We sat in my dark living room one night. It was a Saturday. I had turned thirty two the night before. I decided to have a weekend of celebrating. Friday night was the dinner party at a classy restaurant. Saturday night we were going to get rowdy. I had bought a bag of mushrooms just for the occasion.
The room is lit solely by a single lamp. My friends are laughing and fidgeting with the music. I walk into the kitchen and take stock of the scene: There are dishes in the sink, but not that many. The kitchen still seems dirty. Molly and I’s apartment is decrepit and cold. Everyone agrees on this. It’s like no matter how much either of us clean, there is still a layer of grime on every square inch of space here. It permeates absolutely everything.
On the kitchen counter there is a brown piece of cloth, which has the bag of mushrooms on it. Around the bag of mushrooms are a single candle, and three runes, carved out of an elk antler. Raidho, for a safe journey, Elhaz, for communication with the gods, Eihwaz, for spiritual will and exploration of the mysteries of life and death. You see, we could use some magic right now. It’s been a long winter in this cold apartment.
I’ve said it once, I’ve said it countless times; when Talya died, something left this town. Molly and I spent an increasing amount of time in this house. We spent an increasing amount of time by ourselves, at home, with the curtains drawn. There had been a few times when Molly would be out, and run into someone, and they expressed surprise at doing so.
“I thought you had moved away.” They said.
The winter before this one, I lived here alone. The day I moved in, Adrien and Talya helped me carry boxes into the house. Upon entering the front hall and seeing the acid induced nightmare murals the hippies had left all over the place before they got evicted, Adrien nearly dropped the box he was carrying.
“Girl, we need to paint over this shit like, now. I’m worried one of those will come to life at night and murder you in your sleep.”
Talya was equally horrified. We loaded all the boxes in quickly, and then immediately went to the hardware store to buy as much paint as possible. Adrien and I spent the next two days covering the murals with as much primer and brightly colored paint as possible. We finished painting and arranging furniture just as X’s “In This House I Call Home” came on the stereo.
We did our best to clear out the bad energy and make it feel like home. I convinced myself that it was almost charming, in this bohemian sort of way. I was living in a dilapidated eighty year old tenement building, but that something positive would come out of it. I’d walk home up the hill late at night, and imagine myself as a tortured artist living in squalor for my art.
I guess I got some writing done that year. The themes of living in ruins so long you think it’s all you deserve showed up again and again.
I also frequently told myself that this would only be temporary until I found something better, and similarly affordable. Molly moved in sometime during the previous summer, knocking the rent down to just over two hundred dollars each. The affordability then sort of outweighed the squalor and the discomfort.
All of that had been before Talya’s suicide, though. It had hit Molly and I both like a ton of bricks. In the wreckage and aftermath, both of us were not the same people we had been, and it seemed like neither one of us could hold our heads up. We stayed in. We shut out the light, drank too much, and tried to sleep whole days away. I fell out with my best friend, a completely devastating, and life changing heartbreak. I broke up with my self-absorbed boyfriend. The grief and loss in the house was palpable. I wanted to leave, and I felt like Molly was attached to staying both for financial reasons, and to further wear our suffering like some morbid badge.
Maybe the survivor’s guilt was palpable too.
We made smoothies for the mushrooms. They were mostly made of vodka, ginger tea, and blueberries. It made sense at the time. Molly, Josh, Lisa, Lily and I all poured ourselves portions. We made a toast, and started drinking. I laughed nervously and wondered what I had gotten myself into.
This apartment is too cold and feels haunted. We’ve been battling the roaches in the kitchen for a year now. I think they’re gone. The landlord is a slumlord, and won’t fix the heat. He has a twin brother who is addicted to crack and comes over sometimes pretending to be his brother to collect “part of the rent, and just a little early.”
Like we can’t tell the difference between the two of them. It’s funny, except when it’s not.
I close my eyes and listened to the sounds of my friends. The drugs are probably diffusing throughout our bloodstreams now, making headway to our brains. Josh and Lisa are on the couch, huddled together and giggling. It’s not just the drugs. You can see the sparks between the two of them, whether they admit it or not. Lily and Molly are putting last touches on their makeup and getting ready to go out. They down two more shots, and walk to the bar where we are going. I think they’re feeling it.
