Heroin Tuesday and a Nine-Time Suicide

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic


Dark and twisted short story, written in poetic prose. Trigger warning for drug use, mental illness, and suicide.

Submitted: July 29, 2018

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Submitted: July 29, 2018

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I remember thinking once, as a child, that every star in the sky belonged to someone who had lived and died, on the earth that unfolded like a worn-out map, below the endless charade of night.

 

Those distant lights were my naïve, adolescent guarantee—that existence was not quite as empty as it seemed. They signified lives like mine—full of pain. And joy. And risk. And missed chances. They were lives full of hunger—the collective hunger for freedom and thirst for knowledge, that sullies the overall human experience with the inexorable seasick of desire.

 

And I loved it. I remember longing to be a part of it—just another insignificant, untouched gleam, in the velvet backdrop of what the un-woken human mind called “Heaven.”

 

I didn’t believe in God. I never believed that my soul would find a resting place in the clouds or the earth. It made so much more sense, to be comprised of gas and ice. In my mind, I was always more element and less skeleton.

 

So many years down the road, we would stumble across one another on a starless night—by chance or by accident or by something more significant that neither one of us would ever understand. There would never be a rhyme or a reason to the way we fit together, like two misplaced puzzle pieces that shouldn’t belong. But you would know a hunger for me, the way I knew a hunger for words within sadness…the way my mother knew a hunger for the color blue.

 

Like so many times that came before, I would find you, drunk and alone on the roof of your apartment complex—your gaze fixated on the dizzying cascade of endless night sky. It made no sense, in your eyes. This life needed to be saturated with logic, for you to comprehend. You could never quite wrap your mind around my affinity for those dead lights above us—their hole-punch dominion inside an empty graveyard of darkness. 

 

You existed, in a soft and simple manner that I could never question. You fell on a spectrum so far removed from the person I was that even then, I yearned to offer a sense of transparency to the shroud that darkened your troubled mind.

 

I told you to close your eyes—let the universe melt away like wax beneath a flame. Life was less complicated, in the safe space of that darkness, and you just listened to your first Counting Crows record on vinyl. Or just took your first shot of whiskey, straight from the bottle. It struck you like a rock in a soft spot. It hit you right where it hurt…made you feel so fucking much. You thought you might cry, or even throw up. But you didn’t. You swallowed, and lifted your lids, and the world swayed around you like a sapling in a windstorm. And that prison of night—armed with its condemned punctures of jailbroken light—was the first thing you saw, when you opened your eyes.

 

This world might have dropped you altogether, might have let you spin out into the nothing-space, had that star-struck chasm not encompassed you, at the exact right moment.

 

Perhaps it served some good, to bring you peace of mind. Perhaps you only pretended to understand. But it is true that I loved you. Through every self-destructive dervish of disorder that seized my mind and wreaked havoc on any sense of purpose we may have clung to…I loved you. But before I loved you, and after I loved you…I loved this.

 

You used to say that I loved the night sky, the way a sailor loves the sea—knowing all along that it will be the death of him. There was a clawing frenzy, in the empty belly of my yearning, and it frightened you. Like seeing a creature you loved once fall rabid. I told you I was pulled from the womb of a starving woman, and that genesis is a history that both follows and worships you, all at once like a dog.

 

And it was only then—years after my childhood had long since been rendered dust on the broken threshold of time—that you learned why my origin relied so heavily on that isolating curtain of night. For I have loved the darkness, the way only a blind man could love the light.

 

~~

 

In times of war, when fire envelops every hiding place and crumbles every safe haven, the streets will fall silent. There are only two things ever born from the belly of the flames—the ashes, or the phoenix. A person cannot know which shape their body will choose to take.

 

When it comes to the woman that made me, she must have been a phoenix. A phoenix that stood too long, in the soot left behind by the chaos from which it came. No matter where she stepped, from that day forward, she always left an indelible trail of burning ash.

