Beacons for the Drowning

I, Marianne, don’t drink alone, I keep telling him. I don’t go to bars and hang out. What else does he want and why does he care? I’m aggravated all over whenever he brings this up because it is none of his business.

We’re sitting in the back yard for the first time in a month. Justin usually gets home too late to cross the street to my condo for coffee and scintillating conversation. Or he comes by with Thai take-out and enters a “no-talk zone” by flipping on my TV while I pretend to work on my laptop and eat. I watch him. He scrutinizes ads and each program, doles out critiques as if offering tidbits from his store of wisdom. Many of his remarks are accurate and funny. But he has a lot to say about my life when he decides it’s needed, too, even though he’s just my neighbor.

Justin’s decision to corral my alcohol consumption arises from old history, his one-time fiancee. She never knew when to stop. Anything. She spent money as if there was no end to it, wasted time on craftsy projects that came to naught, miniature houses collected until they crowded out items in her china cabinet. She even got swept up in reading marathons as if they were critical to her health, per his report. But he lost her to martinis, he insists. He doesn’t want that to happen to anyone again.

“You just chose the wrong girl,” I tell  him. “I drink a good microbrew and a well-made Seven and Seven.”

“You only seem to enjoy either after the fourth or fifth.”

“How do you know? You’re not around that much.”

“I see you on your balcony all the time. I’m hoping you don’t accidentally execute a swan dive from the third floor some night. You get loud, did you know that?”

“How can I get loud when I close the balcony door?”

“That’s the point–you close it when things get too boisterous during your Friday lonely hearts night of revelry or, in the past, during weekly parties. You’re drinking more by yourself, I think. I notice things.”

“You’re spying on me! I forbid it. You’re my neighbor, not the police, certainly not on some sobriety surveillance. And why don’t you come over and see for yourself, if you’re all that interested?”

He leans over from his lawn chair and puts his hand on my shoulder, gives me the barest shake. “Someone has to. You’re running amuck with booze.” He leans back and uncrosses his legs, feet splayed. “I’m not a partier, as you know. I like to come by when you’re being the true you.”

I roll my eyes. “Maybe you should be, loosen up. You work too hard. Your brain is on overdrive with no outlet.”

The sun is hovering over the horizon, casting light that bronzes his skin. Justin’s face is reminiscent of a sculpture to begin with, the assertive nose, enviable cheekbones, those eyes that can spark the dimmest room when he gets another idea. He’s the right person to work in advertising, a go-getter attitude paired with a great profile. I often don’t get him but I like him. I’ve lived on the block for three years to his five. Justin owns a narrow, tall, newer contemporary house wedged in between two big older ones. Perfect spot for an ad man, new overtaking the outdated.

I am, on the other hand, between jobs. I was a top travel agent until I had too many conflicts of opinion about how to increase revenue and run the place. Redecorate in bright colors and glass and steel (I like cutting edge, too), hire younger people, get multimedia going in the reception area, for starters. For my research and trouble, I got asked to vacate my office. I have an interview in two days at a competing agency. It’s my fifth interview in two months.

I stand up and look closely at the scarlet azalea blossoms. I pull one off, cup it in my hand. It pulses with life. The lilacs are even opening. I am grateful for this yard shared with three other condo owners. If I don’t get another good job before summer, I’ll have to get creative with my bills. Fear sweeps up my back, taking me by surprise.

“You don’t know what I’m up to here. Why do you care?”

“Because you’re a decent person and I like having you around here. Like to keep it that way.”

Despite the fact that we both like Westerns, brunch at Cady’s Cafe, daffodils over tulips and Moroccan mint tea, I find Justin a narcissistic annoyance at times. This is a good example. Is he on some neighborhood governing council I didn’t know was started? As if he has anything to say about who is his neighbor and how they can act in their homes. No one asked him.

“I’m getting a beer, want one?” I ask as I turn away. “If it’s a ‘no’, why not enjoy your own back yard?” I laugh as if it’s meant lightly.

