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Drinking: A Love Story

by Caroline Knapp

A Delta Book

Published by Dell Publishing
a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.
1540 Broadway
New York, New York 10036

© 1996 by Caroline Knapp

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the Publisher, except where permitted by law. For information address The Dial Press, New York, New York.

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The trademark Delta is registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries.

ISBN: 0-385-31554-6

Chapter Six:
Sex

One morning you wake up and open your eyes. Your head feels like it weighs way too much, so much it hurts to move: you feel a throbbing behind one of your eyes, or in your temple. A sharp pain, a steady ache. Your brain hurts, as though the fluid between your brain and skull is thick and inflamed. You feel mildly nauseated and you can't tell if you need to eat or if eating would make you sick. Inside, everything feels jittery and loose, like a car with bad wiring.

Next to you in the bed is a man. Perhaps you know him, perhaps you don't.

You experience a moment of disoriented panic - what happened? exactly what happened? - and you take a quick inventory. Are you naked? Clothed? Is there any evidence of birth control? An empty condom wrapper, your diaphragm case lying on the floor? You close your eyes: you want to pretend to be sleeping in case he stirs; mostly, though, you want to collect your thoughts, try to patch the evening back together.

Bits and pieces come back to you. You remember the early part of the evening clearly, the first few drinks, the way you started to loosen up. Perhaps you remember dancing, or sitting in a corner with this man, somewhere dark - a bar, a restaurant, a quiet room away from the main party. Then things start to get a little blurred. You remember laughing you were making jokes, or laughing at his jokes. You felt giddy and light and you had a sense of freedom, as though some secret part of you were rising up, a part you rarely have access to when you're not drinking. This felt like a kind of relief: sober is dry and uptight; drunk is fluid and liquid and loose.

There are more drinks; things get blurrier. At some point there was touch: he put his hand on your arm, or you put your hand on his arm. You looked at each other, smiling, and you felt attractive, and that feeling gave you a sense of power and possibility.

Your head pounds; you lie still in bed. The clear memories stop there and all you have is snippets. You were telling him things: things that felt important, deep things. What were they? Something about your mother. Some elaborate theory about human nature you had one day on the bus. Some... some story, some detail. You strain to remember and lying there in bed this makes you cringe, this wondering what you said, how intimate it might have been.

Other snippets: you remember leaning against him, or walking down the street with your arm around him, trying semiconsciously not to stumble on the sidewalk. You have a dim sense that that powerful feeling merged with a needy feeling, a wish for reciprocation. Does he find you attractive? How attractive? Are you attractive?

The sex, if you remember it, was disconnected and surreal. Your body did what it was supposed to do, or at least you think it did: all you have are tiny, discrete images - legs moving apart, legs wrapped around his hips, arms around his back. You remember sliding into sexuality in an almost instinctive way, mimicking what seemed like the appropriate behaviors: kissing him, holding on to him, throwing your head back in pleasure even though you didn't really feel pleasure, even though you didn't really feel much at all. And then your mind goes blank. You don't remember the rest.

You just have questions, and they gnaw at you.

Was he as drunk as you were? Did he notice how drunk you were? How much will he remember?

Were you a lunatic? Are you a lunatic?

You lie there with your eyes closed. All you want to do is get out, just get out and go home and take a shower and get all of this out of your mind, shove it straight back into history.

In 1993 Katie Roiphe's book The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism came out, and for a few weeks the radio talk shows and the op-ed pages were filled with commentary about the word no. Was there a serious date-rape crisis on college campuses? Roiphe said the issue was contrived, that it represented overhyped feminist paranoia and a misguided attempt to regulate the rules of sexual conduct, that today's women are strong and capable, that we are masters of our own "sexual agency." Roiphe's critics charged her with antifeminist rhetoric, with participating in a backlash against attempts to address the realities of women's lives, with deliberately ignoring the fact that women always have been, and continue to be, victims of sexual violence.

I remember listening to the arguments and counterarguments and thinking: They're all missing the boat. No one here is really talking about booze. Alcohol was trotted out now and then as a complicating factor - Roiphe herself writes about "thinking back on complicated nights, on too many glasses of wine, on strange and familiar beds." But by and large, excessive drinking was discussed as an accessory to the fact, something with tangible consequences: drinking impairs judgment; drinking wreaks havoc on your communication skills. The deeper connections between alcohol and selfworth and sexuality, the way women (at least women like me) use alcohol to deaden a wide range of conflicted feeling - longing for intimacy and terror of it; a wish to merge with others and a fear of being consumed; profound uncertainty about how and when to maintain boundaries and how and when to let them down - weren't addressed with much texture or depth.

