In the middle of the afternoon on December 18, 2008, a gardener let himself into my best friend Rebecca’s kitchen using the spare key he’d been instructed to find under a potted plant on the back porch. He shut his nostrils against the smells—food rotting and cat feces, primarily. The cat, skittering away down the short hallway connecting the bedrooms, whined as it fled, hungry and in want of water and the outdoor litter box it normally used. The man puckered his nose and stepped forward after the cat, choosing not to look at the cluttered kitchen counter and table in the dim light sneaking through the closed blinds. His foot kicked an empty cat food can and it rattled across the floor, louder, for a second, than his heart.
He called out for Rebecca, his voice an echo in the still, dead air of the tiny Oakland, California home. He took another step, wondering why he hadn’t refused when Rebecca’s sister asked him for help, why they hadn’t just called the police. He heard the cat in the far bedroom. In the small front room, all surfaces were covered with piles of papers and clothes and boxes, even the floor littered with stuff. He only worked for Rebecca, and only sometimes. He was just clearing her yard of chest-high weeds, the act ordered by the City for fire prevention. He’d called the sister in Virginia when Rebecca didn’t answer the door any of the times he’d come over to collect the check, and here he was.
Every window was covered with blinds or blankets or towels. He almost forgot, in his slow walk to the doorway into the near bedroom, that outside the day still held the bloom of winter sun in a clear blue sky. A sky the color of Rebecca’s eyes. When he stood at the threshold of her room, he heard the cat scamper around behind him, aiming for the back door, which he’d left open due to the smell. He felt more alone than maybe he ever had as he glanced at the empty rumpled bed and the clutter everywhere, hoping he wouldn’t find what his nose already told him was there.
Why he didn’t turn away and follow the cat outside, he didn’t know. Something compelled him forward, maybe the same morbid curiosity that causes traffic to creep past an accident, that makes me keep writing and you keep reading as the story unfolds.
One step into the room and he saw a small pudgy foot in a dirty white sock. He leaned forward, looking for the other leg, which he couldn’t see until he entered the room fully, and there she was, in jeans and a white tank top pulled tight with the bloat, my Rebecca. In the poor light she looked thick and sort of green, and her eyes no longer held the sky. One arm bent at the elbow, a leg bent at the knee, her face turned toward eternity. No blood or bile anywhere. Just the smell and a quiet Rebecca and some half-empty pill bottles on the nightstand.
What hand of grace touches one addict clean, and misses another? We started using together. While I advanced to needles, Rebecca preferred snorting cocaine. But I got clean, and she never did. I can’t say all the years clean have been easy, and I certainly can’t say the years since Rebecca’s death have been easy, but they are years lived.
I live. And I am here.