It was a tradition with the McNabs, George and Pat, to have a day-after-Christmas party but never before had the events of the world conspired to make the party so lively and appropriate. There was so much to celebrate and talk about. There was Havel, the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the collapse of Communism, Gorbachev, and, for the next few days at least, there were all those Romanians with their delicious-sounding names.
I was now drinking red wine again, which I drank when I first came to the party. In between, I had drunk every form of alcoholic beverage available on the premises. White wine. Bourbon. Scotch. Three different kinds of vodka. Two different kinds of brandy. Champagne. Various liqueurs. Grappa. Rakija. Two bottles of Mexican beer and several goblets full of rum-spiked eggnog. All of this on an empty stomach and yet, alas, I was stone-cold sober.
Not only was I not drunk, I wasn’t even high.
By all rights I should have been strapped to a stretcher inside a speeding ambulance on my way to some emergency detox center where I would be treated for alcohol poisoning and yet I was sober. Completely sober. Lucid. Totally unimpaired.
My drinking problem began a little over three months ago.
I had never heard of anyone having this disease before. I didn’t know where or how I had contracted it or its cause.
All I knew was that something was wrong with me. Something had snapped off or screwed off or come undone inside of me. It was something physiological or psychological or neurological, some little blood vessel somewhere had burst or clogged, some brain synapse had blown, some major chemical change had occurred in the dark interior of my body or my mind, I really didn’t have a clue. All I knew for sure was that getting drunk was gone from my life.
An odd side effect of my drunk disease, probably caused by denial, was that ever since I discovered that I couldn’t get drunk no matter how much I drank, I wound up drinking more than ever. I might have become immune to alcohol but not to hope, and no matter how hopeless things seemed I kept right on drinking and hoping that one evening, when I least expected it, I’d get intoxicated again as in the good old days and become my old self.
The music stopped. The record changed but not the composer and, after a brief interlude filled with the din of unaccompanied human voices, it was back to Beethoven. It was, as always with the McNabs, an all-Beethoven day-after-Christmas party.
I poured myself a glass of tequila, a nice tall glass meant for mineral water, and drank it down.
I couldn’t understand it. I just couldn’t. Blood, after all, was blood, and if you put your mind to it and made sure that the alcohol content in your blood exceeded fivefold, all known standards for drunkenness, then you should be able to get drunk. Anybody should. It was a matter of biology. And not just human biology either. Dogs could get drunk. I had read about a plastered pit bull attacking a homeless man in the Bronx and then passing out a few blocks away. Some local kids were later apprehended and charged with intoxicating the animal. Horses could get drunk. Cattle. Pigs. There were wino rats who got pissed on Ripple wine. Bull elephants, I was sure, could get drunk. Rhinos. Walruses. Hammerhead sharks. No living creature, man or beast, was immune to alcohol. Except me.
It was this biological exclusion, the unnatural nature of my affliction, that made me feel ashamed and stigmatized, as if I had contracted a strain of AIDS in reverse and was rendered immune to everything. It was the fear of becoming a pariah in public should my disease become known that made me pretend to act drunk. I also couldn’t bear to disappoint those who knew me. They expected me to be drunk. I was the contrast by which their sobriety was measured.
But my immunity to alcohol, as disturbing as it was, was not the only disease I had. I had others. Many, many others. I was a sick man.
Unheard-of diseases with bizarre symptoms were making a home for themselves in my body and my mind. It was as if I were on some cosmic mailing list of maladies or had within me a fatal gravitational field that attracted strange new diseases.
The McNabs, George and Pat, our hosts, lived in a labyrinthine apartment on the seventh floor of the Dakota. Plants and lamps were everywhere. Quartz lamps. Table lamps. Italian floor lamps with marble bases. Antique lamps with cut-glass Tiffany shades purchased at auctions at Sotheby’s. There was a huge crystal chandelier in the huge living room and another huge crystal chandelier in the huge adjoining drawing room. But despite this delirium of illumination, there was something about the McNabs’s apartment that devoured light the way Venus flytraps devoured bugs. The atmosphere, far from being sunny and bright, was one of dimness and dusk.
To be drunk in that din of human voices and music and in that twilight was one thing. To be in the merciless grip of involuntary sobriety was something else.
“To freedom!” George and Pat McNab shouted and raised their glasses of champagne in the air. “To freedom everywhere!” Pat McNab added, her voice breaking with emotion.
“To freedom!” Everyone, myself included, replied. We all drank up whatever it was we were all drinking. Mine was another tequila.
The huge Christmas tree—it was at least nine feet tall—was a chandelier in itself. Its countless little bulbs of several colors blinked on and off in time, it seemed, to the music of Beethoven.
For some reason, that Christmas tree, the well-dressed crowd, the toast to freedom, and the chandeliers brought to mind a cruise ship sailing on the high seas.
