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Bath Salts & Gardening

Six months into our seven year relationship, I had to break up with B and send him back to Kansas. The whole spectacle was like some 90s hair band love ballad video. The bipolar drive to the bus station, B’s arms flailing in the air like some Evangelist, begging me to let him stay. That last deep needy kiss at the platform. His stumble up the bus stairs. He sat down near the rear and steamed up a window with his hot drunk breath and wrote “I love you,” then he flipped me off as the Greyhound drove away. I stood watching until the bus became a fleck of silver in the Akron skyline. I thought to myself, if only love were enough.

I drove straight to the LA Cruise Thru and bought two bags of White Horse bath salts. So that I did not spill any, I waited until I got home to open one and begin a relationship with the craziest drug I have ever done, an addiction that would last many months until the substance became illegal and I would turn to meth. Less than five minutes after a line of White Horse and my entire body took on a vibration that mirrored the feeling I had one spring break when my best friend Kelly and I had pockets full of cocaine as we shimmied down The Strip just as the Nevada sun was rising. Far from Vegas, I settled for a trip to the nearest Walmart. I needed a hobby, something to keep me far from any semblance of heartbreak. I knew that I had arrived when I walked into the gardening section. My house was less than six months old and the lonely lawn needed something that resembled life.

The first thing that caught my eye was a lavender plant that said “Provence” on the label. Having spent a little time one summer in Provence, this particular plant spoke to me. Not in words, of course. But in feeling. I sniffed the plant at least a dozen times before I got to the check out.

To maximize my chance of the plant taking to my soil, if I ever did get around to planting it, I decided that maybe I better buy a few more of the French beauties from a variety of stores. For the next several days, while hooting at least a half gram of bath salts a day, I became a frequenter of Lowe’s and Walmarts. If I talked to the clerks, I made sure to accentuate what I imagined would give the air of sophistication that I thought I adhered to, “Do you have any Provaaansse lavender?

Within a week, a new dilemma introduced itself in my very much sleep deprived mind. What if I had tunnel vision concerning my choice of lavender? Why not consider other types like English or Spanish? Ohio weather is much more like the weather in England. And as a person who appreciates scientific research, shouldn’t I use my new land to see which types of lavender from which stores will be the most fragrant? The most lush?

To put it simply, I became a lavender slut. I could not stop buying plants. My garage looked like the little shop of European horrors.

My obsession upgraded itself with a new interest in the exploration of my neighbors’ yards. I soon realized that lavender was not especially popular in my area of Akron so I decided that I needed to enlarge my gardening vision. I wanted to enhance my community. Northeast Ohio could be the new France. I then had the idea that I would start a sort of trade, a service project. I would dig up a flower in someone’s yard and replace it with one of my lavender plants. Then, I’d take my neighbor’s flower to plant somewhere in my naked yard.

Lavender samples were stored in my backpack, which was almost zipped, except for the shovel that poked through one side. The earliest I got to actually hitting the streets of my city was two or three in the morning. Aware that I was partaking in semi-illegal endeavors, I brought my youngest pug Edith along to act as a decoy. It was completely logical that I was walking my dog in someone’s yard during the middle of the night. Perhaps a person would have seen me and then scurried back to bed so that I could begin the kind swap. This went on for weeks. I was a tweaked out philanthropist. It is a miracle that I was never arrested.

Excuse the pun, but sobriety forces me to sift through the past and find my roots, before I detoured my entire being through years of attempting to get away from myself. I grew up in an apartment with my mom and I have no childhood memory of ever planting flowers. My earliest memory of gardening is from almost two decades ago. Kelly and I had barely graduated college when she found out that her father was sick. While her cancer-filled dad wilted away in the back bedroom of the house where she had always lived, my Kelly took up gardening.

Every time I called my friend, her mom would scream out the back door for her to come to the phone. I imagined Kelly reaching for the cordless, her long, dark hair messy-bunned on her head, her knees smudged in dirt. I spoke to her everyday, but I rarely asked about her dad. My job was to learn how she needed me to be for what would be the worst thing that ever happened to her. A secret language evolved between us that summer. She used words foreign to me, like hostas and deep shade. If she told me that her cannas were thriving, I knew that her dad was doing worse. The days her mom had to work, she would feed her dad chocolate, turn on the baby monitor, and head outside to play with her calla lilies. They were her favorite, especially the yellow ones.

I felt helpless in being present for Kelly. Once I brought her dad his favorite frozen custard and when I knocked on the door, pint in hand, Kelly and her mother stood there weeping at my gesture. Death is odd and hard, but watching someone die is a different ball game. It is a bottomless pit; it’s the screaming of every fatherless daddy’s girl in the world saying, “It’s not fair. It’s not fair.”

Some things are just too heavy, too sad, or even too shameful. Sometimes the only thing to do is laugh. When I picture myself walking down the road at 3 am, five foot shovel sticking out of my backpack, I have to smile at my insanity. I can see my little pug Edith trotting along.

I remember that summer Kelly’s dad was dying. I tilled a spot of dirt around a tree outside my apartment and planted dahlia bulbs. When Kelly came over one Friday to hangout and drink, I proudly showed her my tiny garden, in honor of her father. I’ll never forget the moment when she bent down and raked her fingers through the dirt to examine my work. She broke out in the first laughter I had heard in months.

“My dad’s dying and you planted your dahlia bulbs upside down, dumb ass.” I sat on the ground and tossed my head back while laughing so hard that I could barely breathe. Summer was light again and we were just two kids drinking and laughing.

Just last December Kelly sat across from me in the hospital cafeteria on the very day B’s life support would be turned off, the day I would have to crawl up next to him and let him die. I thought I might die too. Kelly urged me to eat the soup she had bought me. She knew it would be a long day since the last of B’s family had not yet arrived. I opened the pack of crackers in front of me, sprinkled them in my soup. Kelly said, “So tell me what you are feeling. What is the last thing the doctor said?”

“The left side of his brain is basically destroyed.” I slammed my fist on another pack of crackers and opened them. They looked like sawdust. Kelly’s eyes looked so helpless as she waited for me to continue. I took a drink of coffee and just as I started to speak, I heard a song playing over the cafeteria speakers.

