The paragraphs of life that have gone well for me have always been fleeting and I wonder now if there will come a moment that will divide my life, forever after which I’ll have been cracked open, will have come to know that the struggle has been for nothing, that all the strivings of my lifetime won’t add up to something whole in the end, but rather remain islands of prosperity or of defeat, many of which I won’t be able to recall after a time. In fact, I believe this to be the only viable scenario. This discreet knowledge is the reason I’ve never been able to get married. Or to go home.
This is a paragraph I wrote while in Botswana sometime during this hemisphere’s winter – June, July, August, I don’t remember. I do remember that I was hungover when I wrote it and, unless I’m in Brooklyn in the wintertime, eating Mexican food and drinking Bloody Mary’s with Laura, I’m always depressed when I’m hungover.
Hangovers are not a new thing for me. When I was 24 years old, I moved to Brooklyn where I shared a room with an alcoholic boyfriend and an apartment with a batch of roommates whom, amongst the often rotating cast, held the following jobs: bartender, actor, theater producer, brewery distributor, waiter and musician.
This was South 3rd Street in Williamsburg, back when S. 3rd was a Puerto Rican hold-out amidst the spread of the young, white professional, a place you could and did still see home cooked murals of the dead teenagers go up overnight on the sides of bodegas, where the survivors would light a nightly vigil inside of halved cardboard boxes and others would plot revenge; where muggy Saturday mornings were filled with the sounds from the island pouring out of tricked out Cadillacs; and where grandmothers perched faded pillows inside of window sills so as not to bruise their elbows throughout their daily surveillance. Where kids still skipped, playful and insidious, through pried-open fire hydrants.
South 3rd Street was a proper noun in the lexicon of our lives. The individual words had no meaning when you spoke them: souththirdstreet. It wasn’t a nicety of geography, or an address, but an event, a frame of mind, a shared hallucination. When we say it in retrospect, which we rarely do these days, we’re talking about a time in our history, one for which, among our group of friends, we have as much reverence and loathing as some do 1960s America. “When we were on South Third Street,” as if on a drug, as if everything in the years since has been a form of rehab given to very liberal ground privileges.
We drank a lot.
I recall a friend asking me during this period if I wanted to go hiking upstate on a weekend and that my response, after a moment’s consideration, was that I was not capable of hiking on a Saturday because I would, of course, have a hangover from the night before.
Alcoholics and addicts endure heartbreaks, we know this and we waver between pity and blame. They break things that can’t be fixed, their creative lives are squandered rather than enhanced, which was surely the goal. People die from this. But my demons have been a slow burn, always. I’ve woken up in hotel rooms with no memory of having checked into them, had sex with people I wished I hadn’t, been lucky to drive a car or even a motorcycle home without incident and missed a little work, but overall my stories are, mostly, tame. I, again mostly, keep it together. It is the insidious slow burn that I am speaking of here, the ways in which daily life is less crisp, in which my food doesn’t taste as good, in which my body swells, in which my depressive tendencies nudge through my defenses, in which my thinking feels a beat slower when I’m drinking.
Not drinking, as an activity or a lifestyle, is not something I’ve done much of over the past 12 years and spending the last 14 months living alone in the desert has brought this fact into a focus I can’t seem to get a proper handle on. It’s brought me to the beginning and the beginning, there doesn’t seem to be any arguing about, has to be Cindy.
There was a period in my life, which spanned from the age of 15 to that of 18, which was defined by a family neighbor named Cindy and that I have been trying to understand. But every time I tell myself the story, every time I write it down – a thing I have done again and again these solitary months – I have written it for effect. I’ve used the experiences I’ve gathered into myself through booze and drugs and splashed them across a page, in anything but plain English, for an effect I haven’t earned.
I started writing about these neglected memories in an attempt to explain (mostly to myself) how I ended up in New York. But it morphed into a revelation of what underpinned that move and perhaps every one since. I have been afflicted with a restlessness all my life, with a forgotten dream I want desperately to remember, with a seeking that has no answer. After all, I found Cindy. She wasn’t the one who came looking for me.
