Ruth Gila Berger
It is hard to look back into the hurricane, to recall ourselves as we spun. In it branches and leaves scream by, pieces of ripped wall, a clump of black sweaters and jeans, a thing-storm. A pickup crashed through a tree. In the quiet, we found a squirrel’s head crushed where the passenger side window pinned it down. I looked away to not see a severed ear. The stairwell of a house still stood. Debris, our lives. Our dining room table holds its place as if nothing happened. Minutes and hours, days, weeks, months and years. Christi and I sit and stare at each other, happy. We listen to music, talk and drink wine. We survey the myth of our beautiful wreckage.
For my first three decades, internal weather raged through my organs. I assign emotions animals, rattlesnakes in my blood, the unidentifiable bits of memory that haunt me, they are a noise I strive to quiet. So our hurricane, did it rage through only as destruction? Or did some strand of wind scrape, clean and prompt the scabs that now evidence we are healing? Healing is itchy; scars sometimes jangle metallic under the skin.
Christi had my favorite jeans repaired, with flannel patches, an improvement upon a dilapidated perfection. That she sought to revitalize a thing I loved, a thing I had given up on, I knew her arms would never drop from around me. That present, proof she had the imagination to construct and revise an ongoing story; freeze frame.
Sometimes emotions are a substance, concrete, rock, wire fencing. I dream my words become blocks, broken pieces of sidewalk that crush my teeth as I try to speak them. I feel that ghost of stone in the glitter asphalt of the street. As a child I turned to the dirty Hudson River to mirror me, the oil rainbows always a dangerous pretty.
Time is a hurricane; the past is always changing.
Like every winter in Minneapolis, it was cold and cold and cold. Outside, inside. The early night was a dry scratchy thing that adhered to our skin. Even when not balancing on ice, our movements were jerky. Two pairs of socks, tights or thermals, two shirts and a sweater, jackets that were either tight or swum on us, the sweat and freeze, sweat and refreeze staled all hopes of sex, sexuality. It is hard to bathe well when so lonely.
Christmas was a shimmy ahead, less than two weeks, when I saw a new doctor and arranged for my fourth menstruation related surgery. The first three had been to scrape endometriosis, then remove fibroids. This one was to do both. The procedure was set to be laparoscopic unless they needed to open me. I pictured the fibroids like Pac Man devouring my ovaries. Despite a hormone shot meant to curtail it, my epic period continued. Cramps doubled me. The day before surgery Christi picked me up at work. When I reached her door I jackknifed over; Christi rolled down the window, I grabbed hold, hauled myself up and got in. The window whined on its tracks closing. We kissed and I sat back, arms crossed, pressed hard and low against my belly. The first seconds she drove Christi hunched over the wheel, a gargoyle breathing heavily. Every so often she turned to me, a strange glare on her face. The highway was a throat with thrush; on the banks dark oil-flecked snow covered everything. As we reached the rush-hour cluster-fuck ahead of our exist, Christi broke. Her voice was hard, a nearly strangled shouting.
“Why am I always the fuck up?” she yelled. “And you the good one. Why does it have to be me? You should fuck up for a change.”
My mouth was open. “The good one? What are you talking about? You think I’m happy the way things are? Are you kidding? Love does not solve everything, okay? I want it to. But we’ve hit a level of bullshit I just can’t take.”
“You should fuck up this time,” Christi said.
The car ahead of us had a smiley face wiped in the grime on its window, the command “wash me” under it.
“What do you want from me?” I asked. “That I strike out, hurt you, is that it?”
Stopped behind a string of break lights, Christi pushed on.
“How would you hurt me?”
I flailed my arms, leaned forward, the seatbelt jerked me back.
“I don’t know. Have an affair,” I said.
“You have someone in mind,” Christi said, not a question.
“No,” I swallowed my yelling. “Ohmygod this is a ridiculous fucking conversation. No, I don’t have someone in mind. Why are you fighting with me?”
Out of the car, I slammed the door. It disobeyed.
“You know what? Don’t answer. Just leave me be. Okay?” I said.
In the kitchen we listed in our raging wind. Neither of us removed our jackets. Christi left and I sat sweating, unable to change my layered situation, mouthing the words, “I have an operation at five tomorrow morning.”
Hours later, home and sheepish, Christi sat on the bed, rubbing my feet.
“I’m sorry honey, maybe I’m just freaked out you’re having this surgery,” she told me.
Five years later I told my therapist how when he met us, for a stretch our second year, Christi had been a major ass to me, he said “congratulations, I’ve been waiting years for you to say so.”
To acknowledge how at any given point I would have not been crazy to tell her to leave, leave, leave. He smiled when I told him how there were moments, little decisions one of us made to reach across the bed, extend a hand and scrunch it under a shoulder, that small skin then warming our sleep. Or the absurdity of two cats fighting to be between us. All memory not caught in amber remains open to interpretation.
She makes me laugh, such a stupid thing to say. A slip of the tongue, an unexpected turn of phrase; Christi redefined vegetarian.
We were driving somewhere, not quite arguing about cholesterol and how I loved cheeseburgers too much, and cracklings were worse.
“It’s skin and I’m Buddhist,” Christi said. “I’m just saying we could possibly do less meat.”
“You just ate chicken,” I said.
“That’s just a quacking vegetable.”
“And fish?” I asked.
“Fish are soulless,” Christi said.
Her eyelashes caught the light. Don’t you see? There’s no answer to why I hung onto our relationship. Red flag, red flag, my reflection, a drug thing, any chronic illness should have kept me away.
Two people meet. Love at first sight? Bullshit, that’s a matter of attractive genetics, as in that person will breed good hair with me or, a trophy acquisition, money. The chance this new person was going to radically alter my perception of everything was slim to nonexistent. Most encounters are forgotten. A person’s inner beauty doesn’t scream in neon for every stranger to see.
