Content Warnings: Sexual Assault or Rape, Physical Violence or Abuse
The Big Book
“But what about the real alcoholic?”—Bill W.
Inside my father’s copy of the Big Book, so worn its pages were held together with plastic tape, annotations littered the margins, running into one another, leaping over and around and under each other like children. Happy, Sober and Free! Character defects! Every word seemed underlined in different colors. Except for an indexed compilation of arrowheads which covered each type’s description and image, this was the only book he read.
I would flip through the AA bible until I got to the single photograph pressed between its pages. My father, younger, confused and hunched over a toilet bowl. Eyes red-rimmed, face and shirt marred with chunks of puke, he is praying, maybe, for some kind of deliverance. Yet for all that, he is alert, ears perked like an animal who hears the faint rustle of his predator’s pace behind him.
A man I’ve never met.
“I told your mom to take that picture to remember how bad it is,” he said.
And it is possible (as it happens to be with me) that he had never really met that man, either. In a blackout, the man is absent; there is no one to meet.
Despite being heavy and balding, Dad was adorable—diminutive and charming and disliked by no one. When he laughed it was an outburst, a kind of vibrating shout, like keys on a chain but stereophonic.
“A drunk’s wife is fed up, right? Every night he comes home and spends hours throwing up in the bathroom. She tells him that one of these days he’s going to puke his guts out. So one day she gets some spoiled intestines from this butcher who was about to throw them away. They’re too gross to sell so he just gives them to her. Doesn’t even charge her. When she gets home she puts the intestines in the toilet and closes the lid. Later that night when the drunk comes out of the bathroom he says:
‘I threw up my guts but everything’s okay. I just put them right back in again.’”
By the time I was seven I knew I was cursed. Lee genetics, it was explained time and again, ensured a certain spasmodic promise, but this was coupled with an alcoholism so severe that a single bottle could destroy whole lives, families—worlds, even. Booze was beyond our comprehension; it was a devil capable of anything and required a veritable exorcism to be expunged.
I was designated proto-alcoholic as a child. Apparently my personality, itself, was almost totemic in its perfect representation of the typical drunk.
“Just put a drink in her hand, already!” Dad would laugh.
When I was 16 and living in Santa Fe with Sakshi and her family, that’s exactly what happened. At first, though, when it was my turn to sip from the bottle, I blocked the liquor with my tongue. It tasted like metal and ashes; like old bones crushed for malevolent potions. At first.
What must be understood is that by the time I met Sakshi and moved to Santa Fe, I had come to terms with being an ugly creep; after all, this had been the general consensus among my peers in Las Cruces. Imagine my surprise when, inexplicably, my pointy, plaintive face was a hit in my new environment. And, being a hit, it went to parties and finally began to swallow. To choke, in fact.
Booted from that scene a mere year later, I landed back in Cruces, an egotist with a new, vicious affliction to match. Spiked chains could never be as effective as the drink at snuffing out all life, all of the person and all others whose lives it might casually explode.
Rather, I might. Not it.
Because my father was a staple at AA, his laugh famed for its contagion, one might think his naturally alcoholic daughter would be welcomed. But dislike is personal; it allows for no hereditary extension of generosity.
A clique of women who sat on one side of the room narrowed their thousand eyes at me, like a single giant insect—the first in a series of gestures meant to convey that I was-not, could-not, would-not be one of the AA “girls”.
Opposite this group sat the row of men, who appeared eager to make my acquaintance.
The bottle mattered; little else did. Mostly I went as a distraction. I’d saunter through the cracked, dilapidated room, the color of milky tea, pour a cup of coffee, overwhelm it with powdered creamer and pack after pack of white sugar, then take what I hoped would be a neutral seat. If he was present, I sat next to a chain-smoking schizophrenic named Raoul, who was affectionate without being gross and explained his persecutions with wide-eyed, folk-tale flare. Neal, a shy, gentle man with blond curls who stammered badly, would indulge my wish to sport his constant cowboy hat throughout each meeting. Every day I attended, the Judge offered me the maraschino cherry that had settled at the bottom of his slush-soda. Men took me to lunch and I was happy to eat the food.
(A decade later, I will see Raoul, immediately identifiable by his black silky poof of hair and ferocious squint; he will look wary, suspicious, enraged. He won’t remember me when I call him by name, and as he sprints away, I will notice stains crusted onto the back of his pants.)
