When I was a kid, we had this green plastic cup in our kitchen cupboard that my sisters and I shunned, entirely and summarily. It was ugly and puke-colored and it had a line melted into its side from when the dishwasher rack got too hot once.
We fought like banshees over who had to drink out of the green cup whenever my mom served us a round of apple juice or milk. Ending up with that cup in hand represented a failure of will. It meant that you hadn’t fought hard enough.
My hatred of the green cup was rivaled only by my distaste for another brand of lunchtime detritus: sandwich crusts. Come noon, I’d nibble my way around the brown, oaty outer skin of my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, then ditch the tasteless leftovers at the edges of my plate.
Sometimes, my mom would hold up those discarded crusts and pretend that they were dancing across my plate.
“Eat me! Eat me!” she’d make them sing.
I appreciated the spectacle, but I turned my nose up at the crusts nonetheless, just as with the deformed green cup.
It felt like winning a battle each time, but invariably, much later on, I always found myself consumed with regret for my cruel rejection of these lesser objects, indeed, consumed with a deep, implacable sadness for all the objects in this world that were summarily snubbed by children everywhere because they were ugly or malformed or otherwise undesirable. I was complicit in this endeavor, yes, but I was also acutely aware of how unfair it ultimately was.
As a child, my softness for the world’s neglected bits rendered me overly sentimental and perhaps even a bit effete. It also moved me to declare, at age five, that green was my new favorite color, as a sort of penance.
My sensitive bent persisted well into adulthood, at which point it transmogrified from a mere personality quirky into a character liability that rendered me a blinking target for the attentions of all sorts of ugly, malformed and undesirable people.
Like Justin. Like eternally, hopelessly, terribly fucked up Justin.
I am about to tell you a story that is so legendarily awful and humiliating that you will probably doubt parts of it are even true. You will certainly think I’m something of an idiot for doing what I did for as long as I did, and I’ll probably agree with that assessment. You will also likely feel vaguely, smugly relieved that it didn’t happen to you. Because you are smarter, or more self-assured, or a better judge of character, or whatever. Fine.
All I’ll offer in my own defense: the green cup and the sandwich crusts. My very nature doomed me to Justin.
* * *
It was summer, 2008. It was grad school. It was Columbia, Missouri, at the end of July, so infernally warm and sticky that I felt I’d been transported to the rank, humid asshole of the known universe.
It began in a coffee shop, on a Tuesday. I was working on a story for the local weekly paper. And in he walked.
He sat down across from me, handsome and a little goofy, dressed in that willfully emasculated sort of way that had come into sudden vogue in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century: brown leather sandals, drawstring khaki pants, rings and bracelets, hemp necklaces.
He buried himself nose-deep in an anatomy textbook. I looked, he looked, I looked away, etcetera. After three hours of this, we struck up a shy banter.
His name was Justin, he said. He was in his third year of medical school at the University of Missouri, he said. His specialty was neurology. The brain and its disorders. All the ways the mind can go bad.
“We should hang out,” he said.
“There’s this movie I want to show you,” he said.
And his car was at his grandfather’s house in Jefferson City, he said, so if I agreed, could I please come and pick him up later?
He showed up for that first date with a bouquet of flowers and a package of expensive stationery and a poem he’d written, sprayed with some sort of strong-smelling cologne. It read:
When the seconds look up at you
And beg for guidance
Remembering when they or IT was alone
And decided to move
Foreword and chime
When it saw how wonderful you made times
And the remembered present
A gorgeous memory of her first
That she is real and
Somehow not imagined …
Somehow a dream
THAT NO ALARM CAN DESTROY.
No one had ever written a poem like this for me. My heart beat crazy.
We grabbed an 18-pack of cheap beer and went back to my place to watch a movie. He pulled a handful of loose Vicodin pain pills from the pocket of his drawstring pants and started popping them like bitter, oversized Tic-Tacs. He suffered from terrible arthritis in his hips, he explained, showing me his collapsible cane.
