People here call me “Mrs. Bauer.”
In the Midwest, where I used to live, everyone used first names. I moved here to the Northeast expecting to find a riot of openness and artsy liberalism — too many years of watching New York sitcom characters discuss their body parts, I suppose. Instead I feel as if I’ve time-warped into a Jane Austen novel. Because I have children and a professional job, I must also have a title. And not only do people insist on calling me “Mrs.”; they also ask, with no apparent embarrassment, where my husband is. As if they’re certain I’ll provide a logical explanation for his absence: “He’s researching the effect of cosmic rays on arctic wildlife,” or, “He’s running his company’s satellite office in Spain.”
Sometimes I tell them my husband is dead. More often I say he’s working out of town. Or that he’s ill and in a hospital receiving treatment. None of these things is true. Or maybe one of them is. They all could be.
Once, for no reason I can name other than that I was tired of making up stories, I told the woman who pours my coffee each morning at Starbucks that my husband is an alcoholic. This was a mistake — not so much because it was an inappropriate thing to say (though, given the slim link between us, it certainly was) but because the minute I said it, she thought she understood.
Her eyes peered out at me from under her green visor. She nodded and put her hand on my arm. “My uncle,” she said. “Once my cousins could drive, they used to have to pick him up at bars and then go looking for his car the next morning.” When I tried to pay for my coffee, she waved the money away. “I’ll be praying for you, honey.” She wore a gold crucifix the size of my thumb, and she held it up, like evidence. “Praying that husband of yours comes to his senses and dries out.”
I thanked her, and I meant it. She was kind. She also reminded me why “the truth,” or at least this simplified version of it, is as misleading as any lie I might dream up. She thought the problem was the alcohol, the drinking itself. And, like so many others, this woman envisioned a cure. Abstinence. Simple cause and effect: if he dried out, he would become the man, the husband, the father he was meant to be.
I used to believe that, too. Fifteen years ago, I stood in front of a judge — slightly nauseated from nerves and the sweet scent of flowers and a touch of what would later turn out to be morning sickness — and pledged my life to this man, who was five months sober after a decade of drinking. I believed in him and his sobriety with a zealousness I can only describe as an addiction.
He had his first drink at twelve. The adopted son of two moderate drinkers and the biological child of a violent, lifelong alcoholic, my husband drank daily in high school. When he entered college he became a competitive drinker. It was like a sport, and he was good at it. He went through majors one after another, failing out of programs in forestry, engineering, and education. By the time I met him, he’d been in college eight years and had a transcript that, when printed on continuous dot-matrix paper, was more than two feet long.
He knew a little bit about everything: European history, quantum physics, Islam. He was like a man who’d wandered out of the pages of a Hemingway short story — tanned, strong, with just enough injuries to show that he’d lived. He’d wrecked his hearing with loud concerts and rifle shots; his nose had been broken twice, once in a fight and once in a motorcycle accident.
Of course he drank too much. I could see it from the moment we began dating. But it was part of who he was, like the silver stripes in his beard, though he was only twenty-five. Many people I knew back then drank heavily. It’s what we did: sitting in the blue haze of campus bars and passing joints — beneath the table, as a courtesy to the owner, whose policy was that he didn’t mind smelling our pot, but he didn’t want to see it. And since college I’d seen dozens of my peers get up off their bar stools and become parents and business owners and PTA presidents. That’s what I imagined for us. That’s what I wanted.
I’ve since heard that 8 percent of Americans develop a drinking problem at some point in their lives, but most of them beat it. So I wasn’t crazy: There are literally millions of people who have gone from bleary, beer-soaked college days to marriages and houses and steady jobs. Drinking was like a bacterial infection they outlasted or cured. They came through relatively unscathed.
My husband’s alcoholism was different. It behaved more like a virus, with its own complex design and a nearly human will. Whatever palliative was prescribed, it would adapt and survive.
