Certain Words are Spiderwebs. November 2006.
by Ruth Gila Berger
I am fading. Christi is painting me larger than life-sized, looking off to the side, eyes white circles; they look empty, like mirrors reflecting ice. My torso disappears into a whirl of barely colored shapes.
There is a point with chemicals where every story becomes the same. Drugs, drugs, drinking, more drugs. The ash from all of our brains burns, flies up and silts down in the exact same shade of gray. Settled on Minneapolis snow, it all looks the same. Desperately, we scatter crumbs in this landscape, Hansel and Gretel, now over thirty, trying, after that fire, after the birds and crows have scavenged, trying to map out something, to reconstruct a personality, not a hungover skin, a home, anything. In the mirror I try to believe what I say.
Look, that was me. There’s something left of me, independent of this crisis. I am more than the sum of my scars, my ostentatious coat of faults, bling-bling. I will not simply be the result of too many pills, lines and drinks. I will not be the star of another bad addiction story.
With a broken radiator in a big car, my two roommates and I hurtle towards a final requirement for college, a gym credit. We’ve all managed the fee and days off to go rock climbing in Wisconsin. The ghosts of our most recent fight hum, stupid shit. They make my ears itch, all of us scratch somewhere. There is no cruise control for the driver to pick up her foot and itch it. I’ve been sick and am still sniffling. It’s days since I’ve showered. My hair, dyed mahogany waves a little from the grease and escapes when I shove it back behind my ears. The smell of fear is acrid on my skin. My roommates say nothing—they hope the hotel room will prompt me to shower. The day we climb is crisp and sunny. Twenty of us move along the path, an asymmetrical butterfly of jackets humping down our path. I add blue to our wing. The ground crunches.
Once we are started up the instructor moves like Spiderman all over the rock-face to assist us as spreadeagle, we freeze.
Three points of contact at all times, silently mouth twenty pairs of lips. That, and Oh my God! Ah! Shit!
We are trussed up like turkeys, each in our own nylon harness. The instructor has no gear and tree trunk thighs, the kind of person you automatically give sound effects. Thup, thup, thup. Terrified I climb quickly and get stuck, frozen in my bunchy layers of clothing. When the instructor reaches me I am able to actually look at and note the wall is covered with yellow jackets. They are the lesser fear and with a breath I brush them away. Oddly I have no idea how I then got down.
Did you really think you could be all that? You’re not. Boots, tits and paint. One brave weekend and suddenly you’ll overcome a generations long fear of heights? Fleabrain. Where did you get that idea anyway, Cosmo? Nothing is ever that easy. Quit smoking while you’re at it. Won’t you then become a hoot?
A year from now Christi will take up sumi ink and do a series of portraits, starting with Max. I will dream about those pictures, taped to glaciers perpendicular to the sky. They provide a skeleton, lines memory decorates. I can look at them and see where personality sits within the negative space, what’s left off or implied. Where the ink stops, a Brechtian pause, a relationship is filled in with no need of shading, just blacked out shadows, light and line.
On our trip to New York for Thanksgiving we start drinking early, before we leave the airport, at Applebee’s. In Philadelphia all flights are grounded; there are tornados. Everyone’s conversation is pretty much the same.
Tornados in Philadelphia? In Philly? What the fuck? Really? In Philadelphia? Since when?
We get comfortable at a bar drinking. A couple hours later a guy we recognized from Minneapolis joins us. Incredibly he’s also on the same flight to White Plains. Six hours later the three of us stumble aboard and our new friend saves the day when Christi belligerently refuses to buckle her seatbelt. After sleeping through the flight we totter to the baggage claim where my mom has spent hours waiting.
I hold a snapshot up for Christi. In it I am three, sitting in the grass in a red bathing suit with navy trim and little appliqué fish. My hair is blond and waves. My shoes are neatly tied cordovan Hush Puppies. The look on my face in this series of snapshots varies from flirty to enigmatic to blank, a serious unremarkable child. There is no way of knowing but I suspect my smirk is about my new name, Firetruck, after the shiny new one the village just purchased. The picture silences the opera of wails and wee-oouus I’ve composed for my new name in my own language.
