LAST NIGHT WALKING BACK from a special-treat dinner at a pharmacy counter, my eight-year-old scientist asked if rum, whiskey, wine, beer, alcohol, and scotch were all the same kind of alcohol. So I told him about it, and since he recently learned about percentages, I explained what a liquor’s proof number means. He sees me with a glass sometimes, but never drunk, for which his only references are Captain Haddock in TINTIN and the sentries Toshiro Mifune gets soused on sake before he kills them in SANJURO.
That led to a conversation about the stages of drunkenness, which led to revelation of the existence of alcohol poisoning, and how it works, which led to the contexts in which it’s most likely to happen, which led to teenagers, young adults, and parties.
Which led to silence as I tried to decide what to tell them, what would scare them, and what they’d misinterpret.
So I asked what would happen if they drank, and the scientist said he’d want to run around and act silly, and I said what if you drank more and kept drinking? And he guessed he’d want to punch people for no reason, and I said, you’d pass out. Then I had to clarify what “pass out” means and this whole time, I’m wondering how much he even gets anything I’m saying. So if you pass out, I asked, what can happen to you?
You could fall down. People can laugh at you.
Take your money, I said. Punch you in the face. Draw on you with permanent marker. So here’s what you need to know. And I thought, am I going all the way with this tonight? Are they ready for this? Can I make it general enough that it doesn’t freak them out? So here’s what you need to know. What if you’re with someone who passes out? Then people can do those things to them. So if you’re with someone who passes out, you should probably watch out for them, and make sure those things don’t happen. Especially if it’s a girl.
Well that’s okay, he said, because girls don’t like to drink alcohol.
Sure they do, I said. Some do, some don’t. Some of your ideas about boys and girls are—they can do all the same things.
OK, he said.
But if it’s a girl who passes out…if you’re ever at a party and a girl passes out, sometimes there can be boys who will want to do bad things to her and hurt her.
But why? Why would anyone do that?
Because they’re not good people.
Because they’re not good people. So if you’re ever at a party, and there’s a girl who passes out, you be the one who looks out for her and keeps her safe. Right? So—what would you do?
I would punch them in the face!
Well, uh—no, you don’t have to punch anybody in the face, just make sure she’s safe, and tell the other people to knock it off.
Tell them to knock it off! That’s like how a grownup talks.
Yeah. But you be the good guys. Right? You be the ones who don’t let her get hurt. Got it?
And then over to the silent boy who’s been holding my other hand: You interested in this?
But he’s the one who listens when you don’t think he’s listening, and who nurtures and protects every child on the playground, and who a father once swore he wanted to marry his little daughter after he championed her safety during some swingset contretemps, and who thinks he’s a superhero, and whose safety my heart clutches for the most when he gets his chance to stand the good stand against villains he doesn’t realize use actual fists and boots, and it’s Dad who told him to do it.