"Nothing can make me stop drinking," my father told my mother the day my brother was born.
Twelve years later, a first and last family meeting is called. My mother and father stand in front of the couch, each at opposite ends of the coffee table. She appears agitated and reluctant, as though summoning the courage to leap into a freshly thawed lake; he, the slightest bit eager.
"I'll only be gone for awhile," my father promises. "I'll be back."
Car keys loose in his mechanic's hand, he leaves the house as a sigh does the lungs. Through the window, the three of us watch the night's big snowflakes settle about his hair. The Cadillac swallows his down-filled bomber and, in melodramatic slow motion, my father drifts away.
My mother has been going to Al-Anon for some time. She tells us our father has a disease that prevents him from changing with life, that caps his growth. Because of it, he forgets to retrieve his six-year-old son from baseball games. He misses dinners and eats out more and spends time and money at the bar down the street with his friends. He loses track of things that might otherwise matter.
I rarely see him during the years that follow, which seems mostly alright. I have my own friends, I love high school, and I bond with our family dog Martha. I can count on the gentle rhythm of Martha's rough pads on pavement, and the more accomplished sounds of their sinking and plucking in the mud. We walk in the rain and the snow and along creeks filled with sequins by the sun. Martha draws me off the trails and into the longer grasses, the deeper woods.
Which is where I meet Bill and his dog, Rambo. I like that Bill dresses in camouflage, takes to the forests, and walks his dog. Later, when I think of him (and I'll occasionally pick him out of sylvan dreams), I see red sugar candied onto the corners of his laughing mouth. This is how he appears tonight in my best friend Paige's rec room. Paige has been dating Bill's best friend, Todd and the four of us play cards and watch movies and toboggan in the parks together. It's Friday night and Bill and Todd know Paige's parents are away. They knock at her door, Rambo nosing in the snow behind them.
Their laughter is loud and fills the entranceway with familiar vapours. They remove their scarves and toques and amass a pile of damp outerwear on the steps. The four of us descend the short flight of steps to the TV and VCR. I ask Bill, how was the ravine, aren't you cold? He grins and asks for a kiss. I ask again about the ravine. He grins and puckers. He must be kidding, I think. Can he not hear me? And then, not the puckering but the glassy eyes, the rummy breath and the sleepy smile take me back to the kitchen where I used to find my father late at night.
I would already have been in bed for hours, waiting for the familiar scuffling of my father's key in the door. Next, I would hear him shuffling the pots and pans in the drawer beneath the oven. I might wander downstairs to find him holding a can opener and staring at the cupboard of canned food - pork and beans, tuna, Klik, sweet corn. Then he would abandon that mission and instead root through leftovers in the fridge. He would talk and I would listen. I didn't mind his sweet rummy breath and the way his words seemed to have no edges, the way they rolled and blended back into his body. "Imagine living on a boat and drifting towards all the ends of the lake and never choosing one end or another." Most of the time I didn't know what he was talking about but I didn't need to know. As a child, I was happy to see my father happy.
But Bill's happiness, and at this moment it seems plentiful, is annoying. Bill and I are both fifteen and I expect inclusion. I want any kissing to mean something; I want everything to mean something. I'm indignant, self-righteous and repulsed. Clearly, boys can't be trusted. Alcohol is evil and people, especially boys, who drink it are no pals of mine. Paige and I send Bill and Todd back into the cold ravine. Through the screen door we watch their breath freeze into hard white clouds.
At ten you can show a child a pair of lungs blackened by smoking and the child becomes a fierce non-smoking advocate. She runs home to tell her father to quit. The smoke in the restaurant makes her despair and write sensible letters to the local newspaper. But then adolescence creeps in and wipes that strong, body-centred morality from mind. Self-destructive forces prevail and she will stand in their midst: placid, strong, smoking. She will understand, her confused bodymind will understand, why her father does it.
