Our Shadows on the Sidewalks
by Gina Troisi
Photo by Christina Schmidt
In late November, John decides to check himself into rehab. It’s been three months since we’ve stopped bouncing around from apartment to apartment, crashing on floors and couches—three months since I’ve used the money I saved from working at the restaurant to rent a one-bedroom on Maple Street. We’ve had shelter, a space to put our sparse belongings, mostly clothes and books and music. I found a used loveseat on the side of the road, and my friend, Peter, gave us a kitchen table. I picked up my hibiscus and rubber trees from my old place on Birch Street and blew up the air mattress I used as a bed in California this summer.
John brought kitchen supplies from the restaurant where we work-tongs and spatulas and sheet pans. We made a corner for his son, Jacob’s toys, even though his primary residence is at his grandparents’ house. Piles of his videos and books and model helicopters are strewn about the apartment. On the evenings we aren’t working, John makes dinner while Jacob and I sit on the living room’s hardwood floor coloring ice cream cones and tracing shapes until we finish his kindergarten homework. After dinner, Jacob goes home to his grandparents’ house. John and I make love, and then lie together naked, my head molded into his neck, my hand on his chest, his fingers interlacing mine while we watch classic films on VHS on the old television set. We listen to music, make love again, talk by candlelight, the inside of our thighs pressed against one another. When John checks himself into rehab, we are finally making a home.
The day he leaves, we take Jacob to the playground. I sit on the curb and wait while they talk alone by the swing set. John pushes Jacob; his feet dangle as he swings. Deep orange leaves fall from a nearby oak. I take a drag off my cigarette and ruminate on how John dresses his son like himself. Jacob wears diminutive, tan cargo pants and an Adidas visor. He has the same dirty blonde hair, cut short, but longer on top. They look like a set of twins, except years apart. I consider Jacob’s tough little life, how his mom has deserted him, his bouncing back and forth between his grandparents’ house and mine, and the bond he formed with John’s ex-girlfriend, Hannah, who is still a part of his life, but with whom he no longer lives. John is the first single father I’ve known. I’m used to the idea of fathers leaving, but when the mother is absent, it stands out, it seems like the child hovers over a black hole, trying not to fall in.
When they walk toward me, to our parking spot, Jacob’s cheeks are shining with tears. John grimaces, shaking his head; his hair hides part of his grey eyes, and his face looks weathered, defeated. I know he has his mind made up about leaving, and I am glad, although I hate to see him go.
We climb into my truck, Jacob squeezing between us, and I fasten his seatbelt. Snuggling his head against my ribs, he says, “My Daddy’s sick. He’s going to the hospital for a while.”
“I know, honey.” My eyes water and I swallow hard as I start the truck. “He’ll be okay, though. He’ll be back soon. Before you even know it.” My voice cracks at the end of the sentence, as if I’m about to lose it. As if no words, no matter how important, can bring it back.
John spreads his hand over his son’s knee. He rolls the window down a crack, and I catch a glimpse of the tattoo on the inside of his forearm, the one that spells Jacob, the one I traced with my eyes on the first day we met. The radio echoes Led Zeppelin’s All of my love, all of my love, oh all of my love, to you, now. John begins to sing and unfastens Jacob’s seatbelt, pulling him onto his lap, his mouth to his son’s ear while he hugs him tight against his chest. He lifts Jacob’s legs horizontally and cradles his short body lengthwise, bouncing him in his arms. Jacob giggles, not the way he usually does when his father does this, but more intermittently, happy to be held.
John stills him, and Jacob says, “I don’t want you to go to the hospital, Daddy.”
“Don’t worry, hon, I’ll be back soon.” He flips Jacob back to a vertical position, back in the space between us, keeping an arm wrapped around his body. He kisses his son’s head just above his right ear. “You and me, we’re together for life-we have all kinds of time together.” It is the type of statement parents make to their children and mean, clinging to their words while searching for normalcy, for predictability. It is the type of statement parents depend on when they have nothing else to hold on to.
