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:
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.
1 ½ ounces absinthe
4 ounces Brut champagne
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.”