The Blackout


Annie rummaged in the black purse on her lap that she was relieved to recognize as her own and located a small lipstick mirror. She stared into it, moving it around the contours of her face, able to see only two rectangular inches at a time, but the pieces fit, yep, she was pretty sure that was her. She groaned. It took her a few minutes. Wish it wasn’t me. A black lump of self-hatred rose in her throat, bile.

Momentarily, she was distracted from her self-disgust by the plastic tumble of photos falling out of her wallet, the bright faces of Sara and Becky peeking out from elementary school backgrounds. She reminded herself to put some updated photos of the girls in her wallet. They were both in middle school, almost high school now. Smiling at their noses, covered in freckles, their credulous cornflower eyes, Annie slowly folded the photo holder back into the wallet and rummaged again.

Nothing in her purse revealed what day it was, nor did the blue square of airplane window next to her. Glimpses of the grids and rectangles, the squares and geometry of a large city emerged beneath the wing and clouds. Was that New York? How the hell, she wondered, had she ended up on a plane approaching New York City?

She was sitting on the right side of the plane in a window seat. Next to her, in the aisle seat, sat a man she didn’t recognize. He seemed relaxed in spite of the small space he occupied, knees jammed into the bulkhead in front of them, and he was holding a glass containing what she guessed was Coke. Rum and Coke, maybe. She eyed the drink with a mixture of disgust and desire. What she really needed was a drink.

“Everyone!” her seatmate suddenly said, making a sweeping gesture that took in all the people on the plane. “Each has a story. You think?” He looked at Annie expectantly.

Annie had no idea what he was talking about. Perhaps they had been having a conversation, this man and she. He seemed eager to talk. Perhaps they had been talking for the past hour. Or could it be days?

She stared at him. His eyes gave away secrets, but none that could help her. Indigo eyes, eyes so dark they were not brown, not the color of chocolate, not even black. They were the color of a clear midnight sky unpolluted by light. For a moment, she thought she could see through them to nothing and it scared her. She quickly looked down and away. Was she supposed to answer his question? Yes, we all have a story, she thought, and mine at this point does not appear to be ending well.

The seats around her were that of a typical airline. No clues, really, to help her figure out how she got there. No sign of her boyfriend, Shane, anywhere. It was not her first blackout by any means and she knew, by now, that she was coming out of an alcohol-induced blackout. She searched the perimeter of the crowded seat for a newspaper, a calendar, something with the date. That would at least tell her how long she’d been blacked out. She grabbed a wrinkled edition of the Sky Mall tucked halfway underneath her and between the seats. Fall 2001, she read.

Memory came back, as through a door. She remembered opening the gift, a coffeepot Shane gave her for her fortieth birthday. Oh my god, she thought. I’m forty. The last thing she remembered was that fucking coffeepot and the clarity that came with it. Shane didn’t love her.

Thank god the kids were—oh shit—what the fuck day is it? Annie turned to the man next to her, grabbing his arm.

“What time is it?” she asked. She had been supposed to pick up Sara and Becky at Logan Airport right after her birthday. They had agreed to celebrate together when the girls got back from their summer visit with their grandparents, her ex-husband’s parents. Though his parents were in the picture, the girls’ father was not, and she hoped he never would be, uninvolved, shitty father that he was. Well, I sure fucked it up, didn’t I? At least I’m not as bad as their father.

The indigo-eyed man evidently didn’t have a watch. Annie had to ask again.

“How much time do I have?” he responded with a question, pleased with himself, as if he had told a joke.

“Never mind. What’s the date today? September ninth?” Annie fumbled in her purse, checking for her credit card, her driver’s license. She imagined Sara and Becky standing at the airport with a stewardess, looking frantically around for her.

The date he could provide. “No,” he said. “Not the ninth.”

Helpful son of a bitch. She remembered pouring a shot, just one more; it had been September 9, Sunday. The day of the coffeepot, she thought wryly. That’s how my fortieth shall be remembered from this day forward. How much time have I lost?

Annie looked down at her feet and then at the man with the eyes. She was wearing brown oxfords she didn’t recognize.

