Post Road Magazine #16

Little Orange Bottles

by Jeremy Rice

1.

My girlfriend and I are leaving the university at around five in the afternoon. We’re tired, stressed about homework, already thinking about dinner, when the cell phone jumps and squeals in my lap. It’s my older brother, Kyle, his voice loud, filling my head. “Jeremy. Do you know about Mom?” My blood freezes. Kyle tells me how he went to visit her the day before, drove the hour and a half from his apartment in Hendersonville, North Carolina, to our parents’ isolated cabin on the Tennessee border. She wasn’t expecting him; they have no phone connected, so he couldn’t call beforehand. She was alone. Our father was working a sixteen-hour shift at a group home for the developmentally disabled. “She was going to OD, man,” Kyle says, voice cold and clear. “I came in and she had the pills all lined up on the table. Said she’d been planning it for days.” I think of Kyle in his khaki shorts, his short hair, veins in his forehead moving as he chews gum. What did he do when he got there? Did he shout? Did he cry? Was he embarrassed? Did part of him want to just walk away and get back in his car? He tells me she had already started eating the Xanax, had taken eight milligrams: enough to fuck her up, but not enough to hurt her. She let Kyle drive her back to Hendersonville, to the ER. From there they transferred her up to the third floor, the psychiatric ward. I think of the car ride. Did they talk? Did she sleep? Did he put on some music, something soothing? Was he scared? “It’s a good thing I came when I did,” he says, “Or else . . .”

“Yeah, good thing,” I say, but I can hear the echo of my voice, and it’s hollow. I pinch the phone to my ear so hard it hurts, and I think about the pain, see my earlobe turning pink. I think of Kyle, probably sitting on the edge of his bed. Did he have to prepare to make this call, pace his bedroom, sigh, and smooth his pants? Is he holding a drink against his knee? Or a mug of green tea? Maybe he popped a Xanax himself to calm down.

“It’s visiting night tonight,” Kyle says. “Can you come?” My girlfriend, Maggie, driving the car, is looking at me strangely. I breathe for a few moments. “I’m sorry. I just can’t. I’ve got too much work.”

I hang up and clench my fists and my body. For whole minutes I can’t talk, can’t tell Maggie, who stares at me, what happened. I go home and sit in the rocking chair, body still clenched, tell Maggie I don’t want to talk about it. She doesn’t know what to do: hugs me, rubs my shoulders, looks stunned and helpless. I tell her I don’t want to talk, and I make myself a drink, and another, and another, and I go to sleep.

2.

I can’t remember exactly how old I was. Around eight or nine, because that’s when I played basketball for the recreation league, and I remember I had a game that night. I remember cold, slicing rain. And that our car brakes were shot. We lived near the summit of a three-thousand-foot mountain, and to get to the gymnasium in the town below, Dad drove the blue Pontiac like a bullet down the mountain, whipping around curves at sixty, his right hand yanking and releasing the emergency brake between our seats—the only way to slow the car.

Everybody else had already gone to bed when Dad and I returned home—my mother; my older brother, Kyle, who would have been about eleven; and my younger brother, Alex, who would have been about five. I didn’t have a bedroom—I slept in the den until it flooded one winter, destroying most of my clothes and my baseball card collection—so I curled up on the couch in the living room, a hideous, scratchy green-and-orange thing that had been made in the seventies. The slats of the couch were broken, and jagged springs bit into your back if you lay on it wrong. I padded it with egg carton foam.

I don’t know what time it was when Dad woke me up, his leathery hand touching my back. I remember he looked scared, his brown eyes hard and wide in the dark, and I felt scared in reflex. Dad was the one who made me feel safe, who sat me on his knee and scratched my head with his fingertips, who made me hot tea with lemon and played chess after dinner, who came home from work mutt tired yet still summoned enough energy to play H-O-R-S-E with me on creaking knees. I didn’t always feel safe with Mom, who spent more time in the hospital than at home; who had totaled the car; who one day would slip love notes into my lunch box with homemade brownies and play Uno for hours on the floor, and the next would sit on the porch, gray faced, like a statue, smoking cigarette after cigarette, swatting away my questions like mosquitoes. Now, for once, Dad looked uncertain.

