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A Glass Full Of Life

Illustration by Michele Svengsouk

By Calley Nye

A town called Prosecco

It’s Tuesday night and I don’t have any fucking prosecco.

I’m looking at the bottle of Korbel Rosé champagne that I bought at the corner store while I was walking my dog. I usually drink prosecco, but they didn’t have any, seeing as they are a Circle K in the San Fernando Valley. I’m 25% Italian, so I am usually loyal to my Mediterranean wine-making brethren. I also just prefer it. The bubbles are smaller and less demanding, it’s a little more fruity, and it’s like 50% cheaper.

They were fresh out, though, so my choices were champagne only. Looking through the frosted glass, I ran through the options a few times in my head. There was Barefoot Bubbly, Korbel (brut and rosé), Piper Sonoma, and — for the more cosmopolitan Circle K consumer — Perrier Jouet. Clearly the Perrier Jouet is out; do I look like a Kardashian to you?

I could go all the way cheap and spend the $9.99 on the Korbel Brut, the Beer of Champagnes. I do have orange juice at the house. I’ve never tried the $11.99 Barefoot Bubbly but I’m a designer and their logo bugs me, so that’s out. I almost go for the $20 Piper Sonoma because #YOLO, but at the last second I grab the $12.99 Rosé. Because it’s pink and I’m a stereotype.

When I get home, I pop the cork. I had carried it in my purse on the walk home, so it was a little agitated. As the cork popped out, the bubbles flowed up and over the lip of the bottle. I don’t know why, but I love when this happens. I think it’s because it’s the closest I’ll ever get to being in the locker room for an MLB playoff victory.

I take the first sip and am surprised. It’s nice. It’s not life-altering, but it’s pleasant and fruity. I’m happy with my choice.

It makes me think back to my girl Noelle. Five years ago, before I met her, the gas station inner dialogue would have been much shorter. I would have looked past the wine section and gone straight for the 30-pack of Bud Light. Why buy 1 bottle when you can buy 30 cans for the same price? Noelle taught me that I deserved better than that.

At the time, I was 26 years old and living with my parents in Manchester, Connecticut. I was working as a novice freelance web developer. A couple days a week, I would disconnect and tell blue jokes to a drunk crowd while spending my paltry earnings on Bud Lights and Jameson shots. Did I mention that I had just dropped out of a University of Phoenix knockoff?

I met her one night when I was performing at the Hartford Funnybone in a comedy contest. I was the only female comic in the lineup that night. That wasn’t unusual. After my set, I was standing in the back watching the other comics. This pretty woman in a really cute hat came up to me and said, “You were amazing. I love female comics and I never see any around here. I’m so glad I was here to see you tonight. I’d love to see you perform again. Do you have a card?” I blushed and said yes, and gave her my card. Imaginary groupie, check.

She emailed me a couple days later and asked if I had any other shows coming up. I told her about one in Hartford — my first show at the Brew-Ha-Ha comedy club — which was a little bit of a bigger deal. She was there. She found me nervously preparing in the bathroom, gave me a hug, and said good luck. I had been writing my jokes on my palm, an unfortunate tradition.

Early in my set I made a joke about some selective manscaping I’d witnessed in my day. The punchline is, “I’m sure your balls are adorable, but I’m never gonna see them because my bracelet is stuck in your back hair.” Right after delivering the punchline, I hear for the first time what will become a very familiar sound: Noelle laughing her ass off. It’s loud and distinct, and you can hear it on 90% of the videos I have of my standup.

I was disappointed with my set on the whole, so I drank dejectedly in the green room — a glorified cement closet with three rickety chairs and a small table — for the rest of the show. The Brew-Ha-Ha comedy club was in the basement of a popular Hartford brewery, City Steam. I was sipping on my favorite brew of theirs, Naughty Nurse. This would be my BeerAdvocate review:

“Naughty Nurse is a fine English Pale Ale. Its fruity aroma and bittersweet aftertaste are the perfect match for my current mood — melancholy. It has a very provocative image on it, which might be intended to make me feel a little naughty myself. Naughty Nurse, the aspiring horndog of Pale Ales.”

Did I mention that my drinks are paid for? That may or may not have made it taste sweeter, go down faster, and ease my disappointment.

When the show ended, I ran into Noelle in the hallway where she gave me a big hug and gushed about how great my set was. I responded with a “meh.” She said I was ridiculous and asked me if she could buy me a drink. She had her husband with her. Right after introducing him, she said, “He’s 10 years younger than me. Yep, he’s 12.”

