As I mentioned in 25 things meme and probably elsewhere, I defy stereotypes of a Russian being a hard-drinker. I’m very partial to red wine, I order a screwdriver once in a while, I drink beer under right circumstances (such as when watching sporting events or gathering with friends for a barbecue), I enjoy sherry…
But I don’t drink vodka straight up.
Back in my college days, I successfully combined being more or less a non-drinker with an ability to imbibe a lot of alcohol at parties. Most of the time, I did not even suffer from much of a hangover the following mornings, but there were a handful of notable occasions1 where I lost control of the amount – and/or mix – of my alcohol intake and regretted it a lot afterwards.
This is the story of the very last such occasion. It happened almost precisely 13 years ago. The exact day is probably lost in the annals of history, but it is linked with a birthday date of February the 13th – the numerical symmetry makes it fitting to name today as the anniversary.
My friend Leo was celebrating his 30th birthday. As is customary within Russian immigrant community, he organized a banquet at a popular restaurant. Three dozen or so people were invited, mostly good friends, plus Leo’s parents and in-laws.
Leo also extended invitations to a couple of his non-Russian co-workers. I am not sure of the details, but they either did not think of explicitly RSVP’ing or assumed that they did, while Leo thought that they were not coming. Whatever the case, he gave the restaurant the number of people who would be attending, so the tables could be prepared accordingly, but two extra couples showed up at the start of the celebration.
The manager indicated that there was no possible way to reconfigure our reserved tables for extra persons. The restaurant was packed. Eventually, a small table for four was procured on the other side of the dance floor. Of course, the extra guests could not be sent away to sit on their own. After some deliberations, Leo’s in-laws graciously volunteered to move to the separate table. Leo forcefully insisted that he could not ask any of his other guests to give up their seats at the main table, positioning himself for a standing-up dinner. His wife attempted to join him at that, but I convinced her to let me have the honors.
What happened in the next few hours was basically that neither Leo nor I had much of a chance to eat anything. The celebrant had to be constantly toasted, often by “competing” factions at different ends of the table. He acknowledged every toast with a shot and I, like a faithful sidekick, did likewise. I tried to shuttle between two tables a bit to get myself some morsels of food, but as much as I enjoyed the conversation with Leo’s in-laws, I wanted to be in the thick of the celebration, too.
What’s more, we had a bright idea that we needed to “teach” Leo’s co-workers how real Russians drink. So, instead of moderating how much we drank, we kept downing one shot of vodka after another with a “that’s how you do it!” attitude.
Long story short, on empty stomachs and with vast amounts of vodka, we quickly broke the “wasted” plateau. Last thing I remember was being asked by our friend Alex for a favor. He was on the dancing floor and his glasses constricted his freedom of movement. Since I was a known non-dancer who happened to be passing by, Alex figured he could enlist me in getting his designer specs into a pocket of his jacket which was draped over his chair at the table, as opposed to, you know, doing it himself. I duly complied, confidently slipping the rims into a sleeve of his jacket. They ended up on the floor, someone stepped on them, the whole deal… To this day, when Alex and I meet, he mockingly offers his specs to me with resignation.
The festivities continued into well after midnight. Long before the end, I checked out on a sofa in the vestibule. When Natasha felt ready to leave, she was faced with transporting my barely-alive body home. Somebody must have helped her to walk – or carry – me to the car. All she needed to do was traverse almost the entire length of Brooklyn’s Coney Island Avenue and then figure out a way to walk me to our apartment.
Middle of the night. Wide and brightly-lit snow-covered avenue. A lone car slowly proceeds from one traffic light to another. Every time that it stops, the passenger door opens, the person sitting there leans out and makes further attempts to empty his stomach.
As one traffic light turned green while the passenger was still at it, a police vehicle pulled abreast with the car. “Is there a problem, Ma’am?”, a policeman asked the driver. “Not really”, answered Natasha, “I’m just trying to get my drunk husband home”.
“What a brave Russian woman!” exclaimed the cops.
What they did next, according to Natasha, is they drove behind her until she got to our apartment block, helped her locate a parking spot (which, in the middle of the night, could only be found a couple of blocks away) and then took it upon themselves to transport me all the way to bed.
Then they called next morning to check up on me.
Swell guys, the police.
Becky was 16 months old at the time. When I recovered by the end of the next day and revisited the preceding events, I felt that what was occasionally okay for a college student or a childless yuppie, was not okay for a father. I stopped drinking vodka, became a wine aficionado, and developed an excellent sixth sense of when I need to stop drinking to never get any worse than “slightly tipsy”.
And this story became one of my favorite ones to recount.
1 I vividly remember every single one of those occasions, by the way. If I were to psycho-analyze myself, I would posit that the fact that I remember them so well is indicative of my overall discomfort with being drunk. Or something to that effect.