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Hangover Soup

If Jay were telling this story, he might start it after the wreck, after his life changed forever and mine did too. But it's me telling it, and I'm going to start it before. There are things that came before that can't be forgotten, things that even the splintering of glass and metal and a person's bones can't block out. I'm going to start by saying this: I met my husband in college, where it's hard to tell who's a true alcoholic and who's not. It's not an excuse, but I think it should be mentioned.

It should be mentioned that for the first year of our marriage I thought drinking was something we did with dinner. I thought of the bottles of wine the same way I thought of the candles on the table, or the love notes Jay sometimes slipped into my fortune cookie—if it was a fortune-cookie sort of dinner—the notes that read, "Look at the man sit-ting across the table from you and know that he loves you very much." It took me a while to realize that for Jay the wine was the nourishment, the romance, the reason for having dinner in the first place. I was slow to catch on to the affair between Jay and the bottle. I realized at a late hour that I was just a chaperone, that the fortune-cookie love notes were a toll Jay paid on the way to his high. Or maybe that's wrong; maybe I knew all along. Darrah, my best friend, once said to me in frustration, "Didn't the 'Save the Ales' sticker on his car tip you off?"

After I knew, I wanted one thing in life: I wanted Jay to love me more than he loved booze. I wanted him to look at his bottle of gin and say something like, "Oh, this bugs you? It's gone." Then toss it over his shoulder like a handful of salt. I can barely remember what I wanted before I knew. I think I wanted to be a great teacher, to inspire my athletes (or "student-athletes," as I was contractually bound to call them) to do better than they needed to. I wanted to send them off to the NFL and the major and minor leagues and their assistant coaching positions with something in their brains besides curveballs and zone defenses.

After I knew, in the second year of our marriage, I stopped drinking with Jay. I even stopped cooking with wine. I went a whole winter without making my favorite shiitake mushroom cream sauce because the mushrooms need to be soaked in one and a third cups medium-dry white wine. I tried once making it without the wine, but it wasn't the same sauce.

Shortly after our third anniversary, I stopped making my hangover soup, my top-secret, garlic-laden recipe capable of curing the most vicious hangover. I let my husband suffer, let him feel his brain was a shrunken, dried thing rattling in his skull.

In the fourth year of our marriage I took up running, thinking I could outrace my anger at Jay for being a drunk, at myself for having married a drunk, at all the various things in Texas that seemed to support drunkenness, like the billboard near the turnoff to our house that read from here to there is too far without a six-pack. On a bad night I lobbed a rock at the billboard, but it didn't even make a mark.

Near the beginning of the fifth year I stopped listening to Jay's radio show, Revel Without a Pause, broadcast six nights a week from KXAL. Jay always took a small cooler of beer to work. He always took some pot and his little metal bat (I know these words, bat, bong, kif, although I wouldn't mind forgetting them). On certain nights he encouraged his listeners to call in with their personal hangover remedies, which he carefully recorded in a black spiral notebook. He had ambitions of compiling the cures into a book, which he planned to call How to Get the Hangover Over. I stopped listening because I could tell from Jay's voice and his song list exactly what substances, and in what quantities, he'd ingested. Straight-up jazz meant three beers and half a joint. Coltrane's weirder stuff meant the rest of the joint. Grateful Dead meant he'd finished the six-pack. Billie Holiday meant gin.

On Jay's night off, we tried different things: We pretended a culinary interest in wine; we said Jay was drinking gin and tonics because the weather was warm, because a gin and tonic is such a nice warm-weather drink; we pretended he would be just fine without any of it. I personally tried imagining I was European, that I had been raised in some lovely French village where four-year-olds hold glasses of watered-down wine in their fat little fingers. I occasionally pretended we were in the middle of Prohibition, that I had a closetful of intricately beaded flapper dresses, that Jay drank in romantic rebellion against our oppressive government. Other nights I simply nagged, cried, begged, and yelled. Sometimes I offered what seemed like a rational argument:

"Why do you need a central nervous system depressant when we have hundred-degree heat right outside our door? You could not drink and we could just turn off the air conditioner."

