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Sour Grapes

Bitter, sweet, red and white, juicy, spoiled, rotten, molding, mushy, sour grapes.

Patricio Thompson, I, got drunk last night. I think it’s fault of the strict dietary regimen I adopted a month ago under doctor’s orders to lose weight. I shouldn’t call it a “regimen,” I should call it torture and starvation. I am hungry and weak. A man my age, approaching his later fifties, shouldn’t be forced to eat beans, lettuce, indigestible vegetables, and the occasional razor-thin sliver of protein. “Trust me,” said the doctor. “You will lose weight this way.” I have lost weight, and I have lost the will to live. Dr. Doctor did not make any allowances in his “regimen” for an occasional drink. So, last night, I took matters into my own and had some wine. This was followed by more wine. Then some more. All on an empty stomach. You can guess the rest.

Mateo tried to warn me before I passed out from drink. He pushed me to have some strong black coffee, but I knocked it off the table. The brown liquid stained the white rug on the floor, and the cup broke into tiny pieces. “You are totally drunk, Patricio,” he said unkindly, as he rushed to pick up the pieces. He was right, but never tell a drunkard he has had too much to drink. Matteo’s harsh words did not prevent me from polishing off the bottle, behind his back, like an impudent man-child. Eventually, I made my way to the bedroom and collapsed on the bed.

I tossed and turned all night, in a semi-sleep punctuated with vivid dreams and old memories. In such state of drunkenness and slumber, I recalled images of the first time I got drunk. I was only 17 years old then, at the tail end of my Senior Year in high school. I was old enough to drive and have a part-time job, but not old enough to drink. I had saved enough money from my after-school work to buy myself a used 1971, canary-yellow, Volkswagen bug. For months, I had scoured the classifieds section of the Bergen Record, and I finally landed upon an ad for a "very sporty set of wheels." The owner of the car described it as being in mint condition, but of course, it wasn't. Father came with me to make the purchase and haggled with the owner to get the price down by a few bucks. Afterwards, Father gave me some quick lessons on how to drive stick shift. I had learned to drive on an automatic, and I didn’t know how to handle a manual transmission. We drove the car around the neighborhood and a parking lot, taking turns: first Father, flawlessly shifting from gear to gear; then me clumsily copying his style. It seemed so easy when Father changed from first gear, to second and third. He was elegant in the execution. But as soon as Father left me to drive by myself, I couldn't remember anything he had taught me.

The first time I took the car out for a spin on my own, I couldn’t shift it into reverse. I kept trying to put the gear in place, but it kept popping out. I tried for ten minutes, grinding the gears. When I finally managed to securely place the gear in reverse, I stomped on the gas pedal and the car jolted backwards right into a brick wall. There was no damage to the wall, thank God, but there was quite a bit of damage to my rear bumper. I took the damaged vehicle to the local gas station, where the mechanic on duty bumped out the dents for me and even sprayed the back of the car with a bit of paint for a cosmetic touch-up. From a distance, maybe you could not see the damage, but on close inspection, it was evident. The canary-yellow Volkswagen bug lived with its scar until the day it died.

The day I got the car back from the gas station, with its evident repairs, I drove it to a party being given by Anna Marie Petrucci. Anna was not the most popular girl in school, but she was one of the prettiest and most interesting. She could sing and act, and got the lead role in most of our high school plays. During our senior year, we put on three plays, and Anna was the star in all of them. Everyone imagined that someday Anna Marie would become a movie star, and make our little New Jersey town famous. She didn’t. Instead, Mousey Beth, who could not sing a note and helped out with the props and the stage lighting, eventually came to have a successful career in T.V. sitcoms.

I always played the old man role in our high school plays. I was the stodgy Army general in South Pacific, who does not sing or dance, but does a lot of hollering and reprimanding. I also played the boring old neighbor in George Washington Slept Here, who complains a lot and apparently has no friends (just dead bodies in his basement). I guess that I was more mature than my classmates, and that's why the drama teacher assigned me the old-man roles. No one cheered for me when I was on stage, and even my parents didn't come to see my performances. But I was a member of the cast, and this entitled me to attend the year-end cast party. Even Mousey Beth, the stagehand, was allowed to attend the party. I had never had an alcoholic drink before, but when I showed up at Anna Marie's house with my sporty and dented Volkswagen, she offered me a beer and showed me where I could get more. The beer was on the kitchen floor, next to the refrigerator, in a metal tub with lots of ice. The male cast members hung out around the metal tub, drinking, smoking, and cursing as if their reputation depended on it. We listened to eclectic music like "Sweet Baby James" (James Taylor), "Rocket Man" (Elton John), and "Love to Love You Baby" (Donna Summer). I chugged on a beer to impress the guys. Then another, and another, and another. I danced a little, showing off my platform shoes and bell-bottom pants. The guys clapped to the beat as I moved to the music, and Anna Marie danced a little bit next to me, singing along with her angelic voice. 

