The Pain of Living with an Alcoholic

Under the influence, life happens one six-pack at a time

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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. My 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.

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 wakes up in the morning in the middle of a conversation, asking, "What's the difference between a barnacle and a crustacean?" 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.

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 30 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 at 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 possibility.

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.

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 to a real drinker, light beers are like drinking soda. They're like drinking nothing.

Has anyone ever asked you to quit?

Yeah.

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 worst thing that ever happened to you while you were drunk?

(She laughs) Well, I got raped, I broke my foot . . . (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. (long pause) That's all.

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.

(After a long pause) But that's never enough.

How come?

(Another 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.

Do you think you'll ever quit drinking?

No. (silence) 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.

Even in the middle of winter, on the East Coast, she'll bundle up and sit outside, snow falling, late into the night as the temperature drops below zero. I fear she'll fall asleep, that I'll 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 intention of leaving. I walk around our apartment, continuing 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 up on 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.

I like broken things, torn things, tired things. I like old sheets and worn towels. 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. They were too stiff when I purchased them, 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 naive compassion, but I've grown self-protective. 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.

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 growing 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." Is the bottle half empty or half full? The question is dramatically beside the point. Always, eventually, it ends up empty.

Three 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. 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 90-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; she's 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.

From Bellingham Review (Winter 1999-2000). Subscriptions: $10/yr. (2 issues) from MS-9053, Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA 98225.