Alcohol, Taken in Sufficient Quantities
Suppose I were to tell you: I used to drink a lot. See the shame in my syntax? It’s phrased is as a confession. Past tense. A hidden plea. I’m testing the waters. I’m picking cat hair off my shirt. I don’t want to make eye contact. Forgive me. Don’t leave.
It started somewhere because it always starts somewhere. East of the sun or west of the moon, a party, a bottle, a mouth. Easily one night you discover the body electric. I mean it, they could plug a lamp into you. Easily (bumping down a luminescent expansion, your mouth, stained with blood red desire, exploding over a body you used to control) you become better than yourself.
Better is a slippery word. If you make a dirty martini tonight (filthy, wet) if you pour one and a half ounces of gin (Bombay Sapphire works well, unobtrusive, the juniper subtle and receptive to the brine) into a shaker and if you then add one and half ounces of good vermouth and three quarters of an ounce of quality olive brine and if you then add ice and stir (or shake, if you’re James Bond, or want to be) until well chilled and strain into the glass you keep in the freezer and garnish with hand stuffed blue cheese olives, will you feel better?
The answer is yes. The simplicity of the answer is important. A dead friend once said: when I do drugs I only have one problem. A compelling argument, because, of course, there’s always more than one problem.
You could say I fell in love. A spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns. An obedient fantasy, it came when called. Actually, it was everywhere. I wanted to rouge my nipples with it. Is that your judgement I feel on my skin? I was surprised. It was so easy. I knew enough maybe not to trust easy. Still, I trusted. How could I not? That this cheerful toxin could open up into a kind of wild religion, a ragged temple welcoming every misshapen novice, a glass-walled god too powerful and old to ever let my wings melt. How could my appetites, the same greedy urges buried below layers of lead paint and self-loathing, be the keys to an underground river of such trouble and pleasure and significance?
But by now you must know how good it feels to lose yourself. How the feeling can give your life shape.
I admit I may have been foolish. I know foolishness can feel like a map of a hidden world, a world you might find in the back of a closet, a world which, once it crashes into you, begins to rot sweetly, or grow vines. The choice is yours. The romance of it. Recent chemical analysis shows the Chinese were making something like wine from rice, honey, and fruit nine thousand years ago. An archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania made a batch and says it stills goes great with Chinese food. My mouth waters. Always remember that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me. I like to think of the mouth that first discovered some glorious, boozy accident rotting in a forgotten clay pot. The courage of the first sip.
The night in seventh grade the cool kids showed up to Ronnie’s barn party drunk, noodling their beautiful limbs like Adventure Time heroes, leaving the rest of us behind. I itched to see them. Drunkenness, my obsession since watching my father’s colleague stick his hand in a pot of boiling water at a cocktail party when I was five.
Luckily, it wasn’t hard to get beer in Denmark in 1997, even if you were eleven. No drinking age, kids encouraged to drink at home. Learn how to handle your drunk self somewhere safe, was the attitude. Puke here first. They like to brag it’s better in the long run, but 14% of Denmark is alcoholic compared with 12.7% of the U.S. so I think the difference may be the amount of time Danish teenagers spend trying to get someone to buy them booze. I walked right into a bodega and bought the strongest beer I could find. Carlsberg Elefantøl with the gold foil top, 7.2%. I gave the cashier the money. I slipped the glass bottle into my bag with a shiver. I was American enough to know I was doing something wrong. This, of course, made it more exciting.
I drank the beer on the beach. I don’t remember the taste. I remember how the salt of slate blue ocean filled me. I remember how there had always been two of me, the one who tried to be normal and the one who ran alongside screaming, and how now, both were quiet. The quiet made staying alive feel possible. To float in the idea of the world. To feel ourself one idea among many. Thoughtless. A few weeks later we were crouching, heads between knees, sniffing sidewalk dust at a street party in Lyngby, because someone’s older sister said it got you drunk faster. Then we got the hang of it. Like I said, it’s not hard (a key selling point). I liked the way I lost control of my neck by the end of the night. I liked going to the bathroom to feel it roll.
Was it love? Don’t underestimate yourself. Expect the worst. We were born to drink. Admit that you have longed for the sweet narrowing of focus into only the sharp liquid in the cold glass before you. Admit that you have prayed for obliteration. That there were nights that felt too close to god. That you know what I mean.
It ends, tragic and mundane, as it always ends. A therapist once said: alcoholism is like pregnancy you either are or you aren’t. I’m not sure I believe her. I’m finding binaries less and less useful. We drink like 50’s alcoholics is how a friend explains our taste in cocktails. To be a modern, urbane woman means to be a serious drinker. The sick sink of recognition when I read those words. I meet my ex in a bar at three in the afternoon and already he’s slurring, his mouth a slack rubber band. His wife is out of town but she will be home in a few hours. She will not be happy to find him wasted (again). He tells me all this with a smile. I ask him what happened. I feel relief fade through me because this beautiful mess of a man is no longer mine. I ordered Chinese food for lunch, and a beer sounded really good with that. So I drank six. Then, beer still sounded good, so I drank six more.
A year later he calls me in the afternoon. He’s on step nine. Sorry about the time I got us kicked out of that club for snorting crushed NoDoze off the toilet seat. They don’t apologize for what you want them to (wanted them to). And it doesn’t matter. I hang up. I laugh a little. I pour myself a glass of wine. I think about the time I threw an umbrella at him on the street in Hoboken. How hard we’d throw ourselves at every night. Hard enough so mostly, we shattered. And what were we looking for? Pleasure? Penance? Awe? Terror? The only creatures who refuse to be what we are.
I stopped drinking a month or so ago. I’d been denying, bargaining, ignoring how after even a glass or two, the hangovers ate up longer and longer stretches of time. One Friday night, half a bottle of creamy, lemony white left me hunched over the toilet for five days. I waved the white flag. Beer may never have broken Luke Combs’ heart but it broke mine. The list of things that can quiet the one who runs alongside screaming is so short—sleep, hot sun, cigarettes, which I quit long ago—and I hate to lose my dark well, my island, my holy place for almost twenty-four years. You may need to destroy your life. You may need to drink it and swim in it, you may need to wash your veins with it, you may need to fuck the wrong people with it. I was assailed by memories of a life that wasn't mine anymore, but one in which I'd found the simplest and most lasting joys.