I firmly believe everyone should have a period in their life where they can look back and say, “Damn, I was wild.” A reckless, free experience they can call upon during their most mundane moments. When life is filled with mortgage payments, sick babies and arguments over who’s turn it is to empty the dishwasher, you can stop and remember a time when you gave zero fucks and ran wild with desire.
Mine was one summer in a dive bar in Brooklyn.
I was 17 years old and already looking for a way out. Out of my house, my life, my own head. As a child, there was an emptiness inside me that I could never quite fill. A void I can’t remember ever living without. I never truly felt like I belonged anywhere, so I tried to fit in everywhere.
I wasn’t driven enough for the nerds, not cool enough for the ‘Mean Girls.’ I’ve always had a wicked sense of humor, which probably saved me from being a complete social pariah, but school was tough for me. Deep insecurities would rear their ugly heads and I would find myself locked behind a bathroom stall in a state of panic, swearing no one liked me because I was such a loser. I couldn’t wait to graduate and move on to something else; to what, I had no idea. I just knew I wanted out.
One night in my senior year, my older brother invited me to a birthday party at a bar in our old neighborhood. It was for a close friend of his, a kid my parents knew very well so they didn’t have a problem letting me go. What could possibly happen, right? So off I went with a $20 bill my dad have given me to a bar I’d heard about for years. I have to add this was pre-gentrification Brooklyn; when what is now referred to as Kensington was called Flatbush and it was pretty sketchy. Not an area you’d walk around in at night. And this bar, well, if you didn’t know it was there…you’d never know it was there. The front entrance faced the train tracks, the back door led to an oft-deserted street. It had stools, a dartboard and the most amazing jukebox I’d ever heard. I’ve been to many bars since and still have not found a better one. It was dark. It was dingy. And it was perfect: the kind of place where a lost 17-year-old girl could raise some hell and find some trouble.
My brother and his gang of friends were regulars there, and I tagged along whenever he would let me. Soon enough, I didn’t need him to bring me anymore because I became friendly with one of the owners. Seventeen-year-old girls don’t realize bar owners are ‘friendly’ with all the pretty jailbait. I’d find this out much later. The first time I went there without my brother, I brought a friend. The owner asked what we were drinking. I probably said something lame like a Sea breeze. He, ignoring my order, proceeded to pour out shots for us. “They taste like bubblegum,” he said. They did, so we had two more. Then two more. We started talking to two guys I had met there a few times before. We ordered more drinks. My head was spinning. The night ended with us getting sick in the bathroom and grabbing a cab from a (thankfully) very trustworthy driver. I woke up the next morning with a hangover that could have killed a horse and a smile that lasted several days. I decided then and there that drinking was fun and something I wanted to do more of. Ahhh youth.
Graduation came, and I had my college lined up. I was going locally, because that’s what neighborhood girls did. The only issue was that I hated my job and dreaded going to work everyday. My dad, who at times worked three jobs to make ends meet, sat me down and gave me some advice. It was advice only a man that had struggled his whole life could give, someone who worked tirelessly in jobs that helped make other people rich. He said, “You’re gonna work your whole life and you may hate what you do. Just take this time and be a kid. Give yourself a great summer. Then get back to work.” With one five-minute conversation I felt as if I’d been given an all-access pass, and I ran to The Magic Kingdom.
My mornings were spent with friends at the beach; stretched out on a towel, not giving a damn about melanoma or the sun-spots a person starts to think about eventually. Nope, just us and the sun and a radio. We’d sleep on the beach, go home, get ready and reconvene at the bar later that night. The usual cast of characters would be there waiting. The low-life dealer, pushing weed or coke or whatever it was a person wanted. The retired cops and firemen. The sad, lonely drunks. The neighborhood girls who were always looking to pounce on anyone checking out their men. The neighborhood guys who were always waiting to be ‘called for the test’ to see if they’d be admitted into the NYPD or the FDNY. The people looking to get out, the people you knew would never make it out. And then there was us: the young, fun group of girls. All set to a Pearl Jam soundtrack.
