“I am so screwed,” I said to my sister. I held the phone to my ear and paced in front of the kitchen cabinets. My feelings ran together in random sprays of black and gray and muddy brown like an ugly attack of vandalism. A golden bottle of Chardonnay stood on the counter, beads of moisture condensing on its slender neck. It was four o’clock on a Monday afternoon in January.
“It’s not as bad as you think,” she soothed.
My report card sat on the table. It was worse. “What the heck,” I said. “Let’s drink.”
I yanked the corkscrew out of a drawer, popped the cork, and poured the wine to the rim of a coffee cup.
“I’m way ahead of you.” My older sister rattled her glass, and I could hear the tinkle of ice through the phone. “Where’s Dad?”
“At work, as usual.” I held the cup under my nose. This Chardonnay had a nutty smell, combined with something tart, not that I was a wine connoisseur. Mom had been. She’d collected dozens of bottles from every place they had visited. The cellar was full of them.
I preferred the sweet ones, like White Zinfandel, but tonight I’d chosen the Chardonnay for its 13.5% alcohol—a faster buzz.
“Beck is being a jerk. He started in on me as soon as I walked through the door today,” Jillian said, “because I stopped at the corner and had a couple drinks with a friend.”
“It’s not like I got annihilated or anything. Lizzy and I were just talking. I don’t know what his problem is. He could have walked down after class and joined us.”
We were both silent. This was not a new fight for them. I could picture Jillian in the apartment she and Beck shared in Birmingham, wearing a pair of sweat pants and red slippers, clutching an icy glass of vodka and cranberry juice in one hand, and jiggling that foot of hers as fast as she could.
“I miss you already,” I said. “When are you coming home again?”
“I don’t know. But you’ll be going with us on that beach trip at spring break.”
“I can’t wait that long to see you.”
“What about getting a ride down here one weekend, or I’ll drive up there?”
I drained my first cup of wine in less than fifteen minutes and poured another, eager for the wine to loosen the knot in my head.
“Nothing I do is good enough,” Jillian said. “All Beck sees is what’s wrong.”
While she talked about their long-standing problems, I listened and drank and refilled and drank some more. My cat Zoe curled into a warm black coal on my lap. A purring hum settled over me as the wine worked its magic. The tight muscles in my neck and shoulders relaxed. I hadn’t even realized how much I’d been holding my breath until my shallow breathing deepened. Sometime during the second cup, a switch tripped in my brain, and I felt lighter. Dad still hadn’t come home from work yet. Oh well. What if he didn’t make it this time and orphaned me? Okay.
“You’re quiet,” Jillian said after awhile. “How’s your wine?”
“You sound bummed, Adrianna. What’s really wrong?”
“I dunno. I just feel bad. Bad about my report card, bad because Dad seems so sad all the time, bad about Mom…”
She didn’t know. No one knew. Not about everything.
I put my empty cup down, stood, and stumbled into the kitchen island. “Ooof!”
“What did you do?” she asked.
“Walked into the counter. No wonder I’m always covered with bruises in the morning.”
The microwave clock read 6:38 PM. Even with a nice buzz, the wine wasn’t good enough to drown all the bad feelings tonight. I wanted them to go away. Wait, didn’t Dad have some Crown Royal left?
Holding the kitchen island for balance, I headed toward the corner cabinet and pulled out the broad-shouldered bottle, cloaked in its purple cloth bag. I chose a fresh coffee cup, opened the freezer door, and leaned against the refrigerator for balance while I clinked in some ice.
“Now what are you doing?” Jillian asked.
“Switching to Crown.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” The sound of her voice suggested that it was not. “Maybe you ought to slow down.”
Ignoring her, I dumped some chestnut-colored liquid into the cup, grabbed a 2-liter bottle of Coke out of the refrigerator, and topped it off. I took a drink and winced. It tasted terrible. I added more Coke.
“Why bother?” I asked. “I mess everything up.”
“You’re being way too hard on yourself.”
I thought about my cell phone during school today. Buzzing, buzzing, buzzing. Kloe sending texts. “I’m not being hard enough.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Suddenly, I heard the garage door going up. Dad! It took about three minutes from the time he stopped at the mailbox until he came into the house.
“Crap, Dad’s home!” Leaping from the chair, I wrapped the empty wine bottle in several brown plastic bags from the grocery store and shoved it into the garbage can, then rustled through the trash, trying to cover it up with some paper towels and junk mail. I dumped the Crown and Coke into the sink, stashed both coffee cups in the dishwasher, and ran hot water to melt the ice.
“Adrianna?” Jillian asked.
The door between the garage and kitchen opened. Dad slammed into the house and dropped his laptop bag onto the table. He wore the standard uniform around this town: gray dress pants, a white button-down shirt, and plastic badges clipped to his pocket that allowed him access into various buildings. He was retired military—now a civilian contractor for the Army. Practically everyone in Huntsville was.
He dropped another bag containing a half-gallon of gin on the table. Top-secret clearances prohibited public drunkenness. Best to do it at home.
Our eyes met.
“Who is it?” he asked.
“Jillian.” I shoved the phone at him. “Here, you talk to her.”
I walked away carefully toward my bedroom. I had to leave before he heard the slur in my voice, saw me stumble, or smelled the alcohol. He probably wouldn’t notice, though; he had his own consumption to contend with.