My husband, Vince, a month shy of sixty-four, announces over dinner at a restaurant his intent to have cosmetic surgery. “So, should I go for the brow lift?” He pushes his receding hairline toward the lady in the booth behind him; his new wide-eyed stare reminds me of a retooled Wayne Newton. I am too stunned for words.
I see my husband as sixty-four going on fifty-five. His wrinkle-free face useless as a road map for charting the complicated journey that includes an ex-wife, four children, three stepchildren and eight grandkids. His hair is thinning on top, but he is years away from the combover. Early retirement agrees with him. He visits the gym three times a week. Outlifts most men half his age. Outwalks all but a few.
He rambles on, giving details about the surgery, possible scarring and recovery time. I double blink, expecting to wake from a dream or to find I am listening to a girlfriend prattle about her fears of aging, not my husband. “What about a chin implant?” His lower jaw juts forward in what dentists label a serious underbite, although with a dimple in the center I suppose it might resemble Kirk Douglas’s. He lifts the loose skin under his chin, stretches it toward his ears, turning his head left to right. “So, what do you think?”
What do I think? I think he has too much money and too much time on his hands. I think this health guru across from me, who will not let me eat Chinese food but once a year, is not really my husband. With another birthday on the horizon, I think he needs more reassurance about the twenty-one-year gap in our ages. I think anyone who looks ten years younger than his age must be insane to risk health for cosmetic surgery. What I am really thinking is: Who is she?
Two years earlier, Vince had negotiated a successful buyout of his position as CEO of a lumber distribution business headquartered in South Carolina. We retired to Florida’s sunny Gulf Coast, where he convinced me to chuck the makeup and high-heel glamour lifestyle for sandals and the natural complexion of a relaxed, tanned tourist.
Florida living comes easy to Vince—but he would wear running shoes with a tuxedo. His skin glistens in tropical temperatures; mine drips with sweat. His hair, naturally blond, darker with age, lightens to gold under the Florida sun; my dark hair takes on the burnt reddish shade you see on black junkyard dogs in the summer.
By the end of our first June, with temperatures and humidity levels in the upper ’90s, I realized that makeup was pointless. I threw out everything but waterproof mascara and sunscreen. Anyone here wearing lipstick looks ridiculous or out of step, or is a TV anchor. New friends confess about their tattooed eyeliners and tattooed natural blush lips, as if permanent makeup is beauty survival in the Sunshine State. I might have bought into the whole tattoo business except for two things: I hate needles, and in my six-year marriage to Vince I had never felt so comfortable, so accepted, so natural a woman. Too, I was what Vince now called a college girl, on track, after a seventeen-year interruption, to finish my degree in literature. I was experiencing an attitude shift, a reinventing of self, moving away from the outer landscape of physical concerns to the more important internal ones.
As my husband chatters about a facelift, I wonder if I have become too comfortable. My cuticles look ragged, and I skipped last week’s eyebrow waxing to finish a paper on Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire.
“Well, what do you think?”
I have not spoken since his announcement. I tell him he looks ten years younger than his age. He says, “I’m worried about what I’ll look like ten years from now.”
I mention health risks involved with unnecessary surgery.
“I can’t think of a better way to die than to be put to sleep … if I die that way, that’s okay with me,” he says.
This glib response infuriates me.
Only months earlier, Vince had experienced two health scares. In an attempt at proactive health care, I had suggested we have total MRI body-imaging scans like those Oprah once promoted on her show. When the technology came to St. Petersburg—a white mobile van ironically named Your Peace of Mind—Vince and I were the first two patients. Two days after the scan, a doctor called at 7:30 A.M. to report potential life-threatening blockages to Vince’s heart as well as a mass near his diaphragm that appeared cancerous. Calm retirement living on Florida’s Gulf Coast suddenly developed into a class-five hurricane of rushed visits to cardiologists and cancer specialists. The first cardiologist demanded immediate catheterization; a second opinion dismissed the procedure as premature and risky, ordering a treadmill stress test that Vince passed with the ease of a man forty years younger. Instead of surgery, Vince began a serious regimen of cholesterol-lowering drugs. Doctors also eliminated the cancer scare; they injected Vince with an intravenous dye that lights up cancer cells like antiaircraft fire on a radar screen: negative. Vince emerged a new man, recommitted to his goal of living an active life until past one hundred.
Now I remind him of the two health scares. I say he is being selfish, that his death would crush his family and me. He leans across the table. “Tracy, you went back to college; I’m doing this for me.”
“But, I’m happy with the face I married.”
“You won’t be in five or ten more years….”
“Yes, I will.” I describe my vision of us gracefully aging together—a Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy romance.
“I never said I would age gracefully,” he says, and this is true. “I don’t want you to wake up one day and see yourself married to an old man. Just think, when I’m a hundred, I’ll look eighty-five, and you’ll only be seventy-nine.”
How do you argue against that kind of logic?
Once we are home, I tell him people will laugh behind his back at his vanity, that he may suffer an identity crisis. I remind him that he is the health guru—Vince Crow, the man who never looks his age. Now they will whisper: Because he had a facelift. His face relaxes. I have never seen my husband look so tired or so old.
Five days later, a nurse in blue scrubs preps Vince for surgery at an outpatient clinic. She inserts an IV needle into the back of his hand, or so I guess, for I cannot watch. “Stop worrying,” he says. “Everything’s going to be okay.” I nod and walk away.
While I wait in the lobby for what is supposed to take three hours, I flip through the dog-eared pages of women’s magazines. A previous reader has folded the page of a Botox ad as if marking it for future reference or leaving a legacy for the next reader. The face of the woman model reveals how relaxed life can look at fifty-something for the vain and the privileged. My friends have told me about their Botox parties. They drink wine and fork out three hundred dollars each for a doctor to pierce their facial muscles with a needle and temporarily freeze them, concealing years of wisdom and maturity behind immobile masks.
Another magazine article features interviews with several upset daughters of mothers who recently had facelifts. Seems the mothers look as youthful as their offspring. Mothers beam in their after photographs; daughters appear glum, overwhelmed. I can relate. For days, since Vince’s announcement, I’ve wasted more hours than I care to admit in front of every mirror in our house. What I discovered is that while I was settling into Florida casual, gravity was working overtime on my forty-three-year-old face, conspiring with the sun as if to slowly melt a wax figure. The corner of my right lower lip now droops downward; both eyebrows sag over puffy eyelids that suggest insomnia; a crease between my brows hints at a perpetual frown; and a dollop of fat under my chin jiggles when I open and close my mouth. I flip furiously back to the Botox ad.
At hour four, my cell phone rings and the receptionist in a white uniform points at the lobby sign: Turn off Cell Phones. Outside, I tell friends who are restless for news that Vince is still in surgery. Hour five. Panic. The nurse shakes her head: “Still in surgery.”
My husband is losing his face. During one of the sleepless nights leading up to Vince’s surgery, I caught a cable television documentary with footage of an actual facelift: a woman’s face lifted from underlying bloody, twisted muscles, the excess skin sliced and discarded, to where? Then her face repositioned—slipping and sliding—over nose, mouth, eyes and cheekbones, and her ears, cut off during surgery, reattached last.
Hour six. A woman in scrubs enters the lobby and calls my name. I leap to my feet. “Everything okay?”
She nods. “But brace yourself.” She leads the way, and I am thankful she has warned me.
Vince cannot open his eyes; his face resembles a tick engorged with blood to the verge of explosion. His head is wrapped in bloodstained gauze. Tubes dangle like earrings under each ear. The nurse informs me that my job for the next week is to empty blood from the tubes. I want to scream, Wait a minute! I didn’t sign up for this!
Once home, I guide him upstairs to the bedroom and make him comfortable. Only then do I remember to check the ear tubes for blood. Full. He slides out of bed and staggers toward the bathroom. I uncork the tubes and flush blood down the toilet while he searches for himself in the vanity mirror.
“Don’t look, Honey,” I say.
“Oh my God, what have I done?” I hand him two pain pills and a glass of water and help him back to bed.
The day after. I drive Vince to the surgeon for a postsurgery checkup. The patients in the waiting room, two twenty-somethings who I guess are waiting for breast implants and an older woman, try to look away. Vince’s gruesome appearance seems to disturb the atmosphere of hope. “Guess I look pretty scary this morning,” he says, and they smile and return to their beauty magazines.
I meet Vince’s surgeon, Dr. Drehsen, for the first time. I shake his extended hand, though I would prefer to punch him for talking my husband into such a ridiculous venture. Dr. Drehsen scrutinizes my face. His expert eye seems to lift my brows to their rightful position, suction the fat from under my chin. He is tall, midfifties, with a thick German accent and a penchant for speaking in car analogies. “You vere a lot of work, Vincent,” he says, unwrapping gauze from my husband’s head. “There’s a lot of engine under this hood of yours.” At the sight of my husband’s exposed head, I nearly pass out. A crooked highway of stitches runs along his V-shaped hairline; drops of coagulated blood, like black garnets, are sprinkled throughout his hair. The doctor says, “You’re no Porsche yet, but you looking good, Vincent.”
I leave his office with orders not to wash my husband’s head for three more days.
Week two. The tubes are finally gone from behind Vince’s ears. He has the tight, sunburned look of a stranded sailor after weeks on a raft in the ocean. He is most happy with how wide open his eyes appear now and only slightly concerned that his eyebrows refuse to budge from their newly assigned positions. His face is a blank canvas; my years of studying it to learn how far I can push him are all wasted. I am sleeping with a stranger.
One month later. The purplish bruising and hairline scar are still noticeable. Vince’s barber asks if he is having hair implants. Late one evening, Dr. Drehsen calls for a follow-up. I hear my husband’s side of the conversation: “I think you did a good job, Doc. I think you made me look forty-five again.” Then laughter. I ask him what Dr. Drehsen’s punch line was. “‘Don’t get too cocky, Crow. You’re still a used Cadillac,”‘ Vince tells me.
Week seven. Vince cannot pass a mirror in our home without checking for signs of progress. The man who could shower and dress for dinner and a movie in under fifteen minutes takes longer to ready himself than my standard forty-five. I doll up for dinner one night; he never notices. When we get home, I prance around the bedroom in nothing but the high heels, a stunt that once raised more than his eyebrows. He stares into the bathroom mirror and decides his hairline scar is less noticeable this week.
One morning, the tone in his voice hints at worry, although his immobile face is giving away nothing. “I look like a lizard man, don’t I?” Mentally, I acknowledge that the corners of his eyes are pulled too tightly toward the temples. I say, “Everything will settle in time.”
Our home has become Mecca for the vain. Friends, more men than women, come to see the before and after results of Vince Crow, the man brave enough to have a facelift and show the pictures. “All you have to do,” my husband lectures in his expert tone, “is let them put that IV needle in you and the rest is out of your hands.” As friends lament their sagging jowls and droopy brows, I think of eighth-grade world history and Ponce de Leon’s search through Florida for the fountain of youth. It appears to those gathered in our living room that my husband has found it in St. Petersburg.
Ten weeks. It is almost Christmas when Vince and I drive to South Carolina to visit with his daughters’ families for a gift exchange in Greenville, attend another daughter’s college graduation in Columbia a day later and eventually reunite with his brothers and sisters in North Carolina for a Christmas dinner. Vince has not told his children or siblings about the facelift, “a surprise from the old man.” No one is amused.
In Greenville, one daughter says, “I hope I’m never that vain.” Then to me, “How could you let him do this?”
Says another, “I can’t believe you would do something so reckless, Dad. I think you looked better before.” Vince laughs, and although I can no longer read his expression, I know my husband’s voice and body language well enough to feel the impact their rejection is having on him.
We drive east to Columbia the next day for the college graduation. Vince finds his daughter among two thousand black-robed graduates and attempts to embrace her, but she backs away. “Something’s wrong,” she says, unable to take her eyes from his new face. “You sound like my dad, but you look like my Uncle Mike.” Vince smiles. His brother, Mike, is sixteen years younger.
In North Carolina, Vince’s brothers and sisters ask the standard question: Why? They openly assert their own personal beliefs that real-life issues are more important than vanity. All this Vince takes in stride.
Six months after surgery. Vince is carded every time he asks for a senior citizen discount. He carries a copy of the old driver’s license photograph in his wallet, happy to discuss the facelift process. While retrieving our mail one day from the post office box, the owner of MailBoxes Etc. pulls Vince into the back parking lot to get the name of his surgeon. He confesses he had a mini-facelift ten years earlier and needs a retouch, but he does not want his son-in-law to know.
Nine months. I can spot my husband in a crowd; I no longer have to memorize the color of the shirt he left the house in.
The story of Vince’s facelift reaches legend status in St. Petersburg. Men at the gym ask about the moisturizer he uses as well as what brand of sunscreen he recommends. In his wallet he carries Dr. Drehsen s telephone number, along with a before-surgery photograph. In Costa Rica, after our week-long vacation in the rain forest, airport security guards deny him access to our plane because, according to Vince’s old passport photo, my husband is an imposter.
Feeling a self-imposed pressure these days, I visit Dr. Drehsen’s office for a facial, the kind that sandblasts your face with crystals to smooth the texture and tighten the pores: microdermabrasion. The technician guides me into a darkened office with mood music of wood flutes and crashing waves. She instructs me to slip off my shirt and wrap about my chest the warm towel she drapes across the bed. She leaves me to undress.
The towel smells line-dried; I lie back and relax, speculating about Drehsen’s patients in other waiting rooms. Breast enhancements behind door number one. Facelifts, number two. Liposuction, behind three.
I think back to an old Star Trek episode I saw when I was twelve. Three gorgeous, sexy women beguile Captain Kirk and the entire male crew of the Enterprise. The women snag hunky husbands on the planet below but revert to shapeless, aging hags when they run out of their supply of the magic crystals that they swallow to maintain their fagade of beauty. The new husbands are ready to run—until Captain Kirk shows up with more crystals. The women gobble them, and everyone eagerly awaits the transformation. But when it happens, Kirk then explains that the crystals are fakes, placebos. The moral? That true beauty emerges from inner confidence and a deeper belief than what we see on the surface.
Suddenly the overhead light startles me. Dr. Drehsen and his technician shuffle into the room. “How are you, Tracy?” Drehsen asks. The technician holds a mirror to my face; Drehsen lifts my eyebrows with icy fingertips. “See? Look vat I can do for you!”
I stopped taking the heroin. At least for now. I made no vows. I didn’t go to a place where I paid people to tell me heroin is bad. I didn’t find eternal love or realize that drugs are Satan’s ambrosia. I just stopped.
When I told James, the security guard at the building where I do the money stuff that makes the salary that bought the heroin, he just smiled.
“Quit,” he said. “Just like that.”
“Just like that,” I said. “Pretty much.”
“You haven’t been in since Friday. I figured that might be it.”
I said it was like he’d told me; it was a question of who was in charge.
“And so it is, Captain, and good for you. Just remember, for you the store’s always open. Kinda wonderful, don’t you think? That you can always change your mind? Makes you kinda nervous, don’t it?”
I said I would remember, and as I was no longer a paying client, did he perhaps need a little money?
“Thank you, Captain. Really, thank you. But no, I don’t need no money, thank you. I got a dozen clients in this building. Coke, smack, other stuff. All them women lawyers, too; you gotta help your women. You knew, didn’t you?”
I had known there were others, but James was very circumspect. When I wanted to talk to him, I went down to the lobby and stood in front of the window, looking out at traffic. Eventually James would join me, and we would talk without looking at each other, twitching a hand when someone came close. James said this was the way guys in the prison yard talked. I asked him if he’d ever been in prison. He said no, of course not, why would I think that?
He was always polite and formal, calling me Mr. Gallo or sometimes Captain. I asked him to call me Bill, but he said no.
“Folks’d begin to wonder just why we’re all so friendly, you know?”
“No, Mr. Gallo. No sir, we do not want people to wonder. You work upstairs. I work down here. It’s that simple.”
He wanted me to put the cash (three, then five, then six hundred, and a hundred for James) in a stamped envelope, addressed to a post office box somewhere, and to ask him if he wouldn’t mind mailing it for me. The next day he would greet me and mention that he had mailed that letter, and I would find the foil-wrapped package under the mulch of one of the lobby plants. We did this every two weeks, sometimes sooner if my supply grew mysteriously meager. I asked James if he wanted more than a hundred for himself; he said no thanks, a hundred was correct.
I once heard James explain gravely to a weeping little girl how no parent or anyone else would ever leave her, ever, no matter what. I once saw him with his arm around the president of my company, a seventy-six-year-old man who prefers people not to stand too close. He always made women laugh.
“I am the connect,” he told me. “I make connections.”
He called me Bill on only two occasions. The first time was the day after he told me my package might be a little late arriving, and did I have extras or should he try another source? I said fine, and the dope came the next morning, and that afternoon I found him sitting down with his large, handsome head in his hands. I asked him how he was, and he said not so good, and then he nodded to me and walked outside, and after a while I followed, and we walked around the block.
“Bill,” he said, “I’m feelin kinda wrong here. Kinda wrong. I disconnected there for a minute, and now I cant go back on it.”
It was yesterday, he told me, when he went to score.
“Like, I mean, l know this guy, Bill, I know his woman. Name’s Duane, always been right on with me. We had this little misunderstanding, and I told him okay, deal’s off, and I started to walk, and I don’t know if it was the money or, I don’t know, he can get sorta crazy, but he comes at me with a knife.”
“Jesus. What did you do?”
“Kinda had to shoot him a little.”
“What? What? You did what?”
I whirled around, my heart banging, half expecting to see cops leaping from cars (freeze motherfucker), and I must have looked wild because James put his hand on my shoulder.
“Oh no Captain, don’t worry. Just winged him. In the arm, so he’d drop the knife. No one saw; where we were, the last thing people do is look for who’s shooting, but … I feel bad. I feel like I had all the trust in the world in my hands, and I threw it away. I should call his woman, make sure he’s all right.”
I asked if there was anything I could do, and he said what I hoped he’d say, that there was nothing to be done. I thought I should ask James if scoring was now too dangerous, and I was still thinking that when we returned to the front entrance.
“Well, Mr. Gallo,” said James, shaking my hand, “it’s always a pleasure to run into you.”
The rest of that afternoon I did the money stuff at one remove, just working the cash register, and I thought about James and Duane. Gimme that, don’t come any closer, bang. Freeze motherfucker. I couldn’t see it happening without cameras coming in for a close-up. James didn’t carry a gun, not even handcuffs like mall cops; the people in this building were the sort who obeyed the polite suggestions of someone in uniform. Those women attorneys? They did corporate law.
So what about James? I thought. When we talked I was usually looking away. Had I ever examined his face? How old was he? Forty? Fifty? Would I recognize him on the street, out of uniform? One of those large, easy movers with the look of hard-won calm.
James would surprise people by listening so patiently, reaching out to take someone’s hand. I knew he had a wife, but I didn’t know her name. I knew he had kids, but not how many. So was it the money or was he using or what? It had been almost two years now since he had been making his rounds and found me, on a Thanksgiving, sitting alone in the cubicle hive, staring at the blue light in the computer, imagining that it was the sea and I was diving, becoming blue, bluer, everything blue.
“Mr. Gallo,” he had said. “Hey there, Mr. Gallo. You okay?”
I looked up.
“You’re in trouble, man,” he said.
“Actually, James, I think I’m coming apart. But no one else has noticed, so don’t tell.”
“People don’t notice much, do they? So maybe you need a doctor. You want me to get you to a doctor?”
“What I want, James, what I really want, is about three Percodan and a shot of whiskey, any brand will do.”
“You need a friend, Mr. Gallo.”
“I need drugs.”
“You know, people tell me there’s dope to be had, right here in this building.”
“I wish I knew where.”
“I seen you got problems, Mr. Gallo. How long we known each other?”
“Two years? Three?”
“You know how you come to trust someone?”
“Neither do I. Anyway, store’s open. I can’t get you Percodans, but maybe I can get you somethin’ else.”
So I got a few balloons. Within the hour. James said he had a stash for someone else, but seeing as this was an emergency, a 911 call, he’d divert some of it to me. He asked me if I had a medicine dropper at home, and I must have glanced anxiously at my arm because James laughed and said I’d seen too many movies. Then he pointed to his nose.
When I got home I put the prescribed amount into a tablespoon of water and, as directed, dissolved it by boiling. The resulting solution I used as nose drops. It smelled strongly of vinegar and burned as it went down, making me sneeze and cough violently. Then I lay down and waited.
Bliss is mostly relief.
But why did I keep taking the heroin, even after the first bliss had mostly faded? Why did I order a few more balloons the next week, and then a few more?
Because I couldn’t, as the story goes, stop myself?
Hardly. I took it because I meant to take it. Because I found it useful.
I used it to get through. To the next thing.
To feel like reading the mail and taking the trash out.
To wake up in the morning and want to be awake. Waking up is the hardest.
It wasn’t that the heroin was so bad, or always so good, either. It was just so useful. It made me feel like feeling.
Heroin, you see, gave time direction. Waiting was no longer the listless gray underwater. Now I was expecting, at a specific time, by six forty-two or seven twelve, the feeling of wanting to be. Now, when my colleagues said, “It’s almost five,” I wouldn’t think and then what? because I knew that at six forty-two or seven twelve, I would experience a return on waiting.
Home at night, food prepared, wine and iced tea on the table by the couch, TV remote at the ready, phone unplugged, and I would permit the day’s one dream dose, almost half a balloon, all right, maybe half, choking fire down my nose and throat, and then, yes, here it comes, the feeling that everything will be all right, yes, exactly that, all right, and I would turn out the light, lie back, dream-travel, allow the past to realize and perfect itself. Connect.
