The Whisky Blot
Four Years in the Desert by Chris Parent
My father drank temperately, but occasionally to excess. It made him overtly somber, caustic or sentimental depending on the elixir of choice. He often drank as a means to escape something: the stress of his Wall Street job, Vietnam flashbacks, or my mother’s attempts at cooking a Jacques Peppin recipe.
I was not so horrified by my father’s drinking that I was dissuaded to partake in the activity. Scars, to the extent there were any, were hardly noticeable. There would never come a time when I would saunter over to a bar and proudly order a Ginger Ale or Club Soda.
Whereas my drinking now involves European lagers and gins filled with botanicals picked by the petite hands of Slovenian children, I was focused on volume in my twenties. I drink in moderation now. I abhor hangovers and dehydration. After graduating from college and moving to Washington, DC, though, I embarked on a period in my life when I was a searching for direction.
For the first nine months, I lived with a college classmate named Dave in a high-rise in Crystal City, Virginia, that resembled the set of a Star Trek episode, only filled with bureaucrats and a Korean donut shop on the ground floor. We soon realized we were living above our means, so we moved to more humble one-bedroom quarters in the River Place housing complex, situated in the concrete community of Rosslyn, Virginia just over Georgetown’s Francis Scott Key Bridge. The plan looked good on paper but exposed its flaws when I brought a young Peruvian woman back to the apartment one evening. We were greeted by Dave eating a bowl of cereal in his boxer shorts. My guest thought she had mistranslated a joke when I told her that, at 23 years-old, I was still sharing a bedroom with another man.
“Do you guys have bunk beds?” she asked.
“Of course not,” I replied. “Our beds are side-by-side.”
After some banter with Dave, I brought her back to our room to show her that I was indeed weird and immature but not a liar. It was dark and we mistakenly wound up sitting on Dave’s bed. Dave soon entered the pitch black abyss and hovered inches from the girl’s nose and asked what we were doing.
“You smelled like Frosted Flakes,” I begrudgingly told Dave after my friend left never to be heard from again.
“She smelled like sin,” he replied. “And you can do better.”
After a year, Dave decided to move to North Carolina to pursue a Master’s Degree. It was a bittersweet departure. Dave was more mature than me, or anybody I knew for that matter, including my own parents. He interceded after I nearly threw a haymaker at a Johnny Rockets waiter who had attempted to put a soda jerk hat on me during the staff’s rendition of a Frank Sinatra song. Dave also escorted me once to George Washington University Hospital after I contracted what was diagnosed as a gastrointestinal infection, more commonly known as “food poisoning.” I told the kind nurses at GW that my menu the day before was rather simple: an entire large Dominos pepperoni pizza and give or take 10 cans of beer. I awoke the next morning and had grown rather ill.
“I knew it was bad news when I woke up and saw that pitchfork in the corner of the apartment,” Dave said referring to the weapon I had stolen from an unsuspecting woman I had met at a Halloween party the night before.
Dave was a bridge between college and the adult world. I missed him but we both knew it was time to move on. I opted to get my own apartment in the same River Place complex. They marketed it as a “hybrid studio.” Depending on one’s view, it was either a 600-squre foot apartment with a bedroom the size of a large closet, or a studio with a closet the size of a very small bedroom. I went with the former concept and used a large United Nations flag that I picked up as compensation from a past unpaid internship as the door. Guests would start squirming after entering my apartment convinced that in 20 years I would be the subject of a moderately-rated Netflix docuseries.
I found myself completely alone for the first time in my life. The guardrails were down. And while the independence was liberating at first, I was soon reminded of how much I feared solitude. Freedom was marked by intense stress as I was bound by the chains of self-doubt. I had just landed a job as a writer for a Defense Department journal. In the ‘90s world of apathetic slackers, I was motivated and impatient but had no idea what I was looking for or how to get there. I’d write my stories but they seemed to have little impact on the world around me.
My restiveness would hit its peak every Thursday night. Like an old married couple who kept battered copies of the TV Guide in the side of their favorite Lazy Boy, Dave and I were dedicated to our programs when we lived together, namely the famous Thursday night lineup of Seinfeld and Friends. When Dave was gone and I was sitting alone on the same chair Dave had passed onto me as a parting gift, the Friends theme song hit home with a more powerful and disturbing force:
So no one told you life was gonna be this way
Your job's a joke, you're broke
Your love life's DOA
It's like you're always stuck in second gear
When it hasn't been your day, your week, your month
Or even your year …..
