Up in the Air
I'm sitting at the airport in Seattle, but it's hard to explain exactly how I ended up here, in this black vinyl seat, on this particular afternoon in the fall of 2014. If you walked up and asked me, I'd probably tell you, "I didn't know where else to go," but that isn't the half of it. I didn't know how to be.
The plan, if you can call it that, was to move in with my grandparents in Mississippi for a while, long enough to get the booze out of my system and decide what to do next. But when I got to the United Airlines counter, I found out that the ticket I thought was waiting for me wasn't there, and plan A went into the trash along with the big white binder containing my relapse prevention plan from treatment, which I'd tossed in an airport Dumpster on the way to the terminal.
More than a ticket, or money, or a plan, I needed a drink. So I wheeled my suitcase into the nearest bathroom, sat down in a stall, and unzipped the cover. Tucked between the layers of sweaters and dirty T-shirts were two bottles of Svedka vodka. I cracked open the half-empty one and chugged the burning liquid straight from the bottle, thanked God for this small mercy (AA had taught me how to pray), wiped my sweaty face, and depressed the handle.
No one was supposed to know I still drank. For the past five years, I had been telling everyone I'd quit, although who knows how many of them still believed me. (In my defense, I had quit, again and again and again. The problem wasn't quitting; it was staying quit.) I did my drinking in private, at home or-when I had to go out, which, since I lost my job about a month before, had been less and less-in parks, bus shelters, or public restrooms, gulping as quietly as possible, as quietly as a junkie takes off his belt and twists it around his arm.
Once, I almost got caught in the act. I was sitting in my usual spot near the back of the bus, gulping from a bright-yellow carton of lukewarm Bandit Chardonnay, when a guy across the aisle caught my eye to let me know the driver was coming my way. "Hey, lady, you gotta watch yourself!" he grinned after the danger had passed, pulling a brown-bagged tallboy from his puffy black jacket. "They're checking for that shit now!"
Speak for yourself, I thought. I'm invisible. And compared to him, as a still vaguely professional-looking woman in my thirties with a MacBook in her lap, I was.
At the airport, I shoved the bottle, now several fluid ounces lighter, back in my suitcase, rolling it carefully in a sweater to make sure it didn't clank around.
I wandered back into the terminal, thinking, I can handle this.
And then, suddenly, I couldn't. That's how I found myself glued to this chair by the United ticket counter, watching the blur of travelers rushing past me to their Very Important Destinations. Things felt unreal. I started to wonder if I was hallucinating, or actually imperceptible. Or maybe I was still stuck in a dream from the night before-the one where security officers had to carry me, flailing and screaming, from the building after I was fired. I should get a taxi home, I thought. Instead, I flagged down two TSA agents and asked them to call me an ambulance.
"What's wrong with you?" one asked. "Acute intoxication," I responded, surprised at my own lucidity. Even when I couldn't force my body to stand, I still wanted people to know that I knew what I was talking about.
The aborted flight was an attempt to trace a familiar path-back home to Meridian, Mississippi, the small town where my family lived until I was seven. I had just been fired from my job at the online news site I cofounded with my best friend, Josh, and I thought that if I could retrace my steps-dry out for a few weeks in a place where I had always been welcomed without judgment, then figure out how to rebuild my life-I would be okay.
Instead, I was en route to the Highline Medical Center in Burien, Washington, twelve miles south of my apartment in Seattle. And if a hospital in the suburbs seems like a weird detour to take at this moment, you don't know what the past five years had been like. You don't know how bad I needed a rest.
Thirty years earlier, I had taken a trip in the opposite direction-the first of many efforts to get away from my Deep South roots. Of course, I was only seven at the time-too young to know that the world wasn't bounded by Louisiana, Alabama, and Tennessee-and I didn't have much say in the matter. Did I take my first trip to Texas by myself, or with Dad and my new stepmother, Jonee, who hadnÕt yet asked me to call her Mom? Did the Southwest Airlines flight attendant whisk me to my seat, harried but smiling in her orange-and-blue uniform, or did I sit between the two of them, staring out the window in awe as we rose up above the tops of the clouds? I donÕt remember. But from then on, I would always love the feeling of being between one place and another.
