Mom’s bag has set off the scanner. She knows she has no liquid, no knives, wonders aloud if she overlooked a knitting needle. The TSA agent carries her chestnut leather backpack to a table behind him for inspection. He’s young, bored as he pulls out a heavy, round silver shape. He holds it up and Mom claps her hands in recognition: “My tea pot!”
Four years before I was born, my mom quit drinking cold turkey. By the time I learned she’d been an alcoholic, it seemed like ancient history and in the twenty-three years we shared, she didn’t take a single sip. I never saw her tipsy, never thought of her as an addict. She drank tea. She always carried Earl Grey in her purse and sometimes, a teapot. At home, she had a collection of trays, doilies, sugar bowls and matching cream pitchers. The kettle was often boiling on the stove, until she traded it for an electric one and the plastic switch flicked on and off at regular intervals. Abandoned mugs littered our apartment.
It’s the ideal sun-drenched California day. Mom and I are in San Luis Obispo visiting cousins, have stopped for lunch on a vine-laden patio. Her parents met in this town, though we haven’t been talking about them. She’s dismissive about her past, shrugs it off, doesn’t really want to go there. She was thrilled when I moved to San Francisco, the city where she was born. I know she lived on Potrero Hill when she was my age, know it was 1969, know there are stories. She leans back in her chair and tilts her face to the sky. “What a perfect day for a glass of white wine.”
The Scottish and English ancestry never made sense to me. We love the sun too much—need it too much. My dad’s the same way, though they’ve been divorced since I was young. I’ve heard the ancient Greeks ridiculed northerners for seeking shelter to protect their fair skin, mocked the newcomers as they continued their game of nude discus under the hot Mediterranean sun.
Mom opens one eye. “I could order you a glass of wine.”
I’m too young to drink legally, but she knows I do. I study the long, straight nose I didn’t inherit. One-handed, she pops the cap off her Chapstick, swiftly circles her lips and clicks the lid back on, a trademark move I did inherit. She’s as reclined as you can be in a wrought iron chair, draped in her signature linen.
We never ate at restaurants like this when I was a kid, and though I’ve worked in fine dining for years, I still feel out of place. I’m sure the server in her crisp white shirt would be thrilled to see us order more than two salads, but I mumble something about it not being worth it. Birds chatter and silverware clinks. It doesn’t seem that fun to be tipsy around my mom.
She sits up. “Are you sure? I’m happy to ask.”
I don’t look at her. I imagine her eyes glued to me as I raise the wine to my lips. She asks how it tastes, if I like it, if I have a buzz. Doesn’t it feel wonderful?
“Mom, no. I don’t want a glass of wine.” My sweating water glass magnifies a lemon slice buried under the ice.
I read Ray Bradbury’s All Summer in a Day in middle school, when I lived in Virginia Beach, when summers were long and hot, when I could walk to the ocean from my house. Margot is nine and lives on a fictionalized Venus where it rains continually. She moved from Earth a few years ago and can still remember the sun, though the other children have no memory of it. They mock her, lock her in a closet, and when the sun appears, run outside to play euphorically. Margot misses the two hours of heaven which won’t return for another seven years.
Many of my friends in the Pacific Northwest think sunbathing is funny and a little vain. They think I’m cavalier about sunscreen, about skin cancer, youthfully rebellious toward an essential part of health. Usually by March, I tuck myself against the south wall of any building when the sun is out. It’s a sense of desperation, a panicked scramble to absorb as much as I can before it disappears. Priorities change, indoor tasks wait until dark. I say I’m solar-powered, laugh when I call sunbathing work. It can be exhausting to validate what others can’t see.
Mom oriented herself to the world through color, always whipping out a sketchbook at the laundromat or in the ferry line, naming the shades of lavender and ochre in a Pennsylvania winter forest. When she died, she left no estate to speak of. Instead, a storage unit, reorganized to avoid leaving me with a mountain of things she didn’t want to deal with. Boxes of journals; oil and acrylic paints; a complete drill set; folders of poetry meticulously catalogued; a polaroid of her feet in a ballerina’s first position on a sidewalk decades ago: red suede wedges with rolled-down blue-and-white-striped socks, a portion of navy skirt showcasing tan shins. This was my inheritance.
I moved into a tiny cabin dubbed The Thoreauvian and sat for hours on the floor communing with the contents of the storage unit. I was 23 and had never lived alone; I relished making creative messes with no one to look over my shoulder. I sketched and sewed and wrote letters to friends on a portable teal typewriter I carried around in its leather zip-up case. Two years before, I was walking home at the golden hour, laden with Trader Joe’s bags: I really want a glass of wine right now. Does that make me an alcoholic? Now, sprawled amid a heap of inspiration, I laughed at the fear.
My daughter is two, maybe three. She’s splashing in the bathtub. Something about the suds.
I’m on the toilet, holding a glass of wine. I nod as she babbles, holds her old milk bottle under the surface, fills it and drinks the bathwater. I’m looking through her, thinking about refilling my glass, dreading the rest of the night: I’ll help her into pajamas, lie down with her, read a book and grow more and more agitated with every minute she won’t fall asleep. Maybe I’ll yell, or beg, or just grit my teeth. Before I do something too stupid, I’ll surrender, go get her dad, feel like I failed, fill my wineglass. It’s been like this for months and will continue for many more—never a pinnacle, no rock-bottom moment, just this.
