One Ugly Thirst

It all started in Mission Beach, where so many of us got stuck back in the Roaring ’90s. The place sucked us in like the rip current; and now, 20 years and a million beers later, I find myself here — facedown in the sand; a gnarly gash in my knee; dry, caked blood all down my shin; missing a flip-flop; with burrito all over my shirt and beard. How many days have I been on this bender? I know it began Friday at the Coaster with their $2 drafts. That’s it, I’ll blame it on Leah, the bartender. She keeps ’em coming like an assembly line, and that’s why I got so tanked. Alcoholics have creative ways of blaming their iniquities on other people.

I get up and stagger around a bit. Usually, this is where I go grab a beer, but this time, my body’s making damn sure I know this ride’s over. Dry heaves kick in as I check the wallet — still got a few bucks left. How much did I start with? Five, six hundred? I could’ve bought a flatscreen or flown up to San Francisco for the weekend and a show at the Fillmore. I could’ve paid off my credit card. But drunks don’t think about that kinda stuff till after the fact.

My phone says 8:00 a.m., and from the date, I know this thing’s been going on for five days. Five days of complete inebriation! An entire work week — like it’s my frickin’ job! Pathetic. I also see I called my ex-wife. I can only imagine what kind of stupid came out of my mouth. This is the last time I’m doing this. Once this hangover’s gone, I’m controlling the booze. Not the other way around. I’m gonna get active and find a purpose. You’ll see.

Finding a cab this time of the morning’s a challenge, but I manage. “Hey, homie, I’m headin’ downtown,” I tell him. “Front Street exit.”

As we head south past Lindbergh Field, I look out at the Harbor Island Sheraton and the tranquility of the bay. This town’s the epitome of sublime, replete with opportunity for adventure. Most people on this big ball of blue can only dream of such a place. This guy driving me, I can tell he’s from Somalia, a country with no government, where day-to-day life is challenging and precarious. And here I am squandering away paradise by living in a bottle. Utterly depressing.

After he drops me off at my condo in the Gaslamp, I go upstairs, draw the blinds, turn off the phone, put the TV on real low, and curl up on my couch, trying to disappear. That’s when the cold sweats start, and it ain’t sweet summer sweat from dancing in the courtyard. It’s the putrid, viscous, endocrine- and alcohol-based diaphoresis from the skin helping an overburdened liver filter out poison and dead cells from my body. I wish I could dance to forget.

A few hours later, flashes of memories kick in: getting tossed from the Beachcomber, getting comped at Sandbar, getting denied at the Pennant, telling Hayley I’m obsessively in love with her, asking Laura to show me her feet. People must think I’m a whack job, and maybe they’re right; but I’m gonna change from now on. They’re gonna see that I’m different. They’re gonna see that I’m normal.

The dry heaves become unbearable. They actually turn into convulsions. I try to yak to feel better, but nothing comes up. There ain’t even bile left in there. I drink a little water, ’cause I know I need it, but it comes right back up. That’s right. I have polluted my body so badly that my stomach rejects anything I put into it in a mad, desperate attempt to make itself healthy. At this point, all emotion is gone, and I just lie there — one miserable and useless creature. Absolutely sickening.

Anyone who’s been through this (and I know there are a lot of you) understands this story pretty well so far. Short naps give you periodic reprieve from the torment, and the next day you feel good enough to at least go outside and walk around — have a smoothie and some water. By evening, you can stomach a small, healthy dinner, soup or a wrap. You’re getting well. That night, you only sleep three or four hours, but you wake up feeling reborn. Detox complete.

I jump out of bed and seize the day — start with a five mile run in Balboa Park and sweat the good sweat. Rejuvenated, I go home and take my first shower in a week. Then I hit the bookstore and spend hours reading at Embarcadero Park, wondering why I haven’t spent more time indulging in this simple pleasure I grew up loving so much.

Today is the first day of my new life.

