During the last 40 days, the Christian world was preoccupied with abstinence, as that is what gives meaning to the observance of lent: the practice of abstaining from indulgence (fasting), doing penance for past mistakes, and praying for improvement while remembering that Jesus, the son of God, was killed on Good Friday as a sacrifice for the people. Easter is celebrated as the day Jesus was resurrected from the dead, or so the Christians believe. Not that I do accept that practice, but I think it is nevertheless a good point in the year for reflection: spring. How are you going to conduct yourself in this new year with new life beginning everywhere?
This is a story about abstinence posted on Easter Sunday, the day of the ending of abstinence. The reader can take anything or nothing from it, as you please. Please, rate this story in the top and I would greatly appreciate any comments you might leave on the bottom of the story.
Slogging together knee deep through the greasy mud of the Wadden Sea between the islands and the mainland of Groningen in an attempt to try to beat the turning tide during a four hour window: that’s how it started with Aaron. This hike was without question a challenging physical endeavour on a holiday weekend for our group of addicts in recovery and their counsellors—all city people. Let’s face it: that would have been hard work for anybody.
I was not particularly athletic, although I developed muscles in my legs from years of peddling my bike 30 clicks to high school every day, not by free will, but on account of my parents’ parsimonious refusal to let me travel by public transit. “It’s healthy for you, take the bike”. My parents did not believe in spoiling the child, although they spared the rod.
Both in our early thirties and unhitched, Aaron and I hit it off. He was funny and generous, friendly and sweet. He seemed to care about others. He was also good-looking, tall and well built, although with a bit of extras around the waist. No problem, he just needed to move a bit more, I thought. I would take care of that. Aaron had successfully graduated from the treatment centre some time before I had started working there.
We made it in time, although we felt the undertow pull at our calves: nothing like the fear of drowning in the strong North Sea currents to keep one moving. Tired and dirty we cleaned ourselves up at the inn’s outdoor taps at our end destination. We had a bite to eat before returning home. The weekend had been a success. Aaron and I started dating.
In the experimental treatment centre in Amsterdam all preconceived notions about addiction treatment had been thrown out the window. When the sixties wave of drug use led to admitting a different type of patient, the medical model and the “twelve steps” based practices ended. Every new theory was open for testing. Patients were now called residents and their pyjamas only used at night: nobody was permitted to go to bed during the day. Residents were actively running the house together with staff for the duration of their nine months’ stay. Every newcomer was put on a methadone or another medication program and was clean and sober within two weeks after arrival, without exception.
I had not known Aaron as a resident. “You know, he is one of those rare birds that can drink socially after treatment and keep a handle on it,” his former therapist said.
Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic, meaning that complete abstinence is the only true path: Aaron might just have proven that old paradigm of addiction wrong.
I liked Aaron a lot and admired his sense of fun. His small home was a true testament of his passion for a long bygone era: the sturdy replica-imperial furniture around his place and his heavy oak poster bed fitted well with Aaron’s physical appearance and his old fashioned ideas. Aaron was getting along great with my other friends. Just like them, he drank a beer or two.
We planned a vacation. Aaron had not been out of the country in a long time and was excited. We picked Portugal where I had visited once before and I knew just the place to go: the Algarve on its south coast with its wild, untamed beaches and beautiful sheer rock formations rising straight up from the golden sand. My friends lent us a tent and air mattresses.
Faro was a short flight from Amsterdam and we arrived midday, found a campground, on the outskirts of town, and after eating a thin, greasy steak with French fries at a local café down the street, settled in for the night.
The next day we continued on to Lagos, our end destination. We packed up our few belongings and caught a bus. By the end of the day we had found a great spot on a campsite overlooking the Atlantic Ocean just outside of Lagos.
The eucalyptus trees wafted their medicinal scent across the landscape and the setting sun felt still warm on our bare arms and legs. The place looked exotic, with palm trees growing along the edges of the paths. Many colourful shrubs of Oleanders and Hibiscus seemed to have sprouted from the hard and yellow-orange soil like weeds without a plan.
We needed something to eat and had noticed the restaurant, just off the campground along the road back to town. Yes, they offered the fare I loved, although Aaron was less happy with the octopus and calamari and such on the menu and he chose a plate of French fries and beefsteak, and a beer, just like last night.
