My coworker tells a red-faced customer that the New Year starts with our bones.
He is referencing the seasonable cold front that, only just now, has arrived in New York City. But, as I stare from the coffee shop window out onto the still-dark avenue, I think it’s possible his theory has nothing at all to do with the weather.
He’s right though, the New Year does start with our bones. And, after letting some heavy weight drop, I am left again — feeling empty. Just a feeble frame.
This feeling is a familiar one.
September 9, 2012. I stood in the center of my Portland living room. I remember staring with empty eyes at my black, cubed, IKEA bookshelf. I read the title off the spine of every book I owned.
It was my first day sober, and, I didn’t know what else to do. I could not sit or walk or make calls or cook or watch TV. Most importantly — I could not drink. I could only do this one thing — stare at my shelf full of books. And then, I sat on the stoop outside my tiny kitchen, my elbows pressed into my knees, and I smoked an entire pack of Parliaments. A lonely skeleton.
Days and weeks past. Then, months. Now, years. And, where substance is concerned — I am human again. I can see myself in the mirror without having a drink. I have created something. That old skeleton — a spine, made up once from those of my books and my rib cage, made up once from twenty premium cigarettes — is now covered with flesh. I made matter with which to cloak myself. And, with practice, I learned how to uncover meaning in my own assembly.
Meaning will come and go. But, one thing is sure — Time will always create new bodies for us to build. And I have come to believe, despite the hardship, it is important we continue the difficult work. Unending. Tedious. Painful. Slow. Rewarding. Beautiful. Unexpected. — Grace.
We sew our veins, organs, and muscles into place. We cover ourselves in this — our skin. Unique. Never again to be duplicated. We all start out with these bones. And, at the end, which is never really the end, we are something we weren’t before. Original in our effort. We are our own life’s work. — We become our willingness to begin.
In the New Year, cold descends. We feel it. The work commences.
I scrawl a bunch of words on little slips of paper. Names. Places. Feelings. Each small note, something I want to leave behind. This year, along with the previous 7 years, are folded among them. I’ll burn them up before the year is out.
I’m not one for New Year’s celebrations or resolutions. However well intentioned, they are always laced with disappointment.
But, this year something is different. Tectonic plates have shifted. My position has been compromised and something needs to change. I’ve made mistakes — big ones — on a number of fronts. And, everything has culminated in a literal and figurative move — away from myself. I’ve failed myself. 2015 marks an algorithm I cannot decipher. An un-crackable code. A failure I cannot correct. There is no bandaging this. I can no longer reassemble my pieces and make some new, refurbished mosaic. — There is only leaving it behind.
“Goodbye” is much harder than “We’ll fix this.” It’s why I fight it. I stay in relationships, at jobs, in the company of toxic people — too long. Always avoiding goodbye. Harsh. Permanent. A boundary that cannot be breached. Cold turkey. The difference between resolve and resolution. It’s devastating.
I moved to Oregon in 2009 with incredible spirit and the promise of more to come. My love. My dreams. I became a pioneer of myself. Free. I moved in and out of my own independence with trepidation and joy. I was fearless in my own creation of myself. — I was to become the woman I had dreamed up on the floor of a railroad apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, while I was 25, sitting on a mattress without a box spring. And, it was a thrill.
But Oregon, with all it’s beauty and freedom — took everything back. Piece by piece. My spirit. My love. My dreams. First, untethered and so sure of myself, then, suddenly, a captive of something I could not see. With each passing year, I found myself battling new ghosts.
Lost there, in my beautiful city of beautiful bridges, I was a quiet wind that blew in-between the pines that wrap around Reed College. But, the rain and damp sank so far into my my bones, they began to rot. So, I took what I could salvage and I fled. Back to Brooklyn — a place I hardly recognize, save for these same ghosts who, now, haunt me on street corners and in subway cars.
I watch seasons bleed into one another from the window of my parent’s house. I try to remember what it was that girl sitting on the mattress wanted. I think of little else. But, the more I look for her — her dreams — the more bereft I become. She is lost.
Resolve is this — I am done looking for someone who is gone.
I write my own name on a scrap of paper and place it with the others. She’s not here anymore. And now, there is enough paper for a nice, slow burn. When it’s all ash, I’ll scatter it like the dead. Carbon for the Earth.
