I remember my first beer. I was 18 years old and I had just graduated from high school. I drove down the Jersey shore with a few good friends to a classmate's house. Most of our other classmates had gone to a larger party in the Hamptons, I remember.
Dartmouth frat brothers have the kind of brand loyalty to Keystone that marketing directors only dream about. It is perhaps ironic, then, that my first beer was a Natty Lite. I didn't get very drunk that night. I might have had three beers. Most likely I was just being annoying, flitting about, expounding on the beauty and truth of the word "buzzed." I remember hearing a guy as straight-laced as they came brag about the night he had before in some clearing outside Princeton. He told me that tonight he’d be hanging on to every tab off his cans, because last night he had drunk so much he didn't know how much he drank.
Later, I learned that, in the Hamptons, people were smashing glass tables and swapping boyfriends and generally reveling in the celebratory atmosphere. Down the shore at our party we spilled a little beer on a rug and a girl booted off the deck into the sand. But I felt like I'd taken the leap into a new world.
I like remembering the first iteration of things that have happened many times. How many beers have I had in my life? I'll never know. I can always remember that first. I think it's an attempt to control that thing, to understand it, to make sense of where it is now. I think we all do it here and there. It's how books start. "Joyce started writing Ulysses…"; "Washington first fired a musket…"; "Nancy met Sid…” It's perfectly logical. It's why we study history. How can you know where something is going if you don't know where it's from?
I'm at a point where I'm almost an adult. I'm at least a little afraid that who I am now is who I will be for the rest of my life I find myself desperately trying to make sense of these things I do all the time, of these things that help define me in some small way. So I've been remembering a lot of firsts, writing a bit of personal history.
I remember my first kiss. I had just asked her to be my girlfriend. Mid-October. A street in a neighborhood where neither of us lived. We sat together and I danced around the subject. I knew she would say yes. That wasn't the point. I didn't think I could be in a relationship. But she did, because I made her smile and I made her laugh, and I wasn’t ugly—even though I couldn't grow a beard yet. How old was I? 14? Maybe 15? I didn't start very early, I guess.
She was my first girlfriend, and, unless this issue gets delayed indefinitely, she was my only girlfriend. Which means six months later I had my first and only break up. That conversation, I remember, overlooked a little pond at the corner of Main Street. She initiated it, but I had made it inevitable. It didn't go so poorly as to make me desperately avoid any chance of it happening again for the next eight years. And yet here we are.
I don't remember the first time I read Hemingway or the first time I wrote fiction but I do remember my first notebook. The cover featured obscenely pastel flowers, ripped from the curtains of suburban New Jersey’s least discriminant housewife. This was freshman year of high school—two girls gave it to me as a tongue-in-cheek birthday present. They knew I wrote poetry and had just been called up to varsity football. This book and its floral pattern, was their ironic contribution to the complexities of America's relationship with writers and masculinity. I can't remember the note they left on the inside cover for me, but I'm sure it referenced “tackling dummies”.
I've gone through nine or ten notebooks since, and every time I buy a new one I think of those girls. I don't know exactly what they meant by it. I don't particularly care. Except that I covered it up, like an eighth grade geography textbook, with a brown paper shopping bag. And the ones I buy now are jet black, unadorned. Moleskin, the kind Hemingway Am I compensating for something?
Incidentally, Hemingway's author stand-in Nick Adams, didn't drink until he was 19 and fighting in World War I, but he lost his virginity to a girl named Prudence when he was 15 somewhere in the woods behind an Indian camp.
I remember my first time visiting Dartmouth. Maybe remember is too strong a word. I was perched on my dad's shoulders, amid a crowd on the lawn in front of Dartmouth Hall. We watched as the flame climbed its way to the top of the bonfire. My dad said that it looked just the same when he was here. I first played pong at Sig Nu, the house my old man had pledged in 1976. I lost; I wonder if I had a cup.
Somehow I think if I can reclaim these things, I can control them. It doesn't matter that I am wrong and I know it; I'm going to try anyway. I can't remember the first time I knew I was doing something hopeless but I did it anyway.
It’s hopeless because I know that focusing on the first time makes me avoid something else: the latest time. The last beer I drank was probably a Keystone or a Yuengling, but I'm not really sure. Do I really think it has something to do with that first Natty Lite? What was my last game of pong? I probably lost; it was probably at Beta. So what? My last Hemingway was rereading A Farewell To Arms, and this time I knew how Frederic felt when he grew a beard in Switzerland. What else?
I remember my first class at Dartmouth. Humanities 1. We read The Aeneid, and talked about teleology, about a view of the world as building towards something. Something important. In that poem Virgil had made a world that built upon itself until Augustus became Emperor. His ascension was the end of history. Later we realized that this is propaganda, that there is no end, no apex. We read Derek Walcott and WG Sebald, who told the same stories as Homer and Virgil in St. Lucia and England and who knew that history has no end.
Maybe personal history has no end either. Maybe it doesn't matter whom I kissed on Linden Avenue in 2008. Maybe it doesn't matter that I read The Old Man in the Sea in the lowest the crook of the big sugar maple we used to have in the backyard. Maybe these first times are just stories I tell myself, because they were compelling or funny or romantic. I live 10 minutes from Washington's Crossing, New Jersey, where George Washington the Delaware River and surprised Hessian mercenaries at the Battle of Princeton on Christmas morning. I've been told before that this was a moment in my country's history that mattered. Maybe it just makes a good story. And maybe those stories keep going, and we can’t focus on one any more than the others.
I don't know. This is what I do know: I like to drink beer; I'm a decent kisser but an awful texter; my collected short stories of Ernest Hemingway has as much wear and tear as Rand Paul’s Atlas Shrugged; I like to write plays, and I like to play rugby, and sometimes people think that's an odd combination; and in a few months I’ll graduate from Dartmouth College. I want to know how I got here, but I'm not sure. I don't think I'll ever be.