Riley Winchester

Riley Winchester

Riley Winchester is from Michigan. He's been nominated for some Pushcarts and he's been shortlisted in some contests, but he's never won anything. Apertif was accepted as part of the MSU Library Short Edition call for work on the theme of “recovery,” in coordination with the MSU Broad Art Museum's exhibit of Beverly Fishman's art, also called Recovery.

He orders a vodka soda and I can feel the sweat build up on my forehead, just under my hairline, and my legs start to shake. That was my drink. I've made that same order hundreds of times—thousands of times, I realize, now that I do a quick inventory. It's not that he's drinking around me, I've been around drinkers plenty of times since I called it quits, but it's the context of the moment. For weeks my manager, Jessica, has been hyping up this dinner. It's not every day that someone in my position is asked to have dinner with the president of the company. He's been impressed with my work lately, she tells me. My numbers have been great the last two quarters. They don't know that, too, is how long my sobriety has been.

The server returns with waters for Jessica and me, and a vodka soda for Roger. It's in a short glass. He'll be ordering another soon.

"Tell me, Sam," he says, "you've been with us, what, three years now?"

"A little over two and a half years," I say. I take a sip of water and put my free hand down on my legs to stop the shaking.

Roger takes the first sip of his vodka soda and winces. I used to love that wince—hell, I still do; I miss it now. That wince after the first sip of a strong drink, that first promising sip that tells you everything you're feeling now will soon change so long as you keep sipping and sipping. The wince lessens with each sip, and by the third or fourth drink there's no wince at all. The vodka becomes flavorless, and you forget why you ever so stupidly thought it burned before. It's good, it's smooth, you feel good. The sips turn to gulps.

"Sam is one of our best analysts," Jessica chimes in.

"That's what I hear," Roger says. He stirs his drink with his pinky and then sucks off the vodka soda residue left on the tip of his finger. "And you know, ever since Adam left, we've needed to fill his role."

I stare at his glass. Ice slowly melts and falls into position, crashing deeper into the glass. I think of my first drink. Prom afterparty junior year. I was scared to drink. I was a shy kid, never took chances or rode on the wild side. But I was pressured into going to the party by my date. At first, I abstained. Then, after a couple hours, I caved and drank a Bud Light. A vodka and Sprite. A shot of Fireball. A hard cider. My face started to feel funny. I drank more vodka. I felt myself becoming more social. I was talking to peers I'd never spoken to before like I'd known them my whole life. I felt good and uninhibited. I took another shot and went to the bathroom. After I washed my hands, I looked in the mirror, and I'd never seen myself happier. I thought I had found the solution to everything that had once disturbed me. I had never felt so much life.

"Yes," I say, "It's been busy since he left, but I've been holding my head above water." Truth is, I've been slammed since Adam left, and work has been hell. I've been doing the work of two people, working sixty-hour weeks. It's been a true test of my sobriety, but I've stayed strong.

"He's been exceptional." Jessica smiles at Roger, then me.

I take another sip of water.

"Good, good." Roger leans back in his chair and picks up his drink. He holds it for a second, almost like it's an offering, and thinks. "Every day I'm grateful for people like you in this company." He takes another drink. It must go down the wrong pipe or something, because he lets out a little cough.

The drinking really kicked in during undergrad. Weekend warrior who binge drank on Fridays and Saturdays, to drinking Thursday through Sunday, to drinking every night, to showing up to class after a few drinks, to showing up to class with a half-vodka, half-water in my water bottle. The only times I spent sober were mornings, when I rose, drank my coffee, brushed my teeth, then fixed my first drink. It was normalized then, a joke, a thing college kids did. We didn't have a problem; we were in the time of our lives. When college ended and we all became adults, most of us stopped. But I ramped it up.

"You a sports fan, Sam?" Roger asks me.

"I am. Football mostly, but I follow some baseball."

"Who's your team?"

"The Lions." I nod my head. "Through and through."

"Good man," he says, and he leans in closer to me, setting his drink down.

Jessica turns to me and gives me a 'keep it up' smile. She clears her throat. "You went to a game earlier this year, didn't you?" she asks me. I'm surprised she remembers this.

"You did?" Roger says, his interest piqued.

"Went down to Soldier Field and watched them play the Bears." I adjust myself in my chair and try to covertly wipe the sweat from my forehead.

"You know, I'm a season ticket holder," he tells me.

Of course I know this. I did my due diligence.

"Is that so?" I say.

"Have been for eighteen years."

Roger takes another drink and with it he takes a few ice cubes. He chews on the ice.

One of the best parts of drinking is chewing on the ice cubes toward the end of a drink. It feels good, the crunch of the ice cubes, the tensing of the jaw muscles, but most of all it feels good to know another drink is coming. There's always another drink coming if you want it.

"They win that game you go to?" Roger smiles.

I finish a sip of water. "No, uh, they lost 24-14."

"Of course they did." Roger smiles to Jessica. "I was kidding when I asked."

Jessica lets out a fake laugh. I follow suit.

Roger shakes around the dregs of his vodka soda. I carefully watch the remnants swirl around the bottom of the glass. The little bubbles of carbonation spin and disappear. He sets the glass down and the drink settles.

I don't know who said it, but I lived by it. If something good happens, we drink to celebrate. If something bad happens, we drink to forget. If nothing happens, we drink to make something happen. Nailed an interview: drink. Bombed an interview: drink. Received a raise: drink. Shit day at work: drink. Boring Saturday night: drink and hit the town. This resulted in failed relationships, uncomfortable conversations with family, a wrecked car, bruises and broken bones, nights spent in ditches, blackouts and blackouts and blackouts, endless shame and guilt, morning shakiness, perpetual brain fog, extreme anxiety. Vodka in my morning coffee. Sneaking off to my car to nip vodka and suck down beers at lunch. Becoming a regular at happy hours. Living to drink, drinking to live.

Roger picks up his glass and pours the rest of his vodka soda down his throat. He studies the menu. "What are you guys thinking?"

"It all sounds so good," Jessica says, "It's hard to decide."

"I'm thinking the lobster roll," Roger says.

The server returns. "Can I get you guys more drinks?" she asks us.

Roger orders another vodka soda. Jessica says she's OK. I put in an order. The server walks away. Roger smiles at me.

"I'll probably do the shrimp tacos," I say.

"Ooh, those sound good," Jessica says.

"That they do," Roger agrees, not looking up from the menu.

When the server returns, she sets the vodka soda in front of Roger and turns to me. "And you said soda, not tonic?"

"That's right," I say.

"OK, great," she lets out a sigh of relief as she sets down the drink.

She asks us if we're ready to order food, and I take a big gulp of soda water.

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