On March 1, 2003, at 12 a.m. Eastern time, 9 p.m. Pacific and 10 in the Mountain ranges, I will have a glass of bourbon. It’ll be Maker’s Mark on the rocks-the drink I love more than baseball, autumn in New York, my collection of All-Star Squadron comics, my long-dead grandfather and life on this planet. I’ll follow it with another glass, of course, and then, working seriously, will move on to seven or eight beers, some sambuca and-if I can find it-a grain-alcohol nightcap. For those keeping track, the vomiting will commence around 2 a.m.
Now, I admit there’s something of a Beta boy’s boasting to this, a “Dude, I’m going to get so fucked up” bravado that I didn’t care for much in college-even though I was getting just as fucked up-and that I find rather unseemly now. I’ve always believed that one should handle his drinking with the quiet panache of, say, Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair : You keep your mouth shut about your dirty business-even when you’re banging Faye Dunaway.
But, truth be told, the anticipation of falling to the floor of some bar is all that’s keeping me going these days.
I’ll bet you’ve already guessed why I’ve marked a future moment of utter stupidity and recklessness with such grandeur. That’s right, I’m an idiot. But let me elaborate.
I’m in the final days of a month-long alcohol purge that has transformed me from an affable, disheveled lush into sobriety’s acerbic, virulent avatar.
On the last day of January, I told myself- and anyone else who would listen-that I wouldn’t drink for a month. And, so far, I haven’t. I have come, however, to regret my decision.
You see, in the process of this puritanical cleansing, I’ve taken on all the attributes that said cleansing is supposed to eradicate. I’m increasingly short-tempered. I curse with abandon. I can no longer concentrate on conversations longer than five minutes, and can no longer meet up with friends who are drinking. Watching them imbibe makes me twitch nervously and tear up cardboard coasters. I’ve also become addicted to sugar. The other night, I ran across the street from my apartment through a burgeoning snow drift-in shorts-to buy a deep-fried Twinkie.
I can’t tell which is worse: being insufferable or batty.
I began my time in Purgatory after what could best be described as a six-month binge of imbecility. Under the influence, I canoodled with girls in whom I would normally have no interest and made ill-timed, sloppy plays for others in whose league I didn’t belong. I said terrible things about people I was close to, and cannot count the mornings when I used a combination therapy of yogurt shakes, Alka-Seltzer, eggs on a roll and six cups of coffee to feel like a human being again.
The last day I had a drink, I began my evening at a book party at the Lotos Club sipping Scotch in a room filled with first editions. Seven hours later, at 4 a.m., I was crouched in the corner of a midtown bar, shielding myself from its bored owner, who’d decided to end the night by tossing most of his inventory against the wall.
As the liquor-kissed shrapnel rained down around me, I remembered something a friend had told me months ago. She said I’d reached a crossroads that many “boys”-her term-face in New York. If I kept going, she explained, I’d become someone who felt the need to stay out all the time, who talked down to people whose publications I didn’t respect, and who thought that the famous people I met were my friends.
On Jan. 30, I realized I hadn’t heeded her warning. I’d wandered away from my life into an excerpt of The Lost Weekend . Staying sober for a month, even if it was the shortest of the calendar, would help me get back on track.
The impermanence of my abstinence only made it worse, however. Friends-alcoholics-who’ve given up drinking for good have a kind of real clarity to them, because in some ways they’re above the clamoring crowd and want to stay there.
But knowing that in a matter of days you’ll be back on the floor is like waking up wanting each day to end. Indeed, instead of redemption, my month on the wagon has brought only doldrums. And the realization that I love drinking.
What began with nights hugging a bottle of Boone’s Farm strawberry wine while trying not to puke on a friend’s letter jacket has, over time, grown into a self-preserving lifestyle. I like the physical act of drinking, and I like myself better when I’m doing it, mostly because drinking acts as a counterweight to my anal-retentive, obsessive-compulsive tendencies. And while this statement is the kind of thing that could support a psychotherapist for the next 10 years, the truth is that when I have a cocktail in my hand, I’m far less concerned with the arrangement of my sweater drawer or the matting of my new Frank Lloyd Wright print. Drinking protects me from myself.
And yet I’m still here, counting the days. At this point, it’s shame that keeps me with it-the shame of having to face all the people I told about my little exercise and explain why I didn’t deliver the ring to Modor.
If there was ever a moment where I was going to fall off, it was at the halfway point, Valentine’s Day, at a bar in the East Village. By 9 p.m. I’d torn up five or six coasters and downed six nonalcoholic beers. After waiting a few minutes for the men’s room, I finally got in and heard a pounding on the door.
“Just a second,” I yelled out.
But he kept going. I yelled out again that I would be a couple of seconds, and the pounding got louder.
When I opened the door, and we exchanged places, I drew close to his face and yelled, “What the hell is your problem?”
He locked me out, but I wasn’t finished.
“You fucking dick,” I said and then beat on the door myself. I wanted to keep screaming. I wanted to have him come out and shove him to the floor and slam his head against the sink. I wanted to rip out his eyes and Federal Express them to his mother. I’d never gotten into a fight before-unless you count the time a kid named Lamont shoved me to the locker-room floor when I was 12. But I was ready that night.
Instead of a man at peace with himself I’d become a frothy parody of a man who’d had too much to drink.
“Get the fuck out here! You fucking dick!” I screamed.
Two girls in line looked at me.
“It’s all right,” one of them said.
“It’s not all right,” I said. “What is his goddamn problem? I was in there for 30 seconds.”
“You weren’t in there that long,” the other said, moving into den-mother mode. “I don’t know what his deal is, but you should let it go.”
“I’m not even drunk,” I mumbled and walked away, thinking that this month could not end soon enough. Some people make bad drunks. I’m worse sober.