Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I have seen pictures of Cassis, so I am unsurprised (though still seduced) by its beauty: the narrow, winding roads and stucco buildings that lead down to the shocking turquoise blue of the bay, and the castle-topped cliffs that rise around the port town nestled on the French Riviera. No one has told me about the cicadas, though. When my taxi from Marseille stops at my destination and I open the door, their song surges at me from the trees, blanketing everything in its pulsing whir. It sounds machine-like, though I know it is thousands of large insects, their bodies heaving with desire.
I have come to Cassis for a monthlong artist’s retreat. Ten others and I will stay in a building whose tall windows overlook the bay, with its green-eyed lighthouse. (F. Scott Fitzgerald finished The Great Gatsby not far from here, and it is rumored that the novel’s green light was inspired by this one.) The cliff of Cap Canaille changes color with the position of the sun, the town beach is crowded with bodies, and the relentless blue Mediterranean stretches to the horizon, where it meets the relentless blue sky.
Every morning I open the windows of my small apartment and bathe in the breeze off the water. I recently suffered a back spasm, and no medicine could assuage the pain that cascaded down my body. Though no longer in pain, I have learned something about my body’s fragility. At thirty-seven years old, I do not expect the trend to reverse.
Once all of the windows are open, I eat a perfectly ripe peach over the porcelain sink in the tiny kitchen, its juice streaming down my forearm. Then I perform a series of gentle stretches that were not possible for me eight weeks ago. By the time I finish, the cicadas have risen with the sun, engorging their abdominal membranes to produce that sound. I meditate for twenty minutes, my eyes closed, imagining their thrumming as a ring of light that surrounds the building, each insect body a bright ember.
The call of a male cicada can be heard by a female up to a mile away, and some are so loud they would cause hearing loss in humans, were the insect to sing close enough to the ear. The cicadas in southern France spend almost four years underground, though a brood rises every summer to sing and screw for a few months before they die. All the souvenir shops in Cassis sell porcelain cicadas, wooden cicadas, tea towels with cicadas printed on them. The North American cicadas of my childhood have longer life cycles and often spend seventeen years underground before tunneling their way to the sunlight and climbing out of their old bodies.
It has been seventeen years since my last visit to France, a trip I haven’t thought about in a long time but whose details are returning to me the way French words emerge from my mouth at the market: seulement, les fenêtres, désolée. Jostled loose by the voices around me, the language rises from wherever it has been sleeping for nearly two decades.
In the summer of 2001, before my final semester of college, I got a job at the New Press, an independent leftist publisher whose list included books by Noam Chomsky, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Simone de Beauvoir. My job was to sit in an air-conditioned Manhattan loft and, among other light administrative tasks, respond to the novelists who mailed us their manuscripts for consideration. Dear Author, I would type. The New Press rarely publishes novels and never those by American authors. This fact was immediately obvious if one simply glanced at our catalog. Still, an aspiring novelist myself, I felt guilty as I dropped their manuscripts into the recycling bin with a funereal thunk.
Most mornings I wandered through the cavernous storeroom with its industrial shelves of books and selected one or two to read at my desk. If I especially liked a book, I brought it home in my purse. (I still have my stolen copy of Studs Terkel’s Working.) It was a great job for the person I would have been had I not been addicted to heroin.
I was only twenty but already beyond the charmed phase of believing I could outsmart the drug. I had tried a few times to stop and still thought I might be able to do so without help. Certainly my boyfriend, who’d been a junkie much longer than I had, wasn’t offering any assistance. I’d moved to New York City two years earlier, under the mistaken impression that Boston and the boyfriend were my problem, but my habit had followed me, and, eventually, so had he.
When I got my first paycheck from the New Press, he waited with me in the icy lobby of a Fifth Avenue bank to cash it. As the sweat turned cold on our backs, my boyfriend sucked on a free lollipop and tried to convince me to buy dope with the money, some cocaine for speedballs. The hard candy rattled against his teeth as he whispered in my ear. Sick of the cloying cherry smell, I tucked the bills into my wallet and left the teller’s window.
