By Patrick Mainelli
Featured Art: Committed to Tradition (Uberlieferung verpflichtet) by Monika Baer
I’m not drinking anymore. It’s not a court-ordered thing or medical imperative. I didn’t crash a car or assault a neighbor or luridly graze my cousin’s leg at the reception of her wedding. No one has ever even told me to “take it easy there” as I poured three, four, five fingers of scotch over ice. As a drunk, I’m purely congenial. Maybe I’ve tipped over a plate of food here and there, fallen asleep on the toilet once or twice, sung in competing volume with the Midnight Mass choir, but who hasn’t? After a nightful of drinks I am more inclined to turn embarrassingly casual with my affections than to become anything close to mean or combative.
So this is a self-imposed drought. Denial might be the word.
The shit thing is it’s July. Beer’s favorite month. Because after mowing a lawn or trimming a tree there is no reward like the reward of beer, and because to swim in the lake, to rest tired and near-naked on the shore, and to not drink a beer feels an affront to God’s finer generosities—July demands a beer.
So here I am, the sun falling behind the highest branches of the crabapple in the backyard, and every blade of shadow cast by every blade of grass is reaching like slow sex across the lawn and onto the hammock where I innocently lie. And then as quickly as being run through by a bullet, I quite immediately need—out of thirst, out of boredom, out of other things—to have a drink.
Booze, beer especially, is such a pleasure because it requires from us a very small act of labor. The real reward is the journey. Drink after endless drink. Refilling the glass. Traveling to the fridge now and then. As drugs go, none leave you coming back, so constantly, for more. This slow burn is where the true joy of drinking resides. Sip by sip I am on my way, inching closer to some other horizon.
But no. Not now.
Right now I haven’t had a beer in three days. No tequila in four. Not a whiskey in six. The sun’s going down and my work is done, but so what.
The baby is coming—four months from tomorrow, though there’s no telling these things exactly. Now, on Sundays my wife and I pass the time looking for places to stow the provisions which are already arriving unsummoned into our home. From every direction they come—from sisters of friends, from friends of sisters, from garage sales and basements and thrift-store showrooms. The car seats and strollers and swings—the material wake of new life—are now ours to contend with. Before she could even know she was eligible for such a privilege, our unborn daughter has become the owner of property. Thanks to the energy of aunts and grandmothers and generous strangers her investment in the world has already begun in earnest before she’s even breathed her own breath. And until she arrives, we’re the caretakers of her things. So on Sundays we clean out the second bedroom; we debate the relative merits of “Coastal Beige” and “Papaya Sorbet”; we wait.
And though we will fail, although we’re idiots even to try, there persists the desire to make things right, to arrange for this unknown person, so impossibly small, a world that is perfect.
So, for the first time ever I wipe the dust and dead millipedes out from the corner of every window’s sill. I scrub and rescrub my own greasy fingerprints from the light switches. I obsess over how, in the quick days between now and her being here, I might possibly become a better, more suitable version of myself. For her.
So Sundays are reserved for the stuff. Saturdays are devoted to the other details—the greenness of the garden, the state of the marriage, the mail. In between are five days of augury. Of wondering where this might lead. Who she might be. Who we’ll inevitably turn into. Which is really the strangest prospect of all—this most perennial of parenthood’s clichés—the promise of total change. Of being changed. Whether we want it or not, evolution is always a war of attrition.
It was genius, really. That Life could be so cunning—prescient enough to stow away its half-dubious agenda within my own deeply personal proclivity to want something. Which, approximately six months ago, happened to be sex with the woman I married. How badly I had wanted my self disappeared beneath hers. To flex and sweat and go limp behind the eyes. And then only to sleep. To touch faintly death’s first consolation, which is the end of want.
Like alcohol, sex was a pleasure, but also work. Because once, approximately six months ago, in the early spring of this year, when I came it was (for the first time) not merely the purposeless satisfaction of my own slowly aging flesh, but more accurately the fulfillment of yet another job. The old chore, the vain work of all animals inexplicably burning for more and more and more of themselves.
Of course, at the time I had no idea. It felt just like always. It felt good. And after a few minutes of quiet nakedness I took the needle off the record, washed my face, and fell asleep.
