Unreliable Narrator: A Matter of Personal Preference
“To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying ‘Amen’ to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive.” ― Robert Louis Stevenson
TUESDAY, JULY 17
Our waiter leaned over the table, dragging his finger across the menu to show us what all we could save on during happy hour: five dollars off a margarita, ten dollars off a pitcher, six dollars for wine and beer. He stepped away, and as the three other women around the table weighed their options, I cast my eyes back down to the menu in front of me. Maybe I’d go for a Mexican Sprite.
“Just so you guys know,” my cousin said, “My cousin doesn’t drink, so if we get a pitcher, it’ll just be the three of us splitting it.”
I looked up and smiled, making a comment about how I hoped that wouldn’t be a problem. Oh, it wouldn’t be a problem, the reply came. Laughter all around. And then, The Look—this time, from across the table, pleasant and inquisitive, as if waiting for a question that hasn’t been spoken aloud to be answered. I smiled back silently. Go ahead. “So…why not?”
“Why not—” I began, frowning as if I hadn’t caught her drift, trying to buy myself time.
“Are you just not drinking tonight? Or do you never…”
“Never,” I replied.
“Oh! Are you…” She trailed off, leaving the rest of the question hanging in the air: am I a recovering alcoholic? Prone to alcoholism? Abstaining on account of my religion? Suffering from an illness or taking a medication that prevents me from drinking? It’s none of the above, which is somehow even harder to explain. When I explain that I just don’t drink—the way some people don’t eat cilantro—the quizzical looks linger, like there’s something else I’m hiding.
To the best of my knowledge, I’m not. My friends began drinking in middle school and I, hardly immune to the pull of peer pressure, went right along with them. We’d linger outside of strip mall convenience stores and ask chill-seeming adults if we could give them money to buy us drinks, and, shockingly, they agreed. Once we’d furrowed ourselves away in some back alley, we’d share our spoils, all of which tasted horrible to me. That’s pretty much the whole story—by the time I went off to college, I was already full-up on imbibing, and so I simply didn’t.
My story is an uneventful one, but I’ve found that in the absence of a proper spiel, people tend to provide their own. “I don’t love the taste either,” someone confides in me at a crowded bar. “But it’s the only way I can get through a night like this.”
“I don’t mind certain cocktails, but I’m pretty clueless when it comes to wine,” another person tells me. “It kind of seems like the thing to do, though, so I just have whatever my friends are having.” I know what she means. I once refused a glass of wine while dining in a Frenchman’s home and I practically brought the entire gathering to a halt.
He murmured a rule of thumb through gritted teeth: when a Frenchman offers you wine, you take the wine.
That night I did—sipping slowly and fixing my face so as not to reveal my displeasure—but after a few nights out this week dodging cocktails and downing water instead, I’ve been thinking about the difference between the dislikes we share openly with others and those we tend to keep under wraps. I have a longstanding distaste for New Balance sneakers, for instance, that I’ve made peace with, even as they’ve been inexplicably branded “cool” by people in the know. Meanwhile, I still wonder if my indifference towards classical music exposes me as having plebeian taste. Our personal likes and dislikes are hardly the sum total of our personalities, but they can provide a decent snapshot. Naturally, we all want to hit our angles and show off our best selves for the camera.
And yet: the older I get, the odder it seems for me to keep editing and touching up the image of myself I put forward for others for fear of how it might be perceived. I used to apologize for not drinking, concerned that it made me seem, at worst, like I was no fun (which is false, I think) or, at best, a square (though I pretty much am). It took time for me to get comfortable enough with these notions to stop making excuses for them, but time is precious—I’d like to spend it indulging in the things I do enjoy. Maturity? Hard-fought petulance? Either way, it feels freeing—I’ll raise a glass of elderflower lemonade and drink to that.