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Jackie & me, circa 1975

I jostled on the seat of the big brown Impala as we bounced over a rut. Excitement fluttered in my stomach. Our first keg party.

Jackie Herold gripped the steering wheel tighter and peered down the beam of her headlights.

We’d lurched off the smooth, sand road onto a dried mud track five minutes ago. Scrubby palmettos brushed the sides of the car, setting my nerves on edge. Pines trees loomed over us, blacking the moon. “Are you sure this is where it is?”

Jackie shoved a sheet of notebook paper across the seat without slowing her stream of words.

I didn’t need the dome light. I’d already memorized the map Jackie had drawn in purple ball point pen. Clinton Cemetery Road doglegged off US1 and crossed the railroad tracks. A reedy purple line wandered into no-man’s land, Florida, where mosquitos gestated in mud holes. My mind saw water moccasins sliding through swamps from lake to stagnant lake. I could almost hear gators smashing down riots of black-eyed Susans as they bellied through the dark.

My teeth clenched.

Jackie’s words ran out.

We should have gone to the kegger in Britt Bochiardy’s pasture last month. Robert Thomas’ band had played—

There. Pin pricks of light through the trees.

Photo by Axel Antas

Relief sighed through my ribcage, then a wave of nervousness. Who would we talk to? Our friends were more likely to show up at the New Smyrna Beach Library or Dairy Queen for a good time. Jackie and I were tired of hearing about keggers afterward. We wanted to see one for ourselves.

The lights separated into a bonfire and a hodgepodge of headlights. Bennie and the Jets blared from somebody’s radio, bathing the night in the kind of cool that couldn’t be bought at Dairy Queen.

Jackie edged her stepfather’s car into a nook between two trees—away from the fifty-some cars and trucks jammed along the road like a mash-up of match box cars.

We threaded through the melee of bodies and paper cups of beer, stepped over random logs.

A girl from creative writing, red-eyed already, rag-dolled against her boyfriend.

Donna Walker turned toward us, her freckles dancing in the firelight. “What are you doing here?”

Jackie laughed. “Hey, we’re seniors, you know. Senior keg party.” Jackie fake-scowled at Donna and David Lossing who just walked up. “And what are you juniors doing here?”

While they razzed each other, I eyed the queue of kids behind the keg where it sat on the gate of a pickup. A gaggle of cool kids guffawed near the flames, their laughter and words sparking upward. Everybody in the halo of the fire held a beer.

An alcohol virgin, I might as well wear a sign that said I didn’t belong.

I’d freaked out when I’d witnessed Dad weirdly “happy” on spirits one night on the dock. Watching my stepfather, three Manhattans in, flirt with a waitress in front of Mom hadn’t worn well either.

But the real reasons I’d never imbibed had little to do with the dads.

Photo by Jeff Sheldon

No matter how good a buzz might feel, I doubted it was worth giving up control of my person, perhaps lapsing into a premature lesson on the birds and the bees. Maybe the Catholicism that crawled through my veins and down through the lineage of my mother’s people gave me pause. Or maybe it was the deep-down distrust of males dented into my psyche by Dad. Virginity wasn’t something I wanted to accidently misplace in the back seat of some guy’s car because my mind went muddy with inebriants.

But I also wanted to belong. “I’m going to get a beer.”

“Not me,” Jackie said, not the least embarrassed in front of Donna and David and a couple others who had joined us.

I sucked in a breath for courage, and got in line. I craned around a guy in an Inlet Charlie’s T-shirt and watched him fill his cup with closer attention than I’d give Mr. Luznar conducting a chemistry experiment.

Cup of cool in hand, I hunkered down on a log beside Jackie. I brought the waxy rim to my lips.

Jackie’s brow hitched.

Acrid bubbles burst near my nose.

The Eagles crooned One of These Nights.

I smirked at Jackie, and lowered the cup without sipping. I switched hands and burrowed chilled fingers into a jeans pocket.

Tomorrow morning I’d teach second graders catechism at Sacred Heart. Other than neglecting to tell Mom where I’d gone, I hadn’t yet done much to offend God. I wanted to keep it that way.

Between Jackie’s double dose of common sense and her overprotective mother’s voice in her head, my best friend was probably the safest girl in the school to attend a kegger with.

We weren’t the stuck-ups partiers pegged us. We lived our own rebellions, just quieter ones—me against Dad’s hippiedom and Jackie against her father’s alcoholism.

My eyes flicked over the boys backlit by the fire. Testosterone rolled off their bulky shoulders, barely stubbled chins, beer-wet lips. Beautiful. Forbidden. I spilled half the contents of my cup into the shadows.

A girl blubbered over someone long dead in the cemetery. A lone barracuda cheer for our mascot warbled from a guy in a football jersey. The fire burned low. The Doobie Brothers’ Black Water swirled around us.

I poured the other half of my beer into a palmetto and Jackie and I wended home—our virginity utterly undisturbed.

When I finally braved alcohol, it was Mateus Rose, nearly blessed by the church. On a rare night off, a carload of counselors from Our Lady of the Hills Catholic Camp emptied into Doc’s Rock Shop, the favorite bar of a long string of Catholic barely-legals, in Asheville, North Carolina. Melissa Shealy filled my glass between line dances—the Hustle, Bus Stop, and Electric Slide. She teased me about turning tipsy, and maybe I was, but I just felt sweaty. Today, I still prefer control—and I’d rather consume my allotment of alcoholic calories in dark chocolate.

A year after the Clinton Cemetery kegger, I landed at a poolside party on the beach.

Kids who had graduated a year or two before me milled around the deck talking to each other. My gaze wandered down the ribbon of condos along the shore, and I wondered where my date had gone.

A couple walked up from the water—a girl and, two steps behind her, my date with his shirt askew and his hair tossed into a salad of curls.

Whatever. This was only a second date.

He strode toward me, pushed into my personal space. “Are you ever going to put out or what?”

Photo by Joshua Earle

The scent of his cologne mingled with beer in the salty air while the question rumbled down the fault line of my sensibilities. He’d cracked open rude and I stared into the chasm of crude. One word climbed through the rubble. “No.”

“Let’s get out of here.” His voice sounded irked, not surprised.

Fifteen awkward, silent minutes later he dumped me on the curb in front of my house and roared back toward the beach and a girl with a different answer.

I stood on the sidewalk, smug with virtue, and watched his tail lights sail around the corner.

Four years, and more than one tussle in the fires of temptation later, my virtue—smugness thoroughly singed off—sighed into the white of my wedding dress with relief.