CW: abuse, eating disorders, stalking, violence, drinking, and drug use
Ether | Nonfiction
Summer 2013. I’m throwing up whenever I brush my teeth.
The internet suggests that I am brushing too far back and hitting my gag reflex. But that’s impossible because I don’t have any twelve-year molars. My teeth stop abruptly, a huge gap where others have bones.
When I brush, the toothpaste flavor slides down my throat, the mint noxious as I panic and gag. Sometimes I only heave up spit. Sometimes, it’s dinner.
On the phone, Mom says, “Anxiety. It’s stress. You just need to relax.”
She’s right, although I don’t want to admit it. Often, I feel anxiety physically first: a clenched jaw or a stomach ache before I’ve had a conscious anxious thought.
I joke, “Guess I have PTSD.”
In addition to my panicked puking, I’ve been having dreams about my former neighbor, Nate. Nightmares where I run from my quiet friend as he changes into a gaunt zombie and he reaches for me, ghoul-eyed, and begging for my acknowledgment.
In the comfort of daylight, when I know I’m safe, and I can remind myself that he doesn’t know where I live, I say to Peter, my boyfriend, “I dreamt about Nate again last night.”
I act as if the memory of Nate’s drug-induced madness merely grosses me out. Though there is nothing funny about the longest month. The month I slept with a hammer on my nightstand. The month where I woke in the middle of the night to what could’ve been either laughter or screams and held the hammer to my chest while I peeked through the blinds, certain I would see his lanky form walking up the rickety steps towards my barricaded kitchen door, flimsy chair hitched under the knob.
Peter buys me Draino and pours it down the sink, not saying a word about my vomit clog. He knows the weird grossness embarrasses me. I’ve pushed him out of the bathroom when I had to wash down the chunks floating near the drain in a mix of toothpaste, acid, and spit.
Peter doesn’t bring the subject up unless I do. He wasn’t living with me when everything happened. We were states apart, and I downplayed Nate’s behavior in our phone calls and text messages because there was nothing that Peter could do. I downplayed how scared I was, the look in Nate’s eyes. I didn’t tell Peter about Nate licking my window and laughing maniacally and I had laughed when I told him about the head-to-toe plaid ensemble that Nate referred to as “camouflage.”
Long-distance is hard enough without your girlfriend telling you that she thinks she might be in mortal peril.
Draino contains sodium hydroxide, a corrosive material often used in the making of crystal meth.
Nate is a neat freak. His apartment smells like window cleaner and Febreze and thick marijuana smoke. He is always holding out the pipe to me, asking if I want some. I decline every time. I like weed, but I don’t mix it with alcohol. And it’s Fall 2012, when I always have alcohol in my hand if it’s after five. It’s my second year of grad school, and I’m having a hard time adjusting to living far away.
“I keep it really clean in here,” he tells me, a few times. “I like it really clean. Ever since I had my son. When his mom left. When he was little. I kept it clean when he was littler.”
His Mississippi accent slows as the laborious inhales begin to hit him. His eyes rim with pink and become glassy. His son, Little Nate, doesn’t live with him but is mentioned every day. Nate is in the middle of a custody battle, the details of which are only ever alluded to.
I see Little Nate once in the Wal-Mart in South Haven. My neighbors/friends and I decide to throw a Halloween party on our enclosed patio, and Nate says we should all go to Mississippi to buy party decorations. He claims they’re cheaper in rural Mississippi than they are in Memphis. Really, we go there because he knows his kid is going to be there. Three of us figure this out when Little Nate joins our shopping party, a small child appearing and hugging Nate like they haven’t seen each other in a while.
I wonder if this means that Nate isn’t allowed to see him unless they’re in public places.
Little Nate hugs Nate’s denim legs while I hold glittery skulls and rubber eyeballs out to the boy. He looks just like Nate. He laughs and says they’re not scary at all. I agree. Halloween merchandise isn’t scary, merely rubber formed into gore.
We load up the cart with electric candles, fake pumpkins, cotton stretch webbing, and hollow plastic chains and bones. I find a skull with fake dark hair and red pinpoint eyes that glow. The plastic face drops down on a string and yells nonsensical warnings, its eyes blink and its mouth, with clacking blown teeth, says, “Turn away! Nothing awaits you but bad things!”
Ether is a numbing agent.
I like to listen to “When Under Ether” by P.J. Harvey while drinking alone in my apartment. This is my first time living by myself, without family or roommates, and being from a big family, I’m bored.
If no one is on the patio, then there is no one to talk to, so I stay inside, chain-smoking and chugging bourbon. I watch a lot of cable TV at a low volume to help my apartment feel filled with people.
