The weekday bartender was asking Jeremy, a regular, if he had had anything to eat as I sat down on the fourth stool at Chili’s bar and opened up a copy of The Great Gatsby. I was looking for lines spoken by Daisy, when she asks what they’re going to do today and the day after that. I had alluded to it in my nonfiction writing class a few hours before, urging students to step away from the story and interject a statement, a philosophical pondering. “Open it up; develop it,” I’d suggested, “Make it mean something beyond what happened.”
Fitzgerald was always doing this—dragging his readers into “the dark night of the soul,” where it is “always three o’clock in the morning.” I asked my students what he might have meant by this three-o’clock-in-the-morning business. Maybe, they suggested, he meant waiting in What-a-burger drive-thru lines. Or sleeping. One young man confessed to a recent night of walking the streets at that very hour. Another remembered that Fitzgerald himself was a drunk and guessed it might have been his “coming around” hour. I liked that one. Insomnia, a few mentioned. ”Yes,” I said, “Hemingway ends a ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’: ‘“After all, many must have it.’” The eager innocents wanted to know what “it” was—I told them I hoped they never knew.
They pressed, wanted to know if I knew. I said, “Indeed,” and moved on. I would not tell them of the nights I drank myself into the wee small hours of the morning in Utah, trading one glass of Chardonnay for another until I passed out, then woke to a glass in my hand, candles across the mantle and on top of the coffee table still flickering, a Dan Abrams re-run on MSNBC. Nights I astounded myself with my wine stamina, the mornings of opening the front door to check the porch like a crime scene: empty wine bottles, a glass on the top step, the worst nights evidenced by a glass still full: a sign that suddenly, I shut down and went inside, where I’d wake, never in my bed, but somewhere else, the couch, the mattress I had lugged into the living room. The empty bed too empty.
Those were the years I shouted through the evenings, Chardonnay taking me toward or away from the truth: I had lost love. Again. And I knew my drinking to be part of the ruins, so now that I was on my own, I was going to drink, dammit. A lot. All day, if I wanted, days that carried over into nights and drinking that started earlier and earlier with each day.
That day was a Pinot Noir afternoon for me, and it was my last time in that bar, but I did not know it. Jeremy was telling me about the latest episode of Robot Chicken as I found Nick Carraway at the end of another chapter, “watching over nothing.” That afternoon, as Jeremy paid carefully before nodding to me on his way out, I asked the bartender, Angela, his story, and she told me he was a meth addict. I felt guilty knowing. This was too private. This was not control and escape; it was desperation and captivity. I shifted in my seat, looked around.
I saw that I had traded hiding in my house in the grips of a third bottle of Chardonnay for the blue and brown tiles of a bar. I no longer had it in me to delve into desperation, allow myself to be captive to the glow from a glass and the thwop of a cork’s release all through the night; no, I drank with others, in public, in the daylight. Look at me, how well I can control my drinking with an honest glass or four of wine. But what if I all I had traded was time and place?
Dary plopped down two stools away, ordered her usual, the Grand Patron margarita, a dangerous drink served in a blue, oversized martini glass. She’d knock back two of those swimming pool-size cocktails instead of a burger or a salad, then head back to work. She told me she fell asleep when she drank wine. So do I, I thought. In fact, it’s the only way I can.
I ordered another Pinot, watched a loud man amble into the bar area. He said two words, “Bud. Tall,” before Angela could place the requisite coaster in front of him.
Dary told me that she was “way hungover” from closing down the bar on the corner of Washington and Sixth the night before. I never went to any of the bars in town, afraid to run into my students, fearful of my inability to control myself if given the chance not to control myself. So, I reserved my drinking for restaurants during the day and my living room at night, but no more than one bottle, no more waking up to burning candles.
The love I had lost so long ago had become something I only wrote about, and even then, I couldn’t separate what I was writing from what I had known. Love had become a fiction, and so had I. So had my drinking. The story I told myself was that drinking at a bar in a chain restaurant four or five days a week was far from waking up on the floor of my hallway wondering why I’d landed there.
The loud man demanded to know what everyone did for a living. He broke protocol, as all of us sat, staring ahead in our own private Oklahomas. But it was Angela’s job to engage him, so she smirked at me and told him I was a writer.
“Yeah? Hey, that’s really cool. Did you write that?” He pointed to Gatsby. I was polite, said no, understood that the world I lived in had no meaning for him whatsoever. Honestly, it had little meaning for me. I was drinking away any meaning my life could have had.
For a while that afternoon, a quiet man sat across the bar over a glass of Pinot Grigio, and I was surprised, convinced I had drained the supply during a recent Thursday’s long afternoon of Grigio and Didion. A chapter, a glass, and on it went like that until every line I read was blue-underline poignant, and that’s when I knew it was time to go. Strange, how we create ways to measure our limits.
“What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon,” cried Daisy, “and the day after that, and the next thirty years?” Not this, I thought. For two years, I’ve kept that napkin on my writing desk. For two years, I have not gone to a bar alone to drink. For two years, I have slept in my bed.
That afternoon, the restaurant empty except for those of us in the bar, I asked for my check, tipped Angela heartily, emptied the end of my Pinot, then tucked the napkin into that novel I had written and walked away.
Jill Talbot is the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction (Seal Press, 2007). Her work has appeared in journals such as Notre Dame Review, Under the Sun, Blue Mesa Review, Cimarron Review, Segue, and Ecotone. She teaches at St. Lawrence University. You can read her Drinking Diaries interview here.
Photo Source 3: Jill Talbot