Chapter 8: “Choosing Shame”
WE’D ALREADY COUNTED DOWN THE MINUTES, AND THEN THE SECONDS, TO MIDNIGHT — TO THE TOLLING OF A NEW YEAR. They’d actually been three full minutes early, according to my telephone, which I’d always assumed displayed the only time. I was standing in the Higher Ground Ballroom in South Burlington feeling melting ice drip maddeningly from a crack in the roof onto my shoulders and the top of my head. My brother was nearby and so were my father and his girlfriend, Mary. My own girlfriend, Emily, was trying to burrow between my arms; it seemed colder in there than it was outside, despite the mass of bodies swaying with the music. The wet wasn’t helping. The band had thoroughly entertained us by performing the second half of their set dressed as characters from The Big Lebowski, but they were approaching the point where my patience was ready to give out. They’d been playing for forty minutes since their encore and I’d been standing for more than four hours. I was ready for the show to be over.
I didn’t think much of it the first time the stranger’s fist collided with the side of Emily’s face. It was force without intent. He didn’t seem entirely sure where he was anyway — a spatial cluelessness I attributed to the bottles scattered at his feet and the current one hooked in one of his swaying claws. He looked like he was somewhere between five and ten years older than me, with thick glasses and a buzzcut: a Devin Townsend post-dredlocks but pre-sobriety. He had his arms gyrating wildly in the air, letting them flail where they would, only vaguely in time with the music anyway, so what was the point? I wanted to ignore him after the first time; I looked at Emily and we shuffled away as far as the limited available space would allow, muttering darkly to one another. He seemed to follow us. After it happened a second time and he again registered no acknowledgement of what he’d done, I put my hand on his ribs and shoved him away from us. He course-corrected, yet again with no obvious signs he knew he’d been in contact with another human body.
The third time he punched my girlfriend, I grabbed his forearm and pushed him again, harder this time, in an act that could no more be mistaken for an accident than if I’d kicked him in his dick. He spun clumsily on the spot and fixed me with what I’m sure was supposed to be an intimidating stare.
“Dude, I will FUCK you UP,” he yelled.
I sighed. Without fail, I find myself next to this person at every fucking concert I go to. The guy who thinks that spazzing-out more wildly than anybody else allows him to hear more music than the rest of us. The guy spoiling for a fight. The asshole. I’m an asshole magnet. I yelled something at him above the noise, something about watching what the fuck he’s doing. I could feel adrenaline snaking through my body as I took a step toward him, preparing myself to exchange fists. He was not appreciably bigger than I was. I could take him.
Just as I’d committed myself to throwing the first punch, my father appeared from somewhere behind me and pulled the guy aside. He slipped his arm around the young man’s shoulders and whispered something in his ear and I was devastated as this drunken bastard glared at me with my father’s face close to his. I felt weak and humiliated long after he slunk away back into the crowd. My dad turned to me and, with nothing but a raised eyebrow, asked what the hell that was about.
I shouted a truncated version of the story into his ear and he shook his head good-naturedly. I fixed Emily with a look that I hoped told her something like, Look at what I almost had to do for you. Almost. I felt like I’d missed an opportunity, had a chance at something important taken from me.
It wasn’t ten minutes later that I noticed some commotion to the left of where we were standing. For half an hour I’d noticed the place emptying slowly as people filtered out to be first at the coat check. Disturbances in the crowd were now more obvious. As I looked, I saw a hole where people had withdrawn, leaving a twelve-foot circle on the floor empty. You know what that space signifies if you’ve been to a concert of almost any variety.
It was that guy, of course. That nincompoop. People had backed away from him and another man, leaving them room to circle each other stupidly. This second man was approximately his age and the two of them were glaring at each other, clearly looking for any excuse to be physically violent, as I had been just a short while ago.
It looked ridiculous when it happened, like it was in slow motion. But he was drunk and I could thank cheap beer for his slurred movements. The man in the glasses came at the other guy with a bottle in his fist. He cocked it back and made contact with the other man’s jaw. But the bottle didn’t break. In fact, the action looked frankly ridiculous and made this sad little smacking sound as it struck him. I’m sure everybody gathered there had expecting far better. And yet, for the second time in ten minutes, glasses-guy snuck backwards into the crowd, this time with a pathetic look of triumph on his face. Good job, fella, you finally got to make some violence.
The other guy grabbed at his own face but didn’t seem to have been caused any real or lasting trauma. After collecting himself, he gave chase off into the crowd. And then the two of them were gone and the rest of the folks found themselves dispersing.
My father caught my eye and he smirked, like, That could have been you. I shrugged and thought, Maybe I could have stopped it. For days afterward I spent entire hours wallowing in regret, feeling diminished somehow, with the distinct and probably absurd impression that the effect would be a permanent one.
