Malina Saval


It was during someone’s share about their dog dropping dead—they were waiting on test results, but likely distemper—when he walked through the door. He was in a pale yellow Ralph Lauren button-down, baggy chinos and scuffed brown loafers—the same ones the girl with the shoe blog had photographed months earlier. He’d switched his tortoise shell glasses out for a pair with thick black frames, which he pushed up with his finger as they slid down the sweaty bridge of his nose. His cross-body messenger bag bounced against his hip as he made his way toward a seat in the back row of the church basement.

Wrong Almost Sponsor was crashing my meeting.

WAS had no business being there, especially since he walked in late, and especially since he’d never been there before (at least for the sixteen months I’d been going). He belonged back at the Sunday morning Hollywood meeting where he cruelly rejected my plea for sponsorship. Of course, looking at him now—his hair a bit greasy at the ends, his eyes bulging slightly out like he had a thyroid condition (kind of like Ramona’s on The Real Housewives of New York City)—I wanted nothing to do with him. I didn’t want him sponsoring me and I didn’t want him at this meeting. My meeting.

Not that it was such a great meeting anyway. Usually the shares were pretty hilarious and relatable and I walk out thinking I’m not  half as crazy as I thought I was, but today nobody was really on their A-game. I particularly bombed mine, going over the allotted 3-minute limit because I was rambling on so animatedly—Big Jewish Hand Gestures—I didn’t hear the 2-minute beep go off. It was a dumb share and there wasn’t really an end point (Had it been an Olympics gymnastics routine the Russian judge would have given it a 6) and eventually the timer person had to look back over her shoulder and tell me that my time was up. And I knew that people must have been sitting around for several seconds wondering when I was going to shut up and thinking the same thing about me that I thought about people who continued talking long after their Al-Anon meeting egg timer turned into a pumpkin.

By this point in the program I’d pretty much given up on trying to find a sponsor. The longer I went without having one, the less likely it seemed I’d ever find one. Moreover, I started to question whether or not I even wanted one. Was this program even working? Was I working it? No, not really. Al-Anon malaise had set in. I knew I needed the program, needed it like one needs a life vest even if he knows how to swim, needed to know it was there. But I was bored. I kept the phone list of members taped to the wall above my dresser and my meeting directory on the dashboard of my car just to remind myself of its existence. Something somewhere was managing to keep the bottom up, but at any unforeseeable moment it could yank itself out from underneath me and I’d fall on my head with a dull yet deadly thud. It was me. I was holding this family up. I was our only defense against the world. I was running around trying to create stability out of chaos, like I was chasing a tornado while stuck inside of it. One wrong step and everything and everyone—my kids, my dogs, my husband—would cave in around me.  I needed this program, I did. I needed a sponsor to take care of me.

Where are you Magic Sponsor? It’s me, Malina.

My brain was tired of looking. I kept going to my meetings but spent most of them staring out at the Jesus-Loves-You light beaming in through the church window, kind of like it was the last week of school after finals and grades didn’t even matter.

Or I’d look around the room and count the number of people with dogs (everyone had shared about their dogs at some point; dogs and parents). Was there a mathematic correlation between people who go to 12-step meetings and people who rescue dogs, I’d wonder? There were eleven regulars in my Saturday meeting who’d saved mangy street dogs from imminent death (twelve if you counted me). All of them were poodle mixes and one was a therapy dog in training. He wore a little plastic yellow vest and curled up quietly under his owner’s chair as he rambled on about his boyfriend not trimming the trees properly that morning or hiding a six-pack of beer in the bushes. What did it all mean? Poodles were bright dogs. They were also a little neurotic.

Kind of like Al-Anons.

Debby the Jewish lesbian from Dallas was no longer a front-runner in the 2011 Al-Anon Sponsor Awards. We never managed to meet up again following our impromptu Starbucks pow-wow because she was always going to night meetings when I didn’t have a babysitter for my kids. She never answered her phone. She did, however, send me a few texts for which she must have incurred extra roaming charges because they went on forever.

My text: “You want to grab coffee?”
Her text: “I’m sending out a prayer in a time of need, acknowledging my human limitations and impact of my choices: my dearest Higher Power, please sustain me today as I walk through a door that you opened. Please imbue me with Your strength, Your ease, Your courage and continue to guide me as I surrender more deeply to you. I have a tough rough ahead but I trust You and I thank You for keeping me alive.”

My text: “I’m thinking about hitting up that annual AA/Al-Anon round-up at the Burbank Marriott this weekend. You want to come?”
Her text:  “I humbly begin my day my an open heart toward God and humanity. In sending out this prayer, I tenderly and most bravely reach out my hand to God, asking that I am imbued with his strength and graciousness just as He gifted me yesterday. God give me strength to carrying out Your bidding. Amen.”

I got one outreach call from this really awesome girl in the program who thought it was the coolest thing ever that she and I were on the same mood stabilizer, but she’d pocket dialed me by mistake.