Now I could remember Jessica, and Rebecca, and Darren, and have a few words with them. Now I could have the conversation that I always meant to have with Lisa, who left the firm last May, whom I should call, really, except I don’t.
Now eating was pleasurable. Now there were new and fascinating programs on television. Now I might read a little of that famous book I always said was so good but had never actually read.
There was one problem with the dream dose, though. Sometimes I would give in to the relief aspect and sleep for an hour or two, and when you’re asleep you’re just wasting heroin. So I began to use many smaller doses and take from the heroin what I most wanted, which was to make as many moments as interesting as possible, which is, one might argue, what life is about.
Yes, sorry, but heroin didn’t cloud my mind; it didn’t make me dull and stupid. Taken correctly, when the dope gods were favorably disposed, it was clarity and richness. It enhanced. It introduced a new savor, an added dimension allowing time to curve beyond the linear, the usual.
Like I said, sorry, but you didn’t think people risk so much to take heroin because it’s not worth taking, did you?
I became quite a connoisseur in my two years of devotion. I became a gourmet, a researcher, a philosopher of heroin. If there were a Nobel Prize for Narcotics I think that, given a few more years, I might have been in the running.
I began to read some of the drug literature. Burroughs, Cocteau, Gautier (a page here, a page there, between television movies). I could see how arcane philosophies and exotic aesthetic systems attached themselves to the opiate experience. I read about Coleridge and Wilkie Collins, and I thought about writing a book or two myself.
“Sure,” said James. “It makes you feel good, so you want it to be important. ‘Heroin is my inspiration’ and all that shit. Careful there, Captain. We’re just talkin’ about dope here.”
“Maybe it really is important, James. Maybe it’s the most important thing there is.”
“Well then, Captain, you in big trouble.”
James was the only one I could talk to about heroin. One of my office colleagues, Gil, whom we called Gil the Will, once asked me if I ever took drugs. I said of course not. He said too bad, because I seemed like someone who should. Gil makes by far the most money of any of us; he can talk clients into anything.
“Careful there, Captain,” James said. “You’re up to two a day. Or you keepin’ someone on the side?”
“Just me, James. Just me.”
“Don’t go above two. Two’s the limit. Above two you start missin it, thinkin ’bout it, know what I mean? You want somethin’ bad enough, you make a mistake. Say the wrong thing, don’t walk away when you should.”
“How come you know so much about it?”
“My business to know. I’m the connect. So listen, Mr. Gallo, sir?”
“Please, not above two. You know those handcuffs the cops carry? They fit round your wrists same as mine. Even a fine gentleman such as yourself could find himself in a bad place.”
“If you don’t use it, what keeps you so happy?”
“Not happy, Mr. Gallo. Connected.”
“I like to help, Mr. Gallo. I like to be the one has somethin people need. Like to know they’ll smile when they see me comin . And I like, let’s see, I like women. Love the women. And I like Coltrane. And I like the poetry of William Blake. Good night, Mr. Gallo.”
I began taking a little at work, at lunch. It just didn’t seem fair to waste so much time waiting. You always hear people say, “I wish it was time to leave,” or “I shouldn’t have looked at my watch; another two hours to go.” And those two hours? They’re lost in not wanting them. It’s not as if you get them back at the end of your life, as if you can say to Mr. Death, “Hey, listen, I lost twelve years by wishing them away, so now I get them back.”
The drugless time between sleep and lunch was necessary so I wouldn’t acclimatize, but further suffering without good medical reason was plainly irrational, the work of a moralist, so at lunch I would go to the men’s room, sit in a stall and take out my little dropper bottle. There is just enough room there to twist to the left, tilt the head back, and service the right nostril. At four I would twist right and service the left nostril. Then I could listen to Gil and smile pleasantly, causing him to remark upon my newfound health. Then I could think of something clever to say to Lisa, and actually say it.
“You gettin high at work, Mr. Gallo?” James asked.
“Can you tell?”
“Course not, long as you take it easy. But that’s kind of a problem, isn’t it? I mean, smack is kinda like cheating on your wife with this beautiful woman. You want to meet more often. Makes you get real secret.”
“You think heroin is bad for me, James?”
“Not good or bad. People are good or bad. Heroin’s a thing.”
“So you’re not saying I should stop using, right?”
“I’m the connect, Mr. Gallo. You want it, cool; you don’t want it, cool; whatever you say. I must admit, though, that I like the money.”
“You think I’ve got a habit, don’t you?”
“Course not. Course you don’t. You just like to feel good. And we all like that, now don’t we, sir?”
Taking some heroin in the afternoon made my walk home more enjoyable. I usually walked home, two miles; I didn’t need James to tell me to stay in shape. I even ran some on the weekends, and after running the heroin came on warm and sweet.
Halfway home I would stop at the usual place and have a cup of coffee. It was just another little coffee shop that appeared one day and sold pastries and postcards and exotic teas, and last week I went by there and found a travel agency. I had begun stopping there three years ago, in the before-heroin epoch, B.H., because I had looked through the window and the girl behind the counter had glanced around and smiled at me as if I were the sun rising. A blond girl with a face full of light; she reminded me of someone I’d once met on a beach.
So I would stop at the Java Jug on my way home from work. Stacey, her name was, and when I came in the door she was already pouring a cup of French roast, pretending she didn’t see me, then slyly looking up, “Oh, you,” and her smile blazing through me.
But that’s as far as it went; she had a lover who picked her up at six. If I timed it right I could leave the Jug at five-fifty, and, assuming she would be looking, I would glance at my watch and walk purposefully into the office building across the street. At the far end of the lobby, beyond the elevators, there was a door to a stairway that led up to another door on the third floor that opened onto a tiny balcony overlooking the street. Something to service something, I supposed, or just a lost idea; the doors were always unlocked, and I never met anyone using them. I would stand on the balcony and watch the entrance to the Java Jug, and at six the car would pull up, the boyfriend would get out, and Stacey would appear in the doorway, opening her arms as if acknowledging applause.
After the car pulled away I would go to the left side of the balcony, which couldn’t be seen from the street, and I would get up on the cement wall and sit with my feet dangling over the sidewalk three stories below. I would sit there for a while. Then I would place my elbows on the wall and carefully push my hips forward until my body hung out over the edge, held up only by my shaking forearms. After a while I would push myself back up onto the wall. Then I was permitted to go downstairs and walk home.
One day Stacey was gone, no message left for her faithful voyeur. The owner, who sported a forest of black nose hair, told me that they had gone to Denmark or some other place like that.
But I kept my same route walking home, and I still had coffee at the Jug. Not because I was interested in the new girl working there, who seemed unfond of herself, but because I had to go across the street and hang over the edge of the little balcony. Sometimes I would decide to walk on past the balcony, just keep walking, and I would get four blocks, maybe eight, before I would have to go back.
Then at some point there were other permissions I had to acquire. Certain words said, steps counted, before I was released to the next thing. Only Lisa noticed. She asked why I sometimes hesitated before speaking. Behind my back I counted my fingers with my thumb three times, and then I was able to tell her I didn’t know what she was talking about.
I wanted to talk to Rebecca. I wanted to ask to speak to Darren. I would sit by the phone, replace it, try again. But there was something I had to do before I could call. Some key that would unlock the right moment.
It was at the worst of that time that James found me in the empty office that Thanksgiving afternoon. I had been trying to arrange my desk drawer in a way that would allow me to call Rebecca and wish her and Darren a happy holiday, and then for a while I was watching the blue in the computer.
“You’re in trouble, man,” James said.
Then it was heroin time, Heroin Domini, H.D., and things began to flow again. It was as if everything, even trees and windows, had been looking away from me, and now they began to turn back. It was like being loved.
So I began taking some in the late afternoon, before I walked home, and I began to lose the dread and anticipation of the balcony scene. It became like a game or a family joke. Would I do it this time? Oh, sure, why not? And then one early evening on the balcony I looked down at the street. It was fall, and the sky was in its last glow, the streetlights had just come on; it seemed like another world was taking over. It was my last time up there. I continued to walk home that way, and sometimes when I passed the coffee place I imagined this other person on the balcony across the street, staring down at me, and I wondered what he could be like.
Eventually all the permissions and passwords went away. Except for Rebecca; I still couldn’t call her. I thought that maybe if I just took a little more heroin … no, that just made not calling easier.
“You keep asking me,” I said to James. “Why don’t you tell me what you most want?”
“I would most like—since you asked—most like to make this one thing, a sort of song maybe, or just speakin’ with music, like Coltrane and William Blake, like bein’ in the city, kids cryin’, but bein outside too, angels whisperin’ to the kids, it’s all right, all right … you know the poems of Blake?”
“Not really. The Tyger thing.”
“Genuine visionary. The real article. Better’n drugs; better’n sex maybe, though I’d have to think about that. The Trane and Big Blake, jammin’. You see, I can feel it, what I want to do, but I can’t quite see how to get over, over where they are … you know what I mean?”
“I definitely know what you mean.”
“I figured,” said James. “So what about you? Since I asked.”
“To do something worth … to have someone … happy that I’m home.”
“How come you don’t have no kids, Mr. Gallo?”
“Don’t know. Just don’t.”
“No kids. No women. You got a dog, Mr. Gallo?”
“Not where I live. They barely allow people.”
“Course, you could always do a little of what I do. You know, make a run now and then. Connect. Then folks be happy to see you. Then they be smilin’.”
For many months I was on a precise regimen of solace, one o’clock, four, seven, take as needed for anticipation of pain. But then I began having technical difficulties. I suffered a rebellion of the nose. For two months I told people I had a cold and I used a decongestant spray, but finally the spray stopped working and my nasal passages swelled shut.
The interested consumer or sometime fancier may have read about New York heroin, a white powder in a glassine envelope stamped with a clever brand name. But this was Los Angeles heroin, up from Mexico, working class. It came inside colored party balloons, knotted at their necks, their mouths peeled back over their precious bellies, making little rubber balls that could be carried in the mouth and swallowed, should the occasion arise. You cut open the balloon and inside was something that looked like dirt and left a black residue in the spoon. The solution itself was brown, acetic, scorching.
I suppose that, were I in Los Angeles to produce spectacular action films about drug smuggling, I could have had the pure form brought straight from some exotic location by a silver chariot of the air. But what I had was what James brought.
Finally my nose quit.
So I began injecting it. To swallow it would have been too wasteful. In junkie folklore there are so many superstitions, some of which involve the prestige accrued by the route of administration; that is, how you get the dope from the rest of the world into your brain. (For instance, only mainliners are addicts, or, if you’re a mainliner, only mainliners are purists.) But, as James told me, it doesn’t make any difference if you stick it in your ear; if you get high, you get high.
He did caution me, though, about mainlining. “You get strung out on the suddenness of it,” he said. He needn’t have worried; even the thought of trying to find a vein caused my hands to shake.
In junkie stories there is the epic of scoring, and then the romance of vileness: the filthy spoon heated by the lit match, the tepid muck drawn up through a blunt needle rubber-banded to a dropper, the probing for a vein in scarred rotting flesh … otherwise you’re not being true to the melodrama of depravity; you don’t really deserve to get high. Why, you might wonder, watching a movie about rich kids gone bad, do they have to use a lit match? Couldn’t they find a better way to heat water?
Anyway, I did what any sensible person would do (or are you supposed to be so addled by the heroin that you just don’t care?). I knew someone who knew someone whose girlfriend was a nurse, and they needed money, so I could buy as many sealed 1-cc. insulin syringes as I wanted. In the morning I made up a sterile solution of dope, employing techniques I had acquired in a college microbiology class and thought I would never put to any good use.
I placed the product in hypodermic vials provided by the nurse. I put a vial, syringe and alcohol swabs beneath a razor, comb and toothbrush (one can never be too well groomed, after all) in a small, elegant leather carrying case, and I went to work. Around one o’clock, or a bit before if the day dragged, I wandered into the men’s room, sat down in a stall and took out my kit. I could barely feel the prick of the tiny needle in the skin of my arm or thigh. Slowly I felt myself growing lighter, lighter, able to rise and return.
I am sorry to report, to fans of the formulaic, that there was only occasionally a little blood, there was no melon-like swelling (although I had some penicillin saved, just in case), and I never passed out on the tiled floor or spoke in tongues other than my own or was compelled to kneel weeping before my colleagues. Lisa was now gone, and no one in the office noticed that I seemed better or worse or anything at all. People, as James said, don’t notice much.
So there it was: the way I lived. They say heroin does this and that to you. I don’t know because I’m not them, and I’m not you. I know that I liked it then, and I would like it now.
“Here,” said James. “I’ve written down this beeper number. The first two numbers and the last two don’t mean nothin. Call from a pay phone. When they call back, you say your name is Captain and you know me. They’ll tell you where and when to meet them. They’ll be three guys in a car, and they’ll pull over and act like they know you. Wear old clothes, and the first time don’t be in a coat. Short sleeves. They’re sweet guys, but don’t act tough. If you want tough, hire one of them.”
“What’s this all about?”
“Just in case. If I fell off a roof or went to Italy or somethin’. So you have options.”
“Are you all right?”
“Sure. Fine. Fine as fine is. I’d like to go to Italy, though. I’d like to see Raphael’s paintings in the Stanza della Segnatura. Ever been there?”
“That’s a problem with smack. Makes you want to stay home.”
“You’re not in any trouble, are you? What about that guy you shot?”
“He’s okay. I talked to his wife. But you know what? Things happen. All of a sudden things go bad, like when that guy came at me.”
“What if he comes at you again?”
“Wouldn’t shoot no one now. Got rid of the piece. No more, Mr. G. No more. Gotta be a better way, and if there’s not, there still gotta be.”
I wanted to tell him, like he told me, why not just stop? But I didn’t. Because I didn’t want him to stop.
I began worrying that James would go away or just stop doing it, or what if he got caught and they asked him who.. . No, that was paranoia, and besides, would they even believe him? After all … wrong thinking, stop that … but what if it turned out that James … hey, hey there, wrong thinking.
I would watch some old lady smiling to herself, couples poking each other and laughing on the street, and I would think, they do this when they’re not high, so why can’t I? But actually I was sailing away from them. I was feeling more and more that the bad stuff would be better when I was high, and the good stuff would be better when I was high, and even at night after a dream dose and the wine and a little vodka just to keep things going, I would catch myself wanting another little dose to make the better better.
“It’s a Sunday, Captain,” James said. “Moneymaking’s gone till tomorrow. Why you here?”
“You’re here, aren’t you?”
“Overtime. And a favor for one of the ladies on the third floor.”
“I thought I’d come here and make some phone calls.”
“You don’t,” James asked, “have a phone at home?”
“I wouldn’t get around to it, there. Too much else to do, there.”
“Desire’s the killer, Mr. G.”
“I lied to you. I do have a kid. Darren. He’s eight. I haven’t talked to him in two years. Mom doesn’t like me. I was thinking about calling.”
“Jesus Christ. Two years? How you know where he is?”
I pointed to my open address book.
“His mom writes sometimes. He sends cards. I send money. Presents. Money’s easy. For an unsociable single man, even a drug-using one, I make lots of money. I keep trying to call. He’s forgotten me by now.”
By this time I had my own mini-office, not as nice as Gil’s but off the floor. Outside visits were made via computer, but there was a chair by the door, just for show. James dragged the chair over and sat down across from me, sticking his legs out, leaning his head back on his clasped hands.
“What?” I said, wishing he’d leave now. I had just decided that I needed to go home. I had something to do there.
“Listen, Bill. Listen here. Am I your friend?”
“Would you do a favor for a friend?”
“No, Bill. Friends don’t say ‘probably.’ Friends say ‘sure.”‘
“Okay, James. Sure.”
“So, as a favor, for a friend, may I see that address book? Bill?”
James examined the page that said Rebecca and Darren, Portland.
“Just this once, Bill,” said James, reaching for the phone. “Just this one favor.”
I felt a thump of panic, and I wanted to stop him, jerk the phone cord out, but I couldn’t think of how I would explain afterward.
“Hello,” said James. “Yes, hi there, are you Rebecca? Hi, my name is James Robinson, and I’m a friend of Bill Gallo’s, and I was wonderin’ if, well, ma’am, Rebecca, I need your advice on this … do you think Darren would like to talk to his dad? Sure, certainly, yes, I understand that. Yes, he’s right here.”
James handed the phone to me, and I said hello, and she said hello, and there we were. Why hadn’t I thought of that before?
“Billy,” Rebecca said, “I just don’t understand you. Why would you think I wouldn’t want Darren to talk to you? You’re his father, Billy. Remember?”
She said call back at seven.
I hung up the phone and looked at James, who was smiling large and looked like he was listening to Coltrane and reading Blake.
“That’s what I do,” he said. “I’m the connect.”
“You’re my only real friend,” I said.
“Am I, Mr. Gallo? Am I really? Then how come you and I don’t go out now and do a little drinkin’? How come we don’t go hang out, you and me? I got four kids, Mr. Gallo. What are their names?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Actually I don’t. Listen, Mr. G, you know who your real friend is? It’s Darren. You should be nicer to your friends. Take care, now.”
At home I worried about heroin. If I took too much, would Rebecca somehow hear it in my voice? If I didn’t take any, would I be too anxious to speak? But at seven, when I called, it was Darren who answered.
“Hi,” he said. “I got this fantastic game, you should see these monsters, they shoot fire, and yesterday at school we had this fantastic race and I won.”
Two days later Rebecca called me.
“He wants you to come see him, Billy.”
“Are you going to?”
“What about Keith?”
“Keith and I aren’t together anymore. But if we were, Keith would want you to come.”
“Well, it’s just that I thought. . . I thought. . .”
She was crying. And actually, apparently, so was I.
“Billy, do you think I want Darren to forget you? Do you think I don’t care?”
“It’s just that, Billy, sometimes you can be so unhappy. That’s hard to be around.”
I had been told something similar, fairly recently. Last year, when Lisa told me she was quitting. She said she would miss me, that I was nice and funny and so forth. But, she said, underneath, where I was most of the time, I just wasn’t very happy, and there really was nothing she could do about that.
I asked her then if that was why she had stopped seeing me, because I had mood cancer. She said I should call. But so far 1 hadn’t called. Maybe I should have asked James to dial for me.
I figured I would go see Darren that coming weekend, but I asked Rebecca not to tell him yet until I was sure. Friday I called her and said I’d have to put it off.
“I have to get my car fixed,” I said.
“Were you going to drive to Portland, Billy?”
“Oh,” she said.
The following Monday James asked me how it was in Portland. I said I hadn’t gone yet.
“Desire’s the killer, Captain.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Know why I call you Captain, Mr. Gallo?”
“‘Cause if there’s a ship sinkin’ somewhere, you’re determined to go down with it.”
I walked away because after all I worked on the sixth floor and he was just a guard, but later when I saw him I asked what ship, what desire?
“You familiar with the Songs of Experience, Captain? Where that Tyger thing is? My mother groand! my father wept. Into the dangerous world I leapt, Helpless, naked, piping loud; Like a fiend hid in a cloud. I think the real fiend in the cloud is desire, Mr. Gallo.”
I walked away again. Four o’clock. I took my leather shaving kit and went to my toilet stall. When I was high I thought about what James might have said or not said. Just before five I found him in the lobby.
“Okay,” I said. “Connect.”
“People ask for advice,” James said, “but when it’s not what they want they get mad. And fuck that.”
It was my turn to motion him outside. We took a walk.
“Tell me,” I said. “If I don’t like it we won’t go out drinking anymore.
“You got to make your own connection,” he said. “Between here,” he touched his heart, “and here,” and he touched his head. “You have first one goin’, then the other. You don’t go to Portland ’cause you don’t feel like it? That’s dope talkin’. You know why you don’t go? You don’t go ’cause what about this heroin thing? You stop takin’ it, you get sick, you get unhappy, what’s that gonna look like? You take it with you so you can function, be a nice dad and all, what if you get caught? What if she even suspects? How you gonna cook it up there? You keep excusin yourself, oh sorry I have to get somethin’, and you go to the bathroom, for how long? Twenty minutes? And how you gonna boil water there, and maybe you come back lookin’ a little changed, or maybe Darren walks in, then what?”
“Maybe she’ll feel sorry for me.”
“Of course, my man. Of course she will. But guess what? She’ll feel sorrier for Darren. You and me, we’re kinda reckless, kiddie’ ourselves, and that’s fine, but listen, the mothers care, my friend. The mothers care.”
“You think I should go somewhere to quit?”
“There’s a whole business out there to make you do what you can’t but think you should. They got a big stake in keepin you unsure of yourself. What I think is you’re the one’s gotta decide. Question of who’s in charge, know what I mean?”
“Right. So what do you mean?”
“I mean, you want stuff, cool. You don’t want it, cool. Look, man, I’m goin’ to speechify here. Listen, you go through your whole life and you think, ‘I hope I get one true love.’ And you get all these loves, this woman, that, but there’s always somethin’ a little not right. After a while you think it will never be just right.
“But a baby, Bill, a baby. There’s nothin’ there but what you see at the beginning. It’s the purest love there is. I got four kids and each one is my one true love. And that’s all I got to say.”
I forgot. It wasn’t twice. He called me Bill three times.
I expected that quitting the heroin would have a little more of opera and martyrdom. I had seen the movies, read accounts written by people in medical or penal servitude who were looking for a break. Withdrawal was heroically awful, according to them, an intense chemotherapy of abstinence.
