An exclusive excerpt from Domingo Martinez’s new memoir, My Heart Is a Drunken Compass.
My girlfriend, Sarah, is holding me by the elbow as I trudge slowly to the busier part of my Seattle neighborhood, an intersection of Asian-fusion restaurants and the hangover hookup bar that seems to be in constant operation. She’s persuaded me to wrap my neck in a scarf; put my coat over my decaying cashmere sweater, which I’ve been wearing for three days now; and leave my apartment for the first time in days. I’ve listened to Sarah, and I’ve done all this with a sense of catatonic disengagement.
It’s mid-February 2010, three days since I was taken to the emergency room at Swedish Medical after ripping one of my arms to shreds in a psychotic break at three a.m., alone in my bathroom. Blame a combination of Xanax, some SSRI that had kept me awake for four days, and a steady intake of gin—gin to quiet the shouting in my head, gin to thicken my terror to a sludge, gin to drown out the crushing sense of guilt I felt the moment I awoke during those rare times I could actually get about twenty continuous minutes of sleep. Gin turned the Xanax and the serotonin inhibitors into assassins, and I finally gave up, found an old-fashioned double-sided razor blade, and went at my left wrist, working for the one deep cut that would end it, end all of this, in a bathtub, alone in darkest, wettest February, as I sucked down one last Pabst Blue Ribbon for courage, or self-pity.
“Can you do this?” Sarah asks me now, as I’m stumbling along and beginning to breathe shallowly, quickly, in fear. People are going about their business, crossing the street against the light, drivers avoiding them and making abrupt turns, people meandering on an otherwise unexceptional weekday, and my blood is pumping with cortisol and anxiety, and I am feeling very much like I want to run again, and hide again, and get underground again, and pull the door shut behind me.
“No,” I say. “I don’t feel like I’m a part of this anymore.”
How do these people function day to day? How do they step up onto a bus, ride a bike to work, shop for groceries when at any minute their foundation could be pulled out from under them? They slip through life like people who have not experienced horror, move around as if their closest loved one did not die horribly just a few days ago, as if their children are not at the mercy of a maniac with a rifle and low self-esteem, as if nature is not out to kill them and their families.
At 4:25 a.m. on March 17, 2007, I received a call from Robert, my mother’s second husband, his voice teeming with controlled hysteria as he drove west from Houston at top speed.
“I’m calling for your mother,” he said. “Derek had an accident in Austin. He’s in the hospital there, and we’re on our way now. He’s still alive, but they say it’s serious and they want your mother there. He’s going to have surgery in the next hour. That’s all we know right now.”
I didn’t hear a word from my mother, Velva, who I imagined was in a collapsed bundle in the passenger seat, crying. So I didn’t ask Robert anything. I just sat on the side of my bed in Seattle, where I’d been in semi-exile from my family for the past eighteen years, and waited for the next phone call.
Derek, the youngest of five children, had always been the lost sheep. He was still in elementary school when our mother left our father, fed up with his years of drunken behavior and philandering, and Derek suffered from it in a way the rest of us hadn’t, forced to live in a small Brownsville apartment with my mother rather than benefiting from the embrace of a large family. As a bored teenager he was drawn to the dangerous, which, in Brownsville, can become incredibly dangerous incredibly quickly. Eventually our mother tearfully shipped him off to live with our sister Mare and her husband, Mark, in Corpus Christi. It was then that, to our collective astonishment, he straightened himself out and graduated as valedictorian of his high school class. When he left South Texas for UT, we thought he had put his troubles behind him.
But the burden of being the youngest was crushing, with every one of his siblings holding a degree of authority over him and exercising it in the vacuum created by a family in partial disarray. He was a good kid, and yet his time with Mark and Mare, learning to be the perfect kid, spun him tight, and tighter still, and when he made it to Austin on a full scholarship, he spun out of control.