The Program works like this: you accept you are powerless and broken; you confess to another human being every sadistic, cruel, shameful episode in which you are the villain; you joke a lot about being a fuck-up; you try not to be as much of a fuck-up; you spout useless aphorisms; and finally, you fuck every other alcoholic in the fellowship. This is known as thirteenth-stepping it. A diagram drawn of who diddled whom in the room would be an indecipherable mess.
What is rock bottom? Could it have been the time I found my measuring-cup shot glass outside the morning after a binge, filled with rainwater and a fat drowned cockroach along with maybe, just maybe (ohpleasegod), a sliver of diluted vodka from the evening before? I flicked the hearty insect out and downed the remaining liquid. It tasted like nothing. It did nothing.
No. That was not, in fact, “rock bottom”. But the story was tidy, not too shameful, just enough, so that’s the moment I tossed off when asked about it. The term is meant to represent a lightning strike of realization, an epiphany of one’s own desperate and degraded condition, the second it is no longer possible to deny one’s self-imposed dire straits. Attaching such an inconsequential act to some kind of revelation is patently absurd.
My straits became almost immediately quite explicitly dire. No single event could paint the devastation that followed—but if it could…
Maybe it was the time I came to on the floor of my filthy room, curled over a small pile of wet trash and old cigarette butts only to discover that, at some point the previous evening, or maybe even before, I had crapped my pants.
Or it could have been when I drank perfume without considering its proof or possible consequences and wound up in critical care with a catheter, lunging madly against restraints, my shit pure charcoal.
Or maybe that time when this guy I had previously slept with and used for his ID pulled up to my trailer with a car full of other, unexpected boys, and it became apparent he intended me to also sleep with these other creeps because they gently mauled at me in the backseat and made lewd insinuations like a nest of slow-moving rattlesnakes that slithered on and over me while Familiar Dude drove, and I was a nothing a drunk a slut a hole a vortex a cunt, hey-hey-hey, don’t miss the ride. And after that I don’t recall anything but was relieved when at least it was the Familiar Dude’s bed in which I regained consciousness.
There’s an art to AA confessional tales: they’re allowed to be gruesome, sure, but only if the teller can find a way to make it funny. Honest substantial narratives that might have been were never born, substituted with one-liners, a bad joke, that time when you… Nobody ever came in and said, “I violently raped someone while blasted,”—yet I suspect some of them must have. Instead, the discussions in AA meetings tend to resemble those in a church social, with everyone offering personal parables while blowing on Styrofoam cups of various hot beverages.
A handful of the AA guys I went out with are inconsequential but invariably memorable. The Mustache, for example, was a real estate guy with no upper lip and a host of tacky decal shirts sporting monstrous Detroit logos. The Day-Trader Cowboy was a moneyed, mellow man who kept a picture of his long lost love on his nightstand (a naked brunette with wild curls and enormous bosoms that bobbed to the surface as she floated in a hot tub, caught in sepia forever, stuck within a frame designed to resemble a Wanted poster) and spoke of her so constantly that her name occurs to me even now, this girl I never knew.
A list of the more elaborate personalities I encountered at AA, those who’ve left a deeper impression, who are part of the larger palimpsest of men who’ve inscribed themselves in some manner or another upon me, are as follows.
A motorcycling litigator I call The Choker was a tall and bony man, a daddy long-legs in leather and thick owl glasses—a study in contrasts. Without so much as a hello, I handed him my number. I didn’t know about his girlfriend, a pretty Hispanic woman with a great laugh that my father adored, until we were rolling around on his office floor that night.
“I didn’t know I was going to meet you,” he said. Around his neck was a stone engraved with a rune. I wish I could remember which one.
At some point, he stood up and flicked the light switch. I squinted against the sudden glare and heard him say, “I want to remember you here.” He and I stayed in place for several minutes, just staring at one another.
With Choker I tasted my first chai tea. Dates included dessert and I enjoyed these indulgences. I received a cashmere sweater, the softness of which shocked me. It took days to get used to the rough scent of patchouli, its ripe pheremonal smell, a bottle of which the Choker gave me and ordered me to wear.
Portishead leaked out of his sound system. We were seventeen, we were forty. Here he was, listening to contemporary gothic underground trip-hop; there I was, in the bellbottom-like jeans he bought me. “Please could you stay awhile to share my grief?” Time tangles, curls back in on itself, recursive. Time can be an ingrown toenail, a piercing stake that cripples and pins you to the ground.
Not until decades later did I put together his failed attempts at intercourse with his penchant for strangulation, but I think they may have been related. The Act, Itself, was like the proverbial toothpaste being shoved back into its tube. Like saltwater taffy pushed through a peek-hole. If anything this made sex easier, less painful, and I didn’t really consider the matter beyond its obvious benefits. When you are wholly disinterested in physical intimacy, a seeming failure like impotence makes absolutely no difference—is, in fact, a reprieve.
