*Image: “Truth” by Jenn Powers, mixed media/digital manipulation
Everything Presses In
By Rachel Veroff
– an experiment with “wet” and “dry” –
– a collection of false starts –
What beautiful music I can hear in the depths of me. It is made of geometric lines crisscrossing in the air. It is chamber music. Chamber music has no melody. It is a way of expressing the silence. I am sending you chamber writing.
— Clarice Lispector, Água Viva
The morning sun flashes through birch boughs as I race my flickering shadow. Cold air stings my face, and my skis whisper across the icy crust of daylight like a blade being sharpened. Thwack. Swish. I kick what I hope are graceful arabesques of clean white snow into the air behind me as I fly. I am a darting leopard, or a hawk. The joy of carving S’s down the mountain is an animal one.
I am not good at most things, but today I am thankful to be good at this. I do not need to think when I ski. I dance. The rhythm of the mountain presses back up into my ready hamstrings, so that all I have to do is suspend my doubts and follow its lead. The clarity of the forest air makes me feel, momentarily, free. It is a relief to feel strong for once.
Lately I have felt weak. Back there, in the city, I have grown sleepless and nocturnal. I drift up long streets alone at night, gazing into darkened windows, steering myself, always, at a cross-current to my home and to my empty bed. But out here in nature, I am a creature of the early morning. By instinct, I know where I am going.
At a parting of the paths I kick my heels horizontal and skid to a stop, facing back up the mountain. In a few hours, crowds of teenagers in puffy jackets will fill these hills, but for now, the slopes are silent and pristine. I can see Franny picking her way carefully over the top of the ridge—holding her poles a little stiffly in front of her. I can almost hear her reciting the motions to herself as she pivots: turn, edge, release. It makes me smile to watch her do this.
This trip was Franny’s idea. She can barely ski, but she wanted to see the Adirondacks. “New York just starts to feel so claustrophobic!” she’d complained, so we rented a car and filled it up with road trip delights. Long playlists to remind us of college, seltzer water, pretzels and sour candy. Franny had wanted to bring a flask of whiskey, but I discouraged it. She doesn’t know to what depths my weakness has sunk lately.
…Chamber music has no melody. It is a way of expressing the silence…
In the preface to Água Viva, Clarice Lispector describes her writing process with metaphors of drinking. She says the manuscript “poured” out of her in a gush of intoxication. Then she had to put the book away for a few months, to let it “dry out,” before editing. At first I did not like or understand the expression. How can a manuscript be wet? I wondered. But the image lingered in my memory.
A rustling in the trees snaps me from my reverie. A few fat gumdrops of snow plop to the ground as a squirrel scampers away, leaving tiny tracks, skittering perfectly through the untouched powder of the woods. I hardly have time to think what the scene reminds me of before Franny comes to a sliding halt beside me. She is rosy-cheeked like a kid. “Did you see me do that?!” she laughs.
I can’t help but laugh, too. With laughter comes a levity I have not known in a while. Whatever watery evils are lurking in the dark corners of my mind, they seem to leak away. At least for now.
There is another character in this story. I will call her S.
S. will not make an appearance here, but her presence haunts the margins. She always had a way of snaking herself between my best attempts at becoming a better person.
What are glamorous, rich-cool-girl, addict friends for, if not for reaching out to shove your head below the surface of the water—right when you were about to catch a breath of air?
Eventually, I will get to the S. part of this story. But not yet.
The Adirondacks are beautiful in winter. Franny was right to want to come here.
Franny is always right about nature. She is a country girl at heart, and actually dislikes cities. She has freckled, rosy cheeks and Irish-green eyes. We’ve been friends since freshman year at the University of Texas at Austin. I was a transplant from out of state (a common thread in my life—you’ll see), but Franny has real Southern roots. She is from Sugar Land, home of what was once the largest sugar refinery in America. Molasses, sweet water, sunflowers and whiskey: these are just a few of the contradictory currents in Franny’s nature. Even on the East Coast, she feels like Texas.
In New York, Franny works at a scrappy women’s health advocacy group in Harlem. There are many things about her job that challenge and frustrate her, but ultimately, she’s good at it. I, on the other hand, am an aspiring writer. Except that in reality, I write copy for marketing emails. I work at a no-name place—the sad kind of fluorescent-lit, corporate office-limbo place that employees can get lost in. I have been there an embarrassingly long time. People who knew me “before” have stopped trying to hide their surprise whenever I tell them I still work there. At some point in the last year, actually, people stopped asking me about work at all.