We would soon be leaving the whole decade of the eighties and cruising into the “new gay nineties,” as somebody had dubbed the coming decade. In our wake lay the collapse of Communism, the fall of various tyrants, and ahead of us lay some new New World. Some new New Frontier. A magnificent recording of Beethoven’s Fifth was blasting out of the huge Bose speakers as we sailed on. You had to shout to be heard, but the mood of the party was so merry that you felt like shouting.
Despite my array of diseases, or because of them, I shouted along with the rest.
Even my divorce was turning into a divorce disease. My wife Dianah was at the party. I didn’t see her arrive, but I caught a glint of her platinum hair under the chandelier in the drawing room before she vanished in the crowd.
We had been officially separated for over two years but saw each other regularly in order to discuss our divorce. These far-ranging discussions at a French restaurant where we always went became, in the course of time, the basis for another form of marriage instead of divorce. We even celebrated the two anniversaries of our mutually agreed-upon separation. Apparently, it was easier for Eastern European countries to topple their totalitarian governments than it was for me to topple my marriage.
Although independently wealthy, she had gone into business for herself since our separation. She owned a boutique on Third Avenue called Paradise Lost. She didn’t run the place, she just owned it. Some second-generation Pakistani woman managed the store and its all-women sales force. The store carried dresses, designer T-shirts, and fashionable scarves of various fabrics, all of them bearing images of various endangered species: wolves, birds, bears, the Bengal tiger, the snow leopard, a snail. I could tell, before she vanished in the crowd, that she was wearing one of those dresses herself this evening, but I couldn’t tell which doomed creature adorned it.
We made a point of showing up at events we had attended before our separation. Her public position regarding our separation was this: No hard feelings. It was important to her that position be widely perceived, and everybody we knew did in fact perceive it and thought it admirable.
Our adopted son, Billy, had come with her. He was a freshman at Harvard and home for the holidays. Home, in this case, meant our old apartment on Central Park West where Dianah still lived. When I moved out, I got a place on Riverside Drive, going as far west from Central Park West as I could without moving to New Jersey.
No problem spotting Billy in the crowd. He was at least a full foot taller than anyone around him. He was six foot six, or something like that, and still growing. Surrounded presently by older women, meticulously made-up and lavishly begowned. Unlike most boys his age, he seemed at ease in their company.
His face was white, almost snow white, but on each cheek he had a silver-dollar circle of rosy pink so that, despite that strange whiteness of his complexion, it was easy to think of him as rosy-cheeked.
Deepest eyes. So deep-set and dark that from a distance he seemed to have no eyes at all.
His long black hair came down almost to his shoulders, but there was something about Billy which made long hair endearing rather than rebellious. He saw me and waved. His hand, raised high above his head, almost grazed the chandelier. I waved back. He smiled. The older women around him turned to see who it was he was greeting.
I had an empty glass in my hand and headed for the bar again. I disappeared in the thick throng which obstructed my progress, but I couldn’t rid myself of the sensation that Billy, towering above everyone there, could see every move I made.
He wanted something from me. I knew what it was and it was very simple. He wanted to go home with me tonight. To my apartment. Just the two of us. To wake up in the morning and resume something we had begun the night before. Simply to be there with me without anyone else around for once. Just the two of us.
I knew this because it was nothing new. But I also knew, because I knew myself, that I would find a way to keep him from coming home with me tonight.
It had nothing to do with love. I loved Billy, but I was absolutely incapable of loving him in private where it was just the two of us.
That was another disease I had. I didn’t know what exactly to call it. Evasion of privacy. Evasion at all cost of privacy of any kind. With anyone.
I stumbled around, lurching and weaving, bumping into people, apologizing in a slurred voice if I caused their drinks to spill, and then moving on, did my best to appear drunk and therefore normal. It was no fun being an impostor. It was bad enough having been an irresponsible boring alcoholic who was getting on in years, without the necessity now of assuming that identity in order to hide some other, far more calamitous problem.
So I stumbled along from lamp to lamp, from plant to plant and group to group, mingling, engaging, disengaging, drinking whatever came my way and then moving on. I bumped into people I knew who introduced me to others I had only heard about. Some of them had heard of me as well. I met a woman who had gone to school with Corazon Aquino. Before I left her to move on again, I felt that in some genuine and profound way I now knew more about Corazon Aquino in Manila than I did about my own mother in Chicago.
Beethoven’s Sixth was blasting away now. Nobody was really sure if the McNabs played all nine symphonies on that day, as they claimed they did, because to play all nine they would have had to start playing them long before the party actually got going. All I knew was that I normally showed up during the Fourth. In the years past, I was pleasantly high by the time I heard the pom-pom-pom-pa-a opening of the Fifth and completely plastered by the time the “Pastorale” rolled around. Not tonight.
Suddenly, I felt ravenously hungry. In preparation for the party I hadn’t eaten all day. In the hope against hope that if I had a perfectly empty stomach on which to drink, I would manage to get, if not nicely blotto, at least a little high. It seemed self-evident now, even to a self like myself, that neither would occur tonight. So I began eating, grabbing things off stationary and passing trays, the latter carried by an all-women catering crew dressed in black-and-white uniforms like some New Age order of catering nuns.
