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Desert Companion

There is a meth addict eating chicken yakitori on our back patio. 

Actually, we are all eating chicken yakitori — me, my husband, David, our girls, Lucy, who is 10, and Edie, who is 8. And Charlie, the guy who is working on our house, who has four days clean.

It’s a fall day in Las Vegas. The sky is clear. It’s 72 degrees, which is like a small miracle if you are from New York City. Which we are. It feels good to see the girls in shorts, and to eat on the back deck, while the Northeast is frozen under the Polar Vortex.

David and I lived in New York City for 25 years both together and separately. I know that city like it’s my skin, but something is happening — I’m starting to like living in the Mojave. I like the hot sun and wide-open skies. I like that a few months in, I’ve found my people — artists, writers, circus people, Elvis impersonators, lounge singers, weirdos. Vegas is full of weirdos. That’s part of its charm.

I barely miss New York. It shocks me to even write this.

I want to say that Vegas is easier and kinder than New York, but I can’t hit a grocery store without being accosted by homeless people hoping for spare change, or a young mother who tells me, with teary eyes, how short she is at the end of the month and could I buy diapers for her baby?

Support comes from

It is not easier and kinder for a lot of people. It’s like 1980s New York here, except with big open skies that turn shockingly pink and violet at twilight.

And meth. Meth is everywhere.

You can’t walk a mile without seeing someone with the telltale hollowness etched into their sinking faces. Vegas feels like the old New York my friends back home whine about and long for — gritty and real, unrelenting, exciting and unforgiving. High highs, low lows. The beautiful and the ugly, the easy and the impossible, all plastered together in one glossy, throbbing, well-lit city.

Maybe this is why I am falling in love with Las Vegas. It’s NYC the way I remember it.

We live here only two weeks before we meet Charlie, the first of several meth addicts. It doesn’t take long for meth to become a huge part of our everyday lives.

+++++

Lucy passes a platter of chicken skewers to Charlie. Thigh bits swim in soy sauce, fish sauce, lime, garlic, ginger, rice wine, some cilantro, and a few chopped up Thai chilies. We fell in love with yakitori when we were in Tokyo the month before. David is a producer of the Vegas show, Absinthe, and its sister show was playing in Tokyo. I made a silent promise during that trip that yakitori, in one form or another — particularly grilled, heavily salted, crunchy chicken skins — would become a staple.

I throw all the thighs on the grill, on skewers. I like a hot fire, and I like my chicken bits slightly blackened and grilled up crunchy, but still soft and supple on the inside. I like to smell the last steak I made on the grill infused into my chicken.

Edie takes a large spoonful of jasmine rice and ignores the salad, just simple greens that I quickly toss with lime juice, olive oil, salt, and a handful of cilantro, and chopped spring onion.

There are wedges of fried up scallion pancakes. Charlie puts three on his plate, heaped with all the chicken and veg. He doesn’t think you can get scallion pancakes anywhere but a Chinese restaurant. He thinks it must’ve taken me hours in the kitchen.

I want him to continue on with his fantasy, but I can’t help it — I can never keep anything food-related to myself — and I tell him how easy it is to make scallion pancakes, and the three ingredients required, and how anyone with half a cerebellum and a hot plate can do it.

David, hell-bent on cutting carbs, ignores the pancakes for salad and chicken. We talk about the work Charlie is doing in the casita. Charlie and David are transforming it from a dirty, overrun garage, infested with black widows, into a light, airy studio, one that will house David’s work as a theatre producer, mine as a writer, and the children as constant makers of one thing or another. There will be windows that let in light, and glass doors that open into what will be the garden. It’s David’s ideas and Charlie’s hands that will make it happen.

They talk about the inner workings of a miter saw. I pretend to listen while Charlie fills his plate again. Then he tells us, kind of abruptly, that he hasn’t heard from Tessy, his wife, today. She is a meth addict, too, and he knows what phone silence means. That little sign — her simply not picking up the phone for several hours — is a bomb that flattens him.  We see it land, all except for the kids, who are joyful and clueless.

