Snapshot 2012-10-08 12-02-13

The Sweet Smell of Excess

By

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 over the years in support of my string of alcoholic boyfriends—three, if you’re keeping count. The AA people, when they finally hit bottom, were brave, copped to shit, and took responsibility for all the nasty things they’d done when they were drinking. The Al-Anonics were victimy and whiny. Everything was someone else’s fault.

The people in Al-Anon were “addict addicts,” who needed others in the worst possible way and yet would counterintuitively go for only the most unavailable, most uninterested, meanest people around. I, of course, did not see myself that way—I, who was addicted to alcohol not by mouth but by nose, specifically on the breath of a difficult man.

Joey, my friend in AA, suggested I try his meetings instead.

“I’m not an alcoholic,” I pointed out.

“Here’s what you do,” he said. “Lock yourself in a room with a case of Jack Daniel’s and don’t come out until it’s all gone. Then go directly to AA.”

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, ostensibly for holistic health reasons. But also for a guy named Matt. I kept my vow of sobriety as I moved on to Jimmy, and then to Michael. How on earth would these poor men stay on the wagon without my selfless support?

That right there is what kept me hooked. How vital I imagined I was to another’s well-being. What power I could have. All while appearing saintly and superior. Trade that in for the occasional glass of wine? No way. This was much more intoxicating.

Except the buzz never lasted long. In a matter of time, each boyfriend would return to drinking, and I’d feel like a failure for my inability to prevent that. The relationship would bust apart—sometimes for a while, sometimes for good.

 ***

Michael and I went back and forth a few times over the years. Of all my men, Michael had the hardest time staying sober, and I had the hardest time walking away from him. A long-haired musician with handsome features, he was always surrounded by women and had difficulty being faithful. 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 Johnnie Walker Red a day. I knew this because I worked for him at his Seventh Avenue sportswear business. When my cousins heard I’d started working there, they joked, “What do you do, pour scotch all day?” That was one of my jobs. It started at 10:30 am. He’d ask me to wash a glass, grab some ice, and pour some Johnnie. I did that over and over until it was time to catch the train home to Long Island.

I knew that smooth, perfumey, malty smell so well. I had been inhaling it since I first sat on Pappa’s lap as a little girl. It simultaneously tantalized and lulled me. Michael’s breath was infused with vodka rather than scotch, but it worked.

My last go-round with Michael, beginning in the fall of 2000, could have been avoided. It’d been five years since I’d seen him, and in my mind, whatever appeal he had—the powerful sway he once held over me—was long gone. I thought I’d finally learned my lesson. But it turned out I had overestimated my recovery from this particular addiction.

 ***

We made plans on the phone to meet at his band practice in a rehearsal space off Sixth Avenue in the West Thirties. His deep baritone voice had previously bemused me, but now it came with the memory of the way he’d get by the end of most nights—the verbal nastiness followed by incoherence, followed by his nodding off midsentence after so many beers and vodka shots. Not to mention the memory of his hitting me. It was hard to believe I ever wanted to be anywhere near that.

I didn’t even think of the sex, the amazing sex, Michael’s specialty. It eventually fell by the wayside anyway. Every time we’d get together again, the sex would be there for a while, and it would be good. He knew how to make me feel just the right combination of beautiful, special, sexy—even if I saw myself as a mousy good girl. Probably because I was a mousy good girl. But once the sex wasn’t new anymore, his drinking would pick up. He’d lose interest and eventually switch his focus to another fawning fan of his band, another mousy good girl desperate to catch a glimpse of her inner sexpot in the mirror of Michael’s flattering attentions.

I was getting together with Michael that night, I honestly believed, to clear the air after so many years of silence following a fight we’d had. I’d gotten sick of his shit and moved on to someone else, and he had hung up on me. I figured five years had passed. We’d known each other since we were kids. We had close friends in common. Enough already.

Okay, maybe I was also interested in trying on—and showing off—the mantle of just how over him I was. I was thirty-five and, yes, on the rebound from a relationship with another alcoholic—one not nearly as far gone as Michael.

The attraction/repulsion ratio shifted the tiniest bit inside the rehearsal space. I was put off by the sight of the forty-ounce Budweiser Michael swigged at every break, in every song. The man was thirty-seven now. He came from Upper East Side affluence. Time to stop posing as a kid from the streets of Chicago, where he went to college. Realizing he was still stuck in that groove made me feel sorry for him. In that detail alone there was danger for me.

