It was Valentines’ Day. David and I didn’t have plans, but that wasn’t unusual. Holiday celebrations are a luxury of the settled. We’d spent the past three months so disoriented by this land of opposites, by driving on the wrong side of the road and by Christmas in the summertime, that holiday traditions felt like something we’d left behind in the states. We spent Christmas at a sandy golf resort because we weren’t sure how else to celebrate it in South Africa.
On Valentine’s Day, we did nothing but go to a local pub, and let out long breaths of relaxation underneath the tea lights in the backyard. In a stunningly romantic gesture David did get me a kitten, so after we had settled the kitten at home, we had a babysitter and were perfectly content to sit in the cool evening just staring at each other.
David and I always have something to talk about, but conversation was hard that night. We weren’t having relationship problems. We had an obnoxious neighboring table problem.
There were three of them, a couple and another man, all in their early forties. They bandied about with an emphatic confidence native only to the truly drunk, and I had to remind myself that I am surely just as obnoxious when I’ve had a few too many. Still, they were mind-blastingly obnoxious.
You know how sometimes you do everything to make it look like you’re not eavesdropping when you actually are? Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes I can’t help but eavesdrop when someone’s talking about something juicy, and to cover it up I’ll start writing something on a piece of paper, or searching for something on my cell phone and looking deeply interested in it, when really I can’t wait to hear exactly what the psychologist said was wrong with this woman’s sex drive.
If you’re going to talk about your sex problems in public, know that at least some of your neighbors are going to get pleasure out of your sex life even if you can’t.
However, if someone is talking so loudly that they obviously want to be heard, it takes all the fun away. Eavesdropping isn’t fun if someone invites you to do it. How dare you assume that I’d be interested in your sex drive!
This is how the night was going:
Me: So what should we name the kitten?
“No one does what you did, Gary. No one comes back from heroin!”
David: None of those floofy names like Ragamuffin or Mr. Poofypants.
“Just one hit and you could be gone, that’s it. JUST. ONE. HIT.”
Me: Definitely no floofy names. The name really has to speak to the cat’s character. Otherwise he could have an identity crisis mid-life, and I don’t know if I’m qualified enough to lead him out of it…
“The SINGLE most addictive drug. The single. Most. Addictive.Drug. Knowntoman.”
We gave up and stared at each other again. It was too much effort to pretend that we had our own conversation.
I might have cared that someone named Gary who shared my backyard evening had escaped becoming a heroin addict, if I hadn’t just heard his friends tell him he should make an excuse to his wife and go see that woman in Dubai he’d fallen in love with. “This has nothing to do with your kids, Gary.”
I decided that Gary deserved whatever he had coming, and we moved to a table further away. This seemed to solve the problem. Only an occasional exclamation from Gary’s friends could reach us at the new table. We decided to name our cat Stevens, so we could introduce him by saying “This is our cat, Stevens.” All in all, it was becoming a productive evening.
Then Gary had a crisis.
“Nooooooooo!” His voice cracked with despair. He held his face in his hands, hands that had aged too quickly in the brutal South African sun. His hair was lightly peppered in gray, but his arms were brown and leathery. He was thin.
The rest of the bar, two or three tables of men and women in their fifties and sixties, also stopped to watch Gary.
“They’re gone man, you’ve smoked the last one. See?” The man at Gary’s table waved the empty pack in front of Gary’s face. The crisis was apparently that he had run out of cigarettes.
Commence the eye-rolling and snickering from the rest of the tables.
More interesting to all of us was that it appeared that Gary and his friends were finally leaving. We all knew that the tragedy of empty cigarette packs was one that especially afflicted the shellacked, the wasted, the completely obliterated. I wondered if the people at the other tables were also thinking about their own lowest moments of drunken nights, memories colored more by fume-run emotional highs and lows than by events.
Gary struggled to his feet after two failed attempts, and made it to the bathroom in a sort of half-run, like he was going downhill and couldn’t control his momentum.
When he came back David and I watched them pick their limbs up awkwardly and leave the table, waiting for the satisfaction of seeing the couple tuck Gary into their car and drive out of our lives.
But I guess the couple didn’t have a car. There was some slurred conversation in the parking lot, and then the couple started to walk away down the street.
A set of keys tinkled musically as Gary fumbled with them, and then he opened the car door.
I panicked. There was a waiter on his way back into the bar, and I grabbed him. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t know how it works here, if you’re the person to tell, but that man is drunk and is getting into his car.”
