If Love Were Water
Ryan has opened a sleeping bag and hung it over the single window in his bedroom. I laugh and gesture to it and say, “I like this.” I expect him to chuckle, too, but he grumbles instead. “This light is fucking horrible,” he says. I consider what he might mean by that, fearing for a beat that he’s referring to light of any kind, preferring instead an eternal dimness, like a casino without clocks or windows. Then he says, “I thought about shooting that one out before.” I look to where he nodded his head and realize that he’s not talking about light from the sun but about the streetlamp positioned six feet outside his window, giving off a tangerine glow so offensive it seems personal. I feel badly, not for the first time, that I’ve reduced Ryan down to my caricature of him: purposeless addict wading ever more deeply into the cave of his own inertia, blocking out the light and squinting and raising a track-marked arm before his face whenever someone throws back the blinds. No. He’d simply wanted a more comfortable place to sleep.
Ryan starts scavenging in his room for the piece of jewelry he’s made me, a chunk of watermelon tourmaline wrapped in wire that I can hang from my rearview mirror. It should be on his bedside table, but he can’t find it there, so he tosses aside papers, lifts things from the ground and shakes them, peers into cracks of space between pieces of furniture. I make attempts toward helping him search but soon give up and sit on the edge of his bed, which bows significantly under my weight. I look around his room surreptitiously. There’s an orange pill bottle on most every surface—bedside table, floor, dresser. I don’t count them. They make me think of the veterinary hospital I worked in earlier this year, except all the bottles there were dark translucent green. A beautiful green. Filling medications was my favorite task—it meant I could stand at the pharmacy counter with my back to the rest of the hospital and do something mindless while looking purposeful. Rovera, a sort of doggie ibuprofen, was my favorite. I liked how they smelled. I liked the weird chalky texture. I always wanted to bite into one, to just indulge my impulse when no one was looking.
I try to remember if there were this many pill bottles in his room in San Francisco. I don’t recall it, not to this extent. Perhaps my eye had gone blind to them because I was over so often, or maybe he did actually have fewer prescription pills around then because heroin was his substance of choice. Maybe he’s chosen this arrangement because he lives with his dad now and it’s better for a parent to stumble over bottles of pills than it is for a parent to stumble upon baggies of indeterminate powder. Or maybe—fuck, maybe—all these pills are prescribed by his doctor and entirely necessary for his well-being.
While Ryan searches his room, I use the bathroom across the hall. I hover in a squat over the toilet seat, and dry my hands on my pants instead of the towels hanging on racks. Pages of women in various stages of undress have been ripped out of magazines and taped to or propped against walls. How 90s, I think. Who gets their porn from print media these days? I wonder if he shares this bathroom with John.
I reenter Ryan’s room and sit back down on his bed right as he finds the tourmaline. He’s wrapped it in copper and blue wire and strung it on a small silver chain. It’s beautiful and I say so. I look at it for a long time, hoping my attention will make clear my gratitude. I wish I had something to give him.
Ryan picks up a guitar from the corner of the room and starts strumming. I notice a drawing pad on the ground, opened to page of pencil sketches.
“Oh cool,” I say, and pick it up. “I didn’t know you draw!”
“I’ve had that notebook since high school. The ones in the front are from back then. I just add to it extremely slowly.”
“Can I look through it?”
“Yeah,” he says. “If you want any of them, you can have them.”
I flip through the pages deliberately, looking long at each one. Ryan strums behind me. On a couple of pages, toward the front of the book, there are lines of prose written out. I’m half-afraid to read them, both because I don’t know if I’m equipped to confront the private gnawings of Ryan’s mind and also because reading anyone’s young angsty musings makes me wince. I read it anyway. Vaginas factor. I am sort of but not all the way relieved that it doesn’t make any sense to me. I wonder what I would write if I were high.
Toward the middle of the book, I find the sketch I want. There’s a bushy tree on the left and what appears to be a crossdressing woodsman in the slight foreground. He carries an ax and wears a curly beard and a skirt and lifts a high-heeled foot behind him. It’s fantastic. I’m exuberant. Ryan is unmoved by my gushing, just agrees in his even, unaffected tone that I can have it.
He sets his guitar down and stands up. “This is the type of thing I would’ve sent to Cohen when it’s finished,” he says, and nods toward a sheet of paper taped to the wall. It’s an eight-by-ten filled with rows of Larry David’s face reproduced in various styles. Seven months ago, Matt Cohen was twenty-six years old, shooting a hundred dollars’ worth of heroin a day. Now he’s not. Ryan called me when he died, but when he says this thing about sending him a drawing, I’m confused for a moment. The idea of Matt getting mail glitches my timeline. Is he alive? Can he receive mail? It doesn’t last long. Would’ve, Ryan said.
