A young woman, recovering from addiction, becomes involved in a co-dependent relationship.
Tentacles of fog descended and eerily transformed the beach into a scene from a horror movie, complete with mournful background noises. Joleen Davis shivered, then laughed out loud, as if to defy her worst fears. Not easily spooked, she tossed her short, curly red hair, and kept striding into the mist.
Today had started out beautifully. She’d awakened to the sound of the waves, lashing out against the shore, while the sea breezes softly rustled the billowy curtains. But everything had turned upside down in a matter of hours, with the simple uttering of a few choice words. If Joleen could now identify one singular moment that had hinted of what was to come, perhaps she could have done something, anything, to turn it all around. But now, bravely marching back toward her hotel, she whispered under her breath: No, there was nothing I could have done differently!
She could still picture Matt’s face as he’d stood before her in the lovely beach cottage they’d borrowed from a friend. With sand between her toes, she’d been exulting in the sensual pleasures of the day and looking forward to an intimate dinner with him. So why was he standing there staring at her with that look?
“I’m sorry,” slipped from his lips, surely a clue as to what would come next. But Joleen had been so happy in the time they’d been together, and she’d believed he was happy too. So his subsequent words sent shock waves through her body, even as her mind refused to take them in. “I’ve decided to go back to my wife.”
There! With the finality of it all hanging between them, Joleen had desperately searched for a word, or a gesture, or anything at all that she could do to change his mind. But she felt everything slipping away while she stood by helplessly. Standing before him, dumbly silent, as if struck by some heavy object, Joleen felt disoriented. Surreal. None of this is happening, she thought, even as the waves of harsh reality washed over her, cleansing her of false hope and future dreams.
He’d spoken quickly, then, almost coldly, as he rationalized his decision.
Afterwards, she’d blindly grabbed her things, stuffing everything into her large duffel, and without another word, she’d walked out, her head held high. Only later, alone in the hotel room she’d rented on a whim, she’d sunk onto the bed and gathered the bedspread around her, curling up into a little ball. Then, as the memories flooded her, she’d jumped up quickly, as if afraid for her life, and pulled a knit sweater on over her leggings. She’d slipped out into the misty night, and now, in search of answers, she trudged along the beach scouring her mind for clues.
Matt O’Holleran had been her world for the better part of a year. They’d met after an AA meeting, when she’d walked over to him, complimenting him on his speech. She’d murmured something about how she could relate to his story. And he’d invited her to join a group of members for coffee afterwards. She’d gone with them, finding herself seated next to him in the circular booth. Hanging on every word he spoke. She could still see his face, as he’d looked back then, with that craggy jaw, that dimple in his left cheek belying his otherwise rugged façade, and that wild and curly blond hair. With that aureole of gold suggesting a halo, she’d decided he must be heaven sent!
Matt had left his wife and children toward the end of his drinking, almost two years before. Actually, his wife had kicked him out, he’d admitted. His drinking had driven a permanent wedge between them. But on the night she’d met him, Joleen had listened, enraptured, as he whispered the words that would capture her heart. He’d told her that he now believed, for the first time ever, that everything in life happened for a reason. And Joleen had smiled back at him blissfully. Amidst the clattering of cookery in the kitchen nearby, and surrounded by the scent of coffee and cigarettes, she felt completely and totally alive; and with a clarity that seemed to descend, almost like a voice from above, she just knew. This man would be her destiny. And forever after, whenever she heard those same sounds, or inhaled the scents of coffee and cigarettes, she would always associate those sensory impressions with Matt.
Joleen had stopped drinking just six short months before this eventful meeting. Alert to the signs so clearly evident now in Joleen’s behavior, her sponsor warned her against emotional entanglements. “You’re not ready for a relationship. It’s like another form of addiction, you know, hooking up with someone so soon.” And then, her sponsor, Karen, went on to share her own experiences with this very thing. That’s how it worked. People in AA didn’t tell you how to do things, exactly; they just shared their own experiences, complete with all the dire scenarios you could face if you didn’t learn from the mistakes they’d made.
But Joleen had believed she and Matt were different, somehow. More together. Insightful.
Everything had happened quickly, but the feelings of belonging and kinship predominated, lending validity to their coupling. Looking back, now, Joleen still believed that there’d been a special connection between them. Not once had she seen the handwriting on the wall.
Matt had seemed so totally over his failed marriage; certainly, he’d admitted to some regrets, but not about ending the marriage. No. His remorse focused on the trauma his children had had to face. Matt spoke of moving on and learning from his mistakes. He had regular visits with his kids and seemed perfectly happy with the new life he’d been creating with Joleen.
They’d moved in together just two short months after they’d met. Actually, Matt had moved into Joleen’s cute little guesthouse where she’d been living for the past year. A quaint bungalow set behind a lovely Tudor, it nestled in the heart of a funky Fresno neighborhood known as the Tower District. Joleen’s little cottage had struck a chord with her from the start, and as Matt’s things had mingled with hers, she’d begun to feel a kind of contentment unfamiliar to her at any other time in her life.
