I am overloaded on therapy, so I use morning group to practice Positive Visualization. I imagine my brain, the molecular purgatory between my synapses, the black hole where all my chemicals get lost. The serotonin I visualize as flecks of light eagerly floating toward alien-like tendrils that await the uptake of happiness. I think of all the pills—beige and green oblong caplets, light blue football-shaped pills, tiny and bitter white pellets—and imagine them surging through my blood stream, getting pumped by my heart up to my brain and finally joining with the wayward serotonin in a big-budget musical kind of way. Unfortunately, this never makes the drugs kick in.
I open my eyes to the broom-closet sized room, seven other women, and the new girl's story about her lover, dead from a drug overdose that she administered. “And the part that I can't forgive myself for is leaving the kids in the car with him. My kids watched him die, and I was busy getting more dope. What does that do to a kid?” Her question goes unanswered, and she starts crying. It's very hard to work on Positive Visualization in this environment.
Today group is lame, and, as usual, I’m tired. Since I don't sleep at night, I don't want to be awake during the day; it's an easy equation. But if I don't get to the main treatment building in time for group, I'm wasting my parents' money not to mention my brother's money not to mention my time. My family has already sunk more money than any of us feel comfortable talking about into my four-week, in-patient appearance that I like to refer to—much to my mother's horror—as “Traumarama.” I wish that I didn't know that the money came from a home equity loan but, then again, I guess we can look at the whole thing as a kind of household improvement.
Now I'm at Helen's House, an “extended care treatment center” for four months of outpatient, at the expense of my brother's tech stocks. Perks of outpatient include mostly unmonitored apartments, unscheduled free-time, television, and after a few months, if you need the money like me, a job. The reclaimed territory seems precariously broad after a month of daily piss tests, standing in line for doled-out meds, and carefully prepared meals.
This girl, Giselle, a Treatment Center Success Story, has keys to all our apartments and comes through every morning to wake us up. She bangs around in our cupboards looking for contraband refined sugar (“mind-altering!”), caffeine (“habit-forming!”), and diuretics (“eating disorder!”). “Traitor!” Gina screams wildly, half-awake, tangled in her furry, fuchsia knitting project: a ten-by-three length that is undoubtedly the biggest scarf I've ever seen that she falls asleep every night working on, and which threatens to overtake her bed entirely. Gina is almost always in some stage of strangulation with the yarn, under a suffocating mound, tripping from it tangling in her legs.
Giselle, the “Gazelle” as we like to call her, on a bi-weekly basis confiscates Gina's jellybeans hidden under the sink or the Herbal Cleanse tea packets mixed in with the chamomile. I don't really see how the candy and tea can be that bad for Gina's system considering that she takes twelve pills a day, this precarious combination designed to keep her from vibrating off into another dimension. Gina tells me that her medicines have nearly the same effect that her meth habit had; they make her feel “normal,” just in a slightly different way than the street drugs, a slightly different way than the recipes that included lantern fuel and lye. On her meds, Gina is smooth as glass. Her skin is white and cool and pocked like dough, a corpse with pancake make-up. At times, I wish she would start vibrating again, shatter out of the stillness that is silently smoothed over her. Instead of breaking, though, she knits. Booties and coverlets have turned into full-on baby unitards and king sized comforters. You could say it’s her new addiction.
Gina awakes each morning with a groan and the chalk of a pill. For me, it's not so easy, and depression isn't a valid excuse for missing group, or for anything. I never sleep and am so tired all the time that I cry. I ache to sleep through the heat, through the incessant blue skies and white sunlight of Arizona high summer. My daytime delirium is embarrassing. I pinch the delicate skin behind my elbows and on the back of my neck to stay awake. Instead, I go limp, my head flopping down and then whiplashing back up into a dazed, funhouse-like consciousness. When I try to explain this all to my therapist, she asks brightly, “Why don't we try you on some new meds?” All I want is to tell her how much I hate her.