I wouldn’t have recognized. Red flags, yellow flags. When I look back at my major life choices, they seem accidental. My best approximation is tadpoles. They jack out at random angles. They zig, zag, double back and go in circles. Some of them sink to the bottom, dead. At best they turn out to be frogs. Noisy, unaffectionate, unpredictable things. Beings. Choices have lives.
The morning of my surgery, the alarm came too early. I have never been a morning person. Neither has Christi. At five am the surgery waiting room was unfriendly and grey. Pitted ceiling tile and the light made everyone a puffy and green. Even Christi’s eyes were flat; her shoulders rounded doughy. We entered this world of the plodding weak and scanned the stiffly arranged furniture. Christi went in search of coffee and I sat and sulked, not being allowed any. After finding a cup, Christi settled next to me. Our movements created loud angles as we jostled against each other, harsh, hard. The edge of the chair pushed into my ribs or hurt my neck as I tried to arrange myself wrapped around Christi into something resembling affection. The couple who was about to sit down by us stopped cold, eyes widened; they hurried across the room, far away as they could get.
“Booga-booga, lesbians!” I hissed. “Better run away. It’s catching. Birkenstocks, flannel, bad haircuts.”
“Ssh,” Christi scolded me.
But she was laughing. I curled up until a nurse called my name. The pre-op room had a hospital gown and footies in plastic on the bed.
“Awesome,” I mouthed to Christi. “Footies. I just threw my last ones away.”
I put on the dreary fabric and wiggled my teal clad toes. The nurse came in with the chart of standard questions, current medications, allergies to others, conditions and history. I’d answered them already and sighed. The nurse stopped and darted her eyes at Christi. For a second her mouth was a cartoon squiggle, pinched uneven.
“Are you pregnant?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Um, yes, I’m sure,” I pointed to Christi. “My girlfriend.”
“We still have to do a pregnancy test,” the nurse said.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Two women means I’m not pregnant. Um, it’s like the basic facts of biology?”
“I know,” said the nurse. “Policy.”
“No men,” I said. “Lesbian.”
“Honey,” Christi shushed me. “Behave. Pee in the cup and give the lady a break.”
“I’m a dyke. Not fucking pregnant. And I’m not going anywhere with my ass hanging out,” I said, reaching back to hold my gown.
“There’s a bathroom right there,” Christi and the nurse commented in unison.
I snatched the cup grumbling.
“Waste of my pee. It comes back positive I’ll faint,” I said. “Call the pope! What do you think, honey? A lesbian proves the existence of immaculate conception. You’d be Joseph, honey. We’d be famous. Maybe you’d even sell a few paintings.”
Time hiccupped, again I was arguing. This time because I didn’t want to remove all my piercings. A dirty look from Christi, I conceded. The nurse gave her a plastic bag for my jewelry. After I’d settled, the surgeon officiously slipped around the curtain. I stared at the hand washing sign while she explained my procedure to Christi.
“Can I see the pictures?” I interrupted. “I want to see my guts. I mean how many people get to see their insides?”
The surgeon nodded and continued on about what we should expect, how I’d wake up in recovery, how long it would take, how long I should plan to take it easy. That I shouldn’t be alone tonight and at least another day. Next in the parade my beautiful friend Carrie, stopped by. She ran the clinic my doctor worked in. She leaned over to hug me. Her frames slipped as she did, Chanel or Gucci. With a flick of the wrist she righted them and pivoted in a hurry, heels tapping off to a meeting. Following her was the anesthesiologist who dismissed Christi with the tilt of his chin. Minutes after he finished his survey she came zinging back, plopped into a rolling chair and zoomed across the room to my bed. With a flourish she grabbed the pain chart with its circleman faces and thrust it under my chin.
“In case you have to review, say ten,” she said, firefly dimples and a wink. “You want the right drugs.”
What was supposed to be a two hour surgery lasted four. Christi would later tell me the surgeon explained the endometriosis she scraped was much like untangling frozen spaghetti. I vaguely remember being wheeled to the exit and settled into Christi’s car, gently, gently. At dinner time Christi woke me. We decided on pork fried rice. She went out to get it. The earlier chemicals got me; I waded through an ocean; it was dusty; something tickled my throat and I coughed myself awake. An hour fell off the planet, no Christi. The food should have taken less than fifteen minutes. With a dry throat I called her.
“On my way. Five minutes,” she said.
Forty-five went by.
“Where the fuck are you?” I asked.
“At the old workspace. Tara called. She bought a new car and said I had to come see,” Christi said.
“What?” I said.
Stupidly, I smoothed the blanket on my knees.
“You’re with Tara?” I asked. “You went to see her car? Are you fucking kidding? I had surgery this morning. You heard the doctor. Oh honey. What the fuck are you doing?”
This outburst ripped through me. Christi got home and sat, head hanging, on our bed. My lungs were cold fish. It hurt to breathe.
“How can we come back from this?” I asked. “Not to be melodramatic but what if something happened when I went to fucking pee? That junkie bitch. I told you make a choice, not something I ever thought I’d say. Now what? I’m cornered and it’s my house you’re in. I can’t be the one to leave.”
My voice faded. What I didn’t say, scanning my life for friends in other cities, friends who let me stay till I got a job and a place. The house we lived in? My first thought to torch it and the touch lamp Christi got me. Like the cliché, end of life, moments exploded on the walls as I looked around me. Our relationship and everything it changed. A moment of purple twilight on the stairs when my relationship with my mother truly, truly changed. That was Christi’s doing. I learned from her way of accepting and understanding any hurt as a moment in time, contextual, and how to forgive it. Christi beaming in the collar we bought her in San Francisco at Mr. S. Perhaps the brown dot, north star by the iris of her crazy-blue right eye. Torch it, torch it, torch it and leave.
To sleep, I fuzzed away. Friday morning I watched Christi twitch upon waking. She sniffed.
“Coke,” I said.
It wasn’t a question. Christi shook her head.
“Bullshit,” I said. “You left me. To be with Tara. You were gone for hours. You sniffed.”
No longer groggy, I started to cry. Christi curled fetal away from me.
