Beer bottles clattered as Henry opened the door to the apartment. It stank, as it always did. The gloomy passageway leading to the kitchen was cluttered with broken furniture and rubbish yet to be taken downstairs to the bin. As he walked into the kitchen, he had to swallow the bile rising in his throat. The dishes, scraps of food and rubbish was beyond filthy. “Mum, I’ve brought groceries” he calls out as he places the bag’s he’s brought onto what clear space there is on the counter.
It’s like this every time he comes. She promises to try but doesn’t. Can’t or won’t? And he’s trapped in his own cycle of buying her promises and lies. Henry start’s his normal routine of clearing the debris from the kitchen by sweeping most of the bench clutter into a large black garbage bag, he’s armed with several. As he’s walking around opening the windows and the door leading to the small balcony, he notices a jacket thrown in the corner by the small sagging couch.
It’s distinctive orange and black bands make it clear who it belongs to. Gavin. Ex-boyfriend, supplier, abuser galore. “Fuck” he mutters under his breathe. What to do now? Beat a hasty retreat and hope the next time he can find time to come to this shithole, he won’t be here? Or confront the pig and kick his ass to the curb? Henry sighs, there’s no point in confrontation. He’ll just take it out on Sandy once Henry is gone, and she’ll just let him back in. A noise from the dimly lit corridor beyond the kitchen catches his attention.
“Oh Henry, your early sweetheart” comes the mumbled words from Sandy as she shuffles into the kitchen, hair limp and greasy around her face, pulling on the same thin cardigan he’s seen her wearing his last three visits. Its obvious she hasn’t washed it. “Hi mum” he replies with forced calm, he must tread carefully. He can see she’s been using and if he pushes too hard, she’ll snap. “I’ve brought you some shopping and thought I’d give you a hand to clean up” he says continuing to collect rubbish strewn throughout the living room, avoiding the jacket corner. “Oh, its fine sweetheart, you don’t have to, I’m sure you have better things to be doing with your Friday afternoon” Sandy replies attempting to clean up as well to get him out.
He knows the routine. If she’s clean, she’s happy to have him around. If not, she wants him out as soon as possible. He knows its shame, but it just makes him sad and angry.
She was right, he did have better things to do, like spend time with his newborn son. She had no idea that Sam had been born or even existed, Henry hadn’t told her Lidia was pregnant. He hadn’t wanted to risk Lidia or the baby in case Sandy mentioned it to the wrong person. It wouldn’t have been the first time he’d been approached by a dealer to clear her debt. Also, it was Sunday, not that it made a difference. Sandy had never kept up, she’d only ever been concerned with the next hit or drink. Depending on where she was in AA or rehab.
“Can I put some washing on for you at least?” he says making a move towards the small joint bathroom laundry next to the small bedroom, but she darts in front of him, blocking him off. “No its fine Henry, I’m capable” she replies, angry now. But as she’s rushed, her hair has pushed back from her thin face, showing new bruises. It’s like a lead weight landing in his gut. “Mum” he whispers, desperate now. “Please leave him, I’m begging you” he says reaching out for her hands, but she pulls away, face cold now.
“I don’t need you to look after me Henry, I’m the parent not you” she spits at him, the groceries on the counter say otherwise. He knows it’s useless to push further now but the bruises burn him. “I don’t understand why you keep letting him do this to you” he snaps back, angry as well. “Because I look after her” says a gravelly voice from the dim corridor. Anger is coursing through him as Henry turns to see Gavin leaning against the doorway to the bedroom, barely dressed. “Yes, I can see that” Henry replies sarcastically. It’s time to go, otherwise it could get bad quickly. For everyone.
Henry turns and heads for the door. “I’ll be back next week with more shopping if I have time” he says, knowing he’ll be here, hell or high water to make sure she’s at least eating. “Don’t bother” replies Gavin, “We won’t be here”. Henry stops in his tracks and turns to look at his mother, a shadow of who she was even when he was a kid. “What do you mean, you won’t be here?’ he asks slowly. They’d done this before, left without warning for weeks, before Sandy turned up in hospital having been abandoned by Gavin on the highway somewhere. But they’d never given warning before, why start now.
“We’re movin’ down the coast, there’s work down there for both of us. And we don’t need your charity” spits Gavin. Sandy’s watching him with an expressionless face. She doesn’t care. They probably wouldn’t have even told him if he hadn’t come today. He knows the work line is a lie, someone obviously needs new faces to fence stolen goods. He sighs again and turns away, pain in his heart and his pocket weighing heavy on him. Its full of the pictures he’d printed out of his son Sam to show her. But he can see she’s never going to change, and he needs to, for his son.
