I wandered away from the crowd of tourists, brown magnolia leaves broke apart under my shoes. I found an old stone bench hidden in a narrow walkway and sat down. The cemetery felt like an old sanctuary, its white tombs and crying angels sat quietly under a gloomy sky. Split concrete and overgrown weeds spread out over the soft flat earth. The names of the dead etched carefully in stone. I looked around and felt at home.
The warm summer rain thundered down on top of the car, sheets of water slid down the windshield, sprinkling me as I lay in the backseat, my hands tucked in between my knees. Looking out the car window into the thickness of darkness, I saw tendrils of Spanish Moss swaying in the wind. The last of the tropical storm continued to sweep through the southern part of the state, leaving broken tree limbs and powerlines scattered up and down the rural highway….
I just received a phone class from a writer at The Huffington Post, who invited me to a panel discussion today at 12:00 to discuss heroin addiction in New York & New England. I will be on HuffPost Live, and will post the link shortly! You can watch if you like…
We rolled into Los Angeles on an empty tank of gas in the middle of the night. I gazed out from the backseat of the car, my head light and fuzzy. The Hollywood hills dazzled with their glittering lights and palm trees. We sped past a flurry of liquor stores before coming upon a small church. Pulling into the parking lot, Maribel coasted into a spot near the back of the church. “I hope we’re in a safe part of town,” she said cautiously as she peered out into the dark night. “We’ll be alright,” I replied, getting out of the car. The rush of hot air hit me as I placed my sore feet on the warm concrete. Chelsea opened the passenger door and got out, rubbing her eyes. “I need to piss,” she grumbled. “Go in the bushes,” I said, pointing to a patch of ferns nearby. Maribel looked around nervously, a steam of headlights drove past us. Nighthawks cruising the Sunset Strip in search of something. As I gazed at the headlights, my tired body became overwhelmed with a weird buzz. Arriving in Los Angeles in the middle of the night was a strange rite of passage for me. I smiled and lit a cigarette, finally free.
With these fragmented thoughts
sleep is elusive
muscle spasm nightmares
and technicolor dreams
give way to
fleeting moments of panic
I am lost in a bizarre
stream of consciousness
Cold and fatigued,
I eventually succumb
to the other side
A photo I took while living in the East Bay. 1998.
My head burned and my joints ached. I sat up, searching for the glass of water I had left on the floor beside the futon. It wasn’t where I had left it. I got up and walked slowly towards the kitchen, my bones in my foot cracked as I stepped over a tangle of clothes and blankets strewn across the black and white checkered floor. I stopped in the bathroom on the way to the kitchen to rinse my face. I let the water run cold, and examined my reflection in the streaked mirror. I had just turned twenty and appeared a little worse for wear. Gnashing at my dismal appearance, I grabbed a few napkins that were left on top of the toilet seat. Back up toilet paper for the days when money was especially scarce. They had been bought, presumably, at the corner store down the street. I recalled seeing a display of marked down Valentine’s Day stuff. I grabbed a napkin and ran it under the water, gingerly wiping my hot face.
After fetching a glass of water, I wandered back towards my bedroom. My two roommates had spent the better part of the evening watching a Godzilla marathon on one of our four broken television sets. Several small Cisco bottles littered the floor, along with an array of empty 40 oz bottles. A small kitten tumbled across the floor in a flash. Stale cigarette smoke lingered in the air. A pit bull barked outside. It was the same as every other night. Scowling, I walked over to the bathroom and shut the door. The bathroom served as a pit stop for my constant wanderings back and forth between my bedroom and the rest of the apartment. It was my own personal solitude chamber, albeit a dirty one. I spent hours in the bathroom. On my days off from work, I bathed for whole afternoons. Other times, I would shower until I scrubbed myself painfully clean. A junkie’s version of self flagellation.
