Beyond Blonde

Chapter One

We were about as inconspicuous as a three-ring circus in a monastery.

“Don’t pushing!”

“Who vas pushing?”

“You vas pushing!”

“I vas never no how pushing!”

“Shhht, shhht!”

Mama of all people should have known better. The Aunties were unshakably unshushable. Yes, they adored her, and maybe they were even a little afraid of her, but nobody shushes the Aunties. It didn’t matter that they had, hand to heart, agreed to Mama’s game plan in the parking lot a cool three minutes ago. “Vatever happens …” Mama made eye contact with each one of them. “Vonce ve are in da Anonymous Alcohol meeting …” They nodded with an enthusiasm that made their beehive hairdos lurch. “Ve must to be totally, completely, inconspicuous, da?”

Pa, sure!” harrumphed Auntie Eva.

“Tootally incognito,” agreed Auntie Radmila.

“Everybodies vill tink ve are drunks!” promised Auntie Luba.

Mama winced. “Just remember: inconspicuous.” Heartfelt nodding all around.

Not a chance.

For one thing, we had just not so inconspicuously exited Luigi’s White Night limousine, a gleaming white super stretch that was tricked out in twinkle lights. You could see that thing from the moon. Luigi was still trying to manoeuvre it out of the parking lot as we clambered down the steps to the church basement. Luigi Pescatore was Auntie Eva’s latest and most enthusiastic beau. They met last year when we used his limo service for Auntie Luba’s monster wedding to Mike. The moment that Luigi set eyes on Auntie Eva in her one-of-a-kind “kinda couture” bridesmaid’s dress, he was gunning to be husband number fi ve. As of last Friday, Auntie Eva had rather grudgingly agreed to put him out of his misery. It was a slick compromise. They were officially unofficially engaged. Jewellery was involved, but the date was murky.

The other not-so-inconspicuous thing is that we arrived in a clump. All the other alcoholics were filing in by themselves or, on occasion, meeting someone outside and then coming in. Auntie Eva picked an AA meeting in Rosedale because she insisted that we’d get a better class of drunk here. And, so far, she was right. All the alcoholics were pressed, groomed, or, at the very least, clean.

Still, none of them looked like they were going to the El Mocambo circa 1962, which was standard Auntie streetwear. Mama was the muted one in a bright Pepto-Bismol pink “almost Chanel” suit that she saved for closing real estate deals. The Aunties never went anywhere without full armour: hair teased and sprayed, makeup blazing, girdles girdling, and billowing silk outfi ts meant to dazzle, if not blind, all potential opponents.

Mama made me iron my jeans. Shuffling around with pressed bell-bottoms only added to my escalating anxiety about being here in the first place. I had this vague but persistent feeling that AA was a seriously secret society. What if they could tell I was an impostor? They probably had a deeply humiliating throw-the-fraud-out ritual that involved strobe lights and sirens. I felt terrible that I didn’t have a drinking problem. Auntie Eva assured us that even “sober peoples vas velcome to za Open Meetings,” but given the source, I didn’t believe it for a minute.

Just going down the steps felt like lying … something you’d think I’d be comfortable with by now.

As soon as we got to the bottom of the stairs, we were put through a greeting gauntlet.

“Welcome, man.”

A very tall gentleman wearing granny glasses and an eye-popping swirly T-shirt smiled sweetly at us. “Peace, eh, and have a cool meeting.” His head was covered in a thousand tiny moving braids. The guy was a walking willow tree. Auntie Eva ignored his outstretched hand and fingered his T-shirt instead.

“Darrrling, zis is too fantastik. How did you do zis?”

Dear Lord.

“Sophie, psst, Sophie!” Auntie Radmila grabbed my ear. “Iz zis a homosexual-type person?”

“No, Auntie Radmila,” I whispered as I bent down. “He’s a hippie.”
“Ah! A hippie!” she beamed at him. “Pa da!” Pa da means “of course” in Croatian. The exclamation mark is implied.

We disengaged Auntie Eva from the hippie’s shirt and were promptly accosted by a tidy, middle-aged man in a dove-grey suit. Then there was an imposing Native in a suede, fringed jacket. He was followed by a nice librarian-type lady. “Welcome,” she said as she shook our hands with both of hers. Somewhere in all that handshaking, I stopped being afraid of being a fraud. We shook hands with thousands of people. Each of them made eye contact, grabbed our hands, smiled, and welcomed us in. Welcomed? It was like walking into a hug. Powerful stuff.