Now, six months later, I have become arbitrarily obsessed with the prospect of contributing to the vast horde of humans born to parents who have simply never found the time to read Nietzsche. When my wife asks that I make time to read her marginalia in The Birth Partner and On Becoming Babywise I say, “Yes.” I tell her, “It’s next on my list,” while I continue to busy myself with culling parenting tips from Beyond Good and Evil.
“No books allowed in the delivery room,” she’s reminded me. “You know that, right?”
And of course she’s right. Of course I have every plan to be fully present—to become The Birth Partner—ready, encouraging, alive for the moment I am responsible.
Today, I googled the Twelve Steps. Right away I was surprised by all the ambiguous nods to God. Half of all the Steps mention either admitting, conceding, or praying to some form of higher power. I wondered if in the seventy-five years since these Steps were first drafted, Alcoholics Anonymous had loosened the reins on its rhetoric enough to allow for more secular drunks among their ranks. Did they now explain away God as being “however you define it”?
“It’s a pretty exclusive group,” a friend in the program explained to me. “There’s a lot of talk about solidarity, but it’s a pretty narrow path. There’s something very self-righteous about saying your sobriety has been secured by God’s Will, or that God cares enough for you not to be drunk.”
In that moment we were standing together in the summer grass of a backyard barbecue. In one hand my friend held a bottle of Diet Coke, and spoke between casual drags from the Pall Mall in the other. All around us were the sounds of drinking: the elevated conversations, the exaggerated laughter, the emptied bottles falling like crystal into the trash.
There was a local chapter of AA, my friend explained, whose meetings were dominated by an old drunk, many years sober. This guy embraced each week’s gathering as an open forum for proselytizing about the “eternally looming hazard of sin.”
“It always went something like: ‘In every sinner lies a good man hungry for something he cannot have,’ or, ‘There can be no satisfaction without withdrawal.’ Which, I mean, duh. We kind of all knew that, already. That’s why we were there.”
I nodded as if I, too, understood. And then because it was there, and because what else was I to do, I put the Budweiser to my teeth.
“Anyway,” my friend continued, “no one ever tries to stop him. They just have to let him rant. That’s the way it works; you have your five minutes to let out whatever crazy has been in your head since your last meeting and then it’s the next guy’s turn.”
My friend had turned to AA when his affinity for alcohol had become “unmanageable,” to use the program’s language. Even though I may have sometimes found myself at the emotional mercy of alcohol, I cannot, by any stretch, consider my condition unmanageable. Like anything else, I suppose, it comes down to how much crazy we’re willing to allow ourselves.
I had another friend. She had, as it were, something of a pathological relationship with the future—which was her particular kind of crazy. As a teenager she dropped out of high school; as an adult she quit or was fired from more jobs than most people have in a lifetime. She drank frequently, took drugs when she felt like it, and generally followed whatever path her most immediate desire prescribed. I can’t remember ever meeting someone so consumed with the challenge of living in “the moment.” It obsessed her, really. It was as if she sat forever on the edge of her seat, ready to lunge at some other life that had eluded her.
It was an impossible ideal though, or at least an exhausting one. Because she was, at all times, determined to feel more alive, the moments were painfully rare when she could ever simply be enough alive.
It was a kind of beautiful dance to watch, though. Sometimes I would glimpse—in her movements, in the tilt of her voice—those fleeting minutes when she was close, when she was almost humming as passionately as her small human frame would allow. It was a pleasure sometimes unbearable, to be there, tossed in the wake of her rabid enthusiasm.
There were angels in her bedroom, reproductions of old Christian icons hanging above the dresser and bed. She would reference them, her head on the pillow, admiring their posture, their desireless faces.
“What does it mean to be pure?” she asked me.
Of course, I didn’t know. “Something about being whole,” I supposed. “Beyond the reach of the world.”
Sometimes she’d remind me that despite our clothes, we were still animals, and deserving of our instincts. Of course I agreed.
I was also married. And though the whole circumstance was complicated by the various and wild obligations of sincere love, the truth is none of it—the animals, the instinct, the angels above the headboard—might have been possible were it not for the encouraging smile of alcohol.
Though maybe I was not (am not) an addict, for quite a while I was able to manifest for myself a scenario which could, by no stretch of the imagination, pass for manageable.