In retrospect, my life wasn’t all that bad even though at the time it seemed unfulfilling as I wandered aimlessly and chased unrealistic self-expectations. My job was good but didn’t support my lifestyle, which led to a steady buildup of debt. My love life hovered between disastrous and sporadic but this was more by choice than compulsion. I was attracted to ambitious women but then turned off when their ambitions exposed the reality of my lost soul, a young man who couldn’t define happiness or satisfaction were he asked point blank to do so.
Just like the show, I relied on my friends to survive this dark patch, even if they dragged me deeper into the abyss only so that I could find a way out. I’m usually attracted to people who are suffering from the same ills as I am. On weekends I found solace in my college friend Matt and another I had met in DC named James. All three of us were going through the same disquieting experience of being in his twenties. For Mole, the time was a stressful one. James was more relaxed. He was confident we had more time and things would work themselves out, a disposition wrought from being raised an only child. On weekends we drank to make us feel better, in New York, DC or Baltimore, and each excursion offered a window into the quirks of humankind.
I was with James one winter night in the Adams Morgan section of DC when I decided that it was time to leave yet didn’t tell anyone. Despite abiding by the mantra of leaving no person behind, I’ve always been a runner when drinking to excess. I would hit a certain threshold of alcohol and I would vanish. I stumbled outside and got into the backseat of the first car I saw.
“River Place,” I mumbled as the car sped off.
We were driving for about ten minutes when I realized we were heading in an unfamiliar direction and the large cab driver had an even larger friend with him perched in the passenger seat.
The car was beat up and had comically false forms of identification hanging from the passenger side sun visor. “Washington Cab Company,” it said in black magic marker. I started to sober up as it was obvious that we were not heading to Virginia and I was in a gypsy cab, an illegal form of livery that would take unsuspecting passengers to a remote location and rob them. It was Uber’s unfinished 1.0 predecessor and one of the frightening hallmarks of living in DC in the nineties.
“Oh crap!” I said. “You need to pull over.”
“No” the passenger said irritatingly.
“I’m going to be sick.”
“Bullshit!” he and the driver said. “Bullshit.”
“Pull over and let me throw up,” I said while scrambling and frantically feigning terror that I was about to soil the vehicle, which they didn’t realize I could do on a moment’s notice. Everybody has a superpower.
They pulled over and I flung open the door and ran, sobering up each and every foot. When I thought I was far enough away I tried to determine where I was, a difficult task in my inebriated state. With no phone to guide me I just picked a direction and started walking. I was desperately looking for a sign when I found myself at the corner of Florida and U, a crime-ridden section of DC at the time. I started to panic and encountered two young men and asked for directions. They too were inebriated but not enough to sense my panic. I explained that a gypsy cab had just dropped me off and I was lost.
They offered to help me get me a cab but suggested we get one near the safer confines of Howard University, which was about a 10-minute walk away and where they were students. They were enjoying my description of my close encounter and after we had grown confident that nether party was going to murder the other, they invited me in for a beer. We drank and talked for a few more hours. I’m not sure about the specifics of the conversation, other than that politics and race came up. I remember telling them about the time I lived in Atlanta and went to a classmate’s party. She was black and lived in a bad neighborhood. My mother made me go because she knew none of the white kids were going. My father was skeptical too but ended up hanging out in the driveway talking to neighbors and the classmate’s family, who appreciated that a few of her school friends showed up as most had declined the invitation as my mother had predicted.
I had never told that story until then. Alcohol had opened up otherwise forbidden filters. And it was the first time I saw someone moved by my words. I still remembered the details of the event, and told them it had a profound effect on my life, that you can look at the world as cruel and bad or one with hope and promise. If we just kept talking and viewed others with the goodness they offered, the world would be in better shape.
And then I pushed too far and my judgment-impaired brain arrived at a conclusion that was unforeseen until that moment.
“You know,” I said, “What I think it really means is that black people love me.”
The statement did not receive the reaction I had hoped for – laughter mainly. I had not intended to be funny. I tried to pull myself out of the nosedive but only kept descending further.
“No,” I said. “Hear me out. When Racquel’s grandmother hugged me she passed something to me.”
They howled at my drunken ignorance. The only gift that had been passed onto me before was fear, they observed. They were wrong though. In my twenties, I had no fear. And that was my greatest asset and also my greatest liability.
They forgave me for my faux pas, and by the time we finished drinking, it was early morning. I slept on my new friends’ couch. I woke up a couple of hours later and left. It was daylight and my sense of direction was returned in more ways than one.
I told the story to Thomas Duffy, an older editor at the journal I worked at. He was framed out of central casting of a 1950s newsroom. He was curmudgeonly and direct but he was a good man and a solid listener who would impart words of wisdom that one would glomb onto.
