You’ve just described a hole to me.
And you’ve made attempts to fill that hole, yes?
How did you try to fill the hole?
I told you, wine.
Champagne. Cocktails. Scotch.
Acupuncture, amino acids, applause, burning letters, cigarettes, cocks, cuffs, Ecstasy, forgiveness, fury, glutamine, gospel choirs, gratitude, hypnosis, kava, kirtan, lipstick, lucid dreaming, Prada, psychics, punk rock, Reiki, smudging, straight As, sweat, tarot, tongues, vortexes, yoga, zazen.
But mostly wine.
And did you fill the hole?
No. Turns out there wasn’t a hole after all. Just a space.
And have you filled the space?
I’m newly sober and dog-paddling through the booze all around me. At first I tried to avoid it by skipping parties and happy hours and dinners out. But even a social recluse has to buy food and go to work, and it turns out those are now danger zones, too. It’s summer, and Whole Foods has planted rosé throughout the store. Rosé is great with fish! And strawberries! And vegan protein powder! (Okay, I made that last one up.) At the office, every desk near mine has a bottle of wine or liquor on it in case people are too lazy to walk fifty feet to one of the well-stocked communal bars we’ve built on our floor. Driving home from work, I pass billboard ads for Fluffed Marshmallow Smirnoff and Iced Cake Smirnoff and not just Cinnamon but Cinnamon Churros Smirnoff. A local pharmacy, the same one that fucked up my prescription three months in a row, installed self-service beer taps, and young men line up with their empty growlers all the way back to Eye & Ear Care.
At work, I’m co-teaching an executive leadership course. To capture their full attention, we sequester the participants at luxury retreat centers, confining them to conference rooms all day and sometimes into the night. People get so stir-crazy that the late-night bar scene has become legendary; the executives who spent all day focused on measuring their dicks end up singing karaoke and hugging. I’ve begged off all week. I know it makes me look standoffish, but faking enjoyment in a roomful of drunk alpha males is more than I’m ready for. Which is fine until the mandatory company-sponsored wine tasting. My plan was to work the room with my soda and lime, making sure I was seen and then leaving before things got sloppy (which they always do). Six different wines and four beers are on display at the catering stand, but when I ask for club soda, I get a blank look. Just water, then. The bartender grimaces apologetically. “I think there’s a water fountain in the lobby?”
There is. But it’s broken. I mingle empty-handed for fifteen minutes, fending off well-meaning offers to get me something from the bar. After the fifth, I realize I’m going to cry if one more person offers me alcohol. I leave and cry anyway. Later I order vanilla ice cream from room service to cheer myself up, and the guy says, “People love this with a shot of bourbon poured over it—want to treat yourself?”
* * *
This is the summer I realize that everyone around me is tanked. It also dawns on me that the women are super-double tanked. I try to find refuge at an afternoon showing of Magic Mike, where a group of women are drinking champagne through straws and toasting their ability to claim their Girl Time. “We’ve earned this!” they crow. There’s a baby shower in progress at the nail salon. Except for the guest of honor, everyone is drinking wine, lots of it. “Thank God there are places like this where we can have lady time,” a woman in a yellow dress says. “I’m going to feel hungover by dinner,” a different woman says. “But it’s so worth it. How often do you get a chance to get away from your kids for an afternoon?” The default setting for any meetup is “drinks,” meaning bar drinks. It occurs to me that I could counter-propose coffee or tea or ham sandwiches or a walk, but just anticipating the questions—or careful lack of questions—that would follow saps what energy I haven’t already spent on just getting through the day. Like almost all the women in my life, after all, I’m a drinker. Saying “How about we grab a smoothie instead?” will be as noticeable as showing up with an enormous crucifix around my neck. How did you not see this before? I wonder. You were too hammered, I answer back. That summer, though, I see. Booze is the oil in our motors, the thing that keeps us purring when we should be making other kinds of noise.