“Mmmbop, ba duba dop ba du bop, ba duba dop ba du bop, ba duba dop ba du, yeah.”

“The father of my children is dying and Hanson is playing,” I said. I may have even shouted it. Kelly and I laughed so hard and loud that people stopped eating and looked at us. Even when Mmmbop was over we were still laughing.

Saying the Names

I remember John Flanagan. He had a head of red hair and a mouth full of over-sized teeth that seemed to get even bigger if you stared long enough. Despite the can of Bulmer’s in his hand, he was just a kid. That night, the only night I would ever be in his presence, he followed my friend Jacquie around like a loyal hound.

Mcdermott’s. County Clare. Doolin, Ireland. Four musicians lined a wooden bench built against a wall directly in front of a window where sunlight trickled in through lace curtains, settling itself against the cheek of the banjo player. I sat at a table with people I did not know. With every tap of the bodhran, my body smoothed itself into a rhythm shared with everyone in the pub. When a song was fast, we stomped in unison, a few even falling into dance. All of Ireland lived in the ceili music that night. And all of me lived in Ireland. Longing became tangible. The future and the past, extinct.

In between songs my ears caught snippets of Jacquie’s voice. “From America. Let’s take shots. Hate George Bush. Jameson.” A fresh breeze of drunkenness, I had no idea where the night would take her, nor did it matter.

The memory of that evening returns in fragments, particles of star suspended in some weightless realm of youth from fifteen years ago. A car the size of a twin bed. Jacquie passed out in John Flanagan’s lap in the backseat. I was in the passenger seat and the guy who was driving had his hand on my knee when he was not shifting. There were no street lights. The car rolled up and down the hills toward the sea and village.

Those are my favorite types of memories, the ones where I am happy for no reason and every reason at all. I remember that we were going so fast that I made some stupid joke about being in Ireland’s version of The Fast and Furious. The several spots of whiskey we had recently at some old man’s cottage kicked in and I kept saying, “Too fast. Too furious.” The guy with his hand on my knee started laughing. Belly laughs. Then, quiet John Flanagan started cracking up uncontrollably. Soon, the three of us were laughing hysterically. Every once in a while, Jacquie snuffed out her own slobbery snicker, making us an unusual quartet of laughs.

A few months later John Flanagan hanged himself in his family’s barn. I would not have even known this if I had not asked about him the next time I visited Doolin. I had no idea that he was dead or that it was inappropriate to say the name of someone who had taken his own life. I was in the pub. The music had not started. People were eating. In memory, I can hear laughter and the clinking of forks and glasses. I said, “How is John Flanagan?” For three seconds, all sound halted. Then there was that breath a person takes right before a solid swig of their pint. A friend I had made took me to the bathroom and told me of the suicide. More importantly, she expressed that I was to never ever ever to say his name.

And so, with respect to a place and people that I love, I never said his name again in Ireland. It was not easy. I do not know if it was the rebellious side of me or the writer side, or perhaps both; but, I wanted to scream his name every time I was in the village of Doolin for the next decade. I remember walking around the village cemetery and seeing his grave. I would play the tiny memory I had of him like an old black and white movie in my head. No sound but the crackling of film. The fleece jacket he wore. The lost loyal eyes. The sadness.

I have not been to Ireland in many years. The backpack I used on all my trips was stolen by a bunch of tweaked out felons that B allowed in my house when I went away on Thanksgiving with our daughters. He was not allowed to come with us because he could not stay sober. These are stories I am not ready to write.

B is dead. It has been close to six months. I found a letter from him the other day. It was postmarked 2015. He said, “Four years, three children, and two felonies later, I am still so in love with you.”

I remember an afternoon last October. The girls were at school. B and I were in the kitchen. I handed him my kale/broccoli/blueberry smoothie. I can see him lifting the drink to his mouth, his fingers gripping the cup. Flecks of paint on his hand. Apple tattoo on his wrist. We had the patio door open. Seven years we had loved each other. I knew he was not going to like the smoothie, but I had insisted he try it. I can hear the almost roar of the vomit that rainbowed from his mouth, onto the floor where Edith scurried to lick it up, took one smell and then ran the other way. He laughed so hard, said “It’s so bad that a pug won’t even go near it.”

If I am present in this memory, there is no stroke. There is no three week Hospice stay. I do not have to shepherd him to death or take our daughters in one by one to say goodbye to their father.

I do not know what to do with absence or finality. My lover is dead and I am writing about John Flanagan and vomit. I am thinking of The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien when he writes, “But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.” To exist in the present, I sometimes have to write about the past, but it can not be done chronologically.

The hodgepodge of befores and afters. Breath and then no breath. Sickness and overdose. Life and suicide. Mental illness and death. Sometimes, when the cement of panic or grief coupled with gratitude surfaces in my stomach, I have to say the names. What is the writer if not the namer of that which is gone?

John Flanagan. Brandon Doerfler. Liss Hall. Ryan Collins. James Conley. Dave Chapman. Colin Shoff.

Last Sunday on the way home from church, I committed an epic parent fail. In the minivan I turned on “Yo Gabba Gabba.” While the screen is behind me, I still hear everything and often find myself singing along. I heard Anthony Bourdain’s voice. It was the episode where he guest stars and plays a doctor. I turned the volume down. “Tony, the doctor just died,” came out of my mouth. I was sorry as soon as I said it.

Immediately I was machine gunned with questions. “How is he dead if he is on the show? Is he with daddy? Is he really a doctor? Is he a ghost? When did he die?” I said a quick prayer and attempted to carefully fix what I could. The last question, of course, was, “How did he die?” I could see their questioning eyes, like three hungry kittens, in the rear view mirror.

“He was sick like daddy,” I said. “But just so you know, people don’t always die when they are sick.” The girls seemed pleased with this explanation. They continued watching their show.

Sobriety forces me to shift perspectives. After all, it takes a psychic change to build a life without drugs. There are stories to write that have sad endings. However, there is a story to live that currently has a lot of love and no ending that I yet see. I was reminded of this when we pulled in the driveway and I turned off the DVD player. I heard three-year-old Gwynnie say to her sisters, “Mommy was sick too but she could not die. She has to live to watch us grow.”


