This story is by Marissa Rentschler and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I had my first drink when I was 6 years old. It was a travel-size bottle of pink Moscato sold in a 4-pack at the supermarket down the street, decorated with a sparkling pink ribbon on the outside of the packaging. Without knowing what was inside the bottles, I decided the ribbon had to be mine, so I brought the alcohol to my mother and proclaimed my desire. She was appalled. “Mina Marie Green, where on Earth did you get the idea that children can drink alcohol!” she scolded, “That is for adults only!” Her statement confused me, I drank plenty of things -water, milk, lemonade- what was so wrong with this mysterious alcohol? All I’d wanted was the ribbon. My confusion only fueled my insistence, and unsuccessfully I tried to explain to her that it was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. However, while my mother was at the cash register, I ran back to the liquor aisle and tugged at the ribbon to come free. After a few tugs, I lost my balance and fell backward, the Moscato tumbling down with me.
If I hadn’t had screamed, perhaps we wouldn’t be here at all. Perhaps my mother wouldn’t have come running to see her small daughter sprawled across the floor, dress soaked in alcohol. Perhaps I could’ve just stood up and walked away, hoping that if I ignored the potent, tangy smell, so would mom. I suppose then my mom wouldn’t have bought the entire pack or made me drink what was remaining of the last 2 unbroken bottles out of discipline. I always assumed she did this out of love. Or at least that’s what I told myself. My mother was a tough woman, she held the belief that children must learn from their mistakes in a very direct way, so they would know what to avoid. Perhaps this is true of squashing desire, but the alcohol wasn’t what I’d wanted. Instead, the warmth of it drew me in and I floated around, running into chairs and table legs and not feeling a thing–at least until the next morning (After about an hour of vomiting my mom sent me to school without a note. Within minutes I was in the nurse’s office where the school administrator spent 20 minutes begging my mother to come and get me. She was very disappointed and banished me to the bathroom for the rest of the day. I honestly don’t know what else she expected from a hungover 6-year-old).
* * * * * *
I didn’t have my next drink until I was 14 –after the fiasco surrounding that first time, my mother made certain to keep all liquor locked up in her bedroom, though I suspect this may have been to fuel her own addiction. Like most people at that age, I was afflicted with anxiety, the kind that results from restlessness and the growing internal pain that comes after realizing nobody cares. One day, I couldn’t handle the overbearing swirl of my mind anymore. I wanted some way of forgetting an escape. I remembered how the Moscato put me in a trance and filled my insides with warmth. Love.
That afternoon, I broke into my mom’s room and stole a 12-ounce bottle of vodka tucked in the back of her liquor cabinet. She won’t miss it I thought. I downed it within an hour, then hid the bottle under my bed and took a nap. When I woke, I half expected to see her standing over me, hands on her hips, holding out a full bottle of vodka, screaming at me to drink. But that day didn’t come until a Saturday morning about 3 weeks later when a call from my father led her to soak up every ounce of alcohol she could get her hands on.
“Drink!” a pause. “Drink it you little bitch!” she said, popping open the bottle and drenching my face. Through gasps for breath and burning eyes, I could see the tears rolling down her cheeks. “Feel my pain! Understand! Please!” her expression said. I did.
I was on the road an hour later, knapsack strapped to my back. I haven’t seen her since.
* * * * * *
I’m 29 now, sitting in a stiff, musty hospital chair. I replay everything that has led me here. The low self-esteem that followed my failure to get into college and the lack of supervision in early adulthood pushed me into the warm arms of alcohol. I’d leave every afternoon at 3, lie to my dad about the job I didn’t have at the bookstore, then I’d pay any willing stranger to buy me vodka and drink the whole bottle before 10 pm. After, I’d go to whatever club I could to keep drinking. Keeping myself warm. I’d come home at 6 am, in time to crash before dad woke up for work so that all he’d see was his baby girl wrapped up like a burrito, in her cozy yellow sheets, innocent. However, he figured out I didn’t have a job when my college savings ran out and I couldn’t help with rent anymore. He didn’t catch the alcohol for some time though, I made sure to come home early enough, but eventually, he did. I can still see the heartbreak on his face when he told me I needed to go to rehab. So I did, for the first time. I was clean for a long time after too, I tried again and got into college and graduated when I met the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to me, my husband David. But old habits die hard. I went back to rehab and have been in therapy since. David still calls sometimes. Usually about the lawyers.
But I’m sitting in this chair because a few weeks ago I got an email. My mother was dying. Kidney cancer. Figures. I deleted the email promptly and didn’t plan on telling anyone, but my therapist can always read when something’s wrong. “If you don’t see her now, you may never see her again,” he said in his wise trust-me-I-have-a-doctorate voice. I haven’t felt whole for a while, just cold. Some things need settling, I thought and decided to visit.
I shift, leaning on the polished wooden arm. Hospital chairs have a way of making one’s back so stiff that they choose to contemplate mortality as a distraction from the discomfort, I think, before realizing the irony of my statement. It isn’t the chair that I need a distraction from. I look at the bed. A frail old woman with gray wisps for hair and bleached leather for skin occupies it, but I recognize her. She stirs, my heartbeat accelerates. Run! My brain screams. Her eyes open.
“Hi, mom.” The confidence in my voice surprises me.
The old woman looks up. “Well, fancy seeing you here,” she says, chuckling, “You should’ve called first.”
Not knowing what to do, I say, “How long have you lived here?”
“Come on Mina, you’re not telling me you came all this way to small-talk. What do you really want? And if you’re just here to stick it to me, just say it. I can take it.” For an old woman, she still had her toughness.
I think carefully, swallowing my pride. “That day, I left… I’m sorry, I didn’t say goodbye. I know you were going through so much and, well I shouldn’t have left you like that.”
“I’m sorry I gave you a reason to leave.” There’s a long silence. “I’ve lived here for 10 years.”
“I love you, mom.” It just comes out. And it’s strange, but I do.
Her eyes widen with shock as if I’d said a forbidden phrase, and I did. “I love you too,” she says, and I tear up. I shuffle over to the side of the bed, and we hug. She’s crying too. And we both know we’ve been to hell and back, so we sob over our shared pain, and the relief of overcoming it.
A while later, I leave the room. A new lightness permeates my soul, yet I have never been more whole. I take out my phone and dial David’s number.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hey,” his voice is warm, “I was just about to call you. Look, I think we made a mistake ending things do fast – can we talk?”
“Yes.” I smile. My heart in on fire.
* * * * * *
At 30, I’ll hold her for the first time. Both of us crying, I’ll tell her how much of a miracle she is and in advance apologize for the pain I’ll inevitably bring her. And every day for the rest of my life, I’ll fight for her and love her so ferociously that she can’t help but feel it.