There are too many holes. A fist-sized hole in the basement door. Another in the bedroom door. The back window of his car—no window—just a big hole. The glass shards like jagged teeth in the wide, horrible mouth of a mechanical great white.
“A drug dealer smashed it out with a baseball bat as I drove away,” he said one late night as I stood on the back porch observing the evidence of his latest calamity. I only realized later that the smaller hole in his front windshield was probably the exit wound for a bullet that had shattered the back window, not a bat. The graze mark on the passenger-side dashboard and the bullet casing lodged under the windshield wiper the damning clues.
Too many broken things. The shutters at the kitchen window are only usable now because I was able to glue them back together. I broke those myself. Slamming them shut and screaming at him about something. When he tried to punch a hole in the bedroom TV the plaster lighthouse lamp toppled and disintegrated on the hardwood floor. And then there was what went missing for drug money. My laptop. Ten dollars out of my purse.
But for some reason, now what irks me most are the small things. The little items he pilfered for his own use. Some went into his work bag, some into his car. My purple hand towel that matched my purple bath towel. Gone. The purple washcloth that matched the purple hand towel. Gone. The raspberry washcloth that matched the raspberry hand towel and bath towel. Gone.
My IKEA chef’s knife disappeared, only surfacing months after I kicked him out. I was reaching for the shelf under my coffee table in the TV room for the movie books I keep stashed there. And there was the knife, with its big, elegant, curved blade, hiding in the dark. I made him sleep in the TV room in the days before I put all of his things out on the patio and called 911.
“That’s prison shit,” he told me once when I found a steak knife next to his side of the bed.
I dreamt about him last night. At first, I see only the brown skin. Close. His sculpted chest. I know it’s him, even though I don’t register a scent. He didn’t have a scent, besides the cologne of which he wore too much. But I don’t smell him. I don’t smell the cologne. I smell nothing. Then, although I don’t remember an image, I feel trapped. Again. How did I let that happen? No. I will get out of it. Again.
In the dream, there’s a problem with the microwave and I need to talk to him about it. But he’s not upstairs. I go somewhere else. Up a winding sidewalk, ferns hang into the path. At the end of the fern-lined path is a brick house. Maybe a townhouse. He is there in the doorway, opening the door. Outside, there is a woman. And two policemen. Even from far away I can sense his smile. The story that leaves him blameless already on his lips.
I am enamored with my Christmas decorations, but they are sparse this year. I don’t haul down the fake tree from the attic and attach the two dozen or so limbs and decorate it, like many years before, with the fragile heirloom ornaments, the paper-doll movie goddesses, red papier-maché hearts, the iridescent pink glass hearts. Last year we bought an African tribesman ornament at the shop in Savage Mill. He was so pleased when he got to hang it on the tree. It would be a symbol of our first Christmas together. Instead, this year I decorate the parlor palm we bought last summer at Safeway. (I bought. He wanted.) But before I decorate it I cut off all of the old fronds. The fronds that would have seen him. So now it is small and young and new and none of it is his. I decorate it with white and colored lights and only the few ornaments I have that are shaped like icicles.
I was late getting to my mother’s house on Christmas. She and I were celebrating on Christmas Day like normal people, but we would really celebrate a week late on New Year’s Day, because like on so many other Christmases one of us is working. This year it was my brother – in Minnesota to cover a football game. I finally arrived at Mom’s an hour, an hour-and-a-half late. She was running late too, still half-naked in the closet trying to decide which Christmas-y top to wear. The one with sparkly cats or the one with the sparkly poinsettias. She said she almost called to see if I was alright. She was worried that I’d had a flashback and gotten sad about Christmas. I told her “I’m celebrating that I’m celebrating Christmas without him.”
Later that night when I got home and dead-bolted the back door and shoved the security bar up against the knob and kicked it into place I thought again, that’s what I’m celebrating. Him being outside the dead-bolted, barred door.
I used to joke about armor. About how many layers of armor I wore to protect myself, my heart, from men. I even wrote a novel about a tall, dark-haired woman who rode a black horse, carried a sword, was a deadeye archer and wore armor. She could chop a guy’s head off at a full gallop and not bat an eye. Hmm…don’t I wish I were her now. Problem is, I might worry about becoming hard. Harder even than I think I am, but in fact I am not hard at all. I am soft, too soft. That armor drops off with the first kind word, or even just a smile from a man I am attracted to. I am an easy mark. I fell for him with one glance. With a dozen words, he had me.
