Cool in the Nineties – Barrie Miskin
September 13, 2022
There were a lot of good things happening in New York the year after 9/11. The combination of let’s all come together as one and fuck it, we’re probably going to die anyway made for a celebratory vibe. People cut their bangs in geometric shapes and took the L under the river to go to Lux and see Lady Gaga sing electroclash pre-Lady Gaga. Other people wore backwards trucker hats and rode mini beach cruisers to a Suicide Girls strip club down by Wall Street. Vice Magazine still published its Dos and Don’ts column and you could pick up a copy at Other Music on East 4th Street. It was a shitty time in the history of things but that’s not to say it wasn’t fun.
I was partying too, but I was doing it alone. In the evenings, I liked to stay home drinking Yellowtail Merlot and doing a gram or two of coke off the glass table I had inherited from my parents. The glass table makes me sound like I thought I was Pablo Escobar, but the rest of the apartment looked like it belonged to a girl who had graduated college two years before. Which I was. I had the glass table and my drapes were heavy red velvet, but my shower curtain was decorated with tropical cartoon fish. My dealer called me “smiley” and told me I was too sweet for the life I was living.
I liked to have these Yellowtail and cocaine nights while I stayed up watching back-to-back episodes of The Real World: Las Vegas. Everyone was hooked on Trishelle because she was a good Christian girl but as soon as she got to Vegas, she started having threesomes with her roommates. I preferred Irulan, though. She was so beautiful! So charismatic! I looked her up recently and found out she had become a fitness instructor in Queens. It broke my heart. She should have been an ingenue.
I stayed up until dawn until the Real World episodes and the coke ran out and then I picked my way through the carpet. I tried to find little drug crumbs to put in my mouth and numb out my tongue, but I don’t think the crumbs were ever really cocaine. Just rogue pieces of grated parmesan or specks of dust. Then I would take the elevator down to go next door to the bodega where the guy was nice enough to let me buy a 22 of Heineken even though it was 6:15 in the morning. I’d go upstairs and drink most of the bottle, always leaving a little at the bottom, for when I woke up around noon.
At 3, I took the 6 train to 59th and Lexington to work. I tutored two boys who were heirs to a hotel fortune. They were 8 and 12 and I loved them. They had peach fuzz cheeks and hair that was always a little damp at the nape of their neck from playing after school. I brought the boys Blow Pops and stickers and they loved me back. The twelve-year-old always had Latin homework and even though I got a D+ in Latin in Junior High, I found his homework soothing. The verb declensions came back to me like the lyrics of an old pop song. Peulla, puellae, puellam. Between the Latin homework and the Blow Pops, the boys thought I was a genius.
The boys lived in the penthouse at The Waldorf Astoria. They had fresh bouquets delivered each day and the house always smelled delicate, like rose but not too strong. The penthouse was not how you’d imagine a penthouse. I was hoping for opulence but really, the top floor of The Waldorf Astoria just looks like the house you went to when you were growing up if your friend’s dad was a lawyer. The boys shared a room, the twelve-year-old on the top bunk and the little one on the bottom. The opulence was in the subtle touches. Those bouquets. I searched for that smell for the rest of my life, but I could never find it.
The afternoons at The Waldorf Astoria with the boys was the only time I could feel myself relax, the only time of the day I wasn’t hungover or vibrating with anxiety so hard that it made me dissociate. I was dissociating all the time. In the supermarket, on the subway, on the sidewalks, looking down and counting the pieces of black gum and trying to time my paces with my breath. It never worked. I was always slipping outside myself and viewing the world from above. I realize this sounds like it could be a pleasant sensation but it’s not. It’s awful.
I saw a psychiatrist twice a week. My parents had good health insurance and I was allowed to be on it for two more years, until I turned twenty-six. I told the psychiatrist about the anxiety, the panic. I told her that I didn’t feel like myself, that I felt like a stranger, that I was scared.