She has started using again. It’s what always happens.

In just three months, we have seen Charlie and Tessy through a lifetime of crises — temporary sobriety, meth binges, two stints in jail, three moves, one eviction, several religious, end-of-the-world texts on our phones, a dozen different phones and phone numbers (meth addicts go through “Obama Phones” like packs of cigarettes), and a stay in a psychiatric hospital. Every day brings some kind of cruel surprise, some hardship that would pummel me, but is just business as usual for them.

Their lives are a tedious wreckage, and it never becomes more clear than when we eat lunch together.

He is quiet about Tessy in front of the kids. I watch his face and wonder if he is more scared of Tessy being high or Tessy pulling him back into his own high, which she always does. Maybe both. What I know is that when he leaves our house, he will run straight to her. He will say he is going to rescue her, but they will drown each other. They will get high together, and he will pillage the four sober days he has under him.

On the weekends, when David is home and the girls are out of school, we all eat lunch together. During the week, when Charlie works a full day, I make him a lunch he eats alone at the same table on our back deck. I don’t set the table or put out bowls. I make a plate, a big one, with several servings of each food, usually leftovers from the night before. I put out a cold glass bottle of water and a glass. He prays over the food, and I go back inside, writing or washing dishes. When he finishes, he brings in a neatly cleaned and scraped plate and drops it into the sink. He thanks me profusely and swears I am a brilliant cook. I don’t mind hearing this.

When we are all there, and Charlie is working on the house, we all eat together. One big happy, weird, extended family that isn’t a family.

And meth is always there.

I no longer ask myself why there is a using meth addict eating with us, around our table, next to our children, eating our grilled chicken thighs, but that wasn’t always the case.

In the beginning, there were a lot of questions.

Meth Lunches

{AUGUST}

It is natural to call them to lunch.

Charlie and Mike are jackhammering cement in our backyard in 107-degree heat for $20 an hour. Charlie and Mike work on our house, in the Huntridge section of Downtown. Our house is old, built in 1944. It predates even the Strip. Some of the neighbors who grew up around here refer to it as “the Snow White House” because of all the ivy and the big, leafy green tree in the front yard, so the opposite of an organic Vegas landscape of ficus and barrel cactus. Maybe that’s the reason we bought it — because it could be a quiet, ivy-covered refuge, something not very New York City and not very Vegas. Something new and all our own. A fun reinvention. An adventure to shake out the cobwebs.

But the house is a hot mess. Renters have left behind broken, cheap furniture, and the walls are dirty and painted a dingy grey-green. Cockroaches, the big ones that look like tiny puppies and run really fast up the walls, have taken residence. I find a pissed-off mouse in my sink. And the outside of the house is covered in empty cicada shells, which the girls collect and keep in tin cans, much to my consternation.

It is the most depressing house I have ever been in. My mood quickly absorbs all the sadness left behind, and I teeter from being obsessed with the vermin to being sucked down the black hole of sadness. I am either searching the walls frantically for roaches or slumped into myself, bleak and worried.

David responds to my plummeting mood and strange obsessions by doing two things: He (1) gets me to a doctor, who puts me on anti-anxiety meds, and (2) paints. These help immensely. As the Lexapro settles into my system, and David and I paint a crisp white over the psychiatric hospital green, I start to see how this house can change, how it can be ours.

We hire an exterminator. We throw out the sad debris of other people’s lives. We buy two excruciatingly beautiful antique couches, a gloriously battered farm table from the 1800s and a primitive sideboard. And we start to plan, to look forward to what the Snow White House can be.

That’s where Charlie and Mike come in. David calls the Nevada Day Laborer Office and asks if he can get a couple guys to break up concrete with a jackhammer. The office connects day laborers with jobs. There is only the exchange of cash, no taxes, no garnishments. A little cash for people down on their luck, but willing to put in an honest day’s work.

