The Poor Things
by Tessa Torgeson
When I checked into Sunny Prairie Detox and Rehabilitation Center in Fargo, my whole life fit into a puke-green duffle bag. The first week was a gauzy haze. I staggered through the place like a feral animal concerned only with my primal needs. Wake up, puke, take my morning pills, masturbate before groups, eat, nap, go to AA, take my night pills, masturbate again, sleep. A week later, once the doctors said the demons were purged from my system, they moved me across the street to the Rehabilitation unit, housed in a former 2-story office building.
My first vivid memory in that building was attempting to take my first shit in half a month. A lady with black Velcro shoes shuffled into the next stall. She grunted, then let out a soft pfft noise. “Sorry.” The pffft crescendoed and sped to 6/8 time. Her butthole was playing Brahams. “Nasty. What did I eat today? Must’ve been the garlic!”
I laughed and then gave up feeble hope of shitting. My sphincter got shy and five years on heroin made me constipated. When I washed my hands, I was pleased to notice the constellations of bruises that dotted my wrists and forearms were finally fading. The black Velcro shoes belonged to a leathery tanned woman, who strolled out to the sinks. She could’ve been an old 40 or a young 55.
“You must be new here. I remember all my patients, I don’t remember you. I’m Jayme with a Y.”
“I’m Mara with an M.” I avoided eye contact. Clearly, Jayme with a Y wasn’t from the Upper Midwest. We don’t make small talk after pooping in public!
“So, what’s your poison?”
I raised my eyebrow. I wanted to be annoyed and offended but appreciated Jayme’s raspy directness. It was a departure from the false niceties, the passive-aggressive lexicon of the Midwest.
“Oh, never mind, none of my business.” She pulled her bleach blond hair into a knot at the base of her skull, then covered it with a hair net. “Do you want a hug? You look like you need one.”
“I’m okay, thanks though.” My body stiffened, arms hung limply my side.
“I’m sorry, not trying to make you feel uncomfortable. Well see ya at lunch, kiddo.”
“See ya.” I walked out of the bathroom and wove through the common area that evoked a 1990s era funeral home. It seemed we were always waiting for something in the not quite here and not quite there, mourning our old lives, youth, familial ties, friends, and lovers we lost to ODs. Some slumped on the set of matching mauve armchairs and loveseats, resting their elbows on end tables covered in lace doilies and Kleenex. A woman sniffed at a vase stuffed with red silk flowers, smelling and touching them, hoping they were real. Others restlessly paced, staring into space.
I walked outside to the smoking area. The sun stung my eyes and warmed my ashen skin, which was accustomed to the fluorescent lights of jail and detox. My treatment buddy Joe was waiting for me.
We checked into Prairie on the same day and quickly bonded. Both of us were given Suboxone, an orange, stop-sign shaped tablet that eased our opiate withdrawals and reduced cravings. Both of us had Hunter S. Thompson books confiscated by staff, who told us any movies and music containing explicit drug or alcohol content were strictly verboten. We bitched about the staff, then talked about books, The Velvet Underground, dope. Living on the edge of things.
“So, what’s the afternoon schedule like?” I lit my cig. I was a first-timer. But Joe had been to Prairie four (4!) times so he knew the drill.
“Well, lunch then nursing group.”
“I know it makes it sound like we are a bunch of breastfeeding babies. But it’s like, health stuff. Sometimes they just turn the lights off and we lay on mats for an hour on the floor. Most expensive meditation I’ve ever done.”
“So, nap time for grown-ups… That doesn’t sound too bad. So, is the food as shitty as detox food?”
“No, it’s actually better. I mean, nothing gourmet. But the pie is really good.”
“I don’t need dessert,” I said pinching the imaginary bulge around my waist. I still thought being bony was the only way to be beautiful, even though I knew it was a very nineties aesthetic.
“Take the dessert, Toots.”
Just then, a guy we called Ferret came out to bum a smoke. He was a balding Prairie veteran. He fist bumped Joe, then looked at me strangely. We were an odd pair, being I was 24 with neon blue hair, Joe was 50 with a shock of silver hair.
Ferret asked us for a smoke. “Did you hear Amy Winehouse just died? Heard it on the radio.”
“Shit. I mean, I don’t really like her music but…” Joe trailed off. “How?”
“How do you think, man? Overdose. Alcohol poisoning. Somethin’ like that.”
We silently puffed our cigarettes, watching stacks of angry clouds boil on the horizon. Thunder rumbled. My arm hairs prickled. The gravity of our shared malady hit us, and we had nothing to say about it. Even the birds were quiet.
