Each action felt so painfully deliberate. Open the bag of flour, pour the flour in the bucket, drag
the garden hose to the bucket, turn the garden hose on. Simple papier-mâché instructions.
Perhaps these actions wouldn’t have been so monotonous if I had slept in weeks, but I hadn’t.
Even though I knew I was gathering my community to build a whale sculpture on July 7th. Even
though I had raised money to build it and had a whole small town thrilled about its creation. Still
I didn’t sleep. I had been staying awake every night with James, then rolling out of bed at 6AM
to open the coffeeshop I worked at.
James told me, “Sleep is like Pringles. Once you start, you can’t stop.”
So, we never started.
“I feel like I’ve been dating a vampire,” I told my friend Rachel, who is a seasoned social worker,
a redheaded beauty queen who’s seen it all.
“Don’t flatter yourself, honey,” she said. “It’s called an alcoholic.”
And she was right.
But until that summer I had no idea what that word truly meant. I should have, seeing as my aunt
had died of liver failure the year previous, turning from an earth goddess into a bitter, bloated,
and depressed shell of herself, refusing to leave her home for months until the disease completely
Yet, the true definition of a full-blown alcoholic had not clearly formed in my mind. Maybe this
is because of the way our culture lightly tosses the word around, the way it casually tosses
around drink itself.
I had just graduated from college in Vermont that past spring, had briefly moved to California,
and after blowing all my money within a few months, had been forced to relocate to my
hometown in the Midwest. I was somewhere between being too young and old enough to know
better. I was 23.
I thought I had drank in college, but I had never drank like the people drank here. At school,
drinking was just an accessory to another activity. We would see a band, go dancing, and of
course we would drink, but it wasn’t the central focus of the night.
Here, in Southern Indiana, the goal for every occasion seemed to be getting drunk, and whatever
loosely themed party you were attending was just decoration, something pretty to put around the
alcohol, like an olive in a martini.
One of my first weekends back in town, I met up with Rachel at a dive bar. She had stayed in
town for college. The next morning after matching shots with her and her Southern Indiana
friends, I was in shambles. My stomach couldn’t keep water down, my hands were shaking with
dehydration. Rachel got up that morning and went to work.
James was ten years older than I was, and lived in the attic room at his sister’s house. The first
night we hung out, we went to a Shins concert, and arrived late. He threw up in the parking lot
and I fell asleep on the concert lawn. It doesn’t sound like much of a date, but there was a
comfort in our messiness, and we both felt safe there.
We would stay up all night drinking and talking, listening to records. He told me stories about
his adventures in jail, run-ins with heroin dealers, kids strung out on meth, women in horrible
bars. Sometimes we would go to the horrible bars together and stay until closing. He would
dance me, swinging, around the barroom floor, knocking over tables, until we got kicked out.
He wasn’t afraid to talk to anyone, and I found it strangely charming. Whereas I was always
worried about how people viewed me, he didn’t care. He wasn’t afraid of getting in trouble. My
friends showed audible concern that I was dating this train wreck of a man, but they also
understood. He had an undeniable swagger with broad shoulders and thick fingers; green eyes
and bad tattoos. He talked slowly in a deep voice, and could string words together like a
salesman. My friends thought I had nurturing tendencies that drew me towards people in need,
but that wasn’t it. The truth was being with him was a hell of a lot of fun. Soul-crushing, monkey-barrels of fun.
There was a poem I read over and over that year, the Dean Young poem “Whale Watch.”
The final line reads:
You are not alone.
You may see a whale.
Many of my friends were getting master’s degrees, or moving to New York. Friends not that
much older than me were already settling down and starting families. Everyone’s decisions
seemed better than mine, more calculated, more built for success.
I felt alone. I wanted to see a whale.
After moving home, I quickly got a manager position at the only progressive coffeeshop in town.
Progressive in that it occasionally threw around the words “organic” and “vegan” and attracted
the few liberals that reside in Southern Indiana to its doors. Everyone was a regular and I
instantly felt at home. There is a need for new blood in small towns, and after months of
loneliness, I suddenly felt like I had a hundred new friends.
