No, you didn’t wake me. Nobody here got any sleep last night. There’s a woman down the hall who spent most of the night screaming. She thinks she has hepatitis or something. You look dubious. Well, she’s obviously in some kind of pain, whether it’s in her liver or in her head. There. You hear her? Can’t you give her Fentanyl or something? You’ll make her happy, and you’ll give the rest of us some peace. It’s a win-win.
Unethical? Isn’t it your job to alleviate suffering? We’re all suffering here.
Yes, I’m in pain, too. No, I can’t rate it on a one-to-ten scale. I feel as though my head is caught in a trash compactor. They told me I have a mild concussion. I probably have a hangover, too. Also, I can’t breathe. Is my nose broken? Are my teeth all there? I did learn something last night: an airbag packs quite a punch.
Rate my mood on a one-to-ten scale? That’s funny. A scream, you might say.
No, I don’t feel suicidal, though if that screaming persists, I may before too long. To the extent that I can remember anything from last night, I don't think I felt suicidal then either. Admittedly, my actions may suggest otherwise.
So, I take it from the tenor of your questions that I’m on a psych ward. How long can I expect to stay here? That’s pretty vague. I’d like to leave today. I didn’t think you would recommend it, but I can, right? Against medical advice? So be it. That screaming has me at the end of my rope.
No, I don’t know how much I drank yesterday. A lot, I suppose. More than usual, even for me. I have been drinking quite a lot lately.
Yes, there’s a family history. My father was a drunk. Probably drank himself to death. He died of liver cancer. He left when I was eight. I saw him sporadically after that. According to my mother, he paid his child support sporadically, too. No, not violent, but he was mean. My abiding memory of him is of the time he popped up at the door one Saturday in January when I was twelve—I hadn’t seen him by then for more than two years—saying he wanted to spend some time with his son. He took me back to the furnished room he was living in at the time—I was surprised Mom let me go with him—gave me my first beer, which I didn’t much care for, and told me in graphic detail about the seventy-nine other women he’d slept with before, during and after the marriage. He seemed pleased with himself. Maybe he hoped that I would take after him.
In that respect, I didn’t. I never cheated on Peg. It was she who…But I don’t want to talk about that.
When I talked about drinking a lot lately—well, maybe lately is a stretch. More like the last year or so. Since…Since I found out that Peg was sleeping with a colleague of hers, another House Ways and Means Committee staffer. Apparently, they began showing each other their ways and means while working together to craft a capital gains tax loophole—a piece of legislation rather disingenuously titled the Family First Support Act, or the FFS Act. I kid you not. Having met the bill’s primary sponsor once at a holiday party, I can say with confidence that he’s a moron and that it never would have occurred to him that the acronym might have a double meaning. Peg didn’t appreciate my joking about it. By that time, she had convinced herself that she was doing good. People can will themselves to believe anything, given the right set of incentives.
A funny thing: the night Peg told me about the affair, she cried and cried, and begged me to forgive her. We even had sex—the kind we used to in the early days, when we could spend a whole weekend in bed. What I had found so striking about her then was her uncanny resemblance to the 1940s film star Veronica Lake—the same evanescent beauty, the same yellow hair curling over her right cheekbone, the same hint of sadness in her eyes. That night, I again thought myself a very fortunate man to be sharing a bed with her. Afterwards, when we lay spent, with her head resting on my arm and her left leg curling over mine, I kissed her forehead and whispered, “Where did we lose each other?”
But there would be no reprise, and in retrospect, I would have done better to move out that very night. Instead, I stayed and drank, while unbeknownst to me, she continued the affair for some months more. Ultimately, her lover ended it. Family values and all that. Unlike her, he was not willing to destroy his.