Derek did anything anyone threw at him. There was simply no stopping how much he would drink, how much he’d snort or take: he could consume triple or quadruple what you thought was too much.
He had our Martinez peasant stamina, our crazy Mexican strength. He was Dumbo, made out of rubber. His optimistic stupidity made him love and trust everyone around him, and they loved and trusted him back, because he was nothing if not an incredibly likable kid.
That was the problem: you combine this pastiche personality with his penchant for addiction, and it points you toward the cliff edge.
Every semester, Derek would beg the family for money to pay fees and fines to the university or to the rubbish fraternity where he was homesteading. He’d beg for a reprieve, beg for that second chance, just $200 from this person, $800 from that family member, please, please, please.
He’d wear the family down, make my brother-in-law crack open his checkbook from fatigue and disgust, saying, “It’s not about the money, Derek. It’s just this lying . . .”
“Please, it’ll be different this time.”
“You know what you’re going to do if you go back.”
“No, I promise I won’t. I need to finish this.”
Once the check was signed, he’d disappear again for three or four months, communicating exclu-sively by text message, usually something garbled and nonsensical sent at three a.m. I vacillated between a desire to fly to Austin and beat him and six of his closest friends senseless and a desire to hold him down and just hug the broken homunculus inside him and have him cry it all out.
All of this was incredibly hypocritical of me to think, as I was languishing in the first stages of alcoholism myself. But, hey, I would tell myself, I’m holding down a job, I have my own place to live, and I’m taking care of myself otherwise. Mostly.
At least my weaknesses aren’t public, I’d say when I met myself in the mirror. I’m just a happy-go-lucky scamp.
Then I’d meet my friend Dough, short for Dougherty. He too was single and isolated and had a hole in his heart he liked to fill with booze. We’d terrorize our Seattle neighborhood bars for a weekend, drinking never-ending pitchers of stout beer and martinis, laughing like maniacs. The pudgy barmaids never threw us out, just overserved us because the tip would correspond accordingly, and, to be perfectly fair, we were rather entertaining. It was a rare evening that we caused any real trouble for anyone.
We were just loud, funny drunks. Why couldn’t Derek be more like us? Instead, he just kept falling further and further out of reach.
Once, when I was back to see the family, I visited my little brother in Austin and spent a night with him in his fraternity house. A bunch of us were talking and drinking, and Derek kept drinking, even after we had called it quits around two a.m. and I had elected to retire.
Around four a.m. he finally wandered back to our room, and I didn’t recognize this boy. He stood in the darkened room, holding a bag full of Taco Bell, and he stared out the window, breathed slowly and deeply through his nose, like someone in scuba gear, and smooshed these terrible tacos into his mouth and chewed noisily, the food falling apart and smearing his face. I could see his eyes in the reflection of the window, and it looked, to me, like he had no idea where he was, or who he was, at all.
There was no one home behind his glasses. His eyes were empty, his balance a slow orbit, his body a shell of the kid I had helped raise. It was almost like a possession, or maybe the opposite of a possession—a vacuity, an absence, an ejection of self. Derek was gone. This was just walking booze.
I’d never seen anything like it, not sure I’d ever been there myself, and believe me, I’d put on some pretty good drunks in my day. I had met some other serious drunks too, but nothing like this. This was my younger brother, and he was gone.
In the end, it was following my lead that nearly killed him. He got a job, working as a stock boy at the Gap, or Old Navy. Either which. He worked a little over two weeks, and when he received his first paycheck, he went out with his friends—it was the most money he’d had in a very long time—and he drank far too many Bombay Sapphire martinis, which was my drink of choice, but he drank them like beer, one right after the other. And as he stood by a bar on some side street during that dreadful SXSW convention, he blacked out, right in front of his Hungarian friend, Mogyorodi, and fell backward, like an evergreen, and cracked his skull on the sidewalk, his body finally giving up on his bad choices and desire for oblivion.
