Before Emma had talked to him—and it was Emma who had talked to him first—he had seen her in the rooms a couple of times. Of course, he had seen her. She hadn’t been coming very long, but if not exactly beautiful, she was striking. She was tall—taller than him even. Her large, crooked nose jutted out between her sharp cheekbones. Her copper hair fell in one long, straight sheet at her waist. She did not look like the kind of woman that would ever speak to him. He knows this, which is why it is important to note that it is her who speaks to him first. It’s important that you know Greg hadn’t been the one to initiate the conversation. She had. He’s not a predator. He’s just a man trying to do the next right thing when Emma turns to him and asks, “How do you like your coffee?”
“Me?” He checks behind him to see if there was someone else she might be asking. Striking women do not often notice him, let alone talk to him. No one is behind him. “Black.” he says, almost a whisper, not wanting to embarrass himself by replying to a question not meant for him.
Then she stands up and walks away. He scratches his head. Thinks about following her. Is this an invitation or just social awkwardness? Most of the people that come here have long lists of relationship issues—product of or result of the other reasons they come here. Codependency. Narcissism. Jealousy. Sexual Obsession. Abuse. General toxic behaviors. Connection is the opposite of addiction, but even people with a lot of years under their belts still grapple with how exactly to connect with people in a way that doesn’t wholly dismantle them. There is a fine line between connection and obsession when you are a certain kind of person. It is important to be on the right side of this line.
He is walking down the steps into the afternoon sun when he hears his name. He turns, putting his hand over his eyes to block the sun, and there she is, a literal golden sparkle before him.
“Black, right?” Emma is holding out a cup to him.
“Yeah.” He reaches out to take the cup she is offering, and, is it only his imagination, or do her fingers unnecessarily trace his as the cup exchanges hands? “I don’t usually drink the coffee at these meetings. It’s shit.”
She looks into her own cup. Shit. He has already said the wrong thing. Her bottom lip is caught on two long incisors that look more canine than human. Take a deep breath, he thinks. He can hear the voices of people with even more time than him in his head, take a deep breath, regulate your emotions, don’t get lost in your ego.
“Thanks.” Which is what he should have said in the first place.
“What are you doing right now?”
“I don’t know.” A lie. He has a yoga class he normally goes to after, trying to get better at breathing, maybe shed some weight in the process. He knows keeping a routine is important, but his heart is light in his chest at the prospect held in her question.
“I really liked your share.” She steps closer to him, and he looks to see if others are noticing them on the steps. He doesn’t want to be that guy siccing the newcomer, but she is the one giving him the coffee.
“Yeah, well it feels good to share. You know, we’re only as sick as our secrets and all that shit.” Internal cringe. He used to hate when people said these cliché slogans. They come too naturally now. Does he even have an original thought?
“Do you want to go for a walk with me?”
“Are you busy?” She scans his face, and it feels too intense the way her eyes search him, like they might find something he doesn’t want her to see. Like she is trying to peel back his skin and see what’s underneath. Didn’t her mother ever tell her it was rude to stare? He feels his pupils swell and dilate.
“Sure, I mean, no I’m not busy. A walk sounds nice.” His eyes meet hers, and he thinks of the word piercing. “It’s Emma, right?”
“Yeah.” She is still smiling, and he cannot tell if the lines cupping her lips are wrinkles or dimples, but he imagines his fingers would fit into their folds nicely either way. So much for yoga, for keeping routine.
Across the street, he falls in step beside her. It is 12pm on a Friday in Oakland. Everything smells like weed and sun and something metallic like dried blood or sweat on rust-worn metal. He doesn’t ask where they are going, but they head towards the park. She is sipping her coffee and between sips she quotes things he doesn’t remember saying in his share. Warm coffee sloshes over the edge of his cup and dribbles down his fingers. They pass a fence lined with tarps and tents and wood pilings. It reeks of discarded bodies, and he tries not to step on needles or broken glass. A man is crouched down outside a tent fiddling with aluminum foil and a woman wobbles past them with glass eyes and a bloated belly.
He forgets sometimes that the world of his meetings is in such close proximity to the world that almost swallowed him. This park embodies temptation and despair through hyperbole, and he thinks maybe this is why some people don’t come back to meetings. It really is not a nice place for a walk, but they find a clean enough picnic table in the sun away from the oak tree enclosure where the tents are shaded.
