Sharing honest conversation is so much more satisfying than spreading overheard gossip. I love learning how to communicate in healthy ways.
* Artwork: Revelation No. 1 by Danny Galieote
Sharing honest conversation is so much more satisfying than spreading overheard gossip. I love learning how to communicate in healthy ways.
* Artwork: Revelation No. 1 by Danny Galieote
Yes, I spend a lot of time with my drug dealer’s wife. But let me be very clear about one thing. We’re not friends. She thinks we are, and it gives me the creeps.
“There’s my Mary,” Laureen gushes, when I finally get one of them to open the fucking door and let me in. She poses at the top of the stairwell in an undershirt and pajama bottoms, one hand on her boney hip and the other outstretched in my direction.
“How do you people stay in business?” I ask. “I’ve been leaning on the buzzer for twenty minutes.” It was really more like five, but everything feels longer when you’re waiting, right? Laureen ignores my complaints and continues to sing my praises.
“Let me look at you, girl. In your little work clothes. Now, I’m happy,” she says, first nodding her head up and down, and then, side to side. “I was so sad before. I cried for three hours.”
“You did not.” I know she’s teasing. She squeezes my face between her knuckles and kisses me on the mouth. Her breath is awful. I can’t describe what it smells like, so I won’t even bother.
“I love what you’re wearing.” I’m dressed in pants and a coat that I bought for seven dollars at the Salvation Army. “I mean it, honey. You could be a model.” I hate the way Laureen looks at me and my things, like she’s starving. I don’t have much, but she has nothing. And realizing this makes me very uncomfortable.
“Pretty, pretty Mary. How’d you get to be so funny and amazing?” Laureen leans against the kitchen counter that’s come loose from the wall, and no one is fixing it. “We are so much alike, don’t you think? I swear, we could be sisters.” My skin crawls whenever she says this, which is often, and I hate it every time.
She leans in, as if to share a secret. “You know, guys are always telling me, ‘Laureen, you’re so pretty.'” Her words drift, and she is somewhere else for a minute. “What was I saying?”
“That I’m funny and amazing.”
“Right, right. See? You know. Funny and freaking amazing!”
I follow Laureen down the hallway. Considering how many people are actually inside this apartment, the living room is quiet, except for the TV. There’s no picture on the screen anymore, just sound. Everybody here is doing their thing. Manny can get whatever you need, but most folks smoke crack. They come to buy and get right to it, sometimes turning hours into days. I always try to have my thoughts straight before I show up.
“Just pay for your shit and go home,” I tell myself. “Pay and go. Pay and go.” I do not want to be here. This place is scary, but nothing is ever that easy.
“How’s your job, hon? Is it good?” Laureen makes like she’s interested. I used to try and tell her shit, but she’s not paying attention so I don’t try anymore. “I want a job,” she muses. “I can do shit. I got skills.” Her voice becomes a little sing-song, and I resent it. “Get dressed up. Ride the train. Talk on the phone. Mary, can’t you get me in at your work?”
“I’ll ask.” Of course, I’m not gonna. The girl’s a fucking wreck.
I watch my drug dealer’s wife load this big, fat rock into a beat-to-shit asthma inhaler. I wish she would just shut the fuck up, and she will. I move a little closer on the couch.
Laureen is obsessed with the condition of her mouth. Many of her teeth are already gone. Mine are just starting to come loose. The way she carries on gets worse when she’s high.
“You smell that?” She points to the infected holes in her gums. Here we go again. “There’s something in there. Something’s in my mouth. Don’t you smell it?”
“I do,” Manny says. He’s chopping coke and laying out a row of scrawny lines for two girls that sit on either side of his filthy shoes. “It smells like somebody puked in a bag of shit.” He slaps an open palm against his knee to confirm his own joke.
“Can you check for me, babe?” She means me. “Just look and tell me what you see.”
“I don’t know what I’m looking for.”
“Please,” she begs. I peer into her gaping maw with one eye closed.
“Did you find it? What’s in there?”
“Laureen, there’s nothing. Go rinse your mouth.”
An industrial-sized bottle of mouthwash, the kind that looks like piss, sits on an old door they use as a coffee table. Laureen takes a long swig, puffs out her cheeks, swishes it around and gobs her backwash into one of two Styrofoam cups reserved exclusively for this purpose.
Do not touch or look inside either of these cups. She recycles the swill from the first one and spits it into the second. This procedure may be right up there with one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen a person do.
