Claudia spent a good deal of her pregnancy drunk. For a while she didn't know she was pregnant, this was part of it, but she didn't stop drinking once she found out. There was a sense of this is going to end anyway, only it didn't feel so casual, and also the vague notion that if she mistreated herself enough she'd have no choice but to go through with the abortion.
As for the guy who'd gotten her pregnant, he "wasn't in the picture," as the saying went—though she'd liked him well enough. They'd met at a producer's party. Both of them found themselves in the basement—a kind of rec room, with pinball machines and a pool table—because they'd tired of networking with people who didn't want to network with them. He was a poet but he was also an incredible dart-thrower, and after enough vodka tonics this had come to seem like an important combination. Claudia—as ever, a jester—told him his genes would make him solid mating material.
He told her he'd just gotten a piece optioned by a producer—a friend of a friend of the man who owned the house, in fact, though in LA more than one degree of separation was akin to admitting no relation at all. In any case, one of his pieces was going to be made into a movie.
"I thought you write poems."
"They'll find two hours worth of stuff? In a poem?"
He said: "It's very dense."
She said: "Oh."
It was becoming increasingly clear what their conversation was about.
He offered his place. She suggested hers. She liked bringing men back to her apartment so that she could keep layering memories over visions of a ghostly Chris—tinkering with his French press in the morning, spending forever in the bathroom with his literary newspapers. Chris was her ex, a tidy man who didn't sweat much and was interesting when he tried to be—which was always, except when he was too sad or happy to care about putting in the effort.
Claudia couldn't remember much about what happened between herself and the optioned poet after they arrived at her apartment. She could summon discrete points of memory—the awkward explaining of photos in frames (my mother and her boyfriend, my trip to Portugal), the pouring of bottom-rung whiskey in the kitchen—but no memory of the movements or motivations that had connected them. She remembered realizing she hadn't gotten drunk enough to sleep with him and deciding to get drunker so they could get it over with. She woke up to find him sleeping beside her, one arm crossed over his face as if protecting his eyes from savage birds.
She shook him softly awake. She said: "I'm sorry about last night."
"Hey," he said. "It's okay."
"I don't remember much," she said. "What happened?"
"You were saying I'm sorry," he said. "Over and over again."
When Claudia figured out she was pregnant, she started picturing the fetus and how much liquor it had been swimming in for months. It was getting made of her blood and flesh, its little fin-feet and its cauliflower hands. It was a little not-yet-baby built of gin. Claudia knew that babies had gills in embryo, until they didn't—and she pictured the clear sweet booze passing through her fetus' tiny flaps of wet skin.
She found photos of kids with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, their flat faces and puffy slit eyes. It looked like booze had kept the dough of them from getting fully sculpted. They were perfect visual expressions of how it felt to crave alcohol like she did, physical incarnations of her deforming need, its taunting constancy. These kids looked like little ghouls, to her. They looked like monsters. She couldn't imagine loving one.
When she gazed wistfully at babies on the street—just barely starting to walk, hands held by some adult for balance—she feared her desire for a child, when she had it, was not to care for it but to be needed by it.
She drank herself to sleep the night before the procedure, because what the fuck, right? She'd given up on this one anyway. My life had become unmanageable. That's what meetings would teach her to say. But she wasn't sure if it was true, quite. It was more like her life didn't seem worth managing.
For years she'd known the drinking was a problem, had been a problem for years before the years she'd started knowing it was a problem, but while she'd been with Chris she hadn't wanted to do anything about it. Chris had asked her to marry him, and she hadn't said no, which was a way of being engaged. She wanted to tell him: I need some space, and alcohol was the language in which she pronounced this distance—only she spoke so softly he couldn't hear her. He'd never realized how much she drank.
She snuck gin while she was cooking dinner, tumblers of liquor mixed with whatever—orange juice or tonic or anything—but usually taken like shots when she heard him coming up the stairs. She always rinsed the glass before he got to the kitchen. She wouldn't kiss him on the lips because she didn't want him to taste it. If he tasted it, she thought, he wouldn't simply realize that she'd been drinking, he would realize everything beneath the drinking: how much she'd needed it, been unable to imagine the night without it, how scared she was of being sober for all the dark hours of the rest of her life.
They kept a bottle of Bombay Sapphire in the freezer. Our immortal sapphire, Chris called it, because they were going through it so slowly. Claudia smiled politely at this nickname and even used it a few times herself. In truth she was buying a new bottle every week, filling the freezer bottle back up to half and keeping the new one in a box in the attic, until she used the second half to fill the freezer bottle again. It had seemed like a tricky system to manage, at first, until she realized it wasn't.
