Roadless area: Confessions of a drunk driver
It was maybe four in the morning when she asked me if I wanted to see her nipple piercing.
I admired the view, she pulled her bikini top back into place, and I sat back against the wall of the hot tub, taking another gulp of box wine.
If you had asked me in that moment, I would have told you that I had been drinking responsibly. It had been hours since my first drink, and I'd spaced them out pretty well. I'd been in that hot tub for over three hours when she asked me if I'd give her a ride home.
Partying in Richmond, where I used to report traffic from a WRVA traffic 'copter, I hadn't been planning to drive back to my home in the Valley. In fact, the host had invited all stragglers to find a sofa or space on the floor if we needed to. But my hot tub companion wanted to sleep in her own bed. So did I. But I knew when I pulled onto the interstate that I was pushing my luck.
I had brought my first DUI upon myself about three years earlier in May 2000. Thirty-four at the time, I had just been dumped, so I went out and literally cried in my beer– about three pitchers' worth. I then proceeded to wash it all down with a few ill-advised shots of Jägermeister.
I was about a block from my house when the police pulled me. I was placed on a restricted license and made to attend VASAP (the Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program), where I felt presumed to be an alcoholic and could never prove otherwise. While the program's methods are heavy-handed, they are nonetheless effective. I changed my habits for the better and became a poster child for responsible social drinking.
Then came October 2003 and the hot tub.
I figured I was just tired. All I had to do was concentrate, and we'd be at her place in no time. And we were. I was relieved to be done driving for the night. She showed me around the apartment. I smiled and nodded and complimented the décor, and then we embraced. And we kissed. It was about 5:30am, and I was finally getting what I wanted. Or so I thought. She started pulling away. She said she was in the final stages of a divorce and felt guilty about fooling around while still technically married. I had actually heard that one before. With the action abruptly halted, I realized just how exhausted I was. I exhaled a tired sigh and said, "Well, I'd like to stay for the night."
"I just wouldn't be comfortable with that," she replied. I honestly had, at that point, just meant sleep, but the earnestness in her reply caused my automatic gentleman subroutine to engage.
With one last embrace, I was gone.
I sat in my car and contemplated the 45-minute drive back to my mom's house in Goochland County. All I had to do was hit I-64, and it was a pretty straight shot. I could do it. After all, I hadn't had a drink in over 90 minutes.
After getting on the highway, I felt my eyelids growing heavy. I started to think, "Maybe I'm not going to make it home." The Glenside Drive exit was coming. "There's a whole bunch of hotels at the Glenside exit," I thought to myself. "I'll just get off here and check into a hotel. I need to get to sleep." So I got off the interstate at the Glenside Drive exit.
Why I didn't stop, I'll never know. God had delivered me that far and given me an out. I still ask myself why I didn't take it.
By 6am, I was about 10 miles away from my mom's, traveling a fairly straight run of country road– fighting to stay awake, cracking the window, cranking the radio, and furiously shaking my head. "I'm so close," I thought to myself. "In a few minutes, it will all be over."
I vaguely remember seeing the lights coming at me. I vaguely remember turning the wheel sharply, and I vaguely remember hearing the "whump."
The car was stopped. The interior light was on. I was staring into a fully deployed airbag. Shards of broken glass covered my shoulder and lap. An assortment of plastic trim lay in disarray around me. The radio blared. I smelled something burning. I was confused.
I determined that I was still sitting in the traffic lane and figured it would be best to move over onto the shoulder until I could figure out what was going on. So I turned the key. Nothing. I turned it again. Still nothing.
The door was difficult to open, but I pushed my way out and began to survey the damage. A good portion of my front end was gone. The front wheel was bent in a way I hadn't thought possible. Bits of glass, metal, plastic, and rubber lay strewn on the roadway. I had seen this kind of thing before, but it didn't seem right that it should be around my car.
Dazed, I looked up the road to see another car sitting on the shoulder. I started up to see if that driver was okay. He was, thank God. A good portion his car's front end was missing, too, though. Then I noticed his wife sitting in the car, crying. He was pacing, smoking a cigarette. I asked if she was okay. He said she was just shaken up.
I asked what had happened. He seemed startled by the question and said, "You just started coming into my lane. I tried to swerve, but you just kept coming."
He'd already called the sheriff. There was silence and more pacing. When I asked to bum a cigarette, he said "sure," and lit it for me, too.