Things I know happened during those three years, in no order at all: I repeatedly sat in the middle of my bed late at night with the barrel of my father’s loaded handgun pressed up against the roof of my mouth. I repeatedly slept with Cindy’s 40-something doctor boyfriend when she was out of town and she knew of and encouraged this behavior for the sake of the “expansion of my sexual horizons.” When Cindy’s business began to falter, we used my connections to procure large amounts of cocaine, which we then sold in smaller quantities for profit. I stopped attending high school regularly and manufactured a lie about a rape in order to prevent myself being expelled from the expensive, private, all-female Catholic school. I called the San Antonio Police Department in a paranoid frenzy to “turn myself in” and was, bewilderingly, rejected and sent home. I drove a burnt orange 1969 Chevy Blazer into the Gulf of Mexico and left it there.
Cindy had no business in Windcrest, the south Texas suburb where my family established itself in the closing years of my father’s 30-year Navy run – a place where so many retired military families and couples settle that it isn’t unknown for neighbors to refer to one another by rank, rather than name. At 40 she was the youngest person on our block by ten years. Her feet were forever propped up into pumps, her dyed auburn hair fluffed up into a frenzy, her cigarette stained fingernails masked with red paint, her jeans a size too small. Her car, a leased black Lexus with a perpetual wax job, Joan Jett’s voice creeping out of its windows, was not the sensible grey Camry or Cadillac (this distinction dependent on rank) that you typically saw.
Her presence was odd and this was not the kind of place where odd was something a person could particularly be. She would come and go within three years on a block and in a neighborhood where people tended to settle in. Our own house had been inherited from my mother’s parents, my grandfather (army) had bricked over the tiny yard and constructed a latticework canopy, my father had planted citrus trees and grapevines.
At 15 my restlessness began to manifest into the understanding that to earn my own money was to know freedom and after failing as a dish busser at a motel diner three miles from our house (I could walk it), I created a flyer for myself and my varied services (lawn waterer, carpet vacuumer, etc) and gave them to all of our neighbors, including her.
Cindy lived alone with two shaggy white maltese dogs who had been trained to piss and shit on stacks of old newspaper, which laid on top of a plastic tarp in a corner of her bedroom, and so to work for her was to gather these newspapers up twice a day and to lay out fresh ones. It was to empty glass ashtrays, to vacuum the pool, to prune the bushes, to polish her glass shelving, to scrub the dog piss from the carpet, to wax the Lexus, to transform, after Halloween, the entire sun room into a Christmas display of wooden train tracks and elf figurines and to scatter fake snow. The older of the two maltese fell into the pool one morning and drowned and Cindy attempted to resuscitate it with mouth to mouth and on that day to work for her was to fold the corpse up into a towel and to drive it to the vet, a thing which she could not face.
For a long while, I was a child and she was an adult and I would walk back across the street on my lunch breaks and eat bowls of dry Fruit Loops with my fingers and sit on a stool and watch the interior design channel on the kitchen television with my mother. And over time I must have stopped doing this because I know I began taking my lunches with Cindy, which meant driving to the Starbucks on Broadway (there was one closer but this was the more fashionable of the two) and ordering frappuccinos (my first experience with coffee) and drinking them in the car on the way back to Windcrest. She never ate solid foods during the day and very often dinner was a fistful of cherry twizzlers and some form of vodka (lemon drop martinis were a favorite), which she kept in the freezer. I – a swimmer, a runner – would hold my breath and roll down my window when she lit her post-frap cigarette.
We would detour every once in a while to a second hand clothing store in a better part of town where she would force me to remove my baggy t-shirt and jean shorts and dress me up in couture, liking the way the fabrics stuck to my small, 16-year-old by now, frame. She had an adult child, a daughter somewhere in her early 20s back in West Texas, but she was chubby and Cindy resented it and for a series of other reasons, that one included somewhere, they no longer spoke. She bought me Armani and Perry Ellis and Gucci and Versace and Chanel and a woven thong bikini, which I kept hidden in a drawer for months until I was emboldened, surely by drugs, to wear it to a late-night pool party we threw. I kept it for years, hauled it around with me to Austin and the Bronx and Syracuse and Brooklyn, but that was the only time I ever wore it.
