The Table

 

After she left the place, she realized they never spoke. There had  been another free table when she arrived or Carlotta would have put her purse on the other chair and that would have been that. She knew how this place worked when business got heavy. She had a lot on her mind since arriving for work at the alterations shop. She didn’t need company, she needed a corner of solitude so she could think. Figure out what made sense in the scheme of things.

It had been four years working for Daniel and he was the same as when she started: blustery, sarcastic when he had the opportunity, and very efficient. And nice-looking, she had to admit, with longish hair that waved just enough over the tops of his ears that she had to catch herself from smoothing it down and back. That would have been the end of her. She was older than he, but he was the boss, no doubt about it. Still, they did well together, Carlotta working the register and phone, Daniel expertly handling alteration consults and the sewing machines. Business had increased the past year and he’d put a “Help Wanted” sign in the narrow window. It was a month before he liked an application and then he interviewed her twice, just as he had Carlotta.

Lanie was good. She could finish a pair of hems in less than half a minute, the jeans under sixty seconds. They required changing to a heavier needle and having patient, strong fingers. She knew all the fabrics backwards and forwards. If there was a rush order, rushing was like taking a stroll for her–she never sweated it, never complained. At least not to them. She was friendly enough to start but Carlotta noticed she kept her distance once she was in for the long haul. Lanie had the demeanor of a contented cat who had a bold work ethic, even when the shop was fraught with piled up orders and the phone ringing off the hook like a demon. Carlotta looked over her shoulder at the woman once and thought, Yeah, she’s like a panther, sleek and fast and quiet. It gave her pause. But five days a week the three of them worked in sync more often than not and the money came in.

It would have gone on like that if Carlotta hadn’t ever seen her at the back door, swapping cash for something in a packet every couple weeks, then more often. She knew it wasn’t buttons; Carlotta was not well-read or worldly like some people but she wasn’t naïve. But she had never seen this before, not right under her nose, so she waited. During the next two weeks Lanie met the same short, skinny guy with a dark baseball cap on backwards. Carlotta couldn’t see his face when she peered out back.

Lanie hissed at her when they passed on the way to the restroom this morning.

“What’re you always lookin’ at, Lotta? He’s my brother Tommy, I’m helping him out if you want to know, it is what it is.” She said this with the ease of one slightly annoyed neighbor to another, as if they were in conflict over a fence but could come to a reasonable understanding.

Carlotta shrugged and half-smiled, then helped out a customer. Soon after, she left for lunch, and the question on her mind was whether she should tell Daniel about her suspicions.

So when she got to the restaurant, she had a busy mind and she wanted to just eat and ponder. When the girl with the shiny long hair and pricey sunglasses looked around for an open spot, Carlotta tried to send her a thought to move away. Nonetheless, she zeroed in on Carlotta’s table as though it was critical to survival during an emergency landing, not lunch, so there had to be a place for her. Carlotta sighed and nodded at the empty chair. She was brought up to be a nice person, that was the problem. But they both had to eat.

The waitress came and went, the mediocre food put on the table and Carlotta sneaked looks at the girl on her phone. She was working that thing like crazy, like she was born ambidextrous, which Carlotta was not. She wondered if those hands made pretty things or wrote important documents or scrubbed toilets. No, not toilets, she could see that. They were manicured with a soft blush of color on each fingertip. That and her toenails probably cost half a paycheck. Once, the girl looked up from her small, undressed salad and stared through Carlotta, somewhere far beyond this buzzing, garlicky and syrupy spot that served breakfast all day long. Her eyes were a blue like melting icebergs; she blinked twice. Carlotta finished her pasta and picked up an old newspaper and thought about Lanie again.

The phone rang out like a rock song and the girl answered.

“What did they say?” Her voice was a restrained tremor. “He’s going into surgery? Now? Why? Oh!” Her hand flew to her mouth and she turned away from her dining partner. “I knew it wasn’t just the flu all this time…So, does he have, I mean…? Please. No.”

She tried to not listen, but caught fragments about lungs and breathing issues and how she had told him last month, no back in May, that he had to see a doctor. But he had said, no, it was that bug that wouldn’t shake loose. It made Carlotta wish she could turn this off, her interest in other people. Even strangers felt important.

