Explain that it's bigger than you. That she can't possibly understand because she is young and inexperienced. Watch her roll her eyes because she is not so young anymore, because she is experienced, because you made her grow up too fast. Act like you don't see her roll her eyes, pretend you don't know why she rolled them. Tell her that her behavior is unbecoming. Tense up when she yells the same thing at you. Get up in a fury because she raised her voice, ask her who the hell she thinks she is. Feel your heart skip a beat when she says, "my father's daughter" and rolls her eyes again. Bite your lip before you say the thing you immediately wish you didn't say. Feel the words creeping up your throat and tickling your tongue. Mumble under your breath, "and you wonder why I drink…" See her staring at you, fully aware that she heard her father blame his daughter for a problem he had since before she was born. Watch her stand up and wonder when she got so tall, notice that she has put on weight, as well. Watch her grab your Heineken and launch it at the fridge before you can react. Wince at the sound of the bottle shattering into what sounds like a thousand pieces, look down at those pieces before you look back at her. Realize what a good arm she has. Think about reaching across the table, not to hurt her, just to scare her. Don't. Stand there motionless as she storms off and you hear the front door slam behind her. Worry that she might not come home this time as you tiptoe over the broken glass and grab another beer from the fridge. Open the bottle and sit back down to finish your meal. Pause a second and try to remember how the argument started as you sip your Heineken.
2. Greater Than
Stay up downing a mixture of rum and whiskey until 3:04 a.m.; convince yourself you are doing it because she has not come home. Pretend that this is not your nightly routine. Leave another message for her, "Jemma, you better not be at that little dick's place. Come home, now!" Hear how sober you sound before hanging up as you shut your eyes so the spinning stops. Think about that article she brought you three years ago, the one about functioning alcoholics.
Remember glancing at her under eyed and tossing it on the coffee table before gnarling, "Where does an eighth grader find shit like this." Remember her response, "I'm in grade nine." Remember waiting until she went into the kitchen to pick up the article, remember reading about susceptibility levels increasing with time, remember the same paragraph stressing the fact that that doesn't mean you have it under control. Remember reaching for the last bottle of your four pack, remember reading that there is always something more to live for than an addiction. Remember peaking in the kitchen and seeing her make a PB&J, watching her spread the peanut butter as methodically as she'd brush her teeth, iron her clothes, and count her babysitting money. Money you asked her to borrow the day after she worked, money you still need to give back to her. Remember smiling as she put the sandwich together and called out, "Do you want a snack, dad?" and you saying, "No." Remember the weight of the bottle in your left hand against that of the article in the right, how much heavier it was. Remember hearing her coming back towards the den, remember tossing the article away before she came through. Remember staring at her hair and thinking about how much it looked like her mother's. Remember gulping a mouthful of Budweiser as the article brushed the bottom of your heal. Call Jemma, again.
Pass out then wake up an hour later. Stand up and stagger to her room, see that she still isn't home. Grab your car keys and get in the pickup. Back out of the driveway and clip the trash can, remember to put the trash out tomorrow. Take off faster than you should because you are angry, angry that she hasn't come home, but mostly, because you know where she is. Swerve a bit because your eyes are still adjusting, get angrier because you have to be at work in a few hours and instead of sleeping you're out swerving in the street to pick up your seventeen-year-old from her twenty-year-old boyfriend's house. Get even angrier because the thought of it all pisses you off so much.
Get to his house nine minutes later and bang on the front door as loud as you can. Wait too long before he opens the door and says, "Hey, Byron… Sup?" Answer him, "It's Mr. Sellers… Tell Jemma to get out here." Watch his left eyebrow raise and that roguish smirk creep across his face, "She's getting dressed." Feel yourself become tense and your right hand turn to a fist. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Want to punch him hard in the face but remind yourself that this kid could kick your ass, that he is five inches taller and eight inches broader; that you already have two strikes and a third would mean you go away and she would end up living here, with him. Open your eyes. See that Jemma is standing in front of you with her arms crossed. Motion to the car and start walking towards it, feel her grab the keys from your pocket. Think about demanding them back, but know she knows you well enough to tell when you've been drinking. Know she knows that's almost all the time. Get in the passenger seat before she pulls out real smooth, take notice of what a good driver she is. Remember that you didn't teach her, because she refused to let you. Say, "I could have him arrested, you know… You're seventeen!" Listen to her not respond. Feel the quiet between the two of you. Look at her and see the tear forming that she'll refuse to let fall. Listen to her whisper, "You have decide, dad…" Pretend to have no idea what's she's talking about.
