Saturday night was our masters swim team holiday party. It was a rare opportunity to mingle with the dry-land version of the team fully clothed without cap and goggles. After a short while, I noticed that not only were some of the swimmers current masters national champions or ex-Big 10 collegiate record holders but they were also national champions of the drink. You couldn’t even get near the bar and every time I turned around someone was walking off with what seemed like their fifth chocolate martini, lemon drop, mai tai, or raspberry fizz. Cyclists wouldn’t be caught dead with these drinks, runners would probably drop dead after two. The swimmers, however, had a taste for fully-loaded, fruity froo-froo drinks, drank them like water, and then went back for more.
But it wasn’t that surprising. After all, you spend enough time taking gulps of chlorinated water across 5000 yards and I imagine your stomach becomes strong enough to handle anything. Not only that, but after playing tag with the wall 200 times and following a black line I imagine your mind welcomes the drinking with a hearty hello and a desperate let’s get this party started. Plus, their ability to somersault with flip turn over 200 times in a practice probably gives them an unshakable, steady balance. I bet they never get the spins, or throw up, or lose their footing when drinking. Swimming has not just trained their aerobic systems but their champion-pedigree alcohol processing systems as well. Couple that with their massive shoulders and buoyancy, I’d say most swimmers have damn good genes.
My husband, Chris, on the other hand, did not fare as well, and when it comes to alcohol processing he did not take a dip in the gene pool. We walked in the door, he had a drink, and already his face was bright red. In fact, it was so red that one of the coaches came up to him and asked why his face was so red. Thus began the explanation of his half-Asian but mostly full inability to metabolize alcohol. Apparently, it leaves the body to think you are throwing toxins at it while it slowly, painfully tries to keep up. The byproduct? A bright red face that never lets any drink in your body go unnoticed.
“You look really hot,” the coach said. Not hitting on him, but suggesting that quite literally he looked like he was ready to explode head first into the bar. Another swimmer soon came up to ask about the red face and then received the explanation. It was awkward, but entertaining when he said, “It looks like another person of your heritage is having the same problem,” pointing out another half-Asian swimmer in the corner that was red-faced and sweating while holding a drink in his hand.
The ability to tolerate alcohol is kind of like the coffee gene. You either get it or you don’t. And since half of Chris’ lineage is not able to process alcohol and not interested in coffee, he had half a chance of getting what I would consider the ‘good times genes’. You can have good times with coffee, you can have good times with liquor. No one has ever had good time with green tea and O’Doul’s. Don’t fight me on this one. Ironically, Chris’ sisters have no problem processing their alcohol and have been known to put down entire bottles of Jack. But Chris didn’t get that gene. He tries really hard but you cannot create what genetics did not create in you in the first place. And so with all things alcoholic he turns red.
The coach looked at me, asking if we were both a cheap date and, I imagine, alluding to the fact that Chris could barely drink and I was barely over 100 lbs so put us together and you get a cosmically cheap and fun date after only two drinks. Not so. I, born from a mother with a steel stomach who drinks brandy before bed every night and drank stout every day of her pregnancy with my brother, I can process booze like a 250 lb. man. And on more than one occasion that has worked against me. Rather than me being carried upstairs, it is often me that has to drag Chris by arm or leg to carry him up the stairs.
Though I had my share of drinks, and jello shots, and wine throughout the evening, perhaps they were spread out too far over too much time. Not so for Chris. As the night went on, his face got redder and redder like mercury rising. After a few hours, the mercury was literally exploding out of the top of his head. Swimmers began coming up to him and asking what was in his flask, wondering what could intoxicate someone to the point of explosive redness. Kind of like a special needs bag, Chris always carries his own flask to a party. And tonight it contained bourbon. He claims this is an easy drink to handle. I had my doubts. According to his face, his body was fighting it every step of the way. So, I suggested we call it a night and go home.
On the way out, Chris mentioned something about really feeling it and being really ready to pass out. Another swimmer, also leaving, looked at me and said, “looks like you’re driving home, Liz.” And this is the usual routine. Indeed, after 4 hours of holiday cheer, Chris had cheered himself into a drunken corner and passed out in the car. Again, nothing unusual. I drove home trying to shift gears while alternately trying to shove his knee and head out of the way from landing in my lap.
