by Krista Lynne White
There’s safety in numbers. A pearl of wisdom Dominic’s parents did their best to drill into him. The protection of the group, the security of having others around you.
But was there really safety in numbers? At twenty-one, Dominic Greco had concluded there wasn’t. Over the last few months, he’d extricated himself from his relationship with every single one of his friends. He walked the university campus alone. He lived and studied alone.
It was hard—he felt like a loner pariah. But for the first time since he was a kid, his life was his own. If having his life back meant he lived like a recluse amongst a sea of forty thousand students—he’d pay the price to keep it.
The alarm on his phone sounded, shaking him from his thoughts. Time to get to class. Tsking, Dominic shoved his laptop in his bag, then crammed in his books. The last half hour of his study time wasted—brooding. He braced himself for the frigid February air, then leaving the library, took in a shallow breath that bit and stabbed all the way down to his lungs. His healthy, clear lungs. Quitting smoking was a reward in itself, ‘cause he sure didn’t miss shivering in minus twenty temperatures for a nic fix.
Staving off the cravings was easier than expected—but then he’d already kicked the drugs and the drinking. Surprisingly, the psychological aspect of quitting smoking tripped him up. He’d never found the act of sucking in a cloud of carbon monoxide, tar and nicotine enjoyable. But naïve Dominic, following his friends, forced himself to smoke socially at parties, despite the fact acrid smoke made him want to hurl. And as one by one his friends crossed the line into smoking regularly, he’d done it too. Because of the rush. The sense of rebellion, of danger, of flirting with dependency. Somehow it put him a cut above non-smokers, and became part of his identity.
So if he was no longer a smoker, was he boring? Was he tame? Would people still see him as the adventurous, bold, gritty guy they did before? Or would he just be a lame, nose-in-a-book dullard, not worth a second glance? Three weeks since his last cigarette, and still, he’d yet to reach a conclusion.
Dominic walked across campus with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his winter coat, his hood pulled up against the chill until he entered the warmth of the Math Building. He strode down the hallway toward his lecture, but when he noticed Melissa Bowden’s red hair up ahead, he instinctively slowed. When Melissa reached their classroom doorway, she didn’t enter, but looked up and down the hall. He’d been able to avoid her for the last few months, but today, there was no escaping her.
Melissa had such warm, lively green eyes, and he fought their pull he approached. She smiled at him, and out of politeness, he reciprocated.
“Hey Dominic. How are you? Long time no talk.”
“Yeah, it’s been a while. Sorry I haven’t returned your texts, I’ve been really busy.”
She smiled again, although not as bright as before. His chest clenched as he angled away from her, watching her reaction from the corners of his eyes.
“Yeah. Well, that’s okay,” she said. “I understand. It’s just none of us have seen you at the bar in a while, and I’ve been wondering if you’re all right. You keep taking off so quickly after class I haven’t had a chance to ask you.”
“I’m fine.” He gave a small nod to drive the point home.
Melissa tilted her head slightly, and her lovely green eyes probed him.
He shifted on the balls of his feet. “How have you been?”
She told him about her studies and the new part-time job she’d gotten after Christmas. It was enough to deflect her questions until their professor walked into class and they had to be seated.
As they entered, Dominic deliberately walked in the opposite direction from Melissa so she wouldn’t get the impression he was going to sit beside her. As he remembered sitting beside her at the bar back in November, nausea arose and his throat constricted. If only there was a way to go back and do it all over again. To be who he used to be.
After class, he ducked into the men’s room. Not only to avoid Melissa, but to be sure no one would see where he was going. He’d never live it down if his old buddies knew he went to a self-help meeting. Desperation caused people to do all kinds of unthinkable things.
A couple of weeks ago, he’d concluded he needed to talk to someone. A professional someone. Someone whose advice and guidance he’d be able to trust. He couldn’t go on living like this. He wanted to have friends again. Fixing himself was the only way forward. Any other option was no kind of life.
He couldn’t afford to pay anyone for the help he needed, so he started with the Don on his residence floor. The guy was only a kid himself, so Dominic didn’t trust his attempt to counsel him. But he gave him some options on campus, which was a good start.
First pick from the list was a guidance counsellor. Nearly every surface in her office was a shade of grey; the carpeting, walls, blinds, the framed diplomas, the nubby, scratchy, polyester upholstery of the armchair she told him to take a seat in. Exquisite irony, really. He almost laughed.
“What brings you to my office Dominic?” Stout and bosomy, the counsellor wore a shapeless dress covered in garish flowers. Her smile oozed the assurance she could make life better for anyone, like a grandmother or an aunt who wanted to be your favorite.
He figured the title of guidance counsellor meant he should trust her. But how could he sit across from a perfect stranger and divulge the most horrific thing he’d ever done?
