A Personal And Incomplete History Of Alcohol


Late at night, he would be drunk enough to have the courage to go next door to his neighbor’s, where he would talk to her “about recovery,” she told me. It was painful to hear this: that my uncle would have to be drunk to talk to her about the thing that would hopefully one day help him: AA, friendships like hers, a different reason to live, or the tools to find a reason. But he never made the leap into AA, never bought into it, and what would I know about that, making the leap? I can’t judge him for that. No: I think he didn’t have enough people paying attention to him, caring about him. It wasn’t enough to fix himself for himself. He needed to do it for other people. But no one was watching, except maybe his neighbor, so he didn’t do anything. He kept drinking. Then he died.

A dear friend of mine drinks too much, at least in the summer. I have no idea what he does in the winter, but I do know that the winter in his world lasts for about five months — endless and homogenous. So I imagine that one of the things he does, besides watch two to five episodes of television shows like Breaking Bad and Prime Suspect per day, is to drink. What he drinks, and it makes me cringe just to write it, is Costco brand diet cola and whiskey. He’s either too young or too old to be drinking this way. I can’t decide which. Since the death of my uncle I am endlessly worried about friends and other loved ones descending into alcoholism — including myself. He’s too young to be drinking the hard stuff, and he’s too old — he knows too much, that is — to be rotting his teeth with soda. But I’m not his mother, nor his girlfriend.

His mother barely drinks, though recently we all sat with two bottles of wine on the coffee table and kept tipping them and tipping them into pretty plastic wine glasses with dark blue stems — durable summer glasses — and this wine, which came from grapes just up the road on a hill overlooking the green patchwork plain on which we sat, seemed to give everyone the courage to relax and to laugh. The courage to ask more private questions. The courage to flit from one worldly subject to the next, to armchair travel together out of this enclave. We could do this without alcohol, couldn’t we? But lately that felt like trying to drive a car with no gas in the tank.

There’s a song by They Might Be Giants that begins: Lie still, little bottle, and shake my shaky hand / black coffee’s not enough for me / I need a better friend. There is something almost predatory about the first line. There is an attempt to be in control of the bottle, a wish that one was in control. The control ends after the decision is made to pick up the bottle, or to refill the big double-layer plastic cup with ice and Costco cola and Jameson for the fourth time this night. He had begun the day with three cups of black coffee, and sat in the screened-in porch facing northwest and watching small birds flit back and forth like a school of fish just above the water.

In a few hours, I’d emerge in the near dark from behind the rose bush in front of my house and see a puff of smoke as tall as the bush, which was planted 35 years ago, rising above the head of my friend his neighbor, who is down for a few days. My friend’s parents are gone, so he is drinking even more, and engorging his lungs with the marijuana-tobacco concoction that he’s been perfecting all summer, or all decade. I don’t care how subtly or innocuously alcohol affects him; the control has been relinquished to the bottle. A puppet master is moving my friend’s arms and mouth. When he talks to me he seems inordinately happy. He sets his eyes on me as I show him how purple the water has made my fingernails, and his eyes seem to glow like a cat’s as it’s about to pounce on its prey. The pupils dilate, but something gleams from behind them, like flecks of gold floating in river water. Suddenly I feel I’m controlling him too: that I could speak anything into the vacuum that is his intoxication and it will be safe there, in the gravity-less dark, and he won’t remember it tomorrow, when he wakes up too late and reaches for the black coffee in the clear glass mug and sits down to distractedly watch the birds again over the top of his computer.

As for me, on that night of exuberance, with my cold fingers and his giddiness, I sunk into some bog of torpor quickly. He kept trying to offer me another glass and another glass of white wine, the drink I had recently learned from eHow or some similarly semi-reputable source was the drink that led to the “best” hangover. It was less harsh on the stomach than red wine. It was the best drink to drink, with clear liquors coming in second. I do not often get a good feeling when someone tries to offer me a drink before I’ve even finished the one I’m drinking.

And yet: if he had emerged from the house with the bottle and just topped it off without asking me, I would have felt a little swell of glee, as I always do when this happens: someone taking control, someone making a gesture as if to say: Girl, you need this, live a little Usually it’s the Italians in my life who do this. But really, I “live” plenty. I drink plenty. I just look like I don’t. I look cautious, chaste. In social situations excess is acceptable. Excess is the norm. Especially , apparently, for introverts like me. And introverts like my uncle. But when he said, and kept saying, Another glass of wine?, his voice rising up the scale as he approached the final word, I just felt scared, skeptical and scared. This was not the “real” him, nor the “real” me. Alcohol does not hold the same allure as it did when we were stealing it out of other people’s fridges 15 years ago, drinking the first drinks of our lives. I felt that night that I had reached some lifetime limit of drinks. I felt hungover already, and it was not even 8 o’clock.

