Love Letter to the Snake Handler (Posthumous)
It’s a bit after eleven, love. Autumn, 2018, a time and place I couldn’t imagine just a few years ago. In 2015, it would be about the right time for you to phone me. It was always around this time, and we never talked deep into the night. Just an hour or so. Recent gossip and debacles of the psychiatric survivor human rights movement. Or something about one of the splinter groups. Peer supporters. Even fucking worse. Who pissed me off? You would ask me, was there just one of them? Should you bring a shovel? Or was it a whole contingent of them? Would we be needing the backhoe? Or, what about stringing one of them up like a piñata and busting their guts open with a garden spade? You’d say anything to make me smile.
It’s 11:05, and the first time I have let your ghost sit with me in the time we used to share since you died.
I’m so calm and so goddamn fucking sad.
Most of us from this little-known movement have almost nothing. Just a few folks have most of the existing resources, and, a few times, a couple of us might have tried to have more than enough. I was, just recently, a (small, as it turns out) part of the total of what another of us wanted, “a part of me I didn’t even know I needed,” was how she put it. I knew when she said this that I was only a tiny sliver her total pie and I didn’t really matter much in the sum. She might have broken my heart a bit.
And, you’re gone. I don’t have anyone to tell. I don’t delude myself that your “ghost” is really here with me.
Your ghost is only my remembering. I am on survivor time.
My throat is constantly swollen and sore. I think of all the years and things I smoked. I wake several times a night, aware that I was not breathing for a significant time before waking. Panicked. They say I have atrial fibrillation. Sometimes my ankles won’t hold me and other times my hands won’t type in the familiar rhythm of creation I love just a bit more than you.
And, I don’t delude myself that your ghost is anything other than me, thinking about you. Nor do I hold hope to see you in the next dimension. When it’s over, I think, it’s over. All the mystical bullshit I used to talk echoes in my head and sounds infantile.
In my head, I tell you about this woman who wanted me, not too long ago. Of course, as you would know, I did not, in any way, misrepresent myself to her. And, I get lonely. This beautiful, brilliant woman came to me and sort of tied up my essence with the unnecessary borderlines and boundaries she had extracted from the fraying edges of herself where she had cut her psychiatric label loose. She liked my mind, so she naturally wanted go into it deeply. Soon enough, we were saying, “I love you,” over a distance of 700 miles in some kind of polygamous context I have yet to fully understand.
And then came the “part of me” part. And next, the news that she wasn’t sure what to “do with us”. It seems she had been “sort of winging it to see where I fit”.
The woman, I’m telling you, my love, has everything. She is well-thought-of in the survivor community and has paid work there (which most of us do not). Her husband is sweet and compliant and able to afford the kinds of commercial things that can cushion a fall from the fragile, web-like bridges of our stability in ways that our poverty never could.
It wasn’t enough for her. She wanted me too, or at least the idea of me.
We said, “I love you.”
There’s a fable about a turtle who picked up a poisonous snake on the bank of a river and thought that for sure, if he carried her across, she would not harm him. Why was he surprised when she bit him in the middle of the river and they both drowned? Some folks, you know, they want to have everything, and they also want to pick up the cobra that everyone already knows is deadly and press their lips to the back of her dry neck. I’m inclined to let them. I might not even feel like I have a choice. If someone already has everything, and they need to feel like they are special enough for that as well, maybe the only one who is special enough, I can’t even imagine how I might say, “no.”
But, I don’t misrepresent anything. As I have said, you know this.
Tonight, I tell your ghost about how I bit her and drowned us both.
You would ask me, “How was the sex?” I would tell you there wasn’t any.
You would sigh and ask me what was the point of any of it again?
This is how I imagine you into being tonight, after the beggars have come and gone and taken all of my sweets.
I tell you that sometimes, we are in the deepest denial because we are trying to do the right thing.
It is almost Samhain.
The veil is thin.
I don’t tell you how your wife once told me you had a tiny cock. While you were alive, I did not think my relationship with you was like that. I do think about how it was an unnecessary thing for her to say.
Instead, I tell you, “Pleasure is not happiness.”
You think I am profound and then your ghost is gone again. I go to bed alone and have erotic, twisted fantasies about anyone who is not you. You and I, my love, my comrade, my brother, are not like that.
You were the only true snake handler, and you have gone.
