For most of my adult life I’ve followed a few simple rules:
1. When friends move away, stop being friends with them.
2. Don’t do anything that doesn’t directly or immediately benefit you.
3. Never answer the phone, unless it’s your dealer.
Rudimentary versions of these rules can be traced back to my early days. As a child, I never quite grasped the concept of other people. I knew they existed, of course; I saw them everywhere around me, the same way Charlton Heston sees the Romans in Ben-Hur: as hundreds of extras in a large-scale Hollywood production. Day players in costume, added to the background for the sake of realism.
Unless they offered me goods or a service—dinner, allowance, a sleepover, a game of stickball—other people were an inconvenience. Take my grandmother, for example. She was a sweet-natured, jolly Italian woman, but she never bought me any Transformers or G.I. Joes, so I was not deeply affected by her death. “Gee,” I thought when I got word of her passing, “there goes my regular supply of waffle cookies.” I pleaded with my mom to let me skip her funeral. “Why does it matter if I go? I’m just gonna sit there and do nothing! What’s the point of that? Oh, you’re going to take away my allowance now? Fine, I’ll go, but I’m not gonna have a good time!”
As the years passed, my friends and relatives expected less and less of me. In my twenties I’d get the random call from my mother, informing me of the latest family news: “Danny, have you talked to your sister lately?”
“No. I don’t know, maybe. Why?”
“You should give her a call. She had a baby this morning.”
“Cool,” I said, lying on my couch, dusting marijuana ash off my shirt. I had forgotten my sister was even pregnant. An hour later I remembered to call her then decided against it. She’s obviously busy, I thought. Besides, what are we going to talk about? She’s probably had fifty phone calls already, why would mine be any different? She won’t even be able to pay attention to the conversation. She has a newborn baby, for Christ’s sake—the thing’ll start crying when I’m in the middle of saying something, and I’ll get annoyed.
I’ll catch up with her later.
Later became December. I showed up at her house for Christmas dinner and saw a nine month-old girl sitting on her living room floor. “Oh yeah,” I said. “There’s the kid you had.”
In my late twenties, friends started getting married. I’d sort through a month’s worth of mail and find the occasional wedding invitation mixed in with the takeout menus and past due notices. Usually I’d open the invitations and read them while taking a shit. “So…you request the pleasure of my company,” I’d say, a cigarette dangling from my lips, the smoke rising into my eyes. I’d scan the calligraphy text, searching for a reason not to attend. Most often it was the location. If it was within state lines I’d consider it, filing the invite away with other “pending” mail: hospital bills, AAA renewals, letters from collection agencies—basically anything that didn’t pose an immediate threat to my cable service.
Invitations to weddings that took place outside of Massachusetts were filed in my trash. I took offense to anyone who expected me to fly to Savannah for a week or climb a mountain in Peru just to watch them get married at sunset by an ordained Sherpa. These extravaganzas are known as “Destination Weddings”, as in, “Come and buy a ringside seat to our honeymoon!”
My closest childhood friend moved to San Francisco after college, met a girl from the Bay Area, and got married in Napa Valley. He had sent me an invite a year in advance. That was followed by a couple texts over the next few months: “Hey Danny, how are you??? Let’s catch up soon.” When those went unreturned, the texts got more specific: “Hey bro, just want to make sure you got my wedding invite. You’re gonna be there, right? Won’t be the same without you.”
Eventually the texts became phone calls. Whenever his number appeared on my caller ID I’d silence the phone and hide it under my pillow. I wasn’t man enough to face it. Each of his calls conjured a different childhood memory of the two of us—playing army as kids, dating girls in junior high—and I watched those memories wither and evaporate. An entire lifelong friendship, nullified from existence. Still, it was easier than answering the phone, and certainly easier than buying a plane ticket.
Two months before the wedding I received another text: “Dude. Just please RSVP. Please. You don’t have to come. Just please let us know.” I wanted to respond, but when the time came to type the letters into the message field, I froze. Texting him back would have made it real, would have made me accountable. Instead I stashed the phone under my pillow, closed my eyes, covered my ears, and silently wished he would disappear from my life forever.
A few weeks later I received a final text: “Hope you’re ok, buddy. Be well.”
With that chapter closed, I could finally move on with my life.