Nazi Time Machine

It was over a Sausage McMuffin with egg that the manifestation of what I believed to be a brilliant idea birthed itself in my brain. “Let’s eat mushrooms and go to the Van Gogh Museum,” I said and then took a sip of my coke.

“Okay, let’s do it,” Jacquie said, sitting across from me in a plastic swiveling chair. She was five years younger than me and while she could outdrink me any day, she had little experience with drugs. It was the first I had spent time with her in a month. Our original plans were to backpack Ireland for the summer with a short trip to Scotland and a few days in Amsterdam. Early in our trip I met a guy and shacked up with him in Derry while she hung out in Doolin, a lovely village on the West coast. 

“I’ll be right back,” I said, slightly hungover from the day before and the bottle of vodka that we drank on the plane from Ireland to Amsterdam. I stood up, leaving my half eaten sandwich. “Stay right here.” 

Jacquie and I made the best travel partners. I loved who she was even though it took her two hours to get ready and put makeup on her already pretty face. I helped carry Killer, the name I gave to her backpack that weighed over sixty pounds, her makeup weighing at least ten. She even had three sets of pajamas. She put up with my wildness in a way that no friend ever has. She knew I sought some half-sleazy Don Quixote adventure and she encouraged me in my quest, even if that meant we spent time away from each other. 

I tried to walk instead of skip as I searched for a shop that sold mushrooms. The thrill of drugs coupled with thoughts of my recent time with Sean. I was certain he was the one for me. He ran an unmarked hostel not far from the Bogside where Bloody Sunday took place. While he spent days changing beds and cleaning, I walked around the walled city, sat on benches near the River Foyle and read books or wrote, eager for the end of day when he and I could be alone. Our room had two sets of blue steel bunk beds. Each night he would put two mattresses together on the floor like a raft. As we made love the blue cotton curtains crackled like sails in the Northern wind. I’d catch glimpses of the fiery sunset above a city hungover by civil war. 

I was in Amsterdam, but I felt as if my whole being were in Ireland. Though I was only leaving Sean for three nights, my goodbye kiss to him was dramatic and while I do not remember what poetic garbage I said to him, I do remember clearly what he said to me.  “Jen, whatever you do, don’t be like all the stupid Americans who go to Amsterdam and eat mushrooms just because they are legal. It’s a dodgy city. You’ll have a bad trip.” 

“I’m way too old for that,” I said. He and I had just celebrated my July birthday a week before. I was 27, way too sophisticated and cultured for what I considered teenage or early college year drugs.

The head shop I found was tiny. Displayed by the entrance was a poster board that had six different types of mushrooms, starting from mildest on the bottom and gradually getting stronger to the most potent on top. I bought Jacquie the most mild since she had never even taken acid. My intention was to purchase the second most mild ones for myself, but my eyes focused on the mushrooms on the top of the sign. They were called “Philosopher’s Stones.” They were more pricy, but they called to me. I could almost hear them chanting my name. I mean, I was a philosopher. I had even majored in philosophy for the first two years of college until I realized I was going to need a job. 

My next memory is sitting back at McDonalds and shoving my “Philosopher’s Stones” in what was left of my Sauusage McMuffin. It was a vile taste, the words cow shit and rotten, slimy vegetables come to mind. It took Jacquie and me at least fifteen minutes to get them down and another hour to get to our destination.

At least a hundred people were lined up outside of the museum, waiting for the doors to open. Jacquie and I took our places. Another dream on my mental bucket list would be experienced. I was minutes away from being the closest to Vincent that I had ever been. I couldn’t wait to see his impulsive, perfect colors stretched across canvas. What could be better than a warm summer morning at the Van Gogh Museum? I was smiling, waiting for the doors to open, lost in thoughts of my love in Ireland and my Vincent moments away.

It was as if someone snapped their fingers and all daydreaming vanished. Simultaneously, the mushrooms kicked in and it started to rain. Like soldiers, everyone in line opened their umbrellas at the same time. Small umbrellas. Fat umbrellas. Blue umbrellas. Red umbrellas. Tall umbrellas. The rain ricocheted off a purple umbrella and pelted my cheek. Drops from the sky navigated toward me like cerulean computerized bullets. We had to find cover, but fear rendered us frozen.

The people started chanting in foreign rhymes, their dry clothes an array of paisley and stripes. A woman held tight to a set of twin babies with blonde hair helmeted to their heads. They too mumbled nonsense. Umbrella-less, Jacquie and I were trapped in some Dr. Suess nightmare. We could not speak. Like wet cats amid a pack of pit bulls, we grabbed each other’s hand, did a quick chin nod signifying it was time to run. We didn’t look back. We made it to the street, jumped in a cab, and somehow communicated the name of our hotel to the driver. 

Amsterdam is an architecturally breathtaking city full of color, canals, and culture. I missed all of that on the cab ride from the museum to our hotel because Jacquie and I were crouched down in the car, police sirens murdering our ears. The only time I had heard similar sounds was a documentary I had watched on World War II. The few glimpses I did catch of buildings I was sure to be Anne Frank’s hideout. 

Philosopher’s Stones my ass! I had eaten Nazi Time Machine mushrooms.

I don’t remember how we paid the cab driver, because speech failed us. Somehow, sweating and trying to do our best we-are-not-Americans-or-Jewish walk, we made it to our tiny, fourth floor hotel room. I sunk into the queen mattress and Jacquie turned on the television. If I could have spoken, I would’ve told her what a good idea that was, that maybe the TV could take us to a better place. Jacquie flipped through stations to find something in English and while I imagine most of the shows were in Dutch, all I heard was hard German. 

I managed to swat my hand to signal Jacquie to turn it off, but something else had taken over her. She stood in front of the television as if she were hypnotized and repeated every word that she heard. Once in a while she would turn her head and look at me as if she were giving me some foreign order. I had to muster up language. Sweat slid down my forehead and stood at attention on the tip of my nose. “Stop it, please!” She kept going. The tiny hotel room grew even tinier. “Jacquie, please.” I covered my ears. Jacquie could not stop. 

