(seven chapters shy of a finished manuscript)
Grandma Fideler’s beach cottage sits on sandy, pine-needled ground just off the shore of Lake Michigan and adjacent to the Pentwater Channel, the last house on the left at end of W. Lowell Street. If Lowell Street extended any further, it would have to run out along the heavily-bouldered jetty protecting the channel until it dead ended at the pierhead lighthouse, a cyllindrical white structure with a single nautical green stripe. After arriving late on a blistering hot July afternoon, Steve, Bryan and I drop our bags off at the cottage before anxiously hurrying off to explore the public beach across the street, where lifeguards in aviator sunglasses watch over the beachcombers like tanned statues in their wooden towers.
“You think those girls are eighteen?” Bryan asks impishly as we pass a concupiscent group of summer girls tanning on beach towels; classic B.
“Why don’t you go up to them and ask?” Steve retorts mockingly. “I’ll give you five bucks if you can get one of their numbers.” To this, of course, Bryan refuses.
We crack our first beers of the weekend back at the cottage and bring them out along the pier, watching the waves crash against the boulders on one side of the jetty and the comparatively placid waters of the channel on the opposite side. Miniature white sailboats float out on the horizon like cocktail flags; a yellow speedboat sputters slowly into the channel in observance of the multiple “no wake zone” signs posted along the channel. The smell of watercraft gasoline wafts pleasantly in the air, bringing me back to the Indian River Harbor of my boyhood summers, the magic and the wonder.
After our third round of beers we decide to walk into town for dinner and drinks. Steve leads the way down the pier and around the harbor boardwalk, where golf course style mansions with columned porches and cottages with vast verandas watch out over the harbor from behind perfectly-manicured lawns, weeping willows and cherry trees. American flags wave proudly atop flag poles on nearly every lawn. Farther into the harbor, we hang a left at the Pentwater Yacht Club, where sailboats tower majestically over the metal docks, and wander our way through Village Green Park to downtown Pentwater.
Hancock Street runs North-South along the Lake Michigan shore, serving as the little main street to downtown Pentwater that was like every other little main street in every beach town along Michigan's west coast, with its outdoor clothing shops, tourist stores, post office, antique shops, ice cream parlors, pubs, cafes and eateries. Steve recommends The Brown Bear restaurant; we enter and a long-legged brunette in tight jean shorts sits us at a high top rustic wooden table under a flat screen displaying the Detroit Tigers game. The three of us order beers and burgers and pick up where we left off with the drinking while staring intently at the Tigers – Indians game from Comerica Park.
Most of the Brown Bear's patrons are similarly glued to the Tigers game, many of them sporting old English D caps and Tigers tee shirts. In lieu of the Red Wings post-2009 paralysis, the Tigers emerged in the following decade as Michigan’s best shot at a sports title, becoming, in the process, Detroit’s favorite team again after decades of irrelevance. Following Justin Verlander’s AL MVP and AL Cy Young campaign in 2011, all eyes were on Miguel Cabrera that summer as he tore his way towards baseball's first triple crown since 1967, when Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski accomplished the feat. Like bars across Michigan, the Brown Bear was filled with fans hoping Miggy’s historic season would culminate in Detroit’s first World Series title since the magical “Roar of ‘84” season, many of whom, including Steve, Bryan, and I, were not alive then but had long been accustomed to seeing the famous photo of Kirk Gibson jumping for joy after hitting a three run bomb in Game 5 that series.
Following dinner and another round of beers we paid our tab and crossed the street to the Antler Bar, where we met Steve’s mom and aunt for drinks on the second floor outdoor seating area, New Orleans style. Steve’s mom and aunt had managed to grab a railing-side table overlooking Lake Michigan, and we toasted shots of lemon drops and Jaeger bombs while watching the sunset – not much in the Midwest more beautiful than a summer sunset from the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, lavender horizon over a pink-reflected lake, burnt orange ball sinking behind broad brush strokes of mauve, periwinkle and rose. Feeling the mystical stirrings of drunkenness in my soul, I admired this all with a smile on my face, basking in the company of good friends and summer nights. Clouds of gnats were gathering around the golden orbs of hanging lamps.