But now when I look at his pictures. Yes, I kept a few. When I look at them I feel nothing. No softness resides in me now for him. No warmth. No remembered affection. Yes, I still think he is beautiful. But when I look at his picture, I don’t think Love. I think Monster.
And there is no doubt that for monsters, I need armor.
I told myself not to watch the BBC cop drama, Luther, the other night. He looks too much like my addict. I knew it would trigger me. But I watched anyway. Like holding my hand over a flame. I wondered how long I could watch it before I had to turn it off.
Luther is a good cop who did a bad thing and is just returning to the force, getting his life together after suspension and investigation. Separated from his wife, he is looking forward to rekindling their relationship. He visits her and when he finds out she does not want to get back together his eyes go far away and he starts punching holes in the door. Kicking holes in the door until there isn’t much door left on the hinges. My heart rate goes through the roof. I flinch. I flashback. I know that look. That otherness inhabiting the person you love.
I keep watching. Idris Elba is a good actor. But some of his affectations, the way he sits cross-legged, the way he tilts his head, the way he squints and smiles. He is so like my addict. I shake my head. The hairs on my neck prickle. I keep watching.
Near the end, with pressure from his work and failed relationship building, he goes to her house, pounds on the door, begs to be let in. She calls the police. I am watching my life. But unlike my life—where my addict throws all the big black bags containing his things into his trunk and flees before the three cop cars arrive—she goes outside and as he is being hauled off by the uniforms he breaks free, they embrace, and he tells her he loves her. You can see in her face that she’s going to cave at some point. Let him back into her life.
“No! Don’t do it!!” I yell at the TV.
She’s still attracted to his beauty. Fascinated by his dark emotions.
It’s distasteful for me to write about this. Painful. But not in the way you think of painful. Not painful because my heart aches or because I am sad about what happened. It’s distasteful to look back and watch myself. Sitting in the basement at the red wooden table we’d set up for him to write on. He had written his memoir while he was in prison. That first night I found out he was using I was so confused I could only watch what was playing out before me. And I could say it was in some way with sick fascination that I watched him, but it was just pure fascination. Curiosity. The need-to-know of a reporter. I was a reporter once. I studied him, loading the glass tube. Earlier that night when he’d come home high, peeping around the window shades at the dark street, worried about whether the drug dealers he had ripped off had followed him to my house, he said, “I have something in the car I want to show you, but you won’t like it.” Later, he lit up the glass tube in front of me at the red wooden table and blew the smoke into my face.
The pipe looked nothing like the pipe Richard Pryor loaded when we were shooting “Jo Jo Dancer Your Life is Calling.” That pipe had a big round bowl and a neck to draw the smoke through. The cocaine, it wasn’t called crack then, maybe it wasn’t crack. It was called rock, or freebase in the 80s. It was loaded into a smaller bowl on top of the pipe. I was a union camera assistant then, working in Hollywood. We shot a scene with Richard crawling around on the floor looking for pieces of stray rock in the carpet. Two minutes before he had vowed he would stop. He could stop. He was done. He would break his addiction. Then he finds a rock and he’s ecstatic. It’s all over. He’s sitting on the floor smoking.
And how does my story with my addict end? He’s cleaning out his car after his last chaotic drug run, on his knees in the driveway. He’s vowing to get clean. He has been calling rehab facilities and relatives all night and all morning trying to find someplace, anyplace, that will take him. A crack addict on government assistance. Someone to help him get clean. It’s easy to find a place if you’re rich, or if you have private health insurance. He takes a break and decides to clean out his car. Have you ever seen the inside of a junkie’s car? He finds some rocks of crack in the carpet. I am inside trying to work, trying to claim some part of my life, so I see none of this. But I have already watched this scene play out in the movies. Even as he is vowing to stop, he finds the leftover. He takes the rock, sneaks into the basement and smokes it. Later, he comes upstairs and lies to me about needing money to get his flat tire fixed. Finally, after months of saying yes, I say no. He leaves, saying he’s headed to the tire store to price tires. I only realize later, when I reflect on his edginess, his agitation, where he’s really gone.
Those shots in Jo Jo Dancer of Richard crawling around on the floor lead up to the scene when he sets himself on fire. He is so pathetic. So fragile. So broken. Maybe that’s where I learned my sympathy for addicts. Sympathy that would help to derail me thirty years later. And it wasn’t just sympathy for the fictional Jo Jo Dancer that Pryor had written about to write about himself, it was for the man himself. Richard was the kindest, gentlest, most self-effacing actor and director I ever worked with.
