Christmas Presents

By Roger D’Agostin

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I’d been sober for five years when I relapsed.  Something like five and two months.  You probably think that’s some shit.  But it’s not.  When you’re in the rooms you hear it all the time – seven, seventeen, thirty-two.  Sometimes you hear someone say if I was only three years sober or five years, I would have gone out and drank, I would’ve had a grand old pity party.  But I’ve been through enough the past twenty years that I know I’ll get through this.  Honestly, you don’t hear that that much.  People disappear.  Then so-and-so saw them at a bar.

I always hated Christmas.  I remember when I was thirteen.  I wanted this Lego set and I went with my mom to the store so she would buy the exact one I wanted, but once we got there I knew I couldn’t have it.  It was on the top shelf in this big box, which didn’t look big in the flyer, but when you went to the store it was the biggest one.  I didn’t ask.  I just chose another one.  Still, I had to wait for Christmas and I kept thinking that maybe she fooled me and went back to the store and bought the big one.  But she didn’t and I knew it when I saw the box underneath the tree.  I remember after I unwrapped it how I stared at the box and my mom said, that’s the one you picked, remember?  I still played with it, but it didn’t satisfy whatever it is a present’s supposed to satisfy.

Anyhow, five years and two months since my last drink, a week before Christmas I started getting really foul.  My dad was in the hospital and in a terrible way I was sort of glad because that gave me an excuse to not be jolly and not get all that holiday shit – presents, cards, decorating – done.  I mean I still had to shop for my daughter, Lilly, but she was fifteen and told me exactly what to buy. 

But then my ex calls and asks if Lilly could fly out to visit me on Christmas Eve because she planned to spend Christmas to New Year’s with her fiancé in Mexico.  “It’s our honeymoon engagement,” she giggled over the phone, before getting down to the exact purpose of her call – Lilly needed somewhere to stay. 

I was more than happy to have her, even with everything going on with my dad, and even when my ex ended our conversation with, “Thanks.  But you really only get to do this once, you know.” 

The irony is that my ex was right.  Lilly is my only child.  The first ten years of her life I was either drunk, hung-over, or absent.  The eleventh, my wife divorced me.  By then I had three DUIs, a drunk and disorderly, and a vandalism charge because I was pissing on the side of a church and the pastor was kind enough to drop the public intoxication charge.  But he still appeared at my sentencing and told the judge, no one should piss on a church, drunk or sober.  That didn’t help my case, especially when he added I could have pissed on a tree three feet to the left. 

My exes lawyer read that statement to the judge.  He felt the need to read it twice, before and after he listed my arrests.  The second time I blurted, “I’ve attended AA meetings for two weeks straight, your honor.  And I have all fifteen papers signed.”  I held the crumpled strips like they were lottery tickets.

“And have you remained sober?” The judge asked.

“No, sir,” I replied, too loud, proud of my honesty, suddenly no longer the thirty-something-year-old who could still drink like a frat boy, but the bloated aftermath.

I don’t know if I expected him to belittle or scold me.  But I know I didn’t expect a soft, sorry and hope that I found sobriety.  He added that the court might be able to assist in this matter.  I think his reply stunned me more than my wife being granted full custody, and me, limited visitations with a counselor present.  That was the first day of my five-plus years.

***

Since then my life has not become better than I could have ever anticipated.  It’s better because I haven’t been arrested or had my license revoked or forgotten where I’ve parked my car that I shouldn’t be driving shitfaced anyway or have to try to figure out what lies I told my mom last night.  I never think where am I when I wake up, and sometimes, more than I’d liked to admit, I am thankful I didn’t drink the night before.  But I still don’t have joint custody and only see Lilly once a year, sometimes twice.  We’re on a perpetual first date.  She changes so much each time I see her.  I’m like a distant uncle picking her up from the airport and trying to make conversation until she is around her real relatives. 

This time was no different.  I picked her up without much of a hassle at the airport, didn’t say a word about her hair color, or try to force conversation when she slumped into the car, plugged in her airbuds and focused on her phone.  My sponsor told me to remember to take it easy.  “Don’t expect too much.  And call me if you need anything.”

I found myself mumbling those words and jumped when Lilly asked me what I was doing.  I told her I was singing along to the Christmas songs on the radio and she said, Oh, and plugged her airbuds back in. 

***

I should mention that I started having drunk dreams.  I’ve always had them but that December, they invaded my sleep every night.  Once, I walked into the kitchen sweating and thought I had to pour out the rest of the vodka before my bender got any worse, and suddenly realized I didn’t have to piss and I wasn’t hungover.  No dry mouth, no nausea.  But it still took me a few minutes to realize I hadn’t drank.  It was weird.