In the seventies, my parents went through a Chinese food cooking phase. Peking Duck was the go-to dish for most special occasions. Then a duck would hang above a pan overnight in the basement to dry. Twenty years later, the reason they didn’t use the old cookbook and hang the damn bird escapes me. Instead they found a recipe with an outlandishly elaborate preparation. The day after we arrive, my mom proudly shows me the two birds airing in the fridge. Everything other than them is temporarily in the basement to allow space for adequate air circulation. She opens the door gleefully, punctuated by her melody-less humming. The ducks each have four dowels supporting them. At first they look like chairs. I blink and see sunglasses on two fat, white Hollywood wonks sitting, with stomachs so big as to obscure all but the legs of their directors’ chairs. Other blink and I realize I am laughing. Christi and my father sit at the table with the morning’s New York Times..
The day goes on. For dinner my mom makes my favorite dish from childhood, shrimp scampi. The preparation has grown more complicated from how she made it back then now with a broth made from shells and thickened for the sauce. To accompany the shrimp are bread, rice and a salad. In a panic Christi urges me to get another bottle of wine.
“Honey, bugs,” she hisses. “Of the sea. Bugs.”
“Fuck. I couldn’t say anything. She’d called to say they went shopping yesterday,” I whisper. “Look, you don’t have to eat them. Or wait, just eat three with lots of sauce on your rice. You have to compliment my mom on her sauce. She’s proud of it. You’ll be okay.”
My eyes trip around the scene, to the discarded shirts on the kitchen chairs, stretched out and crumpled I see them everywhere, dozens of yellow pads, several salt shakers, cut out articles piled on dirty paper towels obscuring a fruit bowl, my stomach squeezes. When I notice the glove fingers hanging off my mother’s feet I giggle almost hysterically. For seconds the conversation at the table is far, far away but I phase back and don’t jump in screaming at my mother about how I got her slippers two years ago for Christmas.
Dzzt. Listen to me. Here’s the thing. You could bang your head against that wall the rest of your life. Because you can only ask your mother for what she is capable of. I’m proud of you sweetie. You did great. Maybe screaming shut the fuck up wasn’t exactly what I was thinking. But you did great.
Instead I stand. The bile vanishes.
“You need help with the dishes, Ma?” I ask.
Another bottle of wine goes by the time a high school friend picks us up to go drinking. Before I turn from the door, I catch my mother through my own reflection in the glass. For a second there’s a similarity about our faces. The realization is a horse that bucks me but for the first time, I don’t buckle. My nails don’t ache with the need to scratch myself away. Who am I?
Deirdre drives and smokes. I sniff with jealousy.
Am I really here? Who am I?
Without the easy crutch of tarnished air, breath made visible, the answer isn’t clear.
What were your dreams? What did you want to be? A cat, a firetruck, a ballerina, an actress. Then what? You realized you’d never make it and writing became the way you screamed. Do you really think you can puzzle all that noise into meaning?
In Deirdre’s Volvo I flex, then, tense to anchor myself to the present where the car seat fails to provide the expected buffer between my ass and the potholes. I crack the window and jut my chin at the ashtray Deirdre flicks in.
“You should quit,” I snit.
She parks without answering. There is a line at the door to the bar, Christi stumbles and is only let in because Deirdre knew the bouncer. Christi orders ginger ale. I keep drinking.
Thanksgiving morning we wake up late. My head pounds, disgraceful. I try to gain traction in what feels like a whited-out disco. The dry heaves do nothing to alleviate my poisoned condition.
“Use your finger,” Christi advises.
“Can’t do that,” I shudder.
“We have to go downstairs,” Christi says.
I groan and she thrusts a toothbrush at me.
“I’m not going down there by myself,” she says. “You have to come with me.”
