In the Hospital

Posted in Junk 18: Winter 2021, Luisa Milano with tags , , , , , on January 18, 2021 by Tim Elhajj

by Luisa Milano


She tells me that my vitals are fine. With heavy wires taped to my chest, I nervously laugh a little and squeeze the nurse’s hand. “Check my pulse again, just one more time,” I plead. I bring my wrist to her fingers until she gives in. Her index finger gently presses against my skin until the rhythmic beat of my body affirms that I am in fact alive.

“Honey, you’re panicking. I need you to breathe with me,” the nurse says. I feel her pat my head, pressing her fragile fingers on my matted hair. She’s trying. She probably thinks she’s doing a good job, figuring that her calculated treatment is working. I’m tired of resisting, so I let her satisfaction settle.

The hospital’s staff assured my skeptical parents that Silver Hill was a state-of-the-art facility, settled and surrounded by freshly manicured lawns and hillside mansions. Take a stroll through the hospital’s grounds and you’ll feel like you made it to the Ivy League. Yes, you’re sad. Yes, you want to die. But if you can dish out 1,000 dollars a night, at least you can be suicidal in style.

Silver Hill rests in New Canaan, a small suburb of Connecticut located 40 miles outside of New York City. The town has an unseemly large population of sheltered rich kids with popped collars and Birkenstocks. They leave the local high school suffering from moral decay, but well versed in the menu at Sugarfish and the seasonal colors for the Lilly Pulitzer spring season. The backgrounds of the students that pass through New Canaan echo the backgrounds of the patients that pass through the hospital: we’re all unapologetic rich kids, but some of us cry more.

To get onto the campus you have to drive down a winding road with polished grass. When you arrive, smells of cherry blossom trees and meadow-fresh mint wash over you. The scent lingers on your clothes long after you leave. It’s almost formulaic — a constant reminder of the hospital planted on your jean jacket. Supple, crisp trees hover over the six white Victorian buildings that house the patients. The trees watch you as you walk to the gym across campus, as you pet the golden retriever therapy dogs, as you curl up by your window with your assigned self-help workbook.

Today, Silver Hill offers specialized inpatient programs for all spectrums of the broken. If you cannot think about eating a piece of cheese without wanting to kill yourself, there’s a bed for you. If you bite your skin until you draw blood, there’s a bed for you. If you’re like me and cannot walk past a car without wanting to jump in front of it, there’s a bed for you, too. I like to think of the historical reputability of this place as comforting. But I don’t want to be here. I squeeze my wrist and transfer my gaze back to the nurse. She looks back at me, smiling.


I’m in bed plotting my escape when I hear knocking at the door. I move my body out of the fetal position, sliding the heavy comforter down beneath my waist. The door clicks.

“Luisa, are you awake?” I look up dazedly at the nurse who’s standing beside a girl around my age. She’s beautiful. A messy pixie cut feathers around her high cheekbones, and she’s fidgeting with the zipper of her too-heavy jacket. Even with her ruined mascara, there’s a certain grace about her — a punk Audrey Hepburn.

We make brief eye contact before I transfer my gaze back to the nurse. “This is Tess. She’s gonna be your new roommate.”

As I stand up to greet Tess, a pang of dizziness rolls through my body. I struggle to ignore it. After a few moments, I assert my stance on the scratchy rug. “Hi, I’m Luisa,” I say. The nurse smiles and leaves the room.

“I’m Tess! Where are you from?” she asks as she makes her way to her side of the room, dropping a black duffle bag at the foot of the twin bed. She’s sweet, unexpectedly approachable; I forget that hot people can be nice.

“Millburn, New Jersey?” I examine her face to detect any familiarity. She looks at me blankly. “It’s like an hour and a half from here. It’s pretty shitty. How about you?! Where are you from?” I sound too eager. I sound like I haven’t spoken to anyone in three days. There’s a cool apathy that often comes with being depressed. I never got it quite down. Instead, I speak with exclamation marks and run-ons.

“I’m from Newtown,” she answers. She looks down at her feet, staring intently at her red Doc Martens.

“Newtown, Connecticut? Where the shooting happened?” I ask. She nods.

“It’s part of the reason I’m here. I knew some of the kids.” she says as she begins to unpack her clothes, folding each graphic t-shirt with precision and care.

