Your high school friend Marla has agreed to drive you back to your freshman dorm in your mother’s car, a Chevrolet Sprint with a pale interior and a quiet engine. The drive from Iowa City to Galesburg is two hours through brown and withered cornfields. It is November.
You stand over your unmade bed and tuck a pair of dirty socks into the open suitcase. You hear your mother washing dishes.
You are ready to drink.
You hadn’t in high school, except for a few intense months toward the end of your sophomore year. Your mother overreacted; she sent you to inpatient rehab. When you got out, you started an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for teens and became a public speaker.
“Your kids are using,” you said to the Parent Teachers Association in the high school library. “It’s everywhere. You just don’t know it.”
“I am an alcoholic,” you said to Mrs. Rogers’ Abnormal Psychology class. “It is a disease. I have one sip and the urge to keep drinking spreads through my body like a tumor. Like cancer. It’s the same thing.”
“Don’t let what happened to me happen to you,” you said from the stage to Southeast Junior High in their giant multi-purpose room.
“I am so grateful,” you said to patients around a giant table in an adult treatment center. “God keeps me sober.”
And maybe He had. You had also asked him for a boyfriend. For people to like you. For you to stop caring whether they did.
“God has a plan for me,” you said to finish off your turn at AA meetings. “I know He does.”
You left for college. Two weeks later, you started drinking again. Two months later—right now—you drink all the time and feel that you have found yourself again.
You pull on your jean jacket, look out your window, and see wet leaves piled along the curb in the gutter.
You call Marla. You twirl the spiral cord around your pinky and rub the smooth plastic on your lips. You hear your mother open and close the refrigerator. You cannot wait to say good-bye.
“Can Terry get us some Mad Dog for the drive?” you ask. Terry is Marla’s new boyfriend. He is twenty-three.
“What’s that?” Marla asks.
“Super cheap liquor.”
“I don’t want to drink tonight,” she says. “But you can if you want.”
“Are you sure?”
Before rehab, you and Marla got drunk together. After rehab, she had wanted to be supportive, so she went with you to a few meetings at the A.A. clubhouse. As you watched her listen, you wondered whether she talked about you behind your back.
“Go ahead,” Marla says. “That’s fine.”
“I’ll pick you guys up in fifteen minutes.”
In the driveway, the Sprint waits. Your duplex sits at the end of a cul-de-sac. It is 4:00 and the sun shines over the trees, about to descend. You remind your mother that Marla will bring the Sprint back later that night before you drive away. Your mother waves good-bye from the front stoop.
In the rearview mirror, she grows smaller and smaller.
You pick up Marla and Terry from their apartment complex and drive to the 7-eleven. The only kind of Mad Dog they have is orange, not grape. Orange is gross, thick and sugary. Every swallow will ring metallic in your ears and sometimes hurt on the way down.
You give Terry a five-dollar bill; a bottle of Mad Dog is two dollars and sixty-one cents. With the change you buy a SQUART, a clear plastic thermos with a straw centered in the lid and SQUART written on the side in capital red letters.
You hold the bottle and the SQUART beneath the dashboard and pour it all in.
Marla watches from the driver’s seat, Terry from the back. They’re both silent.
“It’ll look like I’m drinking pop,” you say.
You crumple the paper sack around the empty bottle, take it to the dumpster, and toss it in, walking away as it thunks on the bottom.
You suck the Mad Dog through the straw as Marla drives along the Iowa River and veers onto Interstate 80, going east. Her blond bangs feather toward one side, sprayed up, as if a wind is blowing hard but only on her forehead. Rows of broken and sodden corn slant toward the horizon, toward the enormous sky.
Marla tells you about her job at the parking ramp downtown, where she met Terry. You hold the SQUART back to him, the car so tiny you barely have to straighten your arm. He politely refuses.
You drink faster, in a race with yourself.
You’re hungry. You say so. You’ve been on the road for an hour.
You realize the SQUART is empty.
In Davenport, Marla stops at McDonald’s. It’s almost dark. The cashier wears eyeliner and bangle earrings. You try to speak and hear yourself muddle the consonants. Marla laughs and orders for you as you sway.
The light in the McDonald’s is dim. You sit in a corner booth.
“Anna,” Marla says. You open your eyes and realize you had closed them. You’ve eaten everything and blink at the crumpled napkins and Styrofoam on your tray. Marla and Terry laugh again.
You return to the Sprint. You finish your root beer and put the empty cup in the cupholder. The SQUART is at your feet, on its side, the straw out the top disappearing into shadow. You put it on the floor of the seat behind you. Marla takes Interstate 74 South to Galesburg. Your college is there, a pristine institution in the middle of town. You’ve made friends there. Friends who drink with you.
“Terry’s going to roll a joint,” Marla says. “You want some?”
It’s dark now. She’s turned on the headlights.
“He gets great pot,” Marla says.
You take a few hits and pass it back. You are tucked into your single bed and you feel it drop through space and hover in the night sky. It starts to spin, an axle above the world. You feel your hands in your lap, the insides of your wrists on your thighs, the back of your head against the seat. You spin faster, and this is fine. You try to open your eyes but you can’t, and this is also fine. You hear Marla and Terry, their voices resonant like a soft radio. You have never been more content.
Then your eyes pop open like a marionette’s. You grab the McDonald’s cup and pull off the lid as you begin to vomit, but it fills the cup and overflows into your lap.
“Oh my God!” Marla says. “Do it out the window!”
You roll it down. Marla screams.
Did you eat soft serve at McDonald’s? In the dashboard glow you see a white foam puddle on the floor mat. The back of your throat is cold vanilla.
Terry is laughing his ass off. Interstate air blasts through the car.
“Oh my God,” Marla says.
You remember there might be a Kleenex or a napkin in the glove compartment. You open it, but there is no light, and you cannot find anything in the dark.
You feel a map and pull it out, use it like a paper towel to wipe off your jeans. It doesn’t work. You unfold it and lay it gently over the floor vomit, hoping to soak some of it up.
“Sorry!” you yell over the wind. Marla holds one hand over her mouth and nose in an effort to block the smell.
The night air cools your chin, dries your eyes, wakes you up. You swallow whatever is in your throat and say you’re sorry again. You don’t mean it. You suck your teeth clean with your tongue, light a cigarette, and know in your bones that you have returned. The real you, unadulterated and pure. All those lies washed away.
For the last two decades, Anna B. Moore has published creative nonfiction, essays, and short fiction in a variety of literary journals and magazines, including Brain Child, American Scholar, and most recently Smokelong Quarterly and Hippocampus. She lives in Chico, CA, where she’s been a Professor of English at CSU since 2001. Read more of Anna’s work on her web site: https://www.annabmoore.com/.
image: Jade Hawk