As a teenager I’d read Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and I’d fallen in love with quixotic, drunken Johnny Nolan, his off-kilter charm and glinting wit. Smith captured a whiff of the sot’s real stink and squalor — his random disappearances, spendthrift ways, and irremediably childlike view. But she didn’t give a fair and accurate picture of the chaos. Her Johnny was predictable in his unpredictability: he sang, he drank, he lost jobs, he drank more, he dreamed of stardom, he drank still more. Finally he died of exposure while wandering the cold streets on a three-day drunk. The story was neat in its way. The problem, clearly, was alcohol.
To be fair, Smith was working with a character who needed limitable traits in order to fit on the page, and a certain degree of consistency to make him believable. My husband possessed neither limits nor consistency. If he had — if the problem were just the booze, the hangovers, the sloppy drunkenness, the money wasted, the rages and nightmares and entire weekends of forgotten sins — I’m certain we’d still be together. After all, I love him. I could have handled all that.
But our story is different.
For a long time after we married, my husband was stone sober but erratic. He would disappear some weekends and come back looking haggard and worn, his skin a dead shade of gray, but he never stumbled or smelled of booze. It was as if he’d gone to do battle in a place where the fallout wouldn’t hurt us. He’d go on spending sprees he barely remembered — until the credit-card bills came. He’d drive highways he didn’t know to places he’d never been until he literally ran out of gas and had to be rescued by a twosome I referred to as “A to the fifth power”: his AA sponsor and a tow truck from AAA.
Five years passed before the “slips” began. He went on random benders, almost always in response to something small but insoluble: coffee spilled all over his pants on the way into a business meeting; slow, heavy rain on a day that he was supposed to work outside. But his drinking didn’t cause him to miss work or family events or our children’s concerts and plays. And, inevitably, he would sober up and get back to the business at hand, rising out of each self-pitying drunk with a quiet grace.
It wasn’t the liquor itself that ruined him, or us. It was as if the impaired judgment and distorted reasoning of drunkenness became, at some point, permanent. And lying — a skill he’d learned early and well to hide the drinking, first from his parents and then from me — became the single constant in his emotional life. Add these things together, and we never had a chance.
By the end, he lived in our basement, a dank space where spiders and mildew thrived. He kept his clothes and personal things in a heap. He rigged a shower stall next to the washing machine, bathed with laundry detergent, and trimmed his beard by the reflection in the dull, copper-streaked side of an old chrome toaster.
“He feels unworthy of a comfortable home,” said one therapist. “He’s suffering the abandonment issues of an adopted child.”
Personally I thought he was simulating what it would be like to live as a real drunk. He was rehearsing.
He smoked in secret, chewed tobacco compulsively, wore stained clothes, bought magazines and mints and paperbacks at every newsstand he passed. He had always been a hoarder, but his need to collect junk grew until it bordered on the pathological. He kept scraps of paper and bits of string and became rattled if anything of his was thrown away.
During one of his frequent, but short, dry stretches, I told a friend I wished my husband would simply give in and go back to drinking all the time.
“How can you say such a thing?” she asked. “He’s doing so well!”
And he was, living painfully through every day. I imagined what it must have been like for him, the constant rat-gnawing hunger for liquor. He consumed pounds of hard candy and entire bags of chocolate bars (probably replacing the enormous volume of sugar his body had grown accustomed to when he drank each day). He gained forty pounds. He itched constantly and walked with a jerky, twitching gait, like someone trying to get away from himself. He’d always been kind and patient and funny. Now anger lay just beneath his skin. He simmered, fidgeted, exploded. The benign, disorganized pack rat was gone, replaced by a stunningly bitter man who acted, despite our three glorious children, as if there were no joy in his life.
Go ahead, I wanted to say to him during every argument. Drink. It’s who you’re meant to be. And eventually, I did say it.
I was wrong. When my husband decided to quit denying it or apologizing, to come out and be a daily drinker, he plummeted to a previously unthinkable low.
