As far as drinking goes, I don’t — or only rarely do. I half entertain notions of an autumn awash in Glenlivet, if for no other reason than to help attenuate those inevitable demons of hindsight I’ll be battling by that time. I sometimes think it’s for this last gasp that I’m keeping the kidneys pink. In the meantime, I can take alcohol or leave it. Maybe I was born without the juicer gene in the same way that some are born without wisdom teeth or earlobes, but I’ve just never thought it improved anyone or anything, and have never understood them what romance habitual substance abuse. Instead, I’ve worked to foster healthier habits, including actively avoiding the kinds of people and situations where I might feel tempted to abuse alcohol as an asthesic buffer or social unguent in the first place.
However, on those increasingly rare occasions when I do drink, (as in DRINK), I’m extremely careful in my selection and meter. Bourbon treats me right, whereas just whiffing a glass of Bordeaux gets me tight. Whenever I do misstep — and once every ten years or so, I do — it’s usually a gloriously shambolic affair ending in soft S’s, body aches and certain disgrace.
With absinthe, it was quite different. I never felt drunk. I even carefully flossed all 32 teeth before bedding down early that morning in Lisbon on my perfectly firm melba-like mattress in the Hotel Mondial. None of the indications were present: no sweats, no centrifugal phantoms, not much in the way of weaving or staggering; I wasn’t speaking in my Cookie Monster voice, (a ridiculous coping mechanism for whenever I’m bombed), and neither was I trying to seem extra-sober (another such mechanism). Neither upon rising six hours later did I feel like my life was about to shred apart around me, one terrifically undersized vomit bag at a time. That’s how absinthe works, that dirty, gummy-haired whore; instead of barreling roughshod across your blood-brain barrier like any proper spirit, she slips in slowly & furtively, and once installed, gets busy with her big green strap-on, fucking your brain into two messy halves, and then messy quarters with all the violent momentum of a dozen baby grands hurled from the tip of Mycerinus.
I first crossed paths with this appropriately-colored toxin after making contact with Bill ‘n’ Ted (no, not really) on our last two nights in Lisbon. Bill’s a former colleague of my wife’s, which is how I first met him. On the surface, Bill’s a former jock with an uncommon yen for hair gel, easy money, and AM radio talking points; beneath the surface lurked more of the same. It’s Bill’s street smarts that make him takeable. He’s got a little of the hustler in him, which is always likable. Ted was Bill’s coworker, who I’d never met before. Ted seemed cut from much the same bolt as Bill, albeit with slightly duller shears. A jaded slob who casually referred to his mother as a boozing slut and insisted more than once how he didn’t want to live past the age of 55, I could tell Ted had serious demons — which, good or bad, is better than no texture at all (which is most people). It was on the second evening we all met up, and our last in Lisbon, that we repaired to a little Japanese restaurant, having burnt-out on shellfish, baccalau, and other standard Lisboan fare.
Unlike myself, Bill and Ted were incredibly well-traveled for their age, both of them working in IT for a major cruise line. Despite their chubbed-out Passports, however, they remained unmistakably and unapologetically a couple of South Florida crackers. The table wine that evening served as a kind of grape-flavored paint stripper, and before long, both Bill and Ted’s already impoverished sense of decorum was sloughing off in chunks. The conversation turned to references of bitches, and how many firearms they each owned. Decency was the next layer to dissolve, as they started flinging the word nigger around in a casual manner that seemed meant to suggest how outrageously irreverent and real they both were, but which in reality, was just depressing. Also, as with numerous other alpha squares I’ve met, they both openly reviled the Beatles with a curious vehemence, (meanwhile, Apple Bottom Jeans rates as the stuff of battle cries and epitaphs).
Following our feast of uncooked sea life, everyone (but me) decided to cap things off with a celebratory club crawl through Lisbon. I don’t do clubs. To me, the world is like a veritable rock garden full of beautiful stones unturned, whereas nightclubs are the swamp-end of that; moist little dens of anti-mystery where the arrested and incurious can go to noisily experiment in unhygienia together. Surrounding myself with Marley-loving frat boys swilling from Solos and middle-aged I-REALLY-LIKE-MYSELF! type divorcees breaching the tensile strength of their compression undergarments as they try to dance away their fears of dying alone and unnoticed to alleged music — aka, a series of prefab loops downloaded and mixed on a smartphone earlier that day by some underemployed gimper with experimental facial hair whilst hogging the WiFi at his local cafe’ — just isn’t my thing.
And yet, I relented…
Maybe it was the cosmic nature of bumping into someone we knew on the other side of the planet, combined with the irritating rebukes from the Missus about how cloistered I was becoming that compelled me to act so goddamn agreeable. That, and the fact that Bill paid the bill. Whatever it was, I was in Good Sport mode. (Don’t ever let anyone guilt you into good sport mode.)
