Trudi called from the country all upset. The tree surgeon she’d become involved with had gone psycho on her, she said. “I won’t let him come over, so then all he does is cry on the phone. He has a gun.”
“A gun. Jesus, Tru.”
“He says he’s going to use it.”
“Get the fuck out of there. Put Claire in the car seat and get the fuck out of there.”
“On himself, V. On himself.”
“Pack now. Go.”
So, five months after she abandoned New York, Trudi returned. A day or two later, I emptied the tin of marijuana into the bowl and flushed. With a shudder of self-preservation, I acted. Dealing with problems impulsively and unilaterally was my m.o., when I dealt with them at all. I just shut the bathroom door and flushed. Discussion and planning were luxuries or distractions, presupposing a level of intimacy incomprehensible to me. It was Tru’s pot too, I suppose, but, really, I was the one who bought it. I could chuck it down the sewer if I wanted. I’m sure we discussed it after the fact. Always, the discussion after the fact.
I never told my Smithers group, either that I had been smoking pot all along or that I stopped. I never told them I didn’t go to AA, but I kept exhorting my fellow patients to go – go take sobriety seriously.
Finally, I took my own advice. With the wife home and without weed, things were getting a little balled up. The meeting room buzzed with rec room/church basement glare and thrummed with self-pity. The bullshit made me squirm, all these unhappy people, cokeheads and actors mostly, with teeny tiny axes to grind. The experience went unrepeated until a few months later, as the Smithers program was winding down.
I straggled into a lunchtime meeting around the corner from my Wall Street office. It met weekdays on the third floor of the building directly behind Trinity Church. I found a seat in the middle, a suit among suits, and adapted my ‘hide-in-plain-sight’ tactic of social interaction to the dynamic of the AA meeting. I went back the next day and the next. I relaxed. Who were these good-looking, articulate, cranky people? They were just like me – people too good for this sorry planet brought low by booze and bad acting.
Promptly at 12:15, some seemingly self-selected person would sit facing the room and spend twenty minutes recounting the misery that liquor had subjected them to. A five-minute break for coffee followed, and then the floor opened to a show-of-hands, enabling others to relate their own boozy experiences or wax dramatic on their messy sober lives. These tales were alternately captivating and tedious. Women gaily recalled blowjobs in backseats for cocaine or rent money or whatnot and men sheepishly mentioned waking up in other boroughs dressed in unusual clothing or missing significant articles of same. Then there were the strenuously dull folks who could, as my friend Brigid would say, “…bore you to death while fuckin’ you.” Or those chirpy, little creatures who just sprang from tulip to daisy to daffodil, thanking the Lord and thinking only good thoughts. You wanted to smack them.
Not drinking was a good thing and, if all I had to do to not drink were sit still for an hour and listen to these clowns, well, I’d do it. Slowly I let myself be known. I raised my hand and complained about my brother-in-law backhandedly dissing me when I informed him that I no longer engaged in casual pot-dealing. “What do you mean?” he said. “I get it: What you mean is you just won’t sell to me.” Few things suck as uncomfortably as those first few acts of resistance to alcoholism and its slutty handmaiden, drug addiction. ‘The hell with you, Mac,’ felt delicious, actually. After it sucked.
Trinity Church, which owned the building, relegated our meeting to the basement. We took it as a demotion, but it was just one of those things. The new room was a yellowy, fluorescent space where rows of spindly chairs faced a table behind which that day’s speaker would sit. I always sat in the smoking section, on the right, puffing away on Merits. My first job in Alcoholics Anonymous was to distribute, and then collect and empty the crusty, pressed-metal ashtrays. Brigid told me to and Brigid was to be obeyed. Either obeyed, ignored, or told to go screw.
Brigid was formidable. She stood almost six foot. The other feature you noticed right away, besides her height, was those deep-set, intense black eyes. Her ferocity was arbitrary. She intimidated everyone, but had managed to earn the respect of most of the group with her singular ability to cut through bullshit. Once during a meeting, a middle-aged banker confessed to smacking his wife around and at the coffee break Brigid cornered him and told him to get “a fucking psychiatrist before you do something really fucking stupid you won’t live to regret.” She got his attention. He got a shrink.