* * *
One day that summer I’m wearing unwise (but cute, so cute) shoes and trip at the farmers’ market, cracking my phone, blood-staining the knees of my favorite jeans, and scraping both my palms. Naturally, I post about it on Facebook as soon as I’ve dusted myself off. Three women who don’t know I’m sober comment quickly:
“Do they sell wine there?”
“Definitely wine. And maybe new shoes.”
Have I mentioned that it’s morning when this happens? On a weekday? This isn’t one of those nightclub farmers’ markets. And the women aren’t the kinds of beleaguered, downtrodden creatures you imagine drinking to get through the day. They’re pretty cool chicks, the kind people ridicule for having First World Problems. Why do they need to drink?
Because cool chicks are still women. And there’s no easy way to be a woman, because there’s no acceptable way to be a woman. And if there’s no acceptable way to be the thing you are, then maybe you drink a little. Or a lot.
* * *
The year before I get sober, I’m asked to be The Woman on a panel at the company where I work. (That was literally the pitch: “We need a woman.”) Three guys and me, talking to summer interns about company culture. There are two female interns in the audience, and when it’s time for questions, one says, “I’ve heard this can be a tough place for women to succeed. Can you talk about what it’s been like for you?”
As The Woman, I assume the question is directed at me. “If you’re tough and persistent and thick-skinned, you’ll find your way,” I say. “I have.”
I don’t mention how she’ll have to work around interruptions and invisibility and micro-aggressions and a scarcity of role models and a lifetime of her own conditioning. My job on this panel is to make this place sound good, so I leave some stuff out. Particularly the fact that I’m drinking at least one bottle of wine a night to dissolve the day off me.
But she’s a woman. She probably learned to read between the lines before she could read the lines themselves. She thanks me and sits down.
“I disagree,” says the guy sitting next to me. “I think this is a great company for women.”
My jaw falls open.
The guy next to him nods. “Absolutely,” he says. “I have two women on my team, and they get along great with everyone.”
Of course they do, I think. It’s called camouflage.
Guy No. 1 continues. “There’s a woman on my team who had a baby last year. She went on maternity leave and came back, and she’s doing fine. We’re very supportive of moms.”
Guy No. 3 jumps in just to make sure we have 100 percent male coverage on the topic. “The thing about this place,” he says, “is it’s a meritocracy. And merit is gender blind.” He smiles at me and I stare back. Silent balefulness is all I have to offer, but his smile wavers, so I know I’ve pierced some level of smug.
The panel organizer and I fume afterward. “Those fucking fucks,” she says. “Ratfucks.”
What’s a girl to do when a bunch of dudes have just told her, in front of an audience, that she’s wrong about what it’s like to be herself? I could talk to them, one by one, and tell them how it felt. I could tell the panel organizer, This is why you never have just one of us up there. I could make myself a superhero costume and devote the rest of my life to vengeance on mansplainers everywhere.
Instead, I round up some girlfriends and we spend three hours in a hipster bar, drinking rye Manhattans and eating tapas and talking about the latest crappy, non-gender-blind things that have happened to us in meetings and on business trips and at performance review time. They toast me for taking one for the team. When we are good and numb, we Uber home, thinking, Look at how far we’ve come! Level grinding our way to bigger jobs. Having first babies at forty-two, when we finally feel secure enough to take maternity leave. Planning dream vacations with the same military precision we use on the job, and feeling proud for only checking work e-mail twice a day while we’re on them. We are tough enough to put up with being ignored and interrupted and underestimated every day, and smart enough to laugh it off together. We’ve made it. This is the good life.
* * *
Do you remember the Enjoli perfume commercial from the 1970s? The chick who could bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man?
I blame that bitch for a lot. For spreading the notion that women should have a career, keep house, and fuck their husbands, when the only sane thing to do is pick two and outsource the third. For making it seem glamorous. For suggesting it was going to be fun. And for the tagline she dragged around: “The 8-Hour Perfume for the 24-Hour Woman.” Just in case you thought you could get one fucking hour off the clock.
