Spirited

illustrated drinksIt was already a week into December when Vodka decided he wanted to throw a big holiday party. Vermouth — who was back together with him after an almost three-week break-up — told him that everyone's weekend from now till New Years was probably spoken for. Vodka just barked that surprisingly loud laugh of his and said, “We'll make it a Friday-night party. No one ever plans for a Friday,” and e-mailed out the invites. “Besides,” he said, “if you can't throw the whole thing together at the last minute, why bother?”

As luck would have it, most everyone had that night free. The day of the party Vodka picked up a keg and a plate of cold cuts while Vermouth made her deviled eggs. While Vodka was fiddling with the tap she tidied up, straightening the pillows on the couch and moving the stemware from the bar into the kitchen cabinets. The stemware was something of a sore point for Vermouth. She’d had to replace most of them after the last party, when Tequila had stumbled into the bar at one point, causing a cascade of glasses to smash on the kitchen tile.

People started showing up about 7:30. Whiskey was first. Vermouth took his coat and Vodka asked if he could get him a drink. “Oh, just water for right now,” he said. “I’m taking it easy tonight.”

People kept arriving by ones and twos. Most brought an appetizer or a bottle of wine and soon the dining room table was loaded with crackers, chips, olives, pickles, dip, cookies, fruitcake, and fudge. Rum showed up wearing a suit and tie with an astonishingly good-looking girl no one had ever seen before hanging on his arm. Vodka immediately put him to work running the stereo.

By 9:00 the party was in full swing. It had just started to snow, and for some reason that put everyone in a festive, holiday mood. Ouzo was in the kitchen holding forth on the coming elections. A small clique of determined smokers stood out on the back porch puffing away and shivering while minding the keg (Vermouth wouldn’t permit smoking in the house). In the living room Tequila was telling a story about the time when he and Vodka got arrested in New York City and Amaretto could not stop laughing.

Vermouth was restless and kept moving from room to room. Often she’d check the front door to see if someone had rung the doorbell and she hadn’t heard (it was an old building and hard to hear the bell over the music). She bumped into Whiskey, who was off by himself in front of Vodka’s bookshelf, paging through a slim paperback.

“What’s that you have there?” she asked.

“Dickens. A Christmas Carol. Just this one favorite passage of mine,” he said.

“Which one?”

“The bit at the end where he’s begging the Ghost of Christmas Future for another chance. ‘Men’s courses foreshadow certain ends,’” he read. “‘If those courses be changed, shall not the ends be also?’”

She frowned and pointed her chin a bit sideways. “Not regretting some road not taken, are you?”

Whiskey shook his head. “I just like the idea that it’s never too late to become a completely different person. I mean, if Scrooge could do it...”

They stood like that for a moment, the party still whirling around them, each wondering how deeply the other was understanding. They had been together, briefly, back in college, and while it hadn’t worked out, they had both kept tender feelings for one another. A shout from across the room broke the moment.

“Hey, big brother! Happy holidays!”

Whiskey turned. “Bourbon! Hey, little brother. What are you doing here?”

The two gave each other a serious man hug — the kind that doesn’t need all the slapping on the back to prove itself. Bourbon had just checked his e-mail for the first time in days that morning, and on impulse had driven in from the suburbs. The brothers went off to find Bourbon a cup and Whiskey a refill.

Vodka and Cognac were out smoking by the keg when they came out. “Well hey!” said Vodka, “Long time no see. How’ve you been?” Vodka had always been fond of Whiskey — despite his history with Vermouth — and the feelings transferred over to his brother Bourbon and sister Rye.

Bourbon talked a little bit about the bluegrass band he’d been playing with. Demo tapes… festivals… maybe even a tour. Was he seeing anyone these days? No, but that reminded him, “That one girl, the foreign chick, Absinthe her name was, is she around?”

Everyone suddenly got serious. “Actually, that’s a really bad situation,” said Cognac. “She got kicked out of the country on a visa violation, what, maybe six, eight months ago?” He looked to Vodka and Whiskey for confirmation and they both nodded. “She figured it would just take a trip home to get everything straightened out, but so far no dice.”

“Seriously?” Bourbon asked.

“Seriously,” Vodka said. He ran a hand contemplatively over his thick, black beard. “She had less than a semester left of grad school to finish up. Ever since 9/11 the whole system’s been fucked up.”

