When my first love went up in flames

I fell head over heels for the woman of my dreams. But then a problem emerged: My drinking

Published May 28, 2011 6:01PM (EDT)

Until I was twenty years old, my twin sister was the most important person in my life. We spent nine months floating together and grew up in tandem, half a pair rather than a person alone. My sister and I are fraternal twins, no more genetically similar than any siblings. We are, in fact, very different. She's five-five; I'm five-six. She has straight hair; I have curly hair. She has a master's degree; I was kicked out of high school for building a papier-mâché bong in art class. In a twenty-year-old video that our father made, the camera so large it rests on his shoulder, my sister and I stand in front of our childhood home in matching Easter dresses. She beams at the camera with missing front teeth and a basket full of pastel eggs. I scowl and kick a rotting stump, unhappy about the pink lace and puffy sleeves our mother made us wear. My sister wears white socks and patent leather shoes. I'm in snow boots and a baseball cap. But despite the differences, we came into the world together, and so, for the first twenty years of our lives, we loved each other more than anyone else.

But then, on my twentieth birthday, I met Alice. Though I had never been with a woman, I had long been attracted to them, and so I wasn't shocked that when I saw Alice at my birthday party, it felt electric. At the time, I lived in a dirty co-op beside a halfway house. When we threw parties -- kegs in the backyard, underage kids on the porch -- the men who lived next door watched us through their windows. They would have seen Alice and me kissing against a wall that night, drunk and dizzy and half aware that everything was changing.

Soon, we were the couple that ignores friends and family and lives in a bubble for two. When I woke up in the morning and walked to the kitchen to start coffee and pour cereal, Alice would prance in a few minutes later, curls perched atop her head so she looked like the love child of Lyle Lovett and a T. rex. She would jump around in her underwear, waking us both up, growling like a bear. It was impossible to wake up in a bad mood when I was with her. Still, I was terrified that Alice would realize I wasn't good enough for her, that she would stop calling and coming over and touching my foot with hers in her sleep. I concocted wild schemes to make her fall in love with me. If only she could see how precious I am when I'm sleeping, I thought; and so, more than once, I ran to my bed when she was coming over and pretended to nap, my eyelids fluttering quietly, my mouth open just so. Alice thought I was lazy, not darling, but still, we fell in love. I was so in love with Alice that I sometimes wondered if I had to choose between my girlfriend and my sister, who I would choose, and then felt sorry for my sister.

More than making Alice happy, I wanted to make her safe. My reason was selfish: I would stop breathing if she did. I started dreaming about natural disasters. I became paranoid about earthquakes and floods. I stocked up on canned goods and jugs of water. Over dinner, I made my Alice recite our plan in case of the Second Coming and later bought us matching walkie-talkies, insisting that this simple technology would be our salvation when the cell towers collapsed. I didn't know then that it wouldn't be a natural disaster that would split us up; it would be something innocuous and everywhere.

Alice and I went through the coming-out process together. My friends and my sister were unfazed when I told them I was dating a woman. As a kid, I was the only girl in Little League. People addressed me as young man so often that I started answering to it without a thought. No one was surprised that I was gay, but still, I didn't want to come out to my parents.

When people come out of the closet, our parents often say things like, "It's not that I hate gay people. I just don't want your life to be more difficult than your brother's. He might be in prison, but at least he can get married." This was not my fear. My parents raised us with only a cursory awareness of religion. If not for the prevalence of religion in our Southern hometown -- warnings of eternal damnation broadcast from billboards with statements like, "What if Jesus had been aborted?" -- I suspect I would have started college wondering why so many people wear Ts around their necks. So the problem was not that I was afraid my parents would be disappointed. I didn't want to tell them, because telling your parents you're gay means telling them that you aren't just emotionally and mentally gay. You're gay in bed. It is terrible enough to think about your parents' sex life; think about how much worse it is for them. I was their little girl. I sat on their laps and giggled when they tickled me and cried when they spanked me for starting a small and completely manageable fire in the neighbor's yard.

