Thursday, January 19, 2012

Chapter One ~ Longing

'Personally,’ he said, ‘my great ambition is to count all this' —he waved vaguely at the treasure around him— 'and possibly sort it into piles.'”
--The dragon in John Gardner’s Grendel

1. Longing

I’m going to try to set this down faithfully, without concern about whether what I write is literature, or if the dangly earring he wore from one unpierced ear at the fire circle should symbolize latent homosexuality or a mystical connection to the unseen forces that shift beneath our world.

The beginning, I suppose, was the night Eddy instant messaged me that he had just taken psilocybin, caffeine, methylenedioxy, and methamphetamine. “I am ecstatic,” he wrote. It turned out later to be a pun, because after much frantic messaging back and forth, he revealed that methylenedioxy and methamphetamine are the ingredients of the drug Ecstasy. I expressed alarm, of course, and concern. I asked why he was doing two very powerful drugs at the same time. I warned him about unpredictable interactions. And I think now that if he could have predicted what was going happen next, he wouldn’t have taken Ecstasy and magic mushrooms together, or separately.

Then again, perhaps he would.

That’s the source of my anger, the acrid anger that underpins my sadness about my son. Even knowing the path they would set him on, even knowing that he would lose his backpack, his passport, his driver’s license, his cell phone, his money, his place to live, his ability to communicate, his coveted chance to go to UC Berkeley, his personality, and his mind—even knowing all that, he might still have taken those drugs, driven by a deep curiosity, a dissatisfaction with the status quo, and that sense of invulnerability and longing for adventure that impels so many 18-year-old boys.

But, of course, he couldn’t predict the outcome. He couldn’t even accurately predict my reaction that night. “I’m so glad you aren’t like other mothers,” he typed. “My friends (was it Jean who first led him over the brink? Was it Carlos? Was it a stranger, some random drug user he met at College of San Mateo and brought back to the eco-commune to get high?) wouldn’t dream of telling their parents what we are doing.”

As it turned out, I was like other mothers after all. I scolded. I complained. I was angry and afraid. I criticized him continually until he signed off of Instant Messenger, ending our communication. But I didn’t do anything more. I didn’t rush to his apartment. I didn’t call the police. I didn’t insist he enroll in a drug treatment program, or move back home with us. I didn’t manage to protect or save him. So perhaps I was unlike other parents, after all.


“I’m so sorry this is happening to you.” Karen said three months later, leaning a little closer to convey her sincerity, extending a hand to cover mine. “I hope you are getting help for yourself.”

We were in the dining hall at Mendocino Family Camp. The room was full of close to 130 dusty and tangled people, talking and laughing over dinner, clattering their plastic plates, eating at huge, heavy wooden picnic tables with bulky benches to match. There were parents with children, single mothers with babies, packs of teenagers, corps of adults, sisters, brothers, lovers, friends. Our small group of women sat together at the end of the table closest to the front door: my sisters Jean andJane were there, my friend Karen, and Jen, a woman I’d seen every summer at camp for years, but still didn’t know very well. All eyes were upon me until Karen’s “camp boyfriend” Steve came up with a plate of food and squeezed in next to her on the bench.

The table was littered with the implements of dinner: white and tan plates of industrial-strength plastic, shiny silverware, little red plastic cups, and big, clear serving bowls full of food. There was beef stew in thick brown gravy, steaming corn bread and bowls of butter mixed with honey to spread on top, crisp green salad with fresh purple beets. Plastic pitchers of water, cranberry juice, and iced tea were scattered about, along with squeeze bottles of three kinds of homemade salad dressing: bleu cheese, ginger sesame, balsamic vinagrette. Besides all this bounty, vegans and vegetarians could go into the kitchen to get servings of nut loaf and vegetable stew. The camp was renowned for its food.

“Is this your cup?” I asked Karen, indicating a small, red, empty container. “Yes,” she nodded. “This one?…This one?...” lifting up each of the tiny receptacles arrayed around her plate like a small brigade. She nodded each time, a smile sneaking behind her lips. She must be planning to drink some of every beverage being served that night, or, more likely, had bottles of red and white wine stashed beneath her seat. “Well, maybe I can snag this one for myself,” I announced, reaching down the table into another social group to grab a cup when no one was looking. I filled it with water and settled back on the bench.

Jen, a woman who sometimes sat alone in the lodge reading before a small bank of lights aimed at her face in a therapy meant to alleviate depression, resumed the conversation. “I saw Eddy yesterday,” she said brightly. “I was just relaxing in the lodge, and he approached me. ‘Might I inquire what you are reading?’ he said. Very polite. I told him and we had a conversation of about two or three minutes. Frankly, I was flattered that he wanted to talk to me, since we hadn’t had much interaction in the past. Here was this good looking young man coming over to talk to me. He seemed fine to me,” she beamed.

I was glad Jen thought Eddy seemed fine, but not relieved, because I knew he could seem fine for a few minutes, to strangers, whom he was more interested in talking to lately than friends; friends were much quicker to notice the empty loop of his language, the strange connections, the pulpy bruise of his brain.

“I saw him in the shower yesterday,” said Steve, who had worked with Eddy in the kitchen every summer since he was nine years old. “He seemed pretty out of it.”

I nodded and cringed.

“I asked whether he was coming to Labor Day Camp and he said he hoped so, if he wasn’t in jail.”

Steve paused to look at me closely, his bright blue eyes piercing through thick, wire-rimmed glasses. His eyes were too large, floating behind their lenses; his face was sprouting white whiskers.

“I told him, ‘We better hope that doesn’t happen,’” Steve continued. “‘What makes you think you might be in jail?’ He was vague and didn’t really have an answer. Then I started telling him about some of the horrible things I’ve seen in jail.”

Steve works as a guard at the Solano State Prison, when he isn’t the camp cook. He used to be head chef at the landmark Nut Tree restaurant on Highway 80, just outside of Sacramento, which occupied a huge complex that included a souvenir store, a mini railroad for the children, and even an airport for small craft. But when the Nut Tree closed to make room for a shopping mall, he quit cooking and got a job in the biggest industry in California, which has the highest rate of incarceration per capita in the world--a statistic that does not comfort me.

“Then he asked me why I didn’t do something about it. But that’s like asking a bank teller to do something about capitalism,” Steve said a little defensively. “What am I supposed to do?”

I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders. There was nothing he could do.

“What drug is Eddy taking?” Steve asked next. “Do you know?”

I took a moment to answer. Everyone looked at me and waited. A red-headed woman who had been aligned with another group towards the center of the table leaned her left ear in closer to hear my response.

“Well, we don’t know, exactly. He keeps changing his story. But he told us a month ago that he’d been using crystal meth.”

“Oh no,” Steve’s voice dropped. “Unfortunately, that’s one of the worst. We get some crystal meth addicts in there, and all we can do is lock them in a cell by themselves. When they go through withdrawal, they defecate over themselves and everything else.”

I felt a sharp pain bloom in my still-tender chest as I thought of Eddy’s lovely 18-year-old body curled up on a cot in a prison cell. Brown eyes with a starburst of green around the pupils. Skin the color of red tea with cream. Slender fingers with wide, spatulate nails like his father’s, adorned near the cuticles with pale white half moons. Hands like that could catch babies in a labor room; fix delicate equipment with fine, shiny tools; or hold my own when I’m afraid. Wisps of facial hair, a recent addition to his gypsy good looks, seemed paintbrushed on in small patches near his earlobes and on the crest of his square but slightly lopsided chin.

Eddy wasn’t in the dining hall. He hadn’t been coming to meals all week. He’d told me, the few times I’d run into him since we’d arrived, that he couldn’t handle the crowds. That meant he was outside in the redwood forest, in the dark, barefoot since he’d forgotten to pack his shoes and lost the pair of flipflops I had gone into town to buy him. Perhaps he was huddling alone by the hammock he’d strung between two trees above the creek, chasing scary thoughts around in his brain; or perhaps he was sitting near the campfire being stoked for the sweat lodge, worrying the other teens with his circular, unanswerable questions; or perhaps he was seeking out the company of a stranger, as he had done a month ago in Santa Cruz, walking up to a random dwelling and asking whoever answered the door if he could come in and talk.

“Just remember, in 10 or 20 years he’ll get through it,” Steve was saying, bringing my attention back to the table. I choked down a laugh. Was that supposed to reassure me? Ten or 20 years? I wasn’t sure I would make it through the next day. “I did drugs when I was his age,” Steve went on. “I even had to move home with my parents for awhile. And look at me. I made it. Let’s face it, we all did.”

But Eddy hadn’t “done” drugs for at least a week, unless you counted the marijuana he was undoubtedly smoking with the cadre of potheads at camp, and still his brain wasn’t working normally. Steve didn’t know that. And Steve didn’t know about my schizophrenic cousin, who committed suicide by jumping from a water tower at a mental hospital when he was 25; about my father, whose crazy bipolar binges sometimes delighted and sometimes terrified me as a child, but always embittered my long-suffering mother, who checked out via breast cancer when she was just 55; or even about the way I feel when walking my bike on the Peninsula Avenue overpass in San Mateo—the one with too-narrow sidewalks and unreasonably short railings separating pedestrians from the traffic hurtling past on Highway 101 below—how my heart always beats too quickly, and I avoid looking down into the traffic because of a kind of hungry longing. It isn’t just that I am afraid of accidentally falling. I’m also afraid that I might suddenly be overtaken by an urge to jump.

Done with talking, chest aching, I stood to take my plate to the dishwashing station in the kitchen.

“I’m so sorry this is happening to you,” Karen said again as I left the table. I smiled my thanks to her, but felt annoyed. But this isn’t happening to me, I thought irritably. It’s happening to him.


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