“I am disappointed with the beef. It’s too thin and is overcooked,” he complained.
“Yes, to our northern standards, I have to admit it is, I replied and added “Only slowly braised meat is really good in Portugal, in my experience. If you expect steak like back home, you can’t get that here. They cook everything in olive oil. The seafood is just excellent. That’s the specialty so close to the ocean; this is fishermen’s country. Try the freshly grilled sardines next time.”
We calculated that, to catch our flight back in time in six days, we needed to leave at the latest in three days from this spot. Not much time to waste, so we’d better enjoy the beach while we could, so we took off to the beach. The ocean and the beach were as expected glorious and we spent our day relaxing, talking, some necking, and had a seafood lunch at a beach shack.
The evening was mild and still warm. We lolled around outside the tent on the air mattresses converted to easy chairs, feeling rejuvenated, our skin all rosy looking having absorbed the sun. I was happily reading a book. Aaron seemed restless. He was not much of a talker.
“Aaron, are you bored? You seem restless. Didn’t you bring a book?”
“No, I am not much of a reader. Do you I feel like going to the bowling alley? I saw one attached to a bar further down the road.”
“Sure, if you like.” Although I was not a great bowler and was perfectly happy relaxing and reading, I went along. I knew very little then about what really motivated Aaron.
We got to the place, ordered a drink, and then we started a game. The place was not that busy and the local bar tender was visibly bored. After our game was finished, he joined us at our table and we made friendly small talk. His English—our common language–was half-decent; he was putting in a good effort entertaining us. More drinks were ordered. Aaron was drinking more than his usual two. I was beginning to worry.
Aaron wasn’t his usual self since we had left Amsterdam. He was quiet and seemed to be out of his element. At first I chalked it up to his admitted fear of flying; once landed he should have recovered his equilibrium, I told myself, but he hadn’t. He did not show any indication of wanting sex; my seduction attempts fell flat. “I’m just tired,” he said. I decided I would give him some time to get acclimatized.
I realized I didn’t really know him. I wondered whether it had been too early in our relationship to go on a vacation together. I always thought travelling together a good way of getting to know each other, but maybe I was wrong this time. Aaron was so different than before–now that we were alone together. He had nothing to say, had no conversation.
We seemed to have nothing in common. My attempts to have a conversation felt desperate, so I keep silence after a few attempts.
When the bartender started to talk to us, Aaron’s face lit up, like a baby who sees his mother arrive at his crib in the morning. Aaron was smiling and suddenly animated again, like the Aaron I knew before this trip. This chameleon-like change confused me.
It felt like we had said everything we wanted to say to each other and now he had found the new territory he was looking for. I knew I was not the jealous type; I just didn’t understand.
I observed the dynamics between those two men who seemed to become instant friends.
Aaron sought this man’s company—no, his approval—even more so than anything I could say or do. Men’s company; buddies. Yes, he was seeking a buddy. But did he have to do that with so many drinks? He was getting wasted.
“Hey, Aaron, what do you say, shall we call it a night? I think we should go back to the camp ground now.”
“Hey, why? We are having fun. The night is still young.”
“We could come back again tomorrow. We have a few days left, don’t we? I really want to go now. Are you coming?”
“Aw, chucks, well, if you have to go, I will go with you. Well, see you maybe again tomorrow?” This last remark was directed to the barkeeper, whose name turned out to be Julio.
Julio obviously liked our company and replied: “Sure, if you come tomorrow again, I will take you to a party somewhere else after closing time, if you like…”
“Oh, yes, that’s great, we will go, won’t we?” Now Aaron looked at me. I had my doubts and was reluctant to commit.
“Maybe, we will see how things roll during the day.” And to Julio: “Nice meeting you. Have a good night then, bye.”
I wanted to get out of the place; the way this whole trip rolled had all my systems on alert. I didn’t want to start a fight, but I would like Aaron to stop drinking. He had pretty much been drinking all day: at lunch, at dinner and at the bowling. I lost count, but knew it was way more than his usual, especially at the bowling alley, and way more than me.
I considered my conundrum: was I responsible for him, or not? Well, good question. I didn’t want to be. We were dating, and I wasn’t his therapist. Maybe I should try opening up this conversation, as a good girlfriend would.
After arrival at our camp site, Aaron was staying outside the tent. I came back out and sat down next to him.
