Old at Twenty-Four
I go with Charlie to AA because I’m trying to be a good friend. But if I’m going to be honest with myself, I’m also chasing an idea of the two of us. That we can reclaim what was lost four years ago. When we were so young and ignorant.
He gave me a joint to smoke the other night in his cousin’s basement.
Shelia doesn’t care? I asked.
Shelia is his mom’s cousin who allowed Charlie to live in her basement when his own parents couldn’t deal with his drinking anymore. With cops showing up at the house at 2 am. With blackout episodes followed by mornings of vomit on their already vomit-colored living room carpet. With utter obliviousness to the hurtful exchanges the night before. You don’t call your mom a manipulative bitch, Charlie. You just don’t. With cluelessness as to how the vase that was given to his mother as a wedding anniversary gift broke in half.
She’s asleep, but she wouldn’t care anyway. She doesn’t seem to give a shit about me. Sometimes, I feel like you’re the only one who really does.
If I smoke and I’m not in the best mindset, I’ll just start crying. Everything will seem bigger and uglier. Everything is just the worst. I think it was then when I told him I wanted to eventually be with him. Eventually.
Not now, obviously, I said. Just, you know, when things are sorted out.
Sorted out? Em, I don’t even know how I feel. I can’t even think right now.
Two hours later, we sunk into the old, grey couch that had cushions wrapped in an uncomfortable plastic. Quiet and drained. Our faces were so close to touching.
You’re just saying things because you feel overwhelmed, I told him.
He took my hand in his. Squeezed it and dropped it.
I like to tie things up in pretty bows. If there was another truth deep down somewhere, I didn’t want to find out.
The meeting is held in a small room in the back of a presbyterian church. Twenty folding chairs form a circle, and a table in the corner holds two red boxes of chocolate chip cookies and paper cups for water.
I haven’t had these cookies since I was a kid, Charlie says.
Same. I always liked the red box more. More gooey.
The orchestrator of the meeting introduces himself as Bill. Bill from the Bronx. Bill has a wife and two kids and is now living in a suburb of Boston. He appears to be in his mid-forties. He’s slightly balding with metal-framed glasses. His black flannel shirt is loosely tucked into his blue jeans. He looks average. I glance around the circle and note that everyone here looks average. Nobody is homeless. Nobody has their hair falling out or their teeth missing. Nobody is in desperate need of deodorant or a shower, reeking of booze. Nobody seems broken.
Right after my sixteenth birthday, Charlie messaged me online and asked me out.
It would be a date, he matter-of-factly stated. Hah! As if our ongoing flirtations and late night conversations were indicative of anything platonic.
I recall the journal entry I scribbled down that read something like: Finally, it’s mutual! I really like him. He really likes me. He asked me out on a date! Too excited to sleep!
I didn’t have my license yet, so my mom drove me to the movie theatre for our 7pm meeting time. My mom glanced out at Charlie, who was standing outside waiting for me, his caramel brown hair gelled back, his face shaven clean.
Ohhh, he’s cute, my mom cooed.
My cheeks were rosy; I was sure of it. My stomach felt slightly queasy. I had her drive around the block two more times.
Bill hands out a piece of paper with a prayer on it.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference
Everyone reads the text in silence. All I can think of is sharing a tub of buttery popcorn on our first date and my sweaty, slippery hand in his and the wacky butterflies swirling around inside my chest.
Over the course of our four-year relationship, we never quite talked about marriage. It was too premature, too taboo, we thought. But occassinsaly, we’d indulge in what could be. We’d turn 25 and be situated in our careers (I wanted to write for Seventeen Magazine, he wanted to be a clinical psychologist). We’d go around saying we’re engaged. We’d get married on a beautiful beach at sunset (maybe a small ceremony in the Caribbean?) and honeymoon in Venice. We’d make promises to each other we’d want to keep.
I’m Julie, and I’ve been an alcoholic for two years now. My sister cut me out of her life. I lost my five year-old niece at the aquarium. I went into a bar nearby, and my niece…she was all by herself. She pauses and takes a deep breath in. I have so many stories like this.
Julie begins to cry softly. An older woman named Betsy wraps her arm around Julie’s shoulder.
The two years after we broke up were deemed “The Lost Years.” He blocked all forms of contact. He dated Anna, a girl he met through his new friend group. And if that wasn’t hard enough, she was a beautiful sociology major with long, flowing auburn hair. She looked like a mermaid and was kind of reserved. I’m pretty enough and surely attune to the compliments on my big bright blue eyes and feminine curves. I’m kind of intense, though, and I figured she was less complicated than me.
I once saw them together outside of a Walmart, and I nearly threw up on the spot. They didn’t notice me.
My drinking began as a way to relax. I was stressed out because I was living in a house where my parents hated each other. I saw some dark stuff in that house. Stuff I don’t wanna go into.
I look at Charlie as he speaks. At the lines etched on his forehead. At his hands slightly trembling; the right a little more than the left. A silver bracelet clings to his right wrist. I think it used to be his father’s.
And then it just kind of unraveled. My last girlfriend, Anna, saw it all. I never laid a hand on her, though, there were times where it got a little too close to that.
I study him again. If I look really hard, of course I still see the sixteen year-old Charlie. But life doesn’t stop at sixteen.
My grandfather was a drunk. Even when he stopped drinking. But I’m here today, just looking to help myself. One step at a time.
Right before my twentieth birthday, Charlie began to stray; he was drinking more and going out with new friends and being secretive. We fought a lot. Sometimes, we’d muse how neighbors must hear our screams in the night. As if we were wounded cats or wild animals battling it out in nature’s jungle.
Two days after we broke up, he sent me an email in place of answering my incessant, desperate phone calls.
So, don’’t you see, Emily? We didn’t really fail. We shared life. Love. Friendship. Maybe one day in the distant future, we will cross paths again. But for now, we’ll go our separate ways. So here’s to us, to four wonderful years. We did it.
I wanted to hurl my computer out the window; I wanted the machine to break into microscopic pieces that would get lost in a humongous pile of autumn leaves. Instead, my mom had to lift me up off my bedroom floor, my tears dissolving into the lavender rug. I felt pretty lost till spring.
Thanks for sharing back there, Charlie, Bill says. People mingle with one another post-meeting, as if it was cocktail hour minus the cocktails. Okay, maybe now’s not the time for dark humor, I think to myself. And then I hear my name and divert my attention to their conversation.
Emily’s the one who encouraged me to come.
Bill smiles, resting his hands in his pockets. I notice the gold band on his ring finger. I wonder if his wife goes to sleep at night praying that he won’t relapse.
Aw, well, you seem like a sweet couple.
Charlie and I quickly glance at one another.
Oh. We’re just friends, Charlie matter-of-factly states.
I think of my mom driving me around the block two additional times. I think of our buttery fingers. I think of a wedding at the beach at sunset. I think of my lavender rug. I think of Walmart. I think of the serenity prayer.
Yes. Just friends, I echo.
And for the first time, I actually mean it.