first love as whiskey

By M. PembletonFebruary 13, 2022

first love as whiskey

I remember drinking from my mother’s breast. I was three when she traveled to Canada, the thousands of miles between us intended to wean me.

When she returned, I demanded milk and she conceded. She gave so much to those she loved. I wish she’d kept more for herself.

I drew sweet liquid as she stroked my hair. Her soft body my home.

I was primed for dependency.




Your body is a cask housing the girl I was when I still had a mother. Sixteen and barefoot in my yard in a prom dress printed with leaves, clutching sandals, your sweaty hand, my father snapped photos of us on film. Visiting from her apartment a mile away, my mother ducked in and out of his viewfinder, her face taut at returning to a home, to a husband she’d left months prior.

Your countenance as you slid a wilted corsage on my wrist: shy, kind. We’d been dating one week.

Spring hatched into summer. My thighs stuck to a fast-food booth as I unwrapped an abstract painting on cardstock, a small figure in the center, your blue and red brushstrokes. I turned it in my hands to read the inscription on the back — I love you it said, under a poem by Neruda. Words that hit the belly like bourbon and spread. I looked up at you, drunk.

Weeks later, I discovered my mother tying a noose to the ceiling fan. I called my father, who came over with choice words to offer.

I ran from that apartment, those people, appearing at the counter of the sandwich shop where you layered meats on sourdough. Whispering I need you.

At the back entrance, my body fell into yours. The weight of its responsibility so heavy, I imagine. At 17, you were just a kid. You shouldered me anyway.

Then December in front of the Christmas tree, Greg my mother said, giggling at the joke she’d cracked before calling you the wrong name, her hand resting on your shoulder. Realizing her mistake, her head dipped. Translucent with fragility those last weeks of her life, tears rose like tide.

Your soft, sculpted voice reassured a woman so small in her sadness. You house her memory too.


The night before my mother died, she burned the broccoli. It smells so bad I complained. You were coming over later and sulfur clung to my hair.

She cried. You’d be better off without me, wouldn’t you? To which I said Of course not. And: I love you. Wanting to say more but the words wouldn’t come.

Then you didn’t show, you didn’t call. I stayed in my room and checked my phone and snapped at my mother when she invited me to watch television. Her expression wounded, her unrelenting sadness exasperating.

I wish I’d joined her. Instead she cried all night and the next morning she left the apartment with a gun and didn’t come home, and I couldn’t cry at all, sometimes I could only hold my breath and pretend it wasn’t real.


You and Adam drove to my father’s house from the community college when you heard. Wrapping your body around mine, you didn’t let go for a long time, standing in the yard where we’d taken photos the previous spring.

Suddenly, it seemed my callousness could kill despite logic telling me it wasn’t my fault.

Suddenly, you were the only thing that made me forget it.


My body is a cask held to the fire of my mother’s death, filled with the four disordered years that followed — fighting, loving, learning from each other’s bodies.

I’d wanted sex before you did, I want to be sure, you’d said when I asked, sure meaning I was the person you wanted to marry, an antiquated charm that contrasted with the lies that followed the sex, and the infidelities, the weed and coke that you sold from your car.

But then my mother died and it was a unique comfort you could offer. That first taste in my childhood bedroom burned like a scrape, obscuring the murmur of her funeral visitation downstairs.

Your body a womb insulating me from the impact.

This. I thought. This.


Me and you and Adam sitting on a couch in Nathan’s living room with a group of townies, the house he inherited when his parents died — a drum kit, a television, a closetful of kittens dotted with fleas.

I know man, he was so crazy that night! He looked like a fish you said.

No, you idiot Nathan said. I was there. And you definitely weren’t.

My cheeks pinked. The look on their faces.

You lied again to compensate, it was obvious, he called you out on that too. The room thick with weed and embarrassment.

You thought your truth wasn’t smart enough.

I understood. My mother had been a librarian who’d fed me words that fortified my bones, but still I was embarrassed by my own when I spoke. Somewhere between my brain and my mouth they tangled, so mostly I stayed quiet.

We gave what the other needed.

