Laura McPhee-Browne is a writer and social worker from Melbourne. She is currently working on what she hopes will be her first book, a collection of ‘homage’ or ‘echo’ stories inspired by the short fiction of her favourite female writers. More stories in this series can be found at Overland and Verity La. You can find her at lauramcpheebrowne.squarespace.com.
This story first appeared in Issue 14 of Tincture Journal. Please support our work and buy a copy today.
—for Lucia Berlin
Carlotta woke, on the first afternoon of a thick and haughty heat wave, in the detox clinic on Eleanor Street. Her legs were feathery familiar when she placed them on the sticky laminate floor and walked towards her very own toilet, done up with skin-coloured paint and holding bars. She didn’t wonder what was for breakfast.
Six days it had taken. Four days last time, two weeks the time before. They knew her when she called; placed the phone down and yelled for Brian who knew her the best, his smooth voice guiding her back into bed each day that he told her there were no vacancies yet. On Friday, yesterday, Brian had been sick, and a woman who said her name was ‘Gloria’ in a voice like salt had told her that she was ‘in luck’, though it didn’t quite feel that way. She’d been careful not to begin on her own this time; had drunk four mugs of white in the kitchen that night after she’d showered, draped herself in her biggest pair of pyjamas and packed a small bag full of underwear and framed photographs—one of each of her boys, one of all of them bundled on the porch of a holiday house back when she could go on holidays. Then she’d climbed into bed, called all four of them on her cell phone and tried not to sob as they told her they loved her, and that they knew she could do it this time. No one, not even herself on the morning of a big and brutal hangover, believed that anymore.
Now she was here, and the drear was recognisable. She’d been shaking when she woke but hadn’t been able to pour some calm down her throat. The taxi, pre-booked and driven by a man with kind eyes who appeared to enjoy the languish of summer, arrived at the detox house at 10 am and by this time she was already angry: why couldn’t she just have a couple drinks? There were people doing worse than she was. The anger had faded quickly, had lost its shape when she realised she would give her right leg for a bottle of vodka and that this was not the way it should be when the birds were still chirping. By the time she had checked in, handed over her anti-depressants, her razor and her small round bottle of Xanax, she was as steeled and dull as an empty sink.
Carlotta washed and dressed in what she had left in a pile on the floor. She was due in Group, which they did now in detox as well as rehab, and she didn’t want to be late. The best seats were the ones nearest the door in case things got too much—too big, too small, too sober. She hoped there would be a new group counsellor and not Sally, with her vegan leather boots and nods like a bobble head dog. She hoped it was a man, someone she could eye at least. Not another well-meaning wool woman.
It was Sally. There was another woman who told everyone her name was Linda and wore a purple vest over a purple mesh long-sleeved top, but she was just there to learn, because she was a psychotherapy student and wanted to run groups like these herself one day. Carlotta wondered why anyone would want to run a group like this. She had always assumed that the group counsellors were hard up for money or depressed or something, or that they were eccentric volunteers. Learning that Linda and maybe even Sally wanted to be here, or at least pretended to themselves that they did, made Carlotta feel even more like she had to say something. She fought against this, sitting with her legs crossed at her ankles and her cardigan pulled down over her hands. She let herself imagine glass after glass of champagne flecking her insides with gold.
After group, Carlotta and two guys she’d seen in here time after time went to ask for Valium. All of their hands were shaking and Jimmy felt sick like he was going to vomit, like he had been all morning in his toilet down the hall. They knew it depended on which nurse was on shift, and that they had to be meek and quiet as mice trying to carry food back to their holes. Being an asshole wouldn’t get you anywhere, Jimmy reminded them as they shuffled towards the door marked ‘SANITARIUM’. When he opened his mouth Carlotta could smell his body fighting against its walls. She looked over at Douglas, who looked even worse than last time she’d seen him, and she wondered if this would mean more Valium or less. He was coughing in a way that made her feel fearful. He sounded like he was dying.
The nurse working gave them one pill each, and didn’t even bother with the spiel. Carlotta had no bourbon in her drawer; she’d learned years ago that there was no point drinking when you were trying to see if you could heal. She knew too that you had to believe—it was the one thing her doctor and Sally and the nurse and all four of her sons said that she knew was right. What she wasn’t sure of was whether she would know when she did believe, or whether it would just be the next step, when her body couldn’t take it anymore. That time seemed dark on the horizon. Douglas had been funny once. She’d even thought that maybe he could do it for her. Now he was a shell making moaning noises, just a pair of eyes that couldn’t see.
In Group the next morning they talked about hangovers. Carlotta was asked to talk about how hangovers were for her these days, and to close her eyes (take as long as she needed) and try to put herself there—in bed or on the couch—so she could feel the way she felt after she had drunk as much as she wanted to. It was to remind her how horrible it felt, but she didn’t need a reminder. She told Sally that when she was hungover she felt like she had no edges. Sally reminded the group that a hangover was your body trying to recover from the shit-show you had put it through. Every single person in the group nodded, as though they hadn’t thought this one hundred thousand times, lying in bed trying to hold their bodies together with juddering arms. Sally looked pleased with herself, and ended the group five minutes early. She was a heavy smoker.
Carlotta and Douglas and Jimmy and a woman Carlotta saw sometimes at her local pharmacy and bottle shop and everyone else who was able to keep themselves upright did an activity after dinner. It was something she remembered her boys had done when they were little, when they’d come home with paint hands and large pieces of paper coloured like butterflies. Linda, the woman wearing purple, was showing them how to do it, and she was nicer than Carlotta had thought, smiling wryly and telling them that this may look like child’s play, but it was still the most joyful thing she could remember ever having done; that getting your fingers wet with paint was like dancing in a warm patch of sea. She had a purple shawl over her shoulders now, for it was cold in the rec room, and Carlotta thought she looked pretty in the moth light.
It was fun, and joyful, and almost took away the yearning for a few seconds at a time, between scotch fingers and strong tea and question answering. Carlotta’s finger painting was the most beautiful, everyone agreed, and when she got back to her room she hung it up on the wall with the Blu-Tack Linda had given her. But then her chest suddenly ached for bourbon warmth, and the blues and greens of the wings seemed to be dancing in an unseemly way, so she went and made herself a stale Maxwell House with four sugars in the kitchenette, where at least the light was bright enough for nothing to be hiding.
On the fifth day Douglas died. Carlotta only knew because his room was clean and empty when she passed it on the way to breakfast, and when the group asked Sally where he was she wouldn’t answer them. This happened sometimes, and Carlotta always wondered whether it was a bad seizure like they warned, or whether death might seem the only option once you realised this would be your last detox. She wondered as she stirred her Cheerios round and round, trying to make them one with the milk, whether she would die in a place like this. Her boys probably assumed she would, her doctor and her therapist too. For now, the idea was a cloud above her, filling with rain.
She left detox on the morning of the eighth day. It was so hot outside that the air around her wobbled as she opened the taxi boot and placed her small bag inside. She hadn’t told anyone what time she would be getting home, and when she opened the door and stepped into the house it was cool and light-filled and empty. Tears that felt as big as grapes had been waiting behind her eyes for hours, and now they burst. She cried for the concept of drudgery, and every single hour left. She cried that she couldn’t stand it. The phone rang and she wiped away the tears and answered. It was her eldest, and he said he was coming over, with his wife and daughter to see her. She put down the phone with shaking hands, shaking for nerves and not for drink, and ran to the pantry for the bourbon.