Losing Barbie

Two cases of Coors and spring break at Sun Valley sound like paradise—unless they are the only salvation for a child growing up too fast.

The first and only time I got drunk enough to pee in my clothes was when my cousins Dirk and Wayne visited us in Idaho from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. It was March. They were on break. And they fancied themselves skiers. They came to my parents’ house in Twin Falls because they wanted to ski Sun Valley. They were smart like that, knowing the riches of skiing lay in Ernest Hemingway’s mountain haunt. They were also rich in alcohol—two cases of Coors, which, I don’t know, maybe they’d hauled all the way up from Colorado. 

I was 12 and on spring break myself. Dirk and Wayne hadn’t invited me to go skiing yet, so I wasted the days skipping breakfast, waiting for my parents to leave for work, watching “The Price Is Right,” and hoping my neighbor, Chanelle Parker, would come and play, if play is what you still did in sixth grade. I think we did, but my mind was elsewhere. I may have just seen “Clan of the Cave Bear.” Whatever, every 12-year-old has started to think about sex. One of the reasons Barbies were invented was to act it out. So when Chanelle did come over, we beelined for my unfinished basement, where I had every good Barbie thing you could have, from the Dreamhouse to the Dream Motorhome to the Dream Pool to the Dream Corvette. It was a cold, dank, semi-darkish scene but we made up for it by having our Barbies express their love in naked plastic entanglements in the pool. That gets old very quickly though when there’s a case of Coors sitting beside you and you already know, even at 12, that the liquid inside will make the unbearable boredom of your life somehow less boring. 

It was completely and utterly, no-excuses-but-my-own-innocence my idea to try one. I can see my eyes light from within as I make the suggestion. I don’t even think I say anything. I just crawl in my nightgown across the hard cement floor and take one. I bring it back to Chanelle, Ken and Barbie in her hand, and pull the tab. It cracks the beer open and foam fizzes out. I take a sip—it’s musky. I then pass it to Chanelle, who also sips—at least she seems to. Later, I would come to believe she didn’t. At first it would miff me, but I’d quickly stop caring. All I cared about was the cold mountain water pouring into a body that already knew it would need the cold, mountains and beer to survive the life that had been pressed onto it. 

Chanelle and I drank one Coors, and I stored the unsmashed can in the Dream motorhome. Then, lightheaded, we (or rather I) drank another, and dunked it in the pool water where it submerged like a Studebaker driven into a lake. Then we went upstairs, into the kitchen, and pulled some of my mom’s cooking wine from the Lazy Susan. After we drank a little of that, I was drunk. Laughing hysterically, I went outside, into the bright, cold, March-in-Idaho sun. That’s where I copped a squat in my nightie and watched my pee snake its way to the gutter. 

My cousins were up trying their luck in the moguls on Exhibition at Sun Valley (at least I think it was Exhibition). They hadn’t cracked their first Coors yet, or maybe they had, or maybe they were onto something different. As I recall, it was one of the most fun times they’d ever had skiing, because: spring, sun, Sun Valley and Idaho. I stayed drunk while my pee stained the driveway, and Chanelle went home to her mama. Not long after, my mom came home and, sensing I was drunk (I think) made me gear up to go to swim team. I confessed, bawling, only when I started throwing up in the car’s front seat. I might have blacked out after that, because I don’t remember her turning around, driving home, and putting me to bed. At some point my cousins returned, and everyone had a good laugh about my “accident.” 

That had to have been what they thought, because I don’t recall any kind of punishment. Maybe the drunkenness was punishment in itself—yes, that had to be it. I remember lighthearted finger-wagging from my parents, a headshake of disbelief from my brother, a nod of oh, no, this one’s gonna be trouble from my cousins, and an invitation from them, followed by an allowance from my parents, for me to head up to Sun Valley and ski with them soon after. 

I was all over it, and did everything right, from finding my skis and poles, to layering my waffle long-johns under my jeans, to stuffing my jeans into my boots, to squinting my eyes to block the sun, to standing at the top of Exhibition, an expert run with head-high bumps that fell at a dizzying pitch below me. Yards away, my cousins yelled, “You’ve got this! Just do the stuff you know how to do!” I hadn’t told them I’d never gone to ski school. I also was not wearing sunscreen. My cousins vanished. 

My 80-pound body might have still been altered by my drinking. The high-altitude sun sent tiny, invisible but razor-sharp spears of radiation into my freckled, Scottish-fair cheeks. I had never stood atop anything remotely as steep, long, and difficult as Exhibition. But something inside me knew I had no other choice but to take it. 

I planted a pole, assumed the hardest snowplow I could, and, from the apex of a bump, crashed into the trough beneath it. My skis in a tangle, I sat there for a second, contemplating my existence. I was 12 and I’d just gotten seriously, for-real drunk. There were things going on in my family and with me, dark ones, that spring. I was sad much of the time, especially when playing with my Barbies. In truth, I didn’t love seeing them naked, or smashing them together. This came from circumstances inflicted upon me, ones I wouldn’t escape for years. As time went on, to deal with them, I’d keep drinking. And just like at the top of Exhibition, I’d plant my poles and plunge down ski runs, only with far less tangling and a consistent feeling of you can’t touch me.

EO contrbuting editor Tracy Ross is the author of the memoir The Source of All Things. (She notes that the names in this story have been changed.)

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