Not long after I got the job at the coffeehouse, I started house-sitting for an architect who was on
sabbatical abroad, and needed someone to look after his cabin and feed his two chubby cats.
The cabin couldn’t have been more perfect if I had designed it myself. A large back porch
covered in roses, a deep clawfoot bathtub, and three bedrooms all tucked together with wooden
floors. It was almost an hour drive away from my work, a small town next to an even smaller
town, but I felt like the world had decided to lay down a carpet for me to walk on and that I
could not fail.
With my newfound community, and my perfect cabin home, I decided I would bring both
together to build a Whale. For one single day, these community members would gather together
to deliberate and build a piece of art. My response to the poem as well as a need for an artistic
outlet. I would have a goal, no matter how slight or insignificant it might seem to the outside
world. I would do it, and it would be the coolest.
The trajectory of my “Community Art Project” was to build the Whale, set it afloat on the Ohio
River, and then burn it. A sculpture with symbolism, a metaphor for life and death, this zen
burning; but I worried that the materials I had bought would disintegrate quickly in water. The
newspaper covered in glue, the frail chicken wire. It looked crumbly and weak in the summer
I decided, one step at a time. Build it, then figure out whether it will take to the water or not. I
could always buy a sealant or put it on a raft. At that point, all my problems were best solved
later on, tomorrow. Why not wing it, like everything else? I wasn’t thinking a lot about how
things would turn out, just keep going, and somehow it would be okay.
My Community Art Project was being held in New Harmony, Indiana, a town of 700 people,
where the cabin was located. This town, though tiny, is seeped in both money and a very
complex history. It is the home of two failed Utopian communities, the Rapphiets, and the
Owenites (both in the late 1800s). The town felt both fake and haunted, with its vaguely religious
sculptures, socialist monuments, fountains covered in ivory, open-air churches, and sprawling
beautiful labyrinths. Even now upon entering New Harmony I am filled with an almost religious
stillness. An undeniably sacred presence rests in the air, and with any ghost (good or bad) the
acknowledgement of that presence is sometimes scary.
James was also filled with ghosts, and they hovered inside and around him at all times. The
house he was living in with his sister was the same one he grew up in as a child, and humans
came and went from it with little fan-fair. No one ever knocked. The door was always open. His
sister, having just gone through a divorce, threw a party ceremoniously every Thursday night and
all the familiar downtown faces rolled through with music and dancing and drinking. There was
hardly any furniture in the house, just beds and couches and places for people to pass out on. The
fridge was always filled with beer and stale leftovers.
Besides his father’s ashes, which sat in a plain canister in the cupboard, there were other ghosts
too: his ex-wife’s records at the bottom of the stairs, old sobriety coins kept in a drawer by his
bed, toys in boxes for his semi-estranged daughter.
I had never known James when he was sober, and having never dated an addict before, I didn’t
understand certain phrases, certain signs that now seem so painfully obvious to me. Relapsing
addicts often look for the naive and the young, people who will accept them. I was both of those
things, and I did. Despite the undeniable sadness in his eyes. Despite a red, splotchy face that
always looked like it had just gotten the shit beat out of it, he was still beautiful. Was that why I
kept him around? Why not, when the party never ended? Why not, when I could drink all the
free coffee in the world to cure my hangovers? Why not, when the world had laid this carpet
down for me, and I could not fail?
My own beauty was a mystery to me then. I had cut off all my hair in California and dyed it
black. My once long, curled, light waves were now unrecognizable. I felt skinny in the wrong
places and fat in the others. I slept in the clothes I wore the day before, and would leave for work
without even looking in the mirror. Forget mascara, or a hot shower. I was happy if I even
managed to brush my teeth.
And so my body became a vessel that carried my tired mind around. I let experiences wash over
me, without pausing to examine if they were damaging or not. If I even wanted them or not. And
yet, I thought I was happy. Look at my hundred friends, look at my beautiful cabin, look at my
handsome man by my side.