But it was inevitable. A few months after Alice and I got together, my sister called. "Mom knows you're gay," she said. Despite my fear of rebuke, my parents were more worried about my lapsed health insurance than my sexual orientation. When I asked my mother who told her, she said, "No one. Your father has gaydar." It was a fine coming-out, easy, something I should have done long before. But when Alice came out, her mother cried and her dad said it was just a phase. He was wrong. It wasn't a phase, and two years later, we moved across the country together.

If my first love was innate and my second consuming, my third was both. I had always been a drinker, but it was after Alice and I moved that I became as enamored with drinking as I was with her. I loved the way liquor warmed, beer cooled, and wine flushed my cheeks. I hid my drinking from Alice. I drank on our back porch when she was asleep and during the day, when she was at work. I went to bars and parties when she was too tired to attend.

And I cheated. Again and again, I made out with strangers at bars and at parties and even, more than once, went back to their houses for terrible, drunken sex. I slept with people I liked and people I hated. I wanted them all for the newness, the possibility that I would feel electric, like I had on my twentieth birthday. I never did. Alice didn't know about the others, but still, we started to fight, and loudly. Our neighbors looked at us strangely when we ran into them in the mail room. After Alice punched a wall and sprained her elbow after a particularly vicious fight, probably about something unimportant, I went to a bar up the street. The bartender was going through his own breakup at the time and poured deep glasses of bourbon for both of us. A few hours later, I passed out on the bathroom floor, slumped against the wall. Alice had been wandering the neighborhood, trying to find me, and when she did, she hauled me outside and into the rain. I lay on the sidewalk in front of the bar. She kicked me in the kidneys and yelled that I was a drunk and a whore, and then she hailed a cab, got me in the house and left me to sleep it off on the bathroom floor.

The next day, I received a call from my sister across the country. When she checked her voice mail that morning, she had heard a long and muffled fight as Alice tried to get me off the sidewalk and into the cab. "There are things," she said, "I just don't want to hear." But because Alice and I loved each other as much as we hated each other, she forgave me for passing out at the bar, I forgave her for kicking me in the back, and we laughed about pocket dialing my sister.

Two weeks later, Alice found out about my cheating when she read an email I had sent to my sister asking for advice. As soon as she found out, Alice drove to the bakery where I had just started working. I saw her face, red and violent, from my place behind the register. Without a word, she pulled her fist back and let it go from across the counter -- one right hook to the jaw and the collective gasp of a dozen onlookers.

I ended the day both homeless and jobless. I slept on a friend's couch for a few days and then I called my sister across the country and asked her to pick me up at the airport the next day. I didn't say goodbye to anyone.

I kept drinking when I moved away. The more I drank, the more my life became a series of misadventures.

I went out every night. I met girls at bars and parties, held their hands as we walked back to my house, promising to make breakfast in the morning. The next day, I always pretended to be asleep until they left. After these nights, I told the stories to my friends. They laughed and shook their heads, amused and unsurprised that I had sex in a bar bathroom with someone whose name I couldn't quite remember but was pretty sure started with a J. But every time I woke up beside a new woman, I paused for a moment before opening my eyes, wishing for just a second that the woman beside me wasn't the one I met at the bar last night; wishing it to be her, to be Alice, returned from the past and ready to forgive. I kept drinking.

Late one night, alone at my house, I smoked a cigarette on my porch and tossed it close to but not into the ashtray. I then went inside to watch "Rescue Me," a television show about the New York City Fire Department, which is full of drunks and heroes. When it was over, I got off my couch and took another beer from my fridge and walked to my porch. When I opened the door, I saw fire climbing the wall beside my empty ashtray.

