Tale of a Salamander
“Not drinking has added an element of uncertainty to my life,” Nicki laughs. “I used to know how I’d die.”
She wraps long, elegant fingers around an iced tea glass and gives it a practiced shake, her old bourbon-and-soda gesture.
Nicki lived in Savannah with Joe above his used furniture store during her drinking days. Mornings, she’d awaken to the sound of sofas and chairs being scraped out to the sidewalk in front, to the thud of crates landing on concrete. She would test the air on her face and mouth before opening her eyes. If the salt air was gently moist, she would chance it and ease up gingerly.
There was a space between the Nicki of the early morning hours and the self she would be by noon. In bed alone, with the window open and a sea breeze stirring the sheer curtains, she relished being clear, flying solo. By noon the feeling was replaced by a whiskey thirst that reached to her knees.
Joe had been a seafaring man for most of his life. And, like a sailor’s chest, he had seemed sturdy and safe in the beginning when she first wandered into his store, looking for lamps. But now, good solid Joe was a highway to nowhere, and Nicki saw herself as only a dotted line on their map. Day by day, she felt herself fading, felt like she soon might disappear.
Nights, they would sit at Joe’s scarred formica kitchen table and drink. Now and then a pal of Joe’s would wander in with half a bottle. Sometimes Joe would go downstairs and meander through the store, sitting in every chair, “so no one feels left out,” he said.
Then she’d hear him bellowing his sailor’s songs.
Farewell to Nova Scotia, the sea-bound coast
Tho’ your mountains dark and dreary be.
When I’m far, far away on the briny ocean deep
Will ye ever heave a sigh and a wish for me?”
Or, Joe would lean across the table and take Nicki’s hands. His words seemed to come from far away although he was right in front of her.
“Baby,” he’d say, “I want to give you everything. Someday we’ll have it all: Louis Quatorze and Frank Lloyd chairs and Baccarat crystal. Lalique. The works.”
He would gaze at the long, cool length of her and get lost in her olive-green eyes. Nicki would regard his broad, pale forehead and half-shut lids. “I know,” she’d say. On some nights Joe would scoop Nicki up and carry her on a looping walk around the store. Inevitably, the bourbon overtook him and he’d stumble and drop her. The next day they would pretend not to see the bruises.
The day Nicki stopped drinking, she did it without Joe. She awoke with eyelids blue as plums and just as swollen. She looked in the mirror and looked away. There had been a new chip in a tooth, she’d noticed; some capillaries showed in the flesh of her nose.
Nicki started keeping a journal and hid it in her douche kit. She wrote down her dreams and poems and feelings. She looked up AA in the phone book and slipped away to meetings at hours when Joe was delivering furniture. She met Alana and Katya at an all-woman’s meeting, and she hung around with them in coffee shops.
Alana was Nicki’s sponsor. She had graying hair and amethyst eyes that gazed levelly at the world. One time, after a meeting, high on a coffee buzz and fellowship, Nicki said, “You know how they always say a woman is like a flower? Like her parts down there are like an orchid, and all?”
Her new friends were attentive now.
“Yeah,” Alana took up the thread, “like the romance novels always say ‘her petals opened,’ and all that crap?”
They were laughing harder.
“Well mine is nothing like a flower,” Nicki said. “Flowers need a gardener to move them around. Mine is like a salamander -- it’s moist and alive!”
Nicki was down to pleading. She hid bottles and, in the process, found other bottles Joe had hidden, who knows when? She tried to drag him out for walks, for booze-free outings to Cumberland Island where they could camp on the beach and watch shorebirds.
Joe was unmoved, unimpressed, un-sober.
She mocked him. She begged.
She called their life “the days of wine and roses,” and Joe laughed. “What’s wrong with roses?”
He called her a dramatist.
“A drahh-ma-teest, a DRAMA-TEST.”
He brought her a rose and pulled the petals off, soaked them in wine and pasted them with small slaps onto her belly, in concentric circles. Each one stayed in place until the wine dried. Nicki said nothing. She felt weightless now. She felt like she would blow away with the next coastal storm.
The afternoon that Nicki walked out on Joe, she’d been sober seven weeks. Joe was helping a customer load a camel-backed sofa onto a flatbed truck when a taxi pulled up. Joe took in the scene – Nicki stepping carefully down the cracked pavement with luggage, her blue-white grip on the handles, the taxi trunk ajar -- and felt an icy fear. The words welled up, “You CAN’T!”
He plunged towards the curb.
His mouth was an O full of “NO!” and “DON’T!”
But that taxi was already gone, bearing his Nicki away like a flower on somebody else’s lapel.
© Gita Smith 2010