Struggling to create a new life after my divorce

Used wine bottles lined up outside on a windowsill

By Shelley Mann Hite
@shelleymann

My daughter was approaching her fourth birthday when we moved in with Pete, the first guy I seriously dated after her dad and I split. I had one rule back then: I didn’t drink on the nights she stayed with us.

We rented half a duplex with fantastic highway views and, steps beyond a white picket fence, an Italian cafe where a backyard should have been. For a moment in time, the cafe hired a real chef and offered a dinner menu on Friday and Saturday nights, and that moment coincided with us living there.

We had Stella every Friday night, and walking over for dinner became our ritual. Besides proximity, the real draw was the cafe had a BYOB policy. Quickly, I amended my own rule. I didn’t drink on any of the nights she stayed with us besides Friday.

Cafe Del Mondo’s regular menu was small with salads, sandwiches and pizzas. The new chef added pasta dishes with seasonal vegetables, involtini, and braciole. I’d pick the cheapest bottle of red at Kroger every Friday afternoon (usually the one with a rooster on the label). I’d pour myself a glass then Pete a glass then myself a glass and myself a glass and myself a glass and there was no reason not to finish the bottle so myself another glass.

Pete and I met through a mutual friend. We fell in love during long conversations over beers. He told me about his adventures in Hollywood film production. I told him my biggest regret was that I never moved to New York. He said, “let’s visit as often as we can.”

We morphed from mom-and-daughter and boyfriend-and-girlfriend to a new three-person unit at the Lincoln house. We developed an elaborate bedtime routine for Stella involving an ever-longer series of sayings: “Good night, sleep tight, sweet dreams, don’t let the bedbugs bite, see you in the funny papers…”

During our first year living together, Stella and I read bedtime stories together, just the two of us, cross-legged on her fuchsia rug until one day Pete asked if he could come up, too, and listen. Then he started reading one of the two stories and then we both read two stories each.

We married while we lived at the Lincoln house, lining the dining room with empty wine bottles to use as flower vases. My mom, as we loaded the bottles into the car, asked, “did you guys drink all these?” I lied and said we solicited some from friends.

In the meantime, I tried really hard to forget I’d just blown up my original three-person family. Drinking helped with that. Not every night. I didn’t need to drink every night back then, which was good because it was the needing, I believed, that meant there was a problem.

All the while, my Friday ritual continued to evolve. After picking up wine, I’d swing by the library to find a movie to watch after dinner. We watched Lady and the TrampCinderellaMary Poppins. I’d pour myself a bourbon when we finally got back to the couch. We had movie nights growing up, too. They’re perfect for those times you don’t feel like parenting, or you can’t exactly walk straight. At the end of the movie, we’d dance around the living room until the last credit scrolled up the screen.

My drinking ramped up during those first years post-divorce in a way that would have alarmed anyone who knew me before then. But Pete didn’t know me before.

We would climb the stairs and change into PJs and brush teeth and read books, Stella in my lap, her heavy head pressing into my chest. On Friday nights, I would rush through the books, slurring words and skipping full pages. The next morning, I’d often forget which books we’d read or what we had talked about.

One night, she lunged away, saying, “Ugh, your breath smells like beer.” It smelled like wine, actually, but I didn’t correct her. I thought, oh no, I’m not the only one who notices this is becoming problematic.

Stella turned four and five and six in that little house, fast-forwarding from toddlerhood to school age. I missed too many nights of it.

I never thought of the Lincoln house as our forever home, but looking back I can see what we were doing was building the foundation for what our home would be. Despite my attempts to drown them, we planted roots strong enough to survive another six months of my drinking and that, miraculously, strengthened as they dried out during the tectonic shifts of early recovery.

About a year after we moved, right around the time I stopped drinking for good, Cafe Del Mondo caught fire. The damage was so extensive the building couldn’t be saved. It was bulldozed. Our duplex is still there, and the white picket fence. But in place of the cozy cafe where we spent all those Friday nights is a gravel parking lot, as if that part of our lives had never been there at all.

Shelley Mann Hite writes about motherhood, sobriety, food, and the Midwest. She cohosts Zero Proof Book Club, a podcast about sobriety, and her writing has appeared in Huffington Post and Mothers Always Write. Find more of her work at shelleymannhite.com or on Instagram at @shelleymann.

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