Jeff is getting ready to start the meeting, pretending since I walked in that he hasn’t seen me. I don’t blame him for that, but I feel like telling everyone that most of the shit they spout in these places isn’t true. If it were, Jeff wouldn’t be ducking me; he’d be taking me on in front of everyone and forcing the Truth. Where’s your Fearless and Searching Moral Inventory, Jeff? I want to ask, but I already know what he’d say. His is in the same place mine is, and, no, it’s not in the God Box sitting open on every alcoholic’s nightstand, if that’s what you were thinking.
Tara, my über-sponsor, sits beside me, chatting with people she knows — which is pretty much everyone — offering cigarettes and lights. It’s almost like a celebration, I think, looking at the snack table to see if anyone thought to bring a garbage can of rocket fuel. But, no, just the coffee. I’ve had so much coffee in the last twenty-eight days my pee is brown, which is a little scary, but not as scary as normal-looking pee that gets the bells and whistles screaming when you hand over the cup, the kind of pee that gets you sent back to Fenton.
I close my eyes, thinking of where I was headed when Tara called earlier — or not quite thinking about it, but just coming to the edge of it, like standing at the curb, nothing more than that.
Tara nudges me with her elbow. “Worried about the job interview?”
I nod, though the last thing I’m thinking about is the “Do you have any experience besides Kinko’s?” crap I got at the interview. I had to sit on my hands to keep them still, trying to explain how maybe cocktailing at Schooner was pertinent to answering her fucking phones, and then really sweating it when she wanted to know why that job wasn’t on my résumé. The truth was I really could have used a letter of recommendation from Bossman Lester when Mrs. We’ll Let You Know was questioning my work experience. After the interview I decided to catch the number-nine bus to Schooner and ask for a letter, even though some people might point out that a fine establishment like Schooner was the last place I should have been heading. If I got to Schooner before it got too busy at happy hour, I could talk to Lester and even make it to the unemployment office before it closed. Everything was on schedule. I was on schedule.
I walked out of Mrs. We’ll Let You Know’s office feeling like I got off easy, checking off another line item in my Still on Schedule column, and went uptown. I was heading straight into the wind, a fitting metaphor for pretty much my entire existence, but I was going up, on schedule, and not about to let Mother Nature shut me down. Before I could pat myself on the back for following Tara’s morning mantra, “Resistance is persistence,” Mother Nature unleashed a gust of wind so strong it took my breath away. And right then an image of Katie in her stroller assaulted me, the way the wind used to take her breath away, scaring her, and even though she couldn’t talk yet, I knew what she was feeling, and I would get her out and hold her face to my shoulder. And then I just had to stop and think about where she was now and wonder if foster parents know anything about how scary Mother Nature can be to a little girl.
People are quieting down and lighting their second cigarettes, and I light one, too. When I inhale, it’s almost like I’m myself again, though exactly which self isn’t clear, and I close my eyes for a minute to get past the uncertainty. Tara is giving me her I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing look, because cigarettes might be legal and plentiful but they’re on the list of things I’ve pledged not to do. I pretend not to see it, just like I pretend I didn’t get her phone messages about what I should be doing to get Katie back, and just like I pretend things are better this way for everyone, which might actually be true.
“No new faces today,” Jeff is saying, and people are nodding. I know they’re glad to pick up where they left off instead of starting over for somebody new. Just then the door opens, and a tall, nervous-looking guy walks in and heads straight for the only empty seat, which is beside me, for reasons I hope will not come up tonight.