Mike is white, in his late 50s. He had been a rootless tramp his whole life. No family. No ties. Just a backpack, a network of homeless veterans and old pals who fill up the vagrant hotels, and a gambling problem that he embraces with joyful clarity. He came to Vegas to minister to his gambling addiction. He knows he can’t keep a dollar in his pocket, but he doesn’t care. He works hard when he needs money. He accepts he will always be a gambler. That he is an addict. And that he doesn’t want to stop. Mike is a walking, talking lesson on accepting and embracing yourself, welts and all.

Charlie is in his 30s, boastful, blonde, darkly tanned from sleeping in the desert for the last three months with Tessy. He wants to do the hard bits, jackhammering relentlessly, rarely taking breaks. He calls Mike “old man” and tries to be the most useful one. He is from Texas and has big Texas manners. I am Ma’am and always will be.

The day before, we cooked pork butts all day long in the Caja China. I have one left over, for another day of bo ssam. No one will complain. I warm it in the oven and tear off warm, soft chunks of meat. I set the pork out on the table with little bowls of David Chang’s quick pickles, pickled watermelon, homemade kimchi, rice, and ginger scallion sauces. It takes 15 minutes to pull together the leftovers. I call everyone to lunch.

He says that seeing us, remembering what this feels like, having a family, forces him to look at what he has done, and what he's lost.

What I don’t know is that meth addicts often don’t eat. Not really.

Mike dives in. Charlie is silent. He sits there looking at us, looking at his empty plate. I shove a platter of food in his hands and tell him to eat. He forces himself, to be polite, but he’s a great actor — addicts are — and it doesn’t register with me that he is resisting the food. Mike cleans off three plates full of pork and sides, and talks about his love of Chinese food, mainly dan dan noodles, while Charlie chokes down two.

Charlie tells us about his family, Tessy, and his five boys. He talks about working in his father-in-law’s plumbing business. He talks about love, and staying together, and Jesus. He talks about God a lot. All of this makes me wonder how he ended up as a day laborer, how he came to be jackhammering in our backyard. I wonder if it was the economy. Had the business gone belly up? Had he simply been downsized? It could easily have been the economy. He talks so intimately about his children and his wife. I pass around the sauces and say nothing.

Later, I find Charlie in the backyard, bent over, crying. He tells me that seeing Lucy and Edie hanging out, everyone eating together, reminded him of his kids. He told me their names are Josh, Jackson, Evan, Daniel, and Cade. And even though he had spoken about them like they all lived together and did things as a family, he tells me that Child Protective Services took them away, and he hasn’t seen them in months. They are back in Texas living with Tessy’s uncle, a pastor, and his wife.

He tells me that he is so fucked up on meth that he barely thinks of them, that they are some intangible whisper of smoke in his head, and that seeing us, remembering what this feels like, having a family, talking about normal things, forces him to look at what he has done, and what he’s lost. And this is intensely painful.

Charlie gets high after he leaves that night.

Meth Lunches

{SEPTEMBER}

Mike disappears after a couple weeks, but not before I blow his mind and make him dan dan noodles. Charlie stays on.

Charlie comes nearly every day now. David gives him a chore list. I ignore him, except for bringing him lunches. He is always busy and moving, but sometimes not really doing anything. He might take an hour to build himself a worktable to cut something, or a podium out of leftover wood for his list and his pencil. His mind is addled with meth. He’s a talented carpenter, tile layer, plumber, and workman, but he is also hopelessly brain-dead.

This is something he will have to live with, his Swiss cheese head, because meth is a lifelong affair. The success rate for getting off meth is about 3 percent. Dismal.

Charlie knows he will probably never do it. He talks about it openly when we eat together. He tries to stop. He never stops trying. He’s the rat on the wheel, and it keeps spinning.

Here’s how it works: He comes to work disgusted with himself that he did meth. But he’s better on meth. He works harder. He’s happier. He has less drama in his life. Meth takes away all the pain, the turmoil. He talks fast, a machine gun of words and ideas.

This time it will work, he tells us. This time, he won’t do meth again. This time everything is different.

The circle wheels around.

