My grandmother was my weekend sidekick as we drove all over Northeast Philly and Bucks County, PA on ‘outings’ to mystical places like New Hope, PA, and Clover on Frankford Avenue. We were in the Acme on Torresdale Avenue across from Lindenfield projects (they have since been torn down) and we went through the usual routine. Gram would get food for the weekend along with whatever I wanted. All I had to do was ask.
“Gram, can I get these people snack crackers?” I asked her once excited at the fact of me being able to ingest mini, crunchy people.
“People don’t taste very good,” I garbled between crunches. I ate two of them before I read the box and figured out that they were dog biscuits.
Clearly, I needed therapy long before it became a thing.
Once, we were in the checkout line and I eyeballed rows upon rows of Snickers, Milky Way, M & M’s chocolate candies along with boxes of colorful gum. Oh, the gum! There were skinny seven-stick packs of minty stuff stamped Wrigley and then the best of all: Chicklets and Bubblicious! There were these little snack packs of gum that came in a yellow pouch. I forget what they were called but they were eye catching.
This day my eye was drawn to a pack of watermelon Bubblicious. I stared at it for a good two minutes, imagining a big, juicy wad of that gum in my mouth, sticking to my tiny teeth as the scent of fake watermelon wafted to my nostrils while drool puddled at the corners of my mouth.
I looked at my grandmother who was busy putting groceries on the conveyor belt. I looked behind me. No one there and on either side of me was racks of candy and magazines.
I could hear my heart beating as I snatched the watermelon wonder off the rack and slid it in my shorts pocket. I looked around again. No one was staring at me. No sirens or alarms rang. No dog came charging down the aisle with gnashing teeth ready to bite off my thieving hand.
I played it cool. I did it. I got away with theft. I was a bonified genius.
We went out to the car, loaded the groceries, got in and before we even pulled out of the parking lot, I decided… I wanted a piece of my new gum.
Bonified genius my ass…
I pulled it out of my pocket unwrapped a piece and popped it in my mouth. It was glorious! It tasted better than I had imagined and I truly had little drool pockets at the corners of my mouth. I smiled and looked at my grandmother who was staring me down which made me super uncomfortable.
“Where did you get that?” she asked me calmly.
I just kept staring at her like a corrupt criminal under the blazing spotlight of degradation while I flipped through a catalog of excuses in my mind.
“Darlene, did you steal that gum?” she asked in the same calm voice.
My catalog was empty, after all, I was seven. I had no justification except, “I wanted it.”
Again in her same calm voice, “I am so disappointed in you,” she said and pulled out of the parking lot and onto the street.
The gum, now rancid and bitter, sat in the cheek of my mouth as we drove home. I looked out the passenger window filled with shame and discomfort. My eyes welled with tears but I wouldn’t let them fall. I had to get rid of this gum. Just holding it – my tainted prize of pushing boundaries – felt dirty.
I threw the gum in the trash (chewed piece too!) as soon as we got home. I never stole anything again.
Hard lessons stick the best… sometimes better than stolen gum.
It was late on a Thursday in May 2005… I was headed out to see a band in Chicago. I needed to drive over seven hundred miles to clear my head – that’s what I told myself. It was a 1,400-mile round trip so I brought about two hundred dollars worth of cocaine with me. So in retrospect, the whole “I gotta clear my head” thing was bullshit.
I was remarkably good at telling lies that even I started to believe my own untruths. Go figure.
So let me back up for a moment. There was this thing called MySpace back in the day and it was like Facebook but more personalized. So, I got to talking to this guy on there about music and he told me about this band and I had to see them because they were so good.
Where do you live? I typed as I popped some pills and washed them down with coffee.
I’m in Indiana; not too far, he typed back.
It’s not exactly local. That’s over 700 miles from here!
Come on, you’ll never get to see these guys. This is the closest they’ll ever be to you.
I thought they were from Chicago?? I questioned. Was this guy a serial killer trying to trick me?
Yeah, but they’re playing Detroit.
After considerable investigation, I justified that Detroit was closer than Chicago or Indiana (where my new friend lived) and well, hey, I could sure use a vacation from my self-inflicted drama. Right? Plus, if the guy was a serial killer, I factored in my height and the fact that I can go “crazy bitch” face in two seconds. He won’t want to mess with me after that.
So, off I went on a dreamy car ride at the end of May, missing my eldest daughter’s fifteenth birthday while I drove west on the highway – stopping at every single rest stop on the way, which would cost me two hours total.
In hindsight, what I should have done was woman the fuck up and stay local for my kids. But no, I was too busy feeling sorry for myself because I relapsed in February, lost my home two weeks later and then to ice the bitter cupcake of self-pity, my boyfriend committed suicide in late March which devastated me.
Instead of staying and dealing, I guess I figured bailing on everyone that mattered to me was the thoughtful thing to do. Right? Self-righteousness and insolence were the train cars of the year back then.
2005 was the year before I got sober and after going through the index cards and flashbacks in my mind, I can say it was certainly one of the worst years of my life. Instead of sticking around the homestead, I bailed and traveled halfway across the country to hang with people I never met and find out how their local lives went from day to day.
Ironically, the guy who I befriended was in recovery (which I guess was some sort of sign from above – but I didn’t give two shits) and while I couldn’t grasp his whole clean living phase, I was still mindful to keep my drugs in the car and away from him.
Gosh, I was so thoughtful.