In high school I got blackout drunk and drove my car as fast as I could—more than once. Everyone drinks a lot at high school parties. In my early 20s, I regularly went out after work until the bars closed, regularly had a hangover. That’s the restaurant industry. Well into my 30s, I religiously undercounted my weekly drinks on the forms at the doctor’s office. Doesn’t everyone?
Only those crowned Addict by their own hand know—admit—they drink too much. But addicts drink way too much. Ruining-lives-too-much. Why are we willing to acknowledge things only when they become undeniable?
It’s been five years since I’ve written in my journal.
I need a space to be alone.
What will you do there?
I don’t know yet.
Then why do you need it?
I’ll know when I’m there.
It takes a global pandemic. Amid the carnage, the world stops worshiping at the altar of productivity. In the lull, I find permission—permission to shove a desk against our unused front door, create a makeshift annex in our apartment. Permission to write love letters to friends, read Rilke, attempt to write a poem. I cover the walls in poetry and images with distant horizons, hang a clothesline with post-its listing ideas I don’t want to forget. I put up a Goethe quote I proudly typeset by hand: Courage is the commitment to begin without any guarantee of success.
I start staying up late with my thoughts, getting them onto the page. I’m drinking more coffee, ticking closer to sobriety. Still, the voice pops up: Beer or wine tonight? What time? I open the fridge, pull a can from the variety pack, crack it open. I take a gulp because I don’t really do small sips of any liquid. Wait, do I want this? Oh well, you’re here now. Might as well finish it! And have another.
Weeks pass. Sometimes I drink, sometimes I don’t. There are scabs on my wrists and elbows from scratching incessantly in the night; it happened when I was pregnant, too, something vague about histamines. At 3am, I go down a rabbit hole: could be a sign of liver disease. Is that what I’m waiting for? I’ve ignored my daughter, shared things I shouldn’t have, puked in trash cans, hit on people I didn’t even like, driven drunk. That night, September 11th—significant, sobering—I decide to give up alcohol.
Abstinence has always bugged me, probably because it reeks of puritanism. It encourages assumptions, labels a behavior bad, urges willpower as a way of holding back temptation. It’s hard to separate craving from shame, hard to separate a bad behavior from a bad person. Proxies aren’t duplicates of what they stand for; abstinence can replace drinking and still keep us caught in battle with ourselves, completely abandoning what’s hiding underneath.
I’ve never been to an AA meeting, never seriously considered it. It seems impenetrable, so final. I’d have to give a name to something others can only half see; I’d have to say I’m there because I’m an addict, and I’m not sure what that means. Maybe an addict is just a person who, as soon as they’ve had a thing, wants more.
Mom’s initial breast cancer diagnosis was in her early 40s, and though she lived to 63, I’m not very creative when it comes to my fate. I don’t live in dread of the day I find a lump, just think it’s the only way it could go.
At bedtime, my daughter throws back the covers and starts pawing around.
“Where’s Pillow Baby?”
Everything is pinkish in the dim light and it’s hard to see Pillow Baby in her hiding place. She’s a small rectangle with a soft, hooded doll’s head. The top corners of her body have been tied off to form little round hands. My daughter squeezes her tight.
“You know I once lost Pillow Baby?”
Her hazel eyes widen with worry as I brush the bangs from her forehead. She’s been vacillating between Big Kid and Little Kid lately, at once sage and naive. I tell her about leaving the doll behind when my family flew home after a year in Switzerland, how heartbroken I was, how much I cried.
“Did you ever get her back?”
I smile. “Yep, she had to fly on a plane across the ocean.”
She kisses the velour head, wriggles onto her side and lets out a sigh. “I love Pillow Baby the most because she was yours. Because she’s filled with your love.”
I encourage this story when she can’t fall asleep, when I’m going away for a few nights, willing these moments to be enough if I don’t return. I hug the worn, stained doll to my chest, exaggerating my breath, the moment, and hand her back warm.
The next day I’m setting up a painting project when I find some of Mom’s glass jars in a box I never unpacked after we moved. On the plastic lid of one, in her inimitable script: for watercolors. Parenting is preparing our children for life without us, but it’s also an imposition of our own yearnings. I don’t open the lid.
For years I’ve thought of Margot in that dark closet as she peeks through a crack in the door, staring at a single sunbeam on the floor across the classroom, tortured by a glimpse of something she can’t have but can’t live without. When I read the story again as an adult, there is no sunbeam.
Sometimes I like a buzz, that happy little swarm of bees to the brain. When spring comes it brings long, slow sunsets and alcohol rides the coattails of those sunsets. I may have inherited a tilt toward addiction, but I also got a world—with booze on every corner—that loves to shame and blame people for getting caught up in the muck of it. I was given a hunger for the life-giving sun, for the need to create, but also a world that calls solitude and play frivolous. I inherited freedoms so many others don’t have in a world that cares more about profit than humans. I could easily waste years wondering how bad I am. I’d rather dig. Writing, my excavator, uncovers what alcohol buries, bypasses the drinking, renders it useless.
I don’t notice it in the daylight, but after dark the lights dim in the cabin when I switch the electric kettle on. Steam rises against the windows and with a distinct click, the room brightens. Mom’s polaroid I’ve carried around for a decade hangs over my desk. I rise to pour myself a cup of tea. When it’s empty, I’ll have another.
Serena Burman is an emerging nonfiction writer living on a small island in the Pacific Northwest. Her recent work appears in The Audacity, Invisible City, and Black Fork Review. Visit her at serenaburman.com.