For the first time in a long time, I’m looking forward to it — The New Year. — One where I let go. Where I find the courage to say goodbye to that which anchors me in the past. Where I light the way of new dreams with the lessons learned in pursuit of old ones. Where I release the ghost of the girl I was and make room for the real woman I have become.
A New Year, where we find ourselves, always — alive — in the here and now.
The last time I felt like I was on fire — I was bonafide crazy.
Holy. Hotness. Boiling over. And, that’s how I know things have gotten bad. — The heat.
It’s been building. Pressure. But, I’ve been preparing for this moment. — The moment where I miss Portland. The moment where I wonder if I made the right choice. The moment where I have my doubts. And, I knew, I knew this moment was on it’s way — so, I readied myself. And, when it arrived, as planned, I embraced it like a lost child, dropping everything to find a place to go cool down with it.
When the hot iron of crazy strikes, and, it’s happened to me several times since getting sober — I know that I have to stop everything. Completely cease. Mentally rest. I tend to run on fumes. In this state, my mind will go ape-shit and find itself creating the worst possible outcome — every time. I let small obsessions take over. I’m curt and angry. And, I show it. I hate showing it. I feel like I might lose my mind. So, this time — I was ready. And, when the moment hit, I made a beeline to the nearest place I could be alone. To sit in it undisturbed. — Silent. Silent. Silence.
The church was empty. Marble echoed the squeaky sound of my black Vans. I looked up at the alter. And I let Jesus know — “I’m back.” But, I’m not really here to pray. So, I tell Jesus that too.
“I’m not here to pray, Jesus. — I’m just crazy.” And, I’m pretty sure, he’s heard that line before.
The last time I sat still, with intention, was back when my ex was kicking heroin then using heroin then kicking heroin then using heroin then kicking heroin. I felt like I was hanging on for dear life. So, every night, I lay in my Portland bathtub and I waited while the water turned from scalding to tepid. My mind, still. I’d be hot and then I’d be cold. And, so, so still. I’d move the water back and forth slowly with my shriveled fingers — but everything else would remain — calm. I let all my thoughts go. I allowed my sadness and my confusion and my pain and my fury and my forgiveness and my hope to coexist in that white, rectangular pot — all of it, just steeping in the water. I let it come to a boil, and then, I let it cool. I let it cool down until it was just so. Just bearable. A temperature that I could live with.
I sit in an empty church pew because I don’t have a bathtub anymore. I explain this to Jesus. And I apologize for using his space. I tell him how I just need to let the water cool. And, then I let him know that I might need help with that, “you know — if you have some time.” And then, I feel like I need to explain that it’s not about my junkie ex-boyfriend, or anything super serious like that. It’s just me. Me and my shit. I had to clear all that up for Jesus. So, I told him about being homesick. And, — “I know, Jesus, I know — that sounds funny, because I was just homesick for home and then I moved home and now I’m homesick for Portland — which was home — but wasn’t.” And then, I apologize again, because, — “I know, Jesus — it’s fucking confusing.”
After about a half hour, I realize that I’ve asked Jesus to assist me with quite a few things. I wonder — were those prayers? Did I just pray to Jesus? Nah. I turn my head around and, behind me, I see there’s another man praying now. He’s on his knees about ten pews back. I whisper to Jesus — “Help that guy first.” After all, I’m just here to cool off. “Really. Don’t worry about me. I’m good.” — It’s quiet here. That’s all I need.
Cool air blows in from the side door when a little, Latina woman shuffles in with a black and white shawl wrapped around her shoulders. I watch her shove a few dollars in the copper collection box and she lights two red candles. A chill creeps up the sleeves of my hoodie. Cools me down. I feel my blood go from boiling to tepid.
On my way out, I genuflect and, then, I stand in the aisle and tip my black-knit-beanie up to Jesus. “Yeah. So. Thank you, for the space and the air, I mean, for everything. Amen.”
And then, I try to begin again. — With a brisk walk back home.
I watch the sun come up in the window of the coffee shop where I work.
I got the job a few weeks ago. — A barista.
I arrive at 6:25AM, five days a week. I brew big carafes of coffee, set out pastries in a glass case, and watch as the Avenue begins to open its eyes and welcome the day. The coffee is the best part. It smells warm and sweet and I breathe it in as deeply as I can throughout the day. And — I know — that when this time in my life is over, I will walk into some cafe, any cafe, and the smell of coffee will remind me of how the light splashed down Third Avenue in the Autumn of 2015.