 

Years later, I can still look back, beyond the imposing darkness that rented out the small space of my youth, and say, “My mother was a beautiful artist.”

 

And it was true.

 

She was an artist, before she was anything else—be it human or divine. She was a stark and ruined creature, clinging valiantly to the last remaining shreds of a dying light. But as long as she could still capture tendrils of it, sparkling effervescent in the dark, she was alive.

 

She did not carry her vision of “life,” the way so many others do—as meaningless baggage, sent to weigh her down. She possessed a specific, vibrating energy that I never witnessed duplicated in another human being. She suffered through so much disorder, with only the merest glimmer of rhyme or reason to keep her flame alive. Sometimes, I still pretend I can see it, dancing erratically in the night.

 

Those quicksilver strands of hope or purpose, were naught but fishing line, braided between her fingers. But as long as she could thread them through the strings of her guitar, my mother was beautiful and safe—at least as I recall her. She loved Bob Dylan and watercolors, and the way grass faded to dry gold in late August. The tips of her fingers were always gray, from charcoal soot and poor blood circulation. Her eyes were the color of liberated mercury—seeping from the sanctity of a glass thermometer. They could never pick my own face from a line-up. But they could sort tirelessly, through a thousand different shades of the color blue.

 

My earliest memories are at age three or four, watching my mother paint on canvas. These recollections remain, the illustrated storybook of my childhood—something deep and unnerving I couldn’t quite grasp, at the time. But I longed to, even then.

 

That easel was my northern star—a safety blanket I never dared touch, but needed to fall asleep, just the same. I would sit, cross-legged on the floor, after my mother had left the room, and watch paint dry. It was a lengthy, silent process. But to me, it never felt boring, to observe something so shimmering and new, set to finality with the touch of time.

 

Those paintings, with their inscrutable meanings and hidden symbolism, came fewer and farther between, as the years filled up like spaces in a cemetery. Perhaps I was too distracted to notice when they stopped coming altogether. I came to study the artist, the way I once studied the art. Wondering just how long the woman with the paintbrushes might take to dry down.

 

Not every day was a bad one. Perhaps this is only because I never experienced the good, to recognize the difference. My mother undulated like kelp under murky waters—one day coiled around herself, another stretched out like a river dragon preening its scales. When an artist is starving, they seek to distance themselves from the prison of the physical world. They are hungry for something food could never offer.

 

Looking back, it is true: I suffered the sort of childhood that crawls beneath your skin like a parasite. The kind that falls into step behind you, like a stranger with ill intent. The kind you can never quite shake, like raindrops from your hair, after walking down the sidewalk in a storm.

 

My mother’s life was empty, like an untouched canvas. She was a quivering beam of light, too fragile to withstand the pull of the elements. She was not designed to endure. Perhaps we both knew that, all along.

 

When I think of myself, the way I once did, a dusty collection of elements for the sky, I think of paper doll girls, cut from old newspapers. I think of dirty, simple things you find in waste baskets. I think of filth.

 

When I think of my mother, I think of precious metals and exotic gemstones. Substances that don’t necessarily fit together. But they felt right, in the complicated design of who she was.

 

Her frame was rendered from an effigy of alabaster. Her eyes carved from obsidian moons. I still remember how she moved through each room—blind and tragically fragile—trapped inside a body formed by storm-struck glass.

 

She existed, in stark relation to the home where I grew up. She was the one untarnished fixture left to admire. The wallpaper in the hallways hung in strips like a shedding serpent, but she was oblivious to the very framework that held up the structure around us. She could never be bothered by derelict or disrepair.

 

I learned, at an early age, that creation was all too often the product of destruction. My mother never sought to curb my drive, no matter how devastating it may have been. She never minded if I colored on the walls. She never raised her voice, if I burned holes in the carpet with un-snuffed cigarette butts. One time, I spilled juice from a cheap sippy cup, and it dried into abstract splashes on the living room rug. She never batted an eye. And the older I grew, the more I wished that it would. When she wasn’t perceptibly driving scars into the wounded flesh of my adolescence, she was nothing more than a sandpaper ghost, rendered blind with time.

