october 3, 2023
e are road tripping towards the Santa Cruz Mountains for your brother’s 50th birthday. We left after work, after dinner, to avoid the traffic. It’s dark over the valley which is as flat as the cow shit that stinks up the air. If you weren’t from around here, you wouldn’t know how close you are to the ocean, to tie-dye loving hippies with too much money, to frat boys who barf on the boardwalk. This stretch of highway is just another California contradiction.
“Fuck,” you say, interrupting the country song I’ve put on for the drive.
“What is it?”
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” You are clenching the steering wheel and won’t look at me. You are in your own head. I know this look. I have seen it enough times in the last seven years to know what it means.
“You forget your doses?” You don’t look at me, but I can tell just by the way your face twitches that you have.
“I’m such a fucking idiot.”
“Hey, don’t talk about my husband like that.” I try to take your hand in mine, to console you, but I also kind of think you are a fucking idiot. A better wife wouldn’t admit this, but it is nearly ten pm and we are an hour away from home, an hour away from our destination, and I don’t want to turn back now.
“We have to turn back.”
“Are you mad?”
“I’ll drive us to the cabin.”
“You don’t have to.”
“I don’t want you to have to drive four hours. That’s silly.”
I look in the backseat and see our kid still sleeping. He won’t know the difference.
This is not the first time this has happened—your doses getting in the way of our life plans. Once, three years ago, on a camping trip for my birthday, we had to leave a day earlier than everyone else because you hadn’t earned enough take-homes from the clinic. You’d been pissing clean. You’d been banking on your counselor making an exception for my birthday. He hadn’t.
I was less forgiving then. I wasn’t yet “in recovery”. I didn’t even think I had a real problem. This is easy to do when the person you’re with has a more ostensible problem. I was a queen at rationalizing the difference in our using—I never used needles, I could go long stretches with only drinking and not drugging, I never spent my portion of rent on a bender. I wasn’t thinking of all the ways my own using had inconvenienced you. How it made me quick to anger. How it made me paranoid you’d leave me. How I’d beg you to tell me over and over again you’d never leave me because I couldn’t hear it the first time through all the substances in my blood. No, at the time, I was only thinking of how we had to leave before everyone else, about how even in sobriety your addiction was ruining my birthday. I chugged three beers back-to-back in the morning before having to sit in the car next to you on the drive home. I picked little fights with you about it for weeks afterwards.
I like to think I’m a more understanding wife now. Less quick to anger. Not as paranoid you’ll leave me. At least not as vocal about it.
The last time you forgot your doses was the 4th of July two years ago. By then I was sober too —just a couple months. It wasn’t until we were a day into our trip that you realized you’d left your doses above the fridge in the little lock box the clinic made you carry. We were staying with your brother and his new boyfriend Matt, who, it turned out, has chronic pain and a government funded pharmacy of all our favorite pills to go with it. Matt’s morning ritual is to smoke a joint and take a fistful of pill with his coffee. I have often wondered if your brother, who was so intolerant of your using days, has ever questioned the behaviors of his own boyfriend. Matt knows we’re sober but that doesn’t stop him from offering us pills every time we wince when standing from the couch or massage the parts of our bodies that suffer from aging. Our suffering is one that cannot be so easily subdued.
Whenever we’ve been offered pills, to my knowledge, we have both always declined the offer. I imagine we have both also privately wanted to sneak into his room and stuff a handful of his pills in our pockets to relapse in secret.
On that 4th of July trip, you’d just hit three years sober. It was the morning after we’d arrived when you realized that you’d forgotten your doses.
“Shit,” you’d said, pacing around the room and tapping your palm against your forehead like you could will a solution into existence.
“It’s just one more day,” I said. I tried to sound calm, but I was just as afraid as you, thinking about the way your body would be drenched in sweat within a couple of hours, thinking about the way it would cloud your thought, and even though I wasn’t the biggest fan of you taking those doses from the clinic to stay sober, I knew what life had looked like without them.
“I could just ask Matt for a Vicodin.” you said, looking across the room at me. I’d been sitting on the bed watching you pace and going through my own mental gymnastics to try and find a way to finish the weekend out without going home early, without risking your sobriety, without watching you crawl in your own skin from opiate withdrawal.
“I could just take one, just to manage.” you said. You had stopped pacing. You looked at me, waiting for me for me to give permission.
“That is a terrible fucking idea.”
“I don’t think it’s as bad as you think.”
