The Relapse 

Page 6 of 13

From her first meeting, Claudia sensed she would relapse and that it would be with Jack. She sensed these things before she even knew his name, which she learned when he walked to the podium to get his white chip. He looked like a cross between a revolutionary and a sick man, with pale skin and a dark, neatly clipped moustache. His lower lip was pierced, but from across the room his gold stud was dull and misplaced as a crumb. A tattoo crawled out from under the sleeve of his T-shirt like a shy animal. She couldn't quite pick it out: a question mark? A snake?

From the way he said, "I need a white chip," she could tell it wasn't the first time he'd gotten one. She got one too, and then learned it meant surrender.

Surrender was one way of putting it. For Claudia, surrender was just the opposite—the quiet liquid bliss of that first sip, the spreading warmth, the darkly-pleasured promise of passing out early, curled up good and fetal—couldn't say it this way, fetal, not anymore—in any body clenched and mind swimming. That was surrender. Staying sober was an affair of clenched teeth and tight-gripped longing.

A memory rose from years before, a Bolivian village, a trip with Chris—white flags flapping from the doorways of crude brick houses, marking vats of chicha, the moonshine beer made from a kind of fermented corn the women chewed themselves. You drank it from small clay bowls and Claudia could remember the relief—the sheer relief, that was the word for it—of sitting on a concrete stoop and feeling the world reduce until she was large enough to fill it. She could remember all the places she'd been in terms of what and where she'd gotten drunk: over-salted margaritas in Baja, cheap red wine and Coke in Prague, something harsh and translucent under striped awnings off a grimy Tallinn alley.

The meeting opened with a large woman in a smart-fitting floral dress. She stood to read the twelve steps. Claudia was sitting close enough to smell her perfume, a scent between incense and rose that matched her voice, its smoky sweetness. She didn't seem overweight to Claudia, only wholly formed, like no part of her had been forgotten—as if everyone else would be her size too, if all their parts had been gathered together in one place. As she listened to the steps, Claudia was thinking: I'm going to have to do WHAT? She imagined sending Chris a letter of apology: I'm sorry for cheating on you and for leaving you afterward, even though you were willing to forgive me.

Even though Claudia didn't regret the end of their relationship, she still felt that some part of her was tangled up in it, still obsessed with how much she'd been able to hurt him—still mining this memory for proof that she'd been deeply loved, and could be deeply loved again. Also, she missed the way they drank. A lot of the drinking she'd been doing since then was trying to get back to the feeling of all the drinking they'd done together—long nights wrapped in blankets by the space-heater, sipping hot toddies until they fell asleep on each other's shoulders, cold walks through the snow with their bodies warmed and glazed by wine. When she looked at it honestly, though, she realized she'd been drinking alone back then as well. He hadn't needed it like she did. He'd just been along for the ride.

The meeting felt like the first day of junior high school, only everyone else had already started this junior high school, weeks or months or even years before, and some of them kept starting over and over again. She'd been imagining a dingy church basement, but the address she'd copied matched a coffee shop instead. She'd lingered in her truck outside, telling herself she was trying to figure out the right door. The right door was obvious. There was only one door open. She finally went inside. The room was lit by stained-glass lamps and full of plush velvet movie chairs arranged in rows. People wore big sunglasses and drank shots of espresso from tiny-handled cups. One woman had a little paper umbrella in hers, like a daiquiri. The man next to her was wearing a Budweiser T-shirt.

People talked about hitting bottom, and the good it did, and they talked about making amends. One woman spoke about babysitting her six-year-old niece. The girl had burned herself on a teakettle. This had happened years ago. Now the girl was twenty-two but she still had a scar the size of a peanut on her palm. Or maybe bigger, like an almond. Just two months ago this woman had written her a long letter of apology and hadn't gotten a response. "It took me years to summon the guts to write that letter," she said. "And now? Nothing." She paused. "It's a bitch, you know? You think the whole world depends on you saying sorry, and then you realize they might not have anything to say back."

A man with silver hair and a polo shirt talked about the difference between progress and perfection. He pointed at the Budweiser guy. "A year ago, I would have been like fuck you, man," he said, "fuck you for wearing that T-shirt!"

Everybody waited.

"But today I'm able to say: you do whatever you need to do."

When Claudia's turn came around, she said only her name, not the "I'm an alcoholic part," and everybody said: "Hi, Claudia," in chorus. Then there was a pause, until she continued. "That's all," she said. "I pass."

Jack stretched his skinny arms above his neck before he spoke, nervously clearing his throat. "Well, um, ya'll pretty much know me," he said. "Four-time drinker and four-time white chipper." He rubbed his temples with his fingers. "I hope it sticks this time around."

A woman's voice said: "Just keep coming back."

Once the meeting was done, Claudia tried to edge out the back door without talking to anyone. She was looking forward to getting back to her car—where she could cry in peace, or at least listen to some sad music that might bring her closer to crying.

As she reached the doorway someone tapped her on the shoulder. She turned. It was Jack.

"Hey," he said. "You coming to dinner?"

It was as if they'd made plans she'd forgotten about.

She wasn't sure if he was flirting with her or feeling sorry for her. It was tricky, she would learn, in these meetings—the difference between reaching out to someone because you wanted to love them like a stranger, or wanted to love them like a lover, or wanted to love them like something else—like someone you once knew, or some part of yourself you'd given up on.

"I don't think so," she said. "Not tonight."

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