The Sins that Bind Us
Some times life changes in an instant. The shift so violently unexpected that it sucks the breath from your lungs. But more often life changes subtly—a series of tiny tremors one barely feels. A person falls out of love as gradually, and obliviously, as she fell in love in the first place. The perfect job or the bright future never quite materializes. The collapse of the what might have been isn’t abrupt or tragic. It’s just unavoidable.
That’s why I find myself here, in a church basement, once a week.
I stir a bit of crappy, powder creamer into even crappier, old coffee. It’s only characterizing flavor is burnt. Maybe no one cares how it tastes. Or maybe everyone here is so used to bitterness that they prefer it that way. I take a cup out of habit. It’s something warm to hold. I can sip it during the long, uncomfortable pauses or the awkward moments in a stranger’s story. It’s a prop, but I cling to it like a security blanket.
Clutching the styrofoam cup, I turn and hit a wall. No, not a wall—a him. Thin, hot liquid sloshes over the rim and he narrowly avoids ruining his shirt, moving with the precision of a man who knows how to avoid being burned. Time slows as it splatters to the floor. I’m already considering how to mop up the mess, but when I glance up to apologize, my gaze travels along the muscular torso that his black t-shirt doesn’t try to hide. Tattoos trail down his bicep, and I imagine that they extend up his shoulder to the chiseled chest that’s visible through the thin cotton. I reach his face, and I freeze.
His eyes don’t match the rest of him—soft and warm, occupying the space between brown and green. They are a direct contrast with the sharp lines of his body and the jaw he’s hidden under a rugged beard that’s as dark as his messy, black hair. As he stares at me, his eyes harden into scornful gems.
“Sorry.” I step back to allow him to pass, looking around for a napkin.
“It was an accident.” His voice is as cool as his eyes have become. “It happens.”
But not to him. I can hear it in his words. Maybe it’s a lifetime of experiencing the exact opposite—of being the one gifted with bad luck and poor decision making skills—but his attitude scrapes along my nerves. I bristle, forgetting the napkin and spilled coffee. “No need to be an asshole about it.”
His eyebrow arches, disappearing under a fallen lock of hair. “I thought I was being pretty polite given that you nearly dropped a cup of boiling coffee down my pants.” He leans closer and I catch a whiff of soap and the lightest hint of clove. “A man has to have his priorities.”
He’s one of those—a guy constantly drawing attention to his dick as though it’s a public treasure. Arrogant. That is to say, he’s a man.
I focus on the anger bubbling in my chest and ignore that my body has come to the same conclusion. I pretend I can’t feel the gentle pull of his presence, rejecting the leap of my heart as a fantasy of pressing my body to his flashes through my mind.
I walk away without another word, leaving him and the mess behind me. He’s as responsible for it as I am and he could use a little accountability by my estimation.
It’s not because I don’t trust myself.
I take a seat, gambling that Stephanie, our group’s over-eager leader, won’t sit next to me. Four doze metallic legs scrape across the poured concrete as everyone joins. Stephanie takes the seat next to mine. A cup of coffee isn’t going to be enough to hide behind, but today her eyes are on our newcomer: Mr. Arrogant.
I can’t blame her. Mine were until I heard him speak. I can’t see if he’s softened again or if our near miss has permanently affected his mood. I shouldn’t care. It pisses me off that I’m curious. Men that snap over things like spilled coffee are on the top of my list of ones to avoid.
Stephanie manages to collect herself before any drool escapes. But she fluffs her bottle blonde hair as she stands and leads us through a pointless mantra about acceptance and forgiveness.
I direct my attention to the words. I’ve said them a million times. I’ve screamed them into my pillow. I’ve whispered them like an incantation. They never becomes real. For a long time I believed saying them chipped away at the boulder of self-recrimination resting on my shoulders. Now I know that I grew strong enough to carry the weight. Unforgiven sins don’t diminish, after all. You can’t magic them away with well-meaning words, because forgiveness is granted not taken.
