This is a story about how Paul Auster helped me get over a short-term drug addiction.
In the early 1990s, I lived in New York. I live in New York now, but it is such a different New York, I wish it had a different name. The most you could hope for by running late was to call someone’s answering machine from a payphone, and then maybe they had changed their message to say, if you’re going to be late, we’ve moved to a different bar. There were no cafes, no loungy bars. There was no internet–if you wanted information you went to a library, and if you wanted to communicate, you wrote a letter. I lived in midtown and worked in midtown and unless I wanted to go into a bar by myself at night and drink, my activities after work consisted of either taking a dance class, walking to Coliseum Books in Columbus Circle, or buying The New York Times.
The air quality was worse. And my allergies were worse. As I get older and older they get better and better but back then my nose was stuffed so tight I breathed through my mouth and could feel my pulse in my sealed nasal tissues. Unable to take it anymore, I went out in my pajamas one night and bought Afrin. Nose drops. I lay back and within less than 30 seconds, my throbbing daylong agony was gone–I was returned to feeling like a sentient human again. I breathed with the drama of the first amphibian. And then I fell asleep. I swore I would not use it again.
I used it the next night, and the next. The fourth night, instead of the glittering parting of my plugged sinuses, they opened a sliver, I desperately sucked in air, and then they shut just as tight. The next day at my office bleary and sleepless, I called the doctor and cut through the two-week waiting period by using the phrase short-term drug addiction.
My childhood doctor experiences were just godawful. I had bronchitis, asthma, allergies, I should lose weight, everything. It was a revelation to go to the doctor as a healthy and thin adult. Burned into my mind was the time–yeah, after the time as newly emerging from toddlerhood to little girlhood, my nose was so clogged I thought that shoving crayons up my nose would help and I had to go to the emergency room to have them pulled out–yeah, that happened…anyway, I remember the doctor solemnly telling me that ANY use of over-the-counter nose drops would lead to the Rebound Effect. I mean, not as dramatic as drug addiction, but still. The drops would actually cause the symptoms they were supposed to relieve. Classic dependency effect.
The doctor saw me that day, a Friday, I clearly remember, and wrote me prescriptions for nasal steroids, which were brand new. “They aren’t going to work for a couple of days,” she warned.
I knew what I was in for. My budget was lean, but knowing the kind of night I was in for, I went to Coliseum Books. I lurked in the Coliseum night after night but I only rarely and fearfully bought. I read so quickly an entertainment investment of $14 would last me less than eight hours. I remember I bought Lorene Cary’s Black Ice, which was so important to me. But this night, I decided that I would dip into the trippy world of Paul Auster. Paul Auster had been on the cover of a New York Times Sunday Magazine that I bought back in the ancient days of the year I spent in a share in Brooklyn. He was a writer; I wanted to be a writer. He was better known in Europe than he was in the United States, he and his wife Siri Husvedt refused to do a print ad for a Japanese beef company that would have paid them $35,000. He had lived in Europe. He wrote six days a week, he said that he felt he was essentially useless. “A plumber does more than me,” he said. He said many gloomy and serious things. He was darkly and fantastically good looking. And the hushed awestruck quotes from academics about his writing made me afraid to read him. But here he was on the shelves, and here was an affable looking book he had written, Moon Palace, which started off pleasantly, and after spending hours and hours of weighing and considering, I took it home in a brown paper bag, my planned and only comfort for the hellish night I knew was ahead.
I got home, got into my pajamas and used the useless steroid drops, which were so pleasant, smelled like lavender, and the utterly useless saline spray that I knew would be useless, otherwise everyone would use it. I started reading the book. It was a pleasant story about a man, another large man, a woman, a romance. I was exhausted and yet my nose, oh so sealed shut. I was patient with it, and breathed through my mouth, which is really uncomfortable and awful and I slept for a few hours only after passing out with exhaustion.
I woke deep, deep in the night. Three am. I got up to pee, drank water and lay there and sampled the utter misery of not breathing through my nose. I picked up the book and resumed reading. The character was on some sort of journey, had some sort of piece of information he needed, or needed to locate the very fat man? I don’t remember. I do remember that the character’s quest took him to Northfield, Minnesota.
My heart started pounding. Northfield, Minnesota was a quiet, obscure college town where I went to college. The name, or lets face, it pseudonym, of the college–Magnus College, was clearly a front for Carleton College.
I sat up in bed and looked around wildly (I had no closet and my clothes hung on a rack so I guess i looked at them). How? How? How did this titanic monster of literary greatness (who was born and bred in New York had gone to Columbia) have ANY knowledge of this place, of, actually, really an intimate and sorely missed part of my very recent past?
Heart pounding, fight or flight, adrenaline flowed into my veins: my nose cleared instantly. I breathed in powerfully. It was too late to call anyone. It was spooky and a mystery and yes I WAS BREATHING. I experienced the first relief in some 36 hours.
You can’t sleep in an excited state, but I was able to close my eyes and wonder how my puny life experiences at this puny college could touch a literary great who had been on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. This all felt creepily prescient with my own writing ambitions. And the fear and trembling kept delivering a jolt that allowed me to breathe easily through my waxily torn up, raw, suffering nose. At 4:00 am. When no one else could help me. Paul Auster did. And for that, I thank him.