I got so good at pool I had my own cue. It was a gift from a guy whose name I kept forgetting, maybe Peter, maybe Mike, a guy I’d agreed to marry during a Christmas Eve drunk. It was a candy-apple-red cue, had its own case, broke beautifully, cracked into the cue ball, scattered the tight rack of twelve colored balls like a spray of smashed glass.
It was 1999, and I kept a bottle of Maker’s Mark at the side of the single bed we shared, took shots from the cap. Old Hustler magazines covered the floor, a hazard I had to carefully navigate when I stumbled from bed to the bathroom in the night, and it was always night, and I’d slip on the piles of porn, laughing, the room always spinning, and crawl to the bathroom instead. I wore his plaid pajama bottoms, and we played a mean game of pool—for which you wear a short black dress and crazy-ass heels, and you try to keep it to maybe six double martinis, extra dirty, extra dry. Until you don’t. Until you try to keep it to maybe eleven, maybe fifteen, and when you’ve had seventeen, you’re for sure pretty drunk, and you and your crazy-ass heels go slipping out over the midwinter ice, laughing and falling and getting hauled to the car by the arm.
I learned to play pool at the 19 Bar at the corner of 15th and 3rd, where 3.2 beer sold for a buck. I weighed the cues in my hands to see which felt right, chalked up, raised an eyebrow at Ruth, who batted her eyelashes and bent over the table, resting her elbows on the rail, tits on display, swinging her hips in their Daisy Duke shorts that were mostly seams. Her mouth was sticky-sweet with the raspberry kamikazes she drank like they were candy, and since no one ever uses the ladies room in a gay boys’ bar, and since the house music was pounding so hard we couldn’t hear we didn’t worry about the noise, and when we were done, we straightened our tits and our lipstick, sashayed back out to the bar, ordered a round of tequila, licked the salt off one another’s necks and tossed back the shots. She could do a double bank shot but I could break, always broke with a twenty-one ounce cue, but played with a nineteen.
I was nineteen, Ruth was maybe twenty-one. She said she smoked to see she was alive—her breath visible on the exhale, curling up out of her lungs. We parted ways in Albuquerque, 1995, after a last night on a mattress on a floor, she said stay—but I swung into my car, and headed west young man, to seek my fortune and get a tattoo, to find the ocean and its sting of salt. The taste of the mist stinging my tongue like the saline skin of the throat of a girl.
A drink is tactile, has a feel more than it has a taste: it burns. But on a girl’s lips, that burn turns sweet, and in her mouth that sweetness turns to smoke. And on the nape of her neck, her sweat tastes like salt, and you can drink a girl like whiskey, but neither the girl nor the drink will ever be enough to slake this kind of thirst. But the girl will always break your heart. Take the drink.
Then set down the glass, walk out the door, and drive away, cross the desert in a dust storm that turns into a surreal green desert rain.
In Northern California, near Bodega Bay, there’s a bar called Melendy’s where I drank every night after my shift, Patsy Cline, Tom Petty, Tom Waits on the jukebox, crooked pool cues, beer sticky on the floor, and the man I’d accidentally married showing me how to shoot behind my back. There’s a trick. I got the knack, we played for money, took our winnings and bought another round. At bar close, we’d climb over the chain link fence and cut across the hills toward home, toward the plywood apartment with the paper-thin walls and the cluttered countertop of glittering half-empty bottles of off-brand booze. I drank vodka. He drank gin. Gin and tonic, vodka martini, sidecar, manhattan, a whiskey-soaked cherry in the slurry of ice chips at the bottom of a glass. A litany, a liturgy, a prayer: Bordeaux, shiraz, Black Label, pinot noir. We wove our way through a couple of years, then popped a bottle of champagne one night, toasted one another’s health, and parted ways, saying kiss kiss honey, take care.
There’s a rhythm to drinking, once you get good, a tempo, a clock ticking out the seconds you have left. Your face, your name begins to escape you, you crisscross the country in search of something, the something has no face, no name, you’d say it’s a hunger, but you know it’s a thirst. You’re in a New York champagne bar, a Baja bodega, drinking a bottle of wine on the banks of an Arkansas river, drinking a bottle of scotch in the scorched gold hills out west, downing a plastic cup of cheap rose at some gallery somewhere where some hot new artist is famous for something, you’re always laughing, always holding yourself up by the wall, always tipping into another bed.
