When You Stop Digging
I have started going to Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings—the acronym is SLAA, pronounced like the chopped cabbage side-dish that a friend of mine once declared only straight people eat. Which means that the other program I belong to, the so-called “beverage program,” which shall remain nameless because the first rule of Fight Club is we do not talk about Fight Club, would be pronounced “AHHHHHHHHHHH!” Something between a war cry and a scream. That sounds about right to me.
I sit in the chair in these meetings and I build a parapet around myself: coffee cup, water bottle, sweater, second sweater, handbag. No one can come near me. An elderly woman with Birkenstocks and a Eugene Levy brow sits down beside me and I peep at her from behind the privacy curtain of my hair. She is a sex addict, I tell myself with wonder. I am mentally pointing.
There is no way to announce that I am a “sex addict” without feeling like a parody of myself. Before the meetings, I apply strata of red lipstick and pull my skirt up higher in case someone good wants to relapse with me—I can’t help myself, I am a sex addict. In my head, I am supposed to smolder at the eyes and stick out my chest as I say these words, like I’m in a Tennessee Williams play and I’m all depending on the kindness of strangers.
The meetings are strange and confusing. Unlike other 12 step jams where there is one specific thing you do not do, i.e. drink alcohol, pound crystal meth into your veins, etc., the recovery process for sex addiction involves an end-goal of having sex. I can sit in church basements at meetings until I’m numb, nothing is ever going to turn me into a girl who can one day sip a lychee martini and then go about her life. Whenever I hit the bottle, there’s always going to be apartment fires and losing my shoes on the walk home and waking up to a bedroom full of squirrels and no idea how they got there. So this idea of moderation is radical. I sit in the sex meetings with people who brand themselves sex addicts, love addicts, fantasy addicts (I picture an apartment full of Gandalf posters, unicorns, those 12-sided D&D dice), affection addicts, and codependents, and I mentally bookmark men I find interesting.
The meeting I go to most is called, depressingly, Becoming Unaddicted to A Person. It’s been one month, one day, and a handful of stingy hours: no contact with Sketch. My person.
I visit my friend in New England, a woman who’s married and who has a horse. This seems like gluttonous good fortune to me, but she lets me ride her horse, and I do not act flirty and cute around her husband, which is an improvement over some of my recent behavior. I learn that a pony is not a different animal than a horse—it refers to any horse that is short. I ride a pony named Raven through the back trails, and the leaves have begun to turn. I feel happy for a little while, sore in the space between my legs but for once without an attendant need to text pictures of myself in skimpy yoga outfits in a transparent plea for attention. I just ride the fucking pony, and like it, and go home.
I’m supposed to be cycling down from the frantic hunt for sex and validation, but I keep looking for loopholes, a way to feed my jones for boy-attention. I message Engineer-Carl, offering to take the bus out to New Jersey to see a Neil Simon show he just directed at some shitty suburban community theater. The bus from New York to New Jersey is disgusting—I take it all the time to see my parents, and I want to record a PSA with the working title “It’s Never OK to Eat Eggs on the Bus.” But I figure taking the trouble to see his show is a nice gesture, and admittedly I’m craving attention; I’m falling in love twelve times a day. But I don’t want to be a big tease or an asshole, so I tell him (maturely, in a Facebook message) that I’m doing a thing and I’m staying out of physical entanglements for a bit, “but you’re my friend and I want to see you and I want to see your show.” I guess I sound like a fucking weirdo; he writes back, “I’d rather you didn’t come, then.”
So I don’t.
Miffed, I de-friend him on Facebook, a dick move that always feels incredibly satisfying when someone has hurt my feelings online. It reminds me of middle-school, when friendship was a package deal that could be bestowed or rescinded: “Give me half your ice cream sandwich and I will be your best friend” was a legitimate offer. A boyfriend was out of reach, so we transferred all the drama to one another.
I teach seventh-grade, or at least I will until someone at school discovers my blog and I get fired, and I see kids come in crying with heartbreaking frequency. I always want to tell them that this is not what life is like. Only in seventh grade is someone coming up to say the meanest thing anyone has ever said to you a fucking daily occurrence. You get older and people learn to talk about you properly: passive-aggressively, and behind your back. Or sometimes they send you messages on Facebook, rejecting your offer of friendship.
The kids make up for a lot. I hear a lot of teachers talk about making a difference, closing the achievement gap between rich and poor, and naturally, having two months every year to get as far from New York as a working-poor person can. But for me, a colossal draw of teaching has always been a chorus of voices asking me things and saying my name while they do it. It’s hard to feel lonely while four different seventh-graders repeatedly intone your name because they want the stapler.
The girls at my school are touching creatures—slouching in their hoodies, all hollow bird bones. They link arms in the hallway when they walk—once in awhile, I am conscripted to join the chain. I lend them my phone to take pictures for yearbook during an assembly, and they return it with a group selfie on the homescreen. I have no idea how to change it back.