We became close very quickly. She would ask me on lady dates, where she insisted upon paying. She would tell me in advance, “I want to take you to Tisane for karaoke and green tea lemon drop martinis. It’s my treat.” She always did this with grace. She wanted to have a good time, but knew I couldn’t afford much. I was a stand-up comic, remember?

We lived a couple miles away from each other, so she came to all of my shows. Beyond that, we would hang out every week and drink and talk about life. She was 40, and had been through a lot. I imagined — really, I hoped — that I’d be a lot like her in 10 years. She was fun, hilarious, and generous. She knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to ask for it. Like my friendship.

I remember when I went to her house for the first time. She gave me the tour. It was beautiful. Understated yet elegant, and filled with eccentricities, much like its owner. There was a light switch plate with a picture of the statue of David. The switch was strategically placed so whenever you turned on the lights, you turned on David too. There was also a framed picture of her butt with a calla lily in the crack. She had a cat named Cuntface, or C-face for short, and a fish named Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Whenever we hung out, the drink was the focal point. The first couple times I went to her house, she offered me a litany of options. “We’ve got a Chardonnay and Prosecco in the fridge, plus vodka, rum, tequila, bourbon, and gin. Downstairs we’ve got a few reds and a fridge full of different kinds of beer.”

This was overwhelming. I never knew what I wanted. I would just say, “Whatever you want.”

Noelle opens a bottle of Mionetto Prosecco and we clink flutes. Wow. This isn’t Bud Light. I love it. It’s light and fruity and bubbly and I feel fancy as fuck. I’m with a friend, in her kitchen, in the house that she owns, that is full of at least 30 different kinds of alcohol. She’s even got matching plates. I’m adulting so hard.

After the first pop of the cork, we would try all kinds of things. Many fine wines from an assortment of regions, Prosecco, gin cocktails, more Prosecco, bourbon cocktails, Prosecco with orange juice, and vodka cocktails. But never, not once, did we drink beer. She was a mixologist at heart, and would always experiment with different recipes. She would even make her own simple syrup. That’s love.

We would talk about everything. Things that she had been going through and things that I had been going through. I was in my first serious romantic relationship and breaking into an industry that is historically hard for women. She was 40, and had been diagnosed with breast cancer at 35. She had a double mastectomy. When she got diagnosed, do you know what she did? She immediately did a nude photo shoot. Then she did another a few days after her mastectomy. And then another once it had been healed. She put the photos on the fucking internet.

At first, I just thought she was funny. As we got to know each other more, she started revealing herself more to me. When sitting at the kitchen table drinking Prosecco, she would jump up, run to the corner of the room, put her hands on her knees, and smile at me like Shirley Temple as I stared at her curiously. Then she would let out the cutest little fart you ever heard. It didn’t even smell.

If I ever texted someone while I was with her, she would take my phone and text the other person a picture of her making a funny face, while giggling like a crazy person. She would make me watch scary movies with her, and as I shrieked and hid my face in my hands, she would laugh her ass off. Not at me, though — she actually thought the scary parts were hilarious. She wasn’t happy unless she was pushing the limits of what was considered normal. She would giggle helplessly if she made you blush, and then proceed to do whatever she did again.

Noelle was equal parts elegant, crass, loving, ridiculous, hilarious, and incredibly generous: a true original. She kept my business card tucked in the corner of her foyer mirror, providing a much-needed ego boost when I needed it.

She made wine much more interesting to me. I used to just drink like a young person, never enjoying, just getting to the point. It was about getting drunk, right? But when you take your time with it, you actually get to know it. There’s the initial impression; what happens when it first touches your lips. You give it a second, appreciate it, and then swallow. How do you feel about the first impression? Consider the aftertaste. Take a second sip. It’s never the same as the first one, you pick up on more details this time. And every sip thereafter is a mixed bag: sometimes you are reminded of the first sip, and sometimes you find something new, but every time you get closer to its truth. Its essence.

Whenever Noelle and I spent time together, she would surprise me with something new. The first impression was great; she was funny, kind, and outgoing. The second sip was even better; she was so generous and truthful. Then she was supportive, hilarious, and the best friend you could ask for.

Then she got sick.

And the sky wept chardonnay

One day Noelle asks me if I want to go swimming with her. She wants to go to the lake, so can I give her a day? She had been talking about going to Bigelow Hollow for a while. I’m what you might call ‘indoorsy,’ but she’s Noelle. So when she asks, I say “of course.”

So we’re driving to Bigelow Hollow State Park on an early August afternoon. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been swimming, let alone in a lake. But the sun is shining and the trees are green. I can’t imagine a more perfect day.

