Some Things Calculable

Posted in Gina Warren, Junk 14: Fall 2014 with tags , , , on September 29, 2014 by Editors

by Gina Warren

Some Things Calculable

“I’m noticing some tension between us,” Mom tells me, leaning forward to look past Dad, cramped into the narrow airplane seat between us. “And I would like to clear the air before our trip.”

Ten minutes until take-off.

Eighteen hours since I found Mom’s stash of Vicodin in the top left bathroom drawer.

Two pieces of luggage under my feet.

Twenty days since Mom put her elbows on the counter after dinner and held her face in her hands. She stammered that she’d been thinking about using for four months, since her father had died suddenly. She told me that night, “I haven’t used because I know if I do I will lose you.” There are no numbers or fractions to make pain divisible by a common denominator, to make computation possible.

Two hours and seven minutes before we land in Texas for a layover.

Four days we are about to spend together in New Orleans for my cousin’s wedding.

Some things are calculable while others are not. Time and objects broken down into some small segments are understandable, yet the idea of “clearing the air” does compute.

I slept three and a half hours last night, drank one beer and three glasses of wine, worried out-loud to one friend for two-and-a-half hours about the time I was about to spend with my parents.

“I don’t think it’s that easy,” I tell her. “I’m really upset about this and I don’t know how long that will last. We can’t just clear the air.”

Her cheery demeanor switches suddenly. “Fine. Fine,” she says sharply before shoving a water bottle into the seat pocket in front of her. The plastic crunches and crinkles as it bends. “You can decide to be mad,” she snaps. “Would you be happier if I was sobbing constantly?”

Five alarms set to wake me up at 5:00 a.m. Two cups of coffee and three Excedrin in my system. One mild headache. One upset stomach.

“No.” Dad is still sitting between us, leaning back as if to avoid the crossfire that has been characteristic of my mother’s and my brief morning interactions.

Nine minutes until take-off.

“I think you would be. I think you want me to feel bad,” she says, and I can’t help but think that she should be sobbing, at least a little. “Well, I’m going to have a good time in New Orleans.”

Thirteen hours since my mother and I sat in the kitchen together on high bar stools, talking about what happened. Six oblong white pills imprinted with M365—the remainder of her stash, relinquished to a Ziploc bag—on the counter between us.

Three things opiates do: one) relieve anxiety, two) dull pain, three) physically addict you. Out of five Americans, one has misused prescription drugs. One out of ten high school students has tried Vicodin. Five to ten percent of the population walk through life carrying a brain predisposed to addictive tendencies.

Five days since we sat at the kitchen counter at six in the afternoon and I asked her if she was still thinking about using. She said no, asserted she was happier, promised she would ask me for help if she needed it.

Zero ways in which I know how to comfort my mother in the wake of her father’s sudden absence.

Zero minutes until take-off, the plane rattling cold and metal around us. I try to disappear into the mild, warm nausea in my stomach. Somehow, as if to defy physics and gravity and everything calculable, the metal bird inexplicably rises.

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Red, Brown and Navy Blue

Posted in Junk 13: Spring 2014, Kathy Curto with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 19, 2014 by Editors

by Kathy Curto

Red, Brown and Navy Blue

Jack’s scabs are back. Crusty and mostly brown but there are some red ones, too, and they go up and down his skinny arms. On the top of his arms he used to have smooth, round muscles that looked like perfect baseballs when he flexed which always made my mother say “Sure, this one’s Hercules with those arms.”

I told him once he had Popeye the Sailor Man arms. Except Popeye lost his baseballs again and now it’s just skin and scabs. Some of the scabs are round like mosquito bites but there are a few rectangular ones, too. I spend tons of time looking at my brother’s arms.

One of them even looks like the deep scrape I got on the back of my ankle last Tuesday when the screen door closed too fast and I lost my balance. I was wearing my new, navy blue Dr. Scholl’s and still wasn’t used to the bump under my toes. The special bump that’s supposed to make legs skinnier. That’s what the ad says.

“You’re gonna break your neck in those things,” my mother snapped when we were in Grant’s Department Store two weeks ago and I waved the pair of the sandals I wanted in front of her. “Ma, please,” I begged. She caved fast but, when I think about it now, I’m not surprised. She’s real tired these days and things are all mixed up. So she didn’t actually say yes to the Dr. Scholl’s but just motioned to put the shoebox in our shopping cart. Then she sighed her famous long, deep, hard sigh. She was fed up, I could tell. “Alright, let’s go pay,” she said and pushed the cart toward the registers. I walked beside her and when we stopped to wait next to the other shoppers who were buying summer shoes and bathing suits I noticed the frosty white eye shadow she put on that morning looked grey and there was a loose bobby pin just above her ear sticking up and coming out of her beehive hairdo.

And so as we waited together to pay the Grants cashier something hit me: I realized that she wasn’t the only one who was fed up. I was, too, but with myself. I was about to take the box back to the shoe department and say, Ma, I changed my mind but then the cashier said “Next!” so I just put it on the counter with our other stuff– her new panties and the stockings she was buying for the lady on our block who doesn’t leave her house.

The truth of it all is this:  I got the shoes because Jack’s using again. My mother’s had it up to here. These days she walks around with bobby pins falling out of her hair and dirty-looking eyelids. She’s tired, scared and worried and I should have just kept my trap shut about the sandals.

Navy blue Dr. Scholl’s that can make fat legs skinny are the last thing on her mind.


“Jack, stop picking at that,” I say. “It’s so gross.”

It’s eight o’clock on a Wednesday night and we’re lying on the couch in our den, eating pistachio nuts and watching The Waltons. He stops picking at his arm and then he starts throwing his empty shells, one by one, into the ashtray on the coffee table. When he does this I notice the scabs even more because he’s moving his arms around.

My mother’s lectures the last couple of years, the ones about Jack getting clean and staying clean obviously didn’t work. It’s not just Baggies of reefer and clips with feathers on the ends that he hides in stupid places like his underwear drawer and the console of his Camaro. There are needles now, the Baggies are way, way smaller and the stuff inside is white powder not weed.

He calls it crank and my mother calls it crap. I only know what they call it and where he hides it because I snoop. I spend almost as much time snooping as I do looking at my brother’s arms.

Which brings me back to the den. I zero in on his arms again when he throws the nutshells. I try not to dwell because my mother is always telling me, “Don’t dwell, for God’s sake!”

I pray instead.  Dear God, help him stop. Then I wonder if I should be saying make him stop instead of help him stop. Can God make somebody stop?

“Ha, ha,” I tease when he misses the ashtray. Then I smile which is weird and unusual because it makes the whole scene feel like we could have a white picket fence in our front yard. Or like we sit around and eat apple pie all the time. This worries me. We’re not a white-picket-fence-apple-pie family.

He laughs a small laugh and I wonder if he’s high. These days, I’m always wondering if he’s high. Then he tosses a whole nut at me and laughs again. I smile (Again? Is this a dream?) and am closer to the white fence and the pie than ever before. But I don’t throw any back at him. I want to but I don’t. I can’t. I want us to be like the brothers and sisters on television, like the families on television, who play football in their grassy front yards and toss nutshells at each other for fun. But we’re not like that. So I let him toss the shells at me and I don’t toss any back.

