What Kind of Call Do You Want to Answer?

Her name is Jenny but I call her Ninny. “I’m not a Jennifer—and definitely not a Jen,” she told me, when we met our freshman year of college, in 1995. “Justin calls me Jen, but that’s it.” Justin was her ex-boyfriend, the Led Zeppelin and Jim Beam loving guy, and she talked about him all starry-eyed and heartbroken—He was my big love, she’d say—and I would listen, sprawled out on our twin dorm room beds. She was at least ten steps ahead of me in every respect: boys, sex, booze, drugs, life.

She arrived in college at 21, a full four years older than me. She’d done a brief modeling tour in Europe, hence the late start. She was tall-tall, almost six feet, and long, all limbs and languid movement, with dark brown hair and the craziest blue eyes. She listened to No Doubt and Alanis Morissette and she had one girl dance parties and she would prop herself up on her back in the middle of our hallway, legs up on the wall, and talk on the phone to the boys she had a crush on while twirling the phone cord around her index finger until the tip turned white. I would step over her with an armful of books, trying to catch her eyes to say Hiii, and she’d turn away and talk a little bit louder into the phone, letting me know she was busy.

At 21, she was legal to drink, and she actually went to the bars sometimes, which seemed so…adult. I wasn’t a rookie to drinking—I started in high school, and had toyed with some drugs, too—but most of mine took place at house parties, in fields, or in the back seat of my friends’ cars. Drinking at the bars seemed dangerous, but sort of alluring. A group of us would be huddled in the hallway of our co-ed dorm, talking about which fraternity parties or house parties we were going to, and Jenny would breeze by and sling her purse around her shoulder. Where you goin’ Jenny?, someone would ask, and she’d respond, without turning around, Sully’s or Lucky Joe’s or Coops. None of us ever knew what the places were, but they were bars.

One night she came back to the dorm drunk. Drunk-drunk, and it was only 7 or 8pm. I saw her laugh sort of incoherently, make Ramen, and then pass out face down on her bed, fully-clothed. I wasn’t horrified, or even concerned—we were in college, this is what it looked like—but more…intrigued. Bemused? I noticed this about her pretty quickly: she drank to get drunk. She drank with intent. It was fascinating.

Over the next two years, we’d become inseparable. I got a fake ID later my freshman year and so she started bringing me along to the bars. We visited each other’s homes—she was from Laramie, Wyoming, and I, from a town just a few hours south of school in Colorado. We met each other’s families and groups of friends and listened to music at full blast in her little white car on road trips during holiday breaks. We roomed together and bought an espresso machine and charged people $1 for a latte, 50 cents extra for a shot of vanilla. We kept Fat Tire beer and vodka and Jim Beam in our mini fridge at all times and she taught me how to dress “in fashion.” We did acid at a Dave Matthews concert at Red Rocks and when I got mad and scared because it still hadn’t worn off at 6 a.m., Jenny told me to Chill out, Larz, and she went back to sleep.

After college, we went our separate ways. I went off to Boston, she stuck around, doing her thing in CO. Over the next ten years we would go in and out of each other’s lives, catching up here and there on Facebook, or via phone. When I was pregnant with Alma, I reached out to her because I knew she’d just had her own baby girl the year before. It was then I learned she had quit drinking, had had a ‘rock bottom’ as she put it, and hadn’t touched alcohol for almost nine months.

I had a million questions, of course, and she answered them all. I both related to her experience and pushed it away. My heart said, Pay attention, and my head said, Not relevant to you, girl.

Over the next couple years, we would talk often, but not consistently, exchanging long strings of texts in bursts as we navigated our day-to-day lives in the background. Got a few minutes while he’s on the boob, she would say, and we’d catch up about our relationships, fears, God, yoga, our recent realizations and awakenings, depression and anxiety in a matter of minutes.

She had another baby, and then another, and eventually, my husband moved out—an eventuality I kept her privy to along the way.

Jenny was the first one to hear my concerns about my drinking. For years, she was the only one I shared these tender fears with, usually after a really bad night.

I fucked up, Ninny.

I can’t do this anymore.

I am afraid, Ninny.

I think I had my bottom.

I would text, and she would always answer right back, sweetly, gently. With patience, she would let me talk it out for the 100th time. She would share her experience, tell me what she knows, and encourage me to go to a meeting. If she didn’t hear from me for a few months and I checked in, she would close out the conversation with, I’m saving a seat for you, girl ;) or your turn! even if we hadn’t talked at all about the drinking. I knew what she meant.

The thing I keep thinking about lately, is, that I kept her away from so much. I kept everyone away who interfered with my drinking or got to close and might see what I was up to. I never, ever hung out with people who didn’t drink, and I even felt a sad kind of pity for them and all they were missing out on. Yet I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my own fun to spend time in that way, even if it just meant having a conversation at a party for a few minutes.

So when I finally faced my own reality, this stung. It stung hard to know people—not all people, but definitely people like me—would consciously leave me out of plans, or steer their attention away, because I wasn’t partaking anymore. It hurt in the deep need-to-belong-and-be-part-of way. Yes, I knew that my “real friends would be there no matter what” and “not everyone cares about drinking the way you do” and all those things, but the reality is also there: most people drink, and most social situations in our culture are booze-centric, and even people who don’t care about alcohol a lot care about it somewhat.

I loved being the good-time girl, always up for something big and fun. I was really sad I wouldn’t receive that kind of call anymore.

I was sad I would be pushed off to certain corners in my friends’ minds—the way I had pushed off Jenny for so long.

It’s true. I don’t receive those kinds of calls anymore. I’m not asked to go out for drinks work, or have girl’s nights, and I can’t say YES with abandon when a guy asks me to “grab a drink,” even though I know it’s just an expression. I don’t get invited to do the craft beer fests or Wine Festival on Nantucket, and sometimes I’m sure I’m even excluded from the less overt invitations to gather just because it’s a thing people don’t know how to navigate. This doesn’t make me sad or angry like it used to, but if I’m in a shaky place, or feeling lonely, it can still hit a soft spot inside.

But here’s the thing: I get to answer different kinds of calls now.

This past weekend, a friend who I hadn’t actually talked to in years sent me a message asking if we could talk. She was scared and afraid she was in trouble with her drinking and she knew it was late, but was I there? I was, and we talked, and I don’t know if it helped or if it’ll change anything for her, but I was just so damn grateful I could answer.

I also get to answer the calls from my family that I never had time for before. Or the ones from my ex-colleagues who need me to be a reference for the job they want. Or from my ex-husband, because he needs me to do him a favor for our girl, at a really inconvenient time in the morning. I can answer the call of my daughter’s voice saying “mama,” when she wakes up in the middle of the night with a bad dream.

I wasn’t around to answer these kinds of calls before. I just couldn’t get there. I couldn’t be counted on and people stopped expecting that from me. I wasn’t that type of person—I didn’t even know that I wanted to be.

I usually don’t have the right response, and I often don’t know the best thing to do, even though I like to pretend I do. But I am there to answer a different kind of, and that means everything.