He disappears for the withdrawal, but after he comes back to life again, I make him an omelet with baby arugula, from a small pot I hope will be my garden someday. I add goat cheese. He watches, and something about the simplicity of the omelet makes him want to cook. Lots of questions. He borrows my Jeep to go to Walmart for groceries. He is trying to find normal again, and cooking for himself seems like something sane, non-tweaking people do. Drug addicts do not keep a full pantry or fresh herbs in the fridge. He wants to be the kind of person who has fresh herbs on hand.

I teach him how to make the omelet — the heat, the butter, the flipping, the spectrum of ingredients, the-anything-you-have-in-the-fridge no-rule of making an omelet.

This cooking heals him. He starts cooking for his wife, and his friend Salvador, a meth addict who also has zero days clean and lives with them in a pay-by-the-week apartment complex in the drug alley that is East Fremont Street.

The wheel turns.

When he gets a few days clean, Charlie buys scallions and salt and cream cheese and hot sauce. He cooks and feels the old life coming back into him. He feels like he can do it this time. I believe him. Because I’m stupid, and I have no idea this is the pattern, the endless, circuitous pattern, where all hope is false hope, and addicts have good intentions but horrendous rates of success.

He tells me what he cooked. Salmon over greens. Noodles with shrimp. He asks about Chinese black vinegar. His interest grows under the sobriety. For a couple of days. It’s like having a toddler in the house, exclaiming joy at every color, every ray of sunshine, every tiny blessing.

Then he and Tessy have a fight, or they just watch TV and are bored, or whatever triggers them into using. He uses and feels like a god for a couple days, then tumbles into the dark hole of withdrawal. A shell again.

Boom, that wheel.

He stops caring about food, or anything. After staying up for days, he sleeps for days. Once Edie found him face-down in the casita.

“Charlie is dead in the casita,” she tells me, breathless.

He is passed out but breathing. David checks his mouth for obstructions. He tries to rouse him, but he is lead.

This is the first time Charlie’s addiction is noticeable to the kids. That evening, while he sleeps on the cement floor of the casita, we eat dinner on the patio. The kids eat sukiyaki noodle bowls, their favorite, a dashi base, rigged with soy sauce, sake, sugar, thin slices of rare lamb, enoki, Nappa cabbage, udon noodles, thick slabs of tofu, and a few loud spurts of Sriracha. For David and I, a pan of bacalao al forno, salt cod baked on top of thin wafers of potato, onions, peppers, briny olives, and lemon halves that get squirted warm and tart over the fish. We eat and talk about this dude like he isn’t passed out in our backyard. We talk about firing him. 

We talk about what is good for us and what is enabling. We talk about boundaries, how I struggle with mine, how David has them drawn in great, bold, permanent strokes around him and us. We talk about Charlie’s work pace, how it is suffering, how Charlie is suffering. We talk about how we can’t fix him and have to protect the kids, and ourselves. We talk about how we just want the work in the casita done, and how we want Charlie to finish.

We wonder whether the lunches are a good idea.

+++++

David wakes up Charlie at 9 p.m. He is sobbing and remorseful. A mess. We tell him Edie found him, and he immediately gets where this is going.

We double-cop him. David goes stern and hard, pissed-off dad. No tolerance. I go soft and talk about how we will never let his drug-addict behavior touch our kids, although it has.  I know that because we explained it to the kids, all of it: what meth is, how to tell if someone is on meth, why Charlie and Tessy lost their children, why we gave him a job — because he is talented in areas we need talent, and to give him a chance.

We also explain that we can give the chance to someone who needs it, but we cannot make them take it. I see they are imagining themselves there, in the shoes of Charlie’s kids, thinking about what it must be like to lose their parents, and they ask a barrage of questions. Then, when we have fed their curiosity, they dismiss it, finding it so otherworldly that it could never happen to them. Like we were telling them an ultra-ugly fairy tale.

It has to be fiction, right?

Losing your parents is serious shit. This makes them sad in a very deep place. But they are resilient, and they bounce off to their bedroom. I hear them laughing. They are fine.

Charlie is still a remorseful, sobbing mess, but just like a switch had been thrown, he brightens and tells us he has news.

Great news.

