I lived on the fourth floor of a former residential hotel that had been constructed cheaply and hastily after one war or another to house a sudden influx of immigrants willing to live anywhere. The stairwell was a trembling shell of flaking plaster, a fragile husk my mounting or descending tread always threatened to implode and send sliding into a pile of rubble in the basement. The stairs sagged in the middle, eroded like bars of soap. The plaster curlicues in the upper corners of each landing had been reduced by attrition to sad grayish ridges, more fungal growths than embellishments. There was an elevator, but it was a scary, creaky old box, splitting at the seams and frayed at the cables, whose upward speed was slower than climbing on foot.
When I opened my door and turned on the overhead light I got a brief impression of vanishing movement, the usual squadron of cockroaches sliding into hairline cracks in the kitchen wall. Seven years in this tiny room with these creatures had dulled my squeamish loathing of them. I still set out Combat disks every few months, but this was more out of habit than any expectation that they'd die out. We'd struck a kind of deal: they roamed at will through my apartment all day, but skedaddled the instant I came home. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, they depended on manna from the sky and the whims of an incomprehensibly larger being who could squash them underfoot if they got out of line. A cross-section cutaway of my wall would have revealed a seething, lustrous blanket of generations upon generations living out their lives in this wall without any awareness that beyond it lay streets, sky, light, trees, countless other walls and worlds like theirs.
My kitchen was wedged into the entryway next to the coat closet. It consisted of a waist-high refrigerator with a tiny stainless-steel sink and two burner coils built into its top. Affixed to the wall above this contraption was an old metal cabinet that held plates, bowls, cups, a can of coffee, a three-year-old box of cornflakes, nearly half a bottle of vodka and a box of sugar. I filled the kettle and turned a burner to High. As the coil heated, a stray roach, senile or stupid, came twitching its antennae slowly along the wall. I considered its shiny, flat, greasy shell, the obscene way its feet adhered effortlessly to the vertical surface. It wasn't strictly an insect the way ants or bees were insects: it had no charm, no organization, no industry, no purpose whatsoever except to repulse everyone who saw it. Even a mosquito was preferable to this vile machine; even a fly. No worthwhile species cannibalized its dead, ate its own excrement, exuded oily fluid so it could slither through a crack as narrow as paper. Their lives were myopic, disorderly, without the least affiliation to the natural world or progress or any aspiration at all beyond fulfilling their appetites. I reached down and removed a shoe and took aim. It slammed against the wall and the roach fell dead behind the refrigerator. This brought scant satisfaction, since its corpse would only provide food for the others and enable them to hatch plenty more just like it. I put my shoe back on, washed my hands, then measured several scoops of coffee into the aluminum pot. I took the milk carton out of the refrigerator and sniffed it; the milk was still good, even though the expiration date was yesterday. This gave me a greater pleasure than killing the roach had, but it was of the same low-life caliber.
"Delilah," I called. I had a cat, ostensibly. I'd got her two years ago as a kitten, a cute little tabby I'd hoped would shudder with affectionate purrs on the pillow by my head at night. But she immediately fled under the bed when I brought her home, and stayed there. I knew she was still alive because her cat box always had one neat, litter-coated turd in it when I got home, and her food and water disappeared at a rate I couldn't attribute to the cockroaches; also, once in a great while, when I'd been sitting very still for a long time, one gray paw protruded warily from under the bed, testing the air currents; as soon as I exhaled or moved even slightly, the paw was retracted. I longed to have her curl in my lap and bat playfully at my book like other people's cats, but it did seem fitting, in a grim, black-humor sort of way, that my cat avoided me even though I was the only game in town.
While the kettle began to shudder like a stationary revved-up engine, I paced around. My room was ten by fourteen, total square footage one hundred and forty. I had become as inured to the limits of my principality as I was to its vermin population; its crowded desolation was a comfortably accurate reflection of my internal state. Any opulence or decorative strategy would have required a concomitant upgrading of my inner landscape, and this wasn't something I felt I could do right now. Next to the bed were a table and chair, a dusty armchair squatting under a standing lamp, and a bookshelf containing a thesaurus whose cover had fallen off, the paperback poetry anthologies left over from college English classes and one hardcover book consisting of my prose and Jackie's name and photo. My tiny closet was a black hole into which clothes were sucked and never seen clean or whole again.
I snapped on the radio. I had set it the day before on a salsa station; music came ratcheting out at me, furious and festive. I turned up the volume and sashayed, one hand on my stomach, the other in midair, three mincing little steps east, three west, five over to the stove, where steam was coursing from the kettle's spout and quite possibly making it whistle, although I couldn't hear it over the music. I poured the water into the top compartment of the coffeepot, then turned the radio down so I could hear it dripping through. The sound reminded me of the trickle of a stream, rain on leaves.
I brought my coffee cup over to my desk and topped it off with a dollop of vodka. I downed half of this weird but bracing mixture before I went through my mail, which had been accumulating, ignored, on my table for the last week or two. Month or two, really. My own mail was easier to sort than Jackie's, consisting as it did entirely of computer-generated warnings from Visa, another Visa, Sallie Mae, a third Visa, NYNEX, Con Edison, and so on. I couldn't pay them. And I owed the IRS countless thousands of dollars more, since Jackie didn't withhold anything from my paychecks. I'd had no contact with them since I'd started working for her. By informing them of the amount I owed, I'd only cause them to expend a lot of trouble and postage to no avail. I didn't have any money to give them. Even my bank overdraft was tapped out.