"Spoken like a Texan," he'd say with a lift of his glass and a smile so dazzling I'd momentarily lose my grip on my complaints.

"I love the way y'all turn the heat into a selling point."

"You drunken Yankee," I'd say, wishing we were not already at that point in the evening when Jay's face began to lose its structure, when forming a sentence and a smile required incredible effort and a long period of rest afterward. I wanted to take my hands and sculpt the skin back tightly over his bones. I wanted to jerk his eyelids up from their half-closed laziness and paint an intelligent, alert look across his eyes. I wanted to shape his mouth into a form suitable for conversation, or kissing. But I kept my hands in my pockets and let Jay continue on his own.

On the nights when it was finally clear that Jay's interest in a gigantic quantity of a certain wine had nothing to do with the way said wine brought out the fruity undertones of a citrus-glazed salmon fillet, when it was obvious that the gin and tonics had nothing to do with either the warm weather or my imagined French heritage, Jay would shut himself up in our bedroom with the bottle of gin and stacks of CDs. Voices not my husband's boomed out at me: Aretha Franklin, Lightning Hopkins, James Brown proclaiming himself a sex machine. Occasionally, at the urging of these be-loved voices, Jay wrote me long letters and left them on my pillow, where I'd find them next to his unconscious self.

I'm a fool for Jay's letters. They said things like this: "You were beautiful the first time you smiled at me. We were sitting across from each other in the crowded history seminar room, and you looked smart and busy. Through your preoccupation you smiled at me and I felt a thrill I can never adequately put into words. You made me look twice at the twilight streaming through the chains over the windows. I felt an immense urge, but one in which the sexual was joined by something else entirely. It felt unrealistic at the time."

Often such a letter would move me to strip off his clothes and kiss the length of his body, starting at one end or the other and working my way slowly up or down his long, cold, weighted limbs. When I'd finished every inch of one side—usually the front, because he almost always passed out on his back, which is supposed to be dangerous, in the Jimi Hendrix kind of way—I'd roll him over and do the other side, kissing until my lips were stretched and dry, until my face heated with effort. I'd cover Jay's body with mine, trying to warm it, trying to contact every inch of exposed skin. I'd shimmy down his length until the tops of my feet covered the tops of his feet, until my hipbones rocked into his upper thighs, until my face filled the space between his ribs. I'd spread my hair, of which I have a generous helping, so thickly over Jay's face that he'd stir slightly, trying to find a breath. Then I'd thin the layer of blondness out over the pillows, across Jay's pillow to the edge of my own, where that evening's letter rested.

Another one read: "Faith Anne Abbott Evers, I feel as though our time together has been just the smallest prelude to a life which can't help but grow, and to a love which can only increase. Your face for me has the power and grace of dawn. I love you so much, Faith, my Faith Anne. I'll never have words for it 'thank God you have so many names.'"

When I'd finished reading that particular letter, I stripped off my clothes and stretched out next to Jay on the bedspread. I took his arm with the floppy hand attached to it and ran the palm of the hand over the curve of my belly, up the quick incline of my hipbones. I steered the hand over one breast, then the other. The fingers slept against my curves. I dragged the hand back down past my waist and gathered two of the fingers, two strips of that cold, fleshy sandpaper. I pinned them together, then dipped them into the folds of the deepest part of me, the part my mother calls "the most sacred room of your body." I didn't feel particularly sacred. I coaxed Jay's slumping, unconscious fingers inside me, warming them. I pressed them here and there, Jay's now moist fingers, until I felt his call ringing through my body.