“Nothing else helps,” he said, wincing as he pressed a palm to the small of his back. “You want one?”
We washed the Vicodins down with the beer. My brain grew fuzzy. He stayed over.
The next morning, he asked for a ride to the county courthouse. He was a student consultant for one of the judges on cases involving juvenile autism, he said. We made plans to meet at “our” coffee shop that evening. We were calling it that already.
Justin never showed up at the coffee shop. I walked home hurt and confused, and the days passed without word.
He’d left a small black diary in my bedroom. A woman scorned, I opened it up and dug in. The diary was full of beautiful, terrible poems and dark lamentations. And the guy could write.
“I can feel my patience draining away like water from a leaky faucet,” he’d scrawled across the middle of one otherwise empty page.
Near the back, he’d made a list, titled, “People who still care.” It had a dozen names on it, and all but three or four of them had been struck through.
A friend suggested I Google him, so I did. The first thing that popped up was a mug shot.
“Suspect arrested in connection with counterfeit checks,” read one recent headline from the local newspaper, which I happened to work at. Right next to it was another mug shot.
I put my budding journalist skills to work, and I’d soon pulled up a rap sheet about a mile long. Petty misdemeanors, mostly, involving pills and theft and bad checks. Stints in and out of various jails and juvenile detention centers. I was stunned and horrified. I didn’t know what to think.
A week later, I got a call from the local jail. It was Justin, sobbing, blathering on something about pills in the wrong bottle and a case of misidentification.
“It’s a mistake,” he said, sniveling. “Those dullards got their paperwork crossed.”
Something inside said, “No.”
“Absolutely do not do this,” it said, just as with that ugly cup and those stale crusts: “Do not let this in.”
I tried to listen to that voice, but when Justin got out a week later, I caved and agreed to meet him at our coffee shop so I could return his diary.
He showed up looking sallow and repentant, leaning heavily on his cane as he limped toward me. We smoked a rolled cigarette together. He cried a little more. I told him there was just no way. As I stubbed the rollie out on the concrete and prepared to depart, he handed me a thick, oversized envelope.
“Just read it,” he begged me. “It will tell you everything you need to know.”
* * *
I took the envelope home, I opened it, and I began to read. It was 30 loose pages of a rambling, running letter he’d been composing for me from his jail cell. Beautiful, scrawling script. Bits of poems. Gorgeously composed in choppy passages, and sprayed, again, with cologne.
Today is my second full day in Boone countys finest. I have waited to write because every other time I’ve tried, my eyes have filled with too many tears to see.
Oh bother. I’ve been too depressed to sustain an appetite, but I am so weak, I must force myself to eat this trash. I hunger not for food, but for your lips …
You know what sounds amazing (other than luring you to fall head-deep for me and running across the world with you as your co-conspirator)? Going to the movies with you; throwing pop-corn at eachother and sharing the same straw…
Somewhere under this blue canopy, in a coordinate that is within 7 miles, is a brilliant and beautiful girl. I envy the atoms that make the air across her lips – they are certainly more fortunate than I.
A week from today, I will be free again, and at this time then, will probably be desperately trying to find you. I hope your … reciprocal to me again.
I’m so lonely and so afraid. So so afraid, this constriction in my chest is suffocating. The feeling in my stomach, the same … I feel everything slipping away, E. Everything.
I can’t stress enough – though my understanding of it all is odd to even me – how perfect an archetype you are. Perhaps it is truley a beautiful union of poetics and biology …
It’s just that great things, how seldom they appear to me, always disappear just as quickly as they arrived. I hope my luck will change this once. God I do. Good night sweet, beautiful one.
I read and read and even though I knew it was crazy, something in me softened. How could someone who could produce something this beautiful be so terrible, way deep down?
So when I was sure nobody was looking, I forgave him. Quick and dirty.
Drunk one night at a bar a week later, I snuck away from a group of friends and called him at the number he’d scrawled out at the end of his jailhouse missive.