These things were clear enough; what confounded me was why. Where did my money go? It seemed to have a leaching-away quality that other people's money didn't have. When I deposited my weekly paycheck in the bank it dribbled out like water from a leaking barrel. No, this wasn't strictly true; I myself withdrew it in forty- and sixty-dollar increments, and spent it on rounds of drinks, takeout dinners, taxis home from the East Village. When I'd started working for Jackie, my debts immediately spiraled out of control, and I made no effort to rein myself in: my spending habits, which had been profligate before, became suicidally self-destructive. I took taxis to work if I overslept; if I didn't get around to dropping off my laundry at the corner Chinese place (another new luxury I allowed myself), I would charge clothes on my own Bloomie's card when I ran errands for Jackie. When Jackie gave me two weeks off in July, I treated my friend Frieda to a vacation in Mexico, including airfare. I was acting according to an intuitive conviction that better, richer days were just around the corner. I had got a taste of the high life, I spent every weekday in direct contact with it; some of it would eventually rub off on me, it had to.
Down in the street I heard the fierce energy of children's shrieks; I felt old and weary. Then I reminded myself, as I tended to do in such moments, that I was a best-selling author, even though almost no one knew it. My second book was almost finished, and then I would write my third. Everything would be all right as long as I kept going in this direction, as long as I had a paycheck. My debts, Jackie, the question mark constantly hovering above my head, all were insignificant little pebbles in my way, easily kicked aside when the time came. I would come out from under Jackie's wing the same way Margot had. Very soon, I would start thinking about what I would write if I could write anything I wanted, and then I would write it, and then--
I roused myself with the sudden decision to take a bath, my usual remedy after wallowing for any length of time in my deep financial shit.
To my stupefaction, in the bathroom mirror was a fresh-faced blonde. This reflection had nothing to do with the way I imagined I looked--bleary, bloodshot, prematurely aged. Gusts of despair, gallons of alcohol, had washed through me without leaving any horrific mark that I could see. Recognizing this, I was seized with a sudden hope that my life might not be doomed after all. These moments visited me every so often from out of nowhere, brief bubbles that immediately burst and vanished.
I climbed into the steaming tub with the shiny, aromatic Cosmopolitan
I'd bought at a newsstand on the way home, unfolded my limbs, rested the heavy magazine on my bent knees, leaned my head against the rim. Steam beaded on the glossy paper; my muscles relaxed so much it didn't seem possible that they had ever been so tense. I breathed in and out slowly, read an informative story about nail wraps and facial peels, about which I knew nothing but was willing to learn; I liked the author's big-sisterly, confiding tone. I felt pleasantly drunk. Then the phone rang.
Evidently, as far as Jackie was concerned, I dissolved into the cosmic tide every evening when I left her house and hung in limbo by the umbilical cord of my telephone until I was reincarnated in her doorway the following morning. Her voice on my answering machine filled the four walls and found the scruff of my neck. "Claudia, it's Jackie. I urgently need to know where on earth you put those copies of my book that came today. I've turned the place upside down!"
I jumped out of the tub and stared at the machine. It did no good to screen these calls. If I didn't pick up, I'd worry all evening that she thought I'd lost her books and then tomorrow I'd have to hear about how she'd been awake all night stewing. I finally picked up the receiver and said as if I'd just come in, "Oh, hello, Jackie."
"Yes. Claudia dear. Now, I've looked everywhere, but everywhere, and I simply can't find them. I have to send one to that man who sent that adorable letter, that wonderful man in Paris, what was his name--"
"Henri Severin," I said. "I already sent it. They're on the floor of the pantry where you told me to put them." Water ran down the insides of my legs and pooled at my feet.
"Oh, Claudia, I've told you twenty times, you must unpack them when they arrive! I can't have all those boxes around, it's so low-class."
I mumbled something, doodling with a wet finger in the dust on the answering machine.
"Now, another thing, I was awake in the middle of the night last night thinking of five things I asked you to do that I never heard a word about and I couldn't remember what they were! You must
attend better to everything I tell you. Oh--" Her voice aimed itself at something beyond the receiver. "Jimmy, don't mess those papers, I've got them in a special order. All right," she said, to me again, and hung up in midsentence.
By now my bathwater had stagnated and I was too antsy to get back in anyway. I got dressed and went out and bought a Styrofoam container of red beans and yellow rice from the Cuban-Chinese place around the corner, then stopped in at a bodega for a quart of Triple-X lager. Over dinner, I leafed through some of my old college poetry books. I wanted to watch TV, but my morale wouldn't allow it. Instead, I stumbled on Wordsworth's "The Prelude" and submitted myself to a soothing and purgatorial dose of blank verse:O, blank confusion! true epitome
Of what the mighty City is herself
To thousands upon thousands of her sons
Living amid the same perpetual whirl
Of trivial objects, melted and reduced
To one identity, by differences
That have no law, no meaning, and no end--
Oppression under which even highest minds
Must labour, whence the strongest are not free.
Poetry had for years served as my own private equivalent of davening under the gimlet eye of that scurrilous, moody Jehovah with his monobrow and fistful of lightning. It was like tapping into some eternal spring of guidance and companionship: an hour or so of poetry made me feel that I'd atoned for whatever wrongs I'd most recently inflicted on the natural order. Meanwhile, the red beans were piquant, mealy, savory, the rice rich and salty, and the lager ice-cold, perfect with the food. Jackie would have had no inkling of how good this meal was. She would have turned up her nose at it; too Hispanic, too earthy and low-class. She could only enjoy food if it was out of season, had a French name and was prepared by a man in a toque. I sat at my little table, wriggling my feet comfortably in their warm socks, sprinkling more hot sauce every now and then, feeling the happy skittering of my pulse that meant I was going to see William tonight. I would rather see William than anyone else in the world. I wished I didn't feel that way, but there it was.
Excerpted from In the Drink by Kate Christensen. . Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.