I take to drinking

I wondered how much is too much, whether drinking could be done with any control. Could it be simply enjoyed?

Published December 11, 2021 7:30PM (EST)

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Excerpted from "American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation" by Sarah M. Wells. Used with permission from Wipf and Stock Publishers.

It's just one glass to relax. My kids aren't asleep yet; I can hear Henry talking to his teddy bears in his crib, and Lydia and Elvis are still telling each other stories upstairs, giggling now and then, but otherwise the house is quiet. The television is off. I collect a few dishes from the dining room table and head into the kitchen to unload and reload the dishwasher, but before I start, I open the highest corner cabinet and consider my options: American Honey, Bailey's Irish Cream and Amaretto, Maker's Mark, or a glass or two of merlot

This is what I do now, but I used to hate alcohol, all kinds. I shook the cans Dad sent me to fetch to make them flat, Miller Lite cans he drank from then stepped on with the heel of his work boot, cans crunched and piled in a dumpster behind his shop after hours, into the evening, and on the weekends. Those nights when he finally came back to the house, Dad wrapped his strong arms around me and smiled. 

"I love you, Sare," he said, and I rolled my eyes. 

"I love you, too," I crooned, "Goodnight, Dad." 

And there was the drink that kept my grandma away on holidays (not feeling well), the drink that made the dad of the kids I babysat for pass out on the floor before driving me home down dirt back roads, the rum my mom said made her sob so she wouldn't drink it anymore, but it was all kinds, especially beer, that goat piss yellow. 

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I sneered and turned up my nose at my peers, the high school boys and girls who gathered around campfires at their parents' houses on weekends underage drinking and drinking and drinking. Here I am, now, sipping a generous pour of American Honey from a glass tumbler, sighing, alcohol warm down my throat.

* * *

I took to drinking malt beverages first because they tasted like liquid candy instead of the sour water of Millers, "fruit-flavored" wine coolers I could twist the bottle cap off and take a swig without a grimace. It started when I studied abroad in Australia for a semester my freshman year of college, where it was okay to drink at 18. I followed the rules. I obeyed the law. The Americans joined the Aussies in the merry, slightly startled looking party. Aussies know how to hold their alcohol. I hula hooped for a lemon Stolychnaya Ruski; it was paradise hot, the bar was open air, everyone sat at picnic tables, clapping, cheering, counting to ten as I hula hula hula won! This was the first drink I actually liked. I drank it down as if it was fair lemonade, pressed the rim of the glass against my lips. 

My boyfriend squeezed my waist, so proud of his girl and her hula, her smile, her empty bottle. Later, I lectured him about drinking. 

"It's just that, you're different when you drink," I said, the "I love you's" quicker, easier, just like my dad, just like him. 

"I'm not like your dad," he said and laughed, tipping back an amber bottle. 

I hated alcohol, I hated the way it burned a hole through the casing around a man's emotions so they could leak out uninhibited. I hated the way the hangover sealed tight whatever cracked the night before and coated it in bitters.  

Back home, Dad drank a six pack a day, at least. 

I drank just one. I was careful.

* * *

But this new boyfriend, this new man knew these things about me and didn't care whether I drank. By then, I didn't care—as much—either. My fiancé drank a beer on occasion, a bottle once in a while at a backyard party, something accompanying dinner. I slurped a strawberry daiquiri with my parents and brothers and husband-to-be at Pickle Bill's for my 21st birthday, where I snapped through and pulled out the meat from all-you-can-eat crab legs. 

Wait, did I even order an alcoholic beverage? Or was I still above a buzz, afraid to be under the influence, insistent I could have a fine time completely sober? And I could, absolutely I could, order whatever you want, I'll have a Pepsi instead.

* * *

"What do you mean, you are thinking about a dry wedding?" Dad said, voice rising in volume. Brandon worked at a Christian school and we weren't sure how it might be perceived if alcohol was served at our wedding. We were concerned about appearances. "We are not inviting all of our friends to a wedding that isn't going to serve alcohol. What kind of a party is that?" Dad said, red-faced, and I was quick to back down, okay, beer and wine but no liquor. Wine is fine but liquor is quicker, I thought to myself, but it doesn't matter; this was a Miller and Bud drinking crowd, not martinis or amaretto sours or straight up Jameson drinkers, like we will be, later. 

* * *

"Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery, but be filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit," I read, my NIV Study Bible weathered, its spine broken and pages noted, Ephesians verses underlined, "Sing and make music from the heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Amen. It's the Spirit alone I consumed, the Spirit that moved. But Brandon would drink, and when we went out to line dance, the bottles lined the bar. I gulped from a plastic cup of water, then surged back to the polished floor for another cha-cha and watched as my husband loosened up, and suddenly he wanted me, he was singing too loudly in my ear and swinging me tight around the dance floor.

Other nights, we met our friends at Boccasio's, a bar we didn't think any of the other believers would be and ordered our drinks in secret. It was karaoke night and Brandon belted out bar favorites—"You Never Even Call Me By My Name" by David Allan Coe, "The Fireman" by George Strait, "Live Like You Were Dying" by Tim McGraw, or maybe some Rolling Stones, Beatles, Elvis tunes, anything to get a rise from the crowd. I tried on Sara Evans's "Suds in the Bucket," which wasn't quite a "Tear in My Beer" but it was close. I was still sober, sober and insecure, but I sang the lyrics anyway.

