I ’m at Trader Joe’s buying groceries for the week, and the free-sample counter has little plastic cups of corn bread with corn-chile salsa. I take one. A male employee talking to an older woman nearby suddenly drops his voice, as if the person they’re talking about has just walked by. They both turn and look at me as I take a second sample cup of corn bread and pop it into my mouth like a Jell-O shot.
The employee starts whispering to another employee, and then they both give me a funny look, like I’ve done more than just repeat-sampled. Like they’ve caught me shoplifting. Am I shoplifting? No, I haven’t shoplifted in more than a decade. I am brusque but not rude at the checkout, and I always bag my own groceries. I’m an excellent customer.
At three in the morning I wake up because the cats are meowing and the dog is yipping at the cats. My wife, Amy, somehow sleeps through this. Meanwhile I can’t fall back asleep because I’m thinking about the man from Trader Joe’s. If he whispers or gives me a funny look again, I’m going to confront him. I’m going to walk up to him and say, Excuse me. Can I help you with something?
What do you mean? he’ll say.
You keep giving me funny looks, I’ll say. Both today and the last time I was here. I’m wondering if there’s something I can help you with.
Chances are he’ll feign innocence: I’m sorry if I gave you that impression. But it’s also possible I’ve committed some impeachable Trader Joe’s offense, like not returning my grocery cart. Or is it because of how much wine I buy? What if they banish me from the store and put up my picture in the break room like someone who’s been caught writing bad checks? I can’t lose Trader Joe’s. At three in the morning I’m aware of all I can’t lose.
I work at a primary-care health clinic in Portland, Oregon. When new patients come in, we give them a questionnaire called the SBIRT, which stands for “Screening, Brief Intervention, Referral to Treatment.” It screens for alcoholism, drug addiction, and depression. If patients report that in the past year they’ve had five or more drinks in a day, or have used a recreational drug or a prescription medication for nonmedical reasons, or have been bothered by feeling depressed or hopeless in the past two weeks, then they’re given another form to test specifically for alcoholism or drug addiction or depression.
The alcoholism questionnaire is called the AUDIT (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test). One day I decide to take it. I don’t take the other two tests because I don’t use any drugs, and I already know I’m depressed. Some of the AUDIT questions are more subjective than I would expect from a diagnostic screening. For example: “Has a relative or friend or doctor or another health worker been concerned about your drinking or suggested you cut down?” To me that depends on how you interpret concerned and suggested. The answers are multiple-choice: “No,” “Yes, but not in the last year,” or “Yes, during the last year” — which is also a little subjective. Do they mean the last twelve months or the current calendar year? Maybe it’s not a good sign that I’m parsing the language as much as I am.
I take the test, grade myself strictly, and add up the points. The result is that I’m likely an alcoholic and should seek treatment as soon as possible. I take the test again and grade myself more forgivingly, because forgiveness is a virtue. I’m still likely an alcoholic, but I’m more on the cusp. I scour the questions to see where I can shave off a point here and there until my drinking is merely potentially hazardous to my health.
The man at Trader Joe’s is tall and has a mustache. He doesn’t know that I’m buying all these bottles of wine for myself, or maybe he does. Maybe Trader Joe’s guy knows something shameful about me I don’t. At the checkout, when he asks for my identification, I stare at him for several seconds to test his resolve.
Once, I smuggled a can of beer into work, poured it into a coffee cup, and hid the cup in my desk drawer. I took nips throughout the afternoon. When it was empty, I washed it three times with lots of soap and sniffed it to make sure the beer smell was gone.
My friend Sunny has asked if I think I might have a drinking problem. When filling out the AUDIT, I was unsure whether to count this, since it wasn’t clear whether he was expressing concern or just curious.
Trader Joe’s guy keeps staring at me while he scans my groceries. I grab a couple of paper bags to begin bagging, but he’s scanning all the perishables first: Eggs. Tomatoes. Avocados. I wait for him to scan the heavy wine bottles so I can put them in the bottom of the bag; but, no, he scans the bell peppers, coffee, rice crackers. He keeps staring at me, like he’s daring me to say something. Another employee comes over to help with the bagging and asks Trader Joe’s guy, “Why are you smirking?”
Trader Joe’s guy shakes his head. “I’ll tell you later,” he says.
I stand outside for thirty seconds, peering through the window, waiting for Trader Joe’s guy and his coworker to glance over at me and whisper. Eventually the wine bottles in my bag get too heavy, and I leave.
Am I an alcoholic? On the one hand, for the past three years I haven’t gone a day without having at least two drinks. On the other hand, I’ve never shirked an obligation because I was too drunk. I’ve never blacked out. I’ve never hurt someone physically or verbally because I was too drunk to know better. At least, I don’t think I have.
