Back when I was in middle school, a product hit the shelves of our local Toronto groceries and corner shops that caused quite a bit of excitement: dealcoholized wine coolers. These were fizzy drinks that sold in individual cans at fifty-nine cents apiece, with each label making an enthusiastic promise that this product was MADE FROM REAL WINE!
Most important, however, was the fact that through some specialized process or other, almost all of the alcohol had been removed down to less than half a percent per can. This meant that any twelve-year-old who wanted to enjoy the piquant flavors of suspiciously cheap wine could do so legally and with no questions asked. I immediately bought all I could carry.
By nightfall, I was down to my last can, having stacked the empties on the coffee table in a pyramid of alternating red and white flavors. I had been pretending to be drunk for close to five hours, stumbling around the house, bumping into walls, and picking drawn-out fistfights with imaginary drinkers in an imaginary bar (which to memory, looked exactly like the Cantina from Star Wars). When my Mother finally got home from work, I was pretending to barf on the carpet.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Drinking wine coolersh!” I said, making sure to slur my words for the sake of verisimilitude. She picked up an empty can and stared at it.
“This is wine?”
“Yeah it’s shwine. And ish perfekly leegal, so there’sh notta damn thing you kin do about it” For my coup de grace, I guzzled the remainder of my last can and staggered backwards into the couch, shouting: “I’m sho da-runk!”
All my Mother said was: “Huh.”
The next day at school, these coolers were the only subject of conversation. Kids had stuffed their backpacks full of them. We drank them at recess. We drank them at lunch. We dangled the cans in front of our teachers defiantly as we staggered around the yard mimicking the incorrigible drunks we’d seen in movies, on TV, or in our own families.
This was the best thing that had ever happened to any of us.
Around a week later, inexplicably, I became an outcast. Class after class, I received fleeting, hateful looks from my schoolmates, and besides calling me a “dick” or a “gaylord” a handful of times, no one would speak to me.
Then, near the end of the day, our school principal, Mr. Holmeshaw– a friendly, sparky old man who was around the size and shape of a fire hydrant– approached me in the hall.
“Please congratulate your Mother for me”, he said. “What she did took a lot of courage. You must be very proud of her.”
Of course, I had no idea what he was talking about. Not until I saw the papers.
Toronto has three major newspapers: The Globe and Mail (Canada’s globally-respected, intellectual newspaper of record); The Toronto Star (think USA Today with fewer polls and pie charts); and the Toronto Sun– a tabloid rag with a conservative editorial stance, and a daily page-three spread of some or other bikini-clad titty girl feeding the camera an eighteen-year-old’s definition of sultry. It was in this paper that the headline read: “BOOZY COOLER LEFT KID REELING”.
Though not as sensationally, the other papers carried similar stories of a foolish young boy who stumbled around like an inebriate after drinking non-alcoholic wine. Should we be giving our children permission to partake in adult activities? these papers queried. Even an insubstantial amount of alcohol is still alcohol. Who will protect young boys like Josh Flaum, who simply don’t know any better?
Oh, yes, like Josh Flaum.
It seems my Mother had called a town hall meeting (no easy task in a city of five million people), and in front of a throng of legislators, corporate heads and angry parents– and despite an overwhelming fear of public speaking– she asked a lot of hard questions regarding the ethics of liquor distributors who sell wine-flavored drinks to children. Next, she voiced accusations that this was being done intentionally to offer kids early gateways to the real thing. Finally, she told my story, about how I spent my entire allowance in one quick trip to the corner store; about how I stumbled around and slurred my words, yelled at her and collapsed in a giggling heap.
“He may not have been drunk,” she told the crowd, “but he was practicing.”
Within a week, it was no longer legal for anyone under the age of eighteen to purchase wine coolers, dealcoholized or not. Within a month, the coolers were pulled from the shelves permanently. My mother was definitely on to something: it would appear that if you remove pre-pubescent dum-dums from the demographic, the number of people interested in drinking tart, fizzy, shitty wine with no alcohol in it rounds out to about zero.
So, aside from a year of relentless persecution in junior high, that was that.
I tell this story now because I realize I am probably the last person alive who remembers it. It’s been almost three years since my Mother died, and I am only beginning to understand that I will never stop missing her. If you are reading this, please know my greatest hope is that you have someone like her in your life. This is all I want for any of you: someone who cares about you enough to humiliate you; someone who hates the terrible things that you love; and someone who loves you so much, it makes the newspapers.
You were the best, Mom. Happy Birthday.
This afternoon, I caught myself speaking to my toenails like they were somebody’s children.
“Look at you,” I said. “You’re getting so big. Grow any more, and I’m going to have to buy all new socks.”
I have conversations like this all the time these days: friendly morning chats with my slippers; terse debates with a roll of paper towels; involved melodramas in which the food in my fridge begs me not to eat it. I give inanimate objects hoarse Muppet voices, and we talk like family.
Obviously, I’m lonely again. With the exception of the occasional short-lived exchange tossed in here and there, I’m a perennially single guy. In fact, I did try to remedy this a while back by getting into a mature, committed relationship. But that didn’t work out, so I got a cat.
What I figured at the time was that a little unconditional love would do me some good. As luck would have it, my friend’s cat had just pooped out a batch of kittens, and she was nice enough to give me first pick. I chose the runt of the litter, as I’d read that runts– being small and comparatively weak– tend to be calmer and more even-tempered. In addition, this runt was female (or near as I could tell after Googling “cat vagina”), and as I’d also read that females tend to be quieter and more affectionate than males, this was a definite plus. I named her Rose and brought her home, this even-tempered, calm, quiet, and loving little girl.