We met at midnight at the edge of campus. I brought a bottle of cheap whiskey and some cigarettes. We climbed a tree and hung out up there for hours, chain smoking and making out.
He gave no further explanation for his time in jail. I didn’t ask for one. Over the next weeks, there was more making out, more pill popping, some pot smoking.
We were high so much of the time that it was surprisingly easy not to think about what I was doing, or about who he might really be. And he was over-the-top sweet, showering me with cards and nicknames and insisting on holding my hand everywhere we went. Still, little unsavory bits of information kept slipping out, like cockroaches pouring from an old, rusty toaster.
His father, a rotten-to-the-bone police chief in some Rat’s Ass town a hundred miles south, had sired 28 children. His own mother, he said, had only slept with the guy to get a promotion in the police department.
He’d been kicked out of medical school, he said, when as a resident he opted to buck orthodoxy in order to save a patient in the throes of cardiac arrest.
“I kept paging for the nurses and doctors, but no one came,” he told me. “So I restarted his heart! I didn’t have a choice!”
His supervisor had wept when he was forced to kick Justin out of school for the breach of protocol. The patient – the man whose life he’d saved –still kept in touch, Justin claimed.
Tears would leak from the corners of his eyes as he spun his sad yarns, each one starring him as the unwitting hero, or the victim, or, often, both at once. He was really, really good at crying on cue. And, no doubt about it, he was incredibly intelligent.
“It’s not easy, having a brain like mine,” he once told me.
He’d have long, rambling conversations about medical diagnostics with his “mentors,” – professors who’d taken pity on him for his egregious ejection from medical school and still chatted with him over the phone.
Once, when we wanted to go out to eat and I said I didn’t have any money, he used my cell phone to call his mom.
He told her, his voice atremble, “I’m so hungry, mom. Please.”
She’d send me a check for $40 if I fronted the cash for us to go out to eat, he said. He chose a fancy local steak joint and gorged himself on filet mignon.
It wasn’t till much, much later that I began to seriously question whether anyone had ever been on the other end of the line for any of these showy telephone calls. Needless to say, I never got a check.
Justin had concocted all sorts of scams to feed his many addictions. His wallet was always full of vouchers for thrift stores and local food pantries. We fell into a routine. He’d toss me a few Vicodin and then get me to drive him to the churches and run-down buildings where such operations were inevitably set up. He’d charm the volunteers, then choose the most outrageously impractical things from the sad, neatly arranged shelves: graham cracker pie crusts, silk ties, peanut butter, sport coats, canned cranberries.
And he stole with impunity. Anything and everything, from everywhere. He always denied it, but whenever we left a business or store, his pockets were bulging with pens and knickknacks. I started to dread going anywhere in public with him.
Justin was sort of like this weird, terrible science project that is so fucked up you have no choice but to continue on with it, to see it to the awful end. Like dipping your fingers in acid and documenting the rate at which the layers of skin peel away. Like performing your own tooth extractions or pulling out your own toenails, one by one.
I confessed the affair only to a select few people; those whom I knew wouldn’t judge me too harshly.
“That guy is a menace to women!” one girlfriend shrieked.
“Here’s how to figure out if he’s really a kleptomaniac,” another friend, a therapist by trade, advised me. “Go to his house and look in his bedroom and it will be full of shit.”
Justin was camping out in the spare room of a poor, uneducated teenaged couple named Nikki and Curtis. Curtis worked in construction and had an anger problem. Nikki was kind, artistic, and struggled with reading and writing. One night when Justin was in the bathroom, I peeked inside his dresser drawers and found that they were full of fancy soaps and stationery and lotions and books and expensive pens. All the overpriced kitsch a broke grad student such as myself would admire at a stationery store and then put back down, patting empty pockets.
As the week passed, our world got smaller and smaller. My friends refused to hang out with him or have him over and the places we could meet became fewer and fewer.
We got banned from our coffee shop after he told the Christian owner to take his crucifix out of his ass. He’d been banished from the local Starbucks for pilfering CDs and making the female customers uncomfortable. He was banned from another favorite coffee shop for eating the little peanut butter packets that were left out for paying customers to smear on their legitimately purchased bagels.
