Under the Table

By

My mother is such a heavy sleeper I never worried that she’d catch me up to no good in the middle of the night. Before going to bed, she locked her boxes of white wine in the trunk of her car and hid the keys under her pillow. When I was a teenager, I’d sneak into her room to pilfer a ten from the drawer of her bedside table. She wouldn’t stir. My sister K was braver. She’d lift the pillow’s edge so Mom’s head drifted to the side. K always retrieved the keys without waking Mom, whose head fell right back into the pillow’s divot when K let go.

I remember the night I had my first drink. I remember reaching into the narrow cabinet where we kept bitter logs of baking chocolate and special-occasion spices (cardamom, cinnamon) and snaking my hand around the untouched bottle of Gordon’s vodka that had been there forever. A firework effervesced in my lower belly. I poured three inches of liquid—a kind of sinister water—into the pink plastic cups I’d filled so often with chocolate milk or iced tea or soda, and clouded the vodka with a waterfall of orange juice. Though I was just fourteen, I eyeballed the proportions with confidence, having watched so many movies in which men, faces seamed with heartbreak, caught half-full tumblers slid across greasy bars.

What did being drunk feel like that first time? A pervasive film gummed my mouth the next morning. To this day, the smell of a screwdriver twists my stomach. I’m overcome with memories of other drinks, a flood coming in from all directions. My past is a dropped deck of cards. No matter how hard I try, I can’t shuffle it into its old order. Things I should remember in crisp detail—my earliest cell phone number, the night I lost my virginity—have runny edges. I often struggle to answer any of the security questions that protect my online bank account. What was the name of your third grade teacher? What was your first phone number?

Mostly, the drinking has led to regret. But just often enough to keep me in search of it, let’s say between drink three and before drink seven, depending on how much I’ve eaten and the rate at which I’m drinking, alcohol catapults me from being my ever-watchful self, two steps outside of every experience, to being simply, completely, there.

From my first drink on, I chased that firework, relishing the way it overcame me before I walked into a house party or snuck out, before I took shots or cut class or snorted ecstasy in the church bathroom. It would be years before I was capable of experiencing that feeling, perhaps most accurately called arousal, without doing something that obliterated my self-consciousness to the point of endangering my life.

***

Like Harper Lee’s Scout, a character I identified with (doesn’t everyone?), I don’t recall learning to read. As far back as my consciousness goes, there are words. My mom says I was four or so. I read a lot, with a greed that bordered on pathological. I mention my obsessive reading because when I try to identify the origins of my craving for intoxication, I remember the way it felt, as a child, to dissolve into the pages of a book, an antacid in a glass of water, transforming. My third-grade teacher, during a parent conference, expressed serious concern about my ability to distinguish between the real world and the printed world. She called me fatally abstracted. Later, my mom confessed to early worries about autism or some brain deficiency stamped into my cerebrum from a serious babyhood struggle with meningitis.

Something changed, a hormonal burst, over the course of the summer before my fourteenth birthday, when I transitioned from being a buck-toothed, glasses-wearing bookworm to being a girl. Even as it happened to me, because of me, I felt possessed by an alien. Wiry curlicues sprouted between my legs. It disgusted me to see them when I wiped myself after going to the bathroom. The shade of my nipples deepened to a brownish pink, and they sometimes seemed very alert, as if picking up on a current the rest of me couldn’t recognize. I still read like a maniac, at inappropriate times (during homecoming; at sleepovers; once, ludicrously, in the bathroom at the movie theater), but I suddenly cared very much about the actual world, with flesh-and-blood people for characters, and drama that was my own. I no longer read to disappear—reading could no longer do the trick. I needed something else. The realization that I was a girl who would become a woman with her own kind of power came just before the drinking. Without one, I’m not sure I would have experienced the other.

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***

Someone told me—the source is lost—that men take their masculinity for granted. They don’t think about being men, because why would they be anything else?

For me, it’s I am a woman I am a woman I am a woman while buying groceries, I am a woman I am a woman riding a bike, I am a woman peeing, I am a woman I am a woman turning the light on, I am a woman turning it off I am a woman. My femininity is my white noise, the creaks and groans of the house that is my body. Occasionally, it creates a sound that alarms me, that awakens me to its presence, and I feel disoriented and distantly intruded upon, as if there’s something about the body I inhabit that doesn’t belong to me.

Recently, I asked my boyfriend how often he thought about his gender.

