A story of one man's struggle with sobriety and the dysfunctional relationship that complicates his efforts.
Normally, he relished the silvery, fog-shrouded days of late autumn—when bracing winds scudded across Elliott Bay and the shadows were short, ethereal. But this day was uncomfortable, the chilly gusts mercilessly biting his cheeks and prickly raindrops cutting into his face. Head low, he peered through his eyebrows and down Cedar Street; the Starburst Lounge, and relief, was now only a block away. He’d been clean and sober since mid-April, a real accomplishment. But that was about to end.
The fight hadn’t been his fault, or so he believed; it was his ex-wife’s. Once again Alicia had drawn him into a battle, once again concerning her continued crack use. She’d taken note of the sour expression on Daniel’s face when she dropped a rock into her glass pipe and lit it. "It makes our sex more electric," she’d told him, a new wrinkle in the fabric of an ongoing controversy. But he hadn’t believed it; he’d seen her explanation as little more than a frail excuse, as weak as all her other excuses.
"When you use," he’d said, "it makes me uncomfortable. It’s like you’re having a party and I can’t join it. I’m supposed to be clean and sober, remember?"
"And I’m to be punished for that?" she’d responded. "Your sobriety isn’t my goddamn problem."
The argument had grown so heated that a neighbor pounded on the wall, his muffled voice yelling, "Shut the fuck up!" As she spat invectives at Daniel, Alicia haphazardly crammed items into her purse: lipstick, eye shadow, a compact, eyeliner. "Goddamn!" she’d said, her voice like a tightly coiled spring. "You’ve gotten so fucking self-righteous. Who are you to judge me?" She’d then gathered her purse and overnight bag together and stormed out of his apartment, cursing all the way to a bus stop.
They’d been divorced for fifteen years; but that was only on paper, really. They’d never fully disengaged, their relationship running the gamut from mere friendship to violent sexuality and back again. They couldn’t live together, that much was certain; however, a final breakup threatened each of them with an intolerable fate: aloneness. Daniel wasn’t comfortable in his own company and Alicia was slouching toward forty, a little unhinged by steadily advancing age.
He pushed through the Starburst’s entrance and was met by a blast of warm air. The restaurant side of the lounge was sparsely populated, mainly by old men hunched over coffees at the black and gold Formica counter. The bar side was busier, the crowd younger—construction workers off for the day and dissolute, heavily tattooed, chain-smoking girls. Daniel climbed onto one of the vacant stools and waited for the busy bartender to notice him.
What was he doing, he wondered? Liquor had already destroyed his life once, causing the loss of a highly valued job and his subsequent eviction from an apartment, three hospital stays for alcohol-related issues, nineteen days in detox, twenty-eight days’ inpatient treatment, and a year of homelessness. Only by sheer force of will, including scrupulous sobriety, had he been able to claw his way back to normalcy. Once again, he had an apartment, even if it was county-subsidized—and an income, even if it was welfare.
How easy would it be to lose everything?
One drink wouldn’t be the end of it; he’d stop only when he was drunk or, worse yet, blacked out. And the cycle would be repeated tomorrow. And again on the following day. He’d drink liquor until his welfare check had nearly run out, then switch to Sterno and vanilla extract in five gallon bottles. Next month would find him doing the same thing. He couldn’t count on ever wanting to stop again. He was forty-seven years old, perhaps seventy in a physical sense, and not as capable of bouncing back. The next bender might finally result in death.
"Whadda’ll ya have?" the bartender asked, throwing a paper coaster onto the counter.
"Beam and rocks," Daniel answered.
The bartender turned and grabbed a short cocktail glass from her inventory, filling it with ice and setting it down on the counter. She then took a bottle of Jim Beam from one of the lighted liquor shelves and free-poured a few ounces over the ice. Daniel watched her as intently as he’d seen cats watching birds. He licked his lips. After seven months, what would it taste like? The bartender brought the drink over to Daniel and set it on the coaster. "That’ll be three-fiddy," she said. Daniel gave her a five.
So was this what it came down to, seven difficult months of sobriety, seven months of cravings, temptations, and vivid dreams in which he was drunk—this is what it came down to, sitting in one of a port city’s most notorious dives, listening to heavy metal on the jukebox, and ordering a whiskey. Were all those Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for naught, all the intimate sharing and emotional turmoil? He was proud of his clean time and couldn’t believe he’d give it up so readily.
The Starburst’s door suddenly opened, ushering in a rolling wave of cold air. Alicia stepped in, letting her eyes adjust to the relative darkness for a couple of moments, then scanned both sides of the lounge for her ex-husband. She spotted him sitting at the curve of the counter, next to a video game, mulling over his drink. At almost the same instant, he looked up and noticed her. She approached him, smirking slyly: "So much for sobriety, huh?"
"It’s the first one I’ve ordered," he said, "and I haven’t taken a sip of it yet. So I’m technically not off the wagon."
"But you will, won’t you?"
"What’re you doing here?"
"Well, I went back to your apartment and you weren’t there, so I thought, ‘Where would an alcoholic, whose just had a big-time fight with his ex-wife, go?’ The rest was a no-brainer. I only had to eliminate Johnny’s Memphis Bar & Grill and the Speakeasy first. You’re so predictable, my love."
"You didn’t answer my question." He was still angry.
Alicia slid onto the stool next to Daniel’s and got the bartender’s attention, ordering a daiquiri. She was high, Daniel knew, betrayed by dilated pupils and a pair of agitated hands. She’d probably taken a hit or two while searching for him.
"Originally, I’d come to apologize. But now that you’re drinking again, it won’t be necessary. You’ll forget all about our little dispute by mid-afternoon."
"I’m not drinking yet."
"Afraid you’ll become fun again?"
"You think homelessness was fun?"
"I’ll protect you from the big, bad homelessness, my little pup. Now drink your whisky."
He cupped the glass in his hands, slowly turning it around and around. His housing was clean and sober, meaning that he had to abstain from drugs and alcohol to continue living there. If he was caught drinking, or even visibly drunk, he could be summarily ejected from his apartment. Then he’d be on the streets again, homeless. But could he pull it off, could he deceive the staff members at his building? The drink looked good enough to give him faith.
What did Alicia mean that she’d protect him from the "big, bad homelessness?" Was she prepared to offer a safety net, perhaps her own apartment? She hadn’t done that the last time; she’d almost gleefully left him to his own devices, saying, "I’m not the one who made you homeless." So had she changed her tune? Daniel doubted it. He believed she merely wanted her playmate back, that she was prepared to say anything to accomplish that end. But was that such a bad thing, selfish? He didn’t want to lose her either.
He downed the bourbon in one swallow. It burned his tongue and all the way down his chest to the stomach. He slammed the glass onto the coaster. "Another!" he yelled to the bartender, already reaching for his wallet. Peripherally, he could see Alicia smiling at him. The drink immediately went to his head, melting the residual anger away. He leaned onto the counter, turning to look into Alicia’s eyes. He felt a warmth in his chest. Suddenly, Alicia looked good to him again.
"Let’s get a bottle," he said, "and go back to my apartment."
"No arguments over cocaine?" she asked.
"None," he said.