Each week I swore I wouldn’t tell the psychiatrist I had been using but each week I did. And each week I swore that I wouldn’t page the dealer after our appointment but each week I did. I’m terrible at keeping secrets, from myself and from anyone else.
The psychiatrist wanted me to learn to ground myself. She told me she wanted me to learn to “self soothe,” like I was a baby being sleep trained. She wanted me to learn to use my senses to help bring me back to reality.
“Try to use your sense of smell,” she told me. “Think about the one time of day that you are relaxed and smell it. Smell the flowers, the boys’ shampoo. Smell the Blow Pops.”
This sounded like a dumb idea and I told her this, but nicely. I was hoping for something more concrete, like a prescription.
She stifled a sigh. “Then go to a meeting,” she said. “Your drug and alcohol use are fueling the anxiety. You’re never going to get better until you stop.” She let the sigh out and looked at her watch. I wondered if I was her most frustrating patient. I wondered if she couldn’t wait to get rid of me so she could go grocery shopping, buy frozen ravioli and expensive tomato sauce in a jar to make for her kids. I imagined she had two little boys and lived in a nice apartment but nothing showy. Somewhere with parquet floors. “Time’s up,” she said, “see you next week.”
Hare Krishnas approached me, appearing out of nowhere, apparitions in Union Square pulling pamphlets from orange robes. Men who lay atop subway grates, bearded and covered in sleeping bags peered out at me to tell me I had better fix myself before it was too late. I wondered where all my friends had gone. I spoke to my mom every day but then she’d call me “honey bear” or “bunny rabbit” and my throat would catch and I’d have to hang up before the tears came.
Each day, I ate my lunch on a chunk of marble public art at the 59th Street Station. Same lunch every day: two slices of Boars Head turkey, one slice of swiss cheese and Dijon mustard, two Oreos and one Granny Smith. I packed the meal in a brown paper bag and the sandwich twisted and slumped by the time I got there. I ate everything fast. I was always starving.
There was a psychic whose beat was the public art sculpture at the 59th Street Station. She didn’t look like a psychic and she didn’t feel like one either – no shivery vibes when she spoke, just sweatpants with announcements across the butt and long permed hair with sun in streaks. Like everyone else, she sensed my bottomless void and offered to fill it for $300 a session, but once she realized I had no money she gave up and chatted with me as I pulled items out of my brown paper bag and chewed on my flat turkey swiss. She was kind though and I think she was lonely too.
Sometimes, the psychic gave me free advice which mainly revolved around bathing myself in rubbing alcohol to rid myself of the spirits who held me back. “Your aura is cloudy,” she told me. “Like the window of an unwashed car.” Rubbing alcohol baths would fix that, turn my aura back to the deep mood ring indigo it was supposed to be.
Despondent as I was, rubbing alcohol baths sounded like a straight shot to the ER for a UTI so I compromised by pouring a bit of the bottle onto a washcloth and scrubbing it vigorously over my body in the shower, passively observing the tropical fish on the curtain as I tried to incant some meaning into my life. My drain didn’t work and the shower filled up to my shins with diluted rubbing alcohol, filling the bathroom with thin, toxic vapors.
This purgatory life lasted for two seasons. Throughout the fall and winter of 2002 my days repeated on a slow loop, a warped record player scratching and skipping over the tracks. It was the tip of spring in 2003 when the red velvet curtains put me over the edge.
My dad bought the curtains at Pottery Barn, but I bought the rod. I found it in the home goods aisle at CVS. In March, the rod finally gave up on holding the weight and buckled in the middle, sliding the curtains into a deep V and sending them crashing to the floor. I’d bend the rod back into shape but each night, it crashed. It never occurred to me to find something stronger. I just kept letting it happen.
My window was sliding glass and on the ground floor and faced out to the busy sidewalk. When the curtains fell, I could see out at the people walking to work or school or holding hands with their kids, the light streaming onto where my head hit the pillow like a spotlight on my failure. I wanted to break things. I wanted to smash my dishes, my glasses. I wanted to stand on my glass table with my boots where the heels had worn down to metal nubs and destroy it. There was always a scream caught in my throat but when I tried to let it out it was just the sound of air, like when I was little and tried to call for my mom after waking up from a bad dream.
