I’m not really sure what gave me the idea in the first place, except that it had snowed a lot overnight and it was a Saturday morning and I wasn’t planning on doing any work. It was my junior year of college. I texted my friend Graham, who lived around the corner, and asked him if he thought we should mull some wine and invite our friends over. He said wow yes, great idea, and went to buy us a box of Franzia.
One of the best things about Graham is that he almost always says yes to hanging out, even if that means drinking at odd times, like a couple years later when I had a newspaper job in San Francisco that started at 5:30 a.m and let out around 2:00 p.m., sometimes I could convince Graham to meet me in the backyard of the Irish bar in my neighborhood right after work. Other great things about Graham: he loves organizing group activities, particularly poker, which I love even though I’m terrible at it, and he’s a great skier, which I also am. Graham and I are very compatible for these reasons; also, he is extremely kind and a wonderful listener and I feel completely comfortable with him for any amount of time.
That February, while he was buying Franzia, I went to the corner market to get the correct spices, which I’d looked up online. I bought apple juice, honey, oranges, nutmeg, and cinnamon sticks. The store did not sell star anise, but I figured that was okay, since I’d never heard of it.
At that time in my life, everything felt pretty magical, or a lot of things did. I lived off-campus in an apartment with two of my friends, and Graham lived around the corner with five boys who were also my friends. Some of my other best friends lived across the street; no one else was more than a half-mile away. A lot of us were dating each other, or on the verge of it. Some of us had had romantic drama in the past, but it wasn’t that big a deal. I was personally in a dead-end relationship but it didn’t even matter because I had such awesome friends.
Graham and I texted all our friends and told them to come over because we were mulling wine. It’s important to say: we weren’t one of those solid crews with defined boundaries who hung out all the time and had a group text. It was a porous, loose collection of friends and friends of friends that often shifted and expanded. Maybe some of the people we texted that day didn’t even consider themselves part of a group. But the group, if it existed, had to do with a general sense of proximity, easy intimacy, open doors.
Mulled wine is about all of those things too. It’s extremely easy to make. You pour a lot of red wine into a big pot. It doesn’t matter what kind of wine, because you’re going to make it taste good no matter what. Then you add honey, cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, apple juice, sliced oranges. If you have cloves and star anise, add those too. Bring it to a boil, then lower the heat and let it simmer for a long time. If you’re trying to get drunk, you can add cognac or some kind of sweet liqueur to replace the boiled-off alcohol. Then pour it into mugs. This step is important—if you pour it into a glass, you will burn your hands and it is possible that it will shatter.
Things changed, obviously, but at first it was for the better. The following spring and summer and fall, we got closer. Two new couples formed amongst our friends, which seemed like magic! I was part of one of them. Some of us took a ski trip together in March and mulled wine and played hours of poker. Others of us went to Rhode Island for Memorial Day and mulled wine. We had a semi-random party on the Fourth of July, but we drank beer because even though mulled wine doesn’t have to be seasonal, it’s not the right drink for Fourth of July. In October, we went again to Rhode Island and mulled wine again.
That last weekend was especially good. There are black-and-white photos of it, taken by my friend Charlotte, and looking at them now makes it feel even more hazy and unreal.
It was warmer than expected, an Indian summer, and we all sat out on the porch and smoked Black & Milds. We played a fun dumb game that involved clapping our hands together and saying, “Animals are fucking sweet!” and then saying animal facts, real or made up. I have no idea what we talked about. One day, just before sunset, a group of us went swimming in the ice-cold water. It was a shock to my blood and bones. We sat outside quietly for a little bit, probably the only time we were quiet all weekend. Then we went inside and cooked a big basic dinner of pasta and vegetables. We watched the presidential debate and argued about it, though we were mostly all in agreement. We mulled a big pot of wine.
I’m not sure the mulled wine was an integral part of these experiences for everyone else, because there were lots of other kinds of drinks involved, and real food cooked in big pots, and all kinds of activities. But I remember it, in part because I was the one always forcing it on everyone. All I wanted was for my friends to be together sharing a big pot of steaming cinnamon-y wine, in a borrowed house, cozy.
Coziness is an effective means of self-deception. It’s a way for us to feel better about the cold, or whatever else is outside, instead of acknowledging it, and the fact that the seasons are changing and everything is dying. It would probably be more psychologically clarifying to go for a long walk alone in the sleet than to sit by a warm fire with your friends in socks. But alas.
It is worth noting, if it was not already obvious, that all of this was made possible by the existence of extra houses to borrow, which came from stockpiled parental wealth, which was in turn related to the fact that we went to a fancy school in the first place. Not all of us had those things in equal measures, or had them at all–I did, and I didn’t think enough about having them or not. It was all part of my whole mirage of coziness to believe that these things–really, assets–were sharable in a way that was meaningful and permanent.
Obviously, what happened is that everyone broke up. Also, we graduated. We moved to different places and some of us aren’t on speaking terms even when we’re in the same city. I don’t blame anyone in particular for this, though certainly in the context of specific relationships some people are more at fault than others. For instance, me. But it’s just what happened.
I spent a lot of time thinking this breakdown of the group was part of “growing up.” Then I brought it up with my mom because I was having a party and I was stressed about who to invite and not to invite. She was sympathetic, but she also said, “Just wait until all your friends get divorced.” This was comforting in a dark way, because it made me think this all won’t matter eventually, but it was also dispiriting. Groups will just continue to dissolve and dissolve and dissolve and this has less to do with “growing up”and more to do with living life.
I invited Graham over the Friday after Thanksgiving, when we were both in Boston, to mull some wine. The mulling was a little harder than I remembered it being—we didn’t have any apple juice, and at first the wine tasted kind of bitter, or just like normal wine. We added sugar haphazardly, which helped. We added some splashes of Hennessy, and an extra cinnamon stick, and some more cloves, and a few more orange slices. Just more of everything, basically, and it worked. It smelled better than it tasted in the end, but that’s also part of the experience of most mulled wine.
Graham and I stayed up late drinking the mulled wine and talking. At first we talked mostly about people we knew. Then we talked about other things: San Francisco, where I don’t live anymore, dating apps, derivatives and financial regulation (we were kind of drunk). We switched to cold wine when the mulled wine ran out, which I poured into the same cup so it kind of retained the spices.
Eventually again we talked about college, and he told me about one of his memories. He was driving with the boys he used to live with, after school let out, and there was nothing they had to do at that moment and they were listening to the song “Josaphine.” The coastline appeared. I wasn’t there, but it was impossibly vivid in his telling. I felt a sense of loss so sharp and surprising it was like my tooth had fallen out. It was not summer; it was November; I was with my friend Graham in my kitchen drinking lukewarm spiced wine.