And throughout all of this, I was mostly silent. A thing I have never been able to untie myself from, even in adulthood, is that I am shy and withholding for quite a long while with people who come into my life and that making friends is, in general, an agonizing and prolonged process, which requires undue persistence on the part of the other person. And so, necessarily, she revealed herself to me. She revealed herself to me on the drives to Starbucks and from her bed when I would come to clean the toilets and she was too depressed to get up and to work, still swirling from a recent divorce. From the desk in her home office, in between the many phone calls she would take from the headset she tucked in around the auburn hairs. Her voice was thick and she was almost always smoking (Virginia Slims) and tapping ashes into glass ashtrays. She revealed herself to me also in drawers. I began staying over to watch the dogs (singular ‘dog’ after the drowning) when she went away on business and I went through everything and her life as presented to me in drawers consisted of: sex (condoms); smoking (Virginia Slims); opulence (forgotten wads of cash); solitude (divorce papers); nostalgia (faded pictures of Cindy holding trays of cocktails at the Playboy Club with a white puff strapped to her ass 20 years prior); and cherry twizzlers (cherry twizzlers).
And so because I am bad at making friends and was even worse in childhood, and because we had moved to San Antonio only a couple of years prior, Cindy became my friend, more and more my only friend, and I stopped being a child and she stopped being an adult and we knotted ourselves together somewhere in the middle.
We slipped into a sort of cultic devotion to one another – her, post-divorce, me, post-nomad. We were each the one the other truly trusted, the rest of the world a sort of series of apparitions, which we endured and humored, but we were ourselves, living inside of our best, most vibrant moments, when it was just the two of us. I would liken it now to those first weeks of love with someone new, but this was a different kind of madness and it lingered between us for two years. She was in every way the counterpoint to my mother and I think I detected, when they were in one another’s company (rarely), a triumphant air about Cindy, the knowledge that my loyalties had shifted, that all the hard-wired truths of my childhood were coming unglued, that I’d found in her a refuge from the military precision I’d forever found chafing, that she was now in command of my further education and molding.
And, for a while, she was.
Cindy ran a chancy business from her home office, from the headset, and my duties around the house expanded, over time, to include filing, taking messages, faxing (you still faxed things in 1998) and looking through hotel and resort brochures to compile enormous databases of information about their sizes, their locations, whether or not they had a spa. She planned and executed conferences and meetings for medium-sized businesses, and sometimes the clients poured in, she was flush, and sometimes the whole thing seemed cursed, her single employee would quit (again), she’d begin sleeping with a client (again), she’d fracture a vertebrae in her neck jet skiing in the Caribbean and amass an enormous hospital bill.
Meanwhile, I had begun, in the only portion of my life I kept separate from Cindy, cutting straws into thirds, buying razor blades in ten packs and snorting cocaine. Before I’d ever had a drink, before I’d ever taken a drag off a joint, before I’d ever had a fuck, I had snorted quite a lot of cocaine. And for this, Cindy cannot be blamed. One of the happy things that has happened to me as I’ve aged is that I have begun to imagine the future, when I let it turn over in my mind, in terms of how it will feel, rather than look. There has been a shift in my perception and the future, in my imaginings, has become a sensual place where I may or may not experience the world in given ways, but back then the future was a visual thing, a movie reel, and I imagined myself in various roles. I wanted to embody all of them, to live 100 different story lines at once, harbored zero regard for my well being or even particularly for my personhood.
The main thing was to nail the role and this I did pretty well. I have a particular talent for actualizing things I begin spreading rumors about (even if they’re just to myself), have always known that the best way to get something done is to say out loud that you’re going to do it, believe strongly in self-fulfilling prophecies. To whisper something out loud is to roll up a tiny snowball and then, if you’re inclined to go stand at the top of a hill, it’s out of your hands, the thing has a life of its own. I mentioned casually a couple of years ago that I was thinking about the Peace Corps and, because of this remark, for the past 15 months, have been trapped in southern Africa, having done little more than roll up a tiny ball and stand at the top of a steep hill.
And so the idea settled over my mind that my next great role should be young American drug addict and I bustled around setting up props. I had saved up my money and bought a small, round glass bedside table, the kind of wrought iron thing that you could lift the piece of glass from and I set the glass on my bedroom desk and loaded an enormous pile of sugar onto it (I didn’t know then that actual coke was generally dealt with in smaller piles) and I would stare at this mound and shrug and delight in the newness of it the way another child might delight in a new pair of shoes and I left it there for weeks and in this way rolled up my tiny ball.
Cocaine is everywhere. It’s as ubiquitous as a pack of cigarettes if you just simply ask and so I asked my brother’s pot dealer and I held onto the miniature baggie she sold me for a week, would massage it between my fingers, the little rock hard and sterile smelling and not at all the loose sugar I’d expected. I didn’t tell anyone – not even my brother – was alone in my bedroom the night I finally tried it, sat with crossed legs on the furry carpet that my mother had installed a few years prior and did like the dealer had told me: I chipped at the rock, pounded with my palm at what came off of it under my plastic learner’s permit license and scraped and chopped at it with the permit’s edge until I’d formed a short thin white line on the round glass. I hadn’t yet acquired a pretension about the denomination of the bill I used so I rolled up a $1, made a tight cyclone out of it and sniffed at the powder with my right nostril. It took a couple of tries to get it in there, to overcome the timidity of my nose, the revulsion to the foreign thing – I’d never even smoked a cigarette. But as I sat hugging my knees waiting for something to happen, I smiled and bounced my legs up and down a little, giddy and free and expecting to like it.
And like it I did.
I liked it so much that I began doing it every day. A little sniff in the mornings. Then more. I rapidly moved beyond the capacity of my brother’s pot dealer to supply me and she introduced me to the two Mexican nationals who supplied her – I don’t remember their names but they lived in an apartment adjacent to a trailer park a convenient ten minute drive from our house – San Antonio is one of those cities in which neighborhoods can flip on a dime – and I began spending evenings inside that apartment, a dark four walls. Newspaper had been plastered over the windows and I was always there among two other young girls – probably not as young as I was – who the Mexicans called “our ho’s” and one of them was always chain smoking clove cigarettes. Stains on the one love seat made me shy to sit on it at first, I’d pull up a paint bucket and turn it on its end to sit down, but soon enough I didn’t care and we’d spend hours inside that apartment, just waiting, always waiting, for some delivery, the clove cigarettes permeating everything. Every once in while we’d go for a drive, in one of their trucks and I’d be squashed in the middle of the bucket seat and one of them would scold the other with regard to his speeding, “Not while we’re carrying, man. Not while we’re carrying.”
I didn’t learn to smoke myself until I confessed the whole business to Cindy – it would be first her Virginia Slims then I’d move on to menthols, convinced they kept me high longer. Had I not told Cindy, the whole thing might have ended sooner. I wouldn’t have had enough money to keep it up, though this I guarded against. In addition to working for her, I had picked up a weekend job as a receptionist at a gym and after that a gig at the Jiffy Lube on Austin Highway – I labored under the cars, in the “pit,” with my hands overhead all day long, tightening and untightening screws and hollering things up to the ground floor and building for myself enormously grotesque biceps, which looked strange on my shrinking frame. I remember a period when I would knock on the doors of people I’d met – one of the Mexicans’ ho’s, Reggie, the manager of the gym where I’d worked, people I knew could potentially get me high after the Mexicans disappeared (I never found out what happened to them, they were simply not there one day and then were never there again) and they wouldn’t have seen me for a while and they would gasp. I was small to begin with and had lost 10 or 15 pounds to my habit.
But I did tell Cindy. I stumbled over it, let the words come out of my mouth, early on enough that it wasn’t yet totally obvious. I expected a stunned response, to be shunned, to be hospitalized, to be arrested, to have crossed a line that was farther to the right than anything we’d broached before. But Cindy was not that kind of woman. Cindy was the kind of woman who asked if I could get her some. “I don’t think anyone who has ever had a coke habit could have a line placed in front of them and not want it, not inevitably do it.” I know this now to be untrue, but this is how she felt and one night, probably that night, I got Cindy high and this night, whenever it occurred, I don’t remember it, divided our lives. From then on, coke was our focus, coke was our bond, coke was what we talked about and the reason we worked. And for the entire time, I was never older than 17.
