Some moths have no mouths: Luna, Polyphemus, Atlas, Promethea, Cecropia. A moon, a cyclops, a burden of sky, an invisible sister to the one who brings fire, and a first king—all face and tail. If we had a child I could imagine her asking, “But what do they kiss with?” I wouldn’t know how to answer, but you might. You’re always coming up with things that fit our celestial sphere. We live in a world where so much of our communion depends on our mouths: Duplin wine, taquitos, dinner conversation, Suboxone, one another.
Where we live now, Wilmington, North Carolina, there are no wet shelters. Meaning anyone under the influence has to sleep on the street. All mouths must be parched, licked-over, stale. Maybe they’d rather have dead mouths than wet ones. Our ordinary world is nestled near Greenfield Lake in the southern part of the city. On the bridge we cross each morning with our dog—at the curve of Lake Shore Drive where the water horseshoes—seven men hunch against the lumber posts, and we are silent while we pass. Their booted feet pull in to make way for our steps. Whatever conversation was happening thaws to nothing for both groups. It feels like an underworld. They don’t know that we have one foot in there, too. “Opioid” comes from the Greek word for its juice, “opion.” Before people were even writing, Mesopotamia was cultivating a “joy plant.” Discovering the milky elixir before the Milky Way. I try to say, “Good morning,” to break through the haze. From the men I get grumbles, shoulder twitches, whatever is the opposite of eye contact.
This is the environment an abstinence model about drugs creates. The women’s shelter in Wilmington for those pregnant and previously “under the influence” is called Tides. Everything is a reminder of sinking. Commercials for beating a drug habit include the phrases “take the plunge,” “immersive rehab,” and “finding yourself depressed.” Odysseus gets to the underworld by boat. Once there, he must pour a drink offering to all the dead: honey and milk, sweet wine, then water. Finally, blood. By the time he returns home, Penelope has aged too far beyond the fertile land of having more children. They never have a daughter. Does the state of after feel anything like the curious state of before? I wonder: What if we? What could we? What will we? Who is she? Who will she be? What will be her name?
Often I find on the floor the split ends of wrappers you’ve opened. No one could know what they are, but I immediately fear that someone we haven’t told will find them. If we want to have a baby in the next few years, the one rule I’ve set out for us is that you no longer slip a green Suboxone film beneath your tongue twice a day. This medicine, the doctor told you, will keep your cravings for prescription pills “at bay.” There’s water again. With hardly any evidence on the Internet of what Suboxone may do to a pregnancy, I don’t want to take chances. Side effects include: low libido, erectile dysfunction, weakness, and possible impotence.
I wonder how a daughter could come from these things. I suppose they usually form from what’s already within us, from particle and bone. My body has a gland shaped like a butterfly that has stopped working. I was twenty-three and cried into the netting of a hammock at my doctor’s words: “Because of your thyroid, this might make it difficult to have children.” Now my metabolism, estrogen, and other hormonal imbalances are regulated by a small blue pill. Every six months a doctor smears ultrasound gel along the bridge of my neck to scan each molted wing. He’s known for his knowledge on Hashimoto’s disease, for helping women get pregnant. We never really have those conversations, though. I leave it up to that space between us—hoping she might grow into it, and hoping she won’t. When will we know when we’re ready? Our journey: one sail bent, one drifting ahead.
Your doctors never tell us that Suboxone changes your brain chemistry. The buprenorphine in Suboxone tends to occupy the receptors that opioids did previously, blocking them from their previous dependence. You’re neither “high” nor “normal.” The doctor doesn’t say the average length of time someone should be on Suboxone, but according to the Internet it’s recommend to be less than a year. We have been in this purgatory for three years. The Greeks had meadows named for this place. There is no named stage between addicted and clean. Like our daughter in my mind, an antecedent to a new stage of our life.
We know that Suboxone is a controlled substance. In our house this means counting out the green wrappers before you drive two hours to see your doctor and have her count them back to you. It must feel like a bank. I have never seen your doctor’s face, but one time at a party you thought she walked in and I tried to angle around the baby the woman was holding to get a good look. It wasn’t her. You made a motion with your hand like you were sawing a neck. In American Sign Language, the closest gesture to this means “broke.”
We have learned not to use sex as intimacy. We use walks, conversations, lean-ins. Sex makes a slow comeback. Neither of us are broken, we’re just cautious. I follow a “Yoga for Grief” YouTube video the morning we talk about tapering off Suboxone. I say, “We,” the same way some fathers say, “We’re pregnant.” The yoga that morning is designated on a calendar; I don’t choose it, but it’s fitting. You’ve just woken up on the couch. You tell me that there’ll be withdrawal. I didn’t realize we had traded one fear for another. Oxycodone to Suboxone, all those o’s the words make. They could mean emptying or fullness. I’m in downward dog. The instructor says, “Perhaps even leave behind some things that we don’t, that we don’t need to carry.” When you got clean(er), your body still seemed like a burden that needed care-taking. Your health had created a new intimacy: changing your phone number, setting up appointments, family meetings, watching the way your eyes moved when you spoke. But it’s hard to make love to instability, even if it seems managed. Our patterns now are about boxing in this secret. Everything else we’ve managed to build a bridge back to, but our bodies still seem to feel that early gap. Lifting up out of the waistline breathing. Then, forward fold.
