Jim Beam: A Love (Goodbye) Story

All endings beg us to return to the beginning.

As I try to wrap up this blog, to tell the stories that matter to me — the ones that mean the most — I keep returning to Jim Beam. I’ve been unable to escape the thought of his squared, glass bottle. Like a person. A character. — Jim Beam, Bourbon Whiskey, was an essential player in my story. — Just brown booze in a bottle, sure. But, still, after all this time, I’ll refer to that particular bottle as: “Him.” Because, like a fallen sidekick, I still sometimes miss his help.

I miss how I never felt alone, knowing I had a bottle on the kitchen counter. How I could go to any bar — and there he’d be. Seeing a bottle of Jim Beam White Label behind the bar, even now, makes me feel like I’ve run into an old friend — an old lover.

What’s funny is, admitting this doesn’t make me feel ridiculous at all. Not one bit. Because, as I come to another ending in my life, I am aware now, more than ever, of how important it is to recognize the anchors that root us in our past experiences. Jim Beam — yes, to be sure — was just booze in a bottle. But, he was there. He was there, for almost everything in my life before I got sober. And, he was the bottle I tipped back — the bottle who saved me — when things were the most difficult they’ve ever been.

While I was thinking about it, I realized that getting sober is not the hardest thing I’ve ever done. — It was surviving the pain of heartbreak. And, during that period in my life, Jim Beam saved me from myself. There were so many times I turned myself over to that squared, glass bottle, completely, because staying present would have killed me, and nearly did.

I sat through countless 12-Step meetings where members told stories about how alcohol or drugs had saved them from themselves. And, of course, this is how things went awry. Booze can’t actually save you, not forever anyway. But, before things got bad, beyond the-point-of-no-return bad, there was a time where being drunk made my life possible. It gave me a reason to live — when I felt that I had not one. When it came to Jim, I never had to do anything to earn it. I had his love. Jim Beam always sat in wait for me, ready when I needed him. And, now, allowing myself to recognize that, to feel that, I understand why getting sober was so hard. There aren’t many people who will show up for you like that.

Alcoholism, the disease, isn’t about drinking. It’s about what we got from the drink. It’s what waited for me at the bottom of that bottle that defined my problem. Back then, I never thought to savor each sip, thinking the drink would love me back. But now, if I’m being honest, — somewhere inside of me — that was what I thought: I thought at the bottom of every bottle of Jim Beam I would find the love that had left me bereft. And, when I see that bottle today, it doesn’t make me feel sad. It makes me feel grateful. — Grateful that I am alive. — Grateful that my own heart didn’t kill me.

Love, like drinking, is most beautiful in the process. — Never in the result. Love and liquor are comforts you can count on — until you can’t anymore. One day, love is the only thing you believe in, and the next, it’s walked out on you. One day, a drink is what saves you from yourself, and the next — it’s killing you. You have to be careful how far you let things take you outside yourself.

Learning to be present with loss is the hardest thing any of us will ever do. And, we do it everyday. We lose people. Jobs. Places. Things. — Bottles. — And, worst of all, we lose the love that is built into each one of these things. There is no stopping it. No preventing it. The only thing we can teach ourselves to do, is to allow love to go. To leave us. And, to know, somewhere, we will find it again.

This blog, over the years, has been the place I’ve thrown all my love. Anger and calm and joy and death and transition and waiting and finding and EUREKA! It has been everything. And, I think, this particular goodbye is so difficult because, I know that it is because of writing this blog — week after week, month after month, year after year — that I know, not only how to say goodbye, but, why I need to say goodbye. I know now that goodbyes are never permanent. Just like Jim Beam, Saucy Sobriety will sit on the shelf — a reminder that, somehow, I survived.

At the bottom of this bottle, this blog, there is a sweet, unpoured sip that I will never taste. And, I will always wonder: Does that last little gulp contain all the love that I got so incredibly drunk trying to taste?

To which the answer is, obviously: No.

Because, Love was the process of getting to the bottom of it all.

And, that, to be sure, I have tasted.

 

 

 

 

 

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Going Postal: Christmas Edition

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Before pulling into the parking lot of Dennis’ Seven Dees Garden Center on Powell Boulevard, I stopped at the liquor store and got a big bottle of Jim Beam White Label.

It was a Tuesday. I was going to put up my Christmas tree. And, Goddammit, I was going to be drunk.

I threw the bottle, in it’s slim, brown, paper bag onto the passenger seat and drove down the road blasting a Nat King Cole Christmas album with the windows down. It was cold and my windshield was dirty. The Winter sun glinted in my eyes and I pulled down the sun visor as I turned off the road and into Dennis’ lot where three Mexican men were tying a tree to the top of a forest green Subaru.

Inside, twinkling lights were strung up under a white, plastic canopy that housed flocked, white Christmas trees, lined up by size, in tidy rows, as far as the eye could see. Red, glass ornaments reflected the glare of silver tinsel. Life-size Santas stood guard in every doorway. And, the woman who stood at the cashier’s counter wore a green sweater laced with cheap, golden threads and had glittery silver snowflakes dangling from her ear lobes. “Can you tell me where the Fraser firs are?” She looked up at me smiling her big, toothy, smoker’s smile, “How tall, hun?” She croaked. Unsure how to answer, I considered inquiring what height she thought might fill the loveless void my living room had become.

“I don’t know. Six feet?” I asked her, not really concerned with height, only with getting something to convince myself that the holiday season of 2011 was not, in fact, the fifth ring of hell. “Carlos!” she shouted across the store, “Can you take this little lady over to the Frasers? — Go over there with Carlos hun. He’ll help you.”

