Jules and I sit at Starbucks, and we talk about the men who shine.
They come in with their knuckle-ink and neck tattoos, and order tall triple-shot cappuccinos. We know them like a compass needle knows north, like Ahab knew the whale. We love them, these men who were lost at sea and decided to save themselves, who decided to let themselves be lifted out of the drink.
If you don’t know how to spot a man like this, you might look at him and think he’s a little weathered, like maybe he spent a lot of time outside. He holds his paper cup like any other man—but different. He breathes like any other man—but different. A man in recovery sometimes looks like this: hands and skin so worn that you know he has at some point been to the ER for coughing blood or with his face smashed in. Sometimes you see it merely around the eyes: a triple layer of crow’s feet or lids that have closed with a thousand-hour sleep.
They confound, and that is how you know. Mixed with the signals of worn-to-hell-and-back are the signs of forward motion: shoulders down and relaxed, pink in the cheeks, a clean jacket, or a book. It’s in the eyes: the Buddha-look of a man who sits with craving living inside his skull and decides, today, not to act on it. Decides, instead, to make eye contact and see other humans in the way that, honestly, few humans can bear to see each other. Decides to watch that fire burn and tend it with the help of his team.
Jules and I, we’ve had babies with these men. And we find it hard to explain the body’s intuition. We love them best, maybe because they’ve broken our hearts. So we meet with our kind, and then we meet for coffee to talk and fill in blanks in numbered lists, stitching together our rafts to weather the storms we are drawn to.
Fifteen years ago, I used to hate them, the druggies and drunks and homewreckers, even the sober ones. I could not abide a minute, a glance, a polite nod hello. I slipped past them at the entrances to churches, on my way to my meetings for loving addicts and alcoholics, down the hall from their meetings. I wanted to retch at the smell of their cigarette smoke, the orange glowing dots moving up and down in the night as they sucked in nicotine before turning inside to suck in hope.
That was the time in my life when I said I didn’t want to read Moby-Dick because I already had a few too many dicks in my life.
I shook and cowered and post-post-traumatic-stressed and cried and fluttered and could not look anyone in the eye. I was a shaking rigid terrified sparrow-squirrel sobbing on the subway. I was wrecked collateral-damage harpy shrew. I was turned to stone and salt.
Last month after a meeting, a guy came up to me and smiled. The marks on his face betrayed a certain geology of the soul.
His skin seemed a little more tightly stretched around his skull, his eyes a little deep-set in his head. His clothing—in a way I can barely explain—seemed as though it had just been put on him, layered over another and scarier life, from which he had just emerged. These guys: they wake up, see demons, shower, and stride into the world fresh and yet scathed, perfectly aware of what they’ve left behind. They are rooted in their seats, where they are. They turn their heads to look at you, and they are on, shining like a second-chance Icarus who has to come to Daedalus and say, Dad, I fucked up. They should be dead.
Swamp. Skin. Icarus. All this in a half-second when this man smiled at me.
“Do I know you from the other rooms?” he asked, eyes both dark and clear. Other rooms—did he mean other houses? No. He meant: Are you a “double winner”? Are you both scorched by another person’s addiction and also at the same time a survivor of your own addiction?
That’s what some people carry.
“No, just this one,” I said, meaning I’m not an addict. “But I look like a lot of people.” I smiled and hugged him. “Have a good week.”
Fifteen years ago, I would have seen it as an insult. Today, I know why addicts claim their label: a spear to nail the truth, a story carved as scrimshaw.
I was mistaken for an addict, and I gloated. I savored it for the ride home and a few days afterward. This was a chip I had not realized I could collect. I didn’t know I wanted it: that someone had seen something I’d done or said and thought, There is a spine forged from fighting monsters. And that is also true.
Jules and I meet at Starbucks to work her step, which means she answers questions in a book and I listen, an empty-handed guide. We say the book is annoying, and by annoying, we mean that it is so direct and honest that it makes us wince at our own reflections until we get used to seeing what we see. We lean over the book and howl with laughter at our matching messed-up histories, and people at the tables on either side of us stop and stare. The point—the desperate jewel—has been to get to where we don’t care who hears our deepest secrets in a Starbucks.
We’re here at Starbucks, maybe because Starbuck was the chief mate in Moby-Dick, guiding the Pequod toward Captain Ahab’s fatal desire for whale, his craving for craving itself, his desire to extract and burn the essence of another. Starbuck, a Quaker, was the only character who stood up to Ahab. Did you know that Perth, the ship’s blacksmith, was an alcoholic whose wife and children had fled his drunken rages? Perth forges the harpoon to spear the white whale. Did you know that several people in Herman Melville’s family suffered from alcoholism, that he served under an alcoholic ship captain who was the model for Ahab, and that, later in his life, he struggled mightily with alcohol himself?
Herman M. died a half-century too soon to sit in a meeting with Bill W., who helped make our twelve-step ship.
Jules tells me she overheard a guy talking on the phone earlier. He spoke a few key words, maybe higher power or personal inventory or amends. She said hi to the guy, told him she was eavesdropping, and they chatted about the program.
“An older guy,” she said. “You just know sometimes.”
I nodded. “Ahh, those AA old-timers, they’re so great. No bullshit.” I pictured a plaid shirt, remains of a beer gut, gimlet eye to pierce the hide of a white whale.
She shook her head and laughed. “No, this one was dapper. True sense of style.”
“Coke?” I wondered.
We laughed, burning the oiled essence of darkness for light. We think we know our men, this universe of them, what drinkers look like in recovery versus those lured by coke or crack, how the men who’ve been to meth and back might shine, what they look like polished up and restored. We know, and yet we never know, which is why we’re here. We’ve seen the imprint on skin and teeth and scalp and face, and yet we know enough to know our guesses always fall short. We know only that we love them, the Starbucks, the first mates of the shipwrecked and the saved.