then/now

Simple Truths

“I’ve always had this weird…” I pause, unsure of the phrasing and rolling the taste of something bitter and uncomfortable around in my mouth. It tastes like pebbles under my tongue before I sigh, tilting my head and pushing the smoke from my lungs like a blanket to hide the next words. “It’s like this story that flows under everything I do and it’s so simple. You’re not worthy.”

The air was a damp warm that meant the fog would roll in over the bay and obscure the drive home. The thick kind of night that felt wonderful on the skin by played havoc on the hair. It haloed around my head, the silver strands catching the light even as a few moths battered themselves against the over head lamps. Barb is a slim woman with thin blond hair that hangs neatly around her face. She’s Eastern European by way of American accent learned from years. It lingers around the tightness in her eyes when she smiles and moves around to sling strange dip-thongs onto her phrasing. She’s lovely as a siberian iris, trusting that the green shoots that knife through the snows will be allowed to bloom purple and lush. She nods once, taking the difficult statement and tucking it between her palms that are cradled in her lap just under the table between us.

My mouth smears to the side and I duck my head. Even this is weir. My truths don’t really deserve to see the light. Six years sober and six years of walking a path that leads me to an addiction to the truth and I can’t even look her in the eye around my odd self consciousness. People need to know that I’m okay, that I’m good, that everything is fine. They don’t need to know that there are days when I have to step over the pile of dirty clothes that sit like a wall on the left hand side of my bed. They don’t need to know that I’m so exhausted at the end of the day I can barely see straight as I answer the texts for help and slide one leg at a fumbling time under my sheets. They don’t know about how I fall asleep between breaths and wake up running.

I feel like I’ve been running my whole life because when I stop just long enough to look around I realize I’m so lost that I don’t know where to even start. It’s not true. I have moments of pause where I can gather up my clothes, my bills, my dignity, my heart, and fumble through the simple tasks of setting my life in order.

you don’t deserve nice things, you’ll just lose them. you don’t deserve a boyfriend who cares about you because you always think you’re in love but the moment it’s over that light switch flicks and you’re done with it all like it never existed. do you even know what love is? you can’t even love yourself most of the time. you’re disgusting and unworthy and –

And I’m running again. Reaching out a hand to help the next person behind me. Answering the phone at four in the morning to a girl in tears because she can’t imagine a life with or a life without. I can hear myself saying words of comfort. I can hear myself making the noise of hope, because it’s in those moments that I feel worthy. It’s in those moments that I have hope.

It blurs from one day to the next in little moments of exhaustion. I remember the way my best friend looked after nearly 27 hours of labor. She was limp with exhaustion, but her eyes glowed fierce under the glossy cut of her bangs. She was flushed, damp, and reaching with a single mindedness to find the next thing that made sense. The next thing that had captured her heart in a way that made little to no sense outside of that moment. That one moment when she caught her son so close and touched shaking fingers to his dark curls. He screamed and she knew she was forever going to love one thing more than anything else.

That’s the only way I can think to describe the moment someone asks me for help. That breathless enthusiasm for a chance to give something the best possible life I can manage. But it’s not me. It’s not me who’s managing anything but finding the energy to be present.

The light flickers and Barb blows out a breath and catches my eye. She has these pale blue gazes that catch the mind like fine china or the massive breadth of a glacier. “You know why you fight that?”

I shake my head.

“Because it’s not true. But-” She pauses and holds up a finger and I can feel myself quaking somewhere just behind my heart. “FIghting it makes it true. You need to be right about this one thing. You need to be right about the most basic truth about yourself you have.” She tips her head and the smile is beautific. “Because if you’re wrong, then everything you have ever though about yourself, everything you have ever believed about yourself is wrong. You *need* to be right about this one horrible thing so that everything else is right. Let it go. Be wrong.”

I laugh, nervous and welling. “You make it sound so easy.”

