I was standing outside the church, smoking a cigarette, and once again, George showed up in his sweatshirt and jeans. I felt a surge of gratitude for him. Knowing I could call him had kept me sober for these few days. As he shook my hand, he looked me steadily in the eye with his grey-blue eyes as if he had nothing to hide. I had to look away.
“How are you coming along?” he said.
“Actually, I feel pretty good. Staying sober.”
“That’s great, James. A lot of guys feel good right off the bat…for a little while at least. This is not the time to let your guard down. This is a devil of a disease, something you must take one day at a time.”
“To be honest, I’m not even sure I have a problem. I feel like this should be harder.”
“You’re really the only one who can answer that, but can I ask you something? What made you come to the meeting yesterday?”
“I’d just gotten out of the hospital–overdose–but it was an accident.”
“How’s your job going?”
“Well, I’m kind of between jobs?”
“And why is that?”
I was beginning to see where he was going, but I went on.
“My performance has been pretty lousy lately, but I don’t see how it’s related to my drinking. It’s not like I was drinking during work hours.”
He nodded and said, “I see. Do you sleep well?”
“Well, I did–when I was drinking. It’s not going so well since I quit.”
“I see,” he said, nodding again. “What’s the longest you’ve been without having a drink?”
I thought back over the years. I’d given it up for a week or two a couple of times after Laura and I had fights over it.
“Not long,” I said.
“Do you ever drink more than you intended too? Don’t answer that; I already know the answer. What about your family and friends? Has anyone you’re close to expressed concern about your drinking? Do you sometimes get the shakes in the morning? Did the relief you used to get from alcohol get harder and harder to find?”
“Ok, ok,” I said. “Maybe you have a point.”
“One more question. Is there a hole in your life that you just can’t seem to fill no matter how much you drink?”
The question took me off guard. I thought of all the nights feeling alone whether there was someone there or not. The suffering. The loss. The grief. I just couldn’t seem to make it go away anymore. What I was running away from, wasn’t that a gigantic hole in my heart?
“It’s a lot to think about, I know,” he said, placing his hand on my shoulder. “And there’s no rush. You’ll have plenty of time to work this out. Right now, let’s get you to a meeting,” he said, opening the front door to the church.
The meeting was comprised of many of the same people. There was coffee brewed. I poured a cup for myself and sat in a plastic chair already set up in the circle. We said the Serenity Prayer and introduced ourselves. This time the chair was a woman in her mid-fifties, I surmised. Her hair was gray and feathered back into a bit of a mullet. She raised her eyebrows as she surveyed the people in the circle.
“Jess, alcoholic,” she said routinely.
“Hey, Jess,” said everyone in the circle.
“Today, we’re going to talk about the first step. We have beginners, and it seems like a good time to get back into it. Let’s begin by reading it together.”
A few turned to the wall behind Jess, where the twelve steps were posted. Most spoke by heart.
“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”
“Yeah,” she said. “This is where it all begins, friends. We don’t have shit in this program if we don’t realize that we are completely powerless against that first drink. You see, it was never that fifth or sixth drink that was the problem for me. It was the first drink. That was where the battle was fought for me. After taking it, the battle was lost–it was never a battle I won. Not one time on my own will-power.”
There were nods and affirmative sounds in the circle.
“In the end, it was me, a bottle of straight Kentucky whiskey and my wife’s revolver at my head. I believed that the only way out of this was with that gun. It would be the only way to get relief. As lonely as I felt for as long as I remember, I never felt so alone at that moment, but something happened. I felt something deep inside. Not with my ears or my hands or my eyes. At that moment, I realized that I wasn’t completely alone. There was something–something that caused me to put that gun down and that bottle down. Something that said that there was still another way.”
Jess looked straight at me now. I wasn’t sure if she was addressing the group or me and just happened to be looking at me.
“In that moment, I knew that there wasn’t a power in me that could have stopped what was happening. I was either going to die by a gun or drink that bottle. Something greater than myself stopped me. I knew that I was powerless, and I was given a gift that day: the gift of desperation. I was desperate for a change. I was desperate to be saved…not my soul, but my sorry ass. I called up a friend who had struggled with drinking as well, and who I knew had been able to quit. She took me to my first meeting. You see, God and me weren’t on speaking terms. I’d lost my wife to cancer that past year. How could a good God allow such a sweet soul to die like that? And here I lived, a miserable wretch of a woman. I’d cheated, I’d lied, and forsaken our bed. Not cheated with another woman…no, my mistress was the drink. I chose it over everyone in my life–believed if anything that God was punishing me. But there I was, still alive. And I knew that there was nothing in my power that could save me. I wasn’t sure yet what could, but I made that call to a friend, and she brought my ass to a meeting…she showed me that there was a solution. Would anyone like to share?” she asked, still looking at me.
But I couldn’t bring myself to speak. I looked away. After all, had I even truly tried to quit on my own? I wasn’t sure I really belonged there.
