5 – The Big Geographic

Despite the many benefits of not drinking, my marriage felt precarious. One way I knew to distract from core unhappiness was to make big, expensive, logistically complex decisions. So, Tru and I, we consolidated our real estate, sold the weekend house at a depressing loss, and then sold the co-op, too. No loss there: we were fortunate to capitalize on New York’s first outbreak of gentrification. ‘The March of the Italian Shoe Stores’ up Columbus Avenue in the mid-’80s transformed a down-at-the-heels thoroughfare into a trendy boulevard more or less overnight. All of a sudden, my favorite saloon – the Tap-A-Keg bar, subtitled in neon, One Hell of a Joint – vanished. This was something even a sober person would notice. Especially a sober person would notice. Gone, replaced by some store, and then in mere weeks I forgot where it had been.

Truly, time to go.

We doubled our money and did the yuppie thing. We packed the minivan, drove an hour north, and pulled into the driveway of a spacious old farmhouse on an acre in Westchester County. Plenty of yard for Trudi to cultivate and Claire to frolic in. But for me, being a homeowner and a commuter felt like playing PacMan with a lawnmower, a series of noisy, repetitive ninety degree turns pursued by ravenous phantoms. Nevertheless, the novelty and the space were soothing. I tried going to AA meetings in neighboring towns after I got home from work, but getting back into the car and driving all over creation after the hour and a half on the train was for hardier souls. The lunchtime meeting suited me fine. It let me to stay connected to life in the city and keep my sobriety separate from my suburban existence.

One structural challenge for the newly sober is what to do with all that time, that ramshackle, creaking edifice that had been occupied with either drinking, recovering from drinking, plotting the next drink, or dealing with obstreperous reality. Those hours I filled with my delightful new hobby – genealogy. I fell under the spell of Trudi’s ancestors, whose lineage stretched back to 1635 in Gloucester, Mass. My own relations held no fascination. They were late 19th century immigrants, new arrivals whose paper trails disappeared beneath the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. I obsessed about arcane tidbits and harvested them with gusto. In practice, genealogy is truly a trivial pursuit; what the word ‘factoid’ was invented for.

With each new day not drinking, I fell more and more in love with stories, ones that bubbled up from the past, as well as the ones I heard spun every day at AA, and I began to believe there could be stories in the making. When I drank, I was always jumping out from behind a tree and scaring the bejesus out of myself. I never knew what the minutes or hours would bring. One could easily wake up fired or married or with blood on the fender and not know why. I plodded along, trying to pay attention, trying not to be an asshole. My life was an encyclopedia of unresolved issues, yet somehow they didn’t oppress the way they did when I was drunk all the time.

My attempt at sober living had thus far been brief, but to some people I would always and forever be ‘that fucking asshole.’ The memories of family, friends, and institutions were long. For the past ten years I had been a selfish bastard – unreliable, unkind, underwrought, and, all too often, unsanitary. That was historical fact, but it soon became apparent to those close in that I wasn’t making the same old mistakes. Honesty came easier to me. Well, maybe not actual honesty, but factual congruence. Through the miracle of speech, I could participate in homely conversation. I became a better husband and father. I became a better son to my parents, which in turn caused them to seem less creepy and controlling.

And there was Claire.

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