I wrote the first draft of “9” (“The Wife”) on a flight filled with rowdy children, hurtling between Orlando and Philadelphia. I have to say, I just needed a few days of daytime drinking, good friends, and forgiveness (all in Austin, TX) in order to cure the writer’s block that has been plaguing me for the past few weeks. My new question: Does every story require a happy/hopeful ending? You tell me…
Carrot’s nose is bleeding all over the pillow. I fall out of bed trying to retrieve a box of tissues from the bedside table, hitting my head on a nearby bookshelf. When I climb back onto the bed, he is pressing a t-shirt (hopefully his) against his face.
“I think you should put your head between your knees,” I suggest as I rub the bump forming on the side of my head. I silently add, “Or maybe you could consider snorting a little bit less blow this weekend.”
As if he can read my thoughts, he exclaims, “I’ve fallen in with a bad crowd!”
I laugh. There is a lot of this sort of talk at NA meetings: gateway drugs, peer pressure, and bad crowds. I couldn’t disagree more.
Some people are just born to look for trouble. We are the Trouble Seekers. When we gather, we form a bad crowd, but we are just as dangerous on our own. No one is to blame for our undoing but ourselves. It doesn’t matter if one’s parents were neglectful or high school was traumatic. Popular, well-adjusted individuals can also be Trouble Seekers. Bad sexual experiences, child abuse, and bountiful disappointment might unlock one’s desire for danger. And of course, this tendency toward ruin can be genetic. I come from a long line of poor decision makers and self-destroyers. I was this way from the moment I was aware of the world outside my pink little girl bedroom walls. I’ve always wanted to drink too much, sleep around, and kill myself with drugs. I had to be the first to lose my virginity, smoke pot, and drop acid. I wanted to bed every cute boy and girl I saw.
At first I saw this as a positive virtue. I was an artist, after all. Years of Art History classes, coupled with my obsession with biographical books and films had taught me one overarching fact: the “artistic temperament” was required for success. Trouble Seeking, indeed.
I was once a painter, creating and selling pictures with the greatest of ease. I wasn’t rich, but life was good. I made enough money to pay my rent. Occasionally I worked part-time at a coffee shop, but that as more for social networking purposes than anything else. I was invited to all of the coolest parties. I received an endless supply of free clothing, meals, and cocktails. Although I have never been beautiful, my charm and facade of hipness ensured that I rarely slept alone, unless it was by choice.
I wanted more. Alcoholism and promiscuity were boring me. That changed the day I made a latte for L. I could see that he was handsome, the sort of fellow I would want to charm back to my apartment. His skin radiated coolness. I was somewhat intimidated. As I handed him his cup, I dared a furtive glance at his face. His green eyes were those of a fellow Trouble Seeker.
I smiled and winked. I received the same in return.
We were instantly inseparable. First, we drank too much and made out in public. Then we had brutal arguments at in bars, restaurants, and galleries. Sex in bathroom stalls and taxicabs. Next we got into drugs. That happened so fast, that I didn’t notice when I was no longer eating or painting. I didn’t care that my hair was suddenly greasy, never mind my newly blemished face. I spent most afternoons in bed with him, either sublimely high, or trying to figure out a new way to get high.
“I would die without you,” he said to me. I knew it was true.
“I knew when I met you that I would know you my whole life.” I did not question this.
I cared about very little. We spending his trust fund at hyperspeed. My savings were almost gone, but there was no way I could make coffee for strangers, much less pick up a paintbrush. The party invitations were dissipating. I hadn’t received a free dress in months. And my phone barely rang.
Penny pinching was required. We started buying low quality heroin because it was a veritable bargain. Never mind that I was frequently vomiting up rat poison and god knows what else. I was convinced that my teeth were going to fall out. L. was feeling paranoid and headachey. The bed smelled like sweat and sickness. We held hands as we sprawled on the dirty sheets, feeling delirious and sore.
Days and weeks passed.
“We have to get it together!” I was surprised to hear my own voice screaming at L. We had been speaking in hushed whispers for months. But the sheets were filled with my blood, because I had somehow forgotten about the magic of menstruation. And for the first time ever, I noticed his grey-green pallor. How long had he been like this? I caught a glimpse of my own sickly face in the mirror above the dresser. Who was I?
L. had no interest in histrionics. “Maybe you should go back to your apartment for a while,” he mumbled.
I stormed back to my place, vowing that we were going to stop being drug addicts. I was going to start painting again. L. would work on his resume. We would resume daily showers and weekly dinners at yuppie restaurants on Milwaukee. We would take vacations and maybe even buy a car.
And then L. left me for good. He slipped into oblivion while I was trying to shave my legs for the first time in months.
The coroner’s report blamed “opiate intoxication.” I blamed myself, him, and our endless hunger for Trouble.
“Beware of the bad crowd,” I say to Carrot as I finally locate the box of tissues. “There is power in numbers, after all.”
Long before I met Carrot on that street corner downtown, I was a Wife.
My husband found me at my lover’s funeral.
“You are a star and you deserve another chance. Let me take you to the west coast,” he said this as if he were merely offering me a piece of gum.
I nodded my head in agreement. I had nothing left in that city.
We were married by a judge at city hall. I wore a green silk dress. As my husband trapped my trembling finger in a cheap gold ring, I reminded myself, “This is my second chance.”
