The phone rang. It was my crazy uncle, David, “Are you sitting down?”
“OK.” His voice was manic and forceful, the same way mine had become. Defiantly, I remained standing,
“You’re sitting down?”
He took a heavy breath, exhaling into the receiver,”Brett’s dead.”
Brett was my cousin, not yet thirty. My fingers went numb. My legs went weak. I sat down, “Brett?”
“Dead. Your mom found him in Bryan’s basement.”
“We don’t know, but I’ve heard some things.”
I imagined Brett’s fat body, cold and lifeless, “Heart attack?”
“Serious drugs,” my uncle lowered his voice, “I’ve got my people working on it. We’re going to track down the cartel that gave the narcotics to him. Once we’ve established positive I.D. I’ll be on the first flight to Portland.”
Everyone processes grief differently. My uncle managed things by escaping into a fantasy realm where he was a secret agent with lots of high-tech buddies. My method was different. I focused on the fact that the shittier things got, the better my book would be. Life is sad like that. It pummels you with tragedy, then let’s you figure out how to cope.
A few weeks later my mom and I were in her car driving north towards Jackie’s house. “It was terrible,” she said. “Brett’s body was purple,” My mom had driven over the mountains to save me from myself. She was shaken, changed somehow. It had been a rough summer. “I can’t get the image out of my mind. I went downstairs to tell Brett dinner was ready. The shower was running in the bathroom. There were needles and a spoon next to the sink. Then I found him. He was naked and purple, flopped over an exercise bike. I checked his pulse, then told Bryan to call 911.”
My cousin came from a wealthy, Christian family. He’d smuggled a bunch of heroin from Washington to North Dakota. The heroin was packed inside balloons he swallowed. One of the balloons broke. My mom found his naked body, a trail of shit running down one leg.
“The last time I saw him was at Andrew’s wedding,” I looked out the window at the changing landscape, we were leaving the city, moving into farm country. “He offered me weed, but I never thought he was into hard drugs.”
“It’s been going on for years,” my mom said. “This is why I don’t want you smoking pot.”
“I don’t smoke pot, I eat pot.”
“I worry about you every night,” her voice was filled with that nameless terror found under beds and in the dark corners of childhood basements.
“Temazapam is heroin in pill form. Would you rather I took that?”
“I’d rather you drank the sleepy time tea I bought you. If you mix it with ginger it’ll put you right to sleep.
“No, it won’t.”
“It puts me right to sleep.”
“You’re not on prednisone.”
“I just don’t want you to end up like Brett.”
“Fine,” I decided to compromise, “I promise not to smuggle heroin up my ass.”
Humanity is not dignified. We are animals, depraved and fragile, nowhere is this more evident than in death. Society glosses over our condition with nice clothing and fancy dinnerware, but beneath the façade, we’re all like Brett, naked, purple and dead.
Jackie lived in a mansion in Northern Colorado surrounded by an infinite tract of prairie. We pulled into her gravel driveway after dark, the summer night was majestic and encompassing. A crowd poured out of her well-lit home: young girls, middle aged ladies and old women. Happy, playful dogs darted between their legs. I wasn’t expecting such a gathering, a car full of clowns that suddenly emptied. Jackie stood in the middle, her slight frame as casual as it was proud. “Come on in, the place is a mess, we’re still unpacking.”
Gallantly, I grabbed my mother’s heavy bags, “I’ve got these,” I said as loudly as I could, trying to impress any unseen beauties gathered in the driveway.
“Such a nice guy,” said Jackie.
“He’s always looking out for me,” said my mom proudly. Recently, my mom and I had become friends. For the first time in my life I could talk to her without losing my temper, but it wasn’t me, it was the prednisone. The drugs in my system were playing a cruel game, setting me up for the final, crushing disappointment.
Jackie’s mansion was palatial with high-vaulted ceilings and ergonomic corners. It had that tacky aesthetic common in modern homes. Everything was expensive, but none of it matched. Black marble countertops sat next to beige tile; tropical plants grew out of massive, stone pots. The cabinetry had contemporary lines with victorian hardware, each door inset with stained glass. There was a circular window cut into the wall high above.
“Let me show you around,” Jackie’s voice was deep, gravely and warm, a smoker who regretted nothing. She led us into the master bedroom which sat on the ground floor. “We just had the walls painted.”
“I’ve always loved green,” my mother said.
Jackie was beautiful, a grandmother who had never lost her youthful glow. She had piles of waify, blonde hair and a twenty-year-old’s body, “The guy who painted the place is really good,” she said. “He’s an artist who makes murals when he can get the work, and subsidizes himself with house painting when times are tight.”