“I’ll start,” the woman next to Jeff says. I know who she is and her whole story, and I’m wondering if there’s a limit to how much of this I can hear before I start bleeding from my pores. I take a hard drag on my cigarette, suck on it like it was my last breath, and my last breath wasn’t air but liquid, and the liquid was vodka, an ocean of vodka, and I’m not just sucking it in, I’m bathing in it and floating in it. Even my ears are full of it, so I do not have to hear one more word about how this woman’s name is Natalie and she’s an alcoholic and an addict and she’s trying to get past her own personal record of sixty-seven days but she’s never made it, as if her Higher Power keeps letting her down whenever she gets to sixty-six, to which someone in the group will bring up the whole 666 connection, to which Jeff will say that it’s time to get real and that God, however and whatever you understand Him to be, is not a God of superstition or numbers or Led Zeppelin records played backward.
When I arrived at Schooner, the bar was already humming — not unusual for a Friday afternoon — and Lester was nowhere to be seen, also not unusual. Denise was working section seven, closest to the door, and she lifted her chin when she saw me but didn’t exactly smile, which I didn’t exactly blame her for, thinking of the last time we’d been together, not that I remembered that much about it.
“Lester?” I mouthed to her, and she shrugged, putting paper coasters on the table in front of two customers. I glanced toward the used-to-be smoking section and reminded myself how much I didn’t want a cigarette right now anyway, that cigarettes were part of the deal, the Things Not to Do, and I told myself again I didn’t want one right then anyway.
Lester was leaning over the far table, where we took breaks, talking to someone I didn’t know. I figured she was new, because she looked like she was actually interested in what he was saying. Girls who’d cocktailed at Schooner for longer than two hours knew anything Lester said was a load of shit. I wondered if he’d told her that she needed a tighter shirt. It had been the third thing he’d said to me, right after, Do you know how to work a table for tips? — which I later learned he took 20 percent of — and, Are those real?
I waved to get Lester’s attention. His expression, when he saw me, wasn’t the friendliest, but I couldn’t be bothered with side issues. I gestured for him to come over, and he gave the girl his we’re-in-this-together smile, dropping it fast as he walked toward me.
“You think it’s a good idea for you to be here?” he asked.
“Is that how you talk to your best ex-employee?”
“I’ll let you know when I see her.”
“Still funny as hell,” I said, trying for something like old times.
“What do you want?” Lester asked.
I told him what I needed and braced myself, but he didn’t say anything at first, like he was thinking about it. “I’m doing a lot better,” I said, though I could see by his face he wasn’t having it.
“Don’t,” he said, not mad or worked up at all. I was in no way prepared for that.
“I just need a letter of recommendation,” I said. “For my work history.”
“That’s all,” I said and had a sudden image of us on the couch in his office, Lester’s face inches above mine, his eyes squeezed shut in concentration, mine wide open.
“I’ll leave it at the bar for you tomorrow,” he said. “And then don’t come back here.”
Tara even joins in tonight, sage and veteran wagon rider that she is, further evidence that this is, in fact, a party — only it’s not a celebration party; it’s an another-day-another-disaster party. At least, it is for me. By the time my turn comes around, I’m feeling slightly edgy, a feeling the experts have encouraged me to identify and squelch before it wrecks anybody else’s life.
“I’m Lisa,” I say. “I’m an alcoholic and an addict, and I’m going to pass.”
They all say, “Hi, Lisa,” and I close my eyes and think of nothing, something, anything else, like the way Jeff hums when he’s bored at Group. I’m waiting for someone to challenge me. I know it won’t be Jeff, though Tara could take the torch and light me on fire with it. But neither of them speaks, probably afraid of what happened the last time.
Just when I think the torch will be passed, the new guy, who looks like he’s got about six days in him, turns to me. “How is that going to help?” he asks, like he knows anything about anything, and I give him my best fuck-off-and-die look.
“It’s best for me right now,” I say. The others are nodding and clearing their throats, the universal alcoholic’s signal for Let it be, which I don’t blame them for one bit. I try for casual, but I can’t stop looking at the new guy. There’s something about him, something in the line of his jaw. If it wouldn’t be considered weird, I’d lean over and smell him; smells always bring things back. Like lavender. My mother had a thing for lavender. She used to put something in the wash to make our sheets smell like lavender when I was a kid. And, of course, there’s baby powder, or anything that smells like a cleaned-up, loved-and-tended-to baby, whether she’s named Katie or not. I’m reasonably sure this guy isn’t going to smell like either of those, but it doesn’t hurt to be careful.
