Spotlight Excerpt from ‘The Geographic’
This memoir excerpt was written by Kristin Gourlay in Megan Stielstra’s 12-Month Memoir Generator
The Geographic is an unconventional memoir about trying to outrun the truth. Kristin Gourlay was a promising journalist with an appetite for adventure and an even bigger appetite for wine. By the time she was in her mid-30s, she couldn’t last twelve hours without a drink. She woke up in strange places. Her husband and daughter left. She lost her job and home. And then she faced a choice: get help or succumb.
Gourlay’s story speaks to the desire we all have to escape ourselves sometimes, to start over somewhere new after everything has fallen apart. Some alcoholics call that “pulling a geographic.” Gourlay takes readers inside the desperation of daily blackout drinking, around the carousel of detox and rehab, and across the country. Chronicling her trek toward healing, she asks whether getting well is about more than just not being sick any longer, but about coming home after a long time away.
This is where it ends.
I stagger down a deserted sidewalk. It’s three o’clock in the morning and I’m squinting to bring the hazy cones of lamplight into focus. Up ahead—three blocks? seven? I’m too drunk to know—is my mother’s apartment in Berkeley. Behind me, hours at a neighborhood wine bar, plus several more drinking with strangers I’d met there. All of a sudden I remember: my mother might be worried about me.
When I’d first pulled a stool up to the bar, I had intended to be just like any other sophisticated, educated local, sipping from a curated list of wines in delicate glass globes. I would stop after a few glasses—enough to settle the shakes. Then I would glide home on a happy buzz to my mother’s house, have a little dinner, and disappear into the guest room where I’d been staying for a week. What happened next is what always happened, except for one thing.
I walked into the candlelit, wood paneled space and settled on a stool between two couples. I asked for a list of wines by the glass. I chose a complex white, a wine to educate me in green apple and mineral. The bartender poured the appropriate six ounces, leaving enough space for a delicate drinker to nose the bouquet. I hated all that open space, a waste of air. I sipped at first, nodding at the bartender that yes, this was a great choice. That first glass softened me. I ordered another. I needed so much more to feel any relief. And it came, rising up my body, with each glass, like a warm bath. Then I wanted company. I inserted myself into a conversation between the two women sitting next to me. By then, I was my drunken self: the flirt, the curious journalist, the instigator, the confidante. After a few more glasses, we were leaning into each other, on an intimate adventure. This was always my destination when I drank. Then a voice I recognized broke the spell.
“Kristin,” my mother said.
She’d taken a seat on the stool next to me, this woman I take after so much: the blond bob, the blue eyes, both of us short enough our feet don’t touch the ground when sitting at a bar.
She leaned closer, lowering her voice. “Please come home.”
“How did you know I was here?” I asked. I’d told her I was going out, but didn’t say where. I was thirty-seven, after all, and not used to being tracked down in bars. She reminded me how few wine bars there were within walking distance of her apartment, and how well she knew me.
I introduced her to my neighbors. She nodded the way a mother nods at unwelcome friends. We’re having a great time, I told her. I don’t want to come home. Her grown daughter, drunk and embarrassing, like a toddler refusing to budge.
“If I have one drink with you here, will you come home with me?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said, not meaning it.
It had been a week since I’d moved back into her cozy, tidy apartment. My home before that: a dismal sober living house in San Francisco, where I’d landed after months of rehab. And before that, I’d driven my husband and daughter away from a lovely yellow house in a leafy Louisville neighborhood. He wasn’t ready, and might never be, to take me back.
I relapsed after a couple of weeks in the sober house. I was depressed, lonely, unable—or unwilling—to navigate this new life without alcohol, a life without the promise of relief on the horizon. One night on my way to an AA meeting, I passed a wine bar. The windows glowed gold with candlelight. Beautiful people gathered around communal tables. I paused and stared like a starved woman eyeing a feast. I debated. But I convinced myself I just needed to have one more cool glass of sauvignon blanc before a lifetime of abstinence. That private debate was barely over before I was seated and ordering a glass. Then one glass turned into an all-night binge. Around seven o’clock the next morning, I slinked back to the sober house. I slid quietly into my twin bed and pulled the covers up over my head. I prayed no one would find me until I’d slept for a few hours. Within minutes, the house manager was at the foot of my bed, telling me I was no longer welcome.
