The Human Genre Project

Alcohol Dehydrogenase

In the beginning, it had been cans of a weak, populist beer, taken from my parents’ refrigerator, scarcely different than water. I sipped it very slowly, over hours and hours, confining myself to my bed, so that, when its effects penetrated, I would not harm anyone. At the halfway mark, there was a buzz, faint and warm, partly in my stomach but mostly in my head. At the height of it, my hands quivered. Gradually, however, my insides worked, converting alcohol to acetate, which felt like nothing.
In later years, it appeared in other forms—citrus, sugar, smoke—and what had once been a quiver became a genuine vertigo. My insides worked, worked, but not as quickly as I consumed it. The peak, when it came, was hard and unsubtle. It obliterated my old exterior and furnished—briefly, briefly—a new personality, raw and fearless.
Three nights—only three—my insides revolted, and the excess, unprocessed, returned through my throat. The first was on a balcony, kneeling at the edge, and the muck of it tumbled through the slats, just brushing the bumper of a parked car. The second, consisting of rum and bacon, was in the restroom of a bar that I do not otherwise remember. The third was the purest, induced by red wine only, and expelled neatly—consummately—into a white plastic trashcan.
One year, after acquiring a fetus, I stopped entirely. It was an imprecise fear, fed by years of exaggerated reports. It was, I sensed, a sort of thalidomide, tiny quantities of which would create limb-less children. In my head, there were warning images, half-dream, half-caricature. There were bubble-headed babies, whose heads sloshed when you rocked them, containing beer-scented liquid where the brain ought to have been. Others, born prematurely, possessed liquor-pickled skin. Their tiny voices slurred, as if drunken: I hope you enjoyed yourself, mother.
My insides, absent these substances, became wistful and hungry. I inhaled what I could not drink: fumes from uncorked bottles; units of pungency, wafting from the necks of open tumblers, abrasive in my nose. At times, I extracted droplets from my husband’s lips, in kisses interspersed between his sips, as if it had been an accident. My insides worked—too quickly? too slowly?—so that there was no lightness, only a fleeting sensorial thrill: a feeling, confused and faint, somewhere between taste and smell.
On the evening of my daughter’s birth, I drank French wine, on which I could form no opinion. During my abstinence, my palate had degenerated. I perceived a vague sweetness, mixed with a sting, which enabled me—though only just—to distinguish it from substances that were not wine. My insides worked, worked, though ineffectually. With one glass, a throb persisted in my head: nostalgic though not quite pleasant. I declined a second.
In later years, it has become a cultural fact: a background stimulus, like music or décor. There are nuances—color, thickness—which range, as my consumption does, from mild to moderate. My insides, like disaffected artisans, process it casually. It is unsurprising work, completed as quickly as it is acknowledged, and, in a moment, forgotten.
It has, for me, been a minor love: an inept flirtation, maturing to passion, but which has mellowed, as an impulsive marriage might, to mere coexistence.

Alcohol dehydrogenase—among other functions—converts ethanol, an intoxicant, to acetaldehyde. (Another enzyme, aldehyde dehydrogenase, converts acetaldehyde to acetate, a hamless metabolite.) There are seven alcohol dehydrogenase genes, all of which are located on Chromosome 4.

Rachel Rodman