Remembering Valentine’s Daybysophist801©
"Hello, my name if Frank. I'm an alcoholic and I've been sober for thirteen years, two months and sixteen days." I was shaking as I spoke. It has been exactly one year since I returned to my AA group. Throughout the last year I'd gone to no more than a handful of groups but knew today was a day I would not miss. No, I could not miss today; my life depended on me being able to stay sober, and believe me, I did want to drink!
"Hi Frank!" Everyone at the meeting replied then broke into applause. It felt good to be recognized by all of these strangers. It also felt good that I had resisted the urge to drink.
"Hey, Frank, do you want to tell us your story? It's been quite awhile since you've talked to us. Johnston was a burly man of about forty-five who had a Santa Clause belly that was housed in an off-white t-shirt. I never learned Johnston's full name and was happy keeping it that way. The anonymity of the group was what created a sense of safety and I was the last one who wanted to be uncomfortable, especially if I was about to talk.
I'd listened to hundreds of heartbreak stories over the years now it was my turn.
It had been more that a little while since I'd told my story, at least the story that caused me to return to AA. Until a year-ago-today I lead the idyllic life. No, it had been more than ideal. It was damn near perfect and that is probably why I nearly relapsed. There had been no warning of what was about to happen, no signs or cues. There had been no changes in behavior (on the part of my wife, Lois).
"Come on Frank! We know you're not here just for the coffee." Everyone laughed, mainly because the coffee is absolutely the worst. Yet everyone gets a cup before the sit down. Everyone drinks the coffee as if it was fresh from Starbucks or Peet's.
I hemmed and hawed like a little kid then realized it was time to tell the story.
"OK, OK, everyone sit down. Get your Kleenex out, or for you Johnston that might mean a roll of toilet paper." Everyone chuckled again knowing Johnston was not the time of guy to cry over anything.
"One year ago today . . . "I had to stop for just a minute as I realized today was actually one year exactly and that I was at the meeting for a very good reason. I needed to be with people and was scared shitless that I might need a drink to get through the night.
"As I said my story begins on Valentine's day last year. For those of you who don't know I work for the University down the road. No, I'm not a professor; I manage University recruitment and monitor subcontracts. I've been doing this for the last sixteen years and believe it was being able to work that has helped keep me sober for so long." I stopped to talk a sip of the now cold gut-wrenching coffee.
"This time of year the University recruitment is slow. We are anticipating freshman applications to begin arriving next month then my life will get crazy. We are expecting close to 17,000 freshman applications this year." I stopped talking for a moment when I heard someone cough, not your nicotine hack, but one of those "this-is-so-boring" coughs that tells you to get to the point or let someone else speak.
"Anyway, I had planned to work a half day on Valentine's Day, which would give me plenty of time to make it home early, surprise Lois with a few special gifts and then take her to dinner that evening. I was planning on taking her to the 4th Street Grill because the serve a wonderful pork loin that was one of Lois' favorites." My memories were so clear of that day that I wondered if I would actually be able to stay away from the alcohol. I was dreaming of a double martini served over the rocks with two of those green olives with pimento in the middle.
It is not good for an alcoholic to have such dreams! But they were the dreams that beckoned from someplace within my souls and I wanted to follow the call. Yes, I wanted to drown myself with the hopes of replacing that giant void that begins in your stomach, bypasses all other desire and slams the brain against the wall.
As I paused I was suddenly aware of, no sound. No one was coughing or shuffling their feet. I looked out into the group and noticed everyone looking right back at me. They were all recalling a similar story and were making my story their own story.
"So I left work early and picked up a dozen yellow roses, Lois had always been partial to yellow roses saying the red rose reminded her of blood, of something that had died. I always thought her preference of roses backwards knew that the yellow rose is usually displayed at funerals and red roses represented love. I didn't argue and got her what I knew she would like."
"Then I picked up the pearl necklace I'd purchased several months earlier but had left at the jewelers not wanting to risk Lois discovering the gift before, well before Valentine's Day. It was supposed to be a surprise, right?" The group was now deathly quiet. It frightened me as I listened to their silence. Yes, it was the respect thing but I also knew it was more. They knew my story before I had even finished telling it! Leave it to a bunch of alcoholics to have a reverse sense of empathy.
