Fiction: Andrea Gregory’s Activities

We’re very happy to share Andrea Gregory’s story “Activities” as a little reminder that while we won’t be accepting new poetry and non-fiction submissions until August, we will continue to read your fiction. Send us your stories!

Andrea Gregory’s story feels very current as individuals and communities around the world attempt to find “the new normal” and to struggle with the feelings of crisis and pain. She does not approach current events directly, but communicates a sense of anticipation and anxiety though the everyday life of its main character, Leah. 

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If you’d like to read the rest of this issue of North Dakota Quarterlyyou can download it here for free. There’s no catch. You can also read more for this issue by clicking here.

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Activities

Everyone I know is a recovering alcoholic. All they ever want to talk about is how they don’t drink anymore. It’s boring. The only time they tell the good stories is when they get together in secret meetings held in the church basement. Sometimes I go to these meetings. They’re for members only. I joined for the activities.

“Hi, my name is Leah, and I’m an alcoholic,” I say to an audience sitting in a semi-circle of folding chairs. “It has been twenty-six hours since my last drink.” I don’t want to lie. I used to lie a lot as a kid. I try not to do it as much anymore.

The group looks at me with disappointed eyes.

“It’s okay,” says Mark. I get that a lot.

Yesterday, I was invited out for drinks after work. I’m only the receptionist so it was a pity invite. I had one beer and left.

Mark and I are sort of dating. I can’t drink in front of him so we don’t go out a lot. I can’t even call him for drunk sex, which has been my favorite kind of sex since my early 20s. Sometimes I call and try to hide it. He always knows. He’ll come over anyway because he thinks he’s my sponsor. That’s when the no-drinking-drinking-is-bad-we-can-rise-above-this-accept-the-things-we-cannot-change conversations start.

I look back at Mark with disappointed eyes. Sometimes I wish he still drank. Just a little or on special occasions. We would have more fun.

He looks away, down at the floor, and uses the palms of his hands to cup his chin, resting his elbows just above his knees. It blocks out his stubble that’s creeping into a beard. His hair has gotten a little shaggy and flops around his face. He tilts his head to look at me again. I want a smile or even a half smile. I get nothing from him.

Next up is Mary. Mary is the one who got me started in all this. She lives across the hall from me. We used to get together and drink wine every night. I know all of Mary’s secrets, and she knows mine.

“Hi, my name is Mary, and I’m an alcoholic.”

She used to look sad when she said it, but now she looks happy with a wide smile. She is the social-event planner for the group. She organizes the bowling league, the badminton tournament, the knitting circle and speed walking in the park. I take part in two of the activities, the bowling league and the knitting circle. I don’t do either one very well. Occasionally I will sneak drinks in the ladies bathroom at the bowling alley. Mary knows I do this and because of that thinks I’m an alcoholic too. She didn’t use to think that. It doesn’t matter. She thinks everyone who is not in AA is a closet alcoholic. She didn’t use to think that, either.

Tom is next. I find it strange that he is sitting next to Mary, because they are divorced. It turned out they had more problems sober than they did drunk. Tom used to live across the hall with Mary. Now he rents a room at the Y. He says he likes it there and feels free of commitments. His only commitment is to not drinking. He and Mary don’t even talk now.

One time they had a custody battle over their dog right in the middle of an AA meeting. It was the most interesting AA meeting ever. Who should get the beagle named Barney? That was before Tom realized he wanted to live at the Y forever and couldn’t have pets.

Barney howls most nights. It doesn’t wake me if I’m already asleep. It usually starts around eleven. Mary says it wakes her up. She never really wanted Barney. Sure, she thought he was cute, but he was Tom’s idea.

She said she only fought for him because she wanted something to hold on to while the relationship was crumbling. She said the custody dispute happened during an AA meeting because that’s the only place she could get Tom to talk to her.

He usually sits on the other side of the room, directly across from her. Everyone knows it, so that seat is sort of reserved for him. He says it’s the seat farthest away from his ex. Only downside is that he has to look directly at her if he’s not turning his head.

Today is Tom’s anniversary. He gets a chip. Everyone claps as he holds it up with a victory punch in the air. He smiles and slips the chip in his pocket.

Roy is Tom’s sponsor. Tom got me a job working for Roy. Roy sells cars at Roy’s Used Cars and Car Cleaning Service. I had no experience in sales, but Roy owed Tom a favor. Roy gave me a job answering the phone. I was the favor.

