I’m standing on the side of a bunny hill optimistically called Bright Star Basin. With my back to the slope-side condos, I’m watching two five-year-olds, my daughter and a friend, ride up the rubber Magic Carpet lift and then ski down the gentle slope. At the bottom, they automatically get back in line and do it again. They remind me of a toy I had as a kid. Little plastic penguins continuously climbing up and sliding down a mountain.
It is nearing the end of the day and the sun has moved lower in the sky. Behind me, a newly-born stream runs down the mountain. Winter is thawing. I close my eyes and tilt my head up towards the sun, welcoming the new season. When I open my eyes, I spot a large man skiing in tartan kilt and a green shamrock t-shirt, holding a can of Guinness. It’s St. Patrick’s Day.
At this sight, my earlier contentment melts away like the snow and is replaced by an uncomfortable tug inside my gut and a twitch inside my brain. I’m angry that this man is drinking while skiing. It’s ridiculous. Yet, I’m jealous that he gets to drink when I can’t. It’s unfair. And I’m annoyed that I feel all these conflicting emotions just because a guy is drinking a beer. I want to feel normal. I want to be normal.
Now the sun feels too hot and I’m tired of standing awkwardly in my ski boots. When the five-year-olds ski down the hill, I wave for them to come over. I’m ready for the day to end.
While I’m watching the younger kids, my husband Chris is skiing with the older kids on the harder trails. It is our annual ski weekend in Vermont with my college friends Kelly and MaryBeth and their spouses and kids. We’ve been getting together at this ski mountain once a year since we graduated college 18 years ago. It is my second time attending this weekend sober.
Nothing horrible happened on this trip two years ago when I was still drinking. I didn’t get a DWI, I didn’t set the house on fire or throw up all over the ski lodge. I have a lot of “not yets” in my story as they say in the 12-step program I now attend. What did happen was this: The Sierra Nevadas I’d been drinking weren’t getting me buzzed. At this point, only vodka did the trick. But I would never openly drink vodka for fear someone would identify me as an alcoholic. When Chris and the other husbands went out to pick up dinner and Kelly and MaryBeth were upstairs changing, I searched the cupboards in the kitchen and dining areas, looking for the ski house’s liquor cabinet. Relieved, I found a bottle of vodka. Not my usual brand, but I didn’t care. I looked over my shoulder to make sure the kids were watching TV. Without picking the bottle off the shelf, I screwed open the top and tilted the clear liquid into my glass. Then, topping it off with some orange juice from the fridge, I slugged it back and felt the immediate cascade of calm, like a thick coat of paint smoothing out my cracks. I rinsed the glass to remove the alcohol fumes, put it in the dishwasher, and took a swig of my beer. I did that two more times that night.
As usual, Chris and I were fighting. About what exactly, I don’t remember. Probably keeping score over child care duties for our three young children. “I put them to bed while you watched football,” or “Where were you when they needed to put on their ski boots?” But after the beers and the secret swigs of vodka had taken affect, my anger dissipated, and I tried to give Chris a hug and kiss to patch things up.
“I don’t need to drink to love you,” he said, pushing me away after smelling my breath.
Chris and I were co-workers in New York City when we fell in love. We had our first date at the Central Park Zoo, our first kiss in Lincoln Center Plaza as it snowed. Chris jokes he got drunk at the office Christmas party and when he came to, he had a wife and three kids, and was living in the suburbs of New Jersey. Really, I was the one drunk at the party and he made sure I got home safely.
When I tell my story in meetings, I explain from the moment I started drinking regularly at 16, I knew I was an alcoholic. I knew from my answers to the questions on brochures in the guidance counselor’s office. “Do you black out when you drink?” Yes “Do you sometimes regret things you did or said while drinking?” Yes. I kept it in check, because I never wanted to stop drinking. As I approached 30, I subconsciously thought once I settled down, got married, and had kids, my drinking problem would go away. When it didn’t, because it’s a progressive disease, I got skilled at hiding it. I would only buy vodka with cash so Chris wouldn’t see the charge on our bank statements and I wouldn’t recycle my empty bottles but buried them deep in our household garbage. I pushed Chris away, encouraging him to do things without me (which he did) so I could stay home alone and drink.
After nine years, our marriage inevitably fell apart and in a rare moment of honesty, I finally admitted to Chris I had a drinking problem. At first, my admission was a relief to him. It explained so much. He in turn admitted his digressions. For a moment, we felt a lightness. Our layers of lies scraped off like strips of old wallpaper. It was satisfying. But then we looked at the mess we had made. We each had a pile of wrongs which we measured, trying to prove who was more at fault and who should be more hurt.
