On the afternoon of June 1, 2013 I leave a singing session in Albany, cadging a lift to the North Berkeley BART station to begin my journey out to Johnny’s house in San Leandro. I borrow a friend’s cell phone to dial Johnny’s number. Johnny does not answer, so I leave him a message that I am en route to North Berkeley BART and I’ll see him in an hour or so. I call him again from the BART station and again from Bay Fair BART when I arrive in San Leandro. Still no answer.

Perhaps Johnny has fallen asleep — he works hard and is often up both late and early. I stop at the Walgreen’s on East 14th Street to pick up a pint of half and half for my morning coffee and then continue up the hill to Marcella Street, turn right and walk to Johnny’s house.

When I arrive at 6:35 the drapes are pulled shut and the front door is closed with the security door locked. The doorbell does not work. I knock on the window and call out to Johnny. When he does not appear I think perhaps he’s gone to BART thinking to meet me, or perhaps he’s gone to the grocery store to pick up a last-minute item. Johnny almost always has his cell phone with him, but I do not have a cell phone of my own with which to call him. Surely he’ll be back soon, I think. I sit on the front lawn underneath the redwood tree and wait for him to come back.

I wait. I read. I write in a notebook. I listen to birds and watch them fly. I see a seagull and a couple of dark birds with white bellies. I see a man in a billed cap push an ice cream cart down the street. I see him push it back on the sidewalk several minutes later.

About every half hour I knock on the living room window and call to Johnny. I can see a light and a fan turning in one room, probably the bedroom that I have never been in. Finally, I get up and walk up and down Marcella Street for awhile. I am looking for someone in their yard with a cell phone so that I can ask to borrow it to phone Johnny again. I don’t spot anyone and return to his yard. I am beginning to wonder if I can find somewhere to use the bathroom. I get up and knock on the window again at 8:00 PM.

A disheveled Johnny opens the door. He looks like he has been drinking and one living room chair holds a third of a six-pack of beer and a pint of whiskey. Uh-oh.

“I just woke up,” he says.
“I need to use your bathroom,” I say.

I do that. I go into his kitchen. I put my half and half in his fridge where the pint I bought last time I came over is still rotting. One small counter by the stove is covered with empty bottles. Passing back through the hallway to the living room I see that the floor of his office is similarly festooned. One lone bottle rolls next to the love seat in the living room.

When I come back and sit on a chair to remove my shoes and socks, Johnny asks me “What are you doing here?”

“It’s Saturday night,” I say. “I’m supposed to be here.”

“I didn’t know if it was night or morning,” he says.

I take a good look at him, at his dirty hair and rumpled clothes. I breathe in the smell of sweat and stale beer. “You are not in a fit condition to receive a visitor,” I tell him. I start to put my shoes and socks back on and begin to pack up to go home again.

Johnny took exception to that: he said he was sad and he didn’t want me to go home.

We talk for awhile. I do not want to fight — I just want to go home and not deal with him when he has been drinking. He has not showered or changed his clothes — he usually cleans up for me — and he makes no offer to do that.

I am tired and sunburned from my Farmers’ Market shift that morning and from waiting outside in the yard earlier and, now, sad: I don’t like to be around people who have been drinking. I do not want to fight. If I even mention his drinking he gets hostile and accusatory, blaming me — he likes to say I give him shit.

Making a real effort not to fight and not to leave, I go into the kitchen and start cleaning the counters, washing glasses and plates, wiping away coffee rings and grounds, wiping up moldy containers with a sponge soaked with dishwashing liquid. At one point I ask him if he has a clean dish towel because I’m not able to stack more things in the dish drainer, which is small. He tells me to use paper towels. I hate paper towels (so wasteful), but I do not complain about them. I tear them off the roll and set them on the parts of the counter I have just cleaned and set more clean glasses on them.

“Stop doing dishes,” Johnny says.

“I’m trying to do something positive,” I say. (There’s no point in conversing with drunks).

Johnny acquiesces. He proceeds to stand and tell me long rambling music stories while I work. He could have pitched in, but no, he is recounting incidents, leading to his playing me a Fats Domino record. All of his conversation is about what he has heard, what he has seen, what he has done.

“Johnny, have you had dinner?”

“I haven’t eaten anything in twenty-four hours.”

“Honey, that’s not taking good care of yourself.”

Johnny blows up at me (I’ve blanked out the details). Then he says, “I thought we’d go out to dinner.”

It is 9:30 at night. I am not going anywhere with this man in this condition. I am not hungry — I just want to curl up and go to bed.

Johnny makes no move to eat anything. He wants to play another record but his turntable locks up and won’t play. He curses at it: “Fucking piece of shit.”

“Johnny, my turntable has a security mechanism on the bottom. You use it to lock it when you are going to move it.”

I’m thinking he has accidentally triggered the mechanism. He looks, but he can’t find anything.

“Do you have the manual?” I ask, thinking I might be able to figure out what’s wrong.

“No,” he says.

“Sometimes you can find them online.”

I go off to brush my teeth. Johnny goes off to his office to use his computer. I hear the sound of bottles being opened, or rather the sound of bottle caps hitting the office floor.