Mary hates that I didn’t stop talking to Tom. She says I should have picked a side. She also hates Roy. Says he’s trouble. Blames him a little bit for the divorce. Roy and Tom know each other from their drinking days.

Roy slips up on occasion. He keeps a bottle of Dewar’s in the bottom drawer of his desk at work for when this happens. He knows I’ll join him and won’t tell anyone. He says he used to drink the really good stuff. He says people used to buy more cars.

“And we have an announcement,” Tom says, reaching for Mary’s hand. She gives it to him, and I can tell he is holding on tight. “We are moving to Arizona.”

What? The group is quiet and confused. What will happen to the group? Who will take over planning and organizing all the activities? Let there be one last ski trip, I pray, looking down at my shoes. The insides of the heels of my shoes are always scuffed. It must be the way I walk.

I have never been on one of these ski trips, but, really, that is the whole reason I joined. Carol is a grant writer and somehow comes up with funding for everyone to spend a week at Sugar Hill. Because I work for Roy’s Used Cars and Car Cleaning Service, I cannot afford a vacation. But thanks to AA, all that was supposed to change. Arizona will ruin everything. What is there in Arizona?

“A clean start,” Tom tells the group, and Mary smiles.

She won’t look me in the eyes. She knows I am upset. She has told me nothing about any of this. Who is this smiling woman holding Tom’s hand? She hates Tom.

“I’ll organize the ski trip,” I say. I jump to my feet for this announcement.

People look at me like they are disappointed, the same way they look when they hear how much time has gone by since my last drink. I have been accused of not taking my sobriety seriously. Not to my face, but other people have told me it has been said. They never tell me who said it. Now they all think I can’t be trusted to run the ski trip. I fear no one else is going to step in. Participants in the activities are not the same as leaders. None of my friends feel like leaders. Mary is the closest thing to a leader we’ve got. And now she is moving to Arizona.

“We will still be here for the ski trip. You can sit down, Leah,” Mary says.

I feel my face get warm.

“Of course, you can help, Leah. Anyone can help.”

The open invitation does not feel inviting. Mary doesn’t want my help. She never even told me she was thinking about getting back together with Tom.

“Well, can we talk about the ski trip?” I ask.

“Tom hasn’t finished his announcement.” She looks at me while she’s talking but then looks back at Tom. She pats the top of his hand with her free one. Their grip on each other looks so tight it hurts. The tap is to let him know he should continue talking. He does.

“And, yes, we are back together,” Tom says.

Everyone claps like it’s big news. This the second time tonight Tom has gotten applause. I join in because everyone else is. You don’t want to stand out too much with this group.

“And with that good news I think we should take a butt break,” says Brian. Brian is our official leader because he starts the serenity prayer and announces breaks. If I weren’t dating Mark, I would be dating Brian. He is losing his hair. There is a circle of baldness that grows every week. With a baseball cap on, he would be fine. I’m attracted to his power. Everyone likes him, and everyone listens to him. He has always been the leader, but if it were not for Mary, we would have no activities.

Everyone gets up, and it is like a mad dash to the stairwell. Up the stairs and out the door, everyone feels like they can breathe better. It’s one of those summer nights that feels colder than it should. Brian is carrying the butt can. Parishioners complained about the cigarettes they had to walk over if they used the side entrance of the church. Now we have to stub them out in a can and take it with us. It’s not a big deal.

I am trying to quit smoking, but I light up in the company of my smoking friends. No one will try to quit with me. They all say you have to pick your vices.

Mark wants to smoke next to me. He tells me I look pretty. I thank him, but I really want to talk to Mary. I tell him I will be right back. I try to get to Mary, but a circle has formed around her. Everyone is congratulating her and Tom and telling them how much they are going to love Arizona. I’m not even sure anyone in the group has been to Arizona. Most haven’t ever traveled outside of New England.

I push my way in and I see that Mary and Tom are still holding hands. I wonder if they held hands all the way up the stairs and out the door. I wonder if they fed each other cigarettes and then lit them for one another so they didn’t have to stop holding each other’s hand.

“Can I talk to you?”

“Sure,” she says.

“Alone?”

“I’ll be right back,” she says to Tom, kissing him on the cheek and finally letting go of her grip on him.

We walk a dozen or so steps away from everyone else. Everyone else is in a puff of smoke. They will light new cigarettes off old ones before they drop them in the can. This will go on until Brian says the break is over.

“Why didn’t you tell me about any of this?” I say, accidentally blowing smoke in her face.

