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The back window

Everyday toward 5 p.m., I sat at the back window of my spartan apartment at 823 E. 42nd Street and stared down the line of fence that separated the backyards on the adjacent streets. The scene was always dark green, the weed trees and oaks and hickories shading the yards and fence from the sun. I watched the day fade and the lights come on in the houses that fall. I watched people start their evening activities—cooking dinner, doing laundry, cleaning dishes. They were a universe apart from me. But I felt that I was just coming into a world where I would be doing just those same things.

I’d sobered up that summer. It was then that the organizing principle of my life had been removed. Everything I did concerned the day’s drunk. I worked to drink. Certainly, I paid rent, but I made sure my check was to the landlord on time so I would have a place to drink. I bought food, but often was the day I chose a six-pack and a pint over food when money was tight. When I wasn’t drinking, I was thinking of drinking. I had relationships but if they didn’t accommodate my alcohol habit, I changed them.

I entered a time of life that summer and fall when things were difficult and easy at the same time. In some ways, not having a sun to orbit loosed me into a vast new universe where anything could happen. The possibilities were endless. I could do anything I wanted, build anything I wanted, take any direction I wanted. At the same time, I had nothing, not even a reason to keep going to work or continuing with my studies. Being at the bottom meant good things. All directions led up. It also made me realize that in 27 years of living, I’d accumulated nothing but a few sticks of furniture and some pet birds.

Life was simple. Instead of being centered on alcohol, it had only one purpose: Not to drink. At first, I was at a loss. What would I do with all the time I now had on my hands? All the hours spent drinking, thinking about drinking, recovering from drinking suddenly gifted to me gave me a helpless and lonely feeling. I had no reason for living except not to drink. I had to find things to fill my time.

Fortunately, I was in school that summer and fall, mostly due to a scholarship set aside for white guys who earned C grades. That scholarship saved me from living on the street. Before I received it, I was literally wondering how I was going to pay rent. (I didn’t let that stop me from drinking.) I’d become unemployable. I had no place to go. I knew no one who would lend me money anymore. No one questioned my abilities at school. As long as I made an average grade, I was safe in class. With the scholarship in hand, I avoided getting evicted. It saved me and gave me a wide enough berth that I was, at the very least, housed.

I’ll never forget looking out my front window one day. An old girlfriend, someone for whom I held endless fondness, was walking down the street. We chatted for a moment, I at my window and she on the sidewalk. I wanted to tell her that everything had changed, that I’d quit drinking. But I knew it wouldn’t matter. I’d drunk my way out of her life and there was no getting back in. She was hesitant to talk to me, so deep was the hurt of our thwarted relationship. But I communicated one thing to her by not descending the steps to meet her on the walk: Things were different. I wished her well and she said she’d see me sometime soon. I looked forward to that moment and it wouldn’t come for another 25 years.

I went about the next nine months with one thing in mind. School became my organizing principle. I was dating a woman at the time. When I was just four months sober, she called to tell me she was pregnant. It was then that I did my best thinking. I had applied to graduate schools all over the country and was accepted to several programs. But the University of Wyoming had come through with the best deal—an assistantship with a stipend. Despite the pregnancy, I decided I would go to graduate school. I would do something for the future of me and my kid. I would rise above the station of life chosen for me. I would become legitimate.

It was a difficult decision, as it seemed the best course of action would be to settle down with my B.A. and do my best to be a father. As it was, I sat at that back window innumerable nights considering my options. I felt selfish. My daughter’s mom would bear a great burden. She was already a single mom to a lively and interesting young boy. Adding an infant to her responsibilities seemed unthinkable. But I was as set on school as I was on sobriety. It wound up being one of the best decisions of my life. My path benefited me and my daughter.

The downside was that I missed most of my daughter’s infancy. I would not know the sleepless nights and sicknesses. Though I drove that 750 miles between Laramie and Kansas City every break and holiday, I missed seeing her first steps and hearing her first words. I regret those things. But the vast good school did the both of us outweighed any of the “firsts” I didn’t witness.

Thank god for that back window. I often think of it and my view of the world from it. I was at the cusp of a new life with its own meaning. The window was where I reflected drinking coffee in the early evenings on the ways my life was changing. The quiet away from the street allowed my mind to wander. I began to think more was possible for me than just a miserable life without something to pin it down. After a few months, I found a center and followed my instincts.

If I have any regrets about that time it’s that I didn’t invite my daughter’s mom to join me and share the thinking I was putting down in notebooks. She might have understood. But, then again, watching the dark rainy days from that window sill, through that rusty screen, would not have been the same.

And life would not have led me to this particular thought, a moment of nostalgia for a time when life seemed so difficult but when it was also simple. Don’t drink. Go to meetings. It’s a lesson I try to bring to people who are just starting out. There’s hope, I want to say. Things get better if you let them. All it takes is some quiet.

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  1. Nicely written, Patrick. Windows have been and are cornerstones in my trancendente times. As I write this, I’m at a backyard window full of trees and yard, and when I’m in the writing room, my window looks out on an old oak full of birds and squirrels.

    Glad you were able to make amends with an old girlfriend. Yesterday, I made amends with my former husband. The journey through life with windows is a little like going through Alice’s looking glass. Curiouser and curiouser.

    • Thanks, Janet, for reading my essay. I often think of that window, those evenings when life was so formative. In some ways, I miss life’s simplicity in that time. I wouldn’t ever want to go back, since I know how difficult and confusing that time was. But I often dream of that window, the green, the lights coming on in the houses, and how much I wanted to be connected after my long isolation.

    • Thanks for reading my essay, Janet. I often think of that window, particularly when life gets a little complicated. I wouldn’t ever want to go back to that time. It presented me with a kind of simplicity but also confusion and pain. I dream of looking out on the green, on the evening, the lights coming on in the houses, and my need of connection with others after my long isolation. It was a good time but one that was particularly painful the way formative times of life can be.

  2. I love the way this describes a monumental, tangible shift in your life, and how you lament a decision while understanding the long-term benefit for your family.

    • Thanks, Elaine, for reading this essay. Yes, it was a big deal but it felt so difficult at first. Now, I look back on those days and see just how simple things were. Stay sober and let things happen. Life is seemingly very complex today when compared to those first days of a new life.

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