New guy evidently doesn’t have the same déjà vu feeling about me, because he just nods to the whole group, like he’s picked up on their signal, and he says, “I’m Bill and I’m an alcoholic,” and while the group is delivering their brilliant “Hi, Bill,” I’m adding and subtracting and dividing my experiences with men to see if I can come up with anything that approximates the odd number to my left.
After Lester’s high-horse pronouncement, I walked out of Schooner like it was nothing, and it was. I thought, Next thing. The next thing on my agenda was the unemployment office, but even though I’d breezed right out the door of Schooner like I couldn’t give a shit, there was a problem with getting there, and the problem was that some of those people who might have said it was a bad idea to go to Schooner might have been right. Being inside a bar might have been a mistake. It might have reminded me, a little, of what I’d been missing for the last six months — not to mention who I’d been missing — and suddenly there was only one thought between my ears, which was, truth be told, the only consistent thought I’ve had since I was twelve and a half and Blythe Martin got me drunk on Black Velvet that she’d stolen from her father’s liquor cabinet. So I got that shit of mine together and decided it would be better to go to the unemployment office early Monday morning instead, get a fresh start after the weekend.
My cellphone, which I could afford for exactly seven more days — or was it five, or three? — rang, and I had no doubt who it was, always calling at Miller Time every day of the twenty-eight days since I got out. I didn’t answer it for the first four rings, but then I did, because I don’t know why. I just did.
“Where are you?” Tara said. She was proud of her no-bullshit reputation, but it wore me out.
“Just finished a job interview,” I said.
This caught her off guard for obvious reasons, but I had to give her credit, she went with it. “Good for you. Where?”
I told her about the temporary office position I’d applied for, but I didn’t say anything about going by Schooner to see Lester, because I didn’t need all the wheels coming off at once.
“Let’s get together,” she said, and I felt like someone had just taken the main out of my line, which someone had, actually. Not only her, but other representatives of the addiction-curing business, and other people in the law-enforcement business, and other people in the Child Protective Services business, all the jolly jokers responsible for taking Katie away from me and delivering her to her Happy New Home.
“I was just heading to the unemployment office,” I said, and I thought about where I’d really been going, counting how many steps I had to go backward before I would be back where I’d started that morning. And I’d sworn today would be the day I was going up.
“I’ll come with you,” she said. Did I mention she was persistent? “I’m on Dorsett Avenue right now. Five minutes.”
Change in plans. Plans change. Life is like that. You gots to roll with it, baby. That’s what Marcus always says. Said. That was one of Marcus’s sayings that I wouldn’t hear anymore, because I was not having anything to do with Marcus anymore. He didn’t have my cell; my old number had been disconnected when I went to Fenton. And Marcus couldn’t find me in my usual spots, because I was no longer in my usual spots. And that was good, not because it meant I was being good, but because it meant he couldn’t find Katie. If he asked where she was, no way could I resist him.
Tara was waiting outside when I got to the unemployment office, smoking a cigarette and looking superattentive.
“Missed you at the noon meeting,” she said first thing, because, like I said, she’s a no-bullshitter.
“I was getting ready for my interview,” I said, which was true in its own way.
“No excuses, no abuses,” she said. “Are you going to the six o’clock at the Unity Church?”
I didn’t need her help to keep track of meetings. I knew where the six o’clock meeting was. And the 8 AM one: the senior center. And noon: the basement of the YMCA on Fourth Avenue. Eight, noon, six. Three meals a day of the Big Book and no last names and chain-smoking, and no matter how much you eat of that kind of food, certain appetites are never satisfied.
“Wasn’t planning on it,” I said.
“What were you planning on? I’m hoping you had a plan,” she said, “because losing time is boozing time.”
