Once I realize that the tiger chewing on the back of my thigh is most likely part of a dream, not reality, I start to take stock of everything else. I can’t tell yet where I am or why, but I know it is cold, I know I’m outside, and I’ve figured out that the tiger bite is actually a sharp rock digging in to my skin. When I try to reach down to dislodge it, my arm seizes up in the worst cramp I can remember, an electrical jolt from the base of my neck down to my fingers and outward to my shoulder blade, which freezes stiff like iron. I take some deep breaths to try to relax, but the air hitting the deep of my lungs feels like liquid nitrogen, a hundred thousand stabbing points with every deep breath.
My other arm can move without too much pain, but it can’t reach the rock either. I touch my face, the part that isn’t pressed against the ground anyway, and discover that it is wet. I guess it rained.
I touch the ground. It’s mostly dry, but for some moist muddy spots. The good arm – my left, luckily – continues to assess its fellow body parts. My chest seems mostly intact, although it is soaking wet from the rain as well. My collarbone hurts when I press on it. I remember learning that the collarbone (or clavicle, or whatever they call it) is the most commonly fractured bone in the human body. Rob broke his once without even knowing how or when.
Rob…I remember a flash of his face, terrified, not blinking, not moving. The fear on his face reflected in my mind unnerves me, because all he’d ever shown me before was his strength. I can’t ask why yet. Keep checking.
I have a broken rib or two, I’m pretty sure. My abdomen hurts, but nowhere I can touch – it seems a deep-inside injury or wound. I can wiggle the toes on the leg the dream-tiger was chewing, but I can’t wiggle the toes on the other foot.
When did the rain stop? The ground seems too dry. But when did it start, for that matter? How long have I been here, and how did…I can’t ask that yet.
I must have had my mouth closed when it rained, and fortune did not leave a puddle of water where I could slurp it or scoop it into my mouth. Even though my mouth is stone dry, I try to lick my lips. I feel some moisture, but not resembling rain, or sweat, or…what is it? Metallic, bitter. My good arm reaches to touch the left side of my chest near my upper rib, lifts the moisture there to my mouth, and tastes it. It did not rain. I am covered in blood.
The muscles in my shoulder cramp even more, cutting off the nerve impulses to my brain. The darkness and scattered treetops before my eyes turn into stippled bright static, and then begin to disappear. I feel as though I need to lie down, but I know I already am. I know I am losing consciousness.
Rob and I met at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting when I had about four days off the heroin and two days off the pills. I often wonder how bad I looked when he first saw me. I didn’t have any health insurance so I couldn’t detox in a hospital, and I didn’t really want to go to the city sobering center. I wanted to try to do it on my own.
It was hard to sit for an hour in the meetings, shaking, nauseated, sometimes nodding off, and of course getting up to go to the bathroom two or three times because of the diarrhea. Rob would usually sit next to me in those first few weeks and months, rubbing my back, getting my coffee for me, encouraging me to be strong, to keep coming to meetings, to commit myself to my recovery no matter how dopesick and miserable I felt.
I managed to keep my job at Rainey’s, missing only a couple of days, which I blamed on a stomach flu when I called in sick. Three meetings a week were held at the church four blocks away from the store, so I could walk over after work and get a ride home from someone at the meeting. I hated having to ask for rides, but it was necessary, and it helped me get close to several people in NA, people I could call on hard days, people I could spend my time with so I wouldn’t spend it thinking or wishing or planning to pick up and fix.
Most meetings I got a ride from Meredith, a fellow heroin addict with about seven months clean. She was fun and flighty, and riding in her car made me feel so young, rekindling some of the joy I had been missing out on for years while trying to numb my pain. She would come over to my tiny apartment sometimes and practice for cosmetology school on me, giving me pedicures and experimenting with my hair.
One night was particularly hard for me. I couldn’t stop thinking about getting high and for whatever reason I couldn’t seem to pray about it or write about it or do any of those things I knew from experience would help. I didn’t want to say anything in the meeting because they were all becoming my friends and they were all so proud of me. But I said something anyway. Even though people aren’t really supposed to directly address or give advice on what someone says in a meeting, almost everyone who spoke after I confessed my desire to get stoned, expressed similar desires, and assured me that those desires were normal but I didn’t have to act on them. None of them judged me; my friends became even closer friends.
