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The Alcoholic Babysitter photo

Linzi was trying to edit a short story about staying with her parents during the pandemic. The story was mostly about how she was suffering from a severe bout of adult acne, driving in secret to the local vodka distillery and then hiking drunk on trails, jobless and prone to explosive fights with her mom in whose eyes she saw her own feelings of hopelessness. The story, Linzi felt, was getting worse and worse the more she tried to edit it.

She was staying in a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights with five floors, catsitting. As she worked on the story, a sense of doom gurgled out of her core and flitted nervously into her extremities. Instead of taking the Klonopin she’d seen in the medicine cabinet, she pulled what appeared to be an old, forgotten bottle of champagne out of the wine refrigerator and poured herself a glass. Realizing it was almost time to leave for work, she impulsively poured the rest of the bottle in the thermos she usually brought tea or coffee in to stave off the cold of the park.

Her job was to pick up children from the public schools around Prospect Park and shepherd them along trails and across fields to spots her boss had given cute names like Fallen Tree Castle and Turtle Lookout, where the kids were let loose within defined boundaries, in which they set up bakeries selling mud pies and foraged for sticks that resembled rifles. It was, to Linzi, a dream job, even in the dead of winter. As it grew dark Linzi and her coworkers would stretch elastic bands fitted with lamps over the kids’ small heads and march them back to the pickup spot where their parents would hold their cold bodies close, chastising them for not wearing all the many layers packed in their backpacks, shooting accusatory glances in the direction of Linzi and her coworkers.

Linzi biked to pick up her assigned kids, brought them to the park, and did her job as normal, she thought, drinking the old champagne, telling herself it probably smelled the same as the kombucha she sometimes brought. She’d been reading up on Wim Hof, the extreme athlete turned ‘global health leader,’ psyching herself up to reap the mental and physical benefits of braving the increasing cold each afternoon, but it was an especially cold day, and the champagne felt warm in her belly.

After the parents came and went, and she greeted her two coworkers goodbye—her boss Tove was out sick that day—one of her coworkers stopped her at the exit to the park.
“Linzi, is everything okay?” she asked, brow furrowed.
“Yeah, why?” Linzi said.
“Have you been drinking?” she asked.
“A little, oh no, is it obvious?” Linzi said, cheeks reddening.
“Yeah, I mean I could smell it, and you were talking to parents, I think you should call Tove, I mean I’m going to have to tell her,” she said.
“Oh man, I’m really sorry, this isn’t something I’d normally do, if there’s any way you can give me a chance, I promise it won’t happen again…” she fumbled.
“Really? Because there were other days I wondered, but I thought maybe you were just tired,” her coworker said. Linzi was surprised. Had she been to work drunk before? She had certainly been there tired. It was funny because there were times she had noticed this very coworker appearing greatly fatigued, watching the kids with little engagement, and Linzi had wondered if she was hungover.

Linzi didn’t know what to say. She walked to her bike, tears streaming down her face. She didn’t call Tove. She went back to the catsitting spot and gorged on pretzels, watched TV, sexted with a man in another country, went to sleep.

When her boss called the next morning, Linzi barely let her talk before starting in on a long monologue about how she knew it was stupid, she hardly drank anymore, she must not have realized how low her tolerance was, she would never, ever do it again. But her boss said because she hadn’t been there, she didn’t know to what degree Linzi had endangered the program, if parents had smelled it on her, or noticed her swaying. She couldn’t take any chances. That was it.

Linzi hung up the phone and sank into the couch, bawling. She thought about how, when she’d told a friend about all the random cat and dogsitting gigs she’d been getting around Brooklyn in nice apartments, her friend had said, ‘You’re attracting this shit, it’s your karma.’

And now Linzi had lost her dream job, thanks to that same karma. She texted her friend Paloma: “just got fired.” Paloma called her almost immediately. Paloma’s father was an alcoholic. Paloma herself had never had alcohol. She was seemingly always ready to be there for her friends. She was never, like Linzi, too stoned out of her mind, too wrapped up in her own drama.