I ran to the bathroom, slammed and locked the door. First, I vomited. Then I made the mistake of looking in the mirror, every sin I had ever committed plastered to my disgusting face. I spent the next hour crouched under the sink, crying about Anne Frank, crying about everything I had ever learned about The Holocaust, and crying about all the wrong things I had ever done. The pills I had stolen from grandpa. The time my friend Tamara was passed out a party and I chose the ugliest guy possible and told him that she liked him and was waiting in the bed for him. Cheating on Kevin with the neighbor boy simply because he had accused me of doing so. Breaking my best friend Kelly’s heart by seeing the guy she loved behind her back. The pills I had stolen from my grandmother. Not seeing Jeff Buckley in concert when I was 17. 

The time I had spent in the bathroom seemed evidence enough to me that the world was an ugly place and I was just one more ugly person in it. When I walked back into the room, Jacquie motioned for me to come to the window. I placed my face against the glass. “I’m never going to be okay,” I said. 

“Jen, this was a really bad idea.” A mustard seed of hope planted itself in my heart. She was speaking English.

“I hate Amsterdam,” I said, with conviction. She nodded in agreement. We stared out the window for several hours, watched men walk by the prostitute across the street in a red lit window. Sometimes they would back up and take a closer look and then scurry on to their lives. The more I looked outside, the more my insides became familiar.

Grief’s Interruption

For Amy

I’m driving my minivan down the street, my three fatherless daughters buckled in their seats. We are almost home and the DVD they were watching is over. I switch to the radio and Unchained Melody is playing. B has been dead for over two months. Suddenly I feel as if I am in seventh grade again at the dollar theater eating Milk Duds and seeing Ghost for the tenth time. However, the casting is different. B is playing Patrick Swayze’s role and I, though a bit thicker in the waistline, am playing Demi Moore’s role. Oh, that deep-kissing-clay-smearing kind of love. That hunger and feeding and then hunger.

The fantasy remake of Ghost is cancelled when I pull into my driveway and one of the twins says, “Can I unbuckle myself?” I look in the rear view mirror. Chocolate is smeared across their little faces. It usually is when I pick them up from my mother’s house. All three of them have B’s wild blue eyes. When I was mad at him, I’d call his eyes serial killer blue. “Mommy, can I unbuckle myself?” This time, the question is asked in unison by Kathryn and Evelyn. It creeps me out when they do this. They are oblivious to my lake of tears. Before I can answer them, Gwynnie adds, “Unbuckle me, Mommy. Mommy, unbuckle me.” I hear the word mommy no less than a thousand times a day.

“Sure, honey,” I say, referring to the twins. What I want to say but cannot is that I will never touch B again. What if I forget his smell? He had the tiniest ears I’ve ever seen. I reach around and undo Gwynnie. How do I take the key out of the ignition or open the car door?  I feel paralyzed. This must be the bargaining stage of grief because I swear I would happily make out with Whoopi Goldberg if she were B. I’d fast for a month for one more kiss. I’d have both legs amputated just to sleep next to him for a night.

Staying stuck is not an option when you are the single mother of three. Before I can finish trying to make a deal in my head with God about all of the things I would sacrifice for more time, my daughters are partaking in another Wrestlemania event in the van. Tonight it is a job to get them inside the house, wash their faces, help them brush their teeth, and get on their nightgowns.

Thinking about B will have to be put on hold. The girls and I gather in my room for story time and I pick something short to read. It does not work though, because they are their father’s children and those blue eyes con me into reading two more books and then telling them a story. They always want a spooky story and even as a writer, nothing I come up with is ever scary enough. I’m not feeling creative so I resort to Hansel and Gretel. I add a dog to layer the story, something I learned in a fiction workshop in grad school.

“That’s not long enough,” Gwynnie says. I missed a spot of chocolate on the tip of her nose.

I ignore her because I know this is just her way of avoiding bed, “Okay ladies, into your rooms so I can tuck you in.” Slowly, in annoying toddler time, they start to get up.

“That’s not spooky enough, Mommy,” Evelyn says. She is thoroughly disappointed, her hands are on her hips. The amount of personality compacted in this five-year-old is remarkable.

“Girls, I just told you a story about little kids and a dog almost getting cooked in an oven. I don’t think it gets much spookier than that.” They climb into their beds and I kiss them goodnight. If cannibalism is not scary,  I give up. I shut their doors and head back to my own bedroom. It used to be B’s room too. I grab some dirty yoga pants from a basket in my closet. His clothes are still hanging. I should unload the dishwasher. There is laundry to do, but it is close to ten and I’m exhausted.

I pick up a book and collapse on my bed. Edith jumps up and walks to my pillow, drops to her side, and presses her paws against my face. It is impossible to read with a pug in your face, so I rub her belly and tell her how much that I love her. The night is still and Unchained Melody starts playing in my head. I hung some of B’s paintings on the wall. I say out loud, “I can still feel you, Brandon.” Tears start dropping on my blanket. Then I remember that Demi Moore says that exact line in the movie.  A medley of crying and laughter forces me to sit up in bed. I don’t want to whittle love down to some Hollywood bullshit.

The bargaining starts again, this time in prayer. “God, I would have cut a piece of my sobriety out and given it to him. If only…”

“Mommy!” The scream of a three-year-old interrupts my nightly should haves and would haves. “I have to go potty.”

“Okay,”I say. This happens every night. Gwynnie knows that she does not have to tell me when she needs to use the bathroom, but she is passionate about talking. She wants my reassurance and that is the job I have been gifted as a parent. When she finishes, I hear the toilet flush three times while she is running the water to wash her hands. A minute later she opens my door, sprints across the carpet, and jumps into my bed. Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m holding her or she is holding me.

I think of my friend who lost her husband two years ago to an overdose. She tells me that all I have to do is keep doggy paddling. It can’t be coincidental that tonight Gwynnie is wearing a Finding Dory nightgown. I must keep swimming and swimming. “Kiss my tootsies, Mommy,” she says and I do.