As Henry walks to the front door, he knows this will be the last time he sees her. “Bye then mum, have a good time” he says refusing to let the tears fall while he’s here in this sick place. As he leaves the derelict apartment for the last time, he attempts to come to peace with the secrets he’s kept from her. His marriage, his son, her grandson. And the ones he’ll keep from his son, about his grandmother. But this is his way of breaking the cycle. Of surviving.
Placing My Bets
The sound of a grizzling baby and the image of a tiny face begins to fade. I try to hold onto the dream, but the cotton onesie spread on my chest is empty. Eighteen years ago, Jasmine filled the tiny jumpsuit with her innocence. Her fingers would curl around my bottom lip, razor-fine nails latching into soft, pink flesh. She had burbled wordless promises in my ear. They were some of the best moments of my life; I wish I’d paid more attention. I press the material to my nose, conjuring the memory of her peaches-and-butter baby smell with my imagination.
Twelve months ago, I told her not to come back if she was still using ice. That I didn’t want drugs in my house. I hadn’t worked so hard to get straight, only to watch her repeat history. It was too painful.
I fold the onesie, slip it into my dressing gown pocket and pad barefoot to her room. A ritual I perform every night, as though it might bring her back.
The salt lamp’s amber light throws warmth onto the sparse room. An empty single bed. A wardrobe with a few black items hanging crooked. A tattered Eminem poster clinging to Blu-Tack that’s softened and stretched. I drift through the house like a ghost, finishing the haunt by the loungeroom window. It’s 3am. The streetlights have turned the nature-strip grass a sickly green. Hedges and trees are motionless silhouettes, sentinels that stand inert in the late-summer heat.
I lift the photo of Jasmine from the side table. Thick black locks had framed her face. Dark eyeliner made her skin look even whiter than it really was. Her cheeks were full then, their rosy glow visible through pale foundation. A contemplative gaze laced with mischief.
At night a king tide of doubt and regret seeps under the doors. I’m in danger of drowning in the liquid-air of what ifs.
Discipline. Hard lines. Consistency. That’s what people said was needed. And who was I to argue? It was, after all, the approach I took with myself to overcome a heroin addiction. It was a lonely affair. I had to leave all friends and lovers behind. Recovery was a silent victory because most people don’t believe it’s possible. No-one pats you on the back for the achievement. “Once an addict, always an addict,” is still the popular myth. But a long duration of a purist lifestyle can cement new neural pathways in the brain. For years, I bore witness to my only daughter stumbling down the same path, enduring an agony that defies words, and not once have I had the slightest inkling of a craving. If that’s not a full recovery, I don’t know what is.
Transgenerational addiction is our family secret. Relatives overcame their vices using their faith. I used stubbornness. Giving up was harder than climbing any mountain, but possible; we’re living proof. Not that we tell people. Who wants the sideward glances?
The possibility Jasmine will recover is not a fanciful dream, it’s where I’m placing my bets. I know many others who have managed to stay sober, and they don’t advertise it either. We identify each other through subtle nuance. A word from the old lingo slips out, like a spectre from another life. It’s only recognised by people who have lived in that world. Much like queer people, recovered drug users are not counted in the census. We remain invisible, and the stigmas around substance dependence perpetuate.
I sit Jasmine’s photo back down and gaze into the dark street. A figure appears on the footpath. As their shadow slinks across the ground, my heart leaps about in my chest. The rhythmic woosh in my ears recedes as the person disappears around the corner. It’s not her.
‘I’m an adult. I can look after myself,’ she used to say when leaving. A few weeks would pass, then she’d turn up on the doorstep five kilos lighter, dirty and exhausted. Coming down hard, she’d sleep for days, only rousing to eat and drink. At first, I tolerated it under the pretence that her deep sleep would help her brain recover from what she’d done to it. When she came-to it was an opportunity to talk sense to her.
My cautionary tales backfired. Not at all received as intended.
‘You did it, but you want me to stop? Fucking hypocrite,’ she’d said. When payday loomed, she became restless, her gestures sharper, her posture more rigid. She would pace in her room with rap music on full volume, until midnight when the payment would drop into her account.
