I stopped drinking when my father died. That was in July, on the Sunday that ended the long holiday weekend. It wasn’t from shock or grief but rather I stopped drinking as a gesture, as a mark of my ambition for his soul. He died drunk behind the wheel in an accident of his own making.
I remember his hair-raising roulette with drinking and driving when I was a child. Coming home from cook-outs or family gatherings, my brother Aristos and I developed a routine around our father’s violent swerves to stay on the road. When my blond Germanic mother stiffened in the front seat and stretched her hand out to the dashboard, her arm a rigid brace, Aristos and I would assume the crash position in back, hoping to be spared should we hit a tree, a cement pylon, a bridge railing, whatever. The better defense, I realized after I’d been away at college for a year, was to avoid my father entirely. I hadn’t spoken to any of my family in twenty years when my mother e-mailed to say what we’d waited for so long to happen finally had.
I share an office with a woman whose family emigrated from Japan after the war. Her father was a scientist at the National Institutes of Health and over a lifetime of research he killed thousands of lab rats. When he died, of cancer, she worried that all those little souls would overwhelm his in the afterlife. To make reparations, she stopped eating meat. I stopped drinking to ease the migration of my father’s soul from the living to the dead.
I was accustomed to having a drink at the end of the day, and often more than one. But I found I had no trouble giving it up. The hard part was dealing with the universal expectation that I should drink, that being social carried with it an obligation to drink. Initially, my friends kept a respectful silence when we got together and I didn’t have a cocktail. Perhaps they assumed, when I ordered a seltzer with lime, that my abstinence was connected to the accident. I didn’t say. I felt that providing an explanation carried a spiritual penalty, that it shifted attention from private atonement to public posturing. When someone would ask what I wanted to drink, I would level my gaze to theirs and say, “I will take an iced tea.” Then I would smile and change the subject. After a while, people stopped asking.
As the year drew to a close, holiday traditions tested my resolve. Custom demanded good cheer, especially when it came to “bringing out the good stuff.” To refuse a drink at a party was widely interpreted as an insult to the host. “But it’s the start of the season!” friends complained at Halloween, pushing small-batch craft brew at me. At Thanksgiving, my foodie friends John and Sarah pleaded, “But we chose this wine specially to pair with the spice notes in the green peppercorn and fennel dressing.”
October and November were merely qualifying heats. The main event was December and its many parties—the reserve estate wines, French champagnes, the only-once-a-year eggnog and cider punches, the aged whiskeys and spirits distinctively packaged with two or sometimes four special glasses. People drank to the year gone by, to welcome the babies born, to graduations, engagements, and marriages. There were rounds to salute the good things hoped for in the New Year as well as elegies that recalled loved ones lost. I would stand at the buffet and take my time filling a plate. It gave me a shield.
Still dry just before Christmas, I picked my way down a beautiful stretch of white linen, gleaming silver, and candlesticks set amid boughs of freshly cut pine that smelled of snow days and sledding. The length of the table was loaded with smoked fish, chicken shu mai, bright pink shrimp nestled in crushed ice, light fracturing off the cut glass bowl, goat, cow, and sheep cheeses, pâté and cornichons, a carved bird and a bloody joint, trays of almonds and dates, candied nuts and cookies to close. Every window dark with winter reflected bright knots of laughing and talking people. Cordless speakers no bigger than my heart hugged ceilings corners and layered a playlist of holiday music just above our heads. John Lee Hooker kicked in with “Blues for Christmas.” I put some food on my plate. A few pieces I ate with my fingers there at the table. A cracker freighted with salmon, a caper, tomato wedge, cubes of purple onion, and a sprig of feathery green dill fell apart when I bit into it. I don’t have a precise bite, a holdover from a childhood mishap. A woman, forty-ish like me, smelling of sandalwood, her forehead dotted with a dark-red bindi, stepped forward and offered me a cocktail napkin. Its cheery slogan declared, You look like I could use a drink.
“Oh my god,” I said taking the napkin. “Such terrible manners to stand at the table and eat like a farm hand.”
She laughed politely and said, “I’m Anchita.”
“What kind of a name is that?” I asked automatically, without hesitation. I put down the napkin. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s what people always say to me.” I held my hand out to her, “I’m Iphigenia.”
“A lovely name.” She leaned over the table to select a few things for her plate.
“I’m named after my grandmother. It’s always felt so old to me. I mean Homer old, and nothing’s older than the Iliad.”
She slanted her eyes up to me and said, “The Vedas.”
I popped a date into my mouth and walked to the opposite side of the table, near the wall. It was a mistake. Space was tight, and immediately two large, red-faced men closed in on either side of me and set to work filling their plates. I was trapped. And I had a pit in my mouth. No one was minding Pandora, and the Chipmunks assaulted the house with “Christmas Don’t Be Late” in irritating falsetto. The napkin Anchita gave me lay crumpled where I’d dropped it four feet away, miles beyond polite reach. Anchita looked down at the napkin and then up at me. I considered swallowing the pit, but it seemed too aggressive. The men on either side of me struck up a conversation, talking past me. It was like an electric pet fence, invisible but impossible to cross. Anchita didn’t move. The men warmed to their topic: old, entrenched Microsoft as the new IBM. I spit the slimy brown pit into my hand and returned Anchita’s stare. The men, at last unable to balance another cheese cube or shrimp atop their plates, moved on. I followed. Across the table, Anchita matched me step-for-step. We arrived at open space just as Andy Williams hit the florid middle bars of “Happy Holidays.”