I grabbed the wet napkins from the bathroom and made myself comfortable on my futon. Picking up a pen, I began to write to a good friend in Ecuador. A few minutes later, my head began to burn up again. I reached for the napkins and placed them on my forehead. Warm water trickled down my temples. I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep. When I awoke, my head was as hot as coals. Wiping my runny nose with the back of my hand, I made my way towards the bathroom. Someone had taken a shower and steamed up the mirror. I took an old towel to the mirror and wiped it clear. “Fuck me,” I said, bringing my face closer to the mirror. I hurried into the living room, where my roommates appeared to be thoroughly engrossed in a Godzilla film. “Guys, look at my face. I am burning up,” I said, walking in front of a flickering TV. Jack had passed out in the moldy la-z- boy. Too much Cisco for one evening. Shamus sat at the end of the couch, bicycle parts strewn about from a project he had been working on earlier in the day. They lay unfinished by his feet. I walked over and stood in front of him.“Hey, check out my face,” I said, pointing. “This isn’t normal.” “What are you going on about?” he replied wearily. Brushing back a shock of wet hair away from his eyes, he glared at me. “Sorry to have interrupted whatever it is you got going on here, but I’ve got a serious problem that needs tending to,” I responded, rubbing the skin around my nose. I sat down on the couch, sinking into the middle of it. “What is it?,” he asked, sitting up. “I am sick. I need to go to the hospital,” I exclaimed, reaching for my boots. “It’s like two o’clock in the morning. Are you sure you need to go to the hospital? The subway isn’t even runn…” I need to go! Look at my face!” I grabbed his hand and placed it on my face. “I am burning up. My face is all red!” I shouted. “You are slightly warm,” he said calmly. “Yeah, I am hot as hell,” I replied, getting up from the couch. “Alright, alright. Let me get my shoes,” Shamus replied curtly. He grabbed his sneakers from the closet, and within a matter of minutes, we were out the door.
We headed north on Adeline, towards Shattuck Ave. Trudging across a grassy intersection, we made our way into a realm of flickering street lights. The craggy sidewalk gave way to newly poured cement. After walking seven or eight blocks, we came to the Black & White liquor store. A couple beggars exchanged wilted one dollar bills for a couple of beer cans. Their thin wrists reached for their only salvation through the closed roll-down security gate. The Middle Eastern man behind the metal gate nodded at us. The liquor store was a one stop shop for late night vagabonds who wanted to purchase alcohol after all the other shops were closed. They notoriously sold to underage teenagers such as myself. “You guys need anything?” The man asked, his heavy Lebanese accent rolled off his tongue. “No thanks,” I responded glumly.
The small emergency clinic was partly obscured by dark trees. We entered through the automatic doors into a dimly lit reception area. A rush of cool air hit us as we entered. A middle aged women with glasses peered at us through a small window behind the receptionist counter. “Can I help you?” she asked flatly. “Uh, yeah. I need to see a doctor right away,” I said, “I think I have a fever.” I shuffled towards the reception window. “Sign in here,” she pointed to a clipboard with a booklet of papers attached to it. “Do you have insurance?,” she asked rather sternly. “No ma’am,” I responded, filling in my name and address on the medical form. “You are here for a fever?” she asked.
“Yeah, well, I am burning up pretty badly,” I said, writing. “My face is all red. I think I may be bleeding from my pores,” She put down here pen and glared at me through the glass. There was a moment of silence before she slid the glass to the side, doing away with the barrier between us.
“Why do you think you are bleeding from your pores?”
“Because my face is all red.”
“Are you wearing any makeup?”
“I am pretty sure you are wearing makeup. It must be your foundation.”
“I told you, I am not wearing any makeup.”
“You must have put something on you skin. People don’t just bleed from their pores.”
“I didn’t put anything on my skin. No blush or anything! I think I have Ebola…”
“Ebola doesn’t cause people to bleed through their pores,” she said tersely. “It can cause bleeding from mucous membranes, but I highly doubt you have anything serious.”
“I disagree,” I shot back, arms crossed. She looked incredulous.
“Have you taken any drugs this evening, Ms. O’Brien?”
“Please answer the question.”