“Aaron, are you okay? What is happening?”
“ Oh, don’t know, nothing. I just wanted to stay at the bar and you are forcing me to leave.” He sounded like a petulant child.
“Well, you don’t have to leave if you want to stay, you know. You are a grown man and can do whatever you like.”
“Yes, I am and I can. Why did you want to leave, was it not great for you?”
“Well, to tell you the truth, you are getting pissed, that’s why I wanted to leave. I have never seen you drink that much. This seems a problem to me. I know I am not your therapist, but I don’t want a drunk for a boyfriend either. Why do you drink so much?”
“I am? I hadn’t noticed.”
“Oh, come on, Aaron. Usually you have two beers, that’s it. Have you kept count today?”
“No, but you apparently have. Get off my back, will you? I am on vacation.”
“Jeez, Aaron, thanks for that. Why should I even worry, right?”
“Yes, why would you?”
“ Well, I care for you and if you keep drinking I will not be here with you for long. Just so you know. I know I am not your therapist, but let me be the one that said it first: I think you have relapsed into addiction and can’t stop. You seem to spot the bar before anything else and have been drinking without fail every day.”
“Damn you, I so can stop and I will show you. I’m going to sleep now, goodnight.” With that he got up and put his tall body inside the pup tent with arms poking wildly into its navvy nylon sides, before he finally lay down, with much sighing and muttering under his breath.
I stayed outside and stared at the sky without seeing. When I heard snoring coming from the tent, I quietly slipped inside too and lay down on top of my air mattress and sleeping bag. It simply was too hot to cover up. My thoughts milled about like a school of small fry darting this way and that, unpredictable and in a frantic tempo.
Was I wrong to bring Aaron to this foreign country? Was I too bossy? Were we even compatible? It was beginning to dawn on me that Aaron is definitively not “cured”. The experiment is finished: proof is abundant that to tame the dragon of alcoholism, abstinence is required.
Did I want to invest any energy in a relationship with an addict? I knew the answer: definitely not. How much of me was an addiction worker, how much of me was a disappointed woman and which one will prevail? Maybe I was too pessimistic and our little talk might have smartened him up. After what seemed hours I finally must have fallen asleep.
The next morning the sun’s brightness hurt our eyes when we crawled out of the tent with an hour between us.
“Good morning, Aaron. How are you feeling? If you’re up to it, I would like to do some shopping in town today. What do you say?” I ask.
Aaron didn’t want to look me in the eye and mumbled without much enthusiasm: “Fine.”
“You don’t have you, if you don’t want to. What would you want to do today?”
“Nothing. That’s fine.”
“I would be okay going by myself, no pressure. If you like, you could stay here, or go to the beach to swim, or whatever.” Aaron was a strong swimmer and I admired his lack of fear for the strong, Atlantic surf.
“ No I will come with you.”
After our brunch, we spent the afternoon roaming around the fresh food market. I admired the variety of fish and sea creatures that were on sale: everything edible the ocean beholds was offered here: marlin, swordfish, tuna, shark, and conger eel, as well as many kinds of muscles and crustaceans displayed in large heaps on ice. Piles of fresh fruit and vegetables attractively displayed beckoned the local shoppers.
The trip to town was a welcome distraction. Aaron seemed to have perked up a bit and was more talkative than at any time since we had landed. I felt a ray of hope glow into my heart.
“Where are we going to eat today? Let’s eat in town, there are some nice places here,” Aaron said. “If we want to go out with Julio after closing time, we have plenty of time to have dinner.”
By ten that night we headed back to Julio’s bar. He was entertaining a few late guests. By eleven the place was empty. “Time to close,” he said and started cleaning up. It didn’t take him long. We all got into his compact and drove off into the dark. It took at least 40 minutes before he stopped at another beach with a lone restaurant right on its edge. The patio overlooked the ocean. A glorious spot, we agreed.
There was a bit of a party going on inside with about eight people still there. Julio introduced us; we got a lukewarm reception. Aaron enthusiastically sat down beside Julio in a booth and they started drinking from the bottle Julio brought–serious drinking. I wanted to scream and rip the bottle away and throw it in the ocean, but I didn’t.