Perhaps, while I’m listening to P.J. Harvey sing about ether, Nate is in his hot apartment, with the heat all the way up, shivering.
I’m nineteen and in a community college anatomy class. Muscles drawings of skinless human bodies display their circulation, like red string.
I put some iodine on my hand as part of a class experiment. The brown liquid dries and highways of white lines stretch from my wrist to my fingertips. The whole class blows on their lifelines, love lines, luck lines.
The teacher says, “Sometimes people are allergic to iodine. Usually, if they’re allergic to shellfish.”
I look down again, wishing she had said something earlier. Red hives have already formed on the palm of my hand and up my forearm. I scratch, making my skin streak redder, and get up to wash my hands.
In the second semester of this class, I dissect a sheep heart. I gross my lab partner out by pushing my finger up through the rubbery aorta and wiggling it like a gruesome puppet. The heart smells like formaldehyde and is slick like a pickle.
I think, for the first time, about our fragile insides. I think about how we use a flimsy word like “tissue” to describe necessary parts. What would happen if one valve didn’t close the right way? How easily one can break a bone, break the skin.
My purses are filled with scorched matchbooks from the pub Celtic Crossing, the logo sits atop a green foil Celtic knot. I go there every Sunday night with Nate’s roommate, Greta.
Nate’s in AA so he never goes to “Celtic Sunday” but he will converse with us afterward while we all smoke cigarettes on our shared patio.
I’ll stumble back from the bar, plopping down drunk in a cushioned patio chair. The matchbooks form a little stack on the table in front of me. I pull out cigarette after cigarette, each resting in the corner of my mouth while I woozily struggle with the matches, trying to get the red phosphorous to ignite.
I talk around the filter about cigarette etiquette, “With a lighter, you light the other person’s cig first, but with a match, you light yours first because it tastes like sulfur.”
If I struggle with a match for long enough, Nate will root around in the pocket of his paint-stained jeans and hand me his Bic.
Some night’s he’ll sit out while the rest of us drink, with his hands in his pockets and his eyes darting around.
“Any of y’all got a cigarette?” he’ll say.
He used to have cigarettes with him all the time, but he can’t afford to buy them anymore.
I wait in line at the CVS with Greta. She complains about a minor disagreement she’s having with her boyfriend, Mark. I look at the enormous line of people forming behind the counter. Flu season. Children bury their runny noses in the wool shoulders of their mothers.
In front of us, an older woman with white hair fills a prescription for cough medicine. The pharmacist makes her answer a series of questions that sound serious but that I cannot hear. She signs a piece of paper.
“Why does she have to sign that?” I ask Greta, under my breath. I have never seen this before.
“Memphis has a huge meth problem,” Greta says.
I look at her, confused.
Greta supplies, “People use cough medicine to make meth.”
I don’t know for sure when Nate started smoking meth, but my guess is Cooper Young Fest 2012.
Nate, Greta, Mark and I live in an apartment complex called Millie’s Place where everyone knows everyone and hangs out together like a segmented family. I live alone, but I’m close with my neighbors. A newspaper article referred to us as the Melrose Place of Cooper Young, a trendy midtown spot surrounded by bars.
Most nights we sit and talk on the patio for hours. We play games. We make dinners together, contributing different ingredients and trading off kitchens and plates.
Our apartment is the only residence in the immediate area. Because of this, we’re accustomed to clinking bar sounds, Journey, and the sight of people stumbling back from Celtic Crossing, Young Avenue Deli, or Tsunami and peering through the gate that fences in the patio.
Sometimes we feel like zoo animals. We get bombarded by drunks who clutch the bars and yell through them, “Can we come in and party with y’all?”
We’ve had difficulty explaining to drunk people that this is our home. They see us nestled between so many drinking spots with our music, the cooler, and the fire pit and feel invited. But this is like our backyard, we live here. We pay rent to party here for free.
Each year, thousands of people swarm the intersection of S. Cooper Street and Young Avenue. Vendors, food trucks and artists set up vans, tents, and kiosks. They line the streets like teeth.
At Millie’s, we grill burgers and invite people we know to come behind the gate and look on at the clogged artery of festival goers ambling with cotton candy and Pronto Pups covered in yellow mustard.
This year, my neighbors and I are on a bender. We’ve ventured out of the safety of the patio only to get funnel cakes or walk off the booze. The day starts with bloody marys and ends with shot-gunned beers, fizz spraying out as each of us stab open a can with a gleaming key.
Nate continues not to drink and we make sure he feels included with sodas and jokes. His brother Sam is visiting. Sam has just gotten out of jail. He sits on the couch in Nate and Greta’s apartment, leaning all the way back, head back. His legs in baggy jeans are spread apart, each knee pointing to the opposite wall. He looks at the ceiling as we go in and out of the bathroom or the kitchen, to pee or refresh our drinks.