“Your mom’s making strange noises,” he said. “Snoring real loud, like a buffalo.” He looked over his shoulder in the direction of the bedroom. “She usually doesn’t make noises like that.”

I don’t know why he woke me, what he expected me to say, and I don’t know if I said anything.

“I’m just going to sit up in here for a while,” Dad said, and I smelled coffee brewing in the kitchen, then felt his presence in the armchair beside the couch as I drifted back to sleep.

I woke again in a cold terror. Blinding blue and red lights flashed against the plate glass windows in the living room, flooded over the carpet and my blankets. It took me a moment to realize that I was not dreaming, and I sat upright against the arm of the couch, clutching a blanket over my chest. Then loud, strange voices and thudding boot steps filled the house, and I watched them wheel my mother outside on a stretcher. I can’t remember my father saying anything, but his face was twisted horribly and he was moaning like a dying animal.

I don’t remember much of the following week. I know I visited my mother in the ER, her ashen body still and slack, suspended in a spiderweb of plastic tubes and wires. I listened to the doctors. She had taken a “cocktail” of medications, they said, between seventy and ninety pills: she had outlined them in detail in the note. They didn’t think she would make it, and if she did, we better prepare for brain damage. It was the lithium, they said, that they worried about.

I also remember going to school that morning, sitting through homeroom. I wonder what I was thinking. Was I still seeing the sharp blue lights clattering against the living-room window? Or was I replaying my basketball game, dribbling and driving and leaping toward the basket? They took me out of class and dropped me in the counselor’s office. Miss Livingston. She had a soft voice and laugh wrinkles around her eyes. Bright red lipstick slathered over her warm smile. A plastic bucket of Starbursts perched on the edge of her desk. I remember she told me I was in a safe zone, that I could do anything I wanted in there and not be judged. I could cry if I wanted to. I could stick my head out of the window and scream as loud as I wanted to. Sometimes, she told me, even she liked to stick her head out of the window for a good scream. I nodded and smiled and sucked on the orange Starburst in my cheek. I felt bad. I wanted to cry and scream, like the kind lady expected me to, but I was too scared. I just sat there numb, wishing they would let me go back to class.

Later my best friend, Blake, a small, hyper kid with Brazilian ancestry and jet black hair, asked me why I had been in the counselor’s office. I didn’t want to tell him, but I figured I had to. You’re supposed to tell your best friend everything. “My mom tried to kill herself last night,” I said, my eyes on the carpet. Blake looked at me with awe and disgust. Eventually he told the rest of the class, started the rumor “Jeremy’s mother is a psycho.” Then everybody looked at me with awe and disgust, and at lunch I had to sit and sip my chocolate milk by myself.

3.

Xanax comes in four basic types: your white oval tablets (0.25 mg); your peach oval tablets, scored once (0.5 mg); your blue oval tablets, scored once, known by recreational users as “footballs” (1 mg); and—the jackpot—your white rectangular tablets, scored three times, fondly known as “sticks,” “monkey bars,” and “totem poles,” and a benzo fiend’s wet dream (2 mg). At age sixteen I had bottles and bottles of every form of Xanax, plus other beautiful narcotics such as Klonopin, Ativan, Restoril, and Valium. But Xanax—or “Zanies”—was definitely my drug of choice.

It was also my mom’s drug of choice. She took them PRN, which meant whenever she wanted to, which meant, often, all day long. At Thanksgiving dinner that year, a stuffy, opulent event held at my mother’s sister’s mansion every year and attended by my mother’s entire family, Mom popped about six milligrams’ worth on the car ride over. By the time we got there, her cheek was plastered to the car window. She wobbled around, mumbling incoherent greetings to her wide-eyed, tight-faced relatives, who clucked their tongues and whispered in the kitchen, before she toppled onto the couch and began snoring deeply. My father had to drape her semiconscious body over his shoulder and lug her to a back bedroom to sleep through the entire dinner. We told the family she had a touch of the flu and felt like lying down.

