It must have been something astrological. Or plate tectonics. Maybe
contrails. Aspartame. Red shift. Sunspots. La Nina. Fluoride in the
water. El Nino. Millennial madness. A mix-up in medication. The
philosophies of Nostradamus. Red tide. The
Grand Cross. The Demon seed. Global warming. The double cross.
Depletion of the ozone layer. Mercury in retrograde. Whatever. The
whole freakin’ world was in turmoil. Everyone was nuts. Flipped out.
Outta their gourd. Bonkers. Over the top. Tapped out. We’re talking
major malfunctions and personal meltdowns here.
Yes, everyone. You. Me. Calabash. So-and-so’s mother-in-law who kept
mixing up the canned cat-food with her favorite potted chicken. My
friend’s uncle who forgot his own name. The literary agent whose dog
peed into his surge protector after the bookshelf fell on his computer,
and he lost … everything. The emergency room physician whose husband
did give her that important message but she left the house at 7 a.m.
anyway. My potential radio sidekick who accidentally deleted all my
e-mails as spam. My publisher pal whose office communication wires were
“accidentally” cut by a telephone repairman. Even, or most particularly,
my 22-year-old art-student neighbor, The Littlest Colette. I’m watching
it all unfold like — pick your cliché — The Horror! The National
Enquirer? Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not? What I am saying is this whole
day was about people who weren’t getting what they wanted or needed from
the people they liked or loved.
Little Colette, the littlest and prettiest Colette of the three
female art students I know, all named Colette, shows up weeping on my
doorstep at 10 p.m. in the rain, clutching a Romeo-Juliet video
but no umbrella, with a tale of woe
mirroring a soap opera. How she had left her boyfriend to date other
men, which she did, and is doing, but now she is hurt and mad that he
went to some other girl’s house, this big hulky Amazon. How could he
like HER? She’s so clunky?
If there’s anything Little Colette isn’t, it’s clunky. She’s a size
one, under five feet, weighs just over 90 pounds. She has that kind of
child-woman body men want to marry and women want to murder. Maybe, she
says, she’s not been kinky enough lately? I raise a quizzical eyebrow.
Kinky? Oh, yeah, she nods knowingly: “B & D, been there, done that!”
Hey, America, welcome to your youth. Things seem so much more …
Jerry Springer jerryspringer lately,
don’t they? When I was 22, I was just out of college, still a virgin,
had my first job as a magazine editor, attending grad school at night,
had just met the man I would soon marry. Oh, we were so focused! Silly
me! But here’s Colette, living out this “Sex in the City” drama, this
saga. One minute her boyfriend’s rubbing her back and making her
candlelit lasagna and mushrooms, yes! But the next he’s screaming at
her, “Get out!”
Anyway, Colette frees herself from his clutches, sort of. So, like
their trio of skinny cats roaming and prowling the gates and the
culverts and cul de sacs of our street, Colette roams and prowls, too.
Yet now she wants him back — bad. She’s really upset. She’s loved him
since she was 17. That’s why she HAS to watch Romeo and Juliet tonight
— has to.
Eyes brimming, nose pink, she watches me, waiting for wisdom. I look
back over my shoulder, hoping a grownup or two would step forward. None
do. Looks like I’m it. Not wanting to be heavy, or parental — why are
those two words nearly always synonymous — I wonder, diplomatically,
about the wisdom of their coupling. She’s still in school and very
motivated, he’s a slacker who “does deliveries.” He might — doubtfully
— find someday, somewhere among all the drugs he takes that his locally
famous civic do-gooder mom has cut him off. What’s the attraction?
The other day at the corner supermarket, they were thrown out for
shoplifting. She was so hungry she actually ate a raw hot dog there on
the spot before the manager banished the two of them from the store
forever. Her mother gives her a $25 allowance, but she’s starving.
Shows me a nickel bag of weed, offers to share some, has two Phillies
Blunts ready. Naturally I decline. That’s why they call it dope,
sweetie, I say brightly, encouraging her to have a clear head for our
Maybe THIS is why she’s such a twisted sister: When Colette was four,
her month-old baby sister died. Her parents’ grief was so extreme they
broke up soon after that, and then they both got deeply into drugs. Her
“brilliant dad with three degrees” was a drug dealer before professional
school, but after doing all that coke, he straightened out and now he
teaches kids “with special needs.” Her needs were something else.
