ON TIME CAPSULES
My mother mailed me a package a few weeks ago. The contents of which contained:
Onboarding paperwork from my internship at the Art Institute of Chicago (complete with clipart and a page devoted to sexual harassment in the workplace).
A half-read copy of Seven Days in the Art World
A nearly completed copy of The Art of Happiness with a $2,000 invoice for therapy sessions from 2012.
A framed photograph of me receiving my high school diploma in 2006.
A tiny little book about The Beatles, so small it can fit into the palm of my hand.
A packet of places to stay and things I would be doing in Italy while studying abroad, painstakingly printed and bound for me.
An unfinished sketchbook I had begun and abandoned in middle school.
A VHS tape of Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters.
A binder containing the research and materials associated with the only documentary film I ever created, telling the story of a WWII veteran who was a close friend of our family.
A box of shortbread mix from Trader Joe’s (for good measure).
As I excavated the box, it was as if I were unpacking one of Andy Warhol’s time capsules, complete with questionable and perishable items. I flipped through the battered copy of The Art of Happiness knowing exactly where I had last seen it, where I was in my life at that moment in time. It had been left in the bathroom of my parent’s townhouse in the South Loop. On a cabinet nearby the tub. I had been reading it just before my mother packed up her half of their shared life, and moved across the country - a bold and brave move that confused me at the time.
My parents had separated the year prior. I was 24. I had moved out of their place and was living in a three-bedroom shithole (actual word for this place) in Logan Square. My room was the size of my bed and a bedside table. The walls were oddly finished in stucco, I had them painted an institutional mint green, which was called something like “juicy sea green.” The room was not a room for living in, truly. It was under the staircase that led to the second floor apartment, with a slanted ceiling that only a person who is 4’11” could attempt to inhabit. The building was practically beneath the Blue Line train. Between the abrasive sound of feet running up and down the stairs above my bed and the near-constant rumbling and scraping of the train, I refer to the year that I lived in this apartment as “The Year That I Lost My Mind.” I didn’t sleep a full night through during the entire time my name was on that lease.
I was dating a man who had moved from Los Angeles to be with me. We had met only once before he relocated. That is because we met online. Not on an online dating app, or in a chat room, but through a pen pal I found through my blog in high school. We became Facebook friends before Facebook friends were a thing, and began “poking” each other for the next five years, until I mustered up the courage to ask why. We began texting, innocently. Then we began to speak on the phone. He was part of the Program. He had been sober for almost a year. I had been questioning my own relationship to alcohol at the time, and found the way he spoke about the meetings, the rooms, his sponsor, his will power, the higher power, all so enigmatic and inviting. I wanted to meet him. Against his sponsor’s wishes, I bought him a ticket to Chicago, and for two days we chain smoked on my parent’s balcony, slept together, went to my favorite museum, and took long walks around the South Loop.
I went to my first AA Meeting that weekend. It was a closed meeting - a meeting only for those in recovery. We didn’t realize it was a closed meeting until the door had been shut. I sat in the circle, gritting my teeth, sweating profusely, terrified that I would be outed for not being an alcoholic. There were only a few people in the room, and inevitably I was called upon to speak. Rather than back down, I found myself saying the words, “I’m Sandy, and I’m an alcoholic.” To my surprise, the room responded, “Hi, Sandy.” I stumbled through a story of binge drinking in college, of waking up tangling in sheets in dormitories I didn’t remember going to the night before. I spoke of Italy, of wine, of the trouble I got into as soon as the glass touched my lips. Of my awareness of my problem, of my need for redemption, and my want to change.
I stopped drinking that weekend. We said I love you for the first time, too.
A month later, I would fly to Los Angeles, spending Thanksgiving with him and his Hollywood family. His mother was an advertising executive, his father an Oscar-winning special-effects-artist-turned-screenwriter, his brother a successful musician in a band that had just sold one of their songs to a car commercial. His aunt and uncle hosted, their neighbor was Cheri Oteri - you know, from SNL? The food was all underseasoned, low-fat no-fat butter substitute, an LA approach to the Thanksgiving spread. I recall searching earnestly for salt and finding none on the table. All I remember of that weekend is spending most of it in his bed, asking him to photograph the tattoo on my shoulder, and being convinced by him that we didn’t need to use condoms because I was on birth control and he was my boyfriend.
A month later I offered to buy him a one-way ticket to Chicago. I worked it out with my mother that he would live in my attic bedroom at my parent’s house, until he found a job and a place to live. I was 23. I did not know how crazy it sounded to bring a recovering alcoholic, with no job prospects, no savings, and no plan, to live with me. He didn’t own a coat or boots, a hat or gloves. He had never really experienced winter. He didn’t have a college degree. I do not know the last job he held. He promised me he would make this work, that this was his second chance. I believed him, I wanted this. I wanted us and a future. I would do everything it took to be with him. I would be sober, too. I would go to meetings. I would read the Big Book. I would go to Al Anon meetings. I would transform, I would care for him, we would make a life of this, together.
