Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship
By Gail Caldwell
Hardcover, 208 pages
List price: $23
By the time I moved East, in 1981, the drinking had long revealed itself as panacea and problem both, though I didn't yet see that one almost guaranteed the other. I came from a line of Texas Protestant bourbon lovers who had incorporated their affection for whiskey into a way of life. One exception, at least as I understood it, had been my maternal grandfather, a sweet blue-eyed farmer who sang acapella in the church choir and pleasantly deferred to my intrepid grandmother's every wish. Years after they had died, I asked my mother to confirm what I had always perceived as a harmonious union. "Were Mamaw and Granddad happy?" I asked. "Why, sure," she said. "After Daddy quit drinking." I was stunned; I had no memory of my granddad ever drinking in my childhood. But my mother told me that day about a summer when I was about four, when we were visiting our grandparents' farm near Breckenridge, Tex., Granddad had infuriated my father by taking me and my sister to a bar on his way home from errands in town. His binges had been legendary, my mother told me, until Mamaw threatened to take their six kids and leave. He stopped drinking shortly thereafter, and because I had been so young at the time, I remembered him only as a teetotaler.
The rest of the family tree had a root system soggy with alcohol, and the memories were not so opaque as with Granddad. One aunt had fallen asleep with her face in the mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner; another's fondness for Coors was so unwavering that I can still remember the musky smell of the beer and the coldness of the cans. Most of the men drank the way all Texas men drank, or so I believed, which meant that they were tough guys who could hold their liquor until they couldn't anymore -- a capacity that often led to some cloudy version of doom, be it financial ruin or suicide or the lesser simple betrayal of estrangement. Both social drinkers, my parents had eluded these tragic endings; in the post-war Texas of suburbs and cocktails, their drinking was routine but undramatic.
From my first experiment with drinking at an overnight slumber party, when I was 13 or 14, it was clear I would be lining up with the blackguards in the family. Our young hostess mixed us the noxious concoction of Scotch and Diet-Rite Cola; every other girl had just enough to get goofy or sleepy. I had six tumblers of the stuff, and decided to dance on the dining room table while my placid friends snoozed around me. Barely on the verge of adolescence, I was still a shy girl who preferred math homework to boys. I was neither daring nor particularly unhappy, but booze flipped a switch in me I hadn't even known was there.
By high school I was known for possessing a hollow leg. A good friend told me what the circulated story was on me. "'Caldwell is the most expensive date in town,'" he quoted the other boys as saying. "'She'll drink you under the table and she'll never put out.'" My dad would have no doubt appreciated both traits as signs of character. In some of my earliest memories, he had ended his days with a cut-crystal glass of bourbon and coke, and this magic concoction seemed to make his humor mellow and his voice a little more velvet. By the time he had switched to bourbon and branch water, as he called it, I was a brainy, wild teenager in a macho Texas town, and as much as I fought my dad, I also emulated him. Whiskey took an ordinarily rebellious adolescence and sheathed it in golden light. I had a fake ID at 16; on my 21st birthday, I became a daily drinker. By then I had wandered through college and the anti-war movement and tried every drug and insurrection in sight, but the pendulum always swung back to the sweet promises of booze. Whenever I would go home to Amarillo, my father would stock the liquor cabinet with Scotch and bourbon, then tell me to show some restraint -- the excellent duplicity of Texas drinking etiquette, which counseled that you drink like a man and act like a lady. "There are two things a man can't stand," my dad would say after our first couple of belts, his voice gravelly and full of self-satisfied wisdom. "A woman with round heels, and a woman who drinks too much." We would both nod sagely, and I would ask him to explain the first saying, and he would make a pushing motion with his hand and shake his head. For years I thought that round-heeled meant spineless, because he was too modest ever to explain it.
But he always knew, I think, that drinking was going to be my problem. He knew because I got too happy and animated even at the sight of a drink, and because he shared this dark affection and yet had managed to cap the geyser at its source. If half the people on both sides of our extended family had loved the drink too much, I tended to laugh about it because I couldn't bear to consider the consequences. My relatives also possessed a constitution that allowed them to live well into their 90s, and in the calculus of denial, I used this longevity to counterbalance our affliction. "In my family," I used to say, "if alcoholism or suicide doesn't get you, you'll live forever."
I usually said this with a tumbler of whiskey in my hand. ("But you always just had that one glass," my sister said, years after I had stopped, when she was trying to piece together the mosaic of the past. "Yes," I told her, "and it was always full.") Because my tolerance allowed me to drink hugely but functionally for years -- I had survived most of graduate school with a cache of Scotch -- I cultivated an image that waffled between between tragedy and liberation. The self-perception was constructed to fit the need: With alcohol the mandatory elixir, I would erect a stage set to justify its presence. I would be the sensitive heroine, or doomed romantic, or radical bohemian -- I was Hamlet, Icarus, Lily Bart. God forbid that I simply face who I was, which was somebody drunk and scared and on my way to being noone at all.
Most of this self-actualization was unfolding in Austin in the 1970s, when the streets flowed with excess of every kind, and I surrounded myself, unconsciously but probably intentionally, with people who drank the way I did. Some of them got sober and some of them died, and a few of them calmed down, grew up, and settled for one martini instead of seven. I did my part for my generation's collective crisis of adulthood by moving East, with the brazen notion of becoming a writer -- surely, according to myth, a way to reinvent one's life. When I left Texas, I had two quarts of whiskey in the trunk of my old Volvo, which I figured would cover the five days on the road that were ahead of me. I had a few friends in New York and knew two people in greater Boston, where I was going, and however scared I was, I knew there would be a liquor store wherever I landed. By then I was 30 years old, and I'd learned that courage in a bottle could get you through all kinds of doors, and all kinds of trouble, and a lot of bad-ass nights alone.
Excerpted from Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell. Copyright 2010 by Gail Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.