They entered the side door of St. Timothy’s, where stairs went up to the nave and down to the basement. They descended.
“Am I supposed to stay,” Lila asked.
“You’re not leaving, either way,” JJ said.
People were milling, talking, hugging, clapping each other on the shoulder, remembering names, welcoming newcomers. It all made JJ queasy. The hale, hearty and healthy men. The determined, cheerful, and dignified women. It was horrible. There were some sullen folk on the periphery and that’s where JJ intended to set up shop. A huge jolly guy stepped up to them, blocking the way to the back. “Welcome to the Plug in the Jug Group,” he said. “I’m Big Red.”
“Jason,” JJ murmured and allowed his hand to be devoured by Big Red’s big calloused paw. “This is Lila.”
“Terrific,” Big Red said. “There’s some seats right down front.”
“I think we’ll stay back here.”
Big Red nodded. “Keep that escape route open, then. OK. But, if I was you. I’d sit down front to hear better.” Then he winked at Lila and moved on to the next pigeon.
“We’re going down front,” Lila said.
“Lila, people will see us!”
“Let me get this straight, you’ll stagger to the bank, through the lobby with a shopping bag for your cash. Then scurry out, making a scene. But you’re afraid to be seen by some strangers trying to get sober?”
“Pretty much.” The fact was, he had been down this path before. Sitting near the exit didn’t only provide a physical escape route. It also reduced the number of people who actually observed his intention to get better. It left an opening, a gap in his commitment, just in case the program actually started to take hold. He was afraid it might really work.
“Let’s go,” she said and took his hand. It was all a blur to JJ as a white noise pressure rose in his head. They sat in the front row, knees practically against the podium. The meeting started and the chairperson said, “This is an open meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. All are welcome. Is there anybody new or visiting who would like to identify themselves by first name only?”
JJ felt the old crossroads feeling. He had been here and many other places before and had not allowed himself to make the hard turn home. “No fuckin way,” he thought. “No fuckin…”
“JJ, put your hand up,” Lila whispered.
“No fuckin way,” JJ said.
It was quiet as the chairperson surveyed the room for a moment. “OK. Then let’s…”
“My name’s Big Red and I’m an alcoholic.”
The chorus: “Hi Big Red.” And there were some murmurs.
“Now don’t everyone get their panties all twisted up. I didn’t drink or nothing. And I usually don’t do this. But, I just wanted to welcome the two newcomers down in the front row.”
JJ fought back nausea and panic. They were now all aware of his presence amongst them. The chairperson leaned forward over the podium. “You don’t have to say anything,” she whispered. “Red can be difficult sometimes.”
But Lila, his one-woman support network, his opinionated and star-crossed lover said in a clear, unembarrassed voice, “My name’s Lila and I’m visiting the group.”
The chorus: “Hi Lila!”
And, just like that, there was no way out. “I’m Jason and I’m an alcoholic,” he said.
They thundered, “Hi Jason!” And then they clapped because he was so obviously hollow and raw and, freely or not, he had crossed some hurdle they all recognized as imperative to getting this thing. They clapped, then stopped, and the meeting went on.