Dawn was breaking as the two ambulances, one fire truck, and several patrol cars came screaming onto the scene.
First, the medics made sure everyone was okay. Then the deputy came over and asked me what had happened. I told him I wasn't quite sure, but I thought that I had fallen asleep at the wheel. He asked me if I'd had anything to drink. I told him I'd had a few beers and a few glasses of wine over the course of the evening, but that I hadn't had anything in about two hours. I concentrated very, very hard, and spoke very, very softly. The field tests followed.
Again, I concentrated. Aced the alphabet test. Aced the nose-touching test. Aced the standing-on-one-foot test. Started to feel pretty good. But I couldn't tell whether I was walking the line correctly, and that's when I started to get worried. The deputy kept scribbling. I noticed tow trucks pulling up to the two cars, which looked even worse in the light of day. Then I saw the woman loaded into the back of an ambulance. I got scared.
When my frightened glance turned back upon the deputy, he was in the midst of his spiel about the breathalyzer test versus the blood test, and how I could be charged with another crime if I didn't submit... and yaddayaddayadda.
I just wanted him to finish so I could take the test. He pulled out the tube and I blew into it. He checked the results, then looked back to me and placed me under arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol. The cuffs came out. Miranda rights were read. I was pushed into the back of a patrol car and whisked off to the Goochland County Courthouse.
Once in the holding cell, I lay down on the cold, steel bench, and was out like a light.
"You'd better get a lawyer, son," the magistrate said to me after I was awakened and brought before him. "Are the other people okay?" I asked, looking helplessly at the deputy. "They're fine. She was taken to the hospital for observation, but she's been released." A wave of relief came over me.
"You got someone who can come get you?" the magistrate growled. "Yeah, my mom," I said. He pushed a phone in front of me.
The disappointment in her voice when she said she would be right there cut more deeply than anything that had happened so far. And when my mom finally arrived, I stepped outside, looked at her, expressionless, for just a second and completely broke down in tears.
I was exhausted when I awoke later in the afternoon, and I stayed that way for the next two weeks. Guilt and shame were the stuff of my existence. My mom had to force me to eat. I knew that I was damn lucky to be alive, but I wasn't at all sure that I wanted to be. The love, understanding and support I received from my friends and family just made it worse.
First order of business was to take that magistrate's advice and get a lawyer. I emailed a few friends who had a few friends who had been in situations similar to mine. The thought of what I was going to have to lay out for that lawyer was a major worry. Guilt and self-loathing I had in abundance... money, not so much, as I'd just completed building a new home, a cabin in a hollow called Vesuvius in northern Rockbridge County.
I showed up at my first hearing sans attorney. It was a simple motion to postpone the hearing for four months until the lawyer would be able to come up to speed on the Commonwealth's evidence against me.
I savored every moment behind the wheel for the next four months. It took about two weeks– after telling my employers and all my friends what I had done– for me to start emerging from my funk. I even started laughing again. I threw myself into my work and tried not to think about the consequences that awaited me.
It was a foregone conclusion that I was going to lose my driver's license for a year. State law. Also that I would be going to jail for at least five days. Again, state law. All I could do was hope and pray that it wouldn't be any more than a year without my license, and certainly no more than five days in jail.
The day of the hearing came at last. My mom drove me from the Valley back to the Goochland County Court House, and I now stood, decked out in my best suit, next to my lawyer, who appeared to be decked out in one of her best suits. It was amazingly swift.
The judge said a few judgelike words intended to make me reflect upon the horrible thing I had done, and he then passed sentence. Close to $700 in fines, one-year license revocation, another go at VASAP (20 weeks this time, as opposed to the original 10, with no way to get there). And the dreaded five days in jail to commence immediately.
The reality didn't set in until I heard the ankle chains clamp shut. I had suffered the humiliation of handcuffs before, but the ankle chains were just like the movies. There I was, in my suit, chained up like an animal, lined up with four or five other inmates, all waiting to be transported to the Henrico County Regional Jail, which also serves Goochland County.
Processing took an eternity. They removed the chains in the holding area, and I waited. Finally a deputy, the only pleasant non-inmate I was to encounter over the next five days, took me into the back room and ordered me to strip. After a quick body search, he was convinced I didn't have a file stuck anywhere unseemly, and he handed me my prison-issue two-piece aqua uniform. I was to wear it for the next five days, since I wouldn't be in long enough to need the laundry.
