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July 7, 2016 | Nonfiction

Artificial Ecstasy

Mila Jaroniec

Artificial Ecstasy photo

I found out I was pregnant in the bathroom of a wine bar. It was a Thursday and I’d walked there. There are closer bars to my parents’ house, but out of the big football bar with no music and the cabbage-smelling bar for degenerates where only the most degenerate of degenerates go, I chose the two-mile walk through the remains of the soccer field and the gutted shopping plaza to the house-turned-wine bar where the bartender was too stoned to judge me for being there at three p.m. Before that I stopped at the drug store for a pack of gum and a test. The gum was so my mother wouldn’t know I’d been drinking. The test was for my paranoia. Plus it was on sale. I was having pains but maybe the wrong kind and after a summer and half a fall of nothing happening the wind moved the way it moves when something’s about to happen. I felt it on the walk and thought this might be the something.

I ordered a pinot noir and sat in the living room. The afternoon light striped the floor. I took the book out of my bag and opened it on my knee. I was in the middle of Bukowski’s Women.

After the first glass I had to pee enough to take the test so I went to the bathroom and stuck the stick under the stream, then set it down on the sink to marinate. When the plus sign showed up I threw it in the trash. My second glass was waiting for me when I emerged. I drank and picked up the book where I’d left it. People had to find things to do while waiting to die. I read the next line. I guess it was nice to have a choice.

When I finished the glass I walked back to the bathroom and fished the test out. It was one of the ones with a cap on the pee part. I put it in my bag. I paid my tab and sat on the porch for a while, watching the traffic of family cars. I got my last strong coffee on the long walk home.

*

If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen, Bukowski says in Women.

Lars von Trier worries that if he stops drinking, he’ll stop making movies.

There are addicts and then there are addicts: the ones who meet their substance at a young age and mate for life, and passerby depressives who latch onto whatever helps at the time and become addicts by default. A sickness versus a sickness from a sickness. So writes Elizabeth Wurtzel, more or less, in More, Now, Again.

I read this with a death hangover in the summer and felt superior, firmly in the second category.

*

“That’s bullshit,” says the law student with librarian glasses, the too-big plastic kind whose sole purpose is to make unattractive people look interesting. “It’s just another way for society to control women.” She cites an article. “There are no definitive studies that alcohol in moderate amounts is harmful to a fetus.”

“I’m pretty sure there are definitive studies,” says one of the guys in the group. He looks worried, thinking about the possibility of his future child’s mother being one of these dangerously liberated Brooklyn girls.

The other men nod. But we are women and they are men and here their opinions are null. I look at my ex for support, the oldest of the group, the oldest of these girls who wouldn’t be caught dead like me. She knits her eyebrows and shrugs. She doesn’t know. She’s never done it. No one has anything to say about this, this archaic thing I’m doing relegated to masochists, or breeders, boring straight people with nothing to offer the world but their own DNA. As far as they’re concerned, I’ve already written myself off. No one bothers to say congratulations.

I’m tempted to wave my abortion card, tell them I had one when I was younger and not ready, reassure these strangers of my staunch pro-choiceness. Explain that it’s different now, how different it is now. Something that feels like an offering. A change. A sign. A gift.

“Seriously.” The law student pushes her vodka across the table. “It’s okay to have one drink.”

I don’t remember if I laugh in her face or just want to. What am I supposed to do with one drink?

*

You may not feel like yourself, the articles say. I read them standing up at work, collecting change from old women buying cheap melting chocolate. The way old women count their change, like they have all the time in the world. If I were the type to run through the alphabet backwards and forwards I would do that, but I don’t and instead watch their brittle fingers on the pennies, dimes. I get lost in it. Sometimes I try to see if I can hold my breath for that long. I get lightheaded. These old women are great. They don’t give a shit if they’re holding up the line or not. Other people stuff large bills in my hand in a hurry, leaving heavier than they entered.

