The compensation of growing old…was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained-at last!-the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.
By The Teeth
I go to Cortinas for the laying on of hands. And to ask her questions about ghosts and sex. It’s really just one ghost, and the sex is implied. Still, I have these questions.
Cortinas has me down on the blue gingham sheet this time and I am looking up at the water spot on the ceiling, breathing deep as I can, puffing up and then deflating my lungs to reach, to somehow dislodge this sorrow space in there. She taps the crown of my head with her index fingers and it feels like an egg cracking. She says it’s a sign of affection when someone dead appears in a dream. She asks if I’ve seen red birds. Every time you see a cardinal it’s the same thing, she says. Someone dead who loves you coming back to see you.
I am torn up, Cortinas, I say.
Cortinas’s face is next to my face and it is comforting. She has tapped on me for two years and she knows what I am torn up about. Not the divorce, not my children getting older, and not the mortgage. I started coming to Cortinas because I was haunted in dreams by the specter of a boy who loved me first. He had eye teeth like a wolf’s, and one hurt the last time I saw him alive. He favored it, sucked air through it when he came 500 miles on a bike to see me in my dark days. Before he headed up north to work. To make art. To get killed.
I can’t remember how long it’s been since the last dream, and I don’t know if you can call it a dream anymore, I tell her. The more I try to hear his voice and my voice and what we said, the hazier it is. That last time, I shouted my words out at him, but it was a vacuum, a too-loud television drowning me out.
Tell him next time he comes, Cortinas says. He’ll come. But he has not come in so long.
Pennies too, she says. Feathers. And seashells. If you find these in your path, it could be him. Have you found a seashell? Look for messages and answer back. Talk to him direct.
You, Cassius. She says to tell you when I was 17 and you were 15 and we walked through the mall, it was as much desire as it was terror I felt when I admired the big potted palms in the food court; and that was the first time you touched me. Someday I will buy you one, you said, about the palms. And my God, in those days I was scared of everything—in the food court by Sbarro and the Orange Julius, I was in trouble, and your words opened up a hot place in me that’s still there. The threat of nakedness and falling, feathered up through my legs and chest and it was only for a breath I allowed a set of your fingertips to light on my clavicle.
Cassius. This is why those first nights after they left so little of you, you came to me in a dream bookstore, a laundromat. And then at an outside café in Paris, I think, though neither of us has been. Oh, you were whole again. Not bested and beat for your fancy camera, not a file on a cop’s desk. You sat so near me I could smell your same hot food smell from your mom’s kitchen, so close like my skin, all your pretty teeth blazing. You favored the sharp front one again, sucked in air and flicked your tongue over it in a perfect movement, but I was dream-slow and nothing coordinated. I was too dumb to tuck into you and then I woke up alone sideways in my marriage bed.
Cortinas, is there a spell you can do in case he comes back? I need to tell him I wanted to follow him down the street that day when he rode off, sunburnt to deep cinnamon—cocky and smiling because he’d just kissed me for the first time in twenty years. He kissed me brazen in full sun, on my porch in front of my husband and the whole street. I stood there like the same dumb food court kid.
Tell it to him plain, what you want him to know, Cortinas says. Mind the seashells.
Cassius. If you come back, I will tell you that last day I meant to grab your face and put my mouth on your mouth and suck hard on your tooth, siphon the ache straight out your jaw bone and beg you to head south to your sister’s, to a dentist. Anywhere but Illinois.
We are three hours inland, and the odds of finding a seashell are not good, I know. I come across pennies, though, and the trees in back are grown up now and thick with birds. The red ones, the cardinals, pair up for life. You see one and there’s the other, one high and the other low. They fly into each other, frantic when their wings touch. But they hold tight to their feathers.
Eight Memories of Intoxication That Don’t Involve Drinking a Bottle of Wine Alone Late at Night Dancing and Weeping Manically to Music
My daughter brings home her college boyfriend for a weekend visit to our dull, dry town. I cook a lot of food; they mix a lot of drinks. At one point, I say, “No more for me.” But one more gin and tonic lands in my hands. “This is really strong,” I point out and they burst into laughter. Later they take off to bed and I let the dogs out, turn off the lights, then take a fall face first. The next morning the blood is still on the floor. My eye is blackened, my nose even more crooked. I tell them what happened, and my daughter says her boyfriend made my drinks really stiff. Once again, they burst into laughter while I dread the stories they will tell their friends when they return to school. Or, worse, the stories he may tell his family.
