Thursday, March 10, 2011

Chapter 1 ~~ 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, exactly as she told it to me, without concern about whether her memory is accurate, or if the dangly earring he wore to the fire circle should symbolize mental illness or a mystical connection to the unseen forces that shift beneath our world.

“It all started in April,” Jo began, tilting her head to the ceiling to recall it, “when Eddy instant messaged me that he had just taken psilocybin, methylenedioxy, methamphetamine…and caffeine.”

“Do you mind if I take notes?” I interrupted.

“What for?” she laughed. “Are you going to write a book?’

“Could be.”

“Do you mind if I smoke?” she countered, fixing me with an impetuous look. She drew a pack out of her purse and began tapping it against the side of her hand.

“Smoke?" I was flummoxed. "But doesn’t your doctor…?”

“Pshst,” she scowled. “What do you think?”

I hesitated for a moment before rummaging around in my desk and locating my old ashtray, putting it down carefully on the table by her chair. "Your wish is my command," I bowed slightly. “As long as we're breaking the rules, I might as well offer you a drink,” I continued, sliding open a paneled door in the side wall to reveal the bar hidden behind it.

“Wow. A wet bar! When was this place built?" She raised her eyebrows. "Do you often drink with your clients?”

“No. But you're special.”

"Yes, I am." She rewarded me with a smile. “But I better not have one now, thank you. Maybe later.” She lit her cigarette deliberately, took a long drag, exhaled it, and picked a stray strand of tobacco off her lip before continuing. I settled back in my chair.

“I remember that he wrote, ‘I’m ecstatic.’ That turned out later to be a pun, because after frantically messaging back and forth, he told me that methylenedioxy and methamphetamine are the ingredients of the drug Ecstasy.” She gave a little huff and tossed her head.

“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 wouldn’t dream of telling their parents what we are doing.’” She frowned.

“But as it turned out, I was like other mothers. I scolded. I complained. I was angry and afraid. I criticized him continually until he signed off of Instant Messenger, ending our communication for the night. 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. I didn’t manage to protect or save him.” She tapped her foot rapidly against the leg of my antique clamshell chair.

“So maybe I wasn't like the other mothers, after all.”


Three months after the phone call, at Tall Trees Family Camp⎯a place she'd been bringing her children for 10 years⎯her friend Karen expressed sympathy over events. “I’m so sorry this is happening to you,” Karen said, leaning in close to convey her sincerity, extending a hand to cover Jo’s. “I hope you are getting help for yourself.”

That irked her.

"But why does the notion of getting help upset you?" I interrupted.

"It makes it sound like I'm the one who is ill."

Jo described the camp scene in detail. The dining hall was full of close to 130 dusty and tangled people, talking and laughing over dinner, clattering their plastic plates, eating at heavy, huge 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. Her small group of women sat together at one end of the table closest to the front door: Her sisters Jean and Jane were there, her friend Karen, and Jen, a camper she’d seen every summer for years, but didn’t still know very well. All eyes were on Jo until Karen’s "camp boyfriend" Steve—who was also the head cook—came over 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 next to 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 vinaigrette. 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?” she asked Karen, indicating a small, red, empty container. “Yes,” Karen nodded. “This one?…This one?” lifting up each of the tiny receptacles arrayed around Karen’s plate like a small brigade. Karen nodded each time, a smile sneaking behind her lips. “She must be planning to drink some of every beverage being served tonight,” Jo thought, “or else she has a case of wine stashed beneath her seat.”

“Well, maybe I can snag this one for myself” Jo said aloud, reaching down the table into another social group to grab a cup when no one was looking. She 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 with uncharacteristic animation. “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,” Jen beamed.

Jo was happy to hear it, but not relieved, because she knew Eddy could seem fine for a few minutes, to strangers, whom he was more interested in talking to lately than friends, since 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 9 years old. “He seemed pretty out of it. I asked whether he was coming to Labor Day Camp and he said he hoped so, if he wasn’t in jail.”

Steve turned to look at Jo with concern, his bright blue eyes peering through thick, wire-rimmed glasses. His eyes were too large, floating behind their thick lenses; the rough folds of his face sprouted 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. So I started telling him about some of the horrible things I’ve seen in jail.” Steve worked as a guard at Solano State Prison. “Then he asked me why I didn’t do something about them. But that’s like asking a bank teller to do something about capitalism,” Steve said irritably. “What am I supposed to do?”

Jo shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. There was nothing he could do.
“What drug is Eddy taking?” Steve probed her. “Do you know?”

She took a moment to answer. Everyone looked at her 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 Jo’s 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.”

Jo felt a pain in her tender chest as she 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 her own, when she's afraid.

Eddy wasn’t in the dining hall that night. He hadn’t been coming to meals since day one. He’d told her, the few times she’d run into him since they’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 she’d gone into town to buy him. (Karen had done the same.) Perhaps he was huddling alone by the hammock he’d strung between two trees above the creek, chasing random thoughts around in his brain. Or perhaps he was sitting near the campfire being stoked for the sweat lodge, deliberately worrying the other teens with his circular, unanswerable questions; or perhaps he was seeking out the company of a stranger, as he had the month before in Santa Cruz, walking up to random dwellings 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 brought her attention back to the table. She choked down a laugh. “Was that supposed to reassure me?” she wondered. “Ten or 20 years?” She wasn’t sure she could 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 weeks, unless you counted the marijuana he was undoubtedly smoking with the cadre of potheads that always came to camp, and still his brain wasn’t working normally. Steve didn’t know that. And Steve didn’t know about her schizophrenic cousin, who had committed suicide by jumping from a water tower at a mental institution when he was 25; about her father, whose crazy bipolar binges sometimes delighted and sometimes terrified her as a child, but always embittered her mother, who died of breast cancer when she was just 55; or even about the way she feels when walking her 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 her heart always beats too quickly, and she avoids looking down into the traffic because of a churning in her stomach, a kind of hungry longing.

“It isn’t just that I am afraid of tripping, or being pushed,” she paused in her narrative to address me. “I’m also afraid that I might suddenly be overwhelmed by an irresistible urge to jump.”

“So you have a strong death drive?” I prompted, two fingers resettling my spectacles on my nose.

“Not really. No.”

She turned for a moment to look out the window, tapping her middle knuckle on the wooden arm of the chair.

"After Steve’s description of meth addicts crapping themselves in prison, I didn’t feel hungry anymore," she continued her story, "so I stood up to take my dirty plate to the dishwashing station in the kitchen. Then Karen said it again. 'I’m so sorry this is happening to you.'

“But it wasn't happening to me,” Jo said with annoyance. “It was happening to him.”


~Read a new chapter here every Thursday.


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