Kristoffer Paulsen

Ocean of Sorrows

by Audra Burwell

&&Neon strobe lights pierce my skin with their incandescent brilliance, heat rushing over flesh. It could be the disco ball stoking that fire within me, or it could be the press of bodies on the dancefloor, crushing in from all sides, sweat dripping from their slender necks. Deep down though, I know the true cause of that inner flame.

&&The three shots I downed nearly an hour ago.

&&They are working their magic, liquid courage sloshing beneath my skull. My bloodstream has slowed to a crawl, lava flowing beneath my tissue. Stillness settles over the dance floor, the thrum of music fading softly to a subdued pitch. I experience a rare moment of peace.

&&Extricating myself from the tangle of thrashing limbs, I stride to the bar counter, keeping my stance defensive, always scanning. I perch on a patent leather stool, not intending to buy, but simply catching a moment of reprieve. I feel a presence looming behind my left shoulder, insistent yet far from predatory. I turn, meeting the gaze of a young blond-haired, blue-eyed stranger who is leaning forward on his elbows, smiling coyly. He has a weak jaw that tapers downward, devoid of that chiseled sharpness I admire. He exudes innocence.

&&“Can I buy you a drink?” he asks, gesturing to the green-lit display of Bacardi and Jameson lining the back of the counter.

&&I lean back, feigning disinterest. “No thanks. I’m already happily taken. Besides, I’ve had my fill for the night.”

&&One thing I’ve learned with alcohol is always know your limits. Never breach that threshold of restraint, for there is no going back.

&&The boy looks disheartened, eyes fluttering nervously downward, settling on my cherry-
red heels. I can tell he is at a loss, his advance having been curtly denied.

&&“Oh… how old are you anyway?” He asks, taking an offensive approach instead.

&&“21,” I reply, unzipping my purse and reapplying a fresh layer of lipstick in the smudged reflection of the taproom mirror. I watch the dark black hue seep into my skin.

&&“Dang, this is probably your first drink then. It’s alright to be afraid,” he says jokingly, laughing to diffuse the tension.

&&I stare at him blankly.

&&“My mother was an alcoholic when I was young. So was my first boyfriend. So was I, until the age of sixteen.” I snap the cap back on my lipstick, getting up to leave.

&&“Look, I’m sorry if I offended you! I didn’t know…you just look so young. So perfect. I would never have guessed.” His eyes begin to swim with regret.

&&Staring into those pale blue orbs of naivete, a memory dredges itself up from the depths of my mind, washing over me like tidal wave.

&&I am five years old again, in the ramshackle home of my childhood. Empty Heineken bottles litter the floor. Rays of light filter thorough the moth-eaten curtains, illuminating their translucent green shells. I push a cushionless chair with a splintered wooden back to the edge of the kitchen counter, climbing up. My feet grip the deflated fabric as I reach for the handle to the cupboard. Inside is a bottle of Crown Royal draped with dust-laced cobwebs. Her emergency stash. I unscrew the purple cap and place the rim of the bottle against my lips. A bitter, acrid taste washes over my tongue, making me gag. I struggle to swallow, coughing some back up. My first taste of despair.

&&“Don’t assume things about people you don’t know,” I whisper quietly.

&&“Like I said, I’m sorry.” The boy tucks his hands between his knees, finally looking up to meet my gaze. “If you were an alcoholic when you were a teenager, then why do you still drink at all? Aren’t you afraid of falling back into old habits?”

&&“I learned to master my impulses. To control my mind. Alcohol no longer draws me in the way it once did. I drink for pleasure now, not to drown my sorrows. I see it as an old friend. If I were to quit entirely, that would be an admission of defeat. Like the old quote goes, know thy enemy.”

&&I motion to the door, signaling my intention to leave.

&&He is quiet for a moment, brow furrowed, lips pursed, allowing my words to sink in. As I turn away, he finally says, “I’ve never met anyone quite like you.”

&&I smile secretly, allowing my curtain of black hair to shield my expression.

&&“You likely never will again.”

&&A blast of freezing air slams into me as I exit the club, the pavement slick beneath my feet from a recent downpour. I unlock my phone and open the Lyft app. I select a ride and keep walking, stopping only once I reach the corner, the crimson glow of a streetlight illuminating my figure.

&&I don’t know what came over me. The things I shared with the ignorant boy were secrets that only those closest to me had the privilege of knowing. Maybe I just needed someone to hear my story. Maybe I was finished healing.

Audra Burwell

Audra Burwell is a creative writing major with a strong emphasis on fantasy-themed poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction that covers universal subject matter. Her work has been published by Palaver Journal, Deep Overstock, Carcinogenic Poetry, Snapdragon Journal, Serpentine Zine Literary Magazine, and Superpresent Magazine, as well as appearing on the Do Fiction Podcast. She studies at California State University Fresno where she is an undergraduate, aiming for a Master of Fine Arts degree.

Artist: Kristoffer Paulsen





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