It ain’t just a river…

It ain't just a river...

“I know you never lie to me. I believe you. You’re not lying. It’s worse than lying. You’ve forgotten.” 

Gaslight, 1944


The rocks glass, perched on the old steamer trunk in the basement, contains a pale pink liquid.


But I know he drinks cranberry juice out of his rocks glass. Bright red cranberry juice. The warm plastic bottle of it is sitting right beside the rocks glass, on the old steamer trunk covered with the labels of our past wine bottles (those bottles our main means of travel).


I can never bury the familiar internal alarm deep enough. Something is not right here breaks out like spring sprouts from the dirt as I walk past the steamer trunk on my way to the laundry. I’m an experimentalist, not a theorist, though, so I grab the rocks glass and knock back a quick swallow.


It burns. 


Vodka. It takes my breath away, in a way the familiar taste never has before. There’s vodka in that glass, along with just enough cranberry juice to get to pink. 


I take the glass upstairs to the kitchen, where he’s getting a snack. I tell him, “There’s vodka in this.”


He looks me straight in the eye and says, “No, there isn’t.”


“What am I, hard of tasting? I’ve drunk enough vodka in my life to know vodka, and there is vodka in that glass.”


He takes it out of my hand, and takes a big swig. “I don’t taste any vodka.”


And he dumps it down the drain before I can take another (necessary) sip to confirm my own certainty, or, I don’t know, have the contents of the glass chemically analyzed because that seems to be my next step.


My next crazy step.


(Light a match. See if it burns.)


He comes to me just a bit later and says, “Taste this.” He pours the cranberry juice, from the warm bottle he’s brought up from the basement, into a clean glass, and hands it to me. Of course, I oblige him with a sip. There’s a tiny trace of alcoholic volatility, but not like before. The liquid is vibrant red. “I think there must be something wrong with this batch of juice.”


And he dumps the rest of the bottle down the drain.


And even knowing as sure as I’ve known anything that the first glass had vodka in it, with a whisper of cranberry juice, my brain starts to twist, to contort, to seek another answer besides the one that’s clear (as vodka). (He’s leaving the juice warm downstairs so it’s fermenting but it’s a new bottle, I bought it myself. The drink is pink because the ice has melted but it’s not cold. He’s not drinking because he’s not lying to me now even though he has before and there was vodka in that glass.)


It’s a natural, healthy, emotionally-intact instinct to trust your life partner. They’re the port in a storm, the better half, the special family that you’re not born into but that you’ve chosen.


The trouble is, I want to believe him. I want to think, to know, that he’d never lie to me. Believing him used to be as easy as breathing.


But it’s more than that. It’s worse than that. If he’s lying (not if), and I’m right (I am), he’s drinking (it burned). And that means decisions for me. Oh, god, decisions. Decisions I don’t want to make. Decisions I want the universe to take care of. Like I’m a boat on a river, and the river just takes me to the next place, as part of an inexorable flow. A soft, decisionless serendipity. Where I don’t have to do terrible things, where I don’t have to tear a whole world down, and rebuild it anew, alone.


I’m tired. I don’t want to row. I don’t want to steer. 


I don’t want to decide.


And I’ve never enjoyed being right less.


Two decades and change earlier, I helped him move to Berkeley, fifty miles away from the place we’d begun our affair. He’d been waiting for me to end the relationship I was already in, but I hadn’t handled that well. 


(When I first attempted to write that last sentence, I read it back to myself and found, “…but that hadn’t been handled well.” Passive voice, screaming. Even talking about it now I want there to be someone else performing the action. I want there to be some other locus of agency.


I want the river.


I have always wanted the river.


I didn’t know how to end a relationship without hurting someone. It never occurred to me that there were worse things you could do than say “It’s over,” when it was over. 


It was the way I finally curled my hand into a fist—not an assault weapon but a quiet thing, a secret thing, a thing of deafening silence—that finally made her leave. 