This was winter, a dry winter, one without a single rain. Every Saturday morning while Jay was still unconscious, I drove over to Darrah's and watered the peach tree I had planted the day her daughter, Lucy, was born. Darrah was the medical reporter for our daily newspaper and had spent her entire pregnancy waving foreboding articles in my face, consumed with worry about twisted umbilical cords and twelve-toed babies. Darrah is twisted a few turns too tight herself. Lucy was perfect, as it happened, my favorite part of her the almost-invisible little eyebrows that tented up over her dark blue eyes. I'd wanted to do something to commemorate the birth, to give the baby something that would grow along with her. Each Saturday I soaked the little tree with the mixture my mother had taught me to use: seaweed, fish emulsion, molasses.

Finally it came to this: a letter that ended, "I love you, Faith Anne. I wish I could say something more substantial, something that really delivered the feeling that hurts my throat and my heart and heats my gut every time I think of your face." That one made me kneel, one knee on either side of Jay's head, hoping my scent would wake him from his stupor. It was too awkward to hold his sluggish lips with my hands against my larger, more fragrant lips, against the part of me that Jay, in one of his drunken letters, had called my "other mouth." I used the bridge of his nose instead. His forehead. The grit of his unshaven cheek. Then I caught my reflection in our bedroom window: me squatting over the face of my unconscious husband. A fierce energy looped through my body; I had nowhere to put it. In the glossy, dark rectangle of the window, I looked like a woman urinating in the woods near a large, rotted log.

I went to the bathroom for a washcloth and soap and wiped my scent from Jay's face. I sat next to him on the bed until the room grew light, then lighter, until the bright Texas spring sun blazed through the open window, until mosquitoes drifted in and drew high-alcohol-content blood from my husband and drifted out again, gorged. I watched Jay's dark brown hair, hair with the slight but determined curves of a leaf. I watched his good high cheekbones and the faint lines on either side of his mouth that deepened into dimples when he smiled. I watched him so long I saw the thickening of his beard, the stubble blooming on his chin. I read that night's letter over and over, and I told myself that even though Jay loved me more than some women are ever loved, he still loved alcohol an increment more. I told myself that if alcohol were a woman, Jay wouldn't be able to keep his hands off her. If alcohol were a woman, she'd have some tacky, tropical name: Desir?e, or Racquel. If alcohol were a woman, she and I would have tried to become friends, and failed.

I sat next to Jay's naked body, watching his skin mist with cool, gin-scented sweat, until he drew an arm over his eyes, until he coordinated his brain and tongue to grind out the words, "Faith, the shades—Bright in here."

It was barely March. The sun was bright but still a spring sun. It wasn't yet a weapon, an enemy, something to hide from. Darrah's little girl was almost two months old and her peach tree shimmered with juicy green leaves no longer than an eyelash. Darrah had grown an entire baby while Jay had been drunk, while I'd spent hour after dark hour striking my body against his, as if we were two pieces of flint, as if I could make a spark.

I closed the shades. Jay's face relaxed. Then I thought again about our house, which we'd bought only two years before, about our jobs, which required drastically different levels of sobriety. Jay was in his fifth year of working as a disc jockey and often went to work stoned, spewing out the long, funny monologues that had become his trademark. I spent my days imploring athletes to stay straight, to study hard, to listen to their mamas and get those degrees. I spoke daily of the Game of Life, conjuring strained comparisons to the games of football and baseball.

I thought briefly about Jay's body in a substance-free mo-ment, Jay's body alive and in deep conversation with my own body, then I brought back the reflection of myself squatting over the rotted log that was my husband and said, "Jay, I've had enough. I need to try something else."

"Faith," Jay groaned from beneath the arm that draped his face. "Jesus, can we talk about it later." His voice scraped out of his throat, dry and thin. I was tempted to water him, as one waters a plant. I was tempted to mix up the seaweed/ fish emulsion/molasses combination and drench him with it.

"It is later," I said. "You've been drunk every day for as long as I can remember. When's the last time we made love, Jay? If my vagina were a child, they'd take it away from you and put it in foster care!"

Jay started laughing, then stopped with a shudder of pain. "Faith," Jay said, still from beneath his arm, "don't you love me' Come on, Buddy."

