HAPPY SOBRIETY BIRTHDAY
HAPPY SOBRIETY BIRTHDAY
Run with regret, for miles, this trail of sobriety and you. The trees are tall but you are taller still, sprinting above them on this sheer mountain ridge. You could climb one, harnessed with rope and hands that hold chips, or chop one down to a stump and dig out its roots. Diseased, mushrooms latch onto bark as conk, bract, or shelf. Although you swear never-never-never, night comes, again and again and again, and for thirty long years, you climb inside the tree trunk, peer out a knothole with sap on your tongue. Somewhere a greedy grave digger awaits, bone-tired and hungry.
In your writers’ group, your instructor asks you to write about your favorite color. Your favorite color is blue. How often, in your mind’s eye, have you composed the cerulean of the Sea of Cortez. That night you shared a ropey hammock, watching the bioluminescent neon blue glow of the ocean, the phosphorescence caused by little creatures and algae getting jostled in the tide. Just to have experienced its beauty, the fact that it exists, makes your life worth living.
Then, because the group is reading a book about the color blue, she writes, “If it’s blue, think about your second-favorite color.” Crap. Rifle through a box filled with reels of Hollywood films, then think of red. Ruby slippers, rosebud, your face smeared after a kiss, your favorite wine. Ah, wine… Nope. That’s not going to work.
You think of brown. Yes, go with brown. The color of excrement. Bark. Truffles. The dead horse you found in Mexico materializing from behind a large mound of dirt. The brown-skinned cowboy who wandered there, into the desert night, with spurs pumped full of salt rock, then lost his mind and his horse, drank himself under the [surgeon’s] table. His liver hurt. His horse was brown. Vandyke brown, burnt sienna, burnt umber—the way you start every oil painting with an underpainting. The railing on a waterbed.
Your first drink.
Ten-years-old, you climb onto your friend Sissy’s waterbed, feeling the swoosh of water underneath your body, the uneasy sinking feeling as it levels to accommodate your weight, the fear of getting pulled into the undertow of the brown padded leather railing. You lie next to her holding hands. Her fingers smell like McDonald’s french fries. The Playboy magazine you nicked from her brother’s room is hidden underneath her pillows.
“Let’s compare bodies,” she says. “You know, to see who is more developed.”
This sounds perfectly reasonable to you. You just studied Playboy as if it were the bible, and earlier, you watched the 1980 Kristy McNichol movie Little Darlings, the one where two fifteen-year-old girls go to summer camp and make a bet on who will lose their virginity first. Spoiler alert: Kristy McNichol does. After you watch the movie, Sissy says that the two of you should make a bet on who will lose their virginity first, too. Spoiler alert: Sissy does. A few weeks later, she will lose her virginity to Joey at only ten-years-old, and will start her period shortly after. Spoiler alert: Joey will end up dying from an overdose in high school.
Standing in front of the full-length mirrors that cover her closet doors, you take off your matching outfits. Tight purple and teal striped tops with three-quarter sleeves and matching flared miniskirts. White lace socks. Your favorite outfits to play “Red Light, Green Light” in at Skateway. Roller skating backwards is her specialty, and she always wins. You look at your reflection in the mirror. There are your feet, blistered from too-tight soccer cleats. There are four grass-stained knees. Twenty ragged fingernails from biting. Pierced earlobes with studs. Hips. Torsos. Skin tangled with veins and bruises. Billions of skin cells. You turn to face one another. She has budding puffy nipples and wispy pubic hairs. You haven’t started developing yet. She wins again.
Brandy, her plump, cream-colored Labrador, sneaks into the room and jumps up on the waterbed. Sissy yells, “Brandy, get down!” Then turns to you and says, “She’ll pop it.”
You think of a cherry.
Later that night, you lie on your backs, heads knocking together with the waves of the waterbed, drawing pictures on the ceiling with flashlights. Huddled under the sheets, you play Madlibs and laugh so adjective you almost verb your noun . When you’re sure that her parents are asleep, you sneak into the rec room and raid the bar. Sissy’s brother traveled to Tijuana with some friends from high school, and he brought back a bottle of mezcal with the worm. There’s about a quarter left. Sissy dares you to drink some, then pours a shot with the worm. You don’t want to do it, but you don’t want to be called a chicken. Holding the shot glass, you peer at the worm inside with its dark brown head and segmented body, little feet, brown spots dotting its back sections. Her sparkling eyes watch you intently.