When Claudia called her mother to tell her she was pregnant, she did not say she was pregnant. She said: "I'm getting an abortion."
Her mother was quiet for a long time. Then she said: "I can't wait for the day when you tell me you're pregnant and there is joy in your voice."
Claudia said: "I'm looking forward to that too."
The phone line was still again. "I had an abortion when I was twenty," her mother finally said. "For many years I regretted it."
Claudia said: "Your life would have been totally different."
"Yes," Her mother said. "I know."
Her mother explained she believed every fetus had a soul from conception, and that these souls were simply re-circulated by miscarriages, abortions, and stillbirths. It didn't sound like she was judging the procedure. She made it sound like something natural but sad.
"So maybe I'll have the same baby ten years from now?" Claudia asked.
"It doesn't work like that," Her mother said, sounding irritated.
Now Claudia could hear a tone of punishment. She wasn't being punished for the abortion, she was being punished for not taking it seriously enough. She was being punished for treating the idea like a little preschooler's drawing—here are all the little souls, and here is the slide where they come out of heaven—rather than hearing what she'd been given: a way to talk about what would be lost.
When Claudia returned to the waiting room, her mother sprang up immediately. She cupped her hands around her shoulders. "How was it?" she said. And then: "How are you?"
Claudia could have told her about the things other women had said while they were waiting for their procedures—how their comments had seemed odd, or funny, and sometimes horrifying—but this would have turned the whole thing into an anecdote. She could have said something simple and true, like: it hurt, but this wasn't interesting. Her mother wasn't a woman who cared much about "interesting," during that conversation or any other, but Claudia still couldn't shake the impulse to attempt it.
They drove home. Claudia had imagined the abortion as an all-day affair but it barely filled the morning. There was still the rest of the day left. Her mother asked if she was hungry. She wasn't. She wanted another round of painkillers. Her mother said she couldn't have them until she ate. She said she would eat. What did she want? Maybe eggs. For some reason she was craving carrot cake but this seemed like the wrong food for the afternoon—luscious and sour-creamed, an extravagance. Her mother made her toast and peanut butter. "Good for a queasy stomach," she said, red-eyed and brittle-voiced. She said she'd stayed up all night, the night before, crying and praying. Claudia suspected she'd cried again in the waiting room. Claudia, though drunk, had slept surprisingly well.
She ate one piece of toast. Her mother ate the other, and asked if she wanted to take a nap. She didn't. Or, more precisely—she would have been relieved to be asleep but didn't feel tired enough to get there. Did she want to talk? How was she feeling? Claudia searched herself. Her soul wasn't troubled. Didn't she owe the little fetus something?
She told her mother about this hole where grief should have been. Was it terrible?
"It's not terrible," Her mother said. "But I suspect you'll end up feeling somewhere else eventually."
Claudia accused her—wordlessly, by glance—of contorting her ability to feel by demanding that she feel a certain way, taking away her right to feel that way without guidance or prodding.
Her mother had an idea. The two of them needed a couple of whiskeys. The whole idea made Claudia feel nauseated, imagining the whiskey flowing through her veins to where the cut had been made—invisibly, silently—and numbing the sutures. But Claudia said yes anyway. It would be a gesture: I'm here with you. You can reach me. It would mark the occasion as quietly tragic, as her mother needed it to be. Claudia could cut the right silhouette.
They drank their whiskeys on the patio. The liquor was golden and held the light, draping the ice cubes in its thick syrup—cold monks in brown robes. The first taste prickled her tongue and lit her all the way down. The tumbler went fast but Claudia refused a second. She knew what getting drunk with her mother would mean: bringing out her feelings like animals urged to recklessness. She waited until her mother left and then she got drunk on wine, alone.
When she woke up the next day, she found her own blood on the sheets, dried stains and gobs of it. She'd passed out before she'd thought to change the pads in her underwear. She hated pads and never wore them, usually, but now she wasn't allowed to wear tampons. She felt the wine glutted in her throat like whatever clogged the shower drain when it got nasty, tangled hair and sludge of skin flakes.
She couldn't remember much from the night before, just a heavy feeling behind her eyes, something she'd come to imagine as a dark tapestry woven with booze and Vicodin. She walked to the bathroom and pissed for about an hour. Her gut hurt like hell, and her head was pounding like the previous night was knocking on the door of her skull. She lay back down and tried to figure out how to change the sheets without getting out of bed, and couldn't think of a way to do this, and then she thought: no more. I can't do this anymore.
