I wondered if the bitter taste of the endings would overpower all the other memories of my first sober loves.
I met C at the most inopportune moment imaginable: I was a full-blown heroin addict. He was not. We met on a video chat website called ChatRoulette, both of us drunk with our respective friends; he lived in California, I in New York. After a few months of daily phone calls and video chats I was head-over-heels in love and flew out to San Diego to meet him, doing my best to appear healthy and normal. I hadn’t told him and didn’t plan to.
C was less a boyfriend than a hostage, an innocent pulled onto a rollercoaster he didn’t yet realize was brakeless. The only reason I was able to hide my addiction from him for a while was because he was so impossibly normal—he surfed, played guitar, had a tight-knit group of equally normal friends. What he saw in me, tattooed and cynical, I still don’t know; perhaps, like me, he needed something different. He’d never known any heroin addicts in his idyllic suburban life, so he missed all the tell-tale signs. Naturally he would think the marks on my arms were inflamed mosquito bites and not track marks, because who would lie about something like that?
I’ll never forget the look on his face when he finally caught me. I get why using heroin would be unfathomable to someone who has never tried it. It must be near impossible to understand the kind of pain and self-loathing that makes heroin seem like a viable solution. By the time he’d caught me I had been making half-assed attempts to get clean for months, but the look on his face was the final push I needed. I left New York and moved in with him in California and despite some false starts, despite the odds, I got better.
In the cold hard light of my fledgling sobriety, the fantasy guy I’d created in my mind began to crumble the way real-estate euphemisms do when you see the actual apartment. You really want to believe that they actually meant cozy and not suffocatingly claustrophobic, but they never do. Never. In my heroin haze I’d romanticized all his flaws: instead of being emotionally repressed with awful communication skills, he was pensive and mysterious. He wasn’t living at home to save money, he was too cheap and emotionally enmeshed with his mother to move out. I loved him even so, tenaciously, holding onto him with white knuckles as the relationship unraveled over the next few years.
The night it finally ended, I felt like I’d been thrown off a cliff. I’d gone straight from drugs to love and for the first time it was just me, unadulterated, crying alone in my car in an empty parking lot. For the first time, I was really, truly sober.
After the breakup, I decided to move back east to go back to school to study film, or writing. A few days before Christmas I stopped by a college in Brooklyn to figure out admissions, and, smushed into a packed rush-hour train on my way back, happened to look up and lock eyes with a guy a few rows away.
An electric current pulsed through me. He looked tired and messy—two days of beard, deep circles under his eyes, terrible posture, dark-blonde hair stuffed into an awful neon orange ski hat. But there was something about him.
I took my notebook out of my bag and started writing about him, unfiltered stream-of-consciousness, private thoughts I’d typically never share with a stranger, especially one I was so attracted to. I filled over a page and then decided to give it to him. Why not? What’s the worst that could happen? With this burst of confidence, I wrote my number at the bottom of the page but even before I’d finished folding it up, I lost my resolve. The note was still in my palm when the train slowed and he walked towards me, mumbling something unintelligible and thrusting out his hand: he had written something for me. I handed him my note and he looked down at it, then back up at me. We grinned at each other. Just like that, I’d somehow stumbled into a cute first-meeting worthy of Nora Ephron herself.
At dinner a few nights later, he spoke slowly, deliberately, eyes crinkling when he smiled. He told me his name—E—and that my note had made him laugh. He was a musician, and like most musicians I’d known he was a bit of a disaster. Maybe more than a bit: a self-diagnosed narcoleptic, a diabetic who struggled to stay on top of his blood sugar, an ex-cocaine addict. (He didn’t specify how long. Weeks? Days? Hours?) As he told me all this, I knew the sensible thing was to make up some excuse and book it the hell out of there, yet there I was, moody and self-absorbed, a writer (enough said), an ex-junkie. I was an insecurity-ridden raw nerve fresh out of a spectacularly painful breakup, far from the picture of perfect mental health. So I didn’t book it; I stayed put.
After that first date we saw each other constantly. We listened to records, played Scrabble (I always won), talked late into the night, laughed, made out in his driveway. I met his friends; he sent me albums he thought I would like. One night I sat on his kitchen counter eating a yogurt and he stood there with the refrigerator door open, staring at me with a big, dumb smile.
“What?” I said.
He shook his head and closed the refrigerator door, still smiling. I’ve never felt more beautiful than I did right then.
“What are you scared of?” he asked me once after we’d had sex.
“Failure. Success. Mediocrity. Rejection. You?”
“Well, everything, I guess,” he replied. “I’m afraid of everything.”
We both had piles of baggage, but there was a major difference—I was in recovery, depressed but going to therapy, an addict but a clean one who went to meetings, afraid of everything but doing it anyway. In his bed when he thought I’d fallen asleep I felt him pull away, back into a dark part of himself he didn’t want me to see. I couldn’t help but remember the way C did the very same thing.
After I returned to California we continued to talk, but over time he stopped answering my calls, calling back days later at odd hours sounding distracted and paranoid. He would tell me he didn’t believe I was actually moving back to New York and I’d repeatedly reassure him that my return ticket was already booked. Eventually he stopped calling back at all, and though I was angry, I also felt something else, unmistakable and undeniable: dread. After a month of radio silence, I Googled his name.
“Tappan Zee Jump: man’s family ‘blindsided’ by death.”
He must’ve been so cold, I remember thinking. It was the beginning of April—temperate in San Diego, but miserably wet and chilly in New York. Over the next few weeks I jumped from denial to anger and back again, unable to comprehend the amount of pain he must have felt to justify jumping off a bridge. I thought about what my mom’s face would look like if someone told her I’d killed myself, or the way she’d feel if she found out I had died of an overdose. I realized it wasn’t all that different.
That summer, I was compelled to google another name: C’s. We hadn’t spoken since the breakup and I’d thought up all kinds of reasons as to why he had never reached out. Interestingly enough, none of these reasons included him having a pregnant new girlfriend. I didn’t feel all that different looking at C’s baby registry than I did when I saw E’s obituary. Both felt devastating and permanent; both had nothing to do with me. I wondered if the bitter taste of the endings would overpower all the other memories of my first sober loves.
In AA they often talk about “selective memory”: Play the tape through, they say. Instead of just remembering that one perfect drunk night, play the tape through to how you felt the next morning, to the shame and panic of waking up after a blackout. Instead of just remembering little moments of a relationship, look at the whole thing, the magic and the tragic. I knew the tragic parts by heart, but as the years passed I began to see the magic, too: C and I on motorcycle trips together, holding hands in the dark, recording songs in his bathroom (the acoustics were better). Then, the magic of learning how to love someone; the way I felt on the train on that cold winter day when I met E; the way he looked at me in his kitchen, his big smile illuminated by the white light of an open refrigerator. The note he gave me: “to me you’re perfect and I LOVE your hair” in a loopy script on the back of an old business card. I still have it, somewhere.
Those are the things I remember now, not because I’ve forgotten the endings or the sad bits, but because at almost eight years sober, I’m beginning to finally see the big picture: the sad parts are gifts, too, maybe more precious than anything else. I play the tape through, and all I feel is grateful.