“You’re not worthy.” She cocks her head and I can almost taste my thrumming need for this next truth. “You have never been more wrong about anything in your whole life. Let it go.”

Yes or No questions.

I have had a lot of sex.

There, I said it.  I’ve banged my way around the country and left cities behind so I could walk into a grocery store without the heated “OH DEAR GOD! I vaguely remember telling him I’d call…”

I’ve had wild sex and group sex.  I’ve slept with best friends and complete strangers.  I’ve done the nervous STD check when it’s gotten to the point of oh man, I just don’t know.  I’ve let myself be used and used other people.

There is one moment that I want to talk about, because it is a time that I used to let shape who I was in the sack.  It affected my self esteem and ate away at me from the inside out.  It fed the little voice in my head that told me I was unworthy of real love. (Also, I’m going to write it as a story as a way of distancing myself a little bit from it so I can tell it.)

**

“You really want to sleep with a bald chick right now, don’t you?” She asked, elbow on the bar while a man tinkled away on a baby grand piano.  The bar was made of white marble.  The walls, smooth and cold against her shoulder blades, tilted upward to a graceful arch thirty feet above.  A chandelier glittered at the top- the crown of this aging princess.  There was a baby grand piano on a raised dias that was home to a little man with limber fingers and a soft velvety voice.  He was background music to the rich as they smiled and chatted pleasantly.

She was a wildflower in the center of this manicured garden of the drunk.  They whiled away their time in legal battles, high powered money pushing, and politics.  They were glossy like magazine pages and drove cars that purred.  Her car clattered.  It clanked and was held together with duct tape, a coke can, and sheer force of will.  She’d scrounged her shoes from next to a dumpster- black and white two tone doc martins with a magical message written inside.  Her jeans were ripped and didn’t fit like they cost more than ten dollars, which made them more honest than she was.  She grinned like she would eat them, suck the marrow from their bones and floss her teeth with their hundred dollar blowout hairstyles.  In her head she imagined them as pampered declawed house cats, while she ranged long boned and mangy.

He smiled, looked abashed, and waved for her drink to be refilled.  He was short, round, and wrapped in a designer suit.  He had dark greying hair and a credit card made of metal.  It clinked against the bar as he rolled his cigar between pale clammy fingers.  She liked that he wanted her, but was completely uninterested in him.  He ran the entire IT department for a big name company that owned most of Cincinnati.  She liked that he ordered her absinthe, bohemian and green.  It tasted like licorice and burned sweetly across her tongue.  The bartender, a sweet little blonde thing from kentucky, had brought it back with her from Prague after a fully financed whirlwind trip was tendered to her as a tip.  The girl- too young- played with the fire that melted the sugar cube and ran her fingers over her scalp.

“I do.” He replied as she took another drink.

“Good.  Maybe you’ll learn something.” She knocked back her drink.

She came to puking in a bathroom.  The seat was cold and hard against her forearm.  Everything was blurry. His voice sounded from outside the door.  She grumbled something about being cool while her stomach forced her body into painful convulsions.

Black.

She came to again with his tongue between her legs and tears smearing her makeup.  He grunted like a pig and humped against her leg. She whimpered and couldn’t remember saying no.

Black.

She woke up and he was sprawled across the bed.  Plush and round and naked.  He snored and she bit back a yell.  Pants.  Must find pants.  A scramble through an apartment she didn’t remember, just a vague impression of size, expensive swedish furniture and a huge glowing window.  She snatched up her shirt, threw on her jeans, snagged her shoes and fled.  Still drunk in the street, barefoot and clutching her shoes and purse she tried to get her bearings.  Big buildings, harsh daylight, grainy texture like an old movie.  Car, parking lot, and a stuttering run.

She didn’t realize she’d left her glasses until she’d gotten home.  She never saw them or him again.

The next night she switched bars, found a tall tattooed gum chewing freak and took him home.  She told herself it was better this way.  She told herself the only way to get over something was more of the dog that bit you.  She’d thought she was a sleek wild cat in the midst of tame housecats.  She’d never realized she was swimming with sharks and cats hate water.