From her first meeting, Claudia sensed she would relapse and that it would be with Jack. She sensed these things before she even knew his name, which she learned when he walked to the podium to get his white chip. He looked like a cross between a revolutionary and a sick man, with pale skin and a dark, neatly clipped moustache. His lower lip was pierced, but from across the room his gold stud was dull and misplaced as a crumb. A tattoo crawled out from under the sleeve of his T-shirt like a shy animal. She couldn't quite pick it out: a question mark? A snake?
From the way he said, "I need a white chip," she could tell it wasn't the first time he'd gotten one. She got one too, and then learned it meant surrender.
Surrender was one way of putting it. For Claudia, surrender was just the opposite—the quiet liquid bliss of that first sip, the spreading warmth, the darkly-pleasured promise of passing out early, curled up good and fetal—couldn't say it this way, fetal, not anymore—in any body clenched and mind swimming. That was surrender. Staying sober was an affair of clenched teeth and tight-gripped longing.
A memory rose from years before, a Bolivian village, a trip with Chris—white flags flapping from the doorways of crude brick houses, marking vats of chicha, the moonshine beer made from a kind of fermented corn the women chewed themselves. You drank it from small clay bowls and Claudia could remember the relief—the sheer relief, that was the word for it—of sitting on a concrete stoop and feeling the world reduce until she was large enough to fill it. She could remember all the places she'd been in terms of what and where she'd gotten drunk: over-salted margaritas in Baja, cheap red wine and Coke in Prague, something harsh and translucent under striped awnings off a grimy Tallinn alley.
The meeting opened with a large woman in a smart-fitting floral dress. She stood to read the twelve steps. Claudia was sitting close enough to smell her perfume, a scent between incense and rose that matched her voice, its smoky sweetness. She didn't seem overweight to Claudia, only wholly formed, like no part of her had been forgotten—as if everyone else would be her size too, if all their parts had been gathered together in one place. As she listened to the steps, Claudia was thinking: I'm going to have to do WHAT? She imagined sending Chris a letter of apology: I'm sorry for cheating on you and for leaving you afterward, even though you were willing to forgive me.
Even though Claudia didn't regret the end of their relationship, she still felt that some part of her was tangled up in it, still obsessed with how much she'd been able to hurt him—still mining this memory for proof that she'd been deeply loved, and could be deeply loved again. Also, she missed the way they drank. A lot of the drinking she'd been doing since then was trying to get back to the feeling of all the drinking they'd done together—long nights wrapped in blankets by the space-heater, sipping hot toddies until they fell asleep on each other's shoulders, cold walks through the snow with their bodies warmed and glazed by wine. When she looked at it honestly, though, she realized she'd been drinking alone back then as well. He hadn't needed it like she did. He'd just been along for the ride.
The meeting felt like the first day of junior high school, only everyone else had already started this junior high school, weeks or months or even years before, and some of them kept starting over and over again. She'd been imagining a dingy church basement, but the address she'd copied matched a coffee shop instead. She'd lingered in her truck outside, telling herself she was trying to figure out the right door. The right door was obvious. There was only one door open. She finally went inside. The room was lit by stained-glass lamps and full of plush velvet movie chairs arranged in rows. People wore big sunglasses and drank shots of espresso from tiny-handled cups. One woman had a little paper umbrella in hers, like a daiquiri. The man next to her was wearing a Budweiser T-shirt.
People talked about hitting bottom, and the good it did, and they talked about making amends. One woman spoke about babysitting her six-year-old niece. The girl had burned herself on a teakettle. This had happened years ago. Now the girl was twenty-two but she still had a scar the size of a peanut on her palm. Or maybe bigger, like an almond. Just two months ago this woman had written her a long letter of apology and hadn't gotten a response. "It took me years to summon the guts to write that letter," she said. "And now? Nothing." She paused. "It's a bitch, you know? You think the whole world depends on you saying sorry, and then you realize they might not have anything to say back."
A man with silver hair and a polo shirt talked about the difference between progress and perfection. He pointed at the Budweiser guy. "A year ago, I would have been like fuck you, man," he said, "fuck you for wearing that T-shirt!"
"But today I'm able to say: you do whatever you need to do."
When Claudia's turn came around, she said only her name, not the "I'm an alcoholic part," and everybody said: "Hi, Claudia," in chorus. Then there was a pause, until she continued. "That's all," she said. "I pass."
Jack stretched his skinny arms above his neck before he spoke, nervously clearing his throat. "Well, um, ya'll pretty much know me," he said. "Four-time drinker and four-time white chipper." He rubbed his temples with his fingers. "I hope it sticks this time around."