Remember knocking out in the truck as you wake up to the obnoxious beep of your alarm, wonder how you got there. Figure Jemma helped you inside after the hours of binging had finally caught up. Have the passing thought that she has tucked you in just as much as you have tucked her. Get up and be overcome by nausea, stand still for a moment as it passes. Go to the kitchen and get the coffee started. Get in a cold shower. Feel the heavy streams whip your face as the nausea comes back, lean forward and feel the water beating your bald spot. Feel it coming up. Wretch, loudly. Vomit smooth streams of yellow and watch it splash around your toes before going down the drain. Continue to vomit until your stomach is empty then get out of the shower. Start brushing your teeth and see the remnants of smooth yellow in the corners of your mouth as you watch yourself in the mirror. Stop brushing, wipe the yellow away, but keep staring. Think about what Jemma said in the truck, realize just how much it scared you. Remember when her mother told you to make the same decision, remember your choice. Remember thinking to yourself; trying and failing would mean you weren't strong enough. Question your strength as you examine the bags and crow's feet around your eyes, then think about how strong your daughter must be to drag her incapacitated father into bed. Look at yourself again and say under your breath, "I can do this."
Come home early on the fifth afternoon of your sobriety with two six packs and immediately regret throwing all of the rest of your liquor away. Remember why you did it; telling Jemma you were giving it up, remember her sarcastic, "Okay." Remember asking her to help you get rid of it all five days ago, so she would take you seriously, remember the passing glance she threw you after the two of you wiped the house clean and dumped every stash out. Remember the way her eyes glittered and the almost smile she gave you, remember the warmth you felt. Remember trying to recall the last time she looked at you that way. Remember that look, it's the only thing that's gotten you through the past week. The shaky week, so much so that there were times you couldn't steady your hands enough to work the line. So much so that your coworkers noticed and asked you if you were feeling alright. The week of migraines and not being able to remember much of anything, the week of your heart beating so fast you thought it might explode. So much so that you thought about going to the doctor, but instead left work early and picked up two six packs on the way home.
Take the six packs into your room and promise yourself you're just having one, just so you don't kill yourself trying to do this thing cold turkey. Finish a can in less than three minutes, lick your lips as the after taste of cool bitterness resonates on your tongue. Look at the six packs and start reaching for one more, try to stop yourself by remembering that look, grab one anyway. Just one, more. Start drinking. Be startled when you hear her come in the house. Scurry around your room looking for a good hiding spot for the beers, settle on the top of your closet behind the winter sweaters. Hurry back to your bed and pretend to be napping when she knocks. Say, "Come in." Hear the door creek but keep your back to her as she asks, "What are you doing home so early?" Say, "Wasn't feeling well, thought I'd come rest a bit." Listen to the quiet, be tempted to turn around to see what she's doing. Don't. Wonder if she can smell the beer on your breath even though you're not facing her, wonder if she spotted the open closet door you didn't have time to shut. Listen to her as she asks, "Dad, have you been keeping clean?" Lie, "Of course, I said I would, didn't I?" Listen to her walk out without answering, but because you know her, know she nodded. Jump up and lock your door quietly, go back to the closet and get your booze, down every last can in an hour. Before knocking out, realize the real reason you didn't look at her was because you were worried she'd have that look on her face, again. Worried that it might have been enough to keep you from finishing what was behind the sweaters.
Become meticulous at hiding your stashes. Keep them in the places she hates going, your bedroom, the garage, and her mother's old work space, even though you converted it into a spare bedroom thirteen years ago, when she left. Hide whiskey bottles in your tool boxes, beer cans in your work boots, and rum in your dirty laundry. Only down them after she's turned in, and don't be bothered by only having warm ones to drink. Hide your bottles behind you one night when you hear her get out of bed and walk towards the living room. Pretend to be engrossed in the game. Feel her flop down beside you and stiffen your back so the bottles don't rattle. Say, "What are you doing up?" Listen to her respond, "I'm not tired…" Wait for her to go on, you can tell she has something else to say, "I'm really proud of you. It'll be two weeks, tomorrow." Don't answer, just nod and keep your eyes on the television.