“Get a look at this view, though!” Franny pants beside me. She is fumbling with her phone, trying to take a picture. In the process she drops a glove, and she wobbles trying to retrieve it. “Goddammit!” Her laughter echoes in the trees. We end up taking pictures for several minutes. Our smiles crowd ¾ of the frame, helmets and goggles askew, the snowy vista barely visible behind us. Selfies are a silly indulgence, of course, but it also feels rare to be as surrounded by light as this. We both know that we will remember this trip, this day, as special.
Something about the crispness of the mountain air, the sharp clarity of the sun above the trees—the swooshing and scraping sound of ski blades cutting nimbly across the snow—it is all invigorating. Like being drunk on sobriety itself.
…made of geometric lines, crisscrossing in the air…
Still, though, I am troubled when people say things like, “The ink had barely dried on the page…”
Red Smith, the sports columnist, is famous for saying: “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.” Here again with the suggestion that these pages might be wet. Right now they feel dry to me, but maybe this is a trick of the senses. At the top of the ridge, the snow whipped up by the wind is grainy and dry, but other times—look, over there—the snow that melts into the stream is cool and wet enough to drink. The wetness is refreshing.
Last October I stumbled across an obituary in Deadspin. Beloved sportswriter Jennifer Frey had drunk herself to death. I read the 9,000-word piece with gripping fascination: for the past six months, I had been unconsciously collecting stories like these. I get the looming sense that addiction to wine is a kind of willful drowning.
In the Paris Review, Eileen Myles speaks about the moment that convinced her to get sober. “Getting sober rescued my writing,” she says. On the Dick Cavett show, actor Richard Burton explains, “I stared out of a window for two years,” and also: “With drink, you are always fighting. You’re always fighting, and the other fella is booze.”
In her 1996 memoir, Drinking: A Love Story, Caroline Knapp writes, “The hard things in life, the things you really learn from, happen with a clear mind.” The implication is that “clear-minded” is the opposite of wet. It’s dry.
You are so boring when you’re sober, says S. Take this.
And for whatever reason, I do.
Around noon, the crowds of noisy ski bums roll in. They shout a lot and take frequent breaks at the lodge. They are fun to watch. Franny and I make a game of observing everyone as the day goes on.
“What are you working on these days?” she asks when we are on the chair lift. I don’t know what to say. She knows. She doesn’t know. Why does she believe in me?
Tears are wet, except when they get frozen in your eyelashes.
Oh, but yes. I go to AA meetings now. There are worse things, to be honest.
In New York, at least, the “anonymous” part is easy. There are meetings everywhere: in church basements and empty office buildings, and third-floor walk-ups in Hell’s Kitchen—at all odd times of day. You can just walk in. Sometimes there are cookies (store-bought) and coffee (burnt), and styrofoam cups that you can worry to bits with your fingers while other people tell their stories.
I had resisted going for a long time, at least in part because of something S. said about AA.
“God, those people are so sad,” she’d scoffed, after checking out a meeting once.
“It was so depressing,” she complained. “A bunch of people tried to give me their phone numbers at the end, like they thought I wanted to be their friend. Fat chance.”
S. tossed the phone numbers into a trash can on her way out of the meeting, in plain view of everyone. When she told me this story, I flinched at how rude she’d been. But at the same time, I felt safely on “her” side of the picture: the upper-hand side—the cruel and beautiful side. I had never attended an AA meeting, so surely I was not quite so pathetic, not so miserable as to deserve her scorn, not like all those other people. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that S. treated me the same way she treated everyone. Like garbage.
By the time I ended up at an AA meeting myself, I had not spoken to S. in months. But I thought about her when, at the end, a few people approached me to offer their phone numbers and encouragement.
“Good for you for showing up,” they said, supportively. And I felt guilty—I’d wasted the past year of my life following S. around to fancy bars and parties, thinking that adult friendship must be all about saying things unsupportively—simply because that was the way that S. moved through the world. I felt guilty because deep down, I worried, I might be more like her than not. When it comes to my darkest, most private pits of misery, I am more like her than anyone else I know. It takes one dog-shit person to know another. That’s what drinking friends are for.