Most nights when I'm awake, I can find Amp smoking outside on a cement slab that borders the courtyard we all share. It'll be three, four a.m., and she's all leaned back in one of the cheap white patio chairs, swinging her bare feet, and puffing away on a cigarette. Amp came in three weeks after me, and I could tell immediately that she wasn't your run-of-the-mill addict. She crutched her way into our apartment the first night with a big hospital boot on one foot and a broken sandal on the other which revealed three missing toes. Her blonde hair was hair-sprayed into a kind of helmet, and her Pepto-pink lipstick was smeared faintly on her front teeth. She was older, thirty-five maybe, and had permanently hunched shoulders.
“What are you here for?” I asked, thinking that she got beat up by a husband or boyfriend. I looked over at the other ten women draped on the couch, the floor, in random easy chairs. We were watching our nightly installment of a trashy dating show that the sex-addicts are strictly banned from. Gina was trying to balance half a gallon of Rocky Road on the couch arm, scooping spoonfuls of the contraband stuff in between purl one, knit two.
Let's just get this out of the way, I was thinking, half the women's eyes on me, half on Amp, Gina glued to the TV. Let's just get this out of the way before introductions and all the other disgustingly nice stuff people usually clutter conversation with. I mean, that's all we really wanted to know: what on earth could have driven you to this place? We were all transfixed with every new, ruined girl who came to the Center.
“I cut my foot off,” she said, wiggling her toes, the few she had left on her un-booted foot.
“No shit!?” I said, grinning at her. She shrugged, winked, smiled.
“Yep, no shit,” she said, kicking her foot forward so that we could all get a good look at the blue boot, us a little confused since it seemed that her foot was safe inside. “The doctors sewed it back on . . . the bastards.” She smiled sweetly again. We didn't know what else to do, so we laughed, which is what we usually do when we hear crazy shit.
“Why would you do that?” I asked, abnormally unabashed. Already I felt like Amp was more authentic than the whole place combined, her brazen self-destruction something to unapologetically and horrifically show, so different than the secrets we hid beneath sleeves or skin.
“It's my thing,” she said. “It's what I do.” She pulled this line off like we should all know about the career of Self-Amputation. She shifted her weight to the boot, and stuck out her other sandaled foot with the two lonely toes. “It's why I'm here,” she finished, sitting down in the nearest overstuffed recliner. “Now, who's got a cigarette?”
We found out that night that her sister, who she had lived with in Downers Grove, Illinois, had enough after Amp successfully severed her foot in the living room with a sanitized and evidently exceedingly sharp hack saw, right below the tourniquet tied around her shin, while an I Love Lucy re-run flickered on late night TV in front of her. I would have been pissed too, panicked and thinking that I had to figure out how to get rid of a foot. It's not like you can just throw that shit in the trash, especially if it's presented to you as a gift—nicely wrapped and nestled in a tissue-papered bed—which is how her sister found it. Cutting your foot off is one thing, but wrapping it up is another. That's just crazy.
“The pieces, the things I cut off,” Amp explained. “They just felt like too much body, too much weight.” Me and Nicole, the former stripper turned born-again heroin addict, nodded; we knew about weight, about heaviness so pressing that you wound up near the center of the earth from the force of it all. “I wanted to give this part of me away. Officially. For good. Say goodbye to it and make it pretty, make it a gift.” We were silent, just the four of us left in the room - me, Amp, Gina and Nicole. The show was on commercial break. Amp shook her head, examined the palms of her hands. “It doesn't really make sense, but it's the only way I know how to get rid of this,” she said, making the gesture as if clutching a grapefruit, and positioning it right at her belly button.
“The hate,” Nicole said quietly. “That's where I put all the hate.” We all stared blankly at a shampoo commercial on mute, a spindly model twirling on the beach. I got this vision of Amp's three missing toes, the three wise men, each in his own red-ribboned white box, resting peacefully under a Christmas tree. That image kept me awake that night, long after Gina started up with her reverberating snores, me thinking about bloody bits of life, wrapped and hidden, made to look nice, given away.
