It was Walt’s turn when I walked in. Under different circumstances and different lighting I would have sworn he was Morgan Freeman’s twin if Morgan Freeman had spent his life treating gin like oxygen. Walt had been “off it” for twenty years. The guys said “off it” when they spoke of the time that had passed between their last drink to the present day – for instance, I had been “off it” for about 18 hours.
There were six people in the group that night; we were all crowded around a donated kitchen table in the basement of a Catholic Church. I was late because of the snow, and by the time I had arrived I thought I had accidentally walked in on a support group for seniors who suffered from debilitating coffee sweats. The heads around the table turned upon my arrival. Despite my evident lack of facial hair and the evident presence of pleated khakis, the men nervously sized me up, like I’d just walked in on someone telling the world’s worst secret.
There was a mutual, unspoken understanding that pleasantries wouldn’t be exchanged and I was to quietly take a seat.
Walt could tell a sad story, but I suppose twenty years of practice will do that. He’d been coming to this basement every Sunday since I was tucked away in the thick of the second trimester, presumably sober.
“She was my baby girl, didn’t know her but five years before they took her away. Haven’t seen her since. I had it and I lost it, now I gotta to keep the television on. But at some point you have to forgive yourself,” he said in a way that could convince you all of this happened on the way into the meeting.
“Amen, Walt,” everyone replied. I think there were some affirmative “goddamn its” thrown in there as well.
After a few members, I had the hang of it. The way it worked was that one-by-one each person stood in front of the group and told the story of their collapse. The job was always the first to go. That part typically involved f-cking up an impossibly expensive piece of machinery or getting into a brawl with a coworker. Without enough money coming in, the wife would send in the papers and take the kids with her if the state hadn’t already done so. With each loss the depression got worse, and so the drinking increased until they were no longer human. That’s how it went around this table, anyway.
This presented a problem. I sat there, nineteen, unemployed, single and childless. The formula for the being an alcoholic didn’t apply to me: them + hooch = them – (job – wife – children). While my formula was me + hooch = me + eating Taco Bell + the first half of a movie + falling asleep with hands in pants. But let’s be honest, neither party could do math.
Soon enough the stories piled onto one another, sympathies and advice were exchanged, and before I knew it I was up to bat.
I looked around as if maybe I’d be excused from this exercise. The men gave me a “c’mon pussy, let’s get this over with” look and I immediately scooted the wooden chair and stood before the group. Standing over the table I was speechless; all I could do was roll and twist the “12 Steps” pamphlet I had been given.
“My name is Dan, and I am an alcoholic,” I croaked.
“Nice to meet you, Dan,” the group mumbled. They didn’t say it with the new-lease-on-life singsong enthusiasm like in the movies. It was more like a choir of out of tune sleep talkers. I’d left my coat on even though I’d been there for 45 minutes. I don’t like to take my coat off because I feel like I can still make a getaway if it’s not on a hook or buried in a coat casserole. I looked around for something to say, but needless to say I was lost.
The faces that surrounded me were barely held together. These men had a disease I didn’t have. They were just the outer crusts of human beings; they had been folded and unfolded, drunk off champagne and mouthwash; men that had burst apart and were now picking up the pieces of their firecracker lives off the neighbor’s front yard while everyone except their families watched. Now, here they were gumming down cold coffee and telling the same sad stories over and over. I had nothing but sympathy yet nothing in common.
I needed something spectacular: A story about a bottle of gin, a baseball bat, one wrong look and a hundred dead cloister nuns. Or how I drove my car into the building that doubled as an orphanage and a puppy oncology ward. But I had nothing. Not even a good old-fashioned drunk youth in revolt story about how I drank five of my parent’s expired Michelobe Ultras and loudly played Mario Kart. This is a life you cannot fake; my face was too smooth, my voice too high and my oxford too pressed.
“I’m here because I was drinking underage. I had to go to court and the judge said if I came to AA for four Sundays I wouldn’t have to pay a fine,” I said.
That was it. I bashfully took a seat around the table of sadness, which by now was totally silent except for the sound of toothpicks being shifted from one side of the mouth to the other. The man to the left of me stood up, announced his name and disease, and then shamefully recalled the time he fell asleep at a stoplight and punched the arresting officer when he tried to wake him up. Everyone sympathetically nodded and welcomed him, told him they were proud of him for coming. F-cking show-off.
No one spoke to me the rest of the meeting. We finished up with a prayer and then the men congratulated each other for making it through another week. The group congregated around the coat rack as pats on the back and phone numbers were exchanged. They spoke of mutual friends and how they didn’t live that far from one another. I pretended to compose a text message.
I didn’t need to get my coat. I said goodbye quiet enough so they wouldn’t respond and slipped out the door. I climbed the stairs and reentered the snow. I crossed to the opposite end of the untouched parking lot and called my dad.