“What are you doing?” my girlfriend calls from her office, where she’s watching the acne-free antics of Gossip Girl. “Words! They hurt!” I moan, clutching ears made sensitive by too much Mama Juana, an herb- and wood-soaked Dominican rum touted as Caribbean Viagra—if you don’t swig so much you resemble a wet noodle.
“Are you hungover?” she asks. She stomps into the living room like a drill sergeant. “Muhhhhh,” I mumble through a mouthful of carbonated, caramel bliss.
“Hmmm,” she says, solving my peculiar game of Clue: Josh. In the living room.With Diet Coke. “You’re definitely hungover,” she proclaims, returning to her stories and leaving me to my self-inflicted misery.
To cure the devil-sauce sickness, some folks turn to greasy, cheesy eggs and robust coffee. Not I. Post-boozing, java makes my nerves raw and jingle-jangly, ushering in a twitchy, heart racing, hyperventilating panic attack. But unlike java’s rocket-fuel takeoff, bubbly DC is a gentle jump-start, soothing my stomach while sating my caffeine addiction—methadone to dark-roast heroin.
“What are you, a sorority girl?” my everunderstanding girlfriend wonders. No, the blame—like my neuroses and atrocious eyesight—is planted squarely on my parents.
As a child, my duty was unloading the groceries from my mom’s minivan, especially the soda. My baby-food-soft muscles straining, I’d ferry Diet Coke two-liters—we always bought a dozen during the $.69 sale—to our garage shelves. Like the ancient Egyptians, I’d stack the plastic bottles into a pyramid, where the Bernstein clan worshipped the almighty God aspartame during breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Naturally, my sugar-free leanings left me open to even more ridicule than a short, hirsute Jewish kid in Jesus-loving suburban Ohio would normally endure.
“That stuff is poison,” said my friend Jeremy. “You’re such a freak.” This was an odd indictment from a kid who, several years later, plugged in his mother’s vibrators and waved them at me like Darth Vader’s buzzing, bumpily textured light sabers. However, his comments spoke to a greater truth: Diet Coke engenders a cultish devotion. Fans swallow DC like it’s a life-giving elixir, a magical cure-all for every ailment. So what of the artificial sweeteners and laboratory-concocted preservatives; the nose-tingling beverage has zero caloric impact, enticing spaghetti-thin models and medical professionals alike. Each night before bed, my doctor dad would fill a tall, icefilled glass with effervescent Diet Coke. “It’s to prevent kidney stones,” he’d say. I believed him, too young to discern an addict’s flimsy deception.
Still, my best and saddest Diet Coke story comes from the brick streets of Athens, Ohio. This leafy town is home to my alma mater, Ohio University, and the Ridges, a.k.a. the Athens Mental Health Center.
This sprawling Victorian institution (now university property) has a horror-movie pedigree. Here, unlucky loonies were treated with ice-water dunkings, shock therapy and everyone’s favorite, the lobotomy.When the center shuttered in the 1990s, many of the quote unquote “sane” patients were turned loose on the town. Thusly, Athens was a hodgepodge of characters like Can-Collector George, Right-Angle Bob (he walked at a 90-degree angle) and Diet Coke Man. According to local lore, Diet Coke Man— a haunted 50ish fellow with wind-blown grey hair—was a onetime mathematical genius. He ingested too much acid, flipped his gourd and was committed.Whatever cure he undertook, it failed. Miserably. Diet Coke Man wandered Athens’ streets day and night, cradling a halfdrunk Diet Coke two-liter like a baby. He’d periodically pause, examine a scrap of paper or trash and then shuffle on, his eyes scanning the ground for things bright and tattered.
By my senior year, I’d developed an abiding affinity for the Diet Coke Man. He loved DC as much as I did! Like the quirky cast populating our daily commutes, Diet Coke Man was part of my landscape—an enigmatic constant. A couple weeks before graduation, I decided to employ my supposed journalism skills and debunk his mystery.
“Excuse me,” I said one evening, halting his stroll. I also held a Diet Coke, demonstrating kinship. “What are you looking for?” He paused. Looked up with wounded doe eyes. Drank Diet Coke. “There are two worlds: An A world and a B world,” he said wearily the two-liter dropping to his side. “I’m trapped in the B world. I’m trying to find my way back to the A world.”
With that he shambled off, the sloshing Diet Coke his sole companion on his endless, maddening quest.