The Tao of Dry

A portrait of sobriety and a young man

After all these years I still don’t know what to say.

It usually starts at a social gathering when I decline a drink. I try to play it cool, but if I’m polite, I am also very obvious. An awkward exchange ensues wherein I’m compelled to admit that I’ve never had a drink. I don’t really have a reason.

“You know what, man? I think that’s cool.”

I say thanks, my eyes fixed upon a spot on the floor.

“No, I mean it’s cool, man. I mean, I respect it. I respect you, man.”

Here’s how it works, as far as I can tell. In middle school or high school you reach an age when you can start drinking. Most kids pounce on this and never look back; a timid few hesitate. These poor souls may not realize it, but their door to social normalcy is rapidly closing. As time passes, their indecision coagulates and becomes investment.

Each shunned offering entrenches them further. They might begin to take a certain spiteful pride in their weirdness, to get a little competitive about it: Don’t waste your time, guy. The Streak has devastated challengers twice as worthy.

But of course no one really cares, and spite is a lousy foundation for a major life decision. Years pass and habits form: you get used to leaving early or staying home, and you might develop a curious surrogate relationship with your record collection. Eventually, inevitably, investment becomes identity. Your sobriety is no more a matter of choice than, say, your political sympathies, or your allegiance to the hometown football team. Who would you be without it?

I think this is how it happened for me: inertia confused with principle. In those crucial transitional years, I never had the occasion to start drinking—and a persistent, visceral aversion to it has kept me dry ever since.

On a recent night I thought it all might change.

When summer began I came home to Michigan and learned that a party was to be held at the house of a former classmate—a girl with whom, when I was 14 years old, I was sure I was in love.

She didn’t know we were in love, but that was only a small complication. When I saw her in the hallway, I would try to be charming; I would fail each time. But she was a person of tremendous forgiveness—I’m still grateful to her for this—and she would smile and maybe laugh and she would say something that would strike me as brilliant. I would cling to this encounter throughout the day like a sparrow to a bright-colored bit of string, and at night I would add it to my modest little nest of unfounded hope. The whole thing ran its course, and like most youthful delusions it faded away gently with age and experience.

But when I heard about the party this summer, that she was throwing it, the girl cracked open a door that had long been shut tight. I thought I really might break The Streak. Why not? I’d just turned 21, I wasn’t a kid anymore, and goodness knew I could stand to loosen up a little. More importantly, I felt like I’d been given a rare chance to revisit and possibly change the past—I’d be surrounded by the people I knew long ago, before I’d begun my difficult marriage to teetotalism. Convinced that a moment of consequence was looming, I brushed my teeth, donned my favorite shirt, and went.

One of the annoyances of not drinking is that you never know what to do with your hands. If conversation stalls, you can’t raise your drink contemplatively to your lips—no, you have to stand there and look stupid. You’re missing the universal prop, the plastic cup, and you’re defenseless.

The fateful party was well-attended, and I drifted from circle to circle, trying to be sociable, but I felt like an old band-aid floating in a swimming pool: directionless, conspicuous for the wrong reasons, and a bit of a downer to anyone who sees it.

I’d best get drinking soon, I thought, or this night could fall apart.

Then I saw the hostess. She was hunched over on the linoleum with a paper towel in both hands, scrubbing with determination at a spot on the floor. I walked over to her, my palms a bit damp with sweat. A lot was riding on this encounter.

And then she looked up, glassy-eyed, and I wasn’t sure that she recognized me.

“Someone spilled,” she said, turning back to the spot, which, despite her malicious stare, looked exactly the same as the rest of the floor.

“No, no,” I said. “I’ll help you clean it up.”

I squatted down and looked at her closely. There was nothing wrong with the spot, but something wasn’t right with her. I removed the paper towel from her yielding fingers and put it aside.

“Here,” I said, taking her awkwardly by the elbow and helping her to her feet. She leaned against me without protest. Like a real lady she put her arm around the crook of my elbow, and like a real gentleman I escorted her to the toilet.

Minutes later she got sick. I held her hair back. The smell was overpowering, and I grasped desperately for some lingering hint of her shampoo or perfume. But it was nowhere to be sniffed. The vomit fumes had strangled it right out.

The Streak was safe.

There was a break in the action, and I heard her breathing hard, her shoulders rising and falling. As she gathered herself I peered idly over her shoulder and into the toilet bowl—and suddenly I felt tired and lonesome, and it was all I could do to keep standing there behind her. I guess the stench must have got to me.

Before the spirit moved her again, before she returned to the toilet, retching afresh—before I went soberly home to throw my vomit-encrusted shoes in the trash—I thought I saw something looking back at me out of the water. It was my 14-year-old face, dimpled and pimpled and hopeful. I could almost make it out. It’s just that, you know, there was that cloud of orange vomit in the way.

William B. Higgins ’06, a news editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Eliot House. The Streak has been going 7871 days and counting.