To Write Love On Her Arms

B was passed out in a ditch full of fire ants some place in Austin, Texas while I was in an ICU in Akron, Ohio. When I woke up I wouldn’t ask why my wrist had four inches of staples or why my brain felt rearranged. I wouldn’t greet my mom or my ex boyfriend Pete who stood over me, worried. A swarm of people who loved me camped out in the waiting room and all I had to say, my eyebrows in an angry V, was, “Where is he?”

Let me back up a week. B was the real alcoholic, the Jekyl and Hyde type. I came home one afternoon in March 2012 to find my pug Edith hiding in my closet, shaking, tail uncurled. I put her in my arms and stomped my way through the house to find B in his studio drinking and staring at a canvas.

“Why was Edith in the closet?” I masked my anger in order to get a straight answer. Paint fumes attacked my nose.

He took a gulp from his forty. “She’s mad because I rubbed her nose in shit.” He put the drink down and grabbed a can of spray paint. I kept kissing Edith’s perfect little smooshed nose. “I let her outside but she still shit on the floor.” I wanted to punch him. The only time I had ever witnessed Edith having an accident was at the vet or the groomers, both out of fear.

“Listen. I love you, but touch one of my dogs ever again and I will curb stomp you,” I said. Edith had stopped shaking and stuck her chin in the air as she rolled her eyes at him. We made our way downstairs to find my other pug, Telemachus, sitting by his food bowl, awaiting his dinner. I put Edith down, measured out their food, and watched as they ate their entire bowls in ten seconds. B had to go.

I made him sleep on the couch that night while I slept in bed, on my back, with a pug tucked in each arm. Upon awakening I decided to rid myself of the dog abuser. I called off but jumped in the shower as if I were getting ready for work. When I got out and dried off, B was in my bed, our bed, really, both dogs sound asleep beside him. The sun had yet to make its appearance and love, confusion, and pug motherhood smacked me right in the face. I took a couple of Ambien and crawled in the sheets with all three of my snoring darlings.

B woke me with kisses that I graciously accepted. In those sober moments his skin was my favorite blanket. Later that day, when he walked to the store to steal beer, I told him that he had to go, that I didn’t think my dogs were safe.

He was wasted by the time we got to the bus station. The previous hours plagued with arguing and crying, I was exhausted as we walked to the counter to buy his ticket to go back home to Kansas City. I handed the clerk my debit card. Words failed me. I longed for this drunk man before he even left. B said, “Austin, one way.” I didn’t think he would actually go through with it, but an hour later he kissed me goodbye, took one step up into the bus, turned around and flipped me off. I watched the shadow of him find a seat, but he never looked up. This was our first separation.

A week later I ended up in the ICU, having no memory of how I got there. I was told that I had passed out at the bottom of my basement steps, breaking my wrist and slamming my head on the cement. I remembered being up for days on Adderall. I remembered my friend Danielle coming over to console me about B. Apparently she had stayed over that night because she drank a bit too much wine, but she had gone to sleep at midnight. At 3am she heard Telemachus and Edith running up and down the steps, my chubby heroes. I was conscious and weeping in a pile of blood, my right wrist so broken that the bone was close to being exposed. Danielle would later tell me that I kept using my broken wrist to point to my head, saying, “I think I got hurt.”

Sub-dermal hematoma was the language used concerning my head. My mangled wrist rebuilt with 13 pieces of metal, I was a bit of a mess. All together, I was in the hospital for six nights. The doctor attempted to send me home with Percocet, but I walked out with a prescription for Fentanyl patches. My mom forced me to stay with her for a while. I remember the sweat on my cell phone, fingers white knuckled around it, waiting for B to call me. I couldn’t get doped up enough to stop worrying about his safety and whereabouts. I remember my mom saying, “Jen, I don’t think you are supposed to cut up those patches up and eat them.” I ignored her.

The time frame is hazy, but B eventually called from a hospital in Austin. I listened as he told me what happened, chewed on my Fentanyl. He had been flying signs on the side of the road to get money. He remembered having pockets full of cash and sprinting to the liquor store, the weather nice and the city not quite as cool as he had expected. He drank and drank and drank. There may have been some drugs. Then, he woke up in the hospital and was told that he was found in a ditch with hundreds of fire ants crawling on him. All his money was gone and if that weren’t bad enough, he had also had a heart attack as he withdrew from alcohol in the hospital. It all seemed too dramatic to believe so I hung up on him, my feelings hurt that he did all the talking about his condition when I had just nearly died.

It was only after a doctor called and spoke with me about the fire ant/heart attack story that I came to understand that B was not lying. Clearly it was our separation that caused such near death experiences. It was not the alcohol or drugs. So a few days later when B said, “Jennifer, please let me come home. I can not live without you. I want to take care of you. I’m done drinking,” I hopped online and bought him a Greyhound ticket to Akron for the next day.

When I woke up that morning, I went with my family to a flea market to prove to my mother that I was indeed strong enough to return home. My hair matted in blood, I felt the need to have my eyebrows threaded to look good for my B. For some odd reason, I also felt compelled to have a henna tattoo of his graffiti name, Stoik (yes, with a k) on my arm. My family had no idea what it meant. I was carrying the best secret, a modern day Romeo and Juliet. Though my head throbbed, my soul was singing. Later that day I drove to the bus station to pick up my future, heavy baggage and all.

When I jumped into his arms he kissed me, hard, like in the movies. We could not stay away from each other despite our addictions. There were many years to come, more drugs to do, kids to be born. The story was just beginning. It was all supposed to happen, I know this. He kissed my broken right wrist and then showed me his left wrist. It too was broken. I showed him his name on my left arm and he smiled, took off his jacket. His t-shirt had printed on it To Write Love On Her Arms.


The Peak of Crazy

The sun rose above the night’s chaos on the third day of a meth bender. B and I had listened to every CD we owned prior to playing frisbee with them. My usually neat writing room seemed evidence of a natural disaster, all paintings and poems created in previous days destroyed by slashing and crumbling. A pair of my panties hung from the ceiling fan.