So maybe I started taking Xanax to have a sort of connection with my mom, the way you order Beefeater Gibsons because it is your father’s drink—even though everyone knows your father is an alcoholic.

Or maybe I started taking them because it was just so easy. The pills were literally handed to me. Whenever my mother would have suicidal thoughts, or a psychotic episode where voices told her to hurt herself, my dad would strip the medicine cabinet, toss all her meds—bottles and bottles and bottles and bottles—into a plastic grocery bag. He would knot the loops of the bag and hand it to me, saying, “Hide this.” No one ever asked for the meds back. Every time Mom was admitted into the hospital (on average about twice a month), her doctors would administer her meds and change her prescriptions. Once discharged, she would start fresh at the pharmacy. The old pills would never be needed. By the time I was sixteen, I had probably ten knotted grocery bags, all stuffed with little orange bottles. I kept them all in a duffel bag under my bed.

For the virgin Xanax taker, 0.25 mg is enough to make the edges of your thoughts blurry and—if you take it at night—enough to put you to sleep, probably in less than an hour. One mg is enough to make your whole body relax, make your thoughts float away, and put you to sleep as soon as you lie down and close your eyes. And 2 mg—again, this is for the first-time user—is enough to have your thoughts replaced by a pleasant, quiet hum, and your body embraced by a sheet of cool, gently lapping water. You’ll fall asleep on your back, the pillow soft as down on your cheek, and wake up twelve hours later—from heavy, heavy, dreamless slumber—in the exact same position, feeling as refreshed as if you were emerging into the spring after a winter-long hibernation.

I think maybe I started popping Xanax because of the silence it provided at night: the erasing of my dreams—of the swirling blue and red lights beating against the plate glass—and the erasing of my thoughts, my guilt. At this time I often wrote in my journal about my mother:

I can’t imagine myself going on if she’d offed herself. Though at the same time I can’t help but feel guilty knowing that there are times when every second of her life is pure unbearable agony, and any lesser person would have killed themselves long before, but the one thing keeping her from going all the way, forcing her to withstand this personal torture, is her indescribable love for her family. That’s a lot of fucking pressure. In theory (in my own way of thinking) her suicide WOULD be justified; the very basic right of all people is to take their own life. At the worst times it’s like we’re stringing her out simply out of our own selfishness. Then at the better times it’s evident that we’re doing the right thing, and I’m sure she’d agree—for her sake of living, not just ours. I would die without her.

That year my dad was seriously considering leaving her. On the ride to school, after Mom had been hospitalized following a half-assed overdose, Dad confided in me, “It’s never going to stop. You watch: she’ll kill herself as soon as you and Alex are grown.”

So she was only living—living in misery—because of me? What the fuck do I do with that? I quoted Kurt Vonnegut to myself: “I never asked to be born.” So why did I have this responsibility? Should I tell her “Don’t do it for me”? “Do what you need to do—don’t suffer for me”? A chalky, bitter pill wiped away those questions like a wet rag run over a chalkboard.

I started by taking 0.25 mg a night, then 0.5 mg, then 1 mg. Then I was taking 0.25 mg in the morning before school; leaving class to go to the bathroom in the middle of the day to slide half a totem pole down the crease of my tongue, pressing the distinctly Xanax bitter taste to the roof of my mouth before swallowing, and staring at the chipped mirror in front of me to wait for my reflection to dull; and 1 or 2 mg at bedtime. You build tolerance fast. Within a year of taking the drug, it was not uncommon for me to consume as many as 6 mg in a day.

