James, Jim, Jimmy (Brittany Ackerman)

My boyfriend John had a friend named James. In the recovery scene, everyone seemed to have biblical names. I’d met so many Lukes and Marks and Matthews and Josephs and Daniels, even a handful of Isaiahs and Jeremiahs. And everyone knew everyone’s business because they all shared about their lives in meetings. That was kind of the point, to make your private life public so that you could get it off your chest and be healed.

John broke up with me because he said I was codependent. He texted me a list of codependency meetings in the area and said I might find them helpful. I deleted the text. I wasn’t in any sort of recovery, but I was living in Delray Beach, the recovery capital of the country. I was studying writing in graduate school, unsure of my next move. I was only twenty-three, but I felt ready to settle down. I didn’t want to deal with the real world of looking for a job and an apartment and all of that. I wanted someone to take care of me so that I could stay at home and write.

Everywhere I went I met guys who were in recovery, who worked in treatment, answered phones at call centers in the middle of the night in some warehouse in Boynton Beach. They went to meetings during the day and then seemingly had all the time in the world to chill out and do nothing. I liked being on the outskirts of it, the girl who came around but didn’t really belong. It was a thrill to be meeting new people all the time, and no surprise when those people just up and disappeared. There was no mystery; they were using again.

One night I was on a grocery run for my parents, pulling things from shelves according to the list my mom hand wrote and slipped into my purse. I was picking out a strip steak and James was walking around with someone I hadn’t seen before. James looked how most of the guys in that crowd looked: short brown hair freshly cut and styled, colorful Nikes, designer jeans, a black t-shirt and a silver cross hanging above his heart.

I wasn’t going to say hi because it felt awkward, him knowing John and I were done, me here alone at the store while he’s at least with a friend. But he left his cart and came over to me, gave me a hug that lasted so long I could feel his chest muscles flex and retract through his shirt.

“Hey, babe,” he said when he finally pulled away.

“Good to see you,” I said because, honestly, it was. I had felt out of the loop since the breakup, desperately wondering if I’d ever be let back into the circle.

“Same, same. I’m just with my new sponsee helping him get some groceries.”

“That’s nice of you.”

“Yeah, yeah. You pay your dues, you know? But, hey, you wanna go out tonight, like go play pool or something?”


“There’s a bar in West Palm that has a whole upstairs billiards room. You down?”

“Okay,” I said. I didn’t have class and my only plans were to eat at Outback Steakhouse with my parents and then watch whatever show they had queued up for the night. 

“Meet at my place and I’ll drive,” James said.

Luckily John and James didn’t live at the same apartment complex. John lived alone, something rare for someone so young in recovery, and James lived in a halfway house, which was more common.          

Maybe James just wanted to be friends, I thought, but I also knew that wasn’t true. I knew that when a guy asked you out he wanted something in return, some part of you that you had to be willing to give. He wanted you, essentially, to be his, and since I belonged to no one, I agreed to the deal.


The bar was hip but smoky. Sobriety always seemed to mean smoking, be it chain-smoking or vaping. Something John didn’t do. He preferred lulling himself to sleep at night with liquid Benadryl, but that’s another story. James showed me how to cue the ball even though my dad had taught me years ago. I knew James wanted to show me how it was done, how he did things his own way.

We played a few rounds in between saying hi to people he knew. Some of them I recognized and I wondered if they’d report back to John, tell what they’d seen. Would they know that it was James who asked me out and not the other way around? Gossip is currency in rehabilitation. 

I thought it was funny that everyone was calling James Jimmy.

“Well, my legal name is Jim, but yeah, most people call me Jimmy…or James. I’ve always liked James because Jimmy sounds like a little kid.”

“So should I still call you James?” I asked and he put his arm around me.

“Yeah, if you don’t mind. Everyone else can call me whatever they want, but I want you to call me James.”

“Will do,” I said and James moved his hand from my shoulder down my arm and to my waist.  Then he kissed me right there in the middle of the bar, in front of all those people who know him as Jimmy. The kiss was good. It felt easy and simple, no fuss. His lips touched mine, made the smallest smacking sound only audible to us, and then it was over. 

The first time I’d kissed John was in his car after hours and hours of talking about our lives.  There, over the center console of his car, two fountain Sprites resting between us, he kissed me with tongue, a make out, and with passion. The kiss had felt like a wedge in my life, placing a before and after on either side. I couldn’t un-know it or un-feel it. It had made its way into my history. I’d felt like John could take care of me, like he could sweep me away from the banality of my life and I could be the leading lady in his.  And in this way, every first felt so big and important with John: our first date at the French restaurant; our first time having sex during a power outage from a tropical storm, the power lines outside his window sparking in flames from the wind; the first time he told me he loved me at EPCOT in Disney World while we watched the fireworks in a replica city of Japan.

But I didn’t want to dwell on John anymore. I wanted to move forward and maybe moving forward meant being at the pool hall with James, letting him kiss me, smiling afterward, nodding yes when he asked if I was ready to leave.

