Last night a close friend and I drove down the empty Wisconsin highway with Sigur Ros blaring. So loud I couldn’t even hear my voice. I stared out the windshield at the flat road curving back and forth, the T shaped street lights guiding our way like the strips of LEDs on an airplane floor. It filled me with nostalgia from college night drives to the beach at midnight, cigarettes out the window and vocal chords ripping into Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American. Playing all the songs that reminded us of all the girls who broke our hearts. Letting the tepid Florida air whip my long hair into my face, brushing it aside for each deep inhale of those Marlboro Menthols I loved to hate.
Back then in my freshman year of college, before I was 21, I would get all my alcohol from an older coworker. He’d buy me handles of rum and cases of Smirnoff Ice. He always made fun of me for drinking “pussy drinks” but I wanted the booze badly enough that I’d accept his ridicule with each delivery. I remember him pulling up beside the curb outside our dorms, me grabbing the bags out the back, him remarking on our terrible choice in alcohol, then him driving off until I texted him again a few days later. We gave him an extra $20 on top of the tab, but he always told us he didn’t need it. He just remembered always wishing someone would have done the same for him when he was in college.
As my love for cooking grew, I’d always be the one to go to the grocery store, to the farmer’s market, to the butcher. A few years ago my hangovers started getting so bad and my state of inebriation was becoming so constant that my girlfriend at the time slowly took over the responsibilities. She’d always bring back a bottle of vodka, sometimes a bourbon or a scotch, because I’d ask her to grab “libations for this evening” on her way out. My clever euphemism for “I need a bottle of vodka.” I’d drink it, happy I didn’t have to walk the five minutes down to the corner liquor store to pay an extra $5 to $10 for the same bottle. The liquor store where the clerk knew my name and would pull the bottle down before I asked for it.
It was less embarrassing to not be buying it so often, it was less shameful. But eventually that shame shifted when I faced the reality that I was using my girlfriend for booze. When I tried to get sober the first time and failed, she told me she didn’t feel comfortable buying me vodka anymore. A stark reminder that alcohol was more important to me than everything else, including the woman I was sharing my life with. She apologized the first and last time I tried to ask. A desperate morning when I could barely make it down the stairs. “I feel terrible, but you told me not to buy it for you, so no, I won’t get it,” she said with tears in her eyes.
I found alcohol delivery apps after that: where there’s a will there’s a way. I had to order a minimum amount and the markup was absurd on everything but the largest bottles. So once a week, when my girlfriend wasn’t home, I had a whole box of vodkas, bourbons and ginger ales delivered to my front door. The driver, a young guy with a beat up red Toyota from the 80’s, knew me by the third week. I’d always meet him outside because I could hear his busted exhaust a few blocks away. And I tipped well, telling myself that the extra money I gave him was an unspoken agreement that he wouldn’t judge me.
Soon enough the grocery delivery app we sometimes used started including alcohol. A crushing blow to the alcohol delivery service. I missed the kid who delivered it to me, but I could now get the booze I needed alongside shallots, steak, expensive cheeses and a baguette, to make it look like I was throwing a dinner party and needed supplies at the last minute. I’d adjust each bag on the laptop screen pretending I was the person packing it, making sure the contents would illicit a, “oh this person must be planning an amazing event for so many people!” Even though it was always just for me. Even though I never shared my vodka with friends.
As I neared my way towards rock bottom I finally gave up on pride and went bulk. I would wait for my girlfriend to leave the apartment, watching the clock for ten minutes to pass so I knew she was gone, then run to the car and drive to BevMo so I’d return before she did. Prices on my favorite vodka increased substantially, making a 750ml bottle nearly the same price as the 1.75l. Twice a week I’d pick up two handles, six to twelve mini bottles for taking with me when I’d go out, and sometimes ginger ale so maybe the teller would think a group of us were making Moscow Mules. I slowly stopped getting the ginger ale and just accepted I was a shit-show, and fuck what anyone else thought, I was here to buy my booze, damnit.
Every now and then I’d buy a 750ml bottle and refill it from the larger ones. Then place the large bottle under my bed and put the smaller one downstairs on the liquor shelf. It made it look like I was drinking less. Sometimes in the morning I’d only fill it halfway to make it look like I stopped drinking after half the bottle the night before. Like that was moderation. Like that meant I didn’t have a problem.
Carrying that shame with me all the time ate away at my self confidence. It was hard to believe in myself when I spent half my time hiding the real me alongside those bottles under the bed. When people only knew half the story, I thought they would hate me if they found out the rest. Discard me because I was broken. Distrust me because of all the lies. Or worse, say that I might have a problem and should probably cut back on drinking.
Sobriety has brought a new kind of courage. Simply being proud of who I am. It’s taking a long time for the self doubt to subside, but every day I stand a little straighter in the mirror, happy with the man facing back. Happy that I don’t have to try to be anyone else. Happy I don’t have to lie anymore.
The blanket of emotions that overcame me on the drive last night ended up bringing new people into my life. After I got back to my hotel last night I was so excited to feel that freedom again I couldn’t stop myself from emailing an old friend I hadn’t talked to in over a decade. I simply asked him the name of a band that we used to listen to, and told him I hoped he was doing well. Now we’re planning on meeting up next time I’m in town. Over coffee and old times.
And I still buy in bulk. But nowadays just soda water. I don’t go for the flavored stuff. Six bottles of plain bubbles, two limes, two lemons, three times a week. My nightly vodka soda, just without the vodka. Sadly I’m still embarrassed at checkout.