“I’m sorry. I’m a horrible person. I’m sorry,” she said.
Her phone rang, she left.
When awake, mostly I read. Christi did laundry, stared at me, left.
Painkillers buffeted me, a fluffy sweet thing. I finally went downstairs in orange night quiet. Yesterday’s fried rice tasted good. I ate half, stood staring at the sink, swayed, caught myself, blinked.
I am a lizard. I don’t think lizards have mates. Not for life. They lay eggs. I’m not breeding.
Upstairs I took a Percocet, crashed.
Saturday afternoon Christi came home and woke me up. She sat at my feet, water on hot oil, that scary hissing bounce. Her eyes flickered, in them a seething, vicious distress. Not pulling her to me took effort, there were freckles I wanted to kiss. It was what I did on any given occasion. I sat on my hands and watched my lover choke on her words.
“Tara’s fucked up. Her arms are hamburger. I watched her jabbing and jabbing them,” Christi cried. “She’s a total fucking mess.”
“Tara’s shooting up?” I said.
The room swayed with a buzzing.
“You?” I asked.
“No,” Christi snapped.
“Bullshit. She chops you a nice line. Like here you go darling, now excuse me while I go cook this?” I paused. “Bullshit.”
Christi sighed. “I told her I couldn’t be there. That we can’t be friends. She was cool, kind of like yeah, I know. She gave me a line and I left.”
I reached for Christi’s arm. The stair creaked and Ritzo came careening in. He charged in circles around the bed, his tail a dorsal fin. We watched him and Christi obliged me, took off her sweatshirt and pushed up her sleeves. Thinking of Max’s dramatic tracks, scabs and bruises, I saw and dismissed her tiny red dot.
“I’m sorry you lost your friend,” I said. “To be honest, I’m sorry but I really just hope she rots.”
The next day Christi stood by the dresser.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Can I have a Percocet?” she asked, leaning forward, her eyes shiny, cold, the metal of razors gleamed. “I hurt.”
There was something foreign in her voice, something corrosive, like acid, like rust.
“I’m sure you do,” I said.
“I don’t think you understand,” she said. “In the drawer?”
She moved towards the dresser.
“They’re mine,” I said.
“So share,” Christi hissed.
There was a tiny grain of spit in the corner of her mouth. Fixated on it I realized I’d missed the continuation of what she was saying, asking, pushing. She held the bottle without my responding.
“Fuck you,” I said. “I had surgery. You left. I don’t owe you anything.”
“It won’t kill you,” she said. “You don’t need them all. One. That’s all I’m asking.”
“Fine. Take one. Fuck, take six. Have fun with your fucking friend,” I said. “The junkie bitch one.”
After she left I jumped up, grabbed my pills from the drawer, and falling back in bed I held onto them tight. Perhaps an hour later I got up, paced the room, three laps. I put the pills away. A beat. I bounced back to the dresser and hid the bottle in a sock, got back in bed, picked up a book, put it down, and bounced to the dresser again. This time I spilled the pills directly into the sock and balled it. With that I slept. Hours, minutes. When I got up to take another pill, reaching in that sock my face got hot. Standing in the mirror changed nothing. I fished the bottle from the trash and returned the pills to their proper place.
Do you know where you’re going to? Do you like the things life is showing you? Do you know . . . Did you get what you’re hoping for when you look behind is there an open door . . .
The next morning was Monday. Despite moving so achy, the awful reflection of my Pepto-Bismol office was an outstanding relief. The level of crisis at work wasn’t personal, it was industry-wide. That October the company I worked for was bought. November, they bought our most significant competitor, as the larger company who owned them declared bankruptcy. We were all a bit like bugs on a spin art machine, trying to hang on with our weirdly configured feet, slipping on each new zing of color, unclear on what was toxic, unsure of the integrity of surface beneath. We were initially told there would be no changes. I don’t know if anyone believed that. There were battles behind the scenes, major concessions were made. Everyone who wasn’t already on anti-anxiety medication started, anything to avoid that cold sweat sheen. We tiptoed around those whose jobs were vanishing. We tiptoed around the cliffs we previously hadn’t seen. Being back in that crisis dulled me. I worked late.
When I got home, there was Christi, firecrackers under her skin, pacing. Pot smoke billowed and Christi glowered hard in my direction.
“Honey, I don’t feel so good,” she said.
Did I express sympathy? Compassion? While at any other point I might have shushed and soothed, took her hand, led her upstairs to bed fussed with the covers, my skin was bark, our touch lacked connection. Maybe she didn’t feel that. Upstairs I pulled her down on the bed. I gave her a five milligram Trazadone. She took another one. Ten minutes, an hour. Her eyes were bright and jigging. The third pill, twenty-five milligrams. We waited, like waiting for a cancelled train, nothing. Christi was still wide awake, holding her stomach tight.
“Honey,” she said. “Tummy.”
I rubbed her belly. Each time she blinked I heard the echo, the ripples continued, a shower of stones thrown in a river, in my blood.
“There’s things. We have to talk,” she said. “This is hard. I have to tell you. How we did coke at the 19? I kept going all week.”
“With Tara?” I asked. “Why am I asking? I knew that, you sniffed.”
“Honey, there’s more. It’s worse. Gina said I shouldn’t tell you but I have to,” Christi paused and looked green. “There were needles.”
“You shot up.” I said.
“Only once. I swear it was only once. Monday. It scared me. I was lying to you. I’d been lying all week. That was the worst of it. Without you I wouldn’t have cared. I called Gina for lunch. I wasn’t hungry. She said I shouldn’t tell you. It doesn’t matter, you said, cut our losses, remember? I called Tara’s guy from the restaurant. All he had was shitty pot anyway. Ditch weed. This,” Christi spit.
Where my back once had muscles and definition, it now has knots that felt permanent and mangling. I didn’t know how to arrange myself in space, where my feet should be, my hands, how to hold my head up, anything.
Tired is an avalanche. Tired is a country.