“Do you know what I got for my fortieth birthday?” she asked him, his pale blue sweater coming into focus. He was wearing black dress pants. Not usually my type, Annie thought. Dark hair. Definitely foreign. Good-looking. She did go for good-looking. No. No way I’m with this guy.

“What you got for your birthday?” He was polite, spoke broken English. Annie was convinced he knew her, although she could not place him. He looked familiar. Saudi Arabian?

I don’t even want to know. An old friend of Annie’s had once been involved with a group of Saudi men, had prostituted at the time, though she called it something else. Dating. They paid well, Nancy assured her. Annie had been tempted. Those were hard times. Raising the girls on a grocery checker’s salary. Whatever happened to old Nancy? she wondered. I should look her up. Call her.

“A coffeepot. A fucking coffeepot,” Annie said. Goddamn it! Don’t cry.

Indigo Eyes looked steadily back at her, waiting.

“From my boyfriend. I mean, what kind of guy gives a woman he loves a coffeepot for her birthday when they’re not even married?” she finished. Her eyes welled up and she rummaged through the purse, looking for a tissue. Of course, this guy wouldn’t get it.

He leaned toward her. “You don’t remember.” It was a statement.

Annie felt a surge of anger. So what if she didn’t remember? She glared at him.

This had happened to her before, only she had come out of the blackout in a bed, next to an unfamiliar man who was soundly passed out. Gathering her clothing, dressing quickly, a ridiculous short leather skirt and tube top, she crept out of the room, only to discover it was necessary to pass through the living room, past two children watching cartoons in their pajamas and the woman ironing beside them. Well, at least I’m dressed this time.

“No. I don’t remember a goddamn thing, OK?”

He smiled. “Thanks be to God,” he said, sounding kind. He reached to pat her knee, then stopped himself.

She swiveled in her seat, looking at the couple behind her, their faces too close to read through the thin crack between the seats. Seeing only that they were elderly, she leaned over in the other direction, looking past the man, at the people across the aisle. They sat curiously silent, frozen and grim. They were holding hands, she noticed. The woman’s knuckles were white, face pale.

The girls had loved Shane, almost as much as she did. He drew caricatures of them and their friends, made up silly songs on his banjo for them. Why do I pick these guys? She thought she was making better choices in men since getting clean and sober. Admit it. You thought it was your Higher Power’s will that you and Shane be together—a reward for staying sober.

Indigo Eyes undid his seat belt. “Excuse me a minute,” he said, getting up.

Annie nodded, as she realized something was wrong. For the first time, she tuned in to her gut. Something was definitely wrong. Much more wrong than waking up in a blackout even, certainly worse than getting a coffeepot instead of something romantic, like jewelry, from Shane for her fortieth birthday. What could be more wrong than having a relapse?

And yes, now she remembered taking that first justified drink, a drink that sent her into the thousandth blackout of her life after three years of hard-won sobriety. How important Shane’s transgression had seemed. How big. How distant and small it seemed now, how far away, how long ago. She had no idea how long ago, but she knew it might have been as long as several days. She remembered how the coffeepot, revealed in its box as she ripped the giftwrap away, had touched some wounded place deep inside her, had stood for all the ways she was never, ever good enough. And never would be.

“I thought you would like it! I make you coffee every morning!” Shane had screamed, then threw his cup, barely missing her head. She cried. The minute she saw the coffeepot, it was over. Her insides twisted. The belief, or rather idea or wish, that he loved her was debunked.

Now, Annie’s stomach hollowed. She leaned her forehead against the tiny airplane windowpane. She tried to remember where she had been, who she might have been with, but she knew from experience that you can never retrieve the time lost in an alcoholic blackout.

Whatever she had done, it would be revealed slowly, if at all. Sideways looks from friends. Neighbors not meeting her eyes. A credit card bill. Years ago, if she’d been drinking with a friend, the friend would fill in the blanks for her, sometimes hooting, “You don’t remember strip-teasing—a dollar for every article of clothing you took off?” Shaking her head.

But Annie had stopped drinking with friends a long time ago. By the time she got sober, she had progressed to drinking in isolated binges, sending the girls off to see their grandparents, locking herself up in the house, afraid to leave, afraid of what she might do.

