The Wisdom of the Big Book
“There is only one law, the law of love.”
This is what he said: Call me any time and I will answer. Any time, day or night.
I wanted to believe this. I called him at 2:00 in the morning last Monday. I didn’t want a drink. I wasn’t freaking out. I just wanted to know, are you there for me? He answered on the first ring. There was silence on the other end, even though I said hello first. Then I asked, “Can I come over?”
He said, “I’m not sure that will help.”
“Let me come over and we’ll find out together. I need to talk face-to-face.”
“Most people try to live by self-propulsion.”
My house was silent. My daughter was asleep or on her phone or whatever it is she does in the middle of the night. My husband Don snored. I grabbed my keys and held them in my fist so they wouldn’t jangle together. I didn’t even put on shoes. I rolled the car down the driveway in silence and started it in the street. I turned on the radio after I rounded the corner. A man was talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ performance earlier that afternoon. He was disappointed in their defense. It felt like a broadcast from another planet. Mostly I heard five words over and over in my head: any time, day or night. Any time, day or night. Had no one ever “been there” for me before? Why was I so intoxicated by this?
“I wasn’t insane. Nor was I the ‘worst woman who ever lived.’”
I met him at an AA meeting. He was well into his sixties. I am 34. What a perfect age I am. Still young enough to look good. Old enough to know everything. I can’t imagine learning anything new that would shock me at this stage. I keep some things I’ve learned a secret from people. For example, I haven’t told my daughter yet that there are hardly any female world class bridge champions and even fewer female chess champions. Let her believe the impossible for as long as she can. I tell her to try all the STEM programs at school. Be a scientist, a physicist even, I say with great enthusiasm. “After all, look at Vera Cooper Rubin!” She is some astrophysicist you’ve never heard of. I have a t-shirt with the names of famous female scientists on it. I like to wear it to PTA meetings.
“Before AA, I judged myself by my intentions, while the world was judging me by my actions.”
There are several all-night liquor stores, all within five miles of my house. This surprises most people, but if you type “all-night liquor” into Google, it finishes your request with the words “near me,” which tells me that some of those people acting surprised are more than likely lying. Now I don’t even have to type more than “all.” Google just gets me. I like being known like this.
“I also found out that all they wanted was to help me get sober.”
His name is Rafal. I know his last name, too, even though you are not supposed to share last names. It’s an anonymous program. I spend my time at meetings doing two things: imagining the people at their absolute drunkest and choosing one target to discover the last name of before the meeting is over. I usually find my target in the first five minutes, while they’re still reading the preamble. Of course, the men are always easier than the women. Usually, with the men, I say, “Aren’t you Sam Williams? I think we were at a conference in Chicago together.” Then they give up the name immediately, trying to correct me gently. So easy. I keep a list of last names on my phone. It feels like secret information I can use if it ever comes to that.
“ . . . alone I can do nothing.”
I found a good sponsor. I read the recovery literature they have laid out on the tables at the meetings and, out of all the bromides, the can-do exhortations, and the soothing platitudes, this is what struck me: “The essence of being human: to share our hearts, to exchange warmth and be nurtured by one another.”
I told Don I have to talk to Rafal every night. That’s how it works. He’s my sponsor.
I call him and we talk about what it was like when we were drinking. Then we go to a meeting together. Eventually we will fuck. You fuck your sponsors in AA.
“Doctors told me before I stopped that I had only three years at the outside to live.”
I like envisioning the drunk scenarios better than sleuthing for last names. It takes more imagination. I pictured Rafal, smelling of Wild Turkey, kissing his kids on the top of their heads at the breakfast table and driving to work so drunk he had to keep one eye shut just to see the road.
I asked him if that really happened. Did he have kids? Did he drink Wild Turkey?
He told me he drank anything. He said his children were adults with kids of their own. This disappointed me. He was older than I thought. I asked about his grandchildren.
He said, “My grandson is incarcerated.” That word did something to me. Incarcerated. I’d heard it before, of course. But it was the way he said it, or maybe the way it sat there in the same sentence as grandson. You would imagine that sentence to have some Legos or a skateboard in it, but there it came at the end, a slammed door.