“What is this? Is this a police interrogation?” I asked, exasperated. Just then a nurse entered the room. “Ms. O’Brien, could you please come with me?” she said. I turned to Shamus, who sat on a bench with his eyes closed. “I’ll be back, I said.” I followed the nurse down a short corridor and into a small, sterile room. “Please sit down. Someone will be right in to take your temperature. I will be right back,” she replied and left the room. A few minutes later, I had my temperature and my blood pressure taken by an older Russian women. “Your temperature is 98.5. It is perfectly normal,” she said. “You do not have fever.” I nodded, and after answering a series of questions about my health, she left the room. I waited for about twenty minutes before the doctor entered. “Why don’t you take a seat over here,” he pointed to the hospital bed. I walked over and sat on the bed, the disposable white bed sheet crinkled under my weight.So I understand you are here because you think there is blood coming out of your pores?” he asked, examining my face. He touched my chin and peered closely into my eyes.Um, yeah. I woke up from a nap and my face was red. I pretty much freaked out because this has never happened to me before,” I replied, embarrassed. He asked me to open my mouth, then shined a small light into my eyes. He then lightly grabbed my right arm and gave it it good look. He stepped back from the table let out a heavy sigh.I can tell you one thing, you are not bleeding from your pores. Your face is perfectly fine. The thing you need to worry about is that junk you are shooting into your arms. Do you use sterile water when you rinse?” he asked, taking off his sleek black glasses and rubbing them on his coat. He was youngish and slightly handsome. “Hmm,” I hesitated. “I use tap water.” He nodded, his brow furrowed with disapproval. “You ought to be using bottle water. Tap water has all kinds of bacteria and pathogens in it, especially here in California. You can get an infection, not to mention other diseases, if you aren’t careful.” He waved for me to follow him back towards the reception room. “You really should be aware of the dangers associated with the lifestyle you are living. You are young and have the rest of your life ahead of you. Be careful.” I stared at him and nodded. The receptionist called me over to try and get a payment, but I ignored her. “Let’s go,” I said, walking towards the large glass doors. “Young lady, please come back here,” the woman stammered, standing up. We left the coolness of the clinic and walked into heaviness of the night.
“What did the doctor say?” Shamus asked, walking slowly beside me.“Nothing really,” I said, touching my face. “He told me to quit using drugs.” “That is probably the best advice he could give you,” he said, lighting up a cigarette. I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk under a humming street light.“Sorry to have dragged you out here in the middle of the night,” I paused, “It was stupid of me.” He stared at me blankly. We walked on in silence.
The sound of dogs barking punctuated the silence of the early hours of dusk. The sound of palms rustling in the wind was comforting. Gazing up towards the hills , I marveled at the incandescent lights flickering from the homes perched on the edges off the cliff. Small lights twinkled in the darkness. I wish I lived up there, away from the concrete jungle down here.
It was nearly four o’clock in the morning by the time we made it back to our apartment. I took off my heavy boots and went to the bathroom. When I entered the bedroom, Shamus was fast asleep on the futon. I set on the edge of it and took a couple sips of water. I noticed a ball of crumpled napkins that I had left on the floor the prior day. I picked them up and examined them. They were red and soggy. I squeezed the ball, and a trickle of bright red dye ran down my arm. I began to laugh. I held my head in my hands, and my laughter quickly turned into quiet sobs.
When I was three years old, my family moved to Southern California. We settled into a rented three bedroom ranch on Zapata Avenue in Meri Mesa, thirty three miles from the U.S. Mexican border. Our neighborhood, surrounded cozily in between the hills of nearby Los Penasquitos Canyon, was quiet. The streets were lined with palms, and 1960s’ track homes, mostly small ranches. Nearly all of the homes were shades of sandy brown and white. Depending on the time of year, the yards varied in color from green to parched brown. Our front yard was filled with crushed white stone, no grass.
The alien landscape of Southern California was a departure for my parents, who managed to fly us across the country from their small town in Maine. Their church, The Bible Speaks, was experiencing a diaspora from members of their congregation located in Lenox, Massachusetts. My father had left the church after discovering widespread corruption, which was caused by the lead pastor. After confronting the pastor, who threatened my parents with retaliation, they decided to move far away. My parents were under the illusion that my father, who was a young pastor, would be able to start his own congregation in San Diego. Little did they know, the lead pastor back in Maine, who was one of the most powerful and charismatic pastor’s in New England, was never going to let that happen. The dream of California was vanquished before they even arrived.
After several years of problems within the church, my parents and several of their friends moved to California. My younger brother had just turned one when my parents left Maine. Unaware that the lead pastor and close members of the church had discovered my parents plans for California, my parents moved us into the ranch on Zapata Avenue. My father got a job driving trucks, where he would be gone for days delivering supplies, sometimes all the way out to Death Valley. Shortly after my father got his job, my parents found out that the pastor had flown to San Diego ahead of them. He contacted friends of theirs who were established church members near Meri Mesa. He spread a plethora of false information about my parents, deliberately harming them and their reputation. Their dream of starting their own church, and finally being free from the clutches of The Bible Speaks, died.