The girl was quiet a long time after she hung up. Carlotta rustled the pages as she sipped her soda and looked at her watch. Five minutes left, then back to the shop. She read the comics and chuckled aloud. That was a mistake. The girl rocked forward. Tears started to run down her ivory-fine cheeks and she turned to face the wall, the salad pushed aside. Carlotta folded the paper and sat there, stumped. Was she supposed to say something? Should she ask her how she could help? She wanted to do the right and good thing, something that told the girl she saw her sitting there and was sorry. Was it her father entering a hospital? Lover that lived on the east coast but who she saw not long ago? People had those relationships, how, she didn’t know. Or maybe it was her best friend. She had all these questions and none were appropriate to ask. Curiosity could be so inconvenient, embarrassing, really.

Carlotta stood, checking her watch. She had to go talk to Lanie this afternoon. It would be uncomfortable, even hard, but not that hard. She grabbed her purse and saw her table partner smash the thin, white napkin to her face, staunching the tears. Carlotta hesitated, then lay her wide palm on the girl’s boney, terribly young shoulder, just for an instant, long enough. The girl turned around but the older woman was exiting, her stride long and full of resolve.

“Thanks…” the girl whispered behind a cascade of hair. She sat straighter, smoothed her forehead and resettled her sunglasses, then picked up her phone once more.

(Note: First posted in unrevised form on Patricia Ann McNair’s blog which includes journal prompts. This photo was captioned “They never spoke” and this was my response. Thanks again, Patricia Ann.)

Dragonfly Glass

IMG_2868It had called to me from the shop situated in a mountain valley: a sturdy clear glass, pleasing of shape, with good heft. But most of all, the dragonflies that were in relief near the top brought a smile. I am a fool for insects of all sorts (even scarier ones), and dragonflies intrigue me with their grace and short lives (one to six months) in temperate zones. They love the water but do fly elsewhere. They rarely bite and don’t break the skin if they try. They have been with us 300 million years. If that isn’t a wonderful bug I don’t know what is.

But enough about dragonflies. The glass grabbed my attention and I pondered the price, which was more than seemed reasonable. Still, it was small enough for juice, a good size for a quick drink of water. I turned it around in my hands and visualized how it would look with my sturdy Desert Rose table ware. But such extravagance. I walked away. And back again. I left the shop with two cheerful glasses.

Today it was more summer than spring with a cloudless aquamarine sky and sweet breeze. I sat on the balcony and sipped chilled tea. The glass–the new favorite. It had held water, ginger ale, apple juice and iced tea. I admired it’s combination of ordinariness and decorative good sense. And then I held it up to the sunlight and the thought that came forward was a surprise. It looked like a glass used for a stout mixed drink or rich-colored wine, not tame juice or water. It was the right size, and its heaviness ensured it stayed put when set down. But to contemplate all this took me back.

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Way, way back. You see, none of my glasses have had a lick of alcohol in them for twenty-two years. That was when I stopped drinking. something I write around but have never stated bluntly. Now it seems I want to speak of it.

The day I last drank has been, perhaps oddly, increasingly less a subject of daily personal interest than professional, as I have counseled and educated chemically addicted persons for twenty of those years. Yes, I have attended plenty of support groups. But after awhile something happened to my thinking. It was like the clean, unmistakable click of a lock’s mechanism disengaging to full unlocked position. The door that opened led to the life I had always wanted but could never fully discover or create.

I became free of not only any desire to drink but also of significant feelings about it. I didn’t and don’t hate alcohol and its undeniable power to alter even ordinary people’s responses to others and themselves. It is a power that the alcohol-imbibing public still doesn’t fully respect. I had a quite short drinking career revolving around too many goblets of wine and stiff mixed drinks, resulting in some harrowing tales. It would be dishonest to not note that a family member asked me to make a will when I was still pretty young. There is a common misconception that it is how much you drink that identifies whether or not one has an alcohol problem. In fact, it is more simply how it chemically impacts a person physiologically, emotionally, mentally. It didn’t take so much as you’d think to provide experiences I don’t care to live again.

