Fiction · 03/28/2012

Peeling

When Rachel finally gets pregnant she will stop drinking for nine months and will be a responsible mother, money dedicated to diapers and prenatal vitamins and an espresso-wood crib and a thousand techno-gadgets to monitor the baby’s every breath. But for now, so long as it doesn’t affect the fertility treatments, she will continue to drink new craft beers every weekend. No more than a couple, of course, but she loves sitting under the patio umbrellas for long Friday afternoon happy hours with Derrick and the others, loves her Saturday trips to Total Wine to build sampler packs of beers they’ve never even seen before. She needs something to occupy the space between now and inception, and collecting beer labels — filling photo albums with beer labels, categorizing by brewery, by beer style, by date of drinking — has become that something.

Lately, she’s found herself drinking the beers whose labels peel off mostly easily, those whose removal is no more troublesome than unsticking the clear plastic protectant on the screens of brand-new TVs or cell phones. Her album is full of Cigar City labels; their stickers separated from the bottle easily, peeling back without leaving glue-residue on the brown glass. She peeled, she removed, and she held the orphan stickers high in the open air as they curled slowly on themselves; then she smoothed them straight onto wax paper, adhesive backs holding strong enough that she didn’t even need mounting tape, found a place for each label in her album. She’d gone through the entire Cigar City collection of beers — Maduro Brown, Jai Alai IPA, Jose Marti, even the 750 ML Guava Grove and Bolita, one after another because she needs easy peeling now more than ever, needs reassurance that some things need not be difficult.

Because too many of the other stickers are excruciating. Dogfish Head — her favorite microbrewery — doesn’t have the common rectangle or oval shape of most beer labels; their sticker is long, the center swooshing upward so that it undoubtedly rips as she peels, a lightning-bolt tear just as she nears the tip of the swoosh, and then the label is ruined and — having purchased just a six-pack, because she and Derrick always want to try something new every week — she’ll have just five more chances at the Chicory Stout or the 90-minute IPA or the Raison D’Etre or the Punkin Ale, empty bottles saved on the kitchen counter single-file like children waiting in line for the school restroom, one bottle always soaking in a metal tub in the sink so that the glue on the label-back can loosen.

Six total attempts, and some rips, some failures, sure, but hundreds of perfect labels in her albums, and the care with this collection is proof enough that she will make a good mother, isn’t it? Samuel Adams Boston Lager and Noble Pils and Octoberfest. Dundee and Terrapin and Lost Coast, the IPAs and Milk Stouts and blueberry beers, the Hefeweizens, each bottle sprayed and soaked, each label preserved as carefully as she will preserve the first baby teeth or the locks from the child’s first haircut. She is successful because she is precise. She injects herself at the proper time each evening, takes her pills, drinks water and orange juice, avoids alcohol at the prescribed times, visits the reproductive center so often that it feels like a second job. This will happen.

But Sweetwater is the problem. Sweetwater, the most difficult of labels to remove, months of energy expended for ripped discarded useless scraps. Sweetwater Brewing in Atlanta does not distribute as far south as Orlando, and this is a long-standing frustration for Rachel, but also the immediate issue today.

It is only on trips to see her husband’s parents in Atlanta that they can purchase Sweetwater six-packs. Twice a year, tops. And she still does not have a mint-condition label.

It’s the glue that Sweetwater uses. It never softens, never dissipates, and so she digs her nails into the wet corners of a label soaked for 24 hours, and she grasps these corners with her tweezer-strong fingers, and she pulls gently. She is surprised and encouraged by how gentle she can be, in fact. But by the first few centimeters, she’ll notice that there are already two labels: the one in her fingers, thin and translucent as shed snakeskin, and a white continent of paper material still stuck to the bottle itself. The glue does not let go. It gives her only the glossy surface of the paper, the green ink and the first half of the Sweetwater fish, the letters “S-w-e,” but the glue will not surrender the rest of the label…in her hands the wet paper disintegrates into nothing. And though she has tried again and again — rinse the bottle, soak the bottle, steady her hands, pinch the label, pull gently — each time the thin shedding tears, the color ink smears, and she slams her open palm onto the counter and screams at the ceiling. She tried a razor blade once, slicing it under the label and squeaking it along the glass to physically sever the glue from the bottle, before slipping and cutting her own flesh and bleeding into the sink. She would do what it took, though. She would cut herself a dozen times. She would have her Sweetwater label.

One bottle ruined: the Sweetwater IPA.

Another label destroyed: the Sweetwater Georgia Brown Ale.