It was expected for the men who worked at my father’s Brownsville trucking business to start drinking seven-ounce Budweiser pony bottles around ten a.m., either at the sandpit or in the driveway, where much of Dad’s broken-down equipment was parked. Nothing was said to discourage it, and if the women disapproved, they didn’t have a chance to say so. Work was a boys’ club, though the work just got in the way of the drinking.
But even among men, there were limits. Once in a while, someone would make a comment if someone started too early, saying that so-and-so had awoken that morning “con la mano hinchada,” meaning “his hand was already swollen, holding a beer bottle.” He’s a hard one for the drink, that one.
The men drank slowly all day so that it wouldn’t interfere too badly with their driving of the large, barely operating fifties- and sixties-era GMC and Chevrolet dump trucks, with squishy brakes and suspect steering that argued rather than answered. And somehow they managed to get through my entire childhood without murdering a single person in a vehicular collision.
Through their twenties and thirties, our neighbors and cousins drank with no sense of mortality or health or consequences, destroying kidneys and family while sharing their bewilderment over breakfast ponies, wondering why a wife had packed up the kids and vacated or why they felt so depleted and weak. It wasn’t denial: it was a deep cultural inability to understand the connection between alcoholism and their health and psychological issues.
I remember watching a conversation between my father and one of his cousins, Raul. Raul was a small, rail-thin man with dark, nearly red skin, made even redder by his flushed face and his body’s instant insulin reaction to alcohol, as the first and sometimes only thing he put down his throat every morning.
“¡Mira, primo!” he exclaimed in exasperation and alarm, as he spat out a dry, cottony spume, seemingly devoid of any moisture. “¡Mira!” He’d eaten nothing for days and lived on Budweiser while he worked with Dad, but he’d become so broken down from alcoholism his body had bloomed in huge, painful boils, and the minute he’d have his first beer, his liver would protest violently, and he’d turn a hot crimson color with all the arteries in his neck and face dilating. He looked tortured that morning as he stood swaying in the primordial South Texas sun, and no one had the presence of mind to say, “Jesus Christ, man, have a glass of water and get some help with your drinking.”
Instead, Dad volunteered to drive him home, and Raul said, “No, no, that’s fine. I can walk,” and stumbled down the dirt road toward his house a couple of miles away in that blazing heat. He died in his mid-forties, left a widow and two boys with nothing but hospital bills.
Still, that didn’t keep my older brother, Dan, and me from glorifying the whole culture of drink. It was mystical, religious, that first cold beer of the morning, for my father and his people. And the more you drank, the more you could hold your beer, the tougher you were.
Dan and I wanted to be macho: we were told it was the most important thing we could be. So we swam in that water, believed in the same contradictions.
Being born nearly a generation later, Derek didn’t see much of this. The trucking business was long gone by the time he came along, and with it went the secret club of men that met mysteriously under derelict dump trucks or behind backhoes, standing around saying nothing and knocking back beers while avoiding responsibilities and family, or telling stories of conquests in winding, euphemistic Spanish so that younger ears couldn’t track the particulars.
What Derek did see much of was Dan, who followed football on television with a devotional fervor, who taught Derek how to talk to other men of the meaningless, manufactured importance of franchises. Later on, when Dan moved in with my mother and eight-year-old Derek, it was my little brother’s job to keep Dan’s supply of beer replenished so that he didn’t have to leave the couch or miss a single frame of football. Eventually, Derek began popping each bottle open himself inside the refrigerator door and taking a quick gulp before he delivered it to Dan, who didn’t notice. This education taught Derek how to blend in as a man in bars, to talk sports, a skill I never quite developed and have no interest in developing now.
I drank too much in front of the kid too, regaled him with stories of my misadventures and hearts left broken, mine among them. He’d listen and learn and take it all in, and I left my own dent in his head.
Though it wasn’t all terrible.