After the morning rush — a parade of school teachers, mothers and fathers with sons and daughters keen on a breakfast of doughnuts, chocolate croissants and macaroons, crabby little-old-ladies, suited business men, and a suave Italian who always orders a cortado with “just-a little extra milk” — things slow down. It’s still. One regular sits at his computer quietly, for hours, eating his giant, cinnamon-sugar doughnut. I stock white paper cups and stamp white paper bags with our shop’s logo. I look out the window and I ignore the elephant in the room.
I’m just taking cover here, in Bay Ridge. Other parts of Brooklyn still lay in ruins.
I avoid the subway lines in certain neighborhoods. I decline invitations from friends who are headed into different parts of the borough. I’m still walking around in a mine field without Kevlar.
It’s not just that Brooklyn has changed. Change — I expected. It’s what hasn’t changed. The places that still remain — as if I’d never left — a skeleton of a city that I once shared with someone else. When I left Brooklyn in November of 2009, I wasn’t an “I.” “I” was a “We.” We left this place. It had been ours. Everything. Parks and street corners. Restaurants and bars. Cafes and clothing stores. And Avenues. So many Avenues. I cannot escape how the light falls here. It’s like a time machine. Brooklyn, B.P. (Before Portland) and Brooklyn, A.D. — the two blur, in some strange warp.
Seven years later, I pass the same places and I want to melt into the cement. — To disappear. — All these little things I once loved, still living in the same space. Some are gone, too. My heart aches — for all of it.
But, here, in the coffee shop, I’m safe. The faces are, for the most part, kind. The Brooklyn accents, comforting. And, the smell. Oh, the smell. I grind the beans and I lean in as I pull the cleaning lever, watching, as a little cloud of fine, ground coffee puffs out into the air — flakes of fragrant, roasted perfume. I pour creamy espresso shots into little, ceramic cups and its aroma wafts up and into my nose. The little metal spoon clinks. The machine drips. drips. drips. the drip coffee into a steel carafe. A woman tears the top off a pack of Domino sugar. Everything feels calm and manageable.
I hand a little boy a clear bag that displays his little, coconut macaroon. His father buys one for him every morning. He tilts his head and smiles at the cellophane bag and the gold sticker that secures it. “What do you say to the lady?,” his father asks him. The little boy teeters back shyly into the wall opposite the counter and mumbles, “Thank you.” His father smiles at me when I hand him his cup of coffee. “Come on bud, let’s go.” He ushers the small boy out the door, but, the boy always looks back in. First, to me, then, to the case filled with macaroons.
I know that feeling. Looking back into a place that’s so hard to leave — so inviting. I feel his melancholy — forced to leave his dreams on the wrong side of a glass pastry case. But, it’s all just a part of growing up. He will learn. The necessity of leaving things behind. Too much sugar. He’ll know better. He’ll know what he can return to, and, he’ll know what he has to abandon. Yes, he’ll know. — Gold stickers will not always hold things in place.
I wipe down the counter where a few drops of coffee have spilled.
When I remember this time in my life — I know — I will remember the smell of this place.
We don’t have to say goodbye. To the people. The places. The things.
We can just let them be. — Who they are. Where they are. As they are.
This is my big lesson in letting go. The one I needed to learn. My unavoidable and inevitable truth.
My mother and I pack up my apartment, and, I wish it were different. I wish that my last moments here, in this place, weren’t tip-toeing around my life’s possessions, all of which are strewn haphazardly across the floor. I wish that the big, black garbage bags — one for Goodwill and one for the dumpster — didn’t sit in the middle of my living room, slinking, dark portals to the sad and hopeless lost worlds that await my unwanted past. But we continue — dismantling this world as I know it, piece by piece.
It helps to remember that — I can come back. Maybe in 5 years. Maybe 10. On a plane, or, in a car. On another road trip — maybe with some new beau, or on business, or I don’t know — with a baby. I can’t know how I’ll return to this place. And, I think that’s the thing that scares and excites me the most. Who will I become without this place? Will I like her? Will I miss this woman I am now? Revile her?
Who can say what I’ll be when I return to Portland? I don’t know. — I can’t know. — What I’ll be wearing. What job I’ll have taken time off from to make the trip back. Until that moment, I will not know whether or not I’ve found the illusive thing I’ve always been seeking.
