Cruising the sparkling aisles of Catalano’s Supermarket, I lost my sanity buying frozen apple juice.
Okay, so maybe it started several aisles before the refrigerated cases. Somewhere between the canned vegetables and cleaning supplies. I needed to kill the taste of that soy milk in my iced vanilla latte. Darn my friend Molly, the dairy Nazi. I blamed her for my detour to the liquor aisle. Decisions. Decisions. Decisions. What to pour in my Starbucks cup? Amaretto? Kahlua? Vodka? And the winner was . . . Amaretto. Perfect for an afternoon grocery event.
Ramping up the coffee seemed like a reasonable idea at the time. I’d left the end-of-the-year faculty party and thought I’d be a considerate wife and pick up dinner for Carl on the way home. He told me before he left for work that morning that he’d meet me at the party. Probably he had one too many meetings, which, since I’d probably had one too many beers, made us just about even. Don’t know if we matched spin cycles in our brains, though. That was the point of the coffee. A rinse cycle of sorts.
I’d just avoided a game of bumper carts with the oncoming traffic in the organic food aisle when I remembered that I needed juice. On the way to the freezer section, I maneuvered a difficult curve around the quilted toilet tissue display. My coffee sloshed in the cup in tempo with my stomach. I braked too swiftly by the refrigerator case, and a wave of latte splotched my linen shorts and newly pedicured toes. Ick.
Rows of orange juice. Apple juice was on the third shelf down. I reached in and, like a one-armed robot, I selected and returned can after can of juice, perplexed by the dilemma of cost versus quality. Okay, this one’s four cents an ounce cheaper than this one. But this one’s...
My face would have reflected my growing agitation, but the stale icy air swirling out of the freezer numbed it. I held the door open with one hand, tried to sip my coffee with the other, and wondered how long it would take before full body paralysis set in. I stared at apple juice cans. They stared back. Something shifted, and my body broke free from a part of itself, and there I was—or there we were. I watched me watch the cans. The rational me separated from the wing-nut me, who still pondered the perplexities of juice costs. Rational me said, “Let’s get her out of here before she topples head first into the freezer case and completely humiliates herself.”
I abandoned my cart, a lone testament to my struggle and defeat, near the freezer cases and walked away. If I could fill my brain with alcohol like I filled my car with gas, it wouldn’t have to run on empty. It wouldn’t leave me high and dry in the middle of a grocery store aisle.
No, not dry this time. High. My brain is either high or dry, and it doesn’t seem to function well either way.
So that was my epiphany for sobriety.
Carl was late, too late to watch me as I weaved my way from garage to bedroom.
What was today?
Carl’s poker night. Reprieve.
I opened my bedroom closet door and considered changing into my scrubs, but that would’ve meant negotiating a path to the laundry room to pull them out of the dryer. Since I’d submerged my internal GPS in an Amaretto bath, I doubted I’d make it. The T-shirt and shorts I wore would do just fine. I peeled away the layers of comforter and blankets on my side and let the sheets tug the weight of my weariness into bed.
Two bathroom visits later, I felt the mattress concede as Carl’s body plowed onto his side of our bed. As usual, he reached his arm toward me, his right hand landing on my hip. As usual, I didn’t move and waited for the morning.
I woke up a rumpled mess, still wearing my coffee-stained shorts and black tee. I didn’t need a mirror to know my flatironed hair was smashed to my head, except for the twisted front bangs, which stood off my forehead in a lame salute. The sunlight from the bay window drilled through my eyelids. I slapped my face into the pillow but instantly regretted disturbing what could only be tiny thunderbolts in my brain. I needed to see a doctor. I woke up with far too many head throbs.
I felt the swaddled tightness as I rolled over. Carl always tucked in the sheet on his side of the bed as if to prevent me from rolling out. I turned toward the empty space on the other side of the bed to escape the sharpshooter sun.
I plucked the note left on his pillow. Thin, angular letters: “Golf at 8. Call Molly.” At the bottom, smaller print but all caps: “LET YOU SLEEP. CAN’T WAIT FOR YOU TONIGHT.” I shoved the note under his pillow and tried not to breathe in the whisper of his musky orange cologne.
Why did I remember what I wanted to forget, yet forget what I wanted to remember?