Yet a new day felt promising. As light shimmied through the blinds and birds chirped their summer melodies, B and I hit some tweaked out peak of crazy where we could only communicate in song. Between his tone deafness and my voice training that ended in eighth grade, we sounded like a drunk and a Disney Princess.

At first the songs were pretty basic. “Jen, let’s do more speed,” B sang. Our plan was to do meth for a couple days to help him withdraw from alcohol while I got off of heroin.

“Okay, where did you hide the needle?” I sang, my pitch perfect for Ariel or Belle.

Addiction is a problem of more. I’m not just referring to the meth here. Our simple song correspondence wasn’t enough. Somehow we transitioned to Grease. I printed out the lyrics to You’re the One That I Want and we listened to it on the computer so that we could practice our lines. We sang and sang and sang, then did more speed. Our drugs of choice seemed chapters behind us. We were free and focused on our music careers.

“I got an idea,” I sang, which is never a good thing when you have been up for at least 72 hours. “Let’s watch the actual video so we can really get into character and I can do the blocking.” I had taken a few theater courses in college and felt confident in my directorial skills. Though this was in the early years of our relationship, B knew me well enough to trust my creative instincts.

It took at least an hour to set the writing room up as an outside carnival. B kicked all the trash into the hallway while I used duct tape on the carpet to mark where each of us was to stand and move during the song. I found an online audio of just the music. We went through our blocking and memorized our lines, taking short breaks to kiss each other. We were always so in love.

The debut performance was just about to begin when we simultaneously realized that we were not in costume. I ran to our bedroom closet to find black capris and a tight shirt. I peeled my clothes off and squeezed my butt into pants two sizes too small. I remember a moment when I was on my bed zipping the pants and cursing, my pugs Telemachus and Edith looking at me like they didn’t know who I was. When I returned to our makeshift setting, B was already in place, wearing a black t-shirt and skinny jeans, his hair greased up with what I would later come to find out was Vaseline.

I hit play and took my place. The music moved through my veins as fast as the meth. I was thinking that this was the most fun I had ever had until B missed his opening line. My joy halted like a semi about to hit a group of newborns. I stopped the music. “Danny, hello. What the fuck?”

“You look really hot in those pants, Jen,” he said so sweetly that I almost let him get away with the mistake.

“Thank you, but I’m not Jen. I’m Sandy. Staying in character is vital. When Viggo Mortensen filmed The Lord of the Rings movies he slept with his sword for months. You are Danny and I am Sandy.” I started the song over.

“Thanks coach,” B said, just before he belched out like a dying whale, “I got chills…” I felt embarrassed for him, but I went with it until right after the electrifying part when he leaned in to kiss me.

“Stop the music. There is no kiss here. I may be dressed like this, but our friends are around and I’m a good girl.” I could feel sweat drops of irritation on the top of my nose.

“Oh no, I’m the asshole for doing some improv.” He started the song over and so that I would have my opportunity to shine, I ignored his voice and ridiculous moves and focused on my own part. My performance started out Tony worthy. I nailed everything from putting the prop cigarette out just in time to say, while pushing him away with my foot, “You better shape up.” I turned to sexily strut away, “Cause I need a man.” And that’s when B smacked my ass and started grinding on me.

I pushed him away and walked over to the chaise to sit down and put my head in my hands. The music was still playing. “What’s your problem now, Olivia Newton John,” B said with the sarcasm of a teenage boy.

I looked up at him, the most beautiful, shit starting man in the world. “What’s my problem? What’s my fucking problem?” He had a serpent smile on his face. “You are the problem, R Kelly.”

This is how meth always went for us. We were perfect and then one of us decided to lose our sense of humor. “Oh, my Jennifer, how clever you are. You should probably quit your teaching gig and become a junkie comedian.”

He walked over and unplugged the speakers from the computer. I needed him to understand. “What is it that you don’t comprehend about this musical? We’ve watched the original video fifteen fucking times. You are the smartest person I know. Clearly Danny does not smack Sandy’s ass. She’s in charge and he’s chasing her for most of the song.” B wasn’t listening to a word that I said.

“I’m going to smoke,” he said. “You ruin everything.” When he walked out of the door I knew he was leaving to get alcohol. I waited to hear the door slam, grabbed my phone and called Shorty to bring me some heroin. B and I would have to get sober another day.

Death’s Interruption

“You have to write yourself out of this. Quit creating new chapters and write the ones you have,” my psychologist Mike said last September, sitting in his fancy doctor office, a step up from the dusty classroom-like one he had at the rehab facility I first saw him at in 2014. I remember the day succinctly. Mike’s handlebar moustache. The leaves outside his windows beginning their metamorphosis. B half drunk, waiting for me in the Jeep.

I left my appointment ready to write. My hand on his leg, I talked B’s ear off the twenty minute drive home. So many angles and threads my writing could take. He sat me down as soon as we walked in the door and said, “You are my favorite writer, now write.” And thus the next few months birthed a few creative nonfiction pieces. B rooted for me with every word I’d scrawl or type. When I let him, he’d lean over my shoulder and check out my writing, the scruff of his beard tickling my ear. He asked questions, made suggestions, and laughed at my wit. He proofread and sat in awe at the direction my writing was taking. He watched our daughters for hours as I’d shut myself in the basement to work.

Writing, I suppose, is a way of demolition, a sort of rebuilding and redecorating the things I collect. I hoard seemingly unimportant things in my brain: the cardinal red suit my lonely tenth grade English teacher wore, the smell of the shoes from the concentration camp victims on display at The Holocaust Museum, the sound my grandpa made when he called his five cats, the damn names of those five cats, the conversation about John Ashbury that I had with a janitor, the words embroidered on the seats of a plane I once took to Ireland, a dirty poem I wrote for someone for five dollars in sixth grade.

But death has interrupted my writing. It has broken my heart and rearranged things. Right now my mom is watching my daughters while I have exactly 23 minutes left of this allotted one hour writing session.

B has been dead for 29 days. Now everything is some encrypted elegy. Instead of collecting memories or ideas, I save concrete things. It may not be so healthy.