Fast-forward to her first check-up. Here’s how it went down:
VET: I don’t see any problems. He’s very healthy.
ME (ASSERTIVELY): She.
VET: He. This is a boy.
ME (VERY FUCKING CERTAIN): No, she’s a girl.
VET: Definitely a boy.
ME (DUBIOUS): How do you know?
VET: Because of the penis.
ME (WITH NO TRACE OF HUMAN INTELLIGENCE): This can’t be. She has nipples.
Turns out all cats have nipples. Also turns out it’s very difficult to determine the sex of a kitten based on a few Googled photos; when they’re very young, their little cotton ball scrotums and vaginal puffs are eerily similar. So I conceded to the vet (who I could only assume was an expert in these matters) and renamed the cat Louie and took him home with the hope that he would remain even-tempered, quiet, calm, and loving.
Louie has since destroyed half of everything I own. As it happens, he has something those in the know would call a “high prey drive”– an unrelenting compulsion to hunt, ravage and murder anything he sees. Bad news for any spiders in the house, but also bad news for anything not made of metal. The list of his victims includes: a couch; a love seat; an office chair; three dress shirts; two sets of headphones; twelve books (two hardcover); a duvet; every curtain in the house; two bath mats; and a bicycle helmet.
He is an unyielding machine. He rifles through my cabinets and swats glass items off of high surfaces. He bounds into the walls and shreds grocery bags before they’re unpacked. Every once in a while, he’ll take a running jump into my office chair with such speed that it ricochets from my desk into the file cabinet like an air hockey puck. Louie is basically a poltergeist that I can actually see.
Also, I would not use the word ‘affectionate‘ in describing this cat. He doesn’t sit in my lap, or rub up against my legs and purr. He is, however, extraordinarily playful. His favorite game goes something like this:
1. I try to pet him
2. He bites holes into my hand
3. I scream and bleed
Louie calls this ‘wrestling‘. I call it ‘the reason I own so much hydrogen peroxide‘.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love my cat. Sometimes I think he has a better sense of humor than I do. He’s certainly smarter. But inasmuch as I was looking for even-tempered, calm, quiet, and loving, Louie has turned out to be an imperfect companion animal. If I can sing his praises at all, it’s because he makes a superior alarm clock. This, he demonstrates at 4:30 every morning by pressing his paw deep into my eyeball, if only to let me know he’s ready to bite some more holes into my hand.
So this is me at almost 40 years old: lonely; bleeding incessantly; and talking to my toenails while a hairy creature rampages through my house. It’s no wonder I’m single. These aren’t exactly the kinds of things I can include in the ‘About Me’ section of my internet dating profile. Let’s face it: there’s no even-temepered, calm, quiet, loving woman on the planet who would go for a guy like that.
You don’t need to agree with me. My toenails already have.
I’m at the local Panera Bread on Valentine’s day, pretending to read. The woman at the table next to me is talking with her two friends about her daughter’s boobs.
“I’m already having to buy bras,” she says.
“What,” asks her friend, “you mean like training bras?”
“No. Bra bras. With underwire.”
“How old is she now? Twelve? Thirteen?”
“Oh no,” says the other friend. “What are you going to do?”
At this point, I am invested in the conversation. And by the way, I don’t consider this to be an invasion of privacy; they’re being loud enough to make it public domain. Besides, her friends have such horrified looks on their faces, I simply can’t help but feel lucky to be sitting so close.
Yes, I think, what are you going to do?
“I don’t know,” she says, then pauses long enough to make me wonder if she’s trying not to cry. “I guess we’ll figure it out.”
“Ten is too young,” says the first friend.
The other friend, the fat one, stares into space and rubs her temples. The whole table is downright gloomy.
At first, I can’t imagine what the problem is. It seems possible I have made a mistake, that these glum ladies aren’t talking about boobies at all, but are lamenting a ten-year-old girl’s fight with leukemia, or a brain parasite, or a massive, irreparable heart hole. And maybe, because there’s some scar tissue on my right eardrum (or more plausibly, because I am a creep), I have heard “cup size” and “underwire” instead of things like “interferon injections” or “years of radiation therapy”. But then I get an answer.
“She got like ninety Valentines,” says the Mother.
“God bless her.”
“Brought them home in a grocery bag. She got one from every boy in her class, and a bunch from the fourth- and fifth-graders. There may be some from the sixth-graders in there, too. I didn’t recognize the names.”
And there it is. This poor girl.
Everything she has ever known is finished. For one halcyon decade, she’s done nothing but jump rope and collect stickers. But then her chest gets puffy, and all of a sudden she’s deluged with love notes from a hundred jittery little monkeys, most of whom probably don’t fully understand why they’re going to all the trouble. And now there’s no turning back. This poor, innocent, overdeveloped third-grader will be fending off the wet-mouthed savages for the rest of her days.
Yes, I think again, what are you going to do?
“Fuck my life,” the woman says to her friends, and maybe to me.
When I was a preschooler, my Mother pulled a jug of blue liquid out from under the kitchen sink. Don’t drink this, she said. If you do, your blood will turn to acid and you’ll die. I needed no further convincing, and steered clear of the sink for years afterward. To this day, I think of my kitchen as a place filled with poisons (as evidenced by my own cooking).
All in all, It’s not difficult to teach your kids the difference between Kool-Aid and anti-freeze. But how do you protect them from the chemicals stewing in their own bodies? How do you save them from hundreds of thousands of years of animal instinct? How, how, how do you keep the mad monkeys at bay?
I have no idea. But if I ever have a daughter, God save her Valentines.