Carlos stood behind me while I pushed my way through branches and needles in an aisle at the far end of the lot. “You like that one? I can open it for you, so you can see it,” he said stepping forward. “That’s ok. I’ll take it. It’s fine.” He looked at me as if he understood why I was there — a look that acknowledged both my indifference and his pity for me. “Ok. No problem. Which car is yours?” He picked up the tree before I could answer. “Black Honda Civic. The one with the busted tail light.” He nodded, leading me down the aisle and back under the heated canopy. “Ok. You pay inside.” I handed him my car keys and walked back to the cashier with the white ticket Carlos had ripped from the top of the tree and handed to me.

I paid Sissy Snowflake sixty-five bucks for the tree and another twenty for my impulse buy: A big, red, light-globe that sat on the edge of her counter. “Happy Holidays, Hun,” she said handing me my change.

Carlos saw the bottle of Jim Beam poking out from the brown bag on the passenger seat. “You throwing a Christmas party?” He asked, smiling, as he tied the twine taunt around the roof of my car. “Yeah,” I said, “something like that,” handing him a ten dollar tip.

Back home, I pulled into our driveway which, now, was just my driveway. I looked at the tree strapped to the roof like a dead body and did everything I could to stop myself from breaking all the car’s windows. I held my bottle of bourbon, like the baby Jesus himself, and left the tree atop the Honda. — First things first.

In the kitchen, I didn’t even bother to pull down a glass. I opened the bottle, letting the click of the breaking, plastic seal sound the coming of my lord and savior: Jim Beam. I drank from the bottle in gulps. It burned the back of my throat and sent a shiver up my back that started in my stomach. I hadn’t eaten a proper meal in weeks, and, the warm liquid sloshed in my empty stomach like an angry sea. I felt my cheeks flush red and, after a minute, I could breathe again.

I put on Frank Sinatra’s “Christmas Songs By Sinatra” and sat on the arm of the couch with my open bottle and my green, Rubbermaid Christmas bin at my feet. Inside the bin were smaller boxes of ornaments my mother had packed up for us before we moved, a tree skirt, old lights, stockings, and a Glade cinnamon-apple scented candle that we hadn’t finished burning the year before. I dug out the plush snowman with a hook at his feet and placed him on the fireplace mantle and hung my cat’s Christmas stocking. She sat watching me from her window perch in the sun, nonplussed.

When I was drunk enough, I decided to get the tree. Carlos had already put it in the stand, so, I just had to cut the twine and get the thing from the driveway, through the garage, and into the living room. It seemed easy enough, but when I got out to the car, the tree seemed bigger than when I had poked at it’s branches on the lot. I stood there for moment with my scissors, trying to figure out the best way to maneuver the sappy beast into the house. And, as I walked around the side of the car, snipping at the twine on the back, passenger side, the mailman turned the corner.

I’d seen him many times before. He’d always waved to me as he wheeled by during the Summer, while I sat on the back porch smoking cigarettes and drinking PBR. He was a fit, older guy with salt and pepper hair in a tight, military cut. Tall and lean, he walked quickly, and that day the dusty blue of his Postal Service uniform contrasted his red cheeks in the cold. He watched me fumble as he counted out my neighbor’s holiday cards and placed them in her slot. I struggled, sliding the tree off the driver’s side, almost falling. The plastic stand hit the asphalt, hard. It didn’t break, but, it startled me. “Godfuckingdamnit,” I spat out in frustration under my bourbon breath.

“Need a hand there?” The mailman asked in a warm, kind voice, as I dragged the stand over the gravel toward the garage. “No. That’s ok.” I said, tripping over the cement lip where the garage met the driveway. “Jesus. Fuck.”

“Here.” He said, walking toward me. “Let me help you there. You really need two people to do that job.”

“I’ve got it! Jesus.” I shouted. The sound of my voice reverberated off the walls of the garage and out onto Cora Drive, hitting the street like a piece of metal. “I’ve fucking got it.”

“Alright lady. Fine.” He said, putting his hands up, conceding. “Just trying to help you. Jeez.” He walked back to his cart at my neighbor’s front door and wheeled it up to his little truck around the other side of the circle. And, I stood at the garage door, wondering who I’d become.

***          ***          ***

Later that night, after the sun had gone, the apartment was dark, save for the lights on the tree. After the mailman left, I’d struggled for another ten minutes, but managed to get the tree up the single step and into the living room where it sat, undecorated, while I wept between swigs of bourbon.

As my Sinatra album repeated for the fifth time, I strung up the lights. I hung my favorite childhood ornaments. And, as tears streamed from the corners of my eyes, I pulled out the little angel my mother had wrapped for me, specially, in paper towels, and placed her at the top. — She looked down on me softly as I sunk to the floor where I grabbed at the blue carpet beside my now near-empty bottle. Even in that, the saddest and most desperate of moments, my tree was absolutely beautiful. — A light in my darkest season.

Completely blotto, I held myself up at the kitchen counter and pulled out a notepad and a pen from the junk drawer and wrote a note to the mailman. I stumbled to the front door and clipped it to my mailbox outside.

THANKS FOR TRYING TO HELP ME WITH THE TREE. I’M SORRY. IT REALLY WAS A TWO PERSON JOB. BUT, IT’S BEEN A CRAP YEAR, AND I REALLY NEEDED TO DO IT MYSELF.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS.

SARAH

Not like a cut. Not any more.

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He didn’t love me. Not enough.

The first time I had the thought, and really acknowledged it, I was laying on the bed in his brother’s guest room.

I’d had that thought before. And, I’d had it many times after. But, that day, I remember, it was raining. I left the living room in tears, though, now, I can’t remember why. And, alone in that quiet room, I lay in our bed and I cried. I knew he wouldn’t come in to comfort me. I knew that for sure.

I have a vague recollection of the blanket being a blue plaid. Though, if I’m honest, I can’t really remember now. It’s funny what we’ll retain and what we’ll let go and what we’ll just overlook. Little details — and big ones. But, it had that smell. The smell that other people’s guest rooms have. Like the sheets have been washed, but, maybe a few weeks ago, an evening or two after the last occupant climbed out of them. It smelled like home, but, someone else’s home.

And that, I think, could sum Adam up. He was home. But, never my home.

