The Blue Room
I arrive at a small apartment room in the basement of a cold winter. It is here my disease reaches its first pinnacle; it is here I spend entire days reading Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” Alone, I could drink as much as I wanted. I could smoke and throw up in the trash bin, piss in it if I wanted. I made no friends in that city; I barely spoke to my roommates. I’d walk to class up a hill through the snow. In the spring the first unbearable buds of green breached winter’s gray distance. I recited Eliot to the wind that rattled my cheeks, burned my eyes, stung my young skin.
A part of me still lives there in that city by the lake with its fog horns howling through the amber night, its cold lake water lapping the stone shore, and the room. Every room I have lived in weaves its way through this room, as this room will become the color of the next, until the final rooms of a home outlive all the rooms of the past. Still, in the shadows, I will see the little Mexican ashtray overflowing, feel the carpet I scrubbed clean beneath my feet, smell the scent of air freshener mixed with stale cigarette smoke, of the cold winter basement room where I found Eliot as I began to lose myself to my disease.
Truth keeps in the rhythms of the body, the echo of a voice in your own, the pulse that rises sacred from the chorus, a brilliance. Year after year I lost and found Eliot just as I lost and found my addiction—forces of life always right there below the surface of the breath, at the bottom of the lungs, hollowing and hallowed. It was the measure of “Four Quartets,” when Eliot returned, that opened me. That turned a bird into a shredded glimpse of eternity, a city into a maze of destinies. Though I’d memorized the lines I loved best in “Four Quartets,” the words were secondary, first the tempo, the cadence, then quick now, here, now always–
Before you tell a story you sense its truth. Why then can you not explain the way the sparrow in the yard, as you hung the wet linens, broke your heart?
Liam came into the café where I worked Sunday mornings and ordered a small, black coffee. He sat alone and wrote in a journal. Once, I watched him tapping his foot on the floor, bending over a little notebook scribbling, and decided he was odd. It was winter. His beard was overgrown. His hair, uncombed and slick in certain places, knotted at the crown where he must have twisted around in his sleep. Later, I could imagine him doing that, wiggling around in his sleep, sprawling his legs before curling them up. I only noticed him for a minute before I went back to French pressing coffee and steaming lattes. This was back when he was still a sleepy woodsman type, a little bit of childish mischief playing around his furry lips. It’s been so long since I remember him like that: happy, carefree, silly. In the end he never laughed.
Liam was afraid to jump in the creek the first time he took me to the camp in the mountains of Vermont. The June humidity greased his skin while his long hair stuck to his neck. I wore my bathing suit under a yellow sundress I’d bought at a yard sale. My windswept hair looked like a lion’s mane. Back then, I thought of myself as a lion. We sat on the rocks beside the creek, drinking warm cans of Budweiser and smoking rolled cigarettes. Liam didn’t actually smoke tobacco, but he started when he met me because I didn’t like marijuana smoking—which he loved. But really he loved weed in the same way I loved booze.
The creek was up and fast from a wet spring and snowy winter. Liam dipped his foot in. I laughed and yelled at him, “Liam, you chicken shit!” I stood up and tore off my dress. In two steps I’d leapt over the edge of the rock and plunged in. I swam like an eel, hungry for water. Hungry for everything, nothing was ever going to be enough.
Liam thought I was tough as nails, a sort of hard-ass feminist woman who wasn’t taking any shit. I had nothing to lose, and wanted to make sure you knew it. That was of course the last thing I was. I’d get drunk, tell him to fuck off, tell him he was weak and cowardly, that he’d end up just like his father, a miserable man. Liam went on loving me anyway, I guess, at least for a time. Sometimes I think of him then as courageous for loving me—but it wasn’t courage.
To understand you have to understand that we are never going anywhere but where we’ve always been.
Today I lie watching clouds out the window from my sofa. They are something to me now . . . this movement through intangible space, the breaking and dividing and reconnecting. I watch and feel split down the middle, splayed and sliced. You belong to me, I think. Then: clouds move under the spin of Earth, breached where white-blue easy cotton tears apart and the sun shimmers along the hems like something holy. It’s June, new green leaves. His birthday arrives and passes. I saw the old typewriter collecting dust on the porch of his new place as I stood knocking. Nobody answered. I gave him that. Children ride bikes with helmets on their heads past the window where I watch the clouds. I saw Liam yesterday standing in the soft rain after a storm; he was smoking outside a bar. The sky held a gold haze and a rainbow that everyone came into the street to see. I said hello, and asked him how he was, but I just kept walking as he shouted out, “Okay!”