We finish watching The Waltons and he says, “I’m outta here.” Then he grabs the keys to his Camaro and leaves. I slip into my new Dr. Scholl’s. I want to ask God for skinny legs but decide to hold off until Jack gets clean. So I take a walk around our block three times instead.

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Mountain Light

Posted in Junk 13: Spring 2014, Mark Liebenow with tags , , , on April 14, 2014 by Editors

by Mark Liebenow

Mountain Light by Mark Liebenow

Light flows down the mountains and fills the photographs of Yosemite I took a few weeks ago. October’s sunlight crinkles and flashes off the cascades that rush toward Happy Isles, and when the river enters the green shade under the trees, on the left side of the island where Evelyn liked to sit, it evens out to a powerful black surge. The memory of sitting here with her last year radiates through the glen. It was her last trip. Six months later she would die of an unknown heart problem in her forties, and my journey through grief began.

In one photo of the far side of the river, I notice the reflection of a face, and it looks like Evelyn’s. Kind of. The water is still, and the image doesn’t look like the reflection of the trees, bushes, or anything else that could naturally be there, no matter how the photo is turned. So it must be her face. But not quite. I mention this to Barbara when she calls a day later. She says her psychic friend was talking to her recently about other matters when he mentioned that Ev was interrupting him, wanting to know what Barbara was looking at. Barbara said it was a picture of Evelyn. Ev laughed. She had forgotten what she looked like.

But the reason that Barbara was calling was to tell me that when I was in Yosemite and asked Ev to do something to let me know if she was still around, that Ev had responded. “That must have been,” I say slowly, realizing that I hadn’t told Barbara about this yet, “when the yellow sunset turned red.” I had been sitting in Leidig Meadow and on a whim asked Evelyn to give me a sign. At that moment the clouds changed colors and I was speechless. I wrote it off as a coincidence, even though a friend who lives in the valley had never seen anything like it. Now it takes a step closer to being real.

I was in Yosemite for a number of reasons—to hike through the mountains in its fall colors, but also to honor last year when Evelyn and I helped our friends Francesco and Molly celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary. Molly had been struggling with brain cancer for most of their marriage. Surgery and chemotherapy had halted the disease, but we wondered if Molly sensed her remission was ending. That evening the four of us thought of nothing but love and good friends at an elegant, candlelight dinner at the posh Ahwahnee Hotel.

The next morning, Ev spotted a Native American craft item that she knew would be perfect for Francesco and Molly and bought it for them. Recently they wrote about this in a card of support, “We have an image stuck in our heads of Evelyn coming from the native museum, impishly grinning, and holding a bag with the Indian corn maiden angel inside it for us. It was something we had just been looking at and decided we couldn’t afford.”

I weave these threads of memories together to keep me connected to the past and to the people I’ve loved. It turned out that Molly’s cancer was returning, and they moved from the Bay Area to Southern California to be closer to her doctors. Their journey together is now measured by time.

Closing my eyes, I still see Francesco and Molly standing in their wedding clothes by the flat rock in the woods where the Ahwahnechees ground acorns into food, sharing their promises to be there for each other, no matter what happened. Evelyn and I still walk in the warm sunlight that seems shaded in eclipse, a half light careful not to shine too bright and overwhelm the valley. Immersed in light, we make our way through the golden grass of the meadow down to the Merced River, the River of Mercy.

Moments of eternity like this do not come often, nor the grace I felt sitting next to Evelyn in the hospital. Although she never woke up, I sensed that she waited for me to arrive so that I could share the grace of being with her when death came. During those long, quiet hours, in the space of ordinary time, life and death quietly exchanged places, and darkness whispered its secret that this was the completion of light.

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Posted in Junk 12: Winter 2014, Robin Silbergleid with tags , , , , , on February 10, 2014 by Editors


by Robin Silbergleid


Here are the basic facts: A ceiling fan is a mechanical fan, usually electrically powered, suspended from the ceiling of a room, that uses hub-mounted rotating paddles to circulate air. Ceiling fans generally spin between 80 and 300 revolutions-per-minute (RPMs) with about 220 RPMs as a common high speed and 100 a common low.*


What do I do? What do I do? Her feet shuffle back and forth, her weight bouncing on her knees like a marionette. This is what I can see from one eye from beneath the towel, where I am curled, in the single hallway of our upstairs, before I collapse, holding my face because if I don’t it might fall off. My right hand is shaking, twitching. I don’t know what to do.

I am thinking: blood, bone, brain damage. The children will be orphaned.

She is eight. She was in her bedroom reading. I was in the bedroom with the baby. I had just nursed him, changed his diaper.

In his crib, now, where she put him, the baby is screaming. I hear him. And the whir of the blades.

911, I tell her, now now now.

And then, when they don’t come, neighbor.

Oh jeez, he says, eventually, oh jeez, his big feet on the creaky floor.


There are five blades on the fan above my bed. There were four wounds to my face: two low on the forehead, one on the right side of my nose, one under my left eye, so close to the eyeball that when the doctor stitched up my face I could feel her tickle my eyelashes with the needle. I had two black eyes. My hand twitched from brain trauma.

According to the TV show Mythbusters, it is impossible for a domestic ceiling fan to decapitate a human being or do more than cause “minor” injury.

The upstairs of the house looked, my friend said, like a murder scene. There was so much blood that when I pulled down my pants in the emergency room I was sure I had gotten my period. It was July in Michigan; the fan was spinning fast.


I could say, this is why you don’t clean.
I could say, a different kind of domestic violence.
I could say, this is why you don’t ever stand on a bed. Ever.
I could say, I got lucky.
It’s only a scar.

But I am thinking of my daughter’s small white chair where I sat while my neighbors swapped cell phone numbers on construction paper and crayon. The one whom I know from the bus stop slipped sandals on my ruddy feet. The one who lives next door, who likes to garden, stayed with my children–the baby with a bottle of breastmilk from the freezer, the big girl praised for her bravery– while her husband drove me to the hospital. This is the spin I choose to put on the story, a story of human kindness and people looking out for each other, because the other story, the one where small children watch their mother’s blood pool on the wood floors during the twenty minutes it takes for the ambulance to arrive, is unfathomable.


Every morning my daughter watches while I put make-up on. If your scar was flipped over you would look like Harry Potter. My hand trembles. She turns off the fan. The damage is not minor.

*courtesy of Wikipedia

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The Miserable

Posted in Andrea Clark Mason, Junk 12: Winter 2014 with tags , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2014 by Editors

The Miserable
by Andrea Clark Mason

When Anne Hathaway walked onstage in a pink gown to receive an Oscar for her role in Les Miserables, I remembered the year I had seen the musical of the same name: 1988. I was in seventh grade. I had been happy and well-adjusted in elementary school, but in middle school, my female friends became intimidating, and an influx of hormones meant I suddenly didn’t know how to act around boys who used to be my friends. I turned silent, unsure of what to say to anyone except my best friend, who attended another school, and my family. I took refuge in the story about the French revolution. Les Miserables had come to Philadelphia, and my parents had taken me to see it. I was enchanted with the story, with revolutionary France, with the young French orphan who seemed to be about my age, with all the songs. I bought the double CD and would play it in my room, singing along with the lyrics until I knew them all.