We walked to the beige-tiled cafeteria, smelling broccoli and bleach all the way down the hall. I scanned the room looking for familiar faces. I hardly recognized anyone at the dozen or so long rectangular tables, but then spotted Jayme with a Y walking a tray over to a man with jaundiced skin. His hands were shaking with the DTs. “Here ya go, hun. Poor thing.”
I wasn’t sure what to think of Jayme or anyone else for that matter. I kept them at arm’s length. Supposed friends had jacked my cell phone and Fender guitar, worst of all, my own mother narced on me. Jayme walked over, scolded me about almost missing lunch. Said I needed to be there by 12:30 sharp.
I muttered sorry, looking down at my jail-issued imitation crocs.
She sensed my stiffness and whispered, “Now hon, I’m not saying I agree with this, but rules are rules on account of management.”
Joe winked at her. “Jayme, you’re the best.”
She gave him a hug then walked back behind the serving line, put on a pair of disposable gloves, and climbed atop a step stool. “Hun, I already forgot your name.” She studied my black and red polka-dotted outfit and told me she was gonna call me Minnie, short for Minnie Mouse. Told me I needed to put some meat on my bones and gave me double portions of everything, except for chocolate silk pie. The extra pie would have to be earned.
Three days passed. Or was it five? Days blurred together like watercolors. All everybody could talk about was Amy Winehouse and the deadliness of our disease. I took a different tack, pretending not to care, unphased, like nothing mattered. (Though of course, I cared! I was phased! EVERYTHING MATTERED)! Showing strong emotions were a thing of weakness where I come from, a luxury reserved for celebrities and Days of Our Lives.
Every morning the handlebar mustached, flannel-wearing therapist quoted a passage from the Narcotics Anonymous Book like a chorus, “Very simply, an addict is a man or woman whose life is controlled by drugs. We are people in the grip of a continuing and progressive disease whose ends are always the same: jails, institutions, and death.”
“Jails institutions, and death!” The group robotically responded.
“OH MY!” Joe and I yelled three days in a row.
“Enough, you two” the therapist Mr. Flannel Mustache said. “In my office, now. The rest of you can take a morning break.”
He told us he thought this sort of humor was an unhealthy coping mechanism that minimized the severity of our disease. He reached in his desk drawer and pulled out a shoe box full of newspaper clippings: former patients’ obituaries and mug shots from DUIs, possession, distribution arrests, raids. He furrowed his brow. “You don’t want this to be you, do you?”
“No.” Joe and I rolled our eyes, both glazed with sweat from being rapidly tapered off Suboxone, as required by residential treatment.
“I realize you two are coming off Suboxone and that’s hard. But it’s meant to be a short-term crutch, not a solution. You both need to take groups more seriously.”
Lunch was an escape hatch from the feelings factory, a portal to normalcy. I always waited to be last in line, so I could talk to Jayme. It reminded me of back in elementary school, when I worked in the cafeteria to get reduced lunch. The lunch ladies were like second mothers, simultaneously stern and warm. Also, I wanted to get extra pie, sugar being a way to catch quick, fleeting pleasure, a valuable currency in rehab.
I pointed, “I’ll have a Caesar salad, no chicken.”
“No chicken? Are you one of those vegetarians?”
“No. I just don’t have much of an appetite these days.” My body was in a state of confusion and chaos over going off the Suboxone. “I don’t really like the texture of meat.”
“O good, because you don’t seem like that preachy, self-righteous type.” She tenderly ladled the soup, as though she was serving her own children. “But I get it if you were. I’m something of an animal lover myself. Do you have any pets, hun?”
“I used to have a cat, but he died a few months ago.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie. That’s rough. Well, I have three chihuahuas. Huey, Lewis, and The News. After that band. I suppose you’re too young to understand. Anyhow, I’ll show you pictures sometime. I get them baby costumes from the Savers. They’re just darling.”
Joe hovered nearby and started humming the chorus to the song, “The Power of Love.” He asked her why she stopped giving hugs. She told us she had a dust up with the new management, who were suits from Minneapolis. “To tell you the truth, I liked it better when nuns were in charge!”
The three of us had many half-whispered conversations in the cafeteria and smoking area. Jayme knew more about us than Mr. Flannel Mustache therapist, offering genuine support and encouragement. She told me, “You know that old cliché, that eyes are the window to the soul? It’s true. When you got here, yours were all glazed and dark. I started to see some light in ‘em again. That’s how I know you’re getting better.”