“Stop it!” I hissed. The inside of my arm was still bruised from our last binge, the purple blotches visible through the makeup I’d smeared there. I already sensed the crawly feeling under my skin that I’d come to recognize as the first sign of withdrawal, but I wanted to spend my paycheck the way a normal college student would: on a trip or books or my credit-card debt. As we pushed through the heavy double doors and stepped onto the steamy sidewalk, I shouted at him, “We’re fucking junkies! It’s not OK!”
He rolled his eyes and spat the cardboard lollipop stick onto the concrete. “Stop being dramatic.”
A week later, to get away from both the boyfriend and the drugs, I quit my job and spent my entire second paycheck on a ticket to Paris.
A white yacht cuts across the blue water like fabric scissors. Two men unload orange sea kayaks from a truck on the shore. I sit in a wooden chair at the window and slowly lift my left leg as I tilt my head back. The exercise is called “nerve flossing.” I imagine my sciatic nerve — pink and tensile as fishing line — disentangling from the soft tissue that surrounds it.
As I perform the repetitions, I try to remember the dream that woke me this morning. It was a familiar one, a version of which I have had for twenty years: I am trying to shake that old junkie boyfriend, but everywhere I go, he is there, with his slumped shoulders and vacant, hungry eyes. Go away! I shout at him. In the dream I am my present-day self and fully aware of how absurd it is that he should appear, wanting to get high with me. The only time I’ve seen him in the last twenty years was when he showed up drunk to my first book-release party. Every time he appears in my dream, I’m filled with fury and panic. Why won’t he go away? Doesn’t he know that he is gone from my life?
The only luggage I’d brought to Paris was my backpack. I got off the plane at Charles de Gaulle Airport groggy with sleep. The place teemed with people, a cloud of cigarette smoke over their heads. (Smoking wasn’t banned in French airports until 2007.) I pulled a pack of Parliaments from my pocket and lit one, then followed the signs toward the exit.
I had studied French in high school and then in college. I had an aptitude and a decent knowledge of grammar and vocabulary, but I’d never tested it among native speakers. Though familiar words jumped out at me from passing conversations, I was surprised by how little I understood. My accent was good, however, so when I asked for directions, people assumed I was fluent and rattled off instructions far faster than I could follow them. Merci beaucoup, I said and continued on, still lost.
Using my Lonely Planet guidebook and a free map of the Paris Métro, I found my way to the first hostel on my list: a drab building on a residential street. The young woman at the front desk ignored me until I began speaking. As soon as I struggled for a French word, she interrupted me in English. I paid, and she led me to a room lined with bunk beds, barracks-style. The afternoon light filtered weakly onto the floor from a small barred window. I thanked her and climbed the metal ladder to the bunk she indicated. I didn’t want to waste my francs on a locker, so I stuffed my backpack between my legs and struggled to find a comfortable position in which to sleep. There was no one else in the room.
My body ached with exhaustion, but worse was the loneliness, which transcended that of a twenty-year-old all by herself in a strange country. Here I was, thousands of miles from my life and not dope-sick. I should have felt free. It is a particularly crushing disappointment to realize, again, that your problem is yourself. The chasm of despair that I’d felt in New York was still with me, in me. Maybe, I thought, it was me. I considered the terrible possibility that what tormented me, what I loathed in myself, was the truest part of me — the singed and poisonous center that could never be scraped out.
I had already reached the point at which I had whispered, Please, tell me what to do. I will do anything. No answer had come. So I’d run. Again. I had no other plan. I had prayed that running wouldn’t fail me this time, but as I lay in that narrow bed, I knew that it had. That it probably always would. Tears dripped from the corners of my eyes and down my temples into my hair. I didn’t know any other prayers or to whom I should offer them.
Back in my Brooklyn bedroom I had a packet of razor blades tucked between my mattress and the box spring: a tangible reminder that there was always one way out. In that hostel bed I thought about those blades, their smooth silver faces and perfect edges. It was a comfort, like searching in the dark of a theater for the red glow of an exit sign.