I went to the psychiatrist. “I’ll go to a meeting,” I told her. She nodded, pleased with herself. “I think that’s a really good idea.”
I bought a bag of Blow Pops on the way home from my appointment and unwrapped the candy while I stood at the kitchen counter, inhaling the sour apple, the watermelon. It didn’t help but it didn’t not help, either.
The meeting I chose was at a nearby university at 10 AM. I knew some people went to meetings so they could try and spot Marianne Faithfull or an Olsen twin up close, but I wasn’t one of those people then. I still shopped at the GAP. I just didn’t want to sit in a church basement. I couldn’t imagine hurting my parents any more than I had: my dad, a Holocaust survivor having to imagine his strung-out daughter working the steps under an oil portrait of The Virgin Mary. No matter how they may have wronged me, they didn’t deserve that.
It was a good choice. The meeting was in a window-lined classroom and the early spring light cast blue shadows across the carpeted floor. There were people sitting close to me, but I didn’t feel dissociated. I felt soothed. I sat quietly, hands folded in my lap, a good student. People talked about filling their God shaped hole with love instead of alcohol and even though I didn’t believe in God, it made sense. I got a lot of attention in the meetings. I was twenty-four and vulnerable and cocaine and turkey sandwich thin. People asked for my number and I gave it to them. I picked up the phone when they called. We’ll love you until you can love yourself, they’d say. I had no defenses left; I let them love me if they wanted to.
My days took a new shape. I went to the meeting, I went out to lunch, I went to work. I came home and read. The Real World: Las Vegas was over. It was The Real World: Paris now and the cast members were uninteresting. The psychic appraised me. “You’re doing well,” she said. I nodded, smiled. I didn’t eat my lunch outside the station anymore.
The meetings were anonymous, but I recognized one of the men by the sound of his voice. MTV. He’d had one hit, maybe two. Maybe his video was on 120 Minutes or Beavis and Butt-Head, some show I’d watched with my older brothers targeted towards the fetid and acned demographic. Even so, I recognized him. He was much older now, long strands of hair clinging to a shiny, bare scalp and a gut hanging over his khakis and he had long tapered fingers that belonged on a woman’s hand. When he spoke though, he owned the room, landing jokes that were tender and brutally true. I found myself waiting for him to raise his hand and speak. He dressed like someone’s dad but he still wore Doc Martens, the last vestige of someone who had been cool in the nineties. I wasn’t attracted to him, but I couldn’t stop staring.
I asked for his number outside a meeting in late April. I’d been sober for about a month. There was a rule about no relationships in the first year of sobriety, let alone the first month, but I never thought the rules applied to me, never left an impulse unsatisfied. It was one of the first brilliant days of spring and I wore a green skirt printed with flowers and a white cardigan. Later, he told me he got hard when I asked for his number. “Chemistry,” he said, shaking his head, like it was up to a power greater than ourselves. As though we had no control.
He was married but it was a sexless one. She was a corporate lawyer and she came home late. They had an elliptical machine in their apartment and she worked out for an hour before bed. These were the only things I knew about his wife. I never learned her name.
We met for breakfast at Dojos on West 4th Street every morning before the meeting and shared banana pancakes and drank coffee. After the meeting, we went back to my apartment and watched The O.C. until I had to go to work. He lay his head in my lap, my palm cupping his warm, bare scalp. I didn’t see him much in the evenings unless he was performing – he still booked some gigs at Bowery Poetry and ABC No Rio. He had a book of poetry coming out with a small press based in Brooklyn. When the book came out, he read at a bookstore in Park Slope with another poet who I had always admired. I owned her albums and had listened to them over and over in college, stories of being messy and unapologetic and female. In the middle of his reading, he looked up and saw me in the audience and said, “There you are.” He had a snaggle tooth and it looked like a dimple, charming. After the reading, I got to meet the poet. “He likes you,” she told me, leaning in and touching my shoulder briefly before she disappeared into the crowd.