“Does anyone want to share?” Stephanie prompts. Her request drips with sugar, and I instantly miss Ian, our former leader, who never had time for bullshit. He’d taken that philosophy global and retired to sail the coast. I still hadn’t warmed to his replacement.
I shrink back so she won’t pick on me. Sharing is supposed to be voluntary. There’s always someone desperate to spew their failures or proclaim their accomplishments, but when there isn’t someone gets put on the spot until the meeting starts to flow. It’s not that I want to sit here and stare at a circle of familiar strangers. I don’t want to be the first to go. Not today.
“Perhaps…” Stephanie trails away but her gaze is pinned on Mr. Arrogant. I actually feel embarrassed for her. It’s beyond obvious that she’s screwing him in her mind. It couldn’t be more clear if she had stood up and drawn a pornographic cartoon on the church basement’s chalkboard.
“Jude,” he answers the unspoken question.
Jesus Christ. Jude. I hope he has a motorcycle. Then he can officially be our new town rebel. His eyes flicker to mine as if he can hear what I’m thinking. They’re soft again, but he doesn’t keep his gaze on me. An icy shiver shoots up my spine and spreads its chilly tendrils across my scalp as my heart pounds erratically against my rib cage.
I hope then that he speaks. I want him to share his story so that I can understand the strange effect he has on me. Even now surrounded by a dozen other people, the connection between us is palpable—a tangible thread winding from him to me. I haven’t felt this way since…well, never. Not for a man.
Certainly, not for a stranger.
Even as he turns away and addresses the group, it’s still there, binding us to each other.
He stuffs his hands in his pockets and smirks. “Like I said, I’m Jude. Um, do you want my resume? A list of my transgressions?”
A few others chuckle. Every newcomer falls victim to the classic “I’m Nancy. I’m an addict” trope they’ve been sold in movies. Reality is a bit messier than that. Some people show up and start spilling their guts as if the rest of us have a secret we can share to fix everything. Others sit and fume. They’re the ones who are here because their wife or husband or the court demanded it. The worst are the ones that come with all the answers already. You can’t help them. Then there are the ones that listen. The ones that wait.
I have no idea which one Jude is, but I know what he’s not. He’s not a gut spiller, and I strongly doubt he’s got someone waiting at home for him. If I had to bet, I’d guess he was here on court order. It would explain the attitude. And maybe there’s a part of me that wants the whole package—tattoos, arrogance, legal trouble. No woman wants to admit that she never grew out of her bad boy phase.
I can’t even remember mine. That’s why I’m here.
“No need.” Stephanie flutters her lashes, and I realize I’m not the only one who hasn’t grown out of that phase. “If you’d like to share what brings you here, feel free. This is a safe space.”
She draws a circle in the air, and I smash my lips together to prevent a laugh from escaping just as Jude bites his own lip.
Well, that’s one thing we have in common. We both see the absurdity of our situation, and yet, we’re both here.
It’s probably the only thing you have in common, I remind myself.
He tilts his head a bit. “If you don’t mind, I’ll just listen for now.”
I didn’t expect that. The thread connecting me to him tugs and I glance up to find he’s staring at me. He doesn’t look away this time. His eyes pierce me, seeing past the careful image I’ve constructed for myself. This time I turn away, for the sake of survival.
A woman begins to speak—Anne, I realize— and he directs his attention to her. Her husband is gone. It was bound to happen. She’s not surprised. Even as she calmly relays this news, my own thoughts drift inward. I’d come today to share my own breakthrough. I no longer want to, because the few moments I’ve shared with Jude—a complete stranger—undermines it. The years I’d spent atoning, the sacrifices I made—all of it shattered when he looked at me and revealed the truth. My world is as fragile as glass, pretty lies blown carefully into a delicate bubble to cover up the ugliness in my past. The ugliness in me.
I know now that he is the devil, and he’s come to collect on my sins.
Very little filters through for the rest of the meeting. Someone screwed up. It’s his first meeting, but his arrival is overshadowed by Mr. Arrogant. Today is Charlie’s recovery anniversary. He’s made it five months. I smile and clap along with everyone else but I’m aware of the nerves hollowing a pit in my stomach.
