Sorrow Distilled

Writer ILSA CARTER examines her relationship with alcohol …

It wasn’t Justice, it was just us. Soft-spoken girls carrying big sticks. We were blindfolded and punishing a piñata, when the pretty pink papier-maché exploded, spilling its sweets and showering sparkling necklaces all over the ground. Pilar found a paper crown. She placed it on my head and pressed her palms in to the centre of my back. She was short, but she shoved me, and I stumbled toward a beaten-up bamboo bench festooned with fake flowers and plastic plumes. Illumed by their onyx eyes, I settled into the rattan saddle. Its raffia, coarse as a horsehair shirt, unravelled to prick my sticky thighs. For a moment, left bereft and alone, I was a deft nose-picker on a wicker throne, fixed in a red wagon clumsily covered with tinfoil. This dumb tot, with a lot of heave-ho, would become a kind of kindergarten Cleopatra towed by thumb-sucking boys, as beasts of burden. Absurdly I clutched a sugarcane sceptre, and as such disregarded sceptically the rubber wheels of my not so large barge grinding through gravelled pot-holes dotting the lava-like tarred lanes, their lazy magma ablaze and melting down from the main drag of Mid-City. It was noon in New Orleans and the Fidelitos burnt like little black beans in a hectic fiesta. Subsumed by Spanish, I couldn’t comprehend that parade of compadres stretched around me, nor why they crowned me queen of the Cuban crèche.

In the 1970s, I had hair as long as Cher, and wore velour cropped tops over my mosquito bites with white vinyl go-go boots to tap dance on the coffee table. Dad was dashing, sporting bold sideburns and striped shirts open at the neck with pointy collars. He had a king-size chess set, on which I was quite keen. Pop and his pal took turns calling out their respective moves like noble knights astride oversized La-Z-Boy recliners. Not without some difficulty, I pushed pawns and rooks roughly the same size as me, around the chequered board fashioned of faux fur which floored the entire parlour. Perhaps this
paternal pastime should have honed my ability to think five moves ahead.

But I’m of the single mind, that rather than a sense of strategy, structure, or safety. What I gained was a firm and familiar grasp of geography, as demonstrated by a series of sacrifices, swindles and stalemates, the horse latitudes of my love life. It goes back to those cocktail glasses gilded with a map of the world. The soundtrack was Dave Brubeck and Daddy dictated in dulcet tones that after the ice, I pour rum in to his glass up to the equator, then add Indian tonic up to Toronto. Or he might be in the mood for a Martini, topped up somewhere between Turin and San Francisco, if memory serves. The bar nestled at eye level, flanked by my father’s library of banned books like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer. Air-conditioned against the swelter summer outside, we were shelf-absorbed.

Mom was more of a shock absorber, a night nurse who, at dawn, padded back home silently in white soft-soled shoes. Once inside the front door, off came the bleached uniform over her head on her way to the kitchen. Now dressed down to an ivory lace slip and sheer milky stockings, she reached into the pantry, between the Spam and Cambell soup, her fingers finding and self administering a dose of Jack Daniels with Coca Cola via her morning coffee mug.

Telltale ice cubes tinkling, she sashayed the length of the dark hallway, to lean against my bedroom door-jamb. I played possum, testing her patience until she tapped the acorn shaped finial of the mahogany bedpost, saying, Young Lady, you need to get your priorities in order. As soon as I sat up and stretched, she turned on her heel, vanishing into the shadows to mount the central staircase like a satiated vampire and sleep all day. In her later years, Mom switched to Diet Coke and Wild Turkey and Dad had quit cold turkey. But by then, they were divorced.

I come from a long line of alcoholics and a few religious fanatics. A feuding family put a fork in the road. In an unprecedented show of intellectual independence and sectarian schism from the conservative Christian elders of their extended family, my parents converted to Whiskeypalian. While Gramma prayed daily for their sins, the young rebels chain-smoked, partnering up to play heated card games of canasta with new-found flippant friends, quaffing kirsch over smorgasbords of philosophical fondue fired up with foreigners, politicians and high church priests.

