By Viva Las Vegas
Above: Bright Bouquet by Jennifer Mercede. Ballpoint pen, arcylic paint on panel. 12 x 36 inch. 2011
I’ve been a performer in these woods for over seventeen years, and I have a reputation to uphold. As Viva Las Vegas, I’m a bonne vivante, an habituée of the darker corners of town, a gal who loves Manhattans and eschews clothing. My rock ’n’ roll persona, Coco Cobra, also eschews clothing, and is even more of a bonne vivante. I don’t think there’s anything that Coco, that mythical creature, hasn’t shot or snorted or smoked. Both of these ladies write, primarily about their debaucherous experiences. But there’s a little known other character, the cat behind the curtain who shall, for this telling, remain nameless.
That’d be the real me: the preacher’s daughter who, after performing all-nude at Mary’s Club, then caught the red-eye to Duluth, Minnesota, to sing a capella in my father’s church on Christmas Eve, less than 24 hours later.
My parents are true bons vivants. Though they appear to be a Lutheran minister and a Lutheran minister’s wife, the fact is they like to party. My dad’s an expert mixologist, and my mom is his biggest fan. Long ago, when we four Las Vegas children weren’t knee-high to Reno or even Virginia City, my father would put beer in our little pewter mugs, encouraging us to “start drinking at home.” He wanted to demystify it for us, perhaps in the hope that none of us would become strippers.
As a pre-teen, I was extremely self-conscious. It was at a church in St. Paul, Minnesota—the same town that hatched the similarly self-conscious and overly sensitive F. Scott Fitzgerald—where I tasted my first communion wine. To vomit in front of that community, Fitzgerald’s community, was social death. And I was pretty sure that a thimble-full of communion wine would make me vomit. Merely thinking about this had the proto-vomit saliva roiling in my mouth and worse, a sour sweat saturating the underarms of my poly-blend Esprit and/or Benneton shirt-and-vest combo. Grandma Charlotte stood by my side, after traveling all the way from South Dakota to bear witness as I humiliated my entire female lineage by puking in front of God and everyone else. I remember walking through the nave of the church like I was headed to my own execution. My body was as tense as the strings of an autoharp when the smiling blonde lady of indeterminate Scandinavian origin handed me my cup of Hemlock.
I probably got so drunk I blacked out. Or more likely, nothing worth remembering happened. It would be two more years before I had my next drink, and this time I went for it. Once again, Grandma Charlotte played a role. It was my first prom. The pastor and his missus were conveniently out of town, whooping it up at some Christian convention. I was a freshman at Cook County High. Mid-way through my freshman year, we’d moved from cosmopolitan St. Paul to tiny, isolated Grand Marais, Minnesota, and I was furious about it. I kept to myself, read lots of Shakespeare, and generally behaved like a miserable teenager. I have no doubt that my new peers assumed I was a colossal bitch, but really I was just morbidly depressed. Colossal bitch or not, being new to a small town meant that I had inestimable cachet among the local boys. When prom season rolled around, there was a mad scramble over who would be my date. I heard that they even had fist fights in the locker room over this, in spite of my loud and public assertions that I would never attend any prom, dance or any event requiring “school spirit” whatsoever. I need to mention here that my high school was so small that all the classes—freshman through senior—were obliged to attend the prom. Otherwise only six people would have attended.
I was planning a nice, misanthropic evening in, reading King Lear and scowling, when my classmate Jeff Swanson pulled a fast one on me. He threatened to kill himself if I wouldn’t be his date. Although I had something of a suicide fetish at the time, I couldn’t quite stomach having that kind of blood on my hands. After weeks of pressure from our mutual friend Dave Johnson, I assented.
Dave was one-of-a-kind. I think only a town as small as Grand Marais can mint a man who is at once the captain of the cheerleading squad, captain of the football team, class president, the only African American in town (he was adopted), and gay. (To us, this was normal—I wish it were it normal everywhere!)
When prom night arrived, Jeff Swanson picked me up in his small red pick-up. Grandma Charlotte took the requisite date-picking-up-daughter-for-prom picture, as Mom and Dad were, as mentioned, conveniently out of town. Jeff drove us the ten blocks to Dave’s house. Dave’s dad, the town sheriff, was also conveniently out of town.
Upon arrival someone asked me what I wanted to drink. I had no idea. “Whatever you got!” I chirped, trying to sound old-hat at this drinking thing. The host filled a plastic souvenir cup from a hockey game half full of Bacardi Rum and half full of Coke. There was no ice. It was delicious and went down fast. The boys cooked us steaks on the grill while I tried to make small talk with their voluptuously hair-sprayed and electric-blue-mascara-wearing dates. This proved difficult. I drank more. It got easier. After dinner, we piled into the pick-ups and headed back to the high school gymnasium for the prom. After a half pint of Bacardi, I was pretty sloshed, enough to acquiesce when my jock classmates disguised in tuxes asked for a spin around the dance floor. One of these jocks was Dave, the football-slash-cheerleading captain-slash-class president. He’d just been crowned Prom King. He was probably as drunk as I, but he steered me around the darkened gym with some preternaturally large protuberance in his pants.
When the prom shut down around midnight, all of us kids were invited to a local bar—closed for the occasion—to play poker and drink non-alcoholic beverages. This was to curb the trend of after-prom car accidents, because a town of 1500 really can’t stand to lose anyone. By the time the sun rose over Lake Superior and crept into the east-facing windows of the Harbor Light tavern, I was more than likely stone sober. However I had no experience with alcohol and assumed that my very unusual ebullience was evidence not that I was having a good time, but that I was smashed. After Jeff Swanson dropped me back off at the parsonage, I said as little as possible to my dear granny when she inquired about my evening. Instead I made haste to my sun-drenched bed, where I tore a page out of my journal and wrote:
which I underlined, and underneath it,
REASONS NOT TO KILL YOURSELF.
Unfortunately, I no longer remember what these reasons were…but that’s not what I find interesting. Rather, how in the hell did I come to think that alcohol was so awful that a thimble full of communion wine would make me vomit, or that a hangover could be so bad that it would drive me to suicide? It wasn’t my parents. They’re actual bons vivants. My only guess it that it was the influence of my very German, very Lutheran, Grandma Charlotte. She was in the wings at both events… Does bon vivance skip a generation?
That’s it. The tale of my super-un-debaucherous beginnings, herewith destroying a carefully cultivated reputation to the contrary. Really, I’m just a stubbornly naïve pretender to the throne of debauchery. Someone who is, to quote my mother, “as pure as the driven snow, after it’s been driven on.”
In closing, I’d like to raise a glass (mine looks like whiskey, but is actually apple juice) to my Grandma Charlotte who, like any good German, left this world six St. Patrick’s Days ago. I love you, Grandma! Thanks for keeping me out of AA lo’ these many years.