I threw my beer onto the fire, and when that didn't work, I grabbed the fire extinguisher and sprayed the wall and thought about how I would have to clean the remounts tomorrow. When the fire extinguisher was empty, the embers were still burning in the wall. I called 911 and told the dispatcher that I didn't want to tell him my name and address, because I didn't want to get in trouble, but he was insistent and soon the fire trucks were screaming in my driveway. Before I ran outside, I grabbed the flask of vodka I kept in my freezer and hid it in my pocket. When the firemen arrived, I noted that their boots were getting dirt on my floor and I'd have to clean that, too. They dragged the hose upstairs and across my newly vacuumed carpet and asked me what started the fire. "Spontaneous combustion," I said. This did not make them laugh or even smile. I told the fire chief that it couldn't have been a cigarette, that I don't smoke because it's disgusting, and besides, even if I did, it's a nonsmoking building.

After the fire was out -- planks missing from my porch, siding and installation charred, everything covered in ash -- and the firefighters rolled up their hose, they shook my hand and congratulated me for not panicking, for using the fire extinguisher, for calling 911. It seemed ridiculous to shake my hand after I'd started a fire, and I said this, but, no, they said, "If you hadn't acted then, the fire would have spread to the roof."

I finished the rest of the vodka and tried to sleep but my sheets smelled like campfire and my head was spinning so much that I had to keep one foot on the floor. I thought about my neighbors, about the guy next door who lives with his sister and has a thousand dollars' worth of miniature cars. I thought about the neighbors on the other side with a wicker pentagram on their front door and the neighbor downstairs who thinks I'm a boy, and I thought about the neighbors a few units down who had just gotten engaged and had this whole new part of their lives happening. Three more minutes, the firemen said, and the fire would have slid across the roof and taken the Hot Wheels and the wedding invitations and we would be people who lost things in a fire.

My sister came over the next day, furious, not just that I started a fire, but that I was drinking alone on a Tuesday night. She yelled at me through angry tears, screaming that I could have killed myself or someone else. She was tired, she said, of worrying if I was going to spend the night at home or in the hospital or in jail. My problems had become Alice's problems and now my problems were becoming my sister's problems and this couldn't happen again. It was time, finally, to break up with booze.

Over the next few weeks, I mopped my kitchen floor and cleaned my fridge and contributed to the NPR fund drive. I got a library card and running shoes and planted tomatoes in my yard. Staying sober was hardest right before dark, when my friends were at their usual spots at the bar, lifting bottles and telling stories. When the itch started, all I wanted was a night of complete oblivion, when you achieve an almost Buddhist state, when there is no yesterday and no tomorrow and no consequence as long as the bottle is in your hand. I probably would have given up at the first itch, but there was my sister, watching. I listened to her problems instead of talking about mine. She told me about work, about her ex-boyfriends, about her life. I listened, and after a few weeks, when the parkinsonian tremor retreated and my brain was no longer muddy, I looked at the tomatoes growing outside of my window and was happy.

Will it last forever? Will I never again wake up in an emergency room or a stranger's bed? Maybe. But gin in the summer and bourbon in the winter are so good, and so, too, is the possibility of relapse, of knowing that even if I ruin everything, even if Alice and my sister and all the rest are gone, my third love will always have me back.

But for now, it's just my sister and I, like it was in the beginning. She's five-five; I'm five-six. She's in patent leather shoes; I'm in snow boots. She thinks of men and wishes there was just one good one to call her own. And I think of her, of Alice, of this stupid, sad exile from the one who loved me violently, the one I can't forget.

Excerpted from "Crush: 26 Real-life Tales of First Love"

Katie Herzog has a B.A. in literature from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She is currently a copy editor and freelance writer. She lives in Durham, N.C.. Visit her blog at http://twentytwentyhindsight.com/

By Katie Herzog

Katie Herzog is a staff writer at Grist.org. Her writing has appeared on Salon, The Guardian, Vox, and she currently at work on a book of essays called "Not Safe For Work."

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