Before I moved away from Mississippi, my family was simple. My dad lived an hour away, in Hattiesburg, where he was finishing school at the University of Southern Mississippi and living in a run-down single-wide trailer with a ratty couch and sloshy brown king-size waterbed. I lived with my grandparents in Meridian-Mama Opal (short for Opaldean), a surgery nurse at Riley Hospital, and Papa Jesse, who managed a Goodyear tire store downtown. On the weekends, we'd drive sixty miles down a two-lane highway to visit my great-grandparents, Grandmother and Granddaddy, in a dot-on-the-map town called Macon (Mississippi, not Georgia), where they lived in a little white house with a backyard and a metal porch swing that always squeaked after it rained. Occasionally, a younger family member would bring their grandkids around (younger being relative-the average age in Macon was probably sixty-five), but the people I remember most vividly were all at least seventy years my senior-"aints" with old-fashioned names like Vernice and Jewel and uncles who could fix a bee sting with spit and a wad of chewing tobacco. In Macon, where Grandmother's backyard garden seemed to stretch for acres, Mama Opal and Papa Jesse let me run around more freely than they did at home, picking beans and shelling them on the screened-in porch, collecting pecans from under the huge tree that shaded the cluttered back patio, and pawing through the boxes of letters and piles of scarves and purses in the guest-room closet, where everything was suffused with the old-lady smell of roses, peppermint, and moldy cardboard.
What my family lacked, I eventually realized, was a mom-mine had taken off to pursue other interests when I was too young to form memories. Growing up, I never thought of being motherless as a deficiency, although I knew it made me a little different. Some kids had two parents and lived in fancy houses with fenced-in yards, some kids were raised by single moms and lived in the trailer park where we visited my uncle Mike and aunt Marilyn, and some kids had long-haired dads who studied biology and were really into MAD Magazine, Alice Cooper, and Tron.
Years later, I would develop questions about this woman, Cindy, whom I had glimpsed in photos that my dad kept hidden in a box in our spare bedroom, underneath the ancient copies of Playboy and Oui. Still later, therapists and boyfriends would inform me that I had been traumatized by this loss, which had led me to seek approval from everyone and fear abandonment like love was something I could earn by memorizing the right combination of words. Later still, I would meet her and look for myself in her eyes, her facial structure, her way of looking at the world.
But back then, I learned that there was no point in asking about Cindy. (Early on, I didn't even know her last name, or whether she was still alive.) Ask, I discovered, and the adults would clam up as fast as if I'd inquired how babies were made, or what happened after you died; so, after a while, I didn't. When I found a clue-my birth certificate, which showed her married and maiden names, or a photo of me as a baby, being cradled on my dad's patchwork quilt by a thin, olive-skinned woman with feathered hair-I filed it away for Later, when I would be a reporter, or maybe a private detective, and have the skills to find out anything I wanted to know without asking anyone for help.
Much as I loved the company of my elderly relatives, I did have one friend my own age-Mizba, whose parents owned the Valley Motel off Interstate 20. Outcasts at Jeff Davis Elementary School, we spent recess setting up booby traps around the dusty schoolyard for the school bully, Chip Carney, and terrorizing the boy we both had crushes on.
Mostly, though, I spent my time alone, reading my way through the World Book Encyclopedia on the maroon shag carpet in my grandparents' formal living room, playing farmer with my toy barn and plastic cows and sheep, and making brownies in my Easy-Bake oven on stormy weekends, while the rain sizzled on the concrete driveway.