From beginning to end, Cindy and I’s run, in its new incarnation, was almost exactly a year. I became a parlor trick after that, after I started doing it at school in the bathrooms – a few of the girls discovered me and they’d take me to their houses and gather a group in a circle around me and have me snort a giant earthworm of a line and they would yelp and gasp and be delightfully horrified at my tolerance. My mother kept an envelope in her closet, money my father would give her for Christmas or for her birthday and she had been saving it for years, for what I’m not sure. My parents have the money to go to Europe to buy expensive jewelry to purchase beach and lake houses, but they never, ever do. They are frugal and unpretentious and I imagine that this money was treasured and its eventual use meant to be thoughtful and wrought with a minor amount of guilt and I began taking it, a little bit at a time, until eventually it was all gone, all gone up my nose. I pawned their things. Small things, I’m not sure they ever knew. Cindy drove me to a strip club once, convinced we could support our habit if I took my clothes off and she waited in the car while the manager asked me, alone in his office, to give him a lap dance and while his back was turned for a moment I ran out, back to the car, humiliated and exhilarated and confused by the combination. I stopped pretending to go to high school and started going to San Diego, Memphis, LA and New York on “business” with Cindy and we hid our baggies of cocaine in our underwear on the planes.
We could snort an eight ball between the two of us in a night and I became convinced that the veins in my arms were collapsing.
Once, after leaving Cindy’s late to make the ten second walk back across the street to our house, I crawled right back out of my bedroom window with my sleeping brother’s stolen car keys. I drove for hours in the dark, my reality melting into a horror of paranoid delusion that left me convinced I was being followed – at a distance – by a pack of cop cars. Finally, unable to sustain the hours of anxiety that had unfurled out onto the highway, where I’d come to complete stops and exit my car to scream desperately in the direction of my phantoms, I called 911. To my pulsing mind, it seemed my only recourse. I couldn’t lead them home. I couldn’t be busted for evading arrest. I called 911, gave them my location, left my car on with the door swung open and let my cell phone drop to the middle of the street while I busied myself with facing a bit of shrubbery, my hands raised high in surrender.
One patrol car pulled up and soon another. The officers exited their vehicles with a crouched confusion, looking toward the shrubs that appeared to be menacing me. “What the…fuck?” the older one inquired, looking directly into my eyeballs, ascertaining that the only immediate threat posed in the ludicrous situation we now shared was from the insane girl before him. Immediately my mind exploded with clarity, the real cops pulling me back into reality, and I realized what I’d done. It dawned on me that I was still holding my arms up. I mumbled something about being sorry for the confusion and wanting to go home and the two of them stared, dumfounded, exchanging uncertain looks before the older one took a step forward, gazed at me as if to say “I hope you realize what a break you’re getting right now, young lady,” and told me to go straight home.
Other things happened this year. I learned to smoke crank, learned that it eased the comedown, learned to drive a motorcycle because the enforced concentration of driving one was the only thing that could give me a moment’s peace. It required so much concentration to ensure that I wasn’t going to die, that it was the only time I didn’t think about cocaine.
What I recall most acutely from this period, this period that as I turned 32 in October became 15 years removed from my daily life, is that I was an addict. This may seem an obvious enough jump, but to be an addict is to be something different from the person who runs, full of adrenaline, from a strip club to a parked car laughing; it is, for me, to be someone who, late at night, alone in her room, crawls on her hands and knees and is fully desperate and out of her mind and wants to find a morsel of white powder that maybe she, at some earlier moment, dropped and now needs to find, needs to suck on. Someone who, if she can’t find it, sits on a bed and holds a handgun, thinking she probably won’t use it but needing to hold it, needing to find another focus, something that is not the need in her chest. This is what I remember most. The moments alone at 2 a.m., scratching at my skin, staring for two, three, four hours at the small crack under my closed bedroom door, looking for a shadow to cross, for an intruder who never shows.
The need in my chest has shifted over time but never gone away, never become fully silent. I stopped doing cocaine abruptly a few weeks before turning 18 and have never touched it again, fought with Cindy, watched her drive a U-haul truck off our block and never heard another piece of news about her life, but that was not the end of this thing. It was the beginning.
