Creative Nonfiction: On Teetotaling in America by Eman Quotah

The time in college when my friends whispered behind my back: “I wonder what Emmie would be like if she were drunk.” And it sounded like someone almost spiked my soda, just for fun, and someone stopped them, and I never confronted anyone about it.

The time my friend was making a fancy dessert where you flambe the alcohol, and we thought the alcohol would burn off, but her torch conked out, and I swallowed one spoonful and ended up ever-so-slightly tipsy, and she apologized for years.

The time I spent something like seven or eight hours in a bar with work friends on a Friday night — an entire workday’s worth of time—while everyone drank and I asked for lime in my cola to seem less conspicuous. 

All the times I asked for limes in my drinks.

The time the guy I liked and who liked me wondered if I would reject him because he drank. (He’s my husband now. I love him. He keeps beer in the fridge.)

The times we went bar hopping. Why did I agree to go bar hopping?

The time someone brought champagne (and no Martinelli’s) to an office birthday party when I was a month on the job, and my boss ran upstairs to get me a soda when I declined a flute, and no one minded I didn’t drink but still, it felt awkward.

The time there was no soda or fizzy behind the bar at the office cocktail hour.

All the times I was the only person without a beer.

The times I pretended my plastic cup of water was wine. The times I ordered virgin drinks.

The times people asked why I didn’t drink. The times no one asked. The times I wondered if they thought I was pregnant. The times I wondered if they thought I was sober, recovering.

All the times I say, “I’m Muslim.”

The times people (husband included) tell me they’re doing Dry January because they want to drink less, and I nearly say, “It’s Dry January all year long for me!” and I nearly say, “Why is not drinking suddenly cool? Why are mocktails suddenly cool?”

The times not drinking gives me solace, the moments when it reminds me of God and the divine and everything I can’t see and who I am and where I belong.

The worst time, last December, when I fell roller skating and my wrist was a frightening swan’s neck, and the doctors gave me ketamine, a hallucinogenic, to knock me out so they could set the bone, and right before I went under the doctor said, “Sometimes people hallucinate. If that happens, go to your happy place.” 

But I couldn’t. I couldn’t go to my happy place where my cat waited for me to pet him. I fell in a hospital-colored hole, and I was all alone, and I couldn’t get out, and I thought I’d never get out, and I thought I might be in a coma, and I didn’t know if anyone could hear me when I screamed. 

I screamed, “I want my husband, I want my kids, where is my husband, where are my kids?” and a nurse told me to Stop Shouting.

And when I finally came out of it, after several excruciating hours rather than the twenty blacked-out minutes the doctor had predicted, I was groggy and drunk, and I texted my brother and I texted my husband, and my husband said, “Be nice to the nurses and doctors, they’re just trying to help you.” 

Instead, I told the doctor, “You’re a terrible doctor,” and he said, “You’re very small. We gave you half the usual dose. I don’t understand what happened.”

I said, “I’m a writer. I’m going to write about this.” 

And the doctor stayed past his shift’s end to make sure I recovered safely, and I wouldn’t let him keep me in the hospital because I wanted to go home.

And for the first time, I knew what I would be like if I were drunk: angry and sad and traumatized and terrorized and betrayed and mean.

And I kept drinking from my Styrofoam cup of water till I could keep liquid down, and they finally let me go home.

Eman Quotah is the author of Bride of the Sea, winner of the 2022 Arab American Book Award for Fiction. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, Kweli, The Rumpus, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Jellyfish Review, Necessary Fiction, Gargoyle, Witness, The Markaz Review, ArabLit Quarterly, and several anthologies. She lives in Maryland with her family.

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