I ate whatever I saw, whatever came my way. They were mostly little things stuffed with things. Phyllo dough stuffed with feta cheese and spinach. Stuffed vine leaves. Stuffed cabbage leaves. In between portions of meat, vegetable, and cheese, I stuffed myself with baklava.
Dr. Jerome Bickerstaff, my family physician from the days when I was still a family man and had a family, came up to me while I fed and he just stood there, looking on in disapproval as I devoured desserts and canapés in no particular order. Some of the things I ate had toothpicks stuck in them and I tossed these away, like bones, on the floor.
“Are you all right, Saul?” Dr. Bickerstaff finally asked me.
“No,” I gave my standard reply. “Why? Do I look all right?”
I laughed, encouraging Bickerstaff to laugh along with me.
“You don’t look well, Saul. I haven’t seen you in a while, and you look a lot worse since the last time I saw you.”
“You do, indeed. You should see yourself.”
Because we were at a party, because Beethoven’s Sixth was blasting away through Bose speakers, each the size of an imported subcompact car, and because the people around us were shouting almost at the top of their lungs so they could be heard above the din of music and conversation, Dr. Bickerstaff and I were not merely chatting about my unhealthy appearance, we were shouting for all we were worth.
“Your hair,” Bickerstaff said.
“What about my hair?”
“A doctor can tell a lot about a person from the look of his hair. Your hair looks dead, Saul. I’ve seen medium-priced dolls at F.A.O. Schwartz with healthier-looking hair. Your hair looks sick. Dead.”
“What were you doing at F.A.O. Schwartz, Doc?”
He disregarded my comment as if he didn’t hear it. To be fair to the man, perhaps he didn’t hear it. It almost required risking a distended testicle to be heard in that atmosphere.
“And you’re putting on weight,” he continued, alluding with his chin to my stomach.
“Am I?” I looked down at it.
“I didn’t think I was,” I said.
“Think again,” he said.
Being perceived as overweight hurt. It hurt more than actually being overweight, which I knew I was.
“But I’m not fat, am I?” I pleaded. “I’m not what you’d call a fat man! There is no history of fat people in my family.”
“There was no history of money in the Kennedy family either, till Joe came along,” he said, a little sorry to be wasting such a gem of a reply on somebody like me. I could tell, because such things are easy to tell, that he was filing it away for future use.
“I saw Dianah a couple of weeks ago,” he told me, giving me a grave stare meant to imply that he had more to tell.
“Oh, really.” I ignored the import of his stare. “I just saw her myself about half an hour ago.”
“Professionally,” Bickerstaff explained. “I saw her professionally.”
“How is she professionally?” I asked and laughed, encouraging him again to laugh along with me. He wouldn’t.
“Is it true what she says?”
“I don’t know, Doc. What did she say?”
“She told me, I can’t really believe it’s true, that you no longer have any health insurance.”
“What’s to insure,” I screamed hysterically. “I no longer have any health.”
It was a waste of time trying to be funny around Bickerstaff, but it was a waste of time talking to him at all, so I thought I might as well waste my time in a lively endeavor.
“So it is true,” he said and looked away from me as if needing a moment to compose his next remark.
“Listen to me, Saul,” he then said and put his hand on my shoulder. Unlike most New Yorkers, Dr. Bickerstaff never touched anyone in public. It was an indication of the gravity of the situation that he did so now. “Please listen to me and listen well. I know you’re drunk but . . .”
“I’m not,” I interrupted him. “I’m not drunk at all. I’m sober. Cold stone sober.” I almost burst into tears at the memory of using these very words not that long ago and actually being drunk when I said them. My overemotional delivery confirmed to Bickerstaff that I was drunk.
“When you sober up in the morning,” he went on, “take a good look at yourself in the mirror. What you’ll see is an overweight man past fifty who’s an alcoholic with a history of cancer and madness in his family. You’ll see a sallow man with dead-looking hair. You’ll see a man, Saul, who not only needs health insurance, but who needs the most extensive coverage available. If you can, I would advise you to join plans from several carriers.”
I took all this in and replied: “But other than that, how do I look to you?”
My flippancy no longer amused anyone. It had never amused Bickerstaff. He shook his head once, like a pitcher shaking off a sign from the catcher and, squinting at me, turned to go. I grabbed his arm.
“Listen to this, Doc. I quit smoking!” The trumpet of the Annunciation could not have been more jubilant than my voice. A point arrives in every man’s life when he desperately wants to please his doctor, even if the doctor isn’t his anymore.
I couldn’t actually hear the groan for all the din around us, but Bickerstaff’s face assumed a groanlike expression. It was clear that he didn’t believe me.
“I did, Doc, I swear. I quit. Yesterday. Not a puff since then. Not one.”
I was telling the truth, but for some reason Bickerstaff’s conviction that I was lying seemed far more substantial and authoritative than my truth.
He pulled his arm loose from my hand and his parting look informed me that I had become officially boring. Then he left. The mouth of a medium-sized congregation of people parted and swallowed him whole.