I had this boyfriend who took a shit on the floor once because I wouldn’t unlock the bathroom door. We just broke up. Another time, I watched two dogs eat from the same bowl. When one of them threw up, the other one ate it. But maybe that doesn’t count because they were animals and not people. Animals don’t know any better.
Occasionally, someone will drop a cigarette butt into the gravy-like murk of Laureen’s spittoon. This makes her absolutely furious.
“Hey, asshole!” she yells into the disinterested face of a nearby guest. “This cup look like an ashtray to you?”
It kinda does.
I think Manny and Laureen are married, but they might not be. Manny’s a shit heel, though. I still can’t believe I walked in on him and this older woman. She was on her knees in the kitchen. He smiled when he saw me. I wasn’t sure what I should do, so I turned around and went back in the other room.
He came looking for me after. “So, how’d you like that before?” Still grinning.
“Like what?” Laureen asked.
“Some cryptkeeper bitch was sucking my dick. Man, she tugged so hard, I had to make sure it was still there when she finished.”
Somebody laughed. I don’t know who. I couldn’t look. Laureen went back to her business as if he never said anything. I left right after that. I didn’t even wait until it got light out. I walked home 38 blocks in the dark.
Laureen calls me at my job. I can’t remember giving her my number at work or the address, but I must have. I don’t think she has the brains to find me otherwise. To look something up in the Yellow Pages or ask the operator for help.
“Hey, it’s me.” She heavy breathes into the receiver. “Give a guess where I am.” Immediate panic prevents me from any logical thinking. “Right downstairs!” She’s excited. “I came to see you.”
How am I supposed to explain Laureen to the people I work with? What’s with the crackhead? they will surely wonder. I thought I could keep these two things separate.
“I’m going into a staff meeting,” I tell her. That’s a lie.
“Right this minute?”
“C’mon. I just wanna say ‘Hi.’ Plus, I gotta use the toilet.”
“I can’t. I have to go.” I hang up the phone. It rings again, almost immediately. I walk away from my desk, down the corridor and into the file room. I hide there for a while and hope to God she won’t be able to find me in this building. I pray she’s too stupid to figure it out.
I start buying my dope from another supplier. This guy in Shipping and Receiving was very forthcoming as to where he gets what he needs to keep him working such long hours. I wonder if he likes me. It’s hard to tell. He’s scattered. And one of the girls in my department said he’s about to get fired if he keeps fucking shit up.
I haven’t seen or heard from Laureen or Manny in almost a month. Not since the day she was here.
This morning, the receptionist handed me a message from some lady named Carolyn. I didn’t recognize the number, so I just threw it away. When she calls back again, I pick up the phone.
“Is this Mary?”
“I’m Laureen’s mother.” My heart starts to race, and my ears feel hot. “Have you seen my daughter?”
“You can tell me, dear. I promise I’m not mad.”
“Laureen talks about you all the time. She says you’re like her best friend. She needs a friend.”
“I don’t know where she’s at.” That’s the truth.
“Will you let me know if you hear from her? I’m so worried, Mary.”
Just the way she says my name, it makes me want to cry.
* Artwork by Amanda Elizabeth Joseph
God forgive me. She’s my own mother, but I hate it when she cries. Familiar as I am with the routine anger and resentment she has toward my father, I am never ready for all that unexpected sputtering and weeping. It seems to come from out of nowhere and goes through me like a knife.
One minute, we’re talking about something harmless like Reduced Fat Triscuits and the next, she’s completely distraught over whatever Dad’s done that can never be forgiven. Like the way he keeps waking up every morning and breathing.
Granted, he’s no picnic. But she’s still pissed about antics he pulled thirty and forty years ago. He didn’t care about her feelings then, and he sure as shit doesn’t give a damn about them now. When is she gonna figure that out?
I swear, it’s like she’s half stupid or something. It breaks my heart to think that’s the case. Over and over, she persists with the same hateful, unverified claims.
“Why don’t you tell your daughter how you clogged the toilet again?” she asks.
My father smiles and laughs gently, as if responding to a joke about farts.
“He does it on purpose, you know. He holds his shit in all morning and waits until I get into the shower. I’m trapped like a fucking animal. I can’t even wash my face in peace.”
“Did you call the landlord, Mom?”
Her voice begins to waver. “Please, Mary. I can’t look that poor man in the eye anymore. You have no idea what it’s like to live this way.”
