“Then I was drunk for many years; and then I died.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, On Booze
When I pulled F. Scott Fitzgerald from my bag, things were often stuck to his head. A quarter. Paper clip. Tin of curiously strong mints. It’s the magnet beneath the sienna fuzz of his hair that did it. Each time, I removed the item. Each time, I noticed that the thread holding the shape of his nose was still trying to unravel. I coaxed the thread into place and made a note to snip it with scissors. I never remembered to do this. Making commitments I couldn’t keep, and then blissfully making them again, was bad behavior I was good at.
F. Scott Fitzgerald went places with me. He leaned against a stack of books, watching me teach. He reclined on the table in front of me when I spoke on panels at writing conferences. He reproachfully perched atop the drum stick I kept shoved in a jar of pens on my desk while I wrote. Because he was a finger puppet, the drum stick was the right shape – like a spine holding him up upright. So he kept an eye on me.
I got sober for the third time (or was it the fourth?) at age 48. F. Scott Fitzgerald was only 44 when he succumbed to his addiction. Not the finger puppet – the artist. Sober when he died, his damaged heart stopped beating. He was standing near the fireplace. Then he wasn’t.
Across my many failed attempts at sobriety, all the stopping and subsequent stopping of the stopping, a map of which would look more like a series of overlapping loops than a timeline, F. Scott Fitzgerald watched me from the place where I carried him in my bag. He rode next to my wallet and car keys, phone and crumpled receipts that I never kept long enough to file with my taxes. He watched me through the days of my first, second, third (was there a fourth?) early sobrieties and all the non-linear backtracking and excuse-making and timeline-destroying justifying. I assume he thought, every time I vowed never again, “Don’t fuck it up this time.”
I didn’t know why a finger puppet had a magnet in its head. Was he a puppet or was I supposed to stick him to the refrigerator? It was a confusion of purpose.
I was sixteen years old when I read, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” and, “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him” and, “The exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain.”
I was so sixteen. I loved Harrison Ford and Billy Joel and photography and the sandy-haired boyfriend of one of my best friends. I knew two things when I read, “Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.” I knew I wanted to make sentences that beautiful. And I knew life was supposed to be some combination of sexy and tragic.
I packed bags. Books. Computer. Cowboy boots. Pens. My tools. I put my body, newly sober for the second serious time (not like the unserious times which were countless), on a flight to Syracuse in October. I picked up my green rental car – green like a tropical parrot, like a lime popsicle – and drove to Oswego to be the visiting writer at the campus where I once wrote terrible undergraduate fiction. Part of the gig was an hour-long lecture on “Living a Writerly Life.”
In front of two hundred disinterested undergrads, I tried to impress them with my clever PowerPoint presentation about shitty first drafts, tidal waves of rejection letters, and the long slog of revision. Just down the hill was the bar where I used to drink Meister Bräu from plastic red cups – the bar that let us in with just a college ID. I had learned so much across failed flirtations at sobriety about the falsities of romance that the bottle promises to the writer. Alcohol dresses itself in sexy stemware and lingers provocatively next to the laptop, and that’s fine at first, but eventually it’s with us at readings and critique group and through revision after revision until finally it’s smothered every decent creative idea the writer will ever have again. These students, I knew, were too young to see it, but I felt honor-bound, here on the site where much of my own fucking up began, to at least say something.
His picture, much larger than the man, loomed on the screen behind me. I asked, “Who is that?” Someone in the front row knew the answer. Heads nodded.
“What do you immediately think of when you think of F. Scott Fitzgerald.”
First answer, from the third row, “The Great Gatsby.”
“Right. What else?”
Second answer, from a boy in a sideways baseball cap, near the back of the lecture hall, “Drinking!” He grinned. The buddy to his left elbowed him, also grinning.
I clicked the enter button four times, bringing forward four cartoonish drawings of F. Scott Fitzgerald in various stages of inebriation. Fitzgerald with bubbles over his head and a drink in hand. Fitzgerald staring at a typewriter, a tipped-over bottle under his chair. Fitzgerald relaxing inside a martini glass – his feet propped on its rim, a cigar in his hand.
“Right. These are funny, right?” The room giggled. I told them the unfunny fact of his death. I told them they don’t have to drink to be writers. I told them that this is dangerous mythology. “Zelda died in a fire in an insane asylum. Scott died of alcoholism-related heart failure.” I told them, “Don’t do it.” I told them, “Be smarter than that.” I told them, “You don’t have to be high to make art. In fact, it makes it harder.”
They checked their watches, probably knowing I was a liar who would not stay sober. They were right. I flew home the next day.