On our way out of the building a quarter of an hour later, we were greeted in the dark of the parking lot by silent red and blue flashing lights atop two patrol cars. We didn’t, and couldn’t, know for sure if it was the same guy, but I think we all hoped that was the top of his dumb bald head slumped crooked and still in the back of one of the police cars. He looked dead but probably wasn’t.
I HAVE AN UNCLE WHO HAS, FOR AS LONG AS I CAN REMEMBER, STRUGGLED WITH WHAT EVERYBODY BUT HIM CALLED A “DRINKING PROBLEM.” Causes have been guessed at. I’ve heard whispers about a problematic childhood, either preceding or following his adoption. I didn’t see him much when I was a kid, but in my teens my family would make periodic trips to visit him and his wife, Andrea, who was my mom’s youngest sister, in Florida. I remember my mother’s polite agreement but vague cautiousness any time my uncle insisted showily on taking me and my brother fishing. She might have put up more of a fight if the lake had been farther away, but we didn’t even have to leave the subdivision in his old black Company Buick with its newspapers on the floor, the live fish in the bucket in the back, and the full-throated bone-saw of air conditioning whose knob hasn’t descended past the halfway point in all the time this man had owned the vehicle. The Homeowner’s Association kept the lake at its center stocked with trout and the vending machine in its Owner’s Clubhouse stocked with Ginger Ale and Diet Coke for the discerning daydrinker.
My Uncle Ed would have left the house early that morning to go to the bait shop, returning with a five-gallon bucket fixed with a pump that kept the water inside aerated. This water was populated by several dozen small fish I’ve only ever known as “shiners” because that’s what he called them. Bait. I’d grudgingly accepted using worms as bait when my Peepaw took me fishing. But using fish felt like too large a step into the fresh and macabre. I remembered the first time I watched my uncle push the fishing hook through what was decidedly the faces of these small silvery fish. The committing of this act was almost as disturbing as the fact that the fish never seemed to notice our doing it.
We’d drive to the Clubhouse to take our places at the pier out back, leaving more fishing poles than people sitting out in the sun while we sipped Coke in the shade.
I remember the one question my mother asked me routinely after each of these outings: “Did he leave you alone?” And the answer to this question was always “Yes.”
We couldn’t have been there for more than fifteen minutes on any one of these outings before my uncle would excuse himself only to return twenty-five or thirty-five minutes later with some outstandingly random purchase like more soda, or donuts, or tacos, at a time of day when none of these things made an abundance of sense. If there was alcohol on his breath, I never noticed it. Then again, the man kept live fish in his car on a regular basis and managed to hide the smell.
The only thing I really had to go on was my mother’s dark hints that drinking was what he’d been doing while he was away. Of course, it was a little harder to ignore after any of his family’s trips to New York to visit my grandmother. We could always count on finding a bottle of vodka hidden way deep in her freezer, which he’d always have forgotten about halfway through his stay before inevitably buying a new one and hiding it poorly enough that he could find it again this time.
His behavior was only marginally better when he had guests staying in his house. I’d heard terrifically disturbing stories second-hand from my mother or grandmother about what happened when only his wife and pre-school-aged daughter were around to keep tabs on him. These things happened either while he was slogging through an attempt at sobriety or while he’d actively and obviously been drinking — with the same regularity and with about the same pang of horror on my part. Things like muttering to himself while crouching in the bathroom, complaining of unexplained pains. Things like squirting hand sanitizer into his mouth for a taste of alcohol. He’d pissed in every closet in the house like a confused cat. And once, while being hospitalized on account of his failing kidneys, he tore an IV out of his arm, checked himself out of the hospital and successfully took a cab home, still wearing his hospital gown. After they arrived, he went inside his house for his wallet, coolly paid the driver in cash, tipped him generously, and then continued his life.
I think having Alivia was supposed to help salvage their marriage and his mental and physical health, but it didn’t work out that way. And yet, she stayed with him — and frankly, the Uncle Ed I knew was a man worth giving the benefit-of-the-doubt to. He was kind and generous and funny. He was even charming when he put his mind to it. But while he was alive, people spoke of him like he was a child, like he was a slowly-unspooling tragedy.
The most interesting description I heard for what he did to himself came from my mother. “He’s pickling his liver,” she told me more than once after hearing about yet another unanswered ultimatum given by yet another doctor in one of the specialized medicines. At one point, they gave him just months to live. He beat that prognosis, but not by much. I’m pretty sure by that point he knew he was murdering himself.
TO CALL IT A MEMORY WOULD BE A LIE. What is clearer to me are the faces of friends who looked away from mine when I passed them on campus the next day. Pity is hard to bear.
It was the first time I drank recreationally — that’s concrete enough. I left with Emily when the other couple drinking with us decided they needed the room to themselves. I remember closing the door and laughing — impressed, maybe — at how freely they expressed their sexuality around others.
I remember … nothing else of the night.
