North American Review 276.1
Bobby is spending the month of May in Billy Rose's old mansion on Manhattan's upper east side, staying in the master bedroom. You remember Billy Rose, the theater impresario? Bobby is sharing his master bedroom with four other men. One is obviously gay. Every evening this gay fellow sits on the end of his bed in a pair of red briefs and smiles enticingly at the other men.
The bedroom is forty feet long. Bobby's bed is tucked between a fluted marble fireplace and a double sashed French window that looks down on an elegant 18th century courtyard. In Billy Rose's day, the courtyard was banked with formal flowerbeds.
In Billy Rose's day, Billy occupied the master bedroom alone, although he was often joined by his wife Eleanor Holm, the famous Olympic swimmer, or by one of his showgirl girlfriends. In Billy Rose's day, the mansion was given over to his private pleasures and pursuits.
Today, the master bedroom is a dormitory for five alcoholic men. The mansion is an alcoholism rehabilitation center processing about fifty men and women at a time through its one-month program of physical recovery, psychotherapy, and education.
All the sinks and tubs in the mansion are massive Italian marble creations with gold plated brass fixtures in the shape of swans and other creatures. The city hospital that sponsors the rehabilitation center insures that half the patients are drawn from the welfare rolls. Some of the dudes that wind up in this place find these bathrooms pretty exotic.
Some find the whole place pretty bizarre.
Take the bathroom of Billy Rose's wife Eleanor Holm, which is on the second floor near the women's dormitories. It's exactly as it was when she lived here. Every surface in this bathroom including the floor is covered with hundreds of mirrors, a number of which are delicately etched with art nouveau sea horses and other aquatic themes.
Bobby was told this is not a good place to come when you first arrive because you generally don't look too good, and when you enter this bathroom you see a thousand of yourself looking bad all at once.
The story is that Eleanor Holm was a pretty bad drinker in her day. The story is she used to bust up every mirror in that bathroom when she was ripped, and Billy Rose would have to have them all replaced at great expense. So maybe it's true. Maybe Eleanor walked in and saw a thousand ugly desperate faces and just couldn't stand it.
* * *
Bobby's drunk when he shows up to check in for the month of May. They take away the guitar he brought with him, and also the quart jar of Valium and assorted B complex vitamins. He's been in the military which helps him adapt quickly to the institutional routine: up early, hit the head, make the bed, breakfast, alcoholism lectures, group therapy, lunch, free time, individual therapy, big group therapy, dinner, free time, AA meeting or film on alcoholism, lights out.
I can hack it, he says to himself after two days. Like it's a test. Like it's something to be gotten through successfully. The structure is oddly comforting. Just do what you're told. One foot in front of the other.
It's a little unbelievable. I'm in the bin, he says to himself. As in loony bin.
Bobby can't sleep. They will not give him so much as an aspirin in this place. Stop looking for something to put in your mouth to change how you feel, they say.
After three days without alcoholic sedation, raw is how he feels. Like his skin has been peeled off. Like his emotions are...right there, on the surface, waiting to explode.
Bobby watches the Olympics on television. When Mary Lou Retton wins her final gold medal he weeps like a baby. He doesn't know why. He hates the kind of sappy patriotic asshole he thinks he is becoming.
A black welfare dude about twenty gets on Bobby's case in group therapy. Says he's a middle class white boy who has no idea what real life and real problems are. Bobby looks at this dude and says, eat shit and die, motherfucker. Bobby starts to go for him, and three guys grab him and hold him back.
The black dude shuts right up after that. The group leader tells Bobby she's glad to see he's beginning to express his anger more directly.
* * *
All of the counselors in the bin are ex-drunks. On the tenth day, Bobby is talking to his individual therapy counselor. He is describing a place he has heard about in Boston, a private drinking and drying out club, reputedly patronized by wealthy businessmen, judges, movie stars. These men check in periodically to escape the rigors of the outside world by drinking themselves insensible for short periods of time in a safe, private environment. Apparently most simply drink until they drop, wake up, and repeat the process. At the end of their prescribed stay, they are sobered up by the staff and prepared for reentry with a regimen of steam, massage, special diet, vitamins and tranquilizers.
Bobby asks the counselor if he thinks it would be okay if he checked into a place like this once or twice a year for a week or two. Assuming he didn't drink the rest of the time.
The counselor says it's interesting that Bobby would consider this club a desirable or even an acceptable way to spend his leisure time. He says it indicates the depth of Bobby's obsession with alcohol.
* * *
Billy Rose's mahogany paneled ballroom serves as the morning lecture hall. The lecturer says alcoholics suffer from the P.E.N. syndrome — they want everything to be Perfect, Easy and Now. Bobby is looking out through French doors at the spring sunshine flooding the interior courtyard.
So does everyone else, he says to himself.
* * *
On Sunday, visitors are permitted for three hours in the afternoon. His ex wife comes to see him on the second weekend. He takes her upstairs to show her the Eleanor Holm bathroom with the famous mirrors. He locks the bathroom door behind them and quickly negotiates a blowjob. It's fast but highly satisfying. He opens his eyes at the end and watches himself come a thousand times.
He's been thinking about getting her up there, planning it all week. It's his fifteenth day, and so far it's the undisputed high point of his stay.
* * *
Until the twentieth day. On the twentieth day something happens to Bobby that probably was supposed to happen sometime during his stay in the bin. On this day he realizes that this place is something more than just another number he is doing that he can laugh about later with his friends.
On this day he realizes that he is not where he is at the moment by mistake. He didn't take a wrong turn coming out of the subway and wind up here.
No dancing around this one. Life and death issues. Intelligence doesn't help. In fact, it gets in the way.
On the twentieth day, he realizes that he may have to stop drinking. That's what this place is all about.
It scares the shit out of him.
* * *
Seven days later, the day before his discharge, the group leader asks Bobby's group to evaluate his chances for staying sober on the outside. Most think his chances aren't very good. Still too much arrogance, they say. Not enough humility. Not enough gratitude.
Change or die, they say.
Bobby listens to them whining on. Fuck you, he thinks. Fuck you all. I don't have to drink just to satisfy your goddamn silly expectations of me.
Bobby wonders how long he can stay sober on pure rage and fear.
He wonders what else he can use.