What it was, was the beginning of one of the hardest years of my life. Yo-yoing from my apartment in Logan Square to my parent’s house to check in on him. Sending him job postings he would never apply for. Buying food for the both of us with a paycheck that was below living wage. I blew through my savings in a matter of months. The first time I left him alone in the city, he relapsed and went off of his meds. I received an alarming text from him while at a family event across the country. He had raided my mother’s medicine cabinet and liquor cabinet. He had stopped taking pills for his bipolar and mood disorders. I didn’t recognize the person I spoke to on the phone when I called and pleaded for him to stop. To stop drinking, to find help, to wait until I got home.
I told no one. Not even my parents. On the four hour flight home, the forced radio silence unraveled me. I silently wept into my hand and tried my best to look out of the window, calm and collected. I was anything but. When I arrived at home, he told me he was having suicidal ideations. I got him into the car, I took him to the hospital. I called my parents and told them where I was. The hospital put him back onto his meds, he promised to take them. He promised to go to meetings. He promised to find a job. We were 23, we were desperately attached, we were in love, we were in way over our head.
My parents kicked him out after that incident. He moved into a halfway home. We were not allowed to see each other for more than an hour at a time. We were not allowed to spend the night together, because he hadn’t earned the privilege of an occasional night away from the house. That was something you needed to accrue. He moved into an apartment briefly, sleeping on a pile of mattress foam and second-hand sheets. He didn’t understand me when I said that this was not a bed, and was hurt when I told him I would not spend the night in that heap with him. Eventually, that housing situation fell apart and he moved into another halfway house.
I started to read self-help books around this time. I picked up a copy of The Art of Happiness at Half Price Books, hoping it would contain the answers to my questions about how to be happy in this life. How not to spend most nights alone in my bed crying. How my early 20s could be so hard, even though I had the job I wanted and friends I loved. I felt the stucco walls caving in around me. I upped my therapy to twice a week. I started going to the movies alone, to lose myself in something so disconnected from this reality. I went to a screening of Singin’ In the Rain and sang along in the theater. Letting Debbie Reynolds’ Dream of You carry me sweetly into the night. All technicolor, girls in cakes, flapper dresses, and perfect curls. A world in which the girl always gets the guy, and the guy happens to be an incredible tap dancer and comedian, with a chiseled jaw, a job and a place to live, and could handle his liquor.
A friend visited around this time, and I filled her in on what was happening around me. How my life felt like it was falling apart. “You and me,” she said, “We have what I call June Carter-syndrome. We find our Johnny Cash’s and we love them, and we take care of them, and we want to fix them. But at some point, we need to do what’s right for ourselves.” I couldn’t listen to Johnny Cash for months, but I knew she was right. There’s a reason they tell you when the airplane is going down to put the mask on yourself first. Always save yourself.
We reached a breaking point that summer. He was kicked out of another halfway house, and was temporarily homeless. It was in the 90s most days, so I let him sleep in my bed during the day nearby my used air conditioning unit. I received a text from my roommate, “Does your boyfriend live with us now?” and I knew that I needed to let him go. To send him packing. He bounced around, living in parts of the city I had never been too. At one point, he lived in a spartan bedroom of a much older man who identified as South Side Irish. It took me an hour to drive there across the city, and we couldn’t sit in his room because it was infested with bed bugs. His arms and legs were pocked with bumps and bites that bled and itched. We drove around in my car, listening to the radio stopping for fast food before I would return him to the apartment.
My roommates had reached a breaking point, too. This behavior, this bringing a stranger into our home, this not communicating. We would get into roiling raging fights. I would scream at them that I was trying to do better, that I was miserable, that I didn’t know what to do. I was so sorry, so confused. I wound up moving out. I was mortified to have been seen so low, so embarrassed by my behavior that I packed my things when they weren’t home. Slowly moving to my studio across the city over the course of a month.
In November, I had saved enough money to buy him a return ticket to California. He packed what few items he still had, most of it he had lost along the way in halfway homes and scattered apartments. I dropped him off at curbside check-in, we hugged. We kissed one final time. He turned to leave, the hood of his coat bobbing, as he dragged his half empty suitcase behind him. It was the last time we saw each other, the last time I heard his voice or smelled his smell.
All this, came flooding back, the moment I picked up that shabby book about finding your inner happiness, bookmarked with a therapy bill. A book about being content with what you have, not wanting what you don’t have. A time capsule is an incredible thing, a portal as Patti Smith calls it, magical thinking to Joan Didion. That a simple object has the ability to transport me from my quiet safe apartment in Cleveland Park, five-years in the future, to a time when I couldn’t see past my own small drama, my fear of the unknown. A time when all we had were problems far too big for just a couple of lonely kids who found each other on the Internet.