Six bottles of bourbon sat on the kitchen island.
I respect bourbon, though I don't care to drink it. Josh does, and his brand is Jim Beam. My ex-boyfriend drank it, too, but he preferred Maker's Mark. A few years ago, I joined the Maker's Mark Ambassadors, which is just a free club for bourbon enthusiasts. I joined it for him so that I could give him the free stuff that comes along with membership. We broke up before the complimentary glasses and stirring sticks came in the mail. Now, I get a free gift every Christmas and somewhere in Kentucky is a barrel of bourbon with a plaque bearing my name. I even have a certificate. And all because I used to date a guy who liked bourbon.
Now I date a different guy who still likes bourbon, and I bought him a Jim Beam mirror a couple of birthdays ago. I found it at the Goodwill in Clemmons for $6. It's a nice mirror, like the kind you see hanging in bars. I gave it to him knowing full well that it might someday end up at my house. I don't generally care for the use of alcohol in decor. It reminds me of college, where empty liquor bottles sat like trophies on top of mantles and bookshelves. I associate it with excess, with people who think that finishing a bottle of Old Granddad is an accomplishment of some sort. I am a stick in the mud.
But I excused the mirror, because it was nice, because it was a great price, because it was his brand, because it sat serendipitously in the Goodwill waiting for me. How can I resist secondhand fate?
Back to the kitchen island. We were at this guy's house. He was a friend of the band who had asked them to come play at an outdoor bar for his birthday, but the night had gotten rained out. We were going to go to the Farmhouse later, but until then, he wanted us to taste his bourbon. He was an older guy, maybe mid to late thirties, and he'd recently become a connoisseur. Did you know there was such a thing as a bourbon connoisseur? To be completely honest, I didn't realize it either, but it makes sense. After all, there is good wine and good beer and people who know the difference, so why shouldn't the same apply to liquor? Despite the brown bag connotations, there is science in the creation of spirits. You take some plant matter, let it ferment, distill it, and you have a different product based on the plant and the methods and even the barrel used to age the stuff. Maybe people wouldn't find it so interesting if it didn't make you feel better about life for a while; after all, I don't know any milk connoisseurs.
He brought out the bottles and talked about touring the distillery. He set out six bar glasses with ice and poured a ounce or so in each glass. Glasses were passed around (I waved one away, saying I would sip out of Josh's), and five non-connoisseurs swirled, smelled, and sipped. They talked about bourbon.
There was a kid there, who I didn't know but had already decided that I didn't much care for. Everything he said was full of bravado, his ballcap carefully turned to just the right angle, seven degrees askew. He interrupted conversations to turn them back around to him with unrelated statements like "I'm having an affair with my boss." He assumed some sort of familiarity with the band, though Josh didn't know his name. The band always has these hangers-on, people who happen to be at the bar where they're playing, decide to come to the after-party, and then the next time they show up and act like old pals. They're like band barnacles. They come up to Josh and give him the thug handshake and hug combo, but later, when I ask who the heck they are, he shrugs and tells me that he has no idea.
For all the glamour of being a rock star, it sure does seem to involve a lot of pretending you know complete strangers.
This kid was trying to talk about bourbon. So as the connoisseur described each bottle, comparing it to other liquors, the Barnacle would say, "Oh yeah, man, that's like 80 proof." He did this for each brand that came up in the conversation. I have no idea if he was right, and no one corrected him.
Back in college, when I was first being introduced to the world of alcohol, the proof of a liquor was interesting to me. At that time, that seemed to be the only difference. They all tasted bad, but some of them got you more drunk than others. As I got older, I realized that there were differences - in taste, in smell, in mouthfeel. But also, the idea of getting drunk sort of lost its novelty. I don't care what will get me drunk the quickest. Efficiency is not the goal here. This kid was clearly still in that stage, where drinking high proof alcohol was a statement of manhood. He probably had some empty bottles on his mantle. There was a certain plea in his statements, though, as if he was offering us the only contribution to the conversation that he could come up with. If I hadn't already been sick of him, I might have felt sorry for him. But then I looked at his cap, seven degrees askew, and rolled my eyes.
The rest of us sipped. I thought I could tell the difference between various types, but maybe I was just imagining. If someone gives you a glass of wine and tells you it has hints of vanilla, you might think you taste them, whether they are there or not. I could tell that one bourbon was different from another, but I couldn't tell why. It was like when I used to go to wine-tasting class, and I felt the disconnect between what I was experiencing and how to describe it.