Within three months, I was drinking again.
The worst moments: a catalog.
The time I started drinking at the bar in the Ronald Reagan Airport, gulping down $21 glasses of wine, then kept drinking on the plane to Bangor, Maine, where I arrived after midnight. I stumbled into the hotel lobby asking where a person could get a drink. The answer was, “Nowhere.” So I passed out alone in my room, awoke the next morning, cancelled my meetings, and on my way to the bathroom to puke, lost consciousness and slumped to the floor. I woke up with short carpet fibers imprinted on my face.
The multiple times (I can’t count them) that I set new personal bests at the brew pub by drinking more pints of red ale than ever before, and then drove down the dark, back roads to our house.
The time my wife, Kara, and I drank all day together and the day ended at the pub with dinner and more beer, and I started a screaming fight with her on the way home because she refused to pull the car over at one more bar. She was done drinking. I was never done.
The routine I formed, when Kara was away, of getting drunk on bottles of cheap Pinot Grigio by myself or with the kids present (it didn’t matter), and then sneaking bags of empties to the recycling center before she got home. Served over ice, Pinot Grigio went down so fast it was easy to empty two bottles per night, and somehow that didn’t feel like drinking.
The time I visited my alma mater MFA program. I sat in the bar with friends and ran up a $100 dollar bar tab while my kids were alone in the hotel room upstairs.
The time I was teaching a week-long writing intensive, and over the course of movie night, while my students watched Angela’s Ashes, I emptied a couple of wine bottles into my coffee mug. Later that night, I went out to smoke a cigarette across the parking lot, and realized I couldn’t walk back to the building. I texted a friend on the West Coast. “I’m in trouble.” She texted back, “Yes. You are.”
None of these were the so-called, legendary “bottom” we’re supposed to hit and bounce back from. My bottom was more stew than ingredient, more fog than clarity, more knowledge than fact.
If I could draw a picture of my alcoholic drinking, it would be part Venn diagram and part flowchart. Two big circles labelled “frequency” and “quantity” would share significant overlap, but frequently the quantity wasn’t the problem. The flowchart would include all the usual alcoholic tricks, like “If Monday, drink.” And “If Friday, drink more.” And “If hungover, promise to stop.” But the biggest box would be this: “If 2 pm or later, engage planning process.” And the planning process went like this: Where will I buy the wine? Which store is on my way home? If there is not a store on my way home, can I go home a different way? How will I justify that? What else do I need from the store that is not on my way home? If someone else is home, how will I make sure I get slightly more than half the bottle? If nobody else is home, where will I hide the empty? Maybe I won’t even get a bottle. Maybe I won’t drink tonight. And if I do drink tonight, maybe I won’t finish the bottle. And if I forget not to drink the whole bottle, maybe I won’t do it again the next night. Oh, fine. I’ll bring home wine, but I’ll just have one glass. Maybe two. Pass out. Wake up. Swear off drinking until 2 pm. Repeat. Not every day. Most days.
When I was sixteen, my high school English teacher gave us the assignment to write letters to literary characters. In my loopy, forced handwriting, I wrote to Jay Gatsby. I tried to warn him that Daisy was not the right girl for him. Tried to tell him that she would only ruin him. That he deserved more. That she could not see his beauty.
When I read my letter aloud in class, my gushing, ridiculous letter, and I ended by telling Jay Gatsby that he could do better, my English teacher tried to sound loving when she said, “Choose me instead!” after I finished. I slipped the letter into the back of my denim-covered, three-ring binder and never took it out again.
Looking back, I was trying to warn us both that chasing something impossible would never fill the holes we had inside, that we were bottomless. I don’t know what F. Scott Fitzgerald’s drinking flowchart would have looked like if he had drawn one, but there’s very little reason to believe it would have looked much different from mine.
I was at the mothership of writing conferences, newly sober for the first time, navigating the football-field-sized book fair. Acres of tables and booths of magazines and presses and programs. Tote bag over my shoulder, I moved from table to table, harvesting submission calls and sample copies. It was 11 o’clock in the morning.
I turned left up the 1300 aisle and heard the clink of glassware. My body responded the way a flower follows the daylong journey of the sun, turning to soak it in. Three conference center staff wearing crisp white shirts, dressy black vests, and bow ties lifted linen drapes from the full bar they were setting up. At 11 am. In the middle of the book fair.
It was a chance meeting with a former lover. One that treated me like shit. One that I was finally rid of. One who was not supposed to be here. Not this early in the morning, anyway. Not in the book fair. When I was drinking, I never noticed that alcohol lives everywhere, and if I did, it was not with horror.
