Down and Out in Habersham

Drowning out a pandemic with alcohol.

William Torrey | Longreads | May 2022 | 22 minutes (6,162 words)

For Matt McAuliffe

I

Sometime during what I hoped would be the end of the pandemic, I found myself hungover and alone in my front yard, sweating as I stared at the piles of crap I had to cram into our Subaru, piles that would somehow cohere into our temporary new life. “Fuck me,” I said. “And fuck this.” My family and I were leaving for the summer, but not by choice. I work at a boarding school. Which is a win mostly — free house, no commute — but sometimes not. Like when a virus wreaks havoc on a global scale and we’re forced to vacate so the school can fast-track renovations while the students are gone. 

“I hear the Torreys are moving,” a colleague said, a little too cheerfully, when he saw me on my walk. (In those early COVID days, as my wife and I struggled to work without childcare, I burned hours marching in circles with my kids in the stroller.)

“Not exactly,” I said through my mask. The man’s eyebrows arched.

“They’re installing central air,” I explained. “So we’re moving now, then coming home in August to move back in.”

“Well,” he shrugged, “at least you’ll have A/C.”

“But we also have to move. Twice. In three months. With two kids. All while the world is falling apart.”

“Strange times,” he said. “But you’ll survive.”

***

But complain though I did about the move, I knew deep down I needed a change. Late in 2019, my wife and I had become parents for the second time, and after a long paternity leave, during which I celebrated my younger son being much easier than his brother by blasting Marlboro Reds and pounding cheap pinot noir, I decided to see if I could stop drinking. Shockingly, I could. All through January, as the booze worked its way from my system, I felt reborn. I lost weight. My skin glowed. People kept saying there was light in my eyes. By February, I marveled at why I’d blown years getting wasted in the first place. Why had I been so keen to embarrass myself, to black out and barely remember the nights I’d been dying to enjoy? And what was this feeling I was feeling? Then I realized it was joy — or at least the absence of shame. When you’re not constantly hungover, it turns out, the world’s a kinder place. 

“I like this,” my wife told me as we sat up chatting in bed.

“Yeah,” I said, “me too.”

And so began the thinking of big thoughts. While I bathed my sons or stayed up late reading, I swallowed a sad truth I’d known for a very long time. I was an alcoholic. While my friends all had bad nights, for me it was different. I was always drinking almost normally, then abnormally, then insanely and then, after making a supreme ass of myself, I’d rein it in, only to begin the cycle again. The idea of saying goodbye was scary, but I already had two months under my belt. All I had to do was keep going. 


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But then I turned 35 and got smashed drunk. The night was unremarkable. My wife and I sipped drinks while watching the BBC’s Normal People. She quit after a few glasses of rosé, but I plowed through Negronis until I passed out. In the days after, as the liquor re-adhered to my psyche and I struggled to reckon with my choice to get fucked up, the news all at once became all about COVID. One day, Trump banned travel from Europe. On another, New York friends called to talk through plans of escape. Soon after, we were all in the middle of a Global Pandemic. 

Somewhere in all this, I found myself at Costco with a T-shirt on my face. My wife had sent me in search of diapers and wipes and, hopefully, a gigantic pallet of toilet paper, but there I was, as if by magic, alone in the liquor department, filling my huge shopping cart with alcohol, and not just the normal haul of tallboys and budget wine — multiple handles of whiskey and gin. What the fuck am I doing, I thought as a sad-looking lady rang me up. But then of course I knew: I was leaning into the worst of my instincts, telling myself without telling myself that if the world didn’t have to play by the rules, neither did I.

***

My days collapsed into a parade of hangovers so bad I wanted to die. Each morning, after waking in agony and bearing a barrage of anger from my wife, I did what I could to make breakfast for my kids and not suffer a total meltdown as they turned our kitchen into a shithouse of cereal and yogurt. And then, somehow, unshowered and in the middle of a five-alarm headache, I’d barricade myself in my bedroom, often with a baby on my lap, skim poems by Marie Howe and Adrienne Rich and do what I could to inspire my students to be anything more than what the pandemic had rendered them: depressed and shell-shocked little thumbnails, too naive to see how booze-whipped I was and too good-natured to do anything as reasonable as bitch, but kids who’d nonetheless devolved from pupils I adored into another obstacle between waking and drinking. 