My mind stays on Jude and the mystery he’s brought to this monotonous hour of my life. I’ve attended this NA meeting for four years, and I’ve watched people come and go. At first my heart hurt for each new story. I don’t suffer from that anymore. I keep my eyes on my own paper, so I can focus on keeping myself straight.
Not that there’s much temptation in this sleepy, little town. That’s exactly why I wound up in Port Townsend. There’s drugs and booze here, just like anywhere. But here I have the sea and the tiny, insulated world I’ve created for myself. This meeting taught me exactly what I needed to survive: the less people I let in, the less chance I’ll be hurt again. I stopped letting these wounded, wild creatures into my thoughts years ago. It keeps me safe, so what is it about him that is so tempting?
Whatever it is—whatever this connection is between us—I need to pinpoint it and cut it out of me. Men like Jude are dangerous. Not because of their tattoos or swagger, but because they see boundary lines as optional. I can’t let the walls I’ve built can’t be breached.
I dump the remains of my coffee in the wastebasket. I never even took a sip. I’d just allowed it to grow cold in my hands.
“What do you think of Jude?” Sondra is my age, but looks old enough to be my mother. After years of abusing prescription meds she moved on to the hard stuff, leaving her with wrinkles carved as deeply as the coke lines she had snorted. She’s a walking anti-drug poster.
I shrug, but I don’t have to try hard to convince her I’m uninterested. She’s too busy plotting her plan of attack. I admire her blunt sexuality, even though I don’t pretend to share it.
She unwraps a stick of gum and folds it into her mouth. “Maybe I can take him out for a drink. He’s new to town, for sure. I’d remember seeing him around.”
“A drink?” I repeat pointedly.
“Coffee.” She waves off my concern.
“That would be nice of you.” I’m not ready to admit to my own interest, but if Sondra gets him to go out she’ll ferret out every last detail. I make a mental note to ask her about him next week.
“I have to go. My…” I begin, but my excuse is unnecessary, she’s already moved on to give Charlie an overly affectionate hug. The celebratory gesture paints a swath of pink from his cheeks to the tips of his ears.
That’s not my gig. I don’y offer hugs or grasp hands. I come, I sit, and I try not to make eye contact when I see these people outside these concrete walls. I give an hour of my time. Nothing more.
With Sondra distracted, I seize my chance and dart for the coat closet. The weather has been fickle as it shifts into spring, but I can always count on the breeze off the ocean being a bit too cold. As I round the corridor, I stop in my tracks
Anne is sobbing. The collected business woman who relayed the news of her separation is anything but apathetic. She’s just as broken as the rest of us.
Guilt sweeps over me. This isn’t how she wants to be seen. It’s why we come here after all—to perfect the lie that we’re fine. Lies like that take practice before they’re displayed for the world to believe, and this group is a captive audience. She doesn’t want me to see her like this, just like she doesn’t want me—or any of us—to know the truth. Her divorce wasn’t inevitable. It wasn’t mutual.
It’s another casualty of the war she’s fighting against herself.
I shuffle backwards with plans to retrieve my coat on Sunday after morning services. Then Jude steps from the shadows, his towering figure already familiar, and joins her.
He isn’t new to these meetings. He went through the motions like the rest of us. He said the right things and nodded sympathetically at the appropriate moments. He’d even known to listen—a skill only a seasoned veteran acquires.
Still here he is approaching a woman who has her guard down to offer comfort. I thought he was the devil-a test of my strength= before, but now I know he can’t be. The devil doesn’t offer solace, even when he lies. But an angel is too much to hope for, and I’d stopped believing in them long ago.
But a man—flesh and blood and all the complications that come with—is the most dangerous possibility of all.
I can’t hear what he says to her as she nods her trembling head. His hand rests on her upper shoulder and I can almost feel the comforting weight of it on my own.
The fantasy jerks me back to the present and I leave without my coat. Without another word.
Without looking back.