“Do it all at once,” she says. “It won’t be as bad.”
You put the glass to your lips, tilt your head back, and toss it down your throat, feeling the hot sting of a thousand thistles thatch in your throat. The worm gets stuck in your mouth and you chew it a little, force it down, gag.
A minute later, you throw up.
Run with grief, for miles, this trail of sobriety and you. The coyotes howl but you howl louder, your voice echoing through the steely canyon. A shriveled-up seahorse, you may have shrunken your hippocampus for good. Pack it away. Away and back. Away and back. Nothing but screams inside. Always escaping, running from one place to another, or standing completely still with nothing to do with your hands. It is not proper etiquette to say your mother hanged herself with a noose. And, fun fact: mandrake grows well beneath the gallows, fed by the semen expelled by hanged men. That type of bluntness teeters on lewd. Instead, you create a diversion. Point to the trees and say, Watch out! A herd of danger noodles! You call snakes “danger noodles.” Observe the slight opening and closing of a stranger’s mouth.
In another writers’ group, your instructor asks you to write a piece that focuses on language. Bloken Engrish, your mother spoke. You stress over the boldness of the font, worry your sentences are too flat, your narrative too revealing. On the other hand, you think it would be best if your writing could empty your coffers, for catharsis, so that you might fill them up again with prettier things. Like the feeling after an ugly cry. You hope to be surprised by your writing, but it is hard, if not impossible, to plan on being surprised. Patterns arise. Repetition. Your circadian rhythm. Night after night, the unwinding, the sound of a cork popping off a bottle of crisp Sauvignon Blanc or dusky Merlot. It is a well-documented fact that alcoholism is a pathological reaction to unresolved grief.
It occurred to you, years later, that Sissy’s drinking and recklessness had nothing to do with being cool and everything to do with her oldest brother dying from cancer. The walls of his room knocked down, turned into a rec room.
You’d been best friends with Sissy since you were six, and ended up parting ways in ninth grade, when you were thirteen, just months after your mom committed suicide. Sissy had always been a tomboy, but started curling her bangs, wearing makeup and tight Levi’s, her dominant personality attracting the attention of the upperclassmen. As a freshman, she started hanging out with the seniors, doing blow, and decided to leave your group of friends.
“Come with me,” she urged. “I’m not asking anyone else but you.”
You said no to her for the first time in your life, although inside, your heart’s ventricles sluiced ice blue.
Right before graduation, Sissy totaled her new Mustang, drunk driving, got a DUI, and a metal pole went through her chest. You visited her in intensive care and she told you about the tubes they snaked down her esophagus, her deformed chest cavity. The friend you brought with you fainted, convulsing on the floor, and you both thought she was faking it. The girl who was in the passenger seat of the Mustang ended up graduating in a wheelchair with a neck brace and leg cast, and also ended up suing Sissy’s parents. And you—even though the Afterschool Special was unfolding right in front of your face—you found a new way to cope with your mother’s suicide, so you kept coping. For thirty long years, you opened a bottle, swallowed the pain.
Until one day you didn’t.
Run on this day, your first sobriety birthday, into Limekiln Canyon. The wind is strong but you are stronger. Feel it push against your back. Tumble down the trail like a stuntman on fire, or make no noise at all as a stand of trees bear silent witness. Your legs ferry you forward, your mouth full of pine and nettle, and dust, always dust, from your shoes a-poundin’, punch-punch-punch. Your keys shake in your pocket like a lizard ready to shed its tail.
Angela Miyuki Mackintosh is editor-in-chief of WOW! Women On Writing. A Pushcart Prize and Best of Net nominee, her work has been published in Red Fez, Awakenings, The Nervous Breakdown, and Writer’s Digest, among others. She’s currently working on a memoir about grief, psychedelics, and domestic violence, titled HIT. She lives in Los Angeles with her partner and tuxedo cat. https://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/