 

My mother was never like me. She never shared my sharp edges or rough planes—the corners and points and barbs, riddled with splintered and threats—that you grew so familiar with, in the course of loving me and my rampant disease. No, my mother was rounded like Virginia foothills. She was slopes and curves and river-bends rinsed smooth, like the ones I watched Pocahontas hug in a canoe, on an endless loop in the living room—when the cable was off and all we had left was that one Disney movie we found at a yard sale, one Sunday—back before the darkness and the chill settled into the foundation of our home like a stepfather’s wrath.

 

Perhaps, in my selfishly human way, I envied her. Or perhaps, less shamefully, I simply admired her. She was beautiful. Her name meant exquisite in my mind—that simple language of a clueless child, whose idols are tyrants she has yet to recognize. Her eyelids were softer than the insides of my throat. Her voice was an overflowing basin, buried in the sand of an unforgiving desert. Her hair was an embroidered throw rug—hand-spun from corn-silk and satin and gold-trim velvet. Like the ones that the Hindu women sold, behind their smoke-screen booths, at the flea market off 2nd Avenue…it was the kind you were too afraid to touch. It was so expensive, it might unravel in your hands, at the abrasive onslaught of your fingertips. My mother’s hair may have been a royal banner, fit for the gods. But her mouth…her mouth was a maraschino cherry, with a pearl nestled inside, like a mistake.

 

I loved her. When I look back, at the fissured train-wreck of my adolescence, I am struck by the realization of my own oblivious devotion. But of course I loved her. And yet…my mother was a nightmare, the recurring kind that won’t go away when you open your eyes. She was a crawlspace closet with a door that didn’t quite latch and inside—a demon—breathing just loudly enough for you to hear, from your vantage point on the bed.

 

She was a summer-ripe peach, with skin contused by all the needles. And bruises. So many bruises. I remember how they looked on her skin, even now. Confusing. Like watercolors that bled together unintentionally and ruined the entire concept of a painting. Brown and green and purple-in-the-center bruises, like a mushroom cloud blossoming and growing farther and wider, spreading death and decay in every cranny of its spectrum.

 

My mother was Indian summer and white sage. She was broken blood vessels and heroin tar stains and yellow teeth—from Virginia Slims. Her hands were unsteady like a chair with a broken leg. Like your grandfather with Parkinson’s. You had to be extra brave, to sit in her lap. If you didn’t hold your weight just right, she would tip forward like an overfilled tea kettle. She would spill you right out onto the floor, if you weren’t careful.

 

I learned to be very careful.

 

My mother took her own life, on a Tuesday in April. The weather was temperate and mellow—out of character, for the season. A robin on the clothesline outside was chirping about birth and carnations. I was fourteen, and she had not so much as lifted a brush to an easel, since I was seven. It was something nostalgic she had set aside for absence of initiative or lack of time—a distraction, meant for a rainy day.

 

But when I got home from school that Tuesday, she was in the kitchen with the curtains flung wide, and her easel was a chaotic flurry of colors before her, like a peacock fanning for a potential mate.

 

It didn’t make any sense but I stared. The canvas was a clash of colors too discordant to look upon—like peering into the face of the sun. It was far too violent to be abstract. It was a feeling. A concept—slashed to life exactly as she felt it, bubbling like a deep fryer beneath her skin.

 

“It’s beautiful, Mama.” I repeated, again and again. I coo’d like a mourning dove, at the masterpiece she’d slaughtered into being. I could taste the blood in my mouth from biting my tongue so hard but she…she only smiled, like an empty casket at my words that never meant what she needed to hear…never cemented the void she suffered so long in order to fill.

