“Shot Through the Heart” by Jim Ruland

dahlias and hypodermic
Image by Dawn Estrin, 2010.
(See also “The Impostors” by Sarah Kunstler.)

I didn’t mean to get high.

It started with a twinge in my shoulder. I’ve had bouts of lower back pain brought on by too much exercise after not enough of it, and the discomfort was similar, only this time it was in my shoulder. By the time I got home from work, the twinge had turned into a throb, like the muscles were flexing in the wrong direction. I took some aspirin, camped out on the couch, and waited for the pain to go away. But it didn’t go away. It got worse.

It was the strangest thing. I could move my arm and not feel a thing, but if I twisted it in a certain way, it sent spastic jolts up and down my arm. The weird thing about it was I hadn’t injured my shoulder, exerted myself during exercise, or even slept on it funny.  I thought of one of my late grandfather’s favorite jokes:

A guy goes to the doctor. “Doc, it hurts when I do this.” The doctor looks him over.  “Then don’t do that!”

So I didn’t do that, at least for a little while, but when I tried to get up from the couch the pain was crippling. I called my wife on the phone and told her my symptoms.

“Gee,” she said, “I hope you’re not having a heart attack.”

Oh shit. I thought of all the articles I’d read about guys having heart attacks and not realizing it, and causing all kinds of damage to their aorta in the process. I’d always wondered How can you have a heart attack and not know it? Was this what was happening to me? I didn’t know much about cardiac arrest, but I did know shooting pain in the left arm was one of the symptoms. But a heart attack? Really?

My family had a history of bad tickers. Both of my maternal grandparents died of strokes before my mother turned 16. I thought about the grandparents I never knew. I thought about my new marriage and young daughter and the boatload of money I spend on health insurance. That settled it. When my wife got home, I asked her to take me to the emergency room.

As soon as I stepped inside the hospital, the doubts came creeping back. There’s nothing wrong with me… I shouldn’t be here… The people in the waiting room are much worse off…

Except there was something wrong with me. By this time, I could barely move my arm. I held it pressed to my chest like it was broken. When the nurse who checked me in asked me to rank my pain from one to ten, I said five. Then he offered me some vicodin. I said, No thanks, and told him I’d wait until I saw the doctor. My wife admonished me for downplaying my pain.

I had my reasons. I hadn’t taken a single drug or drop of liquor in exactly nine months. In the time it takes to make a baby, the strongest thing that had passed my lips was a double espresso. I’d gone to countless meetings and listened to hundreds of people give advice on how to stay clean and sober, and there I was in the hospital where they were passing out pills like potato chips. It was a regular party in the ER, and my wife was urging me to jump right in. I felt deeply conflicted about all this, and I didn’t know what to do.

Cardiac cases get top priority at the ER, so before I could re-think my position on the vicodin, a German nurse whisked me away to a bed. After my wife helped me put on the gown, the German nurse came back with a sling for my arm. A Filipina nurse’s aide prepped me for the EKG and hooked me up to the machines. A male Filipino doctor fired questions at me about my symptoms. He was blunt in his assessment:

“I don’t think you’re having a heart attack, but I’m not taking any chances. So I’m going to give you some morphine, okay?”

I nodded, but on the inside, I felt like a guttersnipe in a Charles Dickens novel, begging thanks and weeping gratitude. Bless you, good sir. God bless you!

A Filipino nurse took my blood, plugged me into the IV, monitored by vitals on the flight deck. Every few minutes he’d come by to see how I was doing. Frankly, I was annoyed. I’d never had morphine before, and I wanted to enjoy the ride, not answer a million questions. It’s not like I’d dropped acid and the LSD was going to come on like gangbusters. And then the morphine came on like gangbusters.

There was nothing gradual about it. I’ve used the word “rush” to describe passing into an altered state, but none of those experiences came close to this. It felt like a wave passing through me, a slow-motion current that flowed through my body and went streaming upward. When it reached my head, I felt flush like a vessel that had been filled to the brim, only the substance was energy and I was overflowing with it.  I expelled the excess through my mouth, nose, and eyeballs, and when that didn’t happen fast enough it took the top of my head clean off.

“Wow.”

“You look better,” my wife said. “How do you feel?”

“High.”

Why lie? My head was feeling amazingly kite-like. I was way, way up there without a hint of turbulence. Yet I could still think rationally, and speak lucidly.

“How does your arm feel?”

Strangely, my arm felt the same. While the rest of my body felt completely relaxed, the pain in my arm continued unabated. If anything, I felt more uncomfortable than before. I passed this information on to the Filipino nurse when he came back for an update. “Hmmm,” he said, “I’ll get you something stronger.”

I mentally retracted my previous annoyance with this very wise and generous man.

A Caucasian male x-ray tech took my x-rays. My brother is an x-ray tech, and I tried to make small talk, but carrying on a conversation was difficult. The words burbled through my head, but getting my mouth to cooperate was a different story. A Latino hospital administrator took my money, and a Latina education officer asked me about my drug use, which was nonexistent. I’d been waiting for someone to ask me this all night, and was eager to out myself.