And she is right. Sort of. What my parents share is a very specific brand of crazy. But over the years, I did take what I learned from their expert tutelage and went on to destroy nearly every relationship I can remember. How to ignore the other person and communicate in riddles. The disappearing act. Withholding affection to manipulate situations. Explosive, misdirected rage. And much, much more.
So I do get whatever this is. I didn’t just arrive on the scene of this circus fire. I’m quite used to the smell of smoke by now.
“See if he’s hungry.” Mom flicks her wrist in my father’s direction. A plastic bag of cold cuts flops onto the kitchen counter like a fish.
“Hey, Daddy. You want a sandwich?”
“Of course, he does,” she says. “All I want is some decency. Is that too much to ask?”
Maybe that’s what I find so frustrating. She doesn’t make any reasonable requests. Just hateful demands that can never be met by this elderly man who was once a much younger man with the same limited emotional range.
Only now, he’s old. His memory is shot. When he knew you before, he treated you like shit. He knows even less about you these days. Except that you’ll wipe his ass for him. I’m sure he sees that as a plus.
I’m not suggesting it’s right or fair. My mother doesn’t deserve this much unhappiness. But it certainly is her whole world, and she protects it fiercely. I wish there was something I could do to make things better. I’ve been wishing this my whole life.
Mom does not want my help. She makes it very clear that no one can help her. She is all alone in her disappointment. How am I supposed to penetrate that kind of willfulness? I try. I’m willful, too. But she only lets me in a little bit. In a moment of clarity, I realize that’s all she has. Our relationship exists and survives on scraps. I have always wanted more.
You know, when we were kids, and she hated him, I thought I understood why. It didn’t seem like my dad loved her. Or anything else, really. He came and went along his own trajectory and behaved in ways that frightened us all.
“What will happen if they get a divorce?” I asked my sister.
Judy was older than me. She seemed to have a loose grasp of what was at stake. She might have been twelve at the time. “They’re not getting a divorce,” she said.
“Well, if they do, I’m going with him.”
And not because we shared a special father/daughter bond. He couldn’t take care of himself, never mind us girls. Mom swore he’d die on his own, and I believed her. Still, I wanted out from under the weight of her everyday misery.
“You don’t get to pick,” Judy informed me. “We’d have to stay with her.”
“You can stay,” I told her. “I’m leaving.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am,” I muttered under my breath.
My cousin Donald’s seventh grade homeroom teacher was divorced. I think Judy had her for Science. She wore false eyelashes and high heels to school. She gave the kids gum. My mother couldn’t stand her.
She was the first ‘Ms.’ I’d ever encountered. That’s what they called you when you weren’t married anymore. When your husband left you because you were a whore.
Dad shuffles into the kitchen at the mention of food and sits with us at the crowded table. Piles of bills, newspapers, prescription bottles and half empty coffee cups cover every available surface. I slide the paper shredder over to make room so he can eat lunch.
Mom loves that shredder. I bought it for her two Easters ago. She seems to take great delight in obsessively reducing things to ribbons.
“Shred these,” she demands and tosses a stack of paperwork at his belly. Old Pennysavers and flyers filled with coupons.
My father picks up a church bulletin and feeds into the narrow slot.
“Not that!” she growls and yanks the sheet, jamming the machine. “Can’t I have anything nice?”
And here come the tears.
I just want to eat lunch.
Mommy promised if I was good, we could have grilled cheese at the counter in Woolworth’s. No more hamburgers, not since the last time we ate there. She said the chop meat was bad. It tasted fine to me, and then all of a sudden, I didn’t feel good. I threw up next to a baby carriage right out front. Mommy covered it with a bunch of napkins, and we left.
We’re on our way to the bank which is so boring and a hundred times worse than any other store I can think of and most churches. There are no chairs or pews. If you want to lay down, you have to do it on the giant dirty rug in the hallway but with so many people coming in and out, there’s really no room.
I stare into the big metal ashtray in the doorway. It’s almost as tall as me. There’s a piece of pink gum resting right on the edge of the dish, almost separate from the squished cigarette butts and candy wrappers. It looks fresh. I can still see teeth marks.
Mommy waits on line. She is next. It looks like she knows the lady behind the counter. This is gonna take forever! But now, at least, I have something to do.
I sing some of the words to “Hey There, Georgy Girl” as we walk together down the street. I heard it on the radio when we were in the pharmacy getting a birthday card for my cousin.
