Before I was old enough to drink, I would sometimes sneak a bite of infused celery from an abandoned cup at family parties. Eating the rejected celery stick felt like shame and tasted like tomato juice and vodka. As a girl I always imagined the Bloody Mary would be my first proper alcoholic drink at a bar, instead it became my drink of choice when travelling. At a food court bar in Detroit Metro Airport, I’m reading a James Beard biography and come across a line that makes me ponder my drink. He could ascribe to food all the thoughts and feelings too dangerous for one to avow openly. What bids and burdens might a Bloody carry?
American culture codes it as a potion to settle your stomach after a night of heavy drinking, what you reach for through the scrim of an ignoble hangover in that fleeting moment between regret and redemption (2pm?). One of the first Bloody Mary recipes was published in The Bartender’s Book under a section called “Freak Drinks” where Townsend and McBride said of a drink served in the morning: no matter how it’s disguised, it merely postpones the hour of reckoning.
A bartender at a Detroit dive bar once told me it was her drink of choice when going out with friends. She bookended her evening with them. Ordering one to kick off the night and one at last call. I’ve never seen anyone order a Bloody Mary at night except in airports where they are ordered throughout the day. I always thought it was because of the time zones, the way someone’s morning could be another person’s evening. But on planes, ordering tomato juice is as common as ordering a beer. The steady din of the aircraft engine deadens our audio receptors and heightens our flavor receptors, making tomato juice taste better than it does when we’re not in-flight. Similar to the way blindness sharpens peoples’ hearing.
“Anyone sitting here?” a fortyish, salesy-looking man in a navy suit (white shirt, no tie) slides back the barstool next to me, interrupting my daydream. He fans his palm toward the stool and grins.
“All yours,” I reply.
I catch a glimpse of his tight red face. I reluctantly look at my own face in the mirror behind the bar; it’s flushed and sweaty from hauling my carry-on, my oversized suitcase, and my computer bag down the mile-long stretch of McNamara terminal. I look like a hard drinker.
The bartender approaches him and asks what he wants. “What she’s having,” he says, pointing to my drink. We make eye contact.
“Where are you headed?” he asks.
Taking a slow, careful sip of my drink, I decide to reply: “On my way to San Diego for an education conference,” I tell him.
His eyes light up. “Nice!” he exclaims. “So you’re a teacher!”
“No, school administrator.”
“So, you’re the big boss?” he laughs. “God, must be so tough. My son’s in middle school.” He reaches for his phone and I can tell he’s looking for a picture to show me. “My wife and I love his principal and teachers.” The bartender places his Bloody and a beer snit down in front of him.
“How about you?” I inquire.
“Headed to New York,” he says without looking up. He scrolls a bit longer then juts out his phone towards me, “Here. You know that movie Wonder?” he says. “That’s my son. That’s Nathaniel!”
I look down at the photograph and see that Nathaniel’s face is severely disfigured. His deeply-set eyes droop downward, as if yanked down by force. He has an exaggerated nose, sunken cheekbones and a razor thin upper lip.
I hadn’t seen the movie and honestly hadn’t paid much attention to the hype. I vaguely recalled seeing the bestselling book on which the film was based and hearing that middle school teachers had been assigning it to their students to read. I can tell he thinks because I am an educator that I would know about Wonder, about his family. I can feel my face heating up. He interprets my reaction as ignorance and starts filling in more details.
“He has Treacher Collins Syndrome like the boy in the movie. They are filming an ABC special about Nathaniel and our family and I’m headed to the studio to meet with the crew.”
“Oh wow, that’s incredible,” I say.
He takes a swig of beer. I sip my Bloody and try to think of something else to add, but he continues to talk energetically, in earnest.
“Yes, he is a beautiful gift. Such a wonderful kid. So positive. He keeps us all going.” He nods to the phone, “Scroll right.”
I nervously swipe the picture of Nathaniel to the right and a family photo appears. They are huddled together on an emerald football field, a brilliant blue sky behind them. Before he says it, I guess the boy in the football uniform is Nathaniel’s brother.
“There’s his brother,” he points, ”and here’s my wife, she’s from Poland, she is a concert pianist.” He tells me the story of Nathaniel’s birth, how they didn’t know about his craniofacial disorder until he was born.
“My wife actually asked the doctor if she delivered an alien!” He tips back the sidecar and I can see he’s smiling and sweating a little. “But Nathaniel just gives it to people straight: ‘I’m not normal and neither are you!’” He lets out a big laugh.
I am always surprised when people open up about their lives to me unprovoked, but it happens often. I’ve been told I’m a good listener. Maybe it’s because I don’t talk a lot. I hand him back the phone.