And we talked about ninjas. That was the Connoisseur's way of describing the kick that straight liquor gives you. You sip it, you taste the flavor, and then BAM! You realize that you're drinking poison. Those were the ninjas; they sneak up on you. A drink with a strong punch had a lot of ninjas. The Barnacle was surprised to find that it was not all about proof. Most of the talk was about ninjas or comparing this drink with the last. Some of the guys restated what the Connoisseur had told us, probably feeling like me in that if they were told some flavor was there, they could find it.
But Josh, ah my sweet, that man has a way with words. He described the flavor, he described the way it felt in your mouth, he described the whole experience. It was beautiful, and listening to him made me want to try each one again, so I could have the experience he painted for us. The Connoisseur lapped it up. He was sharing his expensive special liquor with a bunch of people who didn't get it, but it was probably worth it just to hear Josh talk. He got it, Josh got it, they bonded. This was the guy's birthday present. If you have never met someone who can make a conversation seem like a gift, then you are missing out on one of life's best free highs. Call me a connoisseur of conversation.
Afterwards, the men went out to smoke, and I was left standing in the kitchen with the Connoisseur's wife. It was too cold to go outside if you don't even smoke. I was very brave and bold and talked with a stranger, because I wanted to prove to myself and the world that I don't have to be aloof and I can be a fun and interesting person, even if I am a stick in the mud.
Why is this so hard for me? I struggle with the kind of talk that happens when you first meet someone. It's like there are rules I don't know or a script that I don't have a copy of. And it seems like nothing is ever said. I've cultivated that view for so long that if someone does not impress me within a few sentences, I have written them off. That sounds like more of a conversation snob than a connoisseur, and actually just a terrible snot of a human being. Having finally recognized this tendency, I am trying to make myself talk to strangers. There is always an opportunity to glean something worthwhile in a conversation, to learn something from someone else's experience. The white Zinfandel may be too sweet and the Chardonnay too acidic, but they can still have their charms. The woman was pleasant, and she worked in a fertility clinic, which was fascinating, so after a while, I didn't even feel like I was making myself do something for the betterment of my character.
The men filtered back in, though Josh stayed outside with the Barnacle. I could tell from Josh's pacing and gesturing that he was in lecture mode. Please know that I mean it affectionately.
I went outside, mostly to selfishly drag Josh back inside (so I could be with him and warm), but also partly to see what he found to talk about with this obnoxious person. Remember, I know intellectually that the kid has value, but in real life, I just want to straighten his hat and tell him to shut up. Josh was explaining something about the way the world works, and it would contribute a lot of good detail to this story if I could remember what. Maybe it was about the economy, maybe it was about bourbon, maybe it was about God, I'm sorry, but I don't know. The Barnacle was nodding slowly and thoughtfully as he listened, periodically saying "Yeah, I see what you're saying." Again I could see that sad sort of earnestness in his stance, that person inside him who just wanted to be accepted and thought making a jerk of himself was the way to go. It was clear to me that the kid had made some statement, probably off-handed that he thought was clever or bold, and Josh had calmly and patiently and completely taken him down. I can recognize that state, having been on the receiving end of many of Josh's lectures. He's good at telling you that you are wrong without you resenting him for it. In fact, you end up respecting him.
I do not have this gift. If I bother to argue with you, meaning I haven't just dismissed you and your stupid point of view, I may not convince you that you are wrong, but I will convince you that I think you're an idiot. I promise I don't just go around calling people morons to their faces, but somehow that message gets through, even when I don't even think that. The old me would retort that people shouldn't be so sensitive. But having witnessed Josh in action, I can see that there is a way to disagree without conveying disdain. I wouldn't even have bothered talking to this guy; I had been done with him a couple of hours ago. And I know for a fact that Josh thought the Barnacle was kind of a tool, but he still took the time to have a discussion with him.
In many ways, Josh is a better person than I am. It's very irritating.
We left soon after to go continue the party at the Farmhouse. I girded my loins, preparing for the onslaught of happy drunken strangers who would soon want me to be happy and drunk with them. I felt bolstered by the bourbon, by the successful conversational navigation I had done with the Connoisser's wife, by the knowledge that most people just want to be liked. Alone in the car, my last few minutes alone with the only person I would want to talk to at the Farmhouse anyway, we talked about the Barnacle, about ninjas, about bourbon.