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So, I didn’t long for alcohol when I was finally done.  I detached from it while keeping clear the reality of what worked for me in life and what did not. Alcohol was definitely on the negative side. Recovery has remained number one every day despite not thinking of it all the time. The reasons are simple: I want to stay alive, live well and long, and be true to who I am–none of which alcohol could support. A drink–or a drug, for that matter– will eventually rob an addicted person of everything good and fine in human life. I reclaimed my own power to live more freely and richly again. Over time, I integrated what I knew about my unhappy relationship with alcohol into a broader understanding of my worldview and beliefs, as well as my authentic needs (not those society dictated) as a person.

All this sounds relatively easy, perhaps. It has been, in a real sense. Of course, there have been moments when holding tight to one moment of sobriety was the goal for the day. The painful events of life, physically and emotionally, didn’t back away or even lessen much when I put down the drink. But the good news is that as humans we are provided with an amazing array of solutions and aids to help us live intentionally, in peace. Our brains manufacture chemicals called endorphins (among others) to help us with bodily pain and even heartache. Our free will enables us to make many kinds of choices that either nurture or undermine who we are and want to become. Out of the caldera of the past, we can construct a Spirit-shaped life that is a wellspring of clarity as we imagine, act, speak, love.

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It all completely works, I told my clients; you just have to try it and then keep at it. I perhaps did not tell them I am a good case study with a complicated history (which we all seem to have) coupled with an early onset of sedativism precipitated by prescription drugs. This made me a sitting duck for alcohol problems later on. The whole journey was a strange one that no longer haunts me. It was one of those dead-end roads. I got off (with much timely help), surveyed the options and took a different direction. Such liberation had a revolutionary feel; it stays with me to this day.

I return to my humble dragonfly glass. It holds peppermint-tinged iced tea; it cools and soothes on this magnanimous May day. And I hope to enjoy it for many years–at least all the days that are given to me. I consider the myriad wonders of life and know I am fortunate. The important parts of the puzzle of living fit together, and I fit there, too. I ask you this: what is not to love in this very moment? I thank God for this ordinary and bountiful life, come what may.

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“What is to give light must endure burning.”
-Viktor Frankl

The Group as Lifeboat

In the back of the nondescript rectangular room is a small circle of chairs, enough to seat eight. The lights are mostly turned off. It is a twilit, quieting space. This is the second story, and the picture windows overlook a neighborhood street. Rain cascades over cars and drums buses as they swish and rumble on their way to other places. The west hills are veiled in darkness and punctuated with yellow blooms of light.

It is dinnertime for many. For those that enter and take these seats, it is time to get honest.

The women stream through the door I have unlocked; most of them greet each other and me with easy familiarity. As they settle, I fan out the meditation cards and stand in the center, stopping by each person as she chooses the card she likes. The colors are key to their choices; they are bright and textured with designs that attract the eye. It is misleading. The words relay ideas that require thought and ask hard questions.

The check in goes smoothly. After months of weekly group, the old-timers know it by heart, and the new ones catch on: name, drug of choice, sober/clean date, why here in addictions treatment, number of sober support meetings, and good or not-good events the past week. And then they begin, first with meditation cards, then with their own stories.

D. reads her card. What is the passion of her life and how can she give it a higher place? She turns the card over in her hands, looks closer, as though to discern the answer within hues and letters.

“I don’t know. Maybe someone else wants this card?” She laughs but no one reaches for it. “All I want is to get a job and quit couch-surfing, you know?  I don’t sit around and ask myself what is my passion. Okay, weed, heroin. Alcohol. Those have been my passions for about as long as I can remember. I’m thirty-nine.” She grabs a strand of dark hair in her fingers and twirls it unconsiously. “But that was three months ago. Today, I guess my passion is to…stay clean. Usually.”

K. asks, “How? I didn’t see you at the AA meeting you said you were going to. I told you I’d even pick you up if you called.”

D. casually tosses the card and I catch it.

“I was busy with my boyfriend. He needed help with something, the ducks. We feed them every Saturday at the pond. That’s good for me, too. A little walk there and then we hang out.”

K. bites her lip and the other women look hard at D., then away. Except one, M., who says only, “But he was high. And you used to sell weed there.”

D. shrugs but her eyes water. “Well, he has to quit. He goes to court next week. Who knows when I will see him again? Prison is a long time away. Another country away. First me, now him.”

I wait and let silence fill the room. D. grabs a tissue and presses it against her eyes. They are large and grey-green in the dim light. I notice she has worn different clothing lately, a t-shirt rather than a low-cut sequined top. D. looks small as she sits there, younger than her age despite the lines on her forehead and around her eyes.