I’m horrified and intrigued. The temptation to ask questions seizes me, but I repress the impulse. I think back to two months ago. I think about my distressed English teacher sitting our class down, taking her glasses off. Hugging her arms as she explained what happened the day before. The 20 elementary school kids murdered. The six teachers killed trying to save them. I look back at Tess, startled by the uneasiness that the memory brings.

Tess asks me more questions about the usual hospital-related experience: when I got here, how I got here, how much I mind being here. The ease of our conversation calms me, and for the first time in a while, my mind feels a little less heavy.


As we make our way to the dining hall, the faintness rushes back into my body. It moves swiftly from my toes to my knees to my brain. Tess’s words fade out and her muffled voice lingers in the air. I smile when there’s silence between us, saying ‘yeah, yeah’ to distract and fill up the space. It’s happening again. I clutch my sweaty palms together, squeezing and unsqueezing them. I can’t have this happen again. My eyes turn reddish, desperate, weary. She looks at me, asking if I’m okay. She asks what she can do. I dodge her questions, letting my short, loud breaths speak for themselves. How do I get out of this place? I need to find a way to get out of this place. Tess presses her hand on my shoulder. “Luisa, I want you to squeeze my hands. Squeeze as hard as you can.” She places open palms in front of me. “Come on.” I comply, gripping each bone, each wrinkle, each sweaty finger. “Harder. Count to ten. Count with me,” One. Two. Three. Chest rises, heavy eyelids close. Four. Five. Six. Muscles tighten, belly expands. Seven. Eight. Nine. Hands tighten, bones crack. Ten. I free Tess’s hands from my grip. I breathe out a burning ball of air.

It doesn’t fix everything. It doesn’t work like Xanax. It doesn’t mitigate the discomfort in the way yogis tell you it will. But for a moment or two, I feel a soothing wave collapse over my body. It’s like taking a hot bath after a wretched day, like being handed a tissue during a messy cry.


It occurs to me that I’ve hardly eaten in three days. I stare at the chocolate shake that the nurse has placed in front of me and think about sipping it, but even the thought of toast makes my gut clench. “Do you have a history of disordered eating?” the nurse inquires, like a dentist asking about the last time I flossed. I look down at my hands and pull back the skin below my nail. I glance across the room and find Tess looking at me. She smiles sympathetically. I look back down at my hands and rip the skin off in one piece.

During the evaluation days before I met Tess, a doctor interrogated me like a policeman before a murder witness. The stranger, a lanky middle-aged man, fired questions at all of my angles, scrutinizing every tremble, every breath, every half-hearted shrug. He viciously scribbled his observations down in a notebook as I huddled in my dad’s arms, clutching his hand, begging him to take me home. “Answer the doctor’s questions, Luisa,” he told me. My eyes swelled as I felt him loosen his grip with every response I couldn’t give. My mom sat isolated on the four-seater sofa, hunched over on the far end, pressing bitten-up nails against her forehead.

Three weeks before the evaluation, my tutor-turned-confidant informed her about all the money I had stolen: the way I would sift through my mom’s wallet, take her credit card, walk to the nearest pharmacy, and withdraw a couple of hundred dollars from her account – my own mother’s account. I spent the money on overpriced jeans and weed that I didn’t know how to smoke. I blamed it all on the divorce. I blamed it on the depression. I blamed it on the psychosis of adolescence. But when my mom confronted me, shaking and horrified, I found myself slowly withdrawing from each rationalization. Since the experience, we had hardly spoken.

During the evaluation, I left parts of my history out, keeping whatever I could unshaken and detached from outside analysis: the bulimia, the bully, the boy after math class. I only gave away the information the doctor would find out anyway, everything my mom and dad already knew. And they divulged everything they knew, which was plenty.

My dad spoke about the panic: the way I wake up paralyzed, curled onto my side, hyperventilating into pillows, blankets, soggy stuffed animals. As he went on about the emotional regression, I fidgeted with the sleeve of the worn-out hoodie I had bought two weeks ago. I dodged his eyes every time they looked my way.

My mom talked more about the self-destructive parts of the chaos and had no problem disclosing all of the messiness that encompassed our home life. “She can’t travel. Her body shuts down. When she’s not at home, she stops eating, drinking, sleeping. What is she going to do when she goes to college?”