I must have started getting noisy, or the party was noisy because we got notice that the neighbors were complaining and threatening to call the cops. As I was in the middle of executing one of my disco moves, Anna Marie's father stormed into the kitchen and singled me out as the troublemaker.

“What’s your name!” he hollered.

“That’s Patricio Thompson,” said Anna Marie defensively. “Leave him alone.”

Her father grabbed me by the back of the neck and told me to “get the hell out of here.” Today, as a middle-aged adult, I think Anna’s father was probably within his rights, as owner of the house, to kick me out. But, back then as a teenager, I was in shock, mixed in with the valor of the drink.

"Sir, remove your hands from my groovy shirt!" I screamed, as Anna Marie’s father grabbed me by the collar and shoved me out the door and down the front steps. Anna and a few others came to my rescue. I don't remember much, but I remember thinking, "I'm a good kid. I'm the editor of my school newspaper. I'm on the student council. Why is this happening to me?" I either said all of this out loud, or Anna Marie must have read my mind. “You are drunk,” she told me. “I’ll drive you home.”

“But I can’t leave my car here,” I said. “My parents will know something bad happened.”

“I’ll drive you in your car,” she answered. “Then I’ll walk back home. Let’s go.”

Thrown Out the Door

Anna Marie had no problems driving stick shift. She put the car in reverse seamlessly and drove the Volkswagen bug back to my house without trouble or effort. After she parked in front of my house, and we got out of the car, I tried to hug her. “Come here sweet Anna Marie,” I slurred, staggering on my platform shoes. Stretching out my lanky arms, I managed to plant a sloppy kiss on Anna Marie, half on her lips and half on her cheeks. It was buffoonish, not romantic. It looked like the kiss that one of the old-man characters I played on stage would have given a young woman. She laughed it off. "You are still drunk," she told me in a burst of sing-song laughter. She gave me back the keys to the car and skipped back to her own house. She lived a block away. The only reason I had driven to her house was to show off my sporty yellow-canary wheels. Now, all I had to show from the night’s efforts was my drunken stupor.

My parents were either asleep or pretending to be sleeping when I snuck back into the house. My bedroom was next to theirs, and the bathroom was on the other side. As I crept up the stairs to the second floor, I made as much noise as a fat horse belching carrots. I fell at the top of the stairs and banged my head against my parents’ bedroom door. They must have heard me, but they pretended not to. The chances of them not hearing became even more improbable when I rushed to the bathroom and started vomiting. I vomited all night long, with my hairy legs strapped around the base of the toilet, and my feverish head resting on the rim of the bowl. I had always heard the expression “Praying at the porcelain altar,” but I didn’t fully understand its meaning until that evening of retching. For a few hours, I thought I would never stop vomiting. That night I made a solemn vow never to get drunk again, which is a promise I kept for almost thirty years.

The next morning my parents said nothing. The only thing Father asked was whether I was feeling better that day. It was a small acknowledgment of the events from the night before, with no attempt to confront my bad behavior.

Years later, in the summer before I graduated college, I was still driving my Volkswagen bug. My family and I no longer lived in the same town where I went to high school, but we lived in the same county and I had to drive through my old hometown to get to my summer job. One day I happened to be stopped at a light in front of my high school, and I recognized Anna Marie driving the car in back of me. She was waiving her hands and honking her horn at me, wanting me to say hello back. I knew it was her, and she knew it was me, but I chose to ignore her. We had never spoken about the year-end cast party, and I was not in the mood to rehash the past. During the rest of our senior year, we ceased to be friends out of nervous indifference. I went to college, but Anna Marie stayed in the same town and took a job as a bank teller. This probably ended any chance of her having an acting career.

When I saw Anna Marie behind me, I should have stopped the car to say hello. I know that. But when the light changed, I drove off without a word and never saw Anna Marie again.

Vengeful Karma took its revenge on me very quickly. A few miles further, still driving and obsessing over Anna Marie, I failed to stop at a light and was hit by a taxi at full speed. My car spun around and went up a sidewalk and through a glass storefront. My head crashed into the windshield and cracked the glass, but fortunately, I had no injuries. My white-boy Afro that I was sporting those days served as a nice cushion to protect me against the glass. Unfortunately, the Volkswagen bug was totaled, and I had no money to repair it. The 1971 canary-yellow Volkswagen bug died that day. I think it may also have been one of the last days I ever wore bellbottoms again.

The expression did not exist back then, but in today’s parlance, I “ghosted” Anna Marie. I’ve been ghosted by friends and lovers, and I know how it feels. The worst ghosting incident, the one that took me years to recover from, happened with my first lover, Sean.