* * *
Is it really that hard, being a First World woman? Is it really so tough to have the career and the spouse and the pets and the herb garden and the core strengthening and the oh-I-just-woke-up-like-this makeup and the face injections and the Uber driver who might be a rapist? Is it so hard to work ten hours for your rightful 77 percent of a salary, walk home past a drunk who invites you to suck his cock, and turn on the TV to hear the men who run this country talk about protecting you from abortion regret by forcing you to grow children inside your body? I mean, what’s the big deal? Why would anyone want to soften the edges of this glorious reality?
* * *
All summer, as I venture back out into the world, I find alcohol in places where I thought I’d be safe from it. My neighborhood yoga studio starts a monthly “Vinyasa & Vino” event—because wine is exactly what you need after an hour in a sweatbox. A local kitchen shop offers a knife-skills and wine-tasting class—yes, alcohol for people who have already self-identified as being so clumsy with sharp objects that they need professional instruction. I run a women’s half marathon on a day when temperatures are fifteen degrees above normal. It’s my second half marathon in a month (no addictive tendencies here), and with every footfall my legs feel like they’re being jammed into my hip sockets. My headphones die midway, followed shortly after by my phone, so I can neither distract myself nor track my progress. It’s a horror show. But I finish, so I get that finisher’s medal, and I’m soaked, chafed, limping, but triumphant. Then someone says, “Congratulations, the margarita tent is right over there!”
One beautiful day I’m at a farm outside Seattle, petting a baby goat while another baby goat repeatedly gooses me and then bounds away. This is fun, I think idly, and then, less idly, I am having a good time. I’m not yet sixty days sober and have been focusing on just getting the basics down: how to watch Netflix without bringing a glass to my lips every minute, how to attend a work happy hour without crying. I haven’t even been looking for fun. But it tracked me down anyway.
I sit on a picnic table and try to imagine what this would have been like a year ago. I wouldn’t have been drinking while petting baby goats (though I bet people would pay good money to do that). But I would be either recovering from drinking the night before—and using the goats as proof that I still had other interests—or preparing for the night of drinking ahead, and hoping the goats would somehow preload enough wholesomeness or good feeling in me to help me hold back, for once. Either way, those baby animals would have been a means to an end I couldn’t reach.
In the days following, I start to notice how actual experience and my expectations of it dance and conflict and how the real thing is … hard to sum up. Nothing in life is all one way. I laugh my ass off three times during a movie that otherwise has me checking my watch. I have sex when I don’t really feel like it, thinking maybe I’ll get interested midway, but I’d still rather be reading. I run a hilly route dreading how my lungs and quads will hurt, and they do, but not as much as I’d decided they would. It’s maddening how subtle life is. And it’s frustrating how much I want to engineer it into drama. There is nothing so absorbing or high stakes or pleasurable that I won’t try to alter my natural response to it. Only it’s hard to do that without wine, and I’m too tired to find another route. So I trudge along doing things that are a little bit boring and a little bit fun and a little bit beautiful until my sense of scale starts to match reality.
As my expectations of life become life-sized, I lose patience with being a twenty-four-hour woman. The stranger who tells me to smile. The janitor who stares at my legs. The men on TV who want to annex my uterus. Even the other TV men who say that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” What the fuck business is it of yours whether it’s rare or not? I think.
The magazines telling me strong is the new sexy and smart is the new beautiful, as if strong and smart are just paths to hot. The Facebook memes: muscles are beautiful. No, wait: fat is beautiful. No, wait: thin is beautiful, too, as long as you don’t work for it. No, wait: All women are beautiful! As if we are toddlers who must be given exactly equal shares of princess dust or we’ll lose our shit.
