I buried my face in Annie’s long brown hair, smelling the cigarettes and her strawberry shampoo. “What’s the worst thing you did when you were boozing?” I asked.
“Do you really want to know?”
“We’re talking about your drinking life. You’re a different person now.”
Annie ran her nails through the thinning hair on my scalp. “If you really want to know.”
“I really want to know.”
She rolled over and faced the bedroom window, looking at the four-way intersection.
“When I was in my early-twenties, I went to a party one night after the bars closed, and slept with five guys.”
“In a row? Or at the same time?”
“Both, I think.”
“Oh.” Stunned and unjustly revolted, it was all I could say. “Oh.”
“I didn’t know two of their names. They were strangers.” She paused and shook her head. “See, I told you that you didn’t want to know.”
“No. It’s all right,” I said, finding my voice. “I used to have a wild side, too.” I said reached for my cigarettes on the floor beside the mattress I bought on liquidation. My ex had taken the bed and the solid oak frame, along with the house and the dignity I was trying to reclaim. That was part of the reason I started attending AA—along with a court mandate—eight-nine days ago. Slowly, like chipping away at stone, I was sculpting a stronger, sober and solid man. But still, often, I missed the amorphous me, a guy without dignity or definition, a puddle and a blob, but still a guy who sometimes seemed infinitely more alive.
Outside my apartment, a car slammed its brakes and a horn blared at the four-way intersection where, in the five months since I had moved into the apartment, there had already been three accidents and a hit-and-run with a man crossing on his bike. Meanwhile, my neighbors downstairs, an extended Portuguese family, yelled in their native tongue, shouts that sounded sharp and ornery, a steady beat of pinpricks. Annie stood, a bed sheet draped around her, and picked out her bra, panties and hospital scrubs from a pile of our clothes, scattered like confetti, on the dusty bedroom floor.
“Where are you going?”
“I ought to leave,” she said. “Sharon warned me about getting into relationships during the first year of sobriety. I feel like I want a drink.”
“Do you want to get one?”
“I hope you’re joking,” she said, her eyes narrowing. “You less than twenty-four hours until you get your ninety-day chip.”
“I’m joking.” Sweaty and naked, I stood and slipped on a pair of boxer shorts. “Annie, don’t leave. I’m not judging you about those guys. You don’t judge me because I sat around getting loaded while my ex was boning her boss, do you? We both made mistakes. Big time.”
Annie lit a cigarette, took a drag then flicked the ash into the mouth of a Diet Coke can. “But you can’t those mistakes never happened. You still own them, even in your sober life.”
I held her bony hand in mine. “Listen, I’m really enjoying being around you right now, and I don’t care what our sponsors say.” I, however, had yet to tell Rick, my sponsor in the program, about Annie. Until that point, it seemed like someone else’s secret.
“Besides, I don’t care what they say in AA, you’re helping me stay sober.”
Another car laid on its horn at the intersection. Annie pulled her hand back and pecked me on the cheek with sun-cracked lips. “I have to work in a few hours.”
I tried pulling her back on the bed, but she resisted. “Don’t leave. We can go out for breakfast,” I said. “I’m nervous about the meeting tomorrow night, talking about my old life to a room full of people. It feels like I’m giving a eulogy.”
Annie flipped her hair off her wiry shoulders, a sassy and delicate gesture. “It’s easy once you start talking.” She had been sober for two months longer than me, and she told her own story when she received her ninety-day chip. In AA, you can’t be a speaker until you have ninety days sober. “At least you never had sex with five guys in one night,” she said, grinning as she reached for the keys in her purse.
“I never said I didn’t.”
“Not today. I have to go.”
“You’ll call me later?”
“I’ll try.” And with that, Annie was gone, out the door of my apartment and into the swamp of car horns. With all of the uncertainty, and the sense that she had somehow broken it off, my old self—the spirit I’d left on a barstool with a pocketful of Percocet—surfaced, and the amorphous me, without a day of sobriety, followed Annie out the door, turned left at the convenience store, and ordered a Bloody Mary at Mike’s Pub and Grub, a last-stop saloon two blocks south.