A little old lady who was shaped like a comma and wearing a blue tracksuit pointed with her cigarette to some empty seats near the podium. Wow, there had to be a couple of hundred chairs put out. How many drunks did they have in Rosedale? “There’s still five seats together on the left side,” she rasped. “It’s a great spot for you kids.”

Mama hugged her.

Shoot me dead.

Auntie Eva wished her luck with her “sobering.”

“Sobriety,” I corrected as we marched inconspicuously up to the front.

Zat is vat I said,” she sniffed.

An impressive fog hovered just above our heads. Pretty much everyone in the place was smoking like a coal furnace and mainlining coffee. As we made our way up to the third row, random people smiled at us between puffs and sips. It could have been creepy in a saffron, Hare-Krishna kind of way. Instead, I never wanted to leave. I wanted to stay here with these people, these nice men and women who appeared to be so delighted that I had come. It was like they didn’t care what I did or didn’t do before I got here; they were just happy I was there.

Was this how it felt for Papa? Especially after all those years spent in prison for something he didn’t do but was too damn drunk to know he didn’t do? Maybe that stuff wouldn’t matter here.
Behind the podium, giant rolling blackboards with beautifully scripted sayings reminded us that There, but for the Grace of Godand You are no longer alone.

I looked around. Just about every seat was taken. Handlettered posters taped to the institutional-green basement walls bore witness to the Twelve Steps you always hear about.

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that
            our lives had become unmanageable.

Powerless—I got that part. I’ve been feeling pretty powerless myself. Auntie Eva and I read the rest of them. God was in most of the steps and on all of the posters. In fact, God was all over the place. We were in a church basement, after all. I kept looking around. Even some of the more agitated guys looked like they had a chance at calm. Were they all believers? Did they switch out booze for God? The room was filling up fast. No doubt about it, the drunks looked normal, better than normal even. Maybe there was something to the God thing. I wondered how that went down with Papa who was a card-carrying non-believer. Papa’s aggressive atheism was one of the thousand things that made Auntie Eva mental. Still, to everyone’s astonishment, she let Papa stay in her basement apartment when he left us last February to find himself and sobriety.

Apparently, Papa went to an AA meeting at least three times a week, and there were weeks when he went every single night. Auntie Eva said that she was going to burst a kidney unless she got to see what they did here. That was no doubt true, but I think she mainly wanted to give Mama a boost. Mama was wobbly again. What no one gets, except me and the Aunties, is that Mama is even more of a tortured, poetic soul than Papa. It’s just that she wraps it in so much hyper achievement and noise that she confuses people.

Auntie Eva told me that this meeting would show Mama how “za light alveys goes out in za tunnel.” Yeah. I just let those go. If you think too hard about any “Auntie sayings,” you get a little nauseated.

What wanted was Papa home, drunk or sober. Yesterday.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

I liked that one. Make someone else responsible for my shortcomings! Or at the very least, get God to do the heavy lifting. Yeah. I could get the AA God to “remove” my addiction to Luke Pearson. Even though we were so obviously over, I still dreamed about Luke every single night and could still smell the Sunlight Soap of him at any given moment.

A man sporting a puff of white hair and a blue knit sweater bounded up to the podium. “Good evening, and welcome.” He smiled. “My named is Peter and I’m an alcoholic.”

We, each of us, gasped. I mean to just come out and say it like that, out loud, and in front of people!

Everybody else said, “Hi Peter.”

“As always, we’ll start with a moment of silence and then the Serenity Prayer.”

Everyone stood up.

In our panic to blend in, we jumped up with a bit too much enthusiasm. Auntie Luba and Mama overturned their chairs. Inconspicuous? It felt like the rest of the room was bathed in darkness except for the klieg light aimed at our row. Auntie Eva squealed when an accountant type beside her grabbed her hand. Apparently, you hold hands to pray here.

“God grant me the serenity …”

Everybody else knew the words.

“To accept the things I cannot change.”

Well this was awkward.

“Courage to change the things I can.”

Still, there was such a powerful feeling in the room, warmth and what—safety? Is that what you feel, Papa? Do you feel safe here?

“And the wisdom to know the difference.”