“I’ve been clean and sober nine months,” which is a weird thing to brag about while loaded on morphine.

“Congratulations,” she said.

The nurse’s aide came back with good news, and by good news I mean Dilaudid.

If the morphine was a wave, the Dilaudid crept in like fog. Sneaky and cat feety. I didn’t feel it working its way through my body the way I’d felt the morphine. I didn’t feel anything at all. The pain didn’t go away. It was just gone.

A television mounted above my bed leaked bullshit, but the screen faced away from me so I didn’t have to watch it. I couldn’t hear the TV either, even though I knew it was on because it captivated my wife’s attention. It reminded me of the time I tried to carry on a conversation with my friends at a bar after drinking way too much cough syrup. I couldn’t hear a word they said, even when they shouted directly into my ear, yet I could discern with perfect clarity the lyrics blasting out of the juke box. Shot through the heart, and you’re to blame, you give love a bad name (a bad name).

At the time, this was undoubtedly true. I did give love a bad name, but now I was focused on the whole shot-through-the-heart thing. I tried to concentrate, but was distracted by the rush of water coursing through invisible pipes, the woman in the next room who sounded like she needed drugs more than I did, nurses coming and going, asking questions, giving instructions, their departure punctuated by the rattle of the curtains that partitioned the rooms. The curtains were fascinating, and worthy of further study. Decorated with gigantic purple dahlias, they undulated in an invisible breeze.

Me: Look at the dahlias, big purple dahlias…

My wife: They’re dandelions.

Me: But they’re so big. And purple.

My wife: They’re not purple, Jim, they’re blue.

I’m not accustomed to winning many arguments with my wife, and the prospect of prevailing while under the influence of morphine and Dilaudid, a combination a friend in Arkansas who has seen the inside of numerous ERs calls the “Snack Pack,” seemed dubious at best. Besides, I didn’t want to argue with my wife, who seemed more beautiful, caring, and patient by the minute. But I took photographs of the curtains, for documentation. (They’re blue.)

The Filipino doctor returned with the data from the EKG:  I wasn’t having a heart attack. My heart was fine. He advised me to make an appointment with my general practitioner, and released me. By the time I signed all the paperwork, and changed back into my street clothes, it was well past three o’clock in the morning.

“How’s your pain?” my wife asked.

“What pain?”

“You are something else.”

With one arm in a sling and another wrapped around my wife, my heart never felt better.

 

 

Jim Ruland is the author of the short story collection, Big Lonesome, and the host of the L.A.-based reading series Vermin on the Mount. He lives in San Diego with his wife the visual artist Nuvia Crisol Guerra.“Shot Through the Heart” first appeared in Razorcake Fanzine and is reprinted here with permission.

 

“What I Can Tell You Now” by Tracy Crow

peach orchard kiss
Image by Dawn Estrin

…about the summer of ‘77 is that in June after graduation from high school Kerry and I shared a double bed in her parents’ home as we had nearly every night of our senior year.

Her father joked about claiming me as a tax deduction. My mother, distracted by a new life with a new husband, would have put up little argument. Kerry was the sister I never had; I was the sister she wished hers had been. Sheila had let her down by getting pregnant during our sophomore year and marrying the boy their father warned them about. Sheila moved out of the house, out of Kerry’s bedroom, out of her life, leaving a hole for me to fill.

Neither of us cared about college back then. We were planning to share an apartment at the end of the summer. Kerry worked in customer service at a department store. I worked as a veterinarian’s assistant and for six months had cleaned dog cages, assisted in surgeries, and enjoyed sex romps with the vet, who was ten years older with a pregnant wife.

After work, Kerry would race home to hear about my day at the clinic and I would describe things like the large animal call at a dairy farm the vet, Billy, had taken me to. How the black-and-white Holsteins were lined head to tail in a narrow pen. How I leaned against a fence post, watching Billy roll his sleeve above his thick forearm, listening to him discuss with the farmer the weather and the alfalfa until Billy’s bare arm disappeared into the vagina of a cow, all this reminding me of my first pap smear three months earlier, the humiliating chitchat of doctor and nurse between my open legs.

And after palpating thirty-some cows, Billy had driven us to an inn for turnip greens and cornbread. The drive back included a stop for missionary sex on a scratchy wool blanket in a meadow off the Blue Ridge Parkway, just beyond the view of tourists and my mother who traveled the Parkway every evening on her way home from work. The day before, sex had been over the grooming table at the clinic. Two days earlier, in a bed at the Motel 6. But Kerry knew all this. I was sharing everything with her.

Kerry was still a virgin, although she’d come close one night in May with the lead drummer in our high school band. She blamed herself for Bruce joining the army instead of sticking around to take her to the senior prom, so I canceled my prom date to spend the night with her. While our classmates partied in hotel rooms with bathtubs filled with gin and tonic, we got drunk on Malt Duck and drove recklessly through peach orchards, dodging trees as if they were demons on our trail.

One Saturday, we bought Cosmopolitan, candy bars, and Mt. Dews. Kerry dangled her bubblegum pink toenails out the window in time with KC and the Sunshine Band. I was driving the ’61 Ford Falcon, the one I had just learned to shift in the pasture behind my mother’s mobile home, stalling in the ruts, nearly throwing us through the windshield.

