On the day that the U.S. men’s national soccer team ended its unexpected matchup against the far favored national team of England with a tie of 1-1, much to the confusion and then anger among the denizens of the east end Pittsburgh bar that I’d been watching with (who expected a score settling shoot-out), I’d been ponderously drunk since well before Noon. My drinking hadn’t started in the Belgian-themed bar where I met a friend who used to work in local politics, a dark and vaguely monastic environ given over to medieval affectations such as inviting patrons to drink seated in long pews while looking at framed pictures of stone abbeys, and thus a location popular with local seminary students and other assorted indoor kids. I’d gone out hours before meeting said friend and drank Yuengling after Yuengling in a bougie faux-barbecue joint in Shadyside. By the time I’d arrived at the Belgian place, I wasn’t quite skirting the edge of pure being, but was well on my way (as I often was that summer, or rather in those years). The U.S./England matchup had been touted as some sort of anti-colonial contest between a Yankee David and a Limey Goliath, but nobody in the bar was clear exactly on what a tie meant in soccer, and I recall a collective rage at the ambiguity of that sort of ending, though in retrospect I may have been the only one angry.
The thing about rock bottoms, especially if you have multiple rock bottoms, is that until for some reason you realize that you need to stop, there is a perverse joy in those periodic extinctions. This is not a rock bottom story – I’ve got one of those, and it didn’t happen for another half-decade. This isn’t even a particularly notable story of pushing myself into oblivion, the only reason I remember it (or at least a portion of it) is because it happens to be tangentially connected to a soccer game that I neither understood nor cared about. When we left the Belgian place it was early in the afternoon; my friend was going home to be a functioning adult, and I still had a twelve hours until last call. While walking home over railroad tracks and past graffiti-tagged walls, over broken beer bottles and cigarette stubs littering brown fields, I remember a summer shower with the sun still shining through, and in my state there was something that felt like joy, or that whispered in my ear and told me that that’s what His name was.
A will to death compels you in moments like that, stumbling and not looking both ways, needing to drink until there are no drinks left. When that sort of day starts at night you can pace yourself, when that sort of day starts during the day it can be a long, dark journey into the death of whatever light animates you. By last call I ended up in a bar frequented by journalists where the rum and coke comes in a pint glass and the color is clear; where they waggishly call the ambulances often waiting at 2 A.M. a limousine. I made friends who’d I’d die for, though I don’t remember any of their names and I never saw them again. That night by the time I pulled myself home a few miles away, I decided to go onto Facebook where I got into a fight about the soccer game with a childhood friend, who I denounced as un-American. We didn’t talk for a couple years, though he still came to my wedding long after I got sober.
Now a decade has gone by, and I don’t drink anymore. A lot more was drank after that day, much worse nights followed, and any lessons that could be learned took a while in their learning. For me, the summer of ’10 was one of beer-slicked sticky placemats, vomiting in alleyways, bumming cigarettes, and not remembering how I got home. For the addict there is a certain will to death, a kind of clarion call from the abyss that compels you to do what you know will end poorly, and even after the bottle has been emptied that feeling can crop back now and then. Today, when I wake up there is no fog, there is no uncertainty, there is no lack of clarity. Today, when I wake up that old presence that I knew as The Fear has been exorcised. A different feeling these days – not the immaculate weightlessness of falling, but of a certain mundane and beautiful freedom. In almost all respects – politically, culturally, socially, economically – the world today is immeasurably worse than that of a decade ago. I’ve got no control over that. What I do control is how I face it, now with focus and purpose. What I learned is that every day is a game drawn to a tie, but that the victory is in that, pushing it along further just one of those days at a time.
Ed Simon is a staff writer for The Millions and an editor for Berfrois. His writing has appeared at sites like The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The New Republic, and McSweeney’s, among other sites. His book Printed in Utopia: The Renaissance’s Radicalism will be released this summer and he can be followed at his website (edsimon.org).
Ed encourages you to please donate to Doctors without Borders. Visit doctorswithoutborder.org.