Mostly, she said, he wasn’t sending her any money.
I think of my friends’ children. And the sisters I never had. I
give Colette a bag full of stuff — stuff to wear, stuff to eat, not
stuff to snort, inhale, or smoke — a health food sandwich, some
strawberry yogurt, some spiral basil pasta, two loaves of bread from the
freezer, one pumpernickel, one cinnamon raisin, a faded brown denim
jacket, and an attractively distressed and scuffed and scraped brown
leather jacket, which reminds me of her.
Then Colette asks me for half a stick of butter. Don’t tell me, I
wince, trying not to think of the actress Maria Schneider with Brando in
“Last Tango in Paris.”
don’t call it “the high-priced spread” for nothin’. At this moment, I
definitely don’t want to think of Brando, or anything to do with
Hollywood, or L.A., or California, the epicenter of unreality. I have my
No, Colette giggles, real butter just for her morning toast.
I only have soybean margarine, will that do? Thankfully, yes. I give
her a whole stick — that, and a white candle for her to burn and scare
away all the evil spirits she thinks inhabit her apartment building. It
works. I know it does. Look how tranquil MY life is.
Several months later, Colette visits me again, and things have
changed, sort of. She has dumped that drug-dealing boyfriend. Gotten
another drug-dealing boyfriend. Tried to dump him, too — unaware of the
Freudian connection between her drug dealer dad and all these
drug-dealer boyfriends she’s attempted to rescue. Moved back home to
live with her mother — the question being, who’s mothering who? And her
rehabilitated teacher-dad has bought her a beeper so she can “stay in
better touch.” Progress? Perhaps.
This time, she’s sad because she had to go to a funeral. Some
25-year-old guy, buddy of her current is-he-or-isn’t-he-her-boyfriend,
died of a heroin overdose. Heroin’s a big thing in
Philly right now, she said, did I know? No, I’m outta the drug loop. I
heard hipsters and jazz musicians liked it in Kerouac’s
day. What does H take the place of now, speed and pot and coke and
crack? Yes, she says, but it’s the college students, she says,
over-privileged white kids doing it mainly.
Hard to watch someone you love leave, isn’t it? Poet Dylan Thomas
“After the first death, there is no other.”
But that isn’t really true,
is it? Though the first death of a friend or loved one might be the most
memorable death; in a way, each subsequent death is almost always a
surprise visitor. Even when you know it’s coming, there is no real
preparation. All the death education courses in Littleton aren’t worth a
fig when it comes to facing the Big Enchilada.
Death seems to circle Colette and her so-called friends. Death, or
stupidity. When this boyfriend she had just broken up with convinced her
they should go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras
— she paid for their plane tickets
— she wandered away from him to score some pot, which was weird, she
says, since she already had some in her purse. This black guy with a
gold tooth led her to a French Quarter crack house and she was “waiting
outside just talking with a dude” when the cops snagged her and sent her
to jail for three and a half days on a possession charge. They put her
in a cage with ho’s, junkies, and madams drooling on her like she was
the snack du jour. The quantity of pot she was carrying was so small
they knew she wasn’t dealing, but the resin, they said, showed she had
used it. She said that was what they got her on, really — CARRYING
Finally, her father bailed her out — I guess he remembered he had a
daughter he actually loved — so he gladly paid the exorbitant fine. Her
boyfriend called her father and found her; they made up, broke up, made
up again. Then Colette flew back to Philly, where she had to watch her
heavy-drinking-and-smoking 15-year-old brother fight his way back to
life from a severe stroke. That’s right, a 15-year-old boy smoking and
drinking himself into a stroke, though her father said it had to be the
stress. Things got so bad she called the cops on her own mother for not
coming home night after night, staying out until 3 a.m. and neglecting
to care for the convalescing kid. She tells me story after story like
this, until I am numb and uncomprehending and exhausted, forgetting
whatever niggling thing was bothering me about my own life.
Sometimes, Colette mused, getting it at last, the people
you love are like bad habits, aren’t they?