On that rainy afternoon we were only two days into our cross-country trip, at our first stop on the way to our new hometown: Portland, Oregon. We’d packed up our Greenpoint, Brooklyn apartment furiously the night before and left my mother and father standing at the curb of Nassau Avenue with boxes and bags to save for us and ship to us. We’d stuffed the car so full of our possessions, it literally burst at the seams. Weeks later, in California, we would blow a head gasket due to pulling all that weight, but, we’d driven on anyway, thinking it was a busted radiator cap until we took it in to the Honda dealership in Gresham, Oregon, the day after we checked in to our extended stay hotel.

Just two days into our trip, and only 6 hours from Brooklyn, I felt like we’d driven across the world. And, I knew. — I knew I’d made a mistake. But, there are some mistakes you have to keep a secret. There are some errors where you must hold your tongue. You must let them play out because — Maybe. Maybe it will be different than what you know it to be. Maybe it can all work out. Maybe.

He’d tried to leave me once before, back in New York City. But, I told him he had to stay. We’d figure it out. And he did. He stayed. He let the comfortable love we’d fallen into carry us across the distance that the love we’d lacked for ourselves couldn’t. We allowed something wrong to pose as if it were right, because, maybe we didn’t want to be alone and maybe we didn’t think we’d find anyone better. And still, even after all this time, I haven’t. I haven’t found anyone better.

Different, but, never better.

On his brother’s guest bed, I hugged a pillow to my chest. I could hear laughter in the living room, beer cans cracking open, the clink-clink-clink of the refrigerator door swinging shut. I remember hearing all that and wondering if he’d heard me crying.

He can’t blame me for wanting him to stay. And, I can’t blame him for wanting to leave. Time and space and everything that happened after him made blame useless. Now, it’s just hurt. Not like a cut, not any more. Like a bruise. Old, but tender to the touch. It still stains my arm a dark purple, and, I press it, hard, with the tips of my fingers, more often than I should. I know. — I know.

I think about it now, and, long before I’m sad or angry, I’m sorry. Sorry I didn’t let him go the first time, when we’d stood arguing on 1st Avenue in the East Village. I just couldn’t let him go. And so, we got back on the L train and we made it work. Stupid love. But, the biggest I have ever known. The kind you know so well, you can remember every detail. — Each, like one of his socks strewn across our bedroom floor. After he left me, I found his socks for months. Under the bed, in the closet, beside the couch at the lip of the electric heater, and fallen between the washer and the dryer. I washed them all again and I wore them as if they were my own.

I’m sorry for things I said and didn’t say. I’m sorry for pushing him into the bathroom wall in anger. I’m sorry for embarrassing him in every one of my blackouts. And I am sorry, most of all, for the things I couldn’t remember. The words I said that he would speak with his eyes the next morning while he sat on the black couch, head in his hands. I knelt on the blue carpet and begged him to stay. And, all I could think while I was on my knees was how my mother once told me: “Never beg a man to do anything.” But, I did. And, I still don’t regret it.

Before he left, I drank to forget. To forget that he didn’t love me. Not enough. I drank to forget the words he never said, but, I wished he had. And, I drank to forget that I’d let it all happen. I drank to forget that rainy afternoon in his brother’s guest room. To forget that moment of knowing it was too late for us, but, knowing it was too late to turn back, too.

After he left, I drank to forget. To forget how much it hurt. To forget how empty everything felt. The living room, the kitchen, the bed, the car. I drank to forget the way I knew every piece of him. The curve of his wrist. The beds of his nails. The blue pools of his eyes. I drank to forget all that, and more still. But, it didn’t work. Even with a different man laying beside me, he always lay there with us. Like a ghost. And, eventually, I stopped wishing he would go. Sometimes I drank hoping that, maybe, he’d stay forever.

4 years sober, and, he still hasn’t left. The last time I saw his face it was February, 2012. But, in a strange way, I still see him everyday. I press the bruise and watch as it whitens at the edges. I still  feel it. So old. But, it still aches.

People tell me that — it’s over. That it isn’t worth the pain or the time or the regret. But, with all my wits about me now, for better or for worse, I’ll decide. I’ll decide what I want to keep and I’ll decide what I want to let go. And I’ll decide if when I told him that he would never find someone that could love him as much I as did, do, did, do, did, that I was right. Because, as cruel as it sounds, even now, it still feels true. It feels as true as the sickness that swells in the pit of my stomach when I wash my hands at my mother’s kitchen sink because the smell of her soap is the same smell that lingered in our kitchen the day he walked out of it.

I am so sorry.

I’m sorry for the things I said and didn’t say. I’m sorry for pushing you into the bathroom wall in anger. I’m sorry for embarrassing you in every one of my blackouts. And, I am sorry, most of all, for the things I can’t remember. The words I said, that you would speak with your eyes the next morning while you sat on the black couch, head in your hands.

But, I will never be sorry for how I knelt on the blue carpet and how I begged you to stay.

The Face Of The Hammer, The Head Of The Nail

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I leaned against the kitchen counter, exhausted. The taste of vomit, fresh in my mouth.

I had been arrested the night before and released from police holding at 5AM that morning.

The officer behind a slate colored, wire divider pushed a clear bag filled with my personal belongings through a long, rectangular slot. Inside, the necklace my father gave me for my 18th birthday, a silver pendant, had been placed carefully into a little, plastic bag, where it glinted in the florescent light. Next to it, lay the bright white laces of my shoes and the long white string from my hoodie, all of which the booking officer had carefully removed from my person while I stood, silently crying.

My phone. My wallet. My house keys. These were the possessions that I had with me. My property. As I ran my fingers along the outline of each item in the bag, I felt like a criminal.

Later, in my apartment, my eyes kept returning to the clear, plastic bag sitting on the edge of my small, dining room table. I kept weeping. Again and again. I lost count of the times I forced myself to cease my sobbing and regain composure.

