Previous entries in the series can be found here.
If I put together all the times I’ve seen Her drunk, those scenes would make a very boring after-school special. She’s never lost a job because of drinking, never set a fire, never sobbed in humiliation, begging for forgiveness for some terrible, terrible thing She did when She was drunk. But alcohol has been a big part of Her life for as long as I’ve known Her, first with my father and, after they were divorced, by Herself or, occasionally, with hard-drinking friends. She’s in her late seventies now and when She tells me a story about something that went wrong with Her day, the way older people often tell stories to the younger people in their lives, I always ask myself, “Is this a drinking story?”
Because She’d never tell me “This happened because I was drunk.” I have to figure that out for myself. One time She fell, getting stuck inside a cramped apartment stairway and had to break down a wooden door (which had to be replaced) to get out. I marveled at the unlikely physics of the incident every time I stood facing the new door.
That story was a drinking story.
But what about the story She told me the other day about getting Her finger caught in her car door, having to yell for help until a neighbor She doesn’t even like came and opened the door for Her? I’m not sure if that story is a drinking story or not. It happened during the day, and She usually drinks at night– which is the reason I always make sure we talk on the phone before 7 PM. Otherwise I just let voicemail pick up and call Her back in the morning.
The time She backed her car into a cement wall, cracking the rear fender and letting it hang over the tire like a gull’s wing: that story was not a drinking story, even though it sounded like one. I had been with Her before and during the accident and she wasn’t drunk, just frazzled and tired. Old age rarely improves anyone’s driving skills.
Of course, alcohol doesn’t help either. I was at Her place, a fifteen-minute walk from where I lived (She moved into my neighborhood about five years after I did). My place didn’t have a washer/dryer, and Hers did and She had told me She was going out that night with friends. She showed up as the last load tumbled in the dryer. She was quiet and distant, not her usual chatty Self, which should’ve tipped me off that something was wrong.
The doorbell rang. “Aren’t you going to answer that?” I asked. She might have said, “Leave me alone,” as She often said when I asked Her to do things that She found difficult. If She had meant Her request literally, She was out of luck: I wasn’t about to leave without my laundry. She went into the bathroom and shut the door behind Her: the answer to my question. I walked down the front hallway and opened the door.
A man in a cap stood in front of me. Behind him, I could see a cab, the engine still running, stopped on the street. He asked in Haitian-accented English, “The lady who just came out of that car,” He pointed to Her little white Toyota. “Can I talk to her?” He seemed embarrassed to have to speak to me.
“One second,” I said. I shut the door completely, perhaps out of instinct, perhaps because it was a cold night.
She was in the kitchen now. Her eyes were glazed and Her mouth set. When I told Her the man at the door wanted to see Her, She didn’t even look at me, but gave me another silent answer, waving Her hand like I was a persistent and quick-moving mosquito. After She made the swatting motion She swayed a little, like a skyscraper during a hurricane. Her teased brown-blond-beige hair wavered, like it was trying to come into focus. If I hadn’t realized before, I knew then: She was as drunk as a person can be and still be conscious. I remembered She and my father used to call that type of drunk”stinko” back in the seventies.
“I’m afraid she can’t come to the door right now,” I told the man.
“She’s not coming to the door?” The man seemed incredulous.
“No.” What else could I say? I couldn’t force Her. I gave him my “I’m sorry” face and gently closed the door between us.
Before my laundry was dry, the doorbell rang again. I knew not to ask Her this time if She was going to answer. When I opened the door, I expected to see the man with the cap again. Instead, a cop stood in front of me.
When I had a job in a homeless shelter I worked next to the police detail and of the fifty or so cops I met on the job, exactly two of them made a positive impression on me. Being part of protests and demonstrations has also given me a deep and abiding resentment for the police. The few times I’ve needed the police outside of a workplace they’ve been worthless. But I am always unfailingly polite in my one-on-one interactions with cops. So I asked in my best NPR/social-worker voice.”What can I do for you, officer?”
“The woman who was driving that car, can she come to the door? ” He was pointing to the white Toyota.
“I’m afraid she’s not feeling well,” I said, which was probably not a complete lie.
“This cabbie,” the officer pointed to him, now parked on the street, “is saying she hit his cab but just kept on going. He followed her here from Winter Hill to try to get her info. Then he called us.”
I thought over my options for a split second. I couldn’t let Her come to the door because She would be arrested for driving under the influence. I couldn’t let the cop come in for the same reason. I remembered the members of the traveling spoken word show Sister Spit told me the cops who stopped their van couldn’t search it unless they had a warrant: I didn’t have to let this cop in because he didn’t have a warrant either. And She didn’t have to come to the door, because the cop didn’t have a warrant for her arrest. At least I didn’t think he did.
