Don’t get me wrong — I love alcohol, but if it were a guy, someone would have called the cops by now.
Since we hooked up, a year into high school, it’s been nothing but a heartbreaker. I’ve been forced to rewrite my own rulebook again and again, lowering the bar to accommodate sexual indiscretions and sexual assault, shrugging off with a steely c’est la vie incidents that nice girls would take to the police.
Because alcohol has stuck by me. Old faithful. Who else sat by the river and held my hand with each new teenage disappointment? Who assured me, you don’t need those people anyway? And not many other suitors would give you an approving nod when you left the house with a half-bottle of vodka shoved down the front of your stockings.
I finally broke it off with booze when it created a scene at one of those fine free-champagne-for-women establishments. It humiliated me in the men’s toilets, ruined a few evenings, and then ran away, leaving me sans underwear in an alley.
At last, the truth barged through my buffer of denial: this shit was only endearing me to creeps, pervs, and women who wanted to use me as a yardstick for their own behavior. With relief, I took myself to the nearest AA meeting and threw myself at the mercy of those attending. Among their barrage of sound advice for the recently alcohol-bereaved? No relationships for the first year. Ha! Laughable words for an attractive young girl on the rebound. Laughable.
On arrival at each new AA group I took a seat in the circle and did an automatic scope of the room, unable to help myself. It’s not just me. Newcomers are constantly having to change meetings when an ill-advised affair with some irresistibly rueful roué results in them both needing to share about it. But what’s an alcoholic to do when people in the real world come bearing vices? And there’s something noble to be said for a person dragging themselves through the gruelling twelve steps of self-improvement. One non-alcoholic lady confessed to a tabloid mag that she’d attended AA meetings specifically to meet a husband with “goals, determination, strength, and backbone” — a man who wouldn’t cheat on her in moments of alcohol-induced weakness. Preferably somebody who wasn’t attending by court order.
One wintry evening, under the yellow glow of the kitchen lights, I met his eyes over a plate of sponge cake: Steve. Beneath the customary hangdog pallor, he looked like he’d stepped out of an aftershave ad, and thus, I imprinted on him like a duckling wrenched from its mother. In a polite gesture that was all reformed-boozehound humility and that betrayed no sign of the coked-addled manwhore he must once have been, he stepped back from the baked goods, while I swaggered on and selected the choicest cake, as if to confirm: “Yep — I’m new, I’m cute, and I’m destined for a wake up call.”
It wasn’t the sexiest of scenarios, in a frigid church hall that smelt of death, but since the ambience was unlikely to improve once the meeting kicked off, I gazed upon him unwaveringly and let the trestle tables fade to grey.
There may have been great revelations that night; I wouldn’t know. I spent the hour surreptitiously staring at the bit of leg between his pants and sock, looking forward to the serenity prayer at the end, when I’d get to hold his hand. Afterwards, he washed up my mug and the air crackled. My world suddenly flooded with promise: he wore cozy sweaters; he washed mugs; we would bring sobriety sexy back and then settle down somewhere in a small country town — once I’d finished fiddling about with my career.
The next week, I sat pertly on the chair next to him, shoulders back, trying not to shiver after slipping off my coat to reveal my outfit. When it was my turn to share, I carefully omitted any incidents involving alleyways or date-rape drugs. In turn, he mentioned he hadn’t expected to be thirty-three and single. Game on! I sipped my chamomile tea triumphantly. Hang on to that humble do-gooder resolve for as long as you can, Steve.
“Watch out for the men!” my sponsor thundered over a double espresso when I reeled off the calamities of my week. “Whereas female alcoholics are promiscuous, men are often impotent… so when they sober up they realise they’ve got a dick again.” Coming from an immaculately coiffured lady in a pashmina, it was a startling revelation. So there was always hope.
Over the next few weeks, Steve and I were inseparable at meetings, although he failed to move things along to the mauling-me-after-hours stage, preferring to talk earnestly to me in hospital conference rooms and Quaker meeting houses. This made me feel needy. Did he actually like me, or was he just doing his steps? Was his old duffer of a sponsor poisoning his mind against me? Were the other alcoholic chicks always rushing towards him in the kitchen with tea towels seriously going to get their teeth punched in? What if he was a ‘thirteenth stepper,’ always out to bang the newcomer? I wouldn’t mind if he was.
In fact, why wasn’t he? Gambling your sobriety over a fellow alcoholic in recovery is as old as recovery itself. One recovery website even has a forum topic devoted to thirteenth-stepper pickup lines. But I’d received none of these advances.
With the Steve path possibly leading only to a melodramatic relapse, I took to perusing dating websites, trying to light up that dusty bulb in my head with a bit of worthless excitement. I rewrote my profile three times, veering wildly between Jenny Tucker, diabolical boozehound and Jenny Tucker, puritanical bore.
But really, what kind of man was going to want to date me? What were we going to do, meet for afternoon tea? I might as well ask them where they want me to dump my baggage. More to the point, how do you prevent your brain from short-circuiting in the middle of a date and letting the reptilian part order a Long Island Iced Tea while the prefrontal cortex is distracted with simpering?
At AA (unlike the real world), you’re told that alcoholism is a disease, not a moral failing. I felt like I had a disease, all right. Walking down the street in a surreal bubble of sobriety, I felt like I was harboring some exotic tumor that nobody knew about. Then there’s the spell of mourning: you’ve lost your one true love, the bottle… and as for the next real person who comes along: you’ll never be able to get wasted together. How do you like that?
It turned out my disease wasn’t catching, because after nine months of confusing friendship that often left me in despair, Steve wrote to say we were both on our own journey (this is the recovery version of “it’s not you, it’s me”) and that he could only be my friend — graciously serving me my abandonment issues on a doilied plate. I broiled alone in my unreasonable anger for a week. You’re supposed to help ‘the alcoholic still in need.’ That’s me, by the way.
A girlfriend who’s a devotee of He’s Just Not That Into You, The Power of Now, etc., etc., offered her interpretation. “The universe has sent you someone who doesn’t want to fuck you, so that you can learn to be friends with a man,” she lectured. (Although this was the same lady who’d shrieked, “You don’t want to meet someone at Alcoholics Anonymous! They’ll be an alcoholic!”)
I was forced to admit she was right. It was tempting to scream at Steve, “You’d go for it if you were drunk!” But deep down, a profound, committed friendship was what I craved, and if sex were in the equation, the internal voice screaming “Next!” would soon screw it all up.
In Steve I’d met someone I could understand: someone for whom life frequently wasn’t fair. On our anticlimactic dates, puddles rushed to meet his sneakers, while a woman who shot him a dirty look when we squeezed past her in a restaurant earned his seething resentment for the rest of the evening. He was plagued with gloomy bouts of self-doubt, only to slingshot into sentimentality at the drop of a hat.
But he had also had the guts to pivot his life around, despite all the ridicule from his football buddies and cost in meaningless sex that would entail. He shared his secret thoughts and fears, wide-eyed as a possum, and trusted me to reciprocate.
So if the only physical contact we’ll ever have is the time I opportunely rubbed myself up against him when leaving a crowded cinema, then by golly, I’ll treasure that memory as dearly as cooking sherry on a chilly night. Here’s to your good health, Steve.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s True Stories.