What do I think went wrong? With me? With Peg? With us? I don’t know. I don’t know whether we changed—whether people ever really do—or just revealed more and more of ourselves until we both became so hideous in each other’s sight that we had to turn away. Dueling pictures of Dorian Gray. We’d always had our differences—over religion, politics, and after the boys were born, childrearing. For a long time, though, until Mr. Ways and Means came along, we managed to compartmentalize our disagreements. Or I did. If she were here, she would probably tell you that for her the marriage died long before, that my thoughtless ways and relative lack of means drove her to seek comfort elsewhere.
My God! That screaming! Not that I blame the poor woman. I have no doubt that the pain is real, whether it originates in her liver, as she seems to think, or in her head, as you apparently do. Either way, she’s in hell.
What? No, I don’t believe in a literal hell. Peg does. She thinks I’m headed there—or hopes I am. She has said to me a thousand times, “May God forgive you,” meaning, of course, just the opposite.
Do you suppose that hell is something that passes down from one generation to the next? I worry about the younger boy, Aaron. He’s a brooder, too much like me. He just turned eight. Same age as…Ah. Isn’t it strange how, despite your best intentions, you find yourself emulating someone you despise and recreating in your own life the misery visited upon you? I sometimes think that dogs have greater self-knowledge than we do. Their needs are simple and their actions, straightforward. They want something, and they go after it. We, on the other hand…But I should only speak for myself.
Yes, I presume that some people can break such patterns. But me? I don’t know. I don’t see how I could ever face the boys again after yesterday. No, I’m not. It’s just something in my eye.
Yesterday is all a blur, to tell you the truth. I was lying on the living room sofa, passed out drunk, and then a noise that sounded like a gunshot woke me up. It was a bottle crashing against the wall. The very bottle I’d been drinking from. The front door was wide open, and Peg and the boys were standing just inside. She was screaming, the boys were crying, and outside, the woman from next door was slinking down the path toward the sidewalk. I was shivering from the cold, and covered with glass shards.
As best I can piece things together, the boys must have gotten tired of waiting for me to come get them from school—I work at home, so I usually drop them off in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon—and decided to walk. The school is over a mile from home, and the temperature was in the twenties at the time. They must have stood outside for a long time, ringing the bell, banging on the door, yelling, crying, and God-knows-what, but I was too far gone to hear them. The neighbor must have taken them in until Peg got home. I do not blame Peg for aiming a bottle at my head, only for missing.
Do you have kids? I ask because, whether you’re aware of it or not, you let the mask slip for a second. The look you gave me—the incomprehension and disgust in your eyes—was that of a horrified parent, not a clinician. No, I’m not mistaken.
When Peg told me to get out, I didn’t even bother to pack. I just drove and drove, halfway around the Beltway, into Northern Virginia. When I felt myself sobering up, I got off the Beltway and stopped at some dive bar for another drink or three or six. By the time I got back in my car, the snow had begun.
The rest I remember in fragments, like one of those nightmares in which you never get to the one place you absolutely have to be. Seeing the sign for the Beltway but missing the entrance ramp. Turning around and driving past it again. Another U-turn, and then, the tree. Did I hit it intentionally? No. I can tell that you don’t believe me, but it’s the truth. Had I hit it directly at full speed, I wouldn’t be here. I skidded into it. Now, if I had given the matter any thought, it may have occurred to me that driving at high speed while blind drunk during a raging snowstorm would inevitably result in my hitting a tree or another car or a person. But I didn’t give the matter any thought. I did not want to think at all, just to stay in motion, to drive as fast as I could for as long as I could.
Why? Because if I stopped, my thoughts would catch up with me. What thoughts? The kind that tear at your innards like that eagle forever gnawing on Prometheus’s liver. Like the poor woman down the hall, who can’t tell where her pain is coming from because it’s radiating through every cell of her body and every thought. Clinically speaking, would you say she’s lost her mind? Would you say I’ve lost mine? People talk so casually about losing their minds, but they have no idea. No idea.
God! Couldn’t you do something for her? Please? All she wants is some peace. She’s suffering so. Can’t you hear?