The only Mai Tai my father will drink is a Trader Vic’s Mai Tai.
1 whole lime squeezed into a glass
3/4 oz orgeat syrup
¼ oz rock candy syrup
¾ oz orange curacao
2 oz royal Trader Vic’s Amber Rum
Shaken and served on the rocks, it tastes like oranges and spices and honey—a bite of alcohol at the end just to wake you up, just so you know what you’re doing. You are drinking a Trader Vic’s Mai Tai, lucky girl, because Trader Vic’s is where the Mai Tai came from. You are sipping on an origin story. All great cocktails have a beginning, something that offers a parallel history to your own—and the Mai Tai has a fabulous one.
Trader Vic’s is an establishment of old fame. That tiki restaurant attached to The Beverly Hilton, at the corner of Wilshire and Santa Monica. Waiters in white jackets, offering Crispy Prawns, oak grilled sea bass, or Tom Yum soup, heady with kaffir lime and lemon grass. Its interior all wood, decorative porthole windows so that you feel like you’re in the belly of a ship. If you came here in the 60s and 70s you might have seen Dean Martin—the whole Rat Pack—sipping delightful Polynesian concoctions. You could have bellied up to the bar and cocked a make-believe pistol at Ronald Reagan. Pow.
But this is Los Angeles, which means that Trader Vic’s was leveled in 2007, flattened to make room for a dripping Waldorf Astoria. I drink at the current version now, the Trader Vic’s Lounge. To get there, enter through the hotel and walk along the glitzy main rooms, then down the stairs and through another restaurant. There it is—a shiny plastic version of the old one. Gone are the dark rooms and wood panels, the smell of the wood burning oven. There are bamboo frosted windows on this new one, multiple TV screens to watch the game. The Mai Tai is now listed alongside an array of whiskey offerings. You can get Stella Artois on tap. Beside old menu staples like Crab Rangoon and Levosh Crackers, are a Caprese Sandwich, a Margharita Pizza, a Grass Fed Burger. The bar faces the pool, the underwater lights changing from electric blue to bright green and back again, surrounded by palm trees, by hotel suites with white shutters and balconies and petite courtyard tables. It is like a Disneyland attraction, a pretend Polynesian bar beneath It’s a Small World.
But the Mai Tai tastes the same, and this is why I have come. Served with a fresh sprig of mint, a bright red cherry, and a wedge of pineapple. It is a relic. An old friend waiting for you in a new place. Evidence that in some small way, you can go home.
The first time I came to Trader Vic’s my sister and I were teenagers. It’s Father’s Day, my dad is behind the wheel, my sister is in the front seat, and I’m in the back. I’ve never taken you to Trader Vic’s? He tries. Bad dad.
Up the 405 and down its backside. The car is quiet, or if we do talk, it’s easy surface level stuff. Books, television, movies. Exit Wilshire and drive along looking at those magnificent tall buildings that conjure up thoughts of old Hollywood glamour—with names like The Dorchester, The Legacy, The Carlyle, still we talk about nothing. Then Trader Vic’s is on the right, large tiki statues greeting us, palm fronds on either side of the entrance.
Inside my father orders a Mai Tai before the hostess can leave our table. He orders one for each of us. They do not check our IDs. My sister and I are tense. All three of us are tense. It is the first we’ve tried to be the three of us in a long while.
It’s been years since we were his twin baby girls. One tall and dark, the other short and fair. We were his little cadets, his tiny soldiers. Daddy’s little girls. My mother let him name us. Liska Bettina because he liked the sound of the two names together, Ariel Marie for his favorite poem. He is a romantic, a softy. He cried whenever he read to us. He took us on fishing trips, taught us poker (we played with pennies); to fancy restaurants where he let us try coffee; on long road trips when he bought us bear claws, which he convinced us was actually turtle poop.
It is a hard thing, I think, to be the father of daughters. To watch them become women, to not know how to hold or talk to them because now they have tits and an ass. Women have always mystified him—mystified and intimidated. Little girls who like to sleep on your big stomach, who laugh when you make silly faces—those you get. But not women, especially these two that sit with you now, who have minds and opinions of their own—who have boyfriends and lovers. Not these women, no. Look at how the waiter makes eyes at them, the bartender too. How a nearby table throws judgmental looks so that when the waiter comes to take our order, you announce loudly that we are just your daughters.
Gone are your little girls—and yet, here we are, Liska Bettina and Ariel Marie.
So when the Mai Tais come, we—all three of us—drink that cold beverage down. The transformation isn’t just in our father, who visibly relaxes, leaning back in his chair, joking with the waiter when he arrives with our food. My sister and I transform too—watch the dent between my eyes relax, watch my sister stop biting her nails.
I do not remember what we talked about. I remember the Crab Rangoon, miniature pockets of steaming cheesy crab, salty and a bit sweet; the peanut butter spread, the Levosh Crackers—how when my sister and I finished them, my father ordered us more. That first Mai Tai calmed us down, the second and third turning us up so that we slipped back into our old selves. I’m cracking jokes, my sister is cackling, my father’s laughing so hard he has tears in his eyes.
This becomes our new tradition, until things shift and change again. My sister moves, first to Santa Barbara for graduate school, then to Seattle and now Hawaii. She does not like to visit, and if she does she will not stay with family. And my father, who moved to Lompoc, waits stubbornly for one of his illnesses to finish him off. He has switched, for now, from brown liquor to clear—Only Stoli, he says. Stoli on the rocks with an onion and olive.
I wonder sometimes, if a city can imprint itself onto you, the way you can imprint yourself onto it. Because being from a city that routinely demolishes and rebuilds itself, you search for ways to be transported back.
But it’s more than that. I worry that having been born here—to have come from parents and grandparents who were born here—that transient nature of Los Angeles, with its simultaneous desire to forget and remember—has gotten into the DNA, mutated it somehow.
Because I believe if I sit here long enough, in this simulacrum of Trader Vic’s, Mai Tai in hand, I might catch a glimmer of what used to be. And it must have been the same for my dad on that Father’s Day, with my sister and me. We had grown-up, changed without apology. One day, daddy’s little girls, lights of his life. Next, women unknown. I know I can’t go back, and he knew it too. But still I sit here, just as he sat with his rum drink, searching our adult faces, refusing to admit defeat, trying not to tap into that blue sadness that comes from sitting with strangers.
Editor’s Note: The poolside Trader Vic’s Lounge shuttered earlier this week. For Liska, the closest original Mai Tai is now just outside San Francisco.
Liska Jacobs holds an MFA through the University of California Riverside-Palm Desert. Her work has appeared in Literary Hub, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Hairpin, The Nervous Breakdown and others. Her debut novel, Catalina, will be out Fall 2017 from MCD, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. More at liskajacobs.com
Image courtesy of Liska Jacobs