I hadn’t been able to really feel much in the months since summer ended. I mostly felt like so much of the light and life had drained out of me. No matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to recapture any of my spark. I was even in massage school, and even that wasn’t bringing much solace. I felt like I was going through the motions, pantomiming at life.
I had hear that mushrooms sometimes helped people feel lighter. I had heard that sometimes they helped you feel more connected to the world, to the people around you. I could use some of that right now. That was why I had chosen to do them with Lisa and Josh, two of my nearest and dearest. My friends’ faces looked radiant and beautiful, even in the grime and dim lighting of this apartment. We had been down this road before; the one where we try and make our way back after tragedy and heartbreak, I mean. Josh and I were forged in those goddamn flames.
Most days it seemed like the world couldn’t find a way to be gentle with any of us. We did our best to be gentle with each other, with results that ranged from soaringly successful, to mixed, to flat out disastrous. I wasn’t sure what was about to happen, but I felt cautiously optimistic.
None of us were ready to leave, but I was starting to feel it. So were Lisa and Josh. God, their smiles were getting lighter now. They were infectious and perfect. I could almost feel light. We put on an Om record with a slow build up. Thebes, the opening track off of God Is Good. I closed my eyes and leaned my head on Josh’s shoulder, and felt myself traveling out of this room, and into vast, sunbaked desert plains. The music was warming my body now, even though the room we were in was likely fifty degrees, at best.
But fuck it, this record is too slow, and we were about to go to goth night for my birthday anyway. We put on the Soft Kill An Open Door LP. I was time to pre-game with one of my favorite post punk records of the last few years. This winter had sucked about as much as anything had ever sucked in the entire history of things sucking for me, and this LP had been on heavy rotation in this cold house, a constant source of solace.
The opening notes of the second track A death in the family rang like a herald to tragedy itself.
“Like a death in the family
Lose a piece to the void
Regain trust slowly
I carry you wherever I go.”
I had lost so much that fall. Almost everything I had thought I could rely on, or place faith in fell apart within a matter of months. There Soft Kill was summing it up, and putting it into music for me perfectly. Loss. Loss of trust. Loss of faith.
We are laughing and dancing now; the three of us in this cold room. I close my eyes and sway gently along to the music, letting it take me somewhere, anywhere, but this cold room, and this reckless, ruin of a life. I feel like every word is being sung directly to my wretched, broken heart.
Lisa is completely alight, and spinning around the room, like the most elegant dancer, looking completely resplendent, yet completely out of place in this awful room. Josh is doing his doing his characteristic “hop giddily around the room and shake my dreads like a woodland sprite” dance. It’s not really that different from how he normally dances, but the drugs make it, and him infinitely more charming. He moves, and for a moment I swear I catch a glimpse of a thousand tiny dots of light falling from his hair when he shakes his head.
A brief moment of silence, and the next song begins.
“Silence the words
Falling like walls
But you won’t hear me
My only truth
Take it and burn
Just don’t leave it here with me
It walks these halls
And I need sleep
It walks these halls
And I need dreams”
The interplay of the drumming and sparse chords are completely hypnotic. The music fills the room and fills our bodies. We are dancing faster and harder now. Josh and Lisa become frenetic. For a single, crystalline, rapturous moment, all is well. The world makes sense again. My smiling, dancing friends, driven by the music, and out of the harsh eyes of the rest of the world. Just where they have always been, where they will always be safe. Even in this awful building, they are safe. They were both precious beyond gold, so were Molly and Lily, wherever they were. I couldn’t stand the thought of any of them hurting for another minute.
It doesn’t matter that I am a stumbling, shambling disaster, dumb enough, or obstinate enough to continue living next door to the source my greatest heartbreak. It doesn’t matter that this house holds so much darkness and badness behind it’s roach filled walls. For a brief moment in time, the three of us had managed to fill it with love and light. It was like all the sweetness and joy that had drained right out of me in the last six months returned, even if it was too brief.