This trip to the coast had been like a celebration of their love.
And after two beautiful days together, now this! Still feeling completely blindsided, Joleen plodded through the sand, reminiscing and searching for clues. But, like a warning bell that had tolled unheard, Joleen now felt the wrench of awareness in the form of vague and shapeless images, finally registering as signs. Of course, they’d been there all along! She’d just blithely ignored them, believing so strongly in the special ties uniting the two of them.
She recalled those evenings when Matt had seemed vague and out of sorts, unnaturally subdued for a normally gregarious person. And then, of course, there’d been that time when he hadn’t come home at all for two days. Afterwards, he’d had a logical explanation. The usual AA excuse. “I felt myself slipping over the edge, so I went away to think.” And finally, there’d been all those mornings when a dark cloud hovered in the form of moodiness and irritability. All the signs that her mind had ignored, she’d pushed away into a dark corner where unexamined issues lived.
Back in the present, she unlocked the hotel room door and staggered inside. Sinking to the floor, she clutched her bag to her chest. “I should call Karen,” she thought, responding to a cue from somewhere deep inside.
Karen’s reassuring voice held no hint of I told you so, for which Joleen would be eternally grateful! Only the familiar words of every sponsor:
“Go to a meeting.” And then, the reminders of the step she should be working right now. The twelve steps. When was the last time Joleen had even thought about her program? And then she knew with a complete and utter clarity the rationale behind her sponsor’s warnings. So caught up in the love thing, the rest of her life had become irrelevant.
Co-dependency, a very real issue for addicts, had temporarily replaced her chemical dependency.
“Not a very healthy substitute,” Karen reminded her, as she briefly outlined some specific tasks for Joleen to complete in the next twenty-four hours.
After hanging up the phone, Joleen packed her bags. She needed to get out of here, back to the people who could surround her with love and support. And away from the memories of Matt in this idyllic place where, only hours before, she’d felt cherished and desired.
As she pointed her car homeward, Joleen felt relieved that they’d driven over in her little Cabriolet. She did wonder how Matt had gotten back home, and if his things would still be at her place. Maybe by now, he’s reconsidered, she thought, while at the same time, shoving that dangerous wish aside.
Even if Matt comes back to me, begging on his hands and knees, I have to resist!
Joleen warily unlocked the door of her house, glancing around as she entered. First she checked the closet, and sure enough, empty hangers stood there in place of his clothes. And his dresser drawers…empty.
Blank spots on the wall reminded her of his black and white photographs, and gaping holes in the room served up ghostly images of his presence. In the kitchen, a photo of his two children still hung there, forgotten. And in the bedroom, a solitary sock on the floor suggested a hasty retreat. Like a thief in the night, he’d trampled through their space, dismantling their lives and plundering the beautiful memories of a time when they’d been happy. His scent lingered, though, assaulting her with its poignant reminders of his presence.
Almost viciously, Joleen set about to erase all evidence of him.
Hours later, she stood back, breathing in the fragrance of cleaning solvents and admiring the newly reconfigured space. Her cranberry velvet sofa now floated in the room, offering a space behind it for her writing desk; in the entryway created by this new arrangement, Joleen placed her antique ice cream table, topped by a pottery bowl for her mail. And next to it, her old coat rack stood, waiting for guests. By rearranging her own artwork, much of it purchased in secondhand stores or consignment shops, she had effectively eliminated any remembrance of Matt in her life. And flanking the fireplace, her bookshelves now held unique souvenirs in place of Matt’s missing books. She picked up a ceramic angel, turning it over, remembering when she’d bought it. Long before she’d met Matt. There! Proof that there had been life before Matt. Can I find that Joleen again?
Suddenly, as her limbs seemed to soften and deflate, Joleen sank onto the sofa, realizing she’d been going nonstop for several hours and she felt completely exhausted. Time for bed, she chided herself. And tomorrow’s a whole new day!
She stood in the doorway to her bedroom, though, and even without the familiar linens that evoked the two of them, this room had too many images that danced through her brain, threatening to propel her down a dangerous path. As if fighting for her life, she grabbed the quilt off the edge of the four-poster brass bed, and headed out to the living room. She curled up on the sofa, under the quilt, and aimed the remote control device. She found a movie on HBO, and hoping that the fantasy images on the screen would effectively erase her own private thoughts and memories, she settled in for the duration.
Sunday morning dawned with slivers of pink softly blending into the dark edges of night, suffusing the sky with a promise of new beginnings. Joleen stood on her patio, stretching, while she gazed upwards to the sky. She inhaled deeply, breathing in the scent of early morning fragrances. But then, like a sharp dart piercing her skin, she felt the jolt of remembrance yet again and she pictured the two of them standing right here, breathing in and out, while a new day emerged.
