I quit drinking on August 6, 2014, roughly 24 hours after I found my then-girlfriend’s mom dead on the floor of her bathroom next to a smoldering charcoal grill. I also quit drinking on June 27, 2015, December 31, 2015, January 1, 2016 and August 11, 2016–the last one coinciding with the day I worked up the courage to finally break up with the woman for whom I literally carried a corpse.
I’ve become intimate with my alcoholism in the last five years. It’s become one of my nearest and dearest friends during a period of endless upheaval in my life: a warm, fuzzy sweater to protect against the winter of my discontent. As loved ones were peeled away from me, one by one, my alcoholism was always there, waiting next to an empty stool or in dark and dusty booths in the back of the bar. When I traveled somewhere new, alcoholism guided me to the pubs where locals drank–usually to avoid talking to people like me.
I quit drinking on May 20, 2019. Yesterday.
Today, I’m sitting in one of my all-time favorite bars, nursing a scalding hot cup of mint tea and anxiously fumbling with an A.A. token commemorating 24 hours of sobriety. The bartender–a towering, gregarious grad student who has never, not once, had to light her own cigarette–is scowling at the sudden downpour outside, which has indefinitely delayed her state-mandated smoke break. Next to me at the bar is another regular, the unfortunately named Guy Fox, who has an infuriating habit of asking for lime juice in every single drink he orders.
Shot of Buffalo Trace whiskey?
Something called an “Adios, motherfucker?”
“It’s so I always know which drink is mine at a party,” Guy Fox once told me while he was cutting limes in the tiny kitchen of his studio apartment. “Plus, I’ll never get scurvy.”
It’s early on Tuesday evening, but space is limited inside the downtown bar. A handful of the patrons are regulars like Guy Fox and me; the rest are small groups who ducked into the bar while fleeing the rain and decided to stay for a drink or two or five. Almost everyone is complaining about television, but I can’t hear them, seeing as I’m busy staring intently at the fridge full of beer behind the bar. A picture of Hank Williams, printed on cheap yellow paper, is inexplicably taped to the corner of the glass door. I glance over at the leaky taps next to the fridge; every drip is a tear shed by my old friend alcoholism.
I flip the token in the air with my right thumb, snatch it back with my left and slap it onto the laminated wood bar. Heads. 25 hours sober.
The rain has slowed to a drizzle, so I walk outside for a cigarette, clutching my mint tea.
No one believes me when I tell them that my first legal drink was at 19, in a dive bar in old East Berlin. It was around four in the afternoon on a sweltering August day, and I was seeking shelter from the vengeful sun. The bar reeked of vomit and roughly a century of cigarette smoke, but it was dark and had its air conditioner set to “gas-station walk-in cooler.” I tried to order a pint of beer in German, but the bartender interrupted me in near-perfect English.
“Don’t worry about it,” the bartender said, a faint smirk betraying what he really thought of me. “What will you be having?”
Moments later, I sat at a dirty table with a golden pint of lager. I snapped a photo with my phone (with the intent of making my friends back in the states jealous of my worldliness) then wrapped my hands around the chilled glass and held them there, savoring the moment.
It’s hard to think fondly about my time in Berlin anymore. On one hand, it was one of the most enlightening, exciting periods of my life–an adventure unlike anything I’d experienced before or since. On the other, I can trace my star-crossed love affair with alcohol back to that August day.
I took a sip of the cold, bitter beer, felt the froth tickle the mustache I had finally found the confidence to grow. Love at first sip. I took another drink–a bigger one this time–painting my upper lip a pale yellow. I took yet another drink, best described as a gulp, and felt liquid courage for the first time.
It’s not like that was the first time I ever drank; by the time I was 19, I was a seasoned professional. I had mastered drinking rye whiskey neat, could shoot tequila without salt or a lime most of the time and added shotgunning beer to my repertoire of drinking talents the night before I left for Europe. But this was the first time I understood drinking: the incredible, refreshing feeling of drinking a frosty beer after spending a hot summer day pounding city sidewalks; the quiet, meditative nature of having a beer alone; the power of alcohol on confidence and courage–how it could take sad, awkward, fearful boys and transform them, however briefly, into the men their fathers wanted them to be.
Two minutes and four gulps later and my glass was empty. I glanced at my handy book of travel phrases, then strode up to the English-speaking bartender and barked, “Ich hätte gerne einen hefeweizen, bitte!” I’ll always remember how hard he rolled his eyes before barking back: “Groß oder klein?”
I shrugged. The bartender said nothing else as he poured another pint and slid it across
Alcoholism is a daunting disease to overcome. It’s even more difficult when you can’t blame it on your alcoholic father.
I’ve only seen my dad drunk once. It was a few days before Christmas in 2005, the year my mom had decided to embrace her Jewish heritage and celebrate Hanukkah, despite protests from my father, a devoted Catholic. It took her weeks, but she finally got him to reluctantly agree, if only because he believed my brothers and I needed more culture in our lives.