And that was it, the whole prayer. We sat down again. Next time I was going to bring a pen so I could write things down. Next time?

There were four more speakers.

“Hi, my name is Steven and I’m an alcoholic.”

“Hi Steven.”

“Hi, my name is Doris and I’m an alcoholic.”

We came in with everyone on the “Hi Doris” and felt very proud of ourselves.

“Hi, my name is John and I’m an alcoholic.”

“Hi John.”

We were old pros by John.

John reminded us how important the anonymous part was. “Everything in this room stays in this room. We must never acknowledge each other on the outside.” John also spoke in honour of his friend Bob, who was getting something called a one-year medallion. But first John gave us a taste of his own life before AA, which involved the loss of his family and many, many hospitalizations. But now he’d been sober for twelve years and could be of service to people like Bob, who’d apparently been sober, one day at a time, from September 1975 to today, September 3, 1976. Someone should make a movie about this stuff. Bob got up.

“Hi, my name is Bob and I’m an alcoholic.”

“Hi Bob.”

Bob told us about his descent into the bottle after his daughter was killed by a drunk driver. He talked about his guilt and shame, his addictions to both pain pills and alcohol. He told us about losing jobs, humiliating his family, and going through years of multiple benders and blackouts. I had a cringing flashback of me and Madison combing the city, bar by bar, searching for Papa. Bob talked about all of this without once sounding like he felt sorry for himself. He talked about Jesus Christ, his personal saviour, and his sponsor saviour, John. Finally, in a rough whisper, Bob talked about the steadfast love of his wife, Judy. Auntie Luba and Auntie Eva were sobbing by the time he was actually presented with his medallion to honour 365 days of sobriety.

After the applause died down, Peter, our host for the evening, returned to the podium. The air charged and tensed, the smoke dispersed into different patterns. Peter stared at us for a good long time. What was he looking for? Finally, he exhaled. “It begins here, people. Does anyone have nine months of sobriety?”

Silence. You could hear us all breathing, but there were no takers.

“Six months?”

Our Native greeter in the fringed coat and a middle-aged man in a short-sleeved plaid shirt bounded up to receive a small red token and a very enthusiastic round of applause.

“Three months?”

A guy in chinos and a button-down shirt strode up like he was going to receive an Oscar. He got even louder applause. It was like the shorter you were sober, the louder was your
applause.

“One month?”

A pause, tension built, and then three people from different parts of the room leapt up and made their way to the podium. Wild applause for two older men and a lady in a faded tracksuit! Wow, she looked like everybody’s grandmother and she had been sober just a month? This place was amazing.

“Now …” Peter scanned through the smoke into the room. None of us breathed. “Is there anybody in this room who can commit to 24 hours of sobriety? Just 24 hours?”

A skinny young guy in blue jeans and a red T-shirt with a big black peace symbol on the front jumped up. And so did— oh Jesus God no—the kerfuffle in our aisle was unmistakable.

Shoot me dead and make it quick.

Auntie Eva was making her way to the podium.
I turned and glared at Mama.

“Vat could I do?” she shrugged. “She vas carrying avay by da moments.” Auntie Radmila, who had held it together up until now, wept profusely.

“Auntie Radmila! Stop that. She isn’t even …” What could I say? She knew as well as I did that Auntie Eva liked her brandy, as did all of the Aunties, but she was no more an alcoholic than I was, and I didn’t drink. It felt like the room and God himself erupted into an explosion of applause. Auntie Eva hugged the skinny kid, her 24-hour-commitment partner, and the applause went nuclear. Our little area kept clapping until she sat down and shamelessly showed off her little white token to our seatmates, who mouthed “bravo” and “we’re here for you” while she pretended to blush.

Peter reminded us all that, no matter how cruel or unwelcoming the world was outside, inside we were welcome and safe, one day at a time. The meeting was over. People streamed by us, eager to encourage Auntie Eva, shaking her hand, touching her shoulder. I glared at her. No good, she didn’t notice. She was still bathing in her commitment, her triumph, her applause. I could see why Papa came over and over again.

It was addictive.

Excerpted from Beyond Blonde by Teresa Toten. Copyright © 2011 by Teresa Toten. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Books. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Published by Penguin Books
  • Nominee, 2011 Cybils Young Adult Novel
  • A CBC RADIO ONE CHILDREN’S BOOK PANEL PICK

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