Back to that scene where he’s crawling around on the floor looking for scraps of rock cocaine in the carpet. The sequence ends with him standing by the window of his posh bedroom and sloshing a bottle of Bacardi rum over his head and body. Richard was visibly shaken at having to reenact what must have been the most horrifying moment of his life. A moment he was lucky to survive. The camera was positioned behind him as he doused himself and lit the match. After he lit the match he cut the scene and blew out the match. The technical crew, all men, immediately went about the business of resetting the lights and cameras for the exterior shot, where the window would explode outward with the flames and smoke of Jo Jo engulfed in a blaze of his own making.
But Richard didn’t move. He stood there, quietly, head and shoulders soaked by the fake rum. I walked over, stood next to him and just put my hand, gently, on his back.
Very softly, he whispered, “Thank you.”
After I watched “Luther” the other night and got triggered but tortured myself by continuing to watch, I had a nightmare. When I was younger I used to remember my dreams and it seemed like I dreamed a lot and had colorful, exciting, vivid dreams. I suppose I still dream, I just don’t remember them much.
But I have been dreaming more lately. Maybe it’s recalling all this stuff, or maybe just the act of writing it down has helped to reawaken the part of my brain that wants to push the dreams into my waking hours–or to record them in some more permanent way.
In the dream I was in a small town that was in a valley, with green and rocky hills all around, not as high as mountains, but more formidable than the rolling hills in suburban Baltimore where I live. The town was very busy with a fair, or carnival, or circus or something. It was summertime and lots of people were out and about, but I was alone, on foot, running through this busy little valley. I didn’t know anyone. I was lost and it seems the dream started as I was running from a gigantic tornado that no one else seemed too concerned about. Like the smart-phone videos you see on the nightly news (I hope you’ve never seen one in person) a monster tornado is eating up the landscape, mowing over the pretty little hills, breaking dams, and throwing everything into the air. But the sun is still shining and I’m the only person running, running, running for cover.
I used to have recurring nightmares when I was a girl. Recurring nightmares of tornadoes, threatening, darkly, in the distance, or seen in the reflection of an open storm door. They were there, black and brooding in the background. I assumed they were triggered by my affinity for “The Wizard of Oz.” I’d never seen a tornado, but I’d seen the movie dozens of times growing up. As a teen I recorded the audio of the whole film on my portable Radio Shack cassette recorder. I played it back in the kitchen as I washed dishes and recited the dialogue along with all the actors. “You clinking, clanking collection of caliginous junk!” Great words in the “Wizard of Oz,” in case you hadn’t noticed. Many of the best out of the mouth of Professor Marvel, the doorman, coach driver and guard at the Emerald City, as well as, of course, The Wizard–all played by one of my favorite character actors, Frank Morgan. What a vocabulary.
But why tornadoes made such an impression on me that I had recurring nightmares, I don’t know. I suppose my therapist could find some parallels between me and Dorothy Gale. I certainly related to her. I often felt alone, out of place and awkward as a young girl, adolescent, teen, adult and even now as a 57-year-old. I painted a 4-foot-by-5-foot oil painting of the Emerald City when I was in college as an arts/film major. Forty years later, it still hangs over my bed. I suppose there’s always been an Oz in my life, somewhere where “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”
Many of my dreams have come true. I dreamed of working in Hollywood and I got myself there. I wanted to write a book, I’ve written four (still hoping to be published). I’ve traveled. I have a house, and a cabin in the mountains. I have good friends and a great family.
The men that have been in my life, in my bed, have all loved that painting of the Emerald City.
One night my addict was lying in bed next to me, coming down from a crack binge. He was propped up on a pillow, his bald head just beneath where the yellow brick road spills out of the poppy field. In the dark he was looking up, where I have a constellation of glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to the ceiling and a mobile of the planets (including Pluto).
“Protect yourself from me,” he said.
I should have known then to run. A tornado was coming.
A former film industry camera assistant, then weekly newspaper journalist, now magazine copy-editor, Susan C. Ingram has been published in Dime Show Review, Sick Lit, Jersey Devil Press and Seltzerzine, with a Top 25 and Honorable mentions from Glimmer Train. She holds an MA in Fiction from Johns Hopkins and lives near Baltimore with two cats, Mack and Baine. “Film/Addict” is a standalone piece from her memoir-in-progress of the same name. More at https://newzcook.wordpress.com.