She goes on to tell you to make sure to be home by six o'clock tomorrow, she's decided to make dinner to celebrate your accomplishment. Feel yourself tense as she takes hold of your chin, turns your face towards hers then says, "I love you, dad." Smile at her before saying, "I love you, too." Feel her arms wrap around your neck and let the tension melt away, stuff your face deep into the crevasse between her shoulder and neck and wrap your arms around her back. Hold her tightly, the way you did the night you had to tell her that her mother wasn't coming back; the night you drank yourself into the stupor you stayed in for a week. Feel her arms loosening from around your neck and let her go. Look at her. Notice that her face looks rounder than usual, realize you're probably only noticing this because the two of you haven't been this close in a long time. Feel strange moisture on the nape of your back. Nearly jump up but then remember the half empty bottle you were hiding and figure it tipped over when you hugged her. Lean back, quickly. Say, "Alright, you have until the end of the quarter." Put your arm around her and feel her snuggle up, remember how this feels. Send her to bed in five minutes, then dispose of the empty bottles behind you. Get an old rag and scrub the couch clean. Go to your room to change your beer stained clothing before going to bed.
Get off work and head straight home, no, stop at the bakery at the corner first. If she is making dinner, the least you could do is get dessert. Ask the lady behind the counter if they have any Boston cream pie, Jemma's favorite, listen to the lady say, "No, but we will in the morning." Blow, loudly. Buy an assortment of fruit tarts instead, her second favorite, and get home five minute before six.
Be surprised by how good the house smells, beef stroganoff, wonder when she learned to cook such a thing. Realize this is the first time you've smelt the dish in over a decade, realize you haven't eaten it since her mother left. Take the fruit tarts into the kitchen and tell her everything smells great. Notice that she doesn't make eye contact with you when she responds, "Thanks." Wash your hands then sit down at the already set table. Lick your lips as she portions the stroganoff into both of your plates. Pick up your fork, stop, she's staring at you. Say, "What?" Watch her face soften before responding, "This is a real milestone, you know. Two weeks!" Nod and glance down at your plate before she goes on, "I didn't think you'd be able to do it without help, but here we are." Nod again, but this time say, "I told you…" Watch her nod before she says, "You did. Oh, I forgot the drinks." Take in a big mouthful of stroganoff, salivate a little, be consumed by the decadent flavor and rich aromas.
Listen to Jemma open the fridge and say, "What'll it be, dad?" Shoot your eyes in her direction and watch her pull your hidden liquor out of the fridge: your tool box whiskey, dirty linen rum, and work boot beer cans. Watch her turn around, cross her arms, and stare at you with your mouth full of stroganoff. Almost choke when she raises her voice, "WELL?" Chew profusely as she brings you a beer and pops the can open, swallow. Say, "I can explain," listen to her say, "You don't have to." Be stumped. Don't say a word. Watch her eat the meal she prepared for the two of you to celebrate your sobriety, still don't say anything. Take another bite of stroganoff then sip the beer she opened for you.
8. The List
Wake up the following morning and see that a lot of her stuff is gone: toothbrush, bathrobe, jacket, shoes, backpack, and small suitcase, be relieved she didn't take the big one. Go into the kitchen to call her with your apology, see a note on the kitchen table. Read it: Dad, I understand that this is a process, but I think that in order for you to do this, something needs to be a stake… I'm staying with Mike until you A) Dispose of ALL the alcohol hidden in the house, B) Readmit yourself into AA, C) MAKE YOUR SOBRIETY THE PRIORITY—not me, not work, SOBRIETY D) Get and stay clean for at least two weeks. Once you do everything on this list, we'll talk. I'm not competing anymore, dad, I shouldn't have to… you shouldn't want me to. ~Jem
Feel your eyes welting up, don't cry. Be tempted to call Jemma, don't. Realize that she had every right to do what she did, except for giving you another chance, you don't deserve one. Go to the cabinet and grab a glass, then to the fridge and grab your rum. Sit down and pour yourself some. Stare at the burnt brown idling in front of you, don't cry. Push the glass off the table, and feel the rum splatter on your cheek. Bury your face in your palms and sink down into the chair. This time, cry. Cry loud and hard sobs as the tears in your hand form a shallow pool on your fingers. Feel your throat closing up as you gasp for air, realize you are hyperventilating. Push away from the table and put your head between your knees, panic, realize this has never happened before. Take long deep breaths, you heard this somewhere, realize it's not working. Stand up and grab your chest, it is starting to pinch. Find a brown bag to breath into, you heard this somewhere, as well. Take five slow breaths into the bag. Feel your breathing even out. Realize you had an anxiety attack as you lean against the counter. Realize you are alone and had it been something more, it would have been days before someone found you. Cover your mouth and close your eyes, think about that look, think about feeling her in your arms.
