Aqua Vitae

April 18, 2018

They told me it kept her warm.  “Like an internal heating system, y’know?” my dad used to say, elbowing me at the breakfast table; “means we don’t have to pay the bills,” and my mom, eyes distant, would sip and nod, the wine splashing in her glass.  The smell of it was like smoke over a charcoal fire:  the closer you got, the more it choked you, the more it warmed.  My mother—bless her heart—was perpetually cold.  Her daily regimen:  “drink, heat, repeat.”

On Thursdays in December I tried to warm my frigid hands around her bottle, but she’d grab it by the neck, squeeze till her knuckles burst from the skin.  “It only warms you from the inside out,” she’d say.  Her voice was a wisp, a breath aborted then released last-minute.  Some days she didn’t even bother with a glass.  Just drink—heat—repeat.

Sips turned to gulps.  My mother drowned chicken and sorrows—hers and ours—in the ever-growing ocean of wine, and all of us—fatherbrothersisterme—were dragged through the undertow.  How could we swim?  Without the wine, my mother was a husk.  An empty vessel, a series of angles and edges held together by paper-skin and wiry veins, hollow bones that trembled when she spoke.  The wine was her blood and flesh.  The wine kept her breath from fogging when the leaves turned and the sun faded.  The wine kept her bones from slipping, held her upright like a wooden marionette.  The wine keeps her warm, I told myself.  When I felt the first chill against the bruises on my arms I hugged a bottle of stolen merlot to my chest and sat against the bathroom sink, letting the sourness wash away the tears.  It keeps us warm, I told myself, determined not to freeze.  Drink.  Heat.  Repeat.

But it doesn’t warm you.  I’m sitting here, in a too-big hoodie and a too-thick blanket on a couch with too many bottles, and I keep getting colder.  I bleed all over my brother’s carpet and my blood mixes with the liquor when it seeps into the fibers and I can’t tell which is which.  I come to at three in the morning with gooseflesh and bruises and wonder which will fade first.  A neighbor found me and cleaned me up once and I wanted to tell him his eyes were the most beautiful thing I’d seen in ages but it was all I could do not to vomit on his shirt, all I could do not to let myself scream.

“You ever huffed bulls*** for twelve days?” this girl asked me once, drawled and lazy in a plastic chair with a blunt smoking her fingertips.  “And you hate the smell, but you can’t stop sniffin’ it, no matter how much it kills you.”  I wanted to tell her everything—that I’ve been burning myself alive, and I keep getting colder—but the specks of grass under her nails already knew.

Two days ago, they buried my mother.  Overheated, I thought, but not really.  It was the coldest day of the year.  All around me people were huddled, and though they didn’t need the extra warmth they drank chardonnay and pinot and that damned merlot, not knowing that it was all an illusion, that they were draining the heat from their bodies sip by sip, gulp by gulp.

So many husks.  So little warmth.

I stood by her grave after everyone had gone and wondered if, after all this time, her bones would finally collapse.  Angles and edges, paper-skin and veins.  Nothing holds you together when you’re dead.

My fingers closed around the flask in my satchel and I thought, sure is freezing out here, Mom.  Boys with glass eyes and girls with grass fingers and somehow, I cannot accept the truth.

Drink.

Heat.

Repeat.






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