I ducked into the 1200 aisle and studiously ran my fingers across the covers of books at a small press table, trying not to listen to the bottles clinking as they were loaded into a refrigerated case. A small volume; paperback; white and yellow cover. F. Scott Fitzgerald. On Booze. Someone had taken the trouble to compile everything the dead man had ever said on the subject. The book cost only five dollars. That word – booze – was meant to be funny. A slim volume called On Addiction would not sell. Or On Death from Alcoholism. Or On a Substance That Takes Too Many Artists Too Young. That’s not marketable.
I bought the book, and held it like a visor blocking the glare of the book fair bar. If I didn’t look at it, it couldn’t hurt me; the way we lead horses from burning barns. People lined up for a pre-lunch merlot. I rushed past.
I was teaching the day-long writing workshop in Portland, Maine. Around me, eight women tapped at the keyboards of laptops or moved pen tips across paper. They were responding to a prompt. F. Scott Fitzgerald leaned his back against my copy of The Situation and the Story which sat on top of Writing Life Stories which topped Reading Like a Writer. I scrolled through email messages on my phone. Some part of my brain did math. I was 73 days sober until three days earlier when I drank two glasses of wine. Without that, I would have been 76 days sober, but it’s not like I got drunk that night. Could I count it as a sober night? I knew I couldn’t, but I didn’t want to start the count over again. It was possible that this was only the second time I had made it all the way to 73 and to fuck it up on the 74th day was maybe more than I could forgive. Could I subtract “but it was a special occasion?” Is “yeah, but” ever a divisor? Alcoholic math is its own pattern, its own system of numbers and fractions. We use an intricate system of minute fractions to divide up the one bottle of wine at the dinner party, and the answer is always “not enough.” We use it to split lifetimes into day-long increments that we try to live over and over, just one day per day. We use it to count days, count drinks, count bottle caps, divide the number of empties in the garage by the number of days, trying to make it balance with “you’re not an alcoholic” on the other side of the equal sign. Could I divide one drink by 73 days and get a number so small it didn’t matter?
It’s not like I didn’t realize the danger I was in.
A participant interrupted this algebra, “What is that little toy you have there?”
I held him up and said, “It’s F. Scott Fitzgerald.”
She laughed a little, tapping her pen on the table. “Why do you have him with you?”
I didn’t know the answer, but I said, “He’s my mascot. My F. Mascot Fitzgerald.” It was the same joke I always made. F. Scott Fitzgerald was my fallback joke, but he didn’t mind. Not for me. He understood the fuck-up-seeking magnet in my head.
I was 48 years old and it was New Year’s Eve when alcohol and I had one last passionate night together. “Take me,” I said. “Just this last time.”
And it did. There were others at the party, but alcohol and I were there alone. Part showdown, part break-up sex, we bathed in each other.
We did not speak after that for seventy-three days. On the seventy-fourth day, wine called me up and said, “Hey. How have you been?”
And with no histrionics, I let it in the door because it was my partner’s 40th birthday, and alcohol said, all slick-like, “This is the generous thing for you to do.” I had made a complicated dinner with two dozen ingredients, and who was I to deny her a glass of wine with this gift? I loved this feeling of being generous, even when my partner raised her eyebrows at me and asked, “Are you sure about this?”
I said, “Of course,” because I loved the picture in the brochure that alcohol slid across the table to me: the picture of me controlling my addiction so Kara could have a glass of wine on her birthday. I looked really good in that picture. Really strong and in control of everything. Everything.
I said to alcohol, “Yeah, ok. I’m in.” I had two glasses with whatever amazing thing I had made for dinner. “But I’m in charge here. This is a choice.”
“Yeah,” said alcohol. “You’re in charge.”
“Yes,” I said, almost hypnotized. “I want to do this, but it’s not like I’m powerless.”
The next morning, furious and humiliated, I recognized my complicity in the lie. I was like the victim of a burglary who can’t believe she left the back door propped open like that.
Months later, I would spend hours Googling “What’s the difference between a slip and a relapse?” Ultimately, the vocabulary didn’t matter anymore than the math ever did. Two drinks equal two drinks. Further, two drinks, while they can find their way into the long equation that ultimately becomes recovery, they cannot equal sobriety.
And that’s how I became newly sober for the third time. Or maybe it was the fourth. I didn’t even know how to count anymore.
