by Julia Jackson
Feature image: Winslow Homer. Breaking Storm, Coast of Maine, 1894. The Art Institute of Chicago.
Itchy in November, right before Thanksgiving. It was my first winter sober, when you were living on the top floor of that six-story apartment building overlooking the river, back before the neighborhood was converted into condos.
“Hurricane season,” you said when you saw me looking out your window in that blank way. “When the temperatures drop, us drunks get restless.”
Your hands got busy stacking up wood in the fireplace. I’d seen people who had come into the same meetings every week suddenly stop showing up, seen the way that the ones who did come back would raise their hands, announcing their day counts, differently this time. “I’ve got five days.” “Nineteen days.” “I’ve got forty-one days back,” they’d say, the “back” added to show that this wasn’t their first time at the rodeo. It didn’t look like it was any easier, though: their hands shook like any newcomer’s, their eyes wandered the rooms the same way, rabid.
I still didn’t know anyone in those days, so I couldn’t ask them why they left, or how it felt to come back. I wouldn’t have known about what was going on at all if you hadn’t explained it to me. You said that no one talked to me because they were jealous that I was pretty, but that didn’t make sense to me, not even then. There were other pretty girls in the program, and they had friends. I thought the difference between me and them must have been you. Well, at least, that you didn’t help. But it must have looked worse from your corner: you were twice my age, with fifteen years of sobriety, yet you were there dating me, the fragile newcomer. You always swore up and down that this was the first time you’d done such a thing, but I doubted you. Doubted that this was your first time with the so-called thirteenth step—the one where you initiate a newcomer by fucking them.
I pressed my fingers against the glass. Your window was double-paned, but it still felt bone-cold. You struck a match, held it up to crumpled newspaper.
“So what do I do?” I said. “How do I protect myself from hurricane season?” My time clean was short enough that life fucked up still felt very close. I remembered it clearly, a lot more clearly than I had when I was drinking, and I was willing to do anything to keep it at bay.
You smiled. “Go where it’s warm,” you said, rubbing your hands in front of your new fire. “Meetings. Safe spots. Places with me.”
The city was gray beneath me: the sky, the buildings, the streets, the water. I could almost see the death on each whitecap in the choppy tips of the river, the way the city and the winter called to those who might want to die. Each building held a secret, a bar, a drug, an addict. A potential death that wanted to happen. But the cold inside me—I could feel it beginning to melt. It hurt, the way my hands hurt when I’ve been out in the snow with no gloves and I come inside and it feels like they’re on fire.
“Come sit by me,” you said. “Come sit by the fire.”
Your eyes glowed with fever; your hands open and out, wanting me. Fifteen years sober and yet you were still sick and desperate. It was all the same, but now your drug had a pulse.
I knew right then I’d survive hurricane season. And I knew I should do it alone.
So I took your hand and I held it for a moment, but then I let it go.
Julia Jackson was raised in Southern California and currently teaches at Brooklyn College, where she earned her MFA in fiction writing in 2011. She is a regular contributor for Electric Literature’s blog, The Outlet.