This is a story about love and drugs and alcohol and pain.
It probably crossed my mind to write it because I have been watching and re-watching the Baz Luhrmann/Leonardo DiCaprio/Carey Mulligan film version of "The Great Gatsby," the greatest American novel, which has now become my favorite film. The movie is a romance, with a ton of drinking in it, and so I suppose drinking and romance have been on my mind.
As you well know, my beloved readers, I have been married for more than four decades, and the only other real romance I have is with my dog, Julie Goodgirl. But I am still bewitched by the power of romance. (Now here is something: Just as I wrote this, a good-sized spider crawled hastily across my computer screen. My office is above a garden and a fair number of insects find their way in here. Is this an omen about the power of romance and its deadliness?)
I am hypnotized by beautiful women and dogs and cars (yes, I believe a man may fall in love with a car. I am still in love my 1962 red Corvette). I feel a frisson of romance when I see a beautiful girl smile flirtatiously at me, and I am 68 and, as noted, married since 1968.
About six weeks ago I was at a meeting of a spiritual self-help group when I saw a stunning young woman down the row from me. She was not my usual type — she had tattoos and a nose ring, features that scare me. But she smiled at me the most beguiling, girlish, Irish smile you can imagine, and I immediately was smitten.
I am not shy, so I got her number, learned she was a serious drug addict reaching for recovery at one of the many recovery centers we have in Rancho Mirage, where this whole thing started. She loved sushi, as I do, and I took her for sushi lunch four times.
She was, as Saul Bellow might have said, from the country of “fetching,” somewhere in the Upper Midwest. She told me her story of drugs and alcohol, and it was horrifying. The abuse she inflicted upon herself, and the terror that was visited upon her by her fellow drug addicts, was blood curdling. Yet she was polite, adorable, always listening to whatever I had to say, always smiling “good-bye” to me when I dropped her off at her sales job at a mall. The romance, if I may call it that, never went beyond smiles and sushi . . . I am an old married man . . . but I loved her and thought about her often. She had blue eyes, one most mysteriously bluer than the other.
Ihad to go back to Los Angeles from Rancho Mirage recently, and I begged her to stay away from drugs and drink. “It’s the first drink that gets you drunk,” as I said to her a dozen times over cucumber roll. “It’s the first line that wrecks your life.”
I got cheery texts from her for a few days after I got back and then all communications stopped, and I became extremely worried — terrified with an ache in my bones. I finally called her father, a prominent man in his field. Where was his daughter? “She’s in the hospital,” he said. “She was with a woman who was driving my daughter’s car, and they hit a wall, and the driver was taken to the prison hospital for a DUI, and my daughter is in the main hospital with two broken arms — shattered at the elbows — and maybe a problem with her lungs.”
We commiserated all of the day, which was the day before I am writing this. I wondered why he was not already at the hospital, and I could hear the agony. “We have been down this road so many times,” he said. “It has been so hard and we don’t know what to do. I will be sure to be there when she gets out of the hospital. I’ll take care of her.” I know where he's coming from. Drugs and alcohol are not strangers at our house. Still . . .
I have been in a trance of dread and confusion since I heard this news. I loved that girl the same way I love Carey Mulligan in "Gatsby." I will never touch her, but she is my dream girl. And now, I wonder if I will ever see her again. Who knows what rehab she will go to or how far away it will be.
I believe this girl has a conscience, so she may be too ashamed to see me because I told her I had so much faith that she would stay straight. (She obviously was not anywhere near straight if she let someone who was wildly drunk drive her car.) Anyway, I now see what that spider was — alcohol and drugs to those for whom they are poison. The bite, the sting, can be stronger than love. God bless that poor, poor child, and thank God for the 12 steps (if you know them, you know what they are) that can take you away from that spider’s venom. It’s the first drink that gets you drunk.
Ben Stein is a writer, actor, and lawyer, who served as a speechwriter in the Nixon administration as the Watergate scandal unfolded. He began his unlikely road to stardom when director John Hughes cast him as the numbingly dull economics teacher in the urban comedy, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." Read more reports from Ben Stein — Click Here Now.
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