Breathing carefully, I follow her and we dress in silence, trying not to bang into anything. The bedroom I grew up in is too small for the queen size bed my parents now have in it. The sheets are a scratchy Victorian pink, dusky. Our bar sweat has done little to soften them. The two dressers I got at Ikea twenty years ago are nearly empty. On top of one is a towel. On it a Rangda statue from Bali. Against another wall is a chrome and glass wall unit, shelves my uncle gave up from the late 1970s. On it are other objects. Two Buddhas enchant Christi. Our clothes are tossed on a wicker wing chair wedged in a corner between a dresser, the closet door and a low table that serves as a desk. My shins are tender and disgusting. I’ve lost one shoe in the room already. When I look in the mirror there are a few hairs starting to grow on my chin. The tweezers sing. I pick them up and put them down. Minutes go by as I stare. That the cheap stereo I had through high school isn’t on the shelf is somehow surprising.
Is there nothing I can say, nothing I can do, to change you mind, I’m so in love you, you’re in too deep you can’t get out, you’re just a poor girl in a rich man’s house.
Christi touches me.
“Come on sweetie,” she says, now gently.
The stairs creak when we hit them. While not ruined, the wood floor is battered and needy—my ex used to yell at me for wearing my shoes inside—and was right, I concede. In the kitchen, my parents are chipper and busy. My mom has rug-like placemats set for breakfast. The dishes are wildly painted; the coffee cups have saucers; we each have a knife, fork, spoon and napkin. I go to the sink for water. A grease stained box of kitchen matches sits between the sink and the range top. A ceramic frog next to it holds the used ones.
Once seated, my hands on the table keep the world from spinning until I notice my dad holding one of the ducks. Actually I hear him first. Huffing and puffing with a rasp and the duck.
“It’s the easiest way to separate the skin from the body without cutting it,” he explains. “And I get some of the fat off this way.”
I watch the rasp move sawing inside the bumpy yellow skin. Despite the fact we sit across the table from each other lengthwise, the action feels right up close to my face. My dad has reddened from his exertions. He stops and waves the rasp at me, grinning.
“You want to try?” he asks.
“Excuse me,” I choke before bolting.
My parents’ upstairs toilet is avocado green. I hold it gratefully. When Christi comes to check on me I’m curled in bed.
Hours later the duck is amazing. It goes down with wine. I don’t remember our conversation.
The next night my parents host a little party. Old friends of theirs stop by for wine and hors d’oeuvres. Christi points out the deviled eggs are green. My mom put avocado in them. They sit untouched, except by me. I eat six of them feeling guilty for not interfering with her misguided choice in edible aesthetics. The couple visiting are some of my parents’ oldest friends, still living a bit down the street. Their oldest daughter, with them, was my first babysitter, the most glamorous teenager. She had makeup and an amazing dollhouse she let me play with. The three of them tell Christi how one Christmas when I was maybe three, I made them rearrange the living room furniture and follow me playing cats on their hands and knees.
“Bossy-bossy,” Christi teases me.
A bit later another friend calls and we escape. After a second glass of wine at yet another bar Christi lays her head on the table. I let her sleep maybe twenty minutes before we leave.
“Anxiety meds,” I explain. “They knock her out.”
In the morning, the airport goes about its business, tired and edgy. The florescent lighting casts everyone gray. We are slightly green, hung over and sweaty. Our flight lays over in Atlanta. We sit in a restaurant near our gate and fight about drinking. Most of what I say is met by silence. I try to find something to focus on, away from Christi. There are prints, old-fashioned advertising hung in frames. People move strangely, fast-slow, like they are trying to hurry their yawning.
“I feel like shit. Christi I’m drowning. It’s too much and I watch you get more and more crazy,” I sigh. “I do. I’m sorry. I know you don’t want to hear it. But you need to curtail your drinking. Severely.”
Christi glares at me and raises up in her seat.
“You can severely fuck off and go to hell,” she says, half shouting.
She bangs down her glass. The six-top to our left quickly looks away. The ladies in front of us suspend their gossip, pay their check and leave. The waitress refills our coffee, dropping off our bill. I take it hoping Christi will reach and do the same, make contact. Instead she jerks her hand away.
