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CHAPTER FIVE: SELFISH CUNT

You know how, when you're having a bad day already, it just takes one little thing to really push you over the edge? Like, one second you're standing in line at the Starbucks and the next thing you know you've completely cleared off a shelf of goddamn fair-trade coffee beans and they're thick as gravel around your feet and the other five nincompoops in line with you all waiting for their bullshit iced single venti one-pump-mocha nonfat no-whip extra coffee frappuccinos turn their caffeine-goggle eyes on you and the Miles Davis on the store radio is no consolation because he was a crazy black man beloved by white college students since his inception and for a minute you know how he felt, all those palefaces staring and the vaguely fecal smell of crushed coffee beans hitting your nose, the world oily and what words are coming out of your mouth you can't say, you may as well be speaking in tongues or even Aramaic like you were channeling a murdered saint because nobody says anything except the store manager, a tiny lady in ankle-high vegan leather booties and a blonde streak in her hair. She's the one brave enough to put her hand on your arm, right on your skin, and ask you if you're alright, is there someone to call, have you felt like this all day?

No, not all day. Just this one horrible moment. I am choked by an eruption of fear and wrath, the worst combination other than morning sickness. Therapy, menial employment, the threat of (more) parental disapproval, a slashed tire, and a note that could have come straight from the desk of an evil debutante. I pull out my cell phone with shaky hands. God, I'd love a cigarette right now. And a double shot of shitty whiskey. Instead, I dial my sponsor's phone number and take a deep breath through my nose. Tears stab my eyes: in AA, this is called "being in self pity" when the ideal state is "being in gratitude."

I am less-than-grateful when my call goes straight to voicemail.

"Mika," I mumble. "This is Helen. Please call me back, you have my number." It's a colossal let-down, hanging up. One more depressing stamp on the letter to Pathetic Town. All this, plus my sponsor won't answer my calls. I mean, it's not like I call all the time -- just every month or so, to remind myself that I'm supposed to be "celebrating sobriety" and living "one day at a time" and that at least one person cares if I get shitfaced and jump in front of a city bus.* Actually, with my recent transition from Fancy Society Wife to Semi-Divorced Single Mother Coffee Slave AKA Nobody, it feels like Mika is my only friend ... which is probably unrealistic, but then I have never really felt comfortable with reality.

*Which how I got to rehab in the first place. I knew you were curious.

As though God is mocking me, the #20 city bus goes by, leaving a ribbon of pollution in its wake. Mmm, biodiesel stinkiness. I thumb through my contact list, but keep landing on my parents. Shit. May as well bite the bullet; at the very least it will give me ONE MORE DELIGHTFUL REASON to keep feeling sorry for myself.

My mother picks up on the first ring.

"Hi," I say, and before she can even read me the riot act, I burst into full-on donkey sounding sobs. "I don't want to do this anymore," I honk out.

"Sweetie," my mother says, and although I know she doesn't completely mean it and I'll probably get in trouble with her later and she's just saving up her complaining for a time when I'm not totally fragile and shattered and cut open like this goddamn tire that has my whole life falling apart like it was a rift in the time/space continuum or something, I cry and cry and tell her where I am and my dad's on the way and Atty is eating some noodles for dinner, so just don't worry about it, sweetie.

Just don't worry about it.

CHAPTER FOUR: THE NOTE

There's a spit-out wad of gum on the curb next to me, with a few grains of glass glinting in it. The gum, which is an unnatural shade of blue (the kind that dyes your teeth, tongue, and probably pancreas too), keeps catching my eye, which quickly starts to piss me off. I don't have time for this. I should be at my parents' house by now, arguing with my mother and putting off her one millionth suggestion about: moving in, looking for a better job, finding alternative childcare, how's the not-drinking thing going, and shouldn't you be moving forward on your divorce papers?*

*answers: 1. NO. 2. There aren't better jobs. 3. With what money? Plus he's your grandson. 4. It's called AA. 5. Last week you were all about reconciliation, and now you think I should squeeze him for alimony? Mom, you are the Queen of Mixed Messages, and as much as I appreciate the grudging support you've given me, I think you should go fuck yourself.