I texted sexy gay Colin Firth look-alike with the recyclable Trader Joe’s shopping bags:

My text: “I will not scream at my husband because he doesn’t have a full-time job. I will not scream at my husband because he doesn’t have a full-time job. Aaah! Hope you’re well!”

He never texted me back.

A few days later sitting in a back corner booth of Home in Silverlake I decided that a girl on the back cover of a book would be my sponsor. Even though I hadn’t spoken to her in a year. Even though we were never really friends to begin with except through mutual writer pals who suggested we get together because were both in Al-Anon. And published authors. And had dogs. Even though I’d never read her book.

It sounded like a pretty good idea until it didn’t.

I did have one live exchange with someone in program, an accidental run-in with a woman whose name I knew but whose face I could not place for the life of me. I was entering Kidspace Museum with my two kids as she was exiting, gripping the hand of a little brown-haired girl with a half-melted ice-cream cone dripping down her shirt. The woman and I looked at one another askance.

“You look familiar,” she squinted at me. “How do I know you?”
“Hi Marcella.” And I gave a little wave.
“How do you know my name?” she asked.
I had no idea how I knew her name.
“Are you one of the nurses at Kaiser?” I asked.
“Do you work at Hodges center? My kid goes to speech therapy there.”
“Lanterman Regional Center?”
She shook her head repeatedly. “Where did you go to school?” she asked.
“Hmm….” Suddenly, she looked up and her eyes brightened. “Do you go to Al-Anon?”
“Oh, right. Sunday night meeting!”
“Malina!” She was really excited she knew my name.
“You still going to meetings?”
“I am.”
“Great! Keep it up!”  She gave me the thumbs up sign. “Malina!”

Meanwhile, my husband was making a career out of his sobriety. His schedule was a steady rotation of meetings and fellowships, meetings and fellowships. Cheeseburgers and ice cream sundaes from Conrad’s on the corner of Lake and Colorado. He’d leave the receipts flying around all over the house because he was too lazy to toss them in the garbage and I’d walk around collecting them, resentful that he had program people to grab food with.

Every time we bumped into somebody he hadn’t seen for awhile, he’d tell them that he’d been away in rehab. Even though it was over a year and a half ago. He was proud of the fact, and I was proud of him too. But mostly it was a relief to have a concrete answer when people asked him “So what do you do?” Because otherwise the options were pretty limited: part-time waiter, erstwhile voiceover artist, culinary school graduate, brilliant cooker of chicken picatta and vegetarian fish dishes, professional cover-to-cover reader of The New Yorker Magazine, Harper’s, Vanity Fair and any autobiography that hits the New York Times Best Seller list (So far this month: Keith Richards, Rob Lowe, William Styron).

Or: “I went to rehab and got sober.”

Of course, who was I to talk? My book had been out nearly two years and I was still only five sentences into my next one, for an impressive collective sum total of 127 words. (Granted, they were really good sentences). I was slammed with magazine and newspaper writing assignments, but 750 words on hair trends for summer was not exactly the imagined highpoint of my literary career. I tried to squeeze in as much time as I possibly could for real writing: I owed my screenwriting manager a draft of a TV pilot, my book agent was ready to dump me if I didn’t produce some sort of manuscript soon, I had an idea for a travel story on Israel that I really wanted to pitch. But trying to write with two kids around was like trying to fry an egg while swimming (note to self: put this sentence in a funny novel I’ll never write about an LA-based journalist trying to raise two kids while married to an overeducated, underemployed recovering alcoholic).

Plus: financial aid packets for the kids’ preschool (and I still owed our accountant); speech and occupational therapy; swim lessons on the west side so they could both grow up and become the next Michael Phelps; an endless stream of kids’ birthday parties; no reliable babysitter; Al-Anon meetings; couples counseling; searching for a new shrink; the 8th grade Hebrew school class that I taught on Sundays.

Sleep: optional.

Attempting to land an Al-Anon sponsor. (Come on, I dare you to sponsor me).

Running around doing seventeen things at once, I felt beyond spread thin, like a half-eaten pancake that’s fallen off a plate onto the floor of Fred 62, the breakfast joint in Los Feliz (another great line for the book I’ll never write—no, wait, finish… book I’ll never finish; I must give myself credit somewhere).

Idea for an SNL comedy skit: Kate Bush Karaoke (File under: skits for SNL that I will never write).

Everything reminded my husband of drinking; everything reminded me of not drinking.

I’d be driving around and a song would come on the radio: “Closing time—one last call for alcohol, so finish your whiskey or beer.” And I’d think, I have to get in touch with Semisonic’s record label and check on the rights because I really want to use that lyric in the prologue to my non-fiction memoir about my first year in Al-Anon.

That I’ll never end up writing.

Anytime anybody asked, “So how are you?” it literally gave me an anxiety attack. It’s was like asking me to tell them everything that had every happened to me in my whole entire life in under 15 seconds.

Sometimes I wished I could just say, “I went to rehab and got sober.”