So, instead, I do it. I let go. — I make peace with what’s here. Now. — Who I am. Now.
The most difficult thing, is this: Letting go of everything. Allowing it all to just be — as is. Not knowing how my dreams will return to me, or, how I’ll return to them. In 12-Step, this is called — turning it over. And, it’s the thing that I have always wanted to do, but, never actually did. And, here I am, — allowing it. Placing it all into someone else’s hands, because I am tired of wringing my own.
No promises or commitments. Just time and space. A strange, uncertain portal to my destination — like the garbage bags, sitting in the middle of the living room floor.
But, that’s the way I want to tie it all up. My sobriety. My love. My city. — My letting go. Memorizing all the people, places, and things that held me together. Keeping them somewhere safe, as I turn, and walk the other way.
I will place all these moments into a cranial time capsule. I don’t know that it’s something that I want to write. It’s something I prefer to feel. And, feeling, that’s something I learned to do here — in Portland.
I tape up boxes. I clank through kitchen drawers and cupboards. I clear my cache. I pack up what I need and I throw the rest into the black-hole-garbage-bags in the middle of the living room floor. — I make room for new things. I convince myself to forget about the ways in which I’ll leave, and return, to this place.
In just hours, I will no longer be an Oregonian. And, maybe, I never was one. But, in order for me to leave — I have to believe: I was. I have to believe that in the same way this place made me who I am, it also allowed me to become what it is. Oregon is inside me now. An integral part. Maybe even the central part.
So, I don’t have to say goodbye. — Not even to myself. I can allow it all to just be. As is.
Me. My Oregon. My Portland.
The people. The places. The things. — Who they are. Where they are. As they are.
As I pack, I find stories strewn about everywhere. Stacks of old papers. Pictures. Books. Dresses and socks. Keychains and candles. Molskines and mugs.
I can hardly breathe. — So, bear with me, there won’t be bonafide essays for a few weeks. Just travelogues. Notes on a transient life — which has spilled out in front of me like a bag of rice on the kitchen floor.
One thing is certain — we can tell who we were by the things we carry. Tim O’Brien once wrote a beautiful book that captured those feelings I’m only now beginning to understand.
What follows here are snapshots. Truly. There is so much more. Boxing up my life. Leaving this place I love. I sit with it. I look at it. All of it. I lay it all out on the cutting board. And, I cut away the pieces. Choosing the ones I will throw in my pot — and tossing the rest to the side.
I acknowledge these. These that were. These that shall remain.
His photos are all in one box. I put them there — years ago. A coffin at the top of a closet. The lid was covered with dust. We used to take photo-booth-photos everywhere we went. I still have all of them. The strip above was from our friend’s wedding. He loved me on that day — I remember — and I loved him back. We danced. We sat on cement steps with plates of food in our laps and we laughed. I have tried to throw everything of ours away before. No matter what I trash, I will forever keep this photo strip. Always. Because he was my first love. And, I will never love that way again. And this. — This is what that looked like.
My maternal grandmother died before I was born, but I’m told that we are a lot alike. My mother says that she was no-frills. That she said what she had to say when she felt like saying it. That she insisted on eating salad with every meal. — And, that she was a fox. People see my fair skin and know that I’m Irish. But, they forget that her Mediterranean blood courses through my veins too. In the Summer, my shoulders turn her Italian, olive brown.
I knew my grandfather well. And, I knew he loved her real bad. — Even years after she died. — He’s gone now too. But, every time I consider settling on some guy — I think about them. And, I know, there’s some dude out there who’s gonna love me, real bad, even when I’m dead. And, I’m waiting for him.
When I see the picture above, the one with my mother sitting in Grandma T’s lap, I think to myself — we all look alike. And, we’re beautiful. Three generations of beautiful. Theresa’s dead, but she sees me. — I’ve known that since I was a kid. It’s weird. — I keep her pictures in every room so she can watch me. So she knows — her daughter did a really good thing.
