We perceive that only through utter defeat are we able to take our first steps toward liberation and strength.
“Right,” I grumble, rolling my eyes and tucking Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions back into my purse. The “druggy buggy” hurdles over potholed pavement and my stomach churns – from reading in the back seat or from hours of contrived self-reflection, I’m not sure. The old woman next to me dozes with her head back, mouth agape, and the van buzzes with vapid chatter.
“Guess what Amanda said in group. You’ll never guess,” Stephanie whispers from the seat in front of me. “I don’t care.” I turn away, annoyed. Trying to clear my mind of war stories, I lean into the cool windowpane and watch the palm trees roll by in the night.
At a stoplight, an emaciated black woman strides past our van, an angel gliding over the sidewalk in white sweats, white sneakers, and a white t-shirt. Not long ago, I darted through Missouri with that same look on my face. Hollow-eyes, clamped jaw, and furrowed brow: an angel? No. A specter thirsting for blood.
White light…white heat.
I feel it. White heat jolting my heart into a hollow tunk of preordained bliss. My world is a plume of smoke. Thoughts stall, immured in this cacophony of rhythm, this salivating mouth, these shaking hands. Veins dilate and shoulders tense – it’s here. White light flits against the surface of the spoon and white heat sizzles from the smack. I dip the needle in, pulling liquid through the cotton, filling my rig with the grace of an old soldier. The panacea. The philosopher’s stone. In the murky light, I tap the bubbles out.
“Do you need help again?” Dane asks, languid and dreamy-eyed, propping himself up on our bed. Since he bought the junk, he fixed first.
I can’t talk because I’m tying myself off, belt in mouth, ready to go. I nod and grunt, handing him the needle with pleading eyes.
“That Haitian woman who speed-walks all over town? Yeah, I see her everywhere.” Molly leans in closer, flicking her cigarette into the Starbucks ashtray. “I heard that she popped a squat on the floor at a Jerry’s General store. She was mad that the owner asked her to leave.”
Wow, I think, pulling a crushed cigarette from Molly’s box. “That’s crazy.” Molly nods sadly.
“Poor woman…she must really need help.”
“Like us?” I ask, lighting up and taking a deep drag, eyebrows raised.
She smiles. We did meet at rehab, after all.
Oh long streams of light, lift me from this dirty town.
There is mold in the closet, the sky-blue paint is peeling from the shutters and the building is crumbling. Along the street are tiny pastel-colored houses – houses that were beautiful – pipes to nowhere, broken windows, unlivable waste. Litter sprouts like daisies from the unmowed lawns and children wander day and night like lost hounds. They look tough in baggy jeans and wife beaters, standing on my corner, hands in pockets, lips sneering. And I’m twisting and turning in the cool sheets after bedtime, watching from my window. God, how I want what they are selling.
The car in front of me screeches to a halt three blocks from my house. The Haitian woman bounds over to it and a dark hand snakes out from the driver window, clasping something in its balled fist. She grabs it, tucks it in her pocket, and sprints down the street to dodge behind a bush. As I pass by, I see her crouching in the dewy grass, digging her fingers into new treasure. My chest compresses, thighs tense, clit pulses. one. two. three. Fixing is like fucking, I think. I drive on.
…cunning, baffling, powerful.
I’m glassy-eyed and barely able to stand. Two cops drag my ragdoll frame through double doors that groan and slam on our heels, and I squint to get my bearings – white walls, white ceilings, white floors, stale air. Keys jangle and my handcuffs click. Cold metal unclasps. Overhead the buzzing of fluorescence, a woman’s shoes. Wheelchair. Creak. Time present and time past are both perhaps, what? Wheels moving over tile. Dane holds a needle. Mother’s eyes slam like a trap door. Dark. Hammer against thumb, needle against flesh. Orange and yellow leaves rustle. Light. Flicker. There is something I’m forgetting. Forthright afoul. Please.
Broth rises in my throat and I am beating my fist against glass. A nurse looks up from his desk, bored. He runs his hands through long unruly dreadlocks – returns to scrawling on a clipboard. Instinctively, I move toward the exit sign at the end of the hall and slam face-first into the glass wall, propelling backward onto tile.
Knock knock. A dim square of light cascades onto the floor from the locked window at my bedside. Knock knock knock. I struggle to sit up and push my bed sheets away. Around me, apparitions resolve – a dozen patients sleeping soundly: snoring, gargling, muttering, and breathing wispy breaths. Like them, I’ve been dosed with Seroquel. My head is a load of bricks. My roommate Maria turns suddenly, wild-eyed, frozen with her fist against the wall, frizzy black hair flying behind her.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Looking for angels.” She locks eyes with me, daring me to question her, then twists back around and raps three hard raps against the wall, pressing her ear against it. Knock knock knock.
I lay back, sliding my sheet up to my chin. Maybe, just maybe, I am doing the same thing.
“AAAAAAGGGGHHHHH, No, NO, NOOOOOO!”
The Haitian woman is screaming from the next ward over. Down the hall, I see her pulling her hair and elbowing an orderly in the face; her eyes are bloodshot terror swiveling. The orderlies circle her like vultures. They take her down face first, hands slapping tile with a loud clap. After a few seconds, she stops writhing and goes limp. Chairs creak and patients mull around the room. The AC hums
Did you really believe? Come on. Did you really believe that everyone makes it out? Almost no one makes it out. Almost no one makes it out.
One and a half years clean and sober, I stand behind the counter at Spot Coffee. The day outside is sweltering, and the sky stretches out into a limitless blaze, pulsing hot against the flat land.
“Ahem. Kat.” Sarah mutters into my ear, shooting a pointed glare at the woman shuffling into the open-air café. It’s her. The Haitian woman stops short at the counter, staring at her flip-flops and mumbling something about water. Her arms and face are glazed with sweat, her hair matted with little tangles of grey.
“The water is to your right, ma’am. Here’s a cup.” I try to meet her eyes as I hand her a plastic cup. She doesn’t take the bait, weaves around to fill her cup and guzzles it loudly.
Sarah leans in, “Ummm…aren’t we supposed to make the homeless people leave?”
“Yes,” I pause to wonder what will happen to her. Will she lose the will to fight? Will she choose life? In my mind, she lies limp on the cold tile of the psych ward.
“Just let her be.”
The woman tucks the cup into her pocket, glances back at me impassively, and breezes through the door, her pajama pants and overlarge shirt rustling in the wind. And like the nightmare, she is gone.
Melissa Elizabeth Daniels, the “Haitian woman” (whom I later found out was not Haitian), passed away on October 25, 2015 in Delray Beach, Florida. She was 42 years old.
Kathryn Robinson is a PhD student in American Studies at the University of Kansas. She is currently juggling her work on a chapbook of lyric essays with her graduate studies in Black history. Her co-authored piece with David Roediger appeared in November’s Counterpunch.