The Black Bear Burn

It’s a matter of wandering down to the Jardín, or central square, between 8 and 10pm. Sometimes everyone’s piling into vehicles: the Mexicans – mostly boys – trying to organise the mob of gringos – foreigners, mostly girls – into some semblance of order so we can begin traipsing off to the activity for the evening. Sometimes it’s everyone’s wandering in and out of corner stores buying vodka and beer. Sometimes they’re sitting around on the benches around the square. Sometimes they’re up in Steven’s bar.

One night, not long after Christmas, I wander down and everyone’s packing into the back of Big Abraham’s ute.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“Get in,” Hermano tells me. “Don’t make questions,” and he laughs.
Everyone loaded, we roar down the road to Miguel’s. It’s walking distance – maybe 5 or 10 minutes – but no-one walks here. The house is on the other side of the narrow little bridge and Big Abraham makes of point of accelerating over it so that the girls scream and everyone has to duck and hang on.

Most of the white girls in La Manzanilla are there because their parents are. Most of them are from Canada or the Northern parts of American, and many of them come every year. Some have a house here and La Manzinilla is where their families come to escape the North American winter.

As for the Mexican boys, most of them live here. Otherwise, they grew up in the town but have moved to bigger cities for school or work and come home for the holidays every year. They collect white girls like playing cards, just like their brothers did before them, approaching them as they circle the Jardín in pairs or trios and invite them to come join in on whatever might be going on that evening. The girls hesitate, paranoid by the stories and stranger danger lessons, but it’s the holidays, and the boys are charming and enthusiastic, and everyone seem nice enough.

And so the mob grows and changes every year, everyone engaged in new and exciting ways to binge drink. This night, at Miguel’s, starts like most others: someone collects a few pesos from each person and takes off, returning later with several bottles of Oso Negro vodka, some mixers, and a few bags of ice. At 70 pesos – $5 or so – for a litre bottle, Oso Negro is the cheapest, nastiest vodka around. Someone starts up the music. On the front patio, Hermano starts setting up a drinking game. He find a deck of cards and balances it on the neck of a bottle. We then take it in turns to blow cards off the top. If you blow none off, or only one, or all at once, you are handed the vodka and ordered to take a straight, searing swig.
“Feel the Black Bear burn!” Ipo yells, cackling as someone pulls on the bottle and flails for a mixer to chase.

Everyone is drunk fast. Plastic cups are filled with ice and mixer and great dollops of vodka and sucked down quickly. People eventually lose interest in the game and Hermano stops collecting up the cards from the ground to rebalance on the neck of the bottle, and starts roaming the party, pouring straight vodka down the throats of anyone who tips their head back and opens their mouth. I keep my head back for particularly long time and don’t need a mixer. “Tough,” Hermano tells me, and this is a good compliment because it’s only my third or fourth time hanging out with these guys and I want them to think well of me.

“Everyone needs to be drunk!” someone commands. “Are you drunk?” I’m asked. And I am. But I’m woozy and cottony and starting to feel slightly ill. But I must not look it because Hermano doesn’t believe me and keeps urging me to drink more, that I need to get drunk, everyone needs to get drunk.

But although I have my father’s alcohol tolerance, I have my mother’s weak, two-pot-screamer stomach, so I usually tolerate for a while, and then I throw up. As a result, I’ve never been blackout drunk, never lost my memory to alcohol. I like getting drunk, but I’ve never been thorough about it like some of my friends, never been able to guzzle alcohol indefinitely until I pass out.

So at this party, vodka bottles circling and people I barely know drunk as sin around me, I nod my head each time the question is posed, try to act drunker than I am, and finally go tell Hermano I’m heading off.

“You can’t go! You’re not enough drunk,” Hermano says, motioning with his bottle that I should tip my head back. I do and swallow the vodka and feel my eyes water.
“There,” he says. “No going.”

The night blurs into bad music and unintelligable conversation. I stop taking sips from my mixed drink. People sit or stand in circles, smoking and nodding their heads along to the beat. Some dance.  Mexicans talk to Mexicans in Spanish, the rest of us speak in English about nothing, slurring and swaying.

Eventually, I find Derrick and the two of us slip out together. His sister, Lauren, wants to stay so we leave her there. We start walking, and conversation is hard, but I’m lucid enough to hold one, and lucid enough to think and walk reasonably straight. Derrick leaves me at the mouth of the path and I stumble heavily up, thinking only about bed.

But when I get there, I can’t hold the world still, the semi-dark pivoting in halting semi-circles. Undressing is hard. It takes a few attempts to get my shoes off. Eventually, I lie down and turn the light off, holding my eyes partially open to pin the world into position. But it doesn’t take long before I am up and bent over the railing, dressed only in my underwear, vomiting heavily into the forest on the other side. Then dry retching. And I can’t stop it.

I try to go back to bed but I’m too sick. And then I find I can’t stand still, or upright, and then I can’t think anymore and suddenly I’ve never been sicker than this. I’m 24 years old and so out of control I can’t stand or sleep or do anything at all except feel very sick and disgusted with myself and very, very scared.

I try showering but it’s only more disorienting. And where before I was drunk and sick, now I’m wet, drunk and sick. Putting on a shirt is nearly impossible. Everything has fucking buttons and I can’t find one without but eventually there’s a singlet and I’m on my way up to the house, barefoot, hammering my steps into the ground. Progress is slow and I’m concentrating harder than I ever have on this simplest of tasks. Finally I’m inside the main house, through the kitchen door, and Brian, who  has been woken up by the sound of someone pushing open his gate and stepping heavily into his house, is standing naked by the dining room table with a machete. And it’s so fucking funny, but all I can manage is, “I’m so sick. Man, I’m so sick.”

Then Jeanne is there as I dry retch into her toilet, though I don’t remember if her hand is on my shoulder or if she’s holding my hair or rubbing my back or whether she’s just there. I can hardly talk now, but I tell her I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened. I’m so sick. And it’s true – I don’t know what happened. This is so far beyond the drunk I’ve been before that it’s hard to think that half-an-hour ago I was coherent enough to have a conversation as I walked home. But her and Brian just tell me to stop apologising, that it’s completely fine, that they’re just so glad I came up for help.

They drag a mattress into the bathroom, to where I’m half-passed out on the floor. But I don’t have the strength or the stomach to climb up onto it, so I just stay where I am and try to pass out all the way.

When I come to, I find I can make it to the mattress. It feels like I’ve been out ten minutes but in the morning, Jeanne tells me it was an hour or two. They’ve been up the whole time, checking on me, making sure I’m OK. She brings me a pillow and a blanket. I find I can talk a little. I tell her I’m alright now. She believes me. Finally, after being up two or more hours, Brian and Jeanne wish me goodnight and go back to bed.

I wake up and it’s light but only barely. I find I can sit up, stand, move around. My head’s clear but constricted. I fold up the blanket, pile up the pillow nicely, and retreat back to my treehouse.

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