Jack and Soda

by Zachary Scott


When I was a little kid I had this horrible habit of waltzing up to someone else’s glass and just taking a swig. The world – including your drink – was mine for the taking and I was more than willing to take. That ended when I was around five. My memory of the event that sent my drink stealing days into retirement is as hazy as that late humid summer evening. The inconsequential details are blurred around the edges, the way that all ‘90s film and TV flashback scenes start, becoming clearer as the main event comes into scene. Summer in upstate New York gets sticky, and gross. Few things relieve that as sweetly as a cold soda – yeah, it’s soda in this part of upstate, not pop. This is where the scene gets clearer. Me with blond curls springing out from my head in whichever frizzy direction they chose, acid-washed shorts and a bad school-photo-day patterned shirt, sleeves cut off, and Dad’s soda. The glass sweating a bit, beckoned me, so I did what I did then. I snuck over to the end-stand and grabbed his drink. He was caught up in conversation about which wrestler was better, or something like that, with a friend or older cousin, or whoever was there. Glass in hand, still undetected, I took a nice long gulp of that soda, grossly watered down by melted ice, and tainted by the Jack that, looking back now, occupied most of the space inside. I don’t think I recoiled in disgust. I was five, my flare for melodramatics not quite fine-tuned as it is now. The hairball sound that belched out of me was enough to get his attention. As he took the glass away, my face contorted into that puckered lip, horse eye expression I still make to this day when booze is too strong or we’re mashing with kettle bells at the gym. Lesson learned. No more stealing drinks from people.

My father was the kind of low-key alcoholic who laughed it off with comments like “alcoholics go to meetings, and I don’t so…” You know the genre of humor. I didn’t know – not until I was like thirteen; not until I saw that there was something more to occasional fits of rage, sleeping through the day and staying up through the night. I didn’t realize that my normal wasn’t at all normal until I was carrying him up the stairs to our second-floor apartment because I realized the real chance that he might stumble into the river a football field away. He eventually stopped drinking and talks openly about the addiction, but he’s never really talked about why he drank. I never asked. I tried to be a model son and brother; tearfully came out of the closet; fought to prove to the world that we were just like them – by the way, we’re not and that’s okay. I got a degree, a job, a husband, another degree, a nice car, a third degree. I became an elder at my church. Yet happiness still evades me. I made the promise that I wouldn’t abuse alcohol, but still never bothered to care about why he had. Until recently.

I was sitting at a red light the other morning. I was in the nice car, wearing an overpriced topcoat and chinos, made in the developing world, on my way to the job where I am a respected leader, even if I can barely stomach the fortyish hours a week I spend there. I had been spiraling for weeks, maybe longer. Sometimes, when I’m in those states it’s hard to keep track of the passing of time. Just a few weeks earlier I had entertained the thought of closing my eyes and letting go of the wheel. I honestly thought that maybe it’d be easier to just let the car drift off the very same road, sixty miles an hour into the darkness, into the woods. That night I had a breakdown. A snotty nosed, bleary eyed, can’t stand the terrified look in my husband’s eyes, breakdown.

Our dear friend and his wife own a CrossFit gym in town. He is also our pastor. On Friday nights they run a fusion between CrossFit workout and worship. My husband made me go. Somewhere between the theological conversations and the back squats, my pain eased up.

At the red light, every ache, every sorrow, every ounce of failure and frustration I’ve ever felt suffocated me. Staring at that light, harsh against the blue sky behind it, I fell apart. I tried talking myself down. I reminded myself of my blessings – a roof, a job, food in my belly, clothes to keep me warm, a husband who would walk to the ends of the earth to ease my pain, and a community of people who love me. That. Doesn’t. Work. And it sure as hell didn’t at that never ending fucking red light. I felt like an asshole. So many people have so much more to deal with, such bigger pain, and here I was, a privileged, if not gay, white man with seemingly nothing to worry about, and I couldn’t break away from the sadness, the terror, the stress, the anxiety. Then, in a moment as fleeting as ever, I found empathy. That’s when I knew, even before I texted my father, asking why, that he was trying to numb his pain just as I wanted to.

He called them demons - moments from his past that he would never be able to return to and change. He’s sober now, and has been for more years of my life than he was drunk. He manages his demons, rather than numbing them.

I live with mental illness. Depression and anxiety are my demons. Sometimes I’m in control, and sometimes they have me backed against a wall, cowering in the dark. Even as I write this, even as you read it, I am struggling. I have moments here and there where they almost knock me down, but those moments are decreasing in frequency and severity. In one of my darkest moments the Divine reached into me and forced me to turn to the one person I am most like, despite either of our efforts to the contrary, and taught me true empathy. That’s how I know that, Dad and I, we’ll manage.

Zachary Scott is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.  He is currently completing revisions of his manuscript, Finding Rhoda.