I had every intention of it being a long, lingering meal– the type one anticipates when one is finally presented with a rare open day and the opportunity to spent a good chunk of it with someone one has known on the edges of his social circle, but has high hopes of getting to know better.
We ordered our food and a round of bacon-studded bloody marys, talking about mutual friends and sharing stories as we tried to figure out the best way to extract the fatty bits of pig from our drinks. The food was middling, but the conversation was excellent.
After we’d filled ourselves and I had given up fishing for identifiable pieces of food that had given up on life and drowned in my bowlful of gravy, we decided to order a second round of cocktails. Fatemeh considered her options and settled on a Ramos Fizz. I asked for a Death in The Afternoon.
The choice was simple, if indeed there was any choice involved at all. I was spending a Saturday afternoon with an interesting, beautiful woman. I was drinking cocktails. I wanted to appear louche, dissipated. Though I have never in my life felt especially Ernest Hemingway-ish, I felt that no other drink would do.
Given the name of the beverage I was consuming, it isn’t surprising that our conversation turn to the subject of death and grieving.
As we shared about our families and our personal losses, I began to talk about my brother in a way that I had not allowed myself to do in a very long time: the illness, the denial of illness, the slow and painful wasting of his body in the last year and a half of his short life.
I’d fought against thinking of him in that way for years. I had always thought it would serve him better if I could remember him as the handsome, shy, quirky young man I’d worshipped as a boy– the Douglas who shared his fetish for over-the-top, Technicolor MGM musicals with me, not the Douglas who sat in his darkened room alone, listening to tape recordings of the same films, avoiding the light that seemed to hurt his eyes.
But there, the middle of the afternoon, I was discussing the horrifying final act of his life. I wondered if our conversation could possibly take on a more upbeat tone after a talk of such loss- of fathers and brothers, of how different people approach coming to terms with that loss– but it did. Fatemeh, it seems, is not only a serious and thoughtful woman, but possesses the wonderful gift of buoyancy that both I and my meal were currently lacking. She went down into the depths of my pain and somehow lifted me up out of it again.
As I walked home from our encounter, I thought about my brother and realized that it would have been his 49th birthday this weekend. I remembered all of those birthdays we’d shared and the sometimes frustrating sameness of them: the fudge-marbled birthday cake, my mother’s Beef Stroganoff, his unwillingness to tear wrapping paper because it was so nice that he might want to use it himself.
And then I thought about my cocktail and how it lead me to my current state of mind. A Death in the Afternoon is made of champagne–the drink most closely associated with celebration, and absinthe– the drink of forgetfulness. I thought it an odd combination; a conflict of emotions in a glass. And that damned drink had the opposite effect on me– it lead to the dredging up of painful memories that I certainly didn’t feel like celebrating. It is a drink that caused me to become acutely aware of what was absent from my life.
I made that connection when I came home and looked at the bottle of absinthe a friend of mine bought me for my own birthday last year. In large letters, there it was, just staring right at me:
I put the bottle down but noticed the nearby model of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Doug had once given me. I then went into the bathroom and stared at the India ink drawing of a plus-sized woman sitting on the beach, reading a book called Les Femmes de Picasso, with a lobster approaching her with no small amount of menace and her feet buried neatly in the sand. He never could manage to draw feet.
I was comforted by the thought that, though he might no longer be physically present, he continued to exist in the details of both my apartment and my life. I decided that alone was worth celebrating. I took the bottle of good champagne I keep for emergencies out of my refrigerator, poured myself a glass, and bypassed the absinthe altogether. I sifted through my dvd collection and opted to watch, for the 147th time, Singin’ in the Rain— a film he (and countless film critics) deemed “possibly the greatest musical ever made.”
I crawled into bed with my glass of champagne, got lost in two hours of Arthur Freed music and quietly celebrated a person who I have deemed “possibly the greatest brother ever made.”
He would have approved.
Death in the Afternoon
The recipe and instructions are Hemingway’s own.
Makes one cocktail. However, I would advise you to make two of them at a time: one for you, one for a friend because one should not drink– nor experience death– alone.
1 ½ ounces absinthe
4 ounces Brut champagne
Pour 1 jigger of absinthe into a champagne glass. Add iced champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”