[img_assist|nid=655|title=Spinning Lights by Shea Mockler © 2007|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=111]The spring I turn fourteen I notice Steve. He is tall with slanted eyes and long black hair. I love him instantly.
Summer dawns, humid and sweet. Steve invites me to get a little drunk under the trees. The two of us drink wine from red plastic tumblers. When we kiss he tastes like cinnamon gum.why does he taste like gum when he’s been drinking wine? I spend years chasing that moment.
I want to drink like Grandpa Stosh who gulps beer on the couch while watching baseball. He shows my sister and me pictures of the bomber planes with sexy women painted on them. He flew these planes in World War II. These are the only times he talks to us.
My father is an alcoholic. He stopped drinking when I was five years old, yet maintained a phantom connection to explosive rage that cut the family’s collective soul like shards of glass. In my kindergarten school picture I smile and expose the gap where my front teeth are missing. The memories of sleeping in strange houses with my mother and sister have submerged and filled in with cement. I crack them open later for comparison purposes only. I will never be the kind of drunk who throws a baby in her carriage down the stairs.
I drink in my classmates’ basements. The slush of amber into a shot glass or the pop of a cork promises grace instead of awkwardness, easy wit instead of shyness, and inclusion instead of standing on the fringes. Often I pass out or vomit on the cheap shag carpet.
Other evenings I stumble home. I lie to my parents as I grab the kitchen table for balance. The next weekend usually finds me looking out my bedroom window crying.
In my senior year, I ride the trolley across town every day after school. My friend Kathy’s boyfriend Paul lives in a house without electricity. We dump a bucket of water into the bowl to flush the toilet. I have sex with men as old as twenty-five. A scream fills every empty space inside of me.
As I grow older, the scream sleeping at the bottom of my soul threatens to roll forward. I tap into a flood of different poisons. My protectors flee when I crush them under the weight of chaos. I become a target for predators seeking to feast on the wounded.
I convince myself I have choices. In truth, the drugs manufacture the only choices. The addiction thrives. I bleed from the grip.
I think I am going to die one night. I do not want to wake up. Nurses stick spikes in my wrists. I feel crucified. One of them asks me why I do this to myself. I cannot answer. My way of living entombs the truth in layers of denial.
I learn that my craving indicates a sickness. In order to reverse the direction, I need a power bigger than my problem. I make new connections with people no longer using. I meet a girl named Ellen whose eyes are the color of faded denim. She speaks to me kindly, even when I call her late at night unable to sleep.
We go to play bingo one Friday evening in a smoke-filled hall lit by fluorescent light. I win twenty dollars and treat us both to pizza. Ellen drops me off around eleven. When she hugs me goodbye, the strawberry and tobacco scent of her hair acts as a soul balm. At less than ninety days’ sobriety, my nerve endings are raw and exposed. They irritate easily like deep-sea creatures forced to tolerate sunlight.
The next morning I recall every detail of our time together. I think about the fat man wearing suspenders in the cubicle next to me at the bingo hall— his curses barely audible because he has a cigar stuck to his mouth by dry saliva. I can hear the “thwump” of the pinball machine’s spring shooter smashing into plastic at the pizza shop while the teenage players swear, trying to impress one another. I no longer need to call people and judge by the tone of their voices whether I insulted them or screwed their boyfriends the night before. This realization brings a glow of peace I want to hold forever.
I give birth to a son. I enjoy nuzzling his soft head. When rain soaks the grass, I draw him a crayon garden. I look at him sleeping on the floor with the wet, chewed up corner of his baby blanket against his cheek. He is my youth’s sweetest harvest.
I have been turning the wineglasses at banquets upside down for –more than a decade when the disease reappears in my family like a jilted lover bent on revenge. I visit my mother in the emergency room. She is bloated and red. Soft cuffs hold her hands to protect the tube poking out of her throat. The nurse flips the head of the bed upside down to maintain blood flow to her brain.
[img_assist|nid=656|title=Chinese Flowers by Erik Streitweiser © 2007|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=210]The doctor arrives. He is at least ten years younger than I am and informs me that my mother’s blood alcohol level measures .5. The condition is incompatible with life. I pray for a chance to talk with her again. When she opens her eyes, I make sure she sees me. I remember almost dying with no one looking at me except strangers.
My mother survives. She continues to heal in another hospital. The wet earth breaks open as dark beauty returns to her face. In photographs taken the year I was born, my mother looks like the young Marlo Thomas.
My mother and father stayed married for twenty-five tumultuous years. The sting of their divorce transformed her occasional highball into a daily coping strategy. After she comes home from treatment, she keeps her promises to babysit and answers her telephone.
One afternoon my teenage niece calls as I fold warm clothes in the bedroom. Her voice is small and hurt. I know she hangs with a tough crowd. The boys can hardly keep their eyes off her. She is a jewel among the slime.
Do something to create another reality, I tell her.
Victoria Christian is a lifelong resident of Northeast Philadelphia. In addition to writing, she works full time as a registered nurse. Christian would like to thank Alison Hicks, as well as her fellow writers in The Greater Philadelphia Workshop Studio, for their wise guidance and loving support.