Tag Archives: Professor Tom

JJ in AA, Again

 

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A church basement. Upstairs is for those who fear going to hell. Downstairs is for those who’ve already been there. At least that’s what some people say.

After the meeting, Professor Tom stood with some members, laughing at the absurdity of the drinking life and the miracle of getting to live a sober life. JJ waited near the exit door, nervous, feeling he was lying in ambush. The meeting was good, his third since returning from Colorado. Lila was at the Al-anon meeting down the hall, her third since the return, too. It was early, but so far, so good. He hadn’t seen his old sponsor yet and was resolved to clean things up and get back to recovery work.

“I’m glad you waited,” Tom said as he approached JJ at the door. JJ put an awkward hand out but Tom brushed past it and embraced JJ. “Some never come back,” he said next to JJ’s head.

“I’m back for good,” JJ said.

“Or just for today.”

JJ smiled. “Yeah, just for today. A daily reprieve, right?”

“Based on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.”

“Yeah, about that. I need to get back to work on the steps.”

“Listen,” Tom said. “I’m really glad you’re here, but I can’t sponsor you anymore. I’ve got three other guys and I can’t take time from them.”

“Oh,” JJ said and tried to disguise his disappointment. It was one of those moments, so common for him, when the path forward looked straight and clear, but then the world was revealed as more complex and contrary than assumed. He felt like a child discovering that all that stuff- the house, the car, the water(!)- actually cost money. There was always a price to be paid.

“What I can do is introduce you to a few guys.”

“That would be good.”

“Marty,” Tom called across the room. “C’mere for a minute.”

A guy, younger than Tom, closer to JJ’s age, broke off from another group of people and came over.

“This is Jason,” Tom said. “He just got back from…”

“Out there,” JJ finished, gesturing with his thumb out the window. “And Colorado.”

“Oh yeah? Welcome back,” Marty said, and they shook hands. “I lived there for seven years. The greatest and worst times of my life.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, man,” Marty said. “Listen, a few of us are going to get coffee. You’re welcome to come.”

Once again, a fork in the road. Take the easy way and scurry home to comfort with a residue of shame and self-loathing? Or go out and brave the company of actual people who are trying to do better?

“Last suggestion,” Professor Tom said. “Discard that first instinct. That’s usually your disease.”

He was right, of course. That’s the thing about these sober people, at least the ones who actually work it. They’re always fucking right.

“All right,” JJ said. “I’ll go. I just have to tell my girlfriend.”

“Great,” said Marty. “We’ll meet you in the parking lot.”

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Careful What You Wish For

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At Lila’s.

“I can’t believe this Katelyn thing,” she said. “I mean, she’s hot!”

“Who’s that?”

“Katelyn Jenner? Bruce Jenner?”
“I heard something about this,” JJ said. “Is that his daughter?”

Lila just looked at him. “Incredible,” she said. “Where have you been hiding?”

“That’s a complicated question.” He went over to the couch and sat next to her. A TV show, loud and brash with celebs and quick clips, jumping between a photo shoot, a magazine cover, and a seventies athlete with that non-athletic body and hair. Pre-1990 athletes looked so puny. And, those shorts! Even Michael Jordan. And, then he remembered. The decathlete became a woman. “Wait, that’s her? Him?”

“Her.”

More of the same, JJ thought. You could be whatever you said you were these days. Unless you were white publicly posing as black. That wouldn’t go over too well.

“Could we turn that off? I want to ask you something.”

Something in his voice. Lila got very still and stared straight ahead. JJ reached across her for the remote and turned the TV off. “Not THAT something. Relax,” he said.

She let out a sigh. Relief? Regret? A catastrophe avoided? “You just kind of sounded weird,” she said.

JJ felt himself slide toward being offended. He could picture them married. Why couldn’t she? It was conceivable. But, stay the course. Don’t let that JJ sensitivity, the delicate ego of a fourteen year old, don’t let that throw you off. “I want to take a trip with you,” he said.

“That would be great. Let’s go to the Cape for the weekend.”

“No, not that kind of trip. I want to hit the road for a while. Do the nomad thing.”

“The nomad thing? For how long?”

“A few months, at least. Maybe a year?”

Lila was quiet, looking at JJ. This was not good impulse control, she thought. He used to have these big ideas all the time. Old behaviors: not good. But, it was also a relief to hear him propose something weird and grandiose. He was getting so docile and comfy with all that lottery money and that house. Everything was fine with them. It was just so goddamn fine these days. She asked, “What does your sponsor say?”

