One of my favorite books of the year is Rob Roberge's The Cost of Living. Gritty, wild, searing, it it's about love, loss, and addiction, all told in a voice so razor sharp, you better keep the bandages handy. Don't take my word for it, Cheryl Strayed calls The Cost of Living "mind-bendingly smart." Janet Fitch calls the novel, "lyrical and ferociously realistic." And I call it genius. Rob is also the author of Working Backwards from the Worst Moments of My Life, Drive, and More Than They Could Chew. Extra bonus: Rob is one of the funniest, smartest people on the planet. I'm so honored to have this excerpt here. Thank you, thank you, Rob.
You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory
DECEMBER 30, 1983
Police search waters for missing woman. Middletown - Police and firefighters in several towns are looking for a missing Middletown resident whose car was found running on Route 3 by the Putnam Bridge early Tuesday morning. Sarah Barrett, 42, of Middletown, was last seen by a friend around 7:30 a.m. Tuesday. A state police trooper found her car in the northbound lane of Route 3 just north of the bridge around 8:20 a.m., state police said.
MAY 12, 1984
The body of Sarah Barrett, 42, of Middletown, was found in the Connecticut River Saturday morning in the waters off the Deep River landing area. Deep River and Middletown Fire Departments responded to recover the body around 10:30 a.m., after receiving a 9-1-1 call from a fisherman alerting them to the discovery. Barrett had been missing since December after her car was found running near the Putnam Bridge in Glastonbury.
The night before my father would beg me to kill him, I sat alone in a hotel room across the street from his hospital, re-reading old newspaper articles about my mother’s suicide. I had six months clean for the second time in my life. The first time stuck for six years. But that seemed impossible to do again. My skin itched and my body crackled and I had no idea how I’d get through the next five minutes, let alone the night, or the rest of my fucking life without being loaded. I was freezing and the room wasn’t cold. I went into the bathroom and turned on the heat lamp, which came on along with a fan, and I paced for a minute. I sat on the toilet, fully clothed with the seat down and counted the square inch white tiles on the floor three times while breathing deeply. I listened closely to the fan’s small jet-like idle to block any thoughts that might come. I tried counting the subway tiles on the walls but couldn’t concentrate. I looked back down at the floor. I let my sight blur and the moldy grout started to form a pattern that looked like floating chicken wire.
I needed sleep. Without it, I was apt to fly into a manic episode my brain stabilizers and anti-depressants and sleeping pills could never reach. I was allowed to travel with a few benzos, which frightened me, but I needed them for anxiety attacks. They couldn’t really tame a manic swing, anyway. If I was lucky enough to skip a psychotic episode, there would still be the inevitable depressive suicidal down and I’d fought through enough of those over the years to be exhausted at the thought.
The meds had been more or less working. For the first time in my life they’d found a combination that seemed to keep me steady and fucked less with my weight or sex drive than the other pills. Though I didn’t really have much use for a sex drive unless Olivia took me back. She’d never divorced me, but she probably would have if I’d had my own insurance for rehab and the meds. But still, I told myself far too often for it to be healthy, if she hadn’t divorced me maybe that was a sign there was still a chance we could be together again.
I closed my eyes and tried to breathe with my head between my legs and I felt the heat lamp on the back of my neck.
Ten minutes later I was dripping sweat. The floor tiles came up a different number every time. I’d counted two hundred forty two, two hundred thirty eight and two hundred and forty four tiles as my sweat dripped and pooled on the ones closest to the toilet. I had to stay in there and count until I had hit the same number twice. Two counts later, I came up with two thirty eight and I could leave the bathroom and try to find a temperature that worked.
I wanted to call Olivia but was worried she wouldn’t want to talk to me in this state. There was no way I could tell her I wanted to get high. She made it clear she’d seen and heard enough about that in her life. I scrolled through my contacts and looked at Ray’s number. Ray was the guy the label sent out on tour with me to make sure I stayed clean. Part of the contract. It was embarrassing, but, with a track record like mine, I couldn’t blame them for a minute. My ex-sponsor—when he was still my sponsor—told me I shouldn’t have been planning a tour, but I said I had to make a living. He told me I had to stay clean and that was my full-time job until I heard differently. I wouldn’t budge and he recommended Ray, who’d been, as my ex-sponsor dismissively called it, an “addict’s babysitter” for a bunch of actors and musicians. Ray had turned out to be more help than the sponsor, though. He knew what touring was like. He knew what playing bars every night meant. I was surprised that I ended up liking a guy who was supposed to tell me what to do and to keep me in line.