Similarly, Paige's parents' liquor cabinet soon begins to shimmer and sparkle, indeed to beckon and bewitch. One day I hate Bill for drinking, and the next I plunge with glee into the cabinet's enchanting depths: peach schnapps, cherry brandy, pink wines, Baby Duck. We soon move on to cans of Coors Light, bottles of Molson Dry, vodkas and rums and velvety red wines. Paige and I pride ourselves on the granite caves we have for stomachs. Now if Bill were to shed his big camouflage parka and descend the short flight of steps to the TV and VCR, I would merrily pour tequila into his red candy grin, drink and kiss and drink some more until we would travel my father's infinite sea together.
But who needs Bill, really? What's important is that I have discovered a buoyant new way of being. My father and I can now relate. I drop by to visit him in his new apartment with his New Woman. She makes me Caesars with just the right seasoning, the perfect stalk of celery and just the right amount of vodka.
By twenty-one I've become a regular at my father's dinner parties. My brother is here and New Woman and a few other drinking buddies, some cousins, uncles. All are welcome for a toddy (or twelve). My brother stays the night since there's recently been a close call and a stop to the drinking and driving. I stay too and wake early with a hangover. I have a coffee with New Woman, whose bloodshot eyes seem sad and small in a surround of pillow-imprinted skin. The boys are still sleeping. This always amazes me. I might pass out for awhile but my sleep is fitful and by seven, after only three or four hours, I'm wide awake. It's as though my body can't sleep and clean at the same time. I feel bad for body, sort of. I ask New Woman to say good-bye for me, to tell them thanks, I had a great time. And then I drive back to my mother's place.
My mother lives only a twenty minute drive away. Her place is still my home, not because it's where I grew up but because it's where she lives. I stayed with my mother after my father left and after my brother followed him and after my father didn't come back. I stay with her when I'm home from university. Nonetheless, I operate more and more like my father. I panic at the prospect of being without booze in any social situation. I make sure I am the one in charge of stocking up for weekends and evenings. I spend money I don't have. I love a good hangover, the fogginess, an excuse to do nothing all day but relive the blurry events of the evening before.
Even after university, I connect most deeply with those who remain at the bar the longest. I adore friends who can drink to marvelous excess and feign interest in those who either can't or, inconceivably, choose not to. I can tell the difference between the two by matching my drinks to theirs. If they're ready to order another with me, or, even better (and most rare), before me, they are keepers. If, however, I have to hold back too much, I become uncomfortable. I feel I have to repress the most buoyant, convivial, indeed lovable me, the me I'm sure I like best. In these relationships I am my father at the edge of that coffee table, eager to be in my element, eager to be with the keepers.
By the time I've driven across town to my mother's place, I'm sure I've aged a decade. My cells perk up slightly at the garlic sautéing on the stove. I follow them, my cells, as they settle like millions of tiny magnets onto her couch; there we lie and await sober conversation, lemon water and herbal tea.
"Chamomile?" My mother seems so energetic, so... hydrated as she hovers by the tea cupboard.
"Maybe. What else is there?"
"Orange mango. Peppermint. Fennel. Apple spice. Lemon zinger. Dandelion. Raspberry leaf..." The list pours from a face so smooth she might have slept in mid-air. She knows I'm hung-over. The amount and frequency of my drinking may be a secret, but the drinking itself is a fact. She smiles, remembering how she once endured her own hangovers. After all, she was married to my father for several years. They drank together until we children appeared. She seems to trust that, like her, I will happen upon a good reason to stop. She seems to have a great deal of faith in me. I'm so fortunate, it occurs to me, to have been born to this woman who sees and hears and trusts the me that grows on tea and lemon water.
"Dandelion, please." I've heard somewhere dandelion is good for the liver. It's the least I can do.
It's Christmas. I'm at my father's. I'm twenty-eight and all about the toasting. I've made rules that require everyone to sip and slurp together.
