I was in and out of Philly kicking around Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. One guy I always saw had alopecia. He talked about holidays, missing booze and being jealous of people that could drink like normal people. I didn’t want to hear it. I sort of hated him. My stomach flipped every time he was called on to share.

I had a girlfriend then. She came over, cooked and cleaned and supported my sobriety. And then there was the sex. That part was very agreeable. She looked a little like Katherine Hepburn. Not really, except maybe for her red hair, but I told her she did all the time. She liked it when I told her so.

“I’d rather look like Audrey Hepburn,” she said one day.

“You look like her too,” I said. “In the eyes.”

When you compared her to Audrey, my girlfriend wasn’t much to look at.


You go to enough AA meetings, you see people all saying the same old stuff. If you’re looking for originality, you should join a different program. Or maybe I’m just too critical. But that’s why you won’t ever catch me saying anything at those things. I don’t want to be another parrot.

The alopecia guy’s name was Matt. His head was completely bare of hair follicles. At first, I thought he was just really meticulous about shaving his head. I thought it odd that he shaved his eyebrows too, but I thought maybe he was just a dedicated swimmer. They shaved everything, didn’t they?

“Why can’t I have one little eggnog?” Matt whined once during the holidays.

Matt complained a lot, but at the same time he seemed like he was gradually coming to terms with his divorce from the world of alcohol. Whining was just part of his process. It was the Tao of Alopecia Matt. It was a different thing for everybody. Some people even worked the Twelve Steps.


Gradually, over the course of a couple months, I let the thing with the girl fizzle out, mostly by just not doing anything. She always had so much going on, so many things cooking. If she drank more or nagged me, I would’ve had reason to complain. As it was, I had no excuse. If my only complaint was that she had interests and liked to do things, the failure of the relationship had to be chalked up to me.

Shortly after she left, I got maneuvered into asking an acquaintance at AA to sponsor me. I hadn’t wanted a person to whom I would be accountable, but I was backed into a corner. He wanted me to call him three times a week. This shouldn’t have been difficult except I didn’t want to do it. Sometimes he didn’t answer and I felt I was being let off the hook for some petty crime, like stealing a single jellybean from a candy store.


“I wish I could drink like a normal person,” said Alopecia Matt for the umpteenth time. Saint Patrick’s Day was coming up so he was obsessing about it. It was all about Guinness and Jameson and camaraderie in green. He talked some about his past Saint Paddy’s days. His elaboration was more than sufficient. Despite my Irishness, I never cared for the holiday at all, probably because I was too busy doing hard drugs to be concerned with drinking green beer. Green beer didn’t mix well with heroin at all.


One time on the drive back from Jersey, I got lost and wound up in North Philly. There were disreputable-looking people lurking all around on the street, but I didn’t take notice. Without thinking, I stopped to ask some guy for directions. The guy tried to sell me drugs.

“Whatchu need, son?”

“How do I get to the bridge?” I asked.

He told me this was the wrong neighborhood to stop in for directions. I guessed he was right. He would know, after all.

That was back in the fall when the girl still stayed with me on the weekends. I didn’t know why, but the girl hadn’t liked this story. I guess she must’ve sensed that I was near a jumping-off point. She may have noticed my steadily increasing level of inactivity. But also she may have just been going on her almost-always-dead-on sense of instinct. She had been right about most things, even when it came down to something like buying the exact right brand of mustard to go with Italian sausages.


I spoke to my new sponsor on the phone eight times and then I let the relationship end. He encouraged me to do things that I wouldn’t do, so really, it was best not to waste each other’s time. He left me one message after he hadn’t heard from me for a while and that was all. I stopped going to the meeting where I always saw him.

A few weeks later, I was at an AA meeting and I heard something—I can’t remember what—that finally triggered the looming switchback to my default setting, which was still to get high. I went back to North Philly, this time getting lost on purpose, turning down streets that looked dubious.

I came to a stop up on the curb of a side street and rolled down my window. A man walked up and said, “You lost, dude?” It wasn’t the same man as before, but they could have been brothers. He was happier than I had pictured a north Philly drug dealer to be. He smiled as if he were a valet giving me my ticket who was hoping for a good tip.


Back on heroin, I craved Hostess cherry pies. At the low peaks of my highs, I thought it was probably better that the girl had left. She would have cramped my style. She wouldn’t have liked me eating Hostess cherry pies in my underwear on the couch in the middle of the afternoon each day, and I would never have been able to keep up with all the little tasks that such a relationship entailed. It would be like stacks of documents that I was too tired to read piling up on my desk.