“It’s just like, even though I’m not using anymore,” she is saying, the words rushed as though she can’t get them out fast enough, “I have all these other addictions, like it’s my default mode—obsession. That’s what I really liked about what you were saying, about how we have to reset our default, how it isn’t just about not using whatever substance.” She takes a breath and, in the sunlight, her hair is flames engulfing her pale face.
He feels a jolt of something warm and electric inside him hearing his words in her mouth, the same mouth that only minutes earlier had held his name, and he wishes that he’d taken a shower this morning, that he wasn’t wearing his same old stained hoodie, but what does it matter? He shouldn’t be concerned with what she thinks of him. That’s not what this is about. A thought from the archive of his mind beckons to be heard—a platitude most likely—something about the danger of desiring approval from others—something about lust, maybe—but he isn’t listening. He is lost in the flames around this woman, Emma, the sharp angles and pink lips that they surround.
On the bench, immersed in the scent of bile and urine and dead grass, they move quickly from meeting jargon to talk of their favorite foods (they both loved tacos!) to talk of embarrassing sexual encounters in one seamless swoop that in other circles might be socially unacceptable, but for people who are used to talking about bottoms, taking stock of every terrible thing they’ve ever done in an attempt to find something like peace, it is not so weird.
His—peeing the bed beside countless one-night stands. Though, he hadn’t actually ever had a one-night stand and he hears the words rigorous honesty chiming in his brain as the lie falls from his lips. There was that desire to impress again, and sure, peeing the bed next to a naked woman you don’t know isn’t exactly impressive, but it was better than the truth which was that his using days had rendered him essentially without control of his bodily functions, including getting it up, and so mostly he had peed the bed beside co-dependent girlfriends he no longer had sex with who were most likely getting it from someone else.
Hers—on multiple occasions, vomiting mid-fellatio. As she tells him all the pukey details all he can think of is her thin lips exposing those sharp teeth, an erect cock, his cock. Thrilling to imagine it so dangerously close to those teeth—not exactly pleasurable, but exhilarating nonetheless, to conjure her hot breath on so many nerve endings.
He shouldn’t be thinking about his cock in her mouth. That’s not what this is about. This is about recovery. Two addicts helping each other stay sober. She is the one who brought him the coffee, suggested the walk, and he knows he is not his thoughts.
An hour passes, their unfinished coffees growing cold between them. When had it ever been so easy to talk to someone? Does she feel it too? The ease? The encroaching despair at the prospect of parting?
Things progress at an alarming rate after that first cup of shitty coffee. They occur at a dopamine-seeking-junkie sort of speed, and Greg knows he knows better than to give into the desiring machine that is his nature. Things that feel too good are gateways for other things that feel too good and then leave you feeling terrible. Hollowed out. A shell. There are millions of mantras he could pull from. Eight years and he is not without techniques to evade this kind of trajectory, but something inside of him pulses with aliveness. He can feel his heart beating. Really beating. How many times has his heart beat without him noticing?
In the evening, after they shared coffee at the park, she sends a picture of random bathroom graffiti that reads A god-shot is finding a public restroom in Oakland with the toilet seat still intact. He wishes she would send a picture of herself. He is already forgetting what she looks like and doesn’t want her face to take on a different shape than it actually is. He wants to send her something clever, but he is making noodles in a Styrofoam cup. He doesn’t want things to feel imbalanced. He takes a picture of his noodles steaming on his tiny kitchen table. She writes back Aww, wish I was there to share. He doesn’t text her back. He is too worried he will say something that will make her glad she isn’t there. Later, she sends a picture of dinner prep, what looks like soup of some kind, and they text until it is late about stupid things like what they are eating and how they spent their day since parting.
It is early the next morning when she calls him. Her voice is still tired with sleep and sounds different than when they were in the park less than 24 hours prior. He is in bed when he answers, and her voice bringing him to consciousness feels like something unrelated to recovery. He thinks this might not be in either of their best interest, but it feels too good, and he hasn’t had his coffee yet and what if she really needs his voice to stay sober and so he listens, but she never mentions wanting to pick up or feeling like her sobriety is at risk. She tells him about her dream. She asks if he is free at lunch for another call.
When they hang up, he texts her and says Some people don’t think men and women should talk in early sobriety.
I don’t believe in patriarchal bullshit.
Just wanted to make sure you are ok with us talking.
She doesn’t text back right away, and he thinks maybe she has changed her mind. He should stop. People are vulnerable.
Nearly eight hours pass before she texts him again.
Sorry for the late response. Shit day. At least I’m sober, right? Still wanna talk?
He doesn’t even reread what she wrote before typing a reply, sure, when?
I’ve missed you. Does now work?