Very few people have ever heard of the Mad Movement. Those who have don’t really even agree that it should be called the Mad Movement. The Survivor Movement. The Ex-patient movement. Consumer movement. Peer movement. Some versions are more or less offensive to more or less “mental patients” and “allies” than others. All are equally obscure. Let’s be clear from the beginning, though. The movement is not “mad” and has not been for some time. Bourgeoisie pseudo-activists like Robert Whitaker have been instrumental in opening every last door and window to the clinical and credentialed fucks who have downgraded the diagnosis. It is mildly dysthymic at best. Jesus fuck.
“The movement”. I’ve seen it.
I could have never believed it if I hadn’t.
I guess I would be hard-pressed to say I didn’t have a good time. The movement, like all movement, contains everything and nothing. It has given me love and death and purpose and shame and grief. It’s certainly given me hatred generously. It’s 2018 and I’m finally a writer. We arrive at our destinations via narrow paths going up or down impossibly high walls of stone and ice. We come to know things that are true:
Not committing suicide won’t keep you from dying.
You can start to understand how to live your life in a way that feels ok. You’ll still die.
Your body of significant work may be recognized and awarded. Guess. What. Still. Happens.
Deny the personhood of an individual or group who offends you. Yes. Eventually. You will motherfucking die, bitch.
Memento fucking mori.
And then what?
It was 2014. I was staying in a cheap motel in Southwest Ohio as the guest of an expat attorney whose son had become a political prisoner of the psychiatric system following a not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity plea to a minor assault charge. I didn’t have any real place to go and was just as happy to be there as anywhere. There was screaming all night, and plenty of drugs. You were in the room next to me. We referred to each other as best friends, or comrades, or brother/sister. Any implication that our relationship was anything other was a non-starter.
A couple of years later, a serial killer used the Chillicothe Inn as ground-zero for murdering sex workers. You died. But, in 2014, I could not have been more content anywhere.
I explained to the-woman-who-has-everything-and-wanted-me-too that I let myself get close to death. I let it in the door, and gave it a coffee, and shit, I probably loaded a fat bowl and put out a few lines, too. She asked me how that was working out for me and didn’t seem to think I was brave for doing it, or even anything really special as a human being. She seemed, in fact, a little freaked out, like I had done something so foolhardy and potentially chronic, or at least long-standing in the nature of its excruciating possibility that she could hardly believe it. It occurred to me that I hadn’t spoken to that many people about it. It occurred to me that she might be the only one to whom I had described it who had really thought out a salient response.
It 2016 and perhaps an hour since you have died. It is toward lunch time when your best man friend returns from the hospice with your wife. The best man friend is not one of my friends. He is a clinician I have tolerated warily, for the sake of you, my love, and, I think, the tolerance has been mutual and also somewhat fragile. He and I had a theoretical demilitarized zone between the desert and the only river within a thousand miles. He hugs me; I don’t want him to. I don’t need his stamp of approval on how I have handled myself.
I’m fucking fierce and I have been for months while your big heart slowed and slowed, inflicting you with pain and anxiety and terror. The internet, of course, describes how a person dies with congestive heart failure. Those months, I was too afraid to look it up. But I stayed close to you. Now, I know.
Your best man friend does not stay. He goes back to his Very Important Job. He might have stayed at your house for lunch, though I am not sure who might have served him. Really, he might have served me, given that his Very Important Job Description involves something exactly like that.
It is almost the precise middle of 2016; I have filled up the kitchen with fresh things from the farmer’s market, hoping for you to come home and eat, hoping for your wife to come out of her bedroom and eat with you, or minimally, for the “homeless mental patient” from New York City you have taken in to, perhaps, demonstrate some volition and make a salad or, more unlikely, a pot of soup.
It’s starting to rain as he drives away. The “mental patient” is asking me to help find her shoes. Your wife, who, in my fierceness, I have tried to also love, has wandered into the front yard and is heading toward the street. The over-sized gray sweater I gave her yesterday to cover the gashes she made in her arms is getting damp. I can almost feel it, hot and scratchy against her wounds. She tells me she has a headache. I offer her two Valium as a cure.
“Are these headache pills?” she asks.
I assure her they are. I offer her my hand and walk her back into the house. She is play-acting at “dissociative identity disorder” again. This is Trisha. She’s three. She has me fooled, still. Everyone else, still, I think.
She sleeps. I suggest cooking to the “mental patient”. She does not know how to cook. It is not astounding.