In Kerry’s backyard, we spread her grandmother’s patchwork quilt. Our bodies, oiled with cocoa butter, turned and basted on the half hour. We flipped through magazine pages, Kerry preferring ads that revealed the best lip-gloss while I read articles about becoming a worldly, sexy Cosmo Girl.

Her father was weeding the vegetable patch and caught my eye. Hi, Mr. Jones! Kerry’s father liked me; I made him laugh, like scolding him for voting for Carter because, on a tip from the Marine recruiter when I’d sneaked downtown to check out my options, Everyone knows Democrats start wars. I liked her father’s deep chuckle, this man who slept every night in the back of his pick-up truck under the camper shell, rather than in the bedroom with Kerry’s mother, this man who was so right about Sheila’s boyfriend, but who could never be right enough for his wife.

Kerry and I discussed sex, Billy, and his wife: the other woman. Correction. I was the other woman. Have you seen her lately? I told Kerry how she had dropped in at the clinic. Don’t you feel funny around her? Strange, I said, but seeing her never bothered me. She just…is, I had said; I just…am. And I explained about how sex was about, well, sex, and how marriage was about the commitment stuff, like with her parents. Kerry quietly mulled this over. But don’t you think about how things are when he’s not with you? Doesn’t it drive you crazy? Above us, clouds were forming into shapes my mind was refusing to recognize. I closed my eyes. Yeah, I said, sometimes it bothers me a lot.

Wednesday was Ladies Night at the Holiday Inn near the airport, and that June Kerry and I dressed in halter-tops, clingy nylon skirts, and high platform heels. Salesmen bought us whiskey sours and asked to dance. Kerry never said yes; I never said no. I caressed lined necks, ran my fingers through thinning hair, and sometimes went so far as to nibble on an ear lobe. How can you do that? Kerry asked.

See the pleasure it brings them, the way their eyes flutter half-shut. Later that evening while she slept, I’d make up stories in my head—a carryover from childhood when I would sit in the rocking chair beside my bedroom window and imagine the lives of all the people driving past. After Ladies Nights, I imagined salesmen in their upstairs hotel rooms, fantasizing about me.

In the lounge, though, Kerry was wrinkling her face. She said the smell of Jim Beam breath turned her off; I said it reminded me of my father, who I had not seen in more than three years, not since he smashed his way through the front door Christmas Eve after the divorce, drunk, splattering blood on the walls, ripping the telephone from the wall and hurling it at my mother.

After work one night, Kerry squealed over a letter her drummer-turned-soldier boyfriend, Bruce, had written from boot camp. He loves me! Says he wants to see me when he gets home on leave. This time, she said, I’ll get the sex thing right.

That night, we lay in her double bed and wrestled with apprehension. The fan in the bedroom window drew in the night air. Kerry reached for the sheet and brought it and her face close to mine. What if I can’t do it right? I could nearly taste her mint toothpaste. I remember giggling, thinking no one could do it wrong if they actually did it at all, but I said reassuringly, You’ll do it right.

July

On the Fourth, temperatures in the Appalachian valley were climbing. Kerry was giddy about meeting Bruce that afternoon in a motel room. Billy had plans for me, too, at a motel on the outskirts of town while his wife lay in the hospital from premature labor with their son.

You’d think Billy would have initiated the end of our affair. He was nearing thirty with everything to lose, yet seemed addicted to risk. I wasn’t much better. I was telling myself that I was using him and this enabled me to cope with the self-hatred. By July, however, I was tired of sneaking in and out of motel rooms and tired of having sex in orchards at night with peach pits pressing into my kidneys as he tried too hard to fill an empty well.

Everyone in town knew Mill Mountain offered the best view of the city’s fireworks display. I arrived early with beer and a blanket, waiting for Kerry under the giant electric star that on nights when someone died in a car accident, flashed red; white if all were safe. On the Fourth, it was flashing red, white, and blue.

At dusk, I spotted Kerry weaving around lawn chairs, family picnics, and a couple throwing a Frisbee. I remember searching her face and body for a signal that she was no longer a virgin, imagining I would find the answer to what it was about my appearance that seemed to give me away to men like Billy. Kerry looked the same, though. Happy, but the same.

At the clinic I took reservations to board pets during family stints to the beach or the mountains. The surgery list was light: a spay for a calico cat; a broken leg on a hound-mix that had tangled with oncoming traffic; on a boxer a suspicious cyst that required removal and lab testing. I was preparing surgical instruments for sterilization when Billy announced an emergency call at another farm.

The drive took us over bumpy back roads. Billy pulled me close and drove with one hand; the other moved up and down the inside of my thigh and under the hem of my shorts. The farmer was waiting at the end of his driveway, not at the barn as we‘d expected, and when Billy shouted, Move! I jumped to the passenger side with such force I nearly shattered my shoulder.

