by Donna Steiner
Start small. The bottle cap. Silver on the underside, green and black on the top. It's fluted around the edge, like a pie crust, and dented in the middle, like a felt hat. The green is the green of grass; beer companies like to associate their products with nature. When I poke the cap with my finger it skitters across the desktop, making a sound that isn't unpleasant. It's a sound I'm accustomed to, for she will often toss the caps onto the kitchen floor—they make great cat toys. We know an artist who creates beautiful, expensive murals using nothing but bottle tops and flip tabs. The murals look like aquariums, all gleam and fluidity, like daydreams of cold liquid.
I study one amber-hued beer bottle. It's slender, nine inches high, and seductive in the way that bottles often are. This one looks to me like a human torso, and my instinct is to hold it, covet it. I don't drink, but I want to experience what the serious drinker experiences. With no one to witness my foolishness, I surrender to the process. Lifting the bottle to my mouth is a small turn-on. The lips fit perfectly around the opening. I feel a charge, a subtle electricity. My throat feels as though it's vibrating: a little air, a little liquid, a little moisture left on the lips. One kisses a bottle mouth—she taught me that.
There's a pretty picture on the label: snow-capped mountains overlooking a green lake. She loves to hike in the woods; I can picture her sitting on a rock overlooking the tranquil lake. There's a list of states in which the bottle can be returned for a five-cent rebate. (Exchange fifty-two bottles and earn enough for a six-pack. Or: nine nights of drinking will earn her one night's free supply.) CONSUMPTION OF ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES IMPAIRS YOUR ABILITY TO DRIVE A CAR OR OPERATE MACHINERY, AND MAY CAUSE HEALTH PROBLEMS. The alcohol content isn't listed, and "may cause health problems" means this stuff can kill you.
There's something contemplative about drinking. One drinks, pauses, places the bottle on the table, pauses again. A drink, like a cigarette, or a pair of eyeglasses, can make you look thoughtful—it can make you feel thoughtful. The bottle, resting in the curve of your palm, becomes the focus of the mind's wandering. The drinker savors the up and down, the choreography of drinking: the bottle comes up, the head tilts back and the eyes briefly close, the liquid goes down, and as the bottle is set down the eyes open. It's a pleasurable rhythm, the arm as a lever, a delicious exercise, a drawn-out, self-imposed tease. The bottle is turned in the hand, admired, held up to the light. Its arc, its smooth lines and sensuous curves, and especially its soon-to-be-delivered promise, all conspire to make the drinker slowly less sober. Thoughts become sinuous, like a river, hazy like morning fog. The tongue turns funny in the mouth, and the first bottle becomes the second, the third. Each stands in for the one before, all identical, making it easy to lose count. Few things make the mouth happier and the soul, ultimately, more lonely.
She refers to herself as a drunk.
When I think about her I don't think: drunk. I think: runner. I think: artist. I see her dancing around our apartment, mouthing the words to Motown songs but miming disco moves. I consider how her voice deepens when she wants to talk about something serious, how she has no tolerance for indirect conversation or ambiguous language. I remember how my hands trembled when I met her. She has the most resilient body—cigarettes, alcohol, it doesn't seem to matter. After not training for a year she can go out and run five miles easily, ten or more with a little effort. She wakes up in the morning in the middle of a conversation, asking "what's the difference between a barnacle and a crustacean?" I've learned to feign grogginess, to mutter "I'm not sure" as I reach for a reference book. She has a long list of wacky endearments for me, including "my fresh coat of paint" and "my little prize-winning chicken." And she's in the very small group of people who think I'm fun—even when she's sober.
Okay. (Say it!) Sometimes I think: drunk.
A typical night. She arrives home from work, carrying a book bag, a lunch bag, and a plastic grocery bag. The last holds her nightly six-pack. She sets the beer in the refrigerator before changing into running clothes. We drive to the track, discussing our respective days. She puts in her miles, covering the distance with a posture I'd recognize anywhere—shoulders slightly tense, eyes focused on something far away, jaw set. As she accumulates laps I walk around the oval and watch the light change the appearance of the mountains, seeming to flatten them. When she's through, we walk a half-mile together, then leave. We stop for fast food, then return home and catch the end of an NBA game, a thriller, with Utah pulling off the win in Chicago. She drinks a beer or two during the game, then retreats to the porch to polish off the other four. During the third or fourth bottle I join her outside. By eleven I'm sleepy, and say good night.