John’s heroin habit has never been a secret from me. He told me about it after the first time we made love, and although it had gone unmentioned until then, I was not surprised. The day we met, we had the kind of intimate conversation two people have only after knowing one another for quite some time, and I attribute it to the fact that, in a sense, we had. When we met, I felt I’d heard hints of his voice before, seen glints of his eyes, recognized his hands, how his fingers looked strong, his nails short and trimmed and clean. His habit existed just outside the scope of my focus. I’d seen only him, the man who worked hard at the restaurant to support his son, the man who helped me find cocktail napkins and croutons in the basement filled with dry goods, the man who always offered to make a veggie stir-fry for me to take home during an afternoon lunch break. I’d seen the man who stopped by my house every few days, bringing a joint for us to smoke while we listened to Led Zeppelin and talked about our pasts—he told me about his mother who died in a drunk driving accident when he was five, his stepmother who made him do chores while his father remained indifferent, about how he eventually dropped out of prep school, met Jacob’s mother, ended up here, in this small New Hampshire town.
I’d seen the man who looked into my eyes whenever I spoke, who listened while I told him about my desire to travel westward, to see the largeness of the world, about how I could never seem to find a place that felt like home. I’d seen the man with whom I went for walks on sun soaked days that New Englanders wait for all winter-with whom I barely noticed dusk approaching as we wandered into the depths of the night, the sky speckled with stars. Our friendship grew quickly and smoothly, like staring straight ahead in an airport and stepping onto one of those swift conveyor belts. By the time I found my footing, I stepped off, realizing I was where I needed to be.
When John did tell me about his addiction, he explained that he didn’t shoot heroin, but snorted it, which for some reason was easier for both of us to diminish; without needles and track marks, inhalation is easier to conceal, to ignore. Despite our efforts, heroin has become like a third party in our relationship, not like his son, but more like another woman I have accepted as ours. She is paused, suspended in the small space between us. She hovers over the mattress on which we sleep. She waits for us when daylight breaks. He tries to resist her, but he cannot, and like any woman in love, I try not to notice.
I drive John up to the twenty-eight-day rehab following the Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire’s scenic road. We weave in between mountains and edge along rivers and streams. The auburn leaves are bold against the sage colored land. In the truck, John is silent. I place my arm on his, smoothing the veins with my fingers, squeezing his forearm muscle. “He’ll be okay,” I say. I know he’s thinking of Jacob. “You’re a good father.” I reflect on how happy Jacob always is to see John, how he’ll run in and out of the restaurant’s kitchen laughing and squealing while John chases him, scoops him up into his arms, and spins him around. How John ties a miniature kitchen apron around Jacob’s waist so he can pretend to be a chef, too. I notice when he fixes Jacob a plate of green beans and asparagus, throwing some grilled chicken on the plate, insisting that he needs protein. I watch while he packs his son’s duffel bag for an overnight at our house, placing Sponge Bob and tiny sneakers and hats neatly beside one another and clipping Jacob’s mittens to the zipper of his jacket.
When I’ve said this before, that he’s a good father, he’s thanked me, but today he says, “It isn’t true. He needs more.” We are stopped at a red light when he says this and he’s tilting his head downward, looking at me sideways, his face guilty. “You need more.”
My hand is holding the shifter firmly, and he covers it with his. He feels the tops of my fingers, my knuckles, caresses my wrist. “That’s why I’m going.”
The light turns green and he moves his hand from mine, rests it on my thigh. I know he is right about my needing more; I say nothing. John and I have not made the life I hoped for when I returned from California for us to be together again.
My first night home, we stayed on a friend’s couch, the air conditioner rattling in the window, the stereo on low. We made love with me sitting on top of him, his breath on my neck. I was uninhibited as my breasts grazed against his chest, as my hair fell forward onto his shoulders. We talked while he was inside of me.
“Things are so different now from before you left,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“I can focus on you now. On us. I don’t live with her anymore. I don’t have to feel guilty. I’m fully single.” In the months before I left, I was the girl a few miles down the road who waited for John to visit when he wanted to escape his troubles. I was the girl who represented his fabricated life, the one without a girlfriend and a son. Even before we had been together in bed, I was infidelity. We were infidelity. It was there at the restaurant, in the steam rising off the plates he handed me. It was on the streets we walked, when our hands brushed near one another’s, skimming and grazing, but never clasping. It was in our lengthy, contemplative stares. When John and Hannah broke up, he and Jacob were still living in her apartment for some time before I left for California. I had been glad to go because I’d grown tired of feeling like a mistress. I decided that I couldn’t continue with a man slipping into my bedroom at two a.m., only to see him the next day with the woman he lived with-when I could still smell his cologne on my neck, when my skin still held his tongue’s moisture-having to say hello to him as though it was for the first time that day.