No is an extraordinarily complicated word when you're drunk. This isn't just because drinking impairs your judgment in specific situations, like parties or dates (which it certainly may); it's because drinking interferes with the larger, murkier business of identity, of forming a sense of the self as strong and capable and aware. This is a difficult task; for all human beings, but it's particularly difficult for women and it's close to impossible for women who drink.

My friend Meg used to go out to bars and get drunk and go home with men. The sex was anonymous - she usually didn't remember their names in the morning - and the consummation of the act was in many ways beside the point. There was something deep and compulsive about the behavior, some part of her that felt driven.

When she describes this, Meg talks about a component of anger and rebellion: she was in her late twenties and early thirties at the time, and she'd spent the better part of her young adult life responding to her fears about intimacy and sex by shutting men out, steering clear of relationships. There was something about drinking, something about getting drunk and sleeping with men she didn't know, that gave free rein to a host of buried feelings, to an undercurrent of neediness and longing she'd kept compressed in the darkest corner of her soul for years.

The drink released this current, let it stream up and out. There was a fuck-you element to it: a feeling of fuck you, I am going to get what I want, even if 1 don't believe I deserve it. Frustration and shame and fear and self-loathing and release, all rolled into one, all liquefied and drained away by drink. She drank and she just did it, just said fuck you to her own complicated mix of feelings and did it. In some ways this worked: drunken, anonymous sex gave her the illusion of intimacy with none of the attendant risks, none of the aching vulnerability of sober sex.

If you both long for intimacy and fear it, if you feel unworthy of it and ill equipped to receive it and ashamed of yourself for wanting it, alcohol becomes a most useful tool, a way of literally drowning the conflict. It's a way of giving license to the part of you that wants to say yes. Yes to life and yes to deep connection and yes to touch and comfort and love. The sad thing is, whatever sense of affirmation you get from anonymous, drunken sex is usually metabolized away with the booze in your system. Meg would wake up in the morning and feel like an idiot. She'd feel shame and regret and confusion.

Oh, shit. Head pounds, hands shake, mind races. Oh, shit: what have I done?

She'd wish she'd said no.

Boundaries get so fucked up when you drink, so blurred. My sophomore year of college, some friends took over a lounge in one of the dorms on campus and threw me a birthday party, kegs of beer and bottles of vodka and trash cans full of ice everywhere. I wore a little black dress, one in a series of little black dresses I'd get plastered in over the years, and I got drunk and danced, something I never did sober I danced with a guy named Bruce who had dark curly hair and blue eyes and seemed sweet in a shy way.

I remember getting drunk. I remember how the drink mixed with the rhythm of the music and gave me a sense of connection to my own body, gave it permission to move and as the music shifted from fast to slow I found myself leaning against Bruce, my face against his neck, his arm around my waist and back. There was a sense of surrender, a melting into the shape of his body and a sense of myself all pretty and giddy and free.

Years later I would be reminded of this watching Meg Ryan in When a Man Loves a Woman, in a scene early in the movie when she and Andy Garcia are out at dinner on their anniversary and she's drunk and dancing with him that same way, draped all over him, laughing, just a tiny bit out of control. That's how I felt dancing at the party, as though the alcohol flipped some switch and flick! - worked its familiar magic, turned me into someone who laughed and danced and felt sexual.

Flash forward an hour or two later. No memory of what happened. None at all. Somehow, we ended up in bed in his dorm room, his roommate in the next bed. I had only the most dazed sense of this - a narrow twin bed; a fuzzy drifting in and out of consciousness; the briefest shock of recognition when it hit me that a penis, this man's penis, was pressing into me. After that I guess I passed out. In the morning I gathered up my clothes while Bruce was still asleep, put my black dress back on, and wobbled up the street toward my own dorm. It was seven o'clock on a Sunday. The campus was deserted. I had a feeling of shame.

Yes, no, maybe. Yes on one level, no on another, yes-and-no on yet another. Truman Capote once wrote that he saw in Elizabeth Taylor an "emotional extremism, a dangerously greater need to be loved than to love." Me, I was too cautious and inhibited and scared to give in to extremism of any kind in sobriety, emotional or otherwise. But when I drank it happened. When I drank, the part that felt dangerous and needy grew bright and strong and real. The part that coveted love kicked into gear. The yes grew louder than the no.