Baptised three times by warring factions during the battle for my soul, I was too young to know better. The third time was the summer of my thirteenth year, when my grandmother’s Southern Baptist fire and brimstone preacher steered me into a lofty backlit basin which seemed queerly suspended by in mid-air below a striking stained-glass window. Startling me, he caterwauled, Are you prepared to take Jesus Christ as your personal saviour? I’d detected the tank during a dry run endured with the deacon, but not guessed my gossamer gown would turn transparent in two cubic tons of holy water.

My hometown had been renowned for moral turpitude a hundred years before I was remanded to a strict institution on its outskirts. Fatigued I think mainly from my reign in borrowed mink as homecoming queen for military academies and the racy embrace of Catholic boys, I was now surrounded by southern fried Elysian fields and confounded by fundamentalists who firmly believed God’s wrath prohibited the primrose path. Dancing and mixed bathing were deemed just one scathing step away from premarital pregnancy. So we were a sporty sort of student body that never forgot to smoke pot and snort a lot before the rim shot. My high-heeled pumps jumped right in with the pro basketball bible thumpers, but I concur that home court condones no advantage if you’re drunk during the slam dunk.

I double-dated with the coroner’s daughter, sometimes staying at her stately home on St Roch Avenue. She’s a doctor like her dad now, but even then we had unauthorised access to an array of pharmaceuticals. One morning, on the way to class, I washed down a small pill with a bigger bottle of booze I found under the front seat of her car.

By the time the morning bell tolled, I was a walking talking hot toddy, warmly greeting student and teacher alike, until the conflicted principal snatched my crowning moment, saying, “It pains me to do this but you leave me no choice. You’re not a cheerleader, so I can’t ground you for a few games. I’ll have to nullify your nomination to the homecoming court, as you participate in no other extracurricular activities”. I sold contraband on campus, behind the gym at lunch-time, but he and I, despite the tight relationship we had forged based on mutual respect, never broached that topic. His last words were, “You exhibit tremendous leadership skills. My dilemma is, you’re leading the student body in the wrong direction.” Them diadems were placed on more prudent princesses, as I genuflected without genuinely reflecting. No one had conspired against this high-spirited imp. Like Persephone, I was simply inspired to go against the grain, in pursuit of the grape.

Perhaps it was preordained that I’d have difficulty discerning the straight and narrow. Like a sparrow out of a snare, I fluttered freely out of there when family bridges burned. Not certain what we had learned, I earned a subsistence at a posh tennis club to pay for my lair and not much grub. To be fair, I wasn’t a player, just a stayer, sustained by mushy peas, mac and cheese and the mixed nuts we served in the bar. Mohammed was a shorter member and he drove the biggest car by far. It was an aquamarine Rolls Royce, like an enormous pastel after-dinner-mint, and when the Persian plastic surgeon went on excursion he could barely see over his own steering wheel. He asked me out for a date, which was great. I planned to dine early with the man and dash not too late. Was he thinking French Open or Grand Slam? I was strung tight as the subtropical twilight enveloped us in a well-funded glow. It was time to go, but the lascivious doctor’s looks lingered longer each time they landed on me. He scrutinised my eyes, mulled over my mouth, examined the good nose God gave me. A friend had even photographed me for her rhinoplasty consultation, so a nose job was the last kind of job I deliberated when I accepted the Iranian invitational.

Tennis as we know it was invented in France. The game of the palm was played indoors on a hard court and a bit off the wall, so through it all, I kept calm. His inscrutable eyes were on the horizon, when they weren’t resting on my best feature. He was going to make a point. Reaching over, he took my hand and diagnosed, “You have a drinking problem.” The single malt was without fault so I downed my dregs and begged for a double. I puzzled no more, between guzzling and nuzzling in a chador. His backhand was a tie-breaker and I didn’t budge because in tennis love means zero.

Within a year I woke up on a broken sofa between a soft-spoken stripper and a bookie, look here, both back-breaking professions. A cab took me to rehab. After a week of whining and dining behind the saintly stone walls, the wasted waif I was weighed in at a satisfactory 98 pounds. Now I was allowed off the grounds to take the daily constitutional. The staff stipulated that we patients hold hands like toddlers on a field trip, but all the same I nicknamed it “The Nut Walk,” and talked mostly to myself.

I feel no pain when I abstain. Lent’s 40 days are child’s play, compared to spending my 20s in AA. I was clean, serene and pretty mean for a decade until my career careened to Korea, where I wasn’t going to just sit back and watch deals get sealed over scotch and kimchi.