The doctor took in the distress that circulated in the room, anchoring his gaze to my mom’s hands that lay buried between her thighs.


It’s daytime, springtime. It’s been two weeks since I arrived here. Ten days after I first met Tess. One week after the Cymbalta began to kick in. I’m in the dining hall. The nurse stares me down as I fiddle with a heavy fork and uneaten bits of cheesecake. Tess sits beside me, along with two other girls that joined the program a few hours ago. We’re all making clumsy small talk, and trying too hard to casually consume all that is placed in front of us. We overtly gulp. We take sips of water in between bites. We cut each substance on our plates into a million pieces. We pretend food is cardboard, tough and laborious to eat.

“I’m Sam,” one girl says. She looks up at me, smiles, and plays with the strap of her tight white tank. I introduce myself and compliment her hair. It’s blond and long and lush and shaggy. She giggles and curls a front strand with her thumb and index finger.

Sam is dripping with sex appeal, so much so that I’m convinced we’re seriously flirting as we begin to talk about the weather. “It’s been freezing,” she says, holding eye contact long after the “ing.” I play along out of boredom: tousling my hair, squinting my eyes, brushing my fingers against the smooth parts of my skin. The back and forth ignites something tender in the space between us. It’s not all-consuming or compulsive or sweaty. It’s just nice, like a sweet daydream.

After dinner, we make our way toward upper-campus, passing by the mid-day meditation group, the 20-somethings on a smoke break, the daffodils blooming in the garden. Tess dances funnily along the pavement, wearing black tights under high-waisted jean shorts. Sam stands next to me — we laugh and cheer Tess on. “Dance, Dance, Dance!” The nurse follows behind. She tells us to keep our voices down, reminding us to prepare for group therapy in an hour.

When we arrive at the residential house, we are told to go around and locate our emotions on a scale of one to ten. It’s a daily procedure, one that provokes eye rolls and faint responses. We’re jaded. We’ve done this before. The first days I was there I stayed on two. On optimistic days, I’d give them a four. But today there’s a softness that moves through me. I find Sam looking at me. I find Tess brushing her fingers through her pixie-cut, smiling in my direction. “Six,” I say. And I mean it. The therapist looks up at me perplexed but proud, as if her existence somehow inspired some crisp revelation that led to my better mood.
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Her Executioner

Posted in Junk 17: Winter 2020, Kim Sisto Robinson with tags , , on January 14, 2020 by Tim Elhajj

by Kim Sisto Robinson

The day he executed my sister was like any other day.

I was mowing the lawn listening to Pillars of the Earth on my headset. I was at the part where the boys in the castle were throwing rocks at helpless cats just because they could. Cornish hens with little red potatoes were baking in the oven on low heat. The weather in Duluth was unseasonably warm and blue and happy. I wore a Lady Gaga t-shirt and faded black shorts. The same tattered clothes I ended up wearing to the hospital that night. Not sure why I remember these insignificant, tedious details, but I do.

Perhaps, because this is when the earth fell off her axis.

They say your life flashes before you at the end of your days. If that’s true, I believe my sister was thinking of our childhood, big fat Italian dinners, bologna sandwiches slathered in miracle whip, sprinting through Aunt Carol’s sprinkler in May, and her three fatherless boys, whom she didn’t get the chance to watch grow up, get married, and become a doctor, a carpenter, an FBI agent. Oh, god, god, I hope she knew she was the love of my life. Did she call out my name?

He left work early that day, said he had appointments scheduled, people to see, things to do. His actual plan was to kill my sister. He had already changed the insurance policies and bought a small beretta gun. He had already said goodbye to his wombless mother. I imagine him waiting in a dim corner like one of Kafka’s insects for her to get home from work. A predator. Monster. My brother-in-law. Before he pulled the trigger, I wonder if he uttered a prayer to whomever murderers’ utter prayers to, if he took communion, ‘this is my broken body; this is my blood.’ I imagine he said something like, “I love you. I hate you. Nobody else can have you.”

This is Not Love.

She was fifteen when they met. A baby compared to him, a Lolita. He lured her with his long hair, hockey status, and Master’s degree. He picked Kay up after school like a daddy and waited on our porch on 65th Street for her to get home from other engagements. None of us realized at the time there was a name for that, “Stalking.” Abuse begins early like a slow simmer. My sister was too good for him, too pretty, too nice. These qualities are what killed her in the end. In truth, what he desired was a grand piano to sit in the back room quietly without being played.