“What, you mean like, challenges to my manhood?” He looked at me like he does when he is concerned I’m about to pick one of those bitter, origin-less fights that surge up out of nowhere and end with me sobbing on the edge of the bed—don’t you dare touch me—while he waits for whatever has made me so blackly angry to vaporize until my next menstrual cycle.

“No. I mean just, the fact that you’re a man.”

“Oh,” he said. “Never.” And returned to his computer.

***

My sophomore year of college, I was walking through the East Village after a philosophy class that got out at 9:30 at night. A few blocks away from campus, I noticed, with a flush, that one of the men sharing the sidewalk was paying me a lot of attention. Two blocks later, I realized he was following me. My skin prickled, as if it had just been plugged into an electrical socket. Another five blocks, and he was so close I felt his body heat through my coat.

“Hey beautiful,” he whispered. I kept my head down and continued walking. “Too beautiful to accept a compliment?” His voice crescendoed. “You fucking bitch,” he hissed, “you ungrateful cunt, don’t you know when to say thank you?” Instead of crying or telling him to fuck off like I wanted to, I ignored him. This went on another ten blocks; I’d made a habit, for my figure’s sake, of always walking the thirty-four blocks home. Just before I turned onto the side street where I lived, I understood that this man intended to follow me into my apartment. I ducked into my corner bar and explained the story to the bartender. He and four other guys, all drunk, stormed outside and shouted my pursuer away. I felt bad for the man—I actually hoped he wasn’t embarrassed—and I wondered if maybe I’d misinterpreted his actions. Maybe he was harmless, and I’d overreacted. Maybe I should have just told him thank you.

When the guys came back, they took turns buying me drinks. One of them draped an arm around my shoulders and hugged me when my hands trembled too intensely for me to lift my beer. His fingertips traced the length of my right arm. I was nineteen. The guys kept buying me rounds, until I was drunk and laughing and loudly mimicking the knifelike way the man had spat the word cunt.

Well after one in the morning, the observant guy and I were seemingly alone at the bar. It would be ungentlemanly, considering everything, he said, for him to let me walk home alone. Time did that jump-cut thing it does when you drink too much, and we stood outside my apartment, both of his hands on my waist now, as he told me not to worry, he’d sleep on my couch, he’d keep me safe.

“No, no, no,” I said. “You don’t need to, I’m okay.”

He touched my face, my hair. What was his name? His job? How old was he? “I insist,” he said.

I wanted to be alone, but didn’t I owe him something? Would he be offended if I put my foot down? Would it be rude? An improper thank you for someone who may have, as he put it, saved my life? Would his feelings be hurt? Then he was in my bed, a thirty-five year old at least, massaging my butt and saying that when I walked into the bar, I’d reminded him of a nervous deer.

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***

Why was it always so hard to wake Mom up? K called me a year ago from rehab, this last time, the so-far successful time, and kept going on about how Mom had never been “accessible” to us after a certain point at night. “You remember,” she said. “By eight, she’d be clicking away on her computer, a vague look on her face, and she was just gone.”

I did and didn’t. I couldn’t put my finger on whether or not Mom seemed inaccessible, or drunk—it’s quite possible that I didn’t notice the way K did, because I am somewhat inaccessible myself. Sometimes I just shut off. One ex called that my specimen-daze, because I stare intently at one thing, as if taking it apart. I think he was giving me too much credit. When he’d draw me back into myself, shouting, “Specimen-daze, specimen-daze,” I felt the way a computer might when you bring it back to life after the screensaver’s taken over.

Though when I think of Mom at night, I think of her cups. Big plastic ones, pink or blue or yellow, the kind that people now would say are loaded with BPAs, thick plastic densely latticed with scratches. She’d fill them halfway with cubed ice from the fridge dispenser and then add wine from the box until liquid reached the brim. As a little girl, I’d sometimes take a sip, and the unpleasantly sour tang of the drink inside (does anything taste more like the word “no”?) was deliciously attractive, the essence of Mom, off-limits because it belonged to a sliver of world she inhabited without us.

With a few exceptions, I never saw my mom visibly drunk. I never saw her hungover; she’s certainly not an early riser by choice, but she wasn’t one of those parents you read about who sleep through their alarm, leagues underwater thanks to the previous night’s whiskey, and forget to drive their kids to school. What am I supposed to say? She is Mom. Maybe she drank too much wine at night. She was always there; she was the only one there. She did everything for us. K would agree. She’d mentioned Mom’s drinking because she’d reached the family portion of rehab, where you talk about the people you grew up with and how they may or may not have enabled your addiction. “I’m just pointing it out,” she said. “I’m not saying anything.”