Another day, she told us she’d done some prison time for possession and sales of heroin and methamphetamine. Told us it was the only thing that helped her quit drugs, that sometimes prison worked better than treatment. I admired her sobriety, but thought the tough-on-drugs, Reagan-era mentality was old school. Having felony possession and paraphernalia charges made it damn near impossible for my future goals to find an apartment, a job, or get student loans to get my social work degree.
After 28 days, it was time for me to graduate. Or they called it graduation, but really my state-funded insurance was giving me the boot. I was barely sleeping. All night I flailed, my stomach churned from being rapidly tapered off Suboxone. Hot and itchy, I wanted to take off my flesh off like the peel of an orange. I wished I could get on a Suboxone or methadone program, but my probation officer said it wasn’t allowed.
I snuck out by the dumpster to have a final celebratory cigarette with Jayme. “Probably shouldn’t be doing this… “ she started to say.
“On account of management,” I finished for her. “So, Jayme you never told me how you ended up in Fargo of all places, what brought you here?”
“I came to study meteorology in Grand Forks. The weather’s always the same where I come from. Sun, drought, monsoon season, sun. Bo-rrring. I wanted to come to a place where there were thunderstorms and tornadoes and floods and cold. But it didn’t work out.” She’d seen a photo of sundogs on The Weather Channel and was mesmerized by the way ice crystal halos of light danced in the sky.
“I guess I never thought of North Dakota being beautiful like that. But you could still go to school! It’s never too late.”
“Nobody wants a crinkly old lady for their weatherman. Or a felon. Well, kiddo, I gotta get back to lunch.” She looked around to make sure nobody was watching, then hugged me. This time I let her, though my body still stiffened, unaccustomed as I was to human touch.
I went back to the residential building and cried while I packed my bag to go live in a homeless shelter. I was stuffed with three (3!) pieces of chocolate silk pie and feelings. I had no space in me for another goodbye, so I left Joe a copy of The Rum Diary on the smoking table with my cell number and, “See ya on the other side. OH MY!”
Six months passed. The shelter told me that I’d “maxed out my stay.” They gave me a week to find my own place, a gargantuan task being I’d just been charged with felonies. I temporarily crashed on a sober friend’s couch. I spent days pouring over spreadsheets at my new job at a tractor supply company and nights in church basements at NA meetings, soaking up war stories, wisdom, and Folger’s coffee.
One dull Monday, I noticed a new guy at the NA Candlelight meeting with shoulder-length auburn hair, emerald eyes, and pouty lips. His share about his recent arrest and release from jail was darkly comic, but also genuine and vulnerable.
After the meeting, I caught him in the alley and complimented him on his Velvet Underground t-shirt. We smoked, and he brought up how much he hated NA clichés. “Every time I drink, I break out in handcuffs,” he joked.
“Even my rock bottom has a basement! I just grabbed a shovel and kept on digging.”
“It’s awful. I bet these people have live, laugh, love signs above their sinks.”
“Probably. I’m making my own sign that says, ‘DIE CRY HATE.”’ I felt relieved to finally commiserate about NA, though I also felt bad about poking fun at people working hard to better themselves.
He showed no reservations about dragging NA, his tone was bitingly sarcastic. “Yeah, I hate these fucking meetings. I only go because I have to for probation. And I gotta wear this dumb 24/7 drug patch.” He lifted up his sleeve to show me the patch, which collected his sweat to detect if he’d used any controlled substances. I lifted my sleeve and showed him I also had a 24/7 patch.
When I went to my friend’s house, I tried not to imagine him naked or running away with him to play music. After all, NA old-timers advised all newly sober people to stay single for a year. But a few days later when he invited me over to his dad’s basement to jam—him on guitar, me on bass—I said yes.
He pulled out a bottle of Jim Beam. “Wanna get drunk?” Our patches didn’t detect alcohol and we weren’t required to do breathalyzers, so I grabbed the bottle and took a swig. I brushed my body against his, electric with the idea of him. I hadn’t had sex willingly in two years; I got a feverish rush. I pushed his hands down my pants.
After a week-long binge of sex and booze, we quickly became attached at the hip, playing music, talking until night bled into dawn. I called him my sort-of boyfriend. We quit drinking. Alcohol felt juvenile compared to heroin and didn’t offer us the true escape we craved. Instead, after NA meetings, we spent hours watching YouTube videos of Intervention and Requiem for A Dream, salivating over the glint of the needle. Shows that were supposed to scare us straight just made us want it more. His friend helped us order synthetic opiates off the dark web that wouldn’t show up on our drug monitoring patches. The stuff was called U4770, Pink Death. Banging it in my arm felt like being catapulted to the moon, my body melted.