A habit begins to form. In the mornings they talk for hours. When he calls, she says “Hi, Greg,” and he is lost in the sound of his name inside her mouth. Suddenly it will be the middle of the day, and one of them has somewhere they have to be—usually him, a meeting, and he feels halfway like not going, but in the back of his mind he hears old advice, something from before he started going to meetings. Don’t break more than one law at a time. He thinks this can apply to his current situation, though he hasn’t done anything wrong by talking to Emma, not exactly, he knows that not going to a meeting is breaking a second law, so he lets his heart break a little each day by getting off the phone.
Afterwards, she texts him or he texts her and even though he can no longer hear her voice, her presence is palpable. Their experiences of the day are shared through small colored text boxes. His phone takes on new meaning. Its vibration in his pocket or on the crate beside his bed an endless potential for the dopamine rush that is her name on the screen. When they are not talking, he is thinking of her. It is as though she is a limb that has been removed from his body, and he needs to stitch her back to him.
He has tried to look her up online, but she doesn’t exist there, at least not in a way that is easy for him to find. He doesn’t have much to go by. First name only. A reference to the college where she earned her degree. He cannot picture her life happening somewhere else in this city.
It is a week since they first talked. He is walking up the steps to the meeting where they met. He has not seen her at another meeting though he has gone to one every day. In all the hours he spent talking with Emma in the last week, he has not asked her if she will be at the Friday meeting where they first met. He has not asked to meet again in-person and he feels an unspoken line is drawn between their talking and their sitting in the same room together, like she is the one who needs to invite him, like he cannot ask without exposing something about himself.
His legs feel heavy as he walks into the room. He grabs a cookie and it turns to dust in his mouth. He sits down in one of the foldable metal chairs with an empty one beside it in case Emma shows.
During the meeting a man with a tattoo on his neck and skin that sags on his small frame speaks for fifteen minutes. People are literally on the edges of their seats. Laughter. A collective sigh. Applause. Then people are responding. It all must have been very moving.
Greg tries not to be too obvious in his looking at the door. He is here to listen to these people, to see himself in their stories, but every few seconds he sees movement at the front door, a trick of his eyes mostly.
It is 12 minutes before the end of the meeting when Emma shows up. He has not forgotten what she looked like, but she is more beautiful than he had remembered.
She sits down in an empty seat by the door and listens to a woman talking about how happy she is now that she is sober. Emma is leaned forward in her seat, eyes steady on the speaker, listening as though what this woman is saying is the most captivating thing she has ever heard. Not once does she scan the room looking for him.
Maybe the last week was a dream. Maybe Emma’s body hasn’t been vibrating with need the way his has. This can happen. Two people encountering the same event and experiencing it differently. It is easy to let your mind get carried away by a wave of emotion, to let it drift into the imaginary. This is what they mean in meetings when they say emotional sobriety, why it was so important to stay right-sized, get grounded, have a routine. Day dreaming is dangerous.
After the meeting people are folding chairs and finding one another for embraces and conversation. Greg stays on the perimeter not wanting to be dragged into an embrace or conversation with any of these people though he knows that is what he is here to do. Connection is the opposite of addiction. He has lost sight of Emma and wonders if he had hallucinated her into existence. He has not thought of what he might do if Emma didn’t come.
He knows that sound. It is the sound he has wanted all along. His name inside Emma’s mouth. When he looks over his shoulder she is there, two cups of coffee in hand.
At the picnic table in the park, he cannot smell the body rot of Oakland. The world is cast in gold and Emma is glowing before him, her stormy eyes locked on his. The world beyond their gaze exists out of focus. She has been crying. She keeps covering her mouth with her palm as if trying to hold in whatever thoughts are churning and he cannot see her teeth. She is saying she can no longer stay at the house where she lives. She shakes her head and stares and says she needs to get out but doesn’t know where to go. What should she do?
“I have a spare bedroom,” he says, though it is more of a closet, “if you need a temporary place. Just for now or whatever.” It isn’t exactly weird to be offering this room. He has done it before. The next right thing. Years ago someone had done it for him too. A group of men from his first meeting. They had picked him up in the middle of withdrawals. He was living with two friends who are no longer friends. The men had picked him up, told him to pack a bag, to come with them. He can’t remember what he put in his backpack only that it hadn’t been the things he’d needed. Now he is doing what was done for him.