Cosmically, the day my wife peed on the stick was the day she found out. Someone, a stranger, had told her on the Internet. When she asked if it was true I told her it was.
“You’re a monster,” she said through tears. Of course I agreed.
In Genesis, Abraham was ninety-nine years old when God came by to tell him he would soon be a father for the first time.
“I will make nations of thee,” He promised, “and kings shall come out of thee.”
Babies have always inspired a kind of magical thinking. Because what a baby brings into a home is not just love and youth and brightly-colored plastic, but the delicious possibility that our work might never end. If only we could beget and beget and beget and so on and so forth into the vast and indiscriminate future, we might live forever.
Abraham certainly pulled this off. As far as patriarchs go, none can claim a more prolific or potent lineage. But for those of us not lucky enough to receive regular transmission from the divine, we may forever be caught in the jaws of choosing between turning ourselves to heaven or the world. Because so often the only higher power I can assuredly recognize is my own nightly craving for cheap beer on cold aluminum, I am inclined to turn to the world.
In the late Middle Ages, Christian theology fought viciously against this kind of thinking—this craving worldview. The philosophy of the body, the concentrated pursuit of physical pleasure, was demonized—our flesh rebranded as our greatest weakness. The poet Epicurus, who for the crime of professing nothing more salacious than the profound happiness to be found in the satisfaction of the senses, was recast by the Church as a glutton, a drunk, a sexual deviant. There were, the Christians insisted, higher satisfactions than those of the body, and more potent pleasures to be found in restraint. The Epicureans liked to insist that because our bodies were made of nothing more than the same swirling atoms and energy that made the world—with no reward, nor eternal damnation beyond—it was simply beyond reason to deny ourselves the palliative of pleasure whenever, wherever, we might find it.
The Christians, along with the various other children of Abraham, won that argument, though. Today the body is still a dangerous place to live. Our flesh remains the fountain of all manner of troubles. It’s no wonder the folks running American network television are free to reveal all levels of human pain, cruelty, and trauma in their programming, but broadcast a plump nipple or some happily erect dick between air-freshener ads, and there will be hell, or at least the FCC, to pay.
At seven years old, I already knew that I could not oblige, no matter how bad I wanted, the random erections which appeared as physiological non sequiturs at the most unsexual moments—during third-grade math, while riding in the back of my mother’s car, waiting in line at the library. Naturally, that sort of thing, the easing of that desire, was to be done at home—or, ideally, not at all. So I hid my lap with a book; I shifted my legs; I was the last one to stand up when the bell rang.
I remember in kindergarten sitting next to a girl who, for the bulk of each day, would casually massage the blunt end of a Magic Marker into the crotch of her jumper. Once, when the teacher had finally caught sight of this, she was so appalled that the only reprimand she could muster was to crazily shout the young girl’s name and stare unblinkingly into her small, frightened eyes.
Fortunately, I’d already learned that poor girl’s lesson. At four or five, my sexual improprieties were at least a domestic affair. When it came to masturbating, I preferred the sleepy comfort of my parents’ living room sofa during primetime. Of course, that particular pleasure was not long for this world. I remember being mortified by the frankness with which my father (God help him) described to me what he had observed me doing while he and my mother had tried to enjoy that evening’s episode of Cheers.
“That is not something that you do,” he explained flatly.
Clearly, though, it was. It was definitely something that I did. It was also definitely something I was interested in doing more of. Although Dad’s lesson wasn’t meant to be a moral one (the tone, more: “Don’t put your hand on that hot stove,” than, “Mind ye the eternally looming hazard of sin”), simply giving language to my pleasure—naming it, forbidding it—was quite enough to render the action perverse in my mind. What I was forced to realize is that what I’d been doing was not the involuntary action of a body trying to comfort itself, but instead the conscious expression of something else entirely. The satisfaction of a desire as yet unknown.
I imagine my classmate had the same awakening, learned the same lesson—only hers had come from an old woman, practically a stranger, and one not paid nearly enough to offer an explanation more detailed than the sorry glance of pure disgust.
I can forget the taste of beer. I can handle the social challenge of being the guy at the party who asks for water. I can sleep without vodka. The hard thing, though, the out-of-nowhere, no-shit, grown-up problem is that every night after my work is done, there is, inevitably and always, more and more and more that needs to be taken account of.