At 2:30, I awaken; the bed beside me is empty. This is not common, but neither is it unexpected. Sometimes she's walking to or just returning from the corner store with a follow-up six-pack. At times like that I don't fall back asleep. (She'd make an easy target . . .) I listen for her, or I go outside, scan the street for her slender, huddled figure. Tonight, I hear the bathroom faucet and know she's home. She makes her way towards our bedroom. Her shoulder hits the door frame, but she finds the bed and is asleep within seconds.
I get up. I check the door, make sure it's locked. There's a receipt on the table, which we'll use for scrap paper. Nine bottles are neatly lined up on the kitchen counter, like bud vases or bowling pins. She drinks in multiples of six, which means the other three are elsewhere. Sometimes the caps are stacked up, collected in a little tower, and when I drop them into the trash they sound like tambourines as they rattle down.
The only unusual part of this night: the fast food. Usually we eat at home. The rest—the track, the lateness of the hour, my casual, late-night surveillance—is routine. This is how we live. She drinks, I observe. You would never suspect that we're into threesomes. But if you could see in the dark you'd see me, my lover, and alcohol. Mostly I think I sleep with her. But sometimes, in moments of exceptional despair, I think I am sleeping with alcohol.
I tell her I'm thinking of writing this essay and ask if she'd be okay about it. She says sure. I'd like to conduct an interview, and one night we sit down for about thirty minutes, side by side. I have a notebook and a pen, she has a bottle. She's drunk from start to finish, drinking as we talk; therefore, more drunk toward the end than the beginning. When we're through she says "let's do it again, same questions, when I'm sober." I agree, but I'm not sure my writing schedule and her drinking schedule will allow for that.
I hadn't planned the questions in advance, so again, I start small.
How much does a six-pack of beer cost?
Cheap beer is $2.49 plus tax, which comes to $2.61. Better beer, on sale, is $4.99 plus tax. Really good beer is around $6.00 but I never buy that. Too expensive.
Do you remember your first drink?
Yes. When we were little my parents would let my brother and me have wine mixed with water on holidays. I was eight or nine.
Did you like it?
I loved it.
I remember my first sip of beer, too. My grandfather lived with us in the summertime and he always had projects. He'd work really hard and at the end of the day he would have one beer and a cigar. That was it—one beer. He'd give me a sip. I must have been around seven.
He'd drink real slow. I remember once a wasp flew into the beer can. When he sipped, it stung him on the mouth.
Why do you drink beer, as opposed to wine or anything else?
Beer tastes the best. (pause) Wine takes too much effort. The whole picking-out-the-wine thing—it's like learning an art. Wine would be like getting into Baroque art. Too much effort.
What's your favorite?
Saranac, or Black Dog. Black Dog is very good, although I like the Saranac, too. I like a small brewery that does a lot of different brews and has specialties.
How many beers does it take to get drunk?
Whoa. Tough question. (pause)
What do you mean, "drunk?" (pause)
It depends on the brew. Microbrews are much stronger than regular brews, and light beers are like drinking soda to a real drinker. They're like drinking nothing.
So, say a six-pack of Black Dog?
That can make you drunk. (pause) It's a pretty darn strong beer. (pause) You know, there's nothing listed on the side of the bottle to tell you what you're drinking. . . . A lot depends on expectation. I read this the other day—if you expect to get really drunk, you will. It's a pretty well-documented study, totally scientific. And I have felt that to be true—if you think you're going to get drunk, you will.
Has anyone ever asked you to quit?
Did you quit?
Not at the time she asked. Probably about two years later.
How long did you quit for?
Seven or eight years.
What's the worse thing that ever happened to you while you were drunk?
(She laughs.) Well, I got raped, I broke my foot . . . (She's counting on her fingers.) I don't know. I got kicked out of college, I had a car accident, I lost my driver's license . . .
What do you think of AA?
I think it's a really great thing—camaraderie and all that. I did attempt once to do it, you know, like they ask—to go to ninety meetings in ninety days. I was very diligent, but I just couldn't quite accept the idea that we were gonna be drunks for life. It didn't seem plausible to me.
It was the same problem I had in rehab, and it just seemed logical that plenty of people quit with no support system and it was over and done with. (pause) The whole notion of AA is so mired in God stuff. You know, I really—for a person not prone to being brainwashed—I actually went to church. I'd sort of bought the God thing. I went to the church and sat there for a while—but it still didn't make any sense to me.
