It’s 10pm on a Friday night, in a town the Princeton Review usually names among the top party schools in the country, and I have just finished a reading with my cohort from my creative writing PhD program. After living in Provo, Utah for the past eight years, I’m clutching my root beer so the label shows, and I’m drinking it through a straw in the hopes nobody present will think I’m drinking alcohol. Not because anyone in my cohort would have a problem -the movie theatre where we’re reading sells alcohol, and I’m one of the few people not drinking. But I don’t want to send mixed signals to anyone who knows I’m Mormon.

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Then comes the moment I’ve been a little anxious about all evening. Everyone heads out to go to a bar and hang out a little longer. I’ve been debating about whether or not to go. It’s not like I’ve ever been to a bar before, and in fact I used to feel uncomfortable around anyone who was drinking – with both a grandmother and a father who had drinking problems when I was growing up, I used to get downright angry with high school friends who, after high school, would want to drink at parties. But that’s all in the past, and I no longer mind being around friends while they have a couple drinks. And I don’t want to miss out on getting to know my cohort. Still – a bar?

When I say I’m heading out, a couple friends in my cohort are surprised. “Why?” they ask, joking that if I want to avoid one of them, they’ll just leave so I can stay. When I explain that I’ve never been to a bar and don’t even know how to act, they tell me it’s no big deal, that I can order a soda and it won’t matter.

So I follow the group down the street, and a man checks my license before letting me enter a building where everyone is buying a drink. “This bar is a dive,” a friend explains to me. “I care about going to classy bars.” Some of the decor looks like The Muppets gone wrong, but otherwise it just looks like a poorly lit restaurant to me. We stand in line, each ordering something, and though I ordinarily don’t drink soda (the earlier root beer an exception) and I haven’t had a caffeinated beverage in years, I order a Coke. The bartender hands me a glass with a floating cherry and waves aside my money.

Outside, a friend says, “They think you’re driving all of us home. All these years as a nondrinker, and you haven’t learned that?”

The joke is on the bar, because I don’t even have a car, but I’m glad I didn’t pay for the coke since I feel sick after just a few sips – all the sugar from the earlier root beer has combined to make me queasy, and even though my faith has no moral objection to caffeinated soda, the common misperception that we do leaves me feeling like I’m doing something edgy. I never drink Coke or Pepsi myself, mostly because I drink soda rarely, so I save the exceptions for flavors I like.

The night is warm – we’re in Georgia, after all – and aside from the increasing tipsiness around me and the police officer who stops to ask if we’ve seen a young man in handcuffs running down the street, I swear I could be out to ice cream or mocktails with my Utah friends. There’s the same sense of celebration and indulgence, and I’m imbibing at least as much sugar.