Wednesday, April 16, 2014

After-Thought Roses

Your son, a young man now, then, a child wise beyond his years.

Once, I brought milk to your house, opened the carton to make Spanish coffee, and it slipped from my hands, a white puddle of slop on the floor.

I looked around for something absorbent, no paper towels, nothing of the sort, and you refused to part with any facsimile materials.

"Leave it," you said. "Aaron will be here later in the week, he'll know what to do..."

As if it took a magical, 7- year- old shaman to clean up a spill.

I wasn’t having it, but you were adamant; the spill was only to be touched by the skilled, craftsman hands of your second grader.

Your apartment was a maelstrom of slop, psychological filth, a storage space for your own mental disarray. Your son was beautiful, dark Spanish features, his eyelashes thick as guitar strings. At first, he stayed with his father only on the weekends, then it was more, then the reverse. He knew you were disintegrating, riding his bike in circles in the courtyard of your Bronx apartment building. Anything he left at your apartment when he went to his dad’s was lost; there was no safekeeping, just as there was no housekeeping.

One day, I took him to the bodega down the block to get ice cream.

He went to the cooler, chose a dollar Strawberry Shortcake, and laid it down on the counter.

To his right, on the countertop, next to the cash register, was a sales display of small artificial roses inside glass tubes.

"Do you smoke roses like my mom?" he asked.

"No, honey," I answered. I had my own problems, but none that involved these after-thought roses. The rose is an after-thought because what's for sale is the glass tube. It's a crackpipe.

"I can always tell when my mom’s been smoking roses," he said. "I open the windows to let the smoke out, but she makes me close them. She thinks someone’s going to come inside and get us. She makes me lock all the windows, and the door."

What is like to be seven years old and to see your mother in such a paranoid, irrational state?

"I'm not around here that much anymore," he said, taking a bite of ice cream, a crumb of Strawberry Shortcake sticking to his lip. "Do you think it makes my mom sad?"

"I think it makes your mom very sad, but I think it's good that you stay with your dad right now. You can always come and visit her whenever you like."

Years later, while working at a women's halfway house with mothers who had lost their children due to drug addiction issues, I would come to this conclusion: if the loss of a child didn't get a person clean, it would become their reason for staying high.


I had a boyfriend who used to say that I was vomited out of New York, but it was really more of retch. You and I had fallen out of touch before that. You started running more with a crowd that could help to supply you with what you liked; I started running more with a crowd that could help to supply me with what I liked. At first united by our love of illicit substances, we were later divided by our own individual preferences.

Retched out of New York, I landed, a bilious pile of a person, on my family's doorstep. Away from the Bronx, away from Brooklyn, I eventually rebuilt my life free of chemical crutches. I had to hide in order to do this;  I'm still hiding now. I know I can never live in New York City if I want to stay away from drugs.

Then came the advent of the social network. I would search your name, first on Friendster, then on MySpace, Facebook. Nothing. I couldn't really see you as much of a computer person anyway. But I was thinking about you. I dedicated stories I wrote to you, because I assumed you were probably dead. So waifish and small, you couldn't have lasted very long.

Then, one day, I searched again, and you appeared.

In Guyana.

That's where your family was from. It appears that sometime over the many years since we were last in contact, you went home to them. In your profile picture, you look to be in some kind of ceremonial garb. I haven't sent you a friend request, and don't know if I ever will. But because I have a child now, I found myself thinking about yours. One of the small things your profile settings allows me to see is your friends, so I searched your son's very common Spanish last name, and I found him, just as gorgeous as I'd remembered, in a white baseball cap and polyester sports shirt, looking as urban/metropolitan as his location: Bronx, NY. What does it mean, him, in New York City, you in Guyana? At his age, close to 25 years old now, he wouldn't need you like he did then, but did he ever get you back?

When I was a child, I used to break my mom's cigarettes. Sneak into the living room as she watched television, in and out, in and out, snapping her Virginia Slims in half, burying them in the yard, or deep in the garbage, flushing them down the toilet when she wasn't looking.

You never talked to me about what was happening with Aaron. I knew, could tell, that you were deeply ashamed, smoking crack and having a child. I didn't have children, and was younger than you, so maybe you thought this made me less inclined in to judge. You were right. I thought Aaron was so smart, so mature, something had been done right in raising him, though of course, those qualities could have developed in him as a child expected to parent a parent.

But there was one story that you told me, and it resonated with me because it reminded me of me and my mom's cigarettes. You and your boyfriend, a drug dealer named Juan, were smoking crack in your bedroom. It was the end of the weekend, and Aaron had just left to go back to his dad's. Juan put down the pipe to go to the bathroom.

"Oh my god baby, you gotta see this!" he cried out from the other room.

Not the kind of words one wants to hear with their brain on fire.

You walked into the bathroom and your eyes were drawn to the toilet, the water level raised to the top of the bowl, and about to spill over.

There, floating in the water, flower- shaped barrels about to go over Niagara Falls, half a dozen or so after-thought roses.

Somewhere in time, there is a little boy about to go to his dad's for the week, furtively running around his mother's apartment looking for them, adding the ones he's found to the ones he's already secretly collected, gathering them up, he drops them into the toilet, flush and run, backpack over his shoulder, all his prized possessions inside so he won’t lose them-- but she, she has to stay. He thinks by doing this he's helping to keep her safe, but he's so young, so na├»ve and so sadly off-track.

I hope that sometime, over the many years since you and I last spoke, he got you back.

©Fiona Helmsley


Liz M said...

This is gorgeous. I love your writing so much, Fiona.

Flee Flee This Sad Hotel said...

Thanks, Liz.

lizkibby said...

I could spend days on your blog. The writing is so powerful. And honest.

Flee Flee This Sad Hotel said...

Thank you.