The walls were certainly well-painted, and the carpet was thick and soft, but there was a loneliness here. It emanated from the castle’s matriarch. Standing there, staring at her well-painted walls, I realized that it was all a ruse, a palace for a lonely queen. The high ceilings packed full of people amounted to a magician’s trick. Look over here! You’ll never guess what I’m hiding.
As we meandered through the luxurious halls, more women appeared. How many people lived here? It wasn’t until we reached the last room on the expansive second story that I saw the first male of the litter, a young boy, sitting on his bed, playing with a lizard.
“This is Thomas,” said Jackie. “You’ll be sleeping in his room tonight.”
“Hey, Thomas,” I sat down on the bed, “Thanks for loaning me your room.” He had dark hair that fell in curls around his big eyes. “What have you got there?”
He held up the back of his hand so I could get a better look at his brown, desert lizard. The thing was tame and stared back without fear. When I was a kid all of my rabbits, guinea pigs and turtles went feral — sitting in their cages, waiting for me to play with them. Thomas was different, he cared about living things. Jackie took my mom on a tour of the rest of the house. I stayed with the boy and his pet.
“Why do so many people live here?” I asked.
Thomas shrugged, “I don’t know.”
“You ever get tired of being the only boy?”
“Not really.” The little reptile leapt off his hand and onto the bedspread.
“That’s good. You’re smart. Growing up around this much estrogen is guaranteed to make you a ladies’ man.” I wanted to ask him where his father was, and if his mom was one of the women I’d seen on the tour, but questions like that rarely had pleasant answers. We sat there, playing and talking until Thomas put his lizard back in its aquarium.
We left his room and wandered down stairs where my mom and Jackie were talking about herbs. There was an air about my mom, one I’d never seen — she was playful, happy and eager to please. I realized that Jackie, this beautiful white witch, was my mom’s hero. She was attractive, successful and liked. My mom was a solitary creature, more concerned with efficiency than friendship. It was odd seeing her enamored by someone other than herself.
“It kicked me off, again,” a female voice called down from the loft upstairs.
“Melissa’s working on her homework,” said Jackie. “Her math homework. She’s having a terrible time of it.”
“Nathan’s amazing at math,” said my mom.
“No, I’m not.”
“Well, you get good grades.”
“No, I don’t.” In engineering school I’d worked my ass off to memorize the steps necessary to solve higher level equations, but understanding had always eluded me.
“It’s still not working,” the voice called again.
“Nathan knows about computers,” my mom beamed proudly.
“I know about Photoshop. It’s not the same thing.
“That’s more than anyone else around here,” said Jackie. “Would you mind going upstairs and taking a look? Our Internet hasn’t been set up yet. We’re running off 3G. It’s costing a fortune.”
I didn’t know much about technology. I could find my way around various programs, but when it came to fixing hardware, I was a novice. Still, I wandered upstairs, curious to put a face to the new voice. The girl was in her mid-twenties, attractive with a strong body and deeply tanned face. She bounced a small child on her lap, the second male I’d seen that night. “Hi, I’m Nathan.”
“Melissa. You know anything about computers?”
“The Internet’s not working.”
I sat down and traced cables back to the router. Meaningless lights flashed on the black device. I unplugged the unit, then plugged it back in.
“You did it!” said Melissa, typing in a web address. “Thanks!”
“No problem,” I stared wistfully at the black router. “Wouldn’t it be great if life was like a computer? Just unplug the cord and everything goes back to normal.”
“What?” Melissa was only half-listening, navigating the Internet while I babbled.
“What are you working on?” I changed the subject.
“Homework,” she combed her child’s hair with one hand. “Math homework.”
In a distant past, before the madness and disease, I had been an engineering student. The only part I enjoyed were the math classes. There was something elemental about those numbers, a magic you could touch. “What math?”
“College algebra,” she exhaled through frustrated lips. “I have no idea what’s going on.”
The little boy hit his mother in the chest, a walloping slap delivered with glee. He looked at me for approval, “Cody, no!” Melissa grabbed his hands and scurried him into another room, “I’m putting you in time out!” Cody began to cry, the defiant yells of a spoiled child. I sat in the room next to the computer, uncertain as to whether I should leave or wait for Melissa to return.
“Do you know anything about algebra?” Melissa came around the corner, straightening her clothes with one hand.
“Want to help me out with a few problems?”
I loved teaching. There was something theatrical about it, like being on stage, but with a purpose. You had to speak clearly and be dynamic. You had to keep your students’ attention without revealing the answers. For the past few years I’d been teaching an art class or two at a local high school. The kids called me Mr. Ninja Nate.
Melissa and I struggled through her homework. She wasn’t academic, but she was trying. “You just have to keep working,” I said. “Stay on top of it and you’ll be fine. What degree are you going for?”
“Psychology. I’ve been through a lot and I want to help other women in the same position.”
There is something strange about people who believe themselves qualified to fix the emotional problems of other humans. Melissa told me her story. There was a lover and a first born daughter, but drugs and alcohol had torn them both away, buried them beneath a cloud of forgotten revelries. It was an ancient story, as old as humanity itself. Now this fractured woman wanted to mend her faults in other people, as if by this magic she could heal her own self-inflicted trauma. I wondered about Jackie and her house full of women, what ancient blasphemy was she absolving?
Eventually Cody became restless and escaped his time out. “I’m putting him to bed,” said Melissa. I wandered back downstairs.
Jackie and my mom were quiet, both of them clearly delighted. “What did you think of Melissa?” Asked Jackie with a voice like a wink.
“She’ll be fine if she keeps on top of things,” I sidestepped the question. I wasn’t in the market for a girl with a past, but my mom and Jackie giggled just the same.
That night I dosed marijuana and fell asleep, dark and deep, cradled within the arms of the silent prairie. Not even the glow from the lizard’s cage penetrated my dreams.
In the morning I was the first to wake up, marijuana finally losing ground to the steroids in my blood. Diligently, I pulled out my MP3 recorder and hit play. The familiar track began to run. The instructor’s voice was confident, friendly and false, “Hello, everyone, my name is Ashanti and I’ll be guiding you through your practice today.” I thought of Little Ex. She had taken classes to become a yoga instructor. The final step had been a weekend retreat in the mountains. Her guru gave her a necklace set with power stones. He’d also given her a new name, a yoga name, something similar to, but not quite like Ashanti’s. It was an ancient tradition, changing one’s name upon enlightenment. Buddhist’s did it, the Pope did it, there was something human about the practice.
“Do we want to talk or should we just begin?” asked Ashanti, her voice forever captured on my recorder. “Let’s just begin. Meet me in child’s pose, hands in front of you with knees spread wide to the outside edges of your mat.”
When I did it, I felt bad, sneaking a recording device into a yoga class, but the sessions were expensive and I was running out of money. Ashanti moved us through the various poses. My Auschwitz arms trembled with exertion. I remember looking into the mirrors that lined the room. A scarecrow stared back. His lines were elegant and tragic, Gollum released into the world. I wanted to paint that graceless, broken thing.
The class built slowly towards crescendo, then eased into relaxed poses, we melted into the floor. Ashanti attended each student, squirting lavender mist and applying damp rags to our foreheads. At my mat she placed her hand on my chest. A distorted thump played on the recording. Ashanti’s hand had hit the device I was wearing around my neck. I’ve run through that sequence hundreds of times and with each pass I wonder if Ashanti knew what I had hidden beneath my t-shirt.
The class ended, Ashanti left the room. Her students rose or laid in place. To my right, a pretty girl with a yoga body remained motionless. I gathered my things, rolling my mat and folding my towel. She stirred and began doing the same. “Nathan?” The girl said. I wasn’t wearing my glasses. Her features were lost in the blur.
I moved closer, the world coming into focus. It was this little, punk chick from the neighborhood, one side of her head shaved in the style of the day. “Megan, how’s it going?”
“I didn’t recognize you. You’re so skinny,” she grabbed my hand at the wrist. “What happened to you?”
In a room on the prairie a month removed, I cycled through the sequence again, rebuilding my frail form, growing strong, becoming something my friends would recognize.
“What are you doing?” The door opened. Thomas, the lizard’s owner had come to check on me. I was in happy baby pose, each foot gripped in my hands, my back against the floor, my legs up in the air. It was an embarrassing moment for both of us.
I released my feet and rolled onto my butt. “Hey Thomas, is everybody awake?”
“Some people are.” He stood awkwardly in the doorway, not knowing if it was alright to come in.
“You want your lizard?”
He nodded and came into the room, scooping up his brown, scaled friend, before heading out the door.
I put on a shirt and went down stairs to join a slowly growing throng of women. As we talked and ate breakfast I began to piece together the nature of this place. It was a home for women without a home. Some of them were old and poor, others had nowhere else to go. Jackie was collecting strays, nursing them back to health with vitamins and love. I thought about the loneliness I’d seen as she talked about the man who had painted her walls. Her private trauma could not be soothed, no matter how many people she helped.
“Good morning, Nathan,” Jackie came out of her freshly-painted master bedroom, “How’d you sleep?”
“Like a log.”
I’d come to Jackie’s at my mother’s behest. My mom’s voodoo methods didn’t work on me, there was too much baggage, but Jackie had been able to hear marshmallow root in my voice. After lunch I sat at a table with my white witches. Jackie began her ritual while my mother chimed in, “I told him he needed a digestive enzyme!”
Jackie’s method was similar to Pat’s. She asked me to make the OK symbol with my fingers, then gripped my thumb and forefinger in hands that were soft like worn paper, but unlike Pat she didn’t lean in, didn’t stare at the place between my fingers. She was relaxed, subvocalizing commands and reading my biorhythms as she went.
The entire ceremony was unnecessary. I already knew what Jackie was going to say. “Stop eating everything. Unless it’s broccoli. You can eat things if they’re broccoli.”
Jackie began by eliminating all of the white things, “Don’t eat any sugar, flour or dairy products, except natural butter and greek yogurt, you can have eggs, but only if the yolks are soft.” Then she moved onto the meats, “No beef, lamb or chicken. You can eat turkey.”
“How is turkey different than chicken?”
“It’s bigger,” she answered wryly. “You’re testing strong on fish, but only if it has fins and scales.”
“So I’m Jewish, now?”
“For the time being. Listen to your body, if you eat something that disagrees with you, eliminate it from your diet. Stay away from broccoli.”
“What about alcohol?” I asked. It had been months since I’d had a drink, but I was weaning off prednisone and soon I would be allowed to imbibe, at least as far as my doctor was concerned.
Jackie began subvocalizing various liquors. “Vodka!” I yelled at my fingers, as Jackie pulled. “Please, just give me vodka!” I squeezed as hard as I could. My fingers went limp like noodles.
“No vodka,” said Jackie. She went on to test rum, whiskey and wine, “You can drink organic red wine, but only in moderation. I know a few good varieties that are available at most stores.”
Western medicine addresses symptoms, prescribing pills to cover the pain. Jackie was striking at the cause. My guts were broken. For decades I’d filled them with rotten sludge, now it was time to clean them out. It would be painful and slow. I would have to deprive myself of the things I wanted most. I’d grown up in a holistic family and tried and failed to complete any number of cleanses. I hoped that this time would be different, but I doubted it. My only real motivation was the look in Hruza’s eyes when he said I didn’t have a chance.
A few weeks prior I’d gone to my follow up visit at the gastroenterology department. Hruza crossed one effeminate leg over the other and read me the results of my biopsy, “You have Chron’s.” My chronic condition had been confirmed by a lab in Los Angeles. There was no cure. I was officially broken. “I’m going to prescribe azathioprine. It’s a drug commonly given to prevent transplant rejection in people who received kidney transplants, but it’s been successful in suppressing Chron’s in some patients.”
I was still suffering the unintended consequences of the last drug I’d been prescribed, “What are the side effects?”
Hruza stiffened slightly, “Every drug has side effects, some are desirable and others are not, but in the vast majority of cases the rewards out weigh the costs.”
“What are the costs of azathioprine?”
“We’re going to monitor the effects. For the first few months you’ll come in for weekly blood draws to make sure the white blood cell counts in your liver and bones are where they need to be.”
My MP3 recorder hung around my neck. I was unsure of the legalities around recording a meeting with your own doctor, but the little, black device gave me courage, “So the drug you’re prescribing thrashes my liver and bones?”
“In most patients the damage falls within acceptable limits.”
“What about diet and exercise? My mom is into holistic medicine and—”
“I’ve been practicing medicine for twenty years,” Hruza’s cut me off, “and in that time one hundred per cent of my patients who have tried to regulate their Chron’s with diet and exercise have seen their symptoms return.” His words were forceful, with all the weight of a learned man.
Still, I doubted him. “So diet and exercise will have no effect?”
“None,” Hruza shook his head.
“I can eat whatever I want, so long as I’m on the pills?”
“Yes. Azathioprine will negate the inflammation caused by your trigger foods.”
I was incredulous. There was a problem with my digestive system. To claim that diet had no bearing on the organs that processed food was ludicrous. He was trying to scare me. Other patients of his had tried holistic methods and failed, returning to him worse for the wear. He wanted to protect me, but he was lying in the process.
“Alright,” I pretended he’d convinced me, “What do I do next?”
Hruza wrote me a prescription and told me where to go for my first blood draw. I paid for the visit and returned home.
A few weeks later I was at Jackie’s. She limited my diet to fruits— but not all fruits— and vegetables— but only certain kinds. I could eat a little turkey and a little fish from time to time. She said I needed exercise, sunlight and, above all, self control. “Your body can heal itself, but it will take time.”
East and West, day and night, faith and science. Hruza offered me pills and promised he and his staff would do the rest. Jackie claimed healing came only with self sacrifice. Like the liturgy of the Catholic church with its confession and penance, I had done wrong and had to atone for my sins. I didn’t know which path was right, but Hruza would always be there, waiting for me to fail, a shelf full of medication at the ready. I decided to try the holistic method, as difficult and unlikely as that seemed.
to be continued