First Chapter

Losing Clementine

(All material copyright Ashley Ream. Publisher William Morrow.)

30 Days

I threw the teapot out the window.

It plummeted three floors and shattered into a hundred white porcelain pieces right behind Mrs. Epstein, whom I had never much liked anyway.

“Hey!” she yelled up at me.

“Sorry,” I said, hanging half my upper body over the sill.

Then I turned back inside, grabbed half a dozen teacups, and dumped those out, too.

I wasn’t that sorry.

Crash. Crash-crash. Crash-crash-crash.

It was very satisfying.

“Have you lost your mind?” Mrs. Epstein screamed, dancing around in her sensible shoes to avoid flying debris.

“Yes,” I said and used half my body weight to shove back down the sash.

It would’ve been more satisfying to slam it, but fifty years of paint made that impossible. Unfortunate. I was really into doing things that were satisfying at the moment. I had, just that afternoon, fired my shrink. When you’ve really and truly decided to kill yourself, what’s the point of a shrink?

That was also satisfying. Both the firing and the deciding.

Then I positively on-purpose hit the car of the asshole who always parks six inches across my building’s driveway. I took his bumper half off and did not leave a note, because he deserved it. I’ll be dead in thirty days. Let him try to take me to small claims court.

Upstairs, I did not hang up my jacket and drank orange juice straight from the carton. I even spit in it a little because I could. All exceptionally satisfying. That’s when I decided I didn’t like tea very much.

Crash. Crash-crash. Crash-crash-crash.

I should’ve done this ages ago.

The edges of my studio are for living. That’s where I keep my kitchen, my television, and, off in the corner behind some repurposed red velvet curtains, my bed. The center is where I
work. That’s not a metaphor. It’s a spatial description. The commute rocks.

I flipped through a stack of stretched canvases leaning against the rough stucco wall.

No, no, no, no. Yes.

I picked a square one, four feet by four feet. That would do. I dropped it onto the easel. I’d fired Jenny, my assistant, the week before, just after she’d stretched half a dozen of these. Her last name is Pritchard, too, no relation. She’s twenty-four and looks even younger. When I let her go, she looked at me as if I’d slapped her hard across the face. Even her cheeks turned red. Tears pooled in her bottom lashes, and she tore around the place snatching up papers and her bag and finally a coffee mug I’d given her when she first started. I should’ve had her prime the canvases, too, before she left, but I hadn’t thought of it.

After she’d gone, I called the Essex Gallery in New York. The curator had a wife whose family made their money in upholstery fabric. He also had a young man tickling twenty-five whom he kept in an apartment in the West Fifties. I’d started out in that gallery back when I was just a little more than nothing. The curator and I liked each other in the way you have to like someone who knows more about you than they should. I told him he damn well better give Jenny a show of her own. She got a call the next day. Although I heard she turned him down. I can’t imagine why. I mailed her last check with quite a bit extra thrown in, enough to keep her fed until she started selling on her own. That’s what she should’ve been doing anyway instead of stretching my damn canvases.

I pulled a clean bowl out of the stack and shook the hell out of a bottle of gesso, a mixture of latex and calcium carbonate. Some form of the stuff has been in use since Cleopatra took goat’s milk baths, except back then it was made of animal-based glue and PETA doesn’t allow that anymore. I upended what was left into the bowl. I added a quarter as much of acrylic gloss, opened the bottle of water I’d drunk half of the night before, and added an equal part of it to the mix, too.

Chuckles jumped up on the worktable and switched his tail near the open bottle, making idle threats before winding his way around cans of solvent and glue. He walked over a stack of magazines and take-out menus and just plain trash I thought I might want to use in a piece someday. A Vogue slipped off the top and flopped to the floor. It stayed there because Jenny wasn’t around to pick it up.

Finding nothing of interest, Chuckles jumped to the metal work shelves that line one wall. He sauntered past rows of magazines in archival holders alphabetized by title. Car and Driver, Cosmopolitan, Food & Wine, Los Angeles, National Geographic, Popular Photography, Wine Spectator. He paid no mind to the plastic bins with printed labels: menus, travel brochures, maps (U.S.), maps (foreign), advertising (women), advertising (men), newspapers (U.S.), newspapers (foreign). Instead, he rubbed the corner of his mouth on the boxes that hold wallpaper scraps and fabric pieces organized by color then turned his attention to the large rubber trash bins. They don’t hold trash but keep bits of things I drag home off the street. I heard the whomp as he landed on one of the lids with all four paws. Jenny kept it all straight, so I didn’t have to. She drew the line only at animal bones. Those I had to clean and boil myself. I was partial to birds’ wings, but it was getting easier to order them online rather than collect what the coyotes left behind.

