I met Brian when I was nineteen and he was twenty-eight. We were in a long-term rehab in Florida, the kind of place where yelling is supposed to be therapeutic and chores build character; fraternization was strictly prohibited. Even talking too much, too closely, with another patient could be a punishable offence, but I'd never been much inclined to following the rules, especially in the gooey, depressing haze of early sobriety.
Brian had blue eyes, sandy hair, and a sleazy salesperson’s quick, slick smile. I was still a teenager and I was never going to be able to drink again and I didn't know how to make eye contact with anyone, let alone have a normal conversation, and here was this boy –- man, really –- putting all this effort into trying to charm me. He was the nicest thing to happen to me for years.
Brian brought me cigarettes and made me coffee. He courted me between the thrice-daily group therapy sessions with his best stories, lowering his voice to a whisper when one of the techs walked past. I would have listened to almost anyone who was friendly to me, probably, but he was different from the other guys there –- older than the lean suburban thugs and pasty-faced potheads, younger than the sad middle-aged dads, smarter and more charming than all of them combined. It wasn't just that Brian was kind to me at a time when most of my interactions involved getting yelled at. He was bright, loud, irrepressible. He made me laugh.
My rule was that I wouldn't go on a date with him until we'd both made it into the vocational program. At our rehab, like many, patients moved through a tiered hierarchy of privileges and obligations; we began in Orientation, then moved to Process, then Vocational, then Outpatient, and finally completion. Outpatient and Process were largely the same, except that patients were required to go to different morning therapy groups, but in Vocational everything changed. Instead of going to group therapy three times a day, we spent the bulk of the day riding buses around southern Florida, looking for jobs, returning only for the 6 p.m. primary group sessions. It was a big step toward completion, since you were required to have a full-time job to successfully complete treatment, and a mark that your therapist trusted the work you'd done.
I spent half my days with Brian, waiting for the bus in the blistering heat and exchanging drug stories. When I got my first job, though it was only part-time, he insisted that I come to the beach with him that weekend to celebrate. I knew I shouldn't go, of course; there were a lot of things people had suggested I should get before I had a boyfriend, like regular attendance at twelve-step meetings and some emotional stability. But I went anyway.
We kissed on the sand when the sun went down and I could finally be sure no one we knew would see us. It was windy, so we crawled into one of the shelters left over the beach chairs and watched the grey waves slap the shore. We made it back to the residence by curfew, but only because he paid for a cab.
For the next month, we met at night on the golf course behind the patients' apartments. We kissed on the grass, watching the techs patrolling the rehab's perimeter in the distance, until it was close to curfew and we went, one at a time, sneaking back through the scrub to the property.
Once he found a job, he convinced his grandmother to give him her old minivan and we drove around after group, smoking and talking sh*t about our roommates. Sometimes we held hands in the pool house, or in the stairwell of my apartment, where there were no cameras. We were careful not to be caught together; I knew it would be a huge setback in treatment, take me months longer to get back into the good graces of my family. Seeing him at all was a risk. But what else did I have going for me but him?
My therapist never found out. I finished treatment, and so did he, and after three months in a halfway house I moved into his apartment. It was the next town over from where I was working as a receptionist, and where I still went to weekly groups with other ex-patients. There was a gate, and a pool, and if I was totally dependent on Brian and his minivan to get me where I needed to be, worse things had happened. We took trips down to his parents' house with friends, and I got tan and learned how to ride a Jetski. I made dinner, he did the dishes, and we split the grocery bills.
But we fought viciously. I hated that he smoked and chewed tobacco, hated the dark clumps of chew that he'd spit into the sink and onto the back patio. I thought I could harangue him into going to twelve-step meetings, which only made things worse; he thought I was lazy and selfish. Once, driving in the morning, he leaned over so he could look me dead in the eyes while calling me a stupid bitch and sideswiped the SUV in the next lane. I stood on the shoulder, fuming, while he worked something out with the other driver.
Sometimes he was nice. He threw me a party for my twentieth birthday, even if we argued in the hours leading up to it, and he always had a cup of coffee waiting for me in the car. One night, we snuck into our apartment complex's pool –- we had access, just not at midnight -– and he climbed the fence and unlocked the door for me, then threw me screaming, happily, into the chlorinated water. No one thought we should be together but us. I'd never felt I'd had someone so on my side.
When we broke up, after barely two months of living together, it was after another fight in the car, another screaming match in the front seat of his awful minivan. I cried while I packed my clothes, and when I called a friend to come pick me up, but I was finished with his anger and finished, also, with my own stubbornness, my unwillingness to see any way forward but with him. Brian and I smoked together on the back porch while we waited for my ride to show up. I told him I loved him and he looked over at me, red-eyed, and took my hand.
He kept calling, for a while, and I'd listen to him complain while trying to pick out if it was alcohol or tiredness slurring his words. I'd moved out of his apartment into another halfway house, a better one this time, and I was going to a lot of meetings and trying to get serious about being sober, but I still took his calls. I'd started applying to colleges up East when I heard about the accident.
"You won," someone told me, but it didn't feel like winning: he had been drinking again, of course he had, and he was drunk and coked up and driving home from a bar when a truck hit him. Dead on the side of the road, miraculously revived, in a coma for a week and back in our old rehab. Why had no one called me?
It was almost dying that did it for him, I guess. He never drank again, at least not as far as I know, and I haven't either, not since before I met him. It's a gift, but not the one I wanted: I used to imagine us, still together, decades sober, having proved all of our doubters wrong. But if I know anything at all, it's that what I want is rarely what I need.
I didn't get Brian, but I got an enormous, full, complicated life with friendships and relationships that are a better fit for me, and from what I’ve heard, he got the same. And though I would never recommend a romantic relationship to anyone in early sobriety, I can't imagine doing anything else that first hard year besides being with him –- learning what I needed in another person, learning what I liked, learning, finally, what I could put up with.