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November 09, 2016 - Image 14

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The Michigan Daily

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Wednesday, November 9, 2016 // The Statement

by Jackie Charniga, Daily News Editor
A Toast to Grandpa John


’d wake up feeling sticky. The inside of my mouth, my
hair, my skin. I would lurch out of the twin bed and
stumble over to the sink in my dorm room to survey

the damage. It was all a smudge. My eyeliner down my
face. My memories of the night before.

I always knew if I had smoked because my chest hurt

and my fingers tasted salty. I knew what I had eaten
because it was smeared on my sheets. I knew what I was
wearing because it would be crumpled on the floor. I had
clues, and with those I could piece together what I could
not remember.

This past summer I studied abroad in Oxford, England,

for five weeks. I stayed at Magdalen College, one of the
38 colleges that make up the university — which can get
confusing. Founded in 1458, Magdalen has its own living
quarters, classrooms, chapel, graveyard, library and lec-
ture halls. It even has its own bar.

I adored that bar for being so peculiar and un-Ameri-

can. There’s nothing like it at the University of Michigan,
where I would be continuing my senior year that fall. I
can only imagine the wealth of furious emails the Office
of Student Life would receive if the Michigan Union
started serving happy hour for undergrads. But here
it was commonplace, part of the tradition with which I
would dive in head-first to engage. The bar was situated
near the stairs to the dining hall, and after dinner I would
wait until its doors opened at 7 p.m. Charmed as I am by
young men in black T-shirts pouring me drinks, I spent a
great deal of my time and money at the Old Kitchen Bar. I
was unaware, however, that I toasted each hard cider and
single malt scotch to my departed grandfather.

Grandpa John, with his funny quirk of getting drunk

and belting his children, was the nightmare that haunt-
ed my youth and young adult life. He was an anecdote, a
punchline, a warning and a promise. But more than that,
he was a folk story, dusted off by my aunt and occasion-
ally my mother every time I went out to a party or, when I
became of age, a bar with my friends.

It was in England when I first began to think seriously

about my grandfather John, a man I had never met nor
had anything in common with besides one-quarter of my
genes. John had been a soldier during WWII, when he
met my grandmother while stationed in her tiny Italian
village. He survived a Russian labor camp, and left his
entire family behind to start a new life in Canada and
then eventually America. He died in the 1980s of prostate
cancer and it was one of those deaths that wasn’t sad for
everyone. Because John was an asshole.

My grandmother — my Nona, as they say in Italy —

wears a hearing aid. It used to malfunction constantly. It’s
probably the most irritating part of my childhood, listen-
ing to it whistle and chirp at me. “What? What? What did
she say?”

He broke that ear, John did. More specifically, the

eardrum, by throwing her up against the wall time after
time, day after day. It ripped or shattered or whatever
eardrums do when they stop working. Thirty years after
his death, technological advancement replaced what he
took from her. But my grandmother’s whistling ear was a
reminder growing up, that somewhere in the mess of spi-
rals and double-helixes was the capacity to lose myself to
an addiction and use it against the ones I love.

Our last evening at Magdalen was my worst. I will never

forget what I can remember about that night. During our

final formal dinner we had, as usual, a champagne recep-
tion on the gorgeous green lawns of the Harry Potter-
esque quadrangle. One glass per student was the rule. But
for a special bon voyage, they’d “top up” our glasses, the
posh British way of saying bottomless bubbly. The server,
an Italian whose name sounded like a cleaning product,
was particularly generous.

Throughout the program, they would serve us wine

just once a week during Monday night dinners. For the
first course we’d always have a white wine that tasted like
vinegar. Tonight, it was sweet. But the red wine with the
entree was seductive, wet and deep. I had three of those.
My speech began to slur. Speaking to my tutor — who had
yet to finalize my grade — across the dining table was a
struggle. My dress felt tight and my face grew increas-
ingly hotter. I couldn’t hear her over the sound of my
drunkenness, as if the wine was sloshing around in my
ears. I couldn’t even hear me. I must have known to slow
down because I only had two glasses of port, a heavily
saccharine wine, when it was served with chocolate and
strawberries. Delicious.

I ran wild that last night in Oxford. Only flashes remain.

We ended up, as one does, at the Half Moon, because it
was a townie bar that opened late. It was the definition of
quaint, with low ceilings with wooden beams and a juke-
box in the corner. It was where the old English drunks
would wash in like debris from the tide. We washed in,
too, with bodies full of wine that clouded our vision and

That night was a hazy kaleidoscope of semi-familiar

faces. Someone thought it was a good idea to buy me a
shot of vodka. I remember finding this hilarious, and
then very little after that. I shouted instead of speaking. I
tripped as I was walking. I left when I should have stayed.

One of the bartenders at the Half Moon — I told you, I

have a thing for bartenders — was called Tobias. He had
studied philosophy, pulled his hair back into a bun and
could roll a perfect joint. We went out for a cigarette and
he took me around the bar, pressing me up against the
wall. He kissed me sloppily, or I could have been the slop-
py one, his hands gripping my arms to keep them against
the bricks. One of his hands shifted to stabilize my shoul-
der while the other slipped down my pants.

I retained enough sense, enough self, to shove Tobias

off, my own back still against the bricks of the Half Moon.
He was grinning, having gotten more than he’d expected.
He asked if I wanted to come back to his place. I mostly
wanted to throw up.

It was late. We stumbled back to the front of the bar

where my friends stood waiting. They wanted to go home.
His hand was still around my waist.

I found out later from a friend that he had a girlfriend.

I found out later that he asked that same friend if she was
interested in having a threesome. I found out later the
plan was to include me.

I was swaying lightly in the shadows in front of the bar

while my friends looked on with pained expressions. I
said things no rational person would. I leaned against him
heavily. I deliberated when I should have been deliberate.
I lingered, but I should have left.

The hangover lasted until the plane cleared

Greenland. For every minute of the eight-hour
flight, I felt that I deserved it. I felt like a dried-
up starfish without a sand dollar to my name.

Mostly because I had run out of money. I had worked and
saved all summer, and now I didn’t have enough cash left
for the bus ticket to the airport, or even a cup of coffee.
My friends paid my way. My friends held my hand. My
friends got me home.

After Oxford, I had scared the living shit out of myself.

I felt guilty for what I had put my friends through, for
forcing his weaknesses on them. Mine or his? Who was
driving that night: John, or me? I resolved to abstain from

This plan backfired quickly. By not drinking, I didn’t

feel a return to self. I felt that I was depriving myself.
“You’re not drinking?” they’d say, like they didn’t know
what else to do with me if I was sober. “Is something

Yes, I would argue to myself. Something is wrong. It’s

my damn Grandpa John. I let him win.

I started drinking again about two weeks after I got

back from Oxford. I was sitting on my couch in my old
apartment next to a friend. I had a long conversation with
the man behind the counter at the liquor store. He hadn’t
seen me in a while. Wanted to know where I’d been

I got drunk that night, but was focused on not losing

myself. I sent my friend home at a respectable hour and
went to bed. It was a test, and by my standards, I had

I’m certainly not the first student to overindulge while

abroad. Many of my friends have described similar expe-
riences where nights bled into days and afternoons try-
ing to study or travel through hangovers. But without the
threat of John, I wouldn’t have taken it so seriously. Or
so personally.

I haven’t given up drinking. I may never. I don’t think I

have a problem. Regardless, it’s not in my nature to quit.
It’s not in my genes.


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