I had taken a cab back to the apartment after walking out into the stark, empty street in downtown Portland.  Darkness permeated everything on that eeriest of mornings. The cold, punishing brick of the building from which I had just emerged, loomed behind me, threatening violence. I had only six hours before I had to return to that very street and appear in court for my arraignment. But, by that time, the city would be awake, lit by the winter sun and full of scurrying worker-bees. Now, it was just dark, silent, still.

My mouth felt dry and tasted of stale liquor. I could feel that my eyes were red and the cold stung my chapped, peeling lips. I remember wanting to die. Hoping to somehow be struck by lightening or to suffer a heart attack or be hit by a stray bullet. I wanted something big and powerful to sweep in and take me. Something to wake me from that heavy, dream-like haze.

In the cab home, I told myself: Sarah. This, is  a very human lesson.

If only humanity were a better teacher, then perhaps, I would have learned that lesson long before having to learn it the hard way. But, in that moment, I was too tired for regret. I focused only on staying awake long enough to get home. Long enough to get into bed and sleep, which seemed like the only plausible way to wake from that unending nightmare.

I did sleep, though, it was the restless kind with haunted dreams. I woke and, like a robot, dressed myself for court. I appeared before the judge, still unaware of myself. Floating in space. Lost. Alone. I had called Tony, my dear friend, dazed, and asked for a ride. My car had be seized. He drove me downtown to court, and, on the ride, we were both solemn. The sad look on my face upon climbing back into his car after court, where I’d been handed a stack of paperwork and been yelled at by a judge who had little pity for sad, drunken white girls, informed Tony that things hadn’t improved. On most days, he could make me laugh without any effort at all, but, on that day, he didn’t even try.

“You have to tell them,” he said as he ate from our shared plate of tater tots at DOTS. “You won’t be able to keep it a secret. They know you’ve had a rough time this year. They’ll get it. They’ll help you. You have to tell them.”

I didn’t answer him because, I knew he was right. But, I couldn’t get the words out just yet. I couldn’t eat either, but Tony pushed the plate toward me and gestured at the tots. “Shitbird, you gotta eat.”

Later, alone in my apartment, leaning on the kitchen counter, the words finally started to bubble up in my throat, thick and sour, like witch’s brew. That’s when I vomited in the sink.

There was no way to explain it away. It could only be an admission. A confession. A plea for forgiveness.

Me: A drunk. A failure. And now, a criminal. Those are the words I wouldn’t speak, but, that would be silently woven into my careful explanation.

I walked over to the dining room table and pulled the small, clear plastic bag from inside the larger one. I hung my little pendant around my neck again, where it rested on my clavicle like a weight. I felt along its edges and in its grooves with the tip of my index finger and I tried to remember how things felt before everything happened. Hours ago. Days ago. Weeks ago. Months ago. Years ago. But — I can’t. And, in that moment, I knew, there would be parts of me that would never will feel the same, ever again.

It was too late to explain the means to my end. It was too many things. Too many moments. Too many people. Too many places. Too many drinks. Too many losses. Too many goodbyes. And in that moment, the face of the hammer and the head of the nail mattered not. Only the force of the blow.

I pressed the green “SEND” button at the base of my phone.

“Dad. Something bad happened. Do you have a minute? I have to tell you something.”

Notes In Her Kitchen

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When I arrive, she is standing slumped over a clipboard in her kitchen.

In an hour, the restaurant will be buzzing. Cooks, bartenders, servers. But, for now, it’s just the two of us, and, she hasn’t seen me yet. I’m standing, trying not to breathe, pressing my spine into the doorway, worried that she’ll smell the liquor on my breath.

Though, I know, even when she does, she won’t say anything. She keeps my secrets as well as I do.

 

I watch her for a minute. Scratching out her lists. Her notes. Counting heads. Imagining her plates. I know I have to tell her. But, something about the way she is standing begs me to wait until tomorrow. Something sad and tired in her movements, makes me hurt for her. We are both so tired. — Different things  have left us exhausted.

I decide to wait. It has to be the last thing she hears from me. Not the first. I can’t tell her. Not yet.

Her husband walks up behind me and startles me. He’s got a big plastic tub full of ice. “Hey you! Are you ready for today?!” He shouts, rocking his head back and forth like he’s at a metal show.

“Hell yeah!” I shout back, pumping my fist, as he walks past me into the main dining room. But, I’m not ready. And, before I can face them, I run back to the office and take a long swig out of the bottle of cheap vodka in my handbag.

It’s the hottest day of our Portland summer. We are all sweating, even in the air conditioning. And, when we walk out to the street to set up the restaurant’s booth for the street fair, it feels like walking into a stick of butter. Thick and oily. Even my cigarette smoke hangs in the air like a net. And, as we walk toward the shade of the tent, I have to talk myself out of dying. Not just for my own sake, but for hers.

***           ***           ***

As a drunk, there are moments that you know, without a doubt, that you have let yourself down. But, until that particular day, during that particular summer, I had never truly felt the weight of letting someone else down.

It wasn’t because of something I did or didn’t do. It wasn’t because of an unpaid invoice or because of the liquor that poured from the restaurant’s shelf into my glass. It wasn’t because I couldn’t hack the job, or the people, or the place. — It was because I couldn’t handle myself any longer. I couldn’t be available for all the things that I said I could be. But, how do I explain that to her? How do I explain that I’ve become unhinged? Every time I see her face, it kicks me in the gut. I couldn’t have known giving up on her would hurt like this — giving up on her dream would hurt like this.

She struggled with the blue awning at the left corner of the tent where we sat in the shade. It gave us little relief from the heat. She handed me her stainless steel coffee thermos. “Sare Bear — It’s time. Get me a vodka-soda.” We both laugh. But, my laugh is more an exclamation of my relief than my amusement. I’ve been drunk since this morning. But, now, I have her permission. Permission to forget the heat. — Permission to forget everything.