We nicknamed her Amp after that night, short for Amputee Wannabe, which she seems to like. She and I, the insomniacs, get real close nights sitting outside. We smoke Marlboros, read Cosmo by flashlight, talk. She says she really wants to chop off her foot—no kidding. I say I really want my boyfriend back—no kidding. On the Fastest Way to Fuck Up Your Life Again continuum, our urges don't seem all that far apart.
She took off her boot one of the first nights and showed me her stitched anklet that looked like something you could unzip if you could just find the tab to pull.
She said, “My sister came out after I did it and was like, 'You ruined the carpet!'. And I hadn't even thought of that, and I looked down, and she was right—I had ruined the carpet, and that's when I passed out.”
Instead of saying Holy Shit! or Who cares about the carpet!? or Why did you gift wrap it?, I said, “You must have lost a lot of blood by then.”
She said, “Yeah, you know. But it felt good, getting rid of it. It always felt like something that I didn't need.”
I showed her my scars on my wrists and behind my elbows, healed holes that I think make me look a little like a robot with pale ports for plugging in to the world.
I said, “He came to see me in the hospital after I did it, and . . .” I stopped and shook my head since it made him look like a bad guy. “. . . he said, you know, kinda joking, that if I had really wanted to kill myself, I would have done it by cutting up my arm.” I made the motion like I was dragging the razor blade from wrist to elbow. “Not like how I did it, just the little cuts across.”
“What the fuck?” Amp said. She held my arm gently in her hand, rubbing the scar on my wrist with her thumb.
“He didn't mean it,” I said, and suddenly started to cry. “I knew him. He wasn't really like that.” My little scars started to itch.
“Tell me what happened,” Amp said. I thought about it for a few minutes, drawing my arm away from her hold. It's a story I'd never revealed to anyone. She lit a new cigarette and waited.
I sat there and thought for a while, watching the june bugs as they clumsily banged into the porch light and got caught in the thick spider web strung in the corner.
“This one time,” I said, turning to Amp. “I was alone in the apartment, and I started to smell burning plastic coming through the vents. An alarm went off somewhere in the building, and I ran over to the door, flung it open. And there, right in front of me, were these three enormous firemen. They had on bulky, orangish suits with reflective stripes around the arms and legs, dirty white helmets, thick rubber boots. One had an ax. Their faces were all sooty. Gorgeous. Amp, honest to god, they were the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. They were, like, seven feet tall. Ghosts. Or angels.”
“Yep,” Amp said, nodding, but I wasn't sure she got what I was saying. I tried to explain.
“It's like they had just been waiting there in front of the door, and they all smiled at me, these broad, angelic smiles. I was wearing my pajamas—I always wore my pajamas—and I asked them what had happened. One said a car had caught fire down in the parking garage under the building. He winked at me. The others kept smiling. And then they were gone, like they vanished.” I grabbed the cigarettes and shook one out of the cellophane.
“I was sad that they had gone without me,” I said, shivering from the cool night air and my newfound honesty. “I wanted them to take me, too. They were the first people that I'd talked to in about half a year without Marcus being around. I felt so . . . normal, for just that one moment, and had so much hope that there were still these good people out there, people who cared about other people, people who took care of us, who put out fires.” I paused to watch the june bugs as they drunkenly wove and knocked on the siding before landing all at once on the screen door. They hung there like dead pinto beans. My heart felt hardboiled, tight with anxiety, afraid that I was letting too much out, telling too much about how it had been, how Marcus had been.
“But then I started to get nervous, like, why had that guy winked at me?, and had I flirted with them?, and why had I gone to the door in my pajamas?—had I wanted them to see me half-naked? I started feeling guilty for wanting to leave, thinking how much this would hurt Marcus, and how I was an ungrateful girlfriend, and how Marcus was right about all the things that he said, and I started to cycle through all the things that Marcus had ever said to me, and I got sick to my stomach. I puked, I got in bed. I tried to act normal when Marcus came home, but he knew something was wrong, and finally he got it out of me that these guys had been by that day, and that I had been my normal, slutty, fucked-up self. I just wanted Marcus to be happy. I wanted to be someone else. I wanted to . . . disappear. Which, I guess, also explains how I got to these,” I said, holding up my wrists.