We get to the park. It’s stunning. The parking lot that we pull into has a boat launch, giving an unobstructed view of the still waters and evergreen trees.

There are kids running around, and frenzied mothers chasing after them. We park the car and walk through the woods on a small dirt trail. We walk past the pond where most of the kids are wading and continue deeper into the woods. After about a quarter of a mile or so, we get to a serene spot, where there are several picnic tables and a rocky beach. I step into the lake and am surprised at how warm and clear the water is; I can see the rocks beneath my feet and the tadpoles swimming around. We swim out to the rock in the middle of the lake and sit on the edge of it. Our feet are in the water, the sun is on our backs. We sit and watch the trout swimming around our calves and just appreciate the day, our friendship, and the water.

We head back to our picnic table, towel off, and head back to the car. She had hinted at making a second stop, but she wouldn’t tell me where. I hope that wherever we were going, they won’t mind me showing up in a wet bathing suit, but, as usual, I let her take the lead.

She winds her car through the quiet, tree-lined roads that make up the Connecticut countryside. She says she knows the way, but we’ve been driving for over an hour and we keep seeing this one intersection over and over. It’s almost like we’re stuck in a time loop of some kind. I’m feeling warm and drowsy from the sun, and we fall into a comfortable silence.

“Calley, I want to talk to you about something.” I sit bolt upright.

In her put-together grownup voice, she tells me that the cough that she’s had on and off for a few months is lung cancer. They found it a few weeks ago and she’s going to start radiation and chemo right away. Also, they did some scans and they found that it had spread to her brain as well. She probably isn’t going to live longer than a year.

She’s calmly telling me the whole story, with much more detail, and I’m quiet. I’m letting it sink in. My beautiful best friend is going to die? That can’t be right. She’s only 40. She outswam me and didn’t even run out of breath. I’m thinking about my grandfather dying of cancer; me sitting at his bedside in the middle of the night while everyone else was sleeping, wondering if each breath he took would be his last. I’m picturing my strong, happy friend in a hospital with poison being fed into her body through an IV, while she wastes away to nothing.

She stops. She looks tentatively at me for my reaction. What do I say?

“Oh my god, Noelle. You’re always ‘me, me, me.’ It’s not always about you. I stubbed my toe last week, and you didn’t even ask how I was doing.”

We both burst into tearful laughter. After the laughter stops, we talk more about everything. I ask questions, she answers. I tell her I would obviously do anything that she needed me to do. Later I’d come to understand that by responding the way I did, I gave her the best gift I could give her. That one joke eased her biggest fear. I was still going to be the same friend I had always been. Cancer was happening, nothing could change that. But I was out to prove that nothing was going to change us — our friendship, our laughter, our shared love of drinking — either.

We finally make it to Noelle’s surprise destination. Taylor Brooke Winery. Just what we need: booze.

Noelle had only recently gotten me into wine, so this is actually my first winery visit. She tells me this was the wine she had served at her wedding. We sample a couple varietals as I walk around in awe that a fancy place like this will give me free wine. I buy a bottle each of their Summer Peach, Traminette, and Chocolate Merlot wines, and Noelle buys a few for her cellar. We also pick up some crackers and a few cheeses, and sit outside on the patio. We open a bottle of the Summer Peach and sit around in the sun, enjoying the wine and cheese.

The wine is sweet and crisp and very sippable. I don’t like using this word, but it is just delightful. I don’t have a sommelier’s vocabulary, but I know how I feel. This wine is everything that the two of us need right now.

It’s a beautiful winery. From the porch, we can see a garden full of bright colors and a curved stone path, with the vineyard in the background. There’s even motherfucking hummingbirds. There’s a table of four next to us, and they have two handsome border collies. We chat amicably with our fellow patrons about the beautiful weather and the wonderful wine. It’s a Rockwellian moment in a Hopperesque existence.

After 15 minutes of this scene, we get reminded that we’re in Connecticut. All of a sudden, the skies open up and rain starts falling down in buckets. Everyone outside runs inside to seek cover from the attack. But Noelle and I keep sipping our wine and laugh. The umbrella that is covering our heads gets pulled straight upwards by the wind and is thrown across the patio. We chase it to the parking lot, still drinking and laughing, until we finally give up and go inside.

Once inside the winery, I look at my partner in crime, soaking wet for the second time today, and think to myself that I would do anything for this girl. I wish I could take away all her pain and give her sunny days for the rest of her life.

But that’s not how it works. Sometimes it rains. You can run and hide from it, or you can raise your glass of wine, smile conspiratorially to your friend, and say, “fuck it, bring it on.”

Originally published as a two part series at on November 3, 2016.

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