By the end of the first sweltering week in Cassis, I have figured out that if I want to spend any active time outside, I have to get up before the sun. I have grown so accustomed to the ceaseless noise of the cicadas that the silence at 6 AM is startling, spooky. I have been a daily runner since I got sober at twenty-four, but I haven’t been able to run since my back spasm eight weeks ago. I pull on my running shoes and walk the half mile from my building to the calanques, a series of inlets between steep limestone cliffs that reach like jagged fingers into the sea. They are thought to have formed almost 6 million years ago, when the Strait of Gibraltar closed and the Mediterranean became isolated from the Atlantic. Its sea level fell by fifteen hundred meters, and the rivers that flowed into its waters carved canyons into the land. When the Strait reopened, the Atlantic flooded the canyons and collapsed the weakened land, forming the calanques.
I taste the salt in the air as I climb the hills toward the park surrounding the inlets. The ground turns from concrete to a pale, compacted limestone littered with gravel and larger, toothy chunks of stone. I cross a wooded parking lot, empty at this hour, and follow a sign for “the path of the Little Prince.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of the beloved children’s book The Little Prince, died in a plane crash off this coastline on July 31, 1944. Some speculate that when the Little Prince of the book describes his small planet as “the most beautiful and saddest countryside in the world,” he is also describing this place.
At the edge of this first calanque, I look down at a row of pristine white sailboats and out at Cap Canaille, its top warming to the color of rust in the sun. The water at this hour has not yet turned the glamorous turquoise that it gleams all day. Instead it is a deep navy blue. I breathe in the salty breeze, close my eyes, and feel my body grow stronger on the edge of that cliff. When I turn back, I break into a jog. Careful to avoid the loose rocks, I pay close attention to my softened muscles, the familiar heat of their exertion. I make it all the way back to the sloping road beyond the parking lot before slowing to a walk, my back damp with sweat. By now the cicadas’ song rings triumphantly from the trees. Blood hums through my body. I am filled with a joy so exuberant I nearly shout.
It was still dark outside when I woke in the hostel bed. The occupant of a nearby bunk gently snored. I immediately located my bag, wedged against the wall. I prodded my misery, too, to see if it was still there, and it was, transmitting its hopeless report like a TV left on overnight. I carefully peeled the blanket off and slipped my arms through the backpack’s straps. Fearing thieves, I had slept in my shoes. Wildly thirsty, I climbed down the bed’s metal ladder, past the sleeping lump of my unknown bunkmate, and went to the restroom, where I gulped water straight from the tap and avoided the mirror. When I left through the unstaffed lobby, the door locked behind me.
I had no idea where I was, and it didn’t really matter. I walked until the streetlamps flicked off and morning sunlight began to spill down the narrow cobblestone alleys. I’d never seen buildings like these, each corner elegantly detailed, as if it had been carved by hand, which it probably had. The yeasty smell of baking bread wafted from shops with their doors still locked. My mouth watered, and my eyes marveled, but the picturesque scenery felt doused in loneliness. Foreign beauty is of no comfort to the homesick.
I crossed the Seine on a pedestrian bridge and stopped in the middle to look down at the water, less than a hundred feet below. It was gray, like the early-morning light, though the air was already warming. I imagined sinking into the river, its cool quiet slipping over my mouth and eyes.
By 9 AM I had reached the Arc de Triomphe, at the intersection of twelve avenues that radiate from its center. I stared up at the limestone monument, its sculpted pillars that commemorate the victories of Napoleon, who commissioned it in 1806. When I was little and felt overwhelmed by my feelings, I used to go to the beach and stare at the Atlantic. Beside it I felt small, awed, inconsequential and thus free. The ocean didn’t care about my feelings, and it would be there after they’d passed, after my whole life had passed. Standing under that enormous arch, I searched for that feeling but found nothing.
I stared down at my travel guide, which assured me there was another hostel just a few blocks away. I hoped it would be an improvement over the previous night’s. On the way there I stopped at a small grocery to buy a bottle of water. As I approached the counter, the man in front of me turned to leave, and for a moment our eyes met. He was tall and lean, the fabric of his white T-shirt darkened by sweat under his arms. Beads of it gathered in the hollow of his neck, despite the relative cool of the shop. His face was handsome but haunted, and in his eyes, above dark circles, was a look that I instantly recognized. The moment passed, and he brushed by me into the street. I had only a few seconds to decide. I abandoned my bottle of water beside the register and followed him out the door.