So I was prepared. One of the secretaries, who saw at least three different doctors, gave me some Valium. I had some Phenergan for nausea, Lomotil for diarrhea and, of course, vodka, the medicinal drink, for the spaces between. People who make as much money as I do get things easier. They have doctors and insurance and cozy beds and leftover prescriptions.
I put it off for a week. I kept reviewing my possible roles in dope’s morality play: the writhing on the floor, the begging for the fix, sticking pins in your arm to simulate injection. But what I expected, rationally, was a bad case of flu. So exactly why was I so afraid?
Because it wasn’t the sickness. I was afraid that without the heroin I couldn’t go on.
Who the fuck is in charge?, I asked myself. If I couldn’t go on without it, I could always start again.
I cut down, down, down until down was nothing. Then for two days I slept. Then for three days, despite combinations of pills and vodka, I was more awake than I’d ever cared to be. Thoughts gusted furiously, blowing by suddenly wonderful, then exiting before I could remember them. It seemed that every cell in my body was fizzing with alertness and alarm. My muscles felt like I had to clench them.
Finally I gave in to being awake, and an extraordinary time began. I finished that famous book I’d been meaning to read, and I read it again, introducing myself as a character, solving problems for the heroine before they got out of hand. I was always close to tears. When I watched television dramas I would tell the people, wait, I can help you, wait.
And memory; memory was everywhere; the present was at one remove; everything I saw and heard turned toward some deeper past, like the pages of a journal numbered backward.
Turn a page, and there is Stacey, Coffee Princess, passing me a steaming cup. Page again and there’s the one Stacey reminded me of: Sunshine. Sunshine of the Beach.
Nine years ago, and I am running on this beach in Aptos, in Northern California, down on the hard sand at low tide, and I see this figure in white shorts far ahead, walking away, and just by her walk I know I have to see her, and I speed up, drawing her back to me, this slender girl with golden legs, golden hair, and as I pass she turns and smiles as if anything at all is entirely wonderful, entirely welcome, this light in her face, this light, and that’s it, I just stop and stare.
She’s used to it. She cocks her head and looks straight at my eyes, and her smile makes the sky grow darker. She gives me this slight, flirty ironic wave: Oh, it’s you again. (That’s right; that was also Stacey’s gesture. Connect.)
“Can I just stop here?” I ask her.
“Sunshine,” she says.
“I mean, my name is Bill.”
She laughs, drawing in more light.
“Really,” she says, “that’s my name. My parents are new-agers. My middle name is Sparrow.”
I ask where she lives.
“Just staying here. Day after tomorrow I go back east.”
“Can I come?”
We talked, and in the fable I’ve made of it everything connected. Her huge, unscripted happiness made me shy and ashamed. She said she believed in miraculous meetings, the art of destiny. I said yes, absolutely. Her golden skin fascinated me. She said she would be there tomorrow, same time, and maybe I’d happen by, and I said of course, of course, of course.
Then I ran back to Rebecca’s place, where Jessica and I were staying, to tell Jessica that she was right, that I loved her as well as I could and there was no one else, but she was right anyway. Jessica said she wanted us to leave the next morning, get back to San Francisco; she had things to sort out. She said she would be the one to move, and I said no, I would be the one, and so forth, but anyway I thought I’d stay in Aptos for another couple of days, because I had things to sort out.
But I didn’t go down to the beach the next day, after Jessica had left, after I had rehearsed all these dialogues between myself and the miracle girl, because I began talking to Rebecca about Jessica, and Rebecca was so kind and caring, so perceptive, so sweet, and that’s how Darren happened. Connections.
So I would remember the wind on the beach, the catch in my throat when Sunshine smiled, and then I would remember Jessica’s lost, sad, bored look when I said I agreed with her, and then I would remember how when I first unbuttoned Rebecca’s blouse she breathed in and held it.
Memory, like your bedroom in the dark, knowing where everything is.
I remembered the day Darren was born. The sky was so incredibly clear; no smog, no clouds; just distance, purity, light.
I remembered one cold afternoon when I was a freshman at Stanford and I wandered into the empty church, walked through pools of color poured from stained-glass windows to the center of a vast encrypted silence, and then someone began to play Bach on the organ. I wished that James had been with me then.
By the third day the past wound down, the thought upheaval settled, and I could sleep. The next morning I woke up thinking it would be nice to have a little heroin now, but it was all right, thanks, I would pass. I called Rebecca and told her I’d been ill, nothing serious, I needed another few days, but I was looking forward to seeing her.
When I went into work the next day, there was James, smiling. “Quit,” he said. “Just like that.”
I wanted to tell him something memorable, something good about himself, and that night I make up a short speech. But the next day, Friday, was busy, and I barely had time to take James’s outstretched hand when we passed.
On Monday Gil burst into my office, beaming with malice.
“Hey, you know your friend, the guy you always talk to, that security guard? They had him on the floor down there, about ten detectives, guns the size of fire hydrants. Cuffed him and hustled him out. He didn’t say a word.” ”
I said it must be a mistake. I worked very hard at appearing not very concerned. When Gil finally realized there would be no worthwhile reaction and left to spread the good news elsewhere, I noted that my hands were trembling, just a little, on the keyboard.
My word against his, I thought. And anyway I quit. They can test me.
By lunchtime everyone in the building knew. I saw, or it seemed I saw, ad executives, lawyers, brokers with unusually worried faces, sometimes exchanging looks that said, No dope now, or When the police ask questions.
Tuesday there was no James in the lobby. The president of my company actually came in that morning, nodded gruffly to everyone and retreated to his ceremonial office. Later I heard him on the phone, saying, “Mr. Robinson is a tremendous asset to this building, and I just want you to know he has our full support.”
At lunch I saw two of the corporate lawyers talking in the corridor. One was a cute little blond I had thought of asking out. She stopped me and asked if James had tried to call me. I asked why she thought he would. She just stared. I said I had only heard he was arrested. She said, oh, well, anyway she had called the main jail to see if he had an attorney, but she could only find out what he was charged with. She had then called the police and managed to speak with one of the detectives who had arrested him.
“They say that six months ago he shot someone, over a drug deal they think, and they just now got enough evidence to charge him.”
“That doesn’t sound anything like James,” I said.
“Well,” she said, and I could see a blush beginning in her pale, distraught face, “they seem to think he’s been dealing drugs, right here in this building.”
“Yes. Yes, it is.”
“Did you find out his bail?”
“Bill, have you been listening? This is first-degree murder during the commission of a felony. There is no bail.”
The Court of St. James was closed.
I knew that Ron was one of James’s clients. He was a lawyer on the fourth floor, always nattily dressed, always hitting on the women. James of course wouldn’t say, but I had seen them talking, and I had seen Ron loitering about the plants in the lobby. It occurred to me that maybe every plant belonged to a particular client. There were a lot of plants.
That evening I waited for Ron to come out. I said that I had heard about James, and I wondered if we could help somehow.
He looked me in the eyes. There was a little menace there, but nothing else.
“Hardly know the man,” Ron said. “In fact, I hardly know you.”
The next day, so it was rumored, an extraordinary number of people called in sick.
So what was I supposed to do? Hadn’t I said we were friends, and hadn’t James said that really we weren’t? He was the one who said that. I didn’t even know the names of his kids. James was the one who told me to think about Darren. And I was. I had to protect Darren.
In the end I went to the security office and got James’s home phone number. And I learned the name of his wife. Dara. When I called she answered, and when I told her my name she knew who I was.
“Oh, yes, James is always talking about Bill Gallo. Bill said this, Bill did that. He says you’re one of his best friends, that you advise him. It’s so good of you to call. I’m so worried about him. I don’t know what to tell my children.”
I asked how they were getting along. Did they need anything?
“Well, Bill, I don’t know what James has told you, but, you know, I moved out. Six months ago. Took the children. I’m just here tonight to straighten up. Collect a few things.”
“Well, we’d been having problems. For a while, quite a while, and I hope you don’t mind me talking, but I feel I sort of know you, and I’m thinking maybe you can help James.”
“Did you know he was dealing?”
“I thought not. He said he couldn’t tell you because you’d try to get him to stop. But anyway, he was, dealing that is. You don’t exactly get rich in the guard business. I told him, I said, ‘I’ve got a job too, just stop.’ But he wouldn’t. He said people depended on him. He said he was the one who made the connections; people smiled when they saw him. He’s such a dreamer. Such a dreamer. Did you know he writes poetry?”
Two days later a detective dropped by my office. Detective Connolly. A young, meticulously groomed man who spoke softly, with poise, and tried to get you to meet his eyes. Just to chat, he said, because he’d heard that James and I were sort of friendly, and if possible he wanted to help James, he’d taken a liking to him during their interviews, and had I heard that maybe James was selling drugs here? I said no, I had never heard that. Connolly asked what I thought of James. I said James was as good a person as I had ever known.
“Right,” said Connolly. “He seems nice to me too, and smart. And that bothers me, kind of, that he’s in trouble like this. Course, he wasn’t too nice to the guy he killed, this Duane guy. Shot him six times, pretty close range, nine millimeter. When we got there certain parts of that guy weren’t around anymore. Of course there was this knife, which we think belonged to the victim. Never recovered the gun.”
“So how do you know James shot him?”
“Can’t tell you that.”
“Why did you wait so long to arrest him?”
“Didn’t know who he was. Victim’s wife turned him in. Seems James and her was having an affair. Were. Were having an affair. We have this directive at the office: Talk grammatical when you talk. We laugh about that. You ever seen James with someone who didn’t work here?”
“No. But it’s a pretty big building.”
“I noticed that. Anyway, they were having this affair, and Duane knew all about it, and maybe James’s wife knew too … kinda screwy, those people. Just a week ago Duane’s wife finds out James is seeing someone else, maybe a couple of someone elses, and she turns him in, and sure enough, we determine he was the shooter. He was some ladies’ man, James was, but he should have been more careful.”
I remembered just then what a criminal attorney had once told me. He said that you never know why the cops tell you stuff, or don’t tell you stuff, until it’s too late.
Detective Connolly left me his card. He said if I ever just wanted to talk, give him a call. He said he really wanted to help James.
“James called himself ‘a fiend in a cloud,’ and he recited this poem to me. I asked him if he’d written it, and he said he wished he had. Screwy guy. I like him.”
Last night I went for a walk. I go out now. On impulse I took a bus to Hollywood, and I saw many crazy and unhappy people but also some who seemed happy, and some of them didn’t even seem high. Of course you never know; it’s not the sort of question you can ask casually.
I walked for a long time in the City of Dreams (but then that’s what all cities are), and I thought, and walked, and thought. I saw that James was right: he might have been my friend, but I hadn’t been his. When he first called me Bill and told me about the shooting, I think that he meant to tell me everything, but then he saw my face and stepped back. That Thanksgiving two years ago, when he found me sitting there staring at the computer screen, he asked why. But I never thought to ask him why he was there, on a Thanksgiving, away from his family.
I didn’t make the connection.
It was after midnight when I took the bus home. I was sitting toward the back, alone. A young woman got up, came over and asked if she could sit with me, and before I could reply, she did. She was wearing jeans and sweatshirt and ruined running shoes; her hair was a black, tangled frizz, her left cheek was bruised and swollen, she was very drunk. She pressed her thigh sideways against mine.
“I am not black,” she said. “I am Haitian. You like Haitian?”
“You’re pretty drunk,” I said. “You should go in back and lie down.”
“What you mean, hey? I’m not drunk, hey. You think I’m pretty? For twenty I make you feel good.”
“No, thanks. I’m fine.”
“For ten I could still do somethin’ nice.”
“‘No, thanks, I’m fine,’ hey? You got any spare change?”
She looked at me, then decided to shoot for the moon.
I gave her five and said that was all I had, the end, and I didn’t want to do anything, it was nice to have met her. She looked at the floor and nodded. I thought she was falling asleep, and I hoped she wasn’t going to be sick.
She put her hand lightly on my knee.
“Could I just,” she asked, her voice soft and slurry, “put my arm ’round you? Just for now?”
She locked my right arm with her left, as if we might be going to promenade. The man across the aisle raised his chin at us and changed seats. I was going to say something in which the word “enough” would figure, but a certain moment passed, and what I was going to say became less urgent, and then, when she only held on, just that, I said nothing at all. She smelled like whiskey and old newspapers. After a while she put one skinny arm around my neck and leaned her head against my chest. I was embarrassed, sure, of course, to be sitting in public with some homeless street whore, but actually I found myself liking her close. After a while I put my arm around her shoulder. We sat like that.
I began to ask her questions, which she answered in a drunk, sleepy, meandering way, sometimes pressing against me a little to make sure I was still there. Her name was Donna. She had family on the East Coast who wanted her back, but they’d moved, no, she’d moved, no, they didn’t give a shit about her. She had a place to sleep, a good place, down by the beach but not on the sand, she’d never do sand again, and it was secret, no one could find her stuff. She was only passing through, she had friends in San Francisco, good friends, they wanted her. She’d had a kid when she was sixteen, Bobby, or maybe it was Robby, who was seven now, but she didn’t know where he was. She said that for a long time she was so unhappy that she had taken a lot of heroin, but she was over that now.
“You’re over being unhappy?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Just can’t get no heroin.”
I said I hoped things would get better.
“Maybe,” she said. “I’m cold. Could I have your coat?”
“If I gave you my coat then I’d be cold.”
“Yeah. Okay, honey.”
“Are you really cold?”
“No, thanks, I’m fine. Thought I could sell it.”
“You should go in back and sleep for a while.”
“I love you,” she said. “Could I have two more dollars? In case the tooth fairy comes?”
I gave her two dollars, said my pockets were now empty and sent her to bed. She made it to the back seat, where she curled up. I was still thinking about my jacket and how I shouldn’t let her take advantage and how Rebecca had given it to me and I wanted to wear it in Portland, when I saw my stop coming and pulled the cord. When I got up, Donna said something I couldn’t quite hear. I told her to take care.
It had begun to rain. Outside, I turned and banged on the bus’s door, but it was already pulling away. I had been feeling generous and powerful, but here I was, sorry again.
I had plenty of money in my pocket, lots of money, and I didn’t even have to buy heroin. So what if she sold the coat? I didn’t need the goddamn coat. Rebecca would have given it to Donna because Rebecca was like that. I had had the moment, but I’d lost it. I’d met Mary Magdalene and counted stones.
I thought. All last night. About connections. About how, in memory, you connect to people in the way you wish you had connected before they became memory. I wondered about a sixth sense, or a seventh or ninth sense that perceives connecting paths like magnetic lines of force. Some people have that sense.
It seems like I can feel now, but not quite see, how the girl in the coffee house is connected through Donna to the afternoon in the Stanford Church, and because of Darren through Sunshine on the beach I have to help James. It’s like a story that you know is complete, but you don’t know why, and if you could only find the author, he would explain. He could tell you how the encounters are shuffled just so, why each character has to occur and disappear in just this order.
Or maybe it’s not because of this, therefore this. Maybe it’s because of everything, everything. A feeling I’ve had before, but just a feeling, without consequence. It’s sort of like the heroin euphoria, and maybe it’s just a sentimental notion, but listen, let’s not tell. Let’s pretend. Let’s say that the heroin was a substitute for connecting, and with heroin you don’t get out much, you don’t seek connecting, and are the less for it.
Poetry Feature: Bob Hicok
Featuring the Poems:
- Into the Breach
- Her My Body
- Love Song
- My Walk
Into the Breach
I want to tell them we can hear
what they say. With coffee
in hand or a hot fudge cream puff
Tell them while offering
blue sky on a plate
or a river for their living room.
Something to break the ice, that says
I’m a man who wishes you nothing
but opulence, but long days
of wind in the leaves. I’ll always
be surprised we’re not equipped
with fingers more telepathic,
I want skin that brushing skin
transmits my true dream, making
trust and the handshake,
making faith and the kiss
one in the same. I would touch him
on the shoulder as he waxes his car,
would slip my hand under hers
as she lifts a tray
of nasturtiums, and they’d believe me
when I say it’s more than silence
I’m after, more than a night’s
sleep made of ocean, deep ocean
with me on top. They’d know
in our house there have been
blood hours when biting each other
with words we’ve stopped
just short of bone. Yet alway
with windows closed because someone
like us might be listening,
elbows on sills, faces
just beyond the reach of the moon.
As last night, when he threw
the punch of slut, we pushed closer
and today just waved
across the lawn at their shame
as they stood on opposite side
of their car, while trying to be
anywhere but inside their faces.
Her My Body
The dog licks my hand as I worry
about the left nipple
of the woman in the bathroom.
She is drying her hair, the woman
whose left nipple is sore.
We looked this evening
for diagonal cuts
or bite marks from small insects
that may be in our bed.
It is a good bed, a faithful bed.
A bed that won’t be hurt
by the consideration we gave
to the possibility of small
strong insects in our bed.
The blow dryer sounds like a jet
taking off. The first time
I flew to Brussels, people began
the journey happy but ended
with drool on their shirts.
She is drying her hair
though she has never been to Brussels.
Drying her hair
though she could be petting a dog.
Drying her hair
while having red thoughts
about what the pain in her nipple means.
I would not dry my hair
in such a moment but I am bald.
The body of the woman
has many ways to cease
being the body of the woman.
I have one way
to be happy
and she is that way.
I would like to fly with her to Brussels.
We would not be put off by the drool.
This is what happens when people sleep.
We would buy postcards of the little boy
who saved Brussels when he peed on a fire.
We would be romantic in public places.
For the moment
these desires can best be furthered
by petting a dog.
I’m also working on this theory.
That sometimes a part of the body
That the purpose of prayer
is to make the part of the body
that sometimes just hurts
the little toe or appendix.
Something vestigial or redundant.
Something that can be jettisoned.
I have no reason
to use the word cancer
while petting a dog.
There is a piece of a second
during which a jet is not flying
nor is it on the ground.
I’m working on a theory
that no one can die
inside that piece of a second.
If you are comforted
by this thought you are welcome
to keep it.
I am misunderstanding a song
in Spanish. The song
not my confusion, though one day
I hope to be confused
in many tongues,
to botch my days
with polyglot savoir-faire.
On my CD he’s kissing her
under a peanut butter sky.
He’s already asked the sea
for permission to marry
her pubic hair.
The sea said first
you must solve
proving true lovers
paid attention during algebra.
I have no idea
what these sounds mean
but I’ve never asked
a dictionary to dance.
If the guitars
invited me to join the army
The singer says, from afar
I’ve admired the jumping jacks
of your navel, I promise
to make you salads
the rest of your days. Who hasn’t
been brought to tears
or wouldn’t be by the music
of these words,
which sound like you
calling me on the first
of too many
February today. The first r in February
is silent in my country. Some of us
also say orn juice for orange juice.
There’s a linguistic term for this kind
of elision, the dropping of a sound
because it is followed by a similar sound.
Last night’s snow makes whispers
of my feet. There’s no window
in the custard thick clouds. If I
could hang maples from the sky, up
would equal down. It feels
like I’m walking inside a prayer,
between the folded hands of Earth
and dream. Someone’s
been decapitating snow men
and women and children. The heads
are carefully removed and placed
at what would be the feet
of their circular souls.
I pass a dozen of these reminders
of the French Revolution. How often
the idea of freedom is the practice
of death. I enter the woods
beside other footprints, boot and paw.
Time here is the sense after years
that a stone has got up and moved.
But what kind of clock is a mosquito
in winter? More falling than flying,
it lands in the snow. I scoop it
on my finger. It doesn’t move, has
no sense it rests on a meal of blood.
I blow, it sputters away, drops.
Is this the world having a dream?
Would this day not survive
without a fantasy of summer?
I’ll forget this visitation
for months or years. A little drunk,
I won’t know how to attach words
to my feeling that I’m lucky
there are stars. I’ll remember
the mosquito then, and mention it
across the open mouths of glasses
on a table. At the far end, someone
will accept my astonishment,
will wonder aloud if we’ve seen
half of what exists. We’ll both
look away then, our ardor exposed.
I am cold now and back at my door.
As it opens, it sounds like my house
draws a breath to speak.
The review in this issue of Sally Cline’s biography of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald reminds me of one of my favorite minor works of literature. In 1945, five years after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s death, Edmund Wilson collected eight of Fitzgerald’s magazine essays, along with a scrapbook of formerly unpublished Fitzgerald material that included organized writer’s notes, poems, letters and even a few recipes. Wilson named the book The Crack-Up, after the title of one of the essays. It is the source of some of Fitzgerald’s best-remembered quotations, and it’s also one of the most engaging collections of a writer’s ephemera I’ve read—good reading in itself and fascinating in its demonstration of how hard Fitzgerald worked at his fiction. The title essay, along with two others, “Handle with Care” and “Pasting It Together,” had been published in Esquire in the mid-thirties to a flurry of condemnation. They are in fact classic personal essays in the tradition of Montaigne, written by an author looking back on life from a more seasoned viewpoint, trying to better understand the world, human nature and himself.
However, Fitzgerald’s key subjects were physical exhaustion, disillusionment and depression, which were not seemly topics for a middle-class writer to discuss. John Dos Passos called it an abuse of his talent to go “spilling” out his life like that. Hemingway, who was always game for putting down his former friends, called the essays shameful and cowardly. Fitzgerald’s editor at Scribner’s, Maxwell Perkins, thought that they were exercises in self-pity. Harold Ober, his agent, noticed that magazine editors became standoffish to his short stories, which, along with occasional jobs in Hollywood, had been the source of most of his income during his later career.
