I was on an evening Metro North train home from the Adirondacks. Catherine and I were taking turns sucking Merlot [...]
The day before my birthday was beautiful. It was one of those clear summer days in New York that somehow [...]
The red-smocked amNY guy smiled wide and with a proud, “Good morning, big bro!” extended a copy of the subway [...]
"A short but deeply researched, dark, intense biography... studded with original aperçus about the art of biography, the nature of literary influence, and the importance of place to a writer's sensibility." -- Priscilla Gilman, The Boston Globe
I was on an evening Metro North train home from the Adirondacks. Catherine and I were taking turns sucking Merlot out of a plastic nozzle attached to a plastic sack. We were each lying down long ways across a row of seats, facing each other, passing the bag back and forth, lifting our heads only to drink. We had, in fact, been drinking steadily since 10:00AM. We began by finishing off the weekend’s supply of champagne with a splash of orange juice, because it would be a shame to waste. It was a Sunday and the idea of classes the next morning seemed far away.
We had spent the weekend with four friends in a cheap wood cabin just off the highway. We didn’t do much. One morning, in an ambitious upswing, we rented a motorboat. The weed brownies we had eaten put us all under a sleepy spell. We sat still and silent in the middle of Blue Mountain Lake while blasting Radiohead from someone’s iPhone. I imagined night falling and calling out for help and the gas running out. An hour later we roared back to shore. For two days and nights we smoked weed, ate the brownies, and mostly it was Catherine and I who drank. It was exhausting.
We took a cab home from Grand Central. We were weak and lazy and the long subway ride may as well have been a triathalon. It was 10:00PM and the wine store on 20th and 1st was still open, so we popped in to restock before heading home. Once we were back in the apartment we resumed our nighttime roommate ritual of sitting on the couch, smoking delivery service weed from an ice-packed bong, making frequent trips to and from the kitchen to refill our wine glasses, and arguing about what to watch on TV.
Catherine suggested Frozen, which she had seen and liked a lot. I agreed. Catherine got up to refill her wine glass and I waited for a moment before I got up to fill mine, too. Finally we settled in, all of our substances within arms reach. Catherine pressed play. My already tenuous attention faded in and out. Then there was a change of scene.
Tinkling piano notes sounded as the camera zoomed in on a blue winter landscape at night. Elsa, the blonde one, was walking up a massive mountain, her cape trailing behind. I took a few sips of wine and felt, inexplicably, afraid. Snowflakes flew by as she began to sing.
“Don’t let them in. Don’t let them see. Be the good girl you always have to be. Conceal don’t feel. Don’t let them knoooowww.”
Catherine pressed pause. “So, do you get it?” Her voice was soft, missing its usual bravado. “She’s like mad isolated.” I nodded. She pressed play again. I sat very still. Elsa lifted her arms above her head and ice pillars and stars multiplied up towards the sky, latching together, building an open-air crystal castle.
“Let the storm rage ooon!”
I was hyper-aware of my facial expression and tried to keep it as blank as possible. The piano had now switched to a jazzy, upbeat rhythm. Elsa twirled around her ice castle and I turned to Catherine. “I’m going to bed.”
I didn’t bother going to the bathroom or washing my face or brushing my teeth. My lips and teeth were stained purple from the wine and my hair smelled like old cigarette smoke. I was already in pajamas. I turned off the lights in my room and got under the covers and a wash of unease knocked my breath out. Forget about the ice castle, I ordered myself. The ice castle receded and another terror slid into its place.
Years ago I had read the Led Zeppelin biography, Hammer of the Gods, and on this night I remembered a part about John Bonham. On the morning of his death he had, allegedly, gone to the local pub for breakfast and consumed four quadruple vodkas with orange juice and a couple of ham rolls. He continued drinking steadily throughout the day and then the next morning one of his employees went to his room to wake him and his face was blue and there was no pulse.
I thought about rolling onto my other side but fear prevented me. My pillow felt like an intruder. I stared at the wall while wild thoughts flooded in. Ham rolls. John Bonham ate a bunch of ham rolls and drank way too much and he died. Did I eat enough to soak up the alcohol? The ham rolls couldn’t save him. Am I dying? My whole body was now shaking uncontrollably, violently, like a seizure. More thoughts flowed in. There was no stopping them now. Do people shake a lot right before they die? I should get up, then, I’m going to get up.
The bathroom lights blinded me and I felt tingly and broke into a cold sweat. I tried to sit on the toilet and my upper body fell forward like I’d been smacked on the back of the head. Everything was black and then came into focus. I got up and walked into the living room.
“Catherine?” I whimpered. “I just fainted on the toilet.”
She had been dozing off and slowly came to, looking at me through slits of puffy eyes. I moved her legs out of the way and sat down on the couch.
“I don’t feel well. I think I’m having my first full-blown panic attack.”
“Do you want a Xanax?”
A spasm rolled up through my body, causing me to hiccup. “No. I’ve had too much to drink. What will happen if I mix it?”
“It’s fine, just take a Xanax.”
“I don’t know. I can’t stop shaking.”
“Do you want my Snuggie?”
“I can’t put it on!” A wail escaped from my insides. “I’m shaking too hard!”