“Attendez!” I called after him. “Monsieur, attendez s’il vous plaît!” Mister, wait, please!
The stranger glanced over his shoulder, and I waved, jogging to catch up to him. I groped in my mind for the words: Can you get me some, too? “Ah, pouvez-vous en obtenir pour moi aussi?” I asked, hoping it was close enough.
He shook his head in confusion, or feigned confusion, and walked faster to lose me.
“Attendez!” I pleaded. “I have money!” I dug in my pocket and pulled out a wad of bills.
He stopped and half turned toward me.
“Pour vous, aussi” — for you, too — I promised, holding out the money.
He studied my face, and I held his gaze long enough for him to recognize in me what I had seen in him. Finally his shoulders dropped, and he beckoned for me to follow.
My relapse dreams are always the same: I have shot dope, snorted coke, smoked a joint, whatever it is, and I panic. I decide to hide it, to lie, something I would never do if I relapsed now, but the person in the dream is not the person I am today; she is the old me but dressed in the trappings of this life.
The cicadas are already whirring when I wake with the stiff white sheets twined around my legs. I have slept late enough that the sun is high, the bedroom is soupy with heat, and my chest is wet with sweat. Then I remember where I am and sigh with relief.
At a potluck during our second week in Cassis, I tell another retreat resident — a painter — that I watched a video of a cicada molting.
“It was disgusting,” I tell her. “You should definitely watch it.” The cicada’s body pulsed, and the new body emerged, soft and green, from the old. Within moments its wings filled with fluid like an inflatable toy, and its new skeleton hardened. The discarded exoskeleton still clung to the branch, an immaculate husk. How sad and gorgeous I found it, like an abandoned mansion. What a job to perform! After sleeping in that dark dirt long enough to forget whatever glimpse of the world it had once seen, the cicada nymph digs its way out, clawing in the dark like someone rising from the dead, until it breaches the surface and is born into that shocking light a second time. Then the old body is discarded.
I often think about all the years that I expended enormous amounts of energy hating my body, obsessively monitoring my food intake, and performing exhaustive exercise regimens. My goal was exactly as prescribed by American culture: to embody a concept of beauty that defied my natural form. I measured much of my worth by my progress toward that goal. What a job that was! Sometimes I would consider all the thoughts I might have had were I not constantly thinking about how to control and manipulate my body. Everywhere I went, men stared at me, tried to talk to me, and commented on my degree of success in my quest. I both loathed and craved this attention. I often looked forward to what I imagined would be the sexual invisibility of middle age.
Now, around 6 PM each day I put on a bathing suit and walk slowly to the beach. My bathing suit is a one-piece. I have smeared my exposed skin with sunscreen, and I wear a cheap straw hat that I bought in town. I am not wearing mascara. I have not shaved my armpits or worn anti-perspirant in over a year. If my younger self could see me, she would be horrified. Or maybe not. Maybe she would feel as relieved as I now do to live in a body that I do not hate, and have some idea how to care for. I’m grateful that I didn’t have to wait until middle age for this.
I leave my towel on the smooth rocks of the beach and make my way into the water. It is cooler than other Mediterranean beaches due to the geologic history of the calanques, but warmer than the waters of Cape Cod, where I grew up. I ease in and swim a slow breaststroke out beyond where the children play, to where my feet can no longer reach the bottom. The water’s cool hands cradle every part of me. I feel the work of my arms, the motion of my powerful thighs, the sun on my flexing back.
The painter I was talking to at the potluck has invited me on a hike to d’En Vau, the farthest calanque reachable on foot, also called “God’s Finger.” I am ambivalent about the hike, which is touted as “grueling.” I have only my running shoes, no hiking boots, and on the heels of that painful back spasm I am wary of pushing my body too far. Nevertheless I gave my new friend a tentative yes. Extremity holds an allure for me that will likely never wane. I have learned to resist it in so many ways, but I am still learning. While a part of me despairs at the cautious person I’m becoming, another part rejoices. I am finally under the care of someone who is careful with me.
