Forgot your password?

We just sent you an email, containing instructions for how to reset your password.

Sign in

  • The three-inch box I pick up at the post office doesn’t weigh anything. The return address shows it’s from my husband’s buddy Rick, in L.A. Generally when Rick sends something, it arrives on a flatbed truck. Rick makes his living building houses in Malibu. When he upgrades equipment – arc welders, plasma cutters, machine tools – or finds a wonderful specimen at a bargain price, he lets my husband, John, in on the deal. John has a small weekend welding business which he runs from what was once the machine shed on his family’s property.
    I sign a green form, and a yellow form.
    “And this.” The clerk pushes a long sheet of printed paper toward me. There are multiple boxes for me to initial.
    “What’s all this?”
    “Delivery confirmation, registered mail signature guarantee, certified mail return receipt,” she says.
    “There was a package for you,” I say when John arrives home.
    “Thanks,” he says, glancing at the kitchen table.
    “Sure were a lot of signatures,” I say.
    John, who is ten years my senior, is a Vietnam veteran. Although his parents could have pulled strings, John let himself be drafted. He’s carried wounded men from the battlefield. He lives by a soldier’s code of honor. I know from the bottom of my heart I can rely on him.
    Except, when we first started dating in 1993, he was using cocaine.
    My background is very different from John’s. I came from a middle-class family. There was no room for screwing up. My three siblings and I would never have done anything to endanger our grades, our Ivy League destinies. My personal demon is believing people are who I wish they were, and not who they really are. It’s a form of egotism – as though the world is obliged to be the way I want it.
    I issued an ultimatum: me or the drugs.
    John and I parted ways. Within a few months, though, John brought me a load of firewood. He insisted he’d stopped using. He was in therapy.
    I believed him. We moved in together. We bought a house. We got married. I took his surname, a move that astonished people I worked with. For me, the calculus was simple: between my father’s family and my new husband’s family, there was no contest.
    Throughout our marriage, John was emotionally remote. He spent weekends tinkering in his metal shop on the family property. Except for my horse and our dogs, I was often alone.
    “Whatever would Rick send you in such a little box? Usually stuff from Rick comes on trucks.”
    “He got a special deal. Somebody liquidating a business.”
    “What’s in it, John?”
    He hesitates a few moments before answering.
    “The box contains cocaine.”
    I stare at him in disbelief.
    “I signed my name on every damn federal form,” I say.
    “I regret that. If I could do anything to fix it, I would,” says John.
    “And why would anyone send coke through the US mail? It’s like asking to be caught.”
    “It’s a dealer’s trick. Hiding in plain view.”
    It takes me a while to get really angry. Over the next few days, vague inconsistencies in his behavior start to solidify into patterns. I remember the day we got married, right before the ceremony, when he announced that he and his friends had to go down to the shop. He was wearing a new suit.
    “Today?” I asked, incredulously.
    “Got to show them some new equipment,” he said over his shoulder as they sauntered off.
    We’re in bed one night a week after the revelation when the implications of my new knowledge – or my eight year denial – really hit me. I sit up and turn on the light.
    “I didn’t sign up to be married to a drug addict.”
    “I don’t keep it in the house.”
    “Where then?”
    “The shop.”
    “You’re willing to jeopardize the family and the property for your habit.”
    “The stress of your endometriosis is what made me start using again. Every time you ended up in the hospital, I thought you'd die.”
    “You’re blaming ME for your habit?”
    “Oh, f – you.” He turns over. We’ve never spoken to each other this way.
    “We need to talk.”
    “I’m not talking tonight.”
    His eyes are closed; he’s put in industrial-strength ear plugs – the kind he wears on job sites.
    I take a glass of water from my bedside table and throw it at him.
    He rolls back over.
    “You’ve got my attention.”
    He gets a towel. I won’t let him come back to bed until I’ve changed the sheets. Eventually, though, I go sleep in the spare room.
    The next morning, I wake up at five, before he leaves for work. I tell him I’ll give him a year to quit using. He doesn’t look at me. “I’m not making any promises,” he says.
    “Where’s the key to the shop?”
    “I need to go in there today.”
    He removes the key from his key ring, and puts it on the dresser. Then he leaves.

