Save vs. Nostalgia: My First Can of Surge in 12 Years

It’s a Monday afternoon in late September, and the day is turning out to be, in most regards, unexceptional by Central Texas standards. The weather has that sweltering, oppressive quality to it—clear and potent sunshine, cloying humidity, and temperatures utterly out of joint with the miasma of artificial pumpkin product slowly creeping over the social landscape.

And me? I’m working, feet propped up on the coffee table in the breeze of a box fan, sitting on the sofa transcribing my editorial commentary from a manuscript hardcopy onto my laptop. Kane, my boycat, has insinuated himself between my right arm and my keyboard, there to nap in the least convenient way possible. My girlcat, Agnes, supervises imperiously from a short stack of towels on the adjacent cushion. A few lingering cicadas buzz in the trees out back. Redneck battlewagons with giant exhaust pipes blare through the intersection, belching black smoke into cloudless blue skies. Business as usual in the mid-afternoon.

At least, that is, until it finally happens.

The telltale thunk-scrape of a box on concrete at the door catches my attention. I look up from my work, and the cats prick up their ears. Then, to my right, the wordless passage of a brown-uniformed deliveryman by the window tells me all I need to know. My Amazon order has arrived.

My case of Surge is here.

Surge: the 90s cult soda in a puke green can that heralded, in many ways, the energy drink boom but which vanished from the market too early to take advantage of it.

Surge: that horrible-wonderful electric nectar that looks like the love child of glow-stick juice and whatever mutated the Ninja Turtles.

Surge: nostalgia in a can, now available directly—and exclusively—from Amazon. Well, except when it’s sold out, like it has been almost the entire week since its official re-release.

Back from its exile, it now sits on my doorstep, waiting to be rediscovered.

I disentangle myself from Kane almost immediately and retrieve the box from outside. Soon enough, the shrink-wrapped pack of twelve cans, their glaring green and red logos blazing beneath the cloudy plastic, emerge. I feel a rush of excitement and anticipation. The cats begin squabbling over the empty box, but I don’t bother to scold them this time, even when Kane bites Agnes on the rump and she slaps him across the face with an audible pop. Instead, I head around the corner to the kitchen to admire—and evaluate—my first can of Surge in more than a dozen years.

The can itself stands taller than its previous incarnation—a big 16-ounce affair like you often see with energy drinks and, more traditionally, shitty beer. The label copy has changed a bit, too, adding bits of nutritional data that weren’t mandatory before and refiguring itself as a “citrus-flavored soda” rather than a “fully loaded citrus soda.” Are the contents any different, though? I crack open the room-temperature can and proceed to find out.

Rather immediately, the overpowering and distinctive “citrus” aroma assails my nose, and I am overwhelmed by a wave of nostalgia. They say smell triggers memories more powerfully than most things, and in this case, that seems to be true. I find myself, if only for a brief instant, transported back to the high school cafeteria on a day in the spring of 1997, when Coca-Cola sent their big green cars and shapely promo babes to hand out free Surge on campus.

If that seems odd now, that’s understandable. At the time, though, my school seemed to have some kind of dirty deal with Coke, who sponsored various things around the school and, apparently, received in exchange permission to market their wares to the student body. There were Coke machines in the cafeteria and elsewhere—and, on that particular day, there were also the Surge babes.

They swooped in, laden with freebies, and anyone who asked got two cans for free. This went on for several days, and, as you might expect, the drink started appearing in the vending machines soon after the fact. Many of us started drinking it after that—and for me, it became a lunchtime and late night ritual, a key material component of writing, internet surfing, and gaming. And for good reason, too: it was sweeter and more potent than Mountain Dew. The cans looked cooler. People whom I enjoyed annoying were disgusted by its electric green color. Truly, it was a worthy beverage, the distilled essence of teenage geekery.

In my kitchen in 2014, I open up the pantry and pull down a small glass tumbler. The liquid in this new can runs clear and green, like some unholy atomic ichor—a thing that should not be. I smile with remembrance. That much, too, is still there, and still appeals to me more than Mountain Dew’s cloudy chartreuse hues.