She had the dazzling capacity to juggle as many as four trains of thought at the same time. A simple conversation might devolve into a breathtaking scramble up one side of the space/time continuum and down the other. You could find yourself entangled in an elaborate discussion of James Joyce (she called him ‘Jimmy’), Asian women’s alleged propensity for bossiness, and coleslaw, ingredients of. Some people couldn’t handle it, but those who could had access to her rough compassion, as well as a good laugh.
Ashtray distribution was the most exhilarating job I’d ever done. I glowed with gratitude. I showed up before the meeting to do my thing and to watch Brigid badger the people making the coffee. The laissez-faire sense of fellowship that filled the room helped me reattach myself to the planet. The obsession to drink went away; it simply backed out of the room. I don’t know how else to explain it. I don’t know where it went. I didn’t see it go. My sour, preemptive enthusiasm for alcohol dissolved. Existential fretting remained ever-present, but I didn’t miss the drink, a miracle considering the universal appeal of feeling deprived. Daily meetings, sixty minutes a day: that’s all. I took my seat and listened, keeping my mouth shut for the most part.
Here was a new way of living, but definitely not one of hands-folded-in-your-lap, teetotaling virtue. A new pageant unfolded every day at 12:15. One noon, a strapping fellow perched on the table in front of the group, spread his knees, and told his story as his testicles tumbled like putti out of his running shorts. We were riveted; the usual fidgeting, whispering, and wandering back and forth to the coffee ceased. “Thank you,” he said, grinned, and jumped up, the curtain falling on his baroque display. An audible exhalation and – thunderous applause.
A month or two later, we were all waiting on the speaker to take his seat; it was 12:16, for God’s sake. A rustle came from the back of the room prompting a flurry of turning heads, as a soft-spoken black man named Terrell swept out of the men’s room in a great, red taffeta dress and matching opera-length gloves. Lipstick, lashes, no wig, huge pumps. He had to celebrate the anniversary of his sobriety with every stitch of style at his command.
“My name … is Ms. Teri. And I am an Alcoholic … for Life!”
“Hi, Ms. Teri!” roared the room.
Joe P., a sharp-dressing money manager, complained endlessly about his wife. He’d been sober a long time, but at every meeting he had something brutal to say – She talks to her mother all the time; She’s a shitty parent; She fucks around; I know she’s drinking again. We cut him some slack because he would co-opt the meanness with self-deprecating humor. Then, all of sudden, he stopped showing up at 12:15. It turned out he had strangled the wife and stuffed her body in the trunk of the BMW. Then he settled the kids into the backseat, drove to some woods upstate, and buried her. A week later, he was wearing a bra and panties when the police arrested him. He went to trial and was convicted. Right before the sentencing hearing, he collapsed and died, evidently of AIDS. If a person judged guilty of a crime dies prior to being sentenced, his record is expunged. This tabloid saga kept the room in lively, if whispered, conversation for months.
Oh, and Bernie, poor thing. A day didn’t go by, Bernie didn’t threw his hand up. He would then cheerfully announce how many days it had been since his last drink, which was usually yesterday. We would mutter and clap and mutter some more.
There was no soap opera better – the boozy narratives, the sloganeering, the old jokes, the weepy admissions of recurrent drunkenness, the endless prattle, and the fury, the incandescent frustration inherent in learning from one’s mistakes. This circus offered a buffer from the daily vicissitudes, a place of consistency and connection. It was a terrible relief that my personal psychodrama could stay in the basement. The unspoken refrain to almost every anecdote or admission was “Me, too.” All the while, angry, deluded, and infuriating unfortunates came and went, lasting for a meeting or three. Settling into sobriety was not easy, that I could see. I wanted what those AA people had, the ability to withstand all the complex nonsense of life without pulling the blanket of alcoholic dependency back over my head.