I’m newly sober and dog-paddling through the booze all around me. It’s summer, and Whole Foods has planted rosé throughout the store. Rosé is great with fish! And strawberries! And vegan protein powder! (Okay, I made that last one up.) At the office, every desk near mine has a bottle of wine or liquor on it in case people are too lazy to walk the 50 feet to one of the well-stocked communal bars we’ve built on our floor. Driving home from work, I pass billboard ads for Fluffed Marshmallow Smirnoff and Iced Cake Smirnoff and not just Cinnamon, but Cinnamon Churros Smirnoff. A local pharmacy, the same one that fucks up my prescription three months in a row, installs self-service beer taps and young guys line up with their empty growlers all the way back to Eye & Ear Care.
Traveling for work, I steel myself for the company-sponsored wine tasting. Skipping it is not an option. My plan is to work the room with my soda and lime, make sure I’m seen by the five people who care about these things, and leave before things get sloppy (which they always do). Six wines and four beers are on display at the catering stand. I ask for club soda and get a blank look. Just water, then? The bartender grimaces apologetically. “I think there’s a water fountain in the lobby?” she says.
There is. But it’s broken. I mingle empty-handed for 15 minutes, fending off well-meaning offers to get me something from the bar. After the fifth, I realize I’m going to cry if one more person offers me alcohol. I leave and cry anyway. Later I order vanilla ice cream from room service to cheer myself up.
“People love this with a shot of bourbon poured over it,” the person taking my order says. “Any interest in treating yourself?”
That’s the summer I realize that everyone around me is tanked. But it also dawns on me that a lot of the women are super double tanked — that to be a modern, urbane woman means to be a serious drinker. This isn’t a new idea — just ask the Sex and the City girls (or the flappers). A woman with a single malt scotch is bold and discerning and might fire you from her life if you fuck with her. A woman with a PBR is a Cool Girl who will not be shamed for belching. A woman drinking MommyJuice wine is saying she’s more than the unpaid labor she gave birth to. The things women drink are signifiers for free time and self-care and conversation — you know, luxuries we can’t afford. How did you not see this before? I ask myself. You were too hammered, I answer back. That summer I see, though. I see that booze is the oil in our motors, the thing that keeps us purring when we could be making other kinds of noise.
One day that summer I’m wearing unwise (but cute, so cute) shoes and trip at the farmer’s market, cracking my phone, blood-staining the knees of my favorite jeans, and scraping both my palms. Naturally, I post about it on Facebook as soon as I’ve dusted myself off. Three women who don’t know I’m sober comment quickly:
“Do they sell wine there?”
“Definitely wine. And maybe new shoes.”
Have I mentioned that it’s morning when this happens? On a weekday? This isn’t one of those nightclub farmer’s markets. And the women aren’t the kind of beleaguered, downtrodden creatures you imagine drinking to get through the day. They’re pretty cool chicks, the kind people ridicule for having First World Problems. Why do they need to drink?
Well, maybe because even cool chicks are still women. And there’s no easy way to be a woman, because, as you may have noticed, there’s no acceptable way to be a woman. And if there’s no acceptable way to be the thing you are, then maybe some women drink a little. Or a lot.
The year before I get sober, I’m asked to be The Woman on a panel at the company where I work. (That was literally the pitch: “We need one woman.”) Three guys and me, talking to summer interns about company culture. There are two female interns in the audience, and when it’s time for questions, one says:
“I’ve heard this can be a tough place for women to succeed. Can you talk about what it’s been like for you?”
As The Woman, I assume for some reason that the question is directed at me. “If you’re tough and persistent and thick-skinned, you’ll find your way,” I say. “I have.”
I don’t say she’ll have to work around interruptions and invisibility and micro-aggressions and a scarcity of role models and a lifetime of her own conditioning. My job on this panel is to make this place sound good, so I leave some stuff out. Particularly the fact that I’m drinking at least one bottle of wine a night to dissolve the day off of me.
But she’s a woman. She probably learned to read between the lines before she could read the lines themselves. She thanks me and sits down.
“I disagree,” says the guy sitting next to me. “I think this is a great company for women.”
My jaw gently opens on its own.
The guy next to him nods. “Absolutely,” he said. “I have two women on my team and they get along great with everyone.”
Of course they do, I think but don’t say. It’s called camouflage.
Guy #1 continues. “There’s a woman on my team who had a baby last year. She went on maternity leave and came back, and she’s doing fine. We’re very supportive of moms.”
Guy #3 jumps in just to make sure we have 100% male coverage on the topic. “The thing about this place,” he says, “is it’s a meritocracy. And merit is gender-blind.” He smiles at me and I stare back. Short of hijacking this panel for my own agenda, silent balefulness is all I have to offer. But his smile wavers so I know I’ve pierced some level of smug.
The panel organizer and I fume afterward. “Those fucking fucks,” she says. “Ratfucks.”
