waking up with george w. bush

it's not as bad as it sounds

waking up with george w. bush

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OK, that’s enough about money. Let’s talk about Bush.

Waking Up With George W. Bush

When you tell a story, whether you’re a writer or not, you make decisions about how to share it. You decide which details to include, which context to leave out. You embellish some parts and obscure others, emphasizing the things that will make your story land the way you want it to.

We all have tales that we tell, ones we know will get a laugh or a reaction. We all have our best party stories, the “can you believe this happened” stories we tell around a dinner table or to a gaggle of friends. I have several of those stories, one of which involves waking up in a room after a night of hooking up with a guy and seeing a life-sized cutout of George W. Bush in the corner.

This really happened. I hooked up with a guy after a night of drinking and, in the heat of the moment, didn’t notice the man standing in the corner of the room, staring at us. When I woke up in the morning, there he was: George W. Bush.

See? I even took a picture.

I often tell this story for a laugh, because it’s funny. It was funny then and it’s funny now, just an absolutely absurd and unexpected thing to have happened. The cutout was not ironic; the guy was really a big fan of GWB. And there’s a lot to unpack about the political beliefs of the guy who had that in his bedroom, but taking that little part of the story out of context — the few minutes when I opened my eyes and noticed the cutout, and my reaction to it — I don’t tell the full thing.

Because the guy I hooked up with wasn’t someone random. He was a dear friend, someone I valued very much during a time in my life when things were going really poorly. Taking that piece of the story out of context doesn’t tell you about the beautiful friendship the two of us shared, the nights we stayed up late disagreeing about things in the most affectionate way possible, the place I still have in my heart for him though years and distance separate us.

So today I want to tell you about my friend Mike.

I met Mike because he bartended at the Falcon Pub, one of the hole-in-the-walls in Broward County, Florida where I was a regular — along with Shanks, Luke’s, and Andy’s. They were the kinds of bars with no windows, where the same guy has been on the same bar stool since 1972 drinking Miller Lite and ripping butts. In Florida, there was a law that said if more than half an establishment’s income came from alcohol sales, it was considered a stand-alone bar, and you were allowed to smoke inside. All of those places fit the bill.

These were my favorite kinds of bars. When I walked in and saw the flickering neon beer signs, the bartender who looked a little worse for the wear, I knew I was home; I was with My People. My People drank like I did, so they didn't bat an eye when I showed up at 8 PM and stayed until the 4 AM closing time. My People didn't ask questions, didn't scrutinize whether there was booze in my glass or count my trips to the bathroom. When I was around normal drinkers, I felt like an alien. My internal monologue was an endless stream of anxiety and paranoia.

How can I drink the way I want to without freaking anyone out? Because I don’t want them to think I’m an alcoholic, even though I know I’m not an alcoholic. Maybe if I drink the same kind of wine all night, they will think my seventh glass is my second glass and if I can get my dealer to meet me in the parking lot, I can take bumps in the bathroom so I won’t seem as drunk as I really am. I wonder if anyone has noticed how many glasses of wine I’ve had...

To avoid the exhaustion of this dance and charade, I typically avoided drinking with anyone who wasn’t My People, anyone I couldn’t drink openly with. In all the years I frequented these small, dark bars, I can count on one hand the number of times I was cut off, even if I fell down, even if I made a scene, even if I climbed onto the bartop to yell at someone, even if I dumped a beer on some dude’s head after he’d groped me. I picked places strategically to ensure it wouldn't happen. Mike worked in one of those places.

Mike had been in the seminary but left after realizing he wanted to get married and have kids one day. On karaoke night, he always sang Billy Joel’s “The Stranger.” He would stay up all night with me talking and drinking and doing lines in the kitchen of his townhouse after the bar closed. Some nights we'd hook up but most nights we wouldn't, choosing instead to have Deep Conversations about God and the meaning of life. Me, the atheist. Him, the Catholic. Some nights he’d play me songs he'd written on his guitar, and tell me about his dreams of being a country music star. The cutout of George W. Bush was in the corner of his bedroom, next to a case of Jeff Gordon and NASCAR memorabilia.

We didn’t agree on a lot: religion, politics, even our taste in sports differed. But we saw a kindred spirit in each other — someone who was a little bit lost, who was somewhere doing things they perhaps weren’t meant to be doing. Someone with potential and dreams outside of the dysfunctional cycle we found ourselves in. The topics we disagreed about never erupted into arguments. I genuinely wanted to learn about the way he viewed the world, and he wanted to learn the same from me. He was never antagonistic, just genuinely curious.

We never dated; it never would have worked anyway. But we always carried a deep affection for each other that sometimes, when we were drunk, resulted in us hooking up. When I’d leave his house after a night of drinking, I’d see the Bush/Cheney bumper sticker on his pick-up and cringe just a little.

When I left Florida in 2010 and landed in rehab a year later, I lost touch with Mike. Years later, I found out that he left too, and built a career for himself doing what he always wanted to do: singing country music. Whenever he posts a photo or video from a show, I remember when we were two lost kids sitting in his kitchen and he would strum his guitar and tell me about how he was going to make music someday.

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