In a world that demands so much of us, I’ve found it best to bring my own Diet Coke to parties. You’d be surprised how few wine-and-beer people are also Diet Coke people. I used to think it was rude to bring my own can, but what’s really rude is sipping a sad tap water in a circle of people who just want to enjoy a buzz. What is also rude is asking someone to stand on a kitchen chair and reach their hand into the depths of a dusty cabinet, searching for an antique Pepsi.
I am of the age now where new acquaintances see my can and ask if I’m pregnant. It is thrilling to be asked if you’re pregnant by someone who doesn’t even know your last name.
Not that I know of! I say and people laugh. No, I add on, I just don’t drink!
People never laugh at that response, which is not to say they do any one thing instead. Sometimes they hide their drinking hand. Other times, they melt into a softness or a sadness. Occasionally, someone asks why not, and whomever is next to them scolds them. I am a fixer, which means there is a bomb inside of my body that will go off if I don’t make everyone feel better in moments like these.
No worries! I say, worried about what to say next. I’ve just never felt good drinking. I also have some baggage. My brother drank.
Greg did a lot of that didn’t include drinking. He was a veteran and a social worker and a marathoner and an acoustic guitarist. He was a restaurant manager, an occasional skateboarder. He planned on opening a taco truck. He didn’t make it in time, but he planned on it.
Drinking was the least “Greg thing” about Greg’s life. He was a soft-baked empath and the exact person you’d want in your corner during quiet moments of reflection, your lowest of lowest of lows. To imagine him mingling in a amplified bar is like imagining a paperback book wedged into a stack of CDs; a story among stories, but all-too delicate to resist the weight of its surroundings.
For this reason, Greg would have seasons where he drank at home, hiding a handle of vodka under a wooden work bench at my parents’ house until I had a chance to find it and empty it and fill it with water and feel a little bit like I was doing something meaningful. It all felt very meaningful at the time. I was 16 and well aware he needed quiet help, and at 16, when you feel immensely unimportant, to quietly help is something of a gift. The lines were blurry for most of my teens — if he’d get injured and didn’t want our parents to know, if he’d run out of money and needed to fish some change out of my cup holder. He couldn’t have been lower in life than in those moments.
I think about them all of the time — now years after his sobriety and his relapse and his passing. I think about what that must have felt like to ask a baby sister for help in stalling on a secret that wasn’t very secret at all, what it meant to be in the lowest of lows with nobody to turn to because you are usually the person.
And I think about my tendency to try to fix people, and how I poured booze into an old fern during the years of my life where all of my peers were acquiring a taste for it.
I wonder sometimes, selfishly, candidly, who I’d be if I, like some fraction of Greg, wasn’t defined by the thing I’m not. I like to think I wouldn’t be that much different. I’d just be who I am, holding a beer or a shot, things I admittedly still do when I don’t have the energy to explain why my inclination is to pour them out.
I like to think we all have something we are not — something we simply don’t have a taste for — that in turn defines who we are. I like to think these things can be very beautiful. Every non-sober host or hostess is a welcome hug and a cabinet reach and a soft place to land, no matter what they are serving. And I am a safe ride home and an ally and *always ready to help you get rid of your antique Pepsi. And Greg was someone constantly working to figure out what he was, a source of love and curiosity and kindness and strength and bravery, even in seasons that demanded so much. Especially in seasons that demanded so much.