We arrived in Vienna’s Altstadt in time for a late lunch. At a table in a tiny café, I continued talking with Tom and Owen, enjoying their competition to impress me with tales of their feats on the baseball diamond. At the next table, Dr. Eberhardt and Josh debated the merits of malts versus lagers. Zoey and Brad seemed wrapped up in their own little world. I offered a silent thank you to God for the new lack of verbal sniping.
Dr. Eberhardt gave us free time for the rest of the afternoon. After settling into my new room and taking a short nap, I wandered the cobbled streets that led from our hotel to the plaza in front of St. Stephan’s Dom. I sat on a bench, considering all Zoey had said. Although I rejected her theory on God’s existence or character, I did question the wisdom and purpose of abstaining from alcohol. What harm would one drink do?
At dinner, I ordered my first glass of wine.
“Giselle’s taking a walk on the wild side,” Brad said, and his buddies reacted with similar facetious expressions of shock. Choosing to believe it was all good-natured, I took no offense.
The deep glass arrived long before the food. I sipped the dark red liquid, and it burned all the way down to my empty stomach. The more I drank, the better it tasted. The waiter soon brought another, and another. I smiled warmly at my traveling companions. They were such lovely people. What sharp wits they had! Everything they said was hilarious.
“Hey guys,” I blurted. “Guess what happened to me this afternoon?”
“You got a message from God that drinking is now okay?” Zoey called out.
At least a minute passed before my giggles subsided enough to continue. “No, sillies, listen. Something really funny happened. I walked over to the bakery next door to grab a snack. I tried to order “ein glass milch, bitte” to go with one of those huge chocolate covered croissants. I totally screwed it up, because they brought me an enormous glass of mutterbilk. I mean buttermilk.” I slipped into another fit of giggles. “I’ve never seen such a tall glass. It was like this big.” My broad gesture to indicate the size knocked over the nearly-empty fourth glass of wine.
“Best watch how much you drink there, Giselle, dearie, ‘cause I don’t think anyone here wants to hold your hair back if you get sick,” Zoey said.
I smiled dreamily back at her and fell silent. Reclining in the high-backed chair, I enjoyed the warm glow of the candle-lit room and basked in the charming conversation that swirled around. Tom and Owen ordered Jagermeister and asked if I wanted to try some.
“Sure, why not?”
By the time the food arrived, a vague sense of vertigo had set in. I ate a few bites of the wienerschnitzel with noodles, and then pushed the plate back. I asked the waiter to bring a glass of dreaded mineral water. It would be worth choking down if it could settle my stomach.
No such luck. I barely made it to the restaurant’s restroom before the wine, Jagermeister and few bites of dinner came back out. After the room stopped spinning, I stumbled back to the table.
Dr. Eberhardt asked Zoey to walk me the few blocks back to the hotel. She reluctantly agreed. I retched into a bush, and true to her word, Zoey did not hold my hair back. The next thing I remembered was waking up on the floor of the hotel bathroom with another bout of nausea. I staggered to bed.
I woke up the next morning, temples in a vise. I groaned when I saw it was already 11:00 a.m. I had missed the departure time for our excursion to Schoenbrunn palace. The chiming of the clock tower of the cathedral rang in my ears. I sat up, but a dizzy spell sent me back to the bathroom. After I spent myself, I sank back onto the bed with a groan, flooded with guilt. I’d broken yet another vow to God and for what? It had been frighteningly easy to turn against Him to fit in with the world. What would Ian and the other CSF leaders think if they knew what I’d been up to on this trip?
I knelt beside the bed and prayed as if for the first time. In the regret of that morning after, I cried out to God as though my life depended on it, using none of the right words. Everything came spilling out in a jumble of confession — selfishness, pride, sexual fantasies, my foolish choice to poison my body with alcohol.
Most of all, though, I kept repeating variations on one theme. “I don’t know you as well as people think I do. I’m tired of being a fake, just a goody-good,” I whispered between sobs. “Please, I beg you, strip everything that looks good but is just a façade. Give me real knowledge of you. Knock me down and rebuild me from the ground up.”
It was the most honest, most dangerous thing I ever prayed.
And yet, nothing much changed that day, or the rest of the trip for that matter. I made a special effort to get along with Zoey while avoiding contact with Brad as much as possible. I continued to order wine or even beer with dinner but took only a few sips. As predicted, I loved Vienna, and found Prague to be an unexpected treasure. Salzburg, a little disappointing. By the end of the trip, I had chalked up that sobbing conversation with God to a wicked combination of a hangover and the overwrought emotions that always preceded my period, which had started two days later.