Jeff stood behind the wooden podium decorated with a large Alcoholics Anonymous sign. His heart raced. Sweat gathered on his forehead. He looked over the compact, civic center backroom. People sat scattershot among the canary chairs. A protracted table offering dwindling coffee and store-bought cookies flanked the seating arrangement.
“My name’s Jeff and…” he thought about the next obligatory words. A public label acknowledging his faulty character. He lowered his head in defeat. “…and I’m an alcoholic.”
“Hi, Jeff.” Twenty-four attendees voiced together.
"I've been clean for, um, well, twelve hours and…" He searched his watch for an escape. He found digital numbers in its place. Jeff stalled by running his fingers through his greasy, overgrown hair. They expected a story now that he claimed their time. Veteran members wanted an honest, heartfelt experience. Newbies, like him, wanted a more troublesome history beyond their own. An “at least I’m not as bad as him” comparison.
"Anyways, I guess I drink too much. I, um, really like bourbon. Does anyone else like bourbon?" He caught himself after the last words slipped by.
"Um, sorry." Jeff lowered his head against furrowing brows among the interested. He looked up once more. "Well, I'm living in a motel. The one back on Margot Avenue, a real crap hole. The one by Lou's Liquors." He caught himself again. His fingers followed the identical path over his head. Select attendees groaned.
"Fuck, maybe I should let someone else do this." His eyes pleaded with the facilitator who claimed twelve years of sobriety.
“Keep going, you’re doing fine,” Her face registered patient opMontellism.
"Anyways, I have twelve hours under me or behind me or whatever you people say. I'm just happy to be sober. I guess. Not that I want to be. I mean, fuck, the crap I used to get into." His face became energized. "I mean last week, this hot girl with large cans and I started with a fifth of bourbon, did I mention that I like bourbon," his eyes lit up, "and then we ended up doing double shots before -"
“Okay, thank you Jeff.” The older woman’s tone indicated her patience’s end. She replaced him at the podium. Jeff found the chair with his stained windbreaker.
“Sometimes, when we’re new at this, it can be difficult to find the right words until the miracle takes hold.” She enunciated, telling him to do better simultaneously directing the naysayers to their empathy. “It takes a lot of courage to stand before strangers with our past. Thank you, Jeff.” Her solo applause cued the audience. The room filled with passive clapping.
Jeff became lost in thick confusion as the meeting progressed. He berated himself for getting tossed off stage before praising himself for attending the meeting. The older woman, who he labeled Ethel, took him aside at the meeting's conclusion. She explained that sobriety offers challenges when compared to wild times, but is worth the fight. Ethel explained how she partied harder than he can imagine, but now lived a happy, sober marriage with "my Ted." She related how the last twelve years had made all the difference to her stability. Jeff struggled to imagine the five-foot zero, gray-haired grandma do anything besides bake cookies and run Friday night AA meetings. He smiled at her warmth. She encouraged him to meet with Montell, a buttoned-up accountant roughly his age who attended to a phone call. She explained how Montell would likely accept being a sponsor. His face angled with confusion. Ethel explained that a sponsor is someone Jeff to call on when tempted by alcohol until the craving subsided. Jeff passively agreed to meet when Montell became available.
An older man grabbed her attention away from their conversation. Jeff stood by the refreshment table holding a Styrofoam coffee cup before deciding to leave. He departed before adding to his mistakes. He exited into the empty hallway before hearing his name from behind. Jeff turned to see Ethel. She approached him with a compassionate, concerned smile.
“You did good even if it doesn’t feel that way. Keep coming back,” she comforted, placing her small hand on his shoulder, “it works, if you work it.” She winked at him. Jeff thanked her, looking at the floor.
He shuffled to the bus stop. The ride forced him to think about the meeting, his past and the blank slate his future held. He walked four blocks through Friday night music, neon liquor signs and an insatiable need to spend his last dollars. He opened Room Two’s faded, red door. The room’s past debauchery filled his nose. I really need to find somewhere better, he thought, flipping on the cheap lamp. He ignored the carpet spots skirting into the bathroom’s darkness. Looks like I sleep with the lights on again. So, this is what sobriety is. Great.
Jeff sat on the decrepit mattress, forcing himself not to think about the sexual escapade ghosts he accompanied. He awoke the television for company. An hour passed with reflections about his upcoming challenges. His eyes fought against fatigue. The sportscaster made her prediction for tomorrow’s college football games as he eased into sleep.
Jeff attended weekly meetings. He made several friends and secured Montell as his sponsor. The two talked once a week on the phone, at their meeting and on days Jeff needed to shake his cravings away. Jeff built a wall of self-pride. A foreign feeling until late. He quickly learned that Ethel went by her real name, Judy. Jeff closely bonded with her kindness which increased their friendship and support.
A month passed. He watched as new attendees stumbled through their initial speeches, making similar mistakes as he had. One night, the meeting facilitator called his name. Jeff strode up to the podium for his 30 Day Coin. He never considered the reality of abstaining a month without bourbon’s embrace. Montell and the attendees applauded his achievement. He asked about Judy, who hadn’t been in attendance for some time. An older man pulled him aside.
