Our group is called Addicts Anonymous and none of us know to what it is that any of the others are addicted. We meet once a week in the basement of a library that people stopped going to on account of the lack of books, meaning that there are none because we took them all off the shelves in order to create furniture for ourselves, book chairs, book tables, a book sculpture in the shape of a large book because it is always important to view art.
The room’s ceilings are low. There are three windows, lined up along the only wall that looks out to something that isn’t underground, and they are so dusty that the room appears to be saturated in a fog like oatmeal. There is a single lamp in the corner that adorns each of us with long, thin, dark shadows that live hinged to our feet like the lid to our openness.
We sit in circles, mostly. Once we tried to make more interesting shapes, only the people who were not corners began to feel jealous of those who were and then a hierarchy began to form, which is not what our meetings are about. So we returned to sitting in circles, where everyone is just as important as everyone else, and no one matters much at all, since if one were to leave our group, we would simply contract like a sneeze in a sinus, we would just be a slightly smaller circle. Good riddance.
This is what we do: we tell facts. The facts we tell need not be addiction related, because if you are an addict, it matters not to what, then every story you might ever dream of telling is addiction related. To dream of anything outside of the addiction is to imagine a new color or hear a previously unheard sound—it does not, cannot, exist.
This is what we do next: we partake in an activity. Once the final fact has been told and the room has settled into its silence like the most comfortable sleeping position, we stand and move together, inside the circle of book chairs, and we start to do something. It does not matter what we do, just whatever the first person starts doing, we join in and we do it together. Sometimes the thing is dancing, chanting, sometimes it is waving our arms about like windshield wipers or stripping our clothes from our bodies and embracing.
This is what we do last: we eat. Everyone brings something, it does not matter what, it matters only that we nourish ourselves together. It is important that we watch one another fill ourselves with something that is not the thing that we want to be filling ourselves with at every given moment. We crowd around our book table and take handfuls of the food in fists and force it between our lips, chew, chew swallow. Then we smile at one another, our teeth freckled with something edible, our stomachs rattling with bites of that which we were not craving. Sometimes we have parties which is when we dress up in gowns and dance with one another, holding another body close, pressed against ours like a reflection or like we are trying to absorb human via osmosis.
We are a peaceful species, we are a sad one, a romantic one, a nostalgic one, a remorseful one, but we do not war with one another. The way we see it, we have already caused the world enough trouble. To be addicted to anything is to be too intense for this place. To want to consume all of something and only that thing is greedy and it offends people who know how to manage their hunger.
We were a peaceful species until the arrival of Joe. We had hardly realized that all of us addicts were not men until the arrival of a man. But he appears in our doorway, having descended the vacant library’s stairs, and he is so facial haired and proudly breastless that it embarrasses us. We feel as if we should mention that he has forgotten something.
“Where is all of your furniture?” he asks, and his voice echoes off the basement’s concrete walls in a way that our whispered condolences never have. The walls look surprised to be touched by the volume and those of us standing beside them stroke the hard cold to console them. “You can’t just use books as furniture.”
But we already did, none of us say.
We look at one another, our faces identical, and then back to Joe who says, “I’m Joe.” We feel offended, we press fingers to our cheeks like paused slaps because this meeting is Addicts Anonymous and now we know too much. We feel as childish as children only feel around adults. We feel aware that we have made the chairs we sit in from books and only now are we realizing that it might not be creative or cute or meaningful that this is the furniture we have chosen to use. We feel silly. And we feel aware that we are sitting, small, while Joe stands on the bottom stair, but still a step up from the rest of us. “Hello,” we say, purposefully not using his name, not labelling him, “Hello welcome hello. Please sit, please do, hello, welcome sit.” We are so polite, so civil, we are being overly adult, we sound like geese in a circle. “Hi, hello, sit, sit.”
Joe’s facial hair makes him masked and unexposed, less bare than the rest of us and we all watch it, untrusting, wanting to peel the beard from his skin, pluck each hair like the feathers of a turkey. We pat our own virgin faces as if applying foundation although none of us wear it here. He wears a suit that barely fits him, it bags about his body and we wonder whether there is only air beneath the cotton. His shoes are polished with the wrong shade of black and all of us feel humiliated, for we sit around in stained tee shirts and sweatpants with split crotch seams that make us feel as imperfect as overstuffed baseballs. Joe checks his watch, a practicality no one has ever thought of here, and he says, “What time do you usually get started?”
We look about ourselves and none of us recognize any of us anymore. We are all different and all the same, uniformed schoolgirls, we shrug in unison.
“Let’s get started then,” says Joe and we all agree that now would be a good time to start. But when no one speaks, we are feeling shy, Joe claps his hands and says, “So who usually chairs this meeting?” And the word CHAIRS ricochets between the basement’s walls like a pinball game and we all take offense for we are sure he is making fun of our book stools.
“What do you usually do first?” asks Joe and his voice, like a flood, is slowly starting to fill the room, seeping through the cracks in the concrete till there is a pool of his vowels on the floor, his syllables wet the soles of our shoes and we lift our feet like children whose legs dangle above the ground. “We tell facts,” we say, and we are so proud to have the answer to his question, we are so proud that we sit up straight and we all look up to see how close our heightened heads are to the ceiling.
“Okay,” says Joe, “I’ll start. I’m Joe and I’m an alcoholic.” We frown, those of us who are not Joe, and we hold our breaths inside of us to feel as if we are in charge of something. This meeting is not for alcoholics, they have their own clubs. This meeting is not for drug addicts, for they can attend their carefully categorized groups where everyone knows what everyone else’s vices are and they can all be so loud and happy to know that their addiction is popular enough to deserve a name and a category and be advertised in the local newspaper. Our meeting is for the addicts who do not fall like Connect Four tokens into slots that are made for them. Our meeting is for the addicts whose addictions have never been said aloud. Some of us do not even know what we are addicted to, and if we do, then we have never spoken its sounds, for once we let our tongues taste the metallic tang of our vice it becomes something speakable and once things have names they exist. But here, Joe sits, almost shouting his evil: the word sounds symmetrical coming from his lips, as if it is something he has spoken over and over, practiced in the mirror, ALCOHOLIC is Joe’s favorite food and he tastes it once a day like vitamins.
“No, Joe,” we say once we finally collect our voices from the floors of our mouths, coax them out from under the rugs of our tongues. “You’ve done it wrong. We tell facts,” we tell him.
Joe frowns, his forehead a collection of wrinkles that we all feel suddenly obliged to iron out.
“Like this, Joe,” we say.
And one says, “Do you know that when George H.W. Bush was elected president he said in a speech that since Poland had a rebellion against totalitarianism, he should be able to have a rebellion against broccoli and so he banned broccoli in the White House and as a result of that speech broccoli sales fell by 65% and schools stopped serving broccoli and families considered eating broccoli to be un-American and the broccoli farmers rebelled by sending crates and crates of all of their excess, uneaten broccoli to the White House. But then in 1990 broccoli was found to help prevent cancer so that just goes to show.”
We all applaud, what a fact. What a story.
But Joe says, “What does it go to show?” And his words loom in the air like a smell. “I mean, why do you say random facts instead of talking about your actual problems?”
“Joe,” we tell him. “This is how we do things. And anyway, wasn’t it a great story? Didn’t you learn about broccoli? When you are addicted to something, Joe, you do not need to talk about it all the time, because you are thinking about it all the time. It is good to think about something else for once. And it is especially good to think about crazy facts because the facts have a way of normalizing the rest of things, Joe.” Is what we tell him.
We look at Susan, and we can tell that she is, in fact, called Susan, there is something about the way one eye is lopsided, like a painting askew, that is just so Susan. What’s more we can tell, not least by the little buds of green that fill the gaps between her teeth like grout between bricks, that Susan is, in fact, addicted to broccoli. We are all suddenly very aware of how Susan’s fact last week was that the word broccoli comes from the ancient Greek god, Barock, who was the deity of strength and happiness, and the week before that she told us how there are only three substances that release dopamine in the brain and make us happy and those three things are sex and cocaine and broccoli. We feel embarrassed for Susan and we never before realized how crooked her teeth are, like a picket fence after a storm, her mouth is broken and Susan, we realize, does not at all look like the rest of us.
“Okay,” says Joe, “So whose fact is next?”
But we do not want to tell our facts, we are all thinking about how the facts we have brought to share are entirely related to that to which we are addicted and so we blush and duck our heads until Joe says, “Well if no one else has a fact to share, what do you usually do next?”
“We partake in an activity,” we tell him, and Susan says it too and her voice does not sound like ours, it is too high pitched, as if she is filtering the substance of it out through her lips like a sieve. She sounds like a girl and she is speaking that way for Joe and we are humiliated to have once considered Susan one of us.
“What is the activity?” asks Joe, already standing and holding his fists up like a boxer. “Do we fight?” We tell Joe that we do not usually fight, and that instead we usually sing, chant, dance, or embrace.
“But,” says Joe, “fighting is a very important part of recovery. Inflicting harm outwards, onto others, keeps us from self-harming by way of our addiction. It is important to impose pain on others to keep from feeling pain oneself.”
“I think it was probably Susan, don’t you think?” says Joe, and then he scans the rest of the plates and says, “So I wonder how many of you also brought plates that contain your addiction. This won’t do,” says Joe. “This will not do.”
We scan the plates on the table, and, we realize, the items on the plates could well be our vices. There is one plate of donuts and a plate stacked with a tower of white bread, and these two seem like normal offerings to bring, but there is a bowl that is full to the brim with half-smoked cigarettes, and another that appears to be the shredded leftovers of pornographic images, and another with poker chips. One plate is piled toenail clippings and another with pacifiers and another with short locks of hair that do not look human.
“I need you all to line up,” says Joe, “Line up and tell me your name and then tell me what you are addicted to. You can whisper it to me if you feel shy. Then you can eat.”
We right ourselves slowly, our wounds protesting, leaving specks and smears of blood and sweat on the concrete like we have sketched our own chalk outlines on the pavement. We stand in a single row. We cannot name ourselves in this space, but Joe does it for us. He calls us Julia and Melissa and Britney and Louise. We feel assaulted but certain of our new names. Joe gives us each a marker and we write the word we now own across our breasts for better advertising.
Then Joe asks us to tell him what we are addicted to and we just smile. He asks us again but we are mannequins, plastic models, we cannot speak the words. He tells us that we will not be able to eat if he does not know what we hunger for so that he can deprive us of it. But we stand, labelled with our new brands, and we smile, for Joe can name us, but he cannot take our deepest desire.
Kathryn Fitzpatrick is a student at Central Connecticut State University and a prose reader for The Adroit Journal. Her essays, fiction, and poetry have appeared in Out Magazine, Crack the Spine, The Flexible Persona, the anthology Flash Nonfiction Funny, and in numerous undergraduate publications. In 2013, she was the recipient of the Connecticut Young Writers Trust Award for Prose. She lives in Thomaston, CT.
Originally published in the FALL 2018 edition of the Helix.