Stéphan Valentin photograph on Unsplash.

Framed by the four phases of swallowing, “Swallow” is a personal essay about my first drinking experience and its aftermath. It investigates adolescent friendship, explores mother-daughter relationships, and blurs the line between teenage rebellion and addiction.

1.      Pre-oral

Eating and swallowing are complex behaviors involving volitional and reflexive activities of more than 30 nerves and muscles. The swallowing process is commonly divided into oral, pharyngeal, and esophageal stages.[1]

On a sunny, almost-fall afternoon in eighth grade, I tasted liquor for the first time. Five of us—Gordon, Hal, Alex, my best friend Sarah, and me—from Linkhorne Middle School’s fifty-student Gifted and Talented program, used our gifts and talents to plan a day of drinking. All week, we’d whispered about it in the halls. None of us had ever really gotten drunk before, but the idea electrified our insides.

Sarah and I couldn’t wait. We thought this party might solidify the bad reputation we’d been working on to counter our straight-A, scholar’s list, mousy-haired nerdiness. We smoked cigarettes in the woods, leaning against trees and practicing French inhales. We said fuck. We pinched cheap jewelry from Claire’s. We wore lacy thongs from Victoria’s Secret. We carved our names in the soft wooden tables of the Cavalier, the local underage hangout, and watched the grooves darken and fill with condensation from frosted root beer glasses.

We dyed our hair L’Oreal Black Cherry, which painted Sarah’s bathtub pink. I knew my mom would hate the change but wouldn’t say anything more than “Interesting choice, Em.” She let her disapproval show in folded arms and tightened voice instead of words. I dreaded that voice, that posture, but I knew she would swallow it, even if she didn’t like it. She’d accept my transformation. Sarah’s mom was more straightforward. She gasped, “What did y’all do to your hair?” but she said it with a smile—until she saw the tub. Then she called Sarah and me upstairs, handed us Soft Scrub and two sponges, and pointed to the bathroom. It took a whole bottle to get the stains out, but it was worth it.

A few weeks before the party, Gordon had sent me an AOL IM. I couldn’t believe a popular guy would message me. After a few exchanges, I suggested we should hang out.

we should chill sometime

ok. What do you wanna do?

we could always drink haha

haha ok let’s do it

I said I’d invite Sarah. He said he’d invite Hal and Alex. I’d had a crush on Alex since seventh grade pre-algebra. A good-looking jerk with dark hair and a braying laugh, he sprawled across chairs with confident limbs. When he leaned back and rested his head on my desk, I thought it might be love. Every day at lunch, Alex pulled a green apple from his brown lunch sack. As I watched his mouth surround it, his braces-covered teeth crunching into its flesh, I flushed. I didn’t how to kiss yet, but I wanted his mouth to devour mine like one of those apples. Braces and all.

Alex, Gordon, and Hal mostly hung out with each other, but when they hung out with girls, they would be the preppy blonds with private phone lines in their bedrooms, the ones Sarah and I claimed to be rebelling against. Part of me wanted to be just like those girls. Another part loved turning myself into an opposite, a photo negative.


2.      Oral

During oral propulsive stage, the tongue tip rises, touching the alveolar ridge of the hard palate just behind the upper teeth, while the posterior tongue drops to open the back of the oral cavity. 

When the afternoon came, our group of five rode the bus to Gordon’s house, a stately, white-columned hunk of a home that would have had an old-money Southern accent if it could talk. Like ninety percent of the Gifted and Talented group, we lived in the “03,” as in “24503,” code for the nice part of town. Lynchburg’s known as the City of Seven Hills, not Beverly Hills, but that didn’t matter to us. Our moms did our laundry, making sure to wash our Guess jeans in cold only. Pizza rolls, Taquitos, and Edy’s all-natural ice cream filled our fridges. We went to summer camp, rode horses, played soccer. If we got caught looking at porn on our dial-up internet, we got a lecture but didn’t have to sign over our AOL accounts. For serious screw-ups, we got grounded—but never completed the full sentence.