I can picture my maternal grandfather pouring a glass of wine for the two of us, in his 90s now, explaining to me how he quit drinking two decades prior, slowly zoning in on the idea that “not drinking” to him had something to do with his personal ban on whiskey. I can picture the locked cabinet on my paternal grandmother’s liquor cabinet, a problem even in her 80s and I know that celebration in my family always includes fresh limes, from the citrus trees my father planted, squeezed into glasses full of gin and tonic and Texas-shaped ice and I would not change this. These are our ties, this is how we know we are home and safe, that the circle has been drawn.
But here alone in my concrete house in Botswana, I wonder about being an addict, I wonder why the joy has been drained from a glass of wine when I’m here alone. I fall backward in time and can’t see the lines anymore. It isn’t the first time that my past has become my present, that the lines have blurred.
The man who was the man in my life for five of the last eight years decided he was done with it in what seemed to me a swift instant. I feel certain he would describe it differently, would call to mind a tortured inching away from me and into the protection of his own dignity, but of course that isn’t how it seemed to me. I only got to hear about it after the progression had climaxed and I was in no way equipped to cope with the news.
For a long time, my years with him existed in my being as vast, raw swaths of undigested experience, overwhelming memories that I was not able to dismiss, as my conscious mind wanted to, as sentimental. They remained critical to who I was and where I was going, and yet I could not decipher the transcript. And so I stopped trying to. I did a lot of things when Garrett and I broke up – I took piano lessons, signed up for welding classes, I volunteered at a bakery and I dyed my hair orange – but mainly I drank wine by the magnum and fell back into ancient habits in ways I could get my mind around. Snorting adderall is not, after all, the same thing as snorting cocaine but here we find ourselves awash in semantics and split hairs, and it didn’t take long before I wound up in the hospital with a palpitating heart. When I was 25 a doctor informed me that my heart murmurs inside of my chest, which it isn’t supposed to do, and there isn’t any way to tell if my incessant jumpstarting of it has contributed to the phenomenon or if I was born with a malady, but the reality on the ground is that an amount of adderall someone else might be able to snort or swallow and get away with had me naked from the waist up on a hospital bed at 4am in Bushwick. That night there was an obese man on a bed to the left of mine with gangrenous feet and various nurses continually discovered and disseminated the news that it was from these rotting extremities that the overwhelming smell emanated. A drug deal going on between the men in the beds to my right was fantastically overt and seemed to draw the distress of exactly no one. There was human feces on the ground and there were orderlies who argued about whose job it was to remove it.
After we broke up, for men I mostly sought out strangers and kept them that way (one notable night I left a bar near my office, having gone in when it was sunny and come out when it was black and torrential, and asked an absurdly good looking kid with an umbrella to walk me to the train, during which time I suggested he walk me to his apartment instead. He said he worked as a model, that he was 23, and I was nearly 30 and he probably lived in a box in Brooklyn but was housesitting this night and we had sex in the bay window of the Park Avenue apartment and afterward he began to read me some poetry he had written. I dressed, and I left him naked in the doorway with his notebook in-hand, calling after me to ask my name, which I refused to give.). But I did date a little and one of these men was very smart and very good and I confided in him my fear that I was an alcoholic, an addict and he would, again and again, correct me: a lush. I was a lush, not an alcoholic, although I’m not sure I fully comprehend the difference. I think maybe he meant I am a seeker of pleasure, an ecstasy junkie, a glutton, a misanthrope of moderation.
But here alone there is very little pleasure left in my drinking. When I began writing this account I’d given up booze for three weeks. Since going into the capital to see friends this isn’t true anymore, but I currently don’t have any alcohol in my house and, as long as I’m alone here, I hope to keep it that way.
It seems over the course of these 14 months that I’ve seized a great many answers and then lost them. I suspect that I am never going to plateau, to even out, to know anything all that fully. Knowledge, forgiveness, wisdom if I’m lucky, might flitter into and out of my mind all my life, I’ll grow in spurts and shrink in others, and none of the answers will reveal themselves in the end. In the middle, maybe. But a swift breeze and they’ll be lost again.
And in some of those moments I think, probably, I’ll have a drink.