At age 35, I was living in D.C., happy because I had finally met someone. We connected unexpectedly at a Starbucks coffee shop near my apartment on Wisconsin Avenue. We had both ordered the same drink, and we didn’t know whose drink was out for pick up at the counter. We reached for the drink simultaneously, then looked at each other and laughed. We struck up a conversation and shared our coffees at a nearby park. He told me he had moved to D.C. from Philadelphia a few years back. I told him I was a transplant from New Jersey.

“I’m Sean by the way,” he finally said after we had already talked for an hour.

“I’m Patricio,” I told him. “Patricio Thompson.” And we shook hands.

Physically, he was not my type. He was bald, wearing cargo shorts, which I detest, and he was too thin. I noticed, however, his sparkling blue eyes and his contagious smile. After three months of dating and getting to know him, this man, whom I thought was homely, transformed into the most handsome person I had ever met.

We bought a house together in Georgetown. A modest row house but in an excellent neighborhood. It cost us an arm and a leg, and neither of us could have afforded to buy the house alone. But with the help of my parents, his parents, and our incomes, we were able to swing it. We could not legally get married since gay marriage was illegal at the time, but we considered ourselves a married couple.

I was happy. At last, I had found someone to love and settle with. I was euphoric but aggressive at the time. Aggressive with my job and my status, eager to make a mark in my law firm. I sank myself into my work, which was required by the firm. Working Saturdays, Sundays, and evenings was typical. It was expected. Attorneys who could not take the hours quit and moved on to easier pastures. But I was addicted to the adrenalin of the competition and the promise of success. In sum, I became my father.

My father had been absent when I was growing up. He had a busy legal and political career in Argentina, and I hardly ever saw him. I used to watch Perry Mason on TV (dubbed into Spanish), and the idea of becoming a lawyer, to be like Perry, to be like my father, terrified me. Being like Dad meant not making time to spend with your loved ones. The thought of this was my nightmare, but in the end, I succumbed. I followed in his footsteps, became a lawyer, and later became an absentee spouse.

Sean was as successful in his career as I was in mine, but not in an aggressive manner. He was in H.R. and understood the importance of the gentle touch, taking a break, and work-life balance. Sean read books on mysticism, Buddhism, and spirituality. He liked to cite examples of conflict resolution, compassion, understanding, and progressive workplaces. I called it all hogwash one day as I rushed off to work. “I can see the atheist spirit of your father in you,” he replied.

One weekend morning, as I was getting ready for my obligatory hours at the office, he told me. “You are never here.”

“What do you mean?” I answered. “If I’m not in the office, I’m always here. As far as I can tell, I’m practically here all the time!”

“You are present. That’s different. You are not here.”

That morning’s argument was followed by the night of the timed supper. Growing up, we called it dinner in my house, but Sean always called it supper. He made elaborate plans for every supper. He would do all the shopping, prepare the menu, and set the table elegantly. To Patricio Thompson, me, all this was wasted effort. I was too busy with work and getting back to my emails to acknowledge the details of Sean’s efforts. I noticed it. I knew what was being done, but I said nothing. In fact, most times I did not talk during the dinner-supper unless Sean asked me something directly, in which case I would respond with one-word answers.

The night of the timed supper, Sean had prepared salmon. He had bought the fish at Black Salt on MacArthur Avenue, which cost a small fortune but was usually worth the money. The trip to Black Salt is not insignificant due to traffic and where the store is located, but Sean headed out there and back without complaint. If preparing dinner had been left to me, I would not have bothered with Black Salt’s fish. I knew the difference in taste between local supermarket fish and Black Salt fish, but I would not have wanted to waste time on specialty shopping. I would prefer to devote the time and effort to work instead.

The salmon was accompanied by asparagus and a glass of chardonnay for each of us. Sean lit candles and asked me to sit down at the table. As I took my place, he asked me, “What time is it?”

I looked at my wristwatch. It was the only thing my parents gave me when I graduated college. They had not come to my college graduation, just like they had not come to any of my plays, because Father had to work, and Mom did not want to go alone. My parents missed my graduation, and I only got this stinky wristwatch.

I stared at the wristwatch. It was like the bumper scars on my yellow-canary Volkswagen bug. It was a constant reminder of the neglect. Bitter thoughts and tears ran down my throat, silent. Thinking of what that bloody watch meant …

“It’s 7:10 p.m.,” I blurted back to Sean.

Sean said nothing. Unlike other evenings, on the night of the timed supper, Sean asked me nothing. Usually, Sean would have asked me about my day, mood, and commute, and I would have grunted one-word responses. On the night of the timed supper, however, he asked nothing. We ate in silence.

I ate quickly, as usual, wanting to get back to work. When I finished my salmon and asparagus, I got up to put the plate in the kitchen sink.

“What time is it?” asked Sean again. He was not done eating his meal. He had hardly even touched the fish.

“It’s 7:20,” I said, looking at the watch again. “Why do you ask?”