The title essay in The Crack-Up is less a raw confession than a personably written modern-day exemplum. The author begins by speculating about the roles of trauma and regret in mental self-injury. He gently suggests that what we imagine comes entirely from the outside may be as much the result of our own error: “Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within—that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick—the second kind happens almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed.” Fitzgerald goes on to describe his own breakdown in some detail, beginning with his having “a strong sudden instinct that I must be alone. . . . I was an average mixer, but more than average in a tendency to identify myself, my ideas, my destiny, with those of all classes that I came in contact with. I was always saving or being saved—in a single morning I would go through the emotions ascribable to Wellington at Waterloo.”
The contemporary reader of The Crack-Up can hardly avoid having a mixed response to these essays, written long before our widespread discussions of addiction and psychological disorders such as depression. Fitzgerald may appear to avoid the real issues—that both he and his then institutionalized wife had been alcoholics who weren’t able to take care of themselves in the most basic ways. Yet by not being overly reductive or self-lacerating, Fitzgerald is able to speak more broadly and with a better sense of humor about his times. In “Echoes of The Jazz Age” he alludes to his generation’s lingering excesses: “Though the Jazz Age continued, it became less and less of an affair of youth. The sequel was like a children’s party taken over by the elders.” He describes his and Zelda’s aimless traveling, the vanity and bad attitudes that they reinforced in each other and their emotional extremes. In “Sleeping and Waking,” he writes briefly and entertainingly about his insomnia, which he dates to the night when he had a mock-heroic battle with a certain unkillable mosquito, an experience that made him “sleep conscious” for the first time in his life. In several of the autobiographical essays in the collection, he refers to the seduction and delusions of his early career. He quickly went from college to This Side of Paradise, a first novel so successful that it would have deceived the ego of anyone but a seasoned stoic—a person Fitzgerald definitely was not at twenty-four. Whether they deal directly with alcoholism or not, these essays were pioneering examples of the nonreligious confessional meditation. They were also surprisingly brave stuff for their time.
Like The Crack-Up, much in this issue of TMR concerns the damage that is done to people by themselves and by bad luck. The feature selection is Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s account of her 1939 journey by car to the remote regions of Afghanistan. Schwarzenbach was another glamorous figure of the 1920s and ’30s who died young due to her own recklessness. She was born into a wealthy Swiss family and raised in unusual circumstances—dressed and treated as a boy by her mother, who remained a strong influence throughout her life. She grew into a melancholy, restless person, talented at photography, fiction, and journalism. Klaus and Erika Mann, the son and daughter of Thomas Mann, introduced her to drugs, which were to be the bane of her life. Carson McCullers fell in love with the strikingly beautiful Swiss adventurer when she visited America and later dedicated Reflections in a Golden Eye to her. Despite Annemarie’s stormy personal life and struggle with opiates and alcohol, she traveled widely—in Afghanistan, the United States, the Belgian Congo, and North Africa—writing articles and several books. Her writing is haunting and compelling, and we appreciate translator Isabel Cole for making it available to American readers.
The problems of addiction, fortunately, are more openly aired today, as they are in two other selections from this issue. Michael Lundell’s stunning short story “Connect,” which reads like nonfiction, has both everything you didn’t know about heroin addiction and an unsettling, noir plot. Carolyn Michael’s essay “Renée,” about her daughter’s addiction, is both heartbreaking and as fascinating as any carefully constructed short story. A brief time before Renée started taking drugs and quickly graduated to heroin, she was a champion gymnast and superb student. Part of the fascination of Michael’s essay is her search for answers to the most natural questions a parent could ask: Why my daughter of all people? How did this happen—by what steps?
Tracy Crow’s nonfiction “Facelift” is somewhat lighter fare. Crow’s husband, who is twenty-some years older than she is, decided to have a facelift in an attempt to allay some of the damages of ageing. Her essay describes the procedure, its outcome and her own struggles now to resist the temptation to go under the knife.
Much of the damage and destruction in this issue comes to pairs. The two housemates in Ryan Harty’s story “Ongchoma” don’t talk much about their problems with booze, but they are without a doubt two tipplers who have found each other. They are also characters with all the unlikelihood of real life—he a gay Native American with an abusive boyfriend and she a disappointed academic with a mother who needs nursing after an operation. Peter Selgin’s “The Wolf House” is about another oddly real duo, twin brothers who have gone different ways. One has become a Unitarian minister now suffering a lethal case of disillusionment, while his twin is a factory worker with a sweeter disposition despite his failures. The narrator in Mark Kline’s powerful story “The Shortest Distance Between Me and the World” has been burned not by bad choices but bad luck. He is a warrior of good attitude and good faith, who must fight both circumstance and his caring but angry sister to survive.
In a thoughtful and revealing interview, author Michael Cunningham discusses the several incarnations that The Hours went through during the long period of its writing, until it finally reached a form that no one reasonably assumed would sell many copies. Cunningham is a great lover of books and excellent conversational company, as well as being a fine writer.
Issues of conflict, trauma, damage, and either decline or development have always been among literary fiction’s special provinces. When something goes wrong, how does it happen? Is it inevitable, or was there a moment when it could have been averted? Does it arise from a person’s background, their personality and emotions, their history of choices or some combination of these factors?
As young people, Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda were naïve romantics with high expectations. They’d both been doted on and spoiled by their parents. Scott, as a young adult, decided to learn how to write well, and with dismaying ease he did so. In her late twenties, Zelda fixed on the idea of becoming a ballet dancer and in fact did get surprisingly good at it. They both believed in the individual—the individual will, the individual voice and the individual’s ability to overcome anything. Yet they lived completely untenable lives, and in his finest work, Fitzgerald critiqued his own tendencies, as the love-bewitched protagonist of The Great Gatsby plunges into a life of illusion, ostentation and materialism trying to resurrect a relationship that never really was.
What happened to Gatsby in the end, though, did not happen to his author. He died young but he never gave in to illusion; he gained in humility; he never stopped writing; he died while writing The Last Tycoon, a book that—had there been time to finish it—could have been great. That same hopefulness is in one way or another apparent throughout the writing in this issue, as personal damage results, one way or another, in growth.
The Same Dust, the Same Wind: The Afghanistan Memoirs of Annemarie Schwarzenbach
This found text is not currently available online.
How does one do justice to a woman who drove a Ford across the Hindu Kush, yet died in a fall from her bicycle near her home in Switzerland at the age of thirty-four?
The Shortest Distance Between Me and the World
Our town has no streets. Paths wind through it. We’re surrounded on three sides by a city residential area. Three long narrow streets are all that separate us from the city. One side of our town ends at the edge of a city cemetery. I love our town.
It used to be an area of garden plots for people living in the city. People liked it so much that they began building small houses on the plots. People planted their lives here. The cemetery’s caretakers call our town the nut town. One house is an overturned yacht hull on a tall foundation. It looks like a sculpture. Another house uses the shell of a rocket for an antenna tower. We call the cemetery the ghost town.
Some of us walk or bike or take a bus to get somewhere in the city. Some of us own cars and park them on the narrow streets surrounding us. My sister Asia and I don’t own a car. Asia bikes to work. When I need to go somewhere she calls the handicap service. I use a wheelchair. The platform lifts on the sides of their vans make me dizzy. I don’t like leaving our town.
Asia is looking over my shoulder at my laptop. She asks me what I’m writing. I’m writing about our town. She asks me who I’m writing to. I’m writing to the world. She says that my writing sounds too stiff and that I should write as if I’m talking. Why should I write as if I’m talking? I can’t talk. Asia says don’t be a smart-ass.
We’ve just finished eating. She keeps an eye on me at breakfast and supper. I have trouble swallowing. Maryam comes at noon. She’s Iranian. She keeps an eye on me at lunch. She’s a whiz at cleaning. Asia says thank Godfrey for that. Dad used to say “Thank Godfrey” all the time. He didn’t like saying “God.” Asia says Dad thought God was a butler or something.
Our house is right next to one of the streets surrounding our town. People often walk by and stop to admire our house’s weird turrets. If I’m sitting out by our fence sometimes they’ll ask if I like living here. I whip out my laptop and write that we love living here. When I smile people don’t always know I’m smiling. Sometimes I write a smiley. If I don’t feel the energy to smile I don’t write a smiley. Life can be this simple if you let it be.
More women than men walk by. Some women stroll by pushing baby carriages. Others walk in pairs and speak seriously to each other. Asia says it’s amazing how much I get laid considering I can’t talk. I let my laptop do my talking for me. Asia says my laptop is a real hunk all right. Not all women go for hunks. She says that some women come from the cemetery and they’re vulnerable and horny from grief. I don’t mind helping them. She says she doesn’t doubt that one second. She says I’m an unprincipled little bastard. Then she gets up and starts mowing the lawn.
Asia is wrong. I get laid about twice a year. Women taking their grief for a walk never notice me behind our fence. My last lay was a caretaker at the cemetery. She coaxed me into bringing my laptop along to bed. After a while she told me what to write. It was things she wanted me to want her to do. I didn’t mind even though none of it was exactly true. Beggars cant be choosers.
I love our town. I love small yards filled with tribes of flowers with hardly any space to walk. I love window shades of African beads. I love the row of porch windows painted over with a gallery of Norse gods. I love our mailman who stuffs the mail in my wheelchair’s side rack without a word. I love one-story houses with a million angles. I love spruce trees swinging over unclipped hedges. I love skinny red-haired Alicia skipping down the street swinging ropes-and-balls. I love patched stucco painted in circles of red and purple. I love our town because we’re all so different and there’s so much life squeezed in and beaming out of our town. I love our town because it’s here and I’m here. Asia says puh-leeeeeeze.
Peter lives three paths down from us. He bikes by on his black threewheeler almost every day. He doesn’t notice weather. He was born with a birth defect. His legs are like loose piston rods. He wears a wrapped bandana on top of his head with a small flap sticking up in front. His head looks like a red fort with a flag. He never sees me. Sometimes he yells hello hello hello from the time he approaches until he’s long gone. Maybe he yells it to people inside his head. How can I know?
Sometimes he’s angry when he passes. He yells fragments of sentences over and over. He sounds like an infantry captain screaming “Attack.” Asia says he sounds like someone is squeezing his balls in a bathroom. She’s probably jealous of whoever does the squeezing. Asia says oh yeah.
I had my first multiple sclerosis attack when I was fifteen. Almost no one gets it that early. Asia says I was lucky because I didn’t have to give up a great career. This happens all the time. People get married and have kids. They buy a house. Suddenly their vision blurs or they start tripping over their own two feet. After six months or a year or two a neurologist tells them they have MS. Sometimes MS breaks them into small pieces and crumples their lives up like scrap-metal machines.
This is what they write in the MS magazine. I never hear them say these things at the MS Center. Once I belonged to a therapy group. People talked about not letting MS take up too much space in their lives. They called neurologists meat inspectors. They talked about how hard it is to decide what to tell their children about their symptoms when they don’t even know what to tell themselves. They talked about drugs and street curbs. They talked about God. They never mentioned things like scrap metal. Asia says at least I don’t have to work. She has a point.
I wrote a lot of large-font smileys on my laptop in the therapy group. I wanted to make the others feel better. I’d read that the act of smiling causes brain activity that leads to a happier life. Someone suggested that I was suppressing my anger and pain. I wrote back that I was pissed at Asia for fixing carrot soup with oregano the previous evening. She should have used rosemary. The psychologist smiled.
I tend an herb garden in a raised bed. Maryam gave me a curry plant last May. It looks like a hundred moldy spider webs. She’s watching me write this. She’s laughing. I love you Maryam. She’s not laughing now. I love the way honeybees dance in the dark. I love the sun. l love watching people of all colors and sizes go by. I love every damn thing I can.
Maryam hugs my head and walks off.
The sun doesn’t love me. It squeezes the muscles inside my arms. It turns my legs into air. It drills into my skull. An MRI technician showed me a picture of my brain. It’s full of small scars. My theory is that the sun shorts my brain out. I think of them as sunspots. Loving the sun gives me practice in loving things that don’t love me back. Asia says that loving the sun is another in the long well-documented line of my stupid-idities. She has a point.
Another of my stupidities is trying to figure out why I don’t love Peter. Instead of thinking about it I should just get it together and love him. What’s stopping me? Asia says I don’t love Peter because what I really see when I look at him is my own situation. That’s not true. Asia says oh yeah? She says talk to the shrinks. You talk to the shrinks. She says she talked plenty to the shrinks at the MS Center. They aren’t shrinks. They’re psychologists. Asia says whatever.
The psychologist talked to me after my third therapy session. She didn’t believe I was getting much out of the group. She suggested I join the forty-and-sporty group. I wrote back that I was only thirty-seven. Then she suggested I take one of the MS Society-sponsored vacation trips. I wrote that I’d consider it if she’d be my wheelchair buddy. She smiled and said she was flattered. I could see that she wasn’t all that flattered.
Many of us in our town travel a lot. In our community building we give video shows of our travels in western China or New Guinea. I read travel magazines and biographies. I listen to music with words. I listen to singers who sing so you can understand what they’re saying. Asia likes Tom Waits. I like Nat King Cole. I like his name. It sounds like a street name in Saigon. Pedestrians in Saigon never obey traffic lights. Neither do the scooters and cars and trucks. The traffic flows around pedestrians who inch across the street as if their feet are bound.
Asia says I should use commas. I don’t like the feel of commas in my head. She says you cant feel commas in your head. I can in mine. She says I sound like a retardo. I don’t sound like anything and I’m not a retardo either. I can write commas. , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . See? I don’t mind them this way. They’re like a parade of elephant trunks. She says I’m just so fucked-out stupid. I’m not stupid. Stupid people don’t take correspondence courses in anthropology and the behavior of bees. She says I can never be anything from these courses. She says who’s gonna hire a teacher who can’t speak and who’s gonna read a paper on bees if I don’t use commas? She says I don’t have the stamina to be anything anyway. I don’t plan on being anything. She says I’m wasting money. It’s my money. She says it’s actually Dad’s money. It’s not. It’s my money. Dad left it to me. She says I’m a selfish little fucktard. She says girls come by and slobber all over me and fuck me. She says I sit outside in the sun so people will come by and pity the poor unfortunate fucking little guy while she’s the one who shops and cooks and sets me on the can. She says she could live with a guy and get laid every fucking night. That would get old. She says she’s fucking willing to take a chance. There’s nobody stopping her. She says yeah. She says oh yeah.
Later on she says it probably would get old.
If I used commas it wouldn’t be me writing this. I’d be like Nat King Cole. After he died Natalie Cole stuck herself in the middle of a bunch of his songs. I wonder if Asia will add commas when I’m dead.
There are millions of bees in our town. We have bees under our house. Asia says she hates them. They’re too busy working to care about stinging anybody. She says just wait until one flies up my pantleg and can’t get out. Why would one want to fly there? She says it might smell my piss bottle. They’re not attracted to piss. Asia says oh really.
Honeybee stingers look like commas.
Experts write in the MS magazine that we need challenges and goals in our lives. They claim that it’s important to maintain a link to the workforce however tenuous because work is an important part of our identity. Love can be a challenge and a lot of work. I’m a successful
man. I love our town. I love Asia. I love the sun. I will find a way to love Peter.
Peter lives with a sad drunk. Our Town Council tried to do something about this. Social workers from the city around us investigated the situation and concluded that the drunk takes good care of Peter. The city concluded that this is the cheapest solution to the problem of Peter. Our Town Council didn’t think Peter should be treated as a problem to be solved. They thought he should be treated as a human being.
Things are always happening around Peter to make people think about him. The other day Peter screamed at the men repairing the electric box on the path behind our house. He chased them off with his submachine watergun. They complained to our town’s fix-it man. He told our town’s town chairman. Peter is a human being and a problem for all of us.
MS strips the insulation off nerves so they short out. Other nerves try to find a way around the shortcuts. My body is a network of detours and dead ends. I don’t want to write like I have MS. I don’t want to take detours. I want every sentence to march directly to its end. MS thinks it can divert me. MS wants to cut me off from the world. Love wants to connect me up with the world. Love is the shortest distance between me and the world.
Asia says this entire love manifesto is one big detour. She says my brain is a big traffic accident and I can’t see the detours because I am the detour and it’s my own fault because I’ve stopped taking betaseron. She says sitting in the sun is killing me and the pot’s not helping things either.
I smoke a very small amount of marijuana before bedtime. It lessens the spasms at night. The past few mornings I woke up to my fingers drumming against my thigh. My fingers do my talking already. Maybe they’re trying to dream for me? Asia says she doesn’t want to hear this shit. She goes inside the house.
Betaseron had side effects. I woke up some mornings not knowing if my head was on top or underneath my pillow. It depressed me also. Why should I sit around depressed feeling like I have the flu? Some people with MS let bees sting them. When I informed Asia that I was considering that idea she stormed off and mowed the lawn in record time.
Asia says that what she meant with the detours is that I should explain things from start to finish. Let me explain this. I can make sounds. I can’t talk clearly enough to be understood except for duh stuff. My neurologist suspects I’m exaggerating my speech difficulties. She thinks I’m acting. She wanted to be an actress herself when she was younger.
On my last visit she demonstrated the different ways her other spastic patients walk. When I applauded she ignored me. I understand why she didn’t make it as an actress. Actresses have to love their audiences.
Our town is great to take walks in. Sometimes Asia and I take a walk after her work when my legs and arms have enough substance. She strolls and I crutch along. Asia likes these walks because I can’t take my laptop.
Asia works for a travel bureau. She has “A. Neff” on her nametag to avoid all the smart-ass remarks. On our walk this afternoon she said the gofer boy smashed a box against her monitor today on purpose. He said he tripped. She cussed him out but her boss didn’t do anything about it.
While she was telling me this I stopped. We were about a hundred feet down the street. My legs felt like two columns of air that weighed a ton. Asia said her boss sucks green donkey dicks and that men are babies. I pointed at my legs. She said what’s the problem? I pointed at my legs again and jerked my thumb like a hitchhiker and said something like “Let’s go home.”
On our way back my stomach muscles disconnected and I started to topple over. Asia knocked my crutch away and grabbed me around the waist. She half dragged me along. My brain skipped a few steps. My body sobbed for a few seconds. Asia said please don’t start this. I hadn’t started anything. It was my body crying. It’d had enough. Asia hefted me through the gate on her shoulder.
We finish supper on our terrace. 1 drop my napkin. Asia picks it up for me and swipes at my mouth. I grab my laptop and write a smiley. Her eyes fill with tears. Then she leans away from me. She says men are such babies. You’re the one who’s crying. She goes back in the house.
Most of us in our town work. We have two plumbers and three electricians. They help the rest of us with our houses. One man is a photographer. He’s taken photos of all of us in front of our respective houses. There is a large poster in our community building of all the photos. Asia wheeled me out in our yard and stood behind me for our picture. He lay on the ground. In the photo I have the toes of a giant. I’m holding my laptop up. It’s impossible to read what I wrote. It was a limerick:
They say we are nuts in our town
They say we’re an orchard of clowns
It’s true we are strange
But our Homes on DeRange
Are déclassé of all de surrounds
A man who develops ground software for Nokia jogs by every afternoon. His name is Eric. In good weather I push the gate open and wait for him. He shows up around five-thirty. He jogs in place in front of me while we communicate. Sometimes I write limericks for him. He laughs at them. Sometimes Asia gets home while he’s there. She asks me how I’m doing and generally acts like a responsible sister. Then she zeros in on Eric. She’s sure he’s got boocoo buckaroonies.
Some days I spend a lot of time writing limericks to show Eric. Who knows? He might be my brother-in-law someday. He takes Asia to movies and they’ve probably slept together.
Some days I’m too empty to write. Some days the best part of life is dozing in the sun. Let the chips fall where they may. That’s one of Eric’s favorite expressions.
Here’s a limerick I showed Eric the other day:
A butler woke up in Cardiff
And discovered his member was stiff
He stifled his fear
His duty was clear
He proposed to his pillow forthwith
Eric liked that one. He said I’m one crazy little fucker and laughed and jogged away. I love Eric in principle. Like the way some families love each other. Asia could adopt Peter.
Peter traipses past our house. He holds his arms out stiff like Frankenstein bumbling around outside the castle. Somebody loved Frankenstein but I cant remember who. Or was that King Kong?
Asia says all my talk about loving everything is a crock of shit. I never wrote that I loved everything. I’m trying. She says if I’m really trying 1 should be able to write “I love Peter.” There. I just wrote it. She says you asshole. She says to write it like I’m the one who says it. She says come on lover boy.
She says she’s getting fucking sick of reading everything she’s just said all the time.
She says all right you asshole. She says I think I’m better somehow than Peter. She says take a look in the fucking mirror. She says think about what people see when they see me and think about how the people in our fucking town would feel if they had to take care of that thing in the mirror. She says get real. She stomps back inside the house.
My insides feel swollen like I’ve been stung. I’m not real pleased with my body either but it’s the only place I have to hang out. I close my eyes and let the sun fall where it may. I don’t blame her for being sick of reading what she says. It’s like someone’s sticking a mirror in her face all the time. It’s good for her though because it’s a step toward knowing herself better.
A lecturer at the MS Center said it’s important for us to know ourselves as well as possible. She said that it will make the inevitable choices we face easier to deal with. One man felt that we should put our lives in the hands of God. She said it couldn’t hurt to give Him all the help we can. The man said that God needs no help and that He will take care of us and answer our every prayer.
God might be the Butler of the Universe. Maybe He’ll be my wheelchair buddy. Maybe He’ll wheel me around His town.
Asia comes back out and kneels down beside me. She puts both of her hands on my wheelchair arm. She rests her head on her hands for a moment. She looks up at me. She says please don’t write what I’m going to say to you now. All right Asia.
