The foundational agreement of sobriety—that I want to stay alive—flickers. Like a single lightbulb hanging in the dark basement of any horror movie. Maybe a lightbulb is a little on the nose, after all, the movies use darkness as a practical manifestation of the unknown. Maybe the visible and invisible is a little on the nose. I have been thinking about Jaws and how the shark doesn’t appear on screen until the last 30 minutes and how that isn’t at all what Spielberg set out to do. They couldn’t get the mechanical sharks to work: first on the lot in Burbank and then in the shallows of Martha’s Vineyard, the beasts sputtered in the saltwater and whirred down. It was only during filming—weeks past timeline and millions over budget—that the idea struck to use the malfunction to their advantage. I have been thinking about the concept of a generative accident.
I open each day now like a litigator cross-examining the foundational agreement of sobriety—that I want to stay alive. I have been thinking about the good courtroom dramas. I have been you can’t handle the truth-ing myself out of writing honestly. Maybe the answerable and unanswerable is a little on the nose. Maybe I ordered the code red, or want to. I would like a little bit of clarity. I would like to know the exact number of drinks that won’t kill me.
In my second AA meeting I said alcohol feels like the shark in Jaws: I meant that I don’t see it but it’s always there, it’s always threatening me, always calling me to the water, promising me if I just find a bigger boat I can take it down. I’ve written about drinking many times and it never works; the writing doesn’t accomplish what I want it to. Once I imagined naming a thing, seeing a fin and yelling shark, could dull its teeth.
The world is in a lockdown and I’ve been watching movies to pass the time. In an abandoned hotel ballroom in the Colorado Rockies, Jack Torrance drops his face into his hands and mutters: I’d give my god-damn soul for just a glass of beer. A moment later the bar is fully stocked. A bartender in maroon lapels is telling Jack his credit’s just fine, a glass of bourbon is being poured and five months on the wagon are being sent off with a toast. Stephen King disowned Kubrick’s adaptation immediately, felt Nicholson was too bonkers right off the bat, that he didn’t earn the tragedy. My roommate keeps a bottle of American Honey on top of the fridge and six or seven times a day I twist the cap off, feel it stick a bit on the hardened sugar, and inhale deeply: floral, oak-splintered muddiness. I fantasize about elevator doors sliding open and a tidal wave of red wine rushing out, breaking against the walls. This is what I want my writing about drinking to feel like: a force I kneel before, head bowed, positive it will take me with it.
The world is in a lockdown and I’ve been revisiting the foundational agreement of sobriety—that I want to stay alive. Maybe The Shining was a little on the nose: an alcoholic with writer’s block and cabin fever. After Stephen King got sober he published a sequel in which a grown Danny dons the mantle of addict, attempts to wrestle his demons in AA. King said in an interview that the real ghosts are his memories.
A bottle of whisky slipped into a purse en route to babysit a friend’s toddler. A 22-year-old fast asleep in a snowbank on the outskirts of Iowa City. I imagine my own memories as ghosts: poltergeists that can move objects out of sheer rage, pure red jealousy. How dare I ignore them? In the time it takes me to blink, they open every cabinet in the kitchen, line up the wine glasses on the counter. Jump cut: the glasses strewn, stems broken in a pool of, is it red wine? Jump cut: someone’s passed out on the floor, just out of frame. A contorted shadow with maroon-stained teeth. The cabinets close quietly, appeased.
The world is in a lockdown and I spend eight hours a day at my kitchen table copy-editing blog posts for garage door manufacturers and material handling companies. I am lucky to have a job and I say this to myself often. I take lunchtime walks, wave across the street at my neighbor whose daughter, despite it all, has just learned to ride a bike. She leans forward in her purple tank top, lips pursed with concentration. It’s April but the air holds the damp heat of June. Thunderstorms are on the forecast already. Overhead the grey clouds push in: huge and gothic, crackling with electricity. I think about Twister and the scene where Helen Hunt stands frozen in front of the tornado, transfixed, unable to move out of its path; about how some of us are programmed to love that which wants our ruin.
Maybe a storm metaphor is a little on the nose. Another foundational agreement of sobriety is this: I have a terminal disease, meaning it will, without doubt, kill me if I let it. I understand this. I do. And even still, even despite the understanding, a girl in a purple tank top moves a bicycle forward, and maybe this time will be different.