The drug’s effect on me is evident in my journal. I shifted from anger and despair to numb indifference. At one point my best friend said he had been talking to our teacher about me and that they were really worried, scared that, if the idea struck me one day, I would drop out of school in a second. I wrote that night, “They’re worried about me. That’s pretty funny. Why are they worried? Well, I guess I’m slipping. My grades are abysmal. My apathy is bigger than ever. Well, whatever. I don’t care.” As my Xanax use increased, my grades decreased. In chemistry my grade slid each quarter—98 to 86 to 72 to 54—as I cared less and less. One time I wrote my name at the top of a test and turned it in blank, without even bothering to look at a single question. That night I wrote, “I’m getting pretty bad.”

I always had an urge to write fiction, and I often jotted story ideas in my journal, though I rarely got around to finishing any drafts. One night I penned the following synopsis:

I’ve been working on this story I’m writing about a miracle drug that cures all emotional/psychological afflictions w/o any side effects. The drug is so great that eventually everybody pretends to have some sort of disorder so they can have it prescribed, and the doctors are willing to comply w/ the façade because the drug has no dangers. Naturally, eventually the drug can be bought cheap over the counter and basically everybody in the world is on it. It’s considered a necessity, a staple, like milk and bread. And everybody is happy, and peaceful and basically all war is ended and conflicts are resolved reasonably. Then production of the drug has to cease for whatever reason and everybody just curls up and dies.

I remember being excited enough about the story to actually scribble six or seven pages of a rough draft. Thinking about it now, I wonder what was most appealing about my fictional drug: the somalike peaceful contentment, or the eventual curling up and dying.

4.

Early in my senior year of high school my English teacher, Walt Cottingham, assigned short class presentations on dilemmas. The idea was to introduce a problem without a clear solution, and conduct a brief class discussion on the topic. We were to begin the presentation with some piece of media—a movie clip, newspaper article, or song, for example—that related to our dilemma.

I decided to present the dilemma of suicide. Jack Kevorkian was in the news, and I figured I could incite a heated debate in the classroom, as surely some people would strongly believe in a person’s right to die and some people would strongly oppose that right. I brought in an R.E.M. CD to play the song “Everybody Hurts.” I considered the song to be a silly and fun take on suicide and hoped it would lighten the mood of the presentation.

But when I popped the CD into Cottingham’s little boom box, and Michael Stipe’s voice wafted through the classroom—“When the day is long and the night, the night is yours alone, / When you’re sure you’ve had enough of this life, well hang on. / Don’t let yourself go, everybody cries and everybody hurts sometimes”—I found my head growing heavy and my eyes tearing up. As I looked around the room, I saw my classmates were not snickering or nudging one another, but frowning down at their desks, or looking at me with strange, creased expressions.

My voice quaking, I talked about assisted suicide and opened the discussion to the class. Naturally, we quickly moved to the subject of suicide for people who are not terminally ill patients. Almost the entire class participated. One quiet and isolated girl talked about her tenth-grade boyfriend, who had died from a gunshot wound. The police ruled the death to be a murder, though they never had any convincing suspects, and the girl believed without a doubt that the gunshot had been self-inflicted. One shy boy who had few friends and spoke with a stutter revealed to the class that his best childhood friend had shot himself when he was twelve. And another girl, a good friend of mine, told the story of a family friend, a woman with two kids, who had attempted suicide by jumping from a bridge. She survived but was now crippled forever because of the fall, and she was more miserable than ever. My friend—high voice moving fast, bright pink rising through her face—contended that it would have been better if she had died in the fall. Her kids would have gotten over it eventually, she said, but now they had to live with a suicidal, crippled mother, and that was worse.

Thankfully, the bell rang at the end of my friend’s story, because if forced to speak, I would have burst into tears. My presentation had lasted the entire fifty-minute class period; all other presentations had been between five and ten minutes. As I followed the class silently shuffling out the door, Cottingham handed me a slip of paper that read:

Grade—A. Good song & topic. Nice segue to assisted suicide. Lots of good follow-up questions. I hope you’re OK—I worry about you sometimes when you seem depressed. You have exceptional gifts, but with those can come burdens.

