Molly’s friend Ronaldo orders a second old fashioned, and she has to tamp down the voice in her head that itches to inform him (to lecture, she corrects herself) of what the ethanol (rotted plant waste is the phrase she really wants to use) is doing to his brain. Sobriety has turned her into her mother-in-law, Didi, who flinches every time Molly inadvertently uses “god” as an interjection. Didi assumes that the “god” of Molly’s interjections is Didi’s God, that by saying, “God, I’m exhausted,” Molly is likening Didi’s God to a “wow” or a “whoa” or a “yikes.” This perceived degradation offends Didi, yes, but the flinch is also Didi suppressing the urge to warn Molly that she’s booking herself a ticket on a high-speed train to hell. Molly has long found religious people intriguing in this respect—how earnestly they believe that they’re more enlightened than you and how this conviction convinces them it is their responsibility to instruct you on how to live. It’s infuriating behavior for sure, but she empathizes with their plight. To believe so certainly that the mother of your grandchildren is going to hell if she doesn’t change her ways, that’s a tough predicament.
Alcohol is now for Molly like God is for Didi, in the sense that Molly has spent so much time reading and thinking and talking about alcohol these past few weeks that she believes she knows it far better than Ronaldo and all these other restaurant patrons drinking their fancy cocktails and their blood-hued wine. Because Ronaldo is her good friend and she loves him, she feels an urge to warn him (to proselytize, Molly corrects).
It’s like one of those cartoons where the two characters are stranded on a lifeboat, starving, and one looks at his best friend, the chicken, and sees not his fluffy, feathery body but a golden-brown roast, his legs plump drumsticks. Super-imposed on Ronaldo’s warm brown eyes, Molly sees a cirrhotic liver, barnacled instead of smooth. Then that image disappears like a slide she’s clicked, replaced with—Oh god: not some crappy, too-sweet old fashioned, but Molly’s own former go-to drink: Maker’s Mark, with one cube of ice slowly melting. The trick was to pace herself, so she could finish the drink just as the ice finally dissolved. That was the perfect last sip, the signal that she could order another.
Molly shakes her head to dislodge the Maker’s, and Ronaldo’s face returns to normal, except he’s giving her a quizzical look. And Molly has to resist (the endless resistance! She understands why people use the expression “white-knuckling”; dinner at a restaurant is like gripping the side of a bouncy river raft) the urge to say, What the hell, dude? Why are you ordering a second cocktail in front of your good friend who has yet to make it past the one-month mark? Is that not a sign in and of itself of a drinking problem, of being in the thrall of alcohol, that you would make such a weak, selfish, and inconsiderate error in judgement? Does not such behavior warrant a lecture on ethanol and cirrhotic livers, since clearly Ronaldo needs saving from himself?
Then again, did she not tell him barely forty minutes ago that he shouldn’t censor his desire to drink? Did she not say confidently, “I’ve got this!”
These questions rattle in Molly’s head like cubes of ice in a glass.
As though he can read her mind, Ronaldo says, “You said you don’t even miss alcohol.” The look in his eyes makes Molly think of how she feels playing arcade games—braced the entire time for her avatar’s impending pixel-dismantling death.
He says, “Fuck, Molly.” He sticks up his hand to flag down their waitress.
The waitress quickly appears, and Ronaldo tries to cancel the drink, but Molly says, “No, don’t cancel it. He wants the drink.”
The waitress has a head of silvery white hair that is almost violet. Rather than make her look old or worn, her hair makes her vibrant and hip. She eyes Molly’s pink prickly-pear lemonade, and Molly suspects that the woman has read this situation clearly. This embarrasses her. Alcohol is such a pervasive and deeply ingrained part of the culture that giving it up is akin to giving up gas-guzzling transportation. Forgoing it makes her seem snooty and judgmental. Her abstaining inconveniences people. Molly’s friend Una commutes by bicycle only, which means no plans that include Una on the guest list can venture outside an approximately six-mile radius. And now Ronaldo feels like he can’t have a second drink.
Ronaldo says, “Please cancel it. Thank you.”
Molly says nothing, but she is already considering what she will write about this experience tonight in her online community of other people giving up alcohol without AA. The problem with AA, the group ethos goes, is that it is all about willpower, and so all about fighting your cravings. Instead Molly is learning to deconstruct her cravings so that eventually they aren’t cravings anymore. Supposedly this makes not drinking about gain rather than about loss. Supposedly it will make her more present and more joyful.
But here she is sitting across the table from her longtime friend, yet she’s thinking about the conversation she will later have about him with other people, strangers she doesn’t know anything about other than that they too have quit drinking. Well, that, and that they share her resistance to AA: a resistance which is not merely about AA glamorizing alcohol (as a permanent “craving” that needs to be resisted “one day at a time”), but also about its emphasis on submitting to a higher power. Molly isn’t “present,” she’s far away, imagining herself back in her bedroom, a space that’s felt cavernous ever since Connor moved out last year, and now, without her nightly, companionable Maker’s Mark, that much emptier.
Clearly Connor is not going to come to his senses, recognize how hard Molly is trying, how much she deserves to get him back. “Good for you,” he’d said when she told him she’d quit drinking. It was hard to explain what was so chilly, so measured about the phrase. On paper, it sounded supportive. But Connor’s delivery turned it into something else. It was that subtle way Connor emphasized “you.” He communicated that Molly’s quitting drinking was something that now benefitted her alone.
What do cravings become once they are no longer cravings? Molly has never posed the question to her group. She thinks of arcade games again. They were Connor’s thing. She’d always kind of hated them—even Pac-Man, her game of choice—because they made her so damn tense. Curious how those blocky ghosts’ pursuit of the little yellow corn kernel of a figure her hand was controlling could raise her heart rate so much. But she had always chosen to play rather than sit on the red sofa and wait for Connor to be done. She had chosen to play despite how much the experience frazzled her. Because there were brief moments of pleasure in playing Pac-Man, such as when she managed to maneuver her Pac-Man toward a piece of fruit, or better yet, toward a ghost-turned-blue. Then her Pac-Man could destroy the thing that had been taunting him, but only temporarily, until the ghosts resumed their normal coloring and consequently their normally lethal nature. Is that what a craving became when it was no longer a craving? A ghost-turned-blue that could turn on her at any moment? Because as much as she wanted to, she could not believe cravings could remain always and forever ghosts-turned-blue.
Or maybe the problem is she’s using the wrong metaphor? Maybe cravings dissolve into nothingness, like when Pac-Man dies three times and no jiggling of the joystick or the coin slot will bring him back to life unless you put in another quarter?
The problem is she can always get her hands on another quarter. So how do you make the cravings stop for good? You take a baseball bat to the machine and, after that, every other Pac-Man machine in existence?
And can the same alchemy be applied to Connor? Can she take a baseball bat to the memory of him? Make her longing for Connor disappear? Molly imagines asking this to a bunch of strangers who will reassure her (grandmotherly Pat134 and sarcastic but steadfast trickynick): You’ve got this, girl.