This post was originally published on February 10, 2015.
“Men with the men, women with the women.” I heard that saying in my first week of attending AA. It sounded like good solid advice. Of course, I ignored it. I had just turned 22 and I was giving up drugs and alcohol for the first time in my life; I wasn’t about to try celibacy too. Everyone I met told me to stay away from bars, clubs and my old friends, so exactly where was I going to meet women? The laundromat?
In the first few months, I spent half of every meeting looking around at the various women in the room. One of the older guys, Tommy, caught my act early. “Stay away from the newcomers,” he said without malice. I nodded.
“Where are you going?” I asked innocently.
“To the Sunset meeting to have coffee with that redhead, Suzie [all names in this piece have been changed],” he replied. I looked at him incredulously. He shrugged his shoulders. “She’s not a newcomer.” The next day I asked him to be my sponsor.
The old timers used to say, “A first date in AA is the equivalent of a fifth step.” I’ve done my share of fifth steps over the years. It’s pretty easy to tell your life story over a plate of spaghetti when the person across from you has demons that rival your own.
I was sober for six months when Monica came into the room. We had gone to grade school together, and done some partying from time to time. I sat next to her and kept the other vultures at bay. I called her every other day for three months before I finally asked her out. She reluctantly agreed. We went out a few times, before she called me up and said, “I can’t do this. I’m not ready.” I was crushed. I went straight to the bar that night—not to drink but to troll for drunk women. I swore that I would never go near another AA girl again. “Shopping in the dented can aisle” is what the old timers called it.
And so began a dating pattern that would last for the next 25 years: date an AA girl, then date a civilian. Then back to AA. Then out in the real world.
I had seen Lori at a few meetings, but I knew she was dating someone, so I never really spoke to her. One night, we passed each other at a hockey game and our eyes locked. It was like a scene from an old black-and-white movie. We met up in the diner after the meeting the next night and talked nervously, like teenagers. I had almost two years; she was coming up on 10 months. Eventually, the conversation came around to the inevitable.
“I have a boyfriend.”
“I have a girlfriend.”
And so began an on-and-off affair that would last the next 15 years, two broken people trying to make themselves feel whole. I broke that girl’s heart more times than the average country song.
Then there was Monica; we had a torrid love affair for one whirlwind summer. It was a glorious time, but by the time September rolled around, it was becoming obvious that she was getting high again. I didn’t mind dating a civilian that drank, but I couldn’t be with someone that was relapsing. I put her on a plane and sent her back to her family in Florida. She never did get sober, and she died of an OD a few years ago. My heart still aches.
I never was one of those guys who went after girls when they were fresh in the door; while the other guys were showering them with attention, I was ignoring them. Of course this works every time.
When I met Roseanne, I was at a local cafe minding my own business. One of the other boys asked her if she wanted a ride home. She pointed at me and said, “He’s driving me.” We talked on the ride home, and she told me flatly, “I’ll have 11 months in a few weeks.” When I arched my eyebrow, she responded, “I know you don’t date girls that have less than a year. I asked around.” We dated for a year. One day she called me and started the conversation with that dreaded phrase, “We need to talk.” I spent the next few weeks on the couch bemoaning my fate and swearing off “dented cans” forever. It was back to the civilian life for me.
But then there was Connie, who had 60 days when I first saw her. She had the face of a model but was a little overweight from excessive drinking. The perfect combo: a beautiful girl with low self-esteem. I ignored her. Of course, she spoke to me first. She asked me some inane question just to break the ice. When I saw her a few weeks later, I didn’t use her name. I said, “Hey, 82!”
She beamed. “How do you know how many days I have?” she asked.
“I pay attention.”
A few months later, I was giving her and her girlfriend a ride home from a meeting. By then, she had lost 30 pounds and was garnering a lot of attention from the amateurs in the rooms. I set the bait. “How are the vultures treating you? Are they circling?”
She took the hook. “Oh, please,” she said. “Are you trying to tell me that you’re any different? I’ve heard about you.”
I stopped the car at the next light and gave her a decidedly paternal glance. “Sweetheart,” I said. “I’m not some vulture. I’m the devil himself.” We dated for about a year. I was becoming a master of the one-year relationship. The end was bitter and nasty. She called me everything from a low-life to a loser to a sonofabitch, she even threatened to hit me with a baseball bat. She wasn’t bluffing. I took it all in without responding. When she called me a 13th stepper, I finally broke my silence.
“Look, you were desperate to date someone when you got here,” I responded. “I just made sure it wasn’t one of the other losers that you could have wound up with.” She fell silent. I haven’t seen or heard from her in seven years, but I did hear that she’s still sober. That makes me happy.
I was in a fairly stable relationship with a civilian that I had known since second grade when I first saw Vanessa. She had about seven months of sobriety and the boys were buzzing her like flies on a fresh pile of horse shit. Of course, I ignored her.
After the meeting, they all fawned over her as she jumped into her black Shelby GT. As I walked by, I made eye contact, said, “Nice wheels” and kept on walking. Minutes later, the phone buzzed in my pocket. The text read: “She thinks you’re hot.” Of course I looked her up on Facebook. Of course, I friended her. Of course I IM’d her and we traded numbers. We circled each other for the better part of two years.
Eventually, I had to tell her to stay away and forget me. We didn’t speak for six months. I howled like a wounded animal when I heard that she was dating someone.
When the relationship I was in came to an end, when the coffee mugs and the CDs were divided, I dropped off my ex and went to every meeting in South Brooklyn looking for her.
That was two years ago. We’ve been together every day since. We’ll probably jump the broom in the spring. When I started to write this article, I called her. “Did I 13th step you?” I asked.
She laughed. “No baby, I just let you think that.”
A woman once accused me of being a predator that goes after women when they’re at their most vulnerable. I said, “No. The guy using a half-gram of coke to try and lure them into the men’s room is getting them at their most vulnerable. Everybody is going to get into a relationship at some point, I just try to make the first one special.” I think she was just mad that I never asked her out.
So cut those 13th steppers a little bit of slack. Sure, there are some predatory scumbags lurking in the rooms, ones that have no desire other than to hit and run. But for the most part, we’re just broken people looking for love and validation. There is nothing more reassuring in early sobriety than to be with someone whose mere presence tells you, “You’re not worthless; if you were, I wouldn’t be here.”
One night, I was hanging out with several of my fellow vultures. One of them was a guy I always called “Slick.” When someone asked him how he got his wife to go out with him, he responded, “I told her, ‘Sleep with me every night and I guarantee you’ll stay sober.’”
They’ve been married 20 years. Sober.