One Good Thing
Ben and Jerry’s ice cream cake.
My dear friend and business partner, we’ll call him Nick, is going through a very rough separation from his wife, Nora. They’ve dated for 11 years, been married for five. I’ve known them both since I opened the bars. He built the dj booth, built our sign, and has been a key dj of mine to this very day, spinning once or twice a week, every week, for the last ten years. She, too, has been one of my right hands. She’s bartended for me since day one. She’s charming, sweet, kind. We tease her that she makes “Hello Kitty” look like a bitch. They’re just this super cute Oakland hipster couple, driving around in a ’64 T-bird that he airbrushed with skulls, dice and all sorts of other Oaklandish totems. Picture perfect.
She left to stay with her parents about two months ago. Nick held it together for a while, immersing himself in bar construction projects and taking care of his 12 year old daughter from a previous relationship.
But in the last two weeks, the thought that they might not work it out hit him like a freight train. And the first place he looked for comfort was the bottom of a bottle.
He’s always been able to handle his drink, so I wasn’t concerned at first. But then one day I called him at around 1 pm to confirm an upcoming meeting we had scheduled. He picked up the phone. He was slurring, surly and snapped back at me that he didn’t need to be there, since no one listens to him anyway. This was not Nick. This was not the man we nicknamed “the laconic cowboy,” a tall, rangy fella who says very little, barely smiles, barely frowns, but will fix your car or your plumbing in a jiff with no more than a pocketknife and screwdriver. I raced over to pick him up. His eyes didn’t look right. Half closed, unfocused. Neither did his skin color: it was a waxy yellow at the fingertips. I’ve known this dear man for 10 years and had never seen him like this.
The next day I checked in on him around 9 pm and found him in a back room of their house – he can’t bring himself to sleep in their bed – sobbing on the couch. He was inconsolable. He was pulling straight from a bottle of vodka and listening to This Mortal Coil, Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance. He was falling to pieces in front of my eyes. He just sat there sobbing, great shoulder racking sobs that left him looking like a crumpled mannequin. Some moments he would laugh and berate himself for fucking up, but mostly he just drank and cried. I hugged him, held him, tried to talk to him, and eventually, that night, got my arms under his armpits, and dragged him down the hall, where I got him into bed and stroked his damp hair until he passed out.
All the next week we – me, his other friends – took shifts babysitting him. In his lowest, drunkest moments, he would ramble on about “ending up like his brother, only I’d do it from a taller bridge.”
Four years ago his younger brother jumped off a highway overpass bridge, but it wasn’t very tall. He spent nine hours in agony before dying.
I called the Suicide Hotline and made sure to do everything they told me: reminding Nick of how loved and important he is (and loved he is. His birthday parties are so big neither of our bars can hold them: he has to rent out large theater venues to handle the crowds who show up to celebrate him). I brought in different sets of friends, even employees and ex-employees I knew he was on good terms with, to take over when I couldn’t be there. I called his sister, who lives out of state, and asked her to come down. She did, and stayed with him for a week, bless her. I knew to call 911 if I ever thought he was a real danger to himself.
But the worry never left me. You can’t be with someone 24 hours a day. No one can. And only a cop or doctor can forcibly commit someone to a safe facility. And all it takes is one low moment alone for something tragic to happen.
We all held our breath as Nick continued on a five day bender the likes of which I’d never seen. He didn’t know what day it was, his downstairs tenant reports that he was up until 10 am one morning screaming and dancing and yelling “fuck you” over and over. Some nights he didn’t come home. At one point his car broke down, so he walked four miles through Oakland to get to the bars. I bought him a large coffee one morning and he poured Jameson’s into it, wryly and bitterly telling me “alcohol makes everything better.” We were in a helpless frenzy, watering down his drinks, cajoling him into going home early, but nothing was a guarantee.
The hotline even advised using the old line, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” It’s a great line, but it sounded just a notch too pat to me for Nick’s ears, so I didn’t go there.
I told him that even if the worst happened, even if he wasn’t getting Nora back, he had to endure for his daughter’s sake. His reply: “she doesn’t need me. I’m a deadbeat dad who never wanted to be a dad in the first place.” Jesus. I replied that he doesn’t know that, couldn’t know that. My parents split when I was young, I barely saw my dad, but in my teens and especially my twenties we grew closer together because it so happened that we clicked, regardless of our shared genetics. We loved movies, flamenco guitar, Cezanne, and jamon Serrano. I told Nick this and reminded him that he couldn’t predict what kind of relationship might blossom with his daughter, even if he felt it wasn’t there today, even if he felt he had failed her these last 12 years.
He didn’t say anything in response.
One day Nick was so drunk he couldn’t drive to school to pick her up. So I did. She’s a sweetie, and I was wondering whether she knew what was going on. My God, how could she not at the very least notice the smell of alcohol coming off his skin? Or his half closed eyes? Or the uncharacteristic skull cap pulled low over his head. He was cold all the time now.
Two days later Nick finally stopped drinking. It’s been about a week now. I don’t know what clicked in his head. Maybe something in a phone call with Nora, maybe some reflection on his brother or daughter, who knows. I went over one night to keep him company. He couldn’t sleep now, not with Nora being gone and with no liquor to knock him out. He’d been watching movies ‘round the clock. I called Nora, and asked her if Nick liked sweets. I couldn’t believe that after ten years, I didn’t know the answer to this question myself, but that’s the laconic cowboy for you.
Hell, it was only a week ago that I heard about his brother for the first time. Nick and I would dj standing shoulder to shoulder every Saturday for years, and there was just so much I didn’t know, so much he didn’t want to share. Nora said he did like sweets.
So on the way over, I stopped and brought an ice cream cake from Ben and Jerry’s and had “We Love You, Nick” written on it. When I arrived, he was watching “Traffic.” I watched the second half with him. After that we put on another movie.
One Bad Thing
All of the above, except for the ice cream cake.