Open your eyes. Take out your cell phone to call the AA group you were assigned to after the first two D.U.Is, realize you deleted the number. Hurry to your room and start digging through your night stand. Dig and dig and dig and dig until you find the card of the group's organizer. Dial and wait for her to pick up. Explain that you want to rejoin, listen to her not respond. Wait. Listen as she finally asks you, "Mr. Sellers, not to seem discouraging, but you've been in our program twice already, and once your probation was over, you quit. What makes this time any different?" Pause, think about that look again, say, "I think this is my last chance."
Mark '14' on the calendar. Clean out the house the following day. Look through spots you're sure you haven't hidden a stash, just in case. Be tempted to go on a final binge before throwing everything out, just taste a sip of the Russian whiskey a buddy gave you instead. Wonder if that buddy knows you drink—drank; figure everyone knew. Drink a quarter of the bottle, then throw it away. Brush your teeth, you need to get the smell of whiskey off your breath before AA.
Go to the meeting. Sign in. Sigh in relief when you see it is not a circle set up, sit at the back of the room. Don't socialize, not even with the woman you recognize from your past experiences in the group. Pretend not to notice her staring at you with those clear brown eyes you can see sparkling from across the room, fiddle with your phone until the meeting starts, instead. Listen as the groups organizer says, "We have a few more people joining us, tonight. If it's your first time, or first time back in a while, come on up the front—tell us why you are here." Want to stay seated, but realize that would only draw more attention. Be the last person to get to the front and wait for the two men in front of you to speak. Ignore them as you try to figure out what to say. Think hard, so hard you realize you are making a face. Stop. Watch the man in front of you return to his seat. Keep your hands deep down in your pockets as you feel the room on your shoulders, every eye, every breath, everything. Say, "Hi, I'm Byron," Pause. Fidget a little before going on, "and I'm one of the 'first time back in a while' folks." Listen to the room chuckle a bit, take a breath. Go on, "I'd like to say I'm here because I choose to be, and that's sort of true, but mostly…" look out onto the room of people before finishing your thought, "I owe it to someone."
10. Admit It
Mark '11' on the calendar. Go to a walk-in clinic instead of work three days after the first AA meeting because the shakiness and other crap have come back. Find out they are not uncommon symptoms of withdrawal. Listen to the inpatient recommendation given by the doctor after you mention living alone. Lie, "I'll think about it." Pocket your prescriptions, Chlordiazepoxide and Propranolol, listen to the doctor say, "They should be ready first thing tomorrow morning." Shake the doctor's hand and check the time.
Decide to go see Jemma before heading to AA; you want to show her your prescriptions. See her sitting on the patio when you drive up. Smile and wave as you walk towards her, watch her glance away. Listen to her say, "We're nowhere near two week, you know." Shake your head in agreement, "I know, I just want to show you these." Dig the prescriptions out of your pocket and hand them to her, "They're supposed to help me with the symptoms." Look at her examine them, "You actually went to the doctor?" Grin and sit down beside her, "Clinic." Realize that was the first time you had seen a doctor in over a decade. Say, "I'm back in AA, too." Watch her nod as she stares at your prescriptions. Sit in silence for a while then be surprised when she asks, "Did mom regret having me?" Frown your face up before replying, "Why would you ask that?" Listen to her response, "She left…" Say, "Me!" Listen to her say, "Us… Did she regret it?" Pause before saying, "I didn't." Watch her burst into a wail of laughter before saying, "Says the alcoholic!" Don't smile, just say, "Says your dad..." Listen to her repeat, "The alcoholic!" Listen to her laughter die down and realize just how strange the question was, want to ask more about it, but understand she'll only deflect again. She is her father's daughter, remember. Stand up and say, "I should get going, AA starts soon."
Take the prescriptions back as she stands up. Want to hug her; don't. Want to tell her that all of this is scaring the shit out of you, don't; that you wish she was home, that you miss her, that you love her. Don't. Just say, "Guess I'll see you later," then turn around and walk to your truck. Hear her call out, "Dad!" Look back at her. Listen to her say, "Eleven days." Smile when you realize she is counting down, too. Nod. Get in the truck and go to AA.
