It’s someone’s birthday and we’ve started the night at some Austin restaurant. We eat up and drink well before slipping away early. Platters of tacos, bottomless bowls of queso, Mexican martinis. The birthday girl is a stoner, but she won’t put up with stronger stuff at her party. So, someone will duck out to make a call and score some blow and someone else will whisper let’s go back to my place and then, over the next two hours, a small crowd will collect at the door, one carload at a time, baggies and Lone Stars in hand, like flotsam at a sewer grate. Someone will play records, someone will try to talk someone else’s girlfriend into taking off her shirt, someone will chain smoke in the kitchen and tell everyone about the vision they have for their next album, someone will sneak off to a back room with someone else’s boyfriend, and someone will pass out in a position we find hilarious. I’ll take at least a hundred photographs.
By morning, still awake, I’ll feel straight enough to drive home into the low glare of the rising sun. I’ll wash off the party makeup. I’ll put on something presentable and head to work. I’ll think I’m keeping it together, pulling the wool over the eyes of my day-walking coworkers—but in less than a year, I’ll be laid off: my lucrative, if meaningless, livelihood the victim of economic downturn, a puritanical manager, and the give-no-fucks attitude of my burgeoning coke hobby.
That year, I sunk into the mud of smudged eyeliner and cocaine and cheap beer, I suited up in ridiculous heels and sequined dresses, I nodded sagely in bathroom stalls as one after the other told me everyone else’s secrets, and while they talked, while they danced, while they humiliated one another, I clicked the shutter. The camera was my lie: it suggested I was in control of the frame. It suggested I was busy; it suggested that I was building a body of work, instead of grinding my over-active brain into the ground.
All winter and the following spring, I balanced a job, late nights, triathlon training and mortgage payments—each one of those things was supposed to assure me that the others weren’t defining me. All I knew was what I wasn’t, what I didn’t want to be forever, life as negative space.
That night, doing bumps off someone’s car key, in some bathroom lit by a single bulb, I thought: ‘what an adventure,’ not ‘what a sliding downhill.’ I couldn’t imagine next week, let alone how galvanizing losing my job and house would be in six months—that it would free up positive space in my mind, enough to fit a new vision of myself (or an old vision, lost to the myth of ‘growing up’)—as a writer and teacher and explorer.
Since then, I’ve written many words and taught many students, I’ve visited four continents, things that didn’t seem possible then. I quit cocaine, but keep relapsing into day jobs.
It’s easy, with perspective, to circle that year with a thick red pen and label it “near-perfect self-destruction.” That’s not quite fair. To do so suggests that “better” years are not also part of the terminal condition of life: an often graceless barreling toward destruction. We might hit the gas some years, or coast into a slow turn for long spells, but this road we’re on, and all our tickets-to-ride are one-way. I needed that year just like every year before it, to get to this one.
Chelsea Biondolillo is a writer and teacher living in Oregon. She is the author of two prose chapbooks, Ologies and #Lovesong, and her work has been collected in Best American Science and Nature Essays 2016, Waveform: Twenty-first Century Essays by Women, and How We Speak To One Another: an Essay Daily Reader. She is the recipient of an Olive B. O'Connor fellowship and currently teaches online science writing workshops for Creative Nonfiction magazine.
Chelsea would love readers to consider donating to Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM), an organization that helps Austin musicians access affordable healthcare, including dental work, doctor visits and prescriptions, psychiatric counseling sessions, eye exams, out-patient procedures, specialist referrals, hearing screenings and more. Visit myhaam.org.