“Some guys in AA can be mean toward people who stopped showing up,” I said to Bart as we shuffled toward our first meeting in two years. “They’re not always open-armed when you decide to come back.” As with most group-oriented settings, anyone who leaves can be perceived as holier than thou. “Eric, sure, some guys might be that way, but most won’t be,” he replied as we walked in. “You know that as much as I do.” On cue, our sponsors Greg and Chuck hurried over to welcome us back. Maybe two dozen familiar faces—plus a few new ones—shook our hands or embraced us as we found our seats: “We really missed you guys.” “It’s good to see you boys again.” Had I made up that people would be cold to us? I was so used to gay men being catty and exclusive. Instead, we were received with camaraderie from men of all sizes, ages, ethnicities, and professions. I knew of no other community that was so free of judgment.

In early 2011, I ended a shift at the Cobble Hill cafe and rode the 2 train to West Village, where my AA support group met each Tuesday. I was but three weeks into my sobriety, still finding my footing in the group. After my first meeting a few guys came over to introduce themselves and welcome me. I thought it was funny how the three of them were the same age as me, and even similar “scene,” as if what I needed most was to relate to someone as close in outlook as possible. I recognized two of them from the nightlife crowd, though we had never formally met. I would later learn that this greeting ritual was unspoken custom: if someone was new and they seemed to “fit your category,” it was understood that you would introduce yourself. Ideally the newcomer would relate to you and feel enough sense of belonging to return each meeting. And, not three weeks into my attendance, at this particular early 2011 meeting, I made my first introduction to a new member: a very frightened, though not-so-sceney Bart Quinn.

Bart wore Sperrys and Croakies and couldn’t have stood out more with his pastel color blocking. He looked like any closeted fratino I had ever encountered, and everything about him (not just the clothes) screamed “Let me out of here!” However, he was the same age as me, and it was evident that he needed a friend as desperately as I. So, I figured if he had it in him to overcome his alcohol addiction, he could also overcome his awful, terrible, embarrassing taste in clothing. (Ironically, my fake Kenzo hat and Topshop wardrobe weren’t exactly screaming “tastemaker” but Bart had to take what he could get.) I didn’t learn much about him until his second meeting, when he got up to address everyone: “Hi. I’m Bart. I’m, uh. I’m gay. I guess that’s obvious since I’m here. But it’s the first time I’ve said that out loud…” Before he continued, I could feel every person in the room immediately assume an increased sense of responsibility.

“I, um. I…” Bart was struggling to tell his story to the group. Fighting tears, he slowly shared some details: “…I have used alcohol… to hook up with men for the last…six, no, seven years. I’ve always been, I dunno, homophobic, since I’m gay and tried to hide it. So, I would, um, use booze to hook up, with guys, but then tell myself I wasn’t, you know, gay or whatever, since I was always blacked out. But like, I had, um. I had sex with three of my pledge brothers in college. And four other guys in the house. Funny, two of them are best friends. I don’t even think they know it about each other. They both got married and were each other’s best man and that sort of made me really upset. I don’t know why. Anyway. Um. Since I moved here, I’ve been doing the same stuff. And I just want…I just want to not rely on alcohol anymore, to be comfortable with myself. I want to make friends who relate to me. I want to meet gay men aside from anonymous sex. So. Yeah. That’s why I’m here. Thanks for, you know. Listening.”

Once this new meeting had begun—the two-year absence entirely glossed over by all of our old friends—Bart nudged me and pointed to a young 20-something in the back corner. “I bet that kid is new,” he said. “He looks completely terrified.” I made eye contact with the guy and quickly cranked my neck back around. “He looks like he hasn’t slept for the past week,” I added. “And he knows we’re talking about him. Let’s say hello afterwards.” The kid said nothing the entire meeting, and Bart had to chase after him once we had concluded. He caught him—Charlie, all of 21 years old—and invited him to join a group of us for dinner. “Nobody’s going to ask you anything you don’t want to answer,” I promised Charlie quietly. “Sit next to me, OK? Hell, don’t say anything, but just give us all a shot.” Charlie was silent throughout dinner, seemingly lost in thought. He didn’t seem too thrilled about being there. But he was there, at least physically, and I knew that mattered for something.

Bart and I walked Charlie to the subway after dinner. “How was your first meeting?” Bart asked. “It’s not my first,” Charlie replied. “It’s my fourth. My fourth first meeting.” “Wait, how old did you say you were? 21?” Bart and I were thinking the same thing: this kid was struggling to pick himself up. “Let us give you our phone numbers,” I told him, as we took his phone and typed in our contacts. “Call or text us any time of day or night, and we mean that. And we’ll see you at next week’s meetings. Yeah?” Charlie, with his sunken, terrified eyes, could only nod back, too afraid to make eye contact or speak. Bart and I looked for him at the next few meetings, but Charlie never returned. We wished we had gotten his number instead of giving him ours. I used my rare lifeline to God or Jesus or whatever, asking and praying that Charlie find the confidence or support to reach his full potential, to get the fruitful, happy, healthy life that he deserved.

My sponsor Greg encouraged me to speak to the group at one meeting. “You obviously don’t owe anyone any information,” he said. “But a lot of guys are curious why you came back. If you’re comfortable talking about it.” At the following meeting, I stood above everyone and introduced myself to both strange and familiar faces. “Hello. I’m Eric. I’ve been sober for four years. Well, except one time late last year, which I never told anyone about. That was a moment of bad judgment. Among many….” I paused, caught Bart’s eye, and in a flash, thought how selfish it seemed to tell the group that I was only back because times got tough. I had left them when times were good, and yet there were people like Charlie who would have benefited from my being there, and sticking around could have prevented me from becoming such an ass hole. I was suddenly ashamed, but still had to finish speaking: “I missed you guys. That’s all. Thank you. My friend Bart and I…we’re happy to be back.” When I sat back down, Bart took my hand and squeezed it, as if to tell me he was proud or happy or supportive, or whatever.

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