Memoir / Humor
Date Published: 11-28-2023
Publisher: 9th House
At the end of the 20th century, while mainstream media popularized an expensively dressed version of modern adult life, a rawer, and definitely weirder, reality was playing out off-screen. Columnist and zinester Kathy Biehl chronicled that from a singular and heavily trafficked intersection - collision point, some might say - of young professionals, performing and outsider artists, Unitarians, gays and lesbians, metaphysicians, traveling statues, and people who defied categorizing, many of whom wanted to sleep together, and some of whom actually did.
This essay collection, a followup to Eat, Drink & Be Wary: Cautionary Tales, romps through antics, sagas, and questionable behavior that Biehl witnessed, experienced and, at times, instigated. With eyebrow firmly arched, she snapshots sexual tension, ambivalence, and confusion; perils of fan mail and professional caroling; Groucho impersonators, snooping repairmen, and divine manifestations; ludicrous journeys, backstage dramas, and driveway parties; close-ups with a strange, frightening disease; her own, accidental attainment of goddesshood; and other mystery-marvels of life on the bridge to the millennium.All of it really happened. Nobody could make this stuff up.
This is not a longstanding, conscious goal. I had to see a couple actually doing it before I formulated this desire. I was sitting at a booth in a ridiculously goofy Hawaiian restaurant, a worthy successor to the tradition of the long-departed Trader Vic’s. (That place had a cachet so powerful that a group of Irish musicians kept a flower-shirted vigil there every night of its last week in business, as if to store up mock Polynesian ambiance against a dreary future of non-accessorized drinking.)
The Hawaiian newcomer offered an ideal setting for lounging about on the receiving end of a garish exotic drink with an equally garish paper parasol. The bar was an island adrift in a mural of sea gulls, clouds, and foamy tide, against which Don Ho sang away with a happy children’s chorus. Beneath its stockpile of Mylar-tipped swizzle sticks and totem-faced ceramic mugs sat a couple who’d opted for the most adventuresome entry on the specialty drink menu. Their straws connected them to a wide-rimmed bowl, big enough to require two hands for carrying, that contained the alcoholic equivalent of the kitchen sink. At the center lept flames.
“I want a man who’ll drink fire with me,” I said to my companion, who is used to such out-of-the-blue revelations. The thought didn’t surprise him; he’s heard something about wanting to shoot fire off my fingertips. He responded enthusiastically, and not out of reciprocal interest or even friendly solidarity. He wouldn’t mind a man who would drink fire with him, either.
The line keeps returning. Days later I think, “I want a man who’ll drink fire with me.” I suspect the thought may contain deep meaning. A Theory immediately begins taking shape.
It resurfaces during a phone conversation with my accountant. I mention the Hawaiian bar excursion. “I want a man who’ll drink fire with me,” I tell him, and he roars with laughter, not entirely as a result of the tension from impending IRS deadlines. As I defend the statement it rises to the level of a Fundamental Truth of my existence.
The concept has now taken on nearly every critical characteristic of the elusive target of my quest. It has fast become my personal Grail.
The image transcends the mere act of sticking a straw in a flame-kissed beverage. It reveals an entire personality. It shows me a complex blend of bravado and flamboyance that makes light of itself, of calculated risk-taking coupled with recklessness and humor, of élan and adventure expressed with panache.
He is a natural showman, skilled in the grand gesture, attentive to appearances without attaching excessive important to them for their own sake. For that reason he doesn’t take himself too seriously. People can start and think all they want he he enjoys himself; what matter are the opinions of people who’ve lost the ability to play?
He’s spontaneous and prone to cast off responsibility in ways that endanger no one. However modest his normal habits, my fire drinker is reckless enough to ingest liquids in colors not found in nature, to throw caution to the wind.
But I detect profound depths, too. Drinking fire demonstrates that he is willing to jump into an experience, even if it’s potentially dangerous. Even if he risks getting scorched. The act places him within flirting range of the flame as well as of me, and who’s to say which could be more threatening?
The risk doesn’t daunt him, though. He saunters up to the flame without hesitation. His sharp, agile mind and natural intuition tell him exactly where to place the straw to keep from getting hurt. And, most importantly, he shares the experience with me. We sit straw to straw, on equal terms, growing tipsy from the same source, and, when the last drop is drained, holding our straws over the flame and watching the heat shrivel them into a misshapen residue that will perplex the bartender.
Granted, this metaphor leaves out a few things, like not smoking and not hunting for sport, speaking a foreign language, and being equally comfortable in jeans or a tuxedo. All of those were on a list of a hundred-plus characteristics I actually wrote out a few years ago. (Don’t worry; I can’t find it now.) Perhaps it is my previous inability to formulate this desire succinctly that has posed the impediment to attaining Relationship. Naming is a step to claiming, they say.
So here goes: I want a man who’ll drink fire with me. You can laugh all you like. Everyone who hears it does. It’s a silly idea. And that’s why it’s so appealing.
It makes me laugh, too. And I’ll still be laughing when you see a flaming bowl between a pair of self-possessed characters engrossed in mirth and each other. Look with a woman with a raised eyebrow and a mysterious smile. That’ll be me.
About the Author
Since childhood Kathy Biehl has scribbled down observations of human behavior and attempted to make sense of it. She gave up writing fiction long ago. Her first anthology, Eat, Drink & Be Wary: Cautionary Tales, was shortlisted for the 2022 Eric Hoffer Award Grand Prize. Her writing has also won awards from the Association of Food Journalists, Houston Press Club, and Texas Bar Journal. She is a former columnist and associate editor of the Houston Press. She is also the publisher, Editrix, and primary voice of the social commentary zine Ladies' Fetish & Taboo Society Compendium of Anthropology, which existed in print from 1988-1998 and continues online in companion blogs.