He smiled the warmest, most welcoming smile when I entered the studio. It was probably the nicest reception I’d gotten from him in the more than twenty years I’d known him. I felt something inside me, my resolve maybe, loosen and resettle at a slightly different angle.

Remarkably, despite his continued drinking, Michael looked good. He still had some of his summer tan. He was fit—an indication that he was likely still rising at five most mornings to get on his exercise bike and sweat out the rest of the booze from the night before. He still wore his black, corkscrew hair long. It swung back and forth each time he rocked on his feet to the music. He caught my eye, once, twice, again, again, smiling warmly each time, and that’s when I started to feel it: the love.

In that moment I was of the opinion that it was a friendly love, the innocent love of acceptance and mutual forgiveness between two old friends who met as teens and were something like siblings before becoming lovers.

One potent ingredient of that love was pity. Unfortunately, that night I didn’t recognize what a slippery slope that presented for me. It was a key component of my attachment to one beautiful mess after another, this feeling sorry for them. It nudged me to absolve them of all responsibility and opened the door for me to wrest control. It was a subtle, unspoken transaction. My internal superhero emerged from the shadows to earn credit for saving them, whether or not they wished to be saved. Often they stated their preference not to be, which had the opposite of the desired effect: I only became more insistent. Do not try to stop me.

Even though I was feeling warmly toward Michael at the rehearsal space, I still thought I was safe. But then we went—where else?—to a bar in his neighborhood. I was not drinking, a habit I still maintained post-Jimmy. I’d assigned myself the role of the nondrinker girlfriend to drinker boyfriends, apparently even when I no longer had a boyfriend.

At the bar, Michael drank one glass of house white after another. He said he’d recently replaced vodka with wine, to good effect—he didn’t get completely blotto. That was something he’d figured out after an unsuccessful stint in rehab.

Then a strange thing happened. Michael told me about the girlfriend he was involved with when he went to rehab—Sheila, a drug and alcohol counselor who had driven him to the rehab facility in the lush hills of the Hudson Valley and then dutifully showed up to get him at the end of his stay with the can of Foster’s he’d requested. As he relayed this story, Michael became visibly and audibly tipsy. He pronounced a few words just slightly incorrectly. His eyelids got heavier. As he got drunker, I got illogically, emotionally intoxicated myself—most likely a by-product of my competitive feelings toward Sheila. She brought him beer after his time in rehab? Amateur! I could do so much better. I could really save him, cure him of his addiction, given the chance. A tragic, codependent drug and alcohol counselor was no match for me and my virtue, my selfless love, my uniquely, magically medicinal vagina.

Michael must have noticed this shift taking place in me, because he made his move. He took hold of my hand across the table. He gave me another of those smiles, and then we went back to his apartment. What was one night for old time’s sake?

In the morning, Michael’s stale white-wine breath filled the room and turned my stomach. I found the presence of mind to tell him (and myself) that more of this kind of thing would be a bad idea, especially if he was still drinking. He looked wounded, and as flattering as I found that, I was pretty resolved.

Whew, I thought when I left. Dodged that bullet.

But days later he did what I always thought I’d hoped he’d do: He begged.

“I need to do this—I need to get sober for you,” he pleaded, and I was nauseated.

“But they say it never works when you get sober for someone,” I reasoned. I also instinctively knew that he wasn’t ready, and I doubted he ever would be. There were too many other women around him who were eager to make transactions similar to mine, to let him do whatever he wanted in exchange for his making them feel important and powerful, too.

“Please?”

He was serious.

“And promise you won’t leave me if I fall off the wagon? Promise to stick around and help me back on?”

Holy shit. He was truly recognizing my great power. What he was requesting was the opposite of the much advised tough love. But fuck that! I was so in.

Things were great for a few weeks. Michael was eager to try, and he replaced his fixation on alcohol with a fixation on me. He wrote me songs, wrote love letters thanking me for being the only one courageous enough to insist he stop drinking.

Michael was sober, and I was higher than a kite, strung out on his intense adoration.

But right on schedule, he fell off the wagon. Hard. He’d never made it longer than a month, and we were rounding three weeks. Just in time, his last girlfriend, Sheila, the drug and alcohol counselor, sent him a Christmas card. He met her for a “friendly dinner.” He called me that night and tried to hide his slurring.

“I can’t talk to you like this,” I said.

“But you promised you wouldn’t leave me if I fell. You said you’d stay and help me get up.”