Me: Someone to look at me just that way, like I wasn’t so flawed that my beloved took her leave, violently.

You: Someone to love you like you weren’t defective too.

backwoods still

Both of our families settled our textile town early on, lineages overlapping. We sat in your living room the following summer in the afterglow of sex, fingers tracing your family tree to the far-enough-off shared relative.

Your freckles matched mine, but we were a family forged of need, not genetics.


The upscale mall — music, perfume, upscale people — rendered me mute, clumsy with panic. This was how I experienced life, grief: secreted inside myself.

You didn’t ask what was wrong. Holding my hand in your warm palm, pulling my face into yours, whispering Hey. It’s just me and you. Look at me. Just me and you.

I would say I’d been waiting my whole life to be seen like that and it would be true, but I’d add by someone besides my mother.

Your intelligence grounded in emotion, in intuition. When your eyes held mine steady the world around me quieted, and I could feel my body again.

hot toddy

High on the couch where I slept at my father’s because his things covered the extra bed and I wasn’t allowed to touch them. Your fingers trailing over my spine, invoking a memory of my mother’s doing the same. My tears wetting your shirt.

How do you know me like this? I wanted to ask.

You knew precisely how to tend. Licking old wounds, fresh wounds, wounds you imparted.


I rearranged my body around my friend’s room listening to her play the piano, but not really listening, because it’d been five days since you’d picked up your phone and I was raw need and frantic.

The piano played on and I opened my flip phone to dial you again but it just rang and rang.


Who did you fuck? I yelled on the playground that butted up to the apartment I’d shared with my mother every other week before she died. I’d found your Camry parked across the lot at your dealer’s smoked-out enclave after a friend called to say He slept with someone else.

It was liberating, to be so angry that I didn’t care how I was perceived. Like I was an actor performing someone else’s trashy life, or owning what mine had become.

You crouched into yourself on the mulch, whimpering I can’t live without you. Those words were true of me too, but I spat Pussy and drove away. Returning to your bedroom after two hollow days, feverish, feral.

When you looked at me, your dark eyebrows like lines of calligraphy drew together in an ache that hit all over my body. To be wanted like that meant more than whatever thing you’d done. And you could’ve done anything.

Years later, when you couldn’t stop lying, you sought a diagnosis: pathological.

Years later, I questioned my new husband relentlessly, having learned from you that love requires sleuthing.

I spent a year plotting to leave, gathering fistfuls of contempt for all the ways you were beneath me so I’d be resilient enough to draw a line. I don’t remember breaking up but I remember crying so hard in my car afterward that my body shook. Mostly I cried for my mother, because now I could.

But even when I’d moved onto other people’s bodies, I’d end up in your bed again. How does one break up with their family?

Can I still have your babies? I’d ask, straddling your lap.

Yes, yes.


Your body a specter in the room when I fucked someone else to a cadence we refined. My body calibrated to yours. Riding a bike, you were muscle memory.


I was 22, and we’d stopped fucking, but there were phone calls while I walked grocery aisles filling my basket and talking about the boy I was dating, there were lunches where we sat on the same side of the table and giggled, there were 2:00 a.m. texts.

We’re like brother and sister I told my boyfriend. You’ll have to meet him someday.

Then the mother of your son delivered an ultimatum when he was still a cluster of cells in her uterus. You cut me off with no explanation. Bitch I thought.

But she was right. By then I was engaged. It was time to grow up.

I dreamed of her, a vigilante guarding your home, you lost somewhere inside while I hid in the periphery, hoping to see your face in the window. I missed you like a mother.

I dreamed the same searching scenario over and over until one day, around the time my first son was born it quieted, like you’d finally disappeared.


At 35, I received the text You’ll always be a part of my life, the words lighting up the indelible mark first love leaves on a brain, one that’s had lain dormant for 10 or so years, trailed by a feeling of recklessness and the realization that I can’t see you ever again because I’m married.

Our familiar bodies a liability.


I wouldn’t fuck you again.


A lie. Fucking you again would be coming home.