“I… I’m here because I’ve been using K and binge drinking.”
The counsellor’s assuring smile immediately faded, and she put on a clinical ‘neutral face’ instead. Amazing how someone so concerned not to judge made him want to leap to his defense.
“I’ve stopped though. I stopped in November.”
Her smile reemerged, and she tilted her head with approval; he was a good boy now.
“Well done, Dominic. I’m sure you know ketamine abuse isn’t something to be taken lightly, and neither is drinking to excess. The long-term side effects to your health are very serious. Ketamine abuse can lead to attention deficit or dysfunction…”
He tuned her out. A lecture wasn’t necessary, he’d never go back to that hellish life. He waited for her to ask why he’d started using K, or why he’d quit, or what prompted him to quit, but she seemed more interested in quoting medical textbooks than fixing him. There was nothing more he could say to her.
A few days later, he’d tried a mental health support group. The PhD leading the weekly meeting had set the stage with chairs and second-hand couches arranged in a circle. The qualifications of the counsellor were a good start, although he was wary of the group setting—there wasn’t safety in numbers for him. People were filing in and saying hi to him, trying to make him feel welcome. Since it was too late to escape, he took a seat on an uncomfortable orange plastic chair, determined to discern.
As far as he could tell, everyone at the meeting treated it like some sort of club. A haven for those afflicted by a hard, cruel world. Despite the PhD’s best efforts, the group members seemed to feed off of each other, and use one another to entrench their victimized viewpoint. Dominic wasn’t a victim—he was an aggressor, and he didn’t see how spilling his guts in front of this group would help anyone. As soon as the meeting finished, he left.
His options had rapidly thinned out. He’d tried two more support groups and had seen little hope. And so tonight, Dominic stood at the doorway of a weekly drop-in meeting sponsored by some Christian association on campus. There were little tables with chairs, and the same second-hand couch circle of the first support group he’d tried. The room was quickly filling up with people, so Dominic joined the flow and took what he hoped was the most inconspicuous seat in the room, an empty table in the back corner.
People continued to arrive, and it wasn’t long until the empty chairs around him were one of the few options left. A group of three guys came in together and walked toward him, and his pulse accelerated.
The tallest one nodded at him. “Hey. Mind if we sit with you?”
Dominic very much minded, but shook his head no.
One of them had a Toronto Blue Jays cap on backwards, and asked him, “Is this your first time? I don’t think I’ve seen you before.”
“Are you in second year?” The tall guy asked.
They all nodded, warm and open. Dominic turned his attention to his phone.
“What mark did you get on your lab?” The Asian guy in the middle asked. Dominic’s eyes rose because he’d just gotten a lab back. But the question was for the tall guy, not him.
Tall guy grinned. “Ninety-seven.” Dominic raised an eyebrow.
Dominic agreed, but said nothing.
“Wasn’t Heublein hilarious in Calculus today?” They all laughed.
A kick of camaraderie pulsed through him. Dominic had Professor Heublein for Calculus last year. ‘What happened?’ formed on his lips; but he wouldn’t release it.
“The definite integral went right over my head,” Jays cap said. “I mean, I can use the equation but I don’t understand it.”
“I didn’t get it either,” the Asian guy said.
Dominic got it. He’d aced definite integrals last year. He swallowed hard.
Tall guy turned to him. “What’s your major?”
“Nice. We’re in computer science too, second year though.”
“You ever had Heublein for Calculus?” Jays cap asked, leaning in, elbows on the table. Heublein was the butt of nearly every calculus student’s jokes, and Dominic had a few he knew would get these guys going.
The dull ache he’d felt over the last months intensified to a soul-crushing throb. “No, I’ve never had Heublein.”
The guys talked about baseball. Passionately too; they sounded like they might play on a team together. Dominic hadn’t played baseball since he was thirteen and didn’t regret it, but he was following their conversation well enough to fake it. He so badly wanted to fake it.
But he kept himself apart. One lonely guy. An insignificant speck. One isolated, despicable, depraved loser amongst the throng.
He thought about leaving. But a chubby, curly-haired guy stood up from a couch in the centre of the room, introduced himself as Paul, and began the meeting. He didn’t know what certifications Paul had, Paul looked only five or six years out of university himself. But when he spoke of hitting his brother in the head with a hockey stick in a fit of rage, Dominic instantly knew Paul was qualified to help him. The doctors told Paul he’d hit his brother so hard that day he could’ve killed him. At sixteen years old, Paul knew a part of him almost murdered his brother.
Dominic leaned back in his seat. None of the previous counsellors had done something as awful, if not worse than he had, and come out on the other end as a healthy person. A spark of hope ignited within his heart.
He waited to see if anyone else would confess to anything similar, but no one did. It was all school stress, my boyfriend dumped me, I feel depressed, not—I have a monster living inside me. The longer he sat there, the harder it got to open his mouth. The next thing he knew, the meeting was over.