I shut the windows, turned on the air conditioner, and smoked cigarettes as I watched cars crawl toward the intersection, stop for a blink, and ease forward into another long day.
I stepped onto the hiking trail in a pair of Reeboks, khaki shorts, and a Coors Light t-shirt I’d picked up at bar promo years ago. Ten yards ahead of me, Rick looked like he’d been clipped from a page in a J-Crew catalogue—expensive hiking boots, a black fleece vest, and thick socks of a fabric designed to prevent effusive sweating. Nearly a decade before, when Rick went to his first AA meeting, he was rock bottom, a gutter drunk; and like many former-boozers, he replaced his drinking obsession with a healthier obsession for exercise, chiseling his alcohol-ravished body into a picture of fitness. For a month, Rick had been begging me to go hiking with him. As a cigarette smoker, the thought for walking up a mountain didn’t appeal, but after Annie left that morning, and I knew it wouldn’t do much good to rot inside the apartment all day, thinking about drinking. In AA, they call this “stinkin’ thinkin’,” and it’s the start of trouble. So when Rick called that morning and asked if I wanted to go for a hike in the White Mountains, I relented.
Short of breath a quarter of a mile up the trail, however, the hike already seemed like a bad idea. “How long is this going to take?” I asked.
“It’s only an hour and a half to the top.”
“Three hours? You’re shitting me, right?”
“You’ll live,” he said, grinning over his shoulder.
I brushed a branch out of my face. “I met a girl.”
Rick stopped and turned to look at me. “You know what I’m going to tell you,” he said.
“She’s in the program.”
“Are you fucking nuts? That’s even worse. You’ll end up enabling each other. I’ve seen it happen too many times, Mark. You need to focus on your sobriety and not mess with new relationships right now. Concentrate on your relationship with alcohol.”
“But it’s not like that,” I said. “Besides, if I can’t drink and have a good time, then at least, I should be able to get laid.”
Rick sighed. “If you stay sober through the first year, you’ll have to rest of your life to get laid. You’re fighting for your life right now and putting yourself in a dangerous position.”
“This whole thing sucks,” I said like a defiant child.
“Sometimes sobriety sucks, Mark.” Rick pivoted on his heel and turned up the mountain. “But it beats the alternative.”
We walked into a small grove, and the sun poked out behind a gathering of dark clouds hovering above the distant mountains. The air was thick and humid, and I began to sweat. Fuck this, I thought, glancing at my watch. Fuck all of this.
The rain came as we climbed out of the woods and onto a rock face, staring up at a towering crag. Rick removed a poncho from his backpack and tossed it to me. “I didn’t think you’d remember one,” he said.
“We’re not really going to climb to the top of that thing, are we? It’s starting to get slippery.”
“You don’t have to come. You can wait here,” he said as he pulled a second poncho over his head.
I reached in my pocket for my cigarettes and lighter. “Can you toss me the keys so I can wait in the car?” And I’d have to wait. At the time, my driver’s license was suspended for a year—the judge took it after my second DWI.
Rick lobbed me the keys, which landed at my feet. “I’ll see in a couple of hours,” he said and started up the rock.
Pissed off with a cigarette lit dangling from lips, I turned and headed into the woods. As the rain came down, I had moment of displacement, a moment where I became lost in the context of my own life. I couldn’t understand how I had ended up—as sober as a stone—hiking a mountain. I couldn’t understand how it was Annie, and not my wife, who slept in my bed the previous night. And I couldn’t understand why, in God’s name, I was preparing to spill my life story to a room of relative strangers the next night. The only thing that seemed remotely familiar, the only part I understood, was the cigarette.
Then I was falling—tumbling and tearing, out of control, down the trail.
When I heard the snap, I wasn’t sure if it was a stick or my neck. As I came to an abrupt stop against a birch tree, I lay like a slab of steak, motionless. I stared at the swirling storm clouds, the rain pounding my face, and wiggled my hands and my toes. I hadn’t broken my neck.
A hot pain pulsed from general area of my right foot, and I glanced down.
My sock was soaked in blood with my fibula poking through the bright red cotton. Nauseous and dizzy, I threw back my head and screamed for help. I screamed Rick’s name, and then I went into shock.
