Clara’s husband is suspicious about what happens during the secret meetings she attends some nights in church basements. They aren’t secret meetings, of course; they’re anonymous, which isn’t the same thing, but Clara’s husband isn’t one for the finer points. (Her real name isn’t Clara by the way, it’s something more common, like Abby or Ashley. Names like that provide an anonymity of their own—you meet one belligerent, drunken Ashley and you’ve met them all—but I’m certain I’ve never met a sober alcoholic named Clara, so Clara it is.)
Clara’s husband Rob (not his real name either, it’s something stupid like Casey or Cory) suspects that Clara is having an affair. I can see him outside now, peeking through the narrow basement window, his thin body pressed down against the parking lot pavement, his head cocked to the side scanning our fluorescent-lit faces for his wife. They’re about twenty of us here (not bad for a meeting in Easthill, New Hampshire, population roughly twelve large families) so it takes Rob a minute to find her. He twitches a little when his eyes fall on Clara, and I can’t tell if he’s relieved or disappointed to find her here in a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, approximately two minutes more sober than he is.
The Thursday night “Shut Up and Sober Up” group holds a speaker meeting at 8 p.m. in the basement of the Holier Than Thou Baptist Church on the corner of State and Oak Streets. The people who open the meeting set up the metal folding chairs in a semicircle so that we attendees have no choice but to spend the hour under the harsh fluorescents examining the wear on each other’s faces. Pete looks decent, considering he’s died and been resuscitated twice in the last two years. Nancy looks like hitting the gym and taking vitamin supplements are her new addictions. Good for her. I’m still covering a multitude of sins with cream foundation and medical alert red lipstick. Clara is sitting across from me, shifting in her chair, causing it to squeak and groan like a choirboy with laryngitis. She keeps on checking the pockets of her ripped jeans and threadbare flannel shirt, and looking at the floor next to her chair like she thinks she set down a purse there. But Clara came in here with nothing more than the rest of us did—an abiding sense that she mislaid her life somewhere.
I wonder what Rob sees when he looks at Clara. She’s only in her early forties, but a few decades of hard drinking and hard living have aged her prematurely. I don’t mean she looks like she’s fifty—I mean she looks like a roughed-up forty, a maybe-this-will-be-the-winning-ticket-and-I’ll-splurge-on-KFC-and-MDMA forty, an I’ll-blow-you-in-the-alley-for-a-bottle-of-hundred-proof kind of forty. What I’m saying is, she’s not someone you’d think is eligible for an affair, unless you count the alleyway action, which I don’t. (Rob doesn’t seem to either. What do I know, though?) Martha, the group’s den mother and patron saint of low-bottom drunks (having once been a low-bottom drunk herself), hands Clara a Styrofoam cup filled with a steaming, grayish liquid meant to pass for coffee. I have a cup too, for what good it might do me.
Martha always wears a tie-dyed shawl wrapped around her drooping neck. The shawl has little bells on the hem so she rings and jingles everywhere she goes. Martha says that we’re all miracles, but it’s hard to feel miraculous when you spend hours each week in the part of churches that was once reserved for the crypt. (Better than really being in a crypt, Saint Martha likes to remind me.) A true believer, she also likes to say, “Don’t leave before the miracle happens.” In this context “the miracle” is a life that’s not ruled by the disease of addiction. I gulp my coffee down fast, still more interested in the effect of a substance than its taste, and I press my thumb nail into the cup’s pliable rim, making jagged patterns that look like broken teeth. Well, here I am, Martha, Blessed Mother of Drunks. I’m waiting.
It’s 8:05 p.m. The meeting has started. The chairperson is some middle-aged woman with the haughty, defensive look of a nurse who’s abused her patients’ medications. She’s visiting from an AA group a few towns over. I didn’t catch her name—Samantha? She looks like a Samantha: shrewd and dismal, with a deflated Jackie Onassis bouffant. She’s reading the AA Preamble, then she’ll have someone read How It Works from the Big Book, then the group’s secretary will read the secretary’s report—who knew alcoholics were such bureaucrats—and then Samantha (definitely not her real name, I’ll call her Sad Jackie) will talk for thirty to forty minutes about what shit her life was when she was drinking, how she got sober, and what bliss her life is now.