 

My mother killed herself on a Tuesday, when the light filtered in through the windows in the sun room, and everything in the house smelled like fresh coffee grounds. The dappled shadows cast by the maple trees in the front yard rendered her limbs to flickering gray and that day, I don’t recall flinching, at the sight of those grooves like rusty railroad tracks, clamped to the ruddy earth of her forearms.

 

It was the first and only time I ever knew her to unwrap that old family heirloom—the antique handgun she inherited from my grandfather. It was inadvertently etched with our family’s crest—a lamb, lying at the base of a weeping willow.

 

She walked into the kitchen like a second thought and lifted that revolver to her temple like a boxing referee, cranking up the arm of a champion. And perhaps for her, it was a simple victory.

 

I was fourteen years old. Little more than a child, seated at the kitchen table with a smoking ashtray. Inside, nestled in a graveyard of its peers, the steaming butt of an L&M menthol my bus driver slipped into my pocket, as I descended the stairs of the school bus, for the pockmarked face of our driveway.

 

There was still fog, trapped in my lungs, and I couldn’t quite find a scream. In retrospect, the realization that I never screamed still fits uncomfortably between my skin and bones. But I couldn’t seem to move or intervene or even vocalize an objection. And she never looked, to see if I would. To see if I could. She never hesitated.

 

I wish I could remember the very last moment. The morbid daughter in my heart aches to know whether it ended on an inhale or an exhale. The reality in me can’t recall if she even breathed.

 

My mother ended her own life with two feet of time and the dirty granite barricade of a kitchen counter between us. Forgive me for faltering in my poetic pentameter, for a moment. There was nothing beautiful or eloquent about this particular act.

 

I watched the spatter of blood and brain on the glass front of our oven, and it reminded me too garishly of the scene she had foreshadowed with her paintbrushes. Later, in the agonizingly silent aftermath, I would slash through the face of that easel with a carving knife.

 

Beautiful imagery could not do this part justice. I smelled the earthy stench of death and decay, before I ever smelled the funeral flowers that would adorn the redwood casket with the sealed lid, inside which her memory hid like an autoimmune disease.

 

The scent of calla lilies always seemed to linger on my mother’s skin. As a child, I had always pictured her, lying indolently in a field of them, after I had fallen asleep. The scent haunted my senses, after she was gone. The absence of it, in her body—a horrific visual in an otherwise unremarkable kitchen—was my bizarre source of lasting trauma.

 

But more prevalent even than the emotional void…the guilt. I wonder now…even now…if it made me the monster, to feel a lingering sense of relief. In the terrible ache of the repercussions, I felt calm, even liberated, by the thought that I would only ever look up and see a patchwork quilt of strange stars—and know that there were infinite chances she might be one of them…or none of them. Perhaps it was awful, to breathe easier, when they lowered that casket into the dirt. Because finally…finally, my closet door had a latch.

 

Ask me for the truth. In the shuddering aftermath of our own ruptured love, demand from me the truth, if it might set you free. I know what it means to love a junkie. It was never pretty for you, never pretty for me. But you wrote about it too, and you called it art.

 

Perhaps I am a martyr, for fashioning my mother’s suicide into my own twisted rendition of a morbid Greek muse. Perhaps I am the worst sort of person, for modeling my art out of trauma. But perhaps I am wise. For my mother was a cat, with nine fucking lives. And I know…I know…suicide is only pretty for the shock factor. But believe me when I say, the way she died that day was not even the worst way that she left me.

 

~~

 

The first life lost was at sixteen. My mother was young and brazen and more alive than she had ever been—more alive than she would ever be again. This was perhaps the only life for which she did not anticipate an end.

 

It was a simpler time, in a simpler year. Love and drugs and festivals were free, and my mother took after those three, and blossomed into the effervescent creature she had always longed to be.

 

This was the same year she met a boy who called himself a poet. And my mother had never met anyone who could write words and call it art. But she read what the poet wrote, and she knew that art was exactly what it was. For only an artist could make a person feel colors they couldn’t see. And when she was with the poet, everything was blue…and blue and blue, like the sky in the spring.

