1978: The boy next door leans lazily on a pair of crutches. Stands hidden under a half-dead willow tree. Shit-brown shirt and Dilbert glasses. He looks nothing like a red warning sign. My mother told me about strangers offering candy out of white vans. Men with wrinkled suits trying to touch me in a private place. She never told me that danger could look like a fifteen-year-old boy with messy curls. She never told me that danger could stroll by on crutches. Call my name softly. Touch my skin gently. Danger’s hands are warm and calloused from hours spent coaxing heartbreak out of the strings of a Gibson guitar. My mother never told me that my body would not always be solely mine. Broken and bloody. Hymen melted on cracked vinyl seats. Meatloaf song on cheap speakers. Grape bubblegum and Budweiser in my mouth. Danger’s hands are a vise. My wrist bone is on fire. Grinding. Liquifying. My mother didn’t tell me that monsters never look like monsters.
1983: We drive all night in his mother’s white Caprice Classic. The car I almost choked to death in when I was thirteen. It still smells like Mad magazines and cotton candy, mixed with vomit. I’m wearing a peasant blouse I stole from my mother’s closet. Orange Dr. Scholl sandals I toss in the backseat. Blue Oyster Cult song and an open bag of Fritos on the console. We stop at dawn and I give my first blow job in front of Mt. Katahdin. I do it badly, because I am a nice Catholic girl and nice Catholic girls don’t know how to give a proper blow job. At first, he tastes clean. Like the sun and dryer sheets. Then he tastes dirty and dark. Like potting soil and rust. His flesh and my mouth create a violent dance. Until I have blood on my tongue and a piece of his skin caught in my teeth.
I spend the next week trying to rinse him from my core. I use Ivory and Dove and even Irish Spring. Nothing works. I still smell something underneath. Earthy. Ripe and rotting. I eat chicken nuggets and chocolate dipped ice cream cones from a local drive-in famous for fried clams. I still taste sand and rock and sin. He has branded me. Left his baby like a curl of fire inside me. We plan to take the EPT early on a Saturday. I give my father the lie we made up. Something about the beach. It’s October and raining. My father looks at me like he doesn’t recognize me. I leave my soggy grape nuts in the sink, in the Flintstones bowl I’ve been eating breakfast out of since I was five. Later, my mother tells me that the grape nuts and milk dried like cement to the bowl. She tells me she kept her eyes trained out the window, looking at the rain and the swimming pool. Because she couldn’t stand to see my childhood being swept into the garbage disposal.
Keeping him was possibly the most selfish thing I ever did. What if keeping him was the thing that ruined him?
1984: He is born on a Wednesday. During a heatwave. I am eighteen and completely unprepared for the pain. White agony in my midsection. The pain comes in waves. Arrives on wheels. I am being drowned. Crushed. I am being chewed and swallowed and spit out. I scream until my voice runs out of sound and then I cry for my mother. I don’t want a baby anymore. I want to sit in front of an old black and white TV. I want to watch The Brady Bunch while my mother folds my laundry. Motherhood begins with a lie.
“One more contraction, Janine. Just one more.” Then two. Then thirty. “The pain is almost over, Janine.” No one ever tells you the truth. Because the truth is so unbelievable. Once you’ve turned your body inside out for a child, the pain will be back. The pain is talcum powder skin. It will have a heartbeat separate from yours. But familiar, so familiar. The pain will be his first steps. The tears drying on his cheeks from a schoolyard bully. The pain will take on so many shapes and sounds, while you’re running to catch up. His first kiss. His hands catching a ball and pulling out of yours. His bald scalp. Blond curls. The chemicals he pulls into his lungs and snorts up his nose. The lies and the Mother’s Days he doesn’t call. And the Mother’s Day he does call. From jail. You just repeat “I love you,” while a stranger with two years’ community college under his belt gets paid to listen to you cry. This is the future. Every story has a beginning. This one is a room filled with green tile. A bitchy nurse and a Korean doctor. A couple of kids playing house. An eight pound, two-ounce baby boy with a cone-shaped head. Born sound asleep from the drug they used to shut his teenage mother up. My son was not born with dreadlocks and dead addict eyes. These are the things he grew into.
2001: I divorce the boy next door. I buy new pictures and sheets from Walmart. My son graduates high school. Packs up his Korn posters and Blink 182 CDs. Moves to New Hampshire to work for his uncle. This lasts a week. Maybe two. He floats between friends’ couches. He gets his first tattoo. Green curlicue script over his right hand. What Would Jesus Do? I ask him why. He tells me about the second girl he ever slept with. Hazel eyes. Upturned nose and sharp hips. His hands running through her hair. His fingers tracing the green curlicue script over her right hand. She died trying to outrun her nightmares. Eighty-two miles an hour. Open beer in the cup holder. Roach clip in the ashtray.
His cheeks lose their baby fat. He shatters my heart daily. When he calls because I know what he’s been doing and when he doesn’t call and I picture his burial clothes and coffin. I dream him back into his childhood. He is five and learning how to ride a bike while I am learning to let go. I wake up on my new sheets, with my throat sore. My fists clenched. My fingers cramped. My palms dark red and nearly bloody from trying to hold on.
He forgets fundamental things. How to laugh. How to cry. How to keep a job. How to tell the truth. He is anger. Brainwaves. Heartbeats. Graceful fingers, fingers that shake, pick locks, blow kisses, and roll joints. Ice blue eyes and a Beavis and Butthead tee shirt.
He calls from bug-infested kitchens and a Circle K. From the library and street corners. The calls are always the same. Money. Money he says he needs for food. The clothes he hasn’t changed in two weeks hang off him like a tent. His mouth and hands have forgotten what to do with food. He is a walking skeleton trying to score his next oxy. No one else sees the things missing in his face. The boy I rocked and bathed. The man I don’t know. He originated from the most vulnerable place inside my body. This man began as an independent version of my heart. This man is not my son.
2009: Broken people are drawn to other broken people. Comparing scars. Laying belly to belly. Two similar pieces of different puzzles. They get married on a covered bridge. Flowers in their hair. Oxy high smiles and Natty Ice on their breath. They don’t look anything like a caution sign. She’s eighteen. Too young to understand what she’s just committed herself to. Happy to sit beside him on a secondhand futon, and play Minecraft. She’s never seen him sober. She’s never looked at him without the soft-focus lens of prescription drugs. He has just enough pretty left to get by. She doesn’t question why he can’t keep a job. Why they can’t buy orange juice and bacon. Or even toilet paper. They survive on borrowed highs. Get along with newspapers and magazines stolen from neighbors. Until the generosity of friends dry up, and they are left on bathroom tile. Sores on their feet. Lice in their hair. Dope sick with no TP.
2011: He calls from a two-room apartment above a Mexican restaurant. Toilet paper in the bathroom. Orange juice and bacon in the fridge. He hasn’t called to ask for money. He hasn’t called with a mouthful of lies. Sometimes, the truth is worse. He’s working downstairs as a dishwasher. He’s clean, four months. He and his child bride have made a baby on top of the secondhand futon. I am in the ladies room of a Concord Trailways bus station trying not to lose my shit when I find out I am going to be a grandmother for the second time. A baby. A new person to love. A new person to be terrified for. I want to scream. Turn into a puddle. I have to wash my hands and catch a bus. The lady beside me is giving me serious side eye. Hideous purple eyeshadow. Pink polyester overarm flab. I end up frozen in front of a vending machine staring at the Planter’s Peanuts. Silently apologizing to a baby I haven’t held yet.
2012: She is born on a Thursday. Eight days overdue. Her father is almost twenty-eight and completely unprepared for the pain. He runs into the parking lot and takes hits off a friend’s bong. Sends the friend to a gas station across the street, for a twelve pack. They stand behind a bread truck and drink a toast to the baby. How quickly promises made over an EPT are forgotten.
I read about rock bottom. A quick, messy thing. A busted needle. Bleeding out stomach contents. The sort of things seen on Grey’s Anatomy. I never imagine that rock bottom can be a bottomless pit of slow and dirty.
2014: Rock bottom has a name. It’s pancreatitis. A complication of drug and alcohol abuse. Addiction, like any other disease, comes in stages. I am in my pajamas, sitting on my cousins couch in Massachusetts, when I learn my thirty-year-old son is in the end stage.
2016: He walks through his sister’s kitchen door, like a panther in a filthy white tee shirt. Olive shorts. Black Airwalks with no laces. Dreadlocks. His skin is grey. His eyes are foggy and heavy lidded. There are wrinkles forming around his mouth. A new bruise in the bend of his arm. Maybe from an IV needle. Maybe something else. I don’t stare and I don’t ask. You learn these things when you love an addict. You learn not to ask. You learn to keep your pocketbook close. You learn to dish your heart out in minuscule pieces. After a lifetime of learning this boy by smell, you learn to stop breathing when you hug him. After a lifetime of knowing him the way you know yourself he becomes foreign. A part of you which no longer exists.