I liked going to these readings with him, finally feeling like I was a part of something. I liked hearing the other poets read their work, feeling the music in my mind. I thought maybe I could do it too.
We didn’t have sex, at least not for a while. I wasn’t physically attracted to him and he was worried about committing the ultimate sin in the rooms of recovery: the thirteenth step, which meant hooking up with a newcomer. He was also concerned about our age difference – he was eighteen years older than me. He never mentioned being concerned with cheating on his wife.
When the sex finally started, he would say things like, “Oh but we mustn’t,” before sticking his hands up my shirt or grabbing my ass. He was into reading the cuckolding porn stories on Literotica.com. I made him cut it out.
During sex I would idly count the strands left on his shiny head and let myself drift. But I loved to see myself through his eyes, young and lovely and dangerous. I did all the things I thought you were supposed to do when you were an older man’s mistress – I put his hand up my skirt in the backseat of a cab, I unzipped his pants while he was on a work call. Being desired was more intoxicating than any drug I had ever tried.
Each time we had sex we would go get a paper cone of fries from the Belgian place on MacDougal Street and find a stoop to sit on and share. The psychic told me I was getting fat. My belly bloomed along with the weather. It was a brilliant May and the trees already dripped heavily with flowers, weeping cherry trees, silky pink dogwood petals, lacy apple blossoms. This was how I imagined love was supposed to feel.
And I did love him. We developed a shorthand, our own language. We shared opinions on the people from our meeting, on sobriety, on God, on the characters from The O.C. We liked to speculate on who was onto us, who might know our secret. He taught me a lot, too, about music and books and words. Information I would tuck inside myself and carry with me for the rest of my life. He reminded me of what it was like to have a best friend when you are small. I was always afraid of losing him, though. I couldn’t go back to my life from before.
In late June, he came over to my apartment in the early evening, a new time for him. He was out of his usual business casual dad outfit and in jeans and a half untucked t-shirt. He looked like a politician who rolled up his sleeves and wore a baseball cap when he had to deliver tragic news.
He wouldn’t sit down and paced figure eights through the tiny studio. I had been working on a poem that I thought might be good, good enough to try at open mic night.
“She’s pregnant,” he said. It took me a minute to figure out who he was talking about. Her existence was never acknowledged, her name was never spoken.
“How could she get pregnant if you don’t have sex anymore?” I asked, at the same time realizing how dumb I had been. How naïve. He’d fed me a lie as old as time.
“We’re going to have it, the kid,” he said. He tried to sound sad but the hint of pride was there, unmistakable. “I’m going to let you go. You’re so young and beautiful. I’m holding you back,” he said, like he was bestowing a blessing.
I couldn’t help it, I cried. It was slow and then it wracked me until I was silent, shoulders shaking. I still smoked, my only vice left, and lit each new Camel Light with the red cherry of the one before. I coughed and I cried and he stood there, with his arms held out at an awkward angle in his ripped jeans and half tucked band t-shirt. The Doc Martens even though it was late June.
“Stop smoking,” he said, gentle. “I don’t want you to catch death,” and he turned around and walked out.
It was the boys’ last week of school and on my final day, their mother asked me to travel with the family for the next three months. I would be their tutor. Show them flashcards on the plane. Have my own room at the hotels. “They refuse to live without you,” she said with a gentle smile and shake of her head. Everything about her was so soft: her blonde waves, her voice, her workout clothes. She was always coming from a massage or going to yoga. Pampered. Like a newborn, padded and protected from the world.
As she spoke, I drifted outside myself but this time it felt okay. From my vantage point up above, I heard the words float by: Monaco, Nice, suite, flight. How easy it would be to slip into this life. I’d sublet my apartment. The next tenant could have the heavy drapes, the glass table. A new person would pass through and let me leave it all behind.