He went back to the drop-in the next week, hoping and waiting to hear someone else say something as terrible as what he had to get off his chest, but nobody did. Nobody went as deep as Paul did. He was the only one.
The weekend was hard. He ran into one of his old buddies and wound up drunk at the bar. Sunday afternoon he stopped in at a convenience store for a snack and added on a pack of smokes. He walked out of the store, tore the cellophane from the box, then slipped a cigarette in his mouth. When he reached into his coat pocket for his lighter and came up empty, he froze.
Dominic stared at the box, fixated on the Surgeon General’s warning—cigarettes damage your lungs. His hands trembled, and the warning blurred. Cigarettes can damage a lot more than your lungs. He threw the smokes into the first garbage can he found.
The next Wednesday Dominic got to the drop-in twenty minutes early. He sighed in relief when he saw there were still seats available close to Paul’s. He kept his head down, pretending to read something on his phone while he waited for the meeting to begin. The chairs got filled, and the decibels went up with the chatter of rambunctious college kids. It was five minutes after seven, and still Paul’s seat remained empty.
Time ticked on; five minutes, then five minutes more. Dominic found it difficult to stop staring at Paul’s empty seat. The room was practically full, so the meeting must still be on. Dominic had just about worked up the nerve to ask the guy sitting beside him what was happening when Paul bustled in, apologizing for being late. He didn’t even have to quiet everyone down, they’d all been waiting for him and were eager to get started.
As Paul filled the void of his empty seat, Dominic saw the significance of ‘one’ in a whole new light. The importance of an individual. It obviously didn’t matter to Paul if anyone else had the coloured past he did. He was unafraid to be different—to stand out and be apart. One man standing for what he knew was right and paying the price. One. The smallest of the numbers, but the most meaningful. One wasn’t an insignificant speck, one was the difference between something and nothing. The difference between existence and non-existence. Once something existed, it was. Paul was.
Dominic spoke. He introduced himself, even though his palms were sweaty and his heart was pounding. He referred to the night in November, but he left Melissa Bowden’s name out of it.
“There’s a girl I was after for months. We’d made out a couple times, but she only wanted to be friends. One night at the bar, I…I did something terrible. The week before my buddy slipped some K in a girl’s drink, got her high, and took her home to bed. She didn’t remember a thing. So that night my buddy said, ‘Do it! She’ll never know!’ and I did it. I slipped K in this girl’s drink, and in twenty minutes, she was high.”
Someone gasped. Dominic slowly scanned the room. Shocked faces looked back at him, some angry. He didn’t know if he should keep going.
“What did you do?” Paul asked.
Dominic swallowed hard. “She was really high. I could have her, and I knew it, but I couldn’t do it.” Tears burned his eyes and when he tried to continue, his voice cracked. He cleared his throat. “I’d become a predator. I’ve never felt more depraved in my life. So I stayed with her to make sure she was safe until her girlfriends took her home.”
It felt so good to get it off his chest. He didn’t understand it, but he no longer cared at all what anyone in that room thought of him.
“I’m glad you told us,” Paul said. “I bet it wasn’t easy.”
“I don’t know what else to do. I’ve got to fix myself somehow. Before this happened I would’ve told you I could never prey on a girl that way. I don’t trust myself anymore. I’m afraid the next time, I might actually go through with it.”
“Why don’t you stay behind after the meeting? We can arrange a time for us to talk about what led up to it. But this is a great first step. There’s protection in confessing this to a supportive group of peers. It helps give you accountability.”
Dominic nodded and exhaled a shuddering breath. He was definitely going to stick around.
When the meeting let out, Dominic noticed a girl heading straight for him. She looked so determined; he was sure he was going to get a tongue-lashing. He prepared himself to face the anger he deserved. But when the girl stopped in front of him, she smiled.
“It’s Dominic, right? I’m Astrid.”
His reply emerged all gravelly. “Hi.”
Astrid looked down at the ground, then sighed and met his eyes. “I wanted to thank you for being so open tonight.”
Dominic grimaced and shrugged. He didn’t know what to say.
“I come to these meetings because last year I got too drunk and passed out at a party. I woke up and found a guy… you know. Doing something he shouldn’t. I just wanted to say I respect you for confessing what you did. Tonight was the first time I’ve been able to feel like what happened to me wasn’t all my fault.”
He held his breath, standing still, stunned.
Astrid smiled and left. As he watched her go, Dominic reassessed. There was safety in numbers—as long as they were the right kind.
Krista is a former executive recruiter who fell so hard for writing, stories soon consumed her every idle thought. She now lives the writer’s life in a quaint Southern Ontario hamlet with her husband, sons and vegetable garden.