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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Drunks and Fools

by Alice Lowe

He’s Rocky,
Lost his Rudder,
Been too free with Sir Richard
Like a Rat in Trouble.
“A Man is Drunk” - Benjamin Franklin

Matty and I became close friends over the several years we lived next door to each other. We confided in one another about jobs, homes, families and friends during walks and over coffee. Matty was married and loved to hear about my ventures and misadventures as a thirty-something returned to the singles scene. She was apologetic about having only her marital woes to offer in return. Her son, Jaime, was a little younger than my daughter and liked to hang out at our house; he trailed Jennifer around like a pesky but adoring little brother. The holidays can fall a little flat for an only child with a single mother—turkey for two doesn’t spark joy—so we were happy to join Matty’s family for Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve dinners. Jennifer enjoyed the more festive familial atmosphere and Jaime’s companionship, while Matty’s pumpkin cheesecake and her mother’s cannoli are etched in my memory along with their kindness.
Matty’s husband, Frank, was a heavy drinker. I didn’t like him much even sober—he had that smug, know-it-all bravado that often masks insecurity and disillusionment. He would be on his best behavior at those holiday gatherings until later in the day or evening when the steady drinking brought out his worst. He was one of those mealy-mouthed drunks who get sappy and over-solicitous while thinking they’re being illuminating or entertaining.
I have an aversion to that syrupy manner—I’ve seen it in others too—it reminds me of my father. My dad was a solitary, secretive boozer. He never drank at home, so I would only see the after-effects. He used to put away any number of shots in the back room of his TV repair shop after closing up—“liquid courage” to help him face his family, or maybe himself. If he made it home for dinner, his attentions would be cloying, contrite like a dog that’s been rolling in shit: “How’s my sweet girl….” When he stumbled in late, I’d hear my mother yelling at him from behind my closed bedroom door: “If it wasn’t for the kids I wouldn’t put up with this….” He never raised his voice, never got ugly; he muttered feebly in response or withdrew into sullen silence. She was all talk—she would never leave him, and he knew it. His drinking tapered off some over the years, and they loped along together through her chronic illnesses until her death at sixty. He outlived her by thirty years and found a young second wife who doted on him and matched him drink for drink.
Unlike my dad, Matty’s husband would transition from silly or brooding to mean—critical, sarcastic, aiming for the jugular—as the evening wore on and his alcoholic intake kept pace. That’s when I would go home and play music or turn on the TV to avoid overhearing the shouting matches next door. Matty’s harangues were similar to those I heard from my bedroom as a child, but Frank wasn’t quiet or penitent; he got loud and belligerent. He often blamed his stepson and would lash out at him too, with little provocation. Jaime told Jennifer that Frank sometimes knocked him around when he was drunk. Matty and Frank fought about the boy, about money and who knows what else, but it usually came back to his drinking, and finally Matty said she’d had enough. She booted Frank out and told him he couldn’t come home until he sobered up, got into AA, and stayed on the wagon. Matty had gone through the worst of her pain and angst during the long buildup; once Frank was gone his absence didn’t leave much of a void. She and Jaime seemed happier on their own, at peace with life and each other.

They didn’t call them alcoholics when I was growing up, the workaday boozers who maintained jobs and relatively normal lives like my dad and Frank. Alcoholics were the dysfunctional, out-of-control drunks in “Days of Wine & Roses” and “Lost Weekend.” They were the derelicts on the street, drinking rotgut liquor sheathed in paper bags. We shook our heads and scurried past them, taking comfort in the adage that god protects or loves or suffers drunks and fools. When in my forties I saw a therapist about some emotional issues, she attributed the problems to my being an “ACA,” an adult child of an alcoholic. I didn’t find similarities to my situation in the literature she foisted on me, and I dismissed the simplistic (and trendy at the time) label. Hindsight doesn’t clarify whether my dad was an alcoholic or just an unhappy man, blotting out his despair with bourbon.