News that will change everything.

News that will make him quit drugs.

News that is a blessing from his God.

He tells us Tessy is pregnant.

Meth lunches

{OCTOBER}

Charlie looks bleary. Hunched over. He shaves his head, cuts off his beard. He doesn’t come through the house anymore to get to the casita. No more stopping in with the day’s news, or problems, or drama. Now he goes through the side gate and never tells me he’s here. He’s late some days, cryptic about when he’s coming in. He works, but barely, it’s all uneasy busy work, moving around.

David is getting more and more disgruntled with his progress. Charlie moves like a ghost in the backyard, there but not there. Some days he never shows up at all. He’s largely unreachable by phone or text.

He tells me he’s doing meth, which I know. Duh. I’m like a meth expert these days. He says Tessy is gone, disappeared. Last time he heard she was living with a guy in a different shitty motel on Fremont.

“Using and she’s pregnant?” I ask. I can’t hide the disdain I feel.

He nods.

“Did she use with your last baby?”

“For six of the nine months.”

“Fix the problem, Charlie,” I say. I’m hard and unyielding. I have no compassion. “You and Tessy have to go to rehab. Get a counselor. Stop white-knuckling. Fix the pain,” I tell him.

At the word “pain,” he cries.

It’s a flood. He tells me about the pain. How his dad sexually abused him and how he had, in turn, abused his sister, and how he would never abuse this baby, he would never, not this time, things were going to be different, and it’s a jumble, all this confession and crazy that he is spewing.

He looks in the mirror and can’t stand himself. He changes his hair, his clothes. He shoots meth into his veins. He tries to be the person this isn’t. But it’s always there in the mirror, this person he hates.

He is both victim and perpetrator.

And the wheel keeps turning.

Perhaps I might do meth, too, if I were Charlie, if I carried that pain and shame around with me all day, every day, like a great iron balloon, weighing me down, crushing everything, squeezing me until I’m flat.

Meth takes all that away. Which is why he will never quit it.

{NOVEMBER}

Charlie finishes off the Shaking Beef at lunch — thin wisps of chuck grilled, crunchy and rare, and tossed in a mixture of Thai chilies, garlic, fish sauce, oyster sauce, soy sauce, lime, and sugar, and served on watercress tossed with a light vinaigrette.

He leans in and tells David and me he has something to tell us. These announcements are wearing us to the bone.

Turns out his friend, Salvador, showed up at the apartment with drugs and a pocket full of works and wanted to get high. Charlie smiles and tells us he told the friend “No,” that they would not do drugs. He tells us this with a big smile.

Salvador breaks down and tells him about the voices he hears, how the voices have been with him since he was a kid, how he was almost pulled under the bed by spirits and whispering monsters when he was a boy, how no one believed him. How a shrouded figure follows him around. Has always followed him around. Still does. How meth makes the shrouded man go away.

But then Charlie talks to Salvador about Jesus and his plan, and convinces him to not get high. Salvador agrees.

“Best night of my life,” Charlie tells us. And he stabs at the drunken slabs of beef with his fork and smiles.

Salvador relapses the following night. Charlie stays clean for another week.

{DECEMBER}

I’m making steamed pork, mixed with shiitakes, garlic, and fish sauce. In the steamer basket I add thin strips of ginger and pieces of salted fish. It’s a Charles Phan recipe that has come to be an easy lunch staple. Our Chinese neighbor in New York called it “Chinese Meatloaf,” and the name sticks with the kids. I put out some jasmine rice, a few leftover, cold Imperial Rolls. I quick-sauté some bok choy with bits of garlic and fish sauce.

I ask Charlie about the new baby that’s coming. He hasn’t been working for us as much, a few days a week. David gave him very specific projects with lots of limits. He has trouble focusing, more and more all the time, but the bathroom in the casita is almost tiled, and we want to see it done.

I wonder about this baby. If she will be born meth-addicted, if she will be hurt, neglected. If she will be fucked up with her fucked-up parents.

Of course she will be fucked up. It is unavoidable, even when they are on their best behavior.