He’s gone when I look down from my balcony. I’m disappointed despite intending to not be. But I don’t know what else I feel like saying to him tonight.

I sit down at the white wicker table and sip the beer I say I don’t ever drink alone. Of course I drink an occasional beer with my meals or when I watch a tennis match on television or get ready to go out to dinner with a new man I meet online. Or whiskey if I can’t sleep, maybe. Justin is the one who’s a bit out of the loop. He drinks mate and apricot or guava juice and sun brewed iced tea. He eats vegetables because they’re “attractive, colorful”: “Those attributes alone guarantee well-being!” And he runs every morning. Maybe he’s right because, yes, he looks good. He dates very selectively, only those he has already met. He has way too much confidence. What can he do to temper that?

The sun is lowering itself to the distant river that defines our city. The one I had to cross every day to get to my job. The job I was proud of and enjoyed, the place I worked for over five years, advancing rapidly. The boss was soon to retire. I thought this was a chance to introduce an innovative agenda into meetings. Everyone else seemed open. But HRH Claire Purcell found me “presumptuous, not properly seasoned despite some time here, and although a good contributor to our monetary health, not the one who charts the course, nor likely to in the near future. You can’t seem to rein it in, Marianne. It’s best you go now rather than later.”

The sun has nearly set and the skyline bursts into flamingo pink. The moon glows like an opal from afar. It all makes me feel lonelier than usual so I go inside, open the refrigerator and search the dreary contents. There are many more beer bottles than yogurts or aging strawberries in their glass container. I root around and find nothing that appeals or pairs well with beer, so take another bottle, then think better of it. I open a top cupboard. Grab the whiskey bottle.

Who does Justin think he is? His agency is in a part of town I can’t even afford to park in so why does he talk to me? He feels the need to caution me more each year. He once admitted to me he considered being a monk when he was in sixth grade after he went on a church retreat with his parents–every now and then I try to imagine this–and displays a surprising philosophical bent when he lets down his guard. But this does not make him a fine moral compass– not mine. At times I can’t stand his smug life. Contentedness. That he seems happy.

I open the whiskey bottle and find a glass and fill it to the brim. There. One glass of whiskey. That will do it, not too much, not too little.

At the stereo I find and put on a jazz vocalist, Diane Reeves, then start wandering around my well-earned condo. The glass is warm in my hand. I take a drink, whiskey burning its way down my gullet. I am shocked by its potency. Its savage purity. I almost never drink liquor without dilution with other ingredients. There is a reason for this. Liquor commandeers my good sense fast. But Justin’s nagging, my interview coming up, the fact that I haven’t heard from my best friend, Lil, since she went to Austin on holiday a week ago–it all conspires against my better judgment. I can still hear Justin talking at me, that steady-eyed concern. His patronizing.

I take a small gulp and slowly dance, feet light, languid, arms held out wide. The whiskey in the glass is golden and full of shadows in a dissipating light. I turn on the electric fireplace to add cozy atmosphere, then head to my bedroom. I take another drink, this one so deep that I sputter and cough. It doesn’t make sense that I am drinking right now but neither does having been fired when I’m good at what I do or that Lil didn’t ask me to go with her since I’m not working. That Justin has to make my life harder with his increased inquisitions.

The alcohol may be starting to singe my veins, as I feel hurt abound, deep under my skin, under these musings.

I shed my sweats and want to play dress up, a thing to do when bored. I open my closet and rifle through the dresses and suits I no longer wear, the sweaters that need to be put away from winter. At the left end of the long closet is summer clothing. An ankle length blue and white sundress grabs my attention. It’s still a bit chilly but I put it on. I go through boxes of shoes, tossing them here and there until I find sandals. Pick a pair of thongs with silvery leather and beaded flowers that slip right on my feet.