That night, in bed with your wife, under an enormous quilt that smells of line drying, I write your obituary. We were there, in her bed, to write it together. She has fallen asleep before adding anything. I cannot begin to imagine 2018. I’m still trying to love her. I wonder if everything might be alright again someday. I write. My words become something beyond me, as they always do. I wasn’t sure if it would happen. It happens anyway.
In the morning, your wife offers the obituary to the friend with the Very Important Mental Health Job. I hadn’t realized it was being submitted for editorial approval until a bit later. “Steve read the obituary,” she said. “He doesn’t want to change a thing. I have never known him not to make changes to something like that before. He’s really impressed.”
I hadn’t realized it needed his invalidation. His stamp of approval looks just like the small, white, square discount stickers plastered over the original prices on his cheap suits, leaving a “1” just barely poking out from under the sticky left side. $59.95. Discount. Dis. Count. Cunt.
His middling, white male sticker near my gorgeous sorcery of words is unnecessary and offensive in every way.
I give your wife the bottle of Valium and tell her to keep it in case she has another headache.
It’s Kennebunkport, a month and a day later. July 16 might be the only real beach day of the year in Maine. Southern Maine. I wanted to be much farther North, in Bar Harbor or even past, but my reserves of energy are finished. I feel like I have been driving for a month, which is just a few miles from the literal truth. At least there is a beach day.
The sand is solid, but it isn’t really dry. I have laid out one of the over-sized Turkish towels that is roughly the size of a double bed sheet. It is already soaked through. Wet--not just damp. I don’t care. I’m not fancy.
I have on a bathing suit top with a long peasant skirt and nothing else. This skirt was bought in a thrift shop in Washington DC a few years back when I still thought being in places like that mattered.
My love was alive then.
You were alive.
Next to me is my favorite lover of the critical New York Jew persuasion. Uptight, he also spent a long time in Boston. He is fussing about the wet towel. I smile and flatter him in some forgettable way and take my hair down. I’m 47 and so fucking full of sex and drugs and brilliance and shattered grief and fast-running blood and the cut flesh belonging to your mental patient wife. My bikini top isn’t much of a match for my breasts and I am practically topless. He settles, finally, and lets me convince him to take off his shirt so I can touch his bare chest (in public) even though there are all of five other people on the beach. He is taller than I, and much thinner. He wrote most radical anti psychiatry book I have ever read and survived brain electrocution, though he has never directly told me the second thing. I don’t know for sure, but he might have been overly conscious about his slight upper body. He turned me on beyond the blue horizon where there is nothing but deep water and Europe.
Time doesn’t mean a whole lot in Kennebunkport.
Just behind the beach, there is a crab and lobster shack that has been selling seafood tasting like the ocean from which it immediately came probably since the pre-depression grand hotel days. Before all those gorgeous places burned just after the big war. My motel is one of the long white ones with the row of black doors that open to where the cars are parked directly outside. It was built probably sixty years ago but hasn’t really changed. Fifty-nine-ninty-five a night, like one of Steve’s suits. It has a landline.
I am content outside of time, but a bit torn. Finally, I have no pain anywhere in either my body or other parts of my being. Yet, I am empty, a living echo chamber on a planet where every form is deaf. I lie down and put another of the big towels over me. My lover, next to me, seems to have chilled out a bit, or perhaps he ate some of the candy he found on the my night stand. He lies behind me and pulls me close, my back to his chest. He puts his hand inside of my bathing suit and touches my breasts.
Very bold for him. I’m honestly impressed.
With minimal encouragement, he goes, actually, further into me.
God, I’m…not really happy… But something next door to that dimension.
He presses the tip of the middle finger of his right hand into my cervix and his second knuckle into my g-spot. I’m acutely aware of the ocean’s static. The waves are cerulean and white, with the sky being just a touch lighter. Chemtrails are also white. No separation. The color saturation is very pure, though my eyes are only partially open. Far-northern sunlight is tangible like a warm oil massage. I move my body slightly, pulling my right leg toward my chest. Barely. My lover reads me. He pushes his finger into me incrementally harder, opening my cunt just exactly the bit more I require. Deep breath; the air smells close to nothing, almost like outer space, or at least a very high layer of the atmosphere. It fills up my chest and tears pour out of my eyes. Tiny, beautiful, ancient waterfalls. No one, except me, hears the low sound I make as I exhale.
The many smiles you gave me are on my lips.
The morphine from your final illness is in my brain.
It was always fucking like this for us.
It was like this.
Yes, my love.