“Do you want to help me fix my bike tire?” he asks.
“How long will that take?” I ask.
He shifts. “About… eight to ten minutes.”
“Okay,” I say. “Definitely, yes, I want to do that.” I wish I hadn’t asked how long it would take. I wish I didn’t feel like I have to.
He piles a few things into my hands and I hold the door open with my shoulder while he wheels his bike outside. We’re on the second floor of an apartment complex and there’s a concrete landing by the stairs. Ryan sets the bike there and I sit on the ground. “What should I do?” I ask.
Ryan looks around. “Look pretty,” he says. He works quickly and I’m impressed by his skill. He and Erica are similar in so many ways. So humble. So unassuming when they’re being meaningful.
It’s 9:30 p.m. now. Erica and I flew from San Francisco to Denver early this morning. I picked up the rental car as soon as we landed and drove straight to Pueblo after I dropped Erica off at her friend’s. I got here at exactly 3:35 p.m.
I can see the passage of the last six hours in Ryan’s eyes and body. He’s beginning now—again—to see instead of look. His presence is becoming less like an assault and more like a gentle fire.
But I have to tell you something.
I have to tell you that what I want here is to make a story in which I only look at addiction with otherworldly doses of compassion and complexity. I want to do more than thoughtlessly reproduce the easiest and most worn assumptions tied like cannonballs to the word “addict.”
But there’s a something else sizzling under the ground of all this, a current that’s been shorting in and out of my consciousness since the beginning of my relationship with Ryan. A question. Or accusation.
Why can’t you just…?
Why can’t you just follow through? Why can’t you be grateful for something? Why can’t you remember how it feels to detox heroin? Why haven’t you—by now—convinced yourself that it’s not worth it? Why can’t you get your shit together? Why can’t you be different, why don’t you do better, why won’t you stop making me feel sorry for you?
I don’t like it. I’m not proud.
Admitting makes my neck hot and my forehead damp. I hardly ever let myself think these thoughts. I almost always catch them and cut them off before they find completion. I cut quicker and quicker every time, so that I’ve gone from why can’t you be different to why can’t you to just why.
I don’t want these failures of mine to seep out of me and poison him. I watched my mother die inside a body filled with tumors when I was eighteen; I know firsthand that disease is not the fault of the sick.
But I flew from San Francisco to Denver with my girlfriend this morning. And I flew from San Francisco to Denver with Ryan three years ago. Do I compare them? Is there anything for me to do but compare them? Am I allowed, as I have done, to mark my personal progress by the people I have beside me?
Can I be blamed for my relief? My anger?
Erica and I sit next to each other in the same row. She lets me take the window seat. I nap on her shoulder. When we land, someone on the plane begins to whistle and doesn’t stop until we deplane. We’re both immensely annoyed, and kneel on our seats to scan our fellow passengers for the culprit. Erica says, threateningly, “It better be a fucking child,” and I laugh so hard I collapse against her arm.
Ryan and I sit in different rows. He took a pill or two, I don’t know what variety, before we boarded, and from my seat in a row adjacent to and behind his, I can see him open his tray table and put his head on it and remain there until we touch down. When we rejoin one another at the gate, he says, “Wow, I don’t remember any of it,” “it” being the thing that ended ten minutes ago.
Once we’ve collected our bags, Erica helps me find the Hertz rental office. She helps me again at the front desk, and again when we drive off the lot. I’ve never rented a car before; she has. She walks around the car’s perimeter, bends to inspect imperfections, scribbles down notes on the stack of papers we’ve been handed along with the keys. When I get in the driver’s seat and turn on the engine, she pulls up navigation on her phone and directs me across town.
Once Ryan and I disembark, we stand at the gate. Ryan kicks and shuffles around, and we look at each other until I say, “Okay, like, can you take the lead now? I did everything to get us from San Francisco to here. I’m assuming you’ve been to this airport before. And that you know where your parents are going to pick us up. Take some initiative.” I don’t even feel guilty about snapping, I just feel tired. Ryan looks down and thanks me for organizing everything and doing fucking everything, though he doesn’t say it like that, then rifles around in the nearest trash can for a snack. He lands on a half-empty carton of McDonald’s nuggets. He offers me some but I don’t eat meat, and we walk silently through the empty airport toward the exit.
