Two men had said “I love you” to her within five years of each other. They were both drunk.
Why she attracted only drunken love was beyond her.
Or, was it?
Drunks are smarter than the average bear, all the pundits claim. Deeper, too. Why they find themselves among the 15% who become enslaved to alcohol is also the fault of their brains; something about the amygdala and an obscure, but potent, enzyme. She thought enzymes were what made food dissolve in the stomach but, on this morning after New Year’s Eve, she was already short on sleep and in well over her head.
Her family heritage was a red flag all by itself. Paternal grandfather an alcoholic (and, womanizing wife beater); maternal grandfather a pious tee totaler, but not his father ( descendant of William the Conqueror ). The men drank; the women enabled them.
One brother had become enamored of wine and Frangelica in his senior years. The younger had admitted to a lunching phase with his construction crew decades earlier which had gotten “somewhat out of hand”. She, being the lone girl in an ultra-conservative family milieu, and duly branded by the fear of God, had vowed never to stock the stuff. But, perhaps her pheromones smelled not of musk but of barley hops; among all the men in the room, the one who walked crooked would find her, first and every time.
What of the laws of nature, specifically chemistry? Was there something in her DNA that had already charted the course of her hapless love life?
If identical twins raised apart could choose the same shampoo and winter coat, would the female descendants of alcoholics be pre-destined to couple with the addicted who sought them? And, why? Was it all merely nature in search of equilibrium?
One of the two love professors had been in her sphere for four, fractured years. By his cycling binges and tears, and the lies which drove them, she’d found herself exhausted. The other had been part of her professional world for most of its life. On a scale of compatibility, there was no contest; what really mattered was whether and what she needed on not only the first day of 2021 but the veritable rest of her granted life.
Intelligence was a requisite; clouded by poison and a predictable descent into infantilism, not so much. Charm had worn itself out, especially the inebriated variety; what good was a witty opening line at closing time? Health and vitality were increasing commodities; whence these? “ Hey, baby; how’s your liver ? ”
She loved with immediacy, and exclusively, but committed with caution. If time hadn’t actually passed, it had nevertheless taken a cumulative toll. Being convinced, or not, of love required time; being actually nourished by love would take more than gaping need or empty promises, however familial.
Life was an open question. Love was supposed to be the answer. Perhaps time, like the lucidity which follows stupor, would illuminate.
Alcohol is my mortal enemy. She wears a harlot’s face. She dresses like a skank. And, she waits in the shadows of the country roadside distributors and “buy one, get one free” holiday specials to snatch away hope, impossible promises, everything worth emotional investment. And, during the pandemic she, too, wears a mask.
About 22 years ago, I learned the meaning of isolation. A lifetime of vocal abuse, yelling outside in the ragweed and grass pollen at the high school marching band and generally clamoring over everyone had created a polyp the size of a Champagne grape on my left vocal fold. The surgery itself, an expert excision performed by the robotic arm maneuvered by Dr. Clark Rosen at UPMC Voice Center went without complication; but, the post-op, follow-up patient compliance would prove daunting. I had to remain absolutely silent, for two solid weeks, never so much as clearing my throat lest I destroy the tiny cauterization and blow out my cords — and, then, only permitted to speak for five minutes every hour for two more. My landscape was bleak; I would be in for a very long haul, nearly three months alone and six more under prescribed restriction. Nobody wanted to hang out with somebody who could barely speak.
Given that year of life spent avoiding human interaction, when the coronavirus pandemic descended I was hardly fazed. I had this. Real, fake, or somewhere in between, I knew the drill.
But, for these past nearly four years, I’d been quite accompanied. Either with me on occasion at my house or more frequently at his country idyl twenty some minutes south of our town, my partner — my man — had been ever present. Our relationship was a challenge; not exactly compatible, we’d thrown ourselves at each other late in life after a 30 year separation caused by the details of what each of us had known life to be in the town of our birth. But, after more time than I’d ever spent with one man, we found ourselves bonded. Many would call it love.
I was addicted to him. And, he was addicted….but, not to me. He couldn’t drive past any sign that flashed BEER without stocking up. And, his patterns were, among those who imbibed, the least healthy; whatever he purchased, he drank — all at once, over a period of just an hour or so. The assault on his body frightened me; but he, muscle bound and head strong, hardly gave it a second thought.
When the word came down that everyone of a certain age should stay home, I looked at him and made the decision for both of us. He would shelter in place, with me — 24/7, for a solid month. This would take him well past day 28, the period of time every addiction therapist believed was required for the body to be cleared of alcohol and all its affects.