During times in between injections that I was not so high, there was a nagging loneliness of missing the girl. Did I mention her name was Sarah? (I always loved that name.) I went so far as to call Sarah a few times, but it always went straight to voicemail. I didn’t leave a message. I wanted to speak to her directly so she could hear my sincerity firsthand. I would tell her how I wanted to change, how I had changed. Of course, I would be stoned when I told her so, but I would still mean it absolutely.


After eight days in a row of calling, I finally got ahold of Sarah and we met the next day at a Japanese restaurant that turned out to be run by first-generation Chinese immigrants. We each ordered a fried rice dish and got a pot of green tea to share.

The first thing Sarah said after sitting down was, “You’ve been getting high, haven’t you?” I’d been kidding myself to think I could slip it by her. She couldn’t tell a joke or a very good lie, but she was aware of almost everything at all times.

“You used to like me when I was high,” I said, blowing on my mug of tea.

“That was when it was still romantic. We were in college and you were acing tests and papers without studying or trying. You getting off and on heroin for the past two years isn’t romantic anymore. It’s old hat.”

I had no strong response, so I said nothing. Instead, I just slowly nodded my head a couple times to show that I’d heard her. Then, in a brief silence that followed, I looked around at the generic Asian décor. There were paintings of Japanese samurai, Korean death masks, tall bamboo shoots coming out of pots in the corners, pictures of pandas and yin-yang signs in tile on the wall. In no way did the restaurant feel authentic.

I hardly ate any of my dish. I had no appetite and had ordered it only to keep up appearances, but now there was no need to make the show. I wasn’t fooling anyone. Even the waiter could see I was stoned.

Sarah told me some of what she had been up to and I tried to show interest, but I was still a bit out of it. I couldn’t drum up much empathy. I didn’t care about anything: not my life, nor hers. This apathy was probably high up on the list of reasons why she didn’t want me getting high, and didn’t want to be with me while I was.

At the end of dinner, I got her to agree to go on another date with me on the condition I stayed clean for the next two weeks, which seemed fair enough. It was the least I could do, really. I had to prove myself somehow and abstaining was the most obvious way.


The following evening found me at an AA meeting and I asked Alopecia Matt if he wanted to go to the diner afterwards.

“I could use some advice,” I said. I did this because, being in AA, I was supposed to do such things. Really, I had one foot in one camp and the other foot in another. It was the recovery-relapse Hokey Pokey. Put your whole self in, put your whole self out, put your whole self in, and you shake it all about.

There was a small diner a few blocks from the church basement where the meeting was. There wasn’t much to look at from the outside and on the inside there were just six miniature booths and a small counter with a dozen stools. The ceiling was low too and I always felt a little claustrophobic when I ate there. Matt sat in the corner and I was stuck looking at the wall behind him.

I wasn’t planning on actually listening to the things Matt said, but he began to say some things that made sense to me. It was the same old stuff really, but it was as if I were hearing with new ears.

“If you don’t have that first drink, you won’t get drunk.”

He took a bite of his chocolate chip pancakes and let me chew on that for a while. That was one of the stupider things AAs say. Had I been perfectly sober, I might have rolled my eyes. I was in an earnest mood, though. Trying to get on the same page with him, I repeated one of the slogans myself.

“They say you shouldn’t leave before the miracle happens.”

“No, man,” he said. “That’s not it. You are the miracle.”

That hit me. I was just the right amount of desperate to be affected. I was a miracle. That was certainly the highlight of the meal. It was the highlight of my year, really. Everything else Matt had said, whether I agreed with it or not, was forgotten. He told me I was a miracle and that was all I could think about. I would go on thinking about it for several months.

After we settled the bill, we said goodbye. “Remember,” he said, “it’s not the snake bite that kills you, it’s the venom.” I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant by that one. I doubted he knew either. It just sounded cool, so people kept on saying it.


After I got back to my empty apartment, I made up a quick pros and cons list on the back of the cable bill. One pro for heroin was that it made Hostess cherry pies taste so damn good. A pro for Sarah was about sex stuff, but that was always over too fast. A bag of dope lasted much longer. I continued adding to the list, but it seemed to be stacked against Miss Hepburn.

It was decided. Eventually, I’d go back to the meetings, and I’d make those slogans work for me, but not yet. We’ll just see what happens, I told myself. Anyone could probably see into my future on that one. Then again, there was the memory of Sarah to keep me hanging on. She really did have lovely eyes. But in the meantime, bring on those amazing Hostess cherry pies.