Fiction: Sinners Anonymous
By Ash Ibrahim
The First Meeting
The first time I saw her, she asked me if I was new to the meeting. She rubbed her elbows, her eyes darting about the dingy, sweat-soaked gym we called our safe place. Pretty, with long cornrow hair reaching the small of her back, she didn’t belong there. Nobody did.
“Been here on and off,” I lied. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I hadn’t missed a meeting in fifteen years. That doesn’t mean I’m sober. No one ever “is” sober, like they’ve scaled sobriety’s summit and planted their victory flag. Anyone who’s been to the base camp of epektasis would know that. But I didn’t climb that night. I didn’t even try—just to keep functioning for the meeting or else I’d show up like a wrecking ball. I did it for their sake, I told myself.
She didn’t say anything during the meeting, staring instead at the double-door entrance as if it would burst the dream. If her right leg bounced faster, she’d drill straight through the floor.
I expected her to leave right after the meeting, but she stayed for coffee, alone at first, then she came to me. I didn’t know why she decided to talk to me. It wasn’t for my charisma or handsomeness, that’s for sure. More likely she sniffed out the person most broken person in the room.
“My first time here,” she said, not making eye contact.
“Yeah, it can be intimidating.”
“I heard about this meeting. They said it was different.”
“Some things are different, I suppose.”
“Why do they lock the doors?”
“It’s a private meeting, so it’s only locked from the inside. You can leave anytime you want if you’re worried about that.”
She hesitated and glanced at the door. “I don’t really care anymore. I don’t really care about anything.”
I’d heard that before—a marker on the descent to rock bottom. She wasn’t there yet, though. I sipped sweetened black sludge in a styrofoam cup and stayed silent.
“I also heard the counselor here is different,” she said.
“I don’t know. I haven’t gone to these meetings before.”
“Guess you’ll have to find out for yourself.” I nodded toward the counselor making his way over.
She panicked and bolted toward the door, spilling her coffee all over me. I called out as she left, but the clatter of her apologies and running heels on the parquet floor drowned me out. Shocked, I held the cold coffee, trying to make sense of what happened. By the time I realized she had fled without her handbag on the coffee table, she was long gone.
The Second Meeting
To my surprise, she returned the following week, this time wearing white sneakers that clearly didn’t fit her fish-net stockings, suede mini and biker jacket. Her hoop earrings bounced as she took a chair during the meeting—the same one from last week facing the double doors. Sitting on her hands, she showed me no recognition, fixing her attention instead on the counselor, her right leg still jack hammering through the floor.
He spoke for most of the meeting. I couldn’t understand him, too distracted by his kaleidoscopic eyes addressing me as if I were the only person in the room. How did he do that? They hung as two blue, cloud-covered marbles in deep space mesmerizing, hypnotizing, paralyzing. Though I didn’t make out his words, they engulfed me and suspended me in warm nothingness.
I didn’t fight his out-of-body embrace. I sank further into my chair, closed my eyes and succumbed entirely to him. Floating, I dreamt of my dad, except in my dream he was the counselor. I sat on his lap and obsessed over every illustration on the first page of my children’s bible—Genesis, the story of creation. Was it a genetic memory? I couldn’t have been older than three.
When I opened my eyes, everyone was already at the coffee table. Flushed, I meandered over and poured myself the dregs of the coffee pot. I glanced around to see if she was there, but she had left. All the better, I thought to myself, given that I hadn’t figured out how to return her handbag, which I had forgotten to bring to the meeting anyway.
“Hello, Mr. Brownstone. Wake up from your nap?”
Simon. Simon the Sober. Simon the Sanctimonious. Simon the Smug. It wouldn’t be a meeting without Simon’s sultry self-righteousness.
“Hello, Simon.” My eyes searched for the counselor—anyone—for help. No one noticed or cared.
“Your friend was here for a while, but you slept through it.”
“From last week? The only one that ever talks to you.”
“You’re talking to me.”
“Am I? Do you think this is a conversation? I’m only talking to you to let you know you failed your friend—or whatever she is to you, a tramp clearly—because you preferred your own head over everyone else. She stayed for a while then left when nobody talked to her.”
“Why didn’t you talk to her?”
“Please. I’ve been sober for over twenty years. I’m not getting sucked into that world again.”
I force a laugh, knowing it would irritate him. “So why are you are, among us tramps and vampires? Isn’t this a support group, or are you only on the giving side because you don’t need any support? Some support you are!”
I knew I hit a nerve from the scowl pressed on his face and disdain shooting from his eyes. I smiled to dig the dagger in deeper. He threw up his hands and stormed off in counterpoint.
As I watched the predator retreat, the counselor put his arm on my shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Even he’ll come around. Eventually.”
The Third Meeting
She didn’t return for a few months. I blamed myself for her absence, my guilt metastasizing with every missed meeting, with Simon, smug as ever beside the counselor, feeding the tumor. Yet, I kept coming, waiting for intravenous hope to set in, to bring out the sun. It never did.
