Of all the text messages I have sent from the depths of blackout drinking binges, “I just want to be somewhere safe,” is the one that haunts me most. I sent it to a friend one night in 2010 after my typical Irish Goodbye from one of many 25th birthday parties we attended that year. My predilection for abandoning social functions in pursuit of drugs or one-night-stands (and often both) was commended as an adventurous spirit in college but swelled to a general concern after graduation and became an actual crisis by our third year away from the shelter of excuses an undergraduate status offers. I emerged from the blackout in daylight in Bushwick on a street I didn’t recognize and with my pocket buzzing with impending regret in the form of text alerts on my phone.
I scrolled upward in my texts to find the series of unanswered “Where did you go?” texts from my friend before I reemerged on the screen hours later with nonsensical answers and her patient attempts to decode them. Then I saw the apparent moment of lucidity in which I told her I wanted to be somewhere safe and felt my heart sink to my stomach and anchor there so tightly that I bent forward. I considered the terror of receiving this message and the implications being that I was somewhere unsafe that I could not name. The guilt of knowing I induced worry was nothing new after nights spent sending gibberish dispatches from my unknown antics. But the clarity of my own apparent fear and not knowing its source made me feel something like grief for the memories I lost to blackouts.
There was a night at the Levee when a roommate I despised alleged that I could not resist him so we’d made out passionately at the bar. A houseguest of his whom I had not given a second thought approached me after overhearing the conversation to say that his friend was lying and that he had been the aggressor, not to worry about it. There was a night at Union Hall when I’d been driven to tears by romantic rejection and left my credit card behind at the bar. I returned the next day to collect the card and before handing it to me, the bartender from the night prior asked, “Are you ok?” He said it with an intonation that suggested he meant existentially and not just in the present moment, an extraordinarily generous gesture from a man whose job means he is more often solicited for an ear than actively offering one.
There was an overcast morning where I emerged from the blackout on a bench on the boardwalk in Brighton Beach that I remember sitting down on to stare down the blackness of the Atlantic in a simmering drunk rage but did not recall lying down on. An elderly Russian man sitting on the other end of the bench stood up and said, “It’s time for you to go home now,” before walking away without hinting at how long he’d been on shift as my guardian. This last incident was partially portrayed on the season finale of the first season of Girls five years later and I remain convinced to this day that the story traveled from the parties where I told it as comedy rather than pathology to Lena Dunham, weaving me into popular culture from local cautionary tale. And then there was the morning after I’d felt unsafe when I put my hand back into my pocket to find the business card of a free car service that offers rides to heavily intoxicated women that I’d never heard of. And before that car ride that I failed to take home is the face of someone I will never recall who found a frightened stranger in the dark and tried to offer a light to guide her home.
I’d go on to spend three years without drinking to explore the source of the pain that made me intoxicate into blackness and have resumed drinking for the last three without the destructive consequences or the lost memories. This good fortune and the gloss of distance make these stories susceptible to nostalgic sweetening. The takeaway in that version is that while every cell of my body conspired to self-annihilation, a critical mass of mostly faceless strangers in Brooklyn conspired to keep me alive. But then I recall another face I’ll never see, the one of a girl wandering afraid in the night that these strangers saw and reached out to. I mourn sometimes that I cannot thank them, but mostly I fear that she haunts them still whether the question of whether she ever found some place safe.