You may experience symptoms of depression. I skim the list. Fear, anxiety, loneliness, hopelessness, guilt, and so on. Everyday things. I think about people who read this list like a novelty, seeing nausea, blurred vision, tingling sensations, hallucinations, vertigo in place of the others. Out of the ordinary, time to see a doctor. It occurs to me that I don’t know my baseline. I don’t know what I’m like raw. One high school psychiatrist decided, bipolar II. A fancy label like supermarket meat and a course of pills. Nothing fun like the ADHD kids, just drugs for a half-life, good for blinking in a pool of jelly. I entertained them until I got tired of it, metallic nothingness with a pinch of drowsy headache. What was the point of that. If you’re going to feel like that you might as well be dead. I dealt with it until I moved away, until I could be on my own and medicate differently.

Still. The feelings don’t seem healthy for a fetus, no matter how familiar. I read about energy transmission, how infants in utero pick up on their mothers’ feelings, moods. Absorb them like nutrients or environmental toxins. Work them straight into their cells. I picture him floating around in his bag of fluid, twitching with imagined anxieties. There’s no part of me I can hide from my son. It’s all right there in the bloodstream.

*

Dr. K’s office is in a bright blue house in a nice neighborhood, another one of those houses-turned-something else. This one has a whole menu of overpriced alt-medical services. I sit in the waiting room across from an oxygen treatment body bag and think of things to say. What brings me in today. It feels like the time I was in the ER with a post-abortion fever, slowly going blue. By the time they got to me four hours later I’d taken a Motrin and felt better. They didn’t know what to do. I got a routine exam and a shot of morphine for my trouble, then walked home. Patient faced with the possibility of treatment exhibits ability to heal herself.

Dr. K appears in the hall and asks me into the room. She’s older, put together. Cream sweater, riding boots, yoga body. I pull my hoodie down over my stomach, wondering if everyone dresses as bad as they feel. Not fat, just pregnant, I feel the urge to explain, though I know what saying that would say about me. It’s a first date without cocktails. What brings you in today? I’m prepared.

Burnout. Breakdown. Exhaustion. New York an inhospitable environment, me losing the will to adapt. Anxiety. Fear. Paranoia. Every man on the street a rapist, every noise someone else breaking in. Heartbreak. Stalemate. Insane demonstrations. Barefoot drunk crying walking the streets. White candles and a name on the paper. The smoke in my room. The flames on the bed.

Then escape, the end of it. An aggressive refusal to engage. A move to the place I disappear, to drink in the porchlight counting the fireflies. No money, no charge, no ambition. Blank sky and all the time in the world. Loneliness, the right kind of loneliness. Empty pages filling, relearning myself. Loneliness, the wrong kind of loneliness. A second heart. The thunder silence.

I trail off somewhere here, watching Dr. K conclude her final scribbles. The air in the room is thick like the hush after a detonation. Something settles over me.

Well, Dr. K says. 

Either I don’t know how to talk or she doesn’t know how to listen, because somehow it turns out that the problem is my mother. Dr. K recommends a faith-based book on boundaries. I quit after the first session.

*

According to ancient ayurveda, cravings are the murmurs of the second heart. Instead of trying to wrangle them into submission, one should honor them, one should listen. None of this western, organic throw-cacao-nibs-in-your-green-smoothie instead of having the chocolate you want and call it a damn day. You can’t fool the heart. No one talks about this.

The fact that there is, inside, a second heart.

They talk about stretch marks and back pain. They talk about post-baby bodies, financial planning, the minor horror of shitting yourself on the delivery table. They talk about registries and cord blood and sleep training, breast versus formula, as if it were a debate. They don’t talk about how close life and death are. How birth is the emergence of a soul from the other side, the infinite side, screamed into being through the temporal body. They don’t talk about the weight of it. How the journey to birth is a kind of death too.

We’re so unprepared.

I learn he likes Pop Tarts, for some reason, and coconut water. He likes fruit and ice, all things cold and sweet, and has an aversion to hummus, much to my dismay. He doesn’t sleep at night but he behaves when I’m working, doesn’t make his jabs too rough. From the way he kicks to the music I know he knows his father’s voice. This is what I know about my son so far.

I click out of the articles. The cursor blinks. I watch my stomach move in alien waves. I say his name. Sometimes it makes me feel better. Sometimes it feels like I’m talking to myself.