"A toast to the chef!" "Here's to the turkey!" "What would we do without holidays?" "Here's to health...oh, and laughter" (that's two separate drinks). A few seconds of silence and somebody asks for the salt. "Here's to salt," says my brother, "And to the sand!" This is the only place where my life converges with my brother's. Here, drunk and at my father's, we connect. Otherwise, he has remained in this town with my father. He works with my father. He has a small boat like my father. He has chosen his friends like my father. My fairly aimless pursuits in the realms of school and travel puzzle them both. "Good one," I say with a proud nod.
As glasses empty, I leap to fill them again. I'm wearing a red toque with a white flashing pompom. The tree is plump and lit and sparkling in the corner as though cheering me on. I bound into the kitchen. Empty glasses jingle like bells in my hands and the table breaks into applause.
How relaxed my father looks behind his clapping hands. He's round and small, plush in his chair at the head of the table, his brown hair and eyes soft. So tranquil, so likable. My mother's mother adores him and tells me, in confidence, she would love to see him again. I love his approval; I need another drink.
After the toasting, it's time to move onto cards. As the rounds proceed, New Woman grows grave. She's been frolicking along with the rest of us but now the alcohol has taken a wrong turn in her blood.
"Must be a bloody Jewish thing." New Woman has decided the friend I've brought along is cheating.
"Relax," says my brother with a shrug. "We'll just deal again. How bout getting us another round, Sis? Here's to cards!"
Father, Brother and I are on the team of the merry. "Lighten up or lift off" is our motto. On the whole, we're unimpressed by anything that doesn't leave us amused with ourselves.
My father raises his glass. "To the cards," he confirms. We raise our glasses and New Woman slams her cards, all nines and tens, onto the table and breaks for the washroom.
And then New Woman's ten-year-old granddaughter Carrie ventures towards us from the other room. She raises her glass of red Kool-Aid. "Here's to Jesus. Christmas is for Christ and we should all be grateful."
Well, what kind of toast is that? "Lighten up, already," says Father with a mellifluous smile. He cranks Anne Murray, rises from his chair and says to me, how bout a dance? I'm surprised by the way he springs from his chair. I suddenly feel so heavy in comparison, a mineral whose specific gravity has tripled. "Would you prefer Gordon?" He's impenetrably carefree.
Carrie sets her glass on the table, turns her eyes to the floor and retreats to the other room. The shots of Jack Daniels my father, brother and I bonded over an hour earlier become loud inside me. I can't quite hear her. She isn't making sense. She hasn't found our world yet ; we can't hear her. She's growing places we can't see for the glasses we must keep full. She doesn't try again, simply wanders away. I imagine her inviting us all to her baseball game. We probably wouldn't go. Or we might, so long as we could call it a party, bring our flasks of rum and whisky, our sheepskins filled with wine. Maybe it would be easier to say, sorry, we're busy, pick you up later. Later would always become "just one more round." She'd probably find another way home.
"No, Anne Murray's fine," I concede. "Here's to Anne!" My father has already begun to dance his fun little moves on the living room floor. I take his hand and twirl beneath his raised arm but as I dip back over his arm that surprising new weight grows heavier still.
I rush to the bathroom. The tears are confusing. This shouldn't matter. Carrie will be okay. Everything should be easy, fine, coated in red candy grins. But I can't let it go the way they can. I seem to be built differently. That I will toss and turn all night while my father sleeps soundly seems suddenly such a poignant detail. I see Carrie standing with her raised glass of Kool-Aid, grown-up enough to make her own toast, a valiant attempt to join in with the adults. I hear the pleasing suction of my dog's soft pads in the mud: the fierceness of grounding and the release of freedom.
I wash my face and blink hard. I reset the flash on my pompom, and head for the card table. ZZ Top, New Woman's favourite album, plays on the stereo. I say I'm sorry, I don't know what happened. Father looks concerned. He doesn't like to see me upset, he says, and it occurs to me that he's never seen me upset. He's never looked straight at me -- both of us motionless -- he's only ever seen me from his drifting boat.
