Spin the Bottle

Grade school for me was a California boy’s paradise, a gold rush banker’s mansion made over into a jungle of early math and Ishi stories surrounded by dense green forest. When the rain came we would roam deep into the woods, damming the creeks and returning steaming to the ballroom.

My parents were a San Francisco couple of the 80’s, both working and traveling constantly, their early marriage unraveling like so many others. Mom sent me to school one day with a bottle of apple cider in my Star Wars lunchbox. The raw juice had fermented by midday, and I loved how it made me hover above the carpet, my fourth-grade classroom spinning lazily around me. Not long afterwards, my friend Zack and I were left on our own for the evening, and we found some bottles in the cupboard. We drank sweet white wine and played Adventure on the boxy beige computer in his bedroom until he groaned and puked into the bed. I went further into the maze, and then helped put his soiled sheets into the wash. Even at that age, what I saw and felt seemed less real than I imagined it should be, and altered states had the same appeal as fantasy games and science fiction.

We lived on a quiet hilltop of captain’s homes and working-class Victorians, grey in the seams and lit by the gentle red pulse of the glowing Coca-Cola sign on the downtown horizon. Many of us at that private school had tested far above our grade level, and since I’d be moving on to middle school back in the City soon enough anyhow, my parents decided that I would skip ahead to join the sixth grade for the following year. I showed up the next fall wearing my number nine football jersey and brown corduroys, a year younger than almost everyone else and yet already often passing for years older, Jethro Tull’s Aqualung on repeat in my Walkman and my hair already starting to grow out.

I found myself ahead of the math teacher as she tried to explain the geometry of a rectangle, and yet far behind the waves of other kids crashing around me in the halls and in the high-fenced prison yard outside. There had been girls on the school bus the year before, but in middle school real sex was in the air. Tight jeans and ESPRIT tops, lip gloss, LeSportsac purses, Foreigner and Fast Times. It was a thrill to steal copies of Hustler from the corner store that I passed every morning on my paper route; even more exciting was the overflowing bedroom treasure chest full of glossy porn mags. Those images made it just possible for me to believe that one day soon the girls at school would all reveal themselves as willing groupies with X-rated daydreams.

By the seventh grade I was part of a solid group of creative little fuckups who would gather every day after school to drink vodka mixed with the same frozen orange juice my mom still served. All of us were already working on a shared mission to destroy today, to forget everything, to connect only in disconnecting and floating, laughing and sick. The Talking Heads sang “we’re on a road to nowhere,” and we dropped acid on the way to see the nightmare of The Wall in Berkeley. As my friends and I spent more time together roaming the city and getting high, I was also spending more time alone at home. I skipped school and stayed home masturbating and reading Niven and Bradbury, climbing trees and burning jars of kerosene in the yard. I was proud that my eighth-grade report card showed forty-five days absent from many of my classes. I asked my mother and father again recently whether they had had any idea what I was doing in those years, and they were heartsick to admit that their own world had consumed their full attention.

As the dark river separating me from my female friends widened, I kept thinking of that fifth-grade year that I had skipped, and what I imagined had happened then. My own mythology of the year I missed revolves around the whispered mentions I still hear of a game that was played then—but only then, and never again. As I worked my porn collection and felt my way blind-drunk through the night city, I knew that if only I had been invited to play, even once, that I would have learned how to connect with the young women around me. At the time I blamed others for leaving me out; by now I know that I had already been retreating from everything real.

I hadn’t given up, but I really did think that everyone else had a legitimate head start—not because they were older, but because they had gotten to play! My own hormonally exaggerated and beer-fogged imagination of how much difference one free kiss granted by a game could make must be far greater that it was for you, but for me at the time, it seemed like everything. I know now that cause and effect—not to mention what’s real and imagined—are often interchangeable, but I held onto the idea for years and years that all of my stories to follow began with missing that one party in fifth grade where everyone played Spin the Bottle.