And, this appeared to work. We had, by both his account and mine, some of our most joyful time together to date. We rearranged my kitchen to make it companion compatible, my assisting his gourmet meal preparations nearly every night; we walked Bella, the Rotty, under the grand oaks and firs at the nearby cemetery; and, the only binging happening was our umpteen seasons of HOMELAND. During the coronavirus pandemic, no less, I thought we’d achieved what everyone else called happiness.
At the end of the 28 days, he was ready to return home. It was May; there was garden soil to turn, and a cage to pullet, and the spring lawn to mow. And, he said, he had to “test” whether he could sustain his now streamlined figure and newfound mental clarity alone.
Of course, my addiction dictated what happened next. I’d be monitoring his every going and coming, texting and calling – urging him to wear the n95 mask I’d given him from my tool drawer, reminding him to wash all packaging upon returning from the store. Wondering, alone at home, if he’d slipped. Agonizing over whether this 65 year old, sleep deprived, retired nurse in a compromised physical condition was watching the news and realizing how lucid he’d have to be, daily.
Tomorrow is Labor Day. We’d endured nearly six months. Tonight, after a major row about nothing, a two for one sixpack binge the night before, and another canceled plan to be with me for a Sunday, I drove out yet again to get my things. This time, I walked out onto the back stoop, searching for a place to toss the three empties instead of smashing them on the pavement.
And, there it was. A black mask just like his, neatly folded on the landing.
I didn’t remember whether he’d said he had one, or two. I only knew that he wasn’t home, he always kept his in the truck, and this mask sat, folded, on his cement step. Not even an alcoholic in a boozy haze goes outside to stand on his own backyard stoop with his mask still on his face, only to remove it, fold it, and set it down. This one had been on somebody else.
I don’t scream much, anymore. The throat surgeon taught me well. Now, when the overwhelm of grief driven exhaustion descends upon my small bones, I just increase my step and hasten my exit stage left. I run, to the car, and tear off in the increasing dusk, my jaw set in the rear view mirror, my eyes aflame.
Being alone has its merits. Solitude can be a gift. Loving someone who loves something else more than you eats your soul from the inside out. This pandemic had better end. I have better love to give, all mortal enemies be damned.
We anticipate the loss of family members. We agree ’til death do us part, at the altar.
Did we all have one?
John was my first love.
By that, I mean John was the first who loved me, too.
We were 21. The setting was at once predictable and incongruous: a Bible conference. Yearly, those from among our fundamentalist sect knew full well that a week spent on the beautiful, sprawling, verdant campus of Grove City College would bring together all the young to wed. And, every summer, with manic anticipation, we girls would giggle our way onto the grounds in our newest Sunday fare, a wardrobe meticulously planned for each morning, afternoon, and evening of seven blissful days away from everyone else on the face of the earth. Jesus was the reason, but….the boys. The boys were what made the purpose desirable, irresistible, and unbearably delicious.
He’d been a stand out, from the first. Most of the young men English, Germanic or otherwise Midwestern, this one was short, honey haired, and Polish/Armenian?, with the most luminously large dark eyes in the room. And, those almond orbs had looked back at me across the gymnasium seating, meeting my own deeply set brown ones – fixed, locked, a slow smile on his mouth to confirm I wasn’t dreaming. I can’t remember anything that happened after that – until we stood, at dusk, on the sidewalk leading to the girl’s dormitory, he with his Bible clasped between both hands and his enormous dark eyes never leaving mine for a moment. With one hand he’d taken the tip of his index finger and touched the center of my belly, and a spark of fire ignited my whole body. I would not know this as a hormonal response. I wouldn’t care. Completely and without any hesitation I was his, from that moment until the end.
The end came harshly.
But, in between, the blush and glorious ecstasy of true love.
Seven years earlier, I’d had a brush with profound spiritual terror. Formal operational thought having kicked in spontaneously that summer, I’d gone in the space of one week at the conference from “ho-hum” to “Is God even real”? So agonizing and mind blowing was the maelstrom of doubt that, after two years of fixated poring over any literature on the subject available to me, I’d resigned to a detachment from all things related to religious faith in order to preserve my emotional sanity. If I didn’t think about any of it, then none of its power – good, or evil – could any longer either suffocate or scare me to death.
But, then, along came John.
And, he was, first and foremost, an intellect.
John wasn’t just the boy who’d been saved at age 14 from hallucinogenic drugs. He was a Christian thinker.
John was an apologist.
