Kelle Groom – “Life On Another Planet”

“Why not imagine a life?”

                                    — Phillip Levine

Lana was getting ready. In the mirror, her red hair is short and curly, but fine. Baby hair. Her face round, snowman body. Laugh round. A safety pin in her right hand – she’s using the sharp end to un-clump the black mascara on her eyelashes. I steer clear – one false move, and she could blind herself. Watching Lana put on mascara reminded me of a character in Valley of the Dolls who said she always wears three coats, applied quickly, before they can dry. Wait too long in between, and you get the spiky, stuck together glop Lana’s dealing with. I’m not going out with her, just stopped by to say hi. See where she lived. A house with roommates somewhere in the dark.

            Lana did a hit of brown barrel, and was ready to go meet a guy at ABC that she’d originally met at a stoplight on 436. I was going home. Haven’t had a drink in six days. Trying not drink. But we have to go back in the house. To her room because Lana forgot to roll a joint to bring along. It’s bad practice, she said. To carry all that weed with you.

            42 days sober. Lana called, wanted me to go out with her, and her roommate. She said he was cute. I said okay. At work I planned a party as our special events person was fired for embezzling. The party takes place at the house of a donor who named his house after himself. I actually had to put his house name on the invitation. He told me to send invitations to his neighbors – Wesley Snipes, Tiger Woods, a baseball guy. I organized the parking and champagne.

Went home after work, changed, got to Lana’s at 11. She’d taken Valium, and was drinking J.W. Dant. Too wasted to go out. Her roommate was sunk in a velvety beanbag chair. Tiny garnet eyes watching me. Black hair like mesh. He looked like someone who could evaporate. I don’t want to go out alone with him. The roommate is already invested in the date, and I don’t want an argument, with Lana out of it. Tell him we can go out next week. I never go back to Lana’s after that night. Being in Lana’s house was like not being a person. I was a drinking buddy – but I didn’t drink anymore. The roommate saw me more as a new cereal he’d like to try.

When I ran into Lana weeks later, her face was cut up from crashing her car drunk. Two days before. I’d been uneasy with Lana, but now I was afraid of her. Raw zigzags an inscription. Her laugh clumsy. Ha ha you could have been dead. Ha ha we could all have been dead. The architectonics of her drug use always surprised me. One drug along with alcohol never enough – two kinds of drugs were required, and rarely the same ones. She sampled them like chocolates. I had found drugs harder to count than alcohol. Had stuck to the ones I knew. Lana was not afraid.

I go to a recovery meeting. One of the hottest men I have ever seen is chairing. Long straight dark brown hair. It barely mattered that his wife was there and child and that he had on about 8 different really big rings, and a huge animal-tooth choker with a toothy medallion hanging from it over his black T-shirt. That sort of man is like a drink to me. I did think steps, steps. There are steps for this. I can sleep with this crazy bright moon.

I stopped writing my days down that year on November 2, 108 days. Drank again, blackout, in January. I’ll stop for good after that. Get sober. But no one knows that yet. No one knows what’s coming. The raw zigzags on my own skin. In between the blank pages is a receipt from Paramount Entertainment. July 11. It looks like I bought 7 tickets: .50 – 10.00% – 0.05B *0.50 – 10.00% -0.05B *1.00 -10.00%… It goes on like that. A math I can’t do. For a total of 595.4-0.0. Tickets to what?

On the back of the very last page, I have drawn a map. It starts on Hwy 17-92, to 436, to University Blvd. At the intersection with Alafaya Trail is where I go to school, UCF. I have written “lights” here. Then there is a big box, larger than the university, that says “University Place.” This is where I live. On a loopy road, I have written “first right is East Cove.” At the end of the loop, a tiny box with the words, “my house” and above it, even smaller, my phone number in parentheses. In case I got lost. In case I couldn’t find my way home.

My relatives in Finland send an email: “Spring is behind the door.”

A friend in recovery tells me he loves me, says that if he walked outside and died he would be happy because he finally said it. A bright thread between us.

Is there anyone to whom I could say I love you, and die happy? I don’t think so. As if that part of me has died. As if I am in a snowdrift.

A huge thunderstorm early evening. Went outside after the rain, and it didn’t look like earth anymore. The sky yellow, and the light brilliant, eerie. Like this life on another planet. In front of my car, fog-like clouds were blowing. If I were a filmmaker, this is the light I’d ask for.

I met a man who has been sober 19 years. He almost got sober even earlier. But he drank one Christmas and killed someone driving drunk. Sent to Raiford for twenty years. He said there was always blood on the floor. That he was getting food and saw a man run from a man with a knife. Who caught him, and stabbed his back. The prison guards were there, and one said, Give me the knife, son. But he kept stabbing until he was exhausted, and then handed the knife over. The sober man said he realized that if he ran, he was dead.

Other than a meeting, the thing that calms me most is starlight. Even a photo of a star. The fifth brightest star in the Pleiades cluster, Merope. Nebulosity like a smudge on a windshield. The neck of the Pelican Nebula with rays of scattered light from another star. And once in summer. I stood on a flight of stairs while someone combed a potion into my hair to calm it down. Let me try it out. So startled to be touched like I was family. Her face so close to mine, sisterly, kind, I was afraid I’d cry. I was a child the last time — sitting beside my grandmother, her hands in my hair. No rush. I was what she’d been waiting for.

Kelle Groom is the author of How to Live: A Memoir in Essays (Tupelo Press, 2023), I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl (Simon & Schuster), a Barnes & Noble Discover selection and New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, and four poetry collections, most recently Spill (Anhinga Press). An NEA Fellow in Prose, Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellow in Nonfiction, and recipient of two Florida Book Awards, Groom’s work has previously appeared in AGNI, American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry, New England Review, The New Yorker, New York Times, Ploughshares, Poetry, and The Southeast Review as a finalist in the World’s Best Short-Short Story Contest. “Life on Another Planet” is from her short-story manuscript-in-progress, The Citronaut.