He set up a studio for me in our house, with plenty of natural light and fresh air. He expected that I would start painting again. I could see snowcapped mountains from the window. I convinced myself that I could feel the evergreen forests giving me new energy.
I had survived.
Or I was born again.
My hands were stained with phthalo blue, as I covered canvas after canvas with thin layers of black paint. Hundreds of brush strokes piled up, until silvery ghosts crept into the compositions.
My husband surveyed my work. “This isn’t like your old paintings. What’s going on here? Aren’t you happy? Isn’t this the best thing that has every happened to you in your otherwise sad life?”
Of course, of course. I was lucky someone would have me, after so much squandered potential and time. I really was. I wanted to be the best Wife ever.
“You can be a star again. I am giving you this chance.”
Yes, yes. I was so grateful. But I was starting to feel like a bird trapped in a cage. Sure, my cage was filled with fine art supplies and organic produce, but it was still confining me.
I found a job at a clothing store. It was the first real employment I had held in years. There was something gratifying about my work, even if it was just hours of mindless folding and hanging. All of my co-workers were young–probably the same age as me–but they seemed so hopeful and excited about each day’s offering. Rock shows, dance parties, endless cocktails. I wanted to participate, but I could not. I was a Wife.
Each morning before I left for work, my husband said, “I love you.” I returned the favor, telling myself that I believed what I was saying.
I raced home each afternoon to prepare a nutritious dinner for my spouse. I dutifully slept with him several times each week. I ironed his shirts with the most enthusiasm I could muster. I cleaned the house and did the grocery shopping. “I am good at this,” I told myself.
One night he lounged on the couch, smiling as he watched me dust his endless shelves of books.
“I know I only have you because you are damaged goods, the proverbial scratch-and-dent model. But like the owner of any status symbol, I can’t help but think I have really ‘arrived’ when I watch you cleaning my house like a good wife.”
His words singed the fine blonde hairs on my arms. I mustered a blank smile.
“I know it’s wrong somehow to be glad that your junkie boyfriend finally did himself in, but I am. And look at you…obviously you’re glad, too.”
I returned my cleaning implements to the hall closet before grabbing my house keys and wallet.
“I’m running out for linseed oil,” I called cheerily as I opened the front door.
Instead I walked to the closest bar, a seedy bouquet of stale liquor and hipster body odor. I drank four whiskeys in rapid succession, before enlisting the young bartender to help me track down some real drugs. I stumbled to a bank, using the ATM card for my marital checking account to withdrawal the fifty dollars in cash requested by the dealer.
The bright morning sun roused me in a bus shelter the next morning, reminding me to vomit in a nearby trash can. I ran home to change for work, ignoring my husband’s questioning stare.
“I’m going to be good,” I promised myself. “This isn’t the beginning of a problem.”
There was my job, after all. It was important to me. It made me feel like a real adult. And I had just received a promotion.
But I didn’t want to be a Wife anymore. I didn’t want to spend my night snorting heroin off dive bar bathroom sinks, either. Somehow the second option was easier, perhaps simply because it was familiar.
And so night after night, I stumbled into my marital bed well past midnight. A few times, I simply nodded off on the front porch, my head resting on our prickly WELCOME mat. My husband was eating take out dinners. His work clothes were wrinkly. Of course his books gathered dust.
One morning he was not home. I was relieved. I couldn’t bear another accusatory stare. I took a shower and wrapped myself in a bathrobe. I had thirty minutes to put on makeup and make myself presentable for work.
I was heading for the kitchen for some orange juice when the first blow struck me.
My head the wall. Before I could regain my balance, a hand grabbed my hair and whirled me around.
THWACK. That’s the sound his hand made as it hit my face. The metallic taste of blood filled my mouth.
I couldn’t cry out. Didn’t we love one another?
I was silent as he hit me again; this time he aimed for my eye.
My dutiful husband, the sensitive philosopher, the devoted son. I had driven him to this.
A few more blows, and I was on the ground. I deserved this. That was certain.
“I really ought to mop the hallway,” I thought as I saw a dust bunny roll by my hand. “I have been a bad Wife.”
He was yelling, but I heard nothing.
He kicked me in the stomach. I knew that if I wanted to survive, I would have to stand up and run away. I wasn’t sure what I wanted, so instead I crawled. To the bathroom. I was thankful for the high-quality, old-time lock on the door. The solid craftsmanship assured me that he would not be able to break down the door.
I sat on the floor, watching blood drip from my nose to the floor. I could not cry. I was not frightened.
I pulled myself to my feet. The medicine cabinet mirror revealed that my face was already a swollen patchwork of purple, yellow, and red. There was a bald spot on the side of my head, from where he had gripped my hair.
I tightened my bathrobe before hoisting myself through the window above the bathtub. I fell into the shrubbery below.
I wandered out to the sidewalk. What was I going to do? I would have to call out of work. I couldn’t show up with a bloody chin and a sweaty bathrobe.
A horn was honking. A woman in a passing station wagon. I assumed that she saw my face. She was rolling down her window. Maybe she would take me to a hospital.
“You left your soda on top of your car,” she said gesturing toward the black sports car next to me.
I looked over at the can of diet soda. “Thanks,” I chirped. What a samaritan!
“No problem. It happens to me all the time! And I’m always mad at myself for being such a waster!” And then she drove away.
I sat on the curb. And so ended the second chance.