**

I have too many stories like that one.  The ones where I never said yes, but I never said no either.  I have too many stories where I just throw something special away because I was sure I didn’t deserve it.

There were too many times I kissed someone because I felt sorry for them.  Too many times that I slept with someone because I thought it was what they wanted.  I never thought about me.  I never thought my opinion or my worth mattered.  There were exceptions, brilliant beautiful times that scared me, but mostly it was just sex.  That’s what I told myself.  Just sex.

Except now it’s not.  It’s not ever going to be just sex ever again.  I’m worth more than that.  I deserve to be cherished and loved.  I won’t let myself be used.

I haven’t slept with Jacob again.  I am not going to sleep with him again until I’m sure it’s just me in there.  I’m not going to let myself be used just because I feel like it is something he needs.

Love is a gift and sex should be the celebration, not the wrapping to tear and throw away.  And damnit.  I want those glasses back.

Meet my muse.

I’m forcing myself to write tonight.

**

When I was in the eight grade I won a national writing competition.  They announced it over the intercom to the whole school and everyone congratulated me.  I felt like a cheat. What they didn’t know was the first line of the story was totally plagiarized from Dean Koontz.  Hell, I think the concept was too.  I’d just needed something to start from.

That’s one of the major problems with my relationship to writing.  I have trouble starting.  I over think it.

I imagine my audience bored.  I imagine them reading something I put down and cringing- wondering why the hell they bothered.  They scoff at my word choice while deconstructing my terrible grammar.  They pick out the comma splices.  They know what a gerund is and frown on my pacing.  But worse? Worse is: “Oh, this is nice.”

I think y’all get it.  So I’m terrified of being a failure.  I’m frozen in place most of the time with the thought of just being average.

**

Sometimes I imagine my muse is a drunk like me.  She shows up with grass stains on the knees of her jeans and Chuck Taylors that are held together with Duct tape and pure will power.  She hasn’t shaved and the dark dusting of hairs under her arms are visible when she yawns and lounges back on my couch.  She has a beer gut and dirty hair.  She’s always wearing a faded grey t-shirt that rolls along her collarbone from when she ripped out the neckline falling out of a tree.  It also explains the bruises on her biceps, but not the ones on her hip. Her mascara is slept in, flecks of it freckle the bags under her eyes.  She’s loud.  She’s crass.  She makes people think she’d fuck like a rockstar, but mostly she’s just bored with someone on top of her.  Of course, she’s slept with more people than I have.  Every guy I’ve looked twice at she’s had stretched out and whimpering.  Every girl that I’ve noticed has begged with a soft mewling “please” with their fingers locked tight in her hair.  She’s my id.  She’s fun, but trashy.  She’s witty, but not very nice.

She’s who I was when I drank and I haven’t seen her in a long time.  I think she’s been crankily sobering up with me.  She’s the one who imagines the whirlwind tours of the Cote du Rhone region in france.  She’s the one sipping gruner vetliner while licking the citrusy ceviche from some hot Argentinian’s fingers.  She’s been angry at me.

But screw her.  I can do this.

Each time I stop myself mid lie she stamps her foot like a two year old in the back of my head. (Which oddly enough looks like my kitchen.)  We argue all the time.  She wants the old routine:

Grab the bottle of Jameson, twist the cap, grip it tight and swig.  Then light the cigarette, inhale, exhale, and start to write.  Write vivid poetic things that taste like those sticky honey colored sunbeams that slink in through my window in the morning.  Write haunting heartbreaking things that catch in my throat like cat’s cradle.  Tear things apart, rend them limb from limb.  Bite, claw, chew!

She wants me to delicately eviscerate myself in my characters.  She wants me to bleed out, gasping at the power of words.

She has an angular walk, like she’s going to knife someone.  She has full red lips and one crooked tooth.  She sings and the world goes dim.  She makes the colors brighter, the focus grittier, and gives me a soundtrack.

