On Trying To Stay Sober In A New Relationship

Every night out began with an interrogation: Was I having a good time? How was that even possible? Did I think I was better than her because I didn’t drink?

Sober people are the worst. They don’t understand pleasure. They are afraid of experimenting, afraid of hurting themselves, and afraid of having a good time. Sober people lead wholesome lives full of rainbows, unicorns, and corny shit like that. Sober people only have sex in the missionary position. They never turn up the music loud. Sober people don’t dance.  

I tried dating a sober person once. My friend Paulina set me up with her friend Rose. Paulina told me a little about Rose and sent some pictures. Rose had a nice smile and a good career. Everything seemed great.  

“Oh yeah, she doesn’t drink.” Paulina added as a footnote.

Important details like that shouldn’t be relegated to a footnote.  

Rose and I dated for five weeks. I dumped her because she was planning her ’80s-themed birthday party at Ed Debevic’s, which is a tourist trap where the schtick is that waiters are dicks. I don’t like restaurants with a schtick, or parties with corny themes. But sober people like Rose love corny shit.

I should have known better than to date a woman who didn’t drink. Drinking was an important part of my life. I drank every night, but never before 10pm. This kept me from getting too drunk and missing work the next morning. I didn’t have the discipline to stop drinking once I started. So I just started later.

Some say that drinking every day is a problem. To me it was a ritual. At the strike of 10 o’clock, I’d pour a few fingers of whiskey. I’d take my first sip and feel the blissful rush of endorphins showering my mind. I’d keep sipping until my mind was drowning. I rarely remembered falling asleep.  

After years of maintaining my 10pm rule, I changed the time to 9pm. Weeks later, it became 8pm. I was getting older. I needed more sleep. Drinking earlier let me get to bed earlier without stealing time from my habit.

I started dating Candice two years after I dumped Rose. By then, my drinking habit was in check—somewhat. I took breaks. My life fell into a pattern. A few weeks of sobriety would be followed by a stretch of relentless binging. Then I’d sober up and do it all over again. It was great. I was still blacking out on weeknights, just less often.

For our first date, Candice and I met at a cocktail bar. It took me three drinks to conjure up the courage to ask about her mysterious relationship status. Her Facebook profile said she was “in a relationship,” but she never talked about it.

Her boyfriend lived in L.A. He was a roadie for a shitty band. Candice looked past his occupational immaturity. She loved him. But they had an open relationship because she wasn’t satisfied with a part-time lover.  

It took me five drinks to conjure up the courage to kiss Candice.

Two days later, I left for Ireland. My friend George and I visited five cities in eight days. I drank at least a gallon of beer every night and gained 11 pounds.

When I got back to the states, I needed to take break from drinking.  

For our second date, Candice and I went to brunch. When the waiter came to our table, she ordered a mimosa. I ordered a cup of tea. She shot an incredulous stare at me. I explained that I was taking a hiatus from drinking.  

Candice demanded details. She wanted to know how long the hiatus would last, if I still went to bars when I was sober, and if I was fucking serious. It was ironic that a woman who enjoyed the freedom of an open relationship was pressuring me into a commitment about drinking.  

After brunch, Candice suggested we go back to my apartment. I said no. Kissing her was one thing, but I wouldn’t sleep with her while she had a boyfriend. I wanted her to myself.  

The rejection humiliated her. After our uncomfortable goodbye, I thought I would never see her again.  

That night, Candice dumped her boyfriend to be with me.  

It’s not wise to come between a woman and her long-term, long-distance boyfriend. But I couldn’t help myself. Our personalities clicked.  

Chatting with Candice was a delight. Sometimes we’d finish a long conversation, and I couldn’t even remember what we talked about. It didn’t matter. Details were unimportant. You don’t always know the words to your favorite song, but you still love how it feels in your ears. It didn’t take long for Candice to become my favorite song. I wanted her on repeat.  

Being close to Candice energized me. I craved her when we were apart. I had no doubt Candice could be Someone to Give a Shit About.  

For our third date, I cooked her dinner at my apartment. She had made a major compromise by breaking up with her boyfriend to be with me. So I made a major compromise and drank with her. We finished three bottles of wine. The night ended with sloppy drunk sex, the cumbersome and forgettable kind.  

After our third date, I took another break from drinking.

Every night out with Candice began the same way. She’d ask if I was drinking, and I’d tell her that I was still on hiatus. She’d respond with a bitter sigh, but she’d drop it until she had a few drinks. Then the interrogation would begin. Was I having a good time? How was that even possible? Did I think I was better than her because I didn’t drink?

The next morning, she’d backtrack and apologize. She’d say that she accepted me for who I was, sober or not.  

These inquisitions were annoying. I was still uneasy about sobriety. I didn’t like saying no to booze. But I grew to enjoy saying no to Candice. Defiance was satisfying.  

I learned about defiance at a young age. It was a central part of my parents’ relationship. They used it to antagonize one another. Ma would ask Dad to finish painting the kitchen. He wouldn’t. Dad would ask Ma to cook his favorite meal. She wouldn’t. It had nothing to do with the request itself. It was about the satisfaction of saying “no,” which was shorthand for “fuck you.”

Growing up, I was closer to Ma. She honed my skills in defiance. She taught me to be dismissive of Dad, to roll my eyes and scoff when he tried to exercise authority over me. By the time I was a teenager, Dad wanted to kill me almost as much as he wanted to kill Ma.  

Defiance was a passive-aggressive way of asserting control. The pleasure of defying one another kept my parents together for two decades. It was the lone source of joy in their relationship.  

And now I was doing it. My answers to Candice’s questions became more vague. Instead of promising to drink again in a few weeks, I’d say I didn’t know. Her frustration entertained me.

It was a dysfunctional way to treat someone I cared about, but I picked up a lot of dysfunctional behavior from my family. Like alcoholism. Growing up, booze was a part of everyday life.  

For the first time ever, the dysfunctional behaviors were serving me well. I turned them on one another. My passive-aggressive defiance was keeping me from drinking. Saying no to Candice strengthened my resolve.

After dating me for two months, Candice dumped me. She went back to Todd the Roadie. There was never a chance that our chemistry would overcome their history.

I was nothing more than a fling to her. She used me to rekindle her romance with Todd.  

But I used Candice, too. She was the little devil on my shoulder urging me to drink. It was easier to think of sobriety as defying her, rather than as a rebuttal of my past. Or as a step toward becoming a person that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be. I needed that.  

So it wasn’t a normal breakup. Normal breakups happen when love has withered away. This was different. Once we had used each other up, and wrung all of the self-serving benefits that we could out of our relationship, we moved on. Now I had to adjust to being one of those sober people.  

bokeen is a writer and storyteller from Chicago. He is an avid dater and a former avid drinker. His book, Near Mrs.: Essays About Dating, will be published later this year. You can find more of his work at bokeen.com.

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