I never liked Steven.
He circled our treelined neighborhood on his rickety ten-speed like a shark that had to keep moving. Before I even saw him, I could hear his spokes whirring, rubber rolling along asphalt as he came my way. I’d lift a hand to wave—our kids were friends after all—but he never waved back.
The last time I remember talking to him was at a neighborhood Fourth of July party. I was in the host’s tiny kitchen, my back to the refrigerator. He stood too close to me with hot, beery breath. Still, his drunken aggressiveness never struck me as sexual. Not like with some of the other dads. He puffed his barrel chest, sweaty bald head slick and shiny. His gold-rimmed glasses fogged as he spouted conspiracy theories about the new condos going in downtown.
Months later, walking our dogs past his driveway, I tried to think back to when I’d last seen him in his striped bathrobe stooping to pick up the morning paper. I registered the paint peeling from his house. The place had taken on the look of an old person’s, someone whose son was supposed to come by to mow but couldn’t be counted on.
“What happened to Steven?” I asked my husband.
“Dave saw him down by the Metro. Stoned.”
“Jesus,” I whispered. Twenty-seven years ago, my husband got sober. We’ve lived sober ever since.
Sober is our glue. Sober is the way we parent. Sober is the way we learned to love again. All these years later, we still rush to meet—lips on necks, hurried warm breath mingling, whispering, yes, my darling, I’m here, I’m here.
Sober is our answer to that clear whistle of longing to be safe. No sheriff at the door while the kids are watching Saturday cartoons. No neighbors eyeing bottles piled in the recycling bin. No discontinued service, creditors calling. No emerging from last night’s blackout, asking me what happened. Sober is our prayer.
My husband has told me that when he prays, he always finds himself in a clearing in the woods. “There’s a rustling just beyond the trees,” he says. “What if it’s other people trying to reach God too?” I say, thinking how lovely it would be to find my husband there, in that clearing, in my own prayers.
Even twenty-seven years sober, we both still feel how easy it could be to slip over the edge.
Steven became our cautionary tale. Especially after he disappeared altogether. Even though we never would have admitted it, we thought our prayers and our recovery meetings made us better than him. We thought our piety would save us from a fate like his.
But here’s the thing: we’d read it all wrong.
Wrong like being ambushed by the ending of a book that sends you rewinding in a rush all the way back to the beginning to rethink what you thought you knew and re-see what seemed inevitable.
Steven wasn’t living under a bridge or hanging out by the tracks bumming a smoke as I’d imagined. As we learned from neighbors when his family moved out, he was in a convalescent home. For years, he’d been suffering with early Alzheimer’s. He was only forty-seven. His disease made him aggressive and violent. Hearing this news, my son confided he’d once seen Steven twist his daughter’s arm, making her scream out. Maybe to stop himself, Steven escaped on his bike. Maybe even to protect his family, he’d been getting high by the Metro.
Have you ever gotten it so wrong like that? Thought you knew just what another person was going through? So sure of yourself. Ashamed, a sickening uncertainty settles over me when I think of it. Steven wasn’t a drunk, like so many in my family. That story I know best: drunk as the hammer and every unhappiness the nail of addiction. But that’s our story, not his.
Now, when I walk by Steven’s empty house, I bow my head a bit. Instead of seeing the peeling paint and thinking I’m one of the lucky ones, I think, God, open my eyes. I stop, cock my head, and listen as if maybe I can hear them. Those souls just out of sight, rustling beyond the trees, all of us trying to keep safe.
Andrea Jarrell’s debut memoir, I’m the One Who Got Away, was named one of the Best Books of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Her work has appeared in The New York Times“Modern Love” column, Harper’s Bazaar, Literary Hub, Narrative Magazine, Fiction Southeast, Cleaver Magazine, the Washington Post, and other sites, journals, and anthologies.