Then, just as unexpectedly as she first arrived, she reappeared. She sat in the same chair, her eyes darker and more sunken. Ripped jeans and a frayed hoodie, stained from concrete nights, replaced the suede and leather from the last time I saw her. She savored the counselor’s every word, this time with her foot planted on the floor.
I resolved not to stare at her, not to make her feel uncomfortable, so I focused on the counselor. He spoke with the intensity of a roaring fire punctuated by deep crackling, yet wrapped in a gentle and earnest tone. When I focused on his face, I basked in a sublime aura—simmering heat waves and radiating luminosity, all emanating from his visage. I kept my composure and nodded to hide my dilated eyes.
“This isn’t a twelve-step program. This isn’t a support group. This isn’t a counseling session. Those things are all balms, not the cure. They bandage the wound, not heal it. They’re crutches, not rehabilitation. They’ve all failed you. Some have even taken advantage of you, like thieves and robbers. They aren’t truth or reality. They don’t care for you as I do.”
The room spun. I gripped the sides of my chair until I could no longer feel my fingertips.
“I know you’re all here because of your pain. Some of you face it, while others hide it. You struggle with it, succumb to it, then start over in a cycle that burrows deeper into your soul until there is nothing left, only death. I know. I know too well, more than you know yourself.”
Nausea overwhelmed me. I couldn’t vomit here, not in front of her.
“But there is a cure. There’s healing and rehabilitation. There’s life that overcomes death. There’s rebirth, renewal and recreation. Death is foreign to you. Expel it and take me in. I am life. Accept your rebirth and recreation. Grasp the newness of life. Shed off your old skins and put on—”
I ran to the bathroom and tumbled into the nearest stall, heaving. What was he saying? Had he been spouting this drivel all along? Fifteen years of attendance, and not once had I heard anything like this. Or was I not listening? Why wasn’t anyone else saying anything?
Never had I experienced anything so vivid before, so raw and intense. The reality of the experience seared its imprint into my head with convincing clarity, as a vision that dispelled any notion of hallucination. I had gazed into the burning eyes of truth itself.
Time drifted in the stall—for how long I couldn’t tell. By the time I cleaned myself up and returned to the gym, the locked double doors announced everyone had already left.
The Fourth Meeting
I slept the entire week, if one could call it that, in between fits of vomiting, cold sweats and nightmares. My medication would have helped, but I couldn’t bear to take anything. I preferred this pain over deception.
As much as I persuaded myself to skip the meeting, I surrendered to the compulsion to see him again. And her. Armed with some candy to ease the queasiness, I waded into the gymnasium with manufactured cheer and sat in my usual spot.
She was there. Her disfigured face, covered in running makeup that barely covered cuts, bruises and filth peeking through her long hair. Last week’s clothes, more tattered and stained, covered her body. She leaned in as the counselor spoke, breathing his every word, oblivious to the world around her.
My eyes welcomed her, hoping to block Simon’s scornful gaze. She cared for neither, consumed instead by the counselor—the rhythmic movement of his lips and hands, the sympathetic tilt of his neck, the reassuring flow of his body. I didn’t focus on what he said. Not again.
After the meeting, I grabbed a cup of coffee and rushed to her, tripping over myself as I made my way to the corner of the coffee table where she stood alone.
“Hey, you forgot your handbag. I kept it for you,” I said. That was the best I could say after months.
“From, um, a few meetings ago. Here it is.”
“That’s not mine.”
“Oh. Are you sure?”
She looked at me with a compassion that evaporated into fear, as if I was trying to scam her, or worse. But before I could react, she grabbed the handbag and scurried off, leaving me wondering. Maybe if I had been more lucid, I’d have come up with something better to say. Something comforting and compassionate. Or maybe she wasn’t here for me at all.
“You can’t do this to yourself,” he said with that gentle and low voice etched into my brain.
“The coffee? Yeah, that’s a killer alright.”
“You know what I mean.”
I turned around to face him. The black liquid in my coffee cup rippled in my quivering hands.
“I’ve already forgiven you,” he said. “Now forgive yourself and everything will follow. I haven’t given up on you, even if you’ve given up on yourself.”
The words slapped me in the face. I closed my eyes and wept, gripping the styrofoam cup, which somehow withstood the onslaught from my clenched fists. Visceral sobs erupted from deep within—sobs I didn’t know I had—but I squeezed my eyelids shut with all my energy. I didn’t want to look at him. I couldn’t.
I felt his hands on mine, steadying them. Warmth and comfort gushed into my body, filling me until I could no longer contain them. My eyelids burst open and I gasped, a newborn’s first lung full of air.
He was gone. I looked at the remnants of my coffee cup. The styrofoam had now contained a deep burgundy liquid that I would’ve guessed was wine, except when I drank, what greeted me was something far more refreshing and satisfying—the taste of crisp, clean water to a parched mouth.
I needed more.
The Fifth Meeting
I arrived early the following meeting, having practiced what I would say should fate permit us to talk again. Yet fate showed no such mercy.
