“The Disintegration of Adam,” oil on canvas, Darwin Leon.
(See also “A Poem for Today” by Matthew Gasda.)
We lay on an unframed mattress in the basement of his mother’s row home. He’s sick with something—walking pneumonia, I think—but keeps lighting one hand-rolled American Spirit after another. “Smoking makes me feel normal,” he says. I bury my nose in the sleeve of my sweater—I’ll have to wash everything I’m wearing as soon as I get home, as usual. If I put my clothes in the hamper after a visit, they contaminate everything else with the stale smoke smell and I can’t stand it. Here, the stink is everywhere—in the carpets, the couch, even the food somehow. No escape, so I give in and light up along with him, even as I cough my way through the first few drags. I lick my lips, still salty from his mother’s red gravy and something else, something wrong—ash.
“Eight months,” he says, when I ask him how long he’s been clean. “Oxy,” he says, when I ask him what he’s clean of. Immediately I remember a rule about not dating someone in recovery until they’ve been sober a year. There was a dumb movie about that, wasn’t there? I can feel my throat filling up with questions: did you snort it, or swallow it? How long did you do it? What made you start? Are you getting help, or going cold turkey? It’s only our first date, so I swallow the third degree and sip my second cocktail with heightened awareness.
This moment will bother me for months, because I am confronted with this opportunity— to date an addict, just like I always thought I would, just like I knew I deserved—and I’m going to take it. He is charming and beautiful and strange, and he speaks with sharp words and has a dark wit. He is the kind of person I should be dating, besides this one thing that I’ve been running from my entire life. It has always scared me. But after all that running, I am now afraid it’s inevitable. That it’s the reason I’m still alone. If I just got with the program and realized I’m destined to be with someone in recovery, someone just like my father, I could finally be happy. Or at least, as close as I’ve ever been.
Once we settle on a Kelly Drive bench overlooking the water, he pulls out a bottle of white wine and two plastic Dixie Cups. “I thought we could have a drink and talk.”
It seems so rehearsed and cheesy, but I can tell he’s nervous. He wants to do something nice for our third date. So, even though white wine gives me a headache, I take a cup and raise it to him. Now that we know the basics of each other’s lives, we get into the weeds. What kind of stuff do you write? What kind of relationship do you have with your parents? What do you want to do with your life? The more we talk, the more I like him. He’s sarcastic, and esoteric. He’s also wounded and bitter. The part of me that always wants to fix people starts to stir, but I tamp it down. He’s not a project. He’s fucked up and fine with it—unlike anyone I’ve ever been with. Self-assured, sometimes even cocky. He owns his damage, and when the wine is gone and the kissing begins, I can’t stop myself from guiding his hand up my skirt. We giggle and writhe against each other while college students whiz behind us on bikes and roller blades.
“Not in a million,” I say, as he points towards the penthouse floor of a nearby building. Rittenhouse Square is surrounded by them: too-high buildings full of too-rich people paying too much money for tiny apartments.
He sighs and adjusts himself closer to me on the wooden bench. “Fine, we won’t live there. How about a box on that corner?”
I glance over to see a guy panhandling for change in this painfully ritzy neighborhood. “Yeah,” I laugh. “That seems much more our speed.” But then we move from apartments to furniture, talking about the antique stove he’ll restore for me, or the mismatched chairs and tables we’ll collect from estate sales. We talk about the separate rooms we’ll need for writing, and the spaces we’ll share, and suddenly we are kissing, and laughing, and I feel dizzy. I realize what’s happened a moment too late—as though in a fever dream, he blurted out a proposal, and I accepted.
He texts me a short poem. Something about water and waves? I know it’s a metaphor but I can’t tell for what. He asks me what I think. It’s nice, I text back. I don’t really get it, to be honest. A few minutes pass.
I wrote it for you, he responds.
Everything I could say seems stupid now—oh, well now that you mention it, I really like it? It’s sweet?
The next afternoon, I walk into his mother’s house so the two of us can hang out in his basement bedroom. His sister stops me before I even hit the deco coffee table. “You gonna say anything about the poem?” I shrug. “Well, you better. He’s fucking devastated.”
“Because I didn’t understand the poem?”
She sighs gravely. “Because you didn’t like it…his work,” she says. I walk slowly towards the basement door, where clouds of cigarette smoke are wafting towards me. I steel myself before starting down, rehearsing apologies and explanations that feel strange in my mouth because I’m not actually sorry.
He and my dad have been out on the back deck smoking for an hour. “It’s a good thing,” my mom says. “It means Dad likes him. You know that.”
