UNFORTUNATE SIDE EFFECTS
Julia dated him for a few months. They were happy. She texted him the night before and he didn’t respond. He had always responded. She was impatient to go to him but she had her toddler at home so she had to wait. She washed dishes, checked her phone, folded clothes, checked her phone, made lunch, checked her phone. Then, when she could leave her son with his father, she drove out of the driveway toward Mark’s house. She called a friend on the way and admitted she was scared of what she would find there. She saw his truck parked in its usual place. She heard, from her car as she got out, his TV blaring. The dogs rushed her when she opened his front door. She put them in the kennel outside and went back inside and called his name, repeating it louder and louder.
Julia felt like she was going to throw-up. The 911-operator kept asking her to make sure he was not breathing, but she knew just by the color of him, he was definitely not. She stayed until the police came and answered their questions.
She had discovered the unfortunate side effect of military engagements, a successful veteran’s suicide, and it is one of many unfortunate side effects of her life. The sight triggered in her a greater imbalance than she had had before. Finding him wasn’t like seeing someone’s dead grandmother lying on her back in a satin-lined casket on a planned afternoon. No, it was Mark sitting on his sofa where he had been watching TV, dead from a gunshot to his head.
In the early 80’s, when the automobile seatbelt was still optional, my two sisters and I squeezed into Dad’s small truck with one of us, usually Julia, on the floorboard at our mother’s feet. The truck’s paint was rich in the way the ever-expansive oceans are blue. In a span of ten years, she’d take us from North Dakota to New Jersey, meet up with us in Louisiana, and let me learn to drive her before she was sold to a hunter’s ranch for twenty-five cents. She was born the same year as me and somewhere in the heart of Texas she’s considered vintage by now.
In North Dakota, my father drove me through wheat-colored fields where the ground was recovering from the cold of winter. In the tape deck, Bob Seger sang about a rock. I felt as if I made my father’s happiness.
“Why do people die?” I asked him.
“All things die.” He shifted the truck into a higher gear.
“Will you die?”
“Yes and so will you, one day.”
I became sad. I did not want to lose my father.
“You only die once, ” he said.
Still, suffering scares me, even if it is only once.
The apartment was a stopover where our parents decided to divorce. She fought him with cruel words and we were the spectators. When she asked who would come live with her, we put our heads down and stood beside our father, like a chain of daisies.
“We’ll live in our own apartment and have so much fun decorating it.” None of us made a move to join her. “I’ll buy you whatever you want,” she said.
“Will you buy me a go-cart? A real one. The kind grown-ups drive.”
“Yes,” she smiled.
I walked over to her and stood at her side facing my sisters, feeling smart for managing such an agreement. She didn’t keep her promise; instead they made up that night as though dragging us though it was nothing.
I should make a North Dakota shadow box with rooms furnished by happy and strange objectified memories. There should be a lazy boy recliner, twin beds, insulation crammed between a window pane, shag carpet, a missing grape scented watch, a forbidden room, and bowl of split pea soup for my mother to pour onto my head.
We moved into a two-story house with a long kitchen where dad would cook southern meals and I would sneak bites of shredded coconut from the pantry above the basement stairs.
My father had Playboy. I walked five or six neighborhood boys into my parents’ bedroom with the assuredness of a seven-year-old genius. I said, “Look” and pointed to the pile of magazines. A busty woman in red on the topmost magazine’s cover photo smiled back. To my surprise, instead of praising me, they looked at me blankly and left.
As children with developing anxiety disorders, my parents did no favors when they decided to spring on us that we were moving. “Wake up,” said my mother, “We’re moving to New Jersey.” My sisters and I sat against the living room wall, watching movers through tired eyes.
The next morning, I wiped the sleep out of my eyes, looking out of the truck’s canopy windows. We rode through a gray-blue morning on Interstate 94 heading east. It took two nights and two days. My sisters and I took turns squeezing through the truck’s slider window from the camper into the cab of the pickup. I remember riding between our parents, enjoying the scenery.
1986 through 1989:
The loss of our North Dakota life settled in time. We lived in a townhouse for a good five years before moving into an actual house. It was on the right side of a tick-filled road that dead-end off an interstate. In this house, we sang songs out load, drew figures of women in gowns, wrote stories, learned to play guitar chords from our mother, made treasure maps, swam in a small above ground pool, and took gymnastics. Dad was happy too. He took up scuba diving, started woodworking in the garage, grew a veggie garden, and took us camping for a week at a time. Then, just when we had grown comfortable and at home in New Jersey, he began priming the doors of his truck. It was as if the truck’s transformation marked our own. He never finished his plans to repaint her because we moved again, to Louisiana.
There is an unsettling in Louisiana. Its people, like the soil, can only hold so much water before becoming flooded. Even among everyday families that live there, few are knowledgeable about the soothsayer, referred to as seer (pronounced sē-ər). Julia’s boyfriend’s great uncle was a seer. The 80-year-old Cajun told fortunes with a worn deck of playing cards. He read her fortune. Spades, clovers, diamonds and hearts of red and black told her she was so evil in a past life that today she still pays the price. He said she might have been a powerful practitioner of the dark arts, Black Magic.