What’s a girl to do when a bunch of dudes have just told her, in front of an audience, that she’s wrong about what it’s like to be herself? I could invite them out for coffee, one by one, and tell them how it felt, and they might really listen. I could tell the panel organizers this is why you should never have just one of us up there. I could buy myself a superhero costume and devote the rest of my life to vengeance on mansplainers everywhere.
Instead, I round up some girlfriends and we spend too much money at a hipster bar, drinking rye Manhattans and eating tapas and talking about the latest crappy, non-gender-blind things that have happened to us in meetings and on business trips and at performance review time. They toast me for taking one for the team. And when we are good and numb we Uber home, thinking Look at all we’ve earned! That bar with the twinkly lights. That miniature food. This chauffeured black car. We are tough enough to put up with being ignored and interrupted and underestimated every day and laugh it off together. We’ve made it. This is the good life. Nothing needs to change.
Do you remember the Enjoli perfume commercial from the 1970s? The chick who could bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man?
I blame that bitch for a lot. For spreading the notion that women should have a career, keep house, and fuck their husbands, when the only sane thing to do is pick two and outsource the third. For making it seem glamorous. For suggesting it was going to be fun. And for the tagline she dragged around: “The 8-Hour Perfume for the 24-Hour Woman.” Just in case you thought you could get one fucking hour off the clock.
More tales of my first sober summer: I go to an afternoon showing of Magic Mike at one of those fancy theaters that serves cocktails to blunt the terrible stress of watching a movie in air-conditioned comfort. A few rows ahead of me, a group of women are drinking champagne through straws. They whoop and holler at the screen as though at an actual Chippendale’s. In the parking lot afterward, one of them says to the others: “Girl time! We have to claim our girl time.” “We’ve earned this,” another replies. And then they drive off in separate directions.
A baby shower is in progress at the nail parlor. Except for the guest of honor, everyone is drinking wine, lots of it. I wonder if the mom-to-be minds, if it feels like they’re rubbing it in. “Thank God there are places like this where we can have lady time,” a woman in a yellow dress says. She tells the mom-to-be she’s far enough along to have some wine. It seems important to her that the mom-to-be drink with them. I catch myself nodding. You, I think. Yeah, I know you. There’s always one person who can’t deal if someone isn’t drinking. At times, I was that person.
“I’m going to feel hungover by dinner,” a different woman says. “But it’s so worth it. How often do you get a chance to get away from your kids for an afternoon?”
I personally think this is an insensitive thing to say at a baby shower.
Is it really that hard, being a First World woman? Is it really so tough to have the career and the spouse and the pets and the herb garden and the core strengthening and the oh-I-just-woke-up-like-this makeup and the face injections and the Uber driver who might possibly be a rapist? Is it so hard to work ten hours for your rightful 77% of a salary, walk home past a drunk who invites you to suck his cock, and turn on the TV to hear the men who run this country talk about protecting you from abortion regret by forcing you to grow children inside your body?
I mean, what’s the big deal? Why would anyone want to soften the edges of this glorious reality?
I run a women’s half-marathon on a day in August when temperatures are fifteen degrees above normal. It’s a — what do you call it — a horror show. But I finish and someone puts a finisher’s medal on me. I’m soaked, chafed, limping, and still triumphant. Until they say: “The margarita tent is right over there!”
A yoga studio where I sometimes practice starts a monthly “Vinyasa & Vino” event: an hour of fast-paced yoga in a hundred-degree room, followed by a glass of an addictive, dehydrating substance (made locally!). Oh, but it’s about mindful savoring, I’m told. Well, then. Apologies for thinking it was about mindful reciprocal advertising to an overwhelmingly female audience, and om shanti.
A local kitchen shop offers a combination knife-skills and wine-tasting class — yes, wine for people who have already self-identified as being so clumsy with sharp objects that they need professional instruction.
At the waxing salon, a cut-glass decanter of tequila is at the ready for first-time Brazilian customers, which — okay, you know what, that tequila was actually pretty helpful back in the day, and far be it from me to deprive other first-timers.
But knives and booze, yoga and booze, 13 mile runs and booze? What’s next to be liquored up: CPR training? Puppy ballet class? (Not really a thing, but someone should get on it.) Is there nothing so inherently absorbing or high-stakes or pleasurable that we won’t try to alter our natural response to it? Maybe women are so busy faking it — to be more like a man at work, more like a porn star in bed, more like 30 at 50 — that we don’t trust our natural responses anymore. Maybe all that wine is an Instagram filter for our own lives, so we don’t see how sallow and cracked they’ve become.
Toward the end of summer I take a trip to Sedona and post a photo to Facebook that captures the red rocks, a stack of books, a giant cocoa smoothie, and my glossy azure toenails in one frame. It is scientifically the most vacation-y photo ever taken.