I ended up seeing the musical three times, once more with my grandmother, and then again with my best friend. Each time I felt more and more part of the story and like everything would have been okay if only I could be swept up in revolution. I was a romantic, taken with stories, and it was hard for me to conceptualize that this was just a story, not what real revolutionary France must have been like.

In the one class I liked at school, Humanities, we were allowed to do a project on “something that interested us.” One of my classmates wanted to be a TV news anchor woman when she was an adult, so that’s what she was doing her report on. I remember wondering how she could know already what she wanted to be when she grew up. I had no idea what I wanted to be, and there wasn’t even anything I was really interested in … except Les Miserables. My teacher looked dubious when I told him what I wanted to do my paper on, but he finally conceded, saying I could find reviews and so on.

One day we had class in the library, and we sat at small tables. My bag was up on the table, but I was paying attention to the librarian, who was telling us how to find sources on our topic. I heard some snickering behind me, and when I turned, I saw two boys holding a sanitary napkin. They had gone through my bag, opening compartments until they’d found the pad. I should have been angry, but instead I was embarrassed and unsure of what to do. I had gotten my period for the first time a few months before but not since then. I was carrying a pad around “just in case” in the event it returned at some unexpected moment. I grabbed my bag, and checked to make sure everything else was still there. Then I closed the zippered compartments they’d opened and tried to sneer at them. But I couldn’t. Instead, I hung my head and thankfully got up quickly when the bell rang only a few minutes later.

When the movie came out, I didn’t expect that seeing it would make me remember seventh grade, the year before I eventually changed schools and began attending private school. Perhaps I had connected with what most of the characters in Les Miserables display – a lack of power to change the difficult circumstances around them that are larger and more powerful than their own lives. Perhaps everyone in my grade was busy growing their first pubic hairs, learning the ins and outs of cliques and realizing how much their world was changing, but I was lucky to have a team on my side, even if they were imaginary characters – Jean Val Jean, Fantine, Cosette, Marius, and of course, Gavroche, the pre-adolescent street urchin around whom I felt pretty sure I knew exactly what I would say – Let’s sing a song!

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Reading While Driving

Posted in Junk 11: Fall 2013, Michael Lacare with tags , , on December 2, 2013 by Editors

reading While Driving
by Michael Lacare

Whenever I drive, I often find myself reading a book. Not an E-book, but an actual hardcover or paperback book. I don’t do this every time I’m driving, nor do I do it if there happens to be someone else with me in the car, but typically when I’m riding solo.

I pry open the book at a stoplight, prop it up against the steering wheel and gaze down at the words. Every sentence or two, I habitually glance up at the light. Once it turns green, I hold the book up with my right hand while I grip the top of the wheel with my left. I’ve become quite adept at the art of reading while operating heavy machinery, and I’m convinced that no one is more skillful at it than me.

As of October 1, 2013, the state of Florida banned texting while driving, but nowhere does it say anything about perusing a good book. I know what you’re thinking: Distracted driving is still dangerous and I’ve got to be a few sandwiches short of a picnic to even consider it, but I couldn’t help and think about all that time I spend behind the wheel, and how many books that equates to. I once read Steinbeck’s, The Winter of Our Discontent entirely from behind a steering wheel. If people can apply make-up or stare at their GPS devices, I figure I could catch up on my reading.

This works especially well on interstates, since there is less stop-and-go traffic. There I am, barreling down the highway somewhere in the vicinity of 70-80 MPH, my hair disheveled from the wind, all the while absorbing Russian literature.

I’ve spotted other drivers committing equal, if not, worse offenses, by gabbing incessantly on their phones, or head-banging to music that blares from speakers that make your chest thump. There’s the soccer mom who’s distracted by her kids; a father who spends an excessive amount of time reaching behind his seat to discipline his children; a pet owner who permits their dog to sit on their lap, as though the Bull Mastiff was the one actually doing the driving; and last but not least, the law enforcement officer who is much too preoccupied with her built-in laptop that protrudes from the dash.

One time I stopped at a light and a man in the car next to me, sitting in the passenger seat, caught me reading. We locked eyes for a moment or two and when the light changed, the car he was riding in darted forward and I never saw him again.

Geez, I thought. I never got the chance to tell him that The Road by Cormac McCarthy had altered my life for the better.

This brings me to the long-form novel. I don’t bother with these in the car, since the longer the book, the heavier it tends to be and the more difficult it becomes to hold with one hand.

The other day, I observed a woman chomping down on a burger and fries while she drove, pushing the burger deep into the recesses of her mouth with both hands, and steering the wheel with her knee. I wondered if eating in the car had been a habit with her, or was this just an isolated case. Maybe she was running late for an appointment. I often tried justifying these kinds of things in my mind.

When I drove from New York to Florida, I watched a man change out of his suit and tie, and into a T-shirt and shorts, all the while driving down I-95.

He’s got game, I thought and let my eyes drift back down to the book I was reading. I started it the day before I left on my trip and by the time I reached the Blackjack Oaks and Slash Pines of South Carolina, I was more than three-quarters of the way through.

My hope is to make the transition to crossword puzzles, and not the easy ones found on the racks of grocery checkout lanes, the ones where the average clue reads something like, What’s a three-letter word for feline? I’m referring to the Sunday New York Times edition, the grand Poobah of crosswords.

Picture this: I’m coursing down Route 66 with the top down and the end of a pencil in my mouth thinking, a seven-letter word for Distracted is Abashed.

Life is good.

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A Bagel Never Jumped into My Mouth

Posted in Allen Zadoff, Junk 10: Winter 2013 with tags , , , , , , , on January 15, 2013 by Editors

8 Hours to a New You!

by Allen Zadoff

One day in 1995, I was walking toward a McDonald’s on Eighth Street in New York’s West Village. My plan had been to buy healthy food at the grocery store and make myself a nice lunch, but the moment I stepped onto the street, like so many times before, my good intentions were tossed out the window for the siren song of fast food. I started to cry as I walked, knowing I was about to do the thing I didn’t want to do, the thing that had been hurting me all my life. Now at more than 350 pounds, this thing was getting near killing me.

Suddenly, I stopped in midstride and turned back toward Washington Square Park. I’d never walked away from a binge before, and I had no idea why I was doing it then. Maybe I wasn’t really walking away. Maybe I was going to hijack a pretzel cart. I couldn’t be sure.

Five minutes later, I found myself sitting on a bench near New York University, and there was not a pretzel in the vicinity.

