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A Fatal Sip
The steering wheel jerks out of my hands. The car bumps over the curb and spins left, barely missing the mail box. Tufts of grass spit from the front wheels before the car comes to a rest just short of the picture window that looks into the dining room. It’s framed now by beautiful velvet drapes, but inside the room is laid out the way it was when we lived here; china cabinet on the far wall. I wonder, after twenty years away, what else is the same. Does the upstairs closet still smell like me? I rest my head on the steering wheel, wondering why am I here. Do I really believe that if I can just get back inside, I can cover myself in darkness and block out everything that’s wrong. There’s so much to block out now, so much that’s wrong. Just like when I was eight. But back then I had a place to hide.
I remember how the latch clicked into place behind me, sounding solid and final. Only a small shaft of light would slip under the door, helping my eyes get used to the surrounding darkness. The inky blackness wrapped around me like a warm, familiar blanket, hiding me in its folds from everything going on in the rest of the house.
I close my eyes now and let the darkness take me again. I’m eight. I’m upstairs in my closet. I kick aside what must be my torn-up track shoes -- they had a musky, rubber scent to them -- and clear a place to sit and be small. I want to tuck myself into the back corner; hidden by the hanging dresses my mother makes me wear each Christmas. I scoot my butt into a safe place and try not to listen. But, even with the mounds of clothes and tall walls blocking my ear shot, I still hear her scream as if she were here hiding beside me. I tuck my face between my bony knees, shutting my eyes tight in hopes it will stop the tears from draining down my cheeksâ€”but it doesn’t helpâ€” not in the slightest. In fact, it only makes it worse. And still, I hear the shattering of his sacred bottles crashing against the dated linoleum; hear the toe-curling screech she lets out as he hurls her across the dining room table into Grandma’s china cabinet; hear the gravely, hard-edged voice he uses to scold Mom for not having dinner ready. I can’t block it out -- not then, not now.
I remember nights like those, and the mornings that followed. I’d wake up underneath a blanket of dirty clothes only to realize I was late for school. I’d quickly slip into my Target knock-off mini skirt and sweater -- the kind Sophie says are back in style again -- and I’d race out the door to meet my morning carpool. Seven-thirty, without fail, Mrs. Kane and Madison would be waiting.
“How was your weekend,” Mrs. Kane would ask.
True to the morning ritual, I’d smile and lie, “Great”.
On that last morning, like so many mornings before, Mrs. Kane turned to her daughter. “Well, Miss Grumpy, maybe you could take a lesson from Rylan. Sure would be nice if you could greet the day with a smile.”
Madison rolled her eyes. “You know I’m not a morning person.” Then she sulked the rest of the way to school.
When we jumped out of the car, Mrs. Kane gave her daughter one more reminder. “Put a smile on like Rylan.”
Mrs. Kane didn’t see behind my forced smile and didn’t see what she did to her daughter. Slamming the door, Madison bent her head to mine. “What does she expect? It’s not like anyone will notice me walking next to you anyway.”
Madison was right. Invariably, a swarm of friends would greet me. I should have helped her fit in -- I liked Madison -- but I liked the attention more. At school, I was noticed. I was loved. I was never alone. But, the second the school bell rang, I was back to where I started: neglected.
I remember sitting on the cement curb, skipping rocks across the abandoned slab of asphalt where my mother’s beat-up Honda should have been. It felt like days waiting there. On that Monday -- I remember it was Nov. 6 -- I decided to be independent and walk myself home; something I had learned a few years too early. Each step I took, the weight of my backpack grew. When I finally reached the corner across from my house, a few miles away from Hamilton Elementary, I took a quick glance up from the cracks in the poorly paved sidewalk to notice my house. It looked like a tornado hit it. Only that time, it wasn’t just shattered glass and puddles that signaled disaster. There were ambulances, police cars, fire trucks, pulsing blue and red lights screaming with urgency. My heart fell. I dropped my backpack, kicked off my shoes and sprinted full-speed towards my house. Tears shot down my cheeks from the sting of the wind and from sheer fear. My mother caught me, stopping me with her bruised, brittle body, holding me close, telling me, “He’s okay.”
My mother was a terrible liar.
I’d always known that day would come… I just never knew how fast. Two male EMTs transported my father on a white cot towards an ambulance the color of his cherry vodka. I tried pushing away from my mother’s arms to rush to his side, but she yanked me back, looked me in the eye, and said, “Be strong and stay here.”
I fought and I yelled and I cried. I just wanted a chance to let him know, to tell him… I love you. I hated the drinking, the smell of it on him, the look it put in his eye, but still, I loved him. I kneeled on my dry grass, sobbing, watching every emergency vehicle pass down my street, single file. Everything was a blur with my tears in the way, yet everything was real. They had left me, once again.