“How was class?” my wife asked.

I gave her a dead-eyed stare as I put the boys in the stroller, thinking all the while: Must. Stop. Destroying. Self. 

***

When night fell and my kids were asleep, I’d practically vibrate at the notion of getting drunk. I knew how to mix a drink, of course, but I also knew I’d need six drinks to feel (or not feel) the way I wanted to. I also knew that my wife’s patience would never abide that many. But two — that could be done. So I made my first as strong as three.

Most often I drank in a plastic chair in my front yard. As another day faded, I marveled at life’s strangeness. In the span of a month, I’d burned down my nascent sobriety and watched the pendulum swing so hard that, as a 35-year-old father of two, I was drinking more than I had as a college frat boy. My community had vanished — either strictly sequestered or gone entirely — and campus felt like purgatory. 

Sometimes I’d FaceTime friends, making light of how drunk I was, the fucked-up state of the world. But mostly I gazed at the branches of a chestnut tree, watching as another evening fell to black, my brain all the while making sad calculations. How long would the pandemic last? Would I lose my job? Myself? Could all this drinking destroy my marriage? And you could just stop, I thought. Be a good husband and dad and teacher and resume your personhood. That option remained. But so did the other one, the one where I kept pushing, the one where I pretended this wouldn’t only get worse. Besides, my drink was empty. If I got up to make another quickly enough, my wife would never know about the first one.

***

By Easter, I was coming apart. After trying in vain to dye brown eggs and watching my older son lose it when he learned he couldn’t eat all the candy in his basket in one sitting, I put on my Mizunos, blasted Fiona Apple — “That’s where the pain comes in/like a second skeleton!” — and made for the school’s trails. Summer was coming, and as I jogged past groves of walnut trees, I made myself believe I’d be OK. Once we escaped to Habersham, South Carolina, the posh community where my wife’s parents and aunts and uncles had all retired, and our COVID destination, our problems would be solved. I’d be born again in the Southern heat, not sober, but sober-adjacent. My in-laws would help with the kids, I’d get some writing done, we’d spend afternoons by the pool, and the evenings would be a pleasant carousel of single malt scotch and peel-and-eat shrimp.

While my friends all had bad nights, for me it was different. I was always drinking almost normally, then abnormally, then insanely and then, after making a supreme ass of myself, I’d rein it in, only to begin the cycle again.

Rounding a bend in the trails, I made out a lone figure: the school’s French teacher, who I hadn’t seen in months. As I called her name, she turned and shrank. “Oh, Will,” she said, “you scared me.” She’d just come back from New York, where friends and family had contracted COVID. A few had even been put on ventilators. 

“Jesus,” I said. 

“Yeah. They might, like, actually die.” 

When she asked about my family, I wasted no time in lashing out at the school for making us move, at Trump for mishandling the plague, at the drudgery of teaching on Zoom. As I got more and more riled, I could see in her eyes a glimmer of alarm. Earlier in the fall, my wife and I had hosted her for duck à l’orange and too much wine, and we stayed up past midnight trading stories and cracking up. Now I was a bloated derelict shouting into the wind. 

“And my drinking,” I said. “Every day I tell myself to stop. But I can’t. I sit alone and drink myself into oblivion.”

“Oh,” she said.

“Sorry,” I said. “I just – ”

“No, no. It’s okay. I just think you’ve gotta get rid of the alcohol. Just get all the bottles and pour them down the drain.”

“Right,” I said.

Back home, I told my wife in my most solemn tone I was done drinking.

“For how long?” 

“Forever — or at least until the world goes back to normal.”

That night, as we set the table for lamb chops, I walked into the kitchen and uncorked a bottle of red.

***

And this was just the way life was. 

For a hundred days, as a murderous virus floated through the air, I drank myself into a hole. But the time to move finally arrived. The Subaru was packed. All that lay between now and a better life was 700 miles of I-95. 

As I locked the car, another colleague passed, this time the school’s biology teacher. 

“South Carolina tomorrow?” she asked.

“Come hell or COVID-19.”

She smiled and turned but stopped. “Say, did you hear about that woman down in Kiawah?”

“No. What happened?” 

The biology teacher shook her head. “Eaten by a gator.”

 

II

The heat. 

After 11 hours barreling down the interstate, past Capitol Harbor, past South of the Border, past two enormous Confederate flags, and stopping just once to piss in the parking lot of a Walmart in Bumfuck, North Carolina, driving on and on with two kids drunk on Benadryl and Sour Skittles, the noise of Raffi blaring all the while — after all that, what I remember is the heat. 

All-enveloping. Time-stopping. Like a blanket of ennui.

We’re here, I thought, and as soon as I got out, crunching the gravel behind our townhouse, I felt the sharp sense that nothing would change. 

***

On our first morning, after a night alone drinking rum in the bathtub, I loaded the boys and set out on an hours-long march. My older son marveled at the new terrain: oak trees draped in Spanish moss, camelia and foxtail ferns, the ground alive with lizards and crabs. 

Somewhere along the way, a fat old man buzzed up in a golf cart.

“Y’all be careful now,” he said, nodding to one of the man-made ponds. “Momma gator up the way. Extra territorial.”

“What did he say?” my son asked. 

“Nothing. Everything’s fine.”

We strolled past the pool and along the marsh. We listened to egrets and professional power washers, readying rich people’s homes for the summer, stopping now and then simply to marvel at this place, our swampy little hideaway in the Low Country, half a nation away from the cold desolation that had been our lot. Where was COVID here, I wondered. Even the notion of it seemed like a myth. People down here didn’t even wear masks.

On our way back to the townhouse, we crossed a footbridge. I waved to two teens fishing, and their eyes went wide. Before I could think, my head swiveled to a patch of grass, where an enormous alligator basked and stared at my children. How long would it take, I wondered, for this beast to steal my kids? Ten seconds? Five?

“Careful,” one boy said.

“Yeah,” I told him, “thanks.”

***

Habersham was to be a happy place. It was not. 

My wife and I were on the edge of a meltdown, and the change in scenery we’d hoped would fix us had only made things worse. Within days, after we’d worked to turn the half-furnished home of a family friend into our short-term crash pad, I began to realize that, just as I’d fashioned a secret fantasy for the summer — one wherein I kept drinking without consequences — so, too, had my wife. Only her secret fantasy had been me getting my shit together.

Everything would’ve been better had we made time to talk, but instead we lashed out. My wife screamed at me for half-assing the assembly of our new bed. I shouted at her for always being on edge. My wife screamed at me for making too many big drinks. I shouted at her for always picking fights. 

At the end of our first week, after putting the kids to bed, she found me slouched at the granite island, drinking a Double Manhattan. 

“You fucking drunk!” she screamed, eyes bright. “Just sitting here getting smashed!” 

I thought of the neighbors — an old couple who, unsure of COVID etiquette, had welcomed me to the block with a fist bump. If she shouted any louder, they might call the cops.

“The only time we have to breathe,” she went on, “the only time we have to think, and you’re just down here knocking yourself out!”

I’d like to say I poured out my drink. I’d like to say I said sorry. But what I did instead was scream back. Instead we yelled until our faces burned and then sat in silence at a bistro table on the porch, pushing pesto salmon and orzo around in utter silence. What happened was my wife went to bed early, and I stayed up getting drunk. 

***

With the help of my wife’s parents, we resumed our lives. In the mornings, my in-laws braved the heat and took the boys on walks so I could write and my wife could work. In the afternoons, during naptime, I went for runs and ran errands while my wife sat on Zoom. In the hours before bed, we loaded the stroller with floaties and beers and walked to the pool, where rich retirees basked in the sun. My in-laws came over for dinner, and most nights, I held myself together, at least while they were there. 

***

One night, alone and drunk, my phone lit with news that a woman in Minneapolis had filmed a cop killing a Black man. I told myself not to watch, but in the stillness of the screened-in porch, I felt paralyzed to do much else. I clicked the link and sipped warm gin, the liquor humming through me as I watched this man’s whole being slacken from anger to fear to resignation and then death. 

I set down my phone and stared at the fan. Slowly spinning and spinning.

I watched the reel again.  

***

Days later, as we strolled to the pool, my wife’s brother called to say our sister-in-law was in labor with our second niece. As I lounged in the cold water, greased in sunscreen and sipping IPAs, I couldn’t stop seeing them in that delivery room, my sister-in-law doing what people had done for all eternity: pushing a living person out into an uncertain world. Only now the world was less certain than ever. When would I get to meet this baby? Would she be healthy? Would COVID ruin her entire childhood?

For a hundred days, as a murderous virus floated through the air, I drank myself into a hole. But the time to move finally arrived. The Subaru was packed. All that lay between now and a better life was 700 miles of I-95.

That evening we sat on my in-laws’ porch, sipping French chardonnay and doing our best to answer these questions, doing our best, I think, not to feel lucky that our own kids had been born before this started. 

As the sun fell into the trees by the marsh, we said good night and made for the stroller. But just as we turned, we heard a strange noise — a dull thud, a crashing. I cut my eyes in time to see what I was sure was a rolled-up rug landing after a toss down a porch staircase.

“Is that a person?” my mother-in-law asked.

“No,” I said, but then I saw that it was: an old lady moaning on the ground.   

*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.

As my mother-in-law and I ran over, I remembered who she was. Elaine,* a reclusive drinker, who — apart from lashing out at members of Habersham’s yard crew or leaving terse notes on illegally parked cars, as she’d once done to mine — was essentially a hermit. Just a lonesome old woman waiting things out.

She was an injured animal when we got to her, a little ball of pain in the grass. It was 90 degrees out, yet she wore slippers, sweatpants, and a thick cotton top.

She reached for my arm. “I was just putting out repellent!”

“Repellent?”

“For the deer!”

“We better call an ambulance,” my mother-in-law said.

“No, no. Just get me back inside.”

The light caught her face then, and when my gaze met hers, I watched a hematoma over her eyebrow balloon from a marble to a golf ball.

“You’re hurt,” I said. “Maybe badly.”

“I was just putting out the repellent!”

My mother-in-law looked at her neighbor. “Elaine, would it be all right if Will carried you in?”

I hoisted Elaine’s hundred pounds over my shoulder and climbed the stairs down which she’d just tumbled, the stairs that, had she fallen differently, might’ve killed her. Elaine’s clothes were stained and filthy. Her toenails gnarled and black. When I got her back in, I understood the warm clothes. The thermostat was so low that the sweat on my body became a sheet of ice, and as I laid her on the couch, I shivered.

While my mother-in-law sussed out whether it was safe to leave Elaine, I took in the room. White sofa and loveseat, high-end and pristine. A beautiful glass table spread thick with Southern Living and House Beautiful. And there at center stage, before the couch that served as the setting for most of her life, was a huge plastic cup brimming with white wine.

“Do you know what day it is?” I asked.

She did.

“Do you know who the president is?”

She did.

The hematoma grew bigger. Elaine thanked me again and again, but I knew deep down she was mortified. She just wanted us to leave so she could get back to drinking — to black out and forget all this happened. “You call me,” my mother-in-law told her. “If your head starts hurting, we’ll get you to the hospital.”  

As we marched home, my mother-in-law was silent.

“I just can’t believe it,” I said. “I mean, to give your life over to booze like that. It … it’s — ”

“A shame.”  

“Yes,” I said. 

Then I went home and got drunk.

***

We trudged through the days.

In the mornings, I wrote stories about alcoholic teachers and went for long runs. I read novels by Philip Roth and James Salter and Michael Chabon. In the evenings, we watched the boys swim and shot the shit with other young couples, all of whom, upon hearing the events that lead us from a shut-down boarding school to Habersham, never failed to say how lucky we were. And it was true. While Americans shuttered restaurants and struggled to file for unemployment, we lived in a half-million dollar townhouse and took meandering strolls to the luxury pool. While the death count ticked up and up, we barely thought of COVID — and when we did, it was in the abstract, some faraway tragedy like a famine in the Sahara, something that was sad but didn’t have much to do with us. Nonetheless, we felt trapped and exhausted. Nonetheless, every night was the same. Whether I drank rye or gin or red or white  — I drank too much. I drank to the point that I had to be careful getting up from my chair, to the point where watching a movie was pointless, because I’d never remember it. Every morning, I woke to the sting of another body-shaking hangover, and every morning I’d tell myself enough. But every evening, as I popped the cork on another bottle of Campuget, I smiled and thought, this time it’ll be different.

***

One morning, my older son startled me as I vacuumed. In his hands he held an old stethoscope, left behind by the previous tenant. I set down the Dyson and knelt beside him.

“What do you have, bubba?”

“Teth-a-scope.”

He stuck in the earpieces and put the bell to his chest.

“Do you hear it?” I asked. “Boom-boom, boom-boom.”

He moved the bell to my chest and looked right at me. 

“That’s you, daddy. That’s your heart.”

***

Another night, drunk and alone on the screened-in porch. 

My phone blinked with a flurry of texts. Old friends, all weighing in on another police killing. This time the Black man was Rayshard Brooks.

“Why did he run!?”

“What was he thinking!?!”

“He shouldn’t have been driving in the first place!”

“They should’ve shot him in the leg!”

I tossed my phone and swigged warm gin, feeling flaccid and angry. 

My phone lit again, this time with friends from the first chain making a new chain to talk shit.

“They’re so narrow-minded.”

“And offensive.”

“And racist.”

“Do you think they’ve even seen the video?”

I realized then I hadn’t seen it myself. I finished my gin and loaded the reel. And as I drunkenly watched an over-the-line guy getting arrested for passing out in a Wendy’s drive-thru, and then trying, drunkenly, to run, only to be shot to death, I felt completely unstuck from reality. While a virus that virtually no one in South Carolina could be bothered to take seriously was straining our nation’s hospitals, while the notion of ever going back to normal remained totally unclear, I was drunk on a porch, watching another Black guy get murdered.

She was an injured animal when we got to her, a little ball of pain in the grass.

I called one of my friends from the chain. We talked a long time about how terrible it was — and how terrible we’d been as a couple of LSU frat boys, how we’d never done a thing but chase girls and get blasted, how we’d never so much as thought to wonder what it might be like to be anyone other than us.

“We both did and said things we shouldn’t have,” I said.

My friend sighed. “When I look back on the guy I was, I don’t feel proud.”

By the time our call ended, the booze in my blood had become self-righteous. “You know,” I typed on the original chain, “if the police found my drunk ass passed out in a car, and I tried to run or do anything even halfway threatening, no cop in America would ever shoot me.”

I hit send and geared up for an argument, but before long I passed out. When I came to, hours later, sweaty and confused and still on the porch, no one had replied. I made my way to the door, which was somehow locked. My wife had been asleep for hours, a reasonable human being, getting rest before another day of work without childcare. I pictured her wrapped in the sheets, snoring softly, and my whole self filled with rage. Sleeping outside struck me as the ultimate indignity. I pounded the windows until I thought the glass might shatter.  

“Goddamnit,” I screamed into the night. “You’re so fucking … annoying!”

When my wife got up to let me in, she spoke only one sentence. “You know you locked yourself out, right?”

***

On the Fourth of July, we made our way to my wife’s aunt’s place, just a short walk from the townhouse. After scrambled egg casserole and fruit salad, we gathered on the porch to watch the parade. As we sipped mimosas, James Habersham Street came alive in a chain of tipsy white people in golf carts done up in patriotic crepe paper and Uncle Sam balloons. Families along either side of the oak-lined road shouted and waved, and as my older son hopped from one foot to the other, unable to contain his thrill about another holiday that, to him, meant nothing, I refilled my mimosa and looked at my phone. It hadn’t occurred to me until then to wonder who James Habersham was, but a quick Google yielded that he was not only a slave owner, but a slave owner against American independence.

As the parade rolled and the champagne settled, I thought of making a comment, or at least a joke, something to acknowledge the absurdity. Here we were, Americans celebrating America by watching rich Americans cruise along a road named for a person who not only loved slavery but hated America. Not a single reveler wore a mask. Not a single placard bore any slogan reminding us to KEEP OUR DISTANCE or REMEMBER GEORGE FLOYD or RAYSHARD BROOKS. And where are their families? I wanted to ask. What are they up to this Independence Day? And everyone on ventilators, what about them and the people they love?

But then the parade ended and the bar shut down. I packed the boys into the stroller for the eighty-billionth time and began to dread the hours ahead. It was barely 11 a.m., and I was drunk and dehydrated and deeply tired — with hours to go before naptime. I sighed a long sigh, unlocked the brake, and slowly pushed my children home.

***

If you hang around the pool long enough, you’re bound to make friends, and as July drew to a close, we did just that. Jason and Jenna were our age and had a set of twin boys right between our sons. After a handful of afternoons swimming and chatting, Jenna invited us to join them for a twilight boat ride.

