We Lees value experience over longevity. My family accepts life’s natural brevity, but the result of such knowledge is a rush to experience in infancy those vices enjoyed usually at leisure by luckier adults. The grisly fact of our premature expiration can be mapped as a series of stunted branches, of early deaths, of cirrhosis. The Lee gene is the witch’s mark.
This legacy is so entrenched that it led my father once to exclaim, with some fairness, that at six my fate was pretty much sealed. (Particularly, it was the pure quality of my happy madness that predicted, I’m told, an early but ambitious preference for instability.)
“Just put a drink in her hand, already,” Dad would bellow to his AA buddies with a laugh. (Also, maybe a sad, long-term resignation. When my father was eleven, his own father died young, his brain and liver turned to soup.)
I wasn’t there for my dad’s gritty, hopeless years—he’s sober entirely in my accessible memory—but know plenty from legend. The best stories are the funny ones and involve no itchy shotguns in Bisbee or bloody blackouts in the heart of Mexico. I like the one where we drive for days with our black lab, Judge, to visit relatives, and upon arrival the dog promptly bites one of them; not because he’s naturally aggressive, but because my father has taken all of the dog’s tranquilizers for the trip, and it has been a long ride.
A courtin’ story: my father joked about the party where he met my mother. With wistful good cheer, he’d boom, “She fished me out of a fire, me drunk and chewing LSD, and said “This is the man for me.” (Make no mistake: my father’s first, true ultimately lone love among all drugs was alcohol; the rest, mere flings or accoutrements. With regards to LSD, my mother said the reason he stopped doing it was that one day he walked into the living room and he saw himself sitting on the couch.)
My mother lays claim to no such fated blood. The breezy insouciance of her own alcoholism merely aggravates and does not astound. Where addiction requires nourishment, I have little pity, and mother nursed her own with patient dedication. Boxes of bad wine changed to margaritas changed to whiskey. An amble, not a dash, and sloppy.
If I sound like an alcoholism snob, that’s because I am. My credentials for such derision are impeccable. I drank mother’s perfume. At seventeen. Argue with that.
I drank maybe the equivalent of a shot and, two days later, woke up on the fifth floor of the hospital with a sore throat, and I shat charcoal. I’m told I was very, very upset the night of ingestion when others couldn’t see the fabled amber waves of grain.
My mother did not change her perfume, and so for years I would enjoy the occasional wave of nausea when, from across the trailer, she sprayed its cheap boozy jasmine.
Worse, even: I drank a bottle of crème de menthe. Can’t tell a spilled bottle from a puddle of vomit—looks the same whether it enters or departs, is what I’m saying. Smells the same, tastes the same. Is the same, really, since the stomach is smart and prevents any conceivable digestion, by means of automatic, vigorous expulsion. The result is a fast, tremendous wall of irradiated green, alive as grass, and glowing. The retching itself is interminable.
I am a vicious, terrible drunk. Only one tale I’ve ever encountered involves any kindness on my part. In it, I am sympathetic to an injured fence and worry over its health. This is as good as it gets.
I was quits with booze at eighteen, with a year-long hiccup moons later. I now suffer a little-known by-proxy condition that compels me to bully, push, bribe, whine, beg, tease—Just drink the damn thing, already! I grow anxious to the point of levitation. So I love to play bartender, and everyone knows never to let me do so.
My father died many years ago. His body was worn hard. My mother, though, a time back mistakenly burned her trailer down. She loves to talk smack about lushes, and tell of the alcoholics who bear little resemblance to her; the ones like me, who knew god in that first heavenly drink, who never needed to be coaxed. This difference reassures her where it should disgust.
My relatives, however inebriated, would prevent any attempt on my part to have a drink if I wanted one. Should I saunter over to the fridge with intent, my barely-conscious, heavy-lidded protectors would not be worried so much as angry, and I would feel it in their immediate tackle. How could I even think about drinking?
Truth is, I don’t. The luxury of slow rot is not available, not for me. If it were, I know I would be unimaginably bombed right now, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, with no reason to quit and thus no thoughts of quitting.
And if I were there, I certainly wouldn’t be here, thinking and sad, sober and telling.
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