A woman's voice said: "Just keep coming back."
Once the meeting was done, Claudia tried to edge out the back door without talking to anyone. She was looking forward to getting back to her car—where she could cry in peace, or at least listen to some sad music that might bring her closer to crying.
As she reached the doorway someone tapped her on the shoulder. She turned. It was Jack.
"Hey," he said. "You coming to dinner?"
It was as if they'd made plans she'd forgotten about.
She wasn't sure if he was flirting with her or feeling sorry for her. It was tricky, she would learn, in these meetings—the difference between reaching out to someone because you wanted to love them like a stranger, or wanted to love them like a lover, or wanted to love them like something else—like someone you once knew, or some part of yourself you'd given up on.
"I don't think so," she said. "Not tonight."
She committed to healthful living like a second job. She ran three miles every morning under dawn-lit smoggy skies. She tried to pray when she woke up. Most often she'd remember around noon, somewhere inconvenient, and so she'd duck into a bathroom stall in the back of the supermarket and drop to her knees right then and there; she liked the grit and melodrama. She tried to keep her praying simple, mainly please and thank you. Sobriety was a way to wake up every morning and think: let's try THAT again. Meaning breakfast lunch and dinner. Meaning getting through the day.
She was taking iron pills to make up for all the blood she'd lost after the abortion. More than most women, apparently. At her check-up two weeks afterward, the nurse had said, looks like you're a bleeder, as if this were a stubborn or childish reaction.
A week passed after the abortion and Claudia still hadn't called her mother. She told herself she'd wait until she stopped bleeding and then she'd call. She knew her mother would ask how she was recovering, and she'd have to say: "I'm still bleeding," if she was still bleeding, and that her mother would worry. Then two weeks went by and she still hadn't stopped bleeding and she called her mother anyway. Her mother asked how she was recovering. Claudia confessed.
"That doesn't sound good," her mother said. "You should talk to them about that."
Claudia realized she'd been dreading telling her not because she didn't want the sympathy—she did—but because this mark of injury made her feel even guiltier, a sign of the harm she'd done herself, another cause for mourning. She knew she should tell her about quitting drinking but in the end she didn't. Whenever she criticized herself—or some way she'd been—her mother took it as a criticism of her, and drinking was something they'd often shared, her mother joking: What a pair of lushes.
Her mother suggested they go out to dinner. Claudia counter-suggested a museum. Ever since she'd quit, it saddened her to think of things she'd once associated with drinking—long meals, bottles of wine, a cold and dirty martini, that taste of shared dissolve. She was trying to surround herself with sunlight, white walls, salt air—pure things that would make her feel happy to be inside a body and alive.
They went to an art museum in a villa by the ocean. Its gardens followed perfect geometries full of herbs and soaring walls and trickling fountains crusted with mosaic fish and mermaids. Claudia had packed them a picnic: half-baguette, soft cheese, strawberries, sparkling mineral water. Claudia wanted to set the tone of the day: not a funeral, but a day of open nerves and curiosity.
They poked through a collection of photographs of drained swimming pools. It was a special exhibit. The sepia grottos of concrete were strewn with palm fronds, discarded pool noodles, deflated inflatable tubes, an obstinate child with a snorkel strapped to her face. They talked about what they were looking at: how desolate, how predictable. They didn't talk about themselves. This absence felt good to Claudia, the silence like air in her lungs. Her mother took it differently. "It doesn't feel like we're experiencing this together," she said. "We're not even talking."
How could Claudia explain how good it felt—how effortless, and comforting—to feel her mother's body beside hers as the light hit their backs through glass? It made her feel as if nothing was being demanded of her.
They found a picnic table. Her mother wanted to sit. She wanted to talk. Claudia unpacked the bag. Packing the food had been a way of saying—I feel good, fine, awkward, muted. This is all I've got. I'm glad to be with you here, but now—as she unpacked—her choices felt cloying and overly elegant.
Her mother unscrewed the sparkling water. "No wine?"
"I've been meaning to tell you," Claudia paused. "I've decided to stop drinking."
"I didn't know how to stop needing it," she said. "So I stopped."
"Has it made everything better?" Her mother's eyes were shrewd and glittering, her eyebrows raised.
"In the last three weeks, you mean?"
"Isn't that the whole idea?"
"It's more like… if you're an alcoholic you'll always be one."
"Yes," her mother said. "So I've heard."
"As in: you still have to deal with what made you want to drink in the first place."
"You learned that piece of wisdom in a meeting?"