I woke up with a morphine drip hooked to my forearm, enjoying the hell out of it. I turned my head, and Rick was sitting beside my bed, thumbing through a fitness magazine. “What’s going on?” I asked him, running my tongue—dry and heavy—over my gums.
“You snapped your ankle,” Rick said. “You fell while you were walking down the mountain. The good news is that the doctor who set it said he doesn’t think you’ll need surgery, but you have a shit-load of stitches and sutures.”
“I’m on a lot of drugs.”
“They said the pain and inflammation would be severe for awhile.”
“Does that mean I lose my sobriety?”
Rick laughed, a dry cackle. “We’re not all purists, Mark. If you’re in pain, you should treat the pain, but get off the pills as you soon as you can. I’ve seen a lot of cases where this kind of thing leads to a relapse. It’s tricky because only you know the line when taking them for legitimate pain crosses over into something else.”
Drowsy, I nodded. Then a terrible realization—large and devouring—seized me by the throat and strangled the breath from me: I was no longer on my ex-wife’s health insurance. As a freelance software programmer, I took jobs “for hire” and was in between them at the moment. While I’d been meaning to purchase insurance, it was one of those things—like throwing away my beer bottle collection—I never got around to doing. The walls and the curtain dividing the windowless cubicle began to close in. I wanted more morphine.
“I had a bit of a revelation as I was carrying you down the trail,” Rick said, his voice snapping me out of a dazed state where I was staring at the swirling ceiling. “If we had been drinking,” Rick pursed his lips and closed his eyes. “If we had been drinking, you’d probably still be on that mountain.”
“If we had been drinking, we would’ve been at a bar, and not on top of some stupid mountain,” I slurred.
Rich sighed. “Go easy on the morphine, cowboy,” he said, standing up thwacking the side of the bed with his curled magazine. “You’re not in a good space right now. Remember, in another eight hours you’ll have your ninety days. You’re practically a new man.”
Against the doctor’s recommendation, I left the hospital later that evening with enough painkillers to get me through the night and an appointment with a bone specialist close to home in the morning. The doctor, a lanky intern with an enormous Adam’s apple, told me I wouldn’t be able to drive with the foot cast on my right ankle. I laughed and told him I didn’t have a license.
Rick drove me home and helped me up the stairs to my apartment. I set up camp in the living room, in front of the television, with my leg elevated on the stack of pillows and my crutches on the floor beside the couch.
“If you need anything, give me a call,” Rick said and ruffled my hair like a father dishing wisdom to his son.
“Unless you can take a leak for me, I’m not sure you can help.”
“In my drinking days, I would keep an empty plastic jug beside my bed before I’d pass out. That way, I didn’t have to get up to piss. If you have an empty jug, it might save you a few trips.”
Outside the living room window, I had a clear view of the intersection and the cars rolling through the stop signs. I shook my head. “I think I’ll be all right,” I said and extended my hand. “Thank you, Rick.”
“Be strong,” he said and shook my hand. Then he left, and the second the apartment door shut and I heard his footsteps descend the stairs, I hoisted my body up on my crutches and gimped down the stairs, out of my apartment and onto the sidewalk. I hobbled to a convenience store across the street where I bought a two bottles of Mad Dog 20/20 and proceeded to get shit-faced, my first drink twelve minutes shy of ninety days.
With my drunk amplified by the painkillers, on top of a severely compromised tolerance, I called Annie at two a.m. I was supposed to speak about my courage, strength and hope at the meeting at St. Anthony’s that night.
Oddly, Annie picked up. “Why are you calling this late? Is something wrong?”
“Celebrating the ninety most miserable fucking days of my whole life.”
“Broke my ankle, snapped it like a stick.”
“Why did you drink?”
With my leg elevated and second bottle of Mad Dog nearly empty, I looked at the shadow of a mailbox, cast by the streetlights, spilled in the center of the silent intersection. “Why don’t you come over, and we can talk about it.”
“You need to call your sponsor.”
“Then I’ll see tomorrow night, I mean tonight,” I said, laughing. “You and me, tonight, Annie.”