We went to a swank hotel in El Paso and he brought up a fifty-dollar bottle of wine. Inwardly I howled—it all tasted like cheap Carlo Rossi to me. A drink is not a treat; a drink is breath, bread, the stuff of life. It is an insult to reduce its potential to flavor when it is capable of providing such mad ecstasy. The Choker abstained; the haul was mine.
“Here. Lie down,” he said, arranging me against some pillows.
Though I don’t know when exactly I was made aware of his peccadillos, I didn’t care. It’s easy to just be choked. But the pictures were hideous; I don’t know what he expected. It was a feat, though, I’ll admit, pressing the yellow button on one of those throw-away cameras with one hand and, at the same time, squeezing my neck with the other, brutally pressing with all five of his long pianist fingers. You can do a lot with one hand, particularly if you have all the time in the world to do it along with a willing model. Blotched with purple, eyes bulged, I looked like an old autopsy picture. All that was missing was a Glasgow smile. The violet against the white. The tableau of limbs. A doll, a corpse, a meal. From this distance, though, it’s all very antiseptic, comical in an absurdist kind of way.
Once in a while I remember that these snuff-like photographs of me are probably floating around out there, but it seems too remote to matter. The girl featured doesn’t exist any longer, and I’d rather not search for her blank eyes or prominent ribs.
While on the Choker’s sailboat—an item of which he was attempting to rid himself—I chatted with the female half of a possible sale. Elephant Butte is a manmade lake that borders a town named Truth or Consequences, a desolate stretch populated by white retirees, relatively poor original residents and the odd serial killer. I pretended for about fifteen minutes that a genuine and warm relationship between the Choker and I existed, but the poor woman seemed puzzled and distressed, and the couple left quickly.
I only saw the Choker’s vulnerability once, right before we left T or C that day. Out of nowhere, he asked me if I would read to him. Bereft of any book and confused, I answered in the affirmative. Of course, anytime.
“It’s macular degeneration,” he said. “I’ll be blind eventually.”
I must have comforted him, yet I cannot imagine him allowing such comfort.
Ruminating on all the posing, on his dual fixation with memory and sight, I finally understood something about The Choker. He was afraid. Desperate. Clutching the collected images to his chest, hoarding it all before it went dark.
I want to be able to remember you here. Just like this.
Motorcycle rides in general must not lend well to even moderate distances, because my ass was never as cramped and miserable as at the end of that day. The sun had been dazzling, reflecting off the water into a million brilliant prisms that left bruise-colored spots to dance across my retinas for hours. Choker was back in his ordinary funk after the outing; the calculated silence could permeate the air around us like a cold spot in a haunted house.
The climactic finish to the whole Choker thing happened faster than I could fathom, with a twist I didn’t anticipate and a radical reaction I hadn’t foreseen.
The girlfriend, Laura, called me, out of the blue, and left a message. Whether she was suspicious of me or not, I don’t know. AA is a universe unto itself; she might just have noticed me in a random meeting and decided to help if she could.
I’d encountered her maybe twice before. Nevertheless, I called her back, impulsive and curious. The rich throaty voice that greeted me was earnest, warm, and seemingly genuine. Laura offered her emotional availability and support if I so needed. I was polite and thanked her—hell, I meant it—then hung up the receiver, puzzled. And I wondered briefly whether or not the Choker also choked this Laura, who seemed so impossibly confident. So untouchable.
Not two hours later he pulled up to my trailer to pick me up, in front of where I stood waiting under the car-park. The road lacked streetlights; the high beams from his alternate transportation, a truck, felt intentional and unduly harsh. I thrust myself up into the vehicle and mentioned, off-handedly, that I had returned a call from Laura.
Ice-blue eyes assessed me from behind spectacles, deliberating. We didn’t move.
Uncertain, terrified at his flat affect, I shrugged. “It wasn’t a big deal. All she said was if I needed to, I could call her.”
The Choker finally began to drive. We inched forward at a slow crawl. Alarmed at the bizarre pace, fed up with his cryptic behavior, I asked what we were doing.
“I’m going to take you to Laura’s. Then the two of you can figure it all out,” he said with black satisfaction.
I’m sure my face registered shock before settling into fury. I kicked my arms and legs, smashing at his glove compartment and dashboard with my fists in spite of the pain.