After the meeting while we were all standing around chatting, a few people I’d never spoken to one-on-one before came up to offer their support. Alex told me about a time he’d gotten through a bad craving for crack cocaine. Joanne gave me her phone number and made me promise to use it. Josh took me in a strong bear hug to say goodbye after his cigarette. “Aww,” I joked, “you’ve got the best arms in NA, man!”
A couple of the old-timers would talk to me after the meetings where I’d shared about cravings, about missing the softness, the ease, the dizzy buzz of the drugs. Some would tell me that I should go on methadone or suboxone to ensure I wouldn’t go back out, but I didn’t want to do that. As much as I wanted to escape into a narcotic stupor some days, I was also starting to enjoy being clear, and didn’t want anything to ruin that.
Rob was a big part of that decision. He always told me how much he believed in me, and how he knew I could do it without chemical help. He was really outgoing, almost always smiling, always glad to see me, and glad to see me still clean.
Most of what I wanted to know at the beginning, I figured out on my own. What drew me to him first was his kindness, his gregarious nature, and the way he smiled with his eyes, with his whole face, instead of giving off those polite, controlled expressions like most people do. He was even nice to people while he was quitting smoking.
We became good friends over the next couple years. He would come in to Rainey’s sometimes when he knew I’d be working, most of the time just chatting with me, but sometimes buying something I know he didn’t really need or want. I’m not on commission, I’d tell him, but he’d do it anyway. I couldn’t really visit him at his business, because as an electrician he was in the field most of the time. But I found myself going to more of the meetings I knew he attended. I put my recovery first and worked my ass off at it, but seeing Rob was a big bonus.
After a long time, we went through several months of flirting like a couple of thirteen-year-olds…afraid of rejection, afraid of embarrassment, too proud to be the asker instead of the askee…who knows? It was so fun, though, so giddy and exhilarating. It was a useful distraction from life, thinking that I should have let my hair down instead of putting it in this ugly, unflattering bun, and wishing I had been wearing makeup so he’d know I could be somewhat pretty, or so he’d get the hint that I was trying to get his attention. Or would that seem too obvious to everyone else? After a while he graduated from calling me Jayla to calling me “sweetie.” I still didn’t know what that meant, so decided to let it go, not get my hopes up, just enjoy the view and not have any expectations.
He stood at about six feet tall with a good build, though not overly muscular, which was fine with me. Most days he wore his windbreaker from work, but I always loved to see him in a plain white t-shirt, which he could wear very well. He had a few tattoos, and a small diamond earring in his left ear. He had dark hazel eyes and light brown hair, but his hair was shaved so close to his head that he was almost bald, and that was fine with me, too. Better, than fine, actually. I loved to reach up and rub the fuzz on his head and make him laugh.
One night while he was giving me a ride home, he said he was starving and asked if I wanted to get something to eat, so we went to Italia Grill and hung out for a while. We mostly talked, but also took a bite of pasta here and there…one of which I ungracefully dropped onto my white buttoned work shirt.
Trying to get tomato sauce out of a white shirt was futile, but I tried anyway, if only to keep up appearances. After three water-soaked napkins and no progress, I finally gave up, stating in a resigned tone of voice, “Oh well, like it matters.”
Rob furrowed his brow at me, seeming strangely curious. “What do you mean by that?”
I tried to change my tone to a casual, self-disparaging one, explaining, “Well, I’m not exactly a supermodel anyway.” I kind of pointed to my face with both hands, as if he didn’t already see this boring-looking woman sitting across from him. He started laughing, looking down and shaking his head from side to side. What did I say?
He inhaled sharply after a minute, saying to me, “I have a hard time believing that you don’t know…you don’t realize…how gorgeous you are.”
I was taken sharply aback; it took me what felt like forever to respond. I didn’t want to seem egotistical, but inside I felt so flattered and flabbergasted at what he’d said that I almost failed at containing the huge smile that desperately wanted to break out.
“Well, I don’t know if I agree with you,” I finally said to the tabletop, too embarrassed to look directly at him, “but thank you! No one’s ever called me gorgeous before.”
Rob was quiet for so long, eventually I had to look up at him to read his response to what I had said. He was leaning his chin on the back of one hand and wore an indiscernible grin, staring at me as if he were trying to study me as one would gaze on a painting in a museum. “Yes they have,” he said adamantly, nodding. “You just didn’t hear them say it.”