What S. was too proud to realize was that those phone numbers were extended to her for one reason only. If you have ever struggled with addiction, you know this, too: you are a person for whom the pall of death holds a lot of sway and influence. This is what AA boils down to: it is a suicide prevention club. Those phone numbers are trying to save your life.
But I welcome the darkness where the two eyes of that soft panther glow. The darkness is my cultural broth. The enchanted darkness. I go on speaking to you, risking disconnection: I am subterraneously unattainable because of what I know.
― Clarice Lispector, Água Viva
Before I realized that the common denominator in all my life’s problems was actually just drinking, I went through a lot of phases and obsessions. I would later learn that this is common. The mental gymnastics an alcoholic will go through to convince themselves that everything is fine are elaborate and exhausting. In the past two years, I had gone through a manic gym phase, a neurotic arts and crafts phase (origami, scrapbooks and vision boards), and a yoga phase—all punctuated by alarming bouts of intense, hysterical writing. I even attended an Ayahuasca ceremony last year, thinking what I needed was psychedelic enlightenment.
Ayahuasca is its whole own experience, obviously, and I won’t digress too much into it here. But I will say that I came home from the long weekend convinced of two things. First, I really needed to quit cigarettes, and second, outer space is a shrieking cacophony. I returned to the city to pick up the pieces of my daily life feeling terrified about the latter, but at least I had a good idea of what to do about the cigarettes. I threw away my pack.
I congratulated myself on all the money I would save, now that I was not a smoker anymore.
“Good riddance!” I laughed. “Glad I broke that habit.”
I told everyone I knew that quitting cigarettes was the best thing that ever happened to me.
“My breathing is so much better!” I explained, amazed. “Oxygen! We breathe oxygen on planet Earth. How beautiful.”
I noticed an improvement in my complexion, too.
But then there were the panic attacks. I’ve had panic attacks before, but the ones that gripped me during those first few weeks of quitting cigarettes were indescribable. I would be sitting at my desk at work, typing up notes from a meeting, or adding numbers to a spreadsheet, or slyly jotting ideas for a poem into the margins of my note pad—when, all of a sudden, the impulse to grab my coat and dart down to the street for a quick break would seize me.
A lot of recovering smokers end up swapping one fixation for another, and I was no exception. In those moments I would answer the urge to light a cigarette by fumbling desperately in the other direction, towards my newfound, New Age mantras. Honestly, I was a total cliché—exactly the kind of keyed-up 27-year-old you might expect to seek out a spiritual experience, then return transfixed by some revelation about clean living. I repeated affirmations to myself, like: “I take in the world with so much clarity when I’m not smoking.” And: “MAN, I AM LOVING ALL THIS CLARITY!”
But then Suzy from IT would drop by to chat, and I’d be trapped. Gripping the edge of my chair, smiling, and trying to sustain polite conversation while small foxes gnawed at my internal organs. While a floodlight blasted straight in through my eye sockets and cast leery shadows up onto the wall above me. Imagine an invisible hand cranking the wind-up toy inside your chest absurdly tight, then even tighter, until it threatens to explode and splatter your most shameful regrets across the building.
Sometimes, a hole would rip open in the ceiling and I’d hear that terrible cacophony—that ungodly shriek the universe makes as it scrape-grinds along on its crushing axis of rainbow dust and steel. The sound of angels screaming. Eventually, I would excuse myself to the bathroom and splash water on my face. I was always doing that, slipping away; coming back and going.
…subterraneously unattainable because of what I know…
There had been an incident…after a party, with S…a whiff of stale whiskey in my hair.
I woke up on a couch with a strange man on top of me. That was when the skittishness and the slinking started, to be honest. That was the first time I chose to slip away, rather than stick around for breakfast, or say goodbye to anyone, or even march out the front door like a normal person. I’d shut the latch so quietly when I left, that day. That is another part of this sad story, but I do not know where the thread begins.
Mercifully, after about six weeks of no cigarettes, my body adjusted to the shock of existence without nicotine, and the panic attacks subsided. I guess this was my introduction to the concept of “withdrawals.” With alcohol, though, the whole thing is a lot weirder.
Another false start. Another loose thread…
Franny actually hated S.—the one and only time I introduced them. The only person surprised by this turn of events was me (of course).
There was a period of time where I thought both women were my two best friends in life, even though they came from different circles. Franny was my sweet, funny friend of innocence. She knew me back in the days when drinking too much at a party meant waking up curled in a pile of blankets and friends, hungry for eggs and hot sauce from the sunny, weed-scruffed garden café down the street (Austin as seen through a rose-tinted vintage filter—“vintage” for ten years ago).
