By Sari Botton
Al-Anon sucked. If I hadn’t been too broke for therapy, I’d never have taken a friend’s advice to attend those awful meetings.
They were worse than the AA meetings I’d been to in support of my string of alcoholic boyfriends over the years – three, if you’re keeping count. The AA people, when they finally hit bottom, were brave, copped to shit, took responsibility for all the nasty things they’d done when they were trashed. The Al-Anonics were victimy and whiny. Everything was someone else’s fault.
They were addict-addicts, people who NEEDed people in the worst possible way, and yet would counter-intuitively go for only the most unavailable, most uninterested, meanest people around. I, of course, did not see myself that way – she who was addicted to alcohol not by mouth, but on the breath of a difficult man.
Eric, my friend in AA, suggested I try his meetings instead.
“I’m not an alcoholic,” I protested.
“Here’s what you do,” he said. “Go lock yourself in a room with a case of Jack Daniels and don’t come out until it’s all gone. Then, go directly to AA. Do not pass Go.”
I thought about it. While I was at it, I might try writing, too. I’d always wanted to try writing drunk. I imagined it would free me from my crippling good-girl inhibitions.
I couldn’t though. I’d sworn off drinking nearly four years before, initially for Steve. I kept my vow of sobriety as I moved on to Bill, and then to Evan. How, oh how, pray tell, would these poor, poor men stay on the wagon without the support of little ole me? That right there is what kept me hooked. Look at how all-important I was to another human’s well being. What power I could have. All while appearing saintly. Trade that in for the occasional glass of wine? No way. This was much more intoxicating.
Except that the buzz never lasted long. In a matter of time, each boyfriend would return to drinking, and I’d feel like the ultimate failure. The relationship would bust apart, maybe for a while, maybe for good.
Evan and I went back and forth a few times. He had the hardest time of all staying sober, and I had the hardest time walking away from him. A hot, long-haired musician always surrounded by women, he also had difficulty keeping it in his pants. He reminded me of my grandfather, the original drunk in my life, alternately affectionate and icy, and unfaithful to my grandmother.
Pappa could put away a fifth of Johnny Walker Red Label a day. I knew because I worked for him at his Seventh Avenue garmento firm. When my cousins heard I’d started working there, they joked, “What do you do, pour scotch all day?” Well, that was one of my jobs. It started at 10:30 a.m. He’d ask me to wash a glass, grab some ice, and pour some Johhny. I did that over and over until it was time to catch the train home. I knew that smooth, perfumey, malty smell so well. I had been breathing it in since I first sat on Pappa’s lap as a little girl. It simultaneously tantalized and lulled me, from the first.
Evan’s breath was infused with Vodka rather than Scotch, but it worked. My last go-round with him could have been avoided. I thought I had finally learned my lesson, and was ready to move on, not just from him, but from the Land of the Twelve Steppers. But he begged.
“I need to do this – I need to get sober for you,” he pleaded.
“But they say it never works when you get sober for someone,” I reasoned. I also instinctively knew he wasn’t ready, and doubted whether he ever would be. There were too many other women around him who were eager to do whatever he wanted in exchange for him making them feel important and powerful, too.
“Please.” He was serious. “You just have to promise you won’t leave me if I fall off the wagon. You have to stick around and help me back on.” It was the opposite of the frequently advised tough love, but I signed on anyway.
Things were great for a few weeks. Evan was so eager to try, and he’d replaced his fixation on alcohol with a fixation on me. He wrote songs about me, wrote me love letters, thanked me for having the courage to insist he go to meetings. I was higher than a kite, strung out on his complete adoration. It was so perfect.
But right on schedule, he fell. Hard. He’d never made it longer than a month, and we were rounding three weeks. Just in time, his last girlfriend, Melissa, sent him a Christmas card. He met her for a “friendly” dinner. He called me that night, and tried to hide his slurring, unsuccessfully.
“I can’t talk to you like this,” I said. “I have to get off.”
“But you promised you wouldn’t leave me if I fell. You’d stay and help me get up.”
And so I did. I went to Al-Anon, bristling as people whined. Evan was supposed to go to AA. When he stopped doing that, I started dragging him there myself, sitting with him through meetings. Then he’d sneak off. He always had to be somewhere. I knew where, although I didn’t want to know. He’d call from payphones, and the names of the bars they were situated in would come up on my caller I.D.
The drinking got worse. Now I was the enemy.
“At least Melissa will drink with me,” he argued on the phone one evening. “You’re. No. Fun.” He had this way of punctuating his word when he was sloshed, in what seemed like an effort not to seem sloshed. “If you’d just come with me to the bar…” He fell asleep mid-sentence.
Okay. I’d go with him to the bar. Maybe sitting there, sober, across from him, I could somehow appeal to him. And get him to go back to AA. And change his ways. And save his life! And save our love! Because I am just that awesome and powerful.
For a guy who clung to the mid-90s grunge look, Evan had weird taste in bars. He liked these shiny mid-town tourist traps on the ground floors of hotels that especially appealed to high-class hookers and their business-men-in-from-out-of-town clientele. One well-dressed flight attendant type came back with three different men in the course of an evening as I sat there and watched Evan down six pints of draught beer, each one followed by a shot of chilled Stoli.
I stared as he pounded, wondering what it felt like inside his brain. I was fascinated with the idea of being blissfully anesthetized, but not quite tempted to go there myself. I found myself torn between wanting to be fun like Melissa, and wanting to get serious and save him. One minute I was laughing at his stupid jokes, positioning myself just so to receive his sloppy, fragrant, Vodka-flavored kisses, and the next, I was crying, pleading, “When will you be ready to get sober again?”
“This is just a bender, babe,” he said holding me tight, alcohol fumes wafting out his mouth and off his skin, enveloping me, caressing me. “I just have to go all the way through it to get to the other side. Stay with me. We’ll get there.”
More drinking. More dragging him to meetings, after which he’d run off. Then came the confession.
I punched him in the stomach. I stopped taking his calls.
“What about me?!” He shouted into my answering machine.“I want to jump out the window and kill myself, and you won’t even pick up the phone. Would you even cry if I died?” Imagine that. With just one phone call, I could save his life. I was getting tired of being so important and powerful.
That didn’t stop me from going back and forth with him a few more times. The night he chose to stay at Melissa’s and drink instead of coming to see me, sober, it was over for me. Well, almost. First, I needed to see what all the fuss was about. I needed to know what he and Melissa felt when they were knocking back shots. It never looked fun from the outside, but if he kept wanting to do it so badly, there had to be something to it.
I went to Detour, the jazz bar across the street from my East Village tenement. I hadn’t had a vodka drink since my 18th birthday, when a single screwdriver had yielded bed spins and a terrible hangover. But now I wanted vodka. I knew the smell. Now I wanted to know the taste. And, hey, this might be my chance to write drunk.
There was a woman singing old standards accompanied by a guitar and bass. I ordered a vodka martini. After four years of not a drop of alcohol, I sat at the bar and sipped it slowly. It went right to my head. I felt like there was a bubble on it. The edges on the sounds got softer. People seemed to be moving more slowly.
A man at the other end of the bar sent over another one for me. I smiled at him, not feeling the least bit flirtatious or amorous. This made people want each other? Sip. Sip. Sip. I felt…out of it. Removed. Numb. The appeal was lost on me.
I stumbled back across the street to my apartment. As I lay down on the couch, exhausted, I noticed my journal on the coffee table. This was my chance. Inhibitions be damned!
The next morning I woke with a crushing headache. The notebook was on the floor. I picked it up. There were only two lines:
“I drank vodka tonight,” I wrote. “I can’t feel my face.”
Sari Botton’s articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York magazine, The Village Voice, MORE, Marie Claire, Self, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour and many other publications, as well as on WAMC radio and NPR. Her website is http://www.saribotton.com/and she blogs at www.rosendaleramblings.com