Sunday: Day 1/Week 1
I drink every day, have for years. At the age of twenty-nine, it’s my one committed activity. Wine is my thing, or gin and tonic if I go to a nightclub. I can’t just stop. I try to picture myself: one day with alcohol, the next without it forever. The image won’t coalesce. I can’t afford rehab, and Alcoholics Anonymous smacks of group activities, which are beyond me since the great Girl Scouts debacle of my youth. My options are: (1) revel Mardi Gras-style or (2) create a strategy using my own brand of steps to plod toward an alcohol-free existence.
I’m starting today. Sunday is the nominal day of rest, so I’m going to stop drinking on Sundays. When I feel OK with that, I’ll add in Mondays, then Tuesdays, and so on and so forth until I’m clear seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. Doing Monday next will give me forward momentum. A white lie. I can’t face Friday and Saturday. Christ, I hyperventilate at the thought of a weekend without alcohol. The corked maw of sobriety is frightening enough. I’ll begin with the easiest days and work my way up.
The rationale behind my plan is this: I have a modicum of control, a base to build from. I’m a functional alcoholic, according to the alcoholism literature, because I don’t drink twenty-four hours a day and I manage to hold down a semi-paying job.
I’m an Editor, after a fashion. The grandiosity of that full-throated capital “E” eludes me. True Editors corral the wayward meanderings of the next Thomas Wolfe. I edit television listings. In fact, I’m one of the few people on the planet who can spell the names, complete with proper hyphenation, of the perky stars of the Saturday morning teen comedy, Saved by the Bell, Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen. I could continue. But who the hell cares now in 198-, let alone in fifty years? I’ve been stuck in this lame-ass job for eight years, my annual salary skyrocketing from $13,500 to a plush $17,737.32 as a result of my eagle eye for inane editorial minutiae.
I started drinking to talk to people. It worked to a point, then came diminishing returns. My friends from college have professional careers, fiancés, lives that don’t include me. I don’t even have a boyfriend. A trip to the grocery store breeds more than enough mental anguish. The thought of dating again makes my skin crawl.
Basically, I’m a borderline hermit in terms of human interactions. I get an occasional “Do you ever smile?” from the guy in the cubicle next to me at work. How am I supposed to answer a question like that? Make a joke? I don’t know any, and he’s not smiling when he asks so I don’t think he’s oozing friendliness himself. Tell the truth? “Well, Mark, if you could stop confusing ingenuous and ingenious in your local program descriptions or better yet stop using words like that altogether because viewers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area probably don’t keep a dictionary handy when reading their TV schedules, then my life might be a tad more smile-worthy?” Too harsh. Instead I say, “Yes, I smile,” and stare at him until he breaks eye contact.
So most of my conversations are limited to phone calls with Daddy. Poor man, he’s willing to listen, and I need to vent. Freaking me out is not difficult. One question from my boss can send me into a tailspin.
“Will you have those listings for the San Francisco market done by noon?” she might say.
That’s my cue to start obsessing: Did I miss the deadline? Is she mad at me? What did I do wrong? Is she going to fire me? She wants to fire me. I’m such an idiot. Stupid. So stupid. Is she going to fire me? These worries circle through my brain for days.
Some of it’s a victimization complex, but to be fair to myself, strange, undeserved traumas occur with alarming frequency, like the time I got jumped by skinhead girls in a club parking lot. I promise, I don’t wander around inciting violence in girls with mohawks and nose rings.
Last night I went out. I like dancing in a crowd where no one can tell who’s alone. Of course, I drank. New twist: I had sex with a total stranger. I have a vague memory of meeting a guy. Don’t remember the sex. The used condom was in the bathroom trashcan. As soon as I saw it, I vomited into the sink—I couldn’t make the three extra steps to the toilet. My stomach kept convulsing. I leaned there, my forehead on the faucet, retching yellow stomach acid and then dry heaving. Five boyfriends in my entire life and now God knows who. Ick. Yes, the language of a two-year-old sums up the situation with awesome brevity and candor.
