The Pain of Too Much Tenderness

Facebook has been killing me lately. The reminders—1, 2, 3, 4 years ago—this is where you were: a photo, a caption, a moment in time. You know what I’m talking about. Sometimes the memory invites an “awwwww,” sometimes an “ughhhhhh,” sometimes both.

Yesterday it was a photo of me, Alma, and Elizabeth Gilbert after her signing for The Signature of All Things in 2013. I schlepped over an hour across the city in the hot, hot July heat to bring Alma, who was five then, to wait in line with me and then sit in a crowded theater for two hours. She was crabby and confused about what we were doing and whyyyy. I told her the main character in the book was named Alma, so that kept her just slightly above unwilling. I wasn't sober yet then, but I had been trying for over a year. I remember being shaky; I was always shaky then. It's terrifying when you don't know if you can do the thing you must do to save your life. Even worse when you're not always sure you want to.

Brookline Booksmith, July, 2013.

Brookline Booksmith, July, 2013.

But I sat there in the front row with Alma and listened to her talk with my heart beating in my chest like a hummingbird. It was hard to be there for the same reason it had been hard for many years prior to read gorgeous writing, or hold an amazing book written by a woman: it was the thing I wanted most and I wasn't doing it. I was about to turn 36 and felt like maybe I never would.

Alma and Liz had a private exchange in front of the whole crowd that day. Liz asked her what her name was. 

“Alma," she said, and everyone awwwwwed.

“Well, you know I love that name,” said Liz. “How old are you, Alma?”

Alma looked at me, forgetting. I responded to Liz, "Five."

“How is it, Alma, in this dark, dark theater I can possibly see your blue eyes?” Liz asked, and then looked at me like Holy shit, and I nodded, I KNOW. Alma’s eyes shock everyone.

I wrote about that day here, but the big thing I took away from it was the knowing that if I didn’t get sober, I would never write. That aside from all the other, outwardly more dangerous and obvious ways that drinking would certainly destroy my life, the dream that held my sweetest longing would die inside me if I didn't stop. Drinking and writing couldn’t co-exist. This idea hurt more severely than all the other consequences I’d thought of, or felt, or imagined.  

I stumbled around for a little longer, but September 28, 2014, was my last day one.

***

Last night I was sitting in a packed restaurant in Boston’s North End with a friend who’s visiting for the weekend. It’s his first time in New England, and so I found myself wanting to show him things, to see Boston through my eyes. We drove from Logan to 93, coming up through the tunnel around Government Center, park in Faneuil Hall, and I couldn’t point or talk fast enough.

That’s where my first job was. I was 22 and started as an intern. When I showed up for my first day I had to walk over homeless people and vomit and evaporated beer.

That’s where I worked after Alma was born—where my marriage ended and my drinking was the worst. 

That’s where my last job was. “That massive, cool-looking building right there?” he asked. "Yep. Whole different life."

I lived there when I was 23. Our massive air conditioner fell out of the living room window once. Five stories. "It didn’t hit anyone, thank God."

I worked as a hostess there when I was 24 because I didn’t make enough money at my job-job. They used to let us drink on our shift and then we’d go out after and blow all the tips we just made on expensive wine.

That’s where I got engaged.

That’s where we had a drink before I got engaged. I knew it was happening.

This is the Holocaust museum; I cry every time I walk through it.

This is the bar where my friend Brad and I perched on the windowsills one afternoon, drinking giant UFO’s in the golden hour before dusk, and he declared it The Center Of The Universe.

That’s where my friend Kate and I used to go because we knew all the bartenders. Red Bull and Vodka days.

That’s where I used to run after work. 

This place has the best ice cream. This has the best espresso martinis. The best bread. The freshest prosciutto. The yoga studio. The moment. The day. The years. The life. My life.

For every memory I mention, there are one thousand that I don't.

He asked who I moved here with. "My friend Jen. My best friend from college." She moved back after a couple years. "That was the plan. But I stayed.” I knew no one except her when we arrived; had never been further east than Chicago.

“You love it here, don’t you?” he asked.

“I do. So much. It grew me up,” I said, and my heart pulled down and pushed out in all directions. The words are never enough.

***

We looked over the menus and someone dropped off bread. I tore off a piece and dunked it in the olive oil. I looked at the older couple sitting next to us. The man was sipping the last of his martini, the olive made a run for his mouth. I felt that strong pull of want, of grief, of desire. Fuck, I thought. This is the second time in two days. The night before I was out to dinner and looked at the couple next to us, sitting with their baby who was young enough to be in its car seat, while they nibbled on their charcuterie board and sipped their drinks. That guy also had a martini, clear and cool, with an olive floating around on the bottom. I felt that expectant numbness in my brain, the shift where everything lights up a bit, the electric softening of alcohol in my blood. Fuck, I thought. Fuck me. I turned back to my friend and re-focused my attention on our conversation, brushing it off. I hadn’t felt that in a long time. I hated that it could still happen.

***

The friend I was with last night is also sober and when I felt the second wave roll over me, I interrupted him to call it out.

“--Okay, I just have to say this. This is the second time in the past two days that drinking has looked really good. What the fuck.” 

He stopped, nodded. “Like right now?”

“Yup, right now. And last night, too.”

“Dude, the whole time we’ve been walking around I’ve been thinking: this would be a really good place to drink,” he said. “I get it.”

I explained the night before and I explained what happened just then and I started to cry unexpectedly.

He didn’t have to ask why, or what was happening, and I was so grateful to be sitting there with someone who didn’t need me to explain. I talked. I told him about the Facebook memory and I told him about how the city was my heart for so, so long, but how so much of it is tied to drinking; I told him about all the memories that hit me just in our ten minute walk from the parking garage to where we were now; I told him how I haven’t felt that longing in a while and that it makes me angry it’s still there.

He asked me if it was sadness, or what.

“It’s sadness and it’s grief and it’s fear and it’s—everything is so different now—and I am grateful for that—but I also lived so much life here. And I love that girl, too. I loved all of it so much. Even when it was dark, I have always been so in love with being alive, with my life.” I felt my lip tremble. I closed my eyes and took in a deep sip of air.

When we finished dinner we walked down the street to get cannolis boxed up for later. He went into a coffee shop to grab a coffee and I set the box down on the ground and thought, even this ground—this patch of dirty, old cement—I know it. I recognize the way the light is hitting everything: the people walking, the windows, the air. I know the smells exactly, and the sounds the streets will make later when we've all gone home. How is it possible to miss something so much, even as you are experiencing it?

Just hours before Holly sent me a picture of her on the beach in Italy. She said, you know when you're doing something and you know it will be one of the things you think of when you're dying?

Of course. Of course I know.

***

Earlier in the day, I’d been talking to my ex-husband after my run. We talked about Alma and logistics and the normal, daily things. He’s dating someone and I asked how that was going because it’s been a while since he’s said. When he was done I said something, something about my opinion or point of view on the matter, and then started laughing, “Oh, what the fuck do I know. I’ve only really been in love twice. The first, I was so young and the second one was you.” We hung up and went back to our respective days: he was picking up Alma from camp, I was planning out my workshop for Sunday.

***

This kaleidoscope of things. Sometimes all the pieces come into focus in a way that’s so beautiful it hurts—like the plastic bag at the end of American Beauty. The ordinariness of life. The bigness of it, too. Everything becomes clear and is felt at once.

 Yesterday I re-read a passage from Kahlil Gibran’s book, The Prophet. 

But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving.

To know the pain of too much tenderness. To be wounded by your own understanding of love. This is where've I have lived. This is where I am.

Laura McKowen

Laura McKowen, PO Box 315 , Swampscott, MA, 01907