I will be sharing some fiction and other creative writing on the blog from time to time.
I am driving north, up the coast of Florida on my birthday. It’s also my sober birthday. In sobriety years, I’m five. In everyone else’s eyes, I’m thirty. The phrase, “my birthday” still doesn’t seem right, not even fifteen years after my twin brother’s death. It should be “our birthday.” But it’s not.
It hasn’t been an easy journey. When I put down the bottle, I was only halfway through my twenties, but I’d seen enough to last me a thousand lifetimes. Addiction is a terrifying hellscape, chasms of broken promises, shattered relationships, bodies wrecked like burning cars on the side of the highway. People slow down to rubberneck, but nobody pulls over to stop the fire. When I came to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I was indeed, on fire. The people I met there didn’t shake their heads at me, didn’t say, “Have you tried simply not being on fire?” didn’t avert their eyes from my shaking body, my yellowed skin, and expressionless face. They helped me put out the fire.
When my brother Aaron died, I was abandoned not only by him, but by God. My family, my rabbi, and my congregation told me, “Everything happens for a reason,” and “God works in mysterious ways.” But I wanted nothing to do with a God that would leave a fifteen-year-old girl without her best friend, the only person who had been by her side since before birth. Aaron was more than my twin brother; he was my idol, my hero. He taught me how to fish, and I taught him how to swim. We searched for answers together on Highbridge Road, our lines in the water, shoulders reddened by the bright midday sun, discussing his ideas about the future, always the future.
As I continue north, the ocean crashes angrily on my right. I pass beach homes, palm fronds. The clock on my car stereo reads 5:39 AM—sunrise. It almost burns me through the car window that the sun still comes up on this day. Selfishly, I feel that it should take the day off, acknowledge Aaron’s death somehow. After all, it was the water from which it’s rising that killed him.
I drank for a solid fifteen years after losing him. I don’t even remember how I became an alcoholic by the time I was seventeen. It started with Dad’s PBR cans in the fridge, filling Mom’s expensive liquor bottles with water after gulping down as much of their contents as I could without wincing. Then came the older men, masquerading as my boyfriends, with their classy cars, their cigarettes and marijuana, their costly dinner dates with me. But the real price I payed was my body, my sanity, and my adolescence. For years, I believed as a woman I was a hole to fill. I let these men do whatever they liked with my holes and me. I was always too drunk to do anything about it, and in the morning, when romance turned to shame, the bottle was still there.
It was the women in AA who changed all this for me. They instructed me to get a new phone number; I did. They told me to stick with the women; I did. They told me, “You never have to feel this way again.” But I did. I never picked up another drink after my first AA meeting. They gave me a white poker chip to symbolize my surrender, said I could be done “gambling with my life,” if I wanted to be. I was beyond desperate to change.
And then, I met Nina. If ever there was a hole to be filled, this woman was it. It wasn’t her outward beauty that initially attracted me to her, though she was indeed quite beautiful. It was the way she spoke, the gentle sorrow that graced her lilting words, the self-hatred bubbling underneath her still surface. As though I were wading into what I mistook for a quiet stream, she swept me under the current until I nearly drowned. Like Pharaoh’s daughter, bathing herself in the River Nile, dirty only with the innate sin of being a woman, the answer floated towards her on those churning tides—motherhood.
Though I love Nina, she nearly destroyed me. Infidelity is difficult to hide, yet she did her best. Late nights with Johnathan disguised as “Bible study,” as they played Adam and Eve. I don’t know if it was months, years, or mere seconds into our relationship when she began to stray. I understood her desires well. Years of trying to fill a God-sized hole in my soul had taught me that there are many adequate substitutes. Choices are difficult. She used to stand in front of the coolers in a supermarket debating on whether she wanted pistachio or strawberry ice cream for what seemed like decades. “Which earrings do you like better?” she’d ask as we got ready for work together in the mornings. Her cozy office job occupied her time, but not her mind. I worked long days doing yard work to keep my body trim, my hands calloused, and my psyche exhausted. By the time I slipped into bed next to her, she’d already cooked dinner, brought in the mail, and watched the evening news.
I was a poor excuse for a woman—always had been. I relied on men to see beauty in me. I could don a slinky cocktail dress, curl my ragged hair, and paint a red lipstick smile on my face for them. But Nina demanded none of that femininity from me. Perhaps I was too comfortable around her, perhaps I took her acceptance for granted. Caught somewhere between the young man my brother should have become and the womanhood I was born into, I too was indecisive.
Finally, just days before my birthday, the truth came out. I’d known all along, but I wanted to hear it from Nina. It was cruel of me, really, to make her confess to me. But I couldn’t confront her. I wanted to see the tears in her eyes as she told me she’d made her choice, or rather, that her body had decided for her. Again, the miracle of the female body astounded me. Nina was pregnant with a child I could never have given her. She was overjoyed with the prospect of starting a family, settling down, even marrying Johnathan. Sinless now, absolved of the crime of lying with another of the same body.
And then came the drunken phone call. She’d done it again, as she had been doing the entire time I’d known her. “This is the worst pain I’ve ever felt,” she slurred in my voicemail. She knew I wouldn’t answer the phone. That’s why she called. Had she called her mother, her sponsor, even Johnathan, any of them would have rushed to her aid, then lectured her, “How could you do this again?”
But I knew. She did it again and again because she was an alcoholic, because that’s what we do. Happy or sad, rain or shine, single or married, we drink unless we can surrender. I thought of the poker chip, gambling with my life. Yet, Nina had another life on her hands this time, an innocent child who did not ask to be brought into his mother’s chaos.
I continue north. I remember Aaron’s white teeth glinting in the sunlight on the dunes. “We’re going to swim across the Matanzas Inlet!” he told me excitedly, “we” being his friend Tyler and himself. I didn’t think it was a good idea. But I thought they could do it. Aaron could’ve done anything, with his wiry, tanned body and brilliant mind.
I was to wait for them on the other side of the inlet in Dad’s truck, and when Tyler finally surfaced on the other side of the inlet, he was breathless, shivering, and sobbing. “Aaron didn’t make it,” he panted. He may have spoken other words, but nothing else held any meaning after that.
Nina’s sobs replay in the voicemail I can’t bring myself to delete. “I need you so bad right now, love. I don’t know what to do. I lost the baby.” The rest is unintelligible, drunken wailing, something about, “I’ve never been in so much pain.”
It hurts until it stops. It hurts as long as one lets it. It hurts until one stops picking at the wound, dressing it up and saying, “Look at this pain. Look at how I’m bleeding. Look at what you made me do.” To heal a wound, one must stop reopening it. I haven’t cried in a good long while, and I push harder on the accelerator as though I can outrun my own despair. The ocean breaks again and again against the soft, peachy dunes. The green highway sign reads “Matanzas Inlet: 1 mile.”
There is no traffic on the road. I brake gently and make a graceful U-turn across the double yellow line. I cannot turn back now.