I was eight months sober when I entered the contest. It was a benefit for children or refugees or some poor subsection of humanity which yearned for assistance. They wanted you to make a donation to enter, that was the catch. I gave five dollars. I suspected the more you gave, the better your chances of winning but five bucks was all I had. When five bucks is all you have in the world it’s like giving ten thousand dollars. But they won’t know that. They’ll just think I’m cheap if they think anything at all.
It was one of those online contests. The prize was to spend a night on the town in New York City with actor slash comedian Blaise Winch, having dinner, jazzing it up. Whatever you do with a celebrity on a night out in New York. I’d seen some of Winch’s movies. I felt his talent was being wasted on poor plot lines but that was just my opinion. I mean, there was that one, where he became drunk and was swallowed by a whale and coughed up near an Eskimo village where he became integrated over time and eventually became the town mayor. I mean how lame is that?
But Winch was newly sober too and I wrote it off to his impaired judgment. I’m not a hard ass. I cut him some slack.
So I gave five dollars and clicked on the ENTER button and forgot all about it. You know how it is. Enter a contest and never hear another word about it. I was more focused on getting my one year of sobriety medal. Only three more months and twelve days which I told myself wasn’t anything in comparison to the span of the cosmos but which felt to me like ten eternities squared.
Blaise Winch is lucky to be alive. His antics before quitting booze and drugs were classic Hollywood dark matter. You know, that behind the closed door stuff which seemed to hold the fabric of Hollywood together and was supposed to be secret but never was? Show business is loud both on and off the field and Blaise was no exception. Every day if I thought about it, I expected to pick up the paper and read his obit. It was only a matter of time.
But he lived. And wormed his way back, earning trust in increments. Each movie was a little bigger than the last and made a larger splash. Soon he was back to his former heights, before the bottle began sucking back and took it all away. These things happen. No one likes a fuck-up until they are dead. It’s better to survive.
In case you haven’t guessed, I won the godamned contest. The selection was to be on May 5th but I paid little mind to the date until I started receiving emails and texts. YOU ARE THE WINNER! they proclaimed. But I’m the kind of guy who never trusts good fortune. I think it’s some kind of alcoholic trait. It took awhile to sink in, this news. I waited a full day before I responded.
Contact was made. I proved I was me and they proved they were them. Plans were made. Air fare was booked. Accommodations. I was to fly to New York in two weeks time. A suite at the Plaza would be waiting for me. A limo would pick me up at the airport. New York City would be mine for a night.
Then I thought, I don’t really want to do this. Am I the only person on this planet who doesn’t want to spend a night in NYC with Blaise Winch? What is wrong with me? I can’t back out now. Think of how many people would die to be in my position and here I am, just wanting to stay home and read my books. What the fuck?
I’m looking into the mirror in my room at the Plaza, trying to convince myself that I don’t look like a hick from the Midwest. I do but I am OK with that. I’m wearing tan chinos and a white cotton shirt. I’ve been drinking Perrier all afternoon and my insides feel bubbly. I have nothing to say to Blaise Winch, our lives couldn’t be more different. He’s from a Hollywood family and his world (I suspect) is based on that kind of non-reality that stars inhabit. Does he know our country is filled with citizens like myself, real life people who have never done anything amazing during their time on the planet? I can’t impress. I can only buy tickets to his movies. And I haven’t even seen them all.
I’m thinking about a tie when the desk calls and announces a visitor. I pick up and say I’ll be right down. I feel relief when I think this will all be over tomorrow and I’ll have a story to tell my grand children if I ever breed any.
Downstairs in the lobby I see Winch before he sees me. I have the advantage of anonymity so I capture the moment, taking in the scene before I break the bubble and introduce myself.
Winch is standing by himself, wearing shades and a casual suit while he whistles softly to himself, his right hand clasped on his left wrist. I approach and extend my arm.
Instant animation. He’s on. I introduce myself as he bows and claps as if he’s leading a marching band at halftime.
We shake hands which seems anti-climatic to his antics. Already I feel stupid, standing there dull witted, not sure what to do.
“Please follow me,” Winch commands as he sweeps his arm toward the exit.
We cross the lobby past the doorman who regards us in that quiet awe I suspect New Yorkers do with celebrities. Outside dusk is falling. I spot a white limo which I assume is waiting for us and I look past it into Central Park and think for a moment of sprinting into its greenery.