The sweet potatoes he bought two months ago are still in the cupboard on the broken Lazy Susan. They look fine, as if it were just yesterday that we spent twenty minutes in the fruits and vegetables section at Acme.

Sometimes I carry his messenger bag. I never change the contents: one Sharpie and three cans of spray paint.

In my purse I have two biohazard ziplock bags, one with hair from his head, the other with hair from his beard.

I don’t know what good writing can possibly happen in a time like this, but if ever there were a time to write myself out of something, it is now.

Driving home last night, Kathryn said, “Mommy, the moon is following us.” I couldn’t gauge if it were interest or fear. I remember saying the same thing to my mom when I was five too. Terrified, I’d duck down in the Plymouth to hide, thinking I could lose the moon, but I never could.

“It wants to make sure we get home safe,” I said, attempting to shield her from the sense of impending doom I carried even as a small child. She placed her hand on the window as if to greet the moon and welcome its presence.

“Maybe it’s daddy. Maybe he is in the moon following us because he loves us,” my three-year-old Gwynnie added to the conversation. I caught a glimpse of her in the rear view mirror, most of the Hershey Kiss I gave her muddied across her face.

“Maybe,” I said, a bit envious of their innocence. Two minutes later they are discussing My Little Ponies while I’m widowed by words hurricaning through my head: Dead. Never. Gone. Never ever. Not once. Never ever ever.

I cannot tuck my shape shifter grief inside a planet. If I were a cop, I’d arrest the whole damn universe for his truancy. But I’m just a writer. He was a writer too. I have to write for the both of us. I remember the first line he wrote in a letter to our daughters. “Your mother was my hero.”

I guess I better get busy.


The Eight Ball

It started with an eight ball, not of cocaine, but the plastic toy you ask a question, shake, and turn over to see the answer. We were checking out at Primo’s Deli when B grabbed it from the counter and handed it to me, the tips of his fingers bridging mine. Memory paints the December evening in a soft hue, some seventies love song playing, the man behind the counter waiting for us to pay as we each took a turn silently to see the future, our ten year age difference bricked between us.

An hour later we were trudging through the aisles of K-mart for no reason when B wanted to know what I had asked the eight ball. I stopped at an end cap in the toy section. “You never ever tell your question,” I said as I picked up a pink hula hoop to demonstrate my childhood talent and redirect the conversation.

“Jen, it’s not a fucking dandelion. What did you ask?” I grabbed two more hula hoops and ignored him as I started to sweat. He grabbed a fourth and added it to my waist, then a fifth. The five of them sounded like a parade of maracas for a few seconds before crashing to the floor, the herd of Christmas shoppers gifting the two of us with dirty looks. B helped me put each hoop back. “You are going to tell me,” he said, smiling that old soul smile that I had not seen in the several years since he left Ohio.

By the time we made it to the jewelry counter, B had stripped the truth from me like I was a piece of string cheese. “I asked if we were going to fall in love.”

He picked up some cubic zirconia looking bracelet. “And?” He said, too nonchalantly for such a conversation.

I shuffled through a rack of earrings until he grabbed my elbow. I looked up to his young questioning eyes, eyes that years later, when angry, I would coin as serial killer blue. “My sources say no.”

“Okay.” He dropped my arm, turned around and started running his fingers down a paisley scarf. “Good to know. Good to know,” he said. “I had a similar question, a bit more sexual though.”

“And?” I was still sweating from my hula performance. His mouth opened to answer me when a woman with three dirty looking children interrupted us, making it clear that we were in her way. B and I headed for the exit. I had completely forgotten about the dog food.

“Outlook not so good,” he said, as we walked through the sleet and snow to my Jeep. I hid my hands in my pocket, afraid the cold would remind him how much older I was than him or that he would notice the trembling.

We did not speak on the drive to his house. The roads were slick and I disguised my disappointment by taking hard rights and pulling up the emergency brake while he fiddled with the radio. When we reached his driveway he turned the music down and said, “I came back to Ohio for you. Forget about the eight ball.”

All I said was, “Okay.” Then he got out of the car, shut the door and walked away. When he opened the screen door to the house, he turned around to look at me. He pulled off his hat and gave me an upward nod, the staccato birth of a union that only death would undo.

The next day he accompanied me to a small party at my friend’s house. I don’t remember what drugs I did or who was even there. What sticks to memory like an old staticky black and white movie that plays over and over is the moment we were walking to the car and he grabbed me by the back of my jeans, spun me around, slipped his cold long fingers in my hood to brace my neck as he bent down and kissed me.

What words grant justice to this snow globe moment? Tethered to each other, we could never let go. How do I tell our story? It is one of hunger and violence, sorrow and death, and more love than B and I could ever manage. It doesn’t turn out the way we would have wanted. I can’t write us out of this tragedy. All I can do is conjure up the words that breathe B alive, if even for a few moments. When I’m not writing, I can kiss our little daughters. They are the best part of the story, evidence that the eight ball was wrong.


Elegy: Part One

The writer is rarely in the now. Hemingway couldn’t write about Michigan until he was in Paris, but I don’t have the grace of time and distance. Today I can not pick up a pen. It has to be a chisel. I want to be Michelangelo. Let me chip away at my marbled block of words until I find my David.

His name is B and he is a lump of death. There is no metaphor here.

Let me begin again. I remember sitting in a basement writing, more-so pretending to write, while his long fingers flicked yellow ochre across a canvas in attempt to halo the sun. It must have been his hands that I fell in love with first, fingernails donned in acrylic. Years later our daughters would be gifted those exact hands.

Hospice is a mix between a fancy funeral home and a five star hotel equipped with a top notch pharmacy. They bathe him each night and afterwards I crawl in his bed and cling to him, as if clinging can save us. I kiss him and sometimes it’s like he puckers up, but sometimes he smacks his lips like I am a piece of fried chicken. He is starving to death.

I remember a Sunday afternoon in my newly built house. He pulled me to him on the recliner, my knees suctioned to his hips. We kissed and kissed and kissed.

As I write, he is next to me, wide eyed and staring. One pupil is bigger than the other. The nurse says that is common with brain damage. Because of the tracheotomy, his labored breathing is like the purr of a cat.