What would be the best incentive for quitting?
Love. (No hesitation. Although I am totally into my role as the detached interviewer, my eyes fill with tears.) (long pause) But that's never enough.
(long pause) I think because drinking sometimes makes you feel . . . like you're somehow filling your time in a productive way, you know. Without it you feel a little at sea, like you wouldn't know what to do with your time. Of course, you're also thinking "well I'm only sitting here drinking." But when you're not drinking you sit there thinking "I'm not doing anything." Even if you are doing something, it feels like nothing.
I felt like I wasn't doing anything if I wasn't drinking. . . . Time flows when you're drinking.
All this is just during the transition period . . . that I'd feel so lost . . . once you're through it, you're fine. During, it's like . . . god, what am I gonna do next, how am I gonna fill the time?
I read that Marguerite Duras, in the midst of her alcoholism, had thought of killing herself but what stopped her was the thought that "once you're dead you won't be able to drink any more . . ."
When I'm not drinking I'm perfectly happy. It's nice to go to work clear-headed and enjoy people. Like last week when I wasn't drinking—I didn't want to drink. But that is the ultimate quandary: why the hell do I do this?
What's the best thing about drinking?
(long pause) I don't know. (sigh) Zoning away from most things. Being able to just . . . sometimes you have time sort of stop. You just kind of sit outside and look at the same star for a long time and think about it. It's different from other drugs in that you're still there, you can control your dosage, you know how drunk you're gonna be. It's a control freak's drug, in a lot of ways.
Do you think you'll ever quit drinking?
I'm sorry I'm so hard to live with.
You're very easy to live with, for the most part.
Yeah, but for that last part I'm a real pain in the ass.
The night before we'd sat on the porch, late, 1 a.m., then 2, close to 3. Early in the evening I'd spotted a falling star. It had blazed, perfectly vertical, with a long, bright tail, then was gone. She saw it, too. As the night wore on I saw several more, until I'd counted four. She was finishing her sixth beer. Strange, complicated math.
Even in the middle of winter, when we lived on the east coast, she'd bundle up and sit outside, snow falling, late into the night as the temperature dropped below zero. I'd fear she'd fall asleep, that I'd find her in the morning, dead of exposure. The partner of the alcoholic fears many things; some fears are realized and some aren't.
A friend's father fell on New Year's eve. At the top of the staircase he was drunk. At the bottom he was dead. Five minutes before midnight, five minutes after. Ten stairs.
We have stairs. Our home has hard edges and sharp corners, surfaces that could break a bone or blind an eye. She stumbled into bed the other night. The lights were on. I watched her try to remove her clothes—once, twice, she lost her balance. A painting she'd completed was propped against the wall. I heard the canvas ping each time her ankle struck it. Finally she sat down, wrestling off her pants. You make a choice to live with the fear, or you leave.
I have no intentions of leaving. I walk around our apartment, continuing my role as reporter, looking for evidence. Not evidence of alcohol—that would be easy. If I moved this chair I'd find seven or eight cat-batted bottle caps. There's probably a stray bottle or two under her drawing table. So what? I want evidence of something else, proof of why I stay. Her jacket's tossed on a chair and one of the cats is curled upon it. I lean in and smell the jacket, and the cat's warm fur. The phone number of our favorite pizza place is stuck on the refrigerator, along with the first card she gave me: a picture of a map. Written inside: Let's go everywhere. Her guitar rests against the wall, and her bike leans against mine. Hers is covered with dried, splattered mud; mine is covered with dust. Piles of books, art supplies, the painting of Kitchen Mesa, New Mexico. She'd wanted to sell the painting when she finished it; I'd begged her to keep it. A few of her books, field guides—North American Wildflowers, Eastern Forests, Western Birds, Eastern Birds. Above the shelf, the first photograph taken of us. I look deliriously happy; she needs a haircut. The other day she said that my scalp smelled great. "What does it smell like?" I asked, and she replied "outdoors and olives, and tiny toasted nuts." When I remind her of this answer it makes her laugh, but she doesn't remember saying it.