“He’s been with me since way back, since I was twenty-five, since I first got into trouble dealing. You know, he’s got my back, I’ve got his.”

A small hiss of sound is emitted from the other side of the circle. R. looks straight at D. “But where are you both now? Almost the same place as back then. I think you need to cut him loose.”

I can see D. close the door,  step back into safety where words and reality sting less, are sometimes not even heard. I speak.

“I see you doing that thing where you disappear. If you disappear when you hear something hard you might do the same old thing as before. Same ole tape will play out. Your passions will remain the man and the drugs. You could forget about this new way.”

Nothing.

“Where are you now?”

She draws herself up tight in the chair, pulls her knees to her chest, and her face changes from empty to hard to as soft as I have ever seen it. Her voice is small like her. “I used to dance. I mean, before I was a dancer, at the clubs. You know, leotards and tights and sweet little ballet shoes. Recitals and stuff. That’s what I thought about when I read the card. Passion. I had it for dancing. So long ago. But by the time I was eighteen I did something else with it. For money. Drugs. Attention.  Whatever else came along with it. I stopped caring. At least on the outside.” Her eyes blink, close.

I lean in to the circle, towards her more fully. “I’m sorry it was like that. You did what you thought had to be done then. There is such sadness coming up now that you’re clean and sober… But you can choose to create a different life as long as you don’t use.”

Tears trickle down her face as her eyes open.”Stay clean, talk. Listen, too. But hell, it isn’t easy.”

A murmur ripples across the group. I see heads nodding. They give her encouragement, suggest that she start dancing for fun. In a safe way.

“Forget the overfed ducks, come to an AA dance next week-end, ” someone suggests.

“Turn on the music in the living room and let it go,” says another.

“If I had one of my own,” D. tartly reminds them.

“Well, damn! Dance in the rain if you want–with us,” says another and they laugh and shimmy a little in their seats, snap their fingers.

And so it continues. One thought leads to another as each woman takes her turn. I sit, keep watch. Guide the group as unobtrusively as possible, a navigator in a sturdy boat travelling into deeper waters, feeling the change in winds, sensing the balance shifts, staying aware of any danger signals.

It is a powerful current, this giving and taking, as it passes from person to person. It changes the space into a refuge, and the women undergo subtle alterations as they participate in the healing. Permission is given: they can say what they need to here. They can speak the truth.

This is an ancient way but I may be the only one in the room who knows this right now. It has occurred everywhere, across cultures. How many aeons have women gathered like this, spoken from the heart? Yet many have forgotten the formidable force of authenticity when shared with others who care.

Even now the new woman tries to keep emotion from her face. But there it is: frozen grief. Heat that looks like ice. Pain that has been turned so far inward that it looks like meanness. It is one of the looks women wear when they have been brutalized emotionally and physically and cannot find their way back to wholeness. The wounds leave a legacy of self-hate  and a pessimism that is so deep it refuses kindness out of utter disbelief.

And yet. They open their mouths and tentative truth emerges. They start to reach beyond the impenetrable walls. Nothing bad happens here.

So the women take turns, sharing about their lives, children they want back, the health they are working on. They talk about figuring out how to be calm in the midst of stress and strong when they feel weak. They pass on information, like how to start college, how to get housing and dental care.

They tell each other they don’t know if love exists, yet love is all they want. Love for their real selves (“whoever I am now that I’m sober”). To feel deserving of it. They speak of self-forgiveness and by doing so, they also forgive each other of the crimes against life, and themselves, that they may have committed.

The new member fidgets in her chair and looks at the clock. She wishes she wasn’t here. She wants to talk on her phone, get something to eat, get high with her lover or drunk at her favorite bar. A crazy bunch of women: what on earth can they do for her?

I ask her what she thinks. She raises an eyebrow and fixes on a spot just past my head, outside. The city.

“I never liked women. Can’t trust them. Never know what they will do. I’m not too sure I want to stay in this group.”

D. says. “I never liked women, either. But, then, I never liked myself. Come back next week.”

The hour and a half comes to a close. The room is warm but it isn’t the weather or the thermostat. It is the energy generated by a group of women who are some of our best renewable resources. They are coming alive.