The first time Meg had sex, her best friend advised her: "Just get drunk. It'll be easy." So that's exactly what she did. She got drunk then, and she got drunk the next time and the time after that, and after a while the idea of having sex with a man without getting drunk first seemed pretty much impossible.

Meg grew up the same time I did, coming of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, long before people talked about things like safe sex, or even contraception, and many years before women's health organizations and magazines began encouraging women to "take charge" of their sexuality, to learn about sex and enjoy their bodies. The picture of female sexuality she acquired came from movies and TV, a little Marilyn Monroe here, a little Mary Tyler Moore there. Sex bomb; good girl. Those were really the only two options and even if you strove to emulate one of those, no one really told you how: how to be a sex bomb, how to be a good girl. How did these ideals translate into practical behavior?

Meg was scared of her own body, and she was scared of men's bodies, and so most of the time she'd just lie there with her drunkenness and her doubts. She felt as though she'd missed some key set of instructions, as though she was supposed to know instinctively how to move her body in ways that would be pleasing to herself and her partner, as though her lack of information on this subject signaled some fundamental weakness or failure on her part.

So she drank and the drink loosened her up enough to act exuberant. Way inside, being female seemed like a painful thing - Meg felt mute, objectified, frightened - and alcohol took all of that away, just washed it away like the sea against sand.

Meg often slept with men she didn't want to sleep with she didn't know how to say no. More precisely, she didn't know she was allowed to say no. She figured that flirting was a slippery slope: once you've given a man the signal that you're available, you're not allowed to go back, not allowed to change your mind.

Meg is a beautiful woman in her late thirties, with olive skin and dark eyes. She's also a wonderfully direct person who's taught herself in four years of sobriety to say exactly what's on her mind, so it's very hard to imagine her in that position, unable to make her own desires and limits clear, incapable of acting in a way that would preserve her own dignity.

At the same time Meg's story - her shyness and shame and confusion -is achingly familiar. Bad, semiconsensual drunken sex: so many women I know did this. So many still do. At least one quarter of the 17,592 students surveyed in a 1995 Harvard School of Public Health study on campus drinking said they had suffered an unwanted sexual advance as a result of drinking; that same year, a Columbia University study reported that alcohol plays a role in ninety percent of rapes on college campuses. So Meg is typical. She all of it, I did it: we lay there staring at the ceiling and just wanting it to end; we woke up in a haze some morning in some man's bed not really remembering how we got there or what happened next; we found sex compelling and terrifying and foreign, and drank to deal with it, just drank our way through.

I had done that all through adolescence, drinking to numb fear and feelings of inadequacy. The first guy I ever made out with was a big lug of a hockey player from my ninth-grade class named Henry, who had bad skin and long hair and played the drums in a band. We were at a party, drinking a lot of beer, and at some point Henry and I ended up alone in the basement and he started to kiss me. It felt like we were down there for hours. Henry's kisses were wet and foreign-feeling, and I let him put his hand under my shirt and then under my bra because I didn't know what else to do. It felt invasive - an alien hand on something I barely touched myself - but the beer worked: it allowed me to feel a man's hand on my thigh or my breast without feeling afraid.

Drinking continued to work, diluting the discomfort, making things bearable. All through high school I could go to a party or drink at a bar with a group of friends and then I could drive home with whatever hulk of a boy I happened to be seeing - Henry that year, then a football player named Will, then a wrestler named John, all interchangeable more or less because I never quite felt close to or comfortable with any of them - and I could lean back in the car and be kissed and touched, hands groping and probing where I didn't want them, and it wouldn't really matter; I wouldn't really feel a thing. At my senior prom I got blackout drunk, lost a white sandal somewhere on the dance floor at the Hyatt Hotel in Cambridge, and ended up making out in a car by the Charles River with a guy named Mike. I have no memory, no conscious memory, of what that felt like, and I suppose that was precisely the point.

So I can imagine exactly how Meg ended up lying there in a man's bed, staring at the ceiling like that, wanting the failed foray into intimacy to end. It's a classic story, and I can see myself reading from the same script over and over. I can see myself being groped by a boy in high school, feeling that combination of shock and curiosity - and drinking to counter the feelings. I can see myself in college, reeling up the stairs toward Bruce's dorm room, too drunk to have feelings. I can see myself flirting at a party, not knowing how to stop the flirting from escalating, not knowing how to turn off what I've seemed to turn on - and drinking to shut down the confusion this generates, drinking to keep myself going. I can almost feel the drink, feel how central it was to such experiences. Deaden the shock; facilitate the exploration. Voila: No problem; I can do this.

