How It Felt to Never Take a Sip

Melissent Zumwalt


My seven-year-old body stands hidden in the frame of the front door, watching. There are so many of them, these teen-age boys. All of them milling around our gravel driveway with my brother. Laughing. Pushing. Full of reckless energy. Flashes of gold pass among them—beer cans. My brother needs to just say no, like we were taught in school. But there’s something— maybe the pitch of his voice or his too-wide grin—that makes me feel how much he needs to fit in. Like a tidal wave, the knowledge washes over me: we’re headed for trouble.

Getting buzzed, tipsy, drunk,

We all saw the ad. This is Your Brain (throw raw egg into skillet). This is Your Brain on Drugs (watch egg sizzle). Except, having a front row seat while someone’s life spirals out of control really isn’t like that at all. The experience is more like artillery fire raining down. Like running from bullets that target my brother with expert precision. Inciting a steady stream of visits to detention facilities and rehab centers and court hearings and inpatient programs and emergency rooms. A looping medley of arguments and aggression and my lone sibling going missing and the rest of us not knowing when everything will finally be ok. The only wish I ever make is to have my brother back.

loaded, plastered, wasted,

No one thinks about me until they do. Until I become someone labeled with issues. Because—if you’re not a Pollyanna, if you’re not a prude— how else does one classify a college student who doesn’t drink alcohol? A student who, in the middle of a party, sneaks out, careful not to shake, careful not to sob, careful not to let the crack in her painstakingly constructed emotional levy break open and flood all over everyone’s good time: a simpering mess. Because the fruity stench oozing from a broken wine bottle converts her into an eleven-year-old-kid sifting through her brother’s single-room trailer. That cramped space saturated with the tang of cheap wine and decaying dreams. The marred counter and rickety pull-out table littered with mutilated beer cans and empty flasks and cigarette butts and spoons with burnt, blackened bottoms.

tying one on, having a nightcap,

One-by-one, friends slip from my grasp, their invitations dwindling from my calendar. Trauma morphing into a form of social leprosy. They fear my inability to drink alcohol—my not-fun-ness—could be contagious. The anger, the compounding losses, clench into an unswallowable knot at the base of my throat.

wetting one’s whistle, raising a glass,

By adulthood, we so often assume that champagne accompanies good news. What kind of person would turn it down? The fizzy bubbles seem innocent enough, like a child’s plaything. But underneath, this drink is a demon, too—comprised of that same alchemy that destroyed my brother.

taking the edge off, imbibing liquid courage,

When my co-worker says, “You’re probably too lucid to enjoy drinking much anyway,” I want to hug him. Is it possible I’m not a total freakshow?

bar hopping, wine tasting – the sheer volume of the words implies some significance, some universality of experience, doesn’t it?

Languid waves lick at white sand as the warmth of the evening sun melts into the Mediterranean Sea. Our server, a Greek gentleman with soft eyes and rich hair, so black it shines blue, hands me a sparkling delicacy. A crystal-clear glass, dewy to the touch, with an exotic-sounding name: Ouzo. I did not ask for this. He offers it of his own accord, a gesture of goodwill. Hoping we will enjoy his country, have a nice time. I want to try it. I do. I want to feel the coolness of the liquid pass over my lips and wet my mouth. To feel it flow down my throat and loosen the valve in my chest that’s always turned a few notches too tight.


Melissent Zumwalt is an artist and administrator who lives in Portland, Oregon. Her written work has appeared in Hippocampus, Arkana, Longridge Review, Full Grown People, Atticus Review and elsewhere. Read more at: