Thinner Than Water

You start drinking when the boys leave. Well. Not quite.

You start drinking at fifteen and three quarters, you and Jimmy Cooper knocking back shots and falling into bed together during endless summer nights. You get over the initial appeal of alcohol a few years later, though you continue to drink at social occasions. That's just how things are. In times of difficulty, you may fill a glass for yourself late at night to help you sleep, but this is nothing drastic, nothing worthy of gossip or concern. You don't tell Sandy, but then again it isn't relevant. He sleeps like a log and to wake him would be cruel, and to tell him the morning after would be as trivial as informing him how long you've spent brushing your teeth.

So you don't start drinking when the boys leave. You just start drinking more. You pour a drink to help you sleep that first night, knowing you'll need to be in work tomorrow and trusting the alcohol to relax you in a way sleeping pills can't. You don't want to rely on pills to let you sleep, but you need something. A drink seems like the best solution.

One drink becomes two, but you tell yourself the boys will be home soon and then sleep won't be such an elusive creature.

You know Sandy thinks you're irritable, but then again the house is being renovated and your son has run away from home and your not-quite son barely keeps in touch, and your father has married Julie Cooper, and you have a hundred and one reasons to be a little cranky every now and then.

You carry a flask in your purse at all times, just in case. You can get through the day without it, but it's like a safety blanket, a comfort to have it next to you twenty-four hours a day even when you don't need it.

Marissa arrives one night when Sandy is out, and you let her in, feigning sobriety, wishing you hadn't had that fourth (fifth? sixth?) drink, but she is unsteady on her feet and you declare, almost triumphantly, "You're drunk".

She doesn't even bother to deny it, simply slumping down on the nearest couch and nodding. "Yeah," she says heavily.

She's your stepsister, it occurs to you with a jolt as you join her. You point this out and she agrees that it's weird. In another world she might have never been born because of you, or she might have been the daughter you chose not to have.

You don't mean to tell her this. It slips out, as things sometimes do, and you worry she'll hate you for not having ever told her beloved father, but instead she curls into you and talks about decisions that can't be unmade, and you are vaguely aware that she's really talking about Ryan and Theresa, perhaps, but unable to properly make the connection.

She is more your child than any of the others, you realise, this tired beautiful girl next to you. Sandy distils himself into the two boys and there is nothing of you in them, but in the eyes of the daughter of your alleged best friend and former lover, you see yourself reflected.

She cries on your shoulder about Ryan. "I'm sleeping with the gardener," she says, half-laughing, half-sobbing. "I don't know what the hell I'm doing."

You can't find the words. Sandy would be able to, no doubt, but all you can do is hold her. It seems to be enough for now.

You don't want to cry but then you're thinking about Ryan and how you still think of the pool house as his, and Seth, who had no reason that you understand for leaving, Seth, your baby, who doesn't call, and Sandy, who doesn't seem to understand just how much it hurts, and the tears flow.

Marissa can play the comforter, too; she knows the soothing words to whisper and the temporary release from pain they provide.

You let her fall asleep on the couch, covering her with a blanket before retreating to your own bed. When you wake up, your mouth dry and your head throbbing in its familiar way, she's gone, and Sandy is still sleeping.

When he wakes, he doesn't ask about Marissa, about the too-minty taste of your mouth, about the shadows under your eyes. You go to work and spend the day, like every other, waiting for the phone call that will change everything. In your purse, your safety-blanket flask protects your life from completely falling apart.