How dare you?
That’s the voice in my head every time I sit down to write. What gives me the right to tell these stories about my life with my alcoholic ex-husband, and the long, slow demise of our relationship? Alcoholism is personal, certainly in our culture. It’s a secret, one that he labored to keep from his family, from his friends, from his co-workers and employers (and even from me, whenever he could). Despite that, since I was his partner, it was understood that I would keep the secret, too.
“We all have a voice that tells us why we shouldn’t write.” I was surprised to hear this from a professional writing coach during a workshop. (I thought it was just me.) “We need to get to know the voice, negotiate with it. Ask it what it wants to tell us about our writing.”
You’re wrong to do it at all. You got so mad when I wrote about us, about you, in stupid little tweets. And now you want to write a whole fucking book about it? You’re a hypocrite.
And there in the middle of this workshop came the dawning realization of the perfectly obvious. It’s my ex-husband’s voice in my head. One problem with having an angry alcoholic take up residence in your psyche: you cannot negotiate with him.
What to do, then, with that voice that is beyond reason?
Remember how you dare.
I dare because of the blood. God, there was so much blood.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon when I realize my husband has outed me on Twitter. (Do unorthodox sources of marital strife count for extra credit?)
My wife is bisexual, so… the tweet starts. It’s unsettling the greasy way he’s using that as currency, buying right-of-way into a conversation that has nothing to do with him. Worse still: I’m not out on Twitter. At least, not until now. Until now, I’m selectively out to family and friends.
I’m not being disingenuous when I say my sexuality was a non-issue in my life with John, apart from bonding over having the same first crush (Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman). I was mostly glad that John had no problem with it. By which I mean, he basically ignored it…
(…and I may be realizing there were other problems in our relationship besides alcohol.)
Saturday afternoon, I go upstairs to his bedroom, and tell him I’m not okay with the tweet, along with some others I’ve found that run in the same vein. I don’t know where I keep my vast stores of surprise, but his response really puts me on the back foot.
“I thought you were okay with being bisexual.”
My thoughts are an instant jumble. What? Hang on. I am. Aren’t I? Yeah, what is my problem…?
“Wait a minute. This has nothing to do with me being comfortable being bi, it has everything to do with you discussing it like it’s yours with four thousand followers.”
“Fine, I’ll delete the tweets.” He’s so annoyed.
I retreat to the living room, and we proceed to text, back and forth. (I can’t talk when the conversation takes this kind of turn. I can only write.)
I start by sharing an article about being outed against one’s will, with no other comment.
“You made your point. I deleted everything I could find,” he replies.
“You still don’t understand. You’re acting like I’m being unreasonable. And you’re even getting in little digs like ‘I thought you were okay being bi.’ Asserting that I must have made you delete that because I’m ashamed of something shows you haven’t got a clue what this is about.”
“You’ve told plenty of people over the years so I did not know it was a problem. Anyway I’m not going to mention you ever again,” he replies.
“Can you not read over these messages and feel any remorse for how you are speaking to your wife?”
“Block me, then. You told your family and others about my alcoholism and liver issues when I asked you not to.”
(DING, DING, DING, there it is!)
“I never told anyone but my family about alcoholism. I hardly even called it that. I certainly never posted anything about it on social media. Anyone outside the family who knows either had to know for your medical leave, or had to know in order to give me actual medical advice. Can you really not see the difference?”
He doesn’t reply to that, and it’s the last text I send before I storm out the door with my dog and a hastily-packed bag. I don’t tell him where I’m going.
I return that evening, of course.
So, yeah, how dare I?
That question needs an answer.
The difference is, it’s not like I was ever falling-down-the-stairs bisexual. It’s not like he ever sat in a hospital chapel sobbing while doctors tried to find and fix a sneaky blood leak in my guts brought on by swinging both ways (such a quaint colloquialism). My sexuality is not something that happened to him.
He didn’t care about it (which funnily I once thought ideal), at least not until he could trot it out for purloined validation. He was never even jealous of women. Only of men.
The difference is, his alcoholism happened to me.
I’m not just telling you this. I’m telling myself this. So that I can dare.
God, there was so much blood.
It had been a nice evening, the final night of a long idyll, almost two years since his hospitalization for cirrhosis. We didn’t yet know to call it his “first” hospitalization (no one called it “World War I” in 1920). He’d quit drinking, and I trusted him. We’d even bought a house six months earlier, our first after a lifetime of rentals.
For dinner, I make my legendary pasta e fagioli, and we chase it with a couple of bottles of seltzer water while we eat in front of the TV. It’s his favorite meal right up until tonight, and I have yet to cook it again.