    I married John not only because I loved John but also because I wanted what he had: a family who took care of its own, encircling its members like a caravan of Conestoga wagons. The first time I met him, his father said as he was leaving, “Give me a kiss, honey.” So I kissed him on the cheek. He hugged me. Later on, John told me he’d never seen his normally undemonstrative father respond so affectionately to any woman he’d brought home.
    “It was unbelievable,” I overheard him tell a friend over the phone that evening. “It was like watching a different person.”
    At dawn, I drive down to the ranch. Our two dogs run down the hill to the creek. My horse nickers at me from her stall. I let her out into the paddock and throw her a flake of hay. Then I walk around to the other side of the barn and unlock the shop door. Inside, it’s dark and cold. I unlatch the corrugated metal garage door and heave it upwards. I stand for a few moments in the sunlight in front of the shop, and gaze into its dim interior.
    I’ve been in here hundreds of times. Rows and rows of floor to ceiling steel shelves cluttered with sheet metal, gasoline cans, engines John’s removed from generations of deceased vehicles – everything he’d ever need to build just about anything – occupy most of the long room. In front of me, a pickup truck utility bed he’s been recrafting into a trailer; against the rear wall beside the power drill and the table saw there’s a woodstove. On the right near the wall, metal canisters of acetylene and oxygen. Beside them forming a kind of island, the arc welder, a plasma cutter, a metal lathe, a table.
    I walk down the aisle between two sets of shelves. In the dimness I can make out a clutter of welding rods, piles of PVC pipe, copper pipe, rolls of barbed wire. I don’t need to look very hard. On the second shelf on my left, easily in my sight and within reach heaps of used baggies clouded with coke dust lie beside single-edged razor blades – an object I’d often found mysteriously around our house. On the shelf above, a usable fragment of a broken mirror. Half-full packs of straws. As I walked down the row, I see more paraphernalia: bags, boxes, mirrors, straws, more razor blades. I turn and walk toward the front of the shop. A vertical tool chest – the kind found in commercial garages – catches my eye. I start randomly pulling out drawers. Nuts, bolts, an assortment of wrenches, mostly. Then, in a bottom drawer, stuffed underneath a dirty spiral notebook containing some sort of inventory, a wad of bills. I pick it up, then stuff it back again. I don’t want to know how much there is.
    I lock the shop doors. Then I call the dogs, and walk down to the creek. I feel simultaneously nauseated and numb.
    A litany of what I’m going to lose runs through my mind: my horse, the dogs, the creek. The bobcats I see every morning. The wren who nests in the hollow boom of the old forest service truck John uses to cart fallen trees to the wood splitter. Every spring for years I’ve refused to let him move the thing until the last baby wren has fledged. What will happen to all of them if I leave?
    What will happen to me?
    When John comes home from work I hand him the shop key.
    A few nights later I sit up in bed and say: “I’m going to do what I should have done in my twenties.”
    “What’s that?”
    “Move to New York. Have a brilliant career.”
    “If you think that will make you happy, then that’s what you should do.”
    “What will make me happy is for you to stop using.”
    “I’m not having this conversation.” He gets up, goes to the spare room, pulls out the hide-a-bed. I follow him.
    “I’ll need money.”
    “How much?”
    “Um, I don’t know,” I say gingerly.
    “So you want to play that game? You want me to say a number so it can be too little and I’ll be stingy?”
    “It’s not like that; I just don’t know.”
    Within a few weeks, I find a room to sublet in a New York neighborhood about which I know nothing. Then I leave.
    We talk on the phone frequently, although not about anything substantial. Each time I have a frightening experience – I’m swindled by a landlord, or just plain terrified that I won’t be able to find a job – I call him sobbing.
    “I can’t do it,” I say, “I can’t make it on my own.”
    “Well, just come home then.” he says. “Christ, I don’t want to see you unhappy. It’s not what I intended.”
    This pattern continues for over a year. Every few months, I get on a plane and go home. I’ve left but I haven’t left.
    In 2003, his 94-year-old father has a series of strokes. By summer, he is mostly bed ridden and can barely speak. I go back to California. John meets me at the airport.
    Within days of my arrival, John’s mother calls.
    “This is it, kids. If you want to see him, you have to come now.”
    We drive to southern California, a trip we’ve made countless times. We stop at our favorite Mexican drive-through near Kingsburg. He orders two tacos. I order a chicken tostada. Same as always.