* * * *
On November 30th, 2013, I checked myself into a rehab facility for drug addiction. When I got out, I found a sponsor who took me through the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The program had the formidable task of deconstructing those three basic rules by which I had lived my entire adult life. AA taught me that other people were not just disposable extras in my life story, but that they were stars too, with their own movies, although probably not as Oscar-worthy as mine. I learned that incoming phone calls only seem scary, but when you walk through that fear and answer them, they’re actually not so bad. I learned that happiness has little to do with what you get, and everything to do with what you give.
“Dude, that’s the biggest load of shit I have ever heard in my life. Do you hear what’s coming out of your mouth right now? You sound like a fucking Ted Talk.”
My sponsor and I sat at a booth in the Thinking Cup, a coffee shop on Tremont, discussing my ninth step amends: the part of the recovery process where I have to confront all the people I’ve harmed, apologize, and offer to make some sort of restitution. On our table was a sheet of notebook paper: fourteen names, listed in blue ink—collateral damage from a life of substance abuse.
I continued. “I didn’t harm these people. Most of them, I just fell out of touch with. It happens. I’m forty years old, for Christ’s sake.”
My sponsor looked down at his right knee, where he kept his phone perched during our meetings. “I know, but…” He spoke to me while texting someone. “You avoided them. Your addictive, self-centered behavior prevented you from showing up for these people when they asked you to. That’s a kind of harm.”
I let out a long breath and thought about Angela. Angela was a college friend who I dated for a few months. Our romance ended when I showed up at her apartment one night, high on cocaine, and accused her of flirting with a thirty year-old investment banker at the bar earlier that evening. “He’s my cousin, you sick fuck,” she said. But I wouldn’t hear it. I exploded into a fit of rock star-style rage and proceeded to trash her bedroom. It was a lackluster attempt since the only trashable items were the menagerie of stuffed animals on her bed. One by one I picked them up and hurled them against the wall: first the giraffe, then Simba from the Lion King, then a Dalmatian, and then a purple frog. For my finale I picked up two furry dolphins and repeatedly knocked their heads together.
“Dolphin whores!” I growled, spit flying from my mouth. Angela stood in the corner and stared at me, horrified and bewildered.
She moved to New York after graduation. Surprisingly, we stayed friends and kept in touch for a couple years. She always asked me to come down and visit for a weekend. I’d say yeah, love to, but I never went. Finally she stopped asking. I didn’t hear from her again until 2009, when I received an invitation to her wedding in New Zealand. I placed the invitation on a pile of unpaid parking tickets, vowing at least to RSVP, which, to my credit, I did—in 2011.
She messaged me on Facebook a couple years ago and told me she was pregnant. They don’t allow phones in rehab, so I didn’t get the message until a few months later. I sent her a “congrats!” to which she never responded. I figured that was the end of it.
Until last night. After nearly two years of radio silence she texted me, asking if I’d like to come down to her new home in Connecticut and meet her husband, Paul, and their son. I was welcome to stay the night in their guest bedroom. She wrote that she’d been reading my blog and was happy I was clean and sober. The text ended with “Please come, Danny. It would be so great to see you.”
I hadn’t responded yet.
My sponsor looked at me over his coffee cup. “Is Angela on your amends list?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then you need to write her back, today, and you need to go down there and make amends.”
“Why can’t I just call her and do it over the phone? Do I really have to go down there and waste an entire Saturday night in Bumblefuck, Connecticut?”
“I take it you don’t want to go down there.”
“Of course not.”
“That’s why you have to go. Remember the story of the good wolf and the bad wolf. They are constantly in battle. Whichever wolf you feed is the one that wins.” He finished his coffee and drummed his knuckles on the table. “Okay let’s wrap this up and go look at sunglasses."
In addition to helping me navigate the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, my sponsor has proven quite useful in other, less spiritual matters as well. Were it not for his guidance I’d still be buying my clothes at Target, instead of boutique shops on Newbury Street, the kind that are named after a single person. Nor would I have discovered the slim wallet, Netflix documentaries or Kiehl’s anti-aging skin cream. My sponsor is like a human Esquire magazine subscription. I call him when I have a question about anything, from gastro pub recommendations to retirement planning, so it was natural that I reached out to him when I found myself in Bethel, Connecticut, without a gift for my host family.
