530 W. 113th Street, Apt. C
New York, New York
Sept. 9, 1998
I wake in stages, as if from an accident. First, taste: the back of my tongue, my sinuses, acrid with cleaning powder residue. A moment later, the smell of burnt bacon and stale sweat in the sweater balled beneath my head. Then, exquisite pressure like bamboo splints wedged into cracks in my skull, my brain sparking inside as if stuck with a fork and spinning in a microwave. I force open my eyelids, wincing: blond window shades lit up by fierce sunlight, workshop papers scattered on the floor, baseboards stuck with dust, the phone off its cradle. One leg of my jeans is twisted and pushed up to my knee, no shirt, a rumpled comforter in the corner of the futon couch. It takes several moments for my body and eyeballs to align, and when they do, there’s sickening guilt, seeping like vapor through the floorboards looking for memories to attach to. I pray to god there’s beer left.
I hang my head over the side of the couch, a thick waterfall of blood behind my ears. I finger one of the stapled papers from under the coffee table and drag it toward me, turning the pages in horror. I’ve filled every bit of white space with comments and suggestions, even between the sentences. My heart starts thrashing, a bat trapped in a pillowcase. I feel like I’ve woken covered in tattoos. It’s not like I can white this out. I pull another of my grad school classmates’ essays from the spilled stack. Same thing. Front and back. Diary-length scrawlings, with arrows, jumps, and circled words like a basketball playbook. Jesus Christ, I hardly know these people, even after a year. What will they fuckin’ think? I’m already gripped by fight-or-flight panic any time workshop conversation comes near my end of the table, my heart buckling whenever I think about the thesis readings eight months away. I start coughing and stagger to the toilet to throw up. Nothing comes out.
Catching my breath, I sit on the bowl and stare at the grout between the tiles, which reminds me of the Soviet toothpaste that used to line my toothbrush. On the paint-chipped shelf by the tub, I spy the opaque orange prescription bottle. Inderal, thank god. One or two 20 milligram pills as needed, the school psychiatrist said. It’s usually prescribed to still the jitters of musicians and actors, dry their sweaty palms. I shake out five of the blue pills. Just being awake is giving me stage fright. Then the image elbows its way onto my eyeballs, the one that has followed me the last few years: It’s me with my head on a train rail, my own boot on my skull to keep it in place, while I hold a shotgun to my temple. Never mind that I’d have to be a hell of a contortionist or an R. Crumb drawing. This regular hangover visitor brings measures of terror and comfort. Comfortable terror? I rub my eyes, pushing them back into my skull. Then I hear the workmen in the courtyard below. The bat begins thrashing, sucking the air from my gut. It’s fuckin’ Tuesday. This all started with a six-pack after class on Friday. My neck seizes and starts to tremble. I make my way to the sink for water. I turn the star-shaped handle and lower my face, gripping the faucet like a tree root growing from the side of a cliff.
In the kitchen, the coffee machine clock reads 1:47 p.m., the red digits glowering. The pot is full and cold. I grab the Camel Lights from the counter. Empty. I drop the pack to the floor and scan for another. I notice there are no bottles anywhere. Not a one. I’m confused. Then it hits me. The homeless guy. I can’t remember his name. He was black, skinny. I met him at the church on Broadway and brought him back last night, promising him my empties, about seven grocery bags. We sat on the couch and listened to some Stones. I’d offered him a line, but he turned it down. I have no memory of him leaving.
There had been other visitors, too. The Billys. Small Central American coke couriers. Three or four times they were summoned. The last Billy had asked me if I was alright as he dug the fold from his messenger bag. My heart was racing, eyes bugging, face vibrating. I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine, here’s your money. Then I’ll rip up your pager number, for real this time.
Bits and pieces of the last three days start to materialize like prints in a developer’s tray. I can see Jack, an old high school pal, pushing me out the front door of his place on E.75th. Angry? Or laughing? I remember a long cab ride. Shooting pool with some classmates at bar on Amsterdam. Please tell me I didn’t burst into my Axl Rose snake dance. Why do I still do that? I’m almost 29 years old for chirssakes. I remember critiquing papers, one after the other, basking in the certainty of my critical prowess. Then walking down to 108th Street and up Amsterdam to stare at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I hit the hot bar at the West End Market and walked to Riverside Park. It was like trying to follow a perverted Family Circus cartoon, where Tommy, sent to borrow a cup of sugar from the neighbors, ends up zig-zagging, back-tracking, creek-hopping, tree-climbing all over the neighborhood. I made a lot of phone calls. To Chris, to Russia, to high school friends I hadn’t spoken to in years.
