The exhibit hall murmurs with a hundred conversations, each spoken among groups of twos and threes, and I finish my plate of what I take to be Texas fare as interpreted by some hotel employee on the other side of the country. Fried pickles and fried macaroni, and piles and piles of beef, I tried each in turn. My co-workers have dispersed to their own activities for the evening, and I prepare to go back upstairs when I remember that I have free drink vouchers. I will be alone for the evening, and on a whim I decide to take the opportunity to try something new. In a conversation earlier in the day, I brought up the topic of wine, and a story from my past. I decide to get a glass of wine and go upstairs and write about this.

Here's something you may find surprising coming from an early middle-aged man: I have never drank a glass of wine. I have tasted wine several times, but never finished a glass, and this fact continues to baffle and amuse my friends. Not that I have any problem with drinking per se, as those of you who witnessed my discussion on Jet-Poop's Facebook page recently can attest, but I never developed a taste for el vino. While there are probably very many reasons for this, one stands out as significantly embarrassing. But more of that later.

I take my voucher up to one of the many bartenders spaced throughout the hall. Surprisingly, unlike most of the bartenders I can see from my vantage point, she is young and attractive and has a nice smile, which I notice immediately. I would have expected that most of the bartenders be like this at a corporate gig, but apparently not. I ask for a glass of wine, and she inquires as to what type I would like. I am stumped, and once again reminded of how much I hate being ignorant on a subject (which happens all the time, thus explaining my general grumpiness). Of course I am aware of the basic types of wine, the whites, reds, rosados, etc. but as to which I would prefer, I have no idea. I explain to her that I usually drink whiskey, which leads to an interesting side conversation that has the effect of amusing me and giving me a second chance to notice how nice her smile is. I think, this girl is probably good at her job. Ultimately, I end up with a large glass (much larger than I would have expected, it is probably best described somewhere between a "reservoir" and "goblet" of wine. It is certainly well over the glass of whiskey I received last night.)

As I walk up to my room, I am conscious of this drink in my hand. The glass seems so fragile, how am I supposed to hold this thing? I arrive at my room without spilling it on anyone, but refuse to try a drink during the walk because my previous experience has made me sensitive to drinking wine in public. But more on that later. (Wait for it....)

I decide if I'm going to drink alone, music is in order, and I spend a few minutes getting my laptop up and running. Let's see, browsing my music selection, which of these is appropriate for drinking wine? T-bone Walker and John Lee Hooker? I don't think so. The Band? Only if it is out of a box. Rage against the Machine? Absolutely not. Ah ha! I have a "The Best of Chris Isaak" album, perfect! As an acoustic rendition of "Forever Blue" begins drifting out of the laptop, I set my screensaver to a wallpapers folder I keep and settle into the large leather chair in the corner of the room. Feet up, relaxed, tonight is the night I finally get through a glass of this bronze age brew.

Swishing it around the glass, I notice how dark the wine appears, and holding it up to the light realize that it is completely opaque. The smell strikes me like a blow to the head. I have read that the sense of smell, more than any of our other senses, triggers memories long hidden in the recesses of our mind. And the memory that races to the front of my consciousness is indeed old, at least two and a half decades gone by, and startling with its long dormant vividness. In my mind's eye, I am looking down into a storm shelter buried in the ground. My father and his friend Tony are inside, and the cool earthy air carries their voice up to me as I stand in the heat of summer. I know that they are working with large glass jars, almost as large as I am, and I can hear the squish of liquid being pumped into a container. It is wine, or at least I know they hope so. Previously I had traveled with them into the woods to collect muscadines, a wild grape that we pronounced "musky-dimes". Because of my smallness, I would climb into the vines and shake out the bunches of fruit as they stood below with a bed sheet held between them to catch it. And this smell being pulled into my head now reminds me of that time. It is not the same, their homemade wine had a more sharp and raw scent to it, but it is unmistakable.

Chris Isaak sings about wicked games, and I take my first drink.

The wine tastes sour and warm and dry and unexpected and immediately disappears from my mouth except for a cloud that seems to hover at the roof like some noxious vapor. I sniff the wine again, and focus on the intense memories of when my father was a god and summer days drifted by almost languidly. I take my second drink, and this time focus on the taste as it flows through my mouth and I can't decide if it is a bitterness or a sourness but it builds, and I have to stop for breath. "Blue Spanish Sky" plays now, and a lonely, sad horn sounds a prolonged note. As I stare at the glass of wine resting beside me I realize that it is as reflective as my own mood. My attempt to fully experience this glass for the first time has succeeded at least in making me hyperaware of my internal dialogue.

On my computer screen images continue to appear and disappear in timed intervals, and represent their own stream of consciousness as a reflection of my personality. Within this wallpaper folder, a significant number of the images are of women in various stages of undress. Nothing hardcore, just pinups or Web models or playmates from years ago. I love the playmates from the 60s and early 70s, and one flashes by with tan lines and a big smile. I smile back at her through time and wish her the best as I take my next drink.