I turned out the light and focused on my breathing.
My right hand ached. It was tight and premature arthritis swelled the joins and the repaired tendons. I’d flown out of LAX early that morning and the humidity of Connecticut made it feel like I had cut glass in every knuckle.
A car’s headlights cut through the drapes and made the room bright for a while and then the light went out and I heard the car door open and close. There was the click of a woman’s shoes on the asphalt.
My room faced the parking lot. They’d asked me which side I wanted. Like the hospital was ocean view or something.
The surgery scar on the back of my hand ran a deeper red color in the humid air. Looking at it, I thought about Olivia and thought about my relapse and quickly tried to stop thinking about either of them.
I’d left the heat lamp and fan on. The fan whirled and heat coil light bled into the room through the open bathroom door. I closed my eyes and saw the ghosts of orange light for a while before it faded.
My mother left twice. First, when I was thirteen, after my father killed that man and again when she jumped off the bridge. If she ever explained her reasons for leaving me with him, he never told me, or showed me any letters. For years, I was convinced she was sending me letters and that my father kept them away from me or burned them. I had no idea at the time if she ever really tried to get word to me, but I’d created a world in my mind where she overflowed with regret for leaving me and kept trying to get me back.
By the time I was staying at the hotel across from his hospital, I’d only talked to my father twice in twenty years and he hadn’t said much more than that my mother had gone crazy and that was that. That I’d started to believe his version near the end didn’t matter for the first forty-five years of my life—when I believed what I wanted to believe. That she was the saint and he was the monster. That simple belief shaped so many years.
Things I remembered:
I remembered her working the night shift at the Emergency Room at St. Jude’s hospital, where I’d been born. We didn’t have money for a sitter, she told me, explaining why she brought me to work. I’ve always been dug in and too stubborn to forgive my father for much of anything, but I’ve never blamed my mother for having me sit, night after night, in a room where people were wheeled in with gunshots, knife wounds, and people beaten so badly their families couldn’t have recognized their faces. Where I saw a construction worker with two feet of rebar that went in his mouth and came out the back of his neck and he was awake and conscious and when he tried to speak, I saw shattered teeth and blood filled his mouth the way water does when you dig a hole at the shore. When he tried to speak, he gurgled and I heard what teeth he had clatter against the rebar. At one point, his head sagged toward his chest and blood poured all over his orange reflector vest.
I remembered the woman who held a dead child she wouldn’t let go of even after the police were called and stood over her dumbly for hours.
But back then, and in my memories, it became time with her and time away from him, which made it, no matter what surrounded the situation, part of the good times of my childhood. Or at least what seemed like, if not good times, safer times.
I remembered the man who’d been torn nearly in half in a car accident, his guts open, his intestines out of his body and snaking over his chest. Later that night, word came back to my mother at the desk, that the man from the car accident was brain dead. They were waiting for his family while my mother explained to me there were machines that could keep a person alive.
I asked, “Is he dead?”
“He’s brain dead, honey.”
“What’s brain dead?”
“He’s alive, but his brain doesn’t think anymore.”
What could a brain do if it didn’t think anymore? I thought about Mike the Headless Chicken. In the late 1940’s, some farm family was cutting a chicken’s head off for dinner, but the chicken lived. It lived for seven years and got named Mike the Headless Chicken and the family made a small fortune, charging people a nickel at county fairs and travelling side-shows to see Mike run around without his head. They fed it with an eye-dropper. He died eventually when food got stuck in his feeding hole. I’d read about it in an encyclopedia.
I said, “Will he join the circus?”
“Who?’ my mother said.
“The brain dead man. Will he go to the state fair?”
She smiled sadly. “Sweetie, where do you get your ideas?” She hugged me tightly and I hugged her and felt the stiff and mildly abrasive fabric of her uniform that smelled like soap when I huddled my face against her. “He’ll live at the hospital.” She released me. “For a while.”
She didn’t answer. One of the few sharp images I’ve been able to keep of her while she was alive is a snapshot of that moment. She hugged me again, her uniform so stiff and rough it felt like construction paper, and didn’t let go for a long time.
I wondered what she thought, unable to tell me about death. What do you tell a five-year-old kid? She held me close and tight enough that the world felt safe, even with all the blood and the brain dead man and everything else in that emergency room. I couldn’t let go of those moments of her protecting me.