My dad is, and always will be, a strange bird. But, there’s no guy in the world who will ever love me more. Growing up, he used to listen to a lot of classical music. Opera, symphony, choral — all that stuff. He had bookcases full of classical recordings. One day, he was just over it. Suddenly — it was all Bob Dylan — all the time. He used to pick me up at play rehearsal in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and blast Blood On The Tracks like it had been released that day — every day. If we’re being honest, I’d rather not admit I know every track by heart — but, I do. My dad gives me Bob Dylan postcards and books. It’s like, he’s telling me — subliminally — if I get Bob, then, I’ll get him. That alone is enough to keep my interest. I don’t always acknowledge it, but, I love that my Dad is weird as fuck. Because, I am too. And, it’s nice not being so alone in my weirdness. He’ll watch an entire season of any HBO show I want — in 1-2 days. When I sold my complete series of OZ DVDs on Hawthorne yesterday, it kinda broke my heart. But, my Dad knows what’s up. He’s got HBO GO. And, I know, we’ll get back into it. And now, while we’re in the car — I get to pick the album. — I paid some dues getting through, Tangled Up In Blue.
My mom sends me a card for everything. They arrive so frequently, I forget how amazing they are. Now, I’m finding them everywhere. Sometimes, she’ll throw in some cash and tell me to grab a bite, or to do something nice for myself, or to buy the cat a treat. She wants me to be happy — always. In good, motherly fashion, she has always wanted me to have, feel, and be the best. I find her heart scribbled on tiny cards everywhere. Maybe she doesn’t know — I save them all. When I was little, she emphasized the art and necessity of the “Thank You” card. — How it will “never go out of style to have class.” How, to appreciate people and things is important. It occurs to me as I pour over her notes — crying like a child, because it’s uncanny how she always knew exactly when I needed saving — that I should send her more cards. There is no one in my life more deserving of thanks and kindness. She deserves nothing less than 100%class. And, there’s no one who needs more reminding to do kind things for herself. Someone needs to give her permission to feel good. Maybe that person is me.
The card above was sent to me at Christmastime — the year that my heart was first brutally slaughtered. Whenever I come across this note — I’m reminded of who I’m supposed to be. And, that’s a woman who’s a lot like my Mom. — Gracious, brave, strong, and impossibly classy.
5. Me, Myself & Eye
I took this photo yesterday in my kitchen.
I wanted to share a vulnerable moment with you this week because, well, that’s how I’m feeling. I wanted to show you the vulnerability. But, I don’t have to. I’ve been showing you for months and months. These things I’m packing up aren’t me. They’re my archives. All this crap I’m putting into bags and boxes — those aren’t the moments — they’re the evidence. Proof. My tears are like that too. All that outside stuff.
Oregon, if I could talk drunk to you — I’d say too much.
But, in between botched and blurred sentences, I’d speak those gems. I’d say things that my heart kept pad-locked-up until we went ahead and blasted the doors off with a fifth of Jim Beam and a couple of cold, tall pints.
It’s been a long time since we’ve opened those doors. And it’s been even longer since my heart allowed me to hear the things you’ve been trying to say. But baby, if I could talk drunk to you, I’d ask you — Do you remember being young? Not that you’re some old man, but — we’re old enough now that when we’re asked if we remember being young — we know the answer.
Do you remember loving her? Some girl. Any girl. This girl. Maybe she was quiet and lost. Maybe she walked up and down your coast. Maybe she stood in the arch of The Vista House, her hair flying wildly over The Gorge as she screamed out your name across the Columbia River and cursed you. But, do you remember loving her? Do you remember how you’d give anything for her to just call, or show up at your door? She’d look at you in a way that made you feel. Like you were really there — like you existed. Not only existed, but, existed just for her. Do you remember — feeling that way?
Love made you feel. Can you remember when love was humbling? When you’d bow down before it, sovereign, wanting nothing more than for it to look upon you? Just. One. Brief. Moment. — To crown you? We all felt it when we were young. Sometimes, because we didn’t know any better. But, more often than not — we did. Know better.
It’s not something you can escape. It captures you. And baby, I may feel old, but when I love you — when I let you go — I’m young. And my heart was once your happy captive. Those ideals that you thought I’d soon abandon, well, — maybe I will someday — but not today. Not today. Today this love rules me. It runs laps around my heart. It crushes me with its casual distance. And maybe, after our most recent repairs — your heart looks pretty shabby too, baby. But, if I could talk drunk to you, I’d tell you — It’s worth piecing together.