It was lunchtime on a warm summer day, and the park was filled with people. Businessmen ate sandwiches from brown paper bags. A line of students bought hot dogs and sodas from a food vendor. A young, good-looking couple shared deep kisses on the grass, while a tattooed man with a pit bull watched them out of the corner of his eye. The park seemed a microcosm of the world, and even in my despair I could see the world was filled with love, joy, and human interaction. Food was a part of it, but no more than a small part.

Did I really live in the same world? The world of the park was rich, yet my own was desolate. Food had become my entire life. I felt doomed to be forever separate from those around me—hiding, eating, growing fatter. Other people lived life and celebrated it, but my sole purpose had become the accumulation of pain-filled, highly caloric days.

Sitting and watching the students go by, longing to be a part of life rather than separate from it, I was struck with an intense sense of déjà vu. I had been here before. In fact, I’d spent my life here.

At ten years old, I’d sat on a hill at summer camp, watching other kids play in the lake because I felt fat and was afraid to be seen jiggling in a bathing suit.

At fifteen, I’d sat on the bench at a school dance, watching other people dance because I thought I was too fat to dance.

At twenty, I’d skipped my college graduation because I didn’t want to be seen in public at 320 pounds— ironic, given that a graduation gown was about the only thing that would have fit me at the time. I’d stayed home instead, unplugged my phone, and spent the afternoon listening to the sounds of horns honking and music blaring as people drove to postgraduation parties all over the neighborhood.

At twenty-five, I’d walked the streets of New York with food hidden in my backpack, racing back to my apartment so I could again be in my personal Bermuda Triangle–sofa, kitchen, and bathroom.

Now at twenty-eight, I was on a bench in the park, seeing it all again—but for the first time in perspective. Nothing had changed in my life except the locations where I ate. Nothing was going to change.

I looked at my life at that moment, and I saw it was in ruins. I was an emotional basket case, my social life destroyed, my spirit all but crushed. Overeating had stolen my life, but it had happened so gradually, I’d barely noticed.

Suddenly, it all seemed clear. I’d spent my life attacking my weight problem head-on, assaulting it with willpower. I knew I had to try something different, or I would fail again. I stood up from the bench, and I did something I’d never done before: I started to look for help.

But first, I went to McDonald’s and ate lunch. Let’s face it—twenty-eight years of overeating doesn’t evaporate in a second.

I desperately wanted to lose weight, but I knew a diet plan was not the kind of help I needed. After all, I’d sought help from doctors, dietitians, and nutritionists for years, and they hadn’t been able to help me get well. Instead of jumping on the next diet, I had to find a way to heal whatever was broken inside me. Not knowing where to begin, I called my first girlfriend, Julia, and, trying to act casual but with a trembling voice, I asked if she would help me find a therapist who specialized in eating disorders. I didn’t know what an eating disorder was exactly, but I had a growing suspicion that I had one.

This was 1995, and the world was a little different. There was no talk of an obesity epidemic, no TV shows about super-sized people, no mayoral initiatives regarding healthy food. There was me, fat and seemingly alone, asking Julia for help. Asking for help for the first time.

“Of course I’ll help you,” Julia said, and in that second, it felt like 150 pounds were lifted from my body and my mind.

This was the first step in a long journey that led to my recovery from overeating.

It was only much later that I was able to look back at that moment in the park with a deep sense of awe. How could I, in the midst of a binge, still half-drunk from a breakfast Danish the size of a bedroom pillow, have had such a profound awareness about my life? What force could have overcome, even for the briefest of moments, the habits that had entrenched themselves in my life for twenty-eight years?

If you’re thinking I found God, you’re wrong. I was far too skeptical for such a belief at the time. First, I found a kind of truth I’d never known before. Food, which had been a very powerful substance in my life, had no real power over me. A bagel never jumped into my mouth. A muffin never tackled me in the grocery store, pried my jaws open, and forced itself down my throat. A pizza never called me in the middle of the night and said, “Get over here. I miss you.”

I put the food in my own mouth. The food itself had no actual power, but the disease of overeating was very powerful indeed. If I was going to get better, I needed a way to overcome this seemingly gargantuan force.

You might say that desperation made me open-minded in a way I’d never been before. I stopped battling my food problem alone, and I joined forces with others. It was the best decision I ever made.

Over time, I became open-minded about spiritual matters. I started to believe there might be a power greater than the greatest thing in my life, my hunger for food. This power, whatever it was, first led me to the park bench; then to Julia; then to my first therapist, Zimmer; and eventually to people who were like me and knew how to help me recover from a disease I didn’t even know was a disease.

A close friend says that the idea of God is too abstract for her, and in order to have a spiritual experience, she needed to find “a God with skin.” For her, God only speaks through people. It’s by opening herself to the love and ideas of others that she’s able to access a power that keeps her from hurting herself with food.

Another overeater friend has her own unique definition of God. She says that God is the three-second pause between the desire to eat and the physical act of putting food in her mouth. That pause did not exist for her when she was overeating, but she has access to it today. In those three seconds, her hand no longer goes immediately to her mouth. That’s all the evidence she needs of a higher power.

My own idea of God changes from day to day, varying from the abstract to the human, to the ridiculous, to the divine. I’ve found it really doesn’t matter what I believe. At least, a specific belief is not required in order to recover from the disease of overeating.

Some belief, however, has been necessary for me to eat normally day after day. The disease of overeating was such a powerful force in my life that I simply could not fight it on my own. My utter defeat led me to explore an area where I was previously skeptical—more than skeptical.

When I began to believe there might be a power greater than my need to overeat–whether it was a group of people, a set of ideas, a God, or love—I suddenly found the strength to eat normally. But just for Wednesday.

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Posted in Fiona Helmsley, Junk 9: Fall 2012 with tags , , , on November 15, 2012 by Editors

by Fiona Helmsley

We were each other’s first drug-addled relationship. He was tortured, I was callous. His pet name for me, when we could laugh about it, was Fiunkie. We came together at a pivotal time in both our lives.

After high school, his mom wanted him to move out of the trailer she had raised him in. She said space was getting tight, and it was time he flew the coop. The trailer had sloping floors, and holes you could fall through if you didn’t know where to step. It reminded me of a trunk with little compartments that I had played with as a young girl in my grandmother’s attic. It seemed to me that this boy had grown up in a trunk. Early in our relationship, I gave him crabs after having sex with a boy in a coffee shop bathroom and convinced him that he had given them to me from something he picked up inside the trailer.

My mother loved him. She thought he’d be a good influence on me, and agreed to let him move in. Later, she would tell me she never knew he was my boyfriend, and always believed we were just good friends.

She had reason to think he was not my boyfriend.

The world was a very different place from the world I’d known just the year before. In this new world, every boy I wanted to fuck wanted to fuck me. I could not resist these sparkling riches. I had never been the girl who inspired strong physical desire; I had always been her funny friend.

Our relationship quickly devolved into psychodrama.

Which is not to say we did not have our moments of bliss, of borderline, relative normalcy. We travelled across the country, broadcast a public access show, formed a few one off, one- night punk rock bands. Two movies I wrote and he directed were on video compilations by Miranda July. We made ‘zines and were prolific creative partners. But something hungered inside of me that could only be fed by boys and by drugs.