"I love you when you're not drinking," I said. "I'm crazy about you when you're not drinking." This was not entirely true. I loved Jay all the time. I could feel traces of love in my blood even when he was stupid-drunk. But I could also feel it destroying us, and I was willing to take the gamble that my leaving would wake him up.

I waited for him to say something else, then realized he'd fallen asleep again. His arm slipped from his eyes to his chest.

"What the hell, Jay" I said. "You're Mr. Articulate when it's time to spew a bunch of stoned bullshit over the radio but when it comes to losing your wife you can't think of anything to say"

I would not stay long enough to act out the rest of our script: Jay sleeping away the morning, then shaking off his hangover with a shower and a joint, then a burst of apologies and promises not to drink that day. "How about an alcohol-free day, Buddy?" he would say, as if he were offering me a plate of something delicious. After a particularly bad night, he'd lure me with talk of a week, or even a month of sobriety. It didn't really matter; his promises had the life span of a paper towel. I twisted off my wedding ring and set it on the night table, although I could hardly stand to let go of it, although I wanted to snatch it back and jam it onto my finger.

"Well, I have something to say," I told him. "If you can't quit drinking, you're no longer going to be married to me. Just think about whether you want to quit or not," I said. "Just let me know, okay?" I leaned over until my mouth touched his ear. "Okay?" I yelled.

"Right!" he yelled back, eyes jolting open and then sinking closed.

"Don't strain yourself, Jay," I said as I gathered clothes and books and CDs in my arms. "It's okay if our last conversation consists entirely of monosyllables."

I walked outside and threw my armful of stuff through the open rear window of my car. I ran back inside for another load. "You drunk, me gone!" I yelled from the kitchen as I pulled dishes out of the cabinets. I flung them into the car, hoping they would break. I tossed in my recipe box, but not before I pulled out the recipe for hangover soup and tore it into a hundred tiny pieces. When the car was almost full, I threw in Jay's letters, but rolled up the windows so they couldn't blow away.

I went back into the bedroom and dragged up one of Jay's eyelids. I wanted to see the color of his eyes one more time before I left: green, the light green of new growth on a plant.

They're at their greenest when the whites of his eyes are bloodshot, as they were, of course, that morning. I released the lid of his eye. He didn't seem to notice. On my way out I picked up Jay's stupid black spiral notebook full of hangover cures and hurled it into the car. My car felt weighted and strange, on the drive across town to the university. I would ask Coach Talwen, my boss, to give me a room in the dorms. In exchange, I would offer to be on call for the student-athletes twenty-four hours a day. Football season was over, but baseball season was on, and we were all supposed to be busy redeeming ourselves from our miserable 23'33 record of the season before. Coach had signed five promising young players, two already with junior college experience. We were supposed to be great this year. We were supposed to have a chance. I felt certain Coach Talwen would agree to my plan, and I concentrated on not crying until it was done and I was alone in my dorm room. I bit my lip, held my breath, to let my body know I needed it to behave for just an hour or so longer.

My car's engine stalled on the little hill at Fifth and Lamar and I almost rolled back into a looming Suburban. At the Twelfth Street light a boy with rainbow-colored dreads wanted to hand me a flier about something, but I couldn't get the window rolled down, which happens sometimes, and had to communicate this to him through shrugging and desperate window-rolling motions. He finally stuck the flier under my windshield wiper and flashed me a peace sign as he walked away.

It wasn't a hot day, but as soon as I knew the window wouldn't go down, I felt like I was crossing the Sahara in-stead of Austin, Texas. I thought if I didn't get a breath of cool air, I might pass out and cross over into the oncoming lane and annihilate someone with my 1966 Chevelle, a heavy car on any day but on this particular day fortified with my entire wardrobe and my bone china and some of the everyday china and most of the classics of modern literature and Jay's own personal written-in-cursive words of love. At the last light before I turned onto campus, my hands were shaking against the steering wheel and I couldn't remember whether red meant stop, or go.

Hangover Soup
by by Louise Redd

  • paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316479977
  • ISBN-13: 9780316479974