Last Cup?

photograph by Natalie McLaughlin

Somehow I managed to overlook or avoid the sensory experience that is described as beer pong.  I wasn’t doing it when I was 15.  I wasn’t doing it when I was 20.  I can’t say the opportunity was ever mine.  When I think about my first night at the beer pong table, I can confidently say that this is a game that can prove what you’re made of. And then some.

For a brief moment before heading to the appropriately named Sin Bin bar, I wondered if the clothes and shoes I wore would get a beer dousing.  One should always know what kind of attire is appropriate for the sport they set out to play.  I went casual and fit right in the scene.  It felt like a work in progress, a place for me to get schooled or find higher meaning.  The bar was empty, a new bartender working her first shift, and an old church pew stationed against the wall stared at me as I sized up the two long, narrow beer pong tables side-by-side in the same room.

I sip a Blue Moon to warm up and unwind.  Our opponents Natalie and Mike arrived ready to play, but Dan and I were in no hurry.  While serving up a Guinness to Mike, the bartender recognizes Natalie and within seconds the two are talking about their kindergarten connection.  They assure me they didn’t learn to play beer pong in kindergarten.

After the two former classmates caught up on life since learning the alphabet together, everyone’s focus shifts back to beer pong. Supplies are handed to Mike and he begins arranging ten empty plastic cups in tight formation, starting at the edge of the table.  He sets up a row of four, then three, two, and one on both sides.  I couldn’t take my eyes off the pitcher as he poured enough beer into each cup to meet the first fill line.  I’m reminded of my junior high science fair days and feel like this is prep for an experiment with me as a primary subject.  How is it that the pitcher holds just the right amount to fill 20 cups?

Pitcher One – So, this is how we do it?

photograph by Natalie McLaughlin

Dan and Mike explain the ins and outs of the game to me in less than two minutes.  Mike and Natalie take their first turn and hit nothing.  I throw my first ping pong ball and it soars over the table.  My next shot includes a bounce.  Dan is doing all the work for our team, while I try to figure out what I’m doing wrong.  I need better aim and more loft to get the ball near a cup.  The pace of the game is much slower than I imagined, but maybe that’s because I’m asking questions in-between turns.  I thought beer pong would be more like a frenzy of back-and-forth beer chugging and racing around the table.  I stand corrected.

It doesn’t take long for me to find out that your hand gets wet in beer pong.  Each team has an extra cup filled with lukewarm water that sits on the side for the ball wash.  One is required to submerge the ball into the water to ensure “proper hygiene” after the ball rolls on the floor of the bar or lands in a beer-filled cup.  A shake of the hand in the air doesn’t really dry the ball, so water rolls down your wrist as you take aim.  They washed the bar floor today, right?  Let’s keep the ball in the air, a cup, or in our hands people!

Natalie and Mike are winning, as they are drinking fewer beers than us.  The first few cups I drink are refreshing, but it’s starting to look like we might lose this round.  I threw a shot and watched the ball twirl in the cup like a tilt-a-whirl.  Getting the ball in the cup after just a few too many teasers was a thrill. We started to shout, “Pew ball!” to warn Natalie and Mike that they needed to act fast or reach deep under the bench to retrieve a stray ball.  Phew! I don’t want the ball to go there or under the men’s room door.

We get our money’s worth on this first pitcher.  The round nears the end as a neck-in-neck tie, with one cup left on both sides.  Natalie clinches the win with a shot that drops, no splash.

Pitcher 2 – Techniques

photograph by Natalie McLaughlin

I take on set up for the next round.  I get the cups arranged and empty the pitcher equally, feeling like a chemist.  The match gets underway and I begin practicing my deflection and distraction skills.  When the ball bounces, it’s legal to swat the ball in an attempt to keep it from landing in a cup.  I’m not a good swatter, but I do start to take my shots faster.  Dan and I work out our sneak-attack timing and the instructional dialogue of the first round is replaced by louder smack talk and laughter.  Mike makes a demand concerning cup rearrangement, as Natalie eliminates them – house, diamond, long duck dong.  I throw a ball that whizzes around the inside rim of the cup and Natalie promptly blows on the ball to try to keep their lead.  Obviously, this isn’t her first trip to the beer-pong table.  It isn’t much longer before Dan and I take the lead.  Unexpectedly, Mike knocks over one of our cups.  Beer spills all over the table and onto the floor.  Dan fetches a wet rag from the bartender.  Game play pauses.  My shoes remain dry.  I ponder if you could install a towel bar to always have a rag on hand to wipe up spills.  The table took a beating this round and so did Mike and Natalie.  One cup left and my shot goes in with no hesitation or teasing.  I feel like a winner!  I am buoyant!

Pitcher 3 – All senses alive

We take our time setting up the last round.  Bathroom breaks and a pizza order were higher priorities. During our lull, I ask Mike when he first played beer pong.  When he reveals that he was fifteen years old, I’m even more curious.  This is a game that needs beer, space, time, and leaves behind booze-scented trash.  I guess it’s one way to stretch a case of beer, but I don’t recall having that much time as an underage imbiber to experiment with open intoxicants in a setting with enough space for a ping-pong table.  In college, house parties had maximum capacity crowds.  The kitchen table was a good spot for quarters and card games like President, but I don’t recall any house being known for beer-pong parties.  Beer pong seems to be better suited for a group that wants to hang out and not be bothered by other distractions.  My enlightened understanding of the game leads me to the conclusion that halfhearted participation is unacceptable.

A quick scan of the bar for the first time makes me aware that we’re no longer the only visitors to the Sin Bin.  I’m curious if strangers ever challenge each other to play beer pong like darts or pool?  How does one claim dibs on the beer pong table?  Are we taking too long to decide tonight’s beer pong champs?  Just as the action gets underway, the bar owner wanders over.  A song from his teenage years plays.  We all take guesses at who is singing.  Natalie says, “Incubus,” and is awarded a shot for her music-trivia mastery.  Mike downs the shot and throws the next ball in rhythmic sequence.  Conversation about concerts and favorite bands ensues.  The pace of the game feels more natural to me.  Another pew ball needs to be saved.  I’m disgusted when I see a piece of hair floating in the cup after Natalie washes the grime off the ball.  I’m surprised the beer-pong supply pack doesn’t include hand sanitizer or handi-wipes.  Wouldn’t an automated Purell dispenser look nice taking up space next to the jukebox?

photograph by Natalie McLaughlin

Natalie is on fire and wins the last round with her solid aim and most sober designation.  Mike has been drinking all of the beer for their team, but it doesn’t appear to be a punishment.  Dan and I are laughing as we take turns tipping back the last standing cups in record (for us) time. We all exchange exuberant high fives and savor our pizza reward.

Comfortably seated with no beer pong table between us, we joke about the game highlights and chat more about our favorite music.  Even though the point of the night out was to play some beer pong, it feels more like an effortless double-date.  A few days after we played this historic match, I realized that it’s also a relaxed, fun way to spend time getting to know another couple and their beer-pong past.  We didn’t need to call it a date night, but it sure felt like one.  My first taste of beer pong – satisfying, relaxed, friendly, and headache-free, until the next morning.  While I don’t think I’ll sign up for the next beer pong tournament or bar league, it sure is a fun time.  Let’s make plans for another foursome soon.

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