I stagger out of my Tahoe with a bagged bottle in hand landing in almost the same spot I did when I watched the ambulance pull away with my alcohol-poisoned father. It’s been twenty years. Twenty years and I’m alone again. I always wanted the fairy-tale ending. Just like every little girl. I wanted Prince Charming, the beautiful daughter, the happily-ever-after. Instead, I’m here on my childhood lawn tormented by my own recent past.
My Prince Charming found a new princess. Jenny. She must be perfect. Not only is she prettier, more outgoing, and a better mom, she also thinks she can save me, too. I should rip up the letter she sent. Instead, I pull it from my back pocket. Kneeling in the grass, I spread the letter in front of me and I try to focus. There’s a hand-written note clipped to a typed poem.
Rylan, I found this in Sophie’s homework assignments. I knew you would want to know since, despite everything, I have to believe you love Sophie. You wouldn’t let your drinking intentionally hurt your daughter. But, my husband, Michael, and I --
Like you have to remind me that he’s yours now.
â€” are worried for yours and Sophie’s well-being. Please take this to heart. And just remember, we’re praying for you. Love, Jenny.
A tear slips from my cheek landing on the “J” in Jenny, blurring the big loopy letter. I rip up the note; I want nothing to do with her. She has my husband, she has my kid, I can’t take anymore of her. The shreds of her note fall around me like snowflakes onto the summertime grass. I shiver as though it was really snowing, and blanket myself with my daughter’s note across my chest. At last, I get the courage and look at it.
Alcohol: A Poem for my Mom.
By: Sophie Johnston
You tell yourself, just one more.
Just one more sip to ease the pain.
One more sip to make it go away.
You’re addicted to the soothing burn,
With the tingling vibration.
You’re obsessed with the hope of the tables turned,
Accompanied by the false sensation.
You’re right Sophie, but it’s so much better than my reality. You don’t know how much I need it. I take another sip, letting it numb me so I can keep reading.
You slump on the stool.
Eyes bloodshot red.
Yet, you tell the bartender,
Make it a double shot instead.
Reminiscing on the good times,
Reminiscing on the bad,
Wishing you could have everything you once had.
I had it all. I had Michael’s love. High school sweethearts, we were never going to end up like my parents. But, now my daughter writes “A Poem for My Mom” and it could’ve been about my father.
You keep on using that Bacardi as your shovel,
Just digging your hole deeper.
Mommy, good luck getting back to a time so much sweeter.
Back to the norm.
Back to the good ole days.
Back to the days you wished you’d never changed.
You remember the smiling faces,
Of the loved ones you’d do anything for.
You remember the way your husband held you close,
The one you adored.
Look at them now, Mom.
Look at what you’ve done.
I can’t read anymore. I fling the empty Bacardi bottle away from me. Watching it break to pieces. I crawl my way to the doorstep, through the glittering glass. My bloody handprints melt into the concrete walkway. Struggling, I pull myself up with the door handle tall enough to reach the bell, and make it ring again and again; its insistent noise shatters the silence like the bottle on the walkway. My cheek pressed against the grain of the oak door, I watch the red stains of my blood drip down the door jam and listen to the muffled sound of shoes padding down the hallway. The latch unclicks, the door creaks slowly open. I plow through the slender opening staggering down the path to my upstairs bedroom closet. I can hear the garbled voice of the old lady who let me in, but I pay no attention to it. I need the comfort of small corners and the mask of the hanging dresses. I need the sense of security that only the flimsy latch could provide. I get there and slump inside, rocking myself back and forth, letting my tears drip through the crevice made by my boney knees.
The closet spins around me bringing bile to my throat. I look around, dizzy and disoriented. No Christmas dresses. A desk and sewing machine are shoved in the corners. In the shaft of light coming from under the door, I reach for the desk to steady myself, to pull myself up, but I only knock a pen off it. I sit and stare at the pen by my feet. I think of Jenny’s handwritten note attached to Sophie’s poem. Sophie’s words echo from the page. You remember the smiling faces, of the loved ones you’d do anything for. Anything, I think. I take my daughter’s poem and lovingly smooth out the edges. It’s not finished yet, Sophie. But soon. Soon it will be. I lay her poem across the desk and pick up the pen. The words come slowly at first, but I stop thinking and let my hand just write, let the words I scratch on the page tell us both now this unending nightmare can end.
I hold your hands as I pass.
Telling you to stay strong,
To forget about all the ways that I went wrong.
If only I didn’t take that first sip.
If only I found a better way.
Maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t die in such a wicked way.
Dropping the pen, the small shaft of light flickers in and out as I fall to my side and feel my numbed heart slow down as the pulsing sounds of sirens grow louder. “Sophie, I’m sorry,” I mumble, reaching out my hand and the world goes black.