“It's like no matter what I did, I did it wrong. And the more that I thought about it, the more I fucked things up, so that's why I just stayed in bed most of the time. That's why Marcus was always with me. He did the talking. He took care of me.”
“Sounds like a reign of terror to me,” Amp said. “Sounds like a Grade A, primo asshole.”
“No,” I tried to explain. “He loved me. It was all for my own good. You don't know how fucked up I was.”
“It's a good thing you're here,” Amp said, stretching her arms up over her head. “You need to be here.”
“I need to be with him,” I said stubbornly, and Amp let out a Good Lord under her breath.
“It's a good thing you're here,” Amp repeated, stubbing out her cigarette. I told her it's a good thing she was here, too, and made her promise not to amputate anything.
Even though Amp is great company on the nights I'm awake, I would prefer to be asleep in my bed as opposed to out in the lawn chairs, all tweaked out. Gina, bumping into me sitting on the bathroom floor listening to Joni Mitchell and writing in my journal says, “We have to stop meeting like this,” and pulls out her little pill suitcase that she keeps under the bathroom sink. “You need some sleeping pills,” she announces, flipping through the rows with a memorized dexterity, selecting one of the orange prescription bottles with a “Bingo!”
It's 3:47 a.m. “Take two,” she says, emptying the little blue pills out in her pale hand. I take one with not enough water, and it sticks in my throat, the drying bitterness creeping down as I fall asleep. I wake up right around dawn, and on my way to the bathroom walk straight in the cheap closet doors, knocking one off its track and continuing to make a racket that would raise the dead if they were not in the throes of drug-induced sleep. The world is thick, belly-dancing walls, a sour ozone that slurps at the edges of reality. Much to my surprise, I actually wind up peeing in the toilet, a mound of fleshy porcelain that bobs beneath me, and start to panic when I slide right onto the floor like my ass is greased.
When my alarm goes off later, I still can't get up and have the imprint of the bath mat on my face. Gina tells me to call in sick before she steps over me to go to group, but when I finally do call in, I tell them all of it, the god's honest truth. I think I might die, that's how scared I am about not being able to wake up, not being able to walk.
They kick me out the next day for relapsing, even though they had told me from the start that I was addicted to my ex-boyfriend, not pills. I finally tell my therapist that I hate her, and I realize that she had been right all along: honesty feels great! Gina, who evidently can handle enough sleeping pills to tranquilize Black Beauty, remains at the Center. I have to go to a halfway house downtown for the next three days. They say it's to “sober up.” I feel better reminding myself that they're all idiots.
The halfway house is nice, actually—a Victorian monstrosity resembling something quaint and homey like a gingerbread house—until you get inside and meet the women. One of them I know from my treatment center. She's out now, and pregnant. I also know for a fact from the gossip around the recovery circuit that she is still smoking crack, just like she had been in treatment. She gives me a hug when I walk up the front steps, singeing my hair with the glowing cherry of her cigarette and saying sweet things, pressing her bulging belly into my concave stomach. With bodies that yin and yang, together, we're almost whole. Almost.
Another lady shows me her arms and feet that look like chipped beef they are burned so badly. She has this condition where the burns happen on their own, no fire. She is one of those True Medical Mysteries. “I'm going to the Mayo next week. No one, I mean, no one, can tell me what's wrong and . . .” she lets out a melodramatic, exasperated sigh, flailing about her burnt hands with a garish diamond ring sliding back and forth on her finger. “. . . I just don't know when this will end. I mean, look at me.” She cringes, smoothes her blond bob behind her ears sprouting two, moth-ball-esque pearls, and says sadly, “I can't go home like this.”
There are moms and daughters and housewives, ordinary people all fucked up. Even though they are there at the halfway house, each is someone to somebody. Otherwise, who would be paying three thousand dollars a month for rent? It's the saddest place on earth next to home, and it costs my brother an extra hundred bucks a night to boot. I have to call him and tell him myself, and really, how do you explain that?
