This is a short story which appeared in the 2012 anthology of ROPES, mentioned previously in this post. It is my first piece of published writing.
(Some formatting may appear different than in the published text).
“So…what’s your story?”
He had to be speaking to me. There was no-one else here yet.
“Uhm, I didn’t think we were supposed to start talking until the whole group was here”.
He made a face of disgust and waved his hand, dismissing me. “No, I don’t mean your ‘NA story’; I mean your life story. You haven’t become your addiction have you? That’s the worst.”
It was hard to read him. He looked completely relaxed, sitting with his fingers interlaced behind his head and his legs stretched out on the floor in front of him. Doing his best to be horizontal.
How could he be at ease in a place like this? It was like the start of every bad horror movie ever made.
Interior. Night. Non-descript school hall. Drab, dreary. Sinister without the schoolchildren. A circle of chairs.
Our two protagonists occupy chairs at a respectable distance from each other. The air is joyless.
If this was a horror movie, this is when the window would break. Or the door would slam. Both characters would be startled and the female would look to the male to protect her. Because we all know who dies first.
“My story? I don’t really have one.”
“Well, now. That’s pretty sad. Everyone has a story”.
“Mine’s not very exciting”.
He was one of those people who find it easy to make prolonged eye contact, to look interested in the person they’re talking to. I have never been good at that.
His stare was making me uncomfortable. It was unsettling to be under such scrutiny. I hadn’t looked in the mirror that day but I knew what he was seeing. The deathly-white skin. The rings under my eyes which deepened in colour and depth with every passing day. The bleary eyes. I focussed my gaze on the artwork on the wall. Some of the younger students had drawn pictures. The usual: Houses with white picket fences, Mummy and Daddy. I think I saw a unicorn. Or a deformed horse.
He didn’t look the type to be a drug addict. But, then again, I suppose I didn’t either. Elderly people smile at me on the street. Occasionally men offer me their seat on public transport. I’ve never been dragged out of a gutter. My septum is fine.
They tried to make me go to Rehab and I said no, no, no. Rehab is for people who try to sell their children for heroin. Or people who murder their husbands when they’re high on Meth. Not me.
“Sleeping pills”. I turned to him and looked him in the eye. “It started with sleeping pills. And yeah, I think I have become my addiction. That’s why I’m here, right? You too, I’m guessing.”
He smiled at me sadly.
“Do you like video games?”
“I guess, I don’t play them much. I don’t have a console.”
“That’s going to be your new hobby”.
I grinned. “What makes you think that?”
“You need a new thing. I picked gamer. There aren’t enough girl gamers.”
“I’ll do my best to plug the shortage”.
His lips moved to form a smile. He suddenly moved his chair to straddle it and sat with his arms on the back of it, leaning forward.
“Why did you start taking sleeping pills?”
“I couldn’t sleep”.
“Oh ho ho ho”, he feigned laughter, clutching his stomach for emphasis. There was a pause and he looked at me expectantly.
“I don’t know. I watched too much Bill Hicks over a short space of time and just lost the ability to sleep”.
“Surely Hicks has suffered enough already without you blaming your problems on him”.
“I don’t blame him. If anything I would like to thank him. He woke me up. The only problem was I couldn’t get back to sleep again.”
He cracked another smile. He looked awfully happy for someone at a Narcotic’s Anonymous meeting. It was weird. It was like going into a wake to find the widow telling jokes about horses with long faces walking into bars.
I glanced at the wall clock, the ever-present feature of schools everywhere. Tormentor of the young. I had to stare at it for a minute before I could figure out what time it was. The tiredness was making me stupid. Ten minutes until the meeting began. I guess people don’t like hanging around beforehand.
He raised himself up from his chair, revealing his tallness. Making for the refreshments, he called back to me, “Is this your first meeting?”
“Excellent. I have the honour of introducing you to the special brand of hell that is NA coffee”. He balanced two coffees and a small plate of questionable looking cookies as he drew nearer to me. I wondered who had laid them out. As if reading my mind, he said:
“These are leftovers from the Cancer survivors. They’re on earlier in the evening. They let us have the dregs if we promise to clean up.”
He moved a spare chair between us to use as a makeshift table and set the cups and the plate down on it.
He grinned at me conspiratorially: “Just keep the powdered doughnuts away from the Cokeheads. It invokes a Pavlovian response”.
My mouth fell open somewhere between a laugh and a gasp.
He continued his interview while munching one of the cookies, which had gone soft from being exposed to the air. I didn’t reach for my coffee, my hands had been shaking ever since I stopped taking the sleeping pills and it made grabbing things awkward.
“Are you nervous about your first NA meeting?”
I thought about it for a second.
“I’m not…anything, really. I haven’t slept in about 45 hours. You kind of lose the ability to suffer from nerves.”
“Yikes…how are you still functioning?”
“Your body gets used to it. I’m freezing most of the time and my mind is a bit foggy but I guess it’s the price you pay to get off the stuff”.
“What made you decide to come to NA?”
His coffee was going cold. He reached out for a new cookie and I noticed the edges of some sort of tribal tattoo on his wrist where the sleeve rode up.
“When you re-read ‘Valley of the Dolls’ and no longer find anything wrong with what’s happening it’s probably a bad thing. Plus I figure it will be less traumatic than a Weightwatchers meeting”.
“Never read that one.”
There were footsteps in the hall. A group of three emerged, bundled in large parkas and coats. They shed their layers and strode purposefully toward the circle. They had been here before. One shot me a cursory glance but the others ignored me.
I was glad. It was suddenly a bit real.
He noticed me tense up.
“Don’t worry. No weighing scales here. Just terrible coffee and people on the fringes of society.”
Several more people drifted in from the cold and he rearranged his seat to form the circle. I looked around for the group leader, the voice on the phone who had taken my tearful call and convinced me to come.
He cleared his throat and looked around at the group:
“Good evening, everyone. Nice to see all of you. I see we have a new member so I’d like all of us to introduce ourselves. I’ll start. I’m Marcus and I’m a drug addict. I grew up in foster care and dealt with my problems by burning myself and using glue and painkillers, along with alcohol. I’ve been sober for 5 years. I like video games”.
“Hi, Marcus”, the group echoed. Like schoolchildren in a classroom.
Ropes is available in several bookshops in Galway, or online through the ROPES website.