Drinking, drinking. Drinking and loving men, drinking and loving men who drink. I never once went out with a man who didn't like to get drunk. Never. Right from the start the idea of going out with a man who didn't like to tie one on was unthinkable to me, and would be for many years.

This seemed perfectly reasonable, to choose drinking men. Alcohol can numb fear, and allow you to fake it, and take you places you literally don't want to go: strange beds. But it can also give you access to romance, a bridge to the positive sides of sexuality. Alcohol felt like the cement in female sexuality, at least it did to me: over the years the two would become so deeply linked that for the longest time I simply couldn't imagine one without the other. A first kiss without drinks? Forget it. Sex without liquor? No way. Drinking was as integral to my sense of sexuality as a body part no more, no less. And sometimes that form of integration was effective, amazingly so.

A snapshot:

I am nineteen, sitting in a fancy restaurant in Santa Fe. New Mexico, with my boyfriend, David. We are both dressed up. He is wearing a tan suit, I have on a flowered sundress, we are both tan and healthy. We order a round of drinks - margaritas - and, with dinner, a bottle of red wine, a California Cabernet. I am supremely happy in this picture. I feel wonderfully protected, cocooned by the wine and the sense of romance, and together David and I are the perfect image of young love, clinking wineglasses above the pink linen at our table.

Wine and that melting ease; wine and that sense of yielding to sensuality. When I was with men I loved, drinking felt like the most naturally, the most reliable route to a kind of internal softening. A naturally inhibited person, someone who grew up feeling mystified and insecure about what it meant to feel sexual, I turned to liquor the way a dancer turns toward music: it felt central to the process, central to my ability to shut down the voices of self-criticism in my own head and simply let go, move to a different kind of music. Pop! Clink! Ahhh.

David was the first man I'd fallen in love with. He was a friend of a friend who lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I met him there during spring vacation my senior year of high school, and we stayed together through college and for several years after that. Big and uncomplicated and beautiful in a rugged way: that's how he struck me from the start, like the Southwestern landscape, as different from the men I'd known before as Boston was from Santa Fe. He was originally from Montana and he had the chiseled good looks of a mountain boy: dark hair and jade-green eyes and teeth so straight and white my mother said he looked like a model in a toothpaste commercial. I loved him almost immediately.

Alcohol, of course, coursed through our romance like a river, providing the undercurrents. I wasn't aware of this at the time, but one of the things that attracted me so deeply to David was the role liquor occupied in his life. The day we met we drank tequila sunrises at a bar in Santa Fe, and I remember the particular giddy high you get from tequila, and I remember the way David's hair fell against his forehead, a single dark curl. That was such a powerful combination, the giddy high and the sight of him. I was drunk the first time he kissed me, drunk the first time we slept together, drunk the first time I told him I loved him. I don't think David was an alcoholic - he was one of those people who simply liked to drink and knew how and when to stop when he'd had too much - but he managed to keep a steady supply of drink around him and I grew to depend on its presence: bottles of beer in the refrigerator at the end of the day; bottles of tequila on the shelves to mix with lime and grenadine; cases of beer in the backseat of his car for day trips to the mountains.

It was always there, liquor was, helping us to blur the boundaries and deaden the fear, helping us protect ourselves from one another.

I was by no means a raging alcoholic when I fell in love with David, but I suppose you could say the predilection was there, that I was on the road to becoming one. Part of this was reflected simply in my behavior. I have a lot of good drinking memories from those days - drinking Coors beer under the sun by a Santa Fe swimming pool; sipping wine in the back of David's pickup truck at night on a New Mexico mountainside; drinking Champagne under the stars in the high desert - but I also have a lot of unpleasant memories - memories of blackouts; memories of explosive, liquor-laced fights; a particularly embarrassing memory of drinking an entire gallon of cheap white wine during a drive from New Mexico to Colorado, en route to visit my sister at a summer camp where she was working, then staggering out of the car when we arrived, loud and obnoxious and falling-down drunk. I was eighteen then; my sister was appalled.

More to the point, I think my relationship with alcohol began to deepen and shift around that time, my college years, moving from a simple tool of self-transformation to a way to relax and feel less inhibited, a way to be more sexual and open and light - into something more complicated a more deeply ingrained way of coping with the world. Looking back I can see how certain patterns were beginning to develop, certain classically alcoholic ways of managing feelings and conflicts in relationships that would grow more entrenched and complicated over time.

