This work first appeared in Yemassee 21.2.
He turns around, reaches out from the shower, and pulls me to him. The water runs down his head and splashes my skin. We stand beneath the shower head; a waterfall rinses us, his arms around me, and my head on his chest. A pink mark swells in the pit of my arm. We taste like heroin. I want him to steal cars for me to ride next to him and make love to me in a cold water flat, listen to the drip of a broken pipe, next to unhinged doors as wisps of light drift around our bodies.
I am twenty-five when I meet him in an AA meeting. I have thirty days clean coming back in after a hard relapse. Louis sits off to the side. When called on, he speaks about pot and video games. He asks if he can buy me a milkshake after the meeting. I say no because I have plans with my girlfriends. Another guy in AA warns me to stay away from him, he’s done grand larceny. I don’t even know what that means but it sounds cool.
Two days later, in front of the whole meeting, he asks me out again. My cheeks burn and I nod yes and quickly sit down next to him.
“So, do you have a sponsor?” I ask.
“Yeah, Chris F.”
“Oh, good, he smoked a lot of pot too. I guess that will be good for you.”
He laughs. Pot is not his problem.
“We can go anywhere,” he says. I choose somewhere close by, somewhere bland. I’m not sure if I like him. I choose IHOP, where he works as a server.
We sit in a booth and his co-workers stop by to say hi, all calling him Danny. He leans in and tells me about his warrants in Memphis. “For petty things, no big deal,” he says. Danny is his brother’s name. He has Danny’s ID. Danny lives in Florida.
He tells me his story. His father is in prison. He has been there since Louis was two years old. Louis isn’t a pothead stoner. He’s a down-and-dirty junkie. He’s traveled cross country stealing cars along the way. He loves to read Jack Kerouac and travel around getting high. I suddenly want to go with him, anywhere, it doesn’t matter–careen recklessly into the dark–a gravitational pull toward him. The air is thin. His ache calls to my ache. His loneliness tugs at my own. He is broken just like me, and I want to be broken with him. I throw my hand up to motion “stop.”
“This is gonna be bad,” I say. He smiles.
He orders a beer. I struggle to keep my eyes focused. We sit at a table for two next to the exit door inside the pizza cafe. I order a coke. He is handsome in the smog that rolls through the air and dims the lights. Everything is soft and nothing hurts. There is a knot in my hand. I missed the vein. I shouldn’t be this high. I was on my way to the meeting when I saw him walking down the street. Now I am here. My head hits the table, but I don’t pass out. We laugh. He strokes my forehead. We don’t know if anyone is looking at us, wondering why this girl can’t control her body. Nothing exists anymore except for us.
He calls me at work. I am in a red smock, and all my hair is tucked up inside fishnet. The K-Mart fluorescent lights beat down on the deli counter. I lean on the wall that holds the phone, twisting the cord with my fingers, and listen to his voice. He wants to see me when I get off. I hang up, walk out of work, and don’t look back.
We sit on rocks on the river bluff. The Mississippi rolls on, reflecting the sun up to our faces. Children throw rocks and scream when the water splashes. Louis holds a syringe, leans forward to hide it with his body, the needle probes a vein, blood trickles in, and he pushes the plunger down. He hands it to me. He stands. He is tall and lean. He once played football. He was once a marine. He blocks the wind as I hold a lighter under the spoon. I push off. He sits back down. A strand of my hair flaps in the breeze, he catches it and tucks it behind my ear letting his fingers linger. “You take up space,” he says.
We shoplift. Every day. Simulac baby formula. DVDs. A chainsaw from the corporate hardware store. Whatever we can sell to ghetto stores, pawn shops, and the Disco Round where the owner buys DVDs still in the plastic. We hide the stolen goods in my mom’s living room. We live at my mom’s while she is out of town. I wake screaming, night terrors, panic and yell things, I don’t know what things, yelling about myself, my life. The words come out cluttered and hoarse. This is where he is supposed to become afraid of me and then leave me like the last one did and the one before. I am unlovable, and it wakes me up and sends electric volts through me, sears the skin, like a bad shot of coke, like a girl who has been hurt but the memories are too hard to bear. He grabs me from behind, puts his arms around me, pulls me to his chest and onto the bed, and says, “Shh, Kitty, it’s OK.” He holds me and I cry.
I call my AA sponsor.
“We are going to California.”
“What’s in California?”
“We can live on the streets.”