And then, the dark crept back in. We think we’re ready to go out. Josh insists we should probably just stay in the house. There is a birthday party waiting for me though, and I want to leave. We lift the needle, and take the record off the turntable, and put it back on the shelf. We blow out the candles that have been illuminating the room, lock the front door, and step out into the world.
The night sky is dimly red, in that strange winter way. The night is cold and crisp. I pull my jacket closer to my body for warmth. I’m wearing a gorgeous party dress and a trench coat. It’s maybe too cold, but it’s my birthday, and I want to look good, damnit.
By the time we are down the hill, and across Charlotte Street, and walking back up the hill towards downtown, the dread is starting to creep in. I’m thinking leaving the house was maybe a mistake. The dread is starting to creep in. That great, awful, emptiness that has been there for the last six months is starting to creep in. Terror is rising in my belly.
I look to the sky, and I’m sure the gods are not there. I’m sure that the dark goes on forever, and I am alone. I can’t even see the stars through the clouds.
“Odin? Frigg? Thor? Please?”
By the time we hit Church Street, I am beginning to lose it. Waves of nausea are crashing against the walls of my stomach, begging for release. I lean into a bush to try and vomit. My body does it’s best to reject the poison I seemingly just ingested. I try to tell Josh and Lisa that I feel wrong, but the words don’t come. I can’t talk. I know I’m locked in, headed for a waking nightmare now.
The lyrics of a punk song I loved at twenty-two come to mind.
“Welcome to the hell in the darkness.”
I had wanted to so much to feel some sort of connection again. This wasn’t fair. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Everywhere I looked, I just felt more emptiness and isolation. It overwhelmed my fragile senses.
For a moment my perception shifted. Josh and Lisa had turned and noticed my terror. They were trying to reach me. I could see the panic scrawled across their own faces, likely a reflection of my own. They were trying to reach me, and I was trapped. I was gone like I was adrift in a dead sea, below an empty sky, like a butterfly in a jar. They were pounding on the glass. They were calling my name. I couldn’t hear them. I couldn’t reach them. The void pressed around me, filling my body, shattering my illusions, turning my heart to ice.
I heaved again, trying to push all the poison and nightmares out of my body. I closed my eyes. I immediately regretted it. When Talya died, the police had found her. None of us had had to see her body. I could see it now, clear as if I had seen it in real life. Clear as anything. She was slumped against a tree in the woods, bleeding out.
“No. No. No. Please. Not this. Anything but this.”
It was too late. I was locked in. Headed for waking nightmares. The hell in the darkness.
I did my best to make it to the bar. I really did. We made it in, and Alien Sex Fiend was blaring from the sound system.
“I walk the line between GOOD AND EVIL”
Holy shit. I can’t be here. Josh. We need to leave, like right now. I need to go home and change my clothes. I need to cover up all of my skin. This is bad. David Rose tried to say hello, and wish me a happy birthday, and I muttered something about being sick, and ran back out of the bar. I never even saw any of the friends who had shown up for my birthday. Supposedly Marty and Adrien looked so good. I never even saw them.
Josh and I practically ran back home. He was sweet and soothing the whole way.
“We’ll just change our clothes, and walk around until you calm down. I don’t like that bar anyway. We got this.”
God, I fucking loved that boy in that moment. Here I was being that person, the one who ruins their own goddamn birthday by being too much of a mess, and his response was to just go with it. I change my clothes, grabbed my knife and pepper spray, and put Hope the dog in her harness and leash, and we were back out. I couldn’t stay in that haunted apartment. Trying to vomit in the bathroom again, I had an epiphany that at least three people must have been murdered there. It made sense at the moment.
Everyone knew there was some bad fucking energy in that place.
I thought that a walk through downtown would help calm me enough to go back to my own birthday party. I found that if I just kept walking, I could feel some semblance of calm. I couldn’t close my eyes. Every time I did, it was the same image of Talya.
I got a text message from Lisa right then. I had a hard time getting my get my eyes to focus. It took a minute to read what it said.
“Did you leave? Why did you leave? Why did you leave without me? Nobody has a real face, and they keep hugging me. There’s no faces. Please come back for me.”
