There’s only been one woman I’ve ever really loved and we aren’t together anymore, in part because loving her is the only truth I ever told her.
There have been other women. Women I’ve fucked, had relationships with, idealized, obsessed over, fought with, been bored by. Tried to love. But there has never been anyone I’ve wanted to adore every day like I did Alma.
Since we’ve parted I’ve gotten sober. It’s been a rocky shore — full of slips and pivots and cracks — off of a horrible ocean. It’s like building a home: learning to live without the buffer of a mask I had thought was my skin.
Alma got me to rehab. One morning I woke up in our bed, hating being alive and loving her smell: clean, like powder, salt sweat and fall linens. I thought she was sleepy; she probably hadn’t slept. I was drunk, or hung over, which was the same thing. I kissed her ribs and slipped away to the bathroom to puke and drink more. I smelled like — it’s hard to put to words, the smell of alcohol coming out of your pores. Like vinegar gone sour? Like fermented illness. Putrid, sick, wretched. I smelled wrong. I came out of the bathroom in her pajamas to find my family piling in. My godmother, mother and step-father, my father and his wife, my brother… oh my god, my little brother. And a counselor, who specialized in interventions, apparently.
I’ve had another one since, not as unexpected: I knew they knew I was lying this time. No counselor necessary. I wasn’t wearing pajamas. I had “dressed” myself before driving drunk to my mother’s home. I had taken a shower thinking that water would take away the smell, that putting on leggings instead of leggings-that-I-slept-and-drank-in would make me look like I was wearing clothes, that if I put on mascara I’d look like I had slept through the night and not spent the whole day drinking. It is so sad to see someone who has spent the whole day, and whole days before that one, drinking. Our skin is pale gray and green, our blemishes are sore, our eyes are red, blue, and bagged. There are not enough teeth brushings, showers, new leggings and mascara applications in the world to make someone believe you’re sober. Except, for a while, Alma. She needed to believe, or pretended to.
Al had permanent blue under her eyes since she was a kiddo. But that blue didn’t hurt, it was beautiful. Of course, it hurt sometimes. Sometimes her blue became tired, like the last six months living together, when I was drinking in bed at 9 a.m. after she went to work. But at their normal, at their best, they were blue moons rising on her olive face.
Why was love the only truth I told her? Why didn’t I tell her about the wine and the lost and the fear and the shame? I was so scared. I was so damn scared. I wanted to protect her from the monster I had become. I wanted her to love the monster without knowing it. I could not let her know it.
The first night in rehab, I was bloated, I was freezing; I had been crying for 10 hours. My roommate, who had been there “a couple of times,” told me everything would be fine, Alma wouldn’t leave, I just had to get sober and sort it out.
I knew she would. I couldn’t stand it. I put on her pajamas.
When it was finally morning, I was ready to get out of bed. It’s a myth that alcohol makes it you sleep. Alcohol wakes you after the passing out is done, makes your mind spin, your heart race, your soul hurt because it is lost without the body it belongs to. I had been up since forever and for the first time in years unable to take a drink to quiet the noise. I wanted out. I wanted to die. I wanted to scream and sob and be saved. I wanted a drink tw— a coffee, an ativan, a cigarette, something. I put on leggings and a giant sweater and called my mom to ask her to bring me warm things from our apartment. Sweaters, long underwear, scarves. It was May.
I spent the next ninety days in Al’s sweaters.
Except the few times I allowed myself to smile, and go outside. I’d wear a rainbow romper and the other humans at gay rehab would tell me I was adorable; a little black skirt for a meeting; a sundress, for a sunny Sunday when we were free to lay outside, talk, smoke, be normal people. One evening, during a thunderstorm, I put on a crop top and spandex shorts, the closest I could get to naked, and laid prostrate on the grass just to feel the rain. I hoped it would cleanse me, baptize me into a new life; asked it to make me worthy, holy, whole again. A technician called me in.
I carried her intervention letter around with me for two months in the pocket I made between my hips and the band of my leggings. That’s six weeks after she told me she loved me, wanted me in her life, but couldn’t be my partner. I kept wearing clean socks, old leggings, her sweaters. I haven’t spoken to her since the day she got me there. One day, I may ask her to let me apologize. For now, I apologize by doing my goddamn best to be someone different than the person she knew.
When I went to college, I was lost, unsure, unconfident. I had always believed, been told, I would find myself — my real self — in college. High school was hell; I wanted to believe a heaven followed. I hated my past life: my body, my clothes, the general fact of knowing nothing queer. I had a neck tattoo and a Jenny circa L Word Season 2 inspired pixie, but I dressed like someone who was pretending to be straight and wanted to be liked at a suburban high school in Minnesota. There is nothing wrong with Gap flare jeans or cotton shirts from the Limited or Ugg boots or flats from Macy’s. But they didn’t feel like me and I didn’t know what me was. I wanted a scene. To belong. I wanted a look.
