Your Cup Will Never Be Full

I’m sitting on the edge of my bed looking out at the bay, still in my work clothes. It’s Friday afternoon, Memorial Day weekend, and the sun is bouncing off all the roofs of the houses, the water, the docked boats bobbing in the bay. Even after living here for two years, the view still stuns me. My house sits on top of a steep row of houses, the highest on the street, and from this perch in my bedroom, the beauty is always so shocking I believe it washes away all that is wrong. How can a marriage break in the face of that view? How can there be any pain at all?

We couldn’t afford the rent when we moved in here a year before, but now it’s just absurd for me to pay it alone. I can’t leave, though, not yet. Dealing with it is something I put off for my future self to handle. I take another sip of the red wine from my stem-less glass and wipe the condensation off the outside with my index finger.

“That wine tastes like shit,” you’d always say.

“I don’t think so,” I’d reply, smiling into the fridge as I filled up another glass from the box. 

I place the glass on the mattress and release my hold on it for a moment, my fingers hovering around it as an experiment. I remember one of the selling points for the mattress was that you could balance a glass of water on it. “Or a glass of wine,” the sales guy said with a wink-wink. Har-har, we thought, rolling our eyes.


The mattress arrived the morning we found out I was pregnant. We’d decided it was time to upgrade from your super-soft queen after one too many nights of sinking into each other, a pile of sticky limbs and heat balled up in the center. It was summer, July, and we both woke up early, crabby and sweating. I don't care if we have no money, you said. Me either, I huffed, and we drove out to the 'burbs in our silver VW Golf and bought the whole pine bedroom set on credit.

That morning, you had the delivery guys set it all up and chatted with them like you do, while I sat on the toilet with your navy boxer-briefs around my ankles, blinking at the pregnancy test. I hoped they would leave soon, and I hoped they would never leave. I walked past the group of you and smiled politely, but weakly, another wave of nausea rolling over me. I placed my hand on the knob of the front door and you, noticing I was still in my pajamas, tilted your head to say, You ok? and I nodded. "Coffee," I said, and slipped out, squeezing the white plastic stick into my palm.

I had no interest in coffee; I just needed to breathe. I paced around the park next to our house staring at my flip-flopped feet hit the grass with each step. Pregnant, pregnant, pregnant, I thought, my ears growing hot. How? A ridiculous question, but it seemed impossible. This hadn’t been the plan at all.

When I saw the furniture truck pull away I went back inside. You were standing in the middle of the bedroom and I wordlessly raised the test in front of your face. You smiled big, of course, and then hugged me, and we sat on the edge of the bare mattress and figured out what to do next.


I remember how, for the first few weeks after we got it, the mattress had a chemical smell I couldn't tolerate, just like chicken and eggs and coffee. It gives me a headache to think about it now—I can taste the smell in the back of my mouth.

Today, the mattress has the sharp vinegar smell of old red wine. I spilled on it again last night, and on the wood floor, and the white floor boards and the Robin's Egg Blue painted wall. I scan and spot some flecks of red on the bedside table leg that I didn’t see when I cleaned it up in the dark. Or maybe those are from another time. Last weekend, when you came to pick up Alma, I was washing the sheets and only the mattress cover was on the bed when you walked into the room. There were big, erratic maroon stains splotched all over the middle and you knew they were new, not ones that were there when you slept in the bed, too. You stopped what you were saying and looked at me. “What the hell, Laura?, less a question than a statement of disbelief. Without pause, I blamed it on Alma—she had jumped up on the bed while I was having a glass, I explain—but the truth was she was already fast asleep in her bedroom down the hall when it happened. She heard me say this and looked at both of us confused, wondering if she'd done something bad. I told her she didn’t remember what I was talking about, that it was okay, mommy wasn’t mad. My chest grew hot; we both knew I was lying, and the fact that I could lie so quickly and throw her under the bus like that made my stomach burn.

I don’t know why you surrendered the fight that day, but you did, and I was grateful as we walked out of the room and down the stairs. When you closed the front door and left with her and her little backpack swinging from your hand, I thought indignantly This is none of your fucking business—you don’t live here anymore. And I imagined you saying in response You’re not my fucking problem anymore, but she is, because you'd said it more than once before.