On top of him, naked, I rested my cheek on his exposed chest. I didn’t ask him about his and Hannah’s final parting, or the moving out. I didn’t ask if they were still in contact, and I didn’t care. His peach soap scent mixed with my lilac shampoo and I breathed him in, breathed us in as if we were characters in a short lived dream, as if it would be light out in a few minutes, and we’d have to wake up.
We moved to the floor and lay side by side on the carpet by the light of three candles. We flicked our cigarettes into the ashtray on the coffee table. “I really want to be with you,” he said.
I stared him straight in the eyes. His lashes quivered, and I saw his sadness. “Me too,” I said. And I did.
When it comes to matters of love, I have often been unsatisfied. I endlessly question my relationships. What if there is something better? What if I am missing something? I seek that ultimate fire, the one where I have no questions. I found it here.
I rolled over onto my side and rested my ear on his chest, the hairs warming my face. Groovechild’s song “Down by the Riverside,” played softly. Looking for a love that can be all mine, when I saw her standing there, flowers in her hair….
“Sounds like you were pretty healthy out there in Cali,” he said.
“Yeah, I was. But I was really lonely, too.” Here I was, home again.
Nighttime has always suited our relationship, its uncertainties, the hope huddled underneath the fear, the inspirations born of danger. I think of what our nighttimes have become, how along with sex and talk and music, they now consist of empty baggies with powder remnants and hollowed out bottles. At night, we sit up in bed drinking wine and passing joints. John gets up periodically to snort the powder trailing across the bureau.
One night, he knelt on my bedroom floor with a razor blade. A square hand mirror rested on the bedroom rug. He cut the powder and arranged it into short, crooked lines. “You have no interest in this?” he asked.
“Do you sometimes wonder what it would be like if we did it together?” I asked. I thought of his drug-induced bond with Hannah. I thought about the drug bonds I’ve formed with different men-the incessant talking-the comfort automatically found with the other who shares your plane of existence. How by wounding yourselves together you become inextricably connected, like twins who explain one sibling breaking an arm and the other rushing to the hospital in pain. How you can become parts of one another, with or without sex. Two people who will trade limbs and lives. Who will die for one another and for their one love.
“No,” he answered. “I would never want you to be part of my hell.”
In the White Mountains, we stop at a Ma and Pa pharmacy. We stall there, circling around the store, peering through glass cases at watches and bracelets. When we do errands together, it is usually at the grocery store, shopping for egg noodles or chicken breasts for the three of us, but in this unique place with gift cards and toiletries and pharmaceuticals, we seek the necessities for someone who is staying away from home, things to help the pain of heroin detox subside.
In the store, I think about how Jacob related rehab, where a person mends himself through abstinence, to a hospital, where he is hooked up to IVs, pumped with drugs to kill infection or disease, to speed up recovery. How rehab is almost the opposite of a conventional hospital, since John’s medicine, the substance that prevents his body from illness, from dope sickness, will be taken away. When high on heroin, the brain releases dopamine, the chemical that allows a person to experience pleasure. After years of abuse, the brain becomes altered from depletion of dopamine; before long, his mind needs the drug just as much as his body. In rehab, John will be denied the exact thing his body hungers for in order to stay stable.
I have no misconceptions about the strength of heroin or the challenges of withdrawing from it; he has tried to quit before, on his own, but has been unsuccessful. I realize that even if rehab works, if he’s able to get clean, the absence of his drug will be as prominent as its presence, like a woman he can now resist but cannot forget.
We exit the store, John holding a plastic bag with the things I’ve bought him: Advil, a new razor, and three dark chocolate bars.
Rehab looks like an old barn turned into a farmhouse. It has a sloped roof with black shingles and a rustic wrap-around porch. The red house is backed by snow capped mountains, surrounded by open fields spotted with sugar maples and yellow birches. The air is colder here; I carry John’s winter coat and hat. Inside the front door is a staircase leading up, a kitchen to the right, an office to the left. It smells like brownies. On our left, inside the office, is a brunette, smiling woman. “Hello, I’m Maggie, come on in, welcome.” The room, with shelves of books and warm, hardwood walls and flooring, reminds me of the inside of a secluded Vermont cabin. Maggie sifts through the stacks of folders scattering her desk and says, “John?”
