It’s about like I expected, this place. Run-down building, fluorescent lights, cheap plastic chairs, a carpet resplendent with mysterious stains. People refilling flimsy styrofoam cups from pump-driven cisterns of coffee.

As things get underway I strive for a position of relaxed, attentive listening, but my body language betrays me. My crossed legs and folded arms tell the room what everyone already probably knows: I’m in unfamiliar territory. I’m closed off like a clamshell, physically uncomfortable with the talk of God and power and the odd group response to certain phrases. It reminds me of church, or maybe like a less-raucous midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

I’m surreptitiously eyeballing everyone in the room and my eyes feel hot and prick with self-pity as I decide I don’t belong here, not with these people. Not on this shitty chair, in this shitty place with the shitty overhead lighting.

One by one, people start talking. Hi, Bob! People tell things. Hi, Jessica! I’m doing something awkward and jittery with the strings of my sweatshirt, twisting them over and over around my fingers, like the hair-twirling habit I had as a kid.

Hi, Matt!

Jail, restraining orders, public urination, divorce. Rock bottoms, and the shovels people used to keep digging. Stories pour through the room and are held aloft by nods and murmurs.

90 days. 2 weeks. 20 years.

A woman haltingly describes how she was at a party, her first as a nondrinker. She says she couldn’t dance; she tried, but felt self-conscious. “I used to love dancing,” she says quietly.

Even in gain, there is loss. I know this.

At the end everyone stands and the two people on either side of me reach out to clasp my hands and everyone says something in unison, a prayerlike something, and this part I hate, oh god, I do not want to be standing there holding someone’s goddamned hand, and afterwards I rush to my car and wipe my palm on my jeans, no one said anything about holding hands.

All day long I can still hear those people’s stories. They’re moving around inside of me somehow. I’m a gusty house that is both too empty and too full, ghost voices echoing through the halls.

Anonymous room, anonymous faces. Where everyone has one thing, that shameful thing I don’t ever want to talk about, in common. Where nothing I could have possibly said would have been met with contempt.

I imagine talking to those people. Telling them anything I want. I imagine unspooling, breaking open. I think how if that happened, I couldn’t put myself back together again in quite the same way.

My hand itches at the memory of a stranger’s touch. I don’t know what it takes to reach out—across all the space I’ve surrounded myself with—and grab hold.


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