But why was she so hard to wake up?

***

I’ve considered whether or not I have a problem. When you find yourself in a hospital room undergoing a rape kit because you woke up with a vague memory of your cab driver lying on top of you and no idea how you got home, you can’t help but ask if your drinking is out of hand. “What happened?” the nurses asked as blood leaked through a straw in my arm, filling vial after vial after vial.

I’d exited the cab on a V-shaped street near Metropolitan Ave. in Williamsburg, beside the BQE, where there are no streetlights. He wore a baseball cap.

“I don’t know,” I said. I said it a million times, until I was sobbing and an old woman came in and stroked my hair and told me it wasn’t my fault I couldn’t remember, they heard stories like mine from a hundred girls a week. If I’d been less drunk, would I have retained more than two sentences worth of details, or was the experience simply so traumatizing my memory blotted it out?

After living with my sister, who has been in and out of rehab for years for alcoholism that checks off all the criteria of alcoholism (i.e., she can’t control it, not ever) and experiencing a handful of other full-time drinkers, including my dead best friend from high school, I don’t feel qualified to call my dangerous, terrifying, shameful problem a drinking problem. If one definition of an alcohol problem is that the problem is at least partially solved after taking the alcohol away, then this cannot be that. It isn’t a drink I want when I drink, not most of the time.

Which brings me, finally, to the question: If I don’t have a drinking problem, what do I have?

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***

Why is it so off-putting when women talk about how they think they look? As a teenager, I was confused about what confidence meant. Bragging was bad; even thinking highly of yourself was bad. When someone called you pretty, it was bad if you didn’t deny it. Beauty only existed as long as it wasn’t acknowledged by the person in possession of it. My mother, women’s magazines, teachers, billboards—the whole world was a message encouraging me to be confident. So why did girls hate girls who were confident? And if confidence was sexy, why did boys scorn confident girls, or make fun of them behind their back? Lydia Wilson wore jeans under dresses and pounds of eyeliner and was a gorgeous freak, and people called her a slut and a cow and white trash and made up rumors about her sucking the gym teacher’s cock. If being a confident woman meant less people would like me, I would instead be back-breakingly insecure. Instant coffee, ready and waiting for anyone who added water—or, as was so often the case, for anyone who added alcohol.

My best friend (let’s call her L) from the years between my first drink and the slurry, fuzzed-out height of it was and still is the most beautiful girl I’ve ever known. She died of liver failure when she was barely twenty-two. When we were kids, I always found myself looking at her or trying to look at her. I snuck glances while she changed clothes, as if someday I’d see the secret of her appeal and be able to mimic it with my own significantly more awkward body. She was the masculine ideal of a teenage girl made real. Her attractiveness was a universal force—not only sexual but also, somehow, a plain and a simple fact. Of course I copied her. Even her bad habits. She’d often overpluck her eyebrows; I seem to have inherited this from her. When I see a stray hair, I think of how much she hated that, and I sometimes remove so many that my eyebrows are two sickle moons signing my face with a look of permanent surprise.

***

I use evidence—stray receipts, the marks on my body, the tips of scenes that interrupt the flow of days after like treacherous icebergs—to piece together the moments lost during blackouts. Sometimes I interrogate my own vanished past with a series of questions, playing both the probable perp and a demented investigator. Often, the questions I’m forced to ask are funny. Am I so bloated because I broke my fifteen-year ban on red meat and ate two cheeseburgers alone at four in the morning at Kellogg’s Diner, ordering one, dousing it with hot sauce, finishing it off, and ordering another? Did I snatch a lit cigarette out of a stranger’s mouth? Did I really tell the cocksucker fucking with my best friend that he resembles the hypothetical spawn of Conan O’Brien and a wildebeest? Did I actually ask the cashier at the Deli of Life where they come off calling it the Deli of Life? Always, sprinkled in among the funny questions, are terrifying ones. How did I get home? Is my boyfriend going to break up with me? Or, equally bad, what memories does he have of me that I will never be able to access? How much money did I spend? Did the cab driver rape me, or did he just feel me up when I was passed out? What is the origin of this baseball-sized bruise? And always, the most horrifying of all: What happened to me? And what’s going to happen next time?