*

Everyone is loud, louder than they need to be. The band is loud to make up for being bad. The basement bar smells more like piss than usual and I wonder if it’s always smelled this way or if the hormones, the chemical batteries are just making me sharper. I read somewhere how what seem to be occult powers, psychic sensibilities, are just results of cosmic extrasensitivity. Some people are built to feel more than others, manifesting in the ability to detect the stirrings of the universe, read the signs in soft shifts. A worldly connection deep enough to be otherworldly. Pregnancy makes it especially strong. I’ve read about dream prophets, pregnant women who’ve helped themselves and others avoid disaster by tapping into their second sight. Out of all these potential gifts I’ve become extrasensitive to piss. I make my way down the stairs and locate J behind the sound booth. He kisses me, asks what I’d like to drink. I say, Vodka. He laughs and goes behind the bar to pour me some water. Same color, he says, handing me the glass.

What do sober people do in bars? I’ve always wondered. Not the ones who end up there by accident, dragged along to a work party or to see a friend’s band, but the ones who make it a point to go. Sipping on soda, nodding to something they didn’t quite hear, never laughing as hard as everyone else. Quiet in the soup of artificial ecstasy. Maybe they can’t stand to be alone, filling themselves with anyone, anything to avoid the living room silence. Or maybe they go to be alone, to examine their loneliness. Feel out its edges. In the middle of everyone and locked in their heads, like anyone else on the road to blackout.

Nothing’s changed about me.

The band finishes and dismantles and is replaced by a different band with the same sound, a sound like unattended machinery. Uninspired. It makes me angry. I wonder how many people drink to make the bands sound good. Probably everyone. I do. But I can’t drink so instead I think about what these guys will be doing once they stop wasting their time.

The guitarist is all impotent rage on perceived injury. He aggravates the strings. I read middle management for him, then termination. Maybe some low-key assault charges. The world is against him but he doesn’t know how to stick it to the world. The drummer is perfect and controlled, executing the rhythm. He’ll end up in construction, something solid and planned that requires his body. Something he’ll feel productive doing. He’ll like it more than this. The bassist is in the shadows, fully embracing the stereotype of being the bassist. Bad weed and inane status updates, not much more in the cards than that. The lead singer shrinks and swells, the same back-and-forth step, his face running off with the crests of the song. He’ll die without figuring himself out, but unlike the bassist, he won’t be okay with it.

And me. Shifting from foot to foot, popping out one hip then the other, massaging my sacrum with my waterless hand. Maneuvering my stomach out of the way, even though I’m not big yet, trying to be as small as possible, lest anyone notice, lest anyone ask. I sip the water and ask for another, continuously, obsessively, the way I’d drink and smoke to fill my hands and mouth in ways that weren’t touch or talk. Honey, when I’m sober I’m busy, my oldest friend used to say, turning down daytime sex. It’s true. I look at the girls at the bar, straps off their shoulders, cheeks lit with whiskey flush. How many of them would be home working on art projects or dissertations if someone told them they couldn’t drink? Good point. So what am I doing here?

The CDC recommends no drinking for women of childbearing age, worried we might snap some crucial link too early. Huge internet uproar. But how do they want us to get pregnant, I’m curious to know. I think about Puritan procreation, two chilly bodies and a hole in the sheet.

*

My belly pushes against my thighs as I lean forward in the chair, full. The same sentence for the past thirty minutes. I stare at the page. I don’t want to throw out the draft because the draft is a fledgling thing like the body inside me and like the body it needs work and room and those things take time and this is me learning time, time to listen, time to feed what makes me uncomfortable, guide it to final form without imposing my will.

Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now, says Hemingway to make me feel better, but I don’t think it gets easier. I don’t think it’s supposed to. The first book is the hardest, they say. Write that, write another, until you run out of words or die. Have one baby, have another. The first one is the hardest. Sure. But people are like books and books are like people, if they’re real books they’re real people in that no two have the same formula and I’m in the dark again.

One month to close out affairs with my Before self before I pin her hair with flowers and send her down the river.

Too grim, too serious, Bukowski says of Hemingway. A good writer, fine sentences. But for him, life was always total war. He never let go, he never danced.

No time. Doesn’t matter.

My After self will learn. Coping strategies, time pockets, how to move through a day without losing anything important. Openness, elasticity, softening to everything. Learning to live again. I’ve read about it. How the journey to birth is a resurrection too.

My After self will know. The second heart will teach me.

I have all the time in the world.

image: Carabella Sands


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