At 5:15 PM, I got the call, “Did you know? Did you hear the news? Mike shot Kay.”

I fell to the floor, lost my breath, my saliva, my mind, and suddenly found myself entering a white room smelling of Tabu perfume and sweating armpits. My sister was hooked up to ventilators, tubes, and ugly needles. Her hair had been newly tinted with caramel highlights, and she looked as if she’d just left the hair salon except for the blood that had dried and hardened on the right side of her head. Black mascara leaked like teardrops under both eyelids. Two guards stood at the door like bouncers at a nightclub, and I found out later this is the procedure they must follow after somebody is murdered.

Kay and I had tickets for Sex and the City that night. Buttered popcorn with tons of salt. Diet cokes. We used to giggle about which character we were. I was Carrie, the writer. She was Charlotte, the conformist. It was one of our rare sister dates. We’d drink wine afterwards and discuss paint colors for her new apartment. Eventually, we’d end up talking about Mike. “I wish he’d die,” she often said. “I wish he would’ve gone to Iraq. I wish…I wish.”

She stayed until it was too late.

I circled around her bed like a crazy person with Mad Cow disease. “Wake up, wake up, please, wake up.” I know she heard me, wanted to rise up from the stiff, starched sheets. I know she realized she should’ve left him years earlier. After the first kick, the first, “you’re a cunt,” the first encounter. I know so many things now. For example, We cannot save somebody who doesn’t want to be saved; cannot change somebody who doesn’t want to be changed.

Sometimes, I thank God her executioner did his homework beforehand. One or two bullets would’ve placed her in a brain injury facility, but the third bullet did the job properly. At least, he did that right. One right thing in 25 years. When the doctor walked into the waiting room, we erected from our chairs like obedient children.

“Is she awake? Can she come home?”

He was detached, like that fictional character, Slender Man. Featureless. Just standing there shaking his head.

I despised him and his chalky skin. I wasn’t prepared for whatever he was about to say, or not say. When your sister is murdered, they should provide you with warm-grandma quilts, bible verses, Oliver, Dickenson, Pinot Noir in fancy flute glasses, brie cheese and crackers, something more than this.

But he simply stood there shaking his faceless face.

Don’t. Don’t say it. Don’t fucking say it.

I wanted to plug my ears, finish mowing the lawn, push the clock hands back to May 25th, May 24th,1978. I wanted to break every finger on Mike’s right hand, give him a piece of what was left of my mind, ask him why he married my sister. I wanted to curse a silent God, tell him I lost my religion. But more than that, more than anything, I wanted to scream, scream, scream until every bit of darkness emptied from my body. Half a heart beating on a tiled floor.

Before the memorial service, I drove to Target to find a suitable dress, nylons, lipstick. Why did it matter when my sister was nearly buried in the cold, Minnesota soil? Why did anything matter? Since the liquor store was on the way, I also bought two or was it three bottles of wine for later on. It would’ve been easy to become an alcoholic, a drug addict, somebody who placed heavy rocks inside her pockets and marched directly into Lake Superior.

So damn easy to become nothing at all.

I was told I read ee Cummings at my sister’s funeral, but my memory is a blur. The fact is, all I remember is standing at a podium staring out into a massive crowd of spectators wondering why I was there. Many of them were crying, blotting their noses, and undoubtedly whispering something like, “Oh, dear, why did she stay with a man like that?”

He was never a man.

I find it astonishing how the mind and body can survive such pain, such immense biting and burning of internal organs, how a sisterless sister can keep breathing, how broken pieces of humans can be glued back together again, again. What they don’t tell you is grieving never ends; it’s only born into the universe and doesn’t expire until you do.

Before they turned off the breathing machines, my sister’s lungs, liver, and eyes were removed and donated to people on waiting lists. It offers me comfort to know somebody, somewhere is walking around with those big brown eyes, those same eyes that have witnessed such suffering are now gazing into endless sapphire skies and flung open cages exclaiming, “I’m free, free, free.”

