After a troubled youth and a fatal shooting, a revitalized ex-con reconnects with the love of his life, but their blissful second chance is destined for disaster.
It started going sideways with the angel dust, which she kept hidden in the back of the freezer, in a magnetized flat round tin, behind a tub of plain vanilla ice cream, in her plain suburban home.
Jesse and I had found each other six weeks earlier on Facebook, after twenty-five years. We were old and dear friends; thirteen when we first met in the linoleum-lined hallways of Mark Twain junior high in Yonkers, New York. She was my Patti Smith and my Chrissie Hynde, rock-star babe burning with rage in tight jeans and a leather jacket. I loved her at first sight — but I kept it to myself, as I did with most things in those days. She never knew.
There were seven or eight of us who were always together, it seemed, throughout our entire teenage years. All of us were the self-outcast children of sexual abuse and violence. We sought solace and companionship in each other and in the things we did amongst ourselves — namely heavy metal, punk rock, drugs and sex, in that order. We loved each other. We were the reason we survived. We saved each others’ lives. We were truly family.
Prom night in 1989 was the last time Jesse and I saw each other, riding in a white limo with our lovers and friends.
The next winter I killed a drug dealer. I pointed a shotgun at him, gave him ten seconds to run but started shooting after three. Drugs had ruined everything in my life, including my mother, and this was my revenge.
I spent the next thirteen years in prison.
Jesse spent the next thirteen years smoking angel dust and crack.
* * *
My grandmother was still alive when I got out. All she ever asked in return for raising me when my mother couldn’t was for me to graduate college. If I never gave her anything else but sorrow and pain I gave her this — wrapped up pretty with a nice big bow, graduating from New York University with high honors in 2006.
But because of my criminal record no one would give me a job.
And my parole officer wouldn’t let me leave Manhattan. He also gave me a curfew — I had to be in my house every evening by nine, otherwise I would be sent back to prison. It actually happened once, and I did three weeks in the Tombs, the infamous detention center in downtown Manhattan.
I abided by the curfew after that. I wish I hadn’t, but I did, for in those terrible late-night hours the inconceivable happened — I started doing drugs. I used with my girlfriend at the time, Renata, a brassy, big-boned, blonde bimbo from Australia who made a connection with the girlfriend of a dealer while waiting on the visiting line at the Tombs.
I fell, face-first, hard. I wanted to kill again, this time myself.
But instead of a pistol, I picked up a camera, and found regular work as a photojournalist.
Jesse became a special education teacher – doing God’s work.
Separately, slowly, apart, we put ourselves back together. Piece by piece. Habit by habit. Then just for the fuck of it we tore everything apart and put it back together again. And again. Each time the end result a bit rougher, a bit less aligned, than what was before. But we survived. Many did not.
We survived — it is the only thing that matters.
* * *
Then, not only did I look back, I actually went back, for Jesse.
We paved the way with text messages, like notes passed between schoolchildren. Then one bright breezy early April day we met, again. We walked past the school where we first became friends, all those wasted years ago, and we knew, right away we knew. It was like lightning — sudden and certain. Sleep was difficult after that — all I thought of was her. A week later we hiked to the top of Beacon Mountain, where colonial militiamen once stood sentry over the Hudson Valley. Next to an abandoned tower, we kissed for the first time. It was so real.
We went at each other like love-starved strays.
I lived in Brooklyn, and she in a small Hudson River town. On the weekends she came to me; during the week I went to her.
She stayed in a secluded cottage high on a hill beside the river. A brook trickled beside her driveway. Bright flowers bloomed on lush green bushes. Deer roamed her lawn. Children played in the street.
We would make love before going to bed, then wake up in the middle of the night and make more love, softly, until first light broke, fuzzy and blue. All the world was still but for our lusty, pounding hearts, along with the rumble of powerful train engines in a distant yard, warming up for the commute into the city, a tooting whistle echoing up through her bedroom window alongside the first stirrings of a perfect spring day’s breeze.
“Promise me you’ll never leave me. Promise me,” she would whisper, a feral look in her eyes. I did. I promised her, and I meant it, like I never meant anything else in my life.
“Elephant shoes” she would mouth without speaking, because it looks like “I love you.”
