Dr. McCarthy tucked Ellie’s folder under his arm and looked down at the magazine in my hand. “Are you reading one of those ‘How to Be Better in Bed’ things?” he asked. I gave a weak smile and closed the magazine so he couldn’t see what I was really reading. This was craziness. I didn’t have a problem. I couldn’t.
He glanced over my head, at the clock on the wall. From behind the exam-room door, I could hear Ellie and the medical student singing “Castle on a Cloud.” “Nobody shouts or talks too loud . . . Not in my castle on a cloud.”
I gave him another smile. He gave my arm a final squeeze. “Take care of yourself,” he said, and then he was gone.
I pushed the magazine into the depths of my purse. I got Ellie into her clothes, smoothing out the seam of her socks, buttoning her dress, re-braiding her hair. I held her hand when we crossed the street, paid for parking, and then, before I drove southwest to Federal Donuts for the hot chocolate I’d promised my daughter, I reached for the Altoids tin in my purse.
No, I thought, and remembered the quiz. Have you ever planned not to use that day but done it anyway? What excuse did I have for taking pills?
Maybe my mother had been cold and inattentive . . . but it had been the 1970s, before “parent” became a verb, when mothers routinely stuck their toddlers in playpens while they mixed themselves a martini or lit a Virginia Slim. So I had a big house in the burbs. Wasn’t that what every woman was supposed to want? I had a job I was good at, a job I liked, even if it felt sometimes like the stress was unbearable; I had a lovely daughter, and, really, was being a little sensitive such a big deal? I was fine, I thought. Everything was fine. But even as I was thinking it, my fingers were opening the little box, locating the chalky white oval, and delivering it, like Communion, to the waiting space beneath my tongue. I heard the pill cracking between my teeth as I chewed, winced as the familiar bitterness flooded my mouth, and imagined as I started the car that I could feel the chemical sweetness untying my knotted muscles, slowing my heartbeat, silencing the endless monkey-chatter of my mind, letting my lungs expand enough for a deep breath.
At the corner of Sixth and Chestnut, I saw a woman on the sidewalk. Her face was red. Her feet bulged out of laceless sneakers, and there was a paper cup in her hands. Puckered lips worked against toothless gums. Her hands were dirty and swollen, her body wrapped in layers of sweaters and topped with a stained down coat. Behind her stood a shopping cart filled with trash bags. A little dog was perched on the topmost bag, curled up in a threadbare blue sweater.
Ellie slowly read each word of her sign out loud. “ ‘Homeless. Need help. God bless.’ Mommy, what is ‘homeless’?”
“It means she doesn’t have a place to live.” I was glad Dave wasn’t in the car. I could imagine his response: It means she doesn’t want to work to take care of herself, and thinks it’s someone else’s job to pay for what she needs. I’d known my husband was more conservative than I was when I married him, but, in the ten years since, it seemed like he’d decided that anything that went wrong in his life or anyone else’s was the liberals’ fault.
Ellie considered this. “Maybe she could live in our guest room.”
I bit back my immediate reply, which was, No, honey, your daddy lives there. That had been true for at least the past six weeks. Maybe longer. I didn’t want to think about it. Instead I said, “She probably needs a special kind of help, not just a place to stay.”
“What kind of help?”
Blessedly, the light turned green. I pulled into traffic and drove to the doughnut shop, feeling the glow of the narcotic envelop me and hold me tight. Leaving the shop, I caught a glimpse of myself in the window, and compared what I saw—a white woman of medium height, in a tan camel-hair trench coat, new-this-season walnut leather riding boots, straightened hair lying smoothly over her shoulders—with the woman on the corner. A little makeup, I thought, in the expansive, embracing manner I tended to think in when I had a pill or two in me, and I could even be pretty. And even if I wasn’t, I thought, as I drove us back home, as Ellie sang along to Carly Rae Jepsen and the city where I’d been so happy slipped away in my rearview mirror, I was a world away from the woman we’d seen. That woman—she was what addiction looked like. Not me. Not me.
My alarm cheeped at six-fifteen. Without opening my eyes, I crab-walked my hand across the bedside table, located my throbbing phone, and swiped it into silence. Then I held still, flat on my back, listening to Ellie snore beside me as I fought the same mental battle I fought every morning: Exercise or sleep?