A woman protecting me, always, I’ve taken to mean love.
I’d forgiven her the fact that I should never have been in that hospital at that age. That she never should have allowed that. That I shouldn’t have seen what I saw, and that it was her fault that I did. Instead, I cherished that moment of her holding me forever. And I tried to find that moment, again and again and again in so many women’s arms over the years.
I called Ray and told him I wanted to get high. That I was thinking of killing myself, which—without warning—I was. That I was scared.
“All you’re allowed to be is scared,” he said.
I heard the whirl of his big aquarium and I figured he was standing close to it. “Feeding the fish?”
“You call to talk about my fish? Talk about something that fucking matters.”
I looked around the room. “How many hotel rooms you think you’ve been in, Ray?”
“In your life,” I said. I listened to the fan and went to the window and pulled the heavier curtains over the light gauzy ones that let in light from the parking lot. The room got darker. Large moths careened into the light outside my door. I was amazed they could live through even one blow that hard, let alone repeated ones until they finally destroyed themselves, smashing madly against the light and glass.
Ray said, “Who cares?”
“I’ve been in maybe a thousand.” I thought about the years with the band where we played nearly three hundred dates a year. We had three years with over two hundred and seventy days on the road. Around two hundred and fifty shows. Before that, there were the years where we stayed on strangers’ floors. “Maybe more.”
“You want a fucking medal?”
I said, very calmly like I was ordering a coffee, “I’m really thinking of killing myself, Ray.” I was actually thinking of doing it once my father died of his cancer. Whether he died a day or the week or two the doctors gave him at the outside. Once they were both gone, it seemed like I could just close the door on this whole fucked up family if I still felt like this. But if I told Ray I was waiting to do it, he might have grabbed the next flight, so I made it seem like I was thinking of it right away. I needed to talk it out, whether I was going to wait a week or not. Or, I had to admit the possibility, I might not be able to go through with it.
He didn’t say anything for a long time. Maybe forty five seconds—an uncomfortably long pause on the phone. I listened to the fan in my background and the trickle of the aquariums in his.
He said, “You’re in a bad place, Bud.”
I laughed. “Isn’t that kind of the definition of suicidal?”
“I’m talking a literal bad place,” he said. “You’re back home. Your father’s dying.”
“I’m reading old newspapers about my mother’s suicide,” I told him.
“Jesus,” he said. “Triggerville.”
“I know Triggerville pretty well,” I said. “I grew up here. It’s home.” I paused. “Maybe I’m more comfortable here.”
“Listen to you.”
“Feeling sorry for yourself. Asking for me to confirm your childish feelings and I won’t do that. I’m here for a lot of things, but that’s not one of them.” Ray could say words and make it sound like he’d spat them at your feet. He had killed his wife in a car accident eleven years before when he was driving drunk. He had to give the go-ahead to take her off the machines from his own hospital bed, where he stayed until he was well enough to go to prison for manslaughter. If he’d left her live on life-support, his lawyer said the charges would have been reduced to very little time away—maybe none with a deal. He knew about feeling sorry for himself, about what it was like to punish yourself for years.
He said, “You know what? You are more comfortable there.”
I needed a cigarette and walked out of my room. The air was so thick and muggy it felt like I was breathing though a warm towel. “Thanks for all the help, Ray.”
“You want to kill yourself, call some fucking fan that’ll bring you dope just to say they got high with you. Don’t call me.”
I didn’t say anything.
Ray said, “You still have a few fans. Go find one that wants to say he got you high.”
I felt numb. Like my insides were a block of ice. More bugs thunked against the light. I lit a cigarette. I didn’t have my key card with me and I left the door open a crack and several huge moths got into the room. Their shadows swirled around on the ceiling and I heard them banging into the walls in my room.
I thought about hanging up. “Look, I don’t want to get angry.”
Ray sounded kind for the first time. “Killing yourself, whether you’re getting loaded or fucking hanging yourself in your thousandth hotel room closet—destroying yourself in front of people who love you is an act of anger. And cowardice. You’ve got a wife. You’ve got real friends. And you know what it does to people. If you’re not guilty of that, make your case.”
“I’m not in front of anybody I love.”
“You always are.”
I watched the smoke drift as I blew it out—gray in the dark and then slightly blue when it past the light. “Maybe it’s just in my fucking genes.” A lot of stats backed me up.
“Your mother was crazy,” he said. “You’re not.”
