Καρδιά. Kardiá. The heart. We think of it ruling emotion, when it was the ancient physician Galen who thought the liver was where passions lay. Maybe this is truer than we think—I go back again and again to the idea of drinking to countermand heartbreak, drowning one’s sorrows. Diana Vreeland telling the story of how Clark Gable locked himself in a room with a case of whisky after the death of Carole Lombard, Jean Rhys’ protagonists—the grimy, hard-learned wisdom of the café and those endless fines, pretending to be light-hearted when all the while you feel it throbbing, on fire in your throat; the Sisyphean act of swallowing beats as you drink your memories…
During my years of unhappiness, it seems natural that I was interested in whiskies and liqueurs as a distraction, even though I drank little of them. We offset our troubles onto the strangest of things, but maybe it isn’t so strange—to project is to exorcise, or at least we live with that hope. I grew up in a house with a polished wood sideboard in the dining room—like many American homes, a room that was only used for company or special meals. The top was covered with a white linen cloth, on it sat a large, old silver tray, tarnished with years and shadows. Cocktail, liqueur, and wine glasses ascended by size in rows, some gilt-edged or lettered. On the left sat old bottles of drinks acquired by my grandfather and father: a square brown bottle meant to look like a monastery—complete with faded coloured monks in its windows—holding a gold-leaf concoction; another shaped like a giant dimpled strawberry, with the same shaped cardboard label attached with a thin gold cord. A dusty round bottle with a thin neck—something that would have kept a genie, been used by Paracelsus to create an elixir, or held Wagner’s Homunculus in Faust, filled with Hiram Walker dark emerald crème de menthe. There were clear minimal bottles of kirsch and aquavit, whose cherry and caraway flavours I would later discover haunted the mouth: first the pure, flame-like heat that made one only aware of the path it blazed through the body; then the spectre of fruit or spice,
transparent, sinking into pink flesh.
The only one that changed regularly was a bottle of some cheaper scotch—Cutty Sark, with a ship on the label is the one I remember most, my father refusing to place much interest in what he bought but acknowledging that for better and worse, the ageing bottles were a kind of family album. To drink something new, not from the memory palace that stood at silent attention, was to live in the present instead of the past. On the right was a salver (again, tarnished, as much homage to Junichiro Tanizaki’s shadows as an unspoken comment on the deterioration of a line) holding three crystal decanters, each with a coloured metal plaque on a chain denoting what spirit: scotch, brandy, rye—the latter always empty. The room was solely candlelit with thick, beeswax-yellow spiralling tapers when used, so my memories are of shadows on linen, on walls, the scent and smoke of snuffed light, colours of liquids like sacred hallucinations, not unremarkable as they were by day.
I have a memory that no one else seems to remember, and now think it was a fantasy that became imbedded with others like a cuckoo in a nest not its own: tiny Courvoisier cognac glasses which I adored so much that I smashed them deliberately, one by one, until there were none. I distinctly recall the pleasure of thin glass breaking beneath my feet, the first crack, then a grinding, crunching sound against the ugly yellow-black marbled linoleum kitchen tiles. Watching a whole become fragments, fragments become shining powder. Remembering a story about Cleopatra melting her pearls in vinegar and drinking them; wanting to place the powdered glass into another gilt thin-stemmed glass, fill it with one of the coloured liqueurs and drink it off as fearlessly as she did. Why would I think something like that so young, much less wish it so much that I willed it a real memory? It remains vivid in my mind even now, and I still want to drink the glass of crystalline powder, sparkling in crème de menthe like liquid gems.
There was an antique decanter encased high in black metal vines that occasionally appeared—filled with Reál sangria (from moss-green gallon glass jugs), sliced fruit, and ice, it was the most exotic and wondrous thing I’d ever seen alcohol-wise, bar a picture of a multi-coloured, layered pousse-café in a physics book. My father told me early on that his side of the family liked alcohol too much, so to always take care when I felt the desire for a drink. I have dim memories of a grandfather who always had a martini glass in hand when he visited—there is even a photo of me as a girl, unhappily perched on the chair next to him as he holds one. Later, an uncle—my father’s brother—would become an alcoholic, triggered by inconsolable grief. As he became more lost in its depths, he ceased to exist: slowly fading out of lives and life, the person he used to be spoken of as if a character in a book.
Because of those things, I think my father allowed himself to love the look and smell of drinks but drank sparingly, forever conscious of an unwanted legacy. Maybe alcohol—the collecting and studying of—during those unhappy years was a method of both escape and constraint for me. It was learning about something as well as a kind of control by proxy, because I had none over the rest of my life. I tended to those bottles: reading reviews, researching notes, distillation, and types—Japanese vs Scottish, American vs Irish. I occasionally sipped them, savouring that I would have one or two but no more, because what I wanted was to be able to drink until I forgot, and in forgetting, become someone new. My problems might have been in the heart, but I dealt with them through appealing to—or denying—my liver. Perhaps I thought too much of drowning, and decided the only thing I could do was keep my heart(s) from doing so, even though to keep company with nothing more than unrelenting memories burned more than any spirit.
In organising those bottles and studying their contents I was logical, calm, methodical; everything I was not in my emotions. I considered the idea that if I preferred to look at bottles than to drink, maybe what I wanted in a relationship was what it seemed to be, not what it actually contained. But I also thought that it was a sign: of being so detached from myself and everyone around me that I was incapable of being committed enough to even be addicted. Addiction is a commitment, although that adherence bizarrely suggests positivity—depending on your type of addiction, commitment can be to indulgence, forgetting, misery, destruction of self and others; the strangely positive control of the negative.
What kind of non-person was I, unable to maintain an ability to do the simplest of destructive things—drinking until I forgot and went numb for some blissful, blank period of time, instead, seeing those rows of bottles as a symbol that I existed in some way that was in my control, not slipping beyond—fading—but there, present, if only just to buy more bottles and look at them while murmuring to myself their scents and tastes, a litany for survival?
The ghost of hope, the burn in the mouth; the memory of the woman I might again be.
Tomoé Hill’s essays and reviews can be found in places such as Lapsus Lima, Music and Literature, We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater Books), and Love Bites (Dostoyevsky Wannabe). She is a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s]. @CuriosoTheGreat
Banner image: Two Hearts, Yanina Spizzirri