Nonfiction Contest Winner
This is an essay about blackouts. Not the electrical kind, as in This is the largest blackout in the region’s history, or A squirrel caused the neighborhood blackout. And not the kind that means a period of unconsciousness, as in I felt really faint and then I blacked out, or I blacked out when the car hit the pole and I didn’t come to until after surgery, or I drank so much I blacked out on the couch and when I woke up my friends had sharpied a moustache on my face. But I do mean a kind you have to drink to achieve. Here is the essay:
No, I’m kidding. You’re still reading the essay, which is about blackout drinking. So it’s not about blacking out. This isn’t a kind of blackout that’s used as a verb. Blackouting? No. No verb. Adjective or noun, as in I was a blackout drinker, or I came to out of that blackout standing in front of a hotel mirror. And coming to in front of a mirror means being conscious before coming to, being conscious during the blackout, which seems impossible, and that’s the trouble. I was a blackout drinker. Not every time, not every night, but I would wake up in my car in the driveway at 3:30 a.m., having fallen asleep before opening the car door, and when I woke up, I could not remember driving home, could not remember going to my car from the bar, not remember some hours in the bar, or bars. I’d ordered whiskeys during a blackout, I’d conversed, I’d driven home. This was very different from a normal lapse of memory, or a blurry recollection. This was the blackout me having done those things. There is a neurophysiological explanation for alcoholic blackouts: memories are not “encoded” and therefore are not retrievable; put another way, during a blackout, memories disappear, they no longer exist to be retrieved. And this is profoundly troubling. This is another me, somewhere, one I seem never to have experienced. One morning, my wife wakes me. We’re separated, living in different houses, and she’s come in through the front door to find me asleep in bed. She’s stepped past the pile of clothes on the floor by the front door, she’s stepped between footprints of one bloody sock, to collect me for our weekly counselor appointment. This doesn’t make me want to save you, she says, as if I’d performed a “cry for help.” This is no cry for help, I think, this is no cry, there is no help, this is drinking, this is no intention, this is whiskey in glasses. We cancel our appointment, I clean up the gash in my head, we sit in the kitchen and talk for a couple hours. At this point I have no idea how I cut my head, why my bloody sock, why my clothes by the front door—except I’m sure I didn’t cut my head in the house. I’d walked in that way. Somehow I know this much. There are two kinds of alcoholic blackouts: “fragmentary”, in which a few brief glimpses into the blackout session are available to memory’s view, and “en bloc,” total absence of any memories for the blackout session, which seems to me—en bloc—much more refined, so French. One night, or rather very early morning, dark, I come to during a conversation with a police officer who’s standing outside my car window. My car is stopped in the middle of a residential street just before a traffic-calming circle. The officer is giving me three choices: he could take me to detox, or he could call me a cab, or—I can’t recall the third option. I ask him, So if you take me to detox, I’ll wake up in jail? Yes, he says. We’re having a conversation. I opt for the cab. I remember what happens after this, I mean after coming to during the conversation with the police officer, I’m no longer in a blackout. Can I remember anything before the officer, during the blackout? Was it fragmentary, or was it French? A couple years later, I write a poem, a sonnet, about the incident: a friend of mine, a writer of fictions, writes in this poem’s margin, “dislocated self.” And I think, yes, that’s exactly it. And not just dislocated as in a self yanked from one place to another, or a self in two places, but also in the medical sense, as in a dislocated shoulder, a self put out of joint, able to be popped back in place: but the body will always remember that sickening pop. I do remember part of a scene from the blackout before the officer’s listing choices: I’m in a strip club, a large one with multiple stages, talking with another patron and his girlfriend at the bar. He’s a fast talker, smooth, tells me there ain’t nobody like him, I tell him I’ve met people like you before, he says You ain’t never met nobody like me before, I tell him No, I mean, I’ve met other people who aren’t like anyone else either. Then I come to in the middle of the conversation with the cop, standing by my car in the middle of a quiet street. He calls me a cab, now I’m out of my car, he puts me in his car so I won’t get too cold—he tells me I don’t notice the cold, from being so lit—and assures me repeatedly I’m not under arrest, I guess so I won’t make trouble. He parks my car, I have to tell him to lift the ring on the gearshift to put the car in reverse, It’s a Volvo thing, I say. The cab arrives, the cop gives the cabbie my keys, they seem to know each other. The cabbie drives me home. A week later, I’m at a bar, this time—a brief attempt not to drive drunk—without my car. I call a cab. I’m too drunk to hear the first cabbie call out to the crowd for who called him, I call another cab. When I get in the cab, the cabbie reaches his arm to the back seat, hands me my car keys and his business card: it’s the same guy from the week before with the cop. Near my house, I tell him to drop me off at one of my regular spots, the Lamplighter, where they serve Chinese at the bar until closing. In the morning, I find my keys in my coat pocket, along with the cabbie’s card, on the back of which he’s written, Go to AA. I do, for a month, every day. Later, a friend of mine who I drink with, a chronic, longterm alcoholic, calls me one morning asking me to drive by his house to take him and his much-younger girlfriend Anna to his regular bar: he’d gotten a cab the night before, as usual, and needs to pick up his car. On the way to his house, I smell burning, look for smoke, maybe some wiring has fizzled, my car’s about to go up. But no: it’s my corduroy coat, not burning, but burnt, near the pocket, a large patch of it gone, the hole’s edges singed. The car stinks of burnt coat. En bloc, i> it seems, this time, I have no idea how or when I burned my own coat, must have been a cigarette held there, but when, at home slumped in a chair after a double-vision drive home, or at the bar, perhaps, perhaps someone noticed and put it out for me, who knows, I sure don’t. What’s that smell? says Anna, wrinkling her nose, and I think, Yeah, you’re welcome, but really I’m ashamed. And ashamed, too, when my wife finds me crashed out with a bloody head to pick me up for marriage counseling, but I’m still a little drunk from the night before, so I’m like, I don’t really see the issue. When she leaves, I try to piece together what must have happened. I find bloody bar-napkins in my jacket pocket, I must have been in that bar down the block where I always go. There’s a sock wadded up by the front door with the rest of most of my clothes, I must have used it against the gash in my head and then for a tiny pillow a while before stepping the other sock in blood and to my bed. There’s blood on my computer keyboard, I check my sent email, I’d sent messages at 4 a.m. about an invented recipe. Suddenly I recall–fragmentary—standing in front of my bathroom mirror, head dripping a little, ecstatic, full of joy, vibrant, huge smile. That evening, well enough to leave the house, I go to the bar to find out more. The bartender, none too happy about the incident report she’d had to file the night before, tells me I’d come out of the bathroom with my head gashed open, or someone had found me in there like that, that then a small crowd gathered, checking to see I was ok. I ask what I was like, she says I was pleasant, lucid, talking like normal, I knew where I lived, that one of their regulars walked me home (what am I, I think, chopped liver? I’m here all the time). I go into the bar bathroom, lock the door, look everywhere for where I might have hit my head, did I pass out to the floor, did I lurch backwards and to the side, did I lean too fast too far, how long had I been there, I find nothing, no sharp corners, no flecks of blood, I’m forensically inept. I’m tempted to use this as a metaphor for my failed marriage, which of course I already have: there is no other me: and that’s the real trouble.
The blackout me is still out there, or more precisely, still in here. There is no blackout me. And I remember him.