From its border check-point, the guards’ guns drawn close on me quickly. The world flies tilted. Just the bones in my legs give, I grab the iron footboard of my bed.
Thought you moved away from crazy, that it was a different country, no longer yours. Surprise. Not very good at realizing what you see. Red dot near the crease of her arm. The fuck were you thinking? You’d be able to stop this shit? Not as smart or foxy as you thought you’d be. Not so good at facing reality. Red dot close to her vein. Crazy is not a string of words, a story wound round pins on a stick-board, like those mapping the border of another country. A pill for you and pill for me, for me. A line for you and a line for me. Do you really think you don’t qualify as just another junkie yourself?
I double over keening, upper register, maybe close to high C.
“You did WHAT? Shot up?” I scream. “Used needles? What?”
“Jesus, it was once,” Christi says.
She is an ant on her pillow, tiny, tiny voice. My tears bloom large, sharp, as big as her head. Holding my fists seemed a Herculean feat. The window, her neck. Nothing shatters. My tirade is stupid, operatic.
“What did you do? How could you do this to me? To us? Do you realize? Be so fucking stupid. Fucking NEEDLES! You stupid bitch! Do you want to die? Cause you will, you pick that. You’re already fucking crazy. Hang or jump off a bridge take your pick. Pick the fucking junkie route, you will. And Tara was right there to stick you. That’s your friend? That’s who you try to save? Fucking junkie cunt. There I was, thinking the baby. Oh the baby. Auntie Christi loves her baby. I’m so fucking stupid. What are you doing?” I scream. “We have a life. Had one. I don’t know what to do with this shit.”
Spent, I lean by Christi on the bed. Her eyes jig. They are gray, dirty, cracking ice I drown in.
“Please stop screaming,” she begs.
“WHAT. The FUCK. Did you EXPECT!” I scream, close to her head.
“You didn’t love me anymore. You broke up with me. Cut your losses, remember? You said it,” Christi whispers. “You don’t love me.”
“No-no-no-no-no-no-you can’t put this on me. I didn’t break up with you. I’ve been telling you things needed to change. I love you. You know that,” I say. “What the FUCK?”
“Honey, you need to calm down. You need to stop yelling,” Christi say.
My hands grip our bed. The blanket over Christi looks like gauze made of steel. A stretched and ruined Brillo, there are a million loops of pulled threads by the cats. I ran my hand back and forth, staring at it, its cotton reality. A hangnail I earlier worried snags and zings. I catch the skin in my teeth and wrench. That rip echo in me. I shake my head to dispel it.
“No-no-no. Bullshit. I know how this works. You’re on a bender. You don’t just stop, you run out, then no money. Tara’s fucking her clients now, am I right?”
It wasn’t a question.
Christi shrugs, “I don’t know.”
“Right. Your bank account?” I ask.
“I don’t want to talk about this,” she says. “I gotta go.”
She turns to get up but I shove her down on the bed.
“Fuck you,” I say. “No you can’t leave.”
We struggle. Christi shakes me off, I grab her waist and throw us sideways.
“Lady, I’m trying to be nice,” Christi says.
“You’re crazy. What are you going to do? Go to Tara? Go fucking shoot up?” I scream. “You FUCKED UP. You CAN’T JUST LEAVE.”
“I thought I told you. STOP SCREAMING,” she screams back at me. “I’m trying not to hurt you. You’re making it very difficult.”
She advances and I try to block her path to the door but we track a little sideways with each backward step I take until backed against the dresser somehow, I slide to the floor, my legs veed around her feet, inches from my crotch, a beat and we freeze. Christi hands me her phone.
“I don’t know what you’re trying to do Lady, but you’re gonna need help,” she instructs. “Scroll to Gina. You need to call Gina ’cause you’re gonna need help with me.”
I did. Gina answered.
“Birdy!” she barked.
I cut her off, “It’s Ruth.”
“Shit. So she told you,” Gina said. “Everything?”
“She says I need your help,” I said.
“Fucking Birdy. Okay. Give me a minute. You’ll be okay till then, right?” Gina asked.
The second Christi had her phone back her cheekbones sunk, the shadows under her eyes deepened, she was flat; we were strangers.
“Okay,” I said. “Gina’s coming.”
The logistics of our situation rose and tightened my throat. Both doors were locked. The front, Christi would bolt. The backdoor, through the kitchen, was by the knives.
“Will you stay on the bed?” I asked.
Christ nodded dumbly.
Minutes later Gina called at the back. I led Christi down the stairs holding her wrist with my left, behind me, trying to keep her back against the wall, tight, like a cop might with cuffs. My idea was to have her on my stronger left side, between my back and the wall, away from the counter and passed the knives. When I turned the wrong way she shook me off and grabbed the largest one. I opened the door.
“Gail’s with me. How’s Christi?” Gina asked.
“Right there with a knife,” I laugh, grim.
“Oh,” Gina says.
She catches Christi’s eyes.
“Hey Birdy,” she says. “Nice night.”
Christi holds her knife tight, point up towards the ceiling.
“Don’t yell at me,” she whispers. “Please don’t scream.”
Gail does the instant she sees Christi.
“Oh my God she’s got a knife!” she shrieks.
“Shut up,” Gina snaps. “Oh Birdy. What are you doing with the knife?”
Waving it, Christi chatters at Gina.
“No-no-no-no don’t come near me,” she says.
“How long’s she been like this?” Gina asks me.
“I don’t know. She was stoned when I got home. I gave her Trazadon, thirty-five milligrams total,” I say. “Nothing, not helping.”
“So she told you everything,” Gina sighs. “Yeah, she’s all ramped up. We ate and she told me. Then Tara called and she was trying to score. After crying about how she was so sorry. She ruined things, wanted to stop, stay with you, all of it. Which is bullshit, I don’t know.”
Voice gentle Gina addresses Christi. “Come on Birdy, it’s Gina. You know me. Let’s sit down and talk, calm down, get things straight.”
“Okay,” Christi says.
“Can you give me the knife?” Gina asks.