“He thought it might be good. A journey of self-discovery kind of thing.”

She knew it was a bad idea, that it was bad for him. And something in his demeanor, she knew he was lying. She knew that Professor Tom character didn’t approve. She just knew. But…

“And what about my job? And my rent?”

“You hate that job and I’ll pay your rent.”

They sat in the still and quiet void created when the TV show was turned off. A wall clock ticked from the kitchen. A car drove by. Then, a truck or bus. JJ dared not look at Lila. His heart pounded. He wanted this and he was afraid to speak. And, he was afraid of the answer.

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s do it.”

And, for some reason, his heart just sank.

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Wings Clipped?

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Sunday night AA. In the parking lot, it’s the meeting after the meeting. Cigarette smokers and laughter. People talking in twos and threes. Two women hugging, one in tears, the other whispering comfort and encouragement.

JJ met with his sponsor, Professor Tom, in the front seat of Tom’s old Chevy pickup (bench seat!). A little close for comfort, from JJ’s perspective. “I’m going on a trip,” JJ said.

Tom didn’t respond right away, but stared into the dark, chewing his gum. He always had some gum going since he quit smoking a few years back. Or so JJ’s been told. He’s only known Tom for about a year, since limping back into the AA fold. Tom asked, “Where are you going?”

“I don’t know,” JJ said. “Me and Lila are going to drive around the country.”

“Why?”

“To be with Lila. To get away for a while.”

Professor Tom chewed and JJ could feel the beginnings of internal squirming. “It’s not a good idea,” Tom said.

I met this guy on the mountain. He inspired me to take a journey.”

“Does this mountain guy know about you? About your love of self-destruction, self-deception, and self-sabotage?”

It’s Mountain Dude, JJ thought. Mountain Dude. “No, but it feels right. I didn’t get sober to not be free. Besides, Lila…we just want to be together.”

Now Tom turned. JJ could just see Tom’s eyes in the yellowish light from a parking lot lamp. There was concern there in the warm depth of his look, but cold skepticism in his squint and cocked eyebrow. “As your sponsor, I suggest you not take any journeys of discovery right now.”

“But…”

“And here are my reasons. One, you’re still a newcomer and only on step three. That’s the only journey you need to be concerned with right now. Two, we often plan our relapses without even knowing it. Three, you won’t be doing any service for other alcoholics while roaming the land. That’s key. And four, the last thing you need is to detach from the roots you’re putting down. You need to stay put and dig deeper.”

“Are you forbidding me to go?”

“It doesn’t work like that. You can do whatever you want. I strongly suggest you stay put, though. For both you and Lila’s sake, if you really want to be with her.”

“It’s different this time.”

“Yeah, you have more to lose than ever. Your house. Lila. The lottery money. You can’t see it, but I promise that you can lose it all and wash up somewhere pretty quick.”

“But…I feel so good. I haven’t wanted to drink at all.”

“Like I said, I can’t stop you. But I strongly suggest you stay close. Go away for the weekend with Lila. What does she say about this?”

Pause. “I haven’t told her.”

“Okay. That’s your assignment. Go tell her what you’re planning for her. Then call me.” Tom reached for the column and started the truck. “Meeting over.”

“Alright, thanks.” JJ hopped out and closed the door. “I’ll call you,” he said through the open window.

“Talk to Lila,” Tom said and drove away.

“That didn’t go well”, JJ thought. “Well, fuck him. Lila will love this.”

So, he went to find out.

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JJ Prays and Dreams

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A humid summer day. JJ knelt beside his bed and tried to pray. He heard a noise and jumped up, embarrassed, and looked to find the cat peering at him from the door. Good ol’ Knuckles knew something was amiss. JJ threw a balled-up sock and the cat scurried away, but not without a look back at the praying lunatic. After a moment, JJ kneeled back down.

“Dear God,” he began. And there was nothing beyond that.

“Just pretend,” Professor Tom had said. “Say thanks for the day, thanks for a sober day, and wrap it up. Keep it simple.”

That was Tom’s favorite slogan from the pantheon of AA slogans. Keep it simple. Ok, then.

JJ said, “Thanks God. Thanks for helping me today.” Then he jumped to his feet like he was caught doing something cruel on his knees, maybe frying ants with a magnifying glass. Once, at nine or ten years old, he had tormented a frog he found, eventually dropping a rock on it and crushing it. This was observed by his father, who was on him in a flash. His father only hit him twice in his life. That was once, a smack right up side the head that left him sprawled in the grass with his right ear ringing. The other time was when he climbed to the top of a tree and refused to come down for the babysitter. He stayed up there until it got dark and the babysitter had no choice but to rat him out. Later, he sat in his room and listened to his mother outside the door. “You go in there and strap him. Take this belt.”