 

But the purest pleasures never keep. And no one is more naïve to this truth than the young and the in-love.

 

Every July, the carnival passed through her home town. They set up tents amid the smell of popcorn and funnel cakes, and the sound of children’s laughter. My mother visited the fortune teller, in her overt yellow tent on the outskirts of the carnival grounds. She was dreamy and aloof, tied to the innocent notions of love and forever. She sat across from the old sage at her card table draped with a silk cloth that smelled of smoke and patchouli, and she was radiating the color blue. And when the fortune teller brought out the tarot deck, my mother knew …the cards don’t lie.

 

The deck was heavy in her hands as she shuffled. The old woman observed knowingly, each card the girl touched that left foggy blue fingerprints. When she was done, the dark-eyed Romanov fanned the Celtic cross out on the table between them, and my mother learned that the boy who called himself a poet was her other half. He was the sun to her moon, the stars to her world. But the future of their love was tarnished like bad metal, with disease and addiction. And no matter how my mother might love him, they were bound to the yoke—the inevitable spiral that is the wheel of fortune—upon which every human being is harnessed, like an unforgiven carthorse, to the merciless universe.

 

This was the eve of my mother’s first fall from grace. At sixteen, she was doe-eyed and warm and hopeful. She was impulsive and oblivious and lovesick. She ran away from that yellow tent and that fortune teller’s perceptive gaze. And she never looked back. She might have heeded the warnings…but she could never have changed her own course.

 

For the rest of that year, every time my mother turned on the radio, they were playing Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” Whenever she heard that song, she felt every chord, vibrate up the traumatized guitar string of her body. And she knew that she was dying. She knew that every step deeper into love with the poet was another step closer to the end of herself.

 

But for the very first time, she knew someone who could translate her art into words. She knew what it meant, to spin away into the color blue. So for the sake of freedom, and youth, and music that sounded like the existence of God. And she thought to herself, as she took that inevitable leap of blind and foolish faith: This death is bigger than this life.

 

The second time my mother died, she was seventeen. Seventeen and barefoot and afraid and pregnant, at the health department. And food cost money, and abortions cost money, but death was easy. And death was free. Like being sixteen all over again.

 

And so she grew. She traced the expanding inches of her abdomen with the blue ink from her own fingertips. And nothing else mattered. Being hungry. Being lost. Being powerless. Feeling frightened. She rested her head on the shoulder of her bluest muse. And she did not anticipate what was still to come.

 

When her other half took his art made of words and walked away, he would never look back. He was nineteen and broken and an addict, in the worst kind of way. He left books of poetry and unfinished novels and fragments of his dreams. And my mother learned—the way you would learn, so many years later—what it means to love a poet.

 

She took her own life, in the shattered aftermath of their parting, because she simply had no choice. That life wasn’t hers, any longer…together, she and the poet had painted that entire universe blue. And ever since she had known him, it had become the only color she knew. My mother understood then, that to love a poet means to let someone take from you, and take from you, and take from you…and make it their own. To love a poet is to commit suicide, one fragile line at a time.

 

My mother killed herself again, at eighteen and six months. This was the first time she saw my face, and she knew…that I was a diluted version of herself. I was four pounds and eleven ounces of art. I shared the divot of her Cupid’s bow, and the arch of her brow bone, and the salt-shaker sprinkle of freckles that inhabited the same indeterminate ribbon from cheek-to-cheek. I mimicked everything about her, down to the heart-monitor green flash of her eyes.

 

She studied the quicksand trap of my gaze, memorized the curl of my fingers and the quiver of my jaw. And she knew…that I would never paint or sketch a masterpiece. My art would never exist in her world of charcoals and clay. It would never be born from colors or shapes. For I was my father’s poet. And though I would never learn his words, I would find my own.

 

In all her life, through all her paintings, my mother had never created something so alive, and so vibrantly her. She took her own life that day, because she knew she never would again.