I asked, “What do you need? Maybe I can get it for you.”
“I need her license,” he said.
I closed the front door again (gently). I knocked on the door to the bathroom where She was once more holed up. She opened it. This time I used the all-business tone and demeanor I used in my job at the shelter where I frequently spoke with people who were, in the parlance of the place, “intoxicated.”
“Now there’s a cop at the door. He says the cabbie says you hit him. The cop needs your license. Where is it?”
Even at the best and most sober of times She always loses track of where her purse is. “Have you seen my purse?” is probably the question She asks me the most. That night She had left it on the kitchen table, so our search was a short one. “Your license,” I repeated in a low voice. “C’mon, the cop’s right outside.” She seemed a little chastened as She fumbled inside the purse and then handed the license to me.
“Go back in the bathroom and shut the door,” I said. The last thing I needed was for the cop to see and call to Her from the front doorway. She meekly complied.
I opened the front door again. “Here you go,” I said as I gave the cop the license. He took it to his car and after a short while brought it back. “That’s all you need?”
“Well, thank you and have a good night,” I said before he could ask any more questions. As I shut the door for the last time I gave Her a look and then handed back Her license. I folded all my laundry, packed it into my bag and went home.
The next morning, in my contract job at a Very Prestigious Medical School as soon as I had the chance, I closed the door to my office. Even though I was really just a glorified temp I had my own office with a door that shut and locked, because I was helping the students apply for residency and we needed to keep their files (and any phone calls we might be making on their behalf) confidential. I dialed Her number.
I used the tone of the shelter worker again. “We need to talk about last night.”
“I know.” Her voice was so quiet it was nearly unrecognizable.
“If I hadn’t been at your place you probably would’ve been arrested for drunk driving. You know that, right?”
“Oh, I know,” She said in the small, humbled voice. “I poured all my hard liquor down the kitchen sink this morning.”
But she hadn’t gotten drunk at home, not that night anyway. And She had at least one of Her brothers as an example of just how wasted a person could get drinking nothing stronger than wine.
“We’ve talked about this before,” I said. “Now that you’re retired you need to find something to do with yourself besides drink. And if you can’t stop drinking this much, you need to get some help.”
“Oh, I know,” She said again in that same, tiny voice.
I was unconvinced.
Usually, people who drink too much end up getting a lot worse or starting a twelve-step program–or both, often in that order. Although the phone call from my office was not the first time I’d suggested She get help I could honestly never picture Her in AA: Dad never joined, nor did any of Her family, and most of them drank more than She ever did. I remember when She told me the reason Her mother barely drank: because her own father was an alcoholic.
“Is that why you don’t drink?” She asked me. Well, Dad was one reason.
I braced myself for a downward spiral, but in the ten-plus years since the cabbie/cop incident (I never could bring myself to ask about the resolution) she seems to have improved slightly: I haven’t had to prevent any more DUIs and she no longer seems to drink those big plastic cups of gin and tonic at home, the way I remember She did when I was growing up.
But mostly she has stayed the same.
Some people would say She is happy the way She is. I’m not so sure. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of Her when we are about to meet for lunch, before She has had the chance to see me, and Her expression looks very different from the cheery one She has once She is seated across the table. This contrast reminds me of when I was a kid: I was always struck by how much happier She seemed around other people than when She was at home. I thought the reason then was because anyone’s company was better than Dad’s, but Dad is long gone now.
I don’t know if She would be any happier in AA or another program. When I worked at the shelter, a withdrawn, frowning sector of the paid staff were men in twelve-step programs trying to “give back,” but their impatience, sour expressions and general aura of misery did nothing but make the shelter an even more unpleasant place to stay.
I also know people who have found great joy and meaning in sobriety. I just don’t know if She would be one of them.
If She had gotten that DUI, She would’ve been forced to go to some meetings, but I have even less faith in the success of that scenario than in Her going of Her own free will. Although I generally don’t date anyone who either drinks a lot or is sober, one of my ex-girlfriends got a DUI when we were together and bitched about going to meetings as she tooled around town, ending up at my place in the car she was banned from driving.
Later on, long after her license had been reinstated, we were past the point when we would get back together but perhaps not past the point when we might have sex with each other again. We went to see High Art, and I saw she had traded in her boxy, blue compact car for a bright orange jeep-type vehicle, because, apparently, the DUI had been the car’s fault. I was enraged at Her the whole evening. She couldn’t understand why.
This post is a part of Step Out Of The Car, Please, a recurring and unglamorous series about DUIs and drinking problems that runs every Thursday. If you are interested in submitting a story either anonymously or under your own name for consideration, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.