“Johnny, can I move some chairs?” I call to him.

“You can do whatever you want.”

I wish. If only I had a magic wand. I would erase this evening, take a time-turner and turn it back. Instead I stack up a couple of chairs in the hallway and drag Johnny’s single futon out onto the edge of the living room floor. This is where we sleep when I come over — God knows when that will change.

I lie on the futon, covering my eyes with my dress because Johnny leaves lights on all night and I need to sleep in a dark, quiet room. I lie there for perhaps an hour, breathing, unable to sleep. Then I get up and go to him and ask if there is anything I can do.

He says, “You could try to comfort me.”

I tell him I’m sorry he is having a hard time and sorry he is under stress. I massage his neck and shoulders for awhile. But then I ask him how he is going to work with the stress and he acts like I have just stabbed him in the back.

I think it is a fair question: he isn’t handling things well. After awhile I tell him I need to get off my feet.

“I’m going to lie down,” I say. “You can hang out with me if you want.”

I lie down again, but I do not fall asleep.

Eventually, Johnny comes into the living room and turns on the T.V. I get up again and reach for my ear plugs, throw my dress around my head again, grab the blanket and put my head under the covers. I can hear him laughing and moving.

I try to sleep and can’t. Finally, I ask him, from my muffled corner, “What are you watching?”

He takes that as an occasion to recite half the movie plot. Then he says, “When you move in with me I won’t watch T.V. in the middle of the night. I just need to wind down.”

I need to sleep. I put my ear plugs back in and keep trying, watching my breath, in and out. I get up a few times to use the bathroom and finally fall asleep for awhile until Johnny wakes me up to talk to me about his dreams. By now I want to kill him for sulking and raging and rambling and keep me up most of the night.

The next time I wake up he is gone. I do not know where he is. I try to go back to sleep, stay in bed for another half an hour. Then I get up to find him wandering around the house stark naked.

“I’m going to make coffee,” I say. “Do you want some?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “I thought we would go out to breakfast and I could have coffee then. Do you want to go out to breakfast?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I want to have my coffee.”

I make myself some coffee and sit on his couch drinking it. We start talking again. He talks about how much stress he is under. I finish my coffee while he embarks on another long story and I get up to fix myself a second cup (I was prescient enough to bring enough beans for two cups). I enjoy sipping my coffee, but I do not enjoy being around Johnny who had taken a slug of whiskey some time after he had gotten up. I could smell it on his breath when I hugged him good morning.

We talk a little more and he is getting accusatory and blaming and I say “I find it hard to take care of myself in this house.”

Which is true — there is no clean, orderly, serene space I can retreat to when Johnny is causing trouble, nowhere I can sleep peacefully, no food in the cupboards that meets my standards unless I bring it over myself. There is only a coffee set up because Mom gave him an old coffee grinder and I gave him a coffee spoon. He had a filter and a measuring cup and some mugs. I brought him two pounds of coffee and a few paper filters. He bought himself some more filters after he ran out. There are bottles everywhere and bags that match the one that came from the liquor store — I stacked up perhaps twenty of them, picking them up from the kitchen floor. I stacked up a few grocery bags, too, and I predict that the next time I go over there it will be back to the filthy state it was in last night. I put his butter on a plate and put it in the refrigerator because it was melting all over a leather stool that he uses as an auxiliary counter. I put the lid on the peanut butter and put it back on top of the refrigerator where he keeps it. I washed the mold off the side of the dishpan. I wish I had had a gallon of bleach. It is not that bad, but it is bad enough and I don’t want to live like this, face messes like this, which I have never made in my life, and I am not a clean freak, white-glove-type.

I talk to him about his conspicuous lack of empathy for me last night. He goes into an exaggerated riff about what a bad person he was.

I tell him I did not say that.

Finally, as a peace offering, I ask him if he still wants to go out for breakfast. I pack and rearrange my stuff while he gets ready, which consists of putting on his clothes from yesterday and combing his hair and calling a cab to take us to the restaurant. I am so upset, I find myself ransacking my backpack for my hat, which is on my head. When I discover that I start to laugh and then I start to cry. Johnny comes over to me, says he is sorry, strokes my arm.

We go off to breakfast where we have a moderately good time. He is still telling stories about a 1984 tour in Montana. He has an attack of reflux (or perhaps alcoholic gastritis) and has to leave the table. When he comes back he is able to eat.

Johnny pays the bill and calls a cab. He will ride with me to Bay Fair BART. Then he will go home, shower, shave, change his clothes and go to a recording session.

It takes me a few days, but, on June 4th, reflecting on my Saturday night with Johnny, I read some Al-Anon literature online and think about going to my first meeting. He calls me that afternoon from a bar. “I’m not doing well,” he says. “I haven’t eaten for a day and a half.”

“Please don’t call me from a bar,” I say. “I’ll talk to you later. I’m going to hang up now.”

The phone begins to ring immediately. I let it ring. He leaves me two messages: first a sarcastic comment about the fact that I have no cell phone and then a message suggesting that I have broken up with him and he will not call me, that I can call him if I want.

I do not plan to call him right away. Instead I will eat dinner and catch the bus to that Al-Anon meeting.