I find three beers in the fridge. A collection of shining suns. I crack one and light a cigarette. A cool warmth blossoms in my chest and spreads to my brain, melting the fog, dulling the aches. I put the phone in its cradle and look at the answering machine. The display blinks six. I press play. My mom twice. Sam. Two hang-ups. A wrong number. But no Chris. I remember talking to her — last night? — not letting her off the phone to put Shea to bed. “I just want to read you some new paragraphs real quick,” I said, trying not to slur or sniff. Yes, OK, that was Sunday night. I remember because I’m pretty sure that’s when Jack called and I said I’d call her right back. Did I? Shit.
I drain my beer and dial her number, trying to figure out what sort of tone to muster — neutral? excited? The phone rings several times. I hope Shea answers. Maybe if I can make her laugh and giggle and ask when I’m coming up again, Chris will soften by the time she gets on. Chris picks up and she’s cold. “You remember what we talked about last night?”
My mind is blank. I scan for the Inderal bottle.
I know by her tone it’s bad. I pull open the fridge and slip out another pounder, holding it at arm’s length while I gingerly twist off the cap.
“I said that I didn’t think this was going to work anymore.”
The bat tears through the pillowcase, hurling itself at the window even though I’ve always known this was a possibility. Ruined relationships rattle behind me like cans strung to a bumper. But it’s different when it’s actually happening. Hyper real, like every camera angle crammed into the same frame. I’m a Hockney collage.
“We’re leading very different lives. We’re too far apart. I’m lonely. The phone is not enough. You don’t always call when you say you’re going to. Even when we talk on the phone, or you come to visit, I’m lonely. You never go to bed until the beer’s gone. Shea can’t be around all this. She needs stability. I need stability.”
All this. I feel nauseous. What if Chris’ ex gets wind and makes a stink. He hates Chris now. And me, too: a homewrecker in his eyes. What am I doing? These are people’s lives. This isn’t college anymore. This isn’t girls who don’t mind making out in the kitchens of house parties or in the corners of bars, whose parents drive Range Rovers and finance ski weekends. I don’t say anything. I thought we were destined to be together. But that’s what I thought about a lot of girls, throwing around marriage talk to some within weeks. The cliché of this pattern makes me nauseous. Here I am, another in a crowd of a million drunks flushing everything down the toilet, afraid to face life without six-packs for hands.
“OK, I’ll quit the beer,” I mumble. “I want this to work. This is important to me.”
The word “beer” feels less absolute than “drinking.” I wonder if that’s a mistake. “The drinking,” I add.
Chris doesn’t say anything. I hear Shea in the background.
“I have to go,” she says.
I hang up and drain the last Bud in the fridge. “That’s it,” I tell the coffee table, sucking down the foam from the bottle. I stare at the brown glass, at the red and white label decorated with a Founding Fathers-style script, making a mental note of my last drink, a postcard to tack to the fridge. But nothing stands out about it, looks just like all the others. I switch on the TV, now at the mercy of time. Fretting. Smoking. Watching Oprah. Watching Seinfeld. Waiting for the thirst to set in. For now, there is something approximating relief in my chest, but it’s not absolute. In the corners of my chest the cold heat of nervousness, uncertainty. I know I have just quit drinking for Chris, to save our relationship. Out of fear. To not be alone. For reasons other than for myself. The AA folks say no romantic relationships the first year. But who am I without a girlfriend? Without booze? To suddenly have neither feels like a murder-suicide. I light a cigarette. Does this mean moving back to Vermont after grad school? Is that it for being a writer? So many unknowns swirl through my mind, and I’ve just sworn off the one true thing I know. The ledge rapidly disappears above me.
Excerpted from Running Ransom Road: Confronting the Past One Marathon at a Time (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).