He didn’t do heroin, and I believe, initially, this aspect of my lifestyle intrigued him. It filled in some blanks. His father had been a heroin addict who had died from drug-related illness when he was fifteen. He had never known his father, and his father’s parents hid from him when they saw him in the supermarket. All he had of his dad’s, besides what he saw when he looked in the mirror, was a small box-style television set that his mother went out of her way to tell him had come from a pawn shop. This small gift lent itself naturally to the creative passion of his life. He was obsessed with film and used the small television set to edit his low-budget movies from 8mm to VHS. He had never lived with his father nor experienced the intricacies of his addiction first-hand, but his father’s absence could only permeate every aspect of his life.

By not being there, you are. Sometimes even more so.

Your first druggy relationship is a rite of passage. A learning experience with a curve. After that one, the next one, if there is a next one, will be a decision. You will know just what you are getting into.

At first, it was about catching me in lies. If he could just get me to admit to them, get me to acknowledge that I was found out, then I would have to stop. The shame of being caught could only stop me dead in my tracks. When I wouldn’t give up anything, he started following me. I could no longer deny, deny, deny when he had seen with his own eyes. One luminous spring afternoon, I was riding shotgun in a friend’s car on our way to go cop heroin in East Haven, when I looked over to the next lane of traffic and saw him in the car next to ours, waving. He had followed us for over thirty minutes just for that moment. When trailing me made no difference, he began confronting my friends, an incredibly awkward endeavor, as many of my friends were also his own, and they respected him, as this crazy, backwoods genius, the only one of us still doing anything worthwhile as we all dissolved into liars and thieves. But in addiction, none of that matters. Respect just gets in the way. It’s much easier to reach your goals if you can push it aside. So they lied to his face, and he knew that they were lying, and he became bitter, and isolated. In desperation, he went to my family, but they were distracted and living their lives. My mother had just gotten remarried and deserved to have her first real happiness in years free of the black cloud of my issues. Wasn’t that the real reason she had allowed him to move in anyway, that he would help to protect me from myself? Finally, he would leave. But he really had nowhere else to go, and wherever that was, he took his love for me with him, and always came back. I would measure the seriousness of his threat to go by what he had done with his bags. Had he actually packed them? Was he taking them out to the car? If so, had he taken out his guitar yet, because I knew he’d been stashing twenty-dollar bills behind its broken bridge plate…

One afternoon, I came home from work to change my clothes. My friend Phil would be arriving any minute to pick me up so we could go and cop.

Unexpectedly, he came home.

“Where are you going?” he asked, knowing full well.

“Out for a little while,” I answered, trying to keep it light.

Suddenly, something occurred to him and he ran back to our bedroom. I could hear him moving things around on the other side of the door. He sprang back down the hallway, holding his guitar by its neck, the broken bridge plate hanging loose by its two remaining screws.

“You bitch. Give me back the money that you took.”

He lunged for my bag on the table, but I grabbed it first, grasping it tightly to my chest. He clung to its dangling shoulder strap as a means to yank it from my hands. In the commotion, he caught his leg on the side of a chair and fell to the floor, taking me and the bag down with him.

We had never fought like this before, rolling around, me trying desperately to protect what was his. I just needed to get away from him, to free myself and the bag with his money still inside. Over the acoustics of our scuffle, I could make out the sound of a car coming up the driveway. I was so close, if I could just free myself from the weight of his body holding me there on the floor.

I was able to wiggle free for a moment, but he grabbed me by my legs and pulled me back. We rolled into the living room, close to a hutch my mother had decorated with a silver serving tray and two pewter candlesticks. I heard a car door open in the driveway and reached up, grabbed one of the candlesticks and whacked him in the face.

The world stopped and I closed my eyes. I moved my hand across the floor and felt the bag there, free. I would open my eyes again once I got outside.

Then I heard his voice.

“You fucking bitch!”

And I opened them, to be prepared for whatever happened next.

Blood poured from above his lip. It covered his teeth like a coating of cherry dip on a Dairy Queen sundae.

Outside the house, someone was knocking on the door.

He looked at me, the hurt, the anger, the betrayal so fierce and alive in his bloodied face, and spit his blood all over me.

Then he got up from the floor and went into the bathroom.

Unbelievably, it was not Phil at the door but our friend Travis. Travis probably wanted to cop too, but we hadn’t made any plans.

“What the fuck happened?” Travis asked incredulously, surveying the room: the upended furniture, the blood on the floor, on my face and shirt. The strap from my bag lay loose on the carpet, ripped free from its stitching.

Before I could answer, I again heard the sounds of a car coming up the driveway, this time followed by the familiar honk of a horn.

“Travis,” I said, “You’ll do this for me, won’t you? You’ll take him to the hospital?”

I did not wait for his response. I went to throw my bag over my shoulder, but it no longer had a strap. So I tucked it under my arm, and went out the door.

Continue reading


Posted in Cheryl Strayed, Junk 9: Fall 2012 with tags , , , on September 16, 2012 by Editors

by Cheryl Strayed

When my mother died, I stripped her naked. Plush round belly and her pale breasts rising above. Her arms were black-and-blue from all the needles going in. Needles with clear liquid and needles that only the nurses had a hold of and other needles gripping constantly into her, held tight with tape to the translucent skin of her hand or the silk skin of her wrist. And not one of those needles trying to save her. I picked her dead hand up. It did not want to be held. Her skin was dry and cracked and stabbed. When she died the nurse took the needle out forever. But I wanted it back, and eventually I would get it.

The day they told us my mother had cancer I was wearing green. Green pants, green shirt, green bow in my hair. My mother had sewn this outfit for me. I didn’t like such a themed look, but I wore it anyway, to the Mayo Clinic, as a penance, an offering, a talisman. We found a vacant wheelchair and I got into it and raced and spun down the hallway. Cancer, at this point, was something we did not have to take seriously. My mother was forty-five. She looked fine, beautiful, I would later think, alive. It was just the two of us, me and mother. There were others too, my stepfather working his job, wondering, my grandparents waiting by the phone, wanting to know if it was true, if perhaps the oncologist in Duluth had been mistaken after all. But now, as before, as it would always be, it was only me and my mother. In the elevator she sat in the wheelchair and reached out to tug at my pants. She rubbed the fabric between her fingers proprietarily. “Perfect,” she said.

I was twenty-two. I believed that if a doctor told you that you were going to die soon, you’d be taken to a room with a gleaming wooden desk. This was not so. My mother sat with her shirt off on top of a table with paper stretched over it. When she moved, the room was on fire with the paper ripping and crinkling beneath her. She wore a pale yellow smock with strings meant to be tied. I could see her soft back, the small shelf of flesh that curved down at her waist. The doctor said she’d be lucky if she lived a year. My mother blinked her wet eyes but did not cry. She sat with her hands folded tightly together and her ankles hooked one to the other. Shackled to herself. She’d asked the doctor if she could continue riding her horse. He then took a pencil in his hand and stood it upright on the edge of the sink and tapped it down on the surface hard. “This is your spine after radiation,” he said. “One jolt and your bones will crumble like a dry cracker.”

