The large punchbowl looked so inviting on the table in the woman’s apartment at the Town and Country Apartments in St. Louis where I had recently moved in 1970 when I was 31. I had separated from my wife at the end of August and had chosen the Town and Country for its proximity to my work at Washington University Medical School just around the corner. I had met a few of the other inhabitants, mostly med school employees and physicians around my age. One of them, a librarian who worked on the main campus, had invited me to a small Christmas party in her apartment.
I was planning to stop by on my way a larger gathering that Saturday, to be held on the top floor of the Olin Residence, a dorm for medical students not far from my apartment. The party in Olin was put on every year by the residents in the Department of Otolaryngology (Ear, Nose and Throat) in which I held a teaching appointment. Everyone from the department was there: faculty, staff and, of course, the residents, who produced a video skit each year.
The punch at the little party in my apartment building had maraschino cherries, pineapple chucks, tangerine wedges and orange slices floating on the top, along with ice cubes. There were other refreshments, too: Christmas cookies and fudge. I hadn’t eaten supper because I knew there’d be lots to eat.
I’m very nervous in social settings where I don’t know most of the people, and in those years I smoked to cover my unease. Besides, I’m no good at small talk, and at parties I head to the food table when my conversational gambits fall flat.
I didn’t really know what was in the Christmas drink. If I had to guess, I’d say canned Hawaiian Punch with ginger ale, pineapple juice and a little sugar mixed in—nothing more. After failing to start up sustainable conversations with the only two people I knew, I went back for a few more cups. I saw no harm; it just tasted sweet. A little while later, I thanked the hostess and headed to the big party at Olin.
When I got off the elevator on the top floor, I needed the restroom—no surprise with all that fluid on board. Inside I heard retching sounds from one of the stalls, and one of the residents I had taught staggered out, shaking his head. “Wow, that’s strong stuff in there,” he said, and bent over the sink to rinse his mouth.
I found the bar, and after what I had witnessed in the mens room, decided on a gin and tonic. “Just a little gin,” I said. I took a sip and turned around. On my left was a row of chairs aligned against the windows, and sitting in them were a few resident’s wives, and several faculty couples. Most of my colleagues were a decade or so older than I was, but one, Don Sessions, was about my age. He and his wife Jan had recently moved to St. Louis from Alaska, where he had fulfilled his military obligation at an Air Force Hospital. They were a relaxed young couple, and before separating, my wife and I had enjoyed chatting with them.
To my right, opposite the chairs was the food table with a large punch bowl, but unlike the one at the party in my apartment building, this bowl didn’t contain punch. Instead it was filled with a special dipping sauce prepared by one of our residents, Dr. Frank Lucente, who had boasted of his culinary skills and had promised a special treat for the annual party. Containing unique ingredients, the sauce was intended to complement various crackers, breads, celery sticks and other crudités that he supplied. It was his pièce de résistance and with artful garnishing around the rim, it seemed so attractive that no one dared take the first scoop, lest an ugly divot mar the glistening surface.
I was debating whether to be first to sample Frank’s work of art when the room began to spin around me. I lurched back and forth a couple times and forced my feet with deliberate effort to convey me back to the mens room where I dove into a stall. Like the resident before me, I staggered to the sink afterward to rinse my mouth and wash my face. Then I felt OK.
Back at the bar, I asked for a ginger ale and took a couple of wary sips. No one had yet sullied the surface of Lucente’s dipping sauce. As I walked past it, the room spun again, this time with greater violence than before. My feet gave way and I stuck out my hand to steady myself, plunging it nearly to the elbow in the bowl of Frank’s culinary creation. I looked with horror and lurched in the opposite direction, landing in Don Session’s lap. Thank God it was Don and not one of the senior guys.
How I made it back to the mens room I don’t remember, but when I got there, there was another resident passed out on the floor. I jumped back into the stall and rinsed my mouth afterwards. The guy on the floor was groaning. Beside me at the next sink was a young Brazilian physician who worked in my lab. He grinned at me and laughed. I looked at him and said, “Erol, I think I’ve had enough. I’ll see you Monday.”
I stumbled back to my apartment, grateful that I didn’t needed to drive. When I saw my hostess from the small party, I didn’t have to ask her what else had been in her wonderful Christmas punch. I already knew.