Memoir: How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?

Joyce Maynard's father was an alcoholic, so she’d always watched her step. She was sure she never drank to excess—until one night on a dark road after she drank and drove

by Joyce Maynard
drinking and driving image
Photograph: Trunkarchive.com

The officer had arranged to have my car towed to a repair shop. The owner was my old friend Gene, and I knew the place well from the years when I drove cars that always needed one repair or another. I sat with my handcuffs in my lap in the backseat of the cruiser as we drove. There was a Red Sox game on the radio. In my chest, I could feel the pounding of my heart.

At the station, they sat me in a room and explained my options. If I refused the Breathalyzer, I was subject to having my license suspended for six months. If I passed the Breathalyzer, I’d be let off with only the speeding ticket. If I failed, I’d be charged with DUI and released on bail in the custody of whomever I might find to pick me up. This would be my daughter, no doubt asleep by now back at her cabin. It was close to midnight.

The officer filled me in on the laws concerning driving under the influence: While the legal definition of intoxication stood nationally at 0.08 percent, in New Hampshire the police possessed discretionary power to charge an individual with DUI for a blood-alcohol level of 0.04 and above.

Given my options, I agreed to do the Breathalyzer test—but first I had to sit on a bench for 20 minutes while an officer watched me. Evidently, people suspected of drunk driving sometimes surreptitiously pop a breath mint into their mouths before the test, invalidating the results. By watching me for 20 minutes beforehand, the police would detect any such insertion. “I have to keep my eyes on your mouth for 20 minutes,” the officer said. If I even touched my mouth during the waiting period, we’d have to start all over again.

Other movements were permitted, if I performed them carefully. The officer demonstrated how I could scratch my nose, for example, without obstructing the sight lines to my mouth. This involved raising my arm over my head and dropping my hand over the top of my face rather than blocking my lips.

“Some people touch their face on purpose to buy more time,” the officer said. “Try that twice and it’s an automatic DUI.”

Still unsure how much I’d had to drink, and considering all the ways my life would be altered if I lost my license, I had already come up with this very idea. This was how low I had stooped, I reflected, how desperate I felt at the prospect of a DUI. It wasn’t just the inconvenience of losing my license for months or the expense of higher insurance rates. More important was the shame—an emotion I remembered well from childhood, when my greatest terror lay in the prospect of someone (my friends, my teacher, our neighbors) finding out that my father got drunk.

Time passed. I thought about the eggplant parmigiana at dinner, grateful I’d eaten second helpings. I imagined the police calling my daughter. Shame again, at the prospect of her hearing that her mother had been charged with drunk driving, as my father never had been, though he could have been, a hundred times over.

“My daughter is a sound sleeper,” I told the officer. “She might not hear the phone.”

“We can send an officer out to the house to get her,” he said. A new scene to picture: Audrey waking to the sound of knocking at the door and going down to find a policeman standing there. I know what I’d think.

Twenty minutes passed; time to take the test. “Some people don’t blow full force,” the officer told me. “But the machine picks that up.”

I took the tube in my mouth. Blew hard. Waited. Blew again. Returned to the bench.

A few minutes later, a printout of my score scrolled from the machine like a fax. The officer ripped it off and examined it. I said a prayer. Just let me be OK, and I’ll never let this happen again.

He studied the paper. He disappeared into another room. Through the door I could hear the Red Sox game. A late inning now. They must have been somewhere on the West Coast.

An excruciating number of minutes passed. Finally the officer emerged. Maybe the Red Sox game was over. Maybe he just figured I’d suffered enough.

“You blew a .02,” he said. “You’re free to go.”

First published in the September 2012 issue

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