 

 Four was the worst. Number four wasn’t one of the suicides I watched my mother commit. But I watched its repercussions, for the entirety of my childhood.

 

My mother killed herself again, the first time she tried heroin. She wasn’t expecting much, and she didn’t feel much. It wasn’t like dropping acid, as a teen—rolling in the grass with bare feet and flowers in your hair, clinging for dear life to a half-strung guitar—and a trip was all colors and emotions and songs that only played in Heaven, but the angels let you sneak inside for one fleeting show, before the big one at the end.

 

No. Heroin was different. Heroin was being nineteen, and working 12 hours a day in a factory, sweating bullets, and the soles of your feet splitting open and bleeding through your white socks. But at the end of the day, your paycheck went to daycare, and the mechanic—because your only vehicle had 250,000 miles on the odometer, and no A/C, and a black trash-bag…in place of the right-rear window. But someone kept slashing through the plastic at night and stealing all the change out of your cup-holder.

 

Heroin was a numbing agent, a painkiller turned tranquilizer for the body and mind. Heroin was…not knowing what love was anymore, not recognizing touch when someone touched you—because touch just reminded you of that mattress on the floor, without a fitted sheet but with the landlord, so he wouldn’t kick you out next time you couldn’t make rent.

 

Heroin felt like being a mother, single and struggling with a jar full of pennies on the bedside table. And you felt guilty, for buying a pack of cigarettes or a fifth of Senator’s club, because the baby was out of formula and the car was out of gas. But your friend had a friend who lived in a basement, who could loan you a pick-me-up for dirt-cheap. Maybe even free.

 

Heroin felt like poverty—being so poor you didn’t eat for days, but that dirty hypodermic would make you forget the ache in your stomach and the throb in your jaw, where your wisdom teeth were coming in, but you couldn’t miss work for the dentist, and goddammit…the daycare doesn’t take partial payments. And you can’t possibly sleep with the entire power company to keep the lights on.

 

Heroin was the worst death my mother ever died. And I’ll tell you why. Because the first time my mother tried heroin, she thought to herself: That wasn’t so wonderful.

 

And then she tried heroin again, the next day. And she thought: Nothing will ever feel as wonderful as yesterday.

 

And so she tried heroin a dozen more times. And she thought to herself: There is no such thing as an “other half,” because everyone is born whole. And she thought she was whole.

 

Heroin is a silent suicide. Perhaps the poet was the first, but heroin was my mother’s darkest. Heroin was the one suicide that led subsequently to every suicide after its own, and my mother could not have altered that course if she had wanted to. You see, LSD can make rolling in the grass at a festival feel beautiful. But heroin is the only substance I know that can make poverty feel like art. It is the only drug in existence capable of turning squalor and suffering into a home. And my mother would spend the rest of her life, searching for the peace she felt, the first time she slid a needle under her skin and into a vein.

 

Yet…that could not be the end. My mother died five more times, after she fell in love with milk-blood and sorrow. Even then…she still had so many lives left to lose.

 

Number five was when Bob Dylan recorded “Tangled Up in Blue.” Every time that song played, my mother colored herself a fool for nostalgia. She let the crystal needle wear a scar into the face of that vinyl and still…she could not set it aside. She tasted the melancholy of that track, and it meant so much to her, that his blues and her blues bled from the tip of every paintbrush she picked up, for the rest of that life.

 

She fixated on her art, and it brought her back from the dead. She painted for hours on end, to the chords of that song. If an artist ever wrote a song for a stranger, Dylan wrote that track for my mother. She believed it, the way she believed in the sun and the moon. She trusted it, the way she trusted the tides of the ocean.

 

Every line of that song reminded my mother of her other half, and the flashback-blue memory of being sixteen again. She would lie in the corner of the darkest room she could find, and cry. It did not matter that she was broken and hollow and empty and high. Bob Dylan understood every teardrop that etched a course through the uncharted dirt on her face.

 

And yet again, my mother ended it all. Because in the end, she was so tangled up in blue, there was simply nothing else left to do.