Today, though, the Friday before a holiday weekend, I am restless. It’s been almost a year since you moved out, and it still fills me with an untethered excitement to face time alone—to be free to do what I want, when I want, with whomever I choose. But I don’t have a place to be tonight and it's a night when the rest of the world does: barbecues, cookouts, weekend trips away to Nantucket or the Cape. The official kick-off of summer. I drink the wine because it pushes the loneliness away, but also because I still believe it will create new opportunities for me to connect. I still believe I’m back somewhere in my past, living in Boston, with my big group of friends around, and all those open-ended nights available to us. The reality is I am 35, separated, in a small town north of the city where I barely know anyone, and most of my friends are married or scattered around with their own, new families. I text a few people and sip, waiting for their replies. I check Facebook again, but it’s quiet, and a reminder of all the places I’m not.

A couple hours later, I’m lying belly down on the bed, peering down into the empty glass of wine. I place it on the bedside table, and close my eyes for a long sigh. The sun has gone down and my phone isn’t lighting up with any texts or calls, and I can hear nothing but the ocean lapping up against the shore outside. I open the notes app in my phone and type in the following:

I wonder what would happen with all the space I fill with empty things if I didn't fill it with empty things.

I wonder what would happen with all the space I fill with empty things if I didn't fill it with empty things.

I wake in the morning with a dullness that doesn’t match the sun shining outside. I look out at the view again and think: it just doesn’t add up. I want to feel the way it looks outside—and I got what I wanted, didn’t I? I wanted to be separated, I wanted to be out, I wanted to be on my own or at least not with you—and I still do, I don’t doubt the direction—but I feel so hollowed out and fragile all the time. Like if I don’t keep moving and doing, something essential will break.

I shuffle downstairs on shaky legs to make coffee and I think about going for a run. I think about the wide-open day ahead of me and the sunshine and I have momentary excitement, it’s building. I am used to this daily game of restructuring my thoughts to move toward positive. As I carry the coffee back up to my room I notice the piles of boxes we never unpacked when we moved in. There are a lot of things like that scattered around, evidence of my unwillingness to complete a thing. Another day, I think. Future self.

I’m walking on the window side of the bed and a thought comes to me, mid-step: the drinking is the thing. The drinking is the thing that has to go. And then, Your cup will never be full.

This stops me, and a little coffee spills over the edge of the mug, falling onto my toes. I turn toward the window and slowly sit down on the edge of the bed. I watch the creamy brown liquid swirl into a point in the center of the cup and it comes to me again: your cup will never be full.

I blink, and shake my head, as if it will jar the thought loose.

I stare out the window and my chest clenches tight, as if I might cough or cry, but I do neither. I just stare and blink and take a deep breath and let it out strong. I look at my feet—my toes are painted electric blue—and I touch my big toes together and notice the bones and tendons as they move.


That very night, I get a DUI. A couple months later, I have my first Day One, and more than a year after that, I have my last.  


I’ve thought about that morning hundreds of times since. Why did the message come to me then? What was it that got through? I don’t have all the answers, but I think it goes something like this.

That morning was banal and simple. It was quiet and I was alone. It wasn’t a morning of scrambling or regret after doing something stupid or dangerous the night before; it was a time when I should’ve otherwise felt somewhat peaceful and yet, I couldn’t. I couldn’t access that place inside me—and I knew then, although I wouldn’t understand for some time—that I never fully would so long as I kept drinking. I’d never made this direct connection before.

It was one thing to see the raw, tangible consequences of my drinking: the fractured relationships, the days spent in bed when I should’ve been at work, the way my daughter grew afraid of me, and later, the DUI. But it was another thing to feel the more subtle ways it was stealing my joy, and even my pain, because it kept everything at a dangerous distance. In some curious way, the latter of the consequences is a more compelling argument, because it’s inside ourselves that we have to live day after day. You can forever rearrange the outsides to try and make things feel whole, but wholeness moves from the inside out, not the other way around.

 


This morning I woke up on the same mattress. It's worn down a bit, but still could balance a cup of water, or wine—although I don't try that trick anymore. I don't have that spectacular view, but I like what I see so much more. To one side is my desk, with my most treasured books stacked on top. And to the other is the smell of my sweet girl's skin. I kiss her forehead and lift a tuft of hair off her cheek. There is so much still undone, but I'm not, and the headache I have comes from an honest place with no regret, not from the drought of a forever emptied cup.

Laura McKowen

Laura McKowen, PO Box 315 , Swampscott, MA, 01907