“You read too much Kerouac.” Which was partly true, though it was Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries that made me first want to do drugs.
“I am happy,” I say.
“I can’t do this,” she says. “I feel like I did when Gib died.” Gib was her sponsor who had recently died of cancer. Gina had sponsored me for the past year. I had three months, then slipped, then four months but my dad died and I had to go do it, then thirty days and I met Louis. “I failed you,” she says and hangs up the phone.
Somewhere in Arkansas, Louis tires and I have to drive. We have been doing dope for weeks. The highway stretches out forever, no curves or turns, just a straight path of asphalt with white lines. It’s late afternoon and the sun casts water shadows along our path. My eyes want to close from lack of REM sleep and too much black tar. Signs announce a nearby exit. I grip the wheel and widen my eyes. The exit approaches and I let the car drift to the right and then onto the exit ramp. The ramp curves and the tires squeal. I forget I’m driving and just glide–it’s nice and warn in the stream. A stop sign swims the other way and a horn echoes, a horn like when I was a child and would do my arm up and down as my father drove us past a truck. Louis wakes up as we come to an abrupt stop inches away from the brick wall of an old gas station.
“What the fuck?” he asks.
“I have to pee,” I say.
“You don’t have to drive anymore.” He thinks I did it on purpose. Later he says, you might decide to end it all and drive us into a brick wall.
We sleep in the car next to a Toddle House in the parking lot of a truck stop. THe bright light of sun hits my face. My eyes flutter open and I see the keys in the ignition. I remember a guy who once was arrested for DUI while sleeping in his car parked in front of his own house. The cops told him that if the keys had not been in the ignition then it would not have been a DUI. I reach for the keys but my arms are so heavy and my eyes won’t stay open. My lids slide close and I dream I am a jelly packet, like the ones inside the Toddle House. I am a grape jelly packet and am being ripped open, purple oozes out. My lids go up and my arm reaches for the keys. My fingers brush the ignition and the keys clink. Louis halfway wakes and pushes my hand away from the ignition. I reach for the keys again, and “the cops, jelly packets,” slurs out of my mouth.
“Goddammit, you can’t drive,” he says, and he pushes me away with force.
There is a porch swing. In Memphis, at his cousin’s where he stayed. After the shower before the river. A couple of days before I walk out of work. He went a week without calling me. I drive to his cousin’s. He is on the porch. On the swing. It creeks. “Why does it always have to be on the guy’s terms,” I ask.
“It just does,” he says.
And I remember a punk song, I want so gently to remove your mask, it’s hard enough to find water here.
We are somewhere in Texas. We are out of dope. Louis steals a case of beer to compensate. We steal everything–gas, food, a cooler and ice for the beer. I guzzle three beers to fight off dope sickness. I become silly, talkative. I stroke his hair and rub his arm. Where is my Louis? The man next to me looks serious. Looks annoyed. I sway in my seat and twist knobs on the stereo. I pick up the notebook that sits under my seat. Louis has written where have you been my blue-eyed son on one of the pages. “Where have you been my darling young one,” I sing.
“I don’t want to do any of that,” he says. I sit and sulk and stare out the window. The landscape is flat and dry. It is miles of nothing except for the dead armadillos.
I try again. I lean over to him and kiss his neck. “Stop it,” he says. I take off the bracelet he stole for me and drop it in his lap. He rolls down the window, holds the bracelet out, and lets go. I watch it float over hard earth, sift through tumbleweeds, and fall out of sight. Bruises on my arm swell and our dopesick bellies moan along with coyotes at the lost sun.
“It’s a hard rains a gonna fall,” I sing.
I continue to drink.
I ask, “do you believe in God?”
He takes his eyes off the road, looks straight at me, and says, “There is no God.”
We are all alone.
I’m dopesick in Albuquerque. Ice sits in my joints and I sweat vinegar in the dry air, the air that sits on my chest and it is hard to breathe. The beer wrecked my stomach and I am sick. It’s dark out. I am curled up in the backseat. We are parked on a street in front of houses with flat roofs. Houses I want to call adobe, like they could all be in a Mexican villa, but sidewalks run in front of these and the sky is blacked out by the lights of the city. Louis couldn’t get comfortable in the car and is now under a stranger’s porch. He makes bird sounds to let me know he is still there.
“Louis,” I whisper out the car door and toward the house. “Louis.”
“Cuckoo,” he calls back.