I have a used paperback copy of The Crack Up, Fitzgerald’s account of the last years of his life – his declining happiness, his increasing disillusionment. There are three pieces of paper stored between pages 126 and 127. One is a pink Post-It Note with this quote, in my handwriting, “Sometimes, I don’t know whether I am real or whether I’m a character in one of my own novels.” I imagine that, those decades ago, I thought the quote was extra witty. Now it reads to me as someone kidding everyone but himself.
The other papers are newspaper clippings from The San Francisco Chronicle. I didn’t put them there – they were there when I bought the volume at the used book store. One is a tribute to The Great Gatsby from April 1960, celebrating the 35th anniversary of the book’s publication. Written by the Chronicle’s literary editor, William Hogan, the piece is a misty remembrance of the book and its lost author. It’s accompanied by a letter to Hogan from a reader named Lucius Beebe, who takes issue with the accepted narrative of F. Scott Fitzgerald as witty or smart. “I have for a long time been bored by the allegedly witty quoting of Scott Fitzgerald…,” he opens. His closing is harsher: “I knew him personally as a lush and a friend of Kay Brush’s.” Everyone has an opinion even if nobody knows the story.
Howard Markel, a doctor and author, uses Fitzgerald’s story to teach medical students about the deadliness of alcoholism. While writers swoon over sentences like, “So we beat on, boats against a current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” medical students rub their chins and nod as they come to understand Fitzgerald’s multiple, failed attempts to get sober, his eight drinking-related hospitalizations, his countless arrests, and his death. He writes of Fitzgerald’s contemptuous refusal to avail himself of this newly-formed thing called AA. “Instead, Scott chose to go it by himself, hoping that willpower alone would free him of his addiction. Despite periods of weeks to months ‘on the wagon,’ the binges never really stopped, and each one took a greater toll on Scott’s battered brain and body.” Markel describes Fitzgerald as having a “two-cylinder inferiority complex” and, as such, does not distinguish him from any of the rest of us authors who stumble and grope our way through sentences, trying to make just one beautiful example of the form and failing, then failing again, then hoping to fail better next time. It’s like chasing the perfect drink, Lucius Beebe. If you wrote more than judgmental letters, maybe you would know.
After a particularly disastrous drinking spree in October 1939, Fitzgerald wrote this to his daughter, Scottie:
“Anyhow I am alive again—getting by that October did something—with all its strains and necessities and humiliations and struggles. I don’t drink. I am not a great man, but sometimes, I think the impersonal and objective quality of my talent, and the sacrifices of it, in pieces, to preserve its essential value has some sort of epic grandeur. Anyhow after hours I nurse myself with delusions of that sort.”
Fourteen months later, morticians prepared his withered body for viewing, and Dorothy Parker uttered, “The poor bastard” at his funeral.
It’s not like he didn’t know the danger he was in, Lucius. He knew he was a lush. We always do.
If you Google “How did F. Scott Fitzgerald die?” the answer appears, in a large, definitive font: Heart attack. And, in case you’re interested, Google eagerly offers further down the screen, Hemingway’s cause of death was suicide. These are semi-truths. By the time Fitzgerald fell to the floor by the fireplace on December 21, 1940, he had been hospitalized over and over for alcoholism. He boasted of drinking 37 beers a day. His career was in freefall. Gatsby was a commercial failure. Markel teaches his students that Fitzgerald’s addiction had caused cardiomyopathy, coronary artery disease, angina, dyspnea, and syncopal spells. He had survived another coronary attack just two months prior. Forty-four-year-old hearts do not stop beating unless they have been flogged and abused to the point of breakage. His heart was broken. He broke it with alcohol, then tried to heal it with alcohol, which only broke it again. And again. And again.
Hemingway, by the way, fared no differently except that he ended his alcoholism with a shotgun blast to the head. While “suicide” is a technical fact, it’s also the only way some of us get sober.
Six months into my third first year of sobriety, after waiting all those 180-plus days, I made it to the top of the waiting list to see the new therapist everyone is talking about, the therapist a sober therapist friend said, “She’s the one you need to see.”
She assessed the extent of my addiction in our first session. “How much?”
“At least two glasses a night. More on the weekends. Sometimes a lot more.”
“Just two? Is that the truth?”
“Yeah. Most of the time it was two.” I was surprised to have to convince her. “But it was every night.”
A pause. Then, “You know a glass is eight ounces, right?”
The laugh rolled up all the way from my gut. “Not if you’re doing it right.”
She smiled. “Yeah, ok. There it is.”
We worked together every week in her softly-lit office. She said, approximately every fourteen days, “I think you might consider not doing this alone. What if you went to an AA meeting?”
