Absinthe, as a social drink, is a wonderful, kinetic force for spontaneity. Perhaps not with as vivid dramatics in real life as a Baz Lurhmann film, but its green color suggests medicinal qualities of spiritual therapy if not legitimate corporeal remedy.
I was first introduced to the spirit by an Indian man who owned a liquor shop and gave me a bottle free after remarking that my gait perusing the aisles reminded him of Bob Dylan in a documentary he had watched the night before. He upsold me a box of sugar cubes and a curious deco spoon—it was easy to oblige his marketing in return for the generous gift—and he had me memorize instructions to mix one part absinthe and two parts water before wetting the sugar cube in the glass with the spoon and then balancing it in order to light it on fire and drop it into the glass to set the top of the cocktail ablaze. This made a drink he said his grandfather back in Shahjahanpur mythically called—translated roughly into our less tranquil English—“tiger fire swamp water”.
When I arrived home I could see through the blinds that a party was already dancing in my house—my friends then often took advantage of their awareness that I never remembered to lock my windows—and I decided it would only be fair to karmically share my green bottle with the indulgent crashers who had been revolving around my campus house throughout those college years.
I gathered the party captains, or the few people who had ever repaid my cornucopia of bacchanalian opportunity, and I taught everyone how to set their elixirs on fire and we toasted to collegiate youth.
It was a Belle Époque recipe from 1881 and tasted like it. Absinthe has historically manicured a reputation for corruption and intoxicated blasphemy, and no doubt Europe’s impressionists staying up late into the Victorian dawn of modernism enjoyed flirting with the spirit’s controversial lifestyle connotations, but that night the fairy tonic certainly emboldened bohemian ids loitering dormant somewhere inside of us…scientific doubts of wormwood’s alleged psychoactive properties be damned.
With our midnight rite complete, we poured and lit glasses for everyone else and drank liberally without inconveniencing our revelry with any more dilutants. It is difficult to distinguish the independent instruments in any orchestra trough of psychosis chemicals, but, after drinking our glasses and passing the bottle until it was emptied, we agreed unanimously that the gestalt whole of our mix of uppers and downers was exotic and dissimilar to our average concoction of swigs, huffs, and drips down, and none of us remembered much more of the night’s revelry the next day.
* * *
Majestic church bells rang noon disorientedly across the street, suggesting that our mortal bodies had suffered the absinthine knock out more than our souls had, and for the first time in my life I discovered an impulse toward church attendance. It flittered away quickly, as it always does, from the crackle of bacon in a purifying pool of frying honey. I don’t mind breakfast baptisms.
The faintest of memories we could patch together into a rough outline of the night before began with my decision to turn off the lights and cut open a stockpile of glow sticks to flick their juices in splatter paintings on the walls. The toilet bowl was the grand finale, and we emptied every stick we could find into rainbow cyclones of neon. The plumbing havoc I found later was worth the pageantry.
Then we sat on the floor and theatrically read aloud pages from books that we subsequently set on fire and threw into the street from the porch. The last book anyone definitively remembers burning was As I Lay Dying, which we chose following an extemporaneously persuasive exposition from one of our more literary compatriots critiquing the unjustified pride Southerners feel for their history despite its obvious cultural and moral deficiencies. None of us supports political censorship generally, and I personally admired Faulkner’s writing, but the lens of absinthe is tinted with romantic compulsion. We cheered our Midwestern border state for its ambiguous but ultimately winning struggle against secession, and tried to set tumblers of whiskey on fire when the absinthe ran out.
It is impossible to guess the proceedings of the rest of the night, as drunkards have little disposition toward secretarial efficiency, but a lengthy fast food receipt suggests that the party was going strong until at least a quarter after four. The disarray of my house that morning still stands out in my mind clearly, particularly the giant hole in the floor of the attic through the ceiling of the living room which convinced me erroneously and spectacularly that the damage to the campus house would finally get me kicked out of college (I owe my graduation to a laudably chill maintenance worker who fixed the hole and didn’t report me, even after finding a bong under the kitchen sink, and then discovering my small-scale beer brewery operation in the basement, and then wryly remarking that some of my furniture had very obviously been stolen from the school’s library).
My social relationship with absinthe since that night has been flirtatious, and I hope that this recollection serves as a letter of introduction for you and the fanciful liquor of liberty. It is expensive, but so is magic. Personally I do not recommend the Indian man’s recipe of two parts water for one part absinthe, nor do I recommend melting the sugar for taste’s sake. Of course it’s a fun party trick to hand out drinks that are concurrently on fire, but I have a legalistic conviction that spirits deserve to be prayed to with monastic zealotry: no mixers… even if this style of drinking has been described as “never socially acceptable”. I beg to differ.