The only good thing about the halfway house is that it's downtown, and I can walk to work at the restaurant where I waitress instead of taking a cab. Usually, the treatment center doesn't let you work while you're still there, but they trust me and know that my family isn't rich. We’re all on No Male Contact which means no talking to guys at our daily twelve-step meetings or even the cabbies who drive us around town. Unfortunately, I know that Stacie C. routinely fucks James, the cabbie with a mullet and thick, outdated glasses. Without fail he drawls Hey Bablou, where to? when I get in the car. Him and Stacie C. getting it on is the grossest thing imaginable, not to mention her ticket out of the Center. Me though, they don't worry about me since I'm obsessed with Marcus. They let me out into the wild.
I walk back and forth from the halfway house to the restaurant where I work each of the three days, and always make sure to bring food back with me so that I won't have to use the kitchen. I'm trying to avoid the woman with glassy black eyes who incessantly scrubs the sink and counters with bleach and paper towels. I feel bad for her. The first day there she tells me that she has eight kids and a husband at home, and that she always wears those yellow rubber dishwashing gloves. She won't take them off. I imagine her wearing them all day while the kids are at school, while she watches Oprah or does yard work, while she makes dinner, or makes love. She tells me that she's been through six treatment centers, all for unnatural attachments to “handy household helpers,” and that every center is bullshit.
“I can't wait to get back to Helen's,” I say, which is the truth. I'm getting scared that if I stay for any amount of time in this halfway house, the Crazy will start to rub off on me. She just stares at me, scratching her head with a gloved finger and emitting an alarming, high-pitched moan from the back of her throat. Then she gets back to cleaning.
I'm embarrassed that I’m in the halfway house, working as a waitress, and living in a small town in the middle of the desert. I don't want anyone at work to know about me. The other servers know that I don't want to work in the bar since I don't drink, which is already a little weird. I make sure to always wear long sleeves to cover up the other oddities.
The best part about waitressing is this one guy, Nate, who is part Filipino and a waiter. He is all over sweet—licorice hair, caramel skin, raspberry lips. He knows about me and the treatment center, and still talks to me like I'm normal, even smiles at me when he walks in the back door with his apron slung over one of his broad shoulders. When I come in mornings after no sleep, he yells Buongiorno, Principessa!, which helps. We discuss the History Channel while setting tables and sing Cat Stevens' songs while cleaning up at night. It’s almost more than I can bear, him being so wonderful, and me wanting to reach out and touch the tip of his chiseled cheekbone, then his ripened lips, then eyelashes wispy like spun sugar. When Nate grins at me, it’s impossible not to smile back, with all that whiteness and a hint of canine at the edges. He is the only drug that works.
Nate has this girlfriend who is a foot taller than him, blond, and a model, which does not take away from the fact that I love him. My therapist makes me write love notes to Nate, and then burn them.
I'm sad and confused and guilty because I miss Marcus, and like Nate, and feel that this is betraying Marcus in the worst way. It's 4:32 a.m. on Thursday in the halfway house kitchen, and I find myself cutting the inside of my leg with a paring knife. Before I came to the Center, I hadn't heard of people “cutting” themselves—cutting as in the alternative to suicide, slicing merely for sport. Girls with angry red railroad ties and hairline slivers in pick-up stick patterns, cuts weeping and scabbing like beat-up kids. The blade is too dull from cutting carrots and chicken breasts and other things for dinner, so I have to press hard into the soft pinkness. It hurts, and I stop crying. It seems to work.
My final day at the halfway house I call Amp and tell her to get the lawn chair ready for my return.
“The women here are fucking crazy,” I say.
“What do you think we are?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “Really. It's not like the Center. These women are supposed to be better than us, you know, they're in a halfway house. They're supposed to be better. They've been through the in-patient, the outpatient, the post-out-patient, the re-entry counseling groups. They're not supposed to be pregnant and smoking crack, burned without explanation, permanently wearing dishwashing gloves.”
“That's a funny name, halfway house,'” Amp says. “I wonder . . . 'halfway' to where?” We pause, and I can't think of any smartass comeback, don't want to imagine where we all could possibly be heading with this as the sorry halfway point on the journey.
