The Meeting by Roberta Kyle
hate her red lipstick. The way it spills over into the tiny wrinkles around her mouth bothers me. Everything about her bothers me--her cropped hair, dyed just the right ash blonde, her neat gray wool sweater, her air of under-stated self-assurance. She must be at least sixty, but she looks good. I watch as she begins to speak.
"My name is Velma," she says, "and I'm an alcoholic."
"Hi Velma," drone several dozen hearty voices in a reflexive litany, like amen at the end of a prayer.
I don't join in the response. The ancient folding chair I'm sitting on is uncomfortable and my nerves are screaming. I look around the room. It's a church basement with grimy walls painted institution green. There's a rostrum, four rows of folding chairs, a giant coffee urn sitting on a battered table, and overhead, a flickering fluorescent light. It's depressing.
I tune out as Velma begins her story. She says she's going to tell us "how it was and how it is now." She's talking about her childhood. This could take forever. She's been talking for five minutes and hasn't even gotten to her first drink yet. I sip softly at my lukewarm coffee-God, how I hate powdered coffee creamer-why can't they just go get a quart of milk? I touch the half empty box of Marlboros in my purse. Knowing they are there gives me a sense of security. Why did I let Jim talk me into coming here? I must have been crazy.
It all started this morning. Jim found a half pint of bourbon in my purse and pitched a fit: Serves him right for rooting around in my purse without asking. I couldn't get it through his head that I don't drink when I'm driving. I just keep a little stash for emergencies. I said of course the kids are safe in the car with me, but Jim was really on a roll, screaming and yelling. Next thing you know he's looked up AA in the yellow pages and is on the phone with some damn woman at their headquarters. Before I know what's happened he's handed the phone to me and I'm saying I'll let Velma pick me up and bring me to a meeting. I only said yes to get Jim off my back. God, this coffee sucks. Why didn't I have a beer before I left home? Just one to coast on would have done the trick. I seem to be sweating. Is it my imagination or are people looking at me?
Listening to Velma is making me uncomfortable. I wish she wouldn't use the word alcoholic. Problem drinker sounds better. An alcoholic is someone who sleeps in doorways. Velma doesn't look like she ever slept in a doorway. A problem drinker is sort of one level up-like me. I work. I function. I'm a wife and mother. I don't drink in the morning, well not unless I have a hell of a hangover, but usually I don't. I bathe. I change my clothes. I pay my bills and I'm a long way from sleeping in doorways. Maybe I lean a little too hard on the booze sometimes, but if you had my life, you'd want a little something to dull the edges too. I can't relate to all this " alcoholic" stuff.
My reverie was broken by wild applause. Velma had finished her story. They passed a collection plate, just like in church. Then somebody announced that there would be a five-minute smoke break. I saw Velma coming my way and nipped out the door to Marlboro country before she could get to me.
There were six of us huddled around a bucket with sand and a bunch of old butts in it. It reminded me of cows under a tree before a rainstorm. I accepted a light from some guy and grooved momentarily on the communal ritual of lighting up. I inhaled down to my toes. Every cell in my body said thank you as the smoke entered my lungs. I smiled at the lighter guy. He smiled back.
"So are you new? " he asked, " Is this your first meeting?"
"First and last, I think I don't really have a problem."
"Oh?" Lighter-Man's eyebrows arched quizzically, inviting me to continue.
"Yeah, my husband thinks I have a problem, which is funny since he's the one working late every night and coming home at God knows what hour stinking of booze. What does he expect me to do after I get the kids fed, bathed and down for the night? I can quit anytime I want to. It's just a bad habit."
Lighter-Man was about to ask me a question when a bell rang. Instead he jabbed his cigarette out in the sand bucket nodded at me and said "C'mon. Meeting's starting up again."
"You go ahead. I want to finish this."
I waved my half-smoked Marlboro at him. I had no intention of going back in for the second half of the meeting. Lighter-Man knew, and I knew he knew, but he didn't say a word. He just shrugged and went back inside. I found a bench by the parking lot and sat in the evening cool, smoking and thinking about the people in that room-all those anonymous alcoholics so full of energy and optimism. I knew Velma would be looking for me, but I didn't care. I kind of wanted to piss her off.
When Velma finally emerged after the meeting, she walked straight towards her car, motioning for me to join her. I hopped into the passenger side and waited. She didn't say a word about me skipping out early. She just handed me a pamphlet called, Is AA for You? and told me she hoped I'd come again. Folded inside the pamphlet was a list of local meetings with the name Velma and a phone number scrawled in pencil across the bottom. I was kind of disappointed. As Velma pulled up in front of my house, I could see lights on in the living room and the flickering shadows of the TV screen.
"Bye Velma," I said, stuffing the pamphlet and meeting list into my purse and jumping out of the car as quickly as I could. "Thanks for taking me. It was really interesting."
"I could pick you up again tomorrow night." It was more of a question than a statement.
"I'm kinda busy tomorrow," I said, "but I'll call you if I want to go."
"Well, good-night then." She nodded and moved the car forward.
"Good-night," I muttered and turned towards the house.
As I trudged up the cracked cement path to the three- bedroom ranch Jim and I call home, a sense of intense loneliness swept over me. It came out of nowhere. A cloak of sadness enveloped me as I turned the key in the front door lock. I shook my head to throw off the feeling. Once inside I called,"I'm home" to Jim and got no answer. I stepped into the living room just as he opened his eyes and sat up. He'd been stretched out on the couch watching TV. Four empty beer cans and a half eaten bag of potato chips covered the coffee table in front of him. I knew what he'd been doing--the lousy hypocrite. Well, at least the kids were in bed.
"Hi honey," he said, reaching into the brown bag beside the couch and pulling out a fresh six-pack of Bud Light. He looked a little sheepish. He had a slight buzz on. I couldn't take my eyes off the beer. I could almost feel the first sip sliding down my throat, soothing my nerves and making my body tingle. Like a cobra watching a mongoose, I stared as Jim expertly disengaged one can from the pack. He smiled his most engaging, salesman's smile and patted the sofa cushion beside him.
"Glad you're back." he said, popping the top off the can and holding it out to me. "Come over here and sit down. I want to hear all about how the meeting was."