I started drinking the first day of college. It made me feel like myself. Like a short cut to being who I really was. The first day I had beers; the first week I had shots; the first year I lost twenty pounds and began exclusively shopping at the Salvation Army in town. And I thought I had made it home: with booze, with friends, with clothes that looked like your mom did when she was twenty. High-waisted acid wash jeans and crop tops, tight black pants with a unitard, muumuu sundresses, Keds and Danskos, a leopard print fanny-pack. Me, finally. But so fixated on trying to fit in, getting A’s on everything and getting drunk, I never did find out who I was. My drinking became daily and something I started to hide. When I graduated with honors and friends, which was everything I thought I wanted, I was lost. So I followed my friends into a new identity: I became an organic farmer.
I found ways to dress my body, both increasingly drunk and increasingly strong, while navigating between femme and farm. Overalls were the most useful, so I wore adorable railroaders I could tie with my mother’s belt, and an overall skort I wore with my Gal Pal crop top and red lipstick.
But even though I was having fun, I was sick. I look back at pictures of Al visiting me in the fields and I see how pallid my face is. The joy of my love at odds with the illness of my cells. The gorgeous brown trousers and blue mock neck crop that once felt so much like me, now, the only evidence of me.
I went to Vermont, the last place I farmed, and worked in the mountains in winter. I thought if lived in the forest, so far out of town, I would be able to stop drinking. I didn’t. And there were no more crop tops. Just Carhartt coveralls and ski goggles to face the wind. I castrated piglets and drove horses and didn’t feel my fingers for months. But at night, in my cabin in the woods that I hiked a mile to get to with a backpack full of booze, I’d drink wine and build a fire and take pictures of myself in lacy thongs to send to Alma.
It got darker. I kept drinking. Someone kept the fire going.
Soon after, I moved back to Minnesota, mostly because I thought if I lived with Al, who I loved so fiercely, I really, actually could get sober. I didn’t. What I did do was drink, throw up, drink, stop showering, drink, watch a lot of Game of Thrones, drink more, stop wearing clothes except days-old leggings or Alma’s pajamas, and pretend my Lyme disease (real) was what was causing my vomiting, forgetfulness, and wretched smell (false, it was alcohol). I lied. Gaslit. Made the woman I loved feel confused and question reality.
I thought I was protecting her from the monster I had become. I kept thinking, today is the final Day One and then all these lies will disappear and she’ll never have to reckon with this. Lies spilled out of me so fast I wasn’t even thinking. Most of them I’ve forgotten; most of them, I’ll never remember. In truth, I was mostly in a blackout.
As I’ve been getting sober, I’ve had a series of jobs. I’ve worked at a terrible restaurant and gotten pretty for straight people eating fondue. Silk dresses and an acrylic wonder mini A-line from the consignment shop. I’ve worked at a garden store and been able to wear teal cotton dresses and beat up tights. I’ve worked landscaping and had to wear work pants I paid an extraordinary amount of money for so they would fit my ass while also having knife pockets. I’ve worked at a treatment center where I could dress like myself, in cheetah print unitards with long black skirts and Danskos, but was sexually harassed and emotionally abused. Now, I know how it feels to be gaslit — it gave me panic attacks and kept me up all night. Now, I work as a cleaner and see no one else all day. I wear leggings again because they’re easiest to bend in. I’m getting calluses on my knees.
I spend most nights alone. I smoke cigarettes and go to yoga, I read recovery books and think about how to become a therapist. I want to help people like who I was. We need more than steps and shame. We need to be accountable for our own lives, learn how to love ourselves and live in our bodies, we need sweetness and space for sadness and love as we grow. I wonder how to meet people. Being a cleaner is a great job for someone who is in grad school and has homework and a girlfriend and a book club.
But every once in a while, I get actually get dressed. I get home from work and though my hands and back and knees hurt, and I’m dirty and dusty and sore, I take a shower and pull on my gray ribnecked crop turtleneck, a black circle skirt, and brush off my white Keds for no one but me. I go to the co-op to buy squash and kale for soup, cook and listen to podcasts, go to the coffee shop to write.
Most nights I pop ibuprofen, snuggle into my grandma’s flannel nightgown, light candles, stretch, and read. I do miss getting pretty on the regular, having a partner to sex up for: the lingerie, the red lipstick, the black dress, the garter. Fuck, I want to put on fishnets for a woman. That’s not my life right now. Life right now is alone in a flyover state, where I am a flyover woman. But my life isn’t flying by me anymore; I’m not lost in the haze of addiction. The mist around me is helping me ground down, turn inward, and savor the sweetness of my own rebirth.
I live in leggings again.
And Alma’s sweaters.
Because they are warm and they honor her. When I wear them, I am praying to a god I do not know:
I’ve done so many things so wrong. Especially love. I’ve done my best and it wasn’t good. Today, guide me, help me. Help me be helpful, kind, honest and loving. Help me learn. Help me do better.
And to you out there who are using and don’t want to be: I see you, and you deserve to feel better. All you have to do today is take a shower, drink some water, move your body a little, and then sleep. But if you’re up for it, put on something your best self would recognize you in, and then look into your own eyes. I love you.
edited by rachel.