“Louis, I’m sick. I mean sick.”
“Cuckoo,” he sings again and I hear a giggle. He is a crippled bird. This is his place in the world.
I want money. I want a hotel room so I can bathe. I want heroin. I want him to love me again. We are in Santa Fe. I wait in the car while Louis is inside a book/DVD/music store. He comes out empty-handed.
“They don’t have shopping bags like the one in Memphis,” he says.
I pop the trunk and get out of the car. I pull an oversized purse out. I walk toward the store, and looking over my shoulder I say, “be there when I walk out.”
I am dirty. My shirt sticks to me and the smell, the smell of sweating out curses and beer, surely overcomes the place. My hand sweeps over DVDs. Blockbusters, classics. No cults, not when we will have to go to a pawn shop since we don’t know the game here. Pawn shops sell mass market. Pawn shops want mainstream.
I step out of the store, DVDs in my bag, the alarms going off behind me, and he is there. I slide right in the seat and we drive off. But it isn’t enough. I want to go home.
Outside of Santa Fe, Louis tells me to let him off in Denver and that I can drive the rest of the way to California by myself. He remembers a fight that never happened. He sweats I hit someone. I don’t know what he is talking about or who I would have hit. I know after New Mexico we will no longer be allowed to pump our own gas and it will be harder to steal. I think of Denver and him leaving me. I want to go home. I tell him I am going home. We decide to separate. He stops the car where the street splits off. He stands, facing traffic, peeing. I don’t want him to leave. I don’t think I can make it back to Memphis.
He gets back in the car and he is Louis again and says he can’t let me drive back to Tennessee without him. So we turn around and head back. I realize I have one last paycheck waiting on me at K-Mart. We speed through the night. At sunrise, he lets me drive for a little while so he can sleep.
We make it back to Memphis. We spend my check in one day. My mom is back in town and we sleep in my car in a field, pilled off the road, hidden behind trees, somewhere near the Walmart. Louis calls it a watermelon patch but I never see a watermelon. We sit in the car, such a perfect day whispers from the speakers–a CD he stole for me. In the light of the dashboard, his hands are on me, his lips slide into mine. I taste his tongue and breathe his air.
We go to my mom’s house to do laundry.
“You’re so high,” she says. And I am. My pupils like pinholes, tiny, as the iris swims around. My voice is breathy, calm, at peace, happy–this is how my mother knows.
She tells me I can stay if I leave him. The tears well up in her eyes as I slide the last bit of clean laundry in my bag and hug her goodbye.
He tells me to pull into the parking lot of a diner. He only wants to check something out. I don’t know what this means. He tells me to keep the engine running. He tosses the green tote bag over his shoulder and walks down the hill next to the diner, to the hotel that sits at the bottom. I roll down the window and watch the cars buzz by on the freeway to my right. I turn on the radio. People move around inside the diner, lifting forks to their mouths, and I am jealous. I want pancakes and coffee without the worry of being chased down in the parking lot for not paying. I see Louis. He runs up the hill. I shift into first and swoop over to him. The door is open and he is in the car, “Go.”
I shift through the gears, heart pumping, legs like jelly smooshing the pedal, and we are on the interstate. Louis hunches down in the floor board on the passenger’s side. “Slow down,” he says. “Don’t speed,” he says and counts money–six hundred dollars, more than when we steal and faster too. I drive straight to South Memphis. To Ronnie, the dope man. I don’t say a word. When Ronnie asks what’s wrong with me, I shrug.
We go back to our field. I squat in the tall grass trying to pee but I nod out and fall over. Louis stands nearby trying to go and he rocks like a breeze and tilts but never falls. We finally curl up under blankets and sleep next to the car. In the morning, as the sun comes up and I wake up freezing, I realize a woman will have nightmares of his face. I never knew six a.m. in early June could be so cold.
“Three minutes,” Louis says. Three minutes is all he needs to rob a place. We are in Mississippi just past where Memphis ends and Southhaven begins. I sit in the parking lot of the hotel adjacent to the one that Louis is walking towards.
He enters the door. He walks up to the young white woman. It’s always a young white woman. He won’t do it if it’s not. Young white women tend not to fight and just do as told. He slams his hand on the desk between them. “Give me the fucking money or I will shoot you in the face.” His other hand is in the green tote bag grabbing air. There is no gun but he has to make her believe it is there, in his hands with his finger on the trigger. Once time he messed up. He picked out a beauty supply store with a black woman behind the counter. She screamed “Oh lord,” and ran to the back and hit the alarm. I had to drive through a sea of blue lights and sirens screaming, the cops racing toward the place. I realized then that it wouldn’t be do you know why I pulled you over? License and registration please. It would be get your hands where I can see them, out of the car, down on the ground, with a dozen guns aimed at my head.
I can’t see her. I think I can see his back but I am not sure. It’s been two minutes and twenty-five seconds. I put the car in gear. The seconds tick as I drive out one lot and into the next. Three minutes and I am at the exit that leads to the interstate. Louis hops in the car and hunkers down below the dash. I drive us back to Tennessee.
We stay at the Parkway Inn. We walk from the office to our room. The sun is setting and a breeze blows around my naked legs. I am wearing a sundress. I feel pretty. It is too big on me now and there are cigarette burns and bloodstains in the fabric. A man leans on a car and asks Louis how much for me.
“She’s with me, man, she’s my girlfriend,” Louis says and pulls me closer to him. I nuzzle my head into his arm and like that he said it, that he claimed me. He unlocks the door to our room.
There is a Plexiglass mirror above the bed. I lie on my bad in the bed and watch my body distort above me. We mix cocaine with out heroin. When I move, it looks like a smear of flesh across the warped glass. He takes off my clothes and then lays behind me, my back to his chest. I feel his heart beat through my spine. Everything is soft here, no edges, only slops of skin. His, mine. He is what I have waited for my whole life.
At 5:30 a.m., the Channel Five traffic helicopter is hovering over the interstate which is nearby. Louis thinks it is the police and that they’ve come for us. I tell him to stop. To calm down. He grabs my keys. He says he is going to lead the cops away from here to keep me safe.
“If they get you, you make me out to be a monster. Say I wouldn’t let you leave. That I made you do drugs. Roll on me. Tell them every place I have robbed.” This is what he has always told me to do if we were to ever get caught.
He drives away. There are no cops. I sit on the edge of the bed and wonder if he will ever come back. I sit patiently. Quietly. I lie back down and try to sleep. I can’t. I stare at my freak show reflection looking back down at me. I’m not sure how much time has passed when he returns.
He robs a greeting card boutique. It’s more money than usual. We load up and get a room at the Southern Sunshine Inn on Bellevue just past Parkway. The walls are concrete. We shoot up. He wants more coke and I want more heroin. I give him what’s left of my coke for what’s left of his heroin. It’s a fair trade.
I sit on the toilet in a black T-shirt and my panties are around my ankles. Heroin makes it hard to pee. I sometimes sit for an hour and only a small drop trickles out. I nod in and out which makes it even harder. Louis pulls up a chair and watches me. I’m not sure what is going on. I am hoping he wants me to be kinky, or something intimate. I dream of his hands on me. In my nods, he runs fingers down my naked skin but in reality, it’s been a minute and I need to remember what he feels like, what he feels like with me.
“Where’s the coke?” he asks.
“I gave you all my coke.”
“No,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say. “We traded.”
“Take off your shirt.”
I stand up, my legs caught in my underwear, and I grab the hem of my T-shirt and pull it over my head. He smiles a little. I think maybe he is playing. I stand in my bra waiting for him to reach out and pull me to him. The hum of heroin pulses in my skin and I wait for him to touch me. “Take it off,” he says. He means my bra. He’s still smiling. I reach around back to undo the strap and he yells, “off, off, off, off,” over and over. My fingers shake and I can’t work the snaps. I yank my bra up over my head and fling it to the ground. “Let me see,” he says. I raise my breasts up with my hands so he can see beneath them to make sure there isn’t a piece of paper with coke in it, pressed between breast and chest.
“There is nothing there,” I yell. I run out of the bathroom. Ankles tangle out, and I fall to the floor. Naked, exposed, tears. He throws a blanket hard at my head. I pull it around my body, my body that I now don’t want him to see.
“What did I do?” he asks.
“What?” I look at him and he’s backed away and stands in the doorway by the toilet. His face is soft and his eyes are lost.
“What did I do to you.”
“It’s OK. You weren’t Louis. It wasn’t you.” I stand and walk over to comfort him. It’s not me here either. I don’t know who we are but the AA meeting is far away, and I don’t know how to get back to the river.
“What do you mean I wasn’t Louis? Who was it? Where was I?” He runs out the door.