I have been thinking about the concept of a generative accident. The world is in a lockdown after all and hardly anybody would blame me.
I never got far enough into the program to pick a sponsor but I text my sometimes-sober friend telling her I feel like Tom Hanks in Cast Away if Cast Away took place on an island of booze. Turns out she’s never seen the movie. Turns out she’s four-deep into a six-pack because it feels like the world’s ending and if that’s not a free pass, what is? I log into a Zoom AA meeting and listen to a woman talk about driving her toddler to daycare in the middle of a blackout as the same toddler squirms in her lap. I wonder if the baby will remember this: her mother rubbing her back, talking to a screen packed with faces about how little being alive seemed to matter once. I unmute myself, say the worst part is how familiar this feels. I spent years persuading myself the world was bigger than my bedroom, and now it isn’t.
I once had a stretch where I didn’t leave my apartment in downtown Iowa City for 8 days. I’d just quit my summer job stacking jeans at the Coralville Old Navy. There were two weeks until the semester began, it was 90 degrees in the shade and I had a brand-new window unit, a cabinet full of whisky and nobody to answer to. Save for stumbling to the sidewalk every three days to sign a check for pizza delivery, I zonked blissfully, dial turned way-the-fuck down on the city around me. I read Richard Siken and masturbated until my calves ached. I vomited into the kitchen sink, the bathroom trash can. I passed out in the shower, woke to an ankle the size of a grapefruit. Forgot to call my mom back. I watched the first season of True Detective twice. In a conference room with crime scene photographs taped to the walls, Ruste warns Marty: be careful what you get good at.
Sometimes, before all this started, I would catch myself daydreaming about talking to my friends instead of talking to them. There are many different kinds of solitude; some are lonely and some aren’t. There’s ignoring a phone call because you don’t miss someone enough yet. There’s watching The Notebook newly single. There’s 22-year-old loneliness and 29-year-old loneliness. A movie theater you didn’t expect to be empty. Zero likes on a genius Tweet. Realizing you can’t find your grandmother’s locket.
By the time I attend my first AA meeting, I am already six months sober. Once I imagined I could handle all this alone. And now I’m not so sure I can’t.
I sit on my porch and write a poem about volleyballs with painted-on faces bobbing in blue tide. Once I imagined writing as an act against loneliness. But here, in this apartment, with its booze and its empty rooms, it starts to feel like something else. With each narrative pivot (the storm as metaphor for drinking, the storm as metaphor for sickness, the storm as plot device to instill fear), I’m acutely aware of the momentum I’m building, the tragedy I’m trying to earn.
For a little bit, I think I have it, but it’s the wrong kind of cough. I consider going to the doctor anyway just to let someone take my pulse, press cold metal into the crook of my elbow. For years I took in only what promised to harm me and yet here I am unharmed, here I am alive against my best efforts. I am beginning to regret every dangerous thing I never tried.
My therapist asks over video chat how I’m doing “in my recovery” during quarantine and I tell her I’ve been watching movies to pass the time. I don’t tell her about the American Honey—which is still there—or that I’ve started to dream about being encased in sticky amber up to my neck—which I have—or that I wake distraught at the free mobility of my limbs.
A friend calls. He was smart enough to pick up a few handles of Tito’s before the state stores closed; he asks if I want to come over to watch some classic horror movies. He’s going insane with boredom. I say I understand. He says please, we can sit six feet apart and he’ll let me pick the first movie and he’ll make us Moscow mules. I smile a shark’s smile as one by one, the lights go out inside me.
The world is in a lockdown and I’m trying to remember the foundational agreements of sobriety. I call my sometimes-sober friend and ask her to dinner. We sit in our cars, parked side by side, windows rolled up, and eat sandwiches, talking on the phone about how nothing we do feels consequential anymore.
We watch It Takes Two on the Netflix app, both of us staring down at our phones, laughing as Mary-Kate, or maybe it’s Ashley, beats her fists against a baby grand piano. The sun goes down on the empty parking lot and every so often we look up, making sure the other one is still there.
Rebecca James was born and raised in the sweetest of towns: Hershey, Pennsylvania. She studied writing at Susquehanna University and the University of Iowa, and currently lives in Harrisburg. Her work has appeared in Plain China, Juked, PANK and The Journal.