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By Graham Danzer

CSMS Magazine Staff Writer

Manuel looked hard into the floor at his feet at something only he could see. It was hazy, barely audible. But he couldn’t get it out of his head. A presence he could almost see in the floor as clearly as he heard its voice in his head. You’ve wasted your life, it said. It hit Manuel hard and heavy like a sledge hammer to the back of the head. Over and over again came the words, you’ve wasted your life, you’ve wasted your life. Never had he felt so defeated.

            Manuel had spent longer then he could remember lost in a bottle, drowning his sorrows and celebrating whatever he could find to celebrate in that same bottle. In the beginning, it was all a party—the girl, the music, staying out all night. It was exciting, even thrilling. He felt like a rock star or something. And so, on he continued. Hanging with his homeboys, life was care-free. It made him forget his own drunken father losing himself in a bottle of Tequila, fists swinging savagely at he and his mother. Manuel swore with God as his witness that it would never be the same for him. Never! Alas, all of his darkest and most forsaken truths had become reality. Life soon caught up with him.

            Into his thirties and forties, his days started to pile up on him. Almost seeming to go by painfully slow, he could scarcely now remember how fast his life had gone by. You’ve wasted your life, the voice said to him. . . And he knew it to be true. He had woken up one day and he was 50, with nothing to show for it. Spending his whole life drinking. And long ago the party had been over. The drinking had stopped working and yet he couldn’t stop. Wouldn’t stop. Wouldn’t even begin to consider it.

Once upon a time he couldn’t imagine drinking as his father had, bottle after bottle, fist after fist. Black eyes and child protective services. If you had my life, you would drink the way I did too, Manuel used to tell his critics. It was all the reason he needed.

            But now over 50 years old, the truth hurt like hell. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This wasn’t part of the plan. The plan was that he would give it up someday. Eventually the party would end and the good life would come from around the corner. A life not just good, but the one he was supposed to have—a good job, a pretty wife, a child, maybe even 2. A son and a daughter, and they would be beautiful. It would eventually be happy ever after—as soon as the party was over.

            Now the party was over, and at least some of his dreams had come true. He had a son who was strong and wise beyond his years, hard worker, children of his own. But Manuel hadn’t seen him in over 8 years. Manuel Jr. wanted no part of him. And nor did Rebecca—at one time his wife, until one fatal night when he came home some 8 years ago to find that she and Manuel Jr. were gone, vanished into the night. The house seemed all of a sudden dark and empty apart from a faint reflection from the moon seeping through the window. But never before had Manuel felt so all of a sudden alone. Standing there with the open door at his back. How could they! Was his first thought, blind and in a rage. He drank himself senseless that night. But the alcohol had long ago stopped working. It used to help him forget his troubles and celebrate his victories. But he couldn’t remember the last time he felt successful, and there was no relief in his drowning in drink. He buried the truth fast in his every pore, but he knew it to be true. The truth hurt.

            That his family had left and they were never coming back. Finally, he had enough of his drinking, his rages, his swinging fists and terrifying eyes, bloodshot and vindictive. He would awaken the next day with no memory of what had happened, only to find his wife and child fearful, bruised and battered, and he would know it all too quickly. Then he would swear his sincerest apologies, doubling over to find flowers for his wife and tickets to the movies. His son loved the horror flicks. Sorry for what he had done. Never would he again. And every time, he meant it. So did his father. Both sometimes even pouring out all the liquor in the house, but everytime returning to the bottle. And then Manuel’s family was gone. And they were never coming back.

            Alone one night in his dimly lit, hollow apartment with only such fleeting thoughts to keep him company, Manuel could bear it no longer. He needed a drink, maybe 20. He rousted himself from his stained couch with its protruding springs from damp pillow cases, and made his way for the door. Never had the bottle sounded so good. But as he grabbed hungrily for the door knob, he caught his reflection in the adjacent mirror. Red eyed from sleepless nights, his hair looked like a nest of unruly tangles, and his shirt caked with food and spilt liquor, he barely recognized himself. It had been a long time since he had looked at himself. Really seen himself, that is—hollow, despairing, lost, and bitter. Where had he seen that face? With an overpowering revelation, he knew as quickly as his life had passed him by. It was not his face. It was the face of his father. You’ve wasted your life. The truth hurt. And it hurt like hell.

            It dropped him to his knees, begging God for help. His hands outstretched to the ceiling and then clasped to his chest. He needed someone, something. He didn’t know what, but anything besides what he had. And then his prayer was answered. He fairly leaped to his feet and made his way out the door and down the street. Over the curb and past the fruit and vegetable stand. It was 15 minutes to closing time, he hadn’t a moment to spare. After what seemed like forever, he finally arrived and he could almost taste it. Almost bulldozing through the door as his father’s fist had done to his face, and his fist had done to Manuel Jr. Determined and unstoppable.