The first couple of days that Emma lives in his apartment are not exactly the type of days he thought they might be. In all their time spent on the phone with one another, he sometimes imagined her in the apartment beside him. Maybe they would cook a meal together, something like the one with all those ingredients she had neatly chopped in that second picture she’d sent him. Maybe they would play cards or scrabble like two people who have nothing but a life ahead of them to share.
In reality, she does not speak much, and while she stares out his window, presumably thinking about the life she just left or the future one she might have, he realizes he really doesn’t know her. He wishes he could crack open her mind and see what is inside of it.
On her first night there, she doesn’t want to eat dinner together. She just wants to sleep, she says, and so he sets her up in the spare bedroom that isn’t really a spare bedroom, but is a largish storage closet where he keeps a futon and where others like her, well, not exactly like her, but more like him, have stayed on occasion. This unfolding of events on her first night should not be a disappointment to Greg. He is not meant to be privately obsessing over an unreality that is some future he was beginning to imagine between him and Emma. This is emotional sobriety, and it is necessary to physical sobriety. Living in the now, the real, the not fake future of your obsessive mind, is paramount to actual sobriety.
Shortly after he has gone to his own room for bed, he hears the creaking of wooden floors in his apartment. A sliver of light creeps in from his bedroom door opening. Before his eyes can adjust to the change in light, he feels Emma slip into his bed beside him. Her body is pointy and warm, and he can feel her hot breath on the back of his neck when she says she can’t sleep alone and asks if she can just hold him. He lets her hold him. Nothing else happens, but also, this is everything, to be held by another person in the darkness of night. It is enough.
In the morning, she is out of bed before him. He wonders if he has imagined her beside him, but her breath on his neck is too real in his memory to be just his imagination. He finds Emma staring out the kitchen window. She seems sad, mopey, like maybe she regrets coming into his room, into his house, but it was her who decided to come. She is not being held against her will, and here she is, staring out the window, still in his apartment, when she could just as easily have walked out the front door and never returned.
A great relief is that even though she doesn’t have much to say, she does not like being alone. She asks him to sit with her. Sometimes they sit at the table both looking out his window together—him thinking about when she will talk to him like before and her thinking about he doesn’t know what. They go for walks in the afternoon, and she looks over her shoulder a lot. At night he turns on the tv, and they sit on the couch staring at the screen, the sliver of space between where their shoulders do not meet is a hot living thing pressing up against him.
When it is late, she goes to her room and he goes to his, but he cannot close his eyes. His heart is in his ears and he can feel the empty space next to him like a dangerous thing. He wonders if she will replace this space with her own body, wrap her limbs around him and hold him. He hears the creaking of the wood floors and soon enough he can breathe normal again. Her body is back beside him, the emptiness no longer empty.
It is early one morning less than a week since she has moved in. She has not yet woken up and left him. Their bodies are still existing as one when a knock comes from his front door. He doesn’t want to leave Emma, but the knocking continues, and no one is ever knocking on his door, so he stands from the bed, careful not to wake her, and walks down the hall towards the front door. When he opens it, a tall girl is standing there looking past him into his apartment.
“Is my mom here?” she asks.
He rubs his eyes and takes the girl in, she is gangly and her cheeks are on fire, “I’m sorry. I think you have the wrong apartment.”
But the girl has wedged her long foot into the door frame and does not look like she is going anywhere. She is not so much a girl as she is a young woman. 15. Maybe 16.
“I know my mom is in there. Let me talk to her.”
“Look,” he begins to say, but tears are now streaming down the girl’s face, and he never knows how to speak in front of tears. Then she screams, “MOOOOOOM!!!” and Greg stumbles backwards as if the force of her cry has pushed him.
The girl screams again, and he feels for his phone in his pocket, but he is wearing sweats with no pockets and he doesn’t know what he would do with the phone anyway.
“Liz?” a voice from inside his apartment. It is Emma. She is calling this screaming girl Liz and running towards her, and for a moment, he thinks she will land full force into the thin girl, knocking her to the ground, but instead she is wrapping herself around this girl, and they are both crying and he sees it, two sheets of red hair (though the girl’s is muddier), bony bodies, stormy gray eyes, razor cheeks, sharp teeth. These women are all hard edges.
It takes Emma less than five minutes to leave Greg’s apartment. She does it without speaking to Greg, without even looking at him, and he feels as though he has violated her in some way and should say sorry, but instead he just watches, mouth agape, as she closes the door behind her.
She is gone. His apartment is the quietest it has ever been. He holds his hands clasped together, and his fingers caress each other as though he can pretend they belong to someone else and it isn’t him holding his own hand.
© Shelby Hinte
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty. Read Shelby’s interview]