When I was blinking back tears in front of the class, I had been thinking of my mother, but I knew that everybody thought I wanted to kill myself, that my presentation had been a wild plea for something—help, guidance. Just like I was back in elementary school, my classmates acted strange around me. They stuck their heads together and murmured, shook their heads and bit their lips.

A couple days later Cottingham asked if I would talk to him after school. We sat in his classroom, portrait of Churchill on the wall, the desks in familiar disarray. He told me he took special interest in me as a student and a person. He started talking about himself, his battles with depression as a younger man. After a while I began opening up to him, sharing my secrets about my mother’s illness and my own thoughts of death. I told him everything that I couldn’t tell anyone else, especially not my own parents. After we had sat together for nearly an hour, he gripped my shoulder. “The best thing I can tell you,” he said, “is to find passion. Find passion.”

Coincidentally, or not, it was that same week that my parents confronted me about Xanax. They didn’t ask if I was taking it; they asked if I was selling it at school. I guess they wanted to stop my use without having to probe my motivations for using. Mom told me she was missing twenty pills from her bottle in the medicine cabinet. I knew she was lying. I stole directly from the cabinet sometimes—she had unlimited refills and took anywhere from one to six pills a day, plus she had no short-term memory, so her ability to keep track of them was laughable—but I had a reasonable supply stashed in the pencil pouch of my three-ring binder, so I hadn’t skimmed any from her in a long time. Still, the confrontation terrified and humiliated me. I lied and said I hadn’t taken them, and in my head I swore off them forever. The next day I pressed a sandwich bag filled with my entire collection of pills into the palm of a shocked and ecstatic friend (who that night at a party mixed way too many pills with alcohol, suffered terrible hallucinations, and freaked out the entire party before blacking out).

A large part of me was relieved to have to give up Xanax. For a long time I had been worried about the severe memory loss that habitual medicating caused (I still have a very limited memory of that entire period), and how it required higher and higher doses to achieve the same affect. Also, I no longer had an easy ticket out. In the back of my head I had always kept the knowledge that I had enough chemicals to eliminate myself, quietly and painlessly. I could have chosen to simply go to sleep and stay asleep. Recently I had been playing a fantasy through my head almost every day: of walking to this small stream on our property, swallowing a handful of Xanax, and slipping into the water, bobbing on the surface for a while, my arms outstretched, before closing my eyes and letting the water’s cool arms wrap around my body.

Later I found out that my older brother, Kyle—who had for some time been a benzohead himself—had narced on me. One of my friends had told him that I was taking a lot of Xanax, and, fearing for me, he told our mother.

5.

The next visiting day following Mom’s latest overdose is Saturday. I twitch and pace all day, unable to concentrate on anything, then my girlfriend and I drive to Hendersonville to see her.

I could walk the path from the parking deck to the third-floor psychiatric ward with my eyes closed. I’ve taken those same steps hundreds of times. Smiling and looking away from the other visitors going up the elevator. Pressing down the call button outside the locked door. “We’re here to see Kathy Rice.” Nodding hello at the nurses—they all know my name, smile at me like grandmothers: “I remember you when you were this tall.” I think about the time I came to visit on my thirteenth birthday and found that Mom had told all the patients and staff about the occasion. happy birthday streamers drooped from the cafeteria walls, and the smelly, confused, giggling, weeping, shit-smeared, heavy-breathing lunatics shuffled to me one by one to shake my hand and press sweaty one-dollar bills into my palm. I choked down a waxy slice of chocolate cake, my face scarlet, wishing I could drop through the floor.

Mom has a single room this time, thank God. We sit on her bed, over the starchy blue bedspread. The rooms are all the same: fake-wood furniture with smooth, rounded edges, non-glass mirrors that warp your reflection, windows that look out on the parking lot and are crisscrossed with wire inside the glass so the patients can’t break through. Dad and my brother Alex are both working and can’t make it, so it is just Mom, Maggie, Kyle, and me. They’ve given Mom Thorazine, and her speech is slurred, her movements clumsy, but she doesn’t cry. Her hair is gray and wiry, her forehead indented from where she has banged it against the wall, her arms badly scarred from razor blade swipes. She holds my hand. Her small, curled hand is soft and warm, and it shakes in mine. Kyle talks about work and his girlfriend. I talk about school and my plans for summer. We laugh a little. Someone in the hall bellows in a thick country accent, “I want to go punch somebody!”

