**** TRIGGER WARNING ****
(Substance Abuse, Mental Health, Suicidal Ideation)
I sit across the patio table from her. I watch her down beer and chain-smoke. She is bright pink toenails and make-up, smiling serenely out at something only she can see from behind immense sunglasses. She is as laid back and buzzed as a teenager on the cusp of their first real spring break. I sip some sugar-free, peach-infused iced tea concoction my mother made, just for me! I have just made it to the six month mark in abstaining from alcohol and pills. I sigh and light my own cigarette, the smoke finding and twinning around hers. The two blend together, and I continue to study her from behind the lens of sobriety and my own large, sunglasses.
She and I used to seem more like sisters linked by a lifetime of friendship, squabbles over shoes, furtive whispers sent across a pitch black bedroom, and the blood coursing through our veins than step-sisters. We were thrown haphazardly together, connected by the vows and promises of others, and that chemical bond between us. She, a decade older than me seems more a forever 20-something than the fifty-five year old grandmother she actually is. I’m not certain when it happened; we’ve had runs of abstinence, both together and separately in the past but this somehow feels different.
A mosquito whines near my face, too lazy from the heat to even feed itself, and I swat it away impatiently, trying to recall all of the many years of Ago. Summers spent lounging: poolside, riverside, oceanside; suntan oil baking our skin a deep golden brown and the blazing sun lightening our hair a shade or two if we sprayed lemon juice in it.
An abundance of scents suffuse these murky memories: the gag-inducing nosegay of booze, the acrid smell of chlorine, the coppery smell of the river, the salt-laced Gulf breeze, and the sound of waves hungrily lapping at the sand, the feeling of tepid water nipping at your ankles as you wandered, stumbling down the shore. The aroma of BBQ on the grill- the rich smell of burning mesquite so thick you could almost taste it.
On the opposite end of the calendar: the nostalgic scent of Douglas fir, sweet and savory smells emanating out from the kitchen: roast chicken, ham, turkey or pecan, pumpkin, and apple pie that found its way into every corner of the crowded house. Turkey at Thanksgiving coupled with deep, bold red wine or dark, almost chocolate looking, foamy beer. Tex-Mex at Christmas with margaritas, fully dressed and later, tequila shots, neat.
Upon the tablet of memory, I see everyone wearing either a sundress to combat the oppressive Texas summertime or brightly knit sweaters to protect from the biting North winds that whip down the hills and through the valley, making the windows whistle. The other details of those times- more a montage, with us- front and center, generally wasted on whatever our greedy hands could find; everyone and everything happening at warp speed around us. We clung to each other to survive birthday celebrations, holiday festivities, and somber funeral services.
I’d met her when she was in her mid-twenties and I was in the midst of my adolescence, both of us writing our own exciting chapters of Life. She was the cool Big Sister who came in from the City to ‘keep an eye on me’ while our assorted parents were out of town. An early memory creeps in-
“Can I have a few friends over this weekend to party? Please? No one ever gets to come over when they’re here!” Most kids would then wait with bated breath for a positive response. I waited for her mock-exasperation and the excited; “Yes!” that I knew was coming. I promised to keep everything low-key and cleanup afterward. It would be like nothing had ever happened.
That evening ended with me, then around fifteen years old, having casual, drunken sex on The Folk’s bed with my then boyfriend After he was finished, he casually informed me he was heading to another girl’s house on the other side of our small town; this place… where the only mill was full of Gossip and it churned night and day. I felt mighty and rightfully just in the great rage that exploded from me, my arm swinging and fist connecting with a spot on my bedroom wall leaving an enormous hole that I indifferently slapped a poster over, no harm done.
Then I had sloppier, casual, retribution sex with his best friend on the floor of my bathroom, rug burns staining my knees for weeks after.
We were not always close, I thought watching her through the heat and haze of the day. There were gaps where we saw little of each other. In my late teens, I ran away from home with the threat of TYC hanging over me for truancy. I was impregnated by a hippie I once thought was a girl named, “Dirt.”
By the time I was eighteen, I was the mother of two beautiful little girls, living out the tail end of the 90’s in a small city in Central Texas. She was married, living in Austin, the mother of a daughter just a few months younger than my oldest. I remember when we realized how close in age they would be, we were elated! Of course our girl’s would be just as close as the two of us! How could they not be?
After all the years gone by, we still clung to one another at forced family interactions but now our children clung to us, too; adored little tattle-tales they were. We devised ways to be even better at subterfuge. Her arrival at a family function brought with it the excitement of a child who has finally gotten to the front of a line for an amusement park ride.
No matter the time we had been apart, or the distance between us, we’d pick up right where we left off; sharing and trading pills and secrets in unison, drinks clutched in our hands, giggling like teenagers. Our interludes were like a balm for the sting that Life inflicted upon us. We had each other’s backs without question, it didn’t matter what was right or wrong, if she talked mess about you, so did I. Offense on one of us, affected both of us, we were unflinchingly outraged on behalf of the other. We kept each other’s secrets. We were each other’s life vests.