After the meeting, I threw away my cup and left without saying anything to anybody…determined to quit, but thinking I wasn’t as bad as these people. I hadn’t held a gun to my head. A flash of the handful of pills I had taken on Christmas Eve came to mind, but I stuffed that away. That had been an accident, and I had just wanted some relief. I could do this. I had a new kind of resolve. I came up with a plan. If I didn’t see liquor–if I didn’t have it in my apartment, then why would I even be tempted?
Later, the sun was peeking through clouds and bringing a mild warmth to the winter mid-day. I was feeling better than I’d felt for months; free of the physical cravings and detoxification of alcohol, I decided to take a long walk, perhaps to McMillen’s for lunch. I hadn’t been there since I met Kyra, and I craved their bangers and mash for lunch.
The walk was mostly downhill from Chinatown to Union Square, and I moved at a brisk pace. I knew Union Square was designed more for tourists than locals, but I was still something of a tourist in this city. I had not explored the cafes and markets and bookstores of neighborhoods that tourists rarely ever saw, but I made my habits with strictness or perhaps my habits made me.
As I reached the Square, the street people hoping to get a buck or two off the tourists of lesser cities demonstrated their hustle. I’d seen the same ones many times, some more often than others. There were no panhandlers and hustlers in Norman, my hometown. There were some in Oklahoma City, though. They stood on busy intersections with signs which had printed phrases like “Homeless vet. Hungry. Every little bit helps,” but in San Francisco, street people gave you a little something. One man, whom I saw regularly, stood perfectly still on a box in front of the Westin covered head to toe with silver paint. If you approached and put a dollar in his bucket, he would remove his top hat and bow elegantly, then strike another pose until another bemused passerby became curious enough to drop more money. As I passed, I dropped two dollars in his bucket, not stopping for the entertainment having seen it many times already, but a little boy with his mother pointed and said, “Look, look! It moved!”
If a street person held a sign, it might say something a little more interesting than in Oklahoma. A man on the next corner could often be found sitting on a cardboard box with a scruffy dog and a sign which said, “I’m too lazy to work. Need money for pot.” Interesting. Honest.
Being so close after Christmas and San Francisco not being a hot spot for Christmas tourism, not like Sante Fe or cozy ski resorts in Nevada or Colorado, I found McMillen’s was dead, which was fine by me.
As I entered, Sarah, a young, pretty hostess with expressive and beguiling eyebrows greeted me with a flirtatious smile.
“Good afternoon, James. Long time no see. I believe your usual spot is available.”
She started to grab a menu from the hostess’s station, but I stopped her, saying, “Not necessary, I know what I want.”
“Very well,” she said, still smiling, leading me to my regular table for two by the window, which I preferred because I could watch the people walk passed on the sidewalk. I liked to wonder about their lives and where they had come from, perhaps where they were going.
The waiter approached, not one that I knew; his posture as straight as a toreador.
“Good afternoon, sir, I am Miguel, and I am pleased to serve you today. The specials–”
“Ummm…I don’t need to hear them. I already know what I want: bangers and mash.”
“Very good, sir. I’ll have it right out. Would you like a beer with that?”
Out of habit, I began to nod, but I corrected myself quickly. “No, thank you. Club soda and lime, please,” I said, having seen that drink ordered in the movies by recovering alcoholics at least a half dozen times.
“Very good, sir. I’ll have it right out.”
As I surveyed the restaurant and the people in it, my thoughts began to wander through the many ins and outs I’d made in this place; first as a many-time conference attendee, and now as an expatriated resident.
“Some fresh Irish soda bread for you, sir,” interrupted the lilting, Spaniard voice of Miguel.
I nodded as he placed a basket of steaming, rustic bread in front of me, but my eye was not on the bread, it was on the bar. I searched for my favorite scotch, Laphroaig 10. It was in its usual spot on the second shelf. For a moment, I could taste its tough-guy, punch in the face iodide and tar, followed by the sweet, sea air underbelly, its warmth filling my belly, but then I grimaced and looked away turning around to look out of the window. I found my resolve, which had been sliding away, and grabbed hold of it once again. This is doable, I thought, watching a group of teens with backpacks stop to look at the McMillen’s sign, squint for a moment, then walk on.
Perhaps the reason I had never ventured out of my area of the opera house, Union Square, and Chinatown, all major tourist areas of San Francisco, was that I was not ready to be a true San Franciscan, nor was I completely shod of Oklahoma. I lived in an in-between place that one might call a purgatory if one of them were heaven, but there was no heaven for me, and I really wasn’t on the way to anything, just running away from an old life.
“Sir,” said Miguel, “your lunch.”
I turned to see a plate of familiar food but found little comfort in it. When I tasted it, it was no longer rich and new but was bland and rote to me. I ate it, knowing that I would be hungry later if I didn’t, not caring to enter another place full of whiskeys and beers. My enthusiasm leaving the meeting had waned, perhaps even soured, and yet I still managed to muster the notion that I could engage in this battle for sobriety alone, or at least perhaps with the support of friends.
After paying and leaving a fair tip, I tucked my driver’s cap and herringbone jacket under my arm and stepped out onto the nearly empty sidewalk, reaching for my lighter and Camel Blues hoping for a little nicotine bolster. I smoked one, finding no pleasure, and then another feeling a little sick after. Then I began to stride up the hills to my apartment. Perhaps, I wondered, Amy will have come home from a shift at Farid’s.