“Why?” a woman screeches back at him.

“Because it’s fun!”

Mom says she’s reading a book of Zora Neale Hurston short stories. She says they’re good. She can’t remember what they’re about right now, but they’re really good. “Look,” she tells me. She has photos of all of us taped around her desk. “I like how in all of yours, you’re smiling. Alex is always making faces, and Kyle has the same blank stare, but you’re smiling in every single one.”

Before we go, she stares at the pillow clutched in her hand and says, “You know I didn’t really want to”—her voice is weak—“off myself, right?” We all look at the floor, nod a little but don’t answer. She always tells us this. I wonder if she is just trying to make us feel better, or if she really believes the overdose was an accident. Probably she can’t even remember.

6.

It’s been a couple weeks since the call from Kyle, and I’m still out of whack. Maggie is worried. I mope around the house, skip class. At night I feel like crying but I can’t, so I drink too much, watch TV, smoke weed. I think about my mom in the hospital. Even though she’s just a shell of the woman she used to be, she’s still too good to be stuffed in that hot, fluorescent-lighted ward with those crazies in stained sweatpants. I think about Kyle. I wonder if he’s sleeping okay, if he dreams about Mom, sees her over and over again slumped on the kitchen table, gripping a mound of chalky tablets, the silt of medicine crusting her lips. I wonder again what I would have done if it had been me who had gone to visit her. If it had been my eyes that had caught her, wretched and alone, counting her piles of poison. Would I have been calm, in control? Or would I have screamed and grabbed her hair, slapped her face, yelled “How dare you”? What would her eyes have told me: Please, Jeremy, help me or Please, turn around, if you love me, turn around? And would I have loved her enough to obey?

My mom is proud of me. She tells me every time I see her. She’s the one who taught me to write. Even before kindergarten, when Kyle was in first grade and Alex was too young to speak, we would spend hours at the table together, filling notebook pages full of notes back and forth, about how much we loved each other. Walt Cottingham would be proud of me too. For the thousandth time I think about how I should send him a few of my short stories, show him how I’ve found passion at last.

I look over my old journals, read that I hadn’t cried in six years, and fresh tears warp the paper. I read my dad’s words, “You watch: she’ll kill herself as soon as you and Alex are grown.” I read the word Xanax over and over and over, and I feel its cool fingers tugging at me from the past.

Maggie has problems with anxiety, and her doctor prescribed Ativan. She doesn’t take it much—maybe two or three times a month when she’s nervous about a presentation for school, or if she has trouble sleeping. Ativan is no Xanax, but it is a benzo. It turns your thoughts to warm static, makes your eyelids heavy. The little orange bottle filled with tiny pills sits right next to my head every night, on the bedside table. It would be so easy to pop the cap, swallow a couple, and embrace the silence.

Instead of picking up the bottle, I pick up a pen and open to a fresh page in my notebook. I fan my old journals around the table and think of my mom in her hospital room, curled in her bed with Zora Neale Hurston, stroking her stuffed cat, or sitting on the edge of her bed maybe, looking at our pictures, smiling back at me. For a moment I slide my palm over the fresh white page in my notebook. The paper is blank and silent—painless. It won’t do. I hunch my back, grip my pen, and stab the paper like an injection, batter the page, sully the cool silence with hot words.

 

Jeremy Rice is a senior creative writing major at the University of North Carolina–Asheville. He mostly writes fiction but has had both fiction and nonfiction pieces published in Headwaters, the literary magazine published through UNCA. He lives in Asheville with his girlfriend, Maggie, and is currently shopping around for low-residency MFA writing programs for after he finishes his undergraduate work in May 2008.

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