I first met Jen while working as a cocktail waitress at a cigar and scotch lounge on the corner of 62nd and 1st in Manhattan. Every Friday and Saturday night she held down the bar while I, squeezed into a black dress that was two sizes too small, delivered 22-year-old scotches, Cosmopolitans and Hispaniola cigars to a high-powered crowd of men in suits and women in stilettos.
Jen, who barely cleared five feet in heels, was a scrappy whirlwind of a girl that lived life at a manic pace. Her voice was raspy and dry like rocks baking in the desert and when she got mad, her entire body vibrated and her skin blazed a bluish red. Outside of work, she invested both her time and money on all things booze-related. For someone who was so small in stature, she could suck down pint glasses full of vodka and Red Bull and then pound Heinekens like a chain smoker and barely catch a buzz. I asked her once, while we were out, where she put it all and she reacted as if my question was the dumbest thing she had ever heard. “Duh, you dope,” she said. “I’m fuckin Irish.”
I quickly learned that Jen what was what you would call an “angry drunk” whose intensity level rivaled that of the Incredible Hulk the more intoxicated she became. One night her younger brother drove into the city from Yonkers to hang out and when he couldn’t parallel park his car, Jen—who was up to her eyeballs in liquor—pushed the driver’s side door open and yanked him out by his shoulders onto the street. She was screaming at him with both fists clenched and raised high over her head. I remember how taut the muscles in her neck looked and how helpless and small her brother seemed pinned with his back up against the car.
As someone that grew up surrounded by raging, violent alcoholics, I should have known better than to get mixed up with Jen. After years of camping out in the self help aisle at Barnes and Noble, melting into books about codependency and healing my inner child, I was well versed in the dangers of seeking out relationships that mirrored the dysfunctional, abusive and crazy-making scenarios that reminded me of home. Thanks to my father, I had became adept at seeking out emotionally unavailable men so I had been chiseling away at that one for quite some time. But it had never occurred to me that those same toxic patterns—the ones that emotionally fit me like a glove—could also appear in my non-romantic relationships.
I knew that Jen was a raging alcoholic. I knew chaos ruled her life. I knew that she was capable of physical violence and I knew, unequivocally, that I was making a huge mistake when I agreed to move in with her. But I did it anyway.
We had only been roommates for a week when she came in at 6 am with a rowdy crew whose cigarette smoke soiled the fresh set of Downy-scented sheets I had dressed my bed with the night before. Our place was sparsely furnished so there was plenty of room for their loud and drunken voices to bounce and echo off of the walls and slam abruptly in my ears. Each time a fresh bottle of beer was snapped open, I heard its thin cap rattle around the kitchen floor with a hollow ting. I lay in bed grinding my teeth together so hard that my jaw ached and obsessing over what I would say to her later that day. But she gave me a “Don’t you fuckin dare” look which sent shards of fear up my spine when I attempted to voice my concerns about 6 am parties and drunk people slobbering on our kitchen counter. I lost my nerve.
Although Jen never put her hands on me, the threat of physical violence was palpable at all times. I progressed quickly from walking on eggshells to living on eggshells. If she was in a good mood, drunk or sober, then I was in a good mood. If I felt that her mood was even the slightest bit off, then I organized my life around making her happy. I scrubbed the toilet, took out the trash and filled the fridge with all of the foods that she preferred—hoping that something, anything, would quell her smoldering fire. But nothing changed. The parties still raged, bottle caps were still strewn all over the floor and I was still, according to Jen, a mooching, loner bitch.
I woke up one morning and found a carefully folded three-page letter sitting on the kitchen counter with my name scribbled next to a bouquet of bubbled hearts. In it Jen gushed about how I was the smartest, most creative person she ever met and how she hoped that no matter what happened we would be friends forever. I was so confused. Which version of Jen wrote this letter? Was it the drunk one or the sober and hung over one? For weeks, she’d acted like I didn’t even exist and now we were BFFs? There was something about our relationship that turned the acid in my stomach thick and felt uncomfortably familiar. It wasn’t until I was sitting there with her letter in my hands that I finally made the connection—I was repeating a dysfunctional family pattern through my relationship with Jen and it was my responsibility to do something about it.
In the days that followed, I performed an intense personal inventory. Regardless of how Jen treated me, I was still the one that had decided to move in with her and I was the only one that could take control of leaving. When I broke the news to her that I would be moving out at the end of the month, Jen took it about as well as I expected her to—which is to say not well at all. Suddenly I was being accused of doing all sorts of crazy things, including stealing the kitchen spoons. Really, kitchen spoons? I could understand if they had platinum handles or something but really, spoons from Target?
On moving day, I loaded my last box of goods into the moving van and headed back upstairs to hand over my keys. When I stepped into the apartment, Jen was waiting there for me, her body vibrating and her face a particularly hot shade of bluish red. In her right hand she was clenching a tub of cottage cheese. She stomped over to one of the kitchen drawers, slammed it open and spit out, “Where the fuck are all the spoons?” I shook my head in disbelief and replied, “Really?” Jen snapped the drawer closed, turned sharply and stomped off to her bedroom. In the past I would have made it my mission to remedy the situation but this time I tried something different. I raced down to the bodega on the corner and bought a huge pack of crappy plastic spoons. They were all white and each had a sharp nub of plastic at the bottom of the handle where they had once been connected. I smacked them down on the kitchen counter right next to my keys, turned sharply on my heels and smiled quietly as the apartment door clicked and locked behind me.