We were walking down the mall, looking at earring stands and phone cases. I grabbed his hand then. I think it surprised him. I told him I always grabbed the hands of men whose grandchildren were incarcerated, but in truth he’s the only one I know. So far.
“There is no more ‘aloneness’ with that awful ache.”
He volunteered that he would be my sponsor. “Temporary sponsor” was how he put it. He will fill in until I can find a woman that I trust. They tell you in the program to find someone of the same gender who has the kind of sobriety you want and ask them to be your sponsor. He has what I want. And I didn’t even have to ask him.
“The great fact is just this, and nothing less: That we have had deep and effective spiritual experiences.”
The car drove itself down the highway. I barely touched my foot to the gas. It felt predestined, so the black crow of guilt waiting to descend hung back for a while. I took advantage of this and let the car lead me to Rafal. When I got closer to his neighborhood, I had to take more control. I turned right onto Suitland Parkway, a left onto Alabama Avenue. I soon found myself in an unsafe neighborhood. The kind that would enliven a drinking story about reaching one’s bottom and realizing something’s got to change. But here I was, 2:30 a.m., completely sober, driving past a corner where there were clearly several drug deals happening at once. I had two burning questions. First, why does he live in this? And second, why is he putting my life at risk? But then I remembered. I am responsible for the choices I make.
Still, I was scared. I said the little prayer they teach you at certain meetings. It goes like this: (first, you must sit quietly) “I ask only for direction and strength to meet my problems as You would have me. Never will I pray for myself, except as my requests bear on my usefulness to others.” I tried a version of it that I created by taking God out of it, imagining the “You,” to be whomever suits me at the time. This time it was Rafal. It was challenging, but I found that thinking about this always made me feel calm inside.
“I embraced reality with open arms. And I found it beautiful!”
I had made a simple request. Toilet bowl cleaner and a brush to clean the toilet with. Does that sound difficult? It’s not. Don does the grocery shopping in our family. He came home with The Toiletwand, some stupid plastic contraption—“1 Wand! 6 Refills! 1 Caddy!—with everything you would need in the box. I heard myself screaming about failure. I think I threw a bottle of ice tea at the wall above his head. I ripped the box open in frustration so now he couldn’t even return it if he tried. My daughter ended up crying. It’s one disappointment after another with him.
“Now there is a sense of belonging, of being wanted and needed and loved.”
I got out of the car in my bare feet. There was broken glass on the sidewalk. Green, from a beer bottle I was sure. Heineken. I stepped around it, but realized that what seemed glamorously desperate, hippie-like, and free when I left my house now seemed pathetic, stupid, and poverty-stricken in this neighborhood. A woman I named Trixie slurred at me: what do you want? I told her I was here to see Rafal.
She laughed. She said, “I thought that old man was done.”
This infuriated me. Done with what? I saw several drinking scenarios in my mind from Rafal’s past that were not fun to imagine. I said, “No, Trixie. Far from it.” I think it shocked her that I called her by name. She walked away from me.
“Nothing had changed and yet everything had changed.”
When I finished laying out all my problems at the noon meeting, everyone was stunned. One woman said, “God, I don’t even feel like I have problems anymore.” I went to say good-bye to Rafal after the meeting and he cupped my face in his hands and kissed me on my forehead.
“Everything I need I get.”
In my mind, I had imagined this scenario an endless amount of times since I first met Rafal. So when he opened the door to his apartment, I was crushed. He was bald—I knew this, but had somehow forgotten it. In my fantasy, he had the hair of second-term Obama, more gray than black, but hair. He was tall in my dreams, too, and wearing slacks. And sometimes a leather bomber jacket with a crisp, white button-down collared shirt underneath. (I wasn’t expecting him to be in a jacket inside his apartment. I was a reasonable dreamer. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting an apartment. More like a house. With cold tile floor in the entryway and the sound echoing off the cavernous walls.)
“My story happens to be a particular kind of woman’s story. I had to hide . . . I did my hiding in the hampers and in my dresser drawers.”
