It’s Mother’s Day. My mother has been dead for seven years. I go for a run near my house at the park: Debs Park—the same one where the two teen girls went missing last year. I jog past the palm trees pregnant with red toxic berries. Fields of daisies explode the side of the hill. Fat brown jackrabbits dart behind eucalyptus trees and scurry down the cliff. I smell lavender, rosemary, and sage. Ridiculously dainty California buttercups flutter their orange light. Hummingbirds hover. The sky is flat and gray but patches of sliver blue sneak through.
Yesterday, it rained so hard the trail was stained purple from jacaranda slush. When my mother visited me in Los Angeles years ago around this time, before her cancer returned, she became obsessed with them. “Pull over!” she squealed. She must have taken fifty pictures of them, but was crushed when she learned they’d never grow in Humboldt because of the incessant rainy cold. Today, my mother’s jacarandas are king. I’m surrounded by purple. One glance towards the fluffy purple clouds and I ache, remembering her delight.
A year after my mother died, my friend Jen also died. Both women were Gemini, born in early June, with reputations for being fast and flashy, with explosive personalities that could be as exuberant as they were difficult.
It’s possible I’m writing about Jen to bring her back.
Springtime, we’d hike up Runyan Canyon up a dirt trail Jen called, “our butt blaster.” We power-walked past other Angelinos in their designer sunglasses and pink-collared dogs. Jen, in her expensive, soft white Juicy t-shirt; me in holey yoga pants. One of the last times we hiked Runyan, Jen pointed upwards to a rare pale-faced barn owl flying in the gray haze above us, towards the cheap yellow Los Angeles lights. From the top of Runyan, we watched dusk become night.
She always loved the darkness.
We were like sisters then. Not the kind who fucked each other boyfriends and tattled. We stored each other’s terrible secrets. Like the time I listened to her pills tap against the side of a plastic bottle while taking a piss in the bathroom stall next to mine. I never asked why the pills. She was sober then, wasn’t she?
We were crazy about: zebra print lycra booty shorts, junkies, strays, fast money, guitar players, bulimia, ketosis, and white powders. We were both allergic to UGG boots. Jen was like a Bengal tiger in a room full of Beanie Babies: pale-eyed and possibly armed. Elegant, long black hair down her back. Chest and arms blasted with swirly tattoos. High cheekbones and plush lips from her Cherokee, centerfold mother. Treadmill calves. Jen was Frida Khalo in fishnets. She had the ability to maintain a full-time job while pulling off the color yellow. And not just any yellow—a shiny neon yellow blouse with gold beads and pink lilies.
When I met Jen, she was a few years sober, off heroin, and a paralegal. During one of my periods of extended unemployment, she landed me a receptionist job at the firm where she worked. It was a shit job and I sucked at it. We took our lunch breaks together at the mall in search of chicken salads and made fun of our office manager, a husky woman we called “The Bald Eagle.” Afterwards, we’d hit the black licorice chews bin at Gelson’s even though we were on starvation diets. We crapped green for the rest of the afternoon and laughed about it.
Jen was better at dieting than I was. She lost a bunch of weight by eating only green beans for three months. Those magical green beans helped Jen smash her shrunken curves into her sleek black wedding gown. She had a body designed for war—and how she waged war on her body.
It’s possible I am writing about Jen to set the record straight.
When she relapsed, I was her accomplice. I unlocked her office before The Bald Eagle got there, hid her needles and tiny bottles of Vodka so she wouldn’t get busted. I shoved them into my purse and threw them into the garbage bins in the break room before I even turned on the lights or made coffee. When Jen showed up for work high in head-to-toe Marc Jacobs, she avoided me. Whizzed past my desk in a hurricane of gray smoke and then she was gone.
I’ve never been good at discarding people when they become inconvenient, ugly. I’m more likely to keep them closer, holding fast to risky intimacies. I long to learn from my darkest teachers, feel the stab of their spectacular rejection. Perhaps I feel most alive when I’m hurting. Maybe I think I can stop the fire from spreading with tenacious loyalty and an easy AA slogan. I still can hear my ex-speed dealer’s voice say, “It’s easy to love the beautiful. Love people when they’re ugly.”
I’m pathologically attracted to the scabs on our souls. I don’t believe in Redemption. Atonement is a dangerous lie reserved for folks who have done cruel things and have gotten away with it somehow—maybe even built their entire careers on it—and want their grubby hands washed magically clean.
But that’s not how it goes. When it comes to loving, we’ve all failed miserably, scabs and all. We don’t get to edit the parts of our past we don’t like and begin anew. Jen would not be thrown away, cleaned, or redeemed. She showed up again and again. Clean. Dirty. Hopeful. Broken. Scarred. Shit-faced. I took her calls.
When Jen asked to kick on my couch again, I said okay, even if it was a bad idea that meant wrestling needles from her in my hallway again, even if it meant seeing her turn beastly—even if she died on me. But she never showed up to kick. A part of me knew she wouldn’t.
A year before, Jen and I had done sex work together. (Not in the same room.) After we both left the firm, we made inroads on our promising careers as hand-job whores. Jen passed me her more “challenging” clients. One night, after a session went further than I had intended, I lost a condom inside me and was distraught so I stopped Jen’s apartment to shower and commiserate.
“What if I’m pregnant?” I asked intently. She looked up at me from her desktop, where she was editing photos she had taken of people with missing limbs and severe birth defects; models she’d solicited on Craigslist for a show.
“Dude. You’re not preggers.”
I looked at her photos. Her portraits showed a confrontational suffering that was as disarming as it was beautiful. Her photography seemed to mirror her own unspeakable, fragile pain that yearned for oblivion. In those sex-work days with Jen, perhaps I was also still hungering for a secretive, dangerous escape. The familiar kind—like the inches of dirt on my brother’s floor; the charred spoon on his coffee table next to soggy, used cotton. His pot plants growing in the back room past the dog shit and car parts in his yard. His grungy Hello Kitty Pajama bottoms. The small crystal Christmas tree paperweight on his window ledge in a dust cloud that could look like snow if you squinted and didn’t breathe. I felt so comfortable there, not breathing. Oblivion.
Jen was right. I wasn’t preggers.
When Jen disappeared for a few days, I let myself in to her apartment with my set of keys. Her French bulldog had pissed and puked all over her wood floors. Her fancy clothes were in a crumpled pile on her floor as if she’d been abducted. Discarded needles were piled behind her bathroom door and toilet as if she’d made an initial attempt to hide them, then finally surrendered. I captured the dog and dropped him off with a friend who was a dog sitter and knew Jen. The dog survived. Perhaps Jen would, too.
When I picked Jen up the last time, she violated parole by peeing dirty so I drove her back to jail. She’d been living in her car with a cock in her mouth. Her scabs were open from shooting up in her tits. Her left arm was wrapped messily in a paper towel, bleeding. With her other arm, she talked on the phone in a whisper to her mother. “We’re not broken up,” she said. She was talking about her girlfriend who had kicked her out. Jen’s inked hipbones stuck out of her favorite black Capri’s. I longed to hear her laugh again with black licorice chews caught in her teeth, and remembered how she said she loved my writing behind closed doors like it was an even more terrible secret.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said, hopeful. I looked at her worried gray forehead, her perfectly plucked eyebrows, and her liquid black eyeliner smudged across her temples. “Dude,” she said, and disappeared.
Image credits: Feature photograph. All other photographs © Jennifer Alicia Grant.