“Elephant shoes,” I swore.
It was amazing. It was perfect. It was a fairytale.
And it was all a lie.
* * *
The truth is her house horrified me the first time I saw it.
All the floors, the kitchen, the living room, her bedroom, were covered in dirty clothes and specks of litter from the overflowing cat box in the bathroom. Dirty dishes filled the sink, piled onto adjacent counters. Bags and boxes of garbage were stacked outside the front door. There was barely any food in the refrigerator; no milk, no juice, just some leftover pasta, condiments and bottles of water, maybe a couple slices of Bologna, but no bread.
She didn’t drink, but there were a few bottles of beer in her refrigerator — Miller Genuine Draft and Heineken — left, I figured, by the last guys to pass through.
She had a twelve-year-old daughter and a beautiful dog, a female Rottweiler, which she kept locked in the basement when she wasn’t around, which was all day and many evenings, even in summer. When the dog wasn’t shitting in the basement, it shat on the grass all around her house. Mounds of it were everywhere.
She slept with a switchblade in the night table beside her bed.
It was the house of someone who was borderline functional, like an addict with a day job, like a person with mild but actual mental illness, maybe both, maybe neither; maybe she was just an overworked, under-loved single mother, isolated in a small town with few close friends or family nearby.
Obviously though, something was wrong, even if I didn’t know precisely what.
But it didn’t matter. As far I was concerned she was family — a survivor, a sister, maybe even my one great love, and there was no way I was going to abandon her now that I’d found her. No soldier left behind. I resolved right there that I would hold nothing back. I would give her everything. I would be selfless and sincere. I would love her as perfectly as possible, like I never loved anyone else in my life.
The next weekend I cleaned her house top-to-bottom, including the basement. I vacuumed. I swept. I scrubbed. I scraped. I did five loads of laundry. Then I did the hardest thing I’ve ever done — I picked up dog shit, pounds of it.
I hate dog shit like many people hate snakes. I have a genuine phobia of it — it revolts me. It ruins my morning if I see a dog shitting on the street, a person reaching down to pick it up. And yet there I was, on my knees, meaty hands in thinly-stretched latex gloves, picking dog shit out of her lawn (she didn’t have a shovel). Some of it had been there so long it was cemented into the grass. I had to yank it out, divots of dirt flying, like golf. It filled several bags.
Shooting at people was easier.
Everything got a good scrubbing and a fresh, clean start that day — even the dog. For her cat, a year-old female who liked to attack the furniture (and me), I built a scratching post by hand.
Her daughter was more problematic. She was smart and sensitive, but suspicious and fairly exploding with anger — just like her mother.
She was into photography and the Misfits and called herself “forksintoasters.” She slept with a baseball bat next to her bed, before her mother took it away from her and put it next to hers, on the same side where she kept the switchblade. The first time we all went out to dinner she kept repeating “bukkake,” aloud, horrifying fellow diners. I thought for sure someone was going to call the cops, and that I was somehow going to get blamed for it. But when she returned home after I cleaned the house that first weekend she thanked me, “ver-much.”
I suggested to Jesse we do things with her on the weekends instead of just dropping her off at Jesse’s parents’ place, but she was having none of it — the weekends were the only time she could get away from her, she told me.
“Mommy, why do you hate me so much?” I heard once.
Still, Jesse and I clicked. On her birthday she took me to her parents’ house for Sunday supper. A pot of homemade gravy simmered on the stove; beside it, ravioli made by a small family business that had been in our hometown for generations; a gallon jug of red wine on the table. It felt like my Sicilian great-grandmother’s house, where I used to go every other Sunday until she died; the sweet smell of tomato sauce and meatballs, a ginormous bowl of salad, stacks of bread and butter, Carlo Rossi.
In other words, it felt like the closest thing to home I ever knew.
“Daddy, do you remember Nick?” she asked.
“I was a Yonkers cop, of course I remember him.”
“I was hoping you’d forgot.”
“Cops never forget,” her father said. “But it was a long time ago. No more of that?”
“No more of that,” I swore, before he handed me a plate of pasta, sealing the deal.
We went again the next weekend, for Mother’s Day.