On Sundays, we went to services at the Baptist church in town, where Papa Jesse was a deacon and where the very pews seemed like a kind of penance-cherrywood, hard and slick with varnish, too tall for my feet to touch the floor. In between the rapid-fire up-down-up-down of prayer, song, and May-Christ-Be-with-You-and-Also-with-Yous, I sat quietly, swinging my bare, bobby-socked legs and reading picture books from the church library. Afterward, there were ham or pimento-cheese sandwiches, chocolate milkshakes, and Grandmother's vegetable soup, which came out of square white paper boxes in the back of the deep freeze. Afternoons were for MTV, singing along with Michael Jackson on my portable plastic record player, and trips to the mall, where I'd happily spend an afternoon paging through grubby copies of Dynamite and Hot dog! magazines and trying on ten-cent plastic clip-on earrings at Woolworth's.
If my great-grandparents' house was a museum full of treasure, my grandparents' sprawling brick ranch house in Meridian was an oversized playground: double closets to hide my favorite toys from my cousins (and, decades later, my vodka); hallways where I would build intricate Lincoln Log cities linked by vast, regional train systems; a wood enclosure in the backyard that we filled with pine needles every year until it was deep enough for Papa Jesse to toss me in. Jesse was a karate black belt and weapons enthusiast who taught me, by the time I was seven, how to shoot cans off a fence, why it was important to always look under a car before you approached it (woe betide any wannabe carjacker who tried to slice my Achilles tendon), and how to kill a man with a pen (jab it upward through his chin, straight through the Adam's apple to the brain). I thought my grandparents were already ancient, but looking back, I realize that they were only in their early fifties, still spry enough to toss a baseball or stand at attention through a complicated surgery or outrun a mugger if it came to that-which, of course, it never did.
Maybe it was all the talk about kidnapping, or maybe I watched too many Twilight Zone episodes at an impressionable age, but even at six or seven, I remember being gripped sometimes by a feeling that things were on the verge of falling apart, and that it was my job, somehow, to hold them together. Sometimes, lying in my big queen bed with the cross-stitched Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep prayer above my head, I would dream that my family had been replaced by shape-shifting demons who meant to do me harm, or that Grandmother's old car was sliding slowly into the lake near her house, the windows closed, going under. On those nights, I would wake up shivering under the quilt Grandmother had sewn from heavy cotton and fabric scraps and wonder if I, or anything, was real. Other times, when I was staying with Dad at his trailer in Hattiesburg, I would imagine that an invisible wall had descended between his room, where I was lying on the waterbed, trying to fall asleep, and the living room, where I could see Dad watching TV on the tattered couch. I stayed as still as I could, praying that whatever was in the room with me wouldn't notice I was there. All I had to do was be quiet and still.
That feeling of anxiety, that nervous energy that marked me as a lifelong insomniac by the time I was six years old, would stay with me. It hung around long after my dad remarried, all the way through Houston and high school and drinking and scholarships and internships and boyfriends and jobs. At that age, it was just a low-level hum-the kind of thing that put me in constant motion, talking, arguing, demanding that everyone pay attention. "Watch me play piano!" I would squeal, plinking out "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on the keys of my grandparents' out-of-tune piano. Or: "Look at this!" followed by an attempt to pole-vault across the room, followed by a visit to the hospital where Mama Opal worked.
Jonee, the woman Dad started dating when I was five or six, was the first of his girlfriends who seemed willing to put up with my constant chatter, and she didn't make me tense the way his previous girlfriend, a swirl of shiny black hair named Jane, always had. Jonee talked to me like I was a person, not a baby, and she listened to what I had to say-about the "Thriller" video, a short story I was writing about elephants, the newspaper Mizba and I were going to publish about our school. (When adults asked six-year-old me what I was going to be when I grew up, that was an easy one: a journalist, like John Stossel on 20/20 and the people who wrote The Meridian Star.) Jonee was Jewish, but that wasn't the only thing that made her exotic-her parents, Susan and Barry, drank and sometimes even swore, and had been to faraway places like Dallas and New York City, and maybe even farther away than that. They belonged to the local country club, hung abstract art on their walls instead of needlepoint, and leased a new Cadillac every year.