We trekked the mile or so of cobblestone to Lisbon’s main drag through an incipient rainstorm, hitting two ratty little clubs in all. I drew the line at two, refusing the extra-absurd rockabilly club out of hand; doog-clickity-doog slap bass and slimy black pompadours in Portugal? Fuck that!
The second and last club is where things went from ok to wretched, starting with my almost losing a shoe to the tacky floor surrounding the bar area. The staff and patrons were decently friendly, including a short, moon-faced Dane who struck up a conversation with me while we both waited for the WC. She asked me what I was doing there. I thought by this she was referring to how such a fetid shit-pit was so easily beneath a man of my perceptible stock, until she cheerily clarified that what she’d actually meant was, what was I doing in Lisbon?…
I was there at the invite of my wife, on a small guided tour of coastal Portugal. The general mission of the tour was supposed to be sensory in nature, but with a particular emphasis on scent. Having grown up with a blind parent, maximizing all five senses has always been a personal injunction, and since olfaction is the one sense that’d remained mostly neglected throughout my exploits, I was at least intrigued by the premise. Still, I had my misgivings, especially as the prevalent demographic of the group was somewhere between 50 and 70, affluent, overweight and under-fucked. Not exactly my tribe.
The second afternoon in Lisbon was hosted by a preeminent perfumer from London, a slithery queen who treated us to high tea and spoke with an affected lilt that was one part TE Lawrence and two parts Bond villain. He was clearly something of a rock star in the world of haute fragrance, as evidenced by the Eucharistic reception from the rest of the group. As an outsider, the fawning left me feeling both bemused and a tad queasy. Nevertheless, I actually learned some very interesting things about agarwood and vetiver, and his presentation was perfectly entertaining. Most of all, I admired his jingoist-tinged Olde World sensibilities when it came to the packaging of his perfumes. “The box alone is hand-assembled, in England, by the English, each one requiring at least 40 minutes to construct,” he hissssed, furling and unfurling his hands all about the box. Dwayne, the industrialist visiting with his wife from Houston, openly spluttered, counting up the beans in his head and making exaggerated fart faces over such ephemeral concerns.
Dwayne was a classic study of the kind of man who’d misspent his life trying to learn what to do in order to be more like people who were better than him. His heart, what little there was, just wasn’t in it. I’d’ve loved to have seen Dwayne after two or three glasses of Absinthe…
Speaking of — I only indulged because Ted, who purchased both rounds, seemed increasingly like a soul alone in the wilderness, his face melting with quiet despair like some hangdog motherless child. In the shitty half-light of the club, Ted looked increasingly to me like a cross between an out-of-shape Mickey Spillane and a poor man’s Jackie Gleason. I’ve a weakness for tortured souls, and in that moment, the absinthe seemed to serve as some kind of cheap bonding agent. What can I say — I’m as soft-headed as I am softhearted: if I sense someone likes me and they express it with any kind of gesture, it’s just real hard for me to turn it down. If you liked me, and you expressed it by placing a dried turd in my pocket, or by gifting me a Best of Foreigner album, I’d accept either token most graciously. As such, I agreed to the first round. Ted was instantly elated, frantically plying me about how this was the real shit — “not that cartoon version you get back in the States!” I briefly inspected the green-tinged syrup before gulping it back with ombibulous caprice. Wincing, I exhaled the fumes and feigned some kind of gratitude; Gack! Fuck your mother!
I wanted nothing to do with round two, and when it appeared before me a few minutes later, I let my irritation be known by animatedly deferring, trying to fob it off on Bill or my wife who both looked upon it like a glass of barium. Ted’s face started melting again…okay okay, fine. I did the math, considering my body weight and adding up the not-quite-three Super Bocks over a three hour period, and decided, most unwisely, I could take it.
I even reasoned to my fool-ass-self that self-medication in that moment probably wasn’t such a terrible idea. After all, sitting there watching Mickey Spillane and the other two fling their limbs randomly about to Miami bass at brain-scrambling volumes was making me feel vaguely unwell. If you’re a sensitive person, as I am, sobriety in that kind of environment can seem more like a liability to your health than swanning down a drum of Everclear on an empty stomach.
And so it was, that I arrived in the Czech Republic, rumpled and dissipated with my expensive dinner from the evening prior scattered across two paper sacks. I’m still undecided if it was the straight absinthe, or a combination of absinthe and the slosh-gut induced by chugging down five glasses of Lisboan tap water in a bid to rehydrate that morning. I know enough to avoid drinking tap water in unfamiliar cities, but after waking up with absinthe mouth — a kind of intense oral carpet burn — I couldn’t get enough of the shit. My friendly and sincerest advice to anyone who isn’t me: don’t do what I did. You’ll be alright.
With great luck, that won’t end up my epitaph.