I open the window and let the warm breeze caress my face. There’s the faint perfume of jasmine in the air. My favourite flower. My daughter’s namesake. I hope she’s found a share house, or somewhere safe to stay. But if she’s sleeping rough again, at least she won’t freeze. A couple of years ago she was on the streets in early spring, when frost was still forming fine, glittering blankets over the ground at night. I was so desperate to find her I even called her father. The phone rang for a while before he answered, and I could tell by his tone, the police had already been.
‘Jasmine is missing, I told cops she might visit you.’
‘I don’t know why you think she’d come here.’
‘She’s sick. And she talked about visiting you for Father’s Day.’
‘Well, she didn’t. I can tell ya.’ He sounded indignant. I wanted to rip out his throat.
I wished him a slow painful death and hung up.
Obsessively worrying about her, I didn’t sleep for two weeks and discovered it’s possible to have a psychotic episode without drugs. Being drug free for over fifteen years, I believed in solving problems without substances and had stubbornly refused sleeping pills. Abstinence was the solution in my eyes. But despite my stalwart resolve, and a certainty that leading by example could fix the mess we were in, I couldn’t stop Jasmine from following in my footsteps. I couldn’t reconcile the past.
When I was at the stage of pissing into soup bowls and inspecting my urine for parasites, family members started whispering about calling the CAT team. Sanity still lingered in the backwaters of my mind, and I negotiated to go to the GP and get some sleeping pills before they had me sectioned.
Now I have a fruit bowl full of sleep aids on my bedside table. A situation that’s carefully controlled to avoid getting addicted. I employ the strategy of spacing out the prescription pills with herbal supplements and over-the-counter options. Learning that drugs are not always the enemy was an unexpected, bittersweet realisation. Accepting medical help is not the same as running from emotional pain. Others might say I’m on a slippery slope, but after a year of waiting for her to come home, a year of waking in the night, I know I’m managing. My eyes are burning, and my heart often flip-flops about my chest like a fish out of water, but my feet are on solid ground.
She turned up a couple of months ago wanting money and I refused to give it to her and didn’t let her stay. The hardest thing a parent can ever do. One of her nostrils flared and her lip twitched, threatening a sneer; an echo of the father she barely knew. ‘If you love me, you’ll let me stay,’ she said. The ultimate test of my boundaries.
The idea that a parent will do anything for their kid is a concept strongly associated with love. But sometimes a greater act of love is what you don’t do, what you refuse to do. You forego the comfort of having them in your sight, the illusion of safety in the immediacy of having them home.
‘Come back when you’re ready to get off the gear,’ I’d said. She snatched up her backpack, flicked up her hoodie and disappeared into the night.
Now, love is holding the possibility that she will come back, whilst knowing it might not end that way. A heart broken open.
I lean back on the couch, take the onesie from my pocket, and spread it over my chest. Feeling its fuzziness beneath my fingertips, I drift in and out of sleep.
In the soft light of dawn, there’s a knock on the door.
The cafe had a steady stream of customers, from tradies buying coffees and picking up lunch, to the nearby office workers breathing angrily down the phone and ordering their coffee as if the barista had insulted them by asking what they would like.
I sat at a corner table, my hands warming around my second coffee of the morning – I was already over my limit. Usually, I had one at around 10AM after clearing through my email and making a To-Do list for the day.
I was nervous.
I had arrived too early to simply sit and wait. And I’d drained my first coffee too quickly to not order another one, given that I had another half hour to wait. I contemplated leaving and coming back but I didn’t trust myself to return.
I felt observed.
Even in a city of millions, where I knew barely a handful of people, I found it hard to embrace the notion of ‘anonymity’. Despite the distance from my small town upbringing and the knowledge that few, if any, of my classmates would have ever left the boundary lines of their home town, I still felt like I would be ‘found out’ at any minute. Someone would look at me and know, from the faraway look in my eye, or the stiffness of my gait, or even the way my hair was cut – something about me screamed that word, ‘orphan’.
It had happened once or twice in the past – two girls on two separate backpacking trips had guessed it after a short conversation. When I asked the second girl how she knew, she said I was “too comfortable with being a nomad, too content with not having solid ground under my feet”.
I thought I was just enjoying the freedom, the anonymity. But it seemed, at least to me, that no matter where you went, someone would know you, even if they’d never met you before.
As the clock trudged closer to 11AM, I grew more anxious. Every jingle that the opening door made dragged my attention, and my eyes, away from my phone or my cup, to see who had entered. Just more suits, not unlike myself, tense and jittery, probably playing god with someone else’s money.
