I met my husband in college, where it’s hard to tell who’s a true alcoholic and who’s not. It’s not an excuse, but I think it should be mentioned. It should also be mentioned that for the first year of our marriage I thought drinking was something we did with dinner. I thought of the bottles of wine the same way I thought of the candles on the table, or the love notes Jay sometimes slipped into my fortune cookie, if it was a fortune cookie sort of dinner, the notes that read, “Look at the man sitting across the table from you and know that he loves you very much.” It took me a while to realize that for Jay the wine was the nourishment, the romance, the reason for having dinner in the first place.
After I knew, I wanted one thing in life: I wanted Jay to love me more than he loved booze. I wanted him to look at his bottle of gin and say something like, “Oh, this bugs you? It’s gone.” After I knew, in the second year of our marriage, I stopped drinking with Jay. I stopped cooking with wine. I even stopped making my garlic-laden hangover soup, capable of curing the most vicious hangover. I let him suffer, let him feel his brain was a shrunken, dried thing rattling in his skull.
When he was drunk, I wanted to take my hands and sculpt the skin back tightly over his bones. I wanted to jerk his eyelids up from their half-closed laziness and paint an intelligent, alert look across his eyes. I wanted to shape his mouth into a form suitable for conversation, or kissing. But I kept my hands in my pockets and let Jay continue on his own.
On the nights when Jay would shut himself up in our bedroom with the bottle of gin and stacks of CDs, he’d write me long letters and leave them on my pillow, where I’d find them next to his unconscious self.
I’m a fool for Jay’s letters. They said things like this: “You were beautiful the first time you smiled at me. We were sitting across from each other in the crowded history seminar room, and you looked smart and busy. You made me look twice at the twilight sun streaming through the windows. I felt an immense urge, but one in which the sexual was joined by something else entirely.” Often such a letter would move me to strip off his clothes and kiss the length of his body, starting at one end or the other and working my way slowly up or down his long, cold, weighted limbs. When I’d finished every inch of one side — usually the front, because he almost always passed out on his back, which is supposed to be dangerous, in the Jimi Hendrix kind of way — I’d roll him over and do the other side, kissing until my lips were stretched and dry, until my face heated with effort. I’d cover Jay’s body with mine, trying to warm it, trying to contact every inch of exposed skin.
I’d shimmy down his length until the tops of my feet covered the tops of his feet, until my hip bones rocked into his upper thighs, until my face filled the space between his ribs. I’d spread my hair so thickly over Jay’s face that he’d stir, trying to find a breath. Then I’d thin the layer of blondness out over the pillows, across Jay’s pillow to the edge of my own, where that evening’s note rested. One time, when I’d finished reading a particularly lovely letter, I stripped off my clothes and stretched out next to Jay on the bedspread. I took his arm with the floppy hand attached to it and ran the palm of the hand over the curve of my belly, up the quick incline of my hip bones.
I steered the hand over one breast, then the other. The fingers slept against my curves. I dragged the hand back down past my waist and gathered two of the fingers, two strips of that cold, fleshy sandpaper. I pinned them together, then dipped them into myself — into what my mother calls “the most sacred room of your body.” I didn’t feel particularly sacred. I coaxed Jay’s slumping, unconscious fingers inside me, warming them. I pressed them here and there, Jay’s now-moist fingers, until I felt him ringing through my body.
Finally it came to this: a letter that ended, “I love you, Faith Anne. I wish I could say something more substantial, something that really delivered the feeling that hurts my throat and my heart and heats my gut every time I think of your face.” That one made me kneel, one knee on either side of Jay’s passed-out, sleeping head, hoping my scent would wake him from his stupor. It was too awkward to hold his sluggish lips with my hands against my larger, more fragrant lips. I used the bridge of his nose instead. His forehead. The grit of his unshaven cheek. Then I caught my reflection in our bedroom window: me squatting over the face of my unconscious husband. A fierce energy looped through my body; I had nowhere to put it. In the glossy, dark rectangle of the window, I looked like a woman urinating in the woods, near a large, rotted log.
I went to the bathroom for a washcloth and soap and wiped my scent from Jay’s face. I sat next to him on the bed until the room grew light, then lighter, until the bright Texas spring sun blazed through the open window, until mosquitoes drifted in and drew high-alcohol-content blood from my husband and drifted out again, gorged. I watched Jay’s dark brown hair, hair with the slight but determined curves of a leaf. I watched his good high cheekbones and the faint lines on either side of his mouth that would deepen into dimples when he smiled. I watched him so long I saw the thickening of his beard, the stubble blooming on his chin. I read that night’s letter over and over, and I told myself that even though Jay loved me more than some women are ever loved, he still loved alcohol more. If alcohol were a woman, Jay wouldn’t be able to keep his hands off her; she’d have had some tacky, tropical name like Desirée, or Racquel; we would have tried to become friends, and failed. I sat next to Jay’s naked body, watching his skin mist with cool, gin-scented sweat, until he drew an arm over his eyes, until he coordinated his brain and tongue to grind out the words, “Faith, the shades? Bright in here.”
I closed the shades. Jay’s face relaxed.
“Jay, I’ve had enough. I need to try something else.”
“Faith,” Jay groaned, from beneath the arm that draped his face. “Jesus, can we talk about it later.” His voice scraped out of his throat dry and thin. I was tempted to water him, as one waters a plant.
“It is later,” I said. “You’ve been drunk every day for as long as I can remember. When’s the last time we made love, Jay?”
I waited for him to say something else, then realized he’d fallen asleep again. His arm slipped from his eyes to his chest.
I twisted off my wedding ring and set it on the night table, although I could hardly stand to let go of it. I walked outside and threw an armful of stuff through the open rear window of my car. I ran back inside for another load. When the car was almost full, I threw in Jay’s letters and rolled up the windows so they couldn’t blow away.
I went back into the bedroom and dragged up the lid of one of Jay’s eyes. I wanted to see their color one more time before I left: green, the light green of new growth on a plant. They’re at their greenest when the whites of his eyes are bloodshot. And, of course, they were.