We followed the farmer through lumpy pastures to a cow tethered to a tree. She was standing, moaning from labor with twin calves. I stood ready to ferry surgical instruments as Billy called for them. Easy, little mama, he said, sliding his right arm to the elbow inside the cow. His eyes closed. He lifted to his toes and balanced his weight against the cow’s haunches.

After a minute or so, he grimaced and broke into a sweat, then relaxed on his heels with his arm still inside the cow. I scurried over and wiped his face. Thank you, he whispered. On his toes again, he pushed his arm deeper inside the cow. Come on little fella, turn for me. What I saw turning was Billy’s arm as it twisted right and then left. Right. Left. The cow moaned and rocked against the slack of the rope that bound her to the tree. Billy looked over his shoulder at the farmer and shook his head. I have a leg. The farmer nodded. Billy turned his gaze toward where I was standing. He stared until I felt an odd weight, as if somewhere in my face lay the map for making all this right.

What emerged first was a tiny hoof and then the shapely pastern and fetlock until finally the entire limb was dangling outside its mother’s body. Billy walked to the truck and pulled out a saw. By the time he returned, the farmer had a two-hand hold on the leg and pulled downward as Billy carved the leg from the body, slicing through muscle and bone until it dropped into the farmer’s hands. He tossed it toward the tree. Billy reached back inside the cow and freed another leg. The farmer pulled and Billy sawed. Next, the buttocks were manipulated out, then the body, then the head, then the two front legs.

Billy pulled the second calf headfirst through the birth canal. A stillborn. Fresh blood and afterbirth dumped onto the grass beneath the mother cow and onto Billy’s boots. The summer air felt thick with blood.

The dead, but otherwise perfect calf lay near the scattered parts of its twin. As the farmer and Billy bagged her young ones, the mother brayed toward the limbs of the tree: a sound that rattled marrow from the tip of my tailbone clear to the top of my spine.

Each night that July, Kerry and I met in her double bed to share our secrets. She was in love. Bruce would soon leave for three years in Germany and the closer the date of his departure, the more in love she became. She hoped he would talk about marriage. She planned to say yes if he asked her to run away with him to Germany. And it was in this moment, I discovered I could leave her, after all.

Billy wanted me to run away with him, too, to an overnight veterinarian conference in Raleigh. When he insisted on buying me new clothes for the trip, I accused him of being ashamed of me and my frayed denim shorts, my tank tops and pink bikini with royal blue polka dots, my mile-high platform shoes, and the sneakers I re-dyed white every Saturday morning from a bottle of shoe polish. What little money I earned as his vet assistant, I spent on gas for the Falcon, booze, and frilly underwear.

When we returned from Raleigh, I found Kerry sprawled across our double bed, sobbing. He said he’d write me, that’s all. I handed her tissues, wrapped my arms around her. Just as well, I said, in a half-hearted attempt to make her laugh, I would have said no to your marrying a drummer anyway.

 

August

What I can tell you now after all these years is that two weeks into August and with no word from Bruce, I finally persuaded Kerry into one last Ladies Night at the Holiday Inn. That night, she dared to dance with strangers. The Holiday Inn became her laboratory of love. She flirted and finally relaxed in the arms of a salesman from Ohio. He was telling her how beautiful she was and she was laughing. Only I knew she wasn’t really laughing…she was aching for Bruce, and this salesman from Cleveland with the greasy hair, long sideburns, and clip-on tie was a lousy substitute no matter how many whiskey sours she’d downed.

When we got home, we crept past her father’s truck where he was sleeping and tiptoed into the basement. Too drunk to lie down and risk the spinning bed, we sat on the sofa. Kerry pulled her knees to her chest and began to cry. I put my arm around her. I miss him so much…why hasn’t he written…God, I need him…. And then she kissed me. I leaned backwards, but she moved for me, pressing her mouth against mine, her tongue searching for mine in a way my mouth had never been explored, then, or since; her lips were soft and full and warm and with the sweetness of the whiskey sour mix still on them. I felt myself leaning into her to lick the sweetness from her mouth, but this appeared to have stung her with the reality of what we were doing and she pushed away from me to the opposite end of the sofa. Not once in all these years did we speak of this.

The last summer Saturday of ‘77, Kerry and I sat in her kitchen, outlining the assets we could take to an apartment. Hung-over from a keg party, we were nibbling on the sausage balls her mother had made for breakfast.

In the left column, Kerry jotted bed, dresser, and hope chest. She drew a question mark by kitchen table and chairs, and mumbled something about a promise from an aunt. My column included bed, dresser, and an old sofa from my mother.

We spent the entire afternoon at Kmart, pricing dishes, silverware, and towels, because I was too chicken to tell Kerry that I had sneaked back downtown to the recruiting office and joined the Marines. That I’d had a hard time, too, convincing the recruiter I wasn’t running from the police. But I was running. I was running to save myself from all the drinking, from the small-town life, from the strangers at the Holiday Inn, from Billy, and from Kerry. I should have guessed that the next night Kerry would sob and say I was just like Bruce who had shipped out on her, just like Sheila who had abandoned her, and that she would wrap her arms around me at the Mill Mountain Look Out Point, city lights winking back, and that I would grow more and more fearful with each second in her arms that she would and wouldn’t kiss me again.