Justin and I spent the night of my 27th birthday in Wal-Mart. He was so high on pills he had lost his phone and his cane and we combed the store in search of them till well after 10 p.m., when I found the cane hooked to a shopping cart full of clothes in the back, near the dressing rooms.
On the drive home, I was so angry. He promised he’d take me to a party and make it up to me. We ended up at a nasty, split-level shack where I spent the last hours of my birthday sitting on a ratty couch smoking cigarettes with strangers while he did heroin upstairs.
“You know, heroin gets a bad rap,” the girl sitting next to me said, I guess to try and make me feel better. “It’s not actually that harmful.”
I tried really hard not to cry.
It happened like that over and over during the course of those six-or-so strange weeks. Justin did unforgivable things. I swore that we were finished, then he cried a lot and made loud promises to change, offering me Vicodins and Ambien, I took them, dozed, forgave him anyway and on we went.
He told me he loved me, and he began wearing a chain with a little golden “E” on it around his neck. I didn’t want to ask where it came from, or how he’d been able to afford it. I didn’t need to. I started to notice people watching me funny when we went anywhere together, or was I just imagining things?
Every day, new threads came loose. It was like this huge, floppy, moth-eaten sweater unraveling endlessly.
We were finally arrested one night at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in the local shopping center. A pair of police officers paraded us through the mall, Justin in handcuffs, me firmly escorted by a grip to the upper arm. I couldn’t stop shaking.
He had the credit card of a woman named “Rosa” in his pocket.
“I found it on the ground!” he cried.
The cops opened his leather satchel and piles of medical textbooks fell out. They ordered him to disrobe, and he pulled off layer after layer of stolen clothing, like one of those Russian nesting doll toys.
“Please stop crying,” one of the officers begged me as I sat, later, inconsolable, in the back of a police cruiser, listening to the other officer list off Justin’s most recent string of offenses over a CB radio. “You didn’t do anything.”
“I’ve never been arrested before,” I hiccupped back at him. “I’m … so … embarrassed.”
As I sniveled and wished desperately for a cigarette, the cop looked at me with something sad and inscrutable and brotherly in his eyes and told me that I really ought to stay away from Justin.
When the police released me, I drove home, weak and exhausted. At midnight, Justin called from the jail, begging to me to bring $1,000 and bail him out.
“I promise I’ll pay you back,” he said.
“Fuck you,” I said, and hung up.
* * *
I tried to stay away from him after that, but it wasn’t easy. A few weeks later, Curtis punched Justin in the face and threw him out after the landlord complained that someone had been breaking into the tenants’ basement storage units. Justin wept and denied everything, but Curtis and Nikki had finally lost their patience. Another strikethrough from that dwindling list of people who still believed in him.
He was homeless, once again, and one chilly evening later that week I found him on my front steps, his overstuffed leather satchel to one side and a boxful of possessions on the other. He cried and begged until I agreed to let him stay over, for just one night.
Sniffling, he carried his things down to my bedroom. It was a Thursday. By Sunday, he still hadn’t left. His pile had given birth to six new piles, which were taking up half of my tiny living space. Every day, I’d go off to classes and work and he’d go off to “look for jobs.” In the evening, he’d come home with used books and board games, tapestries, more soaps and lotions.
“I found these in a dumpster!” he’d exclaim.
Or: “Look what was just sitting on the side of the road!”
Or: “Look what I traded for at the used book store!”
To placate me, he brought me expensive art and photography books and more hand-written poems.
You sang to me with pictures
So let me paint you a song
An impressive way to die trying
Is to start where you don’t belong
Hopefully I do.