But what I’ve been told by those people who eventually decided to talk to me again is that I spent a good portion of the night standing shirtless in the girls’ hallway of the dormitory with my face against the wall, repeating out loud, “I’m going to fuck her BRAINS out! I’m going to FUCK her brains OUT!”
Bertie, a girl who witnessed this, couldn’t look at me for a couple months afterward. After that, she spent a couple months laughing openly and far too genuinely at me every time we were together in public.
I’d like to think the biggest tragedy here was my not having a working brain and penis at the time to make good on my very public promise. But when I awakened the next morning to a world still spinning sickeningly, I realized that the stains on the carpet were my doing. And the wastebasket that my head had been held over by Emily and my roommate — whom she had called to her side in a panic from halfway across campus — had been left for dead in a larger trashcan in the hallway when I’d filled it. We had called that one “R2-D2” for reasons you’d have found obvious if you’d known him. And now he’s wronged and dead.
I felt a sort of helplessness when my father intervened on my behalf in Burlington several years after this. But this, my first personal encounter with alcohol, was a helplessness I’d elected to succumb to, then and to various degrees, though never again so severely, over many weekends and evenings since.
I do this to myself. I elect to be impaired, to be vulnerable. But in a universe that thrives on equilibrium, I’ve had the sad pleasure of watching my father reduced to the same degree, though not quite the same kind, of impotence to which he reduced me when he frightened away the man I was supposed to test my manhood against. Like a Knight for my Lady, motherfucker.
It was a weekend spent in his apartment some time after his unofficial split from my mother. With my mom no longer a part of his life, he’d gotten to be something of a distinguished cook; he was making us dinner from the South Beach Diet Cookbook and sipping a drink I didn’t know the name of that had green olives at the bottom of it. I was only vaguely aware of how many times he’d refilled his glass, but after he asked us for the third time in ten minutes to get up and come smell the stir fry while he giggled nonsense to himself, I knew that he was slipping, about to tumble into a place I’d never seen him go for as long as I’d been alive. I never saw him go there again.
My brother and I couldn’t even look at each other. We were watching something on TV and we allowed it to occupy us as completely as we could while my father giggled to himself at the stove.
My brother asked me only once what we were both thinking: He mouthed, Is he drunk? to me there on the couch. I looked away and nodded my head affirmative.
“Guys, I’m going to go lie down a minute,” he said after a while, leaving dinner sizzling on the stove. “This is almost done — you guys can dig in when you’re ready.”
And then he left us there, going noisily into his bedroom and closing the door. We turned off the stove and we ate in silence, fixing our eyes as resolutely as we could on the television. And when my father returned from his bedroom sometime — twenty minutes? an hour? — later, the dishes were in the dishwasher and we were back on the couch watching Edward Norton try to be Bruce Banner. Dad’s portion of dinner sat cold at his place on the table.
We chanced glancing in his direction, but his time away from us had sobered him. He carried himself differently now, as though he was aware of his every movement.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his faced creased in a way I have never seen since.
Today, I think: what privilege I knew that this is what passed for existential horror in my childhood.
WANT TO FEEL HUMAN? Climb a tall tree and look back at the ground, back at the low place you’re supposed to call home. Ask your grandmother how much of her granddaughter’s life she’ll get to see. Decide what it would take for you to punch the face of another human animal. To put a bullet through their heart or throat.
Maybe alcohol is humanity’s best attempt at feeling human again, of shrugging off pretense and clutching at enfeeblement like a binky. Maybe it’s a way of besting ourselves, or trying to. Or maybe we just like to feel helpless from time to time. Because let’s face it — our lives are pretty safe, all things considered. If you’re reading this right now, you enjoy an almost outrageous degree of luxury. We tend to go out of our way to introduce danger into the equation, to make us feel alive, to finally kill a little bit more of that child still playing in the wild spaces of our hearts, with only pretend guns in his hands, and replace him instead with an adult who has finally grown tired enough of the world to be comfortable with violence. Or we skydive. Or we pray to a god who sows chaos. Or we test ourselves against real or imagined odds some other way. We make ourselves feel small. Feel shame. For some, alcohol is that tool — a key to childhood eternal. For others, it comes from a certitude of belief. For others, forgetting we’re a land animal means looking for ways to build kingdoms where kindness holds sway. Just mind who you make King of it.
I’ve never really feared for my life. I’ve never had to weigh my survival against another person’s, never had to hurt someone to stop them from hurting me or somebody I cared about. What I wonder is whether or not some part of me craves it, the act of manufacturing safety, with bloodied knuckles, or at gunpoint, or whether all humans crave it on some level, like we’ll never be satisfied with our feast unless we know somebody else goes to bed at night with the word famine on their lips. Eat up — somebody in Africa is starving! Maybe there’s a kind of inevitable madness in safety and contentment and it’s for this reason that humans will probably never deliver the peace that has so long eluded the less-Favored animals.