They help me put up the chairs and say good-bye. They trail out in pairs, talking, laughing. The new woman straggles behind until D. catches her by the arm, encourages her just enough.

The February evening reveals its beauty as the lights are turned out. The rain sings in the distance. I shut the door softly behind me.

(Written for my Tuesday night Women’s Recovery group. You have been the one of the best parts of the job I have just  left. I am on to other work with other courageous women but will not forget you.)

Why I write–and live–despite the odds

I have been home from work since eight-thirty, for an hour and half, and I have eaten dinner at the desk while typing. There is a writing contest submission deadline I am trying to meet. 

Rita, my protagonist, hopes to steal away from Maggie’s tea cups and chat and make her way to the upstairs medicine cabinet. There is a bottle of pills there, and Rita wants them. Needs them. She hadn’t exactly intended on stealing them, but there they are and here she sits. Nerves on fire, stomach jumpy, sweat rising at the base of her neck. She knows she has little to complain about–a good man and home,  excellent career. But she  needs those pills to supplement her own. To get through the next few days.  Maggie, her neighbor, an older woman whose ill husband rests nearby, won’t miss them. Will she? She’s just going to borrow them. Or is she? Can she do that to Maggie? Is Rita really a thief and an addict? Or is she a woman ready for change?

I keep writing, glance at the clock. Close to midnight. I have to get up in the morning and go to work. I figure I have three more nights to work on the short story, get it down to 3500 words and submit it by midnight 9/1/11.  The story is saved and I head to bed. The next night and the next I labor, eyelids heavy, mind weary but bursting with ideas and characters. I awaken in the night and keep company with Rita and her worried, stalwart husband, Wade, as well as kind Maggie and her failing spouse, Jonathan. The story nags at me at work each day. Is it good enough yet? What needs revising? What are the real odds of it being published in a big glossy magazine? Maybe I should just scrap it and start over. But there is no more time.

The night it is due to be emailed to the magazine, I go over it a last time, but as I decide it is worth submitting I am struck with a frightening thought: the midnight deadline is likely not Pacific Time. I look at my watch. It is nine fifteen.  I check the submission rules. The time is Eastern Standard Time. I am too late.

The first reaction is to toss the notebook I fill with first lines, titles and ideas as I say things I hope the neighbor can’t hear. Then it dawns on me: I have spent two weeks working on a short story that will not have a chance in a contest that meant something to me because I was too stressed about getting it done. I somehow neglected to get the time right. I am overcome with disappointment in myself; tears reduce me to wordlessness. Well, it probably wouldn’t have gotten chosen, anyway, I think, as self-pity threatens.

The contest theme was to write about something that reflects an aspect of women’s lives today. One thing I know affects women’s lives and can write about is addiction, since I make a living helping those who struggle with it. And I also have known something of it’s dazzling magic, its nefarious lure and damage.  Having survived experiences that can scatter and destroy a woman’s will and dreams, I have been an intimate of those detours beyond the known road, the netherworlds. More was given at great cost to a substance dependency that was accidental, even avoidable, than I can accurately tally. It dragged me through my youth and demanded my life more times than I like to recall. At age twenty I cut a deal with God: help me out and I would do the same for others. In time, the promises came to pass. I am one of the fortunate. I have had at least three lives and the one I live now has only grown happier, richer, broader. Standing on some rubble affords a decent view.

There are millions of alcoholics and addicts in this country. A significant portion of them are women who are often unseen and unheard. Many of those substance dependencies begin with a prescription or two for legitimate reasons, then become an illusory panacea for many other ills.  Or perhaps two or three glasses of wine after dinner each night to quell loneliness or fear become a couple of bottles or more in order to feel normal, to get by.

I just meant to get out the message once more: there is freedom from that bondage. There can be a voluptuous renewal after a ruinous life. With help, the healing can make one warrior-strong at the innermost core. Writing is one way I may be able to offer hope.