I share the blame: me and my wacko, New Age, embrace-your-inner-alcoholic philosophy. I’d thought he would come into himself, recognize his limitations, accept his physiological makeup, and get on with his life. Instead, he began hitting me for the first time. He grew increasingly remote and paranoid, moved out of our house, lived briefly in his car, lost two jobs, drove drunk until he was arrested. Once, on a weekend visit to our family home, he taught our eleven-year-old son how to do shots of tequila.
Could he have controlled himself if he’d wanted to? I wish I knew. I can only say that, from where I stood, what he was doing didn’t look like fun, and I can’t imagine any man choosing the path he did if there were any other option available.
Almost two years after he walked away from his sober life, and our marriage, he crawled back in — through the county jail and a locked treatment center, where he underwent chemical detox, counseling, group therapy, and behavior modification. While there, he wasn’t allowed to take a walk, read a newspaper, or talk on the phone. He’d lost the house he’d bought with his share of our divorce settlement, and the car. Also his friends, his career, and his children’s trust.
When he showed up at our door last summer, he was like a brand-new baby: shrunken and unformed. He wanted to live honestly, he said. A quiet life. A job. A studio apartment. My permission to see the children, if they were willing to have him.
He was joyless again, but in a new way. Instead of bitterness or rage, resignation hung around him like a stale fog.
But we forged a new contract. We would try again, as friends. The children and I would not rely on him, but we would include him in Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays. He would have a place on the edge of our family. Despite everything, I willed myself to believe that this would be the answer, this tenuous, not-quite-responsible version of fatherhood. He’d come out of the shadows, I thought. He would gain weight and watch movies with the kids and learn how to live an ordered life.
There followed six months of starts and stops. He did get a job, working nights at a plastics factory. He rented a room above a laundromat and — when his driver’s license was reinstated — purchased a fifteen-year-old car. Occasionally he would take the children to McDonald’s. One time he actually called a dentist, made appointments for our children, and brought them all in for checkups and cleanings.
He slept over on Christmas Eve — on the living-room floor, in his clothes, with a blanket as a pillow. He lay, stiff and uncovered, with his hands folded over his chest like a corpse. Our daughter danced around him on Christmas morning as if he were a gift Santa had left.
I tried to ignore the fact that he was always exhausted and had been ill four times in December alone. My sister said it was heartbreaking to see him looking like “a whipped puppy.” By January, even I couldn’t turn away from the signs. He was tattered and desperate, his hair matted, his ears unnaturally dark, as if blood were pooling there. He ate voraciously, stuffing food into an already full mouth, his eyes darting from side to side like those of a child who’s afraid of being caught. He smelled as if he’d rolled in an ashtray.
It’s against the advice of all the twelve-step programs, but I asked anyway: Was he drinking? He said he was not.
He must have seen the doubt in my eyes. “Really,” he insisted. “It isn’t that.”
And it wasn’t, exactly. Except that it was always “that,” or the lack of it.
It was also debt: at least three credit cards maxed out and two 25-percent-interest “consolidation loans” for the thousands he’d swept off the cards so that he could charge more. He had not chosen creditors wisely. They were rough customers who called him dozens of times a day, screaming into his ear, threatening to hurt him. He could no longer sleep.
By the time he laid out the credit-card bills in front of me, he’d carried the maximum balances for so long there was no evidence of what he’d originally bought: Liquor? Expensive meals? Cash advances for drugs or spur-of-the-moment weekend junkets? He couldn’t remember, or wouldn’t say.
We were sitting in a small coffeehouse near the AA clubhouse. He and his new friends liked to come here after meetings because they could smoke. I did some quick calculations on a napkin and showed him.
This man who’d once, in the brief clarity of his late twenties, successfully managed a small business looked down at the numbers I’d written and shook his head as if the world were indeed a crazy and unpredictable place. “I kept thinking I could get ahead of it,” he said. “I thought if I just worked a few more hours . . .”
