I’m newly sober and dog-paddling through the booze all around me. It’s summer, and Whole Foods has planted rosé throughout the store. Rosé is great with fish! And strawberries! And vegan protein powder! (Okay, I made that last one up.) At the office, every desk near mine has a bottle of wine or liquor on it in case people are too lazy to walk the 50 feet to one of the well-stocked communal bars we’ve built on our floor. Driving home from work, I pass billboard ads for Fluffed Marshmallow Smirnoff and Iced Cake Smirnoff and not just Cinnamon, but Cinnamon ChurrosSmirnoff. A local pharmacy, the same one that fucks up my prescription three months in a row, installs self-service beer taps and young men line up with their empty growlers all the way back to Eye & Ear Care.
Traveling for work, I steel myself for the company-sponsored wine tasting. Skipping it is not an option. My plan is to work the room with my soda and lime, make sure I’m seen by the five people who care about these things, and leave before things get sloppy (which they always do). Six wines and four beers are on display at the catering stand. I ask for club soda and get a blank look. Just water, then? The bartender grimaces apologetically. “I think there’s a water fountain in the lobby?” she says.
There is. But it’s broken. I mingle empty-handed for 15 minutes, fending off well-meaning offers to get me something from the bar. After the fifth, I realize I’m going to cry if one more person offers me alcohol. I leave and cry anyway. Later I order vanilla ice cream from room service to cheer myself up.
“People love this with a shot of bourbon poured over it,” the person taking my order says. “Any interest in treating yourself?”
That’s the summer I realize that everyone around me is tanked. But it also dawns on me that the women are super double tanked — that to be a modern, urbane woman means to be a serious drinker. This isn’t a new idea — just ask the Sex and the City girls (or the flappers). A woman with a single malt scotch is bold and discerning and might fire you from her life if you fuck with her. A woman with a PBR is a Cool Girl who will not be shamed for belching. A woman drinking MommyJuice wine is saying she’s more than the unpaid labor she gave birth to. The things women drink are signifiers for free time and self-care and conversation — you know, luxuries we can’t afford. How did you not see this before? I ask myself. You were too hammered, I answer back. That summer I see, though. I see that booze is the oil in our motors, the thing that keeps us purring when we should be making other kinds of noise
One day that summer I’m wearing unwise (but cute, so cute) shoes and trip at the farmer’s market, cracking my phone, blood-staining the knees of my favorite jeans, and scraping both my palms. Naturally, I post about it on Facebook as soon as I’ve dusted myself off. Three women who don’t know I’m sober comment quickly:
“Do they sell wine there?”
“Definitely wine. And maybe new shoes.”
Have I mentioned that it’s morning when this happens? On a weekday? This isn’t one of those nightclub farmer’s markets. And the women aren’t the kind of beleaguered, downtrodden creatures you imagine drinking to get through the day. They’re pretty cool chicks, the kind people ridicule for having First World Problems. Why do they need to drink?
Well, maybe because even cool chicks are still women. And there’s no easy way to be a woman, because, as you may have noticed, there’s no acceptable way to be a woman. And if there’s no acceptable way to be the thing you are, then maybe you drink a little. Or a lot.
The year before I get sober, I’m asked to be The Woman on a panel at the company where I work. (That was literally the pitch: “We need one woman.”) Three guys and me, talking to summer interns about company culture. There are two female interns in the audience, and when it’s time for questions, one says:
“I’ve heard this can be a tough place for women to succeed. Can you talk about what it’s been like for you?”
As The Woman, I assume for some reason that the question is directed at me. “If you’re tough and persistent and thick-skinned, you’ll find your way,” I say. “I have.”
I don’t say she’ll have to work around interruptions and invisibility and micro-aggressions and a scarcity of role models and a lifetime of her own conditioning. My job on this panel is to make this place sound good, so I leave some stuff out. Particularly the fact that I’m drinking at least one bottle of wine a night to dissolve the day off of me.
But she’s a woman. She probably learned to read between the lines before she could read the lines themselves. She thanks me and sits down.
“I disagree,” says the guy sitting next to me. “I think this is a great company for women.”
My jaw gently opens on its own.
The guy next to him nods. “Absolutely,” he said. “I have two women on my team and they get along great with everyone.”
Of course they do, I think but don’t say. It’s called camouflage.
Guy #1 continues. “There’s a woman on my team who had a baby last year. She went on maternity leave and came back, and she’s doing fine. We’re very supportive of moms.”
Guy #3 jumps in just to make sure we have 100% male coverage on the topic. “The thing about this place,” he says, “is it’s a meritocracy. And merit is gender-blind.” He smiles at me and I stare back. Silent balefulness is all I have to offer, but his smile wavers so I know I’ve pierced some level of smug.
The panel organizer and I fume afterward. “Those fucking fucks,” she says. “Ratfucks.”