They were all quiet for a moment, thinking about the tiny, pretty, more than a little bit crazy girl who had enlivened so many past parties. Cognac was also thinking about the time she had keyed his car, the time she had smashed his glass-top table with her fist and bled all over his sofa, not to mention the time she had painted every square inch of his bathroom day-glo green (except for the toilet seat), as a birthday present.

He missed her very much.

By 11:00 the party began to get a wobbly, hyperkinetic feel. Peppermint Schnapps had just asked — for the third time — “So, wait, you’re telling me Rum and Tequila don’t like each other?”

“No,” said an exasperated Ouzo, “they don’t. It’s not like they hate each other, they just don’t like each other.”

She pondered this deeply. “Well, why not?” she finally asked. “I mean, they’re so alike. And they have so many friends in common.”

“Like I said, I’m not sure. I think it’s a Latin thing.”

“Oh… So, wait… are you telling me Rum and Tequila don’t like each other?”

Ouzo downed his drink and patted her lightly on one arm. “You’re a very nice girl, Pepper, you know that, right?” He walked off toward the keg, leaving her flattered and confused. Peppermint at last shrugged and went off to find her cousin, Peach.

In the kitchen Vodka and Bourbon were loudly debating football. Whiskey could barely get a word in edgewise. Rum had put on a mix CD and was mingling with the crowd. Tequila had messed up trying to open a bottle of wine and was now rummaging though the silverware drawer to find something small enough to push the remaining cork down the neck of the bottle. Grand Marnier had arrived with a gigantic plate of stuffed mushrooms. Vermouth had gnawed her right thumbnail to the quick and was bleeding. She went to the bathroom to get a band-aid.

At almost the stroke of midnight, Gin made her grand entrance. She shook the snowflakes out of her hair, twirled out of her coat (which Vodka was there to grab), and set down a bottle of Champagne on the coffee table. “Let’s get some flutes!” she cried. “This bottle isn’t going to stay cold forever.”

“Glad you could make it, G,” said Vodka as she breezed past him toward the bar.

“Glad to be here, V,” she shot back over her shoulder. Gin waved her hellos to the people in the dining room and began rummaging around. After several frustrating minutes she called out, “Hey, where’s the fucking stemware?”

“Uh, well, I…” said a voice just behind her in the corridor to the kitchen. Gin turned to see Vermouth, holding four Champagne flutes, two in each hand, crossed at the stems. Vermouth gave a little “here I am” shrug and tried to smile.

Gin gathered the smaller woman up into her arms. Vermouth breathed deeply, taking in the scent of Gin’s hair, which was all juniper and bitter orange. “I didn’t think you were going to come,” Vermouth whispered.

“Why would you think a thing like that?” said Gin.

Vodka meanwhile had moved off to the spare bedroom where they were piling the coats. He opened the door to find Tequila, Amaretto, Cognac, and Bourbon about to light a joint. “Hey, Vodka,” said Tequila. “This is okay in here, right?”

Vodka smiled. “Well, let’s move things to my office so we don’t stink up the outerwear,” he said, tossing Gin’s coat on the bed. As the group moved through the kitchen, Bourbon made the universal pinched-fingers-in-front-of-pursed-lips gesture to Whiskey, who extricated himself from a conversation with Limoncello and Sambuca to follow along.

They had only just lit up when Rum knocked on the door of the office. “Hey, Vodka,” he said, “hate to interrupt, but the keg is feeling a little light. How late does the store on the corner sell?”

“Not nearly late enough,” said Vodka, who began taking an emergency collection.

By 1:00 the wheels were falling off. Peach Schnapps had driven Peppermint home (she wasn’t feeling very well). As the bars had let out, a few friends-of-friends looking for a party had shown up. Everyone knew Tequila’s friend Mezcal, just like everyone knew Ouzo’s friend Grappa. Malibu showed up with a large, dark-looking guy. At the sight of her, Amaretto and Grand Marnier had turned to each other and said in a simultaneous undertone: “Slut.”

Rum and Vodka returned with a 30-pack of cheap beer and two 12-packs of green-bottle beer. Because they had been toking a bit before leaving, they had also bought a bag of smoked almonds, another of potato chips, and a container of French onion dip. They left the food on the dining room table — which was by now looking like a disaster zone — and decided to put the beer out in the backyard in the snow to keep cool. As they went past the back porch, it looked as if the keg was still going, but on its last legs.