Sam doesn’t speak or interact with any of us. I think Nate must’ve given him some very good weed. Or maybe he’s shy, afraid of crowds.
Nate is in a strangely good mood today. He’s more energetic and talkative. As we walk through the throng of people Nate grins from behind his aviator sunglasses. I know his eyes are pot-glassy behind the dark lenses, but when he takes them off, they’re strange, intense.
He asks if I will take a picture of him with a person in a big alligator suit—the mascot for some local company. I take the photo. He grins and sweats next to the felt face.
I’m on the patio chatting with Greta. Somehow the conversation has wound around to mixing ammonia and bleach. She says she made that mistake when she was a teenager. She passed out and the family cat nudged open the bathroom door with his head and meowed her awake.
“That cat saved my life,” she says.
I think about Meatball. The cat that Nate and his former girlfriend, Kayla, gave me. They took him in but he didn’t get along with their other cat, so they gave him to me. Meatball is gray and fat and I love him instantly.
After Kayla broke up with Nate, she sat on the floor of my apartment and smoked Camel Crushes. Her eyes reddened from crying; he called her several times but she shut the phone off. She said, “I’m 23, I’m too young to be somebody’s mother. I’m so tired of taking care of him.”
I see her a few times after that, but she rarely comes back to Millie’s because she doesn’t want to talk to, or see, Nate. Sometimes she comes into my apartment to visit Meatball who bumps her hand with his soft head. This is his chief sign of affection.
Nate comes up to my apartment to visit Meatball once. He scoops Meatball into his arms, and the cat claws him and wriggles his large body out of Nate’s hold.
Shortly after Cooper Young Fest, Nate presents Greta with a small black kitten that he has named Bandit. After he’s committed and released for the second time Greta starts spending the night at my place. She waits for the sound of Nate’s car squealing out of the lot and then sneaks back to her apartment to check on the kitten.
We have noticed that Nate built a little fort for Bandit out of boxes and blankets. We worry that if we take Bandit away, Nate will be angry with us. We worry he will attack.
I’m drunk, and I’ve cut my thumb open on a can of Meatball’s food. Blood drips all over the floor and spatters the tub and sink. The pain is sharp, pushing me out of my lull. A bleeding mouth grins from my digit. I pour alcohol on it, wince and cry.
I go to bed with my thumb throbbing inside a glob of gory paper towels and flesh-colored bandages.
The next day, I change the bandage and the wound is still seeping dark red blood. I go to the hospital where they wrap it tightly and make me hold it over my head. A half hour later they glue it shut.
They ask me when I cut my thumb.
“About two in the morning,” I say.
“And you cut it on…?”
“A can of cat food,” I say, staring at the glue. The dried clear glob makes the cut look like lips pressed against a glass window.
They laugh at me.
“What were you doing opening a can of cat food at two in the morning?”
I don’t tell them that I was drunk when it happened, but I’m sure they were able to figure that much out for themselves.
Nate is all red. His neck is red, his skin, his eyes, his gums. When I think of him, I think red.
Right before Cooper Young Fest, he calls me into his apartment to ask for my help. I follow him into his ammonia-scented bathroom, and he asks me to help him shave the back of his neck.
He says, “Kayla used to do this for me before she left. I can’t do it myself.”
I laugh, uncomfortable, and run the razor over his pink skin. The surface of his neck angers, irritated.
I do a bad job because I rush.
He laughs, blushing redder, and thanks me.
I say, “No problem,” before escaping to the patio, wondering why I couldn’t say no.
The night after Nate’s brother got arrested, Nate, Greta, Mark and Nate’s friend, Justin, and I sit on the patio and laugh. We play Battleship. We get drunk in front of Nate. He buys beer at the CVS for us that he doesn’t drink. He paces, his eyes bulging. He’s angry at the cops for arresting his brother Sam.
Justin slurs his thick accent around the metal lip of his tall boy, “Let it go, Dude. Just let it go.”
Nate rants. For the first time, I see his angry side. He says the cops are pigs. Power hungry motherfuckers. He shakes.
I put on the song “Thrift Shop” because I know he likes it.
I say, “Dance it out, dude. It’s gonna be ok.”
I pat him on the arm and he half smiles.
Greta cheers as she recognizes the song. She and I sing.
We all shimmy. Cigarettes cling to our lips. Nate grins a wide smile at us.
We erupt with that burst of energy that happens right before the party ends.
Greta and I decide to try to find a house and move in together. This decision is motivated by fear. We need to get away from Nate.