“Maybe,” Paloma said, “there is some part of you that didn’t want the job. That sabotaged it on purpose.” Paloma was a student of shamanism, a careful explorer of her own inner worlds, and believed in communicating with the characters she found there, whether they were unhealed inner children, ancestral ghosts, or demons formed from the muck of cultural pressure.

“Or maybe I really did want it and I just sabotaged myself for no reason,” Linzi said. Linzi was ambivalent about the concept of employment, but she enjoyed bringing city children into the park so they could act feral.

“Well then just remember: you’re a good person who did something stupid,” Paloma said. Linzi thought back to all her old babysitting jobs, the times she had smoked weed from a one-hitter in the bathroom, or gone to the grocery store to buy hard cider and pour it in her thermos in the Chelsea Piers bathroom while a kid was at soccer practice.

Since her schedule had been cleared for the day, Linzi got back in bed for a depression nap. She slept two hours, dreaming vividly that several different people were flirting with her in unique ways, including an old lady who looked like her deceased grandma, who in the dream she was intrigued by, and who, in the dream, she had contemplated bragging about on Twitter.

She sat on the couch with her laptop propped on a pillow and looked at her short story again. There was a part in it where Linzi’s protagonist was fighting with her mom in the kitchen, and her mom was nagging her in a shrill voice, and she shouted at her mom, “You’re the cause of my acne!” And her mom shot back, “Oh please, seriously Linzi?!” and Linzi's protagonist screamed like a banshee. Her protagonist imagined that in that moment her deceased grandma might have been there, observing how her own failure to love her daughter—Linzi’s mom—was reverberating down the generations. Then Linzi’s character said, “Maybe I’ll just take a vow of silence.” And her mom replied, “If that’s what you want to do.” The story was supposed to be about Linzi discovering writing as a way to cope with life, since drugs, alcohol, socializing, meditation, everything else hadn’t worked. But now, the bad feelings that were shaken up by working on her writing had led to her drinking, which had led to her losing her dream job.

She remembered what Paloma had said, that maybe she’d sabotaged it on purpose. She thought of the faces of all the cute kids she’d never see again and felt her heart panging. If a part of her had wanted out, where did it come from, and why? She typed these thoughts, staring at the screen, eyes unfocusing. She closed her eyes. But she didn’t know how to find the unhealed parts of herself inside, like Paloma did. She noticed her stomach gurgling from the saltines and salsa she’d inhaled when she woke up from her nap. And her thumb throbbing where she’d cut it while slicing bread the previous day before work, before she was even drunk. She breathed deeply and saw an image of the naughtiest kids in the afterschool program laughing at her. This job had taught her that her command of children wasn’t as great as she’d imagined. She’d noticed how her boss could effortlessly wrangle and engage them, dispel their mischievous smiles and get them in line in an instant even when they’d just been in the throes of ecstatic troublemaking. Linzi was the one they confided in when they were worried about forgetting their lines in the school play, or humiliated by a joke another kid had made at their expense. But when she conjured her most disciplinary voice in moments of chaos, the kids ignored her.

So maybe this wasn’t her dream job after all. Maybe it was too much power. She had tried to climb the corporate ladder of childcare, and landed back down at the bottom, where she belonged. She remembered her last babysitting job, for two sisters she’d met through the afterschool program. As Linzi turned out the light in their bedroom, the older sister, a 9 year old, had said, "You’re a great babysitter Linzi. Love you." Sure, maybe over the course of her babysitting career Linzi had used substances in the bathroom, but at the time she thought she’d been doing it to be in a better mood, to make her a better babysitter. She’d never seriously endangered the life of a child.

