It’s been fifteen years since we last spoke. I remember it clearly. You were having trouble shooting up in the toilet at a dealer’s place. An elusive vein, or, perhaps more likely, the fault of a sleep-deprived hand. Hitchcock-esque spools of blood were trickling down your inner arm as you tried and tried again. I’d never seen you do it yourself before; we had started as novices, you and I, always with more experienced players to guide us through. Those first few years, I had to tell myself I was sitting in a pathology clinic or I would not have been able to do it. Head turned sideways, I would outstretch my arm obediently and feel the tightening of a belt around my bicep, a fingernail flicking the swelling skin, the pause of my breath as the needle slid in.
You gave me a gift that day. A screenshot of a world where I no longer wanted to belong. This would outweigh the nirvana of methamphetamine, and become my anchor to sobriety. Having said that, please don’t misunderstand me. This is not a thank you letter.
Bad skin and adolescent poetry were the least of my worries when we met. I was fourteen years old and had just left high school. You’d already dropped out. I had taken to cutting myself as a distraction from the black dog nipping at my heels. You taught me more pleasurable ways of diversion. Do you recall those vows to stop, only ever spoken while high? Years of weight loss, weight gain, minus balance bank accounts, thread-bare cupboards, Chupa Chups to occupy grinding teeth, packets of Longbeach cigarettes chain-smoked over a suburban sunrise, deodorant sprayed onto unwashed clothes, drives around the city on the hunt for an open servo to buy more smokes and Chupa Chups, and drying out tobacco to mix with marijuana, to ease the trip down. Years of chopping hydroponic buds, packing them tightly into a bong and handing them to you in the shower; me sitting there in the steam until you were done, passing you a towel. You always hated being alone. Even in the bathroom.
Another sneaky way of keeping an eye on me.
Getting clean is not easy. I wonder, did you ever try? For me, in the early days of being sober, I missed the Chupa Chup runs and craved something else to pass the time. So I went to TAFE, discovered the joy of academic success, followed up with college, then took the Special Tertiary Admissions Test (STAT) for mature age students and qualified for university entrance. Flash forward a few years, and there’s a framed Bachelor of Arts hanging in my study. When I look at it, my spine straightens with pride and my head blocks out all the other stuff.
But then here I am, dredging it all up, writing to you. Saying hello, and a final good-bye.
Thank goodness I didn’t end up with tell-tale dark cicatrices in the crook of my forearms. No one could know all the things we did just by looking at me. I hide beneath educated speech, respectable job title, and a polished new Toyota hatchback. You are a different story, though. You are physically stamped on my skin. A two-centimetre scar, and a maze of translucent winding stretch marks.
Do you remember the day we went to Coles in Victoria Park? We ended up in some sort of argument. It’s highly possible I had looked at another man, or you thought I had looked at another man, and were displeased. It escalated quickly and, unable to prove my innocence, I became distraught. All I wanted was my mum to wrap her arms around me.
Without a care that we were in public, I began darting in and out of shopping aisles, crying and screaming, searching for escape. Probably scared the crap out of a few nice old pensioners browsing the shelves for their favourite brand of soup. You did not let me out of your sight, eyes narrow and intense. At one point you closed the gap, and grabbed my arm. I panicked. Wrenched it free as you dug in. Nails raked the flesh and it came away crimson. As I fled through the automatic doors of the shopping centre, you allowed me to leave your periphery. That was a first. I found a pay phone out front and dialled home, reverse charges. No answer. A second attempt, tears falling down my cheeks. Then you appeared beside me and I was broken enough to be comforted. We went back to your dad’s and smoked fifty grams of pot within an hour, in an effort to forget the whole incident. Later, I washed my arm of dried blood, but the mark would never disappear.
I trail my finger across it now, and wonder if you felt remorse.
We fought and broke up so many times, it became a rote activity. I tried feebly to combat the tsunami of your persuasion, but was continually swept away, straight back into your embrace. Somewhere in between dropping acid in Belmont and a marriage proposal made on the beach at Rottnest Island, we decided to get pregnant. It wasn’t an accident, as most people assume. We believed a baby would be the salve on our wounds, and propel us into a fairy-tale ending.
It wasn’t. It didn’t. How stupid and young we were.