I wrinkled my nose at all of the bottles, "Gross," I said, "I don't know how you drink this stuff." 

Instead, I tried white wines and sangrias. I tried margaritas. I tried daiquiris and sours and Long Island iced teas. I tried red wines, eventually, after the burnt oak flavor wore away and I had "acquired a taste" for this water-to-wine beverage, this merlot and sauvignon and shiraz, words I practiced pronouncing for the feel of them in my mouth, their tannins, their full-bodied flavor. I tried these drinks with friends whose palates were more sophisticated than mine. We drank one, or two, maybe three, and then I was laughing and speaking as one with authority, wit quick and sharp if just a little slurred. So this is why people drink, I thought.

* * *

I wondered how much is too much, whether drinking could be done with any control. Could it be simply enjoyed, with a little moderation? Was it ever okay to drink? Was it never okay to drink? Was it always okay to drink? My husband came home around one or two in the morning from singing at another karaoke night with friends. It was dark. I was startled. He shook me awake, I couldn't say no, I don't know how to stop, and I held him, and we stopped, for a while, we didn't drink, for a while. He remembered his alcoholic grandfather; I remembered my mom's Al-Anon book. It was whispering around the edges of our conversations—can we hold our alcohol, can we say no, do we know how to stop, are we dependent, alcoholism coursing through our genetic code?

* * *

After we left the Christian school bubble and arrived in a more moderate work world, after our crisis of church and hunt for an authentic community of believers—we wanted real people with real problems, people unafraid to drink together—Brandon and I sat at the bar in a New York City hotel and ate and drank. The waitress brought me my sour apple martini. I sipped it and ate and we laughed and felt shell-shocked but free, free, free of the two children under two that were back at home with our parents. My glass was empty and then we ordered another round that came late. 

"I'm so sorry, I forgot!" she said. "I'll bring you another round." We looked at each other and laughed—we were still in debt; it's on the house—and drank it up. 

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"I'm going to need your help," I giggled, drunk, for the first time so drunk, stupid drunk, lobby of the hotel spinning drunk, and Brandon propped me up tight against the earthquake. The earth trembled. He negotiated the distance between our booth and the elevator, then pressed the button, and I leaned, heavy against him, leaned, all the way to our room, and all I wanted was him. Immediately. 

I nibbled his ear. We shivered out of our clothes and into the bed with a splash of sheets and blankets rippling, rolling like waves in that king-size bed. The room spun and spun and spun and still nothing, still nothing, okay, okay, I thought, I'm tired now, enough, all I wanted was to sleep, so tired, so hot, so drunk, so drunk.

* * *

"Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink wine with a joyful heart," I read in my Bible again, this time from Ecclesiastes, "for God has already approved of what you do." I am still a good girl. I still obey the rules. We meet friends at a wine bar thirty minutes away and split a flight of wine—a flight, the way spirits rise and take wing, so free—and then split another flight again. We drink and drink, laugh and laugh and drink, eat a couple of flatbread pizzas and read the wine descriptions. Can you taste the tannins? We laugh. This is such a robust wine! We snicker, What is a tannin? We look it up on our phones, Google that shit! we shout and laugh but don't remember the definition later. Somehow, we all drive home. Somehow, we are not arrested. Somehow, I make it up the stairs, crawl up the stairs, one knee and hand in front of the other, laughing, laughing, woozy, spinning. 

"Just look at you, you're no good to me now," Brandon laughs a line from "That Thing You Do," and I groan and smile, crawl into my side of the bed.

* * *

That night in the campground while the fire crackled and our three children slept and we gathered with my parents around the campfire, Brandon brought me a drink—"I think you'll really like this," he said. I took a sip. It was sweet and warm going down, and strong. "Mmm, that's nice," I said, "What is it?"  

"American Honey."

"Mmm," I said, sipping again. Soon, I was standing and singing at the top of my lungs with my mom and dad while my husband strummed the guitar, singing to the night, singing to the sky, singing because we love to sing, we love this song, "THIS IS THE BEST SONG EVER!" we sang. We were so happy, so in love, so funny, so free, the fire dying, our glasses filled and refilled. 

* * *

We came to bourbon and whiskey together even though it's his friends who introduced them—Jack's okay but Maker's is better, Jameson, Jefferson's Reserve, Basil Hayden's, Elijah Craig, or Woodford Reserve all acceptable, desirable. He orders a double pour, neat. I like the heat on the back of my throat, the warm glow, tension loosened and then shed on the floor. I make a hot toddy when my throat's feeling sore—hot water over a shot of whiskey and a spoon of raw honey and suddenly my spirit is quiet. I smile over the edge of my mug and snuggle under the covers. We clink our glasses and sip. "Cheers!" 

It is warm here.

* * *

Brandon is on the road. This is my evening routine lately. I kiss the kids goodnight, gather up the cookware and silverware from dinner, unload the dishwasher, reload the dishwasher, wipe down the counters, and turn off the kitchen light. I have a seat on the couch in the living room and pop open my laptop or crack the spine of a book or flick through the movies I've DVRed, and write or read or watch TV, or all of those at once. And drink.

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By Sarah M. Wells

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