When I rise the next morning, hung-over and exhausted, my father and brother are still at the bar, surrounded by a half played round of cards, half-full glasses, a plate of turkey, a bowl of stuffing. The tree is still lit but muted now by the new day. The two of them wobble on their stools, eyes red slits, words dropping from mouths Something about his truck, no his truck, a lake, the phone, a trailer, more laughing.
"Well, good morning Sis. Hows about making us another drink?" My brother seems immortal at twenty-seven.
My father nods and touches his glass, catches himself before falling from the stool. He opens his mouth but the words seem to roll back into his body. He raises a heavy finger instead, a sporting attempt to second that motion.
I collect my belongings. It's time to head back to my mother's. As I hug my brother and father, I tell them I'll visit again soon. I wonder if they'll remember. I'll visit, regardless, I adore them both. In a few years, friends will comment on the lovely toast my father will make at my wedding, on how genuine and perceptive it was. I close the door behind me and shudder as the faint craving for dandelion tea creeps through my wine-stained veins.
Eventually I reach what feels like a deeper freedom. By eventually I mean that the drinking persists and things happen. An undiagnosed illness for example, that instigates a hard core parasite cleanse that ends, I'm embarrassed to note, in a night of tequila shots, which is then followed by another sort of undiagnosed illness whose symptoms leave me afraid to drink anything but milk thistle tea. I start to feel better. I get pregnant. I nurse my child. I emerge from Paige's parents' liquor cabinet, rife with roisterous memories, and a little dewy. I now drink more like normal people do. I befriend abstainers and moderate drinkers alike. It's as though the swinging pendulum of my mother and father has settled within me.
At thirty-five, I'm at my father's dinner table again. It's getting late for my two and a half year old son, who is perched on the chair beside me. My brother starts pouring the wine. I protect my glass with a hand and tell him I'm fine with water. They're eager to celebrate - I've just told them I'm three months pregnant.
"How about you? Would you like a glass of wine?" New Woman is including my son in the ritual. She is probably kidding but he cheers, "Wine, wine." She looks at me and says she'll get a smaller cup. I say, no that's okay, we're not doing that, as though it's one of the practical decisions parents make, like whether or not to use cloth diapers.
The toasts are made and my son raises his glass of water. In my new role as sober mother, something unwieldy appears over the dinner table. I don't know what it is but I want to shield my son from it, as if with sunscreen or a wide-brimmed hat. It's not the alcohol per se, but has more to do with the mood of things, with an eerie lack of meaning: the toasting, the banter, the clever one-liners. I want him to know these things in the context of the heavier stuff. But he's two. His little eyebrows go up and down. He loves people; he loves a good party.
I'm anxious to get us all back to the safety of my mother's home, despite the fact that these people are absolute teddy bears. They know safety: they've childproofed the staircase with a barstool. Though I suppose my brother can seem mildly angry at times. My mother tells me my brother was most upset with my father when we were a family. Perhaps that's what I sense in him now, the latent certitude of a life wrongly followed, the cosmic growling of unused potential, the unchecked expression of the alcohol-preferring gene. Under what circumstances might he have resisted the allure of his father's world? Might he still? On the other hand, he's turned out to be a decent, likable, independent human being who has his own home with a small vegetable garden. He takes my mother for dinner on Mother's Day. He laughs a lot.
I put my son to bed and come back for a few rounds of cards. I like that I'm pregnant and can't drink with them; I like that I'll go to bed earlier and that I'll feel fine tomorrow.
In the morning, my brother goes to work. My father stays behind to have breakfast with me and with his grandson. He draws a box of cereal from the pantry. I know how he likes his cereal, how he always fills his bowl so full of fruit -- bananas and raisins and peaches and whatever may be in season -- that there really isn't much room for cereal at all. Now, he pours and peels and chops and sprinkles and, with pride and enthusiasm, presents my son with his own bowl and says, "See? Now you need to know, this is a real bowl of cereal."