In the lead up to Hanukkah, my mom went all out: a shiny new menorah, bags of dreidels, boxed Matzo ball soup mix, a bottle of Manischewitz wine and two copies of the Torah–English, the other in my parents’ native Polish. She even drove an hour to the nearest synagogue to ask the rabbi there for advice on celebrating the holiday properly.
Though he was happy to see her happy, my dad had a hard time hiding his discomfort about not celebrating Christmas; we didn’t have much money, so it didn’t make financial sense to celebrate two holidays, much less one that went on for over a week. While my mom gleefully arranged our new Hebrew decorations about the house, my dad grumbled between drags of his Marlboro cigarettes. But he remained a good sport–until the first night of Hanukkah.
At sunset, my mom summoned my brothers and me down for dinner and the traditional readings. We sat down, ready to get the boring parts over with when suddenly, my dad decided he was going to be involved with the holiday after all.
“Hey, isn’t the man of the house supposed to read from that book?” my dad said. My brothers and I, knowing exactly what was about to go down, immediately sat up.
“You’re probably right. He can take over for me when he gets here,” my mother calmly esponded. My youngest brother struggled to stifle his giggles.
“Let me read it,” my dad repeated. “If we can’t have Christmas, you can at least let me
“You don’t even know how to read it.”
“What do you mean ‘I don’t know how to read it?’” It’s a book! I read them all the time!”
“What’s the last book you read?”
“I just finis-”
“NOT by Bill O’Reilly.”
My father was growing so agitated that he didn’t notice how wide our smiles were growing.
“Just let me read it!”
“Okay, fine,” my mother said, exasperated. “Just let me get some wine first.”
My father proceeded to butcher the reading of the Torah, to our absolute delight. After about 20 minutes, he slammed the book shut, threw his hands up and muttered something about going to the store to get more cigarettes. We barely heard him over our belly laughs.
He was gone for over two hours–just long enough to begin to worry my otherwise unflappable mom. But, just after 8 p.m., my dad comes bursting through the front door, dragging a seven-foot-tall Douglas-fir behind him. The strong pine smell did nothing to cover the smell of cheap vodka coming from my dad. Moments later, my uncle came strolling through the front door with a huge grin.
“Happy Hanukkah, everyone!” my uncle yelled, somehow immune to my mother’s death stare. My dad had disappeared into the storage closet in search of the tree stand.
“You didn’t let him drive like this, did you?”
“Why do you think I’m here?”
Just then, my dad came crashing out of the closet, wrapped in tangled strings of blue Christmas lights and clutching the battered box that contained the tree stand. He detangled himself and got to work setting up the tree–something my mom has done every single Christmas I can remember.
“Do you need some help?” she asked him, her tone suddenly softer, sympathetic.
“Are you sure?”
“I got it. I’ll save Christmas.” Then, my dad turned to me and said “Come here and hold
stand this still.”
My mom my uncle, my brothers and me sat on the couch watching my drunk dad struggle to decorate a Christmas tree on the first day of Hanukkah for over an hour. More than once, my mom offered to help him with lights and ornaments, but my dad refused every time.
“No, you wanted to celebrate Hanukkah, and I was okay with that,” my dad slurred at one point. “But I want to celebrate Christmas, and you can’t take that away from me! Jesus had to carry his burden; this is my burden to carry.”
It was almost 10 p.m. when my dad went into the storage closet and pulled out the last decoration: a gorgeous, ornate angel with an Eastern Orthodox aesthetic. He pulled a chair from the kitchen table and carefully lifted himself up. With a cigarette hanging from his lips, he carefully–so carefully¬–placed the angel atop the tree, gingerly stepped down from the chair and backed away from the tree as if it were a sleeping lion.
(I’ll give you three guesses about what happens next.)
On the first day of Hanukkah, 2005, an Orthodox angel learned what it means to fly–and what happens when no one is there to catch you.
“I’m proud of you, y’know,” Lily, the gregarious grad student and occasional bartender, says to me as we smoke beneath an overhang outside the bar. The worst of the rain has passed, but it’s hard to smoke a Spirit in a drizzle.
“For what?” I reply. I know exactly what, but I desperately want to avoid talking about it.
“Quitting drinking. I think it’s great.”
We stand in silence as a members-only ambulance screams past us toward the ER down the street. Meanwhile, a homeless woman sits beneath a tarp a few feet away, gleefully plucking the petals from a bouquet of roses and stacking them in a neat pile by her feet.
“Too bad it’s not going to make you any less of an asshole,” she says, punching my shoulder a little too hard.
Then, without saying another word, she reaches into her pocket and pulls out a bronze chip, commemorating three months of sobriety.
For the first time in 25 hours, I smile.
M.G. Belka is a writer and journalist based in Eugene, Oregon. Born to Polish immigrants in the South Carolina Lowcountry, Belka cut his teeth on punk rock and underground culture in reaction to the inescapable boredom and conservatism of the Deep South. His writing explores themes of anxiety, politics, substance abuse and underground culture. He can be found on Twitter @mgbelka