So let me tell you a little story about alcohol. It’s the Holy Grail, the royal flush, the cherry atop our sundae, the celebrity we are all proud to call a friend … the reason we go out, the reason we meet up, the reason we stay out, the reason we pass out, the reason we throw up, and — for some — the reason we drop dead.
Alcohol never starts out as a problem. There aren’t any six-year-old alcoholics. Booze is just a boost, a blindfold, a toast, a 1UP. A glass of wine with dinner, Miller time after a job well done. What to do to get away from problems. What may swallow those problems whole. Look at the dude in this picture. Scroll up. Go on, I trust you to come back and read the rest. Look at that asshole. He’s obviously in a bar, having a grand old time. There’s football on the TV, the faux Xmas lights are twinkling, the music is no doubt obscenely loud. You probably wish you were him, having fun at a bar, instead of reading this long bullshit post.
Enough surface scanning: look closer at him. The forced smile. The blank eyes. Notice his gaunt and pale stature, like a man who’s lost considerable weight in the preceding months. He’s not realllllly having a good time, is he? Behind him, blocked from view, is a woman. A real 10. This asshole’s banged her. Maybe the night before. Maybe in the parking lot of this bar. It’s not the point of this story, but if you want to live vicariously, go ahead. No one will know. You’re just reading something on your phone, your wife doesn’t give a shit. Let your eyes drift from the screen, and remember that time you actually fucked a true 10. Or, more likely, remember that time you masturbated to the idea of it.
This asshole in the picture? He had that practically every night. Women by the score. I should know. That asshole is me. Despite this lurid backstory, it’s so obvious that I’m unhappy in this picture. Note the awkward arrangement of my fingers — we either shoot the bird with all the second knuckles out, or with them all curled back … NEVER A MIX OF BOTH. Middle fingers are automatic motions. Clearly I’ve had one too many. Maybe five too many. Maybe ten too many.
Here’s what was on my mind when this pic was taken: 1) am I functional enough to drive home while 2) getting even more drunk so I forget my completely hollow existence, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? The finger is meant for another woman — we’ll get to her in a minute — but it’s simply projection. I might as well be shooting the bird into a mirror.
Okay, fuck the picture. Listen to me. I’m going to tell you another story about alcohol. It’s a drug, and it’s used like a drug: to alter reality. To intensify the moment. To bury the past. To consecrate a relationship. To mourn our loneliness. To celebrate an achievement. To lubricate rusty bits. These are things drugs are used for. I can only speak from the experience of the drugs I’ve done, but alcohol beats them all, chiefly because it’s everywhere. Every football game commercial. Every chain bistro. Every Nick and Nora movie. Every fridge in the world.
And, specifically to this story, every corner bar.
If you’ve taken ecstasy — which kids now call molly — you likely had it in a large room full of people, lights, and sound. Kind of like a bar.
If you’ve done blow — which us graybeards called coke — you likely did it in tight quarters; cramped moments of urgent rule-breaking, where others could not see you. Kind of like the men’s room at a bar.
If you’ve done ’shrooms, and made the mistake of looking up at the night sky, then you have realized your tiny place in the universe, your worthlessness to the rest of existence. Kind of like how you feel if you’ve spent, say, eight hours and $200 at a bar. Alone.
If you’ve smoked weed, you did so in a bar parking lot at some point. Noticing a pattern here? Even if you’ve never done the hard drugs, you may have experienced the bar memories I’m talking about. You might be sitting at a bar right now, engrossed in this bullshit-length screed, wondering if this story will be like my other posts, with a joke ending, a surprise twist ... some sort of ejaculatory finisher.
I wrote a little background note in one of my novels about how lunch period in high school sets up all the sociology that we later execute as adults. Think of your workplace. Think of your favorite bar. Notice any similarities with high school lunch? The popular kids amass in a fun corner, making whatever noise they like, and freely cast aspersions on those they deem unworthy: the misfits, the miscast, the downcast, the downtrodden, the outsiders, the outcasts, the down-and-outs, the losers, the retards, the faggots, those not worthy, those meant to sit over there. All alone. These poor misunderstood kids loathe their station in life, their low spot in the high school totem pole … but they can do little to get away from it. Genetics, upbringing, and high school society largely chose this fate for them.
Now think of the sad old drunkard at your local bar, who comes in during the early afternoon (the “old man” time slot) and stays far too long, deep into the “young and partying” time slot. But this poor old man chose his role, making life decisions that led him to this very spot, and now he’s paying for the fucking privilege of sitting at a bar where he is once again the outcast.
