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Taking the Edge Off

Things we love that do not love us back.

A cigarette is inhaled

New York—my New York, at least—is a place where addictions are accepted with a shrug. You can say, to friends and coworkers, that your relationship with drugs, with cigarettes, with food, or with alcohol is more important to you than relationships with people or God. And usually they will understand, laugh, and commiserate.

Below this acceptance is a conceit: that, by pursuing your relationship with whatever thing you love the most, you feed some empty hole in your soul. That you are so unique in your suffering that you need this compensation. Bullshit. There are plenty of people with great sadnesses in their life, and they map them carefully and steer around them, paddling on.

For me, it's the nightly pack of Marlboros, the package a white hankerchief on a red background, monogrammed in gold with two upright horses below a crown. For Paul it's things starchy, with salt and sugar. For our mutual friend Arden, who lives two doors down from Paul, it is booze, alcohol in all its configurations, from cold, sweet beer to neat scotch. We are not in denial about our addictions. We acknowledge that we are in their thrall; we acknowledge the pain they will cause us later in life, if we do not stop them now, as we edge towards, or in my case, beyond 30, when the body's magical ability to smooth and regenerate itself ceases. Even knowing this, we refuse to admit that life could continue without these pleasures. That's the real denial. It's easy to admit a problem; but life without these immediate, accessible comforts, life where you crave something but cannot have it—

It's terrifying to contemplate. I put it off, waiting for the doctor to issue an ultimatum, for some crisis to give me an excuse to throw my lighter from the window of a bus.

Sometimes we step out together to partake in mutual compulsion, drinking three or four beers at Sparky's or Bar Bar, then crossing the street for pizza, my pack of Marlboros emptying a little more at each step of the journey as I work through them, as my two friends cadge from me. Paul and Arden derive fresh pleasure from inhaling. For me it's not pleasure, but a moment of clarity and release, something stable and trustworthy, in opposition to wide, unbounded life. From the pizza we go to another bar to finish the night.

We like the weaknesses in each other. We have each quit, gone dry, dieted—then been called, alone, late at night, to the bodega, knowing self-betrayal in every step. Supplicants, anticipating release as we slide the money—money that could feed the poor, or be invested (who fucking cares!)—across the counter, thanking the Yemeni (PAL Supermarket), Korean (Frank's), or Palestinian (Apple Tree) vendor for their roles as the minimum-wage priests of the cash register, for selling us the balm for our sleepless woes.

There are terms to quantify these friendships: co-dependency, enabling. But we are also just friends, with no desire to pull out the rug from under one another, protecting each other from too much truth about the corpulence, the whisky-puffed face, the raw throat and steady coughing. Once that rug goes, who can catch you? Not me; I can't catch anyone. I'm stumbling myself.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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