I couldn’t tell you the first time I drunk dialed someone. It wasn’t in high school, and it wasn’t in college. It was probably when I got a real job and needed to drink more heavily as a coping mechanism. And what with the pervasiveness of alcohol in London, how could I resist? I moved to The Old Smoke from a job at The Getty after getting a BA in Art Conservation at Scripps College. Having spent four years in the abyss that was Claremont, there was no way I wasn’t going to make damn sure that it was worth my while, and the only thing more impressive than working at the Louvre (impossible without sucking what the French call pénis) is working at the The National Gallery. So to London Town I went, knowing full well that making a human connection there would be close to impossible.
It was thus that I threw myself into my work, as they say. It offers fulfillment too, they say. And for the first two years, it did. I chose to live in Vauxhall, in honor of my favorite Morrissey album. I rented a room from an older gay couple, Bronwith and Clay. Clay was clearly the submissive, being the younger of the two and still pursuing the “performance” scene (he had a very popular drag show at Bar Wotever). Most of the time, I was never there, and they preferred it that way, the lodger who wouldn’t intrude upon their coupledom. When I was finished at the museum, I would always go to a pub in Camden Town called Our Black Heart. The frequency of live music there meant I could drink alone without risking too much notice, not that Londoners were ones to judge too harshly on this front. But the Americanness was still within me, and I felt shamed. Hence, the constant armor of a book to bury myself in.
It was after ordering my fourth pint for the evening that I noticed a dark presence out of the corner of my eye. His name, I later learned, was Riley, and he was a 32-year-old “DJ/producer” often making “appearances” at The Underworld. I could tell by his scraggly hair, unkempt presentation and all black clothing that he was probably rich. You have to be rich to be an artist of any sort in London now. I suppose it’s the same in every major city that was once a mecca for the bohemian set. Regardless of Riley’s dubious profession, I decided it’s always best to give people who live on the fringe the benefit of the doubt. Clearly, they seem to have figured out something none of the rest of us have.
Upon talking more in-depth with Riley, I found he was a very well-versed man in all the things that interested me: art, film and music. By the time the pub was closing, I had no idea how many hours had passed. I did not go home with him, but showed up late to work the next day with a haze that signaled the first traces of Eros’ unwanted aim. I found myself thinking about him all day, getting distracted in my restoration of, appropriately, Bronzino’s “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time.” I was already behind on the project and decided to stay late to get back on track. When I left the museum at about 21:15, I couldn’t resist going back to Our Black Heart. If he was there, I would take it as a sign.
The moment I walked in, there he was, at the same place as before: the corner seat at the far end of the bar. So I guess I had my sign. Bizarre, how the universe delivers when you least expect it to. Still, the universe giveth and the universe taketh away, as I would soon learn.
He took me back to his flat nearby (further proof that he was rich) after a few more pints. He put on Trainspotting and poured us some whiskey. It was the most romantic thing that had ever happened to me, excluding when I was at Scripps and some lesbian in one of my classes wrote me a poem about my “cascading white hair” being as frothy as a waterfall’s foam. I let her eat me out a few days later in the bathroom of some gathering. It was always a “gathering” at Scripps.
That night, Riley once again did not take things all the way, preferring to engage in “everything but.” I awoke early in the morning and felt at liberty to use his French press to make myself some coffee. He continued to sleep in sheer bliss, the kind that can only be procured from never having to be anywhere at a certain time. I decided to leave without giving him my number in some trite way, like writing it down on a napkin with the inscription “call me,” though there was some quaint charm to this notion. I felt insecure, like there was some reason behind him not wanting to take things “all the way.” So I slinked out, telling myself this dram of contact would be sufficient to last me another two years of loneliness in a city that thrived on people’s competitiveness rather than their caringness.
I stopped going to Our Black Heart for a period, staying more in the Vauxhall–much to Bronwith and Clay’s dismay–area where I couldn’t get into too much trouble. I happened upon a sign outside of Lip Sync 100 touting a The Smiths lip sync night. Naturally, I went in. I got my drink, mulled over the benefits and drawbacks of “Vicar in a Tutu” versus “Cemetry Gates,” turned around and saw him: DJing The Smiths songs that people wanted to sing. He smiled at me and motioned for me to come over.
“I was wondering where you’ve been,” he said into my ear when I reached his side.
“I had to leave that morning.”
“You could have left your number,” he drawled, his drunkenness apparent.
“I didn’t want to assume…”
“Well, I’m going to do some assuming now in telling you that you’re coming home with me tonight.”
And so it was that I ended up singing three renditions of “Half A Person” throughout the night, and a mashup of Lana Del Rey versus The Smiths called “This Charming Video Game.” Knowing the karaoke DJ always pays off, I quickly learned.
Returning to his flat together, Riley at last wasted no time in undressing me. He was uncircumcised, my first encounter with an appendage of this nature. However, I found that it only added to the intensity of our sex.
From that night forward, he was mine. He had genuinely opened his heart to me the way Madonna had urged in her 1986 single. I don’t know what changed for him as we drew nearer to our one-year anniversary mark (we counted it as the night we first met at Our Black Heart). Maybe it was the pressure of having to define a relationship more concretely once a year has passed, who can say? All I know is that one day I was always over at his flat, and the next he was brushing me off with hollow excuses until, finally, not responding at all. I believe this is what my generation calls ghosting. I call it psychopathy. How is it that in the instant of one person’s abrupt decision-making, weeks and hours of feeling closer than ever turn into a great divide that you can’t ever get across again?
In the subsequent months after Riley got to be the one to decide it was over, I started reading Slaughterhouse-Five. I also started calling Riley about three times a night in my drunken state. Sometimes he would answer, most he wouldn’t. Maybe a part of him was flattered by my obsession. But, invariably, the other part was probably horrified, confirming his choice to leave me was the best he’d ever made. As I delved further into the Vonnegut masterpiece, I learned that this author was the only one who could romanticize the nature of the drunk dial the way I had recently started to, explaining, “I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone. I get drunk, and I drive my wife away with breath like mustard gas and roses. And then, speaking gravely and elegantly into the telephone, I ask the telephone operators to connect me with this friend or that one, from whom I have not heard in years.”
And yes, it has been years now since I’ve heard from Riley. I still drunk dial upon occasion though. When the suppression of all my emotions and yearnings can’t be quelled by the self-control of sobriety.