“Judy fell off the wagon.” He cleared his throat. “She’s on a bender right now due to a sizeable inheritance. A few of the group, well, we went by her place when she didn’t answer anyone’s calls. Ted told us that she’s probably down at Wellwishers drinking until her money runs out, she dies or until Ted freezes the account, again.”
Disbelief painted Jeff’s face. “But, she… she had something like twelve years sober and now it’s gone.”
“Yeah, well, addiction’s a bitch.”
“Why doesn’t Ted just freeze the account now?”
“The last time he did that,” the older man looked around. He whispered, “she found ‘other’ means of paying for her drinks.”
Jeff absorbed the emotional gut punch. He struggled to wrap his mind around these ideas. Bender. Old lady prostitution. Sobriety erased. Jeff slumped down in a nearby chair. The older man leaned in.
"Look, I know you two is friends and that's why I told you.” His eyes spoke beyond words. “I'm hoping that you can keep this private." Jeff looked up with compliance.
“Yes, sir. Between me and you.”
“Good. Congrats on that coin, Jeff. Keep coming back.” The confidant offered his calloused hand. Jeff shook the vice grip.
Two weeks passed before Judy's withered shell took a seat among the group. The attendees who knew her offered support. She shrugged back from their comforting. Jeff decided to see how the evening progressed before deciding to reconnect. Newcomers looked upon the disheveled woman with confusion. Her hair nearly white hair clumped upon her head as if a nest. She wore deeper shadowed wrinkles than he remembered.
"Judy it's good to see you. Why don't you come up here, hun?" The meeting leader invited her to speak. The haggard woman stalled. She fought against herself to stand. Her soiled, ruby-colored heels plodded to the podium. The group leader took a seat in the front. Her smile offering reassurance.
"My. My." She looked around the room, her glassy gaze lost. Jeff wondered if she saw him. "My name is Judy and I'm a fucking alcoholic. What else do you degenerates want to hear?” Her face flush with accusation. “Do you want to hear how I blew a chunk of my mother's inheritance before Ted froze the fucking account?” Her voice continued to grow louder. “Maybe you all want to hear how I fucked my way through the bar before Ted and his bother snatched me out in front of my friends?"
A backroom door slammed. The group’s attention redirected to the calamity. The evening’s leader hurried to the podium. Her face wore regret.
"Yeah, run away, Ted," she mumbled with raised arm, pointing her finger in the door’s general direction. Her head swiveled looking for an empty bucket to dispose of her anger.
"Maybe it's time for you to sit down, Judy." The leader's words carried empathy. She reached out for the speaker’s dirty blouse sleeve.
Judy assessed the middle-aged woman with mistrust. "Yeah, yeah, I'll sit down. Only because my legs are tired. But after this, I'm going back to the Well. Ted, I need a ride. Where the fuck did Ted go?" She searched the crowd’s faces.
Judy shuffled to the closest pockmarked chair. Jeff fought against himself to offer her comfort. He decided on less stimulation being better. He thought about Judy on the bus ride to his new studio apartment and wondered if someone with a dozen sober years and a loving, doormat husband, could slip up so far, how could he be expected to maintain sobriety. The idea emotionally threw him down a mental chasm. He sat on his bed, flipping his metallic achievement. Well, if I drink tonight, then I can save myself the trouble of building my life only for it to be torn down, he thought. Jeff picked up the phone. Montell answered. The two processed Jeff’s thoughts through the crisis.
Sunlight sifted through the small studio apartment. Jeff opened his eyes with five years clean. Hopeful, sober eyes. He thought about the weekend. Time for the fitness center. A couple of dates. Afternoon AA meetings. He thought about buying a new suit for a potential job opening at work. If I kept drinking, I wouldn’t have money for most of this, he reflected.
Months passed. Jeff spent his afternoon workout thinking about Erica. Their date six months back ended with a simple kiss. They spent their free time finding each other. They shared their recovery stories and provided mutual support. When one had a tempting day, the other comforted. Their homes mixed as their relationship cemented into a sobriety dam. They agreed to maintain a dry home. Their alcohol-free promise became intrinsic to their relationship. They talked long about marriage. Jeff shared her excitement to begin a family when the time arrived.
Years shuffled across Jeff’s life. The AA veteran stood at the podium with a few more wrinkles than before. He exuded sobriety’s benefits. His face held its radiance. His clothing bought off high-end hangers. His wedding band worn as a sober pact. He looked over the group. A shiny, engraved AA coin rested within his palm. Pride swelled within his chest, feeding his wide smile.
"Ten years ago I decided to stop drinking." He looked down to the hand-worn, wooden podium’s comfort. In his wildest thoughts, he never thought this moment could happen. Time passed as a blur. Sobriety, promotions, marriage with a stable home. A bourbon-free life alongside a wonderful woman. Erica. Her smile comforted him from the front row.
“I was a blubbering fool standing at this exact podium.” He tapped his familiar friend for effect. “I had about twelve hours sober then, talking all sorts of foolishness. A caring and lovely woman offered me kindness when I assumed kindness had run out in my life.” A tear formed in his eye. “Judy, this one's for you. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, this one’s for you. Ten years. Thank you all.” The intimate crowd applauded. He cued into Erica’s support above the group’s approval. She met him with a hug before he sat next to her. They held hands. Erica looked forward to when she might hold the same coin in five years.