Under the tent, I sit next to her in a canvas folding chair and we drink our vodka-sodas from thermoses. The crowds haven’t arrived yet. But, the prep cooks keep delivering hotel pans of fried chicken and noodles for us to serve to people that aren’t there. “Fuck this shit! This is total bullshit. We’re not doing this next year,” she says surveying the near empty street. But, I know she’ll do it again next year — because she does what she has to do for her dream, even when she hates it. Even when the process pains her, she is the most utterly committed person I have ever met. I take a sip from my straw and watch her for my cues. I wait for a sign that I can read, because I have learned to read them all.

That’s the thing that kills me about it. I know her. I know when she says one thing and means another. I know when she’s playing it tough, but is headed for a breakdown in the office. I know when she’s going to smile kindly in someone’s face and tear them to shreds the second they walk out the door. I know that she is in love with her kitchen clipboard more than any of us humans. I know how this place tears her apart and lights her up in every minute she stands at her post in expo, looking out over the dining room like it’s the Serengeti, with a line of servers migrating across an empty floor. I know her. And, I know her kingdom is beautiful and tragic. And, there is so much of me that wants to stay.

But, I can’t. I can’t pull it off. Not in the way she deserves. I keep coming back to that promise I made. — I told her I could. — And. I. Can’t.

We press through the day, hot, tired, and drunk. My mind wanders. Floating in front of me like the little clouds of cigarette smoke. Her dreams. Her faith in this place. Her reckless abandon. Her laughter booming through the dining room. Her frustration, held back only by the sliding black door of the the tiny office. Her silhouette, forever bent over a clipboard full of lists. And me, with only one:

Drink. Drink with abandon. No matter who or what you abandon. Drink.

The sun sinks  and my heart with it. I sit alone in the office waiting for her to come back and meet me. My hidden-purse-bottle is empty now, and I bury it deep in the bottom of my bag. I’m still tired and hot and broken. And, I fold myself over my secondhand IKEA desk and weep into my folded elbows. She walks into the office and slides the door closed behind her, because — she knows.

And, she begins to cry too — before I’ve said anything at all.

***          ***          ***

We both sit at the bar with tear stained faces. “Connie, make us both something good,” she says to Conrad, the bartender who watches us lean into each other at the end of the bar. “I love you Sare Bear. And, I’m gonna miss your drunk ass,” she says looking at me and my puffy eyes. I open my mouth to say something, but nothing comes out and  my eyes well up again. “Oh, get over it, Bitch!” she shouts at me as she pushes my shoulder playfully. Connie places two cocktail glasses in front of us. “Shooter boots too?” he asks, placing little, boot-shaped shot glasses in front of us and pouring out shots of whiskey before we can answer. She smiles at me in her wild way.

Our sentimental moment has passed, and now, like I’ve seen her do a million times before, without complaint, she will regroup and rebuild, as I crumble beside her.

***          ***          ***

When I picture her face, even now, I feel my heart drop into my stomach like a piece of lead. There isn’t a sufficient apology for walking out on her dream, even under the guise of making myself well again. It never seems enough. I read about her in the paper, online, and in magazines. I get a link about her on Facebook. She likes one of my Instagram photos. I send her a viral video of a pug I know she’ll love. But, my unspoken betrayal lurks. It stagnates, like a moat between us. What we shared, is gone.

To make myself feel better, I imagine going  back to the restaurant, early in the morning, before she or anyone else arrives. I creep into her kitchen, still clean, untouched from the night before. And, I slide a note onto her clipboard at her station before slipping out the door forever.

I imagine, when she finds my note, she whispers “Whatta bitch!” And then, she tapes it to the wall above her mise en place, next to all her other love notes and drawings. And, she even smiles a little before returning to her clipboard, where she begins today’s list with: “Cilantro.”

 

 

 

Game Night, For Drunks

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The Blame Game has bullshit rules.

Like a game of Twister, it all starts out simply enough: Spin. — Right hand. — Red.

But, in the end, it’s a mess of arms and legs. Heads shoved into armpits and crotches. A ballet, with its dancers stumbling, grabbing, and stomping — on toes, fingers, and hair in a hopeless, and ultimately futile, effort to stay upright. Exhausted, the company finishes their routine — all sweaty, sore, and likely, with cricks in their necks.

In the Blame Game, the winner is always left standing. But, — no one has really won.

Because, the Blame Game isn’t really a game at all. Blame is just the mud we sling at each other when we don’t have any answers.

Blame is the magic paint we use to gloss over the harsh reality that — some things are simply intolerable, beyond reason or explanation. And, rather than face our honest truth, we prefer to duke it out in the muck, for as long as humanly possible. — Making our last ditch efforts to avoid facing and feeling the pain and discomfort we’ve created for ourselves.

Blame — is easy. It requires nothing more than a pointed finger. That’s why people who avoid the truth love it so. — And, before I got clean and sober, I was one of those people.

When my ex left me, a year before I ditched the drugs and booze, I blamed the ever-loving shit out of that motherfucker. The morning he left, I fell to my knees on the blue carpet in our living room and wailed like a small child, our cat staring at me like some kind of strange extraterrestrial. My ex left me there, without finishing his coffee. And, I remember watching the steam come up off his brown, IKEA coffee mug, evaporating into the air — along with the rest of my life.

Back then, his leaving me was a huge surprise. After six and a half years together, I never fathomed that our small, unattended issues would have exploded in that way, leaving me vaporized on living room floor, like the shadow of the woman on the steps of the Sumitomo Bank in Hiroshima. — What happened here? I remember wondering.

But, in that moment, I didn’t hesitate with my answer. I was quick to blame. Because, I didn’t have to wonder, I knew — IT WAS ALL HIS FAULT.

In the weeks following that harrowing morning, before my ex was totally moved out of our apartment, I had screamed, sobbed, begged, and pleaded with him. I had sent him countless emails, first sentimental, and then, seething with hatred, anger, and hurt. I had performed my role as the crazy ex-girlfriend with expert precision. And, still, I contended — IT WAS HIM. How had this happened to me? Why had he done this to me? What could I possibly have done to deserve this happening, to me?

