A Fearless Moral Inventory
by Dan Shewan
Holding the bottle of beer in my hand felt like finding something I thought I had lost. The cold glass fit snugly against my palm, the weight of the bottle satisfying to hold, and I ran my little finger over the ridges that circled the bottom like Braille and looked at it for a full minute, savoring how pristine, how perfect it was. I turned it slowly in my hand, admiring the way the reflection from the overhead light in the kitchen curved and distorted in the brown glass.
Taking a bottle opener in my right hand, I applied it to the cap, anticipating the brief moment of resistance. With a muffled pop, the cap relented under the gentle insistence of the opener, letting out a slight hiss as the air inside escaped. The crisp, slightly spicy smell was delicious.
As I raised the bottle to my lips, I hesitated. This was it.
I drank, tasting alcohol for the first time in almost eighteen months.
Almost eighteen months since I had woken up in a lonely, squalid apartment in London and decided to take my life back. Almost eighteen months since I had attended my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in a large waiting room in the rear of a Greenwich hospital, filled with plastic stacking chairs, tables covered with paper cups full of black coffee and cans of Coca-Cola. Almost eighteen months since I had first seen the infamous twelve steps printed in large red letters on a vinyl banner hung from the suspended ceiling. Almost eighteen months since I had told my father over the phone that I was done with drinking and had decided to get help.
Nicky and I had talked about our problems with alcohol shortly after we first met in person in May, after chatting with each other through an online dating website. I had been sober for a little over a year, and was finalizing my divorce. She, too, was divorcing her spouse, and as we became more comfortable with revealing our pasts, we swapped war stories of atrocities committed under the influence of the demon drink. We laughed nervously at all-too-familiar tales of days, nights, entire weeks lost in the haze of blackout binges. We nodded gravely as the other told stories of embarrassment and shame that were instantly familiar. We finished each others’ sentences about the feelings of guilt, and the horror of dawning realizations that followed nights of selfish indulgence. We commiserated with the plight of long-time friends who had suffered through our worst excesses.
We had talked about it again a few days before we made our first trip to the liquor store, the way an ordinary couple might go to a department store to pick out bed linens. I said that I felt confident my ex-wife had used my drinking as a way to gain the precious moral superiority over which we fought endlessly in the last days before she left. I told Nicky I was ready to try again as we laid in bed, our voices speaking out into the darkness of the room and the uncertainty of the future.
After a long pause, Nicky said she wasn’t ready; that ultimately, this could be our undoing. She told me of accusations that would inevitably come, of a blame that needed to be assigned. She described fights we would have, spiteful conflicts after which we would cry in separate rooms, fists clenched and trembling. She spoke of a home that would soon feel like a prison. She didn’t want that for us. I felt disappointed and weak and stupid.
Two days later, we were drinking beer in our kitchen.
Despite the guilt that I was knowingly inviting disaster into our relationship, we had agreed to pick up some beers on our drive home from work one Friday evening. For miles, we justified our decision to ourselves. Pulling into the parking lot of Gasbarro’s Wines and Spirits felt like we were approaching some dreadful precipice, about to lose our balance.
Just wandering around the liquor store had been intoxicating. We felt like imposters, feeling the eyes of the store clerks on our backs as we drifted aimlessly from aisles of wine to walk-in coolers of craft beers to displays of various whiskeys, tequilas, vodkas. We were children staying up long past our bedtime, no grown-ups to deny us our most selfish impulses.
Convinced we were going to be asked to leave, we were approached by a clerk who asked if we needed any help. He eyed us warily, expecting the nervous chatter of underage drinkers trying their luck, even though neither of us could honestly be mistaken as such. The clerk told us that the seasonal pumpkin beers we had decided upon were out of stock. Much to my delight, we settled on a twelve pack of similar beers, twice the amount we had agreed to purchase. We practically ran out of the store.
The short drive to our apartment was charged with anticipation, the soft, almost musical clinking of the bottles jostling in the box on the floor of the passenger seat the only sound.
Sitting in the kitchen, we paced ourselves, resisting the urge to sink the bottles down in a few ambitious swigs the way we would have done before we were confronted with the realities of our alcoholism. We watched each other, unconsciously waiting for the other to take the lead. We joked nervously about drinking contests, of one of us ending up beneath the small table at which we sat.
After three beers each, we paused, anxious about crossing the self-imposed threshold that we had set for ourselves. We stepped outside into the cool night air to smoke cigarettes, all the while engaged in easy conversation. We grew comfortable drinking together, still amused and fascinated by the idea of each other as drinkers. Never before had we seen each other with bottles of beer in our hands.