The women and men, youth and children I write about, then, often emerge in complex patterns from the warp and woof of my own life. There are also innumerable others who cross my path without so much as a nod in my direction, yet I see them and wonder. I pay attention to learn more.  But all the other characters arise from unknown origins with something they want to say and do, and they offer small or great gifts from their imagined, powerful lives on paper.  They resemble newly incarnate creatures as the story is crafted word by word, line by line. For writing to me is a kind of holy thing, a lifeline, a bridge to distant realms as well as a magnifier of Divine Love. It sweeps me up, breaks opens my mind. It resists pessimism, discovers fascinating company and endures all manner of false moves and then surprises me with a revelation. And through the sometimes tedious process a peace is fashioned that endures and a joy that succeeds even in the midst of gloom or uncertain times. Writing, in the end, asks me to freely give part of my heart and soul to others, and in so doing, the well is replenished for more giving in the non-writing life.

So, I missed that deadline.  I am still displeased with my failure to read all the fine print. Rita and Wade, Maggie and Jonathan–they wait in the file. I may have to revise the pages a few times–maybe that’s why it wasn’t submitted this time. Or maybe they need a bigger story. It could be that it was just a lesson once more about what matters most to me and how I need to give it more attention, respect and time. After all, if I care enough to write the stories, I have to care enough to give all I possibly can to every single word, each new beginning.  That is how I have learned to live–and write–despite the odds.

The Point of Drinking on this Tuesday Afternoon

Win Ottomeier ran down the library steps with light restraint. She was anxious to be on her lunch hour but didn’t want the others–Marie, Theo and Antonia–to take any notice of her. They sometimes ate together but usually not, as they liked to talk shop and gossip and she more often liked to not talk. Her hour was important to her, a time to empty her mind of a million orderly bits of information, of the sight of the heavy books she consulted as well as the glaring screen of the computer with its cornucopia of search engines.

And the people, oh the public, how they often swarmed her desk with their eager faces, located her on the phone, their words spitting and swirling up to the Rubenesque women cavorting on the ceiling’s mural. To Win, it was a veritable storm of faces and hushed verbiage from the moment she walked in, esoteric inquiries and needs.

Not that she didn’t like data. There was a solid appreciation of the ways one made sense of micro and macro worlds, how she could  conquer and divide until the facts were distributed or disposed of correctly. Win did not complain when the first computer system went in all those years ago. Adaptation brought rewards. It complemented her studied reserve, that sleek machine.

But it was her twenty-first year at the city library and she was becoming–what? Disengaged. Bored. Libraries had enchanted and upheld her, even saved her life a few times. Her work had mattered once. But now it all pressed in on her like a too-small room. She felt she was becoming irrelevant as people did more of their own digging, PCs in hand. And then there were all those virtual books, disturbing in their untouchable distance, their convenience. The images of an increasingly synthetic world mystified and daunted her.

At times Win had desperate fantasies of heading to the airport and buying a one way ticket to, say, Patagonia, where Magellan thought he had stumbled across native giants in 1520. At five foot eleven they had seemed enormous to the small Spaniards. But that was a view from history. When she got there, what then? There was petroleum and tourism and who knows what other irritants. She had only to look it up to find out, so why bother going at all. Still,  she asked herself: how much could one person absorb in a lifetime? Especially if one had a near photographic memory as Win did. She would go to her grave with footnote 219 on page 367 of a tome regarding prehistoric America emblazoned on her brain. Where was the meaning to it?

This is what she had been plagued with during sleepless nights: the exhaustive nature of fact gathering and what it all boiled down to, at this point in her life. Living in a junkyard of data, that’s what. She carried on in an expert loneliness infused with random, electic knowledge no one really cared about. Not even Win, anymore.

So at twelve-fifteen on Tuesday, she slipped out and headed three blocks down to Tate’s Lounge. She liked the soup and sandwich special there. And the drinks. They all greeted her like a regular. It had surprised her a couple of months ago. Had she gone there that much?  Since March when she discovered the place on a particularly soggy day, Win had been stopping by during or after work, maybe once or twice a week since summer began.

She looked over her shoulder to make sure her co-workers had turned the corner as usual, seeking out Indian or Lebanese fare. Then Win took the last booth and ordered a bowl of soup and a half gilled cheese. Zina, the waitress, called her by name and asked how the books were doing.

Win answered, “They’re looking great, standing at attention as usual.” The waitress chuckled; she was a tolerant sort.

It was such a relief to be here. The place smelled of onions and peppers, grilled sausages with cheese, creamy chicken soup. It was very unlike Win’s kitchen which was gleaming and small, the refrigerator sparsely populated with yogurt and orange juice, take out Thai leftovers, a handful of brown eggs. Two bottles of wine.

