Young and drunk
When young Mr. Fitzsimmons emailed to ask me to meet him in my office on a Sunday afternoon, I was pretty sure it wasn't about his classwork. David Fitzsimmons, as I'll call him here, was 19 and so impossibly young-looking that I was sure he'd never shaved more than twice in his life. He was a charming kid--a little too smooth. When he didn't meet his deadlines on assignments, he always had original and often hilarious reasons.
"My car got stolen and then it got towed from wherever the thief left it and when I went to get it out of the city pound, it took about four hours and when I got it back, it had been completely washed and waxed! And there was a new CD in the changer! It's like I got an upgrade from the car thief! I'm pretty sure it had a lube job, too. He even threw out all the Whataburger wrappers! How great is that?" He could spin a tale like an Irishman.
He also drank like one. David was a regular customer of happy hours at the bars near campus. He drank every day, of that I was pretty sure. And it explained why he was always late to class, even though he was in the 11 a.m. section. In every story he wrote for me, drinking was a major topic. He wrote about the time he was in a wreck after driving into a tree and totaling his brand new Rabbit. He was just 16 then and already was adept at sneaking the hard stuff out of the liquor stashes of his friends' parents. He told me later that he'd started drinking before he was 12. For another story, he wrote about a cousin who'd died in a DWI crash that wasn't the cousin's fault. It was as though he was trying to convince himself of something....
By the time he got to college, David Fitzsimmons was a steady, heavy drinker. With convincing fake IDs he bought from a guy who made them in his dorm room on professional equipment, David hit the bars in the afternoons and stayed late "partying." One night he did a series of tequila shooters, how many he couldn't recall. But the aftermath of that stunt was so gruesome that he started thinking about what it might be like not to drink anymore.
"I've had a hangover every single day for the past five years," he told me that Sunday in my office. He was in bad shape that day. His eyes were pink-rimmed, his throat was raspy and his complexion looked as gray as a raw oyster. "I feel like shit all the time. If I make it to class, all I think about is when I can get to the bar. When I'm out drinking, I forget about everything else I'm supposed to be doing. I can't even eat because my stomach's so fucked up."
He was scared, he said. He'd been blacking out a lot lately. The night before he'd woken up way late in a strange apartment across town and couldn't remember how he'd gotten there. He wasn't even sure whose place it was or what had happened in the hours before he came to on a couch covered in cat hair. His car was outside with the keys still in it, so he drove back to his dorm. It was around 3 in the afternoon when we met on campus that day and he said he hadn't been to sleep yet. His hands were shaking pretty bad, like he needed a drink.
Why this incident put the fear into him and not the hundreds of others he'd experienced while drunk, I don't know. I suspect there were some details of what had happened in that apartment that he didn't want to talk about. But he was clearly shaken up and needed to talk.
"You seem like somebody I could trust," he said. "You're cool, like my mom. But I can't talk to my mom. She'd tell my dad and he'd be up here tomorrow to drag me back to rehab." (David had been in rehab once already, two summers earlier. He said he drank two six-packs within hours of his release.)
"I'm not sure what you want me to do," I said. "I'm glad you recognize that you have a problem. You do need help. But they tell us to refer students to the health center for substance abuse." I was speaking in those cold, dispassionate tones that they use in the once-yearly workshops on "troubled students" that adjuncts can attend voluntarily. I really wanted to cry with the kid. He seemed to be teetering on the edge of a breakdown.
"No, come on! They'll call my parents. I'm already such a disappointment to them." His big blue eyes were filling up and I was starting to worry that he was suicidal or something.
"I just need to ask you a favor," he said after taking a deep breath. He stood up and dug his wallet out of his back pocket and opened it. "I want you to lock up my fake IDs somewhere. Maybe if I don't have those, I won't drink tonight."
Tonight, he said. He already knew the language of the addict. One day at a time. One hour at a time.
"I'll be happy to do that, David." I took three IDs out of his hand. They were authentic-looking driver's licenses from Texas and two other states. Each one showed that David Fitzsimmons was 21 years old. "But I still think you need to see about getting professional help. Have you ever gone to meetings?"
"I just pledged a fraternity this year."
"No, I mean Alcoholics Anonymous."
He looked down at the floor and just shook his head. It grew quiet in the room. I could hear someone at the end of the hall getting a soda out of the machine and then walking back to some other office.
"I probably should," he said quietly. "But I don't know...." He moved toward the door. I gave him a hug. The kid needed a hug right then.
The fake IDs stayed in my desk drawer in a sealed envelope for the next four years. David passed my writing class--barely. We never again talked about his drinking. We never again had a conversation outside of class. He never asked for the IDs back. And after that semester, I rarely saw him. He must have changed majors. Or maybe he just felt embarrassed.
I prefer to believe that his story had the right ending. That he really did sober up. That on that Sunday he went back to his dorm and ate a good dinner and maybe watched 60 Minutes. That the night didn't end with David driving over to the Green Elephant or the Ice House for another round of disappointment.