He nods, looking down at the red shag rug. “We’ve been expecting you, welcome.” I wonder how many people have entered this office, how many have stayed, or have left too early. I wonder how many have repossessed their lives, how many have not. He squeezes my hand as I study Maggie’s large earrings made of green sea glass. Hardcover books are stacked neatly on the desk: You Are Not Alone, Addiction, Alcoholics Anonymous. She hands John the guestbook.
“If you’ll both sign in, please.” She looks at me. “It’s just routine. Anyone who comes in needs to sign, even if you’re not staying.” Along the wall, shelves hold binders labeled, Starting Over, Cleaning House, Life Skills. Rehab is a place where addicts reconstruct their lives; they are taught how to maintain jobs, open bank accounts, budget their incomes. They develop short term goals, create lists of things to do that don’t mention going after a fix.
John has said to me, “You and my son are all I’ll need to stay clean,” and even though I know this is not entirely true, his words swell inside me like surges of hope.
I know that the life John and I have built together is unlike most versions of “normal.” Most people don’t live paycheck to paycheck, with little furniture and no savings; they don’t wake up craving a fix, or come home to an empty apartment when their lover has disappeared to find one. But there is no one else who hears me the way John does, who can finish my sentences, who can speak to me through touch alone, who understands what I mean when I say nothing. I know that most couples don’t go for walks in the middle of the night for no particular reason-that they don’t have trouble sleeping, so decide to venture out into erratic elements on foot, hand in hand, recapping their lives, as if by walking they are able to move away from them somehow, to leave behind the times before they were together.
John and I have trekked for miles and miles across the mill town where we live, most of this ground covered within the stillness of night. There is something about our walking, our shadows on the sidewalks, our movement and motion, that deepens our understanding of one another, as if we both accept the possibility that our lives are intersecting at this crucial point, but with no hope of future, no promise of tomorrow. It is often during these walks, when the sun is down and the world is sleeping that we are able to discover the most about ourselves and one another, about how we fit. Perhaps he and I are willing to chance that we have nothing but the present; this is why we grasp so tightly to it, and to one another, knowing that at any moment, with the light of day, it could fall away.
John drops my hand to take the pen from Maggie. She says, “I’ll show you around.” Maggie leads us downstairs and we walk down a hallway lined with framed quotes: God grant me the serenity and Take one day at a time. At the end of the hallway is a cement room that resembles a half finished basement; it’s filled with furniture, but without a carpet or painted walls. It has televisions and a ping pong table and coffee pots, with different doors to meeting rooms. A cluster of tables and folding chairs fills one corner of the room. Maggie looks at me. “This is where you’ll visit,” she says. She shows us the smoking area, which is outside the sliding back doors of the basement.
She brings us up one flight and says to John, “I’ll show you to your room next, so you can get settled in.” She looks at me politely, and I know that my part of the tour has ended. “You don’t have a roommate yet, but you will,” she says. John nods, indifferent. We both know that his room will look like the kind in a dormitory. Two beds, a large window, a desk with a shelf, and closets with sliding wooden doors. This is not his first time in rehab, and this is not my first time visiting one; we know what to expect.
“I’ll let you two say good-bye,” she says. “But, please, make it quick-house rules.”
I have a dreaded feeling, as if I’m dropping him off in the woods in the middle of nowhere without food or a tent—without anything to fend off the wolves. I don’t want to imagine him in a room, on a sterile bed without me curled up next to him, without music or candlelight, without our skin touching. I don’t want to imagine him sleeping through the night sweats and nausea and muscle spasms we know he will have. I don’t want to imagine the fear that will envelope him when he can’t have a fix-the remembrance of his mother turning tricks in their poor neighborhood in the city, his worry about Jacob and how he will endure his own mom’s abandonment. I catch myself wondering how and if he will survive this breaking apart, this mending; I wonder how and if I will.
In the hallway, John leans into me and touches my face. “Thank you,” he says and kisses my lips as I try to still them. “I know this isn’t easy.” He knows that my grandfather, to whom I was closer than anyone, has recently died, that my father is out of the picture, that abandonment is a recurring instance in my life. He knows that he is the only one who takes me seriously when I break, when my fear becomes so potent that I cannot move. He knows that I have come home for him.
When I return to Maggie’s office to sign out of the house, I am crying. Maggie asks me if I have someone I can talk to, if I have help for myself. “Yes,” I say, without giving her question even a moment’s thought. “Thank you.”