He used to call me his kitten. So much of our love is epistolary. He’d be in jail and I’d be in rehab. I’d address him as My Heart’s Darling. He’d write things like, “You live in my bones.”

I don’t want to want this to be over. He should have on boxer briefs, not a diaper. I want to touch his hip bones or see that patch of hair below his belly button. These are things that belong to me.

I remember the first time we made love. It was in the back of my Jeep Liberty. We put the seats down. He said, “If I take you, I’m not giving you back.” The cold of December juxtaposed with bodies on fire.

Sober girl alive. Beautiful man dying. This was not supposed to be our story.

Once I had my students write six word short stories, using Hemingway’s example, “Baby shoes. For sale. Never worn.” It’s a difficult assignment. How much mystery and sadness can be packed into six words? I only remember one student’s story.

“They kissed and then they didn’t.”

A Series of Bad Ideas

The itch of restlessness is no stranger to me. Before drugs played a role in my life, I often scratched this itch by putting into play some really bad ideas. My earliest memory of feeling this way was preschool. Ohio heat stuck to my skin through my corduroys as I sailed through the air on the swings, bored. I could never get high enough. I remember singing Joan Jett, “I saw him standing there by the record machine. I knew he must have been about seventeen.” The song waltzed through my veins to my heart and just as I belted out seventeen, it dawned on me that I was in love with Michael Grand and I needed to make him fall for me.

I jumped off the swing like an Olympic gymnast and tore through the playground to find him. I spotted him climbing on top of the monkey bars, conveniently alone. The minute Michael turned to me and I saw those Teddy Graham colored eyes, my confidence evaporated. It wasn’t going to be as simple as I had hoped. Perhaps I would need to impress him before I dropped the L word. I bent down to undo and redo my Velcro shoes. The sun squinted my eyes as I climbed up the red caged bars.

When I got to the top, I dropped through the bars, hanging upside down like a trapeze artist. This was forbidden of course, but I’ve never been one for rules. After thirty seconds or so, I reached up and grabbed the bars, loosened my legs, and dropped to the pavement. I nailed the landing. Surely my talent would be the ticket to his heart.

“I want to do that. Is it hard?” His voice was as lovely as his perfect tiny teeth. This question presented me an opportunity to secure our fate. If we broke the rules together our rebel love affair would ignite.

“Come on. I’ll help you,” I said, tucking my blond hair shyly behind my ear. Standing beneath him I reached my arms up and grabbed one hand at a time as he lowered himself. He was even more beautiful upside down. Goosebumps rose to my skin and the entire playground took on a soft hue. I swear I could hear the wedding song. This would explain why I didn’t hear him when he said, “Don’t let go,” something I would remember hours later. My intention in letting go of his soft hands was to allow him the full experience of hanging upside down on the red caged monkey bars.

I remember the fear in his eyes as he dropped head first onto the concrete. This was the eighties after all, when schools weren’t hip to paving playgrounds with kid safe soft stuff. Blood painted the ground as my Michael screamed in agony. I remember running to the monitor. Forced to stand back, I watched as the paramedics loaded him into the ambulance. Our short love faded as fast as the sirens speeding him to the hospital. Michael returned to school a few days later, his head partially shaved, exposing a row of many stitches. Things were never the same between us.

The disease of addiction or alcoholism is a disease of wanting more. While my drug of choice was heroin or at times meth, when I drank, I drank like an alcoholic. I remember the first time I got drunk. I was 18 and though I had experimented with weed and acid, I didn’t know much about alcohol. My friend had just moved into her first apartment with her boyfriend. To celebrate, they invited over a few friends. When her boyfriend asked what I wanted him to buy me to drink, I had no idea what to say, especially since I thought beer tasted like feet. “Jose Cuervo,” I said, even though I didn’t know what it was. So when he returned with the tequila, I had no idea of its strength. My friend got out two shot glasses and handed me one. This confused me. It didn’t seem like enough alcohol to me. That’s when I got the idea that if we were going to drink out of such small glasses, we should do it every ten minutes.

I pulled my pager out of my purse to keep time. The first shot disgusted me, but I finish what I start. The second warmed my entire body. After the third I realized that ten minutes between drinks is entirely too long. I switched my schedule to every five minutes. That is the last thing I remember. I woke up the next day in a Dead Kennedys’ shirt that said, “Too drunk to fuck,” my hair soaking wet. Apparently I had puked on myself and all over the new carpet after I did a seductive dance on the coffee table to a NOFX song. Luckily my friend showered me, dressed me, and put me to bed.

In my life I have impulsively executed a series of bad ideas. If someone were to ask my best friend Kelly what idea of mine was the worst, she would say, “The fire baton.” By the second year of college I had forced myself to acquire a taste for beer. It was a Friday night and I had invited around twenty people to my apartment for a small gathering. I was on my sixth or seventh Corona when someone asked me if I remembered twirling baton in ninth grade. I quickly ran into the spare room to get my baton as proof that I remembered those three short months. I don’t know who it was that asked me if I could still twirl, but without hesitation, I performed the high school fight song. Everyone clapped. I sat down to drink more beer, a bit bored with the evening, the baton still in my hand. It was then that I realized I had never fulfilled my baton destiny. It had to be done right then. I went to my kitchen and found dish rags that I wrapped around the ends of the baton with rubber bands. I grabbed some sort of aerosol and led the party outside. I remember a single second of glory as I tossed the baton into the air, flames magnificent, the catch perfect. However, I hadn’t taken into consideration that rubber bands will melt and break or that I should have pulled up my hair. Thankfully, except for a patch of my hair, no one was injured.

As a parent, the choices I make will directly affect my daughters. In choosing to live a sober life, I know that in order to make a good decision, I must not act out of boredom or restlessness. If I have an idea that I’m not sure is healthy, I ask someone else in recovery. Chances are that if I have to ask someone about it, it’s not something that I should do. My impulsivity has subsided a bit, except when it comes to Skittles or chocolate. I suppose that splurging on candy is a step up from using cleaning spray to assist in igniting dish rags rubber banded to a baton.

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