She had a Coke habit that couldn’t be kicked—Diet Coke, to be exact. Preferably with Lime. And in the basement, the empty cans were stored in trash bags and ready for 5-cent deposit returns, bags upon bags, piles of them to the ceiling, until one day she would throw a full bag on the pile and it just wouldn’t stay, so it was time to return them.
The money from the deposit felt like a reward for drinking all that Diet Coke. “I’ll return them next weekend,” she might think, “so I can pay for that dinner out with friends.” It was all a pretty complicated calculation. On the way to the bottle return, she stopped at a convenience store to buy a bottle of Diet Coke—how else was she going to get through the day?—and she left the cans and collected her fifty dollars and went on with her day.
It started innocently enough, but twenty years later, drinking six or seven a day had just become routine. It was not only the caffeine—while she’d never been a coffee drinker, she had always had a high tolerance for the stuff—it had become a part of her brand. It was her drink of choice. The sound of the can snapping open and the small -pfft!- of carbonation sneaking out of that first sip, it was her signature sound. In every picture since 1995, she had a can of Diet Coke in her hand or on the table just behind her.
Never mind that years ago, she joined a local farm and had given up almost every processed food imaginable, that she read ingredient labels like they were police reports, that she gave up red meat, then chicken, then animals all together. Then, she stopped wearing leather. She stopped buying foods that had too much packaging. But still, she drank the Diet Coke, morning, noon, and night.
It was the last vestige of her ties to a world of fake sugar and caffeine-loaded carbonation. It was the only exception. Always Diet Coke, usually With Lime.
She thought about it even before she fell asleep at night, drifting off to the thought of that special 20-ounce bottle she’d put in the refrigerator to drink on the way to work. She thought about it before they ever went anywhere. “How many Diet Cokes should I bring?” she would ask, holding open the empty cooler and counting in her head. “One for lunch, one after lunch, one for the ride home?” It wasn’t always enough. They had to make an extra stop; they had to run into a supermarket when they didn’t need any other groceries—when, in fact, they had stopped really buying anything from supermarkets in the first place, besides maybe cat food—because Diet Coke was on sale, three 12-packs for ten dollars.
Then, Coca-Cola came up with that brilliant marketing idea where they print all the different names on the bottles, and she would stand at the check-out line, mulling over whether she wanted to “share a Diet Coke” with Tammy or Sue.
The spending habit was so deeply engrained that it had become routine. It was no longer considered excess, and she didn’t stop to think about what it was costing in money, in time, in health. In her budget, it had moved from luxury to necessity quickly, many years ago now. There was never a time for reevaluation on its classification. The Diet Coke alone was at least a $18 a week habit; the price of three packs of cigarettes.
The cost of the Diet Coke over the whole year was close to a thousand dollars. It was the whole year’s worth of car insurance. It was the price of a luxury round-trip plane ticket to Europe.
But the habit incurred other costs, ones not readily obvious: the extra stops at the convenience store typically also yielded a lottery ticket or a snack; the unplanned trips to the supermarket almost always revealed a handful of other items that were on sale; the special trip to that out-of-the-way place with the Diet Coke she liked from the fountain, that cold, crisp soda in a bath of ice, sipped through a straw, cost gas and time.
And don’t forget that the bottle deposit, which felt like free money, was really her own money, an additional sixty cents per twelve pack that she paid in advance.
Finally, it became clear: it was time to quit the Diet Coke habit.
She had tried to quit, unsuccessfully, a few times before. This time, she was determined. She went down to one a day, and often she only bought the little cans. From eighty-four ounces a day to a scant eight ounces. She stopped making the regular trips to convenience stores. She only went to the supermarket for cat food. She didn’t drive out of the way anymore or have to think in advance about how many Diet Cokes with Lime she would need to get through the week.
In the basement, the bags of empty Diet Coke cans now rested soundly, forgotten, because she didn’t need the cash to buy more Diet Coke.