They couldn’t have found a mustier building in the whole fucking state of Texas. Every breath I took was so filled with odor I could almost taste the shit. Nobody else seemed to notice it, sitting in their respective seats around this stupid ass circle, smiling like we were at a damn parade. Even the happy-go-lucky leader behind the podium seemed to be immune to the funk. And even after hearing her introduce herself for the third time, I still forgot her name by the time I walked out the door.
But that’s nothing new. I hadn’t made an effort to remember anybody’s name for the past year or so. Nor did I have the desire for anybody to remember mine. Just seemed unnecessary at that point. Names were about as relevant as the rocks I slipped on in the parking lot on my way in, and would probably slip on again when I left.
The same ten people showed up that day that showed up the week before, and I managed to land in the same exact seat, right in the center, directly across from the speaker whose voice was like nails on a fucking chalkboard. And it’s not because it was high-pitched or anything like that. It was just so cheery and unfitting, in my opinion, for the environment. Nobody was there by choice—at least not me. But she made it sound like we should’ve been. Like this shit was actually gonna help somebody stop doing something that made them feel good. This was all just a big guilt trip, and if it wasn’t for the need for shelter, I wouldn’t’ve been in there wasting my damn time.
“Hi, my name is Chelsie. And I’m an alcoholic.”
Yeah, Chelsie. That was her name. Why the hell was that so hard to remember?
“Hi Chelsie.” The ten circle-sitters all greeted her in unison. I mouthed the shit but couldn’t bring myself to actually say it without feeling lame.
“Alright,” Chelsie nodded after the robotic greeting from everybody but me. “I think we’re all pretty well acquainted. So, why don’t we just go right into discussion? Who’d like to go first?”
Her cherry-red lips made every word she said sound sweeter and more annoying. The last thing that either of us wanted to do was take her place at that podium and discuss how hard it was to drive past the fucking liquor store for the past seven days. But somebody had to do it—somebody that wasn’t me.
“I’ll go.” A brown-skinned , bearded brother about six people to the right of me stood first, running his hands down the front of his dark denim jeans, probably attempting to rub away the annoyance of this whole damn set-up.
I held my head as steady as I could, eyes watering from lack of sleep, palms sweaty in anticipation of getting back to what I’d rather be doing once I got back to my apartment. I tried my best to focus on his face, anything to take my senses off this musty smell invading my nose. Plus, his voice was so familiar. Had been since the first time I heard him speak.
“Hi, I’m Aries, and I’m an addict.” The words floated off his lips like wind. And not the kind that blows feathers off a church hat. Rather the kind that blows leaves off a tree. Of course, I could’ve been imagining that. Hell, I’d been imagining shit since the first time I walked in this place.
“Hi Aries.” They all greeted in unison again.
I wondered who was the first person to incorporate that corny ass rule.
Aries cleared his throat like he was about to give a speech, and I was so not in the mood for hearing a speech. Not even if it was dictated by the smoothest, most wind-filled vocals I’d heard in a long time. There were pressing issues awaiting me at home, and I needed this meeting to be over with as soon as possible.
“This week was a hard one.” He disclosed, gaining sympathetic nods and sighs throughout the cramped, musty space. Mostly from the four other women who were probably imagining what he looked like under that gray, Nike t-shirt, and the one guy who wore the same San Antonio Runners football jersey to every meeting like it was his only article of clothing.
“Tell us about it, Aries.” The red lipstick lady, whose name I’d already forgotten again suggested. Aries looked a little annoyed by her eagerness. Though he was much too polite to speak on it, it was written all over his mahogany brown face.
“It’s nothing different.” He shrugged his broad shoulders, tilting his head slightly to the side, just enough to flex that neck muscle that could’ve easily seduced me under different circumstances. “But I’m coping.”
“One day at a time.” The paper bag-brown skinned lady sitting next to me chimed in like we were at church or something. And it didn’t take a full two seconds before the white lady next to her shouted Amen.
They both appeared to be drunk in my opinion, but I wasn’t sober enough to make a valid assumption.
“Yeah, that’s what they say.” Aries agreed with the two overly eager, recovering addict groupies. “That’s all I got. Thanks.” He bowed his head for a second then backed away from the podium, taking smooth, subtle strides back to his seat, glancing over at me as he eased down into the hard, plastic chair.