Everywhere I went people pointed out to me that I was not a local… and I wasn’t sure how they knew but it started making me uncomfortable. Like, so what I wasn’t a local? How do you know this? I found out later it was because A) I talked different than the Midwesterners did and oh yeah, B) I had a Pennsylvania license plate on a green ’98 Dodge Intrepid with heavy metal band stickers all over the ass end.
I try to stay pretty local these days… the furthest I have been from home since I got sober is Pittsburgh for a tattoo convention my husband worked. I’m sure at some point I will venture further out, but staying local has its perks.
Short Story – I had to commit to the journey or the finish… I wasn’t even sure what that meant when they told me to check one box.
“Only check one box. If you check both boxes they’ll send you to the back of the line and you’ll have to start over,” a shaggy man in a red flannel whispered.
I glanced around the open space at people sitting and standing – everyone around me looked like the shaggy man – as some filled out forms and others sat in rickety chairs held together by wire and clothespins.
“What is this place?” I whispered back. I felt like I had been running for my entire life what with my palpable exhaustion oozing out of me like a stench-filled puss and I was surprised, shocked really, that after all that running this is where I ended up.
He furrowed his brow and slunk his shoulders and I got a strange vibe.
I leaned in closer and asked in a barely audible voice, “Is that what happened to you?”
He nodded twice as his shoulders drooped so low I thought he’d fold into himself and then his eyes shifted to the left.
Naturally, I too, looked left and then saw an enormous and elongated creature leaning against a textured wall that looked like rice, but how could there be a wall of rice? It made no sense – none of this made sense. This creature had six limbs yet it stood upright with twelve eyes (I counted) and all it did was hiss and spit at anyone who moved too slow.
Was I dreaming? Was I fucking high? What the hell was going on?
Finally, it was my turn and I bid my strange friend ado as I walked up to the long table and stated my name.
“Which is your commitment? The journey or the destination?” one of the three creatures at the table asked, holding a box to its chin.
“Why do I have to commit? What if I change my mind?” I answered. A stabbing pain shot up my spine and I wiggled as I tried not to fall to the floor.
“Which is your commitment?” a second creature asked after holding a box to its chin.
A million thoughts flashed through my mind in a second but the biggest one was: How could I commit to the finish when I had no idea what I was starting? What would be between there and here? What if I just ended up at the finish and I hated it?
“I commit to the journey,” I stated and puffed out my chest and looked in all twelve eyes.
There was silence followed by a growing buzz of voices.
The creature stared at me and then placed the box on the table and raised four of its limbs to the air.
My heart raced as it climbed out of its prospective spot and lodged in my throat. Damn, I’m a goner.
“Only rare specimens commit to the journey. Good luck Mr. Walker,” the creature hissed as it held that box to its throat.
The air swirled and popped and then I fell through the floor into the black.
Personal Essay — In my bedroom on a warm, summer day – listening to Pink Floyd – ‘The Final Cut’ – I laid in bed, bawling my eyes out while I wrote on pieces of loose leaf paper about how much my life sucked. I had gotten the cassette tape from a boy who had no business being friends with someone my age. Looking back, I’m pretty sure he was a creepy lover of tween girls, but we stopped talking by summer’s end, so it didn’t matter.
Anyway, at thirteen, I didn’t really understand the concept of suicide. I just knew I hated my life, I was ugly and no one loved me.
Back to the pieces of loose leaf paper. I don’t remember verbatim what I wrote, but I still have vivid flashbacks of being in my childhood bedroom – painted sunflower yellow – while posters of heavy metal bands, Madonna, and a pennant for the 1980 Phillies crusted those walls like a prerequisite to an underage life crisis. Sitting beside the stack of Motley Crue, Def Leppard and Pink Floyd cassette tapes were my trusty stuffed animals adorably named Donna and Leo.
The paper was atop whatever magazine I had that day… probably a music magazine as I kept replaying and writing the words down that boy said to me:
you’re ugly. I don’t like you. you’re too weird. I tricked you.
I found a razor blade in my dad’s top dresser drawer at some point previously. The steel was now hot between my thumb and finger — I had held it so long just staring at the words on the paper, it felt like a part of me. Those words had to be factual, after all. I mean, I was thirteen years old and didn’t fit in with anyone; hell, even my parents didn’t pay me any mind. Those words made sense; they made everything fit.
I waited until the title track to the cassette tape came on: The Final Cut.
This is absolutely one of the saddest songs I know. I played it over… and over… and over… until I was able to sing the song while I sobbed all over myself and the words on the paper. I took that razor blade and cut my right wrist… then my left.
They weren’t large, gaping wounds (those would come later in life) but more so little slits surely significant enough to bleed. There I was sobbing and bleeding for what seemed hours (more like forty minutes) waiting for someone to come in my bedroom and tell me I was none of those things on the paper. I needed to hear someone tell me I was worthy and loved… even at thirteen years old.
At some point, the written pain on paper became suffocated in my blood; surely I would feel faint and start to die at any moment. I needed a do-over.
I was carted off to my paternal grandmother’s – a seasoned woman who smoked long cigarettes and drank vodka and orange juice – where she gave me vitamin E pills to burst open and rub on my wrists.
I assumed (from watching after school specials I guess) that after a kid tries to die on purpose, that maybe we talk about it or take me somewhere to talk to someone…
The truth was, teen suicide wasn’t a thing then. All I got for my first suicide attempt was bandaged wrists and some lousy vitamin E pills… oh, and all my Pink Floyd tapes were taken away, because yeah, it was the music’s fault.