“Sometimes I wonder if I’m supposed to be in treatment at all,” I say, lighting a cigarette and sucking in deeply, “Is a treatment center, or this halfway house, really a place to get happy?”
“Maybe your parents should have spent the money on a year at Disneyland,” Amp says. Fucking Amp.
Family week starts next Monday, and I talked with my mom today on the phone. In between giving her directions from the airport to the Center, and her trying to coax me to talk with my father, she tells me that they put Cookie to sleep.
“Ok, stop,” I say or else my mom will just move on to another topic, like asking if what they say about Arizona and “layers” is true, or whether she can just bring normal, “uni-layer” outfits.
Cookie was my first cat from the third grade. I loved that cat. We weren't allowed to have animals in the house, but I would sneak her in on nights when I couldn't sleep, and she would crawl under the covers and curl in tight next to my stomach, her warm, soft rhythmic purr lulling me to sleep. This nighttime sneak ended when my dad found petrified cat poop under the guest bed. He rolled up the closest thing he could find—one of the outdated Time magazines laying on the bed stand—found the cat and gave it a good knock, and then found me, too.
“She would sit in the middle of the driveway and not move when we drove in,” my mom says. “We think that she was deaf.”
I am barely able to speak. I say, “That's not a good reason to put a cat to sleep.”
“We would have to get out of the car and move her,” she says. “Pick her up and move her.”
“Why didn't you ask me? She was my cat.”
I cup her silence in my ear, listening to the nothingness between us drawn out over three thousand miles of fiber optics. I think that my mom won't speak again until she clears her throat and says, “We didn't know she was your cat.”
That these parents one night during an act of supposed love created me from the innermost parts of themselves is unfathomable. I hang up and get in bed at 4:46 p.m., wondering how, in my twenty-one years of life, we have not understood each other even for one moment. I stay in bed though the local news, through dinner, through the night, and get at least two good hours of sleep before going to group the next morning where they announce, officially, I am “recovering.” Just two more weeks to go, but I still can't stop crying because I want to be with Marcus, I want my cat to be alive, I want my stupid parents to understand.
Since it's almost time for me to leave the Center for good, this means it's also time to tell my family all the horrible things that I've thought, but never actually planned on saying. My therapist says “this is the only way I'll heal.”
My family comes from Pennsylvania, and we go out for lunch on the first day at the place on Main Street with whole chickens impaled on the rotisserie machine in the front window, as if this is appetizing. My brother orders beer after I have asked everyone not to drink for the time that they are here. It's Protocol. My dad is silent even though this is his first chance in months to talk to me. My sister orders one of those chickens in the window and devotes herself to dismembering and eating the whole thing.
My mom asks, “Shouldn't you get something for finishing the program, like a parting gift? Do they give you anything when you finish? You know, like a pin or book or certificate?” She spears a forkful of caesar salad and jams it in her mouth, leaving a pathetic piece of parmesan hanging on her chin.
I'm annoyed and disgusted. I say, “You mean, like a t-shirt that says, 'I slit my wrists, and all I got was this shitty t-shirt'?” My sister stops in mid-rip of a strip of chicken thigh, and my dad and brother look up from their food. I wonder why it's such a shocker, me stating the obvious, pointing out the maypole tethers of grief choking us as we spin around and around.
Something odd happens. My mom, she's wiggling beside me. Her shoulders hop up and down and her eyes are squeezed tight with tears popping out the sides. She sucks in little gulps of air like daggers. We can't take our eyes off her—still holding her fork, her pearly crooked teeth tightened in a sharp smile, and her whole finch-like frame twitching. She snorts, and drool leaks out her mouth. We all just watch, and I sort of laugh-smile and raise my eyebrows thinking that this might be funny.
“Jesus, mom. You're drooling,” I say, and she wipes at her mouth. She can't talk, and holds her stomach. It must hurt. Awkward with silence, we are trapped in the moment wondering when it will end, wondering if what I've said is funny or sad, if mom is laughing or crying.