I say it out loud.
“I want a drink.”
Winch pops his eye brows as he gestures me into the limo.
“Why of course, drinks!”
I stop by the door.
“You don’t understand, I don’t drink.”
This stops him for a moment. He lets his mask down.
“Oh, you drink but you don’t, or…”
“Yes,” I say. “Exactly.”
Winch points a finger skyward like an exclamation point. Every move he makes seems so theatrical that I wonder if he ever stops.
“I get it, you’re…like me. A friend of Bill Ws, right?”
“Yes…that’s it. Me and Bill W.”
I wonder what the limo driver is thinking. This moment is stressful. I tend to have out of body experiences during such episodes. I segway into the sky. Down the street. Anywhere but here really.
Winch is seized with a new purpose. He gave the driver an address on Perry Street, wherever that was. It was out of my hands. We were off and running.
Our limo sliced through the city evening like a whale in a sea of minnows. I had the vague idea that we were heading south. Winch began to point out sights along the way.
“And see over there? That’s the building in front of which Marilyn Monroe’s dress blew up in that famous shot.”
“Wasn’t that in Arizona?” I said.
“You’re good, you’re good. You certainly ain’t no country bumpkin.”
Yes I am I thought, and he knows it. Too fucking bad.
“And see that church? That’s where Tom Thumb was married.”
I couldn’t dispute that. Tom Thumb was out of my comfort zone.
Outside our window couples were strolling. It was Friday night and lives were being led. I marveled about how this had all been going on without me, all these people doing things, eating, drinking, kissing. All oblivious of my life in Ohio.
We finally pulled up before our destination, an old church with men and women milling about, smoking cigarettes and talking.
“Thank you driver.”
We drew stares as we disembarked. Winch donned his sun glasses as if this would disguise him. We darted into the ambling crowd, a bit overdressed as it dawned on me that Winch had brought me to an AA meeting. A real life AA meeting in New York City.
We shook hands with the sidewalk stragglers. No one seemed to care who we were or why we were there. It was NY after all. That being done, we walked down the steps into the basement. Men and women sat at long tables, talking, staring, sipping coffee, eating donuts.
“Double trouble,” Winch whispered into my ear. “Double trouble,” he repeated. “You been to one of these? For bipolar drunks?”
I looked around. Indeed, our tribe seemed to range from the catatonic to the somewhat animated, an entire spectrum contained in one room. A large overweight man sat at the table gazing into his coffee as though he spied something in the bottom of his cup, like maybe he dropped a penny in it and made a wish. I wonder what his wish would be. Then I wondered if he still had enough gumption to make a wish.
Another man was in conversation with a young woman dressed in vaguely flapperish style with a longish gown draped from her shoulders and ending near her ankles in sequined tatters. Upon closer inspection he wasn’t talking with her but moving every part of his body as if he were acting in a silent film. What bothered me most were those with a look of laser-like focus, as if they were about to chop and mince your thoughts and sautee them with your sliced lymph glands. They seemed to be on the edge of something. That abyss where mental patients go and jump. That place.
After milling about, Winch and I grabbed some coffee and powdered donuts and sat at the end of a long table, a discreet distance from the recovering nucleus. I had the sense everyone was keenly aware of our presence. And showed it by ignoring us. But then again I’d never been in an AA meeting in NYC with bipolar alcoholics and a film celebrity. This was virgin terra.
After awhile a few people came by and introduced themselves and shook our hands. They didn’t seem to care who we were, they were in their own worlds, doing silent battles with interior demons, playing mental racquetball with Satan’s minions or swimming in vast oceans of thick chocolate syrup. Something. They were bathroom doors with the OCCUPIED sign on.
At some point I noticed a large balding and sweaty man sitting next to me. The word disheveled came to mind – he had an aura. An aura of being ill at ease. Then without warning, he leaned over and whispered in my ear.
“I’m in the gray zone.”
“I’ve been there,” I whispered back. I had no idea what the fuck he was talking about but he seemed comforted by our solidarity. But who’s to say I’m not living in a gray zone? I have no idea.
I had powdered sugar on my fingers and the coffee in my styrofoam cup tasted like drainage run off. It dawned on me that I could have been at Le Cirque or Tavern on the Green. Instead we were in a smelly basement sitting next to a fat man in the gray zone. I’m ok with this, I thought.
Winch was strangely subdued. For the first time all evening he was “off” and I stole side glances to view him in his natural state. I wondered what our own florescent world looked like from behind his shades.
As if sensing my encroachment, he leaned his head toward me in that quirky comedic way he does in his movies and asked, “it’s a round robin tonight, you gonna share?”
If you are not an alcoholic and or addict of some kind, a round robin is a meeting format where the attendees go around the room and share what is on their mind. It’s a spill your guts kind of thing. Never leaves the room. Just between us all.
“I don’t know yet,” I said. I was getting an edgy rush from the donuts and toxic run-off java. I felt a sudden sense of unreality, being in a strange city, sitting next to a film star, shaking hands with bipolar alcoholics. It wasn’t a life I imagined.
We read the steps. Read the promises. Passed the hat. Signed get well cards for our ailing fellows. I had another donut. Winch was silent.
A slender and taut woman named Annie started us off. I was distracted by the sheen of her skin. I couldn’t tell if it was a uniform sweat caused by some toxic drug discharge or perhaps a fancy skin treatment that hadn’t made it to the Midwest yet.
“My name is Anne and I’m a bipolar alcoholic.”
“I’ve been sober eleven months.”
Faint claps, cheers. I can hear the fat gray zone man next to me wheezing.
“But the one thing I really need to share and I haven’t brought it up yet is that I can’t get off steroids. I try and try…”
“Steroids? Jesus!” someone shouts.
“No cross talk,” says the meeting chairman. “Let her share.”
I could sense the thoughts racing through her head, such as, was it a good idea to share this? Her sheen increases. I sense she might be going super nova.
“I can’t, I just can’t…”
New Yorkers don’t wait. Next up was a thin, anxious man who looked like Walter Mitty. His arm was raised like a third grader. The man was crazy to share.
“Thanks Annie. I can relate to your sharing what you never shared. We probably all need to do this with our rotten skeletons dangling in our closets?” He paused for breath. “See this watch?” He rotates his arm like a floor model on The Price Is Right, showing off what seemed to be a pricey watch. “I was pulling bodies out of the rubble on 9/11. A man in a suit was crushed by the debris. His arms were sticking out as if he were waiting for someone to come along and pull him out, so I did. There was enough wiggle room to slide him out which I did. I thought he might still be alive but he wasn’t. But as I pulled his arms, his watch slid off into my hand. I realized it was a Rolex, a gift maybe, for being there, for trying to help. I haven’t stopped wearing it since. Somehow, I don’t know, I feel like I keep that man’s spirit alive as I wear it. Or maybe I just wanted his Rolex, fuck, I don’t know… I might have gone out drinking that day but every time I looked at the watch it said no. I know I’m crazy. I’ve never mentioned this before. The watch just keeps ticking.”
The room paused a moment to take this in. I noticed Winch glance at his watch (not a Rolex) whether out of time constraint or to compare his own finery, I don’t know.
We thanked Walter Mitty. The mention of 9/11 was still a buzz kill, no irony intended. The room stirred uneasily, this wasn’t your usual AA meeting featuring the humming of the newly sober vibrating throughout the room and speaking in staccato rhythms. No, this was a different wave length with hints of deeper psychosis and tones of disturbance. Never having been to a Double-Trouble meeting, I could see immediately that it was a different animal, not what you normally see in the zoo. These were top shelf specimens with intricate weaves of difficulty.
Two more people shared on the theme of the unshared. Laundry was being aired. Bodies that had been dragged into the alley were now brought out and propped up for show and tell. It wasn’t pleasant stuff but like a gory auto wreck, you couldn’t look away. I was close in line to share. I still hadn’t decided what to say if I did.
A wiry black woman was premiering her story about a kitten she killed when she was a child. She placed it in a microwave to warm it up. It had been snowing out and the kitty was half frozen. The result traumatized her and over the years she remained haunted by it.
My mind drifted, wondering what my childhood would have been like if microwaves had been invented and we had one. I am glad I didn’t know. Meetings usually brought back reveries for me as others shared, though not always as homespun as the microwave lady. More often it was of the half-remembered blackout variety that I couldn’t quite repress all the way.
I had nothing to say.
This brought on a shame attack. I hadn’t hit a deep enough bottom or maybe I had and just couldn’t remember it.
Suddenly I realized the person next to me was silent and had finished talking. Everyone was looking at me. I introduced myself, confessed my addictions and waited. Salutations were returned. So I began.
“I have always pretended to be someone else,” I started off, “even when I was a little kid. For a time I was Johnny Quest or Top cat or Deputy Dog even. I would take their self-esteem because apparently I didn’t have any.”
Murmurs, nods of agreement.
“Why this was I don’t know. I was young. I was feeling things I didn’t have a name for yet. My mother was an alcoholic, I wouldn’t realize that for years but I knew.
“When I was older I became Proust, or Super-Man or van Gogh. Anyone but me. I had no idea I was going to share this? I’ve never even thought about it until now, I don’t know where it came from. Is this fucked or what?”
I thanked the room.
Winch looked at me like I was an oddity and then he activated. His face lit up.
“Hi, I’m Blaise. I’m a movie star, asshole and addict.”
Cheers and catcalls. Permission was given to gawk.
“I never had that problem,” he said, alluding to me. “I had so much self-esteem it oozed out of my manicured pores. In fact I had too much.” He paused.
“Yes, I was above the laws of nature and was untouchable. But you’ve read the papers. Heard the gossip. It was all true. My ego was at the wheel and my disease was as active as Mad Max. But like Max, I eventually ran out of gas.”
Nods, consolations. Poor Blaise
“I was a poor little rich boy. I too began to pretend I was someone else.. Not someone famous, not a president or Pope. But someone anonymous. Anyone who could walk around and not be noticed. I wanted to be…invisible.”
Uh huhs. The entire room was rapt. America loves their movie stars, even the trashy ones.
“The harder I tried to be invisible? The more visible I became. I took my problem to my Zen Master and I presented it like a koan. You know, like a riddle? And you know what he said?”
Silence. Like the kind before a storm.
“He said ‘stop trying and you will succeed.’ Thank you for listening.”
“Stop trying!” someone shouted.
I clapped faintly. After all, I was his guest. But what a piece of Zen bubble gum shit, I thought. Really?
The next four people who shared talked about how great Winch’s message was and how they were going to stop trying so hard. So I had to sit through all that. I caught Walter Mitty looking at his 9/11 watch. I regarded the cat microwaver and tried to put that picture out of my mind. Corpse robbers and cat cookers, was this really my tribe? I looked around. Probably so.
The meeting was winding down. I felt antsy. I felt uncomfortable with a known movie star by my side. The basement air smelled rank and chemical, perhaps an odor given off by bipolars as they switched gears. The stench of cravings and anti-psyche meds and metallic fumes of schizophrenic fermentation.
The meeting ended with a circle and the serenity prayer. Three people fought over who got to hold Winch’s hand.
God, grant me the serenity…
I grabbed a donut for the road and then another. It was going to take awhile to get out of here. Everyone wanted to thank Winch for his message, shake his hand and take a selfie with him. So much for anonymity.
When we finally headed out to the street, our limo appeared as if conjured by a Shaman. Winch worked his way through the crowd, slapping backs and waving while I slipped by un-noticed. I thanked my higher power for my invisibility. Invisible is good. I know that now.
We drove away, a donut still in my pocket. I was always happy to come out ahead.
David Breithaupt joins a long line of relatives who have scribbled throughout the ages. He has just finished a novel, Excuse Me While I Disappear, and is at work on a second. His essays, interviews and stories have appeared in the Exquisite Corpse, the LA Review of Books, the Rumpus, Bookslut and other venues.
He lived in NYC for many years. During that time he worked for various bookstores including the Brazenhead Bookshop, run by the late, great Michael Seidenberg and also a stint with Rolling Stone Magazine, the NY Public Library and as an archives assistant for Allen Ginsberg. He currently lives in a dangerous neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, with his dog Wrigley.
If you enjoyed ‘What You Wish For’ leave a comment and let David know.
You can read more of David’s writing below:
Interview with Jerry Stahl
LA Review of Books
“JD & Me”
Short story – Exquisite Corpse
Interview with Charles Bowden
Interview with Madison Young
Interview with Bruce Bauman
Rewriting My Ghost
Essay The Manifest-Station
You can find and follow David at:
Photo by DizzyRoseblade
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