She opened her eyes and closed her laptop. She pulled a book off the coffee table, sent to her by the man in another country she’d been sexting. This man was a recovered alcoholic himself, and even though his father had just died, he, like Paloma, was at the ready to listen to Linzi, to read the story she was working on, to urge her to make it clear, in the story, that the Linzi character was at rock bottom. Linzi felt grateful for the kindness of the people who cared about her. She looked at the book. It was called The Clown and it was, according to the back of the book, about a man who has "hit rock bottom as the novel opens: returned to his Bonn apartment after a disastrous, drunken performance…" Linzi smiled.

The next day Linzi felt anemic all morning. She made chicken and mushrooms for lunch and felt sick and lay down for a nap before realizing, jolting out of bed, that she had to pick up her friend's kid from school in Ridgewood and walk him to his indoor rock climbing class in Bushwick. She felt like she was going to faint from jumping out of bed too quickly. She thought maybe it had something to do with blood sugar so she ate some dried cranberries; it didn't help. She started biking. She had just enough time to stop and buy cigarettes.

She and the kid walked to Dunkin Donuts; he got a Boston cream and she got an almond milk macchiato. This was a quiet kid, and she wondered if she took advantage of his comfort with silence, reveled in it even—if she should be trying to engage him more, or if the silence just pleased them both. She got her period in the Dunkin Donuts bathroom, made a makeshift pad out of toilet paper and put it in her panties. She took a stone-faced selfie in the bathroom mirror; later when she was showing the kid pictures of cats on her phone she was afraid he had scrolled forward to her selfie for a second, and she reached for her phone, but he had scrolled in the other direction, to a picture of kids in the park.

She walked to the free store nearby, a little shack on a corner where people left things for others to take. It was overflowing with messy piles of books, so she organized them, and hung the clothing donations on hangers. She felt calmer.

Linzi walked back to her apartment in Ridgewood to scrounge for food. She ate tuna salad on an apple with nutritional yeast, hoping the vitamin B12 was good somehow, and felt sick again. She hit her roommate's weed vape pen and immediately felt anxious. She lay in bed on her stomach, heart racing, and distracted herself by typing on her phone about her day.

As she typed about her friend’s kid looking through her phone, Linzi grew curious about what picture he’d seen. She looked through the few preceding pictures, and they were all badly framed, blurry shots of the day she'd gone to work drinking. She didn’t remember taking them at all. She felt her heart beating in her chest, and took some deep breaths.

Linzi got out of bed and went to the kitchen to talk to Nelle, her roommate. Nelle didn't understand why Linzi thought she could drink a whole bottle of champagne and be fine. "It had a low alcohol content, like 10, 11 percent," Linzi protested. She realized she’d been drinking with the confidence and abandon of a past self, one who could drink a lot and be fine, but she no longer had the tolerance of that past self. Like a relapse, Linzi realized.

She decided to go back to the catsitting spot and trip on the rest of her mushroom stash. She wanted to ask the mushrooms how to overcome addiction.

On the train Linzi saw Paloma had emailed her thoughts on the draft she'd sent her of a new story she'd begun writing the previous night, about being fired. Paloma said it was a big deal for people to admit being an alcoholic, some took lifetimes, and the story could be about that, or "it could be about someone realizing she's not really an alcoholic, she made a mistake. Plus it's fictional, right? So you could choose to call it 'The Alcoholic Babysitter' and make it about that."

When she got back to the catsitting spot Linzi felt worried the mushrooms would suspect her of using them just to make her story better, that she wouldn’t really be using them to heal. She decided to show them she was serious by getting a good night’s sleep and taking them the next day. But she accidentally stayed up too late eating pretzels and watching the TV show Bachelor in Paradise, because the show kept seducing her to keep watching, promising the payoff of a hot jock’s humiliation. When the moment came, and he was confronted with the specter of an unrequited lost love, the jock broke down in tears, the camera close on his face as he said, “I always try to be perfect and strong. I never let anyone see me. I can’t do it anymore.”

The next morning Linzi woke up early, wide awake despite sleeping five hours. She decided she would fast on black coffee and cigarettes for the day until she was ready to take the mushrooms. This made it feel more ceremonial.