The concept of a bar, or even a high school cafeteria, isn’t necessarily evil. They are social hotbeds, the mixing bowl of emotive outpourings. No matter who — or what — you are, there’s a bar for you.
Like frat boy shenanigans? I know a bar for you. Are you a gay man? Or lesbian? I know a bar for you. Like football? I know a bar for you. Do you prefer a sedate and artsy atmos? I know a bar for you. Do you prefer a squalid dungeon atmos, full of thrash metal and pounder PBR cans? I know a bar for you. Are you a lonely and shy straight man who needs help talking to women? I know a bar for you — there, the women will approach you, and even happily listen to your stories.
Do you have problems with depression? Yeah, sorry … I don’t know a bar for you. Every last one of them will only make your condition worse.
The algebraic, emoticon-infused formula of alcohol and depression:
A + B ≠ :)
A + B = :(
Both alcohol and depression are, for me, the shadows of the popular kids, the haunting laughter of fun I can never have, the camaraderie of crews to which I can never belong, the love and lust I can taste but not savor. Alcohol never removes issues from my mind. It NEVER salves the burn. It NEVER soothes the pain. It NEVER spackles the hole I just punched in the wall. It NEVER puts out the fire in my soul. It NEVER consoles me and tells me things will be all right.
Alcohol has NEVER been my friend. Alcohol is the lubricant of good times, the exposer of jealousy and envy, the sizzling bile I've brought up that went down as a mere cheesesteak and a Yuengling. Alcohol is the fear in my cold black night, the loneliness of life in liquid form. Bars are the real villains of my time, though. Pure evil lurking in dark rooms, full of cigarette smoke and guitar solos, teeming with big-tit bartenders and douchebag bouncers. Bars are the poison dripping into my ear, the sly grin of Iago, the confident spell of Prospero, the red saber in Vader’s hand, the mustache on Hitler’s face. Bars are the iconic, everlasting burn mark on the wall of my mind: the Hiroshima blast of my own psychological issues, remnants of so much time and money killed off. Alcohol was the radiation slowly leaking into my heart.
My problems did not start with a beer in my hand. They also didn’t go away with a beer in my hand. No measure of middle fingers could assuage that. In 2009, I finally came to that realization, and put a stop to things. Emerging with a squint into the sunlit world, I found that things were better out there.
All right, I’ve delayed long enough, and must now tell you the story of how alcohol — if you let it — will make all your problems disappear. Here’s the story of why this picture was taken …
Ten years ago, I met a woman whose devil-may-care attitude made me laugh out loud with the very first words she said to me. The more I got to know her, though, the more I realized how much the devil truly was caring for her. For all her zany, seemingly carefree proclamations, she actually had severe problems dealing with her perceived place in life, dealing with her parents’ perception of her progress, dealing with her doting ex (whom she totally despised but always felt sorry for). Ever the study of a living dichotomy, she was fairly successful in her career while constantly upsetting her bosses. She was molded of a classical Mediterranean beauty, slender of build with happy olive skin … but she did almost nothing to take care of herself. She had a warm laugh that got men excited; she made women jealous just by walking into the room.
She also drank like no other human I’ve ever known — and I’ve bent elbows with some fucking champions. She drove drunk, worked drunk, went to nursing school drunk, even worked out at the gym drunk. She was over at my place one time and demanded a drink. The only hard spirit I had on hand was triple sec — so she drank it, right from the bottle.
For a while, I joined in the fun. After all, she was a loyal companion and world-class lover. Eventually, I felt more like a caretaker than a partner in crime. The loyalty strained under the weight of slurred insults and fervent, involuntary behavior.
At some point, I lost interest in the struggle, and let myself drift away. Others were closer, others saw her more often. We all, eventually, told her how the alcohol wasn’t helping things. She resented me for trying to help her: she loathed receiving help, she loathed asking for help … but most of all, she loathed the fact that she needed help. In her unguarded moments, she would tell me how she hated every fiber of her existence. I felt it’d been my duty to point out her good qualities, try and build her back up. Even if she agreed with my assessments, you can tell in a person’s eyes if they have doubt.
Her hate manifested as destructive acts, towards herself and those close to her, the scorched earth in her wake: her poor parents, her poor siblings, her poor ex. All of them tried far more than I did — I only knew her for a scant few years, which became cumbersome to me. Once, she tried to jump out of my car while we were going 55 just to show me up. She tried to slash me with my Wüsthof kitchen knife when I offhandedly told her to relax. And, she actually broke a dinner plate over my head when I dared suggest that she’d had enough to drink.
