I met Carol when I was in my early twenties. She was sweet and funny, with a gravelly Jersey accent and a streetwise tomboy persona. I don’t know how she ended up homeless and turning tricks on the streets of Sin City, but we crossed paths in the circle of transient addicts I was running with at the time and took to each other immediately—the fast bond of street siblings that often occurs between the desperate and the damned.
She was rough and crude but with a dream still left inside her. She got excited about simple things; a few extra bucks from a generous client or a nice outfit from the discard container out behind the Savers thrift store and her face would light up with a smile and a contented laugh. Most people I met in that world were like that: frayed and weary but vital. Buoyed by a particular kind of survivor’s optimism. This tenacity was an essential tool for survival. For the sick, the mad, the shadow dwellers — all those who had slipped through the cracks while no one was looking, who had gone untended or unseen while the neglectful mechanics of the world were playing themselves out in homes and schools and institutions all across the many lands that reared us—hope was sometimes a dangerous thing, but its absence was fatal.
I had a shabby apartment in a complex a few blocks off the Strip, paid for by way of a succession of manipulative, guilt-soaked phone calls to my mother, who had not yet become able to ignore my narcotic insanity. At some point Carol and I struck an arrangement: I’d spend my days out hustling and scavenging, and she would be off turning tricks for her Johns, and at the end of the day we’d meet at my place to pool our take and score some dope. She would shower while I made us a beggar’s meal, and we’d get high, eat, and talk awhile before nodding off next to each other on the cheap full-size mattress included in my weekly rent.
We were never physical. It was a relationship of emotional proximity and guarded vulnerability that allowed us to share in a measure of solace, each clinging to the ballast of momentary companionship as we struggled to survive the madness of our disparate afflictions. She was a child of abuse and violence and I one of self-loathing and faithless defiance. We were, truly, a gift to each other in that time and space. Each of us was the only one who really saw the other, and in that we were afforded a reminder of our humanity amid the monochrome pallor that hung heavy as a shroud all around us.
I would often wake in the night to hear her grappling with the carnivorous demons of her dreams. She would jolt and thrash, protesting in a low moan and muttering echoes out of her past.
“No, no, Mama, stop it!”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be bad. I won’t do it anymore!”
I would lie there, horrified and helpless, holding the fragility of these unseen traumas like a sparrow’s bones. I dared not put an arm around her, but my every instinct was crying out to take action, to help, to console—to fix. And there were my own fear and emptiness to contend with. I was also weak, longing for relief and understanding. In the absence of a means of relief, my divergent sadness suggested physical comfort, as if I could open my arms and absorb her pain in some way, to show us both that we were going to be okay. As if I could protect her and we could both be safe and free from the tyranny of our fermenting grief.
These thoughts came and went quickly, and they troubled me. I pushed them away, recoiling from the impulse and knowing that it wasn’t the right answer, that you can’t fight fire with electricity, but still feeling that I should do something. As I lay there in a paralytic state of sympathetic uncertainty, I found the space to contemplate the greater scope of the moment. She was caught in the psychic damage of her experience, and I was drowning in a deluge of emptiness. And there we were: Lost. Human. Together. How could I say that she needed to be saved? Or that my instinct to comfort was to be rejected as necessarily wrong? What value judgments was I placing on things beyond my control or understanding, and why did I feel compelled to rush to action? Here were two fragile, wounded people trapped in our shadows and living outside the frame of normal society in a fugue of fear, pain, and isolation, and we knew each other. Did that knowing require an attendant solution? I was her witness and her safety, and she, mine. Perhaps silent recognition was all we had been called there to provide. For a brief time, we found something between us that was greater than the sum of our fears. In our own peculiar way, we were family, lending to each other’s survival.
In the years following, I have thought of her often, wondering if she made it out and found a life she could live with, as so many I knew during those years did not. As I think of Carol and mourn the anniversaries of the passing of other companions who I know did not survive their war against the crushing indifference of the modern world, I have also thought of my own shift in that experience, of traversing the spaces between the purgatory of fearful isolation, the conflict of polluted empathy, and the acceptance of powerless solidarity. When I step outside my home and see all those who are still routinely swept to the margins, I cannot make sense of the fact that I am here. Casting back to that shared bare mattress in the dark of night, I see it now from a new perspective. Sometimes the work is to look inward. Sometimes the work is to join. Sometimes the work is to witness. All these require us to continuously develop our capacities to listen, to learn, and to concern ourselves, to make ourselves available—in the right way at the right time—to those who might be carrying a weight we cannot feel, cannot fix, and can never truly comprehend.
- Chaim Rochester is a clinical psychology PhD student at Pacifica Graduate Institute, as well as a writer, musician, and executive recovery coach. Inspired by the work of Lacan, Fanon, and Andre Green, Chaim’s clinical and research interests center on themes of alienation and liminality and the ways in which psychoanalysis might be used to address the impossibility of cohesion under late capitalism.
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