When I finally listened and almost had to crawl through the door of my first meeting, I sat in a folding chair at a folding table in the basement of St. Aiden’s church with my hands clutching a cup of coffee from Dunkin Donuts. It was a women’s meeting attended by only seven people plus me. When it was my turn to share, I said, “In case none of you have seen what a full-on anxiety attack looks like,” I gestured the length of my body with a wave, “it looks like this.”
I kept coming back, as they say, but that tight-jawed feeling never left. I shared at most meetings, but did not learn anyone’s names. I carried the list of numbers they gave me deep in my bag, among the mints, keys, loose coins, but never dialed one. I accepted the sobriety chips as the months moved past, but I didn’t invite anyone to go for coffee or take a walk. I thought about these things, thought about my therapist’s consistent urging to “stop being alone.” I said, in the meetings, the words “I’m an alcoholic,” but couldn’t say it without a hand reflexively flying up to my face or without looking into my lap or without clenching every muscle. That vulnerability – that terror that anyone might truly see me – kept me alone, no matter how many people were nearby, for the first two hundred and sixty-nine days of sobriety.
In October of my second first year of sobriety Kara and I traveled to Maine’s north woods, to a place where the roads are no longer lined with power poles and our cell phones were useless. It was Hay Pond weekend: a gathering of musician friends at an old hunting camp on the easy edge of a lake at the base of the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Our friends hosted Hay Pond weekend every year, and people rammed their trucks and cars through a confusing network of unmapped dirt roads, pulling over when the logging trucks roared by, filling the air with choking dust and tire-shot pieces of gravel. They arrived – as did we – to a glowing hot wood stove, a main cabin lit only by dim gas lamps, a spread of shared food that grew as we arrived, hugs, and laughter. We wore flannel and boots. We threw darts, played cards, sculled on the pond’s still surface, listened to owls. And we drank.
Across that year, Kara had been supportive of my sobriety in most of the ways that mattered. We used to be each other’s best drinking buddies, but now we didn’t keep alcohol in the house and she only drank in front of me with my permission. I was grateful for this generosity, but also jealous of how easily she had done it. From her perspective, I am sure, adhering to some rules was probably easier than watching me die.
On my only other Hay Pond weekend, I had spent the first evening drinking wine and slowly passing into sweet unawareness, while others stayed up late to find the bottom of a keg of craft-brewed ale. The next morning, while I had tended to the glory of my own familiar hangover, others teased each other about keg stands and funnels. But, as normal people do, the others did not think of Hay Pond as a weekend of drinking. To normal people, it was a weekend of music and friendship that included some drinking. To me, Hay Pond was a weekend of drinking that included some music and friends.
“I think I might be in danger of drinking this weekend,” I said in the dark of our car while Kara navigated us through the tiny town of Patten, trying to use GPS to find our way. Fall sunlight had faded to a dim, eggshell haze.
“This should work,” she said. “I don’t know why it’s not working.” She was referring to the maps she had downloaded onto her phone.
Days earlier, I had told her to go ahead and bring beer. I had told her that I was fine. That I had this. And so when we found the last market before the end of stores, she went in and bought two six packs of IPA because it was our agreement that drinking in my presence had to be restricted to this terrible, floral version of beer. She was sticking to the deal we had made, to the deal I had made with this thing that clung to my back. I waited in the car while she went inside and bought the beer.
I wanted to be mad that she was buying beer when I had admitted that I felt weak. I wanted to blame her for the noise in my head that proportionately increased to the setting of the sun and the intensifying darkness. But she had supported me and stood by me and curtailed her own drinking for so long that I spoke sharply to that negativity. I told it to fuck off, that she deserved a fucking beer, and instead of saying anything out loud about it, I determinedly picked at my cuticles until they bled.
What’s clear all this time later is that Hay Pond weekend was like a gift I gave to my addiction. “Here is your chance to really test drive my sobriety,” I said to my addiction. “Run it hard around the corners. Test the safety features. Let me know what you think.” It was three days of people I didn’t know all that well. An ongoing music circle that Kara would disappear into. Everyone drinking. No need to drive anywhere. Nobody counting bottles. No cell service, so no communication with any of my support people. No ability to leave. As I look back over my shoulder now, I see the flashing warning lights and hear the sirens.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was in the car. The finger puppet, I mean. He had gone everywhere with me that year. His collar and ascot were dingy from the miles and his nose thread was still loose, but I needed him there. He was the only higher power I had found. I was 49 years old, and had outlived him. He wanted me to keep on living even when I wasn’t sure. Even when I wondered, as I did there in the grocery store parking lot, if having a beer might be worth whatever the result was. Even an IPA might be better than whatever else was about to happen.