Gordon’s parents, both doctors, were working late that day, so we had until 7:00 to do whatever we wanted. On the bus ride over to Gordon’s, I fantasized about all the parties I’d get invited to after this one. If this afternoon went well, I’d be in. I could talk to anyone I wanted to. It would be as if I’d been given one of those bracelets that lets the wearer ride all the rides at the state fair. Until then, I’d only been working with a handful of papery tickets, barely enough to let me on the Ferris wheel.

On the walk from the bus stop to Gordon’s house, we chatted and laughed, but when we clomped down to his basement, we froze, choked. Suddenly, no one knew what to do. We’d only seen parties in movies, and those scenes always opened with the party in mid-swing, everyone already popped. They didn’t start with five thirteen-year olds holding backpacks full of stolen booze and staring dumbly at each other. Maybe the others were having second thoughts. I barreled ahead, unable or unwilling to think of the consequences if we got caught. I decided I’d prove myself by speaking up first.

“Sarah, make some screwdrivers while I go change.”

I liked the way screwdrivers hissed through my teeth and clicked at the back of my back of my throat. I thought I sounded like someone who’d done this before. Someone who could mix a drink, wear a miniskirt, paint on liquid eyeliner, and cheat on a biology test without getting busted.

While I strapped myself into a paisley halter-top that would have sent me straight to detention if I’d worn it to school, Sarah did the mixing. She filled four red cups to the brim with orange juice and vodka. When I returned, she passed them out to each of us.

We all took a gulp. It tasted like orange-flavored rubbing alcohol, swelling in the back of my throat and burning my sinuses. I tried not to make a face, said “Cheers!” and raised my cup before swallowing again. And again. I’d heard that alcohol gets easier to drink after a person is drunk, so I drank fast, and halfway through the first red cup, I believed it. I took down the second half in two swigs. My smile relaxed. Words flowed.

“Let’s take some shots,” I suggested, looking at Sarah.

Sarah grabbed the Smirnoff bottle with both hands, tipped it up, took a sip, and held it down without a hint of grimace. Ninety-five pounds of tough. Then she passed it to me. I liked the chunk of bottle in my hands. I liked the boys’ stares. I took a swallow. I could sense every nerve ending, each lit-up and tingling. Fire rose from my center.

“Come on, Alex.” I smiled and walked the bottle over to him. “Have a shot.” I plunked into his lap and passed the vodka. He laughed his donkey bray and pressed his palm to my thigh while he took a tiny nip. Hal swallowed next. Gordon passed. We’d almost finished the vodka, but we had other bottles. Bacardi rum, Early Times bourbon. We were set.

As we made our way to the backyard to smoke, our thirteen-year-old bodies stumbled. Already drunk. I liked it. All of it: belly warm, chest open. The sky was wide, the grass spongy.

I felt as though I’d never known true happiness until that moment. The five years leading up to it had been hard. I’d watched my parents’ messy, mean divorce. My dad is a Swiss-born stoic. My mom comes from Texas money. Both dance professors who had fled their hometowns to perform in Europe, their ballet-driven attention to detail made them shine in the studio, but that same precision uglied arguments about child support payments and decisions about who kept which Louis Phillippe antique that they’d bought together in Amsterdam.

Three years after the split, my mom and I moved five hundred miles from our home in Indianapolis to Lynchburg so my mom could start her first full-time job as ballet mistress at Virginia School of the Arts. My two older brothers, one already in college and the other a senior in high school, stayed behind. My mom and I were on our own.

In Lynchburg, I stood out. I wore Doc Martens. They wore Nike’s. I shopped at Delia’s. They bought Abercrombie and Fitch. My messenger bag full of paperbacks and composition books stood among the L.L. Bean backpacks full of Trapper Keepers. I asked my mom to order me my own L.L. Bean, a purple one with grey zippers and my initials—E.L.F.—monogrammed on the back in block letters. I begged for cardigans from The Limited, tennis shoes from The Foot Locker, jeans from the Gap. Still, I didn’t fit in.

