Athenae says "writing is only real on the first draft." So here you go.
For the second time this year, and only the third time in my life, I am holding in my hands a book with my writing in it. Yes, an actual book. Not a blog entry, not an online journal, not some rough draft printed out in a hurry on the way to some open mic night. A book, with, like, pages 'n' fonts 'n' shit.
Where We Know: New Orleans as Home is the sequel to Do You Know What It Means from Chin Music Press, the second in a planned trilogy. It's got stuff in it from previous DYK collaborators Anne Gisleson, Sarah Inman, David Rutledge, Rex Noone, plus my buddies Mark Folse and Sam Jasper PLUS Lolis Elie and Jennifer Kuchta and a bunch of other names that I need to learn.
It feels a little surreal, actually. Both of my stories in this book were actually written a long time ago; the long one, the better one, was written in one afternoon almost exactly two years ago, in a coffee shop in Ann Arbor. It was a very very weird time in my life. My marriage had finally come apart just three months prior (an event a long time in the making which only needed an hour of willpower to finally execute). I had gone through Gustav evacuation, alone, while my ex took my kids in the opposite direction, and I'd almost lost (and thought hard about quitting) my job because my boss expected me to work regardless of whether or not I had power and internet in the federal disaster area where I lived. I had just found out that I was possibly going to be forced to move to Austin to retain custody of my kids. And Dave Rutledge wanted me to write something about New Orleans.
I had a metric fuckton I could write about, but every time I put pen to paper it would all come out angry and then I'd wonder what it would sound like being read out loud by a lawyer in family court, and I'd delete it.
It was too soon. It might still be too soon, I don't know. One of these days I suppose I'll have to write about "surviving a hostile divorce during a historic natural disaster", but not yet.
At any rate, sitting in Ann Arbor two years ago, with the person who is now my girlfriend, in a coffee shop on a crisp Upper Midwest autumn day, an apple picking day (we actually did pick apples that weekend), I stared my custody fears right in the eye, and I flinched. And I rolled the calendar back exactly one page to the trauma before this one, to Ashley.
And I wrote, in one long barf onto the page, "In My Home Over There".
I don't know how I feel about it now. I re-read it and I do like the writing; I do feel like I captured the tenor of how our conversations used to go, even if not everything in the dialog was said that day, or was said by the person attributed.
I just feel weird about coming out with yet-another Ashley story more than two-and-a-half years after he died. When I wrote this, I had no idea David Simon was going to use his dialogue in Treme. I sure as hell didn't know that one of Treme's characters would be inspired in part by Ashley. Played by John Goodman, no less.
I don't want it to seem like I'm just piling on with another contribution to the Canon of Saint Ashley.
I mean, fuck me. If I could only have seen. If the day we sat on the steps of Lafitte, somebody had offered to tell us a story, and it went like this: "Well, see, Ray, your buddy Evan is gonna kill himself and then you and Ashley are gonna write this blog about The Wire that David Simon reads and then Ashley's gonna just up and die and then your twenty-year marriage is going to end and another Cat 5 storm will come and Simon's gonna make a show about New Orleans with a character like Ashley but you won't be around 'cause your ex's head is going to explode and she's gonna make you move back to Austin."
Yeah, sure, buddy. That story will so not sell, no matter how much CGI you throw at it. Who would believe it?
Everything I've ever finished, I've submitted for publication, and every one of them has eventually been published. Seven stories total. Six of them published this year. Only problem is, most of those were written between December 2007 and February 2009.
I've got a huge pipeline of unfinished and unworthy crap.
I don't know where I'm going with this.
I had this idea that I was going to do a blog post about how sometimes life really does follow a three act structure. How most conflicts in life really do eventually resolve one way or another, that they have a setup, a turning point, a second act, a turning point, a climax, and a resolution.
But it's all bullshit.
My sobriety birthday was Wednesday. Seven years.
My girlfriend and I joke about what situations would make it worth going back out into the drinking world. She's sober too, more than four years. We talk about the Belgian beer tour that neither one of us ever took. We talk about being able to have a big glass of red wine with dinner. We talk about Guinness on Saint Patrick's Day, or beer at a baseball game, or vodka in the freezer, or whether at our age something like coke or meth or speed or acid wouldn't just be a physically grueling twitchy awfulness.
We joke. But what's funny is that even when we try, we can't really romanticize this shit. I remember in a meeting one time, this guy was mocking the old alcoholic refrain of "if only I could drink like a normal person", the plaintive whine of somebody who misses the old life. "Fuck that!" he said. "If I could drink like a normal person, I'd drink all the time!"
There is no old life to go back to. It doesn't exist. I never drank like a normal person. The thought of having "just a couple of beers" sounds wretched. If you think the voices in your head are loud when you're trying not to have that first drink, can you imagine what the voices sound like when you are desperately trying not to have that third drink?
Sometimes I get a little pang in my heart when I think about the old life. Living in the big yellow house in Hyde Park, the kids playing in the yard. I thought, what have I done? Did I really blow all of that up?
But I didn't. It was already coming apart all on its own. It was coming apart before we bought the house in New Orleans. Before we even moved to New Orleans. Before we even decided that we couldn't afford the big yellow house and still have a stay-at-home mom in the family, and for some reason it never occurred to us that it would still be affordable if there were two incomes paying the bills.
Sometimes I miss that time, 2000 or 2001 or 2003, when I could drink normally and have a big happy family in a big old house in Hyde Park. When I try to see back behind the serial traumas of the past few years, see what came before, I see bright and sunny images, and I have to squint real hard to see the lie.
Because that's what it was. It was a lie. If I kept drinking I was going to die, it was only a matter of time. If I stayed married, I was going to die, it was only a matter of time. And just because I can look back fondly on all those days when I could maintain my complex life of denial does not mean that all those other dark days in between didn't happen. Just because I can hold my head a certain way and see only the kids, does not mean there wasn't that other stuff. Regardless of whether we kept that house or not, or moved to New Orleans or not, whether I quit drinking or not, by 2010 I would be doing exactly what I'm doing now. Living alone, in Austin, seeing my kids for my allotted half which is never enough, waiting for things like relationships and career that have been put on hold for a few years and having to remind myself that relationships and career were on hold in 2006, they were on hold in 2004, they were on hold for a long fucking time and I need to stop thinking of this time as being some kind of antechamber to the rest of my life, some kind of setup for the real thing that's coming soon.
This is the life right here. This is all we get. I must never forget that.