Keeping a secret has its own rewards. For example, bottles in the closet work better than bottles in the cupboard, which lend themselves to counting and judgment. And the recycling guys, had they the slightest interest in my life, also had no idea. I found empty bins everywhere in my neighborhood. Wednesday night was a busy night on my walks. I was a reverse Johnny Appleseed, planting bottles with no hope for them to sprout. You’re only as sick as your secrets, they say.
I once told Don how I felt about AA meetings. I said, “I love holding hands and saying the serenity prayer at the end, everyone pulling together to help each other not drink.”
He said, “Well, cults can definitely be helpful. That’s why they’re so attractive.”
A fight followed. He told me he understood how I could feel diminished by being placed so accurately in a category that also includes the Manson girls.
That was the end of the fight.
He may have won, but I have the secrets.
“I was sold, intellectually.”
I noticed that Rafal’s face was level with mine. I looked on the floor to see if he possibly stood in some kind of pit or depression, but we were on even ground. A ripped-up dog toy lay at his bare feet and the apartment smelled like a wet animal. His several missing back teeth had never before been apparent to me when he smiled. His t-shirt was purple—it said, “No matter who’s president, Jesus is still king”—and had white paint stains on it in random places, torn and loose around the neck as though he’d been in a fight. He wore sweatpants cut off into shorts.
I said, unable to hide my disdain, “What are you doing?”
He said, “What do you mean?”
“Didn’t you know I was coming over?”
“I’m here. Let’s talk. What’s troubling your mind, Evie?”
“Don’t call me Evie. My name is Eve.”
“If you have a resentment you want to be free of, if you will pray for the person, you will be free.”
When Don drinks soda, he makes this swallowing noise that sounds almost inhuman. Mostly, it doesn’t bother me, but at certain moments, I can hear nothing else. We will be watching a movie or eating dinner and I will hear this guttural noise. A hyena at his prey. Often, I will have to get up and leave, even if we are at the dramatic climax of the movie. I will say nothing. He will follow me to our room and say something like, “I’m sorry you can’t drink, but does that mean we all have to suffer around here?” He’s trying to be understanding. He has no idea how hard it is on me to be married to a scavenger mammal.
“It is impossible for me to reproduce my despair. I can only list a few of its elements.”
I was on the verge of tears. I was confused as to why I stood in this strange man’s apartment, barefoot and desperate, my husband and daughter at home sleeping. I imagined my quiet, glass-free street, my putty-colored couch and contrasting plaid pillows, my clean toilets. Rafal put his hand on my shoulder. “You think a drink will solve this, but it won’t. Let’s look at the Big Book together. I know just the chapter.”
“The parties waxed more liquid and hilarious as time went on.”
Back when I was drinking, I would never turn down an opportunity to drink Southern Comfort. I started on it young because I had heard that it was Janis Joplin’s drink of choice and so I made the conscious decision to make it my signature drink. I wanted to cultivate this image of a wild child. But soon, I drank it by the liter. I had a pink flask that was monogrammed “Pearl,” Janis’s nickname. I used to bring her with me everywhere. I was never angry when I had that flask. If I would feel a flash of fury, it wouldn’t stay long. Pearl could put it out like a fire extinguisher. She was good like that. I lost her at the north end of FedEx Field. I shouldn’t have been there, outside the parameters of where a fan belongs. A security guard in Prince George’s County sits somewhere today enjoying my girl. It seems wrong, I know. It seems wrong, because it is.
“ . . . because I had nowhere else to turn.”
I had three options at this point. Well, probably an infinite number of options, but I considered three. Leave immediately and head for home, stay and listen to Rafal read aphorisms from the Alcoholics Anonymous bible, or go to the closest bar in a safer neighborhood and jump start my drinking career. None of them sounded right, and each sounded as good or bad as the other.
That song “Atlantic City,” by the Band started inexplicably playing in my head. It felt like a sign. I threw it out there.
“Let’s just go to Atlantic City,” I said.
“I have a car with plenty of gas.”
“Yeah, so do I.”
“Let’s go. Let’s just go and gamble and be free and stuff.” Admittedly, spitballing off the tune that happened to pop into my head seemed less like the inspired idea of a wild child and more like the ranting of a crazy person. I was turning into Trixie.
