During my winter of Saltine sandwiches, I started sleeping with more men. This was easier when I was drunk. There was the standup comic, the tow-truck driver, the man building his own house. Drunk sex became a way of purging feeling, siphoning it off and putting it somewhere else, like collecting the rendered fat off cooked meat and pouring it in a jar, storing it away so it wouldn’t clog the drains.
My workshop instructor that last semester found something seriously wrong with almost every student story we discussed, and he could spend an hour dissecting why the language wasn’t working.
One week he flipped through a whole story trying to find a single phrase he liked. It took me a while to accept that he wasn’t an asshole; that he was hard on us because he believed in what our writing could do. He didn’t think my first submission did much. But his intelligence had an integrity and precision that made me hungry for his praise. Not getting it only sharpened the hunger.
Outside the classroom, I’d met an older man who lived outside of town. I’d show up at his big house, with its oven dial full of actual numbers, and cook him chicken stir-fry, the only dish I knew how to make. We’d get drunk – or I’d get drunk. I actually have no idea if he got drunk. We’d have sex and afterwards I’d put on one of his basketball jerseys and go cry in the bathroom. At the time, I felt sorry for myself. Now I look back and feel sorry for him, with this girl showing up at his place to cook her rubbery chicken and demanding his compliments in return, then sobbing in his bathroom, clearly wanting something from him, but what? Neither one of us knew.
After a few weeks, he told me over dinner one night that he couldn’t taste any of the food I was cooking. He wasn’t being figurative. He had no taste buds. It was a condition he’d had since birth.
Somehow this seemed sad to me – not just that he couldn’t taste anything, but that I’d been making these meals without knowing he couldn’t taste them. Whatever we were doing, we weren’t doing it together. My desire to be wanted was like something physically gushing out of me – need need need – and it disgusted me, this broken spigot I’d become. A man telling me he wanted to fuck me, whispering it into my ear, it was like taking the first sip of whisky, that hit of warmth, straight to my gut. The beginning was usually better than what followed: the cotton-mouthed morning, the strange bed, sweat on the sheets.
I tried to live better. I tried yoga. I got a little houseplant, and by coincidence my friend got me another little houseplant, and so I decided to throw a little party about it. Maybe we would drink. One of my plants, a weeping ficus, hung in my kitchen above the other one, a little fern. I named them both after an Andrew Marvell poem: “Annihilating all that’s made / to a green thought, in a green shade”.
The big plant was Marvell, the little one the Annihilator. I decided my party would be green. Everything would be a green thought in a green shade. This meant lime Jell-O shots, pistachio cookies with food colouring, celery, spinach hummus, and someone else’s pot. I made my Jell-O shots in the morning and couldn’t open my litre of vodka because I’d gotten the cheapest kind and the cap was messed up. I had to run to the corner store as fast as I could – my Jell-O was cooling by the minute! – and demand vodka at eight in the morning.
I got my Jell-O shots made, but they were too strong. It was too hot in my kitchen, with too many bodies packed together. Nobody was as amused by the name “the Annihilator” as I’d thought they would be. One friend had just spent the previous night in jail for a drunk-driving arrest. She was teary in the corner. Another friend smoked too much pot and ended up fainting on my kitchen floor. My home seemed toxic, like you could catch something – a state of frailty, or an absurd despair – just from spending time in it.
Several months after the breakup that had precipitated this string of drunken liaisons in the first place, my friends started to ask me – gently, kindly – why I was still talking about it so much. Why was I taking it so hard? Honestly, I wasn’t sure. Rejection was a worm that kept burrowing into me, my own humdrum betrayal, and I kept trying to dig it out by getting to the bottom of why I hadn’t been good enough for him. I started seeing a therapist at student services, as an experiment. He had an accent that made it hard to understand some of his similes. “Love is like a toaster,” he told me. “It comes and destroys everything.”
I thought, No, love is Tom Petty on a boom box. I imagined the burnt bread heels of my toasted heart. It turned out the therapist meant twister, not toaster, and that spring there actually was one. An actual tornado flipped the whole roof off a sorority house. It tore off leafy branches and flipped cars into tree trunks. It tossed the shed from my backyard into the creek. I kept my fingers crossed for the ducks. My ducks. This was Iowa, a pathetic fallacy writ large: You spoke of love and its metaphors came alive; they spun the air all around you.
I decided to write a story about the breakup, because it was all I could think about. But a breakup story seemed like artistic suicide, and I could already picture my workshop instructor flipping through it in class, pointing out my trite articulations of heartbreak. I wrote the story anyway, but I took care to make my heartbreak more dramatic.
My main character smashed a glass of wine against her fridge, and then licked all the red trails of Shiraz running down its beige door. I’d only ever drunk my wine from water glasses and plastic cups, but the shattered glass and licked trails of crimson seemed like more artful articulations of ache than my own redundant glugging.
The day of my workshop, our instructor said: “The only thing wrong with this story is that it doesn’t have any page numbers.” It was the only thing I wrote at Iowa that anyone really liked, and it confirmed my hunch: things got dark, and you wrote from that darkness. Heartbreak could become the beginning of a career.
I wasn’t good at taking care of myself then, myself or my weeping ficus, which withered to a crisp in the heat of July. I put it out on the fire escape so I wouldn’t have to look at it dying. I wanted to believe that this new type of drinking I’d been doing, drinking intentionally and explicitly and self-consciously toward passing out, was introducing me to a part of myself I’d never known before – that I was fumbling to learn its shape, like an object under murky water. In vino veritas was one of the most appealing promises of drinking: that it wasn’t degradation but illumination, that it wasn’t obscuring truth but unveiling it. If that was true, then my truth was passing out partway through the romantic comedies I watched alone at night, before the booze took me under.
• The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison is published by Granta (£20). To order a copy for £17 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99