Silkworm moths have feathery antennae that allow them to detect a single molecule of their females’ sex hormone from seven miles away. So clear that they could bathe in it. We often don’t see them, but we see the holes leftover in our clothes. They smell crude as dust. This is something I think about a lot: An addiction makes leftovers of what was once a complicated human being. It feels like the omitted empty hole. How many conversations did we have that you will never remember? While I could see through it to some other side where you’re well again, I wondered if you could. Sometimes, you seem so surprised we’ve made it this far. Hardly anyone comes back from the Underworld, they warn Odysseus—all those women’s voices in chorus. Each one on her own island: Circe, Calypso, Penelope. Each made monstrous by her care for the world, for a lover.
The Greek goddess of night symbolizes sleep and death; she wears poppies in her crown. Her son’s cave in the Underworld is lined with their full-faced bloom. The gate opens in a gentle breeze of petals. I can’t get over how much of safety is dependent on arbitrary rules we make up: giving shelter to those under the influence enables dependency; couples must have sex to maintain intimacy; women should have children. But what do we know of uncertainty? We try to tame it. Give it a name and therefore borders. It’s always described as gray area, gray matter, dull in color. It’s also where the ordinary lives. I believe in the truths we find there.
Outside our seemingly ordinary house in our seemingly ordinary life, moths throb and flit in our streetlight, just wings in the night glow. Some of them are invasive. Pests. I find them in the strange metropolis of sleep and watch them burn their powder wings to ash.
Last summer, before the weeds grew into violets—small purple beads pouting against the fence frame—I thought we’d finished the drug phase of our life. We could each look fat bumblebees in the eye from our new backyard. It’s easier to see how normal we’ve become in daytime. We had just moved to Wilmington. We were starting anew; your credit had bounced back. It was easier than the men on the bridge thought, than my mom thought, than the people who judged you thought. The plastic sides of our new greenhouse were filthy with mold bursts so purple they competed with bruises. Our dog’s listless tongue was always out. Everything had a body that worked and slinked and questioned. It was a constant reminder that ours had to relearn one another’s. I couldn’t untangle your body from its secrets, from something else’s long use.
We drowned fruit flies in apple cider vinegar and dish soap, hung Ziplock bags of water from uncurled wire hangers over each doorframe. An old wives’ tale: something about the water bag looking like a very large eye to flies. Classified by the order Diptera, Greek for “two wings.” We spent a lot of our time trying to keep things out. I know now they come in anyway. No matter the niceties, the expectations, the commandments. You built the wire contraption to keep the buzzing out. Our yard was full of broken-headed dandelions, and I watched you pick them up, peel the yellow fuzz of each petal apart after you mowed the lawn. To anyone watching, you were a normal husband. To anyone reading: what does that even mean?
This is how I used to think of Oxycontin or Percocet after I read enough books to be full on information: Just one hit. Sixty dollars, sometimes eighty. If we were headed on vacation, two-hundred dollars to last the week. I don’t really know what the numbers looked like. You didn’t borrow from me. I am desperate to research now because the more I know, the more I think I should have known.
When I found out you were using, I went through every picture on our fridge and asked, “But were you high there? But what about Florida? Easter? Anniversary dinner?” Sometimes your eyes would close in mid-conversation and flutter. Just behind the skin a whole wide mouth of grief met flooded sound. In the stories, the underworld is surrounded by five rivers. Drugs can look so much like dreaming. Suboxone lives in that gray area: It could be healing or lengthening our pain.
Our future daughter might ask, “How do insects without mouths breathe? How do insects without mouths eat?” Born to die, the science says. Mate and die. Create more more more and then nothing. Is this the story the sky will tell after all our bodies are gone? I pull myself into child’s pose like a cocoon. Extend the exhale as you float it down. You can keep sleeping at the gatekeeper’s as long as you need. The in-between is safe enough for us right now. But at some point, I’ll want her with us.
Today, the Suboxone melts underneath your tongue. The shelters wouldn’t welcome you with this treatment. Any substance that isn’t over-the-counter is illegal in those small white rooms. The men on the Greenfield bridge close Band-Aids over their accidental wounds, fault of the high. Victims melt into comforters, hands splayed across bedside tables, no bruise a stranger. Who called to them—was it their mother, their wife? Who met them at the open gate of that other world? I’m not sure which fades faster for a body, a blitz, or a bruise. If once, we used pheromones to find one another, from high school to marriage, now we’ve reached something deeper—something that lingers past the body. I think this is what love is, critical and enduring. Sometimes when we choose darkness, we don’t get to choose when it leaves.
Rumpus original art by Liz Asch.