by Anna S. King
She found the room, slightly regretting that it couldn’t be tracked by the stink of nicotine. Not that she smoked anymore, but back then cigarettes had been a shared stubborn hold on an acceptable addiction, along with guzzling sour urn coffee made thick with spoonfuls of sugar. In those days of Styrofoam, she’d score the minutes into her cup as she’d sweated through the rituals, the stories, the fear of her telling her own.
There was still the chalkboard and hymnals scent of a church basement, as common to meetings as the crappy seating. This one had the metal ass-killer chairs, but better those than the sunken donated loveseats with the rolled edges of upholstery as picked over as her cups once were.
She hoped to avoid being greeted, without luck.
“Hi! Are you new? May I help you?” A novice 12-stepper, sparkling with spiritual purpose.
“No, thanks. I’m just here for the birthday meeting.”
“Well, we are definitely giving out chips tonight! Sounds like you’ve been here before. Which step are you on?”
“I’m not really working the steps right now.”
“Oh. Oh,” the disappointment evident on her young face. “Well, I’m certainly not going to work your program, but you know it works if you work it!”
“I’m okay. The first step works pretty well for me.”
“Well, I’m sure you know what a dry drunk is. There’s tea and coffee in the back!” And she flounced off to spread the word.
That’s how it started: whether it was pearls or an ankle tracker that trembled with the shakes, everyone new was set on the same path. When she’d stumbled over own feet coming into her first meeting, she desperately wanted them to know she was just clumsy, not drunk. But like tonight, there was someone who smiled all-too knowingly while handing her pamphlets, pointing out the smoking section, showing her the ropes that would pull her out, but eventually tie her down.
“I admitted I was powerless,” she thought to herself as settled in near the back, next to a door.
She’d been unmanageable, deeply defective, resigned to turning her will over to another. She’d dutifully done the ninety meetings in ninety days, then for years worked the steps, made her amends, done countless fearless inventories. It was all in the service of erasing sulfuric memories of finishing the drinks of strangers before waiters cleared tables, of counting out pennies for a beer at the corner store, the not-so-subtle sniffs at the fumes rising from her skin.
The meeting started: The rote of one volunteer reading the steps, another of the traditions, both pages laminated for years of use.
Then someone told a story. It was theirs, but familiar.
“Thank you for sharing, keep coming back!” the leader exclaimed. He pulled a plastic box from under his chair. “Okay! Since it’s the first meeting of the month, we’re handing out chips!”
“Who has 24 hours?” Everyone clapped once.
An old man rose, reaching out a sun-scarred hand for his plastic wafer. This was not his first communion, she thought, and knew but for the grace of God. This was why she’d embraced the recitations: to avoid the mornings of hot blushes, wondering who was beside her, where she’d left the car, why the furniture was broken, the origins of bruises.
Mea culpas: “I am faulty, I have sinned, I will make amends, I will let go and let God, I will work the steps until they work me, I admit, forever, my shortcomings.”
She could accept she was powerless, with all her heart, but her powerless was with vodka, to the teeth-staining cheap red wines, to bottom-shelf gin. The expected lifetime of self-recrimination, the shallow reliance on a higher power, had become as wearing as a hair shirt. Replacing mortifying drunkenness with mortification of the self eventually drove her from these rooms.
But she was safe only in embracing that she was forever a drunk, so she brought herself back once a year, to join in service to sobriety.
“Does anyone have a week?” CLAP!
“5 years?” CLAP! No one rose.
“More than 5?” CLAP! “I have seven years this week!” pats on the back, the coin held high.
“10 years?” CLAP! People cheered, they’d expected him to rise. A regular.
Cringing in dread, but she was always just one sip from disaster. The anniversary must be marked in order for the days to keep adding up.
“More than 10 years?” CLAP!
More than 20? The CLAP! less enthusiastic; people were restless to leave, but she raised her hand.
“Let’s move on—oh, I didn’t see you. Stand up! How many years are you celebrating?”
She took a deep breath.
“Thirty. I have thirty years,” she said.
Her vision tunneled to his hand digging through the box as she walked past the gasps, the whispers, “Who is that?” Some hands brushed against her hem, as if there might be a blessing of longevity. She forgave herself for the ungracious thought of knowing the greeter was doing the math. "That’s right, missy, I’ve been sober longer than you’ve been alive.”
The leader found the coin just as she reached him, and placed it in her palm. She only smiled at his sincere congratulations, knowing her voice would crack if she spoke.
Metal, because it was more than a year. She pressed her thumb over the triple X numerals, smugly appreciating the little sacrilege.
He asked, “Since this is a big day for you, would you lead our closing prayer?”
She could make this small sacrifice to sobriety.
The coin heating between her hand and his as they joined in a circle, saying the words together. Even in her cynicism, even as she skipped over saying the word “God,” she embraced her annual acceptance: This program, whether because or despite the eternal circles of remorse, had saved her.