As they set the beer down in a snow bank, Vodka noticed Tequila, standing in the far corner of the yard with his back to them. He heard a familiar trickling sound.

“Tequila?” Vodka barked.

“Wha- ?” Tequila said, and turned to the sound of the voice, describing a yellow arc in the snow as he did so.

“Jesus, man,” said Vodka, “you’re like a wild animal or something. You do know there’s a perfectly good bathroom right inside?”

“Oh,” Tequila said, looking down at himself. “Right. Uh. There was this line.”

“Well stow that thing away before you give Rum an inferiority complex—”

“Hey!” Rum said.

“—and get yourself back inside before you freeze. And don’t let my neighbors see you.”

As Vodka turned back toward the porch he heard a strain of music that didn’t match the kinetic beat of the party. Something melancholy. It seemed to be coming from the laundry room downstairs. He went down and pushed open the door to find Whiskey, sitting on top of the drier, strumming Vodka’s old acoustic guitar.

“Hey, Vodka,” Whiskey said. “Hope you don’t mind my fooling around with your guitar here.”

“No, of course not… Are you okay?”

“Hm? Oh, I’m fine.”

“You’re not fine. You’re sitting down here alone in the dark singing those sad Irish ballads to yourself. All ruined maids and drunken murder. You should come back up to the party.”

Whiskey shook his head. “Too many people up there. Headache. I’ll be up in a little while.”

Vodka scowled. “Okay. But if you take too long, I’ll send your brother down here to pull you out.” He turned to head back up.

“Hey, Vodka,” Whiskey called after him.

“Yeah?”

“How come you and Vermouth keep getting back together?”

Vodka stood there for a beat, staring at him.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” Whiskey said. “Drunken over here. Right here. Shouldn’t have asked.”

“No,” Vodka said, “It’s okay. I was just trying to think of an answer. I guess it’s because Vermouth always needs to be with someone, and I’m pretty easy to be with.”

“So… I mean, you don’t… mind?”

“Mind what? You mean about her and Gin?”

Whiskey nodded.

Vodka sighed. “I hate how Vermouth beats herself up about it. How she feels pulled between these different strong personalities because, well, I guess because she doesn’t see herself as very strong, or special, or something.”

“She is special.”

“Yes, yes she is,” Vodka agreed.

“I couldn’t deal with it,” Whiskey said. “Back then. I couldn’t stand her being with anyone else.”

“I guess that’s why you guys only broke up the one time.”

Whiskey bit his lip and shrugged.

Vodka spread his hands wide. “She’s just trying to be happy. Would to God I could wave a magic wand and make all my friends happy,” he said. “The best I’m able to do is throw a decent party from time to time.”

Just then there was a sound from upstairs like a safe being dropped. “Jesus, not again,” said Vodka, who turned and charged up the stairs, Whiskey following close behind.

Up in the kitchen, Ouzo and Tequila had decided to put on a demonstration of their mixed martial arts techniques, and things had rapidly gotten out of hand. They were now scrabbling around on the dirty kitchen floor, Ouzo trying to work an arm-bar, Tequila trying to get to his feet.

“Well,” Vodka said, “at least they didn’t knock the bookcase over like last time.”

“Tequila!” Whiskey yelled, “Bridge! Arch your back! You got him, baby!”

By 2:00 the remaining partiers had stopped moving around so much, except to get to the bathroom or grab another drink. The cluster in the dining room was either eating or watching the chess game between Vodka and Malibu’s hulking, swarthy date, a Bulgarian named Raki who spoke barely a word of English but had a devastating Queen-side opening.

In the living room Amaretto was doing a strange Thai finger dance in front of the stereo while Gin and Vermouth talked on the couch.

“I swear to God,” Gin was saying.

“Like kissing kissing?” Vermouth asked.

“Her tongue was half way down his throat.”

“Cognac and Limoncello? She doesn’t seem like his type at all.”

“What’s his type?”

“I dunno. He just always seemed so classy.”

Gin took a sip of Champagne. “He’s probably lonely. It’s the holidays and Absinthe is trapped outside the country.”

Vermouth giggled and said, “My gosh, that girl! We shared a ride to a Phish concert this one time? She made up an entire rock opera during the drive called The Backstreet Boys in Hell. I mean the whole thing, lyrics, music, stage direction… I think it ended with Nick Carter singing an aria as he slowly sank into a vat of boiling excrement.”