She drinks. Meaning life is sometimes difficult in ways that it would not be difficult minus alcohol. A statement of fact, one hundred percent accurate. But there's another fact, the one that says she is incrementally, methodically destroying herself, and destroying us. For every night's consumption of alcohol, something of value is lost, and although each individual loss may appear subtle, they accumulate. Coordination, so important to an athlete, is affected. She cuts her fingertips with carving knives, burns her palms while cooking. Communication is damaged. She can become increasingly remote, or arbitrarily contentious. Drunk enough, she will contradict or repeat herself, habits that would disgust her sober, eloquent self. Other times she is witty, adept at theorizing or storytelling, charming. She can be amorous or silly or suddenly vulnerable, and is often irresistible, even as I smell the alcohol, which seems, at times, to emanate from her pores. Someday I will regret turning quietly away from the brushes with disaster, I'll regret the rationalizations, and I'll regret my gratefulness for now—now she is here, now she is intelligent and beautiful and now there is health—or the illusion of health. The greatest fear: that I'll regret it all.
I'm lying in bed and she is asleep beside me. Her hand rests on my chest, right above my heart, and at first it feels warm and light, precious beyond words. But soon I can think of nothing but its weight, as though my heart is being pressed upon, quietly smothered. It is an image for how alcohol works, one of the ways in which it corrupts good lives. It steadily, insidiously shifts the focus—away from intimacy, towards despair.
I tell her I'm using the interview in the essay. "Do I sound like an idiot?" she asks. I say no. "Oh good. God forbid I should sound like an idiot and a drunk."
It's almost impossible to grow up in the United States without a degree of experimentation with alcohol and, since I wasn't a complete outcast as a kid, I had a few encounters. I think the first was at a friend's house, seventh grade, or sixth. It may have been whiskey, although I still can't tell the difference between one form of hard liquor and the next. Blindfolded, I'd know to say "beer" as opposed to "wine," but that's about as sophisticated as I can be. A bunch of neighborhood kids each took a sip and then we went outside to wait. We thought we'd get drunk, and were a bit disappointed, but mostly relieved, when we didn't.
I drank, just a little, in my twenties. "Just a little" is literal. I've consumed less than thirty bottles of beer in my life, perhaps ten glasses of wine, a few sips of champagne. I may have been slightly intoxicated on one or two occasions, but the taste of alcohol is a deterrent—I hate it. I realized fairly early that I wasn't going to be the hard-drinking, hard-loving writer. I'd have to settle for half. Little did I know that some day the one I waited my whole life to find would turn out to be the other half.
Living with an alcoholic you learn the extreme fragility of good intentions. "I'm going to quit drinking" mutates into "I'd like to" and "I wish I could," then to "Maybe I can cut down," and finally, to "I want to quit, someday, really . . ." You learn the meaning of patience. You learn how tough you can be, and how complicit. You think you learn how to love someone unconditionally. But you wonder, always, if she loves the bottle more than she'll ever love you.
And you learn the code. It took me a while to learn but once I did, it became routine to accept it, to collaborate on and refine the code. The pretense is very simple. If she doesn't bring home beer after work, at some point in the evening she'll say "I'm going out for cigarettes/milk/the newspaper." It doesn't matter what the noun is, because they all translate the same way: beer. When she implements the code, my proper response is "okay." Or I'll say "pick me up some Gatorade." The code is totally unremarkable, and occasionally humorous. I'll ask "are you going out for REAL cigarettes or for EUPHEMISTIC cigarettes?" and we'll laugh. Once in a while I'll prompt a variation of the code. I'll say, innocently, "If you're stopping at the store after work, could you bring home some _______," knowing the "if" is ridiculous. Of course she will stop. I hardly ever need to go to the store.
It's all so predictable and mundane, and it's not a pattern that enhances our lives in any meaningful way. And yet, I wonder why relationships involving alcohol are seen as shabbier, more pathetic than those in which both parties are sober. Most of our friends are coupled; we are no more and no less complicated in our relationship than they are. But I sometimes sense their pity, a degree of non-comprehension: How can you live like that? I wonder what they see, or think they see. Her alcoholism doesn't feel like a choice, but neither, frankly, does it feel like an illness. It feels like some murky combination of the two that we've chosen to call a fact. The most accurate, although exceedingly dull, description would be "problem." We contend with a problem, which happens to be alcohol. We are unexceptional.