If I could talk drunk to you, I’d ask you to love me with that same, reckless abandon. I’d ask you to forget your old man heart and dive into mine, where things aren’t nearly as broken and battered as they were when I found you. I’d ask you why people give up on love when they’re finally old enough to feel it. I’d tell you, I may be young and stupid — but there are parts of me that are old — and I know more now than your green heart could handle. I’d tell you — I’m worth it. All of it. I’m that girl you couldn’t have back when you were seventeen. I’m the comfort that you never got from the women who held out their hands to light your cigarettes. I’m all that passion you beat down into your guts because you never thought you’d find someone who could match it.
Here I am.
If I could talk drunk to you, I’d tell you that — back then — before I met you, my love was like a paper cut. But now, your love fuels some massive inferno that turns my insides red-hot, and if it ever goes out, all that will remain is a burnt up cross where my heart used to be.
Oregon, you taught me to love. And, some days, I fear the love I have for you. You’ve broken me before. But, when you touch me, you spin that golden thread that pumps through my veins, straight to my heart. A drug that I’ll choose to give up, but, somewhere, I’ll always seek.
I should tell you — I’ve watched the sun rise over your head. And, that first time I told you I loved you, your sky said, “Oh baby, I love you too,” like I already knew, but, — I didn’t know. I never knew.
If I could talk drunk to you, I’d say that my love is crazy, and if you could see it, if it were an actual thing you could touch or hold — I know you’d want it. You’d want to keep it. You wouldn’t leave it on a shelf or stash it in some drawer. You’d wear it. You’d protect it. You’d carry it until whatever made you, made you no more.
If I could talk drunk to you, I’d tell you that — I know — I think too much. I wish it were that simple.
But, it’s not. Simple.
It’s time for me to go. But, you knew that already.
And, what good is talking drunk to you if I’m just telling you the things that you already know?
I lie on his bed while he shoots dope in the bathroom.
He runs the sink so I won’t hear him heat the spoon, but I still hear the flick-flick-flick of the lighter through the old vent in the floor. I can see though the walls. I. Hear. Every. Sound. The brown paste boils thin, to a liquid. The cotton top of a Q-tip soaks it up — breathes in the poison — like it’s alive. Each white fiber expands, taking on its color, like a web of molasses.
I stare at his water-stained ceiling. Rot from the upstairs apartment bleeding through the paint. The edges plume out and peel in the shape of mushrooms. I close my eyes. I see the tip of his needle drink it in. — His Heroin.
The plunger pulls back, and the spoon empties, like a tide going out. Smooth. Like a thick, dark caramel — drawn up by the moon. I cry quietly as I watch the way his cat just sits at the bathroom door. Waiting. — “C’mere kitty kitty.” I whisper.
I feel him poke his veins. Stick them. I found the syringes in his top drawer. Again. I hold the tops of my arms. I am outside my body. The girl is on the bed and the junkie is in the bathroom. I’m confused by my own acceptance. I allow this. My story. His story. Either way, it’s a war story. A story where sharp objects are made blunt and hard hearts are made harder. A world that defeats me with permission, not conquest. Then, I become her — some version of her — His Heroine. No. No. That’s wrong. It’s — His Heroin.
Some junkies will tell you that until you shoot dope, you don’t understand. — The high. The letting go. The relief. — It’s not true though. You don’t even have to move to understand. Just sit. Wait. — I sat perfectly still. I sat in another room while it swirled around me, not in me. A demon in the vents. You don’t have to feel that ugly, brown stuff pulse in your own, blue veins to witness its power.
Yield to it. Vulgar and dark. A power that turns your Hero into someone else. Something else. And then, you watch this creature lose everything. Lose themselves. Lose you.
But really………they just let you go.
Everything’s gone. And, all the while, I’m right there, it’s all right there. I try to trick myself into believing something that isn’t true. But, the cat’s still sitting, waiting, his tail curled neatly around his soft, white feet. And it is — true.
He will give up anything. Anything. And, I learn, this includes me. It hits like a revelation. Christ Our Lord, where are you? I’ll never be sure. But, look, listen! The stained ceiling. The vent. The sink. The flick-flick-flick. The breathing cotton. The needle pulls.
I’ve dreamed it. No — no. I’m still awake. I’m still frozen. Me. The cat. We’re sitting in the same places.
I’ve seen it in the movies. I’ve read my Burroughs. It’s not the same. It’s not the same as watching him. Reading him. Feeling him slip. I cast him off like a thin line from the side of my boat, and he’s just a heavy lure sinking into the depths of this — some bottomless lake. His eyes disappear in a pool of water.