By evening, my hunger’s back in full force, so I go to Nicky Rottens for a burger. I contemplate a beer — no, not quite yet. I stick to water. Later in the night, I hit the Gaslamp Tavern and Bareback Grill for the Laker game, sipping O’Doul’s the whole time. Kobe wins it with a buzzer-beater. This can’t get much better,

I hang out a couple more hours, then head home, sleepy like a baby. I’m gonna crash like a rock tonight, and it’s gonna feel great. I strip down to my Dickies and crawl into bed thinking about tomorrow. Maybe I’ll kayak La Jolla Cove or rent one of those stand-up paddle boards and cruise Mission Bay, or hike Cowles Mountain and transfix on the glorious panorama that is this heaven. I’m out of the dark haze of alcohol, and my world is blessed as I doze off…

That’s when I hear ’em. The people. The LOUD ASS drunk people. The bars are letting out, and the streets are filled with lame, drunken sluts and kooks screaming and yelling and acting stupid. It’s okay. They’ll be gone soon. Don’t get mad. But they don’t leave. They just keep getting louder and Louder and LOUDER! These idiotic, cantankerous imbeciles are infuriating me beyond explanation: couples fighting, bad music, horns, alarms. I snap. I get up and pace around. Any other night, I’d be right there with them or so drunk I’d sleep right through them; but tonight’s different. And these dumb-ass cops with their siren blips and bullhorns only exacerbate my rage. It overtakes me.

I’m aware of what I’m doing, but it’s a detached awareness, like looking at myself from the outside, as if in a movie. I open the drawer of my nightstand and grab my .357. It’s nickel-plated and shiny. It’s got a wood grip. And, yes, it’s fully loaded.

Sticking it in my waistband, I walk outside. As I watch myself, I don’t even wonder what my intentions are because I know I have none. My actions are automatic, irrational, and uncontrollable.

I am in a state of psychosis.

I get two steps out the door when I hear it slam shut behind me. At that instant, reality swings around and cracks me across the skull like a two-by-four. I suddenly come to my senses and realize I’m standing in the middle of the Gaslamp Quarter, mostly naked, locked out of my complex, with a loaded .357 exposed and dozens of people around. A brief moment of panic ensues. Then I run to a garbage can, pull my gun, stick both hands in the trash, empty the cylinder into one hand, pocket the slugs, and dig around for a bag, a big piece of paper, anything to wrap the pistol in. People look, but I’m mostly invisible, just some deranged hobo looking for a snack. Finally, I come up on one of those Styrofoam to-go boxes with half a sandwich in it. I dump the sandwich, box up my gun and get out. Yeah. This bum found what he was looking for, and he wishes it was only food.

As I sit in front of my complex, I wonder if this is what they mean by “rock bottom”: when you’ve destroyed your life so thoroughly with your drug that sobriety actually makes you worse because you’ve taken away the one and only thing that allowed you to hang on to that last tiny strand of sanity. When people who once loved you reject you because you made them lose faith. When all the other wonderful experiences and potential of your time on this planet fail to make a dent in the massive void in your soul because nothing but your drug can fill it, and that that fulfillment is temporary and false. When you encounter the hard, irrefutable, conclusive, and final truth that there is no hope for you; not the remotest chance of atonement, redemption, or expiation. I have utterly failed at every good thing I have ever attempted in my life. I am as worthless as the garbage I just dug through.

There is no light that shines from me.

Mercifully, a neighbor staggers up. He doesn’t even notice me as he opens the door, and I walk in behind him. Back at my pad, everything’s the same yet so different — so surreal. In this very place, I lost my mind for a hot minute. It was only a few moments ago, but it feels like ages. I take my gun out of the Styrofoam box, set her on my dresser, and stare at her. Some voice tells me to look up and into the mirror. Look up and see yourself. Gaze into your own eyes and do some deep soul-searching!

But there’s no way. Not right now. Right now I just stare at my gun. I have full knowledge of what it is I have to do. Before I lose it for real. Before I make innocent people pay for my transgressions. This will be easy. This will be quick. And the world will be better off. This thing I’m about to do is the only thing I know, and I’m too stupid and weak to learn anything else.

I take my gun, put her back in her drawer, and head straight for my liquor cabinet. ■

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