Andrea Cheatham received her MFA from NYU. Her work has been published in Painted Bride Quarterly, S/tick, Stirring, Tinderbox, Mead, and Memorious. Her poem “Housekeeping” was published as a limited-edition broadside by Saucebox Book Arts. She lives and works in Texas. Her piece "Little Black Dress" is featured in the Summer 2017 Premium Edition of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, July 16, for special savings and discounts.
At its core, your story deals with addiction, but it's not only about addiction. In a few words, how would you describe the story? When you wrote it, were there themes you knew you wanted to touch upon in describing the journey through addiction?
This particular essay didn’t start with any big questions or themes. It really started for me weeks out of rehab when Catherine committed suicide. The last image of her pressing earrings into my hand has remained so fresh, so alive. I couldn’t quite accept that she was gone. I tried to write about it for years, but everything I wrote felt precious or stupid or insufficient. So I kept coming back to the Neiman Marcus dress in my closet, visiting it as if it were a medium, a conduit I could use to ask Catherine “why.”
Of course, I knew the why. What I really wanted to know was why her, why not me, why not any of us. The question (and the dress) immediately made me think of my grandmother, Margaret. She has always been a monumental presence in my life, though I don’t recall ever talking to her about Catherine or rehab. It would have shamed or upset my grandmother. Still, I thought about how hard Grandma’s life had been, and how, in very practical ways, she willed her life to conform to a shape she imagined, although her airs were definitely more style than substance. She was able to create a sense of who she was that she presented to the world. It was beautiful, though not entirely true.
The essay eventually became less about addiction than about how we explain who we are to ourselves, how we come to justify it or deny the explanation, and what “truth” we choose to present to the world at large.
There is an interesting thread in the story about your grandmother, her hard upbringing, and her trips to Neiman Marcus, which serve as a kind of cathartic experience for her. It highlights the varying socioeconomic lines people can cross throughout their lives (even if it's just popping in and out), and it could be read as speaking to the idea of the American Dream, but perhaps not the one we might immediately think of. Do you, as the writer, associate the American Dream in any way with this story?
I really hope the mention of “thread” was a fashion-related pun!
For a few years, I taught The Great Gatsby to high school juniors. Before reading the book, we would try, as a class, to define what was meant when people said, “the American Dream.” The answers ranged from “2.5 children” to “a nice house and a nice car” to “loads and loads of money.”
In an odd way, I was the embodiment of that very definition of the American Dream for my grandmother. Although an only child, my parents had a nice house and a nice car and money enough to help with rehab, which is an incredible privilege, especially in a time when health care may soon only be reserved for the very wealthy.
Though a natural charmer, my grandmother would not have considered herself an example of the American Dream. Yet, in many ways, she was. She was self-educated and rose from absolute poverty to a solid middle class existence. She raised two children on her own and both became executives at national corporations. They “fit in” where she never felt she had. A bit of a Gatsby herself, she had a gift for convenient lies of omission and logistically impossible truths. Yet, she could never crack the class ceiling. Perhaps it was her deliciously thick Texas accent or her “vulgar” but hilarious turns of phrase. (Until she died at 95, she publicly referred to her uterine cancer as “pussy cancer.”) She may have lunched at Neimans, but she never was “of Neimans.”
She wanted more for me, and in many ways I succeeded, and in many I didn’t. If anything, the American Dream in this story is as elusive for me, my grandmother, and Catherine as it was for Gatsby. You never reach it, or never feel yourself to have reached it. It only exists as a possibility, not really as a clean and finished fact.
At one point in the story, when you are in rehab, a friend of yours makes the point that writers are well-known for having addictions, and the idea of the drunk writer is commonly romanticized in popular culture—and for those who aspire to write, it's just kind of in the air. From your viewpoint, why do we enjoy the notion of the drunk, demon-wrestling writer?
I like to think that it’s not just me, but rather our entire American culture that is drawn to self-destructive displays especially when connected to valued talent. I still remember watching Britney Spears shave her head with a dual sense of concern and fascination. On one hand, it was too personal for me to see, which in and of itself makes for an odd thrill, but I was also captivated by the idea that she was sick of it all—talent, performance, her own reality.
The drunk, demon-wrestling writer isn’t that different. He or she taps into a sense of existential anxiety we all may feel at times but hesitate to act on. Perhaps we see someone with talent who is willing to throw part of it away, and we interpret that destruction as a willingness to accept that talent is very possibly meaningless or inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Talent doesn’t buy happiness any more than goodness guarantees success. Or perhaps it’s a belief that writers are purveyors of hard truths, and to face those truths, they need the crutch of alcohol. Thus, the drunkenness becomes a badge of authenticity, though whether that authenticity is deserved is up for debate.
One of our reading committee members found this story, and when she passed it along her note began, "Yes, yes, yes!" That may best describe the enthusiasm we felt for the story and writing. Andrea's tale could be a common one—an individual battling addiction—but the piece offers more by way of familial connections and our mental ties to the material world. The piece is an interesting meditation on what we see in ourselves versus what others might see, and at the end, it provides a portrait of what an individual can endure while searching for the self.