It Is Unbecoming to Write a Thank-You Card for the Soiled Gift of Sobriety

Nonfiction by Hannah Burns

Finding the syringes and hydrocodone in my father’s sock drawer was not what I remembered about that night. Instead, I remember that it had only been a few months since he had been home from prison. I pulled open a dresser drawer that previously housed my Hello Kitty underwear at some point not too long ago. The dresser was brown, driftwood smooth––the metal hinges rusted away, so it slid on the weathered tracks. The wood scraped together like fire starter, sliding one dry splinter across the other. Open. Shut. Open. Shut. I peeled back a dirty Hanes sock to reveal two orange-capped syringes. Shut. I’m sure there had been sparks of some kind, wood whiskers crinkling underneath the friction, and a rattlesnake bottle of pills. I opened the draw once more in disbelief. But, there they gleamed, almost glowing with possibility––the course of my life measured by its capacity for injection. Shut. Shut. Shut. Sparks, I’m sure, showered down into the t-shirt drawer below. The origins of cigarette holes. I struck the dresser with my pink-nailed fist, mercilessly beating, bludgeoning what contained truth, an inevitable, until I walked away from it––bruised and a secret keeper. 

On Father’s Day, into adulthood, I am not talking to my father. We haven’t spoken since February, for good reason, maybe. It feels good not to worry about him––let his life preoccupy mine. Instead of talking to my father, my partner hands me a hydrocodone––it might as well be a syringe of heroin. I just had my wisdom teeth removed six hours ago because my father never wanted to pay for it. I might as well be doing heroin. Someone call the police––I was inconsolable. So inconsolable, I became a narc, a square, a Karen unto myself. My partner asks if I am trying to punish myself. I say at least I can’t feel the holes in my mouth. 

It feels so familiar that when I open the bottle, I smell the ocean, I feel sand between my toes. I hear a Jimmy Buffet song when the pills rattle together in my hand. I imagine the feeling of taking one of these pills would be an It’s A Small World ride through my father’s inner landscape.

Hydrocodone is a passing out on your mother’s couch with your jeans still on feeling. My partner fed it to me every six hours, and I would weakly cry and swallow. The hydrocodone makes me piss the bed and fall asleep at odd times during the day, with a podcast I have to constantly rewind. It helps with my tooth pain but feels more like a maxed-out credit card. What I get in relief comes back with the crying fits. Nostalgia is not the right word. It’s also not a strange, unforgiving family secret that I have now accessed either. It is a seed. My therapist would call it a trigger. 

My father walks the shore with me. He is fatter than I remember, darker. His hair is the same length as mine, same curls. There is a photo in an album at my mother’s house where he combed my hair the day I was born. I imagine he pulled each piece of womb out of my thick black hair, tossing it aside, meditating over my life. He is unsure about whether to hold my hand. I have not seen my father in a year, and I am only nine. It is hard to imagine a life that was not this exactly: my father is unsure if he has drifted too far from what tethers him to responsibility. Life seems like a tumble through an invisible brier patch—a thorny pilgrimage through blackberry bushes. Hurt is inevitable. The only remarkable thing that my father knows about me at this moment is the color of my shirt: a pink Bobby Jack t-shirt that says Do you think I am really listening? He says the syringes I found in his drawer were for my grandmother's diabetes, and the pills, of course, the pills, just some antibiotics. Don’t worry, your dad doesn’t do drugs. The Gulf is blue that afternoon because it’s overcast. I sink my toes in the sand and wonder about mermaids. I try to remain innocent. There was a song burned to a Jimmy Buffet mixtape that my mother played often. It reminded me of mermaids––mermaid culture. What Would Ariel Do?

The night was filled with magic, they bid the sea goodbye
They swam into the heavens, they stayed up in the sky
And all the Island people when they wish upon a star
See the Dolphin and the Jolly Mon who tell them where they are

My mother tells me this story because I was too young to remember, or maybe it is a moment I don’t want to remember. There was a time when I had a Nemo potty training seat clamped to the toilet and a pink step stool to get there. I was four. This was when I pretended to hula dance in front of the television when Lilo and Stitch played. Underneath the sink, where boxes of rainbow hair ties sat, was an ounce of cocaine. I’ve heard from my mother that it was taped underneath the plywood counter. I have also heard that it was stashed behind the toilet or just sitting out next to my little mermaid toothbrush. But what remains true in every version is that I found it. I found the ounce of cocaine, held it in my hands like pancake mix, and surprised my mother with it. 

There are pictures of my parents on Bourbon Street, the week of July 18th, 1999. They are a year younger than I am. Twenty-Two. No college. But, they looked clean, prospective, and respectable. My mother wears linen shorts and a shirt, and my father a blue polo and khakis. If they were not posed next to a sign that said Two Big Ass Beers for $5.99, I would think they were church people. 