When Kara opened the door and I heard the glass rattling of bottles as they landed on the back seat, alcohol whispered to me, “I’m coming for you.”
I took one frosty breath in the autumn cold of the car and wasn’t sure. About anything.
I needed my jacket to escape the second night of Hay Pond weekend. To leave the dark of the cabin for the dark of the woods, the dark of the pond at the base of the mountain, the dark of the bench by the canoe rack. The dark where nobody could or would think to find me. The dark where I could no longer hear the caps being pried from bottles, the chug of wine pouring into old, stained, camp coffee mugs; the satisfied, buzzed chuckling. I had to get out.
My addiction and my sobriety had spent two days at the negotiating table, passing altered agreements back and forth, haggling over the details, but the process was failing and had devolved into arm wrestling, and sobriety’s strength was fading. I could feel its knuckles starting to graze the tabletop. I was going down.
But I couldn’t find the jacket, and it was cold outside. It was not on the screened-in porch. Not near the wood stove. Not near the other wood stove. And not anywhere on any of the benches that hemmed in the table where everyone had shared their food brought from home. I circled into the living room, lit by gas lamps, threaded through the circle of musicians, not stepping on any toes. I navigated past the coolers of beer on the porch. The bottles of wine on the table with corks only half shoved in. These sparkling objects reached out to touch me as I passed. And they whispered my name. I found my jacket behind a beer cooler and threaded my shaking hands through the sleeves.
I eased open the screen door, and slipped into the creosote of that October night. That dark was not an embrace, but at least it was cover for what was happening. My willpower, the only defense I had packed for the weekend, was failing. I had to be outside when the final gate was breached because nobody would know. Nobody could know.
Early sobriety is a double agent. Its respectable day job is law enforcement: it plays good and bad cop interchangeably and maintains social order by upholding the rules. But by night, early sobriety is on addiction’s payroll. Together, they are criminal masterminds. Addiction’s job is to ruin the addict, and early sobriety sometimes leaves the back porch light on and lets addiction sneak in. Sometimes they dress alike so the addict can’t tell one from the other. When a voice whispers in the dark, “You can’t do this,” the addict can’t be sure who is talking, so faltering and weakness dangerously assert themselves. “See? You don’t even want to do this.” It’s two against one. It’s not a fair fight.
My addiction sent me messages as I crossed that dark expanse of sloping grass. It said, through the reasonable-sounding, good-cop-voice of early sobriety, “It’s not worth all this. Just have a fucking beer like everyone else. You can start over later.”
My mouth held hyphen-shaped refusal with tightened lips, the red parts drawn in over my teeth. “I won’t,” I may have said out loud. “I can’t.” But somewhere, from a place near my gut, I felt my willpower begin to loosen its grip.
The air prickled with frost. The moonlight, uncompassionate, illuminated nothing. I turned to look at the dimly glowing cabin behind me and heard the sound of a mandolin being tuned. Men, gentle men with beards, men who I knew were pulling on sudsy beers, laughed. Why had I not brought cigarettes?
Our cabin was across the grass, rooted in a grove of pine and naked hardwoods. There was no electricity. No heat. More isolation chamber than refuge. I turned a different direction, toward Hay Pond, toward the horseshoe pit and the canoe rack, and stumbled, tears now fogging my glasses. Sobriety stood, cross-armed, in my path, like a warden. It said, “You’re not even sober enough to stay sober. You’re not strong enough. This is going to hurt.” I needed to call for backup, but I didn’t have any. It was as I had insisted it would be: I was alone.
I sank onto a pond-side bench, closed my eyes, and let it have me. Grief swept me into the night air. I cried all the crying that I had needed to do since the day I first admitted I had a problem, which was too many days, and too many lies ago, too many empties and headaches and excuses ago. Folded in half against the northern October chill, I cried until my eyes swelled closed and my neck muscles ached from choking. Not just crying, but wailing loudly, grateful for the concealment of the music.
When I started to run out of grief, when there weren’t any more tears, I stopped. I was too cold to remain on the bench, so I abandoned the shore of the pond and let the beam of my headlamp lead me into our dark cabin. Kara found me there, curled under two sleeping bags, pretending to read but really just waiting to fall asleep. I had created a loneliness as vast and dark as the night, and unconsciousness seemed the only path out.
She said, “We miss you inside.”