I knew that in the states, a restaurant was liable for anything that happened after a drunk patron left the bar. I’d had to go through training in my own waitressing job, not only about the law, and that I would be held responsible for refusing service to intoxicated patrons, but even about how to monitor the varying speeds of a descent into intoxication. We were taught that a big beefy man, if he is angry, can become intoxicated more quickly on the same number of drinks than a wisp of a co-ed if she’s calm. We were taught to offer greasy appetizers to soak up the alcohol, never coffee.
I had no idea if the same laws were in practice in South Africa, where rules aren’t always rules, where everything is negotiable.
Thankfully, the waiter’s eyes grew wide, and he ran into the bar, saying he would tell the owner. Seconds later, the owner ran out the front door and I heard him talking to Gary, who was hidden from us behind other cars.
Someone on the deck called out to Gary, “What, can’t you drive man?” I couldn’t tell if she was challenging Gary, or mocking him. Gary, who had been so loud a few moments ago, was silent.
The bar owner was now walking back into the bar. Dismayed gasps rose into the air from the tables around us.
“No, he didn’t want a ride,” the bar owner said to someone.
Gary’s car door slammed, and after a few seconds his car lurched into the street and zoomed out of sight.
There was a moment of silence. Laughter trickled hesitantly from some of the tables.
So that was it. Gary was gone, turned loose in a two-ton vehicle in the dark.
I looked at the people around me who had come to the same bar to enjoy their Valentine’s Day. We’d never met, we likely didn’t have much in common. They belonged here in this proud little town on the bay. We were foreigners. They had known each other for years. They had a Valentine’s Day tradition. They had big jowly dogs to protect their properties. We had a kitten.
One table was arguing about the deleterious effects of smoking in public spaces. Another table of old wealthy friends teased each other. None of us really wanted to pay attention to one another. We’d come to a public place to be private, to enjoy our little piece of atmosphere. Unless you’re a regular, which takes more time than David and I have spent in any one place over the last three years, you don’t come to be part of a community.
But whether we’d wanted it or not, we all now had a very important common denominator. We were all responsible for any harm Gary might inflict in a flash of swerving headlights, in a screech of brakes, in the thrall of the evil rhythm of the headache that threatened, hovered in a cloud just above his brows.
Gary, I’ve been drunk before. I may never have shot heroin, or cheated on my spouse, but I’ve been just as irresponsible as you are being right now. Though I can’t remember a specific instance, I’m sure I’ve driven with blood alcohol over the legal limit more than once, more than five times.
And I know, Gary, that if someone had offered to drive me home, and especially if there were some reason I had gotten drunk with friends on Valentine’s Day instead of with my own wife, and if my two kids constantly looked out at me from my mind, their faces so unbearably vulnerable that on a Valentine’s Day I happened to find myself completely obliterated, yes as a 45-year-old man I’d gotten completely obliterated at a bar, then I probably wouldn’t want a ride home either.
Go away! I’d think. Go away and leave me to sleep.
I wonder if I should have tried to reason with Gary. If I had known that the barman was going to do what he did, I would have at least tried, even knowing that it would be a failed negotiation.
Reasoning with a drunk person is futile. I know this from personal experience, from the bad side of it. Nothing but physical restraint was going to keep Gary from getting in his car. Gary knows that the world is against him, and he might as well be against the world.
What I did do was call the police. At least it was something. The station was just down the road, right at the entrance to the township, and a woman picked up after two rings.
After I explained about Gary, I asked her what I should do about something like this in the future, if restaurants weren’t going to do anything.
“We’ll send a car,” she said.
I had been hoping she’d tell me to do something like snapping a pic of his license plate, calling her immediately, trying to detain him until her men got there.
I hadn’t done any of that. When she said that she’d send a car, it sounded like she was telling me to just hope for the best. Gary was long gone, and we all knew it.
We listened to the radio the next day, checked the Hout Bay Organized Facebook page. There was nothing. No dead little boys on the way home from soccer practice, no domestic workers run down in a crosswalk on their way back to the township.
So where are you, Gary? Did you touch your wife’s shoulder when you got home that night? Was she asleep in bed or did she watch you stumble in? Do you ever wonder what it would be like to do heroin again? Have you already made plans to meet up with that woman in Dubai, Gary? Did you take your kids to breakfast on Sunday?
Wherever you are, Gary, I’m sorry. You deserved better than the crappy Valentine’s Day you had. We listen to each other. We can’t help it. We can’t help joining our lives for that slice of time when our lives intersect, when we sit at the same bar and steep in each other’s conversations. You deserved better from us, Gary. You deserved people who would stop you from killing yourself, or at least from killing someone else who deserves a better end than you. You’re an $**hole Gary, but I’m sorry we failed you.