“Ew! Shut up!” said Gin, who was laughing all the same. As she laughed she moved her hand to touch Vermouth’s knee, lightly. She kept it there.

In the kitchen Whiskey and Bourbon were talking about what to get their parents for Christmas. Rum and his girl — Calvados, her name was — were in a semi-argument about who had had more to drink. In Vodka’s office, Tequila, Cognac, Limoncello, and Sambuca kept burning their fingertips trying to pass the last little bit of the very last joint.

On the back porch, Malibu and Grand Marnier had both bummed clove cigarettes off of Ouzo and all three were smoking furiously. Grand Marnier was this close to giving Malibu a piece of her mind… but couldn’t quite put her feelings into words. Malibu was just hoping Grand Marnier would say something so she could laugh in her face. And Ouzo just wanted to get in from the cold.

By 3:00 Tequila was passed out in the easy chair in the living room. Mescal suggested drawing on his face with magic marker, but in the end Vermouth just put a blanket over him and turned the stereo down.

Rum and Calvados called it a night with many a fond farewell and “nice to have met you.” The argument they had in the car on the way home was so bad that Rum dropped her off at her place instead of taking her back to his.

Cognac and Limoncello left together, but tried to make it seem as if they weren’t going home together. Gin peeked out the window to see the two of them staggering along in the snow, holding each other in a kind of clumsy hug. Luckily his apartment was only a few blocks away.

Vodka had finally lost at chess, but Raki had been much impressed by his end game. He wished he had more words in English to compliment him on it. Out of the blue, Vodka started speaking in Russian, which was as close to Bulgarian as made no never mind. They babbled back and forth like old friends as Vodka began covering what salvageable dishes there were with saran wrap and moving them into the fridge.

Most everyone else was in the kitchen. Bourbon and Whiskey had a small pile of beer cans and bottles on the counter they were leaning against. They were well into the “I just love you, man. No, I mean it, I really, really love you, man,” portion of the evening. Everyone else seemed amazed at Vodka’s simple ability to move back and forth from one room to another. Every time he appeared with another saran-wrapped plate, Amaretto would say, “Hi, Vodka!” And each time it was just the funniest thing in the world.

Until, of course, Amaretto had to go throw up. Ouzo offered her a ride home, which was probably not the wisest thing, either in terms of safe driving or clean upholstery. But he was at least acting fairly sober by this point.

And in less time than anyone would have thought it was after 4:00. Everyone grabbed their coats. Grand Marnier shared a cab with Mescal. Sambuca managed to pedal his bike off into the night. Raki drove Malibu home after many profuse thanks to the host and hostess. Grappa had simply vanished without a word to anyone. Bourbon was in no shape for a trip out to the suburbs, so Vodka and Whiskey convinced him to lie down on the couch for a little while.

“I don’t want to be… um. You know,” Bourbon said.

“We’ll put you to work cleaning tomorrow morning,” Vodka said. “That should make us even-steven.”

“I’ll stop over in the morning,” Whiskey said, “like 10:00, 10:30. We’ll get breakfast.”

Bourbon smiled and put his head back and was almost instantly snoring.

Whiskey gave hugs all around to Vodka, Vermouth, and Gin. “Great party,” he said, and then staggered off toward home.

Gin gave a quick hug to Vodka, a long hug to Vermouth. “I’ll see you two around,” she said, and walked off to her car.

As Vodka closed the door behind her, Vermouth asked in a small voice, “Why don’t you get jealous?”

Vodka shrugged. “I do get jealous.”

“Then why do you stay?”

He looked all around. “Well, it’s my house.”

“No, I mean why do you stay with me?”

“Because I love you.” Vodka turned toward the bedroom. “Because I like being with you.”

“Hey,” Vermouth said, stopping him in his tracks. “Check it out.”

She was pointing at Tequila, passed out in the easy chair. A beatific smile was spread across his face.

“What do you think he’s dreaming about?” Vermouth asked.

“Warm sands,” said Vodka, putting one arm around her. “Warm sands, blue skies, and naked women.”

And with that he gently turned her around and led her off to bed.

In actual fact, Tequila was smiling because of a pleasant, warm sensation spreading around his midsection, as he had just that minute pissed himself.

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