It’s possible the wine just provides me with routine, and I need routine. For example, every time I drive my car, I have to vacuum it afterward. I bought a Dyson the week after Amy and I got married. She hates the sound of the vacuum and says one of these days she’s going to throw it in the garbage. Before the Dyson, I would stop by a car wash every day after work and vacuum the car with one of those industrial-strength vacuums: four quarters for five minutes. I always made sure to have quarters on me. In the winter, when it gets dark at five o’clock, I vacuum my car using my phone as a flashlight so I can see all the dirt and debris, which is usually minimal because I vacuum my car every day.
Our apartment complex is one of the few where you’re allowed to have a dog, so most of the people living here have dogs. They take them for walks when they get home from work, and they see me outside with my phone flashlight and my Dyson, vacuuming. It’s normal for someone to vacuum his car, but it’s not normal for someone to vacuum his car every day and sometimes in the dark. I have prepared a response, in case someone walking their dog makes a snide comment. Occasionally neighbors compliment me, but I don’t think they mean it.
“You have the cleanest car I’ve ever seen!”
Why don’t you go fuck yourself.
“You’re so organized!”
Your hat looks stupid.
Mostly people look and they judge, and it’s cumulative, and God help the person who breaks the dam.
A few weeks after she has a miscarriage, Amy develops a pain in her neck. It’s also in her shoulder, she says, and shooting down her right arm. Tylenol doesn’t touch it. The pain is keeping her awake at night. When she starts to lose sensation in her right hand, she goes to her doctor, who says the pain is most likely grief from the miscarriage made manifest, and she recommends lots of rest and alternating ice and heat. Instead Amy goes to another doctor, who orders an MRI and discovers two herniated discs in her neck: C5 and C6.
The neurosurgeon, when we finally get in to see him, describes the spinal discs as being like jelly doughnuts: A hernia is when some of the jelly leaks out and presses against the spinal cord. “The jelly wants to go back inside the doughnut,” he says. “That’s its home.” He prescribes an epidural steroid injection to expedite the jelly’s homecoming. It’s the day after Christmas, and all I can think about is that an epidural is what they give women when they’re in labor. All Amy can think about is the pain.
Three years later I receive an Oregon Arts Commission Fellowship. I get the call on the same day Amy has another appointment with the neurosurgeon. Six months ago the jelly slid out of the C5 and C6 doughnuts again. She’s had two more epidural shots, but the pain hasn’t gone away. The neurosurgeon tests the strength in her hand by pushing against it. He reviews her MRI and solemnly pronounces that she’s a candidate for surgery.
The neurosurgeon says he will make a two-inch incision in her neck, scoop out the jelly and the dough that has failed to contain it, and replace them with a disc made of titanium and cobalt. “You’ll definitely be worth more after the surgery than before,” he jokes. The procedure saves him from having to go in through her back and navigate a bundle of nerves that could leave her paralyzed if damaged. When Amy asks what the chances are this surgery could leave her paralyzed, the neurosurgeon chuckles like it’s a stupid question.
Immediately after the appointment we go to the bar where we met on this same day eight years ago. Actually we met at the sushi restaurant down the street, but our first kiss was at the bar, in the middle of a game of pool. “Until you kissed me,” I say, “I didn’t think you liked me very much.”
“I was probably nervous,” she says. “You also have to remember, I was incredibly depressed.”
From the bar we drove to her apartment, where we spent our first night together, and the next day I picked up the woman I’d been casually dating from the airport and told her I’d met someone else.
The bar doesn’t have a pool table anymore. It’s as hard to find a bar with a pool table in Portland these days as it is to find an affordable place to rent. Amy and I share a pizza and talk about the upcoming surgery and my writing fellowship.
Before this, my biggest writing accomplishment was selling a short story to a literary journal for a hundred dollars. When the director of programs at the Oregon Arts Commission called today to tell me my application had been selected, I thought she was a telemarketer.
“Yes, how can I help you?” I answered in a tone that made it abundantly clear I had no interest in helping anyone.
“Is this Jacob?”
“Yes,” I said in the same tone.
“Hi! This is Susan calling from Literary Arts!”
I don’t remember much of the rest of the conversation, only that I really wanted to apologize for thinking she was a telemarketer.
At the bar, on the anniversary of our first date, Amy asks how I feel about receiving the fellowship. “It’s kind of terrifying,” I tell her. I’m worried my family will suddenly take an interest in my writing and read every unflattering thing I’ve written about them.
When we get home from the bar, Amy goes to bed, and I pour myself a glass of wine because: (1) Amy’s surgery; (2) the money I’ll receive from the fellowship won’t even cover Amy’s loss of income while she’s recuperating at home, not to mention the forty-three thousand dollars the actual surgery will cost; (3) my desk and bookshelf rest unsteadily on our uneven floor and extend beyond the edges of the rug in a way that bothers me; (4) I’m wondering whether or not Amy will be paralyzed for the rest of our lives; and (5) when my dad reads my essays about him, he’ll never speak to me again.