I had spent so long demonizing myself that I couldn’t tell where the truth ended and the self-justifications and excuses of an addict began. Leaning against the rear bumper of our Chrysler PT Cruiser, exhaling clouds of blueish-white smoke into the frigid November air, the bitter aftertaste of the beer and the warmth in my cheeks reminded me of the reckless, almost dangerous excess of my teenage years. I remembered banging on the door of the only friends I had who lived in their own apartment, showing up drunk, knowing that my friends were inside, their muffled laughter coming from behind the closed door, silhouettes moving behind shuttered blinds.
I remembered the first Christmas my ex-wife and I had spent together. I had drank almost thirty cans of Miller Lite before my ex had felt that I would attack her, preemptively punching me in the face and breaking my nose. I remembered storming out of our shabby apartment into the dark December night, no idea where I was going, the snow crunching underneath my sneakers, the thick, coppery taste in my throat, blood coursing down my face and staining my shirt, my choked, muffled breath making tiny clouds in the cold.
I remembered the night, years later, that my ex had awoken in the night, screaming in agony with gall stones. Too drunk to drive, I had stumbled to the car anyway, trying to focus on the wavy lines snaking down the middle of the road on the drive to the hospital, the car sliding across the road like a bead of condensation down the neck of a cold beer.
I remembered the last time I had seen my sister, more than a year before my voluntary lapse. My ex and I had visited Trudy and her new husband in Edinburgh. Bottles of wine lined the walls of their kitchen in racks, and opening their fridge revealed the green glass bottles of Becks beer that I would long afterward associate with the shame and misery of that trip. We drank long into the early hours, laughter filling the kitchen of the small cottage in the wilds of the Scottish countryside; our glasses never emptying, the fridge always full. My ex-wife had fought to rouse me in the early hours of the morning, enraged that I had wet the bed.
That was the beginning of the end.
In the days that followed my decision to dry out, a month or so after she left, I would sometimes wake from a fitful sleep, the thin cotton sheets cold and damp with sweat, struggling to free myself from the dreams in which I would drink; ethereal visions in which I tried to resist the siren call of the bottle, but was ultimately defeated, laughter from cruel smiles echoing in my mind. I remembered the shame, the crushing feeling of powerlessness that overcame me as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. My racing heartbeat would gradually calm as the realization that I had merely been dreaming overtook me. The shame was intense, even in the elastic world of the dream.
Yet here I was, standing outside my new apartment, in my new relationship, my new life, choosing to drink of my own volition.
As we talked and smoked, bottles in hand, I briefly saw Paul’s face. Paul, the man who would have likely become my sponsor had I not decided I didn’t need AA to sober up. He had been dry for almost three years when we first met, and was attending several meetings every day to maintain his grip. The group sessions had become something akin to religion for many of the faces that populated the meetings in the room of the hospital, including Paul. Hardly surprising, given the importance of surrendering to a higher power in the twelve step program, something that made me more uncomfortable than admitting my own weakness to a room full of strangers.
What he would say, if he could see me casually turning my back on almost a year and a half of hard-earned sobriety, swigging beer on a cold November night?
Even though I had never known his last name, I wondered if he would be ashamed of me.
As three beers turned into four, then five, then six, we talked about how our decision opened so many doors that had previously been closed to us. Doors to a world of bottles of wine on Friday nights after a long week of work, of glasses raised in celebration over the holidays, of toasts made to happy couples and smiling friends at weddings and birthdays, of leisurely vacations spent strolling through the wine country of the West Coast. I saw us walking through the fields, smiling, the warmth of the Californian sunshine on our faces, sampling the locally produced wines like responsible adults, not shameful addicts.
But, as surely as night follows day, the warmth and contentment of that future gives way to a cold, empty night. A lonely future filled with bitterness and longing; a world of familiar regret and resignation. Days spent eating burnt macaroni and cheese from a box, alone at the kitchen table; nights slumped over on the futon, chin resting on my chest, the empty bottles strewn at my feet my only company. A world of pitied stares and knowing whispers.
We both know that road, and we know where it leads. We stand at the crossroads of two possible futures, one just as plausible as the other.
The morning afterward, we awoke with a sense of relief, tempered by mild headaches. The previous evening had gone as well as we had both hoped it would, and we smiled at each other over a breakfast of bacon and eggs at the table where we had sat drinking together for the first time the night before. We had triumphed – this time.
We can still feel the sun on our faces, but we cannot afford to take our eyes off that lonely road that leads to ruin, even for a moment.
Originally from London, Dan Shewan currently resides in Boston, Massachusetts. He is currently working on a nonfiction book, in addition to a collection of essays.