The note. There's a note under the windshield. I slide it out, my hands shaking. I don't want to be here. My head throbs with too many thoughts at once (sobbing, swearing, screaming). I can't seem to catch my breath. I open the note. It's thin, the fold in it crisp as a dry-cleaner's pleat. The handwriting isn't what I'd expect. It's not Dr. Ben's.*

*Is it just me or do doctors intentionally have bad handwriting, like to boost their credibility or something? Maybe it's because they secretly hate pharmacists.

No, the letters are smooth and round, the kind of cursive you learn in 4th grade with all the loops and dots in exactly the right places. A woman's handwriting. Unsigned, of course, but she wrote the date in the top right corner like it was a business note.

SELFISH CUNT, it said.

Of course there was no signature.

CHAPTER THREE: CRAZY

so "how could this get worse?" always seems to end up being a rhetorical question. i close up the plywood shades at job#1, zip the day's earnings into the vinyl bank pouch, stuff the measly bills from the tip jar into my purse, and walk to where i think i parked my car.

this should take 5 minutes. i can do it with my eyes closed, practically. i am thinking for like one blissful second* not about my shitty life situation but about atty. atty, who is two and smells like warm milk, who has my dad's green eyes and the softest baby curls. this morning when i dropped him off at my parents' house he was still asleep so i just laid him on the sofa and covered him with a blankie. kiss on the cheek light-as-feathers so he wouldn't wake up. it's a cliche (all motherhood is cliche, i learned that in college) but my heart really did ache as i slipped out on him. anna karenina: i feel you, girl.

*and the thing is when my mind wanders it's like i don't even see what's in front of me. it's like my brain is a single-screen movie theater showing the same home movies over and over again. so as i'm thinking of atty (sleeping atty, laughing atty, atty with yogurt in his hair) that's all i see, literally, in front of my eyes. the rest of my body goes on cruise control. i call this "time traveling" and it can take me over for hours, zoning out. dr. ben used to slap his hands together right under my nose to snap me out of it, demand to know what i was thinking.*

*FYI: usually the wrong thing, in case you wondered.

so i time-travel along the sidewalk, one hand on my cell and my mind on my kid, and it takes me a minute to see that my car not only has a slashed tire but also a neatly folded sheet of baby-pink paper under the windshield wiper. the ruined tire has more than one gash in it, long ugly cuts straight out of a horror flick that actually wrap around the wheel, the rubber cut open and the edges of each cut furling and feathering little pieces of shredded black tread that stinks of petroleum and asphalt. i kneel down on the curb, trying to reconcile my dreamy state of mind with this turn of events. it seems like nonsense. like a cartoon, almost. somebody with a big knife and a bone to pick did this, for sure: not a random on-a-dare kind of thing. this is not punctured it is STABBED.

my hands start to shake. up the street, down the street, nobody looking at me or noticing me down in the gutter. (figures.) plenty of shoppers but nobody i know, which at this moment could be described as a mixed blessing.

CHAPTER TWO: FAILURE

like an idiot i called my mother on my way to job#1*. It's still impossible to tell if she screens her calls or what, because she picks up halfway through my message, every time. doesn't ask about therapy. "are you smoking?" she sniffs. "atty has been asking where his mommy is."

*job#1: a cutesy pie-and-coffee cart in the shopping district where i used to spend ben's money with gleeful abandon. my tips barely cover my newly acquired therapy habit, and now i eye my patrons' birkin bags and judge them for being so stingy. if this is karma, I resent it.

and i wince, because I can hear atty* in the background, the clatter of plastic trucks on hardwood floors, and i miss him so hard that i actually feel a grinding lump in my belly as though i swallowed a whole pan of brownies with lead pellets in them instead of walnuts. ulp.

*yeah, his name is atty, short for atticus, as in finch, and it's bad but better than jayden, aiden, or cayden. at least he's not ben jr.