Without much money, but the support of their close friends, my parents struggled to decide whether or not to stay in California, or return to Maine. In the midst of trying to figure out what trajectory their lives would take, they tried to enjoy life. They took us to Dana Point, where we sat on the beach, watching the gentle waves. We drove up to Laguna and would sit for hours, enjoying a family picnic. The glistening sea stretched out endlessly for miles. My older sister and I would chase my baby brother across the sand on La Jolla, completely oblivious to the stress our parents were dealing with.
Once, they took us to the San Diego Zoo. We spent hours wandering around the lush gardens, enjoying the animal exhibitions. Apparently, I was so enamored by the flamingos that I didn’t want to leave. I stood, sucking my thumb, transfixed by the beautiful pink birds. My father later told me that I pleaded, to no avail, to ride in the Skyfari.
The days of sun and sand would fade away. My father and his good friend hatched a plan to open a small seafood restaurant in San Diego, but the plan didn’t work out. After months of worrying about what to do, my father decided to move us back to Maine. I suppose his decision was based primarily on our financial situation. I was too young to know how broken he was from the falling out with the church. My mother later told me that she wanted to stay. It is no wonder why I have issues with organized religion.
When we returned to Maine, my family moved into a small apartment building in Auburn. My father became a pastor at small church that him and his friend built near Lake Auburn. A few years later, our family left the church for good. We moved around quite a bit, and in 1992, moved to New Hampshire, where my dad began work at a cleaning company. Three years later, at the age of seventeen, I left home for California. I arrived in Los Angeles some time in the middle of the night, penniless and drunk. It was a strange, exhilarating rite of passage for me. Unfortunately, I ended up living on the streets for several months before returning to New England. Despite my aversion to cold weather, I always ended up back in New England.
Over the next three years, I traveled back and forth across the country to California. In the spring of 1998, I moved with a boyfriend to Berkeley, right near the border of Oakland. I got a job and settled into a small apartment with a few friends. Quickly, my California dream began to erode. Heavy drug use, and a penchant for escaping my neighborhood via bus, plane, and shopping cart, caused my fractured relationship with my boyfriend to fall apart. Needing to get away, I payed cash for a plane ticket, which was printed out by a small Middle Eastern man in a travel agency off Shattuck Avenue. I was nineteen, and flew down to San Diego to visit my aunt. I hadn’t been there since my parents moved, sixteen years earlier.
While staying with my aunt in Temeluca, she drove me past the neighborhood in Meri Mesa. I stared out at the endless track homes, unremarkable and modest, Edward Scissorhands land. Growing up, I imagined the place to be much different. Perhaps I had glamourized it, hoping if I ever returned, it would be as beautiful and mysterious as I had dreamt it would be. I left San Diego feeling sad and hollow. During the flight home, I wept. Despite living in the state that I adored, I was lost, and had no sense of place.
I arrived at the Oakland airport late at night and took the subway back to Ashby Avenue. Two months later, I left California and moved back to New England. I returned two years later to visit a friend in San Francisco. He lived on Polk Street, off Market Street. We woke up early and drank bloody marys at a nearby bar. At night, we danced to Lee Rocker at a Rockabilly bar downtown. He tried to talk me into staying, but like always, I left. A year later I flew to Los Angeles to see Social Distortion at the House of Blues. Two years later I returned to San Francisco on another trip with a boyfriend. I stayed a week. Six years ago, I traveled to the Redwoods for a wedding.
After a lifetime of being fascinated with California, it remains very much a part of me. I have been sober for thirteen years, and now work in the field of substance abuse. As a small child, I believe hidden somewhere in my subconscious was a dream that took root in my brain. It was a dream that was born on those beaches as a small child. I still dream of California.
I had hitchhiked from New Hampshire to Georgia in two days, and my feet were beginning to show signs of boot rot. My penchant for cheap wine caused me to pass out quite frequently, and I often woke up wearing my boots. The combination of walking dozens of miles in the hot sun, and falling asleep with my boots on had caused my feet great discomfort. With every step, they sent shock waves of pain up my back. I had to sit down.
Sitting on a concrete curb in front of a small liquor store, I began to pull my left boot off my sweaty foot. Old blisters on the bottom of my toes had turned black. Freshly formed blisters sprung from the side of my foot, pulsating with pain. I gingerly removed a sweaty black sock, placing it on the curb next to me. I took off the other boot, examining my other foot. Smudges of dark pink skin in between my toes itched badly. My toe nails were dirty, and my feet smelled bad. I let them air out for a few minutes, the tar beneath my feet was black and hot. Broken glass lay strewn across the parking lot, near a busted dumpster. I pulled a cigarette from the pocket of my skirt and lit it with my Zippo. Taking a long drag, I waited patiently for Chelsea. People walked lazily walk up and down Moreland Avenue.