Franny knew me back in the days when wandering through the arched alleys of a foreign city, and marveling at the sights and smells—imagining what our future lives might be like there—was a pleasure in itself. Somehow, though, my capacity for such pleasure has dried up since then, leaving a residue of sickly ashes in its place. That can happen to people who corrode the dopamine centers in their brains. Whether it happens on purpose or by mistake doesn’t matter as much as the feeling of being eaten up by loss. All you’re left with is the sense that the efforts you used to find rewarding have now become a struggle. And also: the fear that the people who love you will realize how much.
S. I met while living abroad, after college. She was my first cosmopolitan friend, my first published-writer friend. Her life was like a movie. In retrospect, it is painfully obvious that I was starry-eyed about her extended network of semi-famous friends and her closet full of furs. I ignored many warning signs—believed her every time she pretended she was better than me. Every time she made a petty criticism of someone else, I failed to recognize it for what it was: intolerant and mean. I internalized all of that. From her way of manipulating men into fawning over her (men never paid attention to me, of course, when S. was in the room), right down to the punishing pinpoint of her tall stiletto heels. I thought that S. was savvy.
Especially in New York, it was clear that she belonged to a different stratosphere of society than I did. She invited me everywhere, though, and this made me feel special. It confounded me when I was never able to get her and Franny in the same place at the same time.
Once, I scheduled a dinner at the Mermaid Oyster Bar, a place I really liked, but only Franny showed up. S. texted a haphazard apology at the last minute, saying she was too busy. This made me feel embarrassed.
Your “other” best friend? OK.
Then, once, I tried to invite Franny on a weekend excursion that S. had organized in the Catskills, but S. informed me there were not enough beds.
When they finally did meet, almost by accident, on the steps of the Brooklyn Museum, S. was astonishingly rude to Franny, and later told me she found my old college friend “cute” but a little “dowdy” and “cut from a rougher cloth, n’est-ce pas?”
Why did I choose to stay in a friendship with a woman who made everyone around her feel this bad? By the time I am done writing this essay, maybe I will know. But the way we drank was somehow, definitely, part of it.
Yes, that’s it. What made S. and me as close as we were, for the handful of years that we were, was our mutual taste for self-destruction. Our dangerous nose-dive of attraction to the bottom of a bar glass.
The first AA meeting I ever attended was at the Holy Name Church uptown. I crept in about ten minutes late and spent the entire hour in a back corner with tears gushing openly down my face.
The stories people tell at these meetings are terrible. I mean, it is not like open-mic night at The Moth. Most people just share whatever rough or raw tidbit is on their mind that day. There is no beginning, middle, or end to being an alcoholic. The embarrassment and suffering of the disease (yes, it is a disease) is ongoing. I have heard many people with more than 10 or 20 years of sobriety confess that they fear relapsing almost every day.
There is the aging-but-still-regal Upper East Side Jewess, with rings on all her gnarled fingers and a foulard tied at her throat, who warns the room: “No matter how good life gets, don’t ever dare forget who you really are. Do not forget you are a monster.”
There is also the businessman who looks sharp in his business suit, who raises his hand to say he travels so much for work that he has started seeking out AA meetings in all kinds of unfamiliar cities. You can see this in the bags under his eyes. You can see that he is not lying.
Then there is the sickly-thin receptionist—wispy and pretty, but with a smile that fades to sadness every time she thinks no one is looking—who says: “Most days, all it comes down to is wanting to be here, alive, just a little bit more than I wish I was somewhere else. Like… dead.”
For me, even when these strangers’ stories have no beauty in them—no artistry, no style, no humor, no hidden gems—I find myself nodding along anyway. The chord these stories strike in me is intensely, darkly familiar.
The thing about meetings is, after awhile, you find a group and a space that feels comfortable to you, and you keep going back to that one. Eventually you make friends. Eventually, you find a sponsor.
“I lost a sponsee to suicide last year,” I heard a man say in a meeting recently.
For whatever reason, it made me think of S.
What is a best friend supposed to be?
For me, my female friendships have always been more meaningful than my relationships with men. To the point that my parents once spent an entire Thanksgiving weekend trying to persuade me it was OK to tell them I was a lesbian. I’m not, but I have often wished I was.
