The Relapse 

Page 8 of 13

A week passed after the abortion and Claudia still hadn't called her mother. She told herself she'd wait until she stopped bleeding and then she'd call. She knew her mother would ask how she was recovering, and she'd have to say: "I'm still bleeding," if she was still bleeding, and that her mother would worry. Then two weeks went by and she still hadn't stopped bleeding and she called her mother anyway. Her mother asked how she was recovering. Claudia confessed.

"That doesn't sound good," her mother said. "You should talk to them about that."

Claudia realized she'd been dreading telling her not because she didn't want the sympathy—she did—but because this mark of injury made her feel even guiltier, a sign of the harm she'd done herself, another cause for mourning. She knew she should tell her about quitting drinking but in the end she didn't. Whenever she criticized herself—or some way she'd been—her mother took it as a criticism of her, and drinking was something they'd often shared, her mother joking: What a pair of lushes.

Her mother suggested they go out to dinner. Claudia counter-suggested a museum. Ever since she'd quit, it saddened her to think of things she'd once associated with drinking—long meals, bottles of wine, a cold and dirty martini, that taste of shared dissolve. She was trying to surround herself with sunlight, white walls, salt air—pure things that would make her feel happy to be inside a body and alive.

They went to an art museum in a villa by the ocean. Its gardens followed perfect geometries full of herbs and soaring walls and trickling fountains crusted with mosaic fish and mermaids. Claudia had packed them a picnic: half-baguette, soft cheese, strawberries, sparkling mineral water. Claudia wanted to set the tone of the day: not a funeral, but a day of open nerves and curiosity.

They poked through a collection of photographs of drained swimming pools. It was a special exhibit. The sepia grottos of concrete were strewn with palm fronds, discarded pool noodles, deflated inflatable tubes, an obstinate child with a snorkel strapped to her face. They talked about what they were looking at: how desolate, how predictable. They didn't talk about themselves. This absence felt good to Claudia, the silence like air in her lungs. Her mother took it differently. "It doesn't feel like we're experiencing this together," she said. "We're not even talking."

How could Claudia explain how good it felt—how effortless, and comforting—to feel her mother's body beside hers as the light hit their backs through glass? It made her feel as if nothing was being demanded of her.

They found a picnic table. Her mother wanted to sit. She wanted to talk. Claudia unpacked the bag. Packing the food had been a way of saying—I feel good, fine, awkward, muted. This is all I've got. I'm glad to be with you here, but now—as she unpacked—her choices felt cloying and overly elegant.

Her mother unscrewed the sparkling water. "No wine?"

"I've been meaning to tell you," Claudia paused. "I've decided to stop drinking."

"You what?"

"I didn't know how to stop needing it," she said. "So I stopped."


"And what?"

"Has it made everything better?" Her mother's eyes were shrewd and glittering, her eyebrows raised.

"In the last three weeks, you mean?"

"Isn't that the whole idea?"

"Not really."


"It's more like… if you're an alcoholic you'll always be one."

"Yes," her mother said. "So I've heard."

"As in: you still have to deal with what made you want to drink in the first place."

"You learned that piece of wisdom in a meeting?"


"Just sounds like programming, is all. They'd probably say I was an alcoholic too."

Claudia said nothing. She'd been picturing her mother recently, remembering moments from childhood that were suddenly electric with meaning: her parents relaxing with vodka tonics every night before her father left—perhaps what kept him from leaving earlier; a bottle of Syrah half-drunk before dinner, her mother sipping while she cooked, red-in-the-face and ready for a family meal.

She saw a cloud pattern of expression move across her mother's face. "Does it feel like a way to mark the abortion? Do you think that's part of it?"

"My sobriety as baby?" Claudia asked. "I never thought of it that way."

Her mother was quiet for a moment. "I wish you wouldn't make light of all this."

"I'm not making light of anything."

"I think you might not be fully aware of how hard this has been for you."

"I guess I'm trying not to cast myself as a victim."

"Well I certainly don't mean to victim-cast you," her mother said. "Is that another one of their phrases?"


"You know what I mean."

"It's not one of their phrases," Claudia said carefully. "But it's one of their ideas—waking up every day and living your life. No complaints. No excuses. Just making the best of things."

"I've always pictured those meetings as a bunch of people bragging about their self-destructive pasts. Person with the most nights of unprotected sex or prison wins. Something like that."

"It's nothing like that."

Her mother shrugged. "Sounds like a game of trump the pain to me."

She said this—trump the pain—like it was a piece of private language between them, though it wasn't. But Claudia was able to picture it instantly: two women staring each other down across a table, flipping over playing cards to see who had the higher number, the more wounded queen. This bothered her—as if it was a game at which they'd both—somehow, simply by living—become experts.

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