Be approached by the sparkly eyed woman you remembered as you sign in. Hear her say, "remember me?" Lie, "sort of." Watch her extend her hand, "I'm Sheila. Nice to meet you, Byron." Tense up as you shake her hand and say, "Hey, I'm Byron." Remember that she just called you by name. Look away so she doesn't see you flushed. Walk into the room together and listen to her say, "I've noticed that every time you come back you avoid mentioning the real reason you're here. The reason we're all here." Look at her and say, "What do you mean?" Watch her shrug before sitting down beside her. Repeat yourself, "What are you talking about?" Listen to her shush you before the meeting starts. Think about what she said as a new woman introduces herself and goes on to say, "I'm an alcoholic and I've been fighting this thing way too long… I need help." Feel Sheila's head turn and glance down at her. Notice how attractive she is before realizing why she looked at you. Look away. Wait until after the meeting to say what you have to say to her, "I might not talk about it, Sheila, but my being here makes damn sure that it's known." Watch her eyes widen before you feel content enough in your zinger to leave, then feel her grab your arm. Watch her take out a pen and write a phone number on your palm. Feel her caress your arm before she leaves you sitting there. Contemplate. Call that number half an hour after you get home. Talk to Sheila about more than you expected to for the rest of the night.
Continue to count down the days and don't take a single drink. Go out for coffee with Sheila twice and invite her out to dinner next week. Continue with AA and vomit more than a few times. Call Jemma every other day, tell her you can't wait for her to come home. Take up an old hobby: reading. Go to a used bookstore and buy a bag of dollar novels, lie to the cashier when she comments on how many you have, say they are to pass the time. Think about the real reason being you need a distraction; something to keep your hands and mind busy. Read all the time; at home, on break, at lunch, before bed, all the time. Realize you're also using reading as a way to withdraw because you sense yourself getting snippy. So much so that you told your manager to screw off a few days ago and the only reason he didn't write you up being that you were a twenty-year worker, that it was the first time he'd ever had a problem with you, that it was obvious you are going through something and that he wanted you to get through it. Remember shaking his hand and apologizing, "It won't happen again." Say, "No thanks," to the guys at work when they invite you out for a beer.
Go home and keep reading. Read as the days pass, Robertson and Poe and Austen and Mosley and James and Reid. Read and remember how much you enjoy it. Go to bed the night before you will pick up Jemma and think about how much she looks like your ex-wife. Wonder what she did with her life. Wonder how she can live that life knowing she abandoned her daughter. Stop thinking about it because it's making you crave a shot. Pause. Realize what you just did and force yourself to keep wondering. Wonder if she'll ever call Jemma, or if she already has and it's a secret they're keeping from you. Wonder if she had more children, if Jemma is a big a sister. Wonder what type of man she ended up with, or if she started dating women. Pause and cover yourself in the sheets. Wonder how terrible things must have been for her to leave you both, not just the man that drank, cheated, and slapped her; but the daughter that would undoubtedly remind her of that man every day. Wonder and then sleep. Wake up the next morning and write '0' on the calendar. Get ready to go get Jemma but notice that her door is cracked. Peek inside her room and see that she is there, she is here, see that she came home on her own.
12. Pass On
Stay clean for another month. Keep going to AA and introduce Sheila to Jemma. Make dinner for the three of you—beef stroganoff—and listen to Jemma tell Sheila about her breakup with the little dick, "I mean, we started dating in high school and are in completely different places now…" Listen to Sheila's compassion and understanding even though you know she knows what actual hardship is. Feel something you haven't felt in a long time when Sheila kisses you goodnight. Want to ask her to stay over, don't, for Jemma's sake. Rejoin Jemma in the kitchen and notice that her weight is back down, that her face is no longer round. Think about asking her about it; don't. Think again; don't. Understand that she'll talk to you about it one day, if she chooses to. Catch yourself staring at her, keep staring when she looks at you. Listen to her ask, "What?" Say, "You make me really happy…" Laugh when she says, "Happier then, Sheila?" Nod. Keep laughing when she says, "Happier then Heineken?" Say, "Happier then Heineken." Watch her smile, actually smile at you. Watch the corners of her mouth curve upward towards her full almond eyes and her cheeks lift into high dollops of what you imagine is pure serenity. Swear that this won't be the last time she smiles at you for what would feel like ages. Listen to her as she asks, "What was different this time, dad?" Say, "It isn't over, never will be, Jemma…" Listen to her say, "I know, but what was it?" Stare at her, hard. Explore the eyes you suddenly realize are a dead ringer for your own, just bigger, fuller. Look at them and realize she already knows the answer. Promise to never let her forget it.