She handed me the napkin. It held a light scent of her. “Let’s start again,” she offered.
It would’ve been rude to decline, so I nodded and gave her my best smile.
“Shall we get an eggnog?” she asked.
“I don’t drink.”
“Split a Coke?”
“What is it with you?”
“I came with friends,” she said. “A couple, actually. You know, third wheel?”
I did know.
“That’s them,” she said and pointed to two women across the room, one of whom was a long-ago ex. “They thought we might hit it off.” My ex and her new plus one, wife or whatever, waved. “It’s a tough season to be single,” Anchita said.
“You want tough?” I said. “Try staying sober when everyone around you is plastered. It’s a lesson in human swarming behavior—the one cut from the herd is vulnerable.”
“It’s new, then, this not drinking?”
“My father died.” I meant to say it casually, a transfer of information. I’d had six months of practice, but it blurted from my mouth.
“I just heard,” Anchita said. Her gaze drifted back to my ex. “I’m sorry.” She motioned for me to follow her to a pair of chairs two people were just leaving. “Was it unexpected?” she asked when we were seated.
“No. Well, yes. Yes and no.” I had trouble organizing my thoughts. “It was a car accident.” I couldn’t look at her for this next part. “He was driving drunk and crashed.”
She said only, “Ah.”
I told her about my Japanese officemate and how her Shinto beliefs gave me the idea of helping my father’s soul. I said it took no thought at all to understand where to put the lever under that beam. “I stopped drinking.”
“So you are punishing alcohol by not drinking it.”
“No.” It was hard for me to say more. I know nothing of Shintoism.
We sat together for a while, watching people drink and eat and navigate their private experiences as they bumped from person to person, table to bar.
“Was your father alone?”
I looked at her, my eyebrows slightly raised.
“In the car, was he alone when the accident happened?”
“Yes,” I said. “Though, really, it’s none of your business is it?”
She held my gaze. Her face unchanged. “No,” she said. “It isn’t.”
Louis Armstrong’s gravelly voice, sang, “Zat you, Santa Claus?” I could just see his frightened eyes bugging out of his head, his white handkerchief fluttering as he mopped his forehead.
“There was a child,” I said. “In the other car. A girl.” I picked white crumbs from my black cocktail dress and smoothed the skirt. “She died a few days later.”
“What are you doing for her soul?”
I’d never thought about the child’s soul. I had enough to do piloting my own little boat down the river. I rolled a bloody slice of roast beef and, never looking away from Anchita, pushed the length of it into my mouth and chewed.
She put her plate on the floor. Scores of narrow gold bracelets laddered up and down her slender arms as she adjusted her red and saffron sari. She looked up just as the music stopped; her lips parted as though she was about to say something.
I stood and walked away but after two steps turned back to face her. “Nothing,” I said referring to the dead girl. “I wasn’t even brave enough to go to her funeral.”
“Was that for your father, too?”
“No. I owed them…” But before I could say more, Anchita interrupted.
“What?” She said. “You owed them what? You weren’t involved.”
“It was my father,” I started to say, but again, she wouldn’t let me finish.
“Exactly,” she said. “Him.”
“Iphy,” my ex called to me as she crossed the room, a drink in one hand. “We thought you two might get along.” She stopped where I stood and slipped her arm around her girlfriend’s waist. “A buzz saw through the bullshit, this one,” she raised her glass toward Anchita and finished her drink in one long pour to the back of the throat. Knocking it back my father would’ve said. “As refreshing as this punch.” My ex turned to her red-cheeked lover and kissed her on the lips. They both laughed, delighted with themselves, and I sensed the relationship was new.
“Is that what you think I need?” I said. “A buzz saw?” I wondered what Shintoism had to say about judging others.
“Honey,” she leaned forward in that pre-drunk corona when loose hair and unsteady ankles could still be sexy. “Let yourself be a butterfly.”
A chair raked the floor, and I knew Anchita had risen to stand behind me. The Ronettes launched into their classic carol about sleigh bells jingling, and an ecstatic cheer went up from the revelers. An invisible hand cranked the music way up. My ex spun her partner back to the heart of the party, their legs already alive with the beat. They fell against each other, arms around necks, laughing and smiling, their heads apart. And then their heads were not apart. Then their lips were not apart.
Anchita slipped her hand into mine. I closed my fingers around hers. I did not want her to leave. I did not want her to be with them and not with me.
Rebecca Chekouras has had work on the Tin House blog, in Narrative Magazine, the East Bay Review, the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine, and Curve Magazine, and internationally in 9394 Magazine and the online zine Pure Slush. Her stories have been anthologized by the University of Wisconsin Press, Pure Slush Books, and the forthcoming By One’s Own Hand. Shortlisted for the Astraea Foundation Lesbian Writers fiction prize, she is an alumna of the 2015 Tin House Winter Writer’s Workshop and the 2013 Lambda Emerging Writers Retreat. In 2014, Chekouras helped inaugurate The Basement Series with writers from McSweeney’s and the San Francisco Writers Grotto.