I’m sitting with my partner at Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans in the summer 23 years later. I try to order a Sazerac, but I pronounce it wrong, and the waitress scoffs. She returns with it a few moments later, anyhow. My partner smiles, grabs my hand, and takes stock of my facial expressions, her unwaxed brows meandering my hungover face. I told her last night that I wanted to visit the place where I was conceived. I said I was conceived in a bathroom off Bourbon Street. I wanted to see if it would bring me peace––an understanding of my purpose. Even so, we were in a rough sea of Baby Boomers at a merry-go-round bar. 

I recall my mother saying at 22, when I was sitting on a split leather bench in a sticky corner of the bar, that she and my father snuck into the bathroom in the late evening hours of July 18th. The number one song that day was “Bills, Bills, Bills” by Destiny Child, and the movie Eyes Wide Shut was just released. I felt no better or worse sipping rye whiskey. I imagined the endeavor before I felt red beans and rice summersault inside me. 

I stopped and instead watched the advertisements on a TV screen. The Hemingway Suite, The Tennesee Williams Suite, and the Eudora Welty Suite. Maybe if they had sex in the Hemingway suite, I would be better off.

I stand in the ladies' room, trying to feel something. My limbs feel numb. I’m twenty-three, I say, and I’m two Sazeracs deep. I touch the sticky walls, feeling the smoothness of the cold tile. A woman bangs on my door. She can see me standing in the stall from the large gap at the bottom of the door. I start twirling, spinning, ring around the rosy until I crash into the wicker door. No one was moaning. 

When I opened the door, I found that she was a spunky 46-year-old woman with a spikey haircut tapered out to be sharp, real sharp, especially with an expensive pomade. She asks if I would like to do some cocaine, holding it out with her left hand. 

My father strapped a blue life jacket on 12-year-old me. Then, I knew he was full of mistakes––mistakes that he often mistook as shortcomings that only reverbed his pride, like forgetting to write letters to me from prison or forgetting to set an alarm and sleeping all day, and only buying Velveeta. But today was about the Gulf and about Shell Island. A tiny mound of sand off the little spike of Florida where no one lived except lizards and birds. I pestered the critters in the brush, scanned for sea shells, and kicked sand until it flew into the breeze like a soft blanket of white rain. My father gazed into the horizon, far enough from town that it looked foreign. His line cast, his swim trunks sagging, my father stood in the water waiting for a fish that would never come, drowning his ankle monitor. I watched him from a tree branch. I thought the thing you’re missing is here. What are you looking for?

After the cocaine, I drank absinthe and glued fangs on in the bathroom of a speakeasy above the oldest jazz club in New Orleans. I should try being myself before my vampire self, probably, I whisper. My partner tells me they’re scared to hallucinate if that’s even a possibility. I say me too, definitely. I don’t think anyone is supposed to visit the place they were conceived as a tourist attraction. Ed Gien and Oedipus are examples. Will I see them fucking in the corner, or will I gauge my eyes out with some bobby pins? 

The one time I hallucinated for real, I was tripping on acid. I thought I was a computer hologram and didn’t exist except on the moon as a wave of light. I told my therapist this when I was 19, and she asked me how I was doing on my self-esteem workbook. 

A Sloppy Joe’s coaster transports me to Key West, where I sit at a bar with a holographic Hemingway and my father. We have a pint of beer each. Hemingway tells me he used to do some writing here. I say if I had stayed here, my life would have been very different, or maybe not at all. My father does not notice our conversation and begins to tell us how the only reason they packed up the car to head back to northwest Florida was because two pilots kidnapped planes and pummeled them into New York buildings. He thought the world was ending, so we went back home. I’ve wondered for a long time if it’s narcissistic to think you’re smarter than your parents. Maybe not narcissistic, but selfish. My order of birth in time gives me a retrospect they don’t have. I can sit on my perch and judge them. But, also, I am a child. I am a twenty-three-year-old child. Here, I am pointing my fingers at my uneducated parents. Boo-hooing at them with their permeative drugs. 

I approach my father wearing his Sloppy Joe’s t-shirt, and I ask him if he’s ever read The Old Man and The Sea. He shakes his head no and fiddles with his bandage where they performed a skin graph––for the sepsis. He shrugs off my presence by doodling some funny faces on a napkin. He says he could have been a tattoo artist or opened his own bar. I want to tell him to let me in and get to know him. But I don’t, I think instead, his art is ugly. 

Now I know him. 

My father is like Hemingway in the way that I’ve never conceptualized my disdain for the time they both have wasted in my life. I walk into a hotel bar, and I am reminded of this heterosexual white man. I put on my father’s shirt and remember that Hemingway wrote in Sloppy Joe’s. When I go into the gas station near the coast and get a warm nose full of Banana Boat Tanning Oil, a poltergeist overpowers me, and I grab a lottery ticket on the way out. 

Healing, detoxing from the hauntings of my father––being sober has been sustainable with empathy. I’m not sure I could have grasped empathy for my father if I had not walked through his steps, and frankly, he stepped toward whatever drug possessed him, but that was not my destined path. 

Published 30th December, 2023.

Hannah Burns is a queer writer living in Northwest Florida with her two cats, Cheese and Toast. She co-runs a queer poets coalition in her town of residence. You can find her work in Emerald Coast Review, Screendoor Review, and Panama City Living Magazine.

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