“Not to get what one wants—that is also suffering.”
Joseph was skeptical. But he had looked for people to sit with for some time. The retreats were powerful stull. He felt his whole insides torn apart and put back together. He felt he was on the verge of something. Something different from anything he had known before. Different from church. Different from booze or dope or sex. He tried to explain it to others, but there were not any words.
It was not all good feelings. For several days on retreat things repeatedly came up. Things buried so deep he had not even thought to talk about them with his sponsor. He remembered things that happened during blackouts; strange women from the past, bar fights he lost and put out of his mind. Joseph remembered throwing bottles at Amanda one night during a screaming match, though he did not remember what the fight was about.
By the seventh day all that had changed. He worked through those things and let them go. What was left was peace of mind. Something he had searched for his entire life through music and booze and sex he found through sitting still and following his breath.
But he knew the feeling would not last. It had been two months now and the feelings of elation and peace waned. He went around town looking for a group he could sit with where he could maybe get some of that back. An old friend suggested this group and so he came to try it out.
Joseph saw someone waving at him from across the room. He recognized the woman as Patti, a friend from years before. She joined the group a few years ago after her marriage ended. Joseph was happy to see her. She was one of his old friends that still spoke to him after he hit bottom. Next to her was a skinny dark-haired girl in glasses. He was instantly intrigued. Something about her, her nervousness, the way she did not look at him directly, perhaps, made him want to get to know her more. Joseph approached them and Patti said, “We saved a cushion for you.”
He sat between the two women, wrestling his legs into the half-lotus position. It bothered his legs, but it straightened out his back. After a long time sitting, having a straight spine was the only thing that mattered.
The skinny woman with the glasses held out her hand. “I’m Anne,” she said. “Patty’s been telling me about you.”
“I can only imagine,” he said.
Anne blushed. “She said you’re a guitar player. And a successful one. You work for television?”
“I used to work for television,” he said. “I haven’t done that in a few years. Now I teach 14 year old boys how to play ‘Stairway to Heaven.’”
“That must be rewarding,” she said.
“It pays the bills,” he said. “Or rather, it doesn’t pay the bills. But after I got sober and was penniless, it was the only thing I knew how to do.” He thought, Why do you have to tell everyone you meet that you’re in recovery in the first few minutes?
She looked down and away. They did not say anything else. She was interested, he thought. I’ve blown it already.
In a few minutes, the speaker came to lead the guided meditation which included some visualization which was different from what Joseph was used to. Joseph tried to be open, but the feeling he had back on the retreat was not there. He noticed himself being distracted by Anne sitting next to him, so close their bodies almost touched. He opened his eyes and saw her chest rise and fall ever so subtly. Her breasts were small, tiny even, but it did not take much for his thoughts to imagine what they looked like and what she might be like in bed.
His thoughts continued to race while he attempted to focus on the visualization. He wanted to be drunk. He wanted to taste her neck. He wanted a nice buzz. A cigarette. To smell the nape of her neck. He wanted to lose control. To just let go of everything he was trying to build. He wanted to let go of everything.
Afterwards, Joseph walked Anne to her car and they exchanged numbers.
“I have to go home,” she said.
“I have a partner,” she said. “He’s a good man.”
“I’m just saying . . . it was nice meeting you,” she said.
“It was,” he said. “Maybe I’ll see you here again.”
“Maybe,” she said. She shuffled off. He watched her go into her car and drive away. He hoped that she would turn her head and look at him one last time before she was gone. She did not.
Joseph took out his phone and scrolled through his contacts till he came to his sponsor’s name. He put his phone away without calling. That girl is trouble, he thought.
The sound of Grinderman shook her car as she raced to Hilsboro. She had flex-time at her job, but left early in the morning to avoid the traffic on the way to and from the office. She tapped on the steering wheel in time to the music and glanced at the pack of cigarettes that tempted her from her open purse. She had not smoked in ten years. Anne left that behind when she left Chicago. It would not have even occurred to her before she met Joseph. When she hugged him, the stench of cigarette smoke clung to him. Anne missed smoking. She missed the ritual of it and the way it made her feel. The fact that so many people judged her for it only made her want to do it more. It was that part of her life when she went to clubs and drank until they threw everyone out and the whole group would end up at the pancake house at three in the morning. But I was young then, she thought. And that’s what young people do. I am a different person now. And that’s a good thing. That’s the way life is supposed to be. Everyone has to grow up eventually. Those days are gone and there’s no use trying to get them back.
She reached into her purse and opened the pack, keeping one hand on the wheel. Anne pulled out a cigarette and held it to her nose. It smelled like her youth. She had visions of leather jackets and pants held together with safety pins. Anne remembered fucking the drummer from Blood Splatter in the bathroom at a disastrous little club. She remembered throwing her panties away because they landed in something on the floor. The drummer picked them up and put them in the front pocket of his leather jacket as a trophy. “You can keep them,” she said. “God only knows what they’ve fallen into.” The drummer grinned and slapped her ass.
Anne pulled into a 7-11 and bought a lighter and smoked the cigarette in front of the convenience store so the smoke would not linger in the car. She did not want Ben to start asking questions. He asked too many questions lately.
When she finished smoking, Anne took the rest of the pack and left them on top of the garbage can outside the store and headed for work. Her head felt dizzy. Anne felt no shame over the act, just a small thrill at doing something out of the ordinary.
Fifteen minutes later she sat at her cubicle, staring at the stack of paperwork on her desk. There were files to be put away, other files to update, and a stack of papers to be organized. Anne sipped her chai tea and gazed at the photo of her and Ben from Halloween. They had dressed up as devils and another pair of friends dressed as angels. The photo made her smile. It was one of the many things she loved about Ben. He put up with her silliness and her sense of play. He was good to her when she wanted to play make-believe.
Anne felt buzzed from the cigarette. Her thoughts returned to a black and white photo of herself that someone took a long time ago. She held a cigarette and looked off in the distance, not even knowing she was being photographed at the time. Anne loved that image. She was regal and elegant.
She wanted to send Joseph a copy of the photo with a note that said, “This is the real me.” She looked back at the Halloween picture. I’m tired of playing make-believe, she thought. The picture had a different meaning for her now. All this time, she thought, I’ve been a good girl who pretends to be a devil. But really I’ve been the devil all along. This life I’ve been living is the real make-believe. I’m closer to that woman who fucked a drummer in the bathroom than I am to this office worker who pretends to give a shit about status reports.
Anne picked up her phone. She wanted to tell Joseph how much she wanted him to fuck her. Fuck her the way she had not been fucked in years. She wanted it rough and fast and reckless. I would give up all of this, she thought. Just to be me again.
She looked up her contacts and found Joseph’s number. She then deleted it from her phone. That solves that, she thought. Goodbye, Devil.