I study my long brown hair in the bathroom mirror, take a drink and pick up a brush. I try to count to one hundred strokes when there it is, the smoothing glow of whiskey mixed up with the soothing motion of the brush. I, Marianne, sing a lullaby barely recalled, one that came from my mother on a good day or a children’s movie, I don’t know which, but it is sweet and tender on my tongue, takes the sting out of whiskey. I have another drink, dance with my reflection. I might have been a ballroom dancer instead of a travel agent selling tours to China and New Zealand. I might have gone to college in Paris. I might have been the girl who got the boy of her dreams. Found a way to save my mother. Made a fortune from my big smile before the accident changed all.

It is always a mistake but I need to really look into the mirror. There, the deft scar above my brow, the way the jaw hints at another sort of chin taken from me. The teeth that are implants, poor copies of mine. Her face, my mother’s, vanished beneath a blanket after the accident. I saw her feet slip from under, one snug in its mahogany leather loafer, one bare, twisted and bloody, the gold ankle bracelet still hanging on.

I put my right hand on the eyes in the mirror. My face is cut in half, then fingers slide down, down. I don’t know who this is, this stricken woman in a cheerful sundress who lifts glass to mouth, glass to mouth until glass offers nothing more. But later, maybe, if I sleep, when I get up and try to start over. Brave reality again.

The walk to the living room is far and tiresome but the fireplace draws me. Duskiness creeps in from my balcony door. It matches my mood. I must do something. The door swings wide and I lean against the balustrade. Where is he now I have something to tell him?

“Justin!” I call, but he doesn’t answer. “You are correct! The drinks after the first get better!” I raise my empty glass to his chic house, then toss it to the grass below where it rolls over, a sad, empty vessel. “Now leave me alone.”

Dark is transforming all, blurring things as I stumble inside. Get the bottle. Carry it to the couch before the fire. Stop thinking. Mouthfuls of medicine, bravado swallows taking me from this world, its lofty pretensions, dangerous mistakes. Down the magic rabbit hole on a slippery slide. The fire speaks in sly hisses, grim crackles.

The whiskey talks louder. Drink up, my friend. So I do. Try to submerge every inch of my life.

“Marianne! Let me in.”

Dull throbbing drumming underwater, muffled foreign tongue and a crash far away from me swimming this ocean of cheap whiskey.

“Open up, Marianne! I’m breaking in if you don’t get the door now!”

I feel nothing. Zero state, ahh. No, wait, wait. A hand on arm, then arm underneath, laying me lengthwise on sofa. A boat on this forgotten sea. I float. Sink.

“Marianne. Please. Don’t do this, anymore. Can’t you see where this ends up? Do you insist on proving me right?”

Even if I wanted to speak, I cannot. My lips, sealed with whiskey, my mind saturated with whiskey, that first beer somewhere at the bottom of it. Want nothing but the sleep of ruinous paralysis.

“I can’t spend more time with you if you drink, Marianne. You know I don’t drink. I lost Estelle from drunk driving and you lost your mother….stop doing this. For you, for me.”

This boat, rocking arms hold me…long ago a rocking chair I rocked through abyss of loss until I had to say good-bye to her my mother too young both in our blooming had to find my way alone so lost.

Weeping, an echo from long ago, another place, a passageway through space, my face burns at a touch, breath is razor ragged, this is the terrible place of love gone and longing so I open my eyes to find out who is crossing here this dam overcome.

Justin is rocking me now. He speaks to God, doesn’t he? Monk Justin. Cries, hand on forehead smoothing back my hair. Speaks my name. The drag of whiskey lets up in my blood a second so I can breathe, wincing from vapors of alcohol, forgotten tears. Fire flickers, his insistent voice flares like a beacon, a way out or back, maybe home.

“Hey,” I whisper. “Okay, okay…”

Somehow he knows it means: I surrender; I give up, will get help. Because he stays, is there in the morning, minds my business with me as I retch and grope and sip clean water. Justin the ad man, the profile that undoes all women but me, the little boy who felt called to God. But this is my doing. I have to figure things out. This time I must create a trail back to myself. I will believe.


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