I can’t do anything about 1, 2, 4, or 5, so the next day, after work, I drive to IKEA. With the money I will receive from the fellowship, I buy a matching love seat and ottoman and load them into my car. I love IKEA. Buying and assembling their furniture gives me a chance to feel constructive without the likelihood of fucking things up. Once I’ve dragged the boxes into the living room, I pour myself a large glass of wine and set to work.
Amy’s almost fallen asleep when I start to dismantle the desk and bookshelf. “Sweetie . . . ,” she says.
I consolidate the books from the bookshelf with others shelved in the living room, and then I carry the bookshelf and the desk out to the dumpster.
The love seat and ottoman fit perfectly on the rug.
A couple of days later, when the check and letter arrive in the mail from Literary Arts, there’s a mistake. The check is made out to me, but the letter says, “It is my great pleasure to officially inform you that the judges have selected Pacifica: Poetry International as a recipient of a 2018 Oregon Literary Fellowship.” I’ve never heard of Pacifica: Poetry International. I don’t even write poetry. Of course. This explains everything. They must have mixed up my application with someone else’s, someone who writes poetry.
I should just deposit the check. They’re not going to ask for the money back after I’ve already deposited the check. It was their mistake. Instead I call Susan and leave a frantic message on her voice mail. As soon as I hang up, I call again, and she answers this time. She assures me it’s just a typo, that I really was selected for literary nonfiction. She’ll send a corrected letter for my records.
As the surgery date nears, Amy’s starting to feel anxious. “I need to paint my toenails,” she says five days before.
“Why do you need to paint your toenails?” I ask. I haven’t told her I threw away her toenail polish a week ago to make room in the bathroom cabinet for her allergy medication.
“Because they’re going to see my toenails,” she says. “I have to paint them.”
“Sweetie,” I say, “they don’t want to see your toenails. They want to see your vertebrae.”
Three days before the surgery the dog vomits on the rug underneath the new love seat and ottoman. It happens in the middle of the night, and when I wake up the next morning, the vomit has seeped all the way through to the hardwood floor. The rug’s ruined. Back to IKEA — only they don’t carry this rug anymore, and since the rug in the living room matches the rug in the bedroom, that means I have to buy two rugs. I spend the evening pulling up the rug tape from the floors, a bottle of wine on hand, while Amy packs her overnight bag for the hospital stay.
Two days before the surgery I go to Trader Joe’s to load up on groceries for when Amy is homebound. I seek out Trader Joe’s guy the way I used to seek out car washes with industrial-strength vacuum cleaners. A few days ago I was talking with my friend Sunny over a couple of beers about the man at Trader Joe’s, and Sunny said I should just confront him, tell him he’s making me uncomfortable.
“He’ll have to ask why,” Sunny said. “It’s in their training. They cannot disengage. They have to converse!”
“Seriously. Just be direct. Say, ‘It feels like you’re judging me or making fun of me. And I don’t know why.’ And then he’ll have to come clean.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“You have to do it!”
“We both know I’m never going to.”
He took a sip of beer and looked down, losing steam. “You’re right,” he said. “Neither would I.”
I spot Trader Joe’s guy in dairy, restocking yogurt. Amy asked me to get pudding. I reach over him and grab the pudding and put it in my cart. Then I linger. Trader Joe’s guy doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know that I’m from Northern California or that my favorite color is green. He doesn’t know that when my dad took me hunting at the age of twelve, I intentionally shot above the deer’s head so I wouldn’t have to kill it. Trader Joe’s guy doesn’t know me. I’m still lingering. The truth is I intended to shoot above the deer’s head but the deer ran off before I had the chance and maybe if I’d had the chance I wouldn’t have missed. But Trader Joe’s guy doesn’t know that.
I cough. I clear my throat. I put another butterscotch pudding in my grocery cart and clear my throat again. Trader Joe’s guy finally looks up at me, but there’s no recognition in his eyes. Nothing at all. I’m just another customer coughing on his yogurt.
Amy wakes me up at four in the morning the day of the surgery. While I get dressed and vacuum the new living-room rug, she makes me coffee. We’re supposed to arrive at the hospital at five so they can prep her for a seven o’clock surgery. She’s been up for hours and has finished packing and checked her e-mail and Facebook. We’re both quiet, speaking only of practical matters:
“Are you shaving this morning?” she asks.
“It can wait.”
“I need to brush my teeth.”
We’re holding our anxieties close to keep them from cross-pollinating.