“Ten minutes, Patricio. It took you ten minutes to eat a meal that took me hours to prepare. And you said nothing during the dinner, not even a word of thanks for my effort or concern about my day.”

I felt foolish, tricked, and guilty. I went to my laptop and started working again. We did not talk for the rest of the night. We did not speak the next day either. I gave him the silent treatment, and he responded in kind. It lasted nearly a month.

The silence finally broke one night when I received a call from my family doctor. The biopsy from the nodule in my throat, which I thought would be perfectly benign, turned out to be malignant. “It’s papillary cancer,” said the doctor over the phone, as the legs collapsed from underneath me. I fell on the couch, and Sean came running to help. “What happened?” he asked.

The doctor said I was “lucky” to have papillary thyroid cancer. “If you are going to have cancer, this is the one to have,” he assured me. “We’ll just cut out your thyroid, you’ll take a pill every day for the rest of your life, iodine radiation treatment, quarterly checkups to adjust your medicine as needed, and you’ll be good as gold.”

Good as gold, I thought after the surgery, as I stared at the scar across my throat that looked as if someone had taken a butcher knife to me and tried to decapitate me. I was scared; so scared that I even took an extended leave of absence from work. Sean was a hero during my recovery. He saw me through the surgery, the iodine radiation treatments, and all the checkups. It took six months to fully recover from the surgery. All that while, Sean was always by my side, though we hardly ever talked. We discussed my health, but we said nothing about our relationship. I just assumed that he would continue to be by my side for the long haul, forever.

One morning, at the end of the six-month recovery period, Sean announced that he was leaving. His bags were packed, he had found a new apartment living with someone else, and he was ready to move on. I was in shock.

“Why?” I asked in tears.

“You know why, Patricio.”

Why, why, why? You know why Patricio. I don’t know why. Yes, you do Patricio. That was the tone and the end of the conversation.

He called a cab and took his bags, and he was gone from my life forever. He had to speak with me to sell the house, divide the furniture, and settle accounts; but he did this mostly through his lawyers. The house sold quickly. It’s Georgetown. Shit moves. I could never afford to live in that neighborhood again.

The night before the closing of the house, I asked my friend Billy L. to take me out for drinks. Billy L. was another Irish Catholic boy from Philadelphia, like Sean, but the two never got along. “He has a secret crush on you,” claimed Sean, “and you have a crush on him.”

The winter Sean left me was marked by one powerful snowstorm after another. We had snow on the streets for weeks. The bitterness of the cold and the ice-packed sidewalks matched my numb feelings. I had no emotions. I simply proceeded, one day to the next, one project at a time. I sold the Georgetown house, moved to an apartment, and even changed jobs. I left the law firm and began to work for nonprofits. But there was no pleasure in any of it. I felt like one of the old-man characters I played in my high school plays. I repeated and said things that were simply expected for me to say and played up to the role that people expected me to be. On the outside I was a functioning adult, on the inside I was a hollowed-out spirit. It took years before I felt human again.

In my fifties, I met someone again. Mateo. We were set up to meet by mutual friends. Our first date was at a pub on Connecticut Avenue. I got there before him and waited for him at the bar. There were comfortable tables that I could have sat at, but I was nervous and sat on a stool at the bar, looking at the door, waiting for him to come. When he entered the pub, he recognized me, and signaling with his hands pointed at me, shook no, pointed at a table by a window, and gestured for me to join him at the table, like a civilized person. My immediate thought from this incident was, “he’s really interesting!”

Mateo and I give each other space, we trust the relationship and each other. We are in our fifties and fully formed. I don't need to train him, and he does not need to train or change me. We simply enjoy each other's company. I wish I had had that wisdom in my earlier relationships when I was brash and full of raging hormones.

Last night is the night I got drunk again. Mateo knew I was going to get drunk. We made a special trip to the liquor store and bought the wine that would be my poison for the night.

“I really need it,” I convinced Mateo. He did not agree, but he let me be.

Next week I will go into the hospital. Dr. Doctor wants me to lose weight before a little exploratory surgery. He does not know what’s going on with my stomach, and they want to have a thorough good look. It’s scheduled for Monday.

This morning when I woke up from my drunken stupor, I found a bottle of seltzer water on the nightstand. Matteo had taken off my shoes the night before and covered me under the covers. He walked into the bedroom, carrying a freshly brewed cupper.

“I was worried for you all night,” he said. “How do you feel today?”

I can tell from his look that he is worried. I can tell from his patience with me that I don’t need to hide my fears behind the alcohol. Matteo will take care of me. He has said this many a times, and today I will choose to trust him.

I stare at him in the eyes. “I’m exhausted,” I tell him. “I’m tired of sour grapes.”

The Future Awaits

Ernesto Beckford

August 2022

© Ernesto Beckford 2022

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