When Derek was four years old and I was a seventeen-year-old still living at home, I’d take the poor kid on these calamitous drives at 60 miles per hour on dirt roads in my pimped-out 1982 Buick LeSabre, low to the ground and windows rolled all the way down with the Butthole Surfers blaring out of my speakers. Derek, his eyes wide with ecstasy and terror, biting down hard on a pacifier, would be simply buckled in, because this is rural Texas, and we don’t know about child car seats. We’d rocket by, like low-flying aircraft, listening to “Who Was in My Room Last Night?” down the flat, chalk-dusted farm roads, and make our own dilemmas and distractions, because there was nothing, no one else, and this was ours, only ours and all that we had, for now. It wasn’t much, but it was there, and that was enough.
That’s what I imprinted on Derek. Gave him a taste for the tragic and the terror and the need for oblivion, without realizing what I was doing. When I heard about his accident, this was all I could think about, how both Dan and I had managed to provoke Thanatos, the death drive, in our younger brother.
My father, Mingo, went through a tremendous heartbreak when my mother left him, and he decided to quit drinking, get sober after thirty years of unabashed, unquestioned debauchery. In one of the most impressive displays of self-control that I have ever seen, and one that I would never have imagined my father capable of, when he made the decision to get sober, he never looked back, never touched another drop, never relapsed, not even once.
And he’d spend days crying, missing Velva.
So whenever he had a chance to see Derek, he’d bring the little kid back to the house on Oklahoma Avenue where we had all grown up, and he’d do with him things he never did with Dan and me. He would take Derek on a jog through the geometry of farmlands, buy him fancy slingshots and air rifles, take him exploring through the expanding city dump, which by then was just a couple of miles from the house. Dad would drive Derek out to Boca Chica beach, just to wander around, and then, when no one was looking, he’d say, “Let’s go in,” strip down to his Y-fronts and jump in the lukewarm water, and spend the afternoon swimming on the Gulf Coast, with no towels or swimwear or preparation. This is how Dad did things.
One of the last jobs I had in Seattle was incredibly unstructured—I could go three or four days with nothing to do. On some of these days, I would wake up and walk the mile down to this horrible bar and sit among the retired derelict drunks who’d been drinking since six a.m. and work on writing a book I’d been toying with for years. I had always found people who read in bars to be a bit pretentious, but to write a book in a bar—that was downright contentious, and I planned on doing just that, in longhand.
At around noon, I would position myself at the end of the bar with a pint of something domestic and cheap, a glass of water, and my headphones, then begin scribbling stories into my small Moleskine notebook, and write, write, write the day away. The old duffers and laborers would swirl and comment and snicker at my hulking, leather-framed mass lost in my headphones and my notebook, but no one would mess with me, as I was clearly not one of them: I wasn’t white, I wasn’t broken-down yet, I wasn’t smoking low-shelf cigarettes, spending a controlled income on pull tabs.
So what was I?
I’m just visiting, I’d think to myself, as I closed my notebook, put away my pen, and shook out the cramp from my hand to pay my bill.
Derek had been in the ICU for two days when the doctors decided that he would not die and that he could be brought out of the medically induced coma. We were all overjoyed, and it was interesting, because it wasn’t just Derek who had come back from the brink but my dad, who had been there with his own mother throughout. According to Dan, when the doctors announced that Derek would be fine, Dad walked into the waiting room and took aside my mother’s husband, Robert, a proud, strong, African American man, put his arm around him, and thanked him for helping Mom and keeping our family together through this crisis. No one could believe what they were seeing, but when I was told about it, I wasn’t really shocked. I had started believing that people could really change, and if anyone could do it, it was my dad.
Such wonderful news, from such a tragic start. We were becoming a family again.
Though maybe not me, not quite. That night, up in Seattle, alone, I chugged a bottle of chardonnay from a water glass before I fell asleep and dreamt of nothing.