We spent that week facing headlong every dumbfounding question, he with his ready analysis, all delivered with the softest, most gentle timbral inflection. He eagerly addressed my countless questions with answers more stimulating than the next. The hours we spent in dialogue, about Francis Schaeffer, Rookmaker and, his beloved favorite, C.S. Lewis, long since ceased being numbered; they began directly after morning Bible study, continuing on the walk to lunch, resuming during the afternoons across the bridge, and persisted until the sun was soon to set, campus curfew tested by every tantalizing dilemma left for the next morning.
And, every encounter so sensate, he with his continuous caress. Every nerve ending, from the soles of my feet to the corner cubby of my frontal cortex, was electrically charged by his mind and body.
By the end of the week, I was committed. This boy was perfect, in every way. With him, I could return to a faith which was expansive, all encompassing; with him, I could find my identity both as an artist and a devout woman. He would be my husband, and I would be his wife, and we would be together forever.
But, melodrama would have its day.
Evil would cloak, and creep.
By the final morning of our conference that summer, word would leak; some girl with a crystallized reputation had let a story slip into the gossip chain, a shocking accusation which involved my John. And, so many of the women in attendance ripe for a life-affirming scandal, talk of it flew through the wireless air like emergency radio. I gave it all a mere passing scoff. Couldn’t be true; this was my man. If it were, so be it; he was still to be mine, God ordained. I’d never been more sure of anything in my life.
However, the hierarchy of control which held our desperate sect together had received their call to arms. By the time he’d arrived home to Baltimore, four men had already flanked him; ordering him to appear before their court, he was to accept their full assessment. And, their conclusion was swift: John was to be removed from the fellowship, and placed under an indefinite period of discipline.
I would have none of it.
Re-enrolling in college that fall, I would commence a switch from fine art to a rigorous major in music education with a looming recital requirement. After the six hours each day spent alone with my cello, he and I would spend as many, on the phone, four hours at a stretch, and every weekend he could not be with me. Once per month, he’d drive the spider infested rattle trap car with no heat that he got for one dollar all the way across Pennsylvania to western New York to be with me for two, enraptured days at school. For Christmas, I gave him the very first flip phone, so he could talk to me in private; from him, I received a diamond necklace, from Zales. This was a promise gift, he’d said.
My dreams grew. John was a pure math major, at Towson. Had a job, as a draftsman. I could transfer to Peabody Conservatory, where my professor was urging me to go, and switch to performance. When we got married, I could shoot for the Baltimore Symphony.
But, the tribunal would not be mocked.
His own mother, he’d said, was wondering about this girl from PA. She’d never even met me, but had come to an unsettling conclusion; I was too “independent-minded” for her son. I’d likely not be right for him, as a helpmate. Perhaps his disciplinary period should include time away from this relationship, to leave room for a companion more willing to subject herself to God’s authority.
Once again, my resolve deepened. Let anybody try to separate me from the love of Christ, as manifest in this, the love of my life.
Then, the letter came.
Hand writing in blue ballpoint ink, John poured out all his carefully analyzed reasons for ceasing our communication. For every in-depth conversation we’d created together, this was the razor’s edge. I was cut, and cut, and cut again.
Enraging grief overtook me. They had stolen him away. The whole army of them – the tribunal; the entire, alleged fellowship; and: his mother. This was beyond abandonment. This was destruction.
For weeks thereafter, I drifted. Tried a surrogate, a Jewish boy, same size, no further resemblance. Crushed on a pianist, who shared his dark eyes and gaze. Then, succumbed to the charms of a tall rock and roller, with similar intellect. He rejected Schaeffer’s apologies, writing blasphemous comments in the margins of the books John had sent me, and then dumped me for a psych major with buck teeth willing to go all the way.
I was lost.
We’d had one more chance, a few years later. I sang at his best friend’s wedding. We rode to DC, in the dark, and lay on the sidewalk under the stars at the Lincoln Memorial. But, I’d been spoiled. There was no going back. Not for me. I’d been all in, and left to paddle ashore alone. One doesn’t jump back into the brink.
He married, raised a family. I married. Divorced.
We grew old.
Today, word came to me. This morning, John died.
And, I wept.
I wept for every moment of hope. For every chapter in the book that was never published. For all the dreams of that fantasy life of mutually deep and lasting love. And, for John, because he had to die at the hands of a disease which destroyed his body.
His mind and mine had been so beautifully aligned. Then, the stars of imperious power over the spirit crossed, and wrenched us apart.
Beyond all the horizons of deepening mystery, where we can all slip these bonds, know as we are known, and be together in one Spirit, there will be a place.