I have to find new rituals! Joleen reeled around quickly, almost stumbling over the quilt she’d hastily tossed aside, and pushed her body toward the kitchen. Like a machine on automatic pilot, she’d begun this day like all others, forgetting the one missing element. Matt would not be here with her, sipping coffee, nibbling on croissants, and perusing the Sunday papers.
Almost angrily, Joleen tossed the newspaper aside, grabbed a cup of coffee, and headed for the shower. As the hot rivulets coursed over her skin, she tried to cleanse her mind of all that had gone before, focusing instead on all new things. Clicking into gear, she tried to remember a time, pre-Matt, when she’d been solo on Sunday. Had she ever been alone on Sunday?
Guiltily, she thought of times past, conjuring up old patterns.
But her mind seemed capable only of eliciting memories from her drinking years. Back then, she’d followed up a Saturday night of partying by scarcely connecting with Sunday at all. Sleeping off a hangover. Or, occasionally, drinking a Bloody Mary first thing, so she could continue the partying throughout the day, because she had a companion who’d slept over.
No! Those memories were best forgotten. She needed to create a totally new ritual.
Suddenly feeling challenged, she mentally sketched out a tentative schedule. Over in that new shopping center, a bookstore with an attached coffeehouse seemingly beckoned. Yes! She could munch on scones while she sipped coffee and perused all the latest bestsellers. When was the last time she’d even read a book? And she’d always been such an avid reader.
She could even call Karen and ask her to meet up later. They could take in a matinee.
After calling Karen, Joleen dressed in her favorite jeans, combined with a flattering purple knit top. She glanced in the mirror briefly, drawing reassurance from her reflected image. She looked like herself! Except that, with her short, curly red hair brushed back and secured with a headband, her face looked pale and vulnerable. Shaking her head vigorously, she released her hair, and watched the curls frame her face. Now she just looked casual. She added blush, hoping to delete all evidence of fragility.
Glancing at her wristwatch, she read the time and realized she still had a couple of hours to kill before meeting Karen. What to do? Feeling antsy, she changed the sheets on the bed…again. Even though she’d changed them just last night, she could still smell Matt in the room. She tucked the fresh sheets in tightly, and as an afterthought, folded up the quilt and stashed it in the closet. She’d get that dry-cleaned before reusing it. She was sure that his fragrance clung to it!
She picked up the newspaper. Skimming the headlines, she idly tossed each section aside, scarcely even registering the information. Finally, she settled in to read an article in the lifestyle section, and then, when she found the book reviews, jotted down some titles. At the bookstore, she’d surely find something of interest. She needed every distraction she could find!
She kept one eye on the kitchen clock, but finished the newspaper long before time to leave. Disgusted with herself, she grabbed her bag and car keys, heading out the door. Even if she got to the bookstore long before Karen, at least she would have escaped the cottage and the barrage of sense memories.
Outside the café, they sat at the umbrella table, smoking cigarettes and overdosing on caffeine.
When Karen had magically appeared in the bookstore, Joleen’s heart had lurched with a welcoming glow of relief. At last! Comfort, reassurance, and commiseration. But first, they’d casually sorted through the books in the sales bins, as if their lives depended on finding something to buy. And then, finally, they’d purchased their coffee and scones. Karen led the way to the table in the farthest reaches of the patio. For privacy.
“So, how have you been handling things so far?” Karen’s sympathetic, yet probing, glance met Joleen’s, as she effortlessly donned her “good sponsor hat.”
Joleen shrugged, glanced around nervously, and then plunged in. “It’s like my senses are on red alert now and everything around me conjures up Matt’s image. Like he’s controlling everything in my life…still! But I’ve done my best to eradicate the images!” She laughed, thinking of how she’d literally tried to scrub the essence of Matt from her house. Gloomily she met Karen’s eyes again, tearing up with another memory. “I know it’s going to take time. That’s why I wanted to meet you here. I got stuck in the memory of all our rituals, Matt’s and mine, and decided I needed to create new ones. New images to replace the old.” Satisfied with the theory behind her actions, she leaned back in the chair, stretching her arms above her head and inhaling deeply.
Karen nodded in approval. “I think you have the right idea. Action is the first line of defense.”
It sounded like some kind of mantra, Joleen realized; she’d previously resisted the little AA sayings, believing her own superior insight precluded the necessity of such cliches. But look at me now, she reminded herself, and curved her lips upward, trying to “act as if.” Another cutesy saying: “Act as if you are happy and the feeling will follow.” How many times had she heard that? But as her lips formed the smile, and as she forced the brightness into her eyes, she felt it.
At first, it seemed to descend subtly, like a soft cloak or mantle settling onto her shoulders, lending warmth and protection. She allowed the feelings to enfold her, without fighting them. She thought about what it all meant, concluding that it was a beginning of something. She had taken a tiny step forward and all she had to do from this moment on would be to take a series of similar small steps. Putting one foot in front of the other, she would find herself slowly restructuring her journey.
With the passage of time, those baby steps forward would add up to a whole new beginning.