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Help Yourself, Kid

It certainly started out innocently enough. A Friday night in autumn, three seventh-graders sprawled out on our tummies on brand new slumber-party sleeping bags from JC Penney, eating M&M’s by the handful. Susan put an album on the record player. Propped up on pillows, our heads close together, we examined every inch of the new album cover, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. We read every lyric and listened to the songs over and over again, 13-year-old girls trying our best to figure out what it all meant.

I loved hanging out at the McGuiness household because unlike my family’s house, it was lively and messy, chaotic. This Irish family, seven of them, lived on top of a hill in our woodsy New England town. It was a short walk to the town park, a place we simply called “the lake.” My relationship with the lake had changed through the years. As New Yorkers, we had spent summers here learning to swim and getting a taste of country life. When I was eight years old, we made the move from the city to these northwest hills of Connecticut a permanent one, and boating and water-skiing became favorite activities.

Then I became a teenager. The lake now held a mysterious allure, especially at night. This is where the big kids from high school went to party on the weekends. I’d heard that there were “keggers” and smoking and kissing. This was all very taboo. Exciting. Enticing. Forbidden.

From our cozy enclave with Elton John we started to hear Susan’s mother upstairs yelling at Susan’s brother, John. Poor kid, the youngest, and the only boy. Then the dog began its shrill Chihuahua yipping. I never could figure out who was more nervous and edgy in that family, the dog or the mother. Susan rolled her eyes in exasperation, a look I knew well, and whispered, “Let’s get outta here.”

We snuck out of the basement window, wrestling cobwebs and stepping over piles of miniature dog poop and crispy fall leaves in the yard. Grabbing each other’s hands, we ran down the hill, giggling. When we reached the entrance sign to the town park, we stopped. In the distance, there was music and laughter. Do we go? Collectively, nervously, we agreed: Yes.

Huddled around a fire pit and a keg of beer were about 20 people, all older than us. This scene was at once thrilling and scary. Something way down deep inside of me lit up. A tall guy, maybe 16, wearing a Yankees cap over his long stringy hair and a tattered jean jacket grinned at me. I smiled back. He then shrugged, handed me a red plastic cup and said, “Help yourself, kid.”

This was the night that I took my first drink, a luke-warm beer. (I wondered why the keg was kept next to the fire. Wouldn’t this taste better cold?) Truth is, the beer didn’t taste good. And, it smelled skunky. Still, I drank the whole thing and then had another.

My friends and I didn’t get drunk that night. I did get a mighty buzz from doing something that felt naughty, mischievous, and wicked.

Oh, I wanted more.

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