The only thing worse that actually admitting to myself what he was doing was admitting to myself what I was doing. The few friends I had left were starting to look at me sideways. My roommates were silently furious. And so I didn’t. Admit it, I mean. Problem was, the only way any of it was bearable was if I was completely, blindingly drunk or stoned. So we went on a bender each night that week after my school let out. He continued feeding me pills: Vicodins that recast the entire world in soft, dull shades of pink and red. Oxycodone that made me giggle and itch all over. And, once, a powerful sleeping pill that sent me into an eight-hour waking blackout, at the end of which I came to in my bed with him, surrounded by empty ice cream cartons, pizza boxes and beer bottles.
“Did I eat all that?” I asked, horrified.
“No, I did,” Justin told me. “You said it would be OK if we bought some snacks with your debit card, remember?”
No, I did not remember. I did not remember at all. It was as if my life was biurificating into two raggedy halves. Each morning, I’d wake up feeling like my brains were made of soggy cotton. Often, I’d had three or fewer hours of sleep, but I’d roll out of bed, take a long hot shower, eat an egg, and with Justin still comatose in my room, I’d climb the basement steps and walk out the front door to resume my regular, mostly honest life: teaching undergraduates, faithfully attending graduate seminars and lectures, writing arts features.
I produced some of my finest work during this time. I made straight “A’s”, was praised by all of my professors, and never missed a class or a deadline. But my mental state was fast deteriorating. It didn’t matter what it looked like; this thing I was doing was going to ruin me, and I knew it.
I’d come home to find my car gone and a note from Justin reading: “Had to borrow the car for a job interview. Sorry I couldn’t ask first. I love you.”
Or an entire canister of oats spilled all over the kitchen floor and the sink piled high with filthy, peanut-butter-smeared dishes.
Or just Justin, lounging in my bed, wearing my clothes, reading my books and slathering himself with my lotions. Slowly, he took possession of my favorite jeans, my favorite hat, my favorite t-shirt, my rings and my bracelets.
He was eating me alive.
* * *
It finally, really ended at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday a month and a half after we first met, in an Office Depot parking lot at the edge of a highway. We’d narrowly avoided another arrest after Justin attempted to cram a package of butterfly stickers into his jacket. We were on our way to drop him at his new home; I’d told him he absolutely, definitively had to get his shit out of my house, and he’d scoured the Internet till he located an unmarried, middle-aged woman named Doris who was looking for a roommate.
“She has no idea,” I remember thinking to myself.
I felt a sharp guilt at the thought of passing this awful burden off onto another poor, unsuspecting woman. I felt like I was handing her a scabies-infested coat with used, drippy prophylactics stuffed into the pockets and saying, “Here, you look cold. Put this on.”
But I was, by then, a desperate woman. I had to get rid of Justin. His piles of things in my bedroom had grown so towering that they would only fit into the biggest suitcase I owned, the one I’d used when I moved all my stuff to Missouri from Oregon. That, plus four more boxes.
Cut to us in the Office Depot parking lot, sitting in my car: Justin, shrieking and sobbing as I berated him for his almost-crime, then him rolling down the window and smoking furiously as we headed to Doris’ house.
When we got there, he jumped out of the car, threw himself into a shrub in dramatic fashion, and refused to climb out until Doris opened the front door and called out, “Guys? Dinner’s ready.”
I could hear the worry behind her words. She knew, already, that something wasn’t right.
For some ridiculous reason, I’d agreed to have dinner with Justin and Doris the night I dropped him off. My guilt was unbearable at this point, so I sat down with the two of them to a plateful fresh-picked crimini mushrooms sautéed in butter. It was the most awkward half-hour of my life. Justin kept on crying and trembling and swallowing handfuls of pills and trying to play footsies with me under the table. I was doing my best to bodily express to him my total, abject hatred while at the same time carry on a casual conversation with Doris, who was beginning to look more and more concerned.
I was overwhelmed by the fear that she wouldn’t take him off my hands, that I’d keep on being stuck, forever and ever, in this horrible middle place with this horrible person, and so I swallowed my buttery mushrooms in great mouthfuls and then I stood up and lugged the giant blue suitcase into his new bedroom and dumped its contents out onto his new waterbed. He threw himself atop the pile of clothing and books and sobbed and begged me please, please, don’t.
