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The Man Who Helped Me (and Loved Me) When I Was Getting Sober

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I cannot find him. I’ve tried every so often over the years.

Chelis Alvarez.

The John Smith of Mexican names.

It was 2002, I was 24. My intention had been to escape my mounting debt. You see I had been drugging and drinking and sexing and binge buying so much I was about to lose my only means of transport. The only thing I was paying was my rent. Credit card debt, store cards, car loan and student loans, all belonged in the world of play money. I was heading for rock bottom.

The thing about standards is you can always go lower. But I was not going to live on the street.

I needed to find a way out and if my friend, death, kept refusing to show up, then I’d have to make another plan.

I heard that a few of the waiters at my work were going to America on some temporary work visa thing. “Fuck, that’s cool.” So I got a hold of them to find out more. A season, seven months, at a country club, mostly waitressing. “Argh, waitressing again, oh who cares, it’s a way out.” Seems the money is good, food and board paid, and you are in another country. I’ve always wanted to travel. And I was always supposed to end up a big star in America.

That’s how I found myself inadvertently in rehab.

Part of the deal is random drug testing. The country club gets a tax break if they do random drug tests on their employees. You could take a chance… if you test positive: Go directly to jail — do not pass go, do not collect $200. More literally, go directly from test center to airport and back to your miserable life in Cape Town, someone will pack your things up and they will be sent to you. You will not get paid and would never be allowed back in America. This was no idle threat, it happened to someone in my group.

The journey began alone, on the biggest adventure of my life. I got on an airplane for the first time. An 18 hour direct flight to New York. I met my first colleague on the flight, happened to be sitting next to me and I promptly joined the mile high club.

You were supposed to have $300 to see you through to your first pay check, but you had to pay your flights and visa so I was all out. I dropped a zero, I had $30. But I was in New York!

Employing the South Africans was a quasi philanthropic act. The elite members would sometimes show us off to their guests as their latest altruistic endeavor. The truth is we were cheap labor, specially since we paid our own shipping. And there was absolutely no tipping allowed.

Mexicans formed the rest of the workforce. We were all treated the same. Really just grabber sticks for whatever a member, his family or guests wanted.

That’s how we met.

He worked in the kitchen. The chef was Austrian, very tough, he was always pulling pranks on everyone, but he was, shall we say, passionate. I can’t remember his name. Picture Gordon Ramsay, shorter and fatter. Got it.

The hours were long and the pace fast. But Chelis was always smiling. He had one of those naughty smiles, with a glint in his eye, that made me wonder what he was thinking about.

We all used to hang out together after work. Not with the Mexicans as much. I mean these are South Africans raised in apartheid after all, and though we were a mixed group there was definitely a racial border.

But I was drawn to him. He had such a calm energy about him. He seemed to be genuinely happy in the here and now. He was kind and funny. And yes, he was sexy. It wasn’t long before we hooked up.

What followed was a six month love affair. I’d not felt like this or been with anyone this special since Jess. I had let him in, sober.

Granted I was drinking as much as before, compensating for my other desires. A case of beer a night would not be unthinkable. My roommate and I could stay up all night wrapped up in blankets on the patio, smoking and drinking till dawn when it was time to go to work.

Maybe the reason I can’t find him, is because he was an angel, my angel, in my “rehab”; and he returned back to heaven after our season. We were the same age but he was so wise. His lessons were deep and on many occasion I wept in his arms, sometimes shaking uncontrollably, as the horrors of my past spilled like bile from my mouth. Chemical detox, emotional exposure.

The most profound lesson of many came late one night… we were sitting under the trees close to the dorm, alone. Just talking, relaxing, making out. He paused, “I want to tell you something.” I didn’t answer. I just got quiet, reclined serenely back onto the tree behind me and watched the moon. “You don’t see your light. You look towards others for validation, you act out for attention, you don’t love yourself.” He said looking up at the moon also, with no expression on his face. “I love you and you are extraordinary,” he turned and smiled at me before continuing, “but you don’t need anyone to tell you that. You already know, you just have to believe.”

I don’t know why but I believed him. It was a selfless act of love. I felt such verve in me that I thought would stay forever. At that moment I was alone, I was whole, I was free.

We were inseparable. But we had different histories, spoke different languages, had different cultures and… would have different futures.

The season ended and New York was getting cold again. It was time to pack up. I had applied for another season in Florida and Chelis had to go home to Mexico. He was expected to find a good wife, marry and have children. He was happy with his path ahead, just as he was happy with his path until now.

Our last evening before we all left in separate buses to separate places, I spent in his room. And I shut down. I slept, I couldn’t help it, I couldn’t stay awake. I literally could not keep my eyes open, it was as if I had taken a tranquilizer. I knew I was hurting him. He tried to wake me. We cried. I slept. In the end he just held me and in the morning there was no escaping, we had to leave.

Gratefully sober, with savings to cover my debt, I got on that bus, waved, put my head down and didn’t look back. I didn’t take his address, number or any other details. We spoke once or twice. It was bland. I had shutdown, I had to shut him out, to keep moving forward.

But our season is immortal. Our gifts exchanged, ever lasting.

So many years later I would’ve liked the opportunity to say.

Thank you.

But I cannot find him.

Getty image via Utro_na_more

Originally published: May 4, 2020
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