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Two Poems, “Trinity” and “Chore,” by Gale Acuff

Posted in Gale Acuff, Junk 16: Fall 2017 with tags , , on September 4, 2017 by Tim Elhajj

by Gale Acuff


If my parents separate I’ll go live
with—which one? I have a choice. I stand there
on the little oval rug on the oak
floor and look at one and then the other
and then the one again—by then, of course,
the other—and fall to my knees (I’m short
for my age so it isn’t difficult)
and cover my eyes with my hands, hoping
that when I open them and look up, there

will be God, and if not God, then Jesus.
And either one will surely satisfy,
though I forget if, at church, They’re equal,
or the Son of God is the number two
man, that is, God’s number one, not that He’s
a man—Jesus, I mean, not God, unless
Jesus is God—but is, at least Divine,
making God even more Divine, or is
that Diviner? What the Hell—Divinest.

Then there’s the matter of the Holy Ghost
—the third other, or the third in line, or
the Speaker of the House to Jesus Christ’s
Vice President (Who would take over for
God were God to die in office or be
impeached. But then I open my eyes to

the fireplace, empty even of ashes,
down which Santa Claus descended—until
Mother told me that he didn’t exist.

Father, I say, softly but steadily,
I’ll come live with you, please, Sir. Mother moans,
or at least a voice chokes on her silence.
Father says, I’d wish you reconsider,
Son. Your mother isn’t in good spirits.
Father walks over to where she’s crumpled
and sits beside her. Now they’re holding hands.
I rise, taller than before, taller than

ever. Father says to Mother, Now, now,
Honey. We don’t have to do this, you know.
She cries on his chest, head beneath his chin,
or is he resting his chin on her head?

And here I thought we’d had our last supper.
Now they’re stuck with each other again, so
I guess I should join them, now that I’m dead.



Here’s my wife at the window. We’re divorced

and I’m washing the dishes by myself
and she’s not alongside to receive cups
and plates and glasses, but I see her face
at the window, my right hand choking a rag
—I bury it, and soap- and water-blood,
deep into the bottom of blue tumblers
which she left me. Take all the good things,

I said—the services and the silverware
—and I’ll be happy with the essentials
alone. So I kept the cast-off glasses,
cheap plates and flatware, a pot and a pan
which I always tried to use anyway
because I was afraid of damaging the new
again. And when I pull the plug the parts
of me left over from bringing myself
together again at dinner disappear

down the drain or line in flecks on the sink-sides
or hide in a ring of foam at the throat
of the hole. I’ve used too much soap again.
It’s lying like a drift at the bottom.
I squeeze too hard. I waste what I don’t need
but if I don’t need it, why save it? Still,
I looked up from the nadir and I saw
her out the window, appearing to me

to be laughing. To tell the truth, I smiled
right through her and she went away.
I made her up again—she came out of
what I was creating when here I thought
I was only cleaning up. I made her
in my kitchen laboratory. She
conjured up like alchemy. I mean, I’m
here and she’s opposite of me but
it’s a partnership wherever we are.

This plate’s so clean that I can’t see myself.

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Take Heart

Posted in Junk 15: Winter 2015, Mari Casey with tags , , , , on February 14, 2015 by Tim Elhajj

by Mari Casey


The most difficult part of my recovery today, the most terrifying prospect in my life is not related to an urge to use or a potential relapse. It’s about dating. I’m twenty-six and single—a fun idea, right?—except I have four years clean, and just the thought of going on a date turns me catatonic. They recommend a year without sex when you first get clean. I didn’t do it then, but I might get it now, and not for lack of desire.

In my life, there are two major categories of potential suitors: people “in the rooms”— recovering addicts at the meetings—or “normies”—those strange creatures who can drink just one beer, maybe even hit one joint every now and again, normal people. I’ve dated in the rooms before. Pros: mutual understanding, shared experience, easy to meet. Cons: dating someone as sick as you are, and the whole “shitting where you eat” problem—when you break up you still have to run into the person on random weeknights in church basements and community centers. In short, since I’ve been clean, I’ve dated a friend I’ve known since childhood and two other recovering addicts. For a lot of reasons, including the whole “repeating the same mistakes” idiom, I’m ruling out dating in the rooms for now.

