December 18th, 2009. You stand on a California sidewalk about to go into a spa, the one on the main drag with the big adobe fountain splashing itself around. You’re on the phone with your mother. You’re telling her you plan on reimbursing her for the anniversary present, a gift certificate for a facial. Why? she asks, her voice tight with concern. Even though it’s been 20 years since you drank, it proves easy for her to call up that ragged worry. The Santa Anas pick up as people pass by, unsettling dust on the Spanish tile sidewalk.
I know I’m still an alcoholic, you say. I just don’t give a shit anymore.
Your sorry sounds like what it is: an afterthought.
She tells you to go ahead and get the facial, You deserve it.
You don’t. But you don’t say that. Instead you say, thank you, like an asshole.
The pretty spa woman with the eyes like rough water asks you how you are. You say fine. You don’t tell her what you mean is the acronym: Fucked Up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional. Instead you chat about kids, how you teach up the hill at the boarding school. You don’t tell her how tired you are, how aware you are of the luxury of sadness.
Face fresh, you leave the spa and walk to your car. You toy with the idea of stopping for a taco but you keep on, back up the hill that winds around another hill, blasting the Stones and telling yourself you need to care a little more than you do.
Everywhere orange groves ferment. It’s almost Christmas but in Southern California it’s always warm, haystack dry. You pass by the boarding school. It’s Saturday so you don’t have to worry about teaching. Is teaching what you’re doing? You have no idea.
You cruise into the Upper Valley where horses munch on brown grass. You take the curve hard, the curve near the shack you live in with a man and a baby and a dog. The curve where a motorcyclist crashed. His gas tank exploded. You weren’t there but you heard it, a boom. So did the baby. When she looked to you on how to react, you kept your face placid, your voice calm.
In three months, you will relapse—but gently. First some pot then some more. No big deal. But soon it will get serious.
It will not be funny. But you will find relief. Until you are fired. Then you and the man and the baby and the dog will drive up North to the man’s father who will take you in. Your boxes will fill his living room and he will tolerate you. You’ll return to AA meetings. Like the spa woman, the wise women there will be pretty. They will know your story before you tell it. They will know what you mean when you say you are fine.
After a few months, you and the man and the baby and the dog will caravan all the way to Maine. You’ll start over. You will teach and make kids laugh and feel like you might be giving them something. You will be sober. Sometimes you’ll be grateful. Sometimes you’ll feel a cage form around you, a teaspoon in your hand. The cage door will be open. You could simply crawl out. Or take your spoon and dig a tunnel down and come out the other side. Options
Now December 18th, 2019 approaches. Old anniversary. Like everything, it will pass. Onto a new anniversary. January 9th , 2020 you will be nine years sober. The man and the baby are older. Even the dog. They love you and most of the time you love them too. But sometimes you choose the cage. The door is still open. You sit and stare out, afraid of the outside, afraid of the inside. Until someone needs help with math homework. Trip to the vet. Mend a boo-boo. And as you dig the tunnel down and out, making it harder than it has to be, you know you’re alive and it is good that way.
Erica Kent’s work has been published in StoryQuarterly and The Brooklyn Rail. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is a high school English teacher who on some days lacks a sense of humor, although she works hard to regain it.
Erica encourages you to find out more about Seeds of Peace, an organization that aims to inspire and instruct kids how to become informed and proactive global citizens. Check out www.seedsofpeace.org.