Shoulders were cold in Seoul, until I reignited my romance with booze. Was I the cross-cultural vulture or the one used to make the currency ooze? My amused hosts toasted my svelte pelt into a confused human crouton, and via a Singapore sling, catapulted me with a loud plop in to Hong Kong Harbour for the Handover. After a hundred years of British bling, the region was swinging back to Beijing. Prince Charles, Prime Minister Blair and Governor Patten sailed away on the Brittania, never to be back and the steadfast Union Jack was jerked down its mast. Maybe my English boss cried like a baby, but that’s no excuse for crucifying me in one purge of a merger. We danced at a disco dubbed Club 97 in Lan Quai Fong, drinking shots of schnapps to the clap and boom of bursting fireworks. What a scene. I still perk up when I hear God Save the Queen.

Many moons later, me and Monica Bellucci were dying for a drink. The famous film star and I fastened our seat belts in Air France First Class. We turned off our phones, darted our eyes at each other, and wondered, who would use who as a flotation device in the unlikely event of a water landing? With my boyish frame, I figured the sex symbol would be the buoy, but if we lost cabin pressure, and the oxygen masks above our seats deployed, I planned to assist the actress in adjusting her oxygen mask and then start chain-smoking cigarettes, the way I normally do when something goes wrong. It seemed all the passengers had boarded, until the air marshals escorted a dignified African man dressed in a colourfully cheeky dashiki down our aisle. He was serious as a heart attack, and handcuffed.

Having headed to the back of the packed plane, and just when the wafts of the prisoner’s pungent unguent had evaporated from their first pass, the feds reappeared, apologetically pausing at our row. I reckoned they were starstruck by my supermodel seatmate who had taken off her enormous dark glasses to pout and look about in that Look at me la di da don’t you know who I am kind of way. Rather, they unlocked the detainee’s restraints, releasing him for his own safety during the flight, and gestured toward our vacant middle seat. He landed like the jailbird he was, his bushwhack worthy hands freed from bondage. First gauging the ageing Bond girl, now upstaged, he then nodded at me but I couldn’t respond. Tongue starched to the roof of my mouth, I was parched and the criminal smelled like a piña colada. What had he done? Might he do it again on an overnight transatlantic flight? The captain didn’t hesitate to mess with the marshals, hissing at the stewardess, hands on hips. I don’t read lips, so I strained to ascertain when I would get a sip of something. Could we kick off our trip with a cocktail and have a ball all the way to Charles De Gaulle? Nope, we parked and disembarked. My holy grail was a margarita in the airport bar. I got that far, and déjà vu, there was the crew! The passengers also manifested minus Monica. The prisoner and the pilot were both under arrest. It was for the best. Turned out our burned-out captain was blitzed. I snapped my fingers and ordered una mas margarita. My extradition to Paris wasn’t until mañana. Plenty of time for a tequila tan.

Rashly, I presented my rosacea to my darling dermatologist, a Parisian apologist with a panacea for cash. You’ll pocket my purse if you lift this Celtic curse. Fidgeting from the crackling layer of protective papier hygienique stretched between my bare bottom and her examination bed, I peeked under her welder’s visor to inquire was it wiser to drink white wine or my favourite red? Lady Liberty held her laser high, prescribing forfeiture of fermentation. Haven’t seen the corroded copper colossus since. Instead, I bought spanking Hermès black leather riding boots. They were tight but I slipped into them tout de suite and went to a superb seven-hour lunch where they put those troublesome tiny bubbles in Champagne. There vigilant lads, on the qui vive, willingly refill wine glasses with just a tear drop, une larme. No harm in that. Back home I sat, my lower legs and feet ballooned. Soon my tired entourage were required to free me from my footwear at last, a winded Cinderella in reverse.

With half a bottle of Chablis in me, Pierre picks up the pace as we race over the clover and past the heather. The weather is fine and nine-year-olds are selling lemonade in the shade as I wade through memories. A man dear to me once said, “Hear those drums beating in the distance? They’re for you, Kid”. I bid farewell to fear and my barefoot youth. The thorny truth is fasting fortifies, and Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

Ilsa Carter

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