When she finally comes up for air, we all breathe, too. She says, “. . . and all I got . . . this t-shirt . . .” trailing off into a flurry of hysterical giggles. My sister starts choking on laughter and meat. My dad thumps her back and holds his own smiling head in his other hand. My brother takes a swig of beer, grinning like a twelve-year-old. My mom collapses with laughter, collapses into my hug, collapses. We howl with it until we're done, and then my dad pays the bill.
I'm doing my side work—cutting lemons, stuffing bread in the warmer, stacking glasses—and it's a good day so far. I slept last night, and Nate is on my shift this morning. We've been concocting animal alter egos for all the servers, like Mickey the Mongoose, Cosmo the Crustacean, and so on. We're having trouble with the “N” for Nate, and all we can come up with is New England Pointer.
It's pre-nine a.m., and I'm already laughing, which never happens without Nate. Me and Nate set up the dining room with chairs and make sure all the salt and peppers are full. Our sections get posted, and it turns out I have the crappy two-tops that line a lonely hallway-type room at the back of the restaurant. The whole room is a big, glass box with plants hanging the length of it in an effort at shade. It’s the hottest part of the restaurant, next to the cook line.
“I'll give you some of my tables,” he says.
“You don't have to do that,” I say, my heart rate picking up and throat going dry.
“I know,” he says, walking away. “But I will.”
I get the first table of the day which is a drag since it's a one-top, and also since the early birds don't order much and never tip well. I adjust my forever falling-off apron as I walk along the empty tables. Looking up from about ten feet away, the thick swag of reddish hair and slouched-over posture of the guy at my table makes something stir down in my stomach. All of a sudden it dawns on me—the beat-up backpack, the tattered brown belt, the lopsided bend of his fingers. I stop behind him and go numb. “Hi Marcus,” I say, more quietly than I would have liked. All my breath is caught in that grapefruit-sized ball in my stomach. He swivels in his chair, tossing his elbow over the back.
“Hey,” he says. “Hi, baby.” My breakfast boils up into my throat. I feel dirty from the way he calls me baby.
“What are you doing here?” I ask, my pen and pad hanging limply at my sides. I notice the crusty feeling of my eyes, and that one of my shoes is coming untied.
“You're so pissed at me, aren't you?” he says, not so much asking as telling me that I'm pissed. This is Marcus' favorite technique—ignoring my questions, and then interrogating me as if I were a dangerous felon. “Come on, admit it. You're pissed. I can tell just by looking at you.”
“Actually, I'm not,” I say. “I don't understand what you're trying to say.” From his vantage point, I think that I must look like the most un-pissed person in town. My hair is in braids that flop in front of my shoulders, sweat is steadily beginning to show through on the front of my shirt, and my pants are too short. I can't breathe deeply enough to fill my lungs with air. I don't feel angry; I feel deflated. I feel like this whole situation is phenomenally unfair.
“Do you want something to drink?” I ask, since it’s my job, and hand him a menu. “Water?”
“Don't you think that shirt's a little tight?” he asks, again ignoring my question as he eyes the crumpled white shirt, unbuttoned one button lower than I usually wear it since I'm working with Nate. I look down at the shirt—replete with shiny grease spots and faint salad dressing stains—that has suddenly transformed into The Sluttiest Shirt Known to Mankind, except instead of agreeing with him, I say, “No, Marcus. I don't think it's too tight.” I surprise myself with this response. He squints his eyes and raises the corners of his mouth in a grimace. I look at him sitting there, smug and angry, as usual. I think about what Amp said about Marcus, how he’s a “Grade A asshole,” and I think this may be the truest thing I’ve heard in the last five months of psycho-babble bullshit.
“What have they been telling you at that place?” he asks, referring to Helen's. "And have you been smoking? You've been smoking, haven't you?" Backlit by the glare from the desert sun, Marcus is getting harder to make out. I can barely see his face, and hear Nate whistling Wild World by Cat Stevens down the hallway. There is simply nothing to say to him, no way to respond anymore. I'm tired. I stare at him and commit his eyes to memory, the outline of his body, the way his hair falls into his face. This is what I will keep. This is what I will remember.
