Center of the Universe (39)
Summer of George
All that walking up and down the hills of Fairfax is part of a plan to get off drugs. Except for weed. I have a parallel plan to get on weed. While I’ve had a medical card for three years, mostly for impish reasons, I haven’t smoked in two. Probably because I don’t much like it. I’m a juicehead, always have been. But recently I read a study by some eminent Israeli poindexters that said weed is good for you, if you’re like me. Makes some things 16% better, some 17. And that ain’t bupkis. So, I’ll bite. Especially since one of the drugs I’m getting off, for now, is juice — by which I mean alcohol, not steroids — and it would be nice to have a way to get high.
Had a weird episode last month, a week or so after I started a new diabetes drug. Crazy heartburn. I’ve had heartburn, but this was next-level. And being of a certain vintage, I immediately start thinking The Big One. Left arm numb? No doubt I’m more susceptible to palpitations about myocardial infarction since my old roomie Pete — modest of appetite and impressively fit—has been impressively recovering from one. But engine-check concludes it is indeed my old nemesis heartburn — just more, a lot more. And even when the pain abates, it leaves a neurological echo, a knot below the esophagus, along with a feeling of, well, bloat. WebMD offers a name: gastroparesis. Failure of the stomach to pass the food onward, downward, when the pyloric valve won’t open. Then it hits me this is precisely the “valve” that had obsessed another bloated slob in Confederacy of Dunces. To my horror, I’d turned into “one of the most mercilessly disgusting, crude protagonists in literature,” as one critic described him: Ignatius Reilly.
Finally go back to the doctor, and she says there’s a drug for that. And so begins the rebellion.
I tell her I don’t want to chase drug reactions with other drugs. Then I go really nuts. I’m going to get off drugs entirely, I say. Lose weight and leave all this behind — the pills, the “pens” and the Type II that has dogged me for a decade-and-a half. She is almost mocking in her skepticism: “That could take months, doing even more damage.” But I’d climbed this hill once before, when first diagnosed. Dropped 50 pounds in six weeks. And if I’m meaningfully older, I’m not a dram less overconfident.
All this presents a problem when your blog is about an Italian restaurant, with lasagna and a Sicilian vino called Nero d’Avola in featured roles. All this presents a problem when your life, or the socializing part, is about an Italian restaurant. Because there’s nothing worse for the old valve than red sauce and red wine. And it’s not much good for the old circumference either. But I’ve got another problem. Weeks before #valvefail, I’d made a date with an oral surgeon to yank my two remaining wisdom teeth. Dentist said it was why the gums were sore and swollen and other stuff I won’t go into here and that the time had come today. Going to dentists and doctors was part of the plan to clean up my act, even before I cleaned it up further by getting clean and sober. My wife, a Seinfeld scholar, calls this my “Summer of George.” Which is what Costanza labeled his disastrous season of semi-self-improvement. But, of course, trying to improve means first establishing how much improvement is necessary, finding out, in other words, how bad it’s gotten. And that’s the old greasy chute. Going to one doctor or dentist inevitably leads to going to others — if not drugs chasing drugs. When the heartburn set in, Roni told me to put off the double extraction. Too many variables. But I was resolute. So here I am, two teeth down, sore of palate, knotted of valve, distended of belly, and the Vikings have landed.
I know a bunch of foreigners. It comes from when our independent ad agency belonged to an international association of independent ad agencies and once a year would travel to some magical spot and get shitfaced. Magnus, a towering blond Swedish jock, is one of those foreigners. And Eli, a towering blonde Norwegian jock, is his new wife, whom we first met in Talinn, Estonia. But I’ve hung with Magnus in Shanghai, Lisbon, Moscow, Buenos Aires, Paris, New York and, of course, Talinn, going back a decade. Lovely Viking, lovely Viking bride. Busted valve or no, how could I not meet up, with them in my own backyard? Besides, I love foreigners. They make me feel so cosmopolitan. The other thing is, Reverend Kang loves them.
It’s Friday. Which means Giovanni, the squeezebox maestro, is on musical duty. And because it isn’t Wendy and Dave in the back room, Soy installs us in the front, at the big round Family Table, the booth, Table 10, nearest Gio. Me, Roni, Magnus, Eli, Maria and Kang. (Gary, who’s a Deadhead for the Fixx, is up in Tahoe freaking to “One Thing Leads to Another.”) I try not to give Soy a heart attack when I say nyet to the Nero and, when Sonia slips out of the kitchen, I have to tell her lasagna is likewise a no-no. Toofs and tummy, I try to explain with a minimum of nauseating words. She produces a plate of gnocchi with butter and sage, a specialty. “That’s soft,” she says. I am unable to tempt the foreigners into helping me live vicariously by ordering lasagna — they remind us that Scandinavians are fish people (but I think it’s more that these are jocks in perpetual training) and request the salmon with mango salsa. Roni, true to form, has the eggplant paramagian. Kang, spaghetti con vongole. And Maria confirms a detail from an earlier post by asking the ever accomodating chef, her daughter, for butternut squash soup with a meatball on the side.
The Vikings are impressed with the meals and equally with the greenery and scenery of their drive to the lee side of Tam and full of their adventures motoring up Route 1 from LA. Magnus is possessed of a resonant Viking baritone and likes to use it. But seeing as the accordion is right behind my head, I can barely hear a thing, and when it hits those reedy highs, I resign myself, after decades of full-tilt arena rock, to going deaf from Italian restaurant accordion. At first, I think Giovanni is excited we’re there, his old friends, fans and benefactors, after an absence on Fridays of several months. Then I remember that, after some douchebag whined, the Sisters instructed him to keep it mellow until 9 pm — after which he was free to deafen at will. On an ordinary wine-soaked Friday, I wouldn’t much notice, especially as I stood at his shoulder delivering a deafening vocal on “Brown-Eyed Girl.” But tonight I can’t open my yap wide enough for even the most modest “sha-la-la.” And at five past nine, find myself struck by new sympathy for douchebags.
Nevertheless, the valve holds. The gnocchi — while not exactly a diet dish — proves easy on the tooth-holes. And I can see Rev. Kang is entranced by the Vikes and now volunteers a comment. With Kang low-talking over Gio’s bellowing box, I think the good reverend is saying that Sweden and Switzerland are such similar names it could be confusing to a new speaker of English. But I’m not at all sure. When Gio gets off his perch behind me to lead “Happy Birthday” at a table by the door, I ask Kang to say again.
At the POW camp after the Armistice, with North Korean officers standing close by, mean-mugging at him, Kang had officially disavowed the Motherland and repatriation to the Communist utopia. It was the kind of thing that, as his autobiography explains, was likely to get you murdered at the hands of the camp’s true believers. And after he also turned down re-settlement in the South, the UN officials, per the terms of the treaty, offered him a choice of four other destinations, two in the western sphere and two in the Soviet.
“Poland, Czechoslovakia in Soviet realm,” he ticks off, “and in West, Switzerland and Sweden.” He’s looking at the big buff blonds, thinking how it might have turned out had he said Sweden.
“But you turned them all down?” I said, trying to help the visitors catch up. “Even after four years in captivity, you held out for better. Or just something else.” And I am reminded of what he went through, in the war and after, and what an astonishing thing it is. Holding out, for another year. And what a miracle for him to be here at Table 10 with friends and family and foreigners in Fairfax, where it’s never really been about the red sauce or red wine.
And Reverend Kang, after a telepathic pause, offers a terse, unsmiling nod.