“I was planning to go fill out another application and then go home to my own bed.” Only it wasn’t home anymore; it was a halfway house, where I didn’t have my own anything.
“How about you fill out that application,” Tara said, “and I’ll treat you to the meeting at the Unity Church.”
Which is how I ended up at this pity party tonight. There was really no point in arguing with Tara. I just have to look at this as another way to keep going up, which is what it could be, except for the fact that when we walked in, I got the didn’t-think-I’d-see-your-face-again look from most of the people here — for sure everyone who was here the last time I was — reminding me why I’d planned never to go to the six o’clock again.
My own Higher Power must be sort of pleased with me this evening, because when the party’s finally over, Tara says she has to go. I don’t ask why. I don’t say, There’s no one waiting for you but your cat, and it doesn’t make you a hero just because you can take care of a cat, since all it needs is food and water. Someone, maybe even Tara, might point out that’s pretty much what humans need, too, but some humans aren’t like cats, who can jump up and get any old scrap that might be on the counter. Some humans — and if I consult my Fearless and Searching Moral Inventory, I must include little girls in that group — are too small to reach counters, and it’s really not as easy as people make it out to be.
“You going straight home?” Tara asks, and I nod, and she keeps standing there, blocking my view of the door, so I can’t see if Bill is outside. I decide to turn it into a test for my Higher Power: if Bill is there when I leave, then it’s meant to be.
“Talk to you in the morning?” Tara says, and I nod. “Call me if anything comes up. My phone’s by my bed,” which I already know. Has she forgotten how many times we’ve chatted at 2 AM? I want her to go so bad I even come up with a smile for her, and then she’s gone, and Bill’s not. He’s standing by the snack table talking to David, who’s HIV positive and whom I have not slept with, not because he’s positive but because he’s gay.
I deeply appreciate that David doesn’t stop when I walk up and point at me and tell Bill where I fit in with the group. “Haven’t seen you in a while,” he says, and, “You’re looking better,” which makes us both uncomfortable.
“Same to you,” I say to David, looking at Bill.
“Tara left you to your own devices?” David asks. He knows Tara’s my sponsor. He knows everything.
“I gave her the night off,” I say, still looking at Bill. His mouth is fascinating: thin and wide, with lines like C’s on either side.
“You must get visitation pretty soon,” David says. Fuck if he isn’t a fucking homing pigeon. “How much longer?”
“You mention your condition to the new guy here?” I say, which is low, but not as low as what David just pulled on me. I must look like I mean business, because he’s got his hands up and is backing away, shaking his head, which I am going to instantly forget. Ta-da, just like that. Gone. Next thing.
Bill is the tallest man I have ever stood next to. “How tall are you?” I ask, since we already know each other’s names, and we already know we’re both hanging by the end of our last nerve.
“Six-eight,” he says, and when I start to speak, he says, “No, I didn’t play basketball.”
“I was going to ask if you wanted to go get a drink,” I say, nudging him and getting exactly the surprised look I expected. “Kid-ding,” I say. “I think we both know the answer to that.”
He follows me out of the meeting like a baby duck after its mother, and I’m wondering where the best place to go would be. There’s an alley that’s semisecluded three streets down, but I’m up for more than that. I had a job interview today. I passed all of my urine tests for an entire month.
I stop and look up at my giant. “I’d ask you over,” I say, “but my roommate has the flu.”
To which he looks sorrowful, so I go with “Want to get a room?” to which he looks overjoyed, and I start to ask him if he really thought it was going to be that tough, but then I think better of it. Probably best to go with “I’ve never done this sort of thing before,” at least for now.
While Bill pays for the room and checks us in, I open my wallet. The twelve dollars I started with this morning is all still there. “I’ll be right back,” I call out to him. “Really,” I say, when I catch his look. “I just need to grab something from across the street.” As I walk out, I raise my eyebrows in a can’t-forget-protection kind of way, even though I’ve got enough armor in my purse to prevent pregnancy for the next decade or two. That’s one lesson I don’t need to study for again.
