For nearly two years, I had been test-driving my sobriety under all kinds of conditions. So, when the opportunity presented itself to take it to the Bonneville Salt Flats of social gatherings – my fifteenth college reunion – and really open it up and see what it could do, I decided to go. I had unfinished business with that ‘fucking asshole’. Maybe it was ‘once a fucking asshole, always a fucking asshole’ and maybe it wasn’t. Maybe I could put an overlay on the past, like acetate entrails on the skeleton of the Visible Man.
Throughout college, the hat I wore was The Drunken Idiot Hat. I was a shiftless drunk, oblivious to every academic or social pressure, just skating. I defaulted to the six-year plan, ultimately flunking out again in a protracted, sodden way. When I slunk away at last after my second senior year, it hadn’t been alcohol that brought me down; it was everything else.
Shame and misery coalesced into resentment and, while it lost its edge over time, it had never softened into true acceptance. My willingness to explore this mess of late-adolescent foolishness and waste, to consider revisiting the scene of the misdemeanor, was testimony to the influence of Alcoholics Anonymous galvanized by Wes’s death. His suicide awoke in me a sense of accountability. I had nothing to lose in confronting my haunted, unhappy past and might, just might, discover a way to take my eyes off the ground and face forward.
The feeling in my stomach as I drove up College Hill Road was what you usually felt going down a hill, a solid tug on your intestines from the vicinity of your tailbone. I went first to my old fraternity house, but the parking lot was empty. Just as well. I found my friends eventually or they found me. The rest of the day was a blur of how-ya-doin’ and remember-when until Pat and Tommy and Jim and Ronnie and I ended up at a bar called Prop’s Inn.
Prop’s was a local tavern for locals, far enough from school that it was spoken of only apocryphally. We knew where it was, but only fellow students who grew up in Utica had ever been there and then only to watch hockey. When we arrived, it was dark and smoky and the clock had tipped past midnight. My friends ordered a pitcher of Utica Club and I piped up, “I’ll have a Diet Coke.” “Is Diet Pepsi okay?” the waitress asked. “Uh-huh,” I said. As I swung my gaze back to them, they were all staring at me.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” said Ronnie.
I think I lit a cigarette.
I don’t remember the discussion. It couldn’t have lasted very long. Our bullshit joshing and carrying on might have been disturbed for about a minute, all furrowed brows and ‘those meetings’ questions, then my Diet Pepsi came and the pitcher of UC. Nothing happened. I didn’t drink. It didn’t matter that I didn’t drink. No confrontation. No weirdness. I knew I’d catch all manner of shit later in the weekend, but I didn’t care.
That was that.