An Essay by Rob Colby
I came to San Francisco to get a fresh start and to cut family ties. But that didn’t stop me from accepting help to get on my feet. My mother kindly offered to pay my first month’s rent and then, kinder still, made it clear that I was on my own after that. Though I interacted only fitfully with them—short, sporadic long-distance calls—in my mind, they still stood like two totems I had to pass between daily.
I wasn’t just negotiating the pale hypocrisy of late adolescence. My mind was embroiled in tense negotiations with the past now that I’d gained perspective on the way alcohol had affected my life growing up.
Junior year of college, my advisor, who’d taken a particular interest in my well-being, had asked me that follow-up question so many times—“No, but how are you really?” I finally relented and started sharing. But not about my own life. That was still a tangle of briny rope and fishing line in a moldering bucket. Instead, I rotated the proverbial film projector towards the wall to screen stories of growing up in Boston, about my family, and my father’s drinking.
As the evidence mounted that my father may have had a problem, the professor thoughtfully suggested that I go to an Al-Anon meeting. There was a men’s group near campus, filled with college types: faculty, administrators, even some students. I went and enjoyed it and kept going back. I’d never heard grown men talking openly about their feelings, their past, their struggles. It was like discovering a new species of human.
I began to calculate the toll my father’s drinking had taken on me, now that I’d assumed the mantle of “child of an alcoholic.” Though I was named after him, resembled him, embodied his mannerisms, I could already look back on a vexed dynamic that I’ve come to call “the spitting image:” the two of us locked in shouting matches, uncannily marshaling the same accusation against each other. With the realization about his drinking, I only wanted to be his opposite. So, when I moved out to San Francisco after graduation, I decided to put aside the booze myself and didn’t miss it. I continued attending Al-Anon meetings, this time in church basements and vestry halls in the Castro, which, in my memory, are all the same large room colored a dusty seafoam grey that matched well the emotional atmosphere. Still, I continued to hear reassuring echoes of my story in the lives of other grown children of alcoholics.
I soon realized there was a catch to my new, no-drinking-child-of-an-alcoholic-Al-Anon-California-recovery lifestyle. The friends from Oberlin I’d come out to San Francisco with didn’t want to hang out anymore. Gone was edgy, precocious Rob from the year before, who had imposing intellectual ambitions, wore battered tweed jackets and costume jewelry. Alcohol had once served to batten down the emotional hatches that were started to bang open. Now I was both sloppy and puritanical, as I tried to “get my life together.”
So, when I moved into the apartment in Noe Valley it felt like the kind of beginning that’s really an end. The room itself told me this. For starters, it would have made Edward Hopper’s black-eyed muse feel right at home. A large bay window looked out over the tops of the houses on the lower side of Elizabeth Street, framing a hemisphere of sky. It didn’t even occur to me to buy drapes to offer myself a modicum of privacy. The sunlight just streamed in, scouring every inch. Judging from the elaborate carved fireplace and beveled mirror, the room had once been the parlor. It was bare now but for a futon mattress and the ghostly outline of old furniture stamped in the carpet. My new roommate was kind, and this made a difference. He told me where to get good fresh fruit down at the Mexican market in the Mission and warned me to be careful. “You can still get mugged on the side streets.” Then he showed me the kitchen and gestured to the stove. “The pozole’s almost done, so help yourself anytime.”
That last semester in college, I’d taken up long-distance running to get in shape and quickly discovered it quieted my mind. I found the mental rest I needed, expiating the toxic energy for a few hours. But the monsters of anxiety and isolation were always waiting just around the corner. In San Francisco, I ran so much the cartilage in my knees felt like it was wearing out. Some days, when I didn’t have anything else to do, I’d run as far as I’d could, across the city, over the Golden Gate Bridge, and down into Sausalito until I couldn’t go any farther. Then I’d take a bus back, my legs practically locking into place at right angles against the cool plastic seats. But at least it ate up the time.
I couldn’t find a job right away; that was part of the problem. I was discovering that my art history degree didn’t qualify me for much. When I applied for an entry-level position at a credit card call center, the interviewer looked at my resume, noticed words like ‘Hotchkiss’ and ‘summa cum laude’ and politely interrogated me. “Why do you even want this job?” Cause my parents have cut me off and I need to make rent and eat, I said to myself, as I made up a reply plausible enough to lock it down.
Once I’d gained employment, I spent most nights there was no Al-Anon meeting at home. Had I cleaned regularly the room might have been pleasingly minimalist. But I rarely did, so it mostly looked like a squatter was passing through. At a makeshift desk formed by a board and two piles of books, I attempted to craft the story of my life. No paragraph ever survived the next day’s scrutiny.
I returned to making art and created large pelt-like wall hangings by tearing off little pieces of masking tape and sticking them together on the mirror over the mantel in seemingly random configurations. Then I would brush on matte gesso, and when it dried, peel it off and attach it to the others until the pelt was around five feet across. The process of ripping and laying down the tape was hypnotic and gave my mind a task to focus on. Eventually, I realized I could place the pelts over part of the windowpane like a layer of skin. The light shone through from behind, creating bleached, illuminated mandalas.
I backfilled my empty life in other ways, too: reading a classic American novel, trying to formulate a definitive postmodern worldview (there are only stories and stories of stories). I even attempted to learn Latin. Despite all this effort, my inner life still felt desiccated, as if my soul had been scoured with a toxic cleanser, leaving a hygienic but noxious void.
Then a funny thing happened.
I was leaving the Mexican grocery store in the Mission and had just turned the corner onto one of those scrappy side streets my roommate had warned me about.
Unbidden, an overwhelming sense of peace overcame me, like the dramatic change in weather that often happens in San Francisco when the tepid air of the valley is expelled by a cool front descending from the barrier mountains. Instead of the endless inner chatter, I felt an easy restfulness, like when I finished a seven-mile run—but without the pain in my knees and tightness in my back. I sat down on a dirty stoop along the sidewalk with a curious feeling, like I’d become one with the river, my body just a channel for the water to flow through. Maybe this is what they mean by “being in the moment.” Breathing in and out this new sensation, I reached into the plastic bag and pulled out an orange to peel. I put the wedges in my mouth one by one like a handful of sacraments.
The sensation surprised me, but the timing didn’t. Three days before, I’d gone to an AA meeting at the invitation of a guy I was dating. He stood at the podium and shared that night. I sat in the back, and as everyone went around, kept thinking, Why are they saying what’s in my head? Is this who I am?
I began to re-catalog my memories according to this new logic, starting with the effects that alcohol had on me, relief of that inner compression, that vague, persistent tightening in my chest. But also, my treasure trove of shame—passing out in the bathroom and cracking my head open after day-drinking at the beach; the barfly banter (You call that a double?); the dreaded “hot tub incident” of 1996. After the meeting, I waited for my friend outside, then threw my arms around him. “Oh my God! I’m an alcoholic!” It felt like coming home.
Nothing really changed in the few days that immediately followed, until my sidewalk epiphany. Now, instead of scuttling through life as if I were running along the lip of a smoldering crater, suddenly, I could see how the hours might unfold harmoniously—how days and weeks and months could build on each other, could compound each other, make a life of purpose. Some mornings instead of launching from bed like a sprung trap, I’d move my futon mattress over to the window, stare out the side light up to Diamond Heights, and watch as the hierarchy of water, earth, and sky would overturn itself when clouds of ocean blue and ocean grey would descend from above.
One night, I took the ‘N’ train all the way down to the beach at Outer Sunset, a lumbering forty-five-minute ride from the Castro to the ocean. There, I put on my headphones and blasted Annie Lennox anthems as I walked along the water—impervious to the lapping foam around my ankles; to the waves as they engulfed my shins and knees; to the stares of the beach strollers as they saw me throwing myself into the dance of the wind while the Pacific waters splashed around me.
Born in Montreal and raised in Boston, Rob Colby attended Oberlin and the Courtauld where he studied many things except how to write well. A few years back, he had an awkward break-up and hasn’t stopped scribbling since. Rob’s currently working on a memoir entitled Heritage: A Wasp Legacy from the Inside Out. A member of the Wild Goose Creative writers’ group, Rob lives in Columbus, Ohio.