I don’t think about it. I don’t desire you.

devil’s cut

But I know that if, in some realm without prefrontal cortex, some place without consequence, we tipped, impetuous, back into love, under your broadened body I would still see you at 16-17-18-19-20, and too in the blue of your irises, the knob of wrist bone I used to touch lightly as your scrawny fingers held a cigarette, snaked up my skirt.

Did you stop smoking? I’d whisper to you in bed. When Adam died, I thought about how it would feel if you went early too. Like a missed step. Like air when you’re expecting substance.

And I’d say Tell me the stories of your body that I’ve missed.

And I’d tell you mine:

white lightning

The midwife cut me open with a pair of scissors and no warning, no numbing, a vehement explosion behind my eyes coloring my first son’s arrival.

Sewn up not-quite-all-the-way, I’m scar tissue and tenderness, a slackening. 

See. Feel. I’m different but the same.

red wine

Me and Adam, a bottle between us, our grape-stained mouths. You know where this is going. Your best friend. Not sex, just rounding the bases. I don’t remember when it was. Not when we were together.

If I’d told you this when he was still alive, you would’ve laughed. Adam-always-lonely. He and I listened to Cat Stevens, read each other poetry.

Now, though. Your head on the pillow, contemplative, I imagine you’d say You know? I’m just glad he got some.

Irish car bomb

A shot glass half full with Jameson. Bailey’s to the rim. Drop it in a half pint of Guinness and drink it as fast as you can before the whole mess curdles.

Irish Car Bombs! I screamed to the hotel bar because it’s my favorite drink and it was my wedding day and my father called that morning to say he couldn’t make it. My mother wasn’t there because she was dead. And you — the last message I’d ever sent was to ask for an address to send you a wedding invitation.

By this point in our conversation, you’d be smoking a cigarette on the porch, if you still smoke, and you’d say Fuck, Mary. I regret it but it wasn’t a choice. You called and asked if I could meet you for lunch, remember? And she was in the car next to me and freaked out. She has problems of her own.

I’d say Don’t we all? And steal a drag from your Marlboro. Nate hates it when I smoke.


epilogue: coffee

It’s not that I’d sleep with him again I tell my husband after he reads what I’ve written to you one evening before bed. The fucking is a metaphor for how we hold the impact of our relationships within us regardless of time, like how the barrel gives the bourbon its flavor.

Okay he says. But you literally wrote that you’d sleep with him again.

Fair enough.

And as for time he says.

Fourteen years Nate and I have been together. We’re virtuosos of each other’s bodies, with our own cadence, our own jazz. And for fuck’s sake, it just keeps getting better.

The whole thing is a metaphor, I insist, for how addictive first love is. Isn’t that universal? Don’t we all crave that drug, even after we outgrow it, even when we get old and boring and responsible and figure out that our time here is finite?

Time isn’t linear when you’re young and in love, it’s just one big fucking horizon.

My husband doesn’t think about his exes, he tells me.

But I had nobody else I tell my husband, crying now. I wish it’d been different for me. I’m embarrassed by how much parenting I still needed.

I wish it’d been different for you too he says, and I can tell he means it. We’re a family, forged not of need, but of action, of choice.

Another story you missed, an important one: I’m here. I’m whole. I’m strong. I could live a good life on my own, if that’s what I wanted.

I nestle into Nate’s shoulder, its constellation of freckles familiar. I did the same on our wedding day after my father called, and when I learned Adam died, when I moaned with the inertia of labor.

My husband held our firstborn while the midwife stitched me up where she’d cut me open. He split the stitches several weeks later when we were so turned on by our ability to create life, actual life. We felt like gods.

Nate French presses our coffee every morning and leaves a steaming mug on the counter, always consistent, always perfect. This, an act of love so slight it could go unnoticed.

But each day it’s there and each day I drink, and the warmth spreads through my body. And it’s the constancy, not the beverage, that’s my sustenance.


M. Pembleton is a North Carolina–based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Forbes.


Featured image: "Jameson Irish Whiskey" by GotIreland is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Image has been cropped.

LARB Contributor

M. Pembleton is a North Carolina–based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Forbes.


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