Say her name was Summer, or Sunshine, or some hippie lovechild name, say it’s San Francisco, 1998. The summer of love is over, and Summer or Sunshine is playing guitar on a makeshift stage in a coffeehouse-slash-bar, she and her dreads keep catching my eye, which the guy I’m with thinks is hot—who fucking cares? By the time I leave I’ve got her number on a napkin or slip of paper, whatever, two days later I call her, say, You play pool? Let’s get a beer. I don’t know why I say that. I fucking hate beer. But I squeeze the lemon on the lip of the glass, wipe my hand on my jeans, she says are you nervous, and I say no-
In her apartment three floors above the Haight, sitting on the scratchy rust-colored secondhand couch, she handed me a scotch, and I reached for it like reaching for a lover, for my mother, for God. I wanted the burn in my throat, a feeling I love and crave more than I crave mouths or deep hands or touch—and she’s a shadow against the window’s blue night. She’s silver, moon gilding the curve of her side, cupping her breast, rising up her throat, over the slash of cheekbone, into the hollow of her eye-
I don’t remember her face. I can never remember her face. She turns her face into the pillow, slipping into sleep, she mumbles, You could stay—I slide out of bed, wash my hands and face, go home. It’s getting light. I get a drink.
Somewhere caught in the double helix of my DNA, etched into the equation that adds up to what I am, the complex mathematics of body and bones, there is the reason for this thirst. Fixed somewhere in my flesh is a craving that has no match, there is no hunger, no longing, no desperation, no ache, like this—desire does not begin to say what this is, this is not a wish, not a want. You’d kill for this. You would die for this without a thought, there is no thought, there are no words, this is the animal scream, the all-consuming need, this is what you need to survive. Then let it kill me. Just try to pry this glass from my hands. If it breaks, you can watch me suck my fingers for the last drops of my drink and then spit out the blood.
The jukebox record spun and clicked into place. I stood leaning on my cue while she racked. It was 2011, maybe 2012. By then I was sober, had been for years, stood steady on my feet, mouth dry as a bone. Her name was Winter, for real, and she wore a long silver pendant that dangled when she leaned over the table to break. She broke. I dropped the two and four neatly, missed the six. She banked the three and five, casually criticized me for various things. I tossed my hair and said she was pretentious. I said her black boots were self-conscious. She said I told terrible lies. She dropped the thirteen, and with a sharp crack I dropped the six, ten, and twelve. She put a whiskey-soaked cherry in her teeth and offered me half. I leaned in and snatched the cherry with my tongue and laughed at the look on her face.
The whiskey—just that little taste, the sharp bite of the soaked cherry in my teeth—lit a slow burn in my mouth. I turned the cherry over on my tongue. I sucked it dry of every drop like a spider draining prey of blood. The taste was just the same as it always had been, as familiar as the lines of an old lover’s face, as known and loved as the dip and rise of waist and hip when she curls into sleep, I caught my breath, I nearly cried with wanting more. I swallowed the cherry and tried to forget the taste I know better than the taste of my own tongue, a taste my body knows better than the dull beat of my heart against my ribs.
I spat the sucked-dry cherry into a glass. Desire is costly. No one can afford that kind of thirst.
And now it’s near dawn, and she’s sprawled out in the center of the bed, naked and sleeping in the sweat-softened sheets. I’m at the window, watching the light come up over the river, a cold October blue. She shifts, sighs, turns from her side onto her back. Before she fell asleep, she said, Are you gonna stay? Sure, I said, and slipped out of bed. Turning away from the window, now, I watch her sleep. As soon as I see her face soften, her mouth fall open a little in dreams, I walk out the door. I go down the stairs and out onto the street that’s empty but for broken bottles on the sidewalk and bums leaned up against the soot-blackened brick of the brownstones. I walk with my hands in my pockets, shoulders hunched against the coming winter’s bitter wind. I walk until I forget the feel of her skin, the taste of her tongue, I cannot afford this, no one can afford this kind of thirst, the girl will always break your heart, take the drink. But I pass the closed doors of bar after bar, walk until I disappear, my name escaping from my mouth like breath, the lines of my face blurring like chalk drawings in the rain.
Marya Hornbacher is an award-winning journalist and the author of five books. Her book WASTED was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction; in 2012, she was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in both nonfiction and poetry. Recent essays have appeared in Gulf Coast, the Iowa Review, and Fourth Genre.