“Jesus, Karen, he’s just a boy doing stupid shit.”

“Strap him! The whole neighborhood saw him up there. They heard him up there.” His father came in and delivered a lukewarm strapping as JJ jumped on the bed, crying and dodging. He remembered the confusion of being relieved that it wasn’t severe but ashamed of his father’s weak brutality. After all, he had probably deserved many a good strapping.

“Great memories,” JJ said to his empty house. “Praying is wonderful.”

Later, restless and tired, JJ lay back on the couch, tried to read, but dozed off. He dreamed of that summer day, crouching over the rock that covered the dead frog. He knew he was going to lift it but was afraid of what he’d see. When he did lift the rock, there was nothing there, just matted grass. He heard a sound and turned, cringing, thinking his father was going to hit him, but it was just Knuckles the cat, looking at him from under the porch. JJ crawled under the porch and that dream thing happened. He emerged into Grand Central Station, in the big room with the booth in the middle and the vast ceiling with the stars. There were so many people streaming in from train tunnels and mingling in a teeming mass, but he was above the fray, on one of the balconies. Then he saw Lila in the crowd, near the booth, distinct among the strangers. And then he saw his mother, dead now, near the ticket windows and he thought maybe this was some purgatory or parody of heaven.

He woke up, sweaty and befuddled, and found his phone. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. Are YOU? You sound far away.”

“I’m ok. I’m good. Just woke from a nap, a little disoriented. A bad dream.”

Lila was quiet for a moment, “JJ, it’s ok. I’m ok. Life is going to be ok.”

“Ok,” he said. “It’s ok.”

“Good. Now wake up and come take me to dinner.”

“Ok. That sounds good.” And it was. It was better than ok. It was just right.

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Present Day JJ: Under the Microscope, Squished on a Slide

 

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“Hungry, angry lonely, tired. Are you any of those things?”

“No.”

“Those are the things to look out for,” Professor Tom said. He chewed a cheeseburger, bun crumbs catching in his patient academic beard. Tom taught biology at the university. Or was it physics at the college? JJ wasn’t sure.

“I feel ok,” JJ said.

“You should feel like shit. Most people, and I doubt you’re the exception, feel like shit when they hit bottom. There’s the physical agony, sure. But mostly the pain of losing you’re best friend whiskey, or whatever you’re into.”

“Ok, I feel like shit.”

“That’s the spirit. It’s good to feel like shit.”

JJ picked at some fries. It was all he could stomach in this terrible Burger King. Professor Tom worked on his second cheeseburger with gusto. A piece of bacon stuck out the end of the bun opposite from Tom’s mouth, pointing at JJ, a mocking tongue of BK Bacon. JJ couldn’t take his eyes off it, even as his stomach rolled. He pushed the fries away and sipped his Coke.

“Are you willing to go to any lengths for your sobriety?”

JJ had heard this question before and it still alarmed him, like the first overtures of a cult to a potential convert. He had said yes before, too. And no. It didn’t seem to make a difference. “I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t know.”

Professor Tom stuffed the last piece of cheeseburger, with the floppy bit of bacon, into his mouth and looked at JJ. He chewed and kept looking as JJ squirmed, a specimen under the Professor’s microscope. JJ felt squished and helpless, a bug on a slide, open for scrutiny. Horrible.

“’I don’t know’ is a good place to start.” Tom wiped his mouth and shook his beard free of crumbs. “People sometimes answer too quick. They say yes, but don’t know what that means. But you’re aware of the leap. That can be good or bad. What’s your work situation? Where do you live?”

“I get by for now. Money’s ok.” He did not want to get into the lottery winnings, always in the background, solving nothing, soothing nothing.

“So, you don’t have a job?”

“No.”

“OK, you’re now a fulltime alcoholic in recovery. You will build your day around a meeting, arriving early, helping set up, going for coffee after, no matter how painful. Do you have a girlfriend? Are you married?”

JJ hesitated. What was Lila, exactly? Not his wife, obviously. His girlfriend? More like his ex-girlfriend, now a benefactor, with the potential to move forward to…what? Girlfriend? It was so far beyond words now. They had been, if not together, aware of each other, careening, sometimes touching, since 1989.

“I have a friend,” JJ said. “It’s complicated.”

Professor Tom sighed and gathered up the trash onto his tray. “It usually is,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”

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