The boys haven’t reached puberty yet, but they will, over the course of the year, eyes widening in sudden recognition as the penny drops: girls.
When I was twelve, I fell hard for a boy at my school: Robert. I would sit behind him in social studies and cry. My school had a dance every few months; a dj would be hired, orange drink and cheez doodles would be served in the cafeteria. All the girls would spend their time in the bathroom, running vital messages back and forth to their encampment in the lobby near the payphones. There would be occasional forays onto the dance floor, scattering when a slow song bubbled up. We watched enviously while the three middle school couples came together, everything we didn’t have.
Everyone knew I loved Robert, so when a slow rhythm started up, a bunch of girls grabbed me by the back of my oversized sweater dress and propelled me across the waxed gymnasium floor. I braced my feet like a cat before a bath, but my flats slid like runners across it and it was a sleigh ride before I stood before him. I think hellos were exchanged. A ring of girls around us serious as riot police, I put my arms around his neck and began the slow dance, which involves swaying from side to side like a mental patient. I said, I am certain, at least five stupid things that are mercifully lost in the mists of time.
But then the song changed, and got all up-tempo. So no one was slow-dancing, but Robert and I grimly soldiered on, swaying in the inertia. And it wasn’t just any song—it was that 80s staple in which the woman sings, “We don’t have to take our CLOTHES OFF! To have a good time—NO NO! We can dance and party ALL NIGHT! And drink some cherry wine—UH HUH!” It is a song/personal prophecy about not getting laid and burgeoning alcoholism, and when it was finished, Robert ran one way and I ran the other.
It’s been nearly three decades since that magical night left its cheez doodley fingerprints on my consciousness, and I am only now beginning to be able to tell that story without wanting to crawl under furniture. What does this mean? Will I see seventy before I am able to pull out and look at the pieces of the last year without wanting to rip out my eyes and throw them at somebody?
I run into Sketch, walking with his parents in Jackson Heights at the Diwali Festival, an Indian affair bright with costume gold and steeped in the smell of cardamom. He walks me back to Sunnyside, asking why I am always so mean to him. He asks: Do you want to go to the movies? Do you want to go hiking next weekend? And: Can I kiss you? I tell him I’m not doing that right now—I’m trying to do something different. As revenge, he tells me about the girls he’s been sleeping with. Apparently, Kim is a squirter. I love him, but there’s a new layer of relief on top of the complicated, seven-layer-taco-dip strata of my feelings for him when I tell him goodbye.
One of the side effects of being a “sex addict” (ugh, air quotes are once more being heavily deployed) is vanity—how I look, how my body looks. I am driven to wear heels my arches can no longer tolerate. I torture my hair with a keratin-and-formaldehyde process so toxic that most salons have banned it and the place I go to leaves me in the hands of the Korean Lennie from Of Mice and Men—his tongue sticks out the corner of his mouth while he works, he sometimes hits my head with the wrong side of the hairbrush. There is a French poodle that lives in the shop, tethered to a chair, and my friend Kyla jokes that it is like the canary in the coal mine, posted to give the workers a heads-up when the chemical levels reach toxicity.
Hair extensions are snapped into my scalp and contact lenses turn my eyes a Fremen blue. Unlimbering the credit card, I spend vast sums of money on clothing and black silk underwear; I am a vain woman, and I would rather work on my outsides than my insides.
So in light of all this, it is particularly disturbing to me that one morning, twenty years ago, I woke up and half of my face had quit. It looked like one of those masks that denote comedy and tragedy; on one side, everything was a few centimeters lower, like there was some invisible sinkhole that my features were slumping into. I didn’t know what had happened, but I had been doing a lot of heroin at the time, so I figured this was down to that.
It wasn’t. It was Bell’s Palsy, some kind of neurological tic that shuts down communication along the seventh cranial nerve once in a while and forces me to tape my eye shut when I sleep. It’s not that uncommon; I was just reading that the hot-shit CEO of a media chain had it recently and was freaking everyone out at meetings. But I get it the way I seem to get everything—over and over and over. Every couple of years since I was twenty, there’s at least one neurological brown-out and I further lose my ability to pronounce words with an F or a P.
Mostly it comes back, but there is further slippage with each passing attack, enough so that it’s noticeable in photos. “What’s up with your face?” was the opening line to an email from a suitor on one of the online dating sites. So much of what we perceive as beauty is down to symmetry and youth, and as those things recede in the rearview mirror for me, other things come and take their place. I still think I’m dead sexy; I think I look interesting, that my face has character. But Sketch thought I was pretty, and I miss that: looking at him looking at me.
