I did not know how to cross myself. The cup came to my lips, and sweet acidity ran down my throat. This was not grape juice. My mother knelt on my right, awaiting her first communion. Sober since my birth, I had never seen her drink. She took the cup in her hands, lifted it to her maroon mouth, and stopped suddenly. The undeniable smell of wine. She pushed the cup away and swept back to our pew.
“I think I’ll dip the wafer next time,” is all that she spoke of the incident.
On our front porch, my sister blew out cigarette smoke. She had just graduated from a recovery program in Tennessee. Twelve years older than me, we knew next to nothing of one another.
“Do you smoke?”
“No,” I said. I was in the eighth grade.
“But you have before,” she said, not as a question. I hesitated.
“No,” was the muttered response, more to my Converse shoes than her.
“What the fuck do you do with your time, Lu? You don’t drink, you don’t smoke. Jesus.”
Our exchanges have been seldom since.
“Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” Therefore let us keep the feast. And keep the feast we did. Elise and I filed out of the pews and headed for the reception room, evening closing in on the stain-glass windows. We knew the drill: Eucharist, followed by coffee and mingling.
But this was Easter, an exceptional occasion. Into the familiar reception room, we found the unexpected: stacks of home-baked desserts, decorated in pastels for the season. No Oreos, no Chips-A-Hoy, but oven fresh. Ten different types of cheese awaited us. And the crackers were quality—none of that saltine shit. These were crackers from the overpriced organic section to pair the decadent cheeses. Silver utensils intersected to form X’s, too elegant to ruin with use. And then, on the back wall, we saw the bottles.
Elise, my roommate, was well acquainted with alcohol. Her family drank with dinner. She knew what kind of wine she preferred, and how much she should drink. There was nothing mystical about the substance, except the question of why people abuse it like they do. Its abundant presence was unremarkable.
I gripped a bottle and feigned confidence. The deep liquid poured into my plastic cup, a fountain of blood.
“I prefer white wine,” I heard Elise say.
“I like red,” I lied. Wine was wine.
Like a planet in orbit, I circled around the tables, dipping strawberries into the chocolate fountain, exchanging a cheery word or two with someone I didn’t know about how positively nice this whole reception was, and always gravitating back to the wine table, refilling my plastic cup, quenching my thirst, over and over. I pretended to be interested in the paintings on the wall, only to casually drift back to the bottles.
Before long, lines began to blur. As I reached for another pastel pastry, I saw the bisecting utensils out of the corner of my eye, and at an angle, they resembled the crooked cross hanging from my mother’s bedside table.
This past Thanksgiving, my brother flew to California to spend the holiday in the tiny town of Petaluma with our extended family. The closest city is San Francisco, where my sister now lives. Occasionally, she turns up at family events in hopes of money or a place to temporarily stay. Henry was not expecting to see her, as she is incredibly flaky and difficult to reach. But appear she did. He recounted it to me on the phone, describing the strange things she said and how she was into shoplifting now.
“She kept talking about you too.”
“To say what?”
“She has this idea in her head that you’re the black sheep of the family, that she wouldn’t get along with you or something. I’m sure that’s just the drugs talking though.”
I have a crystalized image of my sister in my mind. I see methylene eyes beneath shadowed lids. Though predominantly missing, she is just present enough for her needle-eyes to be a constant point beneath my heel. With every utterance, heard directly and secondhand, the barb sinks further. At home, I see my mother claw at her own skin to remove the darts all over her midsection, the traces of addiction that live on. But the cycle is vicious and unending. And I know we are not so different, the women in my family, whether addict or not. Someday our identical hands will cup side-by-side, and for the thorns we plant, our voices will echo mercy, mercy, mercy.