            An elderly woman with comforting, furrowed eyebrows smiled watchfully at him. How can I help you? She asked. Manuel began to cry, in long, heaping sobs. In rushes and waves that couldn’t be stopped. What had been done to him, what he had done to his family. I’ve wasted my life, he said, and I don’t want to go on any longer. The old woman in the community center sat patiently, listening, never interrupting him. Then she stepped carefully in mentioning he smelled strongly of alcohol, did he have a problem drinking? The answer came out too quickly for Manuel to excuse it as he had always done. Yes he did have a problem . . . as he made his way from home to this community center. The liquor store on the corner fairly called his name; he was a slave to it. He tried to quit, but it called to him every day and every night. And every night he went. And then went his family.

            The woman was caring. But she also gave him some hope. Alcohol treatment has helped many people who have lost everything, people get their families back, go back to work, have the good life, she said. The good life . . . Manuel smiled bitterly. I’ve wasted my life. But the old woman was persistent. Perhaps so far, but would he hang around and see what happened next? Would he take a shot at making things better? Seeing how things went from here? Would he get help?

            With no alternative as far as he could see, Manuel agreed. As he did, he felt something he could scarcely remember. Though only a little, he felt the hope she gave to him. He had somewhere to go. He was still lost in himself, doubting treatment would work, wondering if he could even live without drinking, if it could all be as the old woman promised. But even as he was only a bit hopeful, he was more hopeful then he could ever remember. Will you go to treatment tomorrow? She asked. Manuel said yes, he would. Will you agree not to drink until then? Manuel doubted himself very seriously, but yes, again he said he would. It would be hard, but one night he could manage.

            It was now 5, and time for them to close up shop. Manuel thanked the woman profusely, taking the address of the treatment center she recommended for him. He looked hard at the address and name on it as he walked out the door. Unsure of what to expect, but assuming the worst. And predicting a grim outcome at best. Could he really go to alcohol treatment? Would it really work? What was the point anyway? I’ve wasted my life. The truth hit him again, and it hurt as bad as ever. Suddenly he was passing by the all too familiar liquor store, the clerk waving to him on sight, grabbing for a bottle he knew his best customer to prefer.

            Before he even set foot in the store, Manuel was on autopilot, making a beeline for the door. Reaching for his wallet and beginning to shove the address of the treatment center into his pocket. Well, I’m going to give it up tomorrow, so I might as well have a last one tonight, he thought to himself. His father had said that too. As Manuel began to open the door to the liquor store, he saw his reflection in the glass. Hollow faced, red eyed, a mess. He looked like his father. He thought like his father, he drank like his father. He had become his own worst enemy. I’ve wasted my life. The tears began to flow again, deep splashes against his cheeks, Manuel felt all of a sudden so dark and empty. He looked to the sky, and again asked for help.

            Please help me. Please. I’ll do anything. Again, his prayers were answered. His hand fell slackly to his side as he let go of the door handle, spun on his heels and made his way home. The clerk arched an eyebrow, perplexed, and shrugged to himself before returning to the television show he had been watching absent-mindedly. Meanwhile, Manuel was across the street, amazed at what had just happened. He had just won a great victory. He had said no. He hadn’t said no in over 20 years. His tears began to fade, and the hope from earlier began to return. He was almost proud of himself. He wanted to go back to the community center to tell the woman. She would share in his joy. She would be proud of him, too. But they were now closed. Manuel was a bit disappointed. But for the first time in as long as he could remember, he was hopeful. He believed. In what he wasn’t yet sure. But he had asked for help and been given it. His prayers had been answered.

            This was a time to celebrate. He almost wanted a drink. But he pulled the piece of paper from his pocket, looked it over and gazed longingly at the clock against the wall in his living room. He barely fathomed how quickly the walk home seemed to have been. Only 14 hours until the treatment center opened. And he remembered the woman’s words, don’t drink until you go. And Manuel had said yes he would. He vowed to himself that he would keep his word. He had made such promises before, but something was different this time. There was more to it. Something. Something strong and yet invisible. He felt suddenly cared for, watched over. That he was no longer so alone. He closed the door behind him and again looked in the mirror. But he did not see the self he saw earlier. Something had come over him. He was somehow more alive, more free. He looked at the clock, 13 hours and 50 minutes to go. I’ve wasted my life . . . but I want it back. For years Manuel couldn’t sleep well. That night, never had he slept more soundly.

Note: Graham Danzer lives and works in San Francisco. Mr. Danzer also holds a master’s degree in Social Work. Send your comment to his beautiful writings at publisher@csmsmagazine.org  
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Safe Again: The compelling story of Bobby 

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