Wednesday, March 11, 2009

18 Years & Counting--Part I

Huzzah for me! Yesterday, March 10th, was my 18th sober anniversary. On this date in 1991, I walked into a 28-day rehab in Northern Virginia. I had my last drink--a hefty slug of warm Popov vodka--in the parking lot, stashed the half-empty bottle into a nearby trashcan and, drunk and apprehensive, swung open the metal double-doors and changed my life. It was 7:45 in the morning.

I detoxed for three days. Detoxing from alcohol is dangerous; it can kill you outright, so generally it is done under observation. I remember none of it, save for a patchy image of falling down the stairs and being caught by a very large Black man who looked like Mike Tyson. I don't remember his name but he probably saved my life.

Seventy-two hours later, the in-house doctor looked me over and told me my liver was hardened, a bad sign, he said, but livers do recover if given time. I could not write. When I tried to, I was overtaken by a sense of dread so deep my hands and fingers refused to work. I had a patchwork of veins--gin blossoms, they're called in the vernacular--on my cheeks and beginning to invade my nose. I had lost the ability to smell anything save the most noxious odors; I shook; my eyes swam.

They kept me thirty days in all, and when I came out I really did not want to drink, except now and then. So I mowed my lawn in early April when the ground was still frozen, and then I asked my neighbor if I could mow her lawn, and she let me do so with a strange look on her face.

I went to meetings daily, and followed an aftercare program to steel me against relapse. I received a one-month chip, the medals given to people in recovery for time spent sober.

I was back at work, a strange place to be when sober. For the last year or so, I had needed a drink in the morning before work, followed by two Xanaxes to keep me on an even keel. Now I chugged coffee and diet Coke.

When at lunch with colleagues, I proudly refrained from drinking, but if anyone noticed, they didn't comment. I was aware before that most people I lunched with could drink a half-glass of wine and leave the other half. I would drink five glasses, draining each and every one.

My then-wife did not like that I vanished at night to go to meetings. She resented my attempts at taking control back. One time, she told me she liked me better when I was a drunk. Within a year we separated.

I began writing again. It wasn't very good or interesting.

Here's installment 73 of Wasted Miracles.

Chapter 19

The assistant sous-saucier had been harboring a low-level fever for three days. It wasn’t enough to go on sick call--not that he ever would, the saucier was a slave driver--but it clouded his judgment. He had added too much white pepper to the blanquette de veau au persil, failed to sample the remoulade de canard and been unable to detect an overabundance of ginger in the coquilles St. Jacques à la Vietnamienne. These subtle failures had annoyed his immediate supervisor, but not to the point of reporting the oversights to the chef administratif.
Jean-Marie Berger, the sous-saucier, felt his stomach rumble ominously. He swallowed once, twice, closed his eyes, breathed deeply through his nose and exhaled through his mouth. That calmed him somewhat. He went about his business efficiently, checking on the work of the three sub-assistants for whom he was responsible, saw nothing amiss. He ducked out for two quick puffs of his cigarette, blew the smoke out through the overhead vent. The no-smoking rule was rigidly enforced in the galley; the chef administratif was a born-again teetotaler and reformed pack-a-day smoker with little patience or compassion for the unfortunate many who could not control their addictions.
Jean-Marie focused away from his stomach and concentrated instead on how he would feel two hours’ hence when his shift was over and he would be able to have a quiet smoke in the designated area before going to bed. He thought about his girlfriend in Brest, whom he would be seeing in two weeks, and how she would like the trinkets he had bought her at the ship’s gift store.
He glanced at his watch. Time to make the sauce marienere à l’ail des îles. He rubbed his hands together. Creating sauces always seemed to make him feel better. He went to his locker, removed the packet of spices he had purchased three days earlier at a small fishermen’s restaurant far from the tourist trade. The cook there had served a dish that had been spectacularly piquant, and Jean Marie Berger, ever on the lookout for undiscovered ingredients, had managed to secure a small amount of the mixed herbs that had made the cook’s food so distinctive. He shook a teaspoon of the melange from the plastic bag to the palm of his hand, smelled it, smiled. The diners would be pleased, the spices truly reflected a tropical personality.
In a large metal bowl he spooned the ingredients of the sauce mariniere without measuring, doing it by heart and feel. He added virgin olive oil, a cup of tarragon vinegar, sherry, garlic paste. His stomach rumbled again and he held his breath, willing it into submission. He dumped the island spices in, mixed slowly and evenly with a large wooden spoon. He wondered if he had picked up some sort of intestinal flue. He’d been feeling poorly for 72 hours, it had started on his return from the fishermen’s restaurant, undoubtedly would go away once it had run its course.
When the sauce’s consistency was to his satisfaction, he called one of his assistants, handed the man the bowl and told him to brush the mixture lightly onto the chicken breasts prior to broiling them. The man nodded and walked away.
A wave of sickening heat rose from the pit of Jean Marie Berger’s stomach, rushed past his chest, up his neck, lodged in his mouth. The intensity of it took his breath away. He staggered, held with both hands onto the edge of the large butcher block. His legs suddenly felt boneless and he crumpled quietly to the ground. His eyes seemed to swell in their sockets, his tongue felt like parchment paper. He took a deep breath and forced himself to stand, looked around. No one had seen him fall. Good.
A second wave of nausea swept through him and this time he was ready for it. With all the dignity he could muster, he walked slowly to the small toilet reserved for the kitchen employees. The light in there was very bright and hurt his eyes. He tried to focus on the sign admonishing kitchen workers to wash their hands but the words swam. He fell to his knees and vomited, tried to aim for the toilet bowl, missed. The chef administratif found him there two hours later. Jean Marie Berger’s hands were clammy and his breathing slight and rapid. He did not respond to the chef administratif’s questions. When two men from the medical dispensary took him away on a stretcher, they had to strap him down. His legs and torso were trembling spasmodically. One of the men, a young Ugandan from Kampala, had seen such a thing before. He commented that it looked a lot like a case of food poisoning he had encountered once in Mali, where the cook in a no-star restaurant had sought to brighten the taste of his creations with powdered mangrove root. Within 72 hours, fifteen people had suffered severe food poisoning, and four had been hospitalized. The man thought of telling this to the ship’s physician but did not. He had never cared for the physician who that very morning had made disparaging remarks about he state of former British colonies. The man was old, dour, and, the young Ugandan knew, did not well take to suggestions from lesser medical personnel.
He opened one eye, then another, closed them both. There were people talking in the background, the conversation rose and fell, seemed to stop, start, stop again like a faltering engine. He could identify two voices and tried to concentrate but what the talkers were saying was a mystery. His head hurt. The pounding came from inside and radiated out like a malevolent heat source.
“He’s coming to. Colin? Colin!”
He felt his head being lifted and scalding liquid hit his lips. He tried to turn aside.
“Colin! Drink this. Now. Don’t be more of a bother than you already are.”
He opened his mouth and the liquid seared his tongue. He swallowed and immediately felt sick.
“Way to go, hotshot.”
He recognized the voice and it filled him with dread. “Orin.”
From the corner of an eye, Colin saw the spokes in the wheels of Orin’s chair. The spokes whirled and made him dizzy so he closed his eyes again. He heard the wheels’ shushing sound get closer to the couch.
“Bang up job, Colin. Couldn’t have done it better myself. I always said if you’re gonna go out, do it in style.” The chair moved again. “Certainly hope a couple of those drinks you had, you had for me, considering I had to pay the fucking tab. Which, I might add, really pisses me off.”

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