I got a push notification from Pinterest today alerting me that my college boyfriend, Jordan, just created a Pinterest board called, Laundry Room. Naturally, I clicked the link. The board contained only one photo of inspiration: a side-by-side, ice chrome front-loading washer/dryer, preciously tucked into a wall of shelving, each holding those neat cloth-lined wicker baskets and the piéce de résistance--a hanging bar perfectly centered over the appliances that showcased an array of button-downs, obviously fresh from the dryer, to highlight the Pinterest-worthy brilliance of this laundry room configuration. I don’t need to see a recent photo of him to confirm, Jordan is still hot.
I’d initially thought I had wanted his roommate. Brad was blonde and overly accommodating. He was a YES guy and even though at that point I’d not had many relationships, boys who allowed my passive-aggressiveness without much protest I already knew would have a short expiration date. So when he invited me back to his dormroom and his dark, exquisite cohabitor had his hand on my thigh in under thirty minutes, I knew I was in for an intense ride.
It soon became clear that one way to elicit negative emotion from Brad was to steal his girlfriend from right under his nose. Every time he saw Jordan and me together, in the dining hall or the quad, his face would turn beet red as he did an about-face, his ponytail swishing as he stomped away. I wanted to feel something, anything, like guilt or remorse for poor Brad but I just couldn’t muster it. There was a part of me that thought he deserved it even for being so malleable. Besides, I was too saturated, like a sponge, I had absorbed every drop of Jordan until I’d shifted into an entirely different size and shape.
Jordan had business school study groups that would take him well into the evening. I’d feel my stomach start to curl and restrict hours before his arrival, an anticipation that only ice cold pink boxed Franzia that my roommate Anya made sure to keep well in stock could quell. As soon as I’d hear his motorcycle circling the parking lot, I’d suddenly have to go to the bathroom to check and see if my desperate hunger wasn’t actually visible, forcing Anya to answer the door.
“Sooooondraaaaa, Jordan’s herrrrrre!” We could have taken the show to Broadway, we’d rehearsed it so many times.
“Oh okay, I’ll be right there.” Pacing my steps, my self-talk looping, You cannot let him see how absolutely tortured you are by his mere existence, only to blow it all when my nose got within range of his scent, which was a river of motorcycle exhaust, wind and Drakkar Noir and I’d bury into his neck for so long, he’d drop his helmet in exasperation.
And then, in seemingly the same amount of time it took for him to put his hand on my thigh after our first Hello, or maybe it was fifty-nine days if one were counting, he was gone. There were tears but they could not wash that smell out of my nose. Sure, I smelled it on my pillow for some time but even after I washed the sheets, it was still there like some car freshener that had fallen behind the dash and you’re forced to smell everyday until the day you realize you don’t notice it anymore. I’d still see Brad in the quad and I’d indulge the fantasy that we’d rebond over a beer since we’d both now been fucked over by Jordan and I wouldn’t have to say I was sorry for what I’d done.
I saw Brad for the first time since college a few years ago. I was pushing my daughter in her stroller, strolling through our neighborhood on a sunny day. I paused at a stop sign and could feel a car window lowering in my periphery.
We chatted there for a long time, him ducking to see me through his passenger window as I nervously shifted from leg to leg behind the stroller. Turns out, he only lived a few blocks from me and had for years. I thought that if his mouth even started to form a J, before he could even get his name out I’d blurt my amends, but he never brought him up.
“It was so good to see you,” we both gushed as we said our goodbyes. I meant it.
A few days later, I was sitting at my computer deleting the hundreds of emails that show up in my inbox daily from the neighborhood listserv. That’s when it hit me that “Brad” from the listserv, angry Brad who is consistently, weekly even, ranting for relief from loud noises, complaining about neighbors who aren’t too discerning with their garbage can placement, reporting suspicious hooded passerbys, raging against graffiti artists and the horse they rode in on, is MY Brad. I couldn’t help but feel a little responsible for this righteous anger, a little proud even, like I was watching my kid run in a ball while I looked around to high-five someone yelling, “That’s my boy!”
As I dissolved into Jordan’s perfectly curated and symmetrical laundry room, I imagined burrowing my face into those shirts, breathing in the Tide Simply Clean and Fresh smell. I really hope this laundry room is just the cherry on an already fulfilling life, but I most likely won’t remember to check back in on the evolution of Jordan’s Pinterest board. And besides, I’ve got a weekly rendezvous with Brad because someone let their dog shit in his yard again and to this, I’m committed.
When I was forty-three I took another job as a bartenderslashwaitress, even though I’d swore on my baby daughter I’d never do that kind of work again. She was four then and besides, keeping my word to myself was not something I had entirely mastered at forty-three. I had lost most of the baby weight at this point and experientially, that was an event that made me feel a little frisky.