With alcohol burning through my belly, I fit, as if I were a puzzle piece clicking into place. I relaxed. I stopped worrying about my frizzy hair and big teeth. In social situations, I’d usually get pit stains down to my bra strap. But on that first drunken afternoon, no anxious sweat seeped from my armpits. While we smoked, Alex put his arm around me. I leaned into his chest, ecstatic. Maybe he’ll ask me to be his girlfriend. Then I’d really fit in. Sarah lay on her back and blew smoke rings toward the blue sky. Hal stood up and stared at his feet.

“I’m pretty drunk,” Gordon chuckled, all sandy-blond hair and angled chin. “How you guys doing?”

“Feeling good,” Sarah replied, drawing out the o’s and turning “good” into a three-syllable word. Hal shuffled into a dance and collapsed with laughter, his smile appleing his freckled cheeks. Alex threw his head back and whooped.

I stubbed out my cigarette. “Let’s have some more.” We all swerved back into the basement.


3.      Pharyngeal Phase

Pharyngeal swallow is a rapid sequential activity, occurring within a second. The pharyngeal constrictor muscles contract sequentially from the top to the bottom, squeezing downward.

The next memories come in flashes, like bootlegged cable. Wandering into the unfinished part of the basement. Making out with Alex. The bald two-by-fours studding the walls seeming to spin around me. Then, puking on a concrete floor. Someone dragging me across the yard by my arms, my head bouncing on the grass and one boob jiggling out of my halter-top. Sarah combing chunks of lunch out of my hair and barking orders. “Hal! Go get her some bread. Keep her on her side in case she pukes again.”

Sarah had an older brother and sister who liked to party, so she thought she knew how to handle this. Sarah tells me that Hal returned with Rolos instead of bread. The group decided it was better than nothing and tried to feed me the cheap caramel-filled chocolates. It didn’t work. I could barely blink, so no way could I chew.

Hal and Alex got spooked and fled. Gordon would have left, too, if it hadn’t been his house. When she filled me in a week after the fact, Sarah called them “pussies.” She stayed by my side, loyal as a bull terrier, trying to feed me water and keep me upright. That morning, she’d asked her mom to pick us up at 5:00, but in that state, I couldn’t have stepped into the back of her van. I couldn’t step anywhere. The clock ticked.

Gordon’s older sister came home. As a popular high school senior, she was an expert in drunkenness, so Gordon begged her for help. She’d nursed loads of drunk girls, held plenty of long hair back in loose ponytails while the faces attached to them puked, but she took one look at me and called her parents.

Gordon’s mom and dad drove me to the hospital with Sarah in tow. I remember nothing. Sarah had to tell me about it all: Riding to the emergency room while I puked again and again into the plastic grocery bag Gordon’s mom shoved in front of my face from the front passenger seat; checking in at Virginia Baptist, where Sarah introduced herself to everyone as “Sarah Ping, yes sir!” and spelled my name in a slur of vowels; nodding off while nurses asked about my mom—where did she work? How could they reach her? Slipping fully, finally into unconsciousness in a hospital bed, surrounded by beeping machines.

When I woke up, I heard the IV pump tubed into my arm whirring and saw fluorescent lights bouncing off the white tile and pale mustard walls. I wore nothing but a hospital gown and felt a stiff white blanket over my legs. Nurses’ voices floated in from somewhere I couldn’t see. When I turned, the mattress crinkled underneath me. I noticed a curtain on one side of the bed. On the other, a bank of shelves filled with plastic-wrapped tubes, gauze, and bandages.

Above the shelves, white mini-blinds blocked the window. I looked at my hands resting on either side of me, at their scraped knuckles and dirt-caked fingernails. I still felt drunk. It could have been midnight, or the next morning, or maybe dinner time. I should have been panicking, thinking, Oh no, what happened? Is everything okay? Or, What have I done? Or, What a terrible mistake. Instead, I thought, My mom’s not here. Maybe I’m not caught yet.

Someone must have heard me stirring, because the next thing I knew, a blue-scrubbed nurse with a Farrah Fawcett haircut stuck a needle in my arm and pulled back blood. Then my mom walked into the room. Frown lines carved her olive skin. She sat in a chair next to my bed, back erect, dancer’s legs extended and crossed at the ankles. I didn’t know what to say. Nor did she, so she said nothing, letting her folded hands and upright spine speak for her. Who is this drunk girl lying on a hospital bed? This can’t be my daughter.