Back at the cottage, Steve, Bryan and I smoke a joint from the end of the pier, our bare feet dangling from the concrete pier over the rough black waters below us, passing a bottle of tequila between us. A golden gibbous moon hung in the midnight blue sky along with thousands of stars, and streams of liquid moonlight seemed to be coursing and flowing across the endless expanse of black glittering lake; the drunken scene was invested with a kind of awesome otherworldly grandeur.
The following morning I’m woken by Steve and Bryan marching down the creaky linoleum steps, the two of them bitterly contesting first dibs on the shower. I sit up in my sleeping bag and rub my eyes, waking from a dreamless, drunken sleep.
“Hey Z’s up,” Steve announces as if I’m not in the room. “Wanna go to Meijer?”
“How long have you guys been up?” I ask groggily, never the morning person.
“Bout half an hour. We just had breakfast. Going to Meijer to get Mojito ingredients,” Steve says with his waggish flare.
“Are you guys hungover?” I ask, hoping I’m not alone in my misery.
“Make it quick lardass,” Steve jostles Bryan as he enters the basement bathroom with a clean towel. “Uh, I was kind of hungover but I chugged a water and ate a bagel and I feel better now,” he says, turning his attention back to me. If only it were that easy for me.
Because it took more to get me drunk, it might have appeared outwardly that Steve, Bryan and the rest of the guys were usually playing catch up with me in terms of drinking, but that couldn’t have been farther from the truth. In reality I was the one struggling mightily to keep up the facade of my social drinking, to keep up the charade; Saturday morning, when Bryan and Steve wake up fresh and raring to go, I have to sneak two morning beers into the shower for consumption before I start the day, just to maintain steady hands and level out my nerves. Even then, I anxiously endure the half an hour round trip to Meijer in the next town over, biding my time until we were back in Pentwater for socially acceptable drinking hours. Fortunately, drinking was in the plans for the rest of the afternoon.
That afternoon, we wander into downtown Pentwater for the Michigan State-themed tailgate before the homecoming parade. We drink beer, snack on M&M’s, and mingle with current members of the Michigan State Marching Band, who are at the tailgate preparing to march with their instruments in the parade – many of whom Steve still knows from his time in the MSU Marching Band. Tom Izzo even gives a speech as the parade’s master of ceremonies, an event which even a Wolverine like me could appreciate being in attendance for.
Captain Dave, a sailing teammate of Steve’s grandfather, invites us to a homecoming party out in the rustic interior woods of Pentwater on Saturday night via Steve's grandpa, whom we meet at the tailgate in town. Steve’s grandfather, an avid sailor who also invites us sailing Sunday morning, is already tipsy by the time we arrive, the life of the party; I can finally see where Steve gets his gregarious charm. Later on, following the uneventful parade, he drives us over to Captain Dave's with a beer in his lap while telling us outlandish stories about his glory days drinking and carousing with summer babes at various sailing ports around the great lakes. Outsiders, the three of us casually drink off to the side of the lawn when we first arrive at the party, making frequent trips to the fully-stocked self-serve bar on the wooden deck until liquid courage motivates us to socialize.
Captain Dave encourages us to eat up: “plenty of food to go around: cajun sausage, smoked sausage, oysters – you guys ever had oysters?" he asks, chewing on one. "Oh and the crawfish boil is almost done!”
Middle-aged, unmarried, and sporting a solid beer belly, Captain Dave kisses his female companion on the cheek and introduces us to a slender red head of about thirty (a full few inches taller than Captain Dave) who seems to me to be out of Dave’s league. “This is my fiance Merideth,” Captain Dave announces, beaming, “she’s been my rock the past couple months.”
“Yeah,” Steve says nonchalantly, taking a sip of his Mojito, “grandpa says you quit drinking a couple months ago.”
“Yes sir,” Captain Dave mutters stoically, “I had to take it easy on the drinking for a while – I was going a little overboard on the rum."