I would like to live in the moment. I would like to be alive without the mediated intervention of something I buy at the gas station. It can be exhausting though—the daily inventory of pasts unresolvable.
There is also this. I am incapable, apparently, of going to the store to buy a toothbrush or a coffee or a can of peaches without encountering some unknown woman whose underwear I would like to remove. Some girl who, for the entire rest of my life did not exist, but now—passing me between the aisles, consulting the grocery list she’s typed into her phone—has become a vividly real reminder of pleasures for which I have rendered myself ineligible. And on the days when I am perhaps especially unlucky, she will glance up from her phone, she will smile unmistakably, she will say undeniably with her eyes: “Me too. My life is good, and I am loved, but me too.”
And maybe I’ve imagined it, or maybe I’ve not. But suddenly it becomes a challenge to walk away. If I do not very quickly hotwire my brain to revert to some more productive line of thinking, I will be stuck returning—in between conversations, commercial breaks, peaches chewed and swallowed—to the way her breasts moved beneath the thin heather gray of her T-shirt, to the mystery of what she reads before bed, to the possibility of being lost somewhere beneath the weight of her eyes.
This is my particular kind of crazy.
It ruins days. It ruins weeks.
We are not angels. We are not untouched. Though we may be animals, it could be that our clothes protect us from more than we think. Whether it be the aching horror of withdrawal or the shame of having touched more than we’re allowed, so rarely can we glory in the strength and pleasure of God or World or Whatever without being left with some debt to attend.
The Christians and the alcoholics have it easy. Beneath all their prudence and abstaining lies a hot sea of angelic desire, bubbling for something that has no home in this world. How fulfilling it must be to believe in wants more noble, more sustaining, than the pleasure of the passing moment. This must have been where that first impulse toward self-denial came from—this hope that we might possibly be more than what we want. The idea that Life, like Epicurus’s atoms, might simply move in and through and out of me, leaving no wound worth remembering.
When I think about becoming a father, I think about the pleasure of giving the world to someone new. I think about seeing—through her eyes—the color of January trapped beneath frozen river ice, rain on the prairie, the skeleton frame of cottonwoods thrown against a darkening sky. If I can be good at this, if I can suspend my penchant for betrayal, maybe I could help her know the satisfaction of small things. The pleasure of presence. The thrill of a world worth touching.
By brutal surprise, I am hungry. As if possessed, I leave the hammock and find myself at the end of a small line in front of the nearest taco truck, grieving the choice before me. Though it all tastes so good—the lengua, the cachete, the pastor, the pollo—I have but one stomach to fill.
When it’s my turn, the familiar Mexican girl in the window smiles and I smile back.
“You like the burrito today?” she suggests.
I decide the buche, and tell her that.
“Okay. Okay. Burrito de buche!” she shouts into the back of the truck. “Five
I had never eaten buche until a few months ago. Standing here in the parking lot I had asked the girl in the truck, this very girl actually, which meat she preferred.
“The buche,” she said. “I love it.”
When I looked bemused, she confirmed: “Pig stomach.”
Of course, it turned out that the pig stomach was delicious—pale cubes of tender muscle, seared brown on the ends but otherwise soft, fatty, melting beneath the weight of my molars. It was just one more of so many old delicacies now ignored by well-fed America. The guts. The ugly tubing of life. Too vital, too real, to ever taste good.
While they make my food I wait on the curb, reading Nietzsche and swatting flies. “The great epochs of our lives,” the old German explains, “come when we gain the courage to rechristen our evil as what is best in us.”
What the fuck am I supposed to do with that? What sort of parenting advice is that, anyway? Is that even advice?
I close the book. I’m too hungry. To entertain the idea of good or evil is suddenly beyond my powers of caring.
Finally, she calls out to me, holding the bag of food out the sliding window in the side of the truck.
“Anything else?” she asks.
I shake my head. To eat the viscera and walk away, that would be enough.
Patrick Mainelli lives and works in Omaha. His writing has appeared in Fourth Genre, Sport Literate, The New Territory, and elsewhere. His work was twice named among other “Notable Essays” in Robert Atwan’s Best American Essays series, and has been featured on the Public Radio program “Living on Earth.”