Almost by definition alcoholics are lousy at relationships. We melt into them in that muddied, liquid way, rather than marching into them with any real sense of strength or self-awareness. We become so accustomed to transforming ourselves into new and improved versions of ourselves that we lose the core version, the version we were born with, the version that might learn to connect with others in a meaningful way. We are uncomfortable, often desperately uncomfortable, with closeness, and alcohol has the insidious dual effect of deadening the discomfort and also preventing us from ever really overcoming it we become too adept at sidestepping the feelings with drink to address them directly. Feel conflicted? Drink. Insecure? Have a drink. Angry? Drink.

In fact, as much as I loved David, my feelings for him confused and scared me. I'd found in David another antidote to my family style - a nice, uncomplicated, loving man, a regular guy unburdened by insight and self-analysis - and I found my own attraction to him disturbing: did it reflect badly on me somehow, this choice of a tall, dark, slightly goofy, nonintellectual boyfriend? Was there something wrong with me, for needing someone so different from the people I'd grown up with? Were my own appetites - for hugs and sexuality and liquor - inappropriate?

Geography protected me from those questions for a long time: the summer after I met David, I went off to college, to Brown, he stayed in Santa Fe, in school, and we conducted the relationship over three thousand miles for the next three years, bingeing on intimacy during periodic reunions, then retreating from it during separations. But that strategy fell apart my senior year of college, when David, who'd graduated by then, moved to Rhode Island to live with me. The dynamic suddenly changed and so, in turn, did my relationship with liquor.

David and I lived in an apartment together off campus and I felt conflicted by his presence almost immediately, as though he wouldn't fit in, as though there was something wrong with me for trying to merge these two lives, my Brown life and my David life. So without really being aware of it I split my life in two that year, going to classes and working obsessively at the library during the day, returning to David, who'd gotten a job with a small marketing firm, in the evening. At night we drank - every night, as I recall - and I spent that year feeling tense, as though I had to work hard to keep the two worlds apart. We didn't go out with my college friends; for the most part we kept to ourselves.

Alcoholics compartmentalize: this was classic behavior, although I wouldn't have known that back then. I've heard the story in AA meetings time after time: alcoholics who end up leading double lives - and sometimes triple and quadruple lives - because they never learned how to lead a single one, a single honest one that's based on a clear cut sense of who they are and what they really need.

I once heard a woman at a meeting define alcoholism as a fundamental inability to be honest, not so much with other people but with the self. She talked about attaching herself to lovers all through college and graduate school as a way of avoiding the messy, fearful business of growing up, as a way of cashing in the chips of her core being by simply handing them over to someone else, letting others define her. Lots of people do this - you don't have to he an alcoholic in order to surrender your sense of self to someone else - but alcoholics do it with particular zeal and precision. We can be ace chameleons, twisting ourselves into two, three, four versions of ourselves and using drink to lubricate the transformations. You tell me who to be. And you, and now you.

When she described this, I flashed immediately onto that year with David, onto the way I split myself into two separate people, playing distinct roles in each life: the David life, which was social and sexual and awash in drink and hidden conflict, and the academic life, which was disciplined and cerebral and restrained.

The academic life, appropriately enough, was also defined by a man. Brown was famous for its lack of distribution requirements and I'd floundered there for my first few years, taking an absurdly random, disconnected collection of courses before settling into a combined major in English and History, and choosing that not because it tapped into some deep reservoir of intellectual interest on my part but because it was a small, new program in which I could stand out. A man named Roger headed that program. He was in his forties, an immensely popular member of the English department, and he had a razor-sharp intellect, and he was the first professor at Brown who made me feel special.

I'd wanted that feeling desperately - it's another classic impulse among alcoholics, to seek validation from the outside in - and I hadn't found it in college. The school was too big: I didn't have an instinctive sense for how to fit in, and I didn't have a clue about what I wanted to study. Academic achievement was something I'd always sought as a form of reward good grades pleased my parents, good grades pleased my teachers; you got them in order to sew up approval.

Roger, whom I met as a junior, gave me precisely that brand of approval, and I'd found it familiar and reassuring he gave me a purpose, someone to please. In my senior year I narrowed my major down to eighteenth-century British literature and history because those were his areas of expertise. He became my advisor, and under his direction I wrote a prize winning thesis, graduating from Brown with honors.

Two days after my graduation I went out to lunch with Roger, a celebratory gesture on his part. He'd suggested this after the graduation ceremony - "Let me take you to lunch!" - and he'd called the next day and arranged to pick me up at my apartment.