While I’m making the bed, I hear a loud crash in the kitchen. “Shit!” Amy shouts. I run in to see what’s happened. The floor is covered in soggy coffee grounds. Amy’s on her hands and knees, attempting to sop up the liquid with wadded paper towels. “The filter tipped over,” she explains. The carnage is extensive. Grounds are on the walls and inside the utensil drawer. Black coffee is spattered on the ceiling. It looks as if Mr. Coffee has been bludgeoned to death.
We have ten minutes before we need to leave, and it will take at least two hours and a bottle of wine to clean this up to my satisfaction. I know this kind of chaos: the more you clean, the more you see that needs cleaning. I’ll have to pull the stove and refrigerator out from the wall, wash each knife and fork individually. I haven’t even had my coffee yet. My coffee is everywhere but where it should be.
I’m practical. I try to be practical. I start helping Amy wipe up the worst of it, knowing that the ten-minute effort will only exacerbate my neurosis. While Amy’s in surgery, instead of worrying about her, I’m going to be thinking about coffee grounds underneath the refrigerator and stove, just out of reach of my vacuum’s attachments. This feels unfair to both of us.
“We need to go,” Amy says.
I still haven’t had my coffee. I bring my computer, my phone, and a collection of essays, poems, and stories by Raymond Carver to occupy me in the waiting room. It’s the same room I waited in during Amy’s third miscarriage, and I point this out to her. “It was the middle of the night,” I say. “I was the only one here for two hours.”
“That must have been very scary for you,” she replies with a wink.
The waiting room is now well populated. We find a seat in the corner, and after Amy is called back for prep, I step outside to smoke a cigarette. I will do this every thirty minutes. When a policeman tells me I can’t smoke on hospital property, I grudgingly put out the cigarette, walk into the parking lot, and finish it crouched beside my car. Right now the nurse is probably having Amy count backward from ten as the anesthesia kicks in.
With my second cigarette I think they’re probably making the incision in her neck. When Amy sleeps, she sometimes kicks her legs. Is that something she might do under anesthesia? Do the surgeons take that into consideration?
Third cigarette. I think I should start with the ceiling in the kitchen and clean downward; otherwise I’ll have to keep sweeping up the spot I just cleaned. I should think of this as an opportunity. It’s been a while since I did a deep clean of the kitchen. Maybe I can even touch up the paint.
Fourth cigarette. If they call me back now, it’s because something bad has happened. I have the little buzzer they gave me, just like the buzzers they give you at the Old Spaghetti Factory to tell you when your table is ready.
I still haven’t opened the Carver book or my computer.
Fifth cigarette. I really wish the hospital served alcohol. Sunny promised to meet me at McMenamins across the street during the surgery, until we found out the surgery was scheduled for seven in the morning and the bar didn’t open until eleven, which is in another hour. By now I could have driven home and thoroughly cleaned the kitchen floor and driven back. But it wouldn’t have been as thorough as I would like, and I would have hated myself for being the kind of husband who abandons his wife in the middle of spinal surgery to clean a kitchen floor.
On my way to the waiting room I stop by the cafeteria for another cup of coffee and a corn-bread muffin. I eat it dry at a cafeteria table. In the waiting room several of the families who showed up with us have left and been replaced by new families. Two teenagers across from me whisper to each other and occasionally glance at me. I don’t imagine that they think they know something about me. They’re only teenagers.
The buzzer goes off in my pocket. I hand it to the nurse at reception, who tells me Amy is in recovery. The surgeon will be out shortly to give me an update. Meanwhile the nurse directs me to a small room that has two chairs and a telephone and looks like it was designed for the delivery of bad news. “Just a couple of minutes,” she says.
The surgeon never arrives. Instead the telephone between the two chairs rings. I answer it.
“Mr. Aiello?” says a deep voice. “This is your wife’s surgeon. I just wanted to let you know that Amy’s surgery went very well. We replaced the herniated disc and realigned her spinal column successfully. Do you have any questions?”
“When can I see her?”
The surgeon says it will be a couple of hours. They don’t have a hospital room available yet, and she is still under anesthesia. He might as well say, So if you need to run home to clean up the coffee grounds on your kitchen floor, now would be the time.
I drive home and open a bottle of wine in celebration. For the next hour and forty-five minutes I clean the kitchen top to bottom while drinking half the bottle of wine. I pull out the stove and refrigerator. Behind them, in addition to the scattered coffee grounds, I find an old cough-drop wrapper and a pen cap, which makes this all worth it.
Driving back to the hospital, I feel better. When I get there, Amy will be awake and smiling, though heavily medicated. I’ll notice that one of the hospital socks they gave her has slipped off her foot, and I’ll joke that the surgeon really did want to see her painted toenails after all. But right now, on my way to see her, I smoke a cigarette and don’t even mind so much when some of the ash blows back into the car. This is as close to peace as I get.