I do the yardwork. I have since we moved out of our apartment and into our first rented house. By then, John was already sick, but we were still long months away from his cirrhosis diagnosis. He tried to mow the lawn once, in the early days at the rental, and gave up after five minutes.
At the age of forty-four, his liver sneakily failing, he simply wasn’t physically capable of it.
She was good. Really good. Like most high school stars who are awarded full-ride athletic scholarships to division one universities, Amber was used to being the best ball player on the diamond. Her freshman year at Baylor University in 2000 would be her first experience having to work hard to keep up. How did she respond? She drank.
There’s no basement at Comet Ping Pong.
Comet Ping Pong is a hip, family-friendly little restaurant in a comfy neighborhood in the Northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C. There, you can nosh on wings and wood-fired pizzas while playing ping pong (surprise!) and listening to local indie bands. In a lovely alternate reality, this is all there is to say about the place.
“I know you never lie to me. I believe you. You’re not lying. It’s worse than lying. You’ve forgotten.”
The rocks glass, perched on the old steamer trunk in the basement, contains a pale pink liquid.
But I know he drinks cranberry juice out of his rocks glass. Bright red cranberry juice. The warm plastic bottle of it is sitting right beside the rocks glass, on the old steamer trunk covered with the labels of our past wine bottles (those bottles our main means of travel).
I can never bury the familiar internal alarm deep enough. Something is not right here breaks out like spring sprouts from the dirt as I walk past the steamer trunk on my way to the laundry. I’m an experimentalist, not a theorist, though, so I grab the rocks glass and knock back a quick swallow.
“If you would have more sex with me, I wouldn’t have to drink so much.” Ah, the twisted phrase uttered out of intoxicated desperation in marital bedrooms around the world. And every one of the millions (maybe billions) of women who have received that accusatory plea have the same two simultaneous thoughts:
How dare he try to put his drinking problem on me. It is my body and my choice, and frankly, sex is the last thing I want with this man who has grown increasingly unattractive to me over the years and decades of his abusive drinking.
Maybe he’s right.
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.”
He hates me.
Lots of why will be spun up around this in the future I’m falling headlong into (it’s the alcohol, it’s the disease, it’s not him, it’s not real).
But none of you are here right now. None of you can see the way my partner, my husband, is looking at me. We’re two decades past and three thousand miles away from when and where we first fell in love, but there’s a longer time, a deeper distance: both immeasurable.
He hates me, and it doesn’t matter why.
Empathy, that putative ability to feel the emotions of others as if they were your own… well, you can see how that would be a dangerous prospect at this moment. A thing to guard against.
I don’t need two people hating me like that.
“We can.” That’s the response I received for years when I asked my wife, Sheri, if she wanted to have sex. As an active alcoholic, that consent was good enough for me. I didn’t know it, but I was looking to sex for the same dopamine hit I got from alcohol. A reluctant, “We can,” was enough.
When the question is, “Do you want to…?” and the response is, “We can,” that’s never really enough.
I’m not just talking about the psychological damage her consent did to Sheri. “We can,” really messed me up in profound and lasting ways.
In January, I finally get the text from John’s dad that I’ve been waiting on for more than a year.
Oh, and the waiting. It’s astounding the stories we build up in our heads when there’s no intervention from reality to prune them into a sensible shape. I ask myself on a loop, how does he think this happened? Why does he think I gave his son two pounds of my own liver, and a year and a half later handed the same man divorce papers? Doesn’t he want to know? If I have an overactive imagination, I wonder, are some others’ atrophied, seized up and dry? Or is it worse: do they just not care?
Waiting, I compose in my head a pointed, yet directionless reply to a piercingly unasked question. The meat of it wraps around a spinal litany of near-funerals for his son that he doesn’t even realize he’d missed: five by my count, the transplant (the one everyone pays attention to) not even the last one, not even the closest call.
I remember driving around behind Meteor Crater in Arizona, off Chavez Pass Road, on a deserted bare-bones dirt track. I was deliberately (perhaps illicitly?) skirting the crater from the outside, instead of looking into it from an officially-sanctioned observation deck. The crater visitor’s center had, honestly, offended my burgeoning amateur-astronomer sensibilities. It had a certain Diz-Nee no thanks, don’t mind if I don’t vibe, and the fee to venture onto the deck was exorbitant for me in my salad days. It seemed like someone had executed a daring daylight robbery, and ugly baseball hats with flaming meteors streaking across them sufficed to distract entire tour groups from even noticing.
I felt despair. This was ours, or at least I thought it should be, like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. And yet it belonged very specifically to someone, and they didn’t really care what I thought.
So in a vanishingly small act of rebellion, I took a drive instead.