Finally, then, the last test: I take a sip, and I know immediately that the formula hasn’t changed. Even after all this time, I recognize it, and I’m reminded of the rumble of the cantankerous engine of my old 1987 Dodge RamCharger, the smell of the (then) decade-old interior, the exhilaration of personal freedom, tasted for the first time.

The dawn of Surge roughly coincided with my getting my driver’s license. It was a mythical time for me: a summer of rock-bottom gas prices the like of which have not been equaled since, it was also the first time in my life that I was permitted to venture out and make certain financial and recreational decisions on my own.

And considering that I was just as much a nerd then as I am now, mostly this involved video games, heavy metal albums, books and cartoons, and my first forays into tabletop gaming. Surge was a favorite of mine in those early explorations of greater nerdom, and many were the cans that were conquered in the midst of such pursuits.

I drink a bit more. The high sugar content starts to hit my system, and I feel the powerful and deceptive charge that only high-fructose corn syrup can impart. It’s been out of my regular diet for years now, since 2000 or 2001, and it’s a curious feeling, and pretty addicting. I’m struck with a deep desire for Taco Bell, too, to complement the taste.

By the gods, I reflect. No wonder I gained so much weight in high school.

Later in the evening, my husband Ryan comes in from work, and we reflect on our joint nostalgia over cans of the syrupy green beverage. We recall how we chugged it like water during late-night Palladium Robotech sessions on AOL, back when we were still just two high school kids on opposite ends of the country who (sort of) tolerated one another because we both liked heavy metal, giant robots, and Beavis and Butthead.

Then, as adults are wont to do, we finally put booze in it—something we’ve wanted to try for years.

It’s surprisingly good. Just as good, to my tastes, as a Vodka Red Bull. Not as good as a quality Scotch or Japanese whiskey, no, but enjoyable in that guilty, stupid, I-just-ate-a-whole-pizza-by-myself kind of way.

And after a while, I also start to notice the less pleasant effects: the crash that comes when the HFCS is out of my system, the nasty film that quickly develops on my teeth, the subtle ache in some of my dental work. I start to wonder how I drank this stuff years ago, and a possibly profound comment about the fleeting resilience of youth knocks around in my head like a steel ball, but quickly slides into the booze and disappears.

“I don’t think I’m going to make this an everyday thing,” I finally admit to Ryan after a bit.

“Yeah,” he agrees with me.

“I guess if they make a Diet Surge,” I say, rolling the empty can between my palms. “I could do that. I used to dig Vault Zero. What do you think?”

“Yeah, that could be good,” he tells me, and settles back into a YouTube video.

I start into a second can, but I only get halfway through before I just can’t stomach it anymore. I put the unfinished can in the refrigerator and grab a glass of water. Like the accompanying Taco Bell I ultimately couldn’t resist, it’s palatable and even pleasant in small doses—a nice trip down memory lane—but taken beyond that, it quickly runs to miserable excess.

In its 12-year exile, there’s really nothing about Surge that has changed. It’s still the same radioactive green canned hyperactivity that it was in the 90s. It still tastes like it’s made from dragon tears distilled in the Holy Grail and stirred with Excalibur itself. It tastes like PlayStation and modem noise and saving throws. It goes really well with Taco Bell.

No, Surge hasn’t changed, except that now it comes from The Internet in sixteen-ounce doses.

Me, though? I’ve changed a lot, it seems. A great deal has happened since the last time I had a Surge, which was in 2001, before I left for Japan. I came back in 2002 fifty pounds lighter, with a burgeoning smoking habit and a taste for Suntory whiskey. And Surge, meanwhile, had begun its long exile, not to return to my tastebuds until now. Life rolled on in the interim, taking me down a different and less sugary road.

Tasting it again a dozen-plus years on, I’d say Surge is one of those things best enjoyed only when the mood is right and the desire to tap into the good things of my high school days is strong. Would I change my tune if there were a diet version? It’s possible—since the main turn-offs for me are the immiserating effects of all that high-fructose corn syrup.

For now, Surge is a memory best revisited, like in-laws and old acquaintances grown estranged, in moderation: long enough to experience the good things, but briefly enough to avoid the bullshit.