Long ago when they first invented the atomic bomb people used to worry about its going off and killing everybody, but they didn’t know that mankind has enough dynamite right in his guts to tear the fucking plant to pieces. ― John Cheever, Falconer
For fourteen years I endured you, my tremendous love, my devastating heartbreak. You came like swallows that year as I spun out like thread and wove through metal doors, into the girls’ rooms. A spray of lilac perfume, jeans wiggled into and then discarded on the floor, U2′s Achtung Baby on blast, windows open, owls burrowed in the trees, air still warm and fragrant but on the verge. Back then you were only a whisper, a finger of vodka in a chilled glass. I mixed you with cranberry juice because the girls told me you’d taste just like summer that way. The summer when it was all Coca Cola in a can and juice boxes with a straw. But it was a new year and I consumed you whole. I felt warm and numb — am I supposed to feel this way, I asked, numb? The girls laughed, clinked glasses filled with chipped ice and said, soon you won’t feel anything at all.
And so it goes. I realized that the girls were right. For fourteen years I felt cold, vacant. My heart, a condemned building on the verge of collapse.
Our group in college were overachievers, we graduated with honors and wore sashes and medals around our necks. But come nightfall we were marauders, we’d drink until we saw black. Sometimes I’d jolt up in terror, wondering if there would be a time when I wouldn’t come back from the darkness, when you were all that would be, but a blurred face, a mess of hair, a slur of speech would hold my shoulders and say, Felicia, you’re drunk. You’re fine, just fine. Everything will be fine in the morning.
She cried for herself, she cried because she was afraid that she herself might die in the night, because she was alone in the world, because her desperate and empty life was not an overture but an ending, and through it all she could see was the rough, brutal shape of a coffin. ― John Cheever
Glass tips, falls, have another, you called. But I don’t feel fine. Come morning I’d pull down the shades, bury myself under my covers to find you. You’d been there all along, holding me close; a whisper that had morphed into a gentle, constant murmur said, I’ll never leave you. Then I’d bolt out bed, wave my hands in protest and say, Listen, this isn’t a serious thing. Let’s keep it casual; I’ll call you when I need you. Because I learned from an early age to never let anyone see me cry, that love was a transaction not a laying down of one’s beating heart. My mother taught me to never want, never need, never love. And that heart? Wrap that up in some newspaper and send it down a river. It’s the only way.
Who knew then that the inability for my mother to give trespass to her heart would be her ruin? Who knew that me letting the light in would be my salvation? But not yet, not yet, not yet. Why do you smell like apples?
Then one day my mother drove up in a blue car, stormed into the house, took all her records, ripped photos of herself — the good ones — out of the family photo album and sped into the gloaming. HURRY UP, PLEASE. IT’S TIME, Eliot wrote. My father called me and told me that my mother had left us for a man who promised her Disneyworld. I cried once, in my best friend’s arms, the day I told my mother that I no longer wanted her in my life. My first love, my first hurt, cut a phone line, but I was fine, just fine. There was me falling down some stairs. There was me graduating with honors. There was me blacking out. There was me securing a coveted position at a global bank. There was me making the boys nervous because I could drink them under the table, under a whole set of living room furniture, when they said, take it easy, Sully. Don’t worry, she’s Irish. She can hold her drink, I heard one say. In a quieter voice, another said, She drinks a lot. And then you appeared, placing pillows over their puckered mouths. By then I’d grown used to you, admired your commitment. You seemed completely and utterly devoted to me.
No one had ever loved me that much.
The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. ― Ernest Hemingway
So I gave you the keys, let you in the house and locked all the doors. Second bottle of wine in, you and me, kid. Grief is like an ocean, consuming you into the depths of it. And the constant memory of the people you carry are tidal waves, night thieves. But you promised me that you’d be the anesthetic of the century, a life-long blackout. I had all this pain and didn’t know where to put it. Where do you put so much pain? How many boxes does it fill? Is there a limit? You’d hush me, tell me that I’d feel none of it. In that moment that’s all I wanted to hear.
Sometimes I wonder if I drank all those years to stop time and find my way back to my mother, or if I just didn’t want to feel the weight of having lost her, the enormity of it, how it filled a room, muffled a scream, paused a heart.
From dorm room to the Bronx to Long Island to Manhattan, you made good on your promise. You were a lover that would lie down beside me at night — when the windows were open and all I could hear was a woman singing Chinese arias and the clang of knives from the restaurant down below — untangling my hair, getting lost in it. You had become something of a barnacle, and the more I let you in the less I saw of me.
Someone asked me once, Are you happy? Define happy, I replied, even though I knew the answer.
Years later I let someone in. All the way. And you started to get pissed. You were an only child — or so you thought — and you didn’t like sharing. Over time, my new friend told me about your half-sister, heroin, and all the tawdry details of the breakup. To say it was a massacre was an understatement. She needed to put three thousand miles of distance to get herself straight. I tell my new friend that there isn’t a picture without you in it, and I laughed. But she didn’t. You’re drunk in every single picture that’s been taken of you? Are you serious?
The words “trial separation” needed to be said out loud. Huffy, you packed your things, but left the essentials because you knew you’d be back. Look at how much I’ve done for you. The time I put in. Fourteen years! you shouted. To which I responded, Look at what you made me give.
You know that notion of darkness? How one paints a pretty picture depicting its poetry? How one makes a romance out of it, makes you feel special for wading in it? Well, it’s all bullshit. Pain is pain. Dark is dark. And there’s no poetry in it. There’s only the silences. The silences of friends who won’t take your phone calls, of the loved ones who tried so hard to break through the fortress that was you. Of the memory of all the grief, still raw and new, that’s an apparition whenever you decide to take a smoke break.
Look at what I made myself give.
I remember our great row. It was a war of sorts. Tupac’s California blasted from a laptop and we all drank cheap red versions of you in an apartment uptown. There was a moment, a shift imperceptible to anyone but me, when I knew that I’d gone too far. Drank too much. That I had to stop. But I couldn’t. I just kept drinking. Next thing I know I’m in cab but I’ve no idea how I made it home.
The next day I call my friend, shaking, and told her, I think I drink too much. And she asked me why I didn’t stop. Why I had two more glasses of you, to which I responded, I can’t stop.
And then I did. Changed all the locks. Hid all the photos. Tossed you in a bin and for the first year without you every day was a new bandaid tearing at raw, bruised skin. I’ll always be here, you shouted from the street. After a few years the voice grew meek, hopeless. That bombastic lover was a washed-up old fellow with a limp.
There was me, running to the light. Finding it. Getting lost in it. Realizing that you weren’t of my kind. But there’s time! So much of it left to let all the right ones in.