I imagine how he feels when he ties one off. How it makes him safer than I ever could. How the needle is the lover I never was and never can be. Sometimes, I imagine that he is a drunk, like me — not this. I imagine that the scars on his arms and legs are from something else — like the butts of his father’s cigarettes, maybe. It’s easier when I have someone to blame.
Fuck the poppy.
In the Springtime a coworker tells me — “It’s such a happy little flower!” I smile at her, but behind my face, under my skin, I grit my teeth. Poppies. At their dark, sticky center — lives the seed. Devil’s sap. I won’t eat your poppy seed bagels. Not anymore. And, now, I check the ingredients on the back of the multi-grain bread.
Heroin. Just a seed. It will always be stuck in my teeth. I will poke at my gums forever — but no amount of prodding will free it. It’s right there. On the tip of my tongue. At the base of my molar.
He is in the bathroom and I’m sitting on the bed. Waiting.
Later — with eyes half closed, he asks: “You didn’t see me, did you?”
“No.” I say.
But, while he sleeps, I do see it. How his love has left his body. And with gloves and bleach, I wash it away.
Before you leave a place, it’s important that you commit it to memory.
Later, you’ll return to it like a dusty book on your shelf. You’ll run your fingers over its edges, and, you’ll remember something you didn’t realize you’d forgotten. It’s hard to visualize — the passage of all that time. Our memories, warping, fit in tightly-packed-cranial-crevices. But, it’s all right there waiting for us, on the dog-eared pages. We open up to that brittle spot, where the spine is cracked. We revisit our oldest secrets. For me, it’s always a story that begins in the Summer — when things were hot and uncomfortable.
* * *
Standing on the corner of Lombardy Street, where Williamsburg and Greenpoint are divided by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, in front of the sports-dive, The Callbox Lounge — Adam and I invented Portland.
Inside the bar, five Hasidic Jews draped their heavy, black coats over the backs of tall chairs. Their tzitzit dangled from their hips and their faces, framed in curls, sweat profusely while they watched the Yankees game. Some of them drank beer, some of them, Coca-Cola. This place was their secret. — And, Portland was ours.
We sat at the bar, bathing ourselves in the intermittent breeze of the sputtering air conditioner. We were so different then. Young. In some kind of love. Complicated, even before cracking. We didn’t care. And, we sat there without any real concept of time. We hardly knew the things that stood before us. Our world spanned the length of the bar — and that was enough. Adam’s face was radiant in a blue glow as Keeno numbers popped up on the grid of an old TV screen and, even now — I want to kiss him. Back then, we had plans. We were getting out of that city. Soon. Maybe a year. Maybe less. And beneath the highway, under a starless sky, the night was humming a song with its passing cars and rattling metal. We drank Budwieser and smoked cigarettes and we planned our escape.
Back then, I wanted anything but Brooklyn. I wanted open sky and long, wide roads. And, green. Lots of green. I dreamed of places where no one knew me. Us. Lost together. Anywhere. Winding through some unknown place. And so, we imagined Portland. I imagined Portland. — I imagined we’d be the opposite of what we were. — And together, we would draw our maps.
* * *
The day we left, I stood at the window of our third floor walk-up. I looked down over Nassau Avenue. It was starting to feel like Fall and my screen was thrown wide open. I remember seeing a woman down below with a baby carriage drop her scarf and an old man leaned down and picked it up for her in front of the deli with the blue awning. The scarf was red. — I was going to miss that place.
My mother was in our living room putting things into boxes. We had overestimated the amount of room in our car and my father walked up and down, up and down, up and down our steps taking bins, boxes, and bags back to my childhood home in Bay Ridge. “Don’t worry Dabba,” he said, “we’ll ship them out to you when you’re settled.” Dabba is my family’s nickname for me.
It occurred to me, as I stared down at my dirty, Brooklyn street — no one would call me Dabba where we were going.
Adam came up behind me and held my shoulders. I only remember this because it was unlike him. He was reserved. He didn’t hold my shoulders often. So, I leaned in, because, when you are scared and lonely and at the precipice of something imagined becoming real — you want Adam to hold you.
“Are we really going to leave today?” I asked, fat tears pooling in my eyes. The apartment still had too many things in it. My mother looked more perplexed with every passing hour. “Sarah,” Adam said, turning me around from the window to face him, “I don’t care if we leave everything we own on this street corner. We are leaving tonight.”