Well, for starters — I was a mean, black out, drunk.

I rarely remembered what I had done or said on the nights I’d had too much to drink — which was every night. And, over time, that kind of alcoholism can build on itself until you’ve alienated pretty much everyone around you, even the people who love and care for you.

I was too drunk to be honest with anyone, especially myself. — And, I had been so far gone that I hadn’t seen where my drunkenness had ruined me and everything around me. My blame was born of my ignorance and hurt. I was broken, and seemingly, without reason. And, we humans, we need our reasons. — So, where there is none, we create reason.

Later, it would be my sobriety that gave me reason. I discovered the Honesty I had been avoiding with every shot of whiskey I downed, was available to me without any kind of booze at all. — I just had to face it. — It was truly a revelation. And, when you look that kind of truth in the face, the Blame Game evaporates into the air — almost as quickly as I did that September morning, so long ago.

But, Honesty won’t answer every question. And, sometimes, it brings with it new, equally difficult questions. I still ask myself why my ex didn’t help me seek assistance for my drinking problem. Wasn’t I worth more than abandonment? Then, I ask myself, why I drank the way I did back then in the first place?  What was so wrong? What had I said to my ex in those moments I cannot recall? What cruelty had rolled off my tongue that was so horrid, it deserved the punishment I received? — I will never know. — And, even today, the new woman I’ve become, still wonders.

But, part of facing the truth is coming to terms with the fact that some questions are not meant to be answered. Everything is a lesson. And, sometimes, lessons are painful.

Getting honest requires that we forgive. — Ourselves and the people around us. — Even when we don’t have the whole story.

Honesty requires that we let go. And still, I recognize that there are things that I didn’t deserve. There are things that I have a right to be angry about. — We cannot let everyone off the hook because, once upon a time, we were drunks. But, what’s past is past. And, posing unanswerable questions to people who are long gone, is no better than mumbling nonsense to yourself like a mad woman.

Start over. Reset the board. Play the game you’re in today.

Spin. — Right Hand. — Red.

Make your move with all the grace as you can muster. — Dance the dance. — Know, that someone will knock you down. And, when you fall, you should try to land as softly as your body will allow.

And then — get back up — and beat the ever-loving shit out of that motherfucker.

 

 

You Can Lead A Drunk To Water

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When you’re a drunk, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to realize that you’re a drunk. — Trust me.

But, it won’t be opportunity that makes you willing to change.

The day I realized I was alcoholic, I gave no fucks. I wasn’t in the wake of severe sickness or a heinous hangover. I didn’t have a nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach. As I recall it, what was ostensibly the most dramatic day of my life, was not very dramatic — at all.

On the contrary. My haphazard self-discovery occurred in the midst of what was an otherwise arbitrary moment. Completely ordinary. It was as though I had already made room for the information, as if I had been expecting it to arrive. And, in most ways, it felt as if nothing had happened at all. Except — something had happened.

On the day of my revelation, I was still enrolled in a state sanctioned outpatient rehab program as part of my sentence for DUI, which I’d been charged with earlier in the year. As was part of the routine, I’d been drug tested the Friday before — which meant I was in the clear to drink for several weeks before I’d be tested again.

I’d been living my life this way for months. And, even as I neared the end of my first stint in drug and alcohol treatment, I worked around it, diligently, continuing to drink when I knew I had enough time to detox before being tested again. Yes, I fucked the system. And, I fancied myself clever and rebellious for doing so. The majority of my rehab group was behaving in the same way. But, I remember feeling so above them all. I imagined that I was the only one who was truly “managing” my problem. Because, after all, I didn’t really have a problem. I’d just been caught in a low moment. Who hasn’t?

I ignored the warning from Jim, our rehab group leader, — “I know what you’re up to, Sarah. I can’t prove it, because you’re testing clean, but, this will catch up with you. Maybe it’ll be while you’re working with us in here, or, maybe it’ll be when you get back out there into the real world. Tread lightly, sweetheart.”  But, I knew better. Stupid, fucking Jim, I thought, he didn’t even know that I’d never left my “real world.”

Except — he totally knew. And, that’s what he was trying to tell me.

Of course, Jim was right. Everything would catch up with me. But, when it did, I would have no Willingness to change, whatsoever. And, that’s how it goes. We sometimes discover our truth in a moment when we have absolutely nothing to gain from it. — No hope. No momentum.

On the day of my revelation, I walked by my local pub and I stopped to peer in through the big, glass window. My fair-weather-friends sat ponied up to the bar, laughing. Amelia, one of my favorite bartenders, mixed her signature Sunday-Bloody-Mary in a pint glass. My small little world waited for me inside — a tall glass of infused vodka and tomato juice, topped with an excessive vegetable garnish — and all that sloppy, smarmy camaraderie. My only happiness, just feet away.

I was inclined to walk in, then and there. But, as soon as the thought entered my head, I knew I couldn’t. — I had errands to run. Several that involved the use of my car. And, between the breathalyzer I’d have to blow into to start the engine and the other adult-like tasks that needed doing, — I knew I couldn’t have that Sunday-Bloody-Mary. Not yet.

And, that was the moment. — The singularly unspectacular moment when I realized I was a drunk. I knew that if I had just one of Amelia’s Goddamned Sunday-Bloody-Mary’s, that my day was shot. — I’d be at that bar until it closed or until I was cut off and kicked out — whichever came first. And so, I scheduled my errands around the absolute certainty that once I was seated at that bar — I wasn’t getting up again until I was good and shitfaced.

This is the definition of alcoholism.

You would think discovering that my life revolved around something so meaningless, so empty, would lead me to some sort of existential reckoning. A reckoning that would get me some Willingness. A reckoning that would usher me out of my small, shitty life and into the bigger, better pastures for which I was destined. But, it didn’t.