I haven’t seen Ryan since he moved back to Pueblo from California a year and a half ago. When Erica’s friends announced their wedding in Colorado, and we started making travel plans, I tried to arrange a way for Erica and Ryan to meet. I wanted her to experience, even if just for an hour or so, the only man I entered into a relationship with before coming out. I wanted her to see why we’re still so close, why I continue to love him the way I always have, which was never romantic and always familial, though I hadn’t known that when I was younger and working hard at straightness like it was manual labor. I wanted to bring together the man who was like my brother and the woman who was like my sun. But after weeks of attempts, it became clear that Ryan wouldn’t make it to Denver like we hoped. Erica would stay with friends for pre-wedding events and I’d go to Pueblo alone. Erica was, perhaps, quietly relieved, though she’d never say so. She’s been in recovery for over two years; she never chooses to put herself in extended contact with active addicts.
The drive to Pueblo wasn’t as scenic as I expected it to be. I called Ryan from the car to give him my ETA, and told him I was hungry after the flight. “Should I pick up something now, or do you want me to wait and we can eat together?” “The latter sounds nice,” he said. “I can make a fruit salad.” I said okay, and asked him to text me the code for the gate to his dad’s apartment complex. As soon as we hung up, I searched the nearest Starbucks in my phone’s GPS. There wouldn’t be any fruit salad. I knew that.
When I pulled into town, I didn’t recognize anything. When I was last here, was it perpetually nighttime? I didn’t have a single memory in the daylight.
Ryan hadn’t sent me the code for the gate, so I circled the subdivision and pulled my car to the shoulder. I called Ryan twice and texted once. I waited awhile, then navigated to a cafe and used the bathroom. Thirty minutes later, Ryan texted. He was very sorry, he wrote, but he wasn’t home at the moment. He was just coming back from a doctor’s appointment.
Lots of people try to talk me out of loving Ryan. This is not specific to me, nor him. This is specific to people who are afraid of addiction while managing to believe that they themselves aren’t addicts of some kind.
A few weeks ago, a friend said, “I’m so glad Ryan’s not in your life anymore,” and I said, “He is in my life. I saw him last month,” and then we had to do this dance where she pretended she was receiving good news from me, and I pretended she hadn’t cheered my brother out of my life. Sometimes I wish I could wrap Ryan in an insulation, like amniotic fluid, to keep the well-meaning meanness of the world from touching him. Then I remember that he’s already found insulation on his own, which is good, because sometimes I wish I could protect him from everything and other times I call him and hope he doesn’t pick up the phone. Sometimes the well-meaning meanness is my own.
I called Ryan. He was riding his bicycle back from the doctor’s. He’d be home soon and we could meet there. I began packing up my things, and my phone lit up with another message. He had a flat. I called, again. I’d pick him up. He was on the side of a road somewhere, so he didn’t have an exact address to give me, but he knows every street in this town and told me how to get there was using diners as landmarks. When I pulled up next to him, sweating and waving from the edge of the highway, he was so familiar I could have cried. I got out of my car and he hugged me and said, “There’s my girl.” I knew immediately that he was high as fuck. I don’t know what he’s using these days, but today felt like meth. If you’ve spent consistent days and years in intimate proximity with a regular substance abuser, then you know the way people’s drugs radiate off of them, as real and invisible as perfume.
Ryan took a tire off his bike and we piled the whole arrangement into the backseat, streaking dust across the upholstery of the rented Nissan. On the ride back, he seemed perfectly at ease. He’d given himself a cushion against the anticipatory anxiety we both obviously felt. I, on the other hand, was naked.
When we got to the apartment, Ryan’s dad was there, watching TV. I’d never thought much of John, who is the kind of untethered and clueless that results in a man when he’s been relieved of every last emotional burden by the women in his family and doesn’t even know it. But I spent a full half-hour talking with him and looking at photographs he’d taken of birds because he served as a buffer between Ryan and me. I was scared of Ryan. I was scared that I might hurt him by accident. I was scared that things had changed between us, that the weight of my coming out or my thriving relationship had cracked us irreparably. I was scared that maybe we weren’t family anymore.
Ryan bustled around the house, cleaning and emptying trashes. Finally he said he wanted to take me to the bar where he used to work before happy hour ended. I extracted myself effortfully from John’s chatter and drove us there. Smitty’s Green Lantern. When we arrived, I went to the bathroom and returned moments later to Ryan seated behind two shot glasses and a beer. The shots he’d ordered for us; the beer for himself. I sat in the seat next to Ryan and the bartender asked me if I wanted anything else. “No, thanks,” I said, and looked over at Ryan. He thought we should take it back all at once but the thought of drinking hard alcohol made me feel sick, so I took tiny sips at long intervals, then passed it to Ryan to finish when there was a third left. Then we were next to each other without distraction or intermediary for the first time. I let a moment or two pass, then asked him how he was doing, with that meaningful tone of voice people use to say, No, really. Tell me.