"Just sounds like programming, is all. They'd probably say I was an alcoholic too."
Claudia said nothing. She'd been picturing her mother recently, remembering moments from childhood that were suddenly electric with meaning: her parents relaxing with vodka tonics every night before her father left—perhaps what kept him from leaving earlier; a bottle of Syrah half-drunk before dinner, her mother sipping while she cooked, red-in-the-face and ready for a family meal.
She saw a cloud pattern of expression move across her mother's face. "Does it feel like a way to mark the abortion? Do you think that's part of it?"
"My sobriety as baby?" Claudia asked. "I never thought of it that way."
Her mother was quiet for a moment. "I wish you wouldn't make light of all this."
"I'm not making light of anything."
"I think you might not be fully aware of how hard this has been for you."
"I guess I'm trying not to cast myself as a victim."
"Well I certainly don't mean to victim-cast you," her mother said. "Is that another one of their phrases?"
"You know what I mean."
"It's not one of their phrases," Claudia said carefully. "But it's one of their ideas—waking up every day and living your life. No complaints. No excuses. Just making the best of things."
"I've always pictured those meetings as a bunch of people bragging about their self-destructive pasts. Person with the most nights of unprotected sex or prison wins. Something like that."
"It's nothing like that."
Her mother shrugged. "Sounds like a game of trump the pain to me."
She said this—trump the pain—like it was a piece of private language between them, though it wasn't. But Claudia was able to picture it instantly: two women staring each other down across a table, flipping over playing cards to see who had the higher number, the more wounded queen. This bothered her—as if it was a game at which they'd both—somehow, simply by living—become experts.
A few Tuesdays after her first Tuesday, Jack asked Claudia to dinner again. This time she said yes. She quickly realized it wouldn't be just the two of them. Others had gathered. They were headed to a diner. It was already a ritual. It was just past twilight and the sky was stained a deep cool blue, like something you'd press against your forehead during fever. It felt good to be with other human beings on a sidewalk.
Everyone ordered hearty meals, tuna melts and bacon burgers, with elaborate drinks: milkshakes and egg creams, as if compensating for the other drinks they wouldn't have. Claudia was surprised by the way Jack ate his scrambled eggs in evenly portioned bites, with precise dabs of ketchup. His hipster frame and outfits had suggested he would eat messily, or not at all.
It seemed like a regular set. The large woman who was always impeccably dressed—today, a belt and striped skirt—sat across from Claudia. Her name was Glory. She looked middle-aged but she had the life and energy of a younger woman. People had been aged by their drinking, Claudia noticed—their faces slack and weathered—but their demeanors were spry and hopeful. It seemed the world wanted things from Glory, and she was excited about the prospect of providing them. She worked as a personal assistant for a powerful producer and her vibrating cell phone worried her purse like a series of tiny earthquakes. The Budweiser guy was Paul, and he seemed to have a thing for Louisa, the paper umbrella woman—a yoga teacher and struggling actress—and it seemed to Claudia that everyone should have a thing for Louisa, she was so lithe and graceful. She seemed happy living in her own skin. It made you want to live there too.
They were all nice to Claudia, laughing at her anecdotes in a way that felt honest and unforced, or nodding seriously when this was called for. But she could tell they'd heard all her stories before: The One About the Girl Who Passes Out in the Park, The One About the Attic Full of Bottles. Claudia told them that she'd vomited on a boyfriend's dog before passing out once, which was true, and that she sometimes woke up in the middle of the night and drank, which wasn't. Not only was it literally untrue, it also seemed spiritually untrue. It ran against the psychic gist of her drinking, which aimed to court the sweet relief of unconsciousness rather than interrupt it.
Jack and Claudia stood outside the diner after dinner, fumbling for cigarettes. They were the only smokers in the bunch.
"I guess this crowd has already heard every sob story under the sun," Claudia said.
"Yeah," he said. "That used to get me down too."
"Now it helps me feel free," he said. "I'm not here to impress anyone."
Claudia nodded. She dropped her cigarette on the pavement and crushed it with her toe, though she'd only taken a drag. All of a sudden, she wanted out—of this talk, this night, all of it.
"Getting up in the middle of the night, just to drink?" he said. "That one I hadn't heard before."
"It was a lie," she said.
"Yeah," he said, nodding. "I've done that too."