As she showered, Linzi was in a surprisingly good mood. She reflected on the question she wanted to ask the mushrooms, about how to overcome addiction. Now it seemed overly ambitious and melodramatic. In the past, when her hippie friends had emphasized the importance of going into a psychedelic journey with intention, Linzi had internally rolled her eyes. She thought they were doing this more out of fear than out of some deep respect for the mushrooms. If she deeply respected them, why would she deign to let her small human brain—as opposed to the giant brain that was the Earth’s underground fungal network—determine the purpose of her trip? She preferred to let the mushrooms take the reins. But maybe that was part of her problem as a person: letting substances take the reins.

When the time came, she pulled them out. She had two or so grams left, in the form of two cute little mushrooms, curling into each other like friends. She chewed them as much as she could, trying not to breathe in or out to avoid the taste, and washed them down with a ginger beer she found in the fridge.

It was 2:45 pm. Linzi decided to try meditating. As she sat, she felt her body parts growing more viscerally real to her. She instinctively stretched her torso in different directions, moved her jaw around and scrunched her lips from side to side.

There was a weird-looking young man standing on the steps of the townhouse across the way, and she thought he could see her through the bay windows, so she moved away from them, annoyed.

The feelings inside were getting intense. She decided to do some yoga. But as soon as she stood up and stretched her arms she felt a strong urge to curl into a tiny ball. So as a compromise she lay on her back on the area rug, and stuck her legs in the air.

She became transfixed by the light fixture. It seemed like a portal straight up to the sun. Maybe this is stupid, she thought. I could be reading a book.

Linzi sat up and focused on her breath as the room increased its wiggling. She again fought the urge to curl up into the fetal position. She pulled her laptop off the couch and typed what was happening.

It seemed like a spirit was running through everything, having sex with itself. It wasn’t one spirit, but it wasn’t multiple either. It was indifferent to her efforts to describe it. One of the cats came over, meowing at her, so she petted it.

The spirit was having sex with itself harder, through everything, through her, even through the cat, who was now sitting calmly beside Linzi under the coffee table.

She closed her eyes and asked: How can I overcome addiction? But the spirit just kept having sex with itself; it didn’t care what Linzi did. So Linzi got in the yoga pose known as ‘child’s pose’ and breathed. It was 3:33 pm. The cat lay against her, purring. She sat up, wanting to escape the spirit somehow, the discomfort of its presence, but she knew there was no escaping it.

She lay facedown on the floor. She felt her pussy awakening, and started flexing her muscles. She went upstairs to the master bedroom and got in bed, pulling the covers over her head with a sense of dread. But as she started fingering herself goallessly she started laughing, thinking, I just have to stay here and fuck God until it wears off, then I can finally go outside and give God a proper blowjob by smoking a cigarette. It felt like the mushrooms were trying to show her how to relax into a state of pleasure without focusing on a release. The planes of her body, the room, the visions behind her eyes, they all seemed to intersect each other. But through it all, she kept thinking, I'm so excited for this to be over so I can go smoke a cigarette. She tried to sit up a few times, but the force was still moving through her, so she laid back down.

One of the cats was cawing at her in frustration. She got up and went down two flights of stairs to give it some wet food, before realizing it hadn't followed her down, but the other cat was there, waiting. She put her coat on and went outside to smoke her cigarette. It didn’t feel like giving God a blow job. As the sky grew black she stared at the pattern of fallen leaves and wet stains of rain drying on the stone patio, almost fooling herself into believing that if she took a picture, the psychedelic beauty would still be there in the morning.

She sat on the stone steps. As she finished her cigarette she realized the key to overcoming addiction had already been shown to her. It was in the eyes of her former coworker boring into hers, concerned and disappointed.

It was 5:04 pm. Linzi went back inside and sat on the couch with her bag of pretzels, feeling the weirdness fade. She pulled a pretzel out of the bag and stared at it in the palm of her hand. It looked like a snake hugging itself. She whispered "thank you" to the pretzel and ate it.


image: Katie Frank