In the Beginning: Annie Green Springs
At fifteen, I take up drinking while my dad once again gives it up and attends AA meetings instead of sitting in bars all night. Funny thing about alcoholics is that booze doesn’t last long in the house— why keep an unfinished bottle of whiskey lying around the house? Might as well finish it off. The dandelion wine in the basement made my friends and me so ill that if we ever did feel a buzz, it was short-lived and replaced by endless puking. We splurged on the good stuff: Annie Green Springs. Fruity. Bubbly. Cheap. We’d crank up Led Zeppelin, each of us drinking our own bottle of wine, dancing away. If boys surfaced, which I rather regretted because my friend and some boy would disappear into a bedroom and I’d never be quite that drunk, everything would slow down for making-out, which seemed to ruin a perfectly good buzz.
1977 and High
At seventeen, my mom was dying. I turned down college offers to spend more time with her. I was also so damn tired of drinking. Then my mother died, and I met new people: musicians, environmentalists, and adventurers who attended the local college in my town. We’d bike to bluegrass festivals and I’d drink like crazy, until the day a friend pulled me aside to say that I change when I drink, and I knew that meant not in a good way. I did need a change, so I hitchhiked out West. In Colorado, a friendly driver told me to look up Big Al when I made it to a small mountain town with a wind-powered radio station. “You’ll love that station. Great music. Big Al will really dig you. He’s got goats and a teepee. Just say I sent you.” Big Al was freshly dead when I made it to town. Got killed on that same mountainous road I had just walked along. The local bar was filled with Big Al’s friends, one toast after another filled with heartfelt and funny memories. I set my backpack down and mentioned that this dude who had given me a lift said I could stay with Big Al. “Well that ain’t gonna happen now,” a man yelled, lifting his glass for another toast. A woman who referred to herself as ‘Big Al’s Old Lady’ looked me over a bit, then handed me his ticket to the Grateful Dead Concert that was happening in a few days at the Red Rocks Amphitheater. “We’ll go together. You’re staying at Big Al’s now.” Things were really looking up. A teepee surrounded by goats and generous hippies. The Dead. I gathered up the young kids who were getting restless at the bar watching their parents get drunk and led them onto the dance floor where we let loose dancing up a storm. Eventually, a motorcycle gang showed up and things got heated because they didn’t like hippies. The police arrived, and I got ushered outside with the motorcycle gang and a few locals. Standing outside the bar, the police officer listened to my story about how I had just arrived in town, only had one beer, and I wasn’t on speed. “I always talk fast. No one understands me anywhere.” The hippies vouched for me. “We just met her. She’s a free spirit. The kids love her.” The police officer looked at me, then said, “Get out of here. I guess it’s true that some people are just naturally high.”
I don’t remember drinking gin, at least to any capacity, until one summer afternoon when a friend opened a bottle of Tanqueray, which she made a point of informing me was a premier gin. We carried our gin and tonics out to the lawn where my friend liked to pontificate, or at least find ways to make me more educated. She handed me a paperback titled Sister Gin. “You have to read this book. You know all the shit that you tolerate because you refuse to become angry? Well, these old ladies drink gin then go after rapists. They get shit done.” I was relieved I didn’t have to start reading the novel that moment, and we could just sit there, drinking one drink after another without having to find those fucking rapists, so we could fuck them up.
Hitting the Bars
While living in Tucson, an old friend visited. We both appreciated that we were no longer in our hometown but were living out West. We were now truly free. After spending the night hitting the bars, we returned to my small apartment, and she mentioned how she thought my neighbor who we had seen outside earlier was really cute, and how we should invite him over. After years of never being recognized by the boys when this friend was nearby, and enduring her unbearable lessons about sex when she was a TA for a sexuality class, I walked to the neighbor’s apartment, where fortunately the window was wide open, and I crawled inside his bed. He had no idea who I was. Before he even had a chance to ask, Hey, where’s your friend, he said, “My dad’s in the next room.” We were quick and quiet. I had no idea our apartments weren’t identical. I had just one room and a small kitchen with a bathtub next to the counter. I couldn’t believe his father had a room to himself. My friend didn’t feel like hearing about the differences in our apartments after I climbed into the bed we shared that night. I think she muttered, “Buzzkill” before rolling over, but I suspect she said much worse while I was next door.
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
I have a weakness for musicians. I also can’t carry a tune or play an instrument, though I have made many attempts to learn these skills. During a weekend music festival where we slept in tents at night and danced and drank wildly by day, I became quite intoxicated with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I’d get on the stage and dance around the musicians to show my love for their music until someone would escort me off the stage. My friends tried to keep me contained but grew weary of that demanding task. Listening to the band perform transfixed me. I wasn’t going to be a groupie. I was going to join their group. After they finished their set, the band members were eager to board their tour bus and hit the road. Until they found me tucked away in a closet. We just did not see eye to eye on my plan.