While many young writers were scared of Duffy, my misapprehension of social boundaries prompted me to share my weekend antics with him. He would laugh under his breath while trying not to succumb too much to his childish impulses, which I took as a sign that he should join us. He always declined my invitations, indicating he had given up drinking years ago. “And,” he said, “I’m not going to be your fucking prop when you go out.”
He once drove me home after we had covered an event at the Pentagon. As he turned the corner into the River Place complex, I told him that living in such a dismal place was depressing. The job didn’t pay well and every relationship I had was brief and unstimulating. I was unintentionally summarizing the Friends’ theme song. When I opened the door to thank him for the lift, he looked at me and said, “Someday you’ll look back at these days as the happiest in your life. You’ve got time.”
My exit from the post-college funk, like the oft-quoted line from The Sun Also Rises, happened “gradually, then suddenly.” It was prompted by a number of factors and events, the most profound of which was when I sat next to the pastor of Georgetown’s Holy Trinity Church, Lawrence Madden, while taking an Amtrak train from DC to New York to attend a party at the New York Athletic Club. Fr. Madden struck up a conversation while he grabbed drinks from the bar car. The priest was gregarious and possessed an inviting aura. He drank and talked with ease and abundance. We spent the entire duration of the train ride doing both. The alcohol lifted the filters and I tackled topics that had bothered me about the church for years, namely the lack of female priests and the Church’s disdain of homosexuality and divorce. As we drank more, I suggested that they serve alternatives to Communion hosts, which were dry and unappealing.
“Something, you know, like ravioli or Belgian chocolate,” I said.
I also confessed that I was a germophobe and never took the wine because of how many people drank from the same cup.
“Why not just have a tray with little servings of wine in cups?” I asked Fr. Madden.
I had only found my way to Mass occasionally during my years in DC, mainly when I was living with Dave, a staunch Catholic who guilted me into going. As the train rolled into Penn Station, and we disposed of the impressive collection of bottles that we had gathered during the 4-hour train ride, Fr. Madden implored me to go to Mass the following week. He promised me that his homilies were good because he was a Jesuit, and he specialized in making homilies relatable.
Even now, if I like someone, I easily succumb to peer pressure and guilt, especially if the peer was a 63-year old Jesuit. The next week I awoke on Sunday and walked across the Key Bridge and through the doors of Holy Trinity Church. Fr. Madden was right. His was a master liturgist and his homilies were inspiring. During my first visit there, he mentioned me in his homily. Not by name. He just talked about our conversation. He said that he spent four hours on a train ride defending the Church and answering questions from a young man who got bolder (drunker) as the conversation progressed. In reflecting on our conversation, he realized that his answers were imperfect but that he was a better person for being challenged. He had been exposed and that vulnerability had made him stronger.
I started attending Holy Trinity more frequently. The summer of 1997 was my last before heading off to law school. I decided that I needed a change of scenery. I had grown to love DC but it’s a transient town catering to the young and the successful. And I was neither at the time. Many of my friends had left to return home to smaller towns or bigger scenes like those in New York and Los Angeles.
During one of the last Masses I attended, Fr. Madden talked about one of his favorite New Testament passages. He liked it because it didn’t resonate with just Catholicism, but all religions. It also offered lessons on how to live a life that one day people will remember as fulfilling: Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:36-40)
So many stories of alcohol are acts of contrition. For me, it is not. For four years in DC, I acted foolish but I was not a fool. I was a bit lost. Mostly though, I was vulnerable. And while drinking may have been the cause or effect of it, it made me willing to expose my unfiltered self. And it was then, when I was most vulnerable, that I witnessed graciousness. People who welcomed me into their homes, who comforted me when I was sick, who drank and ate with me, and who picked me up when I was down.
Before I left DC, I took Communion from Fr. Madden. And then, instead of skipping the offering of the wine, I stopped, took the chalice and drank from it. And I was not sorry.
Chris Parent is a writer and intellectual property attorney from Zurich, Switzerland originally from the U.S. His writing has appeared in publications ranging from law reviews to humor sites like Points in Case. His passion is creative nonfiction and he has published essays in Across the Margin, Kairos Literary Magazine, The Good Men Project, Memoir Magazine, and Ginosko Literary Journal. He won the Fall 2020 Memoirist Prize for a story about his early introduction to racial inequality. He is an active member in the Geneva Writers Group and the San Diego Memoir Writers’ Association. Links to a selection of his works and background can be found on www.chrisparent.net.
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