I also wonder if she will end up in our care.

Yeah, I think about this, and in a chain of thoughts, I imagine her with us. And this makes me want more kids. Makes me want to love the fucked-up kids. The ones who had been dealt a bad hand from the beginning.

David and I talk about becoming foster parents. Worlds are opening up in my head, and David is kinda on board. Kinda.

I put out the Chinese Meatloaf lunch, and we talk about none of this.

But Charlie is talking, rattling on. He is a child we know like our own, and we know innately he is high again.

Tessy has returned home after her affair, he tells us, and he sees clear sailing ahead. Instead of concerns, he talks about remarrying Tessy on a beach in Florida. He draws the picture for us, how he will be barefoot in khaki pants and she will be in a sundress and all of us will be there. Our girls will carry flowers and throw petals at their feet. David takes a full bite of that gingery, fishy pork, and says nothing. He doesn’t engage in the crazy.

He does not seem concerned that Tessy is probably five months along, has used meth all of her pregnancy, and has not been to a doctor.

Charlie talks of throwing Tessy a baby shower, and he hopes I will throw it. I am the shower-thrower-type, for sure, but I can’t bring myself to get near this. There is so little to celebrate here. He keeps going, his plans, his dreams, how he will rent a house for the three of them, how he will get the other boys back, even though they have long been adopted, how this baby is a gift from God, a sign to him that everything will be okay.

He doesn’t seem concerned that Tessy is probably five months along, has used meth all of her pregnancy, and has not been to a doctor.

I become so angry I stop cooking for him. I stop making the lunches. We stop inviting him to join us for meals. I cut him off without explaining why. I use food as a weapon.

Not that he notices. Addicts only see themselves.

{JANUARY}

The love-fest doesn’t last long. Tessy moves a drug addict and prostitute into their studio apartment. Charlie gets pissed and borrows our Jeep and moves his stuff out.

“She is jeopardizing my sobriety,” he says.

Two days later, he shows up for work in the casita. With Tessy.

“Tessy is going to help me work,” he says.

Everything they say is as impermanent as steam. One minute they are madly petting each other like teenagers. The next they are screwing other people, breaking bonds like they are toothpicks, finding the soft spot in the other and poking at it until it bleeds.

I stop listening. I turn into David, which I should’ve done long ago. When Charlie speaks, it’s like a lonely, clueless wind in David’s ear. This is harder for me because I am an aching ball of nerves. I want to connect, ask questions. I like the drama, too. I like to be pulled into these crazy worlds because I get to feel like the sane one, the one who has her shit together.

But I’m over that now. This is too much.

Charlie whispers to me that Tessy’s uncle just died in rehab. I see her eyes are ringed red. I pull her in and hug her, hard. She is uncomfortable and wiggles out of my grasp, laughing nervously. I make a mental note about being too touchy-feely.

Tessy, mostly, watches him work. She calls me “Mrs. Foster,” which makes me feel like an old lady. She smokes cigarettes and sweeps a little to busy her hands. Her belly is huge, like a giant wasp hive protruding from her stick body. She has all kinds of social anxiety. Her leg jackhammers fast, always. She is not comfortable here.

Tessy is in her mid-30s, sickly pale, like the color of dumpling skins. I can tell she was once pretty, but the meth has gotten to her face. She looks hard, jagged, beaten up. And I know she is empty inside. This is why she keeps her distance from me. She is so empty that anything alive and warm seems otherworldly.

I decide to break my not-cooking-for-Charlie streak. I might be mad at them, but I can cook for the baby.

I make a quick salad — greens with pear slices, cilantro, olive oil, lime, and salt. Catfish, marinated in tequila and lime and dredged in potato starch and fried in oil. Slices of hard goat cheese. A quick garlic, Sriracha, and lime aioli for dipping the catfish. I plate it and set it on the table outside. It’s Tessy’s first meal here, out on the patio, in the cool night air, twinkle lights above their heads like they are in a Sandra Bullock rom-com.