Our daughter’s had grown into fiercely independent young women and it seemed they actually were separable. They had their own direction charted out and bravely set forth to blaze their trail while we were left, rudderless, spinning in circles. We were no longer young, beautiful, and untouchable.
She went through three nasty divorces, lost custody of her son, and had several serious health scares over the years. I went through a divorce, re-married, had a son at twenty-three, and then was widowed at twenty five, leaving my little boy half an orphan. I suffered a major ischemic stroke about a year and a half ago, leaving me a hemiplegic. Our grandchildren have never met.
She moved home about a year ago, the plan being to rebuild herself and her life after a horrible marriage to an abusive, drunken, disgraced attorney. She is currently staying with our parents, trying to get her life sorted out. We’ve all had to bounce back into the nest a time or two to re-launch into the world, most of the time before age of thirty.
She’s nearing sixty years old and the only thing I’ve witnessed her working on is her buzz and her tan.
I have quit drinking for health related reasons and also because the stroke changed me. I am a savage, semi-suicidal drunk. I was about to lose everything I still had. I love my family too much not to choose them over booze and pills. Coming so near death had a profound effect on me.
Hummingbirds dart between us, seeking out the sweet nectar from the feeders my mom sets out. I sneak another glance at her. I admit, I have no real idea what she went through in her marriage. She has had the better part of a year to lick her wounds and prepare to get back out there and fight another round. She has been afforded every opportunity to get cleaned up, locate her spine, and emerge from the nest, rising like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes.
Instead, I see what amounts to a lost wannabe 20-something, on the edge of impending twilight, drinking from sun up to sun down. It genuinely enrages me. I glare at her over the rim of my iced tea, trying to make sense of it. There were so many things I took for granted that I’d do almost anything to get back! I dearly miss things as simple as being able to take a walk with my granddaughter and all I see when I look at her is waste; failure by choice, a slow suicide...
It shatters me to look at and listen to my beautiful Big Sister and see that light has vanished from with inside her and hear the thick, almost child-like slur in her voice.
I know not all wounds can be seen and I know the invisible ones can be just as crippling. I get it that when your wounds can’t be seen, it’s especially tricky, and people aren’t able to as easily and readily see the struggle. I may not have traveled through her Hell but I’ve certainly been in my own and if they are anything alike, I can’t imagine the strength it takes to get dressed in the morning let alone care enough to paint her toenails a pretty pink!
I do know this: Something has shifted, changed. Perhaps it’s just the stroke and our differing perceptions of the world? Maybe she’s given into defeat. She swats at her ankle, shining silver chain linking around it. The bug life is active today. I down the rest of the ice-cold tea…
Mom is so proud of my sobriety but drinks like a fish, herself. I know that as soon as I leave, she will be pouring a glass of wine or making a Gin & Tonic. That poses another point of contention: Is mom drinking more due to increased stress or because she finally has someone to do it with?
Sometimes I feel defeated and I miss them enough to contemplate joining them again, the thing is, I don’t think I want to go back there. I miss my Big Sister. I miss my friend. I miss my accomplice. I feel like something has been amputated. I feel aimless.
Other times I wonder, were we ever really that close or was it just that shared love of being present yet absent together? Was it just a mutually beneficial friendship? Did we merely provide a safe haven for the other to be unaccountable and fully give in to our basest desires? Was it all a ruse so we had someone to keep us company while we got smashed?
In response, I also question, aren’t all friendships founded on some basis of need, of give and take, and the ability to just be who you really are? Or am I just trying to create an early justification for a decision I’ve already unconsciously made?
I straighten up in my wicker chair and attempt complete objectivity, I admit to myself, being resentful of my sister for being Able; while I feel robbed of Life. I am furious about her throwing away the potential and opportunity, that she takes Life for granted every minute of every day and that I did, too. I did not think about anything but the moment I was living in.
I am terrified that if I am around her, I will eventually find myself warmly curled up at the bottom of the bottle. I feel like because I am disabled and sober, I have been discarded. It makes me feel expendable. It scares me to death. I miss my Big Sister, I am untethered and… adrift.
I think of long ago, our toddler-aged daughter's were right here as we watched them finger-paint rocks collected from around the property, sun-kissed little cherubs, kneeling in their panties painting, smears of paint on their little tummies while their swim suits dried in the dazzling sun. They chattered at one another while my sister and I chatted with each other. I sigh at the memory, at those women who knew it all but really didn't know a damned thing. "No," I think gloomily, "Nothing will ever be the same."
I stub out my cigarette, push my chair back, and go back inside without a word. She pops the top on another beer, slurps the foamy top, flicks her lighter, and she draws in that first deep drag of a fresh smoke, the tip momentarily flaring a bright red-orange, the color of the sun, the color of times gone by.