Tuesday night meetings became a habit for Claudia. They felt like the beginning of a new life rather than the end of her old one. This was the feeling she got from dinner parties or wine-and-cheese gallery openings. These nights felt like elegies for her drinking days, though she knew they were only mourning something she'd retrospectively created: a past that had never really happened, a false memory of herself and her own ease. At one meeting Glory talked about the vanishing horizon point of liquor. We kept looking for the perfect drunk out there, she said. We never found it. At first Claudia imagined an actual person, a perfect drunk, some regal angel flying in a sweeping haze of sweet intoxication, but it quickly became clear Glory meant a state of being: the perfect drunk. Her words made Claudia want to go back out and keep searching.
There was a double-layered quality to Claudia's relationships with people from the group. They knew one part of her better than anyone else did, but they didn't know the rest of her at all. As for her, she felt genuine sadness for their troubles and glad for their minor triumphs. She couldn't remember the last time she'd felt concerned this way about anyone but Chris—and those times of putting his emotions above her own had grown increasingly less frequent near the end of their relationship. Sobriety was supposed to bring this back, the ability to think and feel beyond herself, but so far being sober had seemed more like a set of shackles that commanded her complete attention. It was only at meetings that she could feel like a good person, alive to the lives of others.
She learned Jack was doing a residency in oral surgery. She marveled at this: A doctor with a lip ring! Not a full doctor yet, he corrected. Here she'd been thinking he was a musician, dirt-poor and rich in groupies, but in truth he was just terribly, terribly studious and shy. His manner seemed oddly proper beneath his dark clothes and pierced skin. His drinking years hadn't been spent womanizing, he said. He'd been married, for starters. He'd spent a lot of time drinking alone. In meetings he talked about needing relief, but it wasn't clear what he needed relief from. One time he said: "It's been a couple years since I was going through all that," the closest he'd come to admitting an epicenter to his pain. Claudia kept trying to get a better view of his tattoo. She sensed it held the answer. But the weather was finally getting cooler and he was wearing long-sleeved shirts more often.
Louisa spoke in a way that made sobriety seem fairy-dusted. The quality of sunlight was purer to her sober eyes, she insisted—sweeter, glossier, more buttery. She got a delicious taste in her mouth sometimes that she couldn't explain, partway between lemon and shortbread. She'd never gotten it during her drinking days. Glory spoke about the perils of replacing one addiction with another. Everyone spoke about the perils of replacing one addiction with another. For Glory the replacement addiction was work, with some help from reality television. It turned out she was forty-six, which would've seemed old to Claudia when she was younger, but didn't seem old now that she was twenty-eight. Her own mother was already sixty-three. Sixty-three and still weeping for the daughter she'd had when she was thirty-five—and the other child too, of course, the one she hadn't had so many years before.
When Claudia was young, her mother had often pulled her out of school to watch matinee movies in a heavily air-conditioned multiplex by the marina. Claudia loved these afternoons, sheening her fingers with popcorn grease in the darkness. The two of them always stuck around to finish the last kernels after everyone else had left, impersonating the actors' voices. At the time Claudia thought it was because they were having so much fun but now she realized they'd been scared to return to the bright rest of the day. Claudia thought of her friends back in their fourth-grade classroom—trapped at the helm of blunted pencils, learning the difference between Native American tribes—and felt the thrill of being elsewhere. She always felt guilty slinking back to school the next morning.
"You understand me better than anyone," her mother told her once, when Claudia was eight. She'd been weeping in a ruptured and leak-sprung way that Claudia now understood as drunkenness.
She got Claudia drunk for the first time when she was nine. It happened the first New Year's Eve after her father left. She made champagne cocktails with sugar cubes and Angostura bitters. Claudia loved watching the cubes darken and soften in the base of the flutes, sending up their sugared selves in tiny grains through the tiny elevators of upward bubbles. She could still remember the heat in her mouth, sudden and mysterious, her tongue flushed and fizzed with champagne. Her father called as the clock struck twelve and Claudia's mother asked her not to pick up the phone, a request Claudia granted not from pity but because she didn't want to watch the grief her father's voice would provoke across her mother's face. She did remark that her father must have stayed up late—three am in his time zone—just to call them precisely at midnight. "And that's supposed to make up for it?" her mother said. It was a question to which Claudia—still ignorant of it, the philandering her mother would describe years later, and all this philandering was meant to symbolize—had no reply.
One night Claudia and Jack ended up at dinner alone. Glory was expected at a gala. I'm not looking forward to it, she'd said—and this seemed true enough, though she also seemed pleased to be leading a life whose not-looked-forward-to events were at least glamorous. Louisa was in the middle of a 24-hour yoga class. Paul hadn't shown up for weeks. He was either out-of-town or relapsing; no one was sure. Jack and Claudia sat alone at a booth meant for six.