When all of us inductees were finally sporting our new duds, we were issued kindergarten mats, which our guards mockingly referred to as "mattresses," and a hygiene kit, which included a cup, toothbrush, hotel-sized bar of soap, and a spork. That spork was to be my only eating utensil for the next five days– and there was no way to really wash it.
The Henrico County Regional Jail is nothing like those jails you see on TV. No rows of bars, just a series of drab little concrete boxes with stainless steel sinks and toilets and thick steel doors. The doors open into a very large common room where most of the inmates spend their days engaged in extremely loud conversation. They have to be loud to be heard over the blaring television.
The aforementioned concrete boxes were equipped with only one bunk, but each was the temporary home of at least two, sometimes three, guests. I came to know it as the "Henrico Hilton." Most of the inmates on my cellblock had been on a little tour of different jails and judged that, as jails go, this one was to their liking. Good thing, too, as some of them were in there for as much as two years.
I got lucky when it came to roommates, and ended up with a fairly affable fellow who was in for lifting a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. I thought jail was a harsh sentence for lifting a bottle of Pepto-Bismol until he told me that he had taken about six doses of Percocet an hour beforehand. This wasn't his first stay in the Hilton, and he scored a couple of Michael Crichton novels for me.
Between naps, Timeline, and Rising Sun, those five days went by a lot faster than they should have. And I discovered that I could read an entire novel with the television cranking.
I was fully packed and standing in front of the door about an hour before my scheduled release time. I have never been as happy to leave any place as I was to leave the Henrico Hilton, its surly staff, and that viscous brown liquid they tauntingly referred to as "coffee."
Mom ferried me back to my little mountain cabin, stocked me up with food, and left me to begin my year of "house arrest." I built my house in the boonies when I assumed I'd be able to drive. With the contents of my office transferred to my home, a shiny new fax machine on my desk, and an unwieldy new satellite dish (the high-speed Internet type) plopped down in my back yard, I unceremoniously entered the world of telecommuting.
It's not been as bad as I feared. My job is demanding from either home or office, so my days are filled, and I've actually been striving to make the most of the situation. As a commuter, I had always found it easy to avoid exercising. Now, I work out on a daily basis. I'm even running again. I'm in the best shape of my life. A buddy tells me that the exercise is causing my body to create endorphins, which he calls "nature's antidepressant."
And I find that I have plenty of time to reflect on the things I did that brought me to where I am now. I figure the only reason I'm alive is that God decided that I hadn't done everything he had put me on this earth to do. And the only reason I'm not a murderer is that God didn't want me to have to do those things with another man's blood staining my conscience. I am very grateful. And I want to say to him, I got the message, dude. Loud and clear.
Drinking and driving is criminal. Drunk driving accidents can be lethal. People die. Or, if they're lucky, they merely have their lives devastated. Only the insanely lucky walk away without a scratch. My luck is of the insane variety.
I don't blame anyone but myself for my stupid decisions that evening. And while I may occasionally grouse, I understand and embrace each of the punishments.
I am grateful– oh, so grateful– for the love, support, and understanding of my employers and my friends (especially the ones who drive me to the store, to the office, to VASAP, and anywhere I can't get on foot). I am constantly aware that I let them down. Every time I climb into a friend's passenger seat, I'm reminded that I'm completely dependent on my loved ones. I have both disappointed them and become their burden. That aspect of my punishment– relived every day– is a tiny hell.
I'm broke and homebound and have only a skeletal semblance of a social life, but I'm still one of the luckiest people I know. And when finally allowed back on the road, I will have a much healthier respect for the privilege of driving and the responsibility that goes along with it.
It could have been much, much worse.
In the end, I risked my life- and the lives of every other driver I shared the highway with that night– just because I thought I might score.
And the girl from the hot tub? She doesn't return my calls or emails. Heard she's dating someone. Good for her.
Bill Gordon expects to get back behind the wheel in February 2005, but for as long as VASAP deems necessary, an ignition interlock will prevent his car from starting unless he passes an in-car breathalyzer. If he gets a third DUI in Virginia, he'll automatically be charged with a felony, which could mean six months in jail.
This story originally appeared in eightyone magazine.
PHOTO BY WOODS PIERCE
I was staring into a fully deployed airbag. Shards of broken glass covered my shoulder and lap. A good portion of my front end was gone.
"I just wouldn't be comfortable with that," she said. I honestly just meant sleep.