Maryam and I eat tuna salad for lunch. We have live music once a month at our community center. Our town entertainment committee has booked a klezmer band for Friday. Maryam says that’s cool. She says she loves klezmer music. I knew that already. I’m on the committee. I was instrumental in choosing the band. She gives me a little hug.
She says she hopes she can come. They’re supposed to be really hot. She says her father would throw a fit. Men are such babies. She says I’m not a baby. At least I can still feed myself. She says that not being able to feed yourself has nothing to do with acting like a baby. We look at each other. She laughs.
I drop my napkin. She picks it up and hands it to me. She says she’d better get this tuna back in the fridge. She takes it inside. I love you Maryam.
This is what happened last night:
Asia wheeled me up the ramp into our community building. The klezmer band was playing in a large alcove surrounded by low windows. Everyone was either dancing or trying to dance. Asia parked me on one side of the alcove a few feet away from the band and got us both a beer.
The band played a tune in some weird time that no one could clap to even though they tried. The four of them formed a square with a spotlight blaring down inside it. While they played the drummer gazed out the windows. The clarinet player looked around the floor as if he’d dropped something. The bass player stared above the crowd. The accordion player closed his eyes and stared inside himself. It was as if they were playing the same tune on four different continents and the tune met in the ocean of spotlight. After a few numbers I realized they weren’t going to sing. Asia told me to not look so bummed out. Without my laptop the best I could do was give her a dirty look.
They laid their instruments on the floor and took a break. Eric came over and said hey wild man what’s happening in this neck of the woods? Asia grabbed his arm and they left. I drank. I’m not used to drinking. My vision and hearing swerved between fuzzy and superclear. While I stared at the instruments in the spotlight my brain shifted into automatic pilot. The homeless bass slept on its side. The cymbals harvested rice in a baking sun. The clarinet’s snout sucked ants out of the floorboards.
The musicians walked back to their corners like robot boxers after the bell and started in again. Nothing felt right. Nothing fit. The accordion player shook his accordion like he was busting concrete while the bass sleepwalked. The music funneled into a frenzy and the dancers screamed.
Maryam brought me another beer. She wanted to dance with me but the dance floor was about as safe as a Saigon street. I held my hands up to signal surrender or something. She grabbed them and pulled me back and forth a while until my arms ran out of steam. Then she helped me lift my beer to my mouth and it felt like rainwater gushing down an iron pipe into a barrel.
I spotted Peter against the opposite wall. He wore sunglasses but I was sure he was watching the band play. He limped to the edge of their square and started dancing. Time after time he dipped like he was doing lopsided kneebends. He has zero rhythm. His mouth hung and his cheekbones stuck out. The flap on his bandana flapped. He looked like a Living Dead biker.
He stepped into the square and instantly the yellow spotlight carved his body into a hologram. The music speared him and he shook. His arms blazed spastic trails in the air. His sunglasses fell off. He died and arose from the dead as a writhing sculpture of music. I turned to Maryam but she was gone.
The music straightened and sped into bullets and sirens. The rhythm melted out of shape. Peter froze and stared straight into me and suddenly the music began bouncing off us. We were isolated in a glassy cell of silence. I saw through Peter. Inside he was as busy and flighty as a butterfly. That was his dance. A butterfly caught in a gale of music.
The drunk he lives with came out of nowhere and stumbled toward him and pounded his shoulder. Peter jerked back a step and pointed a trembling finger at him. The finger curled like a bee’s stinger. Then he lurched forward and I saw he was going to hit Peter. Without thinking I wheeled toward the drunk and rammed his leg. Asia grabbed him from behind and pulled him back into the crowd.
Suddenly I was alone in the spotlight. The band stopped playing and stared at me and it hurt so I turned toward Peter. In a flash we were linked up again. I knew him perfectly in that moment. He wasn’t grateful for what I did. He wasn’t frightened of the drunk. He wasn’t acting either. He just didn’t like being touched. He didn’t want to be loved or hated or anythinged.
The band began playing “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon.” A few young boys breakdanced close by. One couple hooked elbows and pranced and swung each other in circles. Others began shimmering and weaving and herky-jerkying and Egyptian-hieroglyphing. In the melee my brain’s autopilot crashed.
I put my head down and wheeled toward the entryway. Asia followed. It felt like a spigot at the bottom of my spine opened and my life began pouring out. She said I didn’t look so hot. She glanced back at the people dancing. Then she wheeled me outside where the stars looked close enough to sing to. The starlight rattled inside my eyes on the way home.
Asia brings my oatmeal out onto our terrace. It’s cloudy today. I love butterflies and bees. I’ll never love Peter. Why should I love someone who doesn’t want to be loved? Asia says forget Peter. She says Eric probably took somebody home and gave them a royal screwing last night. Forget Eric. She says he probably took Maryam home. Maryam deserves it. She’s a queen. Asia says funny. A queen of Asia. Asia says don’t push it buddy boy.
I’ll never love Peter. Maybe love is not seeing someone’s insides so well. Asia says try again. Maybe love is seeing someone’s insides and loving what you see. Asia says love is an autopsy. She says love is never having to say you’re horny. Maybe love is a four-letter word beginning with L. She says love is not the answer to everything and especially for me. What’s the question? She says forget the question. She says drop all this “maybe love is” shit. She says tell it to John Denver and what’s-his-name.
Asia says give me the laptop. What for? She says hand it over.
This is Asia speaking. My brilliantly stupid little brother has forgotten to write his name. It’s Alexandrias. Our father owned a travel bureau for years, so that explains our names, sort of. Also, our great-grandfather was a butler in Cardiff. If I were him I’d be rattling chains in Alex’s bedroom every night.
What are all these commas doing here? Asia says don’t touch them. She says don’t touch my commas and I wont touch your noncommas.
I think I know why Natalie Cole did what she did. She wasn’t out to change the way her father sounds so lonely. She wouldn’t do that to him. But she made sure he doesn’t sound lonely all by himself. She loves him and now they’ll be together forever. Maybe love isn’t exactly the answer. Maybe being loved is. Maybe it only takes one person loving you and you’ll never be alone.
Asia shakes her head. She steps off the terrace and heads for the lawn mower.
An Interview with Michael Cunningham
This interview is not currently available online.
Interviewer: The Hours has been terrifically successful. But I’m curious about what you were thinking when you first began the novel. If someone had come up to me and said, “I’m going to rewrite Absalom, Absalom! or War and Peace,” I would have said, “Oh, yeah?”
Cunnigham: I never thought of myself as rewriting Mrs. Dalloway. I would never presume to do something like that. What I wanted to do was more akin to music, to jazz, where a musician will play improvisations on an existing piece of great music from the past–not to reinvent it, not to lay any kind of claim to it, but to both honor it and try to make other art out of an existing work of art. To use something that actually exists as the basis of something new, very much the way novelists traditionally use their lives and the lives of people around them as their subjects.
What remains finally of the early afternoon in November 2001 when I was told that my daughter was shooting heroin? Before: girls’ voices tumbling down the stairs, the thrum of the washing machine, an irritation at being interrupted, curiosity about who was in my house. And after: the still, gray light in the unlit kitchen, pink, thread-like scars (vestiges of a recent car accident) bisecting the outermost eyebrow of each girl—Vanessa’s left and Jenna’s right—and a nauseating vertigo. Renée’s two best friends, notorious at the high school for their flamboyant lesbian relationship, sat across from me at the kitchen table, all angular bodies, pierced faces, dreadlocks and assorted tattoos, talking awkwardly and breathlessly in disjointed snippets. They looked at each other, gestured with their hands and finished each other’s sentences. Jenna was the one who blurted out, almost apologetically, “Renée’s in trouble; she’s shooting heroin.”
* * *
The weight of those words hovered between us. The girls had whisked Renée out of school that morning in order to confront her about what they already knew. The three of them drove first to Jenna’s mother’s house. Renée had belligerently denied everything before locking herself in the bathroom. When she emerged fifteen minutes later, her antagonism had vanished. She indifferently showed them the tracks on her arms and said, “Whatever.” That had been a half-hour earlier, and now here they were. I was their last resort.
If you met Renée, even during this time when she was shooting heroin into the delicate blue veins of her forearm, it would take you minutes or less to discern her sweetness and her warmth. You would see close-set brown eyes, flawless skin and thick, dark hair, and you would notice an absence of the defiant posturing adopted by some of her peers. There was no way you would think heroin addict. She was neither listless nor rude nor in-your-face rebellious, not outwardly angry or depressed. She was a senior in high school, kind and polite; the second-oldest of four. If pushed to label her, I would have called her the easy child, quiet and undemanding. Her older brother, Will, was going to college in Boston; Grace, five years younger, had just started middle school; and Mike was in fourth grade.
That summer Renée and Will and their friends had been going to raves, all-night dance parties in Springfield, Massachusetts, and Lewiston, Maine, and the fact that no alcohol was served and the buildings patrolled by police officers, while definitely comforting, overshadowed another fact—that nearly everyone at these raves was doing Ecstasy, a synthetic psychoactive drug with amphetamine-like properties. Ecstasy makes it easy to dance all night, makes the user happy and empathetic. They were all doing X—Will, Renée and their friends—but they hid it well. The discovery the previous winter of some pot and a couple of pipes in Renée’s room had been mildly shocking given that she had shown no previous signs of rebellion and was especially vigilant about her own fitness (until the year before she had been a disciplined gymnast, working out three and four hours a day, four days a week; she was also an enthusiastic convert to vegetarianism). But she insisted that she’d only smoked a couple of times, and we had no reason to disbelieve her.
One of the things I tell myself in an attempt to grasp how I could have been so ignorant of the extent of my daughter’s drug use is that, being a naturally quiet girl, Renée was good at keeping up appearances and hiding what she was feeling. Since elementary school she had been, for lack of a better word, agreeable, whether because she was genetically predisposed to be that way or because it helped her cope in an often chaotic household. She has told me since that she was painfully shy in middle school and had few friends there, but shy was not a word that would have occurred to a spectator watching her on a gym floor. The only clue to her unhappiness was the daily naps she took after school until it was time for gymnastics. After gymnastics it was homework and bed. She had never answered my “How was your day?” with much more than “Good” and had rarely offered anything beyond glimpses into her school life.
She attended kindergarten through high school in Hamilton, Massachusetts, the larger half of a two-town community commonly referred to as Hamilton /Wenham, part of Boston’s posh North Shore. With a population of around seven thousand, Hamilton is rumored to have more horses than people; indeed, the U.S. Equestrian Team is here, as is Ledyard Farms and Myopia Hunt Club, both sites for horse trials. Myopia still has fox hunts; a dozen foxhounds are followed by riders in elegant red hunting jackets, beige riding pants and black hats. Polo games each Sunday afternoon at three; old New England money; and school system good enough to feed a steady stream to Harvard, Brown, BU and Wellesley are just a few attractions of this town in which it is nearly impossible to buy a house for under $400,000. My husband grew up in Hamilton and I in Wenham. Our families were firmly in the upper middle class: our fathers were professors at a conservative Protestant seminary; our mothers were faculty wives and homemakers. And although our family may not be considered typical of Hamilton (I am a ceramic artist, drive a used car and am afraid of horses), we too belong to its upper middle class.
Jenna and Vanessa cradled their pierced faces in their gaudy, nail-bitten hands and collapsed into soft sobbing. They were still sitting at my kitchen table when I left.
Not until my car was idling in front of his office building did I call my husband on my cell phone. He pushed through the glass doors, the distraught look on his face at odds with his starched white shirt. In the car we argued tensely about what to do. I wanted to discuss; he wanted to act. He jumped out and began to pace around the parking lot, dialing numbers on his cell phone. Bill is the director of operations in a semiconductor firm, used to taking charge, paid to get things done. The first person he called was an undercover drug enforcement officer whose wife had been a karate student of his (Bill has a black belt). Visions of violence and SWAT teams and police cars compelled me to grab for his cell phone. We knew where she was—Jenna had dropped her off at her boyfriend’s house. I used my own cell phone to call a therapist I knew. What should we do? She was shocked but calm, and her advice was reasonable: get Renée out of there immediately; she’s not safe.
Renée’s boyfriend’s grandmother answered Bill’s knock, and I sat in the car praying that Renée would come out, that she was alive. Minutes passed. The boyfriend’s mother came home, presumably from work, and waved to me through the car window. We had not yet met—Renée had only been seeing her son for a month or so—and I greeted her with a tight smile. She had a genuinely open and friendly face, reached in to shake my hand. That ordinary gesture within the surreal situation was the first of a multitude of civilities and good manners offered by all sorts of people, first in the hospital and detox facilities and later by friends and family, that could appear either meaningless or miraculous. Meaningless was how this one seemed just then.
When Renée finally appeared in the doorway she stood blinking in the daylight, even though it was overcast, looking younger than her seventeen years. Her hair was pulled back into a messy ponytail; she was wearing jeans and a baggy sweatshirt, no makeup. She got into the car, a mildly curious but blank look on her face, and Bill put the car into drive. No one spoke. I finally turned around in my seat and told her about Jenna’s and Vanessa’s visit. She didn’t look surprised. I assumed she was high, although she wasn’t acting high or strange, only passive. Later she would confirm that she had been expecting us, had known her friends would go to me. We parked briefly in the parking lot of Patton Park (named for General Patton’s tank, which sits in the middle), not knowing where to go or what to do, unwilling to go home just yet to the other children. Renée, bewildered, confessed to being scared but relieved and seemed to genuinely want help. Almost as an afterthought, she told us that she was bulimic (“since we’re being so honest,” she said). After some phone calls to some substance abuse facilities and a couple of therapists, we drove to Beverly Hospital’s Emergency Room—detox facilities, we’d already learned, only accepted patients admitted from a hospital.
After the doctor on call examined her, we were left alone. Minutes ticked into endless hours as we sat in the small room off Emergency, waiting for a social worker, waiting for the social worker to talk to the insurance company, waiting for the social worker to find Renée a bed in a detox facility, waiting for the ambulance to arrive to take her to Somerville Hospital. Renée sat hunched over on the high table, feeling sicker by the hour. How severe the symptoms of heroin withdrawal are depends on how much has been used over how long a period of time. Renée had been using for about six weeks, shooting for two of those—four to six bags a day, enough to experience extremely unpleasant withdrawal symptoms but not enough to be violently ill. For two days Renée suffered from muscle aches and spasms, stomach cramps, joint pain, constipation, vomiting, hot and cold flashes and itchy skin. Far worse, though, were the emotional effects of withdrawal—her staggering sense of hopelessness and shame.
Over the next twelve hours, the chronology of Renée’s uneven but unmistakable path to heroin emerged piece by piece through her repeated answers to the questions put to her by nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists and psychiatrists. She didn’t care whether Bill or I were in the room while she was questioned, so we stayed with her. Secret swallows of wine at home, six-packs of beer acquired by someone’s older brother and over-the-counter, “all natural” diet pills preceded the first time she smoked pot, the summer after eighth grade, nearly three years before I caught her with it. By eleventh grade she had discovered X and Special K, favorites for the raves. Also that year, she and her friends would snort crushed Adderall (prescribed to many of her friends for ADD) and coke in the high school girls’ bathroom. She snorted heroin for the first time one late summer night in the woods with her friend Lauren, just before starting her senior year. Afterward Lauren had thrown up and sworn never to do it again, while Renée wondered how long she would have to wait until next time. After a month of snorting she began to shoot with a boy who was able to score the heroin and who would become her boyfriend.
* * *
The psychoactive constituent in diacetylmorphine, or heroin, is morphine, produced by the body when it metabolizes heroin. The morphine molecule has a chemical structure similar to endogenous amino acid chains, or peptides, called endorphins, which are released from the pituitary gland in response to stress or pain. While morphine molecules are chemically different from peptides, they have a structural similarity to endorphins and so are able to lock onto endorphin-receptor sites on the nerve endings in the brain, causing the euphoria and tranquilizing effect of heroin. Any resulting ill effects (constipation, trouble urinating, lowered blood pressure and itchy skin are just a few) are insufficient deterrents to heroin’s grip. As soon as the body experiences this amazing sense of well-being, it wants more, and as the brain adapts to the artificial opiate, a tolerance develops and increasing amounts of heroin are needed to achieve the same high. In fact, the euphoria experienced the first couple of times becomes harder and harder to come by. In her book, how to stop time, heroin from A to Z, Ann Marlowe, a former heroin addict, describes addiction as “a form of mourning for the irrecoverable glories of the first time.” If the opiate is stopped, an imbalance occurs so that heroin becomes necessary not only to get high but also to keep from getting violently ill. Moreover, the presence of the opiate on the endorphin receptors inhibits the production of natural endorphins. Once the morphine molecules have locked onto the receptor sites, it can be years before the body’s own endorphins can adequately do their job—in other words, once you experience that artificial rush, there’s no going back, not for a long time. Ordinary pleasures don’t cut it.
* * *
At four the following morning, after signing her in to Somerville Hospital’s locked adolescent unit, I sat in my living room in the dim light of the dawn and drank two glasses of wine before it was time for coffee. It was Grace’s birthday; there was a birthday party planned for that evening. After Grace and Mike got on the bus, I kept an appointment in Boston made months before with a photographer who was to shoot some of my work for an upcoming studio show. Mark is a friend; his son is a friend of Renée’s. Standing in his cavernous studio overlooking Boston Harbor, I answered his sincere “How have you been?” with a resolute “Fine.” I could not reconcile the fact of where Renée was at that moment with the Renée I knew. My frequent trips to the bathroom for cold-water splashes to my burning eyes, I believe, went unnoticed. We worked together: I adjusted angles, lights; he took six shots per piece and obsessed over color. That evening Grace opened the birthday presents Renée and I had shopped for and that Renée had wrapped two days earlier. Unbelievably, we pulled it off: Grace’s friends came, we took them to Laser Quest, then out for pizza and back home for birthday cake. The party was a success.
* * *
When Bill picked Renée up from Somerville Hospital three days later, Renée walked into her bedroom, the room she’d shared with her sister for thirteen years, threw down her backpack and burst into tears. Grace and I had cleaned it, picked up the dirty clothes, vacuumed and made the beds. Renée said it looked as though a dead girl lived there.
For the next two months, Renée’s emotions were jagged and exposed. She had lost any promise of escape through drugs and was forced to face the way she felt, which was more often than not sad, depressed and angry. She started back to school the following week and began a regimen of activities devised to keep her busy and begin to take the place of her old life: yoga, tennis, walks, voice lessons.
Everyone we talked to—the substance-abuse professionals, the social workers at Somerville Hospital, people we’d known for years who came forward to offer their own stories of addiction and recovery—was unanimous in stressing the importance of support in the form of either NA (Narcotics Anonymous) or AA, so Bill and Renée became connoisseurs of meetings, eventually shunning the NA meetings (the people more hard-core, a large percentage of relapses) and finding three or four AA groups (a women’s, a youth’s) in which she felt comfortable. Even though she was finishing up her senior year in high school, her life revolved around the meetings, and she would sometimes go twice a day. She found a sponsor who began to lead her through the twelve steps, and eventually she felt comfortable enough to participate in the meetings and form some tentative friendships. She saw a therapist in town twice a week, and we kept her under close supervision. She obviously couldn’t have any contact with her “boyfriend,” the one she’d been shooting up with, and couldn’t go out with her friends, although some of them were allowed to come to the house. She was honest at this time about who was “safe” and who wasn’t, sincere in her desire to stay sober. She did all of this voluntarily, but she spent hours in her room, listening to music, writing in her journal, doing sit-ups, talking to friends on the phone, crying.
* * *
For her brother Will’s twentieth birthday Renée wrote him a poem, which was painfully honest and self-revelatory:
Will, you are always the coolest one,
that’s just who you’ve always been.
I used to figure if I could be more like you,
then maybe I’d have some friends.
You will always argue for what you believe,
and fight for the freedom that then you receive.
Whereas I’d just run off and cry in my room,
or if I got my way I’d transform it to gloom.
You are the funny one, just chillin’ but smart,
You never had the dark thing that lurked in my heart.
I wanted to be like you, not give a fuck what they say,
and still be rad like you in all of your ways.
Sometimes I still even wanna dress like you,
the way that Mike should probably do.
I thought, “to just be one of the guys” but then I said “dam!”
they suck bad as girls and it’s just because you’re the man.
You always could talk to all the hot kids,
and really just not give a shit,
Because if they were asses you could,
beat them down with your sarcasm and wit.
You eat what you want and never get fat
you’re funny but not raunchy and rude.
You’ve got good self esteem and confidence,
but no “holier than thou” attitude.
You’re the good kid, yet rebellious and free,
You’re happy and mostly good natured too.
The few cool guys I meet that don’t totally suck
usually remind me of you.
They say and I believe in most cases it’s true,
that boys mature slower than girls.
But I’m pretty sure that unlike you, when I’m twenty,
I’ll still be in my own little world.
Happy Twentieth Birthday!
ps. make up a tune for it ‘n I’ll sing it
She stood up and recited this at the family birthday party we gave for Will, and the entire room—Bill and I, her brothers and sister, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins—was pretty much reduced to tears.
The “dark thing” Renée talks about in this poem is what jumps out of the incoherent mélange of “explanations” that have presented themselves to me over the past year. Although she was never what one would have called a sad child, Renée was quiet, thoughtful and creative, making up poems and stories as soon as she learned to read. Yet some days, especially days charged with expectation—Christmas, birthdays, days that should have been filled with excitement and anticipation for her—ended in disappointment and tears. A memory: an evening when Renée was seven or eight; she was sitting on the living room floor looking at a book and I had gone into the kitchen for something. The Cocteau Twins were on the stereo—haunting, unearthly music—and she came tearing into the kitchen and threw her arms around my waist, sobbing that she didn’t want me to die. She could not provide a satisfactory explanation of what had prompted that, but it seemed to have something to do with the music. As she got older, music became essential to her—a realm to get lost in, a vehicle of discovery and escape. Her melancholy lay dormant and unchallenged on ordinary days, eased later by the natural endorphins of strenuous workouts. Yet it was because of gymnastics that Renée took her first illicit drug. Puberty had changed her body; she was no longer as light or lithe as she’d once been. One of the bigger, more developed girls, whose weight made the bars bend and groan, introduced her to an “all natural” diet pill. Renée took these pills for a while and, in conjunction with the new activity of not eating, lost some weight. Before long, losing weight became an end in itself, and the pills became a habit.
Renée had decided she wanted be a gymnast when she was eight or nine. The couple of months of tumbling classes at the Y proved to be too babyish, not serious enough for her, so we enrolled her in a local gymnastics program, where she quickly qualified to be on a team and worked her way up, one level at a time. Gymnastics was Renée’s passion and her identity for almost nine years. She was wiry and strong, mastering complicated routines on the bars and beam and choreographing her own floor routines. As she was promoted into the higher levels, she began to compete, and weekends were often taken up traveling to New Hampshire or Rhode Island for meets. She became an excellent gymnast through endless repetition and tireless practice and was brutal on herself when she failed to achieve high scores during competitions. The summer before her junior year of high school she reached level nine, one level shy of pre-Olympic competition.
Midway through her junior year, Renée quit gymnastics. The majority of even the most dedicated gymnasts give it up sometime during their high school years. It’s tough on the body, and the time required to keep up with conditioning and routines becomes too much for most girls, who are beginning to want a social life. By the time she stopped doing gymnastics, losing a significant source of self-esteem and identity, Renée was already in trouble, hanging out with kids who smoked pot and swallowed diet pills, girls for whom appearance meant everything. Her best friend at this time, a small, sharp-faced girl who tried to mask her plainness with dramatic eye makeup, carefully drawn lips, and flesh-colored Clearasil, had introduced her to pot the summer after eighth grade. Renée hadn’t even liked it. But she had been initiated, and it was no accident that Renée found Ecstasy, touted for its power to live up to its name. She went looking for it. And it was true; her depression was temporarily eradicated by Ecstasy and later heroin, only to resurface within hours, bigger—monstrous.
Later, she told me things. For instance, drugs were what defined her in her sophomore and junior years of high school. They were something she was, in her words, “good at,” something she was known for. They made her not shy and gave her an identity: she, Renée, was the one who tried everything, chasing the high. She estimates that 75 percent of the kids at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School smoked pot and half did X, at least when she was there from 1998 to 2002, but heroin was taboo. She once told me about a brief conversation she’d had with a boy at school, a boy notorious for his daily drug use, starting every morning with a joint, doing X, coke, LSD, Special K, you name it. His reaction when she told him she was shooting heroin? “What do you want to do, fuck up your life?” She laughed and then stopped talking about it.
It was her secret, what made her special. It was shocking to learn from Renée that heroin was the one drug she’d always wanted to try but for a long time couldn’t find. Heroin was considered the best, the most glamorous of all drugs. (The one thing she remembers about DARE is that after learning about the effects of the drugs, everyone wanted to try them). After everything else she’d tried—the pot that made her paranoid, the X and Special K that made her feel insane, the LSD that made her hallucinate, the coke that made her edgy, heroin didn’t make her feel weird or “fucked up” at all, just normal, and really, really good. Ann Marlowe writes about her first time: “And then came a surge of astonishing pleasure in which I could think of nothing but how oddly benign the drug felt. Surely I would know by the feel if it were evil.” Renée describes heroin addiction as “sneaky” and “nonchalant.”
By the time Jenna and Vanessa came to me that afternoon in November of 2001, something had slipped, but it was at the periphery of my vision. As with the baby you have given birth to and cared for and carried around, who is one day taller than you are, without your ever having actually witnessed one single inch of her growth, I did not see big changes in Renée. She had become thinner since quitting gymnastics, perhaps more distracted at home; she had begun to go out more with friends, to movies, out dancing, but unlike many of her friends, who had become rebellious and defiant, going out and getting drunk, getting into trouble and lying about where they were and who they were with, Renée gave every appearance of being in control. It was only later that certain details stood out, evidence of a growing recklessness in her that in retrospect seems obvious. A shoplifting episode that I’d thought was isolated; a couple of warning letters from teachers about missing assignments (this, so out of character); her desperation to get out of the house sometimes; a ridiculous incident I could hardly believe I’d witnessed, when she’d squatted in a back parking lot of Stop and Shop to pee, not caring if anyone saw. And the phone call one evening from a police officer to report that a woman in a car registered to Renée had gotten some gas and taken off without paying the eleven dollars. I was convinced that her car had been stolen until Renée came home (after going back and paying and apologizing to the girl at the pumps) and told me it had nothing to do with money, which she’d had; it was about the thrill—the risk of getting caught, the thrill of getting away with something.
That fall and winter, I drove her everywhere—to school and back every day (neither one of us trusted her to ride home with friends), to AA meetings, to yoga, to tennis, to voice lessons. She was sober for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve. In January she was admitted to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. Afterward she was put on codeine for the pain. The surgeon dismissed Renèe’s apprehension about being on a drug, just stared at her and said, “It’s not the same, because you need it.” But it was the same, and even though Renée handed the prescription over to me to dole out—two pills every four hours—she coveted those pills even after the incision had healed.
After months of sessions with a barrage of professionals and a flurry of phone calls between me, her therapist and her psychiatrist, Renée was diagnosed with depression. This shouldn’t have been surprising given that Bill had suffered from depression on and off for years, though he’d never been treated by a doctor. The psychiatrist put her on the antidepressant Celexa, and the change in her was noticeable, happening within weeks. She became interested in colleges, seeking out her guidance counselor to help her with college applications. She found a job working part time at a boutique and began saving up for a car. Everything was going well. For her eighteenth birthday, we gave her a cell phone. Slowly she was regaining our trust and her freedom.
I recall an afternoon when I picked her up from school—as soon as she got in the car she said she had a confession to make, and my heart dropped.
“It’s not what you think, Mom. But I want to be completely honest with you; it’s part of my recovery. I’ve talked to Denise [her therapist] about it, and I am on an honesty kick.”
“Okay, well, fine, go ahead,” I said reluctantly.
“Well, for one thing, I’ve started smoking.”
Okay. Compared to heroin, this was no big deal, I thought. In fact, give me one! But I reminded her that it was she who used to hide my cigarettes when she was five.
“What else?” I said.
“I got my nipples pierced.”
Um, ouch. (This in addition to a number of holes in each ear, including a recent “industrial”—two holes connected by a long metal rod and a pierced tongue, much to the disapproval of our dentist. These piercings seemed to be taking the place of the drugs.)
I just said, “Mmmm. Anything else?” I was asking, but I didn’t really want to know.
“I have a mad crush on a girl.”
Okay. I could deal with that too, especially given the teenaged boys I knew.
“I’m going to be okay.”
At the end of May she graduated from high school. We went shopping for a graduation dress, and I was shocked by the outfits she liked enough to try on: tight blouses (to show off the nipple rings?), short skirts, dangerously high heels. Her interest in clothes and fashion, makeup and hair had flourished since she’d stopped using. She was becoming increasingly outrageous in dress and behavior.
She was forever displaying her tongue stud, enjoying whatever shock value it afforded, including one particularly unsettling trick of hanging a fork from it.
That summer she bought a car with our help, symbol and vehicle of freedom—hers and ours. We no longer had to drive her everywhere, but we saw her less. She was frequently off with friends, or working, and I believed we were staying connected through our cell phones. She drove out to see Lauren at U Mass-Amherst, went to a couple of concerts—Incubus, Rusted Root. She continually reassured us that she was a “straight edge” and that drugs no longer tempted her. She had a new big crush on a blond, sweet-faced hippie girl named Amy, and she and Amy started to sleep out at Singing Beach. Gradually it became unclear whether she was reclaiming her freedom or simply spiraling back out of control. Toward the end of the summer there was a mountain climb, an outing that usually appealed to the whole family. There I suspected, and Bill knew. Renée was lethargic on the climb, blaming it on smoking, but rowdy too, uninhibited in a way that was strange. And during the four-hour drive to the edge of the Green Mountains, Will had had to take over driving her car—we’d taken two cars because we’d brought friends—because she was all over the road. Although she’d always been in great shape, she was last on the climb, complaining, always threatening to go back and wait in the car. From the summit, she practically ran down the mountain, desperate to get home and go out with her friends.
Despite being accepted to the two colleges she’d applied to, she ended up deferring enrollment. She was working full time but had recently been going in late or calling in sick. By mid-September, it was clear something was wrong. At home she was alternately distracted and unfocused, lethargic and prone to napping. One evening she fell asleep while washing the dishes; I came into the kitchen and stood in the doorway and watched her mouth go slack, her heavy lids drop and her hip slump against the sink. I asked her what was going on, confronted her about her behavior and called her therapist with my suspicions. She denied any drug use, explaining earnestly that she was just “mad tired.”
A nasty virus that had swollen her throat almost shut was severe enough to warrant a visit to the Emergency Room and kept her home for a week. One afternoon toward the end of that week, she went out for an hour in her car “to get some air.” She couldn’t hide her desperation, but I didn’t stop her. The following morning, when I knocked on her door, it was locked. She opened the door immediately, as if she’d been standing on the other side, and explained that she was just changing, but her clothes were the same as those I’d seen her in earlier. Bill had left for work, the school bus was pulling away from our driveway carrying Mike and Grace to the middle school and I was on my way out for a run, but something was nagging me. For perhaps the sixth time in the last couple of weeks, I asked, “Are you using?”
She was quiet for a long time.
“What?” I whispered.
She handed over her cell phone, her car keys. She was meek and compliant as she dropped a vial of pills, a brown canvas wallet with a zipper and two needles into the Stop and Shop bag I held open. I tied up the bag and called her therapist and pediatrician, left messages. She couldn’t be left alone, but I needed to get out of the house, so I told her to put on her sneakers. Renée and I walked the trails behind our house. We talked about what to do, and we cried and she put her arm around me and held my hand and said she wanted to be like me when she grew up, and then she told me to get rid of that bag. She was plotting and planning, trying to figure out a way to get to it and needed it gone.
At home her stash sat in the middle of the living room floor, where I’d left it. A year and a half earlier, I’d driven to a nearby town, pulled into an unfamiliar shopping plaza, emerged nonchalantly from my car and casually walked over to the trash barrel, depositing a brown paper bag containing a couple of pipes and a Ziploc baggie half-filled with pot. Had it happened a few years earlier, I probably would have smoked it myself. This was different. I locked myself in the bathroom and spilled the contents onto the floor. The wallet was stuffed with tiny plastic squares that looked like cereal or Cracker Jack prizes; there was what appeared to be a devil’s head with horns and a turned-up collar printed on each, and I remember being shocked at this evidence of mass production. Was there a heroin factory somewhere? The tiny squares looked at first like single sheets, but then I noticed that a few of the squares had been torn open, and when I held one of the intact squares up to the window, I could discern a faint line of white. The compartments of the wallet were filled with them; it took a long time to go through each little pocket, the packets were so tiny.
When I’d emptied the wallet, the pile was substantial, maybe thirty, forty squares, or bags as Renée referred to them. I threw a handful into the toilet where they floated momentarily before I flushed them away. Another handful. Another. I was trying to be careful about clogging the toilet but the third handful didn’t go down. The water rose menacingly high, the little squares floating up and down lazily, colliding gently.
I stuffed everything back into the bag and went for the plunger in the downstairs bathroom. I plunged. The paper wasn’t clogging I realized, I was just flushing too fast. There was one more handful to go. As soon as the last of it disappeared I worried about the next time our septic tank would be pumped, worried about George, the septic guy, finding the bags, which were probably not biodegradable. I tossed the wallet and the empty bottle in the wastebasket and flushed the pills and the empty bags. I didn’t know what to do with the needles.
I spent the afternoon dialing and redialing the 800 number on the back of my insurance card, listening to the insurance company’s menu over and over again, in what turned out to be a futile attempt to speak with a person. Renée’s therapist called, and we talked about thirty-day rehab programs; she gave me some names of facilities and numbers to call. I made an appointment with Renée’s pediatrician. Renée stayed on the couch all afternoon, pale and listless and silent. I picked up Grace from cross-country practice. I took Mike to the orthodontist. We ate dinner.
That evening I told Grace and Mike that Renée was having a problem with drugs again (actually, I had never fully explained to Mike, my eleven-year-old—a young eleven-year-old—exactly what had happened the year before, only that his sister was hospitalized because of depression, which was partly true). When Bill got home from work, I pulled him into our bedroom. He’d been telling me for weeks that Renée was doing something—there had been signs, we’d talked about them; but while I uneasily chose to believe the therapist’s reassurances that perhaps Renée was just “burning the candle at both ends,” working too hard during the day and staying up too late at night, Bill, cursed with what I’ve come to believe is an uncanny clairvoyance, had spent every night for a week on the couch unable to sleep. He stared at me with a weary “What-did-I-tell-you?” look.
The next morning, after examining her, the pediatrician came out to the waiting room and hugged me and then pulled me into her office and urged me to get Renée into someplace that day. She might not be safe, she said. “Do you have guns in your house?” she whispered. In a little room around the corner, Renée, hair tangled and head down, was hugging her knees and rocking on the examining table. Dr. Graves got on the phone with Renée’s therapist. After ten minutes she came back and announced their edict: take her over to the Emergency Room and go from there. At home, Renée threw an assortment of clothes and her Contac solution into a backpack, and I slipped in a book, Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott, which I had bought for her last time, and which she hadn’t read. Maybe she didn’t relate to Anne, who chronicles her own alcohol and drug abuse and journey toward a peculiar type of spiritual peace with honesty and hilarity. Maybe Anne was too old.
At Beverly Hospital’s Emergency Room, we sat in a small examining room (a different room than last time) for six hours, during which there were only two interruptions: one from a doctor and another four hours later—an interview or “assessment” by a social worker (also different), who proceeded to bustle around and whose job it seemed to be to find out which places took our insurance. I already knew which places, but she did not want to hear it from me. Renée and I watched the woman, fifty-something, dressed not in hospital scrubs but in street clothes, and odd ones at that—turquoise pedal pushers and a flowery blouse, smeared orangey lipstick, open-toed high-heeled sandals, her toenails thick and yellow and gnarly. Renée looked at the woman’s feet, looked at me, looked back at her feet, made a face. Out of nowhere came this moment of connection and conspiracy, a glimmer of my Renée.
Bill had needed to be at work, and it was a relief not to have to deal with him too, his large male presence, his hurt, a palpable depression that he couldn’t hide, that threatened to smother the optimism I needed to get through this. He had stiffened over the last few weeks, his face closing in on itself, set and rigid, protecting himself with a cold and uncompassionate demeanor. His fatalistic questions (“Do you really think rehab is going to work?” “What’s the use?”) infuriated me. Yet I knew that he was suffering, just as I knew what he was thinking: We did everything we were supposed to do. What happened?
* * *
Humberto Fernandez writes in his book, HEROIN, “Addiction is a chronic relapsing disorder. It is also a progressive disease. In the same way recovery is progressive.” That is your hope: that recovery is progressive, that the addict moves a step closer to it with each relapse. The most important question, then, is what can the addict learn from his relapses; what are the triggers? For Renèe it was a combination of things. She stopped going to as many AA meetings and then stopped going altogether. Ironic that at about the time she’d gotten her car, no longer had to depend on one of us for rides and could have gone to as many meetings as she liked, she stopped going. Perhaps she had never taken full responsibility for staying sober, depended too much on her family and sober friends to keep her in check, so that almost as soon as we relaxed our grip she started using again. She met some people, people who used, new “friends” with whom she’d started to hang out. She had suffered some disappointments over the summer: her AA sponsor, who was supposed to be supporting her, working with her on her steps, was busy, did not always get back to her; Michael, a tattoo artist she’d been seeing on and off, broke up with her; in August, Jenna and Vanessa left for Europe. Renée hadn’t been interested in going, and I took that as a good sign of her wanting to stay close to home, underestimating the support that those two provided. One night at a party, Renée met a boy who had some OCs—OxyContin, a highly addictive pain reliever—and for reasons it will probably take her years to understand, she took one. A couple of weeks later, she found herself at the apartment of one of her new “friends,” staring at a pile of the little glassine bags like those I’d flushed. There was so much of it, she said, and Juanita said go ahead, it’s free!
* * *
In Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, in a chapter devoted to a discussion of “the forces that impinge on us in childhood,” the author walks us through Eric Turkheimer’s three laws of behavior genetics, a summary of the results of many empirical studies conducted over forty years and in several countries. The laws address those things that influence and direct the development of a child: heredity, family upbringing, childhood experiences. In light of Renèe’s heroin addiction and my accompanying feelings of guilt and failure as a parent, I am attracted to if not wholly convinced by Pinker’s discussion of the third law: “A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.” If genes account for about 50 percent variation (identical-twin studies have shown that “identical twins are 50% similar whether they grow up together or apart”), and growing up in a particular family has little or no effect on intellect and personality (so far, he says, no research contradicts this second law, which is based on the outcome of three different methods of measurement), then to what can the mysterious “substantial portion” be attributed?
Pinker presents Judith Rich Harris’s theory on what he calls the “elusive Mister Jones Factor” (as in Bob Dylan’s “something is happening but we don’t know what it is . . .”). What accounts for the remainder of the variations in behavior, intelligence and personality (after genes and negligible parental influence)? According to Harris, it is the child’s peer group. While Pinker is not convinced that peer groups explain how children develop personalities, he is “convinced that children are socialized—that they acquire values and skills of the culture—in their peer groups, not their families.”
In the context of Pinker’s research, Renée’s situation may be more explainable, if not understandable. While I am not as convinced as he that parents exert so little influence over their children’s development and behavior, in the absence of any dramatic losses or neglect in a childhood—no traumatic deaths, no divorce, no abuse, not even daycare—and given an abundance of physical care—food, affection, security, stimulation (books, playgrounds, other children, art) and love—the question, “Why does a child grow into an addicted adult?” is less mystifying. The genetic piece—depression, tendency toward addiction—may be there, but so are the friends, the peers, the people with whom the child identifies, friends who dabble with drugs, friends who think drugs are cool. Renée’s identity as a drug user was solidified within her group of friends.
That day at the hospital I asked her whether she’d felt guilt or sadness or regret. Her words chilled me: she smiled the broadest smile I’d seen on her face in days, maybe weeks, a beatific smile full of orthodontically corrected, perfectly straight teeth, and said no, not really, because as soon as she shot up, the warmth that was diffused throughout her body, the absolute happiness and well-being she felt, was enough. Her thoughts ran along this line: “Oh yeah, THIS. THIS is no big deal. What was the big DEAL? This is FINE.” And when the high wore off, her only thought was, “More.”
As she described the euphoria, she interrupted herself to say that even as she was talking, experiencing the unpleasant physical symptoms of withdrawal as well as intense feelings of guilt and hopelessness, she was also fantasizing about grabbing my car keys out of my bag and driving to Lowell to score. I nonchalantly took my car keys and put them in my pocket. She smiled a brief and sad smile. She had become increasingly agitated as the wait dragged on, and by the time we could finally leave she was experiencing the sweating and freezing, knees shaking, the clammy, rough skin characteristic of heroin withdrawal. She rubbed her arms vigorously and described the feeling of insects crawling on her skin, a sensation of ice water running through her veins, itchy on the inside. There was only one distraction in the emergency room that Thursday afternoon, a patient admitted to the room across the hall, a man who had been drinking for more than a day and tried to commit suicide. He was alternately incoherent and passed out. The emergency room doctor was condescending, speaking too loudly, as if to a deaf person or a child. It was the way I’d heard some people speak to foreigners, assuming shouting would somehow make them understand. The language of the man on the gurney was one of addiction and despair—clearly not one the doctor had bothered to learn.
The social worker finally found a bed at the psychiatric facility closest to our house, where Renée would stay for the duration of her detox, during which time—four or five days—we would look for an appropriate rehab facility. At Baldpate Psychiatric Hospital, we sat in the car a moment. Renée looked stricken: when she began to cry, the accompanying splotch of red on her lower cheek near her jaw reminded me of when she was five, and I thought, How did we get here?
“Mom, I am so scared.”
“Honey, I know, but this is the right thing. The only thing.”
She nodded and blew her nose, and we hugged, and then we got out and walked to the door and rang, identifying ourselves through the intercom. The nurse who unlocked the door looked at me coldly. At eighteen, Renée was fully capable of checking herself in, but she was still my daughter, afraid and ashamed, and my instinct was to protect her. I remembered why we were here. I hugged her hard and walked back to the car, my heart torn from my body and my head about to explode. In the car, my grief was unleashed: sadness, disappointment, guilt, hopelessness, anger, love. Mostly though, there was relief; she was safe, and I was alone after two days of constant watchfulness.