I do—but I don’t want Dad to like him too much. It’s not uncommon for my boyfriends to fall in love with my quirky, charming parents and spend more time kibitzing with them during family visits than with me. During dinner, watching them is like watching a really great first date—my dad taught at the same technical college that my new beau now attends. They both like working with their hands, construction and electrical work, but are ferocious autodidacts, too. And of course—recovery. My dad finally quit drinking after three decades a few years ago. They bullshit about the program, the meetings, the higher power, the fearless moral inventories, and at one point, I hear my dad call him strong. “To overcome something like that,” he breathes. I think about my dad’s rocky journey to sobriety, the pitfalls that waited for all of us on the way to better, and smile thinly at them both.
My mom and I walk along the water’s edge, looking for clearings in the brush, just beyond the white gazebo. It’s perfect, I think—I can already see myself in a vintage dress, him in suspenders and a jeff cap, the two of us quoting obscure literature against the backdrop of a man-made suburban lake.
“Your aunts will just love walking through this,” my mom says as she navigates through a patch of wet soil, overgrown with vines and roots.
“They’ll deal with it,” I snap back, more curtly than I intend. We settle back into silence, scoping out a good place to line up the chairs or put a huppah.
“I just want to make sure you’re thinking this through,” she says carefully. “You only met a couple of months ago. What’s the rush?”
I don’t know the answer to this, or to anything, but I tell myself that’s how I know it’s right. It doesn’t make sense, maybe it even defies logic, but I feel pulled in this direction. Like I have no choice. Like all the doubt filling my head is just proof that I’m broken, and I won’t let myself be happy for once in my life. I shrug and smile at her.
“I just want you to be happy,” she whispers, with an edge of something I can only identify as defeat.
It’s been almost a week since I heard from him. Usually, I’m fielding dozens of texts a day, asking how I’m doing, what I’m doing, what we’re doing later, how work is. He’s been acting weird, too, lately—not sharing as much with me, canceling plans at the last minute. Finally, I get him on the phone as I’m pulling up to my house after work.
“Where have you been? I was worried about you.” I hear television static and the crackle of a burning cigarette, then his scratchy voice, coming through in fits and starts.
“Don’t need you to worry about me… don’t want you to fix me… need time… leave me alone… told you… told you.”
“I just want to help,” I manage to interject.
In a full-throated howl he warns me, “I DON’T NEED YOUR FUCKING HELP.”
I pull the phone away from my face, tempted to throw it out the car window. I slam my hands on the steering wheel over and over, trying to hit it so hard I forget to cry. But I don’t. I can’t hear him anymore. All I can hear is the voice in my head saying you asked for this, you asked for this, you asked for this.
Shit, I knew it was him. I came to this party with a friend, feeling strangely nervous about it from the start. Now I know why. He’s here. I haven’t seen or heard from him in over a year. A year I spent imagining all the things that could have happened to him, to us. When we lock eyes, he comes right over and asks if we can talk outside for a minute. He seems okay, I think. Lucid. Just as skinny as ever. When we reach the wet pavement outside the bar, he pulls a hand-rolled cigarette out of his tobacco pouch.
“You want one?”
I shake my head. It occurs to me that he has no idea I actually hate smoking. As he drags and exhales, I listen to him with my arms crossed across my chest. As I feared, he started using again.
“While we were still together,” he admits. “It got really hard to hide it from you. That’s why I disappeared. I didn’t want you to have to deal with all that.” I lower my head and sigh. He keeps going, seemingly unable to stop. “I just wanted to apologize to you. I’m so, so sorry.”
I recognize the sentiment: the ninth step. We made direct amends to persons we had harmed wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. I look up at him and smile weakly. I am careful to be kind and distant. Keep myself out of the smoky haze that surrounds him.
“Water under the bridge,” I say with a shrug. Eight months. I should have known.
In the five years since our breakup, he will come up to me and ask if we can talk outside three more times. Each time I will ask him, “Why are we doing this again? You already apologized. We’re good.” Each time, he will insist that since he’s fallen off the wagon again, it’s important that he start fresh, not take shortcuts, go through the whole program. The last time it happens, on a busy side street, I’m tempted to invoke the conditional clause in the ninth step and tell him, “If you apologize to me one more time, you will be injuring me,” but I don’t want to risk that kind of vulnerability. When I loved him, I was sick on cigarette smoke. When I loved him, I was sure I didn’t deserve anything more. When I loved him, I ignored all my instincts and said yes. He’s gotten enough from me. So I bite my tongue, waiting until he’s done exposing his addicted heart to me in public. I watch him as he prepares for the walk home. His skinny fingers roll American Spirit tobacco shreds into a thin sheet of paper, working it back and forth until it submits to his design. I barely see his tongue flick out as he lifts the cigarette to his lips, sealing the seam. I’m distracted by the staccato shhtak, shhtak of his old Zippo, trying to light the end. The crackle of burning tobacco sounds like static from a television, the station turned too far to the left, barely showing a picture of what should be there.
Rae Pagliarulo holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, Hippocampus, The Manifest-Station, Quail Bell, and Philadelphia Stories, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. Rae works as the Writing Life column editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.