His father has been drinking since four, or possibly earlier. He drinks the same thing: like father, like son. But the father acquired diabetes from habits like this. From habits including this: the cola, even if it is diet. Flavored coffee creamer, lack of exercise, things like that. I would like my friend to live forever, and for me to live forever with him, outlasting everyone else, so when the cold acidic wine began to coat my veins and my heart began to throb, as opposed to just beat, I had this image not of my heart but of his heart struggling like an injured animal against the alcohol and tobacco, like the dragon fly flapping helplessly in the grass the other day after I’d thwacked it with my racket during a game of badminton. What would happen to his father, and what would happen to him?

I wanted, of course, to “save” him. To badger him with too much nutritional information until he grew, probably, to hate me — not to make better decisions. He would have to figure that out on his own. But women being men’s rocks — when we ran together and he wheezed and coughed, drifting farther behind me on the path until I could no longer hear him and thought he was lying dead back there, I said, This is the best anti-smoking campaign I can think of, and hoped he would think of that later that night, when, after “rewarding” himself for running with too much whiskey, he would walk to the dirt road with the dog to light up as he always did after dinner, and maybe decide not to light up.

What scares me most is that he reminds me of my uncle. Growing up, his father and my uncle were close friends, concocting mischief together, smoking, drinking, getting high. He remains, and my uncle does not. We don’t talk about it, because my friend’s father doesn’t like talking about death. The night we drank all the wine in the house, he drank whiskey straight from a tiny glass, the kind of glass you might drink soup out of in between courses at a fancy restaurant. He held an iPad in one hand and the glass in the other. I kept staring at the glass as we talked, trying to convince myself it was water, even though I myself was drunk, because he’d refilled it quite a few times. It just seemed like a bad sign that he was drinking it straight. He didn’t want to talk about death, and yet here we all were, drinking an accelerant of death. I wanted a perfect liver. I wanted to start over. I wanted to not know that alcohol can, as the song goes, disintegrate my ever-troubled mind.

But how could I forget: our friendship was bolstered by alcohol many years ago, half a lifetime ago, half a liver ago. It was an accelerant of something good, something real. When we crashed onto dead grass at the edge of the campground holding hands and laughing it was because we loved each other, in a familial sort of way, and it was also because we were drunk on wine coolers and lightheaded from cigarettes. The two facts cannot be separated, just like I could never know, or believe, that he might look at me like an amber-eyed predator without having had doused his insides with spirits all afternoon.

This is just the way things are, for millions of people, almost everywhere. But it’s too right. It’s too acceptable. It’s too OK. What if we never had to sit with all our respective glasses avoiding the fact of my uncle’s absence? What if? But was there even another path available for my uncle? If he were alive, would he be sitting here now, drinking with us, letting us enable him? No, he would have been sitting with a glass of lemonade, maybe, in the best case scenario, watching us casually drink — casually overdrink. And it would be excruciating for him. As life was excruciating for him. So we aren’t diseased. What are we? Spoiled.

I abstain more now, because of my uncle, and also because I know that most — not all, but most — of the best things in my life have come during quiet and sober moments. I try not to think about history’s alcoholic geniuses. I would rather make something mediocre stone sober than hope to make something brilliant drunk. And I do make things, or I find things, and I throw them in my friend’s direction, and hope that he throws back his own things. He is a bad influence on me, though to tell him so would just make things worse for him.

Summer, and that old familiar place, a show still run by the older generations, who instilled us with this lax attitude towards alcohol, breeds a particular kind of idleness. It’s almost over now, and he’ll snap out of it, at least until next summer, when we all gather again in a circle of Adirondack chairs and find it suddenly so easy to care about everyone and everything that happens in the circle, because the table in the middle is covered in bottles and each chair has a glass on one of its wide, flat arms, which were specifically designed, of course, to hold drinks.

The truth is I have never needed alcohol to care deeply about that circle of chairs. I just did it because he did, to make him believe that I was bored and in need of a “better friend” than black coffee. Really I was perfectly happy. He was the better friend. Add alcohol to the equation and it was almost too much for me. I thought I might pass out, not drunk, but overjoyed.

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