She got up and walked to the window to spin the mini-blinds open. With fists on hips, she looked at my face, brows knitted, mouth drawn. Then she released her hands and let her shoulders drop. Her eyes, set deep in dark circles, moistened with tears. Of worry? Of shame? Of fear? I knew I’d upset her, deeply, but I also knew that I wouldn’t face any major consequences. As long as he promised not to drive, she’d let my brother Dan drink while he was in high school. He got away with it. So would I. I knew she wouldn’t even call my dad to tell him what happened. To her, he was the enemy. She wouldn’t share anything with him, not even this.

My mom didn’t recognize getting drunk as the next step for me. She’d missed—or maybe ignored—my metamorphosis from a bookish child into a girl who kissed boys and smoked cigarettes. Of course, I’d hidden it from her. After we snuck cigarettes in the woods behind Sarah’s house, I sprayed myself down with Sun, Moon, and Stars perfume. I covered my hickeys with the Estée Lauder concealer I’d bought, giggling, from a bemused makeup-counter lady at Macy’s. When I wore the new big-hoop earrings I’d stolen from Claire’s, I told my mom Sarah had given them to me. She must have suspected something had changed, but, preoccupied with her new job, she chalked it up to typical teenage changes. After all, I still got straight A’s. How bad could it be?

Lying in that hospital bed, part of me laughed, gloating, glad it had my mom’s attention, something I now had to share with her students full-time. The rest of me burned, hating that I’d been found out. I didn’t want my mom to think ill of me. I wanted to have a double life: the straight-A smart girl and the eight grade rebel. Getting caught meant those two lives had collided, and it felt like a fist against my diaphragm. Or maybe that was the Bacardi.

I turned away and feigned sleep. The silence stretched until she walked out and I dozed off again. Within an hour, the nurse pulled the I.V. out of my arm. “Ms. Faesi, you need to get her home, keep her hydrated, and let her sleep it off. That’s really all we’re doing here now that her alcohol level’s gone down.”

“Thank you.” Tight. Clipped. Pissed, but only I could tell.

My mom helped me into sky-blue pajamas printed with yellow moons and white clouds, brought from home to cover my bare white ass flopping out of the hospital gown. A Christmas gift from my grandmother, they were my favorites. I was still child enough to want their softness against my body. The nurse passed her a sealed plastic bag that held my jeans and halter-top. “You’ll want to wash these,” she whispered, patting her on the shoulder.


4.      Esophageal Phase

A peristalsis wave carries the liquid down to the stomach. It consists of two main parts, an initial wave of relaxation that accommodates the bolus, followed by a wave of contraction that propels it.

When we got home from the hospital, the night-dark windows of our split-level bungalow reflected my face like a mirror. It floated, ghostly, transparent, fuzzy, and haloed at the edges. I couldn’t see the terraced garden, the potted herbs on the slate patio, or the half-mile of woods that began where our yard ended. I felt as though the house existed all on its own, cut off from the world, its own universe, a terrarium.

My head throbbed. My body wobbled as I shifted it into the orange armchair by the front door. The ceramic tiles in our entryway doubled and tripled under my gaze. It felt like the middle of the night. The sun had been shining while I sat on Alex’s lap. Where did all those hours go?

My mom didn’t yell. She didn’t cry. Instead, she took off her Dansko clogs and long scarf, crossed her slender, sweatered arms over her chest, and paced the floor. “How many times have you done this?”

I started crying, drew my knees into my chest, and lied.

Between sobs, I said I’d never had any alcohol before, at least nothing more than the few sips of wine she or my dad sometimes gave me at dinner. False. I’d chugged a beer twice earlier in the year—one warm Miller High Life behind the tennis courts, one can of Coors snuck from a friend’s dad’s cooler at the river—and, though I hated the taste, liked the buzz. I also told her I’d never do it again. These lies came easily. I wanted to pretend this had never happened.

As if getting alcohol poisoning compared to cutting class or missing curfew, I begged my mom not to ground me, my words guzzled by my bawling. She shook her head. “We’ll talk in the morning when you’re—feeling better.”