“Because you wouldn’t understand,” she says, letting the smoke drain out her nostrils as she talks. It makes her look unattractive when really she is pretty. I wish she would quit smoking with me.

“I’m supposed to be your best friend.”

“Tom is my best friend.”

“You hate Tom, or at least you did a few days ago.”

“I knew you wouldn’t understand.”

“And you are moving? Don’t you think that is a little drastic? You’ve never been to Arizona, and you don’t know anyone there.”

“I will have Tom, and I will have AA.”

“There’s more to life than that.”

“Not to my life.”

Then we stop talking. We just look at each other, study each other to see if there is really anything we are going to miss. I feel like we are on an island. The parking lot is nearly empty and it feels like a dark sea.

“We can still keep in touch on Facebook and by e-mail,” she says like it is the prize for second best in her life. “Maybe you and Mark can come visit after we get settled.”

“When are you going?”

“After the ski trip. We thought it would be a nice way to say goodbye to everyone.”

“Well, I think it is going to ruin the ski trip. You are going to make the whole trip all about the two of you. And you have to know it’s not going to last between the two of you. There is a reason you guys are divorced.”

“I can’t believe you just said that,” she says.

I don’t say anything back and then we are quiet again. She drops her cigarette to the ground and steps on it. She pulls out another one and looks through her purse for a lighter.

“I left my lighter with Tom,” she says. “I have to go back to him.”

“You don’t,” I tell her, but she walks away from me. My island feels deserted.

I want another cigarette, but giving up chain-smoking is the first step to quitting. I watch the group of alcoholics laughing and smiling. They are a happy group of people. I think I am their saddest member. Maybe it’s because I was never an alcoholic. Maybe it’s because I never hit rock bottom.

I have not suffered enough, Mark once told me. He said I was unscarred. He has scars from putting his fist through a car window. He won’t tell me the story. He said it feels like it happened in a different life. I know he told the story to the group before I joined. I could probably get Mary to tell me the story if I really tried, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

“Time to go back in,” says Brian, waving his free hand as he sucks in as many puffs as he can off the filter of his cigarette.

He drops it in the can at his feet. He picks up the can and passes it around for everyone to drop butts in. He leaves the can at the door and leads the way in. Everyone except Mark follows.

Mark is waiting for me. From a distance, he looks taller and more handsome than he really is. As I walk toward him, he focuses into average. Still good-looking but average.

“I know you’re upset about your friend leaving,” he says.

“She hasn’t left yet.”

“Yes, but she is going to, and things will change.”

“Ten bucks says she’s not gonna do it.”

“Leah, you know I don’t gamble.”

“Right, that’s on Tuesdays.”

Mark has had more problems than any other man I have dated. He also has kids from two different mothers. I’m not sure how many he has. I’ve met some of them, maybe even all of them. I’m awkward around kids. His look sticky and angry. I would never tell him that.

“We should be happy for them,” he says.

“I know, but it’s not like her to keep things from me.”

Mark hugs me. He rests his chin on the top of my head.

“I love you,” I say into his chest. We have been saying it for two weeks and it feels like filler when we run out of things to say to one another.

He says it back to the air above my head.

Back in the basement, no one wants to ruin Tom and Mary’s happiness so they don’t tell sad stories. People ask them things like are they going to get married again and what they are going to do for jobs in Arizona. Tom has found a job. Mary is still looking. They are wearing their wedding rings like they never got divorced. I am surprised I didn’t notice that. I have no idea how long Mary has been wearing her wedding ring. I feel like a bad friend. I want her to turn and smile at me so I know that everything is okay between us. She seems to be avoiding looking at me. I think it’s going to feel like this when she moves away.

“Can we talk about the ski trip?” I say. Someone has to interrupt all the happy-couple talk. It’s like people forgot about the custody battle for Barney. Things had gotten bad, real bad. No one cares about that anymore. But skiing, everyone looks forward to that.

“Okay,” says Mary, looking at me. “I think we should rent a cabin this year. I printed out some listings from the Internet I can pass around.”

She reaches in her purse. The stack is thick and folded in half. You can tell she worked hard on this by sheer volume alone. No doubt, she has picked her favorite. After the excitement of flipping through page after page of rental property pictures and descriptions proves to be too much, Mary will save the day with her favorite one already booked. Everyone knows this was what she did last year, but people like the charade. And most of all, Mary likes to be the hero.

She passes the stack clockwise. This way, it takes the longest to get to me. I bet she will even make her announcement before it gets to me.