So there we were, back on our way to the bar. Again. We hadn’t thought to just grab Lisa when we left the first time. That would have been way too rational. So we walked back across town to scoop Lisa up out of a sea of dancing faceless bodies. We began walking in the general direction of my apartment. None of us really knew where we were going, but I insisted we keep moving.
As we made our way towards home on Hilliard Avenue, a car sped by us and the passenger yelled out “CUT YOUR FUCKIN’ HAIR!” We assumed it was directed at Josh. Josh had incredibly long dreadlocks, which he had been growing since fifteen years old. Lisa and I both froze in our tracks, this random angry man’s voice now reverberating through our crashed out, drugged out skulls.
The car got stuck at a red light. The world moved into slow motion. We saw Josh’s face shift into a broad grin. He took off running.
Josh. Infuriatingly charming even while not on hallucinogens. It was impossible not to like him, even when you wanted to be furious with him. I’d seen him talk his way out of countless situations that I was sure would end up with one or all of us in jail.
One time he managed to sneak at least six of us into an overpriced show by convincing the door guy we were the opening band’s road crew. Or were we just the opening band? Either way, the show was so poorly managed, it didn’t even begin until well after midnight. We gave up and went home around three am when it appeared that the headliner wouldn’t be playing until near four. As we left, we attempted to demand our money back.
“I thought you said you were with the openers. Get the fuck out of my sight right now.” An enraged door guy growled.
It was like that with Josh. Years later, and across the country a mutual friend would do his best to describe him to another friend who had never met him:
“It’s like he always pushes something to the farthest limits of what he thinks he will get away with, and then just barely pulls it off.”
It was so true. Another time, during a particularly cold winter he decided to just bypass our gas meter altogether, and turned the heat on. We lived like warm, well insulated kings and queens for a few weeks. The December temperature may have been dropping to the single digits outside, but inside we were cranking the heat up to 70, and having dance parties in our underwear.
The gas company caught on eventually, of course. They turned our gas back off, and put a new lock on the meter. Josh simply cut the lock off, and turned the gas back on. We were back to living like toasty royalty. Who did those fuckers think they were, anyway?
The fun was over when the gas company cut service off to the house entirely. We toughed it out for a month with space heaters before we could convince the over-frugal Josh to just call the gas company and get it turned on legitimately.
The gasman came and explained to us we were in a lot of trouble. Not even he was supposed to access the meter without express permission. He was going to call our landlord. The other housemate and I started to panic. We’d get evicted for sure.
“What are we going to do? The landlord is going to be so pissed!” I said, trying not to hyperventilate.
“I’ll just smile at her, and tell her it won’t happen again.” Josh replied.
“You’ll just smile at her and tell it won’t happen again?”
That won’t possibly work. I was sure of it.
But it did. Time and time again.
Sometimes you got the feeling the boy was incapable of turning the hustle off.
“Did one of my best friends just run a scam on me?” I’d find myself thinking.
Friendship is so complicated like that sometimes. You end up being faced with the very harsh reality that the people you love aren’t perfect, and can sometimes have parts inside them that are downright fucked up. It’s so true for me. Something a member of the band Zegota once said on stage at a show has always resonated with me:
“We all ended up in this room, and with punk rock for a reason.”
It’s true with friendship too. We end up with one another for a reason. We fall in love with one another for a reason. Sometimes it’s just so goddamn hard to see, or to hold on to when shit gets rough, and get rough it will.
The trick is learning to love unconditionally, and without judgment. This is a feat that I have not mastered, or even consider myself overly skilled at, much to my dismay.
Back on our mushroom trip, Josh had just reached the passenger side of the car who had heckled his hair. It was a man and a woman in the car. Maybe they were a couple. I never knew. The woman was behind the wheel, looking slightly embarrassed. The man, who had yelled at Josh was in the passenger’s seat. He was wearing a sleeveless shirt and gym shorts. It was February and freezing.
Josh knocked on the window; eyes gleaming, pupils dilated, and shit eating grin a mile wide. Lisa, Hope and I stood back a few feet.