I’m sure he could tell that I was blushing, both embarrassed and so excited. I couldn’t think of anything to say.
“You like Bruno Mars, Jay?” he asked me. I nodded, still nervous and unable to find any words. He started to sing, right there at the table at Italia Grill.
I know, I know when I compliment her, she won’t believe me
And it’s so, it’s so sad to think that she don’t see what I see
But every time she asks me do I look okay?
When I see your face
There’s not a thing that I would change
’Cause you’re amazing
Just the way you are
And when you smile
The whole world stops and stares for awhile
’Cause girl, you’re amazing
Just the way you are.
Never in my life had I been serenaded. All these questions popped around in my head. Does he do that with a lot of people? Is that just his style of communication? Is he just being nice to me because he’s a nice guy? His voice was beautiful but his eyes commanded me to listen to the words. I was convinced. I really believed the compliment this time. He really thought I was gorgeous, amazing. I could only smile as he finished the song and stared at me intently. The waiter came with the check and broke our gaze, signaling us to wrap it up and head out.
I did a little sneaky reconnaissance on him, I’ll admit, especially when his name came up in casual conversation, asking other people as coolly as I could things in the vein of basic information – how old he was (thirty-two), if he’d ever been married (no), if he had any kids (no), where he worked (D&G Construction, as an electrician). Risking being totally obvious to people, I also had to ask if he had a girlfriend (no, not a current one). I tried to seem as bored with their answers as I could be.
One evening during the meeting, he asked to borrow my pen. Of course, I said silently to myself…I’d give you anything you asked me for. He looked at the pen for a second, then raised it to his upper lip and smelled it with a long, noticeable inhale. Then he handed the pen back to me.
That doesn’t mean anything. He was just bored, right? Kind of on auto-pilot? Maybe he was craving a cigarette and that was an unconscious substitute.
I called Toby when I got home from the meeting. I do that a lot so he knows I’m still going. After three years he still worries, and I know he reports what he knows or suspects to the rest of the family too. But mostly I called him because I wanted to give my brother the latest Rob report, and see if he could help me interpret what it all meant, if anything. “What does it mean if a guy smelled my pen?” I asked him, hoping that he’d tell me that meant without a doubt that said guy was in love with me.
Without a pause he exclaimed, “It means he’s a freak!” But then he theorized that if it was one of those fruity scented pens like the ones I used to use in high school, maybe he thought it would smell like tangerines or something, lessening the freak factor, if only slightly.
It’s nice to have Toby to bounce these things off of. He knows where I’m coming from, having had about a hundred girls crushing on him and trying to drop hints to him since about the fifth grade. Guys don’t get hints, Jayla, he would tell me…again.
I told Toby all the details, monitoring his responses to see if he was getting bored. I told him how Rob had talked about his ex a lot, and was that a bad sign? He doesn’t have any kids so he doesn’t have to talk to her. Why does he? Is he going back to her? He enjoys his work as an electrician, but work is not his mission in life, he says. Tonight Rob wasn’t feeling well, and it physically bothered me to see him ill, as though I was sick with him. He wasn’t as chatty as he usually was, and he had Bree run the meeting in his place. Should I call him, Toby, should I bring him chicken soup? Not if you’re gonna get sick too, Toby answered.
But we could nurse each other back to health, I answered weakly to myself, then to Toby, waiting for his laugh that came right on cue. Of course there’s nothing wrong with helping each other, supporting each other, in this program we’re in that’s based supposedly on the power of addicts helping each other…but there are unwritten rules, and one of them is that men stick with men and women stick with women. The fact that my chicken soup might be welcome would be a pretty lame argument for going to visit him. But I’m tired of being smart. I’m tired of being safe. I’m tired of complying with all these unwritten rules.
Obviously getting to that point of disinterest, Toby sighed and explained that chicken soup is not an expression of love – at least not one Rob will ever understand. Then he said it: Guys don’t get hints, Jayla. I would have to say it to him, with words, and if I couldn’t, then I’d have to let it go and move on.
I thanked him for listening and we solidified our plans to get together with April for our monthly sibling gathering on Sunday. I told Toby I loved him (so easy, so automatic, with a family member), hung up the phone, and went into the kitchen to defrost the chicken breast I had in my freezer, and chop up carrots and celery. God, I really am sick.