The heat that summer was record breaking. One hundred degrees and up for weeks. The town
blurred through waves of humidity that never broke. On the 4th of July, James and I went to a
party across the border in Kentucky. The house was so close to the river it was up on sticks, in
case of flooding. A one-story house on a third-story level. We swam in the dirty river and
watched weak fireworks go off in the distance.
James loved to climb. He climbed as a hobby, in indoor climbing gyms, and took trips to local
rock trails. But it also fulfilled an adrenaline junkie need. That night, walking down a gravel
road, we came across a giant closed-down bridge. When he rolled up his sleeves and started to
climb it, I laughed. He knew what he was doing. But as he got higher and higher my palms
started sweating. His baseball hat fell off his head, and fluttered down slowly to the ground. That
bridge was higher than the house on sticks, and he made it to the very top. As he climbed the
final rung and cheered, I smiled weakly. A mix of pride and fear. My thoughts at that time were,
“What have I gotten myself into?” and “Don’t let the party ever stop.”
Driving back to his house that night from Kentucky, I watched as the wheels of his car swerved
across the median, then back again.
July 7th, The Day of the Whale, came strangely, and the blur of faces that showed up at my
Community Art Project will never focus out, even in my sober, rested mind.
By 10 AM it was 102 degrees, and we had already started drinking. There had been no
substantial rainfall in weeks. The dryness clung to the ground, to my skin, to the cabin walls.
What foggy image stretches from here? What sweat-addled brain was left in my exhausted body?
There is a picture in my head of the way I expected it all to go. I can pull it out of my mind like a
picture from a catalogue. Everyone smiling, the girls in summer dresses, the men with their shirts
off. Everyone making art. This curated image in soft yellow evening light as people young and
old worked together, a pot-luck dinner somewhere in the distance. The dream.
The true memory of it is an inconsistent fog, every light seeming too bright. People came and
went from the gathering, some to work and construct, others to merely mingle and watch.
Friends from Chicago and Bloomington drove in, one brought their dog, another their camera. In
retrospect nearly fifty people passed through the doors of my cabin on this Day of the Whale, but
I could barely note their passing.
There was a blonde named Elizabeth who saw the whole project through. I didn’t like her.
Maybe because she was too much like me. She lacked grace like me, was awkward like me, but
she knew all about the cool bands I hadn’t heard of, and she could drink me under the table
without even knowing she had done so.
Elizabeth arrived early, helped with the layout, tied the chicken-wire onto the Whale structure in
the sweltering heat, and even helped clean up the mess at the end of the day. As it got later into
the night James whispered in my ear that he thought Elizabeth and I should have a threesome. I
rolled my eyes.
“She looks at you like you’re a goddess,” he said.
But I didn’t care how she looked at me. I didn’t even know how to look at myself. I hid on the
porch, fighting jealousy, and hoping to avoid her. I saw him touch her face and move her hair
behind her ear. She giggled.
My jealousy that summer was as random and unorganized as my life. Even though I saw James
almost every day, he was never my “boyfriend.” Not in any concrete sense of the word. He still
slept with his ex-girlfriend when he saw her, and though I didn’t relish in it, the act didn’t shake me.
I, too, was seeing other people. A few old flings who passed through town, and one sad local
townie who liked me too much. I slept with three different guys during the course of that
summer. But James was more fun than all of them. James was more alive, more messy, more
what I craved.
But with Elizabeth my jealousy was real, and I felt it knot and churn inside my stomach. This
was my house, my cabin, my Community Art Project. This night should be mine.
I remember people dancing in bathing suits. I remember someone throwing up. I remember
looking very ugly. The night washed over me. I watched the project from a place outside of my
body, too embarrassed to re-enter, unable to stop or change. I was in over my head. I needed
sleep. I needed water.
I don’t know where we slept that night or if we did; but somehow by the next morning, the
structure had been fully formed: a chicken wire and metal rod outline of a Whale, her tail
perched like it was rising up out of the water. It was an uncovered skeleton, but it was enough.
The blurred party faces rolled out of whatever dark corner they had slept in, drank coffee, made
jokes, and left. I dragged the Whale carcass into the garage and let her sit there, skinless and
naked, for several days before I touched her again.
That morning I got a call that the coffeeshop was out of nearly everything. A tic fell from the
cats back and popped, full of blood, on the bathroom floor. There was brown broken glass in the
kitchen, in this house that was not mine. This perfect cabin I was supposed to be taking care of.
Just like an addict, I had let work and health and everything else slide, so I could stay up all night
and party with James.
When you date an addict, do you become an addict too?
People do not respect others for giving them things they do not deserve. Punishment or prize, we
respond to truth. There is no joy or glory in becoming a victim, there is only pain and shame to
follow that painfulness. I am an advocate for loving someone who does not deserve it. I can
stand behind any unjustified decision based on internal instinct, but don’t expect sympathy for
your cause. Don’t expect to come out the hero.
Though I never wanted James and I to be anything more than a summer fling, I had a strange
fantasy of us as a future couple. An image I entertained of us years down the road: me still
running the coffeeshop, a community member and upstanding citizen, and him still the town
drunk. I romanticized it. He would go out and get wasted, and some friend or policeman would
drag him home to his old lady. Then I would tuck him into bed, give him the cold shoulder for a
few hours before making him tea and coaxing him back to health. Everyone has a role in their
community, I thought. Some people cut hair, some people make food. Every town also needs a
Jester, and I decided James could fill that role. What lies love can mask so easily.
I allowed myself to block out the constant drunk driving incidents, the pain he caused his sister
and his daughter, his yelling tantrums that left me in tears, and the fact that he couldn’t keep a
job down for more than a week. The word ‘enabler’ was more of a Polly-Anna-Syndrome, in my
I would tell friends, “He just needs to learn moderation. It comes harder to some people.”
But with true addicts this word does not exist. Perhaps in some alternative universe this could
have been true, but not in his story. He started out on whiskey, but soon turned to stronger stuff:
pills, powders, street drugs. A sect I still remain completely naive to. The whole world of it
seems dark and scary, full of needles and men in LAZ-Boy chairs, women with scratched faces,
white pills with strange names.
When his sister finally did kick him out of the house, it was over stolen beer. I was half-asleep
on his bed, wearing a black party dress from the night before, when she burst in yelling. She told
him to quit drinking or get out. She was tired of her beer always being gone, and him always
asking for money. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine now that she let him stay as long as she did,
that she didn’t expect her beer to be gone, that she didn’t expect worse. James had been in and out
of AA since he was 18 years old.
After that there was a distance between us. Like a kid, he stopped drinking around me for fear I
would tattle to his sister. But he didn’t stop getting drunk.
One Saturday I was with him at a bar around 1:30 in the morning. His neck was flopping from
side to side, eyes glazed over, each movement slow and wobbly. No drinks were in his hands,
but the smell was on his breath. I tried to get him to leave with me, fearful of what he might do
next. After an unsuccessful hour of coaxing him out, I told him I was leaving on my own, with or
without him. He grabbed my face firmly with both hands and kissed me. Two thoughts went
through my head at this moment. One: he will not remember this tomorrow. Two: I hope everyone
at this bar is looking at us. Let them see how hard he kissed me. Let them know this clown is mine.
That image of us as a future couple.
The next morning, he would come into the coffee shop with red, puppy-dog-eyes and it would be
a new day. As I left the bar, he announced loudly that he would be back at my house in an hour.
Of course, he never showed up. Just as someone who is diligent with a career will push all else
aside to focus on their work, being an addict became very much his full-time job.
When I finally did get back to the Whale, dragging her out of the garage, tearing up individual
pieces of newspaper, dipping them in the glue I had made out of flour, and slapping them on the
chicken-wire skeleton, I was alone.
