How it Works

As l left the Hotel Garnier, I straightened the line of buttons running the length of
my long denim jumper. At least I would look put-together. I turned the corner
onto Rue de Rome where the street buzzed with a crazy mix of traffic. Renaults,
Fiats, and Citroens raced in both directions. I fell in step with Parisians charging to
their next destination while the sun, nearly overhead, promised another steamy
day.

An edgy feeling jittered through me. It wasn’t just the city, the ten days of
touring the country with a dozen other people, or the fact that this was my first
time out alone. I needed an AA meeting. But this was my last day in Paris and I
had one chance to visit the Musee du Cinema, the only museum in the world
dedicated to movies. I’d loved French movies ever since I took a year of film
classes before settling on English as my major.

I headed toward the Metro station with guilt and purpose as sensation won out
over spirituality. I, who never missed meetings in the nine years since I’d quit
drinking, smoking pot, snorting cocaine, and popping pills, was skipping AA today.

Here I was in France, the land of wine, celebrating my college graduation after
three decades and three tries, the first clean and sober. Here, the wafting
bouquet of vin–the pungent trace of ripe grapes fermented just long enough to
give a glow or a headache–was everywhere. At sidewalk cafes where bright
awnings flapped in the summer breezes. At dinner where it could be had every
night. In the wineries of the Loire Valley where a 30-ft. high cluster of sculptured
grapes lingered by the roadside.

Wine had been my drink of choice. Even though I had dallied with mixed drinks at
times, I always came back to a sweet rose or a dry white wine. I tried to be a
social drinker, and I never drank much–I couldn’t hold much. But I could never
say no to a night out or a night in. And wine, along with a joint and good music,
was the best antidote for disappointments of the heart of which I had many. But
that was past history.

I slipped down the steps of the Metro station with a string of others, the sound of
our footsteps echoing off the concrete walls. A dank smell lay quietly in the
tunnels contrasting with our hustle as we hurried past the turn-styles only to wait
at the platform. No one seemed particularly threatening. A dark-haired woman in
a suit shifted from one foot to the other in her four-inch stilettos. A guy in hiking
boots sat on a backpack, smoking a cigarette and looking like he needed a hostel.
Two teenage girls giggled against the back wall. The others blended into the
shadows.

When the train rumbled through the tunnel and screeched to a halt, I was glad to
board the car with the small herd. The ripe smell of a swarthy-looking man who
held onto the center pole assailed me as I passed by.

I settled in a seat by myself under a large map of Metro routes and pored over my
smaller version like it was a holy document. Get off at Charles De Gaulle-Etoile.
Take #6. Get off at Bir-Hakem. Silently, I repeated my mantra as the Metro
hurtled forward under the streets of Paris, trying to distance myself from my
loneliness.

Of my trio of roommates, all of us returning to college in our forties, I had been
the expendable one. I wanted to blame it on the division of drinker and non-
drinker. But the other two were single with a different mind-set than I, who’d
remarried in sobriety. And they needed less sleep than I did. With the Epstein-
Barr virus threatening me with fever and fatigue if I didn’t pace myself, I turned in
early, missing twittering girl-talk and late night excursions to local brasseries for
drinks.

I joined the throng exiting the subway and walked under the Arc de Triomphe for
the next connection. Safely ensconced on train #6, I watched the station names
at each stop as the subway rumbled toward Bir-Hakem.

Street vendors, selling everything from sketches to wind-up dogs lined the walk to
my first stop, the Eiffel Tower. By the time I arrived, I was wilting. I leaned
against one of the iron pillars and swigged an overpriced bottle of water, amazed
that the base of the Tower was large enough for two football fields.

I hurried across the Pont d’lena, the bridge spanning the Seine. I found the
Musee du Cinema in the palace that housed it and other museums. The Musee
was closed for lunch. I waited with a dozen others on the steps leading down to it
and journaled while the rest talked and laughed.

As the chain across the entrance was removed, I queued for a ticket, nearly giddy
with anticipation. My excitement vanished the moment the tour guide spoke–in
French. I was lost in her rapid-fire delivery just as I had been in almost every
encounter on the tour.

I attempted to translate. My mind worked faster and faster as the guide led us
into the musty rooms. She discussed the Lumiere brothers’ photoramas and
Edison’s kinetoscope, all in glass cases. She directed us to costumes that hung
on the wall–romantic gowns and western chaps and spurs, a khaki outfit and pith
helmet from an adventure film She pointed out movie posters from Truffault and
Godard movies. Finally, I gave up, catching what I could and reading the
explanations–also in French.

When I emerged, my mind was in tatters. I trundled downhill against the advance
of tourists and settled on the first unoccupied park bench. Discreetly, I adjusted
a gap in the front of my jumper that had exposed a smidgen of belly-flesh for all
the city to see.

A continuous stream of sightseers flowed across the bridge and up the asphalt
walkway in front of me. As I rested in the shady arbor of overarching trees, I
watched the parade and obsessed about my return trip.

I needed all my wits about me to hike back to the Metro stop, navigate the
subway, shower, and meet the group for our farewell dinner at 6 o’clock. After
that, just one more day and I’d be home and safe.

I didn’t feel like using, but I was lonely and tired, half of the HALT syndrome:
Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. Add two more of the big stressors and my
defenses could crumble, here, halfway around the world from family and AA friends.

A slight breeze caressed my cheek and ruffled my hair, soothing compulsion that
threatened to build. Behind me, a young couple lay on the lawn entwined in each
other’s arms.

My loneliness came and went while I people-watched: an English couple in hiking
outfits, a blonde Swedish family with lilting accents, several German students in an
intense discussion, some Americans, and others of unknown origins.

When a young Japanese family asked me to snap pictures of the four of them, I
felt useful. I was touched when they offered profuse thank you’s and bowed
before me. Upon leaving, the smallest of the two children peeked around her
mother’s legs and smiled at me, coal-black eyes dancing in delight.

In the file of travelers, I noticed a man in his 60’s with wispy, white hair sticking
out from under a beige snap-brim hat. Even though he struggled up the incline
with the help of a silver-haired woman, probably his wife, his shoulders were
square.

Cancer, I thought.

“Sit down here, Pete, and rest,” said the woman, as she guided him to the far end
of the bench on which I sat. “I’ll go on up and be back shortly.”

Wheezing, Pete sat heavily against the wooden seat and leaned back. “I’ll be ok,”
he said. His wife patted his shoulder, then turned and passed me, her short legs
working against the hill.

We sat in silence, Pete and I, while I drank in the fresh scent of green summer
grass and the woody smell of old trees. As tourists trooped up and down the hill
and the minutes passed, Pete’s breathing eased.

I took a deep breath and initiated my first conversation without the backup of
roommates or the tour group. “You’re American,” I said.

Pete turned toward me. His blue eyes were friendly and I knew I was safe. “We’re
from Texas–Garland,” he said.

“I’m from Ohio.”

A smile filled his handsome, lined face and he said his son was vice-provost at a
private university in Ohio. I told him my college story and plans for grad school
and creative writing. Pete said his wife Flo, a nurse, had just written a book on
geriatrics. Our conversation swung back and forth like a porch swing on a lazy
afternoon as the fiasco at the Musee du Cinema faded.

Without missing a beat, Pete said, “I’ve got lung cancer–had it for eighteen
months. When I went in for chemo I told them I wasn’t going to get sick–and I
never did.”

I felt a shadow of sadness pass over me. But I said, “Positive thinking,” meaning
it.

“It’s a higher power that gets the credit,” he said, laying his arm on the back of
the bench.

Something flickered within me.

“In 1982 I came in the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous,” he said.

The warm glow that comes when two AA’s connect began filling me from the inside
out. I leaned forward, listening with special interest to my new “brother.”

“I hit bottom,” Pete said, gazing across the lawn. “Flo divorced me after twenty-
two years of marriage. I ended up in rehab–my third try at getting sober. But
there was something different that time.”

His eyes focused on mine. “I surrendered. I turned my will and my life over to a
higher power and my life’s never been the same. After a year in AA, Flo and I got
remarried. And it just keeps getting better and better.”

Eager to share, I said, “I’m in AA, too. I came in May 30th 1986.” Although I
couldn’t voice the darker issues, they flashed across my mind: fear of dying after
being exposed to AIDS, still suffering mentally from a violent boyfriend.

“I wasn’t drinking much by then,” I said, “but I was tired of meeting men in bars
who forgot to tell me they were married. I lived in a room over a hardware store
with my fifteen year-old daughter and worked two part-time jobs to stay afloat.”

I paused, reflecting on the changes. “I remarried five years ago.”

“Is he in the program?”

“No, he’s ‘normal,’” I said, laughing. “Whatever that is.”

Pete and I chatted like we’d know each other our entire lives as more travelers like
ourselves walked up and down the pathway.

When Flo returned from sightseeing and discovered that Pete and I shared
sobriety, her dark eyes grew big and her laugh was full and rich. She scooched
Pete and I together on the bench and, brushing her hair from eyes, asked us to
hold out our AA tokens while she videotaped.

“Stay right there,” she said, as she whipped out her still camera and snapped
photos of Pete and I, our tokens still on display. She found an English-speaking
tourist to photograph the three of us, and we posed shoulder-to-sweaty shoulder
against the lush backdrop of the park. As we settled back on the bench, I
adjusted the embarrassing gap in my jumper that had now been recorded on tape
and on film.

Flo touched her husband’s shoulder and said, “You know, I’ve never left Pete alone
this whole trip.”

The three of us looked at each other, nodded, and smiled in understanding,
knowing that’s how it works.

As much as I wanted to stay with my new “family” in the timelessness that kindred
spirits share, I checked my watch. It was 3:45. I scribbled my address and my
phone number on a scrap of paper and exchanged it for Pete’s and Flo’s business
cards.

“I’ll send you pictures,” Flo said, holding my hand, as she and Pete stood before
me. The sun glinted behind them through the overarching trees lining the path.

Their warm hugs stayed with me as I walked down the slope toward the bridge,
my steps light and quick.

That evening my tour group met at a dimly lit restaurant on the Left Bank. Our
private room was more like a cave where stealthy waiters came and went. The
smell of vin was heady as a few sipped wine. The twelve of us toasted one
another and our magnificent trip.

Each time I raised my glass it was filled with my usual, water with lemon. During
the three-hour meal, I savored my favorite memory of France–my “meeting” with
Pete. With a sense of awe, I marveled at the orchestration that brought two
recovering alcoholics together, 4000 miles from home.

 


Rita Coleman
graduated with a BA and an MA in English Literature with a Concentration in Creative Writing from Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio. Her poetry has appeared in For All That is Our Life, a meditation anthology, Science of Mind magazine, and Women’s Center Review of Antioch College. In addition to poetry, Rita writes short fiction, memoir, and children’s books. She lives near Xenia, Ohio with her husband Frank Baxley.

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