He drove us back down I-95 all the way to his place in Boynton and when we walked inside, no one was home. James lived with four other guys, but they worked at restaurants and call centers or were out at the movies or meetings. James took me to his room. He had a whole private room to himself, which was rare, not having to share a private space with the other guys. There was a Scarface poster on the wall and a beat up old wooden dresser and a twin bed raised up high. James picked me up and threw me on the bed. I scooted back toward the lone pillow and laid down to rest my head. James turned off the lights and went into his closet, came out with his laptop and placed it on top of his dresser.  He turned on music and dimmed the brightness, but I could still see the gray window with the artists and songs filling up the screen. I wondered if he had a playlist made already, one especially for me, or if this was just what he put on for this kind of occasion.

My eyes adjusted to the dark and James got in bed with me. He had his shirt off already. There was a scar on his torso midway between his right nipple and his belly button, a horizontal line.  He knew I could see it, but he didn’t tell me what it was from. I didn’t ask. There were so many things about him I’d never know, so many stories. But I knew it would stay that way. There would be no joining of souls, nothing like that.

I kept my dress on but pulled down my underwear.  James tossed his clothes on the floor.  I felt naked even though I was still pretty much covered. 

“Are you on the pill?” James asked.

“Yeah, but I think you should still use a condom.”

“True,” he said and reached inside his bedside table for one. It had been so long since I smelled latex, that funny balloon smell that carried a texture in the air, like trying to breathe deeply through a straw. John and I had stopped using protection after a few months. I was once late on my period and had to tell him because I was so worried and couldn’t keep it to myself. He’d said, “Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out.” And then after I went to the doctor and took a pregnancy test that came back negative, I called him to tell him the good news.

“What happened with the baby?” John had asked. I didn’t know what to make of it.

James slid inside me and I put my arms around his back. He didn’t kiss me and I didn’t try to slow things down. I tried to think of the sex as an action, an activity, something we were doing together but also separate. He was having his own experience, and I was too. James quickened and moaned and then I felt him pulse inside of me. 

We heard noise and then James hopped off the bed quickly and scrambled to get dressed, threw my underwear at me and told me to sit up. 

“The house manager is here,” James said and I already knew what that meant.  He wasn’t supposed to have girls over, alone, unsupervised. He wasn’t supposed to lock his door, have anyone over after curfew. Or maybe the house manager knew John and would tell. Either way I did what he said.

But the commotion outside the door slowed down. Whoever had come home went straight to bed. Still, James walked me to my car outside and told me he’d had fun. He said he’d call me to hangout again.

I drove with the windows down, trying to erase the smell of latex and smoke from my hair, my clothes, my whole body.


All of my writing workshops were at night. I was only taking two the semester I met James, and every time I went in at seven p.m. and shut off my phone, I hoped to turn it back on at ten p.m. and see a missed call or a message. Weeks went by and I tried to focus on my writing. Three days a week, I taught as part of my program. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I went in at eight a.m. and lesson-planned, then taught for a few hours, graded papers in the office, and either waited for workshop or went home. The days all felt the same and blended together, boring. Campus was nothing special, another set of squat Florida buildings, every sidewalk lined with tall palm trees, a manmade lake in the center of the grounds, wild birds that squawked and followed you until you reached a door.

Sometimes I had meetings with my thesis advisor who would read parts of my graduate project and make comments, suggestions. She often had the same note, that I was writing around my story, that I wasn’t saying what had actually happened to the characters but instead was dancing around it trying to be metaphorical or something. She always drank chai tea and her hair was orange. Her office overlooked the manmade lake. I wondered if I kept writing, if I put all my energy and focus into my work, if I would end up like her, teaching at a school like this, make it to the other side of where I was. Someday I might be able to look at someone else’s work and tell them what was missing, tell them what they needed to do in order to fix it. It seemed impossible to me then, the way she could see my work as if from above, know the whole of it before I could.

I took notes and would go home and try again. 

Once in a while, the writers would go out after workshop and have a drink. It felt weird to be around people who drank, people who didn’t have a problem. We’d sit outside the local pub and share pitchers, order chicken fingers, chicken pot pie, a big plate of tater tots, whatever, and we’d talk about workshop, about our classes, our students. No one in my program knew about my love life, my personal life, especially because all I wrote in workshop was fiction.

And then one night, I got a call from John while we were all sitting outside the pub, drinking. I answered my phone and stepped off the patio. I walked closer to the parking lot where no one could hear me.

“Hello?” I said.

“I know you fucked Jim,” John said.

“That’s not true,” I said, even though it was.

“You really didn’t think I’d find out? I mean, it had to be him? You couldn’t fuck anyone else in this city? You had to get with my friend?”

I hung up on John because I didn’t have a good answer. Instead, I called James, even though I knew I shouldn’t. I felt stuck, caught, and I didn’t want to be alone.

“Hey, babe,” James answered like nothing in his world had collapsed.

“Hi, um, did you tell John…about us?” I asked.