I felt the way you feel when you’re a kid and the world gets to be too much—too swollen with emotion to keep it inside. I tried not to sound like I was close to crying, which was stupid, because Ray was one of the few people who wouldn’t have cared. Who would have cared enough not to care. “I’m not trying to be…I don’t know if I can live clean,” I said. “I’ve tried. Really tried. It hasn’t worked.”
“Look, I love you. But you wouldn’t be the first junky or drunk I loved who went out and died. I had to make peace years ago that my life was going to be littered with people who couldn’t stay clean and who didn’t make it. What do you want me to say?” His voice sounded like a resigned shrug would look. “I’d miss you. I’ll say nice things about you along with how pissed I am at you at your funeral. I can’t make up your mind for you. You’re afraid to change. You’d rather live your self-fulfilling prophecy of being a loser.”
I leaned on the wall and smoked. My left arm grew stiff from holding the phone and my right hand didn’t work well enough to hold the cigarette between my index and middle fingers. I could just barely hold a guitar pick with that hand. I had to jab the cigarette between the middle and ring fingers junky-style, the way I had for years because you couldn’t drop it while you nodded out and burn whatever place you were in down to the ground. My hands were mangled. Every fingernail bitten bloody and malformed. My mother told me I started biting my nails when I got teeth. I was worried before I knew there was a word for it. “I am a loser—don’t you get it?”
“I get plenty.”
Whenever I was pissed at Ray, I forced myself to think again about him waking up in the hospital and hearing about his wife, dead but not dead yet because of him—with her somewhere in the same building but gone already. People had died around me most of my life. I’d hurt other people. But I hadn’t killed anyone. Ray had been worse places than me. I stopped myself before I said anything stupid or hurtful. I watched my cigarette and thought another thing I do that destroys me. Inch by inch instead of mile by mile, but intentionally fucking myself just the same.
It felt like some storm inside seemed to have passed, at least for that moment. A fist had let loose a grip and opened up—gone from clenched around my heart and lungs to relaxed.
Ray seemed to sense it. “How’s your father?”
“He’s dying. All I know is what I told you this morning.”
“But nothing went wrong when you talked to him?”
“I got here after visiting hours,” I said. “There hasn’t been a chance for something to go wrong yet.”
There was a pause. Muffled noise came from a TV close to my room. Like most things I could barely hear, things at a distance hurt my ears and gave me blinding headaches.
Ray said, “You going to kill yourself tonight?”
I thought about it. “No.”
“You going to get loaded?”
“I want to.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
I tossed my cigarette into the parking lot and lit another. When I closed it, my zippo clicked with its cold metal authority. An ambulance siren swelled closer and closer until it turned across the street, into the emergency room.
“No,” I said. “Not tonight.”
“Good. Call me tomorrow,” Ray said and hung up.
After St. Jude’s and the emergency room, she worked at Fairfield Hills Mental Hospital—where I later learned she became a patient when she went crazy. I was six and with her at work after school and I took a pill off the floor of the pharmacy and OD’d for the first time. I’d crawled around on the cool tiles and the pill looked like a piece of candy. I felt that dreamy floating-out-of-my-body-feeling for the first time and felt my brain lift like a state fair balloon and wondered why life couldn’t always be like that and thought that maybe this was what it would be like to be kept alive by machines and brain dead and maybe it was much easier than people thought and the next thing I knew I was in the hospital and they were flushing me with charcoal and my mother you cried and my father stood there, and I couldn’t understand why everyone was so upset. That first overdose was the first time in my life I felt true peace.
And then there was the man my father killed. And then she was gone.
In my forties—when I was still clean—I allowed myself to see that she was crazy and nothing could have been done. But I found that out too late and by then I’d learned there are few things worse in this world than learning something crucial about someone you loved too late for it to matter. Too late for you to do anything about it.
I found my key card so I could lock my guitar in the room. I smoked and walked around the building and saw across the city street the hospital where my father was dying. Some of the rooms flicked with blue TV light. Some still had their cold fluorescents on. I wondered which was his room. I wondered if he could sleep. I wondered what kind of person I was that part of me wanted him to be asleep and part of me wanted him to be awake and in pain for however many hours he had left.
The traffic changed from green to red. The little white pedestrian lit up and told people when they could walk. Then the countdown numbers came—along with the beeps for the blind—one every second. Every beep a reminder of the treacherous sweep of the secondhand. Of the seconds of pain I had just wished on my father. The lights changed again. I stood there for ten more cycles of Red, Yellow, Green. No one was out at this time of night and the lights just did what they did whether anyone needed them or not.