* * *
At Hazelden Center for Youth and Families, I’ve talked to Mona, Pam, Sharon, Brenda, Julie, Christine and Katie, and they are all incredibly kind and helpful. Hazelden is in Minnesota—(Renée and I joke about the accent: Min-a-SOO-daa)—and is perhaps the best youth rehabilitation facility in the United States specializing in substance abuse. It’s $18,900 for twenty-eight days, but our insurance covers all but $1,000 as long as she qualifies. There is a phone interview with us and then one with Renée while she is still in detox. Renée’s biggest concern is that CD players are not allowed; she’ll be allowed to listen to whatever radio stations are out there, but cannot bring her own music. We are approved for seven days, the maximum amount of time the insurance company will allow at a time, and she will be re-evaluated at the end of each seven-day period. Katie at Hazelden is not concerned; in fact, she is excited, and confident that Renée will qualify for the whole twenty-eight days.
I make a plane reservation for the morning after she is discharged from Baldpate. She is home for one night. I fix her favorite dinner as if we are celebrating something. Maybe we are. Later she and I drive to Stop and Shop for some shampoo and cigarettes and laundry soap. At home I help her pack, and we crowd together on the couch in the blue light of the living room watching a movie.
At the airport, Renée gives me a big long hug, smiles her beautiful smile, and she is for a brief moment my girl, my Renée. I bask in my forgetfulness. The ticket taker, staring at us, remarks on how alike we look. I am taken aback, as always when someone says this, and flattered too, for Renée is beautiful: tall and willowy with dark hair and warm eyes. But we are so different—her gloom, what she calls in her poem “the dark thing that lurks in my heart,” is her bane, her cross to bear. I would trade with her in an instant, take that darkness into my own heart if it were possible. Incredible that we can bear children who grow into people we do not expect, cannot understand.
When Renée was in tenth grade, an acquaintance of hers, a ninth grade boy, committed suicide (he hanged himself it is rumored after a night of Ecstasy). When she was in eleventh grade, the older brother of one of her fellow gymnasts died in an automobile accident. His girlfriend was driving. Drunk. Almost a year ago, during the time Renée was sober, the daughter of an acquaintance died of an overdose. She’d gone to Florida in pursuit of a boy, and when he didn’t return her affection, she went back to where she was staying, took some pills and drank. At the funeral home she looked younger than eighteen with her smeared makeup and a Chinese dress she’d probably never worn in life. Her mother wailed beside the casket. I stood with her father on the porch of the funeral home while he chain-smoked.
“How are you doing, Billy?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I’m getting used to it, I think.”
None of these tragedies had the effect of derailing Renée from the course she was on. They were casualties that hit close to home yet didn’t touch her enough to change her ways. Whatever it was that drugs offered—relief from depression, escape from a sense of failure, a substitute for a relationship, an attempt to solidify or repair a fragile self-image—they also contained the possibility of narrowing her existence to a single desire. Renée crossed the line into addiction. Was the needle the line, or was it the first toke? How can we know?
We are here, and Renée is leaving. She turns to me, takes my hand and slips one of those cheap plastic beaded bracelets around my wrist. It’s greenish yellow. She is giving it to me as a memento, I guess, something to remind me of her. As if I need a reminder.
“What does it mean?” I ask, expecting her to rattle off something about energy or chakras.
“It means Renée loves you.” She turns away and blows me a kiss. She is smiling, full of a cautious hope. She walks through the gate until she is out of sight.
LYNN IS TAKING her mother to the plastic surgeon’s office in Scottsdale, driving west on McKellips, past industrial lots and fields of dry weeds. Her mother, a small, pretty woman in an owl-print blouse, folds and unfolds a handkerchief in her lap as she stares out the window. Terrence, Lynn’s roommate, sits in the backseat, leafing through a brochure on plastic surgery.
“Rhinoplasty, blepharoplasty, a little lipo,” Terrence says, catching Lynn’s eye in the rearview mirror. “In and out for only forty-five hundred bucks.”
“Don’t even think about it,” Lynn says.
“Nothing major. Just touch-ups,” he says. “I owe it to those I care for.”
Terrence is thirty-seven and slender, with a straight, long nose and the kind of dark, curling eyelashes Lynn wishes she had. He’s threequarters Hopi and teaches Native American studies at Arizona State, where Lynn is an associate professor of comparative literature. He has come along today because he had a fight with his boyfriend, Cale, last night and wants to be with people. Cale, twenty-six, a kickboxing instructor, stopped by at two in the morning, drunk and antagonistic, and after a heated argument he hit Terrence three times just below the right temple. Lynn heard it all from her bedroom. She phoned the police, but by the time they arrived Cale was long gone, and Terrence wouldn’t say anything about what had happened. Lynn stayed up with him until four in the morning, drinking Cuba Libres, watching Hedy Lamarr on the Movie Channel. By the time the sun brightened the windows, Terrence was laughing and seemed to have forgotten the fight completely.
They pass several dozen cement trucks now, all of them lined up inside a chain-link enclosure. Behind them, a team of bulldozers raises a cloud of dust.
“So what are they building out there anyway?” Terrence asks, staring out the window. “It looks like the tenth circle of Hell.”
“It’s a gravel quarry,” Lynn says. “For cement, I think. It’s been like that since I was a kid.”
“God,” he says.
She can remember a miniature golf course near here—the brightly painted windmill, and her brother, Nicky, slicing a putter through the air like a saber. She pictures her father scowling behind his aviator sunglasses.
She has been thinking about her father all morning, partly because he would not have approved of what her mother is about to do. There would have been no discussion of the matter, except for a few shouted injunctions. Lynn doesn’t miss the mans military style or his occasional violent outbursts, but she does find something lacking in her life without him—his predictability, perhaps. After finishing her dissertation at Brown, Lynn took a position at Arizona State, and since then everything in her life has gone a little out of focus. She’s abandoned a book on The Decameron, making her hopes for tenure thin at best. She can hardly remember a time when she was interested in Italian literature, or anything else, for that matter. Lately she’s even begun to drink like one of her students—tequila poppers and Jaegermeister shots—serious binges that run deep into the evenings, so that her mornings are lost to a painful, protective haze. Terrence is usually her partner in crime, though she drinks alone as well, in their house when he’s away or at a local bar among working-class men, some of whom she has gone home with for the thrill of it. It’s a way of finding the bottom, she thinks, having done it once before, in college. She fears she may have already become an alcoholic. With the fall semester only a few days away, she dreads having to get back to work. She’s not even sure she’ll be able to do it.
On the left is the Salt River Canal, streams of beige water gushing out of its floodgates. After turning north on Rural Road, they ease into Tempe, the streets flanked by car dealerships and hamburger stands. The Moose lodge sits at the back of an oyster-shell lot. Beside it is the Elks. Both have signs advertising Friday Night Bingo.
“You think there’s bad blood between the Elks and Mooes?” Terrence asks, leaning over the front seat like a child on a trip. “We should come out here some Friday night and see what goes down.”
“I used to go to the bingo at St. Mark’s,” Lynn’s mother says, “back when Larry and I first came to Phoenix.”
“You know, Jeanette,” Terrence says, “when your bandages come off we’re having the biggest coming-out party of all time. Black-tie affair at the downtown Hilton. Twenty-piece band.”
Jeanette smiles uneasily. She never knows when Terrence is teasing her.
“I’m getting Engelbert Humperdinck to come out of a cake and sing ‘You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby’.”
Jeanette laughs in a relieved, girlish way.
They pass a storage facility called U-Store-It-Here, then a furniture warehouse with an enormous inflated gorilla on its roof. The ape’s
outstretched arms joggle in a breeze. Beside a sporting goods store, two teenagers make out on a strip of grass, the boy on top, the girl holding his ass in both her hands.
“Ye gads,” says Terrence, watching them slip away. “Vive l’amour.”
The nurse at the plastic surgeon’s office has what Terrence calls “the Personality.” At least half the white women in Arizona seem to have the Personality, he says. It is an amalgamation of mannerisms taken from daytime talk show hosts—stand-up comedy shtick, Black sass, Southern coquettishness. Terrence and Lynn have flipped through the channels during the day, tracing its origins.
“Listen, girl,” the nurse says, wrapping a plastic ID bracelet around Jeanette’s wrist, “this is so we don’t lose you, capice?” She glances up at Terrence and Lynn, her eyes filled with a kind of willful attitude. Her skin has the puffy smoothness of too many laser peels. “I see you brought your gang along,” she says.
“That’s my daughter, Lynn,” Jeanette says, “and her roommate, Terrence.”
“Think she’s ready to get beautiful?” the nurse asks them.
“She’s already beautiful,” Terrence says.
“Oh, I don’t mean that,” the nurse says, and for a moment the Personality seems to vanish into the cool air of the waiting room. She focuses on the bracelet, avoiding Terrence’s gaze. “I just meant is she ready for Dr. Giles to enhance her natural beauty?” The phrase brings the glint to her eye, and she stands up straight and cocks a hand on her hip. “I mean, happiness may be a woman’s best cosmetic, but a little nip and tuck can’t hurt, can it?”
“She had it bad,” Terrence says as they walk across the parking lot. An orange steam-cleaning truck makes its way between the rows of cars and SUVs, the operator a tired-looking teenaged boy with livid acne. As they pass a wet strip where the truck has been, the ground smells sharp and dusty. A lightheaded feeling comes over Lynn, so that for a moment her vision brightens and blurs.
“Your mother reminded me of a baby bird just now,” Terrence says, moving beside her in his loping stride. “When I was a kid I found a little swallow behind our trailer and tried to nurse it back to health.”
“Should I have tried to talk her out of it?” Lynn glances back at the small white hospital, where three of her mother’s friends have had procedures already. All of them have emerged looking younger and well rested, a little unsettled by the attention they attract. Lately, Lynn feels almost jealous of her mother, a pretty, cheerful woman who, in a few weeks, will be even prettier. Lynn can’t imagine what she’ll look like when she’s sixty-two, especially if she keeps living the life she’s been living. When she looks in the mirror, her features are vague and slightly unfamiliar, as if she’s becoming another person altogether.
“So what happened to your little bird?” she asks Terrence.
“Don’t ask,” he says. “Birdie heaven. She’ll be gorgeous, though, Lynn, I mean it. This isn’t anything a thousand women don’t go through every day.”
They have somehow arrived at Lynn’s car. She opens the door and lets the heat flood over her bare legs.
“Where to?” she asks.
Her mother will be in surgery for nearly four hours; after another two for recovery, she’ll go to Lynn and Terrence’s place in Tempe to recuperate for a few days.
“We could get a paper and check the movie listings,” she says. “Or we could try to find a bookstore. Or we could just pop into the bar for a while.”
“I love how casually you mention the bar,” Terrence says, smiling, his eyebrows raised. “As if we might go someplace else.”
The bar is Pachinko’s Tonga Room on University, a tiny clapboard place painted blue and green. Inside, a simulated-rock waterfall cools the air, and Lynn’s eyes adjust to the dim light as she and Terrence find their places at the bar. The walls are festooned with fishing nets and captain’s wheels. The scent of stale beer fills the air. Each time Lynn walks through the door, the sound of burbling water is like a promise of sedation, and she feels elated almost immediately. Today she feels so good she almost orders a Diet Coke instead of her usual Cosmopolitan. But at the last minute she changes her order, then drinks the Cosmo quickly. Terrence orders a Chivas on the rocks, his usual. He lowers his head to the straw and doesn’t look up until he’s making slurping noises at the bottom of the glass. Lynn laughs, as she is meant to do. They order another round. The familiar slide goes through Lynn’s body, a feeling she’s come to anticipate these days. The place is empty except for the owner, a thin man in a Polynesian shirt who leans over the comics at the end of the bar. His teeth, when he smiles at the paper, are as crooked and yellow as roots.
“I have the capacity for human kindness,” Terrence says, swaying on his stool like a drunk in a TV movie. “I’ve got this capacity, don’t you see? Don’t you see?” He pounds the bar, trying to make Lynn laugh, trying to make her forget about Cale, whom she asked about in the car.
“You’ve got a capacity for human stupidity,” she tells him.
He sips his drink and makes a sour face, ignoring her. “This tastes awful,” he says. “Did you see him pour the Chivas?”
“He had the bottle. Who knows what was in it?” She fishes the maraschino cherry out of her glass and bites into it. “I’ll stop bugging you,” she says. “I know it’s none of my business.” She also knows that if she doesn’t stop he’ll bring up the men she’s gone home with lately.
“Okay, but I’m through with him,” Terrence says, looking at her with the earnest face of a presidential candidate. He finishes his drink and signals to the owner, who comes over and pours another round.
“I’ve got to call Stanley tomorrow,” Lynn says. “He’s left messages every day since Thursday.”
“You ought to tape-record that son of a bitch,” he says. “Take his ass to arbitration.”
“Believe me, I’ve thought about it,” she says. “He’s so quid pro quo it’s not even funny.”
Stanley Danillo is the Livingston-Daley Chair in the Comparative Literature Department. This summer he’s made several unsolicited advances toward Lynn, most of which fall within the definition of sexual harassment as outlined in the department handbook, A Few Serious Words. Lynn has actually considered doing what Terrence halfjokingly suggests—nailing Stanley’s ass to the wall. His unwanted advances might be a way of advancing her own career, which has no hope of advancing on its own.
She’s seen it happen: a suit is brought, and suddenly some ostensibly offended party has tenure. Of course, she could never jeopardize anyone else’s career simply to further her own. And anyway, she feels sorry for Stanley, a fifty-year-old arresteddevelopment case who went through a messy divorce last winter. Lynn actually kind of liked him before he started pushing his flirtations too far.
“Filing a suit could be my only chance of getting tenure,” she says, testing the notion on Terrence.
“That’s bullshit,” he says. “You’ll get tenure with or without that tub of lard.”
“I wont, Terrence.”
“You will,” he says, but he has to glance at the dusty blowfish that hangs behind the bar. The fish is the color of parchment and riddled with holes, as if someone has shot it with a BB gun.
“I should never date bisexuals,” Terrence says, abandoning her hopeless situation for his own. “That’s my problem.”
Light shoots through the room as three men come through the back door. For a moment they appear as silhouettes against the brilliant day; then the door closes and they move around the dim back of the room, talking in aggressive voices. Lynn hears the musical sound of pool cues sliding from the rack. A country-western song comes on the jukebox. Terrence hunches over his drink. His entire presence changes when straight men are around.
Lynn hears footsteps and glances in the mirror behind the bar. A tall man is coming toward her, dressed in jeans and a nearly white denim shirt. He leans on the counter and orders a pitcher of Schaeffer, the scent of cement and spicy aftershave coming from him. He catches Lynn’s eye before going back to a table.
“He likes you,” Terrence says.
“He’s unintentionally retro,” she says. “He’s got sideburns like Peter Fonda in Easy Rider.”
“Good or bad?”
“Bad,” she says, though she found the man attractive in a shabby way. When he caught her eye, she felt something shift within her. It’s another feeling she’s come to expect in her life: a subtle dilation, the physical manifestation of possibility. “They look like they work for the state,” she says.
“I forgot you were so particular.” He raises an eyebrow.
“Fuck off, Terrence.”
Terrence grins, looking at the men in the mirror, watching them prowl around the pool table. Then his grin fades and he says, “Why do you think they don’t respect me? Am I not wearing a shirt that shows off the vein in my bicep?” He flexes his arm to show Lynn his vein. “You know, I worked very hard to get this thing.”
“What makes you think they don’t respect you?” she asks.
“That guy checks you out like I’m not even here,” he says.
“You ought to learn tae kwon do,” she says. “That way you could give him a quick roundhouse kick to the temple. And you could crack Cale’s skull next time he tries to pull anything.”
“I make Cale feel stupid,” Terrence says and sips his drink thoughtfully. “That’s why it happens. I goad him on.”
“It can’t be hard to make Cale feel stupid.”
“To be honest, I like it when he’s mad,” Terrence says, smiling at the corners of his mouth. “Within reason, of course. It makes life more exciting.”
“That’s too ridiculous to even acknowledge.”
“And you can’t even begin to understand it, I suppose.” “That’s the problem,” she says. “I do understand.”
In the back of the room, a man knocks a ball off the table and the other men laugh. Lynn turns and looks. The one with sideburns winks at her. “My father used to say, ‘Never turn down a fuck,”‘ Terrence says and gives a hard, dry laugh. “Can you imagine him saying that to me? He was talking about women, of course.”
“I had a horny family,” Terrence says. “My sisters were always wandering off with any kind of reservation trash, getting pregnant, getting VD. My brothers made notches on their beds each time they fucked a girl, like World War II pilots.”
“The opposite of my family,” she says.
“Oh, I can picture your family,” he says, raising his chin, closing his eyes like a clairvoyant. “A dark figure sits at the head of the table. You and your mother are like two beautiful candles, waiting to be extinguished.”
“That’s close,” she says. “You’re forgetting my brother.” Terrence opens his eyes. “Sorry, kid,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking.” “That’s all right.”
Lynn’s little brother, Nicky, ran away when he was seventeen. She’s heard from him only one time since then—a postcard sent from San Francisco that said, “I’m fine. Tell him I’m starving.”
“I was thinking about Nicky this morning,” she says. “He doesn’t even know Dad died yet, I don’t think.”
“He should,” Terrence says. “It would make a difference in his life. It made a difference in mine.”
In the mirror, the man with sideburns comes toward the bar, an empty pitcher in hand. Lynn tries hard not to glance at him but finally does. His eyes are on her.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Rita Moreno,” she says, keeping her own eyes on the dusty bottles behind the bar.
“I’m Lyle,” he says.
“This is my husband, Chet,” she says, and lays a hand on Terrence’s shoulder.
Terrence flashes her a look of panic before nodding at the man.
“You two’re married?” the man asks. He laughs as if it’s a joke he’s still trying to figure out.
“Three years in June,” she tells him.
The man’s smile becomes mean: he doesn’t believe her. He holds her gaze for a long moment, then says,”I come here Thursdays,” and walks back to his friends.
One of the men in the back says, “Find something you like, Lyle?” and they all laugh.
Terrence shoots Lynn a mortified look, his shoulders hunched. “What an ass,” he whispers. “You’re wonderful, though. ‘Rita Moreno.’ God, I wish I was you.”
It’s the landscape that makes you want things, she thinks. They’re driving north on University, past fenced-in wrecking yards and rows of rental equipment outlets. Camelback Mountain stands jagged and red against the endless sky. The lightheaded feeling comes over Lynn again, so that she has to grip the wheel and concentrate hard on the road. It’s a feeling almost like hyperventilation, as if she’s breathed in too much of the bright blue sky.
She’s thinking of the man at the bar, remembering the way his muscles rippled as he lifted his pitcher of beer. She’d like to go back and drink Long Island Iced Teas with him until the day gained the weight of inevitability. She’s done it before. In one month she has gone home with four different men, all of them more like the sideburned man than anyone she ever dated in college. She finds it thrilling in a way, because it’s so unlike her, like smoking in the girls’ room in junior high—catching a glimpse of her older, more daring self in the mirror, a cigarette in her mouth.
She likes the way the men’s eyes shift from arrogance to fear as she flirts with them; they’re not used to educated women, and this gives her the ability to surprise them. In their homes, she takes in their mismatched furniture, their tangled bed sheets, feeling a little like an anthropologist. She often experiences a yearning tenderness for the men but keeps it inside at all times. She has been frightened more than once, but so far nothing awful has happened, aside from the time when a broad-shouldered mechanic pushed her face into a pillow. He let go as soon as she screamed, and was embarrassed and a little petulant. “No offense,” he said, “but I thought you’d like it like that.” She carries a can of mace in her purse and thinks of it from time to time, when a man is rolling over her in bed, when all his weight is suddenly upon her.
They stop by the university to pick up schedules for the fall semester, then, with time on their hands, go home to prepare the guest room for Lynn’s mother.
For the past year they have rented a single-story ranch-style house at the end of a cul-de-sac. On the roof is a faded plastic Santa Claus, discovered by Terrence at a yard sale several weeks ago. Already four neighbors have complained about it, but Terrence keeps forgetting to take it down. He looks at it with guilty eyes each time they come home.
In the living room the blinds are drawn. Lynn goes to the extra room and makes up the little bed for her mother. Terrence is on the sofa when she comes out, holding a beer in each hand. On the glass coffee table is a sand painting he did four nights ago, a depiction of the Navajo creation myth. Three elongated stick figures stand in a circle: First Man, First Woman, and Coyote, the trickster/creator. Coyote has just stolen a child of the monster Tieholtsodi, a mistake that will keep First Man and First Woman on the run for many years, moving up from one spoiled world to the next, hoping to find a home. Terrence started sand painting six months ago, and his paintings are already as clean and accomplished as the ones Lynn has seen at the State Museum of Navajo Culture.
She leans over the painting, breathing in its earthy scent. She loves its burnt siennas, its antelope browns. “It’s your best one yet,” she says.
Terrence gives it a disapproving look, his lips pressed into a line. She is always surprised by his serious side, especially when it comes to his Native American heritage. He rarely talks about it. She’ll read an article he’s written on U.S.-tribal relations and be amazed by the depth of emotion he brings to the material. He has received a governor’s grant for his photo essay, Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona, a collection of black-and-white photographs chronicling the confrontation between Sonoran desert and suburban landscape. Lately he has become disenchanted with teaching, partly because enrollment in his courses has dropped, partly because of the increasingly hermetic nature of the Native American Studies Department. After six years, he’s tired of seeing the brightest Indian students focus only on Native American issues. He’d like them to be leaders of the community, of the world, not just of the NA department, where his colleagues are mostly small minded and distrustful of outsiders. His feelings are considered scandalous—even by some of his students. Last year he told a class of graduate students that he had no Indian blood at all, and a few of them glared at him all semester. “They wanted to scalp me,” he told Lynn. “It was too stupid. I used to be proud of what I do.”