After she shares, we’ll do the raffle, which is rigged so the sketchiest newcomer will go home with a Big Book or Twelve and Twelve. My money is on Clara tonight. We’ll do the chip club “to mark our time in sobriety,” we’ll make announcements (the functions committee is looking for volunteers, please stop smoking on the church grounds, stuff like that), someone will read the AA Promises, then we’ll pray and close the meeting thus (you get used to words like “thus” when you read the Big Book): “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities. Who you see here, what you hear here, when you leave here, let it stay here.” That from the founding fathers, Bill W. and Dr. Bob. Bill and Bob knew what drunks were like; they knew we could hate our way right out of sobriety, and they knew we couldn’t hold onto too many words at once—not in early recovery.
It’s 8:12, Sad Jackie is just getting going with her story, and Rob is lying outside on the pavement in the church parking lot, looking rumpled as an empty pack of Marlboro Reds, peering in at the meeting. He must think we can’t see him out there, in the dark—Rob is kind of a dummy that way. I’m glad to see him, though. This is the fifth meeting I’ve gone to this week and today is only Thursday. I’m grateful for any distraction. On Monday I went to the “Better Dry Than Dead” group at the Blessed Shepherd of Fuck-ups Episcopal Church on York Street and heard Old Jim (not really Jim, you know the drill) talk about being stationed in Germany during the Vietnam War. All the beer he could drink and he drank it all until his liver nearly gave out, or something like that; Old Jim had a stroke a while back and it’s hard to understand him.
On Tuesday I went to the “Sometimes Quickly Sometimes Slowly” group in the basement of the Holy Do-Gooder Presbyterian Church on Quebec Street. A new kid—newer than I am, and at one year sober I’m still pretty raw—sat in the corner and cried the whole meeting. He was maybe 16 or 17 years old, carrying a blue canvas tote, like something he’d gotten at a rehab or outpatient treatment center. It had “One Day at a Time” printed on the side. So much for anonymity. Even without the slogan, though, you could see he was one of us: hollow, sunken eyes; skin blotchy and translucent as a plastic bag; brittle, dull blond hair; and he was thin as a leaf caught in the breeze.
Where was I? Wednesday I went to the nooner at the All Reprobates Catholic Church on Washington Street because the kid on Tuesday had depressed the shit out of me. Sure enough, Saint Martha was at that meeting too, jingling like a one-woman percussion section, plying newcomers with coffee and recovery pamphlets. Then I went to my regular 7 p.m. at St. Mary’s Hospital on Bloom Street. It’s nice not being in a church basement for that one, but yesterday this guy Charlie chaired the meeting. Charlie is in his late sixties and has gentle eyes, like my grandfather. In the 90s Charlie raped a woman while he was in a blackout. He doesn’t talk about that at meetings—maybe he doesn’t have much to say since he doesn’t remember it—but people whisper it around him. He did time and he’s been sober more than twenty years now, but sex offenses don’t wash off and he’s on the registry. When Charlie closed the St. Mary’s meeting, I ended up holding his hand while he led the group in the Serenity Prayer. “God,” he signaled, pausing for the group to catch up, then we intoned at our own ragged paces, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Charlie squeezed my hand gently and then let go. I guess he would know something about accepting things you cannot change.