I carry on with the sex meetings; people are counting days off their last happy-ending massage, off their last extramarital tryst. Some of them have sworn off masturbation, and it freaks me out, as they count days, to know precisely when this or that paunchy stranger last came into his own hands.
As for me, I am getting increasingly hypersensitized to male touch. I go with my friends to a haunted house downtown, unaware that it is Touch-Me Thursday, and accept a glowstick that lets the actors know: touch me. We traverse the winding corridors and through the sets: meat locker with hatchet-wielding pig, zombified strip club, surgical theater with the patient wide-awake and screaming. The glowstick around my neck pulls killers and freaks from their niches and I am cornered and stroked. A man in a rubber mask grabs my hair and I find I am breathing harder.
We leave, and my friends are laughing, and I join them, but I am mentally looking around for another haunted house. I take the glowstick with me. I troll about the Internet looking for scarier, more explicit, more intense. Anything with a superlative label.
I go to my sex meeting the next night, and people laugh when I share about this, as people always laugh when you say something in a meeting that is not funny but is somehow relatable. It’s a bark of recognition.
I go to a yoga class after, and the instructor looks like Sketch: tall, bald, cut, features that look like they were hacked out of a mountainside. I spend the class with my eyes pressed to him, chin lowered like a bull about to charge. My chest heaves when he comes over and puts his hands on me, lifting my legs higher. I put my hand on his hairless chest when I thank him for the class afterwards, and give him my deepest eye-contact over tea in the lobby; another girl comes out with her Botticelli red curls a fountain from her ponytail, but I deftly box her out when she tries to join the conversation. This, by the way, is why I would never date a yoga instructor: you would have to be constantly circling him, growling “MINE” at all the encroaching hyenas.
I ask him to crack my back, which is still tight after class, and he wraps his arms around me from behind. I press my ass against him as much as I dare, and lean back into him as he lifts me off my feet and my spine crackles down to my tail. Wobbly on my feet after, I ask after the classes he is taking, having Facebook-stalked the shit out of him, and he tells me about the Kundalini-training he is doing. It’s all about moving the sexual energy up out of your root chakra, he says, into the other chakras so that you can function more creatively.
Since I’ve been practicing this whole abstinence thing, I’ve been writing everyday, for the first time ever. It’s new. Is it because I’m not humping up on every weirdo I can find? I don’t know, but it feels very Sophie’s Choice. My libido or this thing where the words come out? Which do I need to feed more?
Halloween is coming up, and my friend Joanne sends me a satirical post on Facebook showing different available costumes for women looking to get their sexy on: you can be a sexy hammer, a sexy envelope, sexy late-stage syphilis. Apparently there is nothing we can’t add fishnets and false eyelashes to.
I love Halloween, have since I was a kid. Sketch and I met and exchanged love-yous and moved in together right around Halloween; it was the one-year anniversary of his release from prison, and his parole officer used to come around and leave us just enough time to hide the cocaine. We dressed up together every year: Batman and Catwoman; Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf; Lecherous Priest and Catholic Schoolgirl.
Sketch likes to describe the evolution of our relationship thusly: we were back-to-back, fighting our demons together. Then we were side-by-side. Then we kept turning and ended up head-to head as combatants. The last couple of years we were together, we didn’t bother matching our costumes. I went as Hit Girl and he went as a Yeti, and we walked in the East Village Halloween Parade one last time. Walking in this parade is the only way to see it; the sidewalks fill up with spectators like caulking from barricade to building. At the end of the route, someone was giving out samples of Nivea which were discarded in the street, and Sixth Avenue was a long slick of moisturizer. Sketch asked me to take a picture of him in his Yeti costume with two police-officers, in commemoration of walking out of prison exactly one decade earlier. He had added a Yankees hat and an I heart NY tee-shirt to the ensemble: a New York yeti. We laughed our way down the slippery streets, holding on to each other.
I want to call him, but I don’t know what I will say, or what I want him to say. I just want a moment of contact with him, any contact. I could bump into him in the street or grab his ankle in a haunted house. I could send him a single emoji: a pumpkin, or a ghost.
He texts me on Veteran’s Day; this feels appropriate; we are certainly veterans of something. It surprises me to see his name on my phone. It’s like getting a text from Santa, and for a few moments, all I can do is blink at it.
He asks if we can talk later, and before we talk, I know it will be the same talk we’ve had before; we love each other, things have to change, why is this so hard?
I feel livelier when I get off the phone, but the next morning, I don’t want to get out of bed to write. I drift through my day, features listing to one side, feeling as insubstantial as a ghost that begs you to touch her.
Tippy Rex is a semi-reformed fuck-up turned blogger who teaches middle school in New York City and thus attempts to mask her identity online so that her students won’t find all the drug and dildo references with her name attached to them. She has an MFA from Columbia, and is easily distracted by shiny objects. Her blog can be found at www.whenyoustopdigging.com.