"I'd also ordered a champagne cake from the Tower Bakery, also one of Lois' favorites and had the card ready. The card contained the gooiest poetry I could find. Inside the card I noted that we had a dinner reservation for the 4th Street Grill at 6:30PM."
There was another reason Valentine's Day was so important for me. February 14 was the day we were engaged and it represented the twentieth Valentine's Day we would celebrate together. We hadn't been married that long but it was the day, in my mind, I'd chosen to do something special to recognize my love and appreciation for Lois.
"For those of you who don't know my wife is the one who stuck by me when I was drinking. She was also hard on me when my drinking got out of hand and I began to call in sick so I could drink. Lois is the one who made it clear she would divorce me if I didn't quit drinking. So when I did get sober and was able to stay sober, my life began to change all for the better." I needed to recognize how Lois had supported me though a very difficult time in my life, even if it hurt to even talk about her now.
"So, with my cake, pearls, card and yellow roses I headed home. I was happier than I'd ever been in my life and wanted nothing more than to share my love and appreciation for the woman who, in many ways, had saved my life. I felt, at that time, that I did owe her my life. That is why what happened next was so devastating." I had to take another sip of the coffee, my mouth was suddenly very dry and it was getting difficult to speak without my voice cracking.
"As I pulled up to our home I was stunned to see a man on our front porch holding Lois in his arms. They were kissing. It was a long kiss that told me they were swapping tongues. His hands were most likely on her ass and her arms were around his neck, so it was clear to me this was not just a friend saying hello-goodbye. It was the love-lock of a lover."
I heard someone from the back of the group say something like, ". . . would've killed the bitch!" I guess my story was touching a few nerves. I ignored the comment knowing telling the story was difficult enough.
"I sat in my car at the curb, unable to move, waiting for them to break the kiss. When that happened the man turned so I could see his face. He wore a pair of blue jeans with a checkered dress shirt that was not tucked in. I recognized him immediately. I think it might have been easier if I had not known the man. It instantly was a bit too personal and the humiliation was just as devastating."
"Then I noticed Lois was dressed in the green satin robe I'd given her a few years ago. It only took her a few seconds before she saw me sitting in my car, waiting. I'm not if she said anything because, between us, I don't think I heard anything at all, but I did notice that she slumped against the door frame and appeared to begin to cry." As I told the story from this point on I was crying. Not even a sip of the rot-gut coffee was going to help me now. A drink, maybe? No, not even alcohol was going to help me now.
"Without thinking I remember lowering the power window on the driver's side of the car, picking up the cake and letting it slip out of the pink box onto the curb and lawn. I can remember my actions being slow and deliberate. I did not throw anything from the window or yell and scream. I can remember wanting to make sure Lois saw and understood everything I was doing. Then the yellow roses were dropped out the window on top of the crushed champagne cake followed by the card that seemed to flutter to the ground. I couldn't see the card but imagined it getting stuck in the now sticky squished cake frosting." I stopped to wipe my eyes realizing for a moment it had been a years since I'd let myself truly grieve what I perceived, at that time, the end of my marriage.
"What about the pearls?" Someone from the audience asked. It was a woman's voice.
"They went out the window also. I wanted nothing that would remind me of how much I loved her. My gifts became nothing more than curbside trash, which was exactly where I believed my marriage to be. Trashed. I remember looking at Lois as I just sat there staring at her not knowing what else to say or do. Not being able to think clearly I started up my car and drove to a bar thinking I'd drown my sorrows and try and forget her. As some of you know I ended up here instead." There was another reason I ended up at the AA Meeting and it wasn't just because I needed the support to stay sober.
To this day, I still love Lois and am still grateful she came into my life. She was one of the reasons I got sober to begin with. She gave me the gift of sobriety and I was not going to lose everything because she betrayed me. But I was not going back to Lois.
The group was still quiet. Then there was another voice from the back of the group who asked, "What happened to Lois?"
"Don't know. When I drove away that afternoon I never went back to the house except to pick up a few personal belongings and I did that when I knew she wouldn't be home and I haven't seen her since. So that is my story and I thank everyone for listening." I'd had enough story-telling for one night I just wanted to go back to my little apartment and put my ass to bed. But I would be respectful and listen to everyone else who felt they needed support.
As I stepped down from the podium and returned to my chair everyone stood and clapped. Some came over and touched me on the shoulder saying things like "hang in there." A couple of people went out of their way to give me a hug. Having tried to forget what had happened a year and not sharing the story with anyone, not even my family; it did feel good to unload. It was a long overdue catharsis and it came from a group of strangers. Go figure.
Once the group finished with the Serenity Prayer repeated people began to file outside, some to stop for a cigarette before going home, Johnston stopped me. He was in the process of putting the pamphlets into a worn cardboard box he hauled to each.
"You know Frank you still love her." He was stuffing his box while he spoke. I could also tell he was in a hurry to get outside himself, most likely for a cigarette. Johnston smelled of tobacco and a greasy hamburger. But he'd managed to stay sober for years and sponsor many people along the way.
"Does it show that much?" I loved Lois dearly but did not have the stomach to even talk to her.
"Frank, you need to apologize to her, in a sense make amends." Me, apologize to her? Not likely, thought. "Until you do you won't be able to move on with your life. Thank her for saving your life and move on." He was right, Lois had helped me get and stay sober. Then, just as fast as you can drop a cake it was all gone.
"At least think on it, OK?" Before he picked up his box he gave me one of his belly-crunching bear hugs. "Thanks Johnston. I'll at least consider it." By then his box was full and we were at the door turning off the lights. He did stop before walking to his beat-up truck to light up a cigarette. Like alcoholism, he still needed his nicotine.
It was a cold night as I made my way to my car, the same Camry I'd been driving a year ago when I discovered Lois and her lover. The thought made me angry then the memory brought a grin to my face. It was just a little grin of satisfaction. The grin was because of my memory of who her lover had been. Remember I recognized the man? As hurt as I was with Lois burning me on Valentine's Day I did vent my anger when it came to Jim Quick. Jim Quick was one of Lois' old college friends who, as it turned out was also an old boyfriend. I knew just where to find him.
The day after February 14 I parked my car in front of a 5 bedroom home in the Natomas area of Sacramento. Remembering that moment in time I smiled at how I had remained sober and decided to pay the man, and his wife a visit. As soon as my knock on their door was opened I walked into the house and sat down on a very comfortable leather couch in the great room of the house. I'd known his wife Allison for many years so there was a warm welcome as I made myself at home.
"Frank, it is good to see you! What brings you to our home?" I was in no mood to make small talk or be my friendly self.
"Ask Jim." I waited for Jim to speak. I was curious how he explain what can't really be explained.
"Honey, I'm not sure what Frank is talking about." This was not going to be easy and I did not have the time or patience to play mind games.
"He's been fucking Lois. I caught them yesterday. You can call Lois if you need verification. I have no idea how long they have been getting together but he has managed to fuck-up what I thought was a perfect marriage." I stood up looking at a woman who did not deserve this and a man I wanted to see dead.
Jim had this sheepish little kid look on his face as he shrugged his shoulders and said "Ooops, guess I fucked up." It was the only acknowledgement I needed as I stood up to leave. Did I smash in the guy's nose? No, but I sure as hell wanted to rearrange his face. I just remembered the Serenity Prayer, the prayer I'd repeated just the night before in my moment of personal pain. I realized Jim Quick was a person I could not change. The first part of the prayer goes like this:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.
"Jim, if I ever see you near Lois, for any reason, I will be going to jail for murder. Don't take this promise lightly." To this day I have no idea if Jim and Allison are still together or if Jim heeded my warning and has seen Lois since. My point in paying the Quick family a visit was to make sure everyone knew I was aware and would not tolerate him being anywhere near the woman I loved.
No, I also never did file for divorce. Why should I pay for anything? I'd spent the last year "paying" for her betrayal with lonely nights and haunted dreams. I had no idea if she had gone through similar remorse.
As I said it was a cold night when I left the AA Meeting so walked briskly to my car wanting nothing more than to get back to my apartment, make tea and sleep?
There was what looked like a piece of paper on the window of the driver's side of the car. When I got closer I noticed it was a yellow envelope. At first I'd thought it was a canvas advertisement. My name was printed on the envelope and I immediately recognized Lois' handwriting. How had she known where I was? The card inside was a sickly sweet red heart with a simple "Happy Valentine's Day" printed inside. The note Lois had written said, "My heart belongs to you, only you. I am so sorry and miss you so much. Can you ever forgive me? Love, Lois" Forgiveness was possible; I'd finally learned that at tonight's meeting.
As I slipped into the car I noticed a pink box on the seat of the car and was greeted by the sweet smell of, you guessed it, a champagne cake. I guessed Lois still had a key to my car. There were no flowers, no pearls, and no reservation at a fancy restaurant. There was just the cake and card. I did not know what to think and was still trying to recover from my disclosure at the meeting.
As I started the ignition I wondered if Johnston had been in touch with Lois then quickly dismissed the thought. It would be a cardinal violation of the group's anonymity.
On a whim I drove to the 4th Street Grill. It was where I was going to take Lois a year ago. I decided I needed to have that pork loin with garlic mashed potatoes and an ice tea. It would be a way to move on, confront another part of what had been something I'd wanted to do for Lois. Now I would do it for me. I needed to take care of myself now and learn to love my life without Lois.
Being a weeknight the restaurant was not very busy and it was beyond the dinner rush so getting a table would be easy. I decided to sit at the bar, which would also test my resolve to stay sober, and eat while watching whatever sports was being shown. Yes, I ordered the pork loin and ice tea and had finished most of the meal when I heard the distinctly feminine voice say, "Is this seat taken?"
As I looked at Lois, dressed in a purple satin blouse and red leather jacket, I forced myself to recall the Serenity Prayer. I needed to assess what I could and couldn't change. Could I change the pain I'd experienced when I left her a year ago? Did I have the courage to forgive her and move on? Did I have the courage to thank her and ask for nothing else? Could I even maintain a sense of calm while in her presence and was I smart enough to know my strengths and weaknesses?
"Thanks for the card. Have you eaten?" As I asked the question I knew how this was going to unfold. I was ready.
"Just coffee, thanks. I ate earlier." I didn't believe she'd eaten earlier. I did know she always had trouble eating when upset or nervous. I pushed my nearly finished plate away to give Lois my full attention. It was odd, as I looked at her I realized I did not know her very well and may have never really known her.
"You've changed Frank. I like the bits of gray and you look like you've lost weight." I'd lost close to 20 pounds and joined a gym to drive my body hard, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. Working out had become another form of alcoholism. Hell, I thought, once an alcoholic always an alcoholic. I understood who I was and it made me oddly calm. For the first time in a year I was at peace with myself.
"So, Lois, after all this time, what can I do for you?" When I finished my question she put her hand on my arm and looked me in the eye before she spoke.
"You can come home. You can give me the chance to make you happy as I have tried to do all these years. You can love me again and forgive me."
"Lois, I do forgive you and I do, God help me, still love you."
"Oh, Frank, thank you, thank you!" Lois tried to kiss me but I had not finished.
"There is more I need to say." She did not let go of my arm.
"More? You aren't coming home?" After a year apart I wasn't thinking about her coming home at all.
"No, Lois. I think you know why that can never happen. I am sorry Lois and I am thankful you came into my life. You once were the reason for me to remain sober. But the day you had Jim Quick in your arms was the day I stopped being your husband. It has just taken me a year to accept this reality and understand I don't need you to be free of my cravings."
It took a moment for my words to register. Lois looked disappointed but seemed to understand. I would always have to fight the desire to drink, to get wasted and pretend like the world did not exist. I no longer needed Lois to remind me of how important it was to fight the internal battle.