First we went to the women’s restroom. Each of us locked in separate stalls, weeping. We didn’t say a word. Not because we felt so alone in our grief, but because we were so together in it, as if we were one body instead of two. I could feel her weight leaning against the door, her hands slapping slowly against it, causing the entire frame of the bathroom stalls to shake. Later we came out to wash our hands and faces, standing side by side in the ladies’ room mirror.

We were sent to the pharmacy to wait. I sat next to my mother in my green pantsuit. There was a big bald boy in an old man’s lap. There was a woman who had an arm that swung wildly from the elbow. She held it stiffly with the other hand, trying to calm it. She waited. We waited. There was a beautiful dark-haired woman who sat in a wheelchair. She wore a purple hat and a handful of diamond rings. We could not take our eyes off her. She spoke in Spanish to the people gathered around her, her family and perhaps her husband. “Do you think she has cancer?” my mother whispered loudly to me. There was a song coming quietly over the speakers. A song without words, but my mother knew the words anyway and sang them softly to herself. “Paper roses, paper roses, oh they’re only paper roses to me,” she sang. She put her hand on mine and said, “I used to listen to that song when I was young. It’s funny to think of that. To think about listening to the same song now. I would’ve never known.” My mother’s name was called then: her prescriptions were ready. “Go get them for me,” she said. “Tell them who you are. Tell them you’re my daughter.”


My mother said I could have her jewelry box. She said, “When I am done with it.” She was lying on the bed that my stepfather had made for her, for them, with branches twisting and arching up behind her, leaves and jumping bugs carved discreetly into them. There was a dancing pink girl who lived in the jewelry box. She stood and twirled around to the song that played when you wound it up and opened the box. The song changed as it slowed, became sorrowful and destitute. The girl tottered and then stopped as if it hurt her. She had lips the size of a pinhead painted red and a scratchy pink tutu. When we shut the box she went down into it, stiff as a board, bending at the feet. “I always wonder what the ballerina is thinking,” my mother said dreamily.

When my mother got cancer I’d folded my life down. I was a senior in college in Minneapolis, and I’d convinced my professors to allow me to be in class only two days each week. As soon as those days were over, I drove north to the house in rural Minnesota where I’d grown up, racing home, to my mother. I could not bear to be away from her. Plus, I was needed. My stepfather was with my mother when he could be, when he wasn’t working as a carpenter in an attempt to pay the bills. I cooked food that my mother tried to eat. She’d say: pork chops and stuffed green peppers, cherry cheesecake and chicken with rice, and then holler the recipes out to me from her bed. When I’d finished she’d sit like a prisoner staring down at her steaming plate. “It smells good,” she’d say. “I think I’ll be able to eat it later.” I scrubbed the floors. I took everything from the cupboards and put new paper down. My mother slept and moaned and counted and swallowed her pills, or on good days she sat in a chair and talked to me, she paged through books.

“Put these on for me.” My mother sat up and reached for a pair of socks. It had been only a few weeks since we’d learned of her cancer, but already she could not reach her own feet without great pain. I bent at her feet. She held the ball of socks in her hand. “Here,” she said. I had never put socks onto another person, and it was harder than you might think. They don’t slide over the skin. They go on crooked and you have to work to get them on right. I became frustrated with my mother, as if she were holding her foot in a way that made it impossible for me. She sat back with her body leaning on her hands on the bed, her eyes closed. I could hear her breathing deeply, slowly. “God dammit,” I said. “Help me.” My mother looked down at me, silently.

We didn’t know it then, but this would be the last time she was home. Her movements were slow and thick as she put her coat on, and she held onto the walls and edges of doors as she made her way out of the house. On the drive to the hospital in Duluth she looked out the window. She said, “Look at the snow there on those pines.” She told me to toot my horn when I went past Cindy’s house in Moose Lake. She said, “Be careful of the ice. “It’s black ice.” She held an old plastic milk jug with the top cut off so she could vomit into it during the drive. My mother put one hand up to her ribs, where the cancer lived, and pressed gently. “Wouldn’t that be something, to get into an accident now?”


Three years after my mother died I fell in love with a man who had electric blue hair. I’d gone to Portland, Oregon, to visit a friend, seeking respite from the shambles my life had become. I had thought that by then I’d have recovered from the loss of my mother and also that the single act of her death would constitute the only loss. It is perhaps the greatest misperception of the death of a loved one: that it will end there, that death itself will be the largest blow. No one told me that in the wake of that grief other grief’s would ensue. I had recently separated from the husband I loved. My stepfather was no longer a father to me. I was alone in the world and acutely aware of that. I went to Portland for a break.

I’ll call the man with electric blue hair Joe. I met him on his twenty-fourth birthday in a bar called Dot’s. After the bar closed, I went to his apartment and drank sangria with him. In the morning he wanted to know if I’d like some heroin. He lived on a street called Mississippi, in North Portland. There was a whole gathering of people who’d rigged up apartments above what had once been a thriving Rexall drugstore. Within days I lived there with him. In the beginning, for about a week, we smoked it. We made smooth pipes out of aluminum foil and sucked the smoke of burning black tar heroin up into them. “This is called chasing the dragon!” Joe said, and clapped his hands. The first time I smoked heroin it was a hot sunny day in June. I got down on my knees in front of Joe, where he sat on the couch. “More,” I said, and laughed like a child. “More, more, more,” I chanted. I had never cared much for drugs. I’d experimented with each kind once or twice, and drank alcohol with moderation and reserve. Heroin was different. I loved it. It was the first thing that worked. It took away every scrap of hurt that I had inside of me. When I think of heroin now, it is like remembering a person I met and loved intensely. A person I know I must live without.


The first time they offered my mother morphine, she said no. “Morphine is what they give to dying people,” she said. “Morphine means there’s no hope.”

We were in the hospital in Duluth. We could not get the pillows right. My mother cried in pain and frustration when the nurses came into the room. The doctor told her that she shouldn’t hold out any longer, that he had to give her morphine. He told her that she was actively dying. He was young, perhaps thirty. He stood next to my mother, a gentle hairy hand slung into his pocket, looking down at her in the bed.

The nurses came one by one and gave her the morphine with a needle. Within a couple of weeks my mother was dead. In those weeks she couldn’t get enough of the drug. She wanted more morphine, more often. The nurses liked to give her as little as they could. One of the nurses was a man, and I could see his penis through his tight white nurse’s trousers. I wanted desperately to pull him into the small bathroom beyond the foot of my mother’s bed and offer myself up to him, to do anything at all if he would help us. And also I wanted to take pleasure from him, to feel the weight of his body against me, to feel his mouth in my hair and hear him say my name to me over and over again, to force him to acknowledge me, to make this matter to him, to crush his heart with mercy for us. I held my closed book in my hand and watched him walk softly into the room in his padded white shoes. My mother asked him for more morphine. She asked for it in a way that I have never heard anyone ask for anything. A mad dog. He did not look at her when she asked him this, but at his wristwatch. He held the same expression on his face regardless of the answer. Sometimes he gave it to her without a word, and sometimes he told her no in a voice as soft as his shoes and his penis in his pants. My mother begged and whimpered then. She cried and her tears fell in the wrong direction, not down over the lush light of her cheeks to the corners of her mouth but away from the edges of her eyes to her ears and into the nest of her hair on the bed.


