People used to tell me I turned into an unattended band saw on high when I drank. They said I lost control. I recognized control as an idea. Intangible. They thought it was a cap you could screw on. But that’s shallow. We never had it in the first place.
So I quit. Fine. The enjoyment I got from alcohol didn’t outweigh the grief I’d receive from my friends. I didn’t do it for me. I did it for them. When it really came down to it, their happiness was more important than mine. I could let them feel like they saved me, so I did. But I knew I didn’t have a problem. I could fake control because control was fake to begin with.
“James, I don’t think I should drive.”
It only took one sentence. Half a breath. A quick nod in response and my path was set.
How many parties had I attended after going sober? Two years worth; however many that is. Countless nights of drinking water or soda as my fellow twenty-somethings danced, yelled, and guzzled. I didn’t miss the buzz. I knew they were able to have more fun not worrying about me. What I missed was the inclusion. I was there, yet separate. I was at the party, but not part of it. And why? Because they felt I had lost something that didn’t exist. Boredom and maybe a bit of cockiness sprouted within me. Two years. And then I finally started sneaking drinks.
The first was at Aaron’s going away party. New job. New city. No accountability. It was the end of the night. I poured a shot of vodka into a plastic cup and quickly threw it back in the kitchen while people were leaving. The shot was warm and tasted awful, but I didn’t chase it. I let the lump of sin burn a path down my throat until it blossomed into a flower of warmth in my chest. I breathed deep and smiled. Thudding footsteps came from the hallway and I took a large swig from my can of cola before Aaron smiled and nodded on his way to the refrigerator. But even that one shot of vodka allowed me to walk back into the living room and feel as if I stood with the rest of the group instead of simply near them. If one shot could do that for me, more could only be better.
The next six months saw more surreptitious gulps.
By the time Kelsey said, “James, I don’t think I should drive,” my party secrets had topped a dozen.
I couldn’t disappoint my friends. They were so proud of the fact they had convinced me to exercise some control. I couldn’t spoil the victory for them so my only option was to smile and say:
“I’m your guy.”
The BAC meter in the ambulance reported .20, which would’ve been enough even if I had been sitting on a barstool.
The cut over my eye throbbed. Moving my head elicited lightning bolts from my neck. Even my fingers felt stiff. What stung the most, though, was Kelsey’s gaze from the stretcher next to mine. She would be fine. Eventually. Her car was totaled, but her bruises would heal. The neck brace was just policy. She didn’t say anything to me after I slammed into the light pole. Not even in the eerie quiet between crash and siren. Not even as we rode to the hospital under the bright lights of the ambulance. Or when she was released later that night. Not even after I sat in a jail cell until I could stand before a judge the next morning. None of my friends did. I let them down because I let myself down, but it wasn’t myself I was worried about. I almost killed Kelsey because I was trying to spare her disappointment. She couldn’t handle the non-existence of control, which is what made my eyes unfocused. What made my head swivel. What made the car hop the curb and slam into the light pole.
The loss of license; the required alcohol classes; the fines; it wasn’t more than a different way to occupy time.
But the real punishment,
the thing that made sleep difficult,
was the realization that if I had maintained control of the car,
she wouldn’t have a scar above her right eye for the rest of her life.
Josh Rank graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and has since had stories published in The Emerson Review, The Missing Slate, The Feathertale Review, Hypertext Magazine, The Oddville Press, The Satirist, Corvus Review, Inwood Indiana, and elsewhere. He currently eats sandwiches in Nashville, TN. More ramblings can be found at joshrank.com.