But it was too late, finally.
Justin was wearing my skinny jeans and my favorite hat from Korea. He refused to remove them, so I left my beloved things like prisoners of war and walked out of that poor, poor woman’s front door.
I went home. I canceled my credit cards, I changed my locks, I cried a whole lot of angry tears. One stiflingly hot morning not long after, I went to Curtis and Nikki’s apartment to retrieve a few items I’d left there. They’d made a giant pile in the middle of his bedroom of all his stuff: the fancy soaps, the stationery, the empty orange pill bottles with the white screw caps.
“Now you can see what I was dealing with. “ Curtis said to me. “Take anything you want.”
So I opened my purse and stuffed full it with all those beautiful, stolen things, things that I too, longed for: two dozen fancy pens and pencils, the kind that are inlaid with mother of pearl and cost hundreds of dollars apiece, a few leather-bound journals and planners, a couple of eye creams and a bottle of jasmine oil.
I took it all, and I didn’t feel bad.
Justin tried to contact me for months and months afterward. I ignored him, but he persisted.
One morning I walked out my front door to discover that he’d taken a Sharpie to the sidewalk all along my route to class. He’d drawn a series of little black hearts with “E + J 4Ever” and “I heart EJB” written in them.
Doris called and told me she’d kicked him out after he got caught stealing alcohol from the liquor store down the street.
I told her how bad he was. I told her how sorry I was. And she forgave me. I didn’t feel like I deserved it.
* * *
For years after that summer, even after I’d moved back home to Oregon, I was plagued by strange phone calls. Sobbing, breathy messages in the middle of the night, hang-ups, a steady stream of collect calls from the Boone County Jail.
I stopped answering any phone call with a Missouri number, I anonymized my voicemail message and I started getting strange, creepy texts. I resorted to pretending I was a guy named Adam with poor spelling skills whenever the texts came. I knew it was Justin. He knew it was I. But I figured a buffer of any kind between us was better than none at all. He wanted back in, and I needed all the psychic ramparts I could lay clumsy hands on to keep him at bay.
Once, when he was out on parole a few years ago, he wrote me an e-mail to tell me he’d spent the entirety of his most recent prison term thinking over what I’d said, that he’d written a 500-page manuscript about his revelations, and that he’d dedicated it to me, his “Beautiful and brilliant E.”
I was tempted to write him so many things back, to ask to see it, but I knew it was another ruse, likely to resign me to three more years of obsessive calls, half-cocked apologies and bizarre manipulations. I guess his obsession shifted to other things or to other women after awhile, because he hasn’t contacted me since.
Sometimes, when I’m feeling bored or masochistic, I’ll look up his court records to see what he’s been up to. He’s still in the Columbia-St. Louis area, from what I can gather, and he’s still in and out of jail, for much of the same: Marijuana and narcotics possessions, fraud, petty theft.
Sometimes, too, I still wonder why any of it happened the way it did at all. Why was he like that? I could drum up a million explanations: he was helplessly fucked up, he was a sociopath, he was trying desperately to fill some bleak and unknowable void, etc., etc.
And the bigger question: Why was I like that? Why, that day back at the very beginning, after he’d gotten out of jail and we shared a smoke outside our coffee shop, didn’t I shove that demented, cologne-scented envelope back into his crazy face and walk the hell away? Then, maybe I could have called it a blip. Then, I’d have a funny, weird story to tell people at bars and not this long, humiliating confessional I drag around behind me instead.
I guess I was bored. I guess I was lonely. I guess it was just Missouri. I guess my heart’s always bled too much for cast-off things: ugly cups; peanut butter and jelly crusts; sick, lonely bastards living out interminable and pointless lives in the big, empty middle of our country.
I’m older, colder and wiser by now, but I still appreciate the lesser beauty of cast-off things. Green remains my favorite color. And I acknowledge whole-heartedly the dry grace of the lowly sandwich crust. I can’t help it.
Don’t judge me too harsh.