"how is he?" i ask, but my mom ignores me. i can hear her frowning. on her end, the microwave starts to beep like a detonating bomb.
"i don't see why you need three jobs," she says, for about the millionth time since i moved out of dr. ben's house and got my ass in gear. "why can't you just live with us? no rent. and you could actually raise your son instead of expecting other people to pick up the slack."
i take my phone away from my ear and growl, softly, so she can't hear me. then, a deep breath. is it even fucking possible to have a civil conversation with her? why does she just pick on me all the time? when dr. ben emailed* my parents to tell them what i'd done, she called me right away and, i kid you not, asked why i couldn't just keep my twat zipped. and i quote. one more deep breath.
"mom," i say. "i am so grateful for everything you've done for me. this is a big transition in my life, and your support means a lot. it's not permanent."
but she's not buying it. "maybe you should learn to stop putting yourself first, helen," she snaps. "the world doesn't revolve around you."
"no shit," i mutter, and hang up before i'm tempted to mouth off. she drives me crazy, but i need the help. and the money. i hate depending on my parents for anything -- that's one of the reasons i was so quick to sign on the dotted line and become mrs. dr. ben.

*yes, he actually did this. after he'd read my emails and plundered my phone records, and found evidence of my trysts with david, the jilted wounded and bitter dr. ben composed a tell-all email to my parents, sister, grandparents, and best friends to share the details of my transgressions. can i add: this is before he worked up the balls to confront me about it, or inform me that he wanted a divorce. this is sort of like being dumped by facebook status update. he changed his mind later, but at that point i already hated him too much to go back.

on the upside, compared to my conversation with my mother, job#1 was a piece of cake. latte after latte, dried out pastry. clockwork. also, the upside of working in a coffee cart: no nagging coworkers. so maybe i had a surly look on my face, but nobody mentioned it. plus: although the downside of working a scut job in a trendy part of town is that i do occasionally see people i knew from my dr. ben life, the great thing about physically being INSIDE A TINY SHED ON WHEELS is that i'm basically in a fort the whole time, and yes, i hide in there.

except when, you know, the individual in question* comes galloping up with her new burberry blazer and LV satchel and her horse face, happy to see me (at least happy to see me in this reduced condition) and puts her designer fucking bag on my cart counter and i shit you not she actually fucking GIGGLES and (totally not kidding here) twirls a strand of her fake-ass blonde weave around her manicured finger, pulling it just far enough aside that i can not only see the giant yurman studs in her ears but the matching cocktail ring on her bony finger, and she grins, showing her big bleached horse teeth and whinnies, "helen! OMG! what are you doing in there, girl? drop your cappuccino?"

*her name was kiki, of course. got her MBA from Harvard and now spends all day shopping and sucking dick (legally, of course: they're married). kiki is a dime a dozen in dr. ben world: overeducated, insecure, pilates private instruction, fake tits, trips to bali. urgh.

and i put on my biggest fakest screw-you grin and i'm like "actually i live in here, kiki! i look pretty good for a homeless chick, huh!"
and she gets all confused, still smiling, god her teeth are so long you could like project a hitchcock film onto them, you'd be able to see kim novak falling all ten stories, past jimmy stewart's horrified gawp and the corpse landing somewhere on kiki's bloated pink tongue. and while she's swallowing nervous and uptight, trying to think of what to say, i feel a little sorry for her because i was that dumb just a couple months ago, stuck in the dreamworld, so i laugh in a less cruel way and say "just kidding" and her whole body relaxes and what truly turns my guts is that she actually believed me, at least for a second, and my absence in dr. ben land is recorded and judged by the people i used to know, and i touch my hair, my unwaxed eyebrows, and think, jesus do i look homeless? because 90% of the time i feel i am.

kiki gets kind of shifty, fumbles with her purse strap. "so, uhm, do you have nonfat milk?" she asks, and i'm like, no shit, this bitch is actually going to treat me like a coffee-making servant. but i put on a big smile, imagining a big fat pity-tip, and say "yep!" in my most helpful voice. "like you even need nonfat, girl. you are slim."
she simpers, and then, in the evil robot voice that all people use when they order their fucking high maintenance coffees, she zips out, "quad grande nonfat dry cappuccino, 185 degrees, ristretto shots."
and i don't bother to explain that 185 degree milk is scalded and won't hold decent foam, and that it's impossible to get that much liquid into a 16 oz cup and i know she's just going to dump splenda in it and won't be able to fucking taste anything, but it's this weird ritual people have with their coffee, just ordering it makes them feel like they got what they wanted. so despite my better judgment, i scald the fucking fat-free milk and pull the tiny ristretto shots* and dump the whole thing in a paper cup. it's $4. she hands me a $5. and keeps the one dollar difference. the cunt didn't tip me.

