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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.

The Struggle is Real

“Diet pop, diet pop, diet pop.” All three of my daughters are singing this, not together, exactly. It sounds like that stupid row your boat song that I was forced to sing in kindergarten, where I would start the first line and then someone else would chime in, off tune, and then another person and another and another, until we sounded like a bunch of drunk sailors on helium who had just polished off something gross like Southern Comfort or Mad Dog.

I don’t give my girls pop and I certainly don’t give them anything that contains aspartame. Somehow, they have figured out how strongly I loathe such things, and at some attempt at rebellion, they wait until I go to a meeting so that they can con Aunt Barb into sharing her soda with them.

I already know how it goes. Kathryn, the oldest by a minute, tilts the bottle up, opens her entire throat, and like some second string quarterback with little big man syndrome, takes three gulps and most of the pop is gone. Her twin Evelyn starts screaming that she drank all of it so Aunt Barb reaches in her purse and pulls out another bottle. Within seconds both twins have gone from preschoolers to sorority sisters and their baby sister Gwynnie is pounding her fists in the air, saying, “Chug. Chug. Chug. Chug.” It’s just not a pretty site.

The only thing more disturbing than that image is when I return home past nine and find three disheveled, caffeine high, little girls, running around, kicking objects, and singing the diet pop song. Edith, my sweet pug, is hiding behind a chair and her curlicue of a tail is straightened like a dagger.

This is where anxiety enters, settles on my shoulders like fog upon Loch Ness. Seven thoughts simultaneously ricochet through my head. These kids are never going to sleep. Why is Gwynnie naked? I’ve only been gone ninety minutes and every article that they own is out. Is Kathryn ever going to take off that mermaid dress? Why are there Legos in the fucking bathroom? I would rather live in a post apocalyptic time where all toys are charred. Is it really that wrong to give them Benadryl when they aren’t having allergy issues?

I wade through some Legos, shut the door, and sit on the cool linoleum of the bathroom. This is where I would practice breathing, perhaps say a prayer, but I am interrupted by my ass being soaked in hand soap and toothpaste. Meanwhile, the girls start their own snail pace clean up routine in the living room. Their singing hasn’t halted, but now, I have my own tune. When they scream, “Di-et-pop, di-et-pop,” I whisper to myself, “Hair-o-in, hair-o-in.” Humoring myself is the only coping mechanism I’ve mastered when it comes to handling situations that I find stressful.

For years I thought that I had a drug problem because I really loved drugs. Consequently, I believed that I was a horrible person, that The Ramones “I wanna be sedated” was forever going to be my theme song. Recovery started when I realized that the problem was that drugs were my solution.

Anxiety is irrational. I have no fear of speaking in front of large crowds, but I’d rather take a bullet than call the water company and tell them that a hydrant is leaking in front of my house. I have an MFA in writing, but the thought of filling out kindergarten applications makes my heart race. I’d sooner climb Mount Everest than file my taxes. Simple tasks arrange themselves in my brain like baby cobras and I cover my eyes, crouch down, paralyzed. In the beginning, drugs charmed the snakes, rendered them harmless. It made them dance and who doesn’t love a good salsa?

Some days are heavier than others and not much writing gets done. There are many stories to tell. Some are tender ballads, but many are silent war stories, where people withered away and friends died way too young. I will write them eventually. Today, tucking my litter of little girls into bed and falling asleep next to them, sober, is enough. It’s November, but I can file my taxes tomorrow. While I don’t particularly like snakes, I am learning how to handle them.


The Best Moment

Whenever I travel, I wish to find a place that I can inhabit for a moment, curl up like a cat, a smudge of a foreign city that resonates in my bones as the truest possible representative of that very place and very time.

I remember this night in Paris. The candlelight, a lopsided table, the wine. My friend and I, exhausted from our previous backpacking days in London, slouched in wooden chairs and tossed bread into our needy mouths.  Americans eat dinner much earlier than the Parisians so Kelli and I were the only ones there, in this tiny restaurant in Montmartre. I love the French. I speak their language to them, they laugh, smile at my attempt, and then speak English to me.

We left the restaurant happy, full, and drunk, linking our arms together and skipping, foolishly, Laverne and Shirley style. The city lights prepared to unveil themselves to us as the sun said its goodbyes in oranges and pinks. On our way back to our hotel I spotted a narrow staircase. We quickly started running up it. Traveling is all about detours. I remember fighting for my breath when I made it to the top after ten minutes or more. Kelli next to me, our hands slid to our knees as we gasped for air and giggled.

We had arrived, accidentally, at Sacre Coeur, a stunning church built upon the highest point in Paris. The sun was setting and the city of love or lights bowed beneath us. Dozens of people lounged across the wide steps preceding the entrance. A man played an Oasis song on guitar, and everyone, I mean everyone, despite their first language, sang along, “I said maybe, you’re going to be the one that saves me. And after all, you’re my wonderwall.” Even the ones who had their heads rested in their lovers’ laps were mouthing the words.

I remember it keenly and with such tenderness. However, my gratitude swells from having observed such universal camaraderie, not from being a part of it. I know the words to the song, but that day, I did not sing along.