And, we did, that night, around 5 or 6 PM — I can’t remember. We left to find something we both had lost. Though, now, I know that our lost things were not the same. They had never been the same. But, he had been biding his time and I had ignored the facts. So, we invented a place that already existed. We assigned it meaning. And, we drove. We placed ourselves here, in the City of Roses. We walked along rivers we’d read about in books. We learned the names of mountains that, eventually, would rise up from our backyard into a sky that turned strange colors which we did not know how to name.
At the curb, I cried in my mother’s arms. There is no feeling comparable to leaving your mother when you are scared and she wants you to stay. My father’s arms held me a little too tight, and they spoke the words that he couldn’t. Adam turned the key. Ignition. That was the last time I saw Nassau Avenue — my mother becoming smaller and smaller in the side-view mirror.
As we crossed the Verrazano Bridge, our Polish landlord called my cell phone from Nassau Avenue. “You can’t leave mattress on street like this! I get fine! Garbage pick-up not ’til Thursday. Fifty dollars I going to have to pay!”
I looked at the side of Adam’s face. His silhouette sketched a thin line against a darkening sky that met the edges of Brooklyn’s shadows below. The bridge’s wires held us up. I was seat-belted in with our scotch-taped love and some kind of freedom and an emptiness that I will never be able to describe.
“Tell him to take it out of our security deposit,” he said. “We’re not going back.”
I sit at a bar shaped like a horseshoe and I order soda with Angostura bitters.
My 12-Step friends will hold the bitters against me — the same way they do when I lick the side of the vanilla extract bottle while I’m baking. I decide I don’t care.
I’ve been waiting for this.
I sit across from a hipster-geek in a wool, skull cap. The weather’s too warm for that, but, in Portland, no one cares. The bartender showcases a tequila bottle I don’t recognize for two drunk women at the end of the bar. They snack on fried food and chew with their mouths open and they don’t realize how old they look, bat-bat-batting their eyelashes and laugh-laugh-laughing at something the bartender says, but, everyone knows without hearing — it isn’t funny. Their husbands are outside smirking and smoking cigarettes. They turn to gawk at a group of three, tall twenty-somethings who walk by in patterned leggings that hug their perky, little asses.
I hammer my straw down into the ice, like I’m breaking something up. I stir — like there’s whiskey at the bottom of my glass. There isn’t. But, I continue eyeballing the good shit on the shelf.
I pass this bar every day. I look in its big, rectangular windows. Behind my own reflection, I see smiling lips that leave blots of red lipstick on the edges of tumblers and the tips of little, black straws. I wanted this — to sit here. To feel it. Soft leather. My purse dangling from a hook at my knees. I wanted to breathe out. — A release. A homecoming. My heels drawn up against the sides of a bar stool. — I’ve waited.
The perfect conditions. The right amount of cloud cover. The slice of evening right before the Saturday crowds filter in through the angled, double doors. A hum, a quiet energy — like something might happen. But it doesn’t.
I can’t explain it. — It’s not what I wanted.
The hipster-geek doesn’t look up from his smart phone, even when his hand searches along the bar for his drink, which, I am certain, is an old fashioned. The older women, who think they’re young, wave their hands back and forth. Pinot gris sloshing at the sides of their glasses, just barely contained. The bartender reaches for his bar rag, but, in the end — doesn’t need it.
I ask for my bill.
“All you had was soda. Right? We don’t charge for soda.” The bartender walks away from me. So, I thank his back. This is what being castrated feels like — I imagine. Suddenly, I’m worth even less than the dollar it cost for me to keep the seat warm.
Whatever it was I was hoping I’d feel — I know now — I can’t anymore.
The chewing, cackling hags. The lechers with cigarettes that dangle from their lips. The bartender’s display of insincerity and faded tattoos. The smell of spilled beer and dirty mop water. It’s hardly a return to the days I used to live for. — His hand grabbing for mine, while we poured over menus, the sun sinking into another river. Here, I’m lonely. And, the wood of this bar is scratched.
At home, I crawl into bed and I lay very still. I bury a feeling I didn’t know I still had.
I just wanted a moment in the bar. But, the moment’s gone.
Rain taps the window and the cat swats the venetian blind and I miss things I haven’t missed in a long time. Adam. And New York. And our railroad apartment. And they way the sun spilled over Nassau Avenue in the summer when I was twenty-five.