I worked the canvas from the top down in long, horizontal strokes with a wide brush, pushing the mix into the weave. It was grunt work, and I’d have to let it dry, sand it down, and do it again. This was why I’d hired an assistant in the first place. I dropped my brush into a can, remembered I had no one to clean up after me, and picked it up again along with the cat and carried them both to the sink. I washed the brush with soap and water. The cat got a reprieve. Gesso is ruinous for brushes. Might as well dip them in superglue. If Chuckles got into it, I suppose I’d have to shave him, which would make it even harder to find him a caretaker. Nobody wants a mange victim.

I tapped on the laptop keyboard a few times to wake it up and sat down with the carton of orange juice at the kitchen table. It was time.

“Got any requests?” I asked Chuckles.

He rubbed his face on my screen.

“Right,” I agreed. “No kids.”

I typed that.

“Anything else?”

He turned around on his short legs and showed me his brown butthole.

“No dogs.”

I added that and typed out the rest of the notice.

Male white Persian nonsmoker with strong opinions seeks adoptive home. Named Chuckles. Answers to nothing. Good grooming habits with a fondness for windowsills and feisty calicos. Current owner diagnosed with noncommunicable, fatal illness. Cat not responsible. House-trained. Healthy. No kids. No dogs. No Chinese restaurants.

I added a photo and showed it to him.

“What do you think?”

Chuckles didn’t really give a shit, which was rather shortsighted of him.

I uploaded it anyway and considered dinner.

“You want me to bring you something?” I asked.

Chuckles didn’t open his eyes, which were leaking discharge onto his squished face as usual.

I took off my gray denim work apron and picked my jacket up off the floor, no worse for wear. (Think of all the time I’d wasted over the years hanging it up.) I shoved my arms into it and left the door unlocked. The Volvo with the damaged bumper was gone, so I didn’t have to hit any more cars on my way out.

My favorite restaurant is next to a tire shop off Sunset, which is either ten minutes from my studio or an hour, depending on just how fucked-up things have gotten. There is no such thing as rush hour in Los Angeles; sometimes the traffic is just somewhat more soul sucking than other times. I heard there was a guy driving around the freeways doing puppet shows out the back window of his truck while people were stuck behind him, staring out their windshields like gas-sucking zombies. Some journalist called it “emerging art.” I thought it was another good reason to work from home.

After a medium soul-sucking thirty minutes, I ducked under a rainbow of faded and tattered Tibetan prayer flags, flapping in the draft from passing cars. A brass bell jingled over the door as I pushed it open, and the Pepto pink walls pulsed with goodwill and curry fumes.

“Clementine, come in. Come in.”

Dolma has the most beautiful voice I have ever heard. It’s the voice all good mothers should be born with. She is all controlled enthusiasm and warm light, and her accent tinkles like the bell above the door. I want her to come to my house and read me bedtime stories and smooth back my hair and tell me everything will be all right. She was wearing an orange caftan and jeans with Teva sandals, and her haircut looked expensive. Her children and nieces and nephews—who all work there, too—share the same deity-like beauty, although none are quite so beautiful as Dolma. Maybe it’s because they are Buddhists. Maybe it’s because they wear sunscreen and avoid free radicals. Maybe it’s the great haircuts. I don’t know, and it doesn’t much matter.

Dolma sat me down under a square fabric lantern embroidered with one of those snakelike dragons. An air vent rippled the fabric and made the dragon look like he was dancing.

“Tea?” she asked.

I smiled and thought about my pot. Her tea was much better than mine. It really wasn’t much like tea at all.

“Yes,” I told her. “Lots. And beer.”

“No Jenny today?”

“No. No Jenny today.”

She left me one menu and went to fetch the drinks. Similar to chai, the tea is heavy on the milk, cardamom, and ginger. She serves it unsweetened, which I fixed with one of those little blue packets. The beer was called Karma Beer. It said so on the label, which was the only reason to drink it other than its being cold and alcoholic. She also left a thin round cracker the size of a dinner plate that was pressed with spices I’d never been able to identify. I broke it up to dip in the small silver cup full of tamarind chutney.

“Samosa or momo?” she asked.

“Both.”

Dolma laughed her bell-chime laugh. “You’ll get fat.”

“I don’t have time to get fat.”

She laughed again and disappeared into the kitchen.