Charlie isn’t here tonight, however, and Rob doesn’t look sober or serene. He’s rolled onto his side trying to light a cigarette. The wind whips the flame from his white Bic lighter in a circular dance, snuffing it out twice. He gets it on the third try. Now he’s smoking, puffing hot black air into his lungs and blowing it against the basement window. The window is open an inch—like I said, Rob isn’t too smart—and a thin veil of smoke pours down into the church basement. We can all smell it, everyone except for Clara who by now (8:32 p.m.) is out cold, her head flipped back, her mouth open, a dry snore rattling around down somewhere in her neck. Rob likes her like that, I can tell. He likes her immobile, out of it. With her mouth agape, I can see that Clara is missing most of her teeth. The kind of mouth men like Rob think it’s funny to joke about: “At least she can’t bite my dick off,” or “More room for my cock,” that kind of vainglorious bullshit. Rob is lying on his side with one elbow crooked, his head propped up by his hand holding the cigarette, but he’s slid his other hand down into his jeans pocket. I think I can see it moving, working up and down in his pants—but I’m not sure. My sponsor says I expect the worst of men, so the worst is what I see in them. Next time, I’ll sit with my back to the window.
I’ve got to admit, at meetings like this one I wonder what the fuck I’m doing here, watching Clara conked out and snoring, watching Betty (who’s been sober since the Mesozoic era) knit a blanket for her great-granddaughter and gently nudge Clara awake when her snores reach a disruptive decibel. It’s 8:37 p.m. and Sad Jackie has talked about how she knew she had a drinking problem when she couldn’t stop at one glass of wine with dinner. Maybe she’s not a junkie nurse after all, or maybe she’s a liar. Now she’s running her nails through the thinning hair by her temple, talking about how it’s inappropriate to share stories about drug use in AA meetings, and I wonder what the fuck she thinks alcohol is if not a drug. Younger alcoholics, we’ve all abused drugs and alcohol—so I text my friend Kate, sitting next to me in the meeting: “What the fuck?” Kate texts back “Srsly!” and an emoticon with a red, rageful face, or what passes for rage among emoticons.
I’m not Sad Jackie, I don’t claim to have just had a sip too many, but I guess that’s not Jackie’s fault. I’m not Clara either—not yet. My last drunk was when I was twenty-eight, young enough that I could still get all the booze I needed for free at any bar, which was good because I always needed more than I could afford. I mean, sort of for free. Sometimes I got away without any action, sometimes the price was the same as Clara paid, but in my case the fucking happened a few hours later and in a different (and private) location, which gave it the veneer of acceptability.
“Maybe I’ll like this one,” I’d tell myself about whatever guy was footing the bill for my drinks on whatever night, but I was always too drunk to figure out what I did or didn’t like. Still, the guy-of-the-night would maneuver me back to his place and into his bed. From there it was all pretty much the same, overhead lights humming, dark sheets, the stink of sweat and alcohol metabolizing, and a sick, twisting sort of feeling in my stomach, like the world was spinning backwards, and then eventually a feeling of—nothing. I never remembered more than that of the night and by the next morning I invariably hated the stranger I woke up next to who’d fucked me while I was god knows where—gone, just gone.
If I’d had to spend another ten years drinking like that—or worse—looking at Clara wouldn’t be looking at a strange, sad woman sitting across from me in a church basement, slouched down in a metal folding chair, nodding off before Sad Jackie finished reading the AA Preamble. In another ten years, looking at Clara would be looking in a mirror. That’s something else Bill and Bob knew, that somedays seeing someone like Clara is the only thing that can keep someone like me sober. Like that asshole in The Christmas Carol, I’m not convinced my drinking days are over until I see the Ghost of Binges Yet-to-Come. But people like me have to be haunted again and again and again.
I hate to admit that Jackie is right, she is one of us, because being an alcoholic has nothing to do with how much or how often we drank, or for how long, it’s not even about how bad it got for us out there. Being an alcoholic means that you can’t drink in safety, you can’t stop at “just one.” Fuck will power, being an alcoholic means that the promises you make to yourself and others, that pour from you like the smoke falling out of Rob’s mouth—they disappear, just like that smoke, when the phenomenon of craving comes. When I look at Clara I know that if I go back out, if I ever pick up a drink or a drug again, I’m headed for that dark nothing where she is.