*every time somebody orders ristretto i hear this super-snotty voice gargling out, "you can REALLY TASTE THE BEAN." what crap. they only drink lattes because they like hot milk: basically, this country is a bunch of titty-loving babies, all sucking hot milk out of paper cups.

"it was swell to see you, helen!" she nickers over her shoulder. "i'll be back!"
probably with friends in tow. and their twitter accounts, facebook updates, the whole gossip mill come to feed on my misery. i put my head on the counter. fuck. my pussy is shooting itchy flames through my loins. the tip jar is empty. what could possibly make today worse?

CHAPTER ONE: PAIN

so i found myself in therapy, post-divorce, with no job, no money, and a raging yeast infection. let the party begin. my therapist: dumpy, wearing lots of big-bead necklaces and sensible clogs, made notes w/ colored pen, a few years older than my mother*
*my mother: who of course blamed everything on me because i was the one who cheated, did she do something wrong? did she fail as a parent?

so i was sitting there trying not to scratch my sensible cotton panties and also trying to articulate my deep, spiritual dissatisfaction. and at the same time i was not going to admit fault, just in case for some reason the therapy records ended up as court evidence, like on TV and i'm giving the rundown on, like, who i am and shit, which is awful if you've ever done it, intake appointments are the absolute worst and then i thought, holy shit this is like some kind of fucked up game show. except that there is no prize for answering the question WHY.

meet our lovely contestant helen clay, formerly mrs. doctor ben hannibal* of portland, oregon, USA, where it rains all the time ... miss clay is working three menial coffee jobs and taking a monthly handout from her parents because the prick won't pay child support.

*no shit, dr. ben hannibal was his real name! benjamin. what a knob.
in our game of Lifetime Loser, miss clay is ahead: single mother below the poverty line, and bitter as fuck. did i mention i'm a drunk, too?

yeah, this is a funny story, i tell the goggle-eyed therapist. the dear doctor and i met in rehab. no shit. he's an addictions specialist. we were perfect for each other. i mean, the minute i shared about being raped by my neighbor, and the emotional fallout, i knew he was mine.
and the therapist is like, "you guys sound a little codependent." i can see she's itching to give me a helpful pamphlet. anything, any cheerful piece of paper that will deflect the bitter shitstorm that won't stop blasting from my Camel-scented lips.
and i'm like, no shit, he finger-banged me in the treatment room when he was supposed to be renewing my valium prescription.
and then i get all nervous and say, "maybe we should strike that from the record," because i'm thinking about court again. evidence. but she just writes something down with her purple pen, draws a box around it, and asks if i still love him. at which point i start to cry.
because when i said that i'm post-divorce i lied. i am actually mid-divorce, mid-breakup, mid-nervous breakdown. i am barely hanging on. and the fact is that going from spoiled trophy wife to 12-hour-workday un-wife is wearing on me. i kind of wish i still loved him.
and i kind of wish he loved me, but in a different non-codependent way, so we could just do things better all over again. but when i say this to the therapist, she tells me that i'm experiencing magical thinking, which is a major part of codependency.

"pain," she says, "happens because we can't accept or move through an emotion that has ensnared us," and i'm like, it's pretty easy to say that from the comfort of your leather fucking IKEA sofa, but i don't say it out loud, i just snuffle into a kleenex. so it's like a totally humiliating moment of pathetic self-indulgence, which is intolerable as this goddamn yeast infection and as unctuous so to make myself feel better i jam the kleenex in my pocket, pull out my Camels, and slide my sunglasses over my eyes. and i'm bulletproof.

"pain is what happens when life forgets to use lube when it fucks you in the ass," i tell the therapist. "if you'll excuse me, i have work."

not my best exit line, but you should have seen the look on her face. like somebody gave Queen Victoria a titty twister. worth the copay.