“Let me out! No! Fuck you! Let me out! Back up!” I battered myself up against the door to illustrate my intent and waited for the wheels to stop. As soon as they did, I flung myself out.
“You are the craziest person I have ever met,” I screamed.
“Same to you,” he rejoined.
The single thing I learned in AA that has been helpful to me was not part of the curriculum but instead based upon sheer experience with the organization. Alcohol addiction and addiction treatment are brothers; they grow from the same crippled tree. Either way, the bottle becomes (or remains) the center of your existence. Whether drinking it or avoiding it, the liquor is still the obsession, the fulcrum of life. Whether you’re firmly on the formal wagon or off picking poppies with purpose, your identity revolves around the substance either way.
It comes down to this: how many times can you read the same goddamn book?
Then there was The Atheist. In his former life he had been a scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and I found his skepticism delightful. If at an AA meeting a passage was read that urged us to “let go and let god,” I spent the hour waiting for his turn to come, anticipating a delicious response.
“If I am driving and take my hands off of the wheel, god is not going to prevent the car from crashing. I will fly off the highway, possibly injure others, and almost certainly die. No belief will change that reality,” he said with superior aggravation.
Short and heavyset, Atheist looked like a toad, with a swirl of slate grey hair, thick glasses and a devilish grin. With his broad trickster features and colorful mouth he was a kind of Loki figure. Atheist was like a storytelling puppet, able to conjure anecdotes and signal innuendo with impressively coordinated kinetic expression. There ought to have been a campfire for all the artistry each performance entailed. And he liked me.
We went out to lunch together many times (his treat, of course.) Invariably he would order a shrimp cocktail to share as an appetizer, six fat pink claws clutching ice.
“Well, Buck is self-destructive. Has a gorgeous wife but he does his very best to wreck the relationship,” Atheist said, patting his lips with a napkin. “When he sees someone to whom he is attracted, he uses the opportunity to blow up his life.”
“Did you know he was my Doctor when I was younger, for a couple of years? He didn’t like me back then,” I said, making a face. “Then I come into a meeting and I swear to god the first thing he asks is when I turn eighteen.”
Atheist erupted with laughter. “That sounds like Buck. Not very subtle, I’m afraid.”
At a meeting I was pulled aside by a young woman in a long skirt and a poncho who warned me that the Atheist was not interested in my clever repartee or thoughts on religion. The one time they got together for coffee, she said, he offered to purchase her lingerie in exchange for her willingness to model the product for him. (What kind of moron did she think I was? They were all like that.)
In the midst of this, I was blackout-drunk as often as possible but, being underage, I could access alcohol maybe once a week, tops.
My mother tried to make my attendance at the actual meetings more frequent and, in her infinite wisdom, offered to purchase a six-pack for me if I would just go to AA that day.
At the end of the session, I rushed out the door like a determined flood, unlocking my fingers too quickly from my brethren’s hands at the closing of the prayer. The purple car was waiting. The air was alive with fortune, the sky vivid and pleasant and blue. Rain had fallen in the night and the wistful scent of creosote rose like steam from the earth, better and more complex than the faint, ordinary smell of flowers or grass.
With complete and giddy joy I greeted her.
“How was it?”
I lit a cigarette with happy abandon and nearly shouted, “It was okay. Can we go to the gas station?”
She wouldn’t speak.
“Mom? You promised.” I can’t imagine how brutal my voice must have sounded.
“I thought that if you went that you wouldn’t want to,” she said with a frown.
Do not tease a desperate alcoholic. It’s like throwing rocks at a junkyard dog while you’re locked in the junkyard.
Keening ululations emanated from our trailer for hours—my wails, recriminations and bitter mewling, accompanied by her gravelly, ironic murmurs and elaborate sighs. We could have been a stray animal band, staying late to practice.
After pursuits and escapes, offenses and defenses, attacks and counter-attacks, we wound up in her bedroom. Until then, the fight had been audial. I had our portable telephone, for some reason, in my hand, and it’s likely I was desperately plotting to call someone—anyone, the Devil, Himself—to procure in any form the necessary golden elixir.
I don’t know what she said. She might have said nothing, and I was simply at the end of my rope. But I threw the phone. Where it might have missed, it hit. Too late, she raised her arms defensively, and it popped her in the face. I was honestly horrified; I was sober, after all, and though she was and is a grimalkin, she was my mother. (A changeling, she called me, but she was all I knew.)
Panicked and overwhelmed (but undaunted in original pursuit) I called The Atheist.
“Can you come get me?” I asked, wavering between new regret and the culmination of stewing in the acidic juices of righteous alcoholic indignation for several hours.