Instead of tiny glassine bags, the French heroin came in a packet of tinfoil. The powder inside wasn’t white but brownish, the color of tea water, and the stranger and I had to snort more of it than I was used to. Once high, we didn’t part ways, which doesn’t surprise me. Active addiction is a lonely condition, and it feels good to share it with someone. We wandered to a small park, where we sat on a bench and smoked. He said his name was Ahmed. He was Algerian and had come to Paris as a teenager with his father. When I asked where his father was now, he just shrugged.
He didn’t speak any English, so we communicated in simple French. Because I was high, I didn’t hesitate to ask him to repeat a word or explain what it meant. He pantomimed, offered synonyms, and employed additional French words that I needed him to explain. I’ll never know if he was patient with me because he was high or because he was just patient. I suspect the latter. Junkies are often sweet-natured people who become embroiled in the cycle of dependency precisely because they are too permeable for this world. Like the old joke goes: What’s the difference between a junkie and an alcoholic? Both will steal your wallet, but a junkie will help you look for it.
After we got high that day, I made Ahmed walk to the Eiffel Tower with me, though he rolled his eyes at my request. “I know,” I told him. “It’s like the Statue of Liberty in New York: for tourists only.” I shrugged. “Je suis touriste!” — I’m a tourist!
On the way I bought a bag of licorice, and we shared it on a park bench near the tower as we watched the more obvious tourists sweat in fanny packs and point their cameras. He had begun correcting my French, which I welcomed.
“Je suis lesbienne,” I told him. It was more than half true (I’d dated mostly women before my current boyfriend), but that’s not why I’d said it. We were having such a good time, and a come-on might sour it. I hadn’t detected any sleazy vibes from him — a sated junkie is a pretty safe bet, as far as men are concerned — but I didn’t want to take any chances.
“Moi aussi,” he said with a shrug. “Je suis gay.” As he rooted around in the paper bag for another coconut-coated licorice, his favorite, I laughed in happy surprise. I hadn’t even considered that he might be gay. He didn’t emit the familiar signals. But then, I lived in a city where it was relatively safe to do so. I had grown up in a home where my queerness was welcomed; my mother was also bisexual. It was possible for me to forget how so many of us must learn not to reveal ourselves.
When he found his candy, he looked up and smiled his first real smile at me. Ahmed appeared about thirty but could have been six or seven years on either side of that. His teeth were crooked and yellowed, and sometimes, when his eyes began to close and the creases in his face deepened, he looked ancient. But that smile transformed his face into a child’s. When people expose their innocence like that, I almost have to look away. I can’t bear to see all that sweetness, which immediately throws into relief all the ways it has been compromised.
Ahmed and I fell into a routine: I would meet him in the mornings near the Arc, and then we’d walk to meet his dealer. Mostly I paid, but not always. Afterward we would wander the city, sometimes until sundown. He took me to Montmartre and the Notre-Dame cathedral, a place that felt so holy I lit a candle and prayed to whatever god resided there that I would be done with heroin before it killed me. I felt closer to being done in Paris. My new friendship with Ahmed lent our pastime a kind of innocence. Besides, I was only snorting the Parisian dope.
On my sixth day we stood in the Louvre, facing the Mona Lisa.
I shrugged. “She is very small,” I observed in French, with a touch of disappointment.
“Oui,” he agreed solemnly, looking down on me. “Mais toi aussi” — but so are you. I couldn’t help but giggle.
Other young people cycled through the hostel. They often asked if I was Portuguese or Brazilian or Spanish. Walking outside all day in the summer sun had darkened my olive complexion considerably. I felt a tiny surge of pride that I wasn’t immediately identifiable as American. We were the worst tourists — the most entitled and conspicuous, shouting in our own language and commenting rudely on things.
I liked some of my fellow budget travelers — college students or recent grads who seemed to be living the wholesome existence that I longed for — but I also felt superior to them. In the mornings they would hoist their enormous backpacks and invite me along wherever they were going.
“No, thank you,” I always said. “I’m meeting a friend.” As they walked away, I sometimes felt a painful twinge, as if I was standing on a dark street looking up at a bright window, imagining the warmth of the lives inside.
