Goodbye, love. I’m still not ready. But those are the words my fingers type a year after you walked on, departed, left me.
I understand hollow now. Did you steal my innards? For what in hell?
I miss you. I miss the me I was with you. I miss us.
I miss your voice. I miss your flat nails and Flintstone feet. I miss your soup stock. I miss the way the ink of the Thunderbird lifted the skin over your sacrum. I miss the round of your ass in your pocket.
I miss tracing your caterpillar eyebrows with my thumbs. I’ve missed your ponytail in all the years since you cut it because it was thinning and your hairline receding. Or so you claimed.
The men in my family don’t live long, you foretold. Damn you. Drunks and rock stars don’t grow up.
I saw you today. Alive. Watching downtown go by, sitting atop a skateboard on a concrete wall, your back against the sign for that place I worked when we met a career and a lifetime ago.
At a glance from behind—from attitude, from your sister’s memorial pictures, from the way your sad eyes watched the cars and the drivers with absorbed disinterest, having to remind yourself not to care and yet collecting details I would have missed about the skeletal trees in a field of traffic or the tattoos on that drunken Indian who might also have been you, except he hadn’t cut his hair—my heart knew it was you.
Raven locks in waves not yet long enough for a ponytail, maybe too long for a job, this you was twenty-five years younger. Flannel shirt. Jeans. Beautiful with no sense of it. Tarnished but not yet rusting into the shadows. Thinking and smoking in that way you had, a hobby not a habit. Late for class, skipping altogether. More important things to do in the middle of the day.
Used to ignoring the orange hand, I stopped at the empty intersection and stole another look. Then another. Admiring your right cheekbone, the cut of your jaw, your nose on break one instead of six. Willing you to turn toward me, knowing I’d have to look away with just a glimpse of that full wonderful face or you’d think me a crazy old lady. The slip you left of me couldn’t risk seeing that in your eyes.
The one you met, young to those old enough to know the preciousness of moments, shaped herself at the paper whose name your ass sits upon. Abandoned that silliness for you, for her, for dreams. She would write! Finally. Or sleep and watch FoodTV until she figured out who she was outside a newsroom. Or gave birth to that new baby.
Shut off by alfalfa fields and sky, the farmhouse was solitary. Her boys at the K–12 a town over, you running a nonprofit while the boss attended another “conference” in the city with the woman who wasn’t his wife. And your wife, without a gun rack in her minivan or a family Bible on a doilied coffee table. From the picture window in the second-story master, lightning shattered the endless night sky.
On the coast, because she’d never lived near the sea, she wore fleece and befriended the rain. Gave birth. Again. She asked you not to start the business until he was older. It wasn’t quite as lonely hearing the waves. Farther away from the person she was and everyone who knew her, she felt different with curly hair and a baby on either hip, hanging with the organic mommies at the indoor park.
Later, you admitted that the business released the beast. Though you gave it all away and ran away, again, the end began there. She didn’t want to go, didn’t understand why it was suddenly so important to you to be near her family and friends, didn’t understand it was for her. And for them. Perhaps you never knew.
At home, her home, you took a simple job. Beneath you. Never enough to continue to support your family. Or your soul. Sure, building and riding bikes made you happy—on the trail or at home in the garage, with the kids and the neighborhood littles who thumped up with flat tires. But she wasn’t the only one beyond the driveway who looked at you differently with greasy black nails that no longer scrubbed clean. Who was that man with no tie and no title, shaving his head down to the scalp with discount clippers and stained hands?
You can’t go home again—if you’re the same as when you left. The offers began and she couldn’t say no. And not just for the money. Putting on that costume and going to work was good cover. It took longer for her to accept that words would be there for her when no one else was. Her success was never directed at you. How little it had to do with you, in the end. But her rise and your fall created a need for rope bridges. On her knees, on her belly, she reached through the planks for you. Too heavy was the sorrow.
When you fell, you took your woman with you. No one else knew her as you did. Except for her. And without your reflection, your coexistence, she didn’t recognize what remained. The woman she was before you disappeared in a farmhouse. Washed up on a salty shore. Watched the whites of your eyes as your torso bucked and blood foam gathered and streamed out the sides of your mouth. Wiped shit off your thighs. Cried with you, on your knees, wrapped around her waist, begging her to help you.
She tried. But someone had to feed the kids.
That woman, what’s left of her, remains. I remain. And because it is winter, everything is bleak. The trees are gray. The sky is white. The wind bites. The bears, the buds, the rhizomes sleep. My new bed is smaller and still vast. The old one was, too. For far too long. While you drowned demons.
I watched street corners. For you. For the face I traced with fingertips a million times too few. Once, I spied you in the sandwich line, swaying over your backpack, your jeans hanging off your hipbones by a string. A string? I never asked what the hell happened to your belt. I was grateful you saved your phone. Always found a charger. The digital tie that bound. It was so much easier not to see you that way, not to wonder what they put in that meal you would never have chosen to eat. Turning away saved us both the shame.
Shame. Humiliation. Slur. Defame. Wickedness. Wrong. Bullshit.
How about sick? A disease of the heart and the soul and the limbic. As deadly as cancer with no cure. And no 5Ks or pink ribbons to find one. Insurance didn’t even cover the lousy twenty-eight days. Either time. Bill and Bob’s plan worked temporarily. The guys with a Higher Power tried. They understood. They prayed. You prayed. Hard. I still don’t like God’s answer.