Lynn sips her beer and leafs through a stack of mail from the department—offers for free textbooks, class lists for the three sections she’ll teach next quarter. At the bottom of the pile is a note from Stanley Danillo, handwritten on department letterhead. “Lynn,” it reads. “You ought to come up to the house on Friday and have a sturgeon steak. I caught three big beauties off the Florida Keys, and they’re dying to get barbequed! Also, an exciting little bottle of Sancerre! And, for breakfast, fresh blueberries! We can talk about your work if you like. Best, Stanley.”
She almost gives the note to Terrence, so that the two of them can groan about it, but in the end she doesn’t. Is she actually thinking of going to Stanley’s? Or does she see the note as what it might become: documentation in a harassment suit? Could she actually do that to the man? She’s been to Stanley’s for department gatherings and, gazing at the high-ceilinged rooms and the original art on the walls, has thought how wrong it is that he should have so much while she has so little.
These thoughts have always vanished once she’s out the door, but they’re back now, in her own shabby living room.
It is late afternoon when they pull into the hospital parking lot. Lynn and Terrence take the elevator to the third floor and wait a few minutes before Jeanette is brought out in a wheelchair, tiny and bandaged, her small face encircled by gauze. Her skin, from forehead to chin, is as pink and shiny as a blister. Dots of blood show at the corners of her mouth. She has the slow, heavy-lidded gaze of a newborn child.
“Mom?” Lynn says.
Jeanette glances around as if searching for some lost object.
“She’s blotto,” the nurse says, smiling at Lynn. “She’ll probably zonk right out on the way home.”
“Why is she bleeding?” Lynn asks.
“It’s pretty standard. It means Dr. Giles went deep with the laser, which is good, actually. She got a lot of bang for her buck.”
Lynn’s mother looks up with a concerned expression on her face. “. . . tight,” she says and touches the bandage where it cuts into her jaw.
“Don’t touch, Jeanette,” the nurse says.
“Cant they loosen the bandage?” Lynn asks.
“I’m afraid they cant,” the nurse says. “It has to be tight to protect the stitches.”
Lynn’s mother says something else, glancing at Lynn with a timid, hopeful smile on her face.
“What, Mom?” Lynn says. “How do I look?” she asks.
“Poor thing,” Terrence says, as they ride east on Apache Road. He’s watching Lynn’s mother sleep in the back seat, her head rocking against the window. “She’ll be our little child,” he says. “We’ll raise her up the best we know how.”
Lynn turns on Alhambra, passes the high school and the local library. On their own street she slows for three boys on skateboards, all of them shirtless, horrendous tattoos banding their arms. Terrence frowns at the Santa Claus as she bumps into their driveway. Lynn’s mother sits up in the back and brings a hand to her cheek.
“No, no, Ma. You can’t touch it, okay?” Lynn gets out and helps her mother out of the back. It makes her think of trips they made to the drive-in when she was a child—falling asleep, then waking as her father carried her to the house.
Inside, Terrence goes to the extra bedroom to turn down the covers on the little twin bed. Lynn leads her mother across the living room, matching her tiny, child-like steps. Halfway there, Jeanette veers toward Terrence’s sand painting, having seen it for the first time. Her eyes go wide, and she says, “Oh, beautiful, Lynn, look.” She leans over the table. “I’ve got to get back to my paintings,” she says and glances at Lynn. “Do you remember my paintings?”
“Of course, Ma,” Lynn says. “They were great.”
Lynn’s mother painted for a few years after Lynn’s father died—landscapes and still-lifes of fruits and vegetables. Lynn was surprised by how talented she was.
Her mother beams, apparently imagining herself at the easel; then she allows Lynn to guide her to the guest room. Her button-down blouse is easy to remove. She’s brought a loose cotton nightgown and slippers. Naked, her body is as small and delicate as a girl’s. In the bed she lies still while Lynn places pillows on both sides of her to keep her from rolling over in the night.
“You all right?” Lynn asks.
“Snug as a bug in a rug,” she says, eyes wide, face shiny and red.
“It’s peaceful having her here,” Terrence says. He is lying beside Lynn on the living room floor, a half-full brandy snifter resting on his sternum. “Don’t you feel as if your life has meaning now?”
“Suddenly, yes,” she says. “It’s what I’ve been waiting for all these years.”
She feels as if her mother is still in danger, though of course there’s no reason to think so. The surgery was elective, routine; her recovery is a matter of course. Perhaps it is the betrayal of Lynn’s father that worries Lynn. In his life, he made them all fear betraying him. Lynn wonders if her mother’s surgery is a sign of her liberation, and hopes it is. She wonders when her own liberation will take place.
“Do you know what I want to do tonight?” Terrence asks. “Do you know what I would really love to do?”
“Anything but finish this brandy and pass out on the floor.”
“I like your attitude,” she says. “Aim high.”
“We’re living on borrowed time,” he says, and the humor drains from his face. He sets his snifter on the floor. “For some,reason, today just seemed like the end of the summer.”
“I dread teaching again,” she says.
“I’m not getting back together with Cale,” he says. “Earlier, when I said I wouldn’t, I thought I would. I was lying. But I can’t. I haven’t got the strength anymore.” He smiles in a way that makes her think he’ll cry, but instead he scoots across the floor, the melon scent of his styling gel filling the air. He gives Lynn a quick peck on the cheek, then he keeps pecking her until she laughs. “You don’t mind, do you?”
“I don’t mind at all,” she says, though in a moment a pounding comes to her chest. “Have you ever kissed a girl before?”
“Oh, sure,” he says. “I’ve kissed lots of them. I had four girlfriends in high school.”
“When did you know you were gay?”
“Long before that. I was hoping I wasn’t, of course.”
“So what were they like? Your girlfriends?”
“Not as smart as you. Not as sexy.” He looks at her in a plainly appreciative way. “Not as blessed with your certain je ne sais quoi.”
“You’re too kind.”
“Do you know I’ve wanted to kiss you ever since today at Pachinko’s?”
“Shut up,” she says.
“I’m serious.” He gives her a devilish look.
“You’re drunk,” she says.
“It was that jerk at the bar, I think. The way he wanted you so badly. The way you handled yourself. I think I fell a little in love with you at Pachinko’s.”
“I’m kissing you for real, okay?” He sits up, pretending to reel backward as he did at the bar. But he scoots over and, holding her face in his hands, kisses her on the mouth, his lips parted. Lynn’s veins flood with adrenaline. Little by little the feeling becomes comfortable, like wading into deep water that eventually goes warm. She touches the back of his neck.
“I’d love to make love to you,” he whispers.
“That’s crazy,” she says, and feels half crazy herself.
“I want to, though. I keep thinking about being in bed with you after we’ve done it, basking in the afterglow.” He rolls off her and lets out a sigh. “God, I am crazy,” he says. “I’m sorry, Lynn. I’m sorry if I’m being unusual.”
“You’re definitely being that,” she says. She props herself up on an elbow. “I’m flattered, though.” She takes a sip of brandy and holds it in her mouth until it burns. “Would you even enjoy it?”
“I’m pretty sure I would,” he says, grinning.
“Now we’re both going crazy,” she says.
“Why? Are you thinking about it too?” His face lights up.
She doesn’t answer. She’s trying to remember what panties she’s wearing. She wonders if there are condoms in her purse. She’s sure that if she just remains silent they’ll both start laughing, but then the moment for laughing seems to come and go.
“We’ll go to my room,” she says. “I don’t want my mom to hear us.”
“We’ll be quiet as little church mice,” he says, rising to his knees.
In the light from the kitchen, he looks like a man about to jump from a high cliff into shallow water. She takes his hand and leads him down the hall. They kiss against the door jamb. They are just stepping into the bedroom when a knock comes at the front door—a startling sound, five raps in a row. Terrence goes as still as a heron.
“We don’t have to answer it,” she says.
“You’re right,” he says, relieved.
But Cale has his own key, and Lynn hears it jingle before it slides into the lock. She and Terrence rush into the living room and pick up their snifters. They are in comically nonchalant positions when Cale comes in, like guests at a cocktail party that has suddenly vanished.
“What’s going on?” Cale asks, glancing from Lynn to Terrence. “You guys wasted again?”
“No, but you probably are,” Terrence says. He walks casually to the couch, sits and opens a magazine.
“Yeah, right,” Cale says. A small, muscular man with narrow eyes and short, bleached hair, he scans the room. He goes into the kitchen, and Lynn hears the fridge door open and close. When he comes out he has a bottle of beer in his hand.
“This is the first drink I’ve had all day,” he says, a little sadly, as if he expects them to feel sorry for him. “I taught lessons since eight this morning.”
“No one said you could come in here,” Terrence says, flipping a magazine page.
“No one asked,” Cale says. “Hey, let’s go out. I want to talk to you.”
“I don’t want to talk to you.”
Cale sighs, glancing at Lynn. “Don’t you have someplace to be, honey? I know how much you love to eavesdrop, but we could use a minute here.”
“Fuck off,” she says, and goes into the kitchen. She rinses her snifter and pours a glass of water. Through the window, she sees two girls across the street, both of them smoking cigarettes. One has bright green hair. The other wears a T-shirt that says DEAD AS ANYTHING. Lynn hears Cale in the living room, his voice sharp and full of harm. It reminds her of her father’s voice in the days before Nicky left.
“Don’t tell me I don’t feel bad,” Cale is saying. “How do you know what I feel?”
“I don’t care how you feel,” Terrence says. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”
“Don’t be like that.” The floorboards groan as Cale crosses the room. “And put down that fucking magazine!”
Lynn walks out as Cale is leaning over the couch, yanking the magazine out of Terrence’s hands. He turns and sees her, and his face breaks into a grin.
“Did you see that, Lynnie? I wrinkled this magazine. You gonna call the cops now?”
“I’ll call them,” Terrence says, standing from the couch. He reaches for the phone, but Cale shoves him hard in the back, knocking him into the coffee table. The sand painting is shaken into a blur of brown. Terrence stares down at it.
“It’s not my fault,” Cale says. “You bumped it.”
Terrence tries to pick up the phone again, but this time Cale slaps it so hard it flies out of his hands and smacks the wall. Cale assumes a martial-arts pose, legs spread, arms held away from his body.
“You asshole,” Terrence says, glaring at him.
Lynn rushes into her bedroom. She picks up her own phone and begins to dial 911. Then she sees her purse on the bed and thinks of the can of Mace at the bottom. She hangs up, reaches into her purse and feels the can, heavy and cool. She takes it out and walks into the living room.
“Get out of here,” she says, pointing the can at Cale.
Cale huffs a laugh, glancing around as if everyone might laugh with him. His earring flashes in the light from the kitchen. “What are you going to do, Lynnie? Mace me?”
“I will,” she says, “if you don’t leave right now.”
He takes a step toward her, and she squeezes the nozzle. It’s almost too easy: a quick squeeze and Cale is buckling to his knees, his palms flying to his face. “Shit, shit!” he says, pressing his shoulder against the floor. He writhes, boots knocking the bookcase, books and knickknacks tumbling from the shelves, breaking on the floor. “You fucking bitch!” he screams.
Terrence comes over and looks at him. “It can’t hurt that bad,” he says. “She barely got you.”
“Why did you fucking do that?” Cale shouts.
Lynn is a little surprised herself that she did it. She feels a surge of pity for Cale as he wriggles around, cheeks slick with mucus, face red as a cooked crab. He coughs and sniffs and says, quietly, almost to himself, “This is such bullshit.”
Terrence looks at Lynn. She sees disgust in his eyes and hopes it’s intended for Cale, not her. She feels as if her actions deserve it.
“I’ll take him out to the hose,” he says, lifting Cale up by the collar. Cale rises to all fours and lets Terrence lead him out the door like a dog.
Lynn follows them onto the lawn. The night is warm; the stree sparkles like mica in the moonlight. Terrence turns on the water spigo and drags the hose over the lawn. “Don’t expect me to feel sorry foi you,” he says.
Cale brings the water to his face, letting it run down his chest and darken his T-shirt. He holds the end of the hose to one eye, then the other, then catches his breath. “She’s crazy,” he says. “I didn’t even do anything.”
“You’re the one who’s crazy,” Terrence says, glancing at Lynn, shaking his head.
“Why? What did I do?” Cale whines, a child wrongly scolded. “Why are you being like this?”
Lynn goes back into the house. She knows there’s nothing she can do now. If he is able to, Cale will convince Terrence to go out for a drink, then persuade him to make up. If Terrence refuses, Cale may become violent again. Lynn can only hope Terrence has the strength to keep the promise he made to her. She doesn’t know if she’d be able to, under similar circumstances.
Inside, Lynn’s mother is standing in the living room, her yellow nightgown aglow in the light from the kitchen.
“I heard a noise,” she says. “For a minute I thought it was your father.”
“Oh, Mom,” Lynn says. She hugs Jeanette and leads her down the hall. “It was just a friend of Terrence’s. It’s over now.”
In the guest room, tiny glow-in-the-dark stars illuminate the ceiling. Lynn’s mother climbs into bed and, seeing the stars, says, “Oh, look at that, Lynn. Stars.” She smiles at Lynn, and then her smile fades and she says, “In my dream Nicky was fighting with your father. Do you ever dream about Nicky?”
“Of course,” Lynn says. “All the time.”
“I do, too.” Her voice is low and distant, as if she’s gone back to the dream. “Usually, in my dreams, he comes home and everything’s all right. Not in this one, though.”
“Things are going to be fine now,” Lynn says, and as the words come out she can almost believe they’re true.
Terrence is sitting on the couch when she comes back to the living room. The front door is shut. Cale is nowhere in sight. Terrence’s expression is that of a young fireman who’s come out of a burning building. He has picked up the pieces of a kachina doll and set them on the coffee table. There is a red body, a thick yellow arm, a large, blue, pill-shaped head.
“I hope it can be fixed,” she says, taking the body into her hands.
“Me too,” he says. “That’s Ongchoma. He’s one of my favorites. They “That’s good,” he says. “I don’t think I have the blue balls, either.
call him the compassionate kachina.” You know what we ought to do, though?”
“I don’t know anything about him.”
“When we were kids, we had a thing called the Powamuya Ceremony,” he says. “There’s a part in it where the kids get whipped with yucca fronds, which is supposed to say something about the roughness of life. It hurts like hell. Anyway, we were supposed to imagine Ongchoma touching us with mano, this salve stuff, and making us feel better.”
“Did it work?”
“Not really.” He grins. “But it was nice to be able to think of him, someone trying to help. I still think of him sometimes. He’s a good guy, with his big old head.”
She lays the body on the table. “I wish I hadn’t sprayed Cale. It was overboard.”
“Don’t be stupid,” he says. “I only wish I’d done it.”
She is surprised by how much she has come to rely on him these last few months, without ever really noticing. She wants to tell him about Stanley now, to take the note out of her purse and let him read it, to see his reaction when she tells him what she planned to do with it. They have been through enough drama for one day, though, she thinks. Maybe she will tell him in the morning.
“How’s Cale?” she asks.
“A little snotty, but he’ll clean up all right.”
“I’m sorry about your painting,” she says, leaning over it. She can just make out the forms of First Man and First Woman, like ghostly figures coming through a dust storm.
“They’re not supposed to last,” he says. “You offer them as a kind of prayer, then mess them up. I did this one for you, actually.”
“Why?” she asks.
“Because I like you.”
“Even though I’m a drunken bitch?”
“Especially because you’re a drunken bitch.” He smiles and raises his eyebrows. “I don’t suppose we’ll make love now, huh? Weren’t we about to hop in the sack or something?”
They both laugh.
“You don’t have ants in your pants, do you?” he asks. “That’s what my sisters used to call it. When they got turned on and couldn’t—you know. For guys, of course, it was the blue balls.” He makes a grave face.
“No ants in my pants,” she says.
“That’s good,” he says. “I don’t think I have the blue balls, either. You know what we ought to do, though?”
“We ought to pretend we’ve made love already. We could just go to bed and lie there in the afterglow.”
“Sounds like a nice idea,” she says.
She is happy to take his hand and follow im down the hallway, which is cool and smells of his mother’s bandages. Lynn’s room is dark, and the steady whir of the air conditioner comes through the wall. Somewhere in the neighborhood a dog barks three times in a row. Lynn pulls down the covers and slides into the bed, feeling the cool sheets against her legs. Terrence slides in beside her. His weight makes the bedsprings sing.
“So now we’re here in the afterglow,” he says, and she can hear in his voice that he’s smiling. He takes her hand under the sheet.
“That’s right,” she says. “And we’ve got our little child in a room just down the hall, and we have to take very good care of her.”
“And I’m a construction worker,” he says in a low, oaky voice. “I have to get up butt-ass early in the morning and build houses. I have to work hard to support our family.”
“We have fun, though,” she says. “We’ve got a nice pop-up camper that we take to Sedona on the weekends.”
“And you have the Personality,” Terrence laughs.
“And you have a big gut just like Stanley Danillo.”
“And our life,” he says, “is simple and good.”
Poor Boy's Game for Muhammad Ali
1. Ali and Frazier, 1975
From this moment on remember
that everything they do, no matter
what, is beautiful. Make no mistake.
When Ali leans in with his left
he cares so much about how
it feels, cares more even than
big Joe Frazier, who only cares
that it’s happening, whose concerns
are slowly turning internal. There
is the audience screaming. So many faces.
The third man in the ring, holding up fingers.
Looking, looking, looking, looking.
There is the tin taste of blood
and how Frazier’s hearing fades like when
he was a boy in a tub of water, leaning
his head back into the cavernous echoes.
He is alone inside his body,
like one who enters a glistening
ballroom from a long narrow hallway
and loses a breath because the world has
suddenly become so much more grand,
realizes that he is part of something
which hardly concerns him at all.
Moments ago Ali was in his dressing room,
talking himself into the ring,
a white hot cloth across his eyes. Now
he is listening to muscles and blood.
To what muscles and blood could want
with another body. Coming to terms
so quickly with what will give way,
and what will not. Ali is talking to him
now, so close, he is asking
Do you want more?
Did you believe it would be any different?
Are you going to give me everything?
2. Ali Among Children
When the dancing could become dangerous,
but doesn’t , not yet. They will run out onto
dirt roads in shoes or without shoes. They will
come early in the morning or at the start of evening.
They will come out into fields at any time,
to meet him, to see, just to stand back
for a moment without breathing and look.
What matters here is that he is among them,
turning, switching from foot to foot in quick
ghostly anticipation of the invisible fighters.
The men who have heard enough, and are coming.
The children are happy, are frightened, and some
are shaking through their skin in this country’s
low sinking heat. He is moving in time
to the calls of his trainer. The oldest among
the children have become brave for a while
and begin to box careless jabs into the arms
and chins of their friends. If anything is being
taught here it’s in the dance that isn’t a dance
but the true beautiful body pressed against another
in hope and precision, in a slow blue fury.
Their small feet stamping the ground, jumping,
their voices rising behind him in a prayer of dust:
Ali, Ali, Ali, Ali.
3. Muhammad Ali, Sacred, 1985
His eyes stayed.
His legs dancing back, slipped from him
and an arm thrown, where before
you couldn’t see it, slowed into stillness.
One man learning to live inside of another.
Where nothing can be defeated.
4. Muhammad Ali Underwater
He is standing
at the bottom of a pool
surrounded at last by rest,
by the soft moments water affords.
A body gathered around a body.
Everything barely moving–
The laces in his shoes.
The hairs on his arms and legs
quietly sway under the breaking light above.
on the deck is low
and more motion than meaning.
He cannot really tell who
they belong to, but somewhere he knows
each of them.
surrounded by a furious grace
that doesn’t shimmer so much as it shadows
he has found himself inside
the soft moment under
in a room away
from the slow world
and has begun to open his fists.
The unbelievable fact
that we could see
all of his left hook, his right jab
ease in time from his chest and eyes,
push and split
water easy as skin breaking, opening
into the thing that lets it live.
The entire history of the dangerous shuffling of feet.
The fist from nowhere
made visible. In a still swiftness
he has turned, that smile, all fleet,
in no simple dance: a sure step,
a double stop of calm and lightning
verified in the swing.
His eyes wide, even now
he is looking and not looking.
The water somehow making room for it all.
Because he is underwater
does not mean he has let loose
some private fish. That he is
something he is not.
The dapple from the day
moves when he moves, as in any room
but here there is the breaking
wet weight on his back.
It will bead and drip. Breathless
it will fall from him in sunlight.
Because he is underwater.
Because he is underwater
does not mean he is waiting
for old swallows asleep in mud to carry him off
in spring. The only legends that can save him
are his lungs,
his skin stretching between fingers and toes.
All effort becomes effortless,
The second nature of rising.
He will let himself up opponentless and easy
back into cold light, blue, and clear blue.
Oxygen finding its way back into teeth.
Everything becomes clearer.
He will say It couldn’t take me
it tried, but the water couldn’t
Behind soft folds of good cotton
shadows are drying,
the inner ear is returning.
In broad daylight:
The sweetness of air. A laying on of hands.
Ali won’t glisten for long.
The water slipping onto pebbles and blue tiles
the immediate unavoidable silence
when Ali first reached for the short ladder
out of the deep end.
Everyone goes to him,
friends and reporters, photographers,
hopeful possible lovers have risen from green deck chairs
in two pieces
holding drinks, turning ice in their mouths.
It is the only possible moment.
Ali returned to his own familiar life.
Still, when his head broke the surface
didn’t it seem he was coming for us?
Didn’t you hope?