And then I start to get angry at women, too. Note: newly sober people can be the teeniest bit judgmental, especially if they were judgy to begin with, which I was. I’m burning with clarity, and I want all of womankind to burn with me so we can incinerate the patriarchy just by existing. I don’t want women to blur the edges of their bad days or use wine to talk themselves down from causing righteous trouble.
Later, I’ll laugh (and cringe a little) at my own zeal during this time. I’ll understand that no one can be enraged 24-7 and that even sober I have my own ways of blurring the edges, not all of them great ideas. It will have dawned on me that there are women in the world who can have a glass of wine without craving the whole bottle. That some women even leave wine in the glass, a concept as alien to me as eating half an Oreo.
But the kernel of that anger still lives, and some of it is for myself. When I was drinking, I would read news articles about the impact of alcohol on female bodies, and instead of contemplating what it meant for my own cancer or heart disease risk, I’d think, Just another scare tactic. If I saw a story about a blind-drunk woman being raped at a frat party, I’d think, Blaming the victim. If I read warnings about alcohol being a depressant, I’d think, Like real life isn’t a depressant, too?
But multiple things can be true at once. The things women enjoy are demonized. And women also metabolize alcohol differently than men. We are blamed for our own rapes. And it’s also harder to sniff out danger when you’re drunk. Real life is hard. And it’s not fair. I didn’t want to see any of this. I told myself that any bad press for drinking was just one more ploy to keep women looking over their shoulders, because if I really took it in, I’d have to ask why I was willingly destroying myself.
But who said anything about fairness? This isn’t about what’s fair. It’s about what we can afford. And we can’t afford this. We can’t afford to live lives we have to fool our own central nervous systems into tolerating. We can’t afford to be twenty-four-hour women. Trying to be one shattered me.
I slosh around in my anger for months, trudging through my first sober Christmas and job change and birthday and eventually learning to use the anger as a reminder to pay attention and go slow and choose things I actually want to happen. By the time summer comes back around, I realize I no longer smell like eight-hour perfume. I’m becoming a twenty-four-hour person, not a twenty-four-hour woman. And twenty-four-hour people get a lot more room to breathe.
* * *
That second summer, I meet my friend Mindy outside San Diego, where her adopted son is days from being born. Mindy’s dark alleys were different from mine, but she walked them all the same and walked herself out of them, too. Sometimes, talking about the recent past, we blink at each other like people struggling to readjust to sunlight after a long, bad movie. More and more, it’s the new that gets our attention: my new job, her newish and happy marriage, the book I’m writing, and the classes she’s taking. The things we are making happen, step by step.
We spend the weekend moving slowly and sleeping late and wishing the lazy baby would hurry up already. On Sunday morning we’re reading by the deep end of the hotel pool when the shallow end starts to fill with women—a bridal party from what we can make out. They arrive already tipsy, and the pomegranate mimosas—“pomegranate is a superfood!” one woman repeatedly tells the others—keep coming until that end of the pool seems like a Greek chorus of women with major grievances about their bodies, faces, children, homes, jobs, and husbands, who aren’t going to do anything about any of it but get loaded and sunburned.
I give Mindy the look that women use to say Do you believe this shit? The woman on the other side of her catches the look and gives it back to me over her laptop, and then the woman next to her joins in, too. We engage in a silent four-way exchange of dismay, irritation, and bitchiness, and it is wonderful.
Then Mindy slides her Tom Ford sunglasses back over her eyes and says, “All I can say is, it’s really nice on this end of the pool.” I laugh and my heart swells against my swimsuit and I pull my shades down, too, to keep my suddenly watery eyes to myself. Because it is. It is so nice on this end of the pool, where the book I’m reading is a letdown and my legs look too white and the ice has long since melted in my glass and work is hard and there’s still no good way to be a girl and I don’t know what to do with my life and I have to actually deal with all of that. Sober. I never expected to make it to this end of the pool. I never thought I’d get to be here.
Copyright © 2018 by Kristi Coulter