We drove to a small, sunny restaurant about ten minutes away from campus, and he ordered us martinis. Then he ordered wine with lunch. We ate lobster salads and talked about writing.

After lunch, in his car, Roger leaned over suddenly and kissed me on the mouth. I was startled and scared and confused when he kissed me, but I was also drunk, so I let him. I let him keep kissing me, and I let him put his hand on my breasts, and when he called me on the phone a few days later and asked me to have lunch with him again, I agreed because I didn't know what else to say.

I must have gotten drunk with Roger six or seven times that summer. We'd drive to a different restaurant each time and we'd have many drinks - usually martinis, like I'd had with my father - and after lunch, blind drunk in the daylight, we'd sit in his car and I'd let him kiss me again. I'd close my eyes, panicked inside but numb, very numb, and I'd feel his breath on my neck and his tongue in my mouth and I'd just sit there, not knowing how I'd gotten into the situation and not knowing how in the world to get out.

I couldn't have done this without drinking. David would go off to work in the morning and I'd go off to lunch later in the day with Roger, and I'd sit in the car while he kissed me and worry drunkenly about getting home, getting home before David got home and sobering up and trying to keep the anxiety out of my eyes. One day Roger asked me about David, and I told him he was moving to Chicago at the end of the summer to go to graduate school. Roger smiled. "Oh, good," he said. "Then we can become lovers."

Lovers. I'd graduated that spring without a clue about where I was headed. Writing loomed as an ill-defined but daunting possibility; so did medical school, psychiatry. But honestly, I hadn't so much as sent out a resume; like I said, I didn't have a clue.

"Oh, good. Then we can become lovers." We were at an outdoor restaurant in Newport, Rhode Island, when he said that, and I remember vividly that I picked up my glass and gulped down the rest of my drink. A breeze was blowing, the sun was in my eyes. I thought I was going to throw up.

For the next decade I rarely talked to friends about the relationship with Roger and when I did, I described it the easy way: he was the villain and I was the victim. There's truth in that, but it's also true that I put myself in his path, that I made myself an easy target, and that drinking facilitated that process.

We'd had one lunch before the one where he kissed me, several weeks before my graduation. We'd walked downtown to a tiny basement restaurant called Pot au Feu, a cozy place with brick walls and wooden tables. We drank martinis that time, too, and I could tell that Roger found me attractive.

I also understood, however abstractly, that the martinis allowed me to indulge in that attraction, to flirt with it, to tap in to a feeling of power I was otherwise too self-conscious and fearful to acknowledge. After the second or third drink I know that I was leaning across the table, interest in my eyes, asking questions, drawing him out. I asked him about writing, and about his career and his background. I smiled demurely at all the right moments, maintained the right amount of eye contact, cultivated that particular egostroking blend of vulnerability, reverence, and detachment.

I don't remember how I really felt about him at the time - in purely objective terms, was he a nice person? An asshole? I don't know. Nor do I remember feeling physically attracted to him in any genuine way. Feelings of lust - if I'd had any at all - would have seemed shameful and incestuous to me: Roger was a father figure to me, and I wanted the kind of adoration and esteem from him that a little girl wants from her dad. But that wish gets complicated when you're a young woman who's had too many drinks. What I remember from that lunch is the drive: to please, to generate approval, and to do that by somehow sexualizing the relationship, because that's the only way I knew how.

This is an instinctive way of responding to someone whose affection and validation you covet - I'd seen women in college do it for years, smiling up coyly at professors or older boys in fraternities; I'd seen it done in movies and on TV all my life; in some barely labeled corner of my soul I, like most women I know, had come to appreciate sexuality as an ill-destined but very real path to female power, and I acted on that appreciation without really knowing it. I could feel it.

So when Roger took me out to lunch a few weeks later, and when he kissed me in the car afterward, I felt shocked] and confused and appalled but also, oddly, victorious. The feeling was I got what I wanted; I won. And because I understood I'd participated in the game, because I knew I'd worked on some semiconscious level to draw him in, I somehow deprived myself of the ability to get out cleanly. How can you say no when you've worked to make someone else say yes?

Alcohol puts you in such a box, leaves you with such an impossible equation: you have to sexualize the relationship in order to feel powerful, and you have to drink in order to feel sexual, and on some level you understand it's all fake, that the power is chemical, that it doesn't come from within you. So I'd sit there in the car with Roger, and I'd let him touch me and I'd feel completely stuck, just the tiniest stirring of inexpressible rage - at him, at myself - bubbling inside.

The drink of deception: alcohol gives you power and robs you of it in equal measure.

