This story is by Kat Caldwell and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Why’d you bother coming here anyway?”
There was a long pause. He had a habit of not answering when spoken to.
“I’m proud of you, Em.”
Laughter burst out of her, scraping her aching throat.
“Proud of me?” She coughed hard into a tissue, trying to keep her voice calm.
Shifting on the old, disintegrating seat sent dust flying into the air, but Em needed to look at the man responsible for bringing her into the world. Behind the wheel, he stared straight ahead, driving slowly down the Arizona highway, not speaking until they arrived at the airport, the truck lurching into park against the curb. Then her father turned to face her, his cheeks wet, wrinkled, and full of shame.
“I came to get you because I’m proud of you. I never got through forty days. Never got through more than five. Maybe it’s my fault you’re here—”
She snorted, the snot filling her throat and silencing her reply.
“Probably my fault. I wanted to give you this. That’s why I came. No matter what happens from today on, you’re already grand in my eyes.”
Em followed her father’s eyes to a ring held primly between his thumb and index finger. Her mother’s wedding ring.
* * *
Cool. Refreshing. Bitter. Harsh. Warm. Sweet.
Alcohol could be anything.
Em gritted her teeth as she pulled her trolley towards gate thirty-four.
“Maybe tomorrow, but not today,” she muttered, passing the bar and heading instead to the newsstand for water.
Cool. Plain. Wet.
Always the same, water.
* * *
Day forty-one. The sun rose much like on day one. But day one…
Em pressed her forehead against the mirror in her apartment, dry as a Temperance Movement meeting.
Day one she arrived at the rehabilitation center indignant and purposefully drunk, tripping on the cement stairs. All through the day, pain pounded against her temples, down her shoulders, and into her chest and stomach.
The new arrivals were obvious. They were those with sweat pouring down their faces, retching into aluminum pails.
Day forty-one was better, but just as long. She had meant to go to a liquor store, a bar, or gas station. Beer, wine, whiskey. Her tongue salivated at the thought of any of them. She had planned to, but then…
She looked down at her finger, the ring gleaming in the sunlight. Her mother’s wedding band. The woman who had given birth to her and protected her through the worst of everything, only to die slowly of stomach cancer while Em watched.
Em stood up and grabbed her car keys.
* * *
“I talked to my old boss and got a letter of recommendation, despite how things ended with him. You know, me not telling him I was going to rehab. After ten interviews I got a job.”
Em dared to look around the circle instead of at the floor. A few, the ones farther along than her, smiled. They knew how important it was to find the right job. The others looked at the floor, still struggling with unemployment or a job they hated.
“What kind of job is it?”
“Marketing.” Em couldn’t help the excitement that came out with the word. She’d been good at sales. Dynamite, actually, but it had only brought her further down a black pit. Marketing was something she was also good at. The drinks would be fewer and farther between. She hoped she could control herself when they came.
“I start Monday. I really feel like my life is beginning again.”
“Were you able to finish step eight?”
Em shifted, her eyes back to the cracked floor of the Methodist Church basement.
“My son won’t answer my phone calls. My husband, sorry—my ex-husband, answered and allowed me to speak, but said he needed time to forgive me. My daughter answered as well when I called her on her birthday. I think my new phone number tricked her. She said she won’t ever forgive me and to stop calling.”
Tears streamed down her face, but Em left them alone. Her joy had vanished. The work still ahead of her was akin to the open jaws of a monster waiting to crunch her into powder. Sometimes she wished something would crush her. Death would be easier than going through all twelve steps.
Em reminded herself that she was the reason for her being here and straightened up in her chair. Her addiction to alcohol, her unwillingness to deal with the depression in any other way… even when she found herself driving drunk with her kids in the car, yelling at them, hitting them, abandoning them, cheating on her husband.
“You’ve come a long way, Em,” Trevor said, his face soft and kind.
She looked at her watch, the face blurred through her tears.
“Today I’m 452 days sober,” she said.
* * *
The fan circled above her head, swishing the hot air over their naked bodies. Em twirled her ring with her thumb as she tried to follow one blade around and around until her eyes couldn’t take it, then started again.
This spontaneous sex on day 1000 had left her bored, wanting, anxiety ridden and shimmering in sweat.
The man lying next to her moved. Dietrich. They’d been together now a few weeks, their relationship moving along at a quiet pace. She was afraid to look at him, afraid his next words would be him leaving her.
Watching the fan spin, Em tried to remember why sex was so addictive when she was a drunk. Back then she couldn’t get enough. The last months before rehab she’d cheated on her husband with several different men a month. Loud, crazy, wild, party sex where she could imagine herself to be anything or anyone—and she didn’t care who knew or heard.
Propping herself up on her elbows, she turned to Dietrich.
“I know what’s wrong. Let’s try one more time.”
It took little to convince him.
* * *
“Let’s celebrate! Em, Sandra, Rodrigo! Come here! What a beautiful event you’ve put on. I can’t thank you enough!” Jorge Matilla’s words struggled to be heard over the music and other guests laughing and talking. As they huddled closer Jorge grabbed his wife, Marta, around her waist, and scooted her away from a group of ladies decked in diamonds to join them for a toast. “To Matí Vineyards!”
They all shouted together, lifting their glasses towards the ceiling. Em then placed hers back on the table, spellbound for a moment by the gleaming gold of her ring against the maroon of the wine. After finishing their wine, Rodrigo took Marta to the dance floor and Sandra scooted away to speak with the young models pouring the wine by the gallon, leaving Jorge and Em alone.
Pointing to her full glass, Jorge said, “Just try it one time. My Ribera will change your thoughts. Change your mind, I know it.”
He winked, but Em stayed still.
“No thank you, Jorge. I don’t mean to insult you or your wine. It smells delicious.”
“What do you smell, eh?”
Em picked up her glass again, rolled the content and breathed in.
“Cherries. Dirt. Musk. The south of Spain and its olive groves.”
Jorge grinned, his open palms gripping his chest.
“You know how to pierce my heart! But please, just once, drink!”
Em placed the glass down delicately on the table, then looked her client, her first big client, in the eyes and said, “Today is day 1657 of me being sober. As much as I’m tempted to try your wine, even one sip is not worth me starting at day one again.”
* * *
Day 1826 shone almost as brightly as day one, though she was in Pennsylvania and not Arizona. Em found herself staring in the long mirror, paralyzed by the weight of the day.
Five years since she showed up at the rehab camp in Arizona wearing a mini skirt and belly top, her hair sticky from the drinks spilled on her in the nightclub the night before. The hours before arriving, really. On this five-year anniversary, she stood wearing a long, simple white dress, her brown hair pulled halfway up with curls falling down the sides. She had to admit she looked a bit like an Irish fairy, even at her age.
“Ready?” Dietrich asked, tiptoeing into the room. “Why’re you crying? Don’t you want to marry me?”
“I don’t deserve you.”
Her voice cracked with her tears, sadness filling her at the thought of how empty her side of the church would be. Dietrich kissed her forehead.
“Guess who’s here?”
“Who?” Em’s heart pounded. Perhaps her daughter had decided to come.
“The only one prouder of you than I am,” he said, twisting the gold ring on her finger before kissing her palm. “A day of new beginning five years ago will become a day of new beginning today.”