[T]here was a crappy old TV show called Quantum Leap and every episode started with the main character, a sort of scientist/time traveler, beamed into someone else’s body and as each show began he didn’t know who he was or where he was in space-time, had to figure all those things out on the fly, and that described my first night of graduate school: I was Alcoholic Quantum Leaping.
Which meant I got too drunk before school and blacked out.
Which meant I came out of it sitting in a classroom, having no idea how I got there or what I’d been saying or doing.
Ten people talking books.
A professor pontificating.
And blacked out me.
Not the first impression I hoped to make.
My day had started off in an excited manner.
I couldn’t wait for grad school. Writing was my favorite vice. I did it every day, no matter how drunk or hungover I was. Shit, I loved scribbling with a hangover because for whatever reason I was more honest, unable to front attitude, no bravado, no swagger, just a soggy man-child being candid. Hanging out with other nerds who dug words the way that I did sounded like paradise.
Anyway, a new friend Scott had invited me to a baseball game that afternoon before school. I figured no sweat, catch a Giants game, go to USF.
But as we walked to our seats we passed too many beer stands for me not to get thirsty and offer to buy a round, seeing as how it was only 1 p.m. and school didn’t start for five hours so it was no big deal, just one harmless cup of suds, and Scott was too much a gentlemen not to reciprocate a round of beers by the second inning and I was raised right and knew to meet his kindness with a skyscraping consideration of my own, buying not just beers this time but also whiskey shots and Scott didn’t come of age in a wolves’ den and knew about etiquette and brought the same combo back and we ping ponged rounds until we decided to ditch that dumb baseball game and hunker down in a dive bar and I lost contact with the world.
One time, in my early twenties, I went scuba diving in Cozumel and down there, they drift-dive: people sinking to a hundred feet in the ocean and getting swept up in the current, moving through the water without swimming at all.
The boat followed your trail of bubbles, picking you up, say, forty minutes later in an entirely different spot from where you went under.
That’s what blacking out is like.
A specter in the world’s current, slithering and gliding like seaweed.
Until the minute you were pulled back in the boat, back to your life.
In the case of my first night of grad school, that happened when someone said, “What do you think, Josh?” and unfortunately that somebody happened to be the professor, and I didn’t say anything back at first, must have blinked sixty times like coming up from a coma, looking around at the other people sitting at this table, looking at them looking at me, knowing I must have stunk like stale spirits and spongy saliva, so disoriented, knowing that I’d probably shot my mouth off and made a fool out of myself already and aborted this whole opportunity before it even got a chance to succeed, and I should get up and run out of there because I didn’t belong.
I was wrong.
I wasn’t like these people and they weren’t like me.
There was no unity.
I was alone and I was sick and I couldn’t do one thing right—couldn’t stay sober for one god damn afternoon.
Couldn’t take care of the things that mattered to me.
I tried to stay calm, plastering a poker face on and saying to the professor, “Can you come back to me? I’m still thinking about it.”
“Who else wants to go?” he said.
I surveyed my surroundings. None of my classmates eyeballed me. I knew those gazes, the sideways double-takes, the periphery-sneak-a-peek when I’d made a fool of myself, throwing a garbage can through a window, pulling my cock out, throwing up, any of a hundred dim things that seemed to happen, making everybody in my vicinity uncomfortable and me basking in their anxiety.
I stayed quiet the remaining hour of class. Still loaded at the end. The teacher didn’t say he and I needed to talk privately; he didn’t even look my way when leaving. Either I’d gotten away with it or it had been such a nightmare that he planned on telling his superiors and I’d be tossed out of the program tomorrow.
I didn’t know and I didn’t care.
Or I did care.
But there was nothing to do about it.
I searched my pockets and found a gram or so of cocaine, slipped in the school’s bathroom to blow a rip—cutting out one humungous drift on the back of the toilet.
That was when I wondered how I got to school.
I probably drove. I was a serial drunk driver. But I called Scott, hoping he might tell me that I did the “responsible” thing, hailing a cab.
Scott said I sped away from the bar, blaring The Clash.
There was nothing to do except wander the streets around campus until I found my ride.
That was the thing about Quantum Leaping: all the particulars were lost to you. You had a body, atoms and molecules and shame, but anything requiring context couldn’t be grasped.
I didn’t have a jacket and strolled the roads, up and down, for what felt like a hundred years, but must have been less than half an hour because another student who I met at the orientation a couple weeks prior, Randy, stopped his car and asked if I needed a ride. I got in and he smiled at me, saying, “Where to?” and I told him I couldn’t remember where I’d parked and he took a closer look, a closer smell, and asked, “Are you okay?”
I did the only respectable thing: I lied.
“I’m diabetic,” I said. “My sugar’s not so good and I can’t remember where I parked.”
“Let’s get you something to eat.”
“No, I need to get home.”
“Where’s your car?”
I should have stopped talking there, but the cocaine was like a coach, coaxing me to make this lie the most convincing, surely Oscar-nominated clod that could fall from my mouth, and it clanged out of me, a whole spiel about how I’d had diabetes since elementary school and I normally was good at keeping my sugar balanced, but I’d gone to the Giants game earlier and my only options were junk food at the stadium and had to go straight to class and forgot to pack a protein rich dinner in Tupperware and ________.
Who cared what else oozed from my lips?
Point was I’d blacked out and came to in the middle of class and my car was MIA and poor Randy had to listen to me blather until we finally found it.
I smiled and pointed at my car like we’d discovered America.
“Thanks,” I said, opening the door.
“Should you be driving?” Randy asked.
It was right there, in his eyes. He wasn’t going to call me out on it, but he knew the whole diabetes diatribe was bullshit.
“I’ll be fine,” I said.
“I’m happy to drive you home.”
“Be safe,” he said.
Still drunk, still coked up, still the best drunk driver in town, I made it home unscathed.
Blue was zonked on the couch, watching reruns of a terrible sitcom.
I tried sneaking by her to the shower, but she muted the TV and said, “How was your first night?”
I barely said three words before she interrupted me.
“Are you loaded?” she said.
Everything came uncorked right then, blurting the whole day out to her and crashing in her lap, kicking and wailing.
I said, “Why can’t I…”
“Why can’t you what?” she said.
“Why can’t I…do better?”
She didn’t answer me, spent her energy consoling me, letting me writhe around, letting me gnash my teeth, gnarl my sorrow.
Letting me purge until I pulled it together enough to say, “I think I got away with it.”
If sympathy and empathy could evaporate, Blue’s was gone in an instant.
“What?” she said.
“The teacher didn’t say anything to me after.”
“You’ve been looking forward to this forever.”
“So you didn’t get away with anything,” she said.
“You know what I mean.”
“I don’t know what you mean, Josh. No one does.”
She threw me out of her lap, un-muting the TV and staring at the sitcom.
She watched her show, and I lived mine, making my way to the shower, holding my head under the water, hoping that this episode of Quantum Leap was almost over and as the next one kicked off, I’d come to in a life unlike anything I’d ever known.
Joshua Mohr is the author Some Things that Meant the World to Me, one of O Magazine’s Top 10 reads of 2009 and a San Francisco Chronicle best-seller, Termite Parade, an Editors’ Choice on The New York Times Best Seller List, Damascus, called “beat-poet cool” by The New York Times, and most recently Fight Song. He lives in San Francisco and teaches in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco.