Getting choked during sex. Hot sauce that thins the veils between dimensions. Tastes that bite back, scents that depilate the nostrils. These are some of the affinities, she’s told, that betray an alcoholic. Catherine loves them all.
The Methodist church is like any other in Harvard Square – boxy, spired, contrite. Her hackles rise instinctively, though the lawn is colonized by winky liberal dog-whistles – rainbow flags, “Jesus wasn’t white!” signs, marquees translated into Portuguese and Haitian Creole. She sheds her layers as she walks, wafting through the telltale sting of cinnamon in the foyer.
“You want some?” says a man with voluminous curls and a neatly pressed argyle sweater. He whips out a silver pane of Big Red and unsheathes it like a box cutter. He is the spiritual and aesthetic twin of Bob Ross or Ted Bundy – she can’t tell.
“No, thanks,” she says, still shambling through the phantom pangs of hangover. Her brain is a single kale leaf eddying on the blades of a blender.
“No worries,” he shrugs. “No one likes cinnamon anyway.”
* * *
All AA meetings are the same, even if they are billed – like this one – as “queer-friendly.” Squirrelly white dudes, jaundiced walls, fold-up chairs before a lectern. It’s a mass stripped of holiness, free from the watermarks of metanoia. There’s no coffee, just a variety box of herbal tea she’s forced to conspicuously fingerbang for the last packet of Constant Comment. She takes a seat next to a concave, well-dressed twink who excuses himself to the bathroom and never comes back.
“My name is Catherine and I’m an alcoholic.” (“Hi, Catherine.”)
“Yesterday was the day of my Last Drink,” she continues, warming to the story’s liturgical rhythms, nailing every prodigal beat. She glosses the valleys and softens the peaks, steering a wide berth around ecstasy or bathos.
Here, there is no story but The Story: the addict’s cosmic emptiness. She’s a famine, a blood countess, a body made of mouths, a buccal cavity suckling the dummies of cheap menthols and diet Christianity, slurp slurp slurp, one day at a time until the end of time. Itworksifyouworkit.
“Thank you, Catherine.” The man in argyle blows an affirming red-hot bubble, like a cartoon mouth.
* * *
On the Day of the Last Drink, Catherine pays twenty bucks to see an entomologist lecture at a cemetery chapel. The topic is maggots and their forensic uses – a topic just jauntily unhinged enough to lure a recovering alcoholic.
The real draw, of course, is the drink ticket covered by the entrance fee. A cup of mulled cider with a shot of Hendrick’s. A symbolic amount, she thinks. A thimble, an ampoule, a lagniappe of gin. Her palm already aches for the paper cup’s wafery heft.
The cemetery is a ghostless green screen commandeered by bored teens. Girls spread out picnic blankets and strip to bikini tops in the unseasonable 60-degree weather. Boys slump into pietas against colonial vaults, mirroring the gouty cherubs passed out above their heads. Someone strums a ukulele.
The chapel is built in a modernist style, favoring natural forms and earth tones. Domed roof, radial jellyfish columns. In this dim, amphibious space, it feels safe to sink into the squelchy mudflat of hangover, its ferrous flavors and vapors. Her hands feel weirdly dusty, like velvet stroked against its grain.
Slide after slide of maggots appears projected on the back wall. Blues-rocking at the lips of wounds, pouring into necrotic tissue like sacks of coffee beans.
A faint tinnitus in her left ear builds to a full-body yawp. She can barely hear the lecture over her own mental Muzak.
Miss Suzy had a steamboat the steamboat had a bell DING DING the NIGHT they INVENTED champagne
Finally. A cater waiter wheels out the promised cart of mulled ciders. Most of the audience politely declines (it is 11 in the morning) so she tosses back The Last Drink four times. Four thimbles. A good, even, final number.
Softly, lovingly, the entomologist launches into the life cycle of the flatworm larva. She’s oddly touched by his nebbishy graces, his rare true southie accent.
“Nature is a stunning thing! First, a cow expels and deposits the larva into snail excrement, which is ingested by an ant. Next, the larva hijacks the ant’s brain and ‘drives’ its body to the tip of a grass blade, where – if you can believe! - a grazing cow laps it up, et voila! It resumes its life as a parasite, and the cycle continues.”
He proudly presents a snifter of dead maggots to the audience, which they are invited to pass around like a kiss of peace at a rotted midnight mass.
Idiots, she thinks. People will think dog hair is the crown jewels if you charge them admission for it, but already the gin is working her over, hollowing, hallowing. And also with you.
How easy it is to deconsecrate a place, to raze the pup-tents of fellowship we pitch.
When it’s her turn, she holds it to the light and squints indulgently, getting her money’s worth. In stillness, the worms’ proximity to beauty is striking. They are the ciliated tummies of sea-stars, Chihuly glass, geysers embalmed, Medusa curls defanged by sleep. She has a sudden, terrible thought: Things are only sacred in death.
Hair-of-the-dog turns to crown jewels. Her spirit kicks itself free from its ghoulish netting, rising, lengthening from sea cucumber into siren. She reaches for a fifth Last Drink, an eggcup of gin, a valediction of gin. Thanks be to God.
* * *
The maggot story is charming enough to win her a post-meeting invite to dinner with four of the other drunks. They especially love her impression of the presenter, hooting “Naycha is a STUNNING THING!” in Good Will Hunting accents. They order heaping plates of empanadas, ziggurats of too-salty tortilla chips. She feels like a warrior in a mead hall.
This is the thing that Catherine loves most about alcoholics: their bellicosity of desire, the way they can cram all of nature’s largesse into one giant tumbler of Mountain Dew (extra ice). No room here for oh-I-couldn’t-possibly and that’s-enough-for-me-thanks.
She’s sandwiched between the cinnamon gum guy – real name Robbie – and a sexy genderqueer person named CJ. Together they ransack the hot sauce basket, hosing their plates in fountains of flavor. She sneaks a peek at the other two: Todd, a mostly silent trucker in his sixties, and Evan, a fey Dungeon Master with a laugh that sounds like a poodle retching. The kind of people she’d love at a bar, call sacred to their face.
“I like your taste in hot sauce. Are you from Boston?” she says to CJ. She can’t stop thinking about slipping their helix piercing into her mouth.
“Cape Cod,” says CJ calmly.
“Oh, wow. My ex lived there and I used to go every Thanksgiving in college. It’s really beautiful. I mean I’m from California so I’m not a big fan of pebbled beaches, but –”
“Lots of drug addicts there. It’s why I left.” CJ slams the Mountain Dew and starts in on an ice water. “What’s your name again?” She desperately wishes they were on a date, scorching their throats on bottomless margaritas instead of Cholula.
“Catherine. I was named after a Byzantine saint. Catherine of Alexandria, a martyr. According to legend, she was supposed to be tortured on a wheel, but it broke. She ended up getting beheaded, though. Ironic, in the Alanis sense.” Oversharing isn’t just the vernacular of drinkers.
Before CJ can react to this, Robbie says loudly, “Do you know that Anne Bancroft was only thirty-five when they filmed The Graduate – just six years older than Dustin Hoffman?”
“No-o,” scats Evan, looking genuinely shocked.
“I liked her in Torch Song Trilogy,” says Todd.
Robbie, it turns out, loves old Hollywood podcasts. He also loves mockumentaries and Ken Burns and might be schizophrenic? The verdict’s out, he hears voices but he knows they’re just delusions. Once, when he was eight years old, he crawled under the kitchen sink and scoured his wrists with Brillo pads until they stung. Has anyone else seen Feud?
Catherine has always assumed that having friends in AA would be like joining a respectable cabal of special-interest snobs, like cribbage players or beekeepers. Not this Red Hat Society of shell-shocked goobers.
Mercifully, Evan and Todd have both seen Feud and have a lot to say about it. CJ taps Catherine on the forearm.
“Hey,” they say. “Do you want my number – for fellowship? I also give Tarot readings if that’s something you’re drawn to.”
“God, I’d love a Tarot reading,” says Catherine. For fellowship. CJ puts their name in Catherine’s contacts as “CJ Meeting.”
“I’ll do one for you now, if you want. Just a simple past-present-future draw.”
They produce a Tarot deck from a knapsack trimmed with pins and patches, hanky-code phrases in faux-needlepoint. ACAB. POWR BOTTM. THEY-THEM GEM.
“Do you have a specific question in mind?” CJ folds the deck into Catherine’s hands and presses for a sacramental thirty seconds. Her palms feel hot-wired to her pelvis.
Why am I here? Why aren’t you kissing me?
“No, not really. Uh, just – what does the rest of this year look like?”
CJ pull three cards: Five of Swords, Queen of Pentacles, and a card particular to this deck, Power. They spread out their napkin like an altar cloth and arrange the cards on their lap.
The deck is styled like a queer zine. “Queen of Pentacles” is a fat stripper femme reclining on a hammock of dollar bills. “Power” is a woman of almost cornucopic butchness: saggy breasts, turdlike cigar, mudflap girl tattooed on her bicep. D Y K E stick-and-poked across her knuckles. Okay, CJ.
“This year, you’ve been called to do some shadow work, some real interior grappling on the hook.” (Who is this elegant cryptid? No one talks like that.)
“There’s trauma and loss there, kind of a staggering amount,” says CJ. They trace a line through present and past that sends a ghostly stipple down Catherine’s spine.
“But beyond all that, you’re going to be tough,” they add, tapping the Power card. “This is the year you’re going to channel some real grit – your Big Dick Energy, so to speak. This year, you’re taking shit from nobody.
“Does that resonate for you?” they conclude in a practiced earth-mother tone that makes her eyes well despite herself.
She nods, but it doesn’t. Her buzz-cut and facial piercings have always just been window dressing for a sniveling core of bourgeois fragility. Queerness aside, that dyke on a bike is a lineage she’d never have the brass to claim.
I’m Catherine and I’m an alcoholic. She’s never had a DUI, or anything remotely constituting a rock bottom. Not a soupcon of Big Dick Energy. Is there a midpoint in recovery between funny-farm savant and rarefied elfin hottie?
“Thanks,” she says. “Yeah, that feels … so right.”
“Cool,” says CJ, shoving the deck into an embroidered drawstring bag. “Gotta go – T’s only running for another two hours and I live way out in JP.”
How easy it is to deconsecrate a place, to raze the pup-tents of fellowship we pitch.
“Yeah, I should get going too,” says Catherine, though she lives two stops away in Somerville.
Robbie abruptly stops prattling (he’s now moved on, apparently, to reciting dialogue from All About Eve). He grasps Catherine’s arm in a shockingly warm, dry pair of hands. Up close, his curls sway like dampened sea-grass on the Cape.
“Safe travels,” he says. “It does get better, you know.”
Something lush and urgent breaches the air between them, like the nip of cinnamon.
“FASTEN YOUR SEATBELTS. IT’S GONNA BE A BUMPY NIGHT!” Evan roars by way of send-off.
On the T ride home, she deletes CJ Meeting’s number.
Kat Black is a queer non-binary writer whose nonfiction and poetry have appeared in The Rumpus, Cagibi Journal and the poetry journals Sinister Wisdom, Skin to Skin, and Stone Pacific Zine. After placing in the 2013 Robin Becker Chapbook Contest, their chapbook The Paper God was published in 2017 by Seven Kitchens Press. Before moving to Seattle, they lived for several years in Shanghai, China and London, UK. “Cinnamon Gum” is their first short story.