“To be clear,” Jenna said, “this is a booze cruise.”

The day of, I kept catching myself feeling nervous; it’d been so long since we’d hung out with a new couple I might not know how to act. My solution was drinking. That afternoon, on our walk to the pool, I guzzled a huge rosé then tore through IPAs with total abandon. By the time we got to Jenna and Jason’s, it was already too late. 

The night itself was gorgeous. Jason zoomed us out past the marsh and into the open water, where we bobbed together, eating fancy cheese and pounding red wine. We motored about in the blue-gray night, my wife leaning into me the whole time, a smile on her face, enjoying a perfect evening with her husband in such a pretty place. But the deal of my blackout was already sealed. I kept up the banter as long as I could, trading stories about my years in New Orleans, about writing and teaching, but by the time we got back to dry land, I could no longer be counted on to get my thoughts from my head to my mouth. I could be counted on only for the insane sense that, no matter what, I needed to keep drinking. 

As the night ended and we made our way back to Jason and Jenna’s, I invited myself in for a nightcap, a drink I’ll never recall. In my wife’s telling, we didn’t stay long, and though I didn’t make a fool of myself, I did go completely silent, staring up at the night sky and slugging back beer. Once we’d gotten home, I assumed I’d made a beeline to pass out, but instead I hunched like an animal at the kitchen island, gorging myself on whatever I pulled from the fridge. I woke the next dawn with the scum of chips and pork chops on my tongue and no recall of how the night ended. My brain made a million scenarios: I’d made some lewd comment to Jesse; I’d pissed my pants or exposed myself. Like always, none of these things had happened. But, like always, the shame in my chest could not have felt heavier. 

“Everywhere you go, you embarrass yourself,” I whispered in bed before my wife came in. “Every time you meet someone, you show them you’re a fool.”

 

III

Somehow it got worse.

I started cracking bottles of rosé at 3 p.m., then 2:30. I could no longer have just a beer on the way to the pool. I couldn’t be counted on to form a sentence after sundown. I began to avoid my wife in favor of sweating alone on the porch, pounding wine and FaceTiming friends, friends who stopped answering. At some point, my wife started to film me, her sad subject in his sad little TV chair, eyes glazed, face slack, grunting and swatting at her phone when I realized what she was doing.

***

On the last day of July, after my in-laws and I took my wife out for her 38th birthday — our first time in a restaurant since the pandemic began — my wife and I put the boys to bed. Earlier that afternoon, we’d gone to the liquor store and carefully selected four bottles of nice wine, and as my wife yawned and began to wind down, she asked me, nicely, not to drink it.

“It’s good stuff,” she said. 

I agreed.

“We should save it for having people over.”

I agreed.

And then she went to sleep.

There are no memories. Only flashes. I stand from my sad little TV chair and go to the island to get more wine. I call a friend who does not answer. I stand from my sad little TV chair and go to the island to get more wine. I call another friend who does not answer. I stand from my sad little TV chair and go to the island to get more wine. I switch on a movie I’m too drunk to watch. I stand from my sad little TV chair and go to the island to get more wine. I hit FaceTime on my college text chain and somehow connect with all of them at once, on video, and watch as their faces crumble from looks of excitement to looks of fret. I stand from my sad little TV chair and go to the island to get more wine.

Once we’d gotten home, I assumed I’d made a beeline to pass out, but instead I hunched like an animal at the kitchen island, gorging myself on whatever I pulled from the fridge.

Time is gone, I feel no feelings, a man hiding from himself.

I get more wine.

I get more wine.

I am a man, failing. 

***

The next morning, light streamed through the shutters and bathed the wreck of me in a soft, warm glow. When my wife came in, she did not speak — did not have to, so clear was the pain in her eyes.

“I’m finished,” I said.

The words came without thought.

My wife looked out the windows.

“I’m finished,” I said again.

I’ll never quite know why it happened then. Why not the day prior or 10 years back? Why not never? All I know is, if you’re a person surrounded by love, you’re lucky. All I know is, if you’re a drunk, you either stop drinking or you die a drunk. 

I stood, poured coffee, and rubbed the heads of my two children. I kissed their fat cheeks and made for the porch. 