After climbing a steep dirt path, the painter and I descend the first calanque to reach Port Pin, named for the Aleppo pine trees that flourish here. The descent is rigorous, and steep enough that we have to crawl like slow spiders down its face, holding on to the chunks of stone that protrude from the ground. In its bay we find a rock beach surrounded by slabs of limestone, like a disheveled but dramatic amphitheater, the clear green water its stage. The sun has barely broken over the hills, and I am already slick with sweat. We stop to admire the beach and drink some water.
“Ready?” asks my friend.
We continue up another steep incline, toward the top of the third calanque. This path is lined with trees whose branches almost form a canopy over the trail. Alongside it crowd the sort of tough, spiny flora that can survive in the desert-like climate of the calanques. The plants here have no soil to grow in and must make do with limestone, rooting themselves in its cracks. I spot sarsaparilla and the bright-purple petals of terrestrial orchids — tougher than their delicate appearance suggests. We pick our way over rocks worn smooth by human feet and gleaming like dinosaur bones half risen from the ground. They offer the firmest surface for a foothold but are so smooth there is a danger of slipping. When I start to slide, I catch myself and gasp.
We stop to let a string of men in bright, high-tech outfits pass us. I am gratified to see that their faces, too, are dripping and flushed. I take a couple of minutes to stretch my tightened hamstrings and check in with my piriformis muscle, deep in the buttock. A masseuse who treated me after my back spasm thought that I might be holding some repressed emotion there. She suggested I try journaling from the muscle’s point of view: “See what it might be angry or uptight about.” While the younger me would have laughed at this (and a small part of me still wanted to), I took her suggestion. My angry muscle didn’t confide much, but I have developed a habit of talking to it. How are you doing? I think to my left butt-cheek. I think she’s doing OK, so we continue.
The rocky trail finally descends. My arms and legs visibly shake from exhaustion, and I have to concentrate on my footing. The trail leads through a dense patch of vegetation, a humming tunnel of leaves. When we emerge from it, we see the beach.
The shore is a field of rocks, smooth as eggs. The painter and I pick our way down the beach and sit, pulling off our shoes and passing the water bottle between us. As the rising sun spills light into our inlet, the water begins to glow. The steep stone walls burn so white it hurts to look at them.
The water is almost completely still and warmer than the beach where I swim every day. I’ve never seen seawater like this before, more transparent than any lake I’ve ever swum in. I ease beneath the surface, let that invisible water fill my ears and hair, wash all the grit away.
“I want to take you somewhere,” Ahmed said on the afternoon of my last day in Paris.
Where? I asked.
“C’est une surprise.”
We rode the train to a station in the north of the city, where most of the faces looked North African. He told me that this was where he had lived when he’d first come to Paris. When I asked him to tell me more, he smiled and shook his head. He didn’t want to elaborate, but I could tell that it meant something for him to have brought me here. I wanted to thank him for that, whatever trust it entailed. I wanted somehow to express to him that I cared where he came from, how he got to be here beside me — my skinny, funny, haunted friend. Sometimes I loved my fellow junkies more than I did any other people in the world. Despite the detachment of addiction, their wounds were so close to the surface. Maybe loving them was a way of loving myself when that seemed most impossible. Or maybe it was that we addicts could see in one another what no one else could. Ahmed and I couldn’t heal each other. We had no solutions. But we had found some comfort together, and that isn’t a small thing to those who would rather die than spend a whole life as they are.
After a lengthy walk the houses thinned, and I could see the blinking lights of a Ferris wheel.
“Ah!” I shouted. “A fair! I love fairs! Comment dit-on fair en Français?” How does one say fair in French?
“Parc d’attraction,” he said, smiling.
It looked smaller than the amusement parks I knew, more the size of a county fair, with rented rides and game booths in a trampled field, bald dirt patches strewn with hay and cigarette butts.
Together we screamed with children on the whirling rides, ate sweets, and laughed at people in ridiculous outfits. We shared a cigarette at the top of the Ferris wheel, looking out over the lights of Paris, the distant Eiffel Tower a glowing figurine. It felt strangely romantic, and I suppose it was. As we meandered back through the neighborhood, the noise of the park shifting to the night noises of the street, I wanted to tell Ahmed that I loved him, because I did. We were in a kind of love, I think: the kind that two lonely people with similar hearts and the same problem can fall into; the kind that has nothing to do with sex. I didn’t, though, because I had no words in French to explain what I meant. Maybe I wouldn’t have had them in English either.