The sun makes the edges of objects gleam: a jar full of seashells, the legs of the rocking chair, a candle on the coffee table burned to the wick. I am listening to Tom Petty for the first time in years. It reminds me of the way Liam doesn’t know who he is and also the way he kissed my head and let my hair spill through his fingers.
Liam still talks about the trip to Nova Scotia as if it was our honeymoon, though half the time we felt wrecked by a distant emptiness. Smoke from the campfire where we cooked hotdogs, only yards from the sea, stung my eyes as I filled myself with cheap Canadian beer. Still, I loved that trip in a way, even driving the awful silver Mustang the guy at Avis offered us as a free upgrade as though bestowing a grand prize. He did not realize the extent of our bohemian snobbery, but we took it for the iPod connector.
We were changed, weren’t we? Liam had an affair while I was away in Siberia and Mongolia for a month. He said, “I just didn’t feel connected to you.” I returned from 36 hours of traveling and we made love, then, hours later at a restaurant, he told me he didn’t think we were good together. I gulped down my beer and left him there. Returning home, I slept for days. Months passed before he told me that he’d had the affair. I could tell he was high, or maybe he’d said, “Shit, I’m really high.” I was visiting my family in Minnesota, and having drank too much I called him and started interrogating him about other women. He said, “Well, actually . . .” and my chest filled with the heat of rage.
We thought Nova Scotia could heal us. But we didn’t know what was broken. On the beach, Liam handed me a piece of sea glass and I said, “It’s sea glass.” It was as if he felt stupid for not knowing the name or as if I’d ruined his treasure in naming it, but that wasn’t it, of course. He ran down the beach away from me, flailing his limbs like a sea gull. I ran after him in a moment of chivalry, and caught him by the arm: Look, I know you don’t know what to say . . . how to act. But, I didn’t either. We stood there, turned to the ocean. I traced the horizon with my eyes, thinking of our first trip to the ocean in Maine—we read Hemingway aloud to each other, The Garden of Eden.
At Meat Cove we camped on a hill overlooking the ocean and spent the afternoon sea kayaking in the fog. Liam paddled ahead of me. I watched his arms propelling the little boat forward and imagined a ballet of arms. Art, I thought, is less painful. He waited for me and we drifted side-by-side, together for a moment, silenced.
In Halifax he gave up and said: I’m not enough for you. I should have said, of course not, nothing is, but he had risked something and it humbled me. We made love on the terrible bleach smelling sheets then ran out into the night to eat and eat and drink and drink until we could barely walk ourselves home.
I never knew what Liam wanted me to be, how he wanted me to be. I assumed he wanted me some other way because I did not want him the way he was. But of course such desires have only to do with one’s own self-loathing.
If you see these words in linear time, they make no sense, but if you step beyond time into the melody of consciousness, you find truth . . . .
When you lose your love, you become estranged from your own body. Your body feels alien and unlovely. You want it to shrink or grow into another shape. A shape the old love will no longer recognize. His hands as they moved over the puzzling contours of this strange new country would go cold with the mystery of it.
I think of his body growing in my absence. It grows so large that it spills over the edge of the bed as I curl tight in the corner, hugging the bear my father sent me for Valentine’s Day.
I shrank my body as best I could, perhaps someone would feel sorry for me if I became too thin. They would say, “Look what he’s done to her!” But instead, of course, everyone complimented the slimmer me, so I went on smoking cigarettes and not eating, feeling sorry for myself.
Will it storm again tonight? If I smoke another cigarette will I throw up? Why does this neighborhood smell of grilled meat? Someone lights a firecracker and three dogs start howling. People here tie up dogs in the yard or the alley. Dogs on a rope tied to a tree bark, slobber and howl until someone opens a window to scream. Where will I be? How will I arrive there? Will I ever stop longing?
I learned to listen to music again. I play all my old albums trying to understand what the voices want me to know. I lie on the sofa listening, while my pain morphs into rage and then back into pain again. It is either/or: pain or rage. I hate Liam. The hate makes me feel unclean. I love Liam and I feel pathetic. There is no salvation in loving someone like a dog. It feels like that to me, dog love.