After dinner, I go upstairs and shower. As I step out of the steam and grab my towel to dry off, from the floor below I faintly hear, “Call an ambulance.”
The bomb with no visible timer has been right there, all along, ticking so softly I’ve almost forgotten about it. “That’s not funny,” I call back, grabbing my robe and throwing it on, still soaking wet.
“No, it isn’t,” the tenuous voice agrees, as I race down the stairs and sling myself around the banister. He’s kneeling on the living room floor, covered in blood, from his chest to his knees.
“I threw up blood,” he offers, looking dazed, pale and sweaty.
We’ll find out later that it’s ruptured esophageal varices. Those happen when a cirrhotic liver stiffens so much that blood shunts around it and builds up in thinning vessels nearby, sometimes builds to bursting.
But we don’t yet know this as I call for an ambulance, give our address, shut the dogs in an upstairs room, and throw on some clothes. We don’t have to wait long, hearing the sirens before we see the red lights flashing. Two EMTs come in, speak to John, ask him some questions about what happened, and help him out of his bloody clothes and into another shirt and pair of loose trousers that I’ve brought down. They’re able to help him stand, to walk gingerly, and together they lead him into the ambulance. Its red lights oscillate, alternately splashing the front of our house, marking it, and spilling out into the rest of the untouched neighborhood, alerting everyone else.
Ambulances don’t care much for secrets.
As they’re leaving, the driver advises me, “You can follow, but don’t run any lights.”
I’ve thought about his words a lot. Statements like that aren’t predicting human behavior, they’re responding to it. I can very easily imagine out-of-their-minds spouses having careened after emergency vehicles, headlong through red lights, because it seems since reality is suspended (a bathroom full of blood), rules must be too.
It’s the very small hours of the next morning before I return to the house, having seen John get from the emergency room into a bed on a floor.
I step through the front door, into a strange sour-coppery smell. There on the living room floor are John’s bloody clothes, crumpled in a pile. I move into the room toward them, and can see the trail of blood that he’d brought with him when he’d crawled from the bathroom to call to me up the stairs. I follow the trail into the bathroom.
Later, in trying to describe what had happened, I would send a few friends a looping gif of The Shining’s elevator doors opening for a slow-motion crimson flood. It’s partly to be funny, but an interesting choice nonetheless. This will soon enough become its own horror show.
The dogs are scratching at the door upstairs, the little one we just adopted last month barking her head off. I close the bathroom door, pick up the clothes, and clean the trail of blood in the living room, then go upstairs to let them out. We go outside, feigning normalcy at whatever o’clock in the tiny morning. We come back in, and I give them treats.
Then, with a bucket and a sigh, I turn back to the bathroom. It’s a little half-bath, usually featuring a glossy black stone tile floor and gleaming white fixtures. Now, it features an arterially-red swamp of blood and recognizable remnants of pasta e fagioli, covering much of the black floor. Blood drips down the toilet tank, and the front of the bowl, is spattered onto the pedestal of the sink, and is sprayed onto the walls and baseboards.
I look closer and can see where John had passed out in the middle of vomiting, and had dropped onto his right side, curled up around the base of the toilet: that spot is oddly unbloodied and fetal-John-shaped.
I think, at least he landed on his side.
So, in the wee hours of the first post-idyll morning, I start cleaning, because who else is going to? And there on my knees, I think, dude, you need to chew your macaroni. Then I laugh out loud, but don’t smile.
The dogs are loitering just outside the door, a little leery.
As I go, I realize I’m grateful for the solid bits, the unchewed pasta elbows, the garbanzos and red kidney beans, because I can get to those. The blood is a different story. It comes off the walls, and off the porcelain, it lightly stains the porous baseboards, but the floor…
The glossy black stone tiles are laid tight together, with no grout in between. As I clean, I can see the red disappearing down through the cracks. There’s no catching it, no bringing it back, no getting it out.
I can’t clean it.
Even now, if I walk ten feet from where I’m sitting on the couch writing this, I will be standing on top of it. It is still under my feet every time I go in there, this once-liquid part of his body, plasma, platelets, red and white blood cells, DNA and stomach acid and seltzer, soaked into the underlayment and down the subfloor. Dried. Preserved. Permanent, but hiding. Trying to keep the secret even now.
It’s an eternal crime scene.
I dare because of the blood. I dare, so I don’t lose my whole fucking mind.
If you dare to explore your story as the loved one of an alcoholic, please consider joining us in Echoes of Recovery.