Why, after so many rehabs, so many detoxes, so many AA meetings, so many chances, had I decided I could sit in a wine bar and have one drink? The truth is that I knew it wouldn’t be just one drink. My body didn’t know “just one.” The truth is that I did not know how to bear discomfort or loneliness or hopelessness without a drink.
My mother brought me to her apartment and agreed to help me start over. It was early November. I went to her living room window to watch the light die. She put her arm around me. Just being close to her made me ache with shame. She held me as I wept over what I’d done, over how disappointed my husband would be. I was back at the beginning, weeks of sobriety undone. She reassured me that we’d figure this out. She forgave me. She knew I was hurting.
I took a shower and scrubbed off the last night’s humiliation. My headache receded. It occurred to me what a soft landing I’d had. The sober house manager could have called the police. My mother could have refused to take me in. But instead I was here in this comfortable apartment, a Christmas tree already decorated, a fire in the fireplace. Dinner would be ready soon. My despair ebbed. And then I thought: why rush? There’s no emergency. Just drink—go easy—for a few more days. That evening I told my mother I needed to taper off. I’ve learned my lesson, I said. I know what to do to get sober again. And at that moment I trapped us both in a prison of shiny promises. We believed, even as I filled the space with the chaos of a week-long, blurry bender.
My mother gave up and left the bar without me. I barely noticed. My new companions and I closed down the bar. We bought more wine on the walk to their house and climbed the stairs to a balcony encircled by redwoods and eucalyptus. Were those eucalyptus trees? Did I smell the mossy damp dark after midnight? We communed. We embraced. It was a dream in the trees. Then one of them went to bed. Had I overstayed my welcome? I hunted for my purse and tried to coordinate my limbs enough to make it down the stairs.
My memory is fog. I’m blowing it away with words now to step back inside this moment, the end of the story, and also the beginning.
I round the block. My mother is outside, smoking a cigarette. She’s been waiting up for me. Just then I remember her finding me at the bar, pleading with me to come home. Could I have just called it a night and complied? No. Nothing stopped me once I started drinking. That’s alcoholism 101.
Now, here I come, a spectacle stumbling through her neighborhood of bungalows and vintage apartment buildings, yards full of lemon and persimmon trees, a tiny Eden.
“Krissy,” she says, using my childhood nickname, the name that makes me feel both close and ashamed. “Come inside. Come with me.”
I ask for a drag on her cigarette and she gives me one of my own. Another concession while I stall. She urges me inside again. But I can’t imagine accepting her gentle hand. I don’t deserve the kindness. I cannot stop drinking. I’ve tried and failed. I give up. And so should she. I lay down in the street, next to the curb. Tiny rocks on the asphalt mean nothing to my numb, bloated body.
“Just let me go,” I say out loud. Then silently: forget about me. Let me slip into the dark.
“I can’t,” she says. “I’m your mother. I can never let you go.”
Tears come. Hers, mine. How could someone love me, this disappointment, this much?
“I know the sober you is inside and I’ll never stop fighting for her,” she says.
But you can’t stay here any longer, she tells me. You have to get back into treatment. She’s made an appointment for me at a rehab in Oakland. Tomorrow, she says, you have to be gone by the time I come home from work.
The next morning, I almost don’t call a cab. I almost cancel the appointment. I find myself on the cliff of a decision to live or die. I can go to treatment, or be homeless. Homelessness tugs at me for a moment: I could do that, I think. Beg for change, work a tiny job. Be free to drink until I die. I look out the window and see the sun has burned off last night’s fog, shining up the white stucco walls of the neighbor’s house and glossing the dark green leaves of a gardenia bush. Light from the window paints bright parallelograms on the carpet, and I turn away, my head aching under the weight of my hangover. But I can’t avoid it. I feel spotlit, as if the sun has caught me out, framing me on a silent stage. I’m still and quiet, a state of being I barely recognize. I see now that I have no home. No job. No money. No more husband. No more safe harbor with my mother. Even the despair from last night has evaporated. I have nothing left. It’s time to begin.