Julia grew to be the type of person who appears like she doesn’t give a shit. And in some ways it’s true, she doesn’t give a shit that the weather is nice or that you’re happy to see her. Julia will drown in her own want for love just to put you off with an invisible self-sacrifice. She cannot let you love her. She cannot risk the heartbreak.
Little does she know, she is amazing and that every part of her, sadness and caution signs included, make her a funny-as-shit satirist. My sister enjoys the irony and freedom of life, but at a safe distance from people. If she were Catholic in the 1500’s, no doubt the Catholic Church would have canonized her, but she would have denied the attention only to continue to sulk in peace.
Today, she lives with our father and her youngest son in a 2500 square foot home with a Victorian turret and green-shingled roofing. Her job as a card dealer in a smoky and employee-abusive casino keeps her working until 3:00 a.m., after which she sometimes goes out with friends and drinks until noon.
Indeed, Julia’s life is truculent. We lived in five states and twelve rentals by the time she was eleven. When the postage stamp was still 25 cents and a gallon of gas was under a dollar, our mother was fine-tuning her mental illnesses, which lead to Julia’s running away when she was sixteen. She moved in with her first boyfriend who sold drugs, did drugs, and did my sister. She stopped asking our parents for things and they couldn’t help her even if they tried.
I was gone the night the police came to our house, drinking every night I could (and most nights I did). I returned and learned that the police questioned her, taking down her statement. It went something like: she had finished getting gas and a man got in the truck, pointed a gun at her and made her drive him around. Julia doesn’t know this, but I found Dad’s wallet a month later in the back of her 81 Honda Civic. She had reported it stolen and finding it caused me to wonder what really happened that night.
There was also this event: before there were pagers or wireless phones that fit in pockets, she made a call home for rescue by phone both. I answered.
“Can you pick me up?”
“Right now? I’m in the middle of watching a movie.”
“Please, I need you.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m at the Pit Grill.”
I pulled under the bright lights of gas station fifteen minutes later. She opened the door and maneuvered onto the seat with care. She was injured. She began to cry and told me her boyfriend had slammed her head against the kitchen stove and kicked her in the stomach. The night was clear enough to see the Milky Way, but its beauty didn’t mean much to the situation. She put her head against the door and said nothing more about her suffering for many years.
It didn’t matter that she was a runaway or that she had been beaten. It didn’t matter if she was carjacked. It didn’t matter that I was drunk and depressed from having my heart broken. It didn’t matter that my older sister was on her knees on pebbles praying to God begging to be martyred to save the family. It didn’t matter that our father avoided home and relied upon drinking. None of our sufferings mattered when the tidal wave of our mother came back to drown us— but my mother is not the focus of this story.
After the carjacking and the beating, she became sober overnight by swearing off drugs. Her moving back home was a relief to us all and in time she fell in love with a better boy, one who made her laugh. Happiness overcame her and spilled out until there was nothing left. Depression led her to a poisoned watering hole and after drinking a taste of it there were only poisoned thoughts.
She was far superior in her commitment to self-inflicted chaos than I was. When she learned he cheated, again, her heart hurt like it was scorched from the inside out. This time, he was in love with the other woman and leaving her. After she successfully ate all the bottles of medicine in the house, she continued to argue with her husband. Shaking, nauseous, sweating her sadness, she refused to let him take her to the hospital. After all, it was death she wanted. He was able to carry her out of the house and drive her to the hospital after she had become too sick to fight him off.
The emergency room staff jammed a fat plastic tube down her throat and she cursed them all to hell, mumbling threats from her esophagus. They had to restrain her. A doctor took our parents aside and said she waited too long to get treatment, “Your daughter’s liver might fail.” It was the first time Julia appealed to the hopeful possibility of nothingness and ate pills like an antidote.
Death, in the form of an overdose, almost shut down her organs, twice.
Julia said she was thinking of Mark’s death when she ate all her Klonopin¹. The hospital monitored her and determined she was not a risk to herself. They sent her home. Klonopin can cause confusion, it lead to her accidentally taking them all. She doesn’t remember, but we do, when she returned home, she ate all the other pills in the house. She was readmitted to the hospital. This time the hospital sent her for treatment for three weeks.
When I rode along side my dad listening to Bob Seger, he said death only happens once but I think death can happen in small doses. Julia did not die, not in her physical form, but she has accumulated liver damage and other illnesses for having been close to death too many times in her life. As for her having had evilness in a past life, no, that’s not it.
My sisters and I share a mother who loved us equally as strong as she destroyed herself around us. Her genetics run through our bodies and we deal with the chemical imbalances imparted in us. My sister Julia lives in a neutral world, where powerful concepts of love and being somebody’s something special, are impossibilities that tend turn into catastrophic prophecies.
¹ “But when it comes to prescription drugs that are not only able to kill you but can drag out the final reckoning for years on end, with worsening misery at every step of the way, it is hard to top the benzodiazepines. And no ‘benzo’ has been more lethal to millions of Americans than a popular prescription drug called Klonopin.” CCHR International. CCHR International. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 July 2015
L.C. Stair is working on a collection of nonfiction and fiction stories. She has lived on the edges of the USA: the East Coast, the Dirty South, and Pacific Northwest. She enjoys her time with her husband, children, and Labrador. She has had creative nonfiction essays published in Gravel and Lunch Ticket’s Amuse-Bouche.