Tap tap on the window, like a polite gentleman.
“Hello! I was wondering if you had a problem. It’s such a nice night. I’m having such a nice time out with my friends. Why did you feel the need to comment on my appearance?”
“I just think your hair looks fucking awful.”
“That’s okay. I think your face looks fucking awful.” Josh quipped back.
Josh was still smiling. It was disarming. Even from several feet back. Surely this pointlessly angry man would wither under his charms.
“You just need a trim.” The man snarled.
“You know, that is exactly what I said to your mother last night.”
The smile never left Josh’s face. The man in the passenger seat on the other hand; his face turned a deep shade of red, and twisted into a snarl. He turned to the driver of the vehicle and snarled:
“Pull this fucking car over right now.”
Somewhere in my body, I sighed.
“Here we go.” I thought.
Somewhere more present, I began to panic. Shit shit shit. This man was going to try and fight Josh. I glanced over at Lisa. She was breathing heavily. She clearly had the same line of thought.
She was whispering to me now.
“He’s going to try and hurt Josh. We have to stab him. Are you ready? We have to stab him.”
Lisa had put a hand on her knife. I did the same. Surely it wouldn’t come to that.
Josh proceeded to belittle this angry man until he deflated and returned to his vehicle.
“Just get back in the car. Nobody cares about you. Nobody wants to fight. This isn’t anything. You aren’t anything.”
He dismissively waved his hand, and as if casting some diminutive spell on this man. He seemed to utterly shrink, and got back into the car, and his companion sped off into the night. We walked back to the apartment and I spent the rest of the night hiding in a sleeping bag on the couch.
When everyone else got home, we watched a dumb movie to try and come down. I could only manage to raise my eyes out of my sleeping bag. The rest of my body needed to be hidden, or I would start to panic. Whatever door had opened was terrible, and I was having a hard time closing it.
Josh would occasionally bemoan the crass humor of the movie, and lament us not watching a more sophisticated film. Molly would look over derisively and slur
“Whatever creepy-nails! I just saw you laughing!”
Josh had long fingernails. I forgot that part of the story, because it’s not really important, aside from it led to Molly’s nickname.
Eventually, people went home, and those of us that remained fell asleep in various parts of the apartment. Lily and I slept in my bed for a few hours. When the morning came she went to nurse her hangover at home.
Years later, the story of the near fight would diverge. Lisa laughed in that way that made her eyes crinkle, and her entire face lit up.
“It wasn’t like that at all. Josh did belittle that stupid man, but you and I were also holding knives, and openly talking about stabbing him.”
“For real? I thought we were whispering, and just reached for our knives.”
She was still laughing.
“No. Not at all. We were very audibly talking, and had pulled our knives.”
Shit. All this time, and we had been telling two different versions of the same story.
I was never the same, either. I maintain that, all these years later. It was the darkest period of my life, and I managed to do the stellar job of pushing myself further into the dark with one drug fueled night. I’ve always struggled with depression and anxiety, but they came on even harder after that night.
Whatever door the drugs opened, it didn’t want to close.
Sometimes that summer, after the panic had started for real, I would think I heard death calling me. It would creep in especially late at night, irregular heartbeat and panic setting in. I would sit on the hood of my truck, with my boots on the fender near the woods just off Beaverdam Road and try to decide whether I should answer or not. When my body would eventually wear itself out I would go and try and sleep at Ed’s apartment, but mostly end up hyperventilating and swearing I was going to die in my sleep.
And sometimes during the sweltering southern days, I would make my way through town like a ghost haunting myself. During the day, and in crowds of people, it wasn’t death speaking to me, but something much worse. There were factors surrounding Talya’s death that we rarely spoke of, and when we did they were in hushed tones. Everyone said she had never been the same after it happened. Some folks even intimated that it was only a matter of time.
Sometimes I would hear that man speaking to me too, a mocking whisper slightly above the din of the crowded streets.
I never admitted to anyone until now.
Whatever door opened, the only way I figured out how to close it was to leave home.
I’ll probably be sober forever now, but I’ll never feel the same.