But in the Kmart, I continued to call out prices of dishtowels and shelf paper as Kerry recorded them in her notebook. She helped me pick out a new dress for what would be my last date that night with Billy.

At the restaurant, Billy and I crossed an arched, red wooden bridge that extended over a stream alongside the building. At the top of the bridge, we paused to look at Koi so anxious for food that their mouths broke the plane of water and made soft squishing sounds.

Inside, we sat by a window with a view of the stream and bridge. Billy ordered from the French menu for both of us. He filled my glass with wine and talked about how this had been the best summer of his life. He reached for my hand, turned it over, and dropped a black velvet box into my palm. Now, you’ll have to accept this, because I’m calling it a graduation gift. He was smiling, looking too innocent to hear the news I was about to deliver at the end of our evening. Open it.

Inside was an intricately carved gold ring that supported a black onyx. Billy lifted the ring from the box and read the inscription: summer of ’77.

Later that evening, we drove through the city in his Triumph convertible with the top down. The giant star atop Mill Mountain was a white blaze of false security. Above the roar of wind, Billy shouted he was heading toward an orchard on Highway 604 to make love to me under the peach trees. How well I knew that road. My family, before the divorce, had lived in a 1920s bungalow on a hill overlooking the highway. At night, headlights from traffic rounding the curve before our driveway skittered across the walls and ceiling of my bedroom.

As he drove, Billy talked about our future, about setting me up in an apartment of my own, about how we would see each other whenever he could get away. He could not see I was crying from sadness and relief. We were still moments away from lying on a blanket under the peach trees, surrounded by the decay of rotting fruit, and from me telling Billy this was where the summer of ’77 was ending and where real life was beginning. The ring around my finger felt tight, confining. For a moment, I plotted to secretly bury the ring under a peach tree before leaving – it would be dark, he wouldn’t notice as he fumbled for his pants – and then returning in a year to uncover how it had been changed.

He downshifted through the curves, passing one peach orchard, preferring another farther down the highway, and I realized he had chosen the orchard just beyond my childhood home, the peach orchard where Kerry and I, on prom night in May, drunk, had driven wildly among the rows of flowering peach trees as if we were being chased by demons. Billy whizzed past the 1920s bungalow. I looked up the hill toward the bedroom windows that had long ago been mine and wondered what had happened to the little girl who once dreamed up happy stories about the people driving by.

 

 

Tracy Crow is a former Marine Corps officer and an award-winning military journalist. Her memoir, EYES RIGHT, about her experiences as a Marine journalist during the groundbreaking 1980s, is forthcoming in 2011 from the University of Nebraska Press. Her essays and short stories have appeared in the Missouri Review, Mississippi Review, Puerto del Sol, and others, and have been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes. Her short story, “Natural Selection,” based on events from her life as a Marine, was recently anthologized alongside work from Tim O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, and Kurt Vonnegut in the Press 53 collection, Home of the Brave. Tracy earned her M.F.A. from Queens University of Charlotte, and teaches journalism and creative writing at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

“I, Suicide” by Andrew Tibbetts

suicides
Image by Dawn Estrin

I consider myself a suicide even though I’m, obviously, alive and, actually, not someone who has ever made a serious attempt.

Since I first read Sylvia Plath, probably, and thought along with her how the tulips were stealing my air and the sea poured bean green over blue, I have been one. Since I first read Anne Sexton, definitely, and realized that I never asked of the do-it-yourself dead, “why build?” only “which tools?” I have been her kind. Or most likely since Freddie Prinze, who must have been my first suicide.

Do you remember him? Senior, not junior. He was the Puerto Rican actor and comedian who was such a huge hit in the ’70s. “Chico and the Man!” He made everyone laugh until he shot himself in the head. I loved him and it hurt that he died.

And Kurt Cobain, of course, our great complainer. His death ended my adolescence, which had probably been hanging around too long anyway. I stopped playing in a rock band. It was hard to get excited about anything. I became serious and dull. Adult. I began making contributions to a pension plan. Thankfully, it didn’t take.

I’m hurt every time I hear of it, but I’m never surprised by suicide. That people are happy, that’s what confuses me. I don’t get it. I like it, happiness; I wish I were a fountain of the stuff. I cultivate it in others and even in myself sometimes. But it’s strange alien stuff. What I am made of, is the dark familiar.

Last summer gay man after gay man jumped from his high-rise apartment in the gaybourhood and I walked to work down Church Street nodding. How many of my own clients have I held back from the edges of permanent solutions to temporary problems? Hundreds, by this point in my career. But that doesn’t change what I am made of.

I’ve always thought I would die by my own hand since I heard of the idea. My mind is made of self-destruction. Even when I’m trying hard to think positively about life, a snarl of it leaps up between the cracks in my happy. An image—stabbing myself in the neck with scissors—makes me step back from a colleague’s desk on an ordinary work day.