“Water,” he says, touching my hip with the palm of his hand, turning soft. “Yeah, baby. That would be great.” I pull away from his hand, and walk to the servers’ station. As I fill the cup with extra ice—the way Marcus likes it—I can’t control the shaking in my hands. I remember the freezer full of frozen water bottles, the way Marcus would let them slowly melt in various locations around the apartment, the way my teeth cracked painfully when the ice-cold water ran over them. In the time that it takes to load a breadbasket and get the water, I fast-forward-flip through that year with Marcus, every corner of the apartment, every kiss, every fight; it’s all right there again in all its Post-traumatic Technicolor glory.
On the way back to the table, bread and water in hand, I make a turn out the back door instead of heading to his table. The air is cool and the day is splashed over already with blinding sunlight. I walk over to the dumpster, where behind us servers sit on plastic crates to smoke on our breaks. The shady space out back smells of ocean air, rotten fish and greens, dust. I throw it all away—the glass of icy water, the ratty basket of warm bread. It's cool in the shade, and my brain is blessedly blank. I feel calm. I wish that I had a cigarette.
After a few minutes, I see the back door swing open, fear that it's Marcus and see that it's Nate, his shoulders framed by the doorway. He puts his hand over his eyes to shade the glare, sees me sitting there, walks over.
"You're going to have a disgruntled customer," he says, sitting next to me and offering a smoke.
“Its my fucking ex-boyfriend,” I say. I take the cigarette, and he lights it for me. We pass it back and forth. I feel the dampness of his lips on the butt.
“You want that I should kick his ass?” Nate asks after a long period of silence. He says this in a New York accent. More seriously, he repeats, “I'll kick his dirty ass.”
“No,” I say, smiling, sucking in a deep drag of smoke. I blow it out, watch as it twirls in the sun, parts, disappears. “No, I'll be alright.”
I get a call from Amp one week to the day that I'm supposed to leave the Center. She's in the hospital, having sawed off two more toes that the doctors just can't sew back on. She was kicked out of the Center for relapsing into Self-Destructive Behavior, and also because if she keeps up the cutting, their liability insurance will skyrocket.
“I axed two little piggies,” she says happily, like she's telling me she got a haircut or a new dress. “The one that went to market, and the one that stayed home!” I can't keep from laughing. The whole thing is too absurd. Let her chop the damn things off, I think. Let her get rid of her foot if that's what makes her feel better.
“So you're going back to Illinois?” I ask, hesitantly.
“Lady,” she says. “I'll be around.” This makes me smile. “I sent you a present,” she adds.
“I can't wait,” I say.
Three days later I get a refrigerated package and the return label has From: AMP neatly printed on it. Gina yells from the couch, “What's that?” and I look into the living room. Some talk show's on the TV, and it's make-over day—fat ladies with dye jobs and waifish, young mothers in sassy heels. Gina's knitting project is piled in the corner, our very own fuchsia Christmas tree reaching halfway to the ceiling and sprouting two knitting needles at the top. Spread out, the thing's grown as large as a tent, or a small parachute. “I dunno,” I answer. “Probably some meds.” I lie because I don't want her snooping and ruining the moment.
I open the box tenderly, slowly peeling the tape back. I pull out a smaller gift box and a note card flutters out and alights on my thigh. I unfold the two flaps overlapped inward like wings. It says: Life is sweet and so are you. Alter your mind daily. Watch out for gazelles. Love you always — Amp. My heart thumps in its bone cage as I work the top of the box off. Nestled in feather-white tissue paper are six of the most exquisite truffles.
I stand there all alone in the kitchen holding the boxful of otherworldly treats. I think of Amp in front of the TV, smoking, minus one foot and feeling more whole. I think of Filipino Nate, imagine a red birthmark in the shape of a small island country dotting his chest, imagine pressing my own against it, cool and naked. I think of Gina falling through the sky with a glorious, Rhode Island-sized, knit parachute gently guiding her to the ground. I imagine living in a real house again, and sleeping late.
I eat the whole box of chocolates in one sitting—dark bitter-sweetness driving though my veins like so many moments of grasped joy. I eat the whole box quickly, before they can take it away from me.