Their home filled with stability and happiness. Jeff savored the life they created. He valued building memories with a woman who became his recovery rock. His cravings subsided from fighting across a river current to stepping past a gentle stream. Jeff appreciated the stream’s ability to becoming a raging river with a single drink.
Challenges met the couple as time moved the calendar ahead. Erica failed repeated attempts to get pregnant. The doctors determined her ovaries to be defective. Jeff held her those rough nights. She held him in return, feeling sole responsibility for their empty home. He comforted her with reminders that they had each other, they had a nice life and they had sobriety. Months passed. Jeff noticed her loving nature deteriorate. Erica became withdrawn, having lost that inner light he needed to fuel his. He offered his patience and heart to help her. She thanked his efforts with hollow appreciation. They fought over mundane issues. Jeff worked around her emotional disintegration. He missed their intimacy, the way they held each other after making love. These encounters became a distant memory as Erica retreated further into herself.
Jeff looked forward to being home after a hectic work outing. Fourteen days gone felt like fourteen weeks. He looked forward to home-cooked dinners talking with Erica, even if she barely carried conversation anymore. She refused to answer his calls since a baseless fight several days into his trip. Her texts became one-word responses, ok, fine, sure, good.
He arrived home to her car off-center in the driveway. A sickening feeling passed over him. Jeff entered the house with caution. The overwhelming liquor scent caught him a step into the foyer. An empty bourbon bottle maintained company on the living room carpet among abandoned food and discarded clothing. His heart fell. He feared finding her dead. Jeff searched through the ground floor finding remnant of her self-destruction. Illicit bender and shattered trust evidence lay everywhere he turned. His body shook through every room, fighting against enticement. Call Montell. Call him now. He declined to make the call until he talked to his wife.
He stepped around a litter avalanche scattered throughout the stairs. The second-floor hallway offered obscure noises from above. Jeff stopped, unsure if he could proceed through the further hell he needed to cross. Jeff stalled outside the bedroom doorway. His body quaked at the overwhelming emotions. He wished to be back in his hotel room, safe from the next moments. An odor lingered under his nose, equally calling and repelling him. Days old food dancing with stale beer and corrupt bourbon. He questioned his sobriety's capacity to survive.
Jeff entered the disheveled room. Erica slumped against a far wall, closest to the bathroom. She wore a stained white t-shirt and overdue panties. The floor held scattered bourbon bottles in various consumption states. He studied his drunk wife from a distance. His emotional stability crumbled. The desire to drink took root against his ten-year sober dam.
She looked up. “Hey you, you’re home,” smiling with more dazzle than she had in months. “take off your clothes and come in.” He watched her guzzle from a Thick Jim’s Bourbon bottle. “You were right, it’s so good. Mmmmm.” She looked upwards for effect.
“Come over here, Jeff. Come sit by me.” She patted the mauve carpet between her and their bathroom. He thought of a car accident that one wants to look away from but needs to know how bad it is.
The scene overwhelmed his sanity. He stood at the room’s entrance as if caught in high beams, unsure what to do. The slumbering addiction grew exponentially, causing thick ivy to spread over his sobriety dam. He could feel the concrete years of meetings and sponsors and rough days and crying and praying and reading their pamphlets begin to crumble under the vine’s demanding pressure. He didn’t want to approach her as much as he needed to.
“Don’t you want to sit by your beautiful wife?” She pouted, slowly batting her eyes. “We can drink and make love. Then drink more and make love again until the sun comes up.” Ending their sexual drought enticed him. Her siren song brought his steps deeper inside, meeting the room’s middle.
“Good. Come over here, give me a hug. It’s been so long since we’ve been together and I’ve missed you terribly. I promise to make all the pain go away.”
He approached her, lying to himself that he wouldn't sit down. Water began slipping through holes as the vines continued at the dam’s foundation. Bricks shattered through his resolve. Jeff sat down next to his wife, his back firmly against the wall. She passed the half-filled bottle towards him. He looked ahead without response. The bourbon’s aroma coiled around his face. Why can’t I grab her hand and run out of here, he asked himself.
“Here, this is for you.” Long seconds passed without his acknowledgment. “It’s getting heavy, Jeff,” she groaned, urging the container towards him. Jeff’s quivering hand accepted the uncapped bottle. His golden love for her tangled with a fresh, hateful stain. “Good, now enjoy,” her glassy eyes followed his movement.
Jeff remembered the bottle’s soft, plastic contours. His mind flooded with the comforting feel. Faded, ancient memories filled with laughter edged his elbow upwards. Stop, Jeff, stop. The auburn liquid angled its path towards the clear, arched neck. The last resolve ripped away. The sobriety dam broke free. His lips secured the opening, welcoming the bourbon’s rush. The nostalgic, harsh flavor met his tongue. He longed for the next drinks that would follow. This is my worst nightmare, he thought as the brown liquor burned past his throat.