On the thirtieth day I covered Jesse’s bed in rose and lily petals. I’d never done anything like that before for anyone, never even thought about it. We climbed atop naked and took turns throwing the petals back and forth, declaring our love, mouthing “Elephant Shoes,” smiling and laughing, as perfect as we would ever be.
It was the beginning of the end.
* * *
To lose weight, some people cut carbs from their diet, others go to the gym, some jog. Jesse’s idea was to smoke half-a-joint or so of angel dust after work, before her daughter got home from school, so she wouldn’t feel like eating. She called it the “dust diet,” and claimed to have employed it with great effect the previous summer.
“Plus you’re going to love how I fuck on it.”
Frankly I liked how we fucked without it, but I figured that if I didn’t go along with it she’d find someone who would. And since I’d promised I’d love her unconditionally, this was that unconditional part. So I went along with her to cop some dust. I didn’t know what else to do, and I didn’t think she’d go through with it with me in the car.
It was cloudy when she picked me up at the end of the #4 subway train in the Bronx, near the Yonkers border, two blocks from where we used to score bad weed and good mescaline when we were kids. She drove to a hilltop on Cedar Street in Yonkers, near the derelict water tower, a perfect icon for a sick, derelict town, and she pointed out a building on the west side of the street in the middle of the block.
“He used to be outside,” she said, referring to the dealer, “washing cars, but the cops made him go inside.”
She knew the spot. She knew the guy. She’d been here before, many times. She even had rapport with the dealer; he trusted her enough to tell her the “cops had made him go inside” — meaning either they were incompetent for not busting him outright or on the take.
Suddenly it all became piercingly clear: She’d never stopped smoking dust, even if she’d wrestled it down from a habit into a hobby. And what was worse, she’d hidden it from me for a month, or she hadn’t done it just long enough for me to grow attached to her. That’s why she made me promise never to leave her when we made love. This is the moment she had in mind, this black moment, her sad truth.
“Nick,” she said softly, even kindly, “Nick?”
I could barely breathe, much less form sentences. “Train. Station.”
“Nick,” she said, eyes wide and pleading, her hand reaching out to touch mine, me yanking it swiftly away.
“You have a daughter. You teach kids. You’re smart. You’re beautiful. I love you. I can’t …”
“Take me to the train station.”
* * *
But she was right — I had promised.
The next weekend I staged an intervention which, in my cash-poor but experientially rich world, means strapping a backpack on and hiking twenty-five miles over the Shawangunk Ridge, from Ellenville to Minnewaska State Park and back, with an overnight stay on Lake Awosting. Overall, it was a moderate hike on old carriage roads, but it has a fairly demanding entry with a 1,600-foot initial elevation gain that plateaus into an extraordinary dwarf-pine and blueberry bush wonderland, dotted with crystal clear lakes and white cliffs.
In other words, once you make it up the mountain, you are in paradise, but first you have to make it up the mountain.
Halfway up she took off her backpack, sat down and, like a petulant child, refused to go any further. She stared up at me. Without even thinking about it I quickly reached down, snatched up her backpack, and took off running up the mountain, carrying her weight and my own.
“Motherfucker, my car keys are in there!”
“Then you better come after me!”
Half an hour later she caught up with me, at the top, where I was enjoying lunch and a sweeping view across the southern Catskills. Sweating, veins bulging from her neck, she came at me so fast I thought she was going to hit me, but she stopped just short and yelled a foot from my face: “I HATE YOU! DO YOU HEAR ME?! I HATE YOU! I FUCKING HATE YOU!”
Then she took off down the mountain. I dropped my lunch and took three steps after her, adrenaline racing, anger rising. Then I thought, “What are you going to do if you catch her?” So I stopped. And so did she. Slowly, she came back up the mountain.
“You left me! You left me! I could’ve been raped. I don’t know where I am. You left me. You promised never to leave me.”
Sobbing, she threw herself around me.
“I’m here, baby. I’m here. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, but look, we’re here. We’re at the top. It’ll be easy from here.”
But it wasn’t. It was spring, and snowmelt was still draining off the plateau. In many places, the trail wasn’t a trail, but a stream, swamped by a foot-and-a-half of clean but icy mountain water, with no way around it. I grabbed her hand and plunged in, boots and all, and she followed, with ease and no complaint.