That leads to the problem. I’m petrified of dating with someone new. It’s a fear of explaining myself. It’s not really a fear of being judged outright. That’s easy. I know how to handle that. I say fuck off and walk off feeling self-righteous. The scenario that most terrifies me goes something like this:

I meet a man I like. We go on a first date. It’s awkward, but most first dates are. But it’s more awkward because I know there’s a huge part of me that I’m not telling yet. Of course, nobody can or should tell everything on the first date. But my recovery is a really big part of my life, and I’m consciously withholding that information for strategic reasons: in terms of the proverbial “baggage,” the story that winds up with me in rehab by the time I’m 21 is a U-Haul load. So we talk about a movie we both have seen. The date ends fine.

We go on another date. At some point during the second date I tell him I’m in recovery. It is probably blurted. It’s blurted because I’m nervous about it, and naturally, that’s how information comes out in an anxious setting: without much grace. It might happen when he picks up the wine list and asks if I’d like to try a merlot. Instead of saying, “No, thanks,” which is all I need to say, I say, “I can’t. I’m in recovery.”

This is the bad part. He is a nice person. He has sympathetic eyebrows and says in a voice raised half an octave, “Oh. That’s awesome. I’m really proud of you.” Which is what nice people say. Which is fucked up. And it happens all the time. Oh, we’ve had two conversations and now we have the type of relationship in which you get to be proud of me? Fucking great. And say it in the high-soft voice with which you’d congratulate a toddler for using the big-girl potty for the first time. Because now that you know, vaguely, that I used to do drugs—that stereotypically dark, gritty, felonious lifestyle—speak to me as if I’m a good little girl. Ok. I’m overreacting. I don’t blame this well-meaning man. How could he know what to say or how to say it? This normie is trying to be nice, acknowledging the positive side of things, so I let it slide. I appreciate his effort, forced and condescending as it might seem, he meant it to be nice. I smile and order a seltzer. We talk of other things for the rest of the night. I find out the names and ages of his siblings. He hears out about my career or my dog.

Three to seven conversations later, he asks as gracefully as he can, “About your recovery… What, exactly, did you do?” Same sweet voice.

And I answer, “I did a lot of drugs. I realized I couldn’t go on. I got help. I got clean. I work a program now.” I explain my program: do unto others, good Samaritan, trying to rejoin the human race, etc. It’s an honest if not original answer.

And he says, “Oh. That’s really great. When you were using drugs, though, what did you do?”

“You mean like pot, pills, heroin, cocaine?”

“Yeah, kind of.”

“Yeah. I did those. Other stuff, too.” And I know this answer is a little aggressive. It’s standoffish, but I want to stand off. I feel interrogated. Is he my date or the probation officer I never had? I’m intimidated. And immediately I realize my own answer was pretty fucking intimidating. I see that this person doesn’t understand, but he’s asking because he wants to understand. That’s alright. That’s admirable.

And we don’t talk about it again that night. We don’t have sex that night, either. We’re both a little put off. The next time we see each other, we don’t talk about it, and we’re both more relaxed. We like the same music. We like the same food. We like each other. We make each other laugh. And we have sex. It’s good sex. And we keep having sex. And we like each other’s bodies. And one time after sex, when we’re feeling really close, he asks –maybe he’s prompted by my remembering aloud that I need to leave soon to catch a meeting—he asks me, “Why did you use drugs?” And he looks at me with concerned, caring eyes.

And I know what he doesn’t want to hear. He doesn’t want to hear that I liked getting really, really high. That I loved the debauchery. Drugs made me feel free and wild and cool. Drugs made me feel numb and relaxed. I loved the chaos. I loved the nothing. I loved the way it felt to steal from the liquor store and smash the empty bottle in the alley minutes later. I loved the winding up. I loved the shutting down. And sure, there was the whole vicious cycle aspect, the deep-seated bitter self-hatred which I medicated with behavior that augmented the self-hatred and the need to medicate it, the textbook disease aspect. That was absolutely part of it, but so was the fact that I enjoyed the party, the darkness, the violence and the emptiness of it all. For a chunk of time, it was fun. Then it sucked, and I couldn’t stop. It was addiction.

But of course he doesn’t want to hear that truth. I can see it in his eyes. He wants to hear something that makes me forgivable—a sob story with neglect, abuse, foster homes, some chronic disease or horrible injury that required a prescription that got me “hooked,” any story with some mitigating factor. It wasn’t like that. He wants some part of my story to explain how I couldn’t have been as bad as he thinks I was, as bad as reality was. He wants an excuse because he needs me to be better than a drug addict to fall for me, and he wants to fall for me. He likes me. He thinks I’m funny. He thinks I’m kind, bless his heart. But I’m not a special type of drug addict, not some innocent who accidentally fell arm-first into a needle. I’m not a bad person, either, just an addict. And I’m looking into his eyes which are searching for excuses I don’t have. I’m not a heroic survivor of tragic circumstances. I don’t know what to say.