As I walked, I wondered what I was even doing with this girl. She wasn’t in school; her father could show up at any time, not to mention that any man in his thirties living with an underage teen is a ”sexual suspect,” as the author John Irving had referred to it in his novel: The World According to Garp. But still, I thought, Amy needs someone on her side, an ally. That’s me. As unlikely or as inappropriate as it may seem, that is me and fiercely so. And so, I continued my walk back to my apartment, our apartment, hoping to find her there.
She was not there. Having no air conditioner on a fairly warm day, I pulled open my curtains and opened my windows in my living room, hoping a breeze might blow in and cool me from my walk. I filled a glass with ice and poured tap water into it. The glass very quickly formed condensation, which quickened my thirst. I sat down in my chair and took a long sip, several gulps worth. A breeze, albeit a small one, wafted in and disturbed the curtains and rolled over me. I began to feel drowsy, so I sat down my drink on the coffee table, put up my feet, and began to doze.
In my dream, the tornado was once again coming for me, but this time I began to run from it, the roar approaching by decibels, the wind pushing me ever forward down endless rows of houses with neatly trimmed yards. There seemed to be nowhere to hide, and no one to help me, but there was a voice crying out to me. It was Laura’s voice shouting, “Save yourself, James! Save yourself!”
“James,” said another voice. “James!” it came again. Sweating, my heart pounding, I came to. It was Amy standing in the doorway.
“What?” I said.
“Christ. Just making sure you were alive,” she said with what looked like a cross between relief and exasperation on her face.
“Do you know, James, that I have to check on you every night to make sure you’re not dead?” she said, putting down her Army jacket on the couch.
“No, I didn’t know you were doing that. No need. I’m fine now.”
“Did you go to a meeting today?” she said, sitting down.
“Yup,” I said, “At noon.”
“Good,” she said.
I looked at my watch; it was past five. I had been asleep for several hours and was still feeling a little out of it. She headed for the kitchen, and I said, “No. You don’t need to make dinner tonight. Let’s go out. I’ll treat.”
“Oh, like I’m ever going to treat?” she said.
I chuckled a little bit, sat up, and said, “Ungrateful brat.”
“Bitch ass, drunk,” she responded.
“Well, where do you want to go? Wanna get a couple of steaks at Sears? I thought maybe we could invite Kyra.”
She turned her head from me and said, “Sure. Whatever.”
“Unless you don’t want—” I began.
“No, no. I owe her at least that much. She saved your sorry ass, and without you—whatever,” she huffed.
“Very…um…gracious of you,” I said, pulling out my phone to text. “Hey, have you taken out the trash lately?” I asked, on a whim.
“No. Was I supposed to?”
“No, just wondering,” I said. “Why don’t you change out of your work clothes.”
“Ok,” she said, and walked down the hall to her room.
I hesitated for a moment before walking into the kitchen, my ears ringing, and my tongue moistening. I opened the pantry and dug around the trashcan for a moment until I found it; the bottle with the remaining pills. I picked it up, opened it, and dumped the pills into my hand and counted them. Seven pills. Then I heard Amy’s footsteps, and I threw them back into the bottle, screwed on the lid, and put them back in the trash.
“Can I just wear my nice jeans and this blouse? I really don’t want to wear the dress,” she said, showing me the clothes.
“Yes. Yes. That’s fine. I’m not wearing a suit or anything.”
Then she walked back down the hall.
Then I realized that I had not texted Kyra yet. I didn’t even know if she was working or not or could even join us, so I texted, “Hey, dinner with me and the kid?”
She replied quickly, “perfect. night off. where and when”
I replied, “Sears, 7 pm my treat.”
To which she replied, “maybe meet up afterward?”
“We’ll see,” I replied.
I really liked Kyra, but I was afraid she wanted things from me that I was not ready to give. I felt guilty about this. She had really come through for me on more than one occasion. I wasn’t ready to let her down easy or anything like that, but neither was I ready for us to make any sort of relationship commitment. I thought about her words, “Just let me love you.” Hadn’t Amy said the same thing in the hospital? It was all a blur.
I didn’t think it would be terribly busy, but I called ahead and made a reservation for three.
“Yes, Mr. Roberts, we will have a table ready for you at 7 p.m. Thank you for choosing Sears,” said a male voice with an unidentifiable foreign accent.
“Are you sure you have the money to throw around like this?” shouted Amy from the bathroom. “You haven’t worked all month!”
I had banked the equivalent of four months’ expenses in my savings account because my rate of pay for this last six-month contract had been higher than any contract I’d made since Y2K.
“Don’t you worry about it, Amy. I’ll be good for a while. And I’ll find more work, no problem. Just watch me.”
“Ok, Mister Money Bags. Your call,” she said, just loud enough for me to hear her through the bathroom door.
Quickly, I pulled the bottle of pills out of the trash and stashed them in the cabinet over the refrigerator. I had no conscious intention of taking them. I wasn’t sure why I did it, but there they were, saved just in case. Then I went back to my bedroom to change clothes.