It was December on Sanibel Island in Florida, and my wife LauraBeth’s older brother was getting married. This capped our last big wedding year. Her younger brother had gotten married in July, and my mom remarried in August. I used the occasion of my mom’s wedding to hand-sell 3 copies of my memoir, which had been published on Father’s Day weekend. It sold about 2,500 copies before going out of print, which was about 50,000 fewer than I had hoped for. It’s been so long since I worked on that book, the person who wrote it feels like a stranger. That year, I answered many questions like, “Aren’t you too young to write a memoir?” and “What have you ever done?” I wrote a book, that’s one thing I had done. It was never clear to me why that wasn’t enough.
At the reception on Sanibel, where there’s a long line for beer and a shorter line for bourbon, I go for the bourbon, and I go back for more bourbon, and so on, until suddenly I cannot see straight and I am crouching behind someone’s rental car and vomiting in the parking lot. It’s only 8 PM. My new sister-in-law now tells me later that she had been talking to me minutes before my vomiting and I had appeared perfectly fine. It concerns me that I’ve been able to hide it so often when I’ve been this drunk. If I were sloppier, or struggled with more severe hangovers, I would probably have renounced alcohol fifteen years ago. It would have saved me so much money and time. Every detail from the remainder of the night is erased from my memory. When you’re falling apart, it all happens in slow motion and then suddenly it speeds up beyond your control. I’ve been told people were worried I would fall in a ditch, or get hit by a car, or run afoul of a gator (signs posted around the resort warned about “nuisance gators”, a euphemism I have come to love). LauraBeth left the wedding and tended to me while I vomited and cried on the bathroom floor. I woke up before sunrise, oozed out of bed, and wrote her an apologetic and self-flagellating note, which she read but never acknowledged. We did not discuss it and we did not fight, but I had ruined one of the most important days of her life. I was twenty-eight and I was drinking so much at weddings that I threw up in the parking lot before anyone had even done the Cupid Shuffle.
For years, my behavior at that wedding — which was a personal, private shame that just happened to have occurred publicly — was treated as a family joke. They all eventually stopped joking about it, maybe because they got tired of it, or maybe because I finally stopped laughing along with them. Maybe they just ran out of new things to say about it, and if you live long enough, you can outrun almost anything.
I have not vomited from drinking since that wedding. I have not made a drunken spectacle of myself again, the way I used to in grad school, when I often realized halfway through dinner that I was slurring my speech and kind classmates would ask me if I was okay getting home by myself. I don’t get in fights or spill my beer on people or pass out in weird places. I don’t drive drunk (hard to count how many times I had convinced myself I was only a little buzzed and was just fine to drive). I am careful now. When we are in mixed company, I go to great pains never to be the drunkest person in the room. I monitor the levels of everyone’s drinks and even if my beer is long empty, I will wait to refill until someone else does too, because it feels like they’re giving me permission. One loophole there is to surround yourself with drunker people. Another loophole is to be the only person in the room. Careful and reckless are relative terms.
Sometimes LauraBeth and I will split a bottle of wine and talk about the desire to balance healthy living with our concerns about dying young like our parents. Still, we exercise several days a week and always take the stairs and limit our sugar intake and have begun cooking vegetarian meals most days, and we have not gone out for fast food in years. In most ways, we are leading healthy lives. I admit this may be an addict’s brain talking, but there is an argument to be made that if everyone in my family dies in their 50s anyway, I am preserving myself for nothing. You don’t need to hit me with the counterarguments here, I know them. I know.
Let me tell you: I am typing this and thinking about going downstairs to have a beer. It’s Thursday. I have just finished the first week of a new semester. Without a drink the night is long and dull. With a drink, at least you can look forward to the next drink. Even thinking like this scares me a little bit, and I tell myself it’s better to say it out loud than to pretend it’s not true. I remind myself there are hundreds of good reasons not to open a beer today. Most days, I won’t.
I imagine a large empty bottle in my office, an opening too small for me to fit through, so I have to disassemble myself and feed my parts one at a time through the neck and into the body, piling each piece of myself in there and waiting for someone to come in and reassemble me, as a better, pristine version, a beautiful ship with billowing sails, a collector’s item to place over the mantle and display to visitors, to say: This used to be Tom, he didn’t look like this when we found him, but he’s been fully restored. Look how good he could have been.
Tom McAllister is the author of the novels How to Be Safe and The Young Widower’s Handbook, as well as the memoir Bury Me in My Jersey. His short stories and essays have been published in a lot of places, including The Rumpus, The Millions, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Third Point, Hobart, and Cincinnatti Review. He is the nonfiction editor at Barrelhouse and co-host of the Book Fight! podcast. Find him on twitter at @t_mcallister.
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