The newspapers had heralded my lucky escape – the five-year-old who’d lived, not to be mistaken for all of the other five-year-olds who lived, obviously. I’d always had an ‘against all odds’ narrative drawn for myself. My foster parents were the first proponents of it, using (but not exploiting) the circumstances to ensure that I had extra support in schools, or access to counsellors who could untangle the web of confusion in my young mind.
In time, I learned to stop treating my past like a stain, and more like an achievement, dropping the challenges I’d faced and overcome into university and job interviews, my seeming infallibility and balanced approach impressing even the most discerning employer.
Of course, none of them was ever enlightened with the full story.
My foster parents had changed my surname (and school) after a particularly nasty incident where one of my classmates had repeated his parents’ discussion about what had happened to me. After all, the son of a ‘working class’ family couldn’t be anything other than the ‘dregs of society’, could he?
I often thought about that episode, even now, twenty years after the fact. I mostly thought about how that boy grew up with parents like his, how much crueller he might have become with the attitudes that were obviously perpetuated through his home.
But then I often wondered, had things been different in my childhood, where I would be right now – not acing job interviews with a half-true sob story, that’s for sure.
I checked my watch again, still some time to kill.
The agency contact had landed in my email one day, having somehow skipped through my company’s insanely picky spam filter – incredible really, of all the things it had let through…
It was a relatively nondescript correspondence, outlining the request and providing contact details for further information. It took me a few repeat readings before I realised what exactly was being asked of me, and when I did, it felt like I was back in that burning building all those years ago. Worse, in fact, because I didn’t really remember that building, I’d simply built a picture of it in my head over the decades that followed.
The email went unanswered as I, instead, scheduled an emergency appointment with my therapist who always had the ability to make me see the wood from the trees.
I had always known that my mother was alive – I told people that I lost her in a house fire because it was, essentially, true. My memories of her are few and, fewer still, the good ones. Because in most of my recollections, she is sad, despondent, desperate even – a one-woman army with no idea of what she was fighting and realising too late that it was herself.
Maybe that’s why she did what she did. Maybe it’s why the home that I only vaguely remember became littered with bottles and cans, white powder and foul smelling smoke that made my toddler self feel dizzy every time I stumbled into the room. My father worked a lot, a fly-in-fly-out contractor who, as time went by, disappeared from our lives.
He never tried to find me again after what happened – I didn’t look for him either.
It had been easier, all of this time, to be an orphan because how was that any worse than the reality?
My mother, fresh from the stinging despair of final rejection (and a slap to the face) from my father, downed a concoction of drugs and set our house on fire while I slept in my room. I remembered little of the incident, other than all the blue lights, until later in life when searching my old name on the internet pulled up a banquet of brutality for my teenage self to feast on.
Hours upon hours of therapy ensued, my foster parents recognising that they couldn’t answer the questions I had, not objectively, and they weren’t the type of people to misrepresent things. At first I thought they were just fobbing me off, foisting me upon some stuffy stranger who would ask me if I was on drugs.
The reality was different, although the therapist did ask about drugs but didn’t seem disappointed when I said I wasn’t. Since then, I had checked back in with her at sporadic times when things seemed like they were spinning out of control.
Did I want to see my mother, my therapist had asked me. I didn’t know. I had, I supposed, a morbid curiosity, but I didn’t want her to be broken and I feared that that was exactly what I would see. I couldn’t watch her be broken while I was ok. Despite everything that had happened, that just didn’t seem fair. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure I was ready to see her doing well either, her life lighter and easier for the simple fact of not having had to look after me anymore.
I knew that both scenarios were unlikely and that the reality would be something in between the two, but I felt like I would be walking into the toughest interview I’d ever have, because the story wouldn’t work here, the alterations wouldn’t fly. It was, I realised, the first time that I would have to face the real world, without cover.
That scared me more than anything else, and for that reason, I had said yes.
I glanced up at the clock behind the counter and took a deep breath – it was just coming up on 11AM. My palms suddenly felt sweaty and my stomach lurched with the realisation that my relatively simple existence was about to become at least a modicum more complicated.
I sensed, rather than saw, a figure moving past the window I sat in front of. Don’t ask me how but I knew it was her.
This was it.
The door opened with a jingling sound and I looked up expectantly at the slight but bright looking woman who, after a cursory glance around the café, walked hesitantly towards me. She stopped at the empty seat of the table, took a moment.
“Hi Jarrod,” she said finally, on an exhaled breath that seemed to sweep through the café like a gale force gust.
I took a brief moment, to let the enormity of the moment sink in.
“Hi Mum,” I said, pointing to the chair beside her.