***

Who is the person who taught you self-respect? It is possible that in setting out to write about how and why I drink, and whether it has anything to do with femininity, I am actually making a point about fatherlessness. All the women I’ve anecdotally mentioned have this in common, to differing degrees.

I’ve seen my dad four or five times in my life. The last time was almost seven years ago now. My high-school graduation. He gave me a check for a thousand dollars that I spent on beer and cigarettes and Abercrombie & Fitch during the three months I worked at a summer camp. He responds to my emails perhaps once every two years. One of those emails revealed the name of his girlfriend; he’d inexplicably responded to my message from her account (or explicably, to keep me from knowing his most frequently used address). I looked her up on Facebook and found a trove of unprotected pictures of the two of them. She graduated from high school just three years earlier than I did. They appear to have quite a lot of money. They travel often. In one picture, my dad balances a tiny blonde girl, perhaps six or seven, on his shoulders.

What am I supposed to say about these details? Maybe they’re nothing. Maybe they’re everything. After this long, thinking about my dad inspires a yawning blankness where I used to be all churn and roil, all acid and tantrums and fearlessness and pills ground with a credit card, shuffled into dusty tallies, bitter drips down the back of the throat.

Fuck him. The problem is him or it isn’t him, and knowing that won’t give me back the memories I’ve lost to the fifth drink, the sixth, the guys who came up to me hot with challenge saying, “I heard you were the girl who could drink me under the table.” It won’t give me back never having been told that the right answer to that question isn’t pride, and it sure as hell isn’t “You heard right.”

A bit of advice for the daughter I hope to someday be good enough to have. Honey, tell them no. The best thing you can be is the wrong girl.

***

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A few months after my mom’s third divorce, I found her lying on the floor in her bedroom with her pants around her ankles. We have the exact same body: gawky legs, square waists, biceps toned a couple inches beyond what’s feminine, hip bones set so narrow that our legs touch at the very top, despite the fact that we carry our excess fat on our lower bellies, not our thighs. I was home from college and needed to borrow pajamas. My sister and I had been watching TV; neither of us heard Mom return from the bar, where she was out with the twenty-eight-year-old guy she’d recently started dating. For a second, as I stood in Mom’s doorway—the hall light illuminating the loose pair of cotton underwear identical to the ones under my T-shirt, a deflated sock halfway off and dangling from her toes, a curled fist nestled against her chin—I thought she was me. I thought I’d walked in on myself from two nights prior, passed out after taking seven shots of Absolut with an old boyfriend from high school who’d plastered my face with spit from his sticky, cigarette-sour tongue. A booze-fueled bit of time travel—for hours my sister and I had downed cup after cup of Mom’s boxed Franzia Chablis. We used ice cubes to take the spine out of our drinks, to make them last longer.

“Momma,” I said, and she stirred, shifting to one side, her calves twisted up in denim. I left, slamming the door loud enough to wake her, knowing that in the morning she’d be downstairs in her bathrobe, blonde bangs mussed up into a ducktail, my little mom, a mug of tea in her hands, and we would never speak of this.

***

Who was supposed to tell me you don’t have to be the right girl for every man you meet?

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***

When I was sixteen I broke the fourth and fifth metatarsal on my right foot. At twenty, I broke those two bones on the same foot again. The first time I tripped getting out of bed with a guy whose lips, looming at me in the half-dark, had suddenly been transformed by my sodden imagination into worms. I collapsed on the wood floor and struggled with my jeans, putting them on inside out. When I reentered the party everyone pointed, shouting words I couldn’t understand. I tried to join them, walking across the porch and into the yard, but fell over and over, landing on my hands and knees, crumpling onto my back.

“L,” I said, “my feet don’t work.” She cupped my face in her hands and laughed, her big teeth flashing in my eyes, and I was on the couch in another room, party sounds trickling in from the bonfire outside. The next morning my right foot was twice the size of my left. L and I sneaked from the house before the boys woke up. We found a broken wheelchair beside the neighbor’s stoop, a bit of coincidence I’d later think of as Dickensian. L pushed me two miles home, the predawn Michigan light softening our made-up faces, turning us back into the kids we were. I can hear us laughing our asses off. I was scared and hurt. Maybe L was too, but I don’t think so. If L had been scared, I want to believe she’d still be alive.

The second time I broke my foot, I was in college and better, at least on paper. I was on a full-tuition scholarship, a couple years from finishing near the top of my class and delivering the commencement speech from within the untouchable cloud of a Xanax high.