I did. I went to Al-Anon, bristling as people whined. When Michael stopped going to AA, I dragged him there myself, holding his hand the whole time. After meetings, he’d sneak off. He always had to be somewhere. I knew where. In 2000, cell phones were not yet ubiquitous; Michael called from pay phones, and the names of the bars they were situated in came up on my caller ID. They were often bars in Sheila’s neighborhood.

Michael’s drinking got worse—so bad that he passed out as we were eating dinner at a Thai restaurant in Midtown, snoring with his head on the table as people tried not to stare.

Suddenly I was the enemy. “At least Sheila will drink with me,” he argued on the phone one evening. “You’re. No. Fun.” He had this way of punctuating his words when he was sloshed, in what seemed like an effort not to sound that way. “If you’d just come with me to the bar . . . ” He fell asleep.

 ***

Okay.

I’d go with him to the bar.

Maybe sitting there across from him, sober, I could 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 was just that awesome and powerful.

For a guy who clung to the mid-nineties grunge look, Michael had weird taste in bars. He liked these shiny Midtown tourist traps on the ground floors of hotels, which especially appealed to high-class hookers and their businessmen-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 and watched Michael down seven pints of draft 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 by the idea of being blissfully anesthetized but not quite tempted to go there myself. I found myself torn between wanting to be fun like Sheila and wanting to get serious and save Michael. One minute I was laughing at his stupid jokes, positioning myself just so to receive his sloppy, fragrant, vodka-tinged 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 tightly, alcohol fumes wafting from his mouth and off his skin, enveloping me, caressing me. “I just have to go all the way through this to get to the other side. Stay with me. We’ll get there.”

There was more drinking, more dragging Michael to meetings, after which he would run off. Then the confession.

“I cheated,” he admitted.

I punched him in the stomach. I stopped taking his calls.

“What about me?!” he shouted into my answering machine. “I want to kill myself, and you won’t even pick up the phone. Would you even cry if I died?”

Whoa. By just answering the phone, I could save his life. But I was tired of being so powerful.

Still, I went back. I should’ve been done with him the night he grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me, hard. Or the night he grabbed me by the throat in a bar. But it wasn’t until the night he canceled our plans so that he could stay at Sheila’s and drink that it was finally over for me. (Apparently I was less concerned about bodily injuries than I was about injuries to my ego.)

In agony, I decided to try Michael’s antidote for that. I needed to know what it was like, what he and Sheila felt when they were knocking back shots. I went to Detour, the jazz bar across the street from my East Village tenement. I hadn’t had a vodka drink since my eighteenth birthday, when a single screwdriver yielded bed spins and a terrible hangover. But that night I wanted vodka. I knew the smell. But I wanted to know the taste. It was my chance to finally try writing drunk.

There was a woman about my age singing old standards accompanied by a guitar and bass. I ordered a vodka martini. I liked the way it looked in the glass—clean, simple, all business. After four years with not a drop of alcohol, I sat at the bar and sipped it slowly. It went right to my head. I felt like I was in a bubble. The edges on the bar sounds softened. Everything moved more slowly.

Once I finished the drink, a man at the end of the bar sent over another. I smiled at him, not feeling the least bit flirtatious or amorous. This stuff made people want to rip each other’s clothes off? The appeal was lost on me.

Sip . . . sip . . . sip. I felt out of it. Removed. Numb.

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 up with a crushing headache. The journal was on the floor. I picked it up. There were only two lines: “I drank vodka tonight. I can’t feel my face.”

 ***

In the year after we broke up, Michael tried several times to reach me, including on 9/11. He called once after midnight, drunk, from a bar. I hung up on him.

I’d finally had enough of it all, my ridiculous sense of greatness and what it cost me. As painful as that last round with Michael was, I think I needed it to cure me, and to kill my romantic notions. It’s now been more than a decade since I’ve spoken to him. Two years after our ending, I met my husband. Michael was my last alcoholic boyfriend.

According to twelve-step wisdom, you’re never fully recovered from an addiction, only forever recovering. Maybe I’m naive, but this time I believe I’m truly, fully recovered.

***

Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.

***

“The Sweet Smell of Excess” by Sari Botton has been excerpted from Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up edited by Leah Odze Epstein and Caren Osten Gerszberg. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2012.




Sari Botton is a writer living in upstate New York. She is the editor of Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Village Voice and more retrograde women’s magazines than she’d care to recall or admit to. She tweets at @saribotton. More from this author →