Today I wake up loathing Liam. In the moment each morning between dreaming and waking, I forget. But then I remember. Mostly I remember everything. Though there are dark holes of drunk that have no memory. I go downtown wearing my swim suit under shorts and a T-shirt that says, “I want you naked” (Who am I?). I wear enormous tortoiseshell sunglasses that cover most of my face.
He walks up before I notice him and says, “Why the long face?”
“Hi,” I say.
“I just saw you,” he says and sits down cautiously, “you were in my dreams this morning.”
I want to roll my eyes, but instead I smile.
There is a period of regression between two broken lovers when they still act like lovers. They try to find new ways to kiss and hug, to touch an arm or a knee, but it always feels like old times for a while. The body moves of its own volition for a while. If the old love is in the vicinity the body senses this old body of comfort and finds it. Liam and I ran into each other almost daily. We lived in a small town, but still, I made efforts to avoid him that never seemed to work. Of course, then, if I wanted to see him, felt some need to, he wouldn’t be around.
Liam was nervous and shaky. Open, I thought. Sometimes I still believed we would marry each other. But, mostly I remembered the way it was.
“How are you?” he asks.
“Okay. I dreamed you were sleeping with my sister again.”
“It’s either a dream of jealousy or betrayal.” I could sense him withdraw from the word betrayal.
The day he helped me move he smoked three joints in two hours, and I told him I was smarter than him.
Then I said, “You betrayed me.”
“I betrayed you?”
“You broke my heart.” I looked right at him to see if he’d flinch.
“I’m sorry, Emily.” He didn’t.
He always smashed the fantasy. Why couldn’t he just say, you broke mine, too, which was true. No one gets out undamaged.
We were silent and his body seemed to shake. I wondered if he felt powerful for being the one to actually leave. But then, how many times does someone have to say, I can’t love you the way you are, before it gets to be really obvious you’ve gotta go? I could have just as easily said, how can you love me the way I am? It’s unbearable how simple we are.
. . . truth being the ability to know or intuit before the mind explains in words, in sentences, in story.
I watch a bird fly and realize I’m grown up. I sit in myself like a ship waiting to set sail. Keats wrote a poem about an urn on which two lovers were painted, caught for eternity a moment away from a kiss. It was intense for him to think about that urn and those lovers, detained in that moment of anticipation. To him it was the best place to be—in expectancy—not during, not after, but filled with the lust and desire of possibility. Love was fantasy, a way to escape, and when it lost this charm . . . what was left?
I watch a bird fly and never know from where to where. I know its fluttering surprise and instant loss. I am grown up now with nowhere to hide but in my ship without sails. I decide today not to blame anyone, not even myself. I will accept it, all of it, the entire world as she rests, with no beginning, no end. Eliot wrote, in my beginning is my end, and when I read “Four Quartets,” the bowl of fuchsia peonies on the coffee table is enough to make me cry. I had not known such flowers existed. He writes:
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
I couldn’t stop. I didn’t try for a long time. I remember my room on the third floor of the Greene Street apartment where I lived when I first moved to Vermont. I drank bottles and bottles of stunning red wine. Every day, an afterthought. I kept a rigorous schedule back then: philosophy, poetry, fiction, astrology. One hour each per day. Coffee and cigarettes every morning like a saving grace. No matter how awful I felt in the morning, no matter how bad it had been the night before, by evening I convinced myself to do it again.
Our room was blue, an ugly robin’s egg blue, where I lost myself. I had been losing it for a decade. Seven years had passed since the lonely basement room of winter, but sometimes the pain of addiction turns to desperation. In that desperation we surrender to something. There were so many colors in our room: rainbow rug I called biblical, blue china cabinet, red chairs, green table, and rust red blanket. White paraded around the edges of everything. I remember now how nothing was left sacred; nothing was too far.
I’d get going around six or seven every night. In the end I mostly drank alone. By the time Liam got there I’d be bleeding all over the floors and the bed. With the kitchen knives I sliced my arms (really they were only scratches), wanting my insides to fall out. It was this act, looking back, that was a sign of me still there, trying to make the disease seen, wanting its scars visible on the canvas where the world lived—skin. I hated the world for the boundaries it had given my body—for the secrecy of my inner pain.