I sat on the chair she preferred, the one facing the double doors. That way, I would be the first to see her as she came looking for her spot. I guarded the seat next to me, hoping the others would fill up so she would sit beside me. They didn’t.
The meeting started without her. Staring at the double doors in anticipation, my stomach rebelled from anxiety and mistreatment. I knew she would come. I knew it with an irresistible certainty, propelling me into hope. Where did that hope come from? It changed something within me, not like the hope I bought from the streets or the hope I found at recovery meetings. Both sold me deceptions—the one whispering everything was going to be OK when everything was falling apart, and the other lecturing me that everything was going to be OK when I put everything back together.
I glanced at the counselor. He poured his attention on the group, lingering over me and the empty seat beside me. His eyes toppled time and locked with mine in an amber-soaked moment of joy, announcing the wait was nearly over. Then Simon the Sanctimonious shattered the encasement with fits of drivel from his mouth like a ventriloquist’s dummy. I turned back to the door and counted the seconds backward.
For a second, I glanced back at the counselor. His eyes darted to the gym doors as if something was coming. I flinched and, without warning, the gym shook when she exploded through the doors and tumbled straight to the counselor, right at his feet. Horrified, I jumped out of my chair to help her up, but he waved me off and instead leaned in from his chair and put his hands on her shoulders. She bawled, weeping with uncontrollable sobs and a deluge of tears, and buried her head in his faux leather shoe uppers, muffling her cries. Embarrassment and fluid all flooded out of her mascara-stained face right on him as he stroked her hair.
The sight of her self-emptying at his feet shamed me. I was no better than her—far worse, in fact—yet I sat in my chair on the same level as everyone else, pretending my hypocrisy away. I yearned to be there with her, to be honest for once, and pour it all before him. Instead, I remained glued to my chair.
She then crawled behind his chair without a word and wiped her stains off his feet with her hair and clothes. With no hint of shame, she rubbed, polished, licked, kissed and doted over every spot on his shoes, socks and feet as if adoring them. Then she pulled out an ornate perfume flask from her handbag—the same one I had retrieved earlier—and soaked him in fragrance. The gym fogged in the thickness of that aroma and all I could do was gape at the spectacle.
“What are you doing?” I heard Simon the Self-Righteous complaining in the distance, not wanting to leave the fragrant fog. “Look at her! I wouldn’t let her touch me with a ten-foot pole looking like that. Lord knows where she’s been and who she’s been with!”
He then looked at the counselor. “And you? Are you loving this drama? How can you say nothing? What about the hard recovery we’re all working on now? No one needs this distraction!”
He spewed more of the same vile, but the counselor focused only on her as if she were the only soul that mattered in all eternity. When Simon wouldn’t relent, he said, “She had a lot to give, Simon, from what she received. What have you given?
Simon scowled at him, interrupted only by her sobs and perfume sprays.
That was the last time she attended the meeting.
And the last time I saw the counselor alive.
The Sixth Meeting
“What do you mean, he’s dead?” I shouted at the following meeting. Clarity of mind brought with it undiscovered pain, though I didn’t expect this. Not at all.
Simon sat in the counselor’s chair.
“Yeah, they called me yesterday. I’m the new counselor now.”
“How did he die?”
The ringing in my ears amplified the pulsating waves of pain.
I didn’t make out what Simon was saying as his mouth moved. Open. Closed. Open. Closed. The banging in my head grew louder, consuming me, then twirled into blackness.
The Seventh Meeting
I returned the following week, still caught in raw clarity and disbelief. Shades of shock greeted me when I stepped into the gym that I had once perceived as dank and depressing. The counselor’s seat was now Simon’s judgment seat.
I listened as I bit my nails to remind myself of my existence. His message was straight and stark, appealing to those who needed that bipolarity. He counseled right and wrong; light and dark; reward and punishment, salvation and damnation, choice and consequence. Simple, but always condemning me to the wrong side of the divide. Unlike Simon. He was on the justified side.
I missed her. She cared little for borders, lines, categories, labels. She focused only on her prize. And she attained it, feet-level, in tears and dirty knees.
At the conclusion of the meeting, I hugged Simon, even with his stiffness and scowl propelling me away.
“Thank you for that,” I said.
He raised his eyebrows. “For what?”
“Everything. I’m clear now. I know what I need—what I’ve always needed.”
“It’s not this.”
The Eighth Meeting
It took me years to find her.
She was a counselor now, leading a meeting in the basement of an old Orthodox church downtown somewhere. The lingering smell of incense covered the decrepit furniture as a blissful reminder that I didn’t belong. She wore her hair up with a silk scarf of elegance and simplicity. Her smile warmed and brightened the room even more in her white dress.
Her message radiated from her face. This isn’t a twelve-step program. This isn’t a support group. This isn’t a counseling session.
I soaked it all in as I became.
Ash Ibrahim has been a practicing attorney for twenty-five years and has written about his experiences, both historical and speculative, always in the form of story.