This is what constant reliance on alcohol had reduced her to. She was once a happy little girl, the apple of her father’s eye. She was once the champion of her younger siblings and her mother, defending them and helping them even if it meant she went without. She was once a beautiful and happy young woman, with the world before her. It could have been her oyster. I saw flashes of these qualities firsthand: her loyalty and kindness toward others. If only this story was about that, and not about the sad woman who repeatedly told me, while fall-down shitfaced, that she couldn’t wait to die.
I wish this story had a happy ending, an uplifting surprise joke like I alluded to earlier. But no. It’s been over six years now since she died. The autumn of 2008, while the Phillies where charging to a World Series championship, while the country was debating who to elect as president. In the midst of such momentous events, one young lady lost her battle. I don’t ever discuss it. I never took her to meet my mother, and aside from those of you who worked with her, very few of you ever met her. More’s the pity, too. Her laugh could melt icebergs. What I wouldn’t give to tell her one more silly joke. She was never my one true love, or even a girlfriend of long standing. She was a friend, someone I knew and cared about.
There are cold nights, like this one, when I think of her. I have no pictures of her at all. There’s a couple on the internet, but I have trouble looking at them. They seem to have hidden captions, asking me, “Wasn’t there more you could do?” This picture, of a drunk me flipping the bird like an asshole, was sent to her sometime after the plate incident. That night, she was trying to text cute, to let me know with winky faces that she was sorry without saying she was sorry, playing it off like a joke. Like you do. Who hasn’t broken a plate over a lover’s head, right?
But I can be an obstinate, overemotional prick. It doesn’t matter who you are, how much you tell me I’m special, how much fun we have, how good you fuck me — if you attack me, I’m not going to roll over and accept any old weak-ass apology. So I had a friend take this pic, and sent it to her. Yep.
She and I kept in touch and hung out a few more times. There was more desperation on her part during those last few months. She asked why I wasn’t a bigger part of her life. Foolishly — or not — I dismissed this as the lecherous tongue of an addict. “Why aren’t you a bigger part of my life?” is the sort of thing an addict says, to guilt-trip you into helping them keep their addiction going. If you’ve ever been close to an addict, you know exactly what I mean. If you aren’t, you probably think I’m a cold bastard. But it’s the sad reality of addiction: no one can help an addict if they’re not willing to help themselves.
I feel very sad just saying that gross axiom about someone real, whom I knew and cared about. For all the truth in those words, it does little to heal the wound. Like I said, I really wasn’t a big part of her life. But what if I was? Would it have made a difference? Goddamn, I wish I could answer that. This is what I think when I look at this picture of me.
The last time I saw her, ironically — or not — was in a bar. I was with some coworkers, celebrating happy hour. It was a Friday. She came over, held me tight, and looked at me with her large eyes. They never hid her emotional state; this time, she was nervous. She told me — even more ironically — that she was going to rehab.
“For real this time?” I said.
“Yes. For real.” She had come in with some guy, who I did not know, who was loitering by the door, impatient to leave and not caring at all for our familiar style of conversation.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. “This guy?”
“No, he’s just a friend.” Which he wasn’t. It’s awful to think I would’ve gladly defended her from this guy, but couldn’t be bothered to help her in other ways.
“Tell me,” I said.
“I need to stop,” she said, softly. She almost never spoke softly.
“Then do it,” I told her. “You can if you try.”
“I’m going to!” she said, or begged, or wept. “Chris, I’m so afraid. I need to stop.”
I’m almost breaking down typing this. It wasn’t the boo-hoo act to win sympathy: she was actually begging for it all to stop. She was, as I said hitherto, someone real, whom I knew and cared for.
I remember holding her tight. I wished her luck. She kissed me and left with her “friend.”
I turned back to face the bar and my coworkers. They gave me the business. “Holy shit!” one said. “Who was that fox?”
“A friend,” said I, absently.
I sent a text the next day: “You okay?” No reply.
A week later, another coworker — he delivered her mail — came up to me and told me she was dead. She was 28.
She was loyal, gregarious, laughing, and beautiful. These were her qualities. She was wild, sad, weak, and broken. These were her issues. The bottle eliminated all of these attributes, and became her defining trait. Let me tell you a story about alcohol: it can take the stoutest man and make him kneel. Nothing in particular brought this memory on. I just thought about her tonight out of the blue. I miss you, kid. I sure hope you’re in a better place now.