I stared at the ceiling, my eyes stung by my own thoughtlessness. Molly was probably geared up for major annoyance. Saturday mornings were reserved for our two-mile trek through the greenbelt trails of Brookforest. Late was not a time on her clock. I still wore my watch, and late ticked away: 9:00.
Molly Richardson and I met two years ago at the Christmas party for Morgan Management. Both of our husbands had recently joined the firm. She and I had barreled into the bathroom, about as much as one could barrel in ruffled silk chiffon and elastic-backed, three-inch spiked shoes. We crashed reaching for the door handle.
Molly grabbed the knob, steadied herself, scanned me, and said, “We have to stop meeting like this. People will talk.”
A woman with a sense of humor and cool shoes in the midst of granite-faced consultants. Our friendship had expanded since then beyond the boundaries of business. We knew almost everything there was to know about each other. Almost everything.
I willed myself to vertical and plodded to the phone on Carl’s side of the bed. One of our concessions after we moved into this house: blinding sun in my eyes; ringing phone in his ears.
I punched in Molly’s number.
One ring. “You up?” she said.
“Meet you there in fifteen.” I hung up knowing Molly would understand that fifteen meant twenty. I yanked on clean shorts and a sports bra, but kept the leftover T-shirt from yesterday. Yesterday. Apple juice. Was today the day I would practice not drinking? Did I pay for groceries? No bags on the kitchen counter. A half bagel waited on a plate.
I passed on breakfast and grabbed my keys from the top of the washing machine. Carl really needed to hang a key rack. I locked the leaded glass doors, unlocked the wrought-iron gate, and walked through a gauntlet of Tudor and French provincial houses. Molly and I always met at the cul-de-sac entrance to the trails at the end of my street.
Molly was in her ready zone. She alternated long, bouncing genuflects to stretch her legs.
“I’m always amazed that your calves are almost as long as my legs,” I said and slid the fuzzy banana-yellow headband hanging around my neck to around my head to tame my disobedient hair.
“Save that for one of your hyperbole lessons.” A tint of anger edged her words.
“Hey, Moll, I’m sorry. Carl forgot to wake me up when he left for golf this morning.”
“It’s his fault you’re late?” I knew tone, and her tone definitely indicated she thought exactly the opposite. “Did he wake you up for school too?”
Sarcasm lesson. “Sometimes,” I said.
I moved close to forgiveness. “Okay, almost always.”
“Let’s get started before the sun sucks the life out of us,” she said.
Only a silo-sized vacuum cleaner hose could suck the energy out of Molly. Twenty years younger and she’d be on meds for hyperactivity. Instead, she’s on meds for infertility. She and Devin had been baby practicing for almost two years. Practice had not made perfect. Over a year ago, when I told her I was pregnant, I almost wanted to apologize. Carl and I hadn’t planned to be parents. But we were. For six weeks. Then Alyssa died. I stopped feeling guilty around Molly. Mostly I stopped feeling.
I bent over, pretended to adjust my shoelace, and hoped Molly didn’t see the grief floating in my eyes.
“I’m ready.” I popped up. Perky trumps pity. “And wait till you hear what happened.”
When I chronicled the latest school dramas, my body didn’t feel so heavy as I pounded my way down the path. A paralegal for trial attorneys, Molly didn’t share many details about work. We entertained ourselves some days imagining which kids in detention would become lawyers and which ones would need lawyers.
“So, get this, I’m handing out tests, and—”
Her power walk shifted down two gears. She held up her hand and said, “No, Leah. Stop.” American manicure this week, I noticed.
I looked over my shoulders thinking some school person had materialized behind us and Molly had just rescued me from embarrassment and possible unemployment. No one.
“Safe. Trail clear of suspects.” I rattled on.
Another shift down. We now strolled.
“I have to talk to you about something, and it has to be today.” She tucked her shoulder-length cinnamon-shaded hair behind her ears, a habit I’d learned meant she was ready for serious.
I sidestepped a clump of strange goo. “What’s up?”
Molly pointed to a bench where the path split to lead to the pool or school. That always struck me as an unfair choice for kids on their way to school in the mornings.
She sat. Scary news was sit-down talk. I paced.
“You drink too much.”
My feet stopped, but my soul lurched. My ship of composure pitched suddenly on this wave of information. I willed myself to calmness, “Who are you, Molly? AA’s new spokeswoman?” The ten-year-old inside of me rose to the surface. “Oops, gender bias. New spokesperson?”
“I’m serious. No more jokes. I’ve been praying about this for weeks, not knowing how to say this to you. After last night, I knew it couldn’t wait.”
“Oh, so God told you to talk to me. Got it.” I scattered pinecones with the tip of my Nikes.
“I don’t think you get it,” Molly said. “God hasn’t text messaged me about you.” Her cool hand wrapped itself around my wrist. “Would you sit down, please?”
I wanted to walk away—run, really—but her words anchored my heart. I couldn’t move. I waited. I waited to breathe again. Waited for the tornado of emotions to stop swirling in my chest. I sat.
“Yesterday, Carrie called to see if you’d made it home. She wanted to drive you, but you absolutely refused. When she asked about whether to call Carl to pick you up, you told her . . . well, that’s not worth repeating.”
“So I had a few too many. It was a party. People drank. I drank. I’ll apologize to Carrie for whatever I said.”
“You don’t remember, do you? Do you remember that night we went to Rizzo’s for the company dinner?” She paused while two tricycling kids and a set of parents meandered past us.
If my brain had a file cabinet of events, the drawers were stuck. Dinner at Rizzo’s. Retirement. Somebody retired. I tugged at the memory and tried to coax it out.
“Of course I remember. That guy, what was his name? He retired.” I leaned back and wished the wrought-iron bench slats were padded.
“And?” Not really a question.
“And, what? Since you already know the answer.”
“Leah,” she said and leaned toward me. I still couldn’t look at her. “Dinner was late. You grabbed the wine bottle from the waiter, gave him your wine glass, and then told him you two were even. You said if we’d pound our silverware on the table, we’d be served faster. You almost dropped a full bowl of gumbo in your lap. You said it looked like something you’d thrown up the night before.”
I wanted a button to zap a force field around me. I wanted silence. A piece of me had broken, and Molly had found it. If I talked too much, other pieces might shatter. I couldn’t risk it. I couldn’t risk turning inside out.
“You were out of control,” she said, the words filed by her softness so the edges were smooth when they pushed into me.
Yes, and out of control was exactly what I’d planned.
I couldn’t look at Molly yet. I couldn’t admit to my best friend in the universe that Carl told me almost every night something was terribly wrong with me. I thought I’d managed to divide myself quite nicely: Leah in the bedroom and Leah outside of the bedroom.
“I want to disappear,” I said to the grass blades mashed under my shoes.
“You are disappearing. That’s the problem. You’re my friend. I want you here.” She slid next to me and placed her hand on my shoulder. “In the two years we’ve known each other, your drinking has gotten worse. I know you suffered after losing Alyssa. I know you still do. But you need help, or something awful is going to happen.”
I wanted to hate her. But how could I hate a friend who loved me enough to save my life?
“I lost my sanity at the apple juice case,” I repeated to Dolores, the intake clerk who scribbled information onto whatever form they used to admit the inebriated. She placed her pencil on the glass-topped desk, clasped her hands over the clipboard, and peered at me over her reading glasses.
“Were you buying it to mix drinks?” she asked quietly, as if afraid the question would hurt me.
I’m being admitted into rehab by a woman who clearly failed to understand that apple juice mixed with few, if any, hard liquors. My galloping knees knew that was something to be jittery about. Hadn’t I explained the twelve-pack of beer in the grocery cart? Why would I be worried about mixing? Did rehab centers hire teetotalers so they’d never have to worry about employee discounts for services?
“Noooo. It just seemed too overwhelming to decide which brand to buy. You know, the whole cost per ounce thing.” No doubt Dolores knew I was ready for admission after that, but she persisted. She asked who referred me.
“This was all my friend Molly’s idea. She even made the appointment for me. This morning after our walk. Before my husband’s golf game ended.” Good grief. My inner child needed a nap.
This information about Molly seemed both unsurprising and amusing to Dolores. “Yes, it often works that way. People see in us what we can’t see in ourselves. Don’t need mirrors here.”
Thirty minutes later, Dolores and I agreed I would voluntarily admit myself the morning of July 4.
Leah Adair Thornton. Age 27. Middle-stage alcoholic.