I didn’t believe her, but I had found the outer edges of solitude. My feet were at its boundary: a sheer cliff – too terrifying to linger near. I didn’t feel trustworthy alone. Alone, I might toss myself over the edge. Whatever the answer was, I wasn’t going to find it alone in the dark. I scooted out from under the sleeping bags, stood, and let my feet follow the circle of light cast by Kara’s headlamp to the main cabin. On the way, I shoved a hand deeper into my pocket. My fingers found F. Scott Fitzgerald there in the warm folds and squeezed him. He was dead. I was, somehow, still alive. It had to be enough for now.
As we walked the path together, I saw my addiction sitting, stunned, alone by the pond. It probably missed me too.
Safely in the main cabin, my swollen features hidden by the dim lights, I pulled a guitar into my lap and joined the music circle. Tentatively at first, then I sang louder.
Through his years of struggling to cut back his drinking, F. Scott Fitzgerald became a sugar addict, though I’ve heard that there’s not an alcoholic alive who isn’t a hypoglycemic. The very last thing he did before he died, was this: he ate a chocolate bar.
At the conclusion of every sober day, no matter what else I’ve eaten, I have one ice cream sandwich. I have a ritual. I remove the shiny white wrapper, opening it one corner at a time. Then I let the sandwich sit on the open wrapper until the edges soften and the ice cream attains a slightly silken quality. Then I lick my way around each of the four sides, scooping half-melted sweetness onto my tongue.
During a session, I told my therapist, “I used to love the curve of the stemware. The color of the wine. Peeling the labels. Turning the cork over and over in my fingers. I miss it.”
“Good,” she said. “So, you’re tactile. You love the beautiful things. Find different ones.”
When I eat ice cream sandwiches in winter, I toss the plastic-coated wrappers into the fire and watch them melt and curl.
During my third ninth month of sobriety, after some number of women’s meetings that I don’t keep track of, I finally go to a different meeting. A meeting where I know people from other areas of my life. Specifically, I know B., whom everyone knows is longtime sober and out about it and attends the Sunday meeting at Grace Chapel. I could use a wheelbarrow to ferry my fears through the double set of double doors that open into the sanctuary, and there is B. sitting at the folding table in a folding chair.
My fingers turn my travel mug of tea over in my lap while I haltingly share, “My therapist is telling me to stop being so alone in this. I’m here because I need to be less alone.”
Within days, B. comes over for coffee. And then, even though the coffee I make him is so terrible we laugh about it, he comes over for coffee again. And then again.
Within weeks after that, I say, “I think I’m going to get a tattoo when I hit my year. A leaf. And I want it on my wrist where I won’t lose sight of it.” The idea is to get one leaf every year I stay sober and to connect the years with a vine. “Someday,” I say to B., “I’ll just look like a shrub.”
Within days of that, I wake up to a long series of Facebook messages from B. He sends a detailed analysis of the use of plants as symbols in The Great Gatsby. Myrtle. Daisy. Caraway. He compiles this information, dredges it up from a paper he wrote in college.
I sit, smart phone in hand, struck dumb by this kindness. I read it. Scroll up and read it again. And again. At the end of the third reading, the gratitude breaks me. Sitting up in bed, I cry the same tears as that night at Hay Pond, only different.
I recognize that the scar tissue I earned at Hay Pond is stronger than the thin skin it replaced. It is a scab nobody can see. My therapist hears the story and says, “You did everything right.” This is a shocking reflection. I don’t think I have any claim to doing any of the things right ever. Sitting in her comfortable office, my back against the soft chair, I remember the hour-long crying jag on the bench and cannot bring myself to file that photo under “things I got right.”
Worse is that I come home, somehow, without F. Scott Fitzgerald. I search the car and my bags and the car again. I maybe left him on the bench by the pond or on the floor of the cabin or in the rustic kitchen by the massive cook stove. I’ll probably never know, but I miss his soft eyes and little puppet hands.
“Are you ready?”
“Ok. Three, two one.” The needle sinks into my wrist like a razor blade. Brad, the Canadian tattoo artist who specializes in tiny drawings, sits hunched over my right forearm. He lifts the tattoo gun, the pain stops, then he adjusts his grip and drives it back into my skin. The pain suppresses my breathing for a moment. Brad bobs his head slightly to the music. Kara sits to my left, holding my hand, but cranes her neck to watch the sprig of caraway emerge beneath Brad’s razor pen. I have been sober for one year and eight days. Those three hundred seventy- three days take me past all the previous attempts and their flawed math. This is just a number line: a straight count of days. No subtractions. No fancy divisors or fractions. This twelve months and change sit balanced across the equal sign from sober. I have zeroed out the rest.