My eyes glazed. I could tell by Liam’s face when he came in that I was a ghost to him. But Liam always said, it’s still you, Emily. It’s a disease, but it’s your disease. Though I’m sure he found a softer way of saying it because he never wanted to hurt anyone. For Liam, hurting a person, confronting them, must be avoided.
I remember the day: I worked at the homeless shelter for the mentally ill where there was nothing to do but watch TV or go online because the clients mostly stayed in their rooms. I got home at five and started drinking a bottle of vodka I’d stashed under the kitchen sink. Around eight I brushed my teeth and walked to the liquor store for a jug of wine. The smoke from my cigarette billowed in the chilly February air. I felt perfectly alone. I remember thinking that I could be happy forever if I just never ran out of booze and cigarettes. A fleeting thought, but a regular one.
Nothing about this night was different from any other night. Liam returned home from work around ten and wanted to go to bed. I got upset because I didn’t want the night to end, I never did. Couldn’t he stay up and have a drink with me, couldn’t he at least talk to me? Our apartment was only one room so it was hard for him to avoid me.
I punched Liam in the face that night. His eyes blinked like a flashing red light. Later, years later, he told me it didn’t hurt. But what did that matter? He pushed me out of his way and ran out. I tried to follow him barefoot through the snow. He screamed and retreated—wounded, tamed for the moment. It felt like hours passed before he returned, lying down on the biblical rug, the coat of many colors, and cried me out of him. That was the end. It came as no relief to me. For a week he stayed; every night he turned his back to me in bed and every night I lay with my hand on his back feeling the warmth of his body. How could this body leave me?
He cleaned the room, bought groceries, wrote me a note and left. Beside the note he neatly folded a green scarf that he’d bought me for Christmas.
I started getting sober in the blue room, just before he left. I told Liam, I promised him, but he said it didn’t matter. He needed to be alone. Quitting is hard and not using gets easier, but learning to live feels intolerable because of all the emotions I’d stuffed for the past fifteen years. A woman named Lois, who became my friend, came to pick me up and drive me to recovery meetings.
“Just don’t drink,” she’d say when she dropped me off, “and say a prayer tonight.”
“Okay,” I’d say and sigh, my hand on the door handle. I didn’t want to leave the warmth of her car, though it smelled of sour milk and dog. “Okay, thanks.”
“You take care now.”
The hell of it goes on. You have to figure out how to survive without escaping as you had always escaped. The people I met told me it would get better and that I should go to a meeting every day and say a prayer every night. I did whatever they told me to do.
Liam had this idea that getting high enhanced life and only through drugs could he reach true artistic brilliance. Thinking about it now, I want to laugh. I used say, listen to yourself, listen to your mind, just sit and listen for a minute. There’s no brilliance there.
I learned that brilliance is not of the mind but of another place, the soft place that you cultivate in your own silence. The place you get to when you understand that words only point at the truth, language will never do, but it is all we have. Brilliance is the dark night where you face yourself alone, sober, silent.
How it felt to get sober: A body is forced through the surface that has lived emerged in water for years. It doesn’t know how to breathe in air. The sun in its open eyes burns. The body tries to dive back down over and over, to escape again. But once you know, once you leave the blue room, you resurface. You can’t go back without tying a brick to your foot. People do it; they tie on the brick and fill their pockets with stones, sinking away. But the body can’t return to the ease of underwater living; the body knows now it is drowning.
I see the disease of addiction in people’s eyes—my own in theirs—sense it on their skin, smell it. I feel the blade of it in their embrace, the force of it. To see it now, in another person, terrifies me. I know the emptiness, the complete and utter desperation, and the denial. I know what it’s like to not be able to walk by the liquor store without going in to stand in the aisles filled with bottles—glistening, beautiful, lethal. I know that an addict will push anyone away who might make them recognize themselves. I made that the reason Liam left. Only when he realized I was going to meetings did he refuse to stay. Even though it was what he said he wanted for me, he couldn’t watch it. He knew what it meant for him.
Truth being the ability to hold two seemingly oppositional ideas at once and know they are both true.
I search the apartment for Liam paraphernalia to burn. Pictures, notes, cards—even the one in which he wrote, “I will cook you eggs until I die,” I want to burn. Then I remember another lover, from long ago. TR and I were lying in bed together and he said that we should get to know each other better.
“Okay,” I said.
“How do you like your eggs?”
“I don’t eat eggs,” I lied.