The samosas were pyramids of fried pastry filled with vegetables just spicy enough to bring color to my cheeks. I broke them open and let the mouth-scalding steam escape before dipping them in a cool mint sauce as thin as milk. The momos were steamed, pale dumplings that looked like the flat round pillows on my aunt’s couch. They were filled with chicken and much milder until dipped in the pickled tomato called achaar. Like a tangy, savory chutney, it was unlike anything else.

My taste buds were coming back. The medications I’d been taking for most of my adult life were slowly leaving my system. Things I thought I had liked were so much better than I suspected. Dolma brought a new cup of tea to replace the empty one. I considered drinking nothing else for the next month.

“I’m treating myself tonight,” I told her. “All my favorites.”

“All?” She tried to call my bluff.

“All.” I made a big gesture with my arms.

The dining room had perhaps fifteen tables, half of them full. The bell over the door tinkled every few minutes as the dinner hour grew more respectable. Everyone came here, from broke clothing designers working out of their landlord’s basements to marketing executives in statement eyeglasses. The food was cheap and delicious. Dolma had three nieces and a son taking orders and delivering water glasses and steaming dishes of curry.

Before my first main course arrived, my cell phone rang the boom-chick-a-bow-bow that signaled my ex-husband.

“Are you okay?” he asked when I picked up.

“Fantabulous,” I said. “How are you?”

He had his serious face on. I could hear it in his voice. “Because last week you weren’t so good.”

“I’m better now.” I dipped a bite of samosa into the mint sauce and put it in my mouth. Divine.

“Are you sure?”

“Come see for yourself. I’m at Dolma’s. I’ve already ordered enough for both of us.”

The food came long before Richard did.

Potatoes and cauliflower swimming in a thick orange curry sauce were first. One of the nieces set it down on the glass table topper that protected the postcards from Nepal underneath. The basmati rice and peas came next and covered a map of Everest.

I ordered green beans that were heavy on the anise, lamb vindaloo, and chicken korma. I had a noodle dish called chow-chow that tasted sweet and put off diners not expecting it. I ordered both naan and roti and then yak chili, which isn’t much different from beef jerky except you can say you had yak for dinner. My table for two wasn’t big enough, so Dolma’s son scooted an extra chair close to my side and set the breads there.

When Richard showed up he was wearing a tie and crow’s feet that didn’t used to be there. He sat down and looked at the overburdened table. He didn’t smile or laugh. He looked, if anything, resigned. Doubt, which lived behind my solar plexus, fluttered its wings, and I regretted asking him to come.

“You ordered all this?”

I was being scolded.

“Yes, have some.” I pushed the plate of lamb toward him. A peace offering, a child trying to avoid punishment. He liked lamb.

Dolma glided up and deposited a cup of tea in front of him without a word and just as silently disappeared.

He took a sip and winced when it burned his tongue.

The week before—before I’d fired Jenny and my shrink—he’d come over. I’d refused to let anyone come in for three days and had stopped answering the phone. He used the spare key I’d given him for emergencies. An emergency is a gas leak near an open flame. What I was having was more like a situation. I was on the bathroom floor and determined to stay there until gravity stopped being so unbearably heavy or until I rotted away and died, whichever came first. I didn’t have much of an opinion one way or the other, but Richard—being Richar —thought it might be best if I got up. Gravity had yet to relent, and so I stayed down. He cajoled, and I ignored. He threatened me with hospitals. Been there, not going back. I ignored harder. I ignored in the way Chuckles had taught me.

He would, he said, drag me all the way out of my studio and out onto the street and into the car and all the way to Cedars if that’s what it took. He held me under my arms and yanked me off the floor. I fought. He pulled. One of us should have let the other call the bluff. I should’ve gotten up even if I didn’t want to. He should’ve left me there. I shouldn’t have given him a key. He shouldn’t have come over. I shouldn’t have had toast for breakfast. He should’ve chosen another shirt. Whatever the case, someone should’ve done something differently, because when he got me up under the arms and dragged me by force out of the bathroom and into the studio, he dragged me right past a bookcase, and on the bookcase was a small metal fan. I snatched up that fan, and before the idea could pass from my impulse center through something that controlled logic and humanity, I swung it behind me and hit him in the head with it.

He dropped me, and I landed hard on the floor, bruising my tailbone. The fan crashed to the floor, never to work again, and Richard pressed his hand to his cheek. There was blood seeping between his fingers and a look of shock and betrayal on his face. It was the sort of look you’d expect from a child whose mother had suddenly and inexplicably turned on him.

