There are periods of time when certain people loom largely.
In my early years in New York it was my first boss, my first client, my first boyfriend. In my using years it was that same first boyfriend who was the only one who knew I was an addict and helped keep it secret with me for the better part of a decade. When I think of those times I cannot help but think of those people. They are bound to me and I them through those years we shared and what transpired in them.
The same goes for my early sobriety, those shaky days and needy weeks when I came back to New York after rehab and began to finally, at the age of 34 and after losing most things, to get sober. The person who looms largest in that time for me is a former teacher and part-time dog walker named Polly, who, like me, struggled to say sober more than one day at a time.
Often, she was the only person I could hear, the only one I felt comfortable reaching out to. I would sit for hours with her in the dog park in Union Square and tell her stories of the life I'd ruined with drugs and worry about the life I might have without them. She would do the same.
Somewhere in the camaraderie and comfort and genuine usefulness to each other we made our way first to ninety days clean and then, slowly, began to live sober lives. In writing about that time in NINETY DAYS (Little, Brown $24.99) I have tried to cast light on that somewhere, that nether-bridge between the before and after where the obsession to drink and use drugs finally lifted.
It's a bridge I'd tried to cross on my own many times and failed. With Polly and others I was finally able to cross it and begin a sober life.
Reprinted from the book NINETY DAYS by Bill Clegg. Copyright © 2012 by Bill Clegg. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, N.Y. All rights reserved.
Polly is a few years younger than I am, lives with her twin sister, Heather, who is the bartender at an Irish tavern in the West Village that serves burgers and steaks and chicken pot pies. Heather and Polly are coke addicts. Polly is trying to get sober, Heather is not.
Polly has six or seven days clean. I met her at that first meeting at The Library with Asa. When I raised my hand that day, as Jack had insisted I do, and said I had sixty days, Polly waved to me from across the room and smiled while everyone else clapped. Later, Polly raised her hand and shared that she was afraid Heather would overdose and that it had been difficult to put together more than a few days clean when their dealer was still coming in and out of the apartment at all
One of the most frightening things Polly said that day was that she once had six years sober. She and Heather got sober after college and then, four years ago, after graduate school and a few broken hearts between them, they moved in together. Three years later, they both relapsed. Neither had gone more than a week since without getting high.
Polly lost her job as a schoolteacher six months ago and walks dogs to pay the few hundred dollars that is her portion of the rent-controlled apartment they share on St. Mark's Place. Polly is my height, very thin, and is often wearing sweatpants and T-shirts that don't look washed. Her hair is shoulder length, dirty blond, and greasy, and she reeks of cigarette smoke. She has a dog named Essie--a fat, midsized gray-and-white mutt she walks up and down the side streets of the East Village while she chain-smokes. Her clothes are usually covered in dog hair.
My first response to Polly when she smiled at me at The Library was Fuck, I hope she doesn't want to talk after the meeting; but when she described--plainly, clearly--how desperate she was not to use again but feared she would, there was a moment when I confused the words she was saying with the words I was thinking, believed momentarily that they were coming from inside my head and not from across the room. I looked again at this skeletal, disheveled, unwashed mess, and as she spoke I got very still because everything she was relating was something I had felt before and in precisely the same way. When the meeting ended, I was the one to chase after her, down the stairs and into the street, to ask for her phone number.
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It's after one o'clock when I wake up the next day. It's Friday and I've missed the 12:30 meeting at The Library, but I make coffee, eat a bowl of granola, shower, dress, and get out the door to make the two o'clock. Polly and Asa are both there when I walk in but I don't recognize anyone else. C'mere, Crackhead, Polly says and pats the seat next to her. She is wearing what looks like pajama bottoms. Asa, freckled and immaculate in his usual uniform of tight Izod, jeans, and colored belt, sits on my other side. I've never been so happy to see anyone as I am these two.
The meeting begins. There are two speakers--one with just over a year sober and the other with decades--who talk about early sobriety and the first ninety days. Of all days I should be listening, but I can't stop thinking about the four-hundred-dollar cash advance I put on my credit card to buy drugs. I start thinking about how much money I have left on that card and the others. I tally up ten grand or so and begin to imagine how I could put together a war chest of drugs for one last bender and then make use of the seventeenth-floor balcony off my apartment. No pills this time, no chance of failing again. Polly rubs the back of my neck and I can smell the cigarette smoke coming off her clothes. The speakers go on speaking, a hat gets passed and fills up with dollars, people raise their hands and announce their day counts--twenty-four, eighty-eight, thirty. People clap. Polly raises her hand and says nine or ten or something in that range. More clapping. She pinches my leg, I raise my hand. One day, I say, and the place explodes.
The meeting ends and as it breaks up six or seven people approach me, give me their numbers, and tell me to call anytime. I notice a short, thin, dark-haired girl wearing overalls and a striped cardigan whom I think I know from somewhere. I'm pretty sure it's the on-again, off-again girlfriend of Noah's screenwriting partner, but I can't think of her name. She disappears through the door and up the stairs before I can remember.
I go with Polly to the dog run in Union Square Park and watch Essie get humped by the smallest dog I've ever seen. She wanders slowly around the narrow dirt yard, but her suitor keeps pace, bouncing from behind on brittle twig-thin legs. Polly and I drink coffee and the afternoon slips by. She tells me about having been a competitive swimmer in college and, years later, getting drunk on beer in the morning before going to work teaching elementary school kids. Here we are, Crackhead, she says, gesturing with her right hand toward the dog run, and then, like a wise sober owl, says, Exactly where we're supposed to be.
Three days later I don't see Polly at the 12:30 or two o'clock meetings at The Library. She doesn't show up to the Tuesday meeting either. She doesn't return my calls, and the few people we have in common haven't seen or heard from her since last Friday. Despite Jack's warnings that I should keep my distance and not chase after her, I hang out in front of the building where she and Heather live. She never appears. Finally, on Wednesday, she shows up at the two o'clock meeting, late, and sits toward the back. I try to catch her eye but she stares into her lap. She looks even more unkempt and ragged than usual and after the speaker finishes qualifying, she raises the same hand she used six days before to gesture grandly toward the dog run, Union Square, our lives. I'm Polly, she mutters. I have one day.