I started drinking in my early teens. A much-too-old boyfriend—nineteen to my fourteen—took me to drive-in movies, where we drank beer and made out. I exercised self-restraint and remained sufficiently sober and virginal throughout our brief summer fling; then he broke my heart by going back to a former girlfriend his own age. I hid my pain and found solace, or at least diversion, with a rowdy crowd of older kids. I drank to fit in, to be cool, to have fun. I retain murky booze-soaked memories of weekends that ran together in a swirl of parties, powering down too many rum and cokes, necking with too many guys, puking in bathrooms and back yards and out of car windows, driving home in a fog and living to tell about it through sheer luck, or maybe that divine protection extended to the undeserving (drunks and fools, perhaps one and the same).
After high school I moved into an apartment with friends, where the party life continued unabated, and I drank myself silly on weekends. I worked as a secretary at a fast-paced brokerage firm in La Jolla, back in the days of multi-martini lunches. For my twenty-first birthday some of the staff took me to the elite Whaling Bar at the La Valencia Hotel and told the bartender to bring me a martini—Beefeaters on the rocks with a twist—for my first legal drink. I’d been drinking there for the past three years, and we laughed in complicity as the bartender blanched.
“You’re just twenty-one today?” he asked.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m legal now.”
My husband and I met at a party. He wasn’t a big drinker, and I slowed down. We rarely drank at home after we married, but I invariably overindulged when we went out socially. I liked the feeling of being buzzed; I liked myself better and was less self-conscious, more outgoing. I wouldn’t dance when I was sober—too stiff and awkward—but after a few drinks I loosened up. One New Year’s Eve I got loaded and woke up with a miserable hangover the next day. Alcohol and cigarettes tasted wretched. I couldn’t face either for the next few weeks. It seemed like an excessive reaction, and I started to worry until the explanation dawned on me—I was pregnant. The risks of smoking and drinking during pregnancy weren’t on the public radar at the time, but my body was giving me a message. I stopped smoking and rarely drank from that time on.
I always saw myself as a social drinker, just having a good time. I never made a connection between my drinking and my father’s, never worried that I’d inherited his weakness or inclinations. The hereditary nature of alcoholism and addictive personality types weren’t talked-about issues then. I believe there’s a continuum of possible responses to each aspect of our upbringing, and we can land anywhere on it. We can adopt our parents’ behaviors out of habit, rebel and discard them, or do some of each. My mother had ulcers and cooked bland food—I might have followed suit, but I embraced spicy fare and creative seasoning when I started cooking for myself. I could have avoided liquor completely after observing my father’s drinking or I could have followed suit and become a serious boozer—I rejected both extremes. A liberal, artsy, pot-smoking friend once told me she worried that her daughter, needing something parental to rebel against, would become a right-wing religious businesswoman (she didn’t).

My husband was neither a drunk nor a fool, so the blanket of protection—the one that got me safely home in my teens—didn’t cover him. He didn’t drink much, and he couldn’t handle it when he did, a fact he refused to acknowledge (okay, just a bit of a fool). Once, coming home from a party he turned into a lane of oncoming traffic. I threatened to jump from the moving car if he didn’t pull over immediately and let me drive. There was no one close enough to get him in trouble that time, but a few years later, driving alone late at night, he careened head-on into a pickup truck, killing himself and a young woman driving the other vehicle. The tragic irony is that he’d been drinking with my dad that night—an amateur trying to keep up with the pro.
Addiction is a bona fide illness now, whether to alcohol or drugs, overeating, gambling, or sex, and we’re implored to have compassion for the afflicted. That stumbling drunk isn’t really an obnoxious or abusive beast—it’s the drink that makes him act that way. The devil is no longer responsible and nor is she; her addiction made her do it. Well, maybe, but I don’t accept that every lush is an alcoholic. And while I do understand the power of addiction, I’m inclined to believe it’s possible to rise above it, to battle and overcome the demons. I can cite examples, alcoholics who have been sober for years and years—they did it. I’ve been told that’s too simplistic a response to such a complicated issue. Well, maybe, but I’ll stick by my views.