If death takes me with its own devices, and it may—I’m getting old—I don’t wish to be wiped from the register of suicides, parted from my beloveds—Virginia Woolf with her pockets full of rocks, Shaquille Wisdom the black teenager from Ajax who was thrown in the trash can for being gay last year and who then hung himself after school, Christian Fox the straight actor who starred in gay porn through the 80’s all the while being so deeply attractive and unhappy, Martin Kruze the man who was among the boy sex abuse victims of the Maple Leaf Gardens and who made the scandal public and then threw himself from the Bloor Viaduct—I won’t be parted from them. These are my people.

If death takes me with its own devices, and it may—I have high blood pressure and brain abnormalities and the propensity to wander into accidents—don’t ever let them say, “He was no suicide.” Every day of my life I was a suicide.

Surely a random death won’t trump my essential self-annihilation. Being hit by a truck and killed on the way to the restaurant doesn’t mean that you weren’t hungry. Count me among the death-starved. Cover me with the luminous veil from the Bloor Viaduct. Float me out into the Thames with flowers in my hair. Yes, that is a smile on my bluing lips. Know that I am free and would have freed myself but for circumstance.

 

 

Andrew Tibbetts is a psychotherapist and writer living in Toronto. His work has appeared in The New Quarterly, This Magazine, The Fiddlehead, Descant, The Malahat Review and Moods Magazine. Twice nominated and once winner of the gold prize for fiction at the National Magazine Awards, Mr. Tibbetts is open to be your friend on Facebook. This piece is part of his ongoing magnum opus, the multi-volume auto-fictional essay, The Phenomenology of Loneliness.

“You Will Never Be” by Claudine Guertin

wedding
Image by Dawn Estrin

You will never be the one with the overweight wife, whose hips jiggle as she walks down the aisle of your granddaughter’s christening – your out-of-wedlock granddaughter – unashamed because at that size, what other choice does she have in her tented paisley dress.

You will never be the one whose hairline rolls slowly back like an eyelid opening onto God from the underskin of your scalp. Yet, somehow, you are that one you swore you’d never be.

She, fat. You, bald. What do you have to show for yourself? An also-bald grandbaby from the too-young mother who still has temper tantrums at home and dates a clerk from the 7-11, not the baby’s father, and she won’t even tell you who that is for fear you’ll take the twelve-gauge to his house. And the girl might be right about that, so you can’t say she’s totally brainless. She knows her father. You. Bald, sort of. Not fat, really, but with a few love handles that were merely a God-forbid image ten years ago, hell, not even five, and you wonder what the exact day was when you turned, the day you got old, the day your life ran away from you. There you have it. This is the thing. This life you’re living is not yours at all, but here you are, sucker. Tough shit, tough guy, this is your life. What other choice do you have?

And what choice does she have, worrying every weekday about a layoff, her vindictive boss, her ailing parents, sitting still for ten-hour shifts at her call-center monitor, fielding unhappy customers while a line of coffeecakes calls to her from the grey counter in the break room? Oh, you’d like to blame her for it, but those voices must sound pretty good during a shitty day, loving, comforting, especially when you’re the jerk who can’t always get it up in the evenings. And the worst part is that now it sometimes doesn’t even bother you that you can’t get it up. Oh well, you think. Sorry babe, you say. Guess I’ll go clean the garage, you think. And this is your life. Bury yourself now or suck up and live with it.

You understand her. You know those thighs, the ribbed lip of her C-section scar, those swollen breasts that hurt like hell, that you rubbed Palmer’s cocoa lotion into when she was nursing your slut of a daughter, back before the girl could even utter the word sex. Back when she could only suck her mother for milk. Innocence. Man, weren’t you all innocent back then?

Back then, you didn’t know how hard it would be, and you’re glad nobody ever told you, or you might’ve cashed in your chips early and checked out. Back then you had the luxury of dreams, the dreams your daughter is giving up far earlier than you and her mother had to give them up. Maybe it doesn’t matter anyway. Those dreams are not your life. This is your life.

She hurries up the aisle, her paisleys swishing across her hips like flags, having forgotten her purse in the ladies’ room with the ceremony about to start. You look at her face. She’s smiling at you. She sails toward you like some sturdy ship, her eyes and everything in her smiling, as if you aren’t the man with love handles, as if your head is not staring up at the sky like a slowly opening eye. She smiles like that day never came, the one where you must have lost it all. In her, you are yesterday and today. You are less scared about tomorrow. She smiles at you like you are the man you always secretly wanted to be, but feared you never were.

 

 

Claudine Guertin lives and writes in Chicago. She earned her M.F.A. at Queens University in Charlotte. Her writing has appeared in Chicago Social, Capper’s, Permission and other journals and has received an editorial nomination for storySouth’s Million Writers Award. She recently completed her first novel, entitled Lakers.

“Big Trouble” by Clinton B. Campbell

Big Trouble
Image by Dawn Estrin

While I was out-to-lunch,
my wife answered the phone.
It was Dave Barry calling me.

I had been warned she might
run off with a prose writer.
I am a poet with no future.

He promised her
a Stephen King first edition
and a night job at Krispy Kreme.

Now she is living in Miami.
I recognize her in Dave’s new novel,
she’s Pixie, the porno queen.