“Shit is like boot camp,” she said, and she was right.
“Let’s go, troop,” I told her, smiling.
That night we had a fire and made perfect love beneath a million stars. It felt like we’d made it somewhere, like we’d achieved something. Together we had climbed the mountain, and she got the same satisfaction and peace from it that I got — I was heartened and encouraged.
We can do this, I thought.
The next morning I made coffee and we sat on a ledge beside the lake as the wind blew ripples across the still water.
Then she reached into her pocket and pulled out the round, metal tin where she kept her dust. She opened it, pulled out half a joint, and lit it. If I was shocked I didn’t show it, much less feel it. I didn’t want to fight her anymore. All I wanted to do, all I ever wanted to do, since nineteen hundred and eighty-three, was love her. And if it meant scrambling my brains a little with an animal tranquilizer and psychotic side effects, then fuck it, she was as good as a motherfucker like me was going to get. So when she offered it to me I took it. I smoked it with her, like we had done we were young, all those years before.
Then she rolled another one and we smoked half of that too, before she tucked it away in the tin.
“I hope you’re happy now,” I said as my consciousness cleaved from my body and tinny sounds echoed through my ears.
“I am,” she said, smiling.
She had violated my sanctuary, pulling me deep into her own personal purgatory, and she was smiling.
“Elephant shoes,” she said. “Elephant shoes?” But I was somewhere else, rolling around on the ancient rock, lost in kaleidoscope clouds, dreaming of Indians and dinosaurs, cotton candy and quilts.
Hours went by like minutes before we started the hike out.
The thing about angel dust is that it’s not the high that’s bad for you — it is powerfully dissociative and psychedelic — but the schizophrenia-like side effects that get you. That’s the reason researchers stopped using it on humans and now use it only on animals.
We were nearly out of the woods when she started freaking out, cursing me, for no real reason, in front of families with kids, then a park ranger. He looked at the bruise on her shin, which she got from falling down the previous day, and thought he was going to save this damsel in distress from a thug, so he called for backup.
She still had half-a-joint of dust on her and was literally foaming at the mouth. It was only a matter of time before someone figured out what was really happening. She would lose everything — her job, her daughter, everything. I did the only thing I could do. I made myself their target, telling Ranger Bob and his band of six-pocket-polyester-pant-wearing dimwits they could all go fuck themselves, and tried to walk past them when they ordered us to stop. It worked — they all surrounded me, allowing her to slip away and stash the dust.
By the time she returned I was in the back of a cop car with my feet on the window, ready to kick it out, righteously pissed because Deputy Sheriff Douche had cuffed my hands so unnecessarily tight they were numb and swollen. I reeled it back in, but not in time to save me a trip to the police station, and a new case.
She was waiting for me when I got out, but I couldn’t stand being in the car with her, listening to her schizo-like ramblings. I had her drop me off at the train station, again. When I got home that night I practically jumped in the shower.
As the water cascaded off me, tears leaked from my eyes and I knew that our love was doomed, that nothing good would come from this, that it would only end badly. Yet I started laughing, laughing like I hadn’t laughed in years; uncontrollable, belly-ripping laughter like a mad man, laughter that dropped me to the bottom of the tub, laughter that I had survived, once again, and that I had made it back, wounded but alive, even exhilarated.
* * *
The tapestry of our memory, indeed the essence of our very lives, is woven with moments. The bright, hopeful moments that we shared together, in her bed, after all we’d been through, after all we’d done, in that perfect pre-dawn light, fresh spring breeze gently blowing through her window, revving trains powering-up in the distance, our fiery love warming our long-pained hearts, are among the most precious moments I have ever lived.
Whenever I think of her it is these moments I recall, and the steaks I left in her refrigerator instead of beer.
* * *
Nick Brooks is the nom de guerre of an independent and award-winning photojournalist based in New York City. His work is regularly published around the world in every medium, and has appeared on the covers of Paris Match, the New York Post and the New York Daily News.
Beth Walrond lives in Berlin and illustrates for magazines and newspapers internationally.