Caraway leaves look a little like a fern, sort of like seaweed, and a bit like fat pine needles. Folklore holds that any object weighted down by caraway cannot be stolen. If a thief comes to steal the item, he will be affixed in place until help arrives. It also wards off demons and prevents fickleness. At the tip of Brad’s vibrating pen, leaves sprout from my pulse point.
The Great Gatsby is named after the famous, dreaming protagonist, but it’s really Nick’s story. I believe that F. Scott Fitzgerald may have seen himself in the failed dreamer Jay Gatsby, but I see him in the lies of Nick Carraway. Nick could never tell the reader the truth because he couldn’t even level up with himself. There’s a theory among some scholars – I am one of them – that Nick was deeply in love with Gatsby; that he was closeted and unable to live in freedom. My time in the closet is its own story, but I relate to the ways Nick shaped the narrative to fit his needs. Fitzgerald did the same thing, no doubt, telling himself his drinking would not get the better of him in the end. Every alcoholic does.
“Is that needle going to come out of the other side of my wrist?” I ask Brad when it feels like he’s pressing extra hard.
He laughs and stops for a moment to let me catch my breath. When I nod, he gets back to work drawing the slim leaves.
I close my eyes and imagine that the pain is there to do a job. It’s there to knock the demons out of me. It’s there to pin my feet to the ground. I look the pain straight in the face while it has its way with me.
Brad wants to finish up his work with long, white highlights along the caraway stem and a few touches of lightness on the leaves. The skin, by now, is injured and tender. I can barely sit and take it.
To distract myself, I ask him a question. “Brad, why do you think people get tattoos?”
“Hmm.” He doesn’t even lift the gun. “It’s about change.”
“People see a part of themselves that’s always looked the same, and they want it to look different.” He leans back for a moment and tilts his head, inspecting his work. “I think some people get kind of addicted to change, really.”
Everyone seeks change to some degree, but some of us get addicted to its seductive promises. The difference between the addict and the normal person is that the addict believes change will be found if we look long enough. We can find it, it will change our luck, change our lives, and it’s sitting right there at the bottom of the next bottle. Or the next one. Or maybe the one after that. It’s the winning scratch ticket we haven’t bought yet, but we will if we buy enough of them. We all love the idea of the orgiastic future. Addicts spend decades or lifetimes believing we can find it.
Einstein famously said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” and I’ve heard that quoted in AA meetings as if it’s proof that alcoholism is a form of insanity. But, as Jowita Bydlowska writes in her memoir Drunk Mom, alcoholics do, eventually, achieve different results. We get worse. We engage in increasingly dangerous behavior. We break more things and people. We end up unemployed or divorced or in jail or estranged from our kids. Many of us die. We are, inarguably, insane, but we’re all just trying to get the green light.
My tattoo itself will change very slowly as it heals. Bumped and brushed against things and subject to the bending and flexing of my wrist, it will become infected, ooze a little, and hurt for more days than the norm. A large scab will form over the crotch of the stems. The tips of the leaves will be milky for a few days, and I will send Brad a picture of it. He will say I might have to come back for a touch-up after it heals. After three weeks, the scab will shrink, then disappear. The murkiness will fade and sharpness will return to the image. My wrist, bare for so many decades, is changed.
After it heals, it will surprise me every time I see it for weeks, and then it will become part of my landscape. More than once it will keep me from picking up again. I will hope to earn another leaf: maybe a daisy. But I will not be cocky about it. Alcoholics never get to completely relax our vigilance. We know that we never get to know if this is the last first time or if there will be another.
Perfect in every way. You are a wonder! I still cherish a copy of your story about losing your dogs.
Heart wrenching in the best of ways. Love in its best form. Finding self love…the hardest journey.
Astonishing in its courage and truth.
late to the game but smitten nevertheless <3
Wow. The scene at Hay Pond especially slayed me. Penny, this is remarkable, and I wish you more tattoos in the future.
Incredible. Insightful and poetic. I love your writing!
Beautiful and necessary writing.
Penny, thank you for being human and for sharing the hard stuff. You’ll be looking like a shrub in no time, I’m sure.
This is stunning — the writing, the story. Thank you? Thank you!
Brilliant, bodacious, beautiful and brave.
Wow! I was riveted by your essay. So beautifully written, poignant, honest. The Fitzgerald finger puppet and all the allusions to his life and The Great Gatsby– really brilliant. Thank you.
What a stunningly beautiful essay.
Quite something to behold. Just beautiful.
I agree. May I add the word “lushly” written, without offending?
Penny — you are, as always, a gorgeous writer of insight and sensitivity. Bravo.
This is wonderful. Gorgeously written, heart-wrenching.