The bar became my sanctuary. I felt safe there, protected. Everything it offered me, I accepted. Sex, alcohol, drugs; yes to all of it. I felt as if my body was humming with possibilities. The first time I kissed a girl was in the bathroom of that bar. Alcohol has a funny way of removing the filters we hold in place to prevent us from delving into our base desires. With those filters gone, I was unstoppable. I wanted it all and I took it.
I tried cocaine one night after the bar closed for most of the clientele except for a select few. A large mirror was pulled down off the wall and huge lines of white powder were cut across it. I was nervous as hell but it faded once I felt that tiny explosion in my head and burning in my nostril. A quick inhale on the other side and I was good to go. Everything seemed faster. I talked faster, moved faster. More lines. I couldn’t stop grinding my jaw. I became a champion at darts. What I learned about cocaine is, it doesn’t last. It’s a very quick rush and is over not long after the first line enters your body. So you do more and more; chasing the initial high but it never feels as good. You also lose any concept of time, especially when you’re doing it in a bar with blacked out windows. Opening the door only to see the judging rays of the morning sun is the worst kind of walk of shame. I decided alcohol would win as my drug of choice.
We played songs for each other on that killer jukebox. When ‘our’ song would come on, we’d lock eyes and run toward each other, arms thrown up wide and high, dancing with wild abandon. We danced as if no one was watching. We sang at the top of our lungs and we laughed so hard we cried. And we drank. Oh we drank. Shots lined up of alcohol so putrid the only reason to drink it was to get as shit-faced as possible. This wasn’t a single malt Scotch whiskey. This was cheap beer and low-grade vodka. The kind of alcohol that’s almost guaranteed to cause blinding headaches and bad judgement calls. We mixed Jägermeister and Rumple Minz and drank it as a shot; the thought alone still can make my gag reflex kick in. Alcohol is wasted on young livers.
I had sex; crazy, wild, holy shit, ‘I can’t believe I did that’ sex. As I’ve matured and gained a stronger sense of who I am, the desire to push the boundaries of my sexuality isn’t as strong. It’s no longer what feeds my soul. But back then? I explored it. I dove into the deep end of it and did a backstroke. And because of this I now know exactly what I like, what I want and what I need. You can keep your Fifty Shades of Grey, thank you very much. I have a backlog of actual experiences.
There were some ugly moments. Some not-so-proud moments. Some downright stupid ones; especially when it came to drugs. I’m very aware of how fortunate I am to be able to look back on that period as a positive. It could have gone an entirely different way. A few of the people I partied with are either dead, fresh out of their tenth attempt at rehab or on their third DUI. I don’t know why my life didn’t turn out like theirs. I’m just glad it didn’t.
I’m 39 now and far removed from that crazy, carefree 17 year old I once was. Fine wine has replaced cheap liquor and my days of dancing on bars are long gone. I have a lovely suburban home, a husband and a teenage son. If he’s doing any of the things I did at his age, I pray for luck to be on his side, too. I can see he has my rebellious spirit, still I hope he makes safer, wiser choices when seeking an adrenaline rush. Perhaps sky diving or free solo mountain climbing.
Lastly, I found my best friend in that bar. Not simply a drinking buddy, but a lifetime, there-for-the-ugly-parts friend. And every once in a while, one of ‘our songs’ will come on and we will run toward each other, dance with unbridled abandon and say, “Damn, weren’t we wild?”
Be wild. Explore who you truly are. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t always play it safe. Make your own rules. Keep changing those rules as the game goes on. Enjoy a good red wine with a friend. Most importantly, dance as if no one is watching; and if they are, give them a hell of a show.
Kathleen Emmets is an avid music lover and yoga enthusiast. Her articles have appeared in MindBodyGreen, Do You Yoga, The Manifest-Station and Elephant Journal. She writes about her experience with cancer in her blog, cancerismyguru.blogspot.com. Kathleen lives in East Norwich, NY with her husband and son. She is a regular contributor to The Manifest-Station.