“Uh, where’s the wine?” someone wants to know.
“Yeah, this vacation seems to be missing wine,” someone else chimes in.
I go to a stationery store to buy a card for a girlfriend. I couldn’t keep it together enough to track greeting card occasions when I was drinking, so it’s been a while since I’ve visited a card shop. There are three themes in female-to-female cards: 1) being old as fuck, 2) men are from Mars, and 3) wine.
“Wine is to women as duct tape is to men…it fixes everything!”
“I make wine disappear. What’s your superpower?”
“Lord, give me coffee to change the things I can…and wine to accept the things I cannot.”
Newly sober women have a lot of wonderful qualities, but lack of judginess not one of them. I don’t just stand there mentally tsk-tsking at the cards. I actually physically shake my head at them like Mrs. Grundy. Are you sure you can’t change those things? I think. And have you stopped to think that if you need ethanol — yes, at this point in my sobriety I called wine ethanol, wasn’t I charming? — to accept them, maybe it’s because they’re unacceptable?
The longer I am sober, the less patience I have with being a 24-hour woman. The stranger who tells me to smile. The janitor who stares at my legs. The men on TV who want to annex my uterus. Even the other TV men, who say that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” What business is it of yours whether it’s rare or not? I think.
The magazines telling me strong is the new sexy and smart is the new beautiful, as though strong and smart are just paths to hot. The Facebook memes: muscles are beautiful. No, wait: fat is beautiful. No, wait: thin is beautiful, too, as long as you don’t work for it. No, wait: All women are beautiful! As though we are toddlers who must be given exactly equal shares of princess dust, or we’ll throw a tantrum.
And then I start to get angry at women, too. Not for being born wrong, or for failing to dismantle a thousand years of patriarchy on my personal timetable. And not for enjoying a glass of wine, alone or with their girlfriends — cheers to that, if you can stop at one or two. (I could, until I couldn’t.) But for being so easily mollified by overdrinking. For thinking that the right to get as trashed as a man means anything but the right to be as useless.
“What,” says a woman I enjoy arguing with, “so they can get fucked up and we have to look after them?”
No, I tell her. We have to look after ourselves.
“That still doesn’t seem fair,” she says, not unreasonably.
But who said anything about fairness? This isn’t about what’s fair. It’s about what we can afford. And we can’t afford this. We can’t afford to pretend it’s fine that everything we do or think or wear or say yes or no to is somehow wrong. We can’t afford to act like it’s okay that “Girls can do anything!” got translated somewhere along the line into “Women must do everything.” We can’t afford to live lives we have to fool our own central nervous systems into tolerating.
We can’t afford to be 24-hour women.
I couldn’t afford to be a 24-hour woman. But it didn’t stop me from trying till it shattered me.
I am very angry with women that summer and then I’m very, very angry with myself. And I stay that way for months, trudging through my first sober Christmas and job change and flu and birthday and using that anger at every turn as a reminder to pay attention and go slow and choose things I actually want to happen. By the time summer comes back around I realize I no longer smell like 8-hour perfume.
That second summer, I meet my friend Mindy outside San Diego, where her adopted son is days from being born. Mindy’s dark alleys were different from mine, but she walked them all the same and walked herself out of them, too. Sometimes, talking about the recent past, we blink at each other like people struggling to readjust to sunlight after a long, bad movie. More and more it’s the new that gets our attention: my new job, her newish and happy marriage, the book I’m writing and the classes she’s taking. The things we are making happen, step by step.
We spend the weekend moving slowly and sleeping late and — hypocritically — wishing the lazy baby would hurry up already. On Sunday morning we’re reading by the deep end of the hotel pool when the shallow end starts to fill with women, a bridal party to judge by what we overhear. And we overhear a lot, because they arrive already tipsy and the pomegranate mimosas — pomegranate is a superfood! one woman keeps telling the others — just keep coming until that side of the pool seems like a Greek chorus of women who have major grievances with their bodies, faces, children, homes, jobs, and husbands but aren’t going to do anything about any of it but get loaded and sunburned in the desert heat.
I give Mindy the look that women use to say do you believe this shit? with only a slight tightening of the eyeballs. The woman on the other side of her catches the look and gives it back to me over her laptop, and then woman next to her joins in too. We engage in a brief, silent four-way exchange of dismay, irritation, and bitchiness.
Then Mindy slides her Tom Ford sunglasses back over her eyes and says, “All I can say is it’s really nice on this side of the pool.” I laugh and my heart swells against my swimsuit and I pull my shades down too, to keep my suddenly watery eyes to myself. Because it is. It is so nice on this side of the pool, where the book I’m reading is a letdown and my legs look too white and the ice has long since melted in my glass and work is hard and there’s still no good way to be a girl and I don’t know what to do with my life and I have to actually deal with all of that. I never expected to make it to this side of the pool. I can’t believe I get to be here.