The regional town of Kalgoorlie, renowned for its indomitable open pit gold mine and history of prostitution, would be our final resting place. It was supposed to be a week-long visit. We travelled on the train from Perth to show off our beautiful new baby boy to your family, and then, once there, you convinced me to cash in our return tickets. My fortnightly parenting pension was now extracted from an ATM and deposited into your wallet. You’d wake up in the middle of the night, notice I was moving under the sheets – turning into a more comfortable position – and accuse me of masturbation. An unacceptable concept as I no longer wanted to have sex with you. These confrontations could last an hour before you were appeased. You’d fall asleep again while I lay frozen, too scared to move. During the day, I was quarantined to an empty bedroom to breastfeed, because my nipples were off-limits to anyone other than you and the baby. We moved out of your mum’s place and into a caravan park, where I had to crawl out the window to use the toilet block because you would leave and lock the front door. This wasn’t a safety concern, merely a means of control. I couldn’t see that at the time.
The fighting didn’t stop once the baby came. Naive to think that it would. One day, in the midst of an overheated exchange, you shoved me and my arms dropped. The baby slipped and landed back-first on the cracked orange vinyl couch. He began crying but was unhurt. I was sickened, and ashamed. (Still am.) When mum and dad came to visit, it didn’t take me long to break down and ask for help. They drove us home. Your persuasions didn’t work then, because the wellbeing of the baby was of greater importance to me than my own. And despite a few more attempts on your part, that was the end of us.
For a long time, I didn’t just hate you: I loathed you. For everything you had done to me and everything I had been as your girlfriend and the fear of how your influence could damage our child over the course of his life. I couldn’t erase this threat any more than the scar on my arm or the birthmarks that streak my belly – tattoos of our relationship – but I had the power to change in other ways. Defiantly, I stopped wearing long feminine skirts and went to the hairdresser to have my fringe chopped off, because these were features you found attractive. I re-trained myself to look men in the eye and speak with friendly inflection, without looking away. This was a challenge. I could feel you watching, ready to punish me for my indiscretion. When you finally stopped trying to make contact, I admit I was relieved. But I never felt free until the day I heard you died.
A car accident, not drugs, as my mum predicted, was what summoned the Grim Reaper to your side two years ago.
As I write this, our son is 17 going on 18. It’s too late for you to make amends. However, I am still here and should be afforded the opportunity to vent, because death does not grant you absolution. Hence this letter. To this end, I expected to write full paragraphs in capital letters, punctuated with masses of underlined words, typeset in bold. Not just for hurting me, but for being absent at every Friday morning school assembly item, where he would dance or sing or win a certificate. For depriving him of fatherly hugs. For every nappy I changed and puddle of vomit I cleaned up, by myself.
FOR NOT SENDING EVEN ONE DAMN BIRTHDAY CARD.
Surprisingly, though, my fury is probably sitting at ten degrees on a mercury thermometer. Mild. There is no denying it was hard being both mother and father – I spent many years poor and stressed and lonely and resentful, and sad for my son – nonetheless, I am glad you stayed away. I have come to the realisation that everything you inflicted on me were things I allowed, so it would be wrong to put all the blame on you. Unfortunately, that was who I was then. Depressed, with low self-esteem and little self-respect. An easy target for abuse.
With the strength that came from becoming a mama bear, and with the support of my parents and a remarkable aunty/mentor, I was able to walk away and never look back. The years that followed were focussed on forging a new identity. I am probably a Milo tin or four heavier than when you knew me, but showcasing healthy skin and smiling eyes, and with a university degree that took six determined years to complete. I bake cakes and dust tabletops – occasionally – and negotiate weekly meal plans with my partner. My wardrobe consists mainly of pants, in many shades of black. It’s all very domestic and boring, I suppose.
Here is the upside. It is unfathomable that I would let anyone lock me in my house. Or grab my arm. Or take my money as their own. Or shake my confidence. It is not an option to keep someone company in the bathroom, sitting there compliantly as steam frizzes my hair, handing out bongs in the shower.
So with this letter, I put our past to rest. I forgive myself all those things I have been ashamed of – the drug use, reliance on government assistance, the bad choices, being a victim. Those days are gone. So are you. But I’d still like you to know who I am.
Let me paint a picture: Most of my days begin in active wear with an early morning walk to the park, tennis ball in hand and Staffy by my side. I hold my head up like someone who has left the house via the front door, not the back window. I smile like someone who has eaten breakfast and is sitting on a hard-won pot of savings. As we breathe out reams of frosty air in the West Australian sunlight, I don’t think of you at all, and in that moment, nothing feels more fantastic.
You wouldn’t recognise me.
And that’s a really good thing.
‘Bongs in the Shower’ was written by an anonymous contributor.