When I left TR, who also had a live-in girlfriend, I left the country. A part of me was searching for my father the way women sometimes do. Either she marries him or finds him within herself. She learns to accept him or her love for him as she does for herself. Twenty years old, it was Italy with all her beautiful women and charmed men, her color and gold, with her sullen waterways and stark piazzas and Mary Our Holy Mother of the Sea. In Venice I rendered my profile in oil pastels and walked the tiny village with the other tourists, watching them scatter pigeons for pictures or sit in the café where Hemingway wrote or Ezra drank or Ginsburg quoted a Greek play.
My father’s voice hummed in my ear, his fisher king heart sitting near me whispered how I should have come with a friend. He said, Oh Emily, how could you run off and leave me and your mother like this? At night I passed the jolly-hearted hollers of intoxicated men. I sat at a tiny square table alone and finished a bottle of wine. I watched the sky crumble away, the moon leak out, and heard my father say, Oh Emily, don’t take any of these men to bed, they’ll be gone in the morning—you aren’t going to fall in love in Venice, you fool! Leave me alone, I whispered, let me be as I am.
I never found my father there and it would be years before I realized his voice was really my own. Later, I chose to love Liam because I thought he would never leave me, never hurt me, let me be as I am—a drunk . . . mean . . . cruel even? I thought he was nothing like my father. Wasn’t it Liam who taught me that to love meant to enter the unknown, vulnerable without armor? It was not desire—the lust for movement and thus escape—but the steady acceptance of vulnerability and the willingness to forgive. But was it Liam who taught me this or did I learn it alone, in my new apartment where I painted the walls gold and listened to the barking dogs, the scent of grilled meat drifting in through the window?
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Know that they are both true at once—neither negates the other.
When fall arrives I am four months sober. I watch the birds fumble in the sky. This new person, the sober me, roots. By spring, I say, will I bud? I go to recovery meetings, I pray. I try to forget Liam. I see him on the street with other women. He lets their hand drop from his when he sees me, he moves away from them, to me—don’t they notice?—touches my shoulder, hugs me. I resent him, the resentment feels toxic. I know he still loves me. He knows I love him.
Today he runs across the street from the café where we first met. There are tears in his eyes. What is it? I tell him to be true to himself. He looks at me for a long time. I notice how thin he’s become. I don’t know the color of his eyes—blue, green, hazel—if we had children would they have his long lashes? I hold him against my chest, his body a drug to me. I don’t know how my body will ever release his; his smell, a nutmeggy pine, the touch of skin and his roughened hands, all like gorgeous bottles of red wine.
The morning after I punched Liam and he cried me out of him on the biblical rug of a million colors, I called my father. Blood from my period smeared the floor in the robin’s blue room. I wore Liam’s T-shirt, the one my sister and her husband gave him for Christmas.
My father said, “Emily, Liam loves you.”
“No, no, I hurt him, Dad. I hurt him so much…I can’t stop drinking.”
Silence, and then he says, “You’ve got to stop. You can’t live like this. Who wants to live like that?”
No one wants to live like this, I think. It’s a disease. Did I tell him that I was an alcoholic or did I cry until he comforted me? My grandfather was an alcoholic and died from the disease. I wondered if my father thought he wanted to live like that. I wondered if I would die from the disease too.
I walked up the hill to the old blue room whispering prayers to the wind. It was spring then but the leaves had not begun to bud. Sometimes I repeated, by the grace of God, as I walked. In my room I lay in the tumbled mess of bed sheets, traced my fingers over the wine stains from when I threw a glass in Liam’s face. God, I whisper, please. The grief is unbearable. Take me back, forgive me.
I read Bill Holm’s Playing the Black Piano, a book of poems my mother sent me. He writes about the sea. The sea eats what it pleases. The sea does not hate you or imagine you have wounded it with your avarice. Only humans so newly risen from fish, imagine drowning each other for reasons.
It is not the rhythm of Holm that speaks to me, though it keeps me and holds me to it, but the idea that cannot be explained, only sensed in this question: Why do we imagine that the pain we inflict on each other has meaning?
I move through entire days where it is enough just to stay sober. At the end of winter, I go down to the lake and spend hours photographing rolling waves of ice. Below them the lake thaws, yet the surface is still hinged with enormous plates of ice that won’t let the underwater out. With force, the water churns beneath the ice, moves the ice crested surface in waves that roll and hurl against the cement walls of the shore, breaking down little by little.