For an instant her shoulders slump downed in relief. When Gina starts to extend her hand Christi flinches away.
“No-no-no. I told her stop screaming. I said stop, stop, stop,” Christi says. “You’re a nice lady. Stop screaming. No bad things can happen.”
“Christi give Gina the knife!” Gail commands.
Christi raises her arms up over her face. The knife dangles pointing down behind her.
“No-no-no,” she wails. “No yelling at me. No screaming.”
My legs are cement; my fingers ice; I shiver as Gail gets louder.
“Christi, GIVE Gina the knife!” she yells.
Gina and I glare at her.
“That’s not helping,” Gina says. “Let me handle this. Jesus.”
“I’m sorry Birdy. I promise I won’t yell. You want to go downstairs?” she asks. “We can go downstairs where it’s quiet. Just you and me.”
They thumped down the stairs.
“Are you okay?” Gail asked me.
“Yeah, just fucking great,” I snapped.
Gail hugged me, my arms at my sides. Her t-shirt smelt like fabric softener.
“Everything will all be okay,” she said.
“Everything will all be okay,” I repeated.
From the basement Gina and Christi went back and forth, their rhythms stilted by live, mostly their words.
“Come on Birdy, you’re scaring me,” Gina said. “You’ve never scared me before.”
“That’s it,” Gail said. “She’s fucked up. I’m calling the cops.”
Her voice was very loud. I closed my eyes.
How many headlines? Man shot, woman shot.
“No,” I hissed. “NO. You’re not!”
“Then she needs to give Gina the knife,” Gail yelled back.
“Let me handle this,” Gina called up.
I missed what happened next. Gail ran down and upstairs and handed me the knife. I put it in its slot and threw the whole block in the oven, clatter and slam.
Five minutes? An hour? Time skids. We are in Gail’s car at a light, Chicago and Lake Street. Christi pets my hand.
“You’re a nice lady. I’m sorry,” she says.
Gina hits the back locks a second too late. Somehow I grab Christi by the belt and haul her back into the car. The locks clicks and Gina whips her head around to face the back seat.
“DON’T FUCK WITH ME CHRISTI. We’ve been hanging out. I’ve had a few drinks. OKAY? There’s a cop right there and another there,” she gestures towards the intersection. “You pull that shit, I get pulled over and I’m done with you. JUST FUCKING DONE.”
“Green,” I whispered. “Green.”
The ER was two blocks away. Christi hung her head. Gail and I soldiered her in the door. She didn’t fight. Gail went back to the car. She and Gina drove round the driveway to the lot. The doctor who finally saw Christi was the same doctor who was confounded by her razor cuts the last time. I wonder if he recognized us; he didn’t. The intake tangled up as I pictured myself on the floor on my knees throwing my arms, punching the tiles. The doctor stared at me. Was I talking aloud? The doctor questioned Christi, dull gray words that die like flies on a screen. She smiled, blue eyes blink-blink. He smiled back and I started yelling, interrupting, spitting my words.
“She’s lying. Check her diagnosis. It’s in there, Jesus. Fucking schizophrenic. I had surgery and she’s on a fucking bender shooting up with her best friend. Great friend, Honey. Fucking junkie cunt.”
Vaguely I heard the doctor.
“You’re not helping,” he said. “I think you need to be in separate rooms.”
“I’m not the one getting admitted,” I spat. “She is.”
“Okay. Then you need to leave,” he said.
“I’m not leaving until she’s admitted,” I said. “Let her go, that’s a suicide.”
The interview continued. Florescent lights dulled us green. The interview ended. The doctor left, I wandered out and found Gina in the hall.
“I gotta go,” she said. “I’ve seen her through a lot of shit. We’ve been through a lot together. When we were together, all the years we’ve been friends. She’s put up with me. I’ve been there. She knows that. There are limits. You can’t do certain things. Needles. God. I never thought Christi would touch it. I mean she’s fucked up before but always comes back. Not from this. Christi’s my best friend. She’s always there for me. But I can’t be for this. Happens again, I’m done. Never thought. I’d be so fucking pissed.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Bright eyes, Gina hugged me.
“I’m sorry sweetie. Things aren’t good. She’s been such a shit. What are you going to do?” she asked. “You can’t live like this.”
I pushed my nose into her shoulder.
“No. Did she tell you what I said, about calling it quits, cutting our losses? If she wasn’t so fucked up she might have understood what I meant. But no, it’s on me. None of it’s what I want. I love her. I mean how do you stop? Right? How do you stop loving someone like that? I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. Sell the house? Move away? I want us to be us. But drugs are a really old fight. I’m so fucking tired of this.”
“Maybe it’s what she needs. Get her own place, clean up. Be alone for a while,” Gina said. “You know, responsible. She needs to think about the people in her life.”
“Yeah, I know the drill. Hit bottom, take your consequences. But someone with Christi’s brain is not the same. There’s all sorts of shit that could just play out horrible. You know that. You think she’ll survive? No. At this point her meds aren’t working. She loses me, that’s everything. I’m not saying that to mean I’m everything; you know what I mean. There are voices. Depressed like that she might take their suggestions. She’s been lucky to this point. I don’t want to find her body. Or have someone tell me. All the therapy in the world wouldn’t convince me I wasn’t responsible,” I said. “I love her. So things are a little complicated, see?”
The muscles in my cheeks let go. My tongue fell from where it had been moving. I shrugged and looked away. In those seconds of silence the floor was suddenly fascinating. Ice ages played out in the mottled tile. Dinosaurs laid eggs, thrived and died.
“Think she’d go to treatment?” I asked.
“Birdy? No. Quit drinking? I don’t see it. But I didn’t see this,” Gina sighed. “So, yeah, maybe.”
“Because I can’t continue like this. How do I get her to see that?” I asked. “She’s already in therapy. She’s got support for her shit.”
“Treatment,” Gina repeated. “It’s late. I need to go. You, you need to sleep.”
“When she’s admitted,” I said.