We get drunk every night, gut scared and trying to numb it. Each day we go to work and look for houses and apartments on our breaks. Each night we hide in my one bedroom in a stupor of bourbon and cigarettes. The lights are low, the TV flickers, chairs wedged up under the doorknobs. The window is cracked but the blinds are drawn.
Meatball perches placidly on the edge of the couch, tapping his tail on my shoulder.
Stuffed ashtrays spill gray onto the hardwood floor. My hammer leans against the baseboard, waiting to be necessary.
“He’s never gonna see his kid again,” Greta says.
Greta and I sit on the patio voicing our concerns about Nate’s mounting paranoia for the first time; we had been noticing little things for a while but hadn’t shared them with one another.
Metal grinds. Nate pokes his head out from behind the screen door of their apartment and says, “Uh, can y’all come in here a minute?”
We are prepared to roll our eyes at his pot head concerns like we have done for a few weeks. Like when he refused to pump gas at a particular gas station because it wasn’t safe, or when he asked Mark to close his laptop while he talked about the cops and the election.
We follow Nate to his bedroom and he turns and holds out a red, felt, heart-shaped box in his shaking hand.
“This is the box where I put Kayla’s ring when I asked her to marry me. I threw this away. Someone has been breaking in here and putting stuff back for me to find.”
He pulls open the closet and its contents tumble out like entrails. He picks up a torn flag from the ground. “I threw this away. I threw this all away. Someone is breaking in here just to fuck with me. They’re putting it all back!”
His closet pukes clothes and he pulls objects out of the pile with trembling hands. He explains the significance of each thing, and when he threw them away and how he knows he threw them away and he begs us to tell him why they are here. Have we seen anybody strange around? He says he was involved with drug dealing in his teens, and now gang members are after him.
For a minute, I believe him. Then the irrationality mounts.
He stands in a pile of objects and fabric that only has significance to him. Paper is taped to the walls, menacing notes for imaginary people. The red heart box in his hand vibrates, seeming to ignite in a fiery blur. He yanks the heart open and inside is an illegible threat quivering on a crinkled piece of paper.
“This is so they know.”
The shadows I have seen at the corners of his eyes sharpen into focus. They’re no longer pothead paranoia, but tangible threats. He pulls a box cutter out of his pocket and says, “When I find out who’s been doing this. I trust you guys but when I find out.”
I think that he won’t hurt the kitten, and I pick Bandit up from where he has been rubbing against my legs. Bandit mews from under the constraint of my fastened arms. The box-cutter blade slashes the air and I pull the small bones wrapped in fur closer to my chest. The kitten purrs, oblivious. We try to talk him down.
We experience a long month before we move. A month where Nate breaks into Greta’s bedroom and sifts through her drawers for answers in the middle of the night. A month where he bangs on my door and rants at me, asks why I’m shaking. A month where I can’t sleep until I’m drunk, and in between these strange occurrences, fear becomes normal. My life is now adrenaline, coursing like a vein under the monotony of work, class, meals.
That night he rails at our landlord, a former cop, long enough to be committed. After they take him away, Greta and I go to Celtic and get very drunk and sleep peacefully in our own apartments for the last time.
He goes voluntarily, so they have no choice but to release him the next day. He goes again a week later and is released again. And in between, he pounds his fists on doors, licks windows, never sleeps, cuts the string lights on the patio, smokes and paces and ashes on my kitchen floor.
In between, I shove chairs under the front and back doors and make tall stacks of empty cat food cans by the chairs. I keep the blinds shut, smoke through cracked windows. I sleep with the TV on and learn the infomercials.
He enters my dreams, and he wakes me up in the morning. I drunk sleep, I wake headache, upright. Get to work. Find a new place to live. I jump at the sound of the train, it becomes too loud.
Greta and I sleep in the bed, Mark sleeps on the couch, by the hammer, just in case. Some nights we switch, take shifts, laugh that we are taking shifts and calling it that too. We go see a blue house and I’m scared of its old walls; malevolence can be anywhere. We move in, I dream my first haunting dream. I care if the closet door is open or closed. I check locks.
I am supposed to be safe now. I live in the blue house. Greta, Mark, and Bandit sleep in one bedroom and Peter, Meatball, and I in the other. We keep odd hours, and this comforts me because I heard once that it’s harder for people to “case the joint” when no one keeps a regular schedule.
There’s a rash of break-ins in the neighborhood and I wonder if I’m not scared because I’m always scared. Nate still enters my dreams, Nate still wakes me up.
When I think of that night, I feel my finger in the aorta of a sheep heart, I remember the words soft tissue, and I smell the tinny smell of blood.
Maggie Mumford teaches English at a rural community college in VA. She has an MFA from the University of Memphis, where she worked at The Pinch as assistant editor of Creative Nonfiction. Her short story “The Flying Circus” received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train. This is her first publication.