I worked close to full time as a waitress to pay for living expenses while enrolled in my private NYC liberal-arts college. While my friends in Michigan drank Pabst at tailgating parties, I went to cocktail bars. I developed a taste for gin and cassis, like Gena Rowlands in Minnie and Moskowitz. I learned to stop taking shots and get my blackouts from wine instead, a real lady. Me and my roommate at the time, Adrianne, a bartender at the restaurant where we both worked, hit a pub down the street after a late weeknight shift. How much did we drink? We never paid. We went outside to smoke a cigarette. I said something teasingly, and she pushed me. Just playful, like shut up, like why do you always say stuff like that? Her hand connected with my shoulder, and I was down. In the morning my foot was huge, an echo of that morning years before.

On the back of my left hand, just below the knob of my ring knuckle, I have a pencil eraser sized scar from a cigarette I put out against my skin at sixteen, while trying to prove to a group of guys that I wasn’t afraid of anything. When I run my hands down each side of my rib cage, the bottom two on the right side collapse toward each other, a fallen fence, and I remember the time I tripped brushing my teeth and cracked them on the rim of the bathtub, how I couldn’t take a deep breath for weeks. You can always tell if I’ve been drinking a lot by the state of my legs: the more bruises, the more drinking. In late college, when I was at my anxious overachieving thinnest, I drank a bottle of wine a night, not just for all the reasons I’ve already detailed, but also because it was the only cure for my terrific, constant headaches. That same year, suicidally miserable, I dropped a few thousand dollars on a series of visits to headache specialists. An MRI revealed nothing extraordinary except an island of gray matter in the wrong spot, a piece of dead brain, of no special import the doctor promised, at least without other degenerative symptoms. The headaches, my difficulty focusing, my specimen-daze, that floating island, my spastic, nervous heart—which are side effects from drinking, and which were inevitable?

***

Somebody did me wrong. Or I did myself wrong, but how do you do yourself right when nobody’s taught you what that means? Dad, where are you? What do the things men do to women, and the fact that women can never be men, have to do with women who drink? I have no answers for this. I have no answer to the question of what this drinking will look like in two years, in five, if I will stop, if I can.

***

By the time L died of liver failure, I’d begun to manipulate my drinking into something that looked like normal behavior. There were things I wanted to become, and teachers and bosses who encouraged me, who said a life I hadn’t dared imagine as a teenager was possible. Sometimes I feel so lucky I can’t bear to think directly about how I live now, as if it’s a light so bright looking into it will blind me. While my life was changing for the better, L was sliding downhill, and why couldn’t I help her, why did I ignore her calls, why did the sight of her name blowing up my phone make me feel like smashing it into a million pieces? I often wonder if the bad things that happened to L, that happened to my little sister, happened because I took all the good luck, all the second chances, and used them up. Or because I was too drunk or busy or selfish to do anything to help.

***

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I see girls all the time in New York, in a chain linked arm by arm, dresses riding up their thighs, a telltale wobble at their ankles, voices loose, a muddy expression running their features together. I’ve seen them puking into trashcans, crouched in the shadow of a car on a side street in Williamsburg, a puddle forming between their legs. Screaming at a tired-looking guy at the mouth of the subway, or looking at the person they’re with as if from miles and miles away, like Who are you again? How did we get here? They are having fun, or they aren’t. I don’t know who they are. They are girls. It’s not their fault that when I see them, I see L, or my sister K, or my mom, or myself, especially if they look too young to be so drunk, especially if they’re talking their way past a bouncer, if they look like they might need help. I wish I could tell them to be careful and that they’d listen. I wish I could take them home and make sure they remove all their eye makeup, change into clean clothes, have a glass of water before going to sleep to ward off the hangover that’s waiting behind whatever mood—bold, teary, talkative—drinking’s given them this time.

What would I say? That the hardest things to forget are what you don’t remember? You’ll give a million pieces of yourself away, to men, to whomever, to anything or anyone that asks. How much of your life will you abandon to the watery spaces between drinks?

I shut the door on one half-memory after another. I tell the cab driver, his face unreadable, to take the BQE. I drop my cigarette, ashes scrawling a quick-burning sparkle in the air. Tell me, how do I get home from here?

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Rumpus original art by Devon Kelley-Yurdin.


J.E. Buntin is from Northern Michigan. She tweets here. More from this author →