I wanted it and I got it, and the more heroin we got, the stingier we became with it. Perhaps if we snorted it, we thought, we’d get higher on less. And then, of course, the needle. The hypodermic needle, I’d read, was the barrier that kept the masses from heroin. The opposite was true with me. I loved the clean smell of it, the tight clench around my arm, the stab of hurt, the dull badge of ache. It made me think of my mother. It made me think of her, and then that thought would go away into the loveliest bliss. A bliss I had not imagined.

There was a man named Santos whom we called when we wanted heroin. He would make us wait by the telephone for hours, and then he’d call and instruct us to meet him in the parking lot of a Safeway. I sat in the car while Joe took a short drive with Santos in his yellow pinto, and then Joe would calmly get back into the car with me and we’d go home. On some occasions we went to Santos’ house. Once he sat in his front window with a shotgun across his lap. Once he clutched my thigh when Joe left the room and told me that if I came to see him alone he’d give me heroin free. Another time he held his baby daughter, just a month old. I looked at her and smiled and told Santos how beautiful she was, and inside of me I felt the presence of my real life. The woman who I actually was. The kind of woman who knows the beauty of a baby, who will have a baby, who once was a baby.


The days of my mother’s death, the morphine days, and those that followed, the heroin days, lasted only weeks, months–but each day was an eternity, one stacked up on the other, a cold clarity inside of a deep haze. And unoccupied as well. Just me and my mother, or the ghost of her, though others surely came and went.

Some days flowers came to my mother’s hospital room, and I set them on the edges of tables and windowsills. Women came too. Women who volunteered for the hospital. Old Catholic women, with hair cut close to the scalp or woven into long braids and pinned to their heads. My mother greeted them as she did the flowers: impervious, unmoved, resolute.

The women thought it would be for the best when my mother died. They sat next to me on the vinyl furniture and told me in low tones about the deaths of their own mothers. Mothers who had died standing at kitchen sinks, in the back seats of cars, in beds lit with candles. And also about the ones who made it. The ones with the will to live. Of tumors vanishing and clean blood and opaque bones. People who fought it, who refused to die. The ones who went and then came back. The survivors. The heroes. The heroines. It would be for the best, they whispered, when it was over. Her life, that is. My mother’s.

People whom I knew came, and I did not recognize them at first. It seemed they all wore strange hats or other disguises during this time, though I’m certain that is not true. They were friends of my mother’s. They couldn’t bear to stay in the room, so instead they left chicken potpies and bread. Scalloped potatoes and blocks of cheddar cheese. By then my mother couldn’t eat half a banana. Couldn’t lick a lick of a Popsicle without retching it back up. They said her name to her, and she said their names back to them, hoarse and confused. She said, “How nice you came.” And she put a wan smile on her face. Her hair was flattened against her head, and I reached to smooth it into place.


I asked my mother if she would like for me to read to her. I had two books: The Awakening, by Kate Chopin and The Optimist’s Daughter, by Eudora Welty. These were books we’d read before, books we’d loved. So I started in, but I could not go on. Each word I said erased itself in the air. It was the same when I tried to pray. I prayed fervently, rabidly, to God, any god, to a god I could not identify or find. I prayed to the whole wide universe and thought perhaps God would be in it. I prayed and I faltered. God, I realized, had no intention of making things happen or not, of saving my mother’s life. God would come later, perhaps, to help me bear it.


She taught me to knit, my mother, and I did this in the room while she slept and lived the last while. It occurred to me that she had taught me to knit for this particular occasion. So that I would have a place to put my hands and my eyes. “What are you making?” she asked.

“A scarf.”

“For who?” Her hand pinched the sheet that covered her

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m simply knitting a scarf.” The best part about knitting is the tapping, tapping, tapping of the needles. A sound so silent it is like the language of snakes or rabbits or deer.


Eventually the nurses and doctors stopped paying any mind to what my mother said or wanted. They looked to me to decide how much morphine to give her. They said I had a choice: she could be in great pain but fairly conscious, or she could be comfortable but higher than a kite, and usually passed out. Ultimately, it was not up to me. “Promise me one thing,” she said. My mother was not dramatic or concise in her dying. She hadn’t offered a single directive in the past days, and I was desperate for guidance. “That you won’t allow me to be in pain anymore. I’ve had too much pain.”

“Yes,” I said, “yes.”


There was using heroin and also not using it. In the mornings when I woke, groggy and drained, I’d stand in front of the mirror and talk to myself. I was shocked by my own life. This was not meant to be, I’d think in the mornings. Stop it, I said. No more. And then I would shower and dress and take a bus downtown to serve people coffee and pancakes. At two in the afternoon I’d take the bus home again with hopefully sixty bucks in my pocket for another score of heroin. This is how it went.

Joe waited for me to get home. He cooked me macaroni and cheese and called Santos. He pulled me into his bed and jumped up when the phone rang. I made him stick the needle into me the first time, and then he taught me how to do it myself. What I loved about Joe is that he didn’t love me, or himself. I loved that he would not only let me but help me destroy myself. I’d never shared that with another person. The dark glory of our united self-destruction had the force of something like love. I get to do this, I thought. I get to waste my life. I felt a terrible power within me. The power of controlling the uncontrollable. Oh, I thought, I get to be junk.

But this was not meant to be. My estranged husband, Paul, called me. He was in town and wanted to see me. The friend I’d come to visit in Portland had told him about Joe and about my using heroin, and in response he immediately drove from Minneapolis to Portland to talk to me. I met him within the hour at our friend’s house. He sat at the table in the kitchen with the branches of a fig tree tapping on the window nearby. He said, “You look, you look . . . different. You seem so, how can I say this–you seem like you aren’t here.” First he put his hands on mine, and we held onto one another, locked hand to hand. I couldn’t explain it to him, the why. And then we fought. He stood up and screamed at me so loudly that I put my hands over my head for cover. His arms gestured madly in the air, at nothing. He clawed at himself and ripped the shirt from his own back and threw it at me. He wanted me to go home with him in an hour. Not for a reunion but to get away, not from Joe but from heroin.

I told Paul I needed to think. I drove back to Joe’s apartment and sat in a lawn chair he kept on the sidewalk outside the building he lived in. Heroin made me dumb, or distant, rather. A thought would form and then evaporate. I couldn’t get a hold of my mind. I sat in the lawn chair on the sidewalk, and a man walked up to me and said his name was Tim. He took my hand and shook it and told me that I could trust him. He asked if I could give him three dollars for diapers, then if he could use my phone, and then if I had change for a five-dollar bill, and on and on in a series of twisting questions and sorry stories that confused and compelled me to stand and pull the last ten dollars I had out of my jeans pocket. He saw the money and took a knife out of his shirt. He held it gently to my chest and said, “Give me that money, sweetheart.”

