I love the way her head falls when she has been drinking vodka and the paperback she imagines she is reading falls from her hand and the ash from her cigarette flakes down onto the inside of her boozy tank top just under her naked cleavage, burning a tiny lace of holes in a place not too far from her heart. I love that she has sunk this low into the bottle and that I am in there with her. I love that her family has abandoned her – her precious grown children who cannot fathom the way she has thrown away her life; her two ex husbands, the first a good man with common sense, too good and with too much sense for the tragedy that is her, and the second a prick who should, if there is a God, die in misery. I love that I am all that is left for her – because, let’s face it, I am no prize myself, just a sober drunk and a miserable bottom feeder who began big but was laid low and is now barely hanging on to a hourly job with no guarantees that any of this will last without him fucking it up. I love that I am just one step far enough behind her to be able to make sure she does not catch fire and burn up like a gin-soaked rag. I love that her life has taken these brutal and cursed turns, brought upon her by her fate alone. I love it because she needs me. God help me, I love it because I am the only one left who still loves her.
She was beautiful – I don’t want you to ever forget that. Everyone else has. But don’t you forget it, you judgmental bastards walking by her outside the strip mall, seeing her sitting on the ground against the flowering bushes, her mascara streaked head lolling back into a crown of honeysuckle (Yes, I know you’ve seen her). If I lifted her today, right now, from the sidewalk, took her home and washed her face and hair, gave her coffee and dried her inside and out, you might just see enough of what I mean to get the point. I’ve seen pictures of her at 19 with a baby in her arms and a fire backlighting her on Christmas Eve, and no Madonna and Child that Raphael could have painted would have ever filled in the frame the way she did. Where she started and how she started is a long, long way from where she has landed now.
She told me her story during those three weeks we worked together on the graveyard shift at the deli counter of the 24/7 Safeway. By the time I met her she had legs like soda straws and her blouse and apron swam on her, but she was wide awake during the night and could stay sober enough not to take off her fingers with the slicer, so I let her work with me and by the end, by the time they fired her, I had heard it all and gotten deep, deep inside her where I am to this day. There was very little left that I did not know about her after those three weeks, even if I didn’t care to know it, and to say that I started to love her for her past, her present and even (or mostly) for her lack of any real future, is to say that I had been waiting a long, long time for her or someone like her to show up and surround me with her need.
The story she told me is not your story. Then again, her story is not as far from yours as you might want to think. A tweak in fate here, a tiny twist in your genetic code there, and you’d be the one with the high-strung temperament chasing you all the way from a husband working his way up as a union mechanic, from two sweetheart daughters who you kept washed and ribboned and your Saturday job at the Cut and Curl, to that night when your inability to forgive your parents, your husband or yourself finally overcame you in shifting tectonics of anxiety and you drank and drank and drank until you started to pound yourself in the face with your own fists again and again - your wailing children and unshaven husband watching as the police and EMS technicians carried you through the drizzling night into the yawn of an idling ambulance. Don’t forget that it’s only an accident of family history and the rules of chance that kept you from marrying again after your first husband divorced you and you lost your children. And it’s simply you planning and god not laughing at your plans that helped you avoid a second husband who gave you a job in his insurance company where you and he drank away the cash flow and he beat you and then left you alone in an empty, over-mortgaged house after he took every table, plate and chair (not to mention the car, the motorcycle and the barbecue grill) to go set up house with a much younger drunk than you. When you see her with me and I’ve got her under her arms, rolling her out of some bar in which I found her, remember that, but for the grace of your birth, it’s you whose shoulders are caving into my chest, whose short, shambling hair is plastered by the sweat of other drunks against the protruding bones of your eye sockets as I lower you into my car. It’s merely the cosmic dust of happenstance that keeps you out of a bed with me in my tenement apartment, sleeping off your liquor at night.
The world is full of us, of you and me. And any of us could be her. Although, I have to admit that, in the end, she is who she is – there’s no getting around that. I have taken her and sat her skinny ass down in one of those smoke-stained retro chairs that we set up in stale church halls where the drunks and abusers and reformed addicts sit and confess our sins and inject each other with the power to go on another day without having to shoot ourselves with a needle or needle ourselves with temptation. And she will bounce from that meeting into the sunlight or the moonlight, promising me the sun and the moon, and when I kiss her goodbye and go off to the shift I have to work to keep us in clean clothes and edible food she will deceive me and find a place to quietly sit and pretend to read her cheap paperback (a final tilt at civilization) and smoke her cigarettes down to the filters and drink her way into another life – a life where she has grandchildren who come running into her arms when she calls, and a handsome, graying husband trimming the grass of a big backyard and where she dreams she is free to enjoy the fruits of all the clean and sober work she has done.
You see, a woman has to dream and someone has to love her for it and that someone is me. Why, you ask - because no matter what you think, there is a person inside that woman. And who’s to say that her life and the way she lives and the way that she will die is not what God intended for her or any of us all along. I had another life planned but the righteousness I had about that life was beaten out of me a long time ago, about the time I drank away a thriving business I built with my talents for telling a story and making a good buck, about the time I had to let go of what it was I though God had planned for all of us righteous and arrogant fools. So I see it differently now.
I see a world where the drunks will inherit the earth. I flip it all on its head - the way fate flipped her on her head and me on mind - as I tend to my flock of one. In the place that she and I live it is you with the estates and the two and three cars garages and the jobs so big you can barely contain your heads inside them; you who the world looks down on as we addicts and losers cluck our tongues and shake our heads at the edges of your driveways and gated communities. You are the ones who stoop in shame as you overspend on your children’s college educations and your summer houses. It is you who God admonishes when you use others as an excuse for your inability to be as down low and wasted and close to the edge as we are. In this world God giggles as he blesses the dammed and the down-trodden and he leaves the rest of you to beg for his forgiveness. I dare you to tell me that this might not just be the way God wanted us to see the world from the moment he hung his only son on a cross between a beggar and a thief.
So step up now and give me your order. We’re all in this together – whether it’s you snoring, drunk and peaceful, in the bed next to me when I go home tonight or whether it is she – there is no difference or distance between us. A pound of food that will feed you is a pound of food that will feed all of us. And I love the way your face twinkles just a little when you take the package from my hands as much as I love the way she will someday die in my arms, human and forgiven.