Why did I use drugs? For a moment, I pretend that I don’t understand the question. I pretend I don’t see it in his eyes. I break eye contact, and I think that I’m going to cry, so I close my eyes and kiss him and we fuck so that I don’t have to answer the question.

How does it end? I probably break it off within a couple weeks of that. It’s not like we couldn’t have worked past it. I could have invited him to a meeting so he could listen and learn as he was so willing to do. I could have told him the truth. I could have been honest with him about my fears, which probably would have made it easier for him to understand. But I didn’t because that’s so much work, so much trust, too much weight to lift so soon. We were just getting to know each other. I don’t know if it’s worth it yet. And these questions are things he’d ask within the first month. It took me years to talk about some of these things with my sponsor—and she’s an addict who asked to hear about it. But for a guy who’s kind of funny and likes that Syrian restaurant? Forget it.

That. That story is the hypothetical scenario that would crush me, the scenario that terrifies me. That I will see myself inadequate in the eyes of someone who wants to see me as good, who’s trying to see me as good. I know I won’t be that guy’s version of good. Don’t mistake this for self-pity. I think I can be plenty good, because I believe there are good addicts—that that’s not an oxymoron, that a good addict doesn’t require an excuse for her addiction, that it doesn’t have to be a big deal. It doesn’t have to be a big deal for me anymore because I have a few years’ practice accepting it.

This is the most terrifying thing about being an addict for me today (lucky me). No fear of contagious disease or incarceration. No visions of imminent relapse in a gutter. I’m scared I’ll let my world become very small in this very promising time—my twenties, about to finish grad school, as young and pretty as I’ll ever be, clean—because I hate how hard it is to get started. So I’ll never have sex again because it’s kind of hard to talk to nice people? Christ, I am one sick fucker.

I need a double-dose of courage. One for me to go out there and get what I want. I’ve braved meaner streets than the dating scene to get what I want before. The other is for the man who asks me on a date: oh you, sweet normie, be brave.

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Posted in Junk 14: Fall 2014, Merrill Sunderland with tags , , on November 17, 2014 by Tim Elhajj

by Merrill Sunderland



Few people are ever willing to barter with the boy: to trade a back rub for a neck rub, for instance, or a foot massage for a scalp massage. And those who even occasionally entertain such requests, he abuses without a second’s though. He becomes animal. He nudges and whimpers and lies down for them, his belly flat on the carpet.

The hair on his back, the boy has seen from pictures, is cropped like the ears of a Pit Bull. It has the shape of an angel’s wings at rest. But there is certainly nothing angelic about his back hair; it is curly and thick and has twice been waxed off, only to grow back at least as curly and thick as before. It gives him fits in the hot summer months. The back of his shirt is always the first spot where gray becomes navy with sweat. When the sweat dries and the residual salt cakes his skin, he itches like a madman. He must be scratched.

This wolf-hair on his back is a trait he shares with his father. And his father itches too. Unlike him, however, his father is content with scratching his own back; he keeps a ruler-sized wooden instrument, five-fingers carved into the end, on his bedside table. He can thread this wooden hand down the collar of his shirt, past the tufts of hair that peek out, and scratch and scratch and scratch until he is satisfied. More than once, when the boy has come to his father for a scratch, his father has offered him this tool. But he always declines. “Please. Please. Only for a second,” the boy pleads. He even bends a little to further entice his father, shimmies lightly up to his bedside—his father is always reading the thickest books in bed, he thinks—so his father has to move only minimally. When his father’s hands begin to scratch under the shirt, as requested, the boy closes his eyes and shuts out the world.

Sometimes the boy—now older—can get his girlfriend to scratch him as they lie in bed together. He runs his nose up her arm, down her stomach like the Tramp pushing a meatball before the spaghetti-kiss. This may seem romantic to anyone but him or her. His desire is motivated by something different, more primal, than romance, and she, she wants nothing to do with him when he’s like this. Needy like a child. But she’s very clever, his girlfriend, and she considers all her options. If she does not scratch him, he will continue to beg; if she says “in a minute,” he will turn sour and pout, which embarrasses her to no end; if she says “yes,” he will grin from ear to ear and tell her how good they are together. Perfect for each other. It is easier, she knows, to say yes.

