Monday, July 14, 2008

Drinking Too Much At My Cousin's L'Chaim

My cousin Steve got engaged about two weeks ago. He went to visit his girlfriend, who was finishing an MBA co-op program in Florence. They'd been dating for a few years, and everyone knew it was going to happen. But Steve's such a careful planner that everything had to be exactly perfect. So he took her out to dinner, got a table with a Chianti bottle with a candle stuck in its mouth, paid a tableside violinist, dropped the ring in a champagne glass, hired a skywriter, and had the waiter print "Will You Marry Me?" on the menu.

He's not an original romantic, but he's a guy who tries.

Last week they came back from Italy. My aunt had the immediate family over for dinner. Her parents, her grandparents, my grandparents, my cousins, my uncle's mother. I wasn't there, but apparently it was a terrific party. Her mother broke a heel, toppled onto the dessert table, and launched a large chocolate torte onto my aunt's new white linen sofa.

"I'm so sorry," she said. "I'll pay for everything."

"No," my aunt said, "it was an accident. Don't be silly."

"Okay. Okay." She looked at the couch, at the large brown stain. Her daughter was on hands and knees, wiping mousse off the walnut floor. "You know what? It actually looks better that way. Really. It gives it a focal point. It's actually kind of fun."

A couple days later my aunt held what's called a L'Chaim. To life! Jewison was right.

A L'Chaim is what you'd call a pre-engagement party. (The expression means "To life!" and it's a very standard Jewish toast.)

You host a L'Chaim at your home; you don't serve dinner, and you invite his and hers extended family. Here's what you need: liquor and chocolate.

Liquor's a little obvious. It's a well-kept secret that Jews drink more than Gentiles. But we drink liquor; Gentiles drink beer. Beer after beer after beer. We're sipping Talisker, and the Troy family is sitting around the living room crushing cans on their foreheads. Jews are sophisticated; Gentiles beat a path to the head. I drink rye. I used to drink Scotch, but people kept telling me that no one liked rye. So I drink rye. My uncle hired a bartender, and his office was transformed into a bar. Red Label Scotch, Crown Royal, Canadian Club, Absolut, Captain Morgan, Tanqueray, orange juice, ice, cranberry juice, and wine.

Chocolate's for dessert. You get a chocolate cake, chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal-raisin chocolate chip cookies, rugulah (not the lettuce; rather a Jewish pastry that's like a light pie crust with cinnamon and nuts rolled up in a dough), chocolate-marshmallow cookies, Nanaimo bars, melons and blackberries, raspberries and strawberries, pineapple, and heart-shaped chocolate kisses.

I walked in and went straight for the bar. Elbowing my way past fifty strangers was much too easy. "Rye, please."


"No ice."


"No water."


"No mix."

The bartender started pouring. He didn't stop till the plastic cup was completely full. "Tell me when," he said.

"That's good."

I took the drink out onto the patio--they have a large patio with a pool and a small waterfall, plus a few non-indigenous banana plants--and there was my grandfather. He was almost finished his third rye-on-the-rocks, and he was happy.

"Here's my drinking buddy!" he said, looking at me. Then, for about five seconds, he turned away.

I gulped the rest of my drink. "There was a hole in the bottom," I said, pointing to the cup. He laughed.

Everything was fine till it was time to leave. Fifty guests kissed goodbye, walking past my zaida. "Are you okay to drive?" my mom asked.

"I'm fine!" he said. "I'm fine! I'm not drunk. What can I do to prove that I'm not drunk. Tell me what to do and I'll do it. Do you want me to walk a straight line? Look, I'm not drunk. I've been eating. I was eating as I drank. I ate and I drank. I can't get drunk like that. Look, I'm going to eat something else. I'm not drunk. What can I do to prove that I'm not drunk. I'm fine!"

He grabbed two party sandwiches. (Most Gentiles have never heard of a party sandwich. It's a crustless sandwich that's made by rolling a filling (egg, tuna, salmon, etc.) in a strip of bread. Party sandwiches are cylindrical, with about a one-inch radius; I've never seen a Gentile eat one.)

My grandfather was drunk. I wasn't in much better shape.

With most of his fiancee's friends gone, my cousin, the groom-to-be, decided to talk to me for the first time that night. To be fair, he was busy with his guests. But I wasn't happy. "Zaida's trying to convince your mom that he's not drunk?"

"Yeah," I said.

"Is he?"

"Yeah," I said. "But not too drunk. He could still probably handle the stations of the cross. Not the leaping part, though."

He had no idea what I was talking about. He's such a nice, plain guy. And very bright. But no abstract, creative thoughts dance in his head. Everything must be fit for Friends. "Hey," he started, "aren't you seeing someone? I heard that you were dating a Catholic girl."

Remember: I was drunk. "I was. But she couldn't handle it."

"What do you mean?" In the background, in the hallway beside the stairs, my grandfather was actually walking a straight line .

"She didn't like the way it looked."

"How did it look?"

"She was ashamed."

"Ashamed of what? You?"

"Well, it's a long story, but she went back to her old boyfriend. I don't know. She likes his beard. It's not manicured, but it's always kinda there. Not scruffy, but not a five o'clock shadow, either."

"I really don't understand what you're talking about."

"She said that I didn't satisfy her."


"Not in bed! I mean I couldn't weld. She always needed things welded. And she needed light carpentry work done. All the time. I can hang a door, but I can't wire the goddamn panel."

"You didn't satisfy her as a carpenter?"

"Christ, her old boyfriend built his own go-kart from scratch. The headlights were made out of old Primo soup cans."

"And that's why she broke up with you?"

"No. One of her friends--some girl from Oshawa--told her that Jews were for practice, but ould Irishmen were the ones you marry. Fuck. Her boyfriend is so ruddy."

"Yeah. For sure."

"But I'll get over it."

"Yeah. I'm sure you will."

"Zaida?" He walked over, bumping into a William Todd Haile picture that was hanging on the wall. "Drive me home?"

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