Win finished the remainder of the chicken soup and wiped her mouth with the thin napkin. Now for dessert. She reached for her vodka and cranberry and sipped once, then let the vibrant mixture fill her mouth a few seconds before swallowing. It was calming, tart, smooth. It was just the antidote for all the faces and tongues wagging and the tangled weave of supposed facts, data parading itself before them all as though it was critical to something, the final word.

Win breathed in the scent of her drink and finished it off quickly, then sat back.  The last word was something her husband, Harry, once enjoyed. She should not wear anything but sensible shoes or she would have bunions, she was not to clean the oven with nasty chemicals, she was cautioned to not spend more than allotted for Christmas despite her desire to get something really good for the nieces she loved so. He’d even had the last word on whether they would have children–not a good idea, not in this crazy world, not on their improving but modest income.  But he did care for her, didn’t he? Didn’t they take a week’s vacation at a national park she picked each year? Didn’t he cook dinner three times a week? What did he tell her every night before they parted ways at their respective bedroom doors? “Rest well, old gal.” She got and gave a medium hug and it counted most days.

Six months ago he had said good-night–she’d hardly head him–and the next morning he’d left before she got up. A note on the bed told her everything: “I know you don’t like Flagstaff, but you know I do and I’m now retired, so I’m gone.” And the P.S. was his final opinion about her life. He advised her, “If you stay, you should work until 65 to be on the safe side.  Or just come to AZ and we’ll figure it out.”

She thought she couldn’t manage but she did; discipline went a long way toward getting through things. It was more and less than what she thought, this being by herself. It hurt less in some ways, not at all in others.  His face receding, she ordered another vodka and cranberry. Just saying the drink’s name out loud calmed her: a healthy fruit full of antioxidants with a fortifying alcoholic beverage. Harry hadn’t wanted her to drink, not even a drink made with cranberries. One makes you a bit goofy, two makes you unpredictable, he’d said, as though either was character defect she needed to avoid. Perhaps so. The wine she drank, then, was drunk sparingly, a half glass when he was watching, two or more when he was not.

Now she had endless nights to watch the skies and the city’s bustling business from the tenth floor condo, a glass or three of wine keeping her company. And she had the afternoons weekly, one at the least, two if lucky. She could sit and drink, float away. After awhile it felt as though she was on a fanciful barge decorated with multi-colored lanterns, headed down the Nile or the Colorado or even the Columbia River which lay just beyond the condo, rushing to join the Pacific, salt and fresh waters mingling.

When she got back to her post, no one at the library ever said anything. They might look bemused, but that often seemed the case to Win. 

She decided to order a third drink despite the waitress–was it Zina or Zinia? –raising her eyebrows, biting her lip.

“Are you going back to work, Win?”

“Of course, in a few minutes.” Win shrugged off her discomfort, drank away the dullness she felt.

She wanted to say so much more: I can drink as much as I like now. Harry has no say. I am not thirty; I’m hanging on to sixty by a thread so I am a full-fledged grown-up who makes my own choices. I deserve a break, a change in routine. I am happy as a clam nestled in this booth. I am a talented research librarian but truly sick to death of gathering information instead of living it and so I am drinking to think it over some more.

Win finally got up, gathered her purse and wobbled to the register, paid her check and with a nod to Zinia (of course, she knew that), left. She walked gingerly down the sidewalk–lest she lose her  balance and look a fool–then climbed the library’s steps to the brass-handled doors and yanked one open. She took the elevator to the third floor and walked right up to Antonia’s huge desk. The lovely old dear had a pencil in her mouth as usual but took it out as soon as she looked up.

“The whole point of drinking on this Tuesday afternoon is so I can  finally look into your piercing hazel eyes–which I’ve always admired despite your unkindnesses–and say I quit, good riddance, farewell, and good luck.”

Win turned to go and lost her center for a moment. But there was Theo, who had always looked good to her, even when he’d lost the last of his hair, even when he’d dropped too many pounds after his divorce. He took her elbow in his hand and sidled down the stairs with her.

“Good show,” he whispered. “Can I come by later? Dinner?”

She smiled, almost kissed him, but instead shook her head and plucked his hand off her elbow. Then Win left without a backward glance, just slipped away to Argentina.