She’s not satisfied that I’m just the girl on the couch.  She’s not happy that I’m not perfect.  She points out where my bra cuts into the flesh on my back and pokes me in the side right where she knows the skin will give the most.  She keeps me insecure, because that makes me vulnerable.  It makes my skin itch and my stomach turn when I hear someone laugh. They’re laughing at me.

She sits cross legged in the corner of my living room and thumbs through my books.  She laughs at my jokes and makes me coffee. She’s the boys that made fun of me in middle school and the boys that walked out of my life.  She’s the friend who grabbed my hand in high school and made me feel a part of something bigger than myself, and the one who closed the door in my face while I cried.

She’s the five year old girl inside of me that just wants to be loved.

**

My muse is a drunk like me.  She is me, and I’m working on getting better at knowing her without becoming her.

This is not an exit.

Every exit is an entry somewhere else. Tom Stoppard.

10 years ago.

I could hear the TV on in her apartment.  The door was shut and I had taken the stairs two at a time at a near run.  Her welcome mat was worn, I remember it as graying green in a ragged doorway against scuffed tick tock tiles.  It was an old building on Apple Ave in Cincinnati that shouldered in near Garfield park.  The park itself was home to a pack of homeless men led by a man in a worn bomber jacket and grizzled beard named, appropriately, Dog.  I used to bring him coffee at the end of the day when I worked at the small local place off of 7th.  LA had been a strange place.  I’d flown in on someone else’s dime, hit comic conventions, and slept with a gangly boy who talked of buying a house after he picked me up at the airport.  I felt used and lonely, but I was home now.

I knocked for the third time, pretending that she just hadn’t heard me.  Of course she would open the door.  We’d been friends for nearly four years.  I’d seen her naked.  I’d seen her transform from the mousy girl wearing a black blousey dress with little blue flowers and hair the color of cheddar cheese into this auburn haired geek goddess.  I’d held her while she cried over each boy that didn’t realize the gift she had given them and promised to slash the tires of the worst one’s Kharman Gia.  We’d drunk together, fought together, loved together, and fucked together.  Of course she would open the door.

I knocked again.  Their voices hushed and the TV turned off.  I could hear her come to the door.  It was like those split frames in the movies where I could imagine her forehead touching mine, but the door never opened.  I watched the shadow slip to the right, toward her bedroom and the light over my head flicked off.  She knew I lied about LA.  She knew I had been lying to her for years, but she forgave me.  She always gave me one more chance, but the hallway was dark now.  There was a light on a floor above and four floors down was the street.  It was a long walk and my shoes squeaked awkwardly as I stumbled away.

That was how Jenny made her exit.

She taught me that you can love unconditionally until it becomes something that tears you apart.  She taught me what real friends were and it was my fault I lost it.  I can only hope that one day she’ll understand she is my yardstick of how I now treat those I love.  Her door closed and it took me nearly a decade to figure out it was because mine had never opened.

12 years ago

“I’m going to get a tattoo.  Anyone want to come?” She lounged across the counter and grinned as I took off my coffee stained apron.

“I’m off work and I got some cash.” I shrugged.  She gave me that quirky smile that wrinkled her nose.

“Let’s do this thing.”

The tattoo parlor was white with a small space in the rear with a gallery window.  The inker was pale, tall, scrawny, and had a pointy nose that reminded me of a ferret. He was wearing a white t-shirt and ripped jeans that matched his thin brown ponytail.  I went first and made faces at her while the needle burned into my neck.  We’d sat outside flipping through a book I had in my trunk on 365 Days of Zen to find characters.  She was wearing a pale pink tank top, black bra, and all the insouciant rocker I knew possible.  She had this beaten down old leather hat and a way of humming Stevie Ray Vaughn that I found myself drawn to uncontrollably.  She also had a boyfriend with crooked teeth and the charm of James Dean.  I blew him because I wanted her. I just didn’t know it at the time.