But why did I get sober before I became Clara? And why didn’t she get sober when she was still me? For that matter, why didn’t I get sober when I was still Sad Jackie, neatly bobbed, with all my self-righteousness intact? I don’t know. I don’t know. All I know is that I have to come to these meetings, no matter who I sit across from, no matter if they’re awake or asleep, no matter whose hand I hold, no matter what dumbass might be jerking it outside the window, because if I’m not coming here I’m not thinking these thoughts, I’m not remembering who I was, or wondering how it works, or why I was saved, or what saved me. I’m not waiting to feel like the miracle Saint Martha says I am. If I’m not here, I’m just drifting into forgetting. I know some people think that alcoholics drink to forget, but that isn’t true. When we forget, we drink. It’s the most natural thing in the world, like when you forget to hold your breath, you start breathing.
It’s 8:50 p.m. Sad Jackie has finally stopped talking—at least she’s nailed the first half of the “Shut Up and Sober Up” group’s promise. Betty tucks away her knitting and nudges Clara awake again. We circle up to close the meeting, tonight with the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t say it; I’ve never learned the words. After a year of going to three or four meetings a week, I could probably mumble my way through it if I wanted to, but it doesn’t mean anything to me. Instead, I stand in the circle, I hold their hands, and say to myself “I believe in a god that is gentle and kind.” I don’t know that I do, but my sponsor said if that’s the god I want to believe in I should say that every day, regardless. In the first few months of sobriety, my only prayer was “I don’t have to drink today, even if I want to.” I wasn’t sure that was true either, but I said it—every day—and it became true, for me.
At the Wednesday meeting at St. Mary’s Hospital, someone had written on a whiteboard in shaky, juvenile cursive, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I suppose that was true for whoever wrote it, too, but I wonder whom among us they’d thought was lacking God’s grace. I know I’m supposed to believe that all those years I was out—drinking, blacking out, getting fucked, dying—those were the years before God saved me. But sometimes at meetings I’ll hear someone say, “I think I was born alcoholic.” They’ll talk about their alcoholic mother or father and how, as a child, they’d gulp the last sip from their parent’s empties when they weren’t looking. They’ll say that the first time they tasted alcohol was the first time in their lives they felt whole. They’ll talk about an uncle who got himself locked up for drinking and driving, about a sister who snapped and ate a bottle of pills, or a brother with cirrhosis. They’ll talk about babies miscarried or born with fetal alcohol syndrome. If grace is what saves us, it must be a scarce commodity. You’d think an all-powerful God would start by doling out rations to babies—but he doesn’t. I can’t help but feel that God some old-timers talk about sounds like the kind of guy who’d push you in a lake so he could save you from drowning. I believe in a god that is gentle and kind, a god that is powerless to save or intercede. And weren’t we made in god’s image?
It’s 9:02 p.m. The basement erupts in a clatter of metal scraping across the cement floor and we stack our folding chairs against a wall. Rob hauls himself up outside the window. All I can see are two wet, brown oil stains on the knees of his jeans and smoke that’s tumbled down from his mouth like ash from an erupting mountain. Clara staggers outside leaving her coffee cup on the floor next to the abandoned Big Book she won in the raffle. (I was right.) I’m close behind them in the parking lot as Rob wraps an arm around Clara and guides her toward his truck. He leans over her and says something about “those fuckin’ people, babe,” and then something else I can’t hear. The truck’s door creaks open, and Rob hoists his wife up into the cab.
He’ll drive Clara over to the Cumberland Farms on the corner now and send her inside for a lottery ticket, a pack of cold ones, and some smokes. Then they’ll drive down Main Street in a halogen glow of traffic lights, cigarette smoke swirling up from the truck’s open windows to a moon that looks red as a stop sign tonight. The truck’s exhaust will hum a familiar lullaby and they’ll drift off together, lonely as God’s first children, toward the highway and forgetting.
R.S. Wynn lives in Maine in an antique farmhouse on four acres that she shares with her husband, step-daughter, and four dogs, having reluctantly agreed to a one dog per acre limit. She earned an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has an essay forthcoming in Inscape Magazine.