"Alcohol isn't the answer," she says, giving me that look. Not quite disapproving, but almost, and mixed with sadness and concern. I call it her guilt look, and I immunized myself against it long ago. Never could defeat it when we were dating, but she made the mistake of trying to use it afterwards, when we were "just friends," and it never worked again. She still tries once in a while, always with the same results.
"Sometimes," I tell her, "Alcohol is the answer." I salute her guilt look with my shot glass, and dump the contents down my throat.
"I hate it when you get like this."
"Me, too," I say, pouring another shot. "But I've had some time to get used to it."
"When you drink, it's just stalling, you get that, right?"
"I absolutely get that. In fact, I depend on it."
"It's not solving a problem."
"It's solving a problem," I assure her, and drink my shot.
"Tell me how. Tell me how drinking yourself into oblivion solves any sort of problem."
I fill the shot glass slowly, wondering how much to tell her. If she'd waited one more drink to ask her question, I would have made some joke. If she'd asked it one drink earlier, I would have lied about it altogether.
But she asked right now, right as the liquor is settling around me like a familiar blanket, warm and comfortable. Right when my tongue gets loose, and before my brain has thrown up an alcohol warning to tell me to watch what I say.
"You wanna know?"
"Yeah, but you do a lot of stupid shit like that. So I'm giving you the choice right now--do you really want to know, or do you want to settle for the fact that you played the concerned friend, and we can move on to more interesting topics?"
She looks into my eyes, only for a moment, and then looks down at the ashtray on my coffee table. There are two cigarette butts in it, one for each of us. It's the only ashtray I own, and I'm pretty obsessive about keeping it emptied out. I used to have a second ashtray, back when I wasn't as obsessive, but when a not-quite-out cigarette caught the whole thing on fire, I learned my lesson.
"What happened on Spongebob today?" I ask, giving her an easy out.
"Same thing that always happens--he pissed everyone off, made all kinds of annoying sounds, and at the end, saved the day. Tell me."
"Nah, that ship has sailed."
"It was like two seconds ago."
"It's a pretty quick ship."
I light another cigarette, and she does the same. We stare at each other while we do it, and I can feel her wanting to avert her eyes, look away, pretend she can't see what's coming.
I smile, and she purses her lips in frustration.
"So the question is what? How does alcohol solve my problem?"
She nods, but doesn't say anything.
"Easy. It's what keeps me from coming home and putting a gun to my head and pulling the trigger."
"That's not funny."
"No, it's not. You said that drinking is only stalling, and you have no idea how right you are. Because the real problem is death. Every day, each of us tries to stall. Tries to put off the problem, yeah? For some of us, it's a little more urgent. I get home, and every night--every night--I want to end it. Does drinking solve that? No. But it stalls it, Jill. It puts it off for one more day."
"She wouldn't want to see you like this."
"Then it's a good thing she died, isn't it?" I knock back my shot, pour another one.
"You think the rest of us don't miss her? You think you're the only one?"
I drink another shot, and I'm finally feeling it; that heaviness I carry with me from the moment I wake up, it's fading a bit. Not much, but enough so that I don't feel like I'm being crushed, enough to know that I can make it through one more lonely night.
"She was my sister, you think I don't miss her?"
"Honestly," I tell her, "I don't give a damn if you do or not. I have enough to deal with just worrying about how I feel."
She grinds out her cigarette, watching the bottom of the ashtray, making sure our eyes don't meet again. I don't blame her. "I hate it when you get like this."
Her phone chirps and she pulls it out of her purse and reads the text message.
"That was Dan. He's at home with the kids. I gotta go."
"Of course you do."
"Are you gonna be all right?"
"Or course I am."
"Just...think about what I said, okay?"
"And you...don't think about what I said, okay?" I exaggerate my pause, mocking her melodrama. She rolls her eyes.
I walk her to the door and she gives me a hug and tells me to take care. I tell her to say hello to her family for me, and she says she will, but I know she won't.
I go back inside, pour myself another drink, and stare at the amber liquid as I smoke my cigarette.
"Better than a gun barrel," I say, just in case the ghost of my wife is hanging around, and I take my drink.
Posted under Short Stories on 3/13/10