In the booth across from theirs, a schizophrenic woman drank a bottomless cup of coffee. Her possessions were all over the vinyl, crumpled paper and bunched clothes, a stack of tattered library books that looked as if they'd been overdue since the seventies. She was making a lot of noise, gathering everything and stuffing it into plastic bags. Claudia noticed her socks, slouched down her ankles and hanging partway off her feet so the toes dangled loose. They were wet, and slapped the linoleum audibly. The woman stopped at their table and looked Jack straight in the eye: "You want me to cure your disease?" she said, quite loudly. "Then let me put it in my mouth!"
Diners glanced up from their sodas and French fries, quickly averting their eyes again. It struck Claudia that if this woman had been having an epileptic seizure, everyone would have been trying to help her, but she had this illness instead, and no one tried to help her at all. They just let her walk back onto the street, all of them, wherever her damp socks would take her, and were relieved to watch her go.
Claudia and Jack both looked down at the table. It felt awkward to make eye contact after witnessing something like that. You didn't want to be too casual about it, Claudia thought, or too serious either. "I checked myself into a psych ward once," Jack said. "It's weird to think about now."
"What did you have?"
"I didn't have anything," he said. "I was just totally out of my mind from booze. I couldn't—it was driving me crazy, every day, needing it and thinking about how to stop needing it, and I felt like I would reach this point where I wanted to crawl out of my skin, literally, like I couldn't stand to be inside my own life."
"How long did you stay?"
"Two nights. Long enough for them to decide I didn't need any kind of psych drugs. I just needed to quit."
"What did you do?"
"I quit," he said. "For about three months. My wife and I were still together then, and she really helped. I mean, she'd been sober for years already and she'd…"
"Gotten her life together," he said. "She was good to me. She really knew how it felt, you know? How hard. But I just couldn't do it."
"So you aren't—
"We're separated," he said. "She lives with our daughter in Connecticut."
"You have a daughter?"
"I haven't seen her in a while," he paused. "I'm not very good at talking about this."
"It's alright," she said. "We can talk about something else."
"Yeah," he said. "Maybe we should."
"Well," she said. "I've been meaning to ask about your tattoo."
"Ha," he glanced at his plate. "You think you changed the subject."
"It says Chloe," he said, and started rolling up his long blue sleeve. "Underneath the name there's a little rabbit head."
"It looks more like a snake," she said. "From a distance, anyway."
"The rabbit has antlers," he said, struggling to get the fabric over his elbow. "They curl."
"Like a Jackalope?"
"Chloe is my daughter," he said, as if he hadn't heard. "That's probably obvious." It hadn't been, to her. She'd thought it was the wife.
"She swears she saw a Jackalope once, when we were driving through the desert, and her mother tried to tell her once that it couldn't have been—that they didn't exist—but she refused to believe."
"You still see her when you can?"
He shook his head. "We're working on that."
Claudia kept quiet, waiting.
"Here's the thing," he said. "It was an accident.I opened the fridge fast and she was on the other side of it and I just didn't see her."
"You were drunk?"
He nodded. "I was opening the fridge for a beer."
"God," she said. "I'm sorry. Was she hurt?"
"She wasn't hurt. Just upset. She got upset because I got upset, and then her mother… there was a bruise—"
Claudia said firmly: "It doesn't make you a bad father."
"That's the thing," he said. "I think it does."
"It's just one —"
"My wife always said I needed to stop excusing my own mistakes," he said. "I'm starting to realize what she meant."
"I'm really sorry," said Claudia. "I wish I could—"
"Now really," he said, pulling his hand away. "Let's talk about something else."
Claudia thought about mentioning her abortion but didn't. She could feel it like money in her pocket, something she was ready to spend.
"What about you?" he said. "That night we got our white chips, was it your first time?"
"My first time getting a white chip?" she said. "Or my first time trying to quit?"
He shrugged. "Both, I guess."
"I've tried to quit a couple times," she said. "Not really quit, but just stop for a month or two and try to figure out what I was doing wrong. Learn to drink better."
He smiled. "How'd that go?"
"You can see for yourself."
"After my wife left," he said, "the other relapses weren't as bad."
She raised her eyebrows, as if to say, Why not?
He shrugged. "Not as much to lose."
They began to talk about their relapses the way other people might talk about their sexual histories, in order to gauge and stoke the other's desire. They asked the questions they wanted to be asked themselves: How did the first sip feel when you came back? What was the best buzz you ever had? They were pulling the stitches off their wounds, one by one, and digging back inside. Claudia wasn't sure if she was using alcohol to flirt with Jack, or using him to flirt with alcohol, the memory of its pleasure and the possibility of its return.