The boy’s relationships seem less symbiotic than parasitic. It appears as though he is not trading touch for touch, but stealing. This is true, he knows, but it doesn’t have to be this way. He is more than willing to reciprocate with his own hands, small as they are, yet people rarely accept his medium of exchange. What is it, he wonders, that makes his father and girlfriend reject his hands? He knows they itch, his father in particular. What drives them to scratch by their own hands and contraptions instead of his? And what else, he wonders, do they do for themselves that he does not?


Whenever he gets a massage—a birthday gift from his girlfriend, a gift for both of them, really, because this is a day off from her massaging duties—he is amazed by the therapist’s hands. He is amazed by how easily this person gains control over his body. In seconds, he is a puppet and couldn’t care less who’s pulling the strings.

These hands of his cannot relieve the tension in his body precisely because they are his. They are small and weak. He has tendinitis in his wrist from a childhood playing baseball, swinging aluminum bats and flipping balls to lanky first basemen. On extremely cold days, even a decade after playing the sport, the weakness beneath his palm spreads to the tips of his fingers like a tide supplanting the shore, and his hand hangs heavy. His are not ballplayers’ hands.

Nor are they the hands of a laborer. Sure they can do the job, laboring that is, and they have in the past plied and planted, hauled and heaved, sawed and scissored. But with padded gloves and friction-reducing tools. Without such protection, his hands too easily crack and bleed and stiffen. Instead of hard-packed calluses sprout weepy, fluid-filled sacks.

But none of that matters, really. These hands could relieve the tension in his body perfectly well if only they weren’t his.


He must never touch the girls. This is the most important rule to remember at Zachary’s, a strip club twenty minutes from where the boy went to high school and a spot he sometimes goes with his friends from back home when he’s in town and the gang is too riled up to be pacified by the more traditional haunts. The boys are back in town.

Zachary’s is a one-story building that seems to sag, as if the roof might collapse on both the girls and the boys at any minute. The inside is dimly lit and the hallways are narrow, so narrow, in fact, the boy brushes shoulders and hips with other tongue-waggers on his way to relieve himself in the bathroom. But he never touches the girls.

They dance on a stage better suited for cock fighting (no pun intended) than stripping. The stage is canvas-dressed, the surrounding vinyl ropes barely thigh-high. One girl—no, woman—with sharp-angled bangs as though she has trimmed them herself does a special move in the ring. Dollar bills are folded tent-like over the highest rope, catching her attention, which is precisely when she sinks, slowly, to her knees and drapes her breasts over the dollars, snapping the vinyl as she backs away, now clutching the money between breast and rib cage like a spent mouse trap. By the time she’s standing on high-heeled feet, more bills have appeared, placed atop the highest rope with Jenga-like precision.

Between turns on the stage, naked women with names like Candy and June and colorful puckered lips ask the boy if he wants a dance. Never to dance. Always a dance. Nothing the two could ever do together, but a good to be sold. He knows this and yet finds these women—girls, really—difficult to resist.

During a dance, she bends and twists on him, but he doesn’t touch her; he cannot touch her. It’s a rule in this place, and a good one, the boy knows, but it defeats the whole purpose for him. He wishes, more than anything else, for a meeting of the flesh. His hands to her bare shoulders or, better still, her hands to his. The boy has come here to make some sort of connection.

He, realizing this too late, always too late, has come to the wrong place.

As these naked girls—no, women—dance on top of his clothed body, he never feels more disconnected. Most of the time, these women dry-humping the void between them, he starts a conversation about his girlfriend, his job mowing greens at the local golf course, a tough thing to be good at, he says, because you have to be sure to keep the lines straight and not scalp the edges. He’s doing all the talking, it seems, so he asks her questions. How does she like it here? Where is she from? Then, he sees, for the first time, maybe, the looping dragon tattoo that begins on her chest and ends on her back. He points to it, keeping his distance as if her skin might still be sore. Did it hurt? He asks.

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Some Things Calculable

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

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 Tim Elhajj

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 Tim Elhajj

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 Tim Elhajj


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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