The blurry faces from my Community Art Project had vanished and I was forced to finish the
Whale by myself. I stood in a green dress, hunched over the tub of paste, newspaper falling out
of the trunk of my car, and slowly rotating, filling, drying, rotating, filling, drying, until the
whole big fish was covered.
The Whale became my burden, my enemy. People would stop me on the street, in the
coffeeshop, “How is the Whale?” they would ask, and the light in their voices made me cringe.
Where was the perfect image I had conjured? The smiling faces in golden light? The zen
I didn’t care about the Whale anymore, in fact I hated her. She represented bad memories that sat
in the pit of my stomach and grew mold. She represented my own failure as a creator, as a leader,
as an artist. I looked at her, this object of hope, and saw only my own ugliness, and the ugliness I
had built around me.
There are still some things about that summer I’ll never know, and I’ll never care to know. What
other women were there? What drugs were in your body all those late nights? Did you steal
money from your sister that time her wallet went missing? By August, James was in rehab. He
had to go, or the little rights he had to see his daughter would have been taken away from him.
I visited him once during his month-long stint at the facility, wearing a long red dress with my
hair pulled back; my skin clearer and more vibrant since I’d been sleeping. His voice swayed
between long drawls, his calloused hands gesturing explanations and reasons, the science behind
his behavior. I sat in a folding chair next to him, trying to sit tall and look pretty. There were
Bibles on the bookshelf. Styrofoam coffee cups by a sink. A window overlooking trees.
I knew we could no longer be together.
Though change was good and inevitable, my fantasy was over, and for a time I mourned it even
as I felt the fog in my head clearing. I still wanted the wild thing. Maybe he did too, but more
than anything he wanted to live.
By the time he got out of rehab, James was dating someone new. A girl he had met at the facility.
Over the following months, he got a job as a plumber and spent more time with his daughter. He
came into the coffeeshop clear-eyed and healthy. I fought off rage when I saw him walking down
the street with his new girl.
I told Rachel, “I was there when they fixed him, and now she gets to enjoy it.”
“Oh girl,” she said, “he’s not fixed.”
And she was right.
Addiction comes like a cancer. For some it can be easily treated, cut out. One surgery. For others
it resurfaces again and again. It needs all kinds of poison to get rid of it. Some die from the
treatment, while some struggle through.
It’s been six years since our summer together, and I don’t know how many times someone has
told me he’s relapsed. All hearsay from people who still know him. That he went back to rehab,
then back to meetings, that he quit drinking, but not taking pills, or the other way around. One
friend told me he ended up in jail on Father’s Day. Another told me they saw him crying on his
porch, saying he wanted to end it all. There is always some new girl, some new job, some new
apartment. The last I heard he was doing well, but I still don’t know if he’s sober.
Before that summer ended, I set the Whale on fire in my backyard. James had figured out what
he had to do to survive. Now I had to do the same. The Whale never saw the water as I had
envisioned, but I made sure she was painted and beautiful before her destruction.
I told the town about the burning, and the same faces from the Whale building showed up for her
funeral. But it was different. Faces un-blurred, now vibrant and clear. A quiet filled the group as
the Whale went up in arching flames, paper curling and coiling around her chicken wire body.
We all watched in silence for several minutes. The way humans love to stare at fire, but not
touch it. That contained danger, so close you can smell it. Someone brought their dog, another
their camera. A light rain fell to the ground and smoke hissed gently off the Whale’s paper skin.
“That was like going to church,” Rachel said.
And she was right.
In the end, I had created the reverence I was looking for, my Community Art Project. It took a
turn towards the darkness and came out light.
“You are not alone,” the poem reads.
“You may see a whale.”
Karina Cochran is a tall glass of water from the Midwest. Primarily a playwright, her plays have been read and performed in various venues across the United States. She recently received her Master’s Degree from Carnegie Mellon University and teaches classes on writing and creativity at an arts center in Bloomington, IN.
Featured Image: “Illustration of the sperm whale while attacking fishing boat from The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839) by Thomas Beale (1807-1849)” provided by rawpixel royalty free.