“I’ll be there in ten minutes,” he said.
The Atheist stopped his grey Nissan at the dead end and I hurried inside the car.
I briefly summarized my crime, animated and teary.
“I need alcohol. I’ll do anything if you get me some,” I sniffled, wiping snot on the collar of my shirt. “Please.”
And I said it again, in case he hadn’t heard me: “I’ll do anything.”
Atheist had a line ready, as though we were rehearsing a theater production and he’d been up all night studying the script while I’d been slacking off.
Nodding once, Atheist said, “And so you shall.”
Of course, I’d assumed that in one way or another he would eventually come on to me, and it was, in the moment, even the answer I wanted. Still, there was a pang.
Having been told that relief was on the horizon, I can’t imagine having accompanied him to Denny’s for dinner without having had at least several long slugs from a bottle first, but I don’t specifically recall what occurred between “And so you shall” and this:
The bright cheer of the restaurant was like vomit, empty enthusiasm splattered onto the walls and furniture, dripping onto tables. Slogans in primary colors stared at me closely. A terrible fluorescence flowed from the ceiling onto the booths and the broad white plates. Meat glistened and the waitress beamed.
Atheist put down his burger.
“Now, I must warn you that I’ll need to take medication. Is that going to be a problem?” he said.
For a moment, I was puzzled. I struggled to intellectually connect the topic of physical wellness to our unusual transaction. I finally realized what he meant and had to bite my lip to prevent laughter. Like a prostitute is going to say, “You know what, buddy? I don’t work with artificial erections.” What the hell does she care?
“That’s fine. I don’t care about that,” I assured him.
And that’s it. The memory picks up the next day, as he drives me home.
“You’re a monster when you drink. You are the real deal,” he said, steering his car onto my road.
I didn’t know what happened. Probably I attacked him when he attempted to fulfill our earlier verbal (ish) contract. At this point, there was nothing to lose and only one thing to say: whatever I had to say to get more alcohol.
“If you don’t bring me the rest of the quart I’ll say you raped me,” I said, my voice even and simple, as though it were an ordinary request.
With justifiable horror in his eyes, stupefied, the Atheist eventually spluttered that he’d leave the bottle right by the three prickly-pear cacti I pointed out to him (which were helpfully engulfed by encroaching creosote and large stones that bordered that section of hill) in twenty minutes.
“You go your way and I’ll go mine. There’s no need to involve anyone else.” the Atheist said.
True to his word and frightened by my potent but wholly empty threat—I was terrified of police, for one thing—I got my hands on the jug of vodka. I went to my room, poured a measuring half-cup, tossed it back, hissed and choked in disgust, and waited for the taste to cease and the warmth to seep like slow, hot petrol through my chest, into my mind and limbs and finally fingertips.
On my bare mattress, I listened to a tape a former friend had made for me in another life, a year and a half before. The Lou Reed tune came on–“I thought I was someone else, someone good…” and finally, I felt something. I put my head on my knees and wept, at last, but only for myself.
In a later life–another book entirely–I will fail. I will once again briefly listen to the djinn who still lives in that comfortable magic bottle, whispering even now and ever after. Desperately I will return to AA for three nights. I knew that, at the very least, I would see stories as miserable as my own and take some comfort in that broken company.
Instead, a single short man with a strange fishing hat covered in tackles sat at the head of a table like a king. No one else came to this late meeting, spare a lonely young guy who would come in for the last ten minutes just to have the King sign the court order that would prove his mandated presence.
The King assumed the mantle of a prophet and seemed to be waiting for me to speak. I asked about The Program.
How do I surrender to a concept in which I have no faith? You pretend that you believe; ultimately you will believe.
How do I come up for air when, every time I do, all I see is the devastation I have wrought, the wounded companions, the many bodies? Whether you throw the keys into the sea or drop them by accident, the end result is the same. Why do you care why you lost them?
But wouldn’t it have been better to just drive? And how do I drive now?
To these he had no answer, and for a brief moment I could see all of his faces: the drawn, sullen countenance of the Choker; the mischievous grin of the Atheist; the King’s failed smile as it morphed into a grimace or a sneer. And among these many features I could also make out, finally, the void of my own soulless, open maw—a gaping hole, not even a face—about to speak or maybe scream. I can’t deny it. I was there, too.
About the Author
Suzanne Lee (writing/maiden name) is a writer whose work has been published in apt and anderbo and is forthcoming in Sierra Nevada Review. Additionally, her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in the desert, which features heavily in her work.