I tell Daddy a lot. The alcohol and the somewhat smaller bombshell that I’ve turned into a complete slut are off-limits. Certain boundaries in the father-daughter relationship shouldn’t be crossed. But I have my plan. I’ve been thinking about it for a few months. Truthfully, the verb upgraded to “pondering” when I passed the one-week mark on my thought processes. However, I needed that time. The road to alcoholism is paved with whims. Stopping requires determined thought and action.
I will do this. Reveling isn’t my strong suit.
Monday: Day 2/Week 3
Thank God I decided to stop drinking during baseball season. I’m too nervous to read, I can’t afford cable, and my little black-and-white TV gets one fuzz-free channel: TBS, the broadcast home of the Atlanta Braves. Go Braves!
I made it two Sundays in a row. Time to add a new day. So I’ve been sitting here in my studio apartment whiling away a Monday night, attempting to endure forty-eight consecutive hours without alcohol. The ballgame occupied a blissful three hours and twelve minutes of my evening. I’m aware of how pathetic that sounds.
Daddy called after the news, and we talked about the game. We started bridging the distance of my teenage years right before I left for college. My classmates were excited. I sat on my bedroom floor, legs crossed, rocking myself and crying. Month after month. A lot of nights, Daddy came in and sat on the floor with me. “You’ll get through this,” he said. A sweet lie.
Don’t get me wrong. I was mighty pleased to leave behind the hell of Stephens County High School. Daddy got transferred to a mill in Toccoa, that’s north Georgia, before my junior year. I was transplanted into a high school distinguished by a twenty-five-foot-tall Indian chief mascot and a complementary red-and-black color scheme that drenched the walls, floors, lockers, and every other paint-permeable fixture in the building. Football-crazed lunatics, anyone?
Actually, I like pro and college football. I’ve followed the Atlanta Falcons and Georgia Tech since I was young. My brother never liked sports. I started watching with Daddy so he wouldn’t be alone. We even drag Mama to Tech games when Daddy gets free tickets from a dye salesman who knows he went to school there.
High school football is different, spurning the casual fan. A closed ecosystem, high school is awash in all things spirit-y, with the spirit ribbons you have to buy each week (or risk looking spiritless) and the mandatory-attendance pep rallies, where the principal leads the cheers and berates the unpopular students who are sitting in their own unpopular student section of the bleachers. Nothing quite like a fifty-year-old authority figure screaming into a microphone at teenagers already in survival mode: “What’s wrong with you people? You should be ashamed. Show some spirit!”
Half of us ignored him. The rest mumbled, “Go, Indians,” whereupon a section filled with popular kids roared the gym down to put us in our place.
Anyway, first day in this spirit-mad high school, I showed up—with a transcript full of straight A’s—in a blue plaid circle skirt, a white t-shirt, a three-strand necklace of bright blue plastic gumball beads from the 1950s, and the name Olive instead of Ashley or Savannah. Shy too. I might have been considered artistic somewhere else. Mired among the jeans-wearing, yee-hawing Stephens County Indians, I was a complete freak. The one thing that could have saved me from social disaster was unearthly beauty. I was a basic brown-haired teenager.
Junior year wasn’t bad because Katie, a girl from New York, transferred in, and we were inseparable. Then she transferred back out. Senior year, my circle of friends was a triangle: me, a ninety pound guy in overalls who every other word emitted, “Hmmmmmmm,” at a volume that made your skull vibrate, and a three-hundred-pound girl who’d suffered brain damage as a child and was reading at a fourth-grade level. We were friends in the way of people who have nothing in common except loneliness. Talking to them kept me from imploding under the isolation. I wasn’t the friend they wanted, the go to the movies and drink milkshakes at McDonald’s and hang out at the lake friend, but at least I listened. No one else did.
