“Are you high?” I demanded.
Deep in his narcotic fog, he was sufficiently alert to know he should be embarrassed. “Yes,” he stuttered.
With some effort, I helped him out of his safety belt and into the rear of the car, where he promptly passed out. Then I took his place in the driver’s seat. I was just 15 years old, without even a learner’s permit, and legs barely long enough to reach the pedals, and I was now in control of the car and the destinies of both its passengers. If I wanted to, I could have dropped off my father at a hospital, or delivered him to a police station; I could have floored it, and driven straight into the city, or into a guardrail. I even considered the idea of continuing on to the party, to chase after my unrequited crush and sneak sips of shoplifted beer while my father slept soundly in the back seat.
Instead, I drove home and put him back in bed. My father had done more than enough screwing up for the both of us. Somebody had to be the adult here.
When I went off to college a few years later, my time away coincided with what seemed to be one of the longest continuously clean periods in my father’s life, though I may just be confusing it with the lengthiest era of sustained silence between us. On those sporadic occasions when I’d make the 90-mile drive home to visit him, he looked sober, in the most brutal, broken-down sense of the word: He was gaining weight, rarely leaving the house, rarely dressing in anything more than his undershirts and underwear, and watching obscene amounts of cable news and war documentaries. But at least he was sober.
I, meanwhile, was pursuing my own betterment with the same single-minded intensity I had seen my father exhibit in his prime. Some portions of this education occurred in lecture halls and libraries, while others took place in the private taprooms and semi-secret back rooms of an Ivy League campus where pot was plentiful, and cocaine wasn’t hard to come by if you knew where to look for it. It would be too convenient to say my father’s addiction made me more curious to try drugs, and a lie to say I worried that I might have an addictive personality of my own. Drugs were simply a part of the college experience, as integral and inevitable as final exams, and for once, I wanted to know what it felt like to be a normal, relaxed, acceptably disobedient kid.
But with each milestone, a first joint smoked or a first line snorted, I invariably thought of my father—never with a pang of guilt, but with a smug sense of superiority, that I was succeeding where he had failed. I could sample all the stimuli that life had to offer, enjoying their instantaneous benefits without ever suffering their long-term repercussions. I never loved the taste of any one vice so much that I could imagine throwing my whole life away just to get another helping.
During the years that followed my graduation, my father’s idle ultimatums actually came to pass, and I was indeed cut off—but by my own choice. I obstinately refused assistance or interference from anyone who might come between me and my ability to single-handedly shape my postcollege destiny with nothing more than my diploma and my bar-mitzvah savings. I severed ties to anyone who mattered to me before they, too, could threaten to kick me out.
All that remained in the room were a few rolled-up dollar bills, a glossy porno mag, and a frightened old man shivering on the bed.
Then came August 2001. While the rest of the city was enjoying its final blissful weeks of normalcy, my mother was frantically trying to reach me on my cell phone. It had once again fallen to her to shatter my illusions of stability. “Your father’s in the hospital,” she said. “He had an overdose.”
That morning, she had walked into my father’s den and discovered him slumped in a chair, half-awake and breathing erratically. While I was going about my day unaware, she was arguing on the phone with my sister, who was then in her second year of medical school at NYU, about whether she should call 911 and suffer the embarrassment of having the neighbors see an ambulance take my father away. She was finally persuaded to let him live.
That was at 10 A.M.—now it was nearly 9 P.M. It was only after my father had had his stomach flushed with charcoal, and lapsed into a coma, and been declared stable and likely to survive the night, that my mother was comfortable enough to tell me what had happened. There was nothing to worry about, she said, adding that he had aspirated some of the charcoal and would likely be laid up in the hospital with pneumonia for another month or so. Only one aspect of the day’s events still confused her: “I searched the house,” she said, “and I couldn’t find any of his coke. There were no straws lying around, no empty plastic bags, nothing.”