Normally, my mom kissed me goodnight, throwing her thin arms wide before wrapping them around me and pulling me against her chest. But that night, she didn’t reach for me, didn’t hug me or help me to my room. She didn’t tell me she was disappointed in me. She didn’t need to. I felt unlovable at that moment, untouchable. I couldn’t tell her that I wanted to be held, wanted her to tell me it would all be okay. How could I? I didn’t even know that’s what I wanted. So I dragged myself up the stairs, alone and exhausted, my throat sore from vomiting, my eyes swollen from crying, and fell into bed.

The next morning, my mom delivered my punishment matter-of-factly. “What you did was wrong, Em. Wrong. You’re grounded for a month.” It sounded as if she’d been practicing those lines in the mirror. Sarah’s parents did the same, so we talked them all into letting us be grounded together. Sarah could stay at my house and I could stay at hers.

During that month, my mom and I didn’t talk about drinking again. We resumed our normal relationship, full of pleasantries in the morning and philosophy at night. Over brown rice with grilled tomatoes and onions, we’d dissect our days. She’d tell me about the latest drama with her students. I’d tell her about the book we were reading in English class. Together, we wondered about the world, our conversation swaying and expansive. What is magic realism? When did Borges write “The Book of Sand”? What does it mean to be an Untouchable from India?

My mom would lean back in her chair after buttering a piece of whole-wheat bread, holding the hunk aloft between index finger and thumb, elbow angled. She’d take a bite and think about the question. If she didn’t have an answer, she’d set the bread down and jump up, excited as a child. She’d run to the bookshelf to pull the dictionary or encyclopedia. Then she’d urge me to look up the thing in question while she served herself more spinach salad. It was almost like nothing had happened.

Even if she had wanted to talk about drinking, how could I tell her that getting drunk made me feel good in a way I’d only been able to imagine until then? The heroines of my favorite books didn’t care about fitting in. They time-traveled, fought in revolutions, communed with animals. I wanted their ease, their certainty, their courage. Instead, I pined, filled with a sense that I didn’t belong in our new home, our new life. Alcohol cured that. It made me as tough and sure as my literary idols.

I couldn’t explain all this to my mom. Wouldn’t. Never would, not in a million years. How could I? I didn’t even understand it myself. For once, my straight-A brain wouldn’t save me. It couldn’t. I’d stumbled on a chemical problem, not something I could think my way out of. I’d lit a match that would eventually blister my fingers down to the bone, but it didn’t hurt yet. Just glowed.


For the rest of the school year, my mom and I seemed to get along. As long as we weren’t fighting about whether or not my skirt was too short for school, she was my biggest fan. She proofread my papers before I turned them in. She packed my lunch sack with cheese sandwiches and fresh-cut veggies every day. We shared book suggestions—Margaret Atwood, Madeleine L’Engle. In the car, we sang along together to Donald Fagen. We looked like a happy mother-daughter duo, but something had changed.

That first day of drinking marked a step, an important one. I’d done something wrong, something dangerous, something my mom didn’t approve of—and I’d survived. Neither the hospital trip nor the punishment rehabilitated me. They rebirthed me, rechristened me. My new Eighth-Grader-Most-Likely-to-Get-Wasted status had given me what I wanted—a free pass to the in-crowd. Sarah and I got invited to parties now, and if we didn’t, we made our own.

One night, while Rocky Horror Picture Show flickered on the 40-inch T.V. in her basement, Sarah and I drank peppermint schnapps. It tasted awful, like rancid toothpaste, but at thirteen, we took whatever we could sneak from our parents’ cabinets. After two shots, the tortilla chip I’d eaten reversed its route, scratching my esophagus on the way. I gulped, kept it down. I sang and swung my hips to “Sweet Transvestite.” I took another shot. Another. With every swallow, the schnapps burped back up my throat, trying to burn its way back out of my body.

I kept swallowing.

[1] All italicized text is taken from “Anatomy and Physiology of Feeding and Swallowing,” by Koichiro Matsuo, DDS, PhDa and Jeffrey B. Palmer, MD. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Tweet 3k