die.
I’m sure this couldn’t have gone on for more than a few seconds, but it was as if this volatile drink had stopped time too. Relief finally came when a rasping, choking gasp escaped the effects of the Molotov cocktail inside me. I remember hearing some amused laughter and some playful accusations that I was over-reacting. I wasn’t sure what was real and what was imagined at that moment, and probably didn’t care. I just wheezed loudly and coughed, grateful for oxygen.
After consuming large amounts of water, I burned once more, this time with embarrassment. I felt a mixture of emotions: anger towards my family for giving me this ‘horror’ to drink…. and a bit of awe that they could consume this rocket fuel and not only were they NOT writhing in pain, but they seemed to enjoy it! I was a misfit in a family of dragons…
While this memory is forever branded in my mind, my dislike of the flavor of ‘anís’ in general has surprisingly faded. I did, however, develop lasting distrust of smiling faces with mischievous eyes, for I now know those are the people most likely to offer their victims an innocent looking, yet unfathomably hot, chili sauce – or worse, a sip of straight Anisette.