“Atlantic City’s been basically closed for ten years, Eve.”
“The ocean’s still there, right?”
“Yes, the ocean’s still there. Eve, sit down.” Rafal moved over to his couch and sat. He opened his blue book somewhere in the middle and began reading aloud.
“Remember, Eve, most good ideas are simple.”
I do remember this. “How it Works,” page 62.
“A happy man is not likely to do harm to another human being. Harm is done by sick people.”
Don wrote me another email at work (“This is personal. Call me so I know you’ve received this.”) even though I told him to please just wait until I got home to have this urgent conversation. I called him to let him know I got it—for some reason following his directions, as if email would suddenly fail to work. He told me, “If you are working on yourself, like you need to, then this is OK. Then this should be happening. But if you’re getting into some relationship with this joker who’s taking advantage of you . . .”
That’s really not how it works, but it’s no use telling him.
“There is only one law, the law of love, and there are only two sins:”
I sat next to him and the whole thing started all over again. It was his hands. I became convinced it was his hands. The way they turned the pages of the book. They knew just where to go, where to stop. I remembered what they felt like when they held my face, when I grabbed them in the mall. When I focused on them, the whole picture filled my head again, a picture of Rafal and me sitting like this forever on his couch, him saying things like, “I will take care of you, Eve. We’ll work on this forever if we need to. You will be happy just like I am happy. And we’ll read together.” I closed my eyes and listened to him read from “How it Works.”
He said, “ . . . we invariably find that at some time in the past, we have made decisions based on self which late placed us in a position to be hurt.”
I had already complained to Rafal about this book. It was written over 70 years ago. I think things are a little different today. For one thing, in the book it’s basically only men drinking their asses off and making a wreck of their lives. I didn’t recognize myself in these stories. They didn’t apply to me. I had it more or less under control when I drank. I held down a job; I had a husband, a family.
He had said, “You’re in there.”
He said it with authority. That was it. He recognized me, but wouldn’t give me any more information than that.
After that meeting, I went home and started reading it from page one, looking for myself. By the time I got to “Dr. Bob’s Nightmare,” I was ready to throw the book across the room.
You’re in there.
“There are only two sins: the first is to interfere with the growth of another human being.”
Rafal said, “I’ve done something wrong here, Eve, and I’m sorry. This is not what’s supposed to happen.”
“It’s absolutely what’s supposed to happen. If there were a chapter titled “What’s Supposed to Happen,” this would be listed as number 3, right after ‘tell her you’ll always be there no matter what’ and ‘kiss her forehead.’”
He put his head down. “I didn’t realize.”
“What do you mean you didn’t realize? You’ve been playing this game for 35 years. You know exactly how it works. You’ve memorized it, haven’t you? Most good ideas are simple. This is simple.”
“I was just trying to help.”
“You have helped me. You have. And all I’m saying is help me more. You have to help me a little more.” It was at this point I missed Pearl the most.
I reached for him. He wore shorts. It was obvious what was happening and I capitalized on it. You could be a saint, a yogi, follow the Bushido code of the samurai. It doesn’t matter, because if you’re a man and someone brings up an opportunity for sex, chances are it’s going to happen.
Afterwards, I didn’t feel any different. Life hadn’t changed. The urges that had been shadowing me for weeks now were still there, still throwing their shade over my life. I pulled myself off the couch in my usual darkness, put on my pants. I didn’t have to worry about finding my shoes.
The extent of our conversation afterwards:
Him: This isn’t healthy, and I’m sorry for my part in it.
Me: Your part in it? You are it.
“There are only two sins: . . . and the second is to interfere with one’s own growth.”
I brushed my teeth twice with menthol toothpaste I kept hidden in the back of the closet from back in the day and sprayed on some insect repellent. Its slightly medicinal scent canceled out any odors that might be emanating off me. I put a penny in my mouth, just to be safe—the old trick, possibly a myth, but one that got me out of several potential breathalyzer disasters in my wild and checkered and recent past. I changed into a nightgown and climbed back into bed with Don. It was still dark; the air conditioning kicked on. All other noises were off. Don turned over and flopped an arm across me, still involved in sleep. I love it when things go my way.
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