His honest admission beguiles me. Believe it or not, Captain Dave is the first person I’ve ever met who has openly admitted to struggles with alcohol, the first person to voluntarily suggest in a social setting that he was willingly avoiding it.
“Couldn’t have done it without her, though,” Dave adds, again pulling in his fiance for a kiss – this time on the forehead. I tried to picture Captain Dave on sailing trips, swigging a bottle of rum while manning the mainsail from the hull of the boat in a violent Lake Michigan storm, shouting drunken orders to the other crew. I couldn’t help but wonder how he had quit drinking – did he go to AA, or quit on his own? Had he struggled? Had he met the girlfriend through AA, or before he quit? – and I yearned to ask him, perhaps again subconsciously knowing that my own battle with the bottle was looming, but in my burning denial I had neither the wherewithal nor the fortitude to do so. For the time being, I was content to get drunk at the barbecue and watch fireworks – mistakenly (and quite ironically) grateful that I wasn’t one of those pour souls like Captain Dave who had to fool themselves into thinking fun could be had without booze; at least not yet.
Sunday morning dawned gray and cloudy, an ugly day that mirrored the state of my soul upon waking that morning in the basement of the Pentwater cottage, the old wood box TV playing early morning cartoons from whatever channel it was left on last night during our drunken, nostalgic television reminisces; no way to hang my head that didn’t hurt, My head felt like the inside of a blender of dead brain cells and hot ice, like I might have trouble reciting the alphabet or solving simple multiplication problems. I lay awake in my sleeping bag for several minutes, listening to Bryan and Steve eating breakfast upstairs with Steve’s grandmother. Through the floorboards I overheard them mention the sailing trip we were supposed to take today. Shit; I had forgotten about sailing, and my thoughts raced to how I was going to get a few beers down before heading out.
In the bathroom I turn on the shower and attempt to swallow down my first beer, but the process moves slowly. Dry-mouthed and dehydrated, each sip of beer feels like swallowing a horse pill. About halfway through, I take a sip that causes my stomach to lurch. Gagging, I brace myself on my knees in front of the toilet and throw up.
Post-vomit I manage to get down one beer in the bathroom, but I still feel like shit. My hands are trembling and there are dark bags underneath my swollen eyes, which is to say nothing of the psychological and physiological impacts of the withdrawal. Steve and Bryan still upstairs, I dress quickly and forage around the basement laundry room refrigerator for another beer; at this point the beers we bought for the weekend are gone, and I have to take one of Steve’s grandpa's beers from the fridge; I also find a couple jello shots, which I pocket for later. Like a junky, I would take anything to quell the withdrawals when they came. Listening carefully for the sounds of footsteps emerging down the basement stairs, I take large slugs of the heavy beer, each swig bringing me ever so slightly out of my withdrawn haze, hoping I might get one more down before Steve and Bryan came down. Then, quite suddenly, the exterior door to the laundry room swings open from outside. I turn to face my best friend of almost twenty-two years, caught red-handed in the act.
“I feel like shit,” I try and explain, but there’s really no explanation when you’re caught in the act of morning drinking at nine on a Sunday at your best friend's grandmother's cottage in Pentwater.
When Bryan and I finally returned to Millwood later Sunday evening, I told my parents I was going out to put gas in my car, stopped at Marco’s Party Store and bought a pint of bottom shelf whiskey. I snuck it into the basement in the pocket of my shorts and proceeded to get drunk that night, as well as most of the next day. The withdrawals from the weekend are bad, and my intentions of tapering fall by the wayside as I eventually cross the line into drunkenness, at which point I no longer care about how shitty I'll feel the next day; such are the risks of tapering as opposed to cold turkey.
We had a lot of fun that summer, but the memory of Steve catching me drinking that Sunday morning in Pentwater sticks with me for a long time. I guiltily wonder to myself during subsequent bouts of withdrawal what Steve must have thought of me that morning, how embarrassing it was for the both of us. It represented an undeniable truth that I seemed to be skidding wildly towards -- on a collision course with: it was becoming harder and harder for me to keep up the mirage of social drinking as I became increasingly dependent on alcohol, increasingly difficult to hide it from friends and family.