 

Number six was the first time my mother realized what she was. It was not an immediate conclusion. Perhaps she was blinded by her newfound safe haven in needles and veins. But years went by, before it all clicked together in her brain.

 

She was twenty-one. Old enough to drink and too messed up to think. Her skin was falling loose on her bones, clammy and sallow like bad milk—the kind she didn’t throw out, but instead hid in the very back of the fridge, so we didn’t look quite as poor, when men stayed the night and rummaged through the kitchen for food.

 

Number six was when my mother carelessly traded the fleeting intimacy of baby fingers and newly-crawling knees, for yet another high. She was infatuated with every dizzying peak and euphoric plateau. She was enthralled by throbbing veins and pinpoint pupils. She was a slave, to every comedown so hard she forgot that her excruciating mind inhabited a comparably suffering body. She forgot that her suffering body had served as a vessel to a neglected child.

 

Six was slow and tiring. Six was all about struggle. My mother cried herself to sleep and she cried herself awake. She broke down into tears every time she saw my face. She saw herself cycle through every stage of an abusive relationship with her self-prescribed antidote. So she tried to leave. She was a black-eyed cover-girl with a broken jaw, clinging to my hand for dear life.

 

But quitting was hard. Quitting was pain. She saw herself cycle again, through every stage of grief and defeat and relapse…all for a drug she hadn’t believed she even loved.

 

Six was years of being too young to comprehend, but witnessing a woman’s writhe of chemical agony. For breakfast she was hopeful. For lunch she was exhausted. For dinner, she was high. It was a vicious circle we repeated, every time.

 

Six was a hollow tribute to welfare and sex-work, shoplifting and hollow-can begging, on the sidewalks in the city. Six was using just to make herself move, just to slip into something tight and black and fitting for the corner. Six was feeling better about the money but worse about the source. Six was about guilt, and my mother’s apology that she could never frame on the wall in our house—because we both knew the angry landlord called Heroin would tear it down while we slept.

 

Six reared its ugly head, from the moment I said my first word. My mother was too captivated by the needle to catch whether it was “hello,” or “goodbye,” so she lied, and told everyone my first word was mama.

 

Six lasted for years. Death by substance abuse can be so quick. It can happen in a heartbeat…or the lack thereof. But sometimes, it lasts forever. Slow and heavy, like passing through quicksand. Or walking uphill through the snow. Six was slow suicide. But six was still suicide.

 

And then there was seven. Let me tell you about seven. The seventh time my mother killed herself was all because of me. Seven was cruel. Seven was that one child in kindergarten who only had one outfit, and she wore it until her ankles were showing and her belly was out, and there were holes in her shirt and bleach stains in her jeans. And all the other kids in her class called her “Stretch Armstrong,” because that’s what their mommies and daddies called her—because she kept getting taller and longer, but her outfit stayed the same.

 

Seven was Katie Woodrow’s mommy telling everyone at church that Stretch Armstrong’s mommy was a drug addict who lived in a shack, and couldn’t work or take care of her own child. Seven was not knowing what a “drug addict” was, but trying and failing to convince a classroom full of kindergarteners that her mommy was, on the contrary, a beautiful artist. Sometimes they didn’t have lights in the house because part of being an artist was being able to pretend…and she liked to pretend sometimes that they were camping from home for a few days. And you didn’t have electricity when you went camping, anyways.

 

Seven was not understanding why everyone at church prayed that Tommy Dillard’s daddy got his promotion. Or that Sally Berkeley’s mommy got over the flu. But nobody there ever seemed to care, or to pray, that Stretch Armstrong’s mommy would start to feel better. Or that she might be able to afford a new outfit for Stretch, sometime soon

 

Seven was wondering why it was so easy for the other children to take things for granted like electricity, or one meal a day, or a safe place to sleep. Seven was barricading your bedroom door with your toy box, because Mommy had scary friends who might try and come in while you were asleep. Seven was realizing your toy box wasn’t a very effective barricade, because it only had three toys inside of it, and those three had to be in bed with you, in order for you to fall asleep.