“A little to the left,”
her one and only line.
I know she wants to come back,

but I canceled my subscription
to the Miami Herald.
It’s as good as a Mexican divorce.

 

 

Clinton B. Campbell says: “‘The first books they burn are poetry books; the first people they put in jail are poets.’ This quote is historically true. Why are the lowly poets so important to be imprisoned, as was the case in South America, Russia and most other imperialist nations over the history of writing? I believe it is because poets are the keepers of the truth, and ‘they’ don’t want the truth to be known. As a poet or any writer, it is our responsibility to keep telling the truth knowing the truth has little to do with the facts and little to do with recorded history.” Clint is currently re-reading Nineteen Eighty Four. Even though he is widely published, Clint is probably best known as house-husband for photographer/poet Karen M. Peluso. They live in Beaufort, SC.

“Semantics of Rape” by Kirsten Hemmy

book and knife
Image by Dawn Estrin

I think I get stuck
on almost, its taste sharp & sticking

in my throat, the same as knife, as is.
It is true after all, that you change

your words & form follows. Memory is
a frightening thing, so same as real, & it is

what gets people lost & found: I wake
some nights, my mouth a perfect circle, choking

on you, the fear as real as taste, as fighting
the impulse to either kill you or give in.

 

 

Kirsten Hemmy is an artist in Charlotte, NC. She is the founder of Mosaic Literary Center, an organization committed to providing art and writing opportunities to underserved communities. Her work has been the recipient of the Linda Flowers Literary Award and the Academy of American Poets Award. She is an assistant professor of English and the Chair of the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, Philosophy and Religion at Johnson C. Smith University.

 

why i’m not an alcoholic



From The “Grapevine” May 2006


What It Was Like…


These days, I don’t so much fall asleep as pass out.

 

I go to work because my legal career is the Potemkin village of my denial.  As long as I’m working, I’m not an alcoholic. I don’t think this, of course, because it never occurs to me until much later that I might be an alcoholic. There are other strategies, too, all of them so transparent in retrospect that it’s embarrassing to mention them unless I’m in a roomful of alcoholics, all of whom understand this type of thinking.

 

I’m not an alcoholic, for instance, because I don’t drink in the morning. Unless it’s a weekend morning, or a holiday, of course, in which case lots of normal people drink, so I can, too. These morning drinks are festive but are not necessary, or compulsive. They sport vegetables or umbrellas. They carry the names of flowers and contain juices.  Mimosas, for instance. A mixture of good healthy orange juice and the most celebratory beverage around–cheap champagne. Or Bloody Marys. Good normal morning drinks. There’s a stalk of celery in a Bloody Mary, for God’s sake. It’s a breakfast food.

 

I’m also not an alcoholic because I don’t get drunk every night. This, of course, by now, is strictly untrue. I do get drunk every night. But I don’t intend to get drunk every night, and that’s nearly the same thing. I’m going through some tough professional and personal times right now and I haven’t always gotten drunk every night, and I certainly intend to stop getting drunk every night once my therapy and the new medication gets me through this rough spot.

 

Because I’ve had to give up a lot of reasons why I’m not an alcoholic, the list at this point is pretty short. I drink alone, for instance, so I can’t say I’m only a social drinker. And I pretty much always drink until I’m drunk, though I’ve lowered the bar on this one–I don’t consider myself drunk if the bed doesn’t spin like a Tilt-a-Whirl on the Santa Monica pier when I’m ready for sleep. I guess by this point the only other convincing reason I’m not an alcoholic is that I never have liquor in the house. Meaning, I don’t keep liquor in the house because I am going to stop drinking tomorrow. Same for the cigarettes, and for that little nightly marijuana habit I’ve had since my divorce. Five years ago.

 

So, this is my routine. Most days I make it into work. I’m working by the hour now so I don’t have to feel guilty if I have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. If I don’t work, I don’t earn. It’s up to me. I’m in control of that. When I do work, I’m the same hard worker I’ve always been. I mean, I’m a pretty good lawyer. I should be. I learned how to practice in a semi-drugged state–prescription pills, mostly. Valium. I’m serious about this, but won’t realize it until later. If you learn to swim with lead weights attached to your arms and legs, you build strong muscles. I genuinely was a good lawyer, as long as I showed up.

 

So I’m working for this one-man law firm in Westwood, California, right on Wilshire Boulevard across the street from Westwood Village, the little college town at the foot of the UCLA campus. I’m in therapy with a woman who specializes in substance abuse. I picked her because I used to have some substance abuse problems. A little amphetamine addiction when I was nineteen, cocaine at thirty, cigarettes on and off. Someone told me once that I had an “addictive” personality and I’m down with that. But marijuana isn’t a drug–even the experts say it’s not addictive–and the drinking? Well, like I said, I might have a little drinking problem right now, but an alcoholic? Not quite.