The next drink makes me shiver from the taste, and still strikes me as so peculiar and alien, which almost certainly marks me as peculiar in my own right. Unlike whiskey's burning fire of truth, this taste is more subversive. I look again at the images of women marching across my laptop and I become aware of how large and empty my hotel bed seems. I feel a momentary ache of loneliness and wish a woman was seated on it, legs tucked under her, all smiles and eyes and conversation. I love women, I love to talk to them, and look at them, and I find them as mysterious today as I did 20 years ago. Even my wife, who I have now known for eight years and who I share everything with, continues to amaze me with unfathomable moments. I am convinced that this strangeness, this otherness, it is naturally ordained, and draws men to women, even at their own peril sometimes.

I take another drink.

Gillian Anderson appears seated on the hood of an automobile in a skintight blue bodysuit. The zipper is pulled down in the front just far enough to be provocative, and I think about the X-Files and redheads and college. Which reminds me, there was a story about my first glass of wine in here somewhere.

My freshman year I fell backwards into a job at the university theater. We hosted plays, concerts, and events, each requiring a different skill or responsibility from me, but in that first year, and that first semester, a veneer of timidity still obscured me. Our first big production arrived in the middle of the semester just as the leaves were changing and the air made standing outside with the smokers uncomfortable. The play was "Man of La Mancha" and I was one of a handful of techies, which is what the technical theater people were called. For our part, we (quite naturally) held the actors in utter contempt. I worked hard to find my place, and admit to being intimidated by most of those around me at the time. People who run among social circles containing actors can attest that it is a different scene, and one I was particularly unprepared for at that point in my life. While my inexperience often gave them amusement, the upperclassmen I worked with seemed to quickly adopt me (though several of them referred to me through that first year as The Freshman). As we worked long hours setting up the play I felt like I was beginning to fit in more each day. The job was supposed to be work-study, with a limit on hours worked per week, but we circumvented that by some fanciful bookkeeping. The weekend that the set went up as one piece we worked 14 hours on that Saturday, and at some point I crawled into the well (we had placed a bunch of extra straw inside it) and took a nap because we were well past midnight with no end in sight.

And so the play came, and I experienced my first blush at the almost whimsical attitude towards nudity held by people in theater. Working stage left, I gripped the coarse hemp ropes of the flies waiting for my cue to bring set pieces in and out. Unexpectedly, a trio of college girls raced off stage to my area and began stripping down. In my inexperience, I had assumed that costume changes would be performed downstairs in the dressing room. I was trapped, obligated to remain in my position so that I could get my cues, and unable to escape as the girls dressed in front of me. Realizing my discomfort, they smiled and laughed and bounded back on stage for their next scene. I thought, what is this bizarre and interesting world I have found myself in now?

Ultimately, the show went well. The night of the last show the cast and crew seemed particularly excited. One of the other theater techs finally told me that everyone was looking forward to the after show party. Up until this point I had not experienced any college parties. I was here on scholarship and spent maybe far more time studying than was necessary. At first I said I was going to go home, but one of the techs convinced me to join them. We drove over late, and to my surprise, the party was held in this large, ancient Victorian home that crowned a hill overlooking the river. Everyone was drinking. The handful of faculty that was present had drinks. My boss had a drink. There was a surgeon upstairs (who I learned owned the house) drinking alone. The kitchen looked like the counter of a package store. As I walked in two of the girls drifted over to ask what I wanted to drink. For someone who had never been drunk, and had almost no experience with alcohol but who wanted to fit in with these mischievous theater girls, I was at a loss. I fell on the time-tested default and said that I would have what they were having. Since they were already familiar with my inexperience in this social scene, they immediately picked up on my dilemma.

This? The short one asked. Her name was Julie, and she often blunted the freshman jokes from some of the guys on our crew. This is wine. Have you ever had wine?

She handed me her cup. Try a drink of mine and see if you like it. My mind raced with 100 worries, all focused on doing my best not to embarrass myself in front of her. I looked at the dark red liquid, and without giving myself time to hesitate, emptied about half of the cup. As it poured into my mouth the sharp scent and pronounced sourness unexpectedly hit me with force. My body was completely unprepared, and despite my internal dialogue screaming NO NO NO the entire drink sprayed right back out of my mouth.

Directly into Julie's face.

Some say that in the moment immediately before death, time slows down and the senses become perfectly attuned. I've found this to be true.

The following five seconds after spitting half a glass of red wine into the smiling college girl's face will be frozen in my memory forever. The jovial, alcohol flushed conversations that had filled the kitchen stopped immediately. I could feel every eye in the room on us, me with the most despondent, embarrassed terror on my face and Julie with a look of shock and incredulity. Droplets of wine were falling out of her hair onto her chest and the floor. The kindness and playfulness that had existed in her eyes and smile not 10 seconds earlier now changed (in slow motion, no less, which seemed to hurt me even more) to a murderous rage.

You've probably heard the expression curse like a sailor. Julie, I could only surmise, descended from a long line of sea dogs.

When the moment ended and my soul just barely returned to my body from the clutches of hell, a torrent of apologies flooded out of me, but I'm sure they were drowned out by the cacophonous laughter from the guys. Someone was yelling, I suspect Julie, YOU SIP WINE! SIP IT!

I want to believe that Julie forgave me, and at many cast parties to follow she and I would share conversation. But we never shared another glass of wine.

And with that last thought, I tip my glass up and finish what I started 16 years ago.

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