In one of his hundreds of letters, Vincent van Gogh wrote, “For me life might well remain solitary. I haven’t perceived those to whom I’ve been most attached other than through a glass, darkly.” Is this an artist/writer thing? A mental illness thing? The answer does not matter. I have gone most of my life seeing and feeling the world without having direct access to it.

Let me tell the truth though it is far from holy. I remember one of the best moments. Less than a month after I graduated college, my gallbladder, sardined with gallstones, forced me to race to the emergency room. It was a cold January in Ohio, I suppose. All Januaries are cold in Ohio. The thing is, I don’t remember the weather. I don’t even remember the pain. What I do remember as exact as the days of my daughters’ births, is the Dilaudid.

A nurse walked in and set a few things down on a silver tray. A loaded syringe. Latex gloves. A very big rubber band that would I would twenty seconds later come to understand as a tourniquet. She tied it around my arm and tugged at it the way my kindergarten teacher did my shoelaces. Then came the two finger tap to scout for a vein. I could feel the cool of the glove as she pressed on a few contenders. Once she found the winner, she removed the cap from the needle and said, “You’ll feel better in a minute, sweetheart. Little pinch.”

She lied about everything. Seven seconds. It took seven seconds for a warmth to infiltrate my body. The room took on a softer hue. It felt better than better, better than perfect. There was no pinch, only release. The glass curtains to the world opened up and I entered, centerstage.

I had no idea that I would chase that feeling for so many years to come.

No, Charlotte, No!

“You wear your heart on your sleeve,” people tell me. The writer in me wishes they would find a more interesting way to say this. The addict in me starts to brainstorm a garden of ways to prove them wrong. Don my bicep in a skull tattoo. Take up MMA fighting. Tell them I went to Emotions Anonymous and they kicked me out. Cancel Disney on Ice and take my toddlers to a Slayer concert. Start using the C word, and I don’t mean cocaine.

The truth is that my heart sits stapled to my forehead.

The earliest memory I have of my overpassionate display of emotion is from first grade. My mom thought it darling to dress me daily in Osh Kosh overalls. I was wearing my lavender ones, my blonde hair in pigtail braids. I remember doing my walk-run to get to the front of the rug for story time. Books, even then, offered refuge from my traffic jam mind.

The current mother in me wants to say that I was sitting criss cross applesauce, but this was 1983. So this particular day, on a particular brown rug, in a pair of suspenders that I didn’t much like, I sat Indian style while Mrs. Snyder neared the end of Charlotte’s Web. The characters in the book seemed like classmates to me. I knew them intimately; and while my heart was scraped a bit by the beginning of the book when Fern could no longer keep Wilbur the pig as a pet, I quickly healed when he settled into farm life with his new friend Charlotte.

What a spider! What a best friend! She saved Wilbur’s life over and over. It was the greatest story I had ever heard. Then the author, one Mr. E.B. White, just as life was perfect for the pig spider duo, decided to kill off Charlotte. I felt like someone karate chopped my gut. “What?” I shouted. Mrs. Snyder shushed me. I didn’t hear anything she said after that. Wilbur’s best friend was dead, and if that wasn’t horrible enough, she didn’t die on the farm. She died at the county fair.

I imagine the other students felt a little sad when Charlotte died, but I was the only one that day, when Mrs. Snyder stopped reading, on my knees, six-year-old clenched hands beating the floor, screaming, “No, Charlotte, no!”

I don’t remember being embarrassed by my hysterics that day, but it wasn’t long after that my mom started telling me that I was too sensitive. Her intentions were pure. She didn’t want to see her only child beaten up by the world.

I have trudged through countless years of my life taking quite the ass beating, believing that sensitivity is a character defect. I thought myself weak. My feelings, I thought, were simply too much. In an interview published in The Paris Review, E.B. White said in reference to his childhood, “I lacked for nothing except confidence.” Maybe that’s how writers are born. We are watchers even as children, unsure of what we are seeing or what to make of beautiful and ugly happenings, unsure of ourselves.

I don’t often question how I became a heroin addict. When the time beckons, I will tell the stories. My mom is of no fault in this situation. The disease model, the pictures I’ve seen of the alcoholic brain and the non-alcoholic brain have me convinced that I am wired differently. As a parent, I hope to celebrate my girls’ sensitivity while modeling for them the healthy ways in which to channel it. The lies I told myself growing up, specifically that I was just too much of everything, only fueled my seeking of sedation.

I didn’t write much after I turned from popping pills to sniffing heroin. And then there was the needle, not only the death of my voice, but the near thief of my life.

Emotional sobriety pokes its tender head to the surface long after the needle and bottle are removed. Some days she only shows up in moments, like when my three daughters are criss cross applesauced in front of me and I wipe my eyes after Charlotte dies and continue to the part of the story where Wilbur watches the hundreds of babies crawl from her egg sac, the last masterpiece. While most of the babies venture from the barn, three mousy voiced spiders decide to stay and live with Wilbur. My twin four-year-olds are smiling while my three-year-old asks, “Will they stay with Wilbur forever?” When I tell her yes she says, “That’s my favorite part.”

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