Two weeks later, we moved into a grungy unfinished basement owned by a guy named Moose, who didn’t do background or credit checks. On garbage week, we hauled a mattress and pink sponge-painted dresser from the curb. When we went to Savers to look at décor, I saw Jayme perusing baby clothes for Huey, Lewis, and the News. An acidic shame boiled up in my chest over my relapse. I beelined to the corner of the store, feigning interest in a row of patterned drapes. My sort-of boyfriend rolled his cart back, filled with rugs for the concrete floor and mandala tapestries to cover up the exposed pipes. I carefully studied them until I saw a streak Jayme’s bleach-blonde hair disappear out the sliding glass doors. A small part of me felt relief having dodged her disappointment, but the bigger part of me wanted her small arms wrapped around me, her humor, her love.
The honeymoon phase was shattered when I came home work early one day and discovered him with a mutual friend from NA naked on our bed. We screamed at each other until Moose pounded on the floor to shut the fuck up or he’d evict us.
On New Year’s Day, we went to the Kum-N-Go at 2 am. Jayme was putting hot dogs on the spit. Fuck, I thought. I’ve got to get out of this godforsaken town. I tried to turn my back to duck out unseen, but she turned towards me and said, “Minnie? That you, hun?”
She stepped closer and studied me as the fluorescent lights hummed, her face scrunched into the expression of a disappointed mother.
“Happy New Year, Jayme.” My face bloomed red, my eyes were sunken pinpricks.
“You look rough. I was hoping you’d be one of the ones who made it.”
I shrugged. We walked up to the registers. I put my sour patch kids and Coca-Cola on the counter.
“And your friend Joe, how’s he doing?”
“Joe died a couple months ago. I guess.” I found out when Ferret posted Joe’s obituary on Facebook. I was furious he couldn’t even bother to call. I imagined Mr. Flannel Mustache clipping it out of the newspaper and stuffing it in his shoebox. “Can I get a pack of Camel Lights?”
She shook her head. “Sorry to hear that. He was a good one. The poor thing. In case you were wondering, I got fired from Prairie. All the suits cared about was the almighty dollar.” Her tone was cold, vacant.
My sort-of boyfriend came out of the bathroom and said let’s go. As he pulled my arm, I waved goodbye to Jayme. She flatly said, “I hope you get your shit together soon, before you end up dead too.”
We walked to his Prius in the empty parking lot. The 20 below zero bite burned my eye sockets. He turned on the dome light, reached in the glove compartment for the baggie of Pink Death, poured it on a Marilyn Manson CD case, and cut it into lines with his probation officer’s card.
“Ladies first.” He handed me a dollar bill. I did a line.
Just as he was hunched over the case with the dollar bill up his nose, Jayme came out to smoke a cigarette. She looked at us. I waved and pretended we weren’t doing what we were doing.
I slurred, “Shit, we should get out of here.”
He ignored me, mumbling that his friend was coming to buy half a G of Pink Death.
Meanwhile, Jayme pulled out her cellphone and made a call. I was sure she was calling the police. I was both angry with her and not. It’s the story she’d been sold, that punishment was a path to rehabilitation and redemption. It was the thing that she thought saved her and thus it might save us from ourselves. Surprisingly though, she put her phone back in her pocket and gestured to me.
I got out of the car, ignoring his weak, pleading apologies.
“You know, I’ll love you no matter what, Minnie. I’m not one to judge, lord knows I been there myself and it’s not my business what you do with your free time. But your life is bigger than that little ass Prius, bigger than him. At Prairie, I saw a light come back to you. But this out here with guys like him, it’s all dark.”
Finally, under the neon glow of the Kum-N-Go sign, I began sobbing. I thought about jail and Joe and Sunny Prairie. When Jayme reached out to hug me, I reached back. I felt her warmth cocoon me, our breaths made little crystallized halos.
He yelled out the window, “Are you coming with me?”
I was too tired to mutter a “fuck you.” I waved him off. When Jayme went back in the store, I followed, my face a frozen glob of tears and snot. She handed me Kleenex and grabbed a piece of Chocolate silk pie from the cooler.
“Last time we talked, you asked me about what brought me to Fargo, what I wanted to do with my life. Now I’m asking you, Minnie. What is it you want to do?”
I was still sobbing, my chest heaving too hard to answer. I was gonna get on methadone PO be damned and go to college and help people like me. The sort-of boyfriend laid on his horn. When I waved him off again, he peeled out of the lot. I watched his headlights fade into the dark, icy valley. He didn’t look back. This time, neither did I.
Tessa Torgeson is a social worker by day and writer by night in Denver. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus and The Coachella Review, among others. She is a big fan of chocolate silk pie.
Image: Erol Ahmed/Unsplash