He looked across the bar at the rows of clean, stacked glasses and said that up until a couple of weeks ago he had planned to use this time together to tell me I should forget about him. I should let him go.
I sat still while he talked, trying especially hard to listen to his voice instead of my own shouting head. Then I said what I always say when he talks about suicide: “Please don’t do that to me.” I make it about me every time now. I don’t give him hotline numbers and I barely ask about therapy appointments. I can’t make psychologists and psychiatrists and meetings and medications work for him. He’s done it all, for years. I can only make appeals to his love for me. I don’t have anything else.
He leaned over and hugged me. We draped together, across the space between our bolted-down barstools, and he told me he was better now. He said he knew he couldn’t do that to me. He said he believed it would hurt me more than it would hurt his own mother. I knew what he meant but I didn’t want to agree aloud. I kept quiet, let myself be in his embrace. We didn’t move until it was time to go.
When we walked out of Smitty’s, the bartender stood smoking outside the door. He looked me in the face and said a soft and quiet goodbye, then we got in the car and I drove us to a Thai restaurant on the other side of town. Somehow we got on a conversation about swimming. Ryan has always been an athlete, competing in triathlons or covering two hundred miles on his bicycle in a handful of days. He named a couple types of swim strokes, neither of which I knew anything about. I said, “I can’t picture it,” so we got out of the car and he climbed on a covered public trash can and balanced atop it on his stomach.
“This is one,” he said, revolving his arms in the air and batting his legs around. Then he scooted to his side, changed the rotation of his limbs, and said, “And this is another.” I laughed and jumped and said, “Again! Again!” He chuckled and prolonged his demo, racing in place toward the end of the strip-mall corridor. I cheered and tried to imitate his rhythms from my place on the ground. We played like children and I watched him and felt the phrase Please don’t die emerge from the bottom of my brain like an air bubble, bursting when it hit the surface.
Through dinner, Ryan and I kept passing his phone between us so I could text his mom from his number. He told her we’d spend a little time with her after our meal but didn’t have the capacity to make plans or follow through, so I searched the GPS and told her to meet us at the Baskin-Robbins one parking lot over. I tried to make the messages look like they were actually coming from Ryan: no emojis, no exclamation points, just logistics. She got to the shop right after we did, and after five minutes, I couldn’t think of anything to say. We sat in pink chairs and Ryan and I shared spoonfuls of each other’s ice cream. I noticed, when he lifted a bite to his mouth, the small brown mark in the crux of his elbow. I wondered if she noticed, too. Not that it mattered.
Now, surrounded by various pieces of bicycle accoutrement, the blinding shine of his high is wearing away and I can see through it to my Ryan again. Finally, just before I have to leave, I get to see him and feel us. If love were water, I’d be drenched in sweat.
He’s asked me to hold steady the tire he’s now filling with air. Something I don’t understand goes wrong and he says, “Uh-oh,” and I say, “Is it broken?” He looks at the tire for a moment and says, “It’s not functional at present,” and it makes me laugh for a long time. He asks so little of life. Sometimes it delights me and sometimes it breaks my heart. Right now, it’s the former. I’m still laughing when he smiles and says, “I love you.”
I think about what I’ll be stepping away from here and stepping into in Denver when I get in the car and drive away. A wedding in Aspen, twenty-eight-year-old lawyers and veterinarians and people who smoke weed all day every day but talk shit about their friends who drink too much, as though there’s a difference. Part of me wants to stay here. Hide out in Pueblo, watch anime with Ryan, be unwashed and not judged and strive for nothing. Be loved unconditionally.
We finish the tire twenty minutes later, functional now, and when we walk back into the apartment, we both see his gift to me sitting on the kitchen counter among newspapers and dishes and empty plastic bags. “Don’t forget this,” Ryan says.
“I won’t,” I say. I’d already imagined accidentally leaving it behind. The thought of forgetting made my lungs ache.
“Actually, I’ll find something to put it in,” Ryan says. He searches his room again and produces an empty pill bottle. It’s extra-tall so the tourmaline rests inside comfortably, cast in orange now. It rattles gently in the cupholder of the rental on my drive back to Denver.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Friedlander.