My dad was a tippler to the end of his ninety years, always a little soppy when I saw him. I’d find him sipping watered-down vodka whatever the time of day, while his wife kept pace with Schaefer beer over ice, one after another.  An unhappy, taciturn, benign old sot—a steady infusion of drink seemed to be what got him through the days.
Frank was jolted into action when he realized what he stood to lose. He got sober, joined AA, went through a twelve-step program. After several months Matty let him move back home, but drunk or sober the damage was irreparable. Their marriage couldn’t be restored.
I’m zealous about health and fitness as I get older, so I limit myself to a glass of wine a night, two on the weekend ... a shared bottle of wine on special occasions … an infrequent margarita or Bloody Mary when I’m out. More is tempting—I still like the way liquor makes me feel—but I’m past any urge or risk of overindulging. I’ve seen the collateral damage.

Alice Lowe reads and writes about life and literature, food and family. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Crab Creek Review, The Millions, Permafrost, 1966, The Tishman Review, Upstreet, Hippocampus, and Lunch Ticket. She was a national award winner at City Works Journal and winner of an essay contest at Writing It Real. Alice is the author of numerous essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, including two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Wannabe Widows

by Susan Bonetto

I have had the great fortune of having four BFFs who have watched over and applauded my alternative life choices: Marrying a good-crazy, foreign born man eighteen years my senior, leaping off a professional career ladder in my early thirties to move to a Fijian island the size of a shopping mall, having our child when that staggering man, Oscar, was in his fifties and we lived simply in the ‘islands’, and moving internationally five times when Oscar’s whim or compass bearing changed course every few years.

These women followed more customary paths. Beth married young and never left our old northeast Milwaukee suburbs. She and Steve have had a solid caring relationship. Stacy moved to Chicago and then on to California for her husband, Jack’s, medical studies. Later, they settled in Madison. Heather, my best college friend, recently celebrated thirty-five sweet years married to Mark, moving up and down the West Coast, as his Finance jobs require. And finally there’s Anna who, like me, married a man many years older, but, unlike me, lives the American dream with Ben and their two young children in New York.

No matter where I went or what I did these past many years these four faithful souls and I kept in close touch via letters, e-mails, calls, and visits. Best friends provide love and support throughout a lifetime but never did I realize the depths of their backing until Oscar was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a big, bewildering word for terminal cancer. Each buttressed me in distinct ways during the three-and-a-half-years that he was ill—more frequent calls, surprise visits, cards, unnecessary offers of money, and guidance for me when I pretended to be a single parent to a developing teenage boy while his father’s presence faded.

When Oscar died they each threw out longer lifelines. Beth and her family met Alejandro and me at the Milwaukee airport when we travelled ‘home’ for a visit one-month post-death. They took us bowling and filled us with comfort foods and ice cream. During that same visit Stacy took time off from work to sit with me and let me cry while Jack whisked Alejandro off to the University of Wisconsin basketball finals. Some months later Heather accompanied me to Fiji so that I could have grieving time in the place where our son was born and magnificent memories live. Anna took us in for two months when life dealt another blow and my lovely son needed brain surgery.

A year of intense pain passed. I moved with and through it. I existed with no plans and a limited life. I focused on my son’s rehabilitation, bits of work and walks to my favorite cafĂ© in the company of my Boxer pup. Within the open wound, strangers, as well as men whom Oscar and I counted as friends, sometimes threw salt, asking me out without reading the signs that I was completely uninterested. But, a new dawn crept up and, after months of aloneness, one or two days appeared when I inadvertently found myself checking out a passing guy or returning a glance. My body pushed my mind towards something I’d had with my husband and always enjoyed—connections with men. And, so I gradually came to interact lightly with those delightful creatures again.