Tom is looking through the stack, acting like he hasn’t seen it before.

Mary says we should rent two vans. She says we should stay five nights and have six full days at the slopes. She says some of the rentals have outside Jacuzzis. “Clothing optional,” someone yells and the whole group laughs.

“I think we should go the second week of December which means we will be there for my birthday,” says Mary.

People start wishing her a happy birthday three months in advance. Mary thanks them. People will now remember her birthday. They will bring presents: mostly gag gifts and cards about being over the hill. They will decorate the cabin. Blowing up balloons, everyone will feel out of breath because they smoke too much. But they will do it anyway. During the party, everyone will toast with mugs of hot cocoa. It is going to be the kind of birthday and send-off Mary wants.

After the meeting, I ask Mary if she wants to come over and watch a movie. She tells me she doesn’t want to leave Tom alone.

“He moved back in, you know.”

“No. I hadn’t seen him around.”

“Well, he did. I know you don’t think it is going to work, but it is. You just don’t understand because you’ve never been married.”

It feels like the meanest thing Mary has ever said to me. After all the times she cried to me about what an asshole Tom was, I don’t know why she is choosing him over me.

“Did I do something wrong?”

“We have been friends because we are neighbors. Hell, you wouldn’t even be in AA if you didn’t live across the hall from me,” she says. “It was fun hanging out, but Tom is my real life now, and it should have always been that way.”

I leave the church and drive down the street to Applebee’s. I drink at the bar and tell the bartender all my problems. I am the only customer at the bar so he has to listen to me. Occasionally he has to make drinks for the waitstaff, but he always comes back. I leave out the part about being in AA, but I tell him everything else.

“Your friend sounds like a bitch,” he says.

“She’s not a bitch. She is my best friend, and she is really good at planning and running activities.”

“My bad,” he says, and walks away to count the money in his tips jar.

I call him back to make me another martini, extra olives this time. He does it right and smiles at me as he delivers it, but he doesn’t stay. He has decided to clean off every bottle with a dirty rag.

I text Mark. At first, it is just normal stuff: good meeting, can’t wait to go skiing, can’t wait to do things to you in the hot tub. Then I tell him I am drunk at Applebee’s even though I’m not drunk. I ask him for a ride. “I’ll be right there,” he writes.

When he arrives, he sits down at the bar and orders a coffee. He says he is not even tempted anymore. He says he has everything under control.

“I don’t think I can be your boyfriend and your sponsor,” he says.

“Then I’ll get a new sponsor.”

“I think you really need to focus on you. It’s not the right time for you to be in a relationship. This was a mistake.”

I try to lean in and kiss him, but he holds me back with both hands. I feel sloppy and foolish.

“Just go,” I tell him.

“I am not going to leave you like this.”

“You just did.”

He pushes the martini out of my reach. It’s fine. I don’t even want it. I’m trying to think of something to say to win him back. Nothing comes to mind.

He wants to drink his coffee before we leave. He takes his time. He gives me ample opportunity to come up with something brilliant to say. I’ve got nothing.

The car ride is quiet too. I don’t think we have ever been around each other and not said anything for so long. I did not love him, I tell myself.

When I get home, I knock on Mary’s door. I want to tell her Mark broke up with me. She is either asleep or pretending to be. “Don’t go,” I say to her door.

Barney starts howling. He will not stop until he wakes up as many people as he can. Only the sound sleepers are safe. I know Mary will wake up now. She will take Barney for a walk to try and make him tired. I leave before she comes out and realizes I was the one who got him started.

Tomorrow I will plead my case to both her and Mark. I should get to keep at least one of them.

My apartment feels chilly. I put on flannel pajamas and crawl into bed. I can hear Mary’s door. Barney barks in excitement about the walk.

I tell myself to dream up a plan as I fall asleep. A lot can happen in three months. Everything could fall apart and someone could need me. I will remember to bring the snacks next time for the group even if I always forget when my turn comes around. I will get good ones and a Box O’ Joe from Dunks. I will tell the group a sad story and briefly have the room on my side. I will get a chip and Mary and Mark will clap for me. I will join all of Mary’s activities and compliment her on her success with them. I will ask Mark about his kids, reminding him how well we know each other’s lives. One day at a time. This was just a bad one.

~

Andrea Gregory’s fiction has appeared in The Sun and Consequence Magazine. She also writes a regular column for Arrowsmith Press about being sick and disabled with multiple sclerosis while drawing on larger social issues and a love of literature. She holds an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Boston.

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