The day I realized I was an alcoholic, I did what any good alcoholic would — I got the bullshit tasks I needed to get done, done. And then, I marched right back to that pub and I got down to business. — And, I drank to blackout.

Willingness is not born to those who acknowledge its necessity. Willingness is born to those who are ready to ask for help. And, help is the one thing that every drunk will need.

Sometimes, help will stand right in front of you. Like Jim did, for me. But, if you’re a real drunk — you’ll likely ignore the many life rafts that float up along side you while you’re sipping your beverage du jour, floating downstream.

Jim was just my warning sign. A marker scratched into the door frame that documents my alcoholism’s many growing pains.

Willingness is that invisible hand for which, eventually, we reach out when there is nothing left for us to hold on to. It is the last notch we’ll gauge in the doorway. But how and when we decide to do these things, is still a mystery. But, be assured that someone, like Jim, will lead you to the water. And, maybe, on that day, you’ll gulp it down. But, if you’re like me, the chances are better that you’ll run from the oasis the first time you come upon it.

But, on some other day, you will find yourself with Willingness. Jim will be long gone. You’ll be staring through the glass window of the pub and you’ll decide — you don’t have to drink that day. And, you’ll think of Jim as you pass by door, whispering to yourself:

“Tread lightly, sweetheart.”

If I Could Talk Drunk To You

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Oregon, if I could talk drunk to you — I’d say too much.

But, in between botched and blurred sentences, I’d speak those gems. I’d say things that my heart kept pad-locked-up until we went ahead and blasted the doors off with a fifth of Jim Beam and a couple of cold, tall pints.

It’s been a long time since we’ve opened those doors. And it’s been even longer since my heart allowed me to hear the things you’ve been trying to say. But baby, if I could talk drunk to you, I’d ask you — Do you remember being young? Not that you’re some old man, but — we’re old enough now that when we’re asked if we remember being young — we know the answer.

Do you remember loving her? Some girl. Any girl. This girl. Maybe she was quiet and lost. Maybe she walked up and down your coast. Maybe she stood in the arch of The Vista House, her hair flying wildly over The Gorge as she screamed out your name across the Columbia River and cursed you. But, do you remember loving her? Do you remember how you’d give anything for her to just call, or show up at your door? She’d look at you in a way that made you feel. Like you were really there — like you existed. Not only existed, but, existed just for her. Do you remember — feeling that way?

Love made you feel. Can you remember when love was humbling? When you’d bow down before it, sovereign, wanting nothing more than for it to look upon you? Just. One. Brief. Moment. — To crown you? We all felt it when we were young. Sometimes, because we didn’t know any better. But, more often than not — we did. Know better.

It’s not something you can escape. It captures you. And baby, I may feel old, but when I love you — when I let you go — I’m young. And my heart was once your happy captive. Those ideals that you thought I’d soon abandon, well, — maybe I will someday — but not today. Not today. Today this love rules me. It runs laps around my heart. It crushes me with its casual distance. And maybe, after our most recent repairs — your heart looks pretty shabby too, baby.  But, if I could talk drunk to you, I’d tell you — It’s worth piecing together.

If I could talk drunk to you, I’d ask you to love me with that same, reckless abandon. I’d ask you to forget your old man heart and dive into mine, where things aren’t nearly as broken and battered as they were when I found you. I’d ask you why people give up on love when they’re finally old enough to feel it. I’d tell you, I may be young and stupid — but there are parts of me that are old — and I know more now than your green heart could handle. I’d tell you — I’m worth it. All of it. I’m that girl you couldn’t have back when you were seventeen. I’m the comfort that you never got from the women who held out their hands to light your cigarettes. I’m all that passion you beat down into your guts because you never thought you’d find someone who could match it.

Here I am.

If I could talk drunk to you, I’d tell you that — back then — before I met you, my love was like a paper cut. But now, your love fuels some massive inferno that turns my insides red-hot, and if it ever goes out, all that will remain is a burnt up cross where my heart used to be.

Oregon, you taught me to love. And, some days, I fear the love I have for you. You’ve broken me before. But, when you touch me, you spin that golden thread that pumps through my veins, straight to my heart. A drug that I’ll choose to give up, but, somewhere, I’ll always seek.

I should tell you — I’ve watched the sun rise over your head. And, that first time I told you I loved you, your sky said, “Oh baby, I love you too,” like I already knew, but, — I didn’t know. I never knew.

If I could talk drunk to you, I’d say that my love is crazy, and if you could see it, if it were an actual thing you could touch or hold — I know you’d want it. You’d want to keep it. You wouldn’t leave it on a shelf or stash it in some drawer. You’d wear it. You’d protect it. You’d carry it until whatever made you, made you no more.

If I could talk drunk to you, I’d tell you that — I know — I think too much. I wish it were that simple.

But, it’s not. Simple.

It’s time for me to go. But, you knew that already.

And, what good is talking drunk to you if I’m just telling you the things that you already know?

 

Photo: Allison Webber; http://www.allisonwebber.photography/

My Head Is A Jungle

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I’m still addicted. To my needs, my emotions, my pain.

Sometimes, I forget — it isn’t all about me. I get lost in my own head. I live in my hurt and desire. I start to believe that the world’s being done to me. My head is a jungle. And, I can turn into someone unpredictable.

You have to believe in something bigger than yourself if you’re going to survive. — There has to be something outside of you that can save you from yourself. Because, when you get lost in your own maze, it’s hard to find your way back alone. We are all captives of ourselves.

Last week I sat across from one of my best friends, sipping tea. In sobriety, he’s the one person that can reel me back in. He’s not afraid to tell me I’m an asshole. And, sometimes, I want to knock out his teeth for it, but, mostly, I want thank him for keeping me sane. He’s been down the same road I have — he knows the detours — he helps me navigate through my ever-changing personal hell. And, over chai, he reminded me that, perhaps, it’s time to reacquaint myself with my bigger picture. Because, honestly, I’ve lost a step. I haven’t been the woman I want to be.