“You should go now. You won’t. I know. Call me, I’m here. We’re friends. Whatever happens, you know,” Gina said. “I’m sorry, sweetie. It’s so stupid. She knows how this ends. How many times she’s seen it?”
Gina hugged me and left. I went back to Christi’s room. She was dozing, a dog chasing rabbits, her feet twitched. I stared at the wall. Three times now I’d called Gina (with regard to Christi) and she’d come over. The first time was when Christi and I had barely been dating. I never explicitly asked Gina but she answered the question of how to talk Christi through a psychosis. Gentle your voice. Find the touchstones, all the things that comfort and bring them into the conversation. Gepetto, Gina’s son who Christi helped raise, myself, in that she knows me. My second call was the first time Christi grabbed one of my knives, the why of it vanished in this newest crisis. I think Christi prompted me to call Gina each time when words swirled and screamed and jabbered at her and she couldn’t talk to me.
“The recently emerging field of evolutionary psychiatry has been looking at an important and closely related question: Why do severe psychiatric illnesses—schizophrenia, manic-depression, and depression—persist in humans? ... Timothy Crow, a psychiatrist at the University of Oxford, creatively and controversially argues that language and psychosis have a common evolutionary origin and that schizophrenia may be the price that Homo sapiens pays for having language.”
—Kay Redfield Jamison, Night Falls Fast
Language may fail but intelligence doesn’t. Neither does logic. Why the brain latches onto what it does to form a consistent iconography is ripe for interpretation, grabbing for meaning like one does in modern dance.
Aliens, things and things, maps and patterns, killing of the innocents, superpowers, war and war and war, chickens.
Christi’s mother grew up on a farm and told stories of having to kill chickens. It was the 70s. Her father went to Vietnam. Killing of the Innocents is biblical, New Testament shit, but also brought up in a movie, The Seventh Sign, just out when Christi’s mother was dying. How brain chemistry weaves the tapestry of experience and personality into an expression of disordered thinking remains a mystery.
I wondered what I’m doing. Why was I involved with another crazy? An artist no less. Everything I learned years prior when I was in treatment was geared towards starting a different life. Get rid of props, old habits, learn new skills, don’t go to those same hangouts, lose your using friends and be done with it. Mostly they are not real friends and will not want to be around you clean. The relationships you form while high are not based in reality. They are of masks, a soul is missing.
It was three in the morning when I left the hospital. From there I went to a friend’s and again, collapsed sobbing. Curled in a leather chair, I held an unlit cigarette and repeated the events until I my voice got rough and scratchy. As I drove home I realized I’d finally quit smoking. A crisis where I didn’t need to see my breath. The yay me! was quickly overrun by an ache that slammed me. Getting out of the car I shook.
Gepetto greeted me.
“She’s not here. Away, she’s away,” I told her cat. “I’m sorry.”
“Yow-raow-raow-wraow-wraow!” he screamed.
When I reached to pet him, he flicked his ears and trotted away. I burst into tears.
My bed was cold. I cracked a Percocet in half and swallowed it. Forty-five minutes later I bounced out of bed, grabbed the bottle of pills and took them to the basement. The litterboxes stank. I poured the pills into one of them, cleaned all and took out the trash. When I got upstairs I held the bathroom sink and stared at myself.
Round and round the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel. The monkey stopped to pull up his socks, pop! goes the weasel.
“The fuck you do that for?” I screamed.
In the morning everything hurt. I called my boss and slept the entire day. Wednesday, a friend of Christi’s came over with soup and coffee. She made me get dressed. We went outside where I smashed Christi’s last new pipe in the street. Fatigued by the effort I then crawled back to sleep. The week went by, each morning Christi called me first thing.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I hate myself for this. What I did. What I did to you.”
Each day she moved a little closer to her voice.
“I want to come home,” she said. “When they let me.”
“I can’t see you yet,” I said
“I miss you,” she said.
“Yeah. I know. Me too,” I whispered. “I love you. Still. I do.”
Christi was released the Friday before Christmas and weary, I picked her up. When she climbed into the car, I squeezed the wheel to still any shaking.
“You know this scared me. Needles always scared me. Maybe all that happened, my fucking things up is a good thing. Getting pulled over didn’t scare me. It’s always been cops are terrifying, but then again not really, I got pulled over twice. The doctor went over all the fucking dangers, blah, blah, blah. Even clean needles are dirty. They process Rule 25 paperwork in an office on Chicago and Franklin. So I took a cab from the hospital at five in the morning. I was too early. The cabbie didn’t want to leave me there. Neighborhood,” Christi said. “Kind of sweet in a fucked up, don’t analyze what it means for humanity, kind of way, I guess. They gave me a pass to leave the ward for a few hours. I got the number one slot on line. No one does that, not from the psych ward anyway, they said. It was like world conspiracy day, scare Christi straight, right out of a fucking movie, with a crackhead telling me how his kid said Daddy don’t smoke crack, okay, daddy please? Was too cold to wait outside so we went to the soup kitchen for a coffee. So you should be happy I did that fucking intake at all,” she said. “Now I’m on a waiting list for treatment.”
Once home, Christi sighed. She the pied piper, all four cats followed her upstairs to bed. We’d barely passed winter solstice, there wasn’t much light yet in our days. It was a time of saggy socks and trudged rock-salt in, puddles then cleaned. Later, Christi replaced a few bulbs that had burned out. Sitting at the table, we pushed the dishes to the middle and stared, our eyes vague, spent teabags. Genghis slunk by Christi, big blue eyes round and wide, waiting for her to push back her chair. We watched Genghis but he never blinked.
“Creepy kitty,” Christi said. “Kitty of the Corn.”
When she didn’t move he reached a paw up to her arm, tap-tap, tap, three times before jumping up.
“Am I wearing a black shirt? Cuddle rapist, I don’t want you on me,” she said, petting him. “Such a big purr for such a big kitty.”
Christi turned to me.
“He’s got a little orange in him,” she apologized.
Genghis purred harder.