After they eat and David and I struggle through the girls’ homework, Tessy brings in their empty clean plates and stands in my kitchen, asking me about the catfish, how I make it, and if the cooking is expensive. She wants to know if they can make it in their efficiency kitchen, in their weekly apartment.

Then she hugs me. Deeply. Much more so than I expected.

“My mother never hugged me as hard as you did,” she says.

I’ve never heard a sadder thing.

{FEBRUARY}

Las Vegas is breaking 80 degrees. Uncommonly hot, even in the desert.

I think of those people in New York, with their feet of snow and below-zero wind chill, making stews and hearty soups, and me grilling the shit out of everything, windows and doors thrown open, sun everywhere, light. I am just reveling in the light. I make the food Australians are making now, because it’s summer there and David is Australian, and I swear it’s summer here. Seared nubs of negimaki, lightly charred lemongrass pork skewers, and chili and lime-grilled prawns with a tub of Romanesco for dipping. The seasons are all turned around.

We are into the yakitori again, too. Chicken livers, oysters, neck, gizzard, heart and skin, belly of the pig, tongue of the cow, and stuff from the dirt, shishitos, scallions, shiitakes. I throw it on the heat and let it rip into smoke and flame. It all feels so good, this forever summer.

But I’m not feeding Charlie anymore.

Not because I am angry anymore on behalf of their unborn child. We just want the casita done. Charlie is a goner. We have no more investment. We are exhausted by him, and he is exhausted by himself.

My girlfriend, Adrienne, who was once married to a heroin addict, is like “Duh,” when I tell her this. I see it now so clearly. Everything she had told me about her marriage: Investment, even in its most remote form, is stupidity. Lunch is stupidity.

David says he has never seen Charlie this bad. He is confused, chaotic, shooting up before coming to work. He breaks down in even the most casual conversations. He doesn’t stay at work long enough — when he comes — to eat anything anyway, so there are no lunches, and because there are no lunches, there are no connections.

I find out from Facebook there has been an intervention. Tessy’s family gives her an ultimatum, just like on one of those shows on TV. They offer her treatment. Again. And tell her if she doesn’t take it, they will refuse her help with the baby. They tell her they have readied the nursery not because they are excited another grandchild is coming, but because they know if they can’t take her, this baby will be taken away by Child Protective Services.

I forget about Charlie, and meth and his abandoned kids, the baby who's going to be born in to all of it.  I head to the kitchen to make supper.

Their responses are cold. Hard. Unrelenting. And necessary.

Family fights break out on Facebook. I secretly stalk them and watch what unfolds. It’s a clusterfuck. I eat crunchy little pork empanadas at the counter, crumbs falling on the keyboard, completely weirded out, yet fascinated, by this soap opera.

We Fosters are a messy people, but this is otherworldly, messy shit. I’m enthralled and horrified. I am my redneck relatives all of a sudden. I’m not proud of this. It is simply true.

Charlie refuses treatment. On Facebook. It’s not his thing, he writes, too rigid, he needs to move, be physical, use his hands. They shut him down, humiliate him. He quotes Scripture, invokes Jesus, says he must follow his own path. His meth-addict friends tell him to keep going on his own path.

“Stay with the Lord,” one writes.

“Jesus will get you clean.”

Charlie does not think Tessy will go to treatment. “This child will make us different,” he says. But his voice is weaker and weaker. Tessy has moved out again. He can only access her on Facebook.

Then Tessy does the unthinkable. She gets on the bus and goes to Texas, to a special house for Christian pregnant women. Some are drug addicts, but mostly they are girls who are lost, kicked out, abandoned, alone in the world, with their big bellies.

Tessy begs Charlie to get treatment. She messages me and asks me how he’s doing. But the more sober she gets, the more tired she is of his excuses. She blocks him. Her family blocks him. She refuses his phone calls.

This makes him crazy. He sinks into meth even more. He stays high all the time.

“I have to buy a birthday present for my son and send it to Texas ...” he tells me.

“Wait,” I interrupt. “Didn’t you buy him a present last week after you got paid?”

“No.”

“You told me you did.”

“I lied. He never got a present from us for his birthday.”