I never told David about the episodes with Roger, but they inserted themselves into our relationship, creating another kind of distance. He'd come home and ask me about my day. "Oh, it was fine," I'd say and then I'd fall silent. I felt like I was carrying around a huge secret (which, of course, I was) and I jumped every time the phone rang, worried it would be Roger calling to set up another lunch.

David and I drank that summer, a lot. We took to buying vodka by the gallon jug, and large bottles of tequila, and we'd have a drink before dinner, then wine while we ate, then more after dinner: vodka-and-tonics, or tequila sunrises. On the days I met Roger, I felt unbearably guilty, partly because I'd seen him, partly because I knew I was complicit in maintaining the relationship, and partly because I understood that my ambivalence toward David was a factor in the whole equation too. There in Providence, with my own ill-formed future looming ahead, our differences worried me, gnawed at me. I'd sit there at dinner and look at him and compare him to the other men in my life, namely, to Roger and my father: Was David smart enough? Introspective enough? Ambitious enough? Was it enough just to love him, or should I attach myself to someone who seemed farther ahead of me, someone smarter and more ambitious than me, who'd be sure to carry me along into the version of adulthood I thought I should be striving for?

These were tough questions, complicated feelings, but I never addressed them with David, not once. I drank instead and the questions running through the back of my mind faded away, just faded out of consciousness.

Alcoholics are masters at deflecting blame: it's one of the hallmarks of the personality, the way we explain our own feelings by attaching them to someone or something outside ourselves, the way we refuse, without even being aware of it, to take responsibility for our own part in troubled relationships. All that summer I'd sit there at the dinner table and look critically at David, feeling something was missing, something was awry. It never occurred to me, not once, that something might have been wrong with me, with my own capacity to accept people's limits, with my own neediness, with my own wish to be validated and defined by other people.

But that sort of honesty - with the self, with others - is impossible when you're drinking. The liquor numbs the real feelings and the real fears and the real doubts; it deprives you of the courage it takes to be honest. You lose your hold on who you really are and you just kind yourself in bad situations: sitting in some professor's car, being groped; sitting at dinner with your boyfriend, withholding information. Keeping secrets.

My father kept secrets too.

At the end of that summer, the Roger summer, my mother called me on the phone and said she had something she wanted to talk to me about. It was a weekend morning in late August, and I remember sitting down at the kitchen table, tracing the red-and-white checks on the tablecloth and thinking, Someone's died. My mother never called to talk about anything serious and there was an unfamiliar strain in her voice.

"I'm thinking of leaving your father," she said.

"You are?"

She sounded embarrassed and edgy, as though explaining this was going to be exhausting. "Oh, sweetie," she said. "It's such a complicated business." Then she told me that my father had been having an affair. The relationship had been going on for seven years and she couldn't tolerate the betrayal anymore; she was about to go off to Martha's Vineyard for a few days to think things over.

This was stunning news. You never would have known, just never. Thinking about my parents that afternoon, I couldn't remember one argument, one moment of overt tension, one episode that might have suggested anything so dramatic as an affair, and as I learned more I would be astonished at the lengths my parents had gone to protect us from their problems. My father had actually moved out for a few weeks while I was in college; I came home for a weekend during that time and he moved back in for the two days I was there so I wouldn't know.

I saw my parents as model grown-ups, and their manner, their silence, informed my sense of what adulthood looked and felt like. Grown-ups behaved rationally and calmly. Grown-ups worked during the day and came home at night and sat down for drinks and passed the evening quietly. After dinner my father usually disappeared into his office for a few hours; my mother sat in the living room with her knitting, watching programs on public television or talking on the phone. I saw them as beyond conflict, way beyond the kind of mess I'd found myself in that summer. Years ago, I believed, in the privacy of their therapists' offices, they'd transcended all that.

My instinctive reaction was to side with my mother, to react with horror and shock, but I also remember breathing a small sigh of relief at the news. It made my father a little less mysterious, helped put some of his remoteness and preoccupation in context. When I sat with him in those strained silences in the family living room, I had thought there was some inadequacy on my part that ground the conversation to a halt. I'd seen him all my life on such an epic scale - lost in his own grand thoughts, above me and my small concerns, possibly even frustrated or bored with me - and the news of his affair shifted the burden for the first time away from me and onto something else. Of course he was preoccupied; he was leading a double life. And of course he relied on that martini every evening: coming home was a painful thing, an exercise in guilt and betrayal that needed easing daily. The information might have been shocking but it also made him human.