Tuesday: Day 3/Week 5
Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. Three days a week free from alcohol. I don’t want to consume extra on drinking days to compensate for the alcohol-free days so I’m using a measuring cup to pour the wine. I feel like a heroin addict being doled out methadone to survive detox. Still, I’m in charge of the doling and no cheating yet.
I’m rocking again, but I’ve got an actual rocking chair this time around. When Granny had to move into the nursing home before she died, she asked her children and grandchildren to come to her house and pick out keepsakes. I didn’t go. Vulture feelings. My parents thought I’d regret it, so Mama and Daddy got me a set of china and a Bentwood rocking chair. I’m glad for the chair. I sit and rock and watch the Braves.
I also think about how I got in this mess. Back when I graduated from high school and was doing the first round of the aforementioned rocking and crying, Mama convinced Daddy I needed professional help. High school was a quantifiable, endurable hell. Safe. The unknowns of college floored me, in a literal sense. My parents responded to the crisis by taking me to a psychiatrist in Gainesville.
Nardil was the initial drug of choice. Consuming cheese can cause a person on Nardil to stroke out, so much of my first quarter at the University of Georgia was taken up with visions of my impending death. Then Ed, the sweaty psychiatrist who was less than a verbal gymnast himself, switched me to a new drug, Prozac.
I got thin and started smiling. That was enough to make Ed happy with my progress. He sent me back to UGA, a thin, smiling mute prepared with few social skills to make friends or date. I managed to stumble into Serena, Terri, and Susan thanks to dorm-enforced proximity, and they guided me through college with the help of some alcohol to combat the muteness. Not the best idea when I was on Prozac, but at the time it was kind of experimental and didn’t come with the warning labels. Or none that I noticed.
We graduated and went to different cities, except Serena came to Atlanta with me when she got a job at Zoo Atlanta. I couldn’t be on Daddy’s insurance anymore. The visits to Ed stopped, the prescriptions too. Eventually I found my current dead-end job. Without any alcohol-infused chattiness, I had trouble talking during interviews, ergo the pickings were slim.
Petty concerns fed on “Alice in Wonderland” eat-me cake, smacking my brain against life’s ceilings: I express interest in people, ask questions—why do I get monosyllables and Serena gets a new friend every weekend? I can’t afford an oil change. My car’s going to break. Watch the dash, watch the dash. What’ll I do if the light comes on? No boyfriend. Soon Mama’s going to stop saying, “Of course, you’ll get married.” I’ll die when she stops, when even she can’t believe it. I’ll die if she doesn’t stop. No, I really don’t think looking at silver patterns will be fun this weekend. That pain in my side must be a tumor. Broccoli prevents cancer. I’ve got to eat broccoli. Cheese is the Devil’s food. Eat the damn broccoli, Olive.
I went to my new primary care physician and told her my former psychiatrist had prescribed Prozac. She gave me a prescription for the “standard dose” of 10 milligrams. It was like swallowing an M&M whole—no crunchy candy shell, no creamy chocolate goodness, no pleasing round conduit of happiness. I was frantic. I dug up one of my old prescription bottles, and that’s when I discovered I’d been a lab rat. My daily dose from Ed: 120 milligrams.
The new doctor stared at me.
“There’s no way I can prescribe that,” she said. “You’d have to see a psychiatrist, and I don’t think they’d go over 80 milligrams a day.”
My health plan didn’t cover psychiatric visits. I went full-time on the alcohol.
Wednesday: Day 4/Week 8
I’ve discovered carbonated water. It’s a gift from God. The lost Jewish people stumbling around the desert got manna, I get bubbly water. Perrier’s my favorite, but the budget favors Crown. Its bubbles are harsh, manmade. They bombard your lips and tongue. On the bright side, the assault takes your mind off the lack of alcohol in your mouth. I’m drinking about four bottles a night.