As this transition ensued I, of course, shared, my novel and odd thoughts and events with my friends. They knew everything—initially, how continually pissed off I was with most men who tried to engage me in conversations. Much later, long before I admitted or accepted it, they registered the days when seedlings sprouted under the snow, and my mind opened up to the warmth of an approaching new season. I related when I had a lengthy chat with someone at my sports club, shared a coffee, the time when I visited with the kind spirit seated next to me on a plane who then invited me to the VIP lounge during our joint layover, and the first evening when I went out for dinner with ‘just a friend’. They questioned me about how I felt before, during, and after, what I wore, what we discussed, if there was any glimmer of romance, and, most of all, if I was all right. For several months I kept them apprised of my feelings, sometimes wailing for what Oscar’s disappearance had caused, once pissed off at having wasted an evening with a jerk, occasionally hopeful of seeing someone again who appeared warm and thoughtful.

Though I felt tinges of enjoyment in my brief outings, my girlfriends oftentimes acted more eager for fuller experiences than I desired.  

“How’s it going? Is he a keeper?” Stacy texted, in the midst of my second coffee with Mike. To me, it was just a coffee visit with a pleasant guy.

Anna called as I left for a dinner out with the ‘just a friend’ and teasingly asked, ‘Do you have on your pretty, matching Victoria Secret bra and panties? Be sure to call me on your way home, regardless of the time!” I assured her it was ‘just dinner’ and I didn’t seek anything more.

Whenever I expressed doubt, confusion, or more anger at my new, undesired status, each friend encouraged me onward. Heather offered the adage “Live in the moment and just try to have fun.”

Beth listened to my fury one day and turned the conversation on its heels. “Listen to me, Susie! Oscar would want you to continue living life to its fullest.”

Anna continually encouraged “Just focus on some sexual adventures. You’ve said you would like some sex but nothing else. Go for it!”

At times I regretted allowing them access to the tiny advances my heart was taking as they were running faster than me. I felt like the teenage girl who matures more slowly than her best friend and the friend keeps encouraging her to go to second or third base with boys before she is prepared.

My friends apparently now wish they were me. They’ve moved beyond vicarious titillations. They discuss their lives and relationships monochromatically but then, when we move on to my life they light up, like it’s Christmas morning. I’m the starring role in their favorite romantic movie. Their eyes sparkle; their lips let out small explosive breaths as I speak about the man I am now seeing, Jose, and our beginning moments.

Beth asked with a coy smile, “Do you feel like you’re cheating on Oscar? You are so lucky in a way that you can have these experiences.”

Stacy shyly murmured, “How I wish for some ‘first-times’ again! First glance, first touch, first date. It must be mind-blowing!”

Anna wanted as many sexual details as I was willing to proffer: “Did you really stay up all night? And, was the first time great or were you nervous? Were the second and third times better?” Ben, who later heard the details from Anna, uttered “Wow! We need a night like that again. Or two!”
I adore these women. They are goddesses to me. But their notions leave me troubled and empty. Their spouses and partners are alive and healthy yet they mourn an existence they can still possess. My forever love suffered terribly for years and left our teenage son and me flailing. Have they forgotten that Oscar and I were still handholding devotees when he died? Don’t they remember how he adored me? That he was it for me? What’s happening at their hearths? Why aren’t they buoyantly living with their one and onlys? Why aren’t they celebrating the gift of extra time? They chose these men and have elected to stay in these partnerships. Are they letting things slide? Why aren’t they gushing with appreciation, if not rapture? I want them to understand that new romances and relationships do not replace a solid foundation laid twenty or more years back.

I do continue on. That’s what one does when there is no alternative. But, I live with a hollowness inside that no one will fill and I will mourn for Oscar for the remainder of my days. He died more than two years ago and, yet, my tears run as I write this story. Grief doesn’t end; it only changes into an ebb and flow. In one of those ebb tides happiness recently rediscovered me. It caught me unawares in my habitual cafe. Jose is another regular who, like me, is never without a book. Like all coffee shop regulars, we’d nodded our hellos for years. Recently he passed by and softly said that he bought my coffee that morning. And, I let him sit down. Anna, Heather, Stacy or Beth can tell you the rest. In great detail. Along with oohs and aahs.