“Call your sponsor.”
She hung up, and I stared at the cell phone in my hand as the television splashed bluish light throughout the living room. I thought about calling Rick, but then my cigarette fell from my fingers and nearly caught fire on the carpet. Sometimes shit like that happens, and never end up calling.
We arrived early at the basement of St. Anthony’s church so Rick and Billy, a burley biker and an old-timer in the program, could set up the fold-out chairs and put on the coffee urn. As the secretary for The Happy Hour East meetings at St. Anthony’s, I usually helped set up, but due to my ankle, Billy and Rick gave me a pass. When Billy asked me what happened, I told him the boiled-down to the essentials version of the story I would tell people for the rest of the night: I fell while hiking with Rick.
I hadn’t told Rick about falling off the wagon though. By the time he picked me up, I had hidden the empty bottles beneath the sink and tried to sponge-bathe the stink of booze off my skin. Besides, from the second he arrived, Rick’s enthusiasm—patting me on the back and referring to as “Mr. Ninety Days”—made it difficult to slip in the fact that I was a fraud: difficult, but not impossible.
As the room began to fill with the vague faces of recovering drunks and drug addicts, I sat in a pharmaceutical stupor behind a table in the front of the room, my leg elevated on a chair. Behind me hung a blue banner that read Keep It Simple, and Rick stood at the solid wooden podium to my left, looking through his meeting notes. It occurred to me that I should leave, and I was contemplating grabbing my crutches and hobbling to the exit without another word, back to my old life, when Annie stopped in front of me.
“Congratulations,” she said, her voice as flat as a skipping stone. Before I could respond, she had turned her back and sat down in the front row beside a woman with frizzy red hair and an overbite, a woman Annie once introduced as her sponsor when we were all outside smoking cigarettes, a woman named Sharon.
When Rick pounded the gavel on the podium and called the meeting to order, I had nowhere to run. The only options were to tell the truth, to come clean to the members of Happy Hour East, these first name-only acquaintances, and exchange my ninety-day chip for the twenty-four hour one then sit down, salvaging a shred of the elusive dignity I had vowed to reclaim, and listen to the rest of the meeting. My other option was to stand in front of the room on my crutches and lie like an addict.
I kept my eyes downcast as Rick read the announcements—the week’s calendar and commitments. When I looked up during “The Serenity Prayer,” Annie was staring at me, frowning.
Next, Rick handed out the chips to the people in the room celebrating their sobriety dates, from twenty-four hours to ten years, withholding mine. When he was finished, Rick paused, nodded to me and reached into his pocket for my ninety-day chip. “I have the pleasure tonight of not only introducing our speaker, but also being his sponsor and largely responsible for the cast you see on his leg.” The crowd laughed as Rick told the story about our hike, my bitching on the way up, and quitting before reaching the top. They nodded their heads as he told them about his epiphany, the one he shared with me in the hospital room. “If it weren’t for the grace of God keeping us sober, Mark might not be here to share with us tonight.” Rick paused, again, and patted my back. “I can’t tell you how proud it makes me to give Mark his ninety day chip and introduce him, although many of you know him from the meetings. He has earned his sobriety, and I’m sure you’ll relate to Mark’s story of courage, strength, and hope. Mark, congratulations.”
The crowd stood up from their seats and applauded. As I propped myself up on my crutches and made my way to the podium, Annie glared at me, stone-faced and slow clapping. As Rick handed me the chip, I sensed that I was about to do one of the worst things I’d ever done, drunk or sober.
Nathan Graziano lives in Manchester, New Hampshire. He is the author of three collections of poetry—Not So Profound (Green Bean Press, 2003), Teaching Metaphors(Sunnyoutside Press, 2007) and After the Honeymoon (Sunnyoutside Press, 2009)—a collection of short stories, Frostbite (GBP, 2002), and several chapbooks of fiction and poetry. He has an MFA in fiction writing from The University of New Hampshire and teaches high school. A chapbook of short prose pieces titled Hangover Breakfasts will be published by Bottle of Smoke Press this summer. For more information, visit his website at www.nathangraziano.com.