 

I’ve known alcoholics. My best friend in high school, Alice, her dad was an alcoholic. You knew he was one because he didn’t work, just sat at home in front of the television set during the day, a dark presence we tiptoed past on our way to Alice’s bedroom where, in exchange for a donut, she deigned to tutor me in geometry. Alice’s dad has been dead for some time. I still remember him pretty vividly, though. It was at Alice’s wedding, when I was in law school in the late seventies, when I last saw him. Robert was his name. Bob. I’ll never forget that day. Partly because those were the days when bridesmaids were forced to wear homemade dresses the color of after-dinner mints with fabric that poofed up in the shoulders and sleeves. So I remember the day because of just how awkward I felt, hiding from the wedding photographer and feeling foolish.

 

But this is what I remember the most clearly. Alice’s dad, Robert, watched his daughter’s semi-formal garden wedding from his wheelchair on the wide veranda of his mother’s Victorian mansion in San Diego. I remember thinking what a waste his life had been. He’d been working on his Ph.D. in psychology pretty much the whole time I knew Alice–ninth grade through college, and then graduate school. He’d tried that anti-alcohol medication, the pill that makes you violently ill if you drink. But he’d still drink and get violently ill. Or skip taking the pills and drink. He never got sober. And there he was, the victim, finally, of something other than his own alcoholism. A stroke. The mother of the bride, Alice’s mom, who supported him, along with the rest of the family, for nearly thirty years, was caring for a true invalid. It was really sad. So, you see, Robert was an alcoholic. I wouldn’t have had the nerve to put myself in that league. It might very well have been a relief to have a problem I could do something about. But alcoholism clearly wasn’t among them.

 

 


 

What Happened. . .

The day I stop drinking begins like any other. (My refrigerator usually contains only alcohol and things to eat with alcohol–finger food: canapes, frozen dumplings, that sort of thing. Last night, however, I had a rare visit from old friends who knew me well enough to bring their own non-alcoholic beverages with them.) Picturing the cranberry sparkler, I’m thinking it might be a good day to ease up on my drinking a little. Just for today, I tell myself, I won’t drink.

 

When I open the refrigerator door to grab a sparkler, however, my hand closes instead around a nearly full bottle of chardonnay. I pop the cork and pour a glass. Since I’m “not drinking” on Saturday afternoon, I might as well fire up my bong as well.

 

An hour later, with the early afternoon sun streaming through the French doors to my balcony, I am once again sitting at my computer–drunk and stoned.

 

Why?

 

This obvious question pops into my mind for the first time in my adult life.

 

Why?

 

Why am I sitting alone in my apartment at the age of forty-two, on a beautiful Southern California day, disabled, for all intents and purposes, from doing anything productive, or even fun?

 

Like Philip Roth’s paranoid writer character in Operation Shylock, I can think of only one thing to do when a panicky new thought arrives. Sit in a chair, at a desk, and attempt to “tame temporarily with a string of words the unruly tyranny of my incoherence”:


I was once addicted, I write, to amphetamines. 


When I dropped out of college at age nineteen, I took a job in downtown San Diego alphabetizing “trade slips” for a small stock brokerage firm. The speed nailed my otherwise notoriously short attention span to this mind-numbing task. Drinking was just becoming a big part of my life and the speed helped that, too. I could drink with more energy, stay awake longer, and felt nauseated less often. One pill a day, however, quickly morphed into five. I stayed high all week and crashed on the weekends, crying in bewilderment in my small shuttered studio apartment.


Three months later I was sick, unemployed, and evicted. I put my tail between my legs and moved back home. There, under my mother’s disapproving stare, I kicked the habit cold turkey and re-enrolled in college. I did well, met my first husband, and headed off to law school.


Then the eighties arrived. I fell in with a fast and “sophisticated” crowd of hard-drinking trial lawyers, figuring that if I emulated their lifestyle, I’d be capable of mimicking their cross-examination skills. In a matter of months, I was sitting in my living room at 3 A.M. while my husband slept, watching old movies, drinking .from a cold half-gallon of Chablis and scraping cocaine dust off the Oriental carpet.


Here’s the thing, I write: I’ve never been able to moderate my use of any substance.

 

I think about this for a while, take a drag on a cigarette, grind it out in an old ceramic saucer and light another. I take a deep breath and watch the smoke rise to the ceiling.


I think, I continue, that I am an alcoholic.


Suddenly, it seems so simple. Easy even. The thought opens a floodgate of exhaustion, demoralization and, most importantly, surrender. I am–as I’ll later learn Bill W. was–simply “beat.” My “battle with the bottle” is over. At five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon in early February 1994, I head off to the bedroom where I sleep, on and off, the rest of the weekend.

 

That was ten years ago, and I haven’t had a drink since.

What It’s Like Now . . .

Hundreds of AA meetings later, I have my own business as an attorney-mediator and am genuinely happy doing what I love–helping people achieve peaceful and economic resolutions to the inevitable conflicts in which we all inevitably find ourselves. I’m also a student again, earning a master’s degree (an LL.M.) in dispute resolution at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.

 

I’m recently married and have acquired two of the most beautiful and loving stepchildren any woman–particularly this childless woman–could ever hope to have. My life is full of challenges. And it is full of joy. I am active in AA, work the Steps with my sponsor, and help a loving and courageous group of sponsees work their Steps, too.

 

I am of service and I am at peace.