Do you? Now? How I miss your voice.
I search for my own answers, the rest of me. Sometimes on street corners.
I didn’t want the light to change. I wanted to see you move again. Watch your chest rise and fall. Be the wind catching your hair. Be young enough that you would look at me that way again and we would have more time—enough to change the ending.
How I longed to put my arms around you. Lay my head on your shoulder; tell you our story quickly so that you wouldn’t skate away and might let me. Out of pity. Crazy old lady.
The light changed. I didn’t look back. Still trying to fix you, I didn’t look back, we had a conversation in my head, I didn’t look back, with me doing all the talking. Until I remembered it was useless. And by then, an entire city stood in the way.
I finally quit dying my hair. It’s long and curly like I always wanted, but streaked with silver. I miss that you would have loved it, though I may never get used to “ma’am.”
They don’t see the sexy me, the one you called beautiful—holding me naked in front of the mirror, despite my protests. The woman reflected in your infinite eyes. Will anyone else ever know that pleasure makes me cry?
You rolled your eyes at “making love.” But I can’t bear the thought of fucking. Not now that I know the difference.
Be present. Breathe in love; breathe out sorrow. Feel her knuckles kneading where his hands used to grasp, living the pleasure instead of remembering it. Inhale the clean smell of you alone, scrubbed and rinsed, scrubbed and rinsed by a woman in the same kind of black “bikinis” they insisted you wear even though they pinch. She sings while she scrubs and rinses everything but the birth of you. Oh, to be that satisfied. Oh, to want to sing.
Wait, no. That was then. Minutes ago, but then. A floor down, a world away. With aching kneecap and naked breasts pressed flat on the marble, wondering if the men, too, wear matching “bikinis” or hang limp while they’re scrubbed and rinsed, scrubbed and rinsed. It’s no use picturing him covered in suds, eyes closed, on the white marble. He isn’t a wall away. He can’t answer your questions. Be here. Be present on this dry sheet, the gift of this moment.
Breathe in love; breathe out pain. This woman working you with her man hands is wearing nurse clothes. The light is brighter beyond the gray curtains but dim in this room just wide enough for the massage table and her. Under the sheet, it hurts when she pulls your toes. But that’s present. That’s here, eyes closed, ears open to the barely audible sounds of emollient and friction. Feel her touch, which is real on your skin, so fresh and clean.
“So fresh and so clean, clean.” Don’t picture him singing, smiling, alive, enjoying the coffee strong and bitter on the rooftop with the view of the Sea of Marmara, or carrying your shoes into the temple that smells like feet, or curled up beside you in that hard, giant bed, even though he would be proud of you eating so many olives without wrinkling your nose.
“Lady, turn.” The woman with the man hands in her nurse clothes smiles, perhaps as grateful as you that there are few shared words. What is she thinking as she weaves her fingers into yours and pulls them back, presses her thumb into your palm—her third, fifth, eighth palm today. Does she compare the size? The stiffness? The hue? Perhaps she, too, sings, but in silence. Her man hands a prayer on your skin.
Does she respond to the singing that wakes the city five times a day, like the uniformed policeman scurrying from his post to scrub his feet and speak to his Allah? The dervishes whirl and whirl while audiences expecting a show watch, or nap, around them. If spinning leads to enlightenment, I want mine. But even Muslim women aren’t allowed. Perhaps they whirl in private.
Breathe out the past; breathe in the right now. Man hands force my shoulder back where it belongs. It doesn’t stay. They brush the cables in my neck. The oil makes no sound as it falls on my torso but I tell myself I feel the drops, as if that detail is important to my present—until she rubs the abdomen I didn’tn know was tender, and the pain becomes my present. I force my knees to stay down. I resist the desire to roll into a fetal position and cry because she would think she hurt me and not finish my massage. It’s not her, but I don’t know why my abdomen hurts. No baby. No blood. But it all hurts.
Be present. Be present! Though at present he is gone. He will be gone in future, too. And he took forever with him.
Perhaps I should call the rug seller who let me walk away without a quibble, his fingers working into my shoulders, his breath hot in my ear, his card pressed into my hand. “I can pick you up later,” he said, to how many women of a certain age, with no man to pull out the credit card or carry the shoes or grow old as this city of the ancients.
Breathe in love; breathe out sorrow. More drops of oil, this time between my breasts. She rubs and rubs where American massage therapists avoid. Her hands work across my chest, my entire chest, the flesh of my breasts in, out, up, down, two orbs at her mercy, moving out of sync on either side of my heart.
I miss you. I cry most on the drive home from work. Because I can’t call to ask, What’s for dinner? Or, How was your day? Because you won’t be home when I get there. Ever.
And you won’t be there when she gets into Harvard. Or dyes her hair blue. You already missed his first championship. Never met the first grandbaby. I’m getting the kitchen done, going to Vail with the Joneses. Changed jobs. Got accepted to grad school.
My new life is beginning, whether I’m ready or not. I look in the mirror and, when I bother to notice, wonder at who looks back. Who is that woman without you?
While I want the pain to stop, sorrow is what I have left; my companion, the consolation of yesterday. The depth of my grief reflects my infinite love for you, and by the same measure the inexhaustible space between us. It keeps you near enough to hold, pushes away solace and casts out that tall, dark lover called joy.
Rumpus original art by Anna McGlynn.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.