Monday, October 3, 2011


In 1980 for a few months I dated a woman I called Max, who was 21 to my 25. I met her through radical les-fem organizing, and pursued her for murky reasons. Our first solo date, she offered to cook red snapper for me -- she was a line cook at the time -- and gave me directions to her flat. I offered to bring something, and she said a bottle of cognac would be good.

I was not in the habit of buying liquor, and went to a corner store to make the purchase. That experience made the nugget of a much later poem (below). When I got to Max's one-room efficiency, I discovered she shared it with three cats. The smell of litterbox was strong, and tiny flurries of cat fur edded around my tread across the hardwood floors.

To my surprise, Max did not need the cognac for her recipe. Instead she poured a large amount into a tumbler and began drinking it rapidly as she made a sauce. I declined my own glass. Hard liquor, then and now, makes me ill.

After a delicious meal, I leaned in to kiss her and discovered she was the worst kisser I've ever known. That did not stop me: I was not yet in full recovery from my childhood sexual abuse, and my boundaries were particularly nonexistent that particular year.

Not long afterward, I met Max's sister, Bluejay, also allegedly a lesbian although she was in fact a closeted bisexual, involved with both her male roommate and a woman drummer in Rhiannon's circle. While Max made a trip to the jane, Bluejay leaned over and hissed at me "Why did you bring cognac with you? Don't you know she's an alcoholic?"

Well, no, I had no idea. I wasn't sure what to do. Jean Swallow and "Sober Dykes" were about to arrive in my life, but clean and sober was not yet in my ken. I did begin attending Al-Anon, feeling like a fraud because I was not certain the relationship with Max meant enough to make this effort.

I had not yet discovered how much addiction rippled through my community like an underground river, just as it was embedded in American culture. Self-medication keeps us from revolution and insisting on respect in all our decisions. The mess with Max was my beginning of that understanding.


Easier to stop at a Mom’n’Pop
right on the 26 Valencia, hard to find parking
even at the biggest supermarkets in San Fran
and the checkout lines, forget it
Worth it to pay shocking prices set by
Pakistanis or Iranians who were not
getting rich off us, no matter what the hype
I was on my way to dinner with a new girl
She was making us snapper at her place,
suggested I pick up some cognac for after
I was guessing this meant tonight I’d be
allowed to finally unbutton her jeans
as we made out,
so far side by side,
on her futon covered in orange cat hair.
Cognac for after,
I didn’t drink but if that’s what
it took, okay by me

It would be another two months before her
sister finally told me, for christ’s sake, haven’t
you figured out she’s an alcoholic?

But this night all I had in me was Carly Simon crescendos
of anticipation
I was 25, desperate to believe
the discomfort I felt in kissing strangers
could be settled by boldness
Every movie and novel told me
what I was feeling was desire, not fear
I was going to grow out of this
The years were going to be good to me

The real liquor was all behind the counter
I had to wait to ask the clerk for it
and of course there were people ahead of me
Right ahead of me, an old lady
I might not have ever seen her if I hadn’t glanced down
to make sure my pants cuff was straight
The backs of her legs were more blue vein than flesh
some of these bulging like standing rapids
and scabs, raw and oozing
or some drying out but still raised up high
above her tissue paper skin
I thought of the geographical relief maps we made
in grade school with flour paste and tempera paint

The dress above the calves was thin, too thin
Yes, it was October which is actually warmer
most years in SF than August, my birth month
But this day was dank and goosebumpy, just right
for cognac and maybe sleeping over
Why was she out without a sweater? Why didn’t
she tend to those scabs, why didn’t someone---

She was buying a pint of milk and some elbow macaroni,
counting out change from a faded coin purse she
had trouble clicking shut
Her fingers tangled across one another
as if she was making King’s X Infinity
She was clean, except for the scabs on the
backs of her legs, too far down to reach
Her hair was combed and thin as her dress
No smell of alcohol on her – if there had been,
maybe I could ignore her
She was trying
The one thing
we never want anyone to say of us

I let her pay for her dinner and tomorrow’s lunch
and walk out of there, slowly, a small flinch
at the step out onto the street
The clerk never looked at her,
nor at me
I bought my magic potion and by the time
I got to the sidewalk, I didn’t see
where she’d gone
The bus was coming
I decided to forget her
Only I haven’t

© Maggie Jochild, written March 19, 2001 1:45 a.m.

1 comment:

Margot said...

Yes, those images stick.

"Functioning alcoholic". I was involved with one, but I didn't know it. I didn't come to understand until after we broke up, the reason for all the pointless, screaming rows, how she came to trip over the dog bed and break her leg...

I thought I was off relationships for life. Thank you for proving me wrong, my darling.