Do you drink alcohol?” It’s a rhetorical question, but one my doctor feels compelled to ask each year during my annual physical. It’s a little game we play. I answer yes, and then he asks how many drinks I have per day. That question is followed by a long and rather uncomfortable pause. We’ve all been through those moments of strained silence. A significant other asks why we were out so late or a superior asks why a project we’re responsible for has not been completed and we stare at them blankly before we answer, the seconds ticking by as we calculate just how far we can stretch the truth.
“Four,” I finally say in a voice of confident authority. My doctor used to write the number down on a piece of paper attached to a clipboard, but now when I answer, he pokes awkwardly at a touch screen tablet. “And that’s every day?” he asks. “Give or take,” I say.
“It really depends on the day, and whether or not I’ve spoken with my mother.” During the back and forth, I want to ask him if he would not rather save us both time and just read from last year’s script, but I don’t want to hurt his feelings. “The CDC recommends no more than two drinks a day for men,” he tells me. I give him a thumbs up and say, “Well then I guess I’m ahead of schedule.” He pokes a few more times at the tablet then looks at me with a smirk and tells me to drop my pants.
Another doctor, one I happened to be chatting with at a cocktail party, told me that in his experience people lie about how much they drink by about forty percent. “What do you mean?” I asked.
He put down his gin and tonic and raised his fists. “If they say they have two drinks a day it means they have three.” He lifted his fingers to correspond with each number to help me follow along with the math. “And if they say they have five, it means they have seven. And if they say they have seven, well, you get the drift.” The drift was indeed understood, and it made me wonder if for all these years my doctor assumed I was having four plus whatever four times forty percent equals, a number that was probably quite accurate. “So how much do you drink?” I asked the doctor, as he mixed himself another gin and tonic. “One generally, two occasionally, and three every so often,” he said. Then he sipped his fresh cocktail, gave me a wink, and disappeared into the crowd.
My conversation with Dr. Gin and Tonic made me think about another physician, a man named Dr. Kline who practiced in the town where I grew up. Back in the eighties, I would see him each weekend at my family’s golf club, his face red from the flasks of Scotch he kept in his golf bag and in the glove box of his Cadillac. “Whatever happened to Dr. Kline?” I asked my mom during one of our recent phone conversations. “Oh, he died years ago,” she said. “A stroke I think. He couldn’t have been more than sixty-five.”
At my next annual physical, I plan to give my doctor a new answer when he questions the amount I drink per day. “One,” I’ll say. “And feel free to add forty percent to that.” If he asks why I have cut down on the alcohol, I’ll reflect on Dr. Kline’s affection for Scotch and the years it probably stole from him. “I had to,” I’ll say. “Doctor’s orders.”