The man with the indigo eyes had vanished. The plane shifted and dropped, losing elevation. Eerily, the plane lit up as though the sun had appeared from behind a cloud. Annie was relieved. We must be landing. Though she hadn’t heard the usual announcements for passengers to fasten their seatbelts. Maybe they were in a holding pattern. At least they were approaching New York City. She would rent a car and drive to Boston, hopefully make it before the girls were supposed to fly in.

She had an urgent need to pee and undid her seatbelt, pulling herself up just as the plane banked sharply, throwing her back against the window. Glancing out, she thought they were still awfully high for a landing, buildings loomed.

As she rose again, murmuring, panicked voices rose at the same time, an ominous hum, broken by unintelligible mutters. She had vaguely noticed the restless noise all around her rising but had been too self-absorbed to pay attention. Now, standing, still shielding her eyes, what Annie saw was incomprehensible.

The people seated across the aisle, the woman with the white knuckles, moaned and the man next to her had his arms around her, rocking. The dark-eyed man appeared from behind the first-class curtain in the aisle just front of Annie, holding his hands, palms facing out, next to his head, repeating something Annie could not understand in what sounded like a chant. Annie thought of Becky, sticking her thumbs in her ears, waggling her fingers at her sister, Sara, babbling nonsense, a little monkey. What is he doing?

 “Allahu ahkbar. Allahu ahkbar. Allahu ahkbar.”

“I told you, John!” a scream, sobs. “Please, God.” An increasing hum filled Annie’s head; her ears buzzed with higher and higher frequencies, as though a beehive had been disturbed. She couldn’t tell if the buzzing came from inside her head or out. Her eyes blurred, and her arms stiffened, fingers cramping into claws.

The thought occurred to her, I’m going to die.

At almost the same time, she and the dark-eyed man, now standing next to her, spoke. Annie felt confused; her legs weren’t working.

“I can’t breathe.”

He was looking directly into her eyes, a question in his.

She could not look away, unable to answer. Something inside grew and her entire body responded, yes, in answer to his unspoken question, the most important question, she realized, of her life. Yes! Annie’s body answered, every cell in her body filling up with energy.

A yell emerged from her gut, through her chest, and out her throat in a pure release, then lightness, and Annie heard herself laugh. Yes! The yes engulfed her, growing larger and larger; she was floating, the cramping left her arms, and every question, every puzzle, all confusion dissolved, even as her bowels loosened.

Yes. I want to live. How had she never really known this?

She stared back at the man. He chanted intently, still looking at her, yet past her, at something she could not see.

“What?” she said, or thought she said. “What? I got drunk and I’m on a plane that’s going to crash. It is, isn’t it? Why?”

The man grabbed her arms, the arms she threw up to hit him with, pummel him, repeating only the phrase, “In-sha-alla. In-sha-alla.” She flailed at him, her clenched fists seeking a target, screaming. She tried to spit at him, but her mouth was empty of saliva. Arms and voice weak, she crumpled, and his arms folded around her, almost gently, as a terrible roaring surrounded them, a fierce wind they could not see.

Annie heard a child crying and it was as though every child in the universe cried at once. Sara. Becky. She fell into the man, her knees buckling, and he fell with her, still whispering, “In-sha-allah,” and Annie allowed herself, just for a moment, to feel comfort in the strange words, the unfamiliar arms, the momentary touch of another.

Though she had no idea what the man was chanting, Annie’s voice joined with the dark-eyed man’s, his crooning, “In-sha-allah. In-sha-allah.”The two of them held on to what was in reach, each other, another human being.

“Ma-sha-allah,” he said, and Annie felt the wetness of his face against hers.

“Ma-sha-allah,” she said.


Kelly Thompson has been published or anthologized in Guernica, Electric Literature, Entropy, Oh Comely, The Rattling Wall, The Rumpus, Proximity, The Writing Disorder, Witchcraft, Manifest Station, 49 Writers, and other literary journals. She is also the curator for the popular “Voices on Addiction” column at The Rumpus.