“Where were you?”

“Using. But I’m a good dad.”

“No matter what Tessy says,” he tells me and wipes away the tears.

But he cries because he knows. We both do. His kid didn’t get a birthday present from his parents because they were high.

David and I get a new laborer to finish the casita. We let Charlie go.

Lunch doesn’t save a life.

{MARCH}

Charlie is high. He blows his one week clean. He is all over the place.

He doesn’t work for us anymore, but he is doing work on the house next door, which is going up for sale and the landlord got a desperate deal from Charlie.

Sometimes he stops over, and says Hi.

He is a mess. All over the map. He is going back to Texas to be with his family, he says.

He isn’t going back to Texas, because Jesus has a plan for him.

He is going to find a program five hours from where his sons live.

He is not going to go to a program because he has Jesus, and Jesus will save him.

He is going to go to college to be a pastor.

He is going to run a ministry.

He is going to run a ministry on Facebook.

His addiction goes from drugs to Facebook, where he posts persistently about Jesus and his mistakes and his triumphs, to inspire other people to get clean, all while he is using. He doesn’t see the contradiction. He writes long, too-intimate public missives to Tessy on Facebook, and because she has blocked him, she doesn’t see them. So he writes them to whomever will listen and agree. 

It’s pitiful and hard, even for a stalker like me, to watch.

Then, the landlord lets him move into the house next door while he fixes it.

“It’s a sign from God,” he tells me. “Everything will be all right.” Then asks if we want to get together and grill something for dinner. Like we are neighbors.

We decline.

{APRIL}

I’m growing a garden on the side of my house, the side next to the house where Charlie is working and living for the next month. It’s small and just a container garden of lettuces, several varieties of hot peppers and herbs, as many herbs as I can plant.

“She won’t talk to me. Her family won’t talk to me ....” he complains while I am planting a shiso cutting into a pot. It is so hard to find shiso, but I am excited to grow it. I have whole wok-fried snapper with shiso and lemon in my head, and screaming-rare, grilled NY strip underneath a melting chunk of shiso-shallot butter. I’m cooking them already in my imagination.

“It’s unfair to take all my support away,” he says, blinking into the sun.

“They want me to have a year clean before I can see her or the baby when she is born. It’s wrong.”

“Charlie, she is saving herself,” I say.

“Let her save herself.”

I go back into the kitchen and bring out a plate of Chinese eggs, eggs poured into scalding oil and fried so quickly the outside is puffy and crunchy, and the inside is runny as all hell, and served with stripes of oyster sauce, and bits of Thai chilies and scallion. I made it for myself, but he is grateful to eat it. It is the tiniest of Band-Aids on a problem unfixable by food, or gathering together, or cooking.

He eats, standing at the fence, and we talk about lighter things. The grain of the wood on the walls of the casita, the way the new window lets the sun in, how everything about that little house has changed.

How everything has changed. And nothing.

David comes home, the car doors snap open, and the kids pile out of the car.

There is chatter, and Lucy is talking wildly and loudly. Charlie shows David his work on the house next door. He hands me back his empty plate, scraped perfectly clean as always, then goes back to painting something, to his thoughts, to his mind buried in meth, to his zero days clean.

I walk away from the fence. Let that go. I want to talk to David about foster care, maybe taking that first orientation class, seeing how that goes for us. I know the idea is warming in him. He is game. My man is always up for a new adventure, and this is why I love him so madly.

I forget about Charlie, and meth, and his abandoned kids, the baby who’s going to be born into all of it. I wrap myself around my husband. I catch up with him and the kids, and all the things I’ve missed.

I revel in them.

Everyone is hungry, so I head to the kitchen to make supper. I have chicken wings marinating in mirin, soy, and fish sauce. They are ready to coat in corn starch and deep-fry.

I make lunch for the people who matter, and for whom lunch matters.

Everything is so fucking normal, it’s beautiful. 

 

Kim Foster is a writer, novelist, and cook. Her work has appeared on Food52, in Bon Appétit, and in the Best Food Writing anthology series.