“Find a toy store and get the kid a stuffed animal or something like that. That’ll be good,” he advised.
I found a general store on route 302 and bought a Cuddlekins Siberian Husky for the kid and a gallon of apple cider for the parents. When I pulled up in front of their house, at three in the afternoon, the driveway was empty. I grabbed the toy, the cider and my bag, walked up to the front door, took a deep breath and rang the bell. No one answered. A dog yipped from inside. I rang again. Nothing. Again the dog barked. I got back into my Jeep and waited.
Thirty minutes later a BMW pulled into the driveway. A man got out. He wore a pink Polo shirt with the collar up, gray slacks and leather slip-on loafers. It looked like he was talking to himself, until I noticed the little Blue Tooth device lodged in his ear. He grabbed a set of golf clubs from the trunk and started toward the front door.
I got out of my Jeep. The man saw me and held up his hand—either as a “hello” or a “wait there”—then pointed to his ear. This is a common gesture that translates to “I’m an important asshole.” He walked in through the side door, still talking on the phone. I stood on the front lawn holding a jug of apple cider and a stuffed animal.
Eventually he came back out, a microbrew in hand, a sweater tied around his neck.
“Dave?” he said.
“Right. Paul Wilmont. Angela’s husband.”
For twenty minutes Paul Wilmont and I made small talk. He complained about the condition of the greens on the back nine at Bellingham Country Club. He complained about his clients from Bear Stearns. He complained about Notre Dame’s sophomore quarterback. He complained about the nanny’s work visa. In an effort to assimilate, I complained about how deceptively hard it was to replace my condo’s front door. “I need to find a handyman to finish the job,” I said. “The door is off the hinges, just leaning against the doorjamb. Hopefully no one will break in, but…”
Angela arrived, carrying a canvas tote bag in one arm and her son in the other. We exchanged pleasantries and she introduced me to her son, Dodson. She then pointed to the dog. “And that little guy is George,” she said. I felt like telling her she had the names reversed, but I held my tongue.
I presented the apple cider and the toy puppy to my hosts. Angela made an elaborate thank you overture and offered the stuffed animal to Dodson, who pushed it away. She offered it again and he smacked at it violently, this time with a piercing “no!”
“It’s okay, Doddy. You don’t have to play with it,” she said through a smile. She set the Husky on the other side of the couch, out of his sight, then turned to me. “Don’t take it personally.”
“No, I’m sorry, I just thought…” I couldn’t believe I apologized for buying the kid a forty-dollar gift.
“Really, don’t worry about it.” She forgave me. As though I accidentally elbowed her son in the head or showed him the last twenty minutes of The Exorcist.
I don’t have any children, but most of my friends do. When I give their kids a present, I get a thank you, even if the parent has to coax it out of them. My godson sends me thank you notes just for playing Star Wars with him for ten minutes. Angela’s house observed a different code of etiquette, more like Ancient Rome: if the gifts were not deemed satisfactory then they were discarded, and the gift bearer was shamed.
In the living room we snacked on Vienna sausage, figs, assorted cheeses and miniature slices of bread. The food was artfully arranged on a piece of slate, which was like dining off my mother’s front walkway. Angela suggested I try the butter. When I asked what made it so special she revealed its mystery: goat milk and a hint of Gouda cheese. Now even my palette felt inferior.
She flipped her hair back and bit into a gherkin. “So, Danny, tell me, how have you been?”
We caught up on old times while her husband snored in his recliner and her kid routinely threw Tinker Toys against the wall. Angela asked about my life in the days leading up to rehab. I gave her the abridged version. “…I couldn’t eat any solid food. Most days I couldn’t get out of bed until I had a fix,” I said, looking down at my feet. “One of my dealers was going to kill me for ripping him off. It got so bad I thought about, you know, ending it all…” I looked up and saw Dodson sitting on his mother’s lap, while she read quietly to him, a story of a missing green sheep.
Angela announced that dinner would be at six, and that the Galvins would be joining us. The Galvins were a young couple that lived nearby. They too had a two year-old son, Smith. The thought of a duplicate set of WASPs made me uneasy, but I stayed positive and tried to keep it light.
“Smith?” I said. “Does he have a first name?”