When we finally hugged goodbye, his wiry arms wrapped so fiercely around my body that it scared me a little. He let me go so fast it was almost a push, then walked away without looking back.
I slept the whole flight home to New York and woke up terrified, knowing that within hours I would be dope-sick. I was also unemployed. The only money I had was a pocketful of francs that I needed to exchange to buy subway tokens to get home. As the train trundled through the dark, I felt homesick again — this time for Ahmed and Paris and the way my days there had felt like a respite from my life in New York, and from myself.
By some miracle I never got sick, probably because the heroin we had been snorting was closer to morphine. It was a lucky accident, but it felt like mercy.
After the hike I carefully stretch for an hour. Then I stand in the shower and let the water pound my shoulders until the swirl around the drain turns from gray to clear again. I scrub my arms and thighs, kneading the tender places with my thumbs, picturing the weary muscles inside, the tendons that bind them to my bones.
I came here with a list of things to write about, but these memories keep returning to me. Instead of writing what I intended, I’ve written about the last time I was in this country. The more I write, the more I remember. I spend so much time with that younger self, her savage despair and fleeting reliefs, that I’ve started to feel she is here with me.
In the moments after waking, when I blink in the quiet, as the tide of dreams recedes, I sense her here, like a language I can no longer speak but have not entirely forgotten. She follows me up those hills in the thin morning light and watches as I stretch my body. Together we stare out at the cliffs, and I think of that ancient time when the sea was cut off from the ocean, how low it sank, the way the rivers carved canyons to replenish it. Such beauty often requires a kind of devastation. Maybe the saddest landscapes are always the most beautiful.
While I type at my standing desk, my twenty-year-old self slumps on the couch, flipping through my journal. In the afternoon she trails me into the kitchen and watches me slice vegetables with the dull paring knife. As I swim my daily lap across the water, she waits on the shore with the other young women, their bodies unmarked by age and perhaps hated like hers. I strike a match to light the stove and see her face aglow, the shadows beneath her eyes, the shine of her round cheeks. I heat a bowl of soup and read a novel while I eat, her eyes following mine across the pages.
We are like cicadas, I want to tell her. When we rise from the ground, we shed our old bodies, but we don’t forget them. We call to the thing we need until it answers. Sometimes the one who answers us is a surprise. If we are lucky, we don’t die. We get to live for a while inside that new life.
My addiction wasn’t over when I got back to New York. It wouldn’t be for four more years. A week after my return I used again. A month later the planes crashed into the World Trade Center, and my boyfriend and I watched from our Brooklyn roof as the second tower fell. A few months after that, I kicked him out for good.
My time in Paris was a failure by the most important measure: I didn’t get clean. I didn’t even learn to take better care of myself. But it was a soft spot in an otherwise hard stretch of living. I don’t like to use terms like “self-destructive” when I talk about addiction, mine or anyone else’s. Once in a while I’ll give a few dollars to a panhandler I know is going to spend it on dope, because there are days when the next high is the only mercy available to us. Sometimes our best efforts at self-preservation look like a kind of violence.
Ahmed called me once. I tried to return the call, but the number he’d given me was disconnected. He left a message on our tiny answering machine, and I saved it for years, until the machine broke. Allo? Melissa? he said. C’est Ahmed. I can still hear it perfectly in my mind, like the voice of the past calling to remind me that it is past.
I read your September 2020 issue as I stretch out in the top bunk in my prison quad, surrounded by women ravaged by addiction and domestic violence. They see the cover and ask what the magazine is about. I hand it to them and say, “A lot, really. But you read it and tell me what it means to you.”
A heroin addict identifies with Melissa Febos’s essay “Les Calanques.” So does another inmate, also addicted to heroin. The woman beside me reads Rachel Louise Snyder’s description of the similarities between domestic abusers [“The Most Dangerous Place,” interview by Tracy Frisch and Finn Cohen] and knows viscerally who these men are. She, too, has cowered in a corner. And she wasn’t the only one.
The strength and courage of your contributors soothes hearts here. Worry lines dissipate, and shoulders ease. These women feel your magazine speaks to them. It gives me hope.