When I pulled into the garage, the thought of trying to haul a 5 foot 10 inch man through a 3 inch crack between the door of the car and the door of our other car in the garage was not as enticing as the thought of going inside to eat a snack. It had been 8 hours since my last meal and I was really, really hungry. Plus, this was Chris we were talking about. The human equivalent of an oversized ragdoll after a few drinks. From past experience (ie., New Orleans, Las Vegas, Lake Placid), he is not easy to carry as his legs go one way, arms another, and eyes roll around like Cookie Monster in his head. On top of that, we had swam 5000 yards earlier that morning and lifted weights. My arms were not up for the task. At least, not until I had some fuel for the task of dragging my husband up the stairs.
Before exiting the car, I took one last look at him, his shoes off (wondering when he took off his shoes), his head leaned far to the left side (a good position in case he vomits), face bright red (still….this could take hours to go away) and thought really I should wake him (but the hunger pains rumbled louder and the space between cars looked smaller). I looked at him again - still wearing his seatbelt I knew he wouldn’t get too far, I knew he’d be safe. And so it was done - I was leaving him in the car.
About 5 minutes later, I was standing in the kitchen eating some noodles when Chris stumbled in from the garage, still unsurprisingly red-faced and barely able to hold himself up. I looked up from my plate.
“You left me in the car?” he moaned in disbelief. You would have thought I left him naked in the front yard, shamed for all the neighbors to see. He took out the bottle of Advil and threw back a few pills.
“I was going to come and get you after my snack,” I admitted. Really, I was. And, really, never get between the post-Ironman version of myself and a snack. If I don’t eat every few hours I become like a caged animal ready to roar.
He dragged himself upstairs and quarantined himself to the guest bedroom - a jail cell of sorts between us reserved for those nights when you know you'll breathe too loud, kick too much, or toss and turn for one reason or another. When I finally went upstairs, I found Chris’ blanket and pillow gone, but my blanket in the hall. I imagined Chris, like Linus, dragging his blanket down the hall not realizing that the bed sheets, my blanket, and other pillows were attached and following behind him.
Part of me knew I should check to see that he actually did make it into a bed but part of me also knew he’d find his way. Besides, that’s the fun of drinking too much – waking up and finding yourself fully dressed on a floor, or passed out with your face pressed against a toilet seat, or in the back of a Jeep Comanche miles from home. True story – we have a friend who went out for a night of drinking excess, got so tired that he crawled into the back of a stranger’s Jeep Comanche, the stranger who later in the night drove himself home thus leaving our friend to wake up and find himself a long walk from his home. Experiences like that are an integral part of the excess drinking and holiday party routine.
The next morning, Chris woke up, joined me in bed, and said again, woefully, “you left me in the car.” Oh please. It’s not like I abandoned him on a stranger’s doorstep in a basket with a note attached that read ‘please care for him for I no longer can.’ At least it was our car in our garage. Need I remind him of the Jeep Comanche incident?
“I knew you would eventually get uncomfortable and find your way inside,” I said matter-of-factly. After all, he did find his way.
“I woke up in complete darkness, I didn’t understand where I was,” he recalled. “All I could see was the little green light on the garage door opener,” he explained. “I kept thinking I wanted to lay down but I knew I wasn’t in bed and that’s when I realized you left me in the car.” I tried to imagine how alone and cold he must have felt realizing he was left in the wilderness of our enclosed two-car garage.
“I woke up this morning still wearing my clothes,” he added. It could have been worse, I thought. You could have woken up in a lawn chair wearing no clothes with a pie pan covering your privates – put there by another friends’ mother. Again – true story. What can I say, we have a magical group of friends.
I looked at him, bed head like a rooster, bags under his eyes, the thought of being left alone in the car by his wife heavy in his head. Looked like one heck of a hangover. And so I did what any loving wife would do, “how about some coffee?” I asked. And with that I poured him a cup and thought about telling him that coffee would clear that little hangover right up. But then I remembered he was missing the coffee gene and knew in a few hours he would be java-induced jittering right out of his skin along with about 1 liter of bourbon. So I smiled quietly, thanked my mom for a damn good set of genes, and drank my coffee instead.