She held my hand while the needle painted “serenity” between her shoulder blades.  She’d gotten sober in Seattle before moving to Toledo.  Two weeks later I was leaving and she was drinking beer with me on the pull out couch in the back of my rental house.  She slugged beer like they did in movies, with a gentle ease and careless sexiness.  We’d go to the swing-set at midnight and laugh in the rain, kicking our toes to the moon and believing that this friendship was forever.

“I’ve never kissed a girl before.” She told the wall by the TV.  I watched her throat move when she swallowed.

“I have, a couple times.”  She looked over at me then, eyes blurred red and hidden in the half light.

“Would you kiss me?”

I went hot.  She had pale skin and chestnut hair.  There were these two freckles on her neck that fascinated me and I stared hard at them, willing her to kiss me first.  Then it wouldn’t be my fault.  She did and she tasted like beer with a fast pink tongue and warm skin just under the hair that fell around her shoulders.  When she was done, I blinked owlishly, confused.  She got up and walked out of the room.  I left the next day.

Carolyn taught me that there is a difference between wanting someone and friendship.  She taught me that just because you kiss someone, doesn’t make it forever. She taught me to revel in the moment and laugh like we’re dying.  I learned I was beautiful if I’d just believe it.  Still working on that.

9 years ago

There was a pile of used stir sticks and wet straw wrappers soaking up cream and coffee on the counter when he walked in. He caffeinated three times a day on his breaks from the local trash paper.  He laughed loudly, hummed alot, and drank his coffee black. I’d never noticed him until he looked down at the mess.

“It’s a haiku splatter.” He remarked.  I fell in love and he left some change in the tip jar.

He liked to share me, but that was cool- I thought I liked to share him too.  After all, we were the most fuckable couple in the Cincinnati music scene. He was tall with a big nose and long fingered hands.  He had blue hair on his best days, and lime green on his worst.  He played piano in jeans and bare feet, sweeping epic notes that filled the room with song.  He fingered his guitar and stroked out melodies that still get stuck in my head. He read the books I told him he’d like- and liked them.  He started quoting Harlan Ellison to me after sex.  He fucked like a porn star and kissed me like he’d never tasted anything as savory.  We had a love that left bruises on my hips that ached when I wore jeans.  We stayed in a loft he’d built in an old ice cream factory and had a lot of sex.  Alot.

I tried to keep him happy, pulling tighter when he started pulling away.  I started dressing differently.  I picked up his drink of choice- Jameson neat, water back.  I cried myself to sleep against his turned back.  I felt alone with his arms around me when he looked at other girls. I made myself miserable trying to figure out how to make him stay.  I cried.  I pleaded.  I slept with people with him.

He left me while I bought him dinner before his band practice.  I calmly paid the check, dropped him off, and fled to my apartment to scream myself sick.  I tried for three months to get him back, but finally when I’d moved on he stopped back in for a quickie.  When it was over I just wanted to leave.  The sex magic was gone and he was just weird looking.  It took four years and different states before we could be friends again.

Matt is still the best sex I’ve ever had.  But now I know that you can’t go back, if it was broken the first time- it doesn’t magically get fixed.  I learned that I can’t change myself to suit someone else, but can only make myself happy.  Doesn’t mean I still don’t try every once and awhile, but I was the girl who after burning her hand on mom’s stove would check the neighbor’s stove too.

Each time something has ended in my life, something else has opened up for me.  If Matt hadn’t left me, I wouldn’t have found the internet and therefore would never have met my best friend of the last seven years.  If Jenny had opened the door I would never have found the necessary courage to learn how to be honest.  If Carolyn hadn’t gotten sober once, I would have never thought I could do it too- wouldn’t have known that there were places I could ask for help.  It’s the footnotes that are what makes me who I am, and as rough and crazy as my past is- I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  I wouldn’t be me without it.

I’m a pastiche of endings- or maybe just a plethora of beginnings.