Her husband often asked her why she could not simply download images of the labels from the internet, print them out. Derrick enjoyed the drinking, but he didn’t care about collecting labels (and she tried not to think too deeply about this, to make it a metaphor for his appreciation of the “little things,” for fatherhood, or — worse — for his understanding of her struggles…shh, shh…Rachel wanted this to be her burden, did not want to share with him how disgusted she was with her own body, with using vaginal suppositories, did not want to share the now-familiar pain she felt when staring at x-rays of her uterus, the possible blockage, the things that could be wrong…I said shhh).

“That’s cheating,” she’d tell him. “I’ve got to do this right. This will happen.”

And he’d shrug and give her his “whatever” face, would say “I don’t think it’s possible, not the way they manufacture those bottles,” and she’d slip again and cut herself with the razor and the blood would stain the 420 Pale Ale label, and she’d hide her hand and then bury the bloody bottle in the trash.

Weeks of this. Months. The small stockpile of Sweetwater dwindling. Another negative sign on the latest pregnancy test, another round of injection, another dozen appointments with Dr. Carol and over-the-phone discussions about follicle size, and it is now a May afternoon and there is just one empty Sweetwater bottle left, maybe until Thanksgiving or Christmas, the next time they’ll make it up to Atlanta to visit the parents. This bottle has been soaking in the sink for three days, the water turning oily from the beer sediment loosed from inside. But she tells herself that the swirling slicks in the water could also be the dissipating glue. She is optimistic that this time the label will be hers. That’s what she has told her husband over and over these last few months: I’m through with the negativity, I’m through with the late nights on the couch watching 16 and Pregnant and crying, and I know you hate me, I know you do, but I’m optimistic now. This is the month: this time it will work: this is our moment. “I know,” Derrick always said nonchalantly, but she was worried he thought otherwise, that he might —

This is the bottle. Fingernails dug under the corners of the label, loosening the edges. Rachel pulls the label forward, the flimsy super-saturated paper threatening to split at the center. No, no, she says. No you don’t.

She puts the bottle down, takes a breath, collects herself.

She wanders the kitchen, then wonders if she should have stopped, if this is like over-thinking a golf swing.

She stiffens her fingers, still gentle but now firm, then peels slow. Slower than she has ever needed to move her hands, and though she is making progress, she knows that she has unpeeled less than an inch and it has taken how long? She hears the voice of Dr. Carol: it’s a game of percentages, 12% chance each time, and one of these times it will happen. Yes, but how the fuck long is this going to take? She is thirty, for God’s sake.

No: the brown bottle beneath the label disappears into that white papery mass still holding strong on the glass. The label is becoming two: skin in her hand, substance on the bottle. Three days of soaking has made no difference. The glue is as unforgiving as ever.

She stops again, breathes, then digs her fingernails under the glue beneath the white mass. She will not just keep pulling on the thin label until it grows thinner, thinner, tears apart. If it is intent on tearing itself in two, she will take both halves and force them together. She will remove it, all of it, the label and the white mass left behind: her fingernails are sharper and truer than razorblades and they will get under it all.

She is dug in. She has glue under her fingernails, and the water smells like rotten vegetables, but she pulls the label forward, digs, one centimeter at a time, one more inch, digs digs pulls until finally she is turning the bottle as she peels, turning it in her hands like a potter spinning clay, and she sees the far edge, it is there within reach, and she sees the man that she married walking past with a glass of water and an Esquire magazine and she says “Ha! Look at this! Look!” And the Sweetwater label dangles limply but triumphantly from her fingers, and she is crouching over the sink, exhausted in the best way possible because she has the pale ale sticker at last, after how long, and he says, “Hmm. Guess I was wrong.”

“Positivity. You see?” she says. She smooths the sticker over wax paper, white creases running through the image and giving it the look of a well-worn paperback spine, but she doesn’t care that it isn’t perfect, doesn’t care because she feels that this might be the most important thing she has ever done, just saving this label finally, saving more than the label.

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Nathan Holic teaches writing courses at the University of Central Florida and serves as the Graphic Narrative Editor at The Florida Review. He also works with Orlando-based Burrow Press as the editor of the ongoing anthology series, 15 Views of Orlando, a literary portrait of the city featuring short fiction from fifteen Orlando authors young and old, local and far-removed, established and aspiring; the 2012 edition of the story sequence launches on Tuesday, March 27 at the Burrow Press Review. Holic’s fiction has appeared online at Hobart, in print at The Apalachee Review and Iron Horse, and his serialized graphic narrative “Clutter” (a story structured as a home décor catalogue, and featuring characters from the short story published here) appears monthly at Smalldoggies.