Death in the Afternoon

I recently met up with my friend Fatemeh for brunch.

I had every intention of it being a long, lingering meal– the type one anticipates when one is finally presented with a rare open day and the opportunity to spent a good chunk of it with somebody one has known on the edges of his social circle, but has high hopes of getting to know better.

We ordered our food and a round of bacon-studded bloody marys, talking about mutual friends and sharing stories as we tried to figure out the best way to extract the fatty bits of pig from our drinks. The food was middling, but the conversation was excellent.

After we’d filled ourselves and I had given up fishing for identifiable pieces of food that had given up on life and drowned themselves in my bowlful of gravy, we decided to order a second round of cocktails. Fatemeh considered her options and settled on a Ramos Fizz. I asked for a Death in The Afternoon.

The choice was simple, if indeed there was any choice involved at all. I was spending a Saturday afternoon with an interesting, beautiful woman. I was drinking cocktails. I wanted to appear louche, dissipated. Though I have never in my life felt especially Ernest Hemingway-ish, I knew that no other drink would do.

Given the name of the beverage I was consuming, it isn’t surprising that our conversation turned to the subject of death and grieving.

As we shared about our families and our personal losses, I began to talk about my brother in a way that I had not allowed myself to do in a very long time: the illness, the denial of illness, the slow and painful wasting of his body in the last year and a half of his short life.

I’d fought against thinking of him in that way for years. I had always believed it would serve him better if I could remember him as the handsome, shy, quirky young man I’d worshipped as a boy– the Douglas who shared his fetish for over-the-top, Technicolor MGM musicals with me, not the Douglas who sat in his darkened room alone, listening to tape recordings of the same films, avoiding the light that now seemed to hurt his eyes.

But there, the middle of the afternoon, I candidly discussed the horrifying final act of his life. I wondered if our conversation could possibly take on a more upbeat tone after a talk of such loss– of fathers and brothers, of how different people approach coming to terms with it– but it did. Fatemeh, it seems, is not only a serious and thoughtful woman, but possesses the wonderful gift of buoyancy that both my meal and I were currently lacking. She followed me into the depths of my pain and somehow lifted me up out of it again.

As I walked home from our encounter, I continued to think about my brother and realized that it would have been his 49th birthday this weekend. I remembered all of those birthdays we’d shared and the often-frustrating sameness of them: the fudge-marbled birthday cakes, my mother’s Beef Stroganoff, his unwillingness to tear wrapping paper because he thought it was so beautiful that it should be used again.

And then I thought about my last cocktail and how it led me to my current state of mind. A Death in the Afternoon is made with two ingredients: champagne–the drink of celebration, and absinthe– the drink of forgetfulness. I thought it an odd combination; a conflict of emotions in a glass. And that damned drink had the opposite effect on me– it lead to the dredging up of painful memories that I certainly didn’t feel like celebrating. It caused me to become acutely aware of what was absent from my life.

I made that connection when I returned home and examined the bottle of absinthe a friend had bought me for my own birthday. In large letters, there it was, staring me in the face:

Absent

As I returned the bottle to the side table, I caught a glimpse of the toy model of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Doug had given me resting nearby. Seeing it eased the pain of his absence.  I ran into the bathroom and stared at the India ink drawing he made of a plus-sized woman sitting on the beach, reading a book called Les Femmes de Picasso through large, black sunglasses. A lobster approaches her with no small amount of menace, her feet buried neatly in the sand. He never could manage to draw feet. Neither of us could.

I was comforted by the thought that, though he might no longer be physically present, he continued to exist in the details of both my apartment and my life. That alone, I felt, was worth celebrating. I went into the kitchen and took the bottle of good champagne I keep for emergencies out of my refrigerator, popped the cork with unprofessional abandon, poured myself a glass, and bypassed the absinthe altogether. I sifted through my dvd collection and opted to watch, for the 147th time, Singin’ in the Rain– a film he once deemed “possibly the greatest musical ever made.”

I crawled into bed with my champagne, got lost in two hours of Arthur Freed music, and quietly celebrated a person who I have deemed “possibly the greatest brother ever made.”

Death in the Afternoon

The recipe and instructions are Hemingway’s own.

Makes one cocktail. However, I would advise you to make two of them at a time: one for you, one for a friend because no one should have to drink– nor experience death– alone. Even in the afternoon.

Ingredients:

1 ½ ounces absinthe
4 ounces Brut champagne

Preparation:

Pour 1 jigger of absinthe into a champagne glass. Add iced champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”

Absinthe on FoodistaAbsinthe

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33 Responses to Death in the Afternoon

  1. Cowgirl Chef says:

    What a beautiful post. As you toast to “possibly the greatest brother ever made,” he was no doubt somewhere doing the same thing. You both are quite fortunate to have had each other as brothers, and from the sound of it, the very best of friends. Lucky you, and lucky him, too.

  2. What a wonderful essay. I’m sorry you didn’t get to have your brother for longer, and grateful to you for sharing a little bit of him with us.

  3. emilie says:

    Heartwrenchingly beautiful. And your photos are outstanding, too. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    • michaelprocopio says:

      Thank you very much for saying so, Emilie. Very, very much. I sometimes wonder if he ever really understood how much of an influence he has been on my life.