The cut had bled and bled as facial wounds do, and we had argued about whether it needed stitches. Sitting here at Dolma’s now, I could see that the swelling had gone away, but it was still a little yellow and the cut had not yet healed. What I had done was unforgivable. Richard disagreed, but we all know when we have done something from which there is no going back, when we reveal to ourselves what we are capable of, even when we want to believe that we can and will do better. That was when I’d decided to fire my shrink. Those sessions had clearly been a waste of money. Having me around is like keeping a chimpanzee for a pet. It’s only a matter of time before the maulings begin and someone has to shoot it.

Now Richard and I were pretending between us that it hadn’t happened, because it was too humiliating for me and too embarrassing for him to watch my humiliation. Instead, I let the feeling of it make a home inside my intestines like a tapeworm. That, and I offered him my lamb.

“I can’t stay,” he said. “I’m meeting Sheila for dinner. I just wanted to check on you.”

I held up the basket of naan and waved it under his nose. “Garlic. Your favorite.”

He gave one of those fake smiles where the corners of his mouth couldn’t decide whether to turn up or down and instead twitched somewhere in the middle, which was always a sign he was going to pacify me. He tore off a piece of bread and put it in his mouth, washing it down with hot tea.

The tapeworm stayed where it was, but my doubt calmed itself a little. Plus bonus points that his breath would stink for his date with Sheila.

“Are you really okay now?” he asked.

“Perfect,” I assured him and scooped a spoonful of korma onto my plate, using a bit of my own bread to sop up the sauce.

“Are you working?”

“Like a beaver.”

“I’d ask if you were eating,” he said, “but under the circumstances—”

“Don’t worry. This is food for the week.”

He looked at me, then at his watch, and stood up. “I have to go. I’m late.” He leaned over the table, holding his tie against his stomach so it wouldn’t drag through the achaar. “Moderation, okay?”

“In all things,” I said.

After he left, I pushed my plate away, all the serving dishes still more than half full. Dolma came by, said nothing about his departure, and asked, “Dessert?”

“Yes, kheer,” I said. “And some boxes.”

I put the sack of leftovers in the fridge and took off my shirt and pants. There was some paint near the hem that would never come off. I stood in my underwear and pushed a finger into my bloated belly. Funny how overfull started to look like distended starvation.

I took an extra-large T-shirt out of a drawer and shuffled blindly to the bathroom as I pulled it over my head. I opened the medicine cabinet, watching my reflection swing toward me and then away with the door. The bottom shelf was full of white-capped, brown-bodied prescription bottles. There were almost more than I could hold in both hands at once, but I managed, carrying them the three steps to the side of the tub. I sat down and set the bottles next to me, lined up like soldiers.

I opened the first bottle, performing the complicated adults-only press-down-and-turn maneuver that would prevent any clinically depressed toddlers from getting their mitts on my stash. I upended it into the toilet. The white and baby blue capsules plinked into the water and sent up a fine splash. A few drops landed on my knees.

“Good night, Depakote.”

In went pink tablets. Plink-plink-plinkplink. Those had caused exhaustion.

“Adios, Seroquel.”

I upended the bottle. Those were fun—dizziness, constipation, and weight gain.

“Ah, Thorazine.” I poured the orange pills into my palm and spilled them into the crapper. They had made it impossible to fuck, plus I had been nervous all the time. “It was absolutely not a pleasure.”

More tablets. More bottles. Finally in went the last of it: the pink capsules that had made everything taste like I was sucking on nails. I lost fifteen pounds on those, which was a change from some of the other meds.

For twenty years, my body had been one pharmaceutical experiment after the other. I walked around feeling as if the air around me were dense and thick. My movements and thoughts and sensations were slowed and dampened. I had taken things that drained my personality and, worse, my desire to work, to bathe, and to breathe. But when I stopped taking them, I was at the mercy of the fanged black monster that settled on my chest for days only to leap off and leave me thinking and moving in
fast-forward. Two years before, I had locked myself in the bathroom for three days only to come out and repaint my kitchen cabinets in the middle of the night.

And that was nothing—nothing—compared to the horrors that could happen. I had seen them up close and personal and a repeat was unthinkable.

I couldn’t live with the pills. That I knew for certain. And life without them was dangerous, not only for me but for those who got too close to me. That I knew for certain, too. So this was it. The only possible choice.

“Good-bye, Lithium,” I said and flushed away the swirling pharmacy.

Somewhere in the bay, fish were overdosing on antipsychotics. Under no circumstances should they be operating heavy machinery.

Thanks for reading!

I hope you liked the first chapter. You can pick up a copy of Losing Clementine here or at your local independent bookstore.