I sat on the other side of Julio and just watched what was happening. Aaron and Julio and the others across the table were engaged in banter back and forth about football, talk steeped in competition back and forth—Portugal against the Netherlands. This went on for a while and I saw Aaron get drunk, really drunk.
I had a couple of glasses of wine, but refused the hard liquor. My heart was dark and I didn’t care any more. I was just waiting for the end. Then, without warning, I felt a hand on my thigh. I looked up: Julio was looking at me and softly asked: “Would you like to go for a walk on the beach?”
I hesitated and looked at Aaron. He was in conversation with the Portuguese guys spicing his slurred English with Dutch words.
“Okay, it’s a nice night, sure, let’s go for a walk,” I said.
Julio took my hand and we walked out onto the beach via the patio. It was indeed a glorious night. I felt faint and weird. The only light was coming from the restaurant; the rest of the world was hidden in the dark. I could see an irregular ribbon of light moving along the beach. It retreated and then returned—it was the surf and sounded lovely, calming, and almost serene. We silently walked hand in hand and I liked it.
At a fair distance away from the light, Julio stopped walking, put his hands on my shoulders and turned me towards him; he started kissing me. I kissed back. I raised my arms to embrace him, desire washing over me. His hands started roving and I wanted it, I needed it, I took it and I gave back. This embrace felt delicious, unexpected and illicit, unconscionable even. I completely surrendered and we lay down together on the soft sand—still warm from the day’s sunshine. We made love. I forgot where I was.
Suddenly I heard a slurred voice say, “So tha’sss where you guyssss went.”
I looked sideways and first saw Aaron’s legs and feet planted in the soft sand a few feet away, and then his body, swaying lightly. I couldn’t see the expression on his face, as it was really dark that night on the beach and I did not want to see it.
“Yes, go back to the house, we will join you in a minute, “ I called out, jolted back to reality.
Aaron turned his back and slowly, with apparent difficulty, he walked away from us into the direction of the lights. I wondered what he saw and what he comprehended from what he had seen. I told Julio “We have to go.”
Julio got up and stretched out his hand to pull me up to standing. We both straightened out our clothes without speaking, then started the walk back to the house, hand in hand.
Aaron was sitting in his booth in the bar; all others except the barkeeper had left.
“I will take you both back to your camp ground,” Julio said to Aaron, as if nothing had happened.
“Thank you,” I say. Aaron mumbled something.
The trip to the camp site took place in silence, Aaron in the passenger seat up front, I in the back seat. I noticed that Aaron was slumping and had passed out.
The next morning I packed my things and read my book while waiting till Aaron would come back to the living. When he finally crawled out of the tent close to noon, he saw me with my backpack sitting next to me, ready to leave.
“Are you leaving?” he asked obtusely.
“Yes. I don’t think we have a future together. I am sorry I left with Julio last night; I shouldn’t have done that. I will leave you the tent and will take a hotel myself. Don’t forget to leave in time to catch the return flight from Faro. See you back in Faro. ”
I made my way to Faro by bus and got a hotel. I spent the rest of my vacation in the city. The flight to Amsterdam would leave at 9:00 a.m. On arriving I looked around the airport for Aaron and again at the gate, but he did not show.
A week later I got a call from Aaron: he wanted to drop off the tent. “Yes, please,” I said and we set up a time. He looked dishevelled when I opened the door.
“I started drinking the morning you left me and I missed my flight. I was allowed to take that return flight without paying for it again, but only if I waited another week. Because I had run out of money I camped all that time by the airport and ate bread for a week. I am sick of bread.” He smiled sheepishly.
I couldn’t look him in the eye when I said: “I am sorry that happened to you. I did not mean for this to happen. It was bad of me to leave you behind like that and also going off with Julio.”
“That’s OK, I am not angry at you. Why did you leave anyway?”
“I was angry that you started drinking full-out, especially after I told you I thought you relapsed into addiction. I couldn’t pass up a chance to have some fun for myself, so I went off with Julio. I guess you never really stopped drinking at all after treatment, did you?”
“No, but I thought I could manage social drinking.”
“Thanks for getting the tent back.”
What more was there to say? We said our goodbyes.
Abstinence according to the dictionary means “the act or practice of refraining from indulging an appetite or desire, especially for alcoholic drink or sexual intercourse”. We had the intention to abstain, but discovered when we least expected it that we could not. Aaron and I both failed miserably at the art of abstinence.