I didn’t walk into this new place of employment on the prowl, not at first. I didn’t size up the staff, set my sights on anyone in particular, trolling down the lineup of potentials with my riflescope. No, I didn’t go in with that intention, however my intentions never seemed to match my behavior when booze was in the picture. There is an energy that needs to turn on for restaurant work, it says I’m open, I’m amiable, I’m even a bit flirty and alcohol was the substance that would flip my switch. And walking into a staff that was mostly a decade younger than me, I had to turn it way up but I was ready. Leaving the confines of a square house, crowded with a husband, two kids and two dogs, I was more than ready.
Cliff had a gap between his teeth and even through thinning hair and pants pulled up a little too high, still handsome. He was just a regular customer but he’d always show me that gap as soon as he realized I would be his server for the evening. He liked Malbec. So did I. We’d move in close to talk. He was writing, I wanted to be. We both, like the lyrics of a country song, felt we’d left our hearts in West Texas. The more I sipped, the more plausible it became, like an option that I could grab anytime. I imagined how he might wait for me after my shift, how we may agree to continue our conversation in the alley or in his car, how we’d giggle, feign surprise after the first kiss, how we’d swear it to be an exclusive event, a mistake, I mean, I’m married and you’re what? Seventy? But we’d not be able to lobotomize it from our brains and before we’d know it, we’d be back in each other’s orbit, proximal space, embrace.
It didn’t happen that way though. I guess there was some microscopic fleck of integrity buried deep inside of me, way deep under all of the previous encounters outside of the confines of past relationships that could be considered less than faithful. Exhibit A: First marriage. Not going well, but yet, married. Girls’ trip to a Mexican beach. Night before 7AM flight, defendant was naked on a bed belonging to one of the nightly resort performers who collected army men and spoke only enough English to belt out Michael Jackson songs, pitch perfect, but no bodily fluids were exchanged. At least the defendant doesn’t think so but there were many black spots in that night’s mental reel-to-reel. Exhibit B,C, D and so on look very similar to Exhibit A.
When I sobered up four years ago, sober me often reflects with some horror but mostly curiosity. Sober me would never dishonestly seek a sexual experience outside of my marriage but the fact that drunk me would makes me wonder if she’s still lurking in there. Will she emerge without being summoned? Can I exorcise her out or will she just lie latent? I can go through my day-to-day oblivious to thoughts that I’m not as desirable as I once was until I try and make eye contact with a beautiful passerby that doesn’t even see me and it hits me, Not every guy wants you anymore. That makes me want to hang on to her. I may need her. I want to be wanted, even with my sagging neck and extra skin around my knees. What about that old crush that comments on my Facebook posts twice a year? He may still want me and even though I don’t want to be that woman who seeks out and follows through on a long, lost Facebook connection, I want him to want me. So once more, she steps back into the bushes, but feeling a little unrequited. It may seem risky but I don’t yet know the woman I am without that part of me there, so it is a risk I’m willing to take for now.
The Presence of Heat
When he was a smaller boy, under two feet in length, I’d always say, “He would crawl back inside of my womb if he could.” The way he would jab his foot into my belly, his tiny hand always on my boob or Nummy, as he’d sweetly say, it was like he could have slipped back under my skin and burrowed back into my guts. The heat generated between us two was often more than I could take so I’d push him off, space is what I needed, air to breathe. And yet he’d come back like a yo-yo, a boomerang, a heat-seeking device.
When he was over two but under three feet in length, he’d consume crayons. “Don’t you do it,” I’d say as he’d slowly put that crayon up to his open lips, sly grinning then shaking his head to placate me back to my soapy dishes or my wrinkled laundry or my biting hangover until I’d open his next rainbow poo diaper, until I’d exasperate into someone that cared less. He’d then consume the dogfood until I had to put it on the counter and then when I’d find him on the counter, I would put it on top of the refrigerator. And then I’d find him sizing up that refrigerator, determining his next move, sweat and dirt collecting in those milky folds and crevasses from his efforts until I’d say, “Fine, eat the dogfood,” so as to just widen that contrived space, justified too because who would blame me? You’d drink too and with every gulp, every deflection of his heat and hunger, that space would grow inch by inch.