But there are markers in the lives of any couple in which alcohol is the third party, events that sober couples don't experience. In the early months of our relationship she rarely appeared intoxicated, and I was slow to learn the signs. Even now, unless I'm counting bottles, I often can't tell if she's drunk. There's some lag time before the full effects of the alcohol register. She doesn't begin to slur, for example, until around the seventh or eighth beer, and may begin to weave or stumble shortly thereafter.
I remember the first time I helped her to bed, the first time I saw her trip over nothing at all. I remember the first time she stumbled and took me down with her, my back and thigh absorbing most of the impact as we fell into a bookcase. I remember the first time we had sex while she was drunk. I don't remember the second time, or third, or fourth. Eventually I stopped counting. And I remember, most sharply, the sadness and shock I felt upon waking one morning, when I realized that my lover had appeared drunk in my dream.
We live, for the most part, as though nothing is wrong, as if nothing is out of the ordinary. We live as though we are brave, persevering, mature. We try to live as though there's no shame, no stigma, no pressure to change. We try, but it's all there, part of the background, like an ugly piece of furniture we throw a sheet over.
We live as though the alcohol is temporary and we are permanent.
"No." That's what she said, remember, in response to my question "Do you think you'll ever quit?" But she was drunk when she said it.
I like broken things, torn things, tired things. I have a small collection of bone and shell pieces, fragments and hinges that are more attractive, to me, than intact ones. I like old sheets and worn towels. A towel is perfect when you can see through the fabric. Sheets seem to smell better as they age; the older they get, the more they smell like fresh air or clean closets. It's related to my affection for the smell of skin, my desire to just move in close to a body and breathe deeply—my idea of intoxication. My favorite sheets aren't yet worn enough to be considered perfect, but I know they will become worn—the anticipation is slightly thrilling in itself. The sheets are blue and gold striped, with black and beige for accents. I loved them so much that I bought two sets. They were too stiff when purchased, rough and scratchy, and it's possible to burn tender body parts on new sheets—especially in the early months of a love affair. But I've washed them so often that now, four years later, they've become less dangerous, more familiar.
The one who sleeps beside me has become less dangerous and more familiar, too. I didn't know, when I met her, that alcohol was an ongoing chapter in her history. If I'd known from the start, I would not have proceeded differently. I approached the problem from a position of naďve compassion, but I've grown self-protective. I'm frequently harsh, as she is, on both of us. At times I see her as self-involved, self-indulgent, and see myself as misguided and desperate. That's what alcohol does. It tempers hope, alters perception. It lets the heart roam a little less widely, as though possibilities have become fewer, the world itself somehow less. It forces you to assess, a day at a time, risks versus benefits. The effort wears you out in ways that cannot be judged attractive.
If I could drink one of her bottles each night, then over the course of a year her alcohol intake would be reduced by . . . Yeah, a strange and complicated math.
What is the cost, the toll alcohol will take? I can feel our couplehood eroding, as though we are standing on a bank that's becoming saturated, our footing steadily becoming less stable. I wonder if we're past the point or not yet at the point when I can look into her eyes and say "Stop; this is killing you." Marguerite Duras: "We live in a world paralyzed with principles. We just let other people die." Regardless of any principle, or plea, or ultimatum—or, regardless of their absence—I believe my lover cannot stop drinking. (. . . letting her die!)
Is the bottle half-empty or half-full? The question is dramatically beside the point. Always, eventually, it ends up empty.
3 a.m. Moonlight seeps in around the window shades. She's just coming to bed, but she overshoots her mark and ends up near the closet, in a corner of the room. She can't see; it's dark and she's already removed her glasses. But, of course, that's only part of the problem. She's unable to crack the maze of the dark room. Her brain can't hear me silently rooting for her, just turn around; a simple ninety-degree turn will do it. It's like watching one of those battery-powered kids' trucks that can't back up so it just spins its wheels. I hear her bumping gently against a wall-mounted mirror. All she has to do is turn, but the smooth glass and her faintly-perceived reflection confound her, like a bird persisting against a window. Her white T-shirt catches the little light of the night. Beautiful.
Beautiful, and drunk. I get out of bed, and I take her hand.
Donna Steiner's writing has been published in literary journals including Fourth Genre, The Sun, and The Los Angeles Review. She's a contributing writer for Hippocampus Magazine, teaches at the State University of New York in Oswego and is a 2011 fellow in Nonfiction Literature from the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Sleeping with Alcohol was previously published in the Bellingham Review and reprinted in Utne Reader under the title "Love Drunk."