A best friend is a ::illegible::
A best friend…
These days, my darkest battles happen on the days that are otherwise forgettable.
I will be walking home from work on a Wednesday, and instead of turning right, here, onto my own street, I will continue walking. I will walk past my favorite local dive bar, with Led Zeppelin on the jukebox and the bartender who flirts. I’ll walk past the new, shiny bar, with its plush upholstery and pretty plasma screens. Sometimes, I will go to the shittiest liquor store in the neighborhood on purpose… because I know. I know that this is what I am doing to myself.
I spend a lot of time staring at half-completed pages.
Writing is my link of chains. It is the only line connecting me from the bottom of this ocean-nightmare to the world of everyone else, above. I think that, sometimes.
I wrote about the rape. The reason I mention it here is that I think this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was also the first time I wrote an essay that was actually good. It was a love letter to Virginia Woolf, in which I proclaimed that her novels saved my life. The first person I showed it to was S. because I respected her opinion a lot. Especially when it came to literature. She only made one comment:
“It’s really long,” she said, suspicious.
And she interrogated: “Are you really going to put your name on that? You talk about your breasts.”
I did not show the piece to anyone else for months. But now it is in a literary magazine, and I am quietly proud of it. I think that pride in writerly accomplishments is a very quiet pride.
Maybe this is because the process of scraping a piece of art together can give a person nervous breakdowns. I am that person. I have nervous breakdowns. The sea of Friday nights I have spent in bed, curled around the inhuman glow of my laptop, with a bottle of wine right there on the nightstand—the only anchor tethering me to the scene. It is embarrassing.
It’s embarrassing because the pages I have to show from working like this are scant in comparison to the hours and hallucinations spent. But there are certain puzzle pieces I cannot stop fretting over, tangled knots that I refuse to put to rest.
Since I severed ties with S., especially, I have grown stranger and more solitary. I am an insomniac, a fitful ghost. I am very drawn to stories about writers who are dead.
I am fond of the biography of Proust, for example, who was so anxious, so reclusive, and, actually, so productive that he wasted away, physically, while completing his most famous novel. He died when it was finished.
Most writers are certainly unhappy people. But if you’ve ever found yourself saying these words aloud: “Writing is the only thing that I can do,” well, then, you have got to soldier on. Only, do not expect people to tell you congratulations, because most of the time they won’t. Writing is like drinking in the sense that, more often than not, it is not a task that leads to happy places.
When I told S. I wanted to take a break from her and drinking, she laughed in my face and spat. Her spittle hit me like hot, angry shards of glass.
“You are so ridiculous,” she sneered. “Good luck with that.”
I asked her not to call me, but she has continued to send text messages and emails for weeks and months. Sometimes these are vicious, brittle accusations: You think that you’re so great? You are such a joke. Sometimes they are sugar-sweet: How are you? I miss you. Always, her messages puncture me in the gut.
Franny has been quietly supportive through all of this.
“I think S. must be really sad, deep down,” she suggests, when I try to apologize for all the rude behavior. If S.’s comments ever managed to hurt her, she refused to show it.
In AA meetings, I’ve learned a lot of things I never knew before about how the disease progresses. Sustained substance abuse re-hardwires the brain. It changes you permanently, psychologically. You pass points where it stops being possible to go back.
Some people, like me, drink until they become lyrical, emotional, depressive, self-isolating and, finally, just sleepy. S. was the kind of person who became a bully when she drank. Combined, we were a disaster. It is hard for me to even remember, now, what our good times were like.
She texted today: Still ghosting, eh?
And all I felt were ashes in my stomach.
“As for music, where does it go?” Lispector asks toward the end of Água Viva. Her prose is disembodied and ethereal. At the end of a long day in the mountains, I can get this feeling too: of light and dreaminess; new pink on the horizon; alertness; the twitch of muscles flexing. At a vibrating substratum of my animal existence, these days, mostly, I generate a vulnerable optimism. I am thankful for the people who have shown me patience.
I told my AA sponsor over grilled cheese sandwiches and mashed potatoes in a diner recently: “Writing is what will save me.”
She laughed, because she is an artist, too.
“Meetings are what save you,” she corrected. “But your writing will probably improve. The stories you tell will become more thoughtful and more human.”
So, I am healing, slowly. I am serious about sobriety.
But I would be lying if I said it is not hard.
*Some names have been changed.