Maybe that was the moment it fell apart.  At a meeting they told me it was stress, percolating for months with my sick father and then my daughter coming to visit.  I was lying to myself thinking everything was fine.  But I don’t know.  I have my own theory.  I think there are cells in my body that really want to drink.  They’ve always been there and always will be.  And when I start drinking they get more cells to join and pretty soon all of them are on board with the drinking thing.  It’s a party.  But most of the cells aren’t like the first cells.  Kind of like in college when everyone gets drunk.  The party starts and everyone thinks, hey what the hell.  Next, you think you know someone’s puking in the bathroom and there are strangers having sex in your room and your buddy wants to streak.  But once the party stopped the manipulated cells decided they were sick of being dried out and miserable and embarrassed and this sober thing isn’t so bad.  They keep the fucked up cells apart.  Sure, every so often a few of the drunk cells get together and romanticize about the good old days but the sober cells kind of get in between the slobs and the urge goes away.

But that Christmas Eve too many convened and no one interrupted them. 

I had tried to make some Tilapia with rice for dinner – a weak take on the seven fishes theme – when Lily told me she was a vegan and the smell made her nauseous.  She took some rice back to her room, so I ate dinner alone while I tried to air out the kitchen.  Then I turned on the TV but I kept flipping through the channels and looking at the hallway hoping Lilly would come out and sit on the couch.  She had become an indoor cat that was always scooting around corners and hiding in the room you’re not in.  I decided to make hot chocolate even though Lilly didn’t want any and thought I’d drive around the neighborhood and look at the decorated houses to make myself feel good.

***

The stoplights were what killed me.  If they hadn’t been red and the liquor stores weren’t there.  Seeing those people go in and come out with shopping carts and bags of alcohol, laughing and smiling.  I thought, why am I the only one that has to stay sober? 

I rationalized this was my present to myself but I didn’t need much rationalizing.  I got home and checked Lilly’s room to make sure she was sleeping and then I sat in the same chair I always sat in when I drank and stared at the TV.  I watched one garbage reality show after another and even stared at the yuletide log on public access for a good while thinking about how Christmas should be: a fire, wool cardigan, slippers, dad drinking expensive bourbon from a proper glass, a thick book.  Then I watched some religious show and the guy was saying that we shouldn’t buy Christmas presents but make something for our relatives.  He said the best present he ever received was this letter his dad wrote and he started reading it right there on television and I thought that’s what I should do.  I should write a letter to my daughter.  So I got out some paper and sat down and wrote and wrote how much she meant to me and how beautiful and special she was and then instead of putting it in an envelope I got an actual box and wrapped it up with a bow.  I even found some glitter and sprinkled it on.

That’s about all I remember.  That and I didn’t have the drunk dream.  I didn’t dream at all.  I woke up with a dry mouth and headache and it took me a minute to realize it was Christmas morning. 

I called my sponsor.  He answered on the first ring and said, “You need to go to a meeting.  Should I pick you up?”  I told him I’d be ready in a half-hour. “Be outside.”  I didn’t get a chance to tell him I slipped, but he knew.  So I went into the bathroom to shower and when I came out I saw Lilly standing over her presents with my letter in her hands.  My head throbbed.  I stared at her back.  I couldn’t see if her airbuds were in.

“This is nice.”  She turned and said.  “This letter.  It’s nice.  Hard to read your handwriting and I don’t know about this wrapping job.”  I noticed her nails.  She has my mother’s hands.  Certainly not her mom’s.  Her mom could never grow nails.  They were stubby and she was always trying to grow them but they bent back and never looked right.  Then they broke.

“I have to go to a meeting.”

“Oh.”  She looked surprised.

“But I’ll be back in an hour.”

“OK.”  She looked down at the letter again.  “OK.”

***

“Well, you write another one.”  That’s what my sponsor said.  “Honesty.  Be honest with her.  You tell her you slipped and you wrote the letter drunk and you write another one and give it to her.”  I argued that maybe the letter was really good and I should leave things well enough alone. 

“She said it was nice.”

He shook his head and said he wasn’t talking about it anymore.  “And you need to share all this shit at the meeting,” he added.  Which of course I didn’t want to do.  That was the worst.  Even when people came up to you afterward and gave you their number and told you you could beat this disease and hugged you.  It made your slip up that much worse. 

I wondered if it was better not to go.  Leave it at that.  Get out of the car and walk home.  Maybe the letter I wrote was really good and the next few days with Lilly would be better and better.  Maybe we’d make plans to see each other in a few months.

“Look, I know this isn’t easy.”  My sponsor said when we reached the church.  “I slipped too.  A lot of us have.  But you have to keep trying.”

***

Lilly was in her room when I returned from the meeting.  I checked myself in the car and my eyes didn’t look too bad, but I still wanted to splash some water on my face.  I didn’t want Lilly to ask if I had been crying.  Thankfully, I heard her talking in her bedroom when I passed.  The loud no made me stop.  I leaned against the door and heard her saying, “It was really sweet, mom.  He wrote how much he loved me and wished he had been there for me.  A few sentences were impossible to read.  No.  No.  He hasn’t been drinking-“

That’s when I made my decision.  I wasn’t lying.  I was holding off.  Just for the week.  Next Christmas I’d write another letter.  Tell her everything.  But not today. 

About Roger D’Agostin

Roger D’Agostin is a writer living in Connecticut. His most recent work has appeared in Fiction SouthEast, Pif Magazine, and Spelk. He is currently working on a book of short stories.

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