I don’t believe in karma… but sometimes I do wonder.)


Anyway, the move was rocky, long, and tedious, as they often are when you’re stupid and in your twenties and don’t have the capital to hire movers, so you’re counting on your friends and their cars to fill in the extra hauling that you can’t manage in the stupid U-Haul you’ve rented, and only one friend (of mine actually) even shows up.


We found a hair scrunchie moving his bed. It could have been a deal-breaker. Not my color, you understand. He threw it in the trash can without a word, as if I hadn’t seen it. But I couldn’t even get mad about it, because after all I’d been cheating on someone for the whole first five months of this relationship, that I would build my life around for the next quarter of a century. 


When we were done, and it was just the two of us, I’d cooked the first dinner together in that awful Berkeley apartment (I’m not making this up: the last tenant had died in the bedroom, and that was pretty much the vibe). Afterwards, we sat down to watch a movie (the TV hookup came before anything else, while I cooked in the kitchen still dim with a dead person’s rancid cooking grease clinging to the walls and cabinets and appliances). He pulled out his pot supplies, a little pipe and a baggie of almost-gone green dust. He filled the pipe and announced, “There’s only enough for one person, and I’m the one who needs this right now.”


A simple, clear voice in my head said at that moment, “He is showing you who he is.”


And I ignored my own certainty for two-plus decades.


I was already gone, someplace else in my head and heart, but I still lived with her. I’d come home late one evening, and I lay down on the bed. It wasn’t to join her, but she was already there and there was only one bed and I was tired. She put her hand on mine, wanting to hold hands. Things had not been going well, and she hadn’t been able to scream or bully it into getting better. You see, I’d fallen in love with someone else, and I was supposed to get out, I told him I would soon. But I couldn’t bring myself to say the words. Even when she accused me, I denied it. 


(“You love him.” “No, I don’t.)


I wanted the river.


She wanted to hold hands, to see if I was still in there. To see if she could still trust me.


There was a long pause before she said, “Look at your hand.” I looked down, and in her fingers, she held my tightly-closed fist. “You won’t even hold my hand.” She got out of bed and left, walked out the front door and drove off, and I didn’t move a muscle or say a word to stop her. 


When I could no longer hear the car engine, I unclenched my fist, opening my palm up to air and light. The press of my own fingernails had left four little arcs denting the flesh there.


I felt relief, and I slept like a baby, rocked to sleep on the waves bearing me into the future.


(“There’s vodka in this glass.” “No, there isn’t.”)


The mystery of the pink liquid in the rocks glass is solved when, on a hunch, I open the drywall panel in the basement that hides the breaker box. I’m not surprised to find that it also hides an open bottle of vodka, and an unopened bottle of whiskey. I show him the bottles, and he says, “Huh, I forgot those were there. I must have gotten them the last time you went to Maine.” I don’t really believe him, but he doesn’t flinch when I dump them both down the drain.


I want the river. I wait for the river. I wait and wait, until six months later I can’t take it anymore, and I finally tell him I’m calling a lawyer. 


It will be even longer still before I consider the drywall panel that hides the breaker box, and the knob that opens it. It’s not a usual round, smooth thing. He’d selected it special to complement his basement decor, always in his line of sight just over the TV, just beyond the old wine-label laden steamer trunk: a knob in the form of a hand, fingers lightly splayed, palm gently open to the room, to air and light.


Such skillful subterfuge for the closed fist he was hiding inside.


I wasn’t the only one waiting for the river.


If you are tired from paddling up stream into the swift current of lies, consider joining us in Echoes of Recover – our group for the loved ones of alcoholics.

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1 Comment
  • Reply
    Steve Jones
    March 20, 2023 at 9:07 pm

    I read (and re-read) these stories by Barbara. I dropped out of Matt’s program. I still drink. Barbara’s stories show the terror that I create for my wife. The kids don’t (really) know yet, but they will in time. Please keep writing for us that still suffer.

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