When the EMTs arrived they surveyed the scene. Catherine and I were sitting on the couch in pajamas. The coffee table in front of us held several empty and half empty water and wine glasses, a tin can filled with ash and cigarette butts, an empty ashtray, a bong, an open carton of American Spirits, two lighters, and thin, crumpled napkins stained with grease and ketchup. Pinned on the wall above our heads was a neon poster illustrating twelve different tantric sex positions. Stapled packets of paper stamped with dirty shoe marks littered the floor. The uniformed men were silent for a moment before one of them asked what the problem was.
I told them I was having a panic attack and that I fainted. They asked me a few routine questions and told me I should come with them because anything involving fainting could be a heart issue. I knew I wasn’t having a heart issue and now the strangeness of four uniformed men standing in my living room had taken me out of my self-induced horror. The shaking subsided a bit. Now I just wanted them to leave.
I protested and they insisted and I said, “I don’t need the stretcher. I can just walk,” and they said, “We’re legally required to take you on the stretcher.” Five minutes later I was on the stretcher, rolling on the sidewalk outside my apartment towards a blinking ambulance, with Catherine trailing behind. The ride over to Beth Israel was brief and sobering. At one point, while I trembled on the stretcher, Catherine saw an opportunity for conversation and seized it. Turning to the blonde EMT sitting beside her, she asked, “So, how long have you been an EMT for?”
On the emergency room floor white lights seemed to strip everything of its color. The air was thick. The blonde EMT had a blank stare. He looked at me a beat too long and I realized that even in a hospital you aren’t safe. He stationed my stretcher perpendicular to an elderly wino, who I tried not to look at. Catherine took a seat in the small open waiting area a few feet away. Across from her row of chairs sat a man in his early twenties. He was jiggling his knees up and down and every minute or so he bent his torso towards the floor, held his head in his hands, shaking it left to right, crying, “No, no, no, no, no.” Minutes passed and he walked up to a bearded doctor in a white coat who was entering another patient’s data into a computer. The doctor looked at him and shook his head. “No. We have a baby here before you. The baby comes first.”
Sometime later I lay on a rubber and tissue paper bed in a row of beds separated by thin curtains printed with a hideous geometric pattern. I had no phone, no purse, nothing to take me out of the moment. Two voices from the bed directly on my right, about two feet away from my head, spoke as if they were the only ones in the room. I heard the man first.
“You were there with Joey, right?” he slurred.
“No, no, He- Hector, it was Angel. Don’t you ‘member?” she slurred back.
“I’m Angel, bitch!” There was a crunching of tissue paper and a slapping sound.
“Baby, baby, oooh your neck.” Sucking noises followed. Then some grunts. “I’m gonna get some wa- water.”
The curtain at the end of my feet was open slightly, so I could see a sliver of the main floor and the staff in scrubs walking past. I watched a short woman with a round belly, wearing bedazzled jeans and untied sneakers, shuffle to the water cooler. She returned with a small plastic cup. Her expression was dazed, her smile crooked.
An hour passed. I didn’t move. A camel crossed a desert, a caterpillar got its wings, we had a female president - all while I lay in the bed, waiting. Then, through the sliver in the curtain, I saw Catherine walking towards me. Every step was drawn out and heavy.
“Hi,” my whole body lunged towards her, “it should only be another half an hour.” I was lying.
“Look, bro, my nighttime meds are kicking in. I was falling asleep in my chair and the nurse asked me if I needed any help.”
“Please stay with me. Please.”
“That guy across from me was telling the nurse about this medication he was taking, Depakote, and I asked him, I was like, ‘Oh, how do you like it?’” she laughed.
I nodded and laughed a little. She said she had to leave as she was having trouble keeping her eyes open. I said I understood and that I’d see her at home. Then I was alone again.
The voices next to me quieted down. They must have dozed off, Angel and the bedazzled woman. I tried to doze off, too, but couldn’t keep my eyes shut for longer than a couple seconds. I couldn’t let my guard down just because I was in a hospital. Lying in this bed was a lot like walking a busy city street, say 14th street, except I was sedentary and had more time to survey all the wreckage. More minutes, maybe hours, passed. Then a new body in a white coat appeared through the sliver in the curtain. It was a doctor, coming to see me. He was in his early thirties and had gelled brown hair and a nasally voice. He looked me over.
“So what can I do for you tonight?” he asked, like a customer service representative.
“I had a panic attack and fainted but I feel better now and I want to go home.”
He scowled a little. “So you don’t want me to look you over or anything? We can’t keep you here against your will.”
“So I can leave?”
“Yeah. We can’t keep you here against your will.”
I said great I’m going to leave and he said fine and I felt like a massive idiot for not recognizing that this whole time I had free will to burst out of the front automatic doors into the fresh, night air. The doctor left and a moment later a voice came through the curtain. It was Angel.
“Yo, we got Xanax.”
“Yeah, five bucks a pill,” offered the woman.
I had never ripped off a hospital gown and re-clothed myself with such urgency before. I haven’t since. In fifteen seconds I was gone, pounding my way through the white halls, following the exit signs, then I was on the street, speed-walking the ten or so blocks home. It was three o’clock in the morning. I was wearing pajama pants with a colorful owl pattern, a Simpsons t-shirt, a grey zip-up hoodie, and flimsy silver ballet flats. There was no bra or underwear under this ensemble. I didn’t see anyone on the street, and I don’t think anyone saw me.