“Look, maybe it’s weak but I follow. I find someone who gets shit and follow them. That way it’s not my idea and someone gets my drugs for me. I mean I set it up this way. It’s not like I don’t know how manipulative that is. I am. Fuck. I don’t know. What I mean is I can’t follow you,” I say. “You passed out at the table. Do you realize?”
“Do you have cash?” Christi asks. “All I have is a tip. That’s it. No money.”
I shake my head, “That’s fine. I should’ve gotten biscuits and gravy, since we’re in the South, I mean.”
“Airport. We’re in an airport,” Christi snaps.
Impatiently she jiggles her leg. The waitress picks up my Visa. When I look up Christi is glaring.
“I’m sorry. You say something?” I ask.
Christi puts cash under a glass.
“Nothing. Fuck you. Just let me be,” she says. “Okay?”
With perfect timing the waitress returns my card and the slip to sign, grabs the cash and quickly scoots away. I catch Christi’s eye. She’s half smiling.
“Did she just take our tip?” she asks.
“Mm-hmm,” I say.
“While we’re sitting here,” Christi exhales.
“Yeah, I guess that is kind of strange,” I say. “I mean whatever happened to charm, take a load off, stay as long as you like ladies? Jesus. We aren’t that bad, are we?”
“I think she’s more concerned with someone stealing her money,” Christi laughs at me. “Take a load off? Honey, they only say that in movies.”
My feet don’t quite obey me, I stumble a couple steps away from the table. Christi puts out a hand to catch me.
“Hi,” she says.
“Hi,” I repeat.
When I lean in to kiss her, my girlfriend quickly steps away. Instantly I blink at tears.
“You’re okay honey,” she says softly. “Just we’re not home here, okay?”
Dull and static, the air pulled our skin tight, tight. A week went by. Friday night Sam called. While once an ex of Gina’s, she was now a friend of Christi’s. Friday night. An hour later met her a at the 19 Bar. In a daze I lost their conversation. Words and music, pool balls cracking.
Wouldn’t it be nice to a line. A little one. A fat one. A line.
Like a tick the thought bored in, spilling blood. Christi looked at me, firefly dimples and red-red lips she anticipated my objections.
“Just one phone call. I’ll buy,” she said.
The argument in my head went on another minute. I gave in, sighed and Christi was off and running. Sam and I stayed at the bar to finish our beer. Then she drove me back to our house where we waited. About an hour later Christi and Tara walked in.
I glared at Christi, The fuck’s she doing here?
Later, flashed Christi’s eyes.
Tara stood twitchy until her ride called from the street.
Christi took center stage, confetti, confetti, plays.
“Tara called. She needed a ride to pick up so I asked her,” she paused. “Tara wasn’t sure of the address so we were driving around a bit. I got pulled over. I fucked up walking and the touch your nose test. I blew a point zero seven-seven. The limit is point zero eight. That cop was so pissed. He asked Tara if she’d been drinking. She hadn’t so we changed places and got off with a warning.”
I imagine I laughed at Christi’s story, the terror exaggerated on her face, the dimpled smile. Even though it involved Tara, the deed was done. A little bag of white, spilled and chopped.
Amazing how simple my world can get. Whereas once I was a tree with leaves, twigs and nuanced bark now I am flat. I am two brown lines and green circle on top, a child’s drawing. My history goes away; I am generic as a barcode. The most intelligent, wittiest, sexiest barcode, maybe, but not me. All the moments, memories, humiliations, mistakes that prowl just below my skin waiting for the slightest lapse in my vigilance to become obsessions, they are gone. Perhaps this time I’ll die. Sam, Christi and I, we party.
Next morning Christi woke up bouncing. I woke up depressed. Again, she remembered great conversation, sex; I remembered nothing.
“We only have sex when we’re high,” I said, flatly. “You pass out otherwise.”
Christi’s voice strained, coffee grinds against a filter—it burst, gunking up everything.
“We just had marathon sex and you’re complaining?” she shouted.
Our fight continued. Eventually she left. The shower I took was long, steamy and my scrubby gloves did nothing to remove her dirt. That night Christi came home and packed a pipe, the glass mottled pink. She’d been making a fresh one of tinfoil each night since I insisted the last one be smashed.
