Memories, the Night, and Drinking: My Education
"Because you missed your turn two miles back you have decided to turn on the wrong road, just because you are too lazy to turn around. You have decided to turn here just because of some vague notion [...] You have to follow this road to whatever nowhere it leads."
"The fear of not knowing overlaid with the terror of knowing."
I remember the first night I did mushrooms. I was still young, in Minnesota. It was the summer and we were all tan and barefoot with the shining eyes that young people have. There were seven of us sitting in the living room. We made tea and sucked on mushroom caps and stems and stared at the flower wallpaper. After many hours I found myself lying in a baseball field, with one of the boys. The boy was Ben. He'd been my boyfriend but now he wasn't and although I didn't want to be with him, I wanted him to want to be with me. I wanted him to acknowledge me. Ben and I lay in the field and looked at the stars and I tried to talk about things—things I thought were important, eternal questions kind of things—but he didn’t want to talk about any of those things. Every subject I brought up hovered in the air, like a lightning bug. He swatted these away with a laugh or by speaking my name or performing a gesture, his hands unbuttoning my shorts in the grass. And in the morning, I crept from his bedroom, through the house until I got to the front door. I turned the knob slowly, indistinctly, and shut it with the same precision. Then I skipped away—towards anything. As I hop-scotched the sidewalk squares I pretended he would miss me. I played a scene in my head where he woke and, finding me gone, felt a pain the size of an almond, a pain that sprouted into something like an actual experience. The experience of realizing you've underestimated someone.
I spent my junior year of college outside the U.S., in Bologna, and although that might sound romantic or perhaps pompous, it shouldn't, because I was the loneliest, most wretched creature on the planet. Morning after morning I would wake to an empty apartment, roommates off to class, and I would think: well, I could go to class. So I'd dress in something that screamed instability and made my way to campus. I remember one outfit distinctly: a navy long-sleeved t-shirt, a khaki skirt with a sizeable slit up the back, gym socks and orange sneakers. In the office, a girl said to me: have you looked in a mirror? I hadn't realized how I was dressed until then. I lived in an old section of the city, about two miles from the center and the walk there was somewhat harrowing--not because of peddling merchants or dangerous men--because my mind had become a dangerous thing, an untrustworthy thing, almost an enemy. Each step bred a new thought of horror, a sweeping generalization that felt equal parts bleak and true. Sometimes I would try to pray, but my prayers came out like automatic translations. During this trek, I'd stop to get a cappuccino, and after placing my request, without fail and despite my best efforts, I'd catch my reflection in the mirrored wall behind the bar. I'd see my face, framed by martini and rossi bottles and I'd feel: I don't know that person. When I was almost to the building where my first class was held, I'd turn another way and walk to another building where there was a computer lab. I'd write letters to Ben, full of love. Then I'd begin the trek home, stopping only once, for a bottle of wine and a pack of cigarettes. At home, I sat on the balcony, drank wine out of a coffee mug and melted into the landscape. After a while, I became so alone I stopped talking to myself.
“I don’t think she’s a masochist. But one of the things that happens when you write an intimate memoir, an honest memoir, is that you think it will be cathartic—that you can say, ‘I have now positioned this memory, and now I can move on.’ But very often it just doesn’t work that way.”
In February I went to Egypt. And I got lost in a book. A travel book. You know, those guides, they're great teachers. They read like literature. You can learn history, words, and beautiful trivia.
One night, after a day at the British museum in Cairo, I was welcomed aboard – a bus full of Sudanese camel herders. Two of the men said: sit with us—you'll be safe. The bus moved quickly through the night and one of the men gave me almonds, still in their shells. The bus stopped, once, for coffee, then drove on through the desert to the city of Hurgada. When we got out, the sun was coming up and to the men, I waved goodbye and watched them walk away. The road was dusty and the hem of their garments grazed the earth. I was not the same after that. Not the same.
When I returned to Minnesota it was the middle of 2000. I got a job, finished school through fits and starts, and got close to old and new friends. Then, on a night in February in 2005, I got a letter from the Temple University graduate school and in July, I moved to Philadelphia. I was 25. Not still young, not yet old. Though I'd imagined making friends, having intimate conversations about literature and sharing ideas about the universe, I only met acquaintances; people with whom I exchanged only cordial greetings and measured conversations. It was like Italy, only local.