My mother’s mother died that winter, and the whole family gathered in Brownsville to bury her. My father, surprising his children once again, secretly hired a mariachi he knew from his days as a restaurateur to sing three heartbreaking songs, which had the whole crowd in tears. Well, everyone except for my uncle Abel, who was too incapacitated by his addictions to grieve his mother publicly. Our step-grandfather wouldn’t allow him to attend, in the condition he was in. Later, when Dan and Derek drove over to check on him, he was bare-chested and his face was covered in golden spray paint, from huffing. He kept calling out in shrill agony, “¡La jefa! ¡La jefa!” That’s what the kids called my grandmother: the boss lady.
It was a moment that stayed with Derek, and all of us. We all metabolize grief in our own way, sure. But when your addictions keep you from properly grieving your mother’s passing, that’s something else entirely.
It would be nice to think that Derek’s near-death experience and his witness of Uncle Abel’s own descent set him straight. But that’s not how addiction works. For the next few years, my little brother repeated all of his old mistakes, crashing at the homes of various relatives, sleeping all day, watching TV at night. He returned to school once again, but the drugs and drinking guaranteed that that didn’t last long. Eventually, he was reduced to living with Dan in San Antonio, where he worked part-time at a Starbucks and a liquor store, miserable and lost.
So, earlier this year, more than two decades after I caught a bus for Seattle and left my little brother behind, I invited him to stay with me for a while. Derek arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with a red suitcase and a frightened look in his eye. But soon the younger brother I remembered from so long ago began to surface. It was as if Mom’s umbilical cord finally broke, and he began his life again.
After three weeks, he asked if he could stay in Seattle, find work, and try to rebuild himself. I, of course, agreed, and within a week’s time, he was off and running, coming home every day with new stories and wonder. Somehow, I had given our little brother a vehicle for redemption, and it has bewildered and amazed everyone.
How did I pull it off? Well, it had something to do with the fact that I had finally straightened myself out too, more or less.
Two years ago, my first book, a memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was named a finalist for the National Book Award. I was forced to quickly learn the publishing business, with very little room for the sort of errors that heavy drinking brings on. For a while there I tried to carry on in the manner of the Tortured Writer, with a glass always in hand. Certainly there is no shortage of like-minded authors I could have modeled myself after. But instead, I finally figured out what it was that I really wanted, above all else: I wanted to be a member of my family again, and I wanted to be with the woman, Sarah, who had taken me home after I had slashed my arm in a fit of anguish and put me in her bed, where I slept like I hadn’t in so long, curled up with Jack County, her housemate’s large, shaggy Irish wolfhound, who put his paw on my hand and kept me company as I lay there weeping. Sarah had seen me through too many other things over the years we had known each other, first as friends and then, to both of our surprise, as lovers. And now, just as I was experiencing the sort of success I feared I would never know, she was ready to leave me.
Everything changed late one night in San Antonio when Dan and Derek and I were drinking at a bar and got into some ridiculous kerfuffle. After we left I was so wound up I put my fist through someone’s windshield. Later, when my brothers were dropping me off at my hotel, I had that “road to Damascus” moment where I saw, quite clearly, the pull that my family’s history of addiction and dependence had on me, and something deep inside of me named it for the first time and declared it obsolete. I knew I wanted to get back home to Seattle, back home to Sarah, and try for sobriety. Or at the very least, I wanted to learn to drink like I wanted to live, instead of drinking like I wanted to die.
It makes things awkward between me and my brothers when I don’t drink with them, but I try to maintain my boundaries. My father cried for joy when I told him about my decision, and he doesn’t press me to find out how I am, and even gives me the room to slip up every now and then if I have a few drinks at dinner with friends.
But I no longer drink like I don’t want to live, because I do want to live. “Besides,” Sarah says, “success has made you much less of an asshole.”
So we’re still trying for it. Like Sarah says, sobriety is not a straight line.
From My Heart Is a Drunken Compass, by Domingo Martinez. Copyright © 2014 by Domingo Martinez. Used by permission of the Lyons Press, Rowman.com.