When he was not quite three feet in length, he’d consume hours and hours of Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, more hours of the train called Thomas, the movie about talking cars front to back everyday for a month, maybe two and then every picture book from the library about our solar system’s planets. He would name all nine of those planets in a row, yes nine because Pluto, always and forever Pluto, with tearful compassion for that little unwanted planet, but I was the only adult who could comprehend his lispy speech. I would take him to the park that had the little plastic playscape plopped in the sand and he would get so hot, his red cheeks would beat in time with his heart and I was the only adult to worry and fret over those crimson cheeks and couldn’t relax until I was snuggled back up against my fluffy, created space, welcoming me back into the sweet coolness.
When he was over three feet in length, he’d consume his tshirts. He’d start with the necks, voraciously chewing until the saliva spread like a virus across his chest and then he’d set in on the sleeves, where he’d shred the entire band until it would sag limp and defeated from his wrists. He’d consume watch batteries, pennies, playdough, so intent on his consummation that sweat would drip from the hair that framed his freckled face. And then I’d say, “You’re almost four feet in length, I shouldn’t have to be pinned down by you, I shouldn’t have to coexist with you every night,” and then every night I’d try to slip out slowly until one small move would make him grip tighter and so I’d have to keep nurturing MY space. I’d wedge that back in between us until I could breathe again, sweet fleeting breath.
On a walking trek one day, I listened to Krista Tippett interview the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli in an On Being podcast. He said that the direction of time is directly related to the direction of heat. “We are children of the presence of heat. Without heat in the world, we wouldn’t make sense.” I watch the Sun mark time, up and then down, another day over, another season gone, another inch that he’s farther away from me. Would I do that differently? When he was one feet, two feet, three feet? Clinging to my cold space slowed down time because it made me oblivious to time.
Now he is almost six feet in length. He has eaten a $300 headphone cord until that made for some expensive trash. His body is consuming his mattress, corner by corner it is disintegrating until it will make some cumbersome trash. I go into his hot cave of a room, I lay down next to him and curl up into his warm crevasses, his heat settles my bones as the clock ticks so fast, it purrs me to sleep.
The Ill-Fitting Apron
“Can you tell me what is wrong with this photo?”
I could feel Clark’s eyes rolling around in his long-haired, weed-wafting head, even as he stood behind me in the dark. Come to think of it, I don’t think we ever locked eyes once. When I pursued the job in the best black and white photo lab in the city, I really had no idea what I had signed up for. I was a decent photographer at that point in my life, knew my way around a lab but it turns out, I was a terrible printer.
At least according to Clark, that is. Clark intimidated the hell out of me. He had worked in the lab so long, he practically had his own office permanently set up in one of the darkrooms while the rest of us rotated to whatever stall was available.
“Is he always like this?” I asked one of the other lab guys, searching for commiseration. There was an expectation of level Type-A perfection at this place that I was not accustomed to seeing from the slacker slice of Austin. It just made me angry. It made me angry that I always seemed to be somewhere in the middle of Men and Me: The Power Paradigm, where Clark could make me cower with one heavy sigh and the same sigh from me would send my boyfriend, Marcos, into a tizzy of tears.
I tried with Marcos, I did, but I felt like he deceived me. Stomping down the hall in the liberal arts building, black boots and jeans, black leather motorcycle jacket, his dark ringlets cascading as they released from his helmet, he was hard not to notice. I wanted the Marcos that I eventually dated to fit into that persona like a matryoshka doll, but he never did. I rode on the back of his motorcycle, I drank beer after beer to squint him into that leather jacket, I slept on his floor pallet for a bed, I went to his hometown by the border and stared out at the white cliff lined blue water of Lake Amistad. I wanted to see what he saw. And when I still couldn’t, I used his beloved Kodak Signet 35, still in its caramel leather carrier with the tiny strap that once belonged to his Abuela, but all I could manage were two blurry black and whites that were mostly gray, objects unidentifiable, even as I processed them the very next week. I tried and tried to make those two photos better, convinced that I could have if only I were a better printer.
I’m not sure why Clark didn’t have me fired. Maybe my eyes, like Marcos’, made the same pathetic plea for one more chance. In one of his last attempts at guidance, Clark had me observe him while he carefully extracted a strip of negatives brought in by the wife of a recently deceased photographer who was attempting to make sense of his antique collection. Some of them had been stored poorly enough that the negatives were stuck to the sleeves, but this was a job that Clark, after a quick trip to the alley, was made for. We bent over the chemical bath, warmed in a red glow and gently rocked the tub to coax the magic to appear on the floating paper. Some people forge an image for themselves that they aspire to but it is one in which they will never fit, and only those who are allowed to come in close know the truth. Working in the realm of black and white, emerged what I could only imagine to be a drab green sofa with heavy matching drapes pulled so tight not to let in one inch of the outside, and flanked by men in dark suits and women in their Sunday smarts with hair hived for bees, Janis Joplin stood out like a peacock. Wearing her bellbottoms and glasses and sweet-sweet smile, she looked so happy to be there, so happy to be Janis Joplin. She owned that body.