I phoned my brother- and sister-in-law, then my in-laws.

“I’m sorry,” I said, and they said they loved me.

“I lost myself,” I said, and they said that I had.

I held my wife and said, over and over, how ashamed I was.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

***

Later that morning, we drove the boys to Port Royal, where there was a grubby beach but a beach nonetheless. They called it the Redneck Riviera. Once the kids lost themselves stomping in tide pools and chasing tiny crabs, I drifted to the parking lot and pulled out my phone. I hammered out a text to all my close friends: 

After a bad few months, I’ve made the decision to quit drinking. I’m not going to AA. I am just tired of being this version of myself. I cannot be a drunk while raising these boys. I know I have your support.

The replies came fast, and though every person said it differently, every message was the same.

This is good. This is right. We love you.

“You will never regret this,” one friend said. 

“Yeah,” I said, “but what about – ”

“You will never regret this,” he said again.

***

The sun moved, shadows lengthened. There was a breeze and seafoam and the crashing of waves. My wife watched the children, and I watched my wife. The wine burned in my veins, and my head throbbed, but once it was done, I told myself, it’d be done for good. I’d endured nearly six months of self-destruction. I saw then I had no plan for where to go from here, but in my heart, scared and bruised though it was, I knew it didn’t matter. All that mattered was I was here. All that mattered was I was having this moment. 

“We’ve been talking about coming here all summer,” my wife said as we strapped the boys back in their car seats.

“Well I’m glad we finally made it.” 

“Yeah,” she said. “Me, too.”

***

Days later, sober as a judge before my laptop in the townhouse’s dining room, a room where few meals had been eaten but where I’d written through hangovers all summer long, I logged in for my first session with a therapist. My counselor — a hardy and whip-smart Harley-Davidson enthusiast, comically named Dr. Bliss — told me all the ways she could help me, and as she neared the end of her spiel, she paused.

“So how old are you?” she asked.

“Thirty-five.”

“And who will you be at 50?”

My mind did the math. 

“My son,” I said. “My older son will be a senior in high school.”

She smiled.

“But who will you be?”

The right answers were obvious: Sober. A better husband and dad and writer. 

But what I said was, “I just want to be a person who loves himself. A person who gives love. I want to know why I’ve hurt myself for so many years.”

She nodded and laughed.

“What’s funny?” 

“You’re so introspective. And hard on yourself. I guess I’m just wondering why it took you so long to start therapy.”

I answered without thinking, “Because I knew they’d tell me to quit drinking.”

 

IV

At summer’s end, my family, my wife’s family, and all the kids and grandkids made the trip north for a week in Cape May, New Jersey. In our days there, wrangling toddlers beside the Atlantic, wandering from one rental to the next in an endless loop of family lunches, happy hours and dinners, I never once brought up my choice to quit. I chased my sons on the beach, made chitchat over dinner without wine by my plate, and brimmed glass after glass with fizzy water and lime.

One morning, while everyone else loaded carts with sunscreen and plastic pails for another day on the shore, I drove two hours back to our campus home to supervise while movers got all our belongings back into place. The new A/C outpaced the August heat with ease, and as I watched a crew of burly, tattooed dudes lug sofas and cribs around corners and up stairs, I had the sense that all that’d happened here — the pandemic, the beginning of my bad days — had been erased. 

“Must be weird,” the crew boss said. “Moving back into your old place.”

“My man,” I told him, “you have no idea.”

***

Our final morning in Cape May was nothing special — just harried people scrambling to pack. Everyone was hungover and grumpy. Everyone except for me.

Down in the garage, we said goodbye to my mother- and father-in-law, my brother- and sister-in-law, and their two little girls. We did one final sweep and made for the Subaru. 

I started the engine and looked at my wife.

“Are we ready?” 

“I think so,” she said. 

And we were. The boys were strapped in, we had plenty of masks, and Raffi shouted from the speakers, “Now’s the time to rise and shine!” 

We’re going home, I thought, and for that I was thankful.

Now all I had to do was live the rest of my life. 

 

***

William Torrey is Writer-in-Residence at St. Andrew’s school. His work has appeared widely in national literary magazines and has recently received support from the Delaware Division of the Arts and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. This July he will be a Resident in Fiction at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

Editor: Carolyn Wells

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands