August, 2013. Issue 41. We're Ba-ack!
Not Going Out in a Blaze of Self-Destructive Glory
by Elsa Williams
I was seriously thinking about dropping out of graduate school. Not because I wanted to go work at a dot com (it was 1999 and a lot of my classmates quit because they couldn't bear to let the internet revolution pass them by) but because I hated it, because I wasn't good enough, didn't have the drive, wasn't really sure what I was doing there. After my first year classes ended, I was in the wilderness. All the things I had always been good at -- the tests, the problem sets, the grades -- were done and, by the end of my second year, it was just me, working 12 hour days, not really sure how many more times I should try to replicate the former postdoc's fishy results.
My boyfriend Michael had died eight months before. I had found him dead on our sofa, cold and hard and grey, a tourniquet still on his arm. I took two days off of school, and then tried to plow on. I deferred my qualifying exams, but the preliminary research I needed for my thesis proposal was going nowhere. I couldn't see how I would ever be able to pass. My advisor had never had a graduate student before, and he was giving me space, as he saw it, to grieve. But it left me completely rudderless and paralyzingly anxious about my quals.
I had started doing heroin again with Sam. She was the only one of my friends that wanted to talk fondly about Michael, who didn't try to tell me I was better off without him. She worked as an escort, and I helped her dye her hair, lent her clothes, took pictures of her when she something for an agency's website and gave her keys so she could crash with me when she got off work at one of the downtown hotels. She was spending most of her money on dope, and was chronically couch surfing. I got high with her a couple times a month and then one night she left me a bigger chunk of tar than she meant to, and I nursed it along for the rest of the week.
It was pretty clear that I couldn't keep fucking up and stay in school. Too many Saturdays too hungover to go into lab. And I felt like I had lost any ability to see the big picture, to think creatively. I kept trying to figure out why my research wasn't working, but I was pretty sure that it was because I was a stupid, disorganized junky.
I was coming to terms with the idea that, after all the years when school had been the thing that kept me focused, kept me in check, I could drop out, try to get a job as a technician or a secretary or a barista. Never really living up to my potential, but not going out in a blaze of self-destructive glory either.
That summer, my mother got me a ticket to Baltimore for my grandmother's 84th birthday, and I took a few days to go to Boston and visit my friend Kate. I was nervous about seeing her; I wasn't used to being the fucked up one. In college, I had been in awe of her -- she was brilliant, hyper-literate, selfish, manipulative. She always pushed things further than I would dare. Two weeks after we met, she gave me acid for the first time. And a year later, she taught me how to shoot dope.
That had been five years before, and we'd both been using off and on. I'd managed to stay clean enough long enough to graduate. Kate hadn't – she was OK up in Maine with her family, but every time she came back to try and finish school, she started using again. Except this last time. After 6 months in Maine, she'd gone back to school. Right away, she met a sweet guy – MIT grad, computer programmer. He took her out to dinner, took her on expensive vacations, and she'd been off dope for more than a year. I wasn't sure it was wise of her to let me visit.
Outside of San Francisco, and particularly in Boston, I felt like a freak. I had been so homesick for the Bay Area when I was in college, and I'm sure that contributed to my crushing depression. And now, standing outside the Copley Square T with my bag in the oppressive heat and humidity, people were staring at me with open hostility. My hair was burgundy with a platinum streak. I was wearing tall lace up boots, the kind the bike messengers wore, and a septum ring. My eyebrows were plucked too thin and my black dress was too short.
I'd lost weight. I kept forgetting to eat. And then, when I started doing heroin again, I'd avoid eating so I wouldn't throw up when I was high. My face was getting gaunt and my breasts had flattened down to almost nothing. But I still had my wide hips, my big ass and my thick legs, which never seemed to get skinny no matter how much weight I lost.
Squinting, I saw Kate across the street. I yelled, "Hey, babe." She ran over and we hugged. She looked beautiful – heart shaped face, broad smile, dark shiny hair pulled back in a ponytail. She'd always been skinnier than me, but she'd put on just enough weight to fill out her breasts and smooth the sharp angles of her face. I told her she looked great. She complimented me on the septum ring and my boots.
We dragged my bag back to the apartment, her boyfriend's condo, and she made some food while we waited for him to get back from work. I watched as she toasted pine nuts, chopped tomatoes, mixed balsamic vinaigrette and made an amazing spinach salad– I'd never seen her cook anything more complicated than Mac 'N Cheese. As she picked a spinach leaf out of the bowl, she looked at it then looked at me with a knowing smile. "I've always been a sybarite," she said, "I've just been realizing how much I like really good food."
Her boyfriend, Alex, came home – he was friendly, glad to finally meet me, he'd heard so much about me. He was shorter than Kate with boyish good looks but none of the spark of danger that Kate usually went for. He had some weird nerdy blind spots -- he interrupted us while we were talking, because he didn't know what marginalized or rationalization meant. He seemed a little unsure what to do with all the money he was making. He'd rented a beautiful condo with a view of the Charles, but it was still only half unpacked. He'd bought a few thousand dollars worth of photo equipment. We drank White Russians and took pictures of each other. When he saw my covetous look, Alex offered to lend me the Mamiya, but I declined -- it seemed like too expensive of a thing to lend out so casually.
Kate and I started talking about old times. Kate had a talent for retelling squalid events as picaresque adventures, in which, finding herself in the most dangerous or compromising situations, she used only her instincts, her biting wit and her good looks to make everyone else look like the semi-human simpletons they were. She told a story about driving to Maine one time with Ian, her then boyfriend; they were so fucked up it took them an hour to realize they'd taken the wrong highway. They stumbled out of their junky-mobile to see an enormous sun burnt woman in a mumu. Kate tried to pull herself together to ask, "What state are we in?" The woman smirked and said, "I have no idea." But when Kate told it, she was the hero.
The first night I was there, she looked me in the eye and told me she never wanted to do dope again, that she never wanted to be back to the untenable existence she'd had before. But I could watch her contentment and resolve melting the longer I stayed. Two days later, she pulled me aside and told me she'd run into an old connect and wanted to get high. I tried to say I didn't think it was a good idea.
"But if I got some you wouldn't say no." I nodded. She was looking down at her long slim arms appraisingly. She had a couple spots that might have been bug bites, but looked suspiciously like injection sites. I didn't ask.
But I at least tried to say the right things. It will screw up your relationship with Alex — if you don't tell him or if you do. You're happy being sober.
Maybe if I'd really wanted to stop her, I could have, but I knew how her mind worked. In college, I used it to my advantage. If I wanted to get high but was fighting my better judgement, I would call her (or when her phone was disconnected, leave a note). Once she got involved, we would get high. And lack of money, or lack of connections, or any number of things she was or was not supposed to be doing, wouldn't stop her.
That night, Kate walked over to the futon and kissed me goodnight, ran her fingertips up and down my inner arm. She said "Sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite," drawing out the word "bite" with her fingers still on the crook of my arm, as though she meant to imply something. I convulsed away and hissed "Fuck you." Realizing that her boyfriend in the next room had probably heard me and might be suspicious, I rolled back towards her and said, "Sorry. Goodnight sweetheart."
But of course her boyfriend wasn't suspicious, not then, or even the next night when Kate was nauseous and starting to nod. Over White Russians, when he had been listening eagerly to the stories about the bad old days of Kate and Ian shooting dope in squats in New York, when Kate and I remembered and filled in each other's stories, I had been checking his face for a reaction as, looking for disapproval, suspicion. But he was just wanted to hear what Kate had never wanted to tell him.
The next morning, Alex went out to run some errands, and Kate called Janice. There was no more discussion. I had made my half-hearted argument, but now the internal logic of copping was pulling me along.
We waited on the front stairs. When Janice pulled up, Kate ran out and got in the passenger side. They talked for a couple minutes, while I sat awkwardly on the stoop. Kate got out and waved as Janice drove away. "What were you guys talking about?"
"She was just asking what was going on in my life. She congratulated me on ditching Ian."
We walked to the cafe around the corner, got two iced coffees and used their bathrooms. I snorted my bag. I hadn't used needles since Michael died; I figured since I had somehow not gotten Hep-C from him, I should take it as a sign and not push my luck. And anyway, I hated shooting up in public bathrooms. But Kate had a lot more experience getting high in public and a lot more to lose if Alex came home to find her fixing in the living room. I waited on the curb for Kate who was taking forever in the men's room. The adrenaline and anticipation started to melt as the high inched up on me. All the knots I hadn't realized I had worked themselves out of my back and shoulders, and things started to shimmer a little in the summer sun. Kate met me outside and kissed me on the lips. We walked back to the apartment arm in arm.
I struggled through a fancy dinner — Alex's treat — not hungry, and afraid I'd have to throw up. Kate said she felt a little sick and drank mineral water and sipped expensive wine. When we got back to the apartment, Alex doted on her, rubbing her feet and getting her ginger ale. And I left the next day.
I was worried for Kate. There was always someone to drag you back in, but I was still thinking of myself as the one who got dragged. I was terrible at copping on the street, and I didn't use enough for dealers in San Francisco to deliver, and I usually just paid my friends for some of theirs. So, it was always someone else's baleful influence — Kate's, Michael's, Sam's. But this was clearly my baleful influence.
A month later, Kate and Alex were in San Francisco getting Alex's convertible and a bunch of other stuff out of storage. Kate's composure was gone. She was antsy and wheedling. She cut off a motorcyclists a block from my apartment, and was on the corner arguing with him for 10 minutes, fitting right in in the Tenderloin.
After many conspiratorial glances and talk of a girls' night in, we pushed Alex out to stay at his friend's place, and Sam, Kate and I got down to work. I couldn't bear to drip tar in my nose while Kate was shooting right in front of me, so we borrowed Sam's extra needles — the first time I'd used a needle in almost a year. We got ridiculously, obliteratingly high (a bit of a miscalculation on my part, since I was used to nose drops) and I spent the next day throwing up bile. Kate had decided to just do more heroin, even though I had told her to save it for Sam who really needed it. Kate went golfing in Golden Gate park with Alex's dot-com buddies. We went out to a bar that night -- me sweaty in a long sleeve shirt with a red mark on my nose where I'd rubbed the skin off when I was high. And the next day, Kate and Alex left, Alex none the wiser.
But I felt so responsible for Kate, for lying to her boyfriend, for covering up for her, for tempting her to use.
I was seeing a therapist -- after Michael died an admin at my work had taken me aside and insisted I get some grief counseling. But I hadn't told the therapist I was using heroin, that I'd ever used heroin. At my first appointment, I said there were two things I wanted to bring up right away. The first was that I'd had a terrible time with my last therapist, and that I was actually pretty suspicious of the whole process, and the second was going to be my history of drug use. But we never got there, even though I had been living with someone who had just died of an overdose. I was in the process of coming up with a story ("He had just gotten out of rehab when we first started dating, so, at some level, I knew that drugs could be an issue, but I didn't realize how bad things had gotten") that would deflect questions about my drug use. But that story was for people at school, not for my therapist. As the months went by, and I started plotting how I was going to get high again, I had less and less desire to talk to her about drugs.
My whole strategy for hiding my drug use was that people didn't ask. As a graduate student, it was just outside the realm of most people's experience. And my therapist didn't ask either. And I started carefully curating what I talked about, to be sure that I didn't stumble into some story where she would feel compelled to ask me about drugs. So there was no way I could talk about how guilty I felt about getting high with Kate.
But I had heard that Gary, an ex-boyfriend from when I was 17, was clean and sober, in a 12-step program, living in Oakland. And I thought maybe, if I could talk to him, I could start to make some sense of it, get a little insight into why I had thought I wanted to do drugs in the first place.
Gary was the guy I lost my virginity with, he was ten years older and a frank blacking-out alcoholic. He had a leather jacket covered with band names (LARD, Skinny Puppy, Ministry), rock-a-billy hair, tons of tattoos, some professional, some done by him with a motor and a bass guitar string, and a lot of stories about shooting speed. And I had tried incredibly hard to seem cool and jaded. I hadn't seen him in five years, hadn't talked to him since I started doing heroin and speed, and it occurred to me that he had embodied a kind of fucked-up aesthetic that I had been chasing, both in myself and in my lovers, since I was a teenager
But when I got to his place, he just spouted aphorisms, admonishing me to Keep It Simple Stupid, and Take It One Day at a Time and Let Go and Let God (with a brief digression into his nontheistic spirituality).
I had wanted to wear my shortest dress when I went to see him, to show him how hot I was and that he shouldn't have dumped me when I was 17, but Sam talked me out of it. Told me it was better to wear something I'd be comfortable in. So I wore jeans and a tank top. Which was good, because Gary mostly just hit on me. Told me he liked how I'd filled out, that he liked girls with nice round asses. He offered to give me a back rub and told me he'd love to have sex with me again. I said, I don't know. He asked if I wanted to see The Yellow Submarine at the Castro Theater with him the following week, and I said OK.
I wanted to talk to my therapist about Gary, about how I had been hoping for some insight and all I got was the uncomfortable feeling that I was unable to set boundaries. I knew there was no way to talk about it without admitting to my drug use, but I think I must have been ready to quit, because, knowing where it was leading, I told her that I had met up with an ex-boyfriend, someone who had been very involved with a certain subculture, tattoos and leather jackets and music and drugs, and that I had wanted to go back and try to dig into the beginning of my relationship with drugs.
She asked, "What is your relationship with drugs?" and blood pounding in my ears, I told her I had been shooting heroin off and on for 5 years. She looked shocked, and said quietly, "I guess I should have suspected." I felt so guilty, for lying to her, but also for so obviously upsetting her. She said I had to tell her when I got high again.
I only got high one more time. After my date with Gary. Sitting in the theater, wearing the short dress that Sam had talked me out of wearing the week before, my knees propped up on the seat in front of me, Gary had put his hand on my thigh and left it there, and I didn't say anything, even though I was getting more and more creeped out. We walked back to Civic Center BART, and I gave him a chaste peck on the cheek. I told him I'd call him if I was interested in being more than friends, with no intention of ever calling. I practically ran home, and as soon as I was inside, told Sam, "God, I need to get high."
And I told my therapist about it, because, for the first time, she asked, and I felt compelled to answer. I told her about how as soon as I pushed the plunger down, I was convinced I was going to die. That I pushed the fear off until that moment when it was too late. She said, "We need to work on getting you to think about that earlier."
She seemed so over her head. It ruined our relationship. I could not bear to have my drug use scrutinized, and I couldn't bear the way she seemed to withdraw, all the little ways she let me know I had hurt her, let me know that she didn't understand why I would ever do something like that. And she never trusted me again, and even after I'd been sober for six months, a year, two years, she was still convinced that I could not look after myself.
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Keith Ruckus is America, He's Fat and He Hates Himself. We Think He's Pretty Cool.
by Katie Moore
Second Place, Silver. by Keith Ruckus, is the kind of reading experience that gets stuck in your head and persistently dredges up a roller coaster of reactions.
The man is brave. While these are intensely emotional poems he manages to avoid reading like a pussy, which is what happens when a talented wordsmith with a penis “tries” to be sensitive. Keith Ruckus, Slam Poet residing in Austin, TX, is the real deal. Every poem feels like a piece of him captured in ink, and each word carries a weighty honesty.
I'm a big fan of honesty.
By far my favorite piece in the book is the intimately confessional Sex Ed, page 48. I have to wonder if writing it ached, and if reading it aloud hurts on a cellular level?
“17-year-old boys often selectively hear words
with devilish dyslexia as “NO” . . . turned “ON.”
Though these poems are creative, unique and well crafted, the book may have benefited from a slightly more fluid interpretation of the recurring themes: weight, love in the angry past tense, father issues, and being a nice guy who finishes...well, you know the cliché.
Now, don't read that wrong and think it's a negative review. I'm simply curious to experience more of the world as filtered through the mind of Keith Ruckus. I'd like to read a his poem about cicadas, for example, or maybe one about the water pressure in hotel showers. This guy has a voice that deserves wider berth.
As a fellow thick individual I'd like to give Keith Ruckus a hug and remind him that you are never as fat as you think you are, loving yourself makes you thinner, and women are a mystery no matter what your BMI.
I strongly recommend you give this book a read. I think you'll like it, but if you don't you can always gift it to a skinny person with a seemingly perfect life in a well meaning attempt to teach them some empathy.* Keep your eye on Keith Ruckus! I for one am excited to read what's next.
For more about the poet visit:
To order your copy:
*Yeah, skinny people you know I'm joking...right?
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...and now for a brief selection of things we say while reading submissions, building the issues, and taking smoke breaks.
"I hate poems about love. Kinda. Except this one." - Katie Moore
"The narrator slaughters this for me. I hate him. I want him to die. Second thought, I don’t care about this narrator. It doesn’t matter to me whether the narrator lives or dies. This is something that should be kept private and not shared. For the reader’s sake." - Jon Thrower
"Fuck Cummings for becoming an excuse to not punctuate." - John Hancock
"YES! Sentimental without excessive sentimentality. Realism that’s real." - Jon Thrower
"Did this guy really use 'I could care less' in the first fucking paragraph? Jesus. It doesnt really take much time to ADD A FUCKING N APOSTROPHE T!" - Katie Moore
"Dammit, this poem is all about happiness and shit, unfortunately it's also great." - John Hancock
"I don’t feel like I’m in a more hateful mood than I usually would be, but this is not the first one I’ve read from the current list of subs that I really, honestly hate." - Jon Thrower
"You want a who?" -Katie Moore, when the basic rules of the English language have all been leeched out of her delicate quivery soul.
"Prose poetry just isn't for me, man. I don't know what to do with it. Bah." - John Hancock
"This is great. One of the things I want fiction to do is talk about what it's like to be a fucking human. And this does that. Painful, shameful, sad, but real." - Jon Thrower
"Fuck! I wish this poem was my poem." - Katie Moore
"Get this. Here is her submission info: "I'm sending a story called '*****', which I hope you will consider for publication in Boston Review. This is a simultaneous submission." AAAAAHHHHH!!!!! I should say no immediately and let her learn the lesson, but because I am a dumbshit and like black metal, which helps me exercise frustrations in a peaceful and private way, I will read. . ." - Jon Thrower
"When a poem makes me escape to the bathroom for some personal time with my vagina, and it's not even a poem about sex...that is a good fucking poem!" - Katie Moore
"I put this in the maybe pile. It's not very good, but it was really difficult to write." - John Hancock
"So, I have reached the point where I'm clicking and pasting in my sleep. I have this theory that clicking and pasting contributes to mental illness. Maybe it can't CAUSE the problem, but I think maybe it could activate a dormant issue and exascerbate the inevitable. I...can't...stop...the...clicking..." - Katie Moore
"FUCK THIS MOUSE BUTTON!" - Katie Moore
"The characters here are so pointless I would only say yes if they all died, but even that would be too much, so I’d probably (even then) say no." - Jon Thrower
"Am I about to take a half submission and leave out the part after the middle where it started to suck?" - John Hancock
"Wow, we have a lot of readers in Russia..." - Katie Moore
"Really? A submission in Comic Sans? Ha!" - Jon Thrower
"I can't handle the karma of sending these rejection letters. It hurts me. I need to drink now." - Katie Moore
"A cat story to follow a dog story. As I read, I wonder what I did in my life to deserve this. 33 pages of stupidity. I don't believe in Karma, but this has me second-guessing that time I kicked the sleeping guy in the head." - Jon Thrower
"Google this person, they sound hot." - John Hancock
"This rhymes too much." - Katie Moore
"Wow. Lovely. The question, the question, the question, followed by an analysis of the approach, of the desire, of the method and the operation thereof. And then bang. Well done." - Jon Thrower
"Wow, I'm late." - Katie Moore
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