I get that it makes them feel better to think of me coming round, maybe finding new love. They can worry less about their best friend now. But, they shouldn’t want to be me. To feel that I am fortunate? Wishing for widowhood? Thinking how special it would be to have my prospect at second chances?

Widowhood was not a choice and is not an opportunity. I don’t, but I want to advise them, “Be careful what you wannabe.”

Susan Bonetto grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin before moving to California where she met and married an extraordinary man, Oscar, who encouraged her to live abroad (with him) and travel as far and wide as possible. While living in Fiji, their now twenty-two-year old, son, Alejandro, was born. Susan has been fortunate to have lived in the U.S., Fiji, The Philippines, and Argentina and travelled to more than thirty countries. Now widowed, she continues to work as a global Human Resources Consultant. One of her Fiji stories, “Before We Lived Barefoot” won second place in’s 2014 Narrative Travel Writing Essay Contest, another was published here in 2014 and this year she was a finalist in the 40th New Millennium Writings Non-Fiction Literary contest.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Swim Away, Little Ghost

by Dawn Corrigan
I know as little about the nature of romantic love
as I knew when I was eighteen, but I do know about
the deep pleasure of continuing interest, the
excitement of wanting to know what somebody else
thinks, will do, will not do, the tricks played and
unplayed, the short cord that the years make into rope …
—Lillian Hellman on Dashiel Hammett

Sundin Richards, a Utah poet, committed suicide on June 19, 2015. He was forty-two years old.
I knew a different Sundin than everyone else did. I know how that sounds, but I persist in believing it’s true.
When Sundin was around other people—even at his most sober and self-deprecating and charming—there was always some discomfort and anxiety that, more often than not, manifested as hostility. Even in those lucky moments when it was only a trickle, the hostility remained.
When we were alone, though, he was different. Oh, not always. Sometimes, when he wasn’t feeling well, I got the same sardonic jerk everyone else did. But when he was relaxed and comfortable, it was a different story.
That’s why I was able to be patient with friends and family when, in the aftermath of our breakup, they would say things like, “I never really got you and Sundin.”

After Sundin asked me to move out, people let me know what they thought of him by telling me I’d find somebody else, which ultimately turned out to be true, of course, but at the time I found it jarring. “Maybe you’ll meet somebody else, who knows?” my grandmother said, a startling betrayal, since she’d always professed to like Sundin and in fact had carried out an outrageous phone flirtation with him throughout the four years we lived together.
Dawn Corrigan and Sundin Richards
Relationships always involve a private component and a public one. For some of us, the public component is more important; for others the private is paramount.
I have no interest in a public life. Or maybe what I mean is, I’m perfectly fine carrying out my public life on my own. When it comes to relationships, I care about what happens at home.
Sundin knew how to spackle.
When, near the end of our time together, I bought a 1968 Chrysler New Yorker—my early mid-life-crisis car—and on the third day it rained and I couldn’t get it started, and I went inside and cried, Sundin went out to the car and started it right up.

When Sundin and I met in 1998, he’d been devastated by life. Frequently, in those early days, after a bunch of beers he’d become weepy. He’d cover his head with the thin white blanket I kept on the bed, so he looked like a Halloween ghost.
“Little Ghost,” I’d say, “why don’t you come out and tell me about it.”
When we slept, he’d wrap his limbs around me and cling like a drowning man. I’d never had anyone hold me so tightly. It was easy to envision that he really was drowning, and I was swimming him to shore.
I have to admit, I liked it. I liked being needed so much. But of course my goal, right at the outset, was to make Sundin stronger, so that later, when he was, when he swam away, what right did I have to complain?

Dawn Corrigan has published poems and prose in a number of print and online journals. Her debut novel, Mitigating Circumstances, an environmental mystery, was published by Five Star/Cengage in January 2014. Currently, she's working on a family saga set in southern Italy, Hell's Kitchen, and South Jersey. She lives in Gulf Breeze, FL.