The Lotus Eaters

I loved him before the drugs.

Sitting in the corner of Mr. Pierogie’s 9th grade, Honors English, we’d pass each other notes, handfuls of which I still have saved in a frayed, decades-old Victoria’s Secret box. There are the snarky one-liners about the class know-it-all; the fear we harbored for the wobbly barstool upon which our sweet, fat teacher would sit; the exchanges that said nothing and everything about life at 13.

When I try to pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with D, I return to that classroom. We had finished the first half of The Odyssey, and from his precarious perch, Mr. Pierogie asked us which of Odysseus’ challenges had been the most dangerous. “The Lotus Eaters,” D whispered to me. It seemed an odd choice, only a few small pages about a flower that forever trapped its willful victims, certainly less exotic or action-packed than some of the other stories in the epic, and my face must have reflected my bemusement. He smirked and added, “It’s the only one I actually read.”

When the know-it-all raised his hand to make the same argument—something about hopelessness, loss of willpower, how those who ate from the flower abandoned desire for all else—I fell madly in love with D’s smile, the free-of-arrogance, I-told-you-so expression that said, “So what if I got lucky? I’m right.”

Shortly after our initial drunken kiss some 11 years later, after we went from being friends to being more, I asked Mr. D if he, too, knew the moment he loved me. “We were in the cafeteria,” he said, going into explicit detail of watching me, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, as I devoured what must have been a very delicious popsicle. “That’s the girl I’m going to marry,” he joked, and we both cracked up.

We didn’t share another class until senior English, and our casual connection continued through college. We’d hit the bowl in his dorm, exhaling pot smoke into an empty water bottle filled with dryer sheets to mask the smell. Once, I accompanied him and his girlfriend on a blunt ride behind campus, grabbing the closest available beverage to soothe my throat, only to gag as the gin-laced juice seared its way to my stomach.

We went to parties in the seedier parts of the city. He taught me how to hock loogies and download songs off illegal websites. We took statistics sophomore year, our first shared class since high school, though he’d eventually fail the course and drop out altogether. After that, it was years before we saw each other again.

When we did, it was at my wedding. Newly single, D came alone and caught the bouquet. At 22, I had married a former pothead who smoked with me on our first date but never touched marijuana again. The sex was mediocre. When a friend once asked what it was that I saw in him, I apparently replied, “He has D’s sense of humor.” She’d remind me of that after the divorce, after D and I became “more,” after my corny remark of always loving him and after the chorus of duhs from our mutual friends.

We were potheads that first year, but D was more, and I didn’t realize just how debilitating more could be. D knew. He had called it eleven years before, in freshman English.

The power of the lotus was stronger than sex and history and me. I wanted our love to conquer his addiction, like love is supposed to do. He said he wanted the same. “I love you, believe, I cannot see you leave, my life’s in your hands, you’re the air that I breathe,” he wrote to me after one fight. The next morning, he took more than a dozen tooth-extraction Percocets from my bathroom closet.

I would call his father frequently then, wondering what we could do to help the man we both loved so much. Neither of us had the faintest clue. He recommended dumping him. I never did.

Through the haze of his drug-numbed days, I could still see the kind, brilliant guy I once knew, the one with the razor-sharp wit, who could always make me laugh, and, as I later discovered, make my body feel things it never had. I wanted so desperately to have a future together.

I imagined it from the start, in the earliest months of our relationship, back when we’d stay up until 3 a.m., laughing, kissing and making love. I’d find myself unable to fall asleep afterwards, higher off his love than any drug could ever make me. I want this forever, I would tell myself then, delirious with desire, deluded by fantasy.

What can I say about pain pills that hasn’t already been said a million times? That it comes into your life and rips it to shreds? That you stand weak and crippled and powerless before it? That one day, eight weeks pregnant with your first child, you find yourself standing in what will become your daughter’s nursey, hurling the most venom-drenched vitriol against someone gripped by a force stronger than you could conceive, a man who fights back, his push so hard and unexpected, that you slam into the drywall, the unpatched hole a constant, ugly reminder of the demons he battles, and now, with his life growing inside you, that you fight against, too?

Perhaps the only thing to say is that no one can conquer it alone. We couldn’t. Newly married and pregnant with our second child, we moved in with my parents, who knew of D’s addiction and helped us raise our family while he weaned himself off methadone’s more sophisticated, but equally debilitating sibling, Suboxone.

Their home was warm, bright and inviting, like the chariot of the sun. Together, they made a 30-year marriage look effortless. They never spoke to each other with disrespect, screaming profanities in the middle of the house as we did. They allowed us to be our nastiest selves before them, loving us while reminding us that our girls deserved better. In time, in their shadow, we would eventually find the kinder, more considerate partners that lay within, and on our eldest daughter’s second birthday, with our youngest child still waiting to enter the world, D would take his very last pill.

We remained with my parents for a few more years, living off my salary so he could finish school. Free from the lotus, we were like kids again, spoiled and unfettered. In my parents, we had built-in babysitters and an endless supply of wine. We would smoke pot on their patio, furtively, always in shifts, and watch TV as they often managed the long and exhausting process of putting the little ones to bed. They delighted in the role of grandparenthood, and we gladly relinquished parental responsibility for blissful complacency, re-forging the bonds of marriage along the way.

When we moved out two-and-a-half years later, I wondered how we’d navigate the waters of our life, alone again, unsupervised once more. I feared we would turn into the people we had been, that our parenting would fall short of the patient, nurturing care that my mother and father had provided, and that my children so desperately needed.

Less than a week on our own, I opened the door to my daughters’ bedroom to see them both fast asleep, nuzzled close, in a makeshift bed on the floor. In that moment, it felt like the roughest waves of our odyssey were behind us, as if we were finally home.

And home we are. The pills long gone, the pot remains, its easy charm allowing us to find joy on our little island, joy I would have struggled to embrace if sailing through life at top speed. We spend many an evening smoking a bowl from the back porch while watching our daughters frolic in the living room, time seemingly suspended as we relish in the magic of their childhood. Those are the days when I’m grateful for pot, for my husband, for the way our stoner style has allowed us to fall more deeply in love with the daily monotony that is our life.

Then there are nights when I wonder if pot is just another form of the flower, if D will ever love me and our life together the way he loves drugs. I think of the times I have slammed my wedding ring to the ground when I felt I was playing second string to the lotus, like the night in Seattle when my husband’s pouty, brooding mood was lifted not by our family vacation, but by news that a marijuana dispensary was nearby. We fought then about hopelessness and loss of willpower and how he seemed to have abandoned the desire for all else. “Could you ever be happy without getting high?” I cried, as the girls slept in the back seat and I flung my ring at the half-open window. It landed on the floor beside me, and I later vowed never to toss it again.

But I have. I’ve thrown it on the ground in those rare, ugly moments when I feel haunted by the past and question whether I’d be better off voyaging alone. Then I remember the earliest days of our relationship, the dangers we’ve escaped, the pain we’ve endured, the impossible lengths we’ve sailed already in this great epic that is our life, and I know that, at its core, the true lotus is our love, purer and more potent than any drug.

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