"But their courtesy, you know, was an attribute shared by the whole class, and I was looking for some remarkable personal quality."
--Edvarda, (Knut Hamsun), ROSA
Many things happened during these years of grad school, but two of them were definitive. First, I started drinking more and, second, I met a man. As Chris Cooper says, darkness descends.
The man was a Ph.D. candidate in literary theory and philosophy. He was seven years my senior, emotive, brilliant, extremely penetrative. He was a fun and social man, who got right into your business and made you feel like he had taken notice. He was also a cruel man--and utterly unstable. I was not ignorant of this fact. Our romps and talk-a-thons and mid-winter trips to the shore were punctuated by his deep depressions, bursts of anger and acts of infidelity. But I was so afraid of the apathy, the boring, the nothing, that I hung in there. Like so many women and men, I believed things would change. I believed he would change. And why shouldn't I believe this? He would come back from these episodes, tail between the legs, eyes full of tears and mouth full of pledges like you, you, you are the only thing that's real, that's worth anything; you are the greatest person I've ever met; I'd be dead without you. I'd lick his wounds—fuck mine—and swaddle him like a baby bird. And soon enough we'd be back in the car, driving across the country, staying in motels, smoking cigarettes and climbing mountains (Hallett Peak, Mount Marcy, Whiteface …)
That drinking was in lock step with this relationship should come as no great surprise.By the end of the graduate program, and in the midst of what had become an abusive relationship, I was shipwrecked. On the day of graduation, two parties were held. One included all the well-behaved popular kids. This took place at trendy bar called Tattooed Mom's. The other party consisted of the rejects: me and two guys named Chris and Frank. We went to an absolute dump called the Lotus Bar. These two guys were not just anyone, however. They were my anchors. They were smart and incredibly funny and most importantly—they were real. Regardless of the social slight, this should have been a night of celebrations. The bartender poured us three shots. He told us a joke. But when I hovered above the scene, I wasn't laughing. All I saw were three outcasts at a dive bar on graduation day.
“This was called medicating herself. Alcohol has its well-known defects as a medication for depression but no one has ever suggested—ask any doctor—that it is not the most effective anti-anxiety agent yet known.” --Joan Didion, BLUE NIGHTS
The boyfriend, of course, had declined his invitation to join us and was at home—at our apartment (shudder), texting his undergrad students and surfing MySpace (still 2007 at this point)... Mind you, I'm not saying the shitty relationship is responsible for my increased drinking. Perhaps I would have started leaning on it regardless of the faithless man. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps… but, then, also it is important that I mention this: I lent him a book once. Pan. By Knut Hamsun. It's a beautiful book. By a demented man, but still a beautiful book. And I know for a fact he teaches this book--to his poetry students--so that brings me some joy. Knowing that brings me some solace.
After graduate school ended and the man and I broke up, I moved into this tremendously odd apartment building. It was an L-shaped building with eight units, surrounding a courtyard. If you were to happen upon any one of us, you might've inferred we were the new Bedlam. I say this lovingly. We were a strange bunch. I wrestled with competing impulses during this time: retreat, emerge, retreat, emerge. I'd meet friends at a bar, have a couple beers, then say I had to get home to walk the dog. When I got home to my apartment, I went right to the kitchen. I set down my keys on a table, pulled open the fridge and took out a bottle of champagne. I picked up the dog in my arms and took us all out to the courtyard. We’d sit on a bench: me, the dog, and the bottle of champagne. I’d pour it and muse. Henri would watch me with black blinking eyes. The bottle would console me and stars would twinkle. The night I’d just had with people would replay in my mind – this guy was a tool, this girl was smarter than me, that guy was prima donna, etc. I’d say, fuck it, and drink the champagne and pet the dog and after a while we’d return to the apartment, put in a movie and sleep on a make-shift bed in the living room. Sometimes I’d wake up and Henri’s head would be on the pillow and my head would be on the pillow and we’d stare at each other. What does it all mean, I’d ask? I wasn’t in the bar now, so I didn’t have anyone to look to for an answer. Tonight I just had the question. And the question scared me. The question petrified me. I promise, sometimes the fear was so strong I’d lie awake for hours. What will become of us?
And in the morning, tired yet sleepless, I got ready for work.