“His school has been so great with educating the students about his condition. Before the first day of school, they prep his classmates and let them know he’s going to be in the class. Nathaniel writes a letter to them that they read before they meet him.”
“I’m so glad to hear that he’s had a good experience in school. And thanks for sharing his story with me.”
He takes a large, final sip through his straw, “Mm hmm,” places the half-finished Bloody down, then pulls a twenty-dollar bill out of his wallet and slaps it on the bar. “I gotta go. Very nice meeting you. Good luck with the conference.” He gestures to the bartender that he’s leaving and heads toward his gate.
When he’s out of sight, I Google “boy from Wonder” on my phone and it brings up photos of Nathaniel, the man I just met, and their family members. I had no reason not to believe him, but am oddly relieved when all the details square up. I find myself sucked down a rabbit hole of articles and interviews. I’m struck by one interview with R. J. Palacio, author of Wonder, where she said she wanted to write a book about “facing a world that doesn’t know how to face you back.”
That line stings for a second. That was me. I was the person afraid to look. There is cruelty in staring, but also in looking away. When I taught middle school, I had a student who was diagnosed with sickle cell disease which caused him serious health complications. He missed a few months of school. One afternoon, just before summer break, while I was packing up my bookshelves, his mum wheeled him into my classroom in a wheelchair. His once-plump arms were bone-thin and his two bulbous hands rested between his knees. He would have been unrecognizable to me except I knew his mum. I burst into tears and spent the next few minutes sobbing. I just couldn’t get it together. His mum stood there in silence, tears welling up in her own eyes as she watched me cry. I knew it was wrong to look away — that they had come here to see me — so I just let the tears flood my eyes and blind me.
Afterwards, I hated myself for breaking down so hard in front of them, for likely making him and his mum feel worse than they already did. When that moment resurfaces in my mind, it always ends with me crying. I have no recollection of what happened after that. What did I say to them? Did he return to school the next year? Did he get better? Did he die? As much as I try to retrieve details about his story, I can’t. I begin to wonder if Nathaniel wants to be on national television. If it’s worth it to him to make us all look. I wonder what he said in his letter to the class.
The bartender catches my eye as she pulls the draft beer lever and fills a pint glass. “Another one, hun?”
“Yes, thanks,” I say and resume reading my book.
Isak Dineson wrote that all sorrows can be borne if you can put them in a story, but I’m not so sure. I am thinking instead of sorrows borne of food and drowned in drink.
She fills a glass with ice, a jigger of Titos, a few glugs of Mrs. T’s mix. Then she plunges a pale green celery stalk in it and sets it down in front of me. I go right for the celery and take a bite. I look at the time on my phone and see it is nearly 1pm, still morning in San Diego. There’s comfort in knowing it is the afternoon in Detroit; that I’m not in California drinking a morning Bloody merely postponing the inevitable. That I have already faced the day, my own face in the mirror. Nathaniel’s face on that phone screen. The crepey texture of his skin, the eyelashes —were there eyelashes? — the wet blinking eyeballs, the tiny pearls for teeth? — no, I don’t remember teeth. I scrutinize his features one by one until I don’t have any semblance of a face in mind at all. Just the silhouette of a boy.
In the cookbook, Menus for Entertaining, Beard included a menu called, “A Bloody Mary Breakfast for 12.” I’d stumbled across that book in a used bookstore near my school and immediately flipped to that menu, excited to read what Beard would put in his perfect Bloody Mary. I speculated: he would juice his own tomatoes. Grate his own horseradish root. Add a few drops of Tabasco, a squeeze of fresh lemon, three twists of a grinder full of Tellicherry peppercorns. To my surprise, Beard’s recipe for a Bloody Mary was a single line: Use either vodka or aquavit for the Bloody Marys.
I have never tried a Blood Mary made with aquavit, though I’ve probably downed a thousand Bloody Marys — a thousand freak drinks and garnishes. Dill pickle spear. Blue cheese olive. Lime wedge. Bacon strip. Smoked chub. Cold shrimp.
I usually drink them with friends in hungover commiseration, sipping for solace, redemption, regret. What, then, is a Bloody Mary between strangers traveling to opposite coasts? A drink to forget?
As I sip my drink, I picture Nathaniel’s dad packing in the dark, boarding his plane, accepting the terms of his journey. His voice louder than the din of the aircraft engine as he points at another passenger’s Bloody Mary and says, “What she’s having.” I can almost see him as he sips the concoction from the clear plastic cup and savors that bright acid taste of a tomato on the tongue in the sky.