“This is scaring me.”
“You can’t go a couple fucking hours?”
“You don’t know what it’s like.”
I didn’t say anything because I knew you couldn’t really believe this, but maybe you did. I think I know you, know what’s best, but I don’t live inside your body. I stubbornly stick with the memories of my own withdrawals. I project them onto your experience. I can be like this sometimes. Assuming I know everything. It is my least favorite thing about myself. It is an unlovable quality. You love me anyway. That you love me anyway means I will never leave you. Not even if you ask Matt for a Vicodin. Not even if it leads everything else. Not even if it took me with you.
It’s the everything else I was thinking about when you suggested asking Matt for a pill. I know you aren’t the kind of person who can have just one of something. I know it because I’m not either.
The first thing to come to mind whenever I think of a relapse is your last relapse. Funny how we never get rid of those old memories, how they just grow and grow and grow over time. It was so long ago now. It feels unfair that the image of it—you sleeping in the car out front of our home, me crying alone in the house changing the locks, thinking my great love story might have come to an end—has superseded other more pleasant images.
Sometimes I think we are both just collecting days together in hopes that the accumulation of newer, better images, will finally wipe away all the bad ones. It only makes sense that this should happen, given the sheer volume of pleasant images to choose from.
In the end, we didn’t spend the holiday with your brother and Matt. You feigned ill, which wasn’t too far from the truth. There was no relapse. We packed up the car with our barely opened bags and headed home.
On the drive home, our son didn’t stop asking why. We were supposed to go swimming, eat hot dogs, drink soda, do other all-American type shit like a normal family. He was disappointed. You drove and every time I looked over at you, I could see you hating yourself. Your jaw clenched. Your fingers tight around the steering wheel. The way you wouldn’t take your eyes off the road to join the conversation.
“Let’s order pizza and have a movie marathon tonight,” I said.
“Yes!” Our son said from the backseat.
Now, we are on the highway headed towards the Santa Cruz Mountains for a weekend trip with your brother and Matt. We don’t ever say it out loud, but I know these trips always have us both a little more on edge than normal. They are like a test, asking, have you really changed? Do you really want it? I like to think the answer is yes, but I can only ever speak for myself, and you can never know for certain what I am thinking.
“Fuck,” you say again, and I coo and say it is going to be okay. I bring my index finger to my lip to remind you of our son asleep in the backseat. It is late on a Friday night, and we are both exhausted from a full week of work, childrearing, attempting to maintain sanity and sobriety. You change lanes and we are pulling off the freeway to get back on in the other direction towards home. I am annoyed, but I try not to let it show. I am always thinking of how much kinder you were to me when I got sober than I was to you when you got sober. You never made me sleep in the car in our driveway or changed the locks, and so I am repaying my debt by keeping my mouth shut when I’m annoyed. I think kindness comes so much more naturally to you than it does to me.
It is for the best that you remembered the doses tonight and not in the morning when we are with everyone at the cabin. Matt will be there this weekend with his pharmacy of pills, and we need all the help we can get. We always need all the help we can get.
I turn the country song up so we don’t have to talk.
I saw the light
I’ve been baptized
By the fire in your touch
And the flame in your eyes
When we get back to the house, we leave the car running so we don’t startle our kid awake. We both go in, you for your doses and me for my Diet Cokes. I take one from the fridge and chug it in the halo of the open fridge. I crush the can and toss it into the recycling, grab two more for the road. We won’t get to the cabin until after 2am now. The sodas will keep me awake, maybe help make me feel some way different than the way I feel.
We have to get gas on the way out of town and our son opens his eyes from the backseat when we turn the car off beneath the bright fluorescent lights of the gas station.
“Are we home?”
“We forgot something, but we are on our way now.”
He nods. Closes his eyes. Falls back asleep.
We pull onto the dark stretch of backroad that leads out of town and you reach across the center console and take my hand in yours.
“Hey,” you say, and I look over at you, your face is in the shadow of night, but I can see your eyes searching mine, “I’m sorry.”
“I know.” I squeeze your hand. “I love you.” I wait for you to say it back. You do. It carries me across the darkest stretch of highway.
Shelby Hinte is the Associate Editor of Write or Die Magazine and a prose reader for No Contact. She has volunteered at various small presses including ZYZZYVA, Split/Lip Press. Her writing has appeared in BOMB magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, ZYZZYVA, Hobart, HAD, Bending Genres, and elsewhere. She lives in Northern California.