“No shit” were the only two words Clark could manage.
I can’t fathom how many tries it would have taken me to get the contrast right on that print, but judging by the garbage can on my way out, it took Clark about ten. The next day, I arrived to work only to resign.
Marcos tracked me down a few years later. One random weekday evening, he knocked on the door of the house I shared with my husband. He looked nervous, like a kid who was ready to face his bully, “I came for my Abuela’s camera.” I knew the very spot in the closet where it was nestled even though I told him I didn’t. I can’t say why I enjoyed watching him suffer, but I adjusted my apron and shut the door.
The Venus of Regret
He was delicious right after a shower. Sitting cross-legged and naked on my beige carpet, I could have just eaten him whole. Instead, I brushed and braided his hair while he talked on the phone, inhaling all the sandalwood soapy smells that I knew would soon fade when he re-donned those damn hemp shorts. The wretched hemp shorts that smelled like sweaty balls, which by the way, if you’ve never smelled sweaty balls, just have a hippie wear the same hemp shorts every day for a year and only occasionally rinse them in the river so as to never compromise the integrity of the fabric.
I laid his braid gently over his shoulder. It was just long enough to graze his penis and I sat cross-legged, facing him and admired my work. I forgot for a minute, never mind the half liter of Gallo Red and ten cigarettes into my off of waitressing and laundering and a new “Friends” episode, that he came to my house to use the phone and the shower and to flee his own house and the girl he wouldn’t stop fucking and wouldn’t stop saying that he wasn’t fucking. I admired his sacred heart tatooed right above his own heart as if it were mine and his silver female pendant that hung around his neck by a leather strap that was mine and that I bought for myself at Paper Bear because it reminded me of the Venus of Willendorf. He took it to wear because he said her naked butt looked just like mine.
I was taught a lot about fertility goddesses and modern goddesses in my women’s studies classes, but I was not taught how to not be cheated on by my boyfriend. I was not taught how to cope with my cheating boyfriend without drinking a liter of Gallo Red every Thursday and after “Friends” ended, crying and trying to find the meaning where there was none.
I’ve never prayed to a fertility goddess to give me a baby, but ten years after that day, I did pray to the Venus of Willendorf to deliver me safely through a storm to that ex-boyfriend’s funeral. I prayed that she protect a baby that had been growing inside of me for six months, not knowing that more expensive and more insidious bottles of wine would eventually settle a murky fog over that relationship as well. I prayed to her that I would finally find the shadowy voice to say goodbye to that long haired boy and mean it.
Not all goodbyes have been so final and not all chapters are closed. Aside from flashes of clarity brought on by pregnancy imposed sobriety, situations, boyfriends, interludes, marriages and motherhood continued to baffle me for most of my life. Before getting sober, reflecting on my life was like trying to put together a puzzle in the dark. Two years later, the light has switched on and suddenly I can begin to see how the pieces fit together. Why didn’t I learn the lesson? Why didn’t he love me? Why did I stay? I don’t know if the questions will ever be answered or if the puzzle will ever be complete, but I do know that I’ve needed every misshapen, ill-proportioned piece. And those that have fallen on the floor? May those be scooped up into the mystery and omniscience of the Venus. She seems to have me.
When the familiar warm sunshine hit my face, I wanted to enjoy it for a moment before opening my eyes. I waited for a kiss from my sweetheart in those seconds, breathing in the smells of my environment under the giant sky. The sweet, chirpy bird sounds drifted into my consciousness but were abruptly destroyed by screeching tires on pavement. My eyes snapped open wide. I looked down and attempted to focus after initially being rendered orb-blind to see my cute pink vintage purse, clasped and resting neatly on my body. I scanned my body, fully clothed in the outfit I had carefully chosen the day before. For the day before was the day before my thirtieth birthday, which meant today, I was thirty.
Snapshots from the night’s activities started to flicker in my head like old cartoon cells: happy hour, Katy from work, Oil Can Harry’s, more drinks, strip show, nightfall, more drinks, sidewalk stumbling. The realization thus far told me that this was not a comfy patchwork blanket I was lying on, this was cement. And I was not being hugged by my sweetheart but by two short cement walls. And that pounding was a jackhammer but it was keeping time with the pounding in my head. My eyes focused back on my purse and I willed my hands to open it. A wallet, which I willed open as well, revealed an ID and no money. Not surprising. I then forced my right hand to travel down my underwear which revealed no blood. Surprising. I listened to the morning commuters rolling by and contemplated for a moment how very different their morning was looking than mine.
When you wake up on your thirtieth birthday to find that you’ve slept on a construction site in the middle of downtown Austin, so hungover that blinking is painful, it’s difficult to strategize your next move. So I listened for a silent space between cars and hopped up. Ouch. Humiliation couldn’t even contend with the pain in my head, nevertheless, I headed towards the bridge. I managed to flag down a cab, because even as I was mindful that I was holding zero forms of payment, someone had let me sleep on pavement in the middle of a city. It was my birthday, I had a job and a husband and parents that loved me. I was at least entitled to a ride home. When we pulled up to my duplex, I managed the words “hang on” without heaving and slipped out to retrieve some cash. Falling asleep pissed will almost always insure that you’ll wake up pissed and me stumbling around for my husband’s wallet was the only match he needed to reignite that fuse.
“Where in the hell have you been?”
“I’m so sorry! Crazy night. But I have to pay the cab fare and I don’t have a dime,” knowing fully that I would never reveal any of the night’s particulars.
Astonishment and then humiliation had turned to relief when I finally settled on my own pillow, as the words “never again” pulsated through my head. Sympathy would come, even if I had to console myself, I said. He’s mad, understandably, I said. I’ll process this when I get some sleep, I said. And I drifted off.
Alcoholism is so much about disconnect. We are disconnected from those in which we share a roof, food and a bed. Our brain is disconnected from our body which is disconnected from our soul. We are disconnected from reality. I didn’t ask for help because I didn’t know I needed to. I made a decision by not making one. What could have been a crossroad turned out to be too heavy a cross to bear. And shame? Is a tree shameful when it falls in the forest and no one hears?
I was drinking again by nightfall.
“You changed your cat’s name?”
I can’t remember if I ever asked that question out loud or if the incredulousness only existed in my head.
The cat, formerly known as Geddy, as in Geddy Lee, lead singer and bassist for the Canadian band Rush, was now named Slim, and as ironic as that name was, as this cat was far from slim, Bill changed his cat’s name fourteen years in. The cat, like Bill, didn’t appear to be experiencing the identity crisis that I was projecting and anyway, isn’t that what moving off to college is for? You get to be as intentional about your shape-shifting as you want to be.
I wouldn’t have known High School Bill was so drastically different than College Bill except for our three hour long drives to our respective and nearby hometowns and the truth-telling pot plumes from which we would both inhale, speeding down the highway in my 1979 two-seater. I not only learned of the true origins of his musical tastes but why he felt obligated to call his elusive but yet current girlfriend, Girlfriend, in a sort of I Can’t Quit Her But I Can’t Quite Acknowledge Her Either way. I seemed to be the only person in our college circle who knew he had a girlfriend and I was probably the one who most wished he didn’t have a girlfriend or that I at least didn’t have this information. And to handle that the only way a scorned lover that hadn’t actually experienced the Lover part of that scenario can, I had to attach the word Cow to her name and was very conscious of not using that version of her name in his presence.
Pot was not my first love and neither was Bill, but I aquiesced to both. I wished he loved booze as much as I did because I knew that would have been the only way we would have ended up naked. Pot lulled us to quiet stillness, lying side by side on his futon, fingers inches apart, our chests rising and falling to the haunting lyrics of the Cocteau Twins, lyrics impossible to know, except to know them made you feel very dramatic and melancholy. Desire burned in that space between our fingertips but we held it in our mouths like a bubble.
I knew his guts and he knew mine and it had to be this way or else I would have been inconsolable most days. He only had to, “So, you wanna…”, with his particular brand of eye-squint and I was dropping my books and my friends and my life and following him like Pepe Le Pew. We would go to our idyllic spot, which was just a cement slab shrouded in tall river grass by the cold and clear rolling water. As soon as the first sharp, hot smoke hit our lungs, the weed fortress closed up around us and our ears moved to the top of our heads like a cat, pivoting towards every chirp, every splash, every tire crunching gravel on the hill just above us, but we were safe and invisible in our weed fortress. We no longer needed to communicate with words but our inaudible conversation continued, like it always did.
That day he pulled away in his old red Ford, packed to overflow, with a new blonde one nestled in the crook of his arm, that one yet unnamed, I was not surprised to see him. I was hardly ever on campus anymore, in fact we were the only three there that balmy summer day, a day when the river’s keen chill would have felt so good on hot skin. He said something about Spain while I was wondering if I may have just graduated, still tumbling through without forethought or ambition like some out to lunch girl. We still didn’t need many words between us, that was our familiar place, but I knew I would see him again, because every melodramatic emotion in those years was final but relationships never were. I was right about that one thing. We would see each other again on some random sunny Saturday plant sale in Austin, Texas, twenty miles up the road and twenty years into the future, each with our own offspring draped over us like a fortress, swallowing the words, I Know, like a bubble as we walked our separate ways.
There was a dance everyone did in the clubs in 1988 and my friend Maeve had it down. You would sort of awkwardly tumble forward then hop, beat the imaginary bongos for a bit, spin and repeat. She really had a style and when the DJ would play The Promise, she would shine. She always seemed to come right out of a perfect 360 degree spin at, “I’m sorry, but I’m just thinking of the right words to say” and when she beat her arms, she would take it a step further and go really low like she was taking a bow. It was mesmerizing.
I had other friends who were dazzling dancers too. When David had on his Creepers and three hits of Ecstasy, he could spin for what seemed like an entire song. Kelly’s dance moves were slower and more intentional, most likely because his belly contained as many capsules of X that his pockets did, but his gum-chewing jaw moved at the speed of light. Black-clad with black-light illumination flashing our faces, appearing and disappearing only heightened by the drunken disorientation and disconnection, everyone was electric.
I always knew when Kelly was ready for something more as he would take off his sunglasses and his eyes would find me in the neon light. Feelings were often hard for him to articulate at this point, but he could usually say my name directly in my ear and he smelled like sweat and Drakkar Noir. Later, when I would kiss him back in his tiny trailer, his mouth tasted like metal. His furniture looked so different then against wood paneling than in the airiness of the previous condo and his hands had taken to shaking so bad, I wondered how he could even brush that taste out of his mouth. I could always stumble out to the sound of him snoring before I’d even have to take off my pants and drive away.
Being held by a man and led across a dance floor, boots gliding across the waxy wood of a country bar feels like being wrapped up in a warm blanket, nestled into your Grandma’s couch. I could have gotten off of my welding shift, on my way to an Equal Pay Rally with my Fuck The Patriarchy shirt on and no one would be able to change my mind about this. It has to be some ancient, divine yin-yang expression of the masculine and feminine that your bones know even if your brain protests. Faces softly filtered through a warm glow of purples, reds and oranges like it’s perpetually sunset only boosted the romantic notion that it was reasonable to form a relationship with a boy like Dale, recently graduated from high school and born a decade too late to be appropriate for me, all in the span of a song.
If I ducked into the bathroom during some new ear-piercing country twang, when I reemerged it would never fail that the next song would be by one of the Georges or Conway or Johnny Lee and Dale would look at me through the dreamy haze and shrug his shoulders like, What have we got to lose? His hand in my lower back and my face nuzzled in that small spot between the neck and shoulder that houses the smell that describes the very essence of a person, you could have sold me any oceanfront property in Arizona. The harsh lights of a parking lot at 2am were the only thing that made any sense and could momentarily convince me that I would be going home to a sleeping husband as I five-Shiner-Bock-fumbled for my car keys.
The next days, I was always awoken by the almosts. There was excitement that teetered on the edge of almost. It was dangerous, there was mystery there and because booze was the only key to unlock that portal, there was always undiscovered regret. Regular mortals walking around happily sipping their lemon water or mocha latte don’t get to play there. It is reserved for the enchantingly drunk. You can lie in bed not able to get out for one sip of liquid that your body so desperately needs and lie to yourself for hours, until the sun goes down even about the almosts but you won’t know until you get back on that dance floor and do it all over again.
When Things Keep Falling Apart
It was supposed to work. This trip was supposed to fix us. I do remember this. But the rest of that year? It’s like trying to remember the year I turned ten. I remember how I felt about turning double digits. I remember how I felt about flying down that hill on my bike, banana seat between my legs, going so fast that I didn’t have to hold the handlebars but only feel the streamers flutter in my face. I remember I felt strong and in control of that particular moment, Queen of the Banana Seats, joyfully reigning on that one wild ride of my tenth year. I don’t remember if I had a birthday party or who my teacher was that year. I don’t remember who my best friend was or if I could even count the number of people who I knew loved me. That’s how I remember all of 2004 and particularly that trip to the Catskills for a wedding that was supposed to fix my broken marriage.
There are other feelings I remember from 2004: anger, so much anger and vitriol, which always bubbled right below the surface just dying to be poked. It never matter who started it, who hated who more, who was the bigger victim or martyr, it was always there and reeking. There was no sequence of events like clues in a Scooby-Do episode where you can review and say, YES, obviously it was that guy who would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling kids. There was just always a low-level rumbling of wrongness and the gallons of booze poured over that made the land far too murky to find the source.
I also remember laughter, so much laughter everyday until my stomach hurt. Funny how the anger and the laughter caused the same pain, two sides of the same coin that I didn’t even want in my pocket, much less tell you how it landed there. But somehow all of that laughter and all of the Lonestar-fueled Jackass antics felt like we were doing something very important. It entitled us to mock and ridicule life and society and anything that remotely resembled being a grown-up, even though being married and having a house and a kid would attempt to argue otherwise.
I remember always feeling anxious over my toddler and particularly over him never wanting to fall asleep, in spite of the near-nightly loud adult noises and wafts of food and booze going on in other rooms that I had always imagined toddlers should be able to sleep through. I was always anxious over loud thumps in the night that forever will be the sound that is made when a toddler falls out of his bed and hits the hardwood floor. I remember how a cabin in the Catskills sounded like sweet relief from having to manage a chaotic environment of toddler tantrums and biting hangovers, even if only for five days and four nights.
I remember I packed too much for a cabin in the woods built for two, but where only one would actually stay. I remember feeling nervous about attending a wedding where I would be mingling with the New York indie scene and I thought someone might actually see me. The days leading up to the wedding, I remember drinking lots of wine alone. I remember there was never enough wine in this beautiful cabin in the woods built for two, while my husband was surely out there in another part of the woods doing things that involved lots of beer and did not involve wearing shirts. I took a lot of walks on the wooded path that led up to the cabin and I remember wishing I would see a bear. I imagined a bear would wander out onto the path, too far ahead that she couldn’t outrun me if I had to run but we would both stop and look at each other, or rather, she would notice me. And then we would resume walking. The morning of the wedding, my husband came by to put on his suit and I remember putting on the darkest purple eyeshadow that I had. I remember I felt dizzy and hot and I that I couldn’t to talk to him. I remember it took a long time for him to tie his tie.
I remember missing my toddler because I knew he was the one person in the world that would wake up that morning and notice I wasn’t there. And he would still miss me even though in the short time we had known each other I had not really been there because I was always checked out, fallen down, dead drunk or just not noticing. The need to be seen yet not seeing, that is what I remember.
One morning back in Texas, I was up watching Good Morning America and the scene still plays in my head as clear as anything from that year. “Up next we talk to a couple that is celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary!” The gray-haired couple smiled at the camera, perfectly nestled into each other, knob into crevasse, as if they were one being. After commercial, the jolly reporter asked, “So what is the secret to staying married for so long?” They looked into each other’s milky-glassed eyes, and he said, “We just never fell out of love at the same time.” My mind screen-shotted that moment and filed it away, methodically without one single produced feeling.
Our marriage was over two months later.
I’ve only ever had one office job in my life. I was in my twenties and I worked there for exactly one year. Before that and after, I only worked restaurant and retail, the occasional stint in a darkroom or a few gigs as a photographer’s assistant. I used that year of office work as a good reason to pull out all of the great thrift I’d collected but never worn, like skirts with waistbands and zippers, secretary blouses with delicate bows at the necks, fifties lawn dresses with cinched waists and tights. I had every color of opaque hosiery available. In spite of wearing more formal attire than I was used to, I decided that this was the year to ditch the antiperspirant and opt for the deodorant rock. I had heard that it would take a while for your armpits to sweat out the toxins caused by antiperspirant and after that arbitrary number of days, you weren’t supposed to smell as bad. However, I was very conscious of my pit smell as it was called to my attention the many times a day I had to lean over my coworker’s desk to grab paperwork and the air would hit the wet circles of my blouse.
Every day, I would come home from work and walk straight to the bedroom, peeling off my clothes like a banana as I walked down the hall. I couldn’t get down to that t-shirt and underwear fast enough. The whoosh sensation felt like stepping into a hot shower, when your entire body shudders uncontrollably as the warmth cocoons over you like a womb. My husband had usually beat me home, as he would often already be fast asleep at that early evening hour, swathed in a sheet.
As things went, Mondays were especially hungover and our home was as hungover as our bodies. As per social schedule, mounds of friends would descend on Sundays. There was football du jour on in the background while a card game commenced at the dining table, which would result in bowls stacked haphazardly on kitchen counters and patio furniture, all dirtied with remnants of chicken and dumplings and Camel butts. We were never ready to sort that chaos Monday afternoon, so left to stagnate one more day, we would order Chinese for delivery, so consistently that the order-taker could recite it back to us: pan-fried noodles, sesame chicken, crab rangoon. The delivery was timed to arrive right before Boston Public, a drama about Boston public school teachers, their unrequited romances, their passion for the socio-disadvantaged kids with potential, all nurtured by the hard-nosed principal with the soft interior. We loved that damn show. We would melt into the couch with our plates perfectly portioned with our takeout fare, feeding our hungry headaches while we watched people work jobs with purpose and health insurance attached, like our aspirations depended on it. A year and twenty pounds later, I got my old restaurant job back.
There is something about that feeling of coming home, no matter if home smells like cigarettes and Shiner Bock. There is something about stripping down to your underwear, cold sheets on your bare skin, until your breath and body heats your space to a womb temperature. Booze is the kissing cousin. That first hopeful swallow gives you the same warm cuddle when it goes down your throat and blankets your heart. Until it throws you back out on the street, sweaty armpits and uncomfortable clothes, it’s a good fix. I now watch my fourteen-year-old son, son of that husband I am no longer married to, do the same stripping down, skin to sheets, when he walks in the door from school. As a baby to toddler size, he would kick and poke at my stomach in such a way that I was always certain he would have climbed right back into the womb if he could have. I hope he continues to find his womb.
Mad Colored Glasses
“Do you want to hang out after work?”
If I was consistent at anything, I was consistently impulsive. I mean, Steve was pretty by industry standards, and even by zero standards. And as one of the undeniably gorgeous, I inadvertently threw him into the Beautiful People category and didn’t think much of him beyond that. So an impulsive YES out of my mouth should have surprised even me, but that is what impulsive YESESare, right? They fly out of your mouth before the committee has a chance to weigh the options, play Devil’s Advocate, ponder a possible type match, because my type seemed to be sweaty cooks from broken homes or angry artists from manicured homes. He was neither.
“Okay, give me your address and I’ll meet you there in a couple of hours.”
The first time I was acutely aware of my impulsivity, I was in Kindergarten, straddling a bench in the lunchroom and face to face with my new friend Eva. I said something funny and she laughed so hard she leaned toward me and for whatever inexplicable reason, I pulled up her shirt from the back. I liked her. She was my new friend and although I had to go to the principal’s office, the bigger consequence was the loss of Eva. She didn’t have to explain. I was unpredictable and weird.
After that incident, I tried really hard to contain my outward expressions of impulsiveness, but Fantasyland proved to be just as dicey. Every Sunday, sitting in the wood-paneled church pew, I would see my small self rising up out of my seat during a pitching rendition of How Great Thou Art, excusing myself past the knees of my friends, and exiting through the double back doors to the bathroom. In some renditions of this dream, I took off all of my clothes in a stall, sometimes right in the middle of the room in front of the mirror. Occasionally, my zipper was sticky or I’d have to peel off pantyhose, but eventually I would leave the pool of my clothes and venture back out in only my fleshy white. I always re-entered the auditorium through the middle doors so I could streak down towards the baptismal, circle right in front of the pulpit and back out the side door in front of the nursery’s two-way. Sometimes I would WHOOP, sometimes not, but I would always run. And I always intuitively knew that God was okay with it, as long as it stayed in my head. I managed to keep most of my impulses contained to fantasy until I reached college. Then, away from the Trifecta of Recrimination: Mom, Dad and God, impulsivity thrived.
So that day after work, I didn’t know what was going to happen but I did know I didn’t do anything sober, anymore anyway. I downed a margarita (most likely two) and headed home. Steve came over, he brought wine, pants were shed. With experience, I’d learned that as impulsivity is acted on, the scenes within the play become very predictable. When he left, I knew I’d see him around the restaurant and I would smile to myself knowing that I’d slain one of the Beautiful People. And that was well enough.
A few days went by and an unexpected knock had me answering the door post-shower, wrapped in a robe.
“I left my glasses over here,” Steve said. “They were brand new, expensive. My Mom just bought them for me.”
“Oh, okay. Are you sure?”
“Yep, left them on your nightstand.”
And before he could finish, I was down on my hands and knees looking under the bed for missing glasses. A robe’s structure is only as good as the tie that holds it together, and again, the certain future of this scenario was sealed with a knock. The only thing left uncertain was the whereabouts of Steve’s missing glasses.
Perhaps it’s intuition that attempts to temper impulsivity. Over the next two days, my eyes and thoughts would return to that spot on the nightstand. In time, I would rest on the old casement window that lit the scene. The window that didn’t lock. The window that anyone taller than 5'3" could easily open from the outside and easily reach a pair of glasses on a nightstand which could have easily been obtained by the owner, as between school and work, I was rarely home. That intuition was later validated that night when I saw Steve at a party, wearing the same glasses that could have never been replaced in the two days since his last known visit. In this instance, my intuition failed magnificently to temper the drunk-punch delivered straight to Steve’s gut that night. The glasses would have taken another flight if I were writing the end of that scene, but alas, they stayed on his gorgeous face.