 

Seven was never getting invited to birthday parties, or after-school ice cream socials. Four was the worst, yes. But seven came so close. Because seven was about realization. Seven was finally being old enough to understand that your mother was a drug addict, your mother was a whore. Seven was shoplifting cans of Chef Boyardee from the grocery store, because you had learned by watching your mother, growing up. Seven was stealing Barbie dolls from the rich little girls at the park. It was smoking cigarettes with homeless men on the street corners, and passerby stopping to stare. Seven was learning not to care.

 

Seven was thinking your mother had died, because she was passed out on the bathroom floor, and her tongue couldn’t stay in her mouth. Seven was packing a bag and running away, at thirteen, but getting raped by a bum when you tried to hop a train to the next city over. Seven was going home, drenched in blood and shame and heavy, hollow defeat.

 

My mother killed herself a seventh time. But seven wasn’t for her. Seven was for my broken childhood. My empty toy box. My childhood, that was long and hard and friendless and motherless and impressionable in all the wrong ways. Seven was for me.

 

Eight was Tuesday. Nothing more needs to be said of Tuesday, and just like Lynyrd Skynyrd said, Tuesday’s gone.

 

But know this much: there is still enough understanding within me, to pity her. To forgive her, even. My mother did not choose her life. She never chose to struggle, and suffer, and lose. She was a product of her environment, the chemical reaction of someone who wants so much and is only ever allotted so little. My mother killed herself because she was a slave to addiction, and poverty, and misfortune, and mental illness. She gave it all to me. She left it all for the best piece of art she ever created. I handed it right over to you. Like I always do.

 

But my mother still had one life to live after she left hers on the floor of my childhood kitchen. Her ninth life was not taken, until years later—after her memory was faded but not lost, designated to that empty box in the ground at the cemetery.

 

Number nine, too, belonged to me. Number nine was your hand in mine. It was the city, sprawling out below the roof of your apartment, drenched in enviable velvet delight. Number nine was the first time I slid a sharp into my skin and exhaled. Number nine was your mouth, closing around my liberated breath like a suffocated flame. I could almost say that number nine was ours. But that would be a lie.

 

I will always be the girl you fell in love with, on those broken stone steps under the insect-riddled light cast by the street lamps downtown. Your nightmare in a black slip dress, bleeding mascara and errant delight, bloody knees and ripped-up tights. I was meant to find you. You were meant to read my lines. You watched me live out number nine.

 

Number nine was when I became the poet. When I became the addict. Number nine was after I ran away, and I finally decided to come back. It was barging through the back door on a Tuesday night, dusting off repressed memories I had shoved to the farthest corner of that ever-latched closet crawlspace.

 

Nine was me, as an adult, with bruised arms and lackluster eyes, and skin that wasn’t quite as firm on my bones anymore. And when I looked into that mirror on the back of that ever-familiar bathroom door, I couldn’t decide if I was looking at myself or my mother’s ghost—come back to haunt the shell of a daughter she had abandoned, so many years before she ever chose to take her life in that kitchen down the hall.

 

Number nine was crossing the threshold, in the afterglow of all that addiction and despair. It was the echo of my own footsteps, falling into line with my mother’s memory. It was moving from room to room, flinging open doors and shoving aside curtains while you stood, silent, in the violence of my dust-shorn ambience. Nine was that fucking house. That wrecked and forsaken youth. That miserable fucking existence I left behind only to walk right back into, in another life.

 

Nine was my voice, assaulting the horrific cavity of that hollow adolescence, like that bullet assaulted the derelict chamber of that old revolver. Nine was murmuring aloud, with an echo like a gunshot: “I’m back. I’m back, after all these years. Mama, I’m home.”

 

 




© Copyright 2018 AmandaxLewis. All rights reserved.

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