  4. Christine says:

    this is worth a try! =)
    and emilie is right, great photos!
    If you wont mind I’d love to guide Foodista readers to your post. Just add the foodista widget to the end of this post so it will appear in the Foodista pages and it’s all set, Thanks!

  5. Miss Grace says:

    This is a lovely piece of writing for your brother.
    You made me cry and I haven’t even gotten through my first cup of coffee.

    • michaelprocopio says:

      Thank you, Miss Grace.

      You know, it’s an odd thing: I sat down to writing something about him, not knowing exactly where it would lead. It just sort of wrote itself with me there typing in letters. At least, that’s what it felt like. It was a hard thing to get through, but I like where it landed me.

  6. fatemeh says:

    Happy birthday, Douglas. You’ve got one awesome kid brother, and I’m honored he regaled me with stories of you.

    • michaelprocopio says:

      Doug’s kid brother thanks you mightily for letting him regale you. He’s got a thousand other stories– all of them funnier.

  7. I am so sorry about your brother and yet so glad you wrote about him. I am grappling with the loss of someone I loved and it’s really hard to deal with the loss of the little things that happened each day but these are things I miss the most. I am glad you are at a point now where you can share those little things.

    • michaelprocopio says:

      Heather,

      I just read your osso bucco post, so I now understand what sort of loss you’re dealing with (I also just posted a comment there).

      There are points in the grieving process where you can’t talk about it because you’ll totally lose control. Other times, you can do nothing BUT talk about it. Then you think you’ve talked about it enough and are ready to move on, so you avoid talking about it some more. It’s a long cycle that doesn’t necessarily end with acceptance. It just goes on, which is okay. You just learn to live with it. It becomes part of you like anything else.

      Personally, I will always be saddened by the loss of Doug, but I have come to a place of joy that he has left his mark on me in a good way, because I see him in so many wonderful things.

  8. sam says:

    thank you for sharing

    • michaelprocopio says:

      I was about to say, “My pleasure,” but I thought better of it. Thank you for taking the time to read it. It’s just something I needed to share.

  9. Roy says:

    “a conlict of emotions in a glass,” is a stunning turn of phrase.

    Thanks for giving a glimpse into memories of loved ones, it has been a year of loss and is good to see that time doesn’t fade fond memories but burnishes them bright.

    • michaelprocopio says:

      I’m glad you liked the phrase.

      Time does sometime fade fond memories. It can also tarnish, embellish, or otherwise distort them, too. We find which memories are most significant or comforting and take them along with us for as long as our own ability to remember things holds out.

  10. Craig says:

    A lovely and fitting tribute to your brother – well done, Miguelito.

  11. michaelprocopio says:

    Thank you, Craig. Thank you very much. Now it’s time to celebrate the August birthdays of the living. Like yours, for instance!

  12. ron says:

    you are such a gifted writer. I can hardly wait to read your book!

    • michaelprocopio says:

      Thank you, Ron. You’ve always been my cheerleader.

      I have a book? What’s it about? I can’t wait to read it myself!

  13. sophie says:

    When my husband’s half brother passed away, he eulogized him as “not a half brother, but a brother and a half.” Sounds like you had a brother and a half, too.
    Thanks for sharing your beautiful story and brother.

  14. Susan says:

    What a moving and wonderful tribute to your brother.

    Thank you for sharing. I realize that I think I know more about you through your weekly posts than I do about people I see daily.

    Your writing comes from the heart and I look forward to reading more.
    Susan

    • michaelprocopio says:

      Susan,

      Is knowing more about me than you do the people you see daily a good thing or a bad thing?

      Sometimes, it feels as important to share the difficult, painful things of life as it does the fun and the silly. Life is filled with both, don’t you think?

      Thank you for reading and thank you for the lovely comment.

      Michael

  15. ann West says:

    What a great brother and a cathartic afternoon. He was lucky to have you as well it seems. Have a great week.

    • michaelprocopio says:

      Yes, he was a great brother and you have no idea how wonderfully cathertic that afternoon really was!

      Wishing you a similarly great week!

  16. Susan says:

    This method of communicating is so impersonal. Sharing your thoughts about your brother humanizes you and also in some ways can help the reader who may be dealing with a similar situation.
    So definitely, knowing more about you other than you have a wonderful sense of humour and a great writing style is a good thing!
    Susan

  17. Naomi says:

    So glad I stopped by your blog today. What a fantastic essay. If you ever decide to publish a memoir, and you really should, I hope you’ll include this post.

    • michaelprocopio says:

      It’s a pleasure to have you, of course, Naomi.

      Memoirs? Hmm. Interesting thought. It’s such a wonderful thing hearing that people are interested in seeing my stuff put in book form. It only encourages me to write more.

      So thank you, Naomi. Thank you very much.

      Michael

  18. David says:

    Such a wonderful post…let me know if you need restocking on that Absinthe…I have connections, you know…

    • michaelprocopio says:

      Thank you very much, David.

      Absinthe connections are always, always welcomed. Is your connection the wonderfully strange Spaniard who wears frilly shirts and kilts and keeps that delightful little shop in the Marais? If so, I am giving you a double “yes.”

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