It struck me that if my father lived as long as the doctors said he might, I could be here on my birthday—just two weeks away. I stood and smoked a cigarette and looked at the hospital where I’d been born, just shy of forty-five years earlier.
One night, alone in our house with my mother, I’d seen a spider with a body as big and dark as a black olive and I ran to see her.
“Are you scared?” she said.
“Most spiders aren’t even deadly,” she told me. “Things that scare us aren’t that bad, most of the time.” She licked her thumb and wiped something off my cheek. “What you’re afraid of almost never happens.” She held me with both of her straight arms on my shoulders and looked intensely into my eyes. “Ok?”
I nodded again.
“You know what the most deadly insect on earth is?” she said.
“The mosquito,” she said. “It’s killed more people than any other bug. And people think they’re harmless.”
She pulled me closer.
“The smallest things, the ones nobody else notices, baby. That’s what you need to be afraid of.”
Before the suicide I expected her to come back and rescue me. When I asked my father about her, all he’d say was “your mother’s gone” in a tone that made it clear that his answer was the end of the conversation.
I thought I must have done something that drove her away. Even years later, guessing and hoping it had to be because of my father, because of something I didn’t know, I wondered why she left. How she could leave a kid. Before her suicide, I always thought someday I’d get the chance to ask her why.
The police, then the papers, said there was no note. Only her car, still running, on the side of the bridge. For too many years, I lived in her past and not my present. I woke up, sweating and hearing that car idling, smelling its exhaust in the cold morning air, even though I wasn’t there. She’d crossed the road and jumped on the opposite side of where she’d parked. The driver’s side door was open and her purse and wallet sat on the passenger seat.
I learned quickly not to romanticize her death. I did at first. I imagined her free, weightless, flying and empty of sorrow for a moment—and maybe empty of it forever after that. Like the overdose, but lasting until time would stop. Afterwards, I read and read and read about bridge suicides. The impact was like being hit by a car. The water might as well be cement—the body hits the water and stops and the organ tree keeps going and rips itself away from all the connective tissue that keeps us together.
The children of suicides were five times more likely to kill themselves than the rest of the world. Later, in one of the rehabs that didn’t take—while they tried to find some combination of meds that would keep me from psychotic episodes—there was some doctor telling me that junkies were fourteen times more likely to kill themselves than their peers.
At four in the morning, I left the hotel. There was no way I could sleep. I walked ten city blocks to a Dunkin Donuts and bought a coffee that spilled so hot it seemed like melting plastic on my fingers. I poured a third of it out and walked back to the hotel, smoking.
The sun wasn’t up yet, but I smelled the salt in the air from Long Island Sound. At 6:30, I heard the Amtrak to New York City and I remembered getting drunk under the railroad bridge with Tony when we were in our first band in high school. They had a maintenance level ten feet beneath the train level and you could drink wine and, as long as they weren’t up on their ladders doing repairs, lay on the old wood supports and smell the tar in the railroad ties , mixed with cooler salty air from the water and listen to the sea gulls and be wasted and feel the train coming from ten or fifteen miles away. First, a small vibration, maybe when it pulled out of Stanford. And then it would grow and I would close my eyes and feel the heat and light of the summer sun and the train would get closer and louder and closer and louder until the noise swept everything else away and you prayed that it was a New York Express so the noise would stay that loud for five full minutes because the train wouldn’t stop like it would if it was a Local.
I finished my coffee and lit a cigarette and went back to the hotel and waited for the sun to come up.
A life of questions. What brought her there to that place that she was so out of options and without hope that any day would ever be different again? Always wondering how she felt. How different was her moment from my crossing of that line over the years? A loneliness that swelled so hard that it must have pushed against her skin from the inside, that she must have had a pain no words would ever reach. And could I have done something, anything, before she left? Could I have changed the course of events that brought her to that moment, that collection of seconds, where she stood and decided, finally, to fall toward the river, cold air in her hair and face, the wind pining back and fluttering her dress in that moment before impact?
And, later, when I did attempt suicide and even later, after what I hoped was the last relapse, where I’d get close again to ending it all, when that same loneliness swallowed the world, I wondered: Was I trying, in some sort of desperation, to get close to her, or trying, just as desperately, to get away?