As I drive home, I barely see the road in front of me. Instead, I see flashes of our life together. Most nights after work, I slouch into the mustard colored Victorian couch in the corner of the restaurant’s lounge and doze off. When John finishes in the kitchen, he always runs up the stairs looking for me, his steps loud, climbing two stairs at a time. I’ll hear him say hello to my co-worker, Jill, as she washes the beer taps, his voice waking me. He sees me and jogs over like a child spotting a puppy. “Hey, babe.” When he reaches me, I open my eyes, taking note of how the dim lighting reflects his hair’s uneven ends in the window behind him. I love his hair-how the straggled ends look highlighted even though they aren’t, and how the darker streaks blend into the lighter ones, curling to rest in creases between the muscles of his neck. His soft, inviting neck. His lips press against mine, and I lean into his kiss. We kiss for extended lengths of time, as if we were alone. He grabs my hand and leads me down the stairs and we walk home.
When I return home without John, the apartment is quiet and empty. My footsteps are loud against the floor, and I turn on the music, the volume on high. I survey the contents of the kitchen: the spider plant John’s step mom gave him hanging from the ceiling, our three seats surrounding the table in a semi-circle, John’s CDs stacked on the island countertop in the kitchen. Above the stove is a brown vintage frame encompassing the macraméd words, Having someplace to go is home, Having someone to love is family, Having both is a blessing. I rented this apartment with the two of us in mind. If not for him I would’ve stayed west and started growing a garden of herbs or driven the Alaskan highway until I reached the wilderness. But once here, I’d become someone content with the thought of making Jacob’s school lunches, of staying here in one place, committed to a lease, paying the electric bill.
In the empty apartment, the lights still off, I draw the shades; I turn off the music. I want nothing to remind me of John, although everything will, all our memories rushing at me as I sink back into the loveseat, my head digging into its cushions.
This morning, I heard John and Jacob’s footsteps in the kitchen, Jacob’s lighter and quicker, as he ran into the bedroom. “Hi sweetie,” I whispered, yawning, holding the covers up tight underneath my armpits.
“Hi, Gina.” Jacob approached the side of my bed and squinted his green eyes, leaning his head to one side while he grinned. He handed me a long stemmed red rose. “This is for you.” He looked like an undersized prince, the flower surpassing the length of his arm.
“Thank you,” I touched the petals to my nose and breathed their fragrance in, its essence filling my nostrils. “It smells amazing.” I smiled at John.
“I had nothing to do with it.” He laughed. “Really, I didn’t. It’s his grandparents’ anniversary. He saw the roses on their kitchen table and asked his grandmother if he could bring one to you.”
Jacob stood by my bed, eye level with me. “Do you like it, Gina?”
I am not a rose person—from John I would have expected yellow irises or calla lilies, or Gerber daisies, but seeing Jacob’s face peering up at me, waiting for my response, I could imagine no better way to wake up. “I do,” I said. “It’s beautiful. Just like you.” I tapped his round nose with the flower. “Now let’s go put it in some water.”
“Okay,” he said, in his raspy, excited voice, running out of the bedroom. John took the rose from my hand, leaned down, stuck his head under the comforter and kissed my nipples, his mouth’s wetness making me pause. He kissed my neck, my skin tingling against his tongue, perspiring underneath his breath, and we rose up together and hugged, him still hanging onto the flower. While I dressed, John found a vase in the pantry, put the rose in water, rested it on the nightstand.
These are the times I remember.
John signs himself out of rehab after five days instead of twenty-eight, the duration it can take for physical withdrawal symptoms to diminish. He tells me only a bit about it, like a man who has come back from war. He mentions the delirium tremens and hallucinations he had in the dorm-like bedroom. “Ray was there,” he says. Ray is the large African American man who sells him dope in the city. “It was completely real. He was there in that room with me. And he had heroin.” When John says this, I imagine his lack of dopamine, of pleasure, and the void it creates—the hollowness. I imagine him looking for glimmers of light, hints of hope that are released when he gets high, but finding none.
When John comes back early, I don’t ask if Maggie tried to make him stay, or if the counselors encouraged him to try harder to recover, to leave twenty-three days later renewed. I know that even if he had stayed for the duration there would still be a slim chance of him ever feeling renewed-he might always feel incomplete, like a man tortured by the lover with whom he left too many things unfinished.
When John comes home early, he says, “I have always been with an addict. But not you—you are a good woman.” And I wonder if I am.