Angela laughed. “Danny…you haven’t changed at all. God bless you.” The implication being that if she could, Angela would trade it all in—her “rustic” farmhouse, her cashmere throw blankets, her professionally curated stack of hickory firewood—for a chance to be simple again. I have come to understand this dynamic as reverse class envy: You don’t want our life. I know it seems fabulous, but really, it’s a burden. Life was so much easier before it required a tax attorney on a monthly retainer.
The Galvins arrived at quarter to six. While the boys played on the living room floor, the two couples hammed it up in the kitchen. Their conversation reminded me of the kind of vapid chatter usually reserved for a golf foursome, pointless dribble about NFL injuries and trendy diets. I sat on the couch like a satellite, a strange piece of inner-city debris that had drifted into their suburban orbit.
Dinner was served in the “country room”—pan-seared salmon with truffle oil mashed potatoes and a side of fresh green beans. The vegetables were topped with a lemony cheese sauce that had a delightfully thin consistency and looked exactly like the snot that collected on Dodson’s upper lip during the entire meal.
“Sorry about the boogies,” Angela said. “But we read that wiping his nose only reinforces the idea that something about him needs fixing, which in the long run can lead to self-esteem issues.”
“That’s interesting,” I said, curious as to whether they applied the same theory to diaper changing. It was likely, given the smell of feces that had wafted over from the high chair for the last fifteen minutes.
Afterward we retired to the living room, where we all sat around the two boys, marveling at them, deciphering their syntax, interpreting their behavior, predicting their futures. “Smith loves falling face down on the couch. He’s so trusting.” Or “Dodson keeps his toys very organized. Our pediatrician says that’s the hallmark of a highly analytical mind.”
I wondered what my parents said about me when I was a toddler. “Danny is fascinated with Great White Sharks, but he cries whenever he sees a picture of one. Why is he such a fucking pansy?” Or “My son tried to negotiate his way out of his grandmother’s funeral. He’ll grow up to be a selfish prick, just like his deadbeat uncle.” Then it occurred to me that my parents never evaluated me. They never showcased me at family gatherings. In fact, I wasn’t allowed at them. They were for the adults, to sit around a table drinking Cutty Sark, smoking unfiltered cigarettes and swearing like sailors. If I wandered into the room someone scooped me up and returned me to the nearest television set.
Finally at eight o’clock the Galvins packed up Smith and his bag of toys and went home. Paul went to his study to read the Wall Street Journal and make some calls. Angela poured herself a glass of wine and we sat at the kitchen table.
“Listen Angela,” I said. “As part of my recovery, I need to make an amends to you. For coming to your apartment that night, senior year, totally wasted, and accusing you of doing things you didn’t do. And especially for not being in touch the last fifteen years. I was selfish. I didn’t care about other people. You reached out many times and I ignored you.”
Angela set her glass down on the table. “Thank you, Danny. I appreciate that. I hope that’s not the only reason you came down here,” she said, smiling warmly.
“Of course not,” I said, lying. “If there’s anything I can do to help fix the wrongs I’ve done in the past, please let me know.” I always add this last part with the presumption that no one will take me up on the offer. No one has yet, anyway.
“Well, actually,” Angela said. “Paul and I were thinking of playing tennis tomorrow morning, but we couldn’t find a sitter, and the club daycare isn’t available on Sundays. Would you be willing to watch Dodson until noon-ish tomorrow?”
I stared at her for a moment, then forced myself to swallow. “Sure. Absolutely.”
We talked for a little while longer, then at ten thirty Angela showed me to the guest bedroom. I got in bed and watched a Netflix documentary on my iPhone, then fell asleep.
My alarm woke me up at five in the morning. It was still dark out. I made the bed, grabbed my bag and tiptoed out to the living room. The house was silent and still. The babycam monitor on the kitchen table showed a grainy shot of Dodson asleep in his crib, an image I recognized from the Paranormal Activity films. I thought about leaving a note for Angela and Paul, then decided against it. The house didn’t have an alarm system, so that was good. I had to pee, which I could easily do in the front yard.
I served my purpose here. It was time to go.
As I reached for the doorknob something caught my eye under the glow of a nightlight: the Cuddlekins Siberian Husky, next to the couch, where Angela stashed it. I crept over to it, picked it up and looked into its eyes.
“Don’t take this personally,” I said. Then I wound up and hurled it against the living room wall, just for old time’s sake.
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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