He crosses his ankles. Leans against a sink. I see his father in the shape of his shoulders. The list of things we don’t say is endless. Detox. Pancreatitis. Prognosis. These are grenades we don’t throw. We walk into a bar that caters to the lost. Decent curly fries and broken lights. Someplace where the dirt won’t show. Where the grief won’t illuminate your face. Somewhere you can sit in a corner with your ripped and ruined self. Where you can be anonymous, holding a tacky menu. You can be a different mother. The mother of a son not choosing to die. We sit at a scarred table, my firstborn child and me. We talk like people on a bad blind date.
His new girlfriend works in the kitchen. She comes out with a shy smile and blue water glasses. She has a long curtain of tangled hair. A green apron. A chewed pencil behind her ear. Torn cuticles and clear polish. She is a painfully thin, bulimic. She smells like grease and Parliaments. They are wearing matching rings. Tiny, sterling silver ones, with a heart-shaped purple stone in the center. Her mother committed suicide when she was a child. Her father lives with an old woman he picked up in a laundromat. She is addicted to twisted teas and the clean white powder of a crushed oxy. She is addicted to the darkness inside my son. His lips. His eyes. She has a circle of bruises around her wrist. They are the size and shape of his fingers. I clear my throat. Play with a straw. Look away. Make eye contact with a biker holding a handful of darts.
Later, we walk across a rotting porch, into his new apartment. The room is small and cold. Cleaner than I expected. We sit cross-legged on a bare mattress. He takes off his shirt. I can count his ribs. His shoulder blades stick out like broken wings. When I touch him, it’s like trying to catch smoke. He slips further away each day. I am losing my son to the bottom of a beer can. Losing him to stolen prescription drugs. Razor blades and tin foil. He is becoming a shadow. He reads me poetry he wrote on a straight talk phone. I close my eyes while he reads to me about the damage carved into his organs, the darkness which wraps itself around his heart, his guts.
The addiction stealing my child from this world. I close my eyes and see him on the night he was born. I see him at six, in red tights for his school play. I see him at ten, with the sun in his eyes. I see him on the day his daughter was born. I see the awe on his face. The way his fingers carefully cradled her small skull. I listen to him read about all the ways a body can become a corpse. This is the most awful moment we have ever spent together. This is the most beautiful moment we have ever spent together.
2017: I’m dressed for work when the call comes. He’s been missing two days. I didn’t sleep the night before. This isn’t the first time he’s disappeared. It’s not even the second or the third. So, I’m in nursing scrubs, balanced on the edge of the couch, when my daughter calls to say, “He’s alive.” I open my mouth. To give thanks? To call him a stupid shit? To simply swallow and enjoy the words: he’s alive. I never get the chance to decide, because there’s a “but.” There’s always a “but,” isn’t there? But he stole a car. But he had a heroin pipe in his hands. But there was more heroin in the trunk. But he’s being held on $10,000 bail. But he’s looking at five to fifteen years in federal prison. These are the facts I stop hearing about halfway through. The human ear refuses to absorb things the heart can’t process. I slip off the edge of the couch. My ears are full of a rushing. Like an ocean or a bloodstream. I let them carry me back to the sound of his first cry. His first word, Mama. I end up on my knees, face in the carpet. Mouth open. Silent screaming. Dry heaving. Fibers scratching at my nostrils and tongue.
He calls from prison. We talk about Stephen King books and Howard the Duck. We talk about ramen noodles and prison underwear. The ugly crocs on his feet, courtesy of Bob Barker. We don’t talk about the future. We don’t talk about the present, or anything in between.
I take a virtual tour of the prison he’s been moved to. I suck viciously on a wintergreen Lifesaver to keep the nausea in my throat at bay. I keep repeating, “This isn’t so bad.” Until I see the words, “No physical visits.” I try to remember the last time I touched my child and can’t. I try to calculate how long it may be before I can touch my child again. And I have to spit out the Lifesaver. I call my daughter, crying. She says: You have to say the words. I sit in front of the computer. I say the words softly. Then I say them louder. Then I type them into a Word doc and stare at them.
My son is in prison.
My son is a criminal.
I end up back on my knees in a dark room. Keening into the carpet.
I want my baby.
I want my baby.
I want my baby.
Rumpus original art by Sylvia Nguyen.
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.