My apartment is located across the street from a bar and a liquor store that share a parking lot. The owner of the liquor store gives me a bright smile when I come in at night and buy water instead of wine. He seems proud of me.
I’ve passed the halfway point. Four days out of seven not drinking. Yay me. The celebration is short-lived. Staying on schedule is getting harder. I plot out what minute of what day I can next have alcohol. I rock in my chair and count down the hours until I’m tired enough to pass out—usually around 3 a.m. I’ll have to buy my water at Kroger on the way home from work. Going in the liquor store is no longer safe.
Thursday: Day 5/Week 12
Fuck, I say. And say and say. Which is odd, considering my sheltered self never used the word until I crossed paths with Serena during our freshman year at UGA. She was from New Jersey. Still is, but a year after we came to Atlanta, she gave me two days’ warning and moved away to a new job and a new life in Arizona. I didn’t think my best friend would do that. These days we don’t talk. Back when we first met, she wore black leather and her hair was long, blond, and frizzy—kind of like a female Ramone except hot and sexy instead of mostly creepy like an actual Ramone if you’ve ever seen one, and she said “Fuckin’ A” a hundred times a day.
I didn’t understand what it meant, didn’t like to ask. Our friends seemed to know already. When I was growing up, cursing wasn’t an option. The worst I ever heard Daddy say was “Rats!” when he was steaming mad.
Same with Mama, almost. One summer when we were visiting Granny, Mama, Daddy, my brother Ted, and I went to the store to get something, maybe dried beef, which was a popular lunch item back when Ted and I ate meat. We hadn’t gone half a mile before Mama took off her shoe, slammed it into the dashboard, and yelled, “Shit!”
No one said anything for a minute. Then I pulled myself together.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“Your grandmother can be a bitch sometimes.” Mama’s voice quavered on the word bitch. I’d never heard her say that either.
A little more quiet. Finally she said, “I’m sorry I got upset.” The heel of the shoe had gouged a chunk of vinyl out of the dashboard. I put my arms around her shoulders from the backseat and kissed the side of her neck. Ted scooted over from his side and patted her head. Daddy started driving left-handed so he could hold her hand with his right. Later we teased her.
Fuck. I would very much like a drink, thank you. Please. Please. Fuck.
Friday: Day 6/Week 20
Here we go: Six days a week without alcohol. Moving past five days was a sticking point. I needed several weeks to acclimate to the idea of giving up Friday and Saturday. All right, it was two months, but I did keep Sunday through Thursday alcohol free, and that’s damn good. I’ve had help. Both Daddy and my cat can tell something’s wrong. These days, Daddy talks to me for more than an hour a night—his phone bill must be astronomical. Marmalade stakes out a spot on my lap and lets me pet his head until bedtime. He doesn’t mind the rocking. I think he’s trying to keep my hands busy.
I went to see my old boyfriend Paul yesterday, to say hello. We’d stayed friends after we both moved on to new people. A bulbous half-empty jug of red was on the floor next to the sofa. Paul picked it up as we sat down. His finger hooked through the glass handle and set the jug swinging.
“Want some?” he said. We drank a lot in our time together. The wine sloshed from side to side in the jug. Heavy seas.
I said no. He poured himself a jelly glass. We met when I was dating a drummer. I’d thought that boyfriend was the love of my life. Of course, I hadn’t experienced much in the way of love—or normal dating. He and I ended things quickly, but Paul stuck it out with me quite a while. He listened to my sad crap and found ways to cheer me up, as well as breaking into my apartment on a monthly basis to rummage through my underwear drawer. I couldn’t hold it against him. We both had our insane moments. I almost kicked his door in once. (The lock was quite strong.)
Black hair, brown eyes, motorcycle. He was so fun, and dear God, he could fuck. The last time was when his then-latest girlfriend was out of town. We ended up in her apartment to watch a video of the David Lynch movie, Blue Velvet. Neither of us could afford high-tech equipment like a VCR. We were watching the movie, drinking wine, and Paul put his hand on my leg. A simple sign of affection between friends, nothing new, but somehow it led to a hot, rough fuck right on the girlfriend’s couch.