A few days after my mother's call I drove up to Cambridge and met my father at the house. He seemed tense and tortured and he tried in the most awkward way to explain. We sat outside on the patio. He made martinis and he gulped his first one down and when he spoke his language was so ambiguous and abstract it was nearly impossible to ask questions. He said, "There have been a lot of troubles," and I can barely recall another word he said.

The evening was clear and quiet, the primary sound coming from the whisper of trees around our house, and I remember that my father looked old all of a sudden, worried and far away. I know he made a reference to "sexual problems" between my mother and him. I know he made a reference to his "complicated relationship" with his own mother, as well as several references to anger and ambivalence, undercurrents of both. But mostly I remember looking at him with a feeling I'd had since childhood: that he held something dark and conflicted and unknowable inside, something I shared but couldn't yet put words to; that he'd remain a mystery to me until he died.

Years later, after my father's death, I had occasion to meet with one of the few people who understood him intimately, a psychologist named Jack, and he filled me in on the source of some of that conflict: apparently my father's own father had had affairs, lots of them, and he'd humiliate his wife, publicly and regularly, by talking about them in front of other people, flaunting them. She would retaliate, not by having affairs of her own, but by acting seductive and flirtatious to anyone who happened to be handy, including my father. Jack told me all this by way of explaining how conflicted my father had become, how the concepts of sexuality and humiliation got welded in his soul from the earliest age, how on the deepest level he couldn't experience sexual love for someone without also feeling shame. My father was kind and empathic and deeply sensitive and as a young man, the model his parents offered put him in a terrible bind: to identify with his mother was to yield to her seduction; to identify with his father was to condone his sadism.

In the end, Jack told me, my father wouldn't humiliate my mother by flaunting his affair as his own father had done, so he'd struggled to keep it secret. The affair had ended after a year or two and then he'd confessed. But some time passed and he'd started it again, then ended it again, then confessed again. From what I gathered, the affair had continued like that - on and off, promises made then broken - and that summer, after the last confession, my mother had had enough.

Although I couldn't quite say how at the time, my father's affair explained things to me, provided some central piece of the quiet puzzle that was our home. Sitting with him on the patio that evening, I thought: that's what that silence was about; that's where the veils of sadness and tension came from; that's why I never saw my parents hug, or explode with passion or emotion or rage: all the energy went into hiding things, keeping the lid on feelings. I found the story of my father's affair utterly surprising and utterly validating at the same time, and I remember sipping my drink on the patio and saying, simply, "Oh."

I didn't know what else to say, really. Sexual conflict? Lust and adultery? My parents?

"Oh." It explained things, but I couldn't react past that.

They broke up for about three days. My mother went to the Vineyard, and my father moved in with the other woman, and then, finally, something shifted and he decided he couldn't follow through, couldn't leave my mother. He called her and over the next week they patched things back together.

Years later he told my sister that he drank almost the entire time he was there: drank vodka and drank gin and drank and drank. Drinking was his solution, the medication for sexual conflict.

The amazing thing, of course, is that you do all this - all this drinking, all the keeping of secrets and withholding of information, all the self-medicating - without making the connection between the drink and the outcome. My father drank, and he stayed stuck in the relationship with the other woman, and stuck in the secrecy, and stuck in the feeling of ambivalence, and he didn't understand until it was way too late that all those actions were related, that the drink fostered the secrecy and the secrecy fostered the stuck feeling. that drink and dishonesty and clouded vision were ultimately one and the same, weaving through each other like the threads of a tapestry. That summer with David and Roger I picked up the threads of that same tapestry, drinking and weaving myself into a life that felt woefully overcomplicated, and I couldn't make the connection either. I wouldn't for many years.

The hard things in life, the things you really learn from, happen with a clear mind. About six weeks after that first lunch with Roger, I finally couldn't stand it, couldn't stand sitting in his car and letting him touch me like that anymore, so one day I summoned up all my nerve and went over to his office. I told him, tentatively but very soberly, that I couldn't see him anymore, and that was the end.

I said, "I'm just too uncomfortable with this." He was sitting at his desk and he just stared at me. I stammered, "I hope - I mean, I hope we can still be friends."

Silence.

Finally, he looked at me and said, "Well. If we're not going to be lovers, I don't see the point."

I didn't see him again, or even talk to him again, but from that point on, I could hate him, instead of merely fear him. Years later, I heard he had died, dropped dead of a heart attack while jogging on the East Side of Providence. I didn't feel a thing.

 

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Last edited: 04/24/01 02:59:49 PM