You’re always window shopping, but never stopping to buy.
So shed those dowdy feathers and fly, a little bit!
“What’s in your mouth?” Mommy asks.
“A song,” I say.
“Spit it out.”
She holds her hand in front of my mouth, and I swallow.
I smashed my thumb trying to open a bottle of wine with a hammer and a butter knife, and now, my finger hurts like crazy. I ran it under cold water. Motherfucker bled like a pig.
Probably gonna lose the nail. Shit looks split right down the middle, which I wouldn’t even think is possible unless I saw it with my own eyes. And now that I’ve seen it, I still don’t believe it. Like shutters on a haunted house. One panel all busted up in the frame and the other hanging loose by a hinge.
I had to sacrifice an old pair of pantyhose to stop the bleeding. Nylon is not a particularly absorbent material, I realize that now. But I think I did a good job. I started with the foot section and wrapped it round and round my thumb a bunch of times. Tore it from the bloomers part with my teeth. I got a shoelace from an old pair of sneakers I don’t wear anymore and tied it up nice and secure, like I was MacGuyver.
I’m gonna look on the bright side. At least the bottle didn’t break. There’s a goddamn mess for you! And a waste of some perfectly good wine when the glass is all shattery and shit.
Don’t worry. You can still have what’s in there. Just hold a piece of paper towel over your cup. If there’s any shards or slivers, it catches them.
I might even squeeze the wine out of the napkin and drink it. Depends on how much is left.
* Artwork: Green Pieces by Todd Ford
I glance at my phone, look at Facebook real quick. I check e-mails, out of habit more than anything else. I’m not expecting any highly important correspondence to come through. It’s mostly junk. It always is.
Still, I pause at the message that starts with “You have been selected by People Magazine…”
Hmmm. Perhaps someone has written to them about me. A friend, I’m guessing. An individual who is rather fond of me, no doubt. What a nice thing to do. I can only imagine what he or she might have said.
Dear People Magazine:
I know this girl. Her name is Mary. I feel like I need to tell you about her.
A brief synopsis of my character and unique talents, followed by a flattering list of awesome things I guess I do that this person has noticed and felt compelled to share with a national publication reserved almost exclusively for artists and celebrities. Wow.
I click on the link and read a little further, beyond the preliminary caption.
People wants me to consider subscribing to an additional magazine. Sports Illustrated. They think I might like it.
Forget all that stuff I just said. Clearly, these idiots know nothing about me.
I slept over this girl’s house last night. I don’t know her well, but we work together. She’s friendly enough.
She made such a big fucking deal about how much she loves to party, so I got us some blow. We hit a few bars in her neighborhood, which was fun. I generally like to stay in one place, though. I concentrate better. She seemed to know a lot of people. But Bayonne is loud and crowded, especially on Fridays in the summer. And sometimes, cocaine makes me feel lonely.
In the bathroom, she wouldn’t shut up about all these guys who apparently are just dying to sleep with her. Yeah, okay.
She got too drunk way too quick, if you ask me. Which, c’mon, that shouldn’t even happen when you have coke. Falling out of her shoes. She spilled a Bay Breeze down the front of her shirt. They made us leave the last place we were at. She started something with the dude working the door, running her mouth like an asshole.
We walked around for nearly an hour before she sobered up enough to remember where the fuck she lived.
“It’s this way,” she kept saying. Then she’d stop to throw up between every four or five cars. I swear, I would have left her there, only I don’t know my way around New Jersey. And she hadn’t paid me back yet for the drugs I got us that I ended up snorting all by myself anyway, hunched over on her couch next to a pile of rank laundry.
I should have saved what was left, since the whole night kinda sucked. But maybe you know how that goes.
I listened to her crying into the phone, pleading with some idiot she used to go out with.
“Just come over,” she begged. “I’m horny.”
I waited until she got into the shower this morning before I went through her wallet. Relax, I didn’t take everything. Three twenties and a five should cover my hardship. Let her think she lost it in our travels. Serves her right for getting so sloppy.
“You got that money you owe me?” I ask when she’s done drying her hair.
She empties the contents of her purse onto the bed. “Shit,” she says.
“What’s the matter?” Like I don’t know.
She checks the pockets of her coat. “Nothing. Can we stop by the bank when I drop you at the train?”
“Sure. That’ll be great.”
* Artwork: Q Train by Nigel Van Wieck