The Confession of Claire Hanson
“Nate? Yeah. He’s here.” The red-haired man who’d opened the door nodded until he resembled one of those bobble head dolls.
“Where is he?”
“Living room.” He gestured for me to come inside. His Corona sloshed in its bottle, the liquid reduced to backwash and lime. “Man, that guy can party. He’s like a fuckin’ fish.”
The ashy incense of cigarettes thickened the air. I walked through the tiny hallway and into the living room. People draped the ratty furniture, lounged on the floor, and leaned against the grubby walls. The smells of beer, puke, and weed assailed me, making my stomach weak. “Nate!”
The music, some ’80s tune I vaguely remembered, throbbed an insidious beat in my temples and viciously competed with the chatter and laughter of the partygoers. I passed a woman with a lit cig and she blew smoke into my face. My eyes welled with tears and my nose clogged from the cancerous assault. “Sorry,” she said.
“It’s a Betta fish,” says Nate holding up the container. A small blue and red fish swims around in the clear water seemingly unperturbed at living in such a tiny space.
“It’s pretty,” I say. “Why didn’t you get two? It’ll get lonely.”
“Bettas can’t live together. They fight until one dies.”
I take the container. The fish stares at me. Its undulating fins look like shimmering flags. “We need to get him a bigger bowl.”
I stepped over a giggling couple sitting with their backs to the wall. The guy held up an empty plastic cup. “More please. More please. More please.”
“I’m not a bartender.”
I plucked the cup from his hand and, as if he were a knight who’d passed me the Holy Grail before his dying breath, he collapsed against the girl. She looked at the tawny head using her shoulder for a pillow. Then she sighed and lifted a beer bottle to her lips.
I elbowed through the mash of humans to get to the kitchen. It was tiny, painted baby-shit yellow, and thankfully devoid of people. I trashed the cup and opened the fridge. Rows and rows of beer, wine coolers, and soda were shoved into every available spot. Opening the cabinets revealed countless bottles of rum, bourbon, Schnapps, vodka, gin, and tequila.
Our kitchen had once looked like this. Now, because Nate loved me and because guilt ate away at his insides as much as the alcohol did, our fridge stocked one 18-pack of beer. He hid the 32-ounce bottle of rum in the hallway closet. He hadn’t figured out that I knew the difference between beer drunk and rum drunk.
Nate and I stare at the Betta as it swims around its new bowl. Red rocks fill the bottom and sprouting from them is a single green plastic plant. “Do you think he’s happy?” I ask.
“You want to name him Happy?” Nate looks at me and grins. My heart skips a beat. My husband is handsome and strong and funny and tender. He is a good man with a terrible flaw. I love him anyway.
“At least he’ll always be Happy,” I say.
SMACK! The man lifted his head from the doorjamb. “Damn. That hurt.” He was short, with broad shoulders that suggested too many trips to the gym, and a military haircut. Rubbing his forehead with one hand and clasping a Bud Light in the other, he stumbled into the kitchen. He staggered a few steps, his arms windmilling, before he caught his balance. He turned around, a sloppy grin pasted on his lips, and fell on his ass. He looked up at me. “Hi.”
“Yes, you are,” I said. “Need help up?”
“Nope. Think I better stay here for a sec.” His eyes rolled up into his head and he drooped forward like a wilting carnation. I bent down and took the dark brown bottle, but before I could shake him awake, he flopped onto his side and started to snore.
I threw away the beer and returned to the living room. The music had switched to something low and moody. Someone had turned off most of the lights, signaling it was time to go home or to get laid. Or, more likely, some drunken idiot had accidentally brushed against the light switch.
Threading my way through objects and people, I looked for the shadow that might be my husband. I ran into the red-haired guy. He patted me on the shoulder. What did he think I was? A Pomeranian?
“You find Nate?”
“On the couch. Drinks like a fuckin’ fish.”
“Fish don’t drink.”
He blinked at me. “Huh?”
“Their gills cycle out the oxygen in the water.”
He shrugged. His greenish complexion indicated he was one Corona away from puking. I scooted by him and checked out the people on the couch. My effort was rewarded.
On the far end, a can of Miller Lite in one hand, Nate sat with eyes closed and head bowed. I had seen him this way a thousand times — it was as familiar to me as the setting of the sun. Nate always said there was no point to drinking if you weren’t doing it to get drunk.
I knew the truth, though. Nate drank to get to that soft, quiet place where problems didn’t exist. That’s where he was now. That’s where he went almost every night.
Happy lays on the counter next to his bowl, dry and still.
“He must’ve jumped out.” Nate flinches and puts a hand against his head, squeezing his eyes shut. I dig around in the kitchen drawer until I find the aspirin and hand him the bottle.
“Why would he do that?”
“Why does anyone do anything, babe? Maybe he thought the world was better outside the fishbowl.”
I won’t let Nate flush Happy. He doesn’t argue. He goes to bed so he can nurse his hangover. I fold a paper towel around Happy until he’s encased in a small triangle. I take him outside, but nowhere in the trimmed bushes and thin strips of lawn crisscrossed by sidewalks is there a place to bury a fish.
I return to the apartment and take the makeshift mummy to the bathroom. Dropping the carcass into the toilet, I push the lever and watch the swirling water take away Happy. Then I drop to my knees and cry.
His eyelids fluttered then slowly rose to half-mast. His gaze was dull and glassy, though recognition flickered. His mouth twisted into a smile, but no words formed. He lifted the beer can with a palsied hand and I took it from him, putting it on the floor.
“Time to come home?” he managed to slur. I only understood the question because I’m well-versed in alcoholic-speak.
“Yeah. Time to come home.”
He wrapped an arm around my shoulders and drew me into an embrace. His eyes closed and he slumped against the couch. I leaned against him, the weight of his arm both comforting and too heavy to bear. I breathed in the scent of my husband — the earthy smell of cologne tainted by spilled beer and cigarette smoke.
It was then I decided this would be the last time I picked up Nate from some rando party house.
I drove to the lake and parked our car right on the shoreline. I rolled the windows down to let fresh air inside, or more accurately, to dissipate the sour smell of booze emanating from my husband. For a long time I stared at the undulating water and listened to the slosh of waves against the rocky shore.
I thought about Happy, who risked everything just to see what was on the other side of the glass that imprisoned him. Then I thought about Nate. About how all his attempts to find peace ended at the bottom of a bottle. He tried everything. Rehab. AA. Medication. Holistic retreats. Counseling.
He was trapped.
That’s why walked my husband out into the lake. He’s taller than I am, so I had swim out a little and coax him to go with me. He was so out-of-it.
Normally, it might’ve been difficult for me to hold him under the dark water, but he didn’t have coordination or strength to fight for long. Alcohol had taken that away from him. Just like it had stolen everything else.
His body was too heavy to drag out, so I left him there.
I hope you all understand that Nate is at peace now.
And so am I.