I still get lost searching for myself and I miss the point. I find myself down a rabbit hole and it leaves me wanting. I strain, trying  to remember why I’m really here.

When I got sober, it wasn’t for me alone — it was for the people that are a part of my life. I have to remember what it took to be the woman that they deserve. I have to suit up. Smile. Give. Sometimes, I end up having to give more than I think I have, because everyone needs something. And, I want the people I love to have the things they need. I can’t always be about my own pay-off.

Maybe, I have been an asshole. So, I take my buddy’s reminder to heart. And, tonight, I find myself beside someone who needs me. Someone whose love reminds me of what my own love is supposed to be — when I’m not busy making demands.

When I let go of the ego that got me drunk, my sobriety allows me to be available for the people that give my life meaning.

And, when I walk out of my jungle, I see them again — my people — because, really, they’re what it’s all about.

 

 

 

 

Artwork: “My Head is a Jungle” By Soxxii at Deviant Art.

The Ghosts Of Christmas Past

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“Spirit!” said Scrooge in a broken voice, “remove me from this place.”

“I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “That they are what they are, do not blame me!”

December 20, 2011 — My phone rang, waking me with a start. It was my mother, which I found odd because she knew to never to call me before noon. And, in that off moment of sleepy confusion — I knew — she had bad news. At the end of the line, a coast away, my mother choked out the words: My cousin had been killed the night before in a tragic accident. She had bought me a plane ticket home. I was going back East.

I had been drunk, almost constantly, for several months prior to his death. And, in the truly sobering moments that followed my mother’s phone call, I struggled to locate my emotion. I had rendered myself dull and numb. Tears dammed up behind my eyes. Words got caught in my larynx. Nothing in the room moved — except my arm — which swung out to my right side, off the bed, and grabbed for the open bottle of gin sitting on my bedside table. 7:43AM. I remember. I took a swig.

At work, my gracious coworkers had rallied for me. The skeleton crew that remained for the Christmas holiday had all divvied up my waitressing shifts without complaint. The bartender slipped me shots of whiskey during dinner service. It was the first time I ever drank on the job. After my shift, I sat at the pub around the corner from my apartment and I drank more. Bourbon. I left at last call and I only slept for a few hours before waking up and tossing my clothing into a suitcase haphazardly between swigs from my bottle of bedroom gin.

I arrived at the airport early and I sat at the bar while I waited to board my flight. As I slurped up the last, red sip of my 4th Bloody Mary through a long black straw, the man next to me asked me if he could buy me another. “I’m guessing you’re not having such a Merry Christmas,” he said. The bartender put my 5th drink down in front of me as the man got up. “Happy Holidays,” he said, wheeling his bag toward the gate. When I asked the bartender for my tab, she told me that the man had taken care of my entire bill.

I have never been so drunk on a plane. I ordered two 2 vodkas — the flight attendant handed me the 4 little minis like a vendor at a sporting event. I didn’t bother to mix them with my club soda. I remember holding each blue bottle up to my lips — one, then another, then another. I woke up from a blackout as we hit the runway at JFK International Airport. My head felt like it had been slammed between two bricks. My cousin met me at the baggage claim, where we collapsed into each other’s arms and cried. As we walked to the car she said, “Jesus Christ, Sarah. You reek of vodka.”

It has never been necessary to hide my drinking from my family. This behavior was routine — my routine — our routine. And, given the circumstance of my return, I wasn’t the only one taking nips on the sly. We shuttled from my childhood home, to my aunt and uncle’s house in New Jersey, and back again. We all wept and drank. We sat perfectly still between embraces, and we were silent between sobs. The Christmas decorations only noted the season. We’d all forgotten what day is was — the clocks had stopped and the calendar was just a piece of paper on the wall.

Christmas Day, just days after the funeral, I flew home to Portland. I drank more vodka on the plane. And, when we landed, I had my cabbie drive me directly to the pub. I didn’t bother to stop at home and drop off my bags. For last call, the bartender turned off the juke box and played Elvis’ Blue Christmas and I got up to vomit in the women’s room.

*           *           *

This will be my third sober Christmas. And, when I arrive at PDX to fly East, I will sit and wait for my plane at the gate — not the bar. I will sip my complimentary cranberry cocktail and I will page through a fashion magazine and listen to Frank Sinatra’s Christmas albums on my headphones. I will lay my head on the folding tray and try to sleep until the captain illuminates the “Fasten Seat Belt Sign” and announces our descent.

At JFK, I will walk past the baggage carousel and see the same spot where my cousin and I fell into each other’s arms before she drove me home, stinking of vodka. And, while I wait in the taxi line, the dam will break and I will cry again for my cousin who is gone.

I will pull my bags out of the back seat of a yellow cab and I will hug my mother on the stoop of our house in Brooklyn. When I walk in our front door, I will smell the perfume of the Douglas Fir. And when I see that Christmas tree, lit, in the corner of our living room — nostalgia will stop my heart for a just a few beats. My father will come down the squeaky steps and fold me in his arms before he kisses my forehead and says, “It’s good to have you home Monkeybird.” And, in my eyes, he’ll see — It’s good to be home.

It’s also good to be sober. So, I won’t think about drinking until I open the cabinet to the left of the microwave. I always find my old bottle of Jim Beam while I’m looking for something else in my mother’s kitchen. I poured my cousin a secret drink from that same bottle on Thanksgiving Day, 2011, just a month before his death. It seems fitting that the bottle should remain unfinished. And so, I honor his memory with every drink I do not take.

These were shadows of things that have been. — That they are what they are, do not blame me.

So, I leave my bottle on the shelf for ghosts. Because, my parents never cared for bourbon.

Which is crazy. — I know.

 

 

[Italicized Prose Excerpt: Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol; Artwork (before edits): Sol Eytinge, Jr.]