At the store I think, Just like riding a bike, and I pocket my change and watch the guy place my purchase into a bag. I wonder if I’ll be patient when I’m alone with it, and to my surprise I am. I don’t drink any by myself beside the building, leaning against the concrete wall. Except that might be a small lie, there might have been one quick swallow, and in case you were wondering, yes, it tastes exactly the same as it used to, and there’s a lot to be said for things that don’t change.
Bill’s sitting on the edge of the bed, staring out the window, which faces the side of the convenience store. “Hey,” I say, wondering what he might have seen.
“How long do you have?” he asks, and I suppose he isn’t referring to my free time this evening.
“Six months and twenty-eight days,” I say, and he says, “You sure you want to start over?” which I ignore and ask him instead how long he has, and he says ten days.
“Six months and twenty-eight days is a pretty long time,” he says. “You have a lot to lose.”
I want to tell him I’ve already lost it, lost her; she’s so lost it’s not clear she ever really existed, but actually I don’t want to tell him anything of the sort. What I want to do is open this bottle and get the party started, because I know what tomorrow will be, and why wreck today with tomorrow?
“How’d you do it?” he asks, and it’s possible I could lose my patience here in a minute. “Six months and twenty-eight days?”
“I didn’t exactly have a choice,” I say, thinking they never took my cocktail order at Fenton. Bill doesn’t want to hear my story. Guys like Bill don’t want to be with girls who’ve been inside. Guys like Bill have their standards.
“Court ordered?” he asks, and I say, “Something like that,” and glance in the direction of the bathroom. There are probably glasses in there. I decide to take the bag with me, and sure enough there are two glasses, so I can keep going with the classy version of the evening. I bring them out and pour one full and look to Bill. He stares at me for a minute before reaching for it, and I’m pouring the other glass before he’s swallowed. “Here’s to starting over,” I say, and we’re on.
You never plan these things; they just happen. That’s what I’m thinking now, listening to Bill snore, and that’s what I said then, in my defense, and both times I said it, everyone listening knew it was weak. “Weak” was what some lawyer said, when I was trying to show remorse: “weak,” “no choice,” “at your mercy.” I remember quite a few of those words strung together in some kind of attack against me, in a battle I heard they won. But six months is a long time to think, especially without the benefit of any of my favorite substances, and one thing I think is that they might have won the battle, but I could still win the war.
Bill is groaning and turning on his side, and if I get out of here right now, I might be able to convince myself I’m still going up, because I’m not sticking around to hear all the regret and misery that’s sure to come from Mr. I Had Ten Days. So I get up as quiet as I can and find my clothes, but I guess he does grab my arm while I am trying to put on my jeans, and I guess he does say something about something, but I just tell him I’ll see him next time at the six o’clock, and I get out of there easy, with only a small tear in my shirt. It’s tiny and in the shoulder seam; it will be a cinch to fix.
Outside I walk a perfect straight line down the sidewalk. If they’d let me drive, I’d have no trouble — I am an excellent drunk driver; everyone used to say so — but there isn’t going to be any driving for a long time. There’s not going to be a lot of things until I’ve been clean for a year.
I’m almost to the crosswalk when I have to make a full stop and take a deep breath because, no matter which way I look, I can’t not see the woman and little girl walking in front of me. The child is laughing, pulling on her mother’s hand to slow down. And I have to stop and give it credit, the world, for how good it is at kicking the shit out of you; how perfectly opposite the getting-off-easy feeling is to the kick-to-my-uterus feeling at the sight of those two. The woman bends to pick up the girl, and I turn my head to find something else to look at, because that woman isn’t me and I’m not her, and even though I’m getting back on schedule and going up — for sure this time — I’m a long way away from where they stand, not two feet ahead of me. And I’m even farther away from Katie, from bending down to pick her up and walk her home.