He felt bad. I knew I should too, yet I still considered him mine in a way, which was stupid and strange because he was not mine anymore and I didn’t want him to be, not romantically. I just needed that connection.
Most of my boyfriends have said to my face, “You’re strange, you know.”
Thanks. That’s the sort of Cinderella talk girls yearn to hear. Paul made me feel like I belonged. Losing that was too difficult for a clean break.
Now Paul goes to work, he comes home to his shitty apartment, he drinks, he writes. While I was there, he read me a chapter of the novel he’s working on. A rambling mess. His genius is drowning, and he can’t tell.
Saturday: Day 7/Week 23
There’s a park about two miles from my apartment. I walk down there and back every day. I take my Walkman and listen to the Ramones/Sex Pistols mix tape my brother Ted made me when I was struggling to survive the three-mile runs in my “Fitness for Life” class in college. I feel better when I’m done. Then I rock and watch the Braves. I can read some, Harlequin Romances not Proust, but it’s a start. Daddy and Marmalade remain vigilant.
During this whole weaning process, I’ve had trouble taking out the trash. I’m not sure why. I bag up the bottles and leave the bags stacked on the screen porch instead of taking them to the dumpster.
I do know why—partly. I’m ashamed of the bottles. That’s nothing new. However, it’s worse. I’ve been hoarding them over the last six months. Like one of those old people you see on the news: The eighty-nine-year-old woman dies, and when the police force the door of her home, they find newspapers going back to 1912 stacked to the ceiling in each room. Or the seventy-year-old man who’s squirreled away a hundred and fifty thousand tin cans has a heart attack, and the ambulance crew has to navigate the house inching through tiny vegetable-and-chili-lined footpaths. Except my apartment would be lined with empty wine bottles.
Last night I think I had a dream that something was crawling on my neck. I reached up and grabbed it and threw it across the room. I heard it thump. This morning I checked to see if a dead mouse or rat body was splayed against the wall. Nothing. It still felt more like a memory than a dream. I took out the trash. I walked down to the dumpster in the parking lot. Seven trips. Fifteen bags. They all clinked.
I scrubbed down the apartment when I was done. Midafternoon, Kroger. I loaded mousetraps and an early edition of the Sunday paper into the cart so that, respectively, I could stalk stray rodents and look over the classifieds. I wanted the perfect Sunday morning breakfast morsel. Pondering the merits of Lucky Charms vs. Eggo waffles, my concentration lapsed and I cruised the aisles on autopilot.
I froze when I realized where I was. I’d turned down the aisle to my old stomping grounds, and I was trapped, adrift in a gleaming river of coaxing libations. My eyes focused on a 1.5 liter Zinfandel. Dark, plummy undertones beckoned below a layer of green glass. My mouth filled with saliva, pooling under my tongue like I was one of Pavlov’s dogs.
I swallowed and spun the cart around with military precision. Then I ran. I ran, and I speed-walked through the store in alternating bursts. Most people averted their gaze as I passed. The running, the tears, the speed-walking, the tears, the running. Take your pick. Any of it could have put their city-dwelling isolationist instincts on alert. But halfway down the soup and pasta aisle, a sixty-ish lady in an ankle-length red velour robe and leopard-print heels stared at me in disgust. Like I was some shameful oddity. Like there wasn’t plenty of crazy to choose from on that aisle. I kept going, a study in rolling commotion.
I slowed to a pure walk as I reached a checkout lane.
The clerk and the security guard had been watching my approach and stood side by side. “You in a hurry?” the guard said. “You can’t run in here, makin’ trouble.”
I wiped my cheeks with one hand and began unloading the cart with the other.
“I’m good.” I flashed him a smile. “No more trouble.”