I looked away before the shit got awkward, not at all here for attention from anyone—especially not a fine as black man who was obviously as fucked up as me.
“Anyone else?” Cherry Lipstick’s piercing voice broke the silence and the humming of the flickering light fixtures that hung over our heads.
Nobody spoke, and I was so relieved—until her bright-blue eyes made a trip around the circle, finally landing on me. “Natasia?” Her voice squeaked. “We haven’t heard from you in a while. You sure you don’t wanna share?”
Now it was my understanding that all I had to do was show up to this shit. Nowhere in my agreement with the leasing agent at the Rose Palms was it ever stated that I had to actively participate. I only spoke on the first day because I thought it was mandatory to at least share my name with the damn people. But that was it. Name and addiction was the maximum for these mother fuckers for the next eleven months.
“I’m good.” I nodded, and every eye in the damn circle landed on me.
“Elaborate, please.” Red Lipstick insisted. And I suddenly felt the urge to curse her the fuck out.
“Listen, I don’t mean to be rude but— “
“Then don’t be.” The brown-skinned brother with the beard and the neck spoke up. His eyes landed on me like butter on toast, and instead of being upset, I felt moisture pooling between my legs.
How the hell did he do that?
“Excuse me?” I squinted, roving my eyes from the soles of his Nikes to the tapered edges of his jet-black, wavy hair.
“Don’t be rude.” He returned, not backing away from whatever he’d started with me. “We come here to share. If that’s not your intention, I’m not sure you’re ready to be here.”
“Alright, now.” What’s her name cut in. White folks get nervous when black folks disagree and shit. “I think maybe now’s just not a good time for Natasia. Maybe next week. How’s that sound, Natasia?” She was now standing beside me with her hand on my shoulder like some kind of fucking kindergarten teacher.
I shrugged my shoulders, not willing to agree on discussing shit that I didn’t wanna discuss with people I didn’t know. It was stupid. This whole concept was stupid. I mean what’s the point in sitting down in a circle with a group of other mother fuckers who couldn’t help themselves? How the hell were we supposed to help each other if needing help was the whole purpose of being here?
“It’s okay.” She leaned over and whispered in my ear. Her breath smelled like butterscotch and rubbing alcohol. Of course, I had to have been imagining the rubbing alcohol, because why else would that shit be on her breath?
A couple of other attendees decided to stand and speak, out of obligation, I’m assuming. And thirty short minutes later, we were approaching freedom from the hell hole. “Alright folks, I think we’re gonna close discussion for tonight.” Red lips announced, rounding the room and heading straight toward me, patting my shoulder one last time before walking back up to the podium. “I’ll close with the serenity prayer, then you’re welcome to refreshments.”
She rattled off something about God granting us the ability to change this, accept that, and the wisdom to do whatever. I usually didn’t listen because God was a being I felt further away from than any other being in Heaven or on earth at that point in my life. I hadn’t prayed, not over a meal, not before I went to bed, not even on the bus ride over when we damn near collided into an 18-wheeler. I didn’t even scream oh my God during in orgasm on the rare occasion I was desperate enough to let a stranger into my bed. Numb is what I was. Void of all external stimulation and belief. The only thing I felt was nothing, and it was comfortable. Far less painful than feeling anything at all.
“Skippin refreshments again?” A familiar voice floated over my shoulder as I stood at the bus stop right outside the brick building where our meetings were held, pulling the spaghetti strap of my t-shirt back in place. The dimly lit street offered the perfect scenery for how I felt inside; empty, dead, and abandoned.
“Coffee keeps me awake.” I answered without turning around. I knew exactly who it was, not that it mattered, but I could smell him. The wind from his voice seemed to blow his leathery cologne in my direction.
“So, you don’t like being awake?” The slight increase in volume indicated that he was walking toward me. I was not in the mood for small talk, or big talk, or any variation of conversation for that matter.
“Depends on your definition of awake.” I said, still looking forward at the hand full of cars speeding past us on the street.
“Can’t imagine there’s too many ways to be awake, Ms. Natasia.” He said, spinning my name on the bed of his tongue like he’d practiced the shit in the mirror.
And suddenly, I felt awake.
“Well, you should work on your imagination.” I said, finally turning to face him on my left, knowing how long it would take me to recover from being in such close proximity with that neck. “You live around here? You look familiar.”
“Nah.” He answered, leaning the palm of his hand against the back of the bench, taking his eyes off me to observe the traffic. “Just got one of those faces, I guess.” His chestnut brown eyes came right back to me.
The definition of his cheek and jawbone were accented by a slightly overgrown beard, as he tried, and failed, to soften his smile. A smile that looked so familiar, it was gonna drive me up a wall tryna figure out where I’d seen it before. With such ease that it almost didn’t alarm me, he sat down beside me on the bench, clasping his hands together at the parting of his legs, resting his forearms on his lap as he leaned forward.
“Chelsie reports everything we do in there, you know?” He went straight into it without hesitation. “And I don’t know what kinda program they got you on, but if you don’t at least start pretending that you’re interested in this shit, you’re gonna get thrown out.”
My first instinct was to ask him who the fuck he was talking to or what business was it of his to come out here and give me advice on anything when he was a damn addict himself. But I couldn’t, not with that neck within my direct line of sight. Not with this fiendish curiosity of what was under the cotton t-shirt that clung to his body while he stretched himself in this position. I couldn’t ask him shit. Could barely compose myself with the scent of sweet love floating off his skin like music to my nose. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stand when the bus came, and I was hoping with all I had, which wasn’t much, that he’d be up and on his way when the time came.
“What, no smart remarks?” He grinned, sitting up straight, talking directly to the opening of my ear.
“I um…” I stuttered. And it had less to do with the five shots of Vodka I took before I got here and more to do with the close proximity I shared with Aries on this bench. “It’s… I didn’t sign up for all the talking and shit. That’s just not me. This ain’t even me.” I said, fanning my hands out.
“And why not?” He asked, draping his arm over the back of me and resting it along the back of the bench. “Do I smell like the meeting room?”
I didn’t wanna smile. I didn’t wanna laugh. I didn’t wanna do anything indicative of joy.
So, I didn’t. Even though I was happy as hell that I wasn’t imagining that odor in that building, I didn’t change my face at all.
“I’ll take that as a yes.” He said, sounding a bit defeated, but still confident. “I’ma leave you to your silence, Ms. Natasia. Hope to see you next week.”
He stood from the bench, and surprisingly, I didn’t feel relieved. It wouldn’t be easy, but I suddenly felt the urge to ask if he’d stay, or at least accompany me to wherever I was going. And it’s not like I hadn’t invited a stranger to my place before, it just didn’t seem fitting for a man like Aries. He seemed like the type who might pass judgment or even tell me no. And my ego couldn’t stand a no tonight. I needed nothing but yesses from him and the rest of that Vodka sitting on my bar.
“Hey,” I almost yelled as he neared the corner of the two-story brick building. He turned around slowly, sliding his hands into the pockets of his jeans, brown eyes catching the light of the moon like a glass jar trapping a butterfly. “Where you headed?”
“Home. Why?” He answered without hesitance.
That was shocking.
I stood from the bench, grabbing the bag full of books I’d read more than a dozen times apiece. It made the thirty-minute bus ride home more tolerable having Nicole Falls and Cupcake Jones along for the ride.
“I was just wondering if… I don’t know. Maybe we could keep each other company. I mean, if you don’t have plans already.”
I bit down on my lip, adjusting the leather strap of my bag up on my shoulder, twisting my fingers through the long, braided string that hung down the side of it. I was certain that nothing about me appealed to him. Not my frail figure that was hidden beneath a pair of jeans that used to fit like a second skin, but were now two sizes too big. Or the drooping tank top that I’d pulled from an unfolded basket of clean laundry, not bothering to iron out the wrinkles. Or the mess of curls I’d gathered on top of my head with a scarf that was tangled up in the wrinkled shirt I was wearing before I pulled them apart. And certainly not my dry lips. I couldn’t find my Carmex and probably wouldn’t have spread it evenly if I had, cause my hands were shaking like leaves before my buzz set in.
“I haven’t had plans on a Saturday night in a long time.” He said, stepping toward me and extending his hand. “Where to?” He asked as I accepted his smooth, brown palm.
“The Rose Palms.” I answered, attempting to speak as if I wasn’t drunk and failing miserably. “Apt F53.”