I tend to find excuses not to attend weddings, but you can’t avoid weddings of family members, though they probably wish I wouldn’t show up. When the first niece got married, I thought I blended in nicely with the drunken crowd, especially considering that I was nowhere near drunk drunk, at least compared to the man my niece married, the man who has now given up booze. I was burning off steam dancing with all the groomsmen, which my date later told me made him feel left out. No one appreciates a whiner. My daughter and I arrived a few days early for the next niece’s wedding, and things were getting a bit tense at the house with all the planning. I could feel a drinking mood approach. When I heard that their preacher would be sitting at the same table as us at the reception and that there’d be a full bar, I warned my sister not to have him sit next to me. I know me. In social settings where I’m feeling out of place, I can drink myself into a stupor before the other guests have even removed their jackets. The preacher and I had already met briefly when I had to stop at the church wearing shorts over my one-piece swimsuit, because we had just left their YMCA pool, and we were sent to do some wedding task involving the sound system, and my sister wanted me to see just how liberal her preacher was, maybe she thought I’d want to start going to church if I met a liberal preacher like hers. She claimed that my swimsuit wouldn’t bother him in the least. Regardless, there was no time for me to run to the house to change with all these wedding chores that had to be completed. I could tell the preacher and I weren’t exactly going to be great dinner conversationalists. He wasn’t that tall, so his eyes were directly level with my breasts, and he seemed bothered in a sexual way, not in a moral way. There is no alcohol at my sister’s house, so both my daughter and I were guzzling down glasses of wine while the wedding photos were going on. When we sat down to eat, I was quite buzzed and immediately felt uncomfortable when the liberal preacher sat next to me. I had a feeling he may have made this seating request after seeing me half-naked in his church because it made no sense that my sister would ignore my warning. She knows how I can get. I can’t remember our scintillating dinner conversation, only that my sister’s husband leaned over to scold me, and my brother and nephew were laughing from across the table. I doubted my condescending, ‘tell me about your sex life’ rambling was considered appropriate dinner conversation. The preacher himself reminded me of my ‘Plenty of Fish’ date. Everything was fine, if you don’t mind dull, over the first beer, but after the second beer I got on a roll, and I never heard from that date again. No one was more relieved than me for the dancing to begin. No more drinks, just nonstop dancing, all alone because I had a feeling everyone thought I was the aunt who was released from an institution just to attend this wedding, and even if the others thought I was somewhat funny, they didn’t want anyone to know they actually found me remotely funny. Driving back to my sister’s house later that night, her husband didn’t say one word to anyone in the car. The next morning before we left, he refused again to say one word. My niece and her new husband stopped by the house, and she told me she was glad I got everyone up and dancing, but it was too bad I missed the cake cutting because I was dancing all alone while everyone else watched them smash the cake into their faces, as if she felt bad for me that I missed this very special moment. My daughter and I boarded the train, quietly nursing our hangovers, while I imagined how my brother and sister, two nondrinkers, were now deep in conversation, talking about how I reminded them of our dead drunk dad, not realizing that we never saw him dance; we only saw him leaning over a toilet. More importantly, he wasn’t a fun drunk. Well, the preacher probably didn’t think I was much fun either.
During my great-niece’s second birthday party, which is really just a dinner with old relatives, no kids, my nephew goes out to his truck and returns with a beer for himself and me. This reminds me of how my dad would slip out to his truck to refill his cup with vodka since he claimed not to be drinking. After he had gone to rehab, he complained about how he planned to sue the clinic because they ruined his shoulder, keeping him in a straitjacket so damn long. “They said I’ll die if I ever have a drink again.” That scare tactic didn’t work so well. The birthday dinner conversation turns to guns, and I learn that my young female relatives in their twenties have been going to the shooting range, and how they never realized shooting guns could be so much fun. I finish off my Bud and suggest we have a more pleasant conversation for a two-year-old’s birthday party. My nephew looks embarrassed and asks if I’d like another beer. Of course, I’d like another beer, especially after this gun talk. Then the father of the birthday girl tells us how he’s quit drinking as part of his diet. He pauses for effect, then looks at all of us before saying, “You know alcoholism runs in my family.” Killjoy. My brother and I roll our eyes, as if his family alcoholism stories could possibly surpass ours. I pass on the second beer, finally realizing that my father may also have found our family much more bearable while intoxicated.