Hours and days and weeks. We battled about Christi going to treatment. I tried not to fight, to not issue ultimatums or carve out a bottom line. So mostly it was Christi yelling that I couldn’t make her. I’d walk away from her fit, force myself up the stairs and silent. Her curses from below a primitive dried wool that pushed barbs in my skin. I breathed loud, a strain against seething. A couple times I went downstairs to find her by the door, shaking in her leather jacket. It was black with yellow stars on the shoulders. She’d gained too much weight to zip it. Gently, I’d pull her back through the kitchen, upstairs, into her pajamas. Bra clasp released and straps removed through her sleeves. Belt undone, she’d ragdoll. I’d struggle her out of her jeans. Often we cried. Curled up and cried.
Christmas at Gina’s remains only shapes, silhouettes, Christi, the tree, the couch, a champagne glass I glared at, the way it reflected light when lifted. Smug and holier than thou, I was determined not to drink. Choose your battles, Gina told me. She goes to treatment; she doesn’t; either way you’ll need that strength. The number of gin and tonics I downed that day? At least three, more likely six. Neither of Christi nor I remember New Year’s Eve, except that we were at a party, then suddenly I was yelling and we were kicked out.
Shortly into January Christi had an opening. “Crazy in Love,” the show title, at a gallery in North Minneapolis. The paintings were of me, abstracted. There were two series. There were four “Muse” paintings. Three sold. The others were “Multiples.” They took off from that first painting Christi did in yellow and green of me posing and posing. Some just used the shape of my stance. Others repeated the curve of my neck and hoop earrings. The paintings varied in size accompanied by a dozen ink drawings. Again of me, in many shapes and expressions.
The gallery was a garage in its previous incarnation. We sat on chairs on the concrete. Careful, careful, hand touching then not touching, butterflies avoiding damage. We drank Diet Coke, too much of it. Love songs played, the DJ stoned, turning up the music until one of us noticed and cued him. The bathroom provided sanctuary at times. We got through it.
A day before treatment, Christi was spectacular, fuming a hurricane, a five-year-old’s tantrum spinning from a woman’s adult body, now fifty pounds overweight. I ignored her and retreated upstairs until her silence felt strange. I found her on a couch with three cats on her like a traffic light, Ritzo curled under her chin, Gepetto on her chest, and Genghis on her belly, his ass towards the other cats, ears pointed towards her feet. The fake leopard throw she burritoed in was covered with cat fur and every so often Christi blew air up at her nose to be rid of the hairs that floated up and annoyed her. Seeing her safely ensconced I turned towards the kitchen. Christi stared to yell. The thumps the cats made jumping off her seemed to echo around me.
Christi yelled about how her pitch off the cliff was all my fault, my doing; I pushed her. She was fine without me, fine until I came along, started meddling, interfering. Telling her what to paint. What to eat. What to drink. What drugs to take. Then that she had to go to treatment. All of it was bullshit. She’d been fine before me.
“I’m not getting into this with you,” I said.
Once in the kitchen I held the sink, the cold cast iron to absorb it, grow invincible, become nonreactive. Next to me Christi surveyed the dish rack.
“You hid the knives,” she said. “And threw out my straight edge.”
I nodded, “No sharp things.”
“Fuck you, I can go to the store,” Christi taunted. “You can’t stop me.”
“No,” I sighed. “I can’t stop you.”
“No you can’t,” Christi said. “You can’t make me do anything. I’m not going to treatment.”
“I’m NOT getting into this,” I said.
Christi stomped. We both looked surprised.
“I need a knife,” she said.
“You don’t,” I said.
“Well I need something!” Christi shouted.
She grabbed a fork from the rack and stabbed her left hand, hard. The tines pierced the fleshy part between her thumb and forefinger.
“OUCH!” she yelped.
Freeze frame. That second everything changed. My lover stabbed her hand with a fork, yelped and turned to me, lucid.
There are moments in psychosis where time stops and the person you’ve agreed is true comes through. These are the moments where as a lover I am in the position to betray my love. Where I return after each decision to hospitalize Christi—but she might have been okay, we might have been spared the pain of that interruption. Do I trust my perception? Do I trust my judgment?
Christi did herself this small violence and in pain, her face shifted. Eyes watering, she became the saddest girl I’d ever seen. She held her hand out to me like she did the time early, when we both got small together, when she held out her hand to touch me because I got big before she did and she thought she’d lost her closet best friend. Once again, she was she, Christi, there with long arms and legs, heavy but strangely coltish in our kitchen. However bizarre it was, that was the moment I knew we’ll be okay. Some day this crisis would be small, a gesture drawing within our coffee stained history. There was a whole world built up between us. Every ounce of me loved her, eyelids, kidneys, skin, thyroid and feet. Christi loved me. With her, so much of me was healing, growing, the shadows, creatures and small children, all of me peaceable in that second. There was no other possible ending, I took her hand.
Just like me, they long to be, close to you . . .
“Hurts!” she whimpered.
“I know baby,” I whispered. “Let me help you. Come here.”
I didn’t notice I was crying until Christi swiped a tear off my face.
“Lets go upstairs, fix this, go to sleep,” I said. “I know it’s early.”
Monday morning Christi started treatment. Our next two weeks were mostly silent. Like bears we snarled, we lurched. Then I got home after work and Christi met me, eyes aglitter. She ducked to give me an Eskimo kiss. She looked guilty.
“Got something for you,” she said.
Now sweaty I followed her to her room. White plate, line of cocaine, she held it up to me.
“Last line,” she said. “I saved it.”
“You’re kidding, right?” I gnashed my teeth. “That this would be fine if I got some of it?”
Christi’s face fell.
“Fucking Christ. Christi, you’re in treatment. In case you haven’t noticed, for a reason. I told you I was done with this shit? I just can’t. It’s like roulette and I don’t want any more chances. You realize that’s you too, you pull this again.”
Right out of an after-school special I grabbed the plate, went to the bathroom and put it under the faucet.
The fuck you do that for.
The knives stayed hidden until Christi saw smoke from the oven while preheating it. We talked about therapy. Past fights echoed to bruise me.