A few moments later, an old man came out of the liquor store holding a brown paper bag. He grinned at me, revealing a wide smile with three broken teeth. “Hola senorita,” he said, his bloodshot eyes fixated on my torn skirt. I glanced at him, squinting.“Hey man, can you spare any change?” I asked, looking up at him. The glare of the mid-afternoon sun hurt me eyes. “Que?” he asked, moving closer to me. He smelled of sweat and booze, his white tank top stained with old blood. “Do you have any money,” I asked, scratching my ankle. He grinned again and began coughing. Wiping spit away from his mouth, he smiled,“No, no dinero senorita.” He sat down on the curb next to me. I scooted over, nearly falling off the end of the curb. He grinned and gently pulled a bottle of MD 20/20 from the bag. Laughing, he put it back in the bag. “Quieres un poco de vino?” he asked, leering at me. He waved the bag in front of my face, his leathery brown face distored in a twisten grin. He waved his thin brown hands around his head as if he were drowning. His long fingers wrapped around the brown bag, revealing thick scars.I stared at him, perplexed. “I don’t know what the hell you just said, man. I am thirsty as hell, and need some change to get a drink,” I said, rubbing the bottom of my foot. “Drink!,” he yelled out exictedly.Twisting the plastic cap off the bottle, he took a long took a swig. “Ahhhh,” he smacked his lips. Sweat dripped down his jawline. “Muy bueno”, he gloated. Grinning, his stretched out his leathery arm and rubbed my shoulder.I stood up and grabbed my boots. “Oh! Senorita, don go,” he put a hand over his heart. Just then, a large black truck pulled into the parking lot, its wheels squealing. Chelsea jumped out of the passenger seat. “Fuck y’all!” she screamed, slamming the door shut. “Y’all are a bunch of dumb motherfuckers!” She kicked the side of the truck with a bare foot, nearly falling over. The truck revved its engine,squealing out of the small parking lot. She walkedtowards me fast, her jaw grinding. A thin cigarette hung from her lips. The old man began to laugh. “Esta loco,” he said, shaking his head. “Hey Chelsea,” I said, struggeling to get one of my boots on while standing up. She dropped a plastic bag on the ground and took a long drag, her right foot tapping the hot tar. “That fucker Roy ripped me off again. I told that fucker and his friend that I don’t do this shit for free,” she shouted, her hand moved quiclky through a tangle of long brown hair. “That totally sucks,” I replied glumly. “Yeah, well I ain’t doin shit for them ever again,” she said, pulling a pair of plastic flip flops from her bag. The old man leaned to his side, cooing at her. She rubbed the top of his head, a shock of greasy black hair. “You met Miguel?” she asked. I shook my head. “He’s an ole dog, but harmless. Ain’t ya,” she said, flicking her cigarette. The old man took another pull from his bottle. He began to hum. “How do you know him?” I asked. “He hangs around, hittin on young girls, “she said, digging around the pockets of her jean shorts. They hung loosly around her bony hips. “Why am I not surprised,”I grumbled, lacing up my boots. “He ain’t never hurt a fly,” she said, elbowing Miguel. Laughing, he put the bottle to his lips again.
The first time I ever had a seafood boil was in Austin, back in the summer of 1995. I wandered into a southern style restaurant armed only with my two fellow road warriors, and a dozen thinly crumpled one dollar bills. We sat down at a giant wooden table, thirsty and tired from spending the morning in the sun. Our server was a middle aged blonde woman who brought us tall glasses of water and large sheets of wax paper. I stared down at the paper, perplexed. I noticed there wasn’t any silverware on the table. After gulping down the glass of water, I took a peek at the menu. Louisiana crawfish, crawfish etoufee, chicken & sausage jambalaya, and chicken and sausage gumbo. I didn’t know what the hell etuufee was, and had never tried jambalaya, so I ordered the crawfish. Ten or so minutes passed by before the server came back to the table with a small tin bucket. She dumped the contents of the bucket on top of the wax paper, and what came out of that bucket was profound. Bright red crawfish, steaming and beautiful, glistened before my eyes. The smell was intoxicating! After savoring the sight of the giant pile of crustaceans in front of me, I began to eat. My life has never been the same.