I packed a few things and called Paul. When he pulled up to the corner where I was waiting, I got into his car. By sunset Portland was long gone. In Montana we checked into a motel to sleep. I held myself in bed, rocking with a headache, a sickness in my gut. Paul brought me water and chocolate and watched television. I sat in the car as we drove across the country, and I felt my real life present but unattainable, as if heroin had taken me entirely from myself. Paul and I fought and cried and shook the car with our fighting. We were monstrous in our cruelty. We talked kindly afterward, shocked at ourselves and each other. We decided that we would get divorced. I hated him and I loved him. He had known my mother. I felt trapped, branded, held, and beloved. Like a daughter. “I didn’t ask you to come to Portland,” I screamed. “You came for your own reasons,” I said.

“Maybe,” he said.

“You love me that much?” I asked. “You came all this way to get me? Why?”

“Because,” he said. “Just because.”


I wanted my mother to love me, but more. I wanted her to prove it, to live, to be a heroine. To go to battle and to win. And if she was going to die, I wanted her to tell me, in the end, how I should live without her. Until that point I had wanted just the opposite. I could not bear for her to tell me what to do or how to live. I had wanted to be unknown by her, opaque to her wondering mother eyes.

The last days, my mother was not so much high as down under. When she woke, she’d say, “Oh, oh.” Or she’d let out a sad gulp of air. She’d look at me, and there would be a flash of love. Other times she’d roll back into sleep as if I were not there. Sometimes when my mother woke she did not know where she was. She demanded an enchilada and then some applesauce. She’d say, “That horse darn near stepped on me,” and look around the room for it accusingly. During this time I wanted my mother to say to me that I had been the best daughter in the world. I did not want to want this, but I did, inexplicably, as if I had a great fever that would be could only be cooled by those words. I went so far as to ask her directly, “Have I been the best daughter in the world?” She said yes, I had, of course. But this was not enough. I wanted those words to knit together in my mother’s mind and for them to be delivered, fresh, to me.

I was ravenous for love.


One day a woman with a clipboard asked if I’d go with her to the cafeteria. She said that she wanted to talk to me about a donation my mother had made. Her name was Janet and she was dressed in a navy-colored shirt with little white fringes on each shoulder, as if she were the captain of something. Her fingernails were long and red and they clicked together when she moved her hands in certain ways.

When we sat down with two cups of coffee between us, she told me that my mother was an organ donor but that because she had cancer throughout her body they would only take her eyes.

“Her eyes?”

“Well not the whole eye, of course, but parts of the organ.” Janet took her cup up into her hands; one fingernail tapped against it. “We make it a policy to inform people close to the donor. In your mother’s case, upon death, we will need to place ice on her eyes in order to preserve them.” She thought about this for a moment. “This way you will understand what is happening when you see that we must put the bags of ice on her face. The removal is performed within a few hours after her death.” Her fingernails went up to the sides of her face, hovering in midair. “Small incisions will be made at the side of each eye.” Janet showed me this, pointing with her own sharp nails. “The skin will be sutured carefully to disguise signs of this procedure.” She swallowed a sip of coffee and looked at me. “It does not preclude an open-casket viewing.”


I dreamed of heroin. I woke in the middle of the night with a wanting so deep I was breathless. I had started seeing a therapist to talk about heroin. She told me that this wanting was normal, that indeed when you use heroin the brain responds by activating pleasure neurons that would normally remain dormant. She said it would take months for them to calm. Until then, they go on aching to be fed. Trying to trick your body into it. I could see them, spindly arms with mouths like flowers, blooming or wilting and then blooming again. “What about pain?” I asked her. “Are there neurons in the brain that come alive only with agony? And if so, how long does it take for them to die, to fold back into themselves and float away?”


I saw Joe two more times. I’d kept in touch with him; calling him late at night from Minneapolis, against the advice of my friends. When we talked I could hear the heroin in his voice, making it soft and open. Within a month he was at my door, looking weak and pale. He sat on my couch and shot up and then lurched into my kitchen and bent to vomit into the sink. He wiped his face and smiled. “It’s worth it,” he said, “getting sick. Because you feel so good through it all.” We spent a week in my apartment using the supply of heroin he’d brought with him. I knew I had to end this, and finally I did. He left when I asked him to.

The second time I saw him, a year had passed and I was in Portland for reasons unrelated to him. I used with him without planning to, then woke the next morning full of remorse. We went to the beach for the day. He was no longer the smart, sexy, simpering man I’d fallen for, but a junkie. Joe had scabs on his skin from constant scratching; his bony arms were bruised and punctured. He didn’t care anymore what color his hair was. I sat on the cool sand watching the Pacific Ocean roar in while Joe locked himself in the public restroom to shoot up. I held myself stiff against the desire to join him. The ocean inched nearer and nearer to me with each passing minute. I was both sickened by Joe and compelled. I felt in the presence of a dying man, a young dying man, and I knew that I could never see him again if I wanted to live. And I did.


My mother didn’t have time to get skinny. Her death was a relentless onward march. The hero’s journey is one of return, but my mother’s was all forward motion. She was altered but still fleshy when she died, the body of a woman among the living. She had her hair too, brown and brittle and frayed from being in bed for weeks.

From the room where she died I could see the great Lake Superior out her window. The biggest lake in the world, and the coldest. To see it, I had to work. I pressed my face sideways, hard, against the glass, and I’d catch a slice of it going on forever into the horizon. “A room with a view!” my mother exclaimed. “All of my life I’ve waited for a room with a view.”

I arranged the flowers closer into my mother, to the edges of tables, so that she could see them without having to turn her head. Bouquets of pink carnations, yellow roses, daisies, and tiger lilies. Flowers that originated on other continents and were brought here to witness my mother’s dying. She wanted to die sitting up, so I took all the pillows I could get my hands on and made a backrest for her. I wanted to take my mother and prop her in a field of yarrow to die. I covered her with a quilt that I had brought from home, one she had sewn herself out of pieces of our old clothing. “Get that out of here,” she hissed savagely, and then kicked her legs like a swimmer to make it go away.

I watched my mother. It was March, and outside, the sun glinted off the sidewalks and the icy edges of the snow. It was Saint Patrick’s Day and the nurses brought my mother a square block of green Jell-O that sat quivering on the table beside her. It was the last full day of her life, and my mother did not sleep, she did not wake. She held her eyes still and open. They were the bluest thing in the room, perhaps in all of Duluth. Bluer than the lake. They were the color of the sky on the best day of your life.

My mother died fast but not all of a sudden. A slow-burning fire when flames disappear to smoke and then smoke to air. She never once closed her eyes. First they were bitter and then they were bewildered and then they changed again to something else, to a state that I have had, finally, to see as heroic. Blue, blue eyes. Daggers of blue wanting and wanting. To stay, to stay.

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