“You owe more than seventy-five thousand dollars,” I said.
“If I just keep chipping away . . .”
“You make twelve dollars an hour.” My voice had gone a little hard, almost wifely. “You make just enough to pay your rent and keep up with the interest. But you can’t touch the principal. The amount you owe will just keep growing.”
“There’s got to be a way.” He lit a cigarette. His hand shook. I stared at the glowing stump burning down between his thick fingers. There was a dried scab hanging along the side of his thumb, blood welling in a small bubble. I was surprised by how red it was.
I spoke gently now. “There is no way. You can’t work your way out of this.”
I don’t remember exactly what I did at this point, but I hope that I touched him. I do recall, very clearly, that he smiled at me, and his shoulders rolled back as if something large had slid off them.
“What a relief.” He squeezed my hand then, which makes me think it was already in his. “Thank you.”
“For showing me.” He stretched his legs out and groaned pleasantly. “I’ve been going crazy trying to figure out how to fix this. Now I see that I can’t, not like I’ve been doing.”
“No,” I said quietly, “you can’t.”
The next day he was gone.
That was more than two months ago. I live with our three fatherless children in a mid-size East Coast city, where I teach at a university and attend grade-school plays and shovel the sidewalk and drive the kids to dentist appointments. The man who was once my husband could be dead. He could be working in another town. He could be in a hospital somewhere. Any one of these things could be true. But they probably aren’t.
A few nights ago, around 2 A.M., he called me from a pay phone at a highway rest stop. I asked where he was, and he said he wasn’t sure. At first he’d gone south, but Florida wasn’t what he’d hoped, so he’d moved on — west and then north into a wide, flat section of the country that reminded him of home. Every city has a street corner, he said, where you line up before dawn and the foremen cruise by to pick men out of the line, like couples choosing which orphans to take home. He was still working to pay off the debt, converting the cash he was handed each day into money orders and sending them off, eating most of his meals at churches and shelters, living in a tent he pitched on riverbanks or in the woods.
I heard the stickiness in his voice, so I asked again, and this time he said yes, he was drinking. A little. Off and on. At night, mostly, to take the edge off the cold.
Come home to us, I almost said. Drink here, where it’s warm.
But I didn’t. Because since he’s left, the children and I have found a rhythm: school, homework, no more than an hour of television, books before bed. We celebrate the weekends in small ways, with a movie or dinner out. There is a Mexican restaurant they all like: strings of chili-pepper lights looping the walls and a basket of chips between us. We’re a family, four people, one on each side of the square table. Sometimes I bring cards, and we play a game of Hearts while we wait for our food. Sodas appear in enormous glasses, full of ice and fizz, the straw tips covered with the end of the paper wrapper. I order a Corona and try to drink at least half of it, so my children can see for themselves what most adults don’t understand. Alcohol is not the problem.
“I miss you,” I whispered to my husband from the small island of my bed. In the distance, behind his silence, I could hear the watery rush of cars driving by. “Stay safe. Call again so I know you’re OK.” Then, quickly, I hung up.
Now he exists nowhere in particular, freezing in a tent at night, eating among strangers, working until his hands bleed. And drinking, as always, to kill the pain. He is a weak man, but also, it seems to me, a brave one.
There’s a part of me that wants to explain to those who ask: Yes, I once promised to be with this man “in sickness and in health,” and I meant it. But I never knew there was an in-between state where the appearance of wellness hides an illness that will erupt again and again, each time in a new and surprising form, and it will tear apart everything you have built, no matter how small.
There is a dullness to my life now. I want to tell people that there are days I wake up and long for my drunken husband’s drench of color. Not the mayhem and the mess and the paranoia — I hated all that — but his quirky, tilted, bacchanalian approach to life. I loved that part of our marriage and held on to it for fifteen years. But in the end, it was I who had to get over my addiction. Go straight. Dry out. My husband knew this. He’d tried to leave us many times before, but he couldn’t go. Not until I let him.