“You got a new pipe,” I said. “Thanks. That’s just great.”
She didn’t answer. Marijuana filled the air.
Christi’s ditchweed flings me back to seventeen and I’m surprised to not be in the costume I wore then, ripped jeans and a black sweater stretched out from oversized. I had two of them and both hovered loosely to the tops of my thighs.
I sit in a sealed off part of the girls locker room knees to knees with a friend. Red hair she tosses, black rimmed green eyes. We shot-gun a joint, the closest I get to a kiss. Together we smoke out of many things. Without papers we are creative, a Coke can, a tampon wrapper, handy things, an apple once then nuked with cinnamon.
“Fuck you,” I said. “You’re fucking high. You’re fucking drunk. You’re fucking crazy. You pass out every night. This is not a relationship Christi. Can’t do it. I love you but I can’t do this.”
Still wearing her perfect newsboy cap Christi curled up into bed.
“So I’m fucked up,” she said.
I stand behind our headboard, between it and the window, my hands against the glass. I feel no cold. There is fog around my fingers instantly. My voice clanged in my sinuses.
“Treatment?” I asked. “Would you consider going to treatment?”
“I don’t know,” Christi said. “No.”
Everything was silent. There were no cats racing—they slept elsewhere, on chairs, couches and pillows. A minute, an hour—who’s to say. There was no snow falling. The light outside was orange.
“Maybe we should cut our losses,” I whispered. “Call it quits before it’s too late. Before everything good is chipped away. I love you. You know that, right? I don’t know how I’d do it. Sell the house. Leave the state so I don’t ever see you again. I don’t know.”
We are crocheted, a dolly, creating a larger and larger circle. Our words loop back so many times our voices fray. Tara called on Wednesday.
“Fucking bitch,” I whispered. “Please don’t answer it.”
The first time Christi didn’t but five minutes later I turned away and put a pillow over my head to block their conversation. Christi touched me.
“I gotta go pick Tara up from work. She needs a ride,” she said.
Her feet were already on the floor as she rummaged for her jeans. They were pushed under the pillowsham, one sock crumpled, stuck at the ankle with the toe hanging loose, the other tossed by her shoes.
Just like me, they long to be, close to you.
I swallowed at the start of tears.
“Baby, no! It’s late. It’s what, ten? No, it’s ten-fucking-thirty. We’re asleep. What the fuck is she doing working this late anyway? You gotta be fucking kidding me.”
No flashing dimples, just guilty red blotches cracked and dry. For a second I thought to find moisturizer and soothe them. I shook my head.
“The baby,” Christi pleaded. “Her boyfriend’s got the baby. He’s a fucked up and tweaking. She’s scared.”
“Fucking disaster,” I said. “And you’re her white knight. Bullshit. Is that it? Cause I know you’re not in love with her, are you?”
“Tara?” Christi asked. “No.”
“You’re not sleeping with her,” I said.
I spat my words.
“So it’s really just the fucking white knight thing. Jesus. No wonder you’re with her more than me. What are you doing with me anyway? I’m never going to need saving, not like that. I’m not. I don’t need you that way. I’m never going to need you that way. Swooping fucking in to save the day. Because that’s what it is. And here I am, all gentle and patient. You have to put up boundaries. How could I be so stupid. You get off on this shit. Fucking savior white knight fucking Christi. GO. Go save your junkie bitch. She needs you, baby. Every fucking day.”
With that I turned away.
I come to you so silent in the night, so stealthy, so animal quiet, I’ll be your savoir, so steadfast and true, I’ll come to your emotional rescue, I’ll come to your emotional rescue.
Ruth Gila Berger is in Minneapolis with her wife and their cats. “Certain Words Are Spider Webs” is one piece of a memoir she’s been working on for nine years now. Recently other pieces of it have been published (or accepted for publication) by The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Permafrost, Frequencies, ROAR, Writing Disorder and Writing Tomorrow Magazine. Another piece, unrelated, is forthcoming in Slice.