    Three days later, with the family gathered around, his father passes away. The following day, everyone leaves to return to work, to school, to their lives. John goes home. I stay behind with John’s mother, who is not doing well. I take her to a doctor. She has a bleeding ulcer and has lost so much blood that when she’s admitted to the hospital she has to have transfusions. I stay at her house and visit her daily. I call her best friend, who sets about finding full-time nursing care for when she’s released. All of my brothers- and sisters-in-law as well as nieces, cousins and nephews, thank me copiously for my yeomanly service. Every member of the family has my cell phone number. I’ve become the point person. I’m aware I’m making myself indispensable.
    When my mother-in-law gets out of the hospital a week later, John and everyone else return for my father-in-law’s funeral.
    John’s still using.
    I’m beyond hoping he’ll quit. What’s worse than the fact of the drug itself is the betrayal. That he lied to me. That I was played for a fool. That under something like false pretenses I moved to the middle of nowhere to be with him and now I don’t know how to live without him.
    After the funeral, we drive home. That night I say: “You could have married someone who used.”
    He looks up from his magazine. “I made a mistake.”
    “Fix it.”
    He shakes his head. “You know it’s not as though I hog-tied you and threw you in the back of the pickup truck. You moved in with me because you wanted to.”
    The discussions that take place that night and subsequent nights take us nowhere. During all those years of my illness and my mounting frustration, I had grown more dependent on John than I’d ever imagined I’d be on anybody. I can’t make decisions without consulting him. Sometimes I barely feel as though I can put one foot in front of the other without asking him first. In New York, I’d wake up in the middle of the night saying his name. I’m wedded not just to him but to the family and the predictable familiarity of my life here: riding the fenceline, the musky, oddly sexual scent of bear clover, the nightly yip of coyotes. Tarantulas migrating down the road in October. The cluster of men who gather to shoot the breeze in the feedstore. Who would I be without all this?
    My feelings buffet me like opposing storm systems: my resentment towards him eclipses my fear of being on my own. Back and forth. I can’t think about anything else.
    And there’s another factor. Married to John, I have a social legitimacy I’m afraid of losing. Without him, a void opens. I have to face the possibility that my marriage and where and how I live will no longer define me; that I’ll become what I fear most – a forty-something woman on her own.
    Weeks pass, then months. Thanksgiving with the family. Then it’s almost Christmas. I’m leaving again. The night before he’s to drive me to the airport, I’m still wearing my wedding ring. I say: “What are we doing? Should I still be wearing this ring?”
    “I can’t answer that for you,” he replies. “All I can say is, if you do decide to come back again, you know the particular discussion that’s off the table.”
    I get out of bed, go to the spare room, pull out the hide-a-bed. He follows me, and sits down at the foot in the dark.
    “You know,” he says, “for whatever it’s worth, I really do care for you a great deal.”
    “You’re making it worse,” I say.
    “I’m sorry.” He gets up. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
    A long time ago – it feels like a lifetime – I valued my autonomy more than anything, yet now I believe my high-toned self-reliance was nothing more than a mask for something else: my fear that no one would ever love me.
    Back in New York, I’ve rented another a single room in an insalubrious neighborhood until I can find a real place to live. Here sirens replace the hoots of owls, the yip of coyotes in the night. I lie awake, knowing I’m delaying the inevitable. If I stay with John, I’ll simply cease to be. It’s John’s way or the highway. Although I resent it, I’ve also found his rigid predictability oddly comforting. A man who knows exactly what he wants. A man who knows how to get his own needs met.
    I have my own needs, which up until this minute have taken the back seat. I need a job, a place to live, and not to be with a man who has been lying to me for ten years.
    The next day, I call him. I tell him I’m aware that finding out who I’ll be without him means facing the possibility that I’ll be alone for the rest of my life. It also means I open the door to the possibility that I’ll live long enough to do something I can really be proud of. He doesn’t comment. I tell him it’s okay with me if he puts our house on the market now. I won’t be living in it anymore.
    • Share

    Connected stories:


Collections let you gather your favorite stories into shareable groups.

To collect stories, please become a Citizen.

    Copy and paste this embed code into your web page:

    px wide
    px tall
    Send this story to a friend:
    Would you like to send another?

      To retell stories, please .

        Sprouting stories lets you respond with a story of your own — like telling stories ’round a campfire.

        To sprout stories, please .

            Better browser, please.

            To view Cowbird, please use the latest version of Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Opera, or Internet Explorer.