"Water in the Desert," has just come out in Guernica!
My essay, "Stars and Moons and Comets," published in The Sun in December 2014, has been named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2015.
"How I quit heroin and other toxic substances," was the first essay I ever wrote. It now appears on many addiction and recovery websites, something that pleases me even more than its publication in Spork.
And, if you scroll down, you'll see "Maurilio Miguel," an excerpt from my memoir, Anthropologies, which was published by University of Iowa Press in 2011.
How I quit heroin and other toxic substances
We ascribe magical powers to substances, as if the joy is inside the bottle. Our culture has no sacred realm, so we've assigned a sacred power to these drugs.
Imagine turning your head and holding your arm out, as if for a blood test.You feel a slight prick, you loosen the tie, and then suddenly this warmth floods up, you feel a rush that begins at the base of your spine and surges up until it explodes in your head, like light. Then, for hours, you float in a bubble of warmth and well-being; dreams as vivid as movies drift before your eyes. This is why people like heroin.
Imagine you no longer feel like an ordinary girl, bland and vulnerable, but like a girl who is daring, an outsider, a risk-taker, one of the guys.This is why I tried it in the first place.
But why is a question junkies never ask.They know why.The question for a junkie, is why not?You have to have a very good reason to give up that rush.After all, you’ve come to love the ritual, even the smell of sulfur, the flame beneath the spoon. You love the liquid lightning that fills your veins and blossoms in your head.You love the dreams, more brilliant with color than anything you've seen in life: a car so red its edges are silver in sunlight, poppies exploding into color, again and again and again, orange, purple, vermilion, the dark velvety center.And then the psychic numbness that envelops you for hours, where you have no worries, no fears, no anxieties, no guilt, no other desires.
So why is not the question.You may as well ask why people have sex -- which, as we all know, can have as deadly side‑effects as heroin.
"Maurilio Miguel," first published in Cue: A Journal of Prose Poetry, is from my memoir, Anthropologies,which was published by University of Iowa Press in September 2011 . Other selections were first published in The Seattle Review and Thin Air.
The summer Dora saw la llorona, she was just a girl. They had sprayed down the dirt outside the house, to cool the air, it was early evening. They had sprayed the dirt, packed it down with their bare feet until it was hard and polished as stone, they had taken the beds outside to sleep under the trees, behind the hedge in her grandparents’ yard, and they all saw her, a woman dressed in white, floating down the street, like this, as if her feet weren’t moving. That was the summer her two younger brothers died. First the older one, and then the baby. The older one came back on a breeze through an open window at dawn and told her father he would take care of the baby. There were other stories she could tell: how her grandmother came back after she had died and brushed her mother’s hair, braided it; how her mother got headaches, there, where her mother had touched her in anger. How the priest put a glass of holy water on the mantle and said, when the water evaporates, her soul will be in Heaven. It takes a long time, when a mother dies, a long time, because she does not want to leave her children.
In the mornings, the yellow light, the percolator on the stove, Fernando’s youngest sister, only three, the older children getting ready for school, and Dora tells me stories about the Mexican Revolution and Fernando’s father, Maurilio Miguel.
Maurilio grew up in Michoacan, on a large hacienda built around a central courtyard. Open the huge wooden doors and there it is, an oasis. From the trees hang clay pots of water to cool in the breeze, there are birds, a cacophony of songs, flowers so large and vibrant they have tongues. But the land around the hacienda is arid. In a good rainy season, it would produce, but there has been drought after drought, banks close every day, this is after the first revolution, during the Depression, every day they lose twenty-five head of cattle. There is no work. The campesinos have nowhere to go. Whole families wander from ranch to ranch, looking for work, for a place to stay, stealing to feed themselves. Ranchers say anyone caught on their land is rustling. You can ride across central Mexico and see men hanging from trees.
Maurilio’s father, Carlos, had been a Cristiano, one who defended the church. In the early 1920’s, when the government was looting and burning the churches, Carlos had gone with other men to defend a nearby town. After the Federales left, while smoke was still rising from the rubble, he rode up and saw a beautiful woman standing in the ruins. As if in a movie, he helped her on to the back of his horse and they galloped away and fell in love. She was the daughter of a wealthy German merchant and he was the son of a Spanish hacendado. They fled to California and married, had two children before returning to Mexico. Late one night, Carlos was in town, working in the family’s trucking firm, locking up the office, and someone shot him in the back. Maurilio, four or five at the time, remembers his German grandfather at the wide wooden doors of the hacienda. He has come to collect his daughter and granddaughter. Maurilio, he leaves behind.
There is a church on the ranch, long and low and white, built in the shape of a cross. Above the altar, Christ carries the cross, stumbling, one knee on the ground. When Maurilio is five, the Federales come out to the ranch and he hides in the cellar of the chapel with the statues. The statues are white and cold, the cellar is dark, and he can hear the hollow sound their boots make on the wooden floor above his head, the fine dirt sifting down with the light. He remembers his mother, she was afraid of thunder, he used to hide with her and his little sister; they would crawl under the dark table in the sala and hide until the storm had passed.
Later, when he is thirteen, he will get into a gunfight with a Federale, perhaps the same one who killed his father, and his uncles will dress him as a woman, smuggle him out of Michoacan to Mexico City where he will live for a year with ancient aunts in a large house with servants. There are high walls he is never allowed to see over. Bowls of water on the table, you squeeze lemon in and then rinse your fingers. There is mole, camarones float in a red sauce, mangos and papayas are sweet. The old women wear black and rustle like angry nuns from room to room.
It is a relief to leave even though he has to be dressed, again, as a woman, and smuggled across the border, even though he is left alone, at fourteen, in California where he will learn English and find work mounding dirt over stalks of asparagus so they will stay white and tender. Where he will drive trucks, taking food to relocation camps for the Japanese, where he will fall in love and have a son and leave them both. Where he will wear a Zoot suit and fight with the sailors and end up in jail for stabbing a policeman. Where, at the age of twenty-four, he will reinvent himself: move to Arizona and work on the roofs mopping hot tar, one hundred and twenty-five degrees in the summer, easy; he will learn to read and write English; he will marry, raise nine children. He will never look back. The past, like Mexico, is a place to be from: he is mexicano, pero de los estados unidos. His name is Mike.