He returns later with more drugs. We do them. I feel my mind leave. It floats through the skull and rises out the skin. I see it leaving me. I watch it go and there is nothing I can do.
I am on the bed. Louis’s belt is around my leg. He holds the syringe that sticks in a vein just below my knee. My arms are raw. My arms are a bruise with flecks of skin here or there. He pulls the needle out and tightens the belt. “What was that,” he says like he heard something. “I don’t know,” I say. He thumps my leg. He thumps the needle and slides it back into the vein. Blood trickles down my leg. Blood trickles on the sheets. He moves the needle around, deeper, and then shallow. The red seeps in and he pushes the plunger down. I close my eyes. I am not there, I am somewhere else. Somewhere in the dark, in the warmth, it’s always summer here, and I let it fill my lungs, and drown me. My eyes stay closed for a while. There is no time. No space. I blink and I want to fix again, to do another shot.
I poke holes in my arms again. It hurts. Blood clogs the needle and I squirt it all not the spoon and set a flame to the blood to un-coagulate it. I suck it back up again. I am not going to waste dope. Then we are on the bed again, his belt around my calf. It’s not as good this far from the heart.
Louis digs through the trash.
I nod out in the bed, under the covers, like I am sleeping, but my body no longer does that. “What are you doing,” the words tumble out.
“Looking for my weed.”
“What?” He hasn’t smoked in days. Not since the last hotel.
“My pot. I know I have some.”
He digs around for a little bit longer and then he gets in the bed.“I’m sorry you lost your weed and couldn’t have your pot moment.” I try to be nice in my near coma. I try to form words that make sense. The room is dense and drips all over the place. I’m here, Louis, somewhere over here. I will give anything to feel him again. I wish I knew what day it is.
“What did you say?” He sounds angry.
“I’m sorry,” I say. I am stuck to the bed, my head is stuck and my eyes won’t open.
“Fuck you, Kitty.”
This shoots through dope and raises me up. He paces the room. He yells.
“What is happening,” I ask.
“Sorry you lost your wee wee and couldn’t have your hot moment.”
“Louis, I didn’t say that.” I hold in laughter. I hold in fear.
He runs around the room and I sit on the bed. He makes no sense and all the drugs are gone. All the money is gone. He charges toward me and I jump on the bed and reach for the lamp but it’s glued to the nightstand. I scream, “Don’t you fucking hit me.”
He doesn’t hit me. He doesn’t touch me at all.
We drive around in my car. I keep waiting for him to drive us to a place to rob. But instead he says he is going to go stay with his Aunt until he can get into treatment and that I should call my mother.
“I wish you the very best,” I say.
“Thank you, Kitty, I appreciate that.”
“What? I don’t fucking mean it.” I sound like a demon.
“Woah, you fooled me,” he laughs.
“You can’t leave me. I’m gonna call Ronnie and say I’m ready. I’ll be a prostitute.”
“That’s on you. I’m telling you to call your mother. I’m telling you to get help. I can’t do this. I can’t keep you safe anymore.”
I scream and kick the dashboard. I plead. I whisper sweetness. I beg, please don’t leave me.
Two months later, I sit in a small room at a square table with two chairs, each on opposite sides. There are more tables and chairs just like this one. I am clean and living in the single women’s lodge at the Salvation Army. I have a job at Perkins Family Restaurant. I am about to move into my own apartment. I am visiting Louis in Mason, TN at the Federal Holding Facility. While I did twenty-two days in a state-run rehab, he robbed five banks. My legs shake. I wonder if I look pretty.
After I leave, we will write letters while I stay clean and date other men, sober men. We will fight through letters. He will write, every great binge grinds and burns itself out and so too have we. I will promise to wait on him. I write about us getting married and having kids and living a boring life. He will be moved to Michigan and then Louisiana and I will Google map it and promise to come see him but when he gets out, it will have been a couple of years since I have written. We will talk on the phone. I will feel the pull and hear the hurt in his voice that I abandoned him, but we will not see each other. This moment, in Mason, is the last time.
He walks through the doors dressed in what resembles beige scrubs. He looks handsome. He towers. He picks me up and spins me around and kisses me, the way I like him to, the way I need him to, the way my body called out to him all those nights, and he finally answers with this kiss.
Kat Moore is an MFA student at the University of Memphis. She received an honorable mention from The Academy of American Poets in 2012. She is currently the assistant CNF Editor for The Pinch.