View of the Virgin

I was living in my second apartment in Santiago, Chile, and we had a view of the Virgin. Sort of. You had to lean your body way out of our fourth floor window and bend your neck until you saw her. But you could see her, if you tried. And we tried.

Although I had claimed I “left” the coed dormitory my parents had set me up in, I was kicked out. My landlord threatened to press charges for my thievery. I was a very bad thief. I’d steal other people’s food in the middle of the night, unbeknownst to them or to me. On the day I “left,” this was revealed to me by my angry landlord showing me a videotape of myself half dressed and fully blacked out, eating my roommate’s chocolate ice cream with my hands.

I had convinced my boyfriend at the time, a sweet, Midwestern soul, to move in with me and to profess his love. We secured a fourth floor apartment in downtown Santiago for $215 a month. I made us bookshelves out of cinder blocks, and we slept between two unzipped sleeping bags. I was in heaven.

Every morning I’d wake up and my head would be splitting in two. I would blink into the yellow morning light and groan. Then I’d lay down in our shower and watch my skin turn from yellow to pink to red under the scalding water. An hour later I’d emerge, usually to Darren making me breakfast. Which I wouldn’t eat.

We’d walk hand in hand to the subway station, me toting art supplies, him gripping his Jansport backpack. We had to carry our bags in front of our stomachs, to avoid the pickpockets. We’d say goodbye to one another on the subway platform, his train going South, mine going North. But I never went North. I’d pretend to, but instead I’d leave the station, make my way back to our apartment, and buy two boxes of wine from the crumbling Chilean bodega on our corner.

And then it would start. Did I question myself? Of course. Did I have some measure of awareness? Absolutely. But the thoughts always ended up in a cul-du-sac, where I’d assure myself that at any time, with the snap of my fingers, I could stop. This was all my choice, I was choosing to drink this way.

Those long stretches of time come back to me in blinks. The top of our building had a roof deck, with a few chairs and a barbeque. I’d free my bag of wine from its box and take it up there, lean against the wall, drink for hours. To my left was the Virgin, and to my right a view of Pablo Neruda’s falling down apartment (now a tourist trap). I’d drink and think, think and drink, until I’d rewritten my past and planned my future.

Darren would come home, and I’d have a bottle of wine prepared for him. We’d drink together and he’d talk about me being a lightweight, and I’d laugh and roll my eyes and say yes, yes, I am such a lightweight. So true. More often than not we’d end up fighting about something that we never remembered in the morning, and our hysterical screaming and throwing of things would wake the neighbors and elicit complaints. But at about 3am we’d always reunite over hot dogs at the 24hr gas station across the street from our building. And we’d fall asleep, 20 years old and ridiculous, and do it all over again the next day.

It went on like this until the day my father called our landline. The phone felt heavy in my hands, Darren had already left for class.

“I have one question to ask you,” he said, cautiously. “Please do not lie to me.”

“What is it?” I asked bluntly.

“Adrianna, are you drinking?”

I paused, baffled. My grandfather had killed himself, his wife and his child when I was 13. The Palm Beach Post, the Miami Herald and the Toronto Star had all printed the scathing suicide notes he had sent in, blaming my father for each bullet.

Without more than a second thought, I replied, “I cannot believe you would ask me that. I am very depressed, very, very, depressed. I am willing to get help. But no, I am not drinking.”

He went on to explain that my University had called him, because I had yet to attend one class in Chile (I was an exchange student). Nobody knew where I was, and I was going to be deported, as my student visa was being revoked by the country of Chile.

Ten days later Darren and I stood at the airport, tears in our eyes. I love you I love you I love you, again and again. But still, in my mind, this was a choice.

My flight was at 11pm, so of course we had gone to the bar. I swayed with pain and drink and reached up to kiss the scruff of his beard.

The flight started and I couldn’t stop shaking. I was cold and hot, and my muscles were tensed. By the time we touched down for a layover in Panama City, I had sweated through my shirt, and my face was green and slick. Cows were blocking the runway, I looked out and saw the green of the earth and the blue of the sky. I had to focus on those things not going anywhere.

When I deboarded my first thought was to find a bar. The bars weren’t open, it was too early in the morning, I think it was 6am. I limped to duty free, bought a bottle of vodka,and stowed it in my carry on. I remember thinking I had to be careful, because hard alcohol makes me black out. I went into the dinky bathroom stall and wrapped my chapped lips around the cool glass bottle. I took off my sweater and used it to cover up the gaps in the metal door.

The flight to Miami was a blur. I sipped from my bottle beneath the starchy airplane blanket, nodding off. The next thing I remember was a Miami customs official too close to my face and asking me over and over if I had taken drugs. Surprised, I said no, no. I started to tell him I was a nervous flier and that was all, but I could feel the sick rising in my throat. Bathroom, I gasped, bathroom, now.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m white, or female, or highly irrelevant, but they let me go. I stumbled into the Miami crowd and found my way to baggage claim. My hands were shaking and I tried to grip them together to make them still. I had left my bottle of vodka somewhere, probably on the plane, I didn’t remember finishing it. I was waiting at the claim for my two large bags, which contained everything I owned, and the earthquake started at my feet, traveling through my knees, my thighs, my stomach. Itching and restless, I walked to the curb and hailed a yellow cab. I thought I would pick up the bags tomorrow, that somehow someone could drive down to Miami (two hours from my parent’s home) and get them for me.

A Haitian cab driver picked me up. When I told him I wanted to go to West Palm, he pulled the car over, and explained to me that it would cost almost a thousand dollars. “No problem. Can you take me to a bar? Now?”

Hours later I teetered on a stool in a dusky Haitian dive bar in downtown Miami. I had no American money, so I struck a deal with the driver — — if he took me to a bar and bought me drinks, I’d tell everyone there I was his wife. My biggest concern at the time was that he was an entire foot shorter than me. I was embarrassed by our height difference.

Finally, much later that night (or morning?) I somehow arrived home, and I pounded on the door until my father appeared in striped Leave it to Beaver pajamas. I asked him to please pay the fare, thank you very much, and I barreled past him into the house, to find my little sister and announce my homecoming.

It was another four years before I “chose” to sober up.

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