After our deceits were revealed, we were unsure what to do. Not ready to make a decision about the relationship, we proceeded on with life. Even though we weren’t speaking, we packed up the kids in the minivan and drove to Vermont for the annual ski weekend. I was a little over two-months sober and had just found a sponsor. I picked her because she had three kids and a husband like me, but she was happy. Every week, wiping away my tears at her kitchen table, I’d whine about how unbearable my life was — I’m fighting with Chris, my job is demeaning, the kids are ungrateful. She would nod her head and say “Let’s do your step work.” I’d be annoyed. How was this going to fix my life? But I did what she told me to do. My other option was a bottle.
The first sober trip to Vermont, at the urging of my sponsor, I attended a meeting after skiing. When I returned, I walked in on Chris in our guest bedroom, kneeling on the floor next to the bed, his hands folded together, his head touching the bed’s blue patchwork quilt. It took me a minute to figure out what he was doing. He was praying. I turned around and walked out in disgust.
But now, on this St. Patrick’s Day, it is two months past my one-year sober anniversary. I completed the 12 steps with my sponsor. I am a sponsor now, helping a new woman in the program.
It’s hard to explain how my marriage healed itself. One day in early sobriety, after telling my sponsor I wanted to divorce Chris, she said “Be the best wife you can be for 90 days. And after 90 days we can talk about divorce.” I followed her suggestion even though I believed the marriage was unsalvageable. But something happened when I stopped focusing on Chris’s wrongs and instead focused on what I could do right. When I listened about his day at work, he asked about mine. When I’d bring him a cup of coffee in bed, he’d make me breakfast. When I dressed up, blow-drying my hair and putting on earrings for our new “date nights,” he too put on a nice sweater. We became polite, saying things like “Thank you for the delicious dinner,” or “I appreciate you dealing with the recycling.” At first it was forced but then it became real. And it didn’t take 90 days.
The five-year-olds and I trek from the bunny slope over to the lodge. We dump our gear on a picnic table on the patio. The kids plead to take off their ski boots, and I give in. The staff buzzes around the patio, setting up a grill and rolling out kegs. There’s the uncomfortable feeling again. The first beer after a day of skiing is true bliss. A reward for having schlepped around a mountain all day. The first gulp quenches the thirst and the second provides a warm glow that radiates from the stomach on out to the limbs. A wonderful feeling I will never again get to experience.
On tap is a Vermont local brew, Magic Hat No. 9. Can I still say it’s my favorite beer even though I will never again drink it? The band tunes up, a Grateful Dead cover band. I take stock of the scene. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday all about drinking. My favorite beer is on tap. I’m about to hear live music while sitting outside after skiing on a beautiful, spring-like day in Vermont. It’s my perfect storm, my ideal drinking scenario. The self-pity bubbles up inside of me and an invisible noose tightens around my neck.
“Think the drink through,” is what I’ve been told to do in this situation. One pint of local brew on this patio will turn into three. By tonight, I’ll be stealing vodka again. In two weeks, I’ll drive drunk to pick the kids up from school. And my marriage will be over. And so, the noose loosens its grip on me.
Long distance runner what you standin’ there for. Of course, Fire on the Mountain, is the band’s first song. As the music fills the air, a warm glow grows within me. The kids dance in front of the band in their stocking feet. My sadness evaporates like their wet footprints on the stone patio. Instead of awkward, I’m content. Instead of jealous, I’m confident. Love swells inside me in the empty space where I used to pour vodka.
The late afternoon light is soft and the melting snow makes the air steamy. I scan the crowd of skiers coming off the mountain looking for Chris. I spot him at the ski racks. He takes off his helmet and reveals a shock of gray hair. He turns, looks right at me, and grins. Time slows and my senses sharpen. I can hear every crisp note of the song and the steady whirling noise of the ski lifts. I can smell the hot chocolate and the melting snow. My vision becomes laser focused on Chris. He walks towards me never dropping his gaze, our love a bright white electric current connecting us, like a rope tow pulling him to me. I stand motionless on the patio and the crowd around me vanishes. He reaches me and I rest my hand on his face and we kiss.
Later in the evening, when we are getting ready for bed, I ask him “Did you feel that…connection?” I’m unsure how to name what happened between us.
“Of course,” he says and hugs me. He has felt these moments before. It was me who was never present, who could not feel the love. I erected walls and insulated them with vodka ensuring I wouldn’t feel anything. The 12 steps lowered the walls. Draining the vodka made room for the love.
I lie in bed next to Chris under the same blue patchwork quilt where he had prayed last year. Is this what he prayed for?
“Thank you,” I whisper.
Elizabeth Jannuzzi is a writer and a mother living in New Jersey. Her work has been featured in Grapevine and she was a finalist in the 2016 International Literary Penelope Niven Creative Nonfiction Contest. She is currently a student in the Advanced Creative Writing Workshop at Project Write Now in Red Bank, NJ where she is working on a memoir and personal essays about loss, motherhood, and recovery.
Featured Image Credit: Chad Madden