You get worse. I make you worse. What I say affects you. So I wait for a good evening? To talk about how I’m doing? Which is not good, by the way. I can’t take care of you every night. I don’t know how. And I don’t want to. I shouldn’t. Can’t. I’m not a fucking doormat. Can I say that? Without fucking things up entirely? I mean, Jesus. How am I supposed to be? It’s pipes! Not FBI. Not Aliens. Not Robots, Godamnit. Can you just meet me halfway here, maybe, please?
The therapist I found was through my beautiful doctor friend. Peter specialized in addiction and recovery, mental illness and trauma. At least on paper our issues made a good fit. To make that first appointment, I left work early. The building was on a frontage road, seventies brick architecture, common to highways. We walked in and took the elevator up one flight. The air tasted edgy, my elbows jiggly, not attached right. I leaned against Christi. We kissed.
“Cameras,” she said.
I waved above our heads.
“Hi,” I said.
And kissed her again. We giggled.
That first therapy session shimmers a little like streetlights in rain on the pavement. My hope was someone compassionate, with expertise, who wouldn’t suffer bullshit. In his office a coffee table had toys, Chinese finger-traps, a slinky, other sparkly things. I fiddled extensively with each object. Christi and I agreed we were testing this therapist and might audition many. We couldn’t solve our lives in an evening. More likely we’d vomit angry buzzwords, accomplishing little to nothing.
“A.D.D.?” Peter offered.
Peter was a tall man. He sunk in the green couch veed to the one we settled in. His position, with knees higher than hips, the empty space between his legs and the cushion—very Alice in Wonderland. Watching us he twirled the straw in his gigantic container of Diet Coke. Next to him rested Gertrude, a big eared French Bulldog. She snorted with extravagance, slid down and trundled over to us. Little white hairs covered everything. On the desk, a sticky-roller, I noted. Gertrude took to lunging in an ecstasy of our stritches. Perhaps the dog helped to break the ice. We told Peter as much of our history as we could without pausing. The chronology scribbled. There was my surgery, Christi shooting up, our depression now symbiotic. We rambled about art and literature, that she was diagnosed schizo-affective and only got through a very little of college. I laid down a gesture of my life, depression, PTSD and the maybe reasons behind it. We leaked. Peter was more concerned with me than Christi. She had support, therapist, psychiatrist, treatment, more therapy. I didn’t he pointed out. It didn’t matter that Christi hated treatment. Most people did. Peter didn’t fixate on her lack of AA attendance. There’s more than one way to do it, was what he said.
“Some people do Jesus.”
That Christi kept going mattered more. Commitment. There was a pause. Gertrude settled her head in my lap and sighed periodically. I picked at the plastic gems on her collar. Christi shushed my hands away.
“I’m not a dog person,” I huffed.
Peter waved his hand at me. Our hour stretched from five to past six-thirty. The extended session ended with us scheduling again.
“There’s a lot,” I said.
Peter followed us out down the hall. The weight of his day pressed visible for a second, a shade before it vanished.
“You guys are cute,” Peter said.
He cocked his head at Christi, “And you look a little like Ellen.”
I smiled and contradicted.
“No. More like Jodi Foster, really. With her nose a little crooked,” I said.
“Yeah, I can see that,” he said. “During her teenaged hookerphase.”
“Gotta pee,” Christi hissed.
We ducked into the bathroom. Leaning against the sink I tried and failed to stop laughing.
“Teenaged hooker indeed,” she harrumphed from the stall.
She stood in the mirror, flushed, glaring. “My nose is crooked.”
“I liked Peter,” I smirked.
“He has a dog with a rhinestone collar,” she said. “He’s a queen.”
“A French bulldog, no less,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s what I meant,” she said. “Queen.”
“They were gems on the collar,” I said. “Rhinestones are different.”
Christi waggled her head at me. Continuing to the elevator I bumped into her. She bumped back into me. We held hands. When the doors closed we kissed and kissed. Christi pulled a little back against my arms.
“That’s a good sign I think, us still kissing in the elevator,” Christi said.
I nodded, “Before and after therapy.”
“That’s what I meant,” she said. “See? Puzzle piece.”
“I love you,” I said.
With a blink, Christi blew me an Eskimo kiss across the air between us, arms all wrapped up. Firefly dimples and red-red lips.
“Izz-izz. You hungry?” she asked. “Sushi, tea, Diet Coke? I know you. You’re probably starving.”
I read the Schizophrenia Research Forum newsletter online. The named areas of the brain, neurons, neurotransmitters, proteins are a disaster of rolling beads. They all look the same, sound the same, a writhe or susurration, a giant mess of letters and numbers falling, falling. My hope that by some miracle my dedication will result in knowledge, that enough repetition will serve me. What little I absorb doesn’t cobble together a any serious understanding. Jack-shit, if I’m honest. Researchers, chemists, biologists, psychiatrists, doctors, therapists weigh in. There is almost nothing there that actually brings in the subjective experience of people with the disease. As if a narrative meaning given to symptoms has no value, provides no insight into medical knowledge. Decade after decade schizophrenia has proven itself too complex to be understood by any one theory or research paradigm. A disease of sublimated conflict brought to fruition by family dysfunction, a sane response to an insane society, the result of drug use, a disease that should be cracked but wasn’t in “the decade of the brain,” a marker to be sussed out in the decoding of our genes, cysts deep in neural pathways, created by the same parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, caught up from cat shit. Not to be overlooked are the interactions with viruses, in utero or otherwise, maternal health, habit and ingestion, trauma, nutrition, personality, learning. I look at research abstracts and clinical trials on the NIH website. What’s in the pipeline is almost exclusively centered around catching that initial psychotic break. Either preventing it from happening or treatment immediately following. The focus is on the young, the young, the young, save them. As for those who have survived their illness more or less for decades, there is precious little to suggest interest or investment.
“Izz-izz, I love you,” Christi says.
Izz-err-rah, we continue.