“What? No, why? Does he know?”

“He just called me and bitched me out.”

“Damn, I’m sorry. Word travels quick here, though, you know that.”

“I know,” I said, because, yeah, it was true. “I just don’t know what to do.”

“Why do you have to do anything?” James asked. “Do you want to hangout?  I’m just leaving a meeting.”

“Okay,” I said. “Should I come over?”

“No, let’s go out. Let’s do something spontaneous.”

I paid my tab at the bar and left. It was nice not having to explain where I was going to my classmates. They simply waved as I walked to my car and let me go in peace.

It was almost midnight when James and I pulled up to Las Olas Boulevard. On the way down to Fort Lauderdale, James said we should get a hotel and spend the night, have a romantic getaway and forget about John. He said John was a dick and who cared what he thought anyway? James said he wasn’t even close with John. He told me he’d tried to get a job with him, but John wouldn’t hire him because he didn’t have enough time. Enough time sober is what that meant.  John was trying to open his own treatment center in Orlando, trying to cover new territory, and had constantly been on the phone talking to operation managers and insurance people whenever we were together. It was a lot, all the time; but that was John.

We checked into a Holiday Inn and walked down Las Olas until James guided me into a club. I was wearing jeans and flip-flops and a hoodie and James was in his typical jeans and black t-shirt, but it didn’t matter. The club was dark and we made our way to the dance floor and danced. I had always loved to dance in college at parties or socials, and hadn’t done it in so long. It felt good to move and sweat and be with someone else. I got a vodka with Red Bull from the bar so I could stay awake and James had a Red Bull sans alcohol and we danced and drank and put our arms around each other and then it was two in the morning and the club was closing.  We walked home and James said maybe we should go swimming or rent a movie on the TV. But when we got back to the room, he said he had a horrible headache all of a sudden. I went to the front desk to see if they had any bottled water or mini toothpaste but no one was there. An abandoned maid’s cart was in the hallway and I took a few toiletry kits, but I had to buy a giant Smartwater from the vending machine so James could take an Advil.

We didn’t have pajamas or a change of clothes or anything, but James put on one of the robes that the hotel lets you have when you’re a guest and got into bed. He didn’t speak, but I knew to keep the lights off, TV too, to stay quiet and not make any noise. I just laid with him and rubbed his temples. We fell asleep in bed like that over the covers and didn’t wake up until the sun shone through the blinds.

James sat up and said he felt better, that he hadn’t eaten dinner and all that Red Bull wasn’t a good idea. We checked out of the hotel and James asked if I could front the bill. It was $120 dollars. I charged it to my emergency card and he said he’d pay me back. But once I dropped him back off in Boynton, that was the last I ever saw of him. It turned out he did get a job with John, that they were good friends, really good friends. I never found out if James had been the one to tell John. It wasn’t a lie, so it didn’t really matter.

I stopped dating people in recovery. Maybe I latched onto those guys because they were trying to better themselves and I didn’t know how to do that. Or maybe I didn’t want to do that, admit that I needed to change. I did eventually go to a codependency meeting and got a lot out of it.  There was one thing in particular about keeping the focus on yourself, to look within yourself and find hidden strengths you didn’t know you had. I kept going for a while but then realized I’d become codependent on the meetings themselves. I thought the best thing to do was to finish my book and move out of the state. Maybe practicing my own independence was as good a remedy as the meetings.


Years later, in other cities, I’d attach myself to all sorts of people. Even though I’d learned my lesson, it was a lesson I’d have to keep learning over and over again. 

At the end of every recovery meeting, they always tell you to keep coming back. It’s an invitation, a forever open-invitation to show up and be part of the group. But to me, it always felt like a threat, as in, you’ll be back, like something I can’t ever escape.

But now, I work at a university in a college town. I have an office that’s technically underground, but when I want to meet with students I just tell them to swing by the campus coffee shop instead. They bring copies of their writing and I mark it with a pen. We discuss the work and I try to help them as best I can. Sometimes I’m not sure how to make their stories better, though, and so I tell them to write through the hard parts and not around them. This always seems to help, or at least they say thank you before they get up to leave and continue on their way.

I watch them walk across the quad back to their dorms or to the cafeteria or onward and elsewhere from our little chat. I watch them walk away and until the next student arrives, I sit in stillness, if only briefly.


Brittany Ackerman is a writer from Riverdale, New York. She earned her BA in English from Indiana University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University.  She has led workshops for UCLA’s Extension, The Porch, Catapult, HerStry, Write or Die, and Lighthouse Writers.  She currently teaches writing at Vanderbilt University in the English Department.  She is a 3x Pushcart Prize Nominee and her work has been featured in Electric Literature, Jewish Book Council, Lit Hub, The Los Angeles Review, No Tokens, Joyland, and more. Her first collection of essays entitled The Perpetual Motion Machine was published with Red Hen Press in 2018, and her debut novel The Brittanys is out now with Vintage. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.


image: Claire Cantrell Wood, dive bar aficionado.