When he talked about his relapses, his tone was full of tenderness, as if each memory were a favorite child. There was one night in a hotel room in Seattle, going bleary on a bottle of rum and watching infomercials until he fell asleep. He remembered crying about kitchen knives. There was a bender in North Carolina, at an old wooden house on the Outer Banks—listening to wind rattle the eaves as two college friends got him wasted, left him to wake up the next morning on the beach with the cold tide lapping his boots.
"It was magical," he said. "It was like a dream."
"Do you regret it?" she asked.
"Nope," he said. "I know I should."
Claudia bit her lip. "Sometimes I think I should just go ahead and have one."
"Just so I could know for sure—I mean, really know—that I'd absolutely lost control. Then I'd really want to get better."
She caught his eye. It was like an electric circuit, their gazes seeking the tug and velocity of permission, saying what they couldn't say out loud: let's do this, we can do this. Maybe they would have sex, and maybe they wouldn't, but that part didn't really matter. They would drink together and it would just be the two of them fucking up, ducking into a shared and shameful insularity.
"Where?" she asked. She didn't need to say the word drink. There was only the question of how—the place, the booze, the plan. She glanced across the street. There were two bars across the street. She and Jack were both acutely aware of them, she was sure, the way a Mafioso man might be aware of all the entrances to a room. One bar had a red carpet flanked by two back-lit palm trees. The other was made of brick and had a single window crossed by bars, a Miller sign glowing behind them.
Jack followed her gaze. He said: "Oh."
She got a sick feeling in her stomach.
"I should go home," he said. "You probably should too."
Now Claudia was full of energy for a relapse—the sense of giddy vertigo, eyes-closed-at-the-edge-of-the-cliff—without anyone to relapse with. She could do it alone, but if she did it alone she might wake up in the morning and permit herself to pretend it hadn't happened. She wanted an audience. She wanted someone to see where she was at and say: this is bad. The only problem was this remained unclear. What was it, exactly? The abortion? The fact of a stranger where love should have been?
Claudia got in her truck and drove to her mother's house. The living room light was on and she could see her mother on the easy chair, in silhouette, holding a tumbler of something. This was good, a good sign. Claudia would be joining a dissolve that had already begun. She didn't bother knocking. Her mother opened the door and she said: "I need a drink.
Her mother raised her eyebrows. "You're sure that's a good idea?"
Claudia shrugged. "No."
"I guess we're the same like that," her mother said. "We're not women who solve our problems with tea and yoga. We fuck things up."
"I didn't want us to be the women who fuck things up," said Claudia. "I didn't think we had to be."
"Stay there," her mother said. Claudia knew what she was doing.
She returned with a wooden tray holding two champagne flutes with sugar cubes and a small bottle of bitters. "Remember these?" she asked.
Claudia said: "Of course I do."
Then she was quiet, summoning the taste to her mouth, trying to imagine what would happen when the booze hit her blood. It would be an old guest prowling the halls. The bottle would be done quickly. They'd be trying to tell each other that they needed more without saying so directly. Their voices would be casual: Another?
"I never would have wished it on you," her mother said. "But now that it's happened, I feel closer to you, like we can share it."
Claudia said nothing.
Her mother said: "What about you?"
"I'm not sure," said Claudia. She felt blankness where the feeling, yay or nay, might have been. She'd felt this during the abortion as well. She hadn't been asleep or anything like that. They'd given her something that made her feel relaxed but not numb. She could feel everything hurt but felt at peace about its hurting. She'd liked the sensation. It was a place to direct her attention. Then it had gone away.
She realized that what she felt now—do you feel like we're closer?—wasn't hollowness but resistance. She didn't feel the hurt as something shared because she wanted to live it differently than her mother had—like pushing off from a wall, into a swimming pool, moving her body away from what her mother's body had done, how it had hurt. She wanted to feel better.
Her mother let a few drops of bitters dribble onto the sugar cubes, blooming into small dark pupils, and then she popped the cork and poured the champagne. She handed